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Bathymetry

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The rocks of Shindaerey are cold, the wind against his face has teeth, and Billie Lurk’s hand on his wrist is an anchor, the only thing that stops him from allowing the familiarity of the Void to swallow him again. The Outsider knows what to do with a chill in his bones and a biting wind; he does not know what to do with sunlight glancing off the sea, stinging eyes that have not seen it in four thousand years.

“Come on,” Billie says, tugging at his wrist again. “I didn’t think that when I dragged your sorry ass out of the Void I was going to have to do it literally.”

“It’s bright,” the Outsider says. He blinks. The expression on Billie Lurk’s face, when it finally comes into focus, is a strange one. Pinched mouth and a kindness in her good eye that her glower can’t hide.

“Let’s sit down a minute,” Billie says. “My shoulder is killing me.”

It isn’t, but it is the soft kind of lie, a comfort, as the Outsider drops like a marionette whose strings have snapped. He presses his palms to the rocky dirt and watches the way light dances across the water on the horizon, following a music he cannot hear, cannot even imagine.

“You’ve been in the dark a long time, haven’t you,” Billie says. The same careful voice she used when she touched his cheek, when she argued one last time with Daud, when she saved a boy so long beyond saving.

“We’ve both spent a long time in the dark,” he says. He pulls up one knee, and rests his cheek against it. “A darkness of our own making, perhaps.”

Billie shoves him with her right arm, a shock of the familiar there and then gone in an instant. “No more of that cryptic shit,” she says. “You’re on solid ground now, which means no speaking in riddles.” She glances at him sidelong, and shakes her head. “We’re going to have to get you something for the sun. Otherwise you’ll be burned to a crisp in no time. Maybe a hat.”

The Outsider feels his brows draw down without his consent, his appearance slipping out of his control for the first time in centuries. “I don’t think so.”

Billie Lurk has never been a woman prone to easy smiles: her happiness has always been hard-won at too great a cost. But now, she laughs at him. “We’ll see,” she says, the smile lingering on her face, settling back in. “So. What now?”

The Outsider turns his head to the north. Billie, with a sailor’s internal compass, follows his gaze with a sigh. “Never thought I’d end up back in Dunwall,” she says, but there is no refusal in her voice, only resignation. She is as strange a creature as any of the Outsider’s Marked. Her mercy stretches ever outwards, the fingers of it beckoning. Dunwall to her is a wound gone septic, still rotting away. Yesterday she wanted to kill him, and today she does not question that she will take him wherever he wants to go.

The Outsider doesn’t know what Dunwall is to him. The place where he was born has long since disappeared into the sea. He has never truly set foot on Dunwall soil, despite how many dreams he passed through there. But it calls to him like whalesong, and in the long path of the life that now stretches out before him, there is no other obvious first step to take.

“I never thought to end up there at all,” says the Outsider. His feet ache, and Billie is right that his skin is going to burn, and his tongue is heavy with the taste of iron and salt. But he is alive. For now, he has a place to go. He is unused to expecting that anywhere will welcome him with open arms. But if Billie Lurk could meet him with an outstretched hand, then perhaps there is more in the world to understand, an ocean uncharted. He shields his eyes again from the sun, but it does nothing to cool the slow and anxious warmth spreading in his chest. “I think I’m looking forward to it.”

-

Empress Emily Kaldwin does not fidget. But Corvo Attano’s daughter does, on occasion. On the two afternoons she told Corvo about Wyman, both at the beginning and the ending of their relationship, she couldn't keep her hands still. It's the same tonight: her hands flit from her hair to her pockets to her elbows and back again.

“It's alright, Emily,” he says. He reaches out, puts a hand on her arm. “Out with it, or we’ll both be late for Parliament.” He says it gently. Reminding Emily of mundanities usually snaps her out of this kind of nervousness.

She sighs. “It isn't, really, but you're right.” She squares her shoulders. “I've had a letter from Meagan Foster. She says that she needs to meet with you, urgently.”

“Okay,” Corvo says. Waits for the other coin to drop. Emily is looking anywhere but at him. “Of course I’ll meet with her, Emily. She saved your life.”

“She did,” Emily agrees. She tucks a bit of hair behind her ear, gaze unwavering. “But there’s something else.”

Corvo leans back against his desk. “Isn’t there always.”

“I wasn’t planning on telling you this, but you’d just recognize her face anyway. You should hear it from me.” She presses her hands together in front of her, stilling them, and she stands up straight. Schooling her face into the expression she uses to deliver bad news. “The woman who helped me...Meagan Foster was a convenient fiction, for a while. But her name is Billie Lurk.”

Emily is right. Corvo would have recognized Billie Lurk’s face. The wanted posters are more ubiquitous in Karnaca than they are in Dunwall, but Corvo keeps a close eye on Serkonan affairs these days. He knows her. A woman, a Whaler once, with an arm and an eye that don't deign to obey the laws of the world.

Corvo sits down heavily at his desk, and presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. He stares down at the scattered papers he put together for Parliament, unseeing. “I see,” he says. “On second thought, I think we’re going to be late after all.”

Emily leans her hip against the desk, arms crossed. “I didn't know until the end. She told me right before I returned to Dunwall. All of it. That she was there, when Mother died. That she helped. She didn't have to do that. She had the chance to run, and she didn't take it. She let me choose what I wanted to do.” There’s a catch in her voice, well-hidden. But Corvo is very good at finding hidden things.

He wouldn’t shed tears for the likes of Billie Lurk. But he doesn’t want his daughter to be that person. Someone who would take easy revenge. He never wanted her to learn that from him. It’s the harder path. But make enough easy choices, and soon enough you have a city drowned in blood.

Corvo looks up at her. “You did the right thing, Emily.”

His daughter turns her face away.

“I met Daud, you know. When I was looking for you.”

Emily drops her arms, startled. “You never told me that.”

Corvo shakes his head. “You were so young, when it happened, and then, well—never really was a good time to bring it up.”

“I guess not,” Emily says. “What did you do?”

It’s not a pleasant memory. Corvo dreams of it often, of all the different ways it might have gone. Daud dead at his feet. Corvo himself dead at his. “We fought. He begged for his life. I gave it to him. He hasn't been seen in Gristol since, let alone in Dunwall.” He raises an eyebrow at Emily. “Did I do the right thing?”

It was the right thing to say. Emily laughs, shoulders lowering, and she shakes her head. “Of course you did. I'm not saying I would have wept for him. But it doesn't really matter, does it. Revenge. Nothing would be any different.”

“No,” Corvo agrees. His dreams, maybe. But he's never had much luck with those anyway. “The Outsider seemed to appreciate it, anyway. He always did enjoy the unexpected.”

“Void,” Emily says. She sits down in the chair across from Corvo’s desk, elbows on the table. “What did he say?”

“That I was ‘fascinating’,” Corvo says. He sighs. “I wish that you'd never needed to meet him.”

Emily flexes her hand. Corvo knows the Mark is still there, underneath her glove. Someday they're going to have to find a way to explain the Empress’ sudden penchant for covering her hands. Corvo still isn't quite used to going around with his own hands bare, now that there's no longer any reason to hide them. “He helped me save you,” she says. “I can't regret that. Any more than I can regret meeting Billie.” She sighs. “She told me she wished that she could take it back. I wanted to scream at her. Push her into the water. Hold her head under, even. She wishes she could take it back?”

“I’m proud of you,” Corvo tells her.

Emily looks at him for a long moment, and then she closes her eyes. She swallows. Corvo hates it, when he can see her do that: putting herself away, so that she can be the Empress. Jessamine used to do it too.

“Right,” Corvo says. “Well, whatever Lurk wants, it's probably important. I can't imagine she'd want to speak to me otherwise.”

Emily nods. She’s pulling at her gloves, now, fidgeting with the cuffs. “I’ll arrange the meeting, then. And I'm coming with you.”

“Alright,” Corvo says. “Is there something else bothering you?”

Emily doesn't look up from her hands. “No,” she says. “We’re going to be late.”

-

Emily doesn’t like keeping secrets from her father. If nothing else, it’s practical: the man makes it his business to know everything that happens in Dunwall. He isn’t the Spymaster, officially, but he’d observed, once, that it paid to have someone other than your Spymaster looking into things. He only sounded a little bitter.

It’s about time she told him who really helped her save him from Delilah. He deserves to know.

The Mark is different. Emily doesn’t like bringing it up around her father. He gets this tight look on his face, the same one he wears when they talk about Mother. Emily hates it when he looks like that.

The months after Delilah’s coup have been busy. There’s so much to do, so much to fix, so many things Emily hadn’t even realized were wrong. So she isn’t sure how long it took her to notice that her Mark wasn’t working. That it didn’t respond to her touch the way it used to, a quiet buzzing under her hand when she pressed her fingers against it. A little like a cat, purring.

And when she reached out to the Void one night, ready to leap up onto a roof with its power, nothing happened.

She thought about asking Corvo if he knew anything about it. She’s still thinking about it, all through Parliament—boring, mostly, but necessary, with a few items she’s marked down to give more consideration later—and then during dinner afterwards, and then as she writes out her reply to Billie, naming a time and a place.

If she tells Father, then she’ll have to admit that she misses it. That she was still using it, more than she should have: running across the rooftops for no good reason. No reason other than the fun of it, the sheer breathless joy of the wind in her face and nothing at all to stop her. Not for anything so important as her duty. Just because she wanted to.

It was nice, to have some time to be anyone other than Empress Emily Kaldwin, leader of the people who is only just now unlearning her selfishness. It’s dangerous, Corvo would tell her—what if someone saw? The Overseers are unhappy enough. Don’t give them anything they can use. And it’s a waste of time, a distraction from all the things she’s supposed to be doing. All the things she needs to do.

Useless though it is, her Mark is still there. A reminder of the person Emily has become, with blood on her hands, strength in her heart. She’ll never be able to show her left hand in public. The Overseers will never trust her again.

Emily finishes her letter to Billie, and dispatches it with one of the messengers who knows to be discreet. She starts writing another. Several members of Parliament are happy to support cuts in funding to the Abbey, all for their own selfish reasons, and personal correspondence from the Empress provides the recipient with fodder for weeks of gossip. It’s unlikely she’ll be able to abolish the Abbey of the Everyman in her lifetime. But power, once given, can always be taken away. Another problem she needs to spend more time fixing.

-

Corvo has work he should be doing when he gets back from Parliament. He does none of it. Emily did a good job of not looking preoccupied at the meeting, and Corvo has had a great deal of practice in doing the same. But during Parliament and afterwards, he is only thinking of Lurk, waiting for them with a secret.

Thinking about Billie Lurk means thinking about Daud, and thinking about Daud means thinking about the Outsider, and the Mark that Corvo no longer has.

The Outsider came to Corvo, a few months past. He wanted to talk about Daud. It was odd. Speaking with the Outsider is always odd, but it was the first time Corvo had spoken to him in nearly fifteen years. Perhaps change was to be expected. But if Corvo didn't know any better, he would have said the Outsider was worried.

He didn’t draw Corvo into the Void, either. Instead Corvo woke, sure he’d heard something at the window. And when he turned, the Outsider was there, leaning against the sill. The window was open. Corvo knew that he’d latched it, before he went to sleep.

“The Knife of Dunwall lives no more,” was what he said. No ‘hello’, of course. No ‘I’ve missed you, Corvo’, or ‘how have you been, since losing my Mark?’ But Corvo wasn’t sure he’d know what to do with politeness from the Outsider, anyway. “My Marked are dwindling, and they will dwindle further.”

Corvo scratched the back of his head, sitting up. “I wasn’t even sure that Daud was still alive.”

“He lived,” the Outsider said. “He nursed his anger and his resentment and his pain. Perhaps he will nurse them forever. It remains to be seen.”

“Wasn’t very happy with you, was he.”

“No.” The Outsider watched him just as intently as he ever did. “And what about you? Are you angry with me, Corvo? It has not been so long since we have spoken, in my eyes. But perhaps you have a different perspective.” He vanished, and reappeared at the edge of Corvo’s bed, hovering. “I promise, I watched you with interest.”

“I don’t know if that’s as comforting as you think it is,” Corvo pointed out. He shrugged. “It’s been a busy fifteen years. And, well. I guess I should thank you. For helping Emily.”

“You wish it had been you, instead.”

“I don’t wish that Delilah trapped her. I can’t even imagine it, thinking that I’d lost her again. But I wish that she didn’t have to know what it’s like.”

“I gave her power,” said the Outsider, folding his arms.

“She had power before. She’s the Empress. And she never had to know what it was like to kill someone. Not really. Not with her hands.”

The Outsider tilted his head. “Perhaps she could have saved you without my intervention. And perhaps you would still be stone, and this city would belong to Delilah.”

“Maybe,” Corvo agreed.

“I did give her a choice.”

A choice he hadn't given Corvo. Not that it would have been much of one, anyway. “My daughter’s been confronted with more than her fair share of hard choices lately. But she’s here, and she’s whole, and I’m not a rock, so I can’t complain. Thanks for the news. I’m not sorry about Daud. Half the time I think I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

“No,” the Outsider said, “you don’t.” He sounded almost fond. As fond as Corvo thought a creature like him could ever be. “Do you want it back?” he asked. He didn’t have to explain what he meant.

Corvo stared down at this hands, callused and bare against the blankets. He hadn’t used the Mark for much, in the fifteen years between saving Emily and Delilah’s attack. But it had been comforting, the way the wrongness of the Void was comforting, the way the shrine he kept tucked away in the small corner of his safe room was comforting: something dangerous, something to be feared, but also something that had saved him once. A weapon that he knew how to use, that was on his side.

He didn’t answer.

“You have always found it difficult to trust me, and just as hard not to trust someone who twice helped save your daughter. It may not matter, soon enough,” the Outsider said. He flickered, and appeared again at the window. “Goodbye, Corvo. I wish you well.”

He was gone. Corvo got up. He went to his safe room and wrote down the encounter in his journal, peering at the shrine out of the corner of his eye, half-sure that he would wake and believe that it had all just been a very strange dream.

When he woke, the window was open, and his room was freezing. But he still wasn’t sure it was real. The Outsider wishing him well seemed as impossible as any of the impossible things Corvo had ever seen.

Corvo rereads the account in his journal instead of attending to any of the matters brought up at the council meeting. He reads it again, and then he breaks open the bottle of whiskey at his desk.

Corvo leans against the same window the Outsider had appeared by, open to let the air in. He wonders what Lurk wants. Whether she knows about the powers his daughter has. Corvo had managed to hide them from the Loyalists, mostly. Samuel always suspected something, but was kind enough to let sleeping dogs lie.

The last time the Outsider told him goodbye, Corvo had just finished returning Emily to the throne. He has no idea what could have been so momentous about that one day a few months ago, unremarkable in Corvo’s mind except for the Outsider’s presence.

Maybe it was nothing. But a visit from the Outsider, in Corvo’s experience, has never been nothing.

The truth is, he had missed him, the way he misses so many relics from his past. Even the ones that hurt him. But he let himself forget that the Outsider never comes bearing good news.

Corvo locks his journal in the drawer in his desk and takes another drink.

-

The pub that Emily wants to meet at isn’t too far from where they’ve been staying. But that doesn’t take into account how Void-damned annoying it is to travel a distance of more than three feet with the Outsider. Or whoever he is now.

“This place,” he’s saying, about a fucking stall selling fish, like a hundred other stalls selling fish because this is Dunwall, all anyone ever eats is fish, “Vera Moray ate here once. She charmed the owner. He could tell she didn’t belong here, with mud all along her boots, and she—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Billie says. She grabs his arm and tugs. The kid’s put on some weight since stumbling out of the Void, but he’s still lighter than he looks. “We’re late.”

“Oh,” says the Outsider. He blinks at her, with his damn unsettling pale eyes. “I forgot.” He means, he forgot again that he’s bound by things like ‘the normal passage of time’.

Billie doesn’t regret pulling him out of the Void. Doesn’t mean she doesn’t think long and hard about hitting the kid upside the head now and then. “Sure,” she says. “Come on. We’re almost there.”

The Hound Pits Pub is about as nice as any bar in Dunwall can get. Outside is clean, and all the bloodstains have been well hidden. As a rule, Billie prefers places that are honest in their appearances. She’s a bit of a hypocrite that way.

She wanted to get there before Attano, but thanks to the Outsider’s frequent insistence on detours, when she pushes her way into the pub, the Outsider at her heels, he’s already there.

And Emily, too. Billie doesn’t know why she’s surprised. She didn’t want to see her. Not after she told her the truth on the Dreadful Wale. But she deserves it, just like she’s deserved every other knife she’s ever taken to the ribs.

There’s no one else here, not even a bartender. Probably for the best. No one to comment as they all stare at each other. The Outsider’s gone rigid. Emily’s grabbed her left hand like it’s hurting her. And Corvo seems unruffled entirely, stance relaxed, a man used to hiding his reactions. But he can’t hide the look in his eyes. Like his own shadow came around the bar to greet him.

“So,” Billie says, when no one else has the balls to do it. “It’s probably obvious what this is about.”

“Hello, Corvo,” says the Outsider, like this is just another pleasant visit in the Void for him.

“Hello,” Corvo says. He runs a hair through his hair. He looks about as tired as Billie feels. “Great. I assume there’s a very long, very complicated story behind this.”

“There always is,” agrees Emily, recovering with all the grace of the Empress that she is.

They say Attano’s never been a man of many words. Billie can believe it, but right now it just looks like he’s lost them. His eyes never once leave the Outsider’s face. “Fine. Fine. So, then—should I still call you the Outsider?”

“I’m not the Outsider,” he tells Corvo. “But I don’t know who else I could be.” He turns to Billie. “You changed your name, once. Did it help?”

“It changed nothing.” She knows she’s being obvious, but she still can’t bring herself to look Attano in the eye, even as she keeps a close watch on him. The Empress she knows, and Emily she trusts. The Royal Protector is a very dangerous man who has every reason to hate her. “Names don’t tell you who you are. Call yourself whatever you want.”

The Outsider shrugs. She’s seen him do it several times, in the weeks it’s taken them to get to Dunwall from Karnaca, but the motion still sits oddly on him. It’s like he wasn’t built for it. “It will do, for now,” he says.

“Great,” Emily says. She looks between Billie and the Outsider and her father, and then she turns and vaults over the bar. “I think we could all use a drink for this. Preference?”

“Give him pear soda,” Billie says. “Anything else is gonna be a bad idea.”

“I’ll have wine,” the Outsider says, because Void or no Void, he’s still a contrary fucker.

“Soda,” Corvo agrees. Billie can’t help but laugh at the Outsider’s look of abject betrayal.

“So,” Emily says, once they’ve all settled into a booth, the Outsider sipping from a compromise glass of very watered wine. “This is why my Mark stopped working.”

Corvo, next to her, jerks his head around to stare at her.

Emily winces. “Sorry. I was going to tell you.”

“Of course you were.” Corvo sighs.

“Yes,” the Outsider says. “I asked Billie Lurk to kill me. She freed me from the Void instead. The Mark is dead. Consigned to history, like so much else.”

“It was a lot more complicated than that,” Billie says. The Outsider, she’s discovering, is absolute shit at explaining anything. “There was a cult, and a knife, and my arm—”

“Suffice to say,” the Outsider says, cutting her off. “I am now mortal.”

“And he asked me to bring him here, and I’ve done that, on top of everything else he asked me to do, so maybe I can finally get back to—” She doesn’t finish. Well, that is the question, isn’t it. Meagan Foster is as good as dead now. And who is Billie Lurk, anymore?

Emily is staring at her. Right—she hasn’t seen the eye before. Or the arm. She’s probably wondering where Billie got the eyepatch. Attano, thankfully, is mostly ignoring her in favor of watching the Outsider, not a little warily. Makes sense. Word on the street always was that Attano was pretty smart.

“You’re mortal now, and you wanted to come here?” Attano asks.

“Yes,” the Outsider says. “I wanted to speak with you.”

Attano doesn’t look too sure what he thinks about that.

Empress Emily Kaldwin, apparently, knows how to take a hint. “Billie,” she says. “There’s something I wanted to discuss with you.” She jerks her head towards the corridor behind the bar. Of course. No respectable pub in Dunwall is without its own set of back rooms.

Billie finishes the last of her drink, standing up. She spares the Outsider one last glance over her shoulder before she follows Emily up the stairs. He looks almost as calm as he ever did, the few times that Billie met him before he left the Void for good. He’s tapping his foot under the table, though. He’ll have to train himself out of that, if he wants Billie to stop fleecing him for all the money he doesn’t have at cards.

-

Corvo presses his face against his fist, propped up against the table. The Outsider, heedless of politeness as ever, is watching him. He seems surprised every time he blinks.

He looks so different, with human eyes. Corvo never would have thought it possible.

When the door to the pub had opened, the first thing Corvo noticed was that Lurk wasn’t alone, his guard going up without thought. Then he’d realized who, exactly, she was with, and it was like the tension inside him didn’t know whether to release or coil tighter. Like his heart had started beating one step out of time.

The Outsider was a known quantity, once. He and the Void had seeped into the dark corners of Corvo’s life since the day that Jessamine died. A known quantity with unknown effects. Corvo never knew what to expect. He doesn’t know what to expect now.

“This isn't some trick, is it? A test?”

“I have never been in the habit of giving tests, Corvo,” the Outsider says. Even his voice is different. Or perhaps sound just works differently in the Void than it does here, with the background bustle of a Dunwall street fading in. “I am what I am now. Nothing more, nothing less.”

He holds out a hand. Corvo, not knowing what else to do, takes it. It's warm.

He’s touched the Outsider only once before, just after Emily’s rescue, all those years ago. He woke from a dream of the Flooded District to the Outsider, hand tight around his wrist, pulling him up out of the water and the muck into the Void, instead. His hands were shockingly cold, colder even than the bone-deep ache of the river.

He had asked Corvo, then, if he was happy. It was an absurd question. Corvo told him so. The Outsider laughed, and Corvo woke with it still ringing in his ears. He did not speak to the Outsider again for fifteen years.

The Outsider now, with his warm hands and light eyes, turns Corvo’s hand over in his grip. He inspects the back critically. “You never gave me an answer, the last time we spoke,” he says, sweeping his thumb across the place where his Mark used to rest.

“I didn't,” Corvo agrees. “It doesn't matter now, I suppose.”

The Outsider drops Corvo’s hand, folding his own back in his lap. “It matters,” he says. “There are those who might feel relief, at the loss of my Mark. Others, anger and rage at the absence of their powers. And what did you feel, Corvo? Grief? Freedom? Indifference?”

With a jolt, Corvo realizes that it isn't a rhetorical question. The Outsider doesn't know. “I was afraid, when Delilah took my Mark,” he says, haltingly. The Outsider watches him as he speaks, rapt as ever in his attention. “Confused. Relieved, when Emily broke me out of that rock, and the missing Mark was the only thing that was wrong.” The Outsider leans forward, elbows on the tabletop, as if Corvo is telling him secrets of incalculable value. “It wasn't something I could control. There didn't seem to be any point in missing it.” Just as there had been little point in missing the countless annoyances that made up his time with the Outsider—strange dreams and coy monologues and good luck in unexpected places. Corvo has worked hard, these past fifteen years, to now dwell on things he can’t change.

“Corvo,” the Outsider says, in a tone of admonishment and endearment all at once. “You could have asked for it back. I am—I was always listening. You needn't have found a shrine. I would have heard you anywhere.”

“I'm not in the habit of asking favors from gods.”

“No,” the Outsider agrees. “You never were.” He sits back. “So many futures that were laid out before us, once, now narrowed down to this single thread. I cannot see beyond it. But it is fitting, that we would end up here.” He looks away. The only thing that hasn’t changed about the Outsider is the weight of his gaze. Its loss is palpable. “I need your help.”

Corvo nods. This is familiar territory, for all that the circumstances are unusual. “Is it that cult Lurk mentioned? They sound dangerous. I can set my people to look into it—”

“No, Corvo,” says the Outsider. “The Eyeless are no more. Billie Lurk saw to that. And she brought me here, because I asked her to do so, when she could have easily abandoned me on the rocks of Shindaerey. I would not have blamed her. I would not have blamed her for killing me.”

“I would,” Corvo says, narrowing his eyes. The Outsider has never before seemed like someone in need of protection; it would have been absurd to offer it. But the young man in front of him is vulnerable in a way that makes Corvo’s skin itch. He has no sword calluses on his hands.

The Outsider laughs.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to do until the moment that she did it. It is hard to feel fear, in the Void. But I felt it. I thought that it had been enough. Four thousand years, Corvo. You couldn’t even imagine it if you tried. There simply isn’t enough room inside your head. I won’t be able to imagine it, soon enough. It’s already beginning to slip away.”

“You said you asked Lurk to kill you.”

“I did.”

“And instead she…?”

The Outsider peers out the window, inspecting the blurry view of the water beyond as if it fascinates him. “Instead she found a way to make me human again,” he says. “She carved out a new choice for herself. The way you and your daughter were always so fond of doing. A different kind of freedom than the one I expected.”

“I see. And how is humanity treating you?”

The Outsider looks back at him. “I have returned to a city that was never truly my home, for all that its intricacies and plots held my interest for years, decades, centuries at a time. I am friendless, and destitute, and have no trade. Dunwall is not a kind city. I would not have loved it so if it were.”

The Outsider’s grand speeches are at odds with the simple mundanity of the Hound Pits Pub. “So you want my help with?”

“I was hoping that we might start with a place to stay,” the Outsider says. “Billie Lurk wants to kick me out.”

“You can still tell what she’s thinking?”

“No,” the Outsider says. He leans back against his seat and crosses his arms. For a moment he looks just like he did the first time he ever appeared to Corvo in the Void, if he’d been more the petulant child and less the god. “She told me. With vigor. After the second time we had to move lodgings. Did you know, cooking is very difficult? The flames never do what you tell them to.”

Corvo can imagine.

“Fine,” he says. It is a low enough cost, for all the gifts the Outsider ever gave him. Corvo has lived a long time with the weight of them hanging over his head, sure that one day the Outsider would come to collect. And maybe he has. He’s certainly not a threat anymore.

There’s so little good Corvo can ever do in this city. Maybe helping one lost young man is enough. It’s the sort of thing Emily is always trying to do, the small kindnesses she keeps close to her heart, when the weight of the city around her shoulders threatens to crush her.

It’s the kind of thing Jessamine used to talk about, quietly, safe in Corvo’s arms.

-

Coming back to the Hound Pits Pub always makes Emily feel a little strange. But Cecilia doesn’t mind closing up shop whenever Emily needs a private meeting outside of the Tower. And Emily still knows every nook and cranny of it from her days of playing hide and seek, driving poor Callista to distraction.

It’s almost nostalgic. They’re easier memories, in some ways, than those from earlier in Emily’s life, the time when her mother still lived.

She leads Billie to a room on the second floor, the place Havelock once used as his office. Emily leans back against the desk, crossing her arms. Tries to watch Billie as well as she can out of the corner of her eye. She’s wearing an eyepatch. She shouldn’t be, not now, not after what Emily did. And Emily can feel in her bones that there’s more than an empty socket beneath it. Her arm is different, too. Billie reaches up to brush a piece of hair out of her eye, and she’s wearing gloves, but when her sleeve slips down, there’s only twisting black underneath. Emily looks away.

Bilie Lurk should never have lost her arm and her eye. Not anymore. But the Outsider shouldn’t be walking the streets of Dunwall, either.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” Billie says. “What’s the story?”

Emily slants her a look. “What, you don’t know?”

“I know half, maybe. Rumors, back when I still lived here. But it’s hard to know more than half of any story. Hanging around him starts to put things in perspective.”

“I can imagine.” Emily shifts to sit on the desk, leaning back on her hands. “So is that really all this was about? Getting the Outsider in the same room as my father?”

“Pretty much,” says Billie. “The Outsider is a little...adrift. I figured I would help him out. Void knows why. Not like he’s done anything to deserve it.” The words don’t have as much bite as Billie seems to think they do. Emily remembers the protective streak she always had, back when they traveled together. For Sokolov, and Stilton, and even, sometimes, Emily herself.

She can’t help but wonder if Billie was ever this protective of Daud. She puts the thought away. It won’t help her. She’s never going to know the answer.

“He helped me,” Emily says. “Just like you did.”

“If that teaches you anything, Empress, it’s that you can’t always trust the people who help you.”

There’s nothing Emily can really say to that. She looks away.

“Here.” Billie pulls a pouch from her pocket, and holds it out. It’s heavy in her hands when Emily takes it. Silver.

“What’s this?” Emily asks, bemused.

“Return to sender,” Billie says. “I never asked for your money. I meant to send it back to you, but—well, things got a little busy before I had the chance.”

That’s right. Emily sent Billie money. It seemed only fair, considering the risks Billie had taken, the danger she’d put her ship in, the basis of her livelihood. All to help a lost young woman who didn’t understand the world as much as she thought she did.

She sent it, and then—forgot about it. Filed it away as another task completed.

She has more sense than to tell Billie that. “Billie, you have to know I don’t need the money. There’s no point in returning it.”

“Keep the damn coin, Empress,” Billie says. “What I did—you owe me a clean slice across the throat. I’m not going to take payment instead. Give it to the kid, if you’re so opposed to taking it back. Void knows he’s got nothing of his own.”

Except for what Billie’s given him. Emily doesn’t say that. She doesn’t ask Billie why she thinks that Emily wants to take money back from a woman who helped kill her mother any more than Billie wants to receive it herself. She sets the pouch down beside herself on the desk. “Alright,” she says. “Do you know what he wants from my father, anyway?”

“I’m not even sure he knows what he wants. I just got him here.” She shrugs. The motion draws Emily’s eyes to her arm. She’s been trying to ignore it, but it’s impossible. It’s practically ringing in Emily’s ears. Billie notices. “Like the new arm?” She strips off her glove and fans out her fingers. It’s like the Void curled itself around her bones instead of skin.

“It’s a gift from the Outsider, isn’t it.”

“Yeah. A ‘gift’. You can tell?”

“The Void...there’s a sound to it. Lower than anything else. It hums.” Emily shrugs. “Your arm, and your face...they sound the same. I can’t not hear it.” And who else but the Outsider could return the injuries that Emily wiped away?

Emily is going to have words with him, once he’s done with her father.

Billie flexes her hand, staring at it. “He said that the world was wounded around me.” She looks back up at Emily, and her gaze cuts. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, now would you?”

Emily closes her eyes. She could lie. Billie couldn’t blame her, for lying. “The Outsider probably understands it better than I do.”

“I’m not asking him. I’m asking you.”

“The Stilton Manor,” Emily says. She looks back at Billie, holding her gaze steadily. “He was there. He gave me something. It let me change the past.”

“He did what?”

Emily wasn’t planning on telling anyone about what she did at Stilton Manor. Not Billie, not her father, not Stilton himself. It was supposed to be her secret alone. But she finds the words spilling out without her consent. “When you first brought me there, when I went to the Dust District—Stilton had been missing for three years. Ever since Delilah’s seance.”

“Missing.” Billie’s words are flat.

“Yes. You’d gone to find him, back when he first disappeared, and—that must be how you lost them. Your arm and your eye. You never told me, but it’s the only thing that makes sense. They were gone, when we met, and then I went to the Manor and I saved him, Billie. He was mad, the Void had torn apart his mind, but I stopped it. Three years in the past. And when I got back, the Manor was alive again, it had been in ruins before. But there were people there, servants, I scared this poor maid half to death before I realized and I had to knock her out. And I got back to the skiff, and there you were. Two arms, and two eyes. You were smoking with a hand you hadn’t had when I left.” Billie’s hands are clenched into fists. Emily wonders if she should be getting into a defensive stance. “What was I supposed to say? You wouldn’t have believed me.”

“I ran with the Knife of fucking Dunwall for half my life,” Billie says. “The shit I’ve seen? I would have believed you. Who gave you the right to—to waltz in and change my life? To take away my choices?”

“You’d prefer it if I’d left Aramis Stilton to rot in that mansion?” Emily asks. “He was all alone. He’d lost everything. I couldn’t give him back all of it, but I gave him something.”

“You can’t change the past, Empress, no matter how much you want to.”

“Well, I did!” Emily know she sounds like a child. She doesn’t care. Billie Lurk is pissed at her for doing the right thing. Emily will yell if she wants to. “You should be thanking me.”

“I expect this bullshit from the Outsider, he doesn’t understand how any of this works, but you can’t just run roughshod over things that have already happened. Otherwise, how are any of us supposed to keep on? How are we supposed to live, knowing that it could all have been different? We have one life. We make our choices. We live with the consequences.”

“Just because you can’t fix any of your mistakes, Billie, doesn’t mean everything should stay broken,” Emily says coldly. “I’m sorry it’s so very hard for you, having killed my mother. I’m sorrier than anyone that you can’t fix it. But I’m not sorry for what I did at Stilton’s manor. I have a job to do. I don’t have time to wallow in my regrets.”

She stalks past Billie, out the door and down the stairs. She’s been getting better about keeping her anger in while it’s still hot, but with Billie, what’s the point?

The Outsider and her father are deep in conversation when she gets back downstairs, heads bent together.

“I’m needed back at the Tower,” she says. Corvo looks concerned at the tightness in her voice. The Outsider merely seems curious. She waves a hand at them. “Finish your business. I’ll be waiting outside.”

The air does her some good. And so does hurling rocks into the ocean, the way she used to do as a child, standing here and wondering when her Father would come back. Never once allowing herself to think that he, too, might not.

Fuck Billie Lurk, and fuck her anger, and fuck the small part of Emily that can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s right.

She told Billie the truth. Empress Emily Kaldwin doesn’t get to linger on her mistakes. She moves forward, always, because she has to.

-

Corvo, Corvo, Corvo. The name tastes different on his tongue. Everything tastes different, outside of the Void, all of himself forced back into a body too small to hold him. The wine didn’t taste like thousands of years of compounded regrets, mixed in with a smaller portion of joys, of celebrations—it was only bitter grapes, and a warmth in his veins beyond his control.

Corvo. It still feels odd. Corvo isn’t a piece in a game anymore. There’s no taste of that familiar loyalty mixed up with resentment, an entirely different kind than Daud’s. Corvo could hold him, now, could fight him off in a way that he never could before. Could ignore him, could forget him, could cast him out into the street.

Instead he agreed to let the Outsider take rooms in the Tower, until such a time as he no longer needed them. Agreed without being asked to a host of other things: clothes, and a library, there had been mention of a library, and—a name. He promised to give the Outsider a name.

“You don’t have to use it, if you don’t want,” he said. “But you do need one.”

“I had one,” the Outsider told him. “I lost it. Daud—what was left of Daud—he whispered it in my ear, and I left the Void, and I don’t know what he said. I’ll never know what he said.” The fear the Outsider feels at that, at the space on the tip of his tongue where knowledge should be, is a different beast entirely than any terror he can remember. He remembers much. Less, every minute.

He’d feared his death, cold and shivering, sharp like a knife against his neck and just as quick. He knew that it would all end, in his death or his life.

This fear, the fear of not knowing, stretched out before him like a dark and endless road, mud sucking at his heels now forced to remain on the ground. A Leviathan devouring. It would never be sated, never put to rest.

Corvo watched him. “Alright,” the Outsider said. “Give me a name. I haven’t been named in four thousand years. Make it a good one.”

And now the Outsider walks back to the lodgings he no longer shares with Billie Lurk, so he may begin to gather his things. In ten minute’s walking, while he has been consumed by his own thoughts, Billie has not needled him once, staying three good strides ahead of him.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks her, catching up. Billie Lurk can be silent, when she wishes. She has a tendency to brood, as Daud did. But she takes her silences alone when she can. And she finds the Outsider’s own quiet unsettling. She has told him so, many times. And she said nothing, when he said Corvo’s name aloud.

“None of your damned business,” she tells him. Dunwall is growing dark around them, dusk reaching fingers up from the sea, taking over the sky. The Outsider prefers the night. It hides all manner of misdeeds, in Dunwall. It hides him. It is a perpetual discomfort, the inability to be unseen when one wishes. The cover of darkness is as cool an embrace as the Void ever was.

“What did you and Emily talk about?”

Billie sneers. “What me and Empress Kaldwin talk about is—not to repeat myself, I wouldn’t want to bore you—none of your concern, Outsider.”

“All is my concern.”

“Not anymore, kid.”

She isn’t wrong.

The Outsider once thought that he had gotten quite good at it: keeping his interests selective. His Marked numbered only eight, after all, balanced against the thousands upon thousands of lives crowded into the world. He thought himself quite discerning in who and what received his attention. But he had long forgotten what human attention was truly like, how tiny and shallow it could be. A person born in Dunwall would never wonder what the weather was like in Morley that day, and would never feel the loss of not being able to simply reach out and—know.

The Outsider feels the loss like a missed step in a staircase, every time he wonders, and cannot find the answer. He wonders, now, what Corvo is doing—guarding his daughter as they make their way back to Dunwall Tower. Worrying about whatever argument she had with Billie Lurk, perhaps, or wondering again why it couldn’t have been him who had saved her this time. A whole host of utterly common anxieties that the Outsider never ceased to be fascinated by, once, when they lived in Corvo Attano’s mind.

He has no idea at all if Corvo worries now about the Outsider. He never thought overmuch about how Corvo felt about him, while he still could have known it. Corvo was merely himself, distinct and separate from all others. His straightforward strangeness shone in the Outsider’s eyes, a corona of every wretched, difficult kindness the man had ever done without thought. Fascinating, always, the way history warped around him. And however he felt about the Outsider, he knew that Corvo would always listen when he called, quiet and contemplative where his daughter would shift and fidget and make faces at him. It had seemed as unchangeable as anything in the world.

The Outsider knows better, now. He knows how even the most solid ground will shift, given enough time. He wishes, quite suddenly, that he had known it then, too.

-

“Are you going to tell me what Lurk said to make you so angry?” Corvo asks Emily. They’re taking the long way back to the Tower, hoods pulled close over their faces. Corvo figures that Emily could use the time to cool off.

“Are you going to tell me what you and the Outsider talked about?”

“Logistics, mostly,” Corvo says with a shrug. “Apparently Lurk’s not keen on keeping him around forever. I offered him a place to stay.”

“Can’t say I ever expected that we’d have the Outsider himself as a houseguest.”

Corvo’s mouth twitches. “The Abbey will be thrilled.”

That gets Emily to laugh, her shoulders finally dropping from where they’d been pulled up around her ears. A few guards look up as they pass. Recognizing their employer, probably. Corvo raises his eyebrow at the one who peers closer at him, a reedy young man who flushes and looks away when he realizes who is escorting the Empress.

Corvo will have to remember to ask after him when they get back. It’s good to know that someone’s being careful. After all, he can’t be the only one protecting Emily forever.

Emily is different from Jessamine in so many ways, but she’s always taken after her mother in how long a little bit of silence will go towards getting her to talk. A few more minutes of walking—past the docks, past what used to be the Flooded District, past a row of houses still being rebuilt—is enough to loosen her tongue. She sighs. “I didn’t think it would hurt so much. Seeing her again.”

Corvo thinks, again, of Daud. He’d never expected to see him again, after watching him kill Jessamine. And he certainly hadn’t expected to spare the man.

He felt very cold in the moment he decided to do it. The Wrenhaven running through his veins. He wished, even at the time, that he could make another choice. But he knew that he couldn’t. Not knowing Emily was still out there, waiting for her father.

Used to his silences, Emily continues. “It’s just—I wasn’t happy, on that boat. Of course I wasn’t happy. But I was doing something that mattered. I was making real progress, not—whatever it is I’m doing here.”

“You’re running an Empire, Emily.”

“Me and a hundred bureaucrats with sticks up their asses,” she mutters darkly. “And every aristocrat who cares more about their comfort than anything else.”

“You’re not wrong,” Corvo says. “A blade is usually simpler.”

Emily sighs. “And if the easy thing was always right, my life would be a lot simpler.”

Corvo reaches out to ruffle her hair, dislodging the hood of her cloak. They’re close enough to the Tower now that no one will mind the Empress and her Royal Protector, out for a walk to enjoy the night air.

Emily bats him away, shaking her head. “Everything seemed so clear. And now she’s back, and—I can’t stop thinking about it. All the things I did. Whether they were the right ones. Whether I should have known who she was from the start. Or what if she hadn’t told me at all, and I never realized—”

“But she did tell you.”

“She didn’t have to.”

“I think,” Corvo says, “that maybe she did.” He looks up at the Tower as they approach. He’s lived more than half his life there. He can picture Emily, darting around the streets of Karnaca, face covered and her back pressed against the wall of an alley, knife tight in her grip. He’d always wanted to show her Serkonos. The places where he was young. He’s not sure that he’ll ever get the chance, now. And what would it mean to Emily, who never got to be young the way that he did?

The night before he left for Dunwall, fresh off his victory at the Blade Verbena, he drank himself sick until dawn. The closest Emily had ever come to that was locking herself away in a room with Wyman for an hour, smoking hookah and pretending Corvo didn’t know who had smuggled in the illegal tobacco. Just relaxing for even a moment, like it was a luxury. “Do you miss it?” he asks. “Your time on the Dreadful Wale?”

Emily is looking up at the Tower, too. “I miss the person I thought I could be when I was there,” she says. “I knew it couldn’t last. I knew I didn’t even want it to. But when I wasn’t thinking about you, or Mother, or Dunwall—there was just the sea, and good whiskey, and someone to drink it with.” She sighs. “But all along it was Billie Lurk, and I didn’t even know. I was being a child, thinking I could escape it. All this. Any of it.”

The guards salute her, as they pass through the Tower’s gates. Corvo almost wishes they didn’t.

-

Watching the Outsider pack is weird as hell, and that’s saying something. Billie has seen a lot of weird shit in her life.

She hadn’t even realized the kid owned this much crap, and they just finished spending two weeks in the same cramped quarters on a smuggling ship. Between Meagan Foster and Billie Lurk and a few other names, Billie has a lot of old friends. Thankfully, over the past fifteen years, Lizzy Stride branched out into smuggling between Karnaca and Dunwall. If there was anyone less interested than Lizzy Stride in asking questions about her passengers and who they might look like, Billie has yet to meet them.

Somehow the Outsider has accumulated bits and pieces from nearly every place they stopped on their meandering journey from Shindaerey Peak to here, a battered boarding house that reminds Billie of the Whaler’s old hideout. A seashell, a book torn clean in half, a leather-bound journal.

“Did you steal any of that stuff?” Billie asks. She’d be impressed, if she never saw him do it.

The Outsider shrugs, which, right: illuminating as ever.

“So how did you sweet-talk the Royal Protector into letting you stay at the Tower?”

The Outsider blinks at her. “I asked,” he says. “That’s all.”

Billie rolls her eyes. “Attano’s getting soft in his old age, isn’t he.”

“Corvo is the same as he ever was,” the Outsider says. He closes his bag with the kind of dramatic finality that would be absurd, coming from anyone else. From him, it’s just to be expected. “He’s useful like that. A mark to measure the rising of the tide against.”

“He’s a person, Outsider. People change.”

“They change, or they suffer for want of changing. I know about human nature, Billie Lurk.”

“You think you know all about us because you watched from the Void, all those years? Believe me when I tell you it’s not even close to the same.”

The Outsider leaves his bag in favor of digging through the pantry. Billie lays back on her cot and sighs. She’s lived alone a long time. Hasn’t had much of stable crew since she ran with the Empress and Sokolov. The Outsider doesn’t make for the best roommate. She’s certainly not going to miss him, or the smell of burnt fish still lingering in her rooms. But there is something to be said for hearing something other than the sound of the ocean, the sound of her own voice.

Mouth full of bread, the Outsider turns back to her. “I was human once.”

“Yeah. A long fucking time ago.” Billie presses her arm over her eyes. The real arm. The eye that she lost, or something like it, is cool against her skin. “Weren’t we all.”

The Outsider sits down beside her, still chewing. The loss of his Void-damned grace isn’t doing him any favors. The cot jostles. “What will you do?” he asks.

“Is that all you ever want to know?” Billie asks. “What will happen?”

“Of course. What else is there to know?”

“Some of us can appreciate the beauty of not knowing, once in a while.” Billie sits up. She grabs the loaf of bread the Outsider is holding, and tears herself off a piece. “Anyway, what are you planning to do, now that you’ve got the Lord Protector all wrapped around your finger?

The Outsider takes the bread back and looks at it, as if it’s gonna give him the answers. Billie knows what it’s like, being set to sea like that. But he’s not her responsibility, and anyway: what business does she have trying to give anyone a purpose? Not like she’s ever had any luck finding one that didn’t come back to bite her in the ass. “I’ll have to see,” he says. “That will be interesting, won’t it?”

He doesn’t sound so sure.

-

There’s a pile of correspondence on Emily’s desk a handspan high when she and Corvo return. Emily ignores it. Instead, she sneaks into the closet where she keeps the stash of cigars she steals from her father. She lights one, sticks her head out of the small window, and breathes.

The truth—the truth that Emily can’t tell Corvo, won’t tell Corvo, it’s not like he’s told her everything about his time in the Hound Pits Pub, all the things he did his best to keep hidden—is that she had fun, on Meagan Foster’s ship. She put her face to the wind and felt it make a ruin of her hair, dove into the water and dug runes out of the soft mud with hagfish biting at her heels, listened to Meagan’s stories and laughed, not caring that they weren’t true. She never trusted Meagan, not really—she poked through her diary and listened to her audiographs and both of them pretended that Emily wasn’t doing it and that Meagan wasn’t letting her.

It was fun. It meant that Emily wasn’t just someone who had to be protected. Her father needed saving, and she knew she was going to do it. Sneaking around, that was something Emily was good at in a way she’d never been any good at governance. She wasn’t alone. She listened to Meagan’s lies and thought them harmless. And she did think about it, when Meagan told her the truth, how easy it would be to knock her out, to slide a knife across her neck the way Emily had killed a few guards, when she had no other choice—

She’d always had a choice. She had a choice then, and she made it. She chose to let Billie live with her own mistakes, when a week earlier she’d killed a few men because she hadn’t been quiet enough, because there wasn’t enough time. They were only doing their jobs, just like the palace guards that protected Emily every day. Just like Alexi, dead on the floor. And Billie Lurk got to live, because Emily decided that was the right thing to do.

No. Because Emily decided that was what she wanted.

The truth is that Emily liked Meagan Foster. She’d always loved pirate stories as a child, the more vicious the better. And the circumstances were awful, but if things had been different, Emily wouldn’t have minded meeting the handsome owner of a smuggling ship, sweeping her off her feet.

Meagan Foster was just someone Billie Lurk made up; Meagan Foster made mistakes, but none of them killed Emily’s mother. But maybe that was the only thing about the two of them that was different. Two masks hiding the same face.

Emily thought, when she saw Meagan again after Stilton’s manor, that she’d given her a gift. She never told her. She thought that Meagan would never know, that it would be Emily’s secret kindness, repayment for all of Meagan’s help. Except she owes Billie nothing, and if it was a gift, apparently she only ever would have thrown it back in Emily’s face.

Emily trained herself out of thinking too long on her past at a very young age. But she’s not used to having it show up and write her a card.

And instead of doing anything that she’s supposed to, here Emily is. Dwelling.

She never saw the Outsider again, after she saved her father. But she dreamt of the Void, on occasion. There was never anyone there. Just her, and the wind, and the space to run and jump and reach.

She hasn’t been back since her Mark stopped working. It wouldn’t be the same, but she still wishes she could. There are so few places where she can be free.

Meagan Foster never treated her like an Empress. Now, that’s the only name that Billie will call her by.

-

Corvo comes to collect him in the morning, all the Lord Protector, none of the cloaked figure from yesterday.

“I’m honored,” the Outsider tells him, when Corvo knocks on the door to Billie’s rooms. Billie made herself scarce this morning, muttering only business under her breath when the Outsider asked where she was going. “So newly arrived to this city, and yet already I deserve a state visit.”

Corvo rolls his eyes and walks in. “You’re an apprentice Sokolov picked up in Tyvia and sent back here for further training. Of course, Sokolov is such a dear friend of the Crown that Emily simply couldn’t let him languish at a boarding house by the docks—”

“I’m Sokolov’s apprentice?” the Outsider demands.

Corvo has the audacity to laugh at him. Funny, how quickly he stopped seeing the Outsider as a god, and as someone who could be teased. Humanity is trying.

If Sokolov were not involved, the Outsider would even like it, a new shape for him to fit himself into. “Well, he’s not here to deny it.”

“I refuse.”

“This works,” Corvo muses. “I bet all of Sokolov’s apprentices hate him.”

“They should. He is hateful.”

“What exactly did the man ever do to offend you?” Corvo asks. “Can’t say I’m the man’s biggest fan. But I don’t know if I fully understand your criteria.”

“You mean,” says the Outsider, “why do I hate Sokolov so, when there are any number of other less savory men in this world to draw my ire?”

“More or less.” Corvo is slowly but surely casing Billie’s rooms, walking around, taking the measure of them. The Outsider doesn’t believe he even realizes that he’s doing it. In all creatures, breathing is automatic, the body’s desire to live inescapable. If they live long enough, people tend to develop habits equally as ingrained, just as impossible to resist as breath. Corvo cannot help but look for danger in every corner.

The question Corvo poses is not one the Outsider ever gave a great deal of consideration. Sokolov was intolerable; there was nothing more to say. His regard itched. All that time spent wondering about the Outsider, and he did not even have the decency to be interesting. “He never left me alone.”

Corvo’s mouth twitches. The Outsider can see the guffaw that would be building in another, less quiet man. “What?”

“Some might say the same of you,” Corvo observes.

Corvo has finished his slow circuit of the room. The Outsider grabs his bag, suddenly impatient to be gone. Impatience itself is a new luxury.

“Not a comparison you like?”

“Let’s go,” says the Outsider.

Corvo really is laughing as they walk out. “To think that it would have been this easy to piss you off. If only I’d tried.”

“You didn’t want to,” says the Outsider, blinking. Of all the days for Dunwall to decide to be sunny. It’s early yet, but late enough that half the city is already awake and shouting. “You were afraid, and then thankful, and unsure underneath it all whether you could trust me. And just as sure that you had no choice.”

“Anyone ever tell you how annoying that is?”

“Billie Lurk has told me many things,” says the Outsider. “Lead the way home, Royal Protector.”

-

The Outsider is having breakfast with her father in the parlor when Emily finally rouses herself from bed. It was a late night training, wearing herself out enough that she could sleep. And anyway, if her powers are really gone for good, she ought to be able to defend herself. Corvo, despite his most fervent wishes, cannot be everywhere at once.

The Outsider looks so much like a normal man that it’s disarming. There are plenty of dark-haired, hollow-eyed youths in Dunwall, although most of them don’t spend their breakfast peering at her father like he’s a particularly annoying puzzle.

“Hello,” he says, when Emily enters, looking up at her only briefly. He looks back down at his plate with the same expression of consternation he was favoring Corvo with.

“It’s smoked fish,” Corvo tells him. His tone indicates that this is not the first time he’s said it. “On bread. I promise this isn’t part of a long con to poison you.”

“You never know,” says the Outsider. “There has recently been an attempt on my life.” He prods at his breakfast with a fork.

“Was that a joke?” Emily asks, taking her own seat across from her father.

“Unfortunately, I think he’s getting Lurk’s sense of humor.”

“Better than Daud’s,” says the Outsider, the corner of his mouth curling. He looks up and sees both of their faces. “Ah. Was that in poor taste?”

Corvo just shakes his head. “You haven’t changed much, have you.”

Emily sighs. “Just eat your fish,” she says. “I promise we’ve both heard worse.”

The Outsider does. He tilts his head to the side consideringly. “It’s familiar,” he says.

“Good,” Emily says. “You’ll be eating a lot of it, if you’re going to stay in Dunwall.” She pauses. “Are you going to stay in Dunwall?”

“It seems so,” he says. “Your father has offered his assistance in finding employment. He has also found me an identity.” His mouth twists. “For now.”

Emily raises an eyebrow at Corvo, who is thankfully back to smiling. “Has he, now?”

“He’s one of Sokolov’s apprentices,” Corvo says. “The man himself certainly isn’t around to deny it. It seemed sensible enough.”

Emily laughs. “I’ll be sure to tell him in my next letter.”

“You will not,” says the Outsider, and the same time Corvo says, “I wouldn’t.” They blink at each other.

“It might not be safe,” Corvo says. “Lurk says the conspiracy is dealt with, but in my experience, conspiracies have a way of popping back up once you think you’ve killed them. Like river krusts.”

“And he might insist on coming here,” the Outsider says. “Which, I promise you, would be disastrous for all involved. For the time being, I am Mikhail Ilyushin of Tyvia, and I am enjoying the hospitality of the royal family while I find a way to support myself during my time in Dunwall.”

