“Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l’autre, vous êtez foutou.” – Gilles Deleuze
He leans against the red oak, among the tall lines of pines and beeches and cedars that stand stark against the snow. A red-tailed hawk lights on a tree, showering him with snow before taking flight again.
It’s not so far to come out here and watch the birds. He wonders why he never did, before. If he was with Laurie, he would tell her the name of every tree, and the name of every bird, and maybe later she would recite the names of all of the stars.
He stops himself before he can think too deeply on this. There is no purpose, in this world, to be the sort of person who knows the name of every bird or builds marvelous airships. It’s something quaint and archaic, like the old chaplain and his bookshelf, like the chivalric code or knowing Ancient Greek or writing in calligraphy. Or rescuing helpless—
“Daniel. Wasted enough time.”
Dan straightens and stuffs his hands in the pockets of his overcoat. They have spent the morning at the university, Rorschach poring over phone books, Dan trying—with some success—to charm the reference librarian and various phone operators. Katerina Nagyova, according to her niece in Florida, became Katherine Appleton—considerably more difficult to find—three decades ago.
She could be dead, Dan realizes; even if she moved from the Bronx long before the monster, she would be at least seventy. And her life, at least the part of it that had intersected briefly with Rorschach’s, had likely not been easy.
Rorschach hands him an index card covered with his own impenetrable handwriting. “Nursing home in Baltimore. Almost certain woman is the same.”
He looks up, wistfully, at the branch where the hawk had been. “Okay,” he says, and tries not to be aghast at the prospect of Rorschach terrifying a building full of senior citizens. He trudges after his partner, snow creeping around his ankles, into his shoes. It seems as though it’s been winter forever. The car door sticks when he tries it, half frozen, but the highway is mostly empty.
He almost likes this, the road a dark line intersecting white; silence, that while hardly comfortable, doesn’t resemble the clang of a bulldozer clearing a street, or someone’s hysterical weeping. Masked under snow, it’s easy to look at the world and pretend that it remains unchanged. That he remains unchanged.
He turns onto a quiet street, passes rows of neat lawns before pulling into the parking lot behind the state nursing home. “Please,” he says. “Don’t scare the people.”
Rorschach makes a noise that might be mistaken for a laugh, except that Rorschach doesn’t ever laugh. “No face,” he replies. “Not scary without face.”
Dan isn’t so certain about that, but he takes in a deep breath as they walk inside and ask for Katherine Appleton.
“She hasn’t had a visitor in years,” the nurse says. “She’ll be happy to see you. If she remembers, but even still…” The hallways reek of piss and antiseptic, but as they turn the corner and the young woman knocks on the door and promptly evaporates back into the rush of the corridor, they’re greeted with the scent of dried rose petals. The door swings shut behind them.
Katerina Nagyova Appleton raises her head from where she sits, hands neatly folded in her lap, in her wheelchair. Her face is a creased roadmap beneath a waterfall of white hair. Her eyes widen and she beams and Dan sees, beneath the wrinkles and age spots, the profile of a once-beautiful woman.
“Oh,” she says, her voice creaking. “Charlie. Dear Charlie, you’ve come back for me at last.”
Dan takes a seat on a plastic chair, meant for the visitors that Katerina never gets. She doesn’t see him anyway; her attention is on his rather mortified partner. She reaches out a thin, pale hand, as if expecting Rorschach to take it. When he doesn’t, she catches his gloved fingers and draws him closer. Dan tries not to be amused.
“Not,” Rorschach says as he tries in vain to tug his hand free. “Charlie.”
She giggles like a little girl. “You were always a silly one. Say, why is it you? I got married, you know? Thirty years. I thought he would come for me.” She squeezes his palm, runs a thumb over his knuckles. “But I’m glad to see you. It’s been so long…”
“Katerina,” Dan says, and he is not going to laugh, because it’s not funny. Not at all. “This is Walter Kovacs. He, um, he lived next door to you, in the Bronx. He’s Charlie’s son.”
“Oh,” she says, and that gets her to finally release Rorschach. He takes a few steps away from her and looks down at his own fingers like he’s vaguely considering severing them. “This…this isn’t the end, then?”
Rorschach mutters, “Could be.”
“We’re looking for Charlie,” Dan says, shooting his partner the evil eye. “We don’t…”
“Mother claimed not to know last name,” Rorschach says. “Thought you might.”
