Chapter 1: The Hinterlands
Writings recovered from Redcliffe Castle after its takeover by the Inquisition
An old research diary with entries in two different hands. There is a yellowed bookmark in the form of a stylized peacock feather stuck to the pages, and they are soft from much rereading. The text is in Tevene.
2029, 4th day of Ferventis
It worked again! The amulet definitely moves through time, even if we cannot observe it with the naked eye! It’s astounding. I don’t know how I shall sleep tonight, this is too much excitement. -DP
I fear you will have to curb your enthusiasm. We still have found no indication whatsoever that it will ever be able to do more than jump a heartbeat forward into the future. The structure of the Veil will always stop it. -GA
Yes, perhaps, but it proves that our theory of overlapping vibrations is sound. I knew Marnius’s paper about time as ripples in the inner Veil was utter bollocks. I will bet you everything in my wardrobe that he only managed to make that ruby disappear through blood magic, and that is why no one was ever able to replicate his results. -DP
I am much too old to have use for anything from your wardrobe, thank you. Now, we will have to come up with a more elegant story about how we made our breakthrough. “My apprentice spilled brandy onto our binding runes, and then it suddenly worked for no discernible reason” will not propel us into the annals of scientific discovery. -GA
I apologized for that profusely. And I worked day and night for a week to recreate everything. -DP
I did not intend to chide you. Without that happy accident, we never would have had the double set of original and altered runes that turned out to be the correct combination to unlock the amulet’s connection to the Veil. And we could not even see our breakthrough, focused as we were on our original hypothesis. But Livia walked in, took one look at our materials laid out, and saw how they truly fit together. It was so obvious to someone with a fresh eye. As if the discovery was inevitable, once all puzzle pieces were there. -GA
Yes! We had assembled everything necessary to construct one entire, particular building–every single stone block, every tile and beam. All while having no idea what we were creating. “Serendipitous” seems like too weak a word for what happened. Is it strange for me to think that this building wanted to be made? -DP
Not strange at all. Highly unscientific, but not strange. -GA
At the risk of sounding terribly young and romantic, it is so very thrilling to realize that this kind of discovery might come to us at any moment. That all we must do is go around gathering as many pieces as we can–of knowledge, of anything–and one day we will inevitably have before us the blueprint and materials for something wonderful and new. Inevitably! -DP
The Bull looked up. From across the small pile of Venatori writings they’d gathered from Redcliffe Castle, Dorian Pavus was gawking at the thin book in the Bull’s hands like it was the Tome of Koslun itself.
His eyes flashed green as they caught the sickly Fade-light from the Breach above, and the Bull had to suppress a shudder. He’d sat down with his back to the gaping hole in the sky precisely so he wouldn’t be reminded of demon crap every other second. Now it still felt like he was looking at the Breach, except it was also looking back at him. From a really pretty face, for sure, but it was still full of fucking demons.
“The journal,” Pavus insisted, a note of anxiety creeping into his voice. “May I have it?”
Probably no harm in handing it over. The Bull should have put it down and moved on to the next document as soon as he figured out that this book was old and unlikely to contain anything about upcoming Venatori plans. You’re the only people here who can read Tevene. Go through all this nonsense for anything we need to react to in a hurry, Adaar had said, to he and Dorian both. The Bull wasn’t getting paid to stick his nose in now-irrelevant ramblings about shit that was long over and done with.
Nobody had time for idle learning anymore, in a general sense and today in particular. Dusk was upon them already, and soon there would be no more light to read by except the poisonous glow from above. It felt almost like a physical thing, like the brush of a demon’s talons. It made the Bull’s skin crawl. He had to avoid looking at his own arms and hands, because the light made their shade of grey look downright cadaverous. Certainly not conducive to critical reading, that.
At least the dirty green light would make it easier to spot anyone trying to sneak up on their camp. Not that they made a very tempting target, numerous as they were, but a patch of grassland along the Imperial Highway was a shit position for defense against bandits and other dangers. No help for it, they weren’t spoiled for choice when it came to camping spots that could hold a few hundred rebel mages and Inquisition forces. They were still in tight proximity, something the Bull–with his considerable bulk–was keenly aware of. There were always recruits and tarrying mages underfoot, always sounds jarring his ever-alert senses. A baby’s cry, somewhere behind him. Quiet but rhythmic footfalls to the left–Inquisition scouts in soft boots, but walking like they’d been soldiers before. The smell of stew, also behind him.
The Bull was hungry. Restless. Too much freaky shit, not enough time to deal with it. He couldn’t sit down and write it into a report, because he’d let himself run out of paper like some baby Ben-Hassrath who’d started out in this job two weeks ago. He also couldn’t go out and hit things, because there was nothing left to hit. He couldn’t go out and find someone to fuck, because there were barely any tents here and he didn’t know enough about the location to feel comfortable taking someone into the bushes.
That left meditation as the only coping strategy. It was one the Bull preferred to avoid; sitting down and letting the words of the first Canto rush through his mind had stopped doing much for him a couple years into his first tour on Seheron. It had never really started working again. The re-educators had wanted that fixed before they shipped him off to Antiva; he’d spent endless days sitting cross-legged on a stone floor, trying to will his mind to float on nothing but the voice of the tamassran sitting in front of him. They’d only let him go when he started faking that it worked. He still felt kind of bad about that, and he still tried.
Or maybe he’d just sit here and suffer. The best he could do at this point was find something to warm his belly, but there was still work to be done. Papers to check for imminent Venatori plans. Weird Vints to deal with.
Pavus was still sitting there right in front of him, one hand extended. The fingers of the other were twitching on his knee. The cold light made his skin look waxen.
The Bull waited, curious. The Dorian Pavus from the journal would have made a grab for it already, for sure. This one, a good decade older and maybe a bit wiser, was clearly more careful.
He shouldn’t want to keep reading the thing, he knew, but he was almost enjoying it. It contained his favorite kind of intelligence–the kind that added depth instead of new information, made real people out of what otherwise would be just names in a story. The Bull was a sucker for a good yarn, always had been, and this yarn promised to be an instant classic in Par Vollen the moment his report arrived. Magister discovers new magic crap, doesn’t know when to stop, almost brings about the end of the world. The story wrote itself. Simple, obvious, to the point.
Except for those fascinating bits where Pavus interjected. They were pretty important bits, if it was true that he’d saved Adaar. The stories the Bull had grown up with never had other Vints riding in to foil the evil plans of other Magisters. If humans were involved at all, they were brave viddathari who’d been lying low among the enemy for years as they waited for the moment when the Qun would need them. If Pavus was a viddathari, the Bull was going to eat his axe with a good helping of Fereldan butter potatoes.
There were also the bits where Pavus was still around, looking sad and pretty. Those would also be hard to work into his official report. The magic-abusing Vints were supposed to end up dead, or Abominations and then dead: either way, they got their just comeuppance. Instead, Pavus was just sitting there by the side of the Imperial Highway, in the middle of a camp of hundreds of rebel mages that he’d saved from bondage and delivered to the Inquisition on a platter. And the evil Magister of the tale sat in a covered cart right behind them, out of sight, chained and Silenced but very much alive, at least until Adaar figured out what she wanted him for.
It was all strange and unusual, and the Bull had a feeling that he shouldn’t be finding all this as compelling as he did. Better not to think too much about why the bas did what they did, especially mages. The bas did weird and illogical shit because they were weird and illogical things, like qalaba ate grass because that was what qalaba did.
But in the absence of more suitable distractions, Pavus was getting more interesting by the hour. They were now two days into the journey from Redcliffe to Haven, shuffling along the polished stones of the Highway under a leaden sky. The cart carrying the Magister had guards, but Pavus still hadn’t moved more than a few paces away from it the entire time. He was making a good effort to look Vintish and intimidating, and it was working; nobody but Adaar had dared come near him, and by extension the cart. The Bull wasn’t sure the man had slept at all since Redcliffe. He hadn’t had a lot of proper rest himself, what with having to walk up and down the column of refugees day and night to make sure everyone was okay and following.
He let his eyes drop from Pavus’ drawn, weary face to the open journal he was still holding. It looked like a child’s book in his large palm.
The affable scholar and high-spirited apprentice in its pages both sounded like echoes from a long-dead past, not people who had been speaking only months before the Bull got his first look at Antiva City. It was really kind of sad. They’d sounded normal, almost like senior and junior alchemists in Par Vollen working to refine some recipe for medicine. And here they were, half a world away, one crazed and in chains, the other… doing whatever Pavus thought he was doing here, beyond looking unhappy. It was a shame.
Or maybe the Bull should stop stealing shitty bas novels from Krem’s pack, because they made his mind go places that he didn’t even recognize. There was nothing remarkable about some bas saarebas going mad with power and raining misery down on everyone around him. Sure, it was a sad ending for those two, but so was all the rest of this, and most of it was the Magister’s fault. Vints.
Pavus had gone perfectly still under the ghoulish green light, though, and that was the only hint the Bull needed to know that something was about to happen. This was the first time he’d had a chance to be in close proximity to the man for more than a few minutes, but he’d already figured out that Pavus was always in motion, never entirely silent, muttering and fidgeting even while focused on deciphering the Venatori scribbles in front of him. It was when he settled, hushed and calm, that you really had to start paying attention.
The Bull deliberately looked down at the yellowing pages again and heard Pavus draw in a deep breath.
When he looked up, it was just in time to see all traces of agitation melt from the man’s face like water. And there was the sunny smile he’d first greeted them with in Redcliffe, curling up under the silly mustache as if it had never been gone at all. His shoulders drew back as his body relaxed into a friendly, welcoming posture. The eerie glow from above still made it look like there was something phosphorescent in his eyes, but even with that, his gaze was suddenly free of listlessness, grief, or any unpleasant emotion at all.
It was a remarkable transformation. Sloppy to do it where the Bull could see, but he’d have managed it undetected in front of someone less observant. And even if he was being too obvious about donning the mask, it sure looked flawless once it was on. He was good.
“I ask because the cover looks familiar. I may know it already,” Pavus said. “Let me take it off your hands so you can focus on something else.”
“Sure,” the Bull agreed. If the journal disappeared later, he’d know who nicked it. It wasn’t too likely that Pavus was trying to hide his involvement in the time fiasco, anyway; he’d outright admitted to working on such magic in the past.
The Bull closed the little book and placed it in Pavus’ outstretched hand, taking care not to touch him.
Pavus took the journal and placed it on his lap, making no move to open it. He kept the beaming visage pointed straight at the Bull’s face. In better circumstances, he could probably keep it up much longer than this, but now the Bull could see a few cracks already–slowly deepening lines next to his eyes, an almost imperceptible tremble at one corner of his mouth. He revised his estimation of Pavus’ age upwards by a few years.
“Thank you, and my apologies for not making sense for a moment there. It’s been such a long day.”
The Bull smiled back, almost without thinking. Almost. Pavus was such a pretty thing, a fine-boned face over a solid, muscular body that looked unlikely to break under bigger hands. Shame he was a mage…
Huh. He was almost sure that had been a line in one of Krem’s books.
“Sure has been. You all right? You’re looking a little wiped.”
Pavus’ face tightened just a bit. “In my defense, I have had about nine hours of sleep in four days. A considerable portion of which I spent running through a drafty castle, doing battle with demons and my foolish countrymen for control of every room. I also executed a fiendishly complex and headache-inducing bit of magic to return your Herald to her proper time and save the day. Now I am sacrificing my sanity to read drivel written by thugs with criminally poor penmanship. All this heroism is quite exhausting.”
All that, and they’d killed the Magister in the other time. Pavus would’ve been forced to take part–he knew the Magister and his sorcery best, would have know how to attack. Maybe he’d even dealt the death blow.
Whatever had happened to drive a wedge between the two people in the journal, that sort of camaraderie left traces. Scars, at the very best. More than scars, if the way Pavus kept hovering around the cart was any indication.
The Bull began to push himself to his feet. That was a process, after sitting still for so long. “Yeah, let’s take a little break. Light’s getting bad, and my ass is going to fuse to these rocks.” He considered clapping Pavus on the shoulder, then thought better of it. Maybe in a few days. On the covered shoulder. After he double-checked the Antaam’s current recommendations on how much armor an arvaarad should keep between themselves and a saarebas.
As he stretched and let his eye wander up towards the clouds, he just caught Pavus slumping in relief as the Bull’s gaze left him. It was still such a minute change that most wouldn’t have picked up on it.
Very few people were trained to pull off this kind of theatre. Dorian Pavus was either a real Altus from the highest ranks of the Imperium, like he claimed, or a masterful spy. Or both.
Right now, the Bull was well over three quarters sure that Pavus was indeed who he claimed to be. His story was a tad unlikely on the surface–what Altus left their marble mansion to go gallivanting across four or five different countries, on foot no less, to come save the world? But everything else fit. The accent was spot on; ten years on Seheron had given the Bull had ample opportunity to listen to Vints yapping, and Pavus talked like the officers, not like Krem. He looked a little rough and his clothes were almost plain compared to what the Bull had seen in the few mainland Vint settlements he’d been to, but that was to be expected if he’d traveled across Thedas the way he claimed. Most Alti nanced about covered in so much gold that they jangled like a jewellery cart, but while Pavus had no obvious adornments on him save for a ring, the traces were there. Hints of healed-over holes along the shells of his ears, bands of depressed skin at the base of all his fingers. Those sorts of details were hard to fake.
Besides, Krem was convinced. He’d been there when his fellow Tevinter arrived at the gate of Haven, and his face had darkened even before Pavus clapped eyes on him and let out a delighted Avanna! That conversation had ended real quick, especially after the next words out of Pavus’ mouth were Oh, is that a Vol Dorma accent I hear? The Bull had known where Krem was from, but he hadn’t known it was actually some kind of touchy subject. Anyway, if Krem thought Pavus was who he claimed to be, the Bull believed it too.
