A.N. I've been a fan of the original comic for a long while, but I've only recently seen the 2009 film, which prompted me to write something around one of my favourite masks; Nite Owl. I've tried to stay mostly true to canonical source material, with some small changes as this is AU.

Rating: High T due to strong violence, verging into an M. Not recommended for those under 15.

" I talk to God but the sky is empty"


"My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears"
A Better Resurrection, Sylvia Plath

In 1975, Daniel Dreiberg watches as Rorschach, his partner of ten years, warps into something new. The change is fast and quick, the cutting out of his original self like the smooth amputation of an unwanted or damaged limb, separating rotting useless flesh with a precise incision so the clean flesh is not tainted, a clear cut with a sharp blade to minimise pain. The odd thing is, he barely has anything to compare with, pre- and post-Roche Rorschach. The alteration is not something he can easily put into words; is nothing physical he can pin down. Daniel never knew Rorschach as well as he ever would have liked, despite their partnership forged in the fiery weight of years. He knows the man is stubborn, that he eats sugar cubes and Heinz beans raw and cold out of metal cans Daniel keeps stocked especially for such a purpose.

He doesn't know – would never know – of the man Walter Kovacs, doesn't know of the bad childhood surrounded by abuse from a prostitute mother, doesn't even know where Rorschach goes after every patrol. He always tries to get Rorschach to stay at his house, tempting him when they get back to the Nest with offers of food and a couch to sleep on. Daniel offered the spare bed once, but Rorschach misunderstood his intentions and took offence, so now he only tentatively suggests the couch and a blanket. Sometimes the man picks up on the offer, acquiesces with a grunt, saying a quiet thanks brusquely like it's showing weakness. He has always left by the time Daniel wakes, the blanket scrunched untidily where it's been thrown back upon waking.

Daniel always imagines that outside of work, Rorschach's domain is that of the whole city, that he sits pensive on rooftops, a stoic gargoyle in purple trousers the hems of which have dragged in garbage waste and polluted water, fedora affixed atop his head; observing the world underneath and reading the hidden filth and vices inside every person to scurry by, hiding themselves under umbrellas from the cleansing rain.

Rorschach didn't tell him why he went after the Blair Roche girl alone, why he took his task so personally and seriously. Searched for her with a single minded tenacity, unrelenting. Daniel hears later about how he visits the Roche family home, a lowly apartment plagued with damp soiling the ceiling, with barely enough left over after the rent's been paid to to cover living. The father – a bus driver of nearly fifteen years, who works every hour God sends so he can feed and clothe his family – has been reduced to a trembling spectre of a man; bloodless and wretched, choked up in his own grief. He is unkempt, stinking of misery and sweat, unable to do anything but mourn and worry, his face cleaned only by his tears. As Rorschach talks bluntly to the man, attempting to learn what he can to aid him, the other Roche children crowd around a thin motionless alabaster women who Rorschach takes to be Blair's mother, the children frightened at the sight of a stranger but with a curiousness in their eyes that only exists hand in hand with the innocence of youth. There are six in all, ranging from a baby mostly hidden in a swaddling blanket, to a girl about eight who clings with a tight fist to her mother's stained faded dress and asks when her sister is coming home.

And Daniel learns of Rorschach's promise that he'd get their little girl back safe, taking with him a photograph of a smiling child, blonde hair in pigtails and her whole life ahead of her.

Walter Kovacs – a man Daniel never even knew by name – died the night he found what was left of a six year old girl as ashes in a grate, her clothes charred, her body butchered, her femur warred over by dogs in a filthy back yard, the pieces dispersed enough to give the family no little girl to bury. Walter Kovacs snapped and broke, burned along with the raging fire that took her murderer's life. The black smoke rising up to pollute the clear shade of night, oppressing the pure light of stars.

There was no Walter after that.

Daniel was witness to the immediate change. In his naivete, in his stupid penchant for hope, thought that it was just the shock. Everyone got a case that pushed them to the edge, but Rorschach was the last person he would have ever expected to go over. He was too strong. This was the mask that survived everything the world threw at him; shrugged off injury and damage like it meant nothing to him in the long run. Daniel thought wrongly that the increased anger and violence, the hatred to humanity and every lie it stood for would pass.

It never did.

And having to come to terms with that, fighting back the temptation to grab hold of Rorschach and shout at him with fury and concern and loss; 'Why? Why did you have to let it beat you? You of all people?', was hard. Their partnership reduced to the basics – fighting together, patrolling together. Rorschach stopped taking up his offer to stop over, and Archimedes was silent except for the buzz of the engines, void of any of their old conversations; Daniel's awkward laugh, statements to try and jump-start a communication between the two, Rorschach responding in grunts and his convoluted sentences, sometimes tinted with an edge of amusement with how hard Daniel was trying. And missing, mourning the passing of a humanity that was once part of a mask he barely knew, knowing it would not return, made Daniel promise himself that he would never lose himself like that.

