The door clicks shut as Rorschach leaves for his day job. Dan flops back onto the cot with a deep sigh that's just a little too shaky to be contented, and rakes his hands through greasy, unkempt hair. Rorschach's earnest attempt at intimacy has left him feeling strange and restless. It's clear how hard he's trying, and something so simple as a kiss is a big deal – one he initiates, even more so. It's like yet another mask has been shed.

Layers upon layers, and the idea of digging through them all makes Dan a little queasy. God knows how many more he will have to peel back, before they can—

Before they can what? Have a normal relationship? The absurdity of the idea makes him want to howl until his sides ache.

He's not sure what either of them are in this for, but he's pretty sure it's not the sex. It's not like he's been won over by Rorschach's scintillating personality, either.

Maybe it's just another manifestation of their fucked-up codependency. Maybe this will never progress beyond the tentative press of fingertips, and shared body-heat in the middle of the night. And maybe he can deal with that.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. The word is starting to lose its meaning.

Dan doesn't know what time it is. Doesn't really care, because he has today off and he'll be damned if he's not going to foster some wickedness. His hands are cold, and when he curls his fist around dense heat it almost burns, makes him hiss and squirm.

He closes his eyes, and thinks of a face some would say only a mother could love.

[#]

Dan makes himself more useful later, at the municipal archives and the NYPL (with trademark subtlety, Rorschach had left his library card balanced on top of the kettle). He spends hours and hours in a mostly-empty reading room, poring over newspapers and cross-referencing microfiche until his eyes hurt.

By the time the clerk is hurrying him out of the building, several pages of his order pad are scrawled with details of a Roger Lamb - one time management at the Bank of New York; more recently an alleged white-collar criminal and proud owner of a string of acquittals for wire fraud and embezzlement.

I guess money really does buy freedom, Dan thinks ambivalently.

Outside, it's as dark and cold as ever; fat flakes of snow drift down to be swallowed by the slush-churned sidewalks. Dan pauses at the foot of the steps, and reaches up to rest one hand on Fortitude's stony paw.

"Almost through," he says to the lion. The statue stares ahead, impassive. Dan draws on his gloves, and grins. "You remind me of someone I know. Only you're a slightly better conversationalist." He pats the immense paw and walks away, negotiating the busy avenue.

[#]

"Danny!" He is greeted with Hollis' usual good cheer. It warms him, even if the diminutive is starting to make him cringe a little. "Come in, come in. Beer?"

"Hi, Hollis," Dan says, smiling as he is led into the living room, deflecting Phantom's insistent crotch-snuffling with practiced ease. The fire is crackling away as usual, casting shadows that flicker and jump. It's blissfully warm. "Ah, no. Not tonight, sorry. Working."

"You gotten yourself a job, then?" Hollis produces a cheese and pickle sandwich as if by magic, presses it into Dan's hand.

"Oh, yeah! Yeah, but - thanks - I meant work work. Sorry to say this isn't really a social visit, heh."

"Well, that's too bad. What can I do for ya, then?" Hollis lowers himself into his armchair, pops the cap off his beer with a churchkey.

"I need to suit up for the weather, it's cold enough to freeze hell out there. I came by to grab the winter uniform." He takes a bite of his sandwich; the soft bread seems ridiculously luxurious.

"You know, back in my day, I went out rain or shine in a pair of shorts..."

Dan laughs. "If you had thermal armor, you would've worn it though, right?"

"Oh, hell yeah. Lemme go fetch it for ya." He places his beer on the hearth as he gets up.

They walk out into the yard. Phantom sits on the threshold, more inclined to keep warm than follow them. Dan braces himself against the diagonal sleet and weaves between half-dismantled automobiles (and Archie's somewhat conspicuous tarpaulined bulk) until they reach the shuttered repair shop. The tracks squeal as Hollis lifts the garage door.

"So, hitting the streets tonight?" he asks, as the lights flicker on. The garage smells of motor oil and greasy metal; Dan is struck with an acute longing for his basement. "You're right. Filthy weather for it."

"Yeah. My, uh. My financial issues were partly down to some high-tech fraud game. We're gunning for the ringleader tonight. Some guy in Brooklyn Heights taking the banks for a ride."

"Not your usual territory, Danny boy." Hollis picks through his bunch of keys, then crouches to open a footlocker secreted under a heap of oily rags.

