This is wrong, so wrong. Words like "liability" and "stupid" and "dangerous" all spin through his mind and he agrees with every one of them, but it doesn't change his mind. Doesn't make him turn back. It's not just about him, ultimately. It's something larger than that, and much more significant. He'll be careful - he'll have to be. This will cement his choices once and for all, demanding commitment like nothing else could. It will require constant vigilance, and discipline, and sacrifice - like anything else worth having.
Sweat and chemicals and blood permeate the air in here. Run-down and nicotine-stained, it's barely lit except for the chair where the artist works. And the man is an artist. Even without the testimony of the human tapestries on display and the perfectly-kept records he'd investigated, the dedication and focus in the man's posture as he works make the question moot.
The design he wants is simple, but it must be done perfectly; there won't be a second chance, and he will never do this again. No judgement is passed on the design, and no questions are asked beyond the purely technical. He bares his skin and sits.
There is no conversation - only the work. The process is uncomfortable, as it should be. The buzzing needle biting into him admonishes that he can't back out now. This is real, and he's made a commitment.
"Rorschach, look out!"
He'd been too focused on knocking out the tough in front of him to notice the heavily-laden shelves toppling down from behind - stupid of him. Their weight bore him down in a rain of boxes and exploding glass. The only saving grace was that the thug who shoved the shelves over wasn't watching out for his pal, who actually helped block some of the impact.
Nite Owl quickly moved in to dispatch "Spider" Joey's last henchman and scrambled to dig his partner out in a hail of debris. "Are you all right?"
Rorschach took the proffered hand up and nodded automatically. "All things considered. My apologies for not being more alert." There was nothing broken from the bludgeoning the shelf gave him, though he could already tell his right shoulder wouldn't be a hundred percent for a day or so. Not that it really mattered; they'd accomplished a lot tonight in stopping a drug gang from setting up new digs, and he was still buzzing a bit with adrenaline. Looking down, he spotted his fedora in the remains of the shelf's contents and leaned down to retrieve it, but hissed in surprise as he felt something pull unpleasantly.
"Holy – You're hurt, man, you've got a big chunk of glass in your back. No, don't reach for it!" Nite Owl laid a firm hand at Rorschach's shoulder to hold him still. Hastily he bound their opponents' hands and turned back to his injured partner. "C'mon, we need to get you out of here." They left the trussed-up criminals in the midst of the debris and departed to the wail of approaching sirens.
Nite Owl couldn't completely squelch his anxiety as he steered them homeward. Aside from the injury itself, he'd never had to – never been allowed to – tend Rorschach when he was hurt. His taciturn partner always insisted on taking care of himself (when he admitted to being hurt at all). He was always courteous about it in his grim way, but the topic was never up for debate, which made this a major landmark in their partnership. Then again, this was the first time Rorschach didn't have a wound in front, where he could reach it. Nite Owl tried not to feel to hurt that it was only bad luck and not their friendship making this moment possible. He knew he shouldn't take it personally, that it was just how Rorschach was. If anything, he thought, it was a wonder Rorschach worked with anyone at all, much less someone like him.
All the way back to the Owl's Nest Rorschach tried to think of a way to get out of this. Beneath the top layer of pain he could feel the alien wrongness of the glass shard near his shoulder blade and the spreading wetness making his shirt stick to him. He knew he couldn't take care of it himself, but frantic attempts at a solution still tumbled through his brain. The issue had been avoidable up to now, though sometimes it was a closer thing than he'd ever admit. If not for his ridiculous self-indulgence and inattention, it would never have been an issue and things could have stayed the same between them. He already had more than he deserved in a partner who fought the same darkness he did, who was honorable and dedicated, strong and -
...no. He couldn't think of that.
Nite Owl was the only person he trusted – they'd been watching out for each other for nearly a year, now - but he wouldn't understand this. There was no way to explain it, not when he couldn't even explain it to himself. Regardless, he couldn't reach the injury to do anything with it, and a doctor was out of the question. He always knew there would be a risk – now he had to face the consequences of his selfish actions.
"Ok, just sit here." Nite Owl guided him gingerly from the airship to his workbench in the Nest, all concern. It made Rorschach feel even worse as he grimly allowed himself to be steered into place, apprehension coiling with shame in the pit of his stomach as he sat. Supplies were gathered and arrayed at arm's reach and Nite Owl became Daniel as he pushed back his suit's cowl. Carefully, he probed around the area while Rorschach craned his neck to try to watch him. "I'm hoping your coat stopped most of it, but I'm going to have to pull it out to get to the injury. I can't guarantee anything, but I'll spare what I can of your suit."
Rorschach braced himself against more than mere pain, staring out at half-finished plans on the wall and willing himself to remain still. Removing his hat and setting it on his knee, he took one quieting breath. "I'm ready when you are." He felt Daniel's hand at his back near the entry point and a deep burning tug marked the shard's removal. With that done, Daniel suddenly loomed before him and began peeling his garments away faster than he'd thought possible, before he could prepare himself. He was wrong, he realized. He wasn't ready, he couldn't do this, he'd rather –
"Hey, steady!" Strong hands were at his shoulders for a moment and he was shocked into stillness by the contact with his skin. Mistaking his frozen posture for calm, Daniel let go and quickly moved back behind him to continue. "Sorry, I didn't mean to-"
Everything abruptly stopped, and Rorschach clamped down on the dread that threatened to bloom.
