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The night shift

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Groaning as he woke, Dan felt around for his glasses and examined the alarm clock. For a second he was panicked, but then he remembered it was his day off. He settled back down for a lie in.

It didn’t last long. Recently he struggled to get back to sleep if he woke early in the morning. It had never been a problem before. He wondered if it was an age thing. He was practically middle aged now, much as he didn’t want to think about that. Giving up on sleep, he shifted himself from a half-hearted doze an hour later and went to take a shower.

He might have been in denial about his age but his body wasn’t. He used to feel a tentative sense of pride when he showered. The chubby kid with the glasses had grown into a tall, muscular man who beat up criminals. His ten year old self would have been very comforted by the idea. Now pride had turned back to disappointment, made worse now with the shock of needing to get used to just how much he’d declined. Ironically, hospital work didn’t encourage a healthy lifestyle. Dan lived of take out and had no-where near enough exercise. There just wasn’t the time. He was the oldest resident at the hospital by a long way and he had seen younger co-workers age prematurely. If the job did that to people in their twenties, it was no wonder he was putting on weight and puffing when he went up too many flights of stairs at once.

At least his hair still looked good. Robert had gone grey at the temples since he and Dan had celebrated the end of their internship together. That had been a good night. They had drunk far too much and decided it was hilarious to address each other as “doctor” instead of their names. It hadn’t been a great advertisement for the medical profession but it had reminded Dan how far he’d come since the Keene act.

He’d signed up to take the MCAT more or less on a whim during the cold January of ’78. It had made a lot of sense. His biology degree had meant there was no need to go back to college and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had a lot of first aid practice on a difficult patient. Four years of medical school had passed in a blur and he’d been Doctor Dreiburg well before he felt ready for it.

It had felt strange having an achievement that everyone else knew about, something that had belonged to him, not Nite Owl. Hollis had come to his graduation. He kept a photo of Dan in his robes next to the old Minutemen photos over his desk. To Dan, that seemed as much an achievement as the actual qualification.

Sometimes Dan could barely comprehend how much his life had changed in just a few years. It wasn’t that it was better or worse – it was both in a way – but more that it was so totally different that it was like a new life entirely. Like he’d been reincarnated. Sometimes, when he went down to the basement to use the tumble dryer or get something out the freezer, he’d look at the shrouded bulk of Archie and find it incredible that the thing was ever airborne. It was like he was looking at someone else’s dubious accomplishments.

He was doing his residency in the same busy ER that he’d interned in. He liked it there. He liked his colleagues and the work was rewarding. Surprisingly being a doctor wasn’t all that different to being Nite Owl. He still worked long nocturnal hours, he still didn’t have much time for anything else and he still thrived on the excitement on some level while the other levels tried not to analyse that.
And he still saved people’s lives.

He went down to the basement now, his hair still damp from the shower, and stepped around various half finished owl themed gadgets to get to his workbench. Archie still dominated the room of course, still beneath his shroud-like dustsheet like something hibernating.

Sometimes he thought about selling it all. After all, the hospital could use the money and it would probably be healthy to let it go. But then again, selling it anonymously wouldn’t be straightforward. And anyone who bought it might take it all apart, work out how it operated and re-create it. Dan wasn’t sure if it was wise to just put some of the stuff out there for anyone to use. And, if he was honest, he wasn’t sure he was ready to not have it still waiting under his house for a version of himself that no longer existed. And, if he were more honest still, he didn’t like thinking about what Rorschach would make of any sale. He was sure his partner (ex-partner, he chided himself, ex) still sometimes entered through the tunnel. He even suspected Rorschach sometimes slept down in the basement when he was working the night shift. The clues were subtle. Disturbed dust here, a drop of blood there. Dan didn’t like to think of his partner injured, but the fact that the blood had been near the washing machine made him wonder if it was Rorschach’s blood in any case. He didn’t like that idea either, the idea that his basement was being used to cover up a murder. But the fact was, it was being used, and Dan couldn’t bear the thought of Rorschach turning up one night to find Archie and everything else gone.

He hadn’t spoken to Rorschach since a few days after the Keene act. There had been a few days between the announcement and Rorschach showing up as he sometimes still had as if they had still been working together every night. Pathetically, Dan had felt stupid telling his partner (ex-partner, but he hadn’t been used to that back then) that he wasn’t patrolling because it would mean breaking the law. Obviously Rorschach knew it would be breaking the law. It wasn’t like he’d been on vacation while the act was passed. But Dan had struggled to explain himself despite being the one not hypocritically breaking a law that didn’t suit him in order to go out and enforce others.

