- Need to see you. D is the same, but we should talk. D's place, 10:30. -
The note lay tucked into his pocket as he followed its direction. The paper was from the kind of lined tablet that nearly everyone had somewhere in their house, softened now from its initial folding, as well as the scrutiny Rorschach had given it. It had been folded twice, as though the author had had second thoughts but overridden them. It had also been written carefully – extremely so, the letters rendered with the utmost caution with a good quality ball-point pen. In spite of the assurance it made, the possible implications of what hadn't been said in the note, along with the request to return a day early, made Rorschach uneasy. Everything about the note spoke of much deliberation – possibly even rough drafts leading up to this version. He didn't know Mason well at all, but he knew prevarication when he saw it.
Once again he stood outside the Owl's Nest tunnel entrance. If not for the knowledge of where Daniel was, it would have felt like any other patrol. As it was, he had to stop himself from expecting Nite Owl to meet him where the tunnel widened into the Nest itself.
The Archimedes lay in darkness, and pieces of Nite Owl's armor still lay around the bench from when Rorschach had forced Daniel to leave them. Disturbed by this for some reason, he found himself pausing. Retrieving the dropped cape, he draped it carefully on an empty spot on the workbench. The gauntlets that were already there were straightened from their haphazard position to lie side-by-side. Nite Owl's locker was just up the steps, but it didn't feel right to presume upon that space. It was enough for now to put his partner's things in order where Daniel could find them.
At the top of the stairs he stopped to listen at the door leading to the kitchen. He could hear music – the older style that Daniel favored – and reflected on the logic of Mason using it as well; an intruder wouldn't advertise his presence in such a way, after all.
The door was unlocked and the kitchen dark and shuttered, but he could see light coming from Daniel's living room. The music switched off.
"Good evening, Mr. Mason." Rorschach flipped the light switch and scanned the kitchen. Mason had evidently cleaned it; the beer bottle on the sink was gone, and the chairs placed loosely back under the table. He remembered the owl figurine in his pocket, vaguely reminded himself where it belonged on the bookshelf.
There were footsteps, and Mason appeared at the doorway. Rorschach didn't bother with further pleasantries. "What is it?"
Daniel's mentor studied him for a moment, shifting his weight more evenly and placing his hands in his cardigan's pockets. "I'm afraid I owe you an apology – of sorts."
"I visited Danny this morning." Mason moved toward the sink to lean on the counter, as Rorschach squared his own stance. "I wanted to see how he was doing, obviously, and to let him know I'd been in touch with you. Naturally, I couldn't just bandy the name 'Rorschach' around, and I had thought..." He sighed heavily, but there was anger beginning to smolder in his eyes. "I didn't know you'd never trusted Danny with your name."
A sudden wave of heat and cold twisted up Rorschach's spine. "You told –"
"I didn't know." Mason's voice cracked out sharp as a whip. "Danny was barely conscious and there wasn't much time; I thought I was keeping things simple for him!" He passed a hand over his eyes. "I didn't know Danny was working alongside and trusting his life to a partner who didn't offer the same trust Danny had given him! How he could even think to do something so –" he bit back the first word, "dangerous, is beyond me." Mason's glare was thunderous, and his hands were fists in his pockets. "Ten years. He's shared everything with you for all this time, let you into his home, and you –"
Rorschach strode forward until they were nose-to-nose. So this was what he'd been called here for – a lecture, as if he were some selfish, irresponsible child? "Would never harm Daniel," he growled. "Nite Owl is a good partner, trust him with my life. Protected him countless times, give him everything I have every time we patrol. There is nothing else." The urge to strike the man in front of him was nearly overwhelming and he hated himself for allowing his control to slip so far, even as the tide of adrenalin gave him strength. "You were wrong to give him that name. Kovacs is not Nite Owl's partner, not the one Daniel trusts. Never will be."
He watched the hostility drain from Mason's features, to be replaced by something strange. Not fear, but almost...
Daniel had looked at him like that, he remembered.
"What was it?" Mason's voice was suddenly quiet, and unsettling with the weight of knowledge. "...It wasn't a case with Danny, or he would have shown it."
Rorschach took a step back. This wasn't right.
Mason didn't move. In his eyes flickered something that looked like grief, just for a moment. "You went solo, didn't you? You took on something on your own, and something went bad."
The images sprang into Rorschach's head before he could stop them: The cutting board, scored and stained... the tiny scrap of fabric with teddy bears dissolving into ash...
...the happy, hopeful expression on the dogs' faces.
He took a step back to regain control but miscalculated how close he stood to the table. He struck it, bracing automatically with his right arm, and hissed in pain as his injury re-asserted itself.
