Author's note: First foray into Watchmen fanfiction … The plot bunny wouldn't let go. The title's courtesy of the incredibly great Ella Fitzgerald (and Harold Arlen, who wrote it) and I reference a Billie Holiday song, I Cover the Waterfront. Check this one out, too. It's like honey to your ears (sweet, but with an edge to it that catches in your throat).
Anyway. HUGE thanks to Grieverwings and ChaosAndMayhem for the American beta and the support. The TLC was badly needed :o)
Disclaimer: I made the "cover image", so I guess it belongs to me. The Watchmen graphic novels, characters and situations belong to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, even if the former chose to remove his name from the credits. Ah well. Oh, and DC Comics, too.
The Man That Got Away
I jerk awake with a gasp of pain. When did I close my eyes? I don't even remember doing that. God, I hurt.
Think, man. Use logic if memory's unavailable.
Still, it's hard to think when my body feels like it's running away screaming like a man on fire while my brain is wheezing and panting a couple of yards behind.
"Daniel. Daniel, wake up. You can't sleep now."
I know that voice. I happen to be one of the very, very few who aren't terrified out of their wits when they hear it – and right now, I must be the only one in the city who is so happy to hear it. Right now, Rorschach's voice is good news. It means I'm alive, even if I can barely hear it.
He sounds more urgent this time, but still stubbornly refusing to add an exclamation point to his sentence. See, my partner is not so easily shaken.
But I can sense that he's considering it. That makes me seriously re-evaluate the gravity of the situation.
Most of the time, Rorschach is … I wouldn't exactly say 'calm', really. There's always something about him that looks ready to pounce on you the second he thinks you're doing something wrong. But there have been times when I've actually seen him relax. And not just the times when he's crashing on my couch or putting a serious dent in my stock of sugar cubes. Anyway, my point is, he's generally quiet.
If he's considering departing from his usual intense not-quite-calm, it means trouble on the way.
Awareness is returning now, slowly but surely, and with it stabs of white-hot pain so sharp I can hardly breathe. My eyes are still closed and darkness is everywhere, but every other second the pain hits me like a flash of lightning through a thick haze. Then it recedes a little, filling everything I don't see with blinking dots as if I've been staring at the sun.
Then it starts all over again.
I've had injuries before. It's common in our line of work. Everybody gets something once in a while that needs patching up and forces them to stop and rest (except for Doctor Manhattan, of course. He's virtually indestructible).
But I don't think I've ever had it this bad.
"Been sh–shot?" I don't recognise my voice and I hate it that it comes out as a whimper.
A grip tightens on my legs and I realise I'm being carried on someone's back, piggy-ride style, with my arms dangling limply and my head lolling on a shoulder. Mmh. Not so dignified.
A slight breeze blows on my face, making me shiver slightly and sending a whiff of a very familiar smell. Ah. Thought I recognised the voice. I almost forgot I did recognise the voice.
Wait … The wind on my face. That means my cowl's gone.
I have to concentrate to remember the question he's answering, but it gets easier as I'm growing slightly more conscious. I can feel his voice rumble through his body. It's low, almost raspy; nothing new here. But there's a worried undertone in it. That's unusual.
"Twice. Then pushed through the window."
Through the fog, my mind reels in slow motion. Well, this certainly explains the pain. And the impossibly compact haze that's clogging my brain. And the blood in my mouth – actually, dripping from my open mouth and onto my partner's trench. Hope he doesn't mind. The damn thing was in bad need of a wash anyway. Maybe this time he'll take my advice since I must be bleeding all over him.
I hate when he talks like this, in those clipped, rash words that feel as though there's nothing human behind that mask of his. He's a man of few words at his most talkative, but he only does that when he's been badly shaken. And now I'm starting to feel guilty that this time it's because of me.
I'm afraid he'll snap, someday. I mean, he's intense, and although he's never, ever even breathed a word about it, over the years it's become obvious that something – or things – have been messing up his head when he was younger and that now there's something not quite right with him. I just pray to God that if indeed he snaps, I won't be the reason.
Completely exclamation point-worthy this time. I'd even go as far as to put it in italics.
My gasp surprises me. I must have drifted off.
"You stopped breathing."
Oh, hell. I'm losing my grip. And I still can't will my eyes open. I need something to focus on, quickly.
"M–my cowl?" Hey, that came out stronger than the last time.
"Safe. Hidden. Figured carrying you into the hospital as Nite Owl wouldn't be a good idea."
I'm wearing something, though. Even if I'm gradually getting colder.
"I beat up a dealer and took his clothes. Hope you don't mind. He didn't seem to object."
Is that blood or laughter bubbling up in my throat? Rorschach never jokes. Sometimes, though, he makes not-jokes. I can never figure out for certain whether he makes them consciously or not, and God knows it's hard to figure him out as a whole anyway.
But there's something reassuring to it. If Rorschach non-quips, things can't be that bad.
Then another, more violent shudder goes through me, and I'm yanked back to what is temporarily passing for reality. Yes. It is that bad.
"Are you cold?"
I'm not going to lie to him. "Yeah." But there's no way in hell I'm going to admit that I'm starting to get afraid, too. Oh yes, there's no mistaking the feeling. That's fear right here, gnawing at some part of my gut that the bullets haven't ripped through. I'm afraid that, if something's not done about it pretty soon, I will in all probability bleed to death.
I realise that I don't want to die. Immediately after that I realise just how ridiculous this thought is.
Hero, mask, costumed avenger … Whatever you call us, death surrounds us. Not just the kind we deal, too – I try as much as I can to leave people I arrest standing (which is more than Rorschach can say, but at least he tries not to kill them), but the Comedian or even Jon seems to have no qualms whatsoever about killing. I'm talking about the other sort of death. Ours. Because the villains – the mobsters, the pushers, the lowlife muggers – they know it can just take one time, one skilled knife, one lucky shot … and no more heroes.