In the row that had followed Rorschach had accused him of wanting to quit anyway, of just using the act as an excuse. That had riled Dan. True patrol hadn’t been the same since he was working with Rorschach regularly, true the whole Nite Owl thing was less fun than it had been in the early days, but he hadn’t wanted to quit. He would have carried on being Nite Owl until he was an old man if he’d been allowed. He hadn’t quit by choice. He’d quit because Nite Owl didn’t break the law.

The thing was, Rorschach hadn’t kept going by choice either. That much was clear, even now, even seven years after they last spoke.

Dan wished he could remember more about what was said in that last row. If he had known it would be his last conversation with Rorschach for so long, he would have paid more attention. As it was he wasn’t sure if he’d accidently said something that was unforgivable in Rorschach’s eyes, something he had to apologise for, or if Rorschach was just sulking, or too obsessed with his work to stick around to say hello when he raided the pantry.

The owl gadgets had been cleared from the workbench to make way for a newer project. Dan had been working on a new type of prosthetic limb ever since a small boy was brought in to the hospital a few months ago with his leg hopelessly crushed. He was using the old blueprints from the exoskeleton as a starting point but he needed to find different materials, something lighter. It felt good to be tinkering in his workshop again, turning ideas into real objects.

That ate up most of his day off. Dan knew he should get some housework done or, better, get out of the house for something other than work for once. But it was almost two in the afternoon by the time he climbed the stairs to his kitchen to make lunch and the view beyond the kitchen window told him it was far too cold to contemplate going out. ’84 was ending on a bitter note, the air almost thick with frost. It had been during a winter like this that Dan had first realised just how dilapidated some housing in New York was. Lucky enough to be a wealthy man, he had never realised growing up just how much of a reality damp, mould and single glazing still were for some people.

It hadn’t been a patient that made him realise that. It had been Rorschach. Rorschach coughing and shivering his way through their first winter as partners, rubbing his hands together when he thought Dan wasn’t watching.

Dan had pretty much always been watching. It hadn’t taken a genius to figure out that his partner was living somewhere neither warm enough nor dry enough. Rorschach hadn’t let him help of course. Stubborn bastard. Even back then.

Shaking the memory away, Dan heated himself some soup. It was soup weather. Before he selected a can he made sure there was more than one, in case Rorschach dropped by. After a moment’s hesitation he took a small saucepan into the pantry and put the remaining soup cans in that. He knew for a fact Rorschach usually just drank cold soup from the can, which was just gross. Maybe if he left a pan here Rorschach would get the hint.

Insane as it seemed, Dan couldn’t help viewing his pattern of leaving things out for Rorschach as a sort of one way conversation they were having. By leaving the pan he was saying I don’t mind you coming for dinner but you should have it hot. It’s freezing out there.

He worried about Rorschach in this weather. He worried about Rorschach anyway. It was a background worry, like the fear of nuclear war. Something he had learned to live with. Something he could ignore it most of the time but then a spike in activity brought it all to the front of his mind. Usually this was gaps on the pantry shelves or empty sugar wrappers on the kitchen table. Like yesterday. Smiling ruefully Dan had swept up the wrappers and put them in the trash. He’d looked around but couldn’t find anything else missing. Was the guy really just subsisting on sugar cubes?

He tried to buy healthy food so that anything raided would be beneficial to his pilfering partner (ex-partner, he reminded himself, ex) but Rorschach being Rorschach rarely took the fruit from the bowl left on the kitchen table. It was different if there were strawberries or raspberries in the refrigerator – they were always taken whether Dan had left them deliberately or not.

Five times since the Keene act Dan had found his front door busted in. Three times he’d found the cushions on the couch rearranged and squashed. Once, when Dan was ill, he’d woken to find a hot drink cooling by his bedside.

The snow came the following day. It was slushy and restless, blowing around without settling in one place. Dan turned the collar of his coat up as he left for work well aware of the sort of cases he’d see today – old people with acute pneumonia, deliriously cold homeless people and drug addicts who’d been too stoned to go somewhere warmer.

Getting to his locker and pulling on his white coat was still surreal. He wasn’t sure it suited him.

