“Daddy!” Emily yells, squirming in the strangers grip, and Corvo can feel his heart plummet.
“Em,” he shouts back, prepared to give chase, but the stranger is coming towards him, his grip secure and well-practiced. And Emily—Emily is grinning through her tear-streaked face, her dark hair partially out of her braid, proud. Corvo hurries to meet them halfway, barely sparing a glance for the stranger. He doesn’t matter, it’s Emily, something is wrong—gods above, why hasn’t he paid better attention? He turned to look away for barely a moment, and here is his baby girl, cradled in a stranger’s arms, her eyes red from crying, and he is the worst father possible he—
“Look, daddy,” Emily says when he is close enough she doesn’t have to shout, cutting off most of his inner tirade. He is torn between wanting to get her into her own arms and looking at the foot she’s stretching towards him, and it ends with him standing in front of them with his hands awkwardly raised.
The stranger huffs, but he doesn’t look angry, or overly concerned when Corvo spares him a glance before his eyes are drawn back to his daughter’s foot, which has a bump in angry red seeming to swell more and more.
“Princess—” He can’t finish the sentence, voice caught in his throat. What has happened?
“I stepped into a bee,” she tells him, proud like it’s an achievement, and Corvo’s heart feels about a stone lighter immediately.
“She didn’t quite look where she was going,” the stranger confirms, “not that she would have seen much. The grass is pretty high back there.”
Corvo finally looks at him properly, and feels his heart jump back into his throat for an entirely different reason. The stranger is half a head shorter than him, with brown hair and skin that seems even paler for the dark rings under his eyes. He does not look like someone Corvo should trust his daughter with, but seeing how he’s returned her to him, how he’s listening to her chatter away at him with a tiny half-smile, it probably could have been worse. And Emily seems totally smitten with the stranger’s leather jacket, totally out of place in the summery heat and yet somehow fitting. Corvoe takes a deep breath, and the temptation to tell himself it’s because he’s relieved Emily is fine seems insurmountable for a moment. He doesn’t, because he doesn’t believe in lying to himself, and so he has to admit that yes, the man is his type.
He swallows and clears his throat before he trusts his voice to speak, and hopes the stranger will in fact attribute it to parental relief. “Thanks for bringing her over.”
The stranger gives a hint of a shrug. “She was rather brave,” he says, and Emily beams at him.
The stranger carries her over to one of the benches where Corvo can take a look at her foot and carefully ply the stinger out, and it’s only once Emily’s foot is wrapped securely in gauze from his first aid car case that he realizes he never got the stranger’s name.
The stranger is the only thing Emily talks about for pretty much all of the next day that Corvo has her rest her foot to make sure it heals properly—she hates it, hates being cooped up on a blanket in the back yard during the frankly amazing summer weather, but Corvo thinks her continued health is more important. She does sort of mostly get it, and her whining is cut short by her exceedingly gregarious retellings of the stranger rescuing her.
If she weren’t so young, Corvo would be sure she was crushing on the stranger, and that thought makes him feel both amused and absurdly jealous—something that brings a vague sense of guilt with it. But, well, he will likely not see the stranger again, doesn’t even know if he swings that way should he meet him again, and so he has no business feeling proprietary—especially not because of his daughter!
He does see the stranger again. Of course he does. Emily grins, so big that Corvo almost thinks her face will split apart, and runs over, chattering a mile a minute before the stranger seems to be even remotely prepared for the word vomit of a six year old. Corvo doesn’t quite feel sorry for him, and makes his way over a bit more slowly.
The stranger squats down, looking with interest at Emily’s healed bee sting. It makes Corvo smile, and when the stranger looks up and meets his eyes with an answering smile, Corvo feels a lot like he is in one of those cheesy romantic ads on TV. It’s probably just him, though, and so he pushes the thought down as well as he can.
“Hi,” he says once he is close enough a conversation wouldn’t be weird.
The stranger smiles at him, says something to Emily that is too low for Corvo to hear and straightens himself.
“I’m going to see if Philip is there,” Emily tells him in her ‘grown-up voice,’ “I need to show him!” And then she’s off, making her way over to where Corvo is pretty sure he can see Philip’s mother.
