Date Written: 2011
Summary: A fractured heart has room for only one kind of justice.
Rating/Warnings: PG-13 mostly, but there's some pretty nasty violence and coarse language.
Notes: KM fill, for the scenario that Dan doesn't spring Rorschach from jail, and he is still there when he hears of 'Nite Owl's murder, with no way to verify which Nite Owl it was.
The wardens and supervisors and psych staff will not understand the significance of the date—just another day, beginning with the cold grey of autumn dawn and ending with the colder grey of autumn dusk. They will only remember it as the day Walter Kovacs started behaving himself, inexplicably and suddenly, making their jobs that much easier.
Walter Kovacs will remember it as the day that this horrible city finally managed to break him.
He lies on his back on the cot, staring at cracks in the cement of the ceiling. Far away, the metallic clank of cells opening and closing, ugly voices shouting to one another, a layered cacophony of subhuman noises. Concrete carries the echoes far; he is nowhere near them. The general population.
Is that where katied-up kids with blood on their hands end up?
Over his head, the crack seems to move in the dim light, writhing, spidering out into a seven-legged monstrosity, razor-tailed but with no mouth to scream.
He smiles, and there is no one there to see how terrifying it is.
"Hey, you heard the latest?" One guard is talking to another; there are always two, and he's had no reason to learn to tell them apart, but he will remember this one's voice forever.
A newspaper rustles, loudly. "I heard the latest, you think I'd be readin' this piece'a shit?"
Rorschach almost tunes them out then; some banter about the Gazette versus the Times, both irresponsibly liberal publications, and he has more important things on his mind. Survival, then escape, in that order. Then the first man laughs, a disgusting noise of cowardice and slithering things. "Some gang kids took out one of the other masks."
A blast of cold down his spine, and now Rorschach is paying attention.
"Hear that, you shit?" the man continues, thumping the bars. "Damn lucky to be in here, y'are."
Which mask, he wants to ask. How did it happen, he wants to ask, though he will not acknowledge it for its weakness. His imagination is as good as any bloodsoaked reality; only the identity of the fallen mask needs to be filled in.
"Fuck, man," the other guard says, chastising. "Don't stir his shit up, I've gotta be here for breakfast."
Who was it?
"Who was it, anyway?"
"What, the kids?"
"No, dumbfuck. The mask. Which one was it?"
Rorschach has not moved from his cot, dull eyes scanning the ceiling. His fingers twitch where they are laced over his stomach, eager for violence, for a target.
"Search me, man," the first guard says, riot stick hitting the ground hard. "Heard it from my old lady, an' you know her memory's going."
He can remember being very small, watching the mildew spots and settling cracks expand over the tenement's ceiling, yellow and rotted. Every season they expanded, growing more teeth and claws, twisted fingers stretching out to envelop him. But he was always getting bigger, too, and they never quite caught up.
He can also remember bleeding out under a warehouse landing in 1964, black spots in his vision dancing with the marred ceiling's filth and holes. Kind hands had found him in time for their owner to extract a delirious, urgent promise from him: he would hang in there, he wouldn't go and die on them.
They were strangers then, and Rorschach never forced him to return the promise.
Later, other cracks in another concrete ceiling, a mercifully uncomfortable cot at his back, dry and clean. He would only stay on the most violent nights, new battle scars aching hot and bright, so even this is a bad association—but he was always taken care of and the ceiling never leaked, sheltered only warm air, so things could have been worse.
Things can always be worse.
A man shouts at him from the door; it is time for dinner, the cold metal tray imparting the flavor of aluminum and rage to everything it carries. It doesn't matter. He stands obediently by the wall, waits patiently, speaks only when spoken to. He is not a threat.
After the fryer fat, he imagines it will take him months to get out of solitary, even as disgustingly obsequious as he is being. That's fine. He can wait.
They bring him a newspaper every day, less a courtesy and more an acknowledgement that a man with nothing to keep him company but the space between his own ears is a man on the way to insanity, before too long. It would be messy, and an inconvenience.
It's an outdated paper, two days old; worthless today, and he drops it to the floor in frustration. It's been a very long time since he last felt worry chew up his insides, make him want to rock around it like a burning stone in his gut. It is unbearable. If Daniel is—
No. No point thinking like that, not yet.
And there's nothing to be gained from talking to the guards, either. They're being cagey about that particular rumor around him, and it's likely they think the death of any mask would drive him to an uncontainable fury. He cannot entirely blame them.
They've caught the kids, he knows that. They were turned in by one of their traitorous girlfriends, have confessed, have expressed frustration that "these fuckin' masks don't know their place, keep tryin' to pop up again like they still own the place."
You quit, he hears himself say, to the musty silence of eight years' accumulated dust.
The crime scene has been described as 'gruesome', the body found pummelled to death. Rorschach has been at scenes like that, knows how hard it can be to even see anything human left in a face that pulped and bloody. These details, the men are free with, as they come and go in front of his cell. It is simply the face they refuse to provide.