"I know. I'm kinda worried about it, to be honest." Dan hunkers down beside his mentor, helps him haul out the aquatic costume and the radiation suit to get at the thermal gear. "I dunno, it's...I mean, it's bank fraud, not narcotics or prostitution. Do I go about this the usual way? Can I just march in there and punch the guy out? Maybe I should just wait and let the cops take care of it this time."

"You're working the case with Rorschach, right?" Hollis straightens up with a groan, braces his hands in the small of his back.

"Yeah, of course." The Snow Owl suit warms quickly under Dan's hands; he bundles the gauntlets and cowl up in the cloak and nestles his finger into the downy fabric. "Okay, I see your point. Um. This isn't gonna be pretty, is it?"

"Probably not. Best foot forward though, and don't smile too wide when the papers take your picture." Hollis grins at him, switches off the lights as they exit. "So, how's living packed like sardines working out for you two?"

"Well," Dan says, pausing as the door rattles down. He should probably think of something suitably neutral, but blurts out, "he blows hot and cold, you know? I can't really tell if—"

He shrugs and gestures vaguely. He's suspicious of the speculative look Hollis is giving him, even if it's entirely his own fault.

"You know," Hollis says, slowly. "Back in the day, Captain—"

"Oh, god, Hollis..." Dan interrupts him. "Not right now. I mean, thank you, but—"

"—you've got enough on your plate without this old fool meddling, I gotcha." There's no trace of hurt or indignation in his voice, to Dan's relief. "Go on, get outta here. Be seein' you!"

Dan pauses at the bottom of the stoop to wave a farewell, collar popped and shoulders hunched against the winter night. Hollis is silhouetted by the warm glow of his sitting room, and in that moment Dan wants nothing more than to sit at the hearth with a beer and listen to him ramble on with tales of the Minutemen for hours and hours.

[#]

Rorschach is sitting at the table, face as dolorous as ever, scraping the innards out of a tin of something that looks like beef stew and smells like ass. He doesn't so much resemble a lion as a scavenging stray; the impression is not easily dispelled when he scissors a chunk of gristly meat between his back teeth.

"That's pretty gross," Dan says, dropping his bundle on the cot. He decided to bring the uniform with him instead of stashing it, so he can change indoors. He's feeling particularly decadent today.

Rorschach just shrugs and chews, lets the fork clatter in the empty can. "Edible," he says, once he manages to swallow it down. "What did you find?"

Dan hands him the order pad, lets their hands brush. Rorschach shows no sign of even noticing, and Dan becomes uncomfortably aware that he hasn't so much as glanced at him since he got in.

"Okay?" he asks, a knot of anxiety forming in his stomach.

"Hrn." Rorschach leafs through the pages of Dan's neat handwriting, deliberately evasive. "As suspected, machinations of a rich man trying to get richer." He looks at Dan finally, eyes flicking to the shapeless heap of costume and back again. "Get changed."

Dan registers the way this mouth works around the words; the way the sinew of his neck tightens as he swallows.

It makes some kind of fucked-up sense. Rorschach has made his physical attraction clear, even if he struggles to act on it. It's probably easier for him to rationalize something like this; to maintain some plausible deniability with...consensual voyeurism, or whatever it is.

Emphasis on sensual, Dan tells himself and immediately feels self-conscious, then a little ridiculous. His fingers hesitate at the neck of his button-down. Oh, come on, he thinks. How many times have you taken the suit off in front of him without even thinking about it?

How many times.

He slips the buttons of his shirt and shrugs it off; the cold air roughs his skin into gooseflesh, and with a mild kind of horror, he feels his nipples harden. He looks up. Rorschach is watching him intently, arms folded across his chest, lips slightly parted.

"Uh," Dan says as he kicks off his pants and adjusts the waistband of his underwear. He flashes a grin, abashed. "It's cold in here. Don't judge me."

Rorschach just stares at him, unblinking.

He's so fucking weird sometimes.

Dan fishes a fresh pair of boxers from his holdall, then strips himself naked with one swift motion. There's no discernible reaction from his partner, stoic and restrained and leaning against the table.

No reaction, until he begins to zip on his costume, and then there's a stuttering rush of exhaled air.

Great, he gets off on me putting my clothes back on, Dan thinks, a cynical laugh threatening to bubble out of him. He probably should feel offended or something, but Dan's heard of stranger kinks, and the way Rorschach tries to adjust himself surreptitiously is completely distracting.

He draws the cowl over his head; the leather rumples around his neck. Rorschach finally breaks his silent vigil to step forward and pull it around his face, working the mask into place. His hands are warm and coarse.