We know that, too.
All heroes have a death wish more or less deeply hidden. Otherwise I guess we wouldn't dress up and go out risking our lives for a hobby.
I mean, the very reason I'm in this situation in the first place is obvious enough to – oh. Oh, damn.
How could I have been so dumb as to forget why I got into that crappy apartment in the first place? I know – I think I know – how blood loss can mess up a man's head, but right now I'm calling upon every synonym of idiot I know and they don't seem to be bad enough to fit me.
Rorschach and I had been investigating on a drug ring in Downtown Manhattan, and we'd followed a possible lead to a building that looked like a squat. Of course, this being a stealth operation, I'd left Archie in my basement and we had staked for the whole night and the following day, until we were sure that only remained in the building the man we wanted to – well, maybe 'talk to' isn't the best choice of words; normal conversations don't often end with broken fingers. I'll go with 'question' since it does have the bonus of the torture subtext.
Anyway. We've been taken in like a couple of amateurs. It happens, even among heroes; it's painful and it's embarrassing, but it's usually our pride that takes the worst blow.
This wasn't one of those times, and the fact that Rorschach himself didn't notice the second guy before he jumped on him – how long had he been holing up there, I wonder – isn't much of a comfort. I'm almost sure I heard something crack when the poker – who the hell even keeps a poker these days anyway? – the Mystery Guy swung crashed into the side of my partner's head. Figured he'd take out the most dangerous of the two first.
And … Once again, my inner amateur kicked in. Okay, I must admit the adrenaline and the fear kicked in at that point too. I mean, it's a well-known fact that Rorschach's toughness is inversely proportional to his size. It takes a lot to take him down, and even more to keep him down. If he wasn't getting up – and he wasn't even twitching then – it must be pretty bad.
I don't remember much after that. Other than waking up lying on the pavement with blood filling my mouth and my nostrils, and Rorschach staring down at me. At least, I think he was. I think he was shaking me, too. His voice was rough, like he'd swallowed shards of glass. I remember cringing inwardly at the ghastly comparison before I blacked out.
"Are you all right?"
At least my voice seems to be back, even if the volume is still down. There's a grunt as he heaves me a little higher, securing his grasp. I can't help but noticing that he has slowed down somewhat since I woke up, although he's still walking at a steady pace.
"Concussion. I'll live."
Okay, see, now I'm worried. He's definitely not all right. Want to know how I know that? Well, Rorschach systematically answers 'I'm fine' when he's not. Except for when it's really serious. Then he says, 'I'll live'.
You know, sometimes it's hard to be the partner of a man who insists on patching himself up on his own. If our situations were reversed, he'd probably refuse point-blank to be carried to the hospital, even with two bullets in his body and great big pieces of glass sticking out.
For the moment, though, I'm too weak to argue. So I only mutter, "Gotta get that checked, y'know." Just for the hell of it. Because, let's face it, worrying is a significant amount of who I am – and I know it. Sometimes I humour myself by thinking I worry because I care, and my only consolation is that it's probably true.
Rorschach knows this. I bet he actually expected me to say that, and confirmation comes with the usual quiet noise that is the closest he ever gets to chuckling. It's a throaty, growl-like sound, but it's there. I would smile if I had the energy.
"Says the man bleeding on my coat. I hope the irony isn't lost on you."
He always has to have the last word. That tells you how much flair the man has for drama, and it's often been useful to scare the hell out of criminals. But then, what would you expect from a mask whose costume looks like the Invisible Man from that old James Whale movie?
I know, I'm one to talk. I fly around town in an Owlship. I know a thing or two about drama, too.
Sometimes I wonder where he got the idea for the trench coat, though. Or where he got it in the first place. I think this coat's the only one he actually has – it's still sporting that tear from that knife wound he got on the Big Figure case, and that was a good eight years ago.
Okay, if I live, I'll buy him a new one. I owe him that much.
If I live.
I give myself a mental shake. Think of something else.
"Yes. I'm just thinking about a song."
The worst part of it, it's true. I can hear Billie Holiday's voice from some far recess of my brain. Most people I know seem to find her voice unpleasant, too sharp and obtrusive for their taste, but I've been in love with it since I was a kid. It sounds like it should be bitter, but if you really listen, it's actually sweet and comforting. The opposite is often true, too.
If Rorschach thinks my thinking about a song is weird, he doesn't comment on it. "Hrm. A song you like?"
"I cover the waterfront."
He tenses somewhat. "What did you say?"
"That's the title. It's a great song."
He relaxes, and I think he's been wondering whether the blood loss has finally made me delusional. Thankfully, so far it hasn't. I'm so light-headed that moving a finger or closing my mouth would take immeasurable will power, and I have a song stuck in my head, but there's no sign of pink elephants on parade or whatever I could possibly see even though my eyes are still closed.
"Know any?" I don't know what prompted the question. But right now I'm willing to grasp at anything that grounds me in the realm of consciousness. Even if it is the sound of my own voice – or my partner's.
"Songs, you mean?"
Ha. There's something not quite certain in his tone when he says this, and I enjoy this small victory – the ever-unflappable Rorschach thrown in for a loop. I mean, I stopped counting the instances when the opposite happens a long time ago. Nice to note that every now and then I can still have the upper hand in this little game.
"Mhm-hm. A song. Any song."
I can practically hear the cogs turning under that hat of his, and I realise that he's mulling over his answer. It's my turn to be taken aback, I'd expected him to elude the question as he often does. Rorschach never lies, per se – he just leaves things out, unless he clams up altogether. While he's seen me as Dan Dreiberg quite a few times now, and I regularly invite him to my home to freshen up and catch up on lost sleep, he's never told me a single thing remotely personal about himself. It's something I never really understood, but in time I've accepted it. It's just who he is.
After a few minutes – or longer, I'm kind of losing track of time – he ventures, "Hrm. Star-Spangled Banner?"
I resolve to biting my cheek to keep the snicker in.
