Bull always used to wake up early, but Dorian notices these days he's waking later and later. Later, even, than Dorian himself- though that may be in part because Dorian has adjusted his own sleeping habits to better match Bull’s.
A good relationship is about compromise, or so he hears. A little give and take. So Dorian wakes slightly earlier, and Bull wakes just after, and they get up and go downstairs together.
That's another thing where they've compromised. Bull’s morning routine involves pulling on what small amount of clothing he wears, and then heading into the tavern or dining hall for an extensive breakfast. Dorian, meanwhile, could spend hours fussing over his appearance, and tended to perform breakfast as a minimalist affair. A little bread or fruit, perhaps, and only after plenty of coffee had rendered him fully conscious.
He doesn't worry so much about his face and clothing anymore. On the balance of things, it seems rather unimportant.
This morning, Bull does not eat much either. His plate is as full as ever, but he barely even picks at it. Has been doing that a lot, actually.
Dorian steals a piece of his bacon.
“You should eat more, amatus,” Dorian chides him. “You're a warrior, you have to keep up your strength.”
Bull grunts at him in response, and shifts food around with his fork. “I'm just not that hungry,” he says.
Dorian worries a little that Bull has taken ill. The lack of appetite is uncharacteristic of him. Maybe he should go see a healer.
“Stop it, Dorian,” says Bull. Dorian gives a guilty start. “I can practically hear you fretting.”
“I don't mean to,” says Dorian. “But given recent events, can you blame me?”
Bull turns to look at him. “I'm all right,” he says. “I'm just a bit tired, that's all.”
“Which is what happens when you throw yourself out of bed at dawn to go hit things with swords,” says Dorian.
When Bull is out training with the Chargers, Dorian goes to check on him.
“What brings you out here?” someone calls.
Dorian smirks. “Just enjoying the view,” he replies, gesturing at Bull. There’s a bit of dutiful laughter. The Chargers all know about him and Bull by now. Some of them took a while to warm up, but they've mostly come around. They mostly think it's good.
The truth is, Dorian is a little concerned about Bull. His most recent injury does not seem to be healing as well as it should. He knows Bull is tough and hardy, seems to thrive off physical damage, but he can't help his worry. Bull would tease Dorian for fussing, but Bull doesn't have to know. He seems happy to accept Dorian's excuse, flexing and posing until Krem trips him up and the Chargers all laugh. It's good.
Later, when Dorian has gone back to the library to get some work done, Solas approaches.
“Tell me, Dorian, when are those bandages around the Iron Bull’s midsection due to come off?” says Solas, with his usual unshakable confidence in his right to stick his nose into everyone else’s private affairs.
“How should I know?” Dorian snaps. “I'm not his healer.”
“I was simply concerned about his health,” Solas demurs. “The two of you have been very close lately. I thought you might be able to tell me.”
“It's a broken rib,” says Dorian. “The bandages have to stay on, to give it support. He's had broken ribs before, it's nothing to lose sleep over.” By this, he means: none of your business.
Still, Solas appears to be satisfied for now. He gives a brief, supercilious nod, and retreats back down the stairs.
“Sit still,” says Dorian. “I think I’d better take a look at this.”
“You can't heal for shit, Dorian,” Bull reminds him, gently amused. Dorian prickles.
“I don't have to help, you know. I could leave you and your cracked rib to your own devices.”
“It's not actually the cracked rib that's the problem, and you know it,” says Bull, but he sits down and raises his arms and lets Dorian undo his bandage.
The bandage unwinds, layers and layers around his torso. Beneath that, the thick pad of gauze- soaked in pus and blood- and finally, skin.
The flesh over Bull’s lower left ribcage is bruised and inflamed. His skin has been carefully stitched together, with a thick and sturdy thread. But below this, the lips of the wound have not yet knitted.
It's been more than a week. Bull is right- Dorian is not a healer, but even so he knows it should have shown a little more progress by now.
“Huh,” says Bull. “Looks okay.”
“No, it doesn't,” says Dorian. Bull is just saying that to stop him worrying.
It should be better. It should have worked.
“It's not infected,” says Bull. “And ma’am already drew the poison out.”
“Maybe it is infected,” says Dorian, thoughts racing. “Maybe your body is so tired from fighting the infection, that's why the wound hasn't healed yet.”
“Maybe,” says Bull.
