AN: Mack is slang for a pimp and red light is slang for a prostitution house (and no, the woman's not Rorschach's mother).
Stop, Red Light
Daniel's never going to forget the first time he and Rorschach took down a prostitution ring. He won't remember it as the first time Rorschach displayed innovative improvisation, though using the oven door as shield, offense and anchor for handcuffs certainly saved their lives when they finally apprehended the ringleader. Nor will he remember it as the first time Rorschach stayed at his house overnight, though in hindsight he recognized it as Rorschach's first real leap of faith in him.
No, what Daniel is never going to forget is the way Rorschach treated the prostitutes.
They've not yet done any actual fighting, tonight, but Daniel's heart drums in his chest and his body's alive with adrenaline. It always gets to him when Rorschach 'interrogates,' for lack of a better word. He's never felt such an intense mixture of pity, thrill, and nausea at anything in his life, and sometimes he's not sure if he doesn't bother trying to stop Rorschach anymore because it's pointless or because he's always malignantly interested in how the crowd will react. It's almost become a morbid game, seeing how much it takes for certain people to crack.
Sometimes, Rorschach doesn't even have to snap the bone.
He's sure that there is a latent part of his childhood affecting him. When the men yowl in pain, their bodies contorting like Rorschach had broken more than a finger, Dan inevitably thinks about the boys on his block who used to torment stray cats. He thought it was cruel and pathetic at the time, watching from his window as the boys pulled at fur, snapped fireworks off, tied cans to the poor things' tails, even sometimes breaking their legs. Daniel was less disturbed by the violence than by the fact that the boys saw it as a game.
He supposes there's some irony there, but he reminds himself that the difference between animals and humans is that humans can fight back. Humans can run. They just never do, even when he's not standing in the path to their freedom.
The other difference is that animals are innocent. Humans, invariably, are not.
"Nite Owl," Rorschach says, so softly that it almost doesn't register. "You're heading off course. Is there a pit stop you need to make?" Dan can tell he's trying to be patient, but ever since Rorschach caught wind of this prostitution ring, he's been itching to put it to an end. Dan's tried not to point out how odd that is, considering his partner's penchant for violent gangs and ammunitions smugglers, but crime is crime and he supposes Rorschach is interested to see how the fight is on this side of things.
"No, sorry - I guess I'm spacing out," he says, adjusting the flight path. Rorschach rises from his seat and starts stalking in a wide semi-circle, hands shoved in his coat pockets. "Sorry," he repeats, then wishes he could take it back. The image of the man bent over the table cradling his hand like precious glass keeps coming back to him.
Rorschach stops, tilts his head towards the window. "Hurm." He sits again, bracing the heel of a hand against the dashboard. "I told you that your presence in the bar was unnecessary."
It takes Daniel a moment to register that Rorschach is apologizing in his own way, and he can't help but laugh out the tension in his chest. "No, no, that's fine. I just haven't been sleeping well, I guess…never can this time of year." That is both the truth and a lie, because he's been getting what he assumes is plenty of sleep, but it's all been in short increments at odd times of the day, even for him. His mother died in July, and the inevitable depression each year screws with his internal clock. It's just gotten worse since he started fighting crime.
Rorschach grunts and stands again. Daniel's not sure if he's disappointed that Rorschach has nothing to say. It's probably for the better, because it's not like they have time for a lengthy conversation about Daniel's past. Just enough to touch the edges, which he knows is more than Rorschach wants. He struggles not to sigh and manages not to when Rorschach surprises him by breaking the silence.
"You should take better care of yourself, then," he mumbles. He pauses with a foot in the air, like he's going to stop pacing, then decides against it. Daniel's about to thank him for the comment, strangely tender for Rorschach, but in the minute it takes him to overcome his surprise Rorschach decides to continue. "At any rate," he says, voice much stronger this time around, "I don't need you as a liability."
Ah. Of course. Daniel glances at the map and twiddles Archie's wheel. "Right. I'll do better. Now, you ready to end this?" The grin he throws back at Rorschach feels strained, but when Rorschach nods and cracks his knuckles, he relaxes. This is how they do business. They're partners, not friends. As long as Dan remembers that, they'll be fine.
There's no real point to landing away from the building; he can see from the sky that it's derelict and he's sure no one will be by the windows. He lands Archimedes smooth as a real owl perching on a branch and lets out a breath as he cuts the engines. Rorschach's poised at the door, hand hovering over the lever to release the door. He's not looking at Dan, but Dan knows he's waiting for him to ensure he's ready. When he rises to his feet and nods, Rorschach opens the door and glides out. He bears himself with an animal's grace, all predatory energy and enveloping darkness. Dan feels safe next to him and a little light-headed from confidence.