Of course the man could be a different Altus altogether. Some other relation of Alexius, perhaps? Sent to spy on Adaar, convincing her of his sincerity by appearing to foil some big convoluted Venatori plot? No. That was stretching things from useful skepticism into useless paranoia, even if all Vints were lying snakes. That something was possible didn’t mean it was likely.
Still. The Bull would keep it in mind, like he kept everything in mind. It was part of the burden of being Ben-Hassrath, not being allowed to let go of the maybes. Nigh on twenty years of service, and he still wasn’t sure he was doing that part right. Still, an inability to discard any possibility was a useful skill here, because it helped him stay vigilant in the face of Pavus’ persistent attempts to appear friendly and harmless. Maybe the Bull hadn’t caught him in a lie yet, but they’d only known each other for days, and had barely talked at all–the Herald and Red had kept the man busy, grilling him on the Venatori and the Magister. “Not an impersonator” and “not a Venatori” wasn’t the same as “not a spy”. Tevinter had as many factions as it had people, and as far as the Bull had heard, the Venatori weren’t even supported by the government. Pavus could belong literally anywhere along the spectrum at this point.
Whatever he was, the Ben-Hassrath were going to love him. The Bull had fired off a request for more information as soon as they’d left Redcliffe’s chantry two weeks ago. He should be hearing back sometime within the next month, either through Red or through one of the dead drops that Red didn’t know about.
The Bull kind of hoped that they’d tell him to watch Pavus more closely. He was interesting, and the view was pretty fucking outstanding.
He reached down into his pack–ow, ow, fucking shit leg–and retrieved an apple. It was that color the Bull was privately starting to call “demon green,” which was kind of unfortunate.
Pavus stared as if he’d never seen something like it before. The Bull grinned. “Want a snack?”
Pavus clearly tried not to look like he was drooling at the mere sight of a simple apple. He didn’t succeed quite as well as when he turned up the charm earlier.
Then he cocked his head. The smile slid into a-little-more-than-friendly territory.
“Oh? Are you trying to tempt me with bland Southern fruits?”
Well, well. If that wasn’t an opening, the Bull was the Empress of Orlais. Or was it a trick? The first step in an upcoming seduction attempt?
Opening or trick, might as well go along with it. “Hey, maybe I like to keep the spice for special occasions.”
That was pretty weak, but Pavus let it slide in favor of grabbing the apple. He almost touched the Bull’s hand doing it, but the Bull quickly turned his fingers away, surrendering the prize.
If Pavus had noticed his discomfort, or was at all concerned about touching a Qunari, he didn’t show it. He bit into the side of the apple immediately.
“Aren’t you friendly all of a sudden?” he muttered when he’d almost swallowed the first bite. He glanced up at the Bull. He had very nice eyes, sharp and clear, even bruised as they were by sleeplessness. Even with the green light doing something to them. It wasn’t a mere reflection, like with Sera or Solas; Pavus' eyes looked like they were soaking the magical energy in. The acidic hue seemed to make itself at home in there, lingering even when Pavus turned away from the Breach. The Bull didn’t know if it was a mage thing, a maleficar thing, or just his imagination seeing sinister crap where nothing was going on.
Pavus’ kohl was a little smudged in one corner. The Bull’s thumb itched to reach for it, only for a moment.
Instead, the Bull took out another apple and settled himself down again. Ow. Fucking leg, too much walking in one day. Fucking shit ow. “What? I’m always friendly.”
“I beg to differ,” Pavus said. “If I recall, I was friendly to you the moment we met, and you made no effort to return the sentiment.”
The Bull shrugged in acknowledgment. “Hey, I called you pretty.”
That got him another one of Pavus' saucier smiles, there and gone again.
“Yes, you did. Well, thank you. For the food.”
The Bull ate, and stared as Pavus closed his eyes in apple-induced bliss.
The man was sitting close enough for a quick and fatal blow to the neck, and didn’t seem remotely aware of that fact. An easy kill. Judging by Adaar’s brief recap of what she’d experienced in the crazy time magic future, Pavus had raw power, creativity, and a cool head under pressure. But he also clearly lacked military training, and the Bull had slain hundreds of strong mages on Seheron who had all possessed at least a rudimentary understanding of strategy. Magic was at its most dangerous at a distance. Casting power counted for little when a mage simply chose to stand within grabbing distance of the Bull.
Pavus was warier and more aware of his surroundings than one would expect from a pampered noble, but he still dropped his guard the moment he thought he was among allies. Too soft, for all his apparent experience at being alone in the world. His entire head was smaller than the Bull’s hand.
“So. Pavus, is it? We haven’t had time to chat much.”
A theatrical shudder.
“Call me Dorian, I beg of you. Magister Pavus is my father. And since there seems to be some confusion about that part, I’m not a magister at all.”
The Bull knew that. “Sure. Good to meet you properly, Dorian.”
He opened his eyes halfway. “Likewise, The Iron Bull.”
Aw, the Bull didn’t even recall telling him to mind the article. That deserved a reward. He reached back to undo the buckle on one of the pouches on his hip, and noted that Pavus’ eyes followed the movements of his hand.
“Want some whiskey?”
Pavus stared at the bottle the Bull had produced. Then he clasped his hands together and cast an adoring glance at the sky. “Gracious Maker, how inscrutable your ways are. Here you have finally appeared before me, and it is in the form of a giant qunari.”
He was really easy to look at, the Bull couldn’t help but notice for possibly the fortieth time since he’d first caught sight of the man. Pretty grey eyes. Pretty, plump, kissable mouth.
And possibly full of demons. Dalish said it was crazy to think that mages walked around with demons crawling under their skin just waiting to burst out, but the Bull had seen a pretty good number of Vints and Tal-Vashoth saarebas turn into Abominations from way up close. It sure as fuck looked like the demons were in them.
Any demon infestations aside, Pavus was still far too trusting. An easy target, so perhaps not as dangerous as he looked. The Bull handed over the bottle.
“Hah. Don’t thank me until you’ve tried it, it’s some Grey Warden crap that the Herald stole off a corpse. Tastes real unique.”
“I haven’t imbibed anything stronger than stale beer in over a month. At this point, I’ll drink Grey Warden piss if it’s properly alcoholic.”
They passed the flask to and fro and watched the miserable assembly around them. It was barely worthy of the word “camp”. There were only a few tents, and a whole lot of people huddling together for warmth in the chilly evening air. Their campfires were doing a pretty poor job of battling the hair-raising glare of the Breach. Almost all the daylight was gone now, and the monstrosity was the only thing left in the sky, staring down on them all like some great sentient demon eyeball. The Bull couldn’t wait until he had a tent over his head again.
Things were getting quieter, though; people had eaten what they could, and were settling down to get what rest they could find. Maybe the Bull should try and get a few hours of shut-eye too, before he’d have to start patrolling. He really needed a proper rest. He could go for days without sleep, but he was starting to feel that prickling fuzziness at the edges of his mind that meant he wasn’t thinking quite as clearly as normal. But it would have to wait until Haven. They just didn’t have enough proper soldiers to guard all these people.
He spotted Adaar strolling through the silent chaos in their direction, her own flask in one hand and pipe in the other, smoking like a bakery oven. She cut a pretty striking figure; her backswept horns made her easily half again as tall as the spindly southern mages even when they were standing up, and the staff on her back would fit some definitions of “log”. Her tits waving in the breeze were pretty eye-catching too. She’d put on a shirt and a breastplate for the invasion of the castle, but only with a great deal of reluctance.
Sera was trailing her like there was an invisible rope between her eyes and those tits, keeping up what looked like a very jovial conversation with the Herald’s general chest area. It was funny, and cute in a really rude sort of way. Adaar certainly seemed to appreciate the candor, judging by the grin on her face.
Good for them. The Ben-Hassrath probably would’ve preferred it if the Bull could have wormed his way into the Herald’s bed, but he knew a hopeless cause when he saw one. If someone didn’t like sausage, then that was that. He hadn’t even had to find that out through experience; this sort of stuff came up in Ben-Hassrath training. The classes on sex took place before most recruits had ever visited a tamassran for reasons of relief before, and they were really fucking memorable. The Bull had sat through lectures on normal sex (good fun when done in an orderly fashion), bas and sex (still good fun but absolute chaos, a different kind of chaos depending on which country you were in plus a whole host of other factors), and bas saarebas and sex (nobody knew, maybe great if you wanted a demon to chew your bits off).
Pavus had finally noticed the duo. He stared as Sera tripped over a tent rope and face-planted into the grass. Adaar guffawed and bent to pick her up, which did very interesting things to the tits.
“See anything you like, Dorian?”
Pavus’ eyes snapped back to his apple so fast that they looked in danger of falling out of his head. “Ah. No, no. Apologies, that was impolite of me.”
The Bull chuckled. “She does it on purpose. The whole savage Vashoth routine. It’s honestly more intimidating like this than when she’s all armored up.”
“Ah. Yes, I can see how that works. I don’t imagine people see many Vashoth breasts… ehm, women down here.”
The Bull made his left pectoral jiggle. Pavus immediately choked on his final bite of apple. Hah.
“You ever see a lot of Vashoth in the Imperium?” the Bull asked, ignoring the hacking.
Pavus thumped himself on the chest with one fist. “Almost none, except for… Well. Some slaves. But I grew up in Qarinus.” He shot the Bull a quick half-smile. “That’s a city in the far north of the Imperium, very close to Seheron. We experience an unfortunate number of Qunari raids. Which reminds me, you’ll have to forgive me if I startle at your appearance every now and then. I’m well aware that the Vashoth and the Qunari are not the same people, but I’ve been chased by the Beresaad enough times that any horned mountain in the corner of my eye looks quite alarming for a second.”
Crap. The Bull had been hoping to avoid this conversation for a while longer. He was definitely going to keep avoiding the part where he’d actually fought in one of those raids on Qarinus, back when he was still in training and they thought he needed to see a Vint city with his own eyes. But better to fill Pavus in on the rest now. He was bound to find out anyway, and if he didn’t hear it from the Bull’s own mouth, the man would never trust him again.
He passed the whiskey bottle back so Pavus’ hands would be occupied with something.
“Hey. Not to make this awkward, but I’m not Vashoth. I’m Qunari.”
Pavus’ face remained almost pleasantly relaxed for a heartbeat longer, his distracted gaze fixed on the bottle and the way it reflected the green light from above. “Yes, I can see tha…”
His eyes widened, and that was the only warning the Bull got before some kind of magical barrier slammed up between them. It was translucent except for the way it made Pavus’ face blur like mist, and it gave off a vibration that made the Bull’s teeth ache.
Koslun’s fat ass, the guy was fast. And he’d done that without even grabbing his staff, though he was reaching for it now.
“Hey. Hey, knock it off, I’m not here to harm you.” The Bull raised his hands, slowly. “I came from Par Vollen on an intelligence mission. Not interested in offing random Vints. Okay?”
Pavus was drawing his legs under him. He didn’t take his eyes off the Bull.
“What is… your precise role in this operation?”
His hand closed on his staff, and the shield began to hum. It was a nasty sound, like a great deal of angry and invisible bees.
It made the Bull break out in goosebumps, which was a rare enough occurrence that it freaked him out for a moment. He fought to keep his face placid. “Bodyguard to the Herald. And my mercenary band does all sorts of jobs for the Inquisition. Would you mind taking that thing down?”
He didn’t. “What is your mission from the Qun?”
“Just intelligence gathering, seriously. I’ve been down here for years. I run around the countryside with my band, see what’s going on, let Par Vollen know every now and then. That’s it, I swear.”
A beat of silence.
Oh, clever bas.
“Hey, you know a lot about us.”
A sneer. “Shocking, isn't it? To imagine for a moment that Tevinter teaches its children some rudimentary knowledge about our greatest adversaries.”
Pavus was standing up now, looking down on the Bull. He was holding his staff in a loose grip by his side, bouncing it a little so that the stone at the top hovered just above the ground. The Bull would have taken it for a pretty non-aggressive stance, except he’d seen Pavus swing the thing from that exact position to bludgeon a demon to death.
Well. This could have gone better. He was getting distracted, had failed to guess how strongly the man might react. Should have known, though: fatigue bred fear and anger like Orlesian cheese bred mold.
Still, this all felt like a bit of an overreaction. He kept his hands up and began to rise to his feet, slowly, making sure that absolutely nothing he did could be taken as a sudden movement. Jumpy Vints were really fast Vints.
“Listen, the Herald knows, go ask her. It’s all fine so long as her own spymaster reads what I send out. She always does. In turn, the Inquisition gets some intel back from the Ben-Hassrath, so it works out for everyone.”
Pavus didn’t reply. He was moving, the Bull realized, slow sliding steps that kept him grounded and ready to take that swing even while he was in motion. Not away towards the clear escape route into the camp, but sideways and backwards, as if he were sneaking towards the Bull’s blind side.
“Hey,” the Bull sussed. “I’m really not here to harm anyone. Come on.”
Pavus’ eyes had narrowed to slits. He stopped moving. It took the Bull a moment to realize that it wasn’t a reaction to his words; Pavus had simply made it to where he’d been trying to go. Smack in between the Bull and the cart containing the Magister.
He planted his feet and crossed his arms, in such a perfect mirror of Krem’s favorite no, YOU move pose that it almost shocked a laugh out of the Bull.
“Perhaps,” Pavus said, low and now very unfriendly. “Thank you for the drink. Until later.”
This was one of the things about Vints that the Bull could almost respect: they had a remarkably Qunari sense of certainty about their place in the world. Self-doubt, moderation, and reasonable fear of death were all exotic foreign customs to them. They figured out what they wanted to do, and then they just went for it no matter who or what was in their way.