Dorian places a hand on either side of the wound. Bull does not so much as wince. Dorian channels a little of his magical energy into Bull’s side- not with the specific intent to heal, just trying to aid his body’s natural processes.He can sense the dimensions of the wound as he does, the way it proceeds inwards. He does not know much about anatomy, but he can somehow sense the parts that are disrupted, destroyed, or not as they should be. He feels it like an echo inside his own body.
Dorian traces the path of twisted and torn muscle, and yes, the cracked rib. He maps out the places where blood has leeched into bodily cavities, and now hangs, suspended, or leaks out through the edges of the wound. This disarray must be what is taking all Bull’s energy. If he can fix this, he can speed the process along, and maybe the wound will finally close.
It's a little like re-arranging books, shifting still and inanimate objects back into their proper place. He almost forgets he is operating on a living being, so still does Bull sit. Only the rise and fall of his massive chest as he breathes reminds Dorian there is something precious beneath his hands. He has no idea if what he’s doing is the right thing or not, but it certainly looks neater when he’s done.
Throughout this all, Bull does not move, does not make the slightest noise of protest.
“Better?” Dorian asks.
Bull stirs as if from a doze. He might have been meditating.
“Does that feel better?” Dorian repeats.
“Thank you,” he says.
“You look like shit,” says Sera, throwing herself down on the bench next to him.
“Tactful as ever,” says Dorian, but the glare he gives her has little heat behind it.
“Not enough sleep?” Sera hazards. “Up all night doing- you know-”
“Wouldn't you like to know,” says Dorian.
“I wouldn't, actually,” Sera says. “Hear enough of it through the walls, anyway.”
“I have been feeling a little tired lately,” Dorian admits. Maybe it's because he's been waking earlier than he is normally accustomed to.
“Maybe you're anaemic,” Bull suggests. The corners of his mouth are twitching the way they do when he's trying not to laugh at his own untold joke.
Dorian sighs and plays along. “And I imagine you know the cure for this?”
“Well,” says Bull, “I think it means you need more iron in your diet.”
“If that's your way of askin’ him to suck you off under the table or whatever, warn me first so I can be somewhere else,” says Sera.
Bull seems much better today. Happy and vital. It's quite a relief.
In the courtyard, a gaggle of soldiers lean against the wall.
“Maleficar,” one of them hisses, watching them pass.
Rumours have spread. People are talking.
Dorian would light every one of them on fire if he could.
Krem glowers at Dorian, arms folded across his chest.
“I know what you did,” he says.
“I saved your chief’s life, that's what I did,” Dorian replies.
“You sure about that?” says Krem. “We all saw him get stabbed. I hate to think what it takes to save someone from a wound like that.”
“I beg your pardon,” says Dorian, drawing himself up in affront. “I'm not sure I like what you're implying.”
Krem’s face twists- in disgust? Anger? Fear?
“You've been waiting all this time for your chance to fuck with his head-” he begins.
“You have no idea what you're talking about, soporatus,” says Dorian coldly. Anything to cover for the wild beating of his heart. “You don't know what I've given up to save him-”
Krem sneers at him, turning to leave. “I hope it was worth it,” he says.
Krem’s chair hits the ground. He is yelling, but Dorian cannot find it in himself to do the same. There's blood on the floor of the tavern.
“I'm afraid there is little I can do,” says Vivienne. “The poison is extraordinarily potent.”
“Try harder,” Adaar snarls. Dorian braces himself against the wall, and still he cannot make a sound.
Take hold of his spirit, drag it kicking and screaming back through the Veil, tether it to his corpse yes bind it tight, dig your nails in until you draw blood, channel all you've got into keeping him with you and don't let go don't let go-
“You're looking a little peaky, darling,” says Vivienne. “Extensive necromancy does nothing for the complexion.”
“I'm sure I don't know what you mean,” says Dorian. “I look as radiant as ever.”
Vivienne makes a critical noise between pursed lips, but does not question him further. He finds this surprisingly magnanimous of her, but then remembers that Madame de Fer has chosen to expend some of her small and carefully guarded stores of affection on the Bull.
She wants what's best for Bull, and so does Dorian.
The Iron Bull has recovered from more serious wounds than this. He must have. He will be fine.
Dorian strips off his clothing before turning in for the night. Ordinarily that would have Bull growling playfully and pulling him over to the bed, but-
Bull sits, and picks at the laces on his pauldron. Once loosened, he undoes the buckle strapped across his chest, and pulls it over his head. It slips from his fingers to fall to the floor.
