Title: Nothing if not Human, Part 4/4 part 1- here part 2 - here part 3 - here
Genre: Drama, Romance. rated R
Characters, pairings: Dan/Laurie/Walter
Universe and time period: Comic-verse Clockwork Eden AU, Part 5
Word count: 4700
Author's Note: A character in this story is described as having a heart condition that might sound more serious than it is. It goes by PVCs and is generally benign so long as it is common for the person.
No more than thirty yards and he is safe and alone under the black canopy, swallowed up by the shadows. His right knee buckles under him, followed by the left, and he is crumbling into the leaf litter and low brush. Thorny shrubs snag the skin of his forearms, his palm slips when he reaches to brace himself, and his cheek plants hard into the moist earth.
He weeps into the dirt and moss, his body no more than dead weight. Spent. Spent like he was so many hazy half-blind mornings when he would peel the skin off his head and collapse on the floor of his apartment, unable to crawl to his bed. Those aching miserable dawns when the full weight of the night came crashing down and it was always too heavy for him, for Walter.
Those mornings hurt, they hurt like broken bones, crushed fingers, or the lonely vacant space at his side were he once had a partner, but he never wept as he does now. He was stronger back then. He would shudder and black out and by noon he’d be on the street hailing the end of all things, and his brain would be full of winding incoherent thoughts, numb and wrecked.
He feels that way now, only the pain is too much, he can’t shoulder it, and he curses his weakness with every hissing sob that finds its way past his gritted teeth. It all feels like deja vu; the betrayal and anger, and it hurts him all the more because what if none of those memories ever belonged to him.
He hears Daniel’s voice and he manages to lift his head, taking no notice of the composted leaves plastered to his cheek. But it’s not right. Daniel is yelling, his tone sharp and cruel, and he’s yelling at Laurel.
The weakness is gone almost instantly, his brain is all at once someplace else, acting on something primal. He pushes himself up onto his knees because Laurel needs him. He knows she’s hurt and it’s not coming together, but someone hurt her, and she is a good woman. Daniel cannot treat her that way, not when she is vulnerable and wounded and-
Despicable. No better,…No better than a whore.
He is back again, brain snapping to reality, raw anger seeping up to the surface of his consciousness. He retreats slowly, whispering her name. He stands still. Daniel’s uncharacteristically harsh voice echoes through the trees. He listens, waiting for Laurel’s fierce retort, but nothing comes. He waits. He needs to hear her, to be reminded of what an arrogant woman she is, but there is nothing, no haughty spit-fire reply, and something deeper than his resentment pulls and twists him from the inside out. Something that makes him feel sick and wretched and permeates like poison.
He finds his way to the creek bed, slinking through the forest like something less than human. It is not yet summer and the swift water is icy cold when he splashes it over his face . It runs down his neck and chest, sharp and painful at first, and soaks the thin fabric of his sleeveless undershirt. He turns over on to his back, resting in the gritty silt and mud of the shore, and closes his eyes, a hand spread over his chest.
Steady as a ticking clock.
He focuses on the rhythm, disconnecting from the rest of his body.
Tick, tick, tick…
He opens his eyes and glares up at the blue stars, glittering in the open space where the limbs part above the creek, and he is full of anger.
Why, why won’t it just…
He clenches his fingers over his sternum. Ragged nails break the surface of his bone white skin, blood seeps up under his finger tips.
Why won’t it just…
Dan turns his back on Laurie, heading in the direction of the house, his hands balled into tight fists.
“Dan,” she whimpers. He ignores her and continues to march across the field.
“DAN!” she calls out her, voice high and straining to be steady.
“What!?” he spits, finally turning to address her.
“Go after him,” she whispers.
“How the hell am I supposed to do that?! Its pitch dark in those woods, and have you forgotten? That’s Rorschach we’re talking about! If he doesn’t want to be found he won’t be.”
“He’s not Rorschach!” she cries. “He’s Walter.”
Dan shakes his head and continues back to the house, but he only makes it another twenty feet before his quick angry strides slow and he pauses. Behind him he can hear Laurie’s soft muffled sobbing.
“Aw Hell,” he mutters and steals a backward glance.
She looks uncommonly small, sitting in the grass with her back to him, knees drawn up to her chest, facing the wall of trees where Walter disappeared. He has not seen her look so vulnerable since they made love in front of a mirror like pool on floor of the devil’s palace, when the refracted light of water made patterns on her skin and she looked pale as a ghost, but so vital, so alive, and completely his.