Sharp eyes trace his outline, and she sighs, as if disappointed, as if he has instantly transported her back to the present. “Charlie Dewitt. I never knew what he saw in that woman; he was going somewhere, going places. And she, well, just a common whore, really.” Rorschach bristles, and Dan puts a hand on his partner’s arm, not sure if it’s to comfort him or to hold him back. “He was going to come back for me, after the war. But you never came, not until now…” Her face softens again. “Oh, Charlie. How I’ve missed you, all these years.”
“Rorschach,” Dan whispers, rising out of the chair. “We have a name, okay? There are records. We can go now.” But he stands there, coiled, ready to strike.
“You spoke to police,” Rorschach says finally. “Child services. Told them everything.” Dan can feel him shaking. “Walls paper-thin. You heard. For years. You knew.” At the last word, his voice cracks, not enough for anyone who hasn’t known him twenty years to notice.
But Dan hears it, and he can’t fix this. He stands beside his partner, and he doesn’t take him into his arms and hold him, doesn’t say anything except a half-grunted, “Let’s go.” He tugs Rorschach away from the old woman as she closes in on herself again, away from the scent of rose petals.
In the bathroom of their motel room, Rorschach is cutting the remaining faded black out of his hair with the straight-razor that he uses to shave. Dan wonders if he should offer to help, but everything he’s said since they left the nursing home has been greeted with brusque noises and so he holds back, watches, fights the urge to just lie down and sleep. He’s needed, somehow, to do something. To not be the one who listens for years, and says nothing.
When Rorschach emerges, Dan almost wants to smile a little, because his partner can kill a man with his bare hands in a dozen different ways but he can’t cut hair worth a damn, and it’s sort of endearing. Humanizing. Even if the ginger spikes sticking up in damp tufts from his skull make him look like an aging punk rocker, a comparison he’s quite sure that his partner wouldn’t appreciate.
“We can go home,” Dan says quietly. “Do you want to go home?”
“Have mission. Questions to answer.”
“Okay.” Though Dan wonders what questions are left. They’ve already determined that practically everyone in Rorschach’s early life, his father included, was a complete asshole. Still, he’s slightly relieved that Rorschach wants to keep going. It means that even unmasked, his face and history brutally exposed, even after everything they’ve been though, his partner hasn’t lost any of his infamous stubbornness. “C’mer.” He pats the bed beside where he’s sitting. It was cheaper to get a room with a single bed. He’s not accustomed to paying for things—in New York, so much is left abandoned and empty that you can live on nothing, a ghost in the houses of the dead.
Rorschach sits down, but Dan can feel the waves of barely suppressed rage radiating off of him, his eyes fixed on the crack in the plaster wall, knuckles white where they clutch at the knees of his jeans. Dan runs a hand over the ridges of his spine—he means it to be soothing, but Rorschach just flinches. “I’m sorry,” Dan whispers.
“I should have…I don’t know.” God, he’s so hard to talk to sometimes. “I should have realized it’d be something like this.”
“Like what?” His voice is low, practically a growl. “No pity, Daniel. Never pity.”
“I don’t—” and he reaches out again, pathetically. Rorschach pushes away and limps over to where his trenchcoat is draped over the chair, picks it up and shrugs himself into with some difficulty.
“You can’t. Look, you must be tired. I’m tired. Just—come to bed, will you? I’ll sleep in the chair if you…” No, no, that wasn’t going to work. Rorschach just stares at him, eyes dark and empty, and with that coat, his face half in shadows underneath his fedora, he might as well still be wearing the mask. “Please.”
Rorschach turns from him and says, “No,” and slips out the door.
Dan seizes fistfuls of the duvet cover, restrains himself, doesn’t run after Rorschach to stop him. He turns on the TV, presses the remote through static and late-night talk shows. He tries not to think of his partner, alone and in pain and wandering the streets of a strange city looking for a fight.
This is so stupid, he thinks, unearthing the past as though it would change anything, some crackpot idea he might find on one of Veidt’s self-help tapes. Nostalgia never makes anything better. It leaves you lost, aching for a chance to say the right things, to remake the past. It leaves you longing to apologize for not fighting hard enough, for not being strong enough, for standing by while your home burns. For being thirty-five minutes and forty-five years too late to rescue the person you care most about in the world.
He slams his head against the pillow, slides down into the bed, and loathing himself as he does it, fumbles with the button on his fly. He thinks of his partner half asleep and tangled in the bed sheets, and they would wake up like this, some mornings, having shifted closer during the night, unintentional of course but now we’re here and it’s not like we have to get up right away. Imagines it’s Rorschach’s hand, callused and rough, sliding into his boxers, closing around his dick.