“What are you planning to do?” Emily asks. “The royal libraries are always looking for new scholars.” She can’t imagine what the stern head librarian, who Emily had run afoul of quite often in her youth, would have to say about the Outsider. She’s a little morbidly curious to find out.

The Outsider reaches out and plucks the newspaper that Corvo was glancing over from his hands. “I think you’ll both agree I have a head for ferreting out secrets.”

Corvo shakes his head. “I hate those damn things.”

“The hunger for knowledge is just as strong as the hunger for sustenance. It’s no wonder there were so many tales swirling about in the wake of Delilah’s coup. You can’t blame the newspapers for feeding the masses. The Crown Killer was fascinating.”

“I can blame them for telling lies.”

“You know,” Emily says, “I actually have a friend who might be able to help with that.”

The Outsider looks up at her. “You do indeed,” he says. “How is the printer of the Dunwall Courier? It was a close call, the day you saved him. Delilah’s thugs nearly killed him. All those articles defending your honor could have gone unwritten.”

“And he would have been dead.”

The Outsider shrugs. “He would,” he says. “He must be quite grateful. I would appreciate an introduction.”

“Great,” Emily says. “In that case, I’d like something in return.”

“Anything within my power,” the Outsider says. He spreads his hands. “What little there is left.”

“I need Billie Lurk’s address, and where you think I’d find her at this time of day.”

“A suitable arrangement.”

Corvo raises an eyebrow, still chewing silently. Emily blinks at him innocently. “We have unfinished business to discuss.”

-

None of the black market shops are in the same places as the last time Billie was in Dunwall. Not too surprising—they’re always moving, changing ownership as easily as coin changes hands. Billie’s never been sure what possesses anyone to want to work in one of the damn places. Half the time Billie buys anything, she has to stop a robbery in progress before she can do any business.

So it takes her a good long while to find the shop that’s tucked away at the edges of the Rudshore Financial District, eerily close to where the Whaler’s hideout once was. Who knows what that building is now. Maybe it’s the Chamber of Commerce once again. Nothing lasts in Dunwall, and the Empress has been working hard piecing the city back together, turning the Flooded District into a place that no longer deserves the name.

Billie buys herself a new supply of sleep darts and does her best not to think about the Empress. But the other options are worse: wondering whether the Outsider has gotten himself killed yet, in a city he has no clue how to navigate, whether the Royal Protector is going to put up with him, or reconsider his sudden bout of ill-advised kindness.

Billie hasn’t reconsidered hers, yet, but the year is still young.

All Billie wanted when she saw Emily again was a settled score. A slate wiped clean. She should’ve known better by now. Slates are never fully clean, and the past is never gone, whether you try to wash it away with gold or with blood. Something always lingers.

She looks over the contracts at the shop. Might as well, right? Not much interesting. The usual: murder, theft, arson. Dr. Galvani’s put a hit out on whoever robbed his bank vault, which makes Billie smile. Someday someone will slip and let Galvani know that the underworld has been laughing at him behind his back for years.

She knows she’s not going to pick any of them up. At least not now. She’s about to tell the shopkeeper she’ll pass when someone taps her on the shoulder.

Billie whirls around, fist raised, and is confronted with a very surprised Empress. Face covered, just like old times.

They watch each other for a moment. Emily’s hand is resting on her belt, like she went for her knife when it looked like Billie might attack her. Good. At least she learned something.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on anyone around here,” Billie says, lowering her hand. “People tend to be a little tense.”

“Sorry,” says the Empress of the Isles, not sounding very. “Our mutual friend said I might find you here.”

“Did he, now.” Billie is going to wring the Outsider’s scrawny neck. “Do you need something?”

She shrugs. “I was wondering if we could sit somewhere. Catch up. It’s been a long time.”

“You said you’d never forgive me,” Billie says. Blunt is the best way to go, with the Empress. She figured that out quick. “And you didn’t seem so interested in catching up yesterday.” Behind her, she can hear the shopkeeper shuffling papers, studiously pretending not to hear anything while probably taking mental notes, in case any of what they’re saying turns out to be useful. “Now you want to chat?”

“I don’t have to forgive you to buy you a drink. And I want to talk.”

Billie smiles. It doesn’t feel natural. Taught, like a springrazor set to go off. “Lead the way, your Majesty.”

Turns out the Empress knows her way around the back streets of Dunwall pretty well. Billie wonders if she always did, or if she’s picked it up in the months since her return from Karnaca. She picks the same bar that Billie would have chosen, the Graceful Talon. Quiet. The kind of place where people mind their own business.

Emily orders for both of them without asking what Billie wants. Whiskey for herself and pear soda and rum for Billie.

When Meagan Foster first picked up Emily Kaldwin, she wanted badly to be able to dismiss her as a spoiled brat. It would have made a lot of things easier. A lot of the things that Meagan Foster never did, but also couldn’t forget. But Emily Kaldwin, for all her faults, for all the bullshit ideas that growing up in luxury had given her, was kind when she thought to be. She saw Billie drink pear soda and rum once, on a cool night up on deck, when Emily had brought back just enough extra coin from Addermire to justify the expense, and she remembered.

Emily, who dragged Billie to stand with her in front of the Jindosh lock while she sat, brow furrowed, pen and paper stolen from the Overseer outpost in hand, determined not to ask for help to crack the code she was sure she could solve herself.

"Jindosh wasn't as smart as he thought he was," she said. "And I'm not helping the Overseers, and I'm not picking a side in a gang war. Karnaca doesn't need that kind of interference. Not from me." Which is hilarious, considering how much interfering she did, in the end. As if letting the imposter Duke reign wasn't doing just that. Billie can't say she thinks there was a better choice, though. If it was up to her she'd probably have killed them all, Paolo and the Overseers and Abele. So maybe it’s for the best it was up to Emily.

The Empress is a lot of things. Naive, though a little less so these days. Headstrong, and rude, and nosy, and kind, underneath it all, the kind of kid who it’s hard to believe would have lasted a second, growing up like Billie did. The kind of person Deirdre might have grown up to be.

That’s the kind of stupid shit Billie thinks around Emily. No wonder she didn’t have the damn sense to keep her mouth shut about Jessamine.

She thanks Emily for the drink and downs about half. She’s pretty sure she’s going to need it.

Emily drums her fingers on the bar for a few seconds. She doesn’t touch her own drink, but she watches it intently. Finally, she raises her eyes to meet Billie’s. They’re striking, with the scarf over her mouth. “I should have told you about Stilton,” she says, steady and sure. “I’m not sorry that I did it. I can’t be sorry. But it changed your life, and you deserved to know.”

“Huh,” Billie says. “An apology from an Empress. Now that’s worth more than all the coin you could ever send.”

Emily flinches at that, looking back down into her drink, which really wasn’t what Billie was aiming for. Billie doesn’t know what the fuck she’s trying to do. Emily shouldn’t be apologizing to her. Not for anything. Not even if she did fuck up, not even if she uncovered things that were better off left buried, not even if she stuck her nose in the Void where it didn’t belong.

“It was the Outsider’s idea, wasn’t it,” Billie says.

“Not to save him. I didn’t even really plan to do that. I was just...there, in the past, in his courtyard, and I realized he was going to get up and leave and lose his mind and I just—I couldn’t let him. I’d been sneaking around his house for hours, I’d seen all his things, I’d been in his rooms. I heard him talking in the present. To no one. To the old Duke.” Emily dips a finger in her whiskey, traces the outline of a circle on the scuffed bar. “Years on, and he was still grieving. He was grieving through the madness, for someone he couldn’t even remember, but still loved anyway. It was the only thing I could do. Maybe the Outsider knew that when he gave me the timepiece.”

Still a little bit naive, underneath it all. Billie doesn’t think Emily realizes that Stilton reminds her of her father.

Billie flexes her arm, feeling the way the Void shifts. Like an itch underneath skin that isn’t even there. “I’m starting to think all of us have been giving that kid too much credit for having some grand plan. He’s not any different than us. Even if he won’t admit it, he’s only ever just been following his gut.” She sighs. “It’s not like you can do anything about it, right?”

“I still have the timepiece, but...it’s cold. It doesn’t do anything.”

“And you wouldn’t go back, even if you could.”

Emily meets her eyes. “No. I don't know if it was right. But I mean it. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Billie has never been sure of herself the way that Emily is. She’s never been able to make her choices with the same conviction, even the big ones—betraying Daud, helping the lost Empress, saving the Outsider. Everything she does comes with the expectation of regret. Must be nice. “Alright,” she says. “It is what it is.”

The corner of Emily’s mouth lifts. “My favorite Dunwall proverb.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Billie raises her glass, and Emily does too, and she finally starts to drink.

“I really do want to catch up,” Emily says, halfway through her whiskey, turning the glass between her hands. “Meagan Foster’s life always seemed so exciting.”

“I remember.” Billie does. Emily, bone-weary and bruised every night, eating poorly cooked fish stew and listening intently to the half-fabricated tales Meagan told. It was obvious that Emily dreamed of the sea, all those days she spent behind stone walls. Safe and sound and bored. “The real stories aren’t so nice.”

“I know,” Emily says. “Still. I want to hear them.”

So Billie tells her. About the Eyeless, about the dreams, as little about Daud as she can get away with, skirting around his name like it’s a pissed off river krust. It’ll hurt her to say it, and hurt Emily worse to hear it. And this is nice, whatever the fuck they’re doing. Might as well stay here for as long as they can. Not rock the boat, until the next storm comes.

Emily listens, and smiles, and throws her head back and laughs when Billie tells her what she found in Jindosh’s bank vault. Billie’s stories don’t scare her the way they probably should. Emily knows what it’s like to skulk around Karnaca, to turn a corner and find a wanted poster with her own face staring back at her. She knows what it’s like to be taken by men who mean her harm, and to get out alive. Meagan Foster forgot that, when she took her first measure of the Empress.

Emily can’t stay forever; she is the Empress of the Isles, after all. Billie figures the Royal Protector will come looking for her if she stays too long, anyway, and that’s a conversation Billie doesn’t feel like having.

“Thank you,” Emily says as she gets up to leave, overly serious in a way that makes Billie itch to go running over rooftops. Anything but standing still and having the Empress look at her like that.

“Anytime,” Billie says. “Guess there’s not much excitement in the Tower, is there?”

“Half the time Corvo won’t even spar with me,” Emily says. She pauses. “You know, you weren’t a half bad partner, back on the Wale.”

Unbelievable. “Seriously? The Empress can’t find a better sparring partner than a beaten up sea captain who is wanted in multiple countries?”

“Wanted, but never caught, which really just speaks to your experience.” Emily says it with a straight face.

Billie shakes her head as she turns to leave. Not the best time to mention that one of those crimes was helping put a knife in her mother’s heart. “Whatever you say, princess.”

Emily laughs, like she’s delighted. Of course she noticed that Billie didn’t say no.

This is what she gets for coming back to Dunwall. This place has always been a breeding ground for bad fucking ideas.

Fine. If the Empress wants an excuse to stick a knife in her, Billie isn’t going to stop her. It’s the least she can do, after everything.

-

The man Emily saved from a quick death during Delilah’s coup still lives and works out of the same office where his life nearly ended. He does not seem to think it odd that the Empress of the Isles has sent him a young man in the hopes of finding him work. And why should he—he has all the evidence he needs, to know that the Empress cares greatly for the details, for the small lives of every one of her subjects. At least when she isn’t distracted.

She was much like her father in that way, in the days that the Outsider watched her. Corvo, had he not been still stone, would have saved this man too. The Outsider never used to be so sure of things. He is now. His thoughts are already solidifying, the currents slowing. He cannot see thousands of possibilities; but he can believe only one thing at a time.

He knew the possibilities, when he spoke to Billie Lurk. He knew that she might save him, just as she might kill him, just as she might abandon her quest, abandon Daud, run into the wind and choose another name just to escape it.

But now he knows Billie Lurk. Her choice was inevitable. Showing him mercy, the same outstretched hand that Daud had once given her, was the only thing she could ever have done.

The Dunwall Courier’s office smells of ink and dust. It feels right. Even-keeled. Which is all the better: the Outsider did not even think to come here until Emily asked him what he wanted to do, and he could not stomach the thought of having no answer. Billie Lurk had seen him at his worst. He could not hope to hide from her the extent to which he has been cut loose from—everything. But Corvo Attano and Emily Kaldwin have only ever known him as the answer to all things. The Outsider wished to be mortal; the Outsider wished to be free. But he once told Billie Lurk that people are defined by the things they have lost. He has lost much. He has lost all his answers. It soothes the sting, somewhat, to play the steady part for those who will believe it.

Or perhaps that is a lie, and the Outsider was simply tired of being asked the question, and picked the first thing in his sight: the newspaper Corvo looked to, when he found it too discomfiting to watch the Outsider any longer. It is another frustration, another loss: the Outsider’s own mind is alien to him. He acts without thought, and then cannot understand the action.

He is beginning to see why so many humans drive themselves to madness.

The printer is the only one there, setting type with the delicate sort of precision that the Outsider is used to seeing in surgeons. He squints at the Outsider when he walks in, pushing up his glasses. “You’re the one Lady Emily sent.”

“I am,” the Outsider agrees.

“She said you’re a nosy piece of work who doesn’t know when to quit. That sound right?”

The Outsider has long pitied those who fall on the wrong end of the Empress’ sharp tongue. “Approximately.”

“Great,” says the printer. “Emira quit last week, and after the whole Crown Killer debacle, there’s not exactly a line out the door to replace her. You want the job, you have it. Try not to quit the first time you get a door slammed in your face. You ever used an audiograph recorder?”

The Outsider knows the working of an audiograph’s mechanisms intimately. He allows the printer to show him how it works anyway. The theory is quite different than the reality of the punch cards getting stuck and needing to be rewound.

Daud recorded reams and reams of audiographs. The Outsider watched him often as he did so, amused. Daud did not love the sound of his own voice, as many other men did. On the contrary, he rather loathed it, as he loathed so much: the Outsider, himself, all the world, for grinding his hopes into dust.

But not Billie Lurk. Not his last hope to redeem himself.

She listened to the recording of Daud that she kept in her cabin over and over, wearing down the metal. Missing Daud in a way the Outsider could not comprehend, and therefore enjoyed immensely. The knots humans tied themselves into: betrayal and regret, looping over one another endlessly.

Now he cannot even unpick his own decisions.

He gets the hang of the audiograph easily enough. The printer nods at him approvingly, and sends him off with a battered recorder and instructions to return the next morning.

The printer offers, too, the use of the spare room above the office. It belonged to the Courier’s former editor, once, before she fled the city during the coup, and has lain vacant for months. The Outsider intends to accept his offer, and returns to Dunwall Tower with the intention of telling Corvo of his plan, of moving his things once again. Of choosing a place to settle.

Instead, he lingers, and he does not understand why.

It has been a long, long time since the Outsider has chased contentment. He did not even expect to live. But Billie Lurk saved him, and brought him out of Shindaeray, and together they came to Dunwall, each seeking their own sort of peace.

So when Corvo comes upon him, fiddling with the recorder in his borrowed rooms, he does not speak of his plans to leave. Instead, he holds out the machine to Corvo’s raised eyebrows. “It seems I am a reporter now,” he says. “Or at least I carry the trappings of one.”

“I never got the hang of those things,” Corvo says, shaking his head. “Congratulations on your employment, Outsider.”

“Thank you.” The Outsider switches the machine off, both of their voices now trapped, pressed flat into the spaces between the metal, for as long as the metal will last. Corvo dislikes the sound of his own voice, too, for different reasons than Daud did. Corvo merely likes the quiet, the spaces inbetween. He found a strange comfort in the Void that few could ever see. Not Daud or Delilah or Vera, who all saw their own vices there: misery and power and love, all a mirage of their own making. Corvo has always been good at seeing things for what they are.

Or he was. The Outsider might not notice, if he changed now.

He can’t help but wonder what it is Corvo sees when he looks at the man who was once the Outsider.

“It’s not polite to stare,” Corvo says. He sits down next to the Outsider on the small couch, watching as he takes the card out of the machine and feeds in a new one, as he runs his thumbs across the surface of the recording. He wonders if with practice he could learn to read voices this way, to hear with his hands. Machines can always break. Their schematics can always be forgotten, until they are reinvented again. There was a device much like an audiograph, once, hundreds of years ago in Morley, and it was lost. Its inventor is dust, all memory of her gone. Except for his.

But of course, audiographs will not be forgotten in his lifetime. He has a lifetime, now. He presses his thumb hard to one of the grooves of the card, feeling its bite. “So I am told,” the Outsider agrees.

“By Lurk?”

“Of course.” The Outsider sets card and machine aside, still ticking as it listens to them speak. He turns to face Corvo, sitting cross-legged sideways on the couch. “You don’t like audiographs. Not even those recorded by others.”

“Always seemed a bit self-important. I had a few from my father, when I was a kid. Guess I was pissed that they were all I had left, instead of the real thing.”

“So one day you threw them into the sea. Beatrici cried for days.”

Corvo tips his head back against the couch. Closes his eyes. “Was I interesting back then, too?”

“You had potential. Many did. You didn’t keep recordings of the Empress, either. You gave the only one she left to Emily.”

Corvo opens his eyes. The gaze he levels at the Outsider is heavy, full of more weariness than the Outsider thinks he can hold. “Why would I need them? I had her voice with me. You made sure of that.”

The Outsider opens his mouth. Closes it. Finds that what wants to worm its way past his lips is I’m sorry, something he would not mean. He meant the Heart as a gift. And it was. He knew that it caused Corvo pain, to carry it so close to his chest. It hurt Emily in much the same way, to hold it and to destroy it, Jessamine Kaldwin’s spirit finally going free. But it was the kind of pain Corvo would not have refused, if he had been given a choice. The lack of one was a kindness. Or the closest thing to kindness the Outsider could ever have offered.

Corvo rubs at his eyes, all his years weighing down his shoulders at once. He stands. The Outsider watches him as he leaves.

He picks up the recorder again, switching it off. He runs his fingers across the card and feels for Corvo’s words, the hitch in his breath when the Outsider said his sister’s name.

He can only wonder what Daud would say, if the Outsider could tell him that he is coming to the edges of understanding him, the constant war he fought with himself and his past.

Jessamine, in her death, only ever had eyes for her lover and daughter. The Outsider never minded; he had no interest in speaking to her. And now, the first time he thinks to ask her a question, she is beyond his reach. Another missed step in the staircase. Another small loss, the kind he can expect to collect for the rest of his life.

It hurts, the gift that Billie Lurk gave him. He never could have refused it.

Chapter Text

The Outsider sits perched on a low wall while Corvo trains with Emily, eyeing their movements with interest. His endless patience for watching even mundane tasks shouldn’t surprise Corvo. He knows the Outsider always found him fascinating; he said so often enough. But he didn’t realize that would include watching Corvo practice the same sword forms over and over with his daughter, who hasn’t been this distracted during her lessons since she was fifteen.

The Outsider’s hovering should be annoying. He’s been doing it for days. But it isn’t. He has a capacity for wonder that Corvo is unused to, eyes widening at the smallest things: the taste of smoked fish on his tongue, the dizzying view from the top of Dunwall Tower, the intricate mechanisms of the clocks that are scattered around what feels like every corner of the palace. Corvo caught him with his head inside one on the second day, brow furrowed in curiosity. He’d banged his head when Corvo spoke to him. It was not the first time Corvo’s habitually soft tread caused him to startle someone. It won’t be the last. But it was the first time he had ever surprised someone who was accustomed to omniscience. The Outsider’s look of betrayal had been impressive.

That’s what the Outsider seems to be doing with his newfound freedom: sticking his nose in places it doesn’t belong. Getting into trouble. And hanging around Corvo, when he isn’t doing those things either in service of his employment or himself. Every time Corvo looks up, it feels like the Outsider is visible out of the corner of his eye.

At least this time, maybe he’ll learn something. Corvo doubts he knows how to fight. And if he ever did, his muscle memory will be useless. Corvo knows how much skill he lost in the mere six months he spent in Coldridge. The Outsider was locked away for much longer than that. If it comes to a fight—and it often enough comes to a fight, in Dunwall—the Outsider needs to know enough to get himself out alive.

As for what’s got Emily so distracted—she keeps letting Corvo trip her, when usually every time he tries, he’s the one who ends up flat on his back—Corvo has no idea. There are always more than enough things that deserve space in an Empress’s mind, but Emily has always been calm while she fights. Corvo thinks she goes to the same still place that he does, world narrowed to nothing but movement and breath.

He would suspect that she was unsettled by the Outsider’s presence, in their lives or in this courtyard, but she hasn’t looked at him once since he arrived. She’s hardly looked at anything, except the streets beyond Dunwall Tower.

The fifth time Corvo tosses her into the dirt, she gives an exaggerated huff and stays there.

“Don’t look at me,” Corvo says mildly. “I’m not the one who isn’t paying attention.”

Emily rolls her eyes, and offers up her arm for Corvo to lever her back onto her feet. “Even Empresses have off days,” she says. “Maybe some fresh air will help.”

Corvo waves her off. “Empresses don’t need my permission to go where they please,” he says. “Next time you want to take a day off, Emily, just tell me.”

She grins at him and presses a kiss to his cheek. “I’ll see you tonight! And yes, I’ll be careful!” And she’s gone, a whirlwind of movement much quicker than anything she managed while they were training.

When Corvo turns to look at the Outsider, he is peering after Emily curiously, brow furrowed. He’s been doing that a lot lately, too. It reminds Corvo of the frustration he felt when he first came to Dunwall, expecting that once the veneer of strangeness had peeled away, Gristol would be just like Serkonos. But it had been nothing like Serkonos. Until Corvo forced himself to understand that, he hated Dunwall. He despised the food and the weather and the people that wouldn’t stop looking at him like he wasn’t meant to be there.

Some days, he still hates it. But he has a life here, and only dust waiting for him back in Karnaca.

Corvo leans against the wall beside the Outsider. “Emily’s been acting odd.”

The Outsider turns to him, expression smoothing out. “And you don’t think it’s me.”

“No. She would just tell me that.” Corvo glances down at the hand that once held the Outsider’s Mark. “That isn’t one of the secrets we have any more.”

“What does she keep secret from you?” the Outsider asks. “As I understand it, you’re the most well-informed man in the Isles.”

Corvo rubs at his chin. “Hardly,” he says. “I’m her father. She keeps plenty of secrets from me.”

The look on the Outsider’s face is not one that speaks of understanding. Corvo can’t seem to find the right tack to take with him. He can’t treat him like the god he once was, but he can’t treat him like everyone else, either. It’s not surprising. Jessamine dreamed, once, of making a diplomat of him, but words have never fit comfortably on his tongue. Lies even less so. When she sent him as an ambassador during the Rat Plague, it was an act of desperation. He hadn’t been the best man for the job—just the only one she could trust. That’s one mistake Corvo won’t let Emily make: she knows that when she trusts someone, that means she needs to keep them close.

“I’m not used to it,” the Outsider admits. “Secrets. They’re irritating.”

“I can imagine. You’re not used to conversations where you don’t have the upper hand, are you.”

What the Outsider’s face is doing isn’t pouting, but it’s close. “I am trying to adapt.”

Corvo stretches his arms above his head, tilting his neck until it pops. “I’ve still got another hour in my schedule blocked off, since her Majesty’s skiving off. Want to give it a try?”

Part of Corvo expect the Outsider to recoil at the very idea of getting his hands dirty. But instead, when he looks between Corvo and the practice grounds, the expression on his face is the same one he gave the grandfather clock he was inspecting a few days ago. Even the hint of a new experience makes his eyes light up.

The eyes still look a little out of place in his face, but Corvo thinks he’s getting used to it.

“Alright,” says the Outsider, slipping down off the wall.

Corvo puts him through the same paces he used to put Emily through, because—she’d parrotted the words back at him often enough—someday, our enemies will come for you. He can’t say he’s happy he was right. The Outsider is clumsy, but he doesn’t have any bad habits, not the way so many of the new recruits to the Watch do, and soon enough he slides under a barrier and comes out the other side grinning up at Corvo, heedless of the dirt on his knees.

“Okay,” Corvo says, offering him a hand up. “Now let’s see if you can sneak up on me.”

Corvo does his best imitation of a bored guard on patrol. Hands in his pockets, eyes to the front, mind wandering. After a few tries, the Outsider’s light on his feet, moving quietly enough that a man less attentive than Corvo wouldn’t notice him. But no matter how many times Corvo explains it, his chokehold’s no good.

“Here,” Corvo says, in the face of the Outsider’s obvious frustration. “Turn around.”

The Outsider does. Corvo wraps his arm around his neck. “Like this,” he says. “Only not as gently, obviously.” He pulls his chin back, and the Outsider’s breath catches. He goes rigid for long enough that Corvo almost lets him go. But after a moment, he relaxes all at once, like he forced himself to do it.

He tips his head back farther, so he can just look Corvo in the eyes. “This is gently, is it,” he says, voice just a touch strained. Corvo grins, and yanks back just a bit more. Not enough to hurt, but enough to startle. The Outsider just looks at him, eyes opaque.

“Now,” Corvo says, “how can you break my hold?”

It’s a few more hours before the Outsider’s able to break out of Corvo’s grip on every fifth try, which is about as good as anyone can expect after a single day’s training. Corvo has to talk him out of trying to continue.

“It would be a waste to break your neck after Lurk put so much effort into preserving it,” he points out.

The Outsider, rubbing at a bruise on his collarbone, glares at him. Corvo grins back, feeling more relaxed than he has in days. The Outsider sits down on the wall again, and Corvo joins him this time, sitting shoulder to shoulder.

“I remember the man who taught you that move,” the Outsider says, a few minutes into the comfortable quiet. “He was so hard on you and your fellows that one day, you endeavored as a group to hide dried bloodflies in his shoes. He ran the lot of you ragged for days, afterwards, but you were sure that it was worth it for the look on his face as he yelled.”

Corvo laughs, startled. “You know, I think I’d forgotten that.” It had been Corvo’s idea.

“You shouldn’t,” the Outsider says seriously. “It was very amusing.” Encouraged, he begins to tell another story, one of the pranks Corvo and Beatrici played on their mother, a lifetime ago.

It’s nice to sit here, the ache of a good day settling into his muscles and the past, for once, a comfort in his ear.

Even when the Outsider sets Corvo’s teeth on edge, he is still slowly, day by day, losing the battle against becoming fond of him, a strange and nosy and curious man who never knows before he speaks whether his words are going to sting. He can be thoughtlessly cruel—has always been, in the time that Corvo has known him—but there is nothing calculated in it, especially now. He’s careless, not cunning. The distinction matters to Corvo, perhaps more than it should.

“Do you know my whole life?” Corvo asks.

The Outsider pauses. He’d just gotten to the part where Beatrici hacked away at part of the wall of their apartment, determined that she should have her own hiding place. “No,” he says. “I know pieces. An incomplete patchwork. The level of detail ebbs and flows.”

“Because sometimes you weren’t paying attention.”

“Not always, no.” The Outsider is watching him warily, now.

“Would you still have marked me if she lived?”

The Outsider opens his mouth. Closes it again. Surrenders, finally, to his inability to shut up. “It doesn’t matter,” he says.

“It matters to me.”

“No. You misunderstand me. It doesn’t matter because in a thousand thousand lives, the Empress never would have lived. I did not lie to you, Corvo.”

You cannot save her, you cannot save her, he couldn’t fucking save her. Corvo sighs. Calculated cruelty might hurt less. He brings up his knee and rests his face against it, looking towards the Tower instead of at the Outsider. “So you always would have given me the Mark.”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes I think I should’ve stayed in Serkonos.” Never for long. Not really. He can’t imagine his life any other way.

He didn’t ask, but the Outsider, of course, can’t resist telling him anyway. “If you had stayed, you would have found your grave there. At the Blade Verbena, or soon enough afterwards.”

Corvo says nothing. Thinks of never meeting Jessamine, of a world without his grief and a world without Emily.

“I prefer this world,” the Outsider tells him. “The one where you left.” Corvo doesn’t want to care. But he does, just a little.

He doesn’t ask if the Outsider is glad because it means that Corvo lived, or because it was the more interesting outcome. He’s not sure he’d like the answer. He’s not even sure that the Outsider would be able to tell the difference.

-

Emily slips away from the Tower to meet Billie already a bit sore. Her father must be anxious—his blows had just a little more force than usual. Or maybe he was merely annoyed with her inattention. Emily can’t blame him. It’s a strange time. Though it’s not like there’s any other kind of time to be found, in Dunwall. It makes her all the more determined to savor the stretches of peace whenever she can find them. There will be another attempt on her throne, one of these days, and she won’t have the Mark to protect her.

So two rounds of training won’t hurt; and it won’t hurt Billie, to think that Corvo Attano has ever had anything better to do than spar with his daughter. That was something that Emily learned from her, after all. Sometimes all it takes is a small lie to get what you want.

The lodging house where Billie is staying occupies the floor above the bar that housed a black market shop, during Delilah’s reign. It’s a bar again now, perched just above the docks and bustling as the afternoon turns into evening. Emily makes her way through the crowd and climbs the stairs, listening to the gossip as she passes out of habit: the price of whale oil has skyrocketed, again; the Hatters and the Dead Eels are talking about a truce so that they can unite and take on Bottle Street; the new pie shop at the end of Clavering Boulevard has the best eel pasties anyone has ever eaten. Nothing about cults and no word about the Outsider. Just the simple everyday chaos of life.

Billie opens the door to her rooms at Emily’s knock. “Thought maybe you’d have found a better way to spend your night.”

“Sorry. Father kept chasing after me with paperwork. I barely escaped with my life.”

Billie snorts. “Can’t say I know what that’s like. But keeping that damn ship in working order was a constant battle. Sometimes it felt like I’d never stop finding something else broken, another new part I’d have to call in a favor to get.”

“Oh, is that why I spent more time fixing your ship than haunting the streets of Karnaca?”

The old argument carries them in from the door to the clear space Billie’s laid out in the middle of her rooms, Emily discarding her coat and scarf along the way. It’s like putting on a comfortable pair of gloves left at the bottom of a drawer several winters ago: familiar but distant, almost ill-fitting. She likes it, standing in a boarding house and arguing with Billie about fixing leaks on the Wale and whose fault it was exactly that all those bloodflies got out. But they aren’t those people anymore. There’s no reason they can’t pretend to be for a while. But Emily has to keep her guard up. She has to remember that it isn’t going to last.

Sparring’s the same kind of familiar, up until Billie starts to use her powers in earnest. Corvo had never used his abilities when he sparred with Emily. She’d seen the things he could do, back at the Hound Pits Pub, but she almost hadn’t believed her own recollection. They’d never talked about it. And then Delilah came, and forced the issue. For a few months after that, Emily was the one who had the advantage on Corvo, disappearing out of his grip instead of tapping out. He’d only shaken his head at her, but the first time Billie does it, Emily’s surprised he wasn’t more annoyed. It’s unsettling, to have someone there and then not, already halfway across the room. Especially when they look as smug about it as Billie does.

Billie grins, and Emily lunges after her, and then they’re just themselves, who they are now, the people the world has forced them to be. An Empress spending what time she can without her mask, and a former assassin with the Void lurking in her heart.

They’re practicing with live steel, just like they did back on the ship. It’s stupid. Emily knows it’s stupid. But back on the ship she knew that in a pinch, she could vanish from the path of any blade, and now she knows that Billie can do the same.

Emily knocks Billie’s knife out of her hands and sweeps her legs out from under her. Billie yanks on her elbow and pulls Emily off-balance, and they both go down hard on the unpadded wood floor. Emily gets her blade in under Billie’s chin while she’s catching her breath, feeling herself smile. She can’t help it. It’s fun, just like it used to be, and in a minute Billie is going to be gone from under her and Emily will whirl around, trying to figure out where she went—

But Billie doesn’t move, her Void-touched hand flexing uselessly against the floorboards. She’s looking up at Emily with serious eyes, and there’s blood welling up where Emily let the blade get too close to her neck.

Emily flings it away. The clatter of the blade hitting the floor is very loud in the small space. And after that there’s only the sounds of their breath, Billie’s calm and Emily’s speeding up. All the while Billie just watches.

“Why,” Emily asks, “do you seem to be under the impression that I want to kill you?” Why, she doesn’t ask, do you seem like you would let me?

Billie sits up, shoving Emily back with her right hand, the Void cold against Emily’s shoulder.

“Why don’t you?”

Emily stands, furious with everything. Herself, for not noticing what was happening behind Billie’s eyes. Billie, for being so stubborn. She can just see her father’s face, if he heard her call someone else stubborn. “You don’t get to use me to hurt yourself. A knife isn’t the only way to solve a problem, Billie.”

“Sometimes it’s the cleanest.”

“Then why didn’t you kill the Outsider when you had the chance?”

Billie looks away. “Because he never asked for any of it. Because life chewed the kid up and spat him back out broken. Because the only reason Daud hated him—the only reason I hated him—was because it was easier than living with the things we’d done.”

Emily crosses her arms. “There’s your answer.”

“It’s not the same, and you know it.”

It’s not the same. But it’s not so different, either. Emily can’t say that. She can’t talk about Dierdre, about Radanis, about how until six months ago she’d regarded his death as a tragedy, in the vague sort of way she thought about any death in one of the Isles’ royal families. Billie must know that she knows. That audiograph hadn’t been behind lock and key. But it isn’t the Empress’s place to bring it up. It isn’t Emily’s.

“I picked your pocket,” Emily says instead. “That last night on the ship. I took the key and broke into your cabin.”

Billie doesn’t stand up. She crosses her legs and leans back on her hands. “Yeah,” she says. “Guess I deserved that.”

“I thought maybe you were letting me. You didn’t seem like the easiest woman to steal from.”

“I had a lot on my mind.”

Emily remembers. Billie gazing out into the dark sea, Dunwall rising just beyond, a city hollowed out. “I listened to the audiograph. It made me sick. I hadn’t heard his voice since I was taken. I almost snapped the card in half. I would have, but then you would’ve known I’d been there.” Even then it had been strange—shouldn’t she want Billie to see the broken card and to know? It was the least of the revenge Emily deserved. Would have deserved, if she believed revenge would bring her anything close to peace. “I couldn’t bear to hear him say my name.”

Billie closes her eyes. “It wasn’t a lie,” she says, voice stretched taut. “He did save you. I wasn’t there for that. I was gone by then. But I heard. This past year wasn’t the first time Delilah came for you.”

I killed an Empress but saved her daughter, Daud said, and Emily didn’t care if it was true or not, then or now. It doesn’t matter. What matters, what dug its claws into Emily’s chest, was that Daud sounded sorry, voice steeped in so much regret and anguish he was drowning in it.

He sounded just as sorry as Billie had, up on the deck, leaning on the rail, knowing that if Emily wanted to stab her in the back or push her over the side or put a gun to her head that she could. There had been a moment when Emily thought it might turn into a fight, blades crossing, but she knows better now. She knows that if she’d decided then that the only way Billie Lurk could pay for her mistakes was with her death, Billie would have looked her in the eyes and let her do it.

The thought—Billie dead in the water, eyes staring up unseeing—makes Emily feel sick. The thought of her dead on the floor in this room, Emily’s blade slicing a gash across her throat, is far worse, because Emily knows how easy it would be. Even now, Billie wouldn’t put up a fight.

No one should have that much power over someone else. Emily is well versed in having too much power. She’s trying to learn to wield it carefully.

“I can’t ever forgive him. It doesn’t matter what else he did. My father spared him once. That has to be enough. But it wasn’t your hand on the knife that killed my mother.” Emily walks to Billie and offers her a hand. Billie watches it coolly. Emily almost thinks she can see something flicker in her right eye.

“That’s a shitty reason. It could have been.”

“It wasn’t. And whatever takes you down, one of these days—it won’t be my hand on that knife.”

“Dangerous promise to make, Empress,” Billie says. She lets Emily pull her to her feet.

Emily shrugs. “That’s the only kind worth making.” She squeezes Billie’s hand just once before she drops it. “I know you’d undo it if you could. But you can’t. So now we both have to live with it. Let’s live.”

-

They take a skiff out after, sweat still cooling on their skin. It’s on loan to Billie from an old contact of hers. Even if she’s landed in Dunwall for now, there’s no reason for her to lose her sea legs entirely.

She’s been doing a lot of that lately. Catching up with old contacts. The kind of people that might one day become her friends, if she was someone else. But Billie Lurk doesn’t live like that.

No, Billie Lurk lets a woman whose mother she helped kill talk her into a sparring match, and when it doesn’t have the decency to end in blood, she takes her out on the water so they can both sit in a silence heavy with all the ghosts they’ve left behind. They spent plenty of nights on the Wale just like this, quiet, watching the sea. Knowing that tomorrow Emily would do something stupid and dangerous and necessary, and somehow—as if by magic—she would always come back alive.

But when Billie looks up from the sea this time, Emily’s eyes are on Dunwall.

“When I went to the Grand Palace,” she says, “the Outsider asked me something. If it looked different up close. The palace, and the streets outside it, and how broken I’d let the Empire become. I wanted to smash the shrine to pieces.”

Billie can imagine. It’s nothing she wouldn’t have said herself. But she bets the Outsider managed to make it sting more than Billie ever could. “He would’ve thought that was hilarious.”

“Probably. And the only reason I didn’t was because he was right. You were right. I ignored it for years, everything wrong with this city and this Empire.” She looks up to the high point of Dunwall Tower, bright in the distance. “I don’t know if I’m actually doing any better than I was.”

“You’re worrying about it, aren’t you?”

“It’s all I ever think about, since I got back. Well, it was. Then a living god suddenly showed up on my doorstep. I’ve been a bit busy since.”

Billie grins. “Then you’re doing a hell of a lot better than most of the people who’ve ever sat in your place.”

Emily smiles at her. Not the way she grinned at Billie back on the Wale, sharp and fast, when she didn’t know who it was she was really looking at. It’s the kind of soft look she gives to people she knows. People she trusts.

Some days, even knowing how well she can handle herself in a fight, Billie can barely believe Emily’s gone this long without getting herself killed.

“Why did you help me? You’d never even met me, not—really. You can’t have thought I was anything but a rich idiot.”

It’s almost like spending time with the Outsider. That same question, over and over again: why, why, why. Billie doesn’t live her life thinking why. She moves the way an assassin moves, striking before she’s had a chance to think. For a long time it was the only way to survive. And for a long time after that, it was just the only way she knew how.

“Favor for a friend,” Billie says. “Sokolov asked me to. He helped me out of a few rough spots, back in the day. I owed him.”

Emily flicks a bit of water at Billie. “I was with you, all that time on the Dreadful Wale. I heard all your stories about ‘Meagan Foster’,” she says. “Come on. I know what you look like when you’re lying.”

She’s just as annoying as the Outsider, too. “Someday you’re going to have to learn to stop picking at your own wounds.”

Emily shrugs. “Hasn’t killed me yet.”

“I had to. That what you want to hear? I had to help you, knowing what I’d done.” She peers down into the water. The moon is new, Month of Wind just beginning, but the light’s enough to see her face looking back, wavering. Water murky by her eye like it’s not sure what to show her. “Just the same as Daud. But even he realized that helping you wasn’t enough to fix things.”

“You looked me in the eyes while you did it,” Emily says, reflection joining Billie’s in the water. “Daud never did that. He ran away.”

I ran away.”

“And when I needed help, you came back.” Emily reaches out and puts a hand on her cheek, turning Billie’s face towards her, up from the water. Billie very carefully doesn’t startle. She doesn’t want to rock the boat. Emily’s eyes are steady. “Even when it hurt you.”

What a pair they make: Billie Lurk and Empress Emily Kaldwin, alone on a skiff in the middle of the night, stewing in their own mistakes and only the moon to see them.

Billie should shrug her off. But she doesn’t want to. And it’s easier, in the dark, to let herself have the things she doesn’t deserve. “You’re going to be good for this city,” she says. “You’ve come a long way. And you have a long way to go yet. But you’re lucky. If you stumble, you’ll have people to catch you, and you’re smart enough to let them. Not many people have that. Or realize it when they do.”

Emily blinks at her, eyes shining in the dark. Billie can feel her fingers tremble before she drops them to her lap. “I hope you’re right.”

They row back to shore before morning can chase them to it. All the while Billie doesn’t say what she’s thinking. That she hopes Emily is right about her, too.

-

Billie Lurk, as she so often does, is living up to her name. She possesses a peculiar gift that so few of Daud’s proteges had, stepping into shadows like they’re her home. They welcome her like an old friend.

They once welcomed the Outsider, but he is no longer any good at staying hidden. He trails Billie through Dunwall’s alleyways for less than five minutes before she stops in a shaded corner and grabs his arm as he walks past, spinning him around and putting his back against the wall.

“When is anyone going to learn that it’s not a good idea to sneak up on me, a trained assassin?”

Her arm is pressed up against the Outsider’s throat. He could break out of her hold. Or try, at least, the way that Corvo showed him.

“You aren’t going to hurt me.”

Billie steps back, shaking out her arm. “Don’t be so sure, kid. Were you following me?”

“I was.”

“Why?”

The Outsider wrinkles his nose. He is beginning to hate that question, rattling as it does incessantly in his own head. “Let’s go to the docks.”

“Excuse me?”

“Words are easier there.”

Billie throws her hands into the air, giving an exasperated look to the sky, but when the Outsider begins to walk, she follows him. For all that he is adrift in Dunwall, he is never truly lost in these streets: they were built on the remains of an ancient city, and he knows them as well as if they were his own bones, each twist and turn carved with as much care as any rune.

Billie feels just as familiar here, for different reasons. There is no true comfort for her anywhere. In time, perhaps she will stop living always with one eye cast behind her shoulder. Or perhaps not. But Dunwall is a place that has already opened her up and sucked the marrow from her bones. Billie Lurk knows Dunwall and all the ways it can hurt her; there are no secrets from her here.

The Outsider supposes that’s the answer to her question. If anyone can help the Outsider chart his own mind, surely it will be her.

They go to the docks, near what was once Rothwild’s factory, a section the Outsider prefers because it is all but abandoned now. Whaling ships once docked here on their return from long journeys, heavy with their cargo already bleeding across the deck. There are so few whales left, and the ones that remain have grown wise in their dwindling days. They hide.

He tells Billie this, while they sit with their legs dangling over the brackish water. The light from the moon falls across the sea. It’s beautiful in a way the Void might have been, once, before the Outsider ever dwelled there. He did not lie to Billie Lurk. It is easier to think here.

“Lack of whale oil’s as likely to kill this place as the plague ever was,” Billie says, looking around at the empty docks.

“Serkonos survives just fine with wind.” The Outsider’s voice comes out sharper than he expected. He used to be better at knowing which words would cut.

“Sure. Takes a long time to change something that big, though. The way people are used to living digs in, like a splinter. Gets in too deep to ever get out.” She turns to look at him. He can always tell, when she watches him with the Void behind her eye. It feels familiar. Wind against his face, home at last. “What is it with you and whales, anyway?”

“The association was one borne of time. Stories layered upon one another until they became a solid foundation of rock.” The Outsider pauses. “But I do like them. They have a sort of terrible beauty. A wretched elegance. And they called to me. How could they not? They are creatures butchered and carved into, all for the want of the power they can grant.”

“I think I liked it a lot better when I thought you didn’t have a heart.”

“My intention was not to make you feel bad for me.”

Billie snorts. “Wasn’t it? All that shit you said when I was trying to kill you? I know better than most how much someone will do to save their own skin. And don’t take it as a compliment. We’ve all got hearts. Doesn’t mean they do any good.” She sighs. “When you wouldn’t stop dropping into my head, it sure felt like you were trying to make me hate you.”

The Outsider shrugs. “You always interested me, Billie Lurk. You didn’t want my Mark. You didn’t want anything from me. You desired it for so long, and then your mind changed. People did not often outgrow their fixations on me. Daud never did.”

“We don’t talk about Daud,” Billie says, but without the heat it might have once had. That wound is beginning to scar over.

“We are talking about him now.”

The look Billie gives him would be sour enough to brine fish. "Fine. Let’s talk about Daud. Did you care about him? Ever? Even at first?"

"Daud was interesting, and then he was not." Daud was interesting. He had such great ambition. So many of his Marked did: Vera and Delilah and Daud all thought that they could shape the world in their image.

Even the lonely rat boy wanted that. The Outsider doesn’t know what he wanted when he was young. Another unsalvageable piece of himself.

Corvo, though, has never been an ambitious man. And yet he caught the Outsider’s interest all the same.

"And me?" Billie asks.

The Outsider should have expected that Billie would only have more questions. "You...I thought that you had the capacity to understand me. After such a long time. You made me feel hope, and you bore that hope out." He pauses. "I think that is what I wanted. Your understanding. Your friendship, perhaps.” The words are inadequate. He can’t fit how he felt into them, staring his death in the face and deciding the face that looked back at him should be Billie Lurk’s.

Billie shrugs. "Guess I did save your life. Yeah, 'friends' probably covers it. That what was up with you and Attano?"

"There was no chance of Corvo ever understanding me. He is a man of mud and brine and dust." And he would not, the Outsider thinks, appreciate being called his friend.

"He's a heretic, just like the rest of us."

"He is...practical."

"So what's so interesting about Attano, anyway, aside from the fact that history keeps trying to grind him into the dirt?"

"History wants to grind us all into the dirt. Corvo is interesting because he refused to let it."

"Neither did Emily."

The Outsider lets out a frustrated breath. "Fine. I don't know. It’s why I wanted to talk to you."

"Oh, so that’s why you were following me?”

“You seem like you have answers. More than I do, at least.”

Billie snorts, tipping her head back to the sky. “Right. Hate to break it to you, kid, but I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Here, or anywhere else.”

The Outsider peers at her. It is a frustrating experience. Once, she would have been as transparent to him as a glass freshly cleaned. Now, trying to understand what she is thinking is like trying to find the stars among heavy clouds. Sometimes, if he turns it over in his mind just right, he can see a flash of what lies beneath, the skies parting. But not often. He has to feel it out, groping in the dark. “Emily was distracted yesterday during her training.”

Billie jerks so hard she nearly falls off the pier. “During her what?”

“She was sparring, yesterday morning. With Corvo.” Billie’s expression is the same one she wears while watching the Outsider eat hagfish pie. “She couldn’t focus, so Corvo let her leave early. She was in a hurry. You wouldn’t happen to know where she was heading, do you?”

“You’re still so annoying,” Billie says. “One of these days someone is going to knock your teeth out, you know that?”

“Well, that will be new.”

Billie shakes her head at him. “You want to know what’s going on in the Empress’s head, you’d better ask her. Believe me when I tell you I haven’t got a clue.”

“And in my head?”

“Not everyone makes a study of all the bullshit other people are thinking about.” But she draws up one leg and gives him a long assessing look. The Outsider endures it. “So you thought I was interesting. Not as interesting as Corvo, right?”

“No.”

“And you don’t even know why.”

“No.” It itches under his skin. Billie Lurk, watching him with an amused, lopsided half-smile, is not helping matters as much as he thought she would. He rests his chin on his knees. “It’s like taking apart a clock.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing to keep busy? Don’t you have a job now?”

The Outsider ignores her. “It’s like taking apart a clock. But clocks are sensible. Their guts do what they are meant to do. With this, once I’ve taken all the pieces out, I can’t find a way to make them fit together again. They rebel in my hands. And it’s like taking apart a clock because clocks are fascinating, and when I don’t understand how they work, I only want to look at them more.”

“Attano seems like a pretty straightforward guy to me. But I’ve never cared that much about the inside of a clock, either.” Billie holds up a hand to forestall him when the Outsider opens his mouth to explain. “Nothing you’re about to say is going to make me care about mechanical engineering or natural philosophy or whatever the fuck you’re talking about. Spare us both.” She claps him on the back. “Good luck with your clock. Let me know when you figure it out, kid.”

“I am older than you a hundred times over.” He glares at her. It doesn’t work. Billie, unintimidated, seems to take it as permission to reach out and ruffle his hair. He is beginning to miss his old eyes. No one would have dared ruffle his hair with the darkness of the Void staring back at them.

He accepts it easily enough, bowing his head for as long as it takes to find the right angle to shove her into the water. Corvo’s lessons were useful. She shrieks very satisfyingly when she hits the surface and goes under.

He is only able to savor the moment for a few seconds before she sticks her head up from the water and grabs him by the ankle, dragging him in after her. And then the both of them are laughing, shoving at each other like the children they have not been in a very long time. Water gets into his mouth, and it is as disgusting as anyone would expect from a Dunwall harbor. He spits it out in Billie’s direction. She kicks him in the stomach, knocking him onto his back.

“When we freeze to death,” she says, “it’s going to be your fault, and I’ll have wasted a shitload of effort trying to keep you alive.”

“It wasn’t a waste,” he says. He floats. The sky, seen so directly from below, is almost like the sea, full of the same endless and terrifying possibility.

-

Corvo wakes up to the sound of someone climbing onto the sill outside his bedroom window. He grabs the blade under his pillow as he rises. Not with any sort of urgency. Whoever’s outside is clumsily fiddling with the latch on Corvo’s shutters, cursing under their breath in a language Corvo doesn’t recognize.

When Corvo opens the shutters himself, the Outsider tumbles in, soaked to the skin, getting Corvo wet when he catches him against his chest.

“Oh,” the Outsider says. He blinks at Corvo owlishly. “Wrong room.” Despite the damp, he’s very warm in Corvo’s arms.

Corvo installs him in the chair behind his desk, and drapes one of his old coats across the Outsider’s shoulders. He turns away to build up the fire in the grate, and he’s about to pour the Outsider a whiskey when he thinks better of it. “Are you drunk?” he asks, not turning around.

A long pause, interrupted only by what sounds like the Outsider drawing the coat tighter around himself, and him knocking something off the desk. “I had one drink,” the Outsider says, finally. “Billie Lurk said it would warm me up. She was half-right.”

Right. Just a whiskey for himself, then. Corvo sips it and leans against his desk, looking down at the Outsider, worshipped still by heretics all across the Isles, huddled and shivering in a coat three sizes too big for him. “Why were you trying to climb into your window instead of using the front gates?”

“You said I should learn to defend myself,” the Outsider reasons. “Billie agreed. She taught me how to pick locks while we were on the ship to Dunwall. I was going to try the back door, but there were too many guards.”

“And you thought it would be easier five stories up?”

“There were fewer guards.” Even now, he’s so serious, dignified despite the water dripping down his nose.

Corvo puts on the stern expression he had to learn when Emily was young, so that he could scold her without laughing at whatever she had done. “I taught you a few simple holds, and Lurk taught you—somewhat unsuccessfully, it looks like—to pick locks. Who taught you to climb walls this high without falling to your death?” It would be a poor way to go. For anyone, but especially for the Outsider, so new to actually being alive.

“I don’t know. Or don’t remember. I was good at it as a child, I think. Climbing.”

His eyes go distant, and the shivering gets worse, despite the fire crackling behind them. Corvo sighs, and changes the subject. “And why, exactly, did you and Lurk go swimming in Dunwall Harbor?”

“She pulled me in,” the Outsider says. He pulls the coat a little closer around himself. “After I pushed her.”

Corvo does have to laugh, imagining that. A god and an assassin, fighting off hagfish. “Well, I can’t say I blame you.”

“You don’t like her very much.”

“Would you, in my place?”

“I don’t know.” The Outsider pulls his feet up, sitting cross-legged in the chair. It is only then that Corvo notices he isn’t wearing shoes. He must have abandoned his wet boots at some point in the night. “My perspective grows more narrow every day. She saved me. I cannot imagine a world where it is otherwise.”

Corvo drinks. The Outsider peers up at him from behind his bangs, wet and falling into his eyes. “You don’t like me very much either, do you?”

What a question. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have let you in here to get water all over my furniture in the middle of the night,” Corvo says. And it would honestly, he doesn’t say, be easier if he didn’t. “You make me nervous. But everything makes me nervous, these days. I’m getting old.”

“But you prefer it when things are in their place. I am out of place.”

“You won’t always be,” Corvo says, struck again by the same tenderness he felt in the training yard: the sense that the Outsider is as lost and alone as Corvo once was, and much less well-equipped to handle it. “Building a home is hard work, but everyone does it. You’ll do fine.”

“Is that what I’m supposed to be doing? Building a home?”

“Yes.” He could tell the Outsider that he’s supposed to do whatever he wants; he doesn’t think it would help. “You’re in a city full of strangers. But after a while, they won’t be strangers anymore. I did it, when I first came here. You will too.”

“Perhaps,” the Outsider says. “But you and I are not strangers.”

A part of Corvo wants to say that they are. What does he know about the Outsider, except for the small bits and pieces he’s gleaned over the past few weeks? Knowing what he looks like when he tries a new food he turns out to despise barely counts, against the endless years of his life that Corvo knows nothing about. And what does the Outsider truly know about him, after all—what, except for everything, the corners of his heart that no one has seen since Jessamine died? The stories from his childhood that Corvo himself doesn’t even remember? An unlooked for intimacy is no less intimate.

