“You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception…” – Leonard Cohen
He takes to leaving notes in the dumpster, wedged into the handle of the lid. In the beginning, they’re short, updates on his progress written in cramped handwriting: Uptown a wash so far. Any luck on your end?
For the first day, there’s no response, then a map with a large area near the docklands scribbled black appears where he’d left the earlier notes. The pen pushes through the thin paper, ripping it in places, and he runs his fingers over the ridges it creates. No leads in that area of town either, then.
He writes: Where are you now?, and waits, the metal wall of the dumpster icy against his back, even through his cape, for longer than he really should. It’s raining again, and the pavement glistens as if newborn, and Rorschach doesn’t come.
On the second day, another blacked-out map, and another note: Caution. Being watched.
He responds, Need to see you.
He’s deep into a nightmare, the next morning, when he hears the bedroom door creak open. Rorschach smells like a sewer, dripping onto the carpet as he drags himself to the bed, and Dan’s heart gives an irritating thrill of relief. He wants it to be from worry and not because his partner is a splinter beneath his skin that’s slowly working its way into his bloodstream.
“Where have you been?”
“Agreed on means of communication,” Rorschach mutters, barely audible beneath his mask. “Been occupied.”
“Sorry,” Dan says.
The mask comes off without any sort of prompting on Dan’s part, then the coat. Beneath it, his collar is soaked. The rain must have worsened outside; Dan gave up scouring the streets when it was only the lesser sort of torrential downpour. “Be more careful.”
“Uh huh,” Dan says, and fumbles in the half-dark to put a hand on Rorschach’s leg, thumbing damp cotton. A normal person would be shivering. “Where’ve you been sleeping?”
“Right. Okay, we don’t need to talk.” He pushes himself up on one arm and snakes the other over Rorschach’s shoulder, fiddles with his shirt buttons. Rorschach starts to shove him and it somehow turns into his partner’s bony frame pressing into him, fever-warm and insistent as he grabs Dan’s wrist and holds it away from him and doesn’t let go. “I really,” Dan’s teeth and tongue pressing against his partner’s neck, “missed you.”
“Room bugged,” Rorschach hisses, as if Dan could forget.
“I don’t care.” He’s starting to think he’s going crazy, like he’s imagined the past four months, the feeble thread that stretches between them and makes him ache when Rorschach is gone. He tells himself to be serious; for once, Rorschach is thinking more clearly than he is, grasps the danger they’re in, reluctantly slides back under the sheets. “Come to bed. You’re freezing.”
It doesn’t take more than that. The bags under Rorschach’s eyes look purple in the dull light, and it’s both vindication, that he hasn’t slept well either, and it also hurts. This time, even the cameras in the ceiling and walls won’t see Dan reach, under the sheets, to cup his hands.
He traces a lazy spiral on his partner’s palm. It becomes an R, and Rorschach lifts his head, suddenly interested. Dan lets the corner of his mouth lift in an almost-smile. Unless there are bugs in the sheets themselves, Veidt can’t see what his hand is doing.
F he draws with his index finger; Rorschach nods, and he keeps going -IND ANYTHING?
MAYBE. A pause, then: NIGHT. FOLLOW. NOT CLOSE.
“Mmmhmm,” he says, his hand moving for Rorschach’s hip, sliding beneath the waistband of his pants, feels the pop of the button against his skin. Rorschach shudders and he traces out V CANT SEE.
“Can figure it out,” Rorschach hisses, and Dan is just turned on enough not to mention that Veidt figured that out months ago. It’s been so long, he thinks, and they’re always only barely outrunning death and besides, he’ll lose Rorschach to the goddamned mask again soon enough.
In the meantime, his partner’s cock twitches under his hand, and he scoots closer to tuck Rorschach’s head under his chin. His hair is growing out again, and Dan breathes in the tips of his curls, the scent of him, grime and leather and rain and blood, always blood, a perpetual stain that marks him even in the darkness of the bedroom. He feels Rorschach tug his own verging-on-painful erection free from his boxers and presses into his partner’s blind and clumsy touches.
A strained noise forces its way past Rorschach’s thin lips; Dan breathes into his ear, “Shh, stay still,” and sees him catch the fabric of the pillowcase in his teeth to keep from crying out.
