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FIC: Tiny Grains of Earth [1/2]

Title: Tiny Grains of Earth
Fandom: Watchmen
Characters/Pairings: Rorschach/Dan
Date Written: 2011
Summary: Rorschach is acting funny, not remembering things how he should, and is just inexplicably different. Dan gets paranoid, and seeks his real partner.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 most of the way through, then NC-17 at the very end of part 2, for explicit sex. Read whatever portion makes you comfortable.
Notes:  KM fill. Set in the 60's, early in the partnership.

*

It's not a particularly memorable night—just one in a long sequence of them, blurring into each other in the way all of their midnights are lit in neon and sodium, in the way all of their dawns are bathed in neurotic, last-minute violence, as if it is the last chance the wicked will ever have to ply their trade. The coming day casts a sharpness on vision and on memory, burns these moments in.

So: Nite Owl is laughing as his captive struggles against his bonds. It's an oily whip of a boy, restless in the city morning and caught trying to break into a third-floor window. Nite Owl is laughing and Rorschach is hovering nearby, visibly uncomfortable in the growing light.

"Hey, man," Nite Owl says, ignoring the boy's thrashing, methodically binding him to the fence spires between them. "You remember last year, that B and E we stopped on 16th and Hastings?"

Rorschach just grunts, rolls his shoulders in something that could be a shrug. "Much like this one, yes."

Nite Owl laughs again, because of course Rorschach does this, gives him shit for his nostalgia and the humor's deadpan but not unrecognizeable. "Oh, come on. You know damn well it was nothing like—"

And then he sees it—just a little twitch in Rorschach's hands as he fists them into his pockets. Annoyance, or frustration.

Maybe it isn't humor after all.

Dan feels his brow wrinkle under Nite Owl's protective cowl, goggles. "You really don't remember?"

"Doesn't matter."

"It was one of our first patrols. I think I'm a little hurt, here."

"Sentimentality," Rorschach says, and there's a roughness in his voice Dan doesn't remember hearing before, "is a pointless indulgence."

Even the boy has stopped struggling to listen in on this, and that isn't good. If there's an issue here beyond Rorschach being a generic ass—Dan got used to that in the first month—he wouldn't want it made public.

"Okay," Nite Owl finally says, straightening, carefully shelving his concern like a particularly delicate object, high up and safe and secret. "Wasn't that memorable anyway. Lets head back to the ship."

*

Thing is, it was memorable—an illegal collection of chimpanzees and two robbers high on acid tend to do that—and even Rorschach had said that night, 1964's wintery dying breath on both their necks, that it was not a scene he'd ever forget.

It's a little thing, and when Nite Owl reaches for Rorschach's shoulder to help him into Archie and misses by two inches, hand hitting the back of his coat too low, that's a little thing too. But damned if the devil's not in the details, and paying attention to the little things is something Rorschach's spent the last year hammering into him.

"You've gotten taller," he says mildly, like it's not a total absurdity. He doesn't expect a response, doesn't get one; the mask just turns to stare at him, blots coalescing and drifting apart again in a dance that, even after a year, Dan is no closer to deciphering.

*

It's possible, Dan thinks later as he's undressing for bed, that Rorschach's hurt himself somehow, a recent head injury he's kept to himself. On their first week of patrol, the stubborn bastard caught a crowbar in the side from some kid he'd just barely underestimated the speed of, and didn't say a word about it until the cracked ribs started impeding his ability to fight. It's not an unprecedented thing.

Dan rolls onto his side, pulls the blanket up around him. He pictures it: a pipe or plank of wood cracking his partner across the back of his head, sending the fedora flying. He'd stumble, maybe, a split second's vulnerability—then straighten and shake it off and plow back into the fight. Take a moment afterward to pointedly retrieve his hat. Allow the night to go on without comment.

Damn it, it isn't a good scenario—injuries never are, and concussions can be the scariest of the bunch—nor is it the most robust, and Rorschach would dress him down for giving anyone that much benefit of the doubt. But it's a place to start.

And if it doesn't explain the height issue, well, Dan had to have been imagining it, simple as that. His equilibrium was off or maybe he'd been hit in the head sometime in the night too, because people don't just spontaneously change height, do they?

*

He’s not imagining it. It happens again and again, little movements and contacts that mark them as out of sync; Dan’s reflexes and all his body’s instincts keep expecting a partner just a few inches shorter than what he’s currently dealing with. It figures that he wouldn’t notice to look at the man, that it would take his hands to figure it out where his eyes had failed—but eyes have always been useless with Rorschach anyway. He’s a cipher, a shell of clothes and mask that could conceal anything, anyone.

Dan sits in his kitchen, mind picking through and discarding one possibility after another even as he jots each down for analysis. Maybe Rorschach is younger—much younger—than he’d been led to believe, and had only just now hit a growth spurt (too strong, too experienced). Maybe he’s had back problems in the past, resolved enough now to allow him to stand up straight (he's always stood up straight). Maybe…

Right. And maybe he’s suddenly decided to start wearing elevator shoes, too. Dan grimaces at the sheet of notebook paper in front of himself, crumples it up in disgust.

Over the stove, the clock set into an owl’s fat belly happily chimes the hour: Four PM. This late into the autumn that only gives him an hour until nightfall, until Rorschach will be hovering, obtrusive in his unobtrusiveness, in the kitchen doorway. Dan’s not yet sure why the thought makes him so nervous.

“You’re losing it,” he says to himself, to the empty kitchen, hands pressed against his eyes until bright starlights spark against the darkness, take on an edge of pain.

