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Dorian hated The Hissing Wastes. He could not describe in Tevene, Orlesian or The Common Tongue, how much he loathed The Hissing Wastes.  Dorian could have cheered when Scout Harding told the Inquisitor that the space had nothing but space and she would just let Corypheus have it. It was only propriety that stopped Dorian from lifting the dwarf onto his shoulders and proclaiming her the wisest of all her race. Harding was clearly a Paragon in the making. Yet this hadn’t deterred their noble leader. The intrepid heroes had pressed on. It had been weeks trudging across a barren wasteland, with nothing to break up the monotony but sand, sand, sand, slightly different sand, bands of Venetori assassin who wanted to dismember them, and more sand.

But in spite of this, for some inexplicable reason, the Inquisitor decided the area deserved another expedition. Dorian had never been so close to leaving the Inquisition as he had been when he heard that piece of news. The only reason he hadn’t packed up his gear and fled in the dead of night was that Dorian wasn’t selected for that particular mission.

The Iron Bull was.

Over the five weeks that followed the party’s departure, the people at Skyhold learnt to give Dorian a wide birth. His sarcasm had been more acidic of late, his patience shorter and his company less than enjoyable. Well... “Less than enjoyable” was putting it mildly. If Bull had been there he would have said Dorian was acting like he got poked in the eye with the shitty stick.

Dorian felt it wasn’t his fault the whole Inquisition had come down with a terminal case of unfathomable stupidity. Or that they felt the need to inflict said stupidity on his person on a semi-regular basis, in the form of irrelevant questions. Or that they would do so when he was on the verge of a break-through in his vital research. Research to help the Inquisition defeat an ancient, bloodthirsty Magister bent on world domination. Anyone else remember that guy?

But what he found most insufferable was that everyone he talked to (or more accurately talked to him) seemed to be sharing some kind of joke. A joke at his expense, no less. They would push him past the breaking point. He would snap at them. And then they would give him the same put-on, long-suffering expression and ask him if there was any news from Bull yet.

What had that to do with anything?

So when Dorian, who had been sitting in his usual reading nook - deep in study and most certainly not brooding, nor sulking, nor any of the unflattering verbs Varric had flung in his direction- saw Vivienne stalking towards her balcony, he obviously leapt to his feet because he was pleased to see her. It would be inexcusably rude not to ask her how the expedition went.

‘Madame Vivienne,’ Dorian drawled. ‘It is good to see you’ve arrived safely…’

‘My dear.’ Vivienne's voice was full of all its usual clarity and sharpness.  ‘Let me stop you now. While I appreciate your attempt at civility, we both know neither of us are in the mood for idle chatter. I am going to spend the rest of the day monopolising the largest of the tubs in the Skyhold bath-house, and I am more than willing to kill any man, woman or child who stands in my way. Just as I am sure you will not tolerate any obstacles between you and your Qunari paramour.’

Dorian would have scoffed at the idea of anyone calling Iron Bull anything as frilly as his “paramour”. But he was wise enough to realise that Vivienne was not the sort of woman who would appreciate being scoffed at. Particularly not today. He cleared his throat instead.

‘You wouldn’t happen to know where…’

‘Debriefing his rag-tag band of mercenaries at the Tavern, my dear. Now go. Off with you.’

Dorian nodded and smiled, his feet already moving towards the stairwell. ‘I’ll have a servant send you the least revolting wine they can find.’

Vivienne laughed but didn’t reply. Dorian could tell how exhausted she must have been by the lack of a witty rejoinder.

Dorian sauntered down the stair-well, trotted through the great hall, whisked down the stone stairs to court-yard, bolted passed the sparing ring and was on the verge of sprinting when he reached the tavern. He flung the door open and Dorian stepped inside. It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.

Bull wasn’t there.