He was on shift with Erin and Tony so there was space for some chitchat amid the hypothermia cases and the usual cuts and burns. At first Dan had been disconcerted by his colleges’ cheerful banter in-between dealing with horrible illness and injuries. He was used to working with someone who took everything extremely seriously. But he understood now that it was just a coping mechanism, as well as the unavoidable reality that people want to laugh occasionally no matter what else is going on. After all, hadn’t he and Rorschach have time for some joking around after patrol? Hadn’t he even had Rorschach on his couch once, watching a movie with him in the early hours of the morning? That seemed almost impossible now, like he must have imagined it.

These days, Dan’s social life revolved around work. He and his colleagues were as close as any group of people who regularly faced life or death situations together and sometimes they weren’t too exhausted to grab a coffee together at the end of a long shift. Aside from them and Hollis, he rarely saw anybody. Laurie still phone now and then. His extended family kept in touch disjointedly, his cousins contacting him only, it seemed, to let him know about new additions. He wasn’t sure if these babies (they all looked the same to him) were his second cousins or his first cousins once removed but he always filed the photos away in his desk drawer and dutifully added their birthdays to his calendar.

He was beginning to doubt he would ever be a father himself. He felt like that should bother him more than it did. Dating had become something he just never got round to and when he did, the motivation tended to be loneliness rather than a readiness to settle long term. He wanted that, but what he really wanted was to skip the first stage, the awkward getting to know each other stage, and get straight to the bit where someone understood him implicitly.

Most of his relationships seemed to last two or three dates. He was gallant as he’d been raised to be and the women were charming and friendly but it just seemed hollow. He wasn’t sure how he was expected to be emotionally intimate with someone on the basis of a few shy conversations and dinner dates and besides, work demanded so much of his time. Things always fizzled out.

There had been one guy. Dan had wondered if dating a man would be a revelation that allowed him to really get close to someone at last. But it had turned out to be just another way of getting laid. Whatever issues Dan had with commitment, he was forced to acknowledge it was gender-blind. He and Carl had split after a month and not spoken since, despite agreeing to stay friends.

Dan had realised in the weeks after the Keene act that he hadn’t really got any friends left. Not real friends that he saw all the time. His college friendships had dwindled to a few postcards sent from where everyone had scattered to. A few guys were working in conservation projects in South America now and his old roommate was a pilot. By comparison Dan didn’t have much he was able to report.

Deep down, he knew it was the Rorschach effect. Friendship with Rorschach had been an intense, almost passionate thing. Nothing else could adequately compare. Without realising it, all Dan’s co-workers and two-date lovers since had been trying to fill Rorschach’s place and coming up short.

By the end of his shift Dan had seen a spectrum of everything that can go wrong on a cold winter’s day. He and Erin had soothed and treated a toddler with a (thankfully minor) case of flu and stitched cuts caused by slippery sidewalks. Then there were the usual heart attacks and allergic reactions, all made just that little bit worse by the ambulances being just a little slower in the icy conditions outside.

Inevitably, an elderly homeless guy was brought in ranting. As Dan tried to take his temperature, the man clung to him, his breath smelling of vodka, and whispered impossible promises of remuneration if Dan could only “get this fucking creep to leave me alone”. There was no-one else the room. Dan treated him for a nasty chest infection and checked him over for physical injuries. Worryingly, he found none and the man’s temperature wasn’t high enough to account for invisible creeps either. He stared helplessly as the man started to argue with the imaginary entity, telling it to “Just get of my case for once! It wasn’t my fault! None of it was my fault!” Catching Dan’s eye the man resumed his clinging. “You’ll make him go away for me won’t you, kid? You’ll help a pal out?"
Dan sadly detached himself and summoned Tony to take the man up to the psych ward even though he knew there was little they’d be able to do unless the guy with the hole in his boot (in this weather!) was somehow insured.

Dan was still thinking about the poor man when he patched up the huge guy he was presented with next. Apparently he’d slipped in the subway and toppled down a few steps but it was pretty obvious to Dan he’d actually been in a fight. Steps don’t leave handprints and no-one breaks their fall with their knuckles. But it wasn’t his place to judge, not anymore.

Maybe later he’d end up treating the other guy. Often he found himself with a matching pair in these situations. Easy enough if they came in separately, but a nightmare if they ended up in the waiting room at the same time. Dan had developed a reputation as the Man To Call if the reception staff needed a fresh scuffle broken up.

