On Wednesday morning the sky is bruised with colour and frost clings to everyone’s doorstep. There is a distinct chill in the air, breath coming in small puffs of fog, and some might call it cheery for the season, if not for the black pools of oil and water in the gutters, and the gang graffiti lining the alleyways.
However, the café is not too poorly located, not as bad as the Hound Pits Pub, which is nestled in the watery depths of the truly downtrodden city centre, somehow still managed on deaths door by Havelock and his compatriots. Or the Golden Cat, which could barely be called a café in the first place. By comparison, The High Sea, owned and somewhat-operated by Samuel Beechworth for the past twenty-odd years, came off as high dining. At the very least, it contained comfortable seating, bookshelves crammed with second-hand pieces Samuel had picked up over the years (101 Harpooner Songs, Timeless Children’s Rhymes), and a bustling and halfway-professional group of staff. The coffee, in fact, was the cafés primary drawing point.
On Wednesday morning only a minute past eight, a lithe figure steps out of an alleyway – or perhaps its shadows – and steps up to the café stoop just as Cecelia is turning the enamel sign from CLOSED to OPEN. It is a credit to her training that when she glances up through fogged glass and meets a deep, black gaze, she only jumps a little. Then she smiles, somewhat strained, and pulls open the door.
“Good morning, Outsider,” she greets primly, and then sets the door open so she can take his heavy woollen coat.
“Good morning, Cecelia,” the man replies smoothly, pauses, and then adds, “you’re sleeping better, I see.”
Cecelia’s flush disappears under the rim of her woollen cap. “Yes, sir. That apothecary you recommended did me wonders.”
The Outsider’s smile cannot exactly be placed as unnerving or comforting, just somewhere in the middle. Behind the counter, where she is prepping the coffee machine, Lydia’s frown is disapproving. The apothecary in question, Madame Moray (or ‘Granny Rags’ as the kids down the lane jeer after her), is certainly capable of wonders, but also capable of much more dangerous things. The Outsider, after a moment of Cecelia rambling about persistent nightmares, had taken a black calligraphy pen out of his suit jacket and jotted down the woman’s address in thin, slanting lines on the back of one of the cafés business cards.
(“I’d avoid the soup,” he added somewhat quizzically, and Cecelia had nodded so frantically Lydia half expected her head to fall off.)
“A tall black, I presume?” Lydia calls, and there is a muttered curse, before another figure appears from the kitchen doorway.
The man leaning out from the back room is all shadows. A sweep of dark hair, a sad brow, dusky skin and deep eyes. He’s dressed all in blacks and greys, soft fabrics in knits and cotton. He has baking powder on his hands. On his lapel a cheery yellow sticker proclaims him the ‘WORLDS BEST DAD!’ He takes one look at the first customer of the day and then disappears in a flash, the sound of rattling cups and saucers giving away his panic.
“Ah, yes,” the Outsider says, “and a good morning to you too, Corvo.”
The coffee machine hisses loudly, drowning out Corvo’s reply. Whatever it is, it makes Lydia blanch, and throw her tea towel at him. Cecelia continues stacking pastries as if she hasn’t heard anything, but her pinched lips and red cheeks give her away.
“Something new to eat today, sir?” She asks brightly. “We have some scones, fresh out of the oven. Corvo’s experimenting with pomegranates, at the moment.”
“Is he now?” The Outsider croons. “Well, in that case, how can I refuse?”
“Hand me one of those, Cecelia,” Corvo suddenly speaks from the kitchen, “and get me some rat poison.”
“Corvo,” Lydia snaps, and then, frantically adds for the Outsider’s benefit, “We don’t have rats!”
“I think the window seat, today,” the Outsider ignores this comment, angling his strange half-smile towards the back room, where Corvo is pointedly showing his back, “and the morning paper, if you have it.”
“Of course sir, right this way.”
The Outsider is seated at the best window seat, with its iced window panes and holly-wreathed hatching. A paper spread out before him, he waits patiently as Cecelia brings him one perfectly sliced scone. A few moments later, Corvo surfaces reluctantly, and a tall black coffee is brewed to perfection. He makes Cecelia bring it out, too. When the glass saucer clicks against the polished tabletop, the Outsider raises black eyes pointedly to the flyer board, where a colourful child’s drawing of an Orca playing in the waves sits above a bright banner asking the cafes patrons to save the whales.
Corvo catches his eye, scowls, blushes, turns away.
“And a Merry Yuletide to you, sir,” Cecelia says, placing a bonbon beside the coffee before scurrying away.
The Outsider smiles to himself, and turns his finger. The spoon in his coffee cup stirs all by itself, lazy circles against the porcelain, and the newspaper pages fan gently until they fall open once again, on the comics section.
Several months prior to this chilly morning, the city of Dunwall had gone into euphoric fits upon the announcement that the Outsider was in practice again. Magic being an already salacious subject for idle conversation, what with its practitioners being limited and eccentric as they were, the Outsider held a special appeal as being one of the more withdrawn of the gifted, retiring from months to years at a time to who-knows-where, before resurfacing, looking the same as he ever did, wandering the dripping streets of Dunwall with his customary listless expression and black, black, eyes. There were many who were desperate for his tutelage in the Arts, and yet he almost always kept to himself, save for a few rare exceptions. But Daud and his crew had wandered far from Dunwall and had not been seen in many years, and any secrets bestowed upon him by his smirking superior had clearly never been shared.
Which had made it all the more strange, that when Corvo had found himself bleeding out mere metres from The High Sea in the wee hours of dawn after stumbling upon an inter-gang dispute on his way to opening shop and trying to play a hero of all things –
He had been sprawled out on the cobblestones, one hand clutching the wound in his side, steadily dripping blood between his paling fingers. It had been raining, although he barely felt it, fat water drops on his face, pattering against his drenched shirt. Someone had left the lights on in the café – not Lydia, of course, she would have a fit – and he focused on them as his vision wavered, focused on the lights and their calming, golden aura. He was drifting quite pleasantly on the cusp of unconsciousness when the rain abated – or, no, someone had extended a broad umbrella over the breadth of his body.
“My goodness,” a low voice had murmured, and Corvo could feel it all the way down to his fingertips, “What have you done, Mr Attano?”
“Nothing,” Corvo retorted instantly, or at least tried to. His throat didn’t seem to want to agree, it was all dry and sore, like he had been screaming – or whimpering – in pain, for a very long time.
The shape above him kneeled, and frigid fingertips pried his apart from the wound with considerable strength. The stranger hummed slightly.
“Blood magic is a tricky thing,” he mused lightly, “and not one to be trifled with on a whim. Unless, of course, you did this quite by accident… yes, yes I see now. Too violent, too desperate by far. An amateurish attempt. I do hope you did not do this to protect this fine establishment.”
Corvo blinked, hard, squeezing water out of his steadily blurring eyes.
“There was… a kid,” he tried, and then coughed a little wetly. The streets were still barren, too early by far for this part of town to be bustling yet. For the moment, they are alone. “’s okay?”
A flash of movement between the two gangs, a child struck down, a bruise. A reaction to violence, instinctive. Taking on the onslaught, fighting down the brutes. He is faster, meaner, but the child, he panics, and –
A brief silence, save for the downpour. The pain in his side is easing, cold fingertips tracing strange shapes on his torn skin, some sort of sigil.
“How very curious,” his saviour murmured.
Sirens in the distance.
And two weeks later, when Corvo was out of hospital with a bandaged ribcage and strict instructions from Lydia not to move a step away from the counter, the Outsider stepped inside The High Sea in his dark coat, with his black sweep of hair and black eyes and a black, black smile.
The chilly Wednesday morning.
“Do you think he can hear us back here?” Cecelia hisses to Corvo, once the rest of the morning patrons start pouring in and the café is filled with its usual hum of conversation and clattering cabinets. Corvo is kneading out dough, sleeves rolled up and skin white to his elbows.
Lydia is at peak efficiency behind the counter, all smiles and politeness. Corvo tends to restrict himself to the small kitchenette where he can hide himself from the publics prying eyes. He keeps Emily’s drawings above the prep table, but some of them have trickled into the rest of the café, and there’s one in particular he eyeballs from time to time, only because it seems to have attracted a particular customer’s attention as well.
