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.
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.”
“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.
I forgot to put a disclaimer on the first chapter: I don't own this. But you probably worked that out :)
Comments/criticism welcome...it's the only way I'll learn.
More than anything, what Dan felt was completely exasperated. For him of all people to be mugged, it was just ridiculous. Rorschach would probably laugh.
A lean, swaggering, skin-headed youth clicked his fingers in Dan’s face. “Let’s have your wallet, man”
It crossed Dan’s mind to just hand it over. Then he could go home and get warm. After all, wasn’t he a civilian now? He answered, “No.”
The young man looked taken aback and Dan hoped they’d just back off. Probably they’d never had resistance before.
But there were too many of them for that. The guy had to look tough in front of the others. After a second of uncertainty he pulled his lips back to show Dan an incomplete set of teeth braced in a snarl. “It’s not gonna go well for you if you don’t give it up, fella. Come on – your wallet or I’ll have to get serious on you”
Dan shook his head. “I have no intention of giving you my wallet. Why don’t you just go home son? Before you do something stupid.” He wasn’t sure where the “son” had come from. Maybe he’d been hanging out with Hollis too much.
The guy laughed, “You’re talking to me about stupid? You’re the one outnumbered. Just give us the wallet.”
Dan shrugged, glancing around, calculating. “My wallet won’t spread far between the…nine of you anyway.” He hadn’t realised there were so many of them. For a second he felt like this could end badly. But he’d started this now. He wasn’t going to back down. “If it’s drugs you’re after –”
The guy spat. “It’s none of your fucking business what we’re after! Just give us the wallet!”
This was just depressing. Nine of them after one wallet? Talk about not giving their victims a chance! And for what? The handful of notes most people carried for the subway, the parking meters, a pint of milk? It was pathetic. Dan automatically pushed his glasses up his nose, a gesture he made when he was tired.
He froze. His glasses. Not his goggles. That could be a problem.
The thugs were cackling around him. The guy in front of him snapped his fingers again. “The wallet!”
Dan braced himself. “No” He dodged the punch that came next.
It was disturbing how familiar what followed was.
When it was over, Dan stood huffing and wincing over a pile of unconscious thugs. He couldn’t believe that he’d managed to survive that, let alone get them all down. He put a hand to his face and filched at a cut on his cheek before straightening his glasses. One of the lenses was cracked. He cursed.
A drop of blood from his nose landed on the unbroken lens and though he wiped it off, the world had a reddish smear when he put them back on.
Glancing about in case he’d been seen, he set about rolling the would-be muggers on to their sides. He was a doctor after all.
In the end he used a pay phone on the nearest busy street to summon help without leaving a name. Lingering there where he could see down the alley while looking like he was waiting for a bus, he watched the police arrive from a safe distance.
The muggers were rousing but didn’t put up much resistance to being cuffed and led away. The police called an ambulance for one. Dan knew he should feel guilty about that but all he felt was a surreal emptiness. This scene was so familiar it was like going back in time, back in time not to his own past but to a period of history he’d studied extensively. Like he knew what to expect but not how to react.
Turning to go home at last his gaze slid away from the alley and up across the street – and he froze. Rorschach was up there. He stood on a rooftop staring down at Dan. Without thinking, Dan stepped towards him.
He had completely forgotten that he was stepping into a road. He yelped and leapt back as a bus sped by.
When the bus had passed, Rorschach was gone. Dan swore for the second time that night.
In the end he hung around longer than he should have done, circling the building and standing in the street gazing up at the roof. Just in case.
Within a few days the whole thing seemed like a dream. Dan told no-one but Hollis who seemed to think it was hilarious that the gang had thought they were getting a harmless civilian on his way home and instead got a retired vigilante. He did tell Dan he should have just handed over his damn wallet. Dan left out the part about Rorschach. He and Hollis didn’t talk about his partner (ex-partner, ex, this was silly) anymore.
Over the next four days the snow melted and refroze as icy sheets that made the sidewalks dangerous. On Wednesday evening Dan bought a paper on his way to work and commiserated with the old guy who sold them, and who always seemed to enjoy a chat. As Dan moved on he saw the prophet of doom leaning sideways against a wall with his sign propped up beside him. He looked ill and Dan almost went over to him but then the man glared and any trace of weakness in his features dissipated. He pushed away from the wall, picked up his sign and disappeared down an alley before Dan could reach him.
The midweek shift was reasonably quiet as ER went. Most accidents happened at the weekend. Dan even had half an hour from midnight to take a proper break with Erin, sipping coffee with her in the empty canteen and listening to her unload her latest boyfriend troubles. Dan nodded, caught between sympathy and wondering why all the women he liked were already taken. At the moment all the women he liked were a grand total of two – Erin (a recent thing) and Laurie (ongoing, pointlessly). The coffees finished they headed back to the ER. Dan spent most of the early hours of the morning treating an elderly car crash victim. Her condition worried him but then again, he had seen older people recover from worse. The longer he worked at the hospital the more people seemed not vulnerable, as they had seven years ago, but remarkably strong.
That thought sustained him through the last hour of his shift, which started with a pair of EMTs rushing in with a stretcher baring an unconscious man. Someone had yelled “We’ve got a patient in shock!”
Dan was the first doctor on hand. He helped the ambulance team lift the man to one of the bigger hospital gurneys and put an IV line in his arm, listening to the EMTs’ account as he did so. The man had collapsed in the street and when the ambulance had arrived, the EMTs had been surprised he hadn’t collapsed a lot sooner. He was dressed in several thick layers that had already been cut open to reveal a muscular abdomen that was badly distended in a way that screamed internal bleeding. He was small and when Dan pulled his unbuttoned winter coat out the way he became smaller. There was something familiar about him but Dan didn’t have time to pursue that as he examined the injury. The guy was well bundled up, his clothes unwashed. He smelt homeless.
Erin and a team of nurse arrived and the EMTs left. Dan took his time considering the hideous purple bruise on the patient’s torso. It stood out lividly against the man’s pale, freckled skin. Wanting to get the man’s fluid levels up as quickly as possible, Dan asked for a second IV line and started his patient on two bags of saline solution. Meanwhile Erin had attached all the necessary machines and Dan read the man’s worryingly low blood pressure from a screen and from his fluttering pulse simultaneously. “Pass me the noradrenaline” Dan took the proffered syringe and sunk the needle into the patient’s arm before absent mindedly pulling off the fingerless gloves. They were filthy. No good for the OR, and that was where this guy was headed.
Next Dan ran a calculating gaze over the rest of his patient’s prone body. There was definitely something familiar now about the haggard face but this still wasn’t the time to dwell on that. Aside from the awful, tell-tale bruise there were smaller marks across the man’s skin. They had obviously been made by someone’s fists. Bruising on the knuckles showed the man had at least fought back, for all the good it had done him. Not liking the look of those oxygen levels, Dan readied a nebuliser and slipped it over the man’s face.
Suddenly it clicked into place, as he gently slide the elastic over the man’s red hair, fixing the mask in place. This was the prophet of doom, the guy that always hung around with that damn sign. Dan cursed himself for not running after him that evening. Mixed in with that was a small pang at seeing someone he knew in this state, along with a helpless anger. What kind of scumbag would attack a harmless homeless guy?
Then he saw the scar on his patient’s arms and chest. “Huh”
“Look at these scars. This guy’s been in fights before.” He heard Erin’s voice hiss inwards and understood her shock. As soon as one scar was spotted, others followed. There were dozens of them. Fine white lines that crisscrossed the man’s body like cobwebs. In sick sort of way, it was almost decorative. Dan shook himself.
One thing at a time. Questions would have to be asked about who had been hurting this guy, but right now his patient wasn’t in danger from the scars. He turned his attention to the most worrying bruise and placed a hand over it. This hadn’t been done by a fist. By a baseball bat maybe? Or a well aimed kick from a steel capped boot? Poor guy. “There’s definite distension here. We need –” Dan stopped. He stared at the scar just by his thumb. He’d know that mark anywhere, could remember as if it was still happening the scream that had ripped out of him when that Top Knot had sunk his dagger into his partner’s belly.
He was sure everything stopped for a moment as the truth hit him. That was how he remembered it, later. He was sure the entire hospital fell silent. Letting out a small gasp he let his hands flutter to the patient’s face. Rorschach.
“Doctor? Doctor Dreiburg?” Erin sounded like she was speaking from very far away.
“Sorry” Dan snapped back into the situation at hand. “We need to get him to the OR to see how bad this is.” He knew it was bad.
Dan would later remember the next few hours as being dark around the edges as if he was fighting his way through a tunnel. The only thing illuminated thing in his line of sight was Rorschach on the gurney and everything else – the machines, his colleagues – was just so much background noise.
There was no time for scans and ultrasounds. The surgeon would just have to find out the full extent of the bleeding when he opened Rorschach up. Before that could happen they needed to stabilise him enough to survive surgery. That wasn’t straightforward.
Rorschach’s blood pressure was so dangerously low that Dan was amazed he hadn’t died in the ambulance. His body soaked up two blood transfusions without any obvious improvement. As fast as they could put the blood in, it was leaking out into his abdomen, pressing on his internal organs. “Come on, buddy” said Dan at one point, as he injected Rorschach with Heparin, “It’s like you’re not even trying.” He sensed Erin’s frown at that. He supposed it was a harsh thing to say but he hoped it would provoke his partner into sticking around. Shaking a little now, he attached a catheter. He did it without even thinking about it, and then had the nurses start a pre-operative course of antibiotics via the IV lines.
Somehow they got Rorschach to the OR with a slightly stronger pulse than he’d come in with though Dan still didn’t quite expect him to survive.
Thinking he was still needed in ER he wandered around in a daze for a while until Erin reminded him his shift had finished already. Dan nodded and she reached up to squeeze his arm. “You knew that guy, didn’t you?”
Dan just nodded again, unable to talk. The shock was hitting him now. The shock of Rorschach just being there and the shock of what might have happened.
What might still happen. His partner was in such a state. If he hadn’t been found…Dan shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. Why the hell hadn’t he gone after him that evening? He was a doctor! There was no excuse for a doctor not to go over to a person who might be sick, no matter how strong they looked a second later. He should have followed him down that alley. Christ, was that alley where he’d collapsed? How long had he been lying there?
Dan went upstairs to the post surgery care unit to wait for Rorschach’s arrival. He knew the team there a little; he had often visited to see how patients he’d sent up were doing. Like with Erin, it didn’t take them long to work out that Dan knew the patient he was waiting for.
Dan paced the unit and, when that got in the way, paced the corridor outside the unit. In-between worrying he was trying to align the prophet of doom with Rorschach. In some ways it was easier than it should have been but it was still surreal to think he’d gone past Rorschach practically every day and not known it. He felt a little hurt that Rorschach hadn’t said anything. Not surprised though.
At some point he realised Rorschach would want his clothes and went back down to ER to retrieve the shabby remains. He bundled them under a chair upstairs and carried on pacing and worrying.
After an hour he realised that it probably wasn’t reassuring for anyone going past to see a doctor pacing around like this. He went to change his clothes.
Returning he checked Rorschach’s clothes were still there and waited. The surgery seemed to be taking a long time. Was that good or bad? Suddenly Dan had no idea. He paced.
Carol, who for reasons unknown always wore an elaborate dangly earring in one earlobe only, came out to the corridor to talk to him. “Dan, you’re just driving yourself nuts. Why don’t you go home for a while? He’ll be asleep anyway.”
“Not until I know he’s safe.”
Her face softened. “This is a good friend, right? What’s his name?”
Dan opened his mouth to say he-didn’t-know-what but was cut off by the phone shrilling somewhere behind her. Carol swivelled and unhooked it from the wall. “Hi. Post op?”
Dan felt himself grow tense. Was this about Rorschach? Was he –?
Carol smiled. Watching her, Dan relaxed in turn. When Carol put the phone down she told him. “He’s survived, Dan. They’re on their way up.”
Dan relaxed properly, sagging against the door frame. “He’s okay?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. He lost a pretty crazy amount of blood apparently so we’ll get him started on another transfusion.” She turned away to get things ready and looked back. “Oh – his name?”
“Adam” replied Dan without thinking twice. He felt like he was floating. Like nothing was making any impression. The doorway he was leaning against might as well have been made of cloud. He stepped away from it and almost tripped over a chair. It was turning out that extreme relief was similar to being drunk. He stood carefully to one side, waiting.
When a team of orderlies arrived, sliding Rorschach along on a gurney between them, Dan hung back, letting Carol and her colleagues start another blood transfusion and set up a heart monitor. The sight of its steady tally of beats, strong and calm after the faint hammering of Rorschach’s pulse earlier, was wonderfully reassuring. Dan watched it for what felt like a long time.
Once Carol had got Rorschach settled, she started on some paper work, asking Dan questions about her patient’s full name and insurance details. Dan made up a last name (Green. Rorschach had been wearing a green coat) and made arrangements to cover the bills himself (he’d deal with Rorschach’s wrath over that later).
As soon as Carol was gone, Dan lowered himself into the chair by the bed. Rorschach still looked awful. His skin was papery pale, the freckles standing out so much they looked almost like flecks of ink. There were two thin tubes disappearing into his nostrils and a small smudge of a bruise marred one arm where the IV line went in. Dan felt a stab of guilt at that. The dirt on his partner’s skin was gone now, someone in the OR apparently having managed to scrub his skin up to a stark cleanness before the surgery. The red hair was still matted and grimy. He was smaller than Dan remembered.
Unable to resist, Dan touched the hair and smiled at how soft it was despite the grime. The tangled red curls didn’t look soft but they were. He had to be the only person on the planet who knew that Rorschach had delightfully soft hair. Admittedly greasy hair too, but Dan still trailed his hand gently over his partner’s head a second time, and a third. This was addictive.
Forcing himself to stop stroking the poor guy, Dan found Rorschach’s hand instead and held it. Rorschach wouldn’t thank him for that either but at least it was a little less intimate. Not touching Rorschach at all wasn’t an option. Not after so long. Not after today. Dan was careful not to brush his fingers against Rorschach’s knuckles where the bruising looked livid now. There would be questions about that. He would have to start coming up with some credible answers.
For a while he watched the sleeping man’s face, reconciling the closed eyes, the hair, the temples, with what he remembered of his partner’s nose, mouth and jaw. The gown didn’t cover much and Dan found himself looking at more of his partner’s skin than he had ever seen at once. Rorschach was no-where near naked, but it seemed like it considering how much he normally wore. Suddenly Dan remembered that he’d put the catheter in, that he had actually held Rorschach’s penis briefly in his hand. Obviously he hadn’t thought anything of it at the time. Now he blushed. That sure wasn’t how he’d imagined that happening.
To distract himself from that line of thought he looked at the newly revealed scars, picking out a few familiar ones. He found himself assessing the stitching he’d done all those years ago from a professional perspective. Rorschach had been the better stitcher back then. Dan had neater scars of his own that were testament to that. He was suddenly aware of them under is clothes. He didn’t have as many as Rorschach though. Rorschach had had scars even when they’d first met. The guy was a mended thing, gnarled and snagged and sewn up again like a much-loved, much-abused teddy bear.
Minutes ticked by. Dan started to wonder if he should go home to grab a few things – he planned to stay at the hospital overnight – but by the time he thought it, there was a chance Rorschach might wake up while he was gone. That wouldn’t be good. Dan had a feeling he’d be needed to keep Rorschach in bed and in safe mode. If Rorschach still had a safe mode that was. Who was he now? Being on the wrong side of the law for years had to have had some impact. Dan sighed at the thought: Rorschach had been paranoid enough to begin with.
Dan sighed. He supposed all he could do was wait and see.
Characteristically, Rorschach began to shake off the effects of the anaesthetic as soon as humanly possible. First he frowned in his sleep. His fingers twitched against Dan’s and he turned his head slowly to the side and back. Dan resisted the temptation to speak to him. He wanted Rorschach to get as much rest as he could. When Rorschach started gagging, still unconscious, Dan was ready for it. Quickly pressing a button to get Rorschach upright, he steadied his partner with one hand and held a basin under his chin with the other. This was a common side effect with anaesthetic, especially after emergency surgery like this, where the patient hadn’t had a chance to fast beforehand. Not that Rorschach hadn’t given fasting a go anyway, Dan thought grimly, as Rorschach retched nothing but a splatter of bile into the basin. He obviously hadn’t eaten in days.
