Even now that patrolling together was no longer routine Rorschach materialising out of the shadows suddenly was something Dan was used to, and he managed to suppress the urge to jump. At least until he saw the wings, intricate black and white patterns fading into the darkness at the edges in a way that made them appear to take up the whole alley. The white practically glowed in the dark, like Rorschach's mask which the wings almost seemed to have been chosen to match.
'Are those real wings?' he asked.
'What else?' asked Rorschach, and the 'you idiot' look was easily readable through his mask.
'They could have been mechanical,' said Dan. It was unlikely, Rorschach's grasp of mechanics was as about as good as Dan's grasp of obscure literary references. And no one but him would be making Rorschach gear. 'When did this happen? And how?'
'This morning. Spent day indoors, too conspicuous. Not sure how, criminal fraternity unlikely. Winged vigilantes not to their advantage. Veidt a possibility, although likely would have asked. Investigation ongoing.'
'You've had wings less than a day and you're out on patrol?' demanded Dan, deciding that was the important part. He was sure having two entirely new limbs would throw off anyone's sense of balance, even Rorschach's. Not to mention that he likely hadn't figured out how to use his wings for anything yet, but they could still be wounded. 'You didn't think you should, I don't know, train first. Just what are you planning to do in a fight?'
Rorschach tilted his head towards Dan. 'Hurm. Wing it?'
Dan closed his eyes briefly behind his goggles. 'No. Come on, we're going back to my place. The city can manage without us for tonight.'
Dan started walking quickly before Rorschach could muster an argument, and was relieved to hear footsteps behind him. Less relieved when they faltered, and he turned to see Rorschach catching hold of a wall to save himself from tipping over backwards. He retraced his steps and caught Rorschach's shoulder, helping him up, and was not surprised to be brushed off as soon as Rorschach had his balance back.
'I knew you shouldn't be on patrol,' he said. Rorschach glared at him and followed him back to his house without comment.
Back home and with Rorschach sitting safely in his kitchen, Dan persuaded Rorschach to let him take a closer look at the wings. He handed over a pack of sugar cubes as a distraction from him prodding at them, feeling like a school nurse handing out lollipops. The wings were big, a harness could possibly be devised to hide them but the result would still make Rorschach look like a hunchback. They were also beautiful. The patterning and, now that he could see them clearly, the shape made them recognisable as gyrfalcon wings. Flight seemed unlikely, but swooping off buildings at criminals was an effective tactic for Mothman and he only had fake wings.
Rorschach was still wearing his trenchcoat, neatly adapted to fit around wings. The back panel had been cut away from the sides, so that it could be pulled up between the wings and then buttoned to the sides above them. The stitching was very neat, and Dan tried to get his head around Rorschach spending his day in hiding adapting his costume with careful stitches. He ran his hand along the edge of one wing, ruffling and smoothing the pinions, slipping below them to feel the downier feathers below. The feathers fluffed up in surprise and there was something about that undeniable reaction to his touch that made him push his luck, sliding his hand under the feathers until he touched skin. The wing twitched away from him.
'Stop petting my wings.'
'Sorry, just smoothing the feathers.' Dan tugged his hand away guiltily. 'They're white morph gyrfalcon wings,' he added, for the sake of something to say. 'Gyrfalcons are the largest of the true falcons, and they used to be flown by kings.'
Rorschach nodded. 'Think I could fly?'
'I doubt it,' said Daniel. 'You could probably glide a short distance, but adding wings to the human body doesn't make it capable of flight. There would have to be other modifications. Body weight for a start, birds have hollow bones…' He trailed off, aware his audience was probably not interested in the specifics.
'I don't know, I wouldn't have thought so. But I wouldn't have thought sprouting wings overnight was possible either.' Dan was more than a little surprised that Rorschach was looking to be capable of flight, rather than have the wings amputated as soon as possible. He wasn't sure he would want to keep unexpected wings, and he'd dreamed of flying since he was a boy.
'Have scales?' asked Rorschach, when Dan looked at him uncomprehendingly he added, 'Internal modifications not obvious. Should check before assuming absence.'
'Oh, yes, in my bathroom. I'll get them,' Dan added hastily, not wanting Rorschach to try and navigate the stairs while overbalanced backwards.
Rorschach turned out to weigh less than a third of what he should, and while he didn't seem displeased with the result it worried Dan. Something had got inside Rorschach and started changing his physiology and neither of them had enough knowledge to know what problems it might cause.
'I think we should call Adrian,' he said.
'Probably wise,' admitted Rorschach. Dan, who had been braced for an argument, hurried to the phone before he could change his mind.
Adrian answered the phone with a great deal of grace for someone who had been called at two o'clock in the morning, brushing off Dan's apologies and merely asking what the problem was.
'Uh,' said Dan, trying to find a way to say this that wouldn't make Adrian think he was on drugs. 'Rorschach kind of, um, we think it was genetic modification. That is, we could use your help with.' Rorschach was definitely rolling his eyes under the mask, Dan could tell. 'With wings,' he finished.
'Gyrfalcon wings?' asked Adrian, sharply.
'Yes, how did you know?' asked Dan, just as sharp.
'I had some serum stolen a few weeks ago that should have had that effect, although it certainly wasn't intended to be used on humans.'
'Oh. What was it intended to be used on? Is it dangerous?'
'No, it shouldn't be,' said Adrian. 'It was intended to be used on cats. I had thought of creating a type of sphinx, but growing wings in utero would lead to problems during the mammalian birth process. So I made an ingestable serum that would alter the genetic structure of an adult.'
'Ingestable? Are you saying Rorschach ate it somehow?'
'Presumably. I don't suppose you know what he's been eating?'
Apart from half the contents of my cupboards? 'No, not really,' said Dan.
'Hmm. I think it would be best if I looked him over, you know where my facilities are?'
'Yes. Thank you, we'll be there as soon as possible.' Dan hung up with a great deal of relief. Adrian knew what had happened and, presumably, could deal with the results. Certainly better than Dan could.
Rorschach paced up and down the owl ship restlessly. Partly because the seats were no longer comfortable, partly from nervousness and partly because he was absolutely determined that by the time Veidt saw him he would be able to walk without stumbling. Medical examinations were humiliating enough without feeling helpless and clumsy in front of Veidt, who always managed to project perfection in spite of being weak enough to quit. By the time they landed he had managed to work off at least some of the tension.
The night sky above Veidt's building was captivating. The one thing he had not told Daniel yet, not after how worried he was about the loss of weight, was what had happened to his vision. The moon, nearly full as it hung above them, was no longer silvery white. The closest Rorschach could come to describing it now was shades of blue, but only if red, orange, yellow and gold all in dozens of hues could be described as shades of red. The colours showed the hills and craters, letting him pick out features he could never have seen before. The stars showed even more colours than the moon, a fistful of jewels scattered over black velvet.
Rorschach forced himself to stop staring upwards and pay attention to their surroundings, New York at night was never entirely safe even if they were in a good neighbourhood here. Daniel looked at him, worried by how obviously he had been distracted, and Rorschach shoved his hands in his pockets and stared back. The door opened, Veidt himself answering his own door for once. Rorschach wondered whether he had given his servants a night off.
Once inside, out of the yellow light of the street lamps, Rorschach could see that Veidt was wearing one of his custom made purple suits. One of the arms didn't match the rest of the fabric, cut from a different bolt of cloth no doubt. Even knowing it was only his new vision and no one else could tell, Rorschach found himself pettily taking pleasure from that.
The place Veidt led them up to was stark white but more like a vet's than a hospital. It wasn't either one. Vets', like hospitals, were for the broken. Places that wanted to fix you. This was a place for transformation, becoming something new not something whole. Rorschach preferred it, but still disliked being examined. None of the hospital gowns would fit over the wings and he refused to be naked. So he stripped to the waist, Veidt examining each carefully adapted garment as it came off before turning the same attention on Rorschach.
'I'll need to take samples,' said Veidt. 'Blood, tissue, bone marrow and semen.'
'No,' said Rorschach, his wings came up instinctively and spread behind him.
'No, you won't let me take samples?' said Veidt calmly.
'Not…Can take blood, tissue and bone marrow.'
'It's not as if taking a semen sample would actually hurt,' said Veidt. 'I need to see if the germline cells have been affected as well as the somatic ones.'
Rorschach didn't even know what that meant, but Daniel responded from behind him. 'No, you don't. The only way that would be remotely relevant is if Rorschach was planning on having children.'
'It may be relevant to future studies,' said Veidt.
'Not a lab mouse, Veidt,' said Rorschach. 'No.'
'Fine.' Veidt looked put out, but at least he had given in. 'Lie down on that table, and I'll take the samples you will allow.'
He swept off to get the equipment he would need, and almost as soon as he had left the room there was a horrendous crash. Daniel and Rorschach caught each other's eyes and followed warily. Veidt was in the room containing medical supplies and the crash had been caused by him knocking over a table, syringes were rolling around the room along with bottles of tablets. In the centre of the room was a pile of wet cement, a bucket dangled above in a harness of wires.
'What on earth happened?' asked Daniel walking in, boots leaving sharp prints in the cement.
'Somebody bypassed my security completely, for the second time this month, in order to use state of the art motion detectors to set up a booby trap,' said Veidt, rolling easily to his feet. Cement was splattered all over one side of his suit, but he wasn't hurt.
'Need better security,' said Rorschach.
'After the first time I got better security. This is the best on the market,' said Veidt. He sighed. 'Go back and wait in the patient area. I'll get some equipment from an uncontaminated room.'
They waited, Rorschach perched on the edge of the table while Daniel leant against the wall.
'Do you think there's a connection?' asked Daniel. 'Between this and the serum being stolen?'
'Seems likely,' said Rorschach. 'Don't understand motives. Trap unlikely to catch Veidt, almost impossible to kill with wet cement. Possible, if it fell directly on head, but not likely. Wings make even less sense. Attempt to compromise identity?'
'But if they didn't know your identity how would they even give you wings?' asked Daniel. 'It's not as if you usually eat while on patrol.'
Rorschach went still, he hadn't even thought of that. Stupid. Going back to his apartment could put him in danger if they knew who he was, but…'Spent eight hours feverish and delirious while wings came through. If identity and lodgings were known to enemy would have expected attack.'
Veidt's reappearance, in a clean suit and a white lab coat, caused them to shelve speculation for the present. He took tissue and blood samples from the body and wings separately. The same went for bone marrow samples and that wound up taking a couple of hours. It was only once everything was done and Veidt had no more reason to handle him that Rorschach was able to retreat behind his layers again and relax.
'Going now,' he said.
'Not yet, please,' said Veidt. 'That was the physical but I still have some questions to ask. Perhaps over dinner, or breakfast, rather, while we wait for the sample analysis?'
The offer of dinner at least meant not sitting in the lab any more, and Rorschach was hungry enough for that to be a factor in agreeing. He had been constantly hungry since the wings came through, his first act after they did had been to eat everything in his apartment. Which had been half a loaf of stale bread, two tins of beans and three of tuna. And eight sugar cubes. So he followed Veidt warily to what appeared to be a whole spare apartment, just in case he felt like spending the night at the lab.
Dan ate separately from Adrian and Rorschach, apparently because of patient confidentiality. He would have been more nettled at being left out if he didn't suspect that Rorschach's version of confidentiality meant not telling anyone anything at all. Adrian was in for a frustrating interview.
Rorschach rejoined him afterwards with a sheaf of lab results and a bag containing pills, vitamins, calcium and iron to be precise, and oil for protecting his feathers. Daniel offered to take the bag because he thought Rorschach might try to lose it but was rebuffed. Back in Archie Rorschach seemed tired of pacing and stood in front of the passenger's window watching the streets below, still holding the bag and file in one hand.
Back indoors he surprised Dan by sitting down in the kitchen and trying to oil his wings. Spread, each one had a span greater than his height and Rorschach's attempts at grooming them were doomed from the start.
'Can I help you?' asked Dan, trying to sound polite and helpful instead of giving away how much he wanted to touch. Rorschach looked at him, swirling ink indecipherable, and nodded.
The feathers were beautiful, up close he could see each one individually. Those banded in black and white near the top, the pure white pinions on the edge. The down underneath, warmer and softer under the sleek flight feathers. He wet his hand with the oil and started at the top, carefully slicking each one. Rorschach twitched his wing at the feel of it, forcing Dan to take a step backwards to regain his balance.
'Relax,' said Dan. 'I'm not going to hurt you, and I can't do this if you keep moving your wings around.'
Rorschach stopped twitching his wing and held it in place, quivering slightly with suppressed tension. The flight muscles were like iron under Dan's questing fingers.
'Relax,' he said again, aware he might be asking the impossible. Rorschach never relaxed. He raked fingers gently over the skin below the feathers, reminded of the pigeons he'd had as a boy. The point where a new one calmed down enough to handle, cradled against his chest with its heart pattering against his fingers as he gently ruffled and smoothed its feathers.
He was halfway through the second wing when Rorschach did relax, the wing stayed exactly where it was but the tension drained out of it like pulling a plug. Rorschach made a tiny sound, not even quite a sigh, and leant forward slightly. Dan wondered what it said about him that warmth stirred in his belly, what kind of person got turned on by wings? He still took his time over the remaining feathers.
Rorschach lay on the bed in Daniel's guest room, one wing wrapped over him while the other trailed across the double mattress. He hadn't even pretended to need convincing when Daniel asked if he would stay, even if someone hadn't tampered with food in his apartment his landlady had a key.
The wings were a liability when it came to hiding his identity. But they were beautiful, gleaming softly with oil in the dawn light filtering through the curtains. He knew that they were a part of Rorschach, not Walter, but unlike his face they were a true part of him. Muscle and blood and bone, the only beautiful thing he'd ever had. Indulgence, keeping them for that, and he had better reasons, he really did. Flight would be useful against criminals, especially when he could see so clearly now. Criminals would never see him coming as he swooped, never know what hit them.
Rorschach ran his fingers over the shining feathers, feeling the lingering ghost of Daniel's touch. Uneasily shifted against the mattress, left with a feeling of vague guilt he found hard to justify. Birds preened, humans didn't even have wings. It couldn't be sinful then, could it? He yawned, and decided to put everything aside until the morning. A chance to sleep in perfect safety was too rare to waste. The wing covering him hitched up and he ducked his head under it, fitting neatly into the curve, and soon he was sound asleep.
The city spread out below him, dark and wrong. Criminals and whores lurked in corners, dogs prowled with blood on their jaws. He was above it all but could see so clearly it felt as if he was down among it. Three men followed a woman, their shadows shaped like jackals on the ground. Rorschach stood, wings beating at the air for balance. He was standing on a hand wrapped in a brown leather gauntlet, looking up he could see Daniel in his Nite Owl costume the size of the Statue of Liberty. Daniel's eyes were focussed past him on the criminals below, he raised his hand causing Rorschach to flap again then paused and looked down.
Their eyes met, neither goggles nor mask a barrier, and Rorschach suddenly knew what would come next. Faced forward bending his knees as if he was about to spring into a somersault, memories of gym class coming back to him, and spread his wings as wide as they would go. Daniel threw him, and he was free and weightless in the air.
He turned his fall into a savage dive pulling up short in time to swing both legs into one man's chest as he landed, cracking ribs. A blow from a wing sent the second man into a wall, shattering his spine. The third he took down with a punch to the jaw. The woman ran, her high heels clattering into the distance, and Rorschach let her go. The third criminal was the smallest, but he was still forced to drag him in a series of fluttering flights before he could drop him at Daniel's feet.
Daniel picked the criminal up and dropped him into a nearby police station before his hand came down to scoop up Rorschach, offering him a sugar cube between finger and thumb. Rorschach bent forwards to lick it up, tasting worn leather and sweetness against his tongue. The fingers of Daniel's other hand ruffled the feathers of his wings, gentle and delicate for all their size. They found the sensitive spot where the wings joined his back, rubbed there firmly making him arch with pleasure. Slid further down until it wasn't feathers they stroked at all, rubbing over his hips and stomach. Huge and kind and pleased with him. They were so warm he was tingling with it, blood collecting wherever they stroked, and they went lower.
Rorschach woke reflexively before he came, the same instinct that wakes people from nightmares on the verge of screaming. When he checked the clock it was eleven thirty, Daniel probably wouldn't be awake since it had been six in the morning before he went to sleep and Rorschach couldn't leave the house until he found an effective way of hiding his wings. There was no way he was getting back to sleep, but Daniel had a gym he had used before. Working out was a good way to burn excess energy.
Dan woke to early afternoon light seeping through the curtains and turned his head into the pillow to shut it out before remembering that Rorschach was in the house. Even if he was perfectly capable of finding himself lunch Dan should probably get up and offer to make some. He pulled his pants on with one hand, stifling a yawn with the other. Noises from the gym pinpointed Rorschach's location and he swung the door open, intending to ask if Rorschach would like an omelette, but the words died on his tongue.
