This was one problem with vigilantism, Nite Owl thought as he and Rorschach fell in beside a crew of FBI agents to disarm a gang of very unfriendly drug dealers. If we were official, we could coordinate and not find someone else on our bust.
But when he and Rorschach had burst in, the Fibbies had just been storming in through the other door. They had only spared each other half a second of surprised glances before the dealers had opened fire, and both sets of heroes had had more pressing concerns than whose bust it was.
Ten minutes later, with the entire gang bleeding and handcuffed, the thin, very ugly grey-haired man who seemed to be in charge of the Fibbies turned to them. "Charlie Dean," he introduced himself. He wasn't very tall, but he still carried himself with such confidence that it hardly mattered. "If I may, I would like the honor of shaking both your hands."
Nite Owl was surprised, not at the request, but at the way in which it was expressed. The man's tone would have been more appropriate for a complaint that their shoes were muddying the place up. His expression would have been more suited to examining the bottom of his own shoes before scraping something off them. His too-angular face was drawn in what appeared to be a look of permanent disgust, his thin lips pressed together.
Nite Owl immediately extended his hand. "Glad we could help," he said amiably. He wasn't particularly opposed to drugs as such – to be honest, he had experimented in college himself, just a little – but this gang had been one of those that gave "free samples" to children to create their future market, and they had had a nasty habit of shooting competitors.
The man pumped his hand with an iron grip. "You're a great American, son," he said. "Both of you. Not like these dirtbags who are destroying our country's moral fiber with their poison," he added, jerking his head towards the dealers being herded out by his men.
Thankfully, Nite Owl's goggles concealed his rolling eyes.
"We never used to see so much of this poison before the Reds infiltrated our universities," Dean continued, seizing Rorschach's surprisingly passive hand and subjecting it to the same treatment. "Taught our best young people that clouding their own minds, destroying all self-control was acceptable. The attitude's filtered down from our best and brightest to the poor, the people who can least afford it." Dan winced. He should be used to being inadvertantly credited with aiding the decline of civilization by now, but he was only accustomed to hearing it from one person. "Just a few decades ago they would have been hardworking and honest. Back then people knew that their good name was the most valuable thing they could have." Dean released Rorschach's hand and shook his head in weary horror at the shambles of modern society. "Things haven't been the same since President Truman's term."
"Nnk," Rorschach finally remarked.
It was the last thing Rorschach said, until they were both safely on the Owlship and he grated reprovingly, "See nothing funny, Daniel."
"I know you don't," Nite Owl replied, holding his aching sides.
The next night when Dan went down to the Nest, there was a note waiting for him on a scrap of dirty paper. "WILL PATROL ALONE NEXT FEW DAYS," it said, followed by Rorschach's mirrored "R". Dan patrolled alone too, putting a stop to three muggings and a rape before he spotted a shifty-eyed man furtively slipping something to a younger man, looked like a college kid. Setting a bad example for the lower classes, Dan thought wryly. He followed the older man. The kid was just a customer. The older man could be a lead.
He didn't have to hurt the man; the minute he saw the costume, he was shaking all over and practically blubbering, babbling answers to all Nite Owl's questions about his supplier. From there Nite Owl worked his way up the chain of command, beating criminals up as required until one night well after midnight he reached a jackpot of sorts: a crammed office in a dingy back room containing what looked to him like shell corporations and money laundering accounts.
He took the documents back to the Nest; it was past the hour when he usually stopped for the night, and this kind of crime wasn't really suited to superheroes. Caped crusaders were good for punching people, but tracing a paper trail to find out where illicit funds were headed, not so much. The next afternoon, he made a call.
That evening Rorschach showed up at their usual time. They began their patrol as usual, and Nite Owl managed to maneuver them to the area he wanted without trouble.
"It's almost ten o'clock," he remarked as they surveyed the city from the Owlship hovering above it. "There's a stop I want to make."
"Stop?" Rorschach rasped.
"This way. I have some documents to hand over to the authorities. Found them in a drug dealer's office. I thought," he went on as Archie settled on the rooftop in question, "that you might enjoy seeing Charlie Dean again." The two of them could compare notes on the moral decay of America. Maybe they could become drinking buddies, sharing glass bottles of Coke while haranguing each other about fluoride and Communists.
"Dean?" Rorschach said in the tone he might have used to say "Lenin?"
