“I just wondered what a thing it would be…if overnight everything you owe anything to, justice, or love, had really gone away. Free.
It would be…heartless terror. Yes. Terrible, and…
Very great. To shed your skin, every old skin, one by one and then walk away, unencumbered, into the morning.” — Tony Kushner, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
They outrun the snow, but not the cold. At the end of the road, in a near-deserted industrial district, freezing rain sleets over browned grass and the car windshield and the roof of the warehouse with its darkened windows. The car’s battery powered down, hunched over the steering wheel, Dan’s skin prickles and he shivers, pulling the sleeves of his overcoat past his hands.
“Can enter through roof.” Rorschach’s gloved finger traces the line of buildings, the gaps close enough to jump. “A pity we don’t have Owlship.”
“It’d be conspicuous anyway.” This isn’t Manhattan; even in the dark, anonymous in street clothes in a civilian car, he still feels exposed. No one has gone in or out of the warehouse in the hour that they’ve been scoping it out. But that doesn’t, he knows from countless stakeouts, mean that there’s no one inside. No cars but theirs have passed along this street.
“Able to climb?” His attention is on a fire escape attached to a building blocks away from their target.
“Are you suggesting that I’m old or that I’m fat? Because you’re older than—”
“Been some time since crimefighting days. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how.” There’s something in Rorschach’s voice that tells Dan that he’s being teased. He glances over for confirmation, and there it is, the twitch of a muscle around lips that haven’t smiled in decades. “Sorry, Daniel. Good of you to come. Don’t have to be here.”
Dan says, “I kind of do.”
Rorschach nods curtly and reaches into the back seat for his fedora. Dan wonders how he can look so much like himself without his mask. It’s like he flicks a switch sometimes; in the space of an instant the man whose body writhes in maddened ecstasy beneath his own becomes the cool, remorseless killer. Dan has to remind himself that by whatever vindictive thermodynamic miracle, they are one and the same.
“Time now,” he says, his voice like sandpaper.
Dan opens his mouth once, closes it, and finally says, “Rorschach?”
“It’s New Year’s Eve.”
Rorschach considers this for a moment. “Explains why street is empty. Can’t expect that Veidt will—”
“No, I mean…” This isn’t a good idea, Dan knows, it’s a very bad idea, like all of his ideas turn out to be in the end. But that doesn’t stop him from grabbing his partner’s wrist where it sits on the armrest. “Didn’t you ever want something other than this, running around in shadows and fighting with psychopaths? Just once every so often?”
“Daniel.” He thinks that’s pain he hears, but it’s hard to be certain. “Has nothing to do with want.”
“One night,” Dan says, and he’s begging, pathetic, asking the trivial-but-impossible of a man who doesn’t change his mind. “That’s all I’m asking. Just one, and we can die tomorrow night.”
Rorschach is silent for some time. “Yes.”
“Please. I mean—what?”
“Never been to San Francisco.”
He beams, and then ducks his head quickly because he’s not sure that he wants his partner to see how goddamned relieved he is about a twenty-four-hour stay of execution, for one more sunrise and however many awkward brushes of his hand against a canvas sleeve. He guns the engine and turns the car around, towards the gleaming and distant city.
Utopia’s embrace hasn’t quite reached San Francisco. There’s a recently-opened Burgers n’ Borscht on Market Street; the ubiquitous “One World—One Accord” posters and Millennium billboards stand guard like night watchmen, but the city, even on New Year’s Eve, is unnaturally subdued, as haunted by its dead as New York is. Walking skeletons stumble, half-blind, through its streets, bundled beneath thick coats, reaching for each other’s arms.
Dan—who came here once as a boy, when it was an entirely different sort of neighborhood—had assumed that the Castro would grievously offend Rorschach’s practically Victorian sense of propriety, and it probably does, but they both share an unspoken kinship with these sorry ghosts. They know why they will die, if not exactly how or when; they go to their dinners and parties, rejoice in the company of friends and lovers, all the time doubting that they’ll live to see the year turn again.
For all its grief, the city is defiant in the face of its private apocalypse. Triangle flags, sodden with rain, drip like lamb’s blood from brightly painted row houses. Among the plague-doomed and the trembling homeless, Dan feels a strange sense of belonging, determined, if he is to die, to die well.
They take shelter in the doorway of a bar; on the other side of a window stippled with rain, men dance in each other’s embraces, shards of light from a slow-revolving disco ball falling in their hair. Rorschach watches, fascinated and repulsed, hurming as though he’s just gotten a clue in a particularly grisly murder.
Dan watches too, like he’s watched, on occasion, couples in Central Park, wondering what makes men do these things—what he himself might be capable of doing. Thinks, Are we like this? and the reply springs to mind—in Rorschach’s monotone—that they are not like other people at all.
“You want to get a coffee?” Dan asks him. He nods, and here, no one will say anything at all if he slips his arm around his partner’s waist, if Rorschach leans his head into Dan’s shoulder. Instead, they walk just a little too close together, as they did in the old days, not to signal that they are lovers, but to tell the world that they stand apart from it, studying it with the wary eyes of guard dogs, and have only each other to trust.