He stitched a cut on the new patient’s eyebrow, his mind still on the homeless man. What the poor guy needed was medication and a proper psychiatric evaluation. And shoes. How did someone have his toe sticking out his boot in America, in the twentieth century? It made Dan feel indignant at the shame of it. He had too much, he thought, more and more these days. Maybe if he had less, that guy could have boots. Maybe he should try to catch him on his way out of psych and take him to get new footwear fitted. And a decent hot meal while he was at it. Rorschach would probably tell him he was being too trusting or, worse, too socialist, but Dan felt he’d failed the man by sending him off without helping more.

He had failed Rorschach too. Rorschach was in his own way at least as deluded as that man and what had Dan done? He should have found a way to help him back in ’75 and he hadn’t.

He had known all about the Roche case, of course. He wasn’t as accomplished a detective as Rorschach but he was good enough to piece it together – a never-found child, a burnt out building, charred skeletons. A broken mess of a man where his best friend had once been.

He had tried. He had tried talking to Rorschach about it but Rorschach simply hadn’t been able to open up. He’d tried helping in practical ways, making an effort to ensure his partner was physically healthy and well fed at least. Still did. But Rorschach had given every sign of resenting the attention and had become more distant, spending less and less time with Nite Owl and less still with Dan.

Dan had even thought about having him sectioned. It might have worked, if he’d been able to restrain his partner long enough for him to be taken away by professionals (which he wasn’t sure he could) and if he’d found a way of side stepping the fact that he didn’t even know the man’s real name, let alone have any authority to have him put in an institution for his own safety (which he hadn’t). Ultimately what had stopped Dan wasn’t any practical barrier but the knowledge that if he went through with sectioning, Rorschach would never forgive him. Never speak to him again. He would lose all contact with his partner and he hadn’t been able to stand that idea. He had put his friendship with Rorschach above Rorschach’s wellbeing. That was his failure.

The joke was on him because he had lost Rorschach anyway.
“Hey doc?”
Dan blinked. “Sorry” He focused on his examination of his patient’s bruised torso.
“That’s okay, dude. Long shift?”
“Yeah, you could say that.” Dan had been on his feet ten hours. If a night shift was the equivalent of a patrol, he was getting to the back-home-for-take-out-with-Rorschach stage of the evening.

Sometimes he was amazed how romanticised his memory of his vigilante days were. After the Roche case he had shared take out with Rorschach exactly once and Rorschach had walked out halfway through. In some ways it was as if his career as Nite Owl had ended in ’75. It hadn’t been worth remembering without Rorschach.

"Hey, doc, I’m losing you again.”
“Sorry, sorry”
“Hell, they oughta give you guys longer breaks, right?”
“I wouldn’t complain.” Dan ran a hand over the young man’s ribs on one side, feeling for fractures.
“Where’d you go, anyways?”
Dan blinked again, caught out. “Oh I was just…thinking of a friend."
The man nodded, a knowing smile spreading over his face. “A lady friend, right? You got it bad, dude. I can tell.”
Dan blushed and stuttered, and didn’t manage to contradict him.

He only thought later about all the times over the course of their partnership he’d found his thoughts turning to Rorschach at what Rorschach would definitely call inappropriate moments. He’d lusted after all the different parts of the man separately. His muscular arms, his strong hands, the fiery red hair that he knew was under the mask and the constellations of freckles that told him so. His sharp mind.

That was all over now. Not only was Rorschach not really in Dan’s life any more, he wasn’t in anyone’s life as far as Dan knew. His partner (ex-partner, ex, why did he keep doing that?) had become more myth than man, a nightmare that gang members had, a rumoured presence. It would be like loving a ghost. Besides, if Dan ever did see Rorschach again, he knew he’d be too busy trying to see if the guy was sick or injured to think about anything else.

Enough, he told himself sternly. This was ridiculous. Rorschach was gone. He’d been gone for seven years now. Dan hadn’t spoken to him for seven years and hadn’t had a constructive conversation with him for two years longer than that. It was beyond stupid to still be thinking about him.

With that, he pushed Rorschach from his mind. He might even have made the whole day without thinking about him if he hadn’t come home to find he was missing a loaf of bread.

When he checked the pantry he found a tin of spaghetti was gone to. There was a dirty pan in the sink. Rorschach had to have been in a very relaxed mood to actually heat the food up. Either that or just plain freezing. Dan hated that thought. Sighing, he scrubbed out the pan.

Seven years. Seven years and this was all he’d had. Dirty cutlery, missing tins. Coming home to these almost-missed hints that someone had been in, so often things so small he wasn’t sure he wasn’t imagining them. It was like being haunted. Or like having mice.

