by Gemma Files

Not the worst moment of his life, no; there ain't but one of those, and he knows damn well how he still ain't reached it. Won't, not 'till he wants to. Which he don't even now, not even, not--


Bill the Butcher leans his head back against the inside slope of this fine new brass hip-bath he sits in, bares all his teeth at once, and feels his moustache-points start to wilt. Knows without looking how--already--the oil from his hair's begun to smear the bath's veneer, elaborate soaplock arrangement melting fast to his skull in a lather of rising steam; knows it same as he knows just how much the fool he must look all splayed in every direction, his too-long limbs slopping over every side at once.

The gin Bill has in hand's his...fifth?, warming him inside the same as out: A sweating furnace-blast of unseasonable heat, bright like them candle-flames on every side of him, while snow piles up on the skylight above. And he takes a frssh oul, thinking--

Damn all the like sort'a chamberpots, anyways! You'd think only Uptown ladies ever wanted t'wash 'emselves clean, though it's like as not they ain't driven to it just 'cause the mask of someone else's blood they're wearing's grown intollerable itchy...

Takes an hour to boil the water hot enough for this kind'a work, plus four gals to haul it up in pans and pitchers; then there's the effort of scrubbing himself all over with carbolic, linament and such, the sting in the eye and the nose, chemical burn limning whatever wound's freshest in pure hurt. Any one of the above which might be reason enough why Bill don't do this but three times a year on average: Soak himself full-length so's the blood and dirt he carries like a second skin brew off him in some thick, palpable scum, muddying the bath-waters 'till he don't even need a strategic-placed towel to keep himself modest, was any fool stunned enough to approach him in such disarray.

After, he'll hump himself up like a spider in an impatient spume of his own filth, and stalk out pink as some piglet scrubbed for slaughter--off-balance with the very unlikelihood of it, skin aching, vision blear. Feeling triply naked 'till he gets his belt back on, faster even than he'll reach for his trousers or boots.

Oh, and Satan's Circus rings with its usual racket around him times fifty, all of 'em celebrating twice as hard for Victory Night's sake, for the show he just put on down at Sparrow's. For the beat-down he laid on that ingratitudinous whelp he took to his breast not so very long back, giving him pride of place at the Butcher's table and turning a dead eye on his exertions with the one gal Bill still values high enough--

--still, with all she done!--

--to feel her joys and pains firsthand, heart-deep, almost like they was his very own.

The one sound gone missing from a full Infernal choir: On the other side of the wall, through the ceiling (or the floor), in the alley outside. Up against any given part of the Circus, any given time, in any given way; his place, undeniably--the sink where his charisma causes everyone in Paradise Square to collect, at one point or another. Extension of his personality, of his will, the both of 'em so formiddable, 'specially in tandem; like the push and pull of some underground tide, they can always be counted on to bring him what he wants, long before he even knows he's hungry for it.

Lying in bed that other time, after Emma Loss'd smoked herself to sleep, Bill'd found himself turning and sniffing Amsterdam, saying: "I can still smell her on you--you know that, right, boy? Always can."



Jenny, her musk like one more seal of approval, seein' how well it reminds Bill of his own. Thus rendering Amsterdam Bill's, like she's always been, and always will be.

Whoever would be fool enough to say you can't love two people at the same time? Or two different people, each in a very different way?

Jenny Everdeane, with her sad eyes and her scarred belly; Amsterdam, gifted now with a rip just as jagged to close over, 'long with that cracked head and the brand of Bill's blade along one cheek. And both of 'em wounded by the Butcher's own hand, though Christ knows he done the boy far more obvious, if not (necessarily) dirtier--Bill's got the ring of his scalp to testify to that, after all, split wide under the coiffure when it finally came time to kiss that pretty young face of his good-night....

"His", meaning Vallon, Amsterdam. Amsterdam Vallon. A whole new name for a whole new person; new yet old, cheek-to-jowl with him for sixteen damn years, familiar like some death foretold. Or like the hovering touch of destiny deferred far too long to recognize, now it's come at last to fruition.

Bill slugs back the gin, lets the glass drop and shatter; have to mark where that fell, he vaguely thinks, so's he won't tread in it when he finally rises up. And shuts his eye again, fast tight, remembering--

--another snowy morning, just about 'fore dawn, when the sky had the faded blue look of some laid-out corpse's feet. Remembers stamping at the entrance to one of the Old Brewery's many rat-tunnels like some high-stepping horse down a coal-mine: The Rabbits' warren, deepest hole in a nest-ful. Turning that grim glass eye on the Priest as he bent himself out from the underearth, and seein' the big Paddy's face go momentarily slack at the sight of it--his first, straight-on. 'Cause just like hearing ain't the same as seeing, seeing ain't always the same as believing, neither...

Nope. Not even when you've already held a man's cut-out ocular in your very own hands, wrapped in note tells the exact what, and why, and how of it.

And: "Oh, William," the Priest had managed, at last. "What is it yeh've done t'yourself?"

"What've I done? I got but one word to say to you, Paddy--"

"T'ink it over careful now, Bill; t'ink careful on where you're bound, when it's too late to call your own speech back again--"

But Bill'd just bulled forward to the sentence's end, without one single moment's pause. Replying, simply:


McGloin's drawn breath, cut with some sound from Happy Jack that was half-grunt, half-sigh; they filled the gap, while the Priest just glanced down at the snow under his big, black boots. Like he was mulling the answer over, when both of 'em knew there was exactly as much choice to be had as Jesus'd been given in the Garden: None at all. Faith against faith, gang against gang with no reservations, no quarter expected and none asked for--destiny, come due. Like they'd always known it would.

"...challenge accepted," the Priest had said, without a speck of emphasis. And stepped back inside, leaving Bill to fist his hands in the cold wind's grip, his whole head like a crown of fever but for that one frozen spot where the eye sat, dug in deep. Still unfamiliar enough to hurt.

Like so much else, since. And now.

Blood's near gone now, swept away in the tide, all but for a few caked spots of it. He catches his own gaze in the mirror, snarls again at the sight: Patches, bright and artificial, like some theater-clown's. Like some whore's.

It's Vallon's blood, though, just like last time, for all it's filtered through some other's veins--that should make it better, shouldn't it? And if things wasn't the same they'd be different, but they are, they are, they ARE--

How could I not see it? How could I?

('Cause you're OLD, Butcher. And old men lose their way.)

Metal teeth and the glass eye, ribs that pop when he breathes and joints that ache when it rains, this nose of his so broke he can barely snort through it, and every inch of him scar on scar on scar. Sometimes Bill thinks he might fall to pieces or slide apart in sections like some prime cut, you just hit him in the exact right spot.

Sometimes he even catches himself wondering who he might have been if he wasn't him, for all that has to be the single most useless consideration ever.

And his shoulder hurts, clear and cold; his bones hurt, aching like an old man's. Like the oldest man still left standing in all his dying world.

Amstadam? I'm New York. Come here t'me, boy!

Somewhere below, Amsterdam hides and heals, curled in on himself like a coccoon. While New York rears up in a rush of slop and stalks the boards of Satan's Circus alone, peeled naked, sundered from his good right hand...

Amstadam! New York is--

--cursing and drinking, knives all a-clink, female company at the ready. Fearsome in his silence, in his utter solitude. And deep below, in his secret heart of hearts...

...calling, calling, calling.


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