The diner—and Daniel thrills a little to find a Gunga Diner, as if a small piece of his old city is kept alive here—doesn’t serve champagne, but the tandoori is as good as New York’s, and a TV mounted by the ceiling shows the countdown in Times Square. The crowds, the announcer says, are the biggest ever, people flooding in to the downtown to remember, to claim some part of this bittersweet, historic moment.
An entire country lies between them and the city they vowed to protect. The distance across the table, where Rorschach’s hands close around his cup of sugar-with-some-coffee-in-it, feels just as unbridgeable, but Dan reaches across it anyway, and they both watch the screen.
Miles away, it is a minute to midnight, and a chorus of voices cries out as the ball begins its descent; a handful of drunks at another table join in. The announcer’s voice cracks as he proclaims a happy New Year.
Dan raises his coffee cup in a mocking toast; Rorschach pauses, then lifts his own. The clock turns to 12:01, and they will never be rid of the year that lies behind them.
From where they crouch on a roof overlooking rain-slicked SoMa, it’s easy to imagine that the city belongs to them. It’s always like this, Dan thinks, the world yours when you are just above it, and human beings look so small, oblivious to the things that live in the shadows. He wonders if this is how Veidt feels all the time, how Jon must feel. How Laurie might feel now, when the Earth passes beneath her distant planet.
He should never have asked Rorschach what he wanted to do after they left the diner and the Castro’s fierce celebration. This night is no different than any other night.
In the early hours of the morning, a woman stumbles out of a cab, clutching her purse to her chest and gathering her open coat around herself. Her high-heeled boots skid over puddles. She has been told to keep her head raised, her back straight, and she tries, she does, but the rain falls in sheets and she huddles against it, cold and miserable.
The man in pursuit of her is a tourist, dressed for the perpetual summer that he imagines exists out here. He slams the taxi door and claws for her. She’s reaching for the pepper spray in her purse even as he tosses her into a stucco wall, the spray paint behind her head like a splatter of blood. She knees him in the groin and tries to run, but her heels catch on the pavement and he’s on top of her, hauling her back on her feet before her gravel-sliced palms can push him away.
A car passes the alleyway, and their cruel embrace is silhouetted in its headlights; it slows but doesn’t stop. As the dark swells to full between the buildings, Rorschach is already halfway down the fire escape.
Without costumes, without masks, they are only men, older and wearier than the would-be rapist, but the blur of brown and purple that leaps from the side of the building to land on the attacker’s back, a sinewy arm hooked beneath his chin, is for that moment something other than human. It’s only now, when she’s safe but doesn’t yet know it, that the woman has the presence of mind to scream. Dan scrambles down the fire escape and pulls her free in time to see the man sag under Rorschach’s fists.
“You okay? Do you need a hospital?”
She rubs at the side of her face like she’s trying to erase the bruise blooming below her temple. “No, I’m—” He feels her jerk against him as she sees Rorschach yank the seat off a bicycle and ram the rail into the man’s head.
“Stop,” Dan says, and he’s not sure that Rorschach hears him over the roar of the wind, if he’d listen even if he did, but he plants one more vicious kick into the man’s ribs and turns. Dan almost expects—
—no, of course he has a face. What was he thinking?
“We should call an ambulance,” Dan says.
“I’m fine.” The woman pushes away from him, her arms crossed tightly, glancing nervously from one man to the other. “Just a long night, that’s all.”
“I didn’t mean for you.”
“Leave it,” Rorschach snarls. “Won’t matter soon.” He circles to Dan’s side in a careful perimeter around the woman, who starts to back away. He eyes her short skirt and tall boots with some suspicion. “In future, should dress for weather,” he tells her. “Invite trouble, otherwise.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Uh. Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” She staggers down the alley, checking behind her every few steps to make certain they aren’t following.
Dan casts a glance at the man lying in a motionless heap a few feet away. “Is he…?” The burn of his partner’s eyes answers the question before he can finish asking it. “Oh.”
They make their way back to the motel and the rain drowns out any conversation they might have had.
“Hay que endurecerse sin perder jamás la ternura.” — Ernesto Che Guevara
Dan doesn’t think he’s being all that obvious about it until Rorschach tells him, “Scum. Not worth grieving.” He takes off his hat and coat and scarf, placing them in a neat pile on the chair. “Can’t afford to be soft, Daniel. Not now.”
Rorschach stands by the door, ready to bolt if the conversation goes in the wrong direction, soaked to the skin, hair clinging in wet clumps over his skull. There are some things, Dan knows, that can’t be changed, can’t be undone, some kinds of damage that even the kindest of intentions can’t begin to touch.
“You know me better than that,” Dan says, and it doesn’t sound very convincing. He can still see the man in the alleyway, blood leaking from beneath his ear into oceans of rain. Rorschach nods and stalks past Dan to the washroom.