Being sick woke him. Rorschach opened his eyes and gave Dan a dazed stare. Dan felt himself tense but forced his features into a reassuring smile. “Any more, buddy?”
As if on cue, Rorschach retched again, adding a dribble of saliva to the basin. Dan squeezed his shoulder sympathetically. That had to be it, so he disposed of the mess and turned back to the bed. Rorschach blinked groggily at him. “What are you doing here, Daniel?”
Stupidly, Dan could think of nothing to say but, “I work here”.
“Oh” Rorschach closed his eyes and went right back to sleep again.
Although he couldn’t help feeling disappointed, Dan told himself that was probably what Rorschach needed.
Another thirty minutes crawled by. Rorschach twitched and scowled in his sleep. Dan checked which painkillers and anti-nausea meds he was on and read and re-read the BP and temperature data.
When Rorschach woke again he was more coherent…and more angry. This he demonstrated by yanking at the IV line in his arm the second his eyes snapped open. Dan swore and put a hand out to stop him, earning himself a cuff around the face. “Shit!” Dan clutched the side of his face but put a hand up to stop Carol, who was coming over, from reaching the bed. “It’s alright, I’ve got this.” He bent closer to the bed. “Buddy?” Dan grabbed hold of Rorschach’s wrists, provoking a snarl. “Hey!” Dan yelled as the man beneath him started bucking and writhing, “Jesus, calm down! It’s me! It’s just me!” He bent closer still, sinking back into his chair so that it didn’t look completely threatening from Carol’s point of view. He spoke urgently to Rorschach. “Hey, man, it’s just me! Do you know who I am?” Rorschach ignored him. His arms pinned, he actually started trying to dislodge the IV with his teeth. Dan swore again. “Jeez, you’ve got to stop moving!” He tightened his grip as Rorschach kept tossing. Despite Dan’s reassurance, Carol was coming over now, telling her patient, “Adam, you’ve got to relax, hon, you’ve just had surgery.” She touched Rorschach’s shoulder lightly. At the contact, Rorschach jolted sideways away from her, pressing himself against Dan’s chest. Instantly, he was still.
Dan blinked at Carol and looked back down at Rorschach. His grip on the poor guy’s wrists had loosened when Rorschach dived for him but he held tighter again now, seeing the way his partner was staring at Carol. Rorschach’s wide eyes were trained to her and his expression was a mask of horror mingled with extreme distaste. His breathing was ragged.
Dan was so fascinated by being able to see Rorschach’s face that he almost didn’t hear what Carol was saying. Something about needing to sedate “Adam” if he was going to hurt himself. Dan didn’t miss the shudder that ran through Rorschach’s compact body at that. Carol reached out to examine Rorschach and he shrank further back, pressing even closer into Dan and growled softly. It was an animal sound, and Dan felt a stab of pity at it.
Evidently understanding just how unenthused her patient was likely to be about being touched, Carol asked, “Would you prefer Dan to do it?”
Rorschach spared the man he was pressed against the merest glance, obviously not wanting to take his eyes off Carol for too long. Dan caught Carol’s eye and nodded. She nodded back. As she rounded the bed (Rorschach still watching, still scowling) she whispered to Dan, “Let me know if there are any problems. And check that IV line, yeah?”
Once she was gone, Rorschach detached himself from Dan and shuffled back to the centre of the bed. He met Dan’s eyes with a glare. “Hi, man.” Dan said lamely. “I guess you’re properly awake now, huh?”
“Took me to hospital, Daniel?” Only Rorschach could make it sound like “hospital” was synonymous with “prison” or even “hell”. He sounds incredulous that Dan could do such a thing.
“Actually I didn’t. I wish I had.”
“Didn’t?” Rorschach looked faintly puzzled. “But you were there…”
“I saw you yesterday evening, yes. I almost went over to you but I didn’t. I’m so sorry, buddy.”
“No. I just went to work and you came in, in an ambulance.”
Rorschach frowned. Dan wondered how much he remembered about what happened. From the sounds of it, he’d collapsed soon after he saw Dan. Damn it, that was hours ago! Had he been lying on the freezing ground all that time? Finally Rorschach muttered, “Where’s sign?” The question mark was barely distinguishable. Dan replied, “I don’t know I’m afraid. You might need to make a new one.” He wanted to ask what Rorschach thought he was doing, lugging that thing around all day, but he stopped himself. Right now, he needed to be in Rorschach’s good graces. He said, “I do need to examine you, you know” and pulled the curtains around Rorschach’s bed closed to give them some privacy.
Rorschach glared but allowed Dan to check him over, maybe thinking Dan was preferable to Carol. He grudgingly allowed Dan to touch him to check the wound from surgery (clean and terrifyingly large and thankfully without pulled stitches), and listen to his breathing (calmer now they were alone). When Dan turned hi attention to the IV line, Rorschach commanded, “Remove it.”
“No” The IV was still secure. In tugging it, Rorschach had succeeded only in worsening the bruise on his arm.
“Remove it, Daniel. Won’t ask again.”
“Look, Ror – buddy, you’ve got two choices here. You can leave it alone or I can have you restrained or sedated. I will do it.”
“Third option, Daniel. Could fight you.”
“No you couldn’t”
“You’re overweight and out of practise. Could lay you out cold on the floor and leave.”
Dan coloured. “Jeez! I might have put on a little weight but…actually I think I’ve put on the weight you’ve dropped! How much have you lost – twenty, thirty pounds? Have you been eating anything except what you stolen from me?”
Rorschach twitched. “Not your business.”
“You stealing my food isn’t my business?”
“My weight isn’t your business”
“I could say the same to you. Look – hey, just leave the IV alone already! You need it!”
“Leaving, Daniel. Out of my way.” Rorschach left fist clenched.
Dan folded his arms and nodded at the IV. “As well as that, you’re hooked up to a heart monitor, you’re being given oxygen and you’ve got a catheter in. And I might be a little out of shape but I have a team of hospital security personnel backing me up.”
Rorschach lower his gaze, muttering. Dan caught the word “traitor”. He sighed and took his seat by the bedside to let the mumbled rant work itself out.
After a while Rorschach quietened and eyed the bags on the IV stand suspiciously. “Quitting not enough. Poisoning me now.”
“You’re not being poisoned, buddy. That’s just saline solution.”
“Am being poisoned. Feel poisoned”
“That’s because you’re dehydrated. The saline will help. Anyway, you need it. You were bleeding badly; you lost a lot of fluids.”
“Internally, you were. You almost died.”
Dan shook his head. There was no reasoning with such stubborn denial. Glancing through a gap in the curtains to check Carol and her team were busy with other patients, Dan told him, “You’re name’s Adam Green while you’re here. You might be asked questions about your scars but it looks like your more recent injuries are all bruises from this latest fight so it could be worse.”
“Not answering any questions. Leaving.”
“You can’t leave.”
“Can. Discharging myself.”
“Buddy, you’ve just had an exploratory laparotomy. You are not leaving this bed.”
“Can’t keep me here, Daniel. Not staying here to be poisoned.”
“You’re not being poisoned! It’s saline!” Dan ran a frustrated hand through his hair. He’d had fantasy reunions with Rorschach many times. Most of them had gone better than this. Finally he met the man’s intense stare and said, “Look, it’s me here. I work at this hospital. Do you really think I’d do that if they were poisoning their patients?”
“You quit. Who knows what else you’d do.”
“Oh for God’s sake! If I’m so terrible why do you keep coming to my house?”
Rorschach’s expression softened very slightly, or at least it went from scowl to blank. He reasoned, “Might not be aware of hospital’s crimes. Always were too trusting, Daniel.”
Dan shook his head again. To distract Rorschach from theories about poisoning he said, “I don’t mind you coming over by the way. But I wish you’d say hello once in a while.”
“Hurm. Wish you’d take up the cause again. Suppose we’re both disappointed.”
“And end up like you, you mean? Risking arrest and almost getting myself killed?”
“Worth it to see scum punished. Saw you fighting that gang, Daniel. Still perfectly capable of enacting justice.”
Dan nodded, thinking back to the attempted mugging. “Not bad for someone overweight and out of practice, huh?”
“Said you could take a street gang. Didn’t say you could take me.”
Dan laughed, even though he knew it was actually a fair point. He’d much rather go up against eight, nine, ten men than Rorschach in a bad mood. “Well I’m glad you saw that at least.”
A few quiet moments passed. Rorschach’s gaze kept darting to the IV bag. He tugged experimentally at the tubes in his nose, caught Dan’s I-will-sedate-you expression and stopped. He lifted the sheets to examine the bandages. He tried to peel the heart monitor pads from his chest. He shifted against the mattress. Finally Dan blurted out, “Keep still can’t you? You need to rest.”
“Can’t. Something…” Rorschach pulled a face. Dan stared. Was it his imagination or was Rorschach actually starting to blush? He said, “The catheter might be a little…uncomfortable, but – hey come on! There’s no need to look at me like that!”
“Don’t want to hear about that perverted thing. Need it out of me.”
“Not yet.” Dan made a mental note to get his colleagues to keep the damn thing in as long as possible. It was the one tube he didn’t think Rorschach would reach down and slide out.
“Need to leave.” Rorschach gripped.
“Not this again! You’re staying here.”
“No use lazing around. Work to do.”
“You’re not “lazing around”; you’re recovering from abdominal surgery!” Suddenly very scared that Rorschach would find a way to leave, Dan whispered “Even if you do go, you cannot go getting into fights until you’ve recovered. Do you understand? The bleed could start up again if you don’t let it heal.”
“Where are my clothes, Daniel?”
Reluctantly, Dan slid the cut up remains from under his chair. He explained, “We needed to get you out of them fast.” Saying it, he realised there was no way Rorschach would try to leave in a hospital gown. He’d probably rather be poisoned. This, if nothing else, meant he was staying put.
Rorschach looked furious. “You treated me?”
“Owe me clothes money, Daniel.”
Dan didn’t point out that it was the EMTs who had cut the clothes because he liked to think he wasn’t one to pass the blame, especially if the one doing the blaming was a mentally unstable vigilante. Nor did he say that Rorschach might be out of pocket over the clothes but he was paying the medical bill because he wasn’t going to stoop to that. But he didn’t apologise either. He just replied, “I’ll find you something to go home in. And if it helps you can borrow a few things off me.”
“Won’t fit your clothes. Wouldn’t have done before you got fat.”
“Thanks.” Dan had forgotten was a bastard Rorschach could be. “I’ve got a few things from college that might fit you. I’ll leave them in the basement.”
“Hm.” Rorschach went quiet at that. Dan wondered if he’d go back to sleep if the conversation stopped there. Hopefully. But after a short stretch of silence he couldn’t resist asking “Do you ever sleep in the basement am I just imaging it?”
Rorschach didn’t answer for so long that Dan started to think he wouldn’t. Then he muttered, “Sometimes.”
“Good. Did you ever, um…did you ever go down there when I’d left a hot water bottle in the cot?”
There was no answer this time. Dan took that as a yes, and as a grudging thank you. If Rorschach had never found the cot pre-warmed or if he had and didn’t appreciate it, he would scoff at Dan.
After a while Rorschach commented, “Fruit bowl a step too far. Don’t need it left out for me.”
Dan grinned. “And that time I was sick and someone left me a drink?”
“Obviously me. How many other people use your house?”
Dan couldn’t stifle his giggle. “It’s good to see you buddy.”
Rorschach didn’t return the sentiment. He didn’t deny it either.
Dan had once treated a child whose mom had rushed him in after he swallowed the metal part of a clothes peg. The kid had been lying in bed at midnight, playing with the thing above his head. Apparently being up at midnight fiddling with household objects wasn’t unusual for the boy: he’d do anything to avoid going to sleep. His mom told Dan that if all else failed, the boy would literally lie there holding his eye lids open. Realising this had gone way beyond stubbornness, Dan had referred the child to the sleep clinic.
Watching Rorschach finally fall asleep, Dan felt he knew exactly how that mom must have felt. First Rorschach stared around the room obviously tired but refusing to close his eyes. He tapped a finger against the metal guard on the bed and for a while the sound seemed to keep him alert, but then it apparently started to get too soothing so he switched to reading the labels on the IV bags. He fidgeted and changed position as much as all the wires allowed. Then he resorted to throwing a few random insults at Dan (he was fat, he a traitor, he was too liberal, he was working for a hospital that poisoned its patients and he was fat). Dan mostly ignored him or replied with a causal “Whatever, buddy. Go to sleep” which, though intended to shut the conversation down, just made Rorschach angrier. Next Rorschach went through a process of staring at the ceiling, his eyelids drooping and then snapping open again at regular intervals. Finally this evolved into a pattern of drifting and jerking back awake again with a grunt a few minutes later. After this had happened six or so times, he slipped at last into real sleep, his fingers still curled around the metal bed-guard. Dan didn’t dare move them.
After watching Rorschach sleep got boring (which took longer than he would admit to) Dan quietly picked up the tattered clothes and examined them. He thought he could probably mend some of the damage. He could leave the mended clothes in the basement with the ones for Rorschach to borrow. Not that Rorschach had been particularly thrilled with that idea. Maybe he should go shopping, actually buy him something? Some decent gloves for a start, something that would actually keep his fingers warm.
Or maybe, thought Dan, he should focus on having Rorschach here, now, instead of thinking about leaving more stuff for him in the damn basement. He’d had enough of communicating via objects. He had Rorschach actually in the same room as him for the first time in years and he wasn’t about to waste it.
For a while he studied the freckles. Looking at them closely, Dan realised they weren’t the same on both sides. It was almost as if someone had picked up a handful of freckles and thrown them at Rorschach’s face, leaving it like a spot-the-difference puzzle where more and differences became apparent the more you looked. A freckle at the corner of his left eye that wasn’t at the right. Three freckles on his right eyelid that weren’t on his left. Thanks to the scattered effect, Rorschach’s features were subtly unsymmetrical. That had to annoy him.
At some point, Dan made a mental note to leave some first aid item in the basement with the clothes. At least some painkillers and antiseptic wipes. Rorschach was hardly in a position – economically or emotionally – to keep up with aftercare without a lot of prompting.
Rorschach was still asleep when they moved him to a general ward two hours later. Or at least, he was asleep when they started to move him. Or at least, Dan thought he was. It was possible he’d been faking the whole time.
Rorschach was wheeled slowly out into the corridor while Dan signed a final form. Then he hurried to catch up as the gurney moved ahead of him, flanked by a team of orderlies. But if asked, Dan would have said that his hurry was at least forty percent his own reluctance to loose sight of his friend. Sure Rorschach could be dangerous but right now he was still groggy from the blood loss, and asleep, and being moved by three healthy men. As far as Dan was concerned at that point, the move was going to be a lot more straightforward than it would have been in Rorschach was awake.
Just as the gurney reached the row of elevators in the main hallway, someone shot out of an adjourning corridor and bulldozed straight into Dan, toppling him against a wall. “Whoa! Careful there! Are you okay?” Dan was vaguely aware of the elevator arriving but he was too busy trying to detangle himself to do anything about it. Besides the orderlies hung back and one – Chris – stepped over to help.
The guy who had done the bulldozing was still very much present, still pressed against Dan. “Outta my way!” a vodka stained voice breathed in Dan’s ear. Ah.
“Hello again” Dan managed.
The volatile homeless guy of a few days ago nodded as if he thought it was very clever of Dan to remember. “Said I wanted him to leave me alone didn’t I?” he whispered conspiratorially, “Well I showed him!” For someone who wanted Dan out his way, he was certainly slow to disengage, his limbs limp against Dan’s, his unsteady weight pressing him to the wall.
Dan gently took hold of his shoulders and with Chris’s help, eased him back until they were standing apart. It was then that Dan noticed the cut.
It ran down the length of the guy’s arm, shallow but painful-looking and not at all clean. Dan reached for it but the man jerked away. “No you don’t! I need this! I need to keep him away!”
Chris murmured, “You want me to call security? Or is it okay if I take him down to ER myself?”