But Nite Owl was already halfway out the door, and Dean was waiting for them, standing there watching the ship. There wasn't time to find out what the problem was. Nite Owl suppressed a sigh as he stepped onto the roof. There was just no telling how to please Rorschach sometimes.
"Agent Dean," Nite Owl said, extending the sheaf of papers. "Here are the documents I told you about. You should be able to-" He stopped when Rorschach materialized beside him and snatched the papers out of his grasp.
"Not for him," Rorschach growled.
The older man just stood there, frozen in surprise. Nite Owl, embarrassed, demanded, "Rorschach! He's the FBI! He's the proper-"
"Hypocrite." As usual, his partner chopped out the word as if he had been granted only so many syllables for his lifetime and had to conserve them.
"He's right," the Fibbie said calmly. Both vigilantes turned to look at him.
"What?" Nite Owl repeated, feeling a little at sea. This evening wasn't going as he had planned at all.
"I have never claimed to be without sin," the man said, the lines of disgust becoming even more pronounced in his ugly, angular face. "In my youth, I knew right from wrong but could not always act accordingly. I was weak. I make no excuses for myself. I have spent every waking minute of my life ever since trying to atone for my weakness."
Rorschach stepped right up to Dean. Dean was only about an inch taller than Rorschach. Rorschach snarled into the man's face. "What weakness? Confess!"
Dean's mouth curled in self-loathing. "I was prey to the desires of the flesh," he said grimly. "I have never married because I'm not fit for any decent woman after what I've done."
Nite Owl got the feeling that Dean "confessed" this sin to anyone who would listen. Still, his curiosity was piqued. Was the man a rapist? A child molester? Or did he just have some kind of fetish that he couldn't live with? "What have you done?" Nite Owl asked before he could stop himself.
"Know what he's done, Nite Owl," Rorschach growled. And with his free hand, whipped his mask off.
Or rather, her mask.
Nite Owl had long looked forward to the day when his paranoid partner would trust him enough to unmask. Now he realized that, if not for Dean, that day might never have come.
Rorschach wasn't just hiding his identity. He was hiding his sex. That is, her sex.
Maybe she had thought that criminals wouldn't be afraid of a female vigilante. Sure, there was Silk Spectre, but despite her respectable accomplishments she had never struck fear into the hearts of evildoers as Rorschach, Hooded Justice, or either Nite Owl had. Or maybe it was her misogyny.
Or maybe it was just that the poor girl was ugly. She had short spiky hair the color of a new penny, not a centimenter of her face was free of freckles, and she had precisely the same angular, badly proportioned features as Charlie Dean.
"My God," Nite Owl whispered to himself, watching the two reactionaries stare at each other. "It's genetic."
"I solemnly promise you, I had no idea a child had resulted from that misguided dalliance," Dean said earnestly, leaving Nite Owl to wonder if anyone else alive still used the word "dalliance" in conversation.
They were aboard the Owlship, sharing coffee and revelations. Nite Owl's head was spinning no less than the others'. All this time, he'd had no idea his partner was a woman. Which was comforting in a way. Not that he had any objection to homosexuality, but his own inclinations had always been towards the fairer sex, with one exception - so he had thought. It had been discouraging to find himself making an exception for the one man who was certain to consider such behavior completely beyond the pale.
Maybe he had sensed it somehow. Regardless... his interest was still probably hopeless. Especially if she had the same attitude towards simple heterosexual fornication as her father.
"Sylvia never told me. The President sent me... well, somewhere else, I still can't reveal where."
"The President?" Nite Owl echoed incredulously.
"President Truman," Dean said impatiently, as if Truman were the only president worth mentioning. "There was subversive activity he needed me to investigate. I saw it as a good opportunity to make a fresh start, get away from the brazen hussy whose wiles had entangled me, to my shame." By this, Nite Owl assumed Dean meant Wanda's mother. "But she knew how to get a message to me. She could have told me." His mouth twisted angrily. "She never did. If she had, I would have offered to make an honest woman of her – as honest as she could be, anyway. I certainly never would have left you to grow up without a father."
Rorschach – Wanda, of all the outlandish names, her mother must have been a bitch – gave a jerky nod. "I know."
Dean looked at his daughter with what looked like reverence. "But you certainly turned out well in spite of that. I never hoped to have a child. Now I find out that not only do I have a daughter, but she's a hero." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I couldn't be more proud of you, Wanda."
Wanda's face promptly turned the exact same color as her hair. While her partner looked on in disbelief, America's most contemptuous, hardbitten vigilante bashfully ducked her head like a schoolboy being complimented on his curve ball by his favorite baseball star. "Wasn't sure it was appropriate. For a woman. But had to do something."