He can’t give words to this, not even secretly, traced across Rorschach’s body as his partner slips into a few hours of uneasy sleep. When he wakes again, they won’t acknowledge it, and he will watch Rorschach steal from the room to cover more of the city in furious black ink.
The rain is constant, unyielding. Dan braces himself against the wind, his goggles fogged and streaked, smearing the harsh angles of concrete and metal into amorphous shapes. Somewhere in the ravaged and winter-bare city is Rorschach, slouched in a coat that can no longer disguise how thin he’s become. Dan catches glimpses of him, when he allows himself to be seen, turning a corner into deeper shadows, tracking a convoluted route through streets Dan barely recognizes anymore.
The sidewalks are almost deserted; only a pair of junkies, huddled in a doorway, sees Rorschach tug aside a manhole cover and vanish into the steam that rises above it.
Dan grimaces and follows a moment later, climbs down a rusting ladder into ankle-deep liquid. The stench assaults his nostrils and curls in his throat, and the goggles cast the tunnel in sickly yellows and grays.
“You think it’s safe to talk here?” Dan asks.
Rorschach emerges from a curve in the tunnel, his flashlight blinding through the night vision. “Veidt doesn’t like to get hands dirty. Were followed from house.”
“I didn’t see anyone.”
“Hurm. Lost several blocks ago.” He starts walking again, and Dan sloshes through the sewer water to catch up.
“So what did you find?”
“Car abandoned. Knows he’s being tracked.”
“Did you see him?”
Rorschach shrugs. “Saw where he went.”
There’s a stillness inside the city’s polluted veins, a part of it, the filthiest, darkest part that remains untouched by the horrors above. Maybe this is where they belong, with the rats, survivors of the old order, dirty and stumbling through its refuse. He suspects—and there’s a twist in his gut as he realizes it—that Rorschach has been sleeping down here for the past few nights, but before he can ask about it, they resurface on Eighth Avenue near an out-of-business textile factory. There’s a light in the window of the top floor, and Rorschach raises a finger to his mask before pointing it to the front entrance.
Dan makes his way to the door and Rorschach scrambles up the fire escape at the side of the building. There’s a freight elevator, broken; the only way out that’s not blocked is out the window. He feels a twinge of pity for their target, no doubt aware he’s being hunted, imagines him cowering in fear upstairs as he hammers out on a typewriter what he thinks are his last words. What might be his last words, unless Rorschach has a better plan than anything Dan can envision.
He plods up the stairs. There’s a crash, and he starts running, following the noise until his breath catches in his chest and he twists at the handle of a locked door. He swears under his breath and grabs a pick from his belt as the now-familiar sound of a human body thudding into a wall echoes from inside.
It’s a set-up, he thinks, cursing himself for his own stupidity as he manages to click the lock open and bursts into what is apparently a newspaper office with printing presses and stacks of old papers lining the walls. A flurry of white leaves explodes around a black-clad figure as Rorschach tosses him into a pile of proofs. But their writer, far from being helpless, snaps his legs up in a speed-blurred kick, and as Rorschach staggers back, springs to his feet. It’s only then, as his leg spins in a second kick that catches Rorschach’s side and long hair sweeps over his masked face, that Dan realizes that the person his partner is fighting is even smaller than he is. That the person isn’t—and why should this surprise him, in their enlightened age?—a man at all.
He clicks the goggles back to a regular view and now he can see the glitter of silver at his partner’s throat as the woman coils from behind him, a stiletto blade in one gloved hand, her head leaning into the side of his mask as though they were lovers, whispers: “I should have known it would be you.”
“Oh God.” Dan steps out from behind a row of desks, hands raised and heart thudding. That voice, the shape of her lips curved into a smile, familiar beneath the leather that shrouds the top of her face.
“Nite Owl,” she purrs, delighted.
He can feel her eyes on him, evaluating, without charity, how the years have piled their weight upon him: the slouch of his shoulders, the bulges of flesh beneath spandex, the creases in his face. He tries to notice how her hair is graying, tied into a loose ponytail that hangs limply past her shoulders, breasts no longer so firm or full as they were when she sashayed in front of the television cameras, bullwhip in hand, and all he can see is the Twilight Lady, her hands pinning his wrists to her bed, whispering, “You’ll never put me away.”
