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in the bone

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It all started, Corvo supposes, when he began kissing the Mark for luck. It’s a silly, superstitious thing to do, he knows that, but…well. You can break it down however you like, but there’s no denying the appeal of superstition to men in the business of violence.

He’s known guards to wear their smallclothes inside out when the clouds looked a certain way, because it was a sign of bad news on the horizon and for whatever reason this change of routine would protect them. Burrows (that rat bastard, Corvo automatically appends) always carried a bronze coin with the Tower minted on both sides instead of one. Said it brought him luck. Corvo used to have a whole host of tiny rituals, each more ridiculous than the last, for anything from surviving a state dinner without stabbing someone with a fork to being able to take a man’s head off from across a courtyard with a crossbow bolt.

He’s abandoned all of those rituals, now. It’s patently obvious none of them worked.

But old habits are hard to break, and Corvo’s adopted new ones in their stead. He tries not to think about the fact that most of them revolve around the Outsider. Discovering that a dangerous deity actually exists is one thing; having it intimately aware of your every move is quite another.

The first time he kissed the Mark, he’d just navigated a particularly difficult stretch of Clavering Boulevard. The streets below teemed with watchmen and the Wall of Light hummed at the edges of his awareness with a persistent, crackling energy that set his teeth on edge, and it was utterly baffling how Piero could manage to tweak his pistol into a tiny machine of portable death but remained lost as to how to let him load more than ten darts of knockout poison into his crossbow at a time.

He was down to two darts, and there were a lot more than two watchmen to deal with.

And the buildings were just a little too far apart, even with his powers he wasn’t sure he could make it, but after weighing all his options it seemed like he didn’t have much of a choice and so Corvo took a deep breath, sprinted over the slippery tiles and launched from the edge, out over the empty air and a long drop and cobblestones that would shatter his skull—

—and blinked.

He landed hard on the next roof over, air rushing out of his lungs as he slammed into the slate. His hand was still glowing faintly, the Mark outlined in threads of brilliant gold and glimmers of blue, and a breathless, slightly hysterical laugh bubbled up without his say-so. Impulsively, he pressed his lips to the glowing center of the Mark, his whispered, “thank you” stirring the fine hairs on the back of his hand.

His hand tingled, and the feeling shot straight to his groin.

He’d chalked it up to adrenaline at the time.

But he keeps kissing the Mark after that. Every time he survives something stupid, every time his new powers let him skirt trouble or allow him to escape from it, every time his mission is a success and the knot around his heart eases a little more — they’ve almost done it, they’re so close — every time, he touches his lips to the back of his hand and thanks the creature that made it possible, and every time something buzzes through him that leaves him shivering and half-hard, and very confused.

The few times he sees the Outsider at one of his shrines, or — after the betrayal — in his dreams, the Outsider never says a word. Not once. He has to know, Corvo thinks. The Outsider knows a lot of things he shouldn’t, and he’s the one who gave Corvo the Mark in the first place. Whatever’s going on with it must be his doing.

But he doesn’t say anything, and every time Corvo’s mouth touches the Mark the feeling jolts through every fiber of his body, and it’s maybe starting to drive him a little insane because he misses being touched. He finds himself wondering what it would feel like if he tongued the Mark instead of kissed it, if he scraped his teeth over the black lines burned into his skin. They’re unnerving, these thoughts, because even once he’s restored Emily to the throne and doesn’t need to kiss the Mark anymore, he…still does.

It’s gone well beyond superstition, and this is deeply worrying.

Also, he can’t stop.

He blames the shrine.

The one in the dungeon is gone now. Corvo had torn it down and burned it, muttering an apology under his breath as he dragged boards and thick purple fabric out to where he’d built a fire on a bare, hidden patch of dirt behind the courtyard. The whale oil lamps burst when he tossed them onto the flames, spattering his clothes with tiny, sizzling droplets and shards of glass, but Corvo stood there and watched until the remains of his torturer’s shrine were nothing but glowing embers, and then he kicked dirt over the coals until they snuffed out for good.

The burn scar on his face itched with phantom pain. The Mark on his hand itched with something different altogether.

There are no repercussions for destroying the shrine, though, so it seems his apology was accepted.

Corvo builds a new shrine, smaller and much less elaborate, in Jessamine’s secret room behind the fireplace. With Piero’s help it was relatively easy to adjust the mechanism so that he’s the only one who can use it, and he figures it’s as safe a place as any for something as taboo as an Outsider shrine. The Abbey may take its cues from the throne but still operates outside of it, and after being betrayed by not one, but two High Overseers, Corvo’s not inclined to trust them much. The shrine is simple and tiny, but it’s his.

