A/N: Written for a kinkmeme prompt – 'I'd like to see a fic where, somehow, Dan loses everything. He's in trouble and completely out of his depth, and Rorschach is the one who has to reach out and protect, for a change.'


Dan Dreiberg empties the dregs of his third cup of coffee, and pours himself a fourth. He washes the spoon, dries it and puts it in the cutlery drawer. Wipes down the counter. Folds the dishcloth. Tries to find something else to stall with, but his kitchen is spotless.

He sighs, and slowly sits down to survey the evidence of his ruin.

He's in trouble, and for once it's not something that punching a criminal can solve. He's got paperwork fanned out across his table, a sea of bank statements and bills with angry red print and bold lettering; months of neglected warnings. He'd left his unopened mail to accumulate, since it had seemed so trivial in the grand scheme of things – and he was rich, after all. Everything had always taken care of itself.

It seems that his funds had been dwindling for a while, and Archie's latest overhauls had drained the very last of his resources.

Stupid, he thinks. Stupid naïve boy. Head in the clouds, pissing your money away without a care in the world.

But it can't have all gone on Archie, surely? He has a pen in one hand; feels like he should underline and circle and make cramped notes in the margins – follow the money, see if there's a leak, plug it – but he doesn't know where to start.

He drops the pen and takes off his glasses, folds and places them neatly to one side, pushes his fingers into his hair and tries not to panic.

[#]

Three hours later he's none the wiser, though the borderline hysteria has faded into a kind of numb detachment, so at least he can look at the letters properly without feeling like he's going to start hyperventilating. He stacks the papers into an orderly pile, weighs it down with his calculator and pushes it to the corner of the table for now. He's going to lose the brownstone; he's defaulted on five months' payment and the window of opportunity for sorting out that particular mess with the S&L has long since slammed shut. As far as they're concerned, he's ignored every one of their warnings.

With shaking hands, he makes a note to file for bankruptcy first thing tomorrow.

Waiting for a new pot of coffee to brew (he's lost count of how many cups he's had), he switches on the radio to catch the tail end of the news. There are heavy footfalls from the basement steps, easily heard over the tinny chatter; Rorschach making his presence known.

He takes a deep breath, thinks about how to explain his situation without bringing the full weight of his partner's disapproval crushing down on him. Rorschach isn't well off, he knows that much. Dan suspects he lives dangerously close to the breadline, but he never mentions it, never complains, gets by with thriftily mended clothes and the very occasional delve into Dan's kitchen cupboards.

Dan feels a little sick. He's well aware that their partnership was borne of mutual convenience rather than necessity, and he'd never thought of Rorschach as being dependent upon him for anything. The realization is startling.

The radio clicks off. Rorschach mutters something about the liberal bias of NPR by way of a greeting, helps himself to a mug of fresh coffee and sits at the table.

"Hey," says Dan. "I have some news."

Rorschach is already leafing through the papers, spreading them in an overlapping, cryptic arrangement – the same thing he does every couple of days with his right-wing rag and Dan's copy of the Gazette.

"It's um. It's not good," he continues.

"Foreclosure, Nite Owl?" Rorschach sounds almost incredulous. "Reneging on your obligations?"

"I— No! Er, yes. Technically. I didn't know." Dan slumps into the opposite chair. "God, I had no idea. I know it's not an excuse, but. I just. Oh Jesus, it's all such a mess."

"Ehn. Bad. Very bad, Daniel." One gloved fingertip is resting on a bill, pen hovering.

"I know that," Dan says defensively, sliding the paper away. "I'm doing my best to sort things out, okay?"

Rorschach carefully places the pen down on the table. "Wasn't a criticism. House will be repossessed, very bad situation."

Dan shuffles the papers back into a pile, sighing. "Yeah, it is. I spoke to Hollis already, he can store most of my gear at the yard. I'll be living out of Archie until I get a job and find a new place."

Rorschach grunts. Dan recognizes the tone. "What?" he asks, trying to decide which flaw in his plan Rorschach is going to pick at first.

"Refueled lately?"

Dan grimaces.

"It's January, Daniel. Will be very cold." Rorschach's fingers grasp the edge of the table, leather leaving grubby marks on the freshly-polished surface. "Besides, it would draw attention, Owlship always flying over the city. Or if you want to keep grounded, where? No, impractical. Can't live like that."

Dan takes off his glasses and drags a hand down his face, covers his mouth. "What am I going to do?" he says weakly. "God, Rorschach. What am I supposed to do?"