“Cecelia, honestly,” a voice sighs from further into the building. The small lounge that Samuel had set up for the staff to relax in, and for him to sober up in whenever he returned from sailing abroad. A comfortable nook with couches and a fireplace, the smell of salt and ash. Callista pokes her head around the edge of the door, hair out of its usual bun in a soft tumble over her shoulder. “Keep that nonsense to yourself. He’s been coming here for months, if he could hear us back here he would have said something. Not that there’s anything of use to hear,” she added pointedly, and Cecelia flushed.
“It’s just he keeps looking up at us, at the door,” she hisses, “like he’s expecting something, and I go to him, and I ask ‘would you like something else to drink, or eat?’ and he says ‘not today’, and then he turns back to his paper, and then a few minutes later, he looks up again, and--”
“He’s not looking at anything, Cecelia.” Corvo intercepts swiftly, before she can get started on one of her nervous tirades. The dough slaps against the wooden board.
“He’s been doing it more often lately, as well,” she adds conspiratorially, “I’m telling you. He has.”
“He has not,” Callista says waspishly.
“Has too! I’m telling you, he has. And he’s visiting more often. Three days a month ago, and four days last week, and now five this week, including today--”
“What has gotten into you, have you been reading those novels Piero leaves with Lydia again? You’re so paranoid--”
“It’s not paranoia if it’s true, and I’m telling you--”
“He’s not looking!” Corvo snaps, suddenly, painfully uncomfortable. The dough lands hard, a wet thunk. The women fall silent. And then, the silence spreads and horrified, Corvo leans back to look out of the kitchen doorway.
Lydia, at the counter, turned towards him. The Outsider across from her, cleaning powder off his fingertips with a black kerchief, and a few gleaming coins on the glass top. He smiles pleasantly, all serenity.
“An excellent creation, as per usual, Corvo.” He says, gaze intense. Frozen at the prep table, Corvo twists fingers into the dough and thinks, belatedly, that he’s probably ruined it now. It’s almost as if the girls aren’t there – Lydia prim in her pencil skirt, Cecelia with her mouth gaping like a fish, and Callista, leaning over the side of the sitting-room couch, eyes glancing rapidly between them.
After an awkward moment, Corvo realises they’re all awaiting a response. Lydia’s eyes are communicating a short, but painful message of revenge if Corvo manages to drive away the most loyal and infamous customer The High Sea had ever seen.
So Corvo says, “right,” and then, clearing his throat, “good, then.”
He can hear Callista’s head thunk against the arm of the couch. But the Outsider merely smiles his unreadable smile, and reaches into his pocket. Corvo tenses. Pale hands withdraw, and with it, a shiny coin, which the Outsider places into the small plastic bucket that Emily had faithfully decorated with green paper seaweed and glitter-glue, before placing ceremoniously on the café counter next to a flyer she had scrounged up on ocean conservation.
“For the whales,” the Outsider pronounces solemnly.
“I’ll fetch your coat,” Cecelia stutters.
Neck burning, Corvo hurries back further into the kitchen. The dough is likely ruined, he’s wrapped it too much. Time to start from scratch, then. He opens the freezer, fetching the carton of frozen pomegranate seeds, and then stands a moment in the cool dark room to hold a hand against the scar on his stomach and breathe.
In the evening he returns to his loft apartment, which lately is strewn with drawings and posters of sea animals and the faint smell of brine. Emily is at the age where children tend to jump from fascination to fascination, so as hobbies go, Corvo can’t say he minds the intensity with which she has narrowed in on sea-life and all its threats, and declared herself its saviour. Jessamine, at least, would have approved. Given that she and Corvo had met in the midst of a student protest on magical rights and access to healthcare, she being the unions elected official, and Corvo fulfilling his professional occupation of being in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. They had, quite literally, run into each other amidst the chaos, Corvo with a bloody nose, and Jessamine with a bloody lip.
Love at first sight, and all that.
But love doesn’t stop psychotic political rivals, and Jessamine was cold in the ground, with only a memory and a short photo album to keep Emily warm, on the nights Corvo stayed late at the café baking into the early hours.
This evening, however, he was home relatively early, with some fresh warm bread wrapped up in his knapsack, and Emily bright-eyed and beaming from her sprawl across the rug in front of the fireplace.
“Corvo! You’re home in time for the new special!” She was referring to the opening titles of a documentary on TV. Whales dipped serenely under light-dappled water, whilst some cultured Tyvian gentleman droned on about rates of pollution in the Dunwall bay in a fairly accusatory tone. Emily still has her school uniform on, the skirts muddy a the hem – oh, lord, what has she done this time – and in her hands she has –
“Emily,” Corvo starts slowly, setting his bag down next to the rug, eyes fixed on the little rose twirling and dancing between her little fingertips. It’s not red or white or pink, but jet black, and small crystal droplets cling to its lips and glitter in the evening light.
Emily is beaming at him.
“I’m getting better at it, see!” She says proudly, “before it was only a blob of a thing, but now if I really concentrate, I can make petals. What do you think, Corvo?”
The rose dances between her hands, caught in an invisible cat’s cradle of childish proportions.
“I think,” Corvo says faintly, “I think--”
He thinks that magic is not a punishable offence, but that it’s rare enough to warrant an obsessive interest in some, and a dangerous interest in others. He thinks of all the articles he reads in the paper about young talented children being stolen from homes to be shipped over to Morley in travelling troupes, never to be seen again. He thinks of the attacks that still occur sometimes, of paranoid graffiti sprayed on the front doors of magical people in the darker areas of Dunwall, of the television reality shows of magical types lined up to be cheered and gawked over. He thinks of what happened to the famous Delilah Copperspoon, rising to fame fast and brilliant like a candle, and dying away just as brilliantly in a whirlwind of madness and intrigue, of the look in the gangs eyes when they had first struck down the child and Corvo had raised dripping red fingertips, sending a swarm of rats to drive them off in screaming hoards –
“Corvo?” Emily puzzles, “you look strange. Are you alright? Do you want to sit down?”
“I think,” Corvo stutters. He takes a few tottering steps, collapses on their rickety lounge.
“I think I need a drink,” he says, and Emily’s pitying face is so much like her mothers, it doesn’t help at all.
Thursday morning, and Corvo is unlocking the door to the café with slightly sluggish hands. There’s ice on the collar of his heavy woollen coat, and melting frost crunches underfoot.
He likes opening early, on his own. When he enters the building the café is cool and soft, the blinds all drawn and chairs upturned on tables. He sets about turning on the various coffee machines and oven in the gentle silence, hooking his overcoat over the back of the lounge in the staff room. Cecelia will light the various fireplaces when she arrives in twenty or so minutes, and dust and mop tables. Corvo instead takes the time to ready himself, right Emily’s drawings where they’ve drooped at the corners, and rattle the charity box on the counter contemplatively. Ten to eight, and Lydia arrives, unpinning her teal woollen shawl with a muffled yawn. She smiles at him, although it is strained. Much of what Lydia does or says is strained, although Corvo does not know enough about her private life to pass judgement on why. If her romantic exploits are anything to go by – though he doubts there’s anything romantic about the feverish babbling and nervous twitching of Piero, the resident mechanic – he can sort of understand.
“And how is Emily?” She asks, passing him to leave her own items in the staff room, dropping him briefly into a cloud of sweet perfume and the smell of toothpaste.
“Magic.” Corvo replies, clipped. He can almost hear the way Lydia freezes, turns to look at him from the staff room, face pale.
“Oh,” she breathes, “that’s. Well, I mean. That’s good, right? Isn’t it? She’ll have so many options, perhaps a better school?”
“Can’t afford a better school.” It is then that he realises he is frowning, teeth bared as he sets out cups and saucers, pokes at the muesli slice left in the fridge to set overnight.
Lydia sighs, quietly.
“Corvo,” she presses, “This isn’t a bad thing, you know. You can make it work, we can all make it work.”
She approaches him at the counter, arms crossed.
“You really think we would abandon her like that, after everything?” Everything being heavy black drapes at a funeral parlour, Emily’s small cherubic face angelic white under the surrounding candelabras, the pastors voice droning as Corvo stares hard at the side of the casket while Cecelia muffles her sobbing in Callista’s handkerchief. After the ceremony, Samuel had slapped Corvo hard on the shoulder and said nothing, but his weary eyes were pink and moist.
“No,” Corvo mutters, grinding his knuckles into his brow, “no, no of course you wouldn’t. I’m sorry.”
She smiles grimly, touches his elbow. “Everything will be okay. It’s not like it used to be, there are lots of laws now protecting her kind, Jessamine made sure of it. At most she’ll be envied, or admired. There are worse things, than being magic.”