He visits it in the small, quiet hours of the night, long after Emily has been tucked into bed and his mind rebels at the thought of sleep. It’s not about worship. More…company, perhaps. The Outsider doesn’t often appear, usually only if Corvo says something to him directly, but his presence is still palpable in the little room at all times, as if he’s looking over Corvo’s shoulder. He finds it strangely comforting.

Tonight, Corvo’s leaning back in his chair and looking at the shrine, wondering vaguely if maybe he should add some fabric in a color other than purple. Maybe blue? There’s a lot of blue in the Void and besides, he likes blue. It’s a good color. Much better than purple, which has associations with royalty that make him uncomfortable. As he thinks, he absently traces the lines of the Mark with his other hand. The sensation isn’t quite as intense as it is when he uses his mouth, but a pleasant hum has settled into his bones and he finds himself shifting in his chair, spreading his legs a little wider.

When he tries the blunt edge of a nail, his breath hitches.

The oil lights flicker and the room is suddenly swimming in shadow. “Stop that,” the Outsider says.

Corvo blinks. This is a new development. “Stop what?”

“That.” The Outsider gestures to where Corvo is dragging his fingers over the Mark. For the Outsider, the movement is strangely abrupt; Corvo’s used to his graceful expansiveness, the sort of studied drama that comes from watching humans move and exaggerating only those aspects that are aesthetically pleasing.

If he didn’t know better, he’d say the Outsider looked unsettled.

Corvo shifts again in his chair, stretching one leg out in front of him. The world always goes a bit weird when the Outsider shows up, some mind-twisting blend of the Void and the waking world. His body’s unsure if it’s hovering in a sea of shadowed nothingness or firmly on solid ground, and Corvo’s discovered that the best way to deal with the dissonance is to ignore it entirely.

He says, “Why?”

The Outsider starts to sway forward, then seems to catch himself and draws back again. Corvo is fascinated by the expression of discomfort on his smooth, eternally youthful face.

“My Mark connects us, you and I,” the Outsider says at last. “It is a channel, a portal of power. When you draw energy from it, that energy comes from me.”

Interesting.

“So when I…” Corvo says, and then raises his hand and just barely brushes his mouth over the back of it. Electricity sings down his nerves and pools with blue-white heat in his stomach. The Outsider closes his eyes, and when he opens them again his expression is hungry.

“You,” he says in a low voice, “are playing a very dangerous game.”

Corvo considers this, and then deliberately drags the flat of his tongue over the Mark, which flares brilliant gold at the touch. It tastes like salt and skin and ozone, like biting on tin, and the Outsider hisses and is across the room faster than Corvo can draw breath.

The Outsider, Corvo is not at all surprised to discover, is terribly strong. The fingers that wrap around his wrist are long and pale and slim, but Corvo knows without a shadow’s doubt that if he wanted to yank free he would probably have to break his own arm to do so. Warm breath ghosts over the back of his hand, and he tips his head back with a deep, startled moan.

“You are infuriating,” the Outsider says. With every word his lips brush the Mark and it’s so much better than when Corvo does it, like the sensation is being magnified over and over again in an eerie feedback loop. Blood is already roaring in his ears.

“No one is this willfully stupid,” the Outsider continues. “No one leaves it uncovered, touches it, uses it the way you do—”

“I strive to be unique,” Corvo says, and jerks with a gasp when the Outsider utters a rumble of pure frustration and bites him. He’s given up on wondering why the Mark is so intimately connected to his cock, or why the Outsider would do something so stupid as mark a person with a sigil that affects him too; he suspects the answer boils down to, “because magic, that’s why,” and maybe it’s not within the Outsider’s power to control.

In a way, he’s glad of his ignorance. If he’d known that this was how it worked when he first started kissing the Mark, he probably would’ve stopped out of sheer embarrassment. This is a far more delightful outcome.

The Outsider nips him again and then licks a broad stripe over the back of Corvo’s hand. His tongue is warm and wet and far more human than Corvo would’ve expected, and if the Outsider hadn’t known how hard he was a moment ago, he definitely knows now. One long thigh insinuates itself between Corvo’s, and Corvo gratefully rocks his hips against it. The friction isn’t enough by a long shot but still very, very good; Corvo presses his forehead to the Outsider’s shoulder and breathes shakily against the warm leather. The angle of his arm is awkward, but there’s not money enough in the world to get him to move.

