Characters/Pairings: Walter, Dan peripherally, Z!Walter/Dan also peripherally.
Date Written: 2009
Summary: A young Walter gets stranded in New Orleans in the late 1860's. Every bizarre sequence of events has a beginning.
Rating/Warnings: R for violence.
Notes: First, there was a Zombie AU. Then, there was daylilymoon 's western AU, Stars. Then daylilymoon wrote a zombie/western mashup, Still. Then we decided to talk one day about where the hell western!verse zombie!Walter came from. And this was the result. So this is... zombiecowboy!verse? I guess? Walter's 17, this is two years before Still. CO-WRITTEN WITH daylilymoon. <3 <3
Spanish moss hangs from terraces and latticework in long, delicate fingers, curling thickly in the oppressive and close heat of summer along the southern coast. The cobblestoned streets never go quiet, no matter what hour the night has advanced to, human feet and horses’ hooves and the creaking wheels of the carriages they pull a constant stippling of noise underneath the shouts and revels, the ululating chants from the darkest corners of the Quarter, the shouts of boatmen, pulling in to dock. It is a humid, lazy, beautiful melody the city sings under a fat strawberry moon, and if there are devils in the dark then they at least know how to sing too.
It’s almost enchanting enough – and that is the word, because there are enough mesmers and snake-charmers here to make a man forget his own name – to allow him to overlook the writhing depravity running through the corridors and alleys that connect street to street and street to sky.
But the women hanging off of balconies and stood in shallow elaborate doorframes, obscured by draping moss and the clinging blue-grey cloud of fine French tobacco smoke, leave nothing of their game to the imagination. They call to him like they call to every other passerby, and he just keeps walking, shoulders hunched in around himself, a hot red blossom of shame across his cheeks at them even thinking that he’d ever–
And the men who do respond to their advances make no move to hide their lechery, smiling at the women like their mouths pivot on rusted pins, hands flashing obscenely in the dark, the jingle of coins trailing behind them. There are knifings here, for robbery and for sport, for old prejudices and new grudges, the spectre of war still hanging heavy under oily black chimney smoke. Drunken brawls that end in blood or worse. Sometimes children disappear, a head turned aside for a moment too long, and they’re never, ever found.
All in all, it’s not a place Walter ever imagined finding himself in for any length of time, but hitching fare only takes him where the stage goes and stops him for as long as it stops, and he isn’t entirely sure where he’s going aside from away, aside from gone. It’d be a lie to say that this is as good a place as any – he’s seen far better places, where the people are god-fearing and the culture decent, where the squirming darkness at the heart of human nature is at least secreted away from public view if it isn’t exorcized – but it’s a place, and he can afford the transient lodging by the waterfront for a few more nights.
He doesn’t really know what’s taken him to wander those cobbles, night after night, his own cadence lighter and somehow elevated over the drunken lurching of fools out to lose their money, maybe their lives. His breath comes shallower than that of the murderers and thieves that stalk them.
Walter doesn’t interfere. He’s young, strong for his age but still a stripling. He knows his limits. But he still watches with something that gleams like obsession in pale eyes – watches the city go through its twisting, suicidal dance even as he works to resist its song. He’s looking for a key, though he does not know the lock; looking for a moment of brilliance shining through the hazy, damp darkness that will make sense of this time and place, tell him what service it is to his journey to be stuck here, tell him what part of mankind’s journey led to such a contradiction of life and death thrashing together under poison-edged moonlight.
He can feel the earth beneath the stones and it feels like it wants something from him, something beyond blood and bone. But he can only read the signs set in front of him, and the simple, selfish violence and abandon of a city drunk on its own decadence and history provide no answers.
In the flophouse, the walls are thin, and Walter can smell swamp magnolias and Cajun cookery clear through the paneling. Salt from the ocean, thick and heavy in his senses like the cold north Atlantic never had been. Woodsmoke and oil and fruit and the cloying way they blend together into something that smells almost like rot.