“I don’t think I got your name,” Corvo says, and holds out his hand, “I’m Corvo.”
The other man smiles, shakes his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he says, but makes no motion to introduce himself further. Corvo hesitates, unsure if he should ask again or let it go for now. But the silence stretches on, and Corvo shrugs before it can snap. Something around the man’s eyes relaxes, a tension Corvo hadn’t even noticed until it had left his body.
“Thanks again for helping my girl the other day.” Corvo runs a hand through his hair, and then curses the impulse a second later. His hair isn’t quite long enough to settle nicely again, and so he probably looks like he has a bird’s nest up there.
“It was no problem, honestly.”
Corvo huffs a little, because he’s used to this kind of behavior from the other parents, but rarely from someone without own children—usually they’re beat to the scene by other parents, that is. But he hasn’t seen a kid around the other man, hasn’t actually ever seen him at the usual playgrounds before, and he’d be worried the guy was a creep, except—except that he brought Emily back to Corvo and didn’t disappear with her, so he’s probably safe enough.
“If I’d known you’d be here today, I’d—have brought something, just a little—a small thanks.” The words feel clunky in Corvo’s mouth, and he has a short moment of wishing he were better with words.
The man smiles again, but this time it’s different—this time, there’s an edge to it that makes Corvo shiver in something that feels suspiciously close to anticipation. He swallows.
“I’m here sometimes,” the man says, his eyes seeming to look straight into Corvo. “But you don’t need to thank me. You’ve already done so.”
“You should come out to coffee with me at some point,” Corvo says on impulse, and then soldiers on before he can regret the words. The man’s expression is pleasant enough, if a little amused. “As a show of my gratitude. Or as proper coffee.”
He’s not sure what he looks like, or if his intentions come across in any way (other than as creepiness), but the man smiles again. There’s a sad edge to it now, and Corvo tries not to dwell on that, seeing how he has little to no clue what he has said to bring on that expression. He steels himself for being let down gently, but the other man says, “You know so little about me, Corvo,” the name like a caress.
“We could change that,” Corvo says. “You could start with your name, for example.”
The man laughs and makes a dismissive gesture. “I don’t have a name.”
Corvo stills, looks at the man again. His skin is still incredibly pale, his clothes the same as they had been the first time they’d met.
“How do you not have a name?” His voice comes out sharper than he intended, and he is about to backtrack when the man snorts.
“I can see why you found me.”
Corvo’s eyes narrow of their own accord, but the man doesn’t elaborate. There’s a sad tinge to his eyes, like he expects Corvo to walk away any moment—and Corvo doesn’t even know how he can pinpoint the man’s expressions so well, but he simply knows.
“Was that a no?” he asks, and the man laughs again, startled this time.
“It was not, in fact.” The man licks his lips, drawing Corvo’s eyes in with the gesture. “What time would suit you?”
Anticipation curls low in Corvo’s gut. “I should be free on Tuesday around lunch, unless you prefer afternoons?” In which case he would have to do some schedule juggling, but it should be doable.
“Tuesday sounds fine. Lunch?”
“I will need to pick up Em from day school at three, so that should work. Do you know the café out on the corner of Summerset and Third?”
“I think I know the one you mean. Tuesday it is.” The man nods, a pleased smile on his lips. It disappears quickly again in favour of a neutral expression, but it’s something Corvo has noticed by now—the man wears frequent if brief smiles, and Corvo tries to store each and every one for further perusal.
“That’s awesome.” He swallows, squashes the fluttery feeling in his gut. “I don’t think there’s a way to convince you to come into the water with us?” He hasn’t put on his swim shorts all for nothing, and he will have plenty of time to talk to the man some other time.
The man stares at the water with something akin to longing on his face for the briefest of moments, before he visibly tears himself away. “Maybe some other time. I’m afraid I don’t have anything on me to join you right now.”
Corvo is decidedly not disappointed—it had been more than probable that the man would not join him, so there he did not get up his hopes—and says goodbye before heading over to an empty spot to put down their swimming stuff without a backwards glance.
When he looks around after he has shed his clothing and makes his way over to the other children to find Emily and maybe salvage some of her clothing from the sea water, there is no visible trace from the man.