"Nite Owl," he says, fingers dropping to curl into Dan's shoulder. He leans in, on his toes. Rubs his cheek against Dan's like a cat.

He's so short, and undefended without his hat and coat and mask. Just sinew and bone and pale skin, veins traced out in blue. Dan is very aware of how much broader and taller Nite Owl is; how much more imposing the armor makes him. It's a disorienting shift of power, and startlingly uncomfortable. Uneven. Not right.

He opens his mouth, tries to think of a way to explain this, without it sounding like a rejection.

They're so close, sharing breath now. The beef stew kind of makes it easier to break the mood.

"Walter," Dan says, apologetic. He touches his elbow.

It holds enough weight and significance. Rorschach takes a step back and visibly composes himself; deepens his breathing, squares his shoulders, tries and fails to suppress the brief flicker of frustration (and relief) that plays across his face. He nods. "Ready?"

"Ready," Dan says. He shrugs on his winter cloak, even though he is already stiflingly hot.

[#]

"Nice neighborhood."

The sidewalks have been cleared here, snow heaped in the gutters instead of being compacted into ice or stirred into brown slush. Yet more snow mantles the neat rows of townhouses, their windows glazed with blossoms of frost. The rimed skeletons of potted shrubbery stand guard on the stoops. Overhead, the stars are sharp and clear, glittering coldly in the night sky.

There's barely any graffiti, no huddled youths on the street corners, and all of the streetlights work. Dan has definitely felt out of place before, but never in uniform, out on the streets under the cover of darkness. "I think we're a bit surplus to requirements," he says.

"Hrn," Rorschach replies. If anything he looks even more incongruous, his noir styling stark and gritty against the pleasant backdrop of the neighborhood. "Forgetting why we're here? No better than downtown Manhattan. Still drugs and violence, still prostitution. Merely kept behind closed doors, hidden under a thin veneer of respectability. Hollow and dishonest. At least our streets don't try to hide their true colors."

Our streets. Dan has to smile at the grudging note of pride in his voice.

"Disgusting," Rorschach continues, as they stride past a residence with its drapes open. The room is lit up, displaying its sumptuous decor for anyone who cares to look. "Vulgar demonstration of wealth, gratuitous showcase of material possessions. Presume the owner is insecure, seeking validation from neighbors." A considering pause. "Or, perhaps inviting opportunists, no doubt in order to take advantage of a lucrative insurance plan."

"Don't you think you're being uncharitable?" Dan says, slightly wary of the way the conversation is headed.

A disdainful snort. "These people. They don't know the meaning of charity."

"Okay, that's bullshit." Dan stops, grabbing the sleeve of Rorschach's trench and bringing him to an abrupt halt. "You've sat in my kitchen, eaten my food, slept under my roof god knows how many times. How can you turn around and say something like that?"

Rorschach pulls his arm free, glares at Dan from beneath the stormclouds that are gathering across his brow. Dan knows what he wants to say: You're not like them. At least he seems to realize how hypocritical he would sound, excluding Dan from his sweeping value judgment (not that it's ever bothered him before).

They trudge on, icy pavement crunching under their feet.

"Is that how it is, then?" Rorschach says, head down. Trying a different tack. "Don't care to be your charity case, Daniel."

"You're being an asshole," Dan retorts sharply, rankled by that special brand of passive-aggressiveness that Rorschach reserves for people he isn't prepared to hit. "And I'm not in the mood to be guilted into an apology when I haven't said anything wrong."

It's another two dozen steps before Rorschach drags his hands from his pockets, and rubs his palms together in a strangely prim gesture. "Perhaps should have given my words more consideration," he says, another dozen paces after that.

"And?" Dan prompts, pushing it.

A puff of air crystallizes in front of Rorschach's mask. "And. That's not how it is," he says gruffly. "I know. I apologize."

"Good." Dan glances over at him. "Apology accepted."

"Simple as that?"

"Why make it difficult?" Dan shrugs, offers a mild smile. "You can pray a few Hail Marys later if it's penance you're after."

"Not religious," Rorschach says flatly. "Not any more." He slows his pace, makes a small gesture at one particular brownstone on the other side of the street. "That house, there."

Dan nods. "Around the back."

[#]

They scale the wall into the small square of yard, and loiter uncomfortably in the building's shadows, conscious of how suspicious they look. The house is dark, save for one window on the uppermost floor; the room lit with the green glow of a computer monitor.