He’s in there for a long time. Dan paces, considers trying to sleep, considers reading the Bible in the nightstand because he’s that anxious and there’s nothing else to read and the television just makes it worse, and finally knocks on the door. There’s no response, which is as good as a yes, even if it means crossing yet another one of their unspoken boundaries and probably pissing his partner off beyond belief.
But Rorschach is huddled against the shower wall, the curtain thrown open, torn where he’s tugged it to one side. The water is running and he’s scrubbing the bloodstains from his hands with a tiny bar of soap. He doesn’t look up as Dan enters and sits on the toilet, but he mutters a half-hearted, “Get out.”
“No.” He reaches over and tilts his partner’s chin up, searching for some expression, anything, in his face. The grim set of his mouth doesn’t change, and he flinches, tries to break free but not with much effort, and Dan wonders if it’s because he’s tired or because he somehow wants to be seen like this, wants to show Dan that he’s not completely unaffected, that there’s something of Walter Kovacs still left in him. He shuts the shower off and grabs a towel from the rack, with some effort, manages to get Rorschach standing and the towel wrapped around him, navigates them both around the pile of filthy, damp clothes and to the bed. He tries to touch his partner as little as possible, but he’s distractingly warm against Dan’s rain-drenched skin, and hell, what if this is their last chance?
He presses his lips to a freckled shoulder, traces his tongue along the line of a scar. So many scars, he thinks; until very recently he was convinced Rorschach was invulnerable, despite having fought the same vicious street battles as Dan, and without armor. One of the stitches in his back has torn in the fight and Dan’s mouth follows the smear of blood across his shoulder blade. Rorschach grunts in annoyance.
“What do you want, Daniel?”
There are far too many possible answers to that question, most of them absurd—what does he want? He wants his city back, even for all its flaws and imperfections, its underbelly of despair. He wants the sense of purpose he had as a young man, that constant optimism that told him that he could make the world a better place, that he can empty the sea with a teaspoon if he only tries hard enough. He wants his old friends back, as they should have stayed, careworn and cynical but still good, their intentions pure even if they themselves could never be.
Before he can stop himself, he whispers, “I want for all of this to have been real. Not just, I don’t know, some distraction, you biding your time until you can finally go out fighting.”
Rorschach’s shoulders hunch, and Dan is almost glad that he can’t see his partner’s face. “Sick,” Rorschach says quietly. “Wrong. But yes, real.”
“And you?” He breathes it into his friend’s ear. “What is it that you want?”
Now Rorschach turns, so terrifyingly exposed that Dan wants to look away. “To be last piece of dirt,” he says. “After removal, room clean.”
That seems as likely to happen as Veidt’s perfect and loving world, so Dan leans into him, noses squashed together, his glasses pressing uncomfortably into both of their faces. He feels his partner’s hands ghosting over him, hesitating and uncertain, hands that an hour ago beat a stranger to death, and he shivers beneath their touch.
It isn’t wrong, he thinks, or maybe it is but the bizarre moral code that they live by doesn’t matter when everything they owed loyalty to is gone, shattered into pieces half a world away. He suspects that Rorschach would say that it matters even more, so he keeps those thoughts to himself, takes off his glasses and places them carefully on the nightstand. Rakes his nails over a bony hip, drawing out a hoarse whimper from his partner. His shirt sticks to him, damp with rain and sweat, and Rorschach tears at it until he obligingly peels it over his head. His erection strains against his pants, so those need to go too, and he can feel fevered heat rising to his cheeks, being naked like this, flayed and unmasked.
This is how ordinary people feel. Powerless, everything stripped away…
He leans on one elbow and with the other hand, tracks the scars and freckles that mark his partner’s body. Rorschach winces and tries to pull him closer, to hide himself under Dan’s bulk, but Dan ignores him, continues his teasing exploration until his friend grabs his hand and presses it between his legs.
“Okay,” he says, feeling oddly guilty, strokes him, too gently at first, then harder when Rorschach moans and arches up into his fist. He can feel how close his partner is, burning hot beneath his hand, his breathing ragged and his eyes wide and startled.
Rorschach growls in irritation and flails at him; Dan seizes his wrists and straddles him, pinning him to the bed.
“Daniel.” It’s somewhere between a plea and a direct order. He thrashes underneath the larger man’s weight. “Daniel.”
“Don’t die,” Dan says. “I can’t stop you from doing whatever you need to do tomorrow, but please. I don’t want to lo—just promise me you’ll make it out alive.” He gets an annoyed ennk in response, every muscle in his partner’s compact body straining against him. “Promise me. No fucking heroic last stands.”
“Asking too much.”
“Yeah,” Dan says, and leans in to kiss him. Rorschach whips his head to one side so Dan’s mouth catches his cheek instead, tastes sweat and salt. “I know I am. Promise me anyway.”
“Can’t,” he mutters into the pillow. “Won’t,” and when Dan still won’t move, stares up with hungry eyes and gasps, “Yes.”
Dan rolls him over and fucks him until he screams.
Smoking hot pic by radishface.