Of course, another thing about costumed adventuring was that you had to be strong. Veidt might be seen as one of the smartest men in the world, but he wouldn't have been able to do a thing without his well-toned body. Hollis had drummed this into Daniel again and again: a well-trained mind could only get you so far, you needed a well-trained body to combat those who minds weren't well.
Daniel had always utilised his gadgets well, though this was no excuse to let his body waste away. But no matter how much he trained, how late he stayed up, how strict he made his diet, he had never been able to best Rorschach. Rorschach, who attacked with the ferocity of a Rottweiler, unrelenting, uncaring, and unneeding of any technology to support him in his eternal battle against crime. He often went unarmed, which had always shocked Daniel. The only thing he had ever been able to get his partner to carry was a grappling hook gun, which he had accepted grudgingly, though he was now never seen without it.
The man who often dressed as an owl supposed that was something at least.
He did not come into contact with his once friend anymore; Rorschach seemingly despised him as much as the general public hated all costumed heroes of late. There was talk of riots, of police strikes, and wide-ranging unrest among the populace. Only Veidt and Dr Manhattan seemed to be safe from the media's fury.
Barely a few publications tried to come to Rorschach's defence. It was almost sad, in a way, that Rorschach was more isolated than ever, but tried to push Daniel away more. He had not seen him in months.
He sighed. The moon glared at him from the starless sky accusingly. Another unsuccessful patrol had gone by, and still no sign of Rorschach. It was as if the man was purposefully trying to avoid him, not surprising if his hatred was so great… The owlship landed, having gone through the tunnel and landing gracefully in his lair. After securing Archie, Daniel stepped out, still clad in his Nite Owl garb.
He was home.
Smiling despite himself, Daniel breathed in the musty air. Those familiar sounds met his ears; the whirring of the pipes, the drip from the faulty tap, the dull beeping from his computer. And the sights, Archie behind him, the failed exoskeleton on the wall, the muddy footprints-
Daniel blinked: once, twice, before panic set in. They were fresh. Fresh footprints meant someone was in his lair. Someone in his lair meant someone who had broken in. And that meant somebody now knew his secret identity.
Not caring about any other damned thing- that he was already worn out from his rounds, that he had no weapons- Daniel just about ran to find this unwelcome visitor, following the footprints with renewed vigour. He didn't have to run for long.
As soon as he got into the area he had made his gym (A small section of the lair littered with various exercise equipment, created because of Daniel's own insecurity about his looks; he never wanted others to see him working out) he stopped. Thankfully his suit had been created for stealth, the boots hardly making a sound on the concrete floor, for otherwise the intruder would have heard him. Or perhaps not, for they didn't hear Daniel's sharp intake of breath, too focused on the task at hand.
It was Rorschach.
Except it was Rorschach like Daniel had never seen him before. His trench coat lay on the floor, discarded, along with a pinstriped jacket and shirt. Only a tank top was covering his torso, tight and showing the surprising amount of muscle beneath. The fedora must have been around there somewhere, as the only thing covering his head was his mask, changing shapes with a speed and intensity only saved for the heat of battle.
That wasn't surprising, given what the man was doing. Facing away from Daniel, Rorschach was pounding his fists into a punching bag. And this was not the easy, taunting punches of someone warning up, but deep, painful hits that would have broken bones. Again and again his knuckles thumped into it, the dull blow ringing out. Daniel could see a few spots of blood on the bag; Rorschach was punching so hard he was causing himself to bleed.
All Nite Owl could do was stand there in shock. Questions flooded his mind, asking why Rorschach was here, what he was doing, but the most prominent of all was a very loud 'What the hell?'.
It was as if Rorschach was blind to the world, pummelling the bag with a viciousness Daniel had only glimpsed before in a mad dog. This was wild, this was unchained, and this was the sort of fighting that even someone as immoral as the Comedian would never do to another human being. He wanted to scream, he wanted to cough, he wanted to yell out and just find out what was going on, but he couldn't. There was something almost hypnotic about how the fists fell, one after the other, never stopping, never relenting, not caring about the sweat which seeped through his top, or the grazes on his skin.