"Of course you did. What's important is, you aren't a whore like your mother. Like so many young women these days. I only wish you had cause to be as proud of me."
Wanda started making strangled enk noises which Nite Owl interpreted as disagreement. Nite Owl spoke up. "Uh, maybe I should drop you two off somewhere you can talk? Catch up?"
Charlie looked at Wanda. "Good idea. I'd like to see where my daughter's living."
"I can let you guys off," Nite Owl offered, even though he was burning with curiosity to see what other secrets his partner had been hiding.
Wanda shook her head slowly. "You can come with us... Daniel."
In Wanda's rented room, Dan found his respect for Charlie increasing more than he would have thought possible. Dan himself was grateful for his mask; without it, his shock at the conditions in which his partner lived would have been impossible to conceal. He had long suspected that Rorschach was poor, mainly because of the mooching, but this was much worse than he had imagined. There was no other word for it: the place was a slum.
But Charlie glanced over the shabby room, its stained wallpaper and ramshackle furniture which had probably been salvaged from the trash without showing any expression, except for a brief nod of approval when his eye fell on the tall stacks of back issues of New Frontiersman. Then he turned to Wanda.
"You live here alone?"
Dan covered a surprised laugh with a cough. It wasn't really funny. Rorschach had obviously been longing all his – her – life for someone she could address like that, with respect. It was actually very touching and very sad.
Charlie put a fatherly hand on Wanda's shoulder. Wanda, the daughter who, two hours ago, he hadn't known he had. "It isn't proper for a young woman to live alone, unchaperoned. I know, you couldn't help it, with no family and no husband. But now that we've found each other, you should come and live with me. My apartment isn't very big, but there's room for two people in it."
Dan didn't expect that to go well. When he had figured out that his partner was living hand to mouth, he had tried to offer help, of a modest kind – offered to buy Rorschach a new suit, for instance. His offers had been gruffly refused. Rorschach didn't want to be the recipient of charity. Dan had started just making sure he always had plenty of sugar cubes and canned goods on hand and pretended not to notice when some of them went missing sometimes.
To his amazement, Wanda said, with what she probably thought was meekness, "Yes, sir."
Daniel was relieved that Rorschach showed up for patrol the following night. He hadn't been sure it would fit in with Charlie's notions of propriety. But when he asked, Rorschach just gave him that inscrutable ink-blot look and said, "Battle has to be fought, Daniel."
"Right. Well, let's fight it, then."
When they patrolled, it had long been their custom for Rorschach to periodically harangue the world in general in the quiet moments in between finding crimes to foil. Mostly their companionship was one of silent camaraderie, but now and then, something would set Rorschach off and he would unfold his wild theories of conspiracies, of Communists and fluoridation, of international bankers ("Not all Jews," Rorschach had said tersely once when Dan had protested at that one) and porn merchants, of modern artists and drug czars. At first, Dan had tried to argue, but soon he had realized how futile that was and would simply let his partner rant until he (she) ran out of steam.
But now, in between skirmishes, Rorschach had turned into a veritable chatterbox. And every sentence began with the same heartbreaking phrase:
"My father says...."
With a full-time, low-paying job in addition to the vigilante gig, Wanda probably hadn't had time to make any friends or form any normal relationships. Dan realized painfully that he was probably the only person Wanda could share this with.
When they were catching their breath after having interrupted a break-in, Dan spoke up before his partner could. "Why did you keep it secret that you were a woman?"
Rorschach stiffened. "Not appropriate job for woman. Didn't want to set bad example."
Nite Owl laughed before he could stop himself. As if anyone looked to a paranoid, reclusive vigilante for a role model. "But you're doing it," he said hastily.
She shrugged. "I can. Most people can't. Has to be done."
Dan supposed that made sense, in a Rorschach kind of way.
At the end of the night, right before Rorschach stalked off into the night, Dan spoke up again. "Wanda?" he said, experimenting with the name.
She stiffened, maybe at hearing her civilian name while she was in uniform, and waited.
"I'm glad you found him."
"Hurm," she replied, and disappeared into the darkness.
The following night, Rorschach showed up wearing a brand new suit and trenchcoat, and, frankly, smelling a whole lot better than usual. If this was the effect her father had on her, Dan was entirely in favor of it. Of course, he mentally reproved himself, she had clearly been living in such poverty that cleanliness was probably beyond her. Cleanliness required time and money, and she'd had little enough of either. And who knew what kind of bathing facilities that tenement she'd been in had had; the bedroom had been horrifying enough.