That reins in the laughter that is threatening to bubble up again. I hadn't meant it like that. But before I can say anything to correct it, I feel his low grumble of a voice resonate through my body again, his tone reluctant, "How does your song go?"
Oh boy. I must be really far gone for Rorschach to humour me like that. Surely he'd never be that sentimental? Time to test that theory.
"What, you – you want me to sing it?"
He's got me here. I didn't think he would actually say yes. Oh, sure, it's not like he expressed genuine interest in the works of Billie Holiday, but somehow this strikes me more than anything. He's really intent on keeping me alive.
Good. So am I.
"I have a terrible s–singing voice, you know." Not just when I've been shot twice and pushed through a second floor window, too.
If he wasn't carrying me, I swear he would shrug. "I don't mind."
Bet he doesn't. Right. He's just been carrying a man who must have at least thirty-five or forty pounds on him, with a concussion, for I don't know how long, and on top of that he's making me sing. If it starts to rain on us I absolutely refuse to be held responsible.
Okay, here goes.
"I cover the waterfront
I'm watching the sea
Will the one I love
Be coming back to me"
I can't believe I'm doing this. But I am. It's ridiculous.
"I cover the waterfront
In search of my love
And I'm covered …"
I stopped, but this time it has nothing to do with feeling self-conscious. There's a buzzing in my ears that wasn't there before – unless I just unconsciously chose to ignore it – but that's making itself pretty conspicuous now. What worries me more is that the pain is gradually decreasing. Along with my grip on reality. The darkness that's been surrounding me for the past minutes, that I had grown so used to it felt almost comforting in a way, is slowly being replaced with a sickly-looking milky fog at the edges. Not good.
I dimly feel his shoulders tense.
"Almost there." There's a pause, then he adds somewhat uncertainly, as though with effort – and I know it's got nothing to do with his own physical exertion, "Hang on."
Two words, but it's enough to repel the pervasive cold for a few seconds. It does feel like I'm hanging by my fingernails over some place that's incredibly deep and I'm fighting tooth and nail not to fall. But if Rorschach can overcome his absolute distaste for the maudlin – or what he considers as such – on my account, then the least I can do is remain conscious, even if I'm running on pure, unadulterated stubbornness. Like I said before, I owe him that much.
So I painfully scrape scattered thoughts together and manage to sound inquiring.
"Hayes?" That's the guy we were supposed to corner. Emphasis on 'supposed to'.
"What?!" This jolts me out of the fog for a bit. Rorschach never lets anyone get away. Especially after bloodshed on our part, either one of us.
"Not for long," he mutters grimly. Much more so than usual. "Came round, took care of the second man. Hayes was gone, the window was broken. When I looked down I saw you."
There's something in his voice that makes me wonder whether Mystery Poker Guy is still alive and that frankly doesn't bode well for the man that got away.
For the moment, though, I couldn't care less.
The white fog has returned with a vengeance, and now it's beginning its last attempt at taking over the world – well – my world. Looks like this attempt is working. Santa Anna has reassembled his troops and is currently launching the third and final assault on the Alamo.
From a long, long way off I hear my partner calling my name, but the sound is growing fainter by the second. The fight has gone out, I guess. I'm not even worried, or scared. I'm just too tired for that.
I slip back into oblivion, and darkness welcomes me.
Bleach and bad soup. With a bit of detergent on the side. I know that smell.
I'm in a hospital, and I'm not dead.
I immediately wish I were. God, I hurt.
"Oh no, don't you dare do that," says a stranger's voice. Sounds young. Cheerful. Annoyingly loud.
"Wha'?" I croak. Forcing air into my throat took some effort, and the result is less than satisfactory, but at least they haven't put a tube in my mouth. That's good news.
"Go back to sleep. You've been out for two days, I'd say you slept enough."
Guess I needed the break, but there's something shocking with losing time and not knowing where it went. Christ. At least it's only two days.
It seems like an eternity before I can open my eyes, and longer still before I actually take in what I'm seeing. I'm in a hospital room – then again, that much I surmised – and it's dark. The only light sources are the small bedside lamp on the night table beside my bed, and the street lamp outside the window.
The owner of the voice turns out to be a boy of about ten, with a black eye behind a pair of glasses and a thick bandage around his dark-haired head, who sits cross-legged on the bed next to mine with a comic book in his hand. I squint at the cover, but I can't make out the title without my glasses.
"Here – looking for those?"
The boy has jumped off his bed and is handing me my glasses, beaming.
"Er, yeah, thanks." I don't get it. I didn't have my glasses on me when I – came in. Two days ago.
The kid is staring at me, and I'm beginning to feel uncomfortable, so I ask as a diversion, "Did someone bring a spare, then? I thought they'd been broken –" I trail off, because I don't get the conspiratorial look he's giving me. "What?"
"You mean you don't know?"
"How should I know? I've been out for two days!"
The boy doesn't have the grace to at least look apologetic. "I mean, don't you guess?"
I do have an inkling, but there's no way I'm telling this weird kid who's still staring at me and grinning as though I invented hot dogs.
He scrambles back to the comic book he's left on his bed and hands me a dirty piece of paper that he's obviously been keeping inside the pages. It's just a torn, crumpled piece of newspaper, and the article isn't even complete; I'm about to hand it back to the boy when I notice a small mark at the bottom. Two reflecting 'r', with two reflecting dots.
So I thought right, then.
He wouldn't! He's more cautious than that, isn't he?
I must have gone a bit white – or whiter – because when I finally look up at the boy's face, his grin has disappeared, replaced with a wary expression that hasn't lost anything of its previous inquisitiveness.
"Are you some kinda … criminal?"
I stare at him blankly for a moment, unable to register what these words mean; then something snaps in my brain and I just roar with laughter.
Of course, the next second I'm gasping and panting from the searing pain that jumped on me without a warning and seized every part of my body available. Duh, says the small, previously unheeded voice of reason in my mind.