Rorschach crouches by the back door, fishes a roll of lock picks from the inside pocket of his trench. He nudges up his mask to tug off his gloves with his teeth, spits them into his lap. He holds the torsion wrench between pursed lips while he selects the right pick.

Deft fingers twist and slide the tools into the keyhole. Dan watches, rapt, and tries not to give himself away.

"Stop that," Rorschach mutters, releasing the torque and starting over. And under his breath: "trying to concentrate."

"I can go stand somewhere else, if you like." Dan tries to feign innocence, grins despite himself.

Rorschach hushes him brusquely, and after a few more minutes of nimble maneuvering, manages to get the door open. "Poor quality lock," he says, pointedly. "Cheap."

"Yeah, yeah." Dan slips past him, into the darkened residence. It's densely warm in comparison to the frigid night air, and makes Rorschach's blots stir and spread. Dan feels his own face flush under the sudden change of temperature. "You can lecture me later, when I actually have a house to lock up."

They slink quietly through the kitchen and into the hallway. Dan's investigations turned up no evidence that Lamb has a wife or partner, or children; the single overcoat on the coat-rack seems to support that. Dan leans through a doorway into what must be the living room. Minimal decor, no pictures on the walls or framed photographs on the mantelpiece. If he does have a family, they're not the sentimental type.

Rorschach is standing at the foot of the stairs, gesturing impatiently: stop messing around. He jabs a gloved finger: upstairs.

Dan takes point, and finds he's decidedly unstealthy without the knowledge of which floorboards creak loudest. Rorschach fares better, two steps behind and learning from Dan's missteps. There's the rhythmic click of computer keys being struck, drifting from a room on the top floor. The noise doesn't falter; fortunately for them, their quarry must be intently focused on his task.

The door is closed. Without ceremony, Rorschach kicks it open.

"Holy—" Lamb scrambles out of his chair; fumbles a pistol from the waistband of his neatly-pressed slacks and aims it with unsteady hands. "What are you doing in my house!" he says, voice rising with an upswell of panic.

"Roger Lamb. Some discrepancies in your finances," Rorschach says, advancing on him. "Came to audit your accounts." He crowds the man into a corner of the room, grabs at him and Dan's heart leaps into his throat. Before he can urge caution, Rorschach twists Lamb's wrists upward; a deafening retort tears the air and sprays plaster down on them from the ceiling.

Rorschach grunts, and plucks the gun from Lamb's slackening grip. "Hope you have a license for this."

"Jesus," Dan mutters, ears ringing painfully as he shakes debris from his armor. He bites back the urge to snipe at Rorschach for his recklessness, takes the pistol from him instead and ejects the magazine.

Lamb seems less stressed now that there isn't a loaded firearm in play, and gives them some lip as Rorschach cuffs him. "Did you take a wrong turn at 42nd street?" he goads. "Shouldn't you be roughing up whores or something?"

Rorschach shoves Lamb into the wall, bristling; Dan catches his arm before he can slug him in the stomach. "Easy," he murmurs. Rorschach gives an irritable huff, but relents.

Dan leans over the office desk, inspects the setup. There's a stack of hard drives, daisy-chained together with a thick twist of cabling; they grind noisily in time with blinking lights on a device that he recognizes as a 600 baud modem. The beige monitor displays blocky lists of digits, cursor blinking expectantly at the bottom.

"Mm, sixty-four kilobytes of memory. Sophisticated stuff," Dan says, trying to suppress the enthusiasm in his voice, without much success. "You don't normally see this kind of telecommunications hardware outside of banks."

Lamb laughs derisively. "I don't know what you think you're doing," he says. "I know people, you realize." His designer shirt is smudged with powdered plaster and gunshot residue. "Lunatics. You think you can treat me like a common criminal?"

"Criminal is criminal, regardless of status," Rorschach curtly informs him.

"Like you would know," Lamb says, contempt plain in his voice. "You're no better than the scum you lock up. Animals."

Dan sits himself in the leather chair, taps at a few keys experimentally. It seems to be a fairly simple interface despite appearances; it responds to a few basic DOS commands. The display refreshes, a new stream of green digits stutter down the screen.

"Keep the streets safe for people like you," Rorschach is saying, equally venomous. "Can't avoid getting our hands dirty. Have learned not to expect gratitude."

"You've crossed the line, coming here," Lamb says. "Got ideas above your station. Who do you think— ufff"

"Rorschach," Dan says, sighing. He pages through a few more screens, sees a pattern beginning to emerge. "Okay, he's been interfacing between the bank and numbered offshore accounts, siphoning money using the decrypted data and routing it through—"

"Don't need the details, Nite Owl," Rorschach says. "Had enough of this. Call it in."