He shoves the newspaper across the floor with his foot; it hits the drain and scatters, a slip of white typing paper falling free. Frowning, he ducks to pick it up.
Heard someone took out your boyfriend, it says, in undisguised jagged handwriting. Sorry about that, punctuated by a crooked smiley face.
Rorschach blinks at the slip—crumples it up, tosses it aside. It's an absurd accusation, unfounded and nonsensical, and so it must not have been meant for him.
He tells himself, very carefully, that he has no idea who they might be talking about.
A week later, he has so satisfied the psychoanalysts and jailers that he is ready to play by their rules that they make a provisional recommendation for him to be returned to the general population. He is still not to be given a cellmate, but he can take his meals and exercise with them, can eavesdrop, can get to all the secret places where men make each other scream and beg for mercy.
It is not a time for action. It is a time for listening, and planning, so that he can be sure his vengeance will be uninterrupted and complete.
A murder should be the same as any other murder, and justice should not be personal, but it is.
Three days of this, and then there are three lanky, drug-addled kids in the yard that weren't there before. Rorschach does not have any allies here that he knows of, but he does not know the old man who steps up to him, gesturing toward the boys with his contraband cigarette.
"They're the ones you want," he says, then walks away as if he's said nothing at all.
That's all it takes; the fury rises up, crests back behind his eyes, licks at the front of his brain. He wants to wring their necks, break their fingers one at a time, carve their faces off with a plastic butter knife. Wants it all, now, forever; wants to never have to stop punishing them.
He wants to know how badly Nite Owl would disapprove and still do it anyway, damn himself for his old friend's blood.
A cloud passes low overhead, a mockery of a bird with its wings twisted and broken. He closes his eyes, forces himself into stillness.
Evening: weekly visit with his bloated, entitled caseworker. He knows how obvious it will be that something is more wrong than usual, hates himself for the weakness. Can do nothing to mask it, no matter how hard he tries. They've taken that away from him.
Down a hallway, up a flight of stairs, then straight again. At the top of the stairwell, there is fresh graffiti, scrawled on the wall in permanent black marker: a rough drawing of an owl with its eyes put out, and the legend SO LONG, FUCKER.
He stops dead.
It doesn't have to mean anything. It doesn't have to, but he knows that men in prison are superstitious and bound to symbols, identities wrapped up in nicknames and numbers and crude tattoos. There is no other reason they would draw this, except for...
"Come on, man," the guard says, pushing him along. It’s a violation of his space that Rorschach would normally break limbs over, but he is numb, has become so much fractured nothing under the skin.
"Keep moving," they say, and he does.
He knows that once it begins, he will never be allowed to feel normal again.
Keep moving, his mother says, when he dawdles too long watching cracks split the sidewalk. Do you think I got all day, you little fuck? Keep moving.
He watches them, learns their names. Learns how to forge their initials, all sloppy aggression and anger, shaky with drug withdrawal.
Straighten up, the schoolteachers and nuns shouted, Don't you ever want to amount to anything? Stop messing around, stop it, stop it—
They each receive a note from one of the others, meet me behind the laundry, and they are too insular, too dependant on each other and terrified of the rest of the prisoners, to ignore each other’s directives.
Elsewhere, the minute hand of an unreal clock slides up to midnight.
—Stop it, Daniel says, holding him by the wrists. You can't just keep going like this, you need to eat something, you need to sleep. Stay in the basement if you want but—
Outside, something is shrieking, dying.
Inside, as outside.
—stay with me, buddy, hang on, promise me you won't die on me—
An air raid siren, somewhere. The walls are shaking to pieces, rattling the pipes and the metal shackles bound to them, making the floor buck and dive under their weight. He ignores it; keeps driving down and down.
—you're scaring me here, please—
"Oh god man, please, stop, please please please..."
There was a Rorschach that walked into this prison who would have cared that the city was in wet, broken pieces out there—that one of his own had just ended the world as he understood it. But it is Walter Kovacs—weak, depraved Walter, cigarette paper between his child's fingers and rage between his teeth—holding this man's throat closed while one accomplice watches and shrieks and thrashes against his bonds and the other lies cooling nearby. There is only room in the screaming pit of his skull for one tragedy, for one kind of justice. Everything else is nothing.
Soon, the city will welcome its shamed, defeated heroes home from the frozen bottom of the world, and its escaped criminals too, evaporated up through their bars amid the chaos of an ending world. They will join with the homeless and the newly insane, the injured and broken, just more huddled masses clambering over each other for the chance to keep breathing, free or otherwise.
Maybe one will meet and entangle with the other, in the bread lines and soup kitchens and shelters, around the oil drums and in the pits, hatchets and shovels in hand—a familiar face, something the eyes will remember how to focus on.
But it’s a big city.