Rorschach was using the punching bag, wearing his pinstriped pants and no top. Two sharp jabs with his fists, muscles standing out along his arms and shoulders, and then his wing came round filling the air with black and white as the edge caught the punching bag and sent it bobbing. A blow of a swan's wing can break a man's arm. The words went through Dan's head like a mantra, his brain didn't have enough blood left for anything more.
Rorschach's expression was hidden behind the mask but savage concentration ran through every line of his body and the sharp predatory sweep of the wings. As the punching bag settled he took half a step back and both wings swept forward, catching it between them and throwing it. Dan watched Rorschach step forward and brace to land a punch as it came down, beautiful in the way raptors are beautiful with the wings perfectly suited to his small tense body, and slipped away to start the omelettes. He would call Rorschach when they were done, when he wouldn't have to explain away an erection.
Rorschach wolfed down his omelette in record time and gave the plate a look that suggested he was thinking about licking it. Dan slid his own, just cooked, omelette onto Rorschach's plate along with a few more slices of toast.
'That's yours,' Rorschach protested.
'I can do a third one easily enough, there's plenty of eggs,' said Dan, forestalling further argument by breaking two of them as he spoke. Rorschach gave in and his second omelette disappeared almost as quickly as the first.
While Dan was still eating Rorschach surprised him by sliding a brown folder onto the table next to him. Flipping the cover open confirmed it was the one Adrian had given him.
'Are you sure?' asked Dan.
'Want to know if I could fly. Couldn't get a straight answer from Veidt.'
Dan flipped open the folder, slightly unnerved by the fact that Rorschach stayed there and watched, and scanned pages dense with scientific jargon. Higher metabolism, he noted, he was going to have to stock up on high protein snack food. And then resist the temptation to eat it himself or he'd put on weight in no time. The possibility of flight wasn't laid out anywhere, he had to piece things together. But he had degrees in aeronautical engineering and ornithology, piecing together an estimate was not impossible.
'I'm pretty sure you could fly, once your wings have built up some muscle,' he said finally to his impatient observer. 'You won't be able to launch from the ground though, you'd have to be at least a few stories up.'
Rorschach responded with a pleased grunt, one that usually meant the latest clues fitted his preferred solution. 'Plenty of skyscrapers,' he said.
'Mm. And you could launch from Archie,' said Dan, still flipping through the folder. The silence that followed that reminded Dan that he and Rorschach didn't really work together anymore. Surprising how easy it was to forget with Rorschach back in his life, even if his trenchcoat was filthy and he'd lost all his pronouns somewhere.
'Would like that.' The almost shy note in Rorschach's voice was the closest thing to emotion Dan had heard from him in months. Maybe his partner had been as lonely as he had. It gave Dan the courage to voice his next idea.
'I think we should leave New York for a bit,' he said. 'You can't learn to fly with criminals looking over your shoulder, and there wouldn't be room for you to do it indoors. My family owns a farm, I go there sometimes to get away and watch birds for a while. Plenty of space and privacy.'
Rorschach shook his head. 'Would be imposing.'
'No, you wouldn't. Look, if you don't want to come that's fine. But if you're saying no because you think you ought to then don't bother. I've been missing you like crazy for months now, I don't think I'm cut out to work alone.' Dan paused, wondering if the last part had been going too far. Rorschach's wings were half spread, telegraphing fight or flight in a way Rorschach had to be unaware of. Dan got up and started picking up the breakfast things, trying to break the tension he had just created. The washing up was almost done before Rorschach answered.
'Yes. Will come. Thank you for offer.' A pause. 'Have things to fetch from apartment, will go tonight. Can leave after that.'
'Day after tomorrow,' said Dan. 'It'll give me time to buy some supplies.'
Rorschach might not have been up to a full patrol, but he was confident he could take anyone stupid enough to attack him. Considering he hadn't been able to walk two blocks without overbalancing the night before he thought he was doing pretty well, and walked down the streets near Daniel's tunnel entrance with confidence. Near his apartment he took to the roofs, testing how far he could jump with his wings spread as he went. The sense of triumph as he cleared an alley made him feel like a child and elation made him want to try jumping across a road. But pride comes before a fall, and in this case that was probably literal, so he swung down a drainpipe and crossed the road on foot before going up a fire escape on the other side.
His apartment building was surrounded by cars, all of them bearing Veidt's logo. Rorschach froze where he was, furious at the betrayal. How long had Veidt known who he was? What did he want? The feeling of helplessness only fuelled his anger, and he headed for Veidt's building in a direct line across the rooftops.
Veidt was in his office despite how late it was, and he opened the window when he saw Rorschach outside. A cat was sitting on his desk, a pale silvery grey with ebony black spots and coppery eyes ringed with black. Probably the intended recipient of Rorschach's wings, he had to admit they would look striking on her. Rorschach sat on the windowsill, wings draping around him like curtains.
'How long have you known?' he demanded of Veidt.
'Your identity? About as long as you've known mine.' Which was a few weeks after the Crimebusters meeting, when Rorschach decided that those heroes Captain Metropolis had felt it worth inviting were the ones to keep an eye on. He'd succeeded in uncovering all identities except the Comedian's.
The cat hopped off the desk and strolled over to paw at Rorschach's wings. He pulled them back, draping them outside the window where she couldn't reach.
'This is Sekhmet,' said Veidt, picking her up and stroking her. 'A silver ocicat and, in a few weeks, the worlds first sphinx.'
'Hurm,' said Rorschach. 'Why were your people at my apartment?'
'Because the serum you ingested contained a virus. A highly controlled one which "locks on" to the genetic code in the first cell it infects and as a result spreads virulently throughout the body, altering one person's genetic code, without being contagious. Or at least it shouldn't be. Exposing people to someone infected with the live virus at this stage of the development was never planned. I needed to check it hadn't spread before we have an outbreak of wings.'
'Have something like that and you use it to make a sphinx?' demanded Rorschach. 'Could cure cancer.'
'No, it couldn't. Cancer cells contain mutations, sometimes cumulative ones, the virus would "lock on" to healthy cells and affect everything except the tumour. Cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia, on the other hand, it could deal with quite well.' Veidt smiled. 'Yes, I'm aware of the possibilities. This was simply a test. And, I'll admit, a somewhat whimsical one. But there's no harm in a little frivolity.'
'Still had no right to know my identity,' growled Rorschach, returning to his original point. 'And could at least have warned me not to return to apartment.'
'Since you knew mine a long time before you had a right to, I think we should just call it quits. Don't you? And I apologise for not warning you. Tomorrow night it will be over, and you can return if you really want to,' said Veidt, implying that he couldn't imagine why Rorschach would want to.
'Some of us have better things to do than make money,' said Rorschach.
'But think of all the things you can do with money. Like curing cystic fibrosis.'
'Or making mutant pets?' Rorschach stood up, spreading his wings for the jump to the ground. 'Goodbye, Veidt.'
He landed harder than he meant, almost tipping forward, and glanced up quickly to check Veidt hadn't been watching. But it was the cat whose head was poking curiously out of the window. Rorschach glared at her and stalked off.
Daniel was in the basement when he returned, a latex wing harness lying finished on the table while Daniel rummaged through metal drawers.
'Lost something?' asked Rorschach, and Daniel looked up from the sheaf of paper in his hands.
'Hello,' he said. 'I was just looking for the plans for that jetpack from a couple of years back.'
Rorschach eyed him through the mask. Was Daniel looking to be able to fly now that it looked as if Rorschach would be able to? 'Bad idea, Daniel,' he said.
Daniel laughed. 'I remember. God, I'm lucky you were here or I'd never have got down from the ceiling. No, I'm not planning on rebuilding it. But I could easily modify it to give one thrust and then have the power cut out.'
Rorschach frowned. That made no sense, to have a jetpack that would get someone into the air and then drop them. Unless they had wings, but couldn't launch from the ground. 'For me?'
'Yeah. Think it would work?' Daniel dropped the paper and opened another drawer, continuing before Rorschach had answered. 'Did you get what you wanted from your apartment?'
'No. Veidt's people were there.'
'Huh? What did they want?' asked Daniel. When Rorschach had finished explaining he whistled and shook his head. 'A controlled virus. Is there anything that guy can't do?'
'Can't build an owlship,' said Rorschach fiercely, and Daniel laughed.
With the harness holding Rorschach's wings to his back and one of Dan's coats over the top the effect was…odd.
'Well, you don't look like you have wings,' said Dan apologetically, as Rorschach surveyed his hunchbacked reflection.
'Will do,' said Rorschach. 'Good disguise.'
Dan helped him take the harness off, pausing to smooth some of the feathers it had ruffled. 'Shall I preen them again?' he asked. There was a very long pause before Rorschach nodded.
Rorschach was even more tense than the day before if that was possible, and Dan was starting to feel nervous as well. Bad enough worrying that Rorschach might punch him, but he'd seen how far those wings had thrown the punching bag.
'Calm down,' he said, as much to himself as to Rorschach. 'This wasn't so bad yesterday, was it?'
'Felt bad afterwards,' Rorschach muttered, and Dan wondered what exactly that meant. He was fairly sure asking was a bad idea.
'It's no different from patching each other up after fights,' he answered instead. 'You've patched me up often enough. Just taking care of each other.'
Rorschach actually relaxed a little at that, and Dan took it as enough of an answer. But after a while Rorschach spoke. 'Are partners again?'
Why are you asking me? thought Dan. You're the one that stopped turning up for patrols. 'I hope so,' he said.
Once Dan had finished with Rorschach's wings he was expecting him to go to bed, or train. Instead he trailed Dan back to the basement, silently watching while he searched out the jetpack plans. He'd just found them and was looking for a pen to scribble some notes when Rorschach spoke.
'Daniel?' When Dan looked up he was toying with the edge of his mask. 'Will be travelling together to your farm. Awkward to do in costume.'
That got Dan's attention entirely. He had assumed they would travel in costume, at night, and accepted the awkwardness as a necessity. Back when they'd started out he'd waited eagerly for his partner to trust him with his identity, but he had long ago accepted it would never happen. Rorschach simply wasn't capable of that level of trust. So why now?
'Awkward, yeah,' he said, hating himself for not saying you don't have to or we can manage. But he'd wanted to see Rorschach's face for more than a decade, was it so wrong to not discourage him from showing it?
Rorschach slid his fingers under the mask and ducked his head. Dan could hear him take a breath from across the room. Then, with the resolute quickness of someone tearing off a plaster, he tugged off the mask. The ginger hair wasn't a surprise, it matched the stubble he revealed every time he ate, and Dan had seen his back and arms often enough to expect the freckles no matter how little they fitted his image. The surprise was the sad, blank eyes when he was expecting them to be sharp and fierce. Rorschach turned a dull look on him, daring him to judge what he was seeing.
'Pleased to meet you,' said Dan, holding out his hand and feeling silly. 'What do I call you?'
'Still Rorschach,' said Rorschach, taking his hand. 'Walter in public. Walter Kovacs.'
'Is that your real name?' asked Dan as they both broke away from the handshake. Rorschach shook his head.
'Real name is Rorschach.'
Dan understood that in a way, knew that he felt different when he was Nite Owl. More powerful. There had been mornings when he wished he didn't have to take the costume off and lose that certainty of purpose, but he knew that impulse was unhealthy. Rorschach was living proof of that. As if in echo of Dan's thoughts, Rorschach tugged the mask back on as soon as Dan turned away.
It was evening a few days later when they reached the farm. Rorschach got out of the car almost as soon as it was parked and with a great deal of relief. He had been sitting sideways in the back seats so as not to crush his wings against a backrest, but they were still cramped from all day in the harness. Cars made him feel sick, and reading or writing in them made him feel worse, so he had spent the day bored, miserable and determined not to whine about any of it.
Once out of the car he shed his coat and harness, unfolding his wings towards the sky and ignoring the ache as they protested. The pull of stretching them ran through his back and chest as well. It was the first time he had seen his wings in daylight in the open air, and he looked up through crisp feathers at the slowly darkening blue sky with a sudden surge of longing to be up there. He had always liked heights, had often eaten lunch at Charlton wedged between the forked branches of an oak. There had been too many children with serious behaviour problems for teachers to object to harmless oddities and they had let him stay where he felt safe.
'I'll preen you once we've got the luggage in,' said Daniel, watching him flex his wings. Rorschach nodded, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief at the prospect of strong fingers easing his cramped muscles. The suitcases were carried in first, then Rorschach brought the coat and harness he had left in the back seats. His face was in the coat pocket and he was in something of a dilemma about putting it on. It felt wrong to wear it in daylight and it felt wrong not to wear it around Daniel. Being around Daniel in daylight was something he had never expected to happen.
In the end he left it off out of a feeling that Daniel would prefer it as well as, in a roundabout way, out of anger at Veidt. Veidt had been the first of the heroes to learn his identity when it should have been Daniel, who would never go behind his back to learn it, but he would never willingly unmask in front of Veidt. So he left his face off as a gesture of trust and perhaps an apology for not trusting sooner.
Rorschach sat on a stool in front of the kitchen table while Daniel preened him. The little farmhouse had unvarnished wooden furniture and whitewashed walls held up by unpainted oak beams. The floor was terracotta tiles and the curtains in the windows were faded orange. Rorschach liked it, old-fashioned and unpretentious, owning a summer cottage might be a mark of Daniel's wealth but the place itself didn't show it. Daniel's house always made him feel a little like an intruder, taking advantage of things he could never have afforded, and even if that was still true here it was easier to forget.
Looking around had made him forget to fight his enjoyment of being preened and he had relaxed despite himself. When Daniel's fingers dug in, easing knots out of his tendons, he pressed his wings back into the massage. A world away from the nervous twitching Daniel objected to before. Once he became aware of how good it felt he should have pulled away, but the car ride felt like pre-emptive penance and he guiltily gave in to pleasure. Daniel seemed to sense he wasn't going to pull away and took his time, paying careful attention to what felt like every single feather on both wings. By the time he was done Rorschach was relaxed enough that he could have curled up and gone to sleep on the kitchen table.
'Are you going to stay awake long enough to eat?' asked Daniel. There was a lilt of laughter in his voice, but it was affectionate and Rorschach couldn't work up enough energy to mind.
Dan carefully picked up a wire with his tweezers and held it in place ready to solder. Dragging the components for a jetpack out here would have taken up too much space, so he was working on some smaller gadgets in his makeshift workshop. As he picked up the soldering iron he listened with half an ear for the semi-regular thump on the roof that he had got used to over the last three days. The workshop was in an old stable block, six or seven metres from the house, and Rorschach had been fluttering back and forth across the gap like a fledgeling hopping between branches. His short flights were getting much more graceful, and even on the gently sloped roof of the farmhouse he could usually manage a decent landing now. The thumps had been getting softer as he worked on that.
A glance at the clock when he had finished soldering showed half past twelve, lunchtime, and Dan washed his hands before going inside. The late spring weather was beautiful and Dan gave in to an impulse that went with the kind of food he had brought, pork pies, sausage rolls and scotch eggs. After making sandwiches to go with them he took a rug outside and started setting up for a picnic. It wasn't long before Rorschach came down from the roof in a beautiful forty-five degree glide, landing so neatly he barely disturbed the grass.
One of the first things Dan had learnt when Rorschach started going maskless was not to try and read his expression, he didn't have one. But his body language was the same as ever, and Dan recognised the half glance over his shoulder as a request for approval. 'Nice landing,' he said obligingly.
'Improving,' said Rorschach, sitting down on the rug. Dan had expected him to ask why they were eating outside, but he should have known better than to think Rorschach would ever question the presence of food. In fact he tucked in with an enthusiasm that left Dan suspecting he wasn't the only one who still thought "party food" was the epitome of fine dining. Heroes tastes run to the immature, thought Dan wryly. Whoever would have thought it? It felt good to be out in the sunlight and fresh air, eating triangular sandwiches and drinking coca-cola from plastic cups.
'When I went for a walk this morning I found signs of a family of foxes,' said Dan. 'I thought I'd go and have a look at them tonight, when the cubs will be out. Want to come?'
The suggestion was an impulse, it was the kind of thing he used to do with his mother and the kind of thing he was sure Rorschach had never had a chance to do. All the same he was surprised when his brutal crimefighting partner tolerantly agreed. He found himself smiling as he tidied up the picnic things, Rorschach was starting to feel like a friend as well as a partner and Dan was enjoying the company.
Late that evening they headed for the little stand of trees where the den was. Dan was wearing his night vision goggles, which Rorschach disapproved of.
'Not appropriate without costume,' he said.