Sometimes he wondered if he was going mad. What if he’d eaten the spaghetti and put the pan in the sink and forgotten all about it? What if all the small hints were in his imagination? Who visited their ex-partner’s home regularly for seven years and never once stuck around to say hello? Well, Rorschach, that was who.

Rorschach probably saw this as something Dan owed him. Maybe Dan thought so too or why did he keep letting him in? His was the mind that had created Archie. He could easily design a better lock. He didn’t. He even encouraged these strange, unspoken invasions. And he still thought about Rorschach even when he tried not to. Every day Rorschach was there at the back of his mind.

It was so bitterly cold, the snow thickening the air, that Dan didn’t bother to stop for a newspaper on his way home. As he passed the stand he noticed with concern that the so called prophet of doom, another unstable looking homeless guy, was clutching his sign with fingerless gloves. He’d almost definitely see more cases of hypothermia tomorrow.

On particularly cold winter nights Dan sometimes left a hot water bottle in the cot in the basement. Just in case.

Dinner that night was a defrosted take out in front of the TV. The local news was full of a series of stabbings, one of which Dan had treated. The patient had lived with no long serious physical consequences though the scar would always be there as a reminder of what people could do. Sometimes with crimes like that it was the psychological damage that was worst. Dan couldn’t help but hope that Rorschach was searching for the attacker. It seemed like such an unfair thing to hope for when he’d quit and condemned Rorschach for not doing the same. He should just be hoping the police catch the guy. But he knew Rorschach was so much better than the police. Grudgingly, he had to admit he was impressed his partner (ex) hadn’t been arrested yet.

He knew crime was getting worse out there. It was well illustrated the steadily rising tide of mugging victims with black eyes and broken ribs, and in the fact that a death from overdose was no longer an unusual occurrence in the hospital. Sometimes Dan had the discouraging sense that he was just cleaning up after the thugs had finished thieving and dealing but he reminded himself that a lot of vigilantism was like that anyway. There had been plenty of times he and Rorschach had arrived after the beating was already well under way and for every shipment they prevented hitting the streets, dozens more had been bought and sold unimpeded.

In hindsight Dan realised it had been easy to believe he was achieving more as Nite Owl than he actually had been. He had been only one man, after all. It had been ridiculous really to think he could make any measurable difference to the crime rate in a city of millions. But it hadn’t just been about that. It had been about a deep, implacable sense of justice and of being on the side of right. And besides, he might not have made a difference to all of New York but Nite Owl had certainly made a difference to some individual New Yorkers. Making a difference wasn’t just measured on a macro level. Maybe this was why Dan couldn’t help but looking back on those years with a certain sense of pride despite how silly running around dressed like an owl seemed now.

There had been some talk in the press back when he issued his anonymous resignation statement about whether he’d unmask and share his identity with the citizens he’d served. Dan had kept the cuttings. Really though, he had never been seriously tempted by the idea. For one thing it wasn’t as if he would be doing it to clear the air like Hollis or with a specific, entrepreneurial aim in mind like Adrian. He would just be showing off. And anyway, he had valued the secret of it too much. It had been a sort of talisman for when life got overwhelming: no-one knew it, but he was Nite Owl. Nite Owl had been a better version of himself he had kept safe from the world. He hadn’t been ready to share it. Hadn’t been ready for his day to day failures to be Nite Owl’s too.

Not to mention Rorschach would have hated it. Rorschach wouldn’t even have graced Dan with his fleeting, silent visits if Dan had revealed his identity. And Dan knew the police would have had questions for him about where Rorschach was.

The truth was, Dan did have some idea where Rorschach was, at least at night. He knew the guy’s patrol routes. He knew where he went for information. He’d never tell anyone. He knew that was wrong given what Rorschach was doing, but so was having him thrown in jail. The other prisoners would kill him. Or worse. Dan wasn’t going to let that happen, not for the sake of a few rapists not being dead.

After dinner he had a drinking session with Hollis to get to. They still did this once a week, no matter how demanding Dan’s shift pattern was. Dan insisted on that. There had been many friendships that Dan had let slip away but Hollis wasn’t going to be one of them. The original Nite Owl might have become a father of sorts but Dan knew how easily relationships even with blood relations could be reduced to the odd phone call or envelope of baby photos. Hollis was one person he wasn’t prepared to drift away from.

These days, after Dan had told Hollis his latest stories from the hospital, Hollis would always slip into reminiscing about the Minutemen. He seemed to be getting more nostalgic for those days as he got older. Dan certainly couldn’t blame him for that. After all he’d done so much less than Hollis and he still kept his scrapbook safe at home.