Corvo resolutely does not touch the wound on his side. A mugger, he had told the rest of the café staff. Some stranger had surprised them, scared them off. His own frantic abilities had been carefully omitted from his retelling, and every time Cecelia shrieks about rats crowding the basement window again he avoids their eyes and focuses on his baking. If he dreams about rats in the night, and black eyes, he makes sure the images are gone from his mind when he rolls out of bed to prepare Emily for school. The last thing she needs is to see his own nightmares reflected for her to witness.
It’s one thing to be able to conjure flowers and sparkles out of thin air. It’s quite another to be able to twist a man’s blood with his fingertips and control all the grisly rodents of the streets at his every whim. Corvo just hopes Emily took more after her mother in even more respects than she already has. If this was the legacy he was to leave his daughter, he must have truly failed.
Lydia seems to realise the change in his mood, and leaves him be. She sets about opening the blinds, and putting out the pastries, until the front door unsticks again with a jingle and Cecelia shoulders inside, white dusting on her shoulders.
“’Mornin,” she huffs, “I’d hide now, if I were you.”
It speaks volumes of the state of Corvo’s head that he doesn’t blindly follow her direction, only looks up with annoyed confusion, and is therefore trapped at the counter in full view when a slim figure sails past the café windows and steps onto the stoop behind Cecelia, dark hair unreasonably spotless despite the frigid breeze outside.
“Ah,” the Outsider says with all of his bland politeness, “good morning, Corvo.” And then he does that thing he does, where he tilts his head, and smiles oddly, and narrows black eyes, and says:
Corvo is ignoring everyone. He is ignoring Lydia, who is passing him amused looks every time she brushes past him to the counter. He is ignoring Cecelia, who is torn between giggling at his obstinacy and looking nervously to the shadow seated at the closest table to the coffee machine. He is even ignoring Callista, who had wandered in barely an hour before with her arms full of books, worn out from her morning classes and sinking into the staff office with a chai latte and a heavy sigh.
He is especially, especially ignoring the Outsider, who is slumped against the table beside the machine with his black gloves folded next to his pale hands and saying… things. Things like:
“Of course, Daud took particular interest in blood magic. I have no preference, either way. Not all magic has its titles and not all titles can perfectly surmise the full reaches of potential power. But Daud has always been somewhat forthright. I suppose blood magic would suit his aims. It tends to waltz hand-in-hand with destruction and dismay, and so I cannot fathom why it would waltz again with you, of all people, a… bartender?”
Corvo bites his tongue. He is quietly grateful that the Outsider’s voice is mostly lost underneath the hum of general conversation buzzing through the café.
Corvo slides a foamed macchiato down to the corner where Lydia sweeps it up on her next trek past the counter.
Corvo slams his hand down on the steamer, throwing the Outsider a dirty look. He is met only with implacable smiles, and deep black serenity.
“Barrista,” Corvo mutters. “Look, it’s on my apron, and everything.”
“I see,” the Outsider murmurs, although his eyes are fixed on the sticker Emily had stuck to Corvo’s work collar some weeks previously and he hadn’t the heart to throw out. Corvo turns his shoulder slightly, hiding it from view like some over-protective idiot. He is awarded almost five minutes of perfect quiet from the small dark figure by the counter, and of course as soon as he realises that the man starts up again.
“Would it be pointless to warn you of the dangers of blood magic as a long-term occupation? Daud is a veritable threat as an assassin to be sure, but it does not necessarily lend itself to a peaceful lifestyle, especially one involving… younglings.”
Younglings? Corvo wonders, and then, with a jolt:
“Did you just say Daud is an assassin?”
Of course he says it as soon as Cecelia drops behind the counter to fetch a plate of muffins, and she slams her head against the roof of the cupboard and curses a blue streak, before hurrying away. The Outsider merely blinks at Corvo curiously.
“Should I not have?”
“It’s, well,” he struggles, “it’s not exactly the kind of information you share over coffee. I think.”
“This is a chai latte,” the Outsider protests mildly, “and you have already politely informed me that it is warm milk masquerading as a coffee.”
“Because it is.”
“Moreover,” the other man persists, “for this to be a conversation over coffee, you would need to be seated with me, would you not? As it is, you are behind the counter, and I am not.” He adds this last bit in a tone of mild embitterment, and Corvo narrows his eyes at him.
“Is there a point to this?”
“Only that if I am to be your tutor in the arts, it might necessitate meeting sometime outside of your place of employ, would it not?”
Corvo’s hand slips on the steamer, thrusting vulnerable skin under the jet of steam and hissing as he draws it back. He looks around wildly, in a panic, but nobody is paying them any attention. The conversation is too loud, the food too engrossing, and the Outsider’s voice is but a mere hum underneath it all, just loud enough to sing through Corvo’s veins in the worst way.
“It was one time,” Corvo hisses, hunching back towards the machine and hurriedly wiping it down. “An accident. There’s nothing to tutor.”
“I rather disagree,” the shadow hums. “Judging by the friends you have gathered here, as of late.”
On instinct, Corvo glances at Lydia, where she is chatting companionably to an elderly customer, and Cecelia, who is mopping melted ice away from the stoop. But the Outsider’s smile turns mocking, and Corvo realises who he is referring to with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. His friends. His other friends. The ones who spills over each other with swollen grey bellies in a writhing mass behind the café, tucked into broken bricks and drain pipes, squeaking and sprawling with their beady red eyes turning excitable whenever they set their sights on him.
“They’re not--” he starts haltingly, but falls silent under an unwavering stare.
“Why don’t we have a talk, you and I?” Says the Outsider, reaching into his black coat to withdraw a card. It’s a bright, beautiful purple, lined in damask felt and glittering under the light. There is an address printed upon it. No number. He sets it on the counter, and even Lydia’s immaculately polished mahogany is no match for the coloured brilliance.
“Come find me,” the Outsider says.
He stands to leave. Cecelia, re-entering the café, immediately rushes to fetch his coat. While he waits, the Outsider pays for his meal with Lydia, and this time it is two coins he slots into the charity bucket. All the while, his gaze never leaves Corvo’s face. It is not until the man leaves that Lydia approaches him.
“You should sit down,” she advises wearily, “you’re very pale.”
She sends him to the staff room, where Callista obligingly sits up from her sprawl across the lounge, and he sits in front of the fire with a mug of cocoa in his –
A mug of cocoa in one hand, but in the other, a cutting line against his rough palm, the shape of a card, the colour purple winking beneath his white knuckles.
“Ah,” the Outsider’s voice is like the great sigh of the creaking masts overhead, skeleton shadows of boats rocking in the ebb of the tide.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
On Friday Samuel returns from Who-Knows-Where, and once the café closes he forces Corvo into his coat and down the lane towards the Hounds Pits Pub, reeking of cigars and ocean foam. His grey hair is still windswept, and his face browner than before. Corvo missed him terribly, so he doesn’t protest too much when Samuel slings an arm around his shoulder and marches them purposefully through gutter puddles and slush. Some carol singers are going around the lane in huddled groups, lighting candles as the evening deepens into night. Callista is watching over Emily, Thursday’s being their private tutoring allotment each week. Corvo isn’t worried. He hopes Emily hears the carollers, sees their candles winking in the darkness.
“—anyway, I doubt they’ll allow me back in that port for a few months after the whole business,” Samuel is laughing, but pauses and then frowns at Corvo, just as they turn down the hill towards the creaking shack of the Hounds Pits. “You’re not listening. Got a bee in your bonnet?”
“Hm? Oh, nothing,” Corvo shakes his head, forces a smile to his face. Judging by Samuel’s wince, it isn’t pretty. “Just thinking.”
“About that girl of yours, I bet. You worry too much about, Corvo. Emily’s bright, she gets on well.”
Corvo shrugs, head downturned.
“You’ve done right by her, you know.”
Corvo glances up sharply. Samuel’s expression is pensive, but well-meaning.
“You really have, Corvo. We’re all so proud. I don’t have to remind you what you were like after Jessamine…” he trails off, shakes his head like a dog, “ah, never mind. Ignore me. Just another old man with too much to say. Here we are,” he announces, as they step up to the pub’s doorway. There’s a sallow yellow light inside, not as welcoming as the cafés, but warm nonetheless. The conversation inside is rowdier, sharper, the smell of alcohol a sharp tang on the sea breeze, burning Corvo’s nose, sitting in the back of his throat. They shoulder inside and are almost immediately swept off their feet by Piero, who is storming past with his arms full of drinks and books, and who is yelling over the din at his friend Sokolov, a resident lush with a penchant of great ideas and poor executions, who has books of his own open and is pointing violently at one passage with a long, gnarled finger.