Jessamine would be better at this. Jessamine was kinder, even if she was so often ineffective in her kindness. She never stopped trying, a useless determination that Corvo couldn’t help but love.

“We’re not,” Corvo says. “I don’t know what we are.”

“No,” the Outsider says. “Neither do I.” He looks away, watching the fire behind Corvo. “I told Emily that I was an old friend of yours, when we first spoke. I suppose I was wrong. It wasn’t such a long time ago, balanced against the whole of my life. But the divide between then and now grows wider than it should. My life was snapped in two, the moment that Billie pulled me from the Void. It was months ago, but it feels just as far away as the founding of this city, as the first time a whale was caught by a harpoon.”

“It’s late,” Corvo says, because it is, and because the Outsider can only warm up so much while still in his wet clothes. And because he knows this mood, or at least the shadow of it that sometimes strikes him in the quiet darkness of the night: the sort of melancholy and loneliness that cannot survive in the day. “And Lurk was right, you’re a lightweight. You should go to bed.”

For a moment he thinks that the Outsider will refuse to leave. Corvo doesn’t have the heart to throw him out, and so they would be at a stalemate. Corvo is too old to stay up late, drinking whiskey into the night and talking. The Outsider is too, come to that.

But the Outsider dips his head, and unfolds himself from the chair. He does not seem inclined to return Corvo’s coat. He’s about to ask for it back, but the Outsider huddles in closer, tucking his nose into the collar, and it turns out that Corvo doesn’t have the heart for that either. Either he used to be better at being stern, or he’s developing a soft spot for the Outsider. Neither option bodes well.

After he leaves, Corvo stays up to finish his whiskey. He catches himself wishing for company, that the Outsider had insisted on staying after all. He misses the quiet companionship he used to have on evenings like this, watching the stars with Samuel outside the Hound Pits or sitting up late with Jessamine while she caught up on her correspondence. He hopes the Outsider, at least, is sleeping soundly, and does not yet know enough of the world to find himself lonely.

-

Emily knows better than to daydream her way through Parliament. She does. But Bloomington’s voice has not lost the droning quality it has had since he took his seat in Parliament when Emily was sixteen, and just because it now reminds Emily of the sound of bloodflies doesn’t make it any less boring after the first wave of panic passes.

Things were easier right after she clawed her way back to Dunwall, when the entire city was still shifting precariously beneath her feet, when the idea of losing hold of it again was the only thing she had room to think about. She knows she’s in just as much danger now as ever, that the careless neglect she let govern her government for so long can hurt her city just as much as Delilah’s coup.

None of that makes tax law any more interesting.

Emily does her best to take notes, to mark down the members of the assembly who are motivated only partially by greed, and who therefore might be reasoned with enough that they’ll vote in favor of the tax reforms Emily and Corvo have been putting together for the past month.

The minute the meeting is over, she ducks out of the window in her chambers and climbs to the highest point on Dunwall Tower, notes abandoned in her room.

It’s a game she played plenty of times, before the Mark on her hand became useless: make her way across the Tower’s roofs without letting any of the guards spot her. It’ll be harder, without her powers, but perhaps it’s all for the better. Emily needs to focus. Emily needs to clear her head. Emily needs to stop thinking about Billie Lurk, and the look on her face when she said she thought Emily could be good for Dunwall.

It’s stupid. Emily shouldn’t care what Billie thinks. She should feel condescended to, not whatever it is she’s feeling, jittery and unsettled and too big to fit inside her skin. She’s used to wanting approval from her father and the ghost of her mother and no one else.

Perched on an overhang outside one of the guest rooms that never gets used, facing another equally empty window across from her, Emily closes her eyes and opens her left hand and reaches from the place where the Void used to rest, just behind her breastbone.

Nothing happens. Emily sighs, and makes the leap.

It hurts, and Corvo is going to notice her scraped up hands later and give her an earful, but Emily makes it. She always makes it.

Billie Lurk helped kill her mother. Jessamine died screaming. Emily knows. She was there. There’s no forgiveness for that. No amount of kindness is going to make up for it.

She makes her way along the outer edge of the roof and climbs up the slope of it, vaulting over the peak. She misjudges it a little, going too fast, but she catches herself on a chimney on the other side, breathing hard. Emily slides down and peeks over the edge. She’s around the back of the Tower now, where deliveries come in, and where Corvo meets the contacts that he’s too polite to call spies.

But it’s not really kindness that Billie offers. It’s something sharper, something harder for Emily to swallow. It’s expectation, belief, hope from a woman who should be beyond it.

Everything was so much simpler in Karnaca. It didn’t matter what Meagan Foster was hiding. What mattered was Delilah, and stopping her.

Emily looks down. The drop is dizzying, and the street below is deserted. She jumps, again, aiming for the outbuilding across the way. It’s a longer gap, but she knows she can make it.

She doesn’t. She manages to grab onto the stone molding with one hand, tries to lever herself up that way, but it slips out of her fingers, the stone should be rougher, she remembers it being rougher, but it’s uselessly smooth under her palm and shit, shit, shit

Father is going to kill her, she thinks, and then the world shifts and she can taste the Void on her tongue, and then there’s an arm under her knees and ice at her back—

The impact knocks the breath out of her, but Billie catches her, staggering just slightly under her weight.

Emily blinks up at her. Billie seems just as surprised as she does.

“You were not here a minute ago,” she says slowly. Her whole body feels slow, even though she knows her heart is pounding.

“The Outsider came this way last night after we had a few drinks. I was making sure he didn’t end up in a ditch somewhere. Apparently he’s not the one I should’ve been worried about,” Billie says. “Thankfully, I can move pretty fast these days.” She puts Emily down carefully, a moment after Emily realizes that she should move herself. Billie sets her hands on Emily’s shoulders and looks her over, frowning at the scrapes on her hands. She grabs one to examine it more closely, Void eye gleaming. She’s not wearing the eyepatch.

Emily just stands there like an idiot, feeling warm down to her toes, and watches her do it. So much for not thinking about Billie Lurk. Truthfully, the most coherent thing Emily is thinking right now is shit, over and over again, just like when she was falling. Oh, Corvo is really going to kill her. “My tutor used to tell me stories about dashing pirates and damsels in distress,” she says, mouth moving ahead of her mind. But maybe it’s better, to say anything else but You saved my life. Again. “I’m glad to see at least some of Callista’s lessons were useful.”

“You lose one eye, and everyone wants to call you a pirate.”

“Sorry, I meant a wanted smuggler and assassin.”

Billie rolls her eye. She wraps her left arm around Emily’s waist, and Emily is still deciding how she feels about that when suddenly they’re back on the roof just above the overhang she fell from. Emily barely even felt them move. It’s different than what Emily used to be able to do, completely instantaneous.

“That’s amazing,” Emily says, more breathless than she means to be.

Billie smirks at her, and sketches the parody of a bow. Emily can’t even bring herself to mind. “Always nice to be appreciated.”

They retrace Emily’s path, Billie using her powers to make the jumps, moving faster than Emily ever could. Once they get back inside the Tower, they sneak around the way that Emily used to when she was young, keeping their backs pressed to corners and peering around them to check for anyone coming.

It’s fun. It almost makes Emily ache. If things were different, maybe it could always be like this, breathless and exhilarating and painless.

They’d have to be different people for it to ever be like that. Emily is beginning to see what made Billie want to become someone else.

After they pause, waiting for a servant to pass, they duck back into Emily’s quarters. Emily falls back onto her bedspread, grinning.

Billie shakes her head, and she leaves Emily on the bed to start wandering around the room, picking things up and putting them back down.

“Thanks,” Emily says. She’s not entirely sure for what. For catching her. For being there. For reminding Emily that the Tower isn’t only a cage.

Billie glances at her, and then away again. “Believe me when I say it’s the least I can do. Your clumsiness aside—seriously, I’d expect better from you—I’ve been meaning to talk to you. A little bird told me you were training with your father right before you showed up complaining about all the paperwork he wanted you to do.”

Emily rolls over onto her front and props her face on her hand, watching Billie pace. She can feel the levity seep out of the room by degrees as Billie remembers where they are, the parts they both have to play.

It hurts, because it forces Emily to remember the same things: all the reasons that Billie isn’t someone she can creep around on rooftops with, that the joyously queasy feeling in her stomach when Billie caught her out of the air ought to have been from fear, and nothing else.

“You can’t blame me,” Emily says. “You’re not exactly and easy woman to befriend.”

Billie picks at the threads on Emily’s curtains. “Friends. Is that what we are, Majesty?

Emily makes a face. “Don’t call me that. It makes me feel like I’m being talked at in Parliament, or like Father’s teasing me again.”

“The Empress should be more discerning in her choice of companions.”

The weather at sea was like this, sometimes: calm for days until a storm swept them up in an instant, and Meagan had to shout instructions to Emily, who only knew about sailing from books and plays, and had never before tied a proper knot in her life.

There had been something exciting about that, even when it terrified her. But Billie Lurk, standing at her room and so sure that she doesn’t belong there—this isn’t exciting. It makes Emily sick, and it pisses her off.

Emily gets up and goes to her desk. She runs her fingers over the pages of her notes from earlier, staring down at them unseeing. “What was it like?” she asks.

Billie must catch something from her tone, because she stills, her weight falling back like she’s readying herself for a fight. Emily wonders if she notices that she does that, or if it’s a habit so ingrained that she doesn’t even think about it anymore. “What?”

“My mother’s assassination. What was it like?”

Billie doesn’t even blink. “I’m not going to answer that.”

“Why not?” Emily straightens the notes out, movements too harsh. She’s probably smearing the ink. She’ll have to copy them out again later before she gives them to Corvo. “Isn’t it the least you can do? What, you’re the only one who gets to bring it up whenever you’re uncomfortable?”

“You don’t get to use me to hurt yourself,” Billie says, doing a poor job of imitating Emily’s tone from their sparring match. “I know what it’s like to have scars, and to leave them. I'm trying my best to stop. If you really want to know, ask your father. He was there too.”

I was there,” Emily says, and this is better: anger is something she knows how to direct. Anger is easy. Anger makes sense. Fighting is something Emily always has time for.

Billie crosses her arms and tilts her chin up. “What do you want me to say? It was a job. That’s who I was then: I killed for coin. I knew it would be different. We all knew. Even Daud. It happened. But it’s in the past, and it’s like you said: we have to live with it. If you can’t leave it behind, it’s going to drown you.”

As if it didn’t drown her years ago. As if she’ll ever be anyone but the Empress’s daughter, poorly filling shoes too big to fit her. Emily presses her eyes closed. She can feel her face getting hot, her eyes stinging, and for a hundred reasons she doesn’t want to cry in front of Billie.

She cried sometimes on the Wale, alone in her cabin and sure that Meagan and Anton and Hypatia would be polite enough to pretend not to hear. She started to find mugs of tea spiked with whiskey waiting for her outside the door, a few weeks in. She thought that maybe it was Hypatia leaving them, but they kept showing up, even after she was gone.

“Sometimes I feel like it will never let me go. What happened.”

“You can't change the past. I know it's hard not to want to. But this damn arm is proof enough that it's a bad idea. You can't change the past, and you can't leave it behind, either—I used to think I could run from it. Let it scar over. But the past is a wound that never stops bleeding, Emily. I thought if I became Meagan Foster, I could just—not think about it anymore. But then Sokolov showed up and said he needed my help, to help you. Some twisted kind of fate.” She snorts. “Who knows. Maybe the Outsider planned it.”

Emily sits back down on the bed. Lays back, so she can stare at the ceiling instead of the look on Billie’s face. “Do you think he did? He gave you powers in the end, didn’t he?”

“He didn’t mark me. Not really. He just...gave me back something that I’d lost. That you took.” Billie, walking gingerly, comes and sits down beside her. Hands in her lap, eyes on the floor. “If anyone marked me, it was you.”

Emily turns her face away. Her stomach feels tied into knots. It shouldn’t make her feel happy, to hear Billie say something like that. But it does.

“Don’t look like that. It all worked out. Depending on how you define ‘worked out’.” Billie sighs. “Do you miss it? The Mark? The things you could do?”

Emily drapes her arm over her eyes. “Of course I do. It felt like I could do anything.” Her Mark was like a safety net. It let her know that no matter how bad things got, she would always have a way out. She swallows. “I do miss it. But honestly...I think I miss the things that came with it more. The Dreadful Wale, the wind in my hair, feeling like I was doing something good. Something that had to be done.” And Meagan Foster, who was a lie, but who could relax and drink with her in a way that Billie Lurk can’t quite seem to bring herself to do. Who understood the world and who made Emily laugh and who was everything Emily had ever wanted to be, once, strong as steel. Emily rolls over, face pressed into her arms. “Things were bad. I know they were really bad. But I still miss it. That probably doesn’t say anything good about me, does it.”

There’s a soft pressure at her shoulder. Billie’s hand. “This may sound rich coming from me,” Billie says, “but it’s okay to remember the good things, even if everything else was terrible. Otherwise, we’ll have nothing left to remember.”

“I’m glad,” Emily says, half muffled into her pillow, but if she looks up she isn’t going to say it. “That we met. I wish it didn’t happen the way it did. I wish—I wish a lot of things were different. But I am glad.”

Billie is silent for a long while. Her hand doesn’t move. “Me too,” she says, finally, squeezing Emily’s shoulder, and when Emily looks up she’s gone, only the cold seaside smell of the Void left behind her.

Emily shoves her face back into her pillow and groans. Her shoulder still feels warm.

-

Corvo’s journal is weathered, by time and by the oils of his fingers and by all the aching ink he’s spilled into it, his secrets and worries and the pieces of his heart that even the Void couldn’t hear.

It’s an old book, filled with Corvo’s neat handwriting. He is, as ever, a man of few words. These pages have lasted him decades.

He had it with him fifteen years ago when he sailed away from Jessamine. He wrote about how much he missed her in the kind of helpful, concrete terms that the Outsider can understand. Corvo, ever reliable. He missed Jessamine’s cheek against his palm and her voice against his throat and the way that during sessions of Parliament, when there was no real question of security, he could look at her all he wanted while she sat, regal and composed and the smartest, fiercest person in the room.

He wrote about how much he missed her months ago, on what would have been her birthday. All these years later, why am I still thinking about it?

It does make him feel better that Corvo doesn’t always understand, either.

Billie Lurk is wrong about this, as she is in only a few things, most of them to do with herself. Corvo is not straightforward at all. He may have a calm surface, but his currents run deep and unpredictable, an undertow that has swept the Outsider away without him noticing.

He watched Corvo write in this journal once or twice, and thought little of it. He did not even remember its existence until he was in Corvo’s room, shivering in Corvo’s coat, unsettled and comforted by the scent of it. But then, sitting behind Corvo’s desk, the Outsider thought of the last time he spoke to him from the Void, Corvo carefully writing out the encounter and then locking the journal into the drawer of his desk.

The drawer proved an easier lock to pick than the shutters had been. Corvo turned his back to pour a drink, and took his time about it, and the Outsider eased open the drawer of Corvo’s desk and took it, tucking the journal away in one of the voluminous pockets of Corvo’s greatcoat.

He returned the coat the next day, and watched, fascinated, as Corvo’s expression shifted from surprise to laughter to a quiet kind of pleasure, and asked only if the Outsider was hungover. He kept the journal in his room, along with the scattered belongings he carried with him from Billie Lurk’s rooms.

It’s late now. The Outsider can feel sleep tugging at him like a tide. He ignores it. This is what he wanted to know: what it was about Corvo that caught his eye as a needle does thread and pulled.

Corvo once watched Jessamine like that. He thinks of her still, the memories growing as weathered as his journal, smudging and blurring with time. He hated the Heart, but it was the piece of her that he could have. He took it, resentful and grateful not by turns but all at once, a tangle of feeling that he never sorted out.

The Outsider studies Corvo’s handwriting, blocky letters and blunt phrases and clipped sentences. He should return the journal before Corvo notices its absence. He knows he will regret it if he doesn’t, can already taste it under his tongue. But he wants to keep it, a senseless urge that at least now he understands: this is the piece of Corvo he can have.

-

Billie’s right eye itches. Not anywhere she can scratch. Somewhere deeper than her skin, closer than her mind.

Something’s wrong, and she knows that if she could just tilt her head, squint, look at the world the right way, it will all fall into place. Or that’s what the Void wants her to know, and if Billie is sure of anything, after the life she’s led, it’s this: fuck what the Void wants.

She’d gone to Dunwall Tower because she was worried about the Outsider. A little. He really can’t hold his drink for shit. But mostly Billie had gone because her eye was bothering her.

Billie’s less notorious in Dunwall than she was in Karnaca, so there aren’t any wanted posters here with her face. She still keeps an eye on them out of habit, one she’d cultivated in another life. The Whalers used to joke about them. Made up fake ones, when they got too bored on long patrols. Rulfio, wanted for great crimes against the air of Dunwall, which he continues to defile every day he puts off taking a fucking bath. Galia, who shall be put to death upon capture for skipping out on kitchen duty. And whispered, never where he could hear them: Daud, the wretched Knife of Dunwall, wanted for the great and chaotic disruptions caused by his momentous bouts of snoring. Danger, citizens: approach with caution, for when disturbed in slumber none can escape his wrath.

She tries not to think about that kind of thing anymore. But Billie still glances at every poster she passes. So she noticed one of Lizzy Stride’s in passing, and under her gaze the poster shifted, fading in and out while she watched.

Billie wanted to ignore it. The smart thing to do would be to ignore all the weird shit that happens around her these days. But she walked up and pressed her Void-touched hand against it, took off her eyepatch and looked, because if Billie was any good at being smart, at ignoring all of the unexplainable bullshit that happens in the world, she would be living a very different life.

She looked at the poster with her right eye and it changed, and instead of offering three thousand coin to anyone who could help the Watch bring in Lizzy Stride, it was an announcement for a state funeral. The Empress’s.

It could have meant nothing. Maybe it did mean nothing. Billie slips out of Emily’s quarters and out of the Tower and walks back to her rooms, and her eye won’t stop fucking itching under the eyepatch that she’d put back on as she left. Billie wears it to lower the chances of someone recognizing her, or, frankly more likely, of it scaring the shit out of anybody who sees her. She shouldn’t be wandering the streets without it.

Billie presses her hand against her eye and grimaces. She wonders what it was like for the Meagan Foster that Emily first met. Billie can’t imagine it was easy, dealing with a boat like the Wale with a skeleton crew and only one arm and one eye. But she did it. Someone who Billie wasn’t, isn’t, but could have been.

She’s not sure who she blames most for the way the Void is wrapped around her now, for how it’s never going to let go. The Outsider or Emily or herself. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe the Empress isn’t the only one who can’t let go of her damn past.

Billie gets halfway home before she gives up. She ducks into an alley near Clavering Boulevard. There’s an old wanted poster there. Very old. It’s for Daud. When Billie looks at it a moment too long, it flickers.

She presses her hand to it. She looks. And there’s a new poster there, and she can hear the Void, whispering in her ear the way the Outsider had while she searched for the knife. Like the ocean in a shell. Distant and formless but there, getting louder and more indistinct the harder you listened.

The reward the poster promises now is for any information on the Empress’s killers. Billie blinks. Daud’s face, grey and peeling, stares back at her, and it doesn’t make Billie’s blood run any less cold.

She thinks about what Corvo would look like, burying his daughter beside her mother. How the Outsider might react, with more grief than she would have thought possible from him a month ago.

And when she stops being such a damn coward, even inside her own head: how she would feel, if Emily went the way of Empresses, dead and pale with a knife in her gut.

The thought hurts like Radanis Abele’s cane against the back of Dierde’s head had hurt, pulling Billie’s life to pieces, shattering something inside her that will never again be whole.

In another world, Meagan Foster was gravely injured while trying to find out what happened to Aramis Stilton. And she lived with those losses. They were a part of her, until Emily Kaldwin looked at that world and decided it wasn’t good enough. Until she changed it into one where Aramis Stilton never went missing, and Meagan Foster never got hurt. Not that way.

In another world, Empress Emily Kaldwin is dead. Or she will be. Either way, Billie’s not going to let that happen. That world is never going to be real.

When Billie turns around, there’s a hollow eyed girl staring at her. Billie flips her a coin, and in the split second it’s in the air the girl decides not to run, and grabs it instead. “You know how to get a message to Lizzy Stride?”

The girl nods.

“Tell her Meagan Foster wants to talk. She knows where to find me.”

The girl nods, and vanishes, quick in the way that comes with long practice dodging boots instead of from the whispers of the Void in the dark.

Billie rips down the old poster, finally finishing what rain and time and wind have been trying to do for years. She’d been wondering what she was staying in Dunwall for, anyway, now that the Outsider’s as on his feet as he’ll ever be. Now she knows. She does have business to settle here. She doesn’t know what to say to the Empress, she doesn’t know how to stay calm when they’re in the same room, she doesn’t know what to do about their past—but the future is something she can deal with. The future can still be changed. And Billie is going to change it, one last time.

Chapter Text

The Outsider spends the next few days holed up in his room, slipping out to go to the Courier's office and returning with graphite stains on his fingers.

There are plenty of other things that Corvo should be spending his time noticing. But the Outsider has always stuck in Corvo's thoughts like a burr. And odder than anything else Corvo can imagine is the Outsider quiet.

Emily’s mood is lighter, at least, even if she’s no less distracted. But she keeps her meetings with Corvo every evening to discuss the events of that day's Parliament session, and they talk their way through plans that don't come naturally to either of them. Jessamine had been a born politician, and Emily, Corvo is sure, could learn to do anything well were she to put in the effort. Corvo has no talent for it. His only qualification is Emily’s trust. And he can't argue that there isn't merit to that.

"Alright," Emily says, after they finish talking their way through Dunwall’s tariff laws for the fifth night in a row. "What's bothering you? You keep glaring at my notes like they've done something to personally offend you."

Emily’s notes are fine. They’re neater than usual. Corvo shrugs, and rubs at his forehead. He knows he's been furrowing his brow. "It’s been a long few days."

Emily makes a face at him. She always knows how to make him smile.

"It's the Outsider, isn't it," Emily says decisively. "You've been so...thoughtful since he showed up. More than usual.”

"There's a lot to think about."

"Believe me, I know." Emily shakes her head, gathering up her notes and sitting down in the chair at Corvo's desk with a sigh. "He finally stopped following you around, though."

"Noticed that, did you?"

"Not all of us can be the famous Lord Protector Corvo Attano, but I do all right," Emily says. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was scared of you."

Corvo laughs. "I don't think so."

"He's scared of something."

"Maybe," Corvo says. "But not me." It's one of the things that he knows without knowing how, one of the truths that lives inside his skin. The way he knew that Jessamine loved him, that he could trust Samuel with his life, that if he spared Daud the man would never cause trouble for him again.

But after Emily leaves, duty done and head back in the clouds, Corvo sits in the chair she just vacated and wonders. He doesn't understand the Outsider at all. The Outsider the god and the Outsider the man aren't different people, not entirely. But Corvo isn’t sure he would notice if that changed.

He left his journal in the drawer of his desk the last time he wrote in it, when the Outsider told him goodbye. He wonders what he said. If he would say something different now. He prefers to leave his past in his past, but he’ll make an exception just this once.

The drawer is empty when he unlocks it.

Corvo checks the safe room, first. But he doesn't misplace things. He isn't that sort of man. And Emily isn't the sort of woman who would steal her father's journal; or at least she hasn't been, since she grew out of pranks at around the age of nineteen.

When the Outsider returns from Courier's office that evening, as pencil stained as ever, he find Corvo already in his room and at his desk, having picked the lock easily. He has the master key, but it felt appropriate. He hasn’t had cause to pick a lock in ages. It wouldn’t do to get rusty.

"Hello, Corvo," the Outsider says, in an approximation of the tone he might have once used at one of his shrines. As if he doesn't mind that Corvo is in his room, uninvited, or that his own journal is open in front of him on the Outsider's desk. But the tells are there: a slight flush about the ears, an unsteadiness to his manner, a hesitation as he closes the door behind him.

Corvo says nothing. He pages through the journal. He’s not in the habit of reading it. He does enough looking back just living here, in the Tower, the place where he lived out so much of his history.

During what the history books charmingly call the interregnum, as if a single word could cover the desperate bleakness of that time, Corvo often indulged his curiosity like this, reading any scrap of paper he could find. For clues, sometimes, but usually for the familiarity of it, the reminder that Dunwall, despite everything, still contained people. People with lives, people with futures, people Corvo could still save. And he used to read Jessamine’s correspondence for her, out of convenience and occasionally for protection, after someone tried to mail her poison. It was nostalgic. It hurt. He was never able to stop himself.

The Outsider that Corvo remembers always knew what to do with silence: he filled it. But this Outsider seems to be at a loss for what to say. Finally, when Corvo is skimming through his account of Emily’s coronation, he settles on, “You’re angry with me.”

“I’m not sure.” He flips a few pages on, and Emily is fifteen, and the Corvo who wrote this entry is despairing of ever knowing how to deal with her. Fifteen had been a particularly intolerable age for the Empress. Corvo, who had spent the year he was fifteen getting into fights and losing, probably wasn’t much help.

“When Billie Lurk is angry with me, tells me so. With vigor. Daud cursed my name. Vera stood and paced and whispered plans to herself.”

“Not exactly a list of people I’m looking to emulate.” He turns another page. Emily is seventeen, and just sat Corvo down to evenly inform him that she doesn’t want to pretend that he isn’t her father anymore.

“I am good at being shouted at,” the Outsider says. He sounds hopeful.

He must have had a lot of practice. “You’re very good at ignoring what people say to you, aren’t you.”

“Much of what people say bores me.”

Corvo looks up. “But what I say doesn’t?” He taps the journal with one finger.

“No. Never.”

He means it. Maybe the Outsider was capable of being earnest, in the Void, but now it’s much easier to see in his clear eyes when he’s telling the truth. “What were you looking for? Were you just curious?”

The Outsider looks down. He smooths his fingers over the pages. “I told you once. A long time ago. You fascinate me. I thought perhaps it would be different, out in the world. It is, but not in the way I thought. It’s another thing that doesn’t fit inside my skin.”

Corvo breathes out heavily through his nose. “You didn’t answer the question.”

The Outsider looks at him like he’s trying to read a book in a language he doesn’t understand. “But you see—that’s the problem exactly. My answers are not simple. They are never straightforward. They bend, they take paths I cannot follow. I understood everything, once. And now I understand nothing.” He looks down at Corvo’s journal. “That’s what I was looking for. Understanding. You are the only steady thing left for me in this world. An island to a man long ago lost to a shipwreck. You remain so steady, so unchanged, so predictably unpredictable, even after all you have endured. I envy that." The Outsider taps his fingers against the journal, mimicking Corvo, unconsciously or not. “It’s been so long. But these are the words of a wound still fresh. You grieved for Jessamine. You still grieve.”

Ah: so Corvo was the same as he ever was, to the Outsider. A puzzle for him to solve. “I wish,” Corvo says, hearing his own words tip over into ice, “that you would stop talking about her.” He doesn’t want to listen to the Outsider call the worst moment of his life interesting.

The Outsider must recognize the tone. He should know that this is the closest Corvo gets to shouting, but the Outsider doesn’t seem happy to have gotten his wish. “I just wanted to understand why. Why you would do that. Why anyone would do that. Why I do the things that I do.”

Corvo snaps the journal closed. “How was I supposed to let her go with her heart there, whispering in my ear?”

“But her heart is gone. Emily let her go. And you still—” The Outsider grips the journal, white-knuckled. “I feel differently than I once did. I feel more. Like my ribs are closing in. Will I hurt the same way?”

“When?”

“When you’re gone,” the Outsider says. He looks down at the cover of the book, cracked leather and inkstains, and picks it up. Corvo wants to snatch it back, but the Outsider handles it like a precious thing. Like Corvo once handled a dead woman’s heart, whispering secrets in his ear. “When I’m alone again.”

“You’re afraid.” Emily was right.

“I despise not knowing,” the Outsider says, with all the hatred Corvo has only ever heard him express when speaking of Sokolov. “I didn’t think this would be any different than before. For fifteen years I saw the things that live inside your dreams. This can’t be worse. These are the dreams in your heart, shaped by your own hand.”

It is worse. Maybe the Outsider is right. Maybe it shouldn’t be. When the Outsider gave him the Heart, it felt like he’d reached inside Corvo and yanked his ribs aside. Like he’d pulled the most tender part of him out and forced it into the world. This doesn’t feel like that, because the Outsider can’t hurt him anymore; not like that. Nobody human could.

There’s nothing in this book that should have surprised the Outsider. There’s nothing even terribly revealing. Nothing Corvo would have thought to hide. He didn’t mind it, when he was a puzzle for a god. To be the same thing for a person is a different beast entirely.

The problem is that he started expecting things from the Outsider that he never did before. Camaraderie and humanity and a listening ear in the dark. Corvo has never once been accused of being too trusting. And he hasn’t forgotten who the Outsider is. But he did forget what that means.

The worst thing is that Corvo can understand it. It isn’t so different from what he was trying to do, reading love notes and diaries and whatever scraps of people’s lives that he could find. He was looking for something to light his way, to force him to believe that there was more in the world left to him than sewer water and rats and death.

“You won’t be alone,” he says. “You’ll have Lurk, if nothing else.”

“Billie doesn’t like it here.”

“She’s not going to abandon you.” Corvo, given the choice, would think about Billie Lurk as little as possible. But he knows that she is loyal, the way that only someone who knows what betrayal feels like in their hands can be. She would never do to the Outsider what she did to Daud. She would never do it to Emily either; and if she does, she’ll answer to him.

“But you might.” The Outsider turns away, beginning to pace, hands clasped at his back. Corvo wonders if he realizes he does it to center himself, the way that Corvo might adopt a fighting stance. “Jessamine cut you open with her death. If you had made different choices, if Emily had fallen, the despair would have choked you, poison in an open wound. And I can’t see why, even now, because you can’t see it either, and because everything is so small, and if only I could ask her—”

He would, too, if he could. Dig Jessamine up and ask.

“The Heart,” Corvo says. “You never understood why I hated it. Did you?”

“You didn’t hate it.” Corvo merely looks at him. “You didn’t only hate it. No. I didn’t. I don’t. It confused me even then. That they could tangle like that, anger and love and misery. It was—”

“—fascinating. I think you should leave.”

“This is my room.” The coin drops. Corvo can see it in his face. The Outsider hasn’t had any practice hiding his expressions, now that he has a body that won’t always obey him. He’ll learn. “I see.”

“You can stay with Lurk, or anywhere that isn’t here.”

It isn’t even necessarily the Outsider’s fault. Corvo wanted something, and didn’t realize, and anyway: the Outsider can’t give it. He can only be who he is, even if that’s closer to god than man.

He could make the Outsider leave by force if he wanted. But he doesn’t think he’ll have to.

He’s right. The Outsider places the journal on the table with a quiet and reserved sort of reverence, and he stands. He presses the fingertips of one hand to his own stomach with a look of great consternation on his face. Any other day, and it would make Corvo want to laugh. “It was easier in the Void,” he says. “Nothing could hurt me. Not until Delilah. And even Delilah—it wasn’t like this.”

Corvo closes his eyes. Wills himself not to talk. Is unsuccessful in a way that he so rarely is. “Do you wish you could go back there? The Void?”

“Do you wish you could go back to Karnaca?” Answering a question with a question. Just the same as ever.

“Every day. But then I wake up, and I know that this is where I’m supposed to be.”

For a moment they’re back in the place they’d found a few nights ago, a companionable sort of solitude, while the Outsider broke into Corvo’s desk and fit his life under a magnifying lens.

He almost asks him to stay. But this time, he succeeds in keeping his mouth shut.

The Outsider only nods. And with efficiency, he gathers his things and leaves. He doesn’t have very much.

Corvo is no stranger to his own thoughts. They keep him company when no one else will. But when he takes up one of the Outsider’s pens and opens the journal again, he finds that he has nothing to write. The very stones of the Tower seem quieter already.

He leaves the journal on the desk and sits down on what was the Outsider’s bed. He lies back and inspects the ceiling, wondering what it looked like to a man used to looking up and seeing only empty black.

He really can’t help but laugh. It’s moments like these when he misses Jessamine most of all.

-

Emily has always felt comfortable on the roofs of Dunwall Tower. Callista was forever running around searching for her. Meanwhile, Emily sat happily with her legs swinging over the edges, reading a book or eating a tart or watching the clouds and deciding what stories they were telling.

It’s been a few days since Billie caught her. Or maybe it’s really been longer than that. Emily’s starting to feel sick of herself, the way that no matter much she tries she can’t seem to put the memory away, to set it aside so she can focus. She sits at her desk and tries to write letters and finds herself watching the sky, thinking about Billie’s arm against her back and her breath against her cheek and her hand, later, warm against Emily’s shoulder.

If her mother were alive, she could talk about it with her. It was something she realized the year that she turned twenty, when Wyman smiled at her that first time, and Emily couldn’t breathe. Jessamine would have known what to do, what to say. But Emily can’t subject Corvo to that kind of thing. He’d tie himself into knots trying to figure out how to respond.

Emily thought she’d outgrown this. Wishing that her mother was still alive. She still remembers asking Corvo about it, when he rescued her from the Golden Cat. They’d told her that he was dead, and they were wrong; didn’t it stand to reason that even though Emily had watched her mother fall, she might still live?

It’s been a long time since Emily was that young. So many things would be different if Jessamine was still alive. It would be a different life. Emily would be a different person.

She wonders who Billie would be, her thoughts circling uselessly back once again.

So she takes the last few cigars that she pilfered from Corvo’s stash and goes to sit on the roof. If she’s going to brood, she may as well do it in the sun.

She climbs out of the window, more careful than she usually bothers to be, and is surprised to find the Outsider there. She really hopes she’s not going to have to try to catch him if he falls.

“I haven’t seen you in a few days,” Emily says, sitting down next to him. She puts one of the cigars between her teeth and lights a match.

“Corvo is cross with me. He threw me out of the Tower. Sort of. I’ve been staying above the Courier’s office. But the view there is terrible.”

Emily sucks in a mouthful of smoke, acrid against the back of her throat. “I see. Well, I won’t tell.”

“Can I have one?”

Emily shrugs, and hands him a cigar. She lights it for him, too, when he seems unsure of the process.

He breathes in. He coughs, badly enough that Emily hits him on the back a few times. “Sorry. I guess I should have warned you.”

The Outsider looks down at the cigar like it’s personally offended him. “These always made Corvo feel better.”

“They made me cough too, the first few times I tried it. It’s just something you have to get used to.” The Outsider takes another drag, more measured this time. He makes a face, but doesn’t cough. Emily does her best not to laugh at him. Court has made her very, very good at not laughing at ridiculous things. “So what did you do to make my father so angry?”

The Outsider flicks a bit of ash in her direction. “What brought you to this roof, Empress Emily Kaldwin? Was it thoughts of Billie Lurk?”

“You can’t read my mind.” The anymore hangs between them.

“I can read your posture, and your past. You made the same face when you sat aboard the Dreadful Wale as you were just now, smoking one of Meagan Foster’s cigars after she had a right hand to smoke them with, wondering if you’d done the right thing, thinking of how striking Meagan always was, the curve of her neck and the way she always looked at you, before and after you changed the world—”

“I can push you off this roof,” Emily says, a little more mildly than she means. The Outsider is deflecting so obviously that it’s almost embarrassing. Emily is forever doomed to be surrounded by men with no guile at all. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you it’s rude to go digging around in other people’s heads?”

The Outsider pulls up his knees and drapes his arm across them, cigar hanging from his fingers. “Yes,” he says. “Your father most recently.”

“Ah.”

“Yes.” The Outsider takes another drag, better at schooling his face this time. “Do you still feel the same way about Billie Lurk?”

Emily lays down against the roof, squinting up at the sun. “I don’t know. How did I feel about her before?”

The Outsider blinks at her. “You don’t know?”

“I could never really untangle all of it. Before the Manor, and after, and then when she told me who she was, and I had to go meet Delilah. There just wasn’t any time.” She snorts. “Not that it would have helped, necessarily.”

“She reminded you of all the things you wished you could be, when you were young. Strong, and ferocious, the captain of her own ship. Smart and dry and funny. You didn’t want to trust her. You told yourself that you didn’t. But it is in your nature to trust, despite the fact that you have not lived a life that has taught you that lesson. Jessamine Kaldwin’s nature, living on in you. And so it gutted you, when she told you the truth, and you realized your trust had been unearned. It would not have hurt you so much, if you had not grown to care for her. If you hadn’t thought about how she might fit into your life, when you let yourself think past reclaiming your throne, whether she might come and visit you, what those visits might entail—”

“Yes, all right, I get the idea,” Emily says.

“You asked.”

She sighs. “I did.” She taps her foot against the tile. “Did you really pay that much attention to me? The stuff going on in my head?” She’s not sure how she feels about the idea of the Outsider rooting around in her thoughts, peering at her feelings like a passage in a book.

“Not more than anyone else who had my Mark,” the Outsider says. “You were Corvo Attano’s daughter, so you always had my interest. You used to dream of pirates. Ships at sea. Fierce battles. Witches commanding whales.”

“As I recall, some of those dreams ended with the water turning black and a whale eating my ship,” she accuses. “You scared the shit out of me.” He has the grace, at least, to look a little uncomfortable. “But you’re right. I did. I’ve always wanted that kind of freedom. But I think I knew, even when I was a child, that it wasn’t something I could ever really have.”

“At least you have that.”

“What?”

“Something to want. Something to dream about, when the nights are cold or the Parliament meetings are boring or while you smoke on a roof and there’s no one there to keep you company.”

Emily rolls her eyes. “If there wasn’t something you wanted, Outsider, you wouldn’t be up here pouting. Don’t give me that look. I used to do the same thing.” She glances down at her cigar. “I guess I still do.”

“The things I want are unattainable. And contradictory.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s normal. I want the Empire to be at peace. I want it to be fair. A good place to live. Forever, preferably. I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen. So I try with smaller things. Like this stupid tax law. I don’t know if it’s really that different than how you used to be. You only ever tipped the balance this way or that, right? It’s the same thing. Well, okay. The timepiece was pretty big. But that seemed more like the exception rather than the rule.”

The Outsider’s mouth twitches. “I will admit, Delilah brought out my tendency toward the dramatic.”

Ever the diplomat, Emily does not point out that his tendency toward the dramatic seemed to crop up just fine whether Delilah was involved or not. “So come on. Start with something small.”

A long pause. “I don’t want Corvo to be angry with me,” he says. “Or I want him to admit it. He wouldn’t. I asked.”

“Well, that’s easy. Apologize.”

“You make it sound very simple.”

“Frankly, unless you do something to hurt me, Father’s not much for holding grudges. And he likes you.”

“Does he.” The Outsider finally gives up on enjoying his cigar, and he stubs it out against the roof. “I don’t think I believe you. I don’t know how to believe you. I preferred it when I could simply know.”

“A lot of things used to be easier.” Talking to Meagan Foster had always been so easy. And sometimes, talking with Billie is the same way. But then one of them will stumble over a tripwire in the middle of a conversation, and they’re back where they started: tense and awkward and always looking back, never forward.

“So I’ll apologize. And what will you do?”

Emily sucks in another mouthful of smoke. “About what?”

“Billie Lurk.”

“That’s a little more complicated.”

The Outsider gives her a frankly disdainful look.

Emily kicks him. “Get over yourself.”

“I might give you the same advice.”

“Now you sound like Billie.”

“A compliment, I’m sure.”

Emily shakes her head, smiling. “I don’t know. When I’m with Billie, it almost feels like I’m standing back in the Stilton Manor. Like the past and the present are in the same room, butting heads, and I have to navigate the mess they’ve left behind. I can’t live like that. Neither of us can.” She breathes in another mouthful of smoke. “Remember when you gave me the timepiece?”

“I do.”

“For a moment, I wanted so badly to ask you to take me back to the night of my mother’s death that I couldn’t move. Of course I knew you wouldn’t. So I thought...I wanted to take the timepiece and run and find Sokolov, or find Piero, find someone who could use it and change it and make it work the way I needed it to. So I could talk to Mother again.” The thought had been there and gone in an instant. And yet when she used the timepiece for the first time, Emily hoped, for just a moment, in the split second before she opened her eyes into the past, that she would find herself not in a mansion in Karnaca but in a gazebo in Dunwall.

“It would have been a very, very bad idea.”

“Shut up, I know,” Emily says. She breathes a cloud of smoke up at the Outsider. “I know. I knew it might just make things worse. But I couldn’t help thinking about it. It’s the same with Billie. I know it would be a bad idea. But I can’t help but wonder. But wondering and not doing anything is going to drive me mad.”

The Outsider is smiling at her, which is one of the weirder things that has happened to Emily lately. “You’re very like your father that way,” he says. “You make your choices decisively, whatever they may be.”

Emily sighs. “But I’m the Empress. My choices matter. What if I make the wrong one?”

“Once, my choices could have felled empires. But no longer. And the empire is riding on many of your choices, Emily Kaldwin, but that has always been true. It was true when you were ten and were deciding what drawing would be best to give Corvo. It was true when you were fifteen and you snuck out to explore the rooftops of Dunwall, while your father shadowed you the entire way. And it was true when you were twenty-four and shared a hookah with Wyman the night before they sailed back to Morley, and you decided that you would marry them, one day, and were wrong. But none of those choices were the sort that empires rise and fall upon.”

She hopes the grand speeches are making him feel better. Emily sits up, and drops her head onto her knees. “It doesn’t actually feel like they matter any less.” She closes her eyes. “And I ended up giving Father all of the drawings, anyway.”

“I know,” the Outsider says. “He kept them all. I puzzled over it for ages. They weren’t very good.”

Emily grins. “No. They weren’t. You know, you asked me once if I was clever enough to save my father and take back my throne without spilling a river of blood. It really pissed me off. Do you think I’m clever enough for...all of this?” She gestures at Dunwall sprawled out before them, messy and beautiful. “Billie and keeping this city together and staying alive. I’m supposed to take care of all of this, and I’m hiding from my problems on a roof.”

“I’ve seen many cities served by many rulers. And so few of them ever asked that question. They thought they already knew the answer.”

“It wouldn’t kill you to give a straight answer, you know.”

“Once again, you sound like your father. And you never know. It might.” The Outsider looks out at the city. The light reflects oddly in his eyes. Maybe Emily still just expects the light to get sucked straight in. “You’re not hiding from your problems. You’re discussing them with an ally. You may not always make the wise choice. But you will notice when you falter.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?”

The Outsider shrugs. “It’s supposed to be true. I’ve been told I am a poor hand at comfort. But truth is a subject with which I am quite familiar.”

Emily doesn’t have the heart to correct him. He can’t see the future anymore, if he ever really could. But there’s no use in rubbing salt in that old wound.

And he could be right. It won’t hurt, maybe, for Emily to believe him. At least for as long as her cigar lasts. She’s still got about half of it left. She breathes in.

-

After three hours of pacing, the editor of the Dunwall Courier throws the Outsider out.

“I can hear the floorboards upstairs creak when you do that, you know,” he says. “And then you just come back down here and distract me while I’m setting type. Go find a story. I don’t care what.”

He all but pushes the Outsider out the door and slams it behind him, muttering to himself.

The Outsider had not realized how anathema he now found stillness, because there had been none of it in Dunwall Tower. The Tower was always alive with servants, with bureaucrats, with Corvo, checking security measures out of habit and telling the Outsider to get his head out of clocks as he passed by, steady and predictable as a heartbeat.

The streets of Dunwall, at least, are bustling. It is a rare sunny day. He wanders. It is true, certainly, that Emily Kaldwin was and is an imperfect Empress. But she brought clamor back to Dunwall’s streets after the deathly silence of the plague.

With nothing else to do, he does as the printer asked, though perhaps not the way he meant. He fishes for gossip. He buys a hagfish pie from a woman who was a thief once, before she married a fisherman, and listens to her discuss the astronomical price of whale oil and a scandalous affair between the two daughters of rival shipping companies.

“It’s sweet, how those two think they’re being subtle,” the woman tells the Outsider with the conspiratorial tone that she uses for those she considers friends—which is to say, anyone willing to sit and listen to her talk for long enough. “But it’s the worst kept secret in Dunwall since Empress Jessamine and her Royal Protector.”

After he leaves the fishmarket, he makes his way towards a pub popular among students at the Academy of Natural Philosophy. Assuming him to be one of their own, and widening their eyes dreadfully when the name Anton Sokolov passes his lips, they regale him with stories of Professor Joplin’s antics. The Outsider patiently listens to an earnest young man who tells him excitedly about the changes to the Academy he hopes to discuss with the chancellor the next evening.

His friend slings an arm around his shoulders and leans in, grinning. “What Martin here means is that he’s looking forward to getting the door slammed in his face again,” she says.

Martin shakes her off. “Maybe if more of us showed up, it would be a bit harder for him to ignore us!”

“Drink up,” his friend says, ruffling his hair. “Or find some rich patron to help you set up that scholarship fund you want so badly. I hear Lady Blackwood is into nice young men with bad ideas.”

Martin colors, and the ensuing argument leads to the group being nearly thrown from the establishment. The Outsider feels buoyed comfortably by the crowd, no one paying him any particular mind. Get enough people together, and they move like a current, with no more separation than drops of water in an ocean. There are so many ways to be around people, outside of the Void, when there are people to be around.

He leaves before they can foist another glass of beer on him—he has discovered that he despises beer—but not before he mentions to Martin that perhaps the Empress would be interested in his ideas, if he cared to write her a letter.

It’s growing late as he leaves the pub, the sounds of laughter dispersing into the air behind him. The streets have emptied out.

There is a small child who has been following him for the entire day. He assumed she would be gone by the time he left the bar, but she’s still creeping behind him, steps light. Most wouldn’t notice her, but the Outsider is used to looking past darkness.

He stops. The girl stops too. He turns, and sees nothing.

“I’m work for the Dunwall Courier,” he says. “I was hoping to speak with you. You must have something important to tell me, if you’ve been following me.”

A small shape emerges from the shadows. A young girl with wide eyes and no shoes. The familiarity strikes the Outsider like a blow across his stomach, the kind that Corvo could not show him how to avoid: it is Billie Lurk standing there, the day after Dierdre’s skull broke, small and haunted and full of an anger that will steer the course of her life; it is the lonely rat boy, dying because of the Outsider’s help but immortalized between the pages of a book; it is the Outsider, when he was young and had a name and no shoes, the way he looked just before his throat was slit.

It isn’t. It’s only a girl, one of the torrent of orphans that live beneath Dunwall’s surface.

“My mom had a picture of you,” the girl says. “She told me not to tell. Especially the men with the masks and the boxes and the music.”

“I see.” He remembers now. Her mother was at Brigmore. She ran away during the chaos, cursed Delilah for a fool, and threw away that life. But she kept an image of the Outsider, a fading woodcut, tucked into a locket. The Outsider paid little attention to Delilah’s witches; they tended to pale in comparison to her, shadows lost in her light. He didn’t keep track of this one, but he does remember vaguely that she had a child before she died. “People often tell me that I look like someone else. But I’m a newspaper reporter.”

The girl squints at him, unconvinced. It makes the Outsider want to smile. The rat boy had looked at him like that too.

“At least,” he says, “that is what you should tell any of the men with music boxes.”

That’s something the girl understands. She nods enthusiastically. “I don’t snitch.”

“I’m glad we’re in agreement. But your mother was also in possession of outdated information. I do only work for a newspaper now. I was hoping you might tell me something interesting.”

“Me?” The girl shifts back to wide eyed blinking and twitchy feet in an instant, a transformation the Outsider can still feel the ghost of under his skin, even after all this time.

“You see more than most, and work not to be noticed.”

“You sound like the man with the beard,” she says. “I heard Lissa say he was the Royal Protector. He was here a few weeks ago. Wanted ‘someone who knows the lay of the land to keep an eye on things and keep me informed’, so he was asking all the kids to help. With coin.”

The girl’s imitation of Corvo’s voice is jarringly accurate. “And have you been keeping an eye on things?”

“I don’t snitch,” the girl says again. “But you’re not from the palace, and I recognize you so you’re not a stranger, so it’s fine.” She chews on her lip for a moment. “Billie Lurk was here. The assassin. That’s interesting. She was famous. I read it in a book. Lissa just came here from Karnaca and she said she was sure it was her, they had her face on all the posters there. She was here, and she asked me to give a message to the Dead Eels.”

“Did she,” the Outsider says, curiosity piqued. The printer will be annoyed with him if all he comes back with is a star crossed mercantile love affair and one student’s unsteady dreams that are unlikely to cause any serious unrest. Not that he’ll be able to tell him anything about Billie Lurk, either. But perhaps the Dead Eels are up to something interesting and flashy. Lizzy Stride always was entertaining. In another life, the Outsider chose her, and Daud’s would have ended very differently.

The girl stands expectantly, shifting from foot to foot. The Outsider hands her a handful of coins. She offers him a grin that’s missing several teeth, and vanishes into the dark.

“You didn’t strike me as the type to be fond of kids,” Billie Lurk says from those same shadows. And then she snorts, when the Outsider jumps. “Not as sneaky as you thought, huh.”

The Outsider glares at her. “What are you doing with the Dead Eels again? You never much cared for them, as I remember. Even when they were ferrying us across the ocean.”

“Word of advice. Most people don’t appreciate being told what they think or what they thought.” She falls into step beside the Outsider.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“If it’s something you need to worry about, I’ll tell you.”

The Outsider wants to ask. He wants, desperately, to know what Billie Lurk is doing sneaking about a sleeping Dunwall, what new secrets she’s folded into her heart. It’s ready to spring from his tongue.

“Am I like Daud, do you think?” he asks instead. So many questions, eating away at him. When he tries to stop one from emerging, another only takes its place.

Billie slants him a look, and chooses to answer blithely, only skimming the surface of what either of them know he means. “Well, you both had the worst habit of talking too damn much.”

“He wanted, desperately, graspingly, to be other than what he was. With such an overwhelming furor that when he couldn’t get it, he fixed his eyes on me to blame for it. That’s why he wanted to kill me.”

Billie sighs. “Thin ice, kid. I’m not saying Daud was right. Obviously I’m not. But he had reason to hate you.”

“I abandoned him.”

“And you don’t, frankly, seem all that sorry about it.”

The pinched expression that the Outsider can feel overtake his features is not a comfortable one. “I don’t know if I’m very good at that.”

“Would you do it differently, if you could go back?”

“Why would that matter?”

Billie laughs, just a little. “You know what? My thoughts exactly. Just something that’s been on my mind lately.”

“Daud became who he was for as many reasons as there were once whalers in Dunwall. If he’d made different choices, maybe I would have found him a little more interesting.”

“See, when you say shit like that? That’s why he hated you so goddamn much.” She tilts her head up to sky. “That, and I think you broke his heart.”

Daud hated the Outsider. Loathed him. It was never, even when he wanted to believe it, any more than Daud hated himself. To say that to Billie now would be inviting a knife to his throat. The Outsider is beginning to get a sense for it, cruelty, like the weight of a blade in his hand.

“I am sorry,” he says. “For the way I told you about Daud.”

Billie looks at him for a moment that feels like centuries. Then she dips her head. “Doesn’t matter,” she says. “Dead is dead.” The unspoken grief lurking on her face: she thinks, still, that she should have been there. Blames herself for the fact that she was not.

“I was there, before he slipped away,” the Outsider says, all in a rush, the lie unfamiliar on his tongue, a different shape than he expected. He knows the weight of cruelty, but kindness he still cannot measure. Daud died as he had lived for the last ten years of his life: utterly and completely alone. “I visited him. One last time. I wasn’t sure that he would appreciate it. I am not sure that he did.”

Billie opens and closes her mouth several times. Finally, she says, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice: “Thank you.” She shakes herself out of it. “I don’t know if you’ll end up like Daud. I don’t think any of us can know that. But I think you’ve got as good a chance as anyone of coming to the end of your life with the balance of it tipped away from regret.” Her mouth quirks. “At least as much chance as I’ve got, anyway.”

“I worry I may be too old to change.” He has missed Corvo in a week more than he missed the feel of blood in his veins for four thousand years. But he knows that isn’t enough. The depth of Daud’s desire never got him anywhere at all.

“From where I’m standing, you’re just a kid.”

“I do know you’re only saying that to annoy me. I don’t need the depths of the Void to tell me that.”

“Is it working?” She grins. She’s doing, he realizes, what the Outsider just did—saying the right thing to pull him out of his own misery. With teasing instead of lies. “So. Word on the street is you got yourself kicked out of your new digs.”

“I see you’ve been speaking with the Empress,” the Outsider says, waspishly. Perhaps Billie thinks his annoyance is preferable to his melancholy. Perhaps she is right.

