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Windfall

Chapter Text

It was raining as Walter Kovacs made his way to work, the sort of rain that bounces straight off the sidewalk and hits you twice. Walter was in a hurry, having overslept (not that he’d ever admit it) after a long patrol and worried that this time his boss would have had enough. So when a man shot out of a rundown apartment block and bulldozed straight into him, he let it go with barely a snarl. The man shoved him away with dirty hands and tattooed knuckles. “Outta my way you little creep!”

Walter stepped back , adjusting his dishevelled coat where unwelcome hands had touched it. Noticing a piece of paper flutter from within the other man’s coat, he bent and picked it up. A now-very-damp blue slip with six numbers printed in a box on one side. “You dropped this” Walter tried to cram as much accusation as he could into the words.

The man, already at the corner of the street, retorted over his shoulder “Fuck off, runt!”

Walter clenched his fists and hovered in the teeming rain, on the point of chasing after the stranger and teaching him some manners. He had been Rorschach every night for over ten years now and it was galling to be insulted on the street when he could so easily take the insulter down. But there was no honour in fighting out of uniform like a street thug so he let the man go, watched him get into an illegally parked car and drive off breaking the speed limit. Walter memorised the licence plate without really meaning to. A good memory was crucial to vigilantism and the ability to commit lists of numbers, rough descriptions, long addresses to memory had become reflex over the years. Later he would scribble the number into his journal in case he and his partner ever had need to investigate the comings and goings at this apartment building on this notorious street.

For now, he was late for work. He shoved the slip of paper into his pocket so as to avoid dirtying a city he spent his nights vainly trying to clean up, and went on his way.

xxx xxx

Work was the same as it always was: one long, monotonous exercise in autopilot. Walter’s hands shook slightly as he fed the first whorishly short outline of a dress into his sewing machine. He paused, flexed the tremor out of his fists and resumed, adding a row of lockstitch that sealed the garment’s shape, condemning it to be worn loosely by loose women. In a few years these dresses would be discarded, out of style or worn thin. The fabric was cheap, chosen for its built in obsolescence. Why sell clothes that would last and put off the purchaser’s need for more new clothes? Not pride in a job well done, that was certain. Not in this place.

This was a transient place, fuelled by a workforce that came and went within months. Walter was vaguely aware that everyone thought he was strange for staying so long but he didn’t care. He was used to being thought strange. No-one had ever thought anything else about him. So he ignored the disdainful stares from fleeting co-workers and the puzzled glances from superiors wondering why he hadn’t applied for promotion yet or left to better prospects. He simply turned up every day, completed his pile of garments and clocked off in time to get on with his real job.

And, recently, he tried to ignore the chatter of the two young women who worked on the machines opposite his. They were both foreign, one French and one Mexican, both young, barely twenty, and both – from what their loud and candid conversations revealed – promiscuous. Since they had started three months ago, Walter had spent every shift determinedly not listening to them. He focused on his work and went over evidence from the latest cases in his head to try to block them out. But they were enthusiastic and gleefully expressive whatever the topic and sometimes, much as he tried not to listen, he often couldn’t help hearing.

The time they had shamelessly discussed methods of contraception had been horrific.

Today they were talking about a rollover, whatever that was. He probably didn’t want to know. It sounded filthy.

It was still raining when he left, harder than ever, so that a small crowd of his co-workers were huddled at the exit, reluctant to step outside. Walter had no time for that reluctance; he had only a few hours to sleep before patrol, so he slipped through the knot of people and into the downpour.

It quickly became apparent that waiting a few minutes might have been wise after all. It wasn’t raining so much as bleeding, the water pouring from open wounds in the sky. He was reminded of a nature documentary Daniel had persuaded him to sit through that had featured the Indian monsoon. Soon his pants were sticking to the skin of his legs and rain was running down his face and dripping off his chin and lips and eyebrows.

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed for his apartment, pausing only as he passed a bus stop and connected the piece of paper under his fingers with a ticket. He pulled it out hoping it might be valid on this route but found that, though bus ticket sized, it wouldn’t allow him to travel warm and dry. It was just the lottery ticket the unpleasant man he’d encountered that morning had dropped. Useless. He glanced around for a trash can but saw none (not that it was easy to see much in this deluge) and put it back in his pocket, resigned himself to walking.

When he finally reached his apartment building his hair was plastered to his head and the hem of his coat was dripping. At his door, Mrs Shairp was waiting to ambush him. “Rent’s due, Kovacs.” She bounced the latest baby on her hip and he realised she’d brought it along to try to make him feel guilty or maybe even to discourage any desperate action on his part. He would never resort to violence over a rent dispute but she didn’t necessarily know that and had brought the child along as a human shield. He didn’t acknowledge her as he stepped past and put his key in the lock. She hovered nearby. “Don’t you ignore me! Where’s my rent?”

“The shower’s broken” he told her.

“How’s that my problem?” She jiggled the baby as it began to snivel.

Walter sighed. “It needs to be fixed.” Rain water was trickling down the back of his neck.

“Oh yeah? And I’m meant to pay for that how exactly?”

Walter turned the key but she sidestepped, knocking into his arm so that he had to let go of the key and drop his hand to his side rather than touch her.

“I can’t pay a plumber unless someone coughs up for living in this shit hole” she snapped. “And your rent’s due. Over due.”

“You’ll get it by end of the week”

“Not at the end of the week – I need it now!”

“I didn’t say at end of the week, I said by end of week”

“Try by the end of the day, or someone else’ll be living here by the end of the week!”

Walter studied her for a moment and decided she was serious. After all, there was another fatherless mouth to feed. He wouldn’t be surprised if she upped her charge next. Reluctantly he nodded and she finally let him open the door.

He stepped quickly inside and shut the door in her face. She swore and hammered her fist against it, provoking a yowl from the baby.

Inside, Walter shrugged off his sopping coat and hung it on a chair by the heater. Then he did a quick search of the pockets of various items of clothing in case they contained any cash he’d somehow forgotten about. He came up empty, but for the lottery ticket. He wondered briefly if she’d accept that in lieu of money. The whore probably believed in gambling.

A particularly loud bang on the door broke the thought. “Kovacs!” Mrs Shairp yelled through the lock, “Don’t you fucking hide in there!”

 Grumbling, he tossed the ticket aside and reached under his bed. Here he kept the only four books he owed, all given to him at Charlton. A Bible that they gave to every boy, and three gifts: one for winning a prize for his school work, one for turning sixteen and one as a parting token. Unable to scrape together enough for a minimum bank deposit, he sometimes secreted the odd dollar between the pages in case of emergency. A screaming landlady demanding money wasn’t really an emergency, but homelessness would be. He reluctantly opened The Count of Monte Cristo at page three, The Iliad at page twenty one and The Old Man and the Sea at page fifty (He didn’t keep any money in the Bible because that would be wrong). There was nowhere near enough for rent but it was a start.

After hiding the books again, he stood up and opened the door to Mrs Shairp and the baby, both red faced and noisy by this time.

He stuffed the notes into her fist. She scrutinised them, glancing up to glare at him. “Where’s the rest of it?”

“You’ll get it tomorrow.”

“I’d better, or you’ll be finding out how hospitable Central Park is. And dry yourself up, you smell like a wet dog!”

Back in his room he turned the heater on at last. It rattled into life, the slightly smoky scent of it as unnerving as always, but at least it dispelled some of the damp smell that took root in the walls whenever it rained hard. Walter shed the rest of his wet clothes, towelling himself down and slipping on dry items as he went, so that he wasn’t completely naked at any point. That done he gave his hair a brutal scrub and tossed the towel into the corner. He climbed into bed for a few crucial hours of sleep before patrol.

xxx xxx

Dan knew Rorschach would be pissed with him for running late but he wasn’t about to patrol on an empty stomach (unlike some people he could mention). When Rorschach appeared like a menacing apparition in the living room doorway, Dan was still on the couch eating take out pizza and watching TV. Unnecessarily Rorschach pointed out, “You’re late Daniel”

“Sorry man; just one of those days. Come and sit down”

Rorschach just made a fed up noise and stayed where he was. Dan shrugged and went back to eating. Actually he was tempted to take his time deliberately just to try and force it into Rorschach’s stubborn head that it was perfectly normal to want dinner before running around in the cold. He didn’t though, knowing that it would just cause an argument. Between mouthfuls he asked, “Have you eaten?”

“Yes”

Inwardly, Dan berated himself for not specifying a time. Rorschach would have interpreted the question to suit his negligent lifestyle. His yes didn’t even confirm he’d eaten that day. Dan swallowed and clarified, “Have you eaten in the last few hours?”

There was a sulky silence from the doorway.

Dan rolled his eyes. “Look, just come in and have a slice of pizza, can’t you?”

“I’ll eat later. I’m not wasting time now.”

“Well I’m not leaving until I’ve had dinner so you might as well eat while you wait.”

There was a pause during which Dan could sense Rorschach considering just leaving without Dan (it wouldn’t be a first), and then his partner finally came into the room properly, sat down at the other end of the couch and helped himself to pizza. Dan smiled as the mask went up and Rorschach began to devour the food.

For a while they ate in silence. Then Rorschach gestured to the TV. “Why are you watching this?”

“Oh” Dan picked up the remote. “I wasn’t really – it just came on.” He switched from the lottery draw to the evening news on a different station, and then turned the set off. Watching the news with Rorschach was never a wise move.

After a while Rorschach nodded meaningfully at the clock. “We’ll miss their dealer at this rate. You should have been ready earlier.”

“We’ve got hours before they meet up with him. Don’t worry.” Nevertheless Dan ate quickly after that and they left for another long night.

xxx xxx

An hour later found them stationed on a rooftop looking out over an empty parking lot. The rain had stopped but it was still miserably wet and Dan was glad for the watertight material of his costume. He felt sorry for Rorschach soaking the fabric of his pants as he knelt behind an air vent, but still couldn’t resist whispering, “I told you we had plenty of time. They’re not going to be here for ages; we could have waited on Archie.”

“They might have come and gone” Rorschach growled back, but Dan shook his head. The guys they were after were basically nocturnal and there was no chance they’d show before near midnight.

He tried, “We could go back to Archie and try to spot them from the air.”

“One car looks much like another from the air.”

“Not to me. My goggles will recognise their licence number from last time.”

“But not their dealer’s.”

“True. I’m just thinking of you, buddy, you’re going to get soaked if we’re up here all night.”

“I’m fine.”

Dan gave up and focused on the concrete landscape below. The world through his goggles was bright and uncluttered. A mere glance told him the temperature of the night sky above or the ground below. When the gang members showed up, all the data they had on them would pop up on the periphery of his vision.

He was right about their timing: it was a little past midnight when they finally showed. The car swung into view and its licence number flashed up briefly in Dan’s left lens before shrinking and labelling the vehicle as its wheels ground slowly to a stop.

Beside Dan, Rorschach was motionless in the way a predatory animal is still before it pounces. Up here they were both birds of prey, waiting to swoop down as soon as the dealer showed up.

The dealer was the one they’d been hungry to catch, a middle man with information about the big time drug smugglers further up the chain. It was information the petty criminals he was meeting tonight simply didn’t have, no matter how much they’d wish they did if Rorschach was the one asking. He also had links to most of the street corner sellers in the city so if they could put him away, the supply of heroin on the streets might be significantly disrupted. That alone would throw up opportunities to catch more dealers. Dan could sense success waiting just a few feet below.

When the second car came into view Rorschach’s fists clenched. Dan reached for his goggles and clicked them into the setting that allowed him to photograph the car and the man getting out of it and approaching the first vehicle. The four men in the first car stepped out to meet him and Dan made sure to get a snap of the moment a large suitcase was handed over. That done, he and Rorschach were ready to leap into their ambush.

Rorschach took the dealer out straight away, smacking him to the ground and moving on to another two thugs. Dan head butted a third and then chased after the man with the suitcase, who’d decided to leave his friends to deal with the newcomers.

Tossing the case into the car, the man swung round to punch Dan and then jumped in after it. There was a screech of tires as he tried to drive off without troubling to shut the door. Dan gave chase. As the car swerved to leave the parking lot he threw himself onto the hood, causing the vehicle to twist to the side.

With a flick of his wrist, Dan pierced the hood with a hook that popped out of his armour, securing him to the car. He could see the man at the wheel yelling at him but the words were lost in the swell of the engine as the car swerved again, heading straight for the wall of one of the surrounding buildings. Quickly, Dan hauled himself forward, reached for the still-open door flapping at the side of the car and flipped himself in, kicking out at the driver as he did so. Before his opponent could fight back, Dan knocked him out and focused on stopping the car, simultaneously changing its suicidal direction and slamming his foot down hard on the brake.

The vehicle stopped with its side mirror just touching the wall.

Dan let out a shaky sigh, removed the key from the ignition and handcuffed the unconscious criminal to the steering wheel. His heart was hammering and he felt vibrantly alive. After a second to catch his breath he took up the suitcase and hurried back to Rorschach, who was by now standing amongst a scattering of fallen thugs.

As Dan approached he disarmed the last man of a jack knife by the straightforward method of breaking the hand that was holding it and turned to meet his partner, letting the man fall sobbing behind him. “Trying to get yourself killed, Nite Owl?”

Dan ignored the question (like Rorschach hadn’t done worse a hundred times before) and held up the case. Rorschach watched as he placed it on the dealer’s car and opened it to reveal wads of white powder in clear plastic wrappings. Dan gave a low whistle. “I’ll call it in. Are you okay?”

“Fine” Rorschach turned back to the beaten men and began cuffing them, securing them to a parking meter and to each other. When he reached the dealer and pulled a tattooed hand up to expose a grubby wrist, he gave a small grunt of recognition. Dan looked at him questioningly but Rorschach gave no explanation.

Dan headed back to the roof and guided Archie down from there. After climbing aboard and radioing the police he returned to the scene of the foiled crime to find Rorschach pocking some of the drugs money in his absence.

Thankfully Rorschach hadn’t seen him approach so Dan pretended to be very interested in the dealer’s tattooed knuckles until he was sure his partner was done. He didn’t begrudge Rorschach what he was sure was a very necessary act but he knew Rorschach would hate for him to see it. “Do you know this guy?” he asked as Rorschach turned around, just to emphasise how unaware he was of what his partner had just been doing.

“I might know where he’s based. We could go over there now.”

“Sure” Dan led the way back to Archie, still pretending not to know that Rorschach’s pocket was now stuffed with a roll of banknotes.

xxx xxx

Re-entering his apartment via the window, Walter froze at a small sound, like a dry leaf crinkling underfoot. In his wired state (it had been a busy night) it took him a second to realise that he had made the sound stepping on something on the floor. He felt around for the light switch and found the dealer’s lottery ticket on his floor, wrinkled and stiffened now that it was dry again.

His little trash can was already overflowing (he made a mental note to empty it the next time he had a day off) so he let the ticket stay where it was, abandoned on the floor just as its owner was abandoned in a cell.

He smiled at the thought as he pulled his newly acquired rent money from his pocket and hid it against page ten of the Iliad.

He was glad Daniel hadn’t seen him take it. The theft was justifiable – he needed to maintain himself to a minimal extent if he was going to be any use to anyone – but its necessity was still humiliating.

He changed and climbed into bed, switching off the light. He had five hours until the start of the morning shift and he planned to spend at least four of them asleep so that he was fit for the following night’s patrol.

The apartment building he had seen the dealer leaving had turned out to be home to the man’s girlfriend. Under her floorboards she had hidden millions of dollars worth of his illicit wears, enough to make this case one of the biggest busts the Nite Owl Rorschach team had ever pulled off. Walter was certain they could find out who else the scum had been dealing to as well, given just an hour or so to look over the woman’s apartment again, and the dealer’s own.

He slept in the blank, mercifully dreamless state that always came with justice well served.

Chapter Text

Mrs Shairp turned up the next day as promised, rattling Walter’s doorframe with her knocking and waking him up. Walter glanced at the window and could tell from the weak light that it was barely dawn.

“Kovacs, I know you’re in there! It’s time to pay up!”

Walter shifted himself out of bed, checked the novelty clock a previous tenant had left behind and glared at the door. Obviously he was in here. It was 5.30 am.

He reached under the bed and pulled out the Iliad, allowing himself to feel a small measure of relief that last night’s criminals had had money he could in good conscience take.

“Kovacs, get out here!”

He hid the book away again and stood up to unbolt the door and swing it open. Outrageously, his landlady was still in her sleeping attire, a loose, low cut nightgown in such a threadbare material that he could almost see…He looked down quickly, his face burning. Now all he could see of her were bony ankles rising from slippered feet. A small child sat on the floor beside her, its face tear streaked and its nose running. She’d probably been woken by the child and decided to call on him now she was up. He didn’t think she’d wake this early just for him.

He felt her snatch the money from his hands with a frustrated exhale. “It’s called a bosom you freak and it’s not going to kill you.”

His blush deepened and he knew he looked ridiculous, standing there in his own sleeping clothes (pants too tattered at the ankles now for work and an over-sized t-shirt Daniel hadn’t even noticed was missing), his face bright red and his hair dishevelled. He hated the whore.

She riffled through the notes, counting under her breath. “Fine. You’re good. But don’t let it get so late again, do you hear me? And clean up in here, it’s a dump.” She kicked a slip of paper that had been carried to entrance on one of the building’s many draughts, sending it fluttering back into his apartment.

Once she was gone, Walter looked around at his room. He supposed it was a mess, the trash overflowing and the hotplate stained, but he simply didn’t have time to deal with it today. He had work in less than two hours and now that he was awake, it seemed like a useful opportunity to call in at the dealer’s girlfriend’s apartment on the way. He washed at the little sink in his bathroom and dressed himself for the day, taking care not to be completely nude at any point.

When he stepped outside, closing the front door on the squabbling of Mrs Shairp’s children, there was the smell of rain but no evidence of it on the ground. In fact, the air was warmer than it had been in weeks, the city finally shaking off winter. It was the sort of weather that always put Daniel in a good mood and Walter couldn’t help but look forward to that as he set off.

After changing en route in an alley he arrived at the dealer’s girlfriend’s apartment in his Rorschach uniform. Entering through the window he found the building silent, all the woman’s neighbours still asleep. The police had put tape across the door but no officers stood guard. As far as NYPD were concerned, the evidence had all been taken.

The search for it had been thorough and messy. Between vigilantes and police barely an inch of the place had been left undisturbed. Floorboards that had been lifted the night before were still stacked against walls and every drawer was open. The occupant was still absent, pending bail. Her name was Amy Carmichael but her name wasn’t important. She would be questioned before and after she was charged but it seemed highly unlikely to Rorschach that she had any information relevant to the case. She had let herself and her property be used by the dealer, probably without ever learning anything of value about the functioning of the system she had been a part of. She deserved what she got for it.

Rorschach made his way slowly around the complex of rooms, looking for any place they might have missed where information about where the drugs had come from might be hidden. He and Nite Owl had spent hours doing this the night before but it was always useful to return a second time in a refreshed frame of mind to look again.

Today it didn’t help. It wasn’t as if he was expecting a receipt for the drugs but he couldn’t even find any evidence of where the woman went everyday. Just unpaid bills and a fashion magazine featuring a dress not unlike the ones he’d been making all of yesterday, only more expensive.

Entering the kitchen he was depressed to see the magnetic letters low down on the refrigerator but reassured himself that there was no other evidence of a child on the premises. Maybe one had been rescued, as he had been.

He searched the kitchen, opening and closing drawers that contained more condiments than food; miscellaneous packets of ketchup and barbecue sauce that could have been pilfered from any fast food restaurant. He helped himself to sugar before searching a row of cupboards mounted to the wall. Next it occurred to him to search the gap between the back of the fridge and the wall. Nothing. And despite his early start, he was getting late for work. He stepped back away from the fridge and inadvertently knocked one of the magnetic letters to the floor.

He picked it up without really thinking about it and turned the letter L over in his gloved fingers, still concerned that a child might have been kept in this place. He looked the white expanse of the fridge over and was relieved to see that there wasn’t even a complete alphabet: maybe they were left over from someone else living here years ago. As well as the letters there were a few square magnets, one showing an indecent playboy image, one a faded landscape and one…one a magnetic version of a business card. Whittemore Antique Storage. He frowned under the mask. Amy Carmichael was many things but antique owner was not one of them. He pocketed the magnet with his free hand and reached to replace the L from where it had dropped with the other.

The L had dropped from its place in a word. High up on the side of the refrigerator, pushed to the back so that it was almost hidden by the wall cabinets. The letters ran WO   F. Rorschach replaced the L: WOLF. Pinned underneath the F was a little post-it note with 1.30 scribbled across it.