“—the weight alone would be preposterous – oh, hello Corvo, Samuel,” Piero pauses, readjusting his load, “haven’t seen you in a while. Lydia says the café is going well?”
“Very well, thanks,” Samuel replies cheerily enough, “are those drinks for me?”
“But if we remove the fins,” Sokolov shouts back, incensed, and Piero ignores Samuel to sweep back over to the other man, retorts flying fast and mean through his thin lips. Samuel stares after him, chuckling. Corvo sees a gap at the bar and shoulders his way in, lifts two fingers to the barman and shifting to make room when Samuel bunches in beside him.
“Ah, I missed this place,” the man admits, “sailed all around the empire, and still nothing quite beats these sticky floors and rat-infested gutters. Home is where the heart is, I suppose.”
“You should probably get your heart checked, then,” Corvo mutters, and throws back his glass.
“My heart’s just fine, thank you, but I appreciate that convenient segue.”
Samuel peers over at him with his pale eyes, and Corvo catches on a moment later, wincing.
“I’m serious Corvo, when was the last time you went out. You know, for fun. Met people.”
“I’m out right now,” Corvo protests.
“Oh, really? Well if you’re planning to make an honest woman out of me, I’ve got some bad news for you, son.” Samuel slides on his barstool, turning to face Corvo more fully. “When was the last time you went out with someone? Doesn’t even have to be a date, you know. Just coffee. Not our coffee,” he adds empathically, when Corvo mulishly opens his mouth.
Corvo pauses, scowls, and shrugs.
“I don’t have time for that.”
“’Scuse me, barman? Another round of bullshit for me and my friend here.”
“I don’t, and I shouldn’t anyway--”
“Shouldn’t? Hell, Corvo,” Samuel scowls, “don’t try that shit with me.”
“Says the guy who sails around the world every year to forget his bad break up,” Corvo retorts, and then instantly blanches, looking away, “forget that. Sorry.”
“Forgotten,” he means it too, weathered fingertips drumming on his pint and wry smile dancing on his mouth, “Cecelia says you have a fan.”
“Cecelia is a gossip.”
“Quiet you, you adore that girl,” Samuel smirks, “or are gaudy ageless fools more your thing?”
“It’s not like that,” Corvo sighs, “he’s magic.”
“Uh-huh,” Samuel says agreeably, “so are you.”
Corvo freezes. His reflection in the bar splashback is a smear of shadows and glimmering skin. There are purpling shadows under his eyes, probably at least ten years premature. His grip on his pint of beer is white.
“Corvo,” the older man says gently, “come on, relax. How long have we known each other? You really think I’m gonna throw you to the curb just because I notice how good you are at disappearing into corners when you really don’t want to be noticed? You think I’m gonna report you to the media, have some crews rock up on your front doorstep trying to get a shot of your underwear drawer? I mean it,” Samuel persists, “come on, boy.”
“It’s not me,” Corvo mutters eventually, jaw clenched, eyes on the counter, “I mean – you’re right, yes, but – it’s not me, it’s. It’s Emily. She’s. She’s got it too. And I can’t. Not without Jessamine. It’s just. Too much.”
Samuel pauses as he takes it in, and then a deep sigh bellows out of his thin chest, wiry white hair under a thin blouse.
“Yeah,” he says, nodding sternly, “yeah.”
He raises a hand.
Corvo drops a somewhat sloshed Samuel off at his boat, where he totters happily into the cabin and collapses onto his cot with a satisfied mutter, singing about drunken whalers and bones. It is the deep of night but stars twinkle over the river, and Corvo’s boots are damp as he balances back over the ramp onto the jetty. When he reaches the end of the bridge back onto the cobblestone path there is someone waiting for him.
A small dark figure, leaning imperiously against a post with all the grace of a lounge cat. Corvo freezes. Around the Outsider’s feet, a small mound of rats huddle and squeak gently at each other.
“Would you believe,” the other man drawls, “they came of their own accord?” He nudges one particularly rotund rat with the tip of his lacquered boot, and it darts frantically across the stones to Corvo’s feet, huddling around his ankle.
It is very dark out.
In fact it is hard to tell where the Outsider begins and ends. He is dressed as he always is – slim fitting trousers and black dress shirt, a heavy woollen coat in dappled greys with far too many buckles. His countenance is at once young and very, very old. Corvo feels a digging at his foot and flinches, glancing down. The rat is attempting to climb his trouser leg. He stoops down, a bit unsteadily, and scoops it into his calloused palm, where it huddles.
“Ah,” the Outsider’s voice is like the great sigh of the creaking masts overhead, skeleton shadows of boats rocking in the ebb of the tide.
Corvo swallows. His throat is very dry.
“I don’t need your training, if that’s what you’re here for,” he starts, and then adds, meekly, “I’m a bit drunk.”
“On a work night?” Amusement.
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Corvo protests, “I don’t work Saturdays.”
“Of course. Time to yourself, I suppose. And the little one. Children’s games and idle conversation. Those were her pictures in the café?”
Corvo feels abruptly misaligned. He realises he is clutching the rat protectively to his chest, and thrusts his hand out, setting it alight a nearby fence with embarrassment. It scampers down to join its brethren, writhing happily over each other on the damp slabs of rock.
“She’s into that, at the moment,” he mumbles. “Whales and things. Samuel doesn’t mind, so--”
“I like them.”
The announcement surprises them both. The Outsider’s pale moon of a face tilts as he purses his lips and squints thoughtfully.
“I don’t like many things. It makes me curious. The innocence of it all, maybe. Naivety. Or something else. A precocious child, I assume. Like her mother?”
Corvo is suddenly angry. The rats all freeze as one, and then they are shrieking and gnawing, biting each other in their unhappiness. They turn to face the Outsider in an angry tide, but are pushed back gently but firmly by some unspecified boundary, like an invisible line drawn in the watery cracks around the other man’s feet.
Unbothered, the Outsider smiles blithely on.
“Or perhaps not. Perhaps she is more like her father. All twists and turns and soft modesty. How very interesting you are, Corvo,” he says.
“I feel sick,” Corvo replies.
He wakes up in his own bed. Dawn light through the windows. Emily’s soft breathing a room away. Sheets twisted around his ankles. He thinks he dreams, but he can’t recall them. He thinks something happened last night after the pub, but he doesn’t remember what.
When Corvo swings his legs out of bed, there’s sand between his toes.
He doesn’t recognise the address on the Outsider’s card. He taps it against the kitchen counter a few times, before the tell-tale clatter of their rickety shower starts up and he quickly straightens, tucking it in his pocket. Emily’s risen later than usual, but he doesn’t mind too much. She studies hard, no matter how much she bemoans it, and her teachers gush about her qualities in every parent-teacher conference Corvo dutifully attends. (However much he dislikes them. Most of the time a single mother corners him against the smorgasbord for a good half hour, talking about play dates in heavy tones and smelling sweetly of perfume and talcum powder. Corvo drowns himself in sticky cordial and tries to look in control of his life.) He sets about preparing breakfast. Saturday means slightly burnt pancakes and store-bought syrup, but Emily downs everything with gusto no matter what he places before her, and he wouldn’t want to disappoint. The midday light is watery through the kitchen window, and Corvo gathers his dark hair off his nape into a low bun. The café girls would be in hysterics, to see him in soft sweatpants and a dough-stained apron, a faded shirt Emily insisted he win from their trip to a carnival years before that dictates him ‘COOL DADDY-O’ with a picture of a snow bear in sunglasses. He had won it from a rifle range, a much-smaller Emily hanging off the crook of his arm and cheering whenever a target flew down with a sharp tink!
The game-runner had muttered, displeased, but one look from Corvo and he was fetching down their prize.
It had been a good day, back when good days were few.
The shower shrieks as it is turned off. Emily appears for a millisecond, almost drowning in a too-big towel and blinking sleepily, before she disappears into her bedroom once again to get dressed.
“Pancakes,” Corvo calls, and there is a resounding cheer, before she re-emerges in a white petticoat, cartoon stickers on her knees and dark hair coiling damply around her ears. When Corvo goes to give her a good morning hug, he discovers Emily’s eyes hung with shadows, a puzzled frown on her face.