“Err” Dan was distracted with noticing that the other orderlies had moved Rorschach into the elevator. There was a blank space where the gurney had been, a sealed door. Then the homeless guy in front of him made an odd gesture, a sort of pleased-with-himself nod, and Dan’s attention was pulled back to the situation at hand. “If you’re alright to take him yourself that would be great. We don’t want him to be put off coming in.” Especially if he’s started hurting himself, Dan added internally. He wondered what had drawn the man to the hospital if he was so reluctant to get the cut treated. Maybe there was still the memory of a sane person knocking around in there.
Opening his hands in a placating gesture, the orderly stepped towards the man. “How about we go get that cleaned up at least? Sure looks like it could use it.”
The man held out his bleeding arm with the air of someone showing off a trophy. “This is his sign. I wear it and it holds him off.”
“Uh huh. But we can clean it right?”
The man was carefully coaxed away and Dan lingered to watch him go, disappearing into an elevator with Chris gently clasping his shoulder. Sometimes Dan felt like he could do this job every day for a thousand years and still not repair one tenth of a tenth of a tenth of the damage the world inflicted on people. Sometimes he’d felt like that as Nite Owl too.
Remembering his own little redheaded share of the world’s problems, Dan turned to step into an elevator as it opened – and right into Erin who was stepping out of it.
“Oh, sorry” he began. “I was just –”
She cut him off with, “Dan, he’s gone.”
Dan felt a terrible crashing sensation at the back of his mind. For a moment his thoughts whirled wordlessly before condensing into a frightened stutter: what, what, what?
Erin told him, “I came to find you as soon as I could. The elevator just got down to the ground floor and there was no-one in it but the guys who should have taken him up to the ward. They’re both out cold. I don’t know how the hell he’s done it, but it’ll be better for him if you find him before security does.”
Better for security too. Dan nodded mutely and set off at a run.
For some reason, he pounded down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Later he would put that down to something akin to instinct, to some reflex from patrol, long buried, kicking in.
Soon his body was reminding him that those days were far behind him. He was wheezing and struggling, and, really, was there any chance Rorschach was even still in the building?
ER was at ground level. The post-op unit was at level four. Rorschach had – somehow – escaped the elevator onto one of the two floors in between. How was a question that could wait. As could whatever he’d done about the damn catheter, which Dan wasn’t sure he could face knowing anyway.
Dan ran right down to ER, arriving out of breath. He would work his way back up, hopefully meeting Rorschach on his way down. Assuming he hadn’t left the building already. Assuming he hadn’t – dear God – gotten hold of a weapon. Dan was sure he could overpower an unarmed Rorschach in a weakened state if he absolutely had to. He desperately hoped it wouldn’t come to that – Rorschach would never trust him again – but it would be irrelevant anyway if Rorschach had helped himself to a syringe or, worse, a surgical scalpel. Dan had just proved how out of shape he was and for all he was injured, Rorschach had just overpowered two adult men, both of them bigger than him. No way could Dan restrain him if he was armed on top of that. Dan found himself almost hoping Rorschach had left the hospital. That would be better than him having to call security on his friend and screwing up this one chance of reconciliation so catastrophically.
Some reconciliation, he thought bitterly. Running around after a violent, technically criminal man with a pathological aversion to medical intervention? That wasn’t a bid for reconciliation so much as a desperate attempt to deny just how far gone from any chance of it he and his partner really were.
A quick circuit of ER and the main reception found nothing. Of course, Dan wasn’t the only person looking. He could sense his colleagues stare as he passed them, everyone well aware that two of their own had been attacked by a man he knew. Or used to.
Dan moved one floor up, taking the elevator this time. He was beginning to feel hopeless. Rorschach was gone. There was no way he’d stick around, not for the help he desperately needed, not for Dan…but maybe for clothes.
Dan stopped outside a store room, an idea hitting him. Erin hadn’t mentioned either of the orderlies having been stripped. So Rorschach was still in his flimsy hospital gown, the loosely tied back leaving little to the imagination. He’d never go outside like that.
Slowly, Dan pushed open the storeroom door. He stepped into a dark space crowded with miscellaneous cleaning items. There was a strong chemical smell.
“Ro – err – Adam?” The room was deep. Dan stepped further in. “It’s just me. Are you in here? What are you…oh thank God!”
Dan couldn’t even begin to process the rush of concern and relief he felt at the sight of the figure huddled on the floor.
For a horrible moment, Dan thought Rorschach was unconscious. But then Rorschach lifted his head and gave Dan a look than mingled anger and defiance with a trace of apprehension. If he hadn’t been so badly hurt it would have been threatening. As it was he reminded Dan of a kid caught trying to sneak out his bedroom after curfew.
Dan quickly looked over what he could see of Rorschach’s body. Rorschach was sat on the floor with his arms about his middle. He was obviously exhausted but there was no bleeding that Dan could see. Not that Dan could see much of him in that hunched position and in this poor light.
Smiling as calmly as he could without looking insincere, Dan knelt beside his partner. “Hey there, buddy. Are you ready to admit you might actually need to stick around?”
“Of course not. How’s the incision? You’re not bleeding again are you?”
“Mind if I see?”
With a put-upon noise Rorschach moved his arms to show Dan his torso. The hospital gown he was still wearing covered most of it but there was still no visible bleeding, no staining through the thin material or spatters of blood on the ground. Rorschach flinched when Dan put a hand to the pulse in his neck. It was strong and measured. Dan relaxed a little.
Shifting from his knees, Dan sat down properly next to Rorschach, his back against the same wall Rorschach was leaning against. If Rorschach wasn’t in immediate danger he could afford to take his time. Hopefully he could get the man beside him to feel safe enough here that no more of his co-workers would wind up as patients. He asked, “Were you actually asleep?”
Rorschach ignored the question. Dan tried, “Are you feeling dizzy at all?”
“No” There was too much emphasis in Rorschach’s voice for Dan to accept the answer. It was more a this-doesn’t-count-as-dizzy no than an actual no. Dan answered, “So you’re just sat on the floor for the fun of it?”
“Couldn’t find clothes”
“Not that I’m not glad you didn’t, but why didn’t you, um, borrow some of the orderlies clothes?”
“Not stripping an unconscious man, Daniel. Not a pervert.”
“Right. So what were you even doing anyway? Didn’t I say you need to stay here?”
Dan sighed. If this carried on, it was going to be almost impossible to help his partner. He was already going to have to do some serious damage control after what had happened. If Rorschach hadn’t even finished being difficult, there were really going to be problems.
Shaking off the thought, he focused on the limited examination Rorschach was likely to allow right now. “I really hate to ask this but what did you do about the catheter?”
“Pulled it out” replied Rorschach in a tone that added a silent “obviously”. Dan felt his body cringe in sympathy. “Now I’m really going to have to check you over.”
“Not letting you touch me.”
“Rorschach that thing was in your bladder! You can’t just yank it out!”
“Did” The word was a shrug.
“But there’s a retention balloon! You had to have pulled pretty hard!”
“Not focusing on the right part of the situation, Daniel. Where are clothes?”
“I’m not answering that. I am not helping you escape.”
Rorschach hissed his displeasure but didn’t try to stand up. That confirmed his dizziness. Dan added, “You need antibiotics to avoid an infection after surgery. Plus you lost a stupid amount of blood. You can’t just pull out an IV line after everything you’ve been through and not feel any ill effects.”
Rorschach muttered something that Dan was glad he couldn’t hear.
Dan let a few minutes of silence pass. He could sense Rorschach shivering slightly against the wall but told himself not to offer his sweater. Harsh as it seemed, there was no harm in letting Rorschach get just a little cold. It might motivate him to get back into bed. Eventually, he reached for the smaller man. Rorschach drew back.
“Come on” said Dan. “You’re going back to bed one way or another. It might as well be by choice.”
“Don’t need bed. Leaving.”
Dan took a deep, patient breath. “You do need a bed” He emphasised the indefinite article, an old habit from the last two best-forgotten years of patrol, “and you are not leaving.” When Rorschach said nothing he added, “I can be with you for today if that helps. Even overnight if you want. I can camp out by your bed. Maybe I’ll even be able sit with you tomorrow if I can find someone to cover my shift.”
“Weren’t here earlier.” Rorschach replied sulkily. Dan tried not to notice the thrill he felt at this indirect admission that Rorschach actually wanted him around. He explained, “I was pulled away by a patient. Literally actually.”
Rorschach glanced up at that, and in the weak light from under the door Dan saw the concern in his eyes. At that, his thrill mellowed into a warm happiness. He was very used to Rorschach’s eyes already. Already it was hard to believe he’d had to wait so long to see them. He said, “I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.”
“Shouldn’t work here if you’re being attacked Daniel.”
Dan thought this a little rich coming from someone who’d knocked out two of his colleges but he didn’t say anything. He was so grateful to have actually found Rorschach that it would take a lot of provocation from the man for him to loose his temper. In fact, were it not for Rorschach’s shivering, Dan would have been happy to sit there with him in that dark cupboard all day.
After another silence Dan tried, “So how about bed now?”
“Come on, man. You’re shivering. Let me help you up.”
“Do mean fine help me up or you’re fine to manage by yourself?”
“Mean leave me alone.”
“If I left you alone, you’d steal hospital clothes that are in no way designed for cold weather and sneak out the building to die of hypothermia in an alley. I am not leaving you alone.”
“Enk. Not suicidal Daniel. Have somewhere to go.”
“Somewhere with heating?”
The silence that followed was enough of an answer. Dan made yet another attempt to spell the situation out. “Look, even if you’re place is a luxury apartment you’re still not ready to leave hospital. You need to come back to bed, get an IV in your arm and rest. Give yourself some time to recover.”
He could sense the glare cutting through the dim light. He repeated, “I can stay with you if you want.”
“Daniel, your mere presence not enough to safeguard against hospital poisoning. Work here every day and haven’t investigated so far.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous! Look, these people saved your life! You can’t go around accusing them of poisoning their patients on the grounds that you feel ill when you pull out all your lines and overdo it beating them up!”
Rorschach had no argument to that except a tired, frustrated sound. Dan tried, “Don’t you trust me?”
“That doesn’t answer my question. And it didn’t stop you coming over all those times.”
Another frustrated noise.
Dan could sense the fight draining out of Rorschach just from sheer, long-delayed fatigue. Glancing at the door before risking the name, Dan said, “Come on, Rorschach; let’s get up to the ward before you need help moving. That would be worse, wouldn’t it?”
“Don’t want anyone else touching me.”
“No-one’s going to touch you any more than necessary. I can put the lines back in myself if that’s what’s worrying you.”
Rorschach growled into the gloom. “Not having any more tubing. Especially not the perverted one.”
“Well that was mainly for during the surgery. I think you’ve proved you can get around okay now so I’ll make sure you’re not given another catheter if it’s really that big a deal. But someone will need to examine you down there now you’ve pulled the damn thing out.”
Rorschach growled again and Dan wondered if Rorschach was right earlier – he wasn’t focusing on the right part of the situation. Telling the guy no-one was going to handle him more than needed and then telling him someone was going to have to examine his privates was somewhat contradictory. “How about we worry about that once we get you in bed? I won’t let anyone near you if you haven’t said it’s okay.”
Later he would think it was the touch of protectiveness that snuck into his tone that convinced Rorschach. His partner struggled upright, shrugging off Dan’s hand when he reached out to help. Even in the dusky light the scowl was obvious.
When they finally opened the cupboard door Rorschach blinked at the brightness of the corridor and Dan found himself noticing his partner’s eyelashes. They were sandy blonde, almost translucent when they moved, like a fringe of tattered, yellowed lace about his eyes.
“Um, sorry. This way.” Feeling foolish, Dan directed Rorschach to the elevators like he didn’t know perfectly well where they were. As they started to walk, Rorschach much slower than usual, Dan added, “You can’t really blame me, you know. If you didn’t want your face to be a big deal you should have showed it to me when I showed you mine.” He remembered the sinking disappointment he’d felt when that hadn’t happened, even though back then he thought it would just take his partner a few more weeks to unmask. Slowly, disappointment had evolved into a weary acceptance.
Stumbling along beside him, Rorschach muttered something inaudible.
Dan asked, “What was that?”
“Not my face.”
It took Dan a moment before the grim memories of how Rorschach had started to refer to his mask as his face in their final years came seeping back in to his consciousness. He opened his mouth to contradict the insane, self-denying assertion that the freckly skin, the piercing eyes, the thin mouth, the cute sticking-out ears were not a face – but then closed it again. Rorschach really needed to rest and right now he barely trusted Dan enough to get into bed. First things first.
It even occurred to Dan that after some decent rest and decent food and warmth, the chasm that was Rorschach’s state of mind these days might start to look a little more fixable. After all, running around getting into fights and not eating properly can’t have been doing him any good, and if there was one thing this job had taught Dan, it was that physical discomfort had more of an impact psychologically than most people gave it credit for. There had been plenty of times he had seen a sponge bath, a shot of morphine, even something as simple as a change of dressing dramatically alter a patient’s mood.
Then again, this was Rorschach. Maybe rest and warmth weren’t enough to fix this.
As they rounded a corner, Dan gratefully seized a wheelchair from a row kept on this floor for general use. “Here, sit down”
Rorschach eyed the thing sullenly. “Not an invalid Daniel.”
Dan rolled his eyes. Resisting a very reasonable impulse to point out how badly Rorschach was shaking, he reasoned, “If you sit down, no-one will be able to see how the gown opens at the back.”
Rorschach snarled at that, and then sat down hard enough to make the chair rattle. Dan expected him to try to wheel himself, but apparently Rorschach’s fierce independence didn’t cover this situation. That or he was even more tired than he was letting on. He just sat there, arms folded, waiting for Dan to push.
Before Dan did that, he peeled off his sweater. “Here” He spread it over Rorschach’s bare knees. For a second Rorschach looked startled and Dan expected him to push it off, but he seemed to think better of that idea.
They moved off, Dan pushing and Rorschach plucking nervously at a loose thread on Dan’s sleeve.
Once Dan pushed the wheelchair into the elevator at last, he pressed the button for the ward Rorschach should have been in an hour ago. “Remember you’re Adam once we get up there.”
“Remember, Daniel. And you’re Doctor Dreiburg.”
“Well, still Daniel to you.”
“Hurm.” Rorschach tilted his head back, suddenly sleepy.
As the red hair touched his stomach, Dan froze. They stayed like that for a few blissful seconds, Rorschach resting his head against Dan’s middle while Dan gripped the handles of the wheelchair and didn’t dare disturb him.
When the elevator doors opened, Rorschach’s head snapped back up. As the soft weight of his skull was lifted, Dan felt himself deflate slightly.
He wheeled Rorschach down a corridor with a long window, giving them a view of a thin slice of cityscape. Dan was surprised to the sun, a luminous smudge beyond the white snow clouds. It was all too easy to loose track of night and day in this place.
Rorschach turned his face to the rooftops beyond the glass, like a wild thing contemplating freedom.
Dan wheeled Rorschach into the men’s ward and was met by Tim. Dan faltered slightly. He’d forgotten this was Tim’s ward. Tim was one of the few people at the hospital Dan didn’t get on with easily but he wasn’t about to show that in front of Rorschach, who was suddenly looking much more alert, his gaze darting about to take in this new place.
The thing with Tim was he was snobby. There was no other way to put it. He looked down on the residents and interns and on the nurses and the cleaning staff. Dan had even seen him on the homeward commute once, bringing the girl at the subway coffee stand almost to the brink of tears. It was as if he was quite happy to be rude to anyone he could get away with being rude to. Anyone who earned less than him in other words. Dan couldn’t help but dislike him. He had been raised to believe that impeccable manners were a baseline requirement in life. In fact he hadn’t even sworn at criminals generally, unless their crimes were particularly foul or they’d threatened Rorschach. Nite Owl had been better than that.
However, put in room with people higher up the chain of command, Tim became all smiles and welcomes and “Oh there you are, Dan! We were getting worried!”
Dan glanced at the man beside him. Henry Price, the hospital’s chief executive. Oh, wasn’t this going to be fun.
