“Seriously, Hollis. Never.” Dan swallowed the last warm drops of his beer and surreptitiously checked the time.
Hollis shook his head, chuckling. “Just like old Hooded Justice, eh? I hope his politics aren’t as extreme, at least.”
“No, no,” Dan assured him, thinking that Rorschach’s views at least genuflected somewhere to the left of the Third Reich. “Honestly, I’ve never seen him out of uniform. He keeps his civilian identity not only close to his vest, but duct-taped inside it. I’m not keeping him a secret from you.”
“Still,” Hollis insisted, his jaw thrusting forward in an echo of the photographs and clippings Dan had covered his wallpaper with as a boy. “You’ve been working together for years, so it’s high time I at least meet him and know what kind of man has your back out there in the jungle.”
Dan shook his head, thinking about unstoppable forces and immovable objects. The mess they’d make, if someone was foolish enough to bring them together. “Even if he agreed, having a mask visiting you, in uniform – if there were witnesses, it could be difficult for you. And compromise my identity, which I’m sure you wouldn’t – ”
“You’re clever boys,” Hollis interrupted firmly. He stood and walked Dan to the door, helping him into his jacket. “Come separately. I’m sure he can find a way in here without being seen. Until next week, Daniel.”
Dan stomped down the stairs, wondering how the old man had outflanked him so easily, even after a full six-pack of Pabst.
Seven days later…
Dan fidgeted on the saggy couch, head swivelling toward every creak and tick as the building settled in for the night. He hadn’t taken a sip of his beer, but the label lay in soggy strips on the coffee table in front of him. He uncrossed his legs and re-crossed them, banging his knee on the table. Grateful for the distraction, he rubbed at the mild pain until the joint went numb.
Hollis stood, calm as a sphinx, contemplating the contents of his bookshelf. Phantom napped in his basket by the silent television, quietly flatulating.
Dan cast about for something to say, any topic that wasn’t where the hell his partner was or anything that might lead to that question. He spied an auto trade magazine, open to the ads in the back.
“I heard the news about GM,” he said, speaking quickly. “Finally closing down their combustion lines this summer – never thought I’d see the day you could walk onto an American car lot without finding a single gas cap.”
A faint grimace passed over Hollis’ face, but he answered smoothly. “Yes, indeed. They say it’s much better for the planet, not having those old dinosaurs farting along every highway.”
Hollis asked him if he believed the projections a few wacko scientists had announced, mathematically “proving” that the levels of air pollution would have ripped holes in the atmosphere mere decades hence if everyone hadn’t seen sense, but Daniel barely heard the question.
Was that a darker shadow moving across the living room window? No, just a trick of the eye, his pupils dilating when he looked away from the bright lamp.
Where was the man? Hollis had no idea what he was in for. It had taken all week to wear Rorschach down, six endless nights of irritated lectures on the importance of vigilance and the immorality of socialising while the streets ran vermilion with innocent blood, and an unrelated tirade on treacherous Socialist propaganda hidden in Disney films. Dan had to assume Rorschach was just as tired of arguing as he was, as his partner finally agreed to meet Hollis after that rant wound down and Daniel mentioned the command invitation yet again.
After which, out of pity, Dan insisted that the seven dwarves were in fact a glorification of laissez-faire capitalism. The splotches of his partner’s nonexpression looked decidedly downcast, and Rorschach only half-heartedly retorted that they were obviously planted by cunning Jewish studio executives to make a generation of American children venerate big-nosed lovers of gold.
Hollis was regarding him with a faint, fatherly smirk.
“I’m sorry,” Dan began, “I was woolgathering. What –”
The tickle of glass interrupted him.
“That’ll be the storeroom,” Hollis noted with some approval. “No bars on that window, but only because it can’t be reached by the roof and any burglar would have to creep back and around the corner on a two-inch ledge.”
There was a muffled thump. Something heavy rolled until it tapped the wall.
“Of course, I do keep my old dumbbells underneath the window,” Hollis continued smoothly. “Very treacherous footing – and a good early warning – should someone be foolish enough to break in.”
Dan’s rear was frozen to the couch cushion. He listened to the rough slide of someone yanking dishevelled layers back into place, the metallic chime of weights being returned to their stand, and waited for the explosion.