The clock ticks, counting down.

“Seriously losing it,” he repeats, and there is no one there to argue.

*

He starts being more careful anyway, riding an instinct that he can’t put into context with conscious thought. It twists away every time he tries, leaves him with a headache and a mind damp and raw with frustration, and not much else.

Still, he does what it tells him to—keeps his goggles and cowl on until patrol is over, until he is alone in the brownstone. Sweeps his basement and kitchen every afternoon for any scrap of identity he may have left lying around, and that should be pointless because Rorschach already pulled that trick six months ago with a utility bill but he hasn’t said the name ‘Daniel,’ strangely warm and permissive among the jagged rocks of his voice, for at least a week. 'Nite Owl', only Nite Owl, the name everyone knows.

Dusk has become an anxious time, an hour of twitchiness and the lukewarm slide of coffee down his throat and the creaking of his kitchen chair, loud against the linoleum, protesting the weight of his armor. And it’s ludicrous, a fully costumed vigilante sipping at cold coffee, hands shaking around the mug, blasted by the bright kitchen lights. He feels like a child in too-big clothes, afraid of being caught.

The clock doesn’t chime. He’s turned that off, because it’s been making him jump out of his skin once an hour on the hour, and he doesn’t need that kind of stress right now. It’s still five, though, and he’s just considering the possibility of retrograde amnesia—Korsakoff's maybe, because he's seen his partner steal enough food to know he's not taking care of himself nutritionally, but that doesn't entirely match with his observations and the height is still a sticking point—when he suddenly catches a whiff of something that Does Not Belong. It’s a chemical smell, alkali, like a harsh detergent, and it’s…

It’s coming from the basement door, where Rorschach stands shuffling his feet on the top step. That’s new too—graceless and unconcerned with manners, he’s always just wandered in before, like he owned the place, like it didn’t matter who owned it, and he certainly has never smelled like this. Try as he might, Dan can’t remember Rorschach ever really smelling like anything except sweat at the end of long nights, anticipation at the beginning of them. Sharp-edged animal smells, not particularly offensive, just raw and honest. Now…

Dan looks up from his mug, locks eyes through the mask. Runs one gauntleted finger along the ceramic rim. Wonders, idly, why he’d bothered to mentally catalogue what his partner smells like.

“It's time to go,” Rorschach says, nervous, shifting his weight to his other foot. Timid, almost. Like he knows he is somewhere that he doesn’t belong.

Dan narrows his eyes, lets the silence stretch.

“Right,” he says, Nite Owl now, holding his suspicions carefully close, under his armor and against his chest. They make his breath feel tight, like iron bands belted there, but he will not allow them to seep into his voice. “Work to do. Let’s go.”

*

Archie's been burning oil the last week or so, the smell of it intense in the cockpit. It's been clinging to both of them when they disembark into the streets each night, in their clothes and in their brains, constant. It occurs to Nite Owl as they pace out of the tunnel into the city darkness—first patrol on foot since all this weirdness has started, because something in his brainstem is balking at the idea of being shut up in a confined space with his partner—that it could have masked anything. Soap, bleach, organic solvent. Blood. Because that's there too, just under the other scent, only discernable when he gets close. Not fresh but not terribly old either. Faded.

The shoulder of the coat is stiff with starch, brittle with overwashing (two inches too high) under his hand. He has to be careful not to appear too observant, careful not to look for too long, but there's a thin, spitting rain coming down, cold and misting where it hits the day's sun-warmed asphalt, and the city lights play through it with a strangeness that breaks apart the familiar.

Are the blots shifting like they always have, stretched over the same planes of the same face, heat and pressure in all the right places? The questions rise, unbidden. Is that wide, shoulder-width feet-planted stance natural, a body's long habit, or is it an imitation, a form? Do the coat, the hat, the pants all fit him precisely right, in that meticulous way that'd always made Nite Owl assume the costume to be tailored from scratch?

Has he always favored his left leg just slightly, body accommodating the motion with long practice, some ancient injury Nite Owl hadn't been present for?

"You're staring, Nite Owl," Rorschach growls, and that, at least, sounds like him. Nite Owl lets out a held breath.

"Sorry," he says, and on some level, he is. Maybe he's overthinking this, letting his imagination run wild like he'd done so often as a kid, psyching himself into believing that yes, there really was a monster under his bed, in his closet, behind his walls. Under his best friend's face. "Little out of it tonight."

"I've noticed. You have been for the last several nights."

Dan laughs, a little short, a touch hysterical. "Yeah. Yeah, I haven't been getting much sleep."

"Anything I can assist with?" the mask asks, and that doesn't seem right, too quick, too helpful, but Nite Owl had almost gotten himself knocked off a building last night, a terrifyingly close call, and he can almost buy that Rorschach's concerned enough to have had the offer pre-loaded. Almost.

He shakes his head. "Not really, man. Just some things I need to work out."

"Hrn." Rorschach nods after a long moment, though he doesn't seem convinced. Turns to swing himself up onto a fire escape ladder, all easy grace. "I'd suggest you work them out sooner rather than later."

"Yeah, I know," Dan says, and now the laughter's a little more honest, because that's such a Rorschach thing to say, and maybe… he shakes his head, reaching for the ladder to follow. "It's getting a little hazardo—"

He cuts off. Above him, the mist has turned the light just so, and he can see what he's been missing for a week: the faded, washed-out outline of a bloodstain in the dark canvas, spread out along Rorschach's side, asymmetrical and centered over a carefully stitched gash just over his ribs. Laundered to within an inch of its life in a clear attempt to hide it.