Laurie avoids her husband’s eyes when he settles down beside her in the moist grass. She can tell by the slowness in his movements that he’s not going to yell at her anymore, but now she braces herself for a gentle but equally painful lecture.
“He said something pretty nasty to you, huh?” Dan says unexpectedly.
“It doesn’t matter,” she sniffles and wipes her face with the heel of her palm, doing her best to regain some composure.
“I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you just now,” Dan replies in a low voice. “I’m sorry, Laurie.” He tries to slip an arm around her, and she lets him, but her head droops away, distracted.
“We have to go find him,” she says, staring into the impenetrable blackness of the forest. “I don’t know if he’s ever going to forgive me, but I can’t turn my back on him the way he is right now. He needs us.”
Dan squeezes her close. He can feel her shiver under his arm, and he glances over her rumpled night clothes and dirty socks.
“Lets hurry and run back to the house. You need shoes, and we should grab some gear.” He stands up and extends an open hand to her, his gentle smile returning. “Silk Spectre and Nite Owl can’t go on a rescue mission in their pajamas.”
Part of her wants to smack him for making light of such a potentially dire situation, but she returns his smile in spite of herself, because it was always his way, especially in the old days, to talk like a comic book hero, even when everything was falling apart.
“How have you adapted, my son?”
Walter finds himself staring at his own reflection in the polished quartz floor; his graying fire colored hair, hollow cheeks, and ashy speckled skin. Everything as is should be, but all wrong. He lifts his face to meet the blazing white-hot gaze that pins him like a moth, exposed and cornered.
“I feel like a liar.” Walter replies in a low voice, wounded and alone in spite of the familiar presence at his side.
“The self is a construct, Walter. Do not dwell on it. All humans fabricate their own identities. You should know that better than anyone.” The shining man looks to Walter’s right. “Do you find him satisfactory, Daniel?”
“Then we have a fair trade?”
Dan hesitates before replying with a slow nod.
Walter’s eyes dart between his partner and the glowing man who claims to be his father.
“Trade?!” he exclaims hoarsely. “Daniel, what is this?! Not a bargaining chip!”
Dan says nothing as Laurie enters the glass room. Her face is a mask; her’s but wrong somehow. Dead.
The shining man regards her with his star-fire gaze, the very slightest hint of a smile lifting his sedate features.
“No!” Walter shakes his head frantically. “No,no, no,no no,…Laurel!”
She does not look back.
His eyes open sluggishly, and it takes him a moment to focus as he drags himself out of a hazy half waking dream state. His limbs feel not quite his, cold and heavy. He tries to move his leg but the suction of the mud holds it and he gives up without much effort. Above him, there is the white moon, deep endless sky, and flickering stars. Their positions have hardly changed, and what feels like hours could have been no more than twenty minutes.
His clammy hand still rests over his breast bone.
Steady, mechanical, and then:
A split second of hollowness, of light empty space and vacancy in his core, before the subsequent hard thud, high in his chest, and it’s so familiar. The missing tick, the one thing about his body that never felt right, the constant reminder that something was off, that he was not the same person.
He laughs, coughing and choking.
“Skipped. It’s mine…It’s…”
Blue stars stare back at him from remote lofty heights and all at once his euphoria fades.
“Still…a copy,” he whispers.
Laurie is lacing up her black hiking boots when Dan meets her on the back porch and tosses her a familiar piece of head gear. She holds the black and yellow goggles for a few seconds, catching her reflection in the dark lenses. Dan had made them for her shortly after the disaster in ‘85, when they were on the run, before they had to ditch Archie, when they were still pretending to be heroes.
“I almost forgot about these,” she says with a nostalgic hint to her voice.
“Way better than flashlights,” Dan replies with a grin, and pulls his own down over his eyes.
She thinks he looks a little odd, wearing the goggles without the rest of the costume, but there is certainly no time for that sort of theatrical bullshit.
“Here,” He hands her a walkie-talkie as they cross the field. “We should split up. Who knows where he went, and the woods go on for miles. Radio me if you find him. You remember how to use these, they track each other and have a little screen that shows where I am in relation to you.”
Laurie nods and takes the transceiver, “Yeah I remember. We used them when we decided to take out that drug ring in Cleveland. That was a dumb idea.”
“No shit, almost landed us in prison,” Dan snorts. “Anyway, we need to hurry.”
They reach the dark line of trees and Laurie pauses before taking the western route.
“Dan,” She hesitates.
He looks back over his shoulder, already a few paces into the forest.
“You said, that it’s best to leave him alone. What changed your mind?”