Billie raises an eyebrow at him. “So what if I have?” she asks. “I have business I need to attend to. And I think you do too, if you’re looking to get back in the Royal Protector’s good graces.”

“I despise gossip,” the Outsider says darkly.

Billie Lurk laughs at him. The Outsider watches her, and thinks of the student he met at the bar, being teased by his friend with affection on both of their faces.

-

It’s been years since they first became acquainted, but Lizzy Stride’s grin hasn’t gotten any less unsettling. Bille can understand the impulse to turn yourself into a weapon. But Stride’s teeth, filed into points, have only ever brought up an endless string of logistical questions. Back when she lived in Dunwall, clawing her way up the ranks of the Whalers, Billie never would’ve admitted to being scared of anything. But Stride had scared her, just a little. Of course, Billie had been in awe of her too. Nursed the beginnings of what would have been a crush, except that it was right around the time Billie met Delilah. The way that Billie felt about Delilah—for better or for worse, but mostly for the worse—eclipsed everything else.

“So,” Stride is saying now, leaning forward on her elbows and feet tapping impatiently against the crossbar of her bar stool, “what is it these days? Billie? Meagan? Trying on a new one?”

“Billie is fine, if you keep your voice down.”

“I heard about what happened to the old man after we made landfall here. You have anything to do with that?”

“Not in the way you think. I did find him, just before he died.”

Stride shakes her head. “It’s too damn bad,” she says. “Fucker always paid on time, I can say that for him. Broke me out of jail once. I mean, because he needed my ship, but hey, he got me out either way!” She raises her glass, some of its contents slopping over the side. “To Daud.”

Lizzy is the first person she’s spoken to that’s treated Daud like he was just a man. Someone she worked with sometimes. To Emily and Attano, Daud was the man who tore their lives apart. To the Outsider, he was a nuisance and a failed curiosity and apparently a fucking cautionary tale. And to Billie, he was the closest thing she’ll ever have to a father. Someone who took a chance on her, and someone who forgave her.

Numbly, Billie raises her own glass. “To Daud.” She drinks. Closes her good eye and savors the moment, the only time she’s ever going to get to mourn.

With a satisfying thunk, Lizzie slams her glass back down onto the counter. She gestures to the bartender for another. “You’re buying, right?”

“I am if you tell me what I need to know.”

“Well? Spit it out then.”

“I have reason to believe there’s going to be an attempt on the Empress’s life. Soon.”

Lizzy rolls her eyes. “This is Dunwall. Someone’s always trying to kill the Empress.”

“Someone’s not always making plans concrete enough that they come to my attention. And if it’s come to my attention, then it’s definitely come to yours.”

She snorts. “You got that right. This place got fried hagfish?”

It does. Billie orders some. Lizzy chews on it contemplatively. The teeth must at least come in handy for that.

“Here’s what I’m stuck on, Lurk. You disappear for fifteen years ‘til you turn up in Cullero one day while we’re in port there, asking for a ride back to Dunwall. Your coin’s good and I owe Daud a favor, so I say sure. Then you show up again within the month, asking about who wants the Empress dead this week? What’s your angle? There a business opportunity I should know about? Or are you just trying to finish what Daud started now that it wouldn’t be killing a kid?”

Billie tightens her hand around her glass. She’s been having bad dreams again. Emily, ten years old and dressed in white, screaming her head off. Emily’s solemn face inked on poster after poster declaring her death. Emily facedown before Billie on the pavement, body bent in ways it shouldn’t go. “I’m not interested in finishing anything that Daud started.”

Lizzy grins at her. “Don’t worry. Even if he’d owed me money, I wouldn’t be looking to collect from you.”

“There’s always someone out to get the Empress, you’re right. I’m just looking for anyone who’s got the means to actually do it.”

“You been back to the black market shops lately?”

“A few times.”

“Well, clearly they don’t trust you yet, seeing as you just washed back up here. Can’t really blame ‘em. But here.” Lizzy pulls a crumpled sheet of paper from one of her pockets, laying it out flat on the bar. “No one knows who put it up. Went through the usual runaround, go-betweens and whatever the fuck. That’s usually easy enough to crack, but I looked into it already, and the woman who actually submitted the contract, she’s not it. A pawn if I’ve ever seen one.” Lizzy smiles, all teeth. “I even paid her a visit to make sure. If she knew anything, believe me, she would’ve told.”

Billie’s barely listening. She’s reading. It’s a simple contract. Half the slips of paper the black market shops keep are gibberish, the ramblings of the desperate or the dying, but the plain black ink is precise. Fifty thousand coin for the Empress’s life, however such a thing might be accomplished. Payment upon delivery. All business to be handled through the shop. That’s all.

How many pieces of paper just like this has Billie handled in her life? A person’s life given as much consideration as haggling over fish in the market?

“Did you take this?” she asks, when she can find her voice. The bar’s crowded. If it comes to a fight, they can’t do it here. Not if Billie wants to use her powers, and there’s a good chance she’d need to, against a woman like Stride.

Lizzy snorts. “After what happened to Daud? I’m not a total idiot. No one in this damn city is stupid enough to take it, not while Attano’s still alive. ‘Sides. Last time we lost an Empress the city went to shit for six months and a third of it died. Not many people are looking forward to a repeat performance, least of all the Eels. Regicide’s bad for business.”

“You won’t mind if I keep this, then.”

Lizzy waves a hand at her. “Be my guest.”

“Thanks for the tip. What do I owe you?”

“Let’s call it even. Daud did me a good turn once. Helped out my old man, little as the bastard deserved it. Not that I appreciated it much at the time, but hell. Figure I ought to do the same to you.”

“I can’t believe it,” Billie says. “Lizzy Stride going soft.”

“Don’t push your luck,” Lizzy says. “Thanks for dinner. And if you’re looking for work, come by Draper’s Ward. I’ll tell the guards to let you in. Doesn’t have to be work, as a matter of fact.” She grins, just a touch too predatory to be appealing.

If only Billie was twenty-four again, and had never met Delilah. She’d be thrilled. “Thanks,” she says, “but I think I’m okay on either front.”

Lizzy shrugs expansively. “Your loss. I’ve got business at Clavering, so I’ll be going now. Don’t fuck with the Eels and we won’t fuck with you, Lurk, but don’t think I don’t notice you didn’t answer my question. What exactly do you think you’re doing here, huh?”

Billie thumbs the edge of the contract. “Good question.”

“Well, not my problem. Take care you don’t become my problem, unless you want to lose a few fingers.”

Billie laughs so long and so hard that by the time she’s done, Lizzy’s rolled her eyes and left. Billie slips the contract into her pocket and does the same.

The black market shop is deserted except for the woman behind the counter, head buried in a ledger. “What do you need?” she asks disinterestedly when Billie comes in, eyes still fixed on the numbers.

Billie slams the contract down on the counter, and then the woman looks up.

-

Corvo is sitting at his desk, failing to get anything useful done, when someone begins to knock on the shutters of his room from the outside.

It’s been a long week. Parliament drags. Corvo doesn’t trip over the Outsider anymore, and when his soft footsteps accidentally scare the servants, it only makes him feel guilty instead of amused.

Still, Corvo ignores it. The knocking stops for five blissful minutes, before it begins anew.

He thinks about leaving him to stew. But there is always the chance that this is a particularly poor assassination plot, and so Corvo goes to the window, knife at the ready, and opens the shutters.

The Outsider is perched comfortably on the sill. Not a day goes by that Corvo does not curse Dunwall Tower’s architect and their obsession with extremely climbable walls. At least it came in handy when he had to deal with the Regent.

If the Outsider is going to make this a habit, maybe he should move back to his old rooms. They were stuffy, but at least they didn’t have any windows.

“I thought it would take at least another half hour,” the Outsider says, as if Corvo is not perfectly capable of pushing him off the tower altogether.

“Get in.”

The Outsider does, much more gracefully than he had while he was drunk. Corvo preferred him clumsy. The night when the Outsider climbed, drunk and soaking with river water, into Corvo’s rooms had felt as unreal as any moment Corvo spent in the Void. There was a delicate sort of vulnerability to the Outsider then, an honesty, that Corvo does not ever expect to see again.

They both stand, for a moment, at a loss. If he was going to throw the Outsider out again, he wouldn’t have let him in in the first place. So instead he points, wordlessly, to the chair in front of his desk, and goes to make the both of them tea. Only a little splashes out of the cup when he sets it down in front of the Outsider.

Corvo pours a generous slug of whiskey into his own, and puts the bottle down just past the Outsider’s reach. He leans over to grab it anyway, stymied by Corvo’s sharp look.

He puts it back down. “Sorry,” he says. And then he twists his mouth, apparently annoyed with himself. “That is—not what I meant. Or, it is.” He taps his fingers on the rough surface of Corvo’s desk. “I am sorry. And not just for trying to steal your whiskey.” He wears the apology like an ill-fitting coat, and his face brings to mind Jessamine’s when she once bit into a lemon tart the cook forgot to add any sugar to.

The Outsider seems to be having difficulty with his words. It is a plight Corvo is not unsympathetic to. He waits him out.

“I told Billie Lurk a lie,” he says, which is not what Corvo was expecting to hear. “I told her I comforted Daud when he died. I didn’t. I let him die alone. It is what he thought he preferred.”

“I don’t really care how Daud died.”

“No,” the Outsider agrees. “You have always been quite pragmatic, even about those you loathe. He posed no threat to you. He had already done all the damage he could do.” The Outsider is quiet for a moment longer. “I don’t know if I should have done that.”

Corvo only just stops himself from repeating that he doesn't care, that Lurk’s happiness means nothing to him, Daud’s even less, the Outsider’s just as little. But it wouldn’t be true. “If you should have lied, or if you should have been with him?”

“I don’t know.”

A strange thing to hear the Outsider say. And when he looks up, Corvo can see that the Outsider thinks so, too.

“It’s too late to tell her the truth now. It’s much too late to do anything different in the moment that he died. So it doesn’t matter. I suppose you’ll have to live with it.”

His face tightens again, the pain Corvo has seen in enough men, over the years: the realization that they will have to live with their mistakes.

The Outsider laces his fingers together on top of the desk, and he stares at them as if they hold the answers he’s looking for. Maybe he’s thinking about mistakes. When he raises his eyes to look at Corvo, his expression doesn’t change. “I was wondering if you would tell me about her. Jessamine. If you are willing.”

Talking about Jessamine is like washing a wound out with salt water, Corvo has found. “Did you ever speak to her?” he asks. “You had plenty of chances.”

“I didn’t.”

Corvo hates him a little for that. He doesn’t say so. He would hate him just as much for the reverse. Instead he nods, and he tells him about Jessamine, because she is the one thing he will never tire of speaking about. And because the Outsider asked like man, not like a god.

He tells him about the day they first met, Jessamine coming up only to Corvo’s waist and a fiercely polite mask covering her features, a girl of twelve who looked ready to command armies. About the evening years later when Jessamine first kissed him, in the gazebo where she would die, and Corvo was so startled he nearly fell and took her down with him. About the look on her face just after Emily was born, a hazy joy wrought through with steel, the moment when Corvo realized he would spend the rest of his life protecting them.

“Did that bother you?” the Outsider asks. “It sounds stifling.”

It was a comfort. It is a comfort. It is the reason he ignores Emily, when she points out that it’s past time he retire. “No.”

The Outsider watches him a while longer, and Corvo gets the feeling that he has not entirely lost the ability to hear the words that Corvo does not say. “Thank you,” he says. “She sounds like a lovely woman.”

Corvo wonders who said that, once, so that the words could be parroted back to him by the Outsider, who heard them but did not understand. “I don’t know whether you should have lied to Billie, but don’t lie to me. I can tell.”

The Outsider’s lip twitches. “You were always a man of harsh truths. All right. It’s beautiful, when you speak of her, the way that whalesong is beautiful. It haunts, and lingers. You loved her a great deal. You still do. You did everything you could to save her. You could not have done any more.” He takes a drink of his tea, unspiked. “I missed it. Talking to you. I didn’t realize I could miss something so new. I fear that that’s all I’m doing. Collecting things to miss.” What a strange way to describe being alive. It isn’t inaccurate. “I have a peace offering. If you want.”

Corvo rests his cheek against his fist. “Do you.” He wonders where the Outsider is getting his advice on humanity from: his own observation, from Lurk, from a book that he found somewhere. All seem equally as likely.

“Billie Lurk is doing...something. She won’t tell me what. It might be in your best interest to investigate.” He squints down at his tea. “In our best interests.”

“Why would I care what Billie Lurk does with her time?”

“It has to do with Emily.”

Corvo sits up. “How do you know that?”

“She’s worried. Very worried. It pulls at her like the tide coming in. I know Billie. There isn’t anyone else she would worry over so deeply.”

Not now that Daud lies in his grave, anyway. “And you think I should look into it.”

“I think we should.”

“You just want to know what she’s up to.” Corvo doesn’t say it accusingly. It’s simply true: the curiosity is plain on the Outsider’s face, the most constant and honest thing about him.

The Outsider blinks at him. “I do,” he says. “But I wasn’t lying. I do think it might help Emily.”

Corvo sighs. He can’t ever argue with that. “You seem to have me all figured out. I wonder why you still feel the need to pry.”

“I won’t ever figure you out,” the Outsider says, shocking in both the offhand way he says it and in the way the admission doesn’t seem the pain him. “That’s what keeps the prying interesting.” He pauses. It’s almost funny, the way he keeps doing that—going back over his words only after he’s said them. It’s honest. All of him is honest, now, because he can’t be anything else. It probably shouldn’t make Corvo smile. But it does. “Or we could talk.”

“Or we could talk,” Corvo says slowly. Strangely enough, he missed it too. “All right. Billie Lurk. Any idea where we should start?”

“Lizzy Stride smuggled us into Dunwall. Billie sent a message to her gang. That seems a decent enough place to begin.”

“I don’t think Lizzy Stride is going to be too keen to talk to the Royal Protector, Outsider.”

The Outsider grins at him. “Perhaps not. Either way, it will certainly be a good show.”

Corvo shakes his head, but he can’t deny that he’s curious, too, though in a different way than the Outsider is. He doesn’t trust Lurk, or her secrets.

He sticks his head out of the window. It’s started to rain, torrentially, dripping down the sides of of the Tower and running down the streets below. The Outsider would have been very unhappy indeed to be stuck out here, if Corvo hadn’t let him in. “You’re going to need something else if we go out now,” he says. He pulls on his own coat from the back of his chair, and then, without thinking about it too much, he pulls the same old coat of his from his wardrobe and hands it to the Outsider.

It’s not the coat that Corvo wore fifteen years ago. That one he burned. But it is in a similar style, a high collar and billowing pockets.

“Here,” Corvo says, reaching out to adjust the collar. His hand skims the Outsider’s neck, and he jerks back as if Corvo burned him.

Corvo stops, hands still in the air. The Outsider blinks at him, looking more surprised at his own reaction than Corvo is. Outside, there’s a crack of thunder, and in the flash of lightning that follows Corvo can see the pale outline of a scar on the Outsider’s throat.

He reaches out, not thinking too much about this, either. The Outsider doesn’t move this time, but Corvo can feel him swallow.

He hasn’t been able to figure out if the Outsider has changed at all since he was dragged from the Void. But now he can feel it under hands, tracing the scar of a cut that must have killed him, feeling the beat of his pulse. The two facts pressing uncomfortably together: this is a man who has died, and this is a man who is more alive than he’s been in thousands of years.

The Outsider isn’t entirely different, no. But he has become someone who can bleed again.

“They cut my throat,” the Outsider says. “When they made me what I was. Emily knew. I told her.” He tilts his head, a little, but not enough to force Corvo to move his hand. “I told her and it felt like an entertaining story. A grand drama. Like it happened to someone else. It did, I suppose. It happened to another boy a long time ago.”

Corvo knows what it feels like, to have a wound make you who you are. “It happened to you.”

The Outsider’s brow furrows. “Perhaps.” He shrugs Corvo off. “Let’s go. The storm is passing.”

Corvo presses his hand into his pocket, and follows.

-

Rain is dripping down the Outsider’s collar. Corvo’s collar, maybe. He doesn’t mind. His feet know the way to Draper’s Ward, and they take him and Corvo in that direction without complaint.

Corvo is characteristically quiet. It suits the Outsider just fine. He can walk slightly behind him, to account for his longer stride, and watch him, and wonder.

It’s a thorny problem, the wondering, because it hasn’t stopped. It should have. He should know Corvo as well as he ever could have hoped to from the Void: he has seen his words in ink and heard them from his lips and read their shape from the burnished metal of an audiograph card, and the desire for more still festers like a hunger, like a disease.

He wants to know what Billie Lurk is doing, but once he has an answer he knows he will stop wondering. He might stop caring at all. He wanted to know why Corvo is the way he is, and he’s had his answers. He has an echo of an understanding of why the Outsider can look and look and never grow bored. But it’s nothing like it should be. The first time the Outsider ate his fill, finally, when Billie found them the backroom of a bar in Karnaca that knew her face and didn’t care, the sleepy satisfaction of it shocked him. This is nothing like that.

If one day the Outsider could devour enough knowledge to satisfy himself, he thinks he might hate it. Somehow it’s become a part of him, of the person that has been slowly solidifying since he stepped onto the rocks of Shindaerey: he loves hagfish pie and the sound of the sea and the taste of the air just before it rains. He hates Anton Sokolov and sunny days and beer. He wants to know everything there is about Corvo Attano, to make a map of his intricacies and never stop charting it. To let the current carry him along.

Did Daud feel like this, when he thought the Outsider had abandoned him? Buffeted by winds he could not hope to understand?

“Think Stride will talk to you?” Corvo asks.

The Outsider shrugs. Some of the water slips down his back. “She knows I’m a friend of Billie’s, and she likes Billie. She at least won’t kill me on sight.”

“That’s always promising.”

The rain lulls, becoming closer to the kind of drizzle that plagues Dunwall on more days than not. The Outsider wonders if Corvo will let him keep the coat this time. It’s warm. The Outsider found a few scraps of paper in the pockets from years ago. Reminders, a list of items to buy at the chemist, and quick note written in Emily’s hand. It is like wearing Corvo’s history wrapped around his shoulders.

Corvo is thinking about something, in the quiet contemplative way of his that is often mistaken for bland stoicism. Corvo only speaks when necessary, dissimilar to any other of the Outsider’s Marked. If he had cared enough to consider it before, he thinks he would have said he preferred outspoken people. He would have been wrong.

The Outsider wonders, annoyingly, if Corvo is thinking about him. Even more annoyingly, he asks. His tongue is always looser around Corvo than he would like.

Corvo snorts, and glances back at him with a measured look. He does not answer, somewhat pointedly, at which point the Outsider realizes that he is being teased. “You’re doing that on purpose,” he accuses.

“You’re an easy mark. You should do something about that,” Corvo says, bordering on smug. But he is closer to smiling, watching the Outsider now, than he has been in a while. “It really bothers you, doesn’t? A mystery?”

“They itch.”

“Huh. You are exactly the sort of person who would make a contraption to tell me secrets.”

“And to find hidden things. What else would you want it to tell you?” the Outsider says. He huffs, then, because the answer follows on the heel of the question like a hound. Corvo didn’t want answers. He wanted companionship. No. He wanted Jessamine back, and knew he could not have it. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“No,” Corvo agrees. He walks on ahead, just a bit faster, a smile evident in his step.

It’s an odd pleasure, that of being known. The Outsider is not sure he has ever experienced it.

The rain stops. The Outsider looks up, peering at the clouds, hoping that if they break it will only be slightly. He runs into Corvo, because Corvo has stopped walking.

The Outsider notices the man in the rooftops a moment too late. Corvo doesn’t. Corvo pays attention by habit. He yanks the Outsider with him as he ducks into a side street, and the bolt skids uselessly off the stones of the building, ruining the fresh coat of paint only a few weeks old.

“Dammit,” Corvo is saying. He’s trying to aim his wristbow at nothing, the man took his shot and left, and the Outsider reaches for the Void on instinct, because the second man is coming towards them. There is nothing. He doesn’t even have a gun.

The second man elbows Corvo in the face, knocking him back, and then goes for the Outsider, perhaps correctly deducing that he is the weaker of the pair. A strategic misstep, because he puts his back to Corvo, who has taken plenty of blows to the face in his life, and is unlikely to be deterred.

The man has the look of a trained killer. Not as trained as Daud or Billie or the Whalers, but good enough that the Outsider, as he steps back and back again and finds a solid wall behind him, feels fear creep up his throat.

He remembers the steps that Corvo showed him, and the ones that he didn’t, that the Outsider once watched. Billie Lurk took the time, while they were at sea, to show him how to throw a punch.

He manages a glancing blow against the man’s cheek, and kicks at his knee in a way that would incapacitate him if he knew where to put the force behind it, if he could make his body fold to his whims the way that he has seen Corvo do a thousand times. He can’t. And then there is a knife at his throat, and his body slips farther from his control. It forgets to breathe without him. He could not move even if he knew how.

Corvo yanks the man back by his hair and puts a blade to his neck, and for a startling moment the Outsider thinks he will use it. Corvo’s movements are as calm as they ever are in the training yard, but he has himself wrapped up tightly. His hands would shake if he let them.

“Who sent you?” he asks, voice level but sharp.

“Corvo,” the Outsider says, and he must get the tone right, urgency without panic, because Corvo’s head snaps up and he whirls just in time to meet the man who shot the first bolt. He strikes him across the face with the blunt end of his blade, and then flips it in his hand, the threat clear.

The men cut their losses and run. Corvo should go after them, because it is clear enough they were paid killers, and they might give up their employer if properly persuaded.

Instead, the Outsider’s knees fail him, and Corvo crouches at his side, and the Outsider, strangely enough, does not care much for the answers falling away from him. He is only glad that Corvo did not leave.

“I didn’t realize he had a knife,” the Outsider says. His voice sounds like an audiograph playing in a distant room, far away from his own ears. The man and his knife and his companion are long gone, bootheels echoing against the pavement.

Corvo’s knuckles are scraped but not bleeding. His face will bruise, but not yet. The blood is still deciding what to do. It won’t gather under his skin for hours yet. Before the Outsider can get a closer look at Corvo’s knuckles or his face, Corvo has an arm around his back, holding him up.

“This is Dunwall,” he says. “Everyone has a knife.”

“I don’t.”

“Well, I’m getting you one,” Corvo says, steering the Outsider back towards the Tower. He should protest that he doesn’t live there anymore, it isn’t his home, and there is still the matter of Lizzy Stride, but there is bile already in his throat. He has no taste, right now, for lies. Corvo moves like a current.

“I don’t like knives.” There is an elegance to the mechanism of a wristbow, of a gun, of all the devices he ever encouraged Piero to make. Knives have nothing of that. All they have is an edge.

“I don’t care,” Corvo says, and his voice, too, has an edge. The Royal Protector cannot help but be protective, of course. It has always been in his bones, long before he ever left Karnaca.

They return to the Tower and to Corvo’s rooms without further incident. If anyone thinks to ask about their state of dishevelment, the Outsider does not hear it. Corvo speaks to a few guards. The Outsider does not hear that either. He hears only the rustle of Corvo’s coat, Corvo’s quiet breaths, and his own restless thoughts, writhing inside him.

Corvo goes first to his desk, looking for something. The Outsider stands, and left with nothing else he thinks. Thinks of knives, and blood, and how it felt to fall out of the world, how it felt to die.

It would not have been difficult for that man to kill him, had the Outsider been alone. And the death would be a final one. One last darkness to swallow him up.

The thought is like a whirlpool at the very center of him, rushing and dragging him down, an anchor sinking. No amount of breath will take him back to the surface.

“How can you stand it,” he asks Corvo. Corvo, who is there now, back again, hands against his face, steady, always steady. Watching the Outsider with such grave concern.

“Stand what?” Corvo asks.

“Knowing,” says the Outsider. “How short it all is, the smallness of your life, getting smaller by the day, and at the end—there is nothing. Only the Void, cold and forever. No thoughts, ever again, and soon enough even your bones will be dust. Even you, so well-remembered by history, will one day be forgotten. This city will be gone, and all memory of Corvo Attano gone with it.” He laughs. It hurts. “I’m even worse. No one knows my name. No one but the dead. Now I don’t even have one. There will be nothing and no one to remember me.” All the calm Corvo’s hands had brought him is beginning to slip away. He’s watched so many men drown. Water up over the sides of their ships, pouring into their lungs.

It is a poor death, drowning, and yet it is the only one the Outsider can ever imagine for himself. He’d rather drown forever than contemplate the silence after.

“Outsider,” Corvo says. “Look at me.”

The Outsider does. Corvo has very nice eyes; the Outsider has always thought so. They’ll be gone, one day, just like the rest of him.

Corvo sighs. “Do you ever stop thinking?”

“No,” says the Outsider. “Not in four thousand years.”

“Count,” Corvo says. Not harshly but firmly, the tone he uses on new recruits to the Watch. “When you breathe in, count. Like counting blood-ox.”

“We didn’t do that when I was a child. No blood-ox. We had goats.” He does what Corvo asks. Corvo’s palms are very warm against his face. He counts, five breaths and then ten. Twenty. Fifty. He sways a little on his feet. He counts Corvo’s breaths too. First he takes one for every three of the Outsider’s, and then for every two, and then finally they are apace.

“Sit down,” Corvo says, and as if on command, the Outsider’s legs, betrayers, cease once again to hold him. Corvo catches him, and lowers him to the ground, sitting down beside him. “Better?”

“Yes.” He looks down at his hands, placid in his lap. “How do you stand it?”

“You get used to it,” Corvo says. Blithely. But he means it: Corvo almost always means what he says, such a rarity that it once stood out to the Outsider like a jewel lost overboard to the water, and infinitely more valuable. “I’ve always known that I’m mortal. That I could be gone, with one wrong slip of the knife.”

“Don’t,” says the Outsider, closing his eyes against the sights it draws up: Corvo, nearly dead, time and time again. The slightest shifts that would have killed him. A mishandled knife, a misfired gun, a misplaced alarm. The Outsider never worried for him. He trusted in Corvo’s abilities, and in truth he hadn’t worried much about anything. Perhaps a creature who could not imagine his own death with any sort of clarity could not truly feel fear.

Would he have stepped in, if a knife was about to find Corvo’s heart?

He doesn’t know. His stomach shifts, the ocean again: bile and salt.

There was a moment, during the Blade Verbena, when Corvo's final opponent very nearly gutted him. The Outsider watched idly. Corvo piqued his interest—skill often did—but it was no more than a passing fancy. A note stuck in a book, to consider returning to later.

He watched as Corvo took an extra step back, and lived, and thought nothing of it. The next day, he marked Daud, young and growing into his anger, and did not think of Corvo Attano again for years.

“Sorry,” Corvo says, contrite. His hand finds the Outsider’s back. “I’m just saying, you’ll get used to it.”

How, the Outsider wonders, can he ever get used to this, knowing the Void will take him again in the end? Is that all his freedom is? Putting off the inevitable? A lamp fighting uselessly against the dark, its oil running out?

Even rock cannot withstand a steady drip of water. It was foolish to expect that he might be any different.

Corvo presses his hand against the back of the Outsider’s head and tugs, pulling him in. The crook of his neck smells like smoke and whiskey. Emily won’t be happy that he’s been sneaking cigars again. He thinks of that, of familiar liquor and the smoke from the fireplace in Corvo’s room, coals long burnt out, Corvo’s hand gentle in his hair. Not of the sea, not of soft darkness stalking him all his days.

“And tomorrow, I’m showing you how to use a knife.”

“A folding blade,” the Outsider says. “It will be familiar.” He can almost feel the phantom weight of it in his grip, in the hand that is clutching Corvo’s, holding him afloat.

-

Emily asked her mother, once, while she braided Emily’s hair, whether she would marry Corvo.

“Believe me,” Jessamine said, “I’ve asked.”

“So when will the wedding be?” Emily knew Corvo. He always did what her mother asked.

“There won’t be one,” said her mother gently. “Corvo thinks it would bring trouble.”

Emily was confused. “But you’re the Empress.”

Jessamine sighed. “That’s the problem. But it doesn’t matter. Marriage would be only ink and paper telling me something I already know in my heart. Corvo isn’t going anywhere, Emily.”

“I know that,” Emily said. Corvo always did what her mother asked, and Corvo mostly did what Emily asked (especially when a third slice of cake wasn’t involved), and Corvo would always be with them. At nine, these were the things Emily knew about the world.

Emily thought the rest over as Jessamine finished her braid, tying it off with a ribbon. It was the summer before the Rat Plague came, when Emily still kept it long. “But if there’s no wedding,” she said, “then there won’t be any cake.”

Jessamine laughed. “I’ll be sure to tell Corvo that the next time the subject arises. Perhaps that will convince him.”

And who knows. Maybe given enough time that none of them ever got, it would have.

Emily hasn’t thought of that in years. She’d remembered it in the Hound Pits Pub, talking animatedly to Callista about the man she would hire whose only job would be to make her cakes. She cut herself off abruptly, because she’d been about to tell Callista that the man would of course make the wedding cake, when Corvo finally married her mother. Because for a moment, she’d forgotten. There would be no wedding, and there might not be a man to make them cakes, if Corvo couldn’t get Emily back on the throne, because Emily might not be alive to eat them.

Thinking of it now, Emily can pick out the wistfulness on her mother’s face, the sort of thing no girl of nine would ever notice. Jessamine knew, even when she asked him, that Corvo was never going to marry her. There were too many reasons not to.

It is one of the most frustrating things about being an Empress, the constant bowing to practicality, that refusing to do so runs too high a risk of ending in blood or ruin.

Emily doesn’t have to marry. Her mother was always very clear about that. But if she’s going to, it should be to someone like Wyman. It seemed such an incredible stroke of luck, to fall in love with someone she could easily have. But Emily came back from Karnaca a different person, and Wyman came back from Morley the same. They parted amicably. A fair enough price to pay for the fact that Emily survived.

This, though, the way Emily’s heart constricts when Billie is close to her, equal parts pain and joy—this is just the world laughing at her.

Emily learned to be practical on the Dreadful Wale, but she learned some other things too. Billie’s moods, for one. She’s twitchy today, the way she used to get when she knew that a bad storm was coming. It doesn’t stop her from throwing Emily into the dirt when she gets the upper hand.

They’re at the Hound Pits Pub, because Cecelia has business on the other end of town. Emily hopes she didn’t get caught in the rain. What used to be the kennels makes for a more private practice ground than the Tower, and a more comfortable one that Billie’s rooms. But it doesn’t exactly keep Emily from dwelling on the past.

“You’re distracted,” Billie observes, the third time she knocks Emily off her feet. One of these days, Emily is going to have to learn to fight even when she can’t focus. It’s starting to become a problem. The one thing she was never lacking during Delilah’s reign was focus.

“So are you.”

Billie rolls her good eye. She discarded her eyepatch and gloves at the door, and so looking her in the eyes is a little like staring into the Void itself. It gives Emily the same swoop in her stomach that jumping between roofs does, the rush she felt whenever she used her powers, the utter delightful helplessness she used to feel when she looked at Wyman and they smiled back. A drop avoided, laughter in defiance of gravity. Leaning over the edge of a roof and knowing that she wouldn’t fall, or that if she did, she would be caught.

“Let’s make a bet,” Billie says. “Like we used to do over cards. Will that get you to pay attention?”

Back on the Wale, Billie figured out early on that Emily hated to lose. Which was unfortunate, because Emily was terrible at Nancy. “Sure,” she says. She rolls up onto her toes and raises her arms above her head, feeling her spine crack. “Terms?”

“I win the next round, you start being more careful. No more jumping around on rooftops.”

Emily snorts. “Okay. And if I win?”

“What, you think you can take me?”

Emily tilts her chin up. She wishes she could learn to hate the reckless kind of freefall she feels around Billie. “If I win, you have to tell me a secret.”

For a moment, Emily is sure that Billie is going to say no, and she can go back to getting tossed into the dirt. But Billie just shrugs her shoulders and cocks her head and beckons Emily forward.

Emily goes. She dug a few of Corvo’s practice batons out of the armory, and they’re using those instead of their knives. Billie hadn’t said a word about it when Emily handed it to her. She doesn’t want to hold a blade to Billie’s throat again.

They’ve done this enough times now that they’re learning each other’s habits, are falling into the kind of patterns that Emily and Corvo have found over the years. Emily lunges forward, and Billie falls back, and she grins so sincerely for a single moment that Emily stumbles, losing her footing.

Billie presses the advantage, lashing out with her right arm in a way that Emily’s never seen before, knocking Emily back, making her taste the Void on the back of her tongue.

Billie trips her and follows her down. She holds her there with one hand around both of Emily’s wrists, a knee on either side of her hips, the baton pressed over Emily’s heart. “I think I win,” she says, barely even out of breath.

Emily flexes her wrists in Billie’s grip and tips her head back. “You cheated,” she says.

“You never said I couldn’t use my powers.”

“You cheated. It’s a forfeit.”

“You just don’t want to make good on our terms.”

“I’ll make good,” Emily says. She can’t seem to catch her breath. It’s hard not to feel out of control, with Billie’s hand around her wrists. Not like an Empress at all. “Believe me, I’m staying away from roofs. But I still want my secret.”

Billie sits back, just a little, enough that Emily can get her hands free. She sits up, and can’t help but grin at the way that Billie doesn’t lean back. They’re comfortable here, even if they can’t be anywhere else.

“Well?”

Too bad Emily’s about to ruin it. “Why did you tell me the truth?”

Billie doesn’t ask her what she means. Instead, she puts her baton down with more care than it really needs. It does give her the excuse, though, to avoid Emily’s eyes.

But she answers. Billie always seems to answer her, even when it hurts. “I didn’t want you to think less of me,” she says. “I realized there was an easy way out. But I’ve taken a lot of easy ways out, and they never got me anywhere good. And I—wanted to be the kind of person you wouldn’t think less of. And that person would tell you the truth.”

When Emily touches Billie’s cheek this time, she must not be keeping as tight a hold on herself as she was out on the skiff. She flinches, but she does look up. “Do you still think I want to kill you?”

Billie doesn’t complain that Emily’s already got her secret. “No,” she says. “It would be easier if you did.” There’s an undercurrent of the Outsider’s frustration there. “I don’t understand you at all.”

She wonders if it would help if Emily told her that she doesn’t understand herself right now, either. But she told the Outsider to start with something small, even if it didn’t feel like it. Nothing about Billie, about the way she and Emily are together, feels small. It’s precarious, like if Emily makes one wrong move she’ll break them into pieces. It’s huge, pressing outwards against the edges of her ribs, threatening to suffocate her. It’s the first thing Emily’s allowed herself to want just for herself since she stepped off the Dreadful Wale.

Emily knows better now, too, than to take the easy way out. So she slides her hand from Billie’s cheek to her neck and leans up just that little bit farther and kisses her on the mouth, tasting her indrawn breath.

It’s as still, for a moment, as if time was frozen around them. Emily only knows it isn’t because she can feel Billie’s heartbeat under her palm, in counterpoint to her own.

And just as suddenly as time restarting, Billie pushes her away. Clumsy, in a way she so rarely is, falling backwards and sprawling out on the floor.

Emily doesn’t move. She presses her lips together tightly and thinks of rooftops, and falling, and stones scraping her knees when there’s no one but herself to catch her.

Billie just stares at her. “I used to wonder what exactly it was, that made the people the Outsider marked so special. Why he never seemed that interested in me. Lately I’m starting to think he only ever liked people if they didn’t have their heads screwed on right.”

“My head’s just fine.”

“I don’t understand you,” Billie says again, and this time it’s a plea. “You can’t just—”

“If you don’t want to—”

“It doesn’t matter what I want,” Billie snaps, standing up. She turns around to dust herself off. “You’re the Empress. I’m a smuggler. I’ve got fifteen years on you.”

And there it is: the kind of anger that only Billie Lurk seems to be able to inspire. “Don’t pretend that’s the reason,” Emily says.

“Fine,” Billie spits. “You’re the Empress, and I used to take money to kill people. I took money to kill your mother. I kill Empresses, your Majesty; I don’t kiss them.”

Emily hates absolutes. Maybe she’s spoiled, maybe she’s not any better than Meagan Foster expected her to be, but she’s Emily Kaldwin the First: she saved an Empire, she turned her father from stone to flesh, she stuffed Delilah into a painting that she’ll never go free from. And she hates being told what she can or can’t do.

Emily stands and stalks forward, and Billie backs up more readily than she ever did while they were sparring. It would be satisfying if it didn’t hurt.

“I’m tired of letting my past tell me who I’m supposed to be,” Emily says, walking Billie straight into the wall. She puts her forearms against it and leans in, looming a little. She’s got half a head on Billie. Billie, if she really wanted, could walk right through her. She doesn’t. She watches Emily with the same sort of weariness she had the first time they sparred, when Emily held a blade to her neck. “I’m the only one who gets to decide who I am and what I want.”

“Who you are is an idiot,” Billie says. Standing this close there’s something almost hypnotic about her eye, but when Emily shift her gaze to the left it doesn’t feel any different. “This doesn’t get to be easy. You don’t get to just—reach out your hand and take what you want.”

Emily presses closer. Billie flattens her palms against the wall behind her. “I can reach out and ask.”

They watch each other. They have an understanding here too. Emily thinks Billie might kiss her. She hopes. There’s a moment, a flipped coin deciding which way to fall. Emily can see Billie making her choice.

She puts her hands on Emily’s shoulders and shoves. “It doesn’t matter what you think of who I am now,” she says. “I helped kill Jessamine Kaldwin, and I betrayed the closest thing I ever had to a father because Delilah asked me to. Because she looked at me like I was worth something. Because I thought I loved her, and I was stupid enough to think that mattered.” Emily steps back, and Billie grins at her, showing her teeth. It isn’t kind. “See, your Majesty? When I care about someone, it gets people killed. You don’t want that from me.”

Emily shakes her head. “That’s not—it doesn’t matter, we’ve all done things we regret—”

“You sure look like it matters.”

“Excuse me for being human,” Emily bites out. “We all can’t have the Void in our veins, and she was my aunt, and she tried to kill me, and you always do this—” When Billie starts to step away, Emily grabs her arm. “And you can’t pretend, after all this, like you don’t care about me. We’re not done.”

“I think we are.”

They both look up when they hear banging on the door.

It’s Cecelia, panting, bent at the waist with her hands balanced on her knees as she tries to catch her breath. “It’s the Royal Protector,” she says. “And that new friend of his there’s been all that gossip about. They were attacked, near Draper’s Ward.” Cecelia looks up, and must see the expressions on both of their faces. “They’re at the Tower now,” she says. “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything more than that.”

Emily looks at Billie, but she’s already moving. She shifts onto her heels, and her wrist flexes under Emily’s hand, and for an awful moment Emily thinks that she’s going to disappear. But instead she just nods, face set. She turns her wrist in Emily’s grip and takes her hand.

They vanish, Billie pulling them across the city, heedless of who sees them or of Emily’s hand held in her own. Emily hates that she still has the space in her mind to be grateful.

-

It’s a testament to how evenheaded the Royal Protector can be when no one’s threatening his daughter that when Billie and Emily burst into his room, both breathing hard, he merely raises an eyebrow at them.

“We’re fine,” he says, which does not forestall Emily from throwing her arms around him. He’s sitting on the floor with the Outsider curled up at his side. The Outsider raises his head from Corvo’s shoulder when Emily catches him in her hug, too. Billie can’t tell if his inclusion was on purpose. The Outsider, blinking at Billie from over the Empress’s shoulder, doesn’t seem too sure either.

Billie, standing in the doorway, leans back on her heels and resists the urge to turn around and walk right back out.

“Did you do something stupid?” she asks, instead, looking at the Outsider. Attano was right. He doesn’t look much worse for the wear.

“No,” the Outsider says, at the same time that Attano says, “Yes.” Attano’s got the beginnings of a black eye.

The Outsider glares at him.

“You shouldn’t have tried to fight him,” Attano says. “You should have run.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

“What happened?” Emily demands, drawing back from them both, scowling.

Attano lays it out in simple terms, like he’s reporting an incident to the Empress second-hand, like he wasn’t there at all. Two assailants, no trace, and reading between the lines: any trace they might’ve left went unnoticed, because Attano was too worried about getting the Outsider—who doesn’t have a scratch on him—back safely.

Emily looks like she knows it too. She’s giving Attano a thin-lipped look. “And they weren’t just everyday thugs, were they.”

“No,” Attano says. “They were probably after me. And if they wanted me dead…”

“It’s probably because they want me dead,” Emily says on a sigh, like it’s a minor inconvenience, instead of her life hanging in the balance.

Billie thinks about the contract for Emily Kaldwin’s life, thinks about the announcement for her funeral, flickering under her hands, thinks about Emily falling into her arms when by all rights she should know better.

She looks away.

Emily stands and starts to pace, fidgeting with her hair. “Great,” she says. “Just what we need.”

“I’ll look into it,” Attano says.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Emily murmurs under her breath. She glances back at Billie and then away again, gaze skittering.

Billie grimaces. She still feels a little dizzy from—everything. From yanking herself and Emily across half the city and from Emily deciding that it was a good idea to kiss her. In this, it seems, the Empress isn’t any different than the way she always is, single-minded to a fault. Decisive in that way that Billie can’t help but be heart-stoppingly jealous of, even when the choices she makes are as stupid as that one.

“I should go,” she says, because then she’ll have to make her legs move. She can’t stay here, with Emily and her father, with the Outsider’s gaze going back and forth between Emily and Billie like he’s putting together another fucking clock in his head.

“I’ll walk you out,” Emily says.

“You should stay with your father.”

Emily stops pacing, and stops moving her hands, and in the space of a moment becomes the Empress again. Her voice is cold. “Fine. Then go.”

Billie stops by the Outsider as she walks out. He hasn’t uncurled from his place on the floor, from his place next to Attano. “You okay, kid?”

“Yes,” the Outsider says. He’s paler than Billie’s seen him since the moment after he left the Void, though. At her look, he continues. “I will be.”

Attano isn’t glaring daggers at Billie because he’s too busy looking anxiously at the Outsider, so Billie figures he’s probably right. She goes, leaving the Tower the way she came, by the rooftops that Emily is so comfortable on.

She manages to get all the way home without thinking about much of anything. When she gets there, she digs out the contract she signed at the black market shop, tucked away in the locked drawer beside her bed. Emily’s death written out in clear terms, the kind Billie never thought anything of when she worked for Daud.

Billie thought she’d be closer now. Taking the contract should have slowed them down, at least, whoever it is this time who wants the Empress dead. Maybe they’re getting impatient. Maybe Billie only made it worse. Just like she always does.

She needs to leave. She needs to follow up with her dwindling list of contacts. She needs to stake out the black market shop, maybe, if her other options don’t turn up anything useful.

Instead, she sits on her bed with her hand pressed to her mouth for a very long time.

-

Emily calms down a little after Lurk leaves, although Corvo can still tell she isn’t happy with him.

“Stay close to the Tower for the next few days,” she says.

“Of course. Assuming that you will too.”

Emily sighs, shaking her head at him. “I’ll be careful. I promise.” She pauses, and her face does something odd. “That’s the second time I’ve promised that today. Look, I need to go talk to the Watch Captain.” Her eyes flit to the Outsider and back to Corvo, a silent question: should I make him leave?

“Go ahead,” Corvo says. The Outsider, beside him, catches the look but says nothing, an uncharacteristic show of restraint.

“Just one more thing. You aren’t going to like it.”

Corvo tips his head back against the wall and closes his eyes. “Let me guess. I should think about retiring, because I successfully did my job and returned perfectly safe.” Corvo had blandly promised Emily that he would start looking for candidates to replace himself about a month before Delilah’s coup. He’d had his eye on Alexi Mayhew. But in the wake of it, he can’t imagine letting anyone else protect his daughter. The thought, sensible as it is, stings.

To his surprise, Emily doesn’t push the issue. “I don’t want to argue about this right now,” she says instead, voice weary. Corvo sits up, concerned, but she’s already on her way out the door. She pauses with her hand on the knob. “I’m glad you’re alright,” she says. “Both of you. I mean it. Please be careful.”

“He will be,” the Outsider says. “I’ll make sure of it.”

Emily looks between them one more time, and she smiles, just a little. Corvo’s shoulders relax to see it. “I’m holding you to that,” she says as she leaves.

Corvo glances at the Outsider and lifts an eyebrow.

“What?” he asks. “The Empress is right.”

It’s odd, to think that the Outsider is worrying about him. Maybe it’s preferable to worrying about himself. But Corvo didn’t miss the way the Outsider lost track of his breathing again, when Corvo so casually mentioned his own death. Just as badly as when he spent too long contemplating his own.

Worrying about Jessamine, worrying about Emily—those are the things that Corvo has always used to keep his life together. He never much thought about what it might feel like for them to know that fact so intimately.

It feels like a hook in his heart.

“I’m fine,” he says, mildly.

The Outsider raises a hand, as if to touch Corvo’s face, the place where he can feel a bruise beginning to form. He thinks the better of the gesture halfway through and drops it.

Corvo is used to trusting his body over his mind. His body jumped to defend the Outsider without thought. His body made the decision to stay with him, as clearly unharmed as he was, rather than chase down the men who attacked him. His body is deciding now to remain here, huddled on the floor like children, instead of attending to his duties, or tracking down Emily to demand what else has upset her today, or simply stretching his legs before they begin to cramp.

The Outsider, with a deceptive casualness, lifts his legs and lays them across Corvo’s lap. Corvo is no diplomat, but he’s good enough at reading what the Outsider is saying, as clearly as he possibly can, more clearly than he ever could with words: don’t leave me.

So Corvo settles back down against the wall. His back will be sore. It shouldn’t be comfortable for the Outsider either, but he doesn’t seem inclined to move.

Corvo wraps his arm around the Outsider’s shoulder, and lets him rest his head against the crook of Corvo’s neck again, his breaths beginning to even out. Corvo reaches up and runs his thumb, as lightly as he knows how, against the scar on the Outsider’s throat.

“It was a long time ago,” the Outsider says, voice buzzing beneath Corvo’s hand. It feels the way that he sounded in the Void. “I thought that it didn’t matter to me any more. It didn’t matter in the Void.”

“Some things never really leave us.”

The Outsider looks up, and when he meets Corvo’s eyes it feels like the time he got too close to a Wall of Light. “No,” he says. “They don’t.”

The Outsider isn’t a god, and he isn’t quite a man, either. He is very warm against Corvo’s side, and drowsy enough as the adrenaline finally leaves him that he slips into sleep after a few more minutes of quiet.

Corvo watches him and doesn’t move, even as he begins to ache: his back, and his legs, and most of all his heart, like any muscle suddenly overtaxed after too long without use.

Chapter Text

Citizens of Dunwall! There is a ghost haunting our streets, of plagues and blood long past. A wolfhound at our heels that puts the life of our very Empress in danger! Be wary, for just last night, the city’s beloved Royal Protector was attacked in the open street...

The printer peruses the rest of the story—the Outsider filled three pages—in silence.

“I can’t publish this,” he says, finally.

“You can.”

He rolls his eyes in an ostentatious manner that the Outsider has realized is his way of showing fondness. “Sure I can. I’m not going to. We don’t publish poetry. We especially don’t publish biased poetry. Ever heard of journalistic objectivity?”

“I do not recall this publication being particularly objective during the time of Delilah’s coup.”

“Yeah, and I learned my lesson, didn’t I?”

“You didn’t hire me to sit around navel-gazing,” the Outsider intones, repeating the printer’s own words back at him.

“Kid, you do realize I haven’t paid you yet, right?”

The Outsider blinks. He thinks back over the past several weeks, carefully. “Oh.” He had forgotten to ask about a salary. The little stash of coins Billie had thrust at him as he packed his bags was, indeed, dwindling.

The printer shakes his head and tosses him a pouch. “This month’s pay. We’ll work on your rhetoric skills later. Now help me set this type, I have to get it to the press by sundown.”

Setting type is soothing, delicate work. All the letters have places where they belong, and the Outsider merely has to put them there. For a time they work in silence.

“So,” says the printer. “I heard you got caught up in the ruckus with the Royal Protector. Hence your interest in the matter.”

“Yes.” The text for the advertisement they were sent from Old Dunwall Distillery has three separate mistakes in it; two of grammar and one of veracity. His fingers itch at not correcting them.

“You should be more careful. The Kaldwins are dangerous folk.”

The Outsider, seizing on the printer’s distraction, corrects the advertisement’s spelling. “Emily Kaldwin saved you from a very unpleasant death.”

The printer shrugs expansively. “Exactly. Wherever she and that father of hers are, there’s trouble. Might be a good idea to stay away from them for a little while.”

The Outsider is not sure if there has ever, in four thousand years, been anyone so concerned for his health. It’s oddly cheering, a feeling reminiscent of the bubbles in pear soda. “They’re old family friends,” he says. It is a lie he uses to tell the truth: that Corvo let him huddle close and fall asleep against his shoulder. That Corvo reminded him how to breathe when the Outsider forgot. That the Outsider will keep him safe.

“Sure,” the printer says with a snort. “Try not to get yourself killed sticking your nose into their business. High staff turnover doesn’t look good for me. And if you turn up anything useful, I want to know about it.”

They finish setting the type well before sundown, and the Outsider hurries to continue sticking his nose into the Kaldwin family’s business.

The Outsider slouches when he arrives at Draper’s Ward, doing his best to make himself seem unassuming. Corvo and Billie are good at it, fading into the shadows at will. The Outsider is discovering that he is not. Billie Lurk would tell him that he’s become too used to being the center of attention. She might even be right.

The woman with a skull tattoo guarding the door of Lizzy’s base of operations eyes him critically. The Outsider stares back at her. She’s been with the Dead Eels for a long time. She lost a finger siding with Edgar Wakefield, but she is loyal. The loss of that finger won her devotion to Lizzy Stride, forever. She is a woman who respects those who take what they are owed.

None of this does anything to help the Outsider get inside the building. “I’m here to speak to Lizzy Stride.”

“Uh huh,” says the woman, skeptical and unhelpful.

The Outsider is not used to doors that can only be unlocked with words and charm. Neither Corvo nor Daud were any good at it. Emily was passable, even when she didn’t have her standing as the Empress to lean on. Delilah was destructively charismatic, even without the aid of witchcraft, but by the time she began exercising her abilities to their full potential, the Outsider had already grown bored of her.

Lizzy Stride puts him out of his misery by sticking her head out of one of the windows a story overhead. “What do you want?” She squints at him. “I remember you. Word is you’re working for the Courier now. I don’t talk to the press, kid.”

This is not strictly true. Lizzy Stride carried on a long-standing affair with a woman who wrote for the Dispatch. She helped her get out of the city after the coup, and has not heard from her since. Lizzy assumes herself abandoned, and has put the woman out of her mind with the economical efficiency she once used to stop caring about her father. Her lover’s absence, however, was in truth unintentional. The woman picked up her journalism career in Cullero, and met her end at the hands of a member of the Eyeless who was frightened into violence by her insistent questions.

Simple tragedies never used to interest him. It might be a kindness to tell Lizzy the truth. But he is too unsure of his footing in such matters to try it. “I’m not here on behalf of the press,” he says, head tilted back. It is not a comfortable way to speak, looking up like this, as so many once did at his shrines. “Just myself.”

“You looking for a ship back to Cullero? My crew’s got one leaving at the end of the week.”

“No.”

“No,” Lizzy Stride parrots back at him, showing off all of her impressive teeth, leaning further out the window. The Outsider is reminded, quite suddenly, of how easy Corvo always found it to drop down on an enemy from above. “Nope, you’re here sniffing around about Lurk, because that girl brings as much trouble as her boss ever did.”

“You’re fond of her, though.”

“She’s got guts, what can I say!” Lizzy laughs, full bodied. “You, I’m not too sure about. I’ve never gone in for any of that witchcraft shit. I value my teeth staying in my mouth too much to mess with those black bone charms you see everywhere in Serkonos. That doesn’t mean I don’t know who you look like. I didn’t get where I am by being fucking stupid. I keep my ear to the ground, and I’ve heard rumors. You bring ten times as much trouble as Lurk ever could in her whole messy life.” The Outsider stiffens. But the Dead Eels scattered around them are studiously ignoring their conversation. “So how about this: I tell you what Billie Lurk is up to, and you go and bother her, and leave me and mine alone. Deal?”

The Outsider is learning, very slowly, what is good for him, and so he will never tell either of them that Lizzy Stride reminds him, at times, of Billie Lurk. “Deal.”

“Billie’s got herself worked up about a black market contract. That’s all I’ve got for you unless you’re willing to pay. So try the black market shops. And if you don’t know where to find those, then I really can’t help you.” She slams the shutters of the window closed.

