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Decades

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“Happy Birthday kid,” Sylvia murmurs, soft enough not to wake her son. He’s an ugly little thing with his father's red hair and freckles and her own coarse features, but he looks almost cute when he’s asleep (which, if you ask Sylvia, isn't often enough).

Walter's two today. Still too young to understand what a birthday is, too young to be disappointed by the fact that he won’t be getting any presents. She's heard two is when it really starts to get rough—terrible twos, they call it—but if she's lucky it won’t happen for a while. Kid's always been slow, and she was glad of it, because the last thing she needed was to have the bastard walking and talking.

It's time to get ready for her next trick, so she leaves her son to sleep, realizing that the birthday is worth celebrating. She's only doing this to support him, and now she's one year closer to quitting.

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Walter never had a real birthday until he came to the Charlton Home, and he's not sure how he feels about them now. He doesn't like being the center of attention, that's for sure, his natural shyness compounded by the memory of the incident that landed him here, with its horrified, shouting onlookers.

The other children sing happy birthday off-key and stare at him, waiting for him to blow out the dozen candles on his cake. He does his best to extinguish them all at once, afraid of being mocked by the crowd if he fails and leaves half of them still burning, and almost blows them right off the cake, much to the delight of the audience.

The cake itself is definitely Walter's favorite part; a towering, colorful monstrosity of frosting and sprinkles that tastes like pure sugar with an almost undetectable hint of vanilla. Because it's his birthday—and his cake—they let him go back for seconds, and then thirds.The stomach ache keeps him awake all night, but he has no regrets.

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Walter has nobody to celebrate his birthday with, and maybe that's a good thing. He's tired, and he just wants to go home and sleep. There's nothing to celebrate anyway—nothing except being one day closer to death, and he can celebrate that any day of the year.

He buys a cupcake on his way home from work to satisfy his sweet tooth, something he does on the rare occasions when there's extra money in his pocket. The colorful frosting and overpowering sweetness take him back to his time at Charlton, and suddenly he has a ray of hope that things will get better someday. He smiles, throwing the cupcake wrapper in the trash.

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Dan lies in bed, rubbing the rope marks on his wrists (a souvenir from last night's early birthday present) and watching the rise and fall of Walter's chest as the early morning light streams in through the window, illuminating the man's pale face. His eyes flicker open, and Dan's still surprised, like he is every time, that they're brown—he spent so many years thinking of them as blue, for some reason.

“Happy birthday,” he whispers.

Walter kisses him on the cheek, temporarily reverting to shyness the way he always does after they've done something kinky, and Dan returns the gesture.

“Breakfast in bed?” he asks.

“You don't have to do that,” Walter responds.

“I want to.”

Walter thinks for a moment. “Waffles?”

“I think I can manage waffles.”

“With strawberries?”

“Only because it's your birthday,” Dan says, smiling, and kisses his lover on the forehead before heading for the kitchen.

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Rorschach has only been back to Daniel's house a few times since the man quit. He doesn't want to go there tonight, but he needs food and medical supplies, and he knows Daniel will be out.

The door gives way with a single well-placed kick, and he condemns Daniel's lax attitude toward security. As he gathers food and medical supplies from the kitchen, he notices a small, expensive-looking box of chocolates on the counter. When he examines the box more closely, he discovers it has a note stuck to it.

‘Happy Birthday. I miss you.’

He hadn't even remembered it was his birthday. Technically, it's Walter's birthday, not his, and he debates whether or not to eat the chocolates. In the end, he's swayed by hunger and the fact that he hasn't eaten anything sweet in days.

He takes the first one from the box, holding it between two gloved fingers and admiring the delicate, symmetrical pattern that stands out against the white chocolate. It's peanut butter—not his favorite, but good. There are cherry cordials too, which are his favorite. He suspects the strawberry truffles are slightly alcoholic, but eats two anyway.

He leaves a few for Daniel, with a note thanking him for the gift (and encouraging him to find a new locksmith).

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Walter feels boneless, exhausted, sleepy and warm, lying in the comfortable king size bed with his head pillowed on Laurel's soft breasts and Daniel's heavy, comforting weight pressed against his back. It's been a good morning. They woke him up with a blow job (both of them at once—but only on account of it being his birthday, of course) and things escalated from there. Now he's sore and tired, but he can't say he feels his age. Maybe it's because of the years he lost as Rorschach, lying dormant behind latex. Maybe it's the love of these two beautiful creatures keeping him young. Maybe—and more than likely—it's Charlie and her frenetic energy.

