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Staring Into Open Flame

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“Are you sure?” Corvo asked her later, as they lay together, making the most of the scant minutes they have before Jessamine would have to abandon their bed and get herself ready for a meeting with her staff of advisors. They hadn’t been this foolish in a good long while, and it was the excitement and relief over being back at the Tower that did it. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it or chide herself for recklessness. “That he likes us?”

“Well, he fancies you and he threw himself into the path of a bullet for me, I suppose that says enough,” Jessamine told him, amused until she felt him tense underneath her. Daud had deflected the first, but the second had lodged deep in her side, only just avoiding her organs. She’d spent the boat ride to their hide-out in agony, and at the pub Aedan had put her under immediately, working to excavate the projectile. ‘Better a Watch officer’s bullet than buckshot,’ she’d heard him whisper to one of the Whalers as she’d been waking up, fighting the haze of poppy.

She’d been lucky, then, but she still carried the scar. Tracing matching ones littering Corvo’s naked skin, she supposed it was only fitting.

Corvo and Emily had been by her side when she woke, and Daud, too, hovering in the background, face like five weeks of thunder. They’d been at the pub for three months, Corvo and Daud going out at night to steal and intimidate, with Jessamine making prepared announcements over the speaker system that Piero had managed to tap into. First, informing her citizens that she was still alive, wounded after an attempt on her life, that she’d fled from the Tower to expose those who would try and murder her. As her Protector and her… Assassin worked to expel Campbell from the Abbey, as they exposed Burrows using his own paranoid audiographs, and delivered the Pendleton twins at the gates of Coldridge in one, neat bundle, Jessamine assured her people that the Plague would be ended, that she would return to her rightful place, and that Burrows and his ilk would never gain the power they so craved. It had been the simpler story to tell, the nuances of conspiracies often lost to history or ignorance or both. Burrows might not have wanted to rule the Empire when he’d brought the rats, but he’d taken it for granted that he would when Jessamine was dead, even if just to maintain control of everything. A man like Burrows would have deluded himself that his ascension to power was thrust upon him, a burden he carried because no-one else would, because the people had failed to play their parts in a game they had no idea they were in. He would have expressed regret at taking the Regency even as he would have privately delighted in it.

But now, his time had passed.

Burrows had been executed for treason three weeks ago.

Now, it fell to them, to her and Corvo and Daud, to keep Dunwall steady. Daud had told her, that night he’d come to warn them, that dealing with Burrows had made him and his Whalers enough coin ‘to disappear.’ And for a time, that had sounded like the most desirable outcome — until Jessamine had realised that Daud hadn’t lied when he said he had enough of killing; and rather than selfishly hoarding them had shared the secret of his powers with Corvo. Yes, Corvo was a heretic now — but he was already a foreigner, and Jessamine was sure most of her Court would barely be able to decide which was the more repugnant offence. Daud, too, was from Serkonos, and once when she’d watched them spar in the old kennels at the Hound Pits, Whalers crowded around them with her, she wondered what might have happened if Daud hadn’t left Karnaca when he had; if he’d met Corvo, perhaps even competed against him in the Blade Verbena. If they might have shared the same connection they did now.

And they did, Jessamine had seen it from the first. Corvo reported to her, as he always did, when he returned from his first lesson in the Flooded District, the Mark a new wound of many, the Void trying to find its place inside him and accepting nothing less than his heart or soul or whatever the Void took to hungering for. He spoke of Daud with civility, which was perhaps the first clue. He spoke of the Outsider, too, of his eyes as black as the Void and his voice so distant and distorted. But it was Daud who had captured Corvo’s attention, if merely for the ease with which he took to teaching Corvo. When Daud did come to speak to Emily, at the Princess’ insistence, she felt certain that Corvo, too, had made a lasting impression; and it was confirmed when Daud, the night during Corvo’s mission that she summoned him to the Tower, agreed that he, too, missed Corvo.

During their stay at the Hound Pits, the Whalers had slowly warmed to the idea of helping the Crown — it had been their unflinching loyalty to Daud that had brought them there, but over time Jessamine learnt their faces and their names and their stories; and then one day Corvo pointed out the Whalers that seemed, in pairs, to go wherever Emily did. In an effort to prioritise her and Emily’s safety, Jessamine and the Princess had been given a tiny room atop a crumbling Tower, with Corvo sleeping in the room to be reached across the roof of Piero’s workshop. Daud stayed a floor below, and when he wasn’t sleeping, they practically shared his office. It would have been nonsensical to keep two; and even though Daud hadn’t actually been forced to make good on the promise that he’d made her (and she knew he would have), she felt safe with him. Corvo evidently did, too, after their many training lessons the two were comfortably in and out of each other's space; and buoyed by a plan successfully executed, even Daud seemed to have found some sort of equilibrium. Emily certainly wasn’t deterred by his grumpy manner.

He was, objectively, a bastard, and a stubborn one at that. He’d refused any gratitude as he had the Empire’s coin, and the day Jessamine, Emily, and Corvo had moved back into the Tower, he’d been all but ready to leave the city. It was in her quarters, untouched since their escape, that she asked him to stay.

“Stay?” he rumbled, giving her a wary look.