But most Vints would still think twice about staring down an armed kind-of-Reaver who was two heads taller than them, even without the horns. The Bull could have him by the throat before he could even start casting, the way they were standing almost toe to toe. Not that Pavus had a lot of choice about where to stand, with the cart at his back, but it was still pretty fucking ballsy. And hot.
The Bull tipped his head. “Sure. Boss probably won’t mind if we check the rest of this Tevene crap later. See you around, big guy.”
He turned and left, just in time to dodge Adaar. She began snapping questions at Pavus behind the Bull’s back.
His hands were itching. He wished he’d reached out to wipe away the smeared kohl. He’d have had to put a finger against Pavus’ skin for that, though.
It gnawed at him, the thing with the light; he just wanted a closer look, make sure there were no demons in there. And there was just something about seeing how big his fingers were on a human face. It really was a shame that Pavus was a mage. If he weren’t…
What a strange thing to wonder about. Some things just weren’t for touching, and the Bull was usually better than this at accepting that and moving on.
He went in search of a quiet spot where he could sit and close his eye, even if he knew it wouldn’t do shit. It had to be the demon hole in the sky that made meditation even more difficult than usual these days.
He hoped it was just the fucking demon hole in the sky.
Chapter 2: The Fallow Mire
Delivered to The Iron Bull by Charter. The text is in Common.
It is probable that the Tevinter mage you inquired after is indeed the only son of Magister Halward Pavus, former advisor to the Archon. Dorian Pavus was last definitively seen in the Imperium on 4 Drakonis 9:40, in Perivantium, where he used a house amulet to gain permission to purchase several kinds of foreign coin. A man matching his description was seen in Kirkwall on 16 Justinian, arguing with an innkeeper who refused him entry; the city guard was called, and he fled. He was again spotted in Highever on 29 Solace, then along the Imperial Highway to the east of Lake Calenhad on several occasions between August and Harvestmere. He was on foot and alone each time. Use these details to verify his story.
Dorian Pavus is the heir to Halward Pavus’ seat in the Magisterium, but records on his network and activities are incomplete; he appears to have participated in politics for only a brief period, ending around five years ago. He was indeed apprenticed to Gereon Alexius, though he left his master’s tutelage three years ago, without completing the traditional ceremonies that would indicate a successful apprenticeship and confer on him the ability to take apprentices himself. Records from the library of the Circle of Minrathous contain at least five treatises listing him as second or third author to Gereon and (once) Livia Alexius, though none were published within the last four years. He specializes in necromantic magic and basic thaumaturgical research.
He appears estranged from his family. We have found little else so far.
Note written in lemon ink on the back of a requisitions order for swords and glaives
Delivered to The Iron Bull via a secure drop next to the smithy in Haven. The text is in Qunlat.
We wish to hear more about this bas saarebas. He appears isolated, but is nevertheless in a position to provide invaluable information on the Magisterial classes. He may even ascend to his own seat in the Magisterium in time. Rumors suggest exploitable appetites for alcohol and intercourse with men.
Depending on his character, he may even be a candidate for conversion. Until several years ago, the father had a seat on the consiliare of the Archon, but he was forced out by political rivals partly on the basis of a scandal involving the son’s sexual proclivities. This appears to have contributed to the son’s estrangement. If he regrets his history of aimless debauchery and the loss of his family, he may welcome our teachings.
Do not jeopardize your presence in the Inquisition for the sake of this individual, but consider this sanction to approach and engage him at your discretion.
Adaar clearly had a word with Pavus, because he didn’t try menacing the Bull with actual offensive spells again. Instead, he kept his distance. They didn’t see much of each other in Haven anyway, with the Bull busy training outside the gates and Pavus living up by the apothecary.
It bothered the Bull, not being able to keep an eye on him. It grated, adding to the pile of many other things that were also bothering him, like the giant demon hole right over the spot where he was supposed to close his eye and sleep. It helped that Krem and Stitches were sharing his tent now, their own having been more or less stolen by the Inquisition’s requisitions officer when she needed something to quarantine some sick people in. Two humans plus a giant Qunari was a bit much even for one of the Chargers’ big, sturdy tents, but the Bull liked to hear their breathing. His mind started playing tricks on him when there was nothing else to listen to. He imagined he could hear howling from the sky, and droning voices that were a little too much like the re-educators for comfort.
Fortunately, Adaar was the helpful sort: she liked providing the Bull with distractions and things to hit. She thought up lots of little expeditions, now that they needed to keep themselves occupied while their new mage army got trained to do one useful thing in their lives and close the giant demon hole. As an added bonus, Adaar had taken a shine to Pavus and liked dragging him along as well. The trips helped relieve the Bull’s tension, and gave him ample opportunities to observe their new Vint.
Adaar also seemed amused by the pair of them, or at least by the way they sniped. Or rather by the way Pavus sniped, about the Bull’s homeland, appearance, personal hygiene, and absolutely anything else that popped into his head. He seemed unable to help himself. So long as he was conscious and not actively dying of pain, he talked and complained like it was just his way of breathing, and the Bull was one of his favorite topics.
It was sort of funny. Once he’d had a good night of sleep and a couple of hearty meals, the Bull was no longer so plagued by odd ideas about demons in Pavus’ head. He didn’t know shit about magic, and he had to accept that. If there was anything wrong with the man, the other mages would notice. The Bull had other things he needed to focus on.
He still wasn’t going to touch a walking vat of demons, though. Might become an issue if the Ben-Hassrath actually wanted him to hit on Pavus. The 'sex with men' thing being one of Pavus’ weak spots was most likely true; the Bull hadn’t actually caught him at anything, possibly because most of the people here were still too afraid to talk to him, but the man had a definite pattern to his ogling. Commander Cullen was a particular favorite, the Bull had noticed. He’d also noticed Pavus staring at Krem, but he wasn’t entirely sure if it was the interested sort of staring. Either way, he wasn’t going to bring it up. Krem-puff was a champion sulker who could make the Bull’s life miserable for weeks if the fancy struck him.
Well. If the Bull was going to do any flexing to attract Pavus’ wandering eyes, he’d do it in a place that was warm and dry. A place where the Bull felt like he could get in the mood at least a little bit. Definitely not in this putrid, oozing, sopping, fucking nasty swamp where he could barely stay on his own fucking feet.
Let’s go to the Fallow Mire, Adaar had said. The Bull had said Sure, Boss while imagining something like the marshlands in northern Seheron, which had mosquitos but were otherwise considered something of a scenic location. Lots of birds in pretty colors, that sort of thing. The Fallow Mire had turned out to be a stinking grey bog infested with actual walking dead, full of rotten buildings and rotten bridges and rotten water stretching out in all directions as far as the Bull’s single eye could see. Which wasn’t very fucking far, because it was all covered in a rancid sort of mist that kept the shambling corpses out of sight until they were close enough to see the back of their heads through their nasal cavities. The haze was so thick that even the Breach was only a faint smudge of green in the sky. He fucking hated fog.
The Bull misstepped for the fourth time since they’d set out from camp, which was about three miserable hours ago, and almost pitched sideways into smelly black water.
“Watch it watch it watchiiiit,” Sera sing-songed behind him, to the tune of her feet splashing–deliberately splashing–in a puddle.
Pavus looked over his shoulder. “If you fall in, we shan’t pull you out, you know.”
Somewhere ahead, Adaar rapped her great bargepole of a staff on the rotten planks of the bridge she was standing on. They creaked ominously.
“Guys, come on,” she sighed. “Dorian, leave Bull alone and keep telling me about this necromancy shit you got.”
“Right, right,” Pavus babbled, mind clearly only half on the slippery planks he was now trying to navigate. The Bull hoped he’d fall in and ruin his fancy robes. “While it’s possible to manipulate corpses into a semblance of motion with blood magic, true necromancy relies on techniques developed in Nevarra that have nothing whatsoever to do with blood. In the Ancient Age…”
And right there was another reason why the Bull wasn’t touching that. A Vint, a mage, and a necromancer to top it all off. The Bull had never met any of those on Seheron, and there didn’t seem to be many in the Imperium at all, but he’d seen them a couple times too often elsewhere. The Chargers ended up in Nevarra sometimes, mostly in spite of the Bull’s best efforts; Krem insisted the market for jobs there was too good to ignore, but the Bull was pretty sure his lieutenant just liked Nevarra because the shops had Tevinter candy. That whole country was crawling with necromancers. Their particular school of magic felt cold, was a noxious sort of purple, and raised the dead, which was really all the Bull needed to know to have an informed opinion on it.
Unfortunately, Adaar didn’t know much about necromancy and was the sort of strategic thinker who wanted to know exactly what her comrades were capable of. Pavus was only too happy to fill her in with a steady stream of frankly terrifying examples of how his magic could terrify, twist, and explode living things. The louder Sera’s shrieks of disgust got, the more gruesome he made it all sound. And the Bull was a captive audience, given that he had to stick close enough not to lose them in the blasted fog.
It was almost another hour before Pavus ran out of necromancy tidbits and fell silent. The Bull immediately figured the respite was temporary, and he knew there was a reason why his Tama said he was the smartest of her kids, because look at this, he was fucking right.
”I hope it doesn't bother you to travel alongside a ‘Vint,’ Iron Bull.”
It kinda did, right now. The Bull couldn’t even appreciate the view anymore, distracted as he was by the feeling of his toes shrivelling up in his sopping wet boots and socks. His feet were going to rot and fall off. “That what you are? You people all kind of look the same to me.”
“I’m also a mage. Would you prefer me bound and leashed?”
The Bull couldn’t tell if that was flirting or mockery. “Depends how much you keep yapping,” he growled.
“My apologies, Herald.” And with that, Pavus turned his attention back on Adaar.
Honestly, in better circumstances, it would have been almost endearing how insatiably curious and chatty he was. He kept up a running litany of questions for another hour, about anyone and anything they came across, from craggy Fereldan ruins to strange Avvar to the history of the stinking bog to Adaar’s penchant for shirtlessness. She howled, slapped him on the back hard enough to make him stumble forward, and told him to ask the Bull, who was actually from Par Vollen and thus supposedly knew a great deal more about Qunari fashion.
Pavus didn’t ask the Bull about the shirt thing, but he did start sneaking looks. He probably thought he was being subtle. The Bull was sure he didn’t look his best after half a day of hiking through this blighted land of slime and mud, but the muscles always looked good, even–maybe especially–when gleaming wet. At least it saved him the trouble of figuring out whether Pavus’ supposed taste for sex with men extended to Qunari men.
He was… unsure about how to handle this, to a really bizarre extent. That hesitation was probably half the reason why Pavus was getting on his nerves right now. Playing honeypot wasn’t hard. He’d done it often enough during his years down south, and kind of liked the challenge of it. Seducing someone and then asking them the right questions was a delicate and complex activity that made for a nice change from chopping heads off. And it wasn’t exactly an imposition to bed Orlesian or Marcher nobles if it came to that. He’d slept with one or two that he’d been really fucking happy to see the back of, but most of them were enthusiastic and bathed regularly.
But the Bull had also spent little time with most of them, sticking around only for however long it took the Chargers to complete the assignment they were getting paid for. That would be different with Pavus, if he decided to do it. The Inquisition’s work could take months yet, and that was assuming that the combined power of the Herald and the rebel mages would be enough to close the Breach. And that that would be the end of it. The Bull didn’t have much use for either optimism or pessimism; things happened, he watched them, he reported on them. But he knew that massive, continent-wide, hugely complicated shitty situations were rarely solved by miracle solutions, let alone miracle solutions that involved unleashing terrifying amounts of magic.
In short, he might be stuck with Pavus for the foreseeable future. If he just winged it with the seduction attempts and it went sour, things could get sticky. He’d have to move a little more slowly and carefully than usual.
If he could convince himself to touch that.
Granted, Pavus was damned handsome, even covered in the sheen of moisture that coated everything in the Mire; it highlighted his cheekbones, and the length of his throat. And he was in very good shape. The Bull had a pretty good view as Pavus walked ahead of him on the paths and rickety bridges, hopping between goo-covered planks and wet stones with almost as much poise as Sera. No stiff pampered noble there.
Still a mage, though. And the more he talked about his talents, the less the Bull wanted to know.
They plodded on. The mist finally solidified into a thin, unenthusiastic drizzle. The increased visibility was welcome, even if all the Bull got from it was a better view of the rotting corpses and the sad remains of ramshackle huts. Sera led them in a surprisingly to-the-point discussion of the etymology of “bog” and related words. Adaar debated the possibilities of drying and then smoking blood lotus, the big brown mushrooms along the path, and the shambling skeletons that appeared every time one of them accidentally dipped a toe into the cold water. That set Pavus off on an impassioned tangent about the history of smoking in the Imperium.
The Bull made an effort to join in on the chatter, but his heart wasn’t in it. They could probably tell. He’d have fretted about that years ago, when he was new to southern Thedas and hyper-focused on convincing everyone he met that he was just a big jolly Tal-Vashoth. Now he knew that it was fine to drop his act occasionally. People were so eager to see what they wanted to see, they didn’t even notice when it blinked in and out a bit.
He was finally saved from the muddle of his thoughts by, surprise, Adaar finding a way to make his crappy day even crappier. She discovered a brazier on top of a little hill that Pavus insisted was meant to hold some sort of weird magic fire, and the Bull had to listen to them debate for ten minutes whether they were going to turn it on just for the heck of it. Fucking mages.
“So if we light this, it’ll probably draw a bunch of demons in the area to us so we can kill them all at once?”