Dan couldn't think of a polite way to compliment her on not smelling as bad as usual, but he did say, "New clothes! You look great!"
He couldn't see her face, of course, but something in the set of her shoulders made him think she was embarrassed. "Father bought."
"You wouldn't let me buy you anything."
"I suppose so."
They engaged in another night of alternately beating up bad people and Wanda further acquainting Dan with her father's opinions. Which were remarkably similar to her opinions. Dan was starting to wonder if she wasn't actualy his daughter, but his clone.
Dan noticed something else, too. Rorschach was as efficient as ever at bringing down hoodlums, but she was noticeably less sadistic about it. Not gentle, no, but Dan felt certain that the pain that had driven her to do this had ebbed. Sometimes her cruelty had disturbed him, so this was another welcome change.
She was still Rorschach, though. Still the avenger of the night, ruthlessly just. Still the bizarrely creative fighter she always had been; on this night, with half a dozen large armed thugs coming for them, she had yanked open a drawer and flung the contents at them in a well-aimed torrent, contents which unfortunately for them turned out to be apparently the entire line of Ginsu knives.
At the end of the night, just when she was about to leave, Dan gathered his nerve and made his request. Pulling off his own cowl and goggles, he asked, "Rorschach... do you mind if I ask you a favor?"
She only regarded him blottily, so he hastily went on, "May I... see your face again?"
It was a minute before she replied. "Why?"
It seemed a normal enough thing to want to Dan, but Rorschach never had been normal. Not even by vigilante standards. "Because... we've been partners for years and I've only seen your face once?" He tried to think of a way to put it that she would understand and consider valid. "You've been pretty much the most important person in my life for a long time, and I've only just found out what you look like."
She made no response for an uncomfortably long moment, but at length seemed to decide that his unaccountable wish was a reasonable one. She took off her fedora and carefully pulled off the mask.
She was still ugly. There was no denying it. Dan studied her thoughtfully. He had been thinking about this face a lot in the last couple of days. Knowing what it was like hadn't changed the way he felt. The one surprise was how interesting her face was in its awkward angularity. He supposed it was a face one could get used to.
She had held his gaze at first, but his intent scrutiny at length made her uncomfortable and she dropped her eyes. "Know I'm not pretty," she muttered.
"Rorschach – Wanda – the way you throw a punch is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen," he retorted, and he meant it. It was that perfectly flowing punch that had first awakened his interest in Rorschach, a long while back. Her whole body moved with it. It was almost like watching a ballet.
And she always moved that way when she was fighting. Elsewhere she was more awkward, but in a fight or while scaling a wall she was elegance in motion.
"Don't like being without my face," she muttered, pulling the mask back on with an abrupt motion.
"I understand that. I'm sorry. I just had to see you again."
She left without even a hurm. Dan didn't mind. With the image of that gaunt homely face in his mind, he had to think some things over.
Dan took a few weeks to think it over. He had never really asked himself what he felt for Rorschach, aside from camaraderie and lust, because he had always assumed that nothing but the first of those was viable. When he had believed his partner was a man, given Rorschach's hidebound notions, he had resigned himself to unrequited lust and tried not to think about it too hard. There hadn't been any other possible course of action.
Now that he knew Rorschach was a woman and that making his interest known wouldn't automatically get him dropped down an elevator shaft, he had to figure out if he wanted to make it known.
With any other woman Dan had ever been interested in, the course would have been simple. Ask her to dinner, let them see if they still liked each other by the time dessert came, then suggest a nightcap back at his place. Which would probably get him dropped down an elevator shaft.
That was the problem. Rorschach had very rigid notions. With her, everything was all or nothing. If Dan expressed interest, he was pretty much going to have to marry her.
After weeks of thinking it over, Dan hit on what he hoped was a workable compromise, not unmindful of the fact that Rorschach disapproved of compromises. One Friday night as they were finishing up their patrol, Dan said, "Hey, why don't we get some takeout before you go home? You don't have to work tomorrow, do you?"
"No. But should go home."
"Just stay for a little while. I'd like to hear more about your father."
As he had expected, that worked. Even though Dan had already heard plenty about Charlie Dean and didn't really need to hear more.