The scent of rain, cleansing as it rattles the tin roof above him, washing everything else away, and those have been the times here that Walter has found the most tolerable. Lying on a thin reed mattress and staring up at the corrugated metal as it shudders and resonates in the unrelenting rhythm of the water slipping along its culverts and valleys, life feels uncomplicated and inevitable. Every moment follows the next like beads of rain, chasing each other into gutters.
Walter sometimes dreams of other streets, and the cobbles there are bigger or else he is smaller. He dreams of the textile mills, the machines reduced to monstrosities, all gaping maws and grinding teeth. The children with fingers gone, and he remembers the way he’d sworn that would never happen to him, that he would always be too watchful, too quick, to fall into some automated, mechanical trap. To fall into any trap at all.
He dreams of the old woman in their tenement that he’d run errands for late in the evening after work was over, for his own pocketchange, the way she’d claimed to be a fortune teller – such crazy but ultimately harmless old crones were a dime a dozen in their corner of the city – and the things she’d told him one day, solemn and severe. About hard work and callused hands, honor and discretion, about a face she could not see beyond shifting rust-colored ciphers. About love, about its costs. About a magic far blacker than hers that would touch him before a decade was gone, and her unit on the top floor had smelled exactly like this city does, heavy with spice and incense and decay. It had always made him choke, made his eyes water, made him long to be out of doors again.
Sometimes, he just dreams of open spaces, and of a sun that lights but does not warm.
He’s followed through the streets one day, by women draped in beadwork and tattered silk, their quiet murmurings incomprehensible but sounding like nothing so much as warnings, like the protective chitter of hens hunkering over chicks. He can tell they want desperately to tell him something, heathen tongues spinning silver from the threads of the evening, but they have no English and he has no French, no Kreyol.
So they murmur and mutter and gesture in vague despair and shove tokens and charms into his pale, speckled hands, and Walter’s not sure why, but he keeps them.
It’s his eleventh day here on the rusty knife-edge between civilization and bayou when understanding finally comes – in the form of a child’s scream, far away and fading.
Despite the burn in his lungs, despite his short stride, he will not stop. It is with the utmost clarity that he knows this is where he must be, this path, and it feels as if he has run the twisting streets of this decadent city a thousand times, buried away in dreams and half-remembered foretellings.
With this thick heat breathing down hard upon him, it feels like running through water. His arms and legs are moving so slowly.
At the crossroad, a heavily pregnant woman on the street corner is clutching her belly, is wailing into the dark, and he does not need her language to know the source of this terror-stricken heartache. She chants, Blaire, Blaire with all the fervor of a religious litany and looks right through him.
Under the fat overripe moon, out of the corner of his eye, he seems women fanning their gleaming faces, cats yowling to the night, brooms laid across doorways in pagan superstition. His own shadow slips ahead of him on uneven stone, urging him on faster.
Somewhere, one of his ill-fitting shoes has come loose and off and lost. Somewhere, a good woman is crying out for her child.
At the corner, a blind woman with pearl-white eyes and a sorrowful face motions the way; he does not question her.
A girl's abandoned shoe lies side-up in the road, pointing toward the cemetery.
Walter runs past the dark iron gates, past the heretic figurine tied there dangling, past the crumbling regimented rows of stone, because he can hear her now: mama, mama-aaah!
There is a small mausoleum beneath an ancient, gnarled oak whose branches hang sorrowful, moss dripping like a funeral shroud. The mausoleum's marble gleams dully. Tombstones like jagged teeth stand around it, an angelic statue long since desecrated down to one wing prays over it.
The girl screams once more. His throbbing heart is beating out a drum-rhythm. He will not stop.
Smoke has long since blackened the tomb's entrance, as though Hell itself has left its own mark. Here. It must be here.
Candlelight dazzles his eyes when he looks inside and at first all he can see is blazing red and orange and Walter wonders just for one distant moment if he wasn't right about Hell after all. It smells of sickening decomposition, the mouth of death itself opening wide before him.
But then his eyes resolve the image and he sees pieces of it all at once: gaudy red fabrics stretched across stone; a bloodied hill of sand resting on a crude platform; a snake coiling heavily around an iron cross; the girl, wide black eyes glittering.