Dan smiled defensively as Tim came over. His grip on the wheelchair tightened. “Hey there, Tim. Sorry about the delay” As if they’d been held up by some administrative error instead of their patient going ballistic on two members of staff.
“Not to worry” Tim replied indulgently for Price’s benefit, reaching out to take over wheelchair pushing duty. Dan drew the chair slightly closer to his him. “Actually” he told him, “I thought I could get him settled?”
The fixed smile faltered slightly. “Well that’s a little…I mean, I do have Ruth. There’s no need for you to…”
“I really think it would put him at ease” Dan insisted, giving Ruth a little wave. The nurse waved back, a smile spreading over her face. Rorschach scowled at them both.
“Well” said Tim, “If it’s okay with you, Henry?”
“Sure” Price gave what would be an easy smile if it had reached his eyes. Unsurprisingly, he seemed very interested in this problem patient.
“It wouldn’t be the general ward though” Tim was saying. “Adam will be in one of our en suites” He smiled down at Rorschach, as if the en suite was a treat instead of a safety measure, but Dan noticed his nose wrinkle slightly even as he spoke. The flash of protective anger that rushed through Dan left him unsure if he wished he’d had someone wash Rorschach’s hair so that no-one would look at him like that, or if he wished Rorschach was grubbier than he was just to get on Tim’s nerves.
Ruth showed them to the en suite, smiling as widely at Rorschach as she would any other patient because she, at least, was professional like that. Rorschach wouldn’t look at her directly. As the door closed behind her, Dan couldn’t resist saying, “She doesn’t bite, you know.”
Rorschach glowered at him. “Don’t know why you were smiling at her. Thought you were homosexual now.”
“How did –” Dan began and then he shut up. This was Rorschach, after all. Rorschach probably knew more about his dates than he did.
“Carl Mathers” Rorschach said.
“Just get into bed, can’t you?” Dan nodded to the bed. It was a little larger than any of the beds Rorschach had been in so far today, designed to be comfortable to someone who needed to spend days at a time in it. When Rorschach clambered in, it made him look small.
Dan pulled the covers back before Rorschach could tug them up. “I still need to check you didn’t castrate yourself with the catheter. And it’s none of your business who I date.”
“Carl Mathers, Louise Creel, Sarah Hayes, Rose Erikson, Joan Luckett, Victoria Yeager.” Rorschach reeled off. “Six lovers in seven years. Verging on whorish, Daniel.”
“Actually it’s really not.” Really, really not, thought Dan. Six partners in seven years? That was truly pathetic. And it wasn’t as if any of them had gone anywhere.
He was a little relived that Rorschach’s issue with his partners was numerical. At least the guy wasn’t ranting about sodomy or revealing any of them to be criminals. He said, “Buddy, you’re going to need to part your legs a little for me.”
Rorschach made a disgusted noise and didn’t comply. Dan added, “Look, that’s my boss out there probably wanting a word about your little adventure. Let’s make this quick, can’t we?”
“Could just not do it. Even quicker that way.”
“Come on, you could have hurt yourself.”
“Not hurt. Fine.”
“Great except I’m beginning to think having a pulse is your definition of fine! Can you tell me if you at least feel okay down there? Is there any pain?”
“Not talking about this, Daniel. Disgusting.”
“Right. Whatever. Let me examine the incision at least.”
“Told you it isn’t bleeding. No need for you to see it.”
“Yes there is. Or would you feel more comfortable with a doctor you don’t know?” Dan meant this seriously, thinking it might be less awkward for Rorschach, but Rorschach flinched and grumbled as if Dan had made a threat. When he crossed his arms over his body, Dan noticed his knees clenching together as well. He rolled his eyes. “Oh I get it! Look, I’m not going to examine any part of you that you haven’t given me explicit permission to touch, alright? So can I make sure you haven’t pulled any stitches please?”
After a few more rounds of reasoning and coaxing, Rorschach was persuaded to let Dan lift his gown. He lay breathing shallowly, his eyes wide. Dan remembered all the times he’d stitched Rorschach up in the past when Rorschach had seemed to tense at his touch. He shuddered to think that this almost frightened expression had been on his partner’s face back then, hidden by the mask. Dan knew he was a person his partner trusted maybe more than anyone else but Rorschach must have looked this in his house, under his care. What had it taken to make him like this?
The incision from surgery was remarkably unaffected by Rorschach’s rampage and, though Dan couldn’t touch his partner’s penis, he couldn’t help but see it either, with the gown lifted, and it looked sore but undamaged. He finally pulled the cover back across the bed and Rorschach immediately drew them up to his neck.
Dan put an IV line in, being careful to be as gentle as possible. Rorschach watched him mutely, not speaking until the procedure was over, when he asked “Leaving now?” There was a subtle accusation in the question.
“Sorry. I’ll be right back. I just need to see what been decided about your little outburst.”
Rorschach didn’t seem surprised or even disappointed. It was pretty obvious that, as far as he was concerned, hospital was a scary place, but maybe Rorschach was used to being alone in scary places by now.
Feeling guilty and overwhelmed, Dan stepped back into the general ward. Sure enough, Henry Price came up to him straight away. “Doctor Dreiburg, could I have a word?”
Dan nodded and followed the man to a little office off the main room, excuses and explanations massing in his mind.
“So Dan” Price shut the office door but didn’t pull down the blind. “Tell me you didn’t know this was going to happen.”
Beyond the glass in the internal wall, Dan could see Ruth and one of the new interns tending to an elderly man with a bandaged foot. He forced himself to look at Price, trying to work out how angry he was. He was surprised to find the man didn’t seem angry at all, just weary and resigned. Dan asked, “How are the two orderlies?”
“No permanent damage. One is being kept in for observation though.”
“God. I –” Dan stopped himself. He had wanted to say sorry on Rorschach’s behalf but it suddenly occurred to him that wouldn’t be a good idea. “I’m glad they’re going to be okay” he amended.
Price nodded. “So you didn’t know the patient was going to get so aggressive?”
“No!” Dan felt his eyes widen into a false looking innocence, but at the same time it was true. He hadn’t expected Rorschach to wake up and do his feral cat trapped in a tin box impression at that particular moment, after all.
Price nodded, but suspicion flickered in his eyes.
Price looked down at a few forms in his hands while Dan wavered between asking if he could leave and not asking because, after all, he wasn’t on duty and Price couldn’t keep him here and he was within his rights to just go. But he didn’t go because it would look bad to just walk out. He wanted to go straight back to Rorschach’s room to prove that he didn’t break his word. He’d said he was going to stay close and he would. Rorschach wouldn’t be left alone, abandoned, not again.
Part of him, he had to admit, just wanted to check Rorschach was still there. He wouldn’t put a second bid for freedom past the stubborn vigilante.
Finally looking up at him, Price slapped what turned out to he “Adam’s” medical notes down on a desk and asked, “So how well do you know Adam? Erin seemed to think he’s a friend of yours?”
“Well…” Dan paused. Of course Rorschach was a friend. Then again, he wouldn’t say he knew him well, not anymore. Hell, he still didn’t even know the guy’s real name. And every instinct in him was screaming at him to downplay how well he knew the guy, to feign ignorance, in case he and Rorschach didn’t have a chance to corroborate their stories before Rorschach’s share of the questioning began. “Well actually, I haven’t spent any time with him since before I started my medical training.” That at least was the truth.
Price stared at him thoughtfully. “Any idea what might have set him off?”
“No. Well he might have been confused by the anaesthetic I guess.” That was a good line to take, to make it sound like the attack was some sort of crazy fluke and not worthy of investigation.
“Really? Seems from his medical notes that he has a lot of scars. Does he get into fights a lot? Or is something else going on?”
“I really couldn’t say” replied Dan. That was a useful turn of phrase: it could be read as no, or not. He could say that and still come up with something better later without changing his account.
Evidently Price knew that: his expression hardened into something distant, something distinctly professional. “You really should say, Dan. If there’s something going on...something you’re involved with, perhaps? We need to know.”
“I’m not involved in anything! I told you, haven’t spoken to him in years!” Dan hated the hasty denial in his voice. He heard Rorschach’s simple accusation. “You quit”.
Price nodded, but his guarded expression didn’t change. “I don’t want to pry, Dan. It’s not like you attacked those guys. And Chris told me you and he only didn’t get in the elevator yourselves because of that other patient. So I wouldn’t even be asking this except that you’ve seemed pretty concerned over this man for someone who hasn’t seen him for years.”
“I didn’t need to see him for years to be concerned.”
Price nodded and perused the notes again, or pretended to. “Do you know where he lives? Or who we need to contact?”
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have any family. None he’s mentioned, anyway.”
Price frowned. “Anyone else we can contact? Friends, neighbours? His boss, maybe? We need to know who his next of kin are.”
“No-one that I know of.” If Dan had suspected back in ’75 that Rorschach had quit his day job, he was certain now. Rorschach’s day job had apparently been superseded by the pressing need to warn people about the oncoming apocalypse.
Me, thought Dan. “No-one.”
“What about his medical history? Does he have any mental instability we need to be aware of? Apart from what he’s already demonstrated, that is.”
Dan sighed. Much as there might be a medical need for it, this was an argument that he’d had with himself years ago and he’d decided a mental institution was the last place his partner would benefit from being in. “I think he was just having a bad day.”
Price sniffed. “Yes, well. So are two of my employees now.”
Dan said nothing.
Price set the notes down again and remarked, “We’ll be pressing charges of course.”
For a second, the room went into a tailspin as Dan groped around in his mind for something to fix this. “But he…but you…but…no-one was…” He stopped. What was going to say? No-one was badly hurt? Would he say that if someone had knocked or Rorschach unconscious or if anyone other than Rorschach had attacked his colleagues? Could he say that and still maintain that he wasn’t overly concerned about what happened to the guy?
Pre-emptively, Price insisted, “It’s hospital policy, Dan. No exceptions. The police are on their way over to have a word with him.”
The police. Oh God. Rorschach was going to freak. And with good reason.
If there was one place Dan wanted Rorschach to wind up even less than a mental hospital, it was prison.
He stood silent for a moment trying to reason with himself. Maybe it wouldn’t come to that. Maybe “Adam” would get some sort of warning or suspended sentence. But what if he didn’t? What if the police found out about Adam Green not actually being a real person? They were bound to, after all. They couldn’t just charge someone without confirming their identity. And if they went looking for Adam’s identity, there was every chance they’d find Rorschach’s.
No. It was too big a risk.
Sensing Price’s eyes on him, Dan gave the man a shaky smile. “I understand. Do the police need to talk to me too?”
“Not unless you’ve got something to tell them that you haven’t already told me.”
“I don’t. I don’t know the guy anymore really.”
“There’s no reason for you to stay in that case.” There was a hidden question there.
Dan nodded. “No reason” he agreed. “Actually I’ve been here since my last shift so I really should get home.”
Price nodded, mollified. “Good idea. Best not to get too involved.”
“Definitely. But I will just say a quick goodbye to him before I go.”
Price frowned. “You won’t mention the police though? I think it’s best he doesn’t get another reason to go AWOL.”
Dan smiled. “Of course. I’ll just tell him I’m off and wish him well.”
He felt Price’s fixed smile even as he turned his back and left the room.
Despite the urgency of the situation, Dan felt remarkably calm as soon as he was heading back down the windowed corridor to the elevators. Calmer than he had in years in fact. Like he was untouchable and nothing to stop him. He couldn’t allow anything to stop him.
Down in ER he emptied his locker of the cash he kept hidden with his spare glasses in case he or a patient of obviously strained financial means needed a cab home. He was about to hurry out again when Erin came in with blessedly perfect timing. Dan should have been relieved at the sight of her, but instead he felt his calm focus wavering. He smiled brightly. “Hi”.
“Oh, hi, Dan. How’s Adam?”
“He’s. Well he’s in trouble really.”
Erin nodded sympathetically. “Price called the police, huh? I hope I wasn’t out of line telling him you know the guy. It’s just, you seemed so worried about him.”
“I was. I am.” Dan hesitated for the merest half second before saying. “Actually I came down here to look for you. You’ve just clocked off, haven’t you? I could really use a coffee. Would you like to join me?”
Erin paused, her smile becoming just that that little bit glassy. She knew about his crush on her, of course, Dan knew she did, and was going through an on again phase with the bastard she was dating, something that always made her reluctant to get coffee outside of working hours. Then again she had had her many turns unloading while he listened, and Dan knew she was someone who’d want to return that favour. She replied, “Sure. I’ll just get changed.”
“Great. I’ll meet you outside.”
Feeling like a bit of a bastard for setting Erin up as an alibi, Dan rushed back to the elevators and tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for one to arrive, his calm shaken by their conversation. Once the metal doors opened, he stepped into the elevator, tapped the button and stepped off again at Rorschach’s floor, regaining his focus the closer he got to his partner.
Terrified as a small part of him was that Rorschach might have upped and left again after all, Dan was relieved to find him repeating his pantomime of fighting sleep for the benefit of the empty room. “Hey” Dan stroke to the bed, speaking in a low voice. “How are you feeling?”
“Daniel? What’s wrong?”
“Well, you know how I said I wasn’t going to help you escape? I changed my mind.”
Rorschach blinked at that and sat up in bed. “Explain.”
Dan took a breath, and let it out with, “The police are on their way.”
Rorschach instantly snapped the IV line out of his arm. Dan swore. “For God’s sake! I could have taken that out just as quickly!”
Rorschach was already sliding out the bed and staring at the door. Beyond the glass panel, the hallway was deserted. “Nearest exit, Daniel?”
“First you need to get to the floor above. Take the auxiliary elevator at the end of this corridor, then take the first left and the second right. There’s a cupboard full of hospital slacks. After that turn right as you leave the cupboard and head along that corridor as far as it goes until you get to the fire escape. You can get down from there and get in a cab.” Dan pressed the money into Rorschach’s hands. “Go back to my place. I’m serious. You. Can. Not. Be without medical help right now. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
For a second Rorschach looked about to argue, but then he glanced at the door again and took his opportunity to stride towards it. Dan plucked his sweater from the abandoned wheelchair. “Wait. Take this.” He tossed it, and tried not to be worried when Rorschach nearly fumbled the catch. His partner really wasn’t up to this. What if he didn’t make it outside? What if he did get out but didn’t go back to Dan’s house and instead just disappeared into the city’s icy streets?
Unable to answer these questions, Dan watched his partner go, his certainty dissolving in to a stagnant concern.
A few minutes later, as he stepped out the main reception with Erin, Dan told himself that even if he didn’t do the smart thing and head to the brownstone now, Rorschach would be back eventually to give back the sweater if nothing else. He was like that. He thought nothing of stealing food but he always gave back anything he borrowed. Dan had had mugs disappear over the years which later magically rematerialised, sometimes clean, more often not. If nothing else, he would know Rorschach was still alive when he found the sweater on the couch or by his bed, folded clumsily and smelling like dark, grimy alleyways and blood.
The re-frozen snow was a churned up grey mush by now and the roads if not the sidewalks were clear and bare. Icy water gurgled noisily in the storm drains as Dan and Erin walked closer together than they normally would, each ready to catch the other if they slipped. Dan hoped there were shoes in that cupboard.
When Erin asked, Dan gave a vague account of a fictional friendship. He had met Adam in college, he said, or rather while he was at college. Adam hadn’t been enrolled. That way, if he told the same story to the police, no-one would try to track Adam Green down via Harvard. Because the best lies are rooted in truth, Dan and Adam had lost touch years ago and Dan had failed to help his friend like he should have done. Like he owed him. At that point, truth bled into fiction and Dan told Erin how guilty he had felt for years. Just to refract any oncoming suspicion he added that he hoped the prosecution would be a wake up call for Adam. Erin reassured him that it probably would be.
“He’ll probably be out before you know it” she told him, squeezing his hand from across the table, “If he’s even in. They probably won’t take it far; they’ve just got to be seen to be doing something.”
Dan nodded. “I hope you’re right.”
“I know I am. Anyway, it’s not that big a deal. It’s not like he killed anyone.”
Dan felt himself pale a little at that. He nodded again.
Hearing himself patch together his fiction made had made him realise how much he and Rorschach had really shared over the years. A long ago college friendship was weak in comparison. He and Rorschach had relied on each other totally, night after night. They had been in sync, in body and mind, fighting side by side like a two-backed, four-fisted avenging angel.
