A/N: Written for a Watchmen urban legend prompt.
Warnings: Child death (offscreen), supernatural elements, urban legend.
Characters: Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II, Walter K/Rorschach, OC
Disclaimer: Yet again, I sadly own none of the WM characters.
It's a long walk back to Archie and neither of them is in the best of moods. The tip they got earlier tonight about a truckload of stolen medical equipment and supplies being delivered to its new (non-legal) owners did not pan out at all. After spending several cold, uncomfortable hours staking out the supposed rendezvous point, all that the Nite Owl-Rorschach team has to show for their troubles is the sighting of one skinny stray dog and numerous bold and healthy-looking specimens of Rattus Norvegicus.
As they near a derelict old factory, Rorschach growls and cracks his knuckles. The noise seems particularly loud to Dan in the hushed darkness of the deserted street. Anger roughening his voice, Rorschach grouses at his partner. "Complete waste of time tonight. Think we need to discuss the quality of his informants with Happy Harry, Nite Owl."
Dan nods. "Think you're right. I say we head by the bar and pay him a visit." Rorschach cracks his knuckles again with a satisfied "Hrm", and his pace quickens.
They're almost past the factory when both men hear it. They simultaneously stiffen and stop in their tracks, listening. Like hunting dogs on point casting around for the source of a scent, Nite Owl and Rorschach turn slowly, their senses hyper-alert. It doesn't take long to pinpoint where the high-pitched childish weeping is coming from. They head down an alley that runs between the shuttered factory and another vacant building with a faded 'For Sale' sign in its front window.
She's sitting on a crate next to a kicked-in door, a young girl of no more than seven or eight years old, clutching a bedraggled doll and sobbing her heart out. The sight of her melts Dan's own heart instantly, and from the noise his partner makes deep in his throat he knows that Rorschach feels the same mix of pity and astonishment; because what in the world is a child this young doing all alone out here at almost two in the morning? There's nothing residential around here for at least a mile, maybe more.
Rorschach snaps out of it before Dan does and moves toward the girl. As he watches his partner approach the child, something occurs to Dan and he reverses their usual roles and becomes the cautious one, hanging back and looking all around. If the criminals they came to catch tonight failed to show up because someone tipped them off that Nite Owl and Rorschach were waiting for them, the perfect bait for a trap would be a crying child out by herself in a dangerous area.
So Dan palms a throwing crescent and goes on high alert, scanning the rooftops and doorways for any signs of a waiting ambush as his partner, who's intent only on not scaring the girl, walks slowly toward her.
Rorschach stops a few feet away from her and says, "Why are you here by yourself? Where are your parents?"
When his partner speaks, Dan's a bit taken aback because Rorschach's voice has none of its usual gravel or menacing growl about it; it's lighter and slightly husky. With a thrill, Dan recognizes a voice he's heard only a few times before, in those rare moments when Rorschach drops his guard completely and forgets himself around Dan. It's the voice that his partner uses when he's not being Rorschach. This is the voice that people who know him without the mask must hear all the time, and Dan feels a momentary irrational pang of jealousy toward those people.
The girl looks up, sniffling, and takes in the sight of them in their costumes without a hint of astonishment or fear. Dan marvels at the ability of the young to take the most outlandish things in stride. Turning the doll nervously in her hands, she looks away and stares at the graffiti on the factory wall before turning back to Rorschach and saying in a near-whisper, "They're not here. I got lost."
Rorschach hunkers down in front of the girl and quietly asks what her name is. Still hanging back and watching for a potential ambush, Dan observes his partner's gentle demeanor with fascination.
The girl studies Rorschach's mask, watching its black splotches morph lazily into different shapes on the ghostly white background. She seems more interested than unnerved by the shifting patterns. Then she jumps a bit, remembering that he asked her a question.
"It's Melanie. Melanie Davis." Her face crumples and she bursts into fresh tears. "My mom is going to be so mad at me. I'm not supposed to go this far away from home by myself. And I'm not supposed to be outside this late. She's going to kill me."
Rorschach's quick to reach out toward her and lightly touches her arm, saying "No. She won't. Your parents will be glad to know you're safe."