“In Dunwall. Help us weed out the roots of this conspiracy, and protect the city from those who would seek to profit from the Plague. Your men know the Flooded District like the back of their hand, let them lead teams to gather the remaining Weepers and survivors,” she explained, remaining perfectly steady even as her heart beat quickly in her chest. His grey eyes were fixed on her face, searching for deception or subterfuge. She’d heard him bark at Corvo once, ‘I’ve never lied to you, bodyguard;’ and he seemed determined not to be taken for a fool.

“Why?” was all he asked.

“I—The Crown has need of you,” she nearly slipped, but it wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t… Jessamine was the Crown.

***

Daud, for his part, was a fool and a miserable sod. He had always known this, but it had never been clearer to him than when he left Dunwall Tower that day; and left behind another promise to the Empress. To stay, to help.

Oh, Billie would be laughing at him for days.

The plan had worked. Inexplicably, it had worked, even if just barely. Daud had ground his teeth for days afterwards, keeping himself from hovering outside the room Aedan was treating the Empress in — Jessamine, she kept insisting and he still refused — and leaving the hovering and worrying to Corvo (‘Attano,’ he’d been then) and the Princess (as she still was, even if she’d offered to call her Emily) instead. But Jessamine had survived the shot, had given the first announcement lying on a cot in Piero’s workshop, proclaiming that an attempt on her life had been made but that she’d lived, and would live, to tell the tale and take her city back from those who’d dare dethrone her. It was half a miracle there were no riots in the streets; and perhaps if not for the Plague there would have been. But Dunwall was frightened, worn down, and too damn cold to take up arms.

The announcements did not include the names of those responsible — Burrows, Campbell, the Pendletons and the Boyles would be left to cowering in the shadows until their lives were snuffed out by what moved within them. Or so they’d thought. Daud had barely understood himself, but he reminded Corvo to ‘be sure’ when he stood over High Overseer Campbell, his sword half drawn and the madness of grief that could have been but wasn’t in his eyes. In the end, Campbell had been branded a heretic, and if they’d signed his death warrant that way, at least their blades were clean. Campbell had been found months later, blood from the eyes, in the Flooded District.

One by one, the makers of a new dawn, of boldest measures being the safest, found their very public end one after the other; Burrows the last and snivelling the loudest. Corvo had been his executioner, and had drawn no satisfaction from it. Hidden away, watching, Daud had. Just a little.

So the plan had unfolded and succeeded, and still Daud was not free. He could be, of course. He simply had to say no.

He was glad to have escaped her quarters soon after making his Void-forsaken promise — not his first to her, and unlikely to be the last. Making his way across the rooftops of the Tower District, he halted in his Transversal when someone fell into step right beside him. He didn’t have to look to know who.

“Bodyguard,” he rumbled, wondering what in the Void Corvo might want with him today. Fool, he castigated himself, you’re vexed by one, you’re soft around the other, and neither of them are scared of you.

“Daud,” Corvo said in return, turning a little into him and reaching out to touch his elbow to motion for him to move along. Daud had half a mind to dig in his heels.

“What is it?” If Corvo was bent on dragging him along somewhere, Daud liked to be prepared before embarking on a fool’s errand; as he’d been on enough of those in his life, and certainly many enough at this man’s side.

“I’ve received word from one of our friends in the Bottle Street Gang,” Corvo led in, and Daud rolled his eyes.

“They’re all your friends,“ he growled. Corvo had the nerve to smile.

“Mine perhaps, but not all yours,” he said. Daud narrowed his eyes. “Craxton quite likes you,” Corvo’s tone turned to teasing, and Daud cursed forgetting how to keep his mouth shut.

“Craxton is a choffer and a half,” Daud shot back, “and if you have word from him, you’d better checked it twice.”

“I did. The information’s good.” Corvo paused, waited until Daud raised a brow. “They have a lead on who’s been trying to muscle in on their territory.”

“They don’t still think it’s Galvani, do they? Because, much as I hate to say it, but Rinaldo’s right when he says that prick couldn’t even piss out an open window,” Daud said, try as he might to forget some of Rinaldo’s more… colourful assessments.

Corvo grinned, his eyes a little brighter. “I think your most recent shouting match with Slackjaw might have finally disabused them of the notion.”

Daud looked away, and out over the district docks below. “Good.”

“We should go and take a look,” Corvo said a little too nonchalantly. But if it was meant to draw Daud’s gaze back to him, it did the job.

“We?” Daud questioned. As if Corvo hadn’t known what Jessamine would ask him, as if he hadn’t known when she’d do it. Daud gritted his teeth. He was a fool, he reminded himself, a fool and an intruder. He served a purpose, for now, and they wouldn’t have need of him forever. And when they were done with him, he could leave, get off this wretched rock and go wherever the wind carried him.

“Of course,” Corvo answered, as if it were that fucking simple. “If… you want,” he faltered then, however, and Daud fought whatever was rearing its ugly head inside him. He sure as the Void wasn’t going to let it be hope.

“Fine,” Daud still chose the path of least resistance.

“Good,” Corvo said, and nodded, as if to affirm the words. He had to be certain now of the answer Daud had given Jessamine, as well. “The next few days will be busy, but… next week?”

“Alright,” Daud agreed.

Corvo tilted his head. “I’ll see you before then?”

“Yes,” Daud said, tersely, as though all this was a waste of his time.

“Good.” Corvo was smiling again. Daud almost missed the days when he hadn’t known the face behind the mask.

