Rating: R (m/m sex, violence)
Pairing: Rorschach/Nite Owl
Disclaimer: These are Alan Moore’s characters. But I don’t think I can do anything worse to them than what the Hamm screenplay did.
Summary: “Did you really think that, after everything we’ve done, you’d get to have a happy ending?”
“We have so far taken the official story at face value, but should we? Do we trust our leaders—those same leaders whose arrogance brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and who now carve out secret deals behind closed doors—to tell us the truth about what it was and from where it came? Now that the dust has settled, we owe the victims—and ourselves, the survivors—an unbiased and thorough inquiry into the monster’s origins.” – From Midnight Notes, March 1, 1986. Author unknown.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter”, he answered,
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.” — Stephen Crane, In the Desert
The shantytown is quiet tonight. Rows of tin-roofed houses stand guard in the dust, surrounded by snaking lines of chain link fence, and the only creature brave enough to break the silence is a stray dog that weaves drunkenly along the road.
For the last five nights, a man has been seen in the colonias that ring Tijuana, prowling the streets in search of easy targets. Young women, migrant workers fleeing starvation in the South, they come here in search of a job and, instead, are found in the mornings, naked, battered and sobbing. One didn’t survive. The residents of the shantytown complained to the local authorities, but the rapes and murders of campesinas are of little concern. And so the people band together instead, strangers from distant places, and hold watch for one another by their makeshift doorways, gripping salvaged pipes and sticks.
The town holds its breath. People tell each other that they have weathered worse, and besides, if things keep up this way, eventually they will come. Eventually, the dead girl will be avenged.
There have been costumed adventurers in the region for decades, but in the last few months—rumor has it—their numbers and activity has increased. It’s almost as though they’re trying to provoke the gangs of criminals that prey on the colonias into an all-out war. They must be mad, but then, sane people do not put on masks and wander these streets after dark.
The sound of a man’s cry, a body meeting metal, ruptures the stillness. One by one, people emerge from their hovels to watch.
There must be a dozen of them, armed only with their muscles and anger. Their masks—some, elaborate creations permanently fixed in open-mouth shouts of rage, others, swaths of fabric that reveal only bright eyes—take on a certain life in the darkness, as though they are the wearers’ true faces, as though nothing human lives beneath.
They surround the murderer, cornering him against a line of fence, bashes him into it again and again, beat him and kick him until his face is a pulpy wreck, teeth hanging loose in a mouth coughing blood. When he’s too weak to stand on his own, one of the men drags him upright and plants him in front of the huts, kicking him once for good measure where he lies on the ground. The murderer is still breathing. The masked man doesn’t speak—they, it is said, never speak—but his intention is clear. He relinquishes his claim on the killer’s life; it belongs to the victims he has wronged, and the final stroke of justice will be theirs.
A woman—the dead girl’s mother—slips from the doorway of one of the shelters, holding a steel pipe in her hands. She hits the prone man, once, then again, until he twitches and lies still.
The man nods, and turns to rejoin his companions as a police siren wails behind the roofline.
The people of the town know what to do in these circumstances. They throw open their doors and allow anyone to pass through; they turn away, respectfully, as masks are removed and vigilantes become civilians, find refuge in anonymity.
Except that, this time, the police know to look for the two among them who will never willingly show their faces.
The shantytown is swarmed in minutes, doors thrown open and belongings thrown into the streets until the cops find their targets. They grab the smaller man first—it takes six of them to restrain him and a seventh to tear off the bandanas wrapped around his face, revealing pale, freckled skin and copper hair, a thin mouth that scowls and spits at them. The other man comes out of the shadows, hands raised, and as they move towards him, kicks out at the nearest officer to send him reeling. But he’s outnumbered and unarmed, and, defiant as he is, he can’t catch bullets.
Perhaps the people watching want to help. They owe these men, just as they owe the local masks who live amongst them, who defend their homes and their lives. But tomorrow, the gringos will be gone, and the police will still be here to terrorize the slums. And so, reluctantly, they retreat back into their homes, the two strangers are taken away in squad cars, and the shantytown returns to its tense and troubled rest.