Abruptly Mason's demeanor shifted to a different kind of alertness. "You're hurt."
Rorschach had already shrugged off the pain and righted himself. "It's fine." He was done here.
"Rorschach, wait." Mason's voice was quiet and he didn't move, so Rorschach paused. He watched Mason's hands come up in conciliation. "I made a promise to Danny... to look after you for him." He nodded to Rorschach's shoulder. "You've been hurt, and you're patrolling alone. Regardless of what you have or haven't shared with your partner, or how I feel about it, I'd be breaking my promise if I didn't have a look at that." And you would too, he didn't say, but Rorschach heard it all the same.
He was here now because of Daniel – because he was sick, and Rorschach hadn't seen it soon enough. All there was now were two men who had made promises to him while they waited to see if he would live.
Grudgingly, he stripped off his trench coat, draping it over a chair.
"Where were you hit?" Mason was all business now - not touching, but demanding with his eyes and letting them take in everything. It was different from Daniel's habitual fussing; he decided it was better this way.
"Shoulder. Baseball bat."
"After we met?"
"What treatment have you had so far?"
"How well can you move?"
Mason frowned. "Let me see."
Irritably he forced his arm through its range of motion.
The elder Nite Owl still wasn't convinced. "Block me." He telegraphed his sparring attack, but didn't hold back much force. Their movements were hampered by their caution in the small kitchen, but Mason was still able to make him put effort into his defense.
At once Mason feinted to one side, and Rorschach was too slow to prevent a strike near the wound. He grunted at the hit and Mason stopped, stepping back.
"That's going to get you into trouble."
"Can take care of myself."
"For how long?" Mason was unimpressed. "If an old man can get past your defenses, how long will it be before someone serious does some real damage?"
Rorschach was bristling, but Mason went on. "I know how it was in my own time, and we weren't fighting half of what you do now. You're no use to anyone if you get yourself killed."
A shadow passed over Mason's features, and Rorschach was reminded of the Minutemen who had done exactly that, in one way or another. He wasn't like any of them, he knew – he was careful, and he'd already endured injuries worse than this on patrol. He could respect the other man's concern, though, given his past experience as a vigilante and his influence on Daniel. He also wasn't like Daniel, who would be trying to wheedle him off-duty with childish promises and cajoling - Mason was much more to-the-point, which Rorschach could appreciate.
"Can afford one night." Mason relaxed slightly, and gave a faint nod.
"Do you have painkillers for that?"
Mason's eyes narrowed. "That's not what I asked."
"We should see if there's anything downstairs, then."
Rorschach walked to the supply cabinet in the Nest with Mason in tow. He knew what he'd find, still remembering the last time he and Nite Owl had needed to use it. Mason grunted in satisfaction at the store of various drugs and first aid supplies. Grabbing half the contents of a box of over-the-counter pain medicine, he handed it to Rorschach. </p>
"Here. Take these back with you, and anything else you might need back at your place." He put up a hand when Rorschach turned back to him. "There's no sense in roughing it if there's something here you can use. It'll be better for you to have these things in more than one spot anyway until Danny comes back." He stepped away, letting Rorschach choose what he needed.
The suture kit was small, as were the rolls of gauze; they'd be easily transportable. The stronger painkillers he left alone. He didn't want his faculties dulled by anything if he was going to fight, and he wasn't convinced his landlord didn't snoop through tenants' apartments. The chemical cold packs and coagulant were more useful anyway, so he took those instead.
The makeshift kit he'd assembled bumped the ceramic owl as he shoved things into his pockets. He carefully brought it out, exhaling when he saw it was unharmed.
Mason had been gazing around the Nest, pacing slowly, but now he noticed what Rorschach held.
"From the other night," Rorschach explained. "Hid the others in case paramedics noticed. No place to put this one."
"Mm, good thinking. Danny can be a bit obvious sometimes, can't he?" Mason’s mouth gave a rueful twist. "Comes from living alone, I guess. He'll be glad you kept it safe." He offered a small, lopsided smile and looked around the Owl's Nest again. "Just look at all this,” he breathed, stepping forward to touch the immense computer console that lay dormant along one wall. "It always amazes me, the things he can do."
Rorschach’s gaze followed his – to Nite Owl’s armor, lying in pieces; to the Archimedes, that had served them nearly all their years together… past the ill-fated "Owlcar" that had seemed promising until they realized it had no advantage in heavy traffic; the hover bikes that proved to be much more useful, allowing them their first and most famous capture. He looked at tables piled with tools and half-built equipment, sheaves of paper and notebooks containing any number of new ideas… There was never a time, he reflected, that Daniel hadn’t been working on something. When he wasn’t inventing fantastic machines seemingly from thin air, he was endlessly improving upon his designs. And talking about them, all the time, whether Rorschach understood what he was saying or not – although Daniel was patient enough that he would happily explain anything if asked. It was rare to come down the tunnel to the Nest and not see him working, finishing up some repair or upgrade while some old song played from the airship's sound system.