***

Corvo was beginning to smell the irony when finding out more about who had been threatening Slackjaw and his gang involved breaking into none other than Dr Galvani’s offices. Twice.

There was nothing humorous about being almost eaten by a swarm of rats, however, and that was certainly the fate poor Crowley had suffered. The audiograph he’d left for Slackjaw had been missing the final clue, however, so now he and Daud were only somewhat closer to solving the mystery. Why it happened to be their mystery to solve, Daud growled while hacking away at the pack of rats locked away in Galvani’s laboratory. Corvo said nothing, knowing the truthful answer would send Daud grumbling about Corvo’s ‘bleeding heart;’ and a lie Daud would recognise for one without even looking at him.

It was the next day that Jess listened to him lay out their nightly exploits in all detail and, instead of a threat assessment, asked him when he thought to tell Daud that he wanted more from him than his knowledge of the Void and a scramble across the rooftops. Corvo promptly forgot how to breathe, if only because he remembered an old promise he’d once made her — if he found someone he might be with, openly and without fear of consequence, he would tell her; and together, they would decide. Corvo had never seen the need for it, no matter how difficult hiding their relationship became. Certainly, that night ten years ago, Jessamine hadn’t considered that the Knife of Dunwall might take that place; and Corvo would have liked to think that he could have protested the notion decisively, but the truth was that Jess only had to utter a scant few words — of them, of Daud — to seduce him. They’d ended up with her on top, meeting his thrusts and whispering secrets, such as what they might be able to do with another pair of hands.

So they’d stumbled into this much like they had into their own relationship, headlong and together. He barely dared to ask her how long she’d known, so he asked if she was sure, instead. He did not doubt her feelings, or his own, but Daud… he’d stayed, yes. But had he stayed for one, for both, or neither of them? One night while she’d still been recovering, Jessamine had confided in him the promise she’d wrenched from the assassin: to take care of her world, should she pass from it, to protect him and Emily if the plan failed. While Corvo was glad never to have to put to the test whether Daud would have kept his word, his conduct around Jess and especially Emily left him with little doubt that Daud would have gone to the same lengths as Corvo to protect those entrusted to him.

‘I’ve never lied to you, bodyguard.’ The words, spoken once while sparring in the kennels, with blades and magic and fists, still rang in Corvo’s ears. It’d been the morning after the Boyle Party.

Corvo and Daud had done what they had to. There had been no other way, not in so short a time, and they couldn’t — wouldn’t — give her to Brimsby. Daud had refused Corvo’s eyes, hadn’t even said a word. He’d pulled Corvo away from Esma Boyle, Burrows’ mistress and financier, and told him not to bother.

“What are you—“

“It’s going to be painless.”

They’d returned to the pub in silence, even Samuel foregoing his usual sensible chatter at the looks on their faces. Or, rather, on Daud’s face; Corvo’s still hidden behind the mask. Emily had already been asleep, only Jessamine and a few Whalers waiting for them. Daud had made for the stairs without another word, leaving Corvo to report. Jess had been grieved, and shaken; and when he’d assured her that, considering the circumstances, her hands were clean, she’d tilted her head at him.

“Are they? Are yours? Are his?”

Corvo hadn’t known what to say to that.

The next morning, Daud hadn’t been at breakfast — until then, every morning, they’d had breakfast with the assassin at their table, and now he was conspicuous by his absence. Rinaldo told them quietly that Daud had been up for hours, and been downstairs twice, for coffee, food, and more coffee. Jess waited five minutes, then ten. Emily asked if something was wrong.

***

Daud had had enough of killing. But there had been no other way, and in his foolishness, he’d refused to let Corvo handle it instead. And he’d done it because… because it was Corvo. He’d done it not for coin or for honour, as distant as that concept was, not for the lives that depended on their success. He’d done it for her.

He’d told them he wasn’t a tool, but what was he fashioning himself into now?

There was a knock on the door. He’d been expecting it. Sharing an office with the Empress meant a scant few hours of peace just after dawn.

“Come in,” he called, surprised that she’d waited at all.

“Daud,” she greeted as she entered, and was it tact she hadn’t wished him a ‘good morning’?

“Empress.” He looked up from his reading for the sake of manners, as little as the Empress of the Isles seemed to stand on ceremony while hidden away in a run-down pub in a quarantined district. She met his gaze with merciless kindness.

“We missed you at breakfast.“

He stared at her. Didn’t dare speak for the words that sat atop his tongue. Words he could never say to her. Not to anyone, for the truth they contained; truth about himself that turned to Void and blood in his dreams.

“Corvo told me what happened,” she said then. She waited. He took too long. “You killed for me.”

“Don’t let it go to your head, Your Highness.“

She held his gaze. She trusted wolves too readily.

“Corvo’s going to spar with the novices. Perhaps you might like to join them.”

With that, she’d left.

Daud went.

Striding into the kennels, the Whalers circled around Corvo made way. Corvo turned, and Daud attacked. He let his anger reign in ways he shouldn’t have, let his powers become onto themselves what they could be upon his enemies; and Corvo, to his credit, gave as good as he got. Didn’t try to stop him, either, even as his eyes darkened with concern.

Daud had had enough of killing.

The Whalers crowded around the cages grew restless, he knew it well enough, and when he and Corvo both bled, one or two of them vanished. A few minutes later, the Empress strode inside, and it was only the insistent edge of Daud’s blade that kept Corvo’s attention on him.