The people here, they have the streaming eyes and slackened mouths of men who developed a tooth for morphine in the army hospitals full of broken bodies from the war. And this is wrong, because he can understand them; they're speaking in the clear English he knows. They're saying things like "open the road," and "life everlasting." These are not the people who usually weave these magics, and no matter how little he knows of the profane mysticism here, it feels like a perversion.
The smell of smoke and rancid death makes him retch, but it is the sight of them dribbling red water on her forehead that makes him move.
Three dogs in the corner fighting over a chicken carcass sight him and bay a warning, but it's too late. Something is already flowing hot in his chest, he's already dashing back outside to pull off a low oak branch with a dry snap, he's already winding the clinging tendrils of moss tight around the end.
They only have time to shout before he's dipping the moss into a tall candle, before he's swinging his branch, swinging his flaming sword of righteousness against dog and mankind, and all he can see now is blood and water and smoke. The weight of the branch in his hands feels right. His entire life is for this. He is meant to purify this place.
There are many of them, too many, but the distraction is enough. Flames roar and lick against fabric, red consuming red. He hears shrieks and snarls. Metal collides with Walter's lower leg so hard that he strangles a howl, but it will not stop his forward motion.
"Blaire–" She's stretching little arms to this terrifying half-grown man who knows her name.
He has to drop the branch to pick her up but she's a heavy weight in his hands, safe, alive.
There are shuddering impacts against his shoulder and hip, but all that matters is the tomb entrance a few feet away, the child tucked inside the shield of his arms, the blast of fresh air on his face.
All that matters is that she's running across the graveyard quick as a cat, so quick that by the time they get past him, she will be long gone.
He's not running anymore.
There is a balance in the affairs of man. He knows this. Nothing comes except by fair and even trade.
They have him on the ground, arms twisted up behind his back and this is where his body fails him because he is fast and he is nimble but he is not strong enough yet for this, not this. Hands are pulling at his hair, head wrenched back in a painful arch, and they aren't even bothering to get him to his feet – just dragging him over the uneven ground and broken stones and rocks and clods of dirt, too many hands to make sense of.
They're covering his eyes with fingers that feel like sun-cracked leather, digging in until he can see nothing but stars, but he can feel the path they're taking him on and smell the smoke and the rot and the burning hair and fat and he knows without understanding why that if they get him back inside–
If they get him–
His feet catch on a stone threshold and he thrashes, twists blindly in their grip like the snake they've draped inside, like he could shed his skin and slip away if only he tries hard enough because if they– if they get him–
He imagines the girl, out of the cemetery now, thick dark hair shining in the moonlight like onyx as her tiny feet carry her across the cobbles, in and out of alleyways, into her mother's arms.
There's a sharp, splintering pain at the base of his skull; consciousness narrows to a pinprick and all he can see are her eyes as he sinks down, down into their blackness and further.
As he wakes, sensation presses in on him like narrowing walls – a throbbing ache in all the places he's been hit, cold stone against his back, chafe of thick rope around his wrists and ankles; smell of soot and smoke and the charnel-house stink of something being rendered for its bones – and Walter knows where he is, certainty and dread bubbling to the surface as quickly as consciousness can keep up.
He doesn't know if the place is still on fire; he feels no flames but red and gold lick at his eyelids like heat, and he has the sudden insane, useless thought that a righteous blaze shouldn't go out so easily, shouldn't be able to be stamped out like nothing more than a nuisance, like–
A voice, female, thick and syrupy: "Open your eyes, boy. We know you're awake in there."
He does. There's no fire but for the candle they hold close to his face, hot wax drooling onto his skin and why hadn't he felt that–
They're ringed around him, a tight circle in the cramped space, looking down from around the edges of a flood of blue-white moonlight, and it's surreal enough to be another dream. He knows that it isn't.
"Stole our sacrifice," the same woman speaks in a voice clear but accented, marked in a way Walter has never heard, and he sucks in a breath because he knows where this is going already. He doesn't even know what to feel about the idea of it all ending here but the girl, the girl is safe–
–and in his pocket, he can feel a warmth, like the handful of charms and talismans he'd been given are taking a heat of their own in defiance or punishment or–
"And I'm replacing her," he says, and his voice is dry and cracked but it does not waver, and he's proud of that, in this moment.