“I had the weirdest dream,” she admits sleepily into his stomach, small arms latched tight around his waist in a vice, “a strange man was talking to me, and you were on the floor.”
“That is weird,” Corvo agrees, unsettled.
“He kept asking me questions, but…” Emily scrunches up her face, “no, I can’t remember what they were. He was sort of funny, though. He tucked me back into bed, but he didn’t know how to do it properly. I wanted my goodnight song. He didn’t sing it right,” she adds mulishly, and so very like Jessamine. Corvo pulls her in tighter, an impromptu squeeze to her shoulders. “I had to teach him the words.”
There’s a buzzing in Corvo’s fingertips that belies his anxiety.
“And then what happened?”
“What?” She scoots past him to the kitchen table, swinging up onto it and kicking her legs. “Nothing, I woke up. Can I have strawberries on mine?”
Corvo fetches the strawberries.
Regardless of the cold, Emily wants to visit the lake around the old Boyle estate, to see the ducks. The water will be frozen over this time of year, of course. But the Boyle estate has been open to the public for years, and the grounds have some pretty garden arrangements and buildings to look at, even in the winter. Corvo helps her bundle into her heavy woollen coat with its faux fur trimming, in white. Her dark hair stands out against it in a shock of colour, her cheeks red with warmth and syrup. Once he’s dressed and ready, he leaves his room to find her waiting at the front door, impatient. They catch a trolley through the city towards the estate, the steps sticky with melting ice. There are other families in the trolley, with wailing children and bickering elderly couples. Emily stands with her back to Corvo and wraps herself imperiously in the wings of his coat. He smothers a smile in the hand by his face, latched onto the beam as they rock across the tracks.
An advertisement running along the beams of the roof tells of a new reality television show, where magic and talented individuals compete with their best performances for the benefit of the celebrity judges.
Corvo stares at it for a long time, before someone in the carriage sneezes loudly, and he flinches back to awareness. Emily’s little hand slips into his free palm, her gloves soft against his calloused palm.
“Wakey, wakey,” she teases, grinning up at him.
The Boyle gardens are iced over, a real winter wonderland. An optimistic barista has set up a hut to the side of the main walking trek, overlooking the frozen lake. Corvo buys Emily a hot chocolate, and she cradles it in her little hands as they stroll through the gardens. It is lucky that they no one else has braved the elements today, so it is only Corvo there to witness when some flowers open their petals reluctantly as they pass, craning towards Emily like she is the sun. There are snowflakes in his hair.
“No ducks after all,” he sighs in good humour, but Emily doesn’t pout too much.
“It’s still pretty,” she insists, and she is very right. Boyle Manor glitters in the distance, ancient stained glass windows a kaleidoscope of colour underneath the white blanketed eaves of its many corners and turrets. Corvo wonders briefly what it would have been like in the peak of its time, with its many masquerades and parties spilling out into these very gardens.
“We’re learning about penguins next week!” Emily announces without aplomb, her eyes dancing across the glistening surface of the frozen water. “I think I would like a penguin. Maybe a whole bunch. Then they could draw my chariot.”
“I think that many penguins would probably be expensive,” Corvo humours her.
“I’d get a job,” Emily persists, “I could work with you, in the café! I helped serve cakes that one time, when Cecelia was ill. Don’t you remember?”
Of course he remembered. Callista had even embroidered a little apron for her. Corvo had been torn between protective concern every time she danced too near the coffee machine and reluctant charm at the spell she cast over customers amused to see her balancing on one of the stools so she could see over the counter.
“They’d probably fire me, take you on instead,” he chuckles, “you’re much nicer to the customers than I am.”
“Well, that’s because you frown too much. You should smile more.”
“I’m smiling right now,” and he is, too.
Emily grins, and sips at her chocolate.
“I’ll draw you some more pictures, for the café,” she decides after a long moment of silent contemplation as they stare out over the frozen waste, “you liked the whales one. Callista says the customers like it too. Like that one man, with the eyes.”
“Sorry?” Corvo, blissfully relaxed for once in his life, goes on red alert like a hound to the smell of blood.
“You know, the one with the eyes,” Emily is fast losing interest, having seen a rustle in the undergrowth that might belong to a nesting duck. “The one who says strange things, sometimes. Callista tells me all about him. She says he likes the pictures.”
Emily looks up at him from beneath her thick, dark lashes, and then adds with a coy tone unsuited to her age:
“She says he likes you, too.”
Corvo puts Emily to bed, and then makes a call to Callista.
“I’d really appreciate it,” he says, hoping he doesn’t sound as desperate as he feels, and then later: “you shouldn’t tell her those sorts of things, you know.”
“Do you want me to watch her tomorrow or not?” Callista responds, dry, and Corvo meekly relents.
He sleeps in short bursts, fitful and restless. At some point he thinks he hears Emily talking in her sleep, but he slips back into unconsciousness so quickly he can’t tell if it was real or not. In the morning he feels strung out, head too tight and eyes fuzzy. He dresses sloppily, and when Callista rings the doorbell, her expression upon seeing him says it all. He leaves the girls in front of the television with some colouring books and steps out into the street, clattering down the stone steps and feeling like a fool.
It is a long distance, to the address on the Outsider’s card.
Corvo goes on foot.
Sunday mid-afternoon. Corvo would say that the Outsider’s abode was unexpected, but that would imply he knew what he was expecting. A ridiculous haunting mansion, perhaps. As looming and out-of-place as its owner. Instead he finds himself in one of the many broken-back streets of Dunwall’s darkest corners, where Hatter’s graffiti drips on brick walls and cats yowl in the gutter. The address leads him to a narrow townhouse, much like the others, done in charcoal and slate with black iron wrought fencing. From the outside, it looks uninhabited. The garden is overgrown with dark green and black weeds, and the bay windows are clotted with dust. The curtains are drawn. There are no lights visible inside. The whole area seems smothered in shadow, widow-peaks of the surrounding rooftops curving into each other like huddling old women, blocking out what little sun there is.
He lingers at the gate for a long time. Before too long, however, there are beady eyes in alleyways staring out at him with suspicion, so he swallows his nerves and reminds himself why he’s doing this. The gate shrieks when he pushes it open, as if it hasn’t been moved in years.
When he goes to knock on the door, it swings open without a sound.
“Ah, my dear Corvo,” the Outsider sighs from just inside, bereft of his heavy coat and boots. “Welcome.”
It is a strange thing, to see his bare feet against plush, black carpet, pale toes with round white nails. The Outsider is framed in black, an impressive stairwell behind him and damask wallpaper, archways either side leading off into shrouded parlours. There’s a purple light coming from upstairs. It ebbs and pushes like the sea.
“I’m so glad you came,” the man continues, as if Corvo hasn’t just rudely stood in front of him with mute shock for several minutes. Then he hesitates, and with a quizzical smile, steps aside.
Corvo swallows thickly.
“I wanted to ask you something,” he says, and his voice sounds hoarse and nervous in his own ears.
“But of course,” the Outsider demurs. “I knew you would. But first – shall I take your coat? Let me not be called a poor host.”
“I could call you lots of things,” Corvo retorts before he can stop himself, and blanches.
But the Outsider only seems amused, and the amusement grows as Corvo steps inside, shucking off his coat and awkwardly thrusting it towards the other man. The Outsider carelessly tosses it aside into the parlour, where it crumples in a heap. Corvo raises an eyebrow.
“Shall we?” His host merely asks, and turns to lead the way up the staircase. His pale slender feet make no sound on the ancient steps. Corvo stuffs his hands in his pockets, they’re suddenly so cold. He follows.
Behind him, the door snicks shut.
me: this fic is getting out of hand
friend: or INTO the outsider's hands
me: THAT DOESN'T EVEN MAKE SENSE
friend: *sips drink* doesn't it though
(one more chapter after this, i swear)
“Welcome to my home,” the Outsider says, allowing Corvo a moment to adjust to his surroundings, before throwing himself on an ancient chaise lounge and settling into a sprawl, “please, take a seat.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“May I see your hand?”
The question comes at the stairwell landing, where the Outsider pauses in a way which pens Corvo in against the corner. Such a slight man, yet Corvo feels as though he were the one on the back foot. The stairway continues before them to a closed doorway, underneath which the purple light is bleeding gently. The wallpaper either side is peeling at the foot, and the board is rotting.
“Why?” Corvo asks warily.