"Danny always wanted us to meet, you know."
He snapped out of his reverie. Wondered how long Mason had been staring at him.
"He'd talk about you all the time... he really does think the world of you."
Rorschach could think of nothing to say to that. He found himself looking down at the owl in his hand, as though it would have an answer.
Mason sighed – a long, tired sound. "Danny's the closest thing I have to a son, you know – better, really; I know I never could have raised someone like him." He reached out, placing a hand on the Archimedes' hull. "He's got a good heart, big enough for the whole world… and if you're not careful, you're going to break it." He turned to face Rorschach as he looked up. Took one step toward him. "I can see the road you're on, son. I've seen other men – good, honorable men – land there and get swallowed whole by it. And I've seen it spit them out in pieces.
"Danny may not be my blood, but I do know him. He loves you, plain and simple. He'll try to follow you, and one way or the other, it'll kill him. Hell, it almost did this time. He deserves better than that – and so do you, even if you don't see it right now."
Mason's words echoed softly in the cavernous surroundings. They rattled through Rorschach's head, rendering him mute and immobile. Inwardly he raged at Mason for saying those things – they blurred the lines that had so clearly been laid out for him, threatened to unbalance everything he'd become, without regard to his duties and the work that had to be done. They were a distraction from his purpose.
But the haunted pain in the older man's eyes, the jumble of love, kill, blood, good that spun around and around in his mind… he couldn't shake free of it, couldn't batter it away or silence it.
At last Mason broke the spell, lowering his eyes and releasing him. He took a step back, turning toward the stairs, then looked back over his shoulder. "I'll be back to see him in the morning. Do you want me to pass anything along to him?"
"Tell him –" What? That he was still following leads, doing his job? That he would keep watch over Daniel's home and the Owl's Nest? He knew that without it needing to be said. That he wished Daniel was here? That he'd been hurt patrolling without him? That he was fulfilling his promise in spite of the costs it was exacting? None of those things would be useful. But… "Tell him. To get better. Soon."
"I'll do that. And…He said you're welcome to stay here, if you need to." The effort in saying those words was clear. Unsurprising, really, though Rorschach appreciated that he still respected Daniel enough to pass the information along.
"Will keep that in mind."
He stayed long after Mason left, not moving. The Owl's Nest remained silent around him. It felt wrong – all of this had since Daniel had gone. The Nest wasn't meant to sit unused, in darkness and silence. The streets were not meant to be left to drown in the filth that infected them.
There was time for him to get back to the apartment, but he was reluctant to do so. His concession of one night away from patrol meant he'd be of no use on the streets; it would only bring frustration, and the risk of a confrontation regardless of any intention if he was intercepted. The Owl's Nest was reasonably safe, and it had far more resources than he had at his own disposal. Considering he was already here, it was logical for him to stay – and besides that, Daniel had made his welcome clear enough in the past. He wouldn't be taking advantage if he only used what was necessary to continue their investigations, and to regain his full physical capacities. His gaze went up the stairs to the kitchen door where Mason had exited – he needed to make sure the building above was secure, if he was going to stay here.
There was enough light to see by, bleeding in from outside. Silently, he moved through the kitchen to the hall and considered the front door. It was locked, though with only one deadbolt. The absence of hardware, the expanse of untouched wood on the door, felt disturbing. Alien. Aside from the secrets held below his home, Daniel had several valuable possessions in plain view. It served as further reminder of the differences between Rorschach's world and this one.
His hand closed around the owl figurine in his pocket. Moving into the living room, he stood in front of the shelf where it belonged and set it back in its place, alongside books that had obviously been read and weren't just for show. It was something he respected in Daniel, that he remained genuine despite the obvious advantages his upbringing had given him.
The other two statuettes he'd concealed were quickly set to rights in their places, once again all but announcing Daniel's identity for anyone to see… although it was obvious he didn't have visitors. Daniel was not a stupid man – in spite of his sentimental failings, he would not endanger his identity as Nite Owl. Looking at the arrangement of furniture, remembering glimpses of cupboard contents on the nights Rorschach had come upstairs from the Nest, it was evident that his partner's life here was a solitary one.
He left the living room, satisfied that it was restored to its prior state and that the front of the building was as secure as he could make it without disrupting Daniel's belongings. He thought of returning to the kitchen, but his feet took him upstairs instead.