'We're in the middle of nowhere,' protested Dan. 'And on the million to one chance someone did show up here tonight, my goggles are a long way from the first thing they'd notice.'
'Not the same,' said Rorschach, but since he didn't want to put his wing harness on he let the subject drop.
They moved slowly near the den, approaching it from downwind so as not to alarm the foxes. Little yipping cries could be heard as they got closer and Dan smiled, familiar excitement welling up. This whole trip was making him feel like a child on holiday again. Peeking through a fork in the branches Dan could see three cubs. One, the largest, was stalking a moth with quick clumsy movements, uttering a sharp bark of protest when she tripped over her own paws. The other two were squabbling over the nearly stripped bones of a rabbit, nipping at each other as much as the remaining meat.
Dan let out a soft huff instead of laughter which might startle them, and gestured Rorschach forward to take his place. Rorschach moved silently as always, wings stirring the bracken around him slightly. Dan watched his face wondering if he would be able to see clearly or whether he should offer him the goggles. For the first time Rorschach's face showed an unmistakable expression. Pure horror.
'Rorschach?' Dan didn't know what Rorschach was seeing but he doubted it was the foxes, his eyes seemed to be looking straight through everything to some horror underneath. When there was no answer Dan put a hand on his shoulder. One wing came round to deliver a curving blow and Dan rolled with it rather than shatter. Landing in a patch of brambles was like falling into a pit of wildcats, thorns scratched his arms and face leaving him grateful for the goggles. Rorschach loomed above him, fluffed up feathers making his wings appear even bigger, and Dan cowered away before he could stop himself.
Rorschach sucked in a breath but couldn't seem to form words. Instead he crouched and reached a hand out to Dan. When Dan took it it was cold despite the warm evening, and he held it tightly as Rorschach helped him to his feet.
'Let's go home,' he said quietly.
They were nearly at the house before Rorschach regained the ability to speak. 'Sorry,' he said, voice stripped of its familiar growl. 'Didn't mean to.'
'I know,' said Dan. And he did know. There had been times when he'd been afraid Rorschach would hurt him, especially in the last year, but he'd never thought he would intend to. It was more like fearing a half-feral animal, which might lash out just to get away. Now that it had happened he found he was more worried about Rorschach than himself. 'It's just a few scratches,' he continued. 'Are you okay? Where did that come from?'
'Can't say.' Rorschach didn't mean I don't know, he was refusing to talk about it. Or saying he was unable to talk about it, and either one meant there was no use in pushing.
'I'll make us some coffee,' said Dan. He wished he knew whether backing off was the right thing to do, or just him being a coward.
'Thank you,' said Rorschach and there was gratitude there for far more than the offer of coffee. All the same when he came into the kitchen to drink it he was wearing his mask and Dan wished desperately that he understood why.
Rorschach woke from dreams of dogs and blood and Daniel shattered at his feet to find one wing numb from having been trapped under him as he slept. Pins and needles shot through it when he flexed it, and he flapped it hard making the curtains blow around. He probably deserved the pain, though, he'd been so stupid. Thinking being miles from New York, miles from anyone but Daniel, meant there was nothing that could hurt him. Letting his guard down, starting to open up, as if vulnerability was a luxury anyone could afford. Much less someone like him.
He couldn't afford to be affected like that by the sight of violence, especially something as simple and innocent as fox cubs with a kill. Even if there were blood flecks on their muzzles and sharp teeth, even if the way they squabbled looked like…Rorschach bit down on the pad on his thumb without thinking, pain jolting him back from memory. Stupid. Couldn't afford to be incapacitated by memory the way he had been last night. From now on his defences would be staying up.
Daniel wasn't awake yet, Rorschach had woken up early, so he helped himself to sausage rolls from the fridge and headed for the roof. He wanted to be somewhere high. The view from the roof was calming, green fields that had once been farmland and were now a haven for wildlife. It was the first time he had looked at them through his face though, patches of translucent darkness falling over them like the shadows of stormclouds.
A kite was hovering above, and Rorschach felt an odd kinship with it. Daniel had pointed out the different birds to him on the first day there, trying to hide jealousy when he realised Rorschach could see better without the binoculars than he could with them. The effortless loft of its wings was something he envied, and it made him want to stop roof hopping and try to really fly. Later. He shouldn't jump into something like that at the beginning of the day, especially with one wing still tingling from being slept on.
The flight between the stable roof and the house was familiar by now. He stood on the edge of the roof facing the house, bent forward slightly. The wings had shifted his centre of gravity up and back, balance was harder and toppling in either direction far too easy. Knees bent slightly, wings spread, and he leant forwards to tumble from the roof, pushing off lightly just to be sure he was clear of it. One moment of weightlessness and then the downbeat, a few powerful strokes upward and he was above the house roof and could drop the few feet onto it with his wings still spread to set him down gently. It was a point of pride not to land on all fours, judging his balance well enough to touch down without having to fight to stay upright. His gymnastics teachers would have been proud.
Daniel came out after a few flights, giving Rorschach a friendly wave before disappearing into the workshop. Rorschach dipped his wings in response, startling Daniel's worried expression into a brief grin. Rorschach stood on the roof after he had gone, wrapping one wing forward around his body. Fingers trailed along the leading edge then down across his chest. It wasn't obvious except to touch but his chest was more solid than it had ever been, packed tight with the muscles anchoring his wings. It had only been three days, but he had been training solidly and he felt ready to try. He wouldn't go high, just a short, low flight across the fields and he could glide down when he was tired.
He tumbled forwards, off the front of the stable instead of the side this time, tucking his legs up against his chest once he was clear. Letting them trail behind him shifted the centre of gravity away from his wings, making flying harder than it needed to be. The sun shone through the clouds and they didn't have silver linings, they had linings like blue-shifted rainbows. Rorschach craned his neck to look at them, look at the vast and open sky. So easy to fall into it, leave everything behind and fly free as a soul. He was flying straight into the sun and he couldn't look at it but he could still reach for it. For warmth and light and beauty. Humans have always been drawn upwards, souls and angels both have wings.
It was only when his wings cramped, over-extended muscles protesting the hard use, that Rorschach realised how high he had gone. The fields were spread out below him like patchwork. Something bright and sharp inside him urged him to fly higher, as if he could leave trauma below him as he soared. Or as if it wanted to leave him broken in a field when his wings gave out. He pushed himself into a downwards glide instead, forcing his wings to hold the position as they tried to cramp inwards, and lost control barely six feet from the ground. Grazed hands and sore wings were the only harm from his misadventure, but he couldn't find the will to move from his position as he lay crumpled on the ground.
He didn't know how long he had been there when he heard Daniel calling, fear running through his voice like a ladder in silk. Dragging himself out of the half daze he had fallen into took effort, but he pulled himself to his knees and called back.
'Not hurt, Daniel.' Not quite true, his chest and shoulders hurt as well as the wings themselves. Mostly he was shaken, by his own carelessness and that sharp, reckless impulse he was trying to forget.
Daniel slowed from a run as he got closer, coming to a halt next to Rorschach and reaching out a hand to help him up. 'What happened?'
'Went higher than intended. Distracted. Able to glide down but lost control during landing.' Rorschach let Daniel pull him to his feet and leant into him, holding onto his shoulder. Pretending he needed support to stand as an excuse for contact. 'Lucky they're not made of wax.'
That got him a few seconds of silence followed by a startled bark of laughter. Daniel hooked an arm around his waist and they started walking back across the fields. Rorschach's flight had taken him a surprisingly long way.
'You have got to stop scaring me like this,' said Daniel.
Rorschach nodded against his shoulder, relieved the only reference to yesterday was that oblique. Daniel still wanted to know, of course, but as long as he didn't ask Rorschach wouldn't have to explain why he couldn't tell him. In a way it would be good to tell, spill it all out and stop bearing the horror of it alone. But knowledge was poison and he'd rather swallow that poison down every day for the rest of his life than risk it touching someone he cared about. A year, it had been a year, and none of the pain of the Roche case had faded. Maybe it never would. Rorschach leant into Daniel, suddenly tired beyond bearing. A year was a terribly long time, and he still had the rest of his life to go.
Over the next three weeks they fell into an equilibrium, in some ways the same one they'd always had. Dan didn't ask any questions and Rorschach didn't give him any answers. To be fair Dan had a few secrets of his own and one of them was this: Rorschach in flight was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. It would be enough to make him jealous if he wasn't too busy being awestruck and deeply turned on.
On the day he got the phone call that put an end to their getaway he was lying on his back watching Rorschach fly around the edge of the field by the house. Cornering was done with crisp precision, Rorschach swinging his legs out to bring his body around in a way that reminded Dan of a trapeze artist. When he suddenly reversed his direction in midair, folding his wings in tightly while he flung himself around then flipping them out again before he lost too much height, Dan gasped like a kid at the circus. The telephone ringing from inside the house dragged him reluctantly away, and he answered it impatiently wondering who on earth had his number here.
'Hello, this is Daniel Dreiberg,' he said.
'Hi, Dan,' said Laurie's voice down the phone. 'Listen, have you heard about what happened to the Comedian?'
'No. I'm in the middle of nowhere, I'm afraid, we haven't really been getting any news.' And a good thing too, news reports of crime would have drawn Rorschach back to New York faster than an iron filing to a magnet.
'He nearly got blown up by a bomb shaped like a whoopee cushion,' said Laurie. She didn't sound particularly sorry about it.
'A bomb shaped like a whoopee cushion,' echoed Dan. 'Did Adrian tell you about the wet cement booby trap in his supply room?'
'No,' said Laurie, sounding startled. 'A mask killer with an odd sense of humour?'
'A fairly incompetent one since no one's dead yet,' said Dan. 'And I have no idea where Rorschach's wings fit in.'
'Yeah, I heard about that. What are they like?'
'Uh.' And now Dan was struggling to think of a word that wasn't beautiful. 'Very impressive. Black and white so they go really well with his costume. And he can fly now, it's amazing, he can turn one-hundred-and-eighty degrees in midair. And dive. The first time he did it I thought I'd be scraping him off the ground and then he pulled up and landed, light as a feather, without even stumbling.'
'Huh.' Laurie didn't sound that impressed, or maybe it was just that she didn't like Rorschach much and Dan was gushing a bit. 'When are you going to get back?'
Dan sighed. 'Probably any day now. Rorschach isn't going to want to stay here with a mask killer on the loose in New York, and we've pretty much accomplished what we came for.'
'Be careful once you get back, then. Whoever this is he's getting through everyone's security.'
'You too,' said Dan, and he could hear the smile in Laurie's voice as she replied.
'I've got Jon watching out for me. Come and see us when you get back.' Dan agreed and they hung up with mutual promises to meet and no solid plans. Looking up he saw Rorschach in the doorway, mask swirling in indecipherable patterns.
'How much did you hear?' he asked.
'Enough. Will go back tomorrow.' It wasn't a request, never mind that they were miles from anywhere and Dan was the one that could drive.
'Okay. I'll start packing,' said Dan.
Rorschach turned to go outside again but stopped in the doorway with his back to Dan. 'Thank you for hospitality. Has been pleasant staying here.'
'You're welcome,' Dan replied hesitantly. Hesitant because that sounded suspiciously like a goodbye, and was Rorschach really planning on disappearing again as soon as they got home? The doorway was empty before Dan found a way to ask.
Unfairly he cursed Laurie while folding clothes, if she hadn't called maybe they could have stayed at least a little longer. Nite Owl should be looking forward to hitting the streets again, but all he could think of was evenings spent wondering where his partner was and whether he'd killed anyone tonight. Are you really willing to go back to that? he asked himself. Is this where you want to be in ten years time? Waiting for your best friend to stop by to steal food and not really talking to him when he does? Stumbling over words because you don't know what might set him off or drive him away? Are you really going to let him spiral off into paranoia and depression because you're too scared of doing the wrong thing to do anything at all?
It was all very well asking himself tough questions, but everything Dan knew about PTSD he'd learnt from Hollywood. None of it included how to help a violent vigilante who didn't want to talk and would react badly to being cornered. And if Dan did drive him away, really away to the point he wouldn't come near Dan's house, what would he eat? He needed more food now, and Dan was pretty sure he didn't have a job.
Ten years ago, when he'd been an awkward kid crushing like hell on his cool older partner, he never would have thought he'd have to worry about Rorschach like this. Even two years ago when he'd been a solid, if quirky, friend and their partnership was something that could be taken for granted. Rorschach had always been the brains of the two in the ways that mattered, handling tactics while Dan used his brains to provide muscle in the form of gadgets. And then something had broken and Dan was left scrambling, trying to understand what he'd missed. Why his partner was now a killer, why he hardly saw him anymore, what had hurt him badly enough to cause all this?
When Dan went down to the kitchen he could see Rorschach through the window still circling the field. He would be tired soon, and Dan started to put together drinks and biscuits to take outside. If they were going to talk it had to be today, before they were home and Rorschach had a chance to do his disappearing act. Time to grasp the nettle.
He put down coca-cola and iced biscuits and sat next to them, trying not to think of it as leaving crumbs to lure down wild birds. Rorschach landed next to him and sat down, slipping his mask up over his nose to drink. He was shirtless, pale skin glistening with sweat, and Dan took a moment to wonder whether he should have brought sunscreen before pulling his mind back to the subject in hand.
'I need to ask you something,' he said, ignoring the way Rorschach went tense. 'Before we left New York you asked if we were partners again. Are we?'
'Appreciate help but have adapted now. Can work more efficiently alone.'
Because I'm not there to stop you killing people? thought Dan, then decided it was time to stop pussyfooting around and said it out loud. If Rorschach was shocked at least it would be a reaction.
To his surprise Rorschach nodded calmly. 'Do not understand, Daniel. They deserve to die. Can not ask you to kill when you don't see that, but justice must be served. Will not allow you to prevent it.'
'And if you're wrong? What happens when you make a mistake and it costs someone their life?'
'Being soft costs lives. Lets criminals go free to prey again, victims dying in alleys until streets are crimson with blood. Will not make that mistake again.'
Dan took a mouthful of coke, wishing it was something stronger. 'Are you telling me it wouldn't bother you to find you'd killed an innocent man in cold blood because you misconstrued the evidence?'
'Am careful. Gather evidence and do not kill unless I am certain.'
Isn't Adrian meant to be the arrogant one? thought Dan. This was getting nowhere. Rorschach was so certain of his justifications he wasn't even ruffled, trying to argue morality with him was like beating your head against a brick wall. And for some reason Dan was thinking in clichés. Time to try a different tack.
'The thing with the foxes,' he began. That ruffled Rorschach, entirely literally as his feathers stood up in reaction. 'You said you couldn't tell me about it. Can you tell me why you can't tell me?'
Dan let the silence after that drag on. Somewhere there was a happy medium between not doing anything and pushing too hard and he was trying to find it. Rorschach fiddled with his mask, pulling it right down before he answered.
'Knowing killed Walter. Won't do that to you.'
Oh. Rorschach was trying to protect him. The knowledge of what was behind Rorschach shutting him out, the odd distancing and sudden lack of communication, left Dan feeling an almost painful tenderness towards his partner. In the last year Rorschach's erratic behaviour made it too easy to start buying in to the media's tendency to paint him as a sociopath. But Rorschach's heart was still there under layers of defences, like a pearl inside a particularly disgruntled oyster, and he was as fiercely protective of Dan as ever. He'd just found a strange new way to express it.
'Hearing about something isn't the same as seeing it,' said Dan carefully. 'I'm not saying it won't upset me, but it won't harm me to know what happened.'
'Won't risk it.'
'Okay.' Dan took a deep breath. At least he was getting some response. Keep going. 'What did you mean about it killing Walter?'
'Before was just a man in a mask, like a child playing dress-up. Like you.'
Was he trying to be offensive in the hope Dan would drop the subject, or did he just not care? Impossible to tell.
'So what are you now?' asked Dan.
'Rorschach. Hurm. Asking a lot of questions, Daniel.' And there's a warning in Rorschach's voice now.
'Because this might be the last chance we ever get to talk without you vanishing as soon as I start asking questions.'
Rorschach looked Dan in the eyes and the inkblots almost seemed to form some halloween parody of a face. It was hard to hold a steady gaze instead of following their shifting edges but Dan managed it, he wasn't going to be the first to look away.
'What is it you want, Daniel?' Rorschach asked, growl softening around the edges.
Dan didn't know, hadn't thought of an answer to that question. What did he want? 'To see you more than once a month even if we're not patrolling together. To know you're okay.'
Rorschach looked away and pushed his mask up so he could eat a biscuit. It was gone in a couple of bites. 'Could come to see you every few days,' he conceded. 'For preening.'
'Yeah, you're still going to need that aren't you?' said Dan. He felt almost giddy with relief, if Rorschach said he'd stop by every few days then he would. Even if there was still a lot that needed working out between them at least he had gained a future chance to do it.