Outside, the sky was deepening to indigo that filtered through the mesh of cloud. Blanketed as it was, the evening sun was too weak to cast shadows. Rorschach was either away or caught by now and Dan desperately wanted to go and find out which but when Erin switched the conversation to her own guilt about something she’d done or hadn’t done for her boyfriend, he couldn’t do anything but listen and make sympathetic noises. It felt like far too long before she said goodbye to head to her bus stop and he was free to hail a cab.
As soon as he got home, Dan slammed the door shut behind him and called out, “Rorschach?”
Getting no answer he searched every room in his house, starting with the kitchen and then the basement, these being the places Rorschach was most likely to be if he had come back here.
When both were empty, Dan stayed in the basement eyeing Archie. Maybe Rorschach had slipped under the covering and into the ship. That was probably where he’d feel safest. Dan reached up and tugged the dustsheet off Archie for the first time since the night the Keene act had been announced. It slumped heavily to the floor, showering his owl gadgets and the half finished prosthetic leg with years of dust, like a private snowfall. Coughing, Dan opened the ship up and clambered onboard.
He hadn’t seriously imagined ever being back onboard Archie but once he was it seemed like he’d never been away. He had assumed the details had blurred in his mind but looking around he realised he’d remembered the entire layout of his creation perfectly, down to every button on the control panel.
Rorschach wasn’t there. Dan even looked in Archie’s storage unit just in case Rorschach had taken into his head to curl up inside.
Decidedly worried now, Dan went back upstairs and searched the living room, the dining room and the downstairs bathroom, finding no-one. He ran back down to the basement to search the tunnel. Nothing. Next he climbed the stairs to look in the bathroom, his study, the guest bedroom. All empty.
One of Dan’s earliest memories was of searching a house like this, his efforts veering from systematic to frantic. When he was a small child he’d woken early and headed to his parents’ bedroom to climb into their bed, but had found no-one there. Dan had wanted his mom in particular – his dad was often away on business, his absence was unsurprising and anyway he was grumpy in the mornings – so he had searched the house for her. Every room, in decreasing order of likelihood. He’d felt a selfish, childish frustration at her for going off and leaving him and he’d been ready to sulk as soon as he found her behind the last door, the door to his father’s study. But when he’d opened the door he’d found only father, telling him without meeting his eye that his mother was in hospital. Dan had only found out later – much later, years – that that had been the start of the cancer that killed her. What had always stayed with him was the bewildering rush of disappointment when he’d opened that door and not found her, the complete inability to work out what he was supposed to do now with her not home.
He thought of that now as he paused behind the last door. Really, what were the chances Rorschach was in his bedroom?
But Rorschach was there. Dan felt himself relax at the sight of his partner sprawled among the messy covers. He couldn’t help grinning as he sat down next to him. This was truly surreal: twenty four hours ago he hadn’t been sure he’d ever see Rorschach again and now the terror of the underworld was unmasked and asleep in his bed.
Really, Rorschach wasn’t in the bed so much as on it, the covers bunched up around him as he lay on top of them. He was dressed in hospital slacks and Dan’s sweater, all too big for him, making it look as if he’d shrunk. Dan noticed with concern that not only was he not wearing shoes but his feet were wet. “Damn it, buddy” Rorschach’s pants were soaked around the ankles. Dan instinctively tugged them off.
Of course he only realised at that point that Rorschach wouldn’t have been able to get any underwear from the supply cupboard.
Rolling his eyes at himself for the second’s hesitation this gave him (he was supposed to be a professional!), Dan bundled the pants up and tossed them into his hamper before grabbing a towel to dry Rorschach’s feet.
Although someone in the OR had already done the daunting job of washing Rorschach, Dan soon found that some of the dirt on the guy’s feet had proved too much even for that brave soul. The skin between his toes and under his nails was still filthy and a few whorls in his heels stood out dark against pale skin. He smelled of antiseptic.
Dan realised his priority right now had to be just warming Rorschach up so he ignored the dirt, drying the digits carefully, so as not to wake the volcanic personality they were attached to. Rorschach slept through Dan slipping far-too-big pyjama pants over his legs and up around his bony hips. Next Dan slipped the thickest pair of socks he could find over his partner’s feet and thought about trying to get Rorschach into the pyjama top to match the pants but decided it would just disturb him unnecessarily. He looked comfortable enough in the sweater. Dan let his hands hover over him, before pressing a palm to his forehead and fingertips to his pulse. The pulse was strong and the forehead fever free. Reassured, Dan layered a few blankets over him and moved quietly around the house seeing to his own sleeping arrangements.
Rorschach finally woke as Dan climbed into the creaking cot bed he’d set up next to his occupied regular bed. He sat straight up with a gasp. “Daniel?”
“Right here.” Dan shifted from cot bed to real bed, perching on the edge on it. “How do you feel?”
“The police?” Rorschach asked.
“It’s alright buddy, you got away. You’re at my place now; you’re safe.”
Rorschach glanced around, his gaze lingering on Dan’s camp out set up. “Only lay down for a moment” he muttered. “Was going to sleep on Archie. More secure there.”
“Never mind.” Dan smiled; whatever Rorschach said about security, he obviously wanted to be up here or he would have stayed downstairs.
“Came in through the tunnel entrance” Rorschach told him. “Took two cabs and an indirect route. Different cab companies. Hopefully…” He trailed off, looking worried. After a moment he added, “Used up all your money”.
“That doesn’t matter. Anyway, you’re safe now.”
“Not. Police could come looking here. Know you know me.”
“Don’t worry about that. I was with a friend while you were escaping, she can vouch for me. Anyway just the fact I know you doesn’t give them enough evidence to search my place does it?” When Rorschach didn’t look reassured Dan reminded him, “And remember, as far as the police are concerned the guy in the hospital was Adam Green. I didn’t know your address when I filled out the admission forms and you came in dressed like a homeless person – no offence – so they’ll have you pegged as drifter. Don’t you think the police have got better things to worry about than a drifter who got in a minor scuffle in a hospital?”
Rorschach didn’t answer but he made no move to get out of bed, so Dan considered him convinced. He reached for a jug of water he’d put on the bedside table earlier and poured a glass. “Here, you should drink this.”
When Rorschach drained the glass obediently, Dan didn’t know whether he should feel worried or relieved.
After handing the glass back, Rorschach considered the cot bed again. “Stole your bed.”
“Yeah you kind of did” Dan grinned at him, settling down on his temporary bed. He reached for a wildlife magazine. “Don’t worry, I don’t mind sleeping here.”
“Could sleep in guest bed.”
“Me or you?”
“Both” Rorschach turned red as soon as the word had left his lips. He shut his eyes for a second and clarified, “Meant either. Don’t need to sleep in the same room.”
“Actually if wasn’t for your little episode in the elevator you’d be in hospital right now with a team of medical specialists watching you all night, so yes we do. Really I shouldn’t even be sleeping but it’ll look suspicious if I don’t go to work tomorrow.”
“So sleep in guest bed. Don’t need you watching me.”
“I won’t be watching you. I’ll be asleep.”
“So don’t need to be in the same room as me” Rorschach argued.
Dan sighed and sat back, shifting his weight on the wobbly bed frame. “I want to be in the same room as you in case you need me during the night. Besides it’d be a waste of my time setting this bed up if I didn’t sleep in it now, wouldn’t it?”
That shut Rorschach up. If there was one thing the guy couldn’t tolerate (and there were in fact many things he couldn’t tolerate), it was waste of any kind. He was nothing if not efficient. So just to be difficult he switched to a different argument. “Won’t need you in the night. Resent the implications.”
“Whatever, buddy. Just wake me up if you start to fell ill, okay? I’ll be right here.” He settled into a prone position on the cot and opened his magazine. It took a lot of resolve to shut the conversation down like that. He hadn’t spoken to Rorschach for so long after all, and part of him had been hungry for it for years, but he knew the best thing for Rorschach was to stop bickering and go back to sleep.
A few moments passed during which Dan read and re-read the same paragraph about toucans several times, interspersing readings with glances at the bed. Rorschach tried to out stare the ceiling and managed a few half-hearted insults (Dan was too lax about security, Dan was too fat to sleep in a cot bed, Dan had a stupid bedroom with too many owl ornaments in it) before finally falling asleep in the manner most people fall off a cliff: gracelessly and without warning.
Unable to suppress a chuckle, Dan tossed the magazine aside and turned the light out, the cot still creaking beneath him. Rorschach was right: he was definitely too big for the shaky little bed.
Dan didn’t remember falling asleep but he must have done to have woken up. Instinctively he stretched an arm out to check Rorschach was still there. His hand closed on a slender wrist. He smiled and went back to sleep.
In the morning the alarm woke them both but Rorschach went straight back to sleep after an annoyed grunt. Dan rose and shuffled quietly around the house getting ready for the day ahead and trying to ignore the gnawing worry that Rorschach would be gone when he got back.
After all, Rorschach looked pretty settled right now. Almost like he was hibernating, in fact, snuggled deep into the covers and under the blankets, as if his body had seized on this opportunity to catch up on seven years’ lost sleep.
In the end Dan decided that waking Rorschach up to tell him not to run off would just put ideas in his head. Instead he left painkillers by the bed and a note telling him to drink plenty of water, and then left for work.
He got through the first half of his shift in a daze. Thankfully most of the rest of the team already knew about the mysterious “Adam” and Dan’s unspecified connection, so the reason for the lack of his usual enthusiasm didn’t need to be explained to anyone.
It didn’t help that all the patients he treated seemed to be in for really stupid, preventable problems. His partner was alone after such a serious injury and he was being forced to deal with these trivial cases. There was the student who’d spent the night outdoors, too drunk to realise it was freezing cold, for example. If he’d been in the grip of an alcohol problem or if his chill had progressed to actual hypothermia, Dan would have been sympathetic. As it was, it was just stupid. Then there was the little boy who’d broken an arm crashing into a wall. He hadn’t seen the wall coming because he’d been wearing a tea cozy on his head and it had slipped over his eyes. And the two little girls, still hyper from a sleepover, who’d tobogganed down the stairs on a sleeping bag. They were barely bruised and Dan had to bite his lip to keep from telling the over anxious parents this was a waste of a doctor’s time, something he prided himself on never having said to his patients, not once. By the time he was summoned by Price to talk to the police, Dan was having a frustrating “I’m dying”/”It’s a hangover” conversation with the latest trying patient and was almost glad to get away.
“The police” turned out to be just one extremely young officer. Looking at him, Dan found himself thinking for the first time that the Keene act was irrelevant now because he was too old for crime fighting anyway next to this guy. Then again, Hollis had probably felt like that before and he’d still kicked ass until he was way past Dan’s age.
The conversation was a short one. Both the guys that “Adam” had attacked were back at work unharmed and it was pretty obvious no-one at NYPD was interested in finding the man. The young officer seemed keenly aware that he had been sent only because they couldn’t refuse to send anyone. He reeled off his questions too fast, barely sparing Dan an annoyed glance when he didn’t reply with anything helpful. Dan wondered if the police really had become less dedicated since he’d last had any contact with them or if he’d grown more cynical. Or maybe they’d just been different around Nite Owl.
It was the brevity of that encounter that convinced Dan it was safe to wander down to the supply cupboard at the end of his shift. As he helped himself to antibiotics and IV equipment, he made a mental note to give the hospital a generous and anonymous donation to make up for it.
He doubted Rorschach would even let him use half of it anyway. Assuming Rorschach was even still there when he got home. Dan desperately hoped he would be.
Hi sorry for the delayed update. I've got a fairly good idea where this will go next but am open to ideas...I'm not sure the ending I've got in mind is going to be satisfactory so if you've got an idea what could happen next let me know.
“Rorschach?” Dan pounded up the stairs as soon as he got home. “Buddy, are you – oh! Good. Hi.”
Rorschach was thankfully still in Dan’s room, still in Dan’s bed, except that now he was sitting up on top of the covers and blankets, reading a newspaper. He responded, “Shouldn’t shout for me like that, Daniel. Neighbours could hear. Compromises identity.”
“My house is sound proofed, remember? I had it done when I built Archie.”
“Front door isn’t soundproofed. Very careless.” But Rorschach seemed to relax a fraction and turned back to the paper.
“This coming from the guy who’s been known to break down the front door” Dan argued.
“Testing your security.” Rorschach casually turned a page.
“Right. How are you anyway?”
Dan rolled his eyes but nodded. Noticing a bowl on the bedside table he picked it up and examined the remains of whatever meal Rorschach had decided to ease himself back into eating with. “Raspberries and maple syrup?” he concluded incredulously.
“Well it’s not exactly healthy!”
“Raspberries are fruit” Rorschach pointed out.
“Sure, but with maple syrup? Wasn’t that gross?”
“Perfectly edible” Rorschach turned another page and Dan didn’t miss the brief grimace on his face. Evidently even Rorschach’s stomach wasn’t strong enough to withstand surgery followed by a diet of whatever in Dan’s kitchen had the highest sugar content without some discomfort. Looking around, Dan spotted a few empty sugar cube wrappers as well. “I hate to think what all this is doing to your blood sugar levels.” He stooped to pick them up. From the bed Rorschach grunted, “No time to worry about that.”
It crossed Dan’s mind to tell him that there could be time, that he could just quit and actually take care of himself outside of this destructive spiral he called a mission but he didn’t want to give Rorschach the excuse to leave and not come back, so he stayed quiet. He told himself he’d tackle the subject later and hoped that was true.
Sitting down on the bed Dan asked, “Have you had any painkillers?”
“Not necessary.” Rorschach finally put the newspaper aside. “Liberal propaganda” he declared as he did it.
“Uh huh. Well there’s not much I won’t do for you buddy, but buying the New Frontiersman is one of them.”
“Hrm. Not quitting is the other.”
The temperature in the room seemed to slip a few degrees. For a second Dan struggled for something to say but remarkably it was Rorschach who smoothed things over, pushing the paper further away with, “All your reading material is liberal propaganda Daniel.”
“Really?” Dan managed, “Even the stuff about owls?”
Dan opened his mouth to follow his partner’s paranoia down that particular twisted line of reasoning and thought better of it. He’d just end up confused or annoyed and there were more important things to focus on. “There’s no reason for you not to take pain killers you know. You’ll wear yourself out if you’re in pain.”
Dan didn’t believe him. If Rorschach was fine he’d be skulking in the basement bemoaning Dan’s neglect of Archie or raiding the kitchen for something more substantial. Or gone, back out to beat up thugs. But instead he was still in Dan’s room, still more or less in Dan’s bed. He had to be feeling terrible.
Dan told him, “I’ll make some soup later but I think you should let me put this in.” He produced the stolen IV line and spoke over Rorschach’s scowl. “Hey now, it’ll help. You still need to rehydrate.”
“Fine now, Daniel. Need to stop fussing.”
“You’re not fine. Come on, I can get it in easily, you just need to give me your arm.”
“Not dehydrated. Drank water all day.”
“How much water exactly?”
“Three glasses” Rorschach said this in a so-there tone, as if three glasses in ten hours was unusually healthy.
Dan sighed; this was an old problem. Even before Rorschach’s reason had taken such a knock from the Roche case, Dan had known him to get far too thirsty even just looking over evidence. He’d once found his partner staring at crime scene photographs at the kitchen table and when he’d handed him a coke, Rorschach had drained it like a man lost in the desert. He’d been there for hours with the fridge and the faucet both right there but he’d been simply unable to tear himself away from his thoughts for the second it took to stand up and get a drink. Too focused to multitask.
Now Dan argued, “Regardless, you’ll still benefit from the saline. And there’re antibiotics in here too. You really need to complete a course of antibiotics or you’ll end up with an infection.”
“Hey, who’s the doctor here? Trust me, you don’t want a post-surgery infection. You’ll end up right back in hospital again.”
“Been paranoid longer than you’ve been a doctor, Daniel.”
Dan blinked. “Did you just call me paranoid?” He could help the emphasis he put on “you” but Rorschach didn’t seem to notice. He replied, “Are paranoid about injuries. Always have been.”