He'd never come up here before. There had been no need, and he'd respected Daniel's privacy. There was no need to be up here now; he knew from previous observations that climbing to the windows was impossible without being seen from multiple angles. Even as that thought re-asserted itself, he found himself on the landing.
Farthest from him was Daniel's room – visible from the street, but less vulnerable from the stairs. The neatly-made bed lay quietly in the shadows, near a plain chest of drawers with a mirror that showed him the dim outline of his reflection. A nearly empty box of tissues sat on the nightstand, next to half a bottle of cold medicine. The small trash can next to it held a pile of tissues and another, empty, medicine bottle.
"Had the flu – told you last week."
He left Daniel's room, noting the spots on the floor that creaked as he moved to the second bedroom. More than once, his partner had extended invitations to stay there… nights when they'd come back from patrol bleeding, or when the sun was already creeping over the horizon. The first time had been barely a month into their partnership; he was still appalled at how presumptuously trusting Daniel had been.
He looked into the long-offered room for the first time. The bed was the same size as the one in Daniel's room, ridiculously large, and made up as though in anticipation of a guest. The nightstand was the twin of the one in Daniel's room, with a lamp and a book. There was a clear view of both the window and door from the bed.
There was no reason to maintain the appearance of this room; no reason to keep linens on the bed, or leave space in the open wardrobe. There was no reason to keep it as a bedroom at all; he and Daniel both knew the impossibility of having guests. It was absurd. And wasteful. Daniel was always making such gestures, regardless of their practicality… coffee and music on the airship; offers to come upstairs to the kitchen, especially when the temperature outside dropped; endless hours of talk that had little or nothing to do with their work. Questions, inoffensive but persistent – how was he, was he thirsty, was he hungry, was he hurt. Had he heard this song. Had he read this book. Always so eager.
The silence rang in his ears. The walls were too thick – or the neighbors too quiet – for him to hear anything but the faintest hint of his surroundings. Even the traffic outside was reduced to a whisper. The door to Daniel's room yawned in the darkness, and the guest room lay in uncomfortable emptiness behind him. There was no reason for him to be here.
He returned to the kitchen, leaving the light off. Even at this hour, it would be a risk, and it was better to keep his eyes trained for dimness anyway. He debated eating something when he recalled how long ago he'd eaten last. The thought of taking anything was distasteful, but for the knowledge that he had to maintain his strength to perform his duties. Daniel had always told him he could help himself – he'd even gone so far as to make Rorschach repeat it back to him once, although he'd done it teasingly. Rorschach had never taken him up on the offer. Too many people were willing to take, willing to make themselves beholden to another and forget how to fend for themselves.
There were any number of canned goods in the cupboard. Cereal as well, and coffee, and most of a loaf of bread in the breadbox. A glance in the refrigerator showed milk as well as orange juice, along with a half-empty carton of eggs, some cheese, a few apples, and a foil-wrapped dish on the bottom shelf. It was more food than he'd ever had at any given time, and the sheer decadence of it made him grimace. He remembered a recent invitation for dinner/breakfast after patrol a week ago that he'd refused, as usual. Daniel had seemed disappointed, but shrugged it off and wished him his typical, if quixotic, "Good Morning" when he left.
Vaguely curious, he lifted the foil on the dish in the refrigerator. It was two or three servings' worth of lasagna, but it had gone bad – there was obviously too much for Daniel to have been able to eat all of it by himself. Closing the door to the refrigerator, he turned back to the cupboard, remembering – he'd seen two boxes of cereal. Again, more food than Daniel needed. He frowned, and re-opened the cupboard door. Stocking up on non-perishable food was at least understandable, but now he could see that a significant number of items were things he'd mentioned in conversations with Daniel at various times. Things he'd admitted liking. Some of them, the ones in the back, had a faint layer of dust.
He wasn't hungry anymore.
Returning to the Nest, he let himself acknowledge the fatigue he'd been fighting and made his way to the cot in the back corner. He would rest a few hours, then perhaps try to see if Nite Owl's computer could tell him anything useful.
