Disclaimer: DC Comics and Alan Moore own these characters and the world they inhabit. I wouldn't dream of hurting them, or of making any money out of this story. PG-13 for some bad words and Rorschach, who deserves a rating just for being himself.
This story is set in 1978, a little less than seven years before the events portrayed in "Watchmen." It will make more sense if you've read the series, although I've been careful not to give anything away. Of course, if you haven't read the series, I know what you should spend your Christmas money on this year. Feedback is much appreciated at [email protected]
This wasn't meant to happen any more. It had been nearly a year and a half since he'd quit the business after the Keene Act passed, and almost as long since he'd seen Rorschach. Two and a half years since his partner had found something in the night that turned the cracks in his mind into yawning chasms. Since his voice had flattened into an expressionless monotone. Since he'd started scaring the shit out of his only friend. But part of him had known that no-one ever quit for real. A mask was always a mask, like an alcoholic was always an alcoholic.
After spending Christmas Eve with Hollis Mason, the man formally known as Nite Owl had strolled home with a bottle of Scotch and a confidence only acquired after thirteen years of hand-to-hand combat with the low life of New York. The broken lock had set his heart racing with anticipation, not dread. Yet the familiar thrill of the chase had turned to shock when he discovered his former partner instead of the expected adversary. Rorschach, last of the masked vigilantes, covered in his own blood for a change.
He should have looked out of place next to the tree and the perfunctory decorations, but although he was not a big man, Rorschach always managed to fill the space around him. He sat ramrod straight as always, in spite of his injury, waiting for Daniel to return without apparent anxiety. It was if a piece of the cold night outside had walked into his house and made itself at home.
"Daniel," he said, while his host was still gaping in the doorway, "sorry about the mess."
"Jesus Christ! What happened?!"
"Bullet in the shoulder."
Daniel turned the logistics of the situation over in his head as he switched on the light and put the bottle in its brown paper bag down on the coffee table. He didn't need to ask what had happened to the gunman -- he would have been willing to bet his Owlship that he was in a worse state than the man he'd shot. For the moment, he decided to ignore the part of his mind pointing out that Rorschach was wanted on two counts of murder.
"How long have you been here?"
"Not long. Was only a few blocks away when it happened. Lucky."
"You're damn right. I should be able to get you to the car and ..."
"No. No hospitals."
Daniel gritted his teeth. Part of him felt guilty for leaving Rorschach with no-one to watch his back, but moments like this reminded him that the man had become impossible to deal with, if not downright irrational. "Rorschach, you've been shot. You need a doctor, for crying out loud!."
"Only a flesh wound. Bullet went straight through. Just needs bandaging."
"I know you're paranoid about your secret identity, and I know you're a wanted criminal, but I'm not going to let you bleed to death in my living room because you want to keep playing hero after everyone else has gone home!"
Rorschach pushed himself up out of the chair with his good right arm, his black and white mask changing patterns swiftly. "Fine. Won't stay where I'm not wanted." He took a deliberately firm step towards the door.
Daniel unclenched fists he hadn't realised he'd made, and let out a long sigh. He wondered what it must have cost Rorschach to come here asking for help after the things they'd said to each other when he quit adventuring. Then again, it wasn't like he had anywhere else to go.
"Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to start that all over again. I'll try to help you, okay? And...you can still trust me. I won't turn you in or kick you out. But if it's bad, you have to get some real treatment. Now lie down on the couch while I get bandages and stuff."
Although he'd suffered surprisingly few serious injuries during his time as a costumed adventurer, Nite Owl had always kept a fully stocked medical kit in the Owlship for these contingencies, and he found it still intact. After a moment's thought, he also retrieved a sharp pair of scissors.
Returning to the living room, he knelt down and began cutting through the tough fabric of Rorschach's coat and the suit and shirt he wore beneath, almost gagging at the smell of fresh blood and rancid sweat that mixed with all kinds of other unidentifiable but uniformly unpleasant odors. Under his disgust, he felt a spur of concern. Personal hygiene had never been one of Rorschach's strong points, but now he had the rank stench of a big cat. What had he been doing for the past three years?