Laughter, passing all around the ring like something infectious, like disease.
"No, no. We can't just offer up any animal that wanders in. Even if you were as pure as the child you took," and she sounds doubtful, because in this city, in this time and place, innocence is such a fleeting thing, "You came here with violence in your heart. You'd be a soiled gift."
Walter is still for a moment, then tugs at his bonds, hard, fighting down panic and a tight coil of real terror unwinding in his gut for the first time since waking because he knows they will just find someone else now, will take someone else's child. He's saved one but they will find another and he was supposed to end this, supposed to destroy them, the compulsion riding in his bones like something safe and familiar, like certainty. And he's failed.
Moonlight flashes off the edge of a blade, curved sharply in the darkness. "You will suffer, though, for what you've cost us. Worse than living or dying, I'm told. Leave that to you to decide."
Hands move over his skin – they've left him his trousers but nothing else – hot and injurious even as all they do is touch. A steaming skull, a dog's, fresh from the heat and lye that have stripped and bleached it, settles onto the stone beside his head. The hands leave him to light candles, brightening this dank place obscenely, and all the while he is fighting them because he cannot just lie here and –
The knife's blade falls against his throat, lingers there, and his struggles cease all at once – his only motion the heave of breath in a chest battered by its own heartbeat. "Don't fight us, child. You bought into this all on your own."
Eye for an eye, his memory recites. Life for a life. Everything's a trade.
Walter stares up through the broken hole in the mausoleum's roof – the moon is high and waning and almost directly overhead now, and he casts no shadow on the stone – and shudders against the steel at his throat. Curls his fingers around the bindings as if bracing for a hard fall.
"Bleed him," the woman says to a young man at her elbow, eager and sallow-eyed as he accepts the knife. "Good and slow."
He drifts in and out after that, sometimes in darkness and sometimes in sun. He can feel a cold heaviness at times, all slick dry scales and sickly contracting muscle as they let their great horrible serpent move over him. The knife returns, over and over. The background chanting blurs together with the dogs' baying and the mad narrative they try to feed to him, what they're doing and why, until he's no longer sure when he's hearing it and when he's only remembering it, dusky and thick with candlesmoke where it writhes in the back of his mind.
He tries to count the days and nights, at first – to number them with the salted seeds they press under his tongue, the knotting string, the passing of light over stone and skin. After a while, it begins to feel unimportant. Senses blur; nothing really matters, not anymore.
"We learned this from the Haitians, their bokors," the woman says one night, holding Walter's chin back and cutting delicate lines into the curve of his throat. He's too weak now to do much but focus on his breathing, because if he doesn't pay attention it will stutter and stop. It's already happened twice. More times than that he's caught the snake trying to worm its way inside of him, into his wounds or down his throat, gone again as soon as he'd blinked – and he's starting to fear for his sanity, no matter how little use it will be once he's dead. "Changed it some, though. The locals don't approve too well. Call it perversity. Probably is."
They've replaced the decadent cloth that he burned, the candles and wreathes of dessicated flowers, the strings of beads and leaves and straw dolls and bones hung from the iron cross looming over him. It's a disjointed mess of imagery, a hodge-podge of faith and its trappings, lent power by the strength of the city's collective and eclectic belief. He doubts those hovering over him actually believe in much of anything.
"Of course, the Haitians wouldn't approve either," she continues, that thick mad tongue still strange in the way it winds into Walter's ear, wraps around his mind. "They only do this to corpses."
A low noise, vaguely questioning.
"Oh, now. We could have a corpse to work with very easily." The tip of the knife drags over his pulsepoint and the blood under it should be pounding, but all he feels is something struggling and slow. "But then your shade would fly, fly, and you wouldn't be afraid. Where'd be the punishment in that?"