This'll be a cake walk.
As it's Rorschach's case, he takes the lead, slipping down long staircases without a single noise, tracing the railing with his fingertips but not bothering to use it for real support. It's the mentality that's important, in the same way that umbrellas are important to tightrope walkers. Daniel follows his example like a disciple, keen to echo Rorschach's natural ability to blend into shadows.
The further they descend, the warmer it gets, until Daniel struggles to not pull at his cowl or goggles, which are starting to stick uncomfortably to his face with sweat. He can't imagine why it's so warm down here, and for a fleeting moment he imagines that it's the multitude of bodies fornicating that has produced so much heat. He has to stifle a laugh.
Rorschach turns his head back to him, face as unreadable as ever. He says nothing, but he radiates disapproval. Dan wipes the smile off his face with the back of a hand.
Rorschach stops on the second floor and stands a moment, head cocked to the side. To anyone else, he would appear still as a statue and twice as relaxed, but Daniel can hear the quiet crinkling from his pockets that scream that Rorschach is restless. He keeps tensing his arms like he's going to take his hands out of his pockets and settling them again. A soft crunching sound makes Rorschach hiss under his breath in displeasure.
"Floor level, then," he mutters after a long minute. For all the care he took to traverse silently before, he doesn't seem at all concerned about his voice. Still, Daniel thinks it's probably a better idea to avoid a reply in case the quality of his voice isn't right for the kind of stealth they require. He follows on Rorschach's heels, suit sticking to him.
On the floor level, Daniel can hear voices. Down the hallway, he can see pink streams of light through open doorways, and shadows - of bodies, he suspects - dance through it with no real pattern. Rorschach doesn't pause on his way to the first open door and only pauses for a cursory glance before stepping in. Daniel doesn't catch what he's doing fast enough to warn him to be more careful and hurries to catch up to him, praying the worst won't happen in the precious seconds it takes him to reach the doorway.
Rorschach is facing a room full of prostitutes who are hardly paying him any attention. A group of women are on a tattered couch, ringed around a silver platter lined with coke, and other women are lounging across the room, smoking and drinking. Music thrums in the background, soft enough to distract Daniel into wondering what's playing.
When neither the women nor Rorschach make a move to acknowledge each other, a blonde sitting on a table fussing with her hair sighs and stands up. She offers Dan a flirtatious smile that is more strained than alluring, and she stops in front of Rorschach. Daniel wants to tell her to keep her hands in her pockets. "How can I help you boys?" she asks, but though she's referring to both of them she only stares at Rorschach. Daniel looks at him too, a deep tension running from his stomach to his heart that he doesn't immediately recognize as unease.
Rorschach doesn't answer immediately, fists resolutely stuffed in his pockets. The woman is patient, though, chewing on an empty cigarette holder like it's a pencil and she's in high school again instead of a room that's rank with heavy perfume and smoke. Finally, Rorschach sucks in a deep breath and asks, voice forced slow, "Where's Mack?"
Daniel wonders for a moment if he's missing something; he's sure the man they're after isn't named Mack at all. Does Rorschach know these people? The thought is quickly banished when he remembers this is Rorschach, Rorschach who goes on long tirades about whores ruining the city, degrading it into a twisted machine. The woman arches an eyebrow, a tick on the side of her jaw and the hasty way she pulls the cigarette holder out of her mouth betraying the fear she doesn't mean to show.
"What'chu want him for?" she asks, looking between the two.
"We have business with him," Rorschach says. The near-imperceptible fear of the women seems to have boosted Rorschach's mood, but he's still on tenterhooks.
"Business," she echoes, and when she looks at the group of women at the couch, a woman with a jacket far too large for her leans up from the table, sniffs, wipes her nose, and stands. "These boys say they have business with Ralph."
As the older woman walks over, brushing her rugged black curls off her forehead, Rorschach steps back. He makes an odd sound in the back of his throat and forces himself to stay still with an obvious effort. It's Dan's turn to raise his eyebrows, off-put by his partner's behavior. The woman studies Rorschach, appraising. "Do I know you?" she asks, sounding like she didn't honestly care whether she did or not.
"No. No, no you don't," Rorschach growls, wiping his hands on the front of his coat. "No," he adds as if he has to be painfully clear. "I don't associate with whores." When he says this, he looks at Daniel.