And all of Dan's fears crystallize at once, a supercooled freeze. He locks in place on the ladder, has a sudden, horrifying flash of Rorschach fighting without backup on some lonely night, being overwhelmed, catching a knife between the ribs and going down—being hovered over and watched as he died, jackals waiting to descend and steal everything that had been his, that had made his life meaningful. And Rorschach had patrolled alone for a few nights last week, hadn't he?

"Nite Owl?" The voice floats down from above, and this is a distant and isolated enough place that he should have said Daniel, should have—

This is what his gut had been telling him, what his instincts had been protecting him from, forcing him to hold his identity closer than he'd ever kept it. This is why five o'clock had become a haunting time, jittery with caffeine and fear. Now, instead of fear, all he can feel is a blast of terrible, shattering grief.

"Are you coming?" the voice asks, impatient, and it's so familiar that it cuts. Dan closes his eyes behind the goggles, rides out the anguish, lets it pass over and through him and out. If this is true—and he doesn't know for certain that it is, but even the possibility is almost more than he can bear—then he cannot give the game away, get himself killed too.

It's not what Rorschach would have wanted. He has to believe that.

Swallowing back on the impulse to scream, all frustration and impotent fury, Nite Owl forces his hands to unclench, to move on the rungs. "Yes," he says, "Sorry," and his voice doesn't even shake.

*

He decides, in the early hours of morning, to take the next few nights off. The faked cough isn't as practiced as it might have been in his school days, but he still starts it building, gradually, over the last hour of patrol. For verisimilitude.

"Ill, Nite Owl?" the man beside him asks, with what sounds to Dan's ears right now like a precisely calculated level of concern.

Dan lets out another good hack and puts his hands on his knees, breathes theatrically. "Yeah, I think I'm coming down with something. Sort of dizzy off and on all night, you know?"

"Will be available for patrol tomorrow?"

"I'll have to wait and see, man."

He tells himself it's practical, that if there really is a stranger under Rorschach's mask then at best he won't have his back covered and at worst, it will be targeted. He tells himself it's the tactically sound course, as he coughs and coughs.

Rorschach makes a sound in his throat like amusement and annoyance incongruously tangled, settles one gloved hand on Dan's back. He moves it in strange circles, like he means to calm the fit, has seen this done to other people but doesn't really know how to do it himself.

A long minute passes. The awkwardness hangs, comfortable.

The truth is, Dan realizes only when that tentative weight lifts away again, that he needs some distance between himself and the idea that Rorschach may really be dead and dumped in a gutter somewhere, his wistful dreams for exactly this sort of moment dashed forever. Ideas can bleed raw and ugly as well as wounds do, and he needs the grounding.

"Too soft, Nite Owl," Rorschach says, hand shifting back to his pocket, and if it is an imitation, it is perfect.

It is in this moment that Dan resolves to get to the bottom of all of this, for better or for worse.

*

His morning paper is useless. The police blotter only goes back a few days, and it has been at least a week since he started noticing these things. The vigilante Rorschach being found dead would have provided gruesome fodder for at least a month's news cycle, but an unidentifiable, forgotten man, left in an alleyway? This is New York, and Dan doesn't kid himself about what that means.

So he shuffles between its fluttering sheets and the coffee machine, skimming through it again a few pages at a time, restless. He stops when he gets to the classifieds; Rorschach's taught him to be thorough, but it's not as if anyone's going to run an ad for a found body. Have you lost this person?

Dan snorts, hitches the blanket higher around his shoulders. Dark humor's always been suited to their lives. He's just on the edge of not being able to manage it.

In the living room, the sun is already high, slivering through his windows to slice the floor into broad swaths. Step here; don't step there. The blanket trails at his ankles—he doesn't need it, but instinct is telling him to keep up the act anyway, no matter that he thinks he's alone.

His brain is telling him, Paranoia.

He's distracted, running odds, estimated chances of Rorschach actually displaying each of the changes he's noticed without being a different person. Pulled muscle, maybe fifty percent; he's always hurting himself. Artificial height adjustment, christ, maybe one percent. And so on. If he multiplies them together, he should get a sense of how likely it is that his friend is still under there, still alive and well...

...but halfway through the odds get unwieldy and, honestly, depressing. Dan stops keeping track.

He sits for a long moment, nursing his coffee, lips burning on the rim.

He's not even sure who he's intending to call when his hand scoops up the endtable phone, but his fingers dial of their own volition and after a stretch of ringing and ringing, hollow on the line, Hollis picks up.

*

"Hey, Danny," says the telephone, and Dan takes a breath, so relieved to hear a voice that is real enough and free enough of affectations to be inimitable that he can hardly contain it. "What can I do you for? You're not canceling Saturday, are you?"

In the background, the sound of puttering, a pot clanking into a sink. "No," Dan says, a little breathless. "No, I'm not canceling. I never cancel."

"Sorry, son. I just know that partner of yours drives you awfully hard."

"Hey," Dan says, forcing a laugh. "I can stand up to him."

"That you can."

Dan taps a finger on the arm of the sofa, then a different one, alternating. He feels a powerful urge to be up and moving, but the cord won't stretch and he knows it. "So, about him, actually," he says, diving right in. "I'm kind of in trouble, Hollis."

"Trouble?" Just like that, the light tone has evaporated, and Dan is reminded of why the streets once feared the first Nite Owl as much as they now do the second.