“Are you going to put that away, amatus?” Dorian says. But Bull’s attention is elsewhere.
Dorian sighs, and bends to pick up the pauldron.
“You're not feeling unwell again, are you?” Dorian asks. “What I did the other day- that helped, didn't it?”
“Yeah, no worries,” says Bull. “It's nothing. Been a long day.”
Dorian places the pauldron on the bench, and walks over to the bed.
“You would tell me if something was wrong?” he asks. “You know I would do whatever I could to help.”
“Yeah,” says Bull, and now he does reach for Dorian, looping an arm easily around his waist. “C’mere.”
Dorian kisses him and kisses him, each press of his lips reminding him how close he came to losing this. He gazes down at Bull’s rugged, kind face, his broad shoulders, his improbably and incomparably gentle hands.
He will have Bull fuck him tonight, hard enough so he really feels it.
Bull is always so cautious of doing damage to his bed partners, he must be reassured in word and action that the only pain he causes is a welcome one. Dorian begs Bull to hold him down with a heavy forearm across his throat as he lies back on the bed and fingers himself open.
“Yes, amatus, that's it,” says Dorian, voice gone choked and breathy.
Bull stares down at him, solemn and implacable. Dorian’s cock hardens to an almost painful degree at just the promise of that strength and power bearing down on him- taking and taking, and in doing so, giving.
“Harder,” says Dorian, thrusting two ruthless fingers as deep into himself as he can get. It's a little slicker than he’d like, missing the delicious chafe of a good, rough fuck, but it concerns Bull when he's lax with his preparation.
The pressure of Bull’s forearm increases, ever so slightly, and Dorian’s breath becomes thinner.
“Harder,” Dorian wheezes. Is Bull so afraid he will break? Does he not trust Dorian to know his own limits?
Bull leans down yet more, and finally, Dorian’s air is cut off. Dorian fights through the instinctive surge of panic, and feels calm suffuse his body. His fingers still.
Bull kneels above him, limbs caging in his small and fragile form. Dorian feels his lungs burn, and toys with the idea that here, like this, Bull could easily kill him.
He will not. He could never. That is part of the appeal.
Dorian hears his own pulse thud in his ears. Dark spots flicker in front of his eyes. Every second is drawn out like molten sugar, stretching and stretching until it snaps-
All of a sudden, the curtains are on fire. Bull jerks back, and Dorian is coughing convulsively as his lungs are once again filled with air.
Dalish finds him in the dining hall. She sits down opposite him, hands clasped on the table in front of her.
“Thank you,” she says. “The others aren’t going to say so, but we’re glad you did it.” she swallows, looks a little like she’s blinking back tears. “He saved my life, you know. Saved all our lives, too many times to count. They’re being ungrateful, we owe him too much to just-”
She takes a deep, shuddering breath. Her gratitude and her candidness, both make Dorian uncomfortable, but he accepts them as gracefully as he can.
“Hey, Dalish,” that’s Skinner, appearing out of nowhere to place a hand on Dalish’s shoulder. “What you want with this creepy shem fuck and his meat puppet?”
“It’s not like that!” says Dalish, and her tone carries the slight hysteria of a deep-cutting argument that hurts more every time it’s picked over.
It sounds like the Chargers have been talking about him behind his back, him and Bull. Dorian hasn't been privy to their thoughts, wouldn't know if it weren't so obvious. They think he made a mistake, or worse, that this was what he intended all along.
Dalish’s hands clench together, knuckles showing stark white through her skin. “I would have thought you’d understand,” she says, “it wouldn’t be right without him!”
“You’re as much of an idiot as he is,” says Skinner coldly, not seeming to care for her comrade’s distress. “Does anything about this seem right to you?”
Dorian secretes himself in the library in order to be alone, but of course his luck does not have it that way.
“You know,” says Solas thoughtfully, “an interesting thing about necromancy.”
“What do you know about it?” says Dorian rudely. He did not sleep well the previous night. He's tired, and that makes him impatient, and he is not in the mood to deal with Solas and his unwarranted judgement.
“Enough to know that its uses are ephemeral by their very nature,” says Solas. “Although I do wonder what sort of effort it would take to maintain such a spell indefinitely. What the effects would be, on both the subject and the caster.”
Dorian glares at Solas. He can feel lightning crackle just underneath the pads of his fingers, but isn't sure he could force it beyond the barrier of his skin, even if he wanted to.