"Alright." Dan turns in the chair to address Lamb, who coughs and groans, doubled up as far as the cuffs will allow. "Hope you don't mind if I borrow your phone," he says. He lifts the receiver, disconnecting the modem with a harsh digital scream.

[#]

Neighbors twitch their drapes, or stand at their windows and watch openly as Lamb is escorted to a car and bundled into the back. Officers carry armfuls of equipment, lit up with the blue-red flash of police lights. Dan follows Rorschach's hasty retreat towards more familiar territory, keeps pace with little effort.

"Glad that's over," Dan says, the weight of the past couple of weeks already easing off his shoulders. God, is he glad. He's under no illusion though; Lamb will be bailed almost immediately, but it will be hard for him to buy himself all the way out of this one – especially once the money is returned to the accounts it came from.

Rorschach makes one of his noises. It could be an agreement, but he says nothing further.

After a long stretch of uneasy silence, Dan tries again. "Hey," he says. Rorschach glances at him briefly, marked by a slight tilt of his head. "Don't let what he said get to you. We do good work."

"I know that," Rorschach replies. "I'm not."

"Well, good. Okay." They walk onwards, ice crunching under their boots, turning into the alleyway that will take them to their hidden cache. Still, the silence simmers, and Dan can feel the pressure building up; everything is different enough that he can't not

"Okay. Okay, god, you know—" he says finally, and lets the words gush out unchecked. "You scared the hell out of— What were you thinking in there, walking right up to the guy when you could see he was armed? Jesus, man..."

Rorschach shrugs nonchalantly. "Wasn't pointing it at me, Daniel."

Wasn't pointing—

Of all the ways to—

He tips his head back, face to the heavens, and laughs; deep and honest and slightly too uncontrolled. Rorschach halts, waiting a few paces ahead for him to collect himself. Oh, you bastard. You stupid, arrogant, infuriating—

Dan barrels into him, hears the wind rush out of him as he thuds against the wall, but he recovers quickly enough and loops his arm around Dan's shoulders, pulls him down into an unexpectedly intense kiss. The latex slips over Dan's lips, slick and heated with Rorschach's breath; it makes his blood jolt and slam through him.

He presses his tongue against the thin barrier of fabric, slides inside Rorschach's mouth and is rewarded with a low, choked groan and hands that scrabble over his back and shoulders.

Dan's own hands coax Rorschach's body into a long arc, trail up to pull away the scarf, coat, shirt collar; peel him back (layers and layers and layers) until his neck is indecently bare. Rorschach smells of grime and blood and latex, and Dan can feel the vital thrum of his pulse when he mouths at freckled skin, tendon and muscle working as Rorschach sucks in air like he's drowning.

"Daniel," he says, voice rasping with the effort. Daniel, Daniel, always Daniel, except now that it's needy and breathless, Dan wants him to bite, wants his gloved fist to twist in his hair, wants to harness that raw violence for himself.

Dan's inhales, feels air catch and burn in his throat when Rorschach's fingers clench hard at the back of his neck, and pull him away.

[#]

It's reckless of them – if not downright stupid – but they scale the fire escape and tumble in through the window still fully-costumed. The repercussions could be dire: blown cover and no daytime face to hide behind, but that's an issue for later. It's not important right now. Even turning on the light isn't important right now.

They clash in the semi-darkness of the apartment, sickly light from the street outside drawn over them like camouflage and pooling the shadows between them, shrouding where they meet. The tenement is loud tonight, but the music and shouting is reduced to a hum, just static beneath the pounding in Dan's ears.

Rorschach's trench and hat and suit jacket are shapeless on the floor, and he is tearing at the trappings of Dan's armor with impatient hands. It's unbearably hot that he's doing this, that he wants to dismantle him like this, but he's moving like a predator and there's something about the sharpness of his motions that is concerning Dan; the harsh breath from his nose, the abrupt crash and turn of his mask.

It's far from the first time Rorschach has been angry at him, though usually the reason is more immediately obvious. Dan relishes the edge it brings, even as he knows he should stop, make sure he's okay.

"Steady," Dan says, hissing as a roughly-tugged zipper nips at his skin. Another piece of armor hits the floorboards, and he's down to his socks and underwear. "Hey, steady. What—"

Rorschach cuts Dan off with a still-gloved hand flattened against his bare chest and pushes, makes him step backwards to keep his balance. He sits clumsily when his calves hit the bed frame hard; there will be bruises tomorrow (maybe not just there).

