“Let us be terrible so that the people will not have to be.” – George-Jacques Danton
The fight is over by the time Dan finds first a trail of blood, then Rorschach, shoving a man’s head into a rain-filled oil drum behind a Burgers n’ Borscht. As he hears Dan approach, he yanks the guy’s head free and his victim coughs, spluttering water and bile, stumbles free and lopes off into the night. Rorschach watches his retreat and sinks in the frame of the delivery door, glancing down in disdain at the faux-Cyrillic letters reflected in the rain that pools in the parking lot.
“Following me?” His tone—what tone there is in that rasp—suggests that there’s no point in Dan denying it. “Shouldn’t leave Miss Chadwicke alone.”
“She’s lasted this long. I think she can take care of herself.” He takes a seat beside his partner, who makes an irritated noise as he shifts to the other side of the doorstep. “You don’t trust her.”
“Criminal,” he says. “Whore.”
“That doesn’t mean that she isn’t on our side in this,” Dan points out. Rorschach nods as though his head is too heavy for his neck to support. “You don’t trust me, either.”
A strained intake of breath from beneath the mask, like a straw sucking at an empty cup, and Dan knows what that sound means; after twenty years, he’s an expert in weird noises, knows that Rorschach won’t lie, can’t lie, at least not that blatantly, and nor can he accept that Dan is the glaring exception to every one of his carefully constructed and rigidly enforced rules.
Dan reaches a hand out, but it freezes in mid-air, and he asks, “Can I?” A leaden eternity before there’s another, slighter nod, and he’s allowed to—cautiously, like he’s reaching into a tiger’s cage—run a gloved finger over the side of the mask and watch the inkblots chase his touch. No skin, he thinks, nothing human between them, and yet there’s still a thrill in this, still a want that’s haunted the corners of his thoughts since he crossed the first line.
He tugs the mask up to just above Rorschach’s upper lip, flicks his tongue along the line of a sandpaper jaw. He tastes blood; a split lip from the earlier fight with Leslie, red smeared all along the inside of the mask. He can feel Rorschach’s body go rigid.
“Not like this.” He starts to pull the mask all the way up, and Dan clutches his wrists and holds them in place.
“Keep it on,” Dan growls.
“Can’t. One thing to be faceless. No weakness with face. No sickness.”
Still restraining his wrists with one hand, Dan slides the other between the folds of his partner’s coat to cup the stiffness between his legs. “Yeah, uh. I don’t think I believe that.” He takes the bottom edge of the mask in his teeth and yanks it back down. “You told me that this was your real face.”
“Then it’s—then this is you.” He drags his mouth across the mask, feels the contours and angles beneath his lips. The texture is strange, more like cloth than plastic, and tastes chemical, cleaner than the rest of him. “Tell me you don’t want this and I’ll stop.”
It’s a good thing sometimes, he thinks, as the masked head bows into his chest—hat knocked, forgotten, into the neon-splashed pavement—that Rorschach is practically incapable of lying.
With the mask on, he’s less aggressive than Dan would have expected, almost like he was in the beginning, weirdly uncoordinated in a new body that doesn’t understand sensation, doesn’t understand anything beyond brutal violence. He grabs at Dan’s cape like it’s a life raft, the inkblots shifting so quickly they practically blur into gray. Dan hauls Rorschach to his feet. “I didn’t think so.”
Dan, too, is different when he’s masked.
Rorschach fiddles with the crescent buckle at his waist. “Daniel. How…?” He somehow manages to unfasten it, and Rorschach’s hands claw at him, slide the codpiece down and then tug the cloak around them both like he wants to hide in its folds. There’s a leathered grip around his cock, and someone gasps and he realizes that the sound came from his own mouth.
There’s always the chance of discovery outside, and his partner has never been a patient man, and so, clothes and bodies slick with rain, he’s lifting Rorschach into the door, sinking into a vice-grip of sinewy muscles and rage as the smaller man braces his hands on the frame and his knees around Dan’s hips. Dan pumps into him in a dissonant rhythm that echoes the clang of garbage-can lids and squealing tires and slamming doors, crushed by him in an impossible heat until he can’t stand it anymore and cries out into the sleeve of Rorschach’s coat.