Jessamine sent the Whalers out, then watched a moment longer. For what purpose, Daud could not fathom. To see which one of her knights would win? Only Daud wasn’t a knight, he was a killer, and her true knight in shining bloody armour was right there.

“Stop.” She didn’t even have the tact to raise her voice.

Corvo did, stepping away and lowering his sword, his eyes still fixed on Daud to see if he followed. Daud lingered, blood up and blade raised, but what use was it?

He didn’t have the luxury of hiding behind a promise.

And Jessamine walked right up to him, never even glancing at the knife, and asked him what was wrong.

He stood, his breath coming faster now than when he’d been chasing Corvo around the pit.

That he’d killed wasn’t what was wrong. What was wrong was that he’d abused the power given to him by an uncaring god for decades until remorse finally caught up with him, and that now he’d tried to find another way, only to realise he never would.

He’d killed for her.

He’d do it again.

He told her this.

“So you’d better stop looking at me like that.“

“That,” she told him, “is not up to you.”

Chapter Text

Between sharing long hours with him in ‘their’ office, watching him train with Corvo and listening to him patiently answer Emily’s questions about pirates, bandits, and the gangs, Jessamine had come to care for Daud. She never forgot who he was, but she also never forgot that her own hands had never been clean. From the day her father’s own bodyguard had skewered assassins paid to abduct her from the Tower, there had been killing in her name. Corvo, too, had acted as her agent in addition to his duties as Protector — and outside of Burrows’ jurisdiction as Spymaster — and he hadn’t counted the lives he’d taken to keep her safe. Daud had killed for coin. Some of those assassinations had made her life more difficult, but not all of them. Jessamine would have liked to claim that those on the “right” side of history did not pay shadowy assassins to do their dirty work; but that was not the world in which they lived. Corvo had killed because it was his duty. Daud… he hadn’t done what he had for coin. Nor, she supposed, for honour. But then, he denied he had any.

It was a few days after Corvo and Daud’s investigation into Slackjaw’s rival and his man Crowley’s death, and her and Corvo’s subsequent moment of revelation, that she put into action a devious little plan. Devious only for its timing and, perhaps, its execution, but certainly not for its intent. Well, a little.

Daud was due any minute now for a meeting to discuss further aiding Slackjaw, and Jessamine caught herself wondering if one day they might share an office again. This waiting was tedious, and she already had enough of it waiting for Corvo to join her in her quarters every night. At the pub, she had stayed with Emily every night, only sneaking out a handful of times to meet Corvo down by the rocks.

Corvo glanced at her when she stepped in close to him as the clock struck the third bell.

“Jess?”

She hummed, keeping an eye on the window, and when a flutter of ashen shadow heralded the arrival of the one she sought, she turned her body into Corvo’s, cradling his face and tugging him down to kiss her. If he was surprised, he fought not to show it, as he instinctively moved to hold her against him, kissing back. There was no sound from behind them, and before the silence could end, Jessamine let go of Corvo, whose eyes were on her before they moved towards the window.

“Daud,” Corvo greeted him, his voice husky with surprise, and Jessamine turned as well.

Daud stood fairly frozen to the spot, and she caught his eyes as they moved from where they’d been fixed on the ground at his feet; to Corvo, then to her, and back.

“Corvo,” he muttered, and Jessamine would that she could hear his voice wrap around her name as well, “Empress.” He’d long given up on sketching a bow when he came to see them here, but in its place his back was ramrod straight. At the pub, sometimes he’d relaxed even in her company, leaned against a window or his desk while smoking a cigarette. These days she wondered what he might have done if she’d plucked one from between his fingers and smoked it herself.

“Daud, how many more times must I ask you to call me Jessamine?” she asked him now, hoping he might not miss the edge of flirtation in her voice.

“At least once more, Your Highness,” he returned almost smoothly, raising a brow at her; but then seemed to catch himself and his expression evened out again, his gaze flickering to Corvo. Almost as if… Jessamine fought not to smile. At her side, Corvo leaned against her a moment in place of nudging her. Perhaps he’d understood her game.

“You must realise it’s easier to give in, Daud,” Corvo advised, and now Jessamine’s smile threatened to turn into a smirk. “If anything, you’ll have her off your back.”

“Oh, who knows,” Jessamine returned before Daud could say anything, “perhaps that’s what he enjoys.” She struggled not to hold her breath as she watched Daud’s eyes narrow.

“Alright, enough making fun,” he growled, his expression darkening. His eyes slid away from them as he stepped towards the table with maps and reports spread out in the middle of the room; and Jessamine realised her mistake.

She might have known he would not believe them.

She wanted to reach out, to touch his shoulder to draw him back to her, but she knew that would be foolish. He would not take kindly to explanations now, and much less to what he would perceive as pity. Her heart ached as she knew she’d hurt him; even as his turmoil lent her hope. Jessamine looked to Corvo, who looked as quietly stricken as she felt, then schooled his expression and picked up a Watch report from the previous night.

“There’s been unusual activity reported in the sewers in the Flooded District,” he told Daud, “just past Rudshore.”

And so half the evening was spent consulting maps and reports, collecting what they had heard. At the end of it, Daud gave a cursory bow. “Good night.” He disappeared before Jessamine could inquire him to stay. Standing behind her, Corvo sighed.