When I finally catch my breath again, the boy's sporting a seriously alarmed expression on his face. "Don't worry," I wheeze, still a bit winded, "I'm not." Jeez … Maybe I'll tell Laurie. She's a good audience, and she'd appropriately laugh her head off. If I tell Rorschach, he's likely to state solemnly that the boy had every right to ask. Spoilsport.
Who broke into a hospital to bring me my glasses. Go figure.
I'd really like to talk to him right now. Besides the fact that I'm feeling so out-of-place that a familiar face (or rather a familiar mask) would be very welcome, I realise that I haven't thanked him for saving my life. Again. Now, I know the opposite has happened a few times now, but still.
The boy still looks less than convinced that I'm not a felon, if the way he's peering at me is proof enough. Oh, come on.
"Look," I say pointedly – or as much as I can manage, because moving an inch is still very much not an option, "if you know who left this note behind –" here he nods frantically "– then you know he usually delivers the bad guys to police stations, not hospitals."
I have his undivided attention now. And the weird grin has returned, full force. I do the pointed look trick again. "Aren't you a bit young to be interested in this kind of stuff, anyway?"
His grin becomes so wide that I notice he's got a gap in his upper teeth where his second eye-tooth is peeking. "Are you kidding? Heroes are so cool! Way cooler than – I dunno, pirates or cow-boys and stuff!"
Well. How about that. "Cool, huh?" I can't help it. A smile's tugging on the corner of my lips and I'm trying hard not to show it.
"Hell, yeah!" He pauses, and after seeing that I don't wince – too much – at his language, goes on enthusiastically, "I mean, we're totally into the stuff, me and the gang. Like, Joe collects newspaper articles about Silk Spectre II – he totally likes her – thinks she kicks ass and she's hot." I make a firm mental note not to tease Laurie about that – I don't think this would make her laugh – and wait for the kid to continue. "And Frankie's favourite is Ozymandias, she's always rambling on about how he looks good and he's so smooth –"
I sense a 'but'. Sure enough, the boy shrugs and adds, "I guess he does, but I wouldn't want to be the one who collects his pictures. There's too many of them."
I get his point. Adrian is not one to hog the limelight for publicity's sake, but he does believe in lending his alter-ego's image if it's for a good cause.
"What about you, then?"
He shifts a bit on his bed, as though slightly reluctant to answer that one. "Well," he finally drawls, "I'm more into detective stuff, y'know. Like, I found who had stolen Frankie's watch the other day. Followed the guy to his home and stole it back." He holds his head high and seems to dare me to say anything bad about that, all scrawny figure and knobbly knees, and he doesn't blink behind those glasses of his.
I can see where this is going, but I decide to play dumb. "So, masks aren't not your type, right?"
He winks at me. He actually winks at me. "Some masks are."
Okay, two can play that game. I pick up Rorschach's note. "I take it that he is, then?"
"Yes, him as well," he says slowly, like a teacher who's only heard half of the answer and is waiting for the rest. When I say nothing, however, his patience finally cracks and he snaps, "The hell with it! Are you the Nite Owl or not?"
I was a bit expecting this, to tell the truth. But at least the masks are off now. Ha. "No," I say curtly – a bit more than I meant to, so I smile a bit to soften the tone. "But the assumption is flattering. Thanks."
Clearly, this is not what he expected. He's frowning at me as if I've personally offended him.
"That's bullshit. Rorschach carries you to ER – blood all over, I heard – you're not a gangster, otherwise you'd be cuffed to the bed – and you're not Nite Owl II?"
I'm starting to feel tired here. "No, I'm not," I mutter. "Sorry to disappoint you. I've been mugged and shot. I think Nite Owl would've been a bit smarter than that." I have no problem making this last bit sound genuine. The more I think about how much of an idiot I've been, the more annoyed I get. And this stubborn kid is not helping any.
As I glimpse at the bed next to me, I see that he's still sitting cross-legged, but not facing me any more. He's got his arms crossed against his thin chest and wears a sour look on his face.
Great. I've made a kid sulk. As I'm starting to feel bad about it, I keep telling myself that at least I won't be the subject of awkward questions anymore.
It doesn't work.
"He came here, you know."
Okay, scratch that.
I'm very tempted to ignore what the boy's just said, but that would just be childish – more than him, and he's a ten-year-old at the most. I'm a responsible adult, for Christ's sake.
"Who?" At least I manage not to sound too interested.
The look he gives me has "Duh" spelled in capital letters. "Rorschach."
"That's ridiculous." Rorschach would be dragged kicking and screaming before he set foot in a hospital. I know him well enough to know that. I think.
"How d'you think you got your glasses back? And that mark on the paper?"
I'm aching all over and I'm starting to feel sleepy. Both are excellent excuses to avoid commenting on that, in my opinion.
"I saw him."
Kid's winding me up. I know this, and I'm not going to fall for it.
"Oh, really," I mumble, taking off my glasses to clean them. "Well, then, if he comes back tell him to bring me the book on my bedside table next time. I haven't finished it yet and it's a very interesting –"
"He's got Beatles boots. My big brother used to have a pair of those. And he doesn't smell very good, does he?"
I don't think I really believed the kid's story, regardless of the mark on the paper, until now. When I put my glasses back on and stare at the dark-haired boy, I'm aware that my face has gone slack, and it's all I can do to keep my mouth from dropping open.
"Told ya," says the kid smugly.
I feel a headache coming on.
"That was so cool!" he practically squeals, before clapping his hand over his mouth and continuing in a quieter voice, "I can't wait to tell the gang about it!"
"What'd he do, exactly?" I sigh. Good God, he's excitable.
Once again the boy settles comfortably on his bed, his comic book lying forgotten on the covers. His hands seem to be moving of their own accord as he tells his story. Or fires up, as it were.