The rain carries the remnants of their sins into the pavement. Dan slumps, spent and exhausted, against the door, pulling Rorschach down with him, the ferocity in him quieted enough that Dan can whisper: “In the end, when it matters, I won’t betray you. Even if…”
“Should get back,” Rorschach mutters. “Raise suspicion otherwise.”
“Okay,” Dan tells him, and they stay like that for a while longer.
There are other stories besides theirs.
Connecticut and Pennsylvania have placed quotas on the amount of Manhattan refugees they’ll allow to resettle, with New Jersey likely to follow suit. In a Gazette interview, Redford slams the Nixon administration for not providing enough incentives for the survivors to stay, and in a Nova Express interview, Veidt, his wording carefully polite, suggests that both of the two major political parties are incapable of meeting the challenges that the new paradigm, this infinitely terrifying universe, sets out for them. The latest polls show his popularity, especially in besieged and battered New York, on the rise. No one but Doug Roth will go so far as to call him a contender in the next election, but between his advocacy for the reconstruction efforts and the results of the Jerusalem peace talks, he’s never far from the front pages.
In Lower Manhattan, there’s a squatters’ riot when the mayor announces plans to tear down the derelict buildings damaged by the monster’s last flails. In a soup kitchen, spoons pause between bowl and mouth as the radio in the corner talks of hope and renewal and the red-haired homeless man in the corner mutters bitterly about entropy and decay. Even the old timers at the table beside him can’t remember a spring when it’s rained this much.
Utopia splits at the seams, and the city, now more than ever, looks to its great and golden son to save it. He is, it seems, everywhere at once: cutting the red tape at the Ground Zero monument, defusing the riot by personally funding a rent-controlled apartment complex for the evicted squatters, waiting for Dan in the kitchen when, in the early hours of the morning, he returns from patrol, his costume stuffed into a tattered knapsack.
“You could buy me a phone,” Dan says, dropping the knapsack and kicking it to the side of the front hall. “That way, you could call in advance and you wouldn’t need to break into my house.”
“I have the key,” Veidt says smoothly. “And it’s not your house.”
“I saw you on the news tonight.” Dan moves over to the coffeemaker; he puts on enough for two without even thinking about it, and Veidt swivels in the kitchen chair to face him. “You’re serious about this president shit?”
“You sound angry, Dan.”
“The one thing that keeps me from killing you is my belief that you didn’t do all of this for personal gain.”
Veidt laughs. “What keeps you from killing me is that you can’t. Speaking of which, where’s Rorschach? You two didn’t have a falling out, did you?”
The coffeemaker bubbles and groans. Dan reaches in the cupboard for the bag of sugar cubes, and he frowns because there is still some left, because he’s been sleeping alone in an unmade bed for days and when he wakes from nightmares, the space beside him is cold. “He thought,” Dan says, “we might speed things up by investigating separately.”
“He’s found something.”
“He thinks he has.”
Veidt climbs, heavily, to his feet, and for a moment he looks every one of his forty-six years, the strain of sleepless nights visible beneath his eyes, crinkles etched in his handsome face. “You’re a terrible liar. I hope you’re more convincing when you tell him that you’re on his side. That the two of you will take me down together.” He claps a hand on Dan’s shoulder, and Dan flinches beneath the firm grasp. “That is what you tell him, isn’t it?”
Dan pours the coffee, his hands shaking, and hands Veidt one of the mugs. A friendly chat in a kitchen—that’s all this is. He doesn’t need to give in to his own fear. Rorschach wouldn’t. “Sounds like your plan isn’t going so well. Information leaks, riots…”
“Birth pangs,” Veidt says. “Change is never painless.”
“Do you regret it?”
The silence is long enough to mean that Veidt is considering his answer, that he might not even have an answer. “The treaties are still holding,” he says. “It’s still working—setbacks aside. I’ve freed the world, Daniel. And freedom is frightening, isn’t it?” He finishes his coffee, his mouth puckering at its sweetness. “The problem with erasing God and history is that those are the only two forces that can tell you if you’ve done the right thing. But we muddle through nonetheless. After all, what happiness did moral certainty ever bring to anyone?”
He’s at the front door, about to leave. “Adrian?”
“Do you have nightmares about it?”
He turns the handle, and outside is grey and cold, a world that is a pale shadow of the one he destroyed. He doesn’t need to answer; the bags beneath his eyes say enough. “The monster?” Veidt asks.
“Mostly. Sometimes…” Even as he says it, he wonders why he’s admitting it to Veidt. “Sometimes it’s Laurie.”