The docks spread out below Rorschach like a map, the view familiar from patrols in Archie. But tonight he was up here under his own power, circling over it on thermals from the cooling river. The Comedian was in town and this was his territory, Rorschach kept an eye out for the leather costume as well as for any criminals pointing guns upwards. The first sign somebody had thought of that and he would dive.
The Comedian, when Rorschach spotted him, was already engaged in a fight with some gang members. Rorschach threw himself into his most impressive dive, kicking out at the nadir of it and sending one thug flying. He landed and knocked the other with his wing, aiming for the neck and hearing a snap when he hit.
'Nice,' said the Comedian, expression invisible behind his leather mask. 'Guess they're not quite as ridiculous as Byron's.'
A moment ago Rorschach would have said he was well beyond getting his feelings hurt by something so petty, but the Comedian's faint praise stung worse than an outright insult.
'Came to ask you about bomb,' he said, getting down to business.
'Nothing much to tell. I got back to my quarters and there was a whoopee cushion on the armchair. Nobody should have been able to get in so I was already suspicious. Then I picked it up and it was heavy, so I hightailed it and called the bomb guys.' He shrugged. 'Think someone's after masks?'
'Seems likely.' His prime suspect was currently Ozymandias, who knew his identity and made the serum for his wings. But he was reluctant to accuse a fellow mask without evidence. 'Would like to investigate apartment.'
'Sorry, Inky. No can do.'
'Why not?' said Rorschach, hands clenching into fists. Looming over someone bigger than him wasn't easy but he'd had practice and the wings helped. The Comedian wasn't impressed anyway.
'Because I don't want you knowing where I live. Think you'd invite me round to your place if I wanted to investigate?'
'Hurm. Point taken.'
Maybe he could follow the Comedian home but he'd tried that before and it hadn't worked, perhaps because he respected the Comedian too much to try very hard. Instead he took to the bars, asking for information about a possible mask killer. A stream of seedy bars and broken fingers netted him nothing, and he was left in the grey light before dawn wondering whether to go and see Daniel. He had promised every few days, but not every day. On the other hand if he went today, when he had nothing better to do, he wouldn't have to go tomorrow. And, deep down, he wanted to see Daniel. The last three weeks had been spent living in the same house and eating meals together and, although Rorschach wasn't prepared to admit it, it had taken him less than twelve hours to start missing that.
He entered Daniel's house by the tunnel entrance, coming up through the owl's nest and into the house. There was no sign of Daniel, perhaps he was still on patrol, so Rorschach helped himself to cereal. The sound of something fluttering above him gave him pause. A bird? Probably on the roof, but it sounded closer than that and there was something panicky about the fluttering. A long mournful hoot followed. An owl? He didn't think they lived in New York and, much as Daniel liked them, he wouldn't be keeping one in his house. Rorschach put down his cornflakes and went to investigate.
The sound was coming from the attic and the ladder to it was already down. It made sense, Daniel wouldn't leave a frightened bird fluttering around without trying to help. But there was no sound of Daniel moving around up there. Maybe he had gone to find something to catch it in, or phone the vets. But he would at least have put a box over it, surely? Something was wrong. Rorschach climbed the ladder soundlessly, on high alert.
Daniel was lying prone on the floor, blood pooling around his head. A metal bucket lay next to him, blood smeared on the rim of it, and a rigged harness above like the one in Veidt's laboratory. Beside him was a tape recorder playing the sounds of a trapped owl. There was a chemical smell in the air. Rorschach forced himself to remain still, three heartbeats while he scanned the attic for enemies, and then ran to Daniel's side. Daniel was wearing a shirt and pants but the clear liquid splashed over him had eaten holes in them and was doing the same to his skin, raw red patches were all over his chest and thighs.
Rorschach stripped Daniel's clothes off, including the dissolving boxer shorts under the pants, and tried to drag him to the top of the ladder without rubbing against raw patches of flesh. The acid was on his gloves and trenchcoat where he had brushed against Daniel, but they were leather and it would take them a while to dissolve. He couldn't carry Daniel down the ladder, he was strong but he wasn't that big, and was forced to dangle him through the trapdoor, hands under his arms, and drop him. Getting him to the bathroom had to take precedence no matter how little he liked the way the limp form crumpled to the carpet.
Rorschach managed to lift him once they were down, pulling him into a fireman's lift rather than drag half-eaten skin over abrading carpet, even if it meant getting acid on his mask and wings. Once he had Daniel in the bath tub he doused him with water from the shower, holding Daniel's head up with one hand and the shower with the other. As soon as he thought the acid was reasonably dilute he stopped to strip off his mask, gloves and trenchcoat. He managed to prop Daniel up enough to get in the bathtub with him and rinse off his wings without risking drowning him. With that done he returned to running water over Daniel, not sure how much it would take to be certain.
Daniel's eyes flickered open after a while, he wasn't sure how long. 'Rorschach?' he said weakly. 'What?'
'Acid. Bucket knocked you unconscious.'
'Oh.' Daniel looked down at the red patches burnt into his skin. 'Would you mind getting me some painkillers?'
'Will do. Take shower, keep running water.' Daniel complied and Rorschach left to fetch painkillers from the kitchen. Half way down the stairs he started shaking and had to lean against the wall until he could get it under control. It always hit him like this when Daniel got hurt, he stayed calm and practical long enough to deal with it and then the realisation hit when he knew it was over. The knowledge that if he hadn't been there and the enormity of having another human being depend on him that way was overwhelming. Rorschach clenched his fists and forced the shaking to subside. Daniel still needed him and it wasn't over yet. He went to the kitchen to fetch painkillers.
Rorschach knelt between Dan's legs, carefully winding bandages around his thigh, while Dan sat on the lid of the toilet. Dan had been lucky, he knew, it hadn't been that long before Rorschach found him and, despite the bucket hitting him on the head, he only had a slight burn down the side of his face and nowhere near his eyes.
'I'm going to look like a mummy,' he said, looking down at his already bandaged torso.
'Better than looking like a puddle,' said Rorschach without looking up.
'Yeah. It's a good thing you came by this morning,' responded Dan, not sure whether he wanted to laugh or throw up at that mental image.
Rorschach's bandaging faltered, fingers digging into the fabric. 'Nearly didn't. Thought it was weak wanting to see you. Nearly decided not to.'
He looked so miserable that Dan couldn't help reaching out and running a comforting hand through his hair. Maybe it was all the preening he'd been getting but it felt like a personal triumph when Rorschach didn't flinch away. And he'd wanted to see Dan, had come here not because he'd promised but because he wanted to. That was enough to make Dan feel a little giddy despite the burns.
A sound like a giant soap bubble bursting made him look round to see Rorschach's mask dissolving into a puddle of black and white goo. Dan felt Rorschach jump against his leg, and he was so used to thinking of it as a part of Rorschach that the sight was creeping him out as well.
'Uh. Will you be okay?' asked Dan. As dependent as Rorschach was on that thing it was an important question.
'Fine. Have another.' But his eyes kept flickering to it even as he finished bandaging Dan and it was a relief for both of them to move into the bedroom when he was finished.
Dan slowly and painfully dressed himself, having to focus on what he was doing. Which was why it wasn't until he was dressed he noticed that Rorschach had pulled out a suitcase and was stuffing things into it haphazardly.
'What are you doing?' he asked.
'Can't stay here in vulnerable state. Breached security. Should book into hotel under a false name.'
Okay, that made sense. Was Rorschach being saner than usual, or did paranoia just seem saner when it was justified? 'What about you? How will you find me?'
'Coming with you. At least until are somewhere safe.' Rorschach had pulled an old winter scarf of Dan's out of the bottom of the closet and was tying his wings back with it. The sight of Rorschach with a blue and yellow stripy scarf confining those lethal looking wings was oddly hot. Dan shook his head at himself. 'Can borrow coat?' added Rorschach.
'Sure.' Dan turned to look at himself in the mirror. He looked mostly normal, all the burns hidden except for the one on his face. It wasn't serious, but it did leave a noticeable red patch running down his forehead and across his left cheek.
'The Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame walk into a hotel,' said Rorschach unexpectedly. 'Needs punchline.'
Dan looked at Rorschach's badly cut ginger hair and the bulge of his wings under Dan's coat and back at his own face in the mirror and burst out laughing. It wasn't so much that the joke was good as that he had nearly died and needed some way to release the tension. When he had trailed off into quiet chuckles he looked at Rorschach and saw a slight smile around the corners of his mouth. It made him wish he had a camera just so he could prove to himself later that he hadn't imagined it.
It was only after Rorschach had left him in the hotel they had chosen that the implications of a mask killer sank in and he realised the lack of casualties had stopped him from taking it quite seriously before. He grabbed the phone and dialled a familiar number.
'Hello, Hollis Mason here,' said a sleepy voice on the other end.
'Hollis, it's Dan. Have you heard about the mask killer on the loose?'
'Yes.' And suddenly Hollis didn't sound sleepy at all. 'Are you okay?'
'Just about, thanks to Rorschach turning up at the right time. I'm in a hotel under a fake name until we can get to the bottom of this. How do you feel about joining me?'
'You really think they'll go after old timers like me?' asked Hollis doubtfully.
'I don't want to risk it. Please Hollis, the hotel allows pets so you won't have to leave Phantom,' he added, grateful that he had noticed the sign in the entrance hall.
'Okay, if it'll make you feel better. I guess I'm due a couple of days off.'
Hollis arrived with Phantom a few hours later. The german shepherd was barely more than a puppy, and hadn't yet realised that jumping up at people was no longer cute. Dan wasn't really a dog person but he ruffled Phantom's ears anyway and was rewarded with a huge doggy grin.
They were drinking beer when Rorschach returned, still maskless but in his own coat and probably his proper wing harness. He shot an accusing look at Dan when he saw Hollis and Dan was just about to apologise when Phantom noticed the new person in the room and bounded over to greet him. Rorschach went white, his freckles standing out like dots of blood, and backed up against the wall. Phantom followed, tail wagging uncertainly.
'Phantom. Here boy,' said Hollis firmly, and to Dan's relief the dog trotted over and let Hollis grab him by the collar. A soft growl filled the room, but it was coming from Rorschach.
Dogs. German shepherds. Fox cubs and bones. Change the sizes, imagine they were dogs, and what size would the bones be? Rorschach always took kidnapping cases. The thoughts tumbled through Dan's head, starting to form connections his mind wanted to shy away from. He wouldn't let it, for Rorschach's sake he needed to know.
'Hollis,' he said, voice distant in his own ears. 'Would you mind taking Phantom for a walk?'
Hollis earned his undying gratitude for at least the twentieth time by complying at once and with no questions asked. Dan turned to Rorschach, still white, still shaken, still exhibiting the same tension that had got Dan a wing to the chest when he tried to break it back at the farm.
'It was a kidnapping case, wasn't it? It went wrong and someone tried-' Dan stopped and swallowed hard. 'Tried to dispose of the body. By feeding it to dogs.'
Rorschach nodded, fingers going to cover his mouth as if they would hold back the words he didn't want to say. 'Her name was Blair Roche.'
Rorschach told the story in short, bland sentences, hoping to shield both of them from the horror, but dark poetry crept in around the edges bringing memories too vividly to life. His wings were straining frantically against the harness, pulse beating hard in them, and his chest was clenching with something like nausea. It felt as if he was about to throw up his heart, leave it wet and glistening on the hotel floor. None of that made it's way into his face and his voice only got flatter as he tried to iron out every hint of emotion. When Daniel took a step towards him he took a step back, keeping the distance between them exactly the same.
Once it was done, once Daniel had heard about the blood hitting him like a perverse baptism, about the greasy smoke making its way towards the moon, they both swallowed and looked away, the air too thick with the tension they shared like filaments binding them together. When Daniel took deep breathes Rorschach could almost feel them, the same sick horror cloying his own lungs. Too close, too close. A touch now and they would never quite be separate again.
'Leaving,' said Rorschach. 'Things to do. Back tomorrow.'
'Okay, man,' said Daniel, his quiet voice threaded with sympathy and pain. 'Tomorrow. Take care of yourself until then, okay?'
'Will be fine, Daniel. Nothing's changed.' But it had because he'd never before felt the need to offer reassurance. There was something between them, growing quietly in the soil of friendship and new understandings, but he couldn't grasp it without touching and once he touched it there'd be no going back. Better to leave, get some space, put his face on and build his barriers again. Pretend Daniel hadn't made a gateway through all of them or that he had the heart to brick it back up.
He took Rorschach's costume to Hollis' house before putting it on, breaking in through a window and doing his best to fix the broken latch behind him. If there was going to be an ambush here it wouldn't be Hollis who was ambushed. Sitting on the banisters over the stairwell gave him a good view of the upstairs and a quick way to get downstairs if necessary. Rorschach focussed almost violently on the tiny sounds of an empty house, cooling pipes and settling floorboards, anything to keep him in the present and make it impossible to think.
The sound of a key in the front door brought him to high alert. Shifting forwards on his perch, ready to drop, he could hear the door opening and a woman wearing a red raincoat appeared beneath him. She was carrying a large marble owl figurine in her arms and a satchel over one shoulder. Rorschach dropped, landing silently behind her and hooking one arm around her neck before she could react.
'Why kill masks?' he growled into her ear. She twisted in his grip and when he saw the face under the raincoat he felt a reflection of the unease he caused in others. It was a white shield shape, a wide smile painted on it in black and upwards pointing triangles for eyes. The owl fell from her arms and he had to sidestep to stop it falling on his foot. In one twisting motion she was out of both his arm and her coat, revealing a skintight black costume with colours rippling across it like an oilslick. When she turned back to him the mask showed a mouth downturned and wailing, which tipped back into the smile as she tilted her head.
Rorschach eyed her warily, his wings brushed the sides of the narrow hall when he tried to spread them and would be useless now the first ambush was over. They were around the same size, both athletic. He was doubtless a more experienced fighter than her, but his wings would hamper movement slightly and he had had less than a month to adapt to the change of balance.
'Isn't that what villains do?' she asked.
Rorschach thought of the odd booby traps and lack of effort put into making them effective. 'You're playing,' he said, disgusted but not shocked. Most supervillians had at least a hint of that attitude or they'd just commit crimes in regular clothes.
'We're all playing. Life is a cabaret, and we're just the ones that wear our costumes on the outside.'
'Accurate but overly dramatic,' said Rorschach.
She laughed, a deep chuckle and not the affected giggle he had expected. 'Overly dramatic? I am Drama!'
'Ennk. Bored child looking to spice up life. Need to find more original hobby.'
'Like doing the same thing while playing for your team? This is way more fun.' She was backing towards the front door as she spoke and Rorschach followed at the same pace, when she lunged for the door he caught the beginning of the movement and leapt after her, bringing her down with him on top of her straddling her waist. She twisted under him, swung both her legs up over his right wing and wrenched down on it. The pain shot down his wing and through his chest as well, making him hiss with it.
'Let me up and I won't break it,' said Drama, her legs gave another little jerk to send a fresh wave of pain and make her point.
Rorschach's hand closed on her neck. 'Will not compromise.'
Drama sighed and leant her head back, the fingers of one hand tapping convulsively across her palm. An electric current hit, sizzling over his back and wing and squeezing his heart. Drama kicked him off casually and reached for something in her backpack. Spray paint? She seemed to be leaving an outline of him on Hollis' floor. Rorschach pulled himself to hands and knees and made a lurching grab for her ankles.
'You don't give up, do you?' she said. 'I kind of like that.'
And she was gone, flipping her raincoat around her with practised ease and out the door.
Hollis returned alone, rousing Dan from the half-stupor he had fallen into since Rorschach left. 'Where's Phantom?' he asked.
'I left him with a friend,' said Hollis, he looked at Dan's slumped posture 'There's a coffee machine in the hall. Want one?'
'Thanks,' Dan murmured. When Hollis put the coffee into his hand the warmth and sweetness chased away some of the tiredness he was feeling. There wasn't anything it could do about how heartsick he felt for his partner.
Hollis squeezed his shoulder. 'You know I'll help if you need me,' he said.
'I know,' said Dan, smiling tiredly at Hollis. 'But it's not my story to tell. And I doubt there's anything you could do.'
'I know what it's like when things start falling to pieces and you'd give anything to fix them,' said Hollis. 'Just to go back to how things were.'
'I'm not sure I would,' said Dan pensively. 'I mean, I want to fix things. And if I could go back in time and make it so…certain things…never happened then I would. But I'm not sure I want to go back to how things were. Since Rorschach got wings I've been preening him And he's been letting me, he doesn't shy away when I touch him anymore. And when I said I worried about him he agreed to come by every few days. Rorschach doesn't make concessions. And I've seen his face, I know his name. I've got more out of him in the last month than ten years previously.' Dan swallowed a large mouthful of hot coffee, feeling it scald its way down the back of his throat. 'He's starting to trust me. And I'd trade that for him being okay, if I could. But I want both.'
