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the world cuts deeper (when love's in my hands)

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When Daud dies, Billie is heading for a ship to take her to Morley.  It feels like she’s been punched in the solar plexus and the breath is driven from her lungs.  She stumbles on the rooftop she’s crossing, but when she reflexively tries to transverse to the ground, she…doesn’t, and her boots slide right off the roof tiles.  She lands, hard, on the cobblestones below, and something cracks, and she lays in the putrid gutter, breathless as she stares up at the night sky lit up with a dirty glow from the city lights.

The clatter of the City Watch patrol she’d been trying to avoid is getting close by the time Billie pulls herself upright.  She hisses when agony shoots through her chest like a crossbow bolt and she wraps a tender arm around her middle, still managing to slip soundlessly into a darkened alley before the guards see her. 

The alley has a tipped dumpster beside an old mattress, where the corpse of a weeper is slowly being eaten away by insects and rats.  The stench, that pervasive rot in Dunwall that’s impossible to wash out of one’s clothes, is so strong she can’t help gagging a little as she shrugs out of her jacket and painfully works off her undershirt.  The skin over her ribs is already starting to darken, but there are no protrusions, no grating of broken bone.  The undershirt gets tied firmly around her torso, her jacket buckled as tightly as it can be.

The bright pulse that always felt like a second heartbeat next to hers isn’t there anymore.  Billie tries to Blink up to the roof ledge above her head, but her feet stand firm on the cobblestones.  She tries to let the thick, golden syrup of the Vision slide over her eyes, but the brick wall in front of her stays solid.  She tries to reach inside one of the rats, to crawl into its tiny skull, but she remains solidly rooted in her body.  A bubble of panic is working its way up her throat, but she suppresses it ruthlessly, forces herself to breathe through the pain of bruised ribs and reminds herself that she hasn’t been helpless in a very, very long time.

In front of her is the harbor, where she’s arranged passage on a pirate ship to get around the blockade.  Behind her are failure, guilt, and plague.  She steps out of the alley once the sounds of the patrol have faded and looks one way, then the other.

Eventually she begins retracing her footsteps.

 …

No living person knows for sure, although Daud probably suspects, that Billie is the product of a Serkonan colonist and a Pandyssian native.  It’s uncommon, though hardly rare, to see varying shades of brown skin throughout the Serkonan archipelago, but if the average olive tone of Serkonans is sneered at by much of the empire, then half-breeds are practically anathema.  Half animal, as the natural philosophers would declare, imagining what it would be like to slice into her to see how inhuman her parts must be.  Two hearts, maybe.  Perhaps the liver of a blood ox.  The half-rumored mark of the Outsider carved into her bones, since everyone knows that Pandyssians are wild and savage and superstitious and, thus, more susceptible to the Outsider’s influence.

Delilah is tall, slim, and pale the first time Billie meets her.  Her beginnings as an educated, royal baker’s apprentice are nothing compared to the pain and filth that rule the lives of abandoned, half-breed little girls in the gutter.  Delilah’s bitterness is the kind born from the privilege of believing in unfairness.

(She huffs a silent laugh.  Unfair.  ‘Unfair’ is the word that nobles use when they get caught embezzling and end up having to pay little more than a fine.  For people like Billie, ‘unfair’ has about as much promise as the lights that shine from the distant, stained-glass windows of nobles’ mansions onto the grimy streets below.  There’s only ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t,’ and whether you cry over it or do something about it.)

Still.  Billie sees Delilah eviscerate the four leering City Watch guards that had tried to corner Billie in an alley behind a pub (who no doubt had added woman and alone and come up with easy prey, the stupid choffers), and muses that they might have one kind of common enemy after all.

“I could have handled them,” Billie says conversationally, looking at the gory mess painting the ground and brick walls on either side of them.

Delilah bares her teeth in a smile.  “Oh, I know that, my dear.”

Then again, Delilah had done nothing more than raise a hand, and the scraggly weeds growing stubbornly in the cracks between cobblestones had shot up, grown thorns, ripped through the men’s torsos, and torn them to pieces before they’d managed to do anything more than shout.  Despite herself, Billie can’t help but be at least a little impressed as she flicks some gore off the front of her red coat.  The ozone taste of magic still lingers on the back of her tongue.  “Is there a reason you were watching me so closely in there, or did you just like what you see?”

Something that looks like surprise flickers across Delilah’s face before Delilah can catch it, and Billie resists the urge to ask why the woman would bother looking for an assassin if she thought Billie couldn’t do something as simple as defend her delicate lady self or notice when people were staring at her in a damn pub.

“Can’t I simply be concerned for a fellow woman in these dangerous times?”