Soon, Charlie herself is knocking at the door. He's grateful he and his lovers got a few hours to themselves before she woke up. They had planned the whole thing in advance, letting her stay up until nearly midnight watching video tapes to get her tuckered out. They weren't sure if it would work or not, but it did. Daniel answers the insistent knocking, yelling "Just a minute, honey.” It buys enough time for all three of them to throw on whatever they can reach, which means Daniel's things. Laurel looks elegant in Daniel's shirt and Walter ridiculous in his robe. After exactly one minute (because she is very clever and very literal) Charlie bursts into the room carrying a piece of colored card folded in half.

“Happy birthday, Daddy!” Charlie announces. Walter is ‘Daddy’ and Daniel is ‘Dad’. Having a test done didn't seem like the right think to do under the circumstances, so they still don't know which one of them she technically belongs to, but Walter doubts it's him. She's tall for her age, with dark hair and olive skin, and she's beautiful. Still, there's something about her eyes that makes him wonder sometimes. It doesn't matter, because the three of them decided a long time ago that anything of Daniel's is his, and so is anything of Laurel's.

She hands him what is evidently a birthday card. He can't make out anything on the front, only a blur of crayon, so he lets her explain it to him (“It's you, Daddy!”) and he hugs her tightly, placing the card on the nightstand. “It's beautiful.”

The four of them head to the kitchen. Walter lets Charlie sit in his lap and babble excitedly to him about the cartoons she watched last night, and the vivid dreams they gave her (no nightmares, thankfully). Daniel starts on the waffle batter while Laurel sets the table and cuts up strawberries and bananas, the knife gleaming between her deft, slender fingers.

Sometimes Walter wonders if any of this is real, or if he died in the snow that day at Karnak; if this is some afterlife, or a hallucination in his dying moments. Now could easily be one of these times, but the moment is too vivid and the love between all four of them too strong for this to be anything other than real.

He kisses Charlie on the forehead and lifts her with arms that are just as powerful as they were twenty years ago, gently setting her down so she can run off to finish his present. He walks over to Daniel to stand on tiptoes and nuzzle the back of his neck. Before he can bring Daniel into an embrace, he catches sight of himself in the gleaming, polished surface of the counter top. He might not feel fifty-two, but he looks it, maybe older. His hair has rapidly changed from red to a light strawberry blond, which thankfully means he no longer needs to dye it. Even in the faint reflection, he can see the deep-set lines around his eyes and mouth, and the freckles he's had all his life are gradually being replaced by liver spots. His body is still strong, but every so often there are days when he wakes up hurting all over like he's recovering from the worst fight of his life, and it's getting harder to ignore.

“Old now,” he murmurs.

Laurel walks over to him, wiping her hands clean on Daniel's old shirt. "We all are," she says, then hesitates. “Old-er,” she revises, perhaps trying to reassure him that he isn't old after all, or perhaps remembering that she's a full ten years younger than him and would never qualify as old herself.

“One day closer to death,” Walter says absentmindedly. He isn't sure where that grim sentiment came from, and he regrets saying it as soon as he has, but Laurel just laughs as she pulls him into a hug.

“You're tough as hell, Walter. You faced down a god and survived. You're not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“You'll outlive me, I know that,” Daniel chimes in over the sound of batter hitting the waffle iron.

“You'll outlive me,” Laurel adds, and she sounds like she means it.

“Don't want to think about either of you dying.”

“Then don't.” Daniel comes to wrap around them too. “It's your birthday man, just enjoy it.”

Walter tries his best to do that, and he does, not even worrying when he smells the waffles starting to burn. Daniel abruptly breaks the three-way hug and runs over in time to save the first (slightly burnt) waffle, salvaging it by drowning it in chocolate syrup. "I'll have this one, I guess."

Charlie returns to the kitchen in time for breakfast, carrying an elaborate papier-mâché sculpture covered in glitter. Walter doesn't know what this one is supposed to be either, and is relieved when she proudly tells him “It's abstract.” He can't help but scrutinize it, trying to make out some recognizable shape, but all he tells her is that it's amazing and that he loves her. She beams. They use it as a centerpiece for the breakfast table when they sit down to eat. The waffles get better every year—Daniel doesn't even seem to mind his burnt one.

“We got you something too,” Daniel says. “It's in the living room.”

Walter looks around him, at all of them, and the home they've built together. “You didn't need to. Already have everything I could ever want.”

And it's true, he really does.