Every moonrise they carve the words into his skin, fill his head with incense and noise, drape him in cloth like a shroud. The blood stains it deeper every night, intricate patterns pulled out of the weave like something alive, like something coming to life as his own leaves him, bit by bit.
He's trying very hard to not believe any of this – to convince himself that they are lunatics and heretics, murderers hiding away in plain sight amidst the pagan mysticism of the city, that when he loses enough blood he will simply fade and die. One life for another. It's a fair trade.
But there are times, moonlight spilling down and shattering his vision into twisting shards, the grit of sand and flour in his palms and the lye stink of the dog skull and the dribble of colored water like rain over his skin, when he feels the words cutting deeper than the blades, feels them reaching inside and changing something. Smoky, insubstantial fingers slip into his gut and his brain, twining like snakes around his ribs, squeezing what little life is left in him out out out–
It feels almost like being tied down by more than just rope; like being wrapped around and tangled inside, like a binding–
The shadows drift and dance, flickering in time with the candles, with the chanting, with the pulse of his own failing heart.
The last time he falls – and he is sure it is the last time, the surface already receding from view and far out of reach – he is finally aware of the cold, inside and out, crawling feverishly under his skin. They're binding the shroud tightly around him and there's a feeling of motion and they are muttering about dropping him on the city limits to be found and thought dead, to be buried alive, to wake to soil in his mouth and the oppressive, endless black. They are laughing. They are insane.
The girl – Blaire, he thinks, he must remember her name until the end, Blaire – must have been worth a great deal to them, been unique, to go to so much trouble to punish him for her loss. The thought that he has deprived them of something so powerful, the idea standing out starkly as he drops through his mind like a current-smoothed stone through water, is his only comfort. That he will not get the chance to revenge himself and all of the violated innocents, numbered beyond his ability to count: it is a heavy regret, but the only one he carries.
Burning lips press to his forehead, twisted against the skin in a ghastly smile, and the darkness finally takes him.
Cold. Colder than anything.
It could be days or years later. Stars and moon and sun have been whirling around him, above him, everything moving except his still, still body. It makes him remember being a child, coming home from the factory to sleep on his mat and although he could hear the scurrying mice and chorusing crickets and his mother, they were not enough to make him move or speak until morning. But morning has come and gone and gone and he is still here. Maybe this is what death means, an awareness stretching on forever.
There is the sound of wind, the sighing of trees. Horses and men. Slurring and debauched voices; he's hearing them but not hearing them.
"Oh god, is that a–"
"Christ! Who would dump something like that here?"
He wants to speak, but his tongue is thick and heavy, is filling his entire mouth, is made of stone. They wouldn't hear him even if he could, he is sure; he's something separate now, slipping away, something voiceless and without words.
"We gotta get somebody."
"No! No, think! You know what Butler's boys will do to us? They're gonna take a couple of rebs on their word, huh? Let us off easy?"
Both of their voices are coming high and tight now, breaths hard.
"Look, we can't just leave him–"
"Come on, come on help me–"
His body is swaying now, swinging slowly between two counterpoints. He will be buried. It does not worry him because he knows he is dead, knows he is only resting inside this body temporarily and remembers suddenly, vividly, the picture-books about Egyptian mummies that were once read to him, the ones that said the soul could gather itself and fly away.
There are words being said to him, sorry, sorry and hands pressing to his head through the shrouding fabric when suddenly he is lifted again, flying, he is falling, sinking as water intrudes against his skin. The current carries him like a leaf, like a sunken boat and he does not struggle against it. Heavy blackness enters his nose and mouth, fills his lungs and stings his burning eyes. The river moves on, searching toward the sea, minding him as much as it minds the fish already swimming within it.
Down and down forever, down until light does not reach his staring eyes, down until the vastness of water presses all around him like the weight of being swaddled. There is a primordial soil beneath the river and it is this he drags along until a bare and rotted tree, debris just as he is, catches and holds on his funeral wrappings until finally he is still once more.
In this bed of silt and sand, resting here in this soft place as if held in the city's palm itself, he dreams. He dreams of a bird caught in branches. He dreams of wind whistling through the leaves of this drowned tree, even underwater, and sometimes it becomes a human song, sometimes something even older than he feels.