Only after watching for a few minutes was Daniel able to take anything else in, so entrapped in this strange circumstance was he. It was only then he realised that Rorschach was talking. He was mumbling to himself with every strike. Daniel had to strain to hear him above every loud beat, like some sort of sick drum.
'Sick… Wrong… Can't…'
Frowning, he stepped closer, suddenly embedded with the desire to find out what the other man was saying. Daniel didn't know why, but he had to know. He didn't care if Rorschach noticed he was there anymore.
'Disgusting… Get rid… Roche… Mother wouldn't…'
Another step, but the words kept on disappearing into nothingness.
'Repulsive… Sordid… Immoral… Evil lusts… Never tell...'
Still no rhyme nor reason could be made of Rorschach's words. All Daniel could grasp were brief snippets of sentences, unintelligible without context. Closer and closer he went…
And then he heard something that made him stop in his tracks.
'What?!' It just leapt out of his mouth, that singular question- the shock of hearing his name said with so much hate, so much distaste.
Rorschach jumped backwards. At first he was on the alert, bloody fists poised for battle, but as soon as he saw Daniel he hesitated, and suddenly looked like a teenager caught in the act of smoking, embarrassed and small. Daniel thought it was a strange comparison to make, but the mental image was strong. Something in the way his arms hung down, his whole body was stooped… But his fists were clenched, as usual, and anger whipped through Nite Owl.
'Breaking into my house, Rorschach?' he questioned, more hurt than furious, but rage at his once partner had been growing for a while. He had had enough of never seeing him, Rorschach being so damned rude, and never once showing any kind of gratitude or any sign that they were even friends anymore! 'What was this- some kind of attempt to oust me? Was this your practice run? Pretending that was me so you could finally get me out of the picture?!'
The fists clenched tighter, and this time it looked as though his nails would draw blood without the gloves for protection.
Daniel almost cried out in exasperation. That was it. Rorschach really did hate him. His mind had gone so far over the edge that there was no one he could ever call a friend… Daniel would have felt sorry for him if he wasn't so pissed off.
'I can't believe this! I trusted- I goddamn trusted you… And you- you break in, you want to hurt me…' Daniel sighed. He pushed his hood off with one hand and then ran it through his hair in a distracted kind of way.
Daniel looked at the mask, the only face of Rorschach he had ever seen- perhaps it was the only face he really had. 'What?' he asked, staring at the other.
'No. Wouldn't hurt you. Never hurt you.'
'Yeah, so that's why you were pretending that damn bag was me,' Daniel growled, irritated beyond belief. Rorschach just stood there, strangely sweating even more than before, though his exercise had long stopped. Some of the blood had landed on his tank top, and only with him finally still could Daniel see what a mess the vigilante had really made of his hands. 'What were you doing? Surely you'd know you'd get caught, surely you'd…'
'Thought you would be back later.' Rorschach was now looking at the floor.
'Oh, well, that makes everything fine,' Daniel bit back scathingly. His anger was flourishing, but Rorschach was becoming a strangely pitiful sight. He looked so small, so insignificant, a million miles away from the tough crime-fighter who threw people down elevator shafts. 'For Christ's sake- how long have you felt this way?'
That hit hard. Rorschach stiffened, drawing his head up high. If anything, the inkblots now looked more jagged, as if the man really was glaring daggers at him.
'Felt like this…?' the growling voice was unsure for once, and oddly enough Daniel was brought back to that small moment in an alleyway, in what seemed so long ago…
'Yes!' Daniel almost screamed back. He couldn't stand it that Rorschach now obviously hated him. But why was it that he now sounded so worried, so guilty? At least Rorschach had some semblance left of a conscience, he supposed.
'Don't know what you're talking about-'
'Why else would you do this?!' The man in the owl costume shook his head angrily. 'Rorschach… I can't believe it… Just please, please, tell me how long. How long have you felt this way towards me?'