The Outsider merely tilts his head and purses his lips, and Corvo finds himself, against his better judgement, extending his left hand outwards.
“My home is not so easily accessible that any raving madman might enter it, should they attempt to,” the Outsider explains, and Corvo shivers when his palm is enveloped in the Outsider’s cold, pale fingers, “you will need my mark, to see what is not normally seen.”
A sudden rush of feeling in his hand, and Corvo snatches it back in a hurry, cradling it against his chest. The Outsider’s nails drag on his palm as he withdraws, leaving rivulets of sensation buzzing underneath his skin. Corvo’s hand runs with colour, ribbons of blue and purple dancing out of dark skin and into the air, but the Outsider appears unaffected. If his dark eyes linger too heavily on Corvo’s face, it is no more than usual.
“Your mark,” Corvo echoes, and unfurls his fist. On the back of his hand a sigil throbs for a moment in vivid ultraviolet colour before fading to an inky black, like a tattoo. It is a circular thing, with sharp darts here and there. When next he looks up, there is no doorway on the landing above them, but an open archway into a brightly coloured parlour. There is music playing quietly on a radio, and plush lounges draped in throws of velvet blue. Decorations of warped sea-glass hang from the ceiling, chattering as they brush against each other. There is the scent of opened wine.
It seems… lived in, in a way Corvo is ashamed to say he hasn’t expected of the Outsider.
Instead he says:
“I sure hope this isn’t permanent.”
“Indeed,” the Outsider muses, “wouldn’t that be terrible?”
Then he turns and leads the way into the upper parlour, and legs a little shaky, Corvo nevertheless follows. As he creeps into the room it opens up out into wings. The fireplace is unlit but despite the weather outside, the parlour is comfortably warm. On the mantelpiece rests an enormous oil painting of a rolling sea. Other framed portraits are scattered around, resting against the floor or tucked behind stacks of books. Corvo recognises none of the subjects. Lounges are littered with knick-knacks – unlit pipes, dog-eared novels, comic sections of old newspapers. There’s a small mound of blue glitter near one coffee table which Corvo carefully steps around. It smells of wine, incense and lavender. In the far corner, a large bed is weighed down with layers upon layers of blankets and rugs in different textures and fabrics, all in various shades of purple. It looks unslept in.
The windows do not look out into the alley streets. Outside, Corvo distantly knows it to be freezing cold, with the clouds above threatening perhaps a light snowfall.
Instead, the windows of the Outsider’s home look out onto a dark, unfamiliar city, and heavy rain drums down around them in a humming blanket. Occasionally there is a distant rumble from the storm clouds, like some great god turning over in its sleep.
“Welcome to my home,” the Outsider says, allowing Corvo a moment to adjust to his surroundings, before throwing himself on an ancient chaise lounge and settling into a sprawl, “please, take a seat.”
Corvo perches awkwardly on the lounge nearest him, and briefly wonders if Daud had done the same, however long ago.
“Listen,” he starts, before the Outsider can say anything else, “I just need some advice, alright? I don’t want training, or, or, your tutelage, or whatever it is you do for the others. I just need help. Is there any way I can ask for that without sacrificing a kidney, or something? Do you do that?”
“I do whatever I want to,” the Outsider responds, but it sounds automatic, and his gaze is assessing.
“So you’ll help me?”
“My dear Corvo, blood magic is no easy thing to master. If it runs naturally in you than I cannot in good conscience leave you with a list of tips and hope for the best.”
Corvo very wisely does not ask if the Outsider even has a conscience. Judging by the twinkle in those depthless eyes, he gathers he is caught out, anyway.
“It’s not like that,” he protests.
“I know exactly what it is like, I was there, of course,” the Outsider drones, and a chill goes down Corvo’s back, “outside your quaint café, in those early hours, and you with your rats and shadows taking down your opponents as easy as breathing. Your attempts at concealing your talents are commendable, but hiding magic is not the same as controlling it. Do you want to know how you looked, Corvo?”
The Outsider asks, sliding forward so that his pointy elbows rest on his knees. His throat is long and pale, white like linen. “Relieved. You looked so very relieved.”
“Stop it,” Corvo jolts to his feet. “This was a mistake.”
“It was naïve,” the Outsider says, not unkindly, “One does not drain a river one cup at a time. You will need my training to control yourself, yes, but it is not something that occurs overnight.”
“But I don’t want your training--”
“You are here, are you not?” The Outsider gestures to his parlour, to the sheet of rain outside, the rolling waves over the mantelpiece.
“Yes,” Corvo says, angry and flustered and embarrassed, “Yes, but--”
“So very few people spark my interest these days, you know. Most would be climbing up the walls at the thought of having my patronage.”
“I know that--”
“And yet here you are, resolute as ever. I’m not sure whether this could be constituted as obstinacy or integrity. Those lines are crossed so often, nowadays. How intriguing, all the same.”
“Do you ever stop talking,” Corvo snaps, incensed.
The Outsider pauses, curious. His black eyes rake up Corvo’s body, held taut with embarrassment.
“I don’t want your training,” Corvo continues, “I don’t want your training. Not for me, anyway. I want it for Emily.”
Miracles do occur. The Outsider looks genuinely surprised.
“Yes, Emily,” Corvo repeats, exasperated, “my daughter.”
On the other side of the city, Cecelia is adjusting the signage outside of The High Sea when the heavens abruptly split open like a boiled egg and dump gallons of water over the city. Rain. Incessant, unrelenting, pouring rain. Yelling obscenities, Cecelia gathers as much of the signage as she can into her arms and runs for the doorway, which Lydia has flung open, mouth agape.
Customers are cluttering the windows, craning their faces towards the sudden phenomenon.
“Does someone smell incense?” Samuel grumbles from the staff room.
Unnoticed on the flyer board, a crayon drawing of a whale is struck with sudden life. It glitters a little in the cafes lamplight, and dives below pencil waves, shimmering like water.
The Outsider rises silently. He is shorter than Corvo, by half a foot at least. His dark cap of hair is sleek and slightly damp, but as long as Corvo has known him as the shadow by the café window, it has always been that way. His eyes are polished opals, black and shattered blue, endless as the night sky.
“Your daughter,” he repeats tonelessly, but there is a heavy weight behind his words.
“She’s,” Corvo clears his throat. He is trying to drag his eyes away but finds he cannot. “She’s starting to show talent. In magic. I’m worried because… because I don’t know how to take care of her. I don’t know how to train her in that. Nobody ever trained me. But I don’t want to take her to a specialist school because--”
“Because they will place her on a polished pedestal, as marble as her skin, and she will be paraded for the masses to consume as an oddity. They will love her and they will hate her, and only fate will determine which of the two will win out.”
“Yes,” Corvo’s voice breaks, so he repeats, stronger, “yes.”
“Can you help her?” He begs. “Train her, so that people don’t know, so she doesn’t have to worry? I just don’t know what to do. I came all the way from Serkonos to hide my talent, I don’t want her to run away too.”
“You come to me and beg for the continued safety of your daughter,” the Outsider says, and Corvo feels his stomach sink, “you come to someone who has walked all the paths of all the cities of the world and only sparingly casts his favour. You come to me, me, who has visited your establishment every week for several months, waiting for you to beg my favour, and finally when you do, it is for your daughter.”
Corvo is mute. He does not know what to say, to appease whatever strange mood the Outsider has been worked into. There is something behind the other man’s words, an echo, a wondrous power. It makes him dizzy.
“I’m sorry,” he finds himself saying, “I’ll go.”
“Go?” The Outsider mocks, and when he smiles, his teeth are white and sharp. “Corvo. My dear, dear Corvo. You misunderstand. This is most interesting.”
Black eyes flick down Corvo’s face, rest to the side of Corvo’s mouth with flat curiosity.
“Most interesting indeed,” the Outsider repeats.
The sigil on Corvo’s hand burns like pale fire.
“When do you next work at the café?” The Outsider asks abruptly. The shadows in the corner seem to recede, flinching back. He steps away from Corvo, and the air feels lighter.
“Tomorrow,” Corvo finds himself saying, “I mean – tomorrow, yeah.”
“Very good. Bring Emily in with you.”
“But she has school—right, right,” Corvo adds hurriedly, at the look on the other man’s face, “of course. Yeah. I’ll do. That.”
He starts towards the archway. There’s a grittiness in the skin between his fingers that wasn’t there before. He thinks it might be sea-salt. Out on the landing the building is dark and cool, and small tendrils of purple light cling to his feet reluctantly as he steps out of the magic parlour.