It winds around his heavy body, something which feels both familiar and unfamiliar, dry even underwater, white even through the gloom. Sometimes slipping, dragging against sodden clothing, sometimes light as smoke. It is curious. It can feel the cold within him and smell the blood upon him and look right through his bones. It twists in pain as it encounters the arcane markings writ on his skin but it does not leave him. The back of his mind supplies snake, because he's just felt this, he has, and the constriction around his joints is the same but not the same because this time it is benevolent.
The sound it makes is a whispering breath, the whistling rising and falling now in cadence, and he knows suddenly somehow that it has an old mind, an intelligent mind, that its wordless ruminations make the water around him quiver. It uses no language but he understands, because back and back and back there was only one language and all meanings remain the same no matter which words are used and there are things even children with no language know. Seeking to understand it feels like pulling on a single thread that brings the whole cord unraveling.
It all comes at once from this ancient creature's mind to his, slipping in chaotic layers one on top of the other as if it knows no other way to communicate than to give everything it holds in its mind, sorrow and anger and curiosity tied together as one. Walter can only interpret a small fraction: you who sleep here are not ours and them who did this are not ours and what now will you do? Piecing through all of it takes him a long, slow time but when he finally reaches the question he knows the answer: retribution. His lips move to form around the word and it is so obvious he wonders why it needed to ask at all.
And then he wonders how he has forgotten that there is no now. He is dead, has been dead, will be dead. Something fills his mind like a heaving hissing laugh or a mournful sigh: He Who Buries says not yet, not yet, not yet.
He imagines lying here until the river's end and past that, eyes and mouth and hands frozen forever. He imagines merciful rest after the scorching pain and the things that have been taken from him.
He imagines little children taken from their homes, afraid, alone to the end.
That blood-drenched chamber flashes before him again as the snake thinks of it, and he feels his own repulsion and horror and a shared fury these who think I am pleased by my own children coming to me too early, no-no-no and you are too weak yet and this thing they do will come back around to them, ha-ha-ha.
His heart makes one enormous shuddering beat and he wonders how it could have ever been instinctual before, this pounding that reverberates into all of his veins and takes his energy almost to the last.
They will burn to the ground, destroyed as utterly as the dog who was reduced to nothing but a shining skull.
He will, he will, he will not yet not yet not yet and he wants to grasp this thing by the throat and make it tell him why; it shows him a snake eating its own tail around and around all must consume the fruits of their own actions and lets him see those men again screaming in terror sometime that isn't here yet, and although he does not know whether it will be by his own hand or someone else's, he is mollified for now. Soon he will be strong enough.
What now will you do, gros-bon-ange?
His wrung-out body and ruptured mind ache, and yet–
–yet there are things still needed from him and he will not stop–
Rise up you fatherless boy, you dog of the streets
–and now it is laughing wild, now it is crawling past his teeth, into his throat and down to his belly, disappearing as his heart thrums once more, as he rises awake with a jolt, as his lungs burn for air and his body yearns for warmth and the surface.
He knows now, somehow, that his body cannot die down here but there are worse things to lose than just a body, and no matter how much they have changed him they will not kill him. These hands are his to move, this body is his to disentangle from branches and fight up, up toward light and the land of the living.
All of his joints are tight and stiff, everything he sees is clouded by silt and detritus and although the snake must have been the product of sick delirium he knows he will return here to finish what has been asked of him in a language that has no words.
His body groans with the monumental effort of moving but his will is stronger, hot and buoyant. The shrouds are sagging away, not gone, but streaming after him as he rises.
Whatever he is now, he will be without complaint.
The surface breaks across his face.
There's a ringing in his ears as he heaves himself up, this city a humming swirl of sensation to him after being hidden away underneath the world for long, and he coughs and heaves with the remaining fibre of instinct left to him, all of the water pouring out from his lungs and stomach, leaving him finally empty and shaking with wet cloth hanging off of him like a shed husk.