Daniel had constantly been a disappointment to people in his childhood, and he imagines it will come back to haunt him one day. He's begun to accept it as fact, and sees a sad future for himself; still living alone in four floors of an apartment building under his name, getting fat and lazy, unable to tune back into the wavelength for normal life enough to make something of himself. All his life, fighting crime is all he ever wanted to achieve. Reading about the Minutemen, a scrapbook under his bed stuffed with newspaper cuttings of their achievements. His father wanted him to go into banking, like him, work in the capital at an office, wear a smart suit and act like an adult. His obsession with ornithology and technology was considered childish, a subject for boys, not men. He was told to grow up, stop dreaming and settle down to proper business. Daniel always got the impression that his father never approved of him, or his fixation upon becoming a crime-fighting mask. Young Daniel was bookish and shy, friendly to the point where people took advantage of him. His glasses were large and cumbersome, giving him an owlish look to go with poorly selected woolly jumpers and slacks. Even in adulthood he was never strong to the level of The Comedian or Rorschach, proficient enough in hand-to-hand combat to protect himself when there was no other options, but he was clever. Quietly intelligent to the point of keeping the level of it to himself. Yet even straight A's at school weren't enough to make his father proud. A succinct nod upon reading his term reports was all the indication Daniel got that the man even noted what his grades were.

Daniel leaves home when he is sixteen, bag packed the night before with books and clothes, money he's been saving up from his Saturday job as a paper boy. Sneaking downstairs with all he is taking with him in one medium-sized battered suitcase, avoiding the step halfway down which creaks loudly when weight is put on it. At five o'clock in the morning, the last vestiges of night not yet gone, nocturnal creatures retreating back while there is still darkness to cloak them, he stands on his porch, having closed the door quietly behind him, and cleans the lens of his glasses with the fabric of his shirt. Sighing deeply before putting them back on and stepping out into the world.

He left a note to his father, explaining what he was going to do and why. He never knew if the old man read it or not.

His father dies in 1962, when Daniel is seventeen. The cheap TV set in his rented apartment is filled with news of the Congress authorization of the North Vietnam war in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Nite Owl – who he later comes to call Hollis Mason - shakes hands with Attorney General Edward Brooke, after having having successful brought the Boston Strangler to justice in Boston, Massachusetts. Daniel looks at him through the grainy black and white picture of the pixelated screen, a long admirer of his work, and wishes to emulate his hero. Wants to do some good in the world, wants to achieve something. He's idealistic, naïve maybe. He's been trying to make a start on being a crime-fighter, but it's slow going with little funds. He works the night shift as a security guard, the uniform poorly fitting and too big despite his height measuring at 6''1, and makes progress in the daylight hours when he isn't sleeping. Drawing up plans that may never come to fruition, teaching himself to fight with badly co-ordinated strikes aimed at a leather punching bag that's cracked with age.

The summons from his father's solicitor are pushed through his letter box along with heating bills and a redundancy notice from his work.

His father died of a heart attack three nights previously. The writer of the letter said it wasn't unpleasant, that it happened in his sleep. He wouldn't have felt a thing. They couldn't get hold of Daniel by phone because his line was disconnected, the bill unpaid for too long.

He doesn't know how to react when, in a New York office of a Joseph Redgrave, solicitor, Daniel is told the amount of money his father has left him. He imagines its a joke for a second, except life has never been that funny.

He didn't know the old man cared so much.

The first Nite Owl retires the same year, bowing out of the hero game in order to run an auto repair shop, and by that time, Daniel has completely decided that being a crime-fighter is what he wants to do with his life. He doesn't just dally in it like before, not now he has the funds to make things happen. With his father's money he's been able to focus on building technologies that before he could only plan on scrap paper, gather material to make his own costume for the job. He knows that he has a clear purpose; a calling.

And just as Hooded Justice was the inspiration for Hollis Mason becoming a mask, so does the Nite Owl become inspiration for a young and impressionable Daniel Dreiberg.

So he pens a letter to the man, the only copy that didn't end up scrunched into a ball and cast to the floor halfway through a sentence, asking to take up his mantle. He makes a great effort to sound mature, and it comes across alright as he details to the man how he wants to make a difference. Follow in Nite Owl's footsteps. Make the world a better place.