Krem, however, was. He was sitting on the back-rest of his usual chair, feet resting on the seat – a habit Dorian had never been able to get his head around – and drinking beer straight from the bottle. If Krem thought he had hidden that infernal smirk from Dorian by taking a long swig of beer, the man was sadly mistaken.

Dorian forced himself to stroll casually over to Bull second-in-command. He gave him a curt nod. ‘Soporati.’

‘Altus.’ When Dorian and Krem had first crossed paths these titles had carried with them an undercurrent of mistrust and suspicion. But months of working with the Inquisition (and Bull) had eroded away the words' edge. Now they were no sharper than a butter-knife. It would be a stretch to call Krem and Dorian “friends”. But it wasn’t uncommon to see them chatting when the Chargers and the Inner Circle wound up in the Tavern at the same time.

‘Looking for the Chief? Krem’s expression was a well-honed study in innocence. It was a masterpiece. Dorian didn’t buy it for a second.

‘As a matter of fact, I was. Madame Vivienne said he was here.’

‘He was. He’s either gone with the Inquisitor to talk to the Nightingale, or Sera’s dragged him off to show him something.’

‘Sera?’

‘Yeah. Something to do with…’ Krem sighed like a man who has suffered much over the years. ‘”Mayhem.”’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I didn’t pass him on my way here.’ Dorian sounded uncertain, as though he was deciding on a course of action. ‘But I’ll go and check with Leliana first, anyway. Just in case Bull is with Sera…’

‘…and you want to be outside of the danger zone. I get ya.’

Dorian gave a tight smile and clapped Krem on the shoulder before turning towards the tavern door.  His frustration was beginning to boil up again and if he didn’t find Bull soon he worried he would end making something explode. Or someone. More than that, he was beginning to wonder whether Bull had returned unscathed. Maybe he had suffered some sort of fatal injury. One that just happened to slip Vivienne and Krem's minds during their conversations. A stupid thought, of course, Dorian knew that, but would not feel settled until he actually laid eyes on the brute.

If circumstances had been different - if there had been a few more people in the tavern, drinking and laughing, or if Maryden had been warbling away, - it is very likely Dorian would not have heard Seggrit mutter under his breath;

‘Still trying to piss-off Daddy.’

Dorian’s jaw clenched. Every part of his rational mind was yelling at him to walk out the door that minute. To pretend like he didn’t hear. To just drop the matter faster than a hot coal.

‘I beg your pardon.’ Dorian’s mutinous mouth said, without his brain’s permission. ‘Could you repeat that? I didn’t quite catch what you said.’

Seggrit had been drinking. It was all he seemed to do now that Bonny Sims and the Tradesmen had snatched up all the business in Skyhold, with cheaper and better goods. Dorian would have felt sorry for Seggrit if he hadn’t been an underhanded money-grabber, to begin with. Most of Skyhold saw Seggrit being squeezed out of business as something akin to poetic justice. The Inquisitor had saved Seggrit’s life in Haven but that had done nothing to improve his personality. It would be fair to say, before this moment, Dorian never gave the man any deep thought.

However, the constant, irrational touchiness Dorian had nursed for over a month, was on a brink. The brink of becoming something far more darker and real if Seggrit chose to push his unpleasantness any further.

Apparently, he did.

‘Nothing, your excellency.’ Seggrit words dripped with sarcasm. And spit. It wasn’t even mid-day and he was already slurring his words. ‘I wouldn’t dare say a thing against you and your…’ Seggrit paused. Dorian knew, that no matter what word came out of that foul little mouth, he was going to make Seggrit regret it on his death-bed. Which Seggrit could be lying on sooner than he’d anticipated.

‘Pet.’

Dorian’s found his fists bunched in Seggrit’s shirt and the merchant’s back slammed into the brick wall behind him. The mage didn’t even realise it was happening until all the collision and movement had stopped. His face was inches away from Seggrit’s. It pleased Dorian to see the man’s eyes widen in shock, but other than that Seggrit’s expression remained unchanged.