“Just a thought,” Solas adds, damnably calm. “I am speaking purely out of scholarly interest, of course.”
“Of course,” Dorian agrees through gritted teeth. He manages to hold himself standing until Solas leaves the room, at which point he collapses back into his chair. He feels the electricity in his fingertips flicker and die.
Dorian feels a pain growing in his abdomen- down low, just beneath his ribs. It blossoms like a flower opens, like mildew spreads across a bolt of fabric left in the damp and the dark.
His connection to the Fade is tenuous at best. Strained, under the weight of something unimaginable. It grows ever more so by the day.
“You can't keep doing this, Dorian,” says Adaar. She hasn't ordered him to stop, she is just offering her opinion.
“I’ve got things under control,” says Dorian.
“I'm not just talking about your personal well being, I'm talking about your place in the Inquisition,” says Adaar. “I can't take you out into the field- either of you. You're worse than useless. You're a liability.”
“Well, go ahead and tell me how you really feel,” says Dorian.
Adaar narrows her eyes at him.
“I'm concerned about you,” she finally says. “I don't think this is healthy.”
“Yes, you and the rest of Skyhold, it seems,” says Dorian. “And it appears that each and every person here has seen fit to share their opinions on the subject, whether or not they are welcome.”
He must remember she is a tactician. Everything she does and says is calculated, every weakness she reveals. Her main priority is the Inquisition, and she has neither his nor Bull’s best interests at heart.
“Anyone else, I'd order them to stop,” says Adaar.
“Do that and I leave,” says Dorian. “We both will.” She may not be able to take them into the field anymore, but his research skills are still valuable, and without Bull around the majority of the Chargers would pack up and leave. She needs them.
It would hardly be the first time he's fled his home for the sake of love- or for the sake of someone he thought he could trust turning against him.
“I know,” says Adaar. “That's why I haven't ordered you yet.”
There is a small folding knife sitting on the sideboard, one with mother-of-pearl inlay in the handle. The sort of thing one might use for peeling fruit. It's probably Adaar’s, as these are her quarters.
Dorian takes it into his hand. It is only a very little thing, even with the blade unfolded. Such an innocuous thing- one might slip while removing the rind of an orange, just for instance, and make a cut in the meat at the base of one’s thumb. Blood would well, and drip, and then-
Dorian is tired. It takes so much energy to maintain the spell, and still Bull’s wound has not healed. He grows more silent and ashen by the day.
There is another source of energy, he knows this.
As it turns out, falling to temptation not so difficult at all.
All it takes is a few drops of blood, and Bull is looking at him, smiling that smile, like a flower turning to face the sun.
“Amatus,” Dorian nearly sobs with relief. “You're back.”
“Where else would I be?” says Bull.
The next day, at breakfast: bacon for Bull, fruit for Dorian. Dorian bites into a peach- firm skin, sun-warm, it gives beneath his teeth, and then juice floods his mouth. Flesh parts, the skin peels. Slightly furred, as peaches are. Sweet juice. Blood on his hands, blood in his mouth.
It was probably imported, Dorian thinks idly. Peaches don't grow well, here in the cold.
“How are you feeling?” says Dorian.
“Relax,” says Bull. “I feel fine- better than I've felt in weeks.”
Dorian holds the knife in one hand, turning it end over end- one, two, three. The pearl inlay catches the light. Dorian flips the blade out. It’s a little stiff, like something has dried in the hinge and not been cleaned properly. It could do with oiling.
Something cold brushes the back of Dorian’s neck. He flinches, violently.
“Whoa, hey, kadan!”
It’s only Bull. Just Bull, sneaking up behind Dorian to place a kiss to the skin below his hairline.
“Fasta vass, Bull, don’t you know better than to startle someone with a sharp object in their hands?” Dorian snaps.
“Hey, sorry, I didn’t see!” Bull hold his hands up, placating.
Dorian breathes out, forces himself to calm down. Anger leaves him in a rush, leaves him empty. He flips the knife closed.
“It’s okay,” Dorian says. “How was your day, amatus?”
“Could've been worse.” Bull slides over to sit on the bed next to Dorian. “Long, though. I’m wiped out.”
Dorian draws Bull down for a kiss, and Bull goes along with it. Dorian’s lips part. Bull’s hand is heavy on his shoulder. The taste of blood lingers.
“I don't like being away from you so long,” Bull murmurs. “I wish we could spend more time together.”