“You’re enjoying this,” he accused his mentor.
Hollis only offered the Mona Lisa smirk again and called out, “We’re in here, young man!”
Dan covered his face. “Young man”? Oh, Hollis was trying to get them both killed.
Instead of flying apart in a shower of splinters, the door opened slowly. Dan looked up at the creak of hinges and watched the apparition ease into the room, carefully closing the door behind him.
It had to be Rorschach, no one else had a mask like that, but…it couldn’t be Rorschach.
“Apologies for lateness,” the stranger muttered, shoulders hunched and gaze fixed on the carpet. “Difficulties at laundromat.”
“Was there a robbery?” Dan asked, disbelieving the evidence of his own eyes.
Rorschach shook his head. “Multiple signs clearly state: no outside laundry. Yet locals still bring wet clothes, utilise every dryer with one garment each. Very bad.”
Hollis chuckled. “There’s some crimes beyond even us, eh son? Please, have a seat.”
He gestured for Rorschach to settle in next to Dan and ducked into the kitchen. Rorschach perched on the edge of the cushion, moving in a haze of spring-fresh scent. Dan blinked and forced himself to believe his senses: his partner was so clean he squeaked. There were creases in his trousers that could slice butter. His shoes gleamed with polish.
His trench coat was actually tan, stripped of a dozen years of structurally supportive grime. It looked like it could disintegrate under a light sigh.
Gone was the familiar smell of someone who, putting it charitably, didn’t see the point in washing what he’d only get dirty again. Chemical perfumes warred instead for the privilege of assaulting Dan’s sinuses, detergent overlaying cheap soap, mentholated pine, and more than a hint of what smelled remarkably like Dan’s own aftershave.
Dan frowned. “You know, you could have asked to use my washing machine,” he whispered. “Any time.”
Rorschach stared straight ahead. “Was necessary, if clothes were to be dried this evening.”
“And I’ve told you a hundred times you can use my shower. You waited until I left, didn’t you?”
“You don’t even trust me to be in my own house while you bathe, as if I’m going to burst in with the Weekly World News’ paparazzi squad – ”
Hollis pointedly reached across Dan to offer Rorschach a brown bottle. Dan froze, instantly prepared to head off Tirade #3 or Alcohol: Demon Destroyer Of The Hardworking American Man (which differed significantly from #4, Alcohol: The Opiate Of Dissipated Limousine Liberals). Fortunately, the label read: Root Beer.
“Would you like a glass with that?”
“Yes, sir,” Rorschach mumbled, avoiding Dan’s pre-emptive glare.
“Is that even you under there?” Dan hissed as Hollis bustled back into the kitchen.
His partner growled. “Criminals rampaging across the city while we linger here, Daniel. Too much of the night has been wasted already.”
“More importantly, is my front door hanging off its hinges right now?”
Hollis returned with two tumblers filled with ice and handed one to Rorschach.
“Used spare key,” Rorschach grumbled under his breath. “Inferior lock remains intact.”
Hollis sighed and unlocked small his liquor cabinet, choosing a dusty bottle marked “Glenkinchie.” Ice cubes tinkled cheerfully as he poured a double, hesitated, then filled it to the brim. Dan sipped at his warm beer, taken aback when Hollis locked the bottle away without offering him a taste as well.
Hollis picked up a notepad and settled into his easy chair across from Dan and Rorschach, visibly steeling himself. He flicked through the pages – dense with Hollis’s cramped handwriting, Dan saw – and rolled a sip of whiskey around his tongue.
“Let’s begin, shall we?”
Rorschach paused before setting his glass on the bare coffee table, placing it on the remains of Dan’s label instead. When he carefully set his mask up on his nose, the skin revealed was a both smooth and a brutal shade of pink, nicked along the chin and under one ear. Dan’s gaze swivelled between the two madmen.
“Uh, yes,” Dan stammered. “Well, I, it’s a bit late for introductions, but – ”
“I’m sure we all know each other, Daniel,” Hollis cut him short. “I was referring to a more formal…er…” He consulted his notes and began again. “We should start things off by establishing an open atmosphere. By which I mean, hurumph, Rorschach?”
He sat to attention. “Hurm?”