There was just a silence between them.
After what seemed like an age, Daniel finally broke eye contact. He turned away, annoyed at both himself and Rorschach. So this was what costumes finally did to you. They ate up your life and then spat you out, chewed and destroyed beyond all recognition. Everything went that way, especially relationships. No wonder Hollis had never married…
'You are sickened, Daniel?' Nite Owl looked back at Rorschach, noticing the slight tremulous edge to his voice. He finally realised it was the lack of the trenchcoat, of that protective outer shell, that left the vigilante looking so small and vulnerable. 'Thought you would be.'
Daniel sighed. 'I- I don't know… I just don't understand… Why didn't you just quit? You didn't have to be around me so much, we didn't have to be a team… You could have just left…'
'Tried to. Too hard. Couldn't.' The words were wrenched from him by some unknown force- his discomfort was all too obvious.
But why he felt so on edge was a mystery, as were his last few words.
'Wait, wait…' Daniel was frowning again, and put a hand on his hip. 'If you hated me so much, why couldn't you leave? What could have possibly made you want to stay and… and… er… Rorschach?
The masked man was swaying on the spot, as though a heavy load had collapsed on him. Steadying himself on the bag- his reddened knuckles smearing the material once more- he pulled himself up. Once stood, he just stared at Daniel. His fists were no longer clenched. He seemed almost… frightened…
'You think I hate you?' His voice was quiet and rasping, barely audible even in the near silence.
Daniel felt as though he had truly gone down the rabbit hole. The pair of them had once gone up against an Alice in Wonderland-themed villain (A colourful man calling himself 'Cat Cheshire', which a certain preference for velour and sequins) but that was no where near as strange as what was happening now.
'Of course… Why else would you pummel a punching bag thinking it was me?'
'Wasn't imagining it being you,' was the swift reply.
'You… But- but why? Rorschach… Man... I didn't… Why would you…?' Daniel stammered.
'Thought if I came here it might help. Wanted to keep it in line. Needed to punish- stop the bad thoughts. Stop the filth. Stop the wave of decadence that threatens to drag me under. Was wrong. Just made everything worse.'
Though Rorschach's entire face was obscured by a mask, Daniel knew then that their eyes met; crackling with a strange type of electricity running through the wire that was their gaze. It was a strange feeling- Daniel didn't think anyone had ever looked at him so intently in his life. And all he could do was stare back, right into that now immobile inkblot face, falling further and further into the abyss.
He only noticed one thing, trapped as he was, and that was that Rorschach seemed to be holding himself back, in exactly the same way Daniel had seem him prepare right before a fight, before the caged animal was released and the full battle began.
And then, as soon as it had begun, the moment left.
Rorschach turned away.
Daniel blinked, unsure, unsteady, and perhaps the slightest bit frightened. There were no words he could find for what had just happened, but the hairs on the back of his neck had sprung up. He had no idea what exactly had occurred and never would. It was only after Rorschach had gathered his things and was heading for the tunnel that Daniel found his voice again.
'Make what worse?' he shouted, frowning.
The masked man kept on walking, the trench coat slung over his shoulder. In his haste to leave Rorschach had not even bothered adjourning his whole costume. He didn't look back. He couldn't look back. He couldn't ever return.
'Rorschach! Come on man! Make what worse?!'
There was no answer.
There never would be. Not when they met again, long after the Keene act was passed, when a Comedian died. Not when they shook hands, friends once more. Not even when they both stood in the snow, injured and exhausted, about to face the end of the world. And especially not when Rorschach left him and Laurie in Karnack, and he- the truly observant one- saw how happy they were.
He would never compromise, except in this one case. Daniel could never know the truth, and that was that. Rorschach would walk into the shadows with no complaint, as that was where filth like him truly belonged.
A/N This is probably the true end of this story, I'm afraid. I can't see it going much further. Thanks for the mountain of reviews though- I've really written things that people have liked so much. I'm just glad someone other than me likes this.