Apart from killing two men.
Soon he had exposed the wound that, as his ex-partner had predicted, looked clean and uncomplicated. It wasn't even bleeding much now that Rorschach was lying still instead of smashing things.
"Well?" he said.
"You were right. It's not as bad as I thought. I think you could use a couple of gallons of blood pumped into your arm, though, and I don't have any plasma on hand."
"I'll be fine."
Daniel shook his head in exasperation and resigned himself to his task. Obviously, he wasn't going to win this fight while Rorschach was conscious, and since the other man hadn't passed out yet maybe he really was okay.
He poured a generous amount of disinfectant onto the wound, raising a gasp from his patient, and covered it with gauze and bandages. As a final flourish, he put Rorschach's arm in a sling to hold it steady. "That should do it. Now you just have to be careful and stop breaking down doors for a while."
"Had cuts and broken bones before. They heal."
There was silence for a long moment as Daniel packed up the kit and the scissors and Rorschach rolled over onto his back.
"Good of you to help me," he said eventually.
"You're welcome. It's almost like old times."
"Break from civilian life, at least. How is Miss Thompson?"
Daniel started and frowned at the abrupt shift, and settled himself into the clean chair. "Susie and I broke up about a year ago now, actually. Which you could have worked out for yourself."
"Yes. Thought she always wanted you to quit?"
"Yeah, well, she was right. It's a dangerous habit, and I'm better off without it."
"Don't believe that. Back then, did things that meant something. What does anything mean now?"
Daniel clenched his fists again, and found himself standing up, pacing the floor. "That's bullshit, and you should know it. Dressing up in costumes and beating up a few criminals doesn't change the world. Not in any good way, at least. I'm glad to be out of it. For God's sake, Rorschach, it's Christmas! Haven't you got something better to do than dodge bullets?"
"Drinking with other has-beens, reminiscing about the days when you were important? Walking home to a cold house? These are your better things?"
Daniel sighed again, remembering the way his heart had lifted when he saw the broken lock, and wondered whether Rorschach wasn't right after all. "Do we have to have this fight again? Because, frankly, I can't be bothered any more. You win."
Rorschach watched him from the couch, mask unreadable. Apparently he didn't have a come-back for that one. Daniel took Hollis's present from its paper bag and unscrewed it with deliberation, then fetched two glasses from the liquor cabinet.
"Don't drink. Have you forgotten so soon?"
"No, but like I said, it's Christmas. Besides, it'll help you sleep." He poured out two generous glasses and handed one to Rorschach, who examined it dubiously. Daniel clinked his own against it.
"Here's to the season," he said, "and to old times."
Lifting up his mask, his ex-partner took a tentative sip of the liquor, grimaced, and spat it back. "Don't see the appeal," he said.
Daniel smiled and drained his own draught in a moment. "Would you like me to get you some aspirin instead?"
Rorschach put his glass on the coffee table with a distinct clink and leaned back on the couch silently. Daniel wondered if he should be apologising for something, even though Rorschach was the one who had interrupted his holiday, broken into his house, bled on his lounge suite, and started an argument into the bargain. Funny the effects that his aura had on people.
"Do you want to move to the guest room?" he asked his ex-partner instead.
"Think I've ruined enough of your furniture for one night."
Daniel chuckled. "I never liked that couch anyway."
Privately, he thought that it was more likely that Rorschach had gone weak at the knees and he wouldn't let Daniel help him stand. But there was no need to test his pride by saying so.
"I'll let you get some sleep, then. Bathroom's down the hall. See you in the morning." He glanced down at his watch. "Later in the morning."
He turned to go, picking up the bottle of Scotch on the way.
"Goodnight, Daniel. Merry Christmas," Rorschach said softly. "Sorry to spoil your evening. Kind of you to have me."
"There wasn't really anything to spoil," said Nite Owl. "Really, I don't mind you dropping 'round. I may not be a hero any more, but I'm always here to help out an old friend, okay? Merry Christmas."
He turned off the light as he headed for the shower, to wash Rorschach's blood from his hands, and left him alone with the tree and the darkness.