Rorschach has become very still, inkblots drifting slowly between different pseudo-expressions, all of them stern. The kitchen is quiet save for the clock ticking and the periodic gurgle of the coffee percolator. "Can show you how," he says finally.

Dan can usually follow the lateral thinking and occasional disconnect, but he's perplexed this time. "Huh?"

"How to survive." Rorschach clarifies. He stiffens, squaring his shoulders, inscrutable gaze fixed somewhere over Dan's right shoulder. "Can stay. At my place. If you like."

"Rorschach," Dan says, not even trying to hide his surprise, nor his sudden embarrassment at the realization that Rorschach may have thought he was angling for such an offer.

He can't deny that he's tempted, but he's under no illusions. Living in close proximity will drive him nuts in next to no time; he's familiar with many of Rorschach's awful habits (he's caught him putting unwashed cutlery back in the drawer enough times). And yet, here's an opportunity – presented by the man himself, no less – to know things about him.

Probably more than Dan really wants to know, if he's honest with himself.

"I— Thanks, man. But I couldn't impose."

"Have always been generous with your hospitality. Would like to return the favor." Rorschach seems agitated, words fired in clipped rounds, fingers tightening on the table edge.

Dan stares levelly at his partner. "You don't owe me, you know. You don't need to do this out of some sense of obligation. Besides, I don't want to intrude on your... civilian life, and it's, uh, always been pretty clear you don't particularly want me to, either."

Rorschach stands, chair scraping loudly across the tile. "Very little choice," he says. "For either of us. Get your things."

[#]

It's late evening, muddied and compacted snow frozen over into a lumpy, perilous gauntlet, dirty ice sparkling under the orange streetlights. Dan follows Rorschach through the jigsawed backstreets of the borough, keeping a discreet distance between them. He's uncomfortable enough wearing his costume beneath his everyday clothes (too bulky to pack) without the added risk of blowing his identity by association.

Finally, Rorschach pauses at the back of some run-down tenements, and gestures: up.

"How is this going to work?" Dan says, shoving his holdall onto the roof and clambering up from the fire escape. He's sweating despite the temperature; the layers of his uniform make for good insulation. Rorschach is crouched on the edge a few feet away, waiting for him. "Am I going to have to do this every—"

"Same number of steps on the inside, Daniel," Rorschach says, dryly. "Landlady won't be pleased to find I have a long-term guest, would appreciate your discretion. In here." He swings down, feet finding purchase on the sill, and slips inside the half-open window.

"Long-term," Dan says defeatedly, following with twice the effort and half the elegance. He drags the holdall in after him, and drops it on the floor as Rorschach hits the light switch. The bare bulb flickers on, casting its feeble glow over the room.

Wow. Well. No wonder he spent most of his time in Dan's kitchen.

"Excuse the mess," Rorschach says, in a tone that suggests he expects Dan to do anything but. He shrugs out of his trench and hangs it on the back of the door. "Wasn't expecting company."

"I see," Dan says, carefully neutral.

The room smells musty, like it needs a good airing, but judging by the dark blossoms of damp on the ceiling and walls, that wouldn't do much good in the long term. The wallpaper is peeling off in some places and is entirely gone in others. There's a couple of different colors in evidence, old decor revealed in onion-skin layers, recounting a history of chintz. The floor is bare save for a rug, which on closer inspection turns out to be a fraying carpet remnant, any pattern long since obliterated.

There's something that Dan would be hard pushed to call a kitchenette in the far corner, just a cheap laminate worktop (stacked high with tinned goods and packets of ramen, both empty and unopened), a small sink with a cold-water faucet, a kettle, and a hot plate in a condition that contravenes any number of heath and safety regulations. Dan picks up a familiar mug from among the canned goods. It features a cartoon owl with 'hoot!' in a speech-bubble.

Rorschach has the good grace to seem abashed, and may have even been on the brink of a justification disguised as an apology, but he's interrupted by a vigorous thumping on the door.

"Kovacs," a female voice says, muffled. "I know you're in, I can hear you moving about."

Rorschach visibly starts, and the sudden movement makes Dan realize just how tightly wound he is. "Rent is not due for another three days," Rorschach says in a raised voice, a strangled edge to it.

"Don't you forget it!" A final thump for emphasis, and there's the sound of retreating footsteps.

Rorschach lifts his fedora and slides a hand over the back of his head, rumpling his mask. Dan thinks of the way he tugs his own fingers through his hair when he's embarrassed. He must be mortified.

"Uhm—" Dan begins, wondering if he should pretend that he hadn't just learned Rorschach's surname in a devastatingly anticlimactic fashion.