Hollis sat down in a chair across from where Dan perched on the edge of the bed. 'If you ask me you're more likely to get both than one or the other. Having someone to trust can go a long way towards helping someone find a way to be okay. Nothing wrong with wanting that.'
'Thanks,' said Dan. He gulped the rest of the coffee down despite the heat. 'Can I take a raincheck on this conversation? I need to get my thoughts in order.'
'Sure,' said Hollis as Dan stood up. 'Going for a walk?'
'Yes,' said Dan. 'I'll be back for dinner.'
The walk did help clear his head, despite the effort it took with nearly fresh acid burns over much of his front. Being out in the open air and brushing shoulders with people who each had their own concerns both helped dispel the claustrophobic sense remembered pain had left in the hotel room. The thing to do was not get bogged down in what he couldn't change, in wringing his hands and wishing. Nite Owl had been created out of his urge to stop second guessing himself and make a difference, and since he and Nite Owl were the same person he pushed guilt and regret aside and tried to think of something useful he could do. The answer he came up with wasn't dramatic but it was a familiar one: become informed. So his feet trod the familiar path to the library.
Normally he looked for ornithology books and technical manuals, occasionally trashy detective novels although that had mostly been when he was younger. Rorschach had always been a little amused at Dan's choice of reading material, but perhaps it was just that the heroes tended to resemble him. Dan smiled a little, only Rorschach could have completely missed Dan's attraction to him especially back then. A good thing he had, though, or Dan would have lost his partner a long time ago. And that thought was enough to wipe the smile off his face completely as he turned back to doing what he had come for and started searching the psychology section.
Dan read the book he found on PTSD in the library, guiltily aware of what Rorschach would think if he knew. But it was natural for Dan to deal with things by reading about them, and the act was comforting in itself. At closing time he was kicked out and hurried back to the hotel at a jog, feeling guilty for being away all afternoon. He found Rorschach lying prone across the hotel room floor, an icepack balanced on the back of his wing joint.
'What happened?' asked Dan, kneeling beside Rorschach to see for himself. The back of the wing was burnt, several feathers gone or obviously singed.
'Pulled muscles and electric shock,' said Rorschach, shifting to look at Dan over his shoulder. 'Met our mask killer.'
'Did you put anything on it?' asked Dan. At Rorschach's negative he fetched the burn ointment he had brought to use on his own burns. 'I should pluck out the damaged feathers too,' he added. 'Otherwise they won't grow back until you moult. If you ever do moult.' The thought of how irritable birds could get deep in moult made him hope Rorschach wouldn't. Rorschach told him about the encounter with Drama while he plucked out feathers and smoothed ointment onto the bald patch it left.
'She sounds insane,' said Dan when he had finished.
'Yes,' said Rorschach. 'Makes her unpredictable. Doesn't care if she succeeds so no use assuming optimum planning.'
'She's got some kind of gimmick though,' said Dan. 'Owls for Nite Owls. A whoopee cushion for the Comedian. And, well, I guess your wings are black and white?'
'More likely wings intended for you,' said Rorschach quietly. 'Should have realised before. Eat more of your food than own.'
'That makes sense. You protect your identity a lot better than I do,' said Dan, resettling the ice pack. 'Shall I preen you now?'
'Hmm,' said Rorschach, the tone making it an affirmative. 'Sand or stone for Veidt? "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone" or "lone and level sands stretch far away".'
'Is that Ozymandias?' asked Dan, starting to oil the unsprained wing.
'Yes. Good poem. Poor choice of name.' He stretched, the wing being preened winding up mostly across Dan's lap like a muscular blanket. 'Drama has access to holographic fabric. Costume has wire filaments woven in, treated to be iridescent. Also carry electric shock. Must be insulation inside. Tactics geared to running away more than fighting. Electric shock to make attacker let go. Gymnast or dancer. Suspect dancer.'
'Why a dancer?' asked Dan, feeling like Doctor Watson.
'Had poise like performer not fighter. More heavily muscled on legs, slightly leggy build. Suggests dancer.'
'Okay, so she's a dancer with access to some pretty fancy fabrics,' said Dan. 'How old was she?'
'Young. Hard to say, no skin visible at all.'
'Well, I could look up dance academies and troupes,' said Dan. 'Or we could just start with Broadway, which could probably keep us busy for a year by itself.'
'Easier to wait. Will come to us. Next trap will be more effective.'
Dan switched to the sprained wing, careful to be gentle with it. 'The next trap had better wait a few weeks,' he said. 'By then your wing will have healed and your feathers should have grown back in.'
'Will still patrol,' said Rorschach.
'Okay,' said Dan, knowing there was no way of stopping him. 'Just wear your wing harness when you do. For support.'
'Intended to,' said Rorschach.
Dan carried on oiling feathers, feeling the tension between them pull tighter again now they were done talking business. 'About what you said earlier,' he began tentatively.
'Still not tomorrow yet, Daniel,' said Rorschach sharply.
'Okay,' said Dan. 'Hey, it's nearly dinner time. Want me to bring you some up?'
Hollis ate with them in Dan's hotel room, and his stories about the Minutemen stopped the silence becoming awkward. Afterwards Rorschach left to patrol, and when he didn't show up at all the next day Dan wasn't really surprised.
Just before midnight the next night Rorschach slipped open the hotel window and found Daniel sitting up in bed waiting for him.
'At five minutes to midnight, you're cutting it a little close,' said Daniel, holding out a hand to help him down from the windowsill.
Rorschach took it and went to move forwards, but the sight of faint red rims around Daniel's eyes stopped him and his grip tightened unconsciously on Daniel's hand. 'You've been crying.'
'Sorry. It all sort of hit me this afternoon and I just. Sorry.' Daniel looked guilty and anxious as if he was expecting Rorschach to scold him. It made Rorschach uncomfortably aware of all the times he had lectured Daniel, unable to bear weakness in his partner and words coming out harsher than he meant. It made him want to do something, to comfort, and he clumsily copied the gesture Daniel had used on him, reaching out and running a hand through brown curls. The nervous guilt lifted off Daniel's face like fog melting in the sun, and Rorschach felt something warm kindle inside him at the sight.
'Because of what I told you?' asked Rorschach, hopping down from the windowsill.
'That's part of it. The other part…there are some things you just don't expect to have attacked. For me one of them is Hollis, and if I hadn't phoned him he'd probably be dead.'
'Understand.' They were standing facing each other, awkward in a way that was different from the way they'd been awkward with each other before. Then it had been about not upsetting the status quo, not risking the balance that somehow allowed them to be friends. Now the status quo had already changed, and the resolute look in Daniel's eyes said he meant to push it further, but they didn't yet know what it was or what it would become. Daniel took his glasses off and started cleaning them, Rorschach pulled a sugar cube from his pocket, both of them seeking familiar habits.
'We need to talk,' said Daniel, quietly.
'Why? It happened. Told you about it. Over now.'
'It's not, though,' said Daniel. 'It changed you. You're still responding to it.'
'Responding to what it taught me. No way to unlearn facts.'
Daniel sighed, put his glasses back on and rubbed his forehead. 'I know you can't go back to before the Roche case happened. I'm not asking you to. But, even with what you saw, killing people isn't a normal response.'
'Normal is twenty-seven people watching while a woman is stabbed to death. Never wanted to be normal.'
Daniel just looked at him, train of thought clearly derailed, before asking, 'Kitty Genovese?'
Rorschach nodded. 'Reason I became a mask. Didn't want to be one of the people who watched. Didn't want,' he reached up, running a finger over the smooth latex of his face even though touching it would ruin the symmetry. 'Didn't want to see a human face in the mirror.'
Daniel swallowed. 'Is that why you like having wings? Because you think it makes you less human?'
Rorschach stared at him through the shifting shadows of his face. He hadn't thought of it like that, but Daniel was right. Thinking of the wings as part of Rorschach and not Walter, as on a par with his face, was a way of distancing himself from humanity. Making himself something created and not born, a creature that had never been a helpless child or a young idealist.
'You're still human,' said Daniel. 'With or without wings, with or without a mask, there's still a person under there. I'm not friends with black and white latex and a pair of wings.'
'Not the same person I was.' But he was afraid, because maybe that wasn't as true as he thought. He'd been having dreams about Daniel, thoughts and feelings Rorschach wasn't supposed to have. And he was here, talking to Daniel because Daniel asked, instead of investigating actual crimes. When had he started making these concessions? The last few weeks had been a mixture of pain and something like happiness, the sight of Daniel looking up at his aerobatics with sheer delight was etched into his memory forever. Barriers had been raised and lowered so many times they were cracked and warping, feelings he'd thought long dead seeping back in through the cracks.
His breath came harsh and shallow like a hunted thing, he pushed the latex up over his nose in hopes of getting more air and tried to slow his breathing before Daniel noticed. Pain gnawed at his stomach and slid claws up his raw throat.
'None of us are the same people we were when we started out. But we're still us,' said Daniel. 'You're still my partner, the person I knew for ten years, even if I didn't know your name back then. You're still Walter.'
As if the name had been a charm to give them strength the feelings went from seepage to flood, cracks widening and letting in all the pain he'd tried to suppress. There were other feelings too, but the pain came first and was strongest and to feel them he'd have to let it come through and run its course. So he fought, trying to shove them back, repair the dam while the river was in full flood.
'Rorschach!' Daniel's hands were on his waist holding him, he was leaning forward gasping for breath that didn't seem to come. 'Calm down, it's okay. Breath. It's okay.'
Rorschach forced air down, expanding lungs pressing against the knot forming inside him, and just managed to turn around in time to throw up into the wastepaper basket instead of all over Daniel. It helped, he could breath again and the pain in his stomach was gone, but he felt drained and empty. Like the acid-eaten mask in Daniel's bathroom with all its insides coming out in a heap of goo leaving only latex, transparent and meaningless.
'Better?' asked Daniel, one hand resting lightly on his shoulder. 'You're shaking. Are you cold?'
'Just hurt. Can feel nothing. Or feel this. No other choices,' said Rorschach. He was leaning on Daniel, wanted to sit down but with his harness on sitting was almost impossible. The catches wouldn't open when he fumbled at them and Daniel's fingers gently pushed his aside.
'If you can bear to feel it, to remember, then it will get easier in time,' said Daniel, gently lifting the latex away from the sprained wing with one hand while the other still supported Rorschach.
'How do you know?' asked Rorschach, wanting to believe him but hardly daring to.
Daniel chewed his lip, surprising Rorschach by looking guilty. 'I did some reading.'
'Books by psychiatrists. Don't trust them.' The harness came free and he practically collapsed onto the bed, wings trailing out around him when he couldn't find the strength to fold them.
'Do you trust me?' asked Daniel.
'Yes.' He had come to Daniel for help when he found himself with wings, left the city with him, told Daniel about the Roche case. Of course he trusted him.
Daniel knelt in front of him, one hand on his knee and brown eyes gazing up at him. 'Then will you believe me when I say you're better off feeling things than trying to push it all away?'
'Okay.' Daniel closed his eyes for a moment and then stood up. 'Do you want a glass of water?'
The change to mundane probably signalled the end of the conversation and Rorschach let himself relax. He nodded and drank the water when Daniel brought it. 'Preening?' he asked. It was the closest he could manage to asking for comfort and Daniel complied at once. He fell asleep with warm hands against the skin under his feathers.
When Hollis knocked on Dan's door the next morning Dan opened it with a finger to his lips, warning Hollis not to disturb the sleeping vigilante in his bed. Rorschach was a heap of feathers mostly concealing the small figure in a leather trenchcoat underneath. Hollis beckoned Dan over to his room instead and, as they crossed the corridor, he commented, 'When it comes to weird things to do to heroes, I think your girl's got Moloch beat.'
Dan laughed and pushed Hollis' door closed behind him. 'He likes them, though.'
'So,' said Hollis. 'How did last night go?'
'I don't know,' said Dan. 'I feel like I'm hurting him, I nearly caused a panic attack at one point. But if I stop trying he'll go back to isolating himself. And. Sometimes I feel like I'm being selfish, I don't know whether I'm trying to help or just don't want to lose him.'
Hollis shook his head. 'You're not selfish,' he said. 'You're a better partner to him than I was to any of mine.'
'I'm sure that's not true,' said Dan.
'After kicking Ursula out and letting poor Byron go under I think we all proved we were pretty lousy friends,' said Hollis. He offered Dan a tired smile. 'I don't mean to bring an old man's regrets into this, but sometimes standing by is the worst thing you can do. I'm proud of you for doing better than that.'
Dan started cleaning his glasses, looking down at his hands to hide the tears gathering under his eyelids. 'Thanks, Hollis,' he said. 'You know, you've always been there for me. That means a lot.'
Hollis clapped him on the shoulder. 'Come on, let's get some breakfast. Think we should bring a tray up for your friend?'
'Yeah, I'm pretty sure he'll wake up when he smells food,' said Dan, putting his glasses back on and surreptitiously wiping a hand across his eyes.
They had just finished breakfast when the phone in Dan's hotel room starting ringing, when he answered it it turned out to be Laurie. 'How do you keep getting numbers I haven't handed out to anyone?' asked Dan.
'Jon,' she answered. 'Having an omniscient boyfriend comes in handy sometimes. Although I'm having a hard time remembering the benefits right now.'
'Are you guys fighting?' asked Dan sympathetically.
'You know those plastic skeletons you get on ghost trains? That jump out at you with cleavers and butchers knives and things? Someone set one of those up in my closet with a real knife, it jumped out at me when I opened the door. Oh, don't worry,' she added when Dan gasped. 'I'm not hurt. And Jon knew I wouldn't be, which is why he figured it was okay not to tell me there was a skeleton in my closet.'
'Jon probably meant well, he's just a bit disconnected,' said Dan. 'Uh. Can Rorschach and I come over and take a look?'
'Does Rorschach have to come?' asked Laurie. 'Thinking of him in my bedroom is kind of creepy.'
'For god's sake, Laurie, what do you think he's going to do? He's a better detective than I am, we're more likely to figure something out if he's there.' Dan was acutely aware that Rorschach could hear at least half of this conversation.
'I don't know. Probably go through my underwear drawer and take notes on how slutty my bras are.'
Before Dan could reply Rorschach snatched the receiver out of his hand. 'Something to say to me, Miss Jupiter?'
Pause. 'Miss Juspeczyk. Can promise I have no interest in your underwear.' Pause. 'Will only look at crime scene. Thank you.'
Dan let out the breath he had been holding as the receiver went down. 'Thanks for not losing your temper with her,' he said.
Rorschach shrugged. 'Won't be able to look at crime scene if Miss Juspeczyk tells Doctor Manhattan to teleport me away.'
'Yeah. Good thinking. So, are we going there?'
'Tonight. Crawling with government officials at present. Protecting their superweapon's whore.'
'Don't call Laurie that,' said Dan, starting to see Laurie's point.
'True. Gets paid to sleep with Doctor Manhattan.'
'Not exactly,' said Dan. 'She gets an allowance from the government for being in a relationship with Doctor Manhattan. It's not dependent on whether she has sex with him or not. And she's not doing it for the money, she cares about him.'
'I don't know. Yes, probably.' Dan started picking up the breakfast things. 'What were you planning on doing until sundown?'
'Look for fabric,' said Rorschach. 'Most of costume was just lamé. Thought it might have to be a special kind to conduct electricity, but is not. Fencers use lamé's conductivity to register hits. Holographic fabric is special, though. Very new technology. Only two labs that make it, less than a dozen dress shops take orders for it.' He cocked his head at Dan, mask still half up from breakfast. 'Could come with me to talk to shopkeepers. More believable as potential buyer.'
Which was why they spent the morning in dress shops discussing holographic designs for Dan's imaginary girlfriend. Dan usually investigated by computer, leaving the legwork to Rorschach, and was surprised by how easy he found it to talk to the shopkeepers. All his normal shyness was in abeyance. It felt like being Nite Owl disguised as Dan, but Nite Owl was just Dan in disguise and the result was like standing between two mirrors.
'Are we really going to find anything?' asked Dan as they sat in the Gunga Diner that lunch time, Rorschach perched awkwardly sideways with his wings protruding over the edge of his chair and hidden in the folds of his coat. 'It's worth a shot, I know, but do you really think she commissioned her mask at a dress shop?'
'Machines for holographic fabric require some knowledge to operate,' said Rorschach. He had produced a pen from his pocket and was doodling Comedy and Tragedy masks on his napkin. 'Possibly commissioned holographic part of mask as part of larger design. Cut it out later and added eyes.' He put his hand over the tops of the masks, leaving a wide smile like a crescent moon and a curving wail. 'This, turning into that. Comedy becoming Tragedy.'
