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Dunwall was burning.

Some days, when superstitions from his childhood bled into his adult life, Slackjaw wondered if it was punishment for burning the whales. The whales and the Outsider all got tangled up together in folk stories, and Slackjaw had lived long enough to see what real magic could do, long enough to make him think there might be some truth in those stories.

There were many who thought the Outsider cruel. Burning a city that had burned his children seemed appropriate revenge for a cruel god.

The fires devouring Dunwall had been set by men though, not gods, and ordered by a child empress as hard-hearted as her father. When aristocratic mansions started burning alongside the cramped apartments of the poor, Slackjaw had been quick to lock down the distillery entirely; persistent coughs were met with eviction, and reluctance to leave with death.

When even the rich could burn, the poor knew to watch for smoke.

Allowances had once been made for those who locked up their sick to die at home, provided the locks were sturdy enough and the hands of watchmen filled with coin, but Emily Kaldwin's law was unforgiving, unfeeling, and unrelenting.

If one member of a household was sick, the rest would be locked in to burn with them.

Slackjaw might not have believed it, distrusting even his own eyes, had he not heard confirmation from one of the men wielding the torches.

 

Geoff Curnow was of the same stock as Slackjaw, a man who knew how to rise above his station and survive, and a man who knew how it felt to be judged on his father's merits, or presumed lack thereof.

A bastard and the grandchild of an immigrant; small wonder that they barely mourned as Dunwall, a city that hated both, devoured itself.

Curnow operated within the law, Slackjaw outside of it, but they shared valuable traits. They took responsibility for their men's actions and lives; they kept their promises; they knew how to show respect.

Curnow trusted Slackjaw to take care of his own, and Slackjaw made damned sure his men addressed Curnow as Captain.

That title had been hard won, not handed down through mollycoddled generations, and Curnow deserved to hear it used.

 

Their truce was first struck to end a stalemate of a shoot out. Time had let it grow into a strange sort of friendship, and then something less strange once Slackjaw realised they shared not only valuable traits, but certain tastes.

Curnow had joked about some graffiti near Kaldwin's Bridge, but had drunk too much, too fast to hide the faint note of hysteria that crept into his voice.

Slackjaw told him to return with a question, not a joke, if he had the balls to do it when sober; to Curnow's credit, he did. Slackjaw responded in kind with a truthful answer, knowing that with most men, that would have been the end of the matter, or at least the end of the matter until drink loosened their tongues once more.

Curnow had simply taken his hand, told him about how damned long it had been since he had knowingly met someone like him, and after a stilted apology in case he was being presumptuous, kissed him.

 

Curnow did not visit for the better part of a month after that, and Slackjaw felt a little disappointed, but not unsurprised by the absence. A man in Curnow's position could not be open about his tastes, and if that short, unusually sweet kiss had meant an end to their friendship, at least it had not ended their truce.

When Curnow finally visited again it was with a bruised neck, a gift of cigars, and the truth of what happened in the Office of the High Overseer.

There was no kiss that time, Curnow still on edge from counting bodies and wondering how many were the result of Corvo Attano's choice to spare him, but the cigars were a gift worth sharing.

Slackjaw laughed when Curnow said he'd thought about giving up smoking. If Slackjaw had known what the future had in store for Dunwall, he would have laughed harder.

 

Slackjaw scarcely had time to register Curnow's next long absence. Weepers were followed by witches, witches by more weepers, and then the threat posed by Emily Kaldwin's law left him busy with a distillery that contained far more explosive material than was wise in a district that had started to burn.

Curnow showed up without warning in Slackjaw's office not long after the fires first began, shaking, reeking of smoke and burnt meat, and said, "I'm glad Callista didn't see this."

Slackjaw watched as Curnow poured himself a drink of whiskey, then another, before stripping off his coat and heading for Slackjaw's bed with no pause for questions. Sooty fingerprints marked the whiskey bottle and the coat, and Slackjaw knew they would mark his bedsheets next.

Something had died inside Curnow, and it didn't die easily. Curnow scratched and bit and clawed at Slackjaw until he bled, until Slackjaw had to stop and ask if Curnow wanted him to keep going.

Curnow said yes. Begged, in fact.

Slackjaw figured he might as well make the best of a godawful situation.

 

The morning after, Curnow had been dull-eyed and apologetic, taking time to clean the wounds he'd inflicted with scraps of cloth soaked in whiskey. He'd washed his hands first, but it had hardly been necessary; the worst of the soot had already been wiped off on Slackjaw's bedding, or sweated off during the night.