Rorschach bears down after him, and even just in shirtsleeves he's intimidating enough, makes Dan give up his words and move until his shoulders are against the wall. It vibrates against his skin; driven by a heavy bassline somewhere in the building.

He's being straddled, Rorschach is pulling and moving him until they fit together as best they can, but there are too many uncompromising angles and lines for them to ever align perfectly. For a small guy he's heavy, dense muscles laid over that whipcord frame, sprung like a switchblade – but Dan knows that already, it's just another one of the inexplicable reasons he—

He closes his eyes, tips back his head (bares his throat) and tests an old fantasy, lets himself believe he's at his partner's mercy. He can feel the tight flex of Rorschach's inner thighs against him, the heat and weight of his cock pressed alongside Dan's own and god, it's almost enough just to feel that, to feel the heave of his chest and the pressure of his fingers where they dip into the flesh of his arm.

Dan grasps at his waist and rises against him. The friction spurs his pulse into a thunderous thing and narrows everything down to breath and hands and heat.

Rorschach groans, and hearing himself seems to trigger an immediate recoil; he shoves at Dan's shoulder hard, pulls away to slump back heavily. The fight goes out of him like a switch has been flipped.

"What is it?" Dan says, catching his breath. He knows better than to try to comfort him by drawing him close again, so he offers something else. "Hey...talk to me."

"This," Rorschach says tightly, and breaks off.

Dan charts the swell and break of his mask and can easily imagine the face beneath, eyes squeezed shut above a pained grimace.

"This." Rorschach tries again, more evenly. Slightly louder, over the building's noise. "Only know this from dark places. Alleyways." A difficult pause. "Tawdry apartments. Never thought I...ehn."

There's no condemnation in his voice, but the self-disgust is rolling off him in nauseating waves. Maybe it wasn't Dan he was angry at, after all. The thought makes him ache.

Dan risks his fingers to touch Rorschach's cheek briefly, teasing the ink into hypnotic swirls. They see the very worst of the city, sometimes, all the sordid, ugly little habits kicked out into the light. Each one leaves its own grubby mark, and he knows now – it's hard to get clean again, living between the cracks.

"It's not always like that," he says. It's weak even for a platitude, but he doesn't know what else to say.

"Yet, here we are." Rorschach sounds defeated, and bitter about it.

"Stop, then," Dan says. He shifts slightly, subtle indication that it's okay for Rorschach to move off him, if he wants. "It's alright."

Rorschach drags the mask off, wads it up into his hand. He looks either furious to the point of tears or utterly miserable, and Dan can't tell which. It's probably both. "You don't understand, Daniel," he says, voice choked. Leans in and kisses him hard, urgently, fist balled against Dan's jaw (latex bulging from between his fingers).

He's right; Dan doesn't understand at all, and it's pretty clear that sex will be anything but enlightening, no matter how much he wants it to be. Despite the lust cascading through him, heightened by that demanding mouth, he draws back. "Look...I don't think we should do this right now, buddy. You're—"

"No." Rorschach winds his fingers tightly into Dan's hair, pushes against him like he wants to melt right in. "Shouldn't." He pulls Dan's head back, scrapes crooked teeth over his throat, the underside of his jaw. He sounds lightheaded, distant. "Going to anyway."

"God," Dan says, the word high-pitched and shaking out of him, too loud in the small apartment. Rorschach picks up a rhythm, rutting against him with short, fierce jerks that make the bed rattle and creak. It's all Dan can do to cling to him and release soft little cries that counterpoint Rorschach's rough panting.

He starts, almost loses his grip as a loud thump lands near his ear; someone is pounding on the wall. Rorschach stills instantly.

"Hey, Kovacs!" His neighbor. There's diffuse, inebriated laughter; neighbor and friends. "Hey! You getting laid in there, man?"

There's whooping and crude urging, more laughter. Rorschach presses his forehead into Dan's shoulder, his body tensed and shaking. A pained noise escapes from between clenched teeth; abject humiliation.

"Jesus," Dan whispers, prickling with embarrassment. He rubs his hands down Rorschach's arms in the vain hope he can assuage some of his shame, but Rorschach pulls away, slips from Dan's lap and moves stiffly to brace himself against the table, head bowed.

Dan grabs a pair of pants, pulls them on and pads over to him. Hovers uncertainly, shivering. It's cold, without the heat between them.