He sends the man gritty pictures of the weapons he has designed; the prototype of an altered gas-propelled grappling hook that he later perfects to give to Rorschach, and a photo of his preliminary outfit; a half face mask which leaves his mouth visible, his eyes covered by specialised glasses which he himself has designed to incorporate night vision and heat sensing, the mask rising up in horns to imitate the ear tufts of owls, a belt around his torso with a buckle formed in a crescent shape. He even includes basic designs of what he's planning; a sketchy drawing of 'The Owl Ship' (he has yet to think of a better name) which he hopes will be both effective in aerial and aqueous mediums.

Despite being sceptical of his age and inexperience, Mason writes back, suggesting a meeting. Daniel is so worried in the hours before the man arrives at his flat that he can barely sit still, fiddling with his glasses, even gracing his neck with a bow tie to try and look smart to make an impression. But his fears that Mason will leave the house laughing at this stupid kid who wants to play dress-up are unfounded, and the man is impressed enough upon examining the outfit and gadgets for him to give his permission to Daniel. Wishing him luck, telling him he expects great things. Daniel can only hope to live up to that expectation. Daniel might be a let-down to some, but Nite Owl will a disappointment to nobody

He assumes the alter ego of Nite Owl II in that year. It takes fourteen years for him to be consumed by it.

1965 and Daniel teams up with the man he knows only as Rorschach. A man of principle and strength, Rorschach is investigative and forward, not shy of breaking a few bones to get the results he wants. The first time they work together, Rorschach gives a man concussion with a strike to the temple with a spanner. Nite Owl may not always agree with the degree of violence the man uses, but he respects the man's commitment and integrity to his principles. With Daniel's skills and inventive gadgets, the two strike out as a crime-fighting team, become partners. And Daniel feels part of a team, something bigger, like with Rorschach by his side he can accomplish anything.

He learns quickly that the world is a far more brutal place than he ever really realised, but unlike Rorschach, he never lets it get him down. Never allows it to take him over, cloud his own principles. Knows that when he returns home in the daylight hours after a patrol he is Nite Owl no longer, just Daniel. Who says hello to his neighbours as he collects his papers. He's known as the quiet man who owns flats 1-4, polite, one of those intellectual types, keeps to himself. He bothers nobody, so few bother him apart from to wave back at his hellos, not realising that there is a different version of Daniel that emerges every night. With the taking off of his mask, he can sit in front of the television in relative comfort, eat noodles with chopsticks held in clean hands that have had the blood washed from them with carbolic soap, and believe he has contributed in his own way to something meaningful.

The two are a good team, successful in fighting gangs and thugs. Rorschach is the one snapping bones, but he never kills them. He's the stronger of the two, reckless, but Daniel tempers him somewhat, stops him breaking unnecessary bones for information, holds him back when he slips too far. It's good cop, bad cop and in some cases people are more willing to co-operate when they know that the good cop is the only one keeping the sociopathic bad cop at bay from breaking their limbs.

Daniel matures, grows to learn that violence sometimes has to be met with violence when its for self defence. But he has never killed anybody, and the criminals the two of them catch are handed into the nearest police station. Their relationship with the police is a curious one and he imagines that some of them blame the masks for the lack of jobs, but mostly it's a polite respect directed towards the vigilantes.

When Rorschach enquires one day as to why he dons the outfit every night, Daniel says that he's struggling against the degradation of the American dream. Rorschach barks a laugh in his throaty voice, finds his answer funny, calls him a idealist, but it's merely friendly banter.

They're a competent pair; effective when taking down the Twilight Lady, battling the Knot Tops and defeating Jimmy the Gimmick in an abandoned fairground park. They disagree a lot, but what two people don't in such a close environment, especially when Captain Metropolis brings several masks together in '66 to try and build up a group to take the old mantle of the Minutemen. Rorschach calls the Crimebusters a publicity stunt, disregards it as hype that will drown their intentions in bureaucratic red tape, but Nite Owl holds out that it might work. Persuades Rorschach to give it a go, just for a trial period.

And it does work for a while, even though really nothing changes when it comes to their organisation. They're under the banner of a new name, but it stills works based on individuals and groups co-ordinating different areas of the city. Ozymandias and the Comedian seem to prefer working alone, working within Harlem district and the Upper East and West sides respectively. Dr Manhattan and Silk Spectre II patrol together, becoming romantically attached over the years, so Rorschach and Nite Owl remain as a pairing through loyalty and convenience. They know each other long enough by now to be able to work effectively and efficiently. Daniel would even go as far to call them friends.

Then comes the tragic tale of Blair Roche. And Daniel feels Rorschach slipping away.

It is 1976. Bicentennial celebrations are held in July to mark the 200th year since the adoption of the Declaration of independence. Daniel hears about a new film at the cinema, and invites Adrian Veidt to see 'Rocky' with him after one of the Crimebusters team meetings; Rorschach having some prior engagement the details of which are predictably sketchy and not forthcoming. Daniel is good friends with Ozymandias, sometimes visiting the man's house to share drinks and talk about the villains they've taken on throughout the day. With Adrian, and even sometimes the presence of the lovely Laurie Juspeczyk, he's able to regress into more 'normal' stuff – wind down from long days taking on the identity of his mask – discuss Nixon and politics, threat of the reds, who'll win at the Super Bowl.