Rorschach tilted his head, considering this. Wolf? It seemed too high up for a child to have written it, too set apart on the side of the fridge like this. And was that 1.30 in the afternoon or the early morning? Something about it nagged at him but he didn’t have time to think about it now.

He headed to work via the rooftops, not wanting to change back into Walter at the scene of a crime or prepared to risk being Rorschach this late into the morning at sidewalk level. In this area, many people started work early.

On the roof of his own workplace he put on Walter’s clothes and hid his uniform in a zipped bag he had brought for the purpose which he then left under the air duct. This seemed risky but no-one ever came up here and he couldn’t take it down to the sewing room with him thanks to his overseer’s habit of demanding random bag searches.

Dropping down into an alley at the back, he walked to the front of the building with the word “wolf” rattling in his head.

 xxx xxx

Once again, Walter’s shift was an exercise in blocking out the world in general and the two young women opposite in particular. They were louder than usual today, taking advantage of their overseer being stretched between two rooms due to someone else’s absence.

Walter fed dresses (longer and shinier than yesterday’s) from a new pile through his machine while the two women, after some over excited mutual encouragement, turned on the radio. Really they weren’t supposed to do that until a certain daily quota had been met but this was an infantilising and widely despised rule and no-one stopped them from flouting it.

Walter ignored the radio’s babble as determinedly as his co-workers’. Wolf. Why wolf? It had definitely been too high up for a child young enough to be spelling out words for fun to reach. Unless they had been sitting on the kitchen counter of course. But the way the word had almost been hidden by the protruding wall cabinets made him think an adult had put it there, that the word was part of the scribbled note.

The radio was turned up suddenly so that the DJ seemed to be shouting “…saying no-one’s come forward yet so check your tickets, folks. If your numbers are twenty six, fifty two, eight, ten, seventeen, thirty nine then your life’s about to change. And now, here’s some Minnie.” Minnie Riperton began to serenade the room, the high volume elevating her voice above the clatter of the machines. Walter finished another dress and picked up the next, his eyes downcast as one of the women opposite began to sway slightly, humming along.

When the overseer burst back in and tried to turn the volume down, he twisted the wrong dial, putting the radio out of tune instead, so that angry white noise made them all wince. The overseer demanded, “Who turned this on?”

Everyone studied their machines. The overseer barked, “You all know there’s no radio until you’ve reached your quota.”

Walter completed the dress in his hands and tossed it onto the pile at the end of the row. “We have”

The overseer frowned at him and moved closer to the pile, counting layers of shiny fabric. “You finished that just now?”

Walter nodded. The overseer pointed out, “Then the radio was on before you’d made enough. Do you know who did that?”

Walter shook his head. It wasn’t really a lie: He didn’t know which of young women had turned the radio on. It could have been either. The overseer fixed him with a disapproving glare but let the subject drop. “Alright. Just you all remember next time.”

The French woman mouthed as thank you as he moved off and Walter ignored her. With the radio off the women started talking again. As always, their conversation was less tolerable than the radio’s chatter and empty tunes.

xxx xxx

Walter clocked out at the end of his shift and loitered at the back of the building for a few minutes, until he was certain no-one was coming out for a smoke. It was easy to climb back up to the roof to collect his (thankfully undisturbed) Rorschach uniform. He kept it in the bag and reclaimed his place on the sidewalk with the bag tucked safely under his arm. As always with a big case, his mind was swarming with ideas and theories and he tried to set them aside as he walked, to force his mind to go blank so that he’d be able to sleep when he got home. Theories were useless unless he had the energy to act on them and he only had a few hours before patrol tonight. To try to calm his thoughts he started reading snippets of text that he passed: an advertisement on a card in a window (Tenant wanted, cheap room, shared bathroom, apply within), a poster at a newsstand (We had a winner! 26 52 8 10 17 39) and the inevitable graffiti (Who watches the watchmen?) that was appearing all over the city recently. The first person he caught actually spraying it was going to wish they’d never been born.

Outside his apartment building he deposited his uniform in its usual dumpster after rescuing the Whittemore Antique Storage magnet from its pocket. Up in his room he sat down on the bed still holding it. Part of him wanted to go straight over to Daniel’s house. For all that Daniel’s voice was in his head telling him that sleep was important, it seemed like a waste of time today.

Instead of sleep, Walter read over the notes on the case in his journal. He had kept careful notes of every shred of information they had, even details that had seemed meaningless at the time and he scanned it for any reference to “wolf” or to Whittemore antiques.

Finally giving up (wolves and antiques hadn’t featured in the case so far), he stood to put his journal away in its usual hiding place. There were still a few entries to double check, so he picked up a convenient shred of paper from the floor for a bookmark.

Smoothing it against the pages of the journal, he read the line of numbers: 26 52 8 10 17 39. He frowned. Where had he heard that before?

Oh.

Oh.

Chapter Text

Walter sat back down on the bed, the ticket in his hand. His first reaction was to feel slightly depressed at a system that would allow the dealer to win…well, how ever much it was. He had the feeling it was a significant amount, given that the lottery was played fairly regularly so far as he was aware, but wasn’t often mentioned on the radio.

The dealer’s name was Gregory Pike. He was a career criminal who’d had the early years of his employment interrupted at regular intervals by stints in jail. The last, for a case of battery as creative as it was brutal, had ended five years ago and it seemed that since his release Pike had graduated from enforcer-for-hire to running his own outfit. Walter didn’t want to think about what he’d do with any significant sum of money.

Not that it mattered, because he was never going to get this ticket. Walter scrunched it up and aimed it at the over-full trashcan, then lowered it again. He pulled the screwed up paper open and looked at it again. 26 52 8 10 17 39. After a moment he slipped it inside his journal as a bookmark after all and added a note at the end of the last entry: Seems Pike is a lottery winner. Pleasing that he won’t get to enjoy it. Walter paused, wondering if perhaps fate had ensured the ticket ended up in his apartment instead. He decided against the notion: he didn’t believe in fate, he believed in free will and free choice. Or what would be the point in doing anything? He put his journal away without recording any philosophical musings.

There was no chance of sleep now so searched his cupboards for something to eat and came up empty. It was unfortunate that Mrs Shairp had been so insistent on rent this week, or he could have kept some of Pike’s money for food. He needed to do something about the black mould creeping up the back of the cupboards too, or the food that be bought once he was finally paid wouldn’t keep long. The spray that would kill it was expensive though, so it was a choice between running out of food next week because some of it had become inedible and running out of food next week because there wasn’t much of it to start with.

It was only then, faced with an empty cupboard, that Walter found himself thinking of the ticket in an entirely different way.

Technically, he had stolen from Pike already this week. And without a trace of guilt. But that was different. That was drug money that would have sat in an evidence locker for years with every other ill-gotten cent if he hadn’t needed it to enable himself to focus on crime fighting free of the risk of homelessness.

But didn’t this amount to a comparable situation? He could fight criminals far more successfully if he ate every day. And hadn’t Pike bought the ticket with drug money that Walter would have taken without any qualms if it had remained in the form of petty cash?

Walter mentally shook himself back into reality. This felt a lot like temptation and if there was one thing he understood about temptation it was that it could be resisted. After all, gambling was wrong. The very fact that a game of chance had almost handed Pike its winnings proved that much.

He was hungry. It was always harder to think clearly on an empty stomach so he left the apartment, became Rorschach again in a convenient alley and headed over to Daniel’s house.

He tried not to think about the ticket on the way.

 xxx xxx

 “Evening Daniel. Hope you don’t mind me making toast.”

 “You know I don’t, buddy. I’ve got left over casserole if you’d like something more substantial?”

 “Toast is fine”

 “You’re early”

 Rorschach fished the magnet from his pocket and handed it over. “I went back to Amy Carmichael’s apartment. She doesn’t strike me as an antiques enthusiast.”

Daniel studied the magnet while Rorschach filled him in on his discoveries. When Rorschach had finished he asked, “Couldn’t she have just been given this as an advertisement?”

Rorschach shook his head. It was typical of Daniel to think that antique storage was just another service most people used. “Amy Carmichael doesn’t own any antiques, Daniel.”

“Well maybe whoever gave her this didn’t know that. I’m just not sure we should be basing the entire investigation on a fridge magnet.”

“It’s not just on a fridge magnet.”

“Well technically the word “wolf” was just four more fridge magnets.” Daniel poured them coffee and told him, “The police haven’t got anything useful out of any of them though, so I guess five fridge magnets is better than nothing.”

“Did they say anything about a child in the apartment?”

“No, and I checked out next of kin as well. They’re both childless.”

“Good” Rorschach added as much sugar to his coffee as he thought Daniel would let him get away with. He’d said no to casserole in hope that they might start patrol early, not because he wasn’t in need of an energy boost. He added, “If there are no children, an adult wrote the word wolf. Probably Carmichael.”

“Maybe she was just writing animals names for fun.”

“No-one does that.” Rorschach didn’t miss the look of distaste Daniel gave his sweetened coffee.

Daniel shrugged. “I’d probably end up doing it at some point if I had those letter magnets.”

“Hm” Rorschach drained his coffee. “You should get ready, Daniel.”

 xxx xxx

 He wasn’t used to being indecisive. Normally Daniel was the one who was indecisive while he waited and criticized. But the reality was he simply couldn’t decide what to do with that ticket when he got back to the apartment.

It seemed wrong to gain anything from it. This wasn’t a day’s pay for a day’s work. This was a grotesquely extravagant amount of money that rewarded nothing but luck. It wasn’t a necessary payment either, awarded to himself from a criminal’s pocket to ensure he could meet his basic needs. It was too much for that. If the ticket had been for one hundred dollars, or even one thousand, this wouldn’t be a difficult decision. But he had checked the amount in Daniel’s newspaper before making his toast. It was a lot more than one thousand. It was the sort of ridiculous sum that seemed made up. He was certain some small countries were worth less. Far, far too much to justify taking on grounds of necessity.

But he was still hungry. If he had the sort of money Daniel had, he could eat whenever suited him instead of in a rush before patrol. He’d never be faced with an empty cupboard again, and certainly not an empty cupboard with mould growing up the back wall. That time he’d been ill from eating out of date meat because it was all he had, that wouldn’t have happened if he had a decent supply of money coming in. The time a cold had turned into flu when the heater broke, that wouldn’t have happened either. He’d been close to useless on patrol both times. There was no denying the money would be useful.

Useful maybe, but wrong. It would be the proceeds of gambling, and of theft too, even if it was just theft from a drug dealer. He may as well have taken every single wad of cash from the drug bust as cash in the ticket. He hadn’t because taking enough for food was one thing and taking enough to buy his own island was another.

It would be enough money not to need a day job. If he had enough money not to need the day job, he could investigate cases during daylight hours. That time he’d been unable to even go on patrol because his boss had insisted on overtime, that wouldn’t ever happen again if he took the money. If he took the money he wouldn’t need to waste time tracking down pay checks he was owed if his boss found excuses to withhold them. He hadn’t been paid for nine weeks last year and he knew that between hunger, the stress of dealing with an impatient Mrs Shairp and extra time at work trying to sort the problem out his contribution to crime fighting had suffered. That wouldn’t happen if he took the money. If he took the money crime fighting could be his only job, his sole focus.

Then again, even with daylight investigations, not working would leave him with the sort of free time he’d never had before. Surely that would be corrupting? Wouldn’t it make him go soft?

Just thinking about the possibility of that lifestyle was dizzying.

Daniel had money and he wasn’t corrupt. He wasn’t soft.

But then, Daniel was an exception to many rules.

Daniel was speaking to him now. “Rorschach? You in there buddy?”

“Sorry Daniel. Distracted by something.”

“Everything okay?”

“Fine” It did occur to Rorschach to tell Daniel about the ticket, but he stopped himself. He already knew what his partner would say: he would tell him to keep the ticket, claim the prize, live well for the rest of his life. Daniel had had a habit of elevating their partnership to a sort of pseudo social work, and always made a show of wanting the best for him. Besides, now wasn’t the time for that conversation. They needed to focus on the case.

Fortunately, Daniel let the topic drop with “We’re over Whittemore Storage now. What do you say we take a closer look on foot?”

 xxx xxx

 “It really is going to be hilarious if you’ve solved this based on a fridge magnet” Dan said a few hours later, as he steered Archie skywards. “But I’ve got to admit it is a good place to keep drugs. I mean, most of these places are open twenty four seven and people rent these little locked rooms with not many questions asked about what they’re putting in them. You could walk in with bags and everyone would just assume it’s old paintings in there or something and –” Dan broke off, glancing over at Rorschach. His partner had been quiet all night, even for him. Yes, they had had to be quiet as they circled Whittemore Antiques Storage but once they were back in Archie Dan had expected Rorschach to narrate his every passing theory on the place. “Are you alright, Rorschach?”

“Hm? Fine.”

“Are you sure? You’ve been brooding all night.”

“I’m not brooding. I’m thinking.”

“About the case?” Dan waited and got no response, which he knew meant no. He tried, “Is there anything on your mind?” This received only an exasperated sound from his partner, the sort of noise other people might make when they swiped at a mosquito. Dan asked, “You know I’m here if you need to talk don’t you?”

There was a vaguely affirmative grunt and Dan knew he’d have to content himself with that. He changed the subject with, “So do we find a way in to search the place? Because it looked pretty impenetrable to me.”

“Obviously. It’s designed to be.”

“So stake out it is then? Because now Pike’s been arrested, they’re bound to move it.”

“True” Rorschach paused, the ink in his mask shifting in a way that Dan had come to think meant he was frowning under there. “We should stake it out but also try to get inside for a proper look. Daniel, have you ever hired storage space for antiques?”

“No”

“It’s time to start.”

 xxx xxx

 Rorschach didn’t like stake outs. It always meant they had to work separately. Daniel took the day shift while Walter was at work but always insisted on going home to sleep soon after Rorschach came to relieve him. It wasn’t that Daniel was lacking in commitment, just that he had a habit of significantly overestimating how much sleep the human body required. When they carried out stakeouts they only had a few brief hours together every evening and it simply wasn’t long enough to share theories and plan their next moves properly.

If he cashed in the ticket, he wouldn’t have to work. If he didn’t have to work, he and Daniel could stake the storage unit out together and plan properly, spending more time than usual together instead of less. It was a tempting notion.

Also, he couldn’t help but think of all the other cases a surplus of funds would have been useful for. All the other stakeouts, for example. Or that time he’d been put on double shifts for a week and turned up tired for patrol every night (Daniel may overestimate the need for sleep but it had turned out to be very true that some was needed). They had failed to stop a mugging that week. They might have moved faster if it wasn’t for Rorschach’s fatigue. Then there was the time Nite Owl had barely – barely – missed a bullet because Rorschach had been a just a fraction too slow to knock out the gunman. He might have been faster if he’d eaten that day, if Walter hadn’t had to choose between rent and groceries.

He might have been faster too that time they’d arrived too late in that alley, if he hadn’t been forced on pain of being fired on the spot to work an extra hour to finish an order. And that had been a murder. They had caught the killer but if crime fighting was his one job, his one calling, no other distraction, they might have been out on patrol an hour sooner, might have caught the man before he became a killer.

By the time Walter was slipping back through his window and taking the ticket out of his journal with a sense of unreality, he had decided what to do. He would take the money.

Chapter Text

The week had passed in a bewildering blur. Rorschach sat on the rooftop of the office block opposite Whittemore Antiques Storage, watching the sun rise languidly over the city unable to recognise the rapid series of events as related to his life. Every so often, he arrested his rebelling gaze, redirected it to the windows and doors of the building across the street.

He was amazed how much more energy he had already, after just a few days of adequate sleep. It was frustrating to be doing nothing but waiting in such circumstances but the case demanded it.

Beside him, a jumbled collection of speakers and screens nestled in a crate beneath the building’s water tank, feeding him snippets of conversation and flickers of images from inside the storage unit. In just two visits – one ostensibly to deposit a painting of his grandmother and one to check on it – Daniel had bugged the reception and much of the third floor. Meanwhile Walter had been able to frequent regrettably sleazy places all around the city, gaining a detailed insight into the movements of one Thomas “Wolfie” Vach, an employee of Whittemore and a man who drank at the same bars, ate at the same diners, even stood for suspicious lengths of time on the same street corners as many of the petty pill pushers the Nite Owl Rorschach team had put away over the years.

They had nothing concrete on him, nothing that could form the basis of any court case. Not yet. But Rorschach was convinced Vach was using the storage unit as a base and that the drugs were in there, conveniently placed in a temperature controlled room, one of many that only Vach and a few colleagues had regular access to.

There had been a significant supply hidden under Amy Carmichael’s floorboards. Likely she’d picked it up from “Wolf” at this place, at 1.30 in morning or afternoon, in the days before Pike’s arrest. Vach couldn’t have given her even a third of what he had, which meant he had a lot, and he hadn’t moved any of it yet. He was obviously not worried that Carmichael or Pike would betray his identity to the police. He obviously expected them to do the extra jail time rather than face his rage. That said a lot about him, none of it good.

That implication of ruthlessness was borne out by the impression Walter had formed of the man during his daytime investigations. People were scared of “Wolfie”. It flickered in their faces when they spoke of him.

The first thing Walter had bought with the money was the time to carry out these daylight enquiries. He hadn’t actually intended to quit his job so soon and felt a little uncomfortable with how quickly he’d shed what had, for all its faults, been honest work. But the need to maintain the almost-anonymity that had always before come automatically with being a nobody like Walter Kovacs had made it necessary. He hadn’t realised claiming the prize would involve any publicity and had almost backed out when he did, but by then everyone at the lottery office had become excited and he had already formed an idea of himself as a more effective crime fighter if he took the money.

He had refused to have his photograph taken, prompting a few of the people who had seemed to converge on the situation to try to tell him that he looked good, really. Sycophants. In the end the lottery’s publicity department had had to be satisfied with his surname and initials in addition to a terse interview so that they had something to put in the papers. They had affected amazement that he had no bank account. When he reluctantly explained that the minimum deposit had been out of his reach, one patronising media-type had even had the nerve to call it a “rags to riches story” (a comment that hadn’t been included in the report after Walter’s reaction). Arrangements had been made and a bank account had been opened, and Walter had managed to restrict the obligatory announcement to a few paragraphs in the back pages of a handful of newspapers (all of them either liberal or obsessed with the pointless worship of debauched celebrities). Only one of these paragraphs even gave away any information about his identity – that his name was WJ Kovacs, that he had no family and that he was employed in the garment industry – yet somehow his co-workers had recognised him from these details and leaving his employment had been the only way to avoid unwanted and undeserved attention.

Of course the upside of this was more time to focus on the case. Nite Owl turned up with the last dregs of daylight. “Hey buddy. Anything happening?”

“No. They just talked about women all night.”

Nite Owl chuckled inexplicably. “I brought breakfast if you’ve got time.”

Rorschach nodded his thanks. He had a lot to do today, following Vach’s trail through the underbelly of the city, but that could wait. He could have breakfast. Daniel deserved some company.

 xxx xxx

Dan fiddled with the dials on his recording equipment, trying to amplify conversation between Thomas Vach and another man over in Whittemore Antiques Storage. He wanted to visit again and see if he could slip in any more microphones or cameras but he also knew that if he went too often it would make the men suspicious. No-one was that attached to paintings of their grandmother.

The conversation, once amplified, turned out to be about football. Dan half-listened, wishing these guys would just incriminate themselves already and sitting back against the water tank so that he wasn’t visible from any upstairs windows. It was easy for Rorschach, doing this at night. He wasn’t going to be seen by anyone glancing outside or look silly if any office workers came up here for a cigarette break. But Rorschach couldn’t take the day shift because of his job, whatever that was.

Not that he seemed to be doing his day job this week. Instead, Rorschach seemed to have learned more about Thomas Vach in the last few days than Dan thought he’d learned about Rorschach in the last ten years. It would certainly be hard for Vach to hide if he realised they were after him.

Rorschach had found time to eat with Dan too, even sit through a few hours with him making the sort of eccentric, blunt, pause-punctuated and occasionally deep conversation he always did. He had even turned up with take-out a few times. Dan hoped it hadn’t set him back too much.

There was definitely something going on with his partner. Dan hoped he wasn’t pushing himself too hard, hoped he hadn’t taken time off for this case because that seemed like a dangerous habit to get into somehow. It probably did Rorschach some good to have something besides vigilantism in his life.