“If I was paranoid about injuries, I’d never have become Nite Owl in the first place! I was just sensible about injuries!”
“Were always weighted down by two much armour.”
“Whereas you seemed to think a few layers and a lot of will power could keep you from getting shot!”
“Was never shot” Rorschach replied in a dismissive tone.
Rorschach seemed to actually need to think back to know what Dan was talking about. Dan was stunned he could forget. Finally seeming to recall an incident that had had Dan sleepless from nightmares for weeks, he made an oh-yeah noise and said, “Time with the Underboss didn’t count. Only my arm.”
“Didn’t even get the bone Daniel! Typical example of your paranoia. Wouldn’t leave me alone about it for weeks.”
“…and that’s the only reason you didn’t end up with gangrene!”
“Were like a mother hen. Still are.”
“Aside from anything else” retorted Dan through gritted teeth, “chickens aren’t particularly good mothers. I prefer to think of myself more as a father emperor penguin.”
He saw the faintest shade of a smile on the pale, scowling face in front of him and pressed on, “Look, aren’t we getting a little off topic here? Will you let me put an IV in your arm or not?”
“I can’t put all this stuff back, you know. It’ll just go to waste.”
Rorschach looked fleetingly concerned but rallied with, “Hospital already poisoning patients. With that line crossed, likely to be involved in insurance scam as well. Money not a problem.”
“Jeez, you really don’t like hospitals do you?” Dan sighed again and resorted to bribery. “If you let me put an IV line in, I’ll go and buy a copy of the New Frontiersman.”
Rorschach seemed to consider this for a moment. His gaze flitted to Dan’s apparently offensive newspaper and away again. Then he meekly put out an arm. Dan grinned.
He hung the IV bag on a coat hanger tied to the bedpost and Rorschach watched this improvisation with an appreciative interest. Dan began to roll up the sleeve of the sweater Rorschach was still wearing and hesitated. “Maybe you should get changed first. You’ve been in those clothes all day.”
“Only one day. Perfectly comfortable.”
“Even so, I’d like you to change. Here” Dan reached for his clothes drawer and pulled out a fresh pair of pyjamas. Still far too big of course, and he expected Rorschach to refuse on those grounds alone, but Rorschach surprised him by complying without a fuss, changing from his odd mix of hospital garments, pyjama pants and wool while Dan stood outside on the landing. Once Rorschach had grunted his confirmation that Dan could re-enter, Dan finished setting up the IV. Just like in the hospital, Rorschach didn’t look away or flinch when the line went in. He did however continue to examine it contemptuously, drawing himself as upright as he could against the pillows to demonstrate just how much he didn’t need it. He looked pale in the new, deep blue pyjamas. “Need paper now Daniel. You promised.”
Leaving Rorschach to carry on pretending he felt perfectly fine, Dan headed back out into the cold to buy the damned paper. He was tempted to go somewhere no-one knew him but the wind had picked up and was barrelling mercilessly down the streets, channelled by tall buildings. It was laced with a glacial chill and, wrapped up as he was, Dan couldn’t face going further than he had to. Being a penguin wouldn’t be a bad idea on a night like this.
He ended up at the same newsstand he passed every day and couldn’t resist validating his out of character request with, “I have a friend staying.”
The newsvendor smiled broadly. “And he’s got a different politics to you huh? That’s nice. I say people should look past each others’ differences more. Seems to me like we’re getting too polarized these days.”
Back home with the rag folded up inside his coat, Dan went through his now routine fear that Rorschach would be gone and relief that he wasn’t. Rorschach took the New Frontiersman from him with a grave nod, as if it contained secret instructions meant only for him. Hell, maybe it did. As if the politics of the publication wasn’t enough, Dan resented it for being the only paper to continue to support his partner’s refusal to quit. That support fed into and justified what was essentially a slow motion break down and Dan despised it. If those writers wanted criminals beat to a pulp then, aside from anything else, why didn’t they get out there and do it themselves? Instead of cheering on Rorschach in his crazed quest. It was going to get him killed. Dan hated it.
And what he hated even more was that, deep down, he knew that Rorschach would keep on patrolling regardless of what anyone said. He had already ignored the law and if the New Frontiersman had a change of heart about his American hero status, he’d ignore that too. And he’d ignore anything Dan had to say about the matter. Dan knew that, deep down.
“Something wrong, Daniel?”
Dan snapped out of his worried musings. “No, buddy, I’m alright. I’ll go and get started on the soup.”
Dan smiled despite himself. “Raspberries and maple syrup not sitting so well after all?”
“Am fine” Rorschach’s face slipped a few degrees grumpier. “Just not hungry.”
“Well you’ll probably feel better if you eat. Just give it a go, okay? You don’t have to finish the bowl.”
Despite not usually cooking on a working day and having canned soup in the pantry, Dan engrossed himself in the task of making fresh soup from scratch. He turned the radio on low so that he could still hear Rorschach from upstairs, though he was beginning to realise that Rorschach was recovered enough that he’d returned to his standard level of independence and wouldn’t call for him under any circumstances.
Methodically chopping vegetables, Dan allowed the murmur from the radio to fill the space where thoughts about how he could help Rorschach longer term should have been.
The thing was, he had no idea how to even begin. He had learned long ago that he was better at the practical side of things. He could bandage people up easily enough, he could even save people who were well past the point that a few bandages would help. But whatever was going on in Rorschach’s mind it was well beyond his reach.
Really, nothing could help until Rorschach quit crime fighting, but Dan was terrified that if he tried to restart that old fight Rorschach would leave as soon as he could (probably a matter of seconds) and Dan would never see him again. Surely it was better to hold back than scare his friend away? Or was that just cowardice disguised as concern?
Returning to the bedroom with a tray laden with two bowls of soup, Dan found Rorschach still engrossed in the New Frontiersman. He liked that Rorschach still read (even that garbage). It was one of the few things about the man that hadn’t changed. “There’re books downstairs if you’d like me to bring some up.”
Rorschach glanced up. “Didn’t need to bring the soup upstairs Daniel.”
“Yes I did.” Dan set the tray on the bedside table.
“Could have called. Would pulled tube out and come down.”
“Yeah, I know, which is why I didn’t. Anyway” Dan reached over and gave the coat hanger a little shake, “this is portable. If you need to get up, you can keep the IV in. No excuses.”
Rorschach huffed a little at that but picked up a bowl and began spooning soup into his mouth without further argument. Dan took a seat on the chair he usually dumped his clothes on and started his own dinner.
For someone who professed to have no appetite, Rorschach shovelled the soup in like he didn’t know where his next meal would come from. Dan wasn’t surprised. This was another thing that hadn’t changed. The tragic thing was the uncertainty wasn’t an analogy: it was the reality of Rorschach’s life. And, Dan suspected, always had been. For all his refusal to share any information about any aspect of his life – his childhood least of all – Rorschach had given away a lot just through his eating habits. He ate like a wild creature, opportunistically and with no regard for long term health. What was it he had said? He didn’t have time to worry about blood sugar levels? He hadn’t been talking about a busy schedule. Really, he was lucky a stray bullet hadn’t put him beyond concerns about a healthy diet before now.
Dan’s gaze was drawn to the bullet scar on his partner’s arm, exposed by the need to keep the sleeve rolled up for the IV. A clean but wide white line, interrupting the pattern of freckles. The bullet had skimmed straight past him, though Dan had seen it hit the bone of his arm, his chest, his head, a million times over. There were a few days when the image had come to him every so often without warning. He’d be just washing up or sorting his laundry or looking for a reference book and suddenly he’d see the streaking line of the shot, hear the thud. See the blood.
He hadn’t mentioned it to Rorschach. Rorschach would see it as a weakness.
Rorschach still had nice arms.
“Staring again Daniel”
“Sorry.” Dan stood up hastily, loading his empty bowl onto the tray. “Are you done?”
Rorschach handed over his discarded bowl without his usual insistence on scraping it clean first. Dan tried not to worry about that.
After washing up Dan found himself tiring. It was getting late and he had another long shift tomorrow. Nevertheless, when he returned to the bedroom he still told Rorschach, “I’d like to examine you buddy.”
Rorschach responded with an extremely annoyed sounding grunt. Dan insisted, “Come on, I haven’t looked at you properly since you got here.”
It took a few minutes of coaxing, but eventually Rorschach lifted his baggy pyjama top and let Dan inspect the incision. It was mercifully clean and healing well. Dan gave clear, uncompromising advice on keeping it that way.
As Dan started to settle on the cot bed Rorschach suddenly said, “Should sleep in the guest bed Daniel.”
Dan smiled sleepily. “You or me?”
“Me. Have taken up your bed long enough.”
“To be honest, buddy, the guestroom’s a mess. I’d rather you just stayed here so I don’t need to go get it ready.”
“Don’t need to get it ready on my account.”
“But I’d insist.”
“Hurm” Rorschach managed to inject a lot of knowing disapproval into the sound. It was obvious he knew that Dan was exaggerating the state of the guestroom to keep him from having to get up. “Could sleep in the cot then. You could take the bed.”
“I don’t mind. Anyway I’m comfy here now.” Dan reached for the light switch. “Mind if I turn this off?”
“Goodnight, Rorschach.” Dan switched the light off, cocooning them in darkness. He lay down, trying to minimize the creaking of the small bed in the interests of appearing comfortable.
It was a few moments before a grudging voice spoke from the bed: “Goodnight Daniel”.
“Hey Rorschach?” Dan wasn’t sure how much time had passed, just that he wasn’t asleep yet and neither was his partner. Dan could tell from his breathing; the restless, uneven breathing of someone alert and slightly angry. “You awake?”
Dan spoke into the darkness. The whole situation – him in the cot, the two of them speaking almost in whispers – reminded him of boyhood sleepovers. There was an unreality to it that made him hope all might be forgotten in the morning if this didn’t go well. He asked, “You know this will kill you, don’t you? The way you’re living I mean.”
There was a silence from the bed. Thinking he’d get no answer, Dan opened his mouth again but then Rorschach spoke. “Everyone dies Daniel. Mask or not. Happens.”
“It doesn’t have to happen soon. Or so violently. Do you really think the thugs out there will give you a quick death if they have a choice?”
“Counting on the opposite.”
“I’m serious, man.”
“Shouldn’t think about that Daniel. Best not to.”
“But it doesn’t have to happen at all! You could just quit. It’s still possible.”
“Not possible Daniel. Was never a possibility.” Rorschach’s tone was flat, totally uninspired. As if Dan was talking about changing the colour of the sky or something, something impossible. The sky would always be blue and Rorschach would always fight crime.
Dan reiterated, “But it doesn’t have to be like that!”
“What can I do to change your mind?”
“Nothing. Not changing mind.”
Dan had no response to that. A dark emptiness unspooled between them. Dan was about to shut his eyes against it when Rorschach spoke. “Daniel? Would you ever consider being Nite Owl again?”
Dan’s heart quickened at the tone – hesitant, tinged with a fragile hope. Very gently he replied, “I’m sorry buddy. Those days are behind me.”
Only Rorschach could make a silence sound hurt. Dan quickly added, “But you know I’ll always be here for you right? Any time you need me, you know where I am.”
There was a reluctant affirmative noise from the bed. “Goodnight Daniel”
“Goodnight buddy. I hope you feel better.”
Dan lay awake for a long time. He had answered automatically but now doubt seeped in. He should have felt surprised that Rorschach wanted Nite Owl back but he didn’t. Instead there was only a grim sense of confirmation. He always been clear that if he were to ever don his costume again and go out on patrol, Rorschach would behave as if he’d never been gone. There might be a grunt of approval or a fleeting scolding for the temporary lapse, but Dan thought it most likely there’d be no comment at all. That was what made retirement so difficult at times. Dan realised now that if Rorschach ever said he’d never take him back as a partner under any circumstances, he could finally dismantle Archie and sort through all that stuff in the basement instead of leaving it all down there waiting.
Right now, if Rorschach breathing deeply a few feet away, Dan felt his old life was very close. Like everything that had happened since the Keene act had happened on a thin, flat screen and if he reached out now, he could pull it away.
After such a sleepless night, Dan particularly resented the alarm clock’s shrill wake up call. He had been dreaming, some chaotic dream about his Nite Owl days with lots of running down alleyways after Rorschach, and he had a weird sense that if he just closed his eyes again the dream would carry on uninterrupted. He closed his eyes. He frowned into the pillow as the noise carried on: beep, beep, beep, drilling into his brain. Then a whoosh and a thunk, and suddenly the beeping was higher pitched and coming from the other side of the room.
“Rorschach” Dan managed, opening his eyes at last, “did you just break my alarm clock?”
Dan chuckled and pulled himself out of bed. Retrieving the alarm clock from the floor he turned it off and read the time. “Shit, I’d better hurry.”
“Enk. Swearing, Daniel. Very bad.”
“Whatever, buddy. I’m allowed to swear when people break my alarm clock.”
“Don’t seem overly attached to it.”
“Well I’ve never been a morning person.”
“How are you, anyway?” Dan crossed the room and put the alarm clock back in its place, looking his partner over quickly.
Dan shook his head. Why had he even bothered asking? He kept looking instead of pursuing the question.
Dan was pleased to see that Rorschach actually did look better. Not fine, but better. He was less pale and more rested, his eyes still closed, and still huddled under the covers like he’d set up a permanent home there. His hair was messy and the skin on his chin was slightly prickly with orange stubble. Dan studied the IV line. It was empty, and he felt a rush of relief at the thought that his partner finally had a decent level of fluids, not to mention the antibiotics, inside him. “I can take the line out now” He told Rorschach.
Rorschach’s eyelids flickered open and he extended his arm. He watched Dan remove the IV and then drew the covers up around his shoulders again. “Going to work Daniel?”
“Yeah. Will you be alright here?”
“Hrm” The noise was vaguely affirmative.
“Drink lots of water won’t you?” Dan stood up and looked around for some clothes.
From the bed, Rorschach murmured, “Thank you for letting me stay Daniel.”
“You’re welcome buddy.” Dan scooped up his clothing and went into the bathroom to get dressed.
Later, he realised he should have seen what happened next coming. Rorschach never usually thanked him. Not unless he was planning something really stupid.
The working day passed in a frenzy of emergencies. There was a man whose car had skidded in an unsalted driveway and the woman he’d hit before ploughing into a streetlamp. There was an elderly man who’d fallen on the treacherous sidewalks, cold despite the onlookers who had piled coats on him while he waited for the ambulance. No-one ever thought of how much heat was lost to the leeching concrete when someone was lying on it that long. A coat underneath the guy could have saved him a night on the ward. Straight after that he treated a little girl with asthma and a flimsy summer coat and tried not to let his sorrow show on his face.
Then there were the two overdoses, one victim brought in a few hours before the other, and Dan was the first doctor on the scene for both. One lived.
Dan had never quite gotten used to patients dying. Anyone dying for that matter. The first time he and Rorschach had been too late to stop a mugging turn into a murder, Dan had been tearful for days, welling up at unexpected moments. No matter how often Hollis told him he’d done his best, no matter how many times he replayed that patrol in his head and still found no way of getting there on time, the experience had filled him with an aching sense of failure.
In the end he’d tried to distance himself. He couldn’t see how he’d be any use long term otherwise, but his efforts were mostly unsuccessful. Maybe that was a good thing, he told himself these days. Maybe it just proved he still gave a damn. But it definitely didn’t feel like a good thing as he made his way home, battling through the cold, his mind constantly turning over thoughts of the gaunt young woman whose short life he’d declared over at five thirty six.
After a day like that, Dan was glad he wasn’t going to be alone in the brownstone.
“Rorschach?” Dan hung up his coat and clambered upstairs. He pushed open the bedroom door. “You okay, man? I’m sorry I’m late, I –” The words faded on his lips. The room was empty.
Though a part of him knew what had happened instantly, Dan still backed out the door and looked in the bathroom and then the in kitchen and then down in the basement and then the rest of the house, going through the same old search in reverse, growing more and more anxious. Rorschach was gone.