It is one year until the Keane Act, and none of them know that their glory days are coming to an end.

It is in this year, that the decline starts, hairline cracks in his world that fracture as time goes on. And it all begins with a woman called Rosa May.

Rosa, despite sharing the same name as the nineteenth century Californian prostitute, was a nurse. She had worked at the Lincoln Medical Centre on East 149th Street, manning the wards and helping out for long hours in the terminal illness wing. Somehow, she was always laughing and joking with the patients, playing with the kids with donated toys, making the taking of medicines into a game so they didn't protest so much, smiling and chatting to the elderly even when every day she came into work knowing one of her charges might have succumbed into the night to the wasting dilapidating diseases they were infected with. The sort of women that in the real world shouldn't exist, but a women who nonetheless had made her way through life untouched and untainted by the horrors of the world.

Daniel had met her once before, a fleeting memory of a short conversation when she'd asked him the time at the bus stop they were both stood at. He didn't know that in a week she'd be dead, and by the gentle smile on her face, neither did she. She had had a hand held protectively over her swollen stomach, unconsciously rubbing soothing circles through the fabric of her coat which strained to cover the bump. She was black and pretty, her hair in a mass of thin woven plaits dampened down by the outside rain, and Daniel had asked her, ever friendly to his fellow man, how long the baby was along. She had smiled again at him, as though gladdened that he was interested, casting her eyes downwards to the rise of her stomach, replying five months in a soft voice. He learned through their talk that she was due to go on maternity in a week, that she was on her way to get a wedding dress fitted from a small second-hand shop in the South Bronx area. Her partner – Thomas Lynch, and her face lit up even brighter when she spoke his name – promised to marry her when they got the money together, and he was coming back in two weeks from working two states over to follow through on that; make an honest women of her, have the baby born in wedlock.

Their conversation didn't last long, interrupted by the arrival of her bus. She had admonished herself for chattering so long to a complete stranger, but he had waved her words away with a self-conscious hand. Telling her he'd enjoyed their chat, wishing her good luck with the baby. And then she'd alighted the bus with a final wave, and Daniel had assumed that he would never see her again.

But Daniel only had to wait seven days to see the face of Rosa May again, no longer smiling in death as she had done in life.

A man had been assaulted up outside the poky tenement flats she lived in, left for dead after a drug deal gone wrong. His name was Terence Michaels, and upon making her way out to buy some bread from the corner shop, she had found him outside on the ground, his blood staining red the stone-slab pavement. She had helped him, because such actions came naturally to her, and she kept pressure on the knife wound in his abdomen while she called an ambulance, talking to him, coaxing him into remaining conscious with kind words and encouragements.

Rosa May had saved the life of Michaels that night. It was the sort of good citizen deed that rarely got reported in the news, what with headlines filled with tales of war and violence from both the good and bad guys. The doctors had told her that without her intervention, he would have bled to death alone on a squalid New York City pavement, his passing witnessed only by the rats. In retrospect it was a demise he would have thoroughly deserved.

Michaels had returned to her flat with his injuries bandaged – two days after he had first caught sight of Rosa leaning over him, telling him he was going to be alright, six days after she tried on her wedding dress and met a forgettable man at a bus stop – and knocked on the door. She had never assumed that the man would do her harm, had welcomed him at the door, recognising his face, ushered him inside out of the downpour with offers of a cup of tea. He played his act well, shuffling his feet as though awkward, said he didn't want to impose, said if she was entertaining guests he would just make his thank yous and leave. She had made the mistake of giving a twinkling little laugh, telling him she was home alone. Believed his fake smile genuine, had even asked about his wounds and injuries as she closed the door, locking the two inside.

Michaels, small time drug dealer, sometime burglar and heroin addict, taking advantage of being present in the home of a harmless pregnant women who believed him a decent honest human being, tried to rape her. She struggled as he clamped his hand around her wrist, said no. Fought back. Two days later, there would still be a mark on his face from where she scratched the side of his face with her nails. He never managed his original intention, which Daniel supposed later was some small mercy, but rage had overtaken him, and Rosa May would lie broken and bleeding on her carpet an hour after opening the door. Punched repeatedly, her face swollen and near-unrecognisable. A knife had punctured through her hand, pinned her to the ground while he kept hitting her. Snapping her ribs under repeated assault from the heels of his shoes. The paramedics on the scene would learn from the post-mortem examination for the homicide investigation that the pattern of bruising along her back and side indicated she had tried to curl up, desperately attempting to protect her stomach from attack. Blotches of broken bruising blood vessels across her chest was testament to her failure.