‘Whoa-hoa-hoa.’ Seggrit laughed but there was the thin, reedy sound of fear under the surface. ‘Did I strike a nerve?’

‘I would select my next few words very carefully, good man.’ Dorian spat. ‘I am not known for my patience at the best of times. But when someone demeans those important to me...’

Seggrit snorted. ‘Important to you! C’mon Vint. We’ve all heard about the little get together you had at Redcliffe. The one with your dad.' Static electricity crackled between Dorian’s knuckles at the mention of his father. ‘You think we haven’t worked out why you picked The Bull to bend you over the barrel? Just one more way to stick it to the old man, while the idiot, Qunari thug sticks it to you…’

Dorian slammed Seggrit against the wall again. This time sparks flew. Dorian could smell a singed odour and realised it was coming from Seggrit’s clothes. Seggrit’s mouth clicked shut from both the force of Dorian’s shove and from growing alarm. Dorian forced himself to take a breath through his nose; teeth clenched, voice low.

‘Let me make something clear to you, you slimy, pathetic creature. I am an Altus of Tevinter Imperium; a descendant of the first Dreamers. I am the son of a Magister and one of the closest confidants to the Herald of Andraste. Do you honestly believe that I would ever stoop to sharing my bed with someone I thought unworthy of my presence? I have spent my life demanding the best and I, Dorian Pavus, always receive what I demanded.’

‘Yeah.’ Seggrit sneered. ‘And Bull is “The Best.”’

Something in Dorian’s mind locked together as Seggrit said these words. For all the snide sarcasm slathered on the top, what Seggrit had said was completely true; Bull was “The Best”. It’s not why Dorian and Bull had fallen into bed together, the Maker knew that. For all Dorian’s protests, Bull’s comments about how the mage was “drawn to the forbidden” were quite accurate. Bull had always been perceptive, damn him. But there was no way Dorian would have still been with him for more than one or two nights if a taste of the forbidden was all he craved. Bull was “The Best”. And Dorian had managed to stumble across the oaf, like a blind man stumbling over a bag of gold.

This thought and this thought alone dampened down the roaring fire in his gut. He forced his hands to uncurl themselves from Seggrit’s shirt. Charred black patches marked where his fingers had been. Dorian’s locked eyes with Seggrit.

‘Yes. Yes, he is. The Iron Bull was a Ben Hassrath spy for one of the most disciplined, well-trained armed-forces Thedas has ever seen. Only an idiot would think Bull an idiot. Only a thug, a thug. I would try to explain to you why he is a brilliant tactician, a cunning warrior, a loyal friend, a beloved commander, or a kind and decent man. But I expect that endeavour would be like trying to explain Thaumaturgy to a slug. So instead of wasting my time, why don’t you just run along and live your unhappy waste of a life, and I’ll live mine.’

Seggrit straightened his shirt and glared back at Dorian. Whatever hateful courage the ale had given him had run out. Or superseded by some basic need of self-preservation. Seggrit turned for the door.

Dorian wanted to just let him leave, but once again his mouth disobeyed his brain. ‘Oh and Seggrit?’

Seggrit looked back, his mouth a hard white line.

‘Of course, I let Bull “Stick it to me.”’ Dorian said. ‘Have you seen the man’s cock? It is magnificent.’

Seggrit scrunched up his face, a recipient of more information than he cared to possess, and stormed out.

Dorian took a steadying breath, finally allowing rational thought to return to him. It occurred to him in a flash that he nearly got into a bar fight. A bar fight in a public tavern. Dorian turned around to see who had been watching but the place was practically empty at this time of day. The scattered patrons who were there seemed to be deliberately not looking in his direction.

Except for Krem of course. He was staring right at Dorian and smiling.

Dorian smothered a groan and walked back to the Charger.

‘What’s your price?’

‘What?’

‘Your price. What is it?’

‘I’m not sure what you’re getting at.’