Still, when they were at his kitchen table with their burgers and fries (American food, not Chinese communist sympathizing cuisine), and Dan had coaxed Wanda to remove her mask, Dan started by saying, "It seems you and your father share all the same values." At the brief nod, he continued, "That's good. But what would you have done if you'd found him and he had been more like, say, me?"
Wanda took a minute to think that over. "You are a good man, Daniel."
"Even though we disagree about a lot of things?"
"Just innocent. Think other people are good like you. Don't know what scum they really are."
"I see." At least that explained how she had been able to team up with him despite his soft liberal values. She thought they were the product of naivete, not... whatever it was that she thought motivated those she designated as "scum".
"Is there anything you and your father disagree about?"
"Thinks I should quit job. Says he owes me. Won't. Pull own weight."
"What do you do, anyway?"
"Work in garment factory."
The words made Dan glance at her uniform. Before, when Rorschach's clothes had gotten bloodstains or anything else on them, they had stayed for weeks. Now her trenchcoat and suit were clean, obviously washed on a regular basis. Speaking of which, she was smelling better all the time. Dan suspected it wasn't only that her father was either making her wash or making it possible for her to do so. She was also probably eating better, now that she wasn't scraping to make rent. The cheap stuff she'd doubtless been living on before couldn't have had a good effect on her body.
"What?" she demanded, gruff.
Startled out of his thoughts, Dan said, "Hmm?"
"Twisted your mouth. Looked sad." She glared at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Ah." He hesitated. "I was wishing you had let me do more for you."
She looked down at her remaining fries. "Not necessary." She paused, then continued. "You are a good man, Daniel."
"I hope your father agrees."
"Does!" was the emphatic response. Wanda then related everything her father had said about the heroism of masked vigilantes. Dan watched her surprisingly engaging homely face and made attentive noises at the appropriate times, but his mind was on other things. He was asking himself, Could we live with each other? Or would we strangle each other within a month?
He wanted it to work. He was lonely, had been for years. But a superhero couldn't marry just anyone. Some women might find the idea of marrying a masked avenger romantic, but presented with the reality, of nights alone at home while he patrolled the streets, of having him stumble in hours after midnight with flesh wounds needing bandaging....
He wanted to believe that Rorschach was his solution. She would understand his life. And he was attracted to her. Her face hadn't changed that. He was glad he hadn't seen it for so long; he might never have been able to see past it to the beauty in her fighting, the grace of a perfectly oiled machine. And they had a bond, built from countless nights of watching each other's backs and risking their lives together. Wanda should be the perfect woman for him.
But now, as they finished up their milkshakes and he listened to her usual reactionary diatribes, different now only because of the recurring prefix: "My father says...." he wondered. Could he listen to this for the rest of his life? And how long would it be before he violated some tenet of her ironclad code, in a way that she couldn't dismiss as caused by his being "innocent"? He would disappoint her. It was inevitable.
And all that was assuming that she was interested in him. She had never shown any sign. It was still likely that this was completely one-sided.
When she pulled back on her mask and left through the tunnel from the Nest, he watched her go and knew that it would never work.
Unfortunately, not all of Dan was willing to listen to the sage conclusion of his rational mind. His attraction to Rorschach stubbornly continued to make itself known at inopportune moments. When they fought together, he would see her powerful blows and be reminded. When he tried to sleep, he found himself remembering those moments, and wondering what she would be like, pressed against him under the sheets. Perhaps she would be shy, at least at first; surely no one else could ever have had the sense to want her. Once she felt secure, all that passion released would be... Dan was afraid to even think of it. For years he had resolutely shoved such thoughts out of his mind, since he had been so sure that they were hopeless. Now that he knew she was a woman and therefore would not consider him a decadent pervert for wanting her, his desires refused to listen to his brain.
He was still wrestling with this days later, on the afternoon when he received a phone call. "Charlie Dean here," the man barked when Dan picked the phone up. "Be in my office at three."
The older man's voice was impatient. "My daughter trusts you with her life. I think I have a right to know what kind of man you are." Then came an all too familiar pause, just a fleeting break in barked remarks, before Charlie grudgingly amended, "If you have another appointment, we can discuss things at some other time."
For one of that clan, it amounted to being considerate. "No, three is fine."
Dan presented himself at Charlie's office at the appointed time and submitted to nearly an hour of brutal grilling. It was irritating, but he supposed that if his daughter was a masked avenger, he would also want to reassure himself about her partner.
Charlie already knew about his moderate politics, it emerged, and he made the same excuse for them as Wanda. But he interrogated Dan about his fighting skills, his motivations, and then about his background in general. When they came to that, Dan decided to take the bull by the horns.