Dorian leans up to kiss the side of Bull’s neck, where his pulse should be. Bull tilts his head to the side, pliant, his eyelids closed. Dorian kisses him again.
“Dorian.” His name comes like a breath from between Bull’s lips.
“Here,” he says, once again unfolding the knife. “Let me help you.”
“That right there, that was just the Qun making a point,” says Bull. “If they really wanted me dead, they'd have sent someone better.”
At the time, Dorian had believed him.
Dorian and Bull come down to the tavern. Dorian doesn't like it in there so much as he used to, but Bull still does. He wants to sit with his boys, and Dorian wants to sit with him.
He feels uncomfortable when they are too far apart.
The instant they are at the table, Krem gets up and leaves.
“Hi, Dorian,” says Dalish, bright and brittle. “Hi, Chief.”
“Is something the matter with Krem?” Dorian asks.
“Don't take it personal,” says Dalish. “It's not you.”
“No, it's the both of you, actually,” says Skinner.
Dorian saw him, standing over by the bar to get drinks. He saw the soldier- an elf- knock into him, knee him hard in the side so he buckled. He saw the knife slide up between Bull’s ribs before anyone noticed what was happening.
“I don't want him to be dead either,” says Skinner. She's staring at him, making eye contact, the most open he's ever seen her. “But I don't want him to be like this.”
Her lips are pressed together in a thin, hard line, but he can still see them tremble.
Bull snapped the neck of the viddathari assassin, then fell to his knees.
Krem was up on his feet, chair clattering over behind him, Stitches following in his wake.
All Dorian can do is stand and watch as the blood begins to pool.
“It's done now,” says Dorian. “I'm not undoing it.”
“Maybe it’s not up to you,” says Skinner.
“Skinner-” says Dalish. “You're not thinking-”
“Maybe I am,” says Skinner.
The other Chargers avoid looking at her. They avoid looking at Dorian, too, but some of them have been doing that for weeks now.
“If you hurt him,” says Dorian, deadly serious, “I swear by the Maker I will kill you.”
“Yeah,” says Skinner, with a contemptuous toss of her head. The tremble is gone now. “Pity you couldn't do anything about the last guy.”
She shoves away from the table, and goes to follow Krem.
“I'll talk to her,” says Dalish. “She didn't mean it, not really. She's just upset.”
Bull doesn't say anything. Hasn't said a word to defend himself, or Dorian. He sits unmoved, face cold and grey as if carven from stone.
There is such a lot of blood, pulsing out from the wound between Bull’s ribs, seeping into his punctured lung, splattered up Vivienne’s forearms as she tries desperately to fight off the saar qamek. It draws his magic and his attention, like tiny grasping hands tugging on the hems of his robes. Other mages do not seem to suffer this same inescapable draw- perhaps it is crushed out of them during their southern Circle training, or perhaps it is a weakness endemic to his countrymen.
To a Tevinter, blood means power. And certainly one would need a powerful bit of magic, to bring their love back from the dead.
But blood magic is the last resort of the weak-minded, and Dorian is anything but weak.
“I can do it,” Dorian hears himself say. “I can save him.”
What use is being a necromancer, if not this? What use is he at all, if he cannot help the one he loves? He might as well be dead himself.
“Oh, darling,” says Vivienne. The sweat of exhaustion beads on her brow, but her hands are still steady as she works. “You know you're not a healer.”
“No,” says Dorian. “I had something else in mind.”
Back down in the Tavern, Dorian is all smiles. The Chargers flock to him, anxious little ducklings, and he says close call, but it's all fine now. Bull is going to be fine.
Bull himself is up within a day or so, still too weak to heft his battleaxe. He seems silent, reserved, shaken by his brush with death.
He isn't quite himself.
Dorian can feel a thread connecting them, now. He feels it's the solidification of something that's always been there. Call it fate, the Fade, whatever you like. They were meant to be together, and Dorian was meant to save Bull’s life.
“How are you feeling, amatus?” Dorian whispers into the night-time stillness between them.
Bull does not respond.
“Bull?” says Dorian. He is too groggy with sleep (too tired, drained of all energy, and the pain between his ribs still spreads) to conjure a light, and instead gropes in the darkness for the items he keeps on the bedside table.
There are two: a candle, which he lights with an impotent spark of fire flicked off the pad of his thumb. Then, there is the pearl-handled knife.
“Don't worry, Dorian,” Bull eventually mumbles. “I'm fine.”