Corvo is utterly and inexplicably nervous. Well, maybe not so inexplicably—he should be adult enough to be able to admit that it’s the other man who makes him nervous.
The mysterious stranger he still does not have a name for. Well done, Corvo, he thinks to himself, takes one last deep breath and then puts a smile on his face he hopes masks his nervousness as he heads into the little café.
It’s moderately full, but there is still no sign of the stranger.
He heads over to one of the tables for two and takes a seat, opening the menu for lack of a better thing to do. The café isn’t big enough for the stranger to miss him, and so he doesn’t quite see the point in looking for him.
The café has a small but decent number of lunch menus, and he settles on a light pasta dish. He puts down the menu, looks up and—gets about the shock of his life, reaching for a weapon that has been gone for longer than it had been there.
“Gods above, you startled me,” he says instead, and then winces at his own stating of the obvious.
The man smiles at him, teeth gleaming in the dimmer light.
“I would claim that was not my intention, but I am afraid I would be lying in doing so, and so I will refrain.”
Corvo laughs, a little surprised by how easily the sound comes.
“I take it you’ve found the place all right?”
“There aren’t many other cafés here you could have meant.” The man looks over his shoulder and immediately flags down a waitress, ordering a latte and then looking at Corvo expectantly.
“A cappuchino, please,” Corvo says, “and if you’re ready to order?—” The other man nods, despite not actually having so much as looked at the menu—“the lunch menu 13, please.”
“The 7 for me, please,” the other man orders, which, if Corvo recalls correctly, is a fish dish. He just barely does not suppress a grimace.
“Not a fan of fish?” the other man still asks once the waitress has disappeared in the direction of the kitchen.
Corvo shrugs. “Not my first choice. But I guess you’ve chosen wisely; more for you.”
The man laughs and leans back, eyeing Corvo curiously.
The nervousness slams back into him with full force, and he’s almost taken aback by his mind groping about for a topic of discussion. He can’t think of anything, and his hands reach for the napkin to have something to fiddle with almost of their own accord.
It puts the back of his hand squarely on display, and the other man gasps audibly. He sits up and reaches out for Corvo’s hand faster than he can pull it back, and his grip is cool and dry and stronger than Corvo would have expected.
His heart races in his chest from the sudden movement, his body still fighting to cradle his hand close to his body. The other man stares at the back of it, and Corvo’s skin itches with unease. This is not how he has envisioned this lunch to go.
The waitress returns with their coffees before the man can say anything, and Corvo is grateful for the interruption, snatching his hand back and putting it in his lap. He does not say anything, doesn’t offer up excuses or explanations.
He knows how most people view the mark, knows that even faded it can get him in quite a bit of trouble. He isn’t sure where the protection has gone to, why it is on display so clearly, but the shroud he so carefully applies every morning has worn of completely.
The other man is staring at his face now, eyes wide. A long and agonizing minute passes—or at least Corvo thinks it’s a minute, though it could feasibly be either more or less—before the man shakes his head, something like amazement on his face.
Corvo exhales in a rush, draws in another breath. The strange man is still sitting across from him, so maybe—maybe things aren’t lost completely?
“I can see more and more why you were the one calling me.” The man leans back, regarding Corvo with clear curiosity.
Corvo swallows, the sound incredibly loud to his own ears. The words coming from the man seem nonsensical, but it might just be the adrenaline fogging Corvo’s mind.
“May I please see your hand again?”
Corvo huffs a disbelieving breath. “I don’t think that would be wise of me,” he says, his hand clenching just beneath the table. He looks at it, at the white scar that used to be black.
“I won’t turn you in,” the man says and then grins, like he honestly is amused at something. Probably a thought, since nothing else could in any way be funny. “It would be quite… unfortunate for me to turn you in, so you do not have to fear anything from me.”
Corvo swallows again, still hesitating.
“I would like to show you something.” The man shifts forward, suddenly much closer to Corvo again. He is glad suddenly for the table separating them. “But I can only do that if you lend me a hand.”
The man chuckles at his own joke, and Corvo reluctantly allows the smile on his face.
Well—in for a penny, in for a pound, isn’t it?
He drags his hand up, the limb feeling heavier than ever before, and holds it out for the other man to take it again.