It's a little intimidating, if he's honest. "I... god damn it, Hollis, this is going to sound ridiculous."

"Go on and sound ridiculous, then."

A breath. Gather the words. "He's been acting... not like himself, not remembering things right, and there's a lot of circumstantial evidence like... like he's taller all of a sudden, for god's sake, and there's blood on his coat, not fresh I mean, it's a stain, but..."

"Take more breaths," Hollis says, because he is rambling, and he knows he's rambling but he can't stop.

"I think it might not be him, anymore," he rushes out, before he can bury his fear under more disjointed words, deep enough that neither of them will be able to dig it out. "I think maybe they got him, and put someone in his place."

"You think?" Incredulous. "You don't know?"

"I'm... kind of having trouble determining that. It's not like it's easy to ID someone you've never seen, I mean..."

Silence, long and damning.

"Dan," Hollis says after a careful moment. "How could you let this happen?"

Dan sinks into the couch cushion, despair squeezing his heart. "I don't know, he was patrolling alone, I should have been out there with him, I don't know what—"

"No, no," the voice interrupts. "I don't mean that, I mean— look, Danny. When I was Nite Owl, there wasn't a single member of our team that I didn't know well enough that... well, this would never have happened, anyway."

Dan fidgets, picks at the seam of the couch with one finger. Closes his eyes, waiting for what he knows is coming.

"How could you possibly put your trust in someone that you know so little about?"

Fingers rub at his eyes, pressing until he sees sparks. He thinks of the feel of hands around his wrist, pulling him out of a twelve-story fall; thinks of the way the same hands have led children out of hellholes and rats' dens, impossibly gentle on fragile shoulders and elbows, so careful.

"I know things," Dan says. "They're just not things that'll pick the guy out of a lineup, you know?"

Another long silence, and Dan counts to ten in his head because he knows damn well Hollis is probably misinterpreting that as they (fail to) speak, and he is determined not to care. It doesn't matter.

It doesn't.

"Well," Hollis says, seeming to have traded the critical tone for something more mild. "I'm sure you didn't call me for a lecture."

"No."

"So what can I do to help?"

Dan exhales, a long sigh. "If he really is... out of commission, I guess it'd help to check the police for people they've, uh."

A crackly silence, broken up by the sound of a dog barking. Phantom's a good dog, but over the line, he sounds like a beast, a monster. Something of nightmares.

"You're asking me to pull the unsolved homicides," Hollis says, careful.

He tries to reply; finds his throat to not be working correctly. It keeps trying to close up on him.

"All right, well, I'll call a few of the guys I still know in there and let you know. But Danny?"

Dan tries again, succeeds this time. "Yeah?"

"...I hope you're wrong, son. I really do."

*

Dreams. Almost fever dreams except he doesn't really have a fever, but something deep and buried in cloying cheesecloth layers of instinct is still keeping him from surfacing.

Something disjointed about snaking tendrils of light and the feel of pressure on his forehead, on his face; a puff of stale air against closed eyelids, and the distant sound of cats screaming like twisted violins.

A mundane dream: he is in the kitchen when Hollis calls him back, and they've found the body, they're sure of it, and Hollis is so, so sorry. It should make no sense that they're so certain, that they had a description to match it to when Dan doesn't have one himself, but that doesn't matter in the dream. He's in the kitchen listening to Hollis and it's not his kitchen, it's his parents' kitchen from back home, and he just wants to die but Hollis is asking do you have a knife, son? and he's saying we think he's somewhere in the house with you

He's in a laundromat, has clothes to wash but all the machines are stuffed with more screaming cats, and when he pulls one out by its tail its skin feels like canvas, like it is stitched from the remnants of a coat. It still scratches him, a deep gash down one arm that suddenly won't stop bleeding, and if he can get to his basket he can staunch the flow but everything slows

down

and


he
 



can't—

*

Somewhere near dawn, he opens his eyes. The bed feels real, the minute grain of the cloth against bare skin and the ticking of the bedside clock and the way air drifts through the strange geography of the old townhouse, but he must still be dreaming—across from him, in the doorway, the sillouette of a hat and coat, perfectly and inhumanly still, watching him.

He means only to blink, but his eyes feel heavy on the way down. By the time they rise again, the apparition is gone.

Dream, he thinks, sure of it, and rolls over to have another.

*

When he finally pulls himself out of bed at around nine in the morning, it's with all the back-pulling and mind-pulling that usually follows a night of profoundly disturbing nightmares. The body never gets much rest on nights like that, and the mind feels like it's had no downtime at all.

Dan can't remember much, faced with the morning. Something about a laundromat? And a telephone, and a knife? Had he had the knife in the laundromat? Eh, these things never make much sense, but there is always a frustration in not being able to piece them together.

Whatever. Kitchen, coffee. He hikes a blanket up around his shoulders, this time simply because the October chill has finally made its way in through all his doorseals and double-paned windows. Such cold mornings, lately.

His bedroom door is closed, which is fine. Padding down the stairs, something smells a little off in the air, like chemicals or bleach. Gas leak? No, it's a different kind of acrid entirely, thank god.

In the kitchen, the lights flicker on, obedient.

On the table, a fresh bottle of cough syrup, seal intact, of a cheap generic brand that he never buys.

Dan stands in the doorway, staring, for a very long time.

There's no note, when he finally gets the courage to walk over and look. Nothing to compare handwriting to, because he already knows how this got here and that last snippet of maybe-not-dream has come back to him all at once, hit him in the ribs and stomach, made it hard to breathe.