Dan shook his head at his musings. For all he was aware that something had changed, that something was a little off with the guy this week, he had enjoyed the extra hours of Rorschach’s company. A stutter of sound from one of the microphones interrupted his thoughts. Dan twisted a dial, pulling the discussion into focus, and listened intently. This was it.

 xxx xxx

It wasn’t that he was deliberately keeping his change of circumstances from Daniel. A few times Rorschach had come close to telling his partner but somehow “I won the lottery” didn’t slide naturally into conversation. It sounded like a boast, not that he had any reason to boast. It wasn’t as if he had earned the money. It sounded like a lie too, like an illusion that would dissipate when spoken out loud. Maybe he just needed to grow accustomed to the situation. Even then, he probably wouldn’t mention it unless they needed an expensive piece of equipment. There was something unpleasant, something vulgar in talking about income. Daniel never spoke about his wealth. Maybe he’d think less of Rorschach if he didn’t follow that example.

He was out of his Rorschach uniform now but it still gave him a little jolt to catch sight of Walter Kovacs reflected in shop windows as he passed. His daytime investigations had caused a blurring of the previously clear black line between Walter and Rorschach. He was dressed as Walter but he felt like Rorschach. It was odd. It showed him how distinctive the two mindsets had become.

No matter. He had better things to focus on than introspection. The man across the street and a little ahead for example. Another of Vach’s cronies. As Walter watched, the man stopped at the entrance of a walkway and spoke to someone, an older man Walter could barely see from where he stood pretending to inspect the contents of a window display. He watched the men’s reflections have a short conversation and when they moved apart he thought about going after the older man before deciding to stick with his original mark. Either way he wouldn’t learn much but this case wasn’t about big revelations, it was about piecing together snippets of information to form a detailed overview of Vach’s life. They would move in soon and Vach wasn’t going to escape justice.

Chapter Text

“Buddy, just look at it this way – we got most them. All these guys, all the drug –”

“Vach got away. Unacceptable.”

“Hey, I’m just trying to –”

“The henchmen are irrelevant! They’re just muscle for hire! Just wads of flesh devoid of conscience and –”

“Well – jeez! – Could you – Rorschach stop it!”

“Unhand me, Nite Owl!”

“There’s no need to hit him! He’s down already! They’re unconscious, just – damn it, Rorschach, just calm down!”

“He. Got. Away. These scum don’t matter. The drugs don’t matter. He –”

“We got the drugs of the streets so I call it a win. Hey don’t start muttering at me! Look even free, Vach can’t cause any trouble now that we’ve closed down his cover business. Actually that reminds me, I’d better get my painting… ”

“Their organiser got away. This is not a win.”

“We’ll find him. Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll find him.”

 xxx xxx

Weeks later, they still hadn’t tracked Vach down. For all Walter’s efforts, the man must have had friends he didn’t find out about, people who would hide him. Gradually, Thomas “Wolfie” Vach became just another scumbag they were half-heartedly looking out for as they went about their routine patrols. Walter resented it. This case was meant to be closed. Vach might have been temporarily neutralised by their arresting his cronies and closing his business but it was only a matter of time before his activities started up again. All Vach needed was somewhere to keep his wares and a few of his old prison associates to become involved and he would be polluting the city’s veins once more. Until they arrested him, they weren’t getting to the root of the malaise.

It was with this in mind that he prowled the streets all day hoping to find any trace of his quarry, slipping back into his old habit of returning to his bolthole for only a minimal few hours of sleep before patrol.

The second thing he’d bought with the money, aside from the adequate and varied food supply that he had already caught himself starting to take for granted, was an eased conscience. The impossible number printed on the balance of his new bank account looked less daunting now that Charlton, along with a number of other children’s homes and schools, had taken its share. That done, he had been ready to buy something for himself that was a little more extravagant and a little more permanent than the bags of sugar cubes he had started to treat himself to. The third thing he had bought with the money was an apartment.

As a child, he’d wanted to one day live in a house, the sort of house he had seen in story books at the library. His mother had left him there sometimes, when he was very young, too young to be left in the apartment alone or to come with her to wait, squirming, outside whichever dingy room she was bedding one of the men in. There had been a time when they didn’t come to the apartment though, looking back on it, he wasn’t entirely sure why. She’d had no qualms later about letting them in. But for a time, the time that held his very earliest memories, she had travelled to meet them, dropping him at the library on the way. “Stay here” she’d whisper, guiding him into the children’s section, “Don’t make any noise and don’t let anyone see you.” She’d run a rough, long nailed hand down the side of his face. “No-one wants to see that.” And then she’d leave, and he’d sit hidden in a particular corner. If any other mothers came with their other, noisier, children, they all assumed he was with someone else and if no-one came, no librarians strayed into this section of the library either, assuming it empty. He had never found it difficult to go unnoticed. He had sat for hours some days, turning page after page of whichever book caught his eye.

The houses in those books were clean and brightly painted and surrounded by flowers. He’d come to understand that success in this life was measured by the ability to buy and live in a house like that. He’d formed an idea of himself as an adult – if he was very good and worked very hard – owning such a house and leaving it every day (walking up the path that cut through the flowers) to work somewhere where he wore a suit and coming home in the evenings to the dinner his friend had cooked (he had decided early on that he didn’t want to be a daddy living with a mommy and wanted to live with a friend instead, if he ever found one).

But he had been a child then. Now, much as he could still see the attraction of such a house, he knew it wouldn’t be suitable. For one thing, it would be too extravagant for just one man. Also he now had work that required him to stay central. It would be ridiculous to commute from the suburbs every night for patrol. Hard to protect his identity that way.

The apartment was bigger than he was used to. He had never really had an entire complex of rooms to himself before. Since leaving Charlton he’d lived in a few different places but all combined eating and sleeping areas into one small space with a bathroom squeezed into a corner or elsewhere in the building and shared with others. In Charlton there had been a dormitory for a while, a small bedroom when he was older, and all the rest of the establishment had been shared space, often shared, unsurprisingly, with children who were difficult to get along with. Before that, in his mother’s apartment, there had been a bedroom. The rest had been her territory. Even the bedroom, sometimes.

Now he had four rooms all to himself. It surprised him every time he let himself in. Today, after yet another fruitless search for Vach, he turned the key in the lock and stepped into a base that was still unfamiliar. As always, he did a quick search of the place. He was always in the habit of vigilance but this was particularly important now that he was carrying out some of his investigations unmasked.

He crossed the hallway to the living room, a room a little larger than his previous living quarters all by itself. It looked out over such a dazzling, street-lit view that every time he came in here he felt like he was right at the beating centre of the city. Or like he was onboard Archie, soaring over the buildings. He didn’t have any furniture for it yet. He had thought about buying some but he had been too busy looking for Vach. Now he was starting to think that gym equipment might be more useful anyway. The bedroom was adequate living space so this room would better serve him as a training area. It wasn’t as if he’d ever have anyone over.

Next he inspected the kitchen (damp free and full of food), the bathroom (complete with working shower) and the bedroom (home to the few pieces of furniture he’d brought with him from his old place).

Reassured that there was no-one else present, he sat down on his rickety single bed and kicked off his shoes. The bed wasn’t uncomfortable anymore because the fourth thing he’d bought with the money was a replacement mattress. There was no excuse for it. It was an indulgence. But it was useful on days like this, days that his sleeping time was cut so short by the need to patrol. As soon as he lay down he felt himself drifting.

It was quiet here. The neighbours were all good, law abiding people (he’d checked before choosing the place) and the walls were thick. At first it had been hard to adjust to and the lack of noise had kept him on edge, listening out for people creeping through the adjourning rooms (unoccupied and empty and just waiting to be invaded) but gradually he’d started to like the silence. He slept.

xxx xxx

When he woke to the sound of someone banging on the door, Walter’s first thought was that Mrs Shairp was after her rent. When he remembered where he was, he clambered out of bed headed down the corridor, instinctively clenching his fists.

There were no doormen and no reception lobby in the building. That had been necessary to avoid anyone noticing his nocturnal activities and it meant that the person knocking could be anyone. But then again, intruders don’t knock first. Maybe one of his new neighbours needed help? It was getting too late in the evening for a social call, not that he had any reason to expect one of those.

The door of his new place was fitted with a peephole. Peering through it, Walter could see a distorted view of a face. An older man with hair exactly the same shade of red as his own. When the man grinned up at him, exposing crooked teeth, a sudden, bewildering revelation seared through Walter.

He opened the door. The man stepped inside, still smiling, and looked him up and down. “Well” the man said at last, “You’ve got her eyes but the rest is mine, wouldn’t you say? Come ‘ere, son.”

Chapter Text

“And then here you are.” Charlie finished his drink (his third drink) and smiled at Walter. “You’re a hard man to find. I never would’ve managed if I hadn’t heard about your windfall. So how’s having money treating you?”

“It’s better than not having money” Walter replied honestly. His father laughed. Walter was so startled by the novelty of having his father laugh at something he’d said that he almost missed the man’s next comment. It was irrelevant to the conversation though; a lewd proclamation on a woman who had just walked in. Walter tried not to dwell on that.

They were in a bar a few blocks from Walter’s apartment. They had headed out for a celebratory toast soon after Walter had explained that he had no alcohol on the premises, a fact that his father seemed to find incredible.

The man sitting across from him was dishevelled and bundled up in numerous layers, some of which had been shed as the drinks slid down. In addition to his vibrant hair he had an uneven beard of a slightly lighter shade. There was no grey hair at his chin or his temples, and no significant wrinkles, just the general weather-beaten look of someone who had been sunburned more times than they could count. Walter realised that the age gap between the two of them was about as small as such a gap could legally be. He had always imagined that his father was older than his mother, perhaps significantly so. He had imagined someone with the dignified, self-assured bearing of an older man.

He had imagined a lot of things.

“So what’ve you been doing with yourself?” Charlie shifted to lean across the table. “It said in the paper you worked in the garment industry? Fashion and that?”

Walter shrugged. He wished he’d had a career that would impress his father but there was nothing he could say. He couldn’t talk about being a mask. Not yet. He took a cautious sip of his coke.

“Well I guess you’re free of that now.” Charlie signalled for another drink. This was the first place Walter had ever been a customer in that had waitress service. He had quickly decided that he didn’t like it. Places where you could quietly help yourself from a vending machine and slip away again were easier to navigate. It wasn’t as if the coke was nicer here for having been brought over by an alarmingly clad woman. If anything it was less flavoursome, watered down with too many ice cubes.

His father was watching him from across the table, his expression moving smoothly from relaxed to serious. “I did try to stick around, son” he murmured finally. “I gave it my best go. I was young, you know? But I wanted to be a good father. I was looking forward to meeting you.”

Walter said nothing and sat very still. He felt as though any interjection on his part would seal up the explanation in the shadows of family history and he would never be told why this man hadn’t been there when he was so needed. He stayed quiet and let his father continue. His father ran a hand through his hair the same way Daniel did, and told him, “Your mother was just so hard to live with. It got to the point we couldn’t go an hour without snapping at each other. We were young and we’d hardly been together before she said she was having you and I knew she’d gotten pregnant on purpose, see, to trap me, and here was me still making an effort and she just kept throwing it back in my face.”

Walter gave a small nod because that sounded like his mother.

Charlie added, “I did want you though. I wanted to be a good dad.”

There had been many times as a child that Walter had tortured himself with daydreams about his father coming back. He’d done it curled under his thin bedcovers as a toddler waiting for the noise from the next room to stop, he done it as the skinny, smelly little boy none of the other children at his school had played with and he’d even done it at Charlton. It had always happened the same way: his father would walk in being unmistakably his father. He’d offer Walter his hand and Walter would take it and they’d walk off together into a future that Walter had never troubled to shape, knowing that it was as unreachable and unimaginable as heaven.

In all the fantasies, his father had had shorter hair.

Walter had given up daydreaming around the time he had left Charlton. He had scraped himself through his train wreck of a childhood without the man by then. Indulgence in imaginings was no longer needed. He hadn’t been bitter, held no blame for the man (he would have left himself if he could). He had known instinctively that his father was a good man because no good man would want to stay with his mother. But now, sitting opposite his fantasy incarnate, he realised that on some level he’d come to understand one unavoidable truth: The minimum requirement of being a good father was physical presence. He managed, “I thought you were in the army.”

His father shrugged. “Yeah, for a time.”

Walter relaxed slightly. He hadn’t been wrong then: his father was a veteran, a national hero. He pictured the man in combat, doing his duty bravely and felt a shiver of pride at their tenuous connection. He suddenly liked the fact that they were so obviously related, that anyone glancing over would instantly recognise them as father and son. He added, “She told me you argued about President Truman.”

His father chuckled. “Yeah, him and every other fella under the sun.” Seeing Walter’s frown Charlie added, “She always had the eye. No disrespect to her, it’s just the truth. She was one of those women, it was just her nature. Flighty. Not made for marriage and kids.”

Walter felt that was a tremendous understatement. He watched as his father called the waitress over again and shared a joke with her as he ordered more drinks. Walter only realised belatedly that his father had ordered alcohol for both of them and tried to protest, but his father waved a reassuring hand. “Come on, if you can’t have a drink when your old man finds you at last, when can you?”

When a selection of shot glasses filled with amber liquid arrived, Charlie tipped two into the ice-cube-riddled coke. Walter watched it filter down to his original drink, wondering if there was any way to politely refuse it. His father nudged the glass closer and raised his own in a toast. “Here’s to family. Back together at last.”

Walter copied the movement, touched his glass to his father’s. His father seemed to wait for him to drink so he did, reluctantly. The alcohol tasted foul. Managing to keep from grimacing even to the extent that he did was an achievement, one that his father acknowledged with an affectionate chuckle, reaching over to ruffle his hair. Walter froze but his father didn’t seem to notice.

“There” Charlie murmured, “I might have had my share of screw ups but at least I got to buy you a drink. You’re a good kid Walter. I knew you’d turn out all right.”

Walter blushed.

His father selected his next shot with a connoisseur’s flamboyance. “I even thought maybe you’d turn out better if I wasn’t around.”

“Oh?” All the reassurances that that would never have been the case built and died in Walter’s mind. There was no use dwelling on that now.

“Yeah, seeing as we were fighting all the time. Couldn’t agree on anything: politics, work, even what to watch on goddamn TV. And she wouldn’t let me near her after she got pregnant. It was no relationship.”

Walter blushed again.

His father downed another shot and asked, “How’s she doing anyway?”

Walter swallowed. Briefly, it crossed his mind to tell his father exactly what had happened but he didn’t. It was too gruesome a story for this occasion. “She’s dead.”

“Shame” replied his father, in much the same tone most people would use to say it was a shame the weather was bad. He pushed another shot glass towards Walter. “Come on, have another. You look like you could use it.”

xxx xxx

A few hours and more than a few shots later, and the sidewalk swayed beneath them like a rope bridge. Walter was vaguely aware that they were weaving from side to side in a zigzag pattern, but he couldn’t think how to right their course while still holding his father up. The man sagged against him, an arm over his shoulder, whispering.

“…knew you’d turn out okay, knew you’d be better off without me. And then she moved, the bitch moved you and I couldn’t find you. Not ‘till this…Found you…read it in the paper…”

“Hrm” Walter wondered who else would find him.

He didn’t like being drunk. He couldn’t think why anyone did this for fun. He was intensely aware that they had made themselves vulnerable. Stupid.

Stupid but at the same time he felt warm. His whole body was warm and his thoughts flowed warmly through his stupefied brain. He loved the man beside him. The alcohol had thawed all his frosty misgivings.

Charlie stumbled against him, murmuring, “Steady son, steady”

Walter squinted at the buildings around them, trying to recognise his new apartment block. High up windows wavered in and out of focus. It made him feel sick.

“You okay, son?”

“Fine”

“Booze catchin’ up with you?” His father patted him sympathetically, missing his shoulder and getting his head, which didn’t help the situation.

“Serves me right.” Walter shifted sideways until his shoulder was in the right place for his father to reach it. “Shouldn’t have become intozica…introxica…drunk”

“’M drunk too” his father pointed out.

“You’re a hational nero. Different” Walter spotted a likely looking building. “This way. We have to be quiet or we’ll wake the neighbours.” Distantly, Walter was aware that that would be truly shameful.

Somehow, they reached Walter’s front door. Walter found he couldn’t remember how. He leant his swaying father against a wall and searched his pocket for his keys. Once he found it, it took him several attempts to get it in the lock. “You’ll have to stay the night” he told his father, and then regretted how unfriendly that sounded. He tried, “I’d like it if you could stay.”

“Yeah” Charlie staggered over the threshold and weaved his way to the empty living room, leaving Walter to struggle with the latch.

Once he’d secured the premises for the night, Walter trailed after his father. He found him lying on the floor with his arms crossed under his head. “There’s a bed” Walter told him. “If you like”

“Nah” replied the older man. “I’m good here. You can have it.”

Walter shook his head. “You’re the guest.”

“I’m not the guest, kid, I’m your old pa. I don’t need any special treatment.”

He had no idea, Walter realised, how badly he’d been missed. How the absence of him had been a void, how Walter had conjured him up time and again as a sort of talisman and how the very least he deserved was a bed. He wanted to say all that but it came out as, “I’ll get you some water.”

“Thanks son. You’re a good kid.”

Walter poured two glasses and returned to hand one to his father. Then he sat down against the opposite wall and drained his own sloppily, spilling part of it down his front. Charlie smiled at him. “I’m glad I found you, Walter. You’re doing great. Look at you. Like me but better.”

Walter shook his head again. He couldn’t possibly be said to be better. In the morning he knew he’d feel ashamed about getting drunk but right now the man sitting on the floor across from him was the best father on the planet. He returned his father’s smile and found it hard to keep the grin from stretching too wide for his face.

“And you got my hair” Charlie added. “Sorry about that”

Walter shrugged. He’d never given the colour of his hair much thought. But it was fortunate, he realised, that they looked so alike, or… “It’s good we look the same. Or it would have been harder for you to find me. You wouldn’t have known it was me when I opened the door.” He felt awkward that he hadn’t been looking for his father himself, that he had waited like a helpless child to be found. But where could he have started?

His father dismissed his concern with a wave. “Nah, I knew already.” Seeing Walter’s confusion he explained, “I met you once. Didn’t she say?”

Walter felt his eyes grow wide. Charlie nodded. “Yeah back in…back in…’52? ’53? Something like that. You wouldn’t remember, you were teeny.” He held up his hand to indicate toddler-Walter’s diminutive height.

“You came back?” Walter heard the wonder in his voice but didn’t feel it. All he felt was numb. Maybe that was the liquor.

“Yeah, I was in the city for a few days and I ended up thinking about you and Sylvia. Wondering how you were, feeling bad about leaving, you know. I guess maybe I thought I could give it another go. For your sake.”

He had gone back, Walter thought. Back to his mother, back to the mouth of the dragon, for his sake. With the intention of staying. To condemn himself to a life of misery. Just for him. “I don’t remember.” Even as he said it, he tried to remember. His mind scrawled through grim memories, searching. He felt pathetic suddenly, tearful. He reminded himself that alcohol was a depressant and forced himself to focus on the present and show only a neutral expression. The patheticness passed.

“Well you wouldn’t remember, son. You were only little.” His father laughed suddenly. “I knew she hadn’t cheated straight away though! You were like looking back in time. Just like me, you were. In character too” Charlie nodded at Walter’s expectant face. “I ended up staying a couple of weeks. Me and Sylvie, we rekindled things a bit. And you were just like me, it was uncanny.”

Walter wondered briefly why his mother hadn’t told him any of this. Probably she hadn’t wanted him to try to find his father and tell him how she was failing as a mother.

Charlie was leaning back against the far wall, smiling sleepily at him. “One time” he said, “You woke up in the night and came in to our room. And we were…well, you know” (Walter blushed furiously) “and she tried to send you back to bed and I tried to send you back to bed, and you weren’t budging. So in the end I slapped you – not hard, mind, just the way a father should discipline his son – only you were sleepy and you just toppled right over. I thought oh shit, I broke the kid but then you were back on your feet and you looked at me – looked right at me, not crying – and you said to me, ‘That didn’t hurt’!” Charlie chuckled, “And I knew then how tough you were! You were only this high, squaring up to me! Just like me you were, a fighter. Tenacious. So I said to Sylvia, I said, this kid ain’t going anywhere, we might as well call it a night, and I put you in bed with us.”

Walter felt his expression falter to confusion. Part of him couldn’t help but feel surprised at how readily his father had disciplined such a young child but it was easy to ignore that in the floaty, fuzzy, drunken world they found themselves in. Besides it wasn’t a young child, it was him. So that didn’t matter.

Part of him was proud to have impressed his father, even back then.

He asked, “Why didn’t you stay?”

His father shrugged. “She wouldn’t let me. And I had work waiting for me back in Chicago so…”

“You could have taken me with you.” Walter hated how needy that sounded.

“Not then I couldn’t” came the reply. “I mean think about it, think about you’re life before this big win. Sewing sweaters or whatever it was. Were you earning enough for a kid? Could you have worked and had time to look after one? And been even halfway decent at it?”