"This isn't going to work," Rorschach growls, before Dan can say anything. He tosses his hat onto the narrow cot and paces the short length of the room. "Logistically. Too risky to be in uniform here, even using window rather than door. Will inevitably be spotted." He halts next to Dan. "Ehn. Been here ten minutes and have already had my identity compromised."

"Shitty day, huh." Dan tries to sound adequately sympathetic.

The mask shifts in a series of diabolic patterns. Dan gets the distinct impression he's being glared at.

"Okay, okay. I'll speak to Hollis. See if I can beg his couch until this fiasco is sorted. I really don't want to be trouble."

Rorschach shakes his head. "That wasn't what I meant. Already know where I live. Surname. Can learn a lot from that."

Dan rolls his eyes. "I'm not going to investigate you, Rorschach. I mean. It's not like you dug up all the information you could find about me, once I told you my name and where I lived—

Rorschach interrupts with a non-committal noise.

"—kidding. I know that's exactly what you did." Dan grins at him. "So. What's the plan?"

Rorschach tugs the sleeves of his suit jacket over his shirt cuffs, an idle habit for anyone else but a stalling gesture from Rorschach if Dan's even seen one.

With sudden decisiveness, he reaches up to gather the fabric of his mask between his fingers, and pulls. Dan opens his mouth, means to say wait, or what are you doing, or are you sure you want to do this. Silences the small, unexpected voice that says, let me do that for you.

But he finds it impossible to articulate anything. Dan can only watch helplessly as Rorschach is flayed away by inches, revealing the man beneath.

[#]

His given name is Walter, and he's a sour-faced redhead with eyes like mud. He makes them coffee in silence; instant, whitened with powdered milk because he doesn't have a refrigerator, and over-sweetened with sachets of sugar pilfered from various fast food joints.

"Thanks," Dan says, warming his hands on the mug. It's creeping towards eleven at night, and it is freezing. The elderly radiator is broken, and the window rattles in its rotten frame, letting frigid air and city noise seep in.

Rorschach – Walter, god, he's never going to get used to that – nods at him and sits opposite, cross-legged on the floor. Dan can't help but steal glances at his face. He never put much thought into what his partner must look like under that ever-changing latex (and he admits to himself with resignation: it's because he's already beyond fascinated with the mask). He'd seen his mouth and jawline enough times that he reckons he could have picked him out of a line up, but the unkempt ginger curls and the hollow, acne-scarred cheeks and the freckles aren't features he'd ever had attributed to the Terror of the Underworld.

Rorschach scowls at him. He seems to only have two expressions: irritated, and carefully blank. Dan misses the inkblots already.

"Pay attention," he says, gesturing with a red sharpie at the arrayed paperwork. "Here, in August. What was this transaction for?"

"I still don't remember." Dan rubs at his eyes, knocking his glasses askew. "I've already waded through this crap for hours today without figuring anything out. Can we give it a rest until the morning?"

"It's Friday tomorrow," Rorschach says. At Dan's puzzled expression, he explains slowly, "I have to work."

"You hold down a day job?" God, no wonder he looks so ragged. To go out almost every night and do what they do, then pull a full working day? That takes dedication, real drive. Possibly an unhealthy obsession. Dan finds that he isn't as surprised as he sounds.

"Apartment doesn't pay for itself. Don't have the luxury that wealth affords," Rorschach says, with only a hint of vitriol – Dan can see he's taking his hosting duties seriously. Rorschach circles a figure in spreading red ink, trails a connecting line to an amount on a different bill.

"Yeah, well," Dan sighs. "Neither do I, not any more. Gonna get some sleep."

"Hnh." Rorschach continues his annotating without looking up. "Spare linen is under the bed. Hope floor is acceptable."

Dan's too tired and miserable to even care about brushing his teeth or washing, so he drags out a musty blanket (without taking too close a look at whatever else might be lurking under Rorschach's bed), and surreptitiously shakes out as much dust and other unidentifiable debris as he can. His holdall makes a impromptu pillow, and he falls asleep to the squeak of marker pen on paper.

[#]

He doesn't sleep well, drifting in and out all night. The room is dimly lit the first couple of times he wakes up; Rorschach has moved from the floor to the table and is still poring over his paperwork. Dan feels a pang of guilt at leaving him to sort out his mess, and it manifests as convoluted, unsettling dreams when sleep takes him again.

At some point, Rorschach is crouched next to him in the dark, watching. That's inexplicable enough to be a dream, too.