"That was the night after they brought you in," he says quickly, "I just woke up, and it was dark, and I thought I could go get some water and back to sleep, but then I heard something – I mean, it was so quiet I thought it was a rat or something – but we're in a hospital, right, so there wouldn't be any rats or –"
"Ahem." Let's not get side-tracked here.
The boy gets my point and goes on, "Well, anyway, I peeked and I saw someone in the room – I so recognised the hat and the coat, but I couldn't quite see the mask, it was too dark – and he just stood there for, like, ages, with his hands in his pockets, and he just didn't move …"
"That must have been fascinating," I mutter, not quite able to keep the smile I'm desperately trying to hide off my voice. There's something both annoying and endearing to his enthusiasm. His eyes go round as they focus on me.
"Are you kidding?! It was awesome! I mean, man, I just about ran to get an autograph!"
I wince. I can't, for the life of me, imagine what would be Rorschach's reaction faced with a hopeful-looking kid with a pen and paper in his hand. He'd probably take it as a personal offence and walk away muttering about the job at hand being a serious business.
"I didn't, though," the boy adds carefully. "I'm not mad. I know when people need a break."
Oh, this remark just begs for another pointed look.
Hey, I'm getting good at this. After a few awkward seconds, he pulls a funny sort of grimace. "Okay, yeah, sorry – he was just kinda scary, I guess."
"And I'm not?" I can't believe what the kid is saying actually riles me.
It's his turn to throw a pointed look at me, "Looked in a mirror lately? You look like hell. Completely un-life-threatening."
"Gee, thanks." And I feel about just as peachy. "So – he came and left? That's it?"
"Pretty much. But before leaving he took those glasses out of one of his pockets – put them on that table – and put the paper in one of your socks over there."
Not enough room under the pillow, was there? But the quip never leaves my head.
"Then he left."
Touching as it is, there's something not quite right with this story. I don't know what, but something doesn't add up. No matter how much I want to believe it. I mean, it's a little too perfect.
Maybe it's just my brain yelling at me that it's time to close shop and go to sleep. It's been doing that for a little while now. I've been thinking in slow-motion again.
I take off my glasses and put them away, massaging the bridge of my nose.
"What's your name?" I ask quietly, looking directly into the boy's eyes, which have gone a bit blurry due to the lack of glasses on my nose.
"I'm Sam," he states proudly. "Sam Levy."
"Well, Sam –" I extend my hand and he grabs it energetically "– nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Mister Owl." There he goes again, winking at me. I roll my eyes, the effect probably spoiled by the genuine grin I feel growing on my face. God, was I this much of a fan-boy when I met Hollis back in '62? My ears grow hot at the thought. I was a starry-eyed, eighteen-year-old fan meeting his absolute hero for the first time. Meeting Elvis would have had nothing on it. Of course I was this much of a fan-boy.
By the time I close my eyes, the smile is making itself comfortable on my face. Then a sudden thought makes me open them again and I glance back at young Sam. "What happened to you to land you here in the first place?"
Sam wrinkles his nose as though he's smelled something unpleasant. "Well, you know that watch case I was on?" I refrain from chuckling at the phrasing. The boy takes his business seriously. "Turns out I shoulda thought about back up. Guy showed up after class and beat the snot out of me."
This wipes the smile straight off my face as shock swiftly shifts to anger. "God, that's – was he caught, at least?"
Sam shrugs and looks away. "I guess. I dunno. I don't remember much, I blacked out pretty quick." He's been staring at me almost non-stop since I woke up and now he won't meet my eyes. The effect is slightly chilling. "Kinda stupid, huh?" he mutters, fidgeting with the edge of his sheet.
It's like an echo of my own previous thoughts about our somewhat – hum … – failed interrogation attempt, and the irony strikes me. It doesn't take me long to figure out what to say.
"No," I state in my firmest voice, which admittedly is not saying much at the moment. "I don't think that is stupid at all. Stuff like this does happen sometimes, but you can't let it gnaw at you." It's obvious that he's entirely unconvinced, so I try another tactic. "Look, let me put it this way: I'm here because I was shot on a case. I never saw it coming either, and I have years of training behind me – still think what happened to you is stupid?"
I'll admit that it was a bit of an underhand trick, but it really seemed the kind of argument to use. Besides, at least it made him perk up. "I guess not," he says, still hesitating. "But it's not the same thing –"
"It is exactly the same thing, except you actually have a much more valid excuse than me. What are you, nine?"
"Nine and a half," he corrects, frowning and sitting up straight. I make a point of not smiling.
"Sorry. Do you see where I'm getting here?"
"Yeah." He gives a lopsided smile, and I inwardly celebrate my little victory.
Thank God he doesn't press the matter further, because I'm closing my eyes again, and this time no force on Earth is making me open them until I've slept soundly until morning. Before I drift off, however, I hear his voice making its way through the cotton in my ears, "Hey, Mister Nite Owl – didja get the guy?"
"No," I mutter. "Can't win every time."
After this, I don't know whether he's speaking to me or not, because I'm sinking into the black, bottomless pit of sleep. And it feels good.
I jerk awake with a gasp of pain.
This time, though, my blood is pounding hard against my ears, I'm shaking all over and I can't swallow because there's something stuck in my throat. The more I try to swallow, the more my throat closes up around it, and the more it hurts.
"It's all right, sir, you're safe – you're in a hospital, you've been hurt – calm down, now –"
The voice is soothing, and there is an almost purring quality to it that barely manages to coax its way through the thick layer of sheer terror that's clouding my brain at the moment. Ever had those nightmares where your feet are stuck in the ground and no matter how hard you try to move or even scream, both are useless? For a moment I thought I was having one of those. The highly unpleasant physical sensation of constriction in my throat has a lot to do with it. It adds a dash of claustrophobic flavour to the whole circus.