His fingers are cool still on Corvo’s palm, his thumbs resting just on the outer edge of the mark, not quite touching it.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a live one.” The other man’s voice is breathless, almost as if he is talking to himself, as if he has forgotten that Corvo is listening, which he must have, because he has just admitted to having known another person with the mark—maybe even more than one. Except that he has nothing to worry about from Corvo, because he can’t exactly go and tell on the man without implicating himself.
The man’s thumbs trace the back of his hand, up to his knuckles, still steering clear of the slightly brighter skin.
“Don’t startle,” the man says, and that’s the only warning Corvo gets before his thumbs brush over the mark, and Corvo’s skin explodes, his vision going white for a moment.
Only years of training allow him to remain still, the pain and surprise pushed into tension in his muscles, and while the man doesn’t release his hand, he does lift his thumbs.
“I’m sorry,” he says, the remorse in his voice genuine, but Corvo can’t do more than try not to gasp even while his lungs scream. He can feel his hand shake even in the Outsider’s grip, and the small circles the man pushes into his skin just shy of the mark are almost soothing.
“Gods above, what was that?”
The man gives a wicked smile. “It shouldn’t be quite so bad this time,” he says instead of giving a proper answer, and Corvo steels himself for another bout of pain.
This time, he can see what happens when the man’s thumbs touch the scarred skin—the back of his hands starts to glow, fireworks racing from the mark into the rest of his body. The pain is still present now, though it is much more bearable than it had been before.
“It’s been too long since you exercised your gifts,” the man says, and suddenly it clicks in Corvo’s mind.
“Gods above,” he says again, fighting the urge to yank his hand back again. The man—no, the being—looks at him, a smirk on his face. “You’re—dear me.”
Corvo can’t even say it out loud.
“Oh Corvo,” the Outsider says, something resonating in his voice, and Corvo wants to look around, see if anybody (or, more like it, who) is watching them participating in this… these treasonous actions, but he can’t get his body to move, his skin still buzzing, his blood racing underneath his skin. “You had been doing so well.”
Corvo closes his eyes, focuses on the strange sensations. He can do this. He can be calm.
“You’ve taken me by surprise,” he says once he trusts his voice again. It comes out steady and even, and the Outsider smiles again. “But that explains why you do not have a name.”
“I almost expected you to figure it out much sooner.” The Outsider lets go of Corvo’s hand, and while it is a blessing—pun not intended—to escape the weird sensation, he feels almost bereft. He folds his hands in front of him and finally looks around, but nobody pays them any mind.
Not so surprising, considering the man across from him is borderline deity.
Before either of them can say anything, they are interrupted again by their food arriving. Silence descends as they both dig into it for a moment. Corvo can feel his nerves settle, his mind get calmer with each bite.
This is not the weirdest situation he’s been in; not by far.
“Does that mean I’ve asked an almost all-powerful being out on a date?” he asks after a while, and his voice does sound amused instead of freaked-out. He can indeed do this.
“Oh,” the Outsider says, eating another bite of his fish. It looks about as appealing as Corvo had expected, which is to say: not very. “Is this what this is? A date?”
Corvo refuses to think about how he could be humiliating himself in front of said all-powerful being (or almost all-powerful—he’s just mortal, to him it’s almost the same). “At least it’s what I had in mind when I asked. I wouldn’t want to presume now, though.”
The Outsider smiles and puts down his fork, reaching out across the table to lay his hand on Corvo’s unmarked one.
“You, my dear Corvo, should feel free to presume now.”
Corvo’s heart starts racing again, though for entirely different reasons this time.
The rest of lunch passes in a haze and maybe a little more hurried than it would have been, though it does leave them with over an hour before Corvo has to pick up his daughter.
And, as it turns out, kissing a demi-god isn’t actually that much different from kissing a mortal. One that just happens to be able to set Corvo’s body on fire by touching the back of his hand, granted, but honestly—that’s just a minor detail in the grand scheme of things.
The Outsider does join him in the water the next time they’re at the lake, much to both Emily’s and Corvo’s delight.
Even better though is the realization that the tattoo of a whale on the Outsider’s hip seems to move if it gets wet—something Corvo definitely does not store away for later use. Because that would be ridiculous, right?