It takes no pretense of illness this time to shiver, deep and terrified, and slump into the nearest chair, head cradled in his hands, the whole world about an inch from cracking.

*

How much research, Dan thinks later, sitting at the table with the syrup bottle tilting between his fingers; how much research would it take to get the exact tone of an awkward gift and attempt at comfort precisely right? How much research could a random opportunistic thug have done?

It falls into the category of things he does know, really. That Rorscahch would pretend to be unconcerned but creep into his house to check on him anyway; that he would buy no-frills medicine because excess just goes to line profiteering phamacutical executives' pockets, Daniel. It's a level of knowledge that Dan optimistically classifies as his own only, not subject to imitation.

And hey, he was in your house while you were sleeping and you're not dead.

Where Rorschach is concerned, that's always a good sign.

"All right," he says aloud, pushing to his feet. He crosses to the sink, measures out a dose of the stuff, and dumps it down the drain. A hunch isn't enough to overcome the possibility that the syrup might have been tampered with, but if it is still Rorschach under there—a more likely proposition now than it'd seemed an hour ago—then he doesn't want to appear ungrateful.

The faucet runs, loud and scouring.

"All right," he says again, switching the water off, leaning heavily on the sink. "It's just a mystery, it's just a case. I can do this."

*

The days pass quickly, broken up by restless nights and moments of waking hysteria when he is sure Rorschach's furious spirit has come to murder him in his sleep. Hypnagogia, and even if not, his house creaks as it settles and as the autumn winds buffet it, providing plenty of real noises to startle and shake him. There's not much to be done for it.

During the day, he consults outdated medical texts about memory loss, sudden growth spurts, how much blood a body can lose before it's likely to die. The stain on Rorschach's coat had seemed huge and terrible in the moonlight, but he's finding that a full pint would make a bigger mess, and even that wouldn't have killed him on its own.

For Rorschach's part, there may be more visits but there are no signs of them, and Dan dutifully dumps a capful of syrup down the drain every night.

Somewhere in there is Saturday, and he visits with Hollis as always, and they spend three hours carefully dancing around the bigger issues, slipping past them with the aid of beer and sentimentality. It's nice; a rare break, a chance to relax and, for one night, not be terrified of what news morning will bring.

Then Hollis slips him a wide manila folder, strapped around with rubber bands, on his way out the door. The alcohol burns off his brain in an instant.

"You didn't get it from me," is all Hollis says, switching out the porchlight, whistling and whistling for Phantom.

*

Dan is a jittery mess by the time he's halfway home.

In the entryway, he stands for a long minute, listening to the house. The lock shows no signs of having been picked or jimmied, but the knob is warmer in his hand than seems right, and in the random pattern of dark tiles on light, he could swear he sees something like symmetry.

The packet wouldn't be so thick if it were one definitive case, he reminds himself.

He treads forward into the entryway, then the kitchen beyond it. Nothing is out of order, nothing to indicate that there's anyone else in the house. He holds his breath, listens again; the walls are silent. Nothing else breathing in here.

Of course not, god. He's turning paranoid, is what's going on. He snaps the rubber bands off, spreads the folder out on the table, starts paging through the cases. Hollis hasn't provided crime scene photographs—much harder to get than printouts, probably, and in violation of privacy laws—and Dan is irrationally glad of that. It's one thing to read through a description and think, abstractly, that might be my friend they're talking about; facing the visceral reality is more than he thinks he could handle.

Hollis has also helpfully sorted out and provided only the male victims, but even with that filter point, there's very little here that matches. Too tall, too heavy, too old or too young. Long hair that Rorschach could never have concealed, or—

Wait. Five foot seven, hundred thirty five pounds, twenty seven years old. Cause of death: stab wound between the ninth and tenth ribs. Shit.

Dan slumps into the chair, squaring the report in front of him. Leon Piztrang, the paper lists, identified from a drivers' license in his wallet. Found a week ago in the garment district, which is within their usual area of patrol, and Dan distantly notices his fingers going white around the sheaf. Missing for two days before. But no—he's listed as a journalist by occupation, and Rorschach has mentioned being in menial labor, factory work. And why would he have had his civilian ID on him, on patrol?

One breath, two. He wouldn't have, of course. Because this isn't him.

Dan resolutely shuffles it into the stack of definite rejects. He might be being excessively wishful by not having a 'maybe' pile; with each that shows any discrepancy, the reject pile grows, and he feels a little better. Maybe he's kidding himself, but more than anything he wants to hit the other side of the envelope with every scrap discarded.

He doesn't quite manage it. Near the end, one case, an unidentified body of the right dimensions and age, likely homeless, no money or paperwork. Blunt trauma, the coroner claims, but there's no saying he wasn't stabbed first.

Dan frowns, folds the packet in half, sets it aside.

The clock reads midnight, give or take. He shuffles the rejects back into the envelope, bands them back up, sets the folded papers on top of it. He walks to the sink, picks up the bottle of cough syrup, uncaps it and holds it up to the lamp. Only about one dose left, but it still catches the light, glows a thick, cloudy red.

"I believe in you," he mutters, knocking back what's left in the bottle in one long pull.

*

Sunday passes by with no poisoning deaths in the Dreiberg household—some wooziness, a little disorientation, but that's all right there on the label—and by Monday Dan's about ready to concede that no one, apparently, is trying to kill him.

He's very careful with the knowledge. Drama of the moment aside, it does not mean that he's dealing with the real Rorschach, just that he's likely in no danger from whoever is under the mask and hat. What cause a person could have to imitate another without dire motives is the real mystery, and Dan wrestles with it all morning, turning the idea over and over like a rock in his hands, feeling for its shape, for the mossy underbelly and the worms and rot it must conceal.