There are three black market shops in Dunwall these days, but the Outsider knows which one Billie frequents. Before he turns to go, the tattooed woman stops him with a hand on his arm. “Careful,” she says brusquely. “You were followed here. Took off while you were talking. I’d watch your back.” She looks him up and down, and does not appear impressed with what she sees. “Or find someone to watch it for you.”

The Outsider does not quite know how to approach caution. He walks carefully, on his way out of Draper’s Ward. He looks casually behind himself as often as he can. But Dunwall is a city stuffed to the brim with people, now that its streets are no longer choked with plague. The Outsider doesn’t even know what to look for.

He makes his way to the black market shop near Bottle Street. Billie’s less likely to be at the shop closest to Draper’s Ward; she never spent much time in this part of Dunwall, back when it was her home. Dierdre died nearby. She didn’t avoid it on purpose, but her feet still carried her in other directions more often than not.

The Outsider will never be as observant as those trained to it from a young age. He must have been, once, out of necessity, but those memories—that life—are out of reach entirely. But he is trying to be vigilant. He’ll have to be, if he’s going to spend more time shadowing Corvo.

What he finds, soon enough, is the Empress, cloaked as she was during the time of the coup, trailing behind him. The Outsider stops and catches her eye. She startles and laughs before drawing up beside him.

“Let me guess,” she says. “You’re looking into the attack on my father.”

“Yes. I assume we are of the same mind.”

“Guess so.”

He peers at her. “Were you following me? To Draper’s Ward?”

Emily tilts her head at him. “No. I only just got Corvo to let me out of the Tower.”

“He let you out. Alone.”

The bottom half of her face is covered, but the Outsider can picture the Empress’s grin very well. “Something like that. He might’ve left first. Any news? Are the Eels doing something I should be worried about?”

“I’ve been trying to pick up the trail Billie is following. Lizzy Stride said to look for her at the black market shops. There’s one near here Bottle Street. You can go look there, if you like.”

“I take it you don’t want company, then.”

He doesn’t. He didn’t realize it until she said it, but he doesn’t want to talk to Emily Kaldwin at the moment. He’s angry at her, in a jumbled sort of way, directionless and annoying. She’s putting herself in danger, out here alone, and he would hate it more if she’d brought her father with her, painting the target on his back a brighter shade.

If something happens to her, Corvo won’t recover. And there’s no point in the Outsider going with her. He can’t protect her. He can’t save anyone.

Emily Kaldwin’s joyful recklessness was one of the things he’d liked about her once. He sighs. “No. Don’t get yourself killed. Your father would be cross with me. I hate it when your father is cross with me.”

Emily laughs. “I told you, he likes you. He won’t stay mad.”

“He will when you’re involved.”

She rolls back on her heels, nodding. “Don’t worry. I can take care of myself. You should know that better than anyone.”

It’s true. Emily took care of herself very well when she was on the run in Karnaca. The Outsider had watched with interest. “I suppose I do. Not better than your father, perhaps.”

Emily snorts. “As if I tell him everything.” She is quiet for a long moment. Then: “I’ve been wondering. Did my father ever kill anyone? During the interregnum.”

The pathways of her thoughts are clear. Emily Kaldwin did not kill indiscriminately—no daughter of Corvo Attano’s could take a life without care—but her time in Karnaca did not leave the city unscathed. She threw up, the first time, dizzy and sick outside the gates of the Addermire Institute. And then she stood up, rinsed her mouth out with elixir, and went inside to finish the mission.

Corvo killed one man. He shot the Royal Torturer calmly four times in the chest and set fire to his shrine, and after that he crept upstairs and stole and audiograph from the rooms of the Lord Regent, and continued his bloodless path across Dunwall’s streets.

The Outsider had been so sure, after that, that he would kill Daud. He was delighted to be wrong.

“I don’t know,” the Outsider says. “Even I couldn’t see everything.”

“Liar,” Emily says, shaking her head, eyes crinkling. “I know he didn’t. Thanks, though.” She crosses her arms. “Are you sure you don’t want company? Because when we stopped walking, that man—there, in the tan vest—he stopped by that lampost to smoke. He’s been watching us. You know him?”

The Outsider does. Three days ago, he held a knife to the Outsider’s throat.

“No,” the Outsider says, looking carefully and slowly away. Corvo wouldn’t want the man anywhere near his daughter. “You should go find Billie.”

Emily eyes him skeptically. “I’m not sure I should leave you.”

“I’ll be fine,” the Outsider says, this lie flowing as easily as the last. The man tosses his cigarette to the ground and grinds it out on the cobbles, apparently impatient with them. He turns and goes back the way that the Outsider came.

She does look torn, but in the end practicality--or her desire to see Billie Lurk--wins out. “Don’t get yourself killed, either,” she says, and she makes her own way to the black market shop.

The Outsider turns around to follow the man she pointed out. Simple enough. But when he tries to move, panic grips him, tight around his lungs, a living thing crawling through his veins. He wants to run, towards and then away, and in compromise he freezes in the middle of the street.

People flow around him. The man continues to walk away, a lazy stride that the Outsider could easily match, if he cared to.

He does not. He wants to stay rooted to this spot, or to turn around and hurry the other way, to catch up with Emily and go with her after all. He wants not to care about something so meaningless—something so familiar as a knife to his throat.

He doesn’t want to fail to do something that might save Corvo’s life. So he uproots his legs, and he follows.

-

It’s strange how easy it is to slip into old habits, Billie thinks, crouched on the windowsill of an abandoned apartment across from the black market shop. She’s done a lot of surveillance in her life. She knows how to stay quiet and how to deal with muscle cramps after hours spent sitting in the same Void-damned spot. This could easily be one of any of the hundreds of jobs she’s pulled, with Daud or without him.

Of course, it’s not. None of the jobs Billie’s ever pulled have been like this. None of them were about keeping someone alive. And they never felt like this, not even the first one, Billie all of seventeen years old in a Whaler uniform still too big for her, nervous and sweating in her gloves. None of them felt so much like freefall, as if every choice Billie made was going to be the thing that ruined everything.

As if there’s anything left to ruin that Billie hasn’t already fucked all the way up.

It’s only been an hour, and so far there’s been nothing. Not unusual. The sun is just setting, so business will probably start to pick up soon, but Billie can’t help but be impatient. So far, every person who’s gone into the shop she’s been able to file away in her mind: a couple of Hatters picking up supplies, a noble dropping off a contract, eyes shifting from side to side until Billie was sure they’d fall out of her head, and a few street kids looking to sell spare bolts they’d picked up for a pittance. She’d memorized the noble’s face, just in case she was involved, but Billie didn’t think so.

Maybe she’s overestimating herself, letting the power go to her head, but Billie is pretty sure that when she sees something worth seeing, she’ll know. Otherwise, what is this damned eye good for?

Another fifteen minutes and then another, and then, finally, something worth seeing: Emily, decked out in her disguise, walking down the street without her fucking bodyguard.

She has the gall to look up at Billie and wave. Then she makes a series of complicated gestures that eventually resolve themselves into her meaning, which is, give me a boost?

Billie ignores her. Emily vanishes into the doorway of the apartment building, and Billie isn’t surprised when the Empress climbs up the rotting stairs and joins Billie at the windowsill.

“What are you doing here?” Billie asks. She doesn’t mean for her voice to have an edge, but she can’t help it. She knew she was going to have to face Emily at some point. She’d been hoping to put it off until this whole mess was dealt with.

That’s what Billie Lurk is good at, after all. Running away.

“The Outsider said he had a lead. I’m just following up on it.” Emily settles down beside Billie, tucking herself into Billie’s space like it’s nothing. Like Billie can’t feel every inch of where they’re touching and every inch of where they’re not.

Billie thunks her head back against the wood of the window. “Nosy little shit,” she says. “I told him I was handling it.”

“Handling what, exactly?” Emily’s tone is playful, but there’s steel underneath. There always is with her.

Billie turns her face away. Keeps her eyes on the place she’s supposed to be looking.

“Billie,” Emily says. She reaches out and puts her hand on Billie’s shoulder, the lightest possible touch. There’s just the slightest hitch of hesitation in her voice. Anyone who didn’t know her so well would miss it. What a joke. As if Billie really knows her at all.

The thing is that she does. She shouldn’t. But she knows Emily, and it goes both ways: Emily knows her, maybe better than anyone else alive. Billie Lurk has been a lot of things in her life. Worn a lot of faces. Maybe the true one is the thing that Emily sees under her mask.

Wishful thinking. That’s all. But more than anything, Billie wants it to be true.

“What?” Billie asks.

“I know what you look like with a secret. Come on. Spit it out. I’m not going to leave you alone until you do.”

Billie knows how to steer a conversation. How to redirect misplaced curiosity. But all the places she could redirect it are worse. What is there to talk about, if not Emily’s hands around her wrists, her breath on Billie’s cheek, the way she’d felt, in that one single second Billie let herself think that it was something she could have.

There’s no point in lying, anyway. If Emily had any self-preservation at all, she’d be back in the Tower with her bodyguard.

“There’s a contract out on your life,” Billie says.

“Well, that does explain why someone was trying to kill me,” says Emily, dry, not sounding very impressed.

Billie slants Emily a look. Maybe that’s what it means to be an Empress: to talk about your death like it’s as important as what time you’re going to have afternoon tea. Like it’s an inevitability, an inconvenience, and not even an interesting one. “I wasn’t finished,” Billie says. “There’s a contract out on your life. I took it. I thought it might slow them down. Clearly it didn’t work.”

“I see.” Emily leans back on her hands, tapping her fingers lightly against the wood beneath them. And no, she doesn’t see, if she saw she’d sound pissed, or anything but cool and stately. Void, Billie hates it when she’s the Empress.

“It’s your life,” Billie says. Snarls, maybe. Whatever. “You could try to sound like you give a shit.”

“Maybe I think you care enough for the both of us.” They stare at each other for a long moment, and then Emily lets out a long sigh. “Come on. Let me see.”

Billie tugs the contract out of her pocket. It’s creased, gone soft from how many times Billie’s folded and unfolded it, as if it might be more forthcoming with its secrets this time.

She doesn’t watch Emily’s face as she reads it over. She keeps her eyes on the shop. Two customers in, two customers out. Nothing special, if Billie’s hunches are worth anything.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Billie turns. Emily keeps smoothing her fingers over the edges of the contract. The words of her own death written down in plain, cheap ink. “You can’t have thought I would distrust your motives.”

Billie snorts. “Why not? What reason have I ever given you to trust me?”

“You meant to kill the Outsider, and instead you set him free.”

“The Outsider was desperate. You’re the Empress of the Isles. The best one we’ve had in a long, long while. Your death would be the start of a chain of dominoes that would touch every person in the Empire.” Jessamine’s death, toppling over the quiet misery of the Dunwall she presided over into chaos and ruin.

Emily splays her fingers out against the paper. “My mother was the best,” she says quietly. “She did the best that she could with a very poor hand of cards.”

Jessamine Kaldwin kept Gristol from falling completely apart, and little else. She ruled over the kind of city that chewed Deirdre up and spat her back out. There are people who can tell Emily that. Billie isn’t one of them. What Billie can do is make sure Emily lives to do better.

Emily looks up. “You know I’m not afraid of you,” she says.

“Maybe you should be.”

“Billie.” Emily sets the contract down. She puts her hand against Billie’s neck, touch still light, like she thinks what Billie needs now is for her to be gentle. “I’m not afraid of you. I trust you. The contract is just—paper and ink. It doesn’t change what I know in my heart. It doesn’t matter what it says. You took it because you hoped it would help save my life. I know you would never hurt me.”

“I have hurt you.”

Emily grips her chin then, hard, and it hurts, both her fingers against Billie’s chin and the look in her eyes, so serious and honest. “We’ve all hurt people. We’ve all been hurt. What matters is what we do now.”

Billie isn’t sure when Emily got so close. Not that there was much room for two on this window to begin with. A few strands of hair have fallen into her face. Billie could tuck them behind her ear if she wanted. Emily would let her. Emily would smile, that infectious grin she gets when a plan goes her way.

She could do it if she wants. If. What a cowardly way to put it. Billie wants. That’s not the point. Billie’s wanted a lot of things she shouldn’t have.

But still. She can’t look away.

Her vision falters all at once, going gray at the edges, and her right eye hurts. Billie jerks her gaze away, back to the black market shop. For a moment what she sees doesn’t make any sense: it’s Delilah, walking into the shop, and for a few seconds Billie is so heart-stoppingly terrified she almost can’t bear it. She should have known. She should’ve known nothing as simple as a painting was ever going to hold Delilah back, that Billie was never going to be free of her, not really. Just like she’ll never be free of Daud or of Dunwall, it’s all going to choke her, one day—

Her vision clears, fading from the gray tones of a silvergraph back into color. It isn’t Delilah at all. It’s one of her witches, though, a woman Billie only just barely recognizes. She isn’t even sure it’s her, and not the eye, doing the recognizing.

“Billie?” Emily asks again, but this time her voice is all business. Emily might be reckless with her own life, but she has good instincts. She can smell danger in the air.

“The woman who just walked in,” Billie says. “It’s her. She’s involved.”

Emily reaches out again—Billie has got to figure out some way to stop her from doing that, it’s not going to end well—and runs her thumb just under Billie’s right eye. Touches the edge of it. Void, that feels weird. “You can tell?”

“Yeah.” Billie’s voice is rough. “I can tell. I know her, anyway. She used to work with Delilah. Bet she’s looking for revenge.”

The witch—Maria Flint, that was her name—leaves quickly, mouth in a flat line. She’s striking, dark eyes tucked into deep hollows in her face, a long black braid running down her back. Delilah’s coven was a mixed bag—sycophants and bootlickers scattered among people with real ambition, people with actual will and power to put behind it. And people like Breanna Ashworth, who were both, were always Delilah’s favorites. Flint looks like she was the second. She looks like the kind of person Billie used to be: when she wants someone dead, she makes it happen.

“Well?” Emily asks. “Are we going to follow her?”

Billie should say that no, she’s going to follow her, and Emily’s going to stay here. Better yet, Emily’s going to go back to Dunwall Tower, where there are walls and guards and only idiot nobles to want her dead, and no former assassins to speak of. But Flint is walking quickly, and there’s not any time to argue. And Billie can’t quite bring herself to just leave Emily sitting here alone, anyway. To just run away from her. So she holds out her arm, elbow out, some kind of parody of courtly manners, and Emily takes it with a seriousness it doesn’t deserve. It makes Billie’s stomach twist, but she doesn’t have time for that either. She reaches out, Void in her throat, and follows Flint, rooftop by rooftop, Emily quiet and focused and undeniably present by her side.

-

The steps of the Dunwall Courier’s office aren’t particularly comfortable, but Corvo makes do. He could go inside. But Corvo doesn’t really want to talk, particularly not to the printer, so he waits instead. He smokes one of his dwindling store of cigars. Emily thinks she’s very clever about stealing them. She’s old enough to smoke if she wants to. She’s the Empress of the Isles; no one could stop her. It makes him smile that she still goes behind his back to do it.

It’s dusk by the time the Outsider arrives, chewing on an apricot tart. It’s an interesting exercise, because Corvo can see it the moment that the Outsider realizes he’s there. His eyes widen and his expression smooths out. He doesn’t smile, but there is a joy there, subtle and contagious. Corvo waves him over.

The Outsider sits down and breaks the remains of the tart in half. Corvo accepts his half, bemused. He’ll get crumbs on his coat. He stubs out his cigar so he can eat.

“I bought it with my wages,” the Outsider explains. “I’ve never done that before.”

Corvo hides his smile in the tart. “You’ve been in Dunwall for weeks.”

“Billie Lurk’s generosity is legendary. And yours.”

“You mean the Empress’s.”

“No,” says the Outsider. “Were you looking for me?” Nothing ever sounds so simple as a question, coming from the Outsider’s mouth. He sounds delighted by the prospect.

“Yes.” Corvo takes the last bite of his tart. The Outsider seems to have forgotten his own in favor of watching Corvo as he speaks. “I thought you might be looking into the men who attacked us.”

The Outsider leans back, self-satisfied. “I have a lead, yes.”

He’s so uncomplicatedly happy in a way that Corvo can recognize: a man with a task set before him. One that he’s good at. One that he’s accomplished. “Guess being a nosy bastard comes in handy.”

“You are likely the first and last person who will ever say that to me,” says the Outsider. “Nevertheless, you are right. It does.” He produces a sheaf of papers from his coat, letters penned in various hands.

“Let me guess. You stole those.”

The Outsider begins to page through them. He nods absently. “If it makes you feel any better,” he says, “they’re stolen from a man who wants to kill your daughter.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” says Corvo. He leans over the Outsider’s shoulder to look.

Going through stolen documents ought to be a lonely process. Corvo has done it that way often enough. This is different. The Outsider scoffs at what he reads, makes comments, is altogether entirely distracting. Corvo should mind it more than he does.

“Where did you get these?”

“Overseer Cedric Thackeray,” says the Outsider. “I found one of the men who attacked us. Well. He was following me. I think he was hoping I would lead him to you. So when he decided that I wasn’t going to, I tracked him to the barracks of an Overseer, and they stood outside to have a conversation. I robbed him while they talked, and eavesdropped.” He’s very proud of himself. Corvo can’t blame him. He knows the satisfaction of something like that, getting out alive against all the odds. “Thackeray hired them to kill you. To smooth the way for ‘other agents’ to take care of Emily. What I don’t understand is why he would do something so stupid.”

“Stupidity really surprises you?”

“He wants the Empress dead. That much is clear. But his methods make no sense. He should know better. There are plenty of unsavory men with the skill to take you down, if he took the time to find them. But he didn’t. That speaks of impatience.”

“Or he’s just not very bright. You’d be surprised how often that’s the real explanation.”

The Outsider blows out an annoyed breath.

“Why are you interested in this?”

“I’m nosy,” the Outsider says. “As many have told me. At length.”

“There are a lot of safer ways to do that,” Corvo says, instead of pointing out how terrified the Outsider was. Corvo knows: he felt it. He can feel it now, now that he bothers to look for it. The Outsider is happy, but that happiness is covering something else.

“Also, man tried to kill me,” says the Outsider, letting some of the fear creep out. “I did not appreciate it.”

“He tried to kill you because you were with me.”

“And he tried to kill you because you are the Empress’s Royal Protector. Are you planning to give that position up anytime soon?”

“I see. Clever.” The Outsider shuffles his stolen papers. “You could die,” says Corvo, with the kind of bluntness that made his time mingling with the nobility so tiresome. “If you stick to investigating whatever it is the Courier is interested in these days, you’ll live longer.”

The Outsider peers up at him, tilting his head. “You’re trying to scare me off,” he says, in the same tone Emily used to use while working out a difficult math problem. “And you really do hate the Courier.”

He doesn’t say it, as if that will stop Corvo from hearing it: fascinating.

He wonders if the Outsider has any idea that he’s the interesting one. His own death scares him, badly, the way it could only scare someone who never expected to die. And here he is, sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. He hasn’t conquered his fear; Corvo can see that plainly. It’s evident in every breath the Outsider takes, his fingers just a touch unsteady against the apricot tart he’s suddenly remembered, and is breaking into pieces in his lap.

But here he is, plotting. He probably couldn’t stay out of trouble if he tried. He’s not built that way—not as a man and not as a god and not as whoever he was before, in a city whose name he can’t recall.

Corvo’s always known that when he’s involved, the Outsider doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone. It seemed useless to mind, and so he didn’t. That must be how it crept up on him, overtaking him without his notice.

It was like that, with Jessamine. He never thought to guard against it then either.

“You know,” the Outsider says, in idle tones, bearing Corvo’s scrutiny with equanimity, “you can’t protect everyone.”

“I don’t intend to,” Corvo says. “Just Emily.” The Outsider raises his eyebrows at him. Corvo refuses to rise to the bait. He closes his eyes. “I really do think you should focus on the newspaper. Maybe you’ll improve the quality of their reporting,” Corvo says, and is surprised when it makes the Outsider laugh, and even more so that he doesn’t press the subject, doesn’t make Corvo say it: I want to protect you too.

“No,” he says. “I don’t think so.” He bends his head over the letters again.

“Outsider.”

“Yes?”

“What happened to the first man? The one who attacked you?”

The following silence is of the particular length that Corvo knows means the Outsider is weighing the benefits of a lie. “Thackeray offered him a drink before he left. He accepted.”

Ah. “It was poisoned.”

The Outsider nods. “Slow acting. He collapsed three streets away.” Another silence, this one longer. “I knew it would be poisoned,” he says. “I could have contrived of a way to save him.”

“I’m not going to blame you because you didn’t.”

“But you would have. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know. There might not have been enough time.”

“But you would have tried.”

Corvo shrugs. “Probably. It’s not as though you poured the poison down his throat. He tried to kill you. Plenty of men have died for less.”

“Yes,” the Outsider says. He smooths out the papers one last time before putting them aside, so he can lean back on his elbows on the steps. “I should feel something. Shouldn’t I? Satisfaction, at least, if not sorrow. If not both. Something other than relief that he can’t hurt either of us any longer. But that’s all. That’s strange, isn’t it?”

“Don’t tell me it shocks you. You’re always going to be strange, Outsider.”

“Do you mind?”

“That you’re strange?” The Outsider nods. He isn’t looking at Corvo. “No.” It’s true. The Outsider is only himself. The deaths of strangers have never mattered to him. And Corvo is not so sure he would have tried to save the man from his poison. He’d have wanted to question him. But he would also have wanted him dead. In those kinds of situations, he’s never sure, except for in the moment, what he’s going to do. It was like that with Daud, and the torturer, and the Lord Regent. There’s always a moment when it might tip the other way. “Do you?”

The Outsider looks up at him. “I suppose not.” He tips his head back, resting it against the soft wood of the steps. “You always made it look so easy. Mercy.”

“If it was easy,” Corvo says, “it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Corvo has never been accused of being a man drawn to easy paths. It explains a lot, really, about his current predicament. Trying to hold the Empire together and keep his daughter safe and give the Outsider a home.

The door behind them rattles, and the printer comes down the stairs. The Outsider shifts to make room for him, shuffling the papers in such a way that he won’t be able to read them.

The printer, narrow-eyed, gives Corvo what he’s startled to realize is a warning look. “Lord Protector.”

Corvo inclines his head, thin-lipped. The printer shakes his head and leaves, muttering to himself.

“I can never decide,” says the Outsider, once the printer is out of earshot, “whether or not you are good at holding grudges. You never seem to be able to choose.”

“He called my daughter a murderer,” Corvo says, hearing himself sound petulant. “I really don’t see why you have to work for him, of all people.”

The Outsider turns to look at him. His expression is very solemn for a long moment, but he can’t keep it up. His mouth twitches, and then both of them collapse into laughter.

“He’s kind,” the Outsider intones, and then he starts giggling again. “He isn’t. I like him. He’s very shrewd.” He seems surprised to hear himself say it.

“And he puts up with you.”

“And he puts up with me,” the Outsider agrees. He smiles at Corvo, a real one, not particularly dazzling but still startling in its intensity. “Perhaps not to the extent that you do. Since you do not seem to bear me any grudge.” And there it is, lurking underneath the Outsider’s unpracticed smile: hope.

Corvo balances his chin on his hand, and wonders when the last time was that he felt that he was putting up with the Outsider. “No,” he says. “Maybe not. Pass me the letters again.”

-

The witch moves like a fish cutting through water, but Billie moves like a shadow, even with Emily in tow. Her father would tell her off—Billie would tell her off—Void, maybe even the Outsider would, at this point—but Emily is having fun, blood running fast in her veins.

For more reasons that one, maybe. Emily loves a chase, but traveling like this, Billie has to keep her close. Emily isn’t above enjoying it. Even when they join the crowd briefly to walk behind the witch, so that Billie can pick her pocket, Emily is right there beside her. Flint doesn’t have much, but she does have a copy of the same contract Billie showed Emily in the apartment.

In the end it doesn’t matter how close a tail they keep on her, because Flint stops at the docks and gets passage down the Wrenhaven while Billie and Emily, perched on a nearby building, hidden by the falling apart remains of a sign, can only watch.

Emily hates it when this happens. Her body’s anticipating a fight, but she’s wound up over nothing. “We have to figure out where she’s going,” she says.

“No, we don’t. I’m pretty sure I already know.” Billie doesn’t look at her. “I think we need to talk to your father.”

Emily watches longingly as the skiff loads up. “Maybe one of us should follow her. Just to keep track.”

“If you think I’m leaving you alone, princess—”

“It’s Empress or it’s Emily. Take your pick, Billie.”

That gets Billie to look at her, at least. Emily could kick herself, or Billie, or both. “Okay, Emily,” Billie says, quiet now. “It’s not safe for you to go after her, and if I go after her, you’ll just find a new and creative way to get yourself into trouble. So we’re going to go see your bodyguard, and I’m going to tell him what I know.”

“And what is it, exactly, that you know?”

Billie looks towards the skiff. The witch is only just visible, chin turned up, talking to the captain. “That you really can’t ever leave the past behind,” she says. “She’s going to Brigmore Manor, and if she’s doing that, she’s going to stay put.”

Emily really, really wants to ask. But Billie offers her arm again before she can get her words in order. “Well? Let’s go.” And so they do.

Corvo, before he left the Tower, told Emily that he was going to speak to the Outsider. Right after he told her to stay inside and not go wandering around. As if he could really expect her to take advice he himself was ignoring. So she and Billie head towards the Courier’s office, hoping to catch him there.

Honestly, Emily shouldn’t be surprised to find them crouched together on the stairs like children, poring over a mess of papers spread out all around them. The Outsider’s even contrived of some way to hang up a map of Dunwall along the banister, running crooked along the side. It reminds her, almost absurdly, of sitting around the map of Serkonos on the Dreadful Wale, listening to Meagan’s briefings.

“I take it you two have been busy,” Emily says. “Too busy to go inside?”

The Outsider blinks at her, and then turns to blink at her father. “I suppose we could have when the printer left,” he allows. Corvo laughs, rich and warm.

Well, that’s interesting. Emily can tease her father about it another time. “There’s a contract out on Emily’s life. We found out who’s behind it,” Billie says bluntly.

“A contract,” Corvo says slowly. Emily does not like the look he’s giving Billie.

“Of course,” the Outsider says, not seeming to notice. “Overseer Thackeray must have put out the contract, and hired those men to get Corvo out of the way to help anyone who picked it up—”

“Who’s Thackeray?” Billie asks. “The contract was put up by one of Delilah’s old witches. Maria Flint.”

“A witch?” The Outsider stares at her. “Thackeray is an Overseer.” He holds out a letter.

Billie grabs it from him, scanning it quickly. Emily wonders if the eye helps or hinders. She leans in over Billie’s shoulder. It’s a long note, in characteristically florid language for an Overseer, discussing the necessity of Emily’s death. It’s not very flattering.

“Well, I am a filthy heretic,” Emily muses. “So I guess he isn’t wrong. But the witch we saw—she left the black market shop where Billie found the contract. A copy of it was in her pocket.”

“Think we’ve got two separate people who both want you dead? That would be just our luck,” Billie says, glancing at her.

The Outsider’s rummaging grows more pointed. “What did you say her name was?”

“Flint.”

“I know I saw that—here.” The Outsider, with a flourish that he probably can’t help, produces another letter. This one Corvo grabs first. Emily leans in to read it upside down. Out of the corner of her eye, Billie looks tempted to climb over the banister so that she can get a look at it. She doesn't. Emily smiles, and reads it aloud to save her the trouble.

“‘Thackeray. I told you these things take time’—she underlined that. Three times. ‘My first attack may have failed, but I gathered valuable information. There’s no need for foolish impatience, or to involve anyone but ourselves. I’ve taken the liberty of fixing that mistake for you, and I’m sure you’ll tie up any other loose ends. Meet me at the place I spoke of, where the Empress should have been deposed long ago.’ And she signed it. M. Flint.”

“They were working together. A witch and an Overseer?” Billie asks.

“I’ve seen it before,” Corvo says, briskly. “Tell me more about this contract you found, Lurk.”

Oh, this is going to end badly. “She was just trying to help.”

Billie gives her a sardonic look, and completely ignores the quelling look Emily gives her in return. “I took the liberty of accepting a contract on your daughter’s life,” she says. Emily barely bites back a sigh.

“You what?” Corvo stands too quickly, upsetting the careful of arrangement of papers surrounding him and the Outsider. He misses the despairing look the Outsider gives him entirely, as he begins to gather them up.

“If I took it, then no one else would,” Billie says. “That’s all.”

“We’re supposed to believe that?” Corvo demands. “After what you did to her?”

“I trust her,” Emily says sharply. “So you’ll just have to trust me, father.”

“With your own safety? Of course,” Corvo says. “You’ve shown a great deal of care for that. What were you even doing away from the Tower?”

“Helping!” Emily says. Shouts. Dammit. She reigns it in, hands balled at her sides. “I’m not going to stay locked in a tower, and I’m not going to listen to you accuse Billie of trying to hurt me, and I am not going to keep standing in this stairwell when there’s a perfectly serviceable office ten feet away. Do you have the key?” she demands, looking down at the Outsider.

The Outsider glances up from his papers. “I do.”

“Then let’s go sit down and do this properly,” Emily says. “I’m not on the run anymore. I can afford to sit at a table while we figure out what to do. Together, and politely.”

“As her majesty commands,” the Outsider says. He finishes gathering his papers and climbs the remaining stairs, fiddling with the lock on the office door.

Corvo is looking at Emily with a faint smile on his face. “What?” she says, waspishly.

“Sometimes I forget you’re the Empress,” he says, shaking his head.

“I’m beginning to see how you’d be good at it,” Billie agrees.

“I’ll try not to take that as an insult,” Emily says, smiling despite herself. “Come on, let’s go.”

They settle around a table in the Courier’s office, and despite what Emily said, this feels even more like preparing for a mission. From the look on Corvo’s face, he seems to think so too, though it’s been much longer for him. And he didn’t have any allies during the interregnum, not really. Except for maybe the Outsider.

“Okay,” Billie says. “Flint. Let’s start there. We saw her get on a boat. I’m sure I know where she was headed,” she continues, slowly. “But the rest of that letter...I don’t know what she’s talking about. Another attack? Deposing the Empress long ago?”

“I think I would have noticed an attempt on my life,” Emily says, dryly. “But it makes sense that the contract might not have been their first try—maybe she tried to bribe someone and it didn’t take. And deposing the Empress—maybe she means Mother?” Emily looks from Billie to her father. He’s leaning his cheek against his hand, and he isn’t watching Billie with suspicion anymore. He’s looking at the Outsider. The Outsider sneaks a glance at him, out of the corner of his eye, and they share a look that Emily can’t decipher at all.

“I might be able to shed some light on that,” the Outsider says, at length. He sounds resigned. “And then Corvo will throw me out of the Tower again, so it’s a good thing I haven’t had the chance to move any of my things back.”

“Spill,” Billie says impatiently. “We can make time for your dramatics when no one’s life is in danger. So never, probably, considering we live in Dunwall.”

The Outsider ignores her. He’s watching Corvo carefully. Corvo has the kind of look he gets during Parliament, when he’s mulling something over, taking it seriously. “Daud could have told you, if you’d asked,” he says. “But you didn’t.” Billie tenses. Emily leans back in her chair and crosses her arms. “Delilah had a plan, fifteen years ago. She didn’t want to throw a coup. Coups are messy, and require allies, and Delilah was tired of cultivating allies, just then. She wanted to be her own wealthy patron. She wanted to be you, Emily. So she painted a picture. She was going to steal your life.”

Corvo’s gone pale. Billie stands up, turning her back on all of them, arms crossed tight.

The Outsider looks miserable, in his own quiet way. “It would have let her become you, in every way that mattered. Take your place, rule in your stead. And Emily Kaldwin as she should be would be gone forever. I gave Daud a clue. Her name. And it was enough. He stopped her.”

“No thanks to me,” Billie says. “Fuck. Fuck!” She kicks the nearest desk, sending a book tumbling to the ground.

“Billie didn’t know,” says the Outsider.

Billie whirls around to glare at him. “You think?”

“If I had killed Daud—” Corvo starts, quietly.

The Outsider shakes his head. “You didn’t meet him until it was finished.” He pauses. “And I might have told you. You were rather busy, at the time. But if there wasn’t anyone else—I think I would have. I’m not sure.”

Corvo tips his head back. “Me against Delilah,” he muses. “You would probably have found that interesting.” He doesn’t glance up to see the Outsider’s expression, but Emily does. It’s wretched. “And you can stop looking at me like that. I’m not angry. We have bigger things to worry about.”

Emily blinks down at the tabletop numbly. It’s too big for her to really think about. That if it wasn’t for Daud she’d have died at eleven years old. Not even properly. Delilah would be her, wearing her skin.

She shakes the thought off, rubbing at her face. Things only ever seem to get more complicated in Dunwall. “So all that happened at Brigmore Manor,” she says. “Right? That’s where Billie said Flint was probably going.”

“Yes,” says the Outsider.

“Great,” says Emily. Three heads turn to look at her in askance. “What? It is. Now we know for sure where they’ll both be, and they have no idea we’re onto them. Tactically, this is perfect. It doesn’t matter how I feel about it.”

Corvo smiles at her, a little weakly. He seems to be taking it better than the Outsider expected. Billie seems to be taking it worse.

“And Billie’s been there before. Right?”

Billie’s mouth is tight. “Yeah. A few times. I’d just as soon forget it.”

“Well, don’t. You’re going to have to go back.” It hurts a little to say it, just underneath her breastbone, because Emily knows she isn’t leaving Billie a choice. In her mind, this is just another way that she hurt Emily, another mark against her, another reason to push her away.

Maybe going back there will help. Maybe. Emily isn’t too sure of that. But it has to get done anyway, so she’s going to get Billie to do it. Maybe that’s not kind. But Emily doesn’t always get the luxury of kindness. “Will Flint recognize you?”

“From before? Maybe. She’ll know my name, at least. I’m a little notorious these days.”

“Good.” Emily leans back in her chair. “So you can go to Brigmore, show her the contract, say you want to help. Figure out if it’s just them, or if there’s another conspiracy we have to deal with.”

Billie stares down at the table and nods. “And then take care of her. Yeah. I think I can do that.”

“I’m coming with you,” Corvo says.

Billie’s mouth twitches. “Can’t really argue with that. Hope you can keep up.”

“I know Brigmore,” says the Outsider. He rolls the map of Dunwall back out and studies it. “There’s no blockade anymore, but the easiest way to get there undetected is still by water. I can get us a skiff. I can give you the lay of the land.” Corvo is giving him another one of those unreadable looks. “I’ll be careful. I do like my throat uncut.”

Emily nods decisively. “Then it’s settled. We’ll all go. How fast can you make the arrangements?”

Billie stares at her. “You are not coming,” she says. “Absolutely not.”

“I’m not going to stay in the fucking Tower,” Emily snaps. “I dealt with Delilah myself. I’ll deal with this too. I’m not going to run away.”

“You don’t understand,” Billie says. “Emily. Brigmore isn’t—it’s not like other places. There’s something wrong with it. Maybe because of Delilah, I don’t know, but you won’t be safe there.”

“Apparently Delilah almost killed me from there without even laying a finger on me,” Emily points out. “Who knows? Maybe Flint will try the same thing. I’m safest when you let me take care of myself.”

“And I can’t stop you, anyway.” Billie sounds resigned. “Fine. Fine.” She squeezes her left eye shut and puts her hand over the right, pressing in like she’s got a headache. “Sometimes I really wish you’d wrung Delilah’s neck.”

Emily sighs. “That makes two of us.”

On the Dreadful Wale, she’d be feeling satisfaction right now. Anticipation. She’d be doing stretches up on deck, or taking a dive to dig a rune out of the soft mud of the harbor. Billie had laughed at her for that, when she’d surfaced dripping wet and covered in hagfish bites.

No one’s laughing now. Emily doesn’t feel excited, or even scared. Mostly she wishes that Billie would look her in the eye. They don’t have time for her to do anything but wish. The Empire can take whatever it wants from her, it can try to kill her a hundred times over, it can make her look at tax law until her eyes start to bleed, but it can’t take that. She can wish whatever she wants.

Emily cracks her knuckles and nods at her father. They’re going to do this right.

-

Lizzy Stride, for all her bluster, is not opposed to helping them one last time. For a price, at least. And the Outsider doesn’t even need any of the coin Corvo offered him to smooth the way to borrowing Lizzy’s skiff. All it takes it the name of Lizzy’s lover lost to the streets of Cullero, and she has a knife uncomfortably near his heart. But she listens. And even after he tells her the woman’s fate, she doesn’t kill him, on the condition that he never darken her doorstep again, and that Billie Lurk owes her a drink on his behalf.

She even calls him a black-eyed bastard as he leaves. It’s almost nostalgic.

“My eyes are green,” he says. He should know. He checks them in the mirror every morning.

She rolls her eyes at him. “Like that matters.” Lizzy squints at him for a long moment. “One more question because you get the fuck out of my life forever. Why Daud?”

It is not hard to read the undercurrents of the question. Why Daud? Why not her?

Well. Why not?

The Outsider knows the answer. He knows the old answer, anyway. Daud was interesting. A hard-eyed youth who murdered his kidnappers and then didn’t stop, carving out a bloody path to the top of Dunwall’s streets. Not many could do that. The Outsider wanted to see what he would do with an extra edge.

That’s the answer. He thought it was. He would have told Lizzy Stride that, if he’d had occasion to talk to her, and maybe he would have marked her too. He’d have offered, at least, because she was the kind of person so stubbornly headstrong that she might have said no. That was always interesting. And infuriating.

He never asked Corvo if he wanted the mark. He hadn’t asked Daud, either.

“I liked him,” he says. “That’s all.”

Lizzy snorts. “Funny way of showing it.”

“I never cut off any of his fingers,” the Outsider says, and Lizzy laughs and laughs.

He leaves, conscious of the eyes of the Eels on his back. He will not be welcome back to this place.

Well, he might not live to need to return. So it may not matter.

He shakes off the thought, but it’s like a bloodfly: persistent and dangerous. He wanted to go to Brigmore. He wants to. Were it possible, he’d be perfectly content to watch from far away, from safety, the way that he used to, but it isn’t. And he would much rather put himself at risk than not be able to watch at all. To not know.

They’re to leave once the sun sets. Emily wants to move quickly. Corvo wants whatever will keep her safest. Billie wants to climb out of her own skin, and sailing to Brigmore will be a welcome distraction.

The Outsider wants to know why this all feels so different, viewed from the ground.

He insists on rowing. It hurts. He needs the distraction as much as Billie Lurk does. She sits beside him the entire time, smoking her pipe. He doesn’t mind acting as her shield against Emily, who cannot stop darting glances back at them, standing at the prow with her father.

“This is a bad fucking idea,” Billie says.

“It was Emily’s.”

“So?” Billie blows out a breath of smoke. “Empresses have just as many terrible ideas as anyone else. Only theirs are more dangerous.”

“You’re afraid.”

“Aren’t you?”

The Outsider endeavors to smack her in the elbow with the handle of the oar as he pulls it back. Her laugh doesn’t have much humor in it, but it is there. “It’s just a house,” he says. “Old and abandoned and full of secrets. Half of Dunwall is like that. Half the world. We shouldn’t have anything to fear from that place.”

“But we do,” Billie says.

It’s not Brigmore that the Outsider fears. It isn’t even what Billie fears, truly: what Billie fears is the person she was when the Manor was alive and crawling with power.

The Outsider’s past is the same. It watches him from the shadows with a dark and measured gaze. It makes him sick in a way that travelling by water never will. It sets the world unsteady beneath his feet.

He’d nearly forgotten what Delilah tried to do at Brigmore Manor. It had interested him, the idea of trapping a soul within a painting, Delilah’s odd and extended idea of possession. He was curious to see if Delilah could pull it off; curious to see if Daud’s regret would carry him far enough to stop her.

He is beginning to feel a bit like that painting. Like layers of him are flaking away. He doesn’t know what is underneath. For once, he isn’t sure that he wants to.

“Mostly,” says the Outsider, “I’m afraid someone will try to stab me again.”

Billie rolls her eyes. “Not with Attano around they won’t.”

“We’re here,” Emily calls, not looking back over her shoulder. The Outsider can’t see through the fog, but she’s right. He can feel the change in the air. Maybe he’s more attuned to magic than most, or maybe anyone would feel like this, nearing this particular shore. The way whalers must feel, before a Leviathan swallows them whole.

-

Emily grabs her arm as Billie climbs out of the boat. Not tightly, but firm.

“Yeah?” It comes out more curt than Billie means. She’s nervous. This whole fucking place makes her nervous. Having Emily here, in the place that almost turned her into a monster, just makes it worse.

“Don’t do anything stupid because you think you owe me something,” Emily says. “That’s all. Good luck. We’ll be right behind you.”

Billie musters up a grin. It is kind of funny. Of course she owes Emily something. She owes her everything. “Like old times, right?”

Emily smiles. “With a nicer boat, sure.”

“You can’t blame the Wale for being a piece of scrap. She’s not the one who set bloodflies loose everywhere,” Billie says, and at least she leaves Emily laughing.

Brigmore Manor hasn’t changed much. Makes sense. The place was already a shithole when Delilah was in residence; it stands to reason that fifteen years of neglect couldn’t make it much worse.

It even smells the same. Like copper or electricity or blood, like power just out of reach. Exactly the way that Delilah made Billie feel. Like she was special. Like she could do anything.

Billie only ever came to Brigmore a few times. Delivering her reports. The first time she’d lingered at the edges of the water for ages, trying to talk herself out of going in. And then Delilah had appeared out of the air behind her, and Billie startled and stumbled and fell into the water, soaking her trousers to the knee. Delilah laughed, and yanked her up by the arm, pulled her in so close that for a moment Billie couldn’t breathe. She’d left her mask back at the base, and she felt cut open without it. Or maybe that was always how it felt when Delilah looked at you like that.

“Well?” Delilah asked. Her hand was on Billie’s elbow, like a caress. “Do you have something to tell me?”

Billie did, and Delilah’s hand closed around her arm hard enough to bruise, and then they were inside Brigmore. Delilah had the kind of presence that Daud never did, not even at their base in the Flooded District. Every wretched inch of Brigmore Manor breathed Delilah. The place stank of her. Billie has never in her life felt more in someone else’s power than she did when she was inside. She told herself that what she felt was security, rightness, that this was what it really felt like to be where you were supposed to be. But all she’d felt was caged.

She’d known Delilah was planning something. She might have even told Billie, if Bille bothered to ask. But all Billie cared about was overthrowing Daud. That’s who she was: a stupid upstart who didn’t understand anything about the world, who wouldn’t have known what to do with power even if she had it. Who let herself be drawn in by the seductive idea that Delilah really thought she could do it. The idea that Delilah even cared. And Emily almost died for it.

Billie’s always been a traitor, but at least this time it was only to herself. She should’ve kept her damn mouth shut about where she thought Flint and her Overseer friend were headed. There are ghosts here, and the way Billie is now, that kind of shit matters. She’s barely stepped off the boat, but even now she keeps seeing something flickering, out of the corner of her eye, a familiar face, a curl of a vine, a spell in the middle of being cast, but when she turns and looks, there’s nothing. Just the past, leaking.

She needs to stop looking. Eventually she’ll turn and see Delilah, and that would be a stupid fucking reason to get herself killed. Or Emily. Emily, who insisted that she and Attano would follow Billie, keeping close enough to the Manor that they can spy, if Billie clears a path for them, keeping Flint and Thackeray occupied.

The Outsider’s staying with the boat. When Billie left, his face looked like he wasn’t sure whether he was happy about it.

Brigmore Manor doesn’t exactly have a door to knock on. By all appearances, the place is deserted. These assholes might have it in their heads that it’s a good idea to kill the Empress, but they’re not total idiots. Billie settles for summoning the twin-bladed knife and rapping it against the stone, three times. The noise it makes isn’t anything close to natural.

Probably she should have gotten rid of the damn thing. Problem is, she’s not sure that she can. It’s a part of her, now. No matter where she leaves it, she can summon it to her hand with barely a thought.

Billie waits. She isn’t stupid, either. She knows she’s easy prey like this. Emily and Attano will back her up, but Emily’s Mark is useless and Attano’s is gone. If Flint decides she’s not interested in hearing what Billie has to say before she attacks, neither of them will be able to stop her.

“Billie Lurk.” The voice comes from behind her. Billie silently rolls her eyes. Great. This one’s got Delilah’s sense of drama. “You shouldn’t be here.”

Billie crosses her arms and turns. “That right? You know who I am. You know what I can do. I hear that you and your friend could use some help. I’m here to offer my services.” She pulls the contract from her pocket.

“I see.” Flint cocks her head. She’s beautiful, in much the same way Delilah was—intense dark eyes, a cruel tilt to her lips. In another life it would be distracting. “And what would you want in return for this help?”

“Shit went south between me and Delilah a long time ago.” The look in Flint’s eyes when Billie says her name tells her everything she needs to know. Delilah did always love to cultivate devotion. “But I owe this to her. To try to finish what she started. I did it for Daud, and I’m going to do it for her too. I pay my debts. Daud wanted the Outsider dead.” Billie gestures to the knife. “He wanted the Outsider dead, and now he is..”

“So the rumors are true,” Flint says, idly, like it doesn’t matter to her one way or another. But Billie has a knack for seeing the things that matter to people. This does. That’s good—it puts her off balance, distracts her. Billie can work with that. “You really did it. My friend might shake your hand.” Her lip curls. “I’d heard that maybe you saved him.”

Billie laughs. It isn’t hard. “Me? Not exactly my strong suit.” She flips the knife over her knuckles, showy and harmless. “I’ve got a different set of skills.”

Flint watches her. She narrows her eyes. Not exactly a trusting look, but Billie will take it. “Fine,” she says, and sweeps past Billie and into the Manor. Billie sends one look over her shoulder as she follows. She doesn’t know where Attano and Emily are. She can only hope they’ll be safe.

And if the Outsider doesn’t stay in the Void-damned boat, Billie really is going to kill him this time.

-

Emily won’t stop fidgeting with the wristbow she’d grabbed from the armory before they left. By Corvo’s count, she checks that it’s loaded five separate times.

He can’t say he likes Brigmore any more than she does. If Corvo didn’t know better, he’d say it was haunted.

“She’s been gone for too long,” Emily says. They’re perched together on the roof of an outbuilding, as close as they dare to get. They watched Billie go in.

“She’s been gone for five minutes,” Corvo says. Emily glares at him. He raises his hands, palms up. “I carry a watch, Emily.”

“It feels too long. The whole place feels—awful. Like the air’s trying to choke you.”

“Delilah was here.” Corvo leaves it at that.

Emily sighs. “Yeah. I shouldn’t be surprised. This place could have been beautiful, once. Another thing she’s ruined.”

Corvo keeps quiet. Emily throws him an amused look, like she knows what he’s doing. “Billie thinks it’s her fault. What almost happened to me here.”

“Do you disagree?”

“Does it matter?” Emily blows out a breath. She starts checking her wristbow again. “If it wasn’t for her, Delilah would be sitting on the throne right now. I’d never have been able to escape. You’d still be a statue. The Outsider would still be stuck in the Void, or he’d be dead, and I know you care about that. Mother—what happened—nothing is ever going to make up for it. I know you hate her. I know. But I don’t. I can’t. I’ve never met anyone else like her. She faces her mistakes. I just worry that she won’t ever let them go.”

Corvo lays a hand on her arm. She stills, and doesn’t look at him. “You sound like Jessamine,” he says. She does. Full of hope and steel and more love than he ever thought one person could hold. “And I don’t hate her. But I don’t trust her, and I worry about you.”

“Thanks,” Emily says. “Let’s go in.”

Corvo sighs. “Now you sound like me.”

Emily grins at him. “Thanks. Look, if she needs help, we have to be close. And maybe we’ll find something useful while we’re in there.”

She slips silently from the roof before Corvo can argue.

-

The weird plants are still everywhere. Billie never really knew what the deal was with Delilah and overexcitable landscaping, and she never got around to asking. At this point, there probably isn’t much point.

Billie marks the turns as they make them. She’s pretty sure Flint is taking a deliberately convoluted route, but that can work to Billie’s advantage—she’ll get a better layout of the place this way, if she can keep it all in her head.

Normally, she’d be able to do something like that in her sleep. But she was right about Brigmore being different than other places. Her eye doesn’t itch, this time. It burns. And it shows Billie everything she doesn’t want to see. There’s Breanna, talking to one of the new recruits—scolding her, it looks like. There’s a witch Billie doesn’t recognize, kneeling down and petting one of the gravehounds. And then there’s the paintings, endless rows of them stacked against the walls. Sometimes when they flicker out of existence, they’re still there in the present. And sometimes there’s nothing, only blank space where they used to be.

“You couldn’t have found someplace a little nicer to hide out?”

Flint doesn’t even spare her a glance over her shoulder. “Brigmore has history. That will serve our purposes well.”

Well, that’s not ominous at all. Billie wonders if she can getting away with asking about their plans in any more detail. She’s never had a head for magic. Maybe if she plays dumb, Flint will explain.

And then they turn another corner and Delilah is there, laughing, and Billie is there, laughing with her.

They were talking about Daud. Billie can’t hear them, not like this, but she’s sure of it. She remembers.

She still doesn’t know how the eye works. Not really. But she’s there, in the past, she can see herself. And she can’t help but think, what if she just—stepped into her own skin. Made a different choice.

She understands, now, how tempted Emily must have been, in Stilton’s home. She can feel it like a pulse, the power to just take one step, and change everything.

And then Delilah looks up and stares straight at Billie in the present, and she always smiled like that: sensual and smug and like she knew more than you could ever hope to know.

Billie doesn’t even realize she’s stopped walking, that she’s stopped noticing anything in the present, until she feels the smooth metal of a gun against her forehead.

She blinks. Delilah is gone. There’s only Flint, looking at her with disdain. “When I heard you were back in Dunwall, I really did think you could help us, if we needed it. And then you saved her. And I realized who you really were. A traitor, just like always.”

The letter. Their first attack. Emily’s been jumping around the roofs of Dunwall Tower since long before she ever had the Mark. She shouldn’t have slipped. Not unless someone made her, someone with magic, Billie should have known that, she should have seen it, but of course she was too fucking distracted by what it felt like to hold Emily in her arms to bother to think about it.

“If you’re going to kill me, then kill me.” Billie presses her right hand flat against her leg. She’d dismissed the blade, but she can have it back in her hand in an instant—Flint didn’t see her do that, she doesn’t know Billie can. And if she displaces herself to stand behind her—

Flint laughs. “Oh, not yet,” she says. “I have a few questions to ask you. Let’s chat for a little while.”

She really is like Delilah. Delilah always liked to play with her food first, too.

-

The Outsider used to be very good at waiting. In the time between his death and his life, it was nearly all he did: nudge the world, and wait to see what would happen.

This kind of waiting is different. It is alive, underneath his skin. His body wants to run.

It doesn’t take very long before it gets its wish. There’s someone walking through the trees near where the skiff is anchored, cursing under their breath. The Outsider ducks, stupidly—if they see the boat, it won’t matter whether or not they see him in it.

“Where is that thing—ah.” The Outsider peeks over the side. It’s Thackeray, walking away from him now.

That’s good, then—if the man isn’t in the Manor he isn’t any threat to Corvo or Emily or Billie. The Outsider’s skin still prickles. He creeps out of the boat and follows Thackeray, less out of a desire to be useful and more from the insatiable desire to not remain still.

He’s seen people do things like this: stupid, risky things that endlessly amused and fascinated him. He hadn’t understood what it felt like, to be commanded uselessly by his own blood. He does not like it.

So he follows Thackeray, and before the man reaches his destination, the Outsider observes their path and realizes where they are going. There was a shrine to him here, once, ill-kept by Delilah, who never bothered with that kind of thing, and unfound by Daud, who was somewhat preoccupied at the time. One of the youngest witches built it, in an unused shed at the edges of the property, crawling all over with vines in Delilah’s time and now falling to pieces in their absence, without something holding it together.

The young witch believed very earnestly in Delilah, but what little she knew of the Outsider comforted her. He reminded her of her brother, lost to her forever now that she’d left her family behind.

The shed has lost one of its walls, and the shrine is in a sorry state. The way all his shrines end up, in time. Tattered cloth and rotting wood, and now Thackeray’s boots, kicking it to pieces.

The Outsider hasn’t seen a shrine in a very long time. He knows Corvo had one. He doesn’t know if it remains. He hasn’t asked to see it.

People came to his shrines in many ways: with anger, like Thackeray, with reverence, like Daud, in love, like Vera. Pensive like Corvo or ambitious like Delilah. The witch had come here in cautious hope, and the Outsider never answered her, but she kept coming back until the witches were run out of Brigmore. The only thing that remained of her hope was this place.

It stings, a little, to watch it be destroyed, like seawater in a cut.