“That seems to be it, yes.” Pavus was squinting at the pillar, trying to angle his staff so the purple glow of its stone would make it easier for him to read the inscription in the rock. All the wetness was starting to make his mustache curl a little more than it was supposed to. That briefly sent the Bull's brain wondering if all of his hair was curly when not combed and slicked and sculpted into submission, but he caught himself and focused on the matter at hand again. Pavus wasn’t looking concerned as he studied the pillar, exactly, but he didn’t seem as confident as usual. That wasn’t promising.
At least Sera was looking as unenthused as the Bull. “Say, what’s a ‘bunch’ of demons?”
Adaar and Dorian looked at each other. The Herald shrugged. Then she bounced her staff, or tried to; it hit the muddy ground with a squelch and stayed down.
“Couldn’t say. Let’s do it anyway, we can probably handle it. Sera, get up on that pillar. Everyone else, backs to the stone.”
The Bull gave Sera a leg-up and got into position on Adaar’s right. He didn’t bother grumbling any further objections; it wasn’t like he had a better strategy to offer, and besides, complaining didn’t work on Adaar–something Pavus must have cottoned on to by now, but was flatly refusing to acknowledge.
So now they were going to summon demons, on purpose, as if the corpses weren’t bad enough. He’d said it was going to be too many demons, way before. But did Krem ever listen to him? No, because he was a cocky asshole. Ah, don't worry about the demons, chief! I'm sure we won't see many. The Bull was starting to think that maybe Krem was a Tevinter plant after all, come to lead him to a slow and cruel end.
Adaar swung her arm in a graceful arc, adding a quick twist of fingers at the end of it. The brazier belched up a bright gout of flame the exact same shade as the hole in the sky, and the Bull squeezed his eye shut on reflex.
When he opened it, he got a really quick reminder about why you usually didn’t stand right next to mages during a fight.
It was instant pandemonium. Adaar gave scream of outraged surprise as one of the giant spindly terror demons landed straight on Pavus’ head, throwing him to the ground before he’d gotten off even one spell. It reared back for another pounce, but an arrow from above thudded into its skull before the Bull could intervene, giving Pavus time to roll away and scramble into a good casting position again. Then the air was alive with magic, spells detonating all around the Bull.
The one good thing was, it was so stupendously too much that he couldn’t even panic. It was like standing in the middle of fifty Orlesian fireworks going off all at the same time. He couldn’t see or hear one shitting thing.
Fuck. Fuck, he was used to the mages being way behind him as he charged, and he’d actually been distracted enough today not to consider what it might mean that they were in much closer quarters than usual, crowded together on this shitty little hill along with what had to be three–four–no, at least half a dozen demons now. Everyone and everything and a fuckton of crazy light explosions were right on top of him. He needed space, damn it, he needed–
Bellowing, the Bull launched himself forward, catching something on his axe that shrieked and crackled like some giant bug. Hah. And then he was free of the hellish tangle–but he couldn’t see a fucking thing, he was still all but blind, night vision so shot that the whole of the shitty bog spread out before him was just plain black. There were spots of light dancing in front of his face. Fuck. Fuck.
He turned, back to the infernal flashy bedlam raging around the pillar, and smacked straight into the claws of another giant terror demon. The shrieking of it went through his skull like knives. Too close to swing his axe, grab it–his arm was stuck, both his arms, it was grabbing him–
The Bull’s feet left the ground.
He had a split second to realize he was being thrown–thrown–through the air, clean off the hill and away from his companions–and then he hit water.
He went down like a rock, no time to take a breath of air, but he clamped down on the spike of panic just in time and kept his hold on his axe. If he could just get his feet under him, find the bottom…
There was no bottom. He’d landed in some kind of sinkhole or Koslun only knew what, and now he was going down, down into icy blackness that leeched the strength out of his every kick. Shit. Shit fucking shit.
He let go of the axe’s terrible weight and kicked harder as his lungs began to burn, struggling through the cold soup as dead plants and other slimy shit caught on his hands. Swimming wasn’t the Bull’s strongest suit, but he could handle himself, and nobody was coming to help anyway–the others were still in the middle of battle, and things hadn’t exactly been going well when he got his stupid ass tossed away by a crapping fucking shitbag of a demon. He had to get back to them, axe or not. He still had short swords. The surface wasn’t that far away, he could see a glow up there that could only be the thrice-damned magic light show…
His foot snagged on something. He kicked, as hard as he could, and–something closed around his wrist. Something bony and strong and finger-like.
He lashed out, twisting his arm, and managed to free it only for his hand to touch something as slimy and solid as a dead rat. He jerked it back, and then there were more fingers on his arms, his back, everywhere–pulling him down, grabbing him by his harness and his legs and pulling him down, down, down.
The Bull fought, kicked, but it was like being swarmed by those shitty fire ants on Seheron that could eat a man alive. He couldn’t see anything. Not a single thing, no shadows, nothing glowing in the dark, no more light from where the surface had to be. His lungs burned.
Not like this. There was no peace in this, no glory. He was frightened beyond reason, and it hurt, it hurt, the water in his throat and the jagged nails raking over his bare arms and chest and back. They were everywhere, a great wriggling mass of them. He could see them now–twisted shapes from the nightmares Qunari weren’t supposed to have, glowing a rotten purple as they writhed in the dark.
The Bull thrashed, grabbed, but every time he got hold of something, his fingers went through the pulpy dead flesh like through overripe mango. He broke rotten bones, but the sharp edges cut him. And still they swarmed him, ripping, biting, pulling his head back by his horns, trying to make him bare his throat, fighting over him–they were going to tear him apart, there was nothing but thick skin between his red flesh and their teeth, and he couldn’t breathe–
His head broke the surface.
It took him a moment to realize he was feeling air on his face, not water. He didn’t go under again, they were still holding him, holding him up–he still couldn’t breathe, throat too full of water, but he thrashed as hard as he could, pummeling and kicking and crushing every skull he could reach.
“STOP FIGHTING THE ONES THAT ARE HELPING, BULL! STOP!”
A great cough wracked the Bull as his lungs demanded relief, and that more than the shouting made him pause for a moment. The corpses were glowing, or at least some of them, glowing and fighting each other–ripping at each other’s flesh, throwing shredded strips of it all over the Bull… And the whole hellish snarl was pushing him towards the shore.
“BULL, SWIM! GET OVER HERE! SWIM!”
Adaar, she sounded so close… The Bull struggled to free himself from the tangle, fell into the water again, and kicked and kicked as his fingers scrambled to find ground, plants, anything to pull himself forward with. His eye was full of dead water.
A roaring sheet of fire passed over his head, so close he could smell the stink of burned horn, and then his left foot hit solid ground. Almost immediately, something grabbed his shoulder harness and jerked him forward towards the land.
He half-stumbled, half-fell past Adaar as she unleashed another torrent of flame onto whatever was behind the Bull. He smacked into the soggy earth chest first, unable to get a hand under himself in time, and the shock expelled a disgusting gush of dead water from his mouth.
Adaar was behind him now, throwing spells and inarticulate screams of rage in equal measure–though she sounded like she was winding down.
The Bull struggled to sit, coughing and coughing. He lifted a hand to wipe at his face and saw it was glowing. Purple, he was glowing purple like the corpses, he could feel the light slithering over him like a thousand slimy crawling bugs.
“GET THIS SHIT OFF OF ME!”
“Oh, for–Dorian, stop casting! Sera, smack him!”
A yell from the side. The light began to fade.
Something grabbed him by the back of his harness and gave him a hard shake.
“Bull! Pull yourself together, it was just Dorian. Can you stand?”
The Bull stared up into Adaar’s furious face. She didn’t look so great. There was a long, bleeding cut across her chest, and the skin of her left shoulder looked bubbly and burnt.
He was out. They were alive.
Something moaned piteously behind Adaar, and the Bull struggled to sit up. He saw Dorian on hands and knees in the mud, retching like he was trying to bring up his own insides. Sera was standing over him, face mottled and streaked with dirt, flapping her arms around his shoulders like he was a fire she was trying to put out.
“Stop! Stop! Don’t burst into demons! I’ll kill you!”
“Won’t,” Dorian pleaded, coughing. He was bleeding, the Bull realized–from his nose, and his ears. “My head. Oh. Oh…”
He threw up again.
Adaar left the Bull to stalk over to the other pair, snapping curses in her strange Common-Qunlat hybrid. She jerked a blue vial from her belt, uncorked it, and practically shoved the end of it into Dorian’s mouth.
“Drink. Drink it and don’t vomit it up. Sera, help him keep it down, he’s not going to burst into demons. Bull! You breathing?”
A hand on his shoulder. She was back already.
“Yeah.” A gurgling sound tore itself from his throat. Adaar thumped a fist between his shoulder blades, hard, and he immediately coughed up another mouthful of the brackish water. Fucking shit, he was never gonna get rid of that taste in his mouth. It was putrid.
“Boss,” he croaked. “Did we get the demons?”
She smacked him on the back a few more times, then grabbed his harness and pulled him upwards. “Demons're all dead. Come on, on your feet. We all need bedrolls and fires. What a fucking shitshow. You two, stand up, no whining!”
The slog back to camp was definitely among the more inglorious retreats of the Bull’s life. It was no longer drizzling, but that was about the only thing he could find to be happy about. Sera scouted ahead, bow at the ready and head constantly swivelling this way and that, alert in spite of a limp in her right leg that started out bad and got worse as time dragged on. Dorian was stumbling vaguely forwards in front of the Bull, apparently unable to really open his eyes or focus on anything; Adaar had to hold him by the arm to keep him from walking right off the path and into the black swamp.
The Bull shuffled after them, feet sopping in his boots. He should take them off and pour the water out, but he didn’t have the will for it. There were dead plants oozing down his back. The leather of his wet harness chafed, and his soaked pants clung to him. It was like wearing a layer of ice. His balls were going to shrivel back into his body, but whatever. He was so fucking tired. His lungs hurt something fierce and moving without enough air was hard, but at least he didn’t have a hefty weapon to drag along anymore. Damn it. That had been a good axe.
Somehow, they made it home.
Their miserable arrival sent the scouts into a brief tizzy, but the Inquisition didn’t employ incompetents, even if they were rarely as efficient as the Chargers. In respectably short order, the Bull found himself seated next to a good fire, in dry pants, cuts and scrapes stinging from the smelly paste one of the scouts had lathered him up with. Sera and Dorian were a huddle of exhaustion on the bench on the other side of the flames, pressed together for warmth under several layers of blankets.
Assholes, the Bull thought. They weren’t even the ones who’d taken a dive in a liquid ice bog. But the wind was cold, and the camp was only the barest semblance of dry; the rain had been sluicing off the tents only yesterday night. This evening was a little clearer, at least, even if the temperature was unlikely to help make anything less wet.
It was still overcast, but the moon peeked through the dark clouds every now and then to cast spindly shadows of bare tree branches over them all. They reminded the Bull of the demons, and the fingers underwater. He wasn’t going to forget the fingers anytime soon.
The Bull looked up. “Sure, Boss. Thanks.”
Adaar dropped a handful of walnuts into his palm. The Bull ate.
“I’m sorry you had to finish that fight with three, Boss. And… you know. Shit.”
She waved a tired hand. “Yeah, ‘shit’ just about covers it. We all fuck up sometimes.”
“Still. Not too great for a guy’s self-image, if your team’s gotta come save you from the dead people.”
Adaar took a drag from her pipe and seemed to contemplate the Bull’s words with a great deal of seriousness.
“I have a feeling this is the least of the freakish shit we’re going to be running into,” she said after a minute or so. “We’ve had it easy up to now, with mostly templars and apostates to fight. But these demons… Do you feel like they’re getting worse?”
He did, which was something he’d avoided thinking about up to now. “Yeah. They’re getting stronger.”
“I’ll sound out Solas. Maybe he’s got some idea what’s going on, but I doubt he’ll have a solution. We’re just gonna have to get a lot more vigilant.”
She tossed the walnut shells into the fire and waited for them to start crackling. The shadows made her look as tired as the Bull felt.
The Dorian-and-Sera-shaped mound shifted and let out a little groan of discomfort.
“Half of those dead people were trying to help you, you lummox…”
Yeah, and just the thought of that made the Bull’s skin crawl all over again. He didn’t want to think about it. He’d thanked Dorian already, but… ugh. “Sorry, big guy.”
The only answer was another annoyed groan.
Adaar reached out and patted a lump in the huddle that could have been either of them. “Good job out there, guys. Dorian, good idea with the corpses. Very novel. Worked weird, but it worked.”
That was a really diplomatic way of putting it. The Bull wasn’t going to forget the crawly purple stuff in a hurry, either. It had been like having his skin turned inside out, every single itchy, shaky, disconnected bit of him suddenly on the outside and on full display.
Fucking shit, he hated magic. Fucking Pavus. How could something so pretty produce something so perfectly fucking revolting?
Saved your life with it, too, he reminded himself. It was hard to believe that the ghastly magic had done something good, but he had to believe it. That he didn’t want to know something didn’t mean he didn’t have to know it. It was part of his job down here, cataloguing all the bad and confusing shit so that the people up in Par Vollen could deal with it before it reached home. If the Bull looked away from a reality rather than face it, sooner or later someone else was going to have to face it, maybe a tamassran with a bunch of kids to protect. The Vint and his magic were confusing, but the Bull would have to figure him out anyway.
He sighed and closed his eye. Terror was exhausting, and he was starting to realize that he was spending way too much time trying to untangle Pavus. There were things that were more important than one mildly creepy guy. Things the Bull needed to do, things he needed to know, information he’d been tasked to extract. About Adaar. About the Breach. About the political crisis in Orlais, about…
The thing was, it was easy to focus on Dorian. On Pavus. So easy on the brain. Of all things demanding the Bull’s attention, that man was barely near the top of the list, but the thought of him was just… light. Simple to hold. He looked good. He was interesting. He drew attention naturally, demanded it, and revelled in it when it was given. For all his sniping, he seemed to liked being the center of the Bull’s attention more than he hated the idea of spending time with a Qunari.