No. Better to think of his partner as he was before—as they never were together—masked and powerful and unbroken, the inkblots shifting and changing as his lips crush against Dan’s. There is nothing beneath that armor of latex, he thinks, no hollow eyes, no skin, no scars. The man above him, fierce and brutal and uncompromising, was never Walter Kovacs, and he doesn’t hesitate as he fucks the man who was never Daniel Dreiberg against the console of the Archimedes.
He screws his eyes shut so that he can see pinpricks of color bursting against the darkness of his closed lids, and it’s enough, he’s so close, and then there’s the black-and-white photograph of the boy in the too-large suit and his cock goes limp under his fingers. He swears loudly and zips back up.
On the television, a blond man and woman writhe in each other’s embrace, engulfed in the golden light of a rising sun. Long past the point of exhaustion now, Dan can only watch, mute and bleary-eyed, as he waits for the sound of footsteps outside the motel room door.
Dan isn’t sure how long he’s been asleep. The winter-bright light through the blinds pricks his eyes, and he groans and yanks the bed sheet over his face. It is torn from him just as quickly.
“Time to leave. Brought you coffee.”
Dan’s arm flops over on the nightstand, scrabbling for his glasses. The room in focus again, he pushes himself up. Rorschach sits in the chair by the window, holding a Styrofoam cup in his hands, an olive branch bought with change from Dan’s wallet. Dan swings his legs over the side of the bed and leans out to take it. No milk, too much sugar—funny, almost the same way Laurie took it. It’s disgusting but he gulps it down anyway because, hey, he appreciates the gesture. Forgiven, he thinks, at least a little.
That, or Rorschach doesn’t know how to drive a car.
“Where are we going?” He tries not to sound too enthusiastic, but he’s glad to see Rorschach giving orders again and assuming that Dan will follow them. Which he will, he always will, and it’s better than seeing his partner stare listlessly at the road ahead, a disinterested bystander in the grotesque theater of his own childhood.
“Made some inquiries while you were sleeping. Need to go to St. Louis.”
“Mmmfh.” Dan crunches the cup and tosses it into the waste bin. “What’s there?”
“Military records. Discharge papers.” The monotone rasp gives nothing away, neither relief that Charlie Dewitt survived the war, nor disappointment that death wasn’t what stopped him from coming back to save his son.
Half an hour later, they’re on the I-70, beneath a bleak, grey sky, past masses of bare trees and electrical towers. Rorschach doesn’t talk, and Dan doesn’t want to disrupt their tentative truce by provoking him again, so he concentrates on the road and whether or not the car is, indeed, making some funny noises.
Two hours later, the road is blasted from clear-cut hills, and the dashboard lights up all over the place as the car rocks over potholes and patches of ice. They look at each other and it feels horribly familiar and Dan rolls his eyes.
The car limps almost as far as the next town before it coughs blue smoke and swerves into the ditch.
So they’re in a bar, because one look at the garage’s estimate and Dan needs a drink, and while the jukebox plays horrible country tunes, it’s noisy enough to be an alibi; they can avoid conversation and it won’t be all that awkward. The bar is the only bar in town, and it’s crowded, Friday night and there’s nothing else to do here. Men jostle one another, sweating under thick lumberjack coats, vying for the attention of a handful of women with teased hair and foundation-caked faces. The car will be fixed by tomorrow afternoon, Dan reminds himself, even if he has to bust into the garage and do it himself.
He watches Rorschach pour sugar into his Coke and somehow fails to be properly disgusted. He wonders when sick fascination turned into just plain fascination and stares into the bottom of his own beer.
A slow song comes on the jukebox and a hand, with ruby nails and too many rings, touches his shoulder. The woman is young, pretty by the standards of the bar’s clientele. In a few years she’ll be fat; now her curves are inviting, familiar. She has long, chestnut brown hair and she smells like cigarettes and that’s why, when she murmurs that she hasn’t seen him around these parts before, he stands up with an apologetic glance at his partner and accepts the invitation to dance. She’s warm and she fills his arms, and he leans his chin on the top of her head. He’s never been much of a dancer, but they sway together, her hands on his hips, and when they come around so he’s facing the table where Rorschach hunches over his Coke, he closes his eyes and turns his cheek into the girl’s hair.