The light is out the next time he wakes, and his toes are painfully numb. He tucks the blanket around his feet and tries to get back to sleep, but the floor is making his hip and shoulder ache so he rolls himself into a position that's marginally more comfortable, and listens to the clamor of the streets. It's so loud here; every tire squeal and raised voice and rumbling bassline demands his attention.

Rorschach lives in the heart of it all, Dan realizes. Breathes it every moment, is neck-deep in it, never detached from the squalid reality. Part of it. Not cloistered away in a comfortable townhouse, cosseted by wealth.

He can see the shadowy form of his partner curled on the bed, the steady rise and fall of his outline as he sleeps. Dan finds a new thread of understanding, feels it wind tightly around his heart.

[#]

The early morning is shrouded in winter's dark cloak, dawn still hours away. The building is mostly quiet – only the occasional thump or slam or squalling infant – the majority of its occupants probably rise with the sun. Rorschach, though, seems to run on his own internal clock. Despite setting no alarm, he is already up.

Dan can hear him. Heavy, short breaths, accompanied by a rhythmic creaking.

Oh, god help me, he thinks, and squints one eye open.

Rorschach is doing a set of push-ups, floorboards complaining as lean, muscled arms exert force against them. Dan watches for a couple of seconds longer than he can feasibly explain, then sits up and fumbles for his glasses.

"Good morning," Rorschach rasps, voice rusty from sleep. He's barefoot, wearing a pair of gray slacks and an undershirt. Something nags at Dan, and it takes him a moment to put his finger on it – the suit jacket and trench must make him look broader across the shoulders, and the fedora adds a little more to his height. He's actually a pretty small guy, for all his presence. He turns the thought over like a curiosity; something peculiar and fascinating.

Rorschach flows to his feet with practiced ease, bends over to paw through a pile of laundry at the end of the bed. The muscles of his back flex beneath the undershirt as he extracts an odd pair of socks and a rumpled green shirt.

Dan makes an indistinct noise that can hopefully be interpreted as a complaint about the ungodly hour, and limps stiffly towards what he should be the bathroom door. Rorschach doesn't try to stop him, so he guesses he figured right. His limbs are aching and he could do with a shower.

It's pitch dark and the pull-cord light switch doesn't illuminate things for him, but the buzzing fluorescent tube over the mirror works well enough. He kind of wishes it didn't; the mildew propagating between the tiles is probably entitled to voting rights. He squints at himself in the fractured mirror, rubbing at the textured imprint the holdall has left on his cheek.

He regards the toilet lid with some trepidation, and after lifting it a couple of inches he loses his nerve and decides to take a shower first. He strips and steps into the yellowing tub (careful not to touch the slimy-looking shower curtain), and turns on the faucet.

He yells – shrieks – when he's doused with a jet of icy water, stumbling out of the bath to shiver and drip onto the floor. Yeah, that was just what he needed. Swearing to himself, he towels off as best he can with his own shirt and pulls yesterday's pants back on, the fabric clinging uncomfortably to his damp skin. He shuffles back through to the living area, teeth chattering.

"Have to be up earlier if you want hot water," Rorschach says, eyeing Dan as he pulls a fresh shirt out of his bag.

"Thanks for that," Dan grumbles. Asshole. "Good morning to you, too."

"Will be back by quarter of six," Rorschach says. "Might want to take a look at that, in the meantime." He nods in the direction of Dan's paperwork, stacked on the table.

Dan smiles grimly. "Thanks. I will. Enjoy your day."

"Funny," Rorschach says, closing the door behind him.

[#]

Dan spends most of the morning standing on line at the bank, only to find he doesn't have the right bits of paperwork with him and that he filled in at least one of the myriad forms incorrectly, despite checking and double-checking. The perfectly-coiffed girl behind the desk is cheerful and polite as she explains where he went wrong, but she can't seem to maintain eye contact. He's acutely aware of his unironed clothes and the stubble on his jaw, and every time her smile falters, Dan's spirits sink a little lower.

He stops by at Hollis' at lunchtime, intending to thank him in person for taking care of the more incriminating items in his basement. Hollis ushers him in off his doorstep and sits him in the chair near the fire, and brooks no argument as he plies Dan with sandwiches and cola.

"I just feel like such an idiot," Dan says, finishing the last of his drink.

"So you should," Hollis says sternly, refusing to indulge his self pity. "It's not all about beating the bad guys, son. You gotta keep track of these things, too."

"I know," Dan mumbles, scritching Phantom behind one ear and sneaking him a bread crust. "I can't thank you enough for helping me out, Hollis."

"Hey, think nothing of it. You need a place to stay for a few days?"

"I uh— that's okay, a friend came through for me." Dan grimaces. Jesus, why the hell am I blushing? Get a grip, Dreiberg.