"It's all right," the soothing voice repeats like a mantra, and in spite of my confusion (or perhaps because of it) I cling to it along the way to consciousness. "Everything is fine. You have a tube in your throat to help you breathe, we'll pull it out in a moment; just don't fight it, you'll just hurt yourself. Easy, now …"
I hear movement around me, and feel the warmth of a hand on mine. The hammering in my chest begins to gradually simmer down to a steadier, duller ache, but my head is still swimming. I don't get it – I was feeling a good deal better last time I woke up. Why this sudden change?
Opening my eyes feels just as easy as lifting a two-ton rock, but my natural curiosity is waking up as well and growing strong enough to top the burning ache and embarrassing confusion.
Everything is a dull-coloured blur, apart from the face of the nurse, inches from mine. She's young, and she's looking at me with warm, smiling brown eyes. Her dark hair is pulled into a ponytail, and long locks fall on her shoulder.
She reminds me of Laurie a little. For some reason, the thought does wonders to calm me down.
"Mr. Dreiberg? Daniel?"
I wince. I never really thought about it, but I guess there's only one person in the world that calls me 'Daniel' – even my dad used to call me 'Dan'. Not that I know that many people on first-name terms, anyway.
"I'm going to take the tube out – and I need you to cough. Are you ready?"
I nod. I can't wait for this thing to leave my throat.
I almost heave when it finally does, my tongue is dry and there's an aftertaste of something funny in the back of my mouth, but in the end I take great gulping mouthfuls of air and God, it feels so good. Even when it tastes like bleach and bad soup, with a bit of detergent on the side.
There goes that sense of déjà vu again.
"I'll go get Doctor Santangelo," she says, the smile not leaving her face. "Don't go anywhere!"
The bad joke gets an involuntary grin from me. "Didn' plan to," I rasp, and the way she lingers a second before going through the door is proof that she did hear me and I didn't tear my throat apart for nothing.
The door closes, and I attempt to shift into a slightly more comfortable position. I quickly give up, though, as pain shoots through my whole body at the slightest move.
So it hurts like hell when the sound of a voice makes me start.
"Good evening, Daniel."
Spots dance in front of my eyes as I breathe erratically, squinting into the darkness the voice seems to come from while waiting for the painful quiver in my muscles to die down.
Sure enough, the next second, there's a familiar figure wrapped in a trench coat in front of my bed, even if I can't really make out the outlines of the fedora in the dim light.
I have hundreds of questions, but uncharacteristically, Rorschach is the first to speak. "How do you feel?"
"Like I've been shot and thrown out a window," I say, my voice cracking. He disappears, and when he re-enters my line of sight, he's holding a glass of water. When he hands it to me, there's something slightly stiff and uncomfortable to his posture and I'm careful not to touch his fingers when I take the glass, knowing how much he usually flinches at human contact.
It's only water, but it feels like nectar divine when I let it fill my mouth and slide down my ravaged throat, closing briefly my eyes in bliss. The lingering aftertaste – which I now recognise as old blood – remains on the back of my tongue, but it's unobtrusive enough that I can easily ignore it.
"Thanks," I whisper, and the words come out much easier, "I needed that."
He nods in acknowledgement, and stands back in his usual stance, his hands in his pockets. I can barely distinguish the patterns moving across his mask in the dark, so I have to rely almost completely on posture to figure out what he's thinking right now. It's not a novel situation. I always have some trouble deciphering him.
"How long have you been here?" I ask when the silence has stretched long enough for my taste. He gives a slight shrug.
"A few hours."
"Did anybody see you?"
"No." I believe him. He can make himself practically invisible if he wants, slinking in and out of other people's perspectives. I don't know how he does that.
Something hits me and I smile. "Someone did see you the other night, though." I turn my head gingerly to my left, where a screen is hiding the bed next to mine from view. "Talked to the kid over there – he seems quite a fan of yours."
Rorschach's mask is inscrutable as ever, but something seems to tense in the region of his shoulders as he peers behind the screen and turns his head back to face me.
"There is no child here, Daniel."
"Last time I woke up there was this kid, Sam –" I stop as I hear rapid footsteps outside the door. Rorschach disappears from view.
Doctor Santangelo is a tall, thin man with greying hair and dark bags under his eyes. As he checks my vitals and explains to me what I already know about why I'm here, I only half-listen as I think about young Sam. Maybe he was discharged from the hospital. That would be the most logical explanation. But it makes me wonder exactly how much time has passed between the last time I closed my eyes and now.
I notice the nurse from earlier is smiling at me, and I smile back awkwardly. She's really pretty, and as usual with lively, pretty women, I find myself completely incapable of saying anything that sounds remotely witty or clever in my mind. Typical.
The doctor finishes his assessment and what he has seen seems to satisfy him, because as he scribbles something on the clipboard he's carrying, something relaxes a bit in his posture and he gives a tight, tired smile.
"Well, Mr. Dreiberg, it seems that you're determined to join the living again. That's good news – you were touch and go for a long time." He puts his pen away in the front pocket of his white coat and looks at me straight in the eyes, his slight smile looking a little brighter. "Welcome back."
I nod, a little bit unsettled. The nurse stays a little while after he departs, saying that she'll be back in the morning to change my bandages and that if I want something, anything – here she winks playfully, and I feel my ears grow hot – I just have to push the button. It's only when she closes the door behind her that I realise I haven't even managed to catch her name on her name tag.
My eyes have grown accustomed to the semi-darkness now, so I don't jump when Rorschach seems to come from nowhere back to his previous spot near the bed. This time, though, he lets me notice him before he speaks, and I have a hunch that he does it on purpose.
"You talked about a boy."
"Yes, a nine-year-old –" Nine and a half, his young voice echoes in my mind "– called Sam Levy. He got beat up by a bully after school." The anger rears again, but I push it back down. "Must have been discharged some time ago."
Rorschach doesn't move, but the tension I noticed earlier hasn't left. "There is a woman over there, sleeping. According to the admission papers, she came in twenty-four hours after you did."