“Whatcha doing all the way out here, city boy?” She has the slightest Appalachian lilt, and she’s trying too hard, he thinks, squeezing him a little too tightly.
“Just passing though. My car broke down. How did you know I was—”
“It’s written all over you. And your friend. Especially him. So.” She laughs, and he likes her laugh, hasn’t really heard anyone laugh like that in a long time. “Are you running someplace, or running away from someplace?”
Another slow revolution across a floor sticky with spilled drink, the beer turning the edges of his vision soft. “Both, I guess.”
“Yeah.” And this time, he doesn’t ask how she can tell, because it doesn’t need to be his accent, because he knows that the scents of blood and ash cling to him, no matter how many showers he takes, no matter how far he runs.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and he wants to melt into her sympathy, drown in it. Wants to stay, because this bar is every redneck bar from one coast to the other, frozen in time where neither Armageddon nor Utopia may touch it. “Who did you lose?”
He presses a kiss into the hairspray-stiff side of her head, sucks the bitter taste from his lips, and hopes that Rorschach can’t see. “Everyone,” he says. “Everyone but him.”
The song changes, and for a moment he stays there, arms draped heavily across her back, and in the gap he can hear the rise of men’s voices, rough and angry.
“Faggot. What’re you staring at, faggot?”
The girl breaks away from him and rushes to the side of one of the three large men who are looming menacingly close to where Rorschach sits. Dan sways on his feet, cursing his luck with women who have gigantic ex-boyfriends and women in general, really, and one of the man’s other friends bends his forearms painfully behind his back.
Rorschach looks up from his Coke as though he’s just noticed the commotion. “Leave,” he says to the mullet-sporting guy who’s just called him a faggot, who shows no intention of backing off. “Not request. Warning.”
The guy snorts. “What’s with this retard?” He moves in closer, and Rorschach finishes his drink. Dan has enough time to think, oh shit oh shit and the guy swings a meaty fist. Rorschach dodges it and the hand comes down hard on the table in front of him, rattling the glasses. Before he can pull back, Rorschach grabs him by the elbow and slams his wrist into the table with a sickening crack.
Dan kicks backwards at the man restraining him, twisting to toss him into the bar. He sees the first attacker reel, clutching his shattered hand while the two others push the girl aside, and he meets Rorschach’s eyes from across the floor.
He knows this: Glass, in its natural form, is fragile. Only when broken does it become a formidable weapon.
Rorschach doesn’t bother looking at the two men gunning for him. When he smashes his glass against the side of the table and slams it into the face of one of his assailants, he is still staring at Dan. The girl shrieks. He ignores her, intent on dragging the remaining Goliath away from his partner. The guy elbows him, knocking his glasses askew, but Dan manages to haul him up so Rorschach can punch him in the nose.
Rorschach slips out from behind the table and kicks one of the felled rednecks in the face. “Anyway,” he says, almost conversationally. “Not a faggot.” He looks up at Dan. “Next time, perhaps wiser choice of dance partners?”
Dan says, “I’ll keep it in mind” as they stagger out of the bar and out into the crisp December night.
Snowflakes dampen his coat, melting against his cheeks and jolting him out of the remains of his earlier drunken stupor. His body, coursing with adrenaline, hasn’t realized that the danger is over; hysterical, uncontrollable violence threatens to bubble up in him at any moment.
“Ah, so...” Dan can’t really bring himself to apologize again, seeing as he didn’t know that the girl was just trying to make someone jealous, or that said someone had a lot of large friends, and besides, he’s pretty sure that Rorschach enjoyed that. His fists are balled up, like he’s still bracing himself for a fight, flecks of browning blood clinging to his face. “Just like old times, huh?”
Rorschach stops in the light of a single streetlamp. It casts him in harsh shadows, blackens his eyes and the hollows beneath his cheekbones. It’s too easy, Dan thinks, to forget what he is, what he’s capable of. Just because Dan knows a little more of his story, has seen his face, seen him beaten down and bleeding—that doesn’t change who he is.
“Must be more careful,” Rorschach says grimly. “Can’t attract attention.”
“You’re one to talk.” Dan takes a few halting steps towards his partner. “Are you okay? You look—” Predatory. Like you’re teetering on a knife’s edge. “…distracted.”
“Right. Of course you are.” He catches their reflections, distorted in the funhouse mirror of a shop window. Main Street is nearly empty. Everyone’s drinking at the bar, or at home, safe in warm beds. In a town where teenagers huff glue and once in a decade a man might turn a shotgun on his wife and children, no one patrols the streets and watches for movement in the shadows. No one but them, tonight. They are strangers here, alone in the sleeping town that they’ll leave tomorrow.