No wonder he pushed himself to the forefront of the Bull’s mind so easily. He wanted to be there. Unlike many other unknowns, Pavus was a mystery that wanted to be solved.
He was annoying for sure, and more than a little bit weird. But compared to all the other shit in the Bull’s life, Pavus was fun to think about. Almost… comfortable.
The Bull listened to the popping of the fire and the cracking of nuts between Adaar’s strong fingers, and let aimless thoughts of the rain on Pavus’ face lull him into a doze.
When he jerked awake again, the moon was fully out, cold light bringing the trees and rocks around the campsite into view even as it stripped away what little color they had. It was getting really chilly. The Bull shifted himself a little closer to the campfire.
Pavus was still on the other side of it, stretched out on the bench. Sera was gone, but her neck kerchief was now draped over Pavus’ face. He looked almost asleep, but the Bull could see the firelight glinting off his eyes, half shaded as they were by the fabric. One of his arms was hanging down towards the ground. His fingers were moving in the sand in small, precise arcs.
He was drawing, the Bull realized.
“Yes?” A whisper, but it came immediately and without any real hint of pain. The finger stopped moving for a moment before continuing.
“What are you doing?”
“Sustaining glyph,” he murmured. “For the fire.”
The Bull blinked. He hadn’t even noticed that the flames were going as strongly as before, but on top of almost nothing; the logs feeding it had long since crumbled to ash and coal.
The fire looked a little different, too. It had hints of green in it.
“Has it turned into that veilfire crap now?”
“Oh no, it’s real. I’m just providing fuel from my mana.” Pavus sighed. “Shouldn’t, but I’m more cold than tired now.”
The Bull blinked into the flames. What a strange thought, that Pavus had made them from… was magic part of a mage’s flesh?
There were things inside the man, but maybe it wasn’t demons, precisely.
“Hey. Dorian. Thanks for back there.”
A few moments of silence. The fire was oddly soundless, without wood in there to crackle as it burned.
“You’re welcome,” Pavus finally said.
“Good of you to save the evil Ben-Hassrath.”
A hoarse chuckle. “It was a ploy to ensure you would be in my debt. Obviously.”
“Would have worked too, if I weren’t a sneaky back-stabbing Qun drone incapable of independent thought or complex motivations,” the Bull said.
“Andraste preserve me,” Pavus sighed. He shifted, and Sera’s kerchief finally slid from his head and fell on the ground. He squinted as the light from the fire hit his eyes, but seemed too lethargic to move and do something about it.
The Bull tried to settle more comfortably on his bench. It creaked under his weight, and he stilled himself again. “Seriously, big guy. I’m really just here for intelligence. We’re not targeting the Inquisition or anything, we just want to know what’s going on.”
“Such an innocent lamb you are,” Pavus said.
The Bull winked, one-eyed. “Calf.”
“Why I bother to appeal to Andraste when she only ever laughs in my face, I’ll never know.”
They sat in silence for a moment as a howl tore the air. Wolves, no doubt, but they sounded far away. The Bull suspected they hated the bog. He hadn’t seen any trace of them yet.
He sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. “Hey. Why are you here?”
Pavus shifted on his bench. He seemed to be uncomfortable, but maybe he couldn’t crawl into his bedroll and go to sleep until that magic backlash thing he’d had was entirely gone? Like with concussions.
“I’ve said that. To stop the Venatori. They’re insane, they corrupted my family, and they’re a stain on Tevinter. They must be eradicated, or my homeland is done for.”
Hah. “So you’re here on a mission from your country, too.”
Pavus sighed. “Not officially, no, and I’m not passing intelligence to anyone in Tevinter.”
“But you get it, right? Just wanting to help the folks back home?”
“It’s hardly that simple and you know it.” Pavus was starting to sound a little peeved. “Listen, The Iron Bull. Adaar trusts you, and I suppose that will do for now. I’ve too much on my mind to concern myself with your trustworthiness, or lack of such. I’ll take my chances with you. Kindly grant me the same courtesy, and stop being so suspicous.”
How magnanimous of him. The Bull didn’t mention that Pavus was the one who’d spent the last couple of weeks trying to snipe open a southern front in the Tevinter-Qunari war. He was diplomatic like that.
“Good enough,” he agreed. “Sorry for making things harder for you back there. Smacking away your undead minions and all, I mean. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Another sigh. “It’s quite all right. Of course you panicked, there were corpses everywhere, it was all very alarming.”
“A bit,” the Bull conceded. “Never seen anyone do that before, and I’ve seen a lot of Vint mages.”
Pavus blinked at him. “Where?”
“On Seheron. Was stationed there for a really long time.”
For a moment, Pavus looked deeply unsure of how to react. Then, “Oh. That’s terrible.”
“Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”
The Bull considered how to proceed. He still wasn’t sure if he could touch that, especially after today. He could at least keep trying to befriend the guy, though. He really was so easy on the eyes. And easy on the brain.
He dug into his belt pouch for a bottle. The Ben-Hassrath needn’t have bothered telling the Bull about Pavus’ weakness for alcohol; it was pretty obvious. The man was careful not to get drunk in the tavern, but almost every night, he bought a bottle from Flissa on his way out that he presumably finished in the cabin he shared with Solas.
The Bull held out the little brown bottle of whiskey.
Pavus blinked sleepily. “Oh. Yes, more dearly than I can possibly express, but I must refuse. Indulging is a terrible idea when one is recovering from the overextension of one's magic.”
Ah well. Fortunately, alcohol wasn’t really necessary to loosen Pavus’ tongue.
“Why didn’t you do the corpse thing before?” the Bull nudged him. “Would have been handy when we were hacking into those bandits back in that shitty castle in the Hinterlands.”
Pavus actually looked sad that he hadn’t taken the chance to raise a bunch of dead people in the shitty castle. “That fight was merely a little more taxing than usual. I don’t like to animate corpses unless I… unless we are in serious trouble. It requires a lot of concentration to manipulate even one, if I want it to do more than hack away aimlessly at something. Having a troupe of them execute a complex maneuver tends to turn my brain to rice pudding, as you witnessed today.”
Pavus took a breath. He held still, no fidgeting or anything, so the Bull knew there was more chatter coming.
“Besides, people tend not to appreciate such displays. I once animated a corpse to stop a robbery, somewhere in the Free Marches, and was promptly run off by those I’d saved. Actual torches and pitchforks were involved. Necromancy has nothing to do with blood magic, but layfolk tend to fear anything that looks unnatural. And one's shanked old auntie rising from a pool of her own blood to rip out the throat of a highwayman is definitely that.”
Heh. “Yeah. I know you saved me and all, but that was fucking terrifying.”
“Don’t worry, I shan’t do it again unless circumstances are as dire as they were today. I did come down here to help Tevinter, and the world by extension. It is in my interest that people grow less convinced that I’m a dread sorcerer out do to all manner of ghastly things to their mortal coil.”
The Bull shrugged. “Dunno. Might be easier to make them respect the Imperium again if you scare them a bit.”
Pavus shifted his head so he could look straight at the Bull. “You mistake my meaning. I don’t want Tevinter to be feared, I want it to be known for its good sides.”
He looked bizarrely sincere, lying there half hidden under a horse blanket in a dank little camp in the middle of a rotting swamp, the last vestiges of his migraine pulling his features tight. His hair was sticking up at one end.
He was still really fucking pretty.
And in his next report, the Bull was going to suggest that they reassign whoever had suggested that they try and convert Pavus. If there was anything in this guy’s character that might make him good viddathari material, the Bull had yet to discover it after a good month of looking really closely.
“Sounds like a tall order, big guy. You figured you’d just come down here and act the good Vint?”
“If I knew of something that would have more effect, I’d be doing that instead of subjecting myself to southern bogs and bears, I assure you.”
The Bull believed that. “You really think one guy running around is going to change people’s minds?”
Pavus raised an eyebrow. Or started to; it seemed to pain him.
“I’ll have you know that I finally convinced the tavern keeper to take my coin! She thought it was cursed before, but I managed to assuage her concerns. Sera helped.”
Aw, cute. “One at a time, huh?”
“I cannot help but notice you are speaking to me.”
There he went again, pretending like the Bull was the difficult one here. “Hey, I was speaking to you before! You’re the one who stomped off.”
“Not without reason, I would say. Grant me that,” Pavus drawled. “I was present in Qarinus for some of those raids, you know. My father has lifelong back problems and it’s all your people’s fault. We got caught down in the city when raiders started pouring over the walls, so he picked me up and raced up a steep hill with me, except that I was seven years old and far too heavy to be carried. He should have let me run by myself, I was faster than him by then. But he was being chased by the Beresaad, and I rather understand why he panicked. You’re all very large and terrifying.”
He finished with a great yawn that he barely bothered to cover with his hand. He had to be feeling better, though, if he was up to yapping again.
“Hey, I’m only terrifying when I want to be. But I’m always large,” the Bull said.
The yawn ended in a crooked grin.
“That you are.”
Aha. The Bull flexed one arm, just a little. “Like what you see now, big guy?”
“Can’t say I do. I’m going to bed.” He pushed himself to his feet and began to gather up the blankets.
“Don’t let the corpses bite,” the Bull said.
“Oh, I hardly think I’m the one who’ll be worrying about that.” Pavus ran a hand over the pile of blankets now hanging from his other arm, smoothening out the fabric on top, his long dark fingers spread wide. “Scream if you’re frightened, The Iron Bull. I’ll come and save you again.”
Fucking cheek. The Bull made a rude hand gesture that was understood around the world, and Pavus barked a short laugh as he walked away towards his tent.
And then the Bull was alone with his thoughts. That wasn’t a very fun state of being these days, and the first watch was his, so he couldn’t even attempt to meditate. If only he still had an axe to clean.
How did you even start thinking things through when you’d seen some of the freakiest, most unnatural magic shit you’d ever seen, and it had saved your life? He should be terrified right now, but he wasn’t. He should be terrified of Pavus, more suspicious, but he wasn’t. The Bull knew he should be starting to worry about himself. There was such a thing as dwelling so much on something dangerous, spending so much time with it, that all the proper, natural fear it should inspire just faded away. Until it showed its true colors.
He wished he could speak with a tamassran, ask how it was that the more knowledge and understanding he gathered about the South and the demons and the people he worked with every day, the less he felt like true mastery of anything at all was within his reach. Everything he learned, everything he experienced, only served to unnerve him more.
It was getting harder and harder to rid his mind of this unrest–of the creeping, crawling feeling that there were cracks opening in his skin. That the stitches of the re-educators were coming loose, letting the pieces of him jangle around inside like parts in a broken dreadnought engine. Pieces that sometimes did or thought things that had nothing to do with the rest of him. Loose stitches, loose parts. Not a proper whole anymore.
Either the demon hole in the sky really was affecting him, or he was doing something badly wrong. He just couldn’t tell. He was so far away from home, and it was sometimes so difficult to help himself when he desperately wanted guidance.
Stop thinking. This is useless.
The Bull listened to the sounds of the Mire instead. There were many more than he’d have expected from such a dead place–mostly chirping insects, but there were frogs, birdcalls here and there, and a rustling between the rocks that could only be some kind of animal. The dead were only in the water.
The unnatural campfire showed no sign of faltering, even when the last of the coals under it crumbled to ash. Probably should disturb Pavus’ glowing glyph in the sand and make it go out entirely. It was better to keep watch in the dark, and better not to be in the presence of magic, however benevolent it looked on the surface.
After an hour or so, the wind picked up until the nearby Inquisition banner was flapping loudly on its stand. The fire was thrown every which way as the air tugged at it, but it never showed any sign of extinguishing. The Bull wondered if the fire glyph was self-sustaining, or if it was still drawing power from Pavus right now even as he slept in his tent.
The Bull stayed where he was. Pavus’ dancing flames kept him company, and he stared at their leaping and fluttering until one of the scouts came to take the next watch.
Chapter 3: The Frostback Mountains
Note written in lemon ink on the back of a paper containing unmarked doodles of various Chargers
Left by The Iron Bull in a secure drop next to the smithy in Haven. The text is in Qunlat.
I have continued to approach Dorian Pavus.
It is my opinion that the man does not have it in him to be a viddathari for the Qun. However, he has potential for usefulness. He has a great breadth of knowledge about matters in the Tevinter Imperium, albeit not about military matters. He is indeed estranged from his family, but what little he has mentioned about this suggests he regrets the estrangement. He may indeed return to the Tevinter Imperium and take his father’s seat in the Magisterium.
He makes great efforts to ingratiate himself with members of the Inquisition, and the so-called Herald appears very taken with him. I will continue to seek favor with him, and if he is a spy of any kind, I expect to uncover evidence of it soon.
He is speaking to me fairly freely now. If there is any specific information you require, let me know.
Half-burned note thrown into the campfire at Dwarfson’s Pass Camp
Written in two different hands and in small, untidy letters, as if the writers were trying to hide their scribbling from someone. The text is in Common.
I do not wish to insult that lovely scout who is so helpfully preparing us yet another variation on Inquisition Stew, but I am so sick of tubers and nug meat. If the next Venatori we come across offer me chicken curry, I just might defect. Please tell me there is a way to get northern food somewhere in these Maker-forsaken parts. -DP
Make it easier on yourself and stop hoping, big guy. It’s not gonna happen. But you’ll get way more variety in the tubers once spring comes around, they’ve got them in every color of the rainbow.