I frown. "That's not right. Sam told me I'd been sleeping for two days –"
"Not sleeping, Daniel. In a coma." His voice is brisk and curt, but I can't help noticing that it's slightly rawer than usual. And when he speaks the next words, he actually trips over the last syllable for a millisecond. "For a week."
Coldness grips my gut. "A week?!" My heart races. A week – seven days – one hundred and sixty-eight hours and I'm not counting the minutes and that's a lot of seconds too and I just didn't wake up and God I've lost all that time –
I must have gone very white, because Rorschach takes a tentative step towards me. I shake my head, my mind still in a whirl, feeling a little bit sick.
"I'm all right." That's a big lie, and we both know it, but I will be. For the moment I'm just a little bit in shock. "So, when the doctor said it was 'touch and go' –"
"Thought you were dead."
He says this very quietly, in what I know is his most controlled voice, but to me it's like a punch in the gut – kinda drives the air right away. It's just four words, four fairly non-committal words at that, but the very fact that he's said them, plus the very careful way he spoke really impact on me. This, for him, is the closest I'll ever get to hearing 'I'm glad you're not dead. You frightened me.'
Those words are worth any long-winded speech.
So I look up straight at where I guess his eyes should be, and I say slowly, "I'm not, though. Thanks to you, by the way."
He nods and lets out one of those funny quiet noises of his that sounds like 'ennk', and I don't need to notice the strain in his shoulders to know he's not entirely comfortable with this conversation.
"You're welcome, Daniel," he says. It's barely more than a whisper, but it's definite enough for me to know we've spent enough time on this and that I should change subjects. Which I do.
"So … Thought you hated hospitals."
Great, Dreiberg. Real smooth. Rorschach tilts his head very slightly to the side, as though appraising the necessity of commenting on the mindless chatter that seems to come from my mouth. He makes up his mind quickly enough, though. "I do."
"Why?" I kid you not, this is the first question that popped up in my mind. I cringe inwardly, waiting for my partner to simply stare at me until I crack and just blurt out something else. It happens a lot on long stakeouts, and I suppose that our exchanges, seen from an outsider's point of view, would be either very frightening or utterly hysterical.
Not for the first time, however, he surprises me by actually answering the question. Admittedly, he does so with a slight, evasive shrug, but he does. "People die in them."
Really, sometimes I wonder what could have happened to give him this pessimistic, gloomy take on life in such a permanent way. Thinking like Rorschach is like looking at the world through a seriously warped piece of glass – everything comes out twisted and crooked and you end up feeling slightly sick. I've shared this sort of view once or twice, after a few particularly nasty cases, but I've always come back. It's like staring at something so horrible you can't help but be fascinated by it and you just have to break away for the sake of your sanity.
Come to think of it – I guess the only reasons why I didn't just snap after cases like those were that I'm a particularly down-to-earth kinda guy … and that Rorschach was there, too, to look at things and think and react that way. He's always made it clear, after his own peculiar fashion, that our partnership only needed one of his kind.
And that it needed one of mine.
Some have pointed out to me that working with someone like him has to have distorted my moral balance and any normalcy I might possess before (implied, before I donned a costume and built a ship, both designs based on my favourite bird of prey). I say it's the contrary. Working with him regularly questions both, but in doing so it actually reinforces them.
See what I mean? It's not very clear in my head, to tell the truth. I blame the blood loss.
Which is probably what makes me ask a little bit woozily, "Are you stayin', then?"
There's a sharp out-take of breath behind the inkblot mask, and if I didn't know better, I'd say he just gave a small chuckle. His shoulders seem to sag slightly as some of the tension dissolve.
"I should be going." The usually slowly-shifting black shapes suddenly pick up so much speed that I quickly give up following them. "I still have to find Hayes."
"You – you didn't –" I'm dumbstruck. "You haven't caught him?"
Logic whispers in my ear that if this mask really does react on pressure and temperature, as he once told me, he must be really hot in the face right now and it might not be a good idea to press the matter. But I've never been known for my incredible tact and smooth conversation skills.
"After – ?"
"Seven days, yes. He disappeared." There is the muffled growl of something primal and savage hidden deep within his voice. He is genuinely furious about letting this man get away.
Surprisingly, I'm not. I'm frustrated that I let him get me, I'm nonplussed that Rorschach hasn't caught him yet, but I'm not angry. As I dimly recall telling young Sam, you can't win every time. It seems completely illogic that I should take it so well, being the one who was shot and thrown out a – well, you can fill in the rest.
Maybe that's precisely it, though. I mean, if roles had been reversed, there's no doubt I would have been the one to tear up this city's underworld in a rage to find the man who had almost killed my partner.
Funny how things work out.
"If Hayes has any street smart, he must be halfway to Los Angeles by now," I point out reasonably. Hell, if it was me, knowing Rorschach's reputation, I would have taken quarters on Mars and not put it past him to find me there. "You've got little chance of finding him. At least tonight," I add before he can cut in.
I don't know why, but I actually want him to stay. At least until I sleep. I know it's ridiculous – I'm a grown man of twenty-nine, way too old for stupid superstitions – but I reckon that time won't try that trick on me again (stealing me a whole damn week that I'll never get back) if he's in the room.
The average kid's bogeyman has nothing on Rorschach's looming presence. Ordinarily I'm a light sleeper, but I'll sleep like the dead when I know he's sleeping the night off on my couch.
Not that I would tell him, though. I feel foolish enough just realising it.
"Do you want me to stay?"
I'm so completely taken aback by the question that I just stammer, "What? No. Uh … no, not really." Rorschach doesn't move as he waits for me to finish my point. I've never seen his eyes – don't even know the colour – but I can feel his stare. And boy, he can stare like nobody else.
"I'd … I guess I'd like you to stay. You know. If that's all right."