The ringing resolves into a sharp shriek, twice and then quiet. He looks up as quickly as he is able, tense to think of someone in danger yet again, but his vision has not been cleared yet of its pale fog, and by the time he is able to draw line and shadow from his surroundings, it is empty around him and the danger seems to have passed.
At the corner of a house, underneath a spray of marigolds, stands a small huddled group of people with candles lighting their grief-stricken faces; he sees them watching him and wonders whose funeral they mourn.
Almost nighttime now, the deep slow red of sunset shining in to set the white sides of houses ablaze.
There is one last thing he must do, because even though he is not yet able to fulfill the task which has been given to him, he has not forgotten her name, and will not be able to move from this place until he knows at least this sacrifice has not been in vain and that a little girl lives.
Slowly, as if doing nothing more than stripping off an everyday garment, he pulls off the cloth they tried to entomb him in and folds it gently, carefully, to hold against his bare side. It is meant for him and is his alone now.
The people Walter encounters are unsettled, frightened by some event he has yet to understand, and when he moves to ask a woman on the corner what has happened her mouth goes gaping wide, whites of her eyes shining; intoxicated, most likely, and seeing ghosts dredged up by her own mind.
The markings on his chest must be strange to them, but they are no stranger than anything else in this city. It matters little; he will find Blaire and then he will finally be released to follow the path before him.
They live at the crossroad – he remembers her, the woman, the mother there. This city is and will always be beyond his understanding, so it only makes sense for him to ask for help, this one time. The only person who doesn't hurry away with a ducked head or a gasping breath draws himself back, pressing against the wall. Kitchen smoke from an open window wafts across both of their faces, between them.
"I need," his voice has become so grinding, vocal cords nearly cracking with the effort, "I need to know where the crossroad is."
The man only shakes his head, staring. "Non–"
"The crossroad," he repeats, and even this takes so much energy.
"Le carrefour?" His finger, his whole arm trembles as he points away toward where Walter can see fragments of the sinking sun in gaps between buildings; the man's voice carries something superstitious and strange, forming around the word with more weight than is due a geographical landmark. Walter pays it no regard – walks with shoulders rounded, patient, slow and resolute.
They open the door before he has the chance to even lift his fist, a family with those same black eyes who talk to him with their language like babbling water, who pat his arms, who weep for him. He only sees her once, hiding with little fists clenched in her grandmother's dress, but it is enough.
The woman with her squalling new baby kisses his forehead and it blazes there but does not hurt him.
It is a goodbye, and he finally understands: his skin is white as bone underneath their hands, his body stinging cold among theirs, himself entirely different and terrible and new.
He understands now that he will live among those who fear him, that he will cover his body and cover his face with this cloth marked by the last drops of his living blood, will become no one and nothing and wait.
Leaving them, he walks toward the last remnants of evening light; these things were done to him under moonlight, but he will choose to live under the sun, following beneath it as it cycles west forever.
At the edge of the city, his pocket feels suddenly heavy and he remembers the talismans given to him that have remained with him this entire time, all the way to this place where the blank new moon looks down upon him. He is not superstitious but too many things have happened to leave him completely without regard for those relics, and he'd like to touch them just once–
All he finds there is a rock worn smooth by centuries of sleeping beneath the river.
He stares down at it resting in his palm and refuses to think on its meaning; he only slips it back into his pocket, safe.
Walter walks on as the water dries from his back, away toward a place where the sun bleaches the sky pale and warms even the coldest stone, where a man's aloneness can be absolute but, he knows somehow, all the more bearable for it.
He walks, and walks, and walks.
Where did you come from? Daniel had asked, perched on the edge of the narrow bed, blankets pooled around him like a discarded skin. The air smells like plains dust and scratchy wool and dried sweat, and there'd been nothing in his tone that showed he was half-afraid of the answer, as if he could bridge these worlds without effort or dread now that he'd put out his hand and touched and seen; let it change him somehow. Walter remembers the old woman in his tenement again, briefly stuck on a word his child's mind couldn't bear the weight of.
He's not sure it can now, either.
"Philadelphia," he mumbles, threading his belt by touch in the dim light.
"Oh, uh. That's not really what I–"