That is so dreary I might weep. How have you survived down here? -DP
It’s been about six years since I came down south, my stomach’s rearranged itself by now. Still miss cocoa, though.
Why did you have to remind me of cocoa? I despise you, and every Qunari in Par Vollen who neglected to throw you off a cliff while you were still small enough to be thrown. -DP
Wait, you know about cocoa? You have it in Tevinter?
It can be had in disreputable harbor taverns with owners and clientele of a Rivaini persuasion, mostly in the north-east. Excellent with a dash of rum. -DP
Nice. We mix some cinnamon and cloves in.
Oh, please stop, I will perish of homesickness. -DP
Can get you a different milky northern beverage, though.
Koslun must be weeping for you. -DP
Maybe, he was pretty in touch with his feelings. Why do you add your initials all the time? I know who you are.
A holdover from my former career. One adds initials to everything in a research journal, to enable other scholars who might use one’s notes to identify who said what. But you know that, you were reading my journal. -DP
Sorry about that. -TIB
It was on the orders of our illustrious leader, I understand. There is no need for you to add initials here. I sincerely doubt these papers will end up part of the historical record. -DP
Hey, when in Minrathous… -TIB
I wish. -DP
Note left pinned to a thick blanket thrown over Dorian Pavus’ shoulders as he sat snoring by the fire in Three Trout Farm Camp
I came out to take a leak and you were asleep on your watch. You looked kind of tired and I didn’t want the fire to go out while you were snoring, so I took over.
If the weather’s making you sick, come share my tent. I’ll rub your footsies with my enormous warm hands.
Seriously, don’t fall asleep outside in this cold.
Written on the back of the previous note and left tucked into The Iron Bull’s belt without him noticing
The Iron Bull,
I’m perfectly well. It is just so exhausting to process your crude innuendo all day, I could not keep my eyes open a moment longer.
Thank you for your assistance, however, and your offer of hospitality. It will be very difficult to forget.
Note pinned to Inquisitor Adaar’s tent in the middle of the night
I have shared my tent with The Iron Bull for the past week, as per your orders, and I must lodge a complaint. The man is gargantuan. Elephantine. Vast. I have barely enough room to breathe what little air does not consist of his body odor, let alone lie down properly or make myself at all comfortable in any sense of the word. He snores like a rockslide. Let him share with Sera again.
Note pinned to Inquisitor Adaar’s tent in the middle of the night, next to the other one
Boss, he only says that because he woke up sleep-cuddling me and now he’s embarrassed.
I’m big and warm and you like it.
The Iron Bull
Scribbled at the bottom of the previous note
I do not. That is vile slander, and you will retract it or face me in the dueling arena.
Scribbled below the previous note
Ha! Meet you outside the gate of Haven at dawn, big guy. Let’s make it a show.
Scribbled on a new note, as the other one was full
Dawn? Are you entirely mad You wish for your inevitable defeat to be a public spectacle? Very well. Remember that you insisted.
Note pinned across the entrance to the tent shared by Dorian Pavus and The Iron Bull
We are closing the Breach in two days. I have no time for your northern mating rituals AND NEITHER DO YOU. FOCUS.
For one instant, the Bull forgot to feel cold.
“What do you mean, Dorian’s not here?”
A gust of snow passed over them, and Josephine braced herself with a little grunt as the wind tore at her hair. She was wearing Cullen’s cape and a pair of thick fur boots, but other than that, she had nothing but her usual ruffly golden number to protect herself from the storm. How had she climbed a mountain in just this? How was she even standing, let alone running up and down the line of staggering refugees so she could count people?
Who knew. It was in these sorts of laughably impossible circumstances that you figured out what people were really made of. And maybe the new camp beyond that last ridge up there already had fires, food...
“The Chargers are the last of the column!” Josephine had to shout to make herself heard over the wind. “Lord Dorian is nowhere to be found. I thought maybe he was here, he is your friend…”
The Bull shook his head. The Chargers had gone into the tunnel under Haven’s chantry almost last, having battled the army of crazy templars to the end. There had been a couple of people behind them apart from the Inquisitor’s party, he was sure of that much–when Cassandra and Viv had passed them on the first snow field, they’d been shepherding a handful of villagers along with a hysterical Sera. But the Bull’s men had been bringing up the rear since then, struggling up the slopes while keeping their eyes peeled for anyone or anything that might attack the mostly helpless mass of humanity plodding along. And for Adaar.
The Bull leaned over to shield Josephine at least a bit, squinting against the stinging wind. “He’s not here! Where’d you last see him?”
Her face was growing pinched, he noticed, and the color of her cheeks and nose was too dark. She needed to get to shelter, and soon.
“Varric saw him in the tunnel, but running back towards Haven!”
Fucking shit what.
The Bull threw out his arms. “Why?!”
Josephine shook her head. “He thought Lord Dorian went back to help, but Cassandra and Madame de Fer didn’t see him…”
A loud, multi-throated yell from above had them both turn for a moment. A few Chargers were barely visible through the swirling white, struggling to help Quartermaster Threnn and two soldiers dislodge a stuck cart that was apparently full of food. As they watched, the cart shifted, almost seemed to rear back like an angry ox–and then fell back into the snow, to more shouts, this time of dismay.
Josephine began to take a deep breath, but seemed to think better of it as the frozen air went up her nose.
“Well. Lord Dorian is a capable man. Let us pray he finds the way back.”
Dorian hadn’t even seen snow before he came to Ferelden. The Bull had had to talk him through the concept of frostbite when they went hunting for ram outside Haven, and Dorian showed up in his everyday boots.
The Bull hadn’t even gotten around to touching him, beyond an accidental brush of fingers here and there. He’d been working up to it. He’d just about talked himself around, he’d been looking all over Haven for Dorian to offer him a big mug of mulled wine when the bells began to toll…
Koslun in the beyond, what had happened tonight?
“Yeah,” the Bull heard himself say. “I’m sure he’s right behind us. We’ll keep an eye out for him, Lady Montilyet.”
Her brows twisted in sympathy, as if she had any idea what this meant for the Bull. Not that the Bull himself knew what it meant, because his head was fucking useless these days. It was a good thing Tallis only needed him to write stuff down, not make big decisions.
“I am sorry, The Iron Bull,” Josephine said. “We do not have the means to go searching for him, and I cannot let you go. You might get lost yourself, and we are barely getting by as it is…”
“Yeah, I get it.”
She nodded. “I will do another round once everyone is settled in. Now we are simply taking care of the most urgent business. Tell me, are there any wounded in your company?”
“Yeah, a couple,” the Bull said. “Krem! Get over here!”
Krem rose from his crouch next to the cart and began to trot over, hopping over the rocks in his path without looking. Pretty nimble for someone in full armor who’d been climbing a frozen mountain for the better part of the night, the Bull noticed with no small amount of pride.
He guessed that the Chargers were probably among the most alive of everyone here right now, in spite of the fact that they’d only joined the flight at the very end after a good hour of hard battle. They were damned fit, thanks to Krem’s relentless drill exercises, and there were advantages to being at the back. Everyone else had already stomped the snow flat, so they didn’t have to slough through knee-deep piles of the stuff, and all the rocks on the path were now exposed enough that nobody could trip or break their toes on them. And while all the new snow was murder on the skin and the breath, the fresh layer of it kept the already packed snow rough enough to prevent feet from slipping.
Most feet, that was; the Bull had gone down twice, once on his good knee and once, extra hard and on a fucking rock, on the bad one. And Krem had yelled at him to watch out, like he wasn’t fucking trying, taking small and slow steps on the ascent like Grim was instructing everyone to do, using a branch for a makeshift hiking pole. Apparently Grim had a fuckton of experience trekking through frozen mountains. Who’d have known.
Krem took over the talk with Josephine, rattling off lists of injuries, deaths (only three in the whole company, thank their Maker or whoever), and supplies they’d managed to grab before they’d trouped into the icy tunnel. Josephine produced her clipboard from somewhere under her cloak, pushed her flying hair out of her face with an annoyed huff, and began to scribble.
The Bull stared, momentarily stunned at the picture of normality she made. Her ink pot was glowing orange–maybe one of the mages had enchanted it to not freeze?
Not Dorian. He was out there, either buried under the rubble of Haven or stumbling through the howling void. Fucking shit crap.
The Bull braced himself on his battered legs and tried to peer into the valley they’d just abandoned. Nothing but white darkness, no visibility beyond a stone’s throw even from all the way up here. The path they’d forged was already fading as fresh show accumulated on it. Could anyone follow their tracks? The Chargers had made no stops all night, and neither had anyone else, except for a couple small groups who’d stopped to make fires but had been quickly ushered along. And they’d tried to bury the evidence of that in case they were followed. It had been a screaming fight between Cassandra and Cullen, whether to hide all traces of their passage or leave signs for the Herald to find.
Cullen had won that one. If Dorian was following, he was walking blind.
The Bull closed his eye and tried to put it out of his mind. No use focusing on one guy. He’d show up, or he wouldn’t. No amount of standing around thinking about it would help; the Bull could already feel his mind trying to start running in circles, attempting to parse whether the howling below was the air or the wolves. It was time for him to get out of here, too. The wind had felt piercing in the beginning, whipping his skin raw for hours, but now he was numb all over. Lack of sensation was never a good sign. At least the storm was starting to ease up a little. They’d struggled up most of this slope in what were pretty much blizzard conditions.
Fuck. Dorian just didn’t have the skills and knowledge to make it through a snowstorm. He was dead, might as well accept it. All the Bull could hope was that he’d gone quickly, and hadn’t gotten captured by the Venatori or some shit like that.
He was going to miss that asshole. He was funny, and interesting, and weirdly nice in a way that the Bull had just been starting to wrap his head around. He should have disdained everything about the man, but he was so unrelentingly likeable, and… Fuck. The Bull wished he’d met him sooner, gotten to know him better. He felt like he’d lost a friend in the making. Which was just about the most useless…
Another round of shouting behind him, followed by an ear-splitting creak and a cheer.
Thank fuck, the blasted cart was moving. Now they could all get over the final ridge and stumble down into camp, where food and fires and tents would be waiting. Food, and fires, and tents, and more time to think than the Bull was sure he was comfortable with.
Still. Any camp was good. The location was fairly secure, unless they were being pursued after all. Only a handful of people hadn’t survived the night, mostly those who were already badly injured. They had things to eat. They had enough tents and blankets for everyone, though that was more a result of their diminished numbers than any abundance of supplies.
And Red had surely saved her ravens. The Bull would have to beg one off of her as soon as possible, and alert the Ben-Hassrath to this Corypheus creature and the fall of Haven. He should start writing while everything was still fresh.
He let the roaring gale wash over him and turned inwards.
The report unspooled in his mind like thread from a runaway spinning wheel, bits and pieces of information reordering themselves into chronological and thematic lists, plausible and implausible theories attaching themselves to every question mark. Tallis was going to need analysis for this one, not just facts. And the Bull was going to need a fuckton of paper. Corypheus, the Breach, the blighted dragon, the fate of the Herald, Dorian…
…disappeared during flight from Haven, while already in a safe location, for unknown reasons. Possible explanations include that he intended to find the Herald and was either struck down or lost in the snow, or that he joined his fellow Tevinter, in which case Corypheus is now aware of a range of useful information, including the escape route taken by…
The Bull’s eye snapped open. If someone had pointed the Red Templars to the tunnel, they could be upon them any moment. The swirling snow and the roar of the wind would hide even a large pursuing force. He had to run to camp-this particular explanation for Dorian's absence wouldn't even occur to Josephine, the Bull had to run and tell Cassandra and Cullen to…
No. That wasn’t possible. If Dorian was a Venatori spy after all, he would have stayed embedded in the Inquisition instead of rejoining his master just for a Vint-to-Vint chat. Unless Corypheus had captured Adaar and gotten what he wanted from her, and needed all his men for whatever the fuck he was up to now….
It wasn’t possible because Dorian was not a spy. He just wasn’t. The Bull would have noticed some sign of it by now, some anomaly. He’d been working on getting close to the Vint for over two months; it just wouldn’t have gotten past him. Unless Dorian was almost inhumanly good at his job. Unless he had been trying to seduce the Bull all this time, and the Bull had let himself get distracted by the pretty face and the charm. That would be…
No. Just, no. He knew it in his cold tired bones. About the least professional thought he could be having at this moment, but he hadn’t made it through a decade on Seheron without a damn good sense for people’s intentions.
He could leave it out of the report. Skip it. Say Dorian was thought to have died in the assault, make it sound good, maybe say someone had seen him raising the corpses of soldiers and Red Templars alike to defend the fleeing villagers…
Light. There, in the gloom, straight ahead. Purple light.
“Krem!” the Bull shouted. “There’s someone down there, I’m going!”
He didn’t check to see if he’d been heard. Skittering down the slope sent pain slicing through his leg, but he bit down on it like he’d been doing for hours. As long as he was upright, he could deal with it, and the purple light was so much brighter and closer now…
The Bull almost laughed. Well, shit. He should've remembered. If you can't see a Vint anymore, never assume they're dead if there's any other explanation.
Dorian stumbled out of the last of the whirling snow. He didn’t seem to notice the change; he just kept trudging uphill, head down, until he almost smacked straight into the Bull.
“Maker,” he gasped. He looked up at the Bull, and seemed close to tears for a moment. His hair was almost white, the tips of it frozen together. There were ice crystals in his mustache and on his lashes.
“Oh, praise the Maker,” he wheezed. “We’ve been following the lights the whole night, we could never catch up… And then we had to stop and… frighten off the blasted wolves…”
The Bull looked at the person almost hanging from Dorian’s shoulder. A human man, bowed and shivering, Dorian’s white robe strapped haphazardly over his head and back, almost covering dirty yellow and red robes…
The Magister. It was the Magister from Redcliffe, the one they’d locked away deep under the Chantry.