"You do know that I'm Jewish, Mr. Dean?" he asked, his tone challenging.
Charlie looked at him for a minute, then declared, "You shouldn't feel ashamed of that, son. Jews make good Americans! Levi Strauss, Louis Brandeis, any number of decorated World War II veterans. I've had Jews working with me and under me here at the Bureau, and they were some of the best men I've served with." He continued with a rant, the point of which seemed to be that all the "bad" Jews, like Marx, were also self-hating antisemites, while Dan tried to decide whether to be offended at the patronization, or relieved that his partner and her father were a little saner than he had thought.
But then, he thought he could see where this exception to their general bigotry had come from. Both of them had personally known Jews who clearly met their rigid definitions of "good men". Charlie Dean had served with them in the Bureau and the Army, Wanda had partnered with one in vigilantism. With the proof before their very own eyes that the nastier articles in New Frontiersman were clearly in error, they had found a way to make exceptions. Maybe that was all both of them needed to overcome the more unsavory aspects of their ideologies: to personally see evidence to the contrary. Maybe he could even help them with that. He had already helped Wanda with it, more than he had known.
When Charlie was finished putting him through the third degree, Dan left, feeling wrung out but relieved that neither of them had irreparably lost the respect of the other. In the corridor, he found himself confronted by two young Fibbies.
"What's your business here?" one demanded, with the air of one used to the authority of official sanction.
"Personal," Dan said briefly, trying to walk around him. The other blocked his path.
"You an informant?" the second one asked, his tone belligerent.
Dan indulged a brief fantasy of beating the stuffing out of the conceited young man. Would do him a world of good. "I'm a friend of Mr. Dean's daughter," he said, trying again to pass them.
Both men cracked up, and Dan froze. "Another one?" the first one snickered.
"Another what?" Dan was already sure he didn't want to know.
"Don't worry, you're not the only one. Ever since his daughter moved in with him, he's been dragging every bachelor he can find in for evaluation."
Dan was incredulous. "You mean he's...."
"Trying to find her a husband." The second Fibbie guffawed. "But just try to find any man's who's desperate enough to marry a dog like her!"
The next thing Dan knew, the second Fibbie was lying on the floor trying to stanch the blood spurting from his nose with his necktie, the other Fibbie was yelling for security, Charlie Dean was standing in the doorway to his office, and Dan's knuckles were sore.
Dan was preparing himself to apologize and make some kind of excuse when the security guards arrived, but Dean spoke up first. Pointing to the second Fibbie, he said, "Clumsy idiot tripped over his own two feet. Take him to a doctor." Looking at Dan, he said calmly, "Nice talking to you."
Dan left, feeling unaccountably embarrassed, and with an awful lot on his mind.
Charlie Dean wasn't finished with Dan yet, it turned out.
A few days later Dan was peremptorily summoned to Charlie's apartment. He was tempted to refuse, just because the "invitation" was so imperiously delivered, but curiosity overcame his irritation and he presented himself at the appointed time.
The Fibbie's apartment was small, but much better than the one-room cold-water flat Wanda had been living in. It was also neat and clean and decently furnished, though of course with no decadent ornaments or anything. There were two bookshelves in the living room, filled with authors like James Burnham, William F. Buckley, and Ayn Rand. Why am I not surprised? Dan thought wryly.
Wanda had emerged from one of the other rooms when she heard Dan come in. "Hello, Dan." She looked surprised to see him, so evidently she didn't know what this was about either.
"Sit down, Drieberg," Charlie ordered gruffly. "You too, Wanda." They both obeyed, sitting at opposite ends of the spartan couch. "I wasn't able to fulfil my duty to my daughter until now, so I have a lot of time to make up for." From there he launched into a brief discourse on a father's duty, and from there segued into an enumeration of Dan's numerous merits. Dan didn't see where this was going, only because the obvious destination was absolutely impossible.
"But it was when you slugged that impertinent pup at the Bureau the other day that I made my decision. That made it clear that you are the one man to whom I can trust my only child. Dreiberg, I have decided that you will marry my Wanda."
Impossible unless one was Charlie Dean, that was.
Dan glanced nervously at Wanda. Wanda's hands were knotted tightly in her lap, but her expression was as hard to read as if she were wearing her mask.
"I think Wanda has something to say about that, Mr. Dean," he managed in a strangled tone.