Dan sits on a bench in a holding cell, watching Rorschach try to simultaneously pick the lock and devour the tray of grey slop he’s balancing against the bars, and it occurs to him—though only fleetingly—that he could have been an investment banker. He entertains those thoughts with much less frequency these days; he could, after all, also have been among the unwitting throngs crushed beneath the monster’s death throes four months ago. The oppressive heat, the panic of confinement, of discovery, aren’t so bad in comparison. He’s survived worse.
“Might take awhile.” Rorschach eyes Dan’s untouched tray. Dan shrugs, then nods, and his partner snatches it off the ground. It’s not a good sign that there’s food at all. It means that no one is planning to release them quickly. It means that right now, the police are checking databases, phoning colleagues across the border, attempting to discern the identities of two Americans with no names, no wallets, and only a smattering of Spanish between them both. And while costumed adventuring is still quite legal in Mexico, Dan is fairly certain that aggravated assault and murder aren’t. “Lock better than yours. Though, not saying much.”
He slides onto the bench, one leg just barely touching Dan’s jeans, and Dan smiles at him wearily. “You okay?”
“Tired,” Rorschach says, though the scrape of his fork against the tray doesn’t slow at all. “Long night. Still. Good.”
“Sure,” Dan replies. “Right up until we got arrested, anyway.”
He sees the splatter of blood, the woman swinging the pipe with all of the strength in her undernourished body, her cheeks stained with tears. He wishes he knew for sure if it was as right as it felt in that moment. He grows less sure with every night they’ve spent here, taking on the sins and the tragedies of others, letting others bear the violence that they’ve carried on their backs all the way from the bottom of the world.
He chose this, he thinks. It was his idea, because if they can’t go home, if they can’t save the millions who sleep in mass graves or beneath the Hudson River, at least they can take some displaced vengeance. One bereaved woman’s tears are the same as any other’s, and every night he can keep Rorschach distracted is one more night that he can have his partner by his side, alive and feigning sanity, one more night that he can pretend that it all turns out okay in the end.
“Yeah,” Dan says quietly. “Worth it.”
Rorschach glances at him, ever inscrutable, and then crouches on the floor to file the fork against the cell wall. Dan closes his eyes and rubs his temples and only notices that something is wrong when the scratching abruptly stops.
He scrambles off the bench and drops to his knees beside his partner, who lies in a crumpled heap by the wall. He lifts Rorschach up, checks for a pulse, opens one eye to see a dilated pupil. Drugged—must have been the food, and Dan is suddenly glad that his nausea threshold is lower than Rorschach’s. He eases the smaller man back down on the ground and smashes his hand on the bars, yells out for help in English and, as best he can, in Spanish.
The police station might as well be empty. He slams into the door, then, heart hammering against his ribs, returns to his unconscious partner’s side. He’s still breathing, at least, and Dan picks him up and cradles him, murmurs, “Wake up, oh God please wake up.”
Footsteps, then a shadow falls over the floor in front of the cell, a familiar voice, warm and rich: “Hello, Daniel.”
“Do you have any idea,” Adrian Veidt asks, “how much it costs to buy off an entire police division?” He stands in front of the bars, impeccably dressed in a shimmering violet suit, hands folded behind his back, and Dan wants to punch the smirk off his face.
“What are you doing here?” Dan hisses.
“As it turns out,” Veidt continues, ignoring him entirely as he searches through the pockets of his jacket. “It doesn’t cost very much at all. Incidentally, that man you killed was the nephew of the police chief. I’m afraid your situation is about to become increasingly uncomfortable. Ah!” He retrieves a set of keys and opens the cell door, looking immensely pleased with himself. “In answer to your question, I’m here to spring you.”
Dan wonders if, perhaps, he was hit on the head during his arrest and this is all a bizarre hallucination—Veidt, in an emptied Mexican police station, hand extended to help Dan to his feet. Dan brushes him aside. “What did you do to Rorschach?”