The answers, of course, were no, no and no. But before Walter could reassure his father that he understood, the man was speaking again: “I’m not trying to downplay it though; I know I screwed up. I came back later to try and fix it but she’d moved out with you. Hadn’t told any of the neighbours where you was going. No word left for me. Bitch.”

“She was murdered. With Drano.”

“Good”

Walter couldn’t judge him for saying it.

xxx xxx

Dan glanced over at Rorschach for the umpteenth time that night. Rorschach had actually been late for patrol, which was really unlike him, and he’d been quiet all night too. Not quiet his usual, brutally efficient self in combat either, if Dan was honest (which he’d never dare be out loud about that). “Everything okay?” he asked, trying to sound so casual that even answering was optional.

In Archie’s passenger seat, Rorschach grunted and it wasn’t one of his non-verbal words, it was the noise he made when he woke suddenly. He’d fallen asleep under the mask and Dan’s question had woken him. Dan was now officially worried. “What’s going on, man?”

“Nothing”

“Come on, you’ve been distracted all night. Has something happened? Anything on your mind?”

“No”

“You’re not sick are you?”

“No Daniel”

“Are you sure?” Now that Dan thought about it, he realised Rorschach had been moving gingerly.

“Obviously I’m sure.”

“Injured then?”

Rorschach made a warning noise. Dan tried again. “Come on buddy. You know I’ll just worry all night if you don’t tell me.”

“It’s morning” Rorschach pointed out.

“I can still worry in the morning! How about you just tell me what’s up?”

“Nothing’s ‘up’” replied Rorschach, the inverted commas audible, as though Dan should be above using such language.

“You know I’ll worry.”

“I didn’t ask you to worry.”

“But you know I will.”

Rorschach sighed. “I’m just…tired. There’s no reason to worry, Daniel.”

“Tired?” Dan hoped Rorschach had been sleeping and eating properly. Or as close to properly as he got. “You’re taking care of yourself aren’t you?”

“Yes”

“Okay then.” Dan didn’t bother keeping the doubt from his voice.

Whatever had been going on with Rorschach lately, it was still going on. For one thing he was definitely working less. Or not at all. He often turned up for patrol early now, with information about cases that couldn’t possibly have come from his workplace (unless he was moonlighting as a gangster these days). What the hell had happened to his day job? Dan had spent years wishing Rorschach didn’t have to work it so that his partner could have enough time to do something as basic as sleep, but now he worried that Rorschach was leaving no space in his life for anything but crime fighting. That couldn’t be healthy. Casually, he asked, “So are you tired from work?”

“No” There was a thoughtful pause. Then, in the tone of someone who suspected they were sharing too much, Rorschach added, “A social engagement”

“Oh” So much for not having anything else in his life. Dan knew he was meant to be happy that Rorschach was having fun outside of patrol, but all he managed to feel was jealous that someone else got to hang out with Rorschach out of uniform and he didn’t.

Then an unlikely idea occurred. “A date?”

“No Daniel!” This in such an outraged tone that you’d think Dan had accused him of public nudity or something. “I had a visit from…it’s not important.”

“Uh huh. Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to pry”

The flew on in silence until something about the tentative way Rorschach had been moving raised an association in Dan’s mind that was familiar from his college days. He burst out, “Wait a minute! Rorschach, are you…hungover?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth Dan regretted them. After all, he knew Rorschach didn’t drink.

But then again, Rorschach wasn’t denying it and his body language suddenly looked very defensive.

“Oh my God, you are hungover!” Dan started to laugh.

“Don’t see what’s so amusing Daniel.”

“Oh don’t you?” Dan pulled off his goggles to wipe his eyes, “You realise the last time I was hungover you practically didn’t talk to me for a week? And now you’re just as bad!”

“The last time you were hungover, you missed patrol.”

“Yeah, like you should have done!” Dan’s laughter died at the thought of how miserable patrolling with the sort of headache a bad hangover could cause had to be. “Have you taken aspirin?”

“I haven’t taken anything. I deserve it.”

“No you don’t. Everyone has too much to drink at least once in their lives.” Everyone except Rorschach, Dan thought. Rorschach never usually touched a drop of alcohol. Even the offer of one lousy celebratory beer from Dan after a big success was always turned down. Who had visited and overridden that unshakable teetotalism? “Was it a special occasion?”

“Very”

“But a happy one, right?”

“Yes Daniel”

But Dan heard an undercurrent in the words of something else, something uncertain. Something vulnerable, even. He shook his head. There was definitely something going on with his partner. And he wished he knew what.

xxx xxx

Walter had spent far too long wishing for a father to allow himself to be discouraged by an admittedly significant gap between fantasy and reality. After all, what had he expected, really? Not to ever have a real, in-the-flesh father at all is what. Charlie was better than that howling absence just by showing up.

Charlie was a real person, not the perfect, unsullied being born of a child’s imagination. He had flaws, like any man, and the flaws proved he was real. His father was a man who had lived in the world, and been tarnished by it. The tarnishing just showed that he had worked hard and done his duty. Like the Comedian, he could be forgiven his moral lapses.

Walter managed to avoid accepting any more alcohol after that first reunion, and that seemed to rein the man in a bit.

They met many times after the first reunion. They talked or, more often, his father talked and Walter listened. They agreed on many things, even had the same taste in reading material (“At least we did back when I read” his father chuckled), sport (“Definitely boxing” Charlie agreed, “You can’t beat seeing it live”) and how to defend matters of principle (“You’re not a man until you’ve stood up for something. Some people just have it coming”).

They always met (at least once a week now) at Walter’s apartment and then headed out to a restaurant or bar. Walter always paid, naturally. It was easy to see that his father was living in similar conditions to those he had been living in before he picked up the ticket. Sometimes Walter attempted to phrase an offer of financial help but it never got past his lips. He couldn’t think how to offer to do what was really only his duty as a son without sounding presumptive or patronising.

Charlie hadn’t told him where he lived or worked (if he worked, part of Walter cynically wondered). Actually he hadn’t really shared much about his present life at all. Most of his stories stopped a few years short of the present. Walter knew he had worked as a security guard up until five years previously, but he didn’t know how long for. He didn’t know how long his father had been in the army, though he was starting to get the impression it wasn’t more than a few years. There were gaps in the patched-together story of his father’s life, entire years that the man hadn’t mentioned.

But Walter told himself not to focus on that. After all, it wasn’t as if he wasn’t keeping his own secrets. He hadn’t told his father about Rorschach. He hadn’t told him about Charlton either. His father seemed to think that he had lived with his mother until early adulthood and he saw no reason to tell him otherwise, given that that would involve explaining exactly how things had been for him growing up with his mother. That would only make his father feel guilty and he had no reason to be. After all, he was here now.

Walter wasn’t particularly clear what he should call him. “Father” seemed too formal for his father’s tastes (Walter was coming to understand that his father was quite an inform person, contrary to his childhood assumptions) and “Charlie” too informal for his own. As for “dad” he wasn’t really sure how he felt about that word. “Pa” was a ridiculous word for an adult to use. Once he had tried “sir”, the name his childhood fantasy father had always insisted on and which had provoked a reel of laughter from the real one. Walter asked, “What should I call you then?” and Charlie replied, “Whatever you like, son. Whatever you like.”

Charlie had had no trouble deciding how to address him. He invariably called him “son” and Walter found part of himself waiting pathetically like a dog for titbits for the man to use the word each time they met. It was the same unfortunate way he’d waited for Daniel to say “buddy” when they were first partnered. It was a word that reinforced belonging.

Walter had thought he’d long ago grown out of needing a parental approval that he had never expected to get. But he was wrong. Whenever his father smiled at him, he felt pride strum through every fibre of his soul.

xxx xxx

It was his father’s idea to buy furniture. Otherwise, Walter might have taken years to get around to it. Between investigations, patrol and family reunion, the idea of a personal gym in the living room had shifted to the back of his mind. It had taken Charlie suggesting that they go shopping to prompt him to think about it for the first time in weeks.

Somehow they had ended up in a big, out-of-town showroom that catered to people who didn’t find it odd to pay the sort of money for a coffee table that Walter used to spend on rent. Walter wondered how his father knew about this place.

“Son” the man was saying, “You’ve got to get it into your head that you can afford this stuff now.”

“Just because I can afford it doesn’t mean I need it” replied Walter.

“Come on! You’re meant to be living the dream! You’re meant to have a penthouse! And there’s you still sleeping in a single bed! At your age!”

Walter sighed because he knew what was coming next. Sure enough his father added, “What if your lady friend comes over?”

“I don’t have a lady friend.” Walter hated that he still blushed whenever the conversation took this turn.

“So why are you never around for a drink in the evening then?” His father smiled knowingly. “See, you’re blushing! Now if you really want to impress this girl, get this one” Charlie lay down on a huge bed with a fish tank built around the headboard. “See, when you lie back, it’s like you’re underwater.”

Walter eyed the thing. Surely the tank would cloud up after a while? He couldn’t think why it would impress a woman even if there really was one.

His father was so certain that his unavailability during night time hours was down to improper liaisons that Walter starting to seriously consider telling him about Rorschach just to make it clear that he didn’t have a “lady friend”, as the man insisted on calling it. As if something as pure as friendship would be involved.

Temptation aside, part of him still held back. He had to preserve his identity and the best way to do that was for no-one to know it. Even Daniel didn’t know it. If anyone had to, shouldn’t it be Daniel first? And even Daniel – who wasn’t as cautious with his identity as Walter would have liked – hadn’t told his parents about Nite Owl.

But Rorschach was the best part of Walter. Didn’t he owe it to his father to show him the best part of himself?

He tended to think of himself in terms of parts a lot these days. Since his change in circumstances he had found himself increasingly divided. It was disorientating.

Whether he told his father about Rorschach or not, in the middle of a furniture showroom was not the place for it. Suddenly Charlie caught sight of the disapproving expression on the face of a salesman coming towards them and slipped quickly off the bed. A playful expression on his face, he ushered Walter to an adjourning room. “You’d better hurry up and decide, son, or we’ll out stay our welcome. Are you getting the fish bed?”

“No. I don’t have time to clean it. The fish would die.”

“Shit, just hire a cleaner! You don’t have to think about that stuff now!”

Briefly, Walter considered hiring a cleaner (it would provide someone with useful employment) and dismissed the idea (it would compromise his identity to give anyone that level of insight into his habits). He shook his head. He wished his father wouldn’t swear, or at least not so loudly, but he tried to overlook it. His father was overlooking his unfriendly reticence after all.

They were now in room full of stupidly extravagant smaller items – chairs, side tables, lamps, all looking like someone had stolen them from Adrian Veidt – and works of art. Charlie went straight up to a chair that had a marble walrus sticking out the back of it and sat down grinning in his shabby layers, looking like a scruffy Poseidon.

Walter shook his head pre-emptively and cast a glare around the room. They had been here an hour now, and he was impatient to leave. He could have been out looking for Thomas Vach if his father hadn’t dragged him here.

He took a moment to enjoy the novelty of having a father to drag him to places he was reluctant to visit. Every time they met he noticed something else he hadn’t had before.

None of this furniture was something he would buy. It wasn’t that Walter didn’t have any appreciation for beauty in functional items. On the contrary he understood that aesthetics was one way that the human race separated itself from the animal kingdom. He wouldn’t be a fully functioning human if he couldn’t see Archie’s sleek grace and practical power simultaneously. But most of the things on sale here were overblown and overpriced, being marketed to people who wanted to be seen to be spending money, no matter what on.

“So” Charlie asked, “What are you getting?”

“Nothing”

His father snorted. “You can’t spend the rest of your life with no couch. Get a couch at least.”

Walter turned to take in more of the room (and to avoid noticing exactly where his father had just started to scratch himself) and replied, “I was going to get training equipment for the living room”

“What? Exercise bike and that? Just join a gym.”

“Hrm” That hadn’t occurred to Walter. Maybe that would arouse less suspicion than getting gym equipment delivered to the apartment. But how many times could you visit a gym in a week before you’d marked yourself out as a possible mask?

Maybe if he made the living room comfortable his father would spend more time there instead of going to bars. He could get a fold-out bed for when the man stayed over. When he had last considered his living arrangements, he hadn’t accounted for family. “Possibly”

Walter had never actually bought a piece of furniture before. His bed was about to be thrown in a skip when he’d offered it a home and the rest of it had been donated or found or made in Charlton’s woodwork class before he moved out.

As though he could sense Walter’s unease, his father murmured, “Hey, don’t freak out about it. How about you just get one thing and then we can get out of here?”

“Or nothing. Wasted enough time here.”

“So just buy something already and we can go get a drink! Come on, you deserve to treat yourself.”

Walter couldn’t think why. He hadn’t done anything remotely useful today. He had woken up, been called on by his father and gone shopping. Whatever Thomas Vach was doing right now, he wasn’t being apprehended.

His father was watching him expectantly though. Walter couldn’t fathom why the man wanted to watch him buy something he didn’t need but by that point, he just wanted to get out of there so he obliged him by at least considering what was on offer. Miserly as it seemed on some level, instinct had him searching for whatever was cheapest. He walked past the ridiculous chairs and quickly dismissed shelving that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be storage or art. Next he looked at actual art, or at least at items that claimed the title. The paintings and sculptures were all either bland or, in the case of a few indecent images, shocking. Nothing in between. There were modern, abstract things that meant nothing and which a child could draw. There were a few animal sculptures that didn’t really look like animals and a few that were trying hard to be what Daniel would call cute – big eyed creatures designed to provoke mawkish emotions. Walter shook his head. There was nothing for him here. He looked over to his father, who was fidgeting in the walrus chair, and decided the man’s strange desire to get him to spend money had probably been superseded by boredom by now. Maybe he could be persuaded to come to a park or café or anywhere other than a bar. Walter stepped towards him when an object reflected in a mirror in a corner caught his eye.

Walter didn’t need a “treat” but he knew someone who deserved a reward.

The fifth thing Walter bought with the money was a gift.

xxx xxx

When Rorschach appeared at the entrance to the tunnel, Dan was at an unfortunate stage in the process of pulling his costume on. Rorschach stopped short and lingered in the shadows, staring awkwardly at his feet. Dan rolled his eyes as he pulled his costume up over his legs. “It’s just an ass, buddy. Everyone has one.”

“You could have changed in the bathroom, Daniel.”

“In my own house? No thanks.”

“You knew I was coming. Should have changed upstairs.”

“Well I didn’t. You’re just going to have to be scarred by the knowledge that I’m not held together with wires under my clothes.” Dan slipped the last of his armour into place and grinned at his partner’s embarrassment. “Hey, what’s that?”

Rorschach seemed to remember the newspaper-coated bundle under his arm. He held it out, looking a little like a cat presenting a dead mouse and a little like a child handing over a clumsily handmade Mother’s Day present. Dan asked again, “What is it?”

“For you” Rorschach shook it a bit, apparently keen to get rid of it. “Just a…take it, Daniel”

Dan took it, frowning. He really hoped he hadn’t missed the anniversary of a big bust or something. “What’s the occasion?” He turned it over in his hands. It was hard and spiky and weirdly shaped. It was wrapped in yellowing pages of the New Frontiersman.

“Nothing” replied Rorschach. He seemed suddenly very interested in his own shoes. “I just saw it. Thought you might like it.”

“I’ll say!” Dan pulled away the newspaper covering to reveal the owl.

If someone had been tasked with designing a gift for Dan Dreiburg specifically, they couldn’t have come up with anything better than this. The owl was a bronzy, coppery colour broken here and there with patches of green, red and silver like a pattern of vaned feathers. It appeared at first glance to be constructed using random loops and twists of metal but, looking more closely, Dan saw cogs, old circuit boards and dissected pieces of typewriters. The owl was made out of reclaimed machinery. Smiling, Dan tilted it from side to side, studying the details. The wings were tipped with blunted scissor blades. The pupils were the ends of spent batteries ringed with hollowed out kitchen light bulbs. Dan could stare at this all night and keep on noticing new things. The little screws and bolts that created the impression of the supercilium, the trimmings of copper wire at the breast, the contorted forks that formed the claws. “Rorschach…this is just incredible.”

Rorschach shifted where he stood, bunching his fists deeper into his pockets. “Just thought you might like it.”

“Well I do. I love it.”

If anything, this assurance only seemed to make Rorschach feel more awkward. He glanced down the tunnel as if wondering how to suggest they abandon Dan’s present and go on patrol. Dan examined the owl again, ignoring Rorschach’s plight. “Whoever made this obviously knew a lot about owls. You see how the different layers of coverts on the wings are distinct? Where did you find this?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just thought…Daniel, you should put it down now or we’ll be late.” Rorschach’s was practically squirming now and it crossed Dan’s mind that his partner might have been able to deal with gift-giving better if Dan had rejected his present. It was gratitude and affection that he didn’t know how to handle. Watching his partner grow more restless and uncomfortable, Dan wondered when the last time Rorschach gave or received a significant gift was. He had a tendency to find his way, giftless, to Dan’s house at Christmas and though he always managed something for Dan’s birthday, it was usually a Mars Bar. As for gifts Rorschach had received, Dan was pretty certain his partner had no family and he hadn’t really given Dan any opportunities to give him anything. He’d always refused to say when his birthday was. Dan had sometimes been tempted to just pick a date and call it Rorschach’s birthday until his stubborn friend told him his real one but the unavoidable inequality in their incomes had held him back. It would be mean not to get Rorschach a decent present but unfair to get him one that cost enough that he couldn’t reciprocate. So Dan had just been thankful for his Mars Bars and the only thing he’d ever given Rorschach in return was the grappling gun, which didn’t really count because it was for patrol.

Obviously Dan wondered how Rorschach had funded this beautiful present, but he’d been raised too well to ask something like that.

Still clutching his metal owl in one hand, he pulled Rorschach into a half-hug with the other. “Thank you, buddy. This is brilliant.”

“Hrn” Rorschach bristled. “Just thought you’d like it. I wouldn’t have got it if I’d known it would make us this late.”

“Well what did you expect? This is about the most perfect gift for me! Obviously I’m not just going to drop it and go out on patrol!”

“We could have broken up a fight by now. We could have found Thomas Vach.”

“Wow, you’ve got high hopes for tonight. That guy’s gone to ground.” Dan let his partner go. “Nope, I think I’ve got time to find somewhere to put him.” He headed up the stairs. Rorschach trailed reluctantly after him. “Don’t put it anywhere it will be seen. You’ve got enough owl ornaments compromising you identity already.”

“How about here?”

“People will see it there”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to work out I’m Nite Owl just from the fact I like owls. Lots of people like owls. Anyway I want people to see it, it’s so cool.”

“You might as well have a big sign over the front door saying ‘Nite Owl lives here’. Might as well open your house to the public as a tourist attraction.”

“Well he’s got to go somewhere”

“He?”

Dan held up his gift. “Don’t you think it looks like a he?”

Rorschach shook his head, an I-can’t-believe-you-sometimes shake rather than an Actually-it’s-a-girl shake. “Just put it in the basement.”

“No way. The basement isn’t nice enough for something like this. How about upstairs?”

“Fine, just hurry so we can patrol.”

In the end, Dan chose a spot on the bookshelf in his bedroom, between the childhood favourites he turned to if he couldn’t sleep. The light bulb and battery eyes were fixed on the bed and every time he woke that week the owl was the first thing he looked at. It never failed to be looking back, watching over him.

He called it Rory but Rorschach never had to know that.

xxx xxx

The new apartment being more secure than his old room at Mrs Shairp’s house, Walter kept his Rorschach uniform there. The grappling gun allowed him to come and go unseen from the kitchen window and he was about to do this when there was a knock on the front door.

Walter paused, to see if whoever it was would give up and leave. When the knocking grew more frantic instead, he quickly changed, hid his uniform under the floor boards and hurried to answer.

Before he did, Walter looked through the peep hole. His father was outside, looking back down the hallway.

The moment the door was open Charlie stepped past Walter, looking harried. “Sorry son; I know you’ve probably got a hot date or something.”

“No” Walter didn’t bother with a more detailed denial. His father wouldn’t believe him or would pretend not to. Besides, something was clearly wrong. It had been wrong from the second Charlie had stepped through the doorway, hunched and troubled, all his usual bravado missing. Walter asked, “Something wrong?”

“Hm? No. No. I’m alright. I just…” His father trailed off with a shrug.

Walter gestured him down the corridor to the living room. It now had furniture in it, a pair of sleek but simple wooden chairs, American made. Charlie sank into one of them. “I’m sorry about this” he said again and Walter hadn’t known him long, but he already knew that two apologies in as many minutes was not like his father, not at all. He asked, “What happened?” and the question made him sound like Daniel.