Suddenly I'm reminded of the first time I told him he could sleep on my couch if he wanted. We'd gone without sleep for days on end, and we were absolutely dead on our feet. It looks funny looking back on this from now, because over the years it's become something of a habit, but at the time it had taken a lot of wheedling on my part for him to accept my offer and not just lurch outside in the pouring rain.
I kinda hope it's raining right now.
Rorschach's gloved hands come out of his pockets and he turns away, reappearing with a chair which he sets near the foot of my bed. Then, to my surprise, he kicks off his old boots, props up his feet on the mattress and crosses his arms against his chest.
There's a hole in his left sock.
I remember Jon talked about miracles, once.
Of course I didn't understand a single thing about thermodynamics and tachyons and neutrinos, but I think I got the gist. Miracles are as much the big, showy stuff are they are the sum of all the little things composing it. Like a tightrope walker who, in spite of all the factors that conspire to make him fall – gravity, wind, the tremors of the rope – finally manages to cross to the other side.
I'm not sure Jon would say this example is accurate, but in my mind it's spot on.
To me, the partnership that Rorschach and I have been sharing all those years is nothing short of a miracle. I mean, there's so much that could – even should – go wrong any minute. He'll keep stuff from me or say or do things that will rub me exactly the wrong way, and I constantly have to watch what I'm saying and how I'm saying it to make sure he doesn't take it as an insult or a joke directed his way or just ignore it altogether … We've been tiptoeing around each other for years, which speaks volumes on our respective reserves of patience. But nothing has gone so wrong yet we couldn't get around it. I'd even go as far as saying we actually work well together.
Who would have thought.
I shift my head a bit on my pillow to face him. Half his body is cloaked in shadow – looking very dramatic – and I know he likes it this way, but I can still see that the tension is less obvious than it was when I opened my eyes.
We both keep silent for a moment, wrapped in the comfortable familiarity of darkness and silence.
When we talk again, our own erratic and broken brand of conversation returns, but it tastes normal and it feels good. Sure, it's not the average guy's notion of normal, but I can really use any kind right now. It makes me forget that I might have never woken up after the other night.
I got away with my life here, no less. I'm painfully aware of it, and I'm probably going to have to deal with it later.
For the moment, though, I'm content to just catch up on the latest developments of New York City's criminal underworld with my partner.
When I wake up again the next day, Rorschach is gone and lazy sunlight is pouring through the window on the very chair he was occupying a few hours earlier. A ray has been falling on my right hand while I was sleeping, and although it looks rather bleak and barely there at all, it's been warming my skin on the spot.
No matter how cheesy it invariably sounds, it's still good to be alive.
The brown-haired nurse from earlier comes back, and this time I'm alert enough to read 'Jenny' on her name tag. She smiles as she changes the vast amount of gauze and surgical tape around my body, and by the time she's finished my ears are burning fiercely and I'm pretty sure they have gone bright red. I don't know what kind of curse it is that makes me feel like a schoolboy with a crush around women I have taken a liking to, but it's in full swing right now. I just can't think of a smooth approach to, I don't know, spend a bit of time with her when I'm in better shape. Maybe a movie, a show and a dinner or something.
Nurse Jenny makes for the door, but before I can come up with anything to say and an acceptable way to say it, she turns and produces a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket.
"Oh, before I forget – I found this on this chair earlier. Is it yours?"
I unfold the paper and smooth out the creases. It looks like a short article from the Gazette, and in a corner my eye is drawn to two small mirrored 'r' and dots.
"Yeah," I say absently, "thanks, miss."
Immediately swearing profusely, albeit silently, when she leaves without further ado.
Turning my attention back to the article and holding it at arm's length to read the fine lettering without my glasses, I note that it hasn't been crumpled so much as folded up many times. From the smell, I'd say Rorschach went through someone's trash to get the newspaper.
The article is dated two days after he dropped me off here, and as I read it I feel blood drain from my cheeks.
Everything – every detail – is there to a T. The small bad-quality picture matches.
When I'm finished, I let the dirty piece of paper fall on my knees and stare up at the ceiling for a long time as I take it all in, waiting for my hands to stop shaking.
Tragic death of 9-year-old boy in Lower Manhattan
Nine-year-old Samuel Levy died in the night after a fight with an older boy from his neighbourhood. Witnesses stated that 13-year-old Robert Goldstein started the fight over a stolen watch that resulted in the younger boy violently hitting his head on the curb and fracturing his cranium. In spite of a seven-hour-long operation, the damage proved too great and the boy died without waking up.
Robert Goldstein was described as a troublemaker, albeit not violent. He went into a state of shock immediately after the fight and had to be taken care of medically before he could testify. He stated that he "just wanted to rough him up, to put him in his place and stop him nosing around", in reference to the stolen watch that started the feud.
A small funeral service will be held …
"You mean you don't know?" says his voice in my memory.
But I never heard his voice at all. I don't want to know.
"I mean, don't you guess?"
I guess I do. Whatever this means.
The night is bitter,
The stars have lost their glitter,
The winds grow colder,
And suddenly you're older
And all because of the man that got away …
Harold Arlen, interpreted by Ella Fitzgerald
There, I've done it :o) I hope I stayed true to the characters and universe, and that I sounded American enough. I'm French, and I usually use British spelling – that's how I learned English.
The plot bunny actually came from the fact that, while there's plenty of stories featuring Rorschach getting hurt one way or another and Dan playing mother-hen, for the moment I've yet to see the opposite in a fiction. So here's my shot at it.
This first verse from The Man That Got Away would actually be more accurate if it was a comment on Rorschach's situation, but I really wanted to go into Dan's head rather than his (even if this happens before the Blaire Roche case); as for I Cover The Waterfront, this title struck me as rather fitting a detective story, even if this story is anything but. I was surprised to discover it had actually been written for a 1933 detective film that shares the same name. Both are absolutely lovely, haunting songs, and for some reason I can really see Dan appreciating them as I do.
Now, who do you think is the Man That Got Away? There are several possibilities :o)
Hope you liked!