“Tomorrow, Corvo.” The Outsider’s voice follows him out, an amused echo.
Corvo’s legs are like jelly as he rackets down the stairwell.
The door slams shut behind him. Outside it is like a monsoon, and Corvo gasps, turning his face up into the downpour, blinking hard against the rain. He is shivering. The latent magic he has become so adept at ignoring most of the time feels burnt at the edges, the sigil on his hand drawing it out, bringing it closer to his skin. From a nearby gutter, he hears plaintive squeaking, and several rats peep at him from the sewer entrance fretfully. Corvo rubs his face hard, smoothing wet hair back off his face. He turns his collar up and hunches his shoulders, starts the slow trek out of the slum. Small dark shapes flit out from sewer cracks, follow him along at a protective distance.
He does not look back at the townhouse. Not even when he hears a noise beneath the roar of water, like the sound of a creaking gate being opened once more.
Emily is ecstatic to find that she has the day off school. Even when Corvo explains that she will be attending special tutoring at the café her excitement cannot be dampened. She ties ribbons in her hair and dresses in a frock of blue velvet, thick white stockings and small clip sandals.
“You look like a princess,” Corvo tells her, and she beams happily as they climb into his car.
It is still raining. When they arrive at The High Sea Corvo holds his coat over their heads and Lydia pulls the door open for them, gesturing wildly as they madly dash across the street to the safety of the café awning. She is still preparing the shop for opening. Corvo takes Emily to the staff room to dry off, only to find Cecelia already there setting the fireplace. Her auburn hair is curling underneath her damp woollen cap. She is not too good with children, but fetches one of the throw rugs Samuel stashes in the cupboard and tucks it around Emily’s ankles when the girl curls up in the corner of the lounge closest to the fire to wait. Corvo leaves them to help Lydia turn down the tables and open the rest of the blinds.
“This weather is ridiculous,” she huffs to him as they sweep past each other. She smells sweetly of rainwater. “Isn’t it, Corvo? Corvo?”
Corvo jumps where he is mindlessly wiping down the coffee machine, eyes trained on the door.
“What? Yeah, yeah, it’s strange.”
“Who are you waiting for?”
“I’m not waiting for anyone,” Corvo replies, clipped, and then shakes himself and says, “Emily’s tutor. That’s all.”
Lydia purses her lips and unpacks her apron, tying it around her waist. “I doubt anyone would risk the trip in this weather, no matter how good the coffee is.”
But Corvo has already straightened, as a dark shape slips past the shop windows, and the doorbell jingles as it is pushed open to reveal the Outsider. He is drenched head to toe, black locks dripping on his pale cheeks, but he seems unbothered. He pauses to take off his sodden coat and sling it over the back of the nearest chair, and then turns and graces Corvo with a quizzical smile.
“Then again,” Lydia says suddenly, breaking Corvo from her nervousness.
He shoots her a look, but Lydia is already wiping down tables with a smirk, implacable. The Outsider approaches the counter, slim and unassuming. Corvo is at once terrified and fascinated.
“Good morning Corvo,” the man says politely, tilting his head, “the café will not be busy today, I fear, what with the sky behaving as it is.”
Corvo realises, suddenly, that the Outsider is attempting small-talk.
“Emily’s in the back,” he says, and then mentally smacks himself on the back of the head.
“Of course she is,” the Outsider agrees, and then pauses, casting the counter a pleased look, “shall I cross the sacred boundary, then?”
Lydia quickly turns her snort into a cough. Corvo hurries to raise the counter barrier, and the Outsider slides past him. The soft bunch of fabric at his hip brushes against the back of Corvo’s hand, and the sigil flares hotly in response. Corvo feels himself flush, and slams the barrier closed again, too loudly.
“Emily,” he calls, his voice hoarse, “your tutor is here.”
Her pale moon face peers around the staff room door, and as she sets eyes on the Outsider, her small lips bunch with curious confusion.
“You don’t look like a tutor,” she announced decidedly, “tutors are supposed to be old. And boring.”
“I am definitely one of those things,” the Outsider responds amusedly, “do I still qualify?”
“That depends. Will you make me do homework?”
“Emily,” Corvo hisses.
“Perhaps,” the Outsider smiles, “but I promise you, it will be the most interesting homework you’ll ever have.”
Emily frowned at Corvo.
“Corvo,” she complained, “he is boring.”
Horrified, Corvo rushes to apologise, but the Outsider waves one slender hand, cuffs damp with rain.
“A black coffee for me, my dear,” he requests politely, moving towards the staff room where he edges around the stacks of books to sit opposite Emily, beside the fire, “and for Emily, a hot chocolate, I believe.”
“With marshmallows,” Emily adds, testing him.
“With marshmallows,” the Outsider agrees. “Now, Emily, Corvo tells me you like roses.”
Corvo creeps away as quickly as he can, feeling that particularly father-like combination of nerves and hope wrestling in his chest. At the counter, Lydia is making a pretence of arranging glasses in order to listen in more closely, but she is unashamed when Corvo catches her. Instead she angles him a smirk, and says: “A tutor, really?”
“Emily could use one,” Corvo retorts defensively.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” she laughs, “That’s one way to do it, I suppose.”
Corvo is about to ask her what she means when Cecelia emerges from the kitchens, white-faced and trembling, hissing: “What is that man doing in our break room?”
“Oh, he’s Emily’s tutor now,” Lydia says before Corvo can speak. Cecelia goes quickly from horror to exasperation.
“Corvo,” she sighs, before shaking her head and stalking away to right the tables, muttering all the while.
“What?” Corvo demands. “What?”
But the door is jingling yet again, as a group of elderly women apparently ambivalent towards the veritable tundra roaring around them pour into the store, and Corvo is swept up in an order of breakfast teas and dainty sandwiches that occupies him for long enough to forget his offence. An hour or so later as he is wiping bread crumps off the prep counter, he glances up towards the staff room just as the Outsider looks up at him. The man is kneeling on the floor beside Emily, and she is chattering excitedly as she balances a glittering rose on her slim fingers, explaining how she thought it into existence.
The Outsider is seemingly surprised to catch Corvo’s gaze, although he does not flinch or look away with embarrassment. Instead he blinks, slow, and then smiles, small and serene. It is strangely genuine. Corvo feels shivers like fingertips down his back.
“Corvo, more tea,” Lydia sighs from the other side of the café. He turns away, wiping his hands on the skirt of his apron.
Callista rings in another hour later, to tell them she won’t be dropping by as usual. Although it surprises no-one, the soft murmurs of another voice in the background do, and Corvo forgets his worries long enough to join Cecelia by the phone, needling her with purposefully rude insinuations until she catches onto them and hangs up with a huff. They muffle their laughter behind the counter, until Lydia shoots them a poisonous look and they break apart with a panic, hurrying to look busy.
Hours pass. Small pockets of incredibly brave customers come and go. The rain pours, and pours.
Then a slight hand is touching the crook of Corvo’s arm as he is foaming the milk, and he jumps. The Outsider is leaning against the hallway arch, loose and pliant.
“Her grace demands scones as a reward for hard work,” he informs, “with, and I quote, ‘enough cream to kill me’. I may have underestimated your ward, Corvo. Her temper is as impressive as her craft. I have yet to decide whom she owes that to.”
His black eyes twinkle with amusement, and rather than reacting with annoyance or shame as he might normally do to the mention of Emily’s mother, instead the lazy smile on the pale man’s face makes Corvo flush all over. It would be easy to blame the mark, he thinks, the physical connection between the two that wasn’t there before.
And yet. And yet.
“I’m not making her scones for lunch,” Corvo says, swallowing with a click, “its sandwiches or nothing.”
It is an empty threat, but the Outsider raises his eyebrows all the same, and retreats to the staff room to deliver the message. A moment later he appears again.
“A sandwich each, and a scone to share.”
Corvo pretends to consider it.
“With enough cream to kill you?”
The Outsider’s smile is black and fond.
“You can certainly try,” he murmurs.
That night, Dunwall drowns in water, and Corvo dreams.
He dreams he is on a small fishing boat, adrift on a rocking black sea. The skies above are flush with colour and lightning, flashes of white fire and blue racketing across the starry canvas. It is so very dark, but Corvo is not afraid. There are rats curled in the belly of the boat, and they chitter to each other in soothing, pleasant tones. Corvo sighs, heavy. He is so very relaxed.