Reddened imprints around her neck told of the final end of Rosa May, gasping and struggling for air as fingers closed around her windpipe, crushing it and asphyxiating her. It took her thirty seconds of weakening fighting against the inevitable for her body to give up on her. As a final insult, after her hands hung limp at the sides of her body, he pulled the knife from out of her hand, and used it to slice across the abdominal area just above her hips, some form of gruesome twisted caesarean, blood spilling out from the gaping maw his cut had created, mixing with umbilical fluid. The child inside had been dead long before hand, but the last slash of a knife made sure of it. And then Terence Michaels had fled, his leaving the scene witnessed by an upstairs neighbour.

Nite Owl turned up the scene without Rorschach, having heard the chatter over the police wavelength. Directing Archie to the address and landing quietly, he made his way to the property. Homicide, the radio had told him, one victim. The police had already arrived, but whatever Daniel had been expecting, it hadn't been what he had seen.

He'd left again upon seeing the brutalised body of the kind smiling lady he'd met at the bus stop, vomiting up bile in an alleyway nearby, gasping in breath, wondering if he could forget what he had just seen, salty tears brought to his eyes as he coughed and choked, and lamented the life of Rosa May. Who was pregnant, who was going to get married – her dress proudly hung up on the curtain rail in her bedroom – , who was going to raise a family with the man she loved.

She never wore the wedding dress, and the baby – Lily if it was a girl, she had told him, Thomas like his father if it was a boy – died in the womb along with its mother without ever being born.

If Daniel had ever believed there was justice in the world, he learned that night how wrong he was.

Daniel hunts for two days to find Terence Michaels. He doesn't go back to his apartment, has no stomach for sitting down watching the TV with noodles in hand while that man is still out there. Living, breathing, while Rosa is not. There is an anger in him, an unthinking blind violence towards everyone – every piece of scum he comes across, because they all helped this, turned their backs while society was allowed to create an abomination like Michaels – , his head filled with brutal thoughts of what he's going to do to that son-of-a-bitch when he finds him. He starts to understand Rorschach's hatred of humans, his despise to the darkness that litters the streets like garbage; the pushers and the whores and the children that starve while their parents force needles into their own veins for some escape. Daniel begins to realise that life is brutal and unfair, always has been, and that his methods of handling things so fair have been completely ineffective. From initial reports, he learns Terence Michaels had just been released on parole, five years earlier than his sentence for 'good behaviour'.

He loses his faith in the penal system then. Wonders how many of the criminals he's handed in to be tried over the years ever actually paid for their crimes.

His idealism struggles to hold up under the weight of such questioning of his own beliefs. He's always known what's right and wrong, always been assured of how he should act. He's a protector, he fights against all the filth of the world, but he never allows it to drag him under. His morals, the laws he has lived by; when to stop, when to hold back. They've all been based on flimsy childish beliefs that good is good and bad is bad. Bad is always bad, unchanging and remorseless, but until now he's never though to stray into the grey area of morally questioning actions. God, he's been so fucking stupid, so blind. These bastards show no mercy, so why should he?

There is no holding back when Nite Owl breaks a drug dealers fingers to find out where his friend Michaels is hiding, twisting the middle phalanges of three of his digits until they snap in a break of bone. The man howls and pathetically drops to his knees, panting, begging. Nite Owl pays no heed to the snivelling man before him; knows this is necessary. He finally convinces him to talk when he snaps the metacarpal bones of the same hand underneath the heel of his shoe. That gets him the information he needs.

When he finds Terence Michaels, corners him in the stretch of alley he's chosen to hide himself in, he asks the man why. Lifts him into the air by the front of his shirt, pushes his back up against the red brick wall scarred with graffiti. The man squirms but he replies, sneering that she was a Negro whore pregnant with a bastard child who got what was coming to her. Said he was doing the Good Lord's work, punishing blasphemers and sinners.

Nite Owl growls in disgust, his lip curling, anger rising up in his chest that the man hides behind excuses for what he has done, citing God and Religion as enough reasoning. There is no blame for himself, no acceptance that he was the one to commit such atrocity. No guilt or regret for his actions. No pity for Rosa's Thomas, who'll come back from work to find no wife and unborn child waiting for him in New York.

This man thinks that God will save him.

There is no God, Daniel understands now. There is no almighty meeting out punishments and deciding the fate of man. Men perpetrate their own sins, and it is only men who can counter that. It is only those willing to take on the mantle of justice that stand between society and the steep brink of chaos.