“Can I ask you to make a gesture of trust?”
Rorschach tentatively raised a hand and looked to Dan for a translation.
Oh God, Dan thought, he can’t be serious…
“Take the mask off, son,” Hollis said kindly. “It’s time.”
“No,” Rorschach replied immediately.
“You’re among friends,” Hollis encouraged.
“It’s part of the process.”
“We certainly won’t be judging your appearance, if that’s what concerns you.”
Dan’s gaze flipped between the two like he was watching two maniacs play tennis with a grenade.
“No, that’s not what concerns you?”
Dan tried to sink into the cushions. If he could attend a zen state in the next fifteen seconds and become one with the floorboards, neither of his friends would be able to reach him.
He peeked sideways. His partner’s shoulders were hunched up around his jaw, digging into the mask’s seam for extra protection.
“…we’ll come back to that next time, then.” Hollis frowned and scribbled in the margins of his notes. He flipped the notebook closed and regarded the tumbler in his hand. “Nelson gave this to me when I retired. An old war buddy of his sent him a bottle every year – for some anniversary or annual ritual, I don’t know what specifically.”
He took a sip. Rorschach slurped his root beer and hummed in approval at the rush of sweetness. He pulled his mask back down as soon as the glass was empty.
“Nelson, he…he did not die a happy man. I don’t think he ever was.”
“Hollis,” Dan interrupted. “I know it’s only been a few weeks since the funeral. How are you doing with that, really?”
“I’m fine, Daniel.” Hollis’s tone was reproachful. “This isn’t about me.”
Dan nodded, stung, and stared at his beer. The tension in the room ratcheted up a few more degrees, and Dan hoped Hollis would get to his point before Rorschach fidgeted them both right off the couch. He wondered if he could poke the other man into stillness without losing a finger.
Hollis shook his head. “No, Nelson…H.J., Ursula, Bill and poor Byron…it’s a difficult life, having to keep so much of yourself hidden. As you both well know.”
Daniel nodded, relaxing slightly. So Rorschach was to get Hollis’s standard pep talk. Hold the line, keep your head, but take regular breaks and remain connected to the outside world. Maybe he’d even insist Rorschach make a habit of stopping by with Daniel. He perked up, imagining close patrols with a partner who scoured himself and his uniform at least once a week, like the old days.
He jumped when Rorschach answered Hollis. “Not a difficult life. The only life.”
Hollis nodded slowly. “It can seem like that. And, back in the Minutemen’s day, it was the only life for people like you. But, times have changed. A little too fast for my liking, in most ways, but in others…well…it’s about damn time.”
Dan frowned in confusion. Hollis was going off script. There was usually a bit about the temptation of cynicism that the old man illustrated with an inexhaustible supply of war metaphors. That usually segued into a Captain Axis anecdote, or a Moloch story if Hollis was feeling blue. Then, about three beers later, Hollis remembered the point he was trying to make and pointedly asked about Dan’s civilian projects and vacation plans.
“I watched my friends tear themselves apart, and, well, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t lift a finger to help. I told myself their personal lives were messy because they were messy people, and that was partly true. But now that I’m older, and have seen more of the world than I ever imagined I would, I think differently. Having to always keep themselves hidden, in fear of public humiliation or even attack…that would crush anybody. Make them do stupid things.”
“Uh, Hollis…are you going somewhere with this?”
Hollis ignored him, taking long, fortifying swallow. Rorschach poked him in the thigh, tilting his head to the degree that Dan had always interpreted as “…the hell?” He shrugged back.
There was something different about the bookcase. Dan stared until he realised that the Police Athletic League coaching award had been moved to his desk, and several textbooks had taken its place. He squinted, reading titles through the lines of the cracked spines.
The Clinical Handbook of Couples Therapy. Sex and Attachment. I’m OK, You’re OK.
“I’m not going to sit by and do nothing, this time. I won’t let this life chew you up and spit you out, just because you’ve got no one you can trust to give you some perspective on a partnership under so much outside stress. That’ll be me. I’m going to help you through this rough patch if it kills all three of us.”
Hollis’ mouth quirked, as if to say: I can still take both of you pups with one hand tied behind my back.