So far Dan hasn't heard or seen any signs that this is a trap, so he steps up beside Rorschach and smiles down at the girl. "Hello, Melanie. My name is Nite Owl and this," he drops his hand onto his partner's shoulder, "is Rorschach."
There's a moment of silence as she looks him over, taking in everything from his boots to his equipment belt to his goggles and mask. Dan considers pushing the goggles up so she can have at least one pair of human eyes to reference between himself and his partner, but decides against it. He doesn't want to get the customary Rorschach lecture later on about keeping his identity secure, plus he's not a hundred percent sure yet that this isn't some kind of trap.
Rorschach tries again. "Melanie. Tell us why you're here alone this late at night."
Before answering him, Melanie moves her lips, silently breaking out the sound of Rorschach's name before attempting to say the odd combination of syllables out loud. Finally she looks down, scuffing at the concrete with one black and white saddle shoe and says in a near-whisper (getting the pronunciation of Rorschach's name almost right), "Mister Rorschach. I went out after breakfast to play safari, sir, and I saw a little kitten all by itself. And...and, I was trying to catch it and take it home because it was all alone and just a little baby, and I thought something must have happened to its mom...but it ran in there."
She points through the broken-in doorway into the dark interior of the factory. "So I went inside to look for it. I looked for a long, long time because I could still hear it crying, but I couldn't find it. Then I tripped and fell down and got a bump on my noggin, see?" She points to her forehead. Dan can't see any obvious injury, but nods at her anyway to be agreeable. Rorschach leans in to see and nods at her too before shooting Dan a look and shrugging.
Oblivious to this byplay, Melanie continues, starting to tear up again. "After that I wanted to go home, but it was dark outside and I got lost, and I don't know how to get home. I want to go home, I don't like it here. It's too dark and I can hear bad things walking around." Fresh tears running down her cheeks, she clutches her doll close and fiddles with the shoulder strap of her purse.
The purse is a shiny little vinyl affair adorned with a group of anthropomorphic animal cartoon characters playing electric guitars against a cheery background of swirly psychedelic colors and pop art daisies. Dan's pretty sure that his partner doesn't approve of the pocketbook's hippie decor and will have something to say later on about indoctrinating young children into the drug culture by using subversive cartoons. But right now, all Rorschach does is hold out his hand to her and say, "Come on. We'll take you home".
"You'll take me home?" She sounds like she just can't believe that they will actually do it. When Rorschach nods an affirmation, she jumps up and throws her arms around him, sobbing "Thank you, thank you".
Dan tries not to grin as his partner stiffens up inside her enthusiastic embrace, patting the girl's hair awkwardly. Obviously discomfited, Rorschach says, "All right, Melanie. Let's go," and tries to gently ease her away from him. But she's not having any of that and clings tight as a limpet, with no discernable plans to let go anytime soon. It almost seems as if she's afraid that if she lets go, he'll change his mind and leave her here after all.
Rorschach turns his head toward Dan, who has no trouble interpreting the gesture as an appeal for help. Rorschach has an obvious mile-wide soft streak for children and he throws himself manically into any case that involves harm to them. And his ruthless fury when they find someone hurting a child is frankly scary. But when it comes to actually handling children, he's painfully ill at ease.
Dan sees that the girl is blue-lipped and shivering, and dressed far too lightly for the crisp autumn night in a short-sleeved yellow blouse and green pedal pushers. Once they get back to Archie he can get her a blanket, but she needs something warm to wear right now. He taps Rorschach's shoulder. "Hey, she looks half-frozen. We need to do something to keep her warm until we get back to Archie."
His partner nods. "I know, Nite Owl. Can feel she's too cold." Rorschach then says in a firm voice, "Melanie. Let go of me now. I have to stand up."
The unequivocal command evidently penetrates her frenzy of relief and she finally lets go, her pale little hands moving to clutch at her doll instead of at him. She still looks worried that they're going to turn and run away from her. Rorschach, on the other hand, looks much more at ease now.
Dan is moving to unfasten his cape when he realizes that Rorschach's taking off his trench coat. He's just about to point out that the coat will drag the ground if she wears it when he sees that his partner's also removing his suit jacket and clams up.