Times are always dangerous; nothing’s actually changed except that the danger isn’t restricted to the poor and minorities anymore.  “You’re about as subtle as the intentions of these bastards here, Copperspoon,” Billie replies, dry as the Pandyssian deserts, as she lightly kicks at a dismembered arm.

The click of Delilah’s patent-leather heels sounds like the rattle of prayer beads through the bony fingers of the starving and desperate who haunt the Abbey’s shadow.  Billie isn’t ashamed to admit to herself that she’s pettily half-hoping Delilah will stumble.

A short pause, then, “It seems my reputation precedes me.”

Not really.  Billie just makes sure to do her homework.  Not even Daud knows about her (yet, but if the man is falling apart because of the empress then who knows what he’ll do if Billie’s honest with him).  But let Delilah think she’s more important than she is.  “I imagine you aren’t here out of concern for my virtue.”

“I have a business proposition for you, my dear assassin.”

Spirits save her from the pretension of the wealthy.  Still.  Billie can appreciate the power and ruthlessness lying in clumps of bone and flesh around the dark alley.

“You have five minutes to convince me.  I’d start now.”

 …

The Flooded District is a mass grave when Billie returns, but it’s not from dead and dying weepers dumped there by the City Watch.

She keeps one hand pressed over her side, one hand on her short sword, as she picks her way around the corrugated steel walkways into the decrepit bank building, careful not to step on the bodies of old comrades.  She finds Nikolai, who never did lose his Tyvian accent, draped carelessly over a few crates with both his arms chopped off at the elbow, and also Rose, one of the few other women in their cadre, with her head halfway severed.  Some of the bodies are so disfigured she can’t guess who they were.

By the time Billie gets to Daud’s office, blood coats her boots and she’s counted eight more corpses.  Thomas is sprawled over the enormous desk, half his skull blown to pieces by what looks like a bolt buried halfway into the old wood.  She thinks about some of Daud’s kills, the ones where there was a little too much power or accuracy to be strictly human, and she wonders if this is magic or simply the strength of Corvo Attano’s need for vengeance. 

A small chill runs up her spine.

Daud himself is in the next building over where the entire side had collapsed and exposed the interior rooms to the elements.  His throat is cut so deeply that Billie can see the shine of bone.  The blood pooled around him is still tacky when she slides to her knees and looks from the defensive cuts on his arms to the blank eyes that stare up at the night sky lit up with a dirty glow.  Under the glaze of death, his eyes are still the same soft brown as the scrawny stray dog that she and some other street kids had briefly adopted.  (Vicious thing, that dog, except when it came to the smaller, less threatening children, and then it occasionally licked their faces and scared off the predators.)

After everything that’s happened, this just seems…unfair.

“Why are you here?”

She hadn’t even heard Anton coming up behind her, she’d been so lost in her thoughts, but she doesn’t bother turning to look at him.  If he decides to kill her, well, it’s not like she hasn’t given him reason.

“I felt it,” she says quietly.

“We all did.  At least we didn’t run away.”

Not that it did much good, apparently, Billie doesn’t say.

“We cremated the others a few days ago, after we dumped the last of the Overseers with the weepers.  Thomas ended up taking your place, which is probably a good thing, considering he would’ve sooner killed himself than Daud, let alone everyone else.”

“Anton – “

The cold edge of a whaler’s short sword slides over her shoulder against her throat, just touching, just enough to make the threat clear.  “Why did you do it?  What the hell could Delilah and the fucking Abbey offer to make you stand back while the rest of our brothers and sisters were slaughtered?”

“They weren’t my brothers and sisters,” she retorts without thinking, the old wound flaring up in her heart with mixed pride, hurt, and disdain.

“We weren’t?” Anton hisses coldly.  “I remember when Daud brought you back to our hideout.  Spirits, you were such a disgusting little rat.  But we took you in, didn’t we?  Gave you something better than ending up a mudlark or a whore.  Gave you a purpose and people you could rely on, which is more than any of us ever fucking dreamed possible before Daud came along.”

That first safehouse of theirs had been an old warehouse, the windows shattered and the ground floor littered with abandoned, half-rusted machinery.  Daud hadn’t particularly cared where they all slept, but most of the children tended to cluster together in one of the old offices, cots made of rags and scavenged bits all shoved together until the office was little more than a nest of threadbare fabric, stolen straw, and kids who looked out at the world with shadowed eyes.  The girls almost never shared space with the boys – there were too many hurts there for some of them, too much pain in their short history to even consider otherwise – but Billie hadn’t let herself get too close to the girls, either, even though they knew the same hatred of bigger, stronger males.

And even then, Daud had generally left them to their own devices.  He wasn’t their father, never let them forget that, and he never seemed to understand that leaving traumatized street kids with sharp knives unsupervised rarely ended well.  But they never starved, never froze, and the one time a City Guard tried to make a ten-year-old Thomas suck his dick, Daud rescued him and left the garrison behind them soaked in blood.

