“But isn’t every square inch of our cities a crime scene? Every passer-by a culprit?” — Walter Benjamin
The mask feels cold in his hands, the inside stiff with dried blood, inkblots trapped in a jagged wave as if they were frozen mid-shift, as if it had died then. It’s hot in the apartment—a dusty fan beats stale air from the corner with a rattle—but Dan shivers. Gently, almost reverently, he carries it to the kitchen sink and lets the water run over it in rivulets that carry away flecks of crimson.
Slowly, the black begins to move again beneath the mask’s surface, drops of ink fanning out from the center, and he runs a finger across it, encouraging its feeble stirs. The shape splits beneath his touch, re-forms as he draws it away.
“Responds to changes in heat,” Rorschach’s voice, husky with sleep, says from behind him.
He startles, almost guiltily, and shakes the mask dry. They share a glance, and then he holds it out to his partner, who regards it coolly for a moment where it sleeps, draped over his hands.
“Veidt,” he says, like Dan and the mask have both somehow betrayed him.
“Yeah,” Dan replies. He doesn’t want to explain; he’s not sure what it is he’s supposed to say. He doesn’t think he should be interrupting this reunion at all. “He, uh. He was here. Do you want—”
Calloused fingertips brush against his palms as Rorschach takes the mask from him, holds it in front of his face for a moment and then, without any sort of fanfare, slides it over his head. It comes to life, the disjointed black patches coagulating into an abstract splatter, and he remembers that he isn’t supposed to try to read them because they don’t mean anything, because that’s the whole point. Dan takes a step backward, hitting his hip against the kitchen counter. It’s been so long since he’s seen that face; it’s something that belongs to his distant past, from before he started deluding himself that the face he sees when he wakes, with its sharp angles and pockmarks and freckles, is real.
He tells himself not to be stupid—of course it’s the same guy, of course it’s his friend, the man who’s saved his life more times than he can count. It’s wrong to want him to be broken and lost so that maybe, he’ll stay with Dan forever.
The inkblots shift in response.
“Does this, uh.” He doesn’t know how to say it. Doesn’t want to have to say it, wants Rorschach to just know what he’s thinking and say it for him. “Does this change things?”
“Veidt back. Face returned. Of course changes things.” Even his voice is different, muffled beneath the latex.
“I meant—” And he almost steps towards his partner again, almost runs a hand down his arm and presses a kiss to the mask’s ever-changing pattern. But he doesn’t. “Never mind. It’s…good to see you again.”
“Good to be back,” Rorschach says, and his face gives nothing away.
They don’t discuss it for very long. Dan sits by the window and the sun swells above dilapidated apartment buildings and turns the dust in the air luminous gold. Rorschach paces, incongruous in a wife-beater and his mask, turning the newspaper over in his hands. They speak in fragments: “Should we—” “Can’t.” “Have no choice.”
“Veidt will kill the guy either way,” Dan offers. “If not us, he’ll involve someone else. At least we have a chance of warning him.” And if the guy actually does know that Veidt was behind the monster, if he’s brave enough to go up against the smartest man in the world, then there’s no point in warning him anyway. Dan feels a glimmer of sympathy for the writer, whoever he is, mixed with more than a little envy. He’s managed to succeed where they’ve both failed, again and again. They’ve been patrolling nearly every night—their bodies, in the warm light of morning, bear the bruised purple of what he mostly thinks is a noble fight—and yet they’ve been completely useless.
“Will be expecting that. Knew you would try to convince me.”
“Well, we can’t do nothing.” Maybe they can, he thinks. Maybe they can escape somewhere else, keep running like he’d once planned, abandon the hapless journalist and find a corner of the world where they’re safe. Somehow, he thinks Rorschach won’t agree to that. “What do you want to do?”
Considered silence, then: “Wait for Veidt to return. Kill him.”
“He has to be expecting that too.”
Rorschach nods. “Better death.”
Oh, hell. “No.” Dan bites his tongue before he can say, You promised. For all he knows now, it was Kovacs who promised him that. But he climbs to his feet anyway, limbs heavy and aching, and grabs his partner by the shoulder with a suddenness that makes him drop the paper, slides his other hand to cup the side of his face, his thumb pressing into the underside of Rorschach’s jaw, forcing his head up. “No.”