“Jess—”

“If anything, we now have an answer,” she told him. “Did you see his eyes? He hardly knew which of us to be jealous of.” There’s some small triumph in that, at least.

“He won’t believe us,” Corvo countered. “He’s too suspicious, and he won’t… I fear even if he wants to, he won’t let himself.“

“Just give him time.”

And time they did give him, but of course he never said a word.

Jessamine touched his elbow when they stood next to each other over the maps. She asked him to stay to keep her company when Corvo was still out training the recruits when he arrived, to wait. She teased him when he seemed uncomfortable to be alone with her after Corvo had told her that Daud seemed uncomfortable, sometimes, to be alone with him. She enjoyed drawing Daud’s politics out of him — the chip on his shoulder he still carried from his youth, much as he would deny it, his disdain for nobles, the Abbey, and those who would hold power over others.

Sometimes they would argue over policy; sometimes they would agree and drive Corvo up the wall with their stubbornness. On such evenings, Jessamine would grin at Daud and find him fighting a smile in return.

One night, Corvo was still gone when Daud returned.

“Where’s Corvo?” he asked with a glance at the clock. “It’s too late to be training recruits, even for him.“

Jess barely held back her sigh. “There was… an incident at Parliament today.”

“An incident,” Daud repeated flatly. “What happened?” He didn’t sit at her invitation as he usually did, as if he might feel compelled to run and find Corvo to fight an unseen threat at his side. “Where is he?“

“He’ll be back soon. He just needs some air,” she added at seeing Daud’s agitation grow. “One of the lords made an insensitive remark today, unaware that we were already in the building, and Corvo heard by way of whispers. He’s usually quite good at ignoring them, but this one… struck a nerve.”

“What did they say?“ Daud demanded.

“They felt compelled to tell one of their peers that it was as well that I survived your blade, or the Empire would have had to contend with being ruled by the child of a dead empress and an interloper,” she summarised perhaps too neatly, but she herself was too angry still and too regretful that she could not simply leave and go leaping across the rooftops to get away to draw it out.

Daud’s brow darkened.

“Who?”

“Daud—”

“Who?”

“Daud,” she called with at least some authority. “It will be dealt with, in time. If we rushed punishing anyone who spoke disparagingly of Corvo’s origin or of Emily’s parentage, Parliament would be mostly empty.”

“Can’t see how that’s a bad thing,” Daud muttered.

She tilted her head. “Are you at all curious at what they meant by your blade?“

Daud shrugged. “Many still believe it was me who tried to kill you; yet others believe Corvo bought me off to save you instead. Whichever one is true doesn’t matter.”

“Do you truly care so little?“

“What others think of me? Yes.“

“All others?“ she couldn’t help but ask, and her heart barely had time to leap up into her throat before he replied.

“Why? Is what you think of me so different?” His voice told her that he thought he knew the answer.

Her answer — the truth — was cut off by a knock on the door. Corvo’s knock. She bade him enter, then fixed her eyes on Daud.

“Yes,” she said decisively. For now, this would have to suffice. Corvo strode towards the desk, his face still drawn, but his eyes grew softer as they met hers, then landed on Daud. Corvo came to stand next to him, nearly close enough for their shoulders to touch.

“Daud,” he greeted quietly.

Daud wrenched his gaze away from her and looked over at Corvo instead.

“Corvo.”

Jessamine wished they could simply both kiss him.

***

Corvo did not join Daud on patrol that night, but he accompanied him down into the Tower District a little ways.

“Who?” Daud asked simply as they watched the docks.

“Jess wouldn’t tell you,” Corvo remarked, all too knowing.

“Will you?” Daud wanted to know, if just to know who to keep an eye on; no matter how strong the urge to push a sharp piece of metal into their eye. Men like him and Corvo were easy targets and they knew it, with what remained of a Serkonan lilt in their voices and the way they held themselves in the sun. But Emily… he clenched his jaw. He had no right to defend her honour, to protect her, he reminded himself. He was the interloper in her world.

Corvo turned towards Daud, so close that his chest brushed against Daud’s arm. “I know you would bring her his head,” he murmured. “But it won’t be necessary.”

“What if I brought you his head?” Daud asked, holding Corvo’s gaze. This was about something they shared, something only they knew.

“Don’t,” Corvo said. “He’s not worth it.”

No, Daud thought. He isn’t. You are. But he couldn’t say it, so instead, he nodded.

Corvo smiled slightly. “I’ll head back now.”

“I’ll send Kieron with a copy of my patrol report.”

Tilting his head, Corvo said, “Or you could join us for breakfast.”

“Perhaps,” Daud answered vaguely. He had no idea what any of this meant; except that he was probably being made a fool of. A familiar feeling these days.

And still, Corvo smiled. “See you in the morning, then.” He blinked away, leaving Daud to resist the urge to turn and watch.

When Montgomery returned from patrol just before dawn with a broken wrist and caked in river krust venom, Quinn propping him up and complaining he’d put on weight to cover for the panic on his face, Daud had better things to do than to head for the Tower. He still sent Kieron, with his apologies. He should have known that doing so would only invite more trouble, as about two hours later, Corvo appeared in his office, unannounced, rapping on the doorframe.

“Hey.”