“I saw you. Your horns,” Dorian went on, voice turning almost giddy as his panting began to subside. The otherwordly light from the staff on his back swayed over them as Dorian struggled to hold up the Magister with one arm. He reached out and clasped at the Bull’s thick belt with the other, maybe for want of something else to cling to. His fingers were pure ice.
Dorian sighed. There was a smile on his face now, tremulous either with cold or relief, the Bull couldn’t tell.
“I could see you up ahead. You’re so tall...”
“What the fuck is he doing here?!”
Krem’s voice shook the Bull out of his astonishment. He turned to see his lieutenant skidding down the slope, Josephine on his heels.
“We forgot him in the dungeon!" Dorian cried. He stared up at the Bull, then straight at Josephine, eyes wide. “Corypheus would’ve ripped him apart. I couldn’t leave him.”
Krem stared at the Magister like he wanted to kick the man’s head in right then and there. The look he gave Dorian wasn’t much friendlier.
“If you had all that time, why didn’t you help the Herald?!”
Dorian blinked. He was still holding on the Bull’s belt.
Josephine took a step forward, deftly inserting herself between Krem and Dorian.
“Lord Dorian, it is a relief to see you. The Herald stayed behind to slow Corypheus down, but was separated from her party and could not be located before they were forced to flee themselves. Did you see her?”
Dorian went very still.
“…Where was she?”
“Out in the village. You must have been the last through the tunnel, was there no sign of her?”
Horror began to creep over Dorian’s face.
“No. I didn’t see her, I swear it, I… There was a lot of crashing outside the Chantry, and flame, but we didn’t stop to see what…” He stumbled, almost falling against the Bull. “Oh. Oh, Maker's breath, I left her behind!”
He whipped his head around, almost falling again, and stared back into the raging white nothing that hid the valley below. He looked about two seconds away from throwing himself down the mountainside so he could go look for Adaar.
Krem’s eyes were fixed on the Magister, hard and furious. “What are you even going to do with him? He’ll get lynched as soon as he gets up there! And so will you!”
This was madness. They just barely had enough tents for all the people in the convoy, and food for less than two days. Sheltering, feeding, and protecting the Magister from the mob would only sap their barely-there resources. Krem was right. They should just wring his neck right here.
“No,” Dorian snapped. “You won’t have to lift a finger to protect him. I’ll do the work. He stays.”
“You’re needed elsewhere,” Krem hissed. “There’s hundreds of people up there! Civilians, children! Injured who need assholes like you who can light fires and melt snow for water!”
“Enough,” the Bull said, almost at the same time as Josephine. She was louder.
They looked at each other, and the Bull tilted his head. “Apologies, Lady Josephine. Go ahead.”
“Thank you,” she said, and turned a stern look on the two new arrivals. “Lord Dorian. Did you see any forces pursuing us? In the tunnel? Anywhere?”
“No,” Dorian whispered.
“That is something, at least,” she nodded. “Now that you have brought the prisoner here, we cannot let him perish. We are not savages. However, you cannot take him into the camp proper. Lieutenant Aclassi is correct, he will cause great unrest among the survivors and may well be attacked. You, also–you have put yourself in danger through your actions.”
Dorian drew himself up as much as he was able, holding the Magister up with both arms now. He was starting to look as haggard as the Bull felt. “Am I to be sentenced for an act of goodwill, then?”
“That is not what I mean. You know that,” Josephine said, voice softer now. “However merciful your intentions, few will thank you for what you did, and you should take care with yourself. That is all. The Iron Bull, your company is settling in at the very end of the camp. Would you be willing to harbor the prisoner and Lord Dorian, in secret for now?”
The Bull didn’t have to think about that one. “Yeah, so long as I get to make the rules.”
He could feel the disgust coming off Krem, but his lieutenant knew better than to question the Bull in front of Josephine.
“Thank you. That condition is entirely acceptable. I will appraise those who need to know of the prisoner’s presence, and send Commander Cullen to ensure he cannot use his magic.” She turned back to Dorian. “Lord Dorian, you are responsible for him. Make no mistake, you will be held to account if he causes any damage.”
Dorian nodded. “Yes. Understood.”
Josephine bobbed her head, granting Dorian a shadow of a smile. “Go get warm, and ensure you are recovered as soon as possible. There is much work to be done, and we are fortunate to have you and your skills back with us. I will come to see you soon.”
“Thank you,” Dorian said. The Bull sent a quick prayer of thanks to whatever was listening that Dorian hadn't argued.
“The Iron Bull, Lieutenant Aclassi, thank you for your assistance. Send a message if you require anything.” Josephine nodded at all of them, then turned to struggle back up the slope.
Okay. Could have gone worse. “Krem, go ahead and tell everyone we’re coming and they need to keep their mouths shut. I’ll handle these guys.”
“Chief,” Krem said, the tone conveying a wealth of really unpleasant feeling. He turned and hurried to assist Josephine.
“Right,” the Bull sighed. “Dorian, can you control that Magister?”
“Yes,” Dorian said immediately.
The Bull believed it. Next to the picture of terrorized misery that Dorian made, the Magister looked less alive than the corpses from the Mire.
The Bull leaned over anyway, until he was almost nose to nose with the guy. He fought down the urge to snarl. This Venatori wasn’t collared, and anything the Templars had cast on him would have worn off hours ago.
“I’m saying this once. You’ll do exactly as we say. No magic. No talking. Twitch in the wrong direction and I’ll rip your fucking head off.”
The Magister’s dead stare barely shifted, wavering around a spot somewhere to the left of the Bull’s mouth.
“I did not ask to be rescued,” he croaked.
Dorian flinched like he’d been slapped.
The Bull backhanded the Magister across the face, so fast that the man didn’t have time to make a sound. Dorian jerked away from them both with a little cry of shock.
“Shut up,” the Bull growled. Then he turned to Dorian, making an effort to rearrange his face into something slightly less alarming. “We’ll set up a lean-to for you both behind my tent. Nice and out of sight. And we’re tying him up, and you’re not to take your eyes off him until Cullen’s come to do his templar thing.”
“…Yes,” Dorian sighed. Now that he wasn’t being attacked, his face was tightening up again.
He tugged at the Magister’s arm, and they began their slow trek up the last slope. The Bull didn’t reach to help either of them. He kind of wanted to, but he needed to stay ahead and make sure he was between them and anyone who might see. And his knee was screaming. It was a struggle just to walk without letting the pain show. At least the wind was less cutting on the other side–still cold, still bitter, but not quite as harsh.
“Hey, Dorian,” he said as they drew within shouting distance of the makeshift camp in the valley. The Chargers’ corner of it was unmistakable, a Krem-approved grid of large, dark grey tents perfectly aligned around five still-dark fire pits. “Look. If Josephine tells the others, and they decide that we can’t afford to keep him around…”
Dorian nodded, eyes on his feet. “I will respect that decision.”
If the Magister had heard, he gave no sign of it.
They shuffled around the camp so they could sneak directly into the group of tents reserved for the Bull and his officers. Krem still looked thunderous, but took charge as soon as they came trudging in. He directed Dorian and the Magister towards a small lean-to hidden behind the Bull’s tent, then rounded on the Bull himself and ordered him to sit his giant grey ass by the fire before his leg fell of. That sounded like an excellent plan, all things considered. The Bull wasn’t even sure he had a leg anymore; it felt more like a cracking pillar of ice.
Cullen came stomping into their little camp a lot sooner than the Bull had expected him, in the foulest mood imaginable. The Bull swallowed the stuff he’d been about to ask about their situation, and quickly waved the man towards Dorian and the Magister. Their lean-to was so tiny that Cullen had to leave his feet and ass outside the opening. Even then, the Bull didn’t quite catch most of the conversation that followed; most of Cullen’s snapping and snarling was covered by the moans of the wind, still loud even though it was far above them now. It sounded a lot like Dorian was getting a dressing-down he’d still be remembering on his deathbed.
Dorian didn’t emerge again for quite a while after Cullen had left. When he did, he looked at least a little more alive than before–no more ice or snow on him anywhere, that terrifyingly bare shoulder once more covered with the white robe, hair dried and finger-combed into something that wasn’t entirely a bird’s nest. All the snow and wetness had washed out most of whatever product he lathered onto his head every morning. He didn't have curls, exactly, but the hair looked a lot wavier than usual.
He stopped just outside the square made by the officers’ tents. The Bull waved him over. Dorian approached but didn’t sit down.
“Magister all chained and everything?”
“Yes,” Dorian sighed. Then, “You didn’t need to hit him.”
The Bull stared at him. “I’m not going to apologize for keeping order, Dorian.”
“No, I mean…” Dorian sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he extended his hands to the Bull, palms up. “He’s in no mood or state to do anything. He didn’t even care if this Corypheus character found him. I only got him to move out of his cell when I talked about what it would do to Felix to hear of his death.”
The Bull huffed. He tried to rub his knee a bit, even though he knew it was no good. It wouldn’t start hurting less until they’d managed to build a fire. “You risked your life for his bony Venatori ass. He better learn to be grateful for what he’s given.”
“I really don’t think he cares if he gets anything.” Dorian wasn’t quite looking at him; his eyes were wandering around the camp instead. It all looked pretty dark and muted. The sky was a foreboding grey, almost black, even though it had to be mid-morning.
Dorian sighed and began to rub his arms. “Thank you, though, for your hospitality. Is there any way I can be of assistance around here?”
He followed Dorian’s tired gaze to where Rocky and Krem were messing around with twigs over a small pile of broken branches. The wood was probably all frozen or soaked, but the Bull wasn’t worried. He’d seen Rocky set fire to clear water.
“Leave them to it for now, they’ll get it in a moment. Better let Krem cool off a bit first if you wanna talk it out with him. Steadiest guy I’ve ever met, but he’s had a really rough night.”
Dorian nodded. On the other side of the fire pit, Stiches, Grim, and Skinner were cleaning a pile of mysterious root vegetables with the ruthless speed of starving mercenaries. They definitely didn’t look like they needed extra hands. Actually, Skinner looked like she’d chop off any extra hands and throw them in the pot.
Dorian seemed to come to the same conclusion. His frown was getting steadily unhappier. “Please, give me something to do if you’re going to shelter me. I feel like an ass.”
The Bull managed a chuckle through the frankly pretty horrible stabbing in his leg. “Hey, we’re already sheltering one Vint every day, a couple more won’t kill us. Glad to have your ass around.”
Just then, Dalish came stumbling from between two tents, laden with a pile of fabric so tall it came up past her head. She dropped the whole thing by the firepit with a groan. Then she spotted Dorian and broke into a wide grin.
“Pavus, you made it! Hey, help me with these sleeping bags and clothes? They got a lot of snow on them in our carts. Need to get it all dry.”
Dorian perked up. “Yes! I have quite a lot of practice at that.” He hurried over to her, shaking out his hands.
And so, within mere minutes, the sad little camp transformed itself into a very close approximation of the Chargers’ usual home. They had a fire, a pot of bubbling stew, and a growing tower of beautifully dry and comfortable-looking linen. The Bull kept an eye on the mages. They’d figured out a system of sorts; Dalish started on one end of a sleeping bag and Dorian on the other, and they ran their hands over the fabric in long, slow strokes until they met in the middle. Then they flipped the bag over and started again.
The Bull could only assume they were conjuring heat somehow. He was sitting too far away to see exactly what they were doing, but it sure wasn’t just holding wet stuff up to the fire, and they paused at some point to share a lyrium potion that Dorian dug out of his robe. It was a little weird to see Dalish using magic for this kind of ordinary stuff. She didn’t, usually. Or maybe she did, but never within sight of the Bull. He’d never made a secret of his dislike for magic crap. Maybe he should ask her if she’d prefer to use it more.
The stew was as fucking fantastic as any hot food could be after the night they’d just had, and the Bull just about inhaled the bowl Krem brought him. Grim took charge of ladling the rest of it out, but the Bull noticed Dalish stealing the spoon as soon as it was Dorian’s turn.
When Dorian rose, he was holding not one but two steaming bowls. He made a beeline for the little tent, eyes darting around as if he was afraid someone was going to leap up and accuse him of taking more than his share.
He ducked halfway into the tent, leaving one bowl outside.
“This food is a gift to us that we haven’t earned. Don’t you dare waste it,” the Bull heard him hiss. Then, “I only got one spoon, just drink it.”
The Bull didn’t stare, but he could tell what Dorian was doing by the sound of him moving on the gravelly ground. He backed out of the tent again, picked up his bowl, and came ambling back towards the fire. More precisely, in the general direction of the Bull.
”Hey, big guy,” the Bull said as Dorian walked into his line of sight again.
Dorian already had the bowl lifted up to his face. He took a long, slurping drink of the stew, and looked very relieved doing it.
”Hello,” Dorian mumbled without really opening his mouth. Damn, it was good to see him more at ease again.
The Bull grinned up at him. “Earned your keep, did you? I thought you hated those tubers.”
Dorian made a little noise of pure satisfaction. He extracted his spoon from his belt, fished an unidentifiable blob out of his bowl, and bit into it with relish.
“They taste like Marothian sweetcakes right now,” he managed to vocalize around his mouthful. “Your archer is a generous woman.”
The Bull shifted his frozen ass so there was some space on the blanket that Krem had plonked him down upon. He patted it. “Hey, sit down. Your footsies must be icicles.”
“My footsies are entirely beyond help at this point, I’m trying not to think of them,” Dorian sighed. He settled down next to the Bull without any obvious difficulty, though.
“Nothing serious? Let us know if you’re hurt. Injuries from cold can get weird.”