He starts by breaking Michaels' arms, twisting until the humerus fractures. The ulna and radius follow. And his justice is meted out with no holding back, violence he has never felt poured out onto one member of the society of filth that humanity is turning into. He doesn't afford any mercy because mercy is not what this man deserves.

He's seen Rorschach react like this many times, and he's never understood why until now.

It feels like he's finally righting a wrong.

The police find Michaels' body the next day. Beaten to death, his head finally smashed against something hard, killing him outright. There is something efficient and detached about the methodical nature of his injuries, the surety of every punch aimed. Post-mortem, his body has been pinioned to the wall, knives forced through the bones of his hands and feet to hold him in place, a bloody real-life wall art, a mangled corpse in the positioning of the crucifix. On his chest, a note has been affixed, written in pen; 'For the murder of Rosa May'. And then underneath, a Bible quote from Psalm 58; his killers final irony, a joke that only Nite Owl understands the punchline of;

"The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance; he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked."

After he writes that note, Daniel leaves the house silently, making sure he is not seen to be implicated. Rain starts washing away the blood on his hands and clothes, but residue is left in the lines and nooks of his suit. He doubts it will ever wash out, not really. Daniel's dying inside, nearly dead, and no-one even notices in the downpour.

Falling off over the edge turns out to be so much easier than he imagined.

Their first patrol since that night, and neither say very much. Rorschach has never been the most talkative of souls, and over time Daniel's been able to translate the grunts and curious inkblot patterns, going some way to understanding what the man means, but tonight Nite Owl says little either. Which is unusual, because the silence Rorschach wallows in is never something Daniel adheres to; filling in the patrol hours with small talk about insignificant little topics; sports, the war, stupid little things like that that accomplish nothing in being spoken. Rorschach never tells him to be quiet, and Daniel always assumed he didn't mind, even responding at times with grunts and pessimistic reflections.

But tonight Daniel says nothing. He studies his gloved hands in the dull light of the moon, thinks he can still see the glossy sheen of blood. Rorschach doesn't know what happened regarding Michaels, but he's got to be at least aware of it, because everyone heard the news reports. Specialists are invited into the studios to discuss vigilantism, and its place in the law. They don't say anything about possible leads – Nite Owl was very through in leaving no traces of him being there. The newscasters are calling it a vengeance killing, retribution. Nite Owl calls it justice.

The two of them, having dealt with any minor skirmishes; breaking up two muggings and an assault, are tracking down a pimp by the name of Alistair. He's a slimy character, and they've heard his name in circles before. Not a big name on the streets, but with a well established business and clientèle. But now they're actually taking a decided interest, because he's finally done something to warrant their attention; responsible for the death of a prostitute who was someone's little girl once. Her mother was on the television, appealing for her daughter's killer to be caught. The women makes no mention of her profession, only caught up in the fact that her baby – who at twenty-four hasn't been her baby for quite sometime – is gone and never coming back.

They find him in his squalor down one of the many labyrinthine side alleys of the city; populated by junkies and rats, blood and dirt. His rooms accessible through the back door of a run down carpentry shop that's been closed long enough for him to establish it as his premises. Rorschach breaks the lock with his usual skill and they advance slowly into the room, making as little noise as possible. But Alistair must have known they were coming – the consequence of a man having too many eyes and ears in the bars and brothels around this area, who must have been tipped off by someone who overheard them questioning people as to his whereabouts – and greets them at the door to his main room with a wave of a sawn off shotgun, grinning snugly before he fires.

The sound of the cartridge ignition is booming and loud in the small space, and Daniel's heart jumps in his throat as the usual adrenaline kicks in. His chest plate should be enough to protect him, but then he's been wrong before – a milk white scar just above his hip where one shot got lucky. But it is Rorschach, however who gets hurt tonight, stumbling back with a grunt and crashing down as the bullet impacts with his lower leg. Nite Owl gives the man a cursory glance, his first instinct to check if he's ok, but Rorschach is tough, and Nite Owl has bigger problems.

Alistair aims the gun again, the next cartridge loaded and ready to fire, the barrel directed right in the centre of Rorschach's head, planning on finishing what he started, but Nite Owl barrels unthinkingly into him, causing the shot to go wide. He rips the weapon out of his hand, allowing it to fall and clatter upon the ground. Punching Alistair hard and fast, jabbing and striking the lower torso and groin area. This is how Rorschach deals with things, his mind tells him as he forgets about everything but this, blood pounding, roaring in his ears, Rorschach not Daniel. But he ignores that as he breaks the man's nose with a clenched fist, grabs one of his arms and twists it round, the man screaming as Nite Owl yanks the arm tighter up his back, testing the ligaments to their limit.

"Are you Terry Alistair?" he asks.