Part of Dan was immensely touched. The old man obviously loved him, to come so far out of his comfort zone for Dan’s benefit, and that was a childhood dream come true. The rest of Dan struggled to choose between terrified and aghast. How’d he given Hollis the impression he and Rorschach were “partners”?
Not that Dan hadn’t harboured some forlorn hopes early on, his hormones briefly confused by savage grace and layers upon layers that only teased the imagination, but after weeks of tentative hints inspired only confused grumpiness he understood that, no, there’d be no special exception for Nite Owl.
That was years ago. All his recent complaints had been strictly business. How Rorschach was drifting away, working more cases on his own and talking less when they did patrol together. How he was more worn out by his dual lives now than when they were younger but leaned on Dan less, even refusing to stay overnight. How Rorschach still protected each tiny detail of his civilian identity, despite worming himself into every aspect of Dan’s, and acted as if each innocent question or gesture was an invasion. How he refused to even touch Dan anymore…
Oh, dammit! He’d meant the handshakes, the lack of oddly formal handshakes that they’d traditionally parted with, not… Okay, it did, sort of, form a pattern, if Hollis had decided Dan was speaking elliptically to avoid offending his traditional values.
Oh God. Dan had to figure out how to stop this, without actually letting on that he knew what Hollis was getting at if he ever wanted to see his partner again. If he didn’t, Rorschach was going to kill them both. He was going to…he was looking at Dan, then back at Hollis, the blots shifting through their confusion cycle.
“Partnership is fine,” he told Hollis, gaze flicking back to Dan for confirmation. Dan nodded frantically. “Trust Daniel with my life. And he – he trusts me with his.”
The low growl lost some of its edge when he hesitated, and the rest of the sentence came out almost as a question.
“You sound like you’re not sure of that,” Hollis replied, his eyes drifting over their heads and back. Dan followed the gesture and saw that Hollis had moved his wall clock to over the couch, where he could see it and they couldn’t without craning their necks. Wonder when our time is up, he thought and forced back a hysterical giggle.
Rorschach shook his head. “No, I’m sure. He does. But he – he probably shouldn’t.”
“Are you planning to kill me in my sleep?” Dan joked without thinking, and drew back when Rorschach glared at him (displaying the “bouquet of pretty flowers” pattern, a particularly angry expression).
“Possibly,” he growled. His voice became higher and softer as he continued. “I don’t guard his back as, as well as I once did. Am often tired. Am not free of…weaknesses.”
“Hey, buddy,” Dan replied, wishing the other man could stand a comforting pat on the back. “You do fine.”
“Deserve better,” he muttered, but he was looking at Hollis, not Dan.
“We’re all only human, son,” the older man said. “None of us can be perfect, no matter how much we wish that weren’t so. But if you focus too much on your own performance, you do your partner a disservice. Listen.”
He set his tumbler aside and leaned on his elbows, obviously more comfortable in reminiscing mode. “I often used to partner up with either Ursula or Sally, so you can imagine how much I worried, how much I hovered over them. If I slipped up, I wasn’t just leaving my partner exposed but a woman at the mercy of hardened criminals. But, heh, Ursula did slap some sense into me. And Sally was no slouch in a tight corner either, let me tell you. Those spike heels, well…”
Hollis drifted away for a moment. Rorschach squirmed uncomfortably.
“I’m getting off track. All I meant is that I was so focused on protecting them that I only got in their way. Real partnership means trusting their abilities to take up your slack as much as you do theirs.”
“I feel the same way sometimes,” Dan broke in. “Remember a few months ago, when you shot through the air vents in Malone’s hideout the second our informant needed help? I couldn’t fit and had to go around to the back, barely caught up to you before you were buried in thugs. Had nightmares for weeks, that I was too late and you were, you know.”
“But you weren’t.” Rorschach had lost the growl entirely, and Dan wondered if he realised he was using his natural voice. He hoped not – it would be just like the man to decide the only logical recourse was to deafen the two who could now recognise it.
He shrugged in response. “Sometimes you’re just too fast for me.”
Rorschach nodded. “Failure of strategic thought. Will rectify in the future.”
Dan decided to push it – after all, this was going to blow up in his face sooner than later, so why should he worry about setting it off himself? “And when you’re feeling tired, or – or weak, please tell me. So I can adjust my own strategies?”
