There's a scattering of grit under your feet, scuffing away from the sole of your shoe and fanning into the air. It's a snapshot in your memory: dark particles flung against a pre-dawn sky that is intersected by the lazy arc of frayed grapnel wire. Your fedora is lost.
You have a moment to consider the inevitability of your decent, and how this was not the way you expected to go.
The primordial roar of blood in your ears drowns out everything, crashing against the inside of your skull like an ocean. Its pulse matches the delicate throb in the tips of your fingers and in the lacework of red-black that is the inside of your eyelids. If you keep still, it subsides until all you hear is your own breathing and an absence of sound that never quite becomes silence.
Awareness of your surroundings leaks in, slowly. You are prone on the ground and there are bits of gravel pressing into your cheek, edges softened by your mask. One arm is beneath you. You slowly clench the fist that is sandwiched between your stomach and the asphalt; pain darts up your forearm and synaesthetic streaks of color crowd under your eyelids, but it is tolerable. Sprained, probably not broken. Good.
Your legs are splayed at an uncomfortable angle. You can move all of your toes. You wonder how far you fell, in the end.
The panicky shout thrums on a frequency that taps directly into your lizard-brain, has you up and crouched unsteadily, quivering with fight-flight impulses before you are even conscious of moving. For a second, you can't breathe.
"Oh, thank god, thank—"
And then dizziness hits you like a wall of water, closely followed by the kind of pain that promises bone-deep bruises that will darken like stormclouds. You sway as the sensation fizzes up your spine and leaves black spots pricking the edge of your vision. Shaking your head doesn't disperse them, only gathers more. It's not your mask.
"Whoa, okay, it's okay, I gotcha. Steady, now."
For a span of seconds, the man hovering over you is drawn in a disorienting double-image. He's hyper-real, familiar to a point that is almost grotesque in its intimacy—yet, at the same time, he is completely a stranger. It's as though you're looking at something mundane from an unexpected angle; the ordinary made alien.
"Are you hurt?" the mans says, and then immediately, "No, of course you're hurt, that was a hell of a drop. Okay... okay. You're standing, so... legs... seem fine..."
There are hands smoothing over your limbs and torso, pressing firm but shaking, and it feels like something long coveted. At first you want to shiver under his touch and it feels like its root is in pleasure, but then there is a deep repulsion working its way out. It drags nebulous concepts with it, an abstract ideal, something about repercussions and moral lapses and forbidden, dangerous things.
The man frowns and hesitantly cups one hand around the back of your neck, and you remember suddenly that it's Daniel.
You are in an alleyway and Daniel is checking you over for damage because you fell and that's why—and you should remove his hands from your person because it's what he expects from you, and that's why he's—
Hands, cradling your head and stroking the back of your skull. You lean into it until it hurts. His fingertips probe, careful and precise, and you hiss.
Daniel licks his lips worriedly, and raises a hand into your line of sight. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"One," you say. "Don't swear at me."
He laughs, a little hysterically, folds the offending finger to make a fist and then presses the fist to his mouth. "Okay, that's... that's a good sign. What's the date?"
"May twenty-seventh, sixty-eight."
He nods, and then asks, "What's your name?"
It's a long time since you've been asked that question. Nobody needs to ask Rorschach, and nobody cares enough about Kovacs. With your head throbbing and neon tracking across your vision every time you blink, Kovacs is the name that balances on your tongue. You clench your jaw before you give it voice.
Daniel's brow knits around his goggles.
Even if you did have your own name knocked out of your skull, he called you by it only minutes ago. There's no way he can think you have forgotten yourself.
"I'm..." you say, and pause. Testing.
You used to wish you could forget yourself. Under the slip of latex and shift of ink, you found that freedom, more and more. You are Rorschach, and Kovacs is forgotten. All your weaknesses and depravities are forgotten, and all your filthy, bedraggled little wishes are forgotten.
Daniel only knows Rorschach, and all the things he is free of. You always thought that was desirable.
"Okay," Daniel says. His voice is not even, but he still doesn't sound as concerned as he should. Perhaps he's trying not to unnerve you, or perhaps it's what you want to hear. "Shit. This could be serious. We have to get you to a hospital."
"No," you say, making no effort to temper the sharpness. "Not necessary."
He barks out a laugh. "Well, you sure sound like yourself."
You grunt out a non-committal sound and bend to retrieve your hat, tap it back into shape and jam it on your head.
"Do you know who I am?"