Cursing, Dan ran downstairs, pulled his coat back on ran outside. He searched up and down the street, turning his face this way and that on the off chance Rorschach was still hanging around. And really, would he be? Next Dan went back inside and down to the basement, racing down the tunnel to search the warehouse and the streets around it. Here in the gathering dusk he even risked calling for his partner, sending a frightened, echoy whisper down the walkways between the storage units: “Rorschach?”
No answer. Dan stayed outside searching until well after the dusk had deepened into frigid, empty night.
He found the letter when he re-entered the bedroom, dejectedly slumping down on the bed and disturbing the scrap of paper. He picked it up and stared at it, a cold rage setting in. After years of partnership, after saving Rorschach’s life, after risking his job to keep him out of jail, Dan had been granted a mere ten words: Daniel, thank you for your hospitality. Clothes will be returned.
Damn the man! Dan crumpled the paper and threw it across the room. It hit the closet door with a little papery sigh. Despite his anger, Dan then couldn’t help searching the closet, trying to work out what had been taken and if it was warm enough.
What was immediately obvious was he owned far too many sweaters. He couldn’t work out if Rorschach had taken one or not, though he was able to deduce that a pair of drawstring pants and a t-shirt that had shrunk in the wash were missing. Missing too were a pair of shoes Dan usually only wore to weddings and funerals. They must have appealed to Rorschach’s formal sense of style. At least he had something on his feet this time. And surely he had to have taken something warmer than just a t-shirt as well?
And where was he now? Did he honestly think he could just go back on patrol barely three days after major abdominal surgery? Dan flinched at the thought. He couldn’t let the idiot kill himself like this. He had to get back out there and find him.
He spent all night searching. It become more a prayer than a search, a demonstration of how much he wanted to find his friend, because long after he stopped hoping Rorschach would be round the next corner, he kept on walking. He walked their old patrol routes, staying quiet now. Calling for Rorschach wouldn’t be smart now that the people who frequented these streets were coming out for the night.
Dan was surprised (and depressed) to see a few familiar faces – the same drunks and prostitutes he’d passed by on patrol seven years ago. For a while they were the only people about, but then the gangs started prowling. Dan turned his collar up against the chill and avoided eye contact, scanning the shadows. Remembering where he’d last seen Rorschach in costume he looked up at the rooftops too, but they were as empty of trespassers as the streets were of warmth.
Then it occurred to him that if Rorschach wasn’t stupid enough to go on patrol (God Dan hoped Rorschach wasn’t stupid enough to go on patrol) he might actually be among the homeless. True he’d said he had somewhere to go and he never lied but all he’d let Dan know about the place was that it didn’t have heating. That could be a cardboard box for all Dan knew. He started looking closely at the faces of the men sleeping out in the cold as he passed them.
It was hopeless. By dawn Dan was making his way home, his mind numb with exhaustion and worry. He let himself into the brownstone and headed upstairs, his brain telling him to sleep, but suddenly he wondered if Rorschach might have realised how idiotic he’d been and returned. He ended up searching the whole house again, looking in Archie, traipsing up and down tunnel. Nothing.
He allowed himself to sleep at last but it was a shallow sleep. He seemed always on the verge of consciousness but not quite able to drag himself out of dreams where he found Rorschach injured or dead. Every time he jolted awake and closed his eyes again, the awful images returned.
A week dragged itself by. Dan’s life reluctantly settled back into his normal routine of work and coming home to an empty house. The hospital had forgotten the drama of Dan’s friend’s escape easily enough. The gossip now was about whether Erin was about to break up for good with the controlling bore she was dating. Dan should have cared about that, as a friend if nothing else, but he could barely work up enough spare emotion to fake interest, let alone feel it. He wondered if that was why he didn’t have many friends – he could only seem to be concerned about one person at a time and right now, Rorschach was draining his whole reserve of worry, along with every other emotion he possessed. Nothing else felt real.
He checked the newsstand every morning on his commute, even stopping to scan through a few publications at random for sightings. It seemed he wasn’t the only person who hadn’t seen Rorschach this week but he told himself that meant nothing. Rorschach often went weeks without being written about in the press. With any luck it meant he was keeping patrols short and uneventful. Or as uneventful as Rorschach’s life ever got.
Either that or his body just hadn’t been found yet.
Every night Dan spent a few hours searching the streets for his partner. Although he’d lost any real hope of just running into him, it was the only time he felt like he was doing anything useful. Besides, while he felt anxiety harden to despair with every place he searched and didn’t find Rorschach in, he was at least ruling places out. He knew where Rorschach wasn’t. When, at night after fruitless searching, he woke from nightmares he could reassure himself with a long list of places where he knew for a fact Rorschach wasn’t lying dead.
He was amazed he slept at all. It felt selfish, when his partner was who knew where in who knew what state.
At their weekly beer session Hollis knew something was wrong straight away. “You look done in, Dan” he commented as he handed Dan a drink. “They working you too hard?”
“Not really, Hollis. It’s only been day shifts this week.”
Hollis fixed him with an insistent expression and waited. Dan felt himself colour. “Really, I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
“Sure. Well it won’t be too long before your residency ends and they quit riding you so hard. You just hang in there.”
“I will. Anyway it’s mostly just the cold. Everyone’s more tired in winter, right?” As he spoke Dan thought about Hollis out in his yard all day fixing up old cars. He still had worry left for Hollis, especially in this weather.
“Well” Hollis opened his beer and sat down, reaching out to stroke Phantom’s ears “it’s only going to get worse from the weekend. I hear there’s more snow on the way.”
“Oh?” Dan was careful to keep the fear out of his voice even though all he could think was: oh shit and Rorschach’s going to be out in it.
“Yeah the neighbour kids are really excited. I guess snow’s a real treat when you’re a kid. Not that I can remember being that young.”
“No. Me neither.”
Hollis looked a little sad at that.
Saturday brought the promised snow. It fell half-heartedly in the morning as Dan made his way to the hospital but by the time he left in the evening the world had been transformed. It was as if nature had decided New York was too noisy and had shushed it with one long white sigh, muting the drone of traffic and the patter of millions of feet. Yesterday’s greyish dregs had been coated over and the sidewalks were spotted with tracks like rows of dots on clean paper. Bird prints were faint lines barely scratching the surface of the whiteness. Looking around, Dan realised he hadn’t forgotten being young after all because the scene made him smile for the first time in days.
Then he remembered. Rorschach. Tonight Rorschach would be at best (at best!) in an unheated building and at worst outside in the snow, starting fights with armed thugs barely a week after surgery. What had he done about the sutures? He should have been ready to have them out a few days ago. Was he even keeping the wound clean? Dan shuddered.
Only as he got home and searched through the cupboards for something to eat did he let himself acknowledge that the reason he was so fixated on how Rorschach’s wound was healing was because imaging Rorschach neglecting it at least carried with it the assumption that Rorschach was actually still alive.
Dan made toast and mechanically fed it into his mouth, his thoughts churning and twisting around the reality of the situation. He had to find Rorschach tonight. It had become a race: him, hypothermia or septicaemia; who would reach Rorschach first?
He pushed his toast aside unfinished and fetched his coat, headed down to the basement. He would make his way down the tunnel tonight and start his search near the warehouse. Starting from the front door hadn’t worked all week so this at least made sense. After that it seemed completely up to chance if he picked the right patrol route or not.
As he passed his workbench and display cabinets he noticed the bulletproof vest that formed the fist layer of Nite Owl’s uniform hanging up. He paused and stripped off his layers of warm clothes, added the vest and covered it back up again. The warehouses could attract people of a violent inclination, or at least they had back in the dy. Besides another layer couldn’t hurt and maybe it would make him brave enough to properly search the sort of areas Rorschach was most likely to be. He grabbed his goggles too and slipped them into his pocket.
Outside, Dan’s breath rose in ribbons of steam. He thrust his hands into his pockets and circled the warehouse before working his way out in a spiral. His fist closed around the talisman of his goggles. He looked around for any sign of anyone but found he was alone. There weren’t even any other footprints in the snow. Eventually he took the goggles out and set them to thermographic. That confirmed that there were no people anywhere nearby. Or at least, no living people.
As he walked his stomach growled its protest at such a meagre dinner. Between searching and working, he had had little time to eat that week and between lack of food and lack of sleep he felt closer to Rorschach’s mindset than he had ever imagined he’d be. It was almost like he was becoming the man in his single-minded determination to find him.
After the area immediately surrounding the warehouses proved empty, Dan made his way to the docks. It was eerily deserted here too, the cold driving apparently keeping everyone – law abiding and otherwise – at home. His feet and legs seemed to remember patrol, and had quickly readapted to the punishment of pounding the sidewalks for hours in the dark, but the rest of him ached. He began to wish he’d brought Archie. He thought he could probably keep him hidden above the level of the clouds and that way he could move from one part of the city to another without wasting any time, doing a quick spot check in every area he passed over. Deciding to try that, Dan turned to head back the way he’d come, his feet finding his own prints.
Then someone screamed in the distance. There was a clatter and then a rapid succession of curses followed by the unmistakable sounds of an all out fight. Dan spun around and ran towards the commotion, going as fast as the thick layer of snow underfoot allowed.
The sight that greeted him on the waterfront simultaneously thrilled and terrified him. Rorschach was there, very much alive and in combat with two huge opponents. They had him trapped against a wall of recently unloaded crates and looked very confident, looming over the vigilante who had interrupted whatever they’d been doing. For a dizzying second, Dan’s instinct was to push them both aside so he could start punching Rorschach himself for the hell he’d been put through. Then reality snapped into place. He balled his fists and entered the fray. He hadn’t tracked Rorschach down after days and days of fear just to see these men hurt him now. They would have to go through him. Dan planted himself in-between them and Rorschach, causing them to pause out of sheer puzzlement. Behind Dan, Rorschach made a startled noise. But the confusion only last for a second and then both the men advanced again.
No matter how much Dan tried to tackle them both, it was Rorschach who had started this and Rorschach they were angry with, and Rorschach wasn’t exactly trying to stay out of it either. Soon the battle had splintered into two, Dan fighting one man and Rorschach the other. If Dan had thought besting the muggers was a fluke, this proved him wrong. Hollis had trained him too well to forget all his effective moves in just a few years, and if he was a little rusty he just made up for that with raw rage. Dan’s opponent was muscle bound but slow and, like with a lot of big guys, it quickly turned out that he depended on his fearsome appearance so much that he’d neglected his actual fighting skills. He blundered about as Dan threw punches, his big fists hitting the crates piled up around them as Dan dodged out the way. Distracted as he was, Dan was only vaguely aware of how Rorschach was faring until Rorschach shot past him, thrown through the air like a doll. He crashed into the crates with a splintering of wood and spray of snow. Dan abandoned his share of the fight to go and help but was quickly pulled back, two huge hands closing on his neck. The man picked him up a few inches from the ground and threw him down, obviously too stupid to realise that the snow would cushion him. Dan grabbed a chunk of broken crate and scrambled upright, swung it up to inflict a scarring eye wound.
And me a doctor, he couldn’t help thinking.
After making sure his opponent was running away, Dan turned back to Rorschach and the other guy. Rorschach was still on the ground, struggling to stand, but his attacker was bending down too…and picking up something that had fallen from the broken crate. When Dan saw what it was he ran for it without thinking, a wordless exclamation escaping him.
Several things happened very quickly. Dan dived for the man and fell short, sprang up to run closer. Rorschach regained his footing and threw a punch at the man who was distracted laughing at Dan’s failed intervention. The man served out Rorschach’s way, inadvertently stepping closer to Dan’s oncoming assault and Rorschach followed, drawing his left arm back for another swing. Dan reached them and pulled Rorschach back as the man raised the gun and fired.
The sound was appalling in the snow silenced night.
1more chapter to go, sorry about the wait.
“Daniel? Daniel!” The voice was a frantic, frightened whimper. It wasn’t familiar to Dan but whoever it was sounded so upset that he still opened his eyes to see what he could do to help.
His first thought was to wonder when his bedroom ceiling had gotten so dark. And why was his house so cold?
“Daniel!” Shaky hands were pawing at his front, unbuttoning…unbuttoning his coat? Why was he wearing his coat in bed? Dan murmured, “Hey…”
“Daniel?” There was a ragged inhalation. “Hold still Daniel.” Whoever it was gave up on trying to force trembling fingers to unhook the buttons and simply pulled his coat open, scattering them. It was the sound – or lack of it – of the buttons hitting the floor that pulled Dan’s thoughts back in to line with the events that had transpired: He wasn’t lying on his bed and the buttons hadn’t just hit his bedroom floor. The soft surface beneath him wasn’t a mattress but thick, powdery snow.
He sat upright with a start. “Rorschach?”
Firm hands shoved him back down. “Stay still Daniel. You’ve just been shot.”
“No I –” Dan paused. Could that be true? He tried to sit up again to check. Rorschach made a distressed sound and planted him back in the snow, pinning him with a firm hand on his shoulder. “I said stay still” Rorschach’s free hand continued to tug at Dan’s sweater, pushing it up when he couldn’t tear it one handed.
Dan reached up to pull it back down. “I’m okay” He realised as he said it that it was true.
“Need to stop the bleeding…” Rorschach intercepted Dan’s hand, squeezing briefly as he placed it on the ground.
“No, no, I’m alright, I –”
“Stay still Daniel!”
“Buddy, I’m fine!” Dan blinked hard, trying to dispel the fog in his eyes. “Where are my glasses?”
Rorschach made a dismissive sound as if near blindness was the least of Dan’s worries right now. His shaking hand finally yanked the sweater up and he started on the shirt, apparently too unnerved to register that there was no blood on it.
“I really am fine” Dan put a hand to his face and swiped off the half-dislodged goggles. The weird fog was replaced with a more familiar blur. He could see Rorschach’s black and white visage above him and the tremor in the surface of the mask as he spoke: “Can’t be fine. Shot in the chest” His voice degenerated into something almost tearful, as if just saying it was harrowing. That was too much for Dan. He sat up, brushing off the hand that held him down.
“Daniel!” Rorschach reached for him. “You’ll make it worse!”
“There’s nothing to make worse – look”
“You’ve been shot, Daniel!”
“But I was wearing armour”
“No you – ” Finally, Rorschach stilled as Dan pulled up his shirt to show him the bullet proof vest.
Dan explained, “I just put it on underneath my clothes before I left. Just on the spur of the moment really.” He gave a shaky laugh. “I mean, this is a rough neighbourhood, right?”
Rorschach didn’t return the laugh. Instead he slowly put out a hand and prised away something that was wedged in the Kevlar. When Dan saw what it was he felt giddy. Rorschach silently turned the bullet over and over in gloved fingers.
Dan stared at the little piece of metal for a moment. It was indistinct without his glasses but it caught the glow from a nearby security light and threw weird yellowy patterns onto the snow as Rorschach turned it. Next Dan looked down at the Kevlar. There was a small black dot on it and a quick examination with his pinkie finger confirmed what it was: a perfectly round hole…all the way through the material in fact. More puzzled than scared at that, Dan pulled his layers off and unstrapped the armour, stripping it away to be bare-chested in the cold.
In the center of his chest, right over his heart, his fingers found the slightest dent, a cut that amounted to nothing more than a pinprick. For some reason, he laughed again at the discovery.
“Not funny, Daniel.”
“I know, buddy. Sorry.”
Rorschach shook his head, still looking at the bullet in his hand.
Dan glanced around. The snow was bound to be uneven and riddled with scrapes and marks from the fight, but without his glasses Dan couldn’t see the details. The world was just lumpy and white. The dots here and there had to be his buttons and he took the blocky right-angle shapes in a spilt pile under the broken crates for guns. Rorschach had only gone and picked a fight with gun smugglers while seriously injured.
And Rorschach was here, still alive, right in front of him. Dan pulled him into a tight hug.
“Enk” Rorschach tensed but didn’t pull away.
“Shh. Just. Damn. I’m still really mad at you, you know.”
“Know that.” One of Rorschach’s hands was still in his lap, still rolling the bullet between his fingers, but the other crept shyly up and clasped Dan’s shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
“Are you sure?”
“Would have noticed being shot.”
“He was aiming right at you.”
“You pulled me back. Got in the way. Very, very stupid.”
Dan shook his head. “Well excuse me while I don’t care.”
Rorschach’s shivering re-doubled, his body still reacting to what might have happened.