"What's it to ya?" The man spits at him, flecks of saliva dribbling from his lips like he's rabid. Nite Owl scrunches a portion of the man's hair in his fist, slams his head against unyielding wall before drawing him back.

"Are you Terry Alistair?" he repeats. There is something cold in his voice, apathetic. Rorschach behind him says nothing.

"Yes!" The man howls in pain, whining at the back of his throat, all traces of bravado vanished, trying to thrash his way out of the iron grip he's held in only to jolt his arm in the socket again. He screams and a sob is wrenched out from his lips.

"Do you remember Pia Morelli?"

"What, that fucking bitch?" Slam, again his face meets the wall, and there is a stain of blood from his nose on the wallpaper when he is pulled back again. "Y-yeah, yeah, I – "


"Do you remember what you did to her?"


"Did she tell you she wasn't doing your work for you any more? Is that why you murdered her?"


"P-p-please" he gives a guttural moan as his shoulder is jolted again, spitting out blood and teeth. There is the sudden stench of urine, and Nite Owl realises with an edge of unsympathetic revulsion that the man has pissed himself. "P-p-please don't kill me"

"Did she ask you that?" He leans in closer, whispering the words now "You obviously had no mercy for her"

He places a hand specifically around the back of the man's neck, planning on ending this quickly with a relatively painless snap that will render death immediately. He's done what he came for here, and there are other streets to patrol tonight. He'll have to return to Archie, due to Rorschach injury. The man will complain, shrug it off like its nothing, but over their partnership it's been long established that Daniel is the mother hen who almost always gets his own way when it comes to Rorschach receiving any damage that exceeds bruising and minor cuts.

The man in question makes a sound behind him, a groan of pain that distracts him momentarily. Concerned, he turns his head around for a second, intending only to make sure Rorschach's wound isn't worse than he first thought, but Alistair takes advantage. One of his legs kicks back with a sudden motion, connects with Daniel's. It's not enough to knock him off his feet, but enough to shock him into letting go of the guys hand. Stupid mistake, elementary mistake he chastises himself, and Alistair spins back round to face him; his face some macabre Halloween mask, twisted in a snarl, flesh defaced with brick dust and blood.

He slides his opposite hand to his pocket, revealing a knife like it's a game show prize; a vicious looking thing, double edged, wasp waisted blade. Not the sort of weapon Nite Owl wants anywhere near him. Alistair advances slowly, and as his mind considers how to deal with this, his body moving backwards in time with Alistair's forward motions, retreating in the small dank room until his progression is stopped by a wooden table. A relic of the old shop that was run out of this building, the top still decorated with wood shavings where old wood was cut and sculpted.

He saw tools when he first entered the room, and his hands scrabble behind him for something to use as a weapon as Alistair moves nearer – Never surrender, Rorschach always says, and he's not going to now, not in this dingy rotting place threatened by this scum. When his hands finally find purchase on something solid, he grasps it fully in the fist of his fingers, pulling it forward and in front of him, stabbing it in Alistair's direction.

There is nothing precise about his aim. Fighting is not graceful, not when both parties are trying equally hard to defeat the other. It is desperate, both sides bidding for survival and willing to discard any rules of conduct to achieve the ultimate aim.

And Daniel knows that it won't be him who'll be dying tonight.

The screwdriver he holds in his grip strikes true, and Alistair shrieks with a final piercing sound as the tip of the hand tool breaks through cornea and sclera, vitreous fluid staining the metal length along with blood as he punctures the eye, the point driving upwards through bone and muscle with one hard thrust up into his brain.

Alistair collapses in a crumpled heap, and the struggle is over.

Nite Owl breathes out hard, standing still, staring for a moment at what he has done. The room is quiet, and Alistair's fall has disturbed dust motes that rise up from the floor, barely visible in the dark light. Then he turns away, back to Rorschach who is busy trying to sit himself up without jostling his damaged leg.

"Wound not bad" Rorschach growls, as though reading his unspoken query, but Daniel can see the wound, blood already congealing, the bullet still in there, and shakes his head. Rorschach's stubbornness is something he almost looks upon fondly.

"Come on," he mutters, kneeling down to loop one of the masked man's arms over his shoulder, helping him to his feet. "We'll get that patched up at Archie"

The two make their way slowly out of the room, leaving it empty but for the corpse of a dead man. Nite Owl doesn't give him a second thought.

Rorschach finds him working on Archie when daylight shows its face again. The wound on his leg has been tended to with antiseptic, the bullet removed and the leg bandaged. Daniel offered a bed to rest, as was his custom, and Rorschach replied shortly that he would be fine, and retreated back out to wherever he went in daylight hours.