“Some of us talked about hunting you down and killing you.”

“What stopped you?” she asks hoarsely, and even though she can’t see him, she knows him well enough to imagine the uncaring shrug.

“We decided you weren't worth the effort.”

The blade leaves a thin, burning line of blood on her neck as it withdraws and there’s the quiet hush of displaced air from a transversal.

Billie remains kneeling and thinks about unfairness and justice, betrayal and forgiveness, mercy and ruthlessness.  Daud rarely spoke about the Outsider except late at night, when killing and hiding had left them all exhausted, but Billie still wonders if the Outsider is amused, disappointed, or apathetic.  She wonders what it was about Daud, Delilah, and Corvo Attano he found so interesting (and not her, who is never more than a voice and knife in the shadows). She stays there until the blood has dried mostly brown and the sun has dipped low enough to be hidden behind crumbling buildings, and then she gets to her feet, ignoring the creaking of her stiff knees and the condemning eyes both alive and dead that are probably still watching her as she turns her face towards Dunwall Tower.

(She doesn’t cry, but sometimes she wishes she could.)

 …

Delilah’s hands are as graceful as a bird in the air when she paints, all long strokes, strong curves, and easy confidence.  Her eyes narrow slightly with concentration, her entire being focused on the three-by-five canvas.  Billie watches from where she’s sprawled languidly on the bed and wonders how Delilah would kill: as gently as Thomas, hardly more than a whisper and small blade?  Or as brutally as Rulfio, with broken limbs and twisted necks?  Perhaps as creatively as Alan, dead now for six years, who never killed the same way twice?

Billie can’t see around the angle of the canvas, so eventually she gets to her feet and pads towards Delilah completely naked.  It takes her a moment to realize what she’s looking at.

“I hope you’re not planning to circulate that among the City Watch,” she says neutrally.  Her own face is looking back at her with lined, shadowed eyes.  The corona of color that could easily be the Abbey’s witch-burning fires is as vivid as the pale scars scrawled over the warm brown of Billie’s living skin.

“If I wanted you dead, darling, I wouldn’t need the help,” Delilah replies, mild and apparently unconcerned about Billie standing behind her back.  She isn’t wearing much more than a silk robe herself.  “Besides, I enjoy the simple pleasure of capturing the essence of a person before they become as grey as the city itself.”  Delilah gives her a sidelong glance, all mystery and condescension.  “Memory makes angels or demons of us all.”

Billie takes a casual step backward and tries to remember everything she’d been told about warding off witches.  “What do you mean?”

“When you lose someone, for whatever reason, time begins to blur their details.  You start forgetting the little things – what they took in their coffee, how they smiled at you in the morning, the annoying way they smacked their lips when they ate – until all that’s left are the broadest strokes painting the very best or worst of who they were.  You might say they lose their humanity.  I prefer to capture those details.”

 Billie’s no artist, but she isn’t sure how her own preference for black coffee is represented in the painting.  Delilah continues, “Sokolov, for all he enjoys cutting up animals and people, sees only skin-deep.  He may reflect the world around us with near-perfect precision, but there’s as much soul in his work as the stain of dog shit in the street.”

“You knew him well?” Billie asks, as much to distract Delilah as to interrogate - never know what kind of info, however small, might one day prove valuable - while she gathers up her clothes and starts pulling them on.

Delilah sneers at the canvas.  “Far more than I wanted to and not as well as he would’ve liked.”

In some ways, the only difference between the streets and estates is whether it happens in filthy alleys or behind ornate closed doors.  I have to keep this position, Billie’s heard more than once in the halls of noble houses.  He says to bring the bottle, I bring the bottle.  He says to undress, I

"No one else will fight for us,” Delilah says with sudden sharpness, catching Billie’s gaze and holding it with the same intensity she’d given her painting.  “Men will turn us into angels or demons, forgetting the details that make us human.”

As if she needs to tell that to Billie, of all people, who’s had to fight wars on more than one front all her life.  “I know.”

“Have you ever considered,” Delilah says softly, “why the Empress’ death has cracked something so deeply in Daud?”

Billie looks at her like she’s completely stupid.

“Perhaps the rumors of her mysterious lover were not about a certain Lord Protector.”

Billie almost laughs at the thought.  She could count on both hands the number of times she remembered Daud disappearing for a little while with a woman and still have fingers left over; he’s hardly the type to put the effort into carrying on illicit affairs.

“Or, perhaps, it was not the Empress.  Isn’t the Lord Protector also Serkonan?”  Delilah’s voice sounds like silk.

Now Billie does laugh.  “If you think Corvo Attano is capable of anything other than killing or sobbing over his Empress, then I question your ability to do shitabout either of the poor bastards.”