Beyond Rorschach’s quivering back, Dan could just make out the crates, the guns, the buttons. No-one else was around. “Where did the gunman go?”
“Broke his arm. I think I broke his arm. Ran off. You were just lying there.”
“Well I’m okay now.” Dan wondered if he’d hit his head. It didn’t feel like it but he had a gap in his memory. After a quick consideration he put this down to being winded by the shot and stunned by the sort of What-The-Hell-Just-Happened moment that came with sudden shock. That time he’d seen Rorschach being stabbed, his thoughts had shut down so totally that for a second he hadn’t been able to remember getting up that day. He hadn’t known how he’d got there, only that he was suddenly alone in the night with Rorschach badly hurt. Not unlike now, in fact.
Dan drew away from the hug to look at Rorschach properly, remembering as he did it that he couldn’t exactly see well. “Do you know where my glasses are?”
“Could try your pockets.”
Dan pulled his clothes back on, only noticing the cold as he did so. Each layer had the same circular hole. Finally getting his coat on, he slid his hands into the pockets and drew his glasses out of one of them. It was only when he pushed them on to his face that he really registered just how badly Rorschach was shaking. “Here, you’re not fine. Let me see.”
Rorschach shifted slightly out of reach. Dan sighed and agreed, “Okay, not here. Let’s go home.”
They journeyed back to the brownstone on foot, not talking. Dan tried a few times to ask Rorschach how he was, had he been keeping the wound clean, did he realise how stupid patrolling was in the circumstances, but he got no response. Rorschach was still holding the bullet in one hand and had picked up Dan’s goggles with the other. Dan would have forgotten them otherwise, but Rorschach clutched them like they were the last ticket out of hell.
As they passed a phone booth, Dan insisted they stop so he could call the police anonymously to report the gun run. He expected Rorschach to protest but the smaller man stayed silent, standing outside the booth while Dan made the hurried tip off, still clasping the goggles and the bullet and looking lost.
Only as they entered Dan’s warm kitchen did Rorschach finally say something. “Could have been killed, Daniel. Thought you had been.”
Dan stared at him for a second before replying, “You cannot be serious. We are not – not – going to argue about me going out to look for you. You needed help. Did you expect me to just sit at home and watch TV while you died out there?”
“Not me who could have died.”
“Oh get over it! So I nearly died, so what? I have spent every minute of every evening for the last seven years not knowing where you were or if you’d been murdered yet. Welcome to being friends with you!” Dan steered Rorschach none too gently into a chair and tried to prise the bullet out of his hands. Rorschach kept hold of it but did unclench the fist that gripped the goggles, placing them on the kitchen table. In a voice that was ten degrees fainter than his usual growl he repeated, “I thought you’d died.”
“Christ” muttered Dan, finally getting the bullet off the stubborn man, “if I’d known me getting shot at was all it would take to get you using pronouns, I’d have done it a lot sooner.”
Rorschach flinched like he’d been slapped and Dan instantly felt ashamed. “Sorry. That was a really dumb thing to say.”
“Yes, Daniel. Was.” Rorschach’s voice fluctuated between the familiar growl and something more honest and he seemed as puzzled by the development as Dan was. Dan had no idea what was going on in the guy’s head but it was pretty clear it would take more than a decent meal and a warm bed to fix it.
But that would be a start.
“Here’s what we’re going to do” Dan threw the bullet into the trash where it belonged. “You’re going to let me examine you and then, unless you need an ambulance, I’m going to cook and we’re both going to bed.”
Rorschach gave a small nod. Dan got his first aid kit down from a nearby shelf and drew up a chair, facing Rorschach. “Okay then, let me see.”
Reluctantly, but without actually complaining out loud, Rorschach took off his hat and gloves and placed them on the kitchen table. Then he peeled away his grimy layers, removing the coat, suit jacket and a couple of shirts, leaving only a threadbare undershirt. When he paused, Dan nodded encouragingly and Rorschach surprised him by pulling off not the shirt but the mask.
The red hair was still a bit of a shock out of sheer vividness but overall Dan just felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He realised he hadn’t quite believed until this moment that it really was Rorschach under there. But there he was, looking tired and strangely abashed, but alive.
Wearing nothing on his top half but the undershirt, Rorschach paused again. Dan murmured, “Come on, buddy. I need to examine you.”
Rorschach made an impatient sound (impatient with himself or Dan, Dan wasn’t sure) and lifted the last layer over his fiery head.
The incision wound was un-bandaged and Dan wasn’t sure if having it touching the dirty clothing was better or worse than keeping the same dressing on all week would have been. It was dirty in itself now, the edges of the cut an angry red and slightly swollen. Dan asked, “When did you take the stitches out?”
“Few days ago.”
“Of course. You’re way too invincible to just go to a drop in clinic or something.”
“Can’t trust those places. Besides, you used to let me remove your stitches. Didn’t worry then.”
“Then neither of us had had surgery.” Dan slipped a pair of sterile disposable gloves on and gently pressed the wound. “Does this hurt?”
“I don’t mean does it could as pain in your twisted world, I mean does it hurt at all.”
After a hostile silence Rorschach admitted, “Very slightly.”
“Has there been any pus or discharge?”
Hearing the uncertainty in the response, Dan glanced up, wondering how often Rorschach even looked at his bare stomach anyway. Probably almost never, not even in the shower and it was a pretty safe bet judging by his aroma that he hadn’t had one of those this week anyway. His costume smelled like it had been stored in a dumpster. Dan replied, “Right. What have you been eating?”
“Come on, man.” Dan glanced up from his examination when Rorschach didn’t elaborate, and realised with a shock that Rorschach wasn’t being deliberately difficult: he simply hadn’t kept track of his diet anymore than any other opportunistic scavenger would. “Alright. Can you at least tell me how often you’ve been eating?”
“I’m…not even going to try to get you to elaborate. I’m just going assume it wasn’t enough. Or the right stuff for that matter.”
Rorschach made a slightly put-out noise and shifted beneath Dan’s touch. Dan was still examining the wound, taking longer than he really needed to. Worried as he was, he was also relived, at exactly the same time, that it wasn’t worse. He asked, “Have you been sick at all?”
“Good. And have you been, um, regular?”
It took Rorschach a moment to work out what he was being asked, but when he did he made a scandalised sound and pulled away from Dan’s touch. Dan rolled his eyes and said, “Oh come on! We’re both adults!”
“Not talking to you about that Daniel”
“But I’m a doctor – we’re not grossed out easily you know.”
“You never were” said Rorschach darkly, “wasn’t the medical degree that started it.” He folded his arms. Dan tried, “What about feeling tired? You look tired.”
“I’m fine, Daniel. Examination is over.”
“It’s over when I say it’s over. So: have you been more tired than normal?”
Rorschach made a defeated sound. Dan patiently repeated the question. Finally Rorschach admitted, “Yes. Happy now?”
“Of course I’m not. Although it is perfectly normal. And have you been patrolling every night?”
“Only short patrols.”
“Oh that makes it much better!”
“I don’t appreciate your sarcasm Daniel.”
There was a lot Dan wanted to say to that, that he didn’t appreciate Rorschach leaving him just ten words and running out on him being at the top of the list. But all he said was, “You’re going to have to have a bath to get this cleaned up. I’ve got some antiseptic cream I’d like you to use but I’ll put it on myself when you come back down.”
Rorschach took a bit of convincing about the bath but Dan sensed it was more on principle than him genuinely wanting to stay filthy. Once he did go up to the bathroom he stayed there a long time and Dan went up to listen at the door twice, irrationally scared that Rorschach would somehow sneak out of an upstairs room that didn’t have windows.
Downstairs, Dan made a stew. It was substantial enough to give Rorschach some proper nutrition, but thin enough to be easy on his stomach too. After taking his time chopping and frying and cooking, Dan set the dish to simmer and cleared the table, sweeping various items of Rorschach’s costume up and taking them down to the basement.
He hid the mask onboard Archie, folded up on the passenger seat that Rorschach had ridden in so many times. It wasn’t really necessary to hide it, but Dan felt that if it was out of sight, patrol would be less visible too and Rorschach might actually stick around long enough to heal this time. Dan searched the pockets of the rest of the costume carefully, removing the grappling gun (still in good working order he was pleased to note), the journal (once neat, now damp and stained) and various miscellaneous items. That done, he put the clothes in the wash.
When he came back upstairs, he found Rorschach had emerged at last, and was lingering in the kitchen doorway barefooted, dressed in only his undershirt and pants, his hair damp. Dan told him, “Sorry, I should have found you something to wear.”
“Not important Daniel.”
“Yes it is; you shouldn’t be wearing grubby clothes.”
“Where’s my uniform?”
“The mask’s in Archie and the rest is in the washing machine. I checked the pockets.”
“Hrm” The sound was more resigned than displeased.
“I’ll find you something to wear.” Dan brushed past Rorschach and headed for the stairs, then paused. His concern must have been obvious because Rorschach said, “You don’t need to worry about me leaving, Daniel.”
Dan nodded but still mounted the stairs and hurried to his bedroom with an urgency that spoke of mistrust. Only as he opened his closet did he realise Rorschach had taken the only clothes that would fit him. After a moment’s hesitation Dan found a pair of slightly snug pyjamas that were still way too big for Rorschach, and his own bathrobe.
Returning he found Rorschach thankfully still in the kitchen. His partner was dutifully stirring the stew. Dan told him, “I left you pyjamas and a robe on the bed. They’ll be a little baggy but you’re only going to be sitting or lying down tonight.
“Hurm.” Rorschach continued to stir the stew, sounding displeased. “Shouldn’t have come here. Could have prevented another crime by now.”
Rorschach seemed to have nothing to say to that. Dan told him, “Go and get changed and come back for your dinner. I’ll get the cream ready.”
“Could just give me the cream.”
“I want to see you use enough.”
Rorschach gave a disgruntled sigh but did as he was told for once, clambering back upstairs to change.
Dan laid the table and took the stew off the heat. He was beginning to feel almost cheerful, a familiar feeling following near misses on patrol all those years ago. There was no denying that something had changed in Rorschach. There had been some small shift that had dislodged some of his ferocity and left a more reasonable attitude in its wake. Dan didn’t know what had happened, but he couldn’t help but think that the shock of seeing him being shot had triggered it. He couldn’t stop himself feeling flattered about that, even though he told himself that was a selfish response. The important thing was that Rorschach seemed to be listening to him at last, not what had started it off, even if what had started it off made Dan feel very needed.
He wasn’t used to feeling needed. As a doctor, maybe, or as a vigilante, but not as Dan Dreiburg. It was a good feeling.
When Rorschach reappeared he was keeping the pyjamas up with the bathrobe cord as a make-shift belt, the legs and sleeves rolled up. The bathrobe hung loose. The whole ensemble looked so domesticated that Dan had to quickly grab the antiseptic cream before Rorschach noticed his smile. “Sit down and lift your top up.”
Rorschach did so, scowling. “I don’t see this is necessary Daniel.”
“It’s necessary because you’re on the verge of a post-operative infection and I get the subtle impression you don’t like hospitals very much. So let’s keep you out of them, shall we?” Dan used a few medicated wipes to give the wound an extra clean before applying the lotion carefully, adding, “Hopefully this is all you need, but I’m going to get hold of some more antibiotics for you just in case.”
“Don’t need more antibiotics Daniel. Don’t like them.”
“Well they’re not meant to be fun.” Dan finished up and gestured for Rorschach to cover up again. He served the stew.
Rorschach ate hungrily and Dan felt justified in all his earlier assessments of the man’s eating habits. Sitting down opposite he joked, “I’m not going to take it off you ‘til you’re done you know.” As he ate his own share he watched, smiling at Rorschach’s enthusiasm. It didn’t manifest in a particularly appealing way, but Dan was too happy that Rorschach was alive and in his house to care that he was making a mess. As they both finished up Dan said, “I’ll be off work tomorrow”
If he expected Rorschach to be pleased by this news, he was disappointed. Rorschach simply regarded him. Dan added, “It should give us a chance to, um, talk.”
“Hrm” Rorschach sounded…nervous. Huh. That was a first. Dan frowned and told him, “And I need you to actually stick around this time.”
Rorschach nodded but Dan had been through too much that week to take a nod as a promise. “I mean it, man. You need to give yourself time to heal. I want you to stay here until I say you’re well enough to leave.”
Rorschach shifted in his seat and gave no answer. Dan tried again, “Come on, buddy, I’m doing my best here. I can help you get better but I need you to let me.”
Dan felt relief set in slowly. “So you’ll stay?”
“Yes. Will…I will stay until I’m healed.”
“Good” Dan began to clear the table, dumping dishes in the sink to deal with tomorrow. Behind him Rorschach said suddenly, “I’m glad you’re not dead, Daniel.”
Dan laughed. “Me too. Come on, I think I said bed was the next phase in the plan.”
Dan left Rorschach in his own bedroom simply because it was comfiest and the reality was Rorschach would have barely been discharged from hospital by now if he’d stuck to the conventional recovery timetable. He needed some comfort. Dan scooped his own pyjamas from the bed and went to the bathroom to change. He thought about sleeping in the guest bed once he was done but couldn’t quit convince himself that Rorschach really would stay if left alone. Yes he had said he would, and he was a man of his word and he was being uncharacteristically co-operative but Dan knew if he slept in the guestroom he’d still end up being scared Rorschach would vanish. Not necessarily even by choice, just that he’d disappear if Dan took his eyes off him, if Dan wasn’t right there to stop it happening.
With that pattern of thoughts circling in his mind, Dan returned to his bedroom and offered Rorschach a bright smile. “Sleep’s generally more likely to happen if you lie down and close your eyes, buddy.”
Rorschach silently got under the covers and lay down but kept his eyes open. He seemed a little unnerved. Weirdly, it occurred to Dan that maybe Rorschach was as nervous that he’d make a break for it as Dan was. Now there was a troubling thought, and one that finally decided Dan on sleeping arrangements.
So they ended up with the same set up as they’d had the previous week, with the cot bed made up and positioned strategically between the door and the bed but closer to the bed. Rorschach must have been more exhausted than he’d been letting on he only seemed to register where Dan intended to sleep when Dan turned off the main light and switched on a bedside lamp, sitting down on the cot. Rorschach stirred. “Don’t need to sleep on that again Daniel.”
“I really don’t mind.”
“Sorry Daniel. Putting you to a lot of trouble.”
He looked so miserable that Dan went over to him, sitting down next to him on the bed. “Hey, it’s no trouble. Leaving like that, without a word? That was trouble. This, I’m happy to do.”
“Hurm” Rorschach eyed the space beside him. “Is technically room for two people in this bed.”
Dan gave him a puzzled frown, not sure what to make of the round about offer. Accepting would seem almost like taking advantage. But then again, it would ensure he woke if Rorschach needed him and it would provide his partner with the grounding of physical contact, something he was beginning to suspect was needed. “Okay”
Getting into bed with Rorschach was like slipping under the covers with a large stick insect or an over-chiselled statue. His partner was all hard edges and bony limbs, his flesh radiating only the minimal warmth that indicated life, but not health. Dan asked, “Do you need a hot water bottle?”
“Fine Daniel. Warm already.”
“Are you sure?”
“Am sure. Daniel?”
“Sorry I left like that. I didn’t mean to upset you. Didn’t mean to get you shot.”
“I know. Look, we can talk in the morning, alright? Just get some sleep now.” Dan watched the torn expression on Rorschach’s face. His partner still didn’t close his eyes. Suddenly Dan worried his answer had come out sounding too brusque, that it might drive Rorschach to leave again, or to clam up when Dan tried to broach the subject of how he could help long-term tomorrow. He amended it with, “Rorschach, I need you to know I’m still here for you. That didn’t stop when I hung my cape up. I’m still your partner.”
It felt good to say it out loud and Dan smiled before he even registered that Rorschach didn’t seem either disgusted or overwhelmed by the overload of emotion. In fact, Rorschach seemed to relax a little, an imperceptible tension draining away. After studying Dan for a moment he nodded gravely and closed his eyes at last. He settled himself deeper under the covers and let out a long comfortable sigh. It was as if he’d been holding his breath for seven years.