"Oh, really?" Hollis grins knowingly. "Do tell!"

"Oh god. No, it's nothing like that," Dan says, aghast. "It's— I'm staying with Rorschach."

"Rorschach? Your partner, Rorschach? Mister He-never-tells-me-anything-about-himself? That Rorschach?" His expression battles between stunned and disbelieving. "No, you're pulling my leg. Really? How d'ya swing that one, Danny boy? I'm intrigued."

The fire crackles companionably. Dan closes his eyes and leans closer, letting it warm his face until his skin starts to prickle and redden. He shrugs slightly, trying for nonchalance. "He offered."

"Well, ain't that something." Hollis shakes his head, then stoops to collect up the dishes. His voice echoes through from the kitchen. "Been a strange couple days, huh?"

Dan pulls a face. "You have no idea."

"Here," Hollis says as Dan pulls his coat back on, preparing to leave. He pushes a couple of bottles of beer into his hands. "Take these. You look like you could use 'em."

[#]

There's a 'help wanted' sign in the window of the Gunga on the corner of 40th and 7th. Dan reads it over twice, knowing fine well he should go inside and ask about it, but his stomach flips at the thought. Tomorrow, he tells himself. When he's had more sleep, a shave, and hopefully a shower that's not sub-zero in temperature – and when he isn't secreting alcohol about his person like a bum.

He walks away from the restaurant so he doesn't have to stare himself down in the window's reflection. Coward, he thinks. What are you afraid of?

He wishes he knew. It's a nebulous apprehension; not easily explained, but not easily ignored, either. Change, he guesses. Finality. Acceptance that his life will be different now.

He stops by the brownstone to pick up the morning's mail. There's a letter from the bailiff on his doormat, among fliers for fast food and a couple of polythene-wrapped magazines, beaded with moisture. He turns the envelope over in his hands a few times, then stuffs it in his back pocket without opening it.

His house is too quiet, like he's been gone for months and not just overnight; he almost feels like an intruder, breaking the tenuous stillness with his rummaging. He digs out his sleeping bag from the back of the linen closet, and gathers whatever he can carry out of his kitchen cupboards. After a moment's consideration, he adds to the pile a pair of rubber gloves, and a bottle of the most potent cleaner he can find.

Dan stands in the doorway for a moment on his way out, late afternoon sun throwing long, golden shapes over his hallway floor, and tries to imagine never coming back.

[#]

It's getting dark again by the time Dan reaches the tenement building, but he still feels conspicuous scaling the fire escape in the half-light – more so than if he had been dressed as a giant owl. He can't quite manage to appreciate the irony, hanging from the rooftop by his fingers.

He shimmies into the window with a bit more grace this time, and drops an exaggerated bow to the empty room. "Thank you, I'll be here all week," he says to nobody in particular. "Oh, god."

He slings his sleeping roll down next to the cot, stacks the food he brought next to the pile already on the worktop.

Dan pulls the letter from his back pocket and smooths it out on the table. It sits there menacingly, corners bent. Sighing, he pulls up the creaking chair, and makes an effort to be an organized and responsible adult – he cannot continue this pattern of avoidance, especially after Rorschach was up half the night doing this for him like a parent doing his kid's homework at the last minute.

A flush of shame heats his cheeks, but he still can't bring himself to open the letter.

It takes a little while – it's difficult to concentrate with the noise in the building; loud music and shouted conversation – but he figures out Rorschach's marks without too much trouble. He's highlighted everything that can't be accounted for in the utility letters and bills and the fistful of receipts Dan brought with him. He marks some smaller, round figures that were probably ATM withdrawals, and the irregular figures that were holiday gifts, or groceries and similar sundries.

Most of the larger sums are aviation fuel for Archie, and there's a series of transactions that Dan knows are for particular mechanical parts and electronics, used to upgrade the engine and console.

The rest, though – regular, sizeable figures, four or five times a month, transferred to an unknown source? He has no definite idea of what they are, but he has an increasingly strong suspicion that he half-hopes is correct. With the right information, it's something Nite Owl might be able to do something about.

A key scrapes into the lock, rattles violently; the door opens under the impact of Rorschach's shoulder. He kicks it shut behind him.

"Hi, honey. How was your day?" Dan prays that his delivery is as deadpan as he thinks.

Rorschach fixes Dan with a look so filthy it makes him squirm (and his pulse pick up). He really misses the inkblots; at least they would let him pretend that expression could be casual indifference. Everything is so stark and raw now, truth laid open to the bone, and Dan's not so sure he's comfortable with that.