Around midday, a break comes through when Hollis stops by unexpectedly, hands him a pair of old newspaper clippings from the forties. Thought they might come in handy, he says, with that piercing look about him that means there is more than what I am saying, here.

Dan looks through them, after Hollis continues on his way, errands to run. The first reports on an impostor mask running around the city, a deranged fan dressed vaguely like the first Nite Owl himself. The Minutemen, when reached for comment, claimed to have never come into contact with him—but he was still out there, the paper warned, making messes that the police and real vigilantes had to clean up. Scrawled in the margin in Hollis's cramped but elegant hand: Eventually disappeared. Maybe killed?

The second details a more chilling case, and it sits closer, right up inside the ribs.

Thomas Shriver was arrested yesterday, it reads, at the headquarters of the Minutemen, the city's ad-hoc vigilante organization, when he arrived to a gathering of the masked heroes dressed in the costume of the mask known as 'Mothman'. After attempting to pass himself off as authentic, the others immediately detained him and called for an official escort to the county jail.

The man has identified himself in interviews as a 'big fan' of the mask Dollar Bill. The apparent motive, beyond mental instability, was to approach and work with his hero with no one the wiser.

The real Mothman's location is still unknown at time of printing.


In the margin, again: Found Byron tied up in a warehouse two days later, thank god.

Dan sets down the clippings, takes a breath, puffs it out sharply enough to rustle the paper. No wonder Hollis had said this would never have happened in his time; it had been tried, and both times they'd caught it before it escalated into disaster. But this still provides him with new information, or at least a new idea as to what might be going on here beyond just 'crazed criminal wants to kill him'.

Some people just need to be something bigger than themselves. Some, he supposes, are just lonely. Either way, it's time to put a stop to this.

*

"If you've killed him," he mutters into the stillness of the basement as he strips down, starts layering on Nite Owl's skin. He's not rehearsing, exactly; more like reminding himself. "I don't care how lonely you are, or how crazy you are. Or how good you are at pretending."

No sign of Rorschach yet, but he's seen the muddy footprints in the tunnel entrance, knows he comes at least that far every night to see if Dan is returning to duty. "If you've killed him, I'll..."

He'll what? Kill the bastard back? He wants to say it, wants to believe he's capable of being that force of vengeance for Rorschach, but the words don't come easily. The thought of killing someone, in hot or cold blood, is just...

"I'll make sure," he finally says, "that you get everything that's coming to you."

"Talking to yourself, Nite Owl?"

Dan whips around, feet and hands slipping immediately into a defensive posture, cape a rippling ribbon of brown and gold. In the tunnel entrance, Rorschach or something very much like him, hunching the collar up on his coat.

Seconds pass, tense.

Then there's a low sound coming from Rorschach, rolling impossibly like laughter. It sounds nothing like human or humorous, and it's only through long acquaintance that Dan is able to identify it at all.

He lowers his arms, snorts a laugh of his own. "Scared the shit out of me, man."

"Wouldn't have thought I was that frightening, under the circumstances."

"Whatever, I'm still convalescing, here."

Rorschach paces in from the entryway, eats up the basement floor more quickly than his stride should allow. "Still suiting up, though. Good to know you're that dedicated."

"I've always been dedicated," Dan says, sitting down to pull on his boots. "Remember back when—"

He cuts himself off. Looks up at Rorschach, who has his head tilted curiously to one side. He doesn't remember, won't remember, or maybe he's just waiting to see which tired old story Nite Owl will trot out. The uncertainty feels freeing, even if a braver man would forge ahead.

"Nevermind," Dan says, because he's being brave enough hitting the streets with this enigma again, doesn't have any to spare. "You ready to go?"

"Always."

*

There's so much of the city that Dan is familiar with, feet reacting before his mind has caught up, muscle-and-nerve knowledge that has nothing to do with analysis or thought. It stands in sharp contrast to the things he doesn't know, tonight, and he revels in the moments when that knowledge is enough.

When it isn't, he has time to think. Rorschach's uncharacteristic silence isn't helping matters.

Two nights ago, he'd been certain that he knew who was under the mask, sure enough to risk killing himself. Yesterday, he hadn't been so sure. Earlier tonight the uncertainty felt good, but now it's souring into something violent, acidic, eating up what's left of his resolve.

Rorschach says something, quiet, and Dan has to shake himself, ask him to repeat it.

"Cats," he says, pointing a gloved hand—the left one—toward a pile of refuse. Through the night vision, Dan can see at least six sleeping bodies. Wait, no. Not sleeping, and Dan presses his lips into a thin line. Rorschach rolls his shoulders, visibly uncomfortable. "Someone's been poisoning them."

"That's horrible."

Rorschach drops to one knee, smoothly, whatever complaint had upset his gait before now apparently resolved. He runs a finger through the edges of a nearby pool of water, rain runoff gathered in a pothole, and they come away faintly shimmering, as if he'd run them through sugar crystals, or salt. "Also a crime."

"That's strychnine, isn't it?"

"Yes. Knew a cat once, very briefly, I—" Rorschach mutters, then cuts himself off. Stands for a moment, then strips the glove off inside-out, presses it into his pocket, clearly willing to go barehanded rather than risk spreading the poison around. After a moment: "Very painful way to die. We should call this in."

Dan doesn't move. He's thinking of the things he knows and the things he doesn't know, and how they all fit.