His father shook his head. “It’s nothing.” He glanced at the window and Walter followed his gaze. Remembering the way his father had been staring back down the hallway as he knocked, he asked, “Is someone following you?”

“Shit, I hope not.”

Walter let the curse slide. He was getting good at that. It wasn’t his place to correct his own father’s word choice. He went to the window and looked out on an apparently deserted view. He found himself wishing the street was little closer so he could be sure. “Who would be following you?”

“Oh, no-one. No-one for you to worry about, son.”

“You came here” Walter pointed out.

“Yeah, but…aw, look, forget it. I shouldn’t have come. I’ll just…I’ll go…” Charlie stood uncertainly, his eyes on the window. Walter side stepped, both to show his that the street below was unoccupied and to reach him and place a hand on his shoulder to force him back down. “Who would be following you?” Walter repeated.

For a second the mulish expression on his father’s face gave him further insight into Daniel’s world. Here was a man he wanted only to help, but he wasn’t about to be granted an obvious way of going about that. Then the expression wavered and his father looked defeated. “It’s…shit.” A freckled hand was scrapped across a freckled jaw. “Son, it’s…look, I don’t want you to think badly of me.”

Walter sat down on the other chair and waited. He gave no reassurances because he couldn’t possibly put into words how much better bad was than nothing. He had had nothing real before this very real man had shown up. His childhood father had been a hollow vessel, a fantasy that took all his ideas about what family should be and dutifully embodied them. This man was, for all his faults, real. An actual person that Walter could call family. That was why he’d accepted the man into his life, faults aside.

Charlie grew silent and the silence went on for a long time. Finally his father spoke again: “I just know this is something you’ll hate. You’re just too proper and decent to understand. God knows how, between me and Sylvie.”

This was another opportunity to tell his father about Charlton but Walter didn’t want to sidetrack him with revelations. He said nothing, waited.

Charlie glanced at the window again and that decided Walter about his plans for the night: Charlie would have to stay here his own safety. Regardless of the street outside being empty, his father was obviously scared. Walter couldn’t allow anything to happen to him, not to the only family he had. Daniel would just have to protect the rest of New York unaided for once.

He made coffee. His father took the same amount of sugar as him. Then they sat in silence again for a few sips, after which Charlie reached the limit of his (admittedly small) capacity for silence. He burst out, “Look, it’s nothing illegal!”

“I didn’t imply it was.” Walter set his mug aside. He didn’t feel like drinking, not until he knew what was going on.

“Well you were looking at me like you thought it.” Charlie wrapped his hands around his own mug, leaned in to the steam. Gradually the story slipped out.

It wasn’t illegal. But it was wrong. His father wasn’t in work (Walter wasn’t entirely surprised by this information) and the last job he’d had was years ago, around the time his stories stopped. Naturally expenses hadn’t stopped with income – there had still been rent to pay and his father had still needed to eat. That wasn’t the wrong part. That was expected and unsurprising and understandable. The wrong in this story came next, when Charlie admitted to borrowing money – “To tide me over. Because I was going to find a new job soon, I was really certain of it” – instead of revaluating his spending. The wrong part was the debt that bred debt, interest fattening his father’s burden. The wrong part was the sharks his father had turned to as more reputable lenders turned their backs, except that “sharks” suddenly didn’t seem the right word for them. In their opportunism in the face of a good man’s downfall they were more like vultures.

The story shed, Charlie whispered into the last of the steam, “I’m sorry I didn’t mention this sooner.”

“There was no reason to” Walter managed. “It’s not my…” Walter trailed off because the fact was it was his business. It was his father. He stood up. “How much do you to make them go away?” He would find them, obviously, but until then his father needed to be less of a target.

Charlie shook his head again. “No. No way. I didn’t find you for the money, kid.”

“You thought you’d escaped paying when you left Chicago” Walter agreed. He forced himself to look as disapproving as he felt, just for a moment. Charlie looked suitably chastised. He confirmed the accusation with a nod but insisted, “You don’t have to help me. You don’t owe me anything.”

“I owe you some things. My life for one.”

“Yeah, and that’s about the end of it!” Charlie trawled a hand through his red hair, looking suddenly so weary that the age gap between them seemed to stretch. “Son, I can’t let you buy me out of this. This is my problem.”

“It’s mine too. You’re my father.” It was the first time Walter had called him that out loud.

Charlie sighed deeply. “You’ve really done me proud with the way you’ve turned out, you know that right? I can’t believe I made anyone as good as you.”

Walter ignored the compliment because he didn’t know what else to do with it. “How much?”

The sixth thing Walter did with the money was write a check.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Charlie was gone.

Walter wasn’t too worried by this. His father had been gone the morning after their initial reunion as well. He had offered the bed, but, just as before, his father had insisted on the floor and it wasn’t as if it was comfortable. Not to mention the man had probably wanted to go and cash the check as soon as possible. Walter shook his head at the thought.

He spent the day half heartedly wandering the streets, sticking to undesirable areas and keeping an ear out for information. It was depressing work. The freedom to roam its streets in daylight hours had not raised his opinion of his city. He wondered what Chicago was like.

His father didn’t return the following day either. Walter wouldn’t have worried except that he knew what some of the so-called sharks were capable of.

On the third day he went to the bank and found that the check had been cashed. That eased the worry: his father could pay the thugs off in full before they got violent. Maybe he would come to see him tomorrow.

He didn’t.

On the fifth day Walter walked the streets with more focus, tracking every small time and less small time money lender he’d ever had the misfortune of hearing of. Given his circumstances before his win, he already had a good basis of knowledge. He had always resisted their advances but his former neighbours were not always so wise or so free of dependents – Walter could go without food if need be but if he had had children to care for he might have quickly become as indebted as his father.

There were no complaints among these scum of any competitors coming in from Chicago so Walter guessed that whoever had found his father had been subtle about it. Possibly his father had paid them quickly enough that they had left the city before any of their own could notice them. Possibly he’d even turned to local money lenders to do so before confiding in his son. So it was sharks in the sea of New York who were his next line of investigation.

When night came into play so did Rorschach. His first visit was to one Douglas Decker.

  xxx xxx

Douglas Decker knew his dog was a waste of money. Pedigree Doberman and supposedly from a long line of fighting animals, it was in fact scared of everything from lawnmowers to bees. Not that it mattered much – most of Decker’s clients took one look at it and paid what they owed – but Decker resented what should have been a weapon winding up as a bluff. Especially a bluff that was so expensive to feed. Sometimes he wondered if it would toughen up if it was hungrier.

As they got inside the office, the dog froze at the sight of the main safe and stood there trembling, a coward wrapped in layers of muscle.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Decker asked it. He stepped around the dumb animal and sat down at his desk to count tonight’s takings. Almost all the interest on Shairp’s debt paid this time, but she was bound to come back by the end of the month and ask for more. Some people never learned. Decker shook his head at the thought and his attention was caught again by the idiot dog. Still just standing there. “What? Just lie down, can’t you?”

Even as he said it he frowned. Was that safe…was it open? He’d never be so careless. He stood up and went closer. Yes, definitely open. Damn it.

Decker found his fist clenching. Whoever had stolen from him, they were dead men. He reached out a hand to open the door, to see how bad this was…

…and the next thing he knew he was bent backwards over his desk, his arms trapped in a vice-grip, the money from his safe flying around everywhere like disturbed fall leaves. “Jesus!” His eyes widened as he took in the shifting black and white pattern inches from his face.

“Guess again” the city’s most feared vigilante replied.

“What the fuck do you want? I ain’t done anything!”

The dog – the useless, useless dog that had just stood there and watched up to now – started to bark and Rorschach kicked out at it without even loosening his grip on Decker. Decker doubted the blow connected but the dog immediately shut up and retreated to a corner. Decker felt adrenaline hammer into him: it took someone really dangerous not to fear a dog that size. Unless the guy knew, of course, how pathetic the dog was, unless he’d been following them…Decker shuddered at the thought because this guy was obviously a maniac. How long had been in that safe? It was just creepy.

He was so freaked out that he almost missed the question being put to him. “What?” he managed, “Charlie? Charlie who?” Rorschach was after someone else then. Thank God.

“Red hair” replied the vigilante. “Bearded. Owes you money.”

Fleetingly, it crossed Decker’s mind to say that he had lots of clients called Charlie but he didn’t. He’d heard what this guy did if you messed him around. “Yeah” he stammered, “Yeah I know him”

“Where is he?”

“How should I know?” answered Decker, and then: “Fuck!” because his finger was suddenly in the terrible man’s fist, being bent back unbearably. “Look, I don’t know! I don’t know! Yes, he owed me money but he paid up! He’s history!”

“You hurt him?”

“No, like I said, he paid! All of it, interest and everything!” He guessed that was what the guy was after, that Charlie had done something desperate to get the cash (like he sometimes did) and now he had Rorschach on his tail.

“Where is he now?”

“I don’t know, I swear! Jesus, that hurts! Let me go!”

“You’ve picked an odd time to find Jesus” Rorschach told him, as if anyone still believed in all that except when their fingers were about to be snapped in half. “When was Charlie here?”

“A couple of days ago! He paid up and left and that’s all I know, I swear!”

“You must know more: his address? Where he goes every day? What’s his last name?”

So Decker told him Charlie’s last name. He told him everything he knew about the guy, from the bars he went to, to the toughs he called friends. It wasn’t snitching. That was an unwritten rule amongst those with a, well, a less mainstream profession: it didn’t count as snitching if Rorschach got it out of you. If they had to ostracise everyone who blabbed to Rorschach, they’d never get anything else done.

As he spoke, Decker tried to meet Rorschach’s eyes but the shifting mask made that impossible. His gaze slid about following inky patterns, unable to fix on one spot. Unable to make eye contact, he was unable to assert any lingering shred of defiance and maybe that was why Rorschach finally loosened his grip and stood with his gloved hand at his chin, obviously deep in thought. Decker’s eyes darted to the desk drawer he kept his switchblade in. Rorschach cuffed him lazily across the face, sending him reeling.

Decker groaned and braced himself for more but Rorschach was already stalking out. Thank God again. Alone, he expelled the air from his lungs in one long rush and sank to his knees, peeling himself from the desk. In the corner, the dog whined. Decker reached for it mechanically and it shrank back until it realised it was being forgiven just this once. After all, you didn’t have to be a coward to be scared of Rorschach.

 xxx xxx 

The next day found Walter still deep in thought, pacing the city because this level of pacing needed more space than even his new apartment provided.

Decker’s information hadn’t slotted in with what Charlie had said and that unnerved him for reasons that were clamouring for attention that he didn’t want to give. Yet he couldn’t think about anything else.

Decker didn’t have Charlie’s address which implied that the payment wasn’t urgently sought. Men like Decker found out where you lived when they wanted you to pay up. So why his father’s sense of urgency?

He’d perused Decker’s log before secreting himself in the safe. Again, the information gained contradicted the situation as he’d understood it from his father. His father did owe Decker money, quite a lot, but nowhere near as much as his father had eventually asked for.

But that meant nothing, surely? Walter didn’t begrudge Charlie whatever he needed. Chances were he owed money to other sharks, not just Decker. That was something to look into.

It said a lot about the situation that he wanted his father to be in debt to more of these men, just so that story could be collaborated by the likes of them.

It said a lot that he’d just thought of it as his father’s story, as something potentially fictional.

If his father was in debt to other New York money lenders, then how long exactly had he been in the city? He had implied that he had just returned to New York. If that wasn’t the case, why had it taken him so long to find his son?

Unless he hadn’t had a reason to find him before.

No. Walter pushed that thought from his mind.

He was sitting at a bus stop now, pedestrians wandering past. He was background scenery in their lives, a redheaded nobody sitting alone.

What really bothered him, what really chewed at his mind whenever he tried to think about something else, what really pulled at his attention like a disaster that he couldn’t look away from, was the names of the people Decker had alleged Charlie knew.

They weren’t nice people.

Many Rorschach knew from Happy Harry’s bar, the sort of lowlife crooks that causally committed bothersome antisocial crimes as an automatic part of their lives. Pathetic but relatively harmless, most of them, in the way one drop of water is harmless to a cliff face being slowly eroded by the waves. Most were beneath his attention most of the time. But some of them were nastier than that. Chris the Trick, for example. He was a pimp that Silk Spectre put away two months ago. Decker had talked as if he and Charlie were somehow associated, almost as if they were friends but that couldn’t be. His father was what might politely be termed a man of the world, a man jaded as many veterans are, a man with a pragmatic streak that might sometimes overshadow principle. But there was a big difference between that and tolerating the company of a man who traded in human misery and animal lust. Walter knew his father well enough by now to know that he would never (knowingly) associate with such a man.

But did he know him? If he had lied about how much money he needed or why, what else had he lied about?

And how could Walter sit here and think about lying? He couldn’t possibly trust Decker’s word over his own father’s. He just needed more information, and then it would all make sense.

And, most importantly, he’d know where his father was. Whatever else was true, he was still horrified at the thought of anything happening to the man. 

xxx xxx

Six days passed, seven. He avoided Daniel, focusing on his own investigations over routine patrols. No new information turned up. Decker, it seemed, was the only shark in the sea who had dealings with his father.

His father who had now been away for longer than he had ever been since their reunion. Walter had nightmares that the man was angry with him, that he had left in disgust. He had no real evidence to the contrary.

How could he not know the man’s address? And why had it taken Decker for him to even know his own father’s full name? He had berated his mother for that and then he had done exactly the same thing.

Maybe he and his mother were both gullible fools.

Except that even that thought, that flickering implication even within his own mind that he should side with the whore, it made his skin crawl. It was disloyal. His father was the parent he could count on. And his father, for all he knew, was counting on him. He was missing. He needed to be found. It was Walter’s turn to do the finding. He just needed a lead.

 xxx xxx

Nine days passed. Ten. All Rorschach’s searching for a lead turned up was more unsavoury characters. Rorschach had been a mask long enough by now that he could tell the difference between someone disappearing because someone had hurt them and someone disappearing because they didn’t want to be found. Searching for Charlie, he found no evidence that Charlie had been harmed. It should have made him happy but all he could think was, if Charlie was safe why hadn’t he visited yet?      

The more he discovered about Charlie’s habits and associates, the more of the squalid underbelly of the city he found himself in.    

Who was his father, really? Suddenly Walter saw all the hypocrisies in the man’s account of himself. He had said that he’d been unable to find Walter until the limited publicity surrounding the lottery win, but now it turned out that they’d been in the same city for years. So how hard had the man been searching, really? His father was a clever man. Surely he could have found him sooner? His father had explained that he’d left Walter with his mother because he couldn’t afford to care for a child. But what had made him think that his mother could? His mother was “flighty” yet it was Charlie who’d fled. His father had accused his mother of having the eye for other men, yet he’d also – much as Walter hated to think about it – complained that his mother hadn’t been interested in copulation with him once she was pregnant. Wasn’t there a contradiction there? Had his mother been too flirtatious or too distant? It couldn’t be both. And was expecting a pregnant woman to go to bed with anyone really the act of an honourable man?

Walter walked the streets, these thoughts churning in his mind, loyalty and doubt chasing each others’ tails in his brain like two snakes, wrestling and squirming.

His father had been young, there was no avoiding that. He had made mistakes. He had returned to make amends. Walter reminded himself for the third or fourth time that day (that hour) that maybe what should be concerning him was not his father’s long ago actions but his more recent ones. The people he had dealings with, for one.

It was becoming had to dismiss the evidence that his father was in a bad crowd. Had that been because of the debt? Had he turned to petty crime to pay it off? It didn’t seem likely. Charlie hadn’t even been in debt very long. Maybe it was because of the obvious poverty his father was grappling with.

Or maybe, justifications aside, it was because that was how his father had chosen to live his life.

Now Walter sighted yet another sleazy bar at the end of the street. Miserable as he was from days of this disheartening cycle, he might not even have gone in had it not started to rain, turning the world an ugly grey. Resigning himself to another day spent in the company of delinquents, he went inside.

 xxx xxx

“Finally!” exclaimed Dan, when he came into his kitchen to find Rorschach sat at the table, his gloved hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. “I was beginning to think our partnership was over!” It had been nearly two weeks – Two. Weeks. – and he had been spiralling from annoyed to worried to frantic.

Rorschach looked up slowly from his mug and that was when Dan registered how hunched his shoulders were. He was slumped at the table and must have come in so quietly he’d managed to make himself a drink without Dan even hearing him. In a dull tone he replied, “I don’t know why you’d think that, Daniel. I’ve been absent before.”

“Not for half a month, you haven’t!”

“It wasn’t half a month. It was ten days.”

“Eleven” Dan snarled. “Today counts” Today was the day he’d had to talk himself out of searching the hospitals on the grounds he didn’t even know his friend’s real name. Today counted.

Rorschach made a sound that indicated he wasn’t going to argue any further, something he only normally did after at least three hours of argument.

Frowning now, Dan took a seat opposite. “You couldn’t have let me know not to expect you? Because I was going out of my mind her –”

“I said I’ve been absent before, Daniel. I don’t see wh –”

“How about because I care about you?”

Rorschach was silent at that. Every impulse in Dan told him to forgive and make peace but he held out for an apology. Eventually his partner murmured, “Sorry Daniel. Didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Just make sure you call next time, okay? I mean, damn it, Rorschach! Two weeks!”

Rorschach started to say something that sounded suspiciously like “ten days” but stopped when he saw Dan’s expression. Finally Dan relented with, “Right. Well. You’re here now. Are you okay?”

“Fine” This in a tone of voice that said not fine.

“Are you sure? Where have you been?”

“Nowhere important” Rorschach stared down at his coffee and the steam made inky ripples in his hitched up mask. Considering he only pulled the mask up to drink, it was odd that he hadn’t taken so much as a sip yet. “I have a lead on Thomas Vach” he added.

“Really?” Dan forgot briefly about his two weeks of worry until he realised, “Wait: you were looking for him? Why didn’t you just tell me?”

“I wasn’t looking for him” Rorschach clarified. “I just found him. Or might have.”

“Oh.” Much as he was keen to arrest Vach, Dan was much more interested in what Rorschach had actually been looking for while he was gone. “So what were you doing? Were you working a case?”

“No”

Dan frowned. Did that mean Rorschach had gone two weeks with no vigilante work? That was seriously unlike him. Then again, he’d definitely heard rumours during the course of his own (solo) patrols that Rorschach had been all over the city causing trouble for the loan sharks. Caught between not wanting false hope (what if the stories were just that? What if Rorschach wasn’t out and about and causing trouble? What if he was in trouble?) and not wanting to believe his partner was happily patrolling without him (had he done something wrong?), Dan had tried not to listen to whispers too vague to help him find his friend. All those rumours crashed back in on him now. If there was no case, why was Rorschach visiting loan sharks? “Is everything okay?”

“Fine, Daniel. I told you.”

“But what were you doing if you weren’t working a case?”

“That’s my business.”

“It’s mine too if you’re in trouble.”

Rorschach answered that with a displeased grunt. “Do you want to know where Vach is or not?”

“I don’t give a damn about Vach! I’m worried about you!”

“I told you not to do that.” Rorschach took a gulp of his lukewarm coffee, evidently to prove how fine he was.

“Do you owe someone money? Because I heard –”

“You’ve been spying on me?” asked Rorschach icily.

“No, but I heard rumours and I damn well listened to them because they gave me some indication that you weren’t dead!”

There was a chastised silence. Then Rorschach replied, “I don’t owe anyone money, Daniel. I don’t believe in debt.”

Dan had to trust him. He’d never lied before. Then again, there were a few things he hadn’t done before that suddenly seemed to be happening. “Are you going to tell me what’s really going on?”

A cold silence stretched between them. Clearly the answer was no. Settling for the only thing he could say in the circumstances, Dan asked, “You know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

Rorschach allowed himself a small nod.

Dan nodded back, encouragingly. “So is everything okay? Or are you bullshitting me? Because, buddy, if something’s wrong, I want to help.”

“This isn’t something you can help with.”

“So there is something?”

Rorschach gave a dismissive growl. “Daniel, if you want to help, you can focus on Vach. We have work to do.”

Chapter Text

All the way to the warehouse in the owlship, Rorschach could sense the concern radiating off his partner. He told himself to tolerate it. Daniel was a good man and Rorschach was lucky – blessed, even – to have anyone at all who cared about where he’d been over the past ten days. Ungrateful as it was though, he couldn’t stop himself resenting the concern. It wasn’t Daniel’s business where he had been. Having a partner had never made him feel trapped before, but now he was caught between lying to Daniel (unthinkable) and confessing the truth of where he’d been and why. Where he had been, as it had turned out, was the right place to pick up information about the whereabouts of a wanted criminal. But he hadn’t been looking for Vach. He’d been looking for Charlie. The coincidence of finding one in place of the other nagged at him, burrowed into his mind as sharply as Nite Owl’s worried glances.