“Hmm. For me it’s the boy, Robert Deschaines, his fear in the last seconds of his life.” As he slips out the door, he calls back, “Goodnight, Dan.”
The coffee doesn’t keep Dan awake for long. He dreams of broken glass, of Laurie floating away in a field of stars, and wakes to a note on his pillow and a hollowness in his heart.
The city spares no thought for those who gave it their youth.
The woman, dressed in black, fears the hours before dark. They named her, and she is no longer safe within their reach, not until night falls and she can creep into her old apartment building. She sits, shivering, waiting for photographs to slide through the gap above the floor, for the sound of footsteps retreating down the hall. She can feel her destiny bearing down on her, a small role in a great and murderous melodrama, but nevertheless, the linchpin on which the future hinges. She hears someone outside, and though she wants to throw open the door and reveal everything, she can sympathize with the need to be mysterious, knows that seeing her informant’s face dooms both of them.
Across town, a man sits at his desk behind a wall of windows overlooking his city. He can go a long time without sleep; longer, when the nightmares slither at the base of his skull. The city lights stutter beneath him and he asks forgiveness of the same god he banished.
Did I do the right thing, Jon? Did I?
Far below, where the rain never ceases, two men who have forgotten how to speak to each other walk a spiral from Ground Zero, a ritual of pauses and almost-blurted confessions. Even now, the last stubborn vestiges of snow long-eroded into the sewers, the city belongs more to the dead than to the two that patrol its hidden places.
“Miss Chadwicke has gone home.”
“You know where that is?”
Silence is affirmation. Rorschach knows and won’t say. He presses against Dan’s side and lets himself be led into the shadows of Central Park, the mask rolled up below his eyes so it’s no longer really a disguise, just a reminder of what he is, what he’s capable of. Part of Dan longs for these clandestine meetings, to lose himself in the shifting patterns and his partner’s hands, cold and insistent as they search beneath his cape, as the storm builds around them. And part of him knows that he’s only losing Rorschach again, like he did a decade ago, that his friend is retreating into the guise of an impossible ideal, into muttered half-sentences and sudden outbursts of violence. Dan, in a moment of courage, slides one of the purple gloves loose to capture Rorschach’s hand—to make himself believe, he thinks, that there is still a man under there. He’s punched something or someone so hard that his fingernails are chipped and dusted with his own blood, turned black in the glare of Dan’s goggles. He touches them to his lips and copper dissolves on his tongue.
“Daniel,” a warning, but his arms coil around Dan’s neck, and they stumble into the wrought-iron underside of a bridge. Rorschach’s breath is sour against his mouth, the ground beneath them treacherous with mud and last year’s leaves. He tries to find his footing on the wet gravel of the path, but his boots slip with the urgent, arrhythmic rocking of his partner’s hips against his leg. Rorschach growls his name again, and this time, he thinks it might be encouragement.
“You would like this,” Dan mutters. “What a fucking mess.” Teeth close around his bottom lip and then the only thing he can manage is a gasp.
He pushes Rorschach into the slippery bank, tugging his shirt open to press muddy handprints across his undershirt, pushing aside a pang of worry at how easily the pinstriped pants slide down his hips. He tries to tease a little, swirling his tongue over the head of Rorschach’s cock, but his partner clenches fistfuls of his hair and makes incomprehensible noises and Dan takes him into his mouth, chokes on the taste of soil and salt until Rorschach shudders to climax. His own erection falters and suddenly he’s being dragged up, and it’s the ungloved hand that closes around his length, stroking him until all he can see is afterimages, black and white chasing each other across the inside of his eyelids.
For some time they lie there, cradled in the earth and the scent of vegetable rot. There’s a streak of muck on Rorschach’s mask that reminds Dan of a bloodstain, and he reaches to wipe it off. Rorschach grunts and yanks the mask back down. The bottom of his trenchcoat catches and tears as he climbs, unsteadily, to his feet.
“Where are you going?” And when Rorschach doesn’t answer, he knows it’s to find Leslie, to wait until her source reveals itself, to guard her from whatever stands in the way of her and her next printed accusation.
Even if it’s Dan who stands in the way. “Don’t follow,” Rorschach says.
“No, I know.” He watches his partner retreat into the rain. “And then you’ll come home?” he calls out, but the rain drowns out the response, if it comes at all.