It told a sad story. The last time Dan had flicked through the pages he’d found his best achievements had come and gone too soon. The articles about Big Figure’s defeat had been on the first three pages. He and Rorschach posed for photos and Dan had been amazed looking back at these that he’d been able to throw an arm around his partner’s shoulder for them.

They stood apart in the last photos the press had taken of the two of them together. That had been early ’76, in the only case they’d taken on together that whole spring. The scrapbook should have ended with the cuttings about his resignation and a double page spread explaining the details of Keene act. It included a line up of vigilantes with big red crosses through everyone’s photo except Jon’s and the Comedian’s. Dan had thought that was a bit much. On the next page the articles about Rorschach the outlaw started. Dan had even highlighted key information, anything that told him anything about his ex-partner’s mindset or wellbeing. He didn’t feel guilty about that. This was a man who regularly broke into his house after all. Privacy had become a complicated concept.

Dan still looked out for sightings of Rorschach even now, especially when he hadn’t been visited in a while. At first any news of the last mask had headlined the local papers but now Dan had to scan through every article. Like Nite Owl, Rorschach was old news now. He only made the front page if he killed somebody.

Dan hadn’t kept track of how many men Rorschach had killed. He wondered if Rorschach had. He wondered what was wrong with him to still be worrying about this man. Who was he, after all? Not the shy, polite, idealistic guy he’d first partnered with that was for sure. Not his real partner. Just something left over.

But despite that doubt Dan was restless with worry whenever the visits stopped for too long, whenever the sightings in the papers were absent too long at the same time.

What worried him the most wasn’t that Rorschach would turn up dead somewhere or even that he’d turn up horribly dead, tortured or worse, but that he’d simply vanish. Then Dan would never know what had happened. He’d probably try to convince himself Rorschach had finally taken off the mask and melted into the crowd, but he’d know, deep down, that was unlikely at best and he’d spend the rest of his life dreaming about concrete shoes and car crushers and pig farms.

As Dan stepped through his front door after saying goodnight to Hollis, he tried to push those thoughts out his mind. Not a good thing to be thinking about before bedtime. The kitchen seemed cold so he adjusted the thermostat before he went to bed. He hoped Rorschach was wearing plenty of layers.

Sometimes he wondered about just going out on frigid nights like this and looking for Rorschach. Trying to bring him in from the cold. He didn’t though.

Maybe he hadn’t failed Rorschach in the past tense. Maybe it was an on-going thing.

The cold spell lasted all that week and it started to seem like this was what it was going to be like until spring. For a while the sky teased them with swirling flurries but by Friday the snow had settled and been added to. As Dan passed the newsstand on Friday night he nodded to the proprietor and ran his glance over the headlines, to confirm his partner (ex-partner) hadn’t killed again this week or been killed. Then he carried on home, the cold driving him to take a shortcut through a network of alleys.

He sometimes thought about moving to a better neighbourhood. The brownstone was comfortable enough but he’d only really bought it for the tunnel. If he anonymously sold Archie he could move. Or even if he sealed off the whole basement somehow he could move, leaving Archie tombed up with the rest of Nite Owl’s remains. Or could even just keep the place going and buy another house as well. If he took that option he gave it a week before Rorschach broke in to the new place. If he sold off or sealed up Archie, it would be longer.
He’d tell Rorschach, of course. He’d leave a note. Hell, he’d leave a set of keys to the new place, just to show he was serious. But what if that wasn’t enough? What if some unlikely, nightmarish course of events meant his partner never got the message? He couldn’t risk that. He’d stay.

He’d stay and hopefully the neighbourhood would just get better. Right now, with all these young men hanging around in alleyways, it could certainly stand to.

Dan stepped past the little huddle if them and tried not to be the crabby middle aged guy who didn’t like kids hanging around. After all, they had to be freezing out here. Maybe things weren’t great at home. Maybe this was the only place they could be right now and any threatening impression was unintentional. Maybe they were just kids hanging out.

Or maybe not kids, exactly. As a few of them broke away from the group and slipped in and out of a pool of streetlight he saw that they were in their twenties.

Dan only noted his in passing until they stepped into his path. After that he paid them a lot more attention.

He turned round instinctively, despite having no intention of going back the way he’d come. The rest of them had spread out to block him off that way anyway.

Dan’s fists clenched.