“Let,” Rorschach grits out, “go.”
She laughs—oh God, that laugh, though it carries an edge of hysteria now—and strokes his mask with the back of her hand, barely restraining him except for the knife but he’s frozen, and the ink swirls in drunken patterns across his face. “Now, what would be the fun in that?”
“Leslie,” Dan tries again, though his voice squeaks on the second syllable. “We’re here to rescue you.”
He regrets the words the moment they’re out—stupid, always so stupid, why is he reduced to a stuttering idiot around her?—but she hurls Rorschach into one of the cubicles and bolts for the fire escape. “Catch me if you can,” she snarls at him, and he catches her at the door, slams her into it with a ferocity that makes Dan wince, then throws her to the ground and pins her there, awkwardly positioned as he tries to keep her in place without touching her any more than he needs to.
“Midnight?” Rorschach asks her, his voice thick like he’s talking through a mouthful of blood.
“It’s what comes after twilight.” She squirms under his grip, still deceivingly strong. Not strong enough, though, not to shake Rorschach off and get past both of them, and she knows it. “You’re wasting your time, hero. There are things out there a lot worse than me.”
“Know that.” The inkblots knit together in concentration. “Came to save you from them. Reconsidering now.” Dan hopes his partner is joking, but then, if it’s hard for him to tell, it’ll be impossible for Leslie. “Have drawn unwanted attention. Best to come with us. Don’t try anything.” He releases her as if the contact burns his hands through the gloves. Dan snorts despite himself.
He almost thinks she’s going to make a run for it, and she looks like she’s about to. She clamors to her feet and brushes dust from her knees.
“You look like shit, Nite Owl. Why’d you go and let yourself get fat?”
“It’s good to see you too.” He adds, quieter: “I thought you were dead.”
Rorschach opens the window and lets in the sounds of the street, a police siren wailing somewhere in the distance. “Can have reunion later. Should leave quickly. Sewers safest prospect.” He moves to the fire escape and holds the door open. “After you, Miss Chadwicke.”
“It’s, uh. It’s Mrs. Knightly now,” and that stumble at the end that means she should have used past tense. Sickness rises in him, the Twilight Lady brought low, broken as the rest of them.
“Whatever you’re called,” Dan says, and he tries to sound gentle. “You’d better come with us.”
The match flickers to life, breathes flame into a can stuffed with rags and newspaper. It’s bright enough to see the faces—such as they are—of his companions, so Dan pushes his goggles up on his forehead and blinks into the light. He tells himself he’s done this before, this hiding in shadowed and reeking places, as he gags on the stench that surrounds them.
“I was supposed to be on a flight to Pakistan the next day,” Leslie is saying. There’s still a threadbare giggle in her voice. “Gary…he was worried. He thought it’d be dangerous.” She scratches at her cheek where the leather ends and pallid skin begins. “He didn’t know about…what I did before I met him. I still had a fortune after I got out of jail, you know? Ran off to Paris, got myself a new name and everything. But I was clean. That’s what you get for trying to go straight.” She coughs into her sleeve. “Everyone I know died. Everyone but the fucking masks. Of all the people to survive...”
“How did you survive?” Dan asks. It’s cold, even with the fire. He can feel the dampness spreading through his bones.
“I was lucky, I guess. Or unlucky. I was at a party uptown, and there was this flash. I thought it was the bomb. Half the people there started eating the other half. I just…I ran out into the streets. I left my own fucking husband with his brains leaking out of his ears and I just ran. You?”
Rorschach starts, and Dan interrupts: “It’s a long story.”
“Need to leave city,” Rorschach says. “Not safe here.”
She casts him a sidelong glance. “That’s really sweet. I’m starting to think that it’s not actually you under that mask.” She leans forward, almost into the flame, like a kid telling ghost stories only the stories are real and the ghosts won’t stop pulling at their hands. “I have nothing at all to lose. Nothing. I liked the world how it was. I liked the city how it was. Six million crazy people, all eating and shitting and fucking and snorting drugs and being alive. This, this—” She waves a gloved hand at the ceiling of the utility closet. “—is no place for a villainess. Even a retired one.”
“How did you find out?” Dan asks.