"Wanda's a dutiful daughter. She trusts my judgment."
Wanda's expression still showed nothing. Dan supposed that men who go around wearing owl suits have to expect to get into strange situations.
"I'm sure she does, but, you know, Americans are in the habit of choosing their own spouses." Surely Charlie wouldn't want to do anything un-American.
Charlie waved a dismissive hand. "That's a fad. Arranged marriages have worked out well for generations. Look at the divorce rate since foolish young people started choosing their own spouses. I've been evaluating every suitable young man I know for weeks now. You are clearly the best of the lot."
"Um, thanks," Dan muttered. Then he opened his mouth to argue, but was stopped by the thought of Wanda being paraded before more bachelors of her father's choosing, who would laugh at her behind her back and insult her because she wasn't lucky enough to be pretty. Never mind her courage and her integrity (insane as the form it took was) and her imaginative methods of beating up evildoers and the loneliness hidden under an ever-shifting mask. All those jerks would see was her homely face, and they wouldn't care if their remarks hurt her.
He wouldn't make Wanda go through with it, that was out of the question, but he also wouldn't let her be exposed to any more rejection from twerps unworthy to wipe her boots.
Before he could think of a suitable way to voice his acceptance, Charlie clapped his hands on his knees briskly. "Now that that's settled, you'd better go. Wanda and I have things to see to." He rose. "Since you're engaged, I have no objection to you kissing my daughter."
Whereupon, in keeping with his idea of tact, Dean turned his back and affected to be very absorbed in the titles on the spines of his books.
Dan's mouth was literally hanging open in shock when Wanda, ever the obedient daughter, turned to him. He looked at her, not knowing what to do, when she solved the dilemma of the moment for him by leaning over and pressing her lips to his in a brief, chaste, but very sweet kiss.
Dan had wanted to do this for too long. His arms went around her of their own accord. He looked into her gaunt, homely face, and in the midst of the bashfulness he saw a spark he could not resist. He captured her mouth again, and she returned this kiss with as much fire and passion as he could have wanted. As much as he had imagined.
When they broke apart, she immediately fastened her gaze modestly on the floor and mumbled, "See you on patrol."
"Right," Dan replied, dazed. As he walked home, he wondered how much more complicated the situation could get.
Rorschach arrived late for patrol that night for the first time in Dan's memory. She was already masked, but he could see by the set of her shoulders that she was upset.
"Rorschach, what's wrong?" he asked. She stiffened. Maybe he shouldn't have made it so clear that he could tell how she was feeling. There was a reason she had a mask that covered every inch of her face, after all.
"Don't have to go through with it," she rasped.
"Told father I wouldn't. Didn't know he was going to. Why he had all those young men visit."
"I only met two of them," Dan said promptly, "but neither of those two could ever remotely deserve you."
Her shoulders gave a little hunch. "Kind man, Daniel."
"Truthful man, Wanda." Dan groped for words. This whole incident had to have hurt her, and between an unloving mother, an absent father, and growing up an impoverished girl with an ugly face, she had to have experienced enough pain already. No wonder her principles were so rigid; they must seem like the only safety in a perilous world. "Wanda, for years I've – I mean, when I found out you were a woman, I-"
"Late for patrol, Nite Owl," she growled, and stepped up into the owlship.
Daniel sighed in resignation. "What did your father say when you told him you wouldn't marry me?" he asked, following and firing Archie up.
"Argued." The terse response spoke volumes.
"Oh, Rorschach. I'm sorry. I didn't want to be the cause of your first argument with your father."
"Not your fault."
"I'm still sorry. If there's anything I can do-"
"Can concentrate on work, Nite Owl."
Luckily for both of them, there was a great deal of evil afoot that night, allowing them both to work out their frustrations on various deserving miscreants.
For the next several days, Dan didn't see Rorschach without her mask. Only years of acquaintance made it possible for him to sense that she was unhappy. Not the normal unhappiness with the world in general that had pushed her to become a vigilante; this was different. He could see her unhappiness in her posture, in her words which were more curt than ever, in the resigned air with which she beat up criminals.
One night while they were showing a gang of young punks who was boss, one of them got in a lucky stab. Dan felt the pain radiating through his back. He cried out, more in anger than pain with that much adrenalin in him, and turned swiftly to incapacitate his attacker. Before he could lay a hand on the man, Rorschach was on him, battering him with such fury that his remaining ambulant compatriots backed away in horror.
Nite Owl ended up pulling Rorschach off him.