Daniel had seen.
Above the collar of the ribbed undershirt, in the middle of more bare skin than Rorschach had ever shown before, was something Dan never would have expected from his partner – a tattoo. Small – no more than a couple of inches – the perfect crescent moon lay just below the nape of Rorschach's neck, at the top of his spine. It would lie below the line of his collar, where no one would ever see it. No one, that is, except someone who might see him without his shirt. A small part of his mind tittered at the ridiculous odds against such a scenario even as he reeled from the meaning of the image. It was Nite Owl's symbol. His symbol. And his partner had it indelibly etched into his own skin.
A lesser man would have scrambled to cover himself, to explain. He didn't allow himself to be a lesser man. Even with his costume hastily pushed down to his elbows, nearly pinning his arms, he wasn't about to betray discomfort by trying to free himself from it. There was nothing to be done - whether their partnership would survive or not was up to Daniel now.
Rorschach closed his eyes behind the mask and waited, tracing over every memory of his time with Nite Owl – with Daniel - while he savored the pain of his injury as fitting punishment for his carelessness.
Rorschach's posture was rigid – it was obvious he never intended for it to be seen. Dan was still too startled to say anything, fixated instead on the surprising dusting of freckles surrounding the crescent moon like an unnamed constellation. It called attention to just how exposed Rorschach was right now. Dan had never seen his partner like this; hell, it was only a few months ago that Rorschach lifted his mask to eat in front of him. He hadn't taken it personally, just accepted it as his partner's idiosyncrasy regarding his "hero" persona. Considering how different he felt when wearing his own costume, he could understand that perfectly. Even so, that one tiny moment of revelation had sent Dan's mind surreptitiously scrambling after the handful of clues that it revealed. With a guilty fascination he'd taken in the thin, grim mouth; the strong jawline and slightly short nose. There was a tiny spot on Rorschach's throat that the razor had missed, revealing a few dark whiskers that might have been brown or even red. It was a surprisingly human detail, and one that thrilled him much more than he knew was appropriate.
His musing was interrupted by the slow, dark bloom of blood spreading into the undershirt's fabric from the wound he had to uncover in the first place. Only seconds had passed but guilt stabbed him for his hesitation and spurred him back into motion. Quickly and somewhat abashedly he widened the hole in the ruined wifebeater so he could get to work.
Leaning forward with his hands on his knees, Rorschach waited for a string of questions that never came. The silence would have been unnerving, but Daniel's hands were still gentle as they worked to numb and close the wound. Combined with the familiar smells of iodine and engine oil wrapping around them, he could almost - almost - believe that things were normal. He heard the rustling of sterile wrappings and couldn't quite control a twitch when his partner's fingers brushed his skin while bringing gauze up to stanch the bleeding. The bite of disinfectant and the dull, stinging tug of the sutures were a welcome relief to his mind's frantic spinning.
When the last stitch was snipped and a bandage fastened into place, Dan's hands fell away and the silence grew heavy between them. He had no idea what to think, and even less what to say. Patching Rorschach up had given him something easy to think about – stopping blood, repairing damage. Now he was looking at freckled skin behind torn bloodstained cotton, and muscular shoulders tapering down to a slender waist. It was a view he was finding far too interesting – more so considering Rorschach had done nothing to alter it yet. His mind spun in a continuing catalogue: his partner had red hair, he now knew, thanks to what he could see of Rorschach's arms. He was also remarkably limber, given the other scars revealed behind the torn undershirt that bore evidence of sutures near his ribs. Dan found himself wondering if those scars were from before their partnership, or if Rorschach had just been that good at hiding his injuries. He very much hoped it was the former.
The tattoo drew his eyes again, shifting with Rorschach's breathing and flexing as his head ducked slightly. He was uncomfortable, Dan could tell, but he was making no move to dress, or get up. Hesitantly Dan reached up. Fingers trembling for too many reasons to sort out, he let himself touch one slender arc of ink.
The ragged indrawn breath was loud in the silence, echoing off the concrete. Of all things to pull such a reaction from Rorschach, Dan wouldn't have expected it to be that. As he dimly observed the slow flush rising to meet his hand, he realized that sound answered any number of questions he'd had since shortly after their partnership began. Still, he had to ask – had to be sure. "Is this…?"
Rorschach's head dropped forward helplessly. "Yours."
Dan was suddenly thankful to already be sitting; his knees would have given out otherwise. To suspect was one thing, but... Rorschach - Rorschach, of all people, of all the people he'd ever-
His awareness of his partner flared with new purpose, rocketing past the clinical observations of bandages and bruising and fighting strategies, flying onward to textures of cotton and wool and leather flayed open around pale, corded arms that tensed but didn't move; swirling patterns of black he could just see at the edge of white latex; the heat of the body in front of him that he swore he could feel through his armor. Their unsteady breaths suddenly filled the room as Dan's focus returned to the outline of the simple crescent shape that his fingers still followed.
The faint sensation of Daniel's fingertips was the only thing keeping Rorschach from flight, or collapse. He was only vaguely aware of the chill air on his skin, barely registered his wound at all. Daniel had seen. He was damned, and he knew it. The word "yours" had slipped from him without his being completely aware of what he was saying, but he realized it was the most truthful thing he could have said. He meant exactly that - no more and no less.
Abruptly he felt a shift behind him and Nite Owl's armor creaked with the movement. The sound, which he always associated with their nights fighting side-by-side, developed a new association as he felt a slow, warm breath drift over the ink on his back where seemingly every nerve ending awakened to meet it. The persona of Rorschach crumbled, leaving Walter's eyes to close behind the mask. He couldn't make a sound - his throat felt locked shut and he didn't know what words he possibly could have said even if he'd been able.
Daniel's hands alighted on his shoulders and he jumped, badly startled. There was nothing of Rorschach here now, only someone small and ridiculous who'd landed himself in a situation for which he was completely unprepared (stupid, stupid, stupid.) He'd brought them both to this point. Asked for it. He wouldn't refuse Daniel - couldn't, after what he'd invited.
The touch on his shoulders moved - caressed - down his arms and every fraction of a second stretched out in an agony as he felt the man behind him (Daniel, it's Daniel) shift even closer. Warm breath was at his ear and Daniel's body was only millimeters away. He jumped again when he felt the soft whisper of fabric at his elbows - his shirt, being taken up in Daniel's hands... and brought back up his arms, he realized, to settle over his shoulders. He didn't know he'd been holding his breath until it shuddered out of him in a lightheaded rush.
He felt a sudden movement and then Daniel was sitting in front of him on the bench. His hair was mussed and curling from the cowl and he hadn't yet put on his glasses. His features were as soft as they always were but there was something new in his eyes, leaving him somewhere between Daniel and Nite Owl with a faint smile tinged with something he couldn't name. One hand reached out to slip behind his open collar toward Nite Owl's mark, now covered, and his eyes locked unerringly with Walter's through the mask. Slowly, Daniel leaned forward until their temples touched.
"If it is mine," his voice was hushed and unsteady, "then I'll be sure to take good care of it."
In spite of wanting to put his arms around Rorschach while he'd sat behind him, Dan knew he'd made the right choice when his partner (Mine...) let out an uneven breath and swayed forward at his words. Carefully he leaned back and began to fasten the buttons he'd so hastily torn open a lifetime ago, making a chagrined noise when he discovered one missing. By the third one, the tension sagged out of Rorschach and he leaned in slowly to let his forehead rest on Dan's shoulder. Heart thundering, Dan reached down to restore the other pieces of his partner's costume. The back of Rorschach's neck, made visible at this vantage point, called to him to close his mouth over it, to accept the claim that had been offered. He made himself lift the coat's collar back into place against the impulse.
His hands were shaking with unfulfilled want as he picked up Rorschach's scarf, knowing now what it covered. His envy of it was as powerful as it was absurd; he wanted to press it to his face, place his lips over the spot that held his partner's secret. Instead he draped it into place, guiding Rorschach to sit up so he could tie it in a careful, perfect knot.
Dazed, Walter felt Rorschach's layers return to hold him up, delivered to him by Daniel. The proxy embrace made him shiver, and the two halves of Walter and Rorschach roiled together in confusion.
They were both breathing hard, Dan's face flushed and Rorschach's mask a stormcloud of movement. At last Dan broke and reached out to bring his partner into a hug which was cautiously returned, to his elated surprise. He knew Rorschach wouldn't stay, but it was all right. Tonight was a miracle as it was.
"You'll come back to make sure this is healing all right?"
Rorschach heard the unasked question and found he could answer both truthfully. "Yes."
The next night found Dan in the Nest fastening his armor when footsteps approached from down the tunnel. Rorschach's familiar silhouette made its way toward him, albeit slower than his usual confident gait. At the threshold of the tunnel's shadow, Rorschach paused. As Dan watched, his partner gingerly raised his hands up to his face, reaching beneath the edge of the mask, pausing once more, and then lifting it up to reveal an ordinary, fascinating stranger who stepped into the light.
"My name is Walter," he said.
He blinks, slowly coming back to himself and shivering the way he always does when Daniel runs his fingers over the tattoo like that. Their legs are still entangled and they share a slow, thorough kiss. Eventually Daniel moves to clean them both up and they simply lie facing each other, sharing quiet kisses and touches while sunlight begins to filter through the curtains.
This can't be wrong, he thinks. Words like "liability" and "stupid" and "dangerous" still spin through his mind, but he doesn't always agree with them and it doesn't change his mind. Doesn't make him turn back. It's not just about him, ultimately. It's something larger than that, and much more significant. He'll be careful - he's promised to be. It's cemented his choices once and for all, demanding commitment like nothing else could. He's accustomed to constant vigilance, and discipline, and sacrifice - and this is something worth having.
- end -
(With thanks to the stranger with a crescent moon tattoo on the exact spot I described above. )