Rorschach quickly transfers a few items from the jacket to the trench coat, then offers it like a polite gentleman holding out his dinner companion's coat for her to shrug into. "You're cold. Put this on."
The girl obediently slips into his jacket, and he buttons it up in front. Of course the jacket is far too big for her, but it doesn't drag the ground, which is what's important. She runs an admiring hand down the jacket sleeve. "I like purple."
Rorschach nods. "Me, too. Better?" She smiles at him. "Yes."
Dan grins at the comical sight of her tiny frame enveloped in the pinstriped folds of Rorschach's suit jacket and says, "Good! Now let's get you home."
The journey back to Archie takes a while, since the two men must slow their pace down to match that of their small companion's. As they walk, Dan asks for her home address, which she readily gives to him. Her street doesn't ring a bell with Dan, but it will be easy enough to consult Archie's street atlas and pinpoint the girl's home. It can't be too far away, since she got here on foot.
Shortly after giving Dan her address, Melanie tugs tentatively at Dan's cape. When he looks down at her she asks, "Are we very far from my house?"
Dan smiles at her. "I'm not sure yet, honey. I'm going to look at my maps when we get back to Archie and find out exactly where your house is. Then I can tell you how far away we are."
"Archie is my airship. He's like an airplane, but he doesn't need wings to fly."
"Oh." She digests that for a moment, then asks, "Why is he called Archie? Is it like Archie and Jughead?"
Rorschach barks out a short laugh and says, "Yes, actually." Dan restrains a third-grader's impulse to punch his partner in the arm and instead grins at her, saying, "No, not like Archie and Jughead. Do you know who Merlin the Magician is?"
She brightens. "Yes! My mom took me to see 'The Sword in the Stone' last year."
"Well, I named my flying ship after Merlin's pet owl, Archimedes. Archie for short, because he looks a little bit like an owl. You'll see when we get there."
When they get there and she sees Archie, he meets with her immediate approval and she jumps excitedly, exclaiming that he looks exactly like an owl. Once inside the airship, Dan retrieves a thick wool blanket and wraps it around her after she reluctantly takes off the suit jacket and gives it back to Rorschach.
When he puts his jacket back on, Dan's partner shudders at the residual chill and cocks his head at the girl. "You're still too cold. Sure you're all right?"
She nods an affirmative, but as Dan wraps her up in the blanket he realizes that Rorschach's right; her skin is still icy. It's concerning, but she seems lively enough; just cold. Dan reassures himself that the warmth of Archie's interior and some hot chocolate should do the trick and get her warmed up. "There. It's not as pretty as Rorschach's coat, but it's warmer. You keep that wrapped around you, now. Okay?"
After that there's a quick, curious round of the airship's interior as Melanie takes in all the new and fascinating objects there while Dan makes two cups of hot chocolate; one for her and one for his partner.
Dan parks her in the pilot's chair and she sits and drinks her cocoa while he consults Archie's street atlas and locates her house. He's astonished at how much distance the girl has covered on foot. It shouldn't take too long to get her home, although they'll have to find a suitable place to park Archie where the airship can remain hidden, which can be tricky in a residential neighborhood.
Takeoff is delayed, though, because after Melanie's had some hot chocolate and a few minutes to mull things over, she evidently remembers that she's going to be in a horrendous amount of trouble once she gets home and starts weeping loudly again.
Looking like he'd rather be fighting twenty well-armed Knot Tops, Rorschach kneels next to the chair and stiffly pats her arm, trying to get her to stop. Dan frantically racks his brain for ideas, then inspiration strikes. He rummages around in one of Archie's cabinets and returns clutching a large pad of drawing paper and a handful of colored pencils.
In the meantime, Rorschach's awkward attempt at comfort seems to have, while not stopping her crying altogether, at least dampened the storm down to teary eyes and occasional gulping breaths. Before something can happen to start the waterworks back up again, Dan gestures to get her attention. "Melanie? Can I ask you do a job for us? Do you like to draw?" Her eyes light up and she nods, all shy once more. "Well, neither one of us can draw at all, and I've been trying to find someone who would draw me a picture of Archie, because I'd really like to have one. Do you think you could maybe do that for me?"