The building caterwauls around them, disparate threads of shouting and music and arguments weaving into something inharmonious. It's a long time before Rorschach speaks. "You're going tomorrow," he says, uninflected and only just audible.

Dan's not sure if it's a question; he desperately hopes that it is. It would be pretty fucking harsh otherwise, even for Rorschach, and he's not sure he can deal with any more emotional whiplash right now. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, probably."

Rorschach dips his head in a long nod, and something that's been snagging on Dan's subconscious all evening finally catches. Just because he's technically a genius doesn't mean he can't be fucking oblivious sometimes.

"Uh, hey," he says, running his fingers through his hair. "When I go. Do you mind if I leave my sleeping bag here?"

Rorschach looks up at him sharply.

"I mean, the way some patrols go, it would be practical to, uh..." Not very practical, but that's not the point. "If you don't mind."

There's a long silence, and he can see Rorschach is carefully weighing the words, examining the implication with the same acuity he employs in their investigations. Dan knows he was unsubtle; that's also not the point.

Rorschach has to swallow before he speaks. "Don't mind."

"Good," Dan says, letting relief creep into his voice. He rummages for a sports sweater, drags it over his head. "Good. Okay, you know what? Wait here. I'll be right back."

He swings himself out of the window and up onto the roof, damp gravel biting into his feet through his socks. The paper is soaked and pulping, but the beers are still there; he slips them into the pocket of his sweater and climbs back into the building.

Dan scoots off the sill as Rorschach flicks on the light, raising an eyebrow at the clinking noise. Dan pulls out the bottles with a flourish.

The quirked brow becomes a frown, but Dan is not going to be so easily deterred. "I know you don't drink," he says, preemptively. "But I think we earned it tonight." And Christ, we could both do with it.

"Don't have a bottle opener," Rorschach says, settling himself back onto the cot. He thinks that's something to be smug about, but Dan has him foiled.

His waiter's apron is slung over the back of the chair. He delves into the pocket and comes up trumps; waves the opener in Rorschach's direction. It's pink, and the handle is shaped like an elephant. "No problem."

Rorschach actually rolls his eyes. The return of his sardonic demeanor is reassuring, even if it feels like something forced back into place; layers pulled tight around him once more. Dan hands him an opened bottle, sits next to him.

"Thank you," Rorschach says, in a tone that suggests if he had a houseplant, he'd be watering it as soon as Dan's back was turned.

Dan ignores him, pops the lid off his own bottle and tilts it toward Rorschach in a toast. "To, uh..."

"Partners," Rorschach suggests, inclining his drink.

"Yeah." Dan smiles. He knows what Rorschach means, but the truth can be double-edged in the strangest of ways. The bottles clink together. "To partnership. For many years to come."

Rorschach takes a sip, grimaces, and leaves it on the floor for the rest of the night.

[#]

It seems an impossible contrast of temperature: the ice-cold numbness of his feet where they hang over the end of the bed, and the warm clamminess of his face, buried in Rorschach's chest. His shirt buttons dig into Dan's cheek, and his breath is catching in his throat; not quite a snore, but still incredibly annoying because Dan's somehow hungover from just one beer and trying to drift off to sleep again.

Dan nudges him. It gets worse, if anything, a new raspy edge when he inhales. Dan digs his elbow in a bit harder.

Rorschach shifts to knee him the the groin with expert precision, and rolls him out of bed. Dan squawks, grabs at the covers – the snow owl cape: not just for crime fighting – and manages to drag it with him in a Pyrrhic victory.

"You're such a dick," he says, with some degree of fondness.

"Have things to take care of today." Rorschach is sprawling out on the cot, expanding to fill the available space like a particularly caustic gas. If he was a chemical, Dan decides, he'd be labeled 'irritant'. (Among other, more explosive things.)

Dan picks himself up and ambles toward the bathroom. "I appreciate the motivator, but coffee works just as well," he says. "For future reference."

[#]

Standing in the foyer of the bank feels like a persistently recurring, infinitely tedious nightmare, but Dan takes pleasure from the knowledge that he's going to wake up from it this time. The smiles aren't any more genuine, but perhaps the apologies are – he is a valued customer again, after all.

Some discrepancies in their records, they tell him, caused by teething problems with some new technology; the issue has been isolated and fixed. It won't happen again. Very, very sorry for the inconvenience, sir.

Dan smiles amiably, and doesn't question their hasty dissembling.