Normally he’d tell Daniel to pull himself together and focus, but he didn’t want to start another fight. Shamefully pathetic as it was, he couldn’t stand the thought of losing Daniel too.

Really, he didn’t care about arresting Vach any more than Daniel seemed to right now, but duty was duty and he’d already neglected his city enough in past ten days.

Regardless of duty, all Rorschach could think about was Charlie and where he might be and why leads on scum like Vach were turning up in the same places he frequented.

Eventually, Daniel broke the silence with, “You could always try me, you know. I might be able to help.”

“You can’t, Daniel”

Charlie would either show up or he wouldn’t. Rorschach couldn’t think of anywhere else to look now. Strangely he was beginning to feel as anxious that Charlie would reappear as he was that he wouldn’t. What would he say if Charlie knocked on his door tomorrow as though nothing had happened? Would he let his distress spiral into anger and start an argument by demanding to know where the man had been? Or would he swallow his feelings and pretend he hadn’t been searching the whole city for his father? Which would be worse?

And what if Charlie didn’t causally show up? What if he was gone for good? What then?

As if he’d been tasked with intruding upon Rorschach’s thoughts, Daniel piped up, “It might just help to talk about it.”

Rorschach shook his head, folded his arms. Any temptation to tell Daniel everything – and there was some – crumbled at the thought of what Daniel would make of his situation. There was no way he could tell Daniel about Charlie without confessing at least some of his sordid family history and Daniel was bound to think less of him then. No. It was better for Daniel to know only Rorschach, not Walter and his lowly, messy life and unsettling past. Daniel’s childhood had probably been like the wholesome stories in children’s books. He wouldn’t understand. He might judge Charlie harshly and Rorschach felt a protective shiver flash through his mind at the thought.

Rorschach glanced at his partner, saw Daniel’s sad expression and felt a little guilty: Daniel had worried and waited for him for days and was being rewarded with silence. He wondered if he should make conversation to prevent Daniel’s disappointment hardening to resentment but he couldn’t think of a thing to say. No matter – the warehouse was suddenly beneath them and they were ready to disembark.

 xxx xxx

Rorschach seemed relieved when they reached the warehouse, confirming to Dan that he had come on too strong with the whole it’s good to talk thing. Rorschach probably thought that that stuff – basic emotional health in other words – was only for hippies.

The warehouse was to all appearances abandoned. Rotting wooden boards covered the high windows and the fire escape ladder hung crooked, creaking as it swayed in the blast of air Archie issued as he rose to hover out of sight. Deciding to keep watch from the roof, they ignored it and scaled a drainpipe.

The roof was dilapidated to the point of literally falling apart and Dan half expected to fall through at any moment. Switching his goggles from their thermal setting to standard night vision, he studied each new section of roofing carefully before setting foot on it. Rorschach, on the other hand, seemed to skim across the building effortlessly. It reminded Dan how small his friend was under those layers – sure he was muscular but he was definitely undersized too, not heavy enough to be in danger of breaking through the roof like Dan was. It made Dan want to have a word with whoever had been in charge of feeding him as a child.

Once they found a stable section of roof with a view over the warehouse’s entrance way, they crouched in the moonless, cloud-clogged darkness, waiting. Here they were hidden behind the remains of the oversized lettering that proclaimed the name of whichever company had folded and left this building to rot. Below them was a parking lot belonging to a neighbouring building and a small loading bay attached to the one they were hidden on that hadn’t been used in years. It was all so much empty space. No-one else was around.

Hopefully, Dan thought, no-one would show up either. He was struggling to get into the right frame of mind for a fight, and he knew that was dangerous, but, much as he tried to clear his head and focus on who might arrive, all he wanted to do was physically drag Rorschach back to Archie and demand to know what was wrong. Which definitely wouldn’t end well. Yet Dan couldn’t stop himself dividing his attention between the concrete space below them and his partner hunkered down beside him. Rorschach didn’t return his gaze but Dan could sense him tensing up under the scrutiny of it.

Part of Dan’s brain still wanted to scream Two weeks, damn it! but he knew that wouldn’t be helpful. He had to forgive the half month’s no-show if he was going to get Rorschach to open up. After all, whatever the reason for the absence, it hadn’t been spite. Probably it hadn’t even occurred to Rorschach that someone might be worried about him. It never did.

Dan looked at the ground again: still nothing. He was hiding behind the letter A, which gave him a useful gap to peek though and cover on each side. Rorschach had an L. L for loner. Really it was surprising someone like Rorschach had even agreed to partner up in the first place. Maybe it was too much to expect him to come to Dan for help. Maybe, Dan told himself, it really was none of his business. Except that the nagging suspicion he’d been nursing for weeks was suddenly becoming a pressing concern. He couldn’t think of a tactful way to voice it so he just came out with it. “Did you lose your job?”

Rorschach turned to him, the unreadable mask spinning its patterns of ink. “What?”

“It’s just…well you haven’t mentioned work for a while now. I wondered if that’s what the problem was.”

“This isn’t the time, Nite Owl.”

“There’s no-one around” Dan pointed out.

“I haven’t lost my job.”

“Good. Well. I just wondered.” It wasn’t a bad theory, Dan thought. It would explain the routine change he had noticed even before his partner’s long absence. Not the fact that Rorschach seemed to be better fed these days though, or that he was visiting loan sharks but not for money.

“It wouldn’t be your business if I had lost my job.” Rorschach griped from behind the L.

“Okay, sure, I just thought that might be…Forget it.”

They waited in silence. Just to make the situation more miserable, the clouds above them emptied their load, hesitantly at first, like being spat at, and then letting the rain fall steadily. Rorschach made an annoyed noise and Dan nodded his agreement. Then he asked, “Do you ever wonder why we do this?” He often asked this question, not because he really needed to know but because it was a good way of gauging Rorschach’s mood. A terse Duty, Daniel meant that Rorschach was alright, and keen to get on with whatever they were doing, a swift Why? Do you? showed that his partner was feeling insecure and would appreciate a reassuring offer of post patrol coffee and a tense, overemphasised It’s too important not to demonstrated that whatever gruelling case they were working on had unnerved even Rorschach’s unshakable sense of right and wrong. But tonight Rorschach didn’t say any of those things. Tonight he replied, “Someone has to.” His voice was dull.

Dan opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying for something motivational, when Rorschach held up a hand to silence him, his masked gaze fixed on the doorway below.

Three men had stepped out of the building and now stood just in the entrance way, reluctant to step into the downpour. Through the goggles Dan could make them out easily, but couldn’t tell who they were from the tops of their heads. Rorschach, he knew, must barely be able to see them at all in this poor light and had just been able to make out some movement in the dark because he had been paying more attention than Dan.

Something was said but it was muffled by the rain. Presently, it became clear from the wave of an arm that two of the men were sending a third out of the shelter of the doorway and along the side of the building. Leaving Rorschach to keep an eye on the other two, Dan shifted to crawl a little way after this man in case he was doing something important. But the man’s task turned out to be mundane: he pulled a lever in a box a little distance from the building and instantly the area was illuminated by floodlights. Cursing under his breath, Dan scrambled back behind the cover of the lettering. Rorschach stayed exactly where he was, staring down at the two men below. Dan had to reach for him to tug him out of sight.

The goggles were wasting energy in this strong light so Dan switched them to saver mode which offered him no more assistance than his glasses would. Keeping one hand on Rorschach in case he decided to freeze up and almost get spotted again, Dan peered through the gap in the letter A at the suspects below. The man who had imperiously waved his hand was Thomas Vach and, despite being so underwhelmed by the prospect of arresting him earlier, Dan felt a flash triumph at the sight of him.

It said a lot about how many of his men the Nite Owl Rorschach team had put away recently that Vach had only the two cronies with him. The young man who’d turned the floodlights on was making his way back to his boss now, shaking rain from his milky blonde hair. He looked barely eighteen. The other man was comparatively older, a scruffy redhead who was now opening up one of the larger, truck sized doors to the side of the main entrance. Neither of them Dan recognised from the mug shots of Vach’s old prison contacts but then, they’d already rearrested most of them during the raid on the Whittemore Antiques. These were probably people Vach barely knew and had hired out of vigilante-induced necessity, fresh faces thinking they were earning a quick buck when in fact they were about to have the full force of justice literally descend upon them from above. That was, if the full force of justice had time for them: Vach was the real target. But Rorschach, finally moving from the spot Dan had steered him to, fixed his gaze on the redhead and kept on staring, barely sparing Vach a glance. Dan frowned, wondering if the man had a weapon he hadn’t spotted. But then, if this was a drugs run – as Dan suspected it was – they’d all have weapons. What was Rorschach playing at? Reaching for his partner he whispered, “Something wrong?”

Rorschach didn’t respond. In fact, he kept so still, gave so little indication that he’d even heard, that it crossed Dan’s mind that his partner was having some sort of seizure, the kind where the person just shuts down. The blots of ink on his mask were small black beads, the opposite of how they went in warm weather. Rorschach must have gone pale under there. Dan squeezed his shoulder. “Rorschach? Are you okay?”

Slowly, Rorschach looked at Dan. He didn’t answer. Dan tried, “What were y –” And that was when the trucks showed up.

Two of them, blazing headlights cutting through the rain and forcing Dan to crouch lower behind the lettering. The vehicles rumbled across the parking lot and were waved into the warehouse by the man at the door. As soon as the trucks were sheathed in the building, the two toughs followed and Dan risked sticking his head up for a look at Vach. The man had vanished, probably by simply stepping back through the door he’d been standing by while Dan was trying to work out what was up with Rorschach. Really, Dan knew he should just persuade Rorschach back to Archie. Tonight was not their night and you didn’t go into a fight with a man like Vach unless you were certain you’d come out of it again.

Then again, if Vach escaped now, they’d probably never get another shot at him, certainly not one that involved him conveniently cornered in a boarded up building. “Well” whispered Dan, “I say we strike now while they’re trapped in there.”

Rorschach made a small noise, as though about to disagree, but then considered and nodded.

“Okay then” replied Dan. “Let’s go”

 xxx xxx

Even years later, Rorschach would marvel that he was able to make the choice instantly, the moment Nite Owl dropped from sight. That he was able to follow, lowering himself like a spider on the grappling gun’s thread, without any hesitation. As if this was just another night, another bust. As if it wasn’t Charlie down there.

But it was Charlie. Charlie who had stood companionably beside Vach, Charlie who had cheerfully waved truckloads of illegal drugs into a warehouse. Rorschach felt sick.

His feet touched concrete and the grappling gun swallowed its line with a hiss. Nite Owl, who had glided to land just within the doorway, motioned for him to take cover. Rorschach did, ducking down behind the mechanism that opened the truck sized door.

He could just leave, he realised. He could allow this exchange of poison for cash to go ahead and drag Daniel away. Let Charlie escape. People bought and sold drugs all the time. Would it really make a difference if they failed to apprehend just three men?

One of them his father. He swallowed, glad that Daniel couldn’t possibly be able to tell that he’d gone pale under the mask.

Shifting forwards and to the side, Nite Owl was lost in the shadows cast by the building’s walls. The only lighting came from the parking lot’s floodlights, hence the door being left open like it was.

And beyond the doors, Charlie was in there somewhere. Now that he couldn’t actually see the man, a wild, stupid hope surged through Rorschach: Could he have made a mistake? Maybe it wasn’t Charlie at all. After all, his father had been on mind for days. And the strange lighting distorted everything, giving everything the wrong colour. Maybe he’d get in there and find just another thug.

And while he’d been hesitating his partner was already inside. Rorschach knew that he had to get within the doorway as well or risk being silhouetted and seen before he was ready.

As if he’d ever be ready. Because what if he wasn’t mistaken? How could he fight his own father?

But Daniel was already inside. He had to follow.

Darting forward, Rorschach slotted into the shadows beside Daniel, his back against the rough wall.

Beyond them, deep inside the cavern of the empty warehouse, the two trucks had opened their doors to expose their illicit content to Vach’s inspection. In the distant glare of the floodlights the scene looked overexposed, like it had happened already and someone had taken a bad photo of it. Vach looked highlighted, every movement surreal and exaggerated as he opened a box at the back of one of the trucks and lifted out a bag of powder for a closer look. The other men – and it wasn’t two other men, Rorschach realised, it was four, including the truck drivers, how could he not have realised that before? – the other men were all standing around, waiting for his verdict.

And one of them was Charlie. There was no mistaking it. Stupidly, Rorschach felt a sudden urge to call out to him, the way a child in a school play would pick out their parent in the audience, a familiar face in a potentially overwhelming situation.

Not that he’d know anything about that. He looked away and his gaze found Nite Owl.

Nite Owl was adjusting his goggles, doing nothing for the moment, even though Rorschach wasn’t going to initiate this battle. He didn’t know the script, would have to follow his partner’s lead. Nite Owl glanced at Rorschach and, in the half light of this sheltered spot, Rorschach identified a questioning expression. He looked away, at the floor, at his hands, and then, inevitably, at the unfolding crime scene in front of him. Did Charlie really hang back a little, with the air of someone who would rather be somewhere else, or was that just pointless hope playing tricks on him?

He registered a series of clicks beside him: Nite Owl was taking photographs with that new setting on his goggles; incriminating evidence, recording Charlie’s crimes. Part of Rorschach wanted to snap the goggles off Daniel’s head. The rest of him just wanted to leave, to retreat to Daniel’s house and scrub at his eyeballs until they’d unseen this tableau: Vach turning the bag he’d selected over in his hands as Charlie stood by placidly, awaiting his instructions.

One of the drivers opened up a few more boxes to show Vach more bags. It suddenly hit Rorschach how many boxes there were, and each box piled on another, and both trucks stuffed full of boxes, and each box stuffed full of bags. And each bag straining with its dose of powder. And Rorschach knew from years of trying to stem the flow of this trade that powdered chemicals was only the literal content of those bags. Each bag also held drug fuelled crimes waiting to happen and each gram was the physical manifestation of a moment in a neighbourhood’s slide into destitution and decline.

He couldn’t unsee this. He couldn’t ignore it.

So when Nite Owl nudged him and gestured to the gaping doorway, and breathed, “Can you manage if I shut that?”, Rorschach nodded and clenched his fists.

The door rattled down swiftly and sealed with a great clatter that reverberated around the walls. There were exclamations and cursing from the men who suddenly found themselves trapped, but of course Rorschach couldn’t see them. The darkness was total.

The air moved as Nite Owl left his side, barrelling straight towards the men, and Rorschach had no choice but to follow.

Letting the noise of the fight guide him, he crashed into and pinned someone, a man too heavy to be Charlie. He dragged his hand over his opponent’s face, just to be sure: a bald head and stubbled chin. He bashed the man’s skull against the concrete floor and jumped up.

Another man grabbed him and Rorschach twisted, snapped a fistful of fingers and felt a thrill of horror at the ensuing howl: was that his father?

No: a quick exploration of the now sobbing opponent’s face and hair confirmed it was the young man from outside. Rorschach knocked him out. In this darkness, he couldn’t afford to have his hearing blocked with whimpering.

It was difficult now to know where to move. From nearby came the sound of Nite Owl in combat with several men but Rorschach couldn’t dive into the fight blind in case he hurt his partner accidently. He fumbled in his pocket for his flashlight, thinking that if he could just turn it on for a moment he could pick someone – not Charlie – out of the fray and pull him off his partner. Darkness might give Nite Owl an advantage, but Rorschach wasn’t about to just stand there, hoping Vach wouldn’t kill Daniel.

Hoping Charlie wouldn’t.

Finding the flashlight at last, Rorschach turned it in his hands, found the button – and then the room lit up with an orange glow from an altogether stronger bulb. Someone had turned one of the truck’s headlights.

For a second, Rorschach thought that one of the men was stupid enough to drive straight as the sealed door, but the engine stayed silent. A figure sprang from the driver’s seat of the offending vehicle with a cry of “Hey, Wolfie, let’s see how the bastards hold up now we can see ’em!”

Rorschach dropped the flashlight. It came on as it hit the ground spinning, its beam stirring the shadows, sliding over the man’s face. Charlie.

There was answering laugh from Vach, who jabbed at Nite Owl, his fist spiked with knuckle dusters. Staggering back for a second, Nite Owl was caught round the waist by one of the drivers and pulled sideways. Rorschach raced forward to help –

– and found himself on his back, reeling from a blow.

Charlie struck him again and all he could think to do was pull away from the assault. Because how could he fight back? This was his father.

Somewhere nearby, Nite Owl grunted in pain. Rorschach tried to stand, tried to escape his father’s attack to reach his partner, but it quickly became apparent that some of his usefulness in a fistfight was not down to diligent training. Apparently some of it was genetic, and the source of those genes wasn’t prepared to let him go without a struggle. As soon as Rorschach scrambled to his feet, his father pushed him back down, kicked him. Meanwhile Nite Owl’s opponents had dragged him further away, further out of reach. There was a thud from the other side of the room, a cry, and Rorschach couldn’t tell who had made the noise. Was it Daniel? He forced himself to his feet again, trying to locate Nite Owl amid the stripes of light and shadow. Charlie reached for him and he pushed him away, twisting sideways to avoid being pulled over. Light winked off the blade as Charlie flicked it from his sleeve. If it hadn’t been for that, Rorschach might not have even have seen it bite through the fabric of his trench coat.

Staggering back, he clutched his stomach. His first thought was that Charlie had missed, had to have missed, that the knife had stopped a few layers short of flesh. Because there was no pain. There would be pain if he’d stabbed. Yet his body had reacted, his hands closing instinctively over his torso.

He took his hands away. Blood hit his shoes. The pain registered as he realised the extent of the injury. Nevertheless, he could think of nothing to say other than, “That didn’t hurt”

He saw Charlie’s face crumple into horrified recognition as he hit the floor.

xxx xxx

 This was a bad idea. Felling a random tough, Dan stared around for Rorschach but he’d disappeared around the side of one of the trucks. Vach was still on his feet, the only one still on his feet in fact, other than whoever Rorschach was fighting.

It had been too dark. He forgotten the boards across the window, hadn’t anticipated how dense the darkness would be once the shuttered door slammed down and he knew Rorschach had no more hope of seeing through this blackness than any of their opponents. Dan had almost been grateful when someone had got the headlights on because he never should have plunged Rorschach into the darkness like that just because Rorschach said he’d be okay. Obviously Rorschach would say he’d be okay. He was Rorschach. And in the blur of the fight Dan had lost track of him, of who he was fighting, of where he was in the room and something hadn’t been right about the guy all evening and he shouldn’t even have agreed to come out and this was all a bad, bad idea.

Vach was still swinging at Dan with the knuckle dusters, causing the world to shake each time they connected with the goggles. Dan kicked out at him and he leapt sideways, dodging the blow. Taking the opportunity to scan the room, Dan still couldn’t see Rorschach or the man he had to be fighting – there was only one of them, the other three were down. Only one man, so Rorschach should have finished him off by now. Where the hell was he?

Vach tried to grab Dan from behind and Dan spun, knocking Vach back with a blow to the side of his head, before knocking him out at last with a second.

Once Vach had dropped, Dan ran round the side of the truck he’d last caught a glimpse of Rorschach near. Rounding it, he stopped still for second as the shock of what he was seeing hammered in: Rorschach prone on the ground, the redheaded thug crouched beside him, muttering, his hand on Rorschach’s stomach… Dan actually growled. Jumping forward he barked out, “You get the hell away from him!” and then he stopped again, his brain catching up with his eyesight.

The man stooped over Rorschach was clutching Rorschach’s own scarf, which he’d pulled from Rorschach’s neck and pressed against a wound on his front. At Dan’s approach he flattened himself against the ground like a cat, but his hand stayed in place, stemming Rorschach’s blood loss. As Dan reached him, the man asked, “You got him?” and then, quieter, “You got him”.

Dan knelt beside his partner and reached for the scarf. The moment he touched it, the man ran, and Dan had no choice but to let him escape. He couldn’t take his hands away from the hole Rorschach’s blood was streaming from. Rorschach wasn’t about to let a dealer escape so easily though, and turned his head to follow the man’s progress. As the man vanished, Rorschach stretched out a trembling hand as if to grab him.

 xxx xxx

Later, sitting on the side of the bed in his guestroom, Dan could only be grateful that he’d thought to store up some replacement blood. Otherwise it would have been hospital, and he knew Rorschach’s feelings about that. Luckily, (luckily? Dan thought, what was vigilantism doing to him?), after another near miss, Dan had instigated monthly blood donations as a part of their preparation routine and bought the equipment to store and transfer it. Rorschach had taken some convincing that Dan wasn’t going to do anything untoward with his blood and had, Dan suspected, ultimately agreed to the plan only because of the ice cream Dan had him eat each time the stock was replenished.