Jumping down from the chair, she agrees enthusiastically and takes the proffered paper and pencils. Then she plops down to sit tailor-fashion on an open patch of floor and starts drawing. As Melanie works, she hums and sings to herself, seemingly quite over her panic about what her parents are going to say or do when she gets home.
The trip takes much longer than it normally would, because Dan has to cruise at almost their slowest speed in order to use Archie's fog generator to mask their low-flying presence in a residential area. As Dan guides Archie into Queens, he and Rorschach carry on a quiet conversation about whether they should go by Happy Harry's bar tomorrow night, since it will be closed by the time they've finished dropping Melanie off; or whether tonight's no-show warrants the extra intimidation factor of visiting Harry at home.
Every so often as they putter along, Dan or Rorschach turn to check on their passenger, who is assiduously wearing the points off a set of Dan's best colored drafting pencils and singing off-key to herself as she does. As the two men talk, her high voice pipes a background accompaniment to their sotto-voce conversation. After a while, Dan pauses to listen to the lyrics. Rorschach falls silent and cocks his head, also listening.
"One banana, two banana, three banana four, Four bananas make a bunch and so do many more. Four banana, three banana, two banana, one. All bananas playing in the bright warm sun. Tra la la, la la la la, Tra la la la..."
Fighting to keep from laughing, Dan grins and mouths "Likes bananas," at Rorschach, who snorts and nods, glancing toward the girl who's still entirely absorbed in her drawing, oblivious to this byplay.
Rorschach turns back to Dan and quietly says, "Giving her a job was a good idea, Daniel." Dan shrugs and says, "It's what my mother used to do when I was a little kid and got cranky or bored. I figured it might work with her, too."
A little while later, she gets up and approaches Dan, shyly holding out a piece of paper. "Sir, is this okay? There's Archie, see? And I drew you, too, right next to him. And I drew Mr. Rorschach, too, see?"
Looking rather proud of her own initiative in expanding the portraiture to include Archie's crew as well as Archie, she hands the drawing to Dan. As Dan looks her masterpiece over, Rorschach gets up to stand behind him and get a look at it himself.
Archie's surprisingly well done, considering she only got a brief look at his exterior; she's gotten the general shape, the round front windows and the sweeping top crest pretty accurately for a seven year old.
Dan grins as he takes in his partner's portrait. She's obviously more impressed by Rorschach's hat than any other part of his uniform; it's huge in comparison to the rest of him. If the proportions were translated into real life, Dan reflects, his partner would look like he was wearing a sombrero. Rorschach's face is, unsurprisingly, a mass of black and white scribbles but Dan notices with approval that she seems to have made an effort to make the black squiggles symmetrical. The rest of his partner looks very bricklike-he's basically a brown rectangle with a few slashes to represent the coat's belt, straight brown pipes for arms and purple ones for legs.
Dan's representation is even more unflattering; he's represented as a wide brown oval (evidently the most impressive part of his uniform is the cape) with sticklike legs, and his cowl is crowned with pointed ears that look like thin spiky horns. Round yellow goggle lenses and a goofy-looking smile complete his picture.
Rorschach reaches out to tap Nite Owl's rotund portrait and Dan can hear the barely suppressed chuckle in his voice as he says, "Need to lay off the chocolate cake, Nite Owl." Melanie snickers at that, and Rorschach looks at her and says, "Right?" She hides her mouth behind her hand and nods, still giggling.
In mock indignation, Dan protests "Hey!", smiling to show her that he's not really upset. Elated to see her so cheerful now after her earlier distress, he says, "Thank you Melanie, you did a great job. This is just what I wanted." At his side, Rorschach nods his head and agrees.
She beams at them both, then gasps, "Ooh! I want to add something," and practically snatches it back out of his hands. She scurries back to plop down onto the floor and starts drawing again. Grinning, Dan checks Archie's controls and resumes his quiet conversation with Rorschach. Starting to feel much better about this evening, Dan reflects that although they didn't catch any thieves tonight, they have still done well.