Next is the Gunga Diner. Dan's manager eyes the bruise on his jaw and his grazed knuckles, and hands over his pay with no questions. He's less gracious about him quitting, but Dan figures the turnover is high enough that he can probably eat here in a month's time without feeling uncomfortable. He already doesn't recognize a couple of the waitstaff.

The streets are wet, the sky pale and weak. A thaw is coming.

[#]

He's back at the apartment again by ten o'clock. Rorschach watches him as he gathers his things, rolls up the blanket and sleeping bag, stows them under the cot. His armor feels bulky under his jeans and sweater, makes him feel clumsy.

"Tonight, then?" Dan says, hefting his bag over his shoulder. All the paperwork is stuffed in there under his worn clothes; the bailiff's letter rides in his back pocket, still unopened. "Patrol, as usual?"

Rorschach nods.

"So, uh." Dan shifts on his feet, awkward. "Thank you. For everything. I don't know what I would have done without you, man."

"Would have managed," Rorschach says, with a wry twist of his mouth. "Eventually."

Dan wonders if he can get away with a bear hug. Probably not. He extends his hand instead. "All the same."

Rorschach stares at his hand; takes it cautiously. They've done this many times, gauntlet to glove, congratulating each other on a job well done. Never as Daniel and Walter, though, skin to skin, with the admission that they are men beneath the masks and all the vulnerability that entails.

The handshake becomes something less weirdly formal; a clasp, then a brief embrace. One hand flattens over a shoulder blade, then falls away. "You really need to shower," Dan murmurs.

"Don't test me, Dreiberg."

[#]

Dan stops for groceries on his way to the brownstone; bread, milk, eggs, and the morning paper. A quick glance suggests their bust wasn't front-page news – there's a slightly panicked tone to the headline, hyperbole about human rights or some such, and while the black-and-white picture nested into the article is moiréd and grainy, the man depicted is definitely not Lamb. He tucks the paper in with the rest of his shopping.

It takes him a minute to find his keys, settled to the bottom of his overcoat pocket, and a concerted effort to open the door. There's over a week's worth of mail and fliers on his doormat; they offer up a surprising amount of resistance. He sorts through the pile immediately, separates the envelopes that look like they could contain bills and takes them through to the kitchen.

He throws the bailiff's letter in the trash without even opening it, lost among brightly-colored takeout menus.

The house feels stale, dusty. Dan cracks open the kitchen window, lets in a brisk gust of air to chase out the stuffiness while he clears out spoiled food from his refrigerator and fixes himself something to eat. He sits himself down with a coffee, unfolds the paper, and feels his stomach sink as he reads.

The article is about their bust, in the worst possible way.

There's commentary about the gray areas of the law, where the line is drawn. Whether vigilantism can be defended on moral grounds when it starts encroaching on private property – and into people's homes. Give the American people uniforms over costumes, one sub-heading declares. A brief interview with one Senator Keene follows, expressing some strong anti-mask sentiments; he declares them 'nothing more than masked criminals', and suggests vigilantism should be abolished for the safety of the country and its citizens.

Dan grimaces and drops his slice of toast back onto his plate, suddenly not hungry at all.

[#]

The shower is hot, divinely so. It's enough to make him dizzy, but it's what he really needs right now, to sway under the water and watch the grime sluice away. It's not a symbolic thing, just a skin-deep cleansing. Everything leaves its mark.

The first scrape of his razor over his lathered cheek is pleasurable for entirely different reasons. He lets his mind wander as he shaves; thinks of how a stubbled jaw feels against his own, and of the rise and fall of another's breathing. Those tenuous, fierce connections, and how they fit into his life as if they were always supposed to be there.

[#]

Walter is poring over the paper when Dan pads back into the kitchen, barefoot and toweling his hair. "You're early," he says, grinning and grinning.

He swallows a mouthful of Dan's breakfast, taps the paper with his pen. He's annotated it with angry red scribbles. "Seen the news, I take it."

Dan says nothing for a while, just brings more toast, pours them both a fresh mug of coffee and sits opposite. The year has started out tough, and it looks like it's only going to get harder for them. So many things could break their partnership, could hold a mirror up to all their juxtapositions and send them reeling, but now there's something more in the balance.

Yes, he decides, as he watches Walter butter both sides of his toast and scowl at some private thought. We aren't going to lose this. It's taken a decade to get this far, and who knows where they will be in another ten. They aren't going to lose.

What doesn't kill them can only make them stronger.

'75 will be their year.

[###]

fin
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