Leaving the gang shackled waiting for the police, the pair got back on the Owlship. Dan got out the first aid kit. Rorschach was already pulling his armor off.
"Hey, let me undo it!" Dan protested, quickly unfastening it. When his back was bared, Rorschach pulled off her mask to examine the wound more closely. Did Dan imagine that those gloved hands were shaking?
"Not too deep," Wanda grunted, exhaling loudly.
Dan gave a little smile as he reached for the kit. She had actually been worried about him. "I thought so. Help me-"
The next thing he knew, her arms were around him, clasping him desperately tight, and he was receiving another of those dizzying, fiery, passionate kisses.
It was impossible to think clearly when you were being kissed like that. Especially by someone who had been the center of your most secret wishes for years. Dan returned the kiss with every bit as much fire and passion, and only after their lips parted did he remember any of the many complications that were keeping them apart.
They looked into each other's eyes for a moment, both too dazed to speak.
At last, he whispered, "Wanda...."
Wanda snatched up the kit and seized him by the shoulders, turning him around roughly and going to work on the wound which was burning dully. He had completely forgotten about it while he was being kissed within an inch of his life.
"Ow! Wanda, we need to talk."
"Quiet. Hold still."
"Rorschach, you've got to tell me what's wrong."
"Give me credit for not being an idiot, okay? You don't fight shoulder to shoulder with someone for years without being able to tell when something's the matter. What's wrong? Are things okay at home?"
"Yes!" she said at once. When Daniel shrugged off her ministering hands and turned around to look at her, she added reluctantly, "Father mad at me."
"Because you wouldn't marry me?"
"Not done with wound."
He turned and let her get back to work on it. "How mad is he? He isn't going to throw you out, is he?"
"No." Her tone conveyed the impression that this was an incredibly stupid question. "Need each other. Family."
"That's good." But Dan just couldn't let the other thing that had passed between them go unremarked, so he said, "You're a good kisser, Wanda."
Her hands froze on him. "Enk," she said at last.
He decided to take a chance. "Would I get slapped if I kissed you again?" Though actually, Rorschach's response to an unwelcome kiss was likely to be more drastic than a mere slap.
The silence behind him lasted a very long time. "Why?" she ground out eventually. "Not pretty."
"You have plenty of other merits. I like kissing you."
Another uncomfortably long silence, and then her voice, only half-gravelly, said with hesitation, "Just a kiss."
He smiled as he turned around. "I know you're not that kind of girl." He couldn't bring himself to put it in the harsher terms she used. With gentleness he cupped her gaunt face in his hands. She looked heartbreakingly uncertain.
Until their lips met, when she drove him out of his wits yet again.
Many kisses and a few minutes later, Dan stepped away from her and drew a shaky breath. "Wanda, we'd better go outside and find some more bad guys to beat up, or else your father's going to come after me with a shotgun."
Wanda made a gesture as if to draw him back, but controlled herself. "Know you don't want...."
"Dammit! Wanda, for years you never gave any sign that you thought of me this way."
"Neither did you," she retorted, looking sour.
"I thought you were a man! But you knew you weren't. How long have you been thinking of me that way?"
She looked at the floor. "Years."
He pulled her close again, this time for a reassuring hug. "Good." His mind was made up.
"Mr. Dean, I believe there's been some misunderstanding."
It was morning and Dan had properly walked Wanda home. It just showed how crazy life could get for a mask that a man like Charlie Dean was glad to see a young single man escorting his unmarried daughter home at dawn.
"Wanda refused to marry me because she thought I didn't want to get married. It wasn't until last night that we had a talk about it and I was able to... reassure her." He had never expected to say what he was about to, but a part of him found it romantic. "Mr. Dean, I would like the honor of your daughter's hand in marriage."
Wanda was standing beside him in her uniform, mask in one pocket, hands clenched into fists.
"I told you I had made the right choice, Wanda," Charlie informed her impatiently, as if it had only been a matter of both of them admitting that he was right. He pulled out his pocket calendar and consulted it. "When should we schedule the ceremony? I know girls always want to be June brides...."
"I don't think either of us wants to wait that long, Mr. Dean," Dan said firmly. "The sooner, the better."
"Young people. Well, I don't see any reason to put it off. Two weeks should be enough time to make all the arrangements."
"Good." Dan caught Wanda's hand and squeezed it. He thought it would be best to get married as soon as possible. Just in case. There might yet be cause for Charlie to come after him with a shotgun.