If he’d held his breath waiting for an answer, he’d have passed out minutes before his partner finally nodded. Hollis grinned.
“Next time you come by, we’ll talk a little about balancing your calling with the necessary day job, okay? I had to deal with shift work, too, and even after they chained me to a desk I still needed a few tricks to be at my best every night.”
Hollis practically glowed when Rorschach shyly replied that that would be…helpful, and Dan felt an uncomfortable worm of jealousy wriggle in his guts. Hollis never looked at Dan that way any more. But then Dan didn’t need his advice now, not really. Just moral support, and the comfort of routine. Discovering another protégé who really needed the benefit of his experience had suddenly taken ten weary years off Hollis’ face.
Or that might just have been the single-malt.
Still. His stomach was starting to feel like the Empire State Building’s freight elevator, but it gamely rose once again. Somehow, they’d all survived, and even had a nice air-clearing chat that ended with the promise of more visits and more importantly more goddamn bathing, and every nerve in his streets-honed body was screaming at him to get the hell out of there. Lady Luck had indulgently, miraculously, let him get to third base once again, but it was time to say goodnight my lovely and call a cab.
“Rorschach, I’m sure you’re ready to hit the streets, so, Hollis, see you next week?”
He jumped to his feet, half-toppling the coffee table in his haste. Rorschach did likewise, nodding to Hollis as he inched toward the door. “Honor to have met you,” he offered quietly.
Hollis pinned them with a glare Dan was sure he’d honed on two generations of juvenile candy thieves. They sat back down in unison, knees together.
He flipped through his notes again, lips moving as he tried several phrases on for size. Rorschach pressed his shoulder nervously into Dan’s, one of their semiconscious signals that meant: we’re outnumbered, move to flank them before they realise this. Dan chuckled nervously, wondering if that was one of his partner’s strange jokes or if the plan was to flee in different directions so Hollis could only get one of them at most.
“I’m very proud of you both for coming this far,” Hollis began carefully, reciting like a cadet faced with his first Miranda quiz. “I know it’s not a comfortable experience, being vulnerable this way. But – ”
He paused to drain his glass. Dan and Rorschach waited in petrified silence, while Phantom kicked his basket, chasing dream thugs.
“But,” Hollis continued, taking a deep breath, “there are more specific issues we should confront. The, er, life of a crimefighter, the emotional deadening that comes with perpetual exposure to the worst of society, that urban malaise, I’ve seen that a lot with other cops, and they at least can work in the open. With the additional pressures of secrecy, all that horror is turned inward, on ourselves and those we, we love. All of this affects a relationship…intimately–er , with disconnecting. Oh, hell with pussyfooting around it.
“I hear Dan’s worries, and it’s like going back in time. My friends were ripping each other wide open because they couldn’t get their hands on their real demons. I – I think Nelly tried to talk to me, but I, er, just didn’t want those images haunting my nightmares. So he was left with Larry’s shoulder to cry on, whose only priority was to keep a lid on them and Sally out of it.”
Hollis stared at the nubs of ice in his tumbler. “He stayed with someone who made him feel ashamed and ridiculous because in his world, loving a man made him a shameful joke anyway.”
Rorschach jerked out of contact with his partner. Dan watched in horrified fascination as black pooled across the mask, picking out and then engulfing protruding cheekbones.
“It’s not,” Hollis rolled along emphatically. “It’s part of who you are and it doesn’t make you any less of a hero, or a man, and you deserve to be happy like anyone else.”
Dan buried his head in his arms and waited for the screams.
“Hell, it’s not even illegal anymore to have…have a relationship. Of that sort. Consensually.”
The couch bucked under his rear. Dan tensed against a blow, but heard only the slam of the front door and someone taking the front steps three at a time.
Hollis sighed. “Well, that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.”
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” Dan moaned into the crook of his elbow.
“It’s important that you understand, at least,” Hollis insisted. “You can talk to me, about anything.”
“He’s going to kill me. Really kill me. And you should probably put some bars on that window, tonight,” Dan fretted.
“Dan, every couple goes through – ”
“We’re not a couple!”
Hollis glared reprovingly. “I assure you, retirement hasn’t blunted my detective skills quite that much.”