Daud looked up from his paperwork, surprised. Not pleased, no. A man like him could not afford the pleasure of Corvo Attano’s company.

“How’s Montgomery?” Corvo asked, plainly concerned.

“He’ll be fine,” Daud found his voice. “His wrist is shot and he’s got a few severe burns where the muck ate through the uniform, but he’ll recover in a few weeks.”

“Good, I’m glad.”

Daud half-frowned, remembering another time when someone had chosen to remind him that he’d missed breakfast. “She send you to collect me?”

It was Corvo’s turn to arch a brow. “She sent me to ask after the health of one of your men,” he returned. “And, at my discretion, to extend another invitation, if you’re likely to accept it.”

“And am I?” Daud asked, leaning back in his chair. “Likely to accept one such an invitation?”

Corvo regarded him for a moment. “I’m not sure. What would it take to persuade you?”

Daud was spared the indignity of casting about for an answer that didn’t leave him hot under the collar by Thomas calling from the stairs.

“Sir! Sir! Oh,” he exclaimed at recognising Corvo. “Good morning, sir.” He turned to Daud. “We just got word from one of the Bottle Street runners. Slackjaw’s gone missing.”

Needless to say, days later, the search for Slackjaw did not go well. That was, the search itself did. It was the rescue that turned out an unmitigated disaster.

Daud woke to unfamiliar surroundings, unfamiliar sounds. He recognised the crackle of a fire, but not the ticking of a tall clock. Nor the sound of a young voice from his right, telling… pirate stories?

Slowly, he blinked open his eyes, forcing himself to get his bearings. He was on a bed softer and more comfortable than he’d probably ever had, the sheets covering him up to his waist and tucked under his arms heavy and warm. He looked to the right first, waiting for his eyes to focus and recognising… Emily. Sitting next to him on the mattress, one of her storybooks he remembered from the Hound Pits open on her lap. She was reading aloud, he realised. He watched her for a moment longer, and she was so immersed in her reading she had not yet noticed he was awake.

Paper rustled to his left, and slowly he turned his head.

At her desk, the Empress, working, equally unaware.

Daud closed his eyes again, if just to preserve the illusion. How..? Granny Rags, he remembered. A bubbling cauldron. Slackjaw, bound and screaming for help. Corvo, fighting off a rabid swarm of rats. Burning the cameo — or trying to, when the witch attacked him and sliced him with a knife. Through all his layers, it was a superficial wound, but after only seconds, Daud stumbled, nauseous, his vision narrowing. Above him stood Granny Rags, cackling, and the last thing he knew was Corvo’s panicked shout of his name.

At the same time as he thought he ought to just continue to lie still and pretend he was unconscious until such time as he was left alone and then find a convenient moment to leave, he knew it would be the height of disrespect. Jessamine (and he had taken to calling her such in his thoughts, seeing as he already was in his dreams) and Corvo would be disappointed, if not hurt. And for a moment, that was tempting, too, as it might put whatever folly they shared out of their minds if they realised that he was not cut out to be their friend. Or anything else he barely dared to consider. She had him put in her bed.

He suppressed a sigh. Best to get it over with. Waiting for Emily to reach the end of the page, he opened his eyes again and cleared his throat.

“And what did the brave captain resolve to do?” he asked, having gotten a glimpse of the story for at least a paragraph.

Emily snapped the book shut, startled. “Mother!” She grinned. “Daud’s awake!”

“I gathered,” Jessamine teased her daughter gently, “unless you have become very accomplished at ventriloquism while Corvo and I weren’t looking.” She’d gotten up from her desk and was nearly by his side now. “Daud.” She sat in the chair to his left. “How are you feeling?”

“What happened?” he rasped. “How long was I out?”

“Less than a day. Corvo brought you back yesterday evening. It’s afternoon again now. Corvo sent a message to the Whalers, they know you’re here. Thomas was here just an hour ago to check on you,” she answered what would have been his next question.

“Good,” he rumbled, grateful and quite uncertain how to show it.

“As for what happened, what’s the last thing you remember?”

“Granny Rags, she,” Daud glanced over at Emily, who was listening intently, “she got me with a knife. Not badly, but the blade must have been poisoned.”

Jessamine nodded. “It was. Corvo dealt with her, then he and Slackjaw got you out of the sewers. The poison was designed to make for a slow death,” she said plainly, apparently deciding that her daughter was old enough to hear of such things. “Sokolov found an antidote quickly enough, he said it acted similarly to Tyvian poison.”

This surprised Daud — with a witch’s poison, he wouldn’t have expected to live. Granny Rags’ household concoctions were not known for their similarity to anything from this realm. He was going to say so, but a coughing fit startled the words out of his mind. Dimly, he registered Jessamine reaching for him, her hand alighting on his shoulder.

“Emily, please go and fetch Sokolov or Piero from the lab.”

“Yes!” Emily scrambled off the bed, making for the door at a near-run.

“Emily!” Jessamine called after her.

“Alright!” Emily slowed down before leaving the room, but only barely.

“Here,” Jessamine said gently when Daud’s lungs had stopped seizing. She handed him a glass of water. “Slowly.”

Mercifully, his hands didn’t shake as he drank. He emptied half the glass and handed it back to her to deposit on the nightstand. Her nightstand. He froze. A day? And with no guarantee he’d wake for another night?