It might be his imagination—a lingering guilt for sins he has yet to commit—but he thinks that the inkblots are making a frown. “Don’t name source,” Rorschach says. “May not be secure, even here.”
“I don’t know anyway. I started looking, and—someone found me. Someone wants me to know who did this.”
He flushes in relief and hopes that the darkness covers it. She only suspects. Someone’s been giving her pieces, but she doesn’t know the whole story, and that means that he doesn’t have to think about killing her. He shouldn’t have been thinking about it, anyway. He wasn’t. He wasn’t thinking that at all.
“We need to tell the world,” she whispers. “We need to find whoever did this, and—” Her hands over the fire, black leather turned shades of red and gold. “It’s all I’ve got to live for now.”
“All any of us have,” Rorschach says, but he doesn’t give Veidt’s name. It’s too much to wonder what’s going on in his head. The mask, Dan’s unwilling pact to keep Veidt’s secret, the Twilight Lady—just more walls between them, a veritable fortress. Maybe Veidt is right; maybe they’re doomed to be screwed until the day of their premature deaths. “Going out. Need to think.”
Which translates into a need to beat people up because he can’t deal with the ever-deepening shades of grey that threaten to drown them. Dan just nods mutely and sinks against the wall.
“You keep calling me Leslie,” she says, some time after Rorschach has left. “I don’t even know your real name.”
“Oh. Uh.” He tells her. He’s a little surprised that she doesn’t know, but then, when would she have found out? He wasn’t the one who put her away—that was Rorschach, who had left her tied up in the rain with her own pills scattered on the pavement around her, who hadn’t understood at all why Dan had avoided him for weeks afterwards—but Dan had been at the trial, in costume no less, and she’d glared at him, accusingly, across the courtroom.
“You never gave it up,” she says, all admiration now. Free from the burden of history, he thinks, free to start again. Criminals hold grudges, certainly, but not like vigilantes do. “The mask thing.”
“For years. I thought forever, maybe.” He shakes his head. “You don’t give it up, though, do you?”
“You ever get married?” She moves closer to him, a finger trailing up his glove. Hunger flickers in her eyes, hunger and something else. Maybe it’s desperation, or just sadness, the need to play at not being alone. It has nothing to do with bodies, nothing to do with the people they are now. “Never mind. You’re alone now, aren’t you? Or you wouldn’t be hiding out in a sewer playing knight errant with Rorschach.”
He jerks his arm away. “I’m not,” he says. “Alone, I mean.”
“Well, not literally—”
“Not in the sense you mean.”
She frowns in confusion, gets it, and her frown deepens. “No.”
“Don’t, uh, mention that I said anything to you about it. I’m pretty sure I’d meet with a messy end.”
“But…” She chuckles to herself, shakes her head. “I guess that’s why it never worked out between you and me, huh?”
“It didn’t work out between us because you were a drug dealer and a prostitute.”
“Oh, that.” And they grin at each other, the death-grin of too many nights in an ailing city, teeth grayed from breathing ash, and it’s a relief, he thinks, confessing to her, because even if they were on different sides back then, there’s someone else who understands a little now. Someone who isn’t also his best friend and his partner and whatever the hell else remains between them, that sick and twisted and batshit crazy obsession. “I’m sort of—wow. I mean, he was repressed as hell back then. Wouldn’t even let me…”
“I don’t think you’re his type.”
“That didn’t stop Oz—anyway. The end of the world and we’re talking about sex. It figures.” She pulls a few strands of hair loose from her ponytail and twists them between her fingers. “How long have you two—I mean, back then…?”
“No,” Dan says. “No, it happened after. Maybe the rules changed, maybe that much death makes everyone who survives it free, in a way. How can you even get close to another person after something like that? How can you—”
“—not,” she finishes. “How can you not?”
“I should go,” Dan says. “He’s probably out there doing something stupid right now.” He stands up, and he feels the fetid air cling to him, a sheen of grunge and decay. “And I should probably stop him.”
She lets him get almost to the door before asking, almost playfully: “Can I watch?”
“No,” and it’s still her, at least, even with all she’s lost. “Leslie.”
“You should run. From me, I mean. I’m not the person you think I am.”
“I know,” she says, and she doesn’t move from the floor.