The woman's not amused. "You folks run a red light near here or what?" Rorschach takes a subtle step back and shakes his head.
Apparently Dan will have to step in. "Not yet," he says, and when the woman looks at him he's struck by how old she looks. She must be in her fifties. "We, uh - we were told that he could help us out, though." He almost understands Rorschach's behavior when she studies him, eyes lingering up and down his body as if trying to decide if he's fit to be a pimp. He feels incompetent and in a spotlight and resists the urge to cover himself with his cape.
"All right," she decides finally.
"Thank you, ma'am," Rorschach says immediately, voice too rushed to be real. Dan's sure the little sound Rorschach makes is because he bit his tongue. He clears his throat and tries again, but although it's a valiant effort to sound intimidating, the word ma'am still lingers in the air, echoed by the soft laughter of the other women in the room. "Tell us where we can find him."
"Please," Daniel suggests, hoping that it might help Rorschach save face.
"What a couple'a boy scouts," a girl on the couch giggles, then leans down.
Rorschach's on her in a heartbeat, drawing the silver platter out from under her and smacking her over the head with it. Cocaine flutters in the air a moment like snow in summer, and then all the girls are screaming and the old woman is on top of Rorschach, clawing at his face. The other girls scatter, screeching obscenities, and Rorschach roars right back until a door Daniel had failed to notice snaps open and a man in a suit steps out.
He has a gun, and that is all that really matters. Nite Owl unhooks the moon from his belt, halfway to reaching out to Rorschach, and the night really begins.
Dan doesn't know what to say. What the hell is wrong with you sounds unkind, considering it's thanks to Rorschach that the man is going to be put away. Are you all right seems pointless, considering Rorschach is sulking in his chair, cradling his burnt arm (which, God, Dan can smell, if that's not his overactive imagination). Good job tonight sounds patronizing considering Rorschach's rash actions and childish behavior.
Silence is probably the best idea, but the silence is nigh-unbearable.
"Rorschach," he tries, supposing the right words will come to him as he lets them, but before he can let his mouth run Rorschach stiffly angles away from him.
Daniel knows him well enough to recognize the rawness of the tone, but now that he knows Rorschach will respond, he can't just stop. "I just wanted -"
"Please." Rorschach tilts his head down and away. "No."
Daniel sighs and rolls his palms against the steering way. All right, then. Apparently this is going to be one of those things that dies as it unfolds into the past. If that's how it's going to be, so be it. Dan's too tired to argue with Rorschach right now, and for some reason he keeps thinking about his mother. God, what would she think if she knew her son spent his time with a man who beat girls and broke fingers and burned men with their own ovens?
He tries not to dwell on it.
When they cruise into the Owl's Nest, Dan fully expects Rorschach to stalk away, silent and seething, but he's halfway through peeling off his costume when he realizes the only footsteps he heard were down Archie's ramp. He stops pulling his shirt off and listens, arms captured by the sleeves. He can hear Rorschach shifting. Surprised, he turns to face him.
Rorschach has his back to him and he hasn't moved from beside Archie's hull. His burnt arm hangs by his side, but his other is lifted, sweeping long, gentle strokes against Archie.
"Rorschach?" Daniel calls to him, shaking off his shirt. "Something on your mind?" Rorschach grunts but doesn't reply otherwise, tracing patterns down Archie's side. Dan wonders if he's giving him the best privacy he can and can't help but smile at the gesture. "Did you want help with your arm?"
"Not bad," Rorschach grumbles. "My clothing took the brunt of it."
Daniel hesitates. He doesn't think Rorschach's lying to avoid being nettled, and he figures he'll have better luck talking to Rorschach if he's not in the middle of changing. He sheds the rest of his costume hastily and pulls on slacks and a long undershirt, not bothering with his tie or vest. Those can wait.
"Okay," he says, and Rorschach drops his arm but doesn't turn to face him. "I…" He stops, rethinks his tactic. "You sure you don't want me to look at that arm?" He brushes his fingers over the med kit on his table, open from the last time he'd had to use it. Rorschach does turn, then, and though he's not giving his thoughts, he does seem to be considering it.
"No," he decides. "It's fine."
Dan shrugs. "Suit yourself." But that leaves him with the conundrum of how to continue this; he has no real leads to guide him that seem appropriate. Rorschach tucks his undamaged hand in a pocket and stares, presumably at Dan. "So," Dan draws after a moment. "Would…would you like some coffee? Or something?"