Dan is quiet for a moment before he smiles and points in her direction. It takes her a few seconds to register what he means, and by the time she does he ’s gone.
Time drifts, minutes to hours, he can’t remember, but the moon has sunken out of view and he can only see the pinholes of light above, cold distant sentinels. He forces himself to move, pulling against the suction and peeling himself up from the mud. He hurts all over. His knees and ankles ache terribly, his head throbs, and his chest stings from where he clawed away the skin. But worst of all he feels sick; like his organs are twisted and tangled up in his gut, and it’s for reasons all his own.
‘So pitiful,’ he thinks of himself as he stumbles into the stream.
He stands for moment, the water ice cold, painful at first but soothing on his sore ankles. He wraps his arms around himself and looks back up at the stars.
“A mistake. This, me, it is a mistake.”
He looks back down at the faintly glittering water swirling around his shins. He sniffles, uncoiling his arms from his body before letting himself fall backwards into the frigid creek. The cold fills in around him sharp as knives, and he wants to get up, to run back to Daniel and Laurel, but guilt holds him captive as he closes his eyes. Gradually the pain slips away.
It is not even a half hour before he can no longer feel his body, and there is a calm in that, a numb freedom from the sharp awareness, the brutality of a life without a mask, where everything is raw and tactile. Somewhere inside he is screaming still, but it is so far away now, and he is so cold, still.
His vision goes out of focus and he can see New York. A million tiny lights glitter though wide circular glass warping and blurring at the edges. He can hear Daniel’s voice and it sounds younger, like it did before everything turned dark, before Rorschach became all that mattered, before his mind disintegrated, before his body followed.
There was a person all those years ago, a person who became Daniel’s partner, and who Daniel would love always. And even if that love was based in a bloody bond forged between two would be heroes on the greasy city streets it was real, and any love Daniel had for him is only based on the lie that they are one and the same.
“Rorschach is dead,” Walter’s blue lips silently form the words.
His consciousness is slipping away, and he forgets to fight it. He thinks he might be falling, or coming apart.
“…am nothing” He whispers, and there is a hand behind his neck.
Someone is lifting his head out of the water, and as his ears break the surface a sense of awareness returns. The sky is turning deep violet with the first hint of dawn and above him is the dark the figure of a woman with straight silken hair and eyes that burn brighter than the fading stars.
“Dan!! I see him! Oh fuck, Dan, it’s bad. He’s down in the creek, he looks - oh God, He looks dead, Dan. I-I’m up on the ridge. I’m heading down, Hurry!”
Laurie’s garbled frantic speech cuts out to an empty hiss on Dan’s end, and for a moment he just stares at the little blinking tracker dot on the LCD screen, shimmering white hot in front of his night vision goggles.
Dead. Her panicked voice rings in his ears, and he breaks into a full run. He is close, the creek is just over the hill, and judging by the tracker Laurie is only a hundred meters or so away, and she has to be mistaken. Everything they built together, all the wounds they healed in each other’s company, it cannot end this way. Not like this. Against all odds, they made it past the end of the world. It will not end like this.
He pushes carelessly through the underbrush, thankful for his goggles to protect his eyes as he races towards the creek. Ahead he can see the glint of dim early morning skylight on swift water. He smacks away a low hanging branch and jumps a log to land on the pebbly shoreline. Just another fifty meters. Smooth gravel crunches under his feet and he nearly loses himself on the slick algae covered rocks. Thirty. He rounds the curve of the stream. Twenty…
Ahead he can see Laurie, up to her waist in the icy creek reaching out to lift Walter’s limp body, and at the sight of him, pale and lifeless in the inky water, Dan is instantly reminded of Ophelia, drowned in her madness.
“Oh no. No. God no,” Dan stumbles into the stream, and in the cold spring night, the temperature of the water is painful against his skin, but he is beyond noticing.
“Dan! He’s alright, he’s alive,” Laurie looks up at him, her goggles pushed on top of her head, expression a blotchy mixture of panic and relief. “He’s coming around. You need to take him. ” She moves to transfer Walter’s dead weight over to Dan but as she does the loose body tightens and rolls sideways. Dan scrambles to catch Walter as he topples on his hands and knees into the creek, coughing and shivering.
Laurie draws back and steps away slow, retreating onto the shore, and as she does Walter meets her eyes, and the look is something entirely unreadable, frightfully raw and primal. He stares up at her with pale washed out irises, water dripping from his brow and nose, blue lips parted just enough for her to see the bottom row of his uneven teeth.