'Symbolism,' said Dan. 'I never really got that. I just like owls.'
The waitress brought them their meal, putting the conversation on hold, and when she left Dan noticed Rorschach looking at the television over the counter. Adrian was on it, talking earnestly about something or other, a winged cat perched in his lap. She looked gorgeous, a proper mythical beast in miniature.
'Lacks human head,' grumbled Rorschach. 'Wrong type of sphinx anyway. Egyptian sphinx didn't have wings.'
'Maybe he was going for the Greek look this time,' said Dan. 'He's always admired Alexander the Great. I think she looks lovely.'
Rorschach snorted. 'You like everything with wings.' It took him a moment to realise what he had said and then he froze, uncertainty flickering in his eyes.
Dan couldn't keep the grin off his face. 'Absolutely.'
The second dress shop that afternoon they hit the jackpot. Dan had managed to convince the assistant to show him designs ordered by previous clients and Rorschach's sharp eyes caught the one they wanted. It was a flower, made of shapes like the mouths in a complex pattern. Not very pretty, but Dan pointed to it and said. 'That's nice. Do you sell that one very often?'
The assistant shook her head, hiding her opinion of Dan's taste skilfully. 'That was a designed by the client herself.'
'Oh,' said Dan, feigning disappointment. 'I think my girlfriend would like that. Do you have the client's name? Maybe she'd let me use it.'
The assistant protested that their clients' details were confidential, but had to agree there seemed to be no harm. Dan did his best to persuade her, and even flirted a little, and in the end he wound up with a name and number. Outside he grinned and offered the paper it was written on to Rorschach, but only got a glare in response.
'Taking advantage of her, Daniel.'
'What? Oh, come on. When you want information you break people's fingers, and now I'm a bad person for flirting?'
'Were meant to have a girlfriend,' said Rorschach, starting to walk back towards the hotel.
'So I'm a bad person for cheating on my entirely imaginary girlfriend?' Dan fell into step beside him.
'Gives wrong impression.'
Dan gave up, keeping track of Rorschach's mental processes was too exhausting to bother with when the argument was this trivial. 'Sorry. I won't do it again,' he said. 'Do you want to see her name?'
Rorschach held out his hand for the paper. 'Akemi Tanaka. Hurm. Foreign.' He said it as if it explained everything and Dan rolled his eyes as he took the paper back.
'Practically all the villains we've fought have been American. And she probably is too, chances are she was born here.'
Rorschach shrugged, which at least meant they didn't have to have an argument. Actually they were generally fairly adept at avoiding those sorts of arguments, it was the only way ten years of working with someone at the other end of the political spectrum was possible.
'I'm going back to the hotel for a nap,' said Dan. 'We're probably going to be up all night. Are you coming back with me?'
'No. Need to watch the city. Will see you tonight.'
They investigated, Rorschach in uniform and Daniel in civilian clothes because he didn't want to wear skintight spandex over acid burns. Laurie watched Rorschach suspiciously and Doctor Manhattan watched both of them impassively. He seemed a little friendlier towards Daniel than usual but Rorschach couldn't see a reason for it. The skeleton was connected to rods and straps and also to a motion sensor, it was plastic but the black robe it was wearing was silk.
'Silk Spectre,' said Rorschach, running it through his fingers. The sewing was amateurish close up, Drama had probably made it herself.
'Yeah,' said Daniel. 'She'll probably try to drown you in ink next.'
'Spray painted outlines of my wings onto Hollis' floor. Symmetrical.'
'I'd forgotten about that.' Daniel was inspecting the electronics while Rorschach inspected the skeleton.
Rorschach checked the bottoms of the skeleton's feet, one said MADE IN CHINA but that wasn't particularly helpful.
'I checked out that number,' said Daniel. 'The house belongs to a Mr Smith who lives alone. I think she just picked a phone number at random and planned to bluff if they called it, say she'd transposed two digits or something.'
'Almost certainly. We know she at least looks Japanese, but that's about it.'
Rorschach turned the skeleton over to count the knobs along the spine. 'Inaccurate.'
'Does it matter whether the skeleton's accurate or not?' asked Laurie. 'We're not going to teach a science class with it.'
'Means it came from joke shop not science shop,' said Rorschach. 'Might be relevant.'
'Okay, fine. Are you finished yet?'
They were, just about. There wasn't much left to see with all the government officials that had been through earlier, Rorschach suspected they'd either bagged or trampled anything relevant. He took notes on the fabric and skeleton, Daniel on the electronics, and they were ready to go.
'Are you coming back to the hotel?' asked Daniel, looking at his watch. Rorschach thought it was around one in the morning, but he didn't wear a watch while in costume.
'Right.' Daniel sighed. 'I wish I could come with you, but I'm not really up to it yet.'
'Will be better soon,' said Rorschach. 'Then can take owlship out.'
'Take care on patrol,' said Daniel. 'Don't forget you're injured too.'
'Used to fighting without use of wings, Daniel,' said Rorschach. 'Will be fine.'
And he was, although even after the short time he'd had wings he missed being able to fly. The gaps between roofs had never been so annoying, just wide enough to glide over but not to jump. He considered taking to the alleyways instead, but could see so much more from up here. The first criminals of the evening were two men, young, skinny and pale, assaulting a woman. It was impossible to tell whether they were after her virtue or just her purse, she didn't know either and Rorschach could feel the terror she was exuding. Dropping to a fire escape and then to the ground he landed almost next to her, the young men's eyes widened as they went in an instant from predator to prey.
The first one's skull shattered against a wall, blood and brains spattering his gloves. The second tried to run but Rorschach was faster. A sharp punch to the back of the neck knocked him down and Rorschach was on him before he could get up. The absolute terror in his eyes, the look of a creature seeing its own death, was rewarding. That was how his victims would have looked and now he would be the one to taste helplessness, knowing it intimately before he died. Rorschach knelt on his chest, hands still wet with his companion's blood closing around his throat. A thin stream of nonsense spilled from the mugger's lips, pleas to nobody at all.
Killing people isn't a normal response. Daniel's voice, sympathetic and strained, ran through Rorschach's head and loosened his fingers against his will. He'd never wanted to be normal. Normal people listened while a child was beaten on the other side of a wall, normal people watched. Normal people would never be here, in an alleyway with their bloodied hands pressing on a criminal's windpipe as they tried to make the world a better place. How does it make the world better when the monsters are the ones that most want to do good?
'Shut up,' said Rorschach and the mugger's babbling stopped at once, although Rorschach hadn't really been talking to him. Rorschach hauled him to his feet, trembling and weak but not pitiful. There wasn't enough pity in the world to waste any on criminals. 'Nearest police station is two blocks away. Up there, turn left. Go there. Turn yourself in. Or die.'
The mugger set off at a run, Rorschach used his grappling gun and took to the roofs to follow him. If he thought he could get away then he would find death had only been delayed. But, with a mixture of disappointment and fierce amusement, Rorschach saw him follow instructions precisely.
The next night Rorschach took nylon line with him to tie criminals up for the police and was sickened to find he missed the look in their eyes as he killed them. Sickened further when he realised Daniel had known exactly how little killing had to do with justice, had known that he enjoyed it. How would Rorschach ever face him again?
'Hey, how did the patrolling go?' asked Dan as he opened the window. It was eleven o'clock at night and Rorschach had just tapped to be let in. He only got a grunt in response and continued with, 'Are you hungry? I've got some food in the fridge.'
'No.' Rorschach answering in monosyllables was hardly unusual, but something he couldn't put his finger on left unease winding up Dan's spine.
'Okay,' he said. 'How's your wing doing?'
'Not bad.' Rorschach didn't make any move to take off his harness even when Dan reached for the oil. At Dan's questioning look he said, 'Wings are fine. Preening not required. Won't be staying.'
'Is something big going on?' The tension Rorschach was radiating and the fact that he didn't have time to stay made that an obvious conclusion. 'Did you find a lead on Drama?'
'Then what?' asked Dan, starting to feel exasperated. In a way it showed how far they'd come, that he could find Rorschach being uncommunicative annoying instead of normal.
'Nothing. Simply don't need anything. Here because I said I would be. Nothing else.'
'Something's going on,' said Dan with certainty, willing to trust his instinct on this one. 'What are you doing that you don't want me to know about?'
'Don't trust me?' Rorschach's hands were bunched into fists, feet settling into a fighting stance. Dan forced down fear, he'd let his partner intimidate him before and it had led to them drifting apart. Never again.
'I trust you with my life,' said Dan. 'I don't trust you not to do something stupidly dangerous behind my back.'
'Not like that. Not hiding anything.' Rorschach moved towards the window and Dan grabbed his wrist, ducking the punch from the other hand when it came.
'Yes, you are,' he said.
After a brief silence fraught with the possibility of further violence Rorschach answered, voice suddenly lacking its growl and sounding tired. 'You're going to make me tell you.'
'Damn right.' If Rorschach was trying to hide something Dan was pretty sure that meant he wouldn't approve. Either it was incredibly dangerous or incredibly disturbing and either way he'd rather know.
Rorschach sighed, letting the fight drain out of his stance. 'You're wrong. Not something I'm going to do. Just realised you were right. Makes things. Difficult.'
'Right about what?' Dan let go of Rorschach's wrist, fairly sure he wasn't going to make a dash for the window now.
'Killing.' Rorschach started pacing, mask swirling indecipherably as his body showed agitation and shame. So strange to see his self-righteous partner unable to meet his eyes. 'Wasn't about justice. Liked the look. In their eyes. Bent and broken open underneath. Feeling them die. Under hands. Felt good, clean. Wasn't.' Rorschach stopped pacing abruptly, staring at the wall. The hotel light threw his shadow, crisp edged, in front of him. 'Wrong. Shouldn't be near you. But won't break word.'
'I'm glad you're here,' said Dan, trying desperately to get his sincerity across even as part of him flinched away in disgust from Rorschach's confession. 'Especially…you've stopped killing, haven't you?'
'Won't kill for pleasure. Not a monster.' The last sentence wavered between statement and question in a way that broke Daniel's heart, leaving a pain like glass shards in his chest. Giving up on words entirely he stepped up behind his partner and cautiously wrapped him in his arms. He thought Rorschach would either relax or, far more likely, push him away. Instead he turned and grabbed Dan with a grip like a vice, hands bunching into the back of Dan's shirt. It was more like being restrained than hugged, Rorschach tense, awkward and bony against him.
'You're not a monster,' he said softly. 'You're a good person.' A throaty noise of disbelief from Rorschach. 'Okay, you're kind of messed up. But you try to do the right thing and care about victims. That's more than a lot of people do.' Rorschach shifted, Dan could feel latex rubbing against his neck. 'And you're getting better. We'll be okay.'
'We?' The word buzzed through Dan's shoulder where Rorschach's head was resting, causing a wave of tenderness that Dan couldn't explain.
'We're still partners, we're in this together,' he said quickly, starting to babble. 'We can patrol together again, I'll be fine in a couple of weeks, and it'll be easier now that…And we've still got Drama to catch, it's been ages since we had a real supervillian in a costume and everything. We were going to lay a trap for her, weren't we? We need to talk about that.'
'Hurm.' Somehow the syllable managed to contain gratitude, uncertainty, agreement and even a touch of amusement. Rorschach relaxed a little, not letting Dan go but making it somewhat less like hugging a broken deckchair. Dan wasn't sure how long it was before Rorschach pulled away, only that he would have stood there all night before prising him off.
Rorschach walked over to the window, posture showing neither the nervous tension from earlier nor his customary purposefulness. Looking back at Dan from his position crouched on the windowsill he said, 'Day after tomorrow. Will come by during day, discuss plans for dealing with Drama.' He suddenly paused, looking at the floor in confusion. 'If that works for you?'
'That's fine. You can stay for dinner,' said Dan. Rorschach nodded and dropped out of sight before Dan could find the right words to say goodbye.
Over the next few weeks things started to change. For one thing Rorschach found himself wanting things. Not big things, truth, justice, vengeance, he had always wanted those, but little desires shocking only for having been absent so long. To shower and wear clean clothes instead of being uncomfortably dirty. To eat food he liked instead of whatever was cheapest at the supermarket. To read good books instead of obsessively checking the New Frontiersman for threats to his city. When he tried to explain to Daniel, both the desires and the guilt he felt at being distracted by them, Daniel shook his head, hands still buried in Rorschach's wing.
'Only you would feel guilty about wanting things most people consider basic necessities,' he said. 'Seriously, nobody's going to be hurt by you taking care of yourself a little.'
'Feels trivial,' said Rorschach.
'It's human. Maybe man cannot live by bread alone but he can't live on passion either, he'd get hungry sooner or later.'
'Wrong context. That's from the Bible. Meant to be religious.'
'I've never actually read the Bible,' admitted Dan. 'Not even the Torah. I tried once but got bored halfway through Numbers.'
Rorschach had not only read the Bible, as a child and several times since, but had believed it wholly and personally. Angels and demons were behind every triumph and temptation, God deeply disappointed in his every failure but always a loving Father nonetheless. And then all his angels and demons had faded to nothing and he'd seen the emptiness behind the stars.
'No need to,' he told Daniel. 'It's not true.'
'Does it need to be?' Daniel finished preening, wiping oil from his hands with a handkerchief.
'If I'm going to read stories, prefer ones that don't tell me they're true.' Rorschach spread his wings from where he was sitting on the bed and flapped them, causing enough downdraft to send his face, folded on the bedside table, floating down to the carpet. 'Think they've healed.'
'It looks that way,' agreed Daniel. 'Take it slowly though, remember you haven't used them in two weeks.'
'Will remember,' said Rorschach, still grateful enough to be tolerant of Daniel's fussing. Daniel had been tolerant of a great deal worse from him. 'How are burns?'
'Nearly better,' said Daniel. 'I've stopped taking painkillers now, but I still wear bandages to stop my clothes chafing them. Are your new feathers through now as well?'
'Yes,' said Rorschach, relief colouring his voice. The feathers coming through where Drama had burnt him had itched like chicken pox for days, it was more than enough to make him hope he'd never actually moult.
'Then it looks like we'll be back in business soon,' said Daniel. 'Any more news of Drama? We'll be ready to trap her soon.'
'Not yet. Can't use you as bait until healed.' Rorschach shot a stern look at Daniel. After all the fussing over him Daniel did, Rorschach wasn't about to let him disregard his own health. Daniel held up his hands in mock surrender.
'I know, I know. I'm just bored of sitting around a hotel room with nothing to do. I miss my workshop.'
'Not much longer.' Rorschach picked his face up from the floor and pulled it on before shrugging into his trenchcoat. 'Will see you in a few days. Maybe then.'
He used his wings instead of his grappling gun to get down from Daniel's window and Daniel stuck his head out to check he'd made it to the pavement safely. Rorschach waved to him, the gesture feeling silly in costume, and Daniel smiled as he waved back.
The next morning after his patrol, lying in bed with a chair wedged under the door so he could risk keeping his wings out, Rorschach found it hard to get to sleep. One desire, not small and far from harmless, that he had not confessed to Daniel and didn't intend to was a desire for Daniel himself. It was not that he expected to be condemned, Daniel, soft liberal that he was, saw all desires as natural. But it would change things, rub a foreign substance in the healing wounds of their partnership, and, unlike Daniel, Rorschach knew how lust could tarnish and corrupt. He turned over and buried himself in the feathery darkness of a wing, trying to blot out his own thoughts as well as the early morning light.
It should have been easier to push away, he'd dealt with lust before, was only human, but something else lingered behind it in a way that made him long unreasonably to give in. Part of it was the way Daniel's embrace seemed to have stayed with him, he'd wake from nightmares wrapped in phantom arms. And much as he hated his subconscious mind for muddling comfort and lust he couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to it than that. Perhaps it was like the pain and he had to let himself feel it before he could see what he was suppressing along with it. Or perhaps he just wanted an excuse to give in to his basest impulses.
Rorschach groaned and closed his eyes but Daniel was smiling behind them, stretched out by the farmhouse in the sun. Rorschach was circling above him, Daniel's rapt expression suggested he'd been showing off, and he swung himself around to dive. Daniel's expression switched to alarm when Rorschach's dive proved to be straight at him, but Rorschach pulled himself out of it in time to land gently straddling him. Daniel laughed, giddy with the same happiness that comes after a rollercoaster ride, and pulled Rorschach down to kiss his lips. No, mustn't think of this. Rorschach pulled back and tipped one wing forwards to brush the feathers over Daniel's face, eliciting a gasp. Around them was a haze of insect noise. Daniel pulled his glasses off and looked up, eyes as warm and soft as the sunlight. Just once. This once, and then I'll know.