Rorschach tries to twist out of his grasp, but he just digs his fingers in tighter, and though Dan is sure that the slightest touch of the smaller man’s hand could make him crumble into dust, Rorschach allows himself to be held in place. Just this proximity, Dan thinks, the heat of his skin and the hiss of his rapid breathing into latex, will be his downfall.
“You don’t really want Veidt to kill you,” Dan says. “You want to win.” It isn’t true, but Rorschach is too proud to admit otherwise. “He has vulnerabilities, and this guy obviously found one. So we need to find him before Veidt does.”
“Veidt counting on it.”
“That isn’t a no.”
“No better options.” His hand closes around Dan’s wrist, tugging it from his face and bringing it to rest at his side, but he doesn’t let go, and his grip is crushing. “Been away from city too long. Forgot duty. Forgot purpose. Very bad.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Dan tells him. “I’m—I’m sorry, Rorschach.” He isn’t, not really, not for the three or so months they’ve had together where his friend has seemed almost at peace, these days he’s stolen from history’s ticking clock, the nights that one wakes from troubled dreams and the other reaches his hand across the bed to banish them. He can’t be sorry for this. “We’ll go home now, okay?”
And so they are flying home.
Veidt’s people arrive at midnight, heavily armed, and inform them that he sends his regrets, that he’s been asked to broker peace negotiations in Jerusalem and had to leave immediately. That he hopes they find his accommodations comfortable. They allow themselves to be herded into a limo without protest. Dan looks out the back window at a crowd of onlookers and bids farewell to the country that welcomed them with far more warmth than his own ever did.
The airship rises above the city and its slums, backtracks over their hard-won path across the country, the interstate shining through a patchwork of darkness below them. Through the window, Dan traces the line of the miles they’ve traveled while Rorschach, his mask pushed up to the bridge of his nose, crunches package after package of peanuts and writes incomprehensible comments in the margins of the Midnight Notes. He’s never flown in an airship that isn’t Archie but the grind of the engines doesn’t seem to disturb his concentration. And, Dan thinks, it gives them both a good excuse to not say very much.
He hates himself for how he keeps staring at the orange-stubbled line of his partner’s jaw, the way his Adam’s apple bobs when he swallows, the deep lines around his mouth. They took down criminals for years before, celebrating on the night that they captured Underboss, Dan had finally stripped off his cowl and goggles and told Rorschach his real name. Dan knows that he’d never have known Rorschach’s had it not been for his arrest. It shouldn’t matter, he thinks; he’s willing to kill and die for the mad son-of-a-bitch regardless.
The faintest whisper of dawn is creeping over the sides of skyscrapers and rippling over the water of the harbor as the airship circles and begins its descent.
Home, he thinks, his ruined city and its haunted people and everything he fled. It deserves his apology more than Rorschach does, and he pleads with it silently: I had to leave. Things were falling apart. And like his partner, who pulls the mask down and hunches his shoulders as if bracing for a blow, the city offers him no answer.
Veidt’s men take them from the landing field to a brownstone not far from where Dan used to live, the street quiet in the early hours of dawn, the way Manhattan never should be. He hates that the sidewalk is tidy, that there are lights on in the windows, as if the monster never happened, as if the city, in their absence, has forgotten them. They don’t have to worry about rent, one of the guards says, and Veidt has set up new identities for them, a bank account from which to withdraw whatever they need over the course of the investigation, and do they need a car? (Rorschach snarls at this, and Dan is almost overcome with a wave of affection for him as he mutters that they can get around fine on the subway.)
“And you’re under surveillance,” the guard adds. “Don’t bother trying to look for the bugs—you won’t find them all. Just know that we’re keeping an eye on you.”
“I thought Adrian trusted me,” Dan says, but apparently Veidt doesn’t look for a sense of humor in his employees because the man just stares, hand on his gun. “You’re just gonna, what, stay out here all night?”
Now the man smiles, somewhat unpleasantly. “No,” he replies. “I don’t need to. Have a good day, gentlemen.” He turns on his heels, and they’re alone again, in a house that reminds him too much of a place to which he can never return, Veidt watching them with unseen eyes.
“Can’t talk here,” Rorschach tells him, following Dan upstairs as he deposits their meager possessions in the bedroom. He’s too tired to sort through them now, though somewhere in one of the duffel bags is his costume. He kicks them both under the bed. “Need to find safer place.”