"Same as every day," Rorschach growls. "Shiftless clock-watchers taking every opportunity to shirk their duties, idling away hours at a time, prattling about trivialities. No respect for an honest day's work. Laughter is like nails down chalkboard, sets my teeth on edge. Feels like chewing grit for eight hours."

"Huh," Dan says. "Well, I did ask. Feel better for getting that out?"

"No."

Of course not. Dan taps his pen on the tabletop, letting the impact slide it through his fingertips. "What do you do, anyway?"

Rorschach hesitates for a moment, then deftly twists the pen from between Dan's fingers before it hits the table again. "Stop that," he mutters. "Enough noise, without you."

Dan knows a pointedly unsubtle change of subject when he sees one. His curiosity flares brightly in response, but Rorschach is clearly not in a forthcoming mood. Well, even less so than usual.

"I was just thinking," he says instead, hand flattened over a stack of bank statements. "What do you know about fraud?"

[#]

Not a lot, as it transpires; their work has always been with the less subtle, more immediately violent sector of the criminal fraternity. Rorschach says he knows some people who do, though. And by 'knows', Dan takes him to mean 'has beaten the shit out of, probably on several occasions'.

Rorschach has stashed Dan's costume alongside his own in a nondescript box, half-covered by garbage bags and sodden newspaper in a corner of a dead-end alley. Dan's not sure he could find the same spot again if he tried – the route is convoluted, snaking. It's not because he is distracted by the novelty of walking the streets shoulder-to-shoulder with Walter, neon and shadow saturating his unforgiving features.

He moves the same, even without the mask. Same purposeful stride, same tilt of the head that always spoke of sharp eyes, glittering and watchful. Those eyes may have proven to be flat and emotionless, but they're no less perceptive.

Dan realizes he's been distracted a lot, lately.

"You could've always come to the Owl's Nest to change, you know," he says, cringing as his bare foot slides in something viscous and gritty. He leans against the alley wall to pull his other boot on. "It'd be a bit less— uh."

There's a dismissive sound from behind the dumpster sitting adjacent. "Academic, now." Rorschach emerges, adjusting his scarf with the soft creak of glove leather, suddenly larger than life.

"You ever been caught?" Dan asks, encompassing the alleyway with a tilt of his head. He fidgets with his cowl; the edge rolled against his face when he pulled it on, and his attempts to straighten it have been futile so far. He could use a mirror or some kind of reflective surface to sort the stupid thing out.

"Once," Rorschach grunts. He hesitates a moment, and Dan's next question dies in his throat as gloved fingers slip across his cheek to fix his cowl for him. "Don't want to talk about it. There."

Dan blinks, astonishment masked by his goggles. "Right. Thanks, buddy."

Despite their years working together, despite placing his life in Nite Owl's hands on a nightly basis, Rorschach would not have done that even a week ago. Would have balked at the very idea.

Strange couple of days, and getting stranger by the hour. Boundaries shifting and walls crumbling to reshape the familiar architecture of Dan's life.

He shakes his head, takes after the retreating form of his partner before the city envelops him.

[#]

"I can't think like this, man!" The kid is wailing, his back arched painfully over a bar stool, dreadlocked hair brushing the beer-soused carpet below. Rorschach has him pinned like a bug, hand pressed almost casually to his stomach, fingers digging into the soft flesh under his ribcage and skewing the circuit-board print on his t-shirt. One booted foot holds the stool steady as the punk desperately flails for purchase (that isn't a canvas trench coat) to haul himself upright with.

"Don't need to think, just tell us what you know," Rorschach growls, leaning heavily until the punk ceases his squirming and wheezes pitifully instead.

Nite Owl crouches next to the kid. His face is turning purple-red and spittle drools from his lips, slips down in a glistening string to bead in his hair. The other bar patrons shift uncomfortably in his peripheral vision. He ignores them; nobody ever wants to interfere when they're at work, even if it's something objectionable like two grown men roughing up a teenager. This is Rorschach's New York.

"Best do as he asks, son," Nite Owl says amiably, every bit the concerned good cop. "Because it's hard to snatch credit cards when your fingers are broken."

"Heh, you think this is some two-bit pickpocketing racket?" The kid strains out a thin laugh. "Oh man, you really have no fucking idea."

Rorschach yanks him up so they're face to face, stretching the fabric of his shirt as the kid recoils. "Enlighten us."