“Oh,” Veidt says. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll be out for hours. I find that you and I have more productive discussions when he’s not a part of them. For some reason. Don’t look so unhappy, Dan. When was the last time he had a good night’s sleep?” Veidt picks up the unconscious man as if he weighs nothing, and Dan winces, vaguely sickened at the thought of Veidt even touching his partner. “You should be thanking me.”
“Fuck you,” and then immediately regrets how pathetic he sounds, childishly defiant when he knows that he has no choice to follow Veidt out the door and into the limo parked outside, no choice but to dance to whatever tune Veidt feels like playing next. He lets himself be herded into the back seat, Rorschach beside him, slumping into his lap, warm and loose-limbed like he never is when he’s awake. Dan strokes his partner’s hair, glaring all the time at the back of Veidt’s head. “Seriously, Adrian, why are you here? Last I heard you were considering a presidential run.”
A considered pause, then: “Do I need a reason to visit old friends?” But there’s an edge in his voice, and Dan leans forward, intent on catching every hesitation, every sharp intake of breath. “But you’re right, of course. I’m afraid that something has gone horribly wrong.”
Dan doesn’t bother turning on the lights in his apartment; he can see well enough with a full moon shining through the single window, and in the darkness, it’s easier to ignore Veidt’s smirk as he piles Rorschach onto the bed—the only bed in the tiny, confined apartment—and then joins Dan at the kitchen table. “You’re a hard man to find.”
“That’s kind of the idea of being in hiding.” The heat clings to him, seeps beneath his cotton shirt and beads perspiration at his hairline. He hopes that Veidt is horribly uncomfortable in that suit. Physically perfect though he might be, he still has to sweat. “I’ve done what you’ve asked. I’ve kept your goddamned secret. I’ve stayed out of your way. I’ve kept Rorschach out of your way, which, by the way, isn’t exactly an easy task, especially with you making headlines back home. Leave us alone.”
“Hmm.” He opens the briefcase and retrieves something; a yellowing newspaper, the type smudging and set in cramped columns that swim into charcoal in the dim light. Dan makes a frustrated noise and hits the lights.
The paper is called Midnight Notes, and he doesn’t remember having seen it before. Part of his brain registers an anti-Nixon screed and an editorial about gentrification, but his eyes immediately focus on the blaring headline—11-2 Hoax?—and the accompanying pictures: one, a grainy photograph of the monster, the other, a painting by the mysteriously vanished artist Hira Manish.
“You see my problem,” Veidt says.
“This could put a damper on your political aspirations,” Dan says dryly, then shakes his head. “You had to expect conspiracy theories,” he says as his eyes scan the article. It stops well short of blaming any particular nation or person, but it definitely gets a number of details right—the similarities between the monster’s appearance and the work of the missing painter, the timing of the creature’s arrival, the possibility that its origin was terrestrial.
“A conspiracy theory would put it on the Soviets—or Nixon, given the paper’s political leanings—not bring up Manish.” His hand irons out the wrinkles and folds in the paper and comes away smudged with ink. “The person who wrote this knows, Daniel.”
Dan shudders. Veidt might have let them go before, but he’s clearly agitated now, paranoid, and Dan can’t blame him. He wills himself to be calm, scans the room for something to use as a weapon. There’s a baseball bat under the bed, but Veidt has, of course, positioned himself between Dan and his sleeping partner. He can’t run, and he can’t fight Veidt, and so he digs his fingers into the sides of the chair and swallows hard.
“You don’t think that Rorschach is writing for left-wing underground papers, do you?”
Veidt laughs. “He could have changed. That gang that the two of you were running with—they were linked to a movement trying to overthrow the government that Blake installed here a decade ago. You ought to learn a bit more about the locals before getting yourself involved in their problems. That was Blake’s weakness too.” He leans across the table to pat Dan’s arm. “Breathe, Daniel. I know it wasn’t Rorschach. The writing is too coherent.”
“Then why come here?”