It wasn't safe. He had to get back in time, they were in danger and he'd seen the others. The children were inside, milling around the tiny kitchen like frightened rabbits as he tried to see out the windows without letting them near. The others were out there, invisible in the smoke. It only swirled and left ash over everything like that when they were near and he couldn't let the children see or they would disappear, but the children were hungry – they needed to eat or they would cry and be heard, but the rats had taken everything, climbing up and carrying it out the hole in the door, there was a hole and the others could get in, he had to block it before they noticed it. He had to move slowly or the lights would come on and give away their position. The cupboard door was the right size for a barricade; he had to risk it. He leaned over, reaching for it, but the movement outside was mirroring his – they'd seen him and were moving faster. The children were grabbing the door with him, there were two who were older and had gloves so they'd be protected but they were the only ones. The others were getting closer and the smallest child looked up, he couldn't stop her, and she disappeared before the hole could be covered - It was all the others needed and they began melting through the walls. If he could cut them before they finished forming they would be safe. There was a knife just below one of them and he grabbed it, pushing the children back into the far corner where they could be small enough to fit. He swiped at the other that was near the window, trying to cut but it wasn't working, he would have to wait until it formed and try to fight it. Its body turned toward him and he raised the knife, its long blade pinning its shoulder to the wall before it leaned forward and into it, it wasn't stopping even though he could feel the flesh giving way to the muscle beneath, thick and fibrous. He backed away with the knife held out and its dark shape followed, leaning again into its point even as he was telling it to stop, stop doing this, but it just tilted its head and tried to come closer, forcing him to stab hard into it again and again, the blade sawing deep, and Daniel wanted to know why he was doing that to him but he couldn't stop, the knife was pushing into Daniel's shoulder and chest and he was naming all the organs he was hitting because he had to do it in the right order and Daniel's eyes kept blinking as he fell into pieces on the filthy kitchen floor, bits getting covered in dirt and still moving, still trying to
His breath left him in a shout that echoed in the darkness, waking him. He registered the cold, eyes following the glow of the work lamp to the silhouette of the Archimedes and telling him where he was just as the door at the top of the stairs was thrown open.</p>
The lights went on – all of them – as he recognized Hollis Mason's voice. He flinched momentarily against the glare, and worked to sit up. His hat lay off to one side on the floor and his coat was half-tangled around him – he quickly righted them and struggled up off the cot. His eyes felt sandblasted, and his breath was coming too fast.
Footsteps sounded down the stairs after a few seconds' pause, and he gathered himself as they approached. Metal slid softly in the background; he could see the outline of a prybar held by Mason's shadow.
"Here." His voice felt ill-used, and he resisted an urge to clear his throat. The prybar's silhouette lowered, and Mason came around the corner. His motions were wary, and Rorschach could see him bite back his first question and frown before stepping forward. An echo of Daniel's conciliatory expression flickered in his eyes, though his words were flat and he cut directly to the point.
"I heard you shout."
Silently he cursed himself, forcing back the afterimages that threatened. "It was nothing."
Mason inhaled slowly. "I've heard nightmares before, son. Had a few myself."
His fist clenched immediately. He had tolerated more than one intrusion from his partner over the years, but this man had no such rights. His shoulders squared and he prepared to barrel through Mason if need be. "Said it was n—"
"Rorschach." The name was barked as a command and Mason strode into Rorschach's path with clenched fists of his own. "By god," he muttered, "I am tired of these games. How Danny has kept from thumping you all this time is completely beyond me." He looked Rorschach over like a drill sergeant at inspection, scowling furiously. "You will come upstairs with me, now, or so help me I will take all the trouble you've caused him and me both right out of your hide. Are we clear?"
It wouldn't have taken much to disarm him – half a dozen ways flitted through his mind in a matter of seconds. But Mason was caring for his partner and – however unwelcome it was – upholding a promise by trying to tend to him as well. Rorschach was indebted to him - at least for the former - and he knew, looking at Mason's grim expression, that leaving now would be an irrevocable step.
Mason hadn't let go of the prybar, and his knuckles stood out white around it. When Rorschach didn't respond he stepped aside just far enough to offer passage, and waited.
Rorschach could feel a flush rising to his face and knew it was being telegraphed in the ink swirling across it. If anyone else had dared to speak to him in such a manner, he would have put them on the ground before they'd completed a single sentence. As it was, he could feel his pulse hammering from the fury he was keeping in check. For one brief, blinding instant he actually hated Daniel for all of this, for putting them into this position – but no. Even as he thought it, he knew that wasn't true. The only thing Daniel had done wrong in all of this was to not stand up for himself, as was his wont; Rorschach still bore his share of responsibility for not watching out for his partner.
He ground his teeth against the stab of shame that threatened. It wouldn't change anything, so there was no point to it. Chin raised, he squared his shoulders and let himself come within an inch of shoving past the other man as he walked to the stairs.
The angle of light through the kitchen blinds was an unpleasant surprise – he'd slept far too long yet again. A sound from the opposite door interrupted the thought and he went rigid as Mason's white dog appeared to regard them both, its ears perked forward in curiosity.
