They meet in 1965. He is lying spread-eagle across a fire escape’s wire mesh grating, arm broken in two places and bleeding, badly. He may be delusional in that moment, pain clouding his vision and the fever of quickly-settling shock distorting his perception and swinging the world out around him in a wide, dizzying arc, but one thought is clear: this is a two-man job, this deep into the thick of things, this far into the blood and filth. He needs someone at his back.
Blood drips to patter onto the pavement below, abnormally loud and distinct against the backdrop of city noise. He really should get up, move. The ability is there but the will is not; if he can just rest for a moment –
Then there is a face hanging in his field of vision, mouth turned down in worry even though he has never seen its owner before, given him any particular cause to be concerned. It doesn’t matter; he’s part of the brotherhood and that invokes its own loyalties. More than that, really, he’s an injured man down and that’s enough, enough for a good man who is in this for the right reasons, who is here to help.
Rorschach doesn’t quite remember the man in the owl suit helping him to his feet and guiding him to the street, but he must have; there’s no way he could have managed it alone.
Their patrols coincide and cross paths more and more as the months go on, to the point that it seems beyond the possibility of coincidence. It’s possible their territories just overlap but the timing is just too good, too perfect. They take it as a sign and start arranging the meetings ahead of time, sweep out the city’s darkest places, together, with a ferocity that blisters like the sun.
‘Nite Owl’, the man calls himself, and it’s not very original, but it’s exactly what Rorschach had thought he would be called, remembering the way the streetlights had glowed around the black silhouette of his face that first night, casting him as a thing that belonged in the shadows, belonged to the night. Just like him.
They are an untouchable whirlwind of justice, dancing in the space between the blows in a way that he never managed to alone. It is as if having an ally in these things, someone who fights the same fights and spurns the same wicked, weak excuses for humanity and the city to be the way it is, has freed him to become himself.
They fight and they win and he only ever feels the bruises later, curled into his bed, black and blue and sore in more places than he remembers being struck.
The other crimefighters in the city look at him oddly, at that first failed meeting and later, whenever he and Nite Owl cross their path on patrol. He is sure it is because of his mask; it’s terrifying to criminals but still unnerving even to good, civil men. It’s meant to be. He takes their awkward, sideways glances in stride, and lets Nite Owl do most of the talking.
One morning, an achey miserable bruised pastiche of sunrise and pain and gratification, Nite Owl takes off his goggles and his cowl, calls himself Daniel. For a moment, Rorschach is too busy remembering another Daniel he’d known – a shy, quiet boy at the home who’d always seemed more in need of a friend than even Walter himself – to realize that Daniel is waiting expectantly, hand out, hoping for a return gesture of trust.
And he almost does it – because he does trust Nite Owl, trusts him with his life, so it follows that he trusts Daniel as well, but when his fingers catch the edge of the mask he panics; gets the jumbled and nonsensical impression of an endless corridor of mirrors reflecting in mirrors reflecting in mirrors reflecting in mirrors, back and back and back, and the sudden upswell of terror is enough to choke him.
So he lifts it above his nose instead, coughing; accepts the hand on his back, bracing him against the fit until it’s worked itself free. That is as high as the mask will ever go, because he cannot bear the thought of revealing his eyes to the eyes across from him, and he doesn’t know why. But the fear feels like falling, like tumbling into himself, like going deeper and deeper and finding out there’s nothing there.
When he is tired or injured Daniel tells him to stay in his basement, on a cot he has set up; the cot is uncomfortable, lumpy, like it’s stuffed with newspapers and wood chips, but he doesn’t complain. It’s warm and dry and safe and when Daniel disappears into what must be the upper stories of the house, he doesn’t wonder where he’s gone or have any inclination to follow. It’s irrelevant; out of his mind almost as soon as Daniel’s out of his sight.
Sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night and he cannot remember where he is; the shadows lurch and leer as cars go by outside and the surroundings keep trying to become warehouses, tenement basements, flophouses – the places he used to stay, hurt and cold and miserable, before Daniel. Before Daniel.
Then it all comes back and the shadows rearrange themselves until the friendly shape of Archie’s windows sit glinting nearby, and the slow arch of the basement stairs, and the hollow blackness of the tunnel, leading off into the dark, unwelcoming city.
And if he wakes up damp and shivering like he’s spent the night under a cold leaking roof, he has no explanation, but it’s not important.
They hover over the city, whipping through its airways and down over boulevards, skimming traffic, and Daniel laughs. The view through these curved windows is more than he’s ever seen, more than he ever hoped he would see, the city spinning out under them for miles like a field of incandescent poppies. And the ship makes patrol much simpler; they fly in low and easy, drop from its belly, take care of the disturbance – giftwrap the offenders for the police and get back on their way.
His feet are still inexplicably sore in the light of every morning, as if he’s walked miles and miles, as he perches on the edge of his bed and works the blisters and calluses and deep bruises under his fingers. The wallpaper curls and the ceiling is cracked and the smell of ripe filth is thick in his nostrils. He is back in the dirt where he should be, and that clean and sharp and brilliant spangled nightscape is someone else’s rightful domain, belongs to someone who deserves it.
Somewhere else in the complex, a child is shrieking, and a mother is screaming, and it feels familiar. He should do something about it.
But he’s tired.
His coat bleeds, and the fire climbs into the sky, and he will never be tired again. He will never be hungry again. He will never need anything again.
The city howls. He understands its language, now.
Daniel doesn't, and stops meeting him for patrols, and he knows that it is because the other man has grown squeamish, has grown afraid of what they have bec– of what Rorschach has become. Justice falters in the face of compromise. No staying power. No dedication. Nothing.
Watching through a maze of glass, Nite Owl begins to fade.
Some nights, he feels like he should be remembering something, something important, as if his attention is required to keep whatever it is whole and real. He catches a glimpse of a crescent moon low over a line of buildings, reflecting in cracked and broken windows, and it almost connects.
When the Keene Act is announced, Rorschach finds him on a rooftop – the roof of the building where they had first met, and he hadn’t had to search. He’d known.
Nite Owl – Daniel – says exactly what Rorschach knows he will say, always knew he would eventually say. It feels like betrayal but it also feels like they’re acting out a play, running from a script somewhere up in his head; he hears the lines almost before they hit the air. Legality. Consequences. A normal life, and something in the phrase stings, cuts him somewhere familiar and resonating. The words sound like they are trying to convince themselves. Rorschach has no time for them.
Daniel disappears, evaporates like fog through graven glass, and Rorschach continues on alone – and somehow, it does not feel as though anything has changed.