He's thinking of the screaming of cats, a memory or a dream, or both.

"Something wrong, Nite Owl?" Rorschach asks, all gruffness returned, no sign of that brief moment's vulnerability. "Defenseless victims don't count when they aren't human?"

"Of course they do," Dan snaps, because just who was it that spent four months nursing a broken-winged pigeon back to health after their first week of patrol? Has he forgotten that, too? "I'll go find a payphone."

There's one by the mouth of the alley, conveniently enough, and as Dan drops in a nickel, dials the local dispatch, he keeps one eye on Rorschach's silhouette in the alley. The phone rings and rings, and Rorschach crouches in front of the refuse pile, not touching but caught up in some sort of silent vigil. Dan feels something in his heart crack at the sight, and for the first time, he finds himself wondering not what he will do if that isn't Rorschach, but what he will do if it is.

Then the dispatch picks up, interrupting the thought, and he recites off the details, mechanically agrees with the woman's frustrated what is wrong with people these days, and returns to his partner's side.

*

 "Working on a case," Rorschach says about an hour later, and though it isn't a question, Dan knows it's directed at him.

It's been a tense hour, broken up momentarily by an armed robbery here, some kids tripped out on acid there; a handful of punks armed with spray paint and a distrust for authority that had bordered on the pathological. Rorschach's been silent for the most part, and Dan had chalked it up to his still being upset about the cats—and if he's honest, Dan isn't quite sure what to make of that. Sure, it'd been cruel and horrible, and definitely against the law, but he'd never seen his partner behave quite like that before, gruff and hardened heart out there on his sleeve.

If it's really him, Dan thinks, you're going to have a hard time not—

No, better not to examine that right now. Anyway, he's being asked a non-question.

"A case?" Play stupid, because the real Rorschach would see right through it; good opportunity to test him. "I don't know what you—"

"Saw the files, Nite Owl. Unsolved homicides, all a week old, all violent assaults."

He saw the— he was in the kitchen, without Dan knowing, and it's one thing to be aware of the random home invasions but to have them going on under his nose without picking up on the signs—

Outwardly, Dan tries not to look shaken. Keep everything close, or he risks losing control of this.

Rorschach continues, unfazed; he's either oblivious or playing the same game. "Don't know why you're keeping..." he starts, then trails off, almost self-conscious.

"What?"

They pass by a storefront, lit in bright neon, and the silhouette next to him shudders. Rolls his shoulders to disguise it. "...secrets," he says, and the word comes out sibilant and strange, like the hiss of water over hot metal. He sounds disgusted with himself.

He's also either blushing or flushed with rage under the mask, ink pooling in a very familiar pattern. It's one Dan's seen when the hookers and hustlers get too close, or when a line gets crossed and fury overwhelms sense. He finds himself wondering, analytical: do different people flush differently, capillaries under the skin like a fingerprint, leading the ink into unique whorls and eddies? Or is it basically the same for everyone? It's not like the mask is exactly high resolution, after all.

"Am I?" Dan threads out into the air, nonchalant, goggles following the sparse population of the street as it ducks and weaves through itself. "Keeping secrets?"

"Can always be of assistance, if it's a case you think is worth investigating." Rorschach's words are drawn out, slow. Almost languid, in a stilted way that is trying to be anything but. "I trust your judgment, Nite Owl."

Private cases are a waste of time, Dan's memory growls, as they turn from the street and back into darkness. Distraction from your real duty.

"Yeah well." A rust-mottled fire escape creaks above them, conjuring the thought of eavesdroppers. It's probably just another cat on the prowl, taking a few minutes out in an opportunistic stakeout. "I think I'm handling this one okay on my own, you know?"

Rorschach stops, makes a show of looking around the vicinity, as if something's put him on alert. Dan can't tell if it's part of an overall ruse or just Rorschach's inherent inability to act. "...saw the record you'd set aside. Homeless cases are never solved, Nite Owl."

"Always a first time."

"Ignored, by the general populace. Forgettable to the police, without a tearful family on camera to feed the news cycle," and Dan winces; considers for a moment how relieved he'd be if the man in that report turned out not to be his friend and how screwed up that is, because a man is still dead, with no one to mourn him.

"Unwanted," Rorschach concludes, disgusted.

Dan nods, feels a tightness in his throat, wonders what kind of civilization this is that they meet all of their unwanted things with violence. Cats in the gutter, children in dumpsters, lovers grown too weary of and driven away with black-eye kisses and too much regret.

They live in a terrible place. It shouldn't feel like a revelation.

"Of course," Rorschach continues, almost airy, dismissive. "We are also fairly unwanted, by a large portion of the people we encounter."

It's almost an invitation, it's so blatant. Eyes drop to the side of Rorschach's coat, still stained and stitched up and ominous, and Dan wants badly to ask, to fake a laugh and say Hey, speaking of that, and just find out. At least put the man next to him under the metaphorical interrogation lamp, see what cracks he can find.

If he were fed a believable enough explanation, he doesn't think he'd have it in himself to question it.

Dan just takes a shaky breath through his nose, nods in agreement. Doesn't take the bait. Seconds pass, sluggish, broken only by the metal noises overhead.

"Meant what I said, Nite Owl," Rorschach finally says, and that strange tone is back, lining his words with an undercurrent that is nothing short of electric. "I can come back to the nest tonight, to... help, with the case. If you'd like."

Jesus, electric and forward, and if Dan didn't know his partner, he'd say he was being flirted with, maybe even so far as propositioned; 'help' indeed. But he doesn't know his partner—that's the problem.