Delilah hisses between her teeth as Billie transverses away from the Brigmore estate.

 …

It isn’t until Billie sees Daud slip through the Rothwild slaughterhouse as a ghost (even putting the fucking whale out of its misery), eliminate an immoral aristocrat without taking a single life, and spare the surviving Overseers despite everything, that she starts to understand.  They are a people who strike with surgical precision and exist only in rumor, but the plague that erupts uncontrolled after the empress’ death is anything but.  It’s messy and relentless and ruthless, leaves bodies like the abandoned orphans so similar to his whalers lying dead in the streets.

It’s the great equalizer, really: in the end, the blood weeping from a noble’s eyes is just as filthy as a commoner’s.  The one time Billie had pointed this out, Daud’s lips just thinned without a reply.

 …

A week before Emily Kaldwin’s official coronation, in the wee hours after midnight, Billie shoots a sleep dart into the girl’s neck.  Her already sleeping body twitches, then relaxes into a boneless sprawl, and Billie sits in the ornate chair behind the royal desk and puts her weapons on top.  When she pokes through the haphazard stack of papers, she’s morbidly amused to see a child’s rough drawing of a person that’s unmistakably Corvo Attano in his hideous mask standing atop a mound of corpses, hidden under the paperwork for the rejected appeal of some prisoner or other.

It takes less time than she’d estimated for the Lord Protector to open the door, no doubt needing to see little Emily safe and sound even in the middle of the night, and freeze.  It seems she’d underestimated his paranoia.

“I’m unarmed,” she says quietly, putting her hands in the air and nodding briefly at the scattered weapons.  He doesn’t lower the sword that seemed to magically appear in his hand – and who knows, perhaps it’s one of the powers that the Outsider gave him.  Attano was handsome, once, but prison and desperation carved his bones into sharp points and left him with a brand scarring half his face.  Tall, dark, and handsome turned tall, dark, and twisted, and she muses, This is what love has wrought.  She knows the damage of love, knows the suffocating weight that steals a person’s breath when that love is drowned in blood.  (Daud had always deserved better from her anyway.)

Attano’s eyes flit towards Emily.

“She’s fine.  I used a sleep dart.  She’ll wake up in a few hours thinking she just slept particularly well.  I wonder, does she know what her Lord Protector does when no one is looking?  Does she sleep better or worse for it?”

“Who are you?”  Low and harsh, raspy, as though he rarely uses his own voice when he could use his sword instead.

“My name is Billie Lurk.  You might say I was Daud’s right hand.”

“Then why weren’t you there when I killed him?”

She takes the blow without flinching and buries it deep with all the other regrets.  “I sold him out.  Politics and misunderstandings.  But I know weakness now,” she continues, pointedly looking Attano up and down, “and I see it when I look in a mirror, and now I see it standing in front of me.”

His left hand, ungloved with the Outsider’s mark standing out as sharply as the scar on his face, twitches with a brief flare of orange-blue light.  “I don’t have powers anymore,” she tells him bluntly.  “We both know you can kill me before I even knew it happened.”

Attano steps farther into the room and closes the door behind him, apparently willing to humor her for another minute or two.  It’s more than Billie was actually expecting, considering Emily is lying nearby with a dart in her neck.  Attano stands with his legs shoulder-width apart, back straight like a good little ex-soldier, though he’s watching her behind a fall of dark hair like a wild animal.

Billie stares right back for several long breaths before breaking the silence with a cynical laugh.  “I came here to see what kind of man could make Daud look like a fucking saint before slitting his throat.  Guess I got what I came for.”

Attano starts to raise his sword.

“He adopted us, you know.  All his whalers, we were just little street-shits scavenging to survive when he found us.  Taught us how to protect ourselves.  Taught us how to kill, but I suppose that amounts to the same thing for people like you and me.  We didn’t love him, but we owed him more than that anyway.

“None of us were good people, but do you think your precious empress would have approved of you slaughtering everyone that got within a hundred meters of you?”

Sudden pain lances through her shoulder and Billie gasps with the shock, instinctively trying to curl forward but finding herself stuck to the chair.  It takes a few seconds to realize that a crossbow bolt has gone through her shoulder and stuck in the wood of the chair’s back, pinning her in place.

“A hundred?” Attano murmurs.  “Give me some credit.  Two hundred, at least.”

Pardon my language,” she snarls through gritted teeth in Serkonan, “but you’re a fucking rabid dog that’s infected your darling little empress, and you’re going to be the death of the entire fucking empire, and you can't even fucking see it.”

The last thing that Billie sees is the oddly thoughtful tilt of Attano’s head, and the last thing she hears is the twang of a crossbow.

The last thing she thinks is to wonder whom history will remember as angels, and whom as demons.