“Well,” Veidt says, “for one thing, I’m not entirely convinced that it isn’t you.”
Dan relaxes; if Veidt actually suspected him, he’d be dead. Veidt doesn’t take chances. “I’ve been living here since January.”
“There is such thing as postal service, is there not? You could have been mailing it to an associate in New York.”
“I don’t have associates, Adrian. You took care of that. The only people I know are in this apartment.”
Veidt nods. “As I thought. But who, then? You could have told someone, or Rorschach could have told someone—but I doubt it. You know what’s at stake, and he’s hardly a credible source.”
Dan stands out and extends a hand, which Veidt doesn’t take. “Okay, then. Great. You head back to whatever rock you crawled out from under, and we’ll be moving on. Deal?”
“It isn’t quite so simple. I need to find this leak and plug it.” He clears his throat, and Dan thinks, for a moment, that the conversation they are having costs him something in pride. “I need you. Both of you.”
“You can clean up your own loose ends.”
“I’m afraid,” Veidt replies, “it’s not just a matter of finding this guy and shutting him down. I need to know how he found out, and from whom, and much as it pains me to admit it, that’s more your partner’s forte than mine.” He casts a glance back at the motionless form on the bed. “How’s that for irony?”
“You, uh…” He tries a few phrases out in his head, but none of them make much sense. “You want us to track down a guy who wrote an article leaking your murderous plans to the world.”
“And you want us to extract information from this man and then kill him.”
Veidt pauses, then, “Well, yes.”
“And you think that Rorschach, of all people, is going to go along with this?”
“Hmm. Also yes. He’s going to, because you’re going to convince him. He trusts you, as do I. And I know you’ll do the right thing. Sit back down, Dan, and tell me that you agree.”
He sits, but he immediately splutters: “No—no I don’t. Staying silent is one thing, because I’m not going to be the guy who ends world peace by opening his mouth. But killing some innocent person because you have a security leak? I won’t.”
“To save billions of lives?” Dan shakes his head. “To save his?”
Searing hatred bubbles in his gut. He didn’t think it was possible to hate Veidt any more than he already does, but if seething anger and adrenaline could overcome preternatural speed and skill, the man sitting in front of him would be in pieces.
“Get out of my house. You don’t have any right—”
“I have every right.” And now Veidt stands, looms over him, the glow from the single light bulb a corona around his golden hair, beautiful and terrible all at once. “What this man knows can kill billions. We swore to defend the world—all of us—and we’re the only ones left now, the last guard post between peace and Armageddon. You don’t get to walk away from something like that. Not out of some self-righteous squeamishness, not because you…” He can feel Veidt’s breath on his face; they’re close enough that he could reach out and throttle the man, if only he were fast enough. “Did you really think that, after everything we’ve done, you’d get to have a happy ending?”
Dan stands up and quietly pushes his chair under the table, eyes a cockroach scuttling across the kitchen counter. There’s a beer left in the fridge, and he pops the cap and takes a long swig. “I’m working on it,” he replies.
“He won’t ever be sane, or happy.” Veidt has a way of sounding concerned, of taking on your pain as his own, and that’s yet another reason to hate him, because Dan is drawn to that honeyed voice, its promise of release, understands that beneath its slick surface, there’s a kernel of unadulterated truth. “People don’t recover from that kind of damage. He won’t change.”
Dan hears his own voice falter as he says, “I’m not trying to change him.”
“You’re trying to fix him. And it’s noble, and pathetic, and it doesn’t matter at all next to this.” He slaps the folded newspaper down on the table. “I’ll be back tomorrow night to fly us all home.”
“And if we’re gone?”
The smirk is back. “I’ll find you.” Veidt opens the briefcase again and takes out a small box, slides it across the table. “Here,” he says. “A token of my sincerity.”
He’s gone before Dan can open the lid and feel the blood drain from his face as he sees what’s inside, and there’s no point in trying to pursue him, no point in doing anything at all but sit, and tremble, at the table in the apartment that he’ll have abandoned by tomorrow night.