“Where,” he began, clearing his throat again, “where did you sleep?”

She tilted her head at him, as if to say that that really shouldn’t be his most pressing concern just then. Yet, she answered, “Corvo and I didn’t sleep. We shared the settee, waiting for you to wake.“

Or, failing that, to die, Daud thought. It was only then he realised there were dark shadows under her eyes. He frowned.

“You shouldn’t lose sleep over me.”

Her eyes were kinder than he deserved. “Daud—”

She was interrupted, yet again, by the door opening. It was Corvo.

“How is he—“ he stopped himself when he turned from the door and saw them. A smile overtook his face. “Daud.” Quickly, he made for the bed, coming to stand at Jessamine’s side. “Thank the Void you’re awake.”

“Not sure the Void’s got anything to do with it,” Daud retorted lamely, but still Corvo grinned.

“Are you hungry? I’ll get you something from the kitchens.”

Daud knew full well that by ‘getting,’ Corvo meant stealing from his own damned plate, and the thought of having dinner with them, laid up in the Empress’ bed scared him more then than another encounter with Granny Rags. He shook his head. “No, I should—I should get back to the Hound Pits.”

“Daud,” Jessamine protested. “You are welcome to stay another—”

“Another night? No,“ he shook his head. “I won’t impose on your kindness any longer, Your Highness.”

His words did hurt her, he feared, but it was better this way. He would not in good conscience fall asleep in her bed if he knew that was where he was.

Chapter Text

Daud barely let Piero examine him and pronounce him fit enough to return to the Hound Pits, provided that he be cautious. Then, thanking them all curtly though, Corvo could tell, nonetheless earnestly, he left. Emily, pouting, was called away by Callista. Before she left, she quickly hugged her mother around the waist.

“He’ll come back,” she said quietly.

When Emily was gone, Jessamine turned to Corvo and he instinctively opened his arms. She burrowed into his chest, drawing a shaky breath.

“He’s alright,” Corvo reminded her quietly. “He’s alright.”

“Alright enough to leave,” she murmured, her voice drained with hurt. Corvo had only seen her cry a few times since her coronation, the burden of the crown weighing down that part of her as well; but she sounded close enough to it now. “We nearly lost him; and now he’s gone only from this room and it’s as if we had.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, the hours they’d spent watching Daud draw laborious breaths for most of the night still sitting deep in his bones. “I should have been faster. I saw the knife, I—”

“No, Corvo,” Jessamine interrupted him. “It’s not your fault. Don’t blame yourself, please.”

“I can’t blame him for leaving, either,” he whispered. “He thinks we’re toying with him.”

“Then how do we convince him of the truth?”

“We have to talk to him. I fear subtlety is a lost cause.”

And he was right, Corvo found a few weeks later. The right time to talk to Daud had never come: between a scandal or two at Court and the Overseers getting it into their heads to raid the Flooded District and finding the Whalers’ old hideout empty and abandoned, they were all three kept busy enough.

Then came the night that they did talk, only it wasn’t Jessamine and Corvo making the introductions. It was Daud.

He was angry when he arrived, Corvo saw it by the tension in his shoulders. Jessamine recognised it, too, and bade him to sit and offered him tea — or whiskey, if he preferred. Daud declined all but the chair. Corvo watched as he sat, coiled like a spring. Before, Corvo had thought to extend the gratitude Slackjaw had asked him to pass on to Daud for his rescue, but thought better of it now. Daud’s past few visits had been brief, his manner equally so, and Corvo did not have to guess to know that he was displeased with their conduct after Granny Rags had poisoned him.

Jessamine tried to draw answers on topics of the day out of him, Daud was monosyllabic at best, and Corvo watched and wondered when the pot would boil over that they had so diligently been stirring.

The answer was: mere minutes.

“What do you two think you’re doing?” Daud growled without preamble. When neither of them knew quite what to say, his eyes darkened even further. “With me. What do you think you’re doing with me?“ His expression was pained, if Corvo had ever seen him look so wounded, but first and foremost there was aggravation. Daud stood, pacing towards the map table, then turning to lean against it. “I assume you’ve had your fun, but isn’t it enough now? Isn’t playing with me losing its amusement?”

“Daud—” Jessamine began, but he shook his head.

“I am no-one’s pet, Your Imperial Majesty,” he rasped, as if half-caught between pleading and rebuke. Jessamine and Corvo shared a glance. “And I can’t take much more of being treated like one.”

“Daud.”

“If you have no more need of me, just let me go. I stayed at your behest, and I will leave much the same,” he told her, and Corvo’s heart ached. Was this man truly so caught in his own loathing of himself that he could not see the truth? It was to Jessamine’s credit that she saw the pain in his words, not the offences he had led against them.

“Daud, we have need of you, more than you can know. But we have caused you pain, and I’m sorry. Please believe us, it was unconsciously done.”

“Then what were you trying to do?” Daud demanded.

Corvo looked to Jessamine. Neither of them had known before how to truly navigate this without running aground. “To show you that we want you with us. That you have become part of our world,” he told him quietly, willing him to believe.

Daud scoffed. “Not you, too, Corvo.”

“Not him, too? So would you make me responsible?” Jessamine asked him then. “Would you hold me to account, for conspiring to hurt you?”

Daud could not look her in the eye. She stood.