Now Rorschach was passed out in the guest bed, his blood supply adequately bolstered and his wound stitched. Dan couldn’t stop staring at him.

The stab wound was uncomplicated – minor, in fact, as stab wounds went. The knife had avoided major arteries and had pushed past major organs rather through them. Really it was just a very deep cut, and Dan kept telling himself how very lucky they were and he couldn’t get up and go to his own bed because that would involve not being able to see Rorschach. Rorschach might need him in the night and Dan might have nightmares if he couldn’t see Rorschach lying there breathing.

Because he was breathing. It felt like he shouldn’t be, like at some point in the night Dan would realise that this was just a dream born of self-preservation, and it would turn out Rorschach had died in that warehouse. So Dan stayed where he was, watching Rorschach sleep and telling himself that it was okay, that they’d got lucky this time. 

xxx xxx

 I’m sorry, son, I’m so sorry…Aw, shit…Look, it’s okay, I’ve got you…I’m so…Damn it…Of course you would be a fucking mask, you stupid, crazy… I’m sorry…Look, it was the last time, I swear, just one last job. You don’t say no to this guy, you …Steady there, just stay still, son, I’ve got you…shh…

Shh, buddy. You’re dreaming. It’s just a dream.

Yellowy light soaked through the closed curtains in Daniel’s guest bedroom. For a long moment Rorschach lay still, watching it. It took him all of that moment to piece together his memories of the night before and when he did, a hollowness settled over the day.

Turning his head he found Daniel asleep in an armchair by the bed, his legs stretched out in front of him and his head resting awkwardly against the back of the chair. Rorschach was tempted to wake him and persuade him to go to his own bed where he’d be more comfortable, but decided against it on the grounds that it was morning now anyway and if Daniel had spent an uncomfortable night in an armchair, that was his own fault. Reaching for his face, Rorschach felt himself relax slightly as his fingers confirmed the mask’s presence. It was rolled up to the bridge of his nose, something Daniel shouldn’t have done while he was asleep, but he reminded himself that Daniel had only acted out of concern. Daniel was not who he needed to be angry with.

Rorschach began to sit up to try to cover Daniel with one of the many blankets that he was weighed down with and flinched, lifted the offending blankets (how many had Daniel thought he needed?) to explore the injury on his torso. It was carefully bandaged and bristled with stitches beneath the wrapping. The pain wasn’t unfamiliar, and wasn’t enough to make him suspect that anything important had been pierced. Just another scar. He felt a little lightheaded but not as much as he knew he should, which probably meant that Daniel was going to be insufferable about his makeshift blood bank finally being of some use.

Leaning awkwardly out of the bed, Rorschach slipped one of the blankets off himself and hooked them over Daniel’s outstretched legs. Daniel frowned in his sleep.

Rorschach lay back against the pillows. He had as many pillows as blankets. What was Daniel’s obsession with softness? Literal softness – soft pillows, soft blankets. As if it helped anything. He knew that he was perfectly capable of getting up and that therefore he had no business lazing in this soft bed but after a few empty moments of just laying still he was forced to acknowledge that the usual self disgust that laziness provoked wasn’t there. He just felt tired. And there didn’t seem to be much point in getting up.

Oddly, though, Rorschach suddenly wanted Daniel to wake up. If Daniel was awake he’d chatter away like he did and fill Rorschach’s mind with something other than his own swirling, indistinct thoughts. It was a pathetic, selfish urge. He let Daniel sleep.

He studied the guestroom ceiling for a while, and then Daniel’s slack face, and then the curtained windows again. He wondered what the time was and what Daniel had done with his clothes but only distantly, the way he might wonder about what weather was like on Mars.

Having no job had left him untethered. Before, he would have to get up. Lack of routine had made him soft after all. As soon as he healed, he’d have to do something about that. He couldn’t think what. He couldn’t think of anything much. Thoughts were circling his consciousness like sharks, vying for his attention but he couldn’t face grappling with any of them. Soft. Stupid.

He wondered if Daniel would wake if he cleared his throat loudly.

This was the only room in the house that didn’t have a certain Danielness imprinted on it. Rorschach hadn’t really thought about it before, but this was the only room Daniel didn’t use. Actually, he had never seen his partner in here before, since Daniel didn’t usually make a habit of sitting by his bedside. Every other room in the brownstone had at least one owl picture or ornament, or wildlife photograph or – in the case of Daniel’s own bedroom – model airplanes carefully made by Daniel as a child. Every room in the house but this one smelt faintly of coffee and engine oil and Nostalgia. Only this room was neutral and unmarked. Rorschach decided he preferred to sleep on the couch.

When he found himself drifting back into sleep he felt fiercely frustrated with himself. He fought it on principle until his last scrap of consciousness. 

xxx xxx

Waking after what seemed like only a snatched few hours in the armchair, Dan was relieved to find Rorschach still asleep. That is, he was until he sat up a little straighter and a blanket fell off his legs. Obviously Rorschach had woken earlier and decided to share his blankets instead of waking Dan up like he should have done. Dan risked going downstairs to make himself a strong coffee. That done, he returned and sat by the bed for a few more hours, shifting between being relieved that Rorschach was getting the rest he needed and worried that Rorschach wasn’t awake yet. He was sure both emotions showed plainly on his face when Rorschach finally moved his head in an alert manner, looking from the backlit curtains to the clock by the bedside. Dan greeted him with, “Hi there, buddy.”

“Hello Daniel” Rorschach sat up even though he had to know perfectly well that Dan wouldn’t be happy about it. Dan shook his head. “No you don’t, you’re staying right where you are.”

“I’ve intruded on your hospitality long enough, Daniel. I need to get up.”

“No you haven’t and no you don’t. Here” Dan reached behind Rorschach to pull up the pillows so that Rorschach could sit propped up, and pushed gently against his partner’s shoulder so that Rorschach leaned back. Rorschach allowed this with a concerning lack of resistance.

Dan was unnerved too by the way Rorschach allowed himself to be examined, answering Dan’s questions in a dull, uninterested tone. Once he’d reassured himself that Rorschach was still physically healing, Dan sat back in the armchair. He could sense Rorschach’s gaze on him under the mask, had done, in fact, since Rorschach had woken. Rorschach seemed almost cowed even though it was Dan who’d messed up. Dan asked him, “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re very quiet.”

“I’m fine, Daniel. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“You keep saying that. You might have noticed I still do.”

Rorschach seemed to have nothing to say to that, so Dan carried on with, “Rorschach, I’m so sorry about last night. That was so stupid of me, shutting the warehouse door like that; I trapped you in there with them.”

“No, Daniel. The other way around.”

“What?”

“They were the ones who were trapped.”

“Well that was plan, but you couldn’t see any better than they could! And there was me happily fighting away with my goggles. I’m so sorry.”

“I was stabbed after the lights came on” Rorschach pointed out.

“Yeah but I still put you in a dangerous situation and –”

“We’re masks, Daniel. We wouldn’t get much done if we didn’t encounter a few dangerous situations.”

“Well that’s one thing if everyone’s ready for it, but something was up with you already last night and I never should have agreed to even go out. Let alone go into a fight like that.”

“I was the one who brought you the information” Rorschach argued. “I would have acted on it alone if you hadn’t come”

“Well I should have stopped you going out at all, then.”

“You couldn’t”

“I should have tried at least! Instead of going along with you and –” And taking over and trapping you in a room full of gangsters and getting you hurt, Dan thought. Taking over after… “What happened out there anyway? You sort of…” He couldn’t say froze up. Not to Rorschach. Everyone froze up at least once in those situations, but Rorschach had to already be giving himself a hard time about it because he didn’t allow himself human weakness. The guy acted like he was Dr Manhattan half the time, berated himself as weak if he was anything but a machine in a combat situation.

Sure enough, Rorschach looked away and drew his knees up a little, as if trying to be smaller. “Nothing happened.”

“You seemed a little…distracted, maybe?” Dan suddenly remembered exactly which dealer had prompted that instant transformation from Rorschach to lost stranger up on that rooftop. It hit him out of nowhere. “You know him, don’t you?” He breathed, horrified. “You know that guy who stabbed you?”

He waited for the reply, staring at Rorschach.

“No really” was all that Rorschach would say.

Chapter Text

The first day after the warehouse Rorschach didn’t even get out of bed.

The second day he had dressed in baggy borrowed clothing and established himself on the couch by the time Daniel came back upstairs from the basement. He knew he had every reason to be grateful for Daniel’s hospitality, but he still greeted him with, “Daniel, where are my clothes?”

“Oh – hi, buddy. I’ll go get them” Daniel retreated back down the stairs with some eagerness. Rorschach wondered if that meant he wanted Rorschach dressed and gone, but as soon as Daniel returned to the living room he asked, “You’re not going yet, though, are you? Only you really should stay here a few more days.”

So instantly relieved that it surprised him, Rorschach took up his costume with an affirmative grunt. He found that Daniel had mended them with his usual clumsy stitches: big, shaky strokes of the needle like a child’s signature. It left the outfit looking scarred. That was probably appropriate. He sensed Daniel watching nervously and said, “You spoke to the police.”

“Yeah” Daniel confirmed.

“You used the secure line?” Rorschach was aware that Daniel didn’t believe that anyone was likely to want to listen to his calls. He had once caught his partner talking on the house phone to the police about a case. Daniel should know better than to do that again after the ensuing argument, but it was always worth reminding him.

Daniel nodded, taking a seat. “We talked over Archie’s radio.” He leaned forward a little and traced his mouth with his thumb, resting his head in his chin. “Look, Rorschach, I told them one guy got away. It didn’t feel right leaving that out.”

Rorschach could understand that. Daniel was just standing by his principles, by his promise to protect this city. From people like Charlie. From the armchair, Daniel added, “I hope that was okay.”

And yet Daniel always did this; he second-guessed himself. He acted and then doubted his actions. It bothered Rorschach, but he found he couldn’t reply to reassure his partner. He didn’t know if it was okay or not. Daniel went on, “I couldn’t give a particularly good description if that’s any comfort.”

“Why would that be any comfort?”

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

“I’m not telling you anything.”

“I noticed.” Daniel sighed theatrically. “I’ve already said I’m here if you want to talk. I’m not going to judge, you know. Or give you any advice if you don’t want it. I’d just listen.”

“The point in that being?”

“Well. Maybe you do want advice then?”

“I don’t want advice, Daniel. I want…” Rorschach let his words die with an annoyed huff. What did he want? Certainly not to bear his private feels like a New Age flower child. “Daniel, if you want to be a psychiatrist, you’re not practising on me.”

Daniel let out a humourless laugh. “Psychiatrists are for when there’s a problem, buddy. There’s nothing problematic about having feelings. Just about bottling them up.”

Rorschach was glad Daniel couldn’t see his expression. He said nothing.

 xxx xxx

In the end he stayed at Daniel’s house for four full days. It seemed a sort of decadence, but Daniel was tolerant, even encouraging. The two of them spent several hours each day making adjustments to Archie, adjustments that Rorschach suspected were not strictly necessary. Daniel had done that before: he had a bad habit of finding excuses for Rorschach to stay. He needn’t have bothered this time since Rorschach didn’t want to be anywhere else. Daniel’s brownstone was a safe little capsule, separate from any other place or circumstance. Here, he was Nite Owl’s partner, nothing else. Here, he didn’t have to think about his life beyond these walls.

Wolfie Vach was likely to die in jail. The case had hit the papers but Rorschach noticed that Daniel didn’t follow his usual ritual of pinning any of the articles about their success on the corkboard in his basement. This didn’t feel like a success.

Few of the articles mentioned a missing suspect. In the elation of the arrest of a major drug dealer, no-one seemed to care about a henchman. Rorschach knew that he in fact should, that it was his job to care about apprehending scum who the police considered beneath their notice, but this was different.

Rorschach wanted Charlie brought to justice just as much as he didn’t. It wasn’t that he was experiencing mixed emotions, more that he wanted two completely contradictory things simultaneously. He wholeheartedly wanted Charlie in jail with Vach where he deserved to be and at exactly the same time he desperately hoped Charlie would escape. The two desires didn’t touch each other and whichever prevailed, the later seemed more likely. Charlie had the sense not to stay in New York or even to return to Chicago. He would likely head somewhere completely new where no-one was looking for him. He was probably gone already. 

xxx xxx

 The sojourn at the brownstone had to end eventually and five days after the raid Walter returned to his apartment. The first thing he did was search it. Finding it empty he bolted the door and tried to collect his reason enough to work out what to do next.

Obviously the real problem was that Charlie knew his identity. It was an ironic position to be in after seriously considering giving up his identity to the man willingly not long ago, but he had better things to think about than irony. What if Charlie hadn’t left the city? What if he came back?

His father had money now, the excess left over from what he had owed Decker being more than three times the total Walter gave him, but greed bred greed. Just because the man had money didn’t mean he wouldn’t be back for more, maybe after things had died down in the wake of Vach’s arrest. Blackmail was not out of the question.

At least it was unlikely Charlie would reveal his identity to the media. That would involve attention thrust on him too and the man had his own secrets to keep. But still the bare fact that Charlie knew that the man under Rorschach’s monochrome face was Walter Kovacs rankled. It was like a sharp stone in Walter’s shoe, something his awareness kept returning to, something he couldn’t forget about. 

xxx xxx

 For a few days he focused on solo investigations, the outcome of which should have persuaded him it was unlikely that Charlie was still in New York. But somehow no matter what the facts were the dread remained coiled in his chest.

Once he had every last place he could think of without finding his father, Rorschach paid a visit to Daniel. He was aware that recently he had offered his partner nothing but days of silence punctuated by an injury and a personal crisis. Daniel deserved better than that and Nite Owl would doubtless find it in a new partner if need be.

He presented himself in Daniel’s kitchen with take-out only to find Daniel already cooking. Daniel pretended to appreciate the food anyway. “Thanks, man, this was really thoughtful. Put it on the table, I’ll get –”

“No need to trouble yourself, Daniel. I can see you’re cooking.”

“I’ve barely started – go on, set it down. I’ll get us some plates…” Daniel spoke into a kitchen cupboard, asking, “How are you? Recovered?”

“Fine now” Rorschach placed the bags of take out on the table.

“I was worried.”

Rorschach wondered if Daniel ever got bored of telling him that he was worried. He replied, “There was no need.”

“I guess not. It’s good to see you though. Were you taking it easy these last few days?”

“Mostly. Are you ready to patrol once we’ve eaten?”

“I’ll say! It seems like forever since we’ve done just a normal patrol, you know?”

Rorschach nodded because he did know. He craved the immediate sense of satisfaction which came with seeing a mugger, beating a mugger and preventing a mugging. He watched Daniel lay out plates and cutlery and serve the food. Suddenly it struck him that if he were to take off his mask right now, Charlie wouldn’t be the only man on earth who knew Rorschach’s identity. His fingers twitched against the table. After all, Daniel deserved to know his identity if he wanted to, and he’d often said he did. But then, he didn’t know what he was asking. When Daniel imagined his partner’s face under the mask, he probably imagined someone more impressive than Walter. And was it right to share his identity with Daniel after all this time just for the sake of point scoring against his father? The urge passed. 

xxx xxx

 It had never felt like home but now the new apartment was an achingly empty, pointlessly grand liability. Staying there was impossible. In case Charlie did ever take it into his head to return to New York, moving was the first and most basic precaution against being found again.

So another new apartment was the seventh thing he did with the money, the seventh thing that really felt significant. It was very easy to arrange. Estate agents were so keen to work for a man who need not apply for a mortgage that it was unseemly, and over the course of one day several of them showed him a range of properties whilst competing to persuade him to consider something larger. Baring in mind his father’s advice that he should be living in a penthouse, Walter chose the smallest of the apartments he viewed.

He moved in days later, transporting all his belongings in one go. The two straight-backed chairs he’d purchased, one for him and one for a certain guest, were re-homed, something that turned out to be more complicated than he’d expected. Initially he’d left them in the apartment, hoping the new owners, once found, would quietly adopt them. When the estate agent dropped a few anvil sized hints he removed them and left them on the sidewalk outside the building with a note that proclaimed them to be free. He sipped coffee in a chain restaurant across the road to keep an eye on proceedings (this was household management, after all, not littering). Two hours later, the chairs were still waiting on the sidewalk and he had better things to do than watch them any longer. He took them to his old neighbourhood where they were gone within twenty minutes.

While the old apartment had been L-shaped, the new one was shoebox shaped. It opened straight into a living room/kitchen which had a door at one end leading to a bedroom and en-suite. Walter liked that there was no corridor. It stuck him that corridors were merely pointless space that intruders could hide behind corners in. This was better: in this new place he could see the entire property all at once if the bedroom door was open and his furniture looked less swallowed up by empty space.

The only thing he missed from the old place was the view. The new place looked on to the brick of the building opposite.

As before, his old furniture went in the bedroom. The living area he furnished with a punch-bag and a set of weights. And then, realising that eyebrows might be raised if anyone else ever saw the room, a second hand couch.

Rorschach’s uniform was hidden in the built-in closet in the bedroom. From Walter’s bedroom window Rorschach was able to reach the roof and from there jump from building to building and hit the sidewalk anywhere in the block. The only potential security issue in this arrangement were the families who lived opposite and Walter found himself becoming familiar with their routines in order to avoid Rorschach being spotted leaving or returning. Living opposite and down two floors was a single man who worked nights, who slept much of the day and whose comings and goings were regular and easily avoided. Opposite and down one floor was a professional couple (regrettably unmarried) with teenage children, none of whom tended to be at home much. So far, so acceptable. The main concern was the family directly opposite. The mother was at home all day and there was a little girl who often sat and the window to draw, pausing every so often to stare out at the sky. Fortunately there was also a baby whose wakings and wailing Walter could set a clock by. It cried for a feed at the same time every evening, prompting the mother to respond remarkably quickly, carrying it into some unseen room to tend to it. Usually the little girl trailed after them, leaving him to exit on to the roof unobserved.

The father was almost never at home when Rorschach was ready to leave. He worked long shifts to provide for his family. A decent man. 

xxx xxx

 Just like me, but better. These were the words that echoed through Walter’s mind as he woke each morning, words drenched in his father’s whisky stained voice. It was the but better part he chose to focus on because if he paid any attention to the rest of the statement, his thoughts would spiral into a place he didn’t want them to go.

He found himself thinking of Charlton more than he had in years, reminding himself that he’d had some guidance into manhood beyond the absence of Charlie and the presence of the whore. He even thought of fantasy father figures his childhood self had dreamt up other than Charlie, listing them in his head (President Truman, the Comedian, every male member of the Minutemen). But he was too far into adulthood now to indulge in such an egocentric pattern of thought, so each morning he shook off such musings and left the apartment to do something useful with his day. New York didn’t need Walter Kovacs’ family crisis, but it did need Rorschach. If Walter couldn’t pull himself together he would be Rorschach in Walter’s clothes.

xxx xxx

 He took to presenting himself at Daniel’s house earlier and earlier in the day, occasionally even arriving in time for lunch. He still spent his mornings wandering the streets but now as soon as he had information of passable importance he headed back to his own apartment, changed into his Rorschach uniform and headed over rooftops and along narrow alleyways to the brownstone’s tunnel entrance. Generally Daniel was working in his basement, or, less often, reading in the living room. He didn’t seem to mind Rorschach turning up in the middle of the day, even seemed pleased to see him. He’d listen attentively to Rorschach’s information, but really they both knew it was pretence. If Rorschach were there only to convey information he’d leave again afterwards, but he never did. Once he was in the brownstone he’d stay there until it was time to patrol, watching or helping Daniel work and listening to the inane comments that Daniel directed at him to fill the silence. Rorschach decided that his partner had to be lonely, to be always so ready to welcome an uninvited guest. For all that Daniel had a guestroom and enough food stored up to feed a sizable party of people, there was never anyone else around when Rorschach arrived. It crossed Rorschach’s mind that he should do something about that loneliness, offer some support of some kind, but nothing came to mind. 

xxx xxx

Now that he’d set up home, the money idled in Walter’s bank account. He didn’t know what to do with it – any ideas that occurred were passing fantasy, too indulgent and unnecessary to take shape in real life. Feeling the weight of it sitting there useless, he added to the total he had donated to schools and children’s homes, and the eighth important thing he did with it was to include homeless shelters in his list of recipients as well. Good ones, the sort that gave out Bibles and channelled their charges into honest work, and didn’t excuse drug use or turn a blind eye to prostitution. Walter was well aware that had things gone just slightly differently, he could have been among the cold, hungry men seeking help from such organisations.