[#]

"Little information to give, just a runner with delusions of grandeur." Rorschach paces another length of the room as he turns the facts over out loud. He's positively animated, face bright and sharpened as he begins a stream-of-consciousness analysis. "Didn't know any names. Rendezvous points of minimal significance; different every time, won't correlate to base of operations. Hehn. Kid didn't even know what he was carrying."

"He said it was heavy," Dan says, leaning with one shoulder against the wall, arms folded. "That doesn't sound like credit cards. Besides, mine isn't missing. They're obviously doing this some other way."

Rorschach grunts in agreement. "Question is, how."

"And to how many other people," Dan says. "I might have been targeted because of my name; my— my father was pretty well-known in finance. Or it could have been random and the gang just hit paydirt. Either way, the kid seemed sure this wasn't a small deal."

"Hrm," Rorschach presses his fingers to his chin. "Will meet with my police contact tomorrow, check for any reports of similar theft. Think you can get any useful information from the bank?"

"Uh," Dan rakes his fingers through his hair, recalling his uncomfortable encounter that morning. "Not as Dan Dreiberg. I'm hardly their favorite person at the moment."

Rorschach nods, presses his lips together into something that might pass as a sympathetic expression somewhere.

"Aha, no," Dan jabs a finger in his direction. "You don't get to look at me like that, not now. Too late, buddy. We're onto something."

Rorschach snorts. "Early days yet, Daniel. Your situation could be unrelated."

"Are you telling me to get a job?"

"Just a suggestion."

[#]

Dan is awakened unceremoniously by a sharp nudge to his ribs. Rorschach is looming over him like a harbinger of doom, cast into shadow and haloed by the dim bulb behind him. It's dark outside (it always seems to be night here), and the tenements hold that pervasive silence, the way buildings do in the early hours.

He means to say, "It's Saturday morning, let me sleep," but it comes out more like "hrrnk". Great, not only is he starting to smell like him, now he's making noises like him too. He pulls his sleeping bag up to his nose.

Another prod, harder this time. Something is dropped onto his body, slides off onto the floor beside him with two gentle thumps. "Alright," he sighs, voice muffled under quilted layers. "What."

"Get up," Rorschach says. Nudge. "Come for a run." Nudge.

Dan sits up, presses each eye in turn with the heel of his hand, then retrieves his glasses from atop the sad bundle of yesterday's clothes. "Okay, okay. Jesus." His sneakers are lying where they were dropped, laces draped limply over the floor. "Do you always go running at stupid o'clock? Should I just give up hope of getting some decent sleep for the foreseeable future?"

"Had adequate rest. Too much fosters wickedness." The rebuke rolls of his tongue like something rote-learned. "Makes you complacent and slow. Get up."

Dan adds 'sleeping in' to his mental list of Things Rorschach Finds Morally Reprehensible, between 'skateboarding' and 'soap'.

Speaking of reprehension, he recalls the beers stashed in his coat pocket with a jolt and resolves to move the bottles before they are discovered. Rorschach knows he drinks; tolerates it when it's in Dan's own kitchen with only a cursory grunt of disapproval, but Dan suspects that bringing it into his home would be an entirely different matter.

He pulls on some sweats and the sneakers, struggles with the laces, distracted.

Rorschach frowns impatiently. "Might still be hot water when we get back, if you hurry. Here. Breakfast."

That's as much incentive as Dan needs. He takes the stale slice of bread Rorschach proffers, holds it in his mouth as they descend the fire escape, eats it slowly as he watches him warm up.

[#]

The streets are treacherous underfoot; churned-up slush is frozen in the gutters and a veneer of crunchy frost coats the pavement, glinting with deceptive beauty under the orange streetlights. It's bone-achingly cold and the city hibernates, the baseline hum of its slowly-waking denizens gathering intensity as the night sky crawls toward dawn.

Rorschach is jogging a few paces ahead of Dan, his hair a beacon against gloomy brickwork and tenebrous, mirror-dark windows. He's agile and sure-footed, setting a relentless pace as if the sidewalk isn't ice-rimed and precarious, stance subtly shifting to maintain his balance with each rhythmic footfall. His breath billows out in a ghostly fog, mingles with Dan's as he passes through the same space moments later.

They draw up several blocks on, in front of a newsstand. The chill air burns in Dan's lungs, making him cough and cough and brace his hands on his thighs.

The vendor greets them with a "morning, boys". He has coffee in a paper cup. It smells divine, and Dan is struck with an intense craving for something roasted and fresh, anything but the bland instant stuff that is only good for caffeine-delivery. He sighs.