“Daud, I—”

“Please don’t,” he said, so quietly now. “Please don’t lie to me.”

“I’ve never lied to you,” she whispered. Corvo saw tears glistening in her eyes, but her gaze spoke of determination, and of love. “So now do me the same courtesy, Daud, and tell me: do you love me?”

“Empress—”

“Empress, assassin, bodyguard, stop hiding behind what we are, and tell me who you are,” she demanded. “You would kill for her, for the Empress, but you cannot tell me the truth of your own heart?”

“What use have you for my heart? You have him,” and here Daud inclined his head at Corvo, who swallowed, feeling ice settle in his stomach.

“And what of me?” Corvo dared to question. “Is my regard wasted on you as well?”

Daud pushed away from the table then. “I can’t listen to this,” he growled, making for the window.

Fearless, Jessamine put herself into his path, and he halted immediately; and Corvo tensed only for the anguish in his eyes. He knew Daud would never hurt her. “You will listen.”

“What more is there to say?”

“Nothing,” she said softly. Confusion furrowed Daud’s brow, and Corvo held his breath as she stepped closer. Jessamine raised her hands to cradle Daud’s cheeks, murmuring to let her show him, instead. Daud held very still. Jessamine leaned into him. Kissed him, just so.

Daud’s eyes were open and wide, and Corvo feared he might never give in. Seconds passed, and just as Jessamine began to pull back, something in Daud seemed to give away. His eyes slid closed, and Corvo barely concealed his gasp when he saw Daud’s lips finally move against Jessamine’s. As if drawn in by a leash, Corvo stood himself, stepped closer, until he was near enough to dare to touch. His right hand found the nape of Daud’s neck, squeezing gently — not controlling, nor commanding; but it was a touch Corvo enjoyed and he hoped Daud would as well.

Daud answered with a low grunt, tearing himself away from Jess and turning to look up at Corvo instead — he looked almost dazed with it. A feeling Corvo was well familiar with, especially the first time.

“I know,” was all he needed to say, before using his hold on Daud to tug him towards him. Jessamine’s hands slid from Daud’s face and to his shoulders instead. “Listen,” Corvo whispered, and then his lips met Daud’s and nothing else could have possibly mattered but this.

Daud almost seemed to melt against them.

***

The world changed after that, and yet much remained the same. Daud snuck into the Tower at all hours, yet all that changed were the kisses bestowed upon him when he did. He would still kill for the woman they named Empress, only he murmured her true name now when she pressed against him. He still went on patrol with Corvo, only the damned man got it into his head to take off his mask in the middle of a downpour and to kiss him, high up on the roofs.

They would draw him in to sit with them, to share the settee; and they would tug at his clothes as well, Jessamine’s nimble hands teasing his collar open, Corvo mouthing at his neck.

He would begin to spend the night.

Under their hands, he would moan and shudder. He would tease them, then give them all they asked, and receive more in return.

He would come to them after patrol some nights and some nights not, but would then join them for breakfast just after sunrise. He would motion for Jessamine to tighten her collar to hide the marks on her neck Corvo’s mouth had gifted her, for he knew he carried the same for all to see if he wasn’t careful.

He would whisper that he loved them when they slept and, sometimes, when they woke.

Some mornings, Emily would join them at the table before her lessons, and would clamber up into his lap as easily as either of her parents’ as he read the paper as if there had always been a fourth chair there for him, and lean against him and ask about patrol. After a while, he would stop questioning what he deserved.

He knew he didn’t deserve any of this, and yet the world had deigned to grant him a boon.

He took it.


 

Epilogue

Jess settled herself in Daud’s lap, and plucked the cigarette from his fingers.

“Is that so?“ she drawled, then smoked, letting the heat fill up her lungs the way his gaze sends heat into her gut.

”Hmm,“ he hummed, watching her. “You don’t smoke.”

“Not where anyone can see it. Anyone but Corvo… and you.” She stubbed out the cigarette against the tea tray, then turned in Daud’s lap. “Surprised?”

“Not very,” he rumbled, then leaned forward to kiss her.

That is how Corvo found them, deep kisses and shallow breaths, Daud’s hand working its way under Jessamine’s strict blouse. He palmed her breast and she sighed against his mouth.

Later, Corvo was inside Jess who was leaning back facing Daud. Daud was bent between her legs and he licked her, licked what he could reach of Corvo, and Corvo barely held out until Jess clenched around him for the third time. He groaned out a warning, and Daud sat up and lifted Jess off of him, but before Corvo could take himself in hand, Daud has already swallowed him down.

Daud took it all, stroking Corvo’s thigh soothingly, and then he sat back on his haunches, straining for attention and panting; so Jess drew him closer and took him in hand, stroking him, and he kissed her deeply as he spilled over her hand. Jess tugged on Daud and lay back, and he ended up cocooned between them. Corvo’s hand went to his hair, stroking his scalp lazily, and Daud caressed Jess’ skin where his hand covered her stomach and her side, brushing the underside of her breast as she shuddered pleasantly against him.

Daud knew there was no way out of it now. He was in love with them and this was how he’d die, the life fucked out of him. Who knew, he thought, it would lead to this when he transversed in through the window all those years ago, coming to warn Jessamine and Corvo. He was still carrying the scars and the sins, still woke up from nightmares, still couldn't shake the blood he's spilt, but he liked to think he’d been making up for some of it.