‘What do I have to do to make sure Bull never hears of this little fiasco? Gold? Favours? Displays of public humiliation for your personal amusement?’

‘You think I’m the type to blackmail a man because he stuck up for his sweetie?’

Dorian buried his face in his hands. ‘Oh Andraste’s tits, please never refer to Bull as my “sweetie” again.’

‘I don’t get what the big deal is. Seggrit was a complete shit, as is the way of complete shits, you set him straight and put the fear of the Maker in him. Happy days all around. Why shouldn’t Chief know?’

‘Bull has enough trouble getting through doorways as it is. The last thing we need is for his head to swell.’ Dorian crossed his arms. ‘Besides unbridled egotism is my signature characteristic. I’m not about to share.’

Krem leaned forward, still perched on the back of the chair. ‘You know what I reckon? ‘

‘I don’t need to know what you “reckon”.’

Krem told him anyway. ‘You’ve always had to keep all your feelings for men shallow and surface level. Nothing too deep. Otherwise, you set yourself up for betrayal, ruin... Whatever the Imperium throws at guys who don’t fit their perfect little boxes. Guys like us.’

Dorian shifted his weight to the other foot. It was becoming difficult to maintain eye contact but he forced himself to. Krem went on.

‘That’s why it’s easier to almost fry a guy for bad-mouthing the Chief, but you can’t bring yourself to tell Bull you think he’s a good man. Because you’re still terrified that you are laying yourself open to a world of pain. We’ve got to remember it’s different here. The Chief is different.’

‘Yes, yes. Very sentimental.’ Dorian waved his hand as though he was brushing away Krem’s words. ‘Please just tell me what you want, so I can get it over and done with.’

Krem shook his head. He raised the hand not holding the bottle up flat, palm facing Dorian, completely open. ‘I, Cremisius Aclassi, swear on the Maker’s beard, that I will not tell The Iron Bull that you almost incinerated Seggrit to protect his honour. Nor say or do anything to imply that you think highly of him as a lover, warrior or a person in general’. Krem dropped his hand. ‘Happy?’

Dorian’s brow furrowed. ‘What? Really? That’s it.’

‘Yeah.’ Krem took a swig of beer. ‘After all, I don’t have to.’

‘What?’

A huge, warm hand landed firmly on Dorian’s right shoulder. In an instant, the mage became aware of the massive form standing directly behind him. Dorian narrowed his eyes at Krem. If Dorian was a crasser individual he would have described the grin the charger sported as “shit-eating”.

‘You’re a small, petty man, Soporati.’

‘We’ve all got to get our jollies somehow.’ Krem slid off his seat and headed towards the bar for another bottle. As he walked past he nodded to the figure behind Dorian.

‘Chief.’

‘Krem.’

For a moment there was nothing but silence, the weight of Bull’s hand on Dorian’s shoulder and the red-hot furnace that seemed to be radiating from Dorian’s face.

‘How much did you hear?’ he finally asked.

‘Pretty much everything from “the barrel” onwards. I should visit Sera’s room more often. It’s amazing how much you can hear from the second floor.’

From somewhere above Sera’s voice rang out. ‘Hey, Dorian!’

Dorian grimaced. ‘Hello, Sera.’

‘You should have fried Seggrit's balls off.’ Sera’s disembodied voice called. ‘Just saying.’

‘Thank you for your input.’

Sera didn’t reply, apparently having lost interest in the conversation.

‘Well.’ Dorian swallowed. ‘That settles that. Now that I know you’re not dead I can get back to important things, like finding a hole I can crawl into and die.’

Dorian tried to step out from under Bull’s hand, but the Qunari’s just snaked his arm along Dorian's collarbone and onto the other shoulder. Dorian felt Bull’s chin rest on the top of his head, his back pinned against that giant chest.

‘So…’ Bull said. ‘I was thinking about getting some posters made. Y’know like the ones in Val Royeaux they make to get people to go see plays.’