That gives you pause, fingertips still resting on the brim of your fedora. Daniel tries to make it sound like a casual question, even a joke, but his words are just slightly too clipped. They strike a note that betrays him; it sounds like suspicion, or unacknowledged dread.
"Daniel Dreiberg," you say. "Nite Owl. My partner."
For a moment Daniel stares at you, throat working under the leather armor at his neck. "Yes," he says, low and rough. The dread is still there, but so is something else.
And with that, the wind changes and sweeps the night along. You wonder what chances it has tumbled into the gutter, left to rot with the rest of the city's debris, forgotten.
It's almost a week later, and you're blinking a field of stars out of your vision. Moved too slowly, body still stiff and recovering from its sidewalk diving. You needed to be a split second faster, and the slip finds you catching a fist with your chin and then thrown against a wall.
You hear the crack as the back of your head hits the brick, and a heavy, sickening throb quickly sets in. You taste blood where the tip of your tongue is caught between your teeth.
Nite Owl swoops in to dispatch the felon and hogties him in the middle of the alley. You close your eyes in a long blink and when you open them, he's in front of you, holding your weight up by your shoulders.
You squeeze your eyes shut again, turn up your mask and spit to one side.
"Christ." The muscles in Daniel's jaw tense. "Am I gonna have to do the finger thing again?"
"No need." You rock back on your heels until the wall is taking your weight instead of Daniel. You feel light and even and reckless in a way that isn't usual, and you don't mind that his hands are still on your shoulders. You can't pinpoint exactly why it's supposed to bother you.
"What's the date?"
"What's your name?"
Kovacs. No—Rorschach. Kovacs as Rorschach. It's difficult to think with cascading fractals overlaying your vision. You decide that you don't like the question much. "I know my name," you snap.
Daniel shakes his head, frustrated. "Okay, if you say so. But we're going back. You're worrying me."
"That's nothing out of the ordinary." Despite your grumbling, you let him herd you toward the Archimedes. He sits you in the co-pilot chair and thankfully refrains from poking and prodding at you, though you can tell he's agitated by the way he flicks at the controls. You sit back and rest your eyes, and wait for everything to stop shifting to the left.
When you open them again you are in flight, dreary clouds fogging up the ship's glass eyes. The autopilot chimes, and Daniel turns his attention back to you.
"What's your name?" he asks again. He braces his hands on the arms of your chair, makes a human cage.
"I know who I am." You are Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach, cradling secrets close to your chest. You can't see what they are; they pour through your fingers like hourglass sand.
"Do you know who I am?" Daniel says, voice a murmur. You immediately know he has been aching to ask this question again.
"I know who you are," you say, deliberately slowly; maybe you are teasing him or maybe you are trying not to slur your words.
He leans in closer. "Who am I?"
He lets out a burst of breath that touches your mask and warms your mouth beneath. You subtly tip your head back in response, a minute shift of your body, but you know that you may as well have sent a gilt-edged invitation. Maybe you're supposed to be more surreptitious about this, you don't know.
"Are you playing with me?" Daniel says, and for the first time he sounds genuinely confused. "Are you just yanking my chain, here? Because I don't know what to think, man."
"Hn." Playing implies a game and games are supposed to be fun. Navigating this is an arduous balancing act, and like stepping along the narrow ledges of New York's rooftops, you're too aware of the fall to enjoy the view. You clasp one hand to his forearm, because if you fall, you're taking him with you. "Not playing."
"You don't do this," Daniel says. He looks down at where your fingers wind around him, too puzzled to do anything about it. "You just don't."
"Don't I?" It could be a rebuttal, or it could be a question. You let Daniel decide which.
"I don't want to take advantage," he says, apologetic. He gingerly touches the back of your head, stirring a headache from fresh eddies of pain. One day he will kill you with his kindness.
"Don't you?" you say.
He just stares at you, searching your mask as though he can find meaning in it, and in the end you make it easy for him. When you pull him down to straddle your lap, he is already hard.
Daniel is out of context against the sheets, hair flattened to his forehead and damp where your hand grasps the back of his neck. He gasps and makes noises that puts your teeth on edge and for a moment you want to check him for wounds, but then you remember.
The noises still bother you, but they are an effect without cause. The source of your distress evades you; sand through your fingers. You can't get your breath to come evenly.
You close your eyes tight and hope to remember why you never do this, before it happens again.
Afterward, in the bathroom, you peel up the mask and almost don't recognize the face in the mirror.
Daniel's fogged reflection ghosts into view over your shoulder, and the unease on his face is hard to miss even through the smeared condensation. You think maybe you should say something, but if you ever knew what that something should be, you have forgotten.