“Are you done yet?” The Outsider has to work very hard not to startle; it isn’t Thackeray’s voice. It’s coming, he realizes, from an unfinished statue kept in the shed. It would have been Delilah, eventually. “Lurk is here, and if you want to question her too, you’ll want to hurry. She’s trying my patience.”

“I’ll be back when I’m finished,” Thackeray says. “You didn’t tell me this place was a playground for heretics.”

“If you weren’t able to figure that out yourself, it isn’t my fault.” The statue’s face turns away. “Shut up, Lurk. You know, Cedric, you were right. Or your contacts were, I suppose. She did save the Outsider, or close enough to it. That’s how she got that magic of hers, I’ll bet. It comes from the Void, just like what I’ve got left.”

“Don’t call me that,” says Thackeray. “And I don’t care about you bloody magic. I’ll want to ask her more about that. Even she should’ve killed that black-eyed bastard while she had the chance.” He kicks the shrine again, viciously. “It’s his fault that I’ll never see my family again. And people build him shrines.”

The statue rolls its eyes. “The Abbey would find another reason to kidnap children, you know. And if you knew my family, Cedric, you wouldn’t mind so much that you don’t get to see yours.”

“Shut up.”

“Whatever you say, dear. I don’t care what grudge you have against the Outsider, but you know those sorry excuses for shrines don’t have power anymore. Come back or don’t, but if you don’t, don’t come complaining about the outcome to me. And keep an eye out for me, would you? I think there are a few more rats scurrying about than we bargained for.” The statue stills again. Thackeray gives it a kick, too, but he does set off towards the house, leaving the shrine half-destroyed in his wake.

Senselessly, the Outsider almost wants to stay and fix it. But the woman who must be Flint did not sound like she was treating Billie very kindly.

Following Thackeray and keeping out of sight would not be an easy task, but thankfully the man did the Outsider the favor of wearing heavy boots. He follows him, keeping to the shadows like Billie Lurk, like Emily Kaldwin, like Corvo and Daud and even, when she chose, Delilah. He doesn’t feel much like any of them, or much like himself—he feels, mostly, terrified, and unable to do anything to ease it but go forward.

-

Billie entered through the ground floor, so Emily and Corvo go in through a second floor window. The Manor echoes. Emily can hear Flint’s voice, and it doesn’t exactly sound friendly.

“This might be a problem,” Corvo says under his breath.

Emily barely resists the urge to check her wristbow again. “I’m going after her. You need to go find out if the Overseer is here. If not, find out anything else you can about their plans. You’re better at ferreting out information quickly than I am.”

Corvo gives her a withering look. “I’m your Royal Protector, and you’re asking me to let you walk into what might be a trap?”

“I’m telling you how you can best protect me. Father, please. This is our best chance. We have to go now.” Emily knows herself. With all her focus on Billie, she won’t be any good at watching her back. Better for Corvo to make sure she doesn’t have to.

He gives her a long look, and then he nods. “Be safe,” he says, and ducks silently through a doorway.

Emily has never been as good at moving silently as her father is, but she does her best, following the voices until she can crouch by a hole in the ceiling and keep herself out of sight.

Flint has a gun to Billie’s head. Billie’s posture is relaxed. Emily knows that Billie could get out of the way in a heartbeat, if she wanted. She’s probably trying to draw Flint out, get her to say something they can use. It doesn’t make Emily feel any better about seeing her like that.

“Seriously,” Billie is saying, “why is everyone so obsessed with killing Empresses?”

“You should know what it feels like,” Flint says silkily. “You helped kill one, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Billie says shortly. “And look where it got me.”

“Delilah should be sitting on that throne,” Flint says. “Not some little upstart who had the luck to be borne to a mother who deigned to acknowledge her claim. Delilah knew what it meant to claw herself up from nothing. To not have the world handed to you. She gave us a place to go. She saved us, and she saved me. Even if I’m the only one left in this city, I’m going to finish what she started. Come on, Lurk. You understand that, don’t you?”

“Do you even remember what happened when Jessamine died? The city fell apart. That’s the legacy you want?”

Flint’s lip curls. “Yes,” she says, viciously. “If Delilah can’t rule this city, no one should.”

Emily leans forward, trying to get a better look, and a board creaks. Emily jumps back just as Billie glances up, just for a moment. Emily can’t be sure that Billie saw her. But she thinks she probably did.

“What did you mean about this house?” Billie says, trying to distract Flint from the noise. It works.

Flint grins at her. “I told you,” she says. “It has history. That’s useful.”

It doesn’t feel quite like Stilton Manor did, the present torn to shreds by the past, but there’s still something off about the air in Brigmore in much the same way. The present shying away from itself, like it wants to go back, like it wants to run away from itself.

“If you want to bring Delilah back, you can’t. She’s gone.” Billie’s voice has gone hard and brittle. “The Empress you hate so much? She saw to that.”

Flint snorts. “I know that. But gone doesn’t always mean gone. You should know that, Meagan Foster. The past can be useful. It’ll help us kill the Empress, finally, I never should have agreed to work with that idiot Thackeray. He’s only slowed me down.”

“Why did you?”

“He was going to have me executed. I convinced him we had a common vision. Who knows? Maybe we even do.” Flint shrugs philosophically—an aborted movement, because the gun she has trained on Billie doesn’t waver. “He hates the Abbey, you know. But he also hates the Outsider, and he hates the Empress more for her heresy. It’s very quaint, really. And it doesn’t matter. You’re here, now, and that’s enough to get the Empress here.”

Billie doesn’t have many tells, but her mouth twitches, just a little. She snorts. “Me? She doesn’t give a shit about me. You might as well shoot me now if that’s your play.”

Flint rolls her eyes. “Thackeray might be an idiot, but I’m not. She’ll come. I have a hunch she might already be here.”

Well, that’s as good a cue as any. Emily levels her wristbow and fires.

Emily’s aim was true, but the shot goes wide, and bloodflies flutter up through the ceiling, buzzing. It’s the same bone charm Breanna Ashworth had, Emily is sure of it, and that means if she can just get another shot off—

Something wraps around her ankle and tugs, knocking her off balance. Down below, Flint wheels around, and Billie lunges for her, but Flint snarls, and throws down a container of chokedust. When it clears, she’s gone, and Billie with her, and the vine wrapped around Emily’s ankle drags her back until she can’t see anything at all.

-

Corvo always wishes that Jessamine was still alive, but never more so than at times like these, when Emily does things like decide to go running off alone in a haunted mansion. With Jessamine gone, there’s no one else who truly understands Emily’s unique brand of impetuousness, no one who will shake their head and smile as fondly as Jessamine would over the story. It would have a happy ending, of course. All their stories did, before Jessamine died.

Corvo comes very close to following Emily anyway. But if she’s going after the witch, it falls to Corvo to find out if Thackeray is here, and keep him from getting the drop on either Lurk or Emily.

The house is falling apart, but Corvo is used to creeping about abandoned places. He tries the bedrooms first, or what must have at least once served as bedrooms, when anyone lived here at all. They’re empty, all of them, of people and of anything useful. Corvo moves on as quickly as he dares.

He finds, eventually, what must have once been Delilah’s art studio—the smell of old paint still lingers, a scent that used to hang around Sokolov at the Tower. Paintings are stacked against the wall, covered in sheets.

Corvo uncovers one, and then, once he sees it, all the rest, as quickly as he can.

It’s a good likeness. All of them are: rows and rows of paintings with his daughter’s face, staring back at him.

They must have been practice.

He’s been trying not to think about it, since the Outsider told him. Delilah could have killed her. Not even that. Destroyed her, in a way Corvo never could have protected her from. That Daud, of all people, did what he couldn’t—

He’s glad he didn’t kill the man. But he doesn’t have to be happy about this. It’s a good thing he’s dead now, and it’s a damn good thing that Delilah is forever out of Corvo’s reach.

As for the Outsider—Corvo can’t think about it. Not with Emily’s face, as she was fifteen years ago, looking out at the world with dead eyes. He should be angry that he never knew, that the Outsider marked Delilah and Delilah wanted to do this. But mostly he’s grateful, to him and to Daud, and that hurts much more than anger ever could.

By the time he hears the heavy tread of the boots of an Overseer uniform, it’s too late.

“It’s absolutely awful, isn’t it.” The man has a Morley accent. When Corvo turns, he sees that he has red hair to match. Too slow at that, too. He feels a sharp pain in his side, and then Thackeray shoves him off his knife with his boot. While Corvo stumbles, he kicks one of the paintings aside. “We’ll have to send someone to burn these.”

The next kick is aimed at Corvo’s ribs, knocking him to his knees. “You do know I was in Coldridge for six months,” he observes idly. “You’ll have to hit a little harder than that.”

Thackeray obliges him.

-

Billie takes the chance Emily made for her and displaces herself up three floors, because in fifteen years no one has thought to patch the damn ceilings. She breathes in deep, once, and lets it out. That was not ordinary chokedust that Flint used. Billie coughs. If it was poison she’s fucked already. She’s just going to have to assume it wasn’t.

Emily can take care of herself, Emily dealt with Ashworth’s witches without a problem, but Flint is dangerous in a way that she never was, and this house is nothing like the conservatory. It’s almost as bad as Shindaeray, now, iron in the air and nothing Billie looks at staying stable for more than a few seconds. Maybe it’s because of Delilah or maybe it’s just because of Billie’s fucked up eye, or maybe Flint did something to this place—

“You should run,” says a voice from behind her, muffled.

Billie turns around. There’s a woman there wearing Billie’s old Whaler uniform, mask included. She’s a lot more solid that Billie’s visions usually are. Once Billie focuses on her, she doesn’t disappear. “You should run,” she says again, in Billie’s voice. “Before it’s too late. Before you get tangled up in something else you don’t understand.”

“I’m not going to abandon her.” She’s talking to a ghost, but she can’t quite stop herself. Billie steps forward. She wonders what she would feel, if she reached out.

“You think I’m stupid,” says her ghost. “You think I let Delilah lead me around by the nose. Maybe I am. Maybe I did. But do you seriously think you’re any better? Please. You’ve been following around the fucking Empress like a puppy. She’s just a reckless, spoiled kid, and you look at her like she’s going to save you from yourself. That’s who we are now?”

“Shut up.” Billie steps forward, gets in her own face. It’s not very satisfying.

The ghost snorts. “We always were a sucker for a pretty face. Admit it. You haven’t changed at all. This is who we’ll always be.”

“Say that to my fucking face,” Billie says, and the ghost laughs, and laughs, and takes off the mask. Except when she does, she isn’t Billie any longer.

“Little Billie Lurk, lost without her master,” says Delilah, and she looks more real than Billie’s ghost ever could. Delilah never looked like she belonged in the real world. She was like what Billie imagined the Void would be like, long before she ever set foot there. Otherworldly and regal and terrifying. “So convinced that you’ve changed. What would Daud say? Oh, that’s right. He doesn’t say anything anymore. You left him in the Void. You didn’t even bother to do the one thing he’d asked of you in fifteen years. The both of you were always pathetic, trying so hard to wash away the blood on your hands. You haven’t figured out that it always ends in blood. You’ll never learn that lesson if you don’t let the Kaldwin girl go.”

“It doesn’t have to,” Billie says. “It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.”

Delilah steps forward, reaching out to cup Billie’s cheek. Emily touched her there earlier today, and Billie leaned into it, and now she’s somewhere in this house, and Billie has to find her—

“I thought about asking you to join us,” Delilah says, thumb running across Billie’s cheek. “I would have if you hadn’t taken the first ship out, getting away from this place as fast as you could. Even after you betrayed me to Daud. There was always something about you. That fire in your eyes. Ambition and longing and the knowledge that you were owed more than the hand you’d been dealt. Maybe it’s the same thing Emily sees in you.”

“Now you’re really just trying to piss me off.” Billie barely even thought about it, but the twin-bladed knife is back in her hands.

Delilah laughs. “You think you’re strong enough to kill me now? I don’t think so. You put on such a good show, Billie, but I know you’ve always been weak.”

Her grip tightens on the knife.

She wants to make Delilah bleed. That’s what this knife was meant for. That’s what it wanted to do to the Outsider, but the Outsider didn’t deserve it. Delilah does. Delilah deserves everything Billie can give her. Delilah tried to kill Emily twice, and the first time Billie didn’t even know, didn’t even think to try to stop her. There’s still time for her to make up for that.

Delilah’s form flickers, and for a moment, Billie can see the empty manor behind her.

“Well?” Delilah demands.

Delilah’s gone. Emily made sure of it. And Emily didn’t kill her: she’s always been clever enough to find the ways to give people what they deserve without spilling their blood.

And she’s going to get a bullet between the eyes if Billie doesn’t find her soon.

“I don’t have time for this,” Billie says. She shrugs off Delilah’s ghost, and turns away.

“She’ll never forgive you,” Delilah says. The same crooning voice she always had, because she isn’t here anymore. She’s gone. Billie’s never going to see her again.

Billie vaults over a banister and doesn’t look back.

Void, she hates this fucking house. The place echoes, and her eyes keep trying to lie to her, and she is so sick and tired of shit like this. She thought it would be over when she dealt with the Outsider, but it’s never really over, is it. There will always be bad people, but Billie isn’t at their mercy anymore. And she’ll die before she lets Emily be, either.

Of course it’s not Emily that she finds first. It’s the Outsider, who shouldn’t fucking be here, wide-eyed and pressed to the wall outside of Delilah’s old studio.

Billie closes her eye. Her foresight, at least, isn’t affected by Flint’s magic—she creeps inside the room and sees Attano frozen, staggering up from his knees, in the middle of getting punched in the jaw by a man in an Overseer’s coat.

She flickers back into her own body. Billie needs to get to Emily, now, but if she abandons her father to do it she’ll never hear the end of it. The Outsider looks poised to do something stupid and heroic. Billie waves to get his attention, mouths cover me, and calls the knife back to her hand.

-

Emily could go the rest of her life without being attacked by another plant. She hacks away at the blood briar around her ankle with her boot knife, but by the time she gets free it’s too late—there was something wrong about that chokedust. She can smell it. The walls around her are going hazy, fading in and out like breath, greying at the edges. The past, that’s what Flint said. History. Maybe this is what Billie always sees.

“Hello.” There’s a woman crouching in front of Emily, even as she struggles to stand up. A firm hand on Emily’s shoulder pushes her back down, knocks the knife from her hand. It’s a familiar voice, and a familiar face. Dark hair, dark eyes—

“Mother?” It isn’t. Jessamine never tilted her head quite that way, her lip never curled like that, but she’s still the only thing Emily can see.

“I should be insulted,” Flint says, sitting back on her heels.

“How are you doing this?” Emily’s sleeve is covering her wristbow. If she can just get into a position to use it, she can shoot Flint again and be done with this. Until then, all she has to do it stall.

“Not all magic left the world when that friend of yours stole the Outsider from his rightful place,” Flint says. “And I wouldn’t do that.” She reaches forward, too fast, and yanks the bow from Emily’s wrist. She wrinkles her nose. “I never liked these. Daud’s gang favored them, you know. Too utilitarian for anyone with taste.”

Emily pulls her arm back. “Billie didn’t steal anyone. She set him free.”

“You know what? I really don’t care. We never needed him. Delilah knew that.” Flint stands up, dusting herself off. Her face flickers, Jessamine and then herself again, too fast for Emily to keep track. “You’ve never been here. It’s easier for you to see this place as it is. But Lurk? Brigmore haunts her dreams. I could feel it. She might never find her way out. And when she does, you’ll be dead.” Flint smiles at her, indulgent, and she does really look like Jessamine, right then—

Emily lunges for the knife she dropped. Flint laughs in her mother’s voice. “You think you can kill me like this? How cold-blooded are you, Empress?”

It stings because she’s right. Flint isn’t doing anything to defend herself. She levels her gun at Emily. “Not much taste in this, either. But Thackeray insisted I take it, so I suppose he was at least of some help, in the end.”

Corvo taught Jessamine to shoot, but he told Emily she could never quite hold the gun right. Flint’s grip is all wrong. That’s good. Emily can use that. She should move. She has to move.

She isn’t Jessamine. Jessamine is dead. Nothing will ever bring her back. Emily knows that. Why can’t she just—

“Maria!”

Flint sighs, lowering the gun. “What is it, Cedric? I’ve caught us an Empress. She’s not going anywhere.”

A man who must be Overseer Thackeray comes into view, walking stiffly. “I should hope not,” he says. He comes closer. “I found her father and another heretic.”

“You know I’m a heretic, dear,” Flint says idly.

“Needs must,” Thackeray says sourly.

“For someone who hates the Abbey so much, you do seem to follow their teachings to the letter. I hope you’re not expecting to do the honors. I rather think I’ve won that right.”

“No,” Thackeray says, stepping up behind Flint. He wraps an arm around her neck and squeezes. “I’m not.”

For a moment Emily sees them as they truly are, and then it’s Daud choking her mother, and she has to look away. She stands, unsteady on her feet, furious with herself.

Thackeray drops Flint to the ground, unconscious but breathing.

“What do you want?” Emily demands. He steps closer, and Emily raises her blade. “She looked like my mother, but right now? You look a little like the man who killed her. I haven’t been having a great day. So if you’re on my side, now would be a good time to start explaining.”

“We need to get you out of this damn house,” Thackeray says, in a very different tone than he used before. He makes a dismissive gesture with his hand, and then he wavers, differently than Flint did. There’s no flickering at the edges. Thackeray is there, and then he isn’t. Billie is.

Emily stares at her. Billie’s mouth twitches. “I can take someone else’s shape, if I can get close enough to lay hands on them. I’m guessing that’s not something the Outsider ever let you do, is it?”

“No,” Emily says slowly. “It definitely is not.” She watches carefully, but Billie remains Billie. She doesn’t look like Thackeray, or Daud, or Meagan, or anyone else. Just herself. “I guess this is becoming a habit for you.”

Billie kneels down, checking Flint’s pockets quickly. “What is?” she asks, distracted.

“Saving me.” Emily means it to come out wry. She lands on wistful instead.

Billie’s hands still. She looks up. “I don’t know about that,” she says. “No, don’t argue with me. You know what I saw, when Flint threw that shit in my face? Delilah, and all the things I wanted to leave behind. I think she could have trapped me here, you know, with nothing but Delilah’s memory. That shit sticks with you. But I couldn’t. I had to find you.” She sits back on her heels and scrubs a hand across her face. “Fuck. You know, from the very minute I met you you’ve been saving me. Maybe I’m just returning the favor. It’s only fair.” Her mouth twists. “It’s like I told Flint. I pay my debts.”

Someday Billie will understand that not everything is about favors owed. Emily hopes she’ll get to see it. “Either way, thank you.” She looks down at Flint, prone on the floor. Harmless and nothing at all like Emily’s mother. “I should’ve been able to fight her. I should have. I fought Delilah. It’s just—she really did look like—”

“Emily.” Billie stands, again, and steps in close. “Look at me.”

As if it’s a particularly tall order. Emily always wants to look at her, always, especially now. She has a cut on her lip from who knows where—Thackeray, probably—and determination in her eyes, and for once she isn’t looking at Emily like she wants to apologize. She’s looking at her like she cares. It’s hard not to feel warm, at that look, hard not to sway into it. “I’m the Empress,” Emily says. It comes out as a whisper. “I need to be able to stand on my own.”

Billie gives her the ghost of a smile. “I know better than anyone that the past has teeth,” she says. “Not being able to draw blood—that’s not always a bad thing, Emily.”

Emily sways in closer. She wraps her arms around Billie, pulling her in tight, letting herself start to shake. Just a little, and just for a moment. “Maybe you’re right,” she says. “And I have you.” Billie breathes out against her collarbone. She doesn’t relax against Emily, not really, but she presses one hand against her back, something to lean against. And when Emily draws back, Billie is giving her that same warm look. Her lip is still bleeding. Emily reaches out to wipe the blood away with her thumb.

Billie goes silent and still. She presses her lips together and won’t meet Emily’s eyes, but she doesn’t move at all.

“Billie—”

“You’re father’s hurt,” Billie says. “I should’ve started with that. The Outsider’s taking him back to the skiff, but they won’t leave without you, and Thackeray got him pretty bad.”

All at once, Emily feels like she’s been dunked in cold water. “Is he okay?”

“He will be,” Billie says. She sounds sincere. She bends down to pick up Emily’s wristbow, and takes her arm, reattaching it to her wrist with careful movements. “Go, okay? I’ll stay here. Someone needs to deal with her and Thackeray.” She nudges Flint with her boot, not looking up from Emily’s wrist.

Emily raises an eyebrow. “Deal with?”

“I’m not going to kill them,” Billie says. “Just make sure they don’t get loose until you send some guards to drag them to Coldridge. I’m definitely not planning on carrying them.”

Emily wants, more than anything, for Billie to come with her. It would be unfair to ask. It would be pointless to ask. She’s done this plenty of times. She roamed the streets of Karnaca on her own, knowing that Meagan would be waiting for her on the ship. She knows she can stand on her own. But she doesn’t want to.

“Okay,” she says. “Fine. I’ll see you at the Tower. Right?”

Billie adjusts the bow one last time and squeezes Emily’s hand in her own. It feels a little like being swallowed up by the Void. Or maybe that’s just the look she’s giving Emily, the kind of look that feels closer to a kiss. “Yeah,” she says. “You will.” And it’s true that Billie has spent a lot of her life running away. That after this, maybe she’ll finally be convinced she doesn’t owe Emily anything. That her debt is paid up. But Emily believes her.

-

It’s for the best that Billie found them—the Outsider had several ideas for how to help Corvo deal with Thackeray, none of them good. Panic does not allow him to think quickly. But Billie knows how to live with her fear, how to twist it to her own ends, to transmute it to anger in a way the Outsider envies. While the Outsider got Corvo to safety, she knocked Thackeray out and tied him up, efficient and neat. She left Corvo in the Outsider’s care while she went to find Emily.

They make it back to the skiff on unsteady feet, the Outsider supporting more of Corvo’s weight than he can comfortably take. Billie and Emily will have to deal with Flint on their own. Corvo’s breaths are harsh and pained against the Outsider’s ear. The Outsider himself doesn’t feel capable of much at the moment. He can walk forward, and hold onto Covo, and do nothing else.

He lays Corvo down flat at the bottom of the boat. The blow to his gut is bleeding, slowly and steadily. The Outsider takes off his waistcoat mechanically and folds it over the wound, pressing down. Corvo’s blood should feel different on the Outsider’s skin. It should feel special. It is the same as any other man’s: red and warm and necessary.

The Outsider once spoke of Dunwall as being covered in a sea of blood. He said it without much thought. It feels like a sea, beneath his hands, staining his cuffs and running beneath his fingernails.

If he dies, the Outsider can do nothing for him; and if he was as he used to be, he might not even bother.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Corvo’s eyes crack open. “You’re not the one who stabbed me,” he says, mouth twitching in what might be an attempt at a grin.

“Emily should be here,” the Outsider says. “Or—someone else. Someone who could give you comfort. I wish that I could.”

One of Corvo’s hands comes up to join the Outsider’s. He blinks up at him, gaze losing focus. “You are,” he says. His eyes slip closed. “You do. I’m glad you’re here.”

The Outsider blinks down at him. He feels—too much, all at once. He isn’t used to it. He doesn’t think he’ll ever feel used to it: the rush of wanting so many things with no space for them to go. He wants to press his mouth against Corvo’s lips and cheek and throat; to be back in Dunwall at once and Corvo’s blood all safely back inside him; to have Corvo say that to him again, to say it always, I’m glad you’re here.

Most of all, he wants to be sure that Corvo will live. And he cannot have that. He bows his head and presses his hands down harder, Corvo’s still gripping his tight. There’s no one to pray to. Just him, and the boat gently rocking beneath him, adrift despite the anchor.

Chapter Text

A boat’s not the best place to be when you’re slowly bleeding out, but Corvo’s seen worse. A boat’s where Corvo was poisoned and left for dead, a long time ago. Samuel would be laughing at him now.

He was alone, then, in the hazy stretch of time between when Samuel set him adrift and Daud’s men picked him up. He’s not alone now. The Outsider is here, fretting in a way that would make Corvo laugh, if he wasn’t distantly aware that his distress was warranted. And Emily, silent and only just shaking.

It’s a comfort. Perhaps it was a comfort to Jessamine, that Corvo was there when she died. He’d cursed himself bitterly for it afterwards: that once she fell, he couldn’t move. He couldn’t do anything but clutch at her, still and cold under his hands. He should have run, should have kept himself out of prison and gone after Emily. Saved her, instead of letting her waste six months of her life in the care of useless, greedy men.

He thinks about that, about his warmth at Jessamine’s side, about the hand that’s pressed to his chest, covered up to the wrist in blood. There’s blood all over Corvo’s hand now, too, where he’s got his fingers wrapped around the Outsider’s wrist. He doesn’t remember grabbing on.

The boat bobs beneath them with the particular cadence and rhythm of Dunwall’s waters. Karnaca ocean always felt different, just like the air tasted different, like dust and heat and metal. He wonders what it’s like now. If he’ll ever get to know.

Emily and the Outsider are holding a conversation in heated whispers. Corvo can make out some of it, over the pounding in his ears. Emily’s upset—he hasn’t heard her like this in years. She wasn’t upset when she broke him out of Delilah’s prison. Her voice was ragged and steady. Calm and accomplishment shining through her exhaustion. His daughter, who could do anything. He’d been able to see the places where her time away from Dunwall had worn her away, sharpened her edges. It grieved him. It still grieves him. But by the time she freed him, she no longer had any need for fear. It’s been a long, long time since he’s heard her sound scared.

The Outsider’s fear, on the other hand, he is beginning to know rather well. It’s more visible in his hands than in his voice. “Corvo.” The Outsider’s face is a little blurry in his vision. He’s pale, but then, he always is. “What are you thinking about?”

“Remember when I got poisoned?” Corvo laughs. He stops. It hurts. “Half poisoned. I used to wonder if you’d saved me. Tipped Samuel off. Weakened the poison.”

“No.” The Outsider bends his head. “I never did.”

“I can see the shore,” says Emily. “Your powers would be really useful right now, Outsider.”

“Believe me,” he says. “I am aware.”

Corvo closes his eyes, and listens to the tide.

-

It takes a good long while for the guards Emily sends to get to Brigmore. Thackeray and Flint don’t wake up.

Billie turns the twin-bladed knife over in her hands, feeling it hum. It doesn’t talk to her, not like the Outsider did, but it wants.

Daud would have listened, probably. It wants the kinds of things that he wanted, when he picked Billie up out of the gutter. To hurt the kind of people that hurt them.

People like Flint, people like Thackeray, who are sitting right here, throats bare, people who were hurting the people they’d been hurt by. She heard what Thackeray said, when Flint was talking to him. Some Overseers stole him out of his bed a long time ago, and he wasn’t happy about it. Is he any more wrong to blame the Outsider for that than Daud was?

And Billie’s always understood the witches. Delilah picked them special—she’d whispered that into Billie’s ear, once. That they were all special. And that was bullshit, in the end, but it was also true: they were all people who were sick and fucking tired of being told who to marry or who to fuck or how to live, of letting the world grind their faces into the dirt. Just like Billie, when Daud gave her a reason to live: to break other people the same way that she’d been broken.

It’s clever, the way the world works. The water wheel at the old textile mill in Draper’s Ward was just the same, until something got stuck in its gears and made it stop.

The blade in her hand wishes she’d plunged it into the Outsider’s heart, that she’d let things go on as they’ve always been. That’s what it was made to want.

Thackeray and Flint have dug their own graves. They don’t need Billie to do it for them.

So Billie sits and she waits, and by the time help arrives, she can barely remember why she was ever so scared of Brigmore at all. All the things that could hurt her don’t live here anymore.

When a Whaler got hurt, things tended to move quickly, one way or another. Their closely guarded stash of elixir and what Rulfio knew from his few months apprenticed to a natural philosopher could only do so much. The wounded died quick or they lived to complain about how shitty Rulfio’s idea of medicine tasted, until Daud quelled them with a look. Billie’d done the same, plenty of times. She always knew that each wound might be her last.

Turns out when you’re the Empress’s Royal Protector, shit goes a lot smoother and a lot slower. By the time Billie gets back to the Tower, Flint and Thackeray en route to Coldridge, Attano’s already tucked away with about fifty doctors, and Billie shows up just in time to see the Empress get unceremoniously thrown out of his rooms.

Billie reads her face before she steps out from the shadows. It’s shuttered, but the cracks are showing in the way her lip trembles. Things can’t be as dire as all that if Emily’s letting the truth of herself show through.

“Is this the kind of respect you usually command from your subjects?” Billie asks. Billie hasn’t ever been in the habit of bowing to Empresses, not even the ones she owed her life to. Truth be told, she hasn’t seen what Emily’s like when she isn’t in disguise, with her father, or with the Outsider, who doesn’t seem to know how to treat anyone with respect.

Emily, arms crossed and frowning at the door that’s just been closed in her face, doesn’t turn to face her. “If your staff are afraid of you, you never get anything done. That was one of the first things I learned.” She turns around. “Did they give you any trouble?” Billie shakes her head, and that gets her a small smile, at least. “Great. Come on. Let’s spar. I need to punch something.”

“I think we’ve both had enough for one day.” And sparring with Emily probably isn’t a very good idea right now. She doesn’t say it, but by the look Emily’s giving her, she doesn’t need to.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Emily says, rubbing at her face with the palm of her hand. “I just need to get out of here.” She wrinkles her nose. “I can’t leave the Tower. But I really, really need some air.”

“Well, turns out your tumble off the roof was supernaturally motivated, so I think we can go back up there again,” Billie says. “Where’s the Outsider?”

“Washing the blood off his hands,” Emily says. “He barely said a word the entire ride back. Can you believe that? I didn’t even know he was capable of being quiet for that long.”

Billie can’t either. But if anything could silence the Outsider, she’s willing to believe it’d be Attano’s life running out under his hands.

Emily leads them to the roof through the window in her bedroom. Billie tries not to think about the last time they were here. Billie’s picked at enough old wounds for a lifetime.

Dunwall’s gone entirely dark by now, the stars starting to peak out from behind the clouds. Emily settles down with her elbows on her knees, body tense and face betraying nothing about what’s going on in her head.

“Them kicking you out is a good sign,” Billie says, figuring the best way forward is to throw herself in headfirst. “If they didn’t think he was going to make it, they’d let you stay.”

“I know,” Emily says, voice wound tight. “I do. But I can’t stop thinking about it. What if they’re wrong?”

“Then they’re wrong.” If Emily wants false comfort, she knows better than to look for it from Billie. Billie learned her lesson about pretty lies a long time ago. “And he’ll have died protecting you. You know he wouldn’t regret it.” Emily sucks in a slow steady breath. Billie reaches out and puts a hand on her back. She’s trembling, too finely to see it, but it’s obvious once Billie touches her.

“I can’t do this on my own,” Emily says, and when her voice breaks the rest of her does too. Before Billie realizes it she’s got Emily wrapped up in her arms, her face pressed into Billie’s shoulder. “I can’t.”

“You could,” Billie says. “But you won’t have to.”

“You can’t promise me that.” Emily may be naive, the closest thing to an idealist Dunwall could ever let her become, but she doesn’t lie to herself. Mortality is the constant companion to an Empress. She understands it well. “You can’t promise me he won’t die. Not unless that arm and that eye and that knife can do a lot more than you’ve been letting on.”

Billie’s not actually sure about that. She doesn’t really like thinking about it. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Emily knows better, by now, than to trust easy fixes. Billie looks down at her. She puts a hand in her hair, runs her thumb along the curve of her ear. “You won’t be alone,” she says. “No matter what happens. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I know,” Emily says, so straightforward and honest, even while she’s busy crying all over Billie’s jacket. “I believe you. Don’t make me regret it.”

Billie won’t. She’s almost, almost sure of it. She won’t run away. She made that choice at Brigmore. She made it, probably, the moment that she told Emily her name and handed over her life. But that doesn’t mean Emily won’t regret it. No one can ever know that.

“My father was a drunk,” she says, instead of giving Emily assurances she doesn’t believe. You don’t lie to the people you care about. It doesn’t get you anywhere good. That’s another thing Billie’s had to learn the hard way. “I don’t even know if I’d really call him my father. It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other what happened to him. But. I do now how you feel.”

“Daud.”

“Yeah.” Billie closes her eye and settles back against the roof tiles, and Emily goes with her, like they’re not talking about the man who murdered her mother. Or like they are, but as if it doesn’t matter. As if that’s something that can do.

It does matter. But they’re still talking about it, and Emily is still here, and it hasn’t killed them yet. It still amazes Billie, sometimes, what a person can live through. “He saved my life. And I couldn’t save him. Not when it mattered. So I know how you feel. I don’t know if that helps. I don’t know if anything helps. But I get it. It pissed me off, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I could have done differently—all the things I didn’t say—” All those unsent letters, tossed over the side of Wale, just like all the letters she ever wrote to Emily. Billie’s never been any good at pinning her thoughts down onto paper. She’s always insisted on trying anyway.

“Thanks,” Emily says, after a long moment. She curls in a little closer. “It does help.” She’s quiet for a while after that. Billie wonders how long they can really stay here, hiding from the world. “I can’t tell you you’re wrong. That he didn’t save you. But…”

“Daud offered me a life when no one else would. He dragged me in from the dark.” Billie doesn’t mean to defend him. Not to Emily, of all people. But some instincts you never really grow out of.

“He gave you a life, but he did an awful job of showing you how to live it,” Emily says. “I know he regretted what he did. I know he saved me. I guess I won’t ever know why. If it was guilt or regret or something else. But he never stopped stewing. I don’t think Brigmore changed him at all. Not when it mattered.”

“He tried to outrun his past, and it didn’t take. That’s all. Same as me.”

“No, it isn’t.” Emily sits up, eyes hard and blazing, and Billie wasn’t trying to distract her, but hey. An Emily that’s arguing with her is going to be too busy to cry. “You said Daud gave the Outsider back his name. Fine. I guess he did, after you talked him into it. You think you let him die, Billie, you think you couldn’t even give him the one thing he wanted, but that’s not what happened. You saved him. You got him to let go of his regrets. No one else in the world could have done that. He didn’t deserve you.”

“I don’t know,” Billie says. “Maybe we deserved each other.” She sighs. “I think I liked it better when we were talking about your father.”

Emily leans her head on Billie’s shoulder. “You know, I’m actually impressed,” she says. “A whole conversation about Daud, and we barely fought at all.”

Billie looks down at her. Emily’s face is still fixed on the horizon. “I’m tired of fighting,” she says, only realizing as she says it that it’s true. She’s tired of always looking over her shoulder, wondering when one day the things she’s left behind are going to cut her throat. The dead stay buried. It’s time that Billie let them be. “Daud was too. He was just too old and stubborn to admit it.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re not stubborn at all,” Emily says dryly. Billie snorts.

“You’re one to talk.” Billie runs her fingers lightly across Emily’s cheek. It’s dry. “Want to go check on him?”

“Not yet,” Emily says, settling back down against the roof. “Let’s stay here for a little longer. They know where to find me.” And she closes her eyes, as at peace as she can be, not knowing if her father is going to live. Comfortable in Billie’s arms, against all the odds, in defiance of everything the world has ever wanted for both of them. She reaches out a hand, blindly, and Billie grips it tight.

-

The Outsider knows anger. He has seen it in all of its forms: Daud’s lingering fury worn plain on his face, Corvo’s locked deep inside his heart, Emily’s fierce and directed and quick to dissipate when she felt the world was set right. He felt it himself when Delilah meddled in the Void, a slow sick roiling feeling like what he imagines seasickness would be like.

None of it prepared him for this, the frustration ready to worm out of his veins and burst from his skin. He cannot sit still, even as Emily stands in the perfect center of the room, arms crossed and brow furrowed. He knows, he knows she must feel as he does—worse, surely it must be worse, Corvo is her father, she turned an empire upside down once already to save him. But he cannot make the knowledge travel from his head to his heart. Instead he can only include her in his wrath.

“They said he would be awake by now,” he says. Corvo is in his own rooms, attended by the stern Royal Physician. The Outsider was banished to Corvo’s office, when Emily returned to find him arguing with her. It’s for the best. His anger can’t reach Corvo here.

“He’ll wake up when he wakes up. He’s certainly stubborn enough.” Emily has herself locked away tight. Perhaps she is as furious as the Outsider is. But he doesn’t have whatever Emily does, the place inside himself to put it all away. “It’s his job to protect me and his job to wake up. As Royal Protector and as my father,” Emily says, patience like stone. A tone of voice she cultivated from a young age, dealing with tutors and nobles and her father. A reserve of calm she keeps hidden, for her worst moments. Her fingers grip tighter at her elbows.

“It’s been his job for decades. Two empresses, both of whom he loves more than his own life.” The Outsider stops behind Corvo’s desk. “You’ll relieve him of his position when he recovers.” When, such a human superstition, trying to speak the truth into existence. When, because a world in which Corvo does not wake up is too dark to contemplate.

“Oh, is that what this is about?” There it is—even Empress Kaldwin can’t hide herself forever, when her father lies prone and beyond her reach. “In case you forgot who I am, you’re not the one who gets to give me orders.”

“Perhaps you have forgotten who I am.” The Outsider does not realize he’s kicked over Corvo’s chair until he feels the pain in his foot, hears the clatter as it strikes the floor. The Outsider is probably more injured than the chair is. He does not feel much better.

“You’re Anton Sokolov’s wayward student who’s taken up moonlighting as a reporter,” Emily says, voice cold. “You’re just a man, no matter what we call you, no matter who you used to be. You’re just a man who’s doing his best to throw a tantrum, and you can’t tell me what to do—”

“He could die!” He picks up the chair, meaning to set it to rights. He considers it in his hands. He throws it against the opposing wall as hard as he can. The loud crack it makes against the wood, bones breaking echoing in his ears, does not make him feel better. But it doesn’t make him feel worse.

“Do I look like I don’t know that?” Emily snaps her teeth shut against her shout. She regroups. Lets go of her arms, turns away. “I’ve known it since Mother died. That it was Father’s job to die for me. Throwing it in my face changes nothing. Throwing the furniture changes nothing.”

“You sound just like Billie Lurk,” the Outsider says. “She is always mistaking me for a child.”

“Then stop acting like one.”

“What else am I supposed to do? I am no physician. I no longer hold any power over the Void. As you say, I am only a man.” He kicks the remains of the chair, for good measure. “My silence will change nothing, and neither will my restraint.”

Emily approaches him warily, light on her feet. An assassin’s step. She puts her hand on his shoulder.

“Outsider. It’s Corvo. He’ll be fine.”

There was a time when the Outsider could have known the truth of her words with a thought. Could have traced the paths of history, found the strands where Corvo lived and where he died. Tugged them just so, if he willed. Now he can do nothing but break furniture and grind glass into Emily’s worries. He should send her back to Billie, who has never in her life known the right thing to say—except, apparently, to Emily Kaldwin in crisis. She was calm before she started talking to the Outsider, Billie brought that out of her, and now he’s ruined it.

The Empress is used to speaking in a voice that will be believed. But when she tells him that Corvo will be alright, the Outsider cannot help but hear a girl trying to speak the truth into the world.

“Pick another Royal Protector,” he says, horribly aware of his own irrationality. There are many reasons for Emily to choose a new Protector: Corvo’s age, his other duties as Dunwall’s de facto spymaster, the ability to pick a Protector from Morley or Tyvia, to improve international relations once again. None of these things matter to the Outsider. He can barely even consider them. All that matters is Corvo’s heart, that it remain beating, that while the Outsider still lives it never goes still. Another irrational thing.

“Believe me,” Emily says, “I’d like nothing more. Father’s too stubborn to let a stab wound kill him, but he’s also too stubborn to listen to his daughter.” She sighs. “Maybe you’ll have better luck. He always listened to you. If you want to sit with him, try not to piss off the Royal Physician. I won’t stop her from tossing you out.” She leaves him, alone in Corvo’s office in shambles, icy dread crawling up his spine.

The Outsider’s dreams that night are hectic things. Corvo pale and still and bloody on the boat, Emily wretched beside him, stony faced as his life runs out. The Outsider’s fingers digging into Corvo’s chest and closing around his heart, Corvo’s voice, confused and alone, and a harried scrawl penned in blood against the wood underneath the Outsider’s knees: YOU CANNOT SAVE HIM YOU CANNOT SAVE HIM YOU CANNOT SAVE HIM.

When he wakes he wonders if this is how Corvo felt, in those first few days in the Hound Pits Pub. Cold and lost and wishing he could take the world apart piece by piece.

-

Corvo wakes to the Outsider sitting beside him, whittling away at a bit of whalebone with what looks like one of Emily’s nail files.

The incongruity of the sight has nothing on the pain in his ribs, but Corvo knows which one he’d rather focus on. “I didn’t think those would work anymore,” he says. It’s been a long time since he’s felt the hum of a bone charm calling to him.

“They don't,” the Outsider says. “Not the ones that were made to call to me, anyway. The Empress seemed to think I needed something to do with my hands.”

“I see. Is that my coat?”

“Yes.” It’s the one he lent the Outsider before they were attacked, draped across the Outsider’s shoulders. His arms aren’t in the sleeves. The sight does something terrible and warm to Corvo’s gut.

He closes his eyes and takes inventory. The cut in his side and a few broken ribs, probably. A nasty knock on the head, throbbing dully now. He wonders how much laudanum they gave him. “Thackeray and Flint?”

“Cooling their heels in Coldridge. You slept a few days away. Emily’s gone to talk to them.”

“I’m sure that will go well.”

“She’s done an admirable job of keeping her head,” the Outsider says, bitterness coloring his tone. He scrapes the file against the bone in his hand.

“Let me guess. You haven’t been taking it well.”

A huff, and a vicious stab at the whalebone. “No.”

Senselessly, Corvo smiles. “But Emily’s okay?”

“Yes. She was Billie’s primary concern. And yours.”

“And we have Thackeray and Flint. So she’s safe now.”

“As safe as an Empress can ever be. Yes.” The Outsider looks down at the charm in his hands. “I should have told you about what happened: Daud and the Brigmore witches, what Delilah wanted to do. It wasn’t a secret. I wasn’t trying to hide it. I never thought of what it would mean to you to know.”

Corvo closes his eyes. “It was fifteen years ago.” Just the idea of it—another face behind Emily’s eyes—it’s too big to fit inside Corvo’s head. What fits is that Daud saved her. That Corvo was right to let him live.

A life is such a fragile thing. It amazes him every day that Emily has come this far, that she’ll go so much farther. His love for her is like an ache, but she has the protection of so many unlikely people. For the first time since the coup—maybe the first time since the interregnum—he’s beginning to believe that she’ll be okay.

“If your daughter had died, you wouldn’t be saying that.”

“She didn’t.”

“If I hadn’t marked Delilah—”

“I may have only had the pleasure of meeting Delilah Copperspoon once, but even I know she didn’t need your Mark to be dangerous,” Corvo says. “You meddled when you marked us. Maybe you even changed the course of history once or twice. But we made our own choices. You never made them for us.”

The Outsider scowls at him. “Daud didn’t believe that.”

“I know better than most how hard it can be, living with the choices you’ve made. I think you do too. If Daud blamed you, it’s because he let it crush him. That’s all.”

The Outsider stares at him. “It’s very curious,” he says. “You have a way of untangling everything in your path. Nothing you touch can remain complicated.” There’s a note of longing in his voice.

Corvo reaches out, and the Outsider puts aside the chunk of whalebone and takes his hand.

“I don’t think I could ever uncomplicate you,” Corvo tells him. “I wouldn’t want to. It wouldn’t be right.”

“I suppose not,” the Outsider says, only the barest trace of bitterness in his words. He holds Corvo’s hand in both of his own, thumb pressed against the space where the Mark would be. Where it was, once, and will never be again. Corvo wishes, sometimes, that there was a scar. He likes the scars he has. They remind him of who he’s been, and who he’ll never be again. “I thought you were dead,” the Outsider says lowly. “Only for a moment, but I was sure of it. It was like—having the shore torn away and only the sea at storm in its place. Like drowning.”

“I’m alive,” Corvo says mildly. He doesn’t know how to be reassuring with anything but the truth.

“This was my name, you know.” The Outsider ignores him, tracing the back of his hand lightly with one finger. “The Mark. It was my name. But I can’t read it any longer.” He looks up. “You wore it for years. Perhaps you know it better than I do.”

“Do you miss it?” Corvo asks. He never thought to ask. “My Mark.”

The Outsider’s brow furrows. “Yes,” he says, like he hadn’t realized it before. He squeezes Corvo’s hand. “I should have given it back. I wish I had. You would have been safer, for as long as it lasted.”

“I don’t know if your gifts ever made any of us as safe as you thought they did.”

The Outsider’s thumbnails nails dig into his hand. It only stings a little. “Maybe not. But you would be mine.”

Corvo pulls his hand out of the Outsider’s grasp. He lets him go reluctantly, like it hurts him to uncurl each finger, but he does it. He brings his hand to the Outsider’s cheek instead. His eyes have always looked hollow, but now it seems like he barely slept at all. Corvo doesn’t like it when Emily worries over him, and he doesn’t exactly like it that the Outsider did. But there’s a safety in it. He never would have expected a creature from the Void to worry over his health. But he can believe it of the person the Outsider is now, the tangled mess he’s made of himself inside his own skin, human at last.

“Am I not?”

Corvo knows the way that he is made: he has the disposition of a soldier, not just in his bearing but in his heart. His life has followed that course. He was lucky enough that it brought him to Jessamine, to someone who deserved his loyalty, someone he would have gladly died for.

But she died instead, and that tether was cut. Corvo thought that Emily was what gave him direction after that. But there was always the Mark on his hand, weightless but heavy, until the moment that it was gone.

The Outsider tilts his head into Corvo’s hand. He sucks in air like he’s taken a knee to the stomach. And for a moment they just watch each other, a line abruptly going taut. Corvo is thinking about moving when the Outsider yanks him in by the collar.

It hurts, just a little, just like everything with the Outsider does. He kisses like someone who isn’t afraid to use their teeth, like someone who doesn’t want to know what will happen when he comes up for air.

Corvo isn’t surprised that when he opens his eyes, the Outsider is watching him. He doubts he ever shut them.

It wasn’t like this with Jessamine. The Outsider is nothing like Jessamine, has never been. And he never spoke to her. But Corvo wonders, suddenly, what it would be like to see them in a room together, in another life. This isn’t like him, to think of things that cannot be. To see the past as anything but set in stone. It is set in stone. Jessamine would probably have hated the Outsider, or found him amusing, and it is an ache, to know that Corvo will never know which. But it’s the pleasant kind, like a stretch pulled just a little too far.

The Outsider presses his hands against Corvo’s face, thumbs smoothing across his cheekbones. Corvo needs to trim his beard. The Outsider doesn’t seem to notice, or care; he is looking at Corvo with the kind of intensity he no longer finds strange. His gaze has a weight that’s become comfortably familiar. “I never realized before,” he says, voice low and awed. “It goes both ways, doesn’t it. How much I care. How much you do. The way it hurts.”

“You noticed that, did you?”

“I thought I understood, when you told me about her. But I didn’t understand anything. I saw a map instead of the ground beneath my feet.”

Corvo kisses him again, because he is cursed, now, to find that sort of statement charming.

The Outsider stumbles, a little, moving from the chair to tuck himself into Corvo’s side. He kisses his mouth and his chin and his throat and then his mouth again, licking curiously at Corvo’s teeth.

“No?” the Outsider says. He draws his fingers slowly over Corvo’s face, reading his bemused expression. It’s oddly soothing.

“Not quite.” Corvo laughs, and the Outsider nudges in closer, his face pressed against the curve of Corvo’s neck.

“You’re warm,” he says, muffled. Corvo’s getting better at it, reading the meaning underneath the Outsider’s words, the things he doesn’t know how to say: you’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.

-

Corvo’s pulse is steady beneath the Outsider’s cheek. Not thready and weak like it was on the boat, or absent entirely like it was in the Outsider’s dreams. It should be enough. It isn’t. The Outsider sits up, fumbling with the buttons of Corvo’s shirt.

Corvo laughs again. The Outsider likes it, especially this close, so he can feel the waves in the air that make up the sound—it’s nothing like the vibrations of a bonecharm or whalesong through water or anything at all familiar. And yet it feels like it is, cozy and close underneath the Outsider’s skin.

“You realize I was very recently stabbed,” Corvo says.

“I am aware,” the Outside tells him. He will not soon forget. Corvo’s stomach is wrapped in bandages. The Outsider presses his hand lightly to the place where the knife cut him, the place where the Outsider desperately tried to keep his blood where it belonged.

Corvo smiles up at him. “Trust you to miss the point.”

“What?” the Outsider looks up at him, and then back down at his hands, and Corvo’s open shirt. “Oh.” He tucks himself back in against Corvo, his hand resting over his chest, feeling the rhythm of his breath. “That was...not what I meant.”

“I realize,” Corvo says, laughter threaded through his words like a stitch holding them closed, keeping the warmth in. The Outsider traces the lines of his collarbones and his ribs and the bandages, all the terribly fragile things holding him together. Corvo stays quiet beneath his hands. When the Outsider peeks up at him, he won’t meet his eyes, and the laughter has leaked out somehow when the Outsider wasn’t looking. He’ll have to watch closer, next time.

“I see. You think this is a bad idea.”

Another laugh, but it isn’t the kind the Outsider likes. All the joy is gone from it. “I thought you couldn’t read minds anymore.”

“I can read you, Corvo.”

“I worry,” says Corvo. He turns away from the Outsider’s eyes, squinting towards the sun pouring in from the window. “I always worry.”

“Tell me,” say the Outsider. “There is no burden that could weigh as heavily on me as it does on you.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re very full of yourself?”

“Frequently,” says the Outsider. “You thought so, on many occasions.”

“So you did read my thoughts.”

“You certainly weren’t inclined to say much.” It had been a strange feeling, speaking to Corvo in the Void, itchy and uninvited. Corvo didn’t speak much to anyone during the interregnum. He bore the Outsider’s speeches with quiet equanimity. It made the Outsider want to read him like a book. “I did not read your thoughts, no. But they were there all the same, like hangings on a wall. The Void has a way of drawing such things out.”

“Or you did,” says Corvo. He grins up at the ceiling. “That seems like something you might have been curious about.”

The Outsider blinks at him. “I suppose.” He’s never given it much thought, how much of the Void was itself and how much of it was him. He wonders what kind of home Corvo might make for himself, in a place like that. “It doesn’t matter. Tell me.”

“You’re very bossy, too,” Corvo says, not without affection. He sighs. “You need something to keep you tethered to this place. You found me. It’s a bad idea.”

“I see,” says the Outsider. He sits up. “And would that be such a bad thing?”

Corvo reaches up. His hand fits comfortably alongside the Outsider’s cheek. The Outsider can feel his own heart fluttering, like a bloodfly buffeted by the wind. “People don’t like the idea of being used.”

“And what would you call your relationship with Jessamine?” the Outsider asks. He can feel the weight of his words, the ways in which they could be a knife or a caress. He wields them as carefully as he knows how. “She gave you purpose. She gave you a reason to wake in the morning and carry on through the day and to sleep in the evening. She was your world. Every part of it that mattered.”

“I didn’t protect Jessamine because it gave me a reason to live.”

“No,” says the Outsider. “You did it because you love her.” They stare at each other. The Outsider, to his dismay, realizes that his face is growing warm, heat crawling unbidden up his skin. When he tries to turn away, Corvo holds him steady. “You loved her, and protecting her did give you a purpose. So did protecting Emily, when she needed it, but she’s a woman grown. She doesn’t need your protection anymore. You need something else to worry over.”

“I see. You’re saying I’m the one who’s using you,” Corvo says, but gently, no bite to the words. His words never seem to have teeth anymore, not when he speaks to the Outsider. His thumb is drawing distracting circles along the Outsider’s cheek.

“I am saying,” the Outsider says, feeling exquisitely out of his depth and utterly cross with it, “that true kindness is as much a fairytale as the Rosewater Hag. People all want things from each other. That isn’t cruelty. It’s practicality. I should know the difference. We tie ourselves together with winding and endless cords of rope, love and longing and loss. It tangles, or pulls smoothly into a knot. There is never any way to know which. It is not dishonest to require a tether, or to request one, and offer one in return.”

“We do, do we?” Corvo asks him.

“Yes,” says the Outsider. He presses his lips together, feeling the imprints left behind by his teeth. What an odd word, we.

“You’re terribly romantic,” Corvo says gravely, the corner of his mouth twitching. Once, the Outsider resented being laughed at. It does not seem to matter, when Corvo does it.

“I’m not proposing marriage.” The Outsider wrinkles his nose at the idea. Vera Moray brought up the topic enough times in his hearing that he wishes to never hear the words again.

“What exactly are you proposing, then?”