He flashes back to the clippings Hollis brought by, the Mothman imitator, the newspaper's carefully euphemistic rewording of his reasons and drives; remembers the disjointedly insistent way Lewis had demanded, in the institution in Maine, to see his old partner. And there had always been rumors.

There are rumors about them, too. If someone wanted—

The fire escape creaks again, and its occupant finally dislodges itself, patience abruptly run out, landing on silent feet to pad off into the alley. Dan watches until it disappears, the creature's tail bent like a question mark.

If this isn't Rorschach, he has an idea of what the pretender wants, now.

If it is Rorschach... god, that leaves him with a lot of thinking to do, very quickly.

"...I'd rather work this one on my own for now," he repeats, and Rorschach inhales too sharply through his mask, fists his hands in his pockets. He's simmering with frustration or anger or annoyance, Dan can't be sure which. His color is high again, if the mask is any indication, but that could mean anything.

The moment passes, eventually, and they walk on.

*

Suspicion comes in waves and troughs, inexorable when it's there but so gone when it's gone that Dan can't even remember the shape of it in his hands.

At 3 AM, low tide, Dan's sure it hadn't been a real proposition. His partner's flustered and embarrassed behavior was more consistant with an awkward teenager's rebuffed attempt to be social than with a frustrated conquest. He's been acting strangely too, Dan has to remind himself, and Rorschach would have every right to be baffled by it; he remembers all the times he's had a friend suddenly go cold and strange, how squarely he'd blamed himself, how desperately he'd flailed in every direction to try to fix it. He feels bad, for the moment, that he's putting his friend through that.

At 3:19, the wave crests and he catches himself watching the man's every move, making sure his hands stay where Dan can see them, analyzing his posture and gait for ulterior motives. He reminds himself of the duty he has to his possibly-fallen friend; He plays the offer over and over in his mind, and with every repeat, it becomes more salacious, more brazen. Help you. That anyone could do this, could hurt or kill a man's friend and expect to use it to get close to him, is sickening and infuriating and Dan badly needs someone to hit.

But a convenient punk utterly fails to present himself, and he can't hit Rorschach, because what if it really is him? How must he be interpreting all of this cold silence?

So it goes, back and forth and back again; by quarter to four, he's about ready to consider that he's actually going insane. Then Rorschach leans in, a little closer than usual but nothing damning, lowers his voice, and says: "Trust the medicine was acceptable?"

He leans away again, and Dan gets it—it was an acknowledgement of his infirmity, and Rorschach didn't want anyone to overhear. Dan is once again convinced that he's been imagining things the whole time, because that's so Rorschach he could scream—with frustration, with fury, with relief. With something murkier than all of them that he doesn't have a name for yet, that swims just under all the tension but refuses to reveal itself.

"It was fine," he says, trying to stabilize his tone, inject it with some real warmth and strip out the strangeness. Really, Rorschach didn't have to get him—

touch on his forehead, his face, stale breath on his eyelids, invasive in the pre-dawn quiet

It wasn't a dream. Shit.

Dan narrows his eyes behind the goggles. Finds himself saying, before he quite knows why, "Got me high as a kite, though."

Rorschach freezes—then hunches his shoulders again, like he's trying to sink down inside himself. "Didn't... that wasn't my intention." He sounds scandalized, and a little ashamed. "Thought that it would be... innocuous. And helpful. Apologies."

"It wasn't a big deal," Dan says, and he knows now that this is another test. "Just ended up rolling around on the kitchen floor naked for a while—"

A choked, inarticulate noise. "Nite Owl!"

"...it was actually pretty funny, in retrospect. What?" Dan grins, playing innocent, leaning in to nudge Rorscahch with his elbow. "There's no one to hear, and what's a story like that between friends, right?"

Rorschach goes quiet then, and maybe he's been pushed too far, whoever he is. Dan chews his lip, wishes for pockets in his uniform, suddenly longs for the time when he could have just thrown his arm over Rorschach's shoulders, and laughed, and said Come on, it's just a joke, and said Come back for coffee, I'll make it up to you... in that teasing way that Rorschach would have known precisely how to ignore.

Instead, they walk. The hours pass in precarious silence, shaken by the noise of the ladders they climb and of fingers on ledges, the scuffling violence of scum eating itself up in the dark. But never broken, not really, and the sun's coming up over the line of skyscrapers and billboards and streetsigns by the time they find themselves approaching the warehouse. It lights the world in sharp pale yellows, outlines them unnaturally against the receding night, and Dan fantasizes for a moment that maybe no lies can stand up for themselves in this in-between place.

Then Rorschach speaks, quiet and uncharacteristically open. It barely ecapes the mask, winds out from under the brim of his hat. "Whatever I've done wrong," he says, "would appreciate it if you would just tell me. Instead of... playing games."

And then he's gone, pacing away on feet too silent to track, evaporating into the dawn as if he'd never been here. The anger—or maybe frustration, or the first bitter trace of grief—lingers in his shape, though, stands accusing.

"...god," Dan says after some time has passed, once the sun has crested the skyline and he is well and truly alone. "I am such an asshole."

*

----> Part two

*

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Apr. 24th, 2011 03:37 am (UTC)
I can't get the bloody part two button to work! Has it been posted yet? Enjoying this immensely by the way!^-^
etherati
Apr. 24th, 2011 03:44 am (UTC)
Wow, haha, how did I forget to add that link! Gimme just one sec, and then reload it, the link should work then.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )