Rating: R (m/m sex, violence)
Pairing: Rorschach/Nite Owl
Disclaimer: Alan Moore owns these characters, I just give them better sex lives.
Summary: In which Rorschach and Dan go on the road in search of Walter's long-lost father. Sequel to Ordinary World and set in the same marginally happier AU.
“I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
This story, like so many others, ends in a vast, windswept cemetery. Most every story ends like that, though, if you let it go on long enough. If you let it go on even farther, it ends in the heat death of the universe, but that particular ending is too far off to contemplate, unless an accident of science has turned you into a near-omnipotent god. And then, you think about it constantly and wonder if you’ll be alive to see it.
But though this story ends in an overgrown garden of the dead, in the rain, no less, that ending happens some time from now. There’s still time for happiness first.
“…morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.” – G.K. Chesterton
Like all of Dan’s ideas, this one is well intentioned. For the last few weeks, they’ve been pretending to hide from Veidt, who, for his part, pretends to not know exactly where they are. The salvage efforts continue, of course, but it’s no longer the city’s sole purpose. He doesn’t need to be there, or, at least that’s what he tells himself when he feels guilty that he hardly ever leaves the apartment.
Besides, when you’re on the run, living under assumed names, wanted by the cops, wanted by Utopia’s mad architect, you’re not supposed to stay in one place for very long. Staying in one neighborhood is bad; staying in one city, the city he’s watching, well, that’s suicide.
Dan knows it’s dangerous, that they should be running, always running. But in the sunlit apartment in SoHo, in the middle of a rare actual, almost normal conversation with his partner, it’s sometimes hard to remember that they’re fugitives, that time hasn’t stopped altogether.
“I don’t believe you,” Dan is saying, flipping omelets over the gas range. He’s gotten so used to eating proper food again that he worries he’s going soft, slipping back into another retirement.
“Don’t lie,” Rorschach replies from the table, in that flat tone that just dares you to read some sort of meaning into it. “Never lie.”
Dan can almost believe that. But not the other thing. “But…LBJ? Seriously? You’re the most conservative person I know. You’re, like, right of Attila the Hun.” Which should really disturb him more than it does. He remembers when these things mattered. There was a time when he cared about politics, about the fate of the world. Or, at least, there was a time when the forces of history, of war and struggle and change, didn’t seem abstract compared to the monumental task of keeping his friend alive and out of jail and relatively sane.
“Father voted Democrat.”
“Oh.” It occurs to him that he never really thought that Rorschach had a family. His own family has been gone so long, and there have been so many other, more immediate losses, that sometimes—he’s ashamed to even think it—he forgets what his parents’ faces looked like.
There’s a particular sort of silence with which, in the days after the monster, Dan has grown quite familiar. He came across it frequently at Ground Zero, a few hours into a shift when everyone had let the shock and horror settle in for the day. People started to talk to each other, to make grim jokes and reminisce about anything that wasn’t dead bodies and twisted metal and concrete. Inevitably, someone would mention a father, a daughter, an old friend, and then—silence. Because almost certainly that person was among the millions dead, and you’d realize it at the same time that your fellow rescuer remembered.
He falls into that silence now, slides the omelets onto two plates, though he’s no longer hungry. He sits down at the table across from his partner, who, apparently undisturbed, digs into the eggs like he’s afraid they’re going to run away.
“Is he…I mean, does he—” Dan picks at his breakfast. “…live here?” he finishes lamely.
“Don’t know,” Rorschach says around a mouthful of eggs. “Never met him.”
“Believe he was in the army. Had to leave. Also, mother was…” Right. “Difficult.” No one who had a happy childhood ended up like Rorschach. Or like Dan, for that matter. “Died fighting for his country.”
Probably not, Dan thinks, but what’s the point at getting enraged about cruelties inflicted forty-five years ago? Especially when there’s no shortage of tragedies of the less mundane variety.
He blurts, before he has time to really think it over: “We should find out.”
Rorschach makes an indistinct noise and reaches for the sugar cubes in the middle of the table.
“Did you ever try to track him down?”
“Only know first name.”
“You’ve tracked down criminals with less information than that.” Dan is actually sort of excited by the idea—an actual, solvable mystery, one that could, at least in theory, have an ending. And, more important, one that will get them away out of New York for awhile, and that much farther from Veidt. “Come on, let’s at least try. It’s not like either of us are much use here right now. We can go today. Let’s just…”
He expects Rorschach to put up a fight, to insist that the two of them are making some sort of difference within the vast machinery of the reconstruction effort, or even more absurdly, to suggest that he should be out at night, keeping the fragile city safe from its criminal element—despite the fact that he was unmasked on national TV and can barely even walk, let alone throw a punch.
He doesn’t. He sort of nods and stares blankly ahead. It doesn’t matter to him either way, or maybe it matters a lot, more than he’d ever admit to Dan or anyone else, and Dan stops himself before he thinks too deeply on which one it is because that way lies madness. The important thing is that somewhere, beyond the Five Boroughs, there are unscathed places and ordinary people, and that’s where they’re headed, outside of hell’s radius. Even now, his anticipation almost desperate, Dan knows it’s stupid to think that they can outrun the nightmares, or Veidt.
He feels compelled to try.
It is vaguely horrifying to realize that even after the apocalypse, New Jersey is still standing. Even the tollbooths are up and running again, after a month of being flung open to allow as many people as possible to flee New York. Stuck in traffic, Dan tries not to stare at Manhattan’s somber profile. So many of the skyscrapers are darkened, fading into the dimming sky, like someone has knocked the city’s teeth out.
After piloting Archie, driving an electric car—one of many left abandoned and dragged to disused parking garages—is painfully slow. He watches airships take flight from Newark, smoke rising from oil refineries. Anything, he thinks, but looking back at the city that he’s abandoned, or at Rorschach, ramrod straight in the passenger seat, like a man heading to his execution.
He fumbles with the radio, which is mostly a lot of static and dead air and cloying Christmas carols, and opts for silence in the end. When the long line of red lights flicker out, two by two, he breathes out in relief, but it’s still a crawl, their car cramped and stifling, the acrid air of the turnpike seeping through the gaps in the windows like poison gas.
They don’t reach the Lillian Charlton Home for Problem Children—renamed Charlton House in 1975—until past dark. The aging car protests at the gravel road leading up to the main building and rattles to a stop.
For a moment, they sit in the powered-down car, pointedly not looking at each other. He hears a crunching sound—Rorschach chewing on a Vicodin like it’s a sugar cube—and then his partner shoves the door open and stands outside, waiting for him, his tattered trenchcoat clinging to him like a shroud.
Charlton House, in the summer, is probably verdant and welcoming. In the winter, its bare trees straining against sweeping oceans of snow, it reminds Dan uncomfortably of Veidt’s destroyed garden. He follows Rorschach up to the red-brick mansion and is immediately thankful to whatever god watches over wayward vigilantes that he tries the big brass knocker rather than just breaking the door down.
There’s the sound of a buzzer inside, and a bolt sliding open. They push past the door and a curly-haired matron says from behind the front desk: “It’s past the children’s bedtime. Who are you here to—oh.” Dan admires her courage as she says, quietly, “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Here for records. Nothing else.”
Not so brave, then—Dan can see her hands trembling as she stands, placing a key ring at the side of the desk. “The vault’s in the basement. Do you need me to show you—“ Meeting Rorschach’s eyes, she stammers, “—no, no you wouldn’t, would you?”
Rorschach takes the keys and flips through them. Dan mouths: “Sorry,” at the woman, and tries not to be perversely amused by the whole thing. He doesn’t think that Rorschach feels particularly vengeful towards this place or it would have been in flames years ago.
The lights go on in the vault with a hum. The poor, terrified receptionist doesn’t follow them down. Dan is assaulted by years of musty papers and dust, and he sits on the stairs and inhales the scent of old books while Rorschach paces the long corridors between industrial metal shelves.
It’s there, somehow, a piece of his partner’s history, only a span of a few years but more detail than Rorschach would have ever managed to tell him in years of truncated sentences. When he comes back and sits down with the file, Dan tries not to be too obvious about reading it over his shoulder.
“Don’t need to see this.”
And there he goes, feeling guilty again, because Rorschach has had his carefully cultivated privacy violated enough, by cops and psychiatrists and the media and the last thing he needs is Dan getting all emotional and calling him Walter. Even if Dan thinks that would be nice sometimes.
Rorschach huffs and hands him something out of the folder. “Here.”
He thinks he sees the shadow of the man sitting beside him in the face of the boy in the black-and-white photograph, hiding somewhere beneath badly-cut hair and a too-large suit. He thinks he does, but maybe he’s just projecting. “You were happy here,” he says, quietly, relieved that there was one period in his friend’s life where he was. He’s about to reach for Rorschach’s hand, which is probably the very sort of thing that Rorschach is trying to avoid, when the door at the top of the stairs creaks open.
The man, dressed in a housecoat and slippers, is impossibly old, his white hair rumpled like he’s just been woken. Rheumy eyes squint down at them.
“Walter,” he says. “It is you, isn’t it?”
The answer to that question, Dan thinks, is not uncomplicated. Maybe that’s why Rorschach hesitates. “Got what we came for,” he mutters. “Name of neighbor. Woman who spoke to investigators. Lived in building for ten years.” He glances up at the old man. “Going now.”
In a tone that suggests that he’s about as intractable as Rorschach, the old man says, “You most certainly are not.”
The old man is named Gilbert Syme, and he’s the chaplain at Charlton House. He shakes Dan’s hand firmly enough to leave his knuckles aching. A big man who could have played college football, and even now, he’s still accustomed to throwing his bulk around. He has to introduce himself—because Rorschach just stands there, looking as faintly embarrassed as a guy with the world’s best poker face possibly can—and then pushes them into his office and accosts them with tea and, much as it boggles Dan’s mind, little iced cakes.
It’s too surreal.
“You gave Mrs. Cranbrooke quite a scare,” Syme admonishes, as though he’s talking to a child rather than to the Terror of the Underworld. “You might have called first.”
Rorschach chews on one of the cakes. “No phone.”
“We haven’t had a shortage of visitors either. Not exactly the publicity that the headmaster wants, though of course it’s appreciated to be noticed by anyone at all.” He scratches a bushy eyebrow. “They asked me if I knew it was you. They all asked the same questions, to all of us—even talked to some of the retired teachers who live in town. As if we could all somehow see through that mask of yours and just didn’t bother telling anyone about it.”
Silence, then: “Could you? Did you know?” He almost sounds hopeful. Dan suddenly finds the row of books lining the opposite wall very, very interesting.
Syme’s gaze remains steely. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He has quite the bookshelf, Dan thinks. His copy of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling looks impressively old, the spine fraying at the edges. “You should turn yourself in.”
“It’s the right thing to do.” Rorschach’s hand snakes out to grab another one of the cakes. Dan remembers his tea. He’s a dedicated coffee drinker, but caffeine is caffeine and it’s something to stare at.
“Fighting evil is right. You taught me that.” His voice changes, and now Dan does look up because he doesn’t remember the last time he’s heard his partner speak a complete sentence. “Wasn’t that the point of all those sermons? Wasn’t that what you sent me out into the world to do?”
It’s Syme’s turn to go quiet. “Not like this,” he says, finally. “Not with violence, and—well, not quite so literally.”
“I never harmed innocents. Only scum.”
“And now? With what happened in New York, and the ceasefire?”
“The world is still fallen. Maybe more so. Maybe the enemies are even—” Dan clears his throat, a warning. “I saw the end. All of the corpses, the children. Armageddon.”
“It isn’t,” Syme says crisply. “I know it’s horrible, but it isn’t the end. It isn’t hopeless. Not while there’s life. Those famine victims in India, do you think anything changed for them that day? Do you think the rest of the world doesn’t have to go on?”
Rorschach raises his head, meeting the old man’s eyes with an intensity that makes Dan a little jealous. “You could have called the police.”
“Mrs. Cranbrooke wanted to.”
“Thank you. For not…”
“I told her you’d just break out again. It wouldn’t be safe for the officers.” He sinks back into his leather high-backed chair, rubs the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefingers. “This life will kill you, Walter.”
“Already killed him,” all softness gone from his voice, and for a second Dan wonders if he was imagining it, before, whether it was just Rorschach the entire time.
Syme coughs into the sleeve of his housecoat. “Look, you can, uh. It’s Christmas, some of the children have gone home. You can stay in the dorms if you leave before wake-up. They don’t need—I don’t want them to see…”
“Okay,” Dan says.
The old man takes them to the dormitory, and at the door, pauses. “I never stopped praying for you,” he says.
“World going to hell,” Rorschach rasps. “What good does it do?”
The chaplain doesn’t answer. He turns and shuffles down the hall and lets the door swing shut behind him. Somewhere, Dan hears a high-pitched giggle, a child up past lights-out. He watches Rorschach squirm out of his trenchcoat and fold it over a chair.
There are two beds in the room and it’s the first time in a month that he hasn’t slept with Rorschach beside him, just far enough apart that they aren’t really touching. But he keeps picturing Syme’s disapproving squint and so he stretches out on the other child-sized bed, his feet dangling over the end. He tells himself that it’s better than sleeping in the car, at least.
He stirs, some time later, to the grating noise as the other bed is scraped against the hardwood floor. To a hand, reaching across the gap that separates them, to clutch his own.
(A/N: That was then, this is now. If Rorschach had a fixed address, he would vote for Lyndon LaRouche.)