"Phantom—" Mason quickly moved from behind Rorschach to greet it, hand outstretched. Rorschach twitched as its tongue licked once across Mason's palm. "Good boy, go lie down in the living room, all right? Go lie down…" The dog obeyed, glancing at Rorschach before turning back into the other room. He listened as its claws tapped on the floor, unhurried, until the living room carpet swallowed the sound.
After a long moment he looked up, and saw that Mason was watching him again. He braced for questions, or recriminations, but Daniel's mentor only tilted his head toward the kitchen table, gesturing for Rorschach to sit while he moved to the counter. Rorschach did so, taking the chair that faced the door to the hall.
A rustling made him turn to see Mason unwrapping the loaf of bread he'd seen earlier. He watched as four slices were put in the toaster and coffee was set to percolating. All but ignoring Rorschach, Mason proceeded to putter quietly about the kitchen, moving carefully in the obviously unfamiliar surroundings, but with no less purpose. His face still bore the tension of their last exchange.
The urge to fidget, to challenge the older man to come out and say what was on his mind, was difficult to suppress. Mason was stating his terms, albeit silently, and Rorschach wasn't going to betray any discomfort his behavior was causing.
The toast popped up, and soon there was butter and jam on the table. Two slices were placed in front of him, followed shortly by a cup of coffee with its accompaniments. Rorschach looked at them, then back up at Mason.
"Eat." The word was saturated with reproach as Mason met his eyes. "You're running on fumes." He turned before Rorschach could respond, and began cracking eggs into a skillet.
He stared as Mason busied himself scrambling the eggs and pouring a can of beans into a pot on another burner, not moving until the smell of the food cooking finally reached him. Abruptly his stomach clenched in long-deferred hunger, and he glanced down at the toast on his plate.
He would have to lift his face in order to eat. It was a vulnerability he didn't want, even knowing its triviality in light of what Mason already knew. As another pang hit, he quashed the sting of embarrassment from Mason's obvious disappointment and grudgingly lifted his face to settle at the bridge of his nose. He grimly stripped off his gloves, and picked up a piece of toast to slather jam over it as plates clattered softly.
Halfway through the first piece, Mason set another plate with eggs and beans in front of him before settling in the other chair with a plate of his own. He barely glanced at Rorschach, concentrating instead on his food. "Danny said to go ahead and eat anything that'll go bad – they're keeping him for at least the rest of the week." Not everything on the table matched that criterion, but Rorschach held his tongue. Mason tucked into his own food, scooping a forkful of beans onto his slice of toast. "He also said to tell you he'll do his best to recover – He is looking a bit better, so we'll see. How's the arm doing?"
He gave it a second's thought. "Better." Brief jolts of pain still flared with movement, but it was nothing he couldn't push to the back of his mind.
Mason looked at him a moment, and then nodded to himself, subsiding. The two of them ate in tightly-coiled silence. Outside there was a friendly shout that someone else answered in kind. A dog barked.
Rorschach glanced up to see Mason watching him. He waited.
"You don't like dogs – why?"
In any other setting the question would have sounded conversational. Rorschach set down his coffee mug, took another piece of toast to mop up the scraps left on his plate.
"Dogs always do what they're told."
Mason's eyes went distant as he digested that answer. Rorschach made himself finish eating, and then pulled his face back where it belonged. Perhaps Daniel's mentor was thinking of his own companion; it didn't matter. He rose to leave.
"…God." The sigh stopped him and he looked back. "What am I doing?"
Mason had put down his utensils and was shaking his head, looking off to the side with a frown. He looked old, and tired. He looked the way people used to look at Walter Kovacs so long ago. Helpless bleeding-hearts who wrung their hands and mouthed platitudes instead of taking action, taking responsibility.
His lip curled. "Don't need your—"
"Oh, be quiet, damn you." The sudden words lashed out in a furious hiss as Mason glared up at him. His fist was clenched hard on the table. "You think you're the sole authority in this, that no one else knows what you and Danny have been through? You think I haven't ever--?" He bit off the rest. "Of course you don't, you're both still so young… and here I am," he muttered in disgust, "just patching you back together to go out for another round like nothing's wrong." He rose, stalking toward Rorschach and leaning into his space. "You think I was just playing around when I was Nite Owl? That everything was just like they wrote in the papers with the good guys always winning and the bad guys always getting put away? You think I don't carry the memory of every person I couldn't help? Every storekeeper being squeezed by the mob, every woman or child I knew was going home to get beaten again, every last person who told me they were fine while their eyes went dead right in front of me?" Mason's lips pressed into a thin line and he turned away. "You think I've never been too late? That I've never lost sleep knowing that being a cop – that being Nite Owl wouldn't always be enough? I can't tell you how many times the bruises I went home with felt like I'd been let off easy." He seemed to deflate, his voice growing distant as he stared out the blinds at the sunlit world outside. "I hated the sunrise sometimes, do you know that? Absolutely hated it. Hours I had to wait before I could do anything, while the rest of the world--" His hand made a vague, futile gesture. "We fell apart. We lost each other, one by one, until we just couldn't hold on anymore."