Aside from splintering itself into conscience-easing donations the money had very little to do. He bought cookies. He kept a better stock of food in his efficient one-wall kitchen than was really needed. He was never short of money for the laundry or heating. Out on the streets gathering information, he was never without money for coffee or a glass of coke. He was reminded of the money dozens of times a day, each time he paid for something small without having to count the remaining funds in his head. It nagged at him, demanding he did something significant with it. But what? What did other people spend money on? Whoring, gambling, drinking? Unacceptable. Foreign travel perhaps? He had an undeniable curiosity to see other countries, but it seemed a little un-American to indulge it. Maybe he could explore his own country – he had seen regrettably little of it – but much as it was easy to make plans, it was less easy to remove himself from Rorschach’s plans. He couldn’t possibly leave. He had work to do here. 

xxx xxx

The drugs trade was like pooling blood – as soon as a section of it was cleaned up, the rest of it simply spread to fill the gap. There was no noticeable lack of debauchery in the weeks after Vach’s arrest. The criminal underworld shuffled itself like a deck of cards, coming up with new winners, new soon-to-be losers. Walking the certain streets and loitering in certain areas made picking up leads easy and it wasn’t long before Walter had the new order of things mapped out in his head. 

xxx xxx

He hadn’t ridden in a cab since the staff at Charlton waved him off in one when he left their care, but it rained hard enough one afternoon to prompt him to hail one. It felt absurdly decadent, being carried through the streets on top a purring engine, cocooned from the downpour that was attacking everyone else. New York was muted from within this vehicle, as though he were looking at film footage of it through the glass. He decided to be strict with himself in future: travelling on foot was the surest way to pick up information. This indulgent (but dry) journey was a useless waste of time.

Entering the foyer of his new building he shook off the rain that had settled in a thin sheen over his hair and clothes in the time it had taken him to get from cab to door. Then he stepped over to the elevator and reached out to press the button, only to register the disappointed expression on the face of the child who’d just appeared beside him, and withdraw his hand. She smiled and pressed the button herself. He remembered that feeling, that sense that being allowed to touch anything that reacted in any way was a treat. The elevator rewarded the child by throwing open its doors. She skipped in and Walter stood aside to let her mother and baby sibling pass ahead of him.

It was the family from the opposite building, but he wasn’t surprised by that. This was a friendly neighbourhood. If he’d realised when he’d viewed the place how many people on this street knew their neighbours, he might have chosen somewhere else because it was a risk in terms of protecting his identity. But he’d been in a hurry. Careless.

They stood together in the small box, smelling of rain. The little girl chatted to her mother and the woman actually listened, dividing her attention expertly between child and infant. Walter tried to politely tune out the family interaction he was trapped with, learning only that the child had an odd name and a loud voice. Having successfully ignored the content of her conversation it was a shock to him when the girl suddenly turned to him and announced, “My daddy’s at work still.”

He blinked. “Oh” Conversation was never his strong suit, even with children. He glanced at the mother, hoping to be rescued, but she was tending to the baby.

The girl continued, “Where’s your daddy?”

It was as if she had slapped him in the face with the clout of a much larger person. He answered honestly, “I don’t know” and she looked genuinely concerned. Then the elevator stopped and the mother ushered the child away. The doors closed again, sealing Walter in. 

xxx xxx

 Weeks became months. Walter thought of Charlie less and when he did, it was with less venom. He began to think of Charlie the way he imagined others thought of serious illnesses they had survived. It had happened, and it was over. He wondered sometimes where the man had gone and whether he had used the money to make a new start. Not likely. Scum didn’t change. 

xxx xxx

 “So I was thinking” Daniel glanced up from his routine maintenance of Archie, “What we really need is a big case.”

From the desk Rorschach nodded because he agreed. The weeks of going after muggers and street gangs had been satisfying, but it was getting to the point that he wanted to fight the degenerates who stood behind them pulling strings and making profits from the erosion of decent society. Usually the big cases presented themselves without being sought, but if organised crime was suddenly coy, there was no harm in seeking it out. “What are you thinking?” he asked. “Drugs, money laundering, gambling?”

“Well that all sounds fun” replied Daniel, “but really I was hoping we’d fight crime.”

After a second to let the joke register, Rorschach snorted in annoyance. “You know what I mean, Daniel.”

“Yeah, I know. Just humour me.”

“I already do a lot of that. I’m being serious.”

“Well that makes a change.” Daniel stood away from Archie at last and offered, “How about we look into those rumours about stolen goods being sold out of that junkyard?”

“Not a lot to go on”

“Well you seem to be able to work up leads pretty quickly these days.”

“Implying something?”

“Of course not. I just mean it might be worth investigating.”

Rorschach tilted his head into a brief, acknowledging nod. Personally he didn’t think the case would amount to much but he wasn’t about to ignore possible crime just because it was relatively minor. That was what the police were for. “Fine, Daniel”

“Great” Daniel brightened. “I’ll find us something for dinner and we can talk about it.” 

xxx xxx

In hindsight, Rorschach wondered whether Daniel’s keenness to investigate the junkyard had anything to do with his enthusiasm for all things scrap metal. By the time they’d searched the site, Nite Owl had his arms full of various bits of wire, piping, an old radio and a fax machine that appeared to have either been chewed or trodden on by a giant. Just as they reached the perimeter fence, he whispered, “Wait, wait, one more thing” He handed Rorschach his load of mangled machine parts and thrust an arm into a pile of trash, pulling out an incomplete engine. “This is just like shopping!”

“Except that you haven’t paid for any of it. We’re here to investigate theft, not commit it, Nite Owl.”

Nite Owl pointed at a sign. “This stuff’s set aside for landfill. Would you rather have it seeping into the ground? Look, if these people turn out to be legit, I’ll replace it with something.”

“Hnn. Fine” Rorschach handed back the bundle of mechanical parts, forcing Nite Owl to shift the engine under his arm.

“Thanks. It’s kind of like recycling, isn’t it?”

“I knew you were a hippy” Rorschach made an effort to walk a little ahead of his partner, as if embarrassed by him, even though there was no-one around to see. It wasn’t hard to outpace Nite Owl when he was so weighed down. Over his shoulder Rorschach asked, “If you need all that, why don’t you just buy it?”

Nite Owl shrugged, showering a few bolts onto the ground. “It’s more fun this way.”

“If we get jumped, you’ll be weighed down.”

“If we get jumped, I’ll drop it. Anyway, there’s no-one around.”

“Not yet.”

“No stolen goods either.” Nite Owl sighed. “Maybe there’s nothing in those rumours?”

“No, there is.” Rorschach could sense criminality in this place.

“Right. So we just need to find it.” Nite Owl knew better than to question his partner’s hunch. They slipped away through a gap in the fence and walked a good way off before summoning Archie. Climbing onboard, Nite Owl shed his miscellaneous bits of found junk and pulled off his cowl, becoming Daniel. He asked, “Stake out?”

Rorschach shook his head. “We couldn’t watch over the whole area at once without using the owlship”

“and that’s hardly inconspicuous.” Daniel nodded, sitting down in the pilot seat. As they took off he announced, “Okay. I’ve got a plan.”

xxx xxx

“…so we’d just need to fly it over the site and let it scan the area. I could have it scan buildings, take photographs and make a recording.” They were back in Daniel’s basement and Daniel was simultaneously tiding away his pilfered scrap and bringing out things he needed to make the invention he was describing, thinking out loud and making adjustments to his plan as he talked. “It could convey the footage back to Archie in real time. Maybe I could even have the lens zoom in up close. We could even send it up there a few times and have it hover for hours until we have evidence against everyone involved. Much better than beating names out of whoever we catch.”

“Although that has its merits” Rorschach rolled his mask up to drink his coffee. He asked, “Won’t having a flying camera hanging in the sky tip them off about being watched?”

Daniel grinned, as if he’d been waiting for Rorschach to ask that. “No because it will look like a bird! A bird of prey – a kestrel maybe – hunting the mice and rats they’ll have there. We’ll be able to fly him all over the site and they’ll think he’s just circling.”

“He?”

“Well –”

“Will it be convincing enough? Because no-one could mistake the owlship for an actual owl.”

“It will be convincing.” Daniel nodded. “And also too high up for them to get a good look anyway, so it’s the silhouette that’ll really need to convince. They might not even notice it.”

“And it will be able to see from that high?”

“See and record. High quality footage. That is, if I get a few details right sorted...” Daniel came over to the desk and started scribbling ideas, moving his own untouched coffee out the way. “Do you think a kestrel’s a good idea? I’m not sure I’d hunt there if I was a kestrel. Maybe a seagull? There’s bound to be some sizable birds in a place like that but it might be a good idea to go over in daylight and see what species they have.”

“Daniel, none of the suspects are birdwatchers. Just make it look like a real bird and none of them will question it.”

“Right.”

“How quickly can you build this?”

“In a week, maybe? Once I get all the parts, that is.”

“What do you need?”

Daniel reeled off a few mechanical ingredients that apparently hadn’t been conveniently lying around the scrap yard. Rorschach nodded slowly. Tempted as he was to keep quiet – because, aside from anything else, keeping personal matters out of their partnership was a deeply ingrained habit by now – he knew it was only right to contribute his fair share to the costliest aspects of their enterprise now that he was able to. He managed, “I could…get that.”

Daniel glanced up. “Oh, don’t worry, man. It’s not stuff you can pick up just anywhere. I know the places that do the best quality.”

“So tell me where you’d buy it.”

Daniel looked up properly and then quickly back down at his notes. Blushing, he muttered something about not fair to expect you and it’s my idea so I should and this stuff’s horribly overpriced and then he bit his lip and blushed harder.

Rorschach supposed he should be offended by the assumption of his poverty and he would have been – had it not been such an obvious conclusion months ago. He growled, “I wouldn’t offer to pay if I couldn’t afford it, Daniel.”

Daniel’s mouth fell open. “I didn’t…That’s not what I…Look, buddy, I’ll just get it myself, it’s no big deal.”

“I said I’ll buy it. It’s time I contributed.”

“You do contribute.”

“Not financially.”

“But…Rorschach, do you realise how much…Jeez, look, I know you want to help but I’m not having you going hungry to pay for this stuff. Nothing’s worth that.”

“I won’t go hungry, Daniel.”

“No you won’t because I won’t let you.”

“I won’t need to go hungry” Rorschach clarified, and Daniel must have sensed something significant in his tone because he stopped blushing and fussing with his notes and sat down, frowned at his partner. Rorschach took a deep breath and explained, “I…I’ve come into some money.” He saw Daniel’s eyebrows hit his hairline and added, “legally”

“Of course legally” echoed Daniel. But then he frowned and asked, “Tell me this has nothing to do with those money lenders.”

“Of course it doesn’t. I told you already.”

“Good” Daniel relaxed a bit. Hesitantly, he guessed, “So…did you get a new job? One with less hours apparently.” Seeming to realise that he was dangerously close to the line marked Private Things That We Never Talk About, he added, “Only, I’ve noticed you seem to have more free time is all.”

“Hn. True.” Rorschach decided that Daniel might as well know the extent of his wealth. It would save him from fretting about Rorschach’s eating habits in future. “I quit my job. I don’t…I don’t need it any more.” It seemed a scandalous thing to admit to, but he reminded himself that Daniel didn’t have a day job either. Daniel only grinned and replied, “Good. I never understood how you managed to hold down a job in-between patrolling.”

“By not overestimating the amount of sleep I need.”

“Jeez” Daniel sounded faintly horrified. “Well at least you can take better care of yourself now. Unless you’re not spending it all on sugar cubes that is.”

“Obviously I’m not” So much for Daniel not fretting about his eating habits anymore. Rorschach nodded to the plans on Daniel’s desk. “I’m also spending it on surveillance equipment”

“Huh. Well, I’ll write you a list.” Daniel started to jot down the equipment he needed and where it could be purchased. Rorschach was pleased to note that he listed several stores, so as not to draw attention to the project. As Daniel handed the list over, he asked in a serious tone, “Hey, did you lose someone? Is it an inheritance?”

Rorschach gave derisive snort before remembering that that was how Daniel got his money. Forcing his voice into a neutral tone he replied, “No. A lottery win.”

For a second, Daniel’s expression wavered incredulously. Then he broke into a smile. “Rorschach that’s amazing! Congratulations!”

“Enk. I don’t have anything to be congratulated about. I didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

“Yes you did” said Daniel simply. “No-one I know deserves this more than you.”

The ninth thing Walter did with the money was purchase surveillance equipment that gathered enough evidence to convict nine gang members of trading in stolen goods. It was money well spent. 

xxx xxx

 He was still thinking about that case over lunch, a full week after they closed it, wondering whether the bird-cam Daniel had built (a northern harrier, his partner had chosen in the end) might be useful for the new case they’d moved on to. This one, another drugs case, involved a lot of footwork, and Walter had overheard a very interesting conversation in Happy Harry’s bar that he was keen to tell Daniel about. He tipped the last of the glass of milk he was having with his lunch down his throat and set the empty glass beside the sink to wash up the next day (or the day after) and was ready to head to the brownstone.

Walking through to his bedroom, he opened his window and looked out at the sky, casting a subtle glance over the building opposite as he did. With the window open, Walter could hear the baby who lived opposite crying as it always did at this time of day. He wondered whether all babies were this regular in their habits or if this one was unusual. He leaned against the window frame, studying the street below, waiting for the mother to carry the infant – and lead the child – out of sight. Unless they were all absent from the room across from him, he couldn’t change into Rorschach and climb up to the roof unobserved. Even the baby had to be out of sight, to avoid anyone coming in to check on it as Rorschach exited via the opposite window.

The baby continued to cry with no-one appearing to see to it, and he wondered whether it would be better to take his uniform to a convenient alleyway instead. As a backup plan it worked, but he didn’t have a suitable bag to hide it in. Probably needed to get one. Impatient to leave, he started debating with himself about wrapping it up in his coat.

Opposite, the baby was still crying and he began to grow alarmed. Was it alone in the apartment? He stopped pretending to be looking elsewhere and studied the room across from him. He could see only the baby, red-faced and propped up in a bouncer and entirely alone. No mother coming in for it, no older sister drawing at the window. His gaze darted around the distant room to the corners the little girl tended to spring from but she wasn’t there. And where was the mother? She hadn’t struck him as negligent before.

Finally, just as he was about to head over there himself, a door opened and the father walked in and picked up the baby. Walter frowned, his unease settling into a solid, immobile concern. Where was the mother? Where was the little girl?

The father didn’t try to soothe the baby, just hugged it against his chest in a manner that seemed designed to soothe himself. He hugged the baby they way a drowning man hugs a life buoy. Then the mother appeared, and even from that distance, Walter could see she had been, not just crying, but crying and screaming and pulling at her hair.

And where was the little girl?

Seeing the mother, the father pulled her into a hug along with the infant, so that for a moment the three of them bundled up together, an incomplete, usually happy family. Walter felt awkward witnessing their private distress, but it wasn’t his job to feel awkward. It was his job to help. Even when he wasn’t asked. Even out of uniform. He straightened up, came away from the window. The drugs case could wait – something was seriously wrong. 

xxx xxx

Three days later, Walter Kovacs stood in a nondescript parking lot on the edge of a large business park. It being Sunday, every office, every warehouse, every last conference hall was closed. Walter thought briefly of those nuclear test sites, the sort done up like big empty cities. He pushed the thought from his mind: if the bombs were going to fall, they would have to wait. This was more important than the end of the world.

He was well aware that if something were to happen to him here, there was no-one else to help for miles.

Hidden in a battered suitcase at his side was every last cent he owned. Probably his bank thought he was doing something illegal, and on one level it did feel like he was, because he was giving these scum exactly what they wanted. But that thought disintegrated in the face of the alternative. He was giving the parents exactly what they wanted as well.

The little girl had been mistaken for belonging to a wealthy family of the same name. In fact her father was a bus driver: no money at all. It struck Walter that there could be no combination of character traits more dangerous than those found in men callous enough to abduct a child for money yet stupid enough to believe that a child playing on the street in a perfectly ordinary neighbourhood was heiress to pharmaceutical empire. Had the kidnappers realised their mistake sooner, a horrific tragedy might have played out. They might have murdered the child or handed her over to men even worse than them, monsters who fed on lost little girls. Fortunately, her parents were able to convey in a televised appeal that someone who would remain nameless had stepped in to pay the ransom. Arrangements had been made, and now here was Walter, standing in this parking lot, waiting to exchange dollar bills for a flesh and blood child. Everything about the situation felt wrong, but the alternative continued to repel him with a telltale heat and the smell of sulphur. That way laid hell.

This had all been Walter’s idea, of course. He hadn’t been Rorschach since this started. That would come later, once she was safe. Until she was safe he would follow their script, hand over the money, watch them walk away. They had today. That was all. After that Rorschach would find them and make it clear to any other degenerates out there that ransom seeking didn’t achieve more than a broken spine in the long run.

A car appeared, driving slowly from around a corner and humming to a gentle stop in a parking space forty feet away. Walter stayed exactly where he was, not so much as twitching a muscle. He knew hostage situations, knew that this was the most dangerous part. He watched the first man get out of the driver’s seat and take one, two, three steps around the side of the car. In the back seat, another man. And her. He could see her dark hair through the window, her face lowered. He let his gaze slide over the men, settle on her.

Silently, the man beside the car flicked back his coat to show Walter his holstered gun. Walter nodded his understanding. One handed, still clutching the suitcase, he opened his own coat to make it clear that he was unarmed, which of course the man took to mean not dangerous. Walter’s mind was systematically shoring up descriptions, licence plate, gun make, and at the same, keeping his attention on the child, as though they might spirit her away in an instant. Which of course they might.

Having shown off his weapon, the man leaned back against the car, a false display of relaxation. He beckoned Walter closer and Walter obeyed, stopping just beyond arms length. The man asked, “The money?” and Walter couldn’t stop the glare of disgust that broke out over his face. The man met it without any appearance of shame. Walter lifted the suitcase, balanced it against his body on the palm of one hand and opened it with the other. As the man inspected the contents he risked another glance at the car. She had turned to look at him now. Her eyes were wide, but not wild and frightened looking as an adult’s would have been. Walter already knew that Children didn’t scare easily: they accepted whatever the grown-ups around them did, no matter how awful, to be what was supposed to happen. That was what made them so vulnerable.

Apparently satisfied with the contents of the case, the scum in front of him slammed a fist against the side of the car without warning. The little girl within jumped, as if at a thunder clap.

Everything happened very quickly. The man in front of Walter grabbed the case at exactly the same moment that the man in the back of the car leaned across the child, opened the car door, and shoved her out of it. Walter dived for her just as the man with the case scrambled back into the driver’s seat. The car screeched out of sight with a pained hiss and roar of overtaxed engine, like a fleeing, vanquished demon. Walter was left gripping the little girl’s shoulders, having pulled her out of the vehicle’s way.

Instinctively, he crouched down beside her and looked her over, moving his hands from her shoulders only to pat her arms. No obvious injuries. His hands finished up in her hands, keeping hold of her in case the delicate balance of innocent bewilderment on her face broke into alarm and caused her to run off. She blinked up at him, her expression empty of either trust or fear, and he understood that she was just waiting to see what would happen next, the way disorientated children did. He checked her over some more, his eyes darting to her knees (ungrazed), to her shoes (unscuffed, probably no struggle then) and to her neck (no bruises, thank God). No bruising on her arms either and her clothes were crumpled but clean. One strand of hair was tangled. Had someone grabbed it? “Did they hurt you?”

She shook her head. “They let me watch cartoons. But I wanted to go home but they said no and one of them was cross.” Her voice wavered slightly, a thin sheen between stoicism and tears. “I didn’t like the food. I don’t like onion rings.”

Walter relaxed very slightly because these didn’t sound like the complaints of someone who’d been tortured or violated. Likely they hadn’t risked that since they planned to return her and collect the money, but not so likely that she wouldn’t need to be looked over by someone more expert than him. He asked her, “Do you know who I am?” Unsurprisingly, she shook her head.

“I’m a friend of your mother and father” Walter paused and amended, “of your mommy and daddy.”

She nodded, accepting this without any proof. Maybe that was how they’d lured her in. Hatred rippled through him at the thought, causing him to involuntarily clench his fists. They had today. Luckily, she didn’t notice his anger, or at least understood that it wasn’t directed at her. She told him, “I want to go home.”

“I’ll take you home.” He stood up, letting go of one of her hands and tightening his grip on the other. Her small fingers squeezed his.

It was a long walk back to civilisation and Walter carried her most of the way.

The tenth thing he bought with the money was Blaire Roche’s safe return.