The Outsider speaks without thinking. There is no room in him, anymore, to worry how his words will be received. “I want to always know that you live, with the same comfort of a sailor looking to the stars. I want to feel your breath against my neck and under my hands, and to never know what you will say next. I don’t wish to be parted from you by space or years or a blade. That is what I am proposing.”

Corvo moves his hand from the Outsider’s cheek to the back of his neck, drawing him down. “You really were worried, weren’t you.”

“I told you. I thought you were going to die. It ate at me. It hurt, it still hurts, I can feel it living under my ribs. A fear well-fed.” He buries his face in Corvo’s shoulder. “Are you used to it? Does it leave, or take root?”

“I’m used to it,” Corvo says. He strokes the Outsider’s hair. “It’s easier now. I’ll die before you. I’ll die before Emily.”

The Outsider pulls back, staring at him.

“I will,” Corvo says, as straightforward as ever, no patience at all for dissembling.

“I know,” the Outsider says. It does hurts him. His throat wants to close up around the words. “I’ll live for—for fifty more years, perhaps, and you for half that. But I was under the impression that sort of thing should be an unspoken truth, kept hidden away.” He blinks. “I can see now why people would not want to speak of it.”

“That’s another reason that this is a bad idea, you know.”

“Because it will hurt me?” The Outsider stares at him. “It has hurt me. It always will. Nothing will change that. You understand that. You must.”

“I don’t want you to be hurt,” Corvo says. His voice goes rough when he speaks this quietly, pebbles scraping against sand.

“I think,” the Outsider says, slowly, testing the way the words sound against the air, instead of locked within his head. “I think that the most I have ever been hurt was the moment Billie Lurk saved my life. I have never been less well equipped for anything. Death, even, was easier. Every ache I will ever feel is an extension of that same hurt.” Corvo watches him, quiet, thinking his own thoughts, keeping them to himself until he has heard and tried to understand. It’s overwhelming, what the Outsider feels for him then. “If she’d asked me, if I could have seen all that it would bring, I still would not have told her no. I wouldn’t have been able to. You know that. You do. You were the one who taught me.” It felt like a gift, when the Outsider handed Corvo Jessamine’s heart. Handing him the Outsider’s own feels nothing like that. It feels like begging. Like the beginnings of fear in his throat when he asked Billie Lurk to know that she had a choice.

Corvo smiles up at him. The Outsider could watch him forever. “I do,” he says. “It’s okay. I’ll protect you.”

The Outsider scowls at him, that same heat returning to his face and creeping up his ears, and he presses his hand gently over Corvo’s bandages. “Will you.”

“Yes,” Corvo says serenely. “It’s what I do.”

There is something, rising from the Outsider’s chest to his throat to his tongue, pressing outwards against his ribs. He doesn’t know the words to say it any better than he already has. Maybe Corvo doesn’t either. Words have never been his preferred way of speaking. He brings the Outsider in close and kisses him. It doesn’t feel like drowning; it’s like taking a gulp of air after too long underwater. Like resurfacing, and finally being able to breathe.

They kiss, and kiss, and the Outsider had always wondered how people did not simply grow bored. He isn’t bored. He wants to taste Corvo’s breath and his pulse and the particular salt of his skin, and to never taste anything else.

By the time he tucks his face back into the crook of Corvo’s neck, he is overwarm and his lips are buzzing. Corvo’s breath is coming gratifyingly fast under his hand.

“You seem very smug for someone with beard burn,” Corvo tells him, running a finger up from the Outsider’s neck to the hinge of his jaw.

“I could make you shave. Jessamine did,” the Outsider says.

“I don’t think so,” Corvo say, threading his fingers back in the Outsider’s hair. “You like it.”

“I do,” the Outsider agrees, burrowing in closer. He closes his eyes.

“Do you mind?” Corvo asks, voice soft. “That we talk about her?”

“She’s as much a part of you as your ribs,” the Outsider says. He likes Jessamine’s memory as well as he likes every part of Corvo. “No. I don’t mind.”

Corvo is on the edges of sleep, now, but he presses one last kiss against the Outsider’s forehead, warming him through.

The Outsider does not sleep much. Too often his dreams betray him. So he is content to lie awake and watch Corvo, to measure the steadiness of his breath with a hand pressed against his chest. To watch Corvo’s face and to feel, for the first time since he left the Void, like he can look his fill.

-

When Emily enters Corvo’s room, there are two more people than she expects. Corvo, fast asleep on the bed, the Outsider in his shirtsleeves sprawled against his chest, just as dead to the world, and the Royal Physician contemplating the both of them with an exasperated look on her face.

For the first time in what feels like a year, Emily bursts into laughter.

“Empress,” says the physician, a hint of disapproval in her tone. Emily doesn’t know if it’s directed at her, or her father, or at the situation in general. It only makes her laugh harder, until her stomach starts to hurt.

“Sorry,” she says, regaining her breath, bent over and balancing her palms against her knees. “Sorry. It’s been a trying few days. I can get rid of him, if you need to check on my father.” She wipes at her eyes. It’s not the most dignified she’s ever been as Empress.

“It can wait,” the doctor say, sighing. “You should be glad Sokolov isn’t the Royal Physician any longer. He would have much less patience.”

By the time Emily’s stopped herself from collapsing with laughter at the thought of what Sokolov would say, faced with the Outsider taking a nap on her father’s chest, the physician is long gone. She takes the chair by Corvo’s bed, which presumably was at some point occupied by the Outsider, and puts her feet up on the sheets.

She figures she can let them sleep for a bit longer. After the past few days, she’d appreciate a nap too.

There’s usually a quiet sort of elegance about the Outsider, even outside of the Void. He doesn’t have any of that now. He looks just about as ragged as her father does. Like he hasn’t been sleeping well. Emily knows the feeling.

He blinks awake, and for a moment doesn’t notice her at all. He looks at Corvo the way that whalers look at a shore they thought they’d never see again.

“The Royal Physician isn’t happy with you,” Emily says, and is gratified by the Outsider startling completely. He sits up too quickly, nearly losing his balance and falling off the bed entirely. Corvo doesn’t stir at all. Emily focuses on the steady rise and fall of his chest, and refuses to let herself worry.

“And are you?” the Outsider asks, regaining his composure the way a cat does: by simply refusing to acknowledge that anything untoward happened at all.

“Honestly, I’m just happy you’ve both got your clothes on,” Emily says, nudging the Outsider with the toe of one of her boots.

He wrinkles his nose. “You’ve been spending too much time with Billie Lurk.”

“You’re one to talk.” Emily smiles, shaking her head. “He’s okay?”

The Outsider’s scowl breaks. He looks down at Corvo, watching him breathe the same way that Emily is. “He will be.”

“That’s good,” Emily says. She leans forward on her elbows balanced against her knees, letting her head hang down. “That’s good.”

“I should...offer to leave, shouldn’t I,” the Outsider says, voice uncertain. Emily waves him off.

“He’s asleep anyway. And you don’t look like you want to move.”

“No,” agrees the Outsider. “But if you ask, I will. I should not have shouted at you.”

It’s almost like an apology, Emily muses. “It’s fine. We’ve all been under a lot of stress. Not anymore, I suppose. I mean, not any more than usual.” She sits back against the chair, crossing her legs and peering up at the ceiling. “Billie saved me. Again.”

“You don’t sound very happy about it.”

“I’m just worried. There’s nothing keeping her here anymore.”

The Outsider peers up at her. “I don’t believe that’s true.”

Emily snorts, rubbing her hand against her face. “Things always seem so clear when you’re in the middle of them, you know? When there’s a fight. Something to do. And now all that’s left is to clean up, and do my job, and try to do it well. That doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing the famed assassin Billie Lurk would be interested in.”

“Do you think that’s what she wants? To go back to being who she was?”

“No.” Emily turns her head, gazing out the window. “But she isn’t Meagan Foster anymore, either, lending the Empress a hand out of the goodness of her heart. Whoever she is now might not have a place in Dunwall.”

The Outsider looks down at Corvo again. “A name doesn’t tell you who you are,” he says. “Neither does who you imagine yourself to be. What you do does. I’ve watched countless people make plenty of choices. I know that anyone could choose to be a thousand different people, over the course of their lives. Billie’s decided who she is. You don’t have to give her a reason to stay. Just let her keep saving your life. She’s good at it. It’s what she’s chosen to do.”

Now there’s a thought Emily has been trying, very hard, not to let take root. To be an Empress requires a certain degree of hope, along with an equal degree of skepticism. Her mother told her that, once. You have to hope people will be better than they are, and guard against the expectation that they’ll be worse. And so Emily tries to put her hope where it will be most useful, and guard her heart so that she can keep it.

Her father will live, though, so she supposes she has some to spare.

“Maybe I will,” Emily says, speaking slowly. Corvo will probably hate it. Maybe the Outsider can run interference for her. He won’t be any good at it, but he’ll probably be distracting.

She stands, and bends to brush Corvo’s hair away from his forehead, pressing a kiss there. He’s alive. He’ll stay that way. She’s in a better mood than she’s been in days, joy running through her like lightning. She doesn’t even mind the way the Outsider watches her, annoyingly curious—and why shouldn’t he be? He doesn’t have a father. Not anymore. There’s no reason he should understand, no reason that he shouldn’t want to.

“Know where I can find her?”

“I will be honest,” says the Outsider, eyes fixed once again on Corvo. “I have been trying that, lately. I haven’t given Billie Lurk’s whereabouts much thought in the past few days.”

“Fair enough.” Emily stands from the chair, stretching. “You were rather busy breaking things.”

Corvo slits an eye open. Emily sits back down in a rush, grabbing his hand. His voice, when he speaks, is only a little hoarse. “He didn’t break anything important, did he?”

“I am right here.”

“I don’t trust your definition of important.”

“Nothing that can’t be mended,” Emily says. She feels overfull, suddenly, like a cup about to spill. She’s still happy, but there are tears prickling at her eyes, and she will not, will not embarrass her father by weeping over him like she’s twelve again.

The Outsider, perhaps trying his hand at a few things other than honesty, stands up. He dust himself off primly, which does nothing at all to fix the wrinkles in his shirt. He brushes his fingers against Corvo’s shoulder, and Emily very studiously looks out the window as he takes his leave, still clutching her father’s hand.

“You’re safe now,” Corvo says wryly, once the door has shut behind the Outsider. Emily blinks hard a few times, steeling herself to face him. She turns her head. Her father looks weary down to the bone, paler than he should, and happy. Emily hugs him as tight as she dares, trying her best to be mindful of his bandages.

“If you ever get hurt that badly again,” she says, “I am sending the wrath of the Empire down on your head.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” he says. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Emily says. “So much so that, in light of your convalescence, I will not force you to talk about whatever that was with the Outsider.”

Corvo puts a hand over his face, but not fast enough to hide his smile.

“I’m glad,” Emily tells him.

“This counts as forcing me to talk about it.”

“No, it doesn’t. I would know. I make the laws.”

“You tried to set me up with Cecelia once.”

“I was thirteen.”

“She doesn’t even like men, Emily.”

“I know that now,” Emily says, and then she’s laughing again, and only crying a little along with it. It’s okay, because Corvo is too.

-

“I thought you wanted me out of your hair,” Billie says. Lizzy Stride, sitting across from her and leaning improbably far back in her chair, snorts. The bar’s bustling around them. It’s a different place than they met last time, edging into Bottle Street territory. As long as no one draws steel on them, Billie’s resolved not to fucking ask what kind of shit Lizzy is thinking about starting. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Lizzy shrugs. “You, I can put up with,” she says. “It’s good for business. That friend of yours? I’m happy to have seen the back of him. Hopefully for good.”

“He did tell me I owed you a drink.”

“Yeah, you do. Pay up, Lurk.”

“Yeah, yeah, you know I’m good for it.” Billie shoulders her way to the bar, and returns to the table to find Lizzy finishing up a whispered conference with a young girl.

The girl turns to face Billie with wide eyes. It’s the same kid who Billie sent to find Lizzy a week ago, when all this shit started. “I remember you,” the girl says.

Billie flips her the change from the drinks. “Probably for the best if you forget me,” she says. “Stay out of trouble, kid.”

The girl takes Billie’s coin, rolls her eyes, and dashes off, darting between the legs of the bar’s patrons with practiced skill. Sometimes Billie misses being that small, able to go wherever she pleased, roaming Dunwall’s streets like a rat. Problem was, it was always hard to stay unnoticed for long enough to avoid getting stepped on.

Those days are gone, anyway. Like it or not, Billie Lurk is done sticking to the shadows.

“She looking to join up?” Billie asks. The girl has the same glint in her eye Billie did, back when she ran in the gutters, hoping a gang might be the thing to scoop her out of them.

“Maybe,” Lizzy says, tipping her drink back and downing half in one go. She smacks her lips. “Not sure she has what it takes yet. She’s not a half bad messenger, though.”

“Yeah, she’s got talent.” Billie wonders if working her way up through the ranks of the Dead Eels is the best way for her to use it. Not really Billie’s business, though. Getting square with Lizzy is. “Your boat’s back safe and sound.”

“A little bloodier than you found it.”

“I didn’t take you for someone opposed to a little spilled blood.”

“Depends on the source,” Lizzy says. “Not anyone who’ll be missed, I hope.”

“He lived.” Attano’s holed up in the Tower now, with Emily and the Outsider attending him. Probably starting to drive him crazy, if Billie’s got a decent read on the guy. He’s never struck her as a better patient than any of the Whalers ever were. Billie knows she was a nightmare to treat. Rulfio told her so often enough. “And I think that means we’re done.”

“That a fact?” Lizzy leans forward on her elbows, grinning her crazy shark grin. “I mentioned to your friend, we’ve got a ship making the run back to Cullero at the end of the week. Was wondering if you want a place on it. I figure your business in Dunwall must be just about done by now, right? Since now whatever creepy shit you were doing up at Brigmore Manor is over.”

Billie flicks her thumbnail against the glass of her pear soda, peeling off the label in ragged, uneven strips. Trust Lizzy Stride to get at the heart of the matter with all the grace of a pissed off hagfish.

Her business in Dunwall, huh. The Outsider’s taken to the place like a whale to water. He doesn’t need her help anymore, if he ever really did. And Emily’s good. Emily’s great. Emily’s alive. She’s never needed Billie, not for anything, but she’s just as stubborn as all the people Billie has ever loved. Daud with his stupid bull-headed ideas, Dierdre tilting up her chin and sticking out her lower lip, Delilah and her refusal to soften or bend for anything or anyone, be it mercy or propriety or death. Emily’s stubborn. When she wants something, she doesn’t let go.

All that’s left for Billie in Dunwall is to decide whether she can do the same. Whether she can bear to be tied to this place that’s nearly killed her a hundred times over.

“I’m not finished here,” she says, scrubbing at the bottle with her sleeve, ripping the mess she’s made of the label clean off. “And it’s too fucking hot in Serkonos. Give me doom and gloom and rain any day. I’ve only got the one eye. Don’t need it getting blinded by the sun all the time.”

Lizzy shrugs. “Whatever you tell yourself to sleep at night,” she says. “What, you thinking of settling back down? Starting up your own gang? I hear whaling masks are getting a little harder to come by these days.”

“I’m getting too old for smuggling. And for killing, and for stealing.” And for running. “I’ll figure something out.”

“You need any help with that,” Lizzy says, “you know where to find me.”

“I won’t, but thanks.”

Lizzy laughs. “I’ll drink to that.”

Billie heads back to the Tower after that. There’s something she needs to see.

Jessamine Kaldwin’s memorial is beautiful. The most well kept part of Dunwall Tower, as far as Billie can tell. Clean and quiet, complete with a lingering scent of flowers that makes Billie sneeze.

Billie’s never been here before. She’s thought about it. She heard, from the Whalers who were still willing to write her back, after she fled, that Daud came here once before he left Dunwall for good. That he left something behind, too.

Billie doesn’t have anything to leave behind. Flowers would be fucking insulting. And what does she have, anyway, that a dead Empress could possibly want?

She’s got herself. It’s all she’s ever really had.

Billie sits down in front of the plaque, cross-legged, and balances her elbows on her knees. She’s never known what to do at funerals. The ceremonies the Whalers had were silent, somber affairs, and like with everything else, Billie took her cues from Daud. She only ever talks to the dead in quiet, stolen moments. Not like this. How could she? None of Billie’s dead have graves. She would have buried Deirdre if she could, she would have buried Daud, but she never got the chance. Dierdre got Dunwall mud and Daud got the Dreadful Wale as a funeral pyre. The Empress got this whole fucking gazebo. It isn’t fair, but does it even really matter? None of it makes any of them less dead.

And what could she possibly have to say to Jessamine Kaldwin the First, if she wanted to pretend she could hear? Sorry I killed you? Sorry your daughter’s taken such a shine to me anyway? Sorry I don’t have the decency to get out of her life forever?

Daud would’ve had something to say. He loved that, on the days when he wasn’t broodingly silent, loved papering words on top of each other endlessly until they meant nothing at all. Trying to convince himself of something, Billie used to think. Or hoping, maybe, that someone heard him from the Void. Heard him and bothered to listen.

But Billie hasn’t got anything to say to Jessamine. And it doesn’t matter, anyway. Dead is dead. Daud saw to that. Billie helped him. It will always be true. All that’s left is to live with it.

What a joke. The awful thing is, Billie is really starting to feel like she can.

Billie is used to thinking of Attano as someone with a particularly silent step. But he’s hurt, so she hears him, walking slowly to the memorial.

Billie stands her ground. That’s what’s left, when you stop running. Living. In darkness and in light, through the soft things and the hard ones.

“I told them not to build this here,” Attano says, coming to stand beside Billie. “My word’s never held much sway, though.”

Billie glances at him sidelong, but he’s not even looking at her. His eyes are tracing Jessamine’s name. “Seems unfair,” she offers.

He shrugs. “She’d say it’s what I deserved,” he says, fondness creeping into his voice. “If I’d just agreed to marry her, it wouldn’t have been a problem.”

He talks about her like she died yesterday, not fifteen years ago. “The dead have a way of sticking with you long after they’re gone, don’t they,” Billie says, thinking of Dierdre and Jessamine and Daud. How it’s got them all caught like a net: Dierdre died and left Billie alone, until Daud found her, until he killed Jessamine and Billie betrayed him and it all rotted away, the kindness he’d offered her spit back in his face. And he’d died with violence in his heart, bitter and wretched and most of all alone, without even Billie to stand by his side as he slipped away.

And Billie betrayed him one last time, she gave the Outsider a chance, pushing against the tide, trying to do a good thing for once in her goddamn life. And maybe she did. But it didn’t do anything about the ghosts, the traces of Billie’s past that are never going to leave her. It didn’t do anything about the name written here in stone.

Dunwall will always be the city where Dierdre died, where Billie helped murder Jessamine and where Daud spared her life. Where Attano will leave flowers on a grave that shouldn’t be here, and always will be. Where Emily will rule as best as she can, despite it all, and her best will damn well have to be good enough.

It would be easier to leave if Billie didn’t think she could do it. Then she could just give it all up as a bad job and disappear back into the sea. She’s done it once already. She could do it again. But she does believe it, stupidly, because Emily is the only person Billie has ever met who’s done a halfway decent job of learning from her mistakes. She’s never needed to be tricked into doing the right thing.

“They never leave,” Attano agrees, and Billie shouldn’t be seeing this. She doesn’t want to know what Corvo Attano looks like when he’s staring at Jessamine Kaldwin’s grave. “You can’t run from them and you can’t kill them. You just have to learn to let them keep you company.”

Billie snorts. “Aren’t you famous for always finding another way? What, you can’t stow them away on a boat and send them out to sea? Get them arrested for all their crimes? Send them off tongueless to the mines?”

Attano ignores her, because of course he does. It’s impossible to antagonize the man without hitting him where it hurts, and where it hurts is Emily. Billie can’t do that, not even for show.

“The Outsider’s the only one who cares about any of that,” he says.

“I think it probably mattered to them.” Our choices always matter to someone. Billie’s tried to take that to heart.

He shrugs. “True enough. Thank you. For helping Emily.”

“Sure,” Billie says. She really doesn’t get what his angle is. She doesn’t know what to do with Attano when he isn’t trying to bite her head off. “If this is an apology, don’t bother.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Attano says. He finally turns his head and looks at her. “Are you scared of something?” Billie remembers what people used to say about him. Back when the city was in ruins, when everyone blamed him for it. That he was cold, unfeeling. Anyone who’d seen him with his daughter would know it wasn’t true. He’s brusque, and doesn’t have time for bullshit, but he cares, cares so much deep down that it’s liable to rip him to pieces.

Billie saw that kind of caring once. And she decided she wouldn’t be like that. That she wouldn’t repeat Daud’s mistakes. As if she realized what they actually were.

“Yeah,” Billie says, figuring she’ll answer Attano’s rough honesty in kind. “I’m afraid you’re going to ask me to get the hell out of your city. I’ve done what I came here to do, right? Dropped off the Outsider. Got him settled in. Seems like he’s plenty settled now. No reason I couldn’t make a living just as easily in Karnaca. Anywhere else in the Empire. Say the word, and I’ll be out of your hair for good.” She doesn’t want to. She told Emily the truth: she’s tired of running. But if Corvo fucking Attano told her, hey, thanks for saving my daughter, now get the hell out of my city—wouldn’t she owe him that one thing?

Billie Lurk pays her debts. Doesn’t mean she has to like the cost.

Attano just watches her. His silences have such a different quality to Daud’s. It makes Billie itch under her skin. Even when Daud was in a mood, he couldn’t really stay quiet for long. If Billie didn’t know better, she’d say getting turned into a rock stole all of Attano’s words. But he’s just like this. “Do you want to go?”

“No,” Billie says, almost impatient now. “I want to stay.”

“You’re really not much like Daud, are you.” Attano raises an eyebrow at the look on her face. “From me, that’s a compliment.” He shrugs. “If you want to stay, then stay.” He bends very carefully, and sets down the Oxbrush he’d brought with him, and he turns on his heel and leaves the way he came. Billie’s pretty sure he never looked her full in the face once.

“Yeah,” Billie mutters to herself, glaring at his retreating back. “Easy for you to say.”

But it does sound sound pretty easy, in Attano’s words. She wants to stay. So she’ll stay. If she needs an tie to this place so bad, well. She used to be a ship captain. Her ropework’s not too bad. She can build one.

-

Emily comes to the gazebo to think, sometimes, when she needs to be quiet and still instead of getting her blood up until she feels better. That’s not really what she needs today, but one of the servants told her she could find Billie here, and here Billie is: sitting with her legs crossed, chin propped up on one hand, staring hard at nothing.

When Billie first came back to Dunwall, finding her here probably would’ve pissed Emily off. Now it just makes her think of what the Heart said to her, once. I can see why you like her.

“Looking for me?” Billie says, not looking up.

“Feels like I always am.” Emily sits down next to her, leaning back on her hands. Despite everything, she’s comfortable here. When she was young, she would visit and tell her mother her troubles. The stupid things she cared about, but didn’t want to bother Corvo with. Probably it was just a comfort to talk, even if it was only to the air. “Corvo’s doing well.”

“Yeah, he was here. We had a chat.” Billie looks up, her face unreadable. “I’m glad that he’s all right.”

“Me too.” Emily leans in, shoulder against Billie’s, and Billie doesn’t move away, doesn’t even flinch. It’s nice. Emily relaxes against her, and after a moment of hesitation, Billie wraps an arm around her. It feels like the Void, licking at her skin, all that coldness and freedom close around her. “Sorry if he yelled at you again.”

“He didn’t. I think we, uh. Came to an understanding.”

Emily smiles, imaging the both of them scowling at each other. “That’s frightening. Next thing I know, it’ll stop raining in Dunwall.”

“I’m as surprised as anyone. He’s not so bad when he doesn’t want to wring my neck.”

“I’ll tell him you said that.” Emily looks down at her mother’s name. “I think she would have liked you, too.” They all almost died. Why not be a little reckless? “I know it doesn’t matter, really. But I do.”

She can feel Billie shake her head, but she doesn’t pull away. “Come on. You can’t expect me to believe that.”

Emily shrugs. “Not really. But it’s true. I do have proof. The Outsider gave me something.”

Billie shifts against her. “The timepiece?”

“No.” Emily doesn’t know how to begin to explain it. The Heart was grotesque, but without it, Emily isn’t sure she would’ve been able to hold herself together, with no idea if she’d ever see her home or her father again. Having her mother’s voice with her was everything. “It was a heart. It...told me things. No one else could see it. Well, actually, Stilton could. But I could’ve held it in front of your face and you wouldn’t have seen anything at all. Sometimes I wondered if it was even real. But Corvo had it once too. It spoke in my mother’s voice. It was her. The last thing piece of her that was left, after all this time.”

“Huh.” Billie lets go of her, looking down at the fingers of her right hand, opening and closing them. “The Outsider’s got some interesting ideas about gifts, doesn’t he.” She looks up, quickly, mask sliding back into place. “Do you still have it?”

Emily can read the horror in her voice. She shakes her head. “She’s gone. For real. I had to let her go.”

Billie presses her hand against her eye. “I fucking hate magic,” she says. “And I’m sorry.”

“I probably should have punched the Outsider for that when I first saw him again,” Emily says. “I guess I was distracted. I don’t really think he knew what he was doing. And it wasn’t all bad, having her with me. Hearing what she had to say.” Billie stiffens beside her. “She never told me who you were. She said you deserved to have your secrets. She trusted you to protect me.”

For a long time Billie doesn’t say anything at all, throat working. “Believe me when I say there is no one in the entire Empire like you,” she says, finally, voice rough.

“I just want you to know,” Emily says. “I’m tired of keeping secrets, of not saying the things I want to say. Of tiptoeing around all the things we know are true.”

Billie presses both of her hands flat against the stone beneath them. She takes a deep breath. “Maybe you’ve got the right idea. Listen. I need to ask you a favor. You can say no. Fuck. I always think this shit will be easier to say than write down—here.” She closes her right hand into a fist, and when it opens—there’s a blade there, when there wasn’t before. The knife that killed the Outsider.

“You had that at the Manor,” Emily says. She reaches out, curiously, to trace the handle, held unsteadily in Billie’s hand. “Have you been keeping it with you all this time?”

“What else am I supposed to do with it?” Billie says. “It’s—I’m not going to say it’s cursed. It’s not. Human hands made it, and it might be magic, but at the end of the day it’s just a knife. It cuts the things you want it to cut. But I don’t think it’s good. For me, or for anyone, or for the world. Daud was looking for it. He looked for it for years, and it all would have been so much simpler if he’d found it. And a lot worse. He’d have cut a path across the Empire until he found the Outsider, and after that he would have kept going.”

Emily takes it, gently, from Billie’s grasp. It feels like an ordinary knife in her hands, despite the strange shape, despite the history she knows clings to its edges. Like Billie said, it’s just a blade, to be wielded to whatever end the hand that holds it wills.

“I think it’s a part of me, now. I can always call it back to me. I could have left it at Shindaeray and I’d still be able to have it back in my hand the moment I wanted it.” Billie tips her head up to the sky. “I can’t keep it. It makes me sick to even look at it.”

“It’s just a knife,” Emily says, turning it from side to side, watching the way light bends around it.

“The people who made it thought that if you wanted to fashion yourself a god, all you had to do to make that happen was be willing to find kill a kid that no one would miss,” Billie says viciously. “They thought that was their right. It’s everything they were—those fucking cultists, Radanis Abele, Hiram Burrows. Daud and me and Delilah. Just—destruction, for its own ends. Stupid and pointless and selfish. I want you to have it.”

“Me?” Emily asks. “You haven’t made a particularly convincing argument for why I would need it.”

“You don’t,” Billie says. “That’s the point. I don’t want to be that person anymore. But it’s not any easy thing for me to be rid of. No matter where I leave it, it’ll come back if I call it. Maybe even if I destroyed it. But if you have it…” She laughs. “If you have it, I could never take it back. So I guess I’m trying to give you a gift. About as good of one as the Outsider ever gave. But I’ll have to keep giving it. And you have to trust that I won’t take it back. That I won’t use it to hurt you, or anyone else. Like a promise.”

Very gently, Emily puts the knife down. She feels the same kind of heaviness she does sometimes in Parliament, when she knows something really matters. It’s like a tipping point, wobbling on the edge of gravity pulling you down, when you realize how close you are to finally doing something worthwhile. She puts her hand on Billie’s cheek.

“Okay,” Emily says, softly. She shouldn’t feel happy. But she does, the simple joy of reaching out and finding someone on the other side, waiting. “I’ll keep it safe for you. I promise.”

“Thank you.” Billie leans into Emily’s hand, but her eyes are still drawn to the knife on the stone beside her. “It’s a seductive thought, isn’t it? That all I had to do was kill one man, and I could change the world for the better. I think that’s what Daud believed, when he started. That the Outsider gave him his powers so that he could use death to change the world.”

“He did change the world,” Emily says, voice quiet. Even on the Dreadful Wale, Meagan was never this contemplative.

“He did. But only ever for the worse. All the good he did was when he offered mercy. An outstretched hand to an orphan girl. Forgiveness I didn’t deserve, didn’t even think to ask for. A name, whispered in the dark. But he never realized. Not until it was too late. He thought killing the Outsider would fix things, and it was so easy to believe him. A knife never fixes anything. Not really. If it was that simple, Dunwall would be a paradise.” She looks up at Emily, finally. “I’m sorry Daud killed your mother. I’m sorry that I helped. I’m sorry that I let you spend weeks on my ship without knowing. I know that it’s nothing. That it can never be enough. But it’s what I have. That and that knife.”

“Okay,” Emily says. Her heart aches like her mother’s must have, kept close to Emily’s chest, all those weeks. Kept close to her father’s, years and years ago. Did it feel like this, when she was finally freed? “I forgive you.”

Billie stares. She startles back, but not enough to break Emily’s touch on her skin. She can feel the way Billie’s jaw works under her hand. “You don’t have to. You don’t ever have to. There are some things you can’t forgive. I know that better than anyone.”

“I know. But I’m the Empress, Billie. People don’t get to tell me what to do.” She grins through the burning in her chest. “And you’re wrong, anyway. A knife can do good. There are plenty of ways to wield one.” It’s a shame. Emily has never seen Billie look this vulnerable, this open, not even when Emily first tried to kiss her. It’s too bad she’s probably about to ruin it. “Speaking of which. I want to hire you. To be my Royal Protector.” It’s a good thing Billie had already let go of the knife. Emily is pretty sure she would have dropped it. “You’ve already saved my life twice. That’s more than I can say for most candidates for the job.”

Billie opens her mouth, and closes it again. Emily can almost see her considering responses and discarding them: Most candidates for the job didn’t kidnap you, didn’t help kill your mother, didn’t spend their lives killing for coin. But the past is the past. They’re sitting on it, surrounded by it, and neither of them wants to let go. Emily is sure of it. She’s feels triumphant already, blood warm with it. She’s won, even if Billie doesn’t know it yet.

Emily grabs Billie’s knee, holding on tight. “Stay in Dunwall and take the damn job, Billie. I need someone I trust, and I trust you.”

The expression on Billie’s face almost hurts to look at. That kind of naked hope usually does. “It’s your life, Emily.” She looks down at her hands. “You really trust me to hold that? After everything?”

Emily takes Billie’s right hand in her own. It’s like reaching into the Void itself, but underneath the cold and the hollowness and the wind, Emily can feel Billie’s pulse, beating fast and steady. “I do,” she says.

Billie bows her head over their joined hands. “Yeah, okay,” she says, blinking hard. “Why the fuck not. Yes.”

“Yes?” Emily’s probably smiling like an idiot. She can’t help it. There’s no better feeling in the world than falling and falling and finally being caught.

“I’m still here, aren’t I?” Billie grins, fierce and beautiful on her face. Emily doesn’t know if she’s ever seen her look like that. “I’ve heard the way you laugh when you get in over your head in a fight. You think it’s fun. Is this what that feels like?”

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Emily runs her thumb along Billie’s cheek, but it’s Billie who grabs her by the back of her neck and pulls her in. She kisses her with the same reckless joy of a fight, of a ship battered at sea with a good captain at the helm. Controlled chaos, teeth on Emily’s lip and hands pressed tight against her neck and the skin of her back. Void, she’s warm.

“It’s going to be hard fucking work making sure you don’t get yourself killed, isn’t it,” Billie says when they manage to pull themselves apart.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you stay busy,” Emily says seriously, and then she can’t say anything else. She’s been in close quarters with Billie plenty of times, sparring on the Wale or sitting shoulder to shoulder on Dunwall Tower or kissing her at the Hound Pits Pub, but Billie has never once touched her like this. Like she doesn’t have to be careful, like she knows that Emily won’t break, like she’s allowed to finally reach for what she wants.

Chapter Text

“I looked for you,” the Outsider accuses, when Corvo steps back into his rooms. “You were gone.” He’s sitting cross-legged on Corvo’s bed, shoes kicked off. He’s more careful of tracking mud on the sheets than Corvo usually is.

Corvo sits down gingerly beside him. Annoying, that a short walk around the Tower is enough now to make him sore. “I went to Jessamine’s memorial.” He puts his hand on the Outsider’s foot and brushes his thumb against the bone of his ankle. The Outsider watches him, and then pokes him in the thigh with his toe.

“Did you find it enlightening?”

“Lurk was there. I had to wait her out and come back afterwards.”

“I see.” The Outsider digs his toes in. “I don’t suppose you listened to what she had to say.”

“Would you have?”

“No. She might throw me into the river. Again.” The Outsider frowns down at the bedspread. “She likes her secrets. At least the ones she hasn’t put down in ink or metal. The ones she keeps inside her skin, those close enough to cut her, they’re what she hoards.” He looks up. The expression on his face is an odd one. On another man, Corvo might call it hope. “Do you think it cut her, to stand there?”

“Not the way it hurt her to set foot in Brigmore.” Corvo saw it in Lurk’s face, when they stepped off the boat and into the marshland muck. “She’ll live.”

The Outsider’s mouth turns down, but his eyes remain bright. “I suppose that’s all one can ask for,” he says, in the tone of someone who’d like to ask for more. Corvo doesn’t like that tone, as a rule—it brings to mind the many faces of the court, who don’t know when to stop demanding the things they believe they are owed. But in the Outsider’s mouth, it’s only what Corvo saw in his face. Hope that perhaps things don’t have to be the same as they’ve always been.

“You’re worried about her.”

“She is often worrying.”

“You’d miss her if she left.”

“She won’t.” The Outsider frowns. “Will she?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“I see.” The Outsider balances his cheek on one hand. “So what did you say to her? To Jessamine. Not Billie Lurk.”

Corvo doesn’t usually say much, when he visits Jessamine’s grave. He didn’t often need words with her. She had a keen-eyed sort of understanding, the kind of incisiveness that the Heart carried on. She saw him down to the marrow.

“That I wish she could have met you. Under different circumstances.” That’s enough to shock the Outsider’s face into blank honesty. “She didn’t think much of black magic. She thought the Abbey was just a collection of power-hungry, superstitious fools. She didn’t believe you existed as anything more than a story.” He can picture her face perfectly, if Corvo had been Marked while she still lived, and told her of it. She would be so annoyed at having to believe him, with the proof right in front of her eyes.

Of course he would have told her. Their lives allowed no room for secrets, not from each other. Only from everyone else.

“I think I would have liked that.”

Corvo snorts. “Would you?”

The Outsider tilts his head further into his hand. “I don’t know. But it would have been interesting.” He sighs, and flops back onto Corvo’s bed with all the grace of a fish pulled straight from the river. It’s oddly intimate, to be allowed to see the Outsider this unpolished. Corvo supposes he’s seen more of the truth of the Outsider, the version of him that is a stone yet to be cut, than anyone else alive. “There is always something else,” he says in put-upon tones.

Corvo brushes his fingers against his temple. “I can’t read your mind.”

“There is always something else to miss, more steps in the staircase. Something else to want, to unsettle me from the grooves I’ve begun to make in the stone of this city. It used to gall me, how greedy the world is, no one ever satisfied. A problem that plagued so many of my Marked. And here I am, thrashing around in the same net. I thought that I had solved it, what I wanted. But it seems the solution has only brought more losses to bear. There was nothing I could not have, once, and so there was also nothing I thought to want.”

“Sorry.” Corvo’s hand against the Outsider’s jaw as gentle as his voice isn’t. “You’ll get used to it.” He dips his head and kisses the Outsider on the very corner of his mouth, his thumb brushing along the line of his throat. He always goes very quiet, when Corvo touches him there.

The Outsider is glaring at him when Corvo comes back up.

“There’s no need to rub it in,” he says, and Corvo laughs, and bends down to kiss him again, properly this time.

“You couldn’t have had this before,” he reasons.

The Outsider runs a finger along his cheekbone. “Couldn’t I?”

Corvo shrugs. “Guess we’ll never know.”

“You only say things like that to annoy me,” the Outsider complains.

“You do make it very easy.”

The Outsider scowls at him, but he can’t make himself hold the expression for very long. He sits up, looping his arms around Corvo’s neck and burrowing in closer. “It would be unbearable,” he murmurs, words close and warm against the thin skin of Corvo’s neck. “All of it. The way I’ve been forced to fit inside my skin. I couldn’t stand it, without you to hold me steady.”

And the fact that he says things like that, Corvo supposes, is why he is doomed to put up with a man who is still learning how to be one.

The Outsider, though he rarely bothers to act like it, does actually have a job. After a time, he disentangles himself from Corvo to reluctantly report to his duties. Corvo has to remind him to put his shoes back on before he leaves. Then, still moving slowly, with the ghost of the Outsider’s lips against his jaw, he goes looking for his daughter.

He finds her on one of the Tower’s more accessible roofs. It’s still easy enough to reach even without the Void’s help. He hopes the Royal Physician doesn’t catch him climbing up here. She’ll knife him again in revenge.

Emily looks pensive, chin balanced on one hand, her legs dangling over the ledge.She doesn't start when Corvo settles down next to her, slower and more carefully than he’d like. Good to know her training isn't going to waste.

“Coin for your thoughts?” he asks.

Emily smiles, still looking off into the distance. “I just wanted to watch the sunset.”

Corvo lays back down against the tile, arms behind his head. “Well, don't mind me. Now that I’m up here, I don’t think I’ll be moving for a while.” It’s cold, and the Outsider made off with his warmest coat, but after the stuffiness of the Tower, Corvo doesn’t mind so much.

The silence stretches between them for a few more peaceful minutes before Emily speaks again. Her voice is steady, smoothed over by force. “What was it like,” she asks, “protecting Mother? I could never decide whether it would be easier or harder. To be the Royal Protector for someone you loved.”

Corvo blinks up at the sky. “It wasn't easy. But it wouldn't have been easy no matter what. I think it was harder for Jessamine. Knowing that I might die for her, and that she wouldn't even be able to protest. To rage. Because that's what I was supposed to do, and it was her decision that I do it.” It took a very long time for Corvo to let himself stop being angry that he hadn't.

“And I suppose it’s not easy, protecting me.”

“I’ve never wanted an easy life, Emily.”

“That much is very clear,” she says dryly. “I see you’re feeling better, if you’re taking after me and crawling all over the rooftops.”

“As well as can be expected,” Corvo says. “Flint and Thackeray?”

“Their trial is in the hands of Parliament,” Emily says. “Lady Blackwood is heading it. She doesn’t take bribes, in service of either a harsher or lighter sentence. I thought perhaps it would be best if neither of us were involved. Revenge doesn’t really become us.”

“As long as I don’t have to attend, and pretend I wouldn’t rather wring both of their necks.”

“So you really are feeling better.” Emily smiles at him, but there’s an edge of sadness to it. “I’m glad.” She sighs. “And I have to tell you something. You aren’t going to like it.”

When she says things like that, in that flat straightforward tone, Corvo sometimes wonders how he and Jessamine ever expected to keep the secret of her parentage. Jessamine used to tease Corvo for speaking just like that. “Well, I can’t stop you.”

He knows what she’s going to say. He’s braced for it. He still can’t quite look at her when she speaks. “I’m requesting your resignation from your post. On my desk by the end of the week.”

It stings less than he thought it would. Perhaps the past few days have blunted it. But less isn’t nothing. He sits up. “And I don’t suppose I get any say in this matter.”

“Father.” Emily leans forward, looking him in the eye. “You’ve done enough. You know that, don’t you? This has been your life since you were nineteen. You’re allowed to do something else.”

Corvo does not particularly want to do anything else. This has been his life since he was nineteen; he thought, the day that he was appointed, a young Jessamine looking up at him with steel in her eyes, that it would one day be his death. He didn’t fear it. What he’d feared, growing up in the Dust District, was that his death would be as senseless as his father’s. He never once had to worry about that as the Royal Protector. He would die for Jessamine Kaldwin; he would die for something that mattered. It was like a weight lifted from his shoulders.

He supposes he should be strong enough to take it again. That doesn’t mean he has to like it. “And what would you suggest?” he asks, forcing his voice to be mild. “That I take up crochet?”

“You’d probably be better at it than I was,” Emily says. “Well, why not? Maybe it’s time to start making something new.”

“I’ve only ever wanted to keep you safe.”

“And you have. Here I am, safe and sound.” Emily turns to him, cheek pressed against her knee, sun sliding across her face and casting half of it in shadow.

“Old enough to think you can tell me what to do.” Jessamine would be proud, of everything they’ve both accomplished. Jessamine would have talked him into retiring years ago.

“I can’t tell you what to do with your time, Father. Though I think perhaps the Outsider might have a few suggestions.”

Corvo rolls his eyes. “And your plans for a successor?” he asks. What’s done is done. He recognizes the stubborn tilt of his daughter’s jaw. It was Jessamine’s before it was hers. Her mind is made up. And if the Outsider can learn to be human—if Billie Lurk can find a path forward—there’s no reason he can’t do the same.

Emily locks her arms around her shins, pressing her face against her knees. “This is another thing you’re not going to like.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“I asked Billie.” She squeezes her arms tighter, as if it will make her smaller.

Corvo sits up. He used to worry less about saying the wrong thing. He talked less, while Jessamine was still alive. And he always knew the right things to say to her. “She said yes, I assume.” He lays a hand against her back. Emily blinks at him, through the strands of hair falling in her face.

“You should be mad,” she says, almost accusingly. “You hate her. I've asked an accomplice to—to Mother’s assassination to replace you.” She swallows thickly. Corvo can fill in well enough the words she isn't saying. “Why aren't you mad?”

Corvo smiles, and wraps his arm around her shoulders, pulling her in close. “The Outsider is always telling me that I don't do the things I’m supposed to.” And Corvo knows what guilt can do to a person. Billie Lurk would die a hundred times before she let anyone come close to hurting Emily. In all the world, probably, Lurk and Corvo himself are the two people who would keep her safest.

“I guess we do have that in common.”

“Keep your face forward,” Corvo says, thinking of Lurk’s drawn face at Jessamine’s grave. How badly she wanted his permission to stay by Emily’s side; how badly she wanted to be able to give that permission to herself. “No use always looking over your shoulder, when you have someone else to do it for you. And I could never be mad at you.”

Emily presses her face into his shoulder. “Thanks, Father,” she says. “I’ll remind you of that next time I make you angry.” She sighs, squinting into the last of today’s sunlight. “And take your own advice for once, won’t you?”

The sun dips down to the edges of the water on the horizon, casting it all in gold. “I’ll try.”

-

Leave it to Emily Kaldwin to throw Billie one last rope to pull herself up from the sea.

Trust isn’t a simple thing, not to anyone who’s lived the life Billie has. Emily, too. Emily Kaldwin has seen all the cruelty the world has to offer, all the things that Billie’s done, and she still wants to save her from drowning. That weight sits heavy in her chest, like a rope around her heart. It should be enough to sink her. And instead here she is, gasping for breath hours later, Emily’s kiss still warm on her lips.

The Billie Lurk that was raised in Dunwall has never thought much of nobility. She would never agree to serve the Empress. Would rather take her chances back out at sea on her ruined ship.

But Emily—

If there were more Emily Kaldwins in the world, there would be less people like Billie and the Outsider and Daud. Chewed up between Dunwall’s sharp teeth and spat back out, left to the mercy of murderers.

Billie used to be good at bitterness. Daud practically raised her on it. But it’s hard to feel anything but hopeful when the Outsider himself can be rescued from the Void, when Emily Kaldwin has forgiven her and offered her—not a job, not really. A way out. A path forward. A tether around her waist.

Billie knows where to find the Outsider at this time of day, which would be a strange thought, if strange hadn’t stopped meaning much to Billie a long time ago. He’s working, alone in the Courier’s office, nose pressed close to some documents.

“I’m busy,” he says, as soon as Billie walks in. Rude little shit. It’s good to know that some things never change.

“You’ve done enough barging into people’s heads in your life that I think you can deal.” Billie pulls up a chair and throws her heels up onto the desk. The Outsider favors her with a truly impressive glare. Maybe Corvo’s been giving him lessons.

The Outsider sighs, hilariously put upon. What a hypocrite. “Do you have any useful news, at least? Tomorrow’s edition is somewhat...sparse. The printer and I seem to have somewhat different ideas about what the people of Dunwall wish to read.”

Billie snorts. “I’ll bet. I have got some news, not that you can print it. I’m to be the Empress’s new Royal Protector,” she says. She drops her head back to stare up the ceiling. She’s smiling wide enough to hurt. She hadn’t even noticed. “Also, I think I’m in love with her.”

That gets the kid’s nose out of his fucking book. “Alright,” he says, blinking at her owlishly. “Let’s go find something to eat.”

They get hagfish pie, because for some Void-forsaken reason, that’s one of foods the Outsider’s taken the strongest liking to. He walks them towards the docks, which isn’t surprising. It seems to be where his feet take him whenever he’s not paying attention.

“I thought you rebuffed Emily’s advances,” he says through an indelicate bite of pastry.

“And how exactly did you hear that?” Billie pinches the bridge of her nose. “Please, please tell me you didn’t hear it from Attano.”

“No,” says the Outsider. “They may see far less, these days, but I do have eyes.” He takes another bite of his pie. “The Empress is not the most difficult person to read.”

Billie shakes her head. Still smiling. Now that’s strange. “She really isn’t, is she.”

“So you’ll be staying in Dunwall, I take it.”

“A little hard to be the Royal Protector from afar, yeah.”

The Outsider looks at her seriously. It’s ruined by the fact that he’s still got crumbs on his face. “She’ll be safe.”

“Say that with a little more unearned conviction, and they’ll make a politician of you yet,” Billie says, but she can’t be bothered to put any bite into it. The Outsider trying to be reassuring is its own kind of weird. She squints down at her own food. “I gave her the twin-bladed knife, you know.”

That, at least, pulls the smug little shit up short. He stops walking. “You gave it to her.”

“Yeah.”

The Outsider ponders that for a moment. “I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“She won’t hurt you. Attano would be so pissed.”

He cuts her a derisive look. “I am aware. Does she know how much trouble you went to in your endeavor to secure it?”

Billie rolls her eyes. “In broad strokes. I haven’t fully discussed the time I robbed a bank with the Empress, no.”

The Outsider shrugs. “She’s done worse.”

Billie supposes that’s true. But for all the bullshit she got up to while she was there, Emily traveled through Karnaca with a light step. Lighter than Billie’s usual tread, at least. She’ll have to learn. Royal Protectors aren’t supposed to leave a mark. Attano was good at it. He only ever made a scene or left a mess when he meant to. It’s been a while since Billie’s had to contemplate learning anything new. Back when she ran with the Whalers, she was always desperate to keep her head above the water, to prove she was good enough. To get Daud to look at her and see that she was worth something, because the last person to look at her and see anything of value was dead in a ditch.

She doesn’t have to prove anything to Emily. Emily already looks at her like—like how Emily looks at her, has always looked at her, even back when she was Meagan. Like she’s someone who deserves to be trusted. Billie doesn’t need to prove anything to her. She just has to be good enough to keep her safe. And she will be.

“Guess so,” Billie says. “I’ll tell her, eventually. We can commiserate. I heard her complain about those clockwork soldiers, but honestly? I thought she was exaggerating about how annoying those fuckers are.”

“She was not,” the Outsider agrees solemnly.

It’s an odd idea. Telling Emily about all the places she’s been, the things she’s seen. There’s no reason not to. All her worst secrets have already been laid bare.

The Outsider tucks his hands into his pockets and peers at her. “You’re happy,” he observes.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t rub it in.”

“I would never,” says the Outsider, knocking his shoulder against hers. “I’m finding that Dunwall agrees with me.”

“Right. Dunwall agrees with you.”

“A city is nothing more than a collection of people and the towers they build for themselves, protection against the harshness of the world. People make the city. A city devoid of its inhabitants wouldn’t deserve the name. We call that a ruin.”

“If that’s how you talk to Attano, I’m surprised he hasn’t kicked you out of bed yet.”

It’s a good thing they’ve meandered away from the docks by now; Billie’s pretty sure the Outsider wouldn’t be above pushing her into the river again.

About then, Billie realizes there’s someone following them. Billie stops under a streetlight, kicking her foot back against it and crossing her arms. She waits. The Outsider takes this all in with a shrug, and follows her without question. How novel. Dunwall must be doing the kid some good.

It takes a while, but Billie knows how to be patient. Their shadow hasn’t quite learned that lesson yet. After about a quarter of an hour, she creeps out of the closest alley, blinking up at Billie plaintively, arms crossed.

“Hey, kid,” Billie tells the girl who runs messages for Lizzy Stride. “You got a name?”

She considers Billie for a long moment before she answers. “Mal.”

“Mal. Been looking for you, actually. You want some extra work? Turns out I’m gonna need some eyes and ears around this place.”

The girl squints up at her, biting the inside of her cheek. Thankfully, Billie must look a lot more trustworthy to her than Attano did. She darts a quick look between Billie and the Outsider, and nods, relaxing the smallest fraction.

“Don’t tell Stride,” Billie says. “Play your cards right and you can work for me instead. And I don’t bite anyone’s fingers off.”

The girl tilts her head. “Is that what happened to your hand?”

Billie’s wearing her gloves at the moment. The kid’s observant. She grins, showing off her very blunt teeth. “Nah. But stick around long enough, and maybe I’ll even tell you the story.”

“Okay,” Mal says. She shifts from foot to foot. “Just me?”

“You got anyone else in mind?”

“My friend Lissa can keep me safe. And she can get in anywhere. No one’s ever seen her.” Kid sounds proud. It makes Billie want to smile. She will, after the girl’s gone.

“Sure. You and Lissa to start, and then we can talk about anyone else you think is good enough to recruit. You need to get a message to me, try the Courier’s office. My friend here will be there.”

The Outsider watches the girl as she nods solemnly and runs off. He looks, for a moment, very far away. He turns back to Billie, and to her surprise, doesn’t start complaining about being asked to run messages. “I don’t know how I ever thought you might not help me,” he says. “I thought I knew you quite well. I suppose I was distracted. I should have looked closer.”

Billie rubs her hands against her face. “Let’s just not talk about it,” she says. The Outsider smiles at her, but he shuts the fuck up, and that’s truly a miracle.

-

The Outsider arrives at breakfast that morning bearing an audiograph recorder and a bruise just a little too high for his collar to hide. Since Emily would rather eat a live hagfish than admit to noticing the latter, she asks about the former instead.

“It’s for you,” says the Outsider. “I have decided to abuse my new position in the royal family’s favor in order to secure an exclusive interview.”

Emily takes a delicate bite from her toast. “Your skills at court intrigue and diplomacy equal Corvo’s, I see.”

His mouth twitches. “Consider it a favor.”

“Fine,” Emily says. “But when every other reporter in the city comes for your throat, that’s on your head.”

Jessamine was famously quite curt with the press of Dunwall, beloved though she was by the people. This was, Emily tended to think, understandable, considering that they were terribly interested in her relationship with her Royal Protector. It provided, if nothing else, a good reason to dodge questions in the time of the rat plague. Corvo shielded Emily from such matters when she was growing up, and when she had finished growing, she tried to repair the damage her mother’s reticence had brought. This was going well, until the Crown Killer rumors began. Three months into that, Emily mostly gave up, figuring she had bigger things to spend her time ignoring. Perhaps it’s worth trying again.

Emily can see why the printer may be finding the Outsider useful. He asks question with a sort of quiet magnetism it’s easy to become caught up in, especially with the hum of the audiograph in the background. He is also largely impervious to rudeness, which probably helps. “I’m afraid I can’t comment,” Emily says, after he asks for the third time about the circumstances that led to the most recent attempt on her life.

“I was present for some of the chain of events,” he points out. “I’m going to write something about it.”

“And I will continue not to comment,” Emily says, with a sigh. “It’s going to make the Abbey really hard to deal with if I say anything. The High Overseer is displeased enough with me already.”

“I weep for your troubles with the Abbey. I, of course, cannot imagine.”