“We’re not fucking, Hollis,” Dan cut in bluntly. “And Rorschach is…surprisingly religious, for someone who revels so much in wrath.”
Hollis’ mouth dropped open. “No?” he asked, his complexion suddenly ashen under the whiskey’s warm flush.
“We’re professional partners. And friends, sort of. I – I suspect I’m his only friend.”
Hollis nodded unhappily. “Oh. And…and I’ve just driven him away. Oh, Dan, I’m so sorry. I read all these books…I thought I was helping.”
Dan’s heart twisted at his crestfallen expression. “You were helping, actually. It was a good idea, Hollis. A really good idea. He’s never opened up that much before.”
“Fat lot of good that does if he never comes within a mile of either of us again,” Hollis groaned.
“Cheer up,” Dan sighed. “I’ll see him again when he comes to murder me for making you picture him having a penis, let alone gay sex. With me. Oh, God.”
Hollis sat down heavily. “Will you really be in danger? Phantom and I have been out of the game for a few years, but I’m happy to come along on patrol, as, as a lookout, at least.”
Dan wheezed out a chuckle. “Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve shamed him beyond the possibility of redemption. Remind me next week to tell you about the Great Public Urination Scandal of ’66. I survived that, I’ll survive this. Probably.”
Dan hurried home and made for the basement. Whether the inevitable reprisal would come immediately or if his punishment included jumping at shadows for several weeks, he needed to be suited up and on the streets. Unfortunately, he’d only managed to strip to his boxers when movement in the tunnel caught his eye.
He wanted to grab his uniform and run up the stairs, get as much armor covering his skin as he could before Rorschach broke down the door. He made himself set it aside and face his partner as he was. Rorschach hesitated at the edge of the light, fingers twitching.
Probably caught between slicing me open width- or length-wise, Daniel thought, and stepped toward him. He opened his mouth, already hearing the words: I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. I was just as mortified as you. But I’ve set Hollis straight, no pun intended, and he hopes you’ll still be willing to come visit him again sometime.
What actually came out was, “SHIT!” as he slammed his bare toes into his workbench’s leg. He hopped back on one foot, sure from the shock of pain that he had to have knocked at least one digit clean off. The back of his calf bumped into the stair behind him, and he chose to sit on it with a scrap of dignity rather than fall on his ass.
“Oh…goddammit,” he muttered, trying to take comfort in the fact he at least hadn’t dropped his glasses and stepped on them in the process, this time.
That seemed to decide his partner, who strode like the wrath of God across the workshop and came to a halt a few feet away, chest heaving.
“Listen, Rorschach,” Dan began, raising his hands.
Rorschach took a deep breath and peeled away his mask, only hesitating for a moment as it passed the bridge of his nose. Daniel missed the revelation of new skin entirely, bewildered gaze following the crumpled fabric out of habit, searching for familiar patterns. Rorschach passed it from hand to hand uncertainly, as if to stuff it in a pocket was sacrilege.
Dan reached out on impulse, surprised when his partner’s fingers loosened and let him take it, warm cloth eerily like skin against his palm. He stared at it, putting off the moment everything would change for a few seconds more, but there were no answers in the aimless drip of cooling ink. He looked up slowly, wishing he’d had time to prepare, that he wasn’t sitting on a freezing step with a throbbing foot and his balls probably peeking out of the elderly boxers he’d thoughtlessly thrown on that afternoon.
He’s…really…homely, Dan thought first, with something like relief. It just wouldn’t be fair if he’d turned out to be the handsome one. Then all he could see were eyes like a frost-rimmed morning, sharp with hope and pre-emptive despair.
He grabbed Dan underneath his arms and yanked him to his feet, burying his face in Dan’s neck. Between them, the mask fluttered to the floor, unnoticed.
Seven days later…
“Glad to see you in one piece!”
“Yeah, we, uh, we sorted things out. Actually, he might stop by.”
“Really? I can’t tell you how relieved I am.”
“You’ll, uh, you’ll know him when you see him. He said you can call him Joseph, if you want, and er, look, here’s a list I’ve made up – could you, ahem, could you tell him these things are okay for heroes to do, too?”
“…is number 3 even humanly possible?”
“Er…I’d like to find out.”