‘For what?’

'“The Bull’s Cock!”…’

‘Oh, maker…’

‘…And under a picture – not too detailed, we want to keep some of the mystery alive...’

‘Of course, that would be the one thing you take away from today.’

‘…We’ll put your quote! Dorian Pavus says “It is magnificent!” Five stars!’

‘I will not hesitate to set you on fire, Bull.’

‘Really? You would set fire to a man who is such a brilliant tactician, a cunning warrior…’

‘How do you even remember…?’

‘I was writing them down as you said them. Thought they might be useful later.’

Dorian groaned ‘Oh that is fantastic.’

‘See, it’s that sort of forward-thinking that helped me become a Ben Hassrath spy for one of the most disciplined, well-trained armed-forces Thedas has ever seen.’

Dorian tried to tug Bull’s hand from his shoulder but somehow –Dorian never did work out how – Bull just managed to tangle Dorian’s fingers in his own, leaving the pair’s fingers locked together, perched next to his neck. Bull’s other hand had found its way to Dorian’s right hip.

‘Have you become more clingy since returning to Skyhold?’ Dorian asked. ‘I don’t remember you ever hugging me in the middle of a tavern before.’

‘Hey, before I assumed you weren’t into public displays of affection. After all, every other relationship you’ve had was all hush-hush, cloak-and-dagger shit. I thought maybe you’d want to keep this stuff private until you felt comfortable. Or something like that.’

Dorian tensed at the words “Or something like that.” He wasn’t certain - and he never would be because he was too much of a coward to ever ask - but part of him wondered if Bull thought Dorian didn’t want people to know about their relationship because…

Well…

Because Dorian was ashamed of Bull.

It wasn’t true. It had never been true. Sure, Dorian had gotten flustered and irritated by Bull’s flirting before they started sleeping together, and obviously, Dorian got annoyed when Bull blabbed about their sex life in the middle of a quest, but he’d never…

Dorian had spent so many years feeling like somebody’s dirty secret. He never wanted Bull to feel that way. He never wanted Bull to feel that way because of him. The idea made him feel ill.

Bull was still talking.

‘...But then I come home and I find you challenging warriors to single combat, and getting into bar fights with twenty bandits…’

‘What?!’

‘I’m just testing the waters. Working out which version to tell Varric for the best impact. He’s a story-teller; he’ll appreciate the little flourishes for the sake of drama. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the chivalry thing suits you. It’s hot.’

‘I hate you.’

‘Here’s the thing,’ Dorian felt Bull’s lips brush against his hairline, ‘I know you really, really don’t.’

Dorian made a production of sighing and turned in Bull’s arms to actually look at his – not sweetie, not paramour, DEFINITELY not pet… damn it, they were going to have to find a proper term for what they were one of these days- at Bull’s face. It was the first time in weeks.

‘Bull?’

‘Yes, Dorian?’

‘Why are you covered in sand?’

Bull’s tone was flat and dry. ‘I went to The Hissing Wastes, Dorian. There’s not much else there.’

‘Are you sure The Hissing Waste still exists? You certain you didn’t carry the whole desert back with you?’

‘I wanted to come say hello before I had a proper wash.’

‘The Wastes are on the eastern border of Orlais. Literally, the entire Orlesian empire is between there and Skyhold. How can you still have sand on you?

Bull raised his eye skyward as if asking the heavens – or at least the roof of The Herald’s Rest – for help. ‘Alright. I’m going. I’ll be in the bathhouse if you need me.’

Bull started to pull away but Dorian held onto his hand.

‘Wait.’

Bull raised an eyebrow.

‘Vivienne is in the bath-house.’ Dorian considered for a moment. ‘Go up to your room. I’ll be up soon with some things to help you clean up.’

Bull’s grin widened. ‘Now that’s an idea. You're going to pamper me, big guy?’ Dorian squeezed his hand.

‘Well... Only the best will do.’