“Print whatever you like. I’m happy as long as no one is calling me a murderer. But ‘no comment’ means it’s none of your business, stop asking.”

“Dunwall can always use more poorly kept secrets.” The Outsider settles back in his chair and takes another bite out of the pastry he stole from Emily’s plate. “Speaking of. I understand that Corvo will have quite a bit of time on his hands to help, though.”

“Do you.”

“He is, of course, retiring from your service. By the end of the week, my sources tell me.”

Emily tips her chair back, balancing it on two legs the way that Callista always despaired of training her out of. “Corvo is going to kill you if you print something about this.”

“Corvo is happy as long as he doesn’t have to make any sort of announcement,” the Outsider counters. “So?”

“So, I think you already know everything you need,” Emily says. “I think you’re just being annoying for the sake of it.” There really is something of a cat about the Outsider; when ruffled, he looks almost precisely like one, all quiet offended dignity. “You’re allowed to find another pastime too, you know.”

“Being cryptic suits him,” Billie says, poking her head into the dining room. The guards know to let her in, now, though Emily wouldn’t put it past her to have snuck in for the fun of it. She raps her knuckles against the doorframe in a belated knock. “A word, Empress?”

Emily gestures towards the Outsider. “Looks like I’m busy.”

“Well, I’m going to wait outside your office, and if you’re not there in five minutes, I guess I’ll see how long it takes me to break in.”

“If it takes you more than two minutes, you’re fired,” Emily says, smiling despite herself. The Outsider’s face betrays no surprise. She didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. He really just was being annoying for the sake of it.

Or perhaps he just wanted to chat, and wasn’t sure how else to go about it. He and Corvo seem to have figured out how to be, outside of the old roles they used to play; Emily supposes it’s fair if he doesn’t quite know where he stands with her.

Billie ducks into the room long enough to steal a hunk of bread, ruffle the Outsider’s hair to his audible dissatisfaction, and, after an almost imperceptible moment of indecision, brush her lips against Emily’s cheek, her right hand cool against Emily’s jaw.

Will our interview take much more than five minutes to conclude?” Emily asks the Outsider, once Billie’s left. She presses a hand to her cheek where Billie’s lips were. She thought it wouldn’t be so much like this with Billie, someone she’s been dancing around for so long. But there’s still a fizzing anticipation under her skin any time they’re in the same room. The newness of it all making her feel giddy and stupid and nervous, utterly and terribly like being nineteen again. It’s awful. She doesn’t even mind.

In answer, the Outsider shuts off the audiograph recorder and begins to put it away.

“It’s amazing how helpful you can be when you put your mind to it.”

“I do owe Billie Lurk a debt,” the Outsider says primly.

Emily pushes her plate away, frowning down at the food she hasn’t felt much like finishing. She’s uselessly, anxiously happy, but there’s still something bothering her. “I do have a question for you before you go.”

The Outsider glances up at her. “I am, as you’ve mentioned, known for my answers.”

Emily ignores him. “Do you think I can change anything here?” she asks. Corvo said to keep her face forward. But she just can’t ignore what’s behind her, either. “Really. This city’s old. Worn into its habits. It seems a little like trying to reverse the tide.” Billie believes that she can. But Billie is biased. Billie sees something when she looks at Emily that Emily worries isn’t entirely there.

“Anything can be changed, if I can,” says the Outsider. He packs the audiograph cards carefully into a box designed for the purpose, not looking up at her. “Billie Lurk is not a woman who the world has given cause to believe in many things. She has chosen to believe in you.”

“You’re certainly very good at saying things that sound like an answer.”

“Perhaps I would not be so hopeless at politics after all,” he says, straight-faced. “And Billie knows you better than you think. She sees you as you are. She is not a woman often given to optimism. You should know that.”

As cheerful as any declaration from the Outsider is bound to be. Emily’s heart feels lightened nonetheless. She never felt better, after she talked to the Outsider during the coup. Hard to say which of them has changed more.

The Outsider peeks out the window, judging the position of the sun. Not a skill that likely gets much use in Dunwall, but today is uncharacteristically bright, especially for this time of year. “I believe I am running late.”

Of course he is.

The Outsider properly sent off, Emily goes to discover whether she’s been the victim of burglary. She has not, although Billie’s got a set of the new Tyvian lockpicks open across her lap, sitting in front of Emily’s office door.

Emily pulls her to her feet, and finds her office door locked when she tries it. “Not successful, then?”

“Hardly. I had enough time left over to lock it back up.” Billie doesn’t bother hiding the smugness in her grin. “Might want to invest in some new locks, now that these things are getting popular. I know a guy.”

“I’m sure the steward will be delighted. You can take it up with him.” Shutting the door firmly behind her, Emily turns to face Billie. “So what is it you wanted to talk about that you didn’t feel was fit for the Outsider’s ears?”

“That kid already hears too much for his own good,” Billie says, a long suffering note in her voice. She shakes her head. “Logistics, mostly.”

“Well, you’ll have to sign some paperwork. I’m sure you have enough signatures to suffice.”

Billie glances at her sidelong and crosses her arms over her chest. “Not quite what I meant. I’ve just been wondering how this is gonna work. What, I’m moving in?”

Even now, Emily has to work against her instinct to tense. Billie isn’t trying to come up with excuses. She’s not trying to get out of it. She’s happy with the way things have turned out, just like Emily is. Emily knows her well enough by now to know how much it unsettles her to get what she wants. Billie’s just addressing an uneasiness in her own heart in the only way she knows how: with an edge.

That edge will come in handy. The part of Emily that is always the Empress, now, can see that. And the part of her that isn’t likes it for Billie’s own merits. She’s always been the fondest of sharp people, those who don’t soften themselves around her just because of who she is or what she’s done.

The part of Emily that’s worried is the part that never quite realized, after her mother’s death, that the people she loves won’t always be taken from her.

“The Outsider will be here too,” she says, as lightly as she can. “You’ll feel right at home.” When Billie doesn’t respond to the attempt at a joke, face impassive, Emily sighs. It would be too easy, wouldn’t it, if she ever knew what to say to make Billie see things as they are. Maybe words aren’t the right way to go. “I asked to have Father’s old quarters cleaned up. I’m sure between that and the Outsider’s penchant for gossip, word will be out within the day that I’m to have a new Protector. I hope that’s all right. All of that, I mean.”

“It’s fine,” Billie says, rubbing at her face. “Weird as hell, but I figure I’m going to have to get used to that, so yeah. Fine.”

Emily takes Billie’s wrist, gently, tugging it away from her face. “We’re supposed to have a ceremony. But I’m sure we could get away with skipping it.” Might as well get all the things that are going to make Billie want to jump out of her own skin over with in one go.

“Better not. I am still a wanted woman, you know.” Billie looks down at her hand, opening and closing her fingers. “I could change my face,” she says slowly. “Maybe. I’ve never done it for longer than a few minutes at a time, but I bet it’s possible. A lot of things probably are.”

Emily stares at her, aghast. She drops Billie’s hand. “I don’t want you to hide,” she says. “Not like—I don’t want that. Your face is only really known in Karnaca. The money I sent you before—I’m sure that will be enough to clear things up with the officials there.”

“Of course,” Billie says, but she still has that edge. “You know I’ll always have to be hiding, don’t you? I’m not the person anyone sane—or anyone with any power—would want you to pick.”

“You never have to hide from me,” Emily says. “And you’re the person I picked. That’s all I can offer you.”

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a good offer. Just going to take some getting used to.” Billie’s face softens. “And I want you to know the things you’re giving up.”

“Giving up what? Feeling like I’m letting the world tell me what to do? I’m not giving anything up, Billie.” Emily puts her hand on Billie’s shoulder. “I have everything I want.”

Billie doesn’t say anything, but Emily can feel a bit of the tension leak out of her shoulders.

“So no ceremony. But maybe there’s something we can do. Just for us.” Emily squeezes Billie’s shoulder and lets her go, ducking behind her desk and unlocking the bottom drawer.

“You left that in a drawer?” Billie demands, when she sees what Emily’s taken. She’s so preoccupied with the knife that she doesn’t notice Emily palm the signet ring. “I broke into an extremely secure bank vault to get that, Emily. There were clockwork soldiers. With more knives than yours had.”

Emily shrugs. “It was locked. Also, I have a really good guard.”

“You are going to be such a pain in the ass,” Billie complains, with the same undeniable fondness in her tone as when she grumbles about the Outsider. “Whatever. Lead the way.” She sketches a lazy half bow, gesturing Emily out the door. Emily grabs her around the waist on her way, dragging her along in step. She doesn’t need to lead Billie anywhere.

It isn’t far. Billie regards the hidden door to the safe room with as much disdain as she holds for most of the Tower. “Is this supposed to be subtle? It’s obvious something important’s behind here, if you know how to look.”

“It’s been here for a long time. It’s held.” Emily presses her ring into the lock, and they watch the door open. The place is tidier than it’s ever been—she and Corvo had gotten into the habit of tossing things they didn’t want to lose in here, important or not. After the coup, they sat down together and cleaned it up. Corvo, to Emily’s utter dismay, even picked a few more of her drawings to have framed.

Billie paces the room, taking the measure of it in a way that Emily will never, upon pain of death, tell her is very similar to the way Corvo treats any new place. She inspects the walls critically, knocking on them experimentally with both hands and with the heel of her boot. Emily leaves her to it. She settles the knife into the case that once held her father’s weapons, closing it without ceremony. She sets it down, and flops down on the cot they keep in the corner, paging through some of her old letters. From Jessamine and Samuel and Wyman. There are a few from Alexi that Emily pauses over, smoothing out the edges of the paper.

It’s nice to sit here, reading old letters and hearing Billie banging around the room, treating it with as little reverence as she does anything. Like it’s not a place filled to the brim with fear. Just a room and the things that fill it.

“Okay,” Billie says, finally. “This place could stop a team of blood oxen who learned how to use lockpicks.”

Emily puts the letters aside. “So it passes inspection?”

“Yeah, Emily,” Billie says, mouth curling up. She sits down next to her on the bed. “Looks good to me.”

“Great.” Emily slides down off the cot, onto her knees in front of Billie. She pulls the extra signet ring out of her pocket. “Then the knife stays here. And I want you to have this.”

Billie doesn’t look as cut open as when she did at Jessamine’s memorial, but there’s still something vulnerable in her expression. Emily likes it, a little selfishly; Billie can’t or won’t be guarded with her anymore. “Kind of defeats the point of a fancy lock if you’re going to let just anyone in.”

“You’re the one who said something about a gift you had to keep giving, right?”

Billie takes the ring. Emily balances her arms across Billie’s knees and leans forward, watching her as she runs her thumb over the edges of it. “This isn’t a new ring. It’s got scratch marks. You didn’t have this made for me.” She looks up. “And don’t try to tell me you just have extra copies lying around.”

“You know who it belonged to.” Neither Emily or Corvo had the heart to have Jessamine’s old ring melted down. They locked it into the safe room itself, until Emily retrieved it a few days ago.

Soon enough, Emily is going to run out of ways to say this. But she thinks Billie might be starting to get the message.

“Aren’t these supposed to be for the royal family?” Billie asks, tone falsely light.

“They belong to whoever the Empress says they do.” It’s just a key; it’s just a ring. All it does is tell them something they both already know.

Billie runs her thumb over the face of the ring, and slides it on her finger in one swift motion. “Who am I to deny the Empress anything,” she says, voice wry, but there’s truth underneath it. Emily takes her hand and kisses the back of it, slowly, and then the face of the ring. Billie’s fingers only tremble slightly in Emily’s grip.

“I think that’s my line,” Billie says, and then she yanks Emily up into a kiss, unbalancing her and holding her steady all at once.

Emily only now realizes how tense she was in its sudden absence, in the way her shoulders go loose as soon as Billie’s hands are on her. She breaks the kiss for long enough to bowl Billie back over onto the cot. It squeaks underneath them, but Emily isn’t worried. Like the rest of this place, it was built to last.

Billie rolls her over, Emily rolls them back, and it reminds her of sparring back on the Wale, but better, because now they can be honest about all of it: who they are and what they want and what they’ve left behind.

Billie wins; she sits across Emily’s thighs and gets a hand in her hair and holds her still, as still as Emily can remember being in a long time. Kisses her as thoroughly as Emily wanted to the first time, scared and desperate and leaping without a net.

“I do like this place,” Billie says, breath hot as she noses against Emily’s throat. “It kind of reminds me of our old hideouts. No fancy bullshit. Just the stuff you need to keep you alive.”

“Well, it’s ours now.” Emily tips her head back. She can’t quite suppress her gasp when Billie bites, very gently, at her throat.

“Sure,” Billie says. “I’ll keep you safe.”

-

The Month of Darkness comes with the kind swiftness it always has in Dunwall, sweeping across the rooftops with a sharp wind, closing shutters and snatching hats and blowing smoke in the faces of anyone who dares travel too close to the industrial districts. Slaughterhouse Row, a fraction of what it once was, is at least not so unbearable this year.

The Outsider discovers that winter has begun in earnest when he sticks his head out the window of a morning and is greeted by a sea of white.

He is transfixed for the length of time it takes for Corvo to wake and grumble, “You’re letting the cold in.” The Outsider hears the sound of him rubbing a hand against his face, scratching at his beard. He leans further out the window and stares, though his eyes are beginning to hurt. It is rarely so bright in Dunwall.

Corvo is a light sleeper at the best of times, and tends to remain awake once woken. He joins the Outsider at the window, trailing a hand up the small of his back under his shirt. The Outsider shivers. “If you fall into a snowbank, you’re going to have to dig yourself out.”

“I can swim,” the Outsider tells his absently. The winter air feels brilliant in his lungs, cold and sparkling and calm the way that Corvo is calm, a steady presence now at his back. He can feel his laugh.

“I think the principles are somewhat different,” he says, and presses a kiss just under the Outsider’s jaw. The Outsider relaxes into it, distracted from the snow, and Corvo laughs again, leaning in further to kiss him on the mouth.

The Outsider turns in his arms, perching on the window sill. Corvo warm at his front and Dunwall cool behind him, interrupted only by the paths of Corvo’s fingers along his back, rivers of heat. He remembers, vaguely, standing here once, when Billie had only just begun her journey. Telling Corvo goodbye. What had he been hoping to accomplish? Did he even know?

Does he?

He can’t quite remember.

“Let’s go outside,” he says. “I want to take a silvergraph.”

The printer procured a camera for the Outsider. It was a birthday gift, he explained, and a self-serving one too: he wanted to begin including silvergraphs in the Courier. The Outsider did not ask how the editor might know when the Outsider—when Mikhail Ilyushin—was born. He has become very good at not asking questions of the printer, in return for the same courtesy.

He adores the camera. It is overlarge and complicated and fussy to use, and is currently takes up an entire a corner of Corvo’s bedroom. Corvo regards the device with stoic bemusement.

“Okay,” Corvo says, “but I’m finding you a scarf first. Lurk will kill me if you freeze to death on my watch.”

The courtyard is lovely, a endless white blanket of nothing stretching out for forever. Being surrounded by it makes the Outsider’s heartbeat slow, his thoughts spinning in wider circles, taking the long way around. Maybe it’s the cold. Cold slows all things down, doesn’t it? It can slow them to a stop, if it tries hard enough.

He settles the camera in its tripod. It’s a little heavy to hold himself, but he manages.

“It’s so bright out,” the Outsider explains. “This much light allows me to set the shutter to close faster. A few seconds. The moment the silver captures will be still. You don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Corvo shrugs easily. “I’ll trust your judgement,” he says. “You did fix all the clocks in the Tower that you broke, anyway. I’m sure the operation of a camera is within your abilities.”

“Thank you,” the Outsider tells him solemnly. He kneels down to put the camera to his eye and begins focusing the lens. “Now stay still.”

Corvo does, hands tucked into his pockets and smiling in a way he likely does not intend. Corvo is not smiling in any of his official portraits, save the ones where he is standing behind Jessamine’s chair, the ones where he shouldn’t be—he is in them, of course, as her stoic and serious Royal Protector, not as the man who smiled at her always when no one was looking, and often when they were.

The Outsider opens the shutter and counts, the stillness of his mind making it easy. He snaps it shut, the jaws of the camera closing around the memory. He’ll have to develop the plate back in the small dark room at the top of the Courier’s offices, and fix it into glass so it will keep. The editor will laugh at him if he sees it. But the Outsider will be glad to have this moment suspended. His memory of it will fade, but the silvergraph will outlast it, as long as the Outsider keeps it safe and treats it well.

“Done?” Corvo asks.

“If I wasn’t, you would have ruined it,” the Outsider says archly. “But yes.” He stands up, brushing the snow from his knees. “I can take one of you and Emily later, if you like.”

“I would,” says Corvo. “It’s nice to have a memory you can hold in your hand. But I don’t think you have to worry about forgetting, Outsider.”

“If I don’t forget, I’ll remember it wrong. My mind will bend things into the shape it thinks they should have. Silver can’t lie.”

“Anything can lie.” Corvo comes closer. He is careful of the camera, and of the Outsider too, wrapping him up in his arms.

The silver will outlive them both, probably, and memories can’t do that. The Outsider bites his tongue. “The silver can only lie in straightforward ways,” he says. “I don’t even know all the ways that my mind can lie to me yet.”

Corvo gives him a look that the Outsider is becoming used to: a little sorrowful, but warm too, the way he watched the Outsider when he was so surprised and delighted by the first snow he’s ever felt this close to his skin. “Just don’t give yourself mercury poisoning.”

“I won’t,” the Outsider tells him, cheered all at once. “Don’t worry. You won’t lie to me, or let me lie to myself. I suspect on the strength of that, I’ll be able to muddle through.”

“You say the sweetest things,” Corvo says dryly, but of course he means it.

-

The Outsider’s beloved snow is turned to mud within the hour, and so by noon, he allows himself to be convinced to train with Corvo again. He’s mostly healed—healed enough that the Royal Physician isn’t likely to come for his head, much as she surely wants to—and he’s been feeling restless. It will do him good to move again.

“I said I would teach you how to use a knife,” Corvo says. “We ended up too distracted to get around to it.”

“You said that you’d get me one. There is a difference.”

“I’m not giving you a knife you don’t know how to use.”

“I keep thinking that soon enough I will come up to the edge of things I have yet to learn. But there is always something else I did not expect.” He gestures to the mess the snow is becoming.

“You’ve seen snow before.”

“It feels different.” Most things do, Corvo gathers. From what he can tell, the Outsider was insulated from everything in the Void. From himself and from all the world.

Corvo shows him how to use an extra blade he borrowed from the guards’ storeroom, adjusting his grip until he’s holding it steadily.

“No folding blade for me, I see.”

“It can be a little more complicated. If it flips shut at the wrong moment, your fingers aren’t going to grow back.”

The Outsider accepts this easily enough. He will never be a master swordsman, but Corvo points out all the places he should aim for first. To end a fight quickly and run like hell.

They run through a few drills. The Outsider takes to it as well as he takes to anything he doesn’t understand: with an almost frenetic determination to do so, as quickly as possible.

His knifework is messy, but it seems like the earlier lessons stuck. After an hour, Outsider sweeps Corvo cleanly off his feet with a leg at his ankles. He peers down at him, grinning bright enough to match the sky.

“Ow,” Corvo says, mostly for effect. He only barely saw it coming. He grins back at him, and allows the Outsider to pull him too his feet somewhat laboriously.

“We have an observer,” the Outsider says, carefully brushing the snow out of his own hair, and then out of Corvo’s. His nose has turned bright red. He means Emily, who is perched on her customary spot on the wall surrounding the courtyard, probably trying hard not to laugh at them.

“Two, actually.” Corvo inclines his head towards Lurk, who is well hidden in the shadow of the Tower. Her aim is quite good, and she manages to throw the snowball she’s been making for the past few minutes just before the Outsider turns his head.

Emily laughs so hard she falls off the wall.

“I see I don’t merit a warning,” the Outsider intones, rubbing at his snowy cheek.

Corvo takes his chin and presses his lips to his cold cheekbone. It’s strange how easy it was to fall into this sort of routine: the Outsider as someone who can be spoken to and touched and put in the path of snowballs. “I thought you’d enjoy the experience.”

Bending down and in the process of gathering ammunition to launch a counterattack, the Outsider pauses to look up at him. He’s smiling. Corvo leaves him and Lurk to it, joining his daughter instead.

“I’m glad you’re having fun while I hold the Empire together,” Emily tells him seriously.

“You don’t have room to complain. I’m retired. You accepted my resignation yourself.” He wrote it and stared at the paper for what felt like days. The Outsider, sneaking a look, only corrected his grammar. He handed it over to Emily expecting to feel something. But in the end it was only paper; his future was already decided, for better or for worse.

The Outsider yelps, utterly undignified, because apparently in all his years of watching humanity, he never learned not to turn his back on someone with a handful of snow, lest it be dumped down the back of his shirt.

The future’s all right.

Emily leans against him. She’s still sitting on the wall, so her head rests on top of his. “I know saying this is really just asking for trouble,” she says, “but I think things are going to be okay. Don’t you?”

Corvo watches the Outsider, unknowable and capricious god of the Void, hated by the Abbey and worshipped by heretics the world over, push former thief and murderer Billie Lurk into a snowbank. He proceeds to very seriously rub snow into her hair.

He does, but it’s probably not wise to say so out loud. “Tell me that again after the next assassination attempt.” Emily kisses the top of his head, and hops down from the wall.

“I’m sure it will be as invigorating as ever,” she says. He should probably tell her to be more careful. He wishes she would. But he wishes more for her to have the opportunity to be careless, just for a little while. With Lurk watching her back, maybe she can.

“Hey.” Lurk, her quarrel with the Outsider apparently settled for now, has the look of a rabbit about her when she approaches. Like she’d just as soon run as face him. But she stands her ground. “Wanna spar?” Into the silence that’s greeted with, she continues. “Might be good practice for next time you run into any witches.”

It takes a moment for Emily to realize the offer isn’t directed at her. She blinks between them.

Lurk has never lacked for guts, Corvo has to give her that. “Sure,” he says. “Why not. I’m sure I could teach you a thing or two.”

Lurk smirks, and vanishes. Corvo knows that move well; he ducks just before her elbow would have hit him in the back of the head, and at that point Emily gets the hell out of the way.

Fighting Lurk makes him miss the Mark more than he ever has, even at Brigmore Manor. It’s hard not to miss that freedom of movement when it’s right in front of you and trying its best to kick your ass.

No Mark, no, but the Outsider does occasionally call encouragements from where he’s now sitting beside his daughter, shaking snow out of his boots. And maybe that’s better.

Lurk’s fast, and she has the Void on her side, but she’s also just a little scared, anxious in a way that makes her brash, not sharper. And it doesn’t escape Corvo’s notice that he’s got his knife, and Lurk’s got nothing but herself.

She keeps trying to get him into a chokehold, which is Emily’s favorite move—it was one of the first things Corvo ever taught her. The third time she tries it, Corvo flips her over his shoulder. Lurk scrambles, and curses, and can’t quite get herself together fast enough to displace out of the way. She lands on her back with a thud.

Corvo crouches down beside her, a little winded himself. “There’s this pop in the air you can hear when someone uses the Void to travel. Once you know to listen for it, it gets easier to counter.”

“Great tip,” Lurk says, wheezing a little. “Let’s call it a draw.”

“You know,” Corvo says, offering her a hand up and waiting patiently for her to work herself up into taking it, “I can see why my daughter likes you.”

Lurk doesn’t smile at him, but she does, in the end, take his hand. Another Dunwall miracle: Corvo Attano and Billie Lurk sparring and both coming away unscathed.

Emily certainly seems impressed. She takes Lurk aside, almost bouncing on her heels, talking her into displacing around Emily in a circle so she can practice listening for it.

After about five minutes, she’s able to grab Billie’s wrist out of the air as she materializes. They stare at each other. Corvo jerks his head towards the Tower, and the Outsider follows him inside.

He’s humming a song that Corvo recognizes as they go. “That’s a little morbid, don’t you think?” Corvo asks.

“It’s a lovely tune. There’s no reason to let the whole month go to waste just because it killed me once. Many things hold that dubious honor. And I believe that I like the snow and the cold.” The Outsider wrinkles his nose. “Perhaps I’ll like it when it’s warm, too. I think I was used to it, once. The sun on my skin. I was rather distracted in Shindaeray and Karnaca. I didn’t notice.”

“I see. No time to enjoy the sun?”

“I was busy remembering to breathe.” The Outsider unwinds the scarf from around his neck. He wraps it around Corvo’s, using it as leverage to pull him down, going up on his toes to kiss him. “I find that I don’t forget anymore.”

-

Emily’s life had only just fallen back into a routine after the coup. And then the Outsider’s arrival upset everything all over again. Things are only now beginning to settle back down, a rocked boat reaching equilibrium.

“Not that it’s ever really much of a routine,” she tells Billie over breakfast. Breakfast, in this case, is a bun from the tray that gets brought to Emily’s room every morning, and that Emily tends to ignore. She never eats much before noon. Billie, sitting at Emily’s desk and reading through her reports, is eating her way through most of them, but she made a point of shoving one into Emily’s hand. “Also, it’s sweet that you’re trying to feed me, but I’m going to get crumbs in the bed.”

“So change your own sheets for once in your life,” Billie says, not taking her eyes off the paper. “It won’t kill you.”

“You don’t know that,” Emily says reasonably. She sets the half eaten bun on her nightstand and throws the covers back over her head. “Help,” she intones, deadpan. “The sheets are trying to strangle me!”

She hears the scraping of Billie shoving her chair back, and after a moment, the covers are pulled back. Emily blinks up at her, grinning. “It would make me the laughingstock of the Empire if I let my Empress die of her own stupidity,” Billie says dryly. But she’s smiling. They had a routine on the Dreadful Wale, the two of them, but even then Meagan’s smiles were hard-earned. Billie’s are too, Emily supposes. She’s just getting good at earning them.

“That’s true. Guess you’ll have to stay here and protect me.” She grabs Billie by her right arm and yanks her down. She’s getting used to the way it feels against her skin. Or maybe the arm is just getting used to her. It’s still cool, but it isn’t the same biting cold as the Void. More refreshing, like jumping into a lake on a hot day.

Billie sits on the bed rather than let Emily pull her all the way down. “Some of us work for a living.”

“I pay you. You can be late.”

Very deliberately, Billie puts her right hand against Emily’s bare stomach, where her shirt’s ridden up. Emily shivers. Billie leans in close. “You can’t,” she says, a breath away from Emily’s mouth. “Parliament’s in ten minutes.”

Emily groans, and bites Billie’s lip before she can pull away, but she lets Billie drag her out of bed and lightly shove her towards her dresser. “Tardiness is not on the list of things that are a threat to my life.”

“Oh, and the bedsheets are?” Billie hands her a scrap of paper covered in her own cramped handwriting. “Read this before you get there, it’s all the shit that actually matters from your correspondence. Thank god I’m not an Empress. More than a letter a day is too much for me.” Emily takes it. She reads in between pulling on her clothes and sitting patiently still while Billie does up her hair.

“You know, this isn’t really part of the job description,” Emily says absently. Not that it isn’t nice, Billie’s fingers careful against her scalp.

“It wouldn’t be if you’d let the maids into your rooms in the mornings,” Billie says. “It’s not like they don’t know I sleep here.”

Maybe I just want some privacy.” She does. And Billie never acts like herself around the servants. Their presence makes her remember a thousand things that Emily likes being able to ignore for half an hour every day.

Billie shoves the forgotten half of the bun into Emily’s mouth. “C’mon, let’s go. You can read and chew at the same time, can’t you?”

Emily doesn’t spit it back out at her, and that’s as good a sign as any that she’s really in love.

Parliament is the same as ever. It only took a week for everyone to stop darting furtive looks at Billie over Emily’s shoulder, where she stands at ease behind Emily’s chair. When it was her father standing there, Emily always felt safe. She never forgot he was there, of course, and she turned to him for advice as often as not. But it’s different, to know that it’s Billie standing behind her. Billie who will back her up, no matter what happens. Billie who trusted her enough to hand her the knife that could have killed the Outsider, that could bring the Void crashing down around their ears, and believes that Emily will keep it safe from the world; the world safe from it.

They haven’t entirely built themselves a new routine yet. But they’re getting there. Billie wakes earlier than Emily without exception, and doesn’t seem to know how to stop working any more than Corvo did. She plays along with Emily and drags her to Parliament when it’s in session, though they both know that Emily, left to her own devices, would attend without issue. Whenever anyone can see, she treats Emily with all the respect due to an Empress, her mouth tucked up at one corner and a glint in her eye, like it’s a shared joke. It is. Not a lie. Not a hidden thing at all. Just something you need to know how to see.

Emily knows she’s been a lot of things to Billie Lurk, and the Empress has always been last on that list.

When she was younger, Emily used to wonder what it might be like, to have a Royal Protector who wasn’t her father. Someone she knew as well as her mother knew Corvo, someone she could trust implicitly. Jessamine talked to her about it, the summer before the plague. Emily would have chosen her own protector when she turned twelve. They’d still gone through with the ceremony, a scant year after her coronation, the kind of formality that Corvo told her would bring stability back to the city. Of course Corvo would still be the Royal Protector. At twelve, Emily was sure he always would be.

If things had gone differently, she would have picked someone else, just like Jessamine had. Probably Alexi, or someone like her. She’d been young then, but so had Corvo, when he’d first taken the job.

It wouldn’t have been someone like Billie. Someone whose history is so twisted up with Emily’s that it’s hard to see how they could ever untangle themselves from one another.

I can see why you like her. Emily has thought, long and hard, about what Jessamine might have said about Billie. If things were different. It hurts less to wonder these days.

Parliament runs as smoothly as it ever does. Lady Blackwood is haughty, Barrister Vane is bombastic, and the Head Overseer has just begun to realize that Emily is already halfway through cutting away his last remaining sources of funding, diverting it to much needed updates to Dunwall’s infrastructure. Wind power has been working quite well in Karnaca. And no amount of wishing is going to bring the whales back.

Sometimes Emily stays behind to discuss strategy with her allies; tonight she doesn’t have the stomach for it. Billie does a good job of warding them off. She has a very lovely glare, when she puts her mind to it.

They hide out in the safe room when they have time, snatched moments from the always grasping grip of an Empire in flux. It’s odd, how much a place can change in so little time—less than a year ago Emily tore through this room, heart pounding, pausing only to snatch up Corvo’s old gear and to wipe Alexi’s blood from her hands. She didn’t know the name Billie Lurk. She didn’t yet trust Meagan Foster. She didn’t, in truth, trust herself, to save her father or her country or anything else. All she could do was run.

Now this room sometimes feels like the only place where Emily can put away all her masks. She pulls out her hairpin when they enter, sighing and shaking her hair out.

“I thought that went pretty well,” Billie says. She tugs off her eyepatch and her gloves, leaving them on the ground beside her as she collapses onto the old couch that appeared in here one day without Emily’s say so. It’s very comfortable, so she hasn’t bothered asking Billie where it came from.

“You always think it went well as long as no one tried to kill me.”

“Seems as good a standard as any.” Billie toes her boots off, and holds her hand out to Emily, as demanding as anyone ever is with her. Emily takes the invitation and drops down beside her. The couch is a little too short for her, which is fine: she compensates by lying curled half on top of Billie. Her fingers are startlingly cold in Emily’s hair. Familiar, too. Like the edges of the Void that were always creeping in, back when they sailed together.

They’re stationary by necessity, now. Emily can’t exactly go traipsing about the Empire whenever she pleases. Maybe in a few years. A few years used to seem like an eternity, before Emily understood how much could change in the span of a few months. How much it matters, to hold onto what she has.

It’s hard to feel impatient, anyway, with Billie’s hand soft in her hair.

“Alright,” Emily says, after a few minutes of peace. “Tell me who’s plotting my death this week.”

“High Overseer Torrence, obviously. I didn’t even need the kids to snatch his mail to tell me that. Sure I can’t kill him for you?”

Emily stretches, popping her back. “Let’s give it another week, at least.” She stands. It’s nightfall by now. The clouds have parted enough for the moon to shine through, so Billie doesn’t even grumble too much, when Emily makes the climb up onto the rooftops. The wind makes a mess of her freed hair, Dunwall spread out before them both. All its pain and misery and sorrow, and buried underneath, faint but present like a heartbeat: the bare bones of what it can someday be.

Emily breaths in deep, and she leaps. If she falls, she won’t be able to catch herself, not anymore. But Billie follows her, every step of the way. And she will.

-

The Outsider knew, of course, that Karnaca and Dunwall were hardly alike. But knowing it is quite different than feeling it, in the smell and the air and the sunlight of the place. Dunwall’s frozen winter is only a slightly cooled Karnaca. The Month of Darkness is not at all aptly named, here in the Jewel of the South.

“It can’t be that strange,” Corvo tells him. “You were with Emily here, weren’t you?”

That isn’t how the Outsider would describe it. He was in the Void. He watched Emily in Karnaca, a sheet of glass between him in the world, as though he were trapped in a silvergraph. Even speaking to her in Stilton’s Manor, he hadn’t precisely been with her. He was always a step removed, a world apart. He watched Emily creep around corners, but he didn’t feel it. He didn’t taste the salt of the air or feel the heat on his skin.

He says as much to Corvo, who nods. “But didn’t you pass through here, with Billie?”

“Briefly,” the Outsider says. “I don’t remember it well. I was fresh from the Void. There was a woman who owned an inn. She gave me too much food, which was good, and too much beer, which was very bad.”

Corvo snorts. “I can see how that might have gone poorly,” he says. “The inn’s probably still here, if you remember the name. Want to stay there?”

What an odd thought. That the Outsider’s history now abruptly has touchstones he can in fact touch, instead of only long-forgotten relics of the past. “The Duke might take offense,” he says. “In any case, we have somewhere to be, first.”

Corvo shrugs, slinging his pack over his shoulders. Karnaca sunlight becomes him. He hasn’t left Dunwall since just before Jessamine’s death, but he is comfortable here, despite the years he’s been away. Homes are like that, the Outsider supposes. He can never go back to his.

After the paperwork for Corvo’s retirement and Billie’s appointment were settled—the Outsider is coming to understand many things, but paperwork will never be one of them—he pointed out to the Empress that Corvo might like to see his homeland, which Emily had so recently toured.

“Sure,” Emily agreed. “Seeing as we just had a coup, a state visit or two couldn’t hurt. Of course, while I’m still re-establishing my base of power here, I can’t possibly leave.”

Behind her, Billie snorted. “And you can get your father out of your hair in the meantime.”

“In the palace, we call that ‘reallocation of strategic resources,’” Emily said. She turned to the Outsider, glowing from within the way she so often did, these days. “You’ll go with him, then? Good. Don’t worry, I’ll arrange it. There are a few places you should stop. I’ll write you a list.”

Which is how the Outsider finds himself walking the streets of Karnaca with Corvo, Emily’s list folded in his bag, tucked beside the shimmering silvergraph he keeps with him always, and the container of sunscreen Billie gave him before he left.

“Attano’d probably still think you’re cute with your nose peeling, but don’t press your luck,” was her sage advice.

The Outsider has no intention of doing so.

He leads Corvo to the places Emily named—the Stilton Manor, first, where they are greeted politely by Aramis, who offers them refreshments and holds a long and winding conversation with Corvo about silver imports that the Outsider doesn’t try very hard to pay attention to. He makes a slow circuit of the Manor’s dining room instead, noting all the small shifts Emily made to the truth of this place. He wonders if Corvo would have made the same choices Emily did. He’d been curious, even as he gave Emily the timepiece. So often, while he watched her, his thoughts ran back to Corvo.

“How did it feel?” he asks as they leave the Manor, laden with letters to take back to both Emily and Billie.

Corvo, as ever, is unfazed by the non sequitur. “How did what feel?”

“To be stone.” The Outsider, frustratingly, still doesn’t know quite how Delilah did it. Her magic came first from the Outsider, but it expanded beyond anything he knew or understood, digging its claws into the Void uninvited. The people who made him would have understood it.

Corvo smiles at him. “You saying you didn’t check in on me? Guess being a rock isn’t very interesting, is it.”

“I did,” the Outsider says, knowing distantly that he is being baited, but still unable to let it pass without comment, a fish easily hooked. “I worried—I don’t know if I worried. But I thought, perhaps, that Delilah might—break you. I returned, from time to time, to ensure that you remained whole.” Corvo had already spent fifteen slow years putting together the pieces of himself once shattered. The Outsider did not wish to see such a thing again. Repetition, of course, would only have bored him.

The look Corvo is giving him is much warmer and fonder than such a statement deserves. But Corvo has never made much sense. “It didn’t really feel like much of anything,” he says. “Just...quiet. Still. What you’d expect, I guess. What about you? It was the same in the Void, wasn’t it?”

The Outsider has never thought of it that way. “At first,” he says. “But my body...after long enough, I forgot about it. Or learned how to, when I wished.”

“And you always wished.”

“I did not enjoy being trapped.”

“No,” Corvo says. “Me neither. But we aren’t trapped now, are we?”

They are, in a way. In the same way that all humans are trapped: by their ties to others, the inevitability of their deaths, their inability to see what lies beyond them. The threads that the Outsider once saw easily, and never will again. But they aren’t, in the way that Corvo means. The Outsider saw everything, travelled the entire Empire, saw all there was to see. And he never truly moved from his place in the Void, not really. Now he can go anywhere. Now he can walk the streets of Karnaca with Corvo, not in a terrible hurry to get to the palace, as they see the places his daughter saw, and wanted to share with him.

Who knows. Perhaps all of them will stand here together, someday. The Outsider can no longer see the future with any sort of certainty. But there is a kind of delight in only being able to guess at it, to draw his own conclusions. To consider the things that he wants.

The last stop on Emily’s list is the name of two streets. The Outsider, no matter how many times he looks between them and the map, cannot decipher them.

“Here,” Corvo says, holding his hand out for the paper. “Don’t pretend you’re any good at keeping a secret, anyway.”

The Outsider parts with it willingly. “I don’t actually know where we’re going.”

Corvo’s face is always a fascinating thing. It does something the Outsider does not recognize, when he reads his daughter’s scrawled directions. There is sorrow there, and something else, like the things you find at the ocean floor, quiet and deep. “I do,” he says. He tucks the list into his own pocket. “Follow me. They’re old streets, and no one lives there anymore. That’s why you couldn’t find it on the map.”

The Outsider chews on this as they walk. “We’re going towards the Dust District,” he observes.

“We are.”

“I see.” He does. He slips his hand into Corvo’s, and does not let it go. Corvo throws him a wry look, and squeezes his fingers.

The abandoned Attano family home is exactly as Emily left it, after her brief stop here during the coup. She stayed only long enough to realize where she was and give the place a cursory inspection. She was curious, and she would have stayed longer, if she could, but there wasn’t any time. And after reading the journal of her grandmother, a woman she had never met or even thought about very much, she didn’t have the heart to stay. Dwelling on Corvo’s past, the man he was when he lived here, wouldn’t do anything to save him as he was then, still as stone.

Corvo has to help the Outsider climb in through the window. He is very still once they enter. He breathes in once, deeply. The Outsider wonders what he smells. The Outsider smells dust, and mildew, and old books, but scent has a way of holding secrets closer to the heart than memory. For Corvo this small and shabby room is likely a different place entirely.

“What did Emily find here?” he asks, finally, after some minutes. The Outsider, moving quietly, pulls out Corvo’s mother’s journal and hands it to him. Corvo settles down in a corner to page through it, face utterly unreadable. The Outsider wants to sit and watch, to see the play of emotions on his face as he reads, to catalogue them and file them away. He continued posting letters home long after his mother died. It took a long time for the news to make its ways over the treacherous seas of water and bureaucracy into Corvo’s hands. By the time he found out, his mother was six months in the ground.

Corvo might not even mind. But the Outsider stands and makes a thorough inspection of the apartment, turning his back to him.

Emily had mentioned this place was drafty. And the Outsider once told Corvo the story of Beatrici breaking open one of the walls.

The Outsider spends ten minutes inspecting every nook and cranny of the place. When he turns back to Corvo, the journal is closed beside him. His legs are crossed loosely in front of him, and his head is tipped back against the wall, eyes closed.

Without opening them, he says, “Did you find what you’re looking for?”

“I will in a moment. Did you?”

I wasn’t looking for anything. I don’t know why Emily wanted me to find this place. It isn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.”

The Outsider joins him. “And what do you already know?”

“That I shouldn’t have left,” Corvo says, without heat. “But I had to. Maybe I should have brought her and Beatrici with me. It’s hard to see how that could have ever worked. So maybe there was no path forward without tragedy. I don’t know if that makes it better. It’s just true.”

The Outsider nods. He crouches before Corvo, and pulls the knife from his belt. Corvo opens his eyes, raising an eyebrow at him. “Need something?”

Without answering, the Outsider goes, unerringly, to Beatrici’s old hiding place. He turns the knife in his grip, and knocks the hilt of it against the bricks until they give way.

Corvo doesn’t say anything at all. No admonishment that the Outsider is defacing his old home, or concern that he’s doing it for no reason.

The Outsider wipes the trophy Corvo won at the Blade Verbena off against the sleeve of his shirt as best he can, and carries it to him with care. Their fingers brush as he hands it over, and Corvo reaches up with his other hand to pull the Outsider down to sit beside him.

He inspects the trophy for a long while, running his fingers across it. It’s a cheaply made, useless piece of metal. The true prize for winning the Blade Verbena was nothing that could be held in anyone’s hands: opportunity, freedom, the chance to breathe new air. And for Corvo, the knowledge that he deserved what he won. That he was the best Serkonos had to offer. That had meant something to him, then.

But the trophy, in Corvo’s eyes, is anything but useless. It’s everything that led Corvo to where he is now: sitting in a broken down apartment where his family once lived, and never will again. A place where he used to dream his children would play. Or perhaps Beatrici’s would, and his own would come visit on free days. Simple dreams. Things so possible, so ordinary, that he had not spared the time to want them.

He never had those things. He never will. But Emily did come here, following her own path.

Corvo’s own path led him back here to this apartment, sitting beside someone who isn’t a god, and isn’t a man, and isn’t anything that Corvo ever thought to want, either.

The Outsider lies down on his back, his head in Corvo’s lap. He watches as Corvo, with one last look, sets the trophy aside.

“Well?” Corvo asks. “What are you thinking about?”

“I believe I should be asking you that.”

“You know what I’m thinking,” Corvo says, with much more confidence than the Outsider feels. “It hurts to sit here. But—this place could be gone. It’s amazing that it’s not. It’s amazing that I’m alive to see it. Even if no one else is.” He tips his head back against the brick once more, and brings a hand up to run through the Outsider’s hair. “I’m glad you got to see it properly. I think that’s what Emily wanted.” He smiles. “Your turn.”

Brigmore Manor was a building soaked in its own history so long that it was beginning to rot away. This apartment isn’t like that. The history here only exists when Corvo stands within it, breathing it in. Someday there will be no one alive who remembers this place. Perhaps someone else will live here, and turn it into something else, new memories to someday be forgotten. The past won’t ever change. But it will stop mattering. It will become something new entirely.

“I’m glad I got to see it properly too. You would be a different man without that trophy. And—I might have stopped watching you, without it.” His throat wants to close around the words. The Outsider doesn’t let it. “But it would have been a mistake.”

“You know,” Corvo says, “I don’t think that’s true.”

“I don’t lie to you.” He doesn’t. Even when he wants to. Even when it would be easier, or would bring forth more of Corvo’s rare, easy smiles. Not even then.

“You think you know everything,” Corvo says fondly. His hand moves from the Outsider’s hair to his cheek. “But you’re still figuring yourself out. You would always have watched me, Outsider. There’s no world where you grew bored of me. Everything and anything can change. But not that.”

He brushes his thumb against the Outsider’s cheek. Distantly, the Outsider is aware that his eyes are very wide, that his face is warm and alive in a way that even now it almost never is. His blood betraying him at Corvo’s touch and at his words. Corvo, Corvo, Corvo, right again. The Outsider can never be sure what he will do, when Corvo is concerned. Not now or in the past or in the future. He’ll never learn, not if he studied for longer than he’ll live. He’ll have to keep trying forever.

“Oh,” says the Outsider. His voice has too much air in it. And Corvo laughs at him, bending down to kiss him, mouth sideways and at what the Outsider understands is the wrong angle entirely, soft and uncoordinated all at once. A gift the Outsider never thought to ask for.

-

Billie has to hand it to Emily: as far as plans for getting herself some space go, sending her father off on a romantic vacation is pretty clever.

“He’s on an important diplomatic mission,” Emily insists.

“Yeah, with his scandalous new lover.”

“Scandalous indeed. Corvo is far too young for him.”

Billie rolls her eyes. “And now that your father is out of the picture for the next month, you’ve been...carrying on business as usual.”

“I need to prove to him that I can do this without him,” Emily says, looking up from her slowly dwindling mountain of paperwork. “I’m going to do it right.”

“Yeah, he’s definitely the one you need to prove it to.” Billie flips through the papers, and takes half to get started on. She’s got a passable forgery of Emily’s signature in her repertoire now. “He trusts you with the Empire, and he’s right to do it.”

“It’s nice that you two can agree about me,” Emily says, balancing her chin on her hand. She’s got ink on her cheek.

“Don’t get used to it.”

“And thank you, for sparring with him before they left.” She tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. It’s getting late. Her careful and precise hairdo is starting to come undone. “For believing he wouldn’t slit your throat. I do appreciate it.” She’s half kidding.

Mostly Billie believed that Corvo wasn’t about to hurt her in front of his daughter. And, yeah, fine—he wouldn’t have even if Emily wasn’t there. Probably only on the strength of the fact that Emily and the Outsider both give a shit about her. Would grieve her death or her absence. That’s why she’s allowed to stay, when she’s brought enough grief down on the Kaldwin family’s heads. Because they care. Because she gave them a reason.

“Well, I gave you the chance to,” Billie says. “Figured fair was fair. He doesn’t have to forgive me. For any of it. For this.” She gestures between herself and Emily, trying to encompass...whatever this is, exactly. Billie’s new job. The ring around her finger and Emily’s lips against the back of her hand. A lot of shit Billie’s never had to think about before. There’s a lot of the world you don’t notice when you’re always running.

Emily’s mouth quirks, and abruptly Billie decides they’ve both done enough paperwork for one night. She licks her thumb and rubs at the ink stain on Emily’s cheek.

“You’re just going to make it worse,” Emily says, in the tones of someone with a great deal of experience in the matter.

Billie shrugs. “You got anywhere you need to be?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then it doesn’t matter.” And it’s always nice to see Emily anything less than presentable. When she dragged herself into the Dreadful Wale’s galley still rubbing sleep from her eyes, when she’s so angry after some session of Parliament that she has to lock herself into the safe room to scream, when Billie kisses her for long enough that her words fall away, her hair a tangled mess around her fingers. All the times she doesn’t have to worry about something as stupid as whether she’s got ink on her face. “And I think it’s time we called it a night.”

“Well, if you insist.” Emily shoves her chair back from the desk, tipping her head over the back of it. She winces when they can both hear her neck crack.

“I do.” Billie caps her pen and bends to pick her up, an arm behind her knees and at her back. Emily laughs and shoves at her, tucking her head in against Billie’s throat. Despite her insistence otherwise, Emily Kaldwin loves nothing more than, once in a while, being swept off her feet.

“One of these days,” Emily says, arms wrapped comfortably around Billie’s neck as she makes the short walk to Emily’s chambers, “someone is going to see you do this, and the rumors are going to piss you off so much.”

“Don’t worry, all the servants have been appropriately bribed,” Billie tells her, dumping her unceremoniously onto her bed.

“What would I do without you.” Emily stretches like a cat who has everything it wants in the world.

She’d get on just fine without Billie. It’s for the best neither of them want her to.

“No idea. My informants have orders not to tell you anything in my absence.”

“I’m sure I have enough candy stashed away somewhere to persuade them otherwise.” Emily rolls over and starts tugging off her boots while Billie checks the locks on all the windows. They’ve had new ones installed, since the Outsider apparently didn’t find the old ones much of an impediment.

“Half those kids used to work under Lizzy Stride. You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

“Corvo was very impressed you actually managed to recruit any of them. He tried, you know.”

“I know.” Room secured, Billie perches on the edge of the bed. The first few nights, she’d waited for an invitation to stay, every time. She still has to stop herself, more often than not, from telling Emily it’s time she retired to her room. The one that’s right next door, so close it shouldn’t even really matter where Billie sleeps. But it means something, who you let see you undone. It meant something, when Emily slept peacefully belowdecks on the Wale, putting her life in the hands of a woman she barely knew. It means something now, when Emily sleeps tangled up in Billie’s arms. “But the kids here know I’m like them. They trust me when I say I’m doing them a favor. And frankly, your father doesn’t know how to talk to people.”

Emily snorts. “He doesn’t, but neither do you.” She lays her palm out beside her head on the pillow. A silent invitation, the one she figured out Billie sometimes needs. Billie takes it. “They really look up to you, don’t they.”

They whisper about her, almost the way that the Whalers used to whisper about Daud. Not quite the same. The Whalers were afraid of him. These kids were afraid of Lizzy. They’re not afraid of Billie, even if they go wide-eyed when they see her take on a new face, displace in and out of thin air, speak to one of the rats like it’s her friend. They treat her the same way she treats the Outsider—like something mysterious, something strange, but something welcome, too.

She supposes the way she treats them isn’t so different, either. Like they’re something worth saving. Daud saw something in her worth saving, once. He wasn’t any good at it. But he taught her well enough, in the end, in his own way.

“They’ll be running all the parts of this city you can’t touch soon enough. Getting stuck in its gears,” Billie says. “Might as well try to make sure they do it right.”

“They will,” Emily says. She pulls Billie in by the hand, wrapping around her until Emily’s settled over her like a blanket. Presumptuous and comfortable in a way none of Billie’s other lovers have ever been—Emily Kaldwin is, of course, like no one else but herself. “I’m glad you saved the Outsider,” she says, head bent next to Billie’s ear. “I’m glad you let him drag you all the way to Dunwall. I’m glad you’re here now.”

Billie tucks a stray curl of hair behind Emily’s ear, and presses her lips just below it. “Where else?” she asks. A city like Dunwall never really lets you go. Billie’s always known that. She used to think it was a bad thing.

Billie’s never been much for sleeping in. Not a luxury she’s ever been able to easily afford. The safest place she’d ever slept, before she started sharing a bed with the Empress, was a cramped cot in the Whaler base, and in a building with such a tenuous relationship with the concept of roofs, she was always up with the sunrise.

Billie’s awake before Emily today, too. But there’s nothing urgent. No reason Billie has to get up if she doesn’t want to. And she doesn’t.

Emily’s face never fully smoothes out in sleep. Her brow furrows and her mouth twitches, and Billie can’t help but wonder what she dreams about. She could ask. A little terrifying to think about, because, yeah, she could ask, and Emily wouldn’t tell her to fuck off, or laugh, or deflect. Emily would answer with the truth, solid and unshakeable. And Emily wouldn’t ask a price. There’s never any cost with her. No balancing act. Billie has to be careful with her, sure. Emily deserves it. But not for the same reasons that she’s used to.

When she became Meagan Foster, it took awhile for her to get used to the feeling of a boat beneath her feet, the constant movement of it. Becoming Billie Lurk again is the same thing in reverse. Billie’s never found comfort in steady things. Her life has never worked like that. But maybe she can start.

“You know, I can feel it when you look at me like that,” Emily says, not opening her eyes. She rolls over and buries her face deeper into the pillow. “With the eye. Like that feeling up your spine when you know you’re being watched, but in a good way. It’s kind of nice.”

“Pretty sure anyone with any sense would find it unsettling,” Billie says. “It’s weird as shit. Guess I’m stuck with it.”

“I don’t need sense. That’s what I have you for.” Emily peeks up at Billie with one eye. “Guess that means I’m stuck with you.”

Billie runs her hand up from Emily’s back into her hair. With a happy sigh, Emily burrows deeper into the blankets, apparently content to go back to sleep.

Billie watches her do it, stroking her hair. It curls, after it’s been up all day. Billie thinks she might be the only person left in this city right now who knows that.

Emily’s face never fully smoothes out, because she’ll always be the Empress. She’ll always have worries. But she’s relaxed, here with Billie guarding her back, like she’d never have anything to fear from her. She doesn’t. She doesn’t and she knows it, will always know it.

This must be what it felt like for the Outsider, when Billie threw away all the things she’d ever learned and dragged him from the Void. Leaving the dark behind after such a long time, finally going free. She didn’t give him peace, not like Daud. She gave him something else. Something bloody and alive. Something that aches.

There’s no sun in her eyes, but they sting anyway.

It’s terrifying. It hurts. It’s going to be a long, hard road that she never planned to end up on. Billie’s looking forward to it.