They kissed, Daniel's tongue sliding into his mouth, and he responded in kind, tasting coca-cola on his lips. His hands tangled through Daniel's hair and Daniel's cupped his back, stroking the ridges of his spine. Daniel was hard under him, their erections rubbed together through their clothes. He unbuttoned Daniel's shirt, distracted by fingers ghosting over his chest and circling his nipples, then bent forward to suck at the base of Daniel's neck and taste sunwarmed skin. He was hard, painfully hard, and their pants dissolved rather than being removed as he lost track of the fantasy.
Daniel smiled, stroking along his shin and up the inside of his thigh, light fingers teasing against his hardness. He mirrored the action, grasping Daniel in the same way. Himself gripping himself. Filthy. They gasped into each others mouths, finding the rhythm that would bring them to climax. Daniel's head tilted back, mouth opening in ecstasy, groaning Rorschach's name. Rorschach came into his hand.
The sheets beneath him, sticky now under the shielding darkness of his wing, came back along with the sordid reality of his apartment. But the fantasy wasn't over yet. Daniel smiled and pulled him down into the grass, soft and scratchy beneath him, resting their foreheads together. Rorschach slid a wing over him and Daniel wriggled under it, enjoying the sleek softness of the feathers. The sun beat down on them, far above a skylark started singing, and all Rorschach wanted was to stay like that forever.
In that instant he understood what he had sensed, what he wanted. Love, the alchemy that turned base feelings into gold. Opening his eyes to his apartment, the fantasy fading gently instead of breaking, he felt only relief. He had thought that men could not love other men, homosexuality the province only of lust, but he had been wrong. Even if Daniel didn't feel the same (how could he?) there was no shame in love. Neither in feeling or in telling. He was still sticky, he should get up and wash, but his mind, for once at ease, pulled his body with it into sleep.
Dan woke up with a feeling of contentment he couldn't place until he remembered he'd slept without bandages and nothing was chafed or hurting. Checking himself over during a morning shower he decided he was healed, patches of skin were still pink and new but healthy. Only one patch had scarred, a few inches wide and to the left side of his stomach, it was shaped like the treasure island maps he had scribbled as a child and puckered white. No great matter, all vigilantes collected their share of scars, and certainly nothing to dampen his mood.
Rorschach would be coming for dinner, but he had a whole day before then and he was sick to death of the hotel. He asked Hollis, as bored as he was, if he wanted to visit the bird sanctuary with him. Once there he found their newest arrival was a magnificent bald eagle, hit by a car while eating carrion on the side of the road. She'd been stunned and dehydrated when she was brought in, but now she was just pissed off; glaring at her well meaning captors with a violence that, for all it's apparent coldness, was born mostly of fear. Dan tried to sketch her, but he was more draftsman than artist and although he could manage a decent approximation of her patterning he couldn't catch the defiance in her eyes.
Hollis, watching over his shoulder, said quietly, 'I can see why you like them so much.'
Dan smiled, still mostly intent on his drawing. 'They're so strong and so fragile. They live right on the edge, always one meal away from starvation, but they survive. And they have so much pride, even injured and afraid they won't give in.' He stopped talking when he realised he wasn't just describing raptors anymore.
When Rorschach arrived that night, slipping in through the window in the same way as always, the first thing Dan noticed was that he was clean. Even his trenchcoat had been washed and his face, when he pulled his mask off, was freshly scrubbed with hair two shades more vibrant for being clean. Dan grinned at him, still buoyant with newly recovered health.
'Ready to start laying villain traps?' he asked, putting aside the eagle picture he had been colouring from memory.
'You're better?' Rorschach ran his eyes over Dan critically and nodded. 'We can go after dinner.'
They did, sneaking into the owl's nest through the underground entrance and being as careful as possible that nobody saw them. There were only the two entrances and Rorschach blocked the one to the house, nothing fancy required beyond making it completely unopenable, while Dan set up lasers and motion sensors around the other. Not surprisingly Rorschach finished first, pacing restlessly around the workbenches once he had. His wings kept lifting and settling in a way that reminded Dan not of raptors but of migratory birds. The way they would signal flight again and again before reneging, working themselves up to a long journey to a place many of them had never even seen. There was something in the pocket of his trenchcoat that he kept reaching for as well, before stopping and fiddling with the buttons instead. Dan tried not to let it distract him from the task in hand.
'There, finished,' he said when all the lasers were set. 'Here, take this. Its alarm will go off if she sets off the motion sensors.'
Rorschach caught the black rectangle, like a remote control but with only two buttons, that Dan threw to him and slipped it into his pocket. Dan grabbed one of his experimental owlsuits, a wetsuit that wouldn't conduct electricity, as well as his regular costume and shoved them both into the bag he had brought.
'Going back to hotel?' asked Rorschach, as both of them started down the tunnel. Dan used his own controller to set the trap behind them, although it was unlikely to catch anything when they hadn't yet laid the bait.
'Yes. Are you coming?' He expected the answer to be no, that four o'clock in the morning was still time to patrol, but was surprised when Rorschach nodded.
On the walk back to the hotel Rorschach was getting more and more agitated, finally stopping one street away from it and saying, 'Should probably patrol.'
'We're nearly there now. You might as well stay for a coffee.' Dan was pretty sure Rorschach was working up to telling him something, and if he kept him around long enough he might just manage to spill it. Before he got a reply a scream rang out and both of them were in motion.
Dan was in civilian clothes but neither of them thought of that, the instinct to rescue too ingrained to ignore. The person in trouble was a man being beaten by five thugs. They had been vandalising a corner shop when they were interrupted, probably the man they were beating was the owner. A glance up showed two children peering from the window above the shop, a boy and a girl desperately holding hands.
Rorschach dived into the fray, knocking one man down with a punch to the face while a wing almost casually took another down behind him. The same wing came forward in a lethal blur of feathers, taking a third under the chin. Dan managed to knock out one, far too distracted by the first time he'd seen his partner fight with wings, and the fifth tried to run. Rorschach was after him in an instant, both of them disappearing into an alley while Dan went to see to the wounded civilian.
'Are you all right?' he asked. 'Should I call an ambulance?'
The man shook his head, too shaken for words, he was still looking towards the alley Rorschach had run into with a look of awe on his face. Dan could understand that. He checked none of the man's wounds were too serious and then tied up the criminals. Rorschach returned with the fifth over his shoulder, throwing him down roughly onto the heap, and turned to the civilian as Dan had.
'No.' The man swallowed hard, looking up into Rorschach's unnerving mask. 'Are you an angel?'
Rorschach froze, complete bewilderment running through his posture. 'No.'
Dan walked over and grabbed the man by the shoulder to help him to his feet. 'I think you'd better go in. Your children are worried.'
The man looked up and Dan saw him realise that his children had seen the whole thing, sadness settling over his features in place of awe. He went in with murmured thanks to them both.
'We'd better get back, I can phone these in from the hotel,' said Dan.
They did, Dan looked up from the phonecall to find Rorschach sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to him. When Dan walked over to look there was a small wooden case in his hands, worn around the edges but polished to a gleam, with a marquetry owl in flight on the lid. There was also a crack running right across the owl and Rorschach was cradling the box like a wounded animal.
'What's that?' asked Dan.
Rorschach didn't look up, just pulled a wing around himself to hide it from further view. 'It. Was for you.'
'Can I still have it?'
'I know, but I still like it. And I've got some wood glue, somewhere. Maybe it can be fixed.' Probably it couldn't, not with the crack going across the picture, but Rorschach bought it for him and he wanted it for that. There was so little tangible in their relationship.
A heartbeat and then the wing retracted and the box was thrust into his hands. 'Something inside too.'
Dan flipped the catches eagerly, reminded of birthdays back when every present seemed to contain infinite promise. Inside was a quill pen, made with a black and white barred feather. Not a flight feather as most quill pens were, it was a blunter oval and with softer barbs.
'One of yours,' said Dan softly, running the feather reverently between his fingers. Maybe it was just meant to express gratitude, or friendship, but it seemed so intimate to literally offer someone a piece of yourself. 'It's beautiful. Thank you.'
Rorschach stood up and pulled off his mask, looking at Dan with wide and earnest eyes. He swallowed, looked away and back, clearly working his way up to saying something. If this is meant to be goodbye, if he's changed his mind about our partnership again, I'm going to hit him, thought Dan, trepidation churning coldly in his gut.
'Love you,' the words came out as a hoarse whisper. All Dan could do was stare, certain he'd misheard. Rorschach was blushing, pale pink clashing horribly with his freckles. He swallowed again and continued in a slightly stronger voice. 'I love you. Have for a while. Didn't realise. Not much experience. With love.'
Oh God, thought Dan. What was he meant to do? He'd never tried to define his feelings towards Rorschach, certainly never expected to have to act on them. He'd been aware of his own bisexuality for a while, but had never done anything about it. He still liked girls, after all, it was easier to stick with what everyone expected. What would Hollis say? And what was wrong with him? Rorschach had apparently overcome his numerous issues enough to tell him this and he was wondering what Hollis would think.
'Understand you not feeling the same. Just. Wanted you to know,' Rorschach continued, sounding more certain about that than his confession.
It made Dan want to hug him, and maybe that was love because there was no denying he cared about his partner. Maybe he was being too metaphysical, maybe he didn't need to find a working definition of love right now, maybe it was about whether he could imagine spending the rest of his life with Rorschach. Because that's what it would mean, Rorschach wouldn't have said anything if he didn't intend to make a commitment. Five weeks ago Dan might have baulked at the idea, heaven knew Rorschach could be hard to get along with, but the weeks on the farm had been his happiest in a long time. And maybe he'd just been offered the chance to never be lonely again.
It took Rorschach going over to the window to snap him out of mental panic mode and into action, fumbling the quill and box onto the bedside table and grabbing Rorschach's hand.
'I do,' he said, pulling him back into the room. 'Feel the same. You just really startled me, saying it like that. I hadn't even thought…'
Rorschach looked up at him, intent brown eyes searching his for a lie. Dan realised he'd been about to leave his mask behind, and for Rorschach that would be like accidentally walking off without his foot.
He'd never lied to Rorschach, ever, so he said what he was thinking and hoped it was good enough. 'I want to spend the rest of our lives together. That kind of seems like love to me.'
Rorschach smiled, a proper one not the twitch around the corners of his mouth that Dan had seen before. It didn't make him handsome, it made him cute. Dan was reminded of troll dolls, adorably ugly under their mops of bright hair, and hastily squashed the thought in case Rorschach could read it in his eyes. And what kind of thought was that, anyway, to have about someone he was almost certainly in love with?
Rorschach kissed him, on the lips but oddly chaste, standing on tiptoes to do it with his hands resting on Dan's shoulders. Dan teased Rorschach's lips apart with his tongue, darting his own between them, surprised when Rorschach allowed it and still more when he responded in kind. Rorschach glanced past Dan at the bed, blushing harder than ever but clearly wanting this. Tenderness and elation bubbled in Dan's chest as he reached past Rorschach to close the curtains before gently pulling him towards the bed.
Rorschach was almost weightless as he straddled Dan's hips, it leant him an air of the supernatural as if this was a tryst with an Aztec god with severe features and lethal wings. But no god would have gasped as if he'd never been touched before, almost panicking when Dan tried to go below the waist even as their erections rubbed together through layers of fabric. Rorschach seemed more comfortable with his wings being touched than his body so Dan started there, reaching up to ruffle the feathers spread above him, working through them as though he was preening while Rorschach gradually relaxed. When he found the spot where they joined the body, a line of uncovered down where the larger pinions gave out, Rorschach arched and moaned at his touch. He kept one hand there, distracting Rorschach with sensation, while he slid the other down slowly over his hips and stomach.
When Dan's hand found its way inside Rorschach's briefs he made a strangled noise that was almost a sob and Dan pulled back. 'Do you want me to stop?'
'No. Want.' Rorschach's hands fumbled at Dan's pants and Dan obliged by trying to wriggle out of them. Rorschach was trying to take his off as well and lost his balance, winding up sprawled over Dan. He slid off to lie beside him, both of them naked now, and took advantage of their new position to wrap a wing over Dan and draw him close with it. Smooth feathers pressed against Dan's naked skin and the curve of the wing tenderly cupped the back of his head. The same wing he'd seen knock a thug unconscious with a flick, and the thought hit Dan with a surge of lust.
As Rorschach's hands slid tentatively over his chest, Dan's found the spot behind his wings again. Rorschach's mouth fastened on Dan's neck, warm and shocking, and Dan bucked against him trying to find friction. He took both of them in his hand, expecting protests, but Rorschach's wing only tightened around him, pressing him to the bed with the same muscle power that could keep him in the air. Dan had never felt so helpless, or so close to anyone, as this and he groaned Rorschach's name as he thrust raggedly into his hand. Rorschach came at the sound of his own name, with a startled gasp, and lay there panting while Dan finished himself off.
Afterwards they lay together with Rorschach cuddling determinedly against Dan, trying to fit their bodies together by force of will when it would be so much easier if he'd just relax. Dan kissed his forehead, feeling that the rest of his life looked pretty good right now.
Rorschach woke to find Daniel asleep under his wing, he could feel it rise and fall with Daniel's breathing. He lay flush against Daniel's larger body with a bone deep contentment and a smaller niggling feeling of something missing. It took him a moment to realise that what was missing was shame, he felt no regret at all over anything he had done last night. Like tonguing a sore tooth to see if it still hurt he pushed at it, Daniel could have done better that him if he had kept quiet. Might have been married, had children. Nothing. Daniel was an adult, if he didn't want Rorschach he could have said so. The expected self-loathing completely failed to materialise. Rorschach yawned and sat up, surprised when Daniel mumbled something and grabbed the edge of his wing.
'Not a blanket, Daniel,' he said.
Daniel opened his eyes, blinking at Rorschach in puzzlement, and Rorschach was seized with the irrational fear that he had forgotten last night completely and was about to ask what Rorschach was doing in his bed. But Daniel was just half asleep still, he rubbed a hand across his eyes and smiled. 'Good morning,' he said. 'Sleep well?'
'Too well,' said Rorschach, looking at the full daylight streaming around the edges of the curtains. 'Meant to leave before dawn. Will have to borrow coat again.'
'Mmm. Anytime.' And Daniel snuggled back into the bed, pulling the actual cover over him to replace Rorschach's wing. Lazy. But he looked so comfortable like that. Rorschach might as well have a shower before waking him again.
The hotel shower was over a bath like Daniel's instead of the cramped cubicle in his apartment, it made it a lot easier to wash without his wings getting in the way. After untangling his clothes from Daniel's and putting them back on he sat down on the bed next to his sleeping partner.
Rorschach's own body was built on economies, small and narrow. Muscles strung onto bone without the benefit of supporting flesh. Daniel was built more generously, taller with broader shoulders and muscles that managed to look sculpted instead of wiry. Beautiful. It felt like a privilege to be allowed to look, the way it felt looking at artwork in free museums. For the first time it occurred to him to wonder why Daniel had said yes, what he could possibly see in Rorschach to make him worth spending the rest of his life with. He wasn't going to ask, had no intention of sounding like an insecure teenager, so he pushed the question aside and shook Daniel's shoulder.
'Daniel. Things to do today.'
'Okay, 'm awake,' said Daniel. Rorschach kept looking at him until he actually got out of bed and made his way to the shower, clumsy without his glasses. He returned from the shower fully awake and smiling.
'Last night was amazing,' he said. 'I didn't tell you that yet, did I?'
Rorschach shook his head, too embarrassed to try and return the compliment. He hid it by turning to business, discussing their plan over breakfast, although he didn't put his mask back on.
'Still think I should be there. Could go down tunnel first.'
Daniel shook his head. 'The entire plan hinges on her following me to find the tunnel entrance. Once she knows where it is there's too high a risk of her noticing you using it, and that would give the game away. I'll only be down there for a few hours.'
'Few hours a day,' Rorschach pointed out. 'In civilian clothes. Risky.'
'We've taken risks like this before. And you said she wasn't confrontational, she's far more likely to wait until I've gone and lay a trap than come in guns blazing.'
Rorschach looked away, a large part of the plan had been his but that didn't mean he liked it. 'Stay alert. Don't get distracted making gadgets.'
'I promise,' said Daniel, and startled Rorschach by pulling him close to seal the promise with a kiss.
The plan was for Daniel to walk around near his house where Drama was likely to spot him and then enter his workshop and use it for a few hours, convincing her that he was sneaking back to use his workshop even though he stayed away from his house. The problem was that until or unless Drama responded they would have no idea if the plan was working. The other problem was that she might follow Daniel back to the hotel and lay a trap there, but Daniel did his best to minimise that by taking a roundabout route back.