He looked at Rorschach, shaking his head as his face darkened. "I was so relieved when Danny told me he had a partner. I thought he might not have to go through what we did – that he'd have someone…" Drained, he slumped back against the sink, "someone to help him stand up to… everything that's out there."
It was silent between them. Dust motes floated past in the cold, oblivious light of the day outside. Abruptly Rorschach could see in perfect clarity the image of Daniel as he'd last seen him – sick, worried, too thin, and tired – Daniel had looked so tired. He tried to remember what Nite Owl had looked like the last time he'd been well, and realized he couldn't; he couldn’t trace the exact time, or a particular event. He couldn't recall with certainty the last time his partner had spoken with any sort of confidence. The more he tried, the more firmly his mind turned to the night in the alley – to the blood glistening darkly on Nite Owl's gauntlet and how…lost his partner had looked. He thought about Daniel not recovering, never coming back to this place or to the Owl's Nest, and not having any other memories of him.
The voice was startling in the silence. Rorschach belatedly realized it was his own as Mason looked up at him.
"She was six."
She smiled up at him in the photograph, gap-toothed already. Her hair was in pigtails and she was opening a birthday – no, Christmas present. He couldn't tell what it was; the paper still obscured what lay inside and a part of him wanted to ask, what is it, but she wasn't there and that wasn't why the photo was in his hand and that wasn't why he was standing there with her parents, he would never have known them at all except for this one thing at the wrong place, wrong name at the wrong time and the wrong people, helpless and lost and staring at him with wide desperate eyes red with crying and fatigue. The father's eyes had been green, green as the linoleum of the floor where they lived, where flecks of color showed in the tiles, irregular and unmindful of the decaying landscapes of brick and concrete where he hunted for answers because he promised, he promised because never, not ever, no one should, he couldn't. Ugly hostile faces, pained, frightened, mouths sneering with jagged (pointed) teeth, widening to devour words with screaming. Tears from one, surprising, a steady drip from the faucet not quite turned off and tapping slowly into the sink by the cutting board, leaking down to mildewed floorboards, rot and ash where only a scrap of color remained, one last bright moment flashing against gray, white on white, scored and scratched, glistening. Weight in the hand, smell of filth in rain, warm and wet and a high wailing cry that stopped, breathing hard and drowning in a welter of voices, one voice babbling nonsense in smoke and flames while flesh and hair and bone screamed in black clouds that reached out, pulled close, pulled under until
--he let go.
He didn't know how much time passed. There was a vague awareness of Mason's voice set in a pitch of concern that began escalating into fear… Mason may have even shaken him at one point; he wasn't sure. It didn't matter, so he left it alone. It stopped, after a while.
Bits and pieces of phrases drifted to him, things that for some reason should have been important. He could hear voices, blunted and distant – one was familiar but not the right one, not liked but safe nonetheless; the other stirred a sluggish disgust, what would have been anger if anger wasn't so difficult. Back and forth they went, the rhythm of words and pauses like waves as they rose and fell. He let it move through him without trying to decipher, or control, or dissect… Everything felt far away, and he found he didn't mind it.
The mumble of voices slowed, and eventually stopped. He thought there was movement, and then stillness. The stillness was good. He hadn't realized how much energy he'd been expending, how truly exhausted he'd become. He would sit. It was reasonably safe here, he could remember that much. He would wait for… until…
He would wait.
Nothingness, for a timeless, perfect span. Peace like he'd never known before. Then slowly – reluctantly – his awareness regained focus.
He was in Daniel's living room, seated on the couch. Dim, sickly light filtered through the blinds on the far side, showing his reflection in the blank television screen across from him. He watched the slow shift in the patterns of his face, focusing on their swirling change from one shape to the next until it was all he could see, just black and white symmetry flowing into and around itself, surging and retreating and never ending, always –
Movement yanked his reflexes into full alert, even as he observed it was only Mason, shifting in his sleep in the armchair nearby. His brow furrowed as Rorschach watched and he took in a deep breath. Exhaling slowly, Mason opened his eyes, blinking muzzily until he saw Rorschach watching him. He leaned forward, his hands scrubbing slowly at his face before dropping down to hang over his knees. His expression became cautious as he weighed his words.
"How are you feeling?"