Rorschach strips off one of his gloves (woolen, not the familiar purple leather) and produces a warm coin from the palm of his hand; wordlessly trades it for an edition of the New Frontiersman. Dan reaches for a Gazette and Rorschach catches his wrist, drops his hand back to his side, shaking his head. "Can find a copy elsewhere. Subway car, park bench. Library. Save your money."

The vendor narrows his eyes.

"Hey," Dan pulls his mouth into an unimpressed line. "You just bought—"

"Is not disposable like other publications. Not willingly discarded." He tugs his glove back on. "Hard to get as a consequence."

"I think you'll find that's because nobody else buys it," Dan retorts.

"Not true," Rorschach says, nodding to an older gentleman who has arrived at the newsstand. He's solidly built, his shoulders straining the seams of his winter coat, and he sports some remarkable facial hair. He nods back solemnly as he buys himself a copy of the paper in question.

Rorschach saves Dan the embarrassment of an apology by taking off back down the avenue, paper tucked firmly under his arm. Dan shoots the vendor a rueful smile, and follows.

The sky is transitioning through shades of gray as they return, with a wash of yellow on the horizon that promises a low, fierce sun.

The shower is lukewarm at best, but it's good on Dan's sweaty, cold body. The endorphin rush is slowly ebbing away and he's feeling pretty zen; even the moldy shower curtain isn't bothering him much. Rorschach's insistence on a morning run might have irritated him at the time, but he recognizes the gesture now. Rorschach is including him in his life, in his own peculiar way. The thought kindles a feeling that he can't quite pin down.

He washes quickly, leaving enough warm water for his partner.

[#]

"Shit," Dan mutters, calm dissipating in an instant. He upends his holdall over the cot, shakes it. "I thought I packed my razor."

Rorschach pulls on a shirt, dark blossoms diffusing through the fabric where it touches showered skin. He watches Dan impassively as he roots through his stuff with increasing frustration.

"I was going to— the Gunga has a position available. I was going to go down there today." He rubs at his cheek, bristles rasping under his calloused fingertips. "I can't go looking like this."

Rorschach grunts, disappears into the bathroom again.

Dan grumbles to himself; he can't afford to just go buy one, and he doesn't want to go back to the brownstone. If he can hold off the bailiffs long enough by simply not being present to sign a possession order—

Something shining and metal hovers in his peripheral vision, glinting dangerously. He registers weapon and his reflexes kick in before he can process the situation rationally; he spins to grab Rorschach's wrist and yank it up, twisting the straight-razor from his hand. Wide-eyed astonishment sharpens into something instinctual and Rorschach counters with an equally spontaneous elbow to Dan's shoulder. The pair of them stagger apart, hearts racing with the sudden flush of adrenaline.

"Jesus, Rorschach," Dan says, exhaling shakily. "Sorry, I—"

"My fault," Rorschach says gruffly, bending to pick up the razor and the ragged hand-towel that had been lost in their skirmish. There are bright spots of color high on his cheeks, and his ears are pink. "Should have realized. Good reflexes."

That sounded dangerously close to an apology. Dan gapes, fumbles his words trying to attribute blame to himself then falls silent as Rorschach offers him the straight-razor again, handle first. Dan takes it slowly, turns it over in his hands. "Thank you, but...I don't know how to use one of these," he says. "I'd end up slitting my own throat."

He really, really wishes he hadn't seen the muscle under Rorschach's left eye twitch.

"Sit down," Rorschach says in a tone that's so close to long-suffering that it makes Dan grin.

He keeps grinning as Rorschach sharpens the blade with the ball of his thumb, and as he draws a mug of water from the kitchenette faucet. His cheeks start to hurt when he advances on Dan with a lathered shaving brush.

"Stop that," Rorschach says flatly. "Relax."

Rich, coming from a guy who's about as relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake, and only half as pleasant. The smile drops off Dan's face.

He barely flinches when the cool metal touches his cheek; he would congratulate himself on his own bravery if he wasn't so distracted by Rorschach's fingers holding his chin, thumb pressed beneath his lower lip as the blade scrapes his skin. His eyes are turned down, focused intently under pale lashes.

Oh shit, Dan thinks, and lets his own eyes fall shut. He can feel the man's breath on his face, on sensitized, freshly-shaven skin, and adrenaline is still pulsing through his system, making his palms sweat and oh shit he actually smells clean just soap and—

The blade skates down his neck in a final, sensuous sweep and there's no way Rorschach can have missed his hammering pulse. Dan thinks he's going to do something very stupid in a moment if he can't, if he doesn't—

The blade vanishes, replaced by calloused fingertips tracing his jawline. Just checking the shave, Dan thinks as he leans forward and kisses him. Shit.

[###]