During the few hours Daniel was in the workshop Rorschach loitered nearby in his daytime disguise, keeping his mask in his pocket and risking wearing his uniform under his coat. If Drama appeared he needed to respond quickly, he wouldn't have time to change. But after three days she still showed no signs of acting.
'Maybe she's not after me,' said Daniel. 'Maybe she's got her sights on someone else now.'
Rorschach shook his head angrily, he was pacing around the hotel room and periodically glaring at their alarms. 'Don't have another plan,' he said.
Daniel shuffled himself further onto the bed and rested his head against the wall. 'We don't have to give this one up yet. I was just wondering.'
'Don't what? Think? You can't order me not to think,' said Daniel, testy with lack of sleep and too much waiting.
'Middle of plan is not time to start thinking of alternatives.' Rorschach stopped by the window. The curtains were drawn since they were both in costume, Daniel in his ridiculous green wetsuit, but sodium yellow light from the streetlamps slid in around the edges, contrasting with the blue-white of the electric light in the bedroom.
'You're making it sound like I wanted to give up,' said Daniel. 'I didn't say that. I'm allowed to think things, aren't I?'
The alarms chose that moment to go off, violently loud in the quiet hotel, and both of them dived for their controllers on the bedside table to mute them. Rorschach opened the window, looking out to check the coast was clear, and then dropped, Daniel following more slowly. They needed to get there before Drama disabled the lasers, which she certainly could given time.
There was a mesh of red beams across the tunnel entrance, not the cutting lasers but a warning. The idea was to capture Drama, not shred her. Pieces of a wrench lay in the tunnel where Drama had checked the warning had teeth. She was standing inside the entrance working on one of the lasers, when she saw them she looked up and her face took on its crescent smile.
Daniel and Rorschach looked at each other, almost imperceptible head bobs synchronising them. On three Rorschach hit his off switch and Daniel charged, knocking Drama away from the now unguarded entrance. Rorschach darted after them, switching the lasers back on behind him. Drama rolled out from under Daniel after a brief but intense tussle and vaulted onto a table and then to the top of Archie. Something about the way she posed there, head back and toes pointed, made Rorschach certain she did ballet.
Rorschach followed, using Archie's window rims to pull himself up. Drama stamped on his fingers and he grabbed her ankle with his other hand, tumbling both of them over the edge. Daniel yelled something incoherent, but Rorschach spread his wings and landed softly. Drama tucked herself up and rolled, coming up panting through her mask. Rorschach swiped at her with a wing, knowing he couldn't afford to close with her, and she ducked only for the following punch to hit her squarely in the chest. She dropped and rolled again, managing to avoid Daniel coming up behind her, and ran for the lasers. She was favouring one side, bruised from her fall.
'Give it up. You'll never hack the lasers with us here,' said Daniel. 'Come quietly.'
But Drama had given up on disabling the lasers, she was only working one loose enough to move. Flattening herself to the wall she swept it over the workshop, a line of orange light across Archie's side showed the invisible beam as it headed for Daniel. Rorschach slammed the off button on his controller, and Drama was gone as soon as he did.
Rorschach raced after her shimmering silhouette in the tunnel, catching her half way along and tackling her. When she made to tap her palm and electrocute him he headbutted her face, hearing the crunch of her nose breaking against his forehead. She screamed. Blood blossomed through black and white, smearing over her painted smile like a parody of lipstick. Rorschach tried to grab her hands before she could set off her electric suit, but she wriggled around and tapped her palm. His leather coat partly protected him, it was only an unpleasant jolt, but when she hooked a leg over his wing he let go, knowing the game was up whether he did or not. Daniel arrived just as she made it to the exit and she was gone before either of them reached her.
Rorschach turned on Daniel, fists clenched and wings still spread. 'Took your time.'
'Sorry,' said Daniel, slumping against the side of the tunnel. 'I was distracted.'
'By damage to owlship,' snapped Rorschach. 'Letting affection for inanimate object come before catching dangerous criminal.'
'Sorry,' said Daniel again. 'I know I put you in danger. You're a lot more important to me than Archie, I was just kind of stunned.'
The danger to him was beside the point, but Rorschach still found himself somewhat mollified. His wings settled down smoothly against his back and he said. 'Can still catch her. Broke her nose. Performer, will want it professionally set. Check hospitals.'
'Okay,' said Daniel, he looked tired even with his face hidden inside his wetsuit. 'Let's get back.'
They did, Daniel changed into civilian clothes while Rorschach washed Drama's blood off his mask. He came out of the bathroom to find Daniel sitting on the bed, running the quill pen through his fingers and looking unhappy. Rorschach sighed and went over to sit beside him, draping a wing around Daniel's shoulders without letting the rest of their bodies touch.
'Not angry anymore,' he admitted. 'Frustrated. Escaped me twice now.'
Daniel put the quill down and pulled him closer. 'We'll catch her. The Twilight Lady escaped us more than that.'
'Because you were sleeping with her.' It was half accusing, half teasing. Awkwardly pressed against Daniel's warmth it was hard to remember any reasons to be angry with him.
'What can I say? I have a thing for mysterious and dangerous redheads,' said Daniel, lips brushing Rorschach's hair. Rorschach's heart did something strange at that, the feeling wasn't one he could recognise. The idea that he was loved was almost impossible to grasp, the idea of being desired only slightly easier. The idea of both at once… He kissed Daniel without quite meaning to, still astonished when Daniel responded eagerly.
Dan woke to find a note beside his bed.
Investigating. Ask Hollis about police contacts. Love .][.
The combination of 'love' with a signature more usually left on wounded criminals made Dan blink. Sometimes it was the little things that reminded him how strange his partner, now boyfriend, could be. He slipped the note inside the box with the quill pen, not wanting to lose it, and went to shower and dress. Hollis was already up when Dan knocked on his door and had been out to fetch the day's newspaper. He put it aside when Dan came in.
'How are you doing, lad?' he asked.
'Pretty well,' said Dan. 'Do you have any police contacts who'd be willing to get hold of hospital records?'
'I can think of a couple,' said Hollis. 'Who are you looking for?'
'A Japanese dancer with a broken nose,' said Daniel. 'I've never seen her unmasked, that's all I know.'
'I'll get on that then,' said Hollis. He shot Dan an inquiring look. 'How are you and your friend doing?'
'Um.' Dan found himself blushing, shuffling his feet nervously. 'We're kind of…together. Things happened.' It came out apologetic, which felt like a betrayal of Rorschach and only made him feel worse.
Hollis looked stunned for a moment then shook his head, not a denial just getting his thoughts into place. 'Well, you're not the first. Nelson and Hooded Justice were together for practically the whole time we were a group. Although I thought Rorschach was against that sort of thing?'
'He was,' said Dan, relieved his mentor didn't seem to disapprove. 'But he's decided being in love makes it okay for us to be together, and that means it is. No regrets, no second guessing, it's all or nothing with him.' He admired and envied that, Rorschach's single minded purity of purpose, even when it made things difficult. When it actually made things go right it was one of the things he couldn't help loving Rorschach for.
'Well. Congratulations. I hope you'll be happy.' And if Hollis' voice carried doubt as well as hope, at least there was no disappointment and he was undeniably rooting for them. 'I'll get on those contacts.'
The contacts yielded two possibilities, which Dan showed to Rorschach when he dropped by for lunch in civilian clothes. Breaking and entering would be necessary to find out which was their target and that would have to wait until after dark. So they sat on the bed together eating corner store sandwiches.
'When this is over and I can go home, will you move in with me?' asked Dan.
Rorschach looked at him, still with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. 'Not sure. House is too nice. Would mess things up.'
That was probably true, Rorschach could be incredibly messy. Not deliberately, just in the manner of someone who wasn't used to having things nice enough to worry about ruining. Dan didn't care right now. Even if he knew it would drive him nuts at times, it would be worth it to have Rorschach around.
'You were okay in the farmhouse,' he pointed out.
'Farmhouse was different. Less pretentious.' Rorschach remembered to take a bite of his sandwich.
'My house is not pretentious,' said Dan. 'We want to live together, right? What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine?'
'But I don't have anything.' There was no self-pity in the statement, Rorschach was just informing Dan that he would be making a bad bargain. And it was that, after all he'd heard from Rorschach in the last month, that left Dan sniffling and trying not to cry in front of his partner.
'Not that bad, Daniel,' said Rorschach, puzzled but trying to be comforting. 'Don't need anything.'
'Dammit,' muttered Daniel, grabbing a tissue to wipe his eyes and nose. 'Just move in with me. Please.'
Rorschach looked uncertain, then reached a conclusion and nodded decisively. 'For a few weeks. See if it works. Stop crying?'
'Yeah. I'm fine. Okay.' Dan took a couple of deep breathes and managed a smile. 'Thanks.'
The breaking and entering went smoothly, worryingly so. Surely someone who could break through everyone else's security would have some of her own? Perhaps they'd taken the wrong girl first. It was early evening and the girl herself was out. The apartment was a nice one, open plan and with a view of the river. Rorschach went over it with obsessive thoroughness, tapping walls and checking each and every floorboard. He moved onto the closet last, clearly discomfited by the bright feminine dancing costumes inside it, checking for secret buttons. It was when he tapped the floor of the closet and got a hollow clonk that Dan stopped looking through paperwork on the desk and went to join him.
There were six masks lying over the folded costume, including one with a brown stain like a dead rose over most of it, all smiling up at him. When Dan bent down to get a closer look they all wailed in unison, painted mouths opening, and he shivered. Beside him Rorschach's wings had gone up and back, attack mode, and there was savage pleasure in the way he stood.
'You're enjoying this,' said Dan.
'Attacking her in own house? Out of costume, when is vulnerable? Yes. Enjoying it very much.'
'So,' said Dan, looking at the unnerving masks. 'We ambush her when she comes back from hospital. Any plans for that?'
Two days later Emi Suzuki (the name on the letters Dan had read) returned to her apartment in the early evening. She walked up the stairs, past the corner Dan was lurking in, and into her bedroom. Her nose was padded with gauze and she looked tired, otherwise Dan thought she would have been pretty. The snarl and crash of Rorschach jumping out of the closet at her was his signal to action. Dan sprinted to the door and caught Emi in his arms as she tried to make for it. To his surprise she sighed and went limp.
'Okay, you got me,' she said. 'You guys are damn good, you know.'
People were starting to appear from neighbouring apartments, staring at the sight of vigilantes in their hall. Dan looked back at them, feeling embarrassed to have their neighbour in his arms, and Emi took advantage of the slight distraction to bite his ear. The pain made him loosen his grip but there was no way she could get past him so she fled back into her apartment instead, throwing herself onto the windowsill and frantically pushing the window open.
'We're five stories up!' said Dan. 'What are you planning to do?'
She looked back, standing on the sill of the large window as easily as on a sidewalk. 'Maybe I just won't let you take me alive,' she said. Her real smile, even under a broken nose, was almost as unnerving as her mask's.
'You're not going to jump,' said Dan firmly. 'Get down from there before you fall.'
The neighbours were crowding the doorway behind Dan. One shouted 'Emi, don't' and another caught Dan's arm trying to pull him away. Emi stepped to the edge of the windowsill, not to jump but to reach for a pipe while they didn't dare grab her and risk knocking her off. Dan tried to shake off the woman holding him, Emi bent her legs and reached out. And Rorschach tackled her.
The both fell out the window, leaving Dan frozen for a moment in shock and reflexive despair. But wait a moment. Rorschach had wings. Dan turned, pushing stunned bystanders out of the way and running down the stairs two at a time. Rorschach and Emi had been tangled together when they fell, could he reach the ground safely carrying another person's weight? Was Dan going to find Rorschach dead on the pavement after less than a week of being together, after ten years of being afraid to get close?
Rorschach was standing over Emi, both unhurt, tying her to a streetlamp with nylon line.
'Oh, thank God,' said Dan, dizzy with relief.
He phoned in the capture and explained to the bystanders in a daze. Rorschach tugged him away into an alley when he spotted the media arriving. Dan took advantage of the privacy to hug Rorschach against him tightly with all the strength of relief, burying himself in the feathery darkness of Rorschach's wings.
'God,' he whispered into Rorschach's shoulder. 'I thought I was going to lose you. Now. After everything. I thought…'
'Am fine, Daniel.' Rorschach was stroking his back, wings pressing tightly around them both. 'Am fine.'
A month later Rorschach was still staying with Daniel, although it was hard to think of himself as living there rather than as a permanent guest. There were times when Daniel's house just seemed too overwhelmingly nice. There was so much of it and all of it was clean and looked after.
It probably didn't help that all he had brought with him was clothes and a pile of New Frontiersmans, he didn't have any things around the place to make it feel like home. There were a few changes, though. The box he had bought Daniel was on the mantelpiece, Daniel hadn't been able to mend the crack but had glued a piece of wood inside the lid to hold the edges together and stop it spreading further. There were also classics on the bookcase. They weren't Rorschach's, he wasn't comfortable with Daniel spending money on him, but he also thought Daniel needed to read more widely. So Daniel bought them for himself and Rorschach read them, and both of them were happy with that arrangement.
Daniel was in the bedroom, half in and half out of an oblong of sunlight, making the bed. The sheets smelled of detergent and he was humming to himself, looking cheerfully domestic. Rorschach liked him like this, almost more than when he was Nite Owl, but it made him afraid to approach. There had never been any semblance of domesticity in his life and it felt like something he could smirch if he got too close, the way he left grubby fingerprints on Daniel's glass fronted cabinets. So he loitered in the doorway instead, watching from the shadows.
Daniel looked up and smiled. 'Hey, do you want something?'
Daniel took a closer look and went from smiling to anxious. 'Okay, what's wrong?'
'Nothing,' said Rorschach.
'Your wings are drooping.'
Something clicked in Rorschach's head about why Daniel had seemed so much better at reading him since he got wings. 'Been doing that all along,' he said accusingly.
Daniel spread his hands. 'I'm an ornithologist, and birds express a lot of emotion through their wings. Seriously, what's wrong?'
Rorschach shook his head. He might have been able to put it into writing, the sense of being something dark and wrong in Daniel's bright orderly bedroom, but there was no way he could put it into words. The closest he could come was to say uncertainly, 'Don't belong here.'
'You belong with me,' said Daniel. His eyes were highlighted with gold and amber behind his glasses, and the sun was throwing blue-shifted rainbows over the white sheet on the bed between them. Rorschach was reminded suddenly of his first flight, the drive upwards towards warmth and light he knew he could never reach. The reckless urge to try, even if it broke him. He slowly approached Daniel and pressed his hands against Daniel's chest, feeling heat beneath his palms. Daniel looked down at him, confused but caught by his seriousness even when he didn't understand its cause.
Rorschach pushed Daniel towards the bed, when Daniel opened his mouth he put his hand over it and Daniel fell silent, lips relaxing softly beneath his palm. Rorschach didn't fully understand what he was doing, what he needed, couldn't afford to let Daniel question him. He started to unbutton Daniel's clothes and Daniel responded, stripping each other in silence.
Daniel lay naked on the sheets, warm toned skin against blue-white like the sun through clouds. The sheets still smelt of detergent, clean and ordinary and good. Rorschach kissed him, his lips and neck and chest. They touched each other, running hands tenderly over skin. They had had sex here before, but not in sunlight. Not with Daniel rumpled and domestic, part of a world Rorschach had no right to touch. They kissed again, Daniel's eyes inches from his own filled with love and sunlight. That sharp, reckless urge hit Rorschach again, along with the knowledge of what he wanted. He lifted himself and drove down, trying to impale himself on Daniel, surprised and dismayed when Daniel caught his hips and held him back.
'Going to hurt yourself,' panted Daniel, pulling one hand away to fumble on the bedside table. 'Need…uh. Oil.' He had grabbed the preening oil and let go of Rorschach to open it. The smell of it filled the room, forever associated with comfort. Daniel coated them both, sliding fingers into Rorschach afterwards. It felt good and he wriggled back onto them, but he wanted more and now before he lost his nerve.
Rorschach pushed himself down onto Daniel in one movement, ignoring the pain as his body adjusted. Then it was warm, the sun pulled inside him, and Daniel was gasping beneath him. His wings started beating over them, driven by the association of this with flight, stirring Daniel's hair and driving them into the mattress with every powerful stroke. He heard himself keen, high and wild over Daniel's deeper cries, and then he shattered. Spiralled down to land in Daniel's arms.
Lying boneless on top of Daniel their bodies for the first time fitted together. Daniel's arms were around him, fingers of his clean hand gently carding Rorschach's hair as Daniel whispered how amazing that had been. Daniel looked the same in the sunlight, clean and good, and Rorschach had somehow reached that warmth without ruining it. He relaxed, wings tucking around them both. For the first time in his life, he was home.