“Yeah,” Dan says. “But, uh, could we maybe sleep first?” When there’s no response, he adds, “I can take the couch downstairs if you want.”
He thinks he sees Rorschach’s posture stiffen. “No need.” He stands there as Dan strips down to his undershirt and boxers, takes off his glasses, and climbs into bed.
“You don’t wear that when you sleep, do you?” Dan asks.
Rorschach hesitates, then peels off his mask and places it on the bedside table, pauses a moment longer before crawling into bed beside Dan, curling away from him to face the wall, twisting the sheets around his body so that all Dan can see of him is a blur of red hair. Dan flops over and runs a hand over his back, the contours of his ribs and spine too prominent beneath his thin shirt, and Rorschach tolerates it for a minute, even edges into the touch a little, before he pulls away.
Though he’s exhausted, Dan is awake long after his partner has drifted off. He stares up at the ceiling, wonders if Veidt is looking back, and mumbles, to the air, “Goodnight.”
If Veidt was counting on subtlety, Dan thinks, he’ll be disappointed by the trail of carnage along the strip of bars that leads to where Happy Harry’s used to be. It has little to do with any sort of investigation and everything to do with Rorschach flaunting his return and the still-minimal police presence in the face of any criminals who might be taking liberties in the new world order.
Still, it has an effect. By the fourth place they hit, Dan is comfortably ensconced on a barstool, whisky in hand, and a blubbering top-knot is filling him in on the changes that have taken place over the months that they’ve been gone. Organized crime is down, though the short supply of drugs made everyone crazier than usual throughout the long winter.
“And the nightmares,” the kid says. “Everyone wants to escape those. But it’s dry out there, man, completely dry.”
About the Midnight Notes, he knows nothing, although he’s seen it around, a free rag deposited in stacks on street corners. For a paper no one signs their name to, it gets quite the distribution. Still, the top-knot doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories—the thing came from outer space, no doubt about it. If Dan didn’t know better, the kid would sound quite sane. He finds himself nodding in agreement—no human could be responsible for such a thing; it would take a brand of evil beyond comprehension.
Dan watches Rorschach bend a man’s arm in a direction that arms generally shouldn’t bend, and wishes he could be certain that there is more to life than varying degrees of horror.
Dawn finds them at Ground Zero, sitting on overturned milk crates where a newsstand is abandoned in a flutter of old paper and ash. There are still homemade memorials, soggy from the last rain, Polaroid grave-markers and dying flowers. This is one of the places, at least according to the top-knot, where Midnight Notes gets dropped off. Dan sifts through torn fragments, sentence strings without meaning or context.
Rorschach is oddly still and even quieter than usual. “Used to come here often.”
“I know,” Dan says. “Your mailbox was over there, right?”
“Hated city. Sin, corruption, filth. Watched from diner. Bloated, disgusting lives. Thought of wiping slate clean.”
Dan wonders if it worked, if the world’s a better place for missing several million New Yorkers. From where he sits, it doesn’t look much different—sadder, a little more empty—but then, he’s not seeing mushroom clouds either.
“Yeah, well. I’m glad you lacked the resources.”
A car drives by, splashing rainwater and tossing a bundle of papers out of the back window and speeds off, and oh, of course it wouldn’t be that easy. Rorschach is chasing after it before Dan can get to his feet. He catches up with his partner several blocks away.
“Writer has money,” Rorschach says, the taillights receding into misted air. “Nice car. Free paper. No source of funding.”
“Right. We just need to search the entire city for a rich guy with a nice car and a death wish.”
“Hurm,” Rorschach says. “Also, have license plate number.”
Dan rolls his eyes.
“Should split up,” Rorschach says. Dan feels his stomach lurch in the beat before Rorschach adds, “Cover more ground that way.”
Right. That. He doesn’t much like that idea either. He’s not sure he trusts Rorschach, half-enslaved to his own goddamned mask, not to be a complete ass. He nods in agreement anyway.
Rorschach flicks a gloved finger at a dumpster. “Not safe to talk in the open. Know how to reach me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. Veidt figured out that one before.”
“Different mailbox. Daniel?”
“Would never have done what Veidt did. Even with resources. City is diseased. Can’t be burned away. Only survived.”
“You wouldn’t have given up hope,” Dan says softly.
This is the last he sees of his partner for three days.