Not wanting to wait for the tension to snap, Dan wraps his arms around Walter’s shoulders and pulls him back, surprised at his lack of fight, or even acknowledgment.
“I have him Laurie,” Dan says, tone even and measured. “Go on ahead. When you get home, put some tea on and get a hot bath ready. We’ll be right behind you.”
She blinks rapidly, tearing her eyes away from Walter, and replies with a quick nod before turning to head back up the ridge.
“Be careful! And put your goggles back on! It’s still dark!” Dan calls out after her.
He turns to Walter, who is still fixated on the space between the trees where Laurie disappeared, and gives him a shake.
“Hey,” Dan reaches up and touches the rough edge of Walter’s cheek, tilting his head so they are facing each other. “It’s going to be okay.”
Walter shakes his head wearily. The sky is turning lighter and below him he can see his and Daniel’s dark reflections in the frigid water below. A mirror. Perfect symmetry, dark shapes and spidery tree limbs ripple and bend, his throat constricts. Dan wraps an arm around his waist tries to pull him up but his legs are still numb, gummy and useless. He stumbles and collapses, but Dan catches him and holds him fast to his chest, stroking back his wet hair.
“I’ve got you.”
It is mid afternoon when Dan is awakened by the shift of Walter’s body against his chest. Red curls brush under his chin, filling his nose with the clean sent of shampoo, and coarse eyebrows graze softly over his forearm as Walter nuzzles against him, warm and semiconscious.
Walter said nothing as the two of them plodded through the woods back to the house, or while he quietly washed himself in the hot bath that was waiting when they made it home. He remained silent when Dan guided him into the master bedroom, coaxed him to drink some herbal tea, and held him tight and safe until he was asleep. But now, as he wakes, Dan gently rolls him over so they are on their sides facing each other and there is no escape.
“I need you to talk to me,” Dan begins carefully.
Walter closes his eyes and exhales long and slow.
“What were you doing? Were you trying to kill yourself out there?” Dan pauses. “Are you that unhappy?”
“No,” Walter rasps sharply. “It’s complicated, but I am…grateful to be here with you.” He is quiet for a few seconds before he adds, in voice thick with guilt. “And Laurel.”
“Then why? Why did we find you half frozen in the creek?” Dan reaches out and very gently brushes his finger tips over the raw cuts and claw marks marred into the pale speckled skin of Walter’s chest. “And what is all this?”
“Was in the creek because it made me numb, and this…” He hesitates. “Wanted to dig my heart out, to make sure it is real.”
“Like you did in your journal,” Dan whispers solemnly.
“You looked,” Walter replies, more defeated than angry.
“Not really, it was open on the floor. I only saw the one page, but it was enough.” Dan’s eyes narrow, his expression pained and confused. “Why?”
Walters sits up and rubs his fingertips over the fresh scratches, grimacing as the salt of his skin burns the open wounds.
“Most of my life, I’ve had a tick, heartbeat skips on occasion. Realized over the past few weeks that I could not remember the last time I felt it. May seem insignificant, but was one more thing to make me question my validly. Situation got worse from there.”
Dan sits up, listening intently.
“Last night in the creek, felt it. Skipped. For a moment, everything was right, but came to realization almost immediately that it does not matter. Still a copy. Perfect, but a copy all the same.”
Dan opens his mouth to cut in but Walter continues and he holds his tongue, not wanting to interrupt the rare moment of transparency.
“I feel everything now. Don’t know how to handle emotions like love, lust, or guilt. When I was Rorschach,… if I was ever Rorschach,… I swallowed these things, distilled them into anger and hatred, and let it guide me. So difficult now. Sometimes I revel in it, want to feel everything, even pain;.. pain makes me believe I am alive. But other times, it is the opposite. Just want to be numb, like before.”
Dan nods and shifts close so that their hips touch. He runs a broad palm up and down the curve of Walter’s back bone while considering his response. Before he can think of what to say Walter turns to him, and even in spite everything that has already transpired, he is still taken aback by just how broken he looks.
“I am sick, Daniel.” He says quietly in a soft reedy voice that is entirely Walter’s, vulnerable and free of any lingering trace of Rorschach. It is a rare pitch, one that Dan understands as complete honesty. “Rorschach was my remedy, but can’t use him any more. He’s dead.”
“I know. I know you’re sick,” Dan replies, his tone thick with his characteristic unfiltered kindness. “But we can help you, if you’ll let us.”
“Wish it was that simple, but it wasn’t just Rorschach who died. Walter died too, there in the snow, and people don’t come back from the dead.”