“Infuriating,” the Outsider says again, in the soft tones anyone else would use for endearment. He kisses Corvo’s knuckles, tongues the small scars there. “Willful, stubborn, unyielding…”

“Those all mean the same thing,” Corvo says, huffing a small, breathless laugh. “I thought I was fascinating,” and he breaks off with a moan as the Outsider fits his mouth over the Mark and sucks. Sudden heat flares up his spine.

“That,” the Outsider says, “is a given.” His mouth moves over the outline of Corvo’s fingers, traces the lines of his palm with the wet tip of his tongue. There is an intensity in his deep black eyes that’s difficult to look at. It’s too much, somehow, too overwhelming, satisfaction and reverence and want that’s as frightening as it is appealing. Looking at him, it’s all too easy to remember just how inhuman he is.

Corvo’s breath catches and he turns into the Outsider’s shoulder, breathes in the smell of ocean salt and warm, wet leather. The hand that’s not around Corvo’s wrist is passing in long, slow sweeps over his waist, his back, tangling in his hair; even through his clothing goosebumps rise along his skin in the wake of the touch. When the Outsider’s tongue finds the Mark again, Corvo’s hips jerk.

“Every time, Corvo,” the Outsider murmurs. It takes Corvo a moment to process what he’s talking about. “Every kiss, every touch, every whispered and breathless prayer of thanks—”

Fuck. Corvo clenches his teeth and breathes sharply through his nose, trying and failing to slow the increasingly steady roll of his hips. It’s unnerving, how unsteady the Outsider’s voice is. He’d never thought—

Well. He’s been wrong about things before, and apparently he was wrong about this. For something as sexless as all the stories say, the Outsider seems to be enjoying the Mark on Corvo’s hand just as much as Corvo does. The inside of Corvo’s head feels strange and hot and there’s a familiar pressure at the base of his spine, and he’s so over-sensitized that the barest graze of the Outsider’s lips against the Mark sets his body humming. He can’t remember the last time he was this hard; he’s on fire with it, desire making him feel languid and frantic all at once, and it’s not enough, he needs—

“I felt it,” the Outsider grinds out, sounding furious and bewildered and turned on all at once, “I felt it every time, Corvo, every time, you have no idea what you do to me, you stupid, fascinating, infuriating creature—” and Corvo’s breath goes shuddering out of him because the force of the Outsider’s want is like being flayed open, like being dissected, like disintegrating in the searing electric maelstrom of a Wall of Light.

When the Outsider suddenly releases his hand and shoves, Corvo reels back with a broken little sound of betrayal. His foot catches on the edge of his chair (don’t think too hard about your surroundings, that way lies madness) and he almost overbalances, only to be caught by the front of his coat with hands like steel.

“Touch yourself,” the Outsider says, and his black eyes are lit and burn like an oil fire. “Now, Corvo,” and Corvo is fumbling open the ties of his trousers even as the Outsider kisses him, desperate and graceless and hard. Corvo’s not normally left-handed, but it seems appropriate to use his left hand now. After only a few strokes the Outsider moans, low and sweet against Corvo’s mouth, and the expression on his face is one of shocked, almost pained ecstasy.

Yes, Corvo thinks, and he pants, his hand speeding up of its own accord, pleasure crackling up his spine and he’s almost there, he’s almost—

The Outsider’s head tips back, the tendons of his throat standing out in sharp relief, and he opens his mouth in a soundless cry.

Corvo’s orgasm follows a moment later, and the Mark on his hand burns.

***

 “You know,” Corvo says, several minutes later, after he’s gotten his clothing back in order and can breathe normally again, “you could’ve just said something.”

The Outsider merely raises his eyebrows. He’d been…disturbingly incorporeal for a moment after, and Corvo doesn’t want to think too hard about the shapes that had hung in the air before reforming into the familiar figure now in front of him. If the Outsider is at all disturbed by what happened, he’s giving no sign of it.

“I was under the impression that you knew exactly what you were doing,” he says smoothly.

The corner of Corvo’s mouth tilts up in a crooked smile. “That’s your mistake right there,” he says. “I tend to make things up as I go.”

The Outsider doesn’t reply. The shadows are starting to draw back, the room’s usual contours reestablishing themselves as Corvo watches, and the Outsider himself is beginning melt away like fog burning off under the sun. When he does finally speak, his voice is like the distant call of gulls over the waves.

“I know,” he says. Smiles, small but seemingly genuine. “I don’t mind.”

And then he’s gone, and Corvo is alone again, with nothing but the modest little shrine for company and fatigue dragging at his limbs. Definitely time to head up to his room; he suspects he’s going to sleep better than he has in a long time. But first…

Corvo studies the Mark on the back of his hand. After a moment, he kisses it softly.

For luck.