So this is almost permissible, he thinks, pinning Rorschach against the streetlamp with one hand while running his thumb over the smaller man’s stubbly jaw. Almost like being free. “Thanks for saving my ass back there.”
“Could say the same,” Rorschach mutters, avoiding Dan’s eyes. Even half-starved, the fight straining his still-healing muscles and probably tearing out some of the stitches in his back, he could push Dan away if he wanted to. He doesn’t. His breath comes in heavy puffs, blue in the freezing night air, fogging up Dan’s glasses.
Dan tugs at the knot in his scarf—its once-immaculate white tarnished with grime and bloodstains—wraps the end around his own fist, loosening it enough to expose his partner’s throat. He makes as if to bite him, and instead, presses his lips, ever so softly, against the side of Rorschach’s neck, tastes the frantic pulse beneath goosebumped skin. Trails his mouth, excruciatingly slowly, to the pit of his throat. His partner growls in frustration and grinds against him, arousal pressing into Dan’s thigh, gloved hands circling around his broad back beneath his overcoat, clutching fistfuls of his sweater.
“Want this?” Dan murmurs. The response is a whine and an uncoordinated grope at his ass. He almost laughs but Rorschach is so serious, so desperate with want that Dan’s heart gives a peculiar twist, and besides, you don’t laugh at a guy who is quite capable of braining you on the fire hydrant two feet away. He’s not the one who instigates this—never is, wouldn’t know what the hell to do, the poor bastard—but he’s always the one in control.
“Not here,” Rorschach manages to grit out, and it’s hard to think because it’s been such a long time, and this thing is still all so weird and new, and Dan is a bit worried that if he lets go Rorschach is going to just disappear into the shadows again, and God, he’s all fire and furious energy, a stray cat that will let you stroke its ears and then shred your skin with its claws. But he’s right, they’re out in the open here, and it’s tempting fate to be a block away from the bar where you just beat up four men for accusing you of the very sins you’re about to commit.
They stumble, leaning on one another, to a house with darkened windows and a pick-up truck on bricks parked in a snow-draped yard. Behind the house is a tool shed, and Dan briefly marvels that it’s unlocked, that there are still people in the world so very trusting. He sweeps sawdust off the workbenches, pushes them together, and spreads his coat over top of them. They huddle together, shivering.
Dan blows into his hands and slides them under Rorschach’s shirt, raking nails across bumpy ribs. His partner’s skin is fever-hot and gradually, sensation returns to his fingertips.
“Like that?” In response, Rorschach arches against him and mumbles something incomprehensible into his sweater. He bats ineffectually against Dan’s face, trying to push him away and draw him closer at the same time, and Dan catches two gloved fingers in his mouth, sucks at them as though he expects Rorschach to feel it, as if costume and man were one and the same.
Absurd, really, dry-humping like two teenagers on benches too narrow to support them both comfortably, fumbling for the bits of each other’s skin not covered by layers of wool and canvas. The wind builds to a howl, shaking the walls and rattling saws and hammers. When was it, he wonders, that he started to want this so much?
He pushes Rorschach down and tugs his jeans down on his hips, ignores the whimper of protest when his partner realizes what he has in mind. “Shhh.” He means it to be reassuring, but it comes out more like a command. At the first contact with Dan’s mouth, he goes completely still, and Dan traces his tongue across his length—making it up as he goes along, really, he’s only ever been on the receiving end before—then takes him in. Rorschach moans and grabs for his hand, squeezes so tightly that tears threaten to spring to Dan’s eyes. He lasts all of a few seconds and Dan chokes, unprepared, and coughs the issue onto the floor.
Rorschach, visibly shaking, shifts on the benches so that they’re face-to-face and awkwardly nuzzles into Dan’s shoulder. “You?”
He’s not sure the tactful way to mention that he can’t really stay hard in this temperature. “Uh. No, it’s—you don’t have to. It’s all right.”
“Hnnk. Appreciated,” and wraps the open flap of his trenchcoat, as best he can manage, over both of their bodies, the jagged spikes of his hair tickling Dan’s nostrils.
“…just don’t take off, okay? Don’t run away this time.”
“Can’t drive, Daniel. Won’t get far.”
"No pity" by anon from the /pco/ days. If it's you, let me know! The fabulous streetlight painting is by the must-missed Coma.