A slim, but strong hand drags up his thigh, catching on worn denim and digging into corded muscle with short, sharp nails. A weight settles above him. Although slight, it blocks out the stars.
The Outsider fits on him so easily. Oil poured on a fire.
Corvo is not afraid.
Another hand in the tangled mess of his hair, twisting dark locks into a mean fist, pulling his head aside to reveal his throat. Taut muscle and old scars. Smiling teeth white and mean at his skin, dragging down. The boat rocks in the tide, and Corvo melts against the slats. Rats tumble over his feet, kissing his ankles as they play. The Outsider slides down, and then back up, pushing Corvo’s worn shirt up over his sternum, and the healing wound from the fight with the gang tingles slightly in the cool air.
There is something different to the puckered scar, a moonlit shape that was not so visible before.
“You see,” the Outsider murmurs, “you have had my mark all along, my dear.”
His hand travels further down, intrudes underneath worn fabric, clever fingers. A sudden flare of heat jolts through Corvo’s stomach and he flinches, and flinches and –
In his dark bedroom, with sweaty sheets tangled around his ankles, and phantom kisses from rats and – other things – dancing along his spine.
“Corvo?” Emily’s voice warbles from her adjoining room. The hallway light switches on, a sudden flare of colour underneath Corvo’s bedroom door. “Is everything okay? You were calling out.”
Corvo’s cheeks are burning. Somewhere, Jessamine is surely laughing like a madwoman.
“It’s fine,” he croaks, and clears his throat, “just a dream. Go back to sleep, Emily, you have school tomorrow.”
“Oh,” she’s disappointed, “but I liked the Outsider, he was very nice, and I promised him I’d bring in all my favourite books on whales. He was really interested.”
“Next week,” Corvo promises, and collapses back against his sweaty bed in a huff, dizzy, “next week, Emily--”
Between one breath and the next, he is asleep.
Corvo goes to work.
Corvo foams milk, butters sandwiches, slices crisp brownies with a clean knife. He fields coy questions from Lydia and salacious comments from Cecelia. Callista takes revenge on him for yesterday by needling the other two girls for as much information on the Outsider as possible, within hearing range, of course, pausing every so often to cast Corvo a significant look and say, pointedly, “so he was very good with Emily, was he?”
Corvo goes home.
Corvo wakes up.
“You were talking a lot,” Emily says from the doorway, in a rumpled nightie and hair sleep-mussed, “it sounded like someone was hurting you. You were saying ‘please’ a lot.”
Strangled, Corvo forces her back to bed, but she isn’t satisfied until he sings her his goodnight song, even half-crazed and sweaty as he is. He tucks her in, staggers to the bathroom, and dunks his head in a sink of cold water until he feels marginally sane again. When he raises his head, face dripping and panting, his hands are white where they are clutching the basin.
The Outsider’s mark glitters in the shitty bathroom lights.
Corvo groans pitifully.
“I need to talk to you,” Corvo says, after another week passes, and another. Emily has her lessons with the Outsider and when Corvo finishes work she is always pleased with herself, confident, talking about control and confidence. At the very least, she no longer has nightmares.
(“Losing control of yourself is a good fear to have,” the Outsider confines in Corvo cryptically during one scone-break, and Corvo bows his head and chops cucumber and tries not to be too transparent.)
Weeks have passed, and Corvo is sure he is a madman, but he can no longer stand by and say nothing. The Outsider, at least, seems content, with his coy smiles and knowing eyes, and the way he holds Emily up under her arms so she can tack her latest drawing to the top of the pin board where there is still space –
“I need to talk to you,” Corvo repeats, after he has dragged the Outsider by the arm into the dark kitchen towards the end of one working day. Lydia has already left for home, and Cecelia is manning the counter. The back of the shop is quiet, and cool, and the Outsider’s eyes are luminescent in the filtered light. Corvo is fairly certain he only let himself be pulled, and steps away awkwardly from the Outsider once they are a safe hearing distance from the kitchen door.
“I can see that,” the Outsider says, always so damn amused, like the world was a personal show for his entertainment. But he also seems expectant, and a little fascinated, and that is encouragement enough, Corvo thinks.
“I was, uh,” Corvo starts, and then flushes, “there have been these dreams, and I thought – I mean, I don’t know if you do that. The dream thing. Or if it’s just me. It might just be me.”
“The dreams?” The Outsider prods.
“I could be wrong,” Corvo mutters. He’s making a mess of this. It was the same with Jessamine, all irritable muttering and her patient, loving expectancy, waiting for him to unravel herself before her so she could put together what was left –
The sigil on his hand is burning, and Corvo gasps at the same time as the Outsider slides into his space, so close, like he wants to blend them together against the cool kitchen counter, make them join into one shadow amongst hundreds.
“You’re not wrong,” the Outsider purrs, and Corvo swallows, frozen, “you are so, so very interesting. Corvo.”
No I’m not, Corvo wants to say, I’m ordinary and I’m mean and I control rats and other weird things, weird like me.
But the Outsiders cool hands are cupping his face and the strength goes out of Corvo in one heaving swoop. The Outsider is stronger than he looks. His arms are iron bars, and they keep Corvo pressed against the counter in a firm brand. Sharp thumbs press into the hinges of Corvo’s jaw, purse his mouth open.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” he murmurs, black eyes impenetrable, “but I rather like weird things, Corvo.”
Then he pushes against Corvo, pushes inside, his mouth at once cool and hot and demanding, all-encompassing. He steals Corvo’s breath for himself, breaks away to allow him one frantic gasp, before delving back in again with a laughing smile, biting at the soft flesh of his lips, his tongue. Corvo grips his slim arms and hangs on, feeling crushed and elevated.
The Outsider consumes him like he talks to him, mockingly, lovingly, and very, very, possessively. Corvo is ashamed to realise he had not noticed sooner.
When the Outsider grabs his thigh much in the same way he has in Corvo’s many, many dreams, Corvo spares a desperate thought to Cecelia, hoping she is too busy and too far away to hear his surprised grunt, to hear the squeak of the kitchen counter groaning underneath their shared weight as the Outsider crawls on top of him, over him, within him.
He talks, at points. Stupid, ridiculous stuff like, “my dear, dear Corvo,” and “if you could see yourself now.”
Corvo only has the strength to retort with the occasional: “oh my god, shut up,” and “do that again, or I’m cutting you off from the coffee machine for life.” But the latter was only after a very convincing turn onto the kitchen floor, and he was mostly brain-addled, by then.
“Whatever you like, my dear,” the Outsider merely responds peacefully, “I’m finding myself very fond of you, you see.”
“Oh, good,” Corvo gasps, “glad we cleared that up.”
Wednesday morning, and the rain stops.
The snow stops too, although it is not entirely gone. It drips off eaves and doorsteps, lining the cobblestone pathways in piles of treacherous mush. Emily makes a game of them as they head to the café in the morning, seeing if she can jump from one pile to the other without slipping. Corvo clings to her swinging arm, tries not to have a stroke, and holds onto her for as long as he can.
When they reach the café, Emily heads straight for the back room with her bag of colouring books and pens, and her small leather journal which was given to her by her tutor several weeks into their lessons without explanation, but she now uses for points on magical practice and the occasional drawing of a mermaid. Cecelia opens the door for them when they arrive, yawning widely. Lydia is bustling around as per normal, opening blinds and righting chairs, but she has her phone clutched to her ear, and Piero’s slow, nasally drawl comes through the speaker in unfamiliarly fond tones.
On the flyer board, a brand new A3 poster in crayon and glitter pens demands the café’s patrons take responsibility for Dunwall’s sea life. Next to it is attached some interesting trivia about Dunwall’s whaling history in torturously neat, slanting black cursive.
Corvo settles behind the counter, tying his apron around his waist. He relaxes into the morning routine, turning on the coffee machine, cleaning its spouts. Cecelia giggles when they twist around each other to set out the pastries he baked last night. Corvo can hear Samuel’s gravelly tones turn sweet and doting from the staff room, where Emily has obviously woken him from an impromptu nap.
The clock turns eight.
The door jingles.
“Good morning, Corvo,” a smooth voice says, and Corvo glances up and –
1) with the interim where it starts bucketing down at the cafe, just imagine morgan freemans voice saying 'it was at that moment the outsider knew: he'd fucked up'
2) aka 'oh no he's a hot (dad)'
3) how did this fic get so long i'm sorry