It was a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The sun had apparently gone down some time ago, and he couldn't quite make out the hands of the clock on the shelf. He thought he might have slept, but somehow felt exhausted.
Mason changed tack at his hesitation. "What do you remember?"
…he didn't, he realized. That should have upset him.
His reflection stared back at him, shapes shifting like clouds, silent and steady in their perpetual motion, punctuation of breath and pulse in the dark, one calm, clear point in surrounding darkness that spiraled and grew, filling his awareness and growing heavy until it was difficult to
"God. All right. That's the name you want, then. Listen, do you know where you are? Come on now, son, this is important."
"Ok. Good, that's good. Do you know who I am?"
"…Ok, but what's my name?"
"He's. He's coming. As fast as he can. All right?"
"All right. Can I sleep now?"
"…Yeah. Yeah, son, you can sleep. You're safe, ok, you hear me? You're safe here."
He opened his eyes, and there was a stranger in the room with him.
He faintly registered that his surroundings were likely Daniel's guest room as he took in the pale figure reading a book at the bedside. A stand with an IV bag stood near the other person, who glanced over and realized he was being watched.
Rorschach moved, intending to demand answers of this strange intruder who made so free with Daniel's home and belongings. Who was he? Where was Mason? He hadn't even heard the dog give any warning; was Mason incapacitated, were Nite Owl's secrets even now being ransacked and dragged out into--
A scar near the intravenous tube caught his attention. It was a peculiar "J" shape, ragged on one end from a rough burr at the end of a steel pipe. Daniel had cursed roundly when it happened, vowing later never to –
- another scar, just visible at the neckline of the overlarge t-shirt where it had sipped to one side… a puncture that had come far too close to the jugular vein. Nite Owl's armor was quickly redesigned after –
- two burn marks on the left hand. Daniel had sheepishly admitted to forgetting his welding gauntlet after testing some adjustment and absentmindedly reaching for –
He looked back to the other's face, taking in the unwashed hair and powdery-looking skin, and looking beyond them to the expression in the sunken, bruised-looking eyes that watched him from behind familiar glasses.
The figure before him smiled, and it was his partner. "Yeah, buddy?"
"Have looked better."
An odd, half-strangled laugh burst into the silence. "You mean me, or you?"
Instinctively he looked down at himself, suddenly noticing stains and semi-mended tears on his clothing that had to be ages old. His joints were stiff, he realized, both from injury and immobility, and an embarrassing amount of detritus had flaked off of his uniform to litter the bed.
"Hrm. Point taken." He looked again at the plastic hospital bag attached to Daniel, whose smile slipped from his face.
"Hollis… said you needed me." He looked down, briefly lifted the hand with the intravenous attachment. "This was the only way they'd let me out of the hospital, and that was only after they'd watched me all night and half the damn day." He coughed once, softly. "I might've given a few of them a hard time about it."
Rorschach digested that comment and they sat, the only sound coming from the occasional tick of the radiator. The book Daniel had been reading lay closed on his lap; the top of a bookmark peeked out from several pages in. It was an older one – well-read, by the look of it. Something stirred in his memory… he remembered
Daniel looked up, startled but not displeased. "You heard me?"
It came to him, then – the familiar cadence of his partner's voice nearby, murmuring in… rhyme? He looked again at the book, glimpsing the name "Ovid" on the spine. He had heard Daniel, he realized.
His partner looked down again, his hands stroking idly along the book's cover. "Hollis said you were… out of it a couple of days ago. You were, I dunno, running on automatic or something, doing the basic stuff but not really there. I got home yesterday evening."
Daniel had come back for his sake. Still unwell, by the look of him, but doing better. Called him back from wherever he'd been. Had been trying to for a long time, he could admit. He thought again of how close his partner had been to death without either of them even knowing it, his ailment lost in the background noise of their work and Rorschach's inattention. He thought of his own obvious deterioration, and felt an unpleasant chill twist up his spine.
"Mason was right." Daniel looked up at him. "What he said to you. I do…need you. Have not -- I have not been a good partner. I'm sorry, Daniel."
"Hey. Hey." His partner struggled up, cursing briefly as he negotiated around the intravenous stand to sit next to him. "Whatever it is, I'm here, okay? Just… " Brown eyes searched for his as cautious hands grasped his shoulders. "talk to me. Please? Don't do this alone."
His throat tightened at that word, felt like it couldn't pull in enough air. His head bowed under the weight of it, his eyes squeezing shut. One of Daniel's hands raised to his face, gentle and shocking, and the only thing he could do to keep breathing was to reach up in return. Wide shoulders were steady under his hands, taking his weight as he fought for breath.
He held on and didn't let go.