Nite Owl doesn't expect him to come back until tonight, but the man lets himself into Daniel's house silently three days after their last patrol – he always did say Rorschach was welcome any time – and makes his way down to the Nest. He walks up behind Daniel, who is still in his Nite Owl outfit, on his knees making adjustments to some of Archie's side panels. Nite Owl hasn't taken his mask off yet. Hasn't reverted back to Daniel.

"Veidt's worried" Rorschach speaks in his usual gravely way "Spoke earlier. Thinks you need help. Things gotten too much to handle"

Nite Owl sighs, closing his eyes temporarily before opening them, pulling up his goggles and resting them on his forehead, placing down the spanner in his hand back to the tool box. He turns around to face Rorschach, studying the shorter man seriously. His partner. A man who'll see through any of his bull-shitting, any of his pretence if he tries to fob Adrian's concern off. It makes sense that Ozymandias would tell Rorschach about any concerns he had about Daniel. Adrian knows the masked man will be able to do more for Daniel than he could. Nite Owl knows Rorschach will have noticed changes about him, just like Daniel knew after the Roche case when Rorschach really became Rorschach. Even he is aware that the boundaries have changed. Whereas it was Daniel holding Rorschach back from going too far, it is now Rorschach who tells Nite Owl to let it go; that they've got bigger threats to punish than back alley pushers and purse-snatchers.

But it's a change that was going to happen sooner or later. Daniel has been blind, not seeing the true extent of humanity's debasement, its filth and cruelty and selfishness for so long. He's been so wrong all this time.

"What do you think?" he asks Rorschach, not shying away from the way the man stares at him unmoving, his expression unsettled, displayed in inkblots on a fabric mask. Black that slides over white, forming and collapsing shapes that don't hold their shape for a few moments.

"Think you understand" the masked man pauses, speaks his words clearly "Streets full of murder and blood. Just want to know this is your path. If this is right." he pauses again, and looks up clearly at his partner, his emotions unreadable. Daniel can't tell whether he's glad Nite Owl finally understands his way of thinking, his manner of doing things, or whether he's sad that Daniel's lost the innocence he always retained, the extinguishing of a hope in humanity he always possessed. "Your choice Daniel"

"It's not Daniel any more" Nite Owl replies curtly, giving a wry quick smile that holds no humour, moving his googles back over his eyes, packing away his tool case, his job finished. "Nite Owl, Rorschach. That's my name"

"Nite Owl" Rorschach repeats and nods to himself. Like he always knew it would come to this. Like he understands.

1977 and the emergency Keane Act is passed through Congress thanks to public pressure and widely reported riots; banning vigilantism. And everyone thinks that is the end of the masked men. Their time has come and gone; a fad that went too far, school-boy games that got out of hand. Adrian Veidt is public already as Ozymandias, retiring from the business two years previously, and after the passing of the law Laurie Juspeczyk puts down her alternate identity as Silk Spectre II. The Comedian and Dr Manhattan continue on, but under the protection of the American government. It's the end of the Crimebusters, and they don't die with a bang, with a fight but with an acceding whimper. Everyone assumes that the last two members will pack it in too. There is no place in the world for them any more. There's no reason for continuing illegal.

But the body of Harvey Charles Furniss turns up outside a police station the day after the law is passed, 'NeveR' scrawled on a piece of paper attached to his chest. Rorschach's curious emblem identifies the writer, yet next to it another symbol gives name to the second killer who finally ended Furniss' spree. Two ink eyes recreated from two hollow ovals, and underneath a 'v' shape creating the basic forming of an owl face.

When he hears of it, Adrian Veidt shakes his head sadly, and mourns a friend he truly lost on a rainy night one year ago. Laurie wonders where the sweet shy Daniel Dreiberg went, the affable man who stuttered when she first met him outside his mask. If Jon knows anything about Daniel's reasons, he makes no comment of it, keeping his secrets to himself.

But Nite Owl knows where Daniel went, and knows why the Keane Act hasn't killed him dead just yet. Him and Rorschach are a dying breed, but they're doing what is necessary. They still have a job to do, and no-one else is going to do it. No comprises, Rorschach says, even in the face of Armageddon.

When he's fixed what is broken in society, found the answers to why things are this way in the glazed eyes of dead men, maybe he'll stop. Hang up his mask for good, and follow the others into retirement. Find the lost part of himself he swore he'd never lose like Rorschach had. A promise he broke in the space of two years.

But first Nite Owl has things to finish.

Gutters to clean. Filth to sweep up, dispose of. Watched over by the smiling eyes of Rosa May, scrutinised by the unfriendly glares of those he is protecting. Branded an outlaw, murderer.

Someone's got to be the good guy, he rationalises to himself. And nobody said good guys had to play nice.

"Life was a mere monumental sham.
From the comic accident of birth.
To the final grotesque joke of death"
Dirge for a Joker.