“I understand what you are saying, but it really doesn’t matter. If Jon never explained what he did , you’d never even think to doubt yourself. We are products of our consciousness, everything else is skin and bone.”
“Still nothing but a copy… Manhattan could have just as easily made two of us, then what? ” Walter challenges.
“but he didn’t,” Dan replies simply. “You’re the only one, and you picked up right where you left off.”
Walter looks like he wants to argue but instead he wilts a little under Dan’s heavy arm, still unsatisfied.
“You know, you might not be alone either. Shortly after we found you, and came to understand how you got here, Laurie said something interesting to me.”
Walter straightens and looks up.
“She said that she wondered if she had not been reassembled a hundred times over, and if the real Laurie died when she was sixteen, blasted to particles the first time Doctor Manhattan teleported her. She didn‘t sound upset though, more curious.”
Walter chews his lip and looks from Dan to his own tight knotted hands, to the doorway and back .
“I said something,…very bad to Laurel.” Walter rasps in a thin voice. “I was angry; had right to be, but her intentions were innocent, and I…called her horrible things. Unforgivable.”
“I think she’ll forgive you.” Dan runs a hand over the hard freckled curve of Walter’s shoulder and pulls him back down so they lay together looking up at the ceiling. “As long as you can forgive her.”
Laurie sits out on the front porch steps, watching the rain and finishing her morning cigarette. The smoke feels too hot on her throat, and she half wishes she hadn’t thrown her pipe away months ago. She leans back and stretches, trying to work out a kink in her spine. A week of nights spent on the living room couch is taking a toll. It’s by choice that she’s been sleeping alone, deciding it best to give Walter his space while allowing Dan to stay close to him. Dan tried to get her to at least use Walter’s bed, but she adamantly refused, not wanting to go anywhere near the room.
She extends her legs beyond the overhang of the porch and lets the cool rain run over the tops of her bare feet. It is the first day of June, and the countryside smells of summer. She means to drive into town to buy groceries whenever she gets herself up and off the porch; she told Dan that she would cook tonight. She will make them something, eat quickly and tell them it’s ready after she’s finished. She knows Dan will look hurt when she leaves them to eat without her, but for now, it’s better that way. She isn’t ready to sit across from Walter, to uncontrollably over-analyze his sullen face, and fight the twisting desire to lunge across the table and pull him close. Even understanding that she loves him now, the same as she loves Dan, it still surprises her how much she needs him. He’s been scarce all week, sleeping, reading, or quietly shadowing Dan around the house. They have not exchanged words, and neither has tried. Dan stresses over the division, and meticulously measures his time evenly between her and Walter, but she urges him to favor Walter. She tells him that she’s fine, and she can manage without them for a while.
It’s a lie and they both know it, but it’s all she can do.
She extinguishes her cigarette and exhales deeply. ‘That’s it for today, no more,’ she tells herself and leans forward, propping her elbows up on her knees and resting her chin in her palms. The day feels heavy ahead of her. She sits for a long time, picking at the peeling gray paint on the porch steps, wondering if the rain will last all day, and for reasons she cannot place, hoping that it does.
Over her shoulder she catches the soft tap of the screen door being carefully shut, and waits for Dan’s slow striding footfalls on surface of the porch. There is a long pause, and when finally she does hear the movement of feet it’s of light feline steps padding almost soundlessly across the deck. They stop just behind her, and she waits, looking out at the front yard; at the misty expanse of sky, rain slicked leaves, and muddy puddles forming in the driveway, unable to turn around.
The planks of the porch creak softy and she feels the warmth of another body kneeling to rest against her back as slim arms very cautiously wrap around her sides. There is a weight on her shoulder and coarse curls tickle her ear and brush against her jaw. She looks down at the gnarled hands that so nervously rest over her waist, with their bony wrists a freckled forearms, and tears that she has willed back all week find their way to the surface. She can feel him breathing, slightly uneven, his body shuddering lightly against hers, and she rests her own hands over his, squeezing gently.
They sit together amidst the cool patter of summer rain until Laurie finally twists around to face him, keeping one hand interlocked with his. Walter glances down, unable to hold her gaze.
“Laurel,” He clears his throat and begins in a very soft rasp. “Heard you tell Daniel that you are going to the store,…alone. But, was wondering…” With great effort he manages to look up at her. “Was wondering if I could, perhaps, go with you?”
Her expression breaks into the first full smile to cross her face in weeks, and when he returns it, shy and cautious on his gaunt features, she thinks there are few things that could ever be so plain and beautiful; so purely human.