He guesses he hit his mark by the way Rorschach grunts and turns his head away. Some progress is better than none, so Dan works up a smile and gestures towards Rorschach, starting for the stairs. "Well, come on, then," he says, hoping Rorschach's violent tension won't resurface and result in a smashed kitchen. He doubts that's likely, but it still niggles at the back of his mind as he and a less-than-reluctant Rorschach head up into the kitchen.
It isn't until they are both seated at the table with mugs of coffee in hand that Daniel decides it's time to try and breach the ice again. He eyes the empty sugar cube wrappers scattered over his table, mostly from Rorschach's pockets, and sips at his coffee. Coffee at 3 a.m. Brilliant. "So," he starts slowly, nudging a wrapper across the table. Rorschach gulps down a mouthful of coffee and clears his throat. "Everything okay?"
Rorschach sets down his mug and extracts a sugar cube from the jar on the table. He takes care unwrapping it and touches a side with his tongue before dropping it in his coffee. Daniel waits. Rorschach will talk in his own time or not at all; there's no use pushing it.
Daniel's mug is down to its dregs when Rorschach finally sucks in a steadying breath and turns to Daniel. "I shouldn't have compromised the mission like that." It sounds like he's practiced the speech a hundred times. "It's…difficult." His fingers fumble over his seventh sugar cube's wrapper. "There are some things that blind me to what is important. I will not let that affect our missions anymore." He opens and closes his mouth, starts to nod but changes his mind, and turns his face away from Dan in an abrupt way that couldn't be more awkward.
Dan swirls his coffee and pretends to study his wall in thought. Rorschach clears his throat and picks up his mug, but it's empty and he sets it down again. "Okay," he finally says, turning his attention back to Rorschach. "All right. It's fine. We all get carried away sometimes, yeah? Besides, you're the one who saved our asses out there tonight."
Rorschach nudges a wrapper across the table and remains silent. Dan wishes he could see his face, read his expression for what it really is - for all knows, Rorschach could be grinning at Daniel's gullibility or silently crying about his loss of control. He could also be as neutral as his mask. The only motions that betray him are his fingers, teasing wrappers, flitting from one to the next as flighty as a spider.
"Really," Dan says. "It's okay. And, I mean, if you want, er," the coffee mug in his hands is suddenly very interesting, "if you want to talk about anything, I'm here."
Rorschach shakes his head and his hand goes still, both black and untarnished sleeves neat against the tabletop. Dan realizes that the smell in the airship was probably just burnt fabric, and he almost apologizes for thinking something so stupid. He doesn't, of course, but the feeling remains. They sit that way for a long time, silent as church mice. Somehow, it's not uncomfortable, and when Dan feels the first pull of sleep he doesn't bother to ask Rorschach if he'd like to stay the night. The answer is already there, laid out between them, and Dan's not sure when it happened but he's glad for it.
He gets to his feet, gingerly plucks Rorschach's mug from between his arms, and sets to rinsing them out. When he turns around, the clock on the stove reads 4:37, and Daniel is only a little surprised. He sweeps the wrappers off the table and dumps them in the trash.
"I'll lay out some blankets," Daniel says, and yawns as he passes through the kitchen. Rorschach follows him, rubbing his cheek under his mask. It occurs to Dan that perhaps Rorschach had cried, and he'd feel guilty for not comforting him if he didn't know that Rorschach would've turned him away (but maybe, he thinks, and dismisses it because he's muddled enough already, tonight).
When he returns to the living room with a comforter and pillow, Rorschach's sitting straight-backed on the couch. Instead of making a bed around him, Daniel lays the things on his coffee table and turns to Rorschach, brushing his hands over his pants. "Well," he says, and it occurs to him that this would be awkward for anyone else, "good night."
Rorschach stops him with a hand on his arm, and the burnt leather makes goose bumps prickle on Dan's skin. He wonders how much it hurts. He wonders if he'll ever know. Rorschach only stares at him, mouth a thin, serious line, and Daniel wants to smooth a hand over his cheek, but the impulse passes. He waits.
Rorschach swallows once, twice, then looks away and squeezes Daniel's arm. His hand slides away, and it's gone. Dan shuts his eyes, breathes in deep to keep himself from doing something to drive Rorschach away. Instead, he lays a hand on Rorschach's shoulder and returns the pressure. He meets no resistance, and with that he goes upstairs.
He doesn't fall asleep for a long time. He keeps thinking about the cocaine falling like snow and the way Rorschach murmured ma'am, and when he goes downstairs the next morning, he's unsurprised to find Rorschach sitting, still, with his elbows on knees, face in hands, blankets untouched.