Slackjaw had no need for apologies under the circumstances, but had to ask why this time had mattered when every last man in the City Watch had dealt with weepers and plague victims before.

"There were innocents," Curnow said, stroking broad, warm hands down Slackjaw's back. "You always get 'innocents', no one admits they're dying. But this time... the Outsider must be having a fucking good laugh."

That much Slackjaw knew was true, assuming the Outsider even existed, else he wouldn't be in bed with a captain of the City Watch.

He figured that wouldn't be a comforting thought to voice. "You do what you need to survive. The rats're burning too."

Curnow rolled Slackjaw onto his back then, straddled him, and for a moment Slackjaw thought he could see the Serkonan in Curnow; a trace of olive in his pale skin, and features that tended towards narrow and sharp rather than broad and flat as was Gristol's habit.

Enough for his opinion to be dismissed at court, but beautiful for anyone with the sense to see it.

"I should get back to burning rats," Curnow said, tracing a bite mark on Slackjaw's chest with his fingertips, his expression a curious mixture of guilty and aroused. "And I should thank you."

"Come here again and I'll be biting back. Be a waste not to put them high collars to good use."

Curnow snorted before climbing to his feet and gathering his clothes, shaking them out, and filling the air with the scent of ash and burnt flesh once more.

 

Against all odds, the distillery itself avoided condemnation, even as the surrounding district turned into a graveyard of charred remains. What buildings still stood were blackened by smoke and acid rain, and it was hard not to feel as if he were the captain of a ship that had narrowly avoided a whirlpool.

Slackjaw wondered at the part of him that wished he'd sailed straight in. The city had been ready to die; it had deserved to die.

Somehow it still lived.

Slackjaw sat on the roof of the distillery, chewed idly on the end of his cigar as he waited for Curnow to join him. Curnow had taken the front entrance this time, no longer bothering with secrecy; Slackjaw's men would not kill him, Curnow's men would not report him, and the Overseers did not have the empress or her Lord Protector's ear.

"Care for a smoke?" Slackjaw asked once Curnow climbed up through the hatch, half serious, half teasing.

"That Tyvian barrister who demanded my head for burning his estate turned up dead, today. Seems someone took a glass bottle to his skull. And other parts."

"Fancy that," Slackjaw said, keeping his tone neutral with practised ease. "Must've been a popular man."

Curnow huffed with amusement before settling down at Slackjaw's side, resting his head on Slackjaw's shoulder. It was an uncomfortable weight, but one easy enough to bear.

For a long moment Slackjaw wondered if he meant to fall asleep there. It wouldn't be the first time.

Silence stretched out between them for a while, warm and lazy, before Curnow finally interrupted it with, "I hear Serkonos has its own plague, now. Bloodflies instead of rats." He tensed for a moment, and Slackjaw tilted his head to get a better look at him, curious as to what Curnow was thinking. "I want to transfer there."

"Slackjaw won't stop you," he replied, slipping into third person easily, an attempt to make himself feel detached from the conversation. It almost worked.

Curnow took hold of Slackjaw's hand, his grip firm, but not crushing or possessive. "Come with me. There's nothing left here worth saving, Callista's inheritance would buy us both passage and it... we..." Curnow trailed off, took a moment to gather himself. "I am so fucking tired of this city."

The silence was uncomfortable this time, but only lasted a beat.

"Yes."

Curnow sagged against him, his relief heavy and obvious, and it was hard not to feel an echo of it. Slackjaw pressed a kiss to Curnow's temple before standing up, wanting a clearer look at what had once been his kingdom.

It shouldn't have been an easy decision. Perhaps a year ago, it wouldn't have been.

There was nothing left in Gristol worth staying for, least of all in Dunwall, save the ruin of a man he shared his bed with. The world had almost ended, and then it hadn't; surviving that seemed - anticlimactic, somehow.

Leaving a dying plague behind in pursuit of a new one was reckless to the point of suicidal, but Slackjaw thrived on opportunities, on risks, and Curnow had not risen to his station through cowardice.

They left within the week.

 

It took a full year for the Duke of Serkonos to introduce his own version of Emily's law. A year Slackjaw spent carving a new name for himself on the Karnaca docks, and watching Curnow itch for something more to do than play a Dead Counter for the bloodfly infestation.

A year of waiting before Curnow got his new orders.

 

Karnaca was burning.