Dorian shook his head as he worked to swallow another spoonful of stew. “No. I remembered your dreadful tales of unfortunate body parts freezing off, and wasted a ghastly amount of mana keeping the both of us warm.”
The Bull gave him a thumbs-up. “Best thing you could’ve done.”
“So,” Dorian said, a little too nonchalantly. “Corypheus. A true Darkspawn Magister, if he is indeed who he claims to be. Are you not frothing with rage at every Tevinter under the sun right now?”
The Bull felt at the sides of his mouth. “Mmmm, nope.”
“But everyone else is.”
“Kinda. Someone chucked a rock at Krem’s head earlier.” Skinner had promptly broken a couple of the guy’s fingers, and the Bull wasn’t expecting anyone else to try anything, but it had been an ugly moment. Krem? Everyone knew Krem. He was the most popular guy in all of Haven, at least with the ladies.
A shudder ran through Dorian. He stared in the direction of the rest of the camp, beyond the safety of Rocky’s beautiful roaring fire. It was quiet, considering the number of people gathered there. The only voices carried on the wind were the moans of the injured; everyone else was probably too exhausted to do much beyond sitting around, and sleeping when they could. Even the Chargers were pretty quiet as they ladled stew into their open mouths, then went back for seconds and shovelled those in too.
“I can’t even blame them,” Dorian whispered into the silence. He rubbed a hand over his face. “Oh. We’ve fallen so low.”
“We?” The Bull shifted his ass on the blanket, trying to get into a position that didn’t make his leg feel like an ice block with knives in it. Moving just made it worse.
“Tevinter,” Dorian said. “You must know, Alexius, he… he was a good man once. He was kind. All he did was research and campaign to improve education. I… still have trouble believing that he did what he did.”
Something in the tone raked over the Bull’s brain like bear claws over a metal harness. He liked Dorian, but the man could be so fucking self-absorbed. The Bull was happy he was alive, happy enough (and fucking tired enough) to tolerate the presence of the evil Magister. That didn’t mean he was in the mood to listen to a story about Alexius’ sad childhood.
“Doesn’t cancel out that he decided to serve a darkspawn. This is why the Qun says mages need to be controlled. You’re all fine and reasonable when nothing’s on fire, but as soon as you’re in a little spot of trouble, you’ll do absolutely any crazy shit to get out of it no matter the consequences.”
Dorian turned to stare at him. He looked surprisingly wounded.
“What? That’s nonsense. And what exactly is so bad about wanting to do anything you can to save those you love?”
The Bull sighed. This was going to be a fucking useless conversation, he could just tell. He shouldn’t have started it. He was tired.
“I’m not saying it’s a character failing, it’s not like you’re all born evil. It’s just that that much power’s guaranteed to make you do stupid, selfish shit. He tries to blow up the world for the sake of one man who’s doomed anyway. You almost waste your life for the exact same reason. It’s the magic making your head go funny. You start thinking you can do anything, and if you can’t, you think you should be able to do it anyway.” And that was why things were better when saarebas weren’t forced to bear that burden. It wasn’t possible for one person to control that much power by themselves and also keep their head on straight.
The low conversation to their right, where Stitches and Dalish and Skinner were eating, had abruptly fallen silent. Maybe because they could see the look on Dorian’s face.
Dorian put his bowl down on the ground so hard that the little bit of stew remaining in it flew upward before splashing down again.
“Stupid selfish shit?” Dorian hissed, with such vehemence that the Bull blinked. “You dare judge Alexius. What do you know of his life? What do you know of what he did for those less fortunate than him? I was a terrible child when I met him. All I did was drink and whore and hate. But he took me into his house, without any conditions or guarantees. He didn’t lecture me on my morals or my choices. He gave me a room of my own and a place at his table, and the means to help myself. I owe that man everything I am!”
He paused to take a breath; the Bull opened his mouth, but Dorian ran right over him.
“He should be punished for his crimes, and yes, he probably deserves to die. But he gave me respect when I deserved none, and I love him for it and always shall. Of course you don’t understand that,” he sneered. “Alexius was a good man who devoted himself to good works, until his family was taken and he went mad trying to help them. But to you, the sum of our lives is just stupid selfish shit. All we are is a string of bad decisions brought on by our love of magic. You think we just can’t help ourselves, don’t you?”
“You know nothing of us! Don’t you dare tell me that I should look at that man and see no more than a cautionary tale to confirm the Qun’s bloody prejudices against us.”
And that was it, apparently.
The Bull slowly lifted his hands, palms forward. He looked at Dorian’s incensed face and wondered what it was like to have that kind of devotion directed at you. Possibly not great, if the Magister had still spurned it in favor of doing evil shit.
Maybe you don’t have to wonder, something from the back of his mind supplied, as he grew aware of the absolute silence that had fallen around the fire. On the other side of the clearing, Krem was on his feet, one hand on his sword.
Fuck. He was beat, he was irritable enough to encourage other dog-tired people to talk about intense shit, and everything hurt. Dorian had turned to the Bull because he just needed someone to talk to for a couple minutes, and the Bull had taken his crap out on the guy. Sure, Dorian was a Vint and an Altus who was twice as blind about a lot of shit as he accused the Bull of being, but now was not the time for that argument.
“Hey,” he told Dorian. “I’m sorry. Really. That wasn’t very delicate of me.”
The anger on Dorian’s face melted almost instantly, as if he didn’t have the strength to keep it up in the face of even the slightest hint of an apology.
“He should have a trial,” Dorian insisted. “He doesn’t deserve to be slaughtered in a prison cell by some filthy piece of darkspawn. Or worse. He’s afraid of darkspawn, he… The blight sickness, it is such a terrible, frightful way to die, Felix used to say he could feel himself become lesser every time he exhaled...”
He sucked in a breath and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he twisted towards the Bull, leaning in.
“I know you speak of us as things. Bas. But we are not.”
There was a tone of begging to it–understand me–that was impossible to miss.
It almost hurt to look at. It sure as fuck wasn’t comfortable to look at. The Bull hadn’t seen this depth of feeling in someone in years. Maybe not since he’d seen it in himself, the day Vasaad fell into his arms with an arrow through the throat and the world went red.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” He bowed his head for a moment. “Sorry, big guy. I’m not usually that much of an asshole. It’s been a long day.”
Dorian closed his eyes again as he nodded.
“Yes. Thank you. I apologize for yelling at you,” he whispered.
“All good, I deserved that. You weren’t yelling, just… talking loudly?” The Bull kind of wanted to pat him on the shoulder, maybe add a few back rubs in. That was what he’d do with anyone else. It was probably okay. Maybe he was being dumb instead of properly cautious. If people could catch demons from touching mages, surely Skinner would be crawling with them by now.
From the corner of his eye, the Bull saw Skinner sheathing her knife. Dalish rose to her feet and began to collect empty bowls.
Dorian slumped. “I am afraid of becoming him,” he whispered. “He was so good. If even he can be tempted, with the right incentive…”
“Hey, haven’t seen you going crazy yet. You’re a good sort.”
Dorian rubbed his hands over his face. It messed up his mustache. “Oh, I’m sure my time will come. Look at the decisions I’m making now. I could have helped Adaar, and instead I wasted my chance and did something terribly selfish instead.”
“You didn’t know she might have needed help. Knock it off with the maybes, big guy.”
Dorian shook his head. “Poor Adaar,” he whispered into his hands. “What will we do without her?”
The Bull kind of wished he could go to sleep now. Maybe even right here. There was no more demon hole in the sky to glare down on him, after all, thanks to Adaar. “We’ll see. For now, let’s work at keeping everyone alive.”
Dorian looked up at the mountains beyond the camp. They were looming, jagged shapes against the night sky, the absolute opposite of hospitable–but they’d have to cross them, tomorrow at the latest. They couldn’t stay here, with so little in the way of provisions; there was nothing to gather or hunt.
“Right. Let us do that.”
The Bull patted him on the shoulder, in his mind. There. Good. Stupid little fight, they were just tired, it was all good.
“Hey,” Krem said from across the fire. “Pavus. How about you stop feeling sad about that Venatori and start worrying about the people he shat on?”
Fucking shit, why. The Bull opened his mouth to intervene, but Dorian was–again–faster.
“Yes, you’re entirely right. My apologies, I’m being a terribly poor guest,” he said, quite quickly. He pulled himself to his feet, grabbed his own empty bowl and the Bull’s, and carried them over to where Dalish was putting them in a pile next to the empty cooking pot.
“Thank you again for your generosity, that was very bracing. Is there anything else that needs magic? I could… melt snow to clean these bowls?”
“Oh, that’s fine, we’ll just put the pot over the fire again with some snow in it. No!" she snapped, as the Bull made to rise. “Chief, don’t sit up, you’ll fuck up your leg even worse. Grim, you give me a hand, right?”
Dorian’s eyes whipped back towards the Bull.
“What’s wrong with your leg? Are you injured?”
The Bull waved a hand. “Nah, just old stuff. Broke the knee and the ankle years ago, separately, and now they sort of don’t agree.”
Dorian looked pained.
“I didn’t notice. I really am a selfish ass, I’m so sorry.” Then his eyes widened. He held his hands up, wiggling his fingers. “But perhaps I can help? I’m actually a bit of an expert at massages, I used to… Well, they used to help Felix quite a bit when his muscles became sore.”
“Don’t bother,” Dalish called from over by the fire. “I’ve tried that, he’s scared of magic fingers.”
Fucking traitors. “Shut it, Dalish,” the Bull snapped. Then he turned to Dorian to fend him off.
Dorian’s mouth was already open, and the Bull knew he’d lost the discussion before he’d even gotten started.
“It’s entirely safe, I assure you. We developed a couple of techniques that we refined over several years. It’s a very simple and well-tested procedure.”
Crap. Saying no would be a fucking dumb thing to do, given how far they still had to go. Not that they had any idea how far they still had to go, but it would be at least a couple big-ass mountains. He was going to need every bit of strength he could wring out of the leg.
And Dorian was staring at him like the Bull was a bottle of wine, a shiny piece of magic, and a gorgeous naked guy all in one (heh). It was the first time in hours that the Bull had seen him anything but defeated, angry, or both. That shit wasn’t a good look on him.
Dorian put his hands together in what the Bull recognized as a Tevinter gesture for a very polite request. He half expected the man to conjure up his most flirtatious grin, but it didn’t come; he looked as dead serious as the Bull had ever seen him.
“Please let me do something for you. You’ve helped so much today, I can’t be in your debt.”
The Bull shrugged. “Hey, still owed you for pulling me out of the bog.”
There was some sniggering behind Dorian. The Bull’s Asshats just loved the story of the bog. They’d staged a re-enactment of it in Haven just a couple days ago, with Dalish pretending to heroically lift Rocky out of a deep snowdrift while Krem provided a breathless blow-by-blow account of every spell she was trying. For a non-mage, Krem had an amazingly vast knowledge of magic shit. Apparently you just kind of absorbed it when you grew up surrounded by it, like the kids in Tevinter.
“I suppose you did owe me,” Dorian drawled. “But still.”
“Ser,” Stitches called from his spot a stone’s throw away and downwind, where he was usually banished to whenever he started making stinky poultices. “Let him try. That’s an order from your doctor. If that leg gives out underway, nobody can carry you.”
And that was it, wasn’t it? If the Bull collapsed, they’d have to leave him behind. And some of these jackasses probably wouldn’t. They’d be like Dorian and his Magister, risking their lives and doing every crazy thing they could think of to help, and then getting themselves killed.
Dorian lit up like a brazier. “He comes to his senses! Boot off, roll up your pants.”
Whoa. There was going to be magic, on his skin. Shit. Crap. “Can’t you do it over my pants?”
Dorian looked down his nose as if the Bull was a very small imekari who wasn’t eating his vegetables. They were both sitting down, so he had to tilt his head backwards to do it, but he managed somehow.
“That is the silliest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. No.”
“You gave your friend naked massages?”
A great sigh. “I’m not telling you to get naked, and yes, Felix undressed for massages. Because we’re not barbarians. Come on, hop to it.”
He began to tug at the Bull’s boot. Grumbling, the Bull batted his hands away and shucked the boot. Dorian shrugged and began to rub his hands together rather vigorously. He didn’t breathe on them, like anyone else trying to warm their fingers might.
The Bull didn’t get time to wonder where to put his heel down on the cold ground; Dorian scooted forward, crossed his legs, and pulled the Bull’s foot into his lap. With his bare hands.
“Maker, you are heavy,” he huffed, “And frozen. How have you been walking? All right, are you comfortable sitting like this?”
His hands were so normal. Warm. Not magic-warm, just warm, and they moved over the Bull’s leg with long, sure motions.
He was exploring. Feeling the shape of the ankle, the muscles under the Bull’s skin, the place where his kneecap didn’t feel quite right.
Dorian wasn’t afraid at all, the Bull realized. A Vint mage, sitting right in front of a Ben-Hassrath agent, his legs pinned down, baring his neck as he bent forward to study the scars across the Bull’s knee? He was dead. But somewhere, somehow, he’d decided that he wasn’t going to be scared of the Bull anymore. It was incredibly, wildly foolish.
If Tallis wrote tomorrow to tell the Bull that he had to off Dorian for some reason or another, he’d do it. And it wouldn't be difficult, with opportunities like this.
“Well, this feels like a right mess. Your poor muscles. But have no fear, Doctor Pavus will take care of everything.” Dorian flashed him a beaming smile. “Don’t be alarmed, now–you’ll see a white glow, and feel a tingling sensation that will turn to warmth.”
He’d have to kill him if they told him to. Maybe they would one day.
“Bull, you’re looking a little…. odd. Is there anything you’re concerned about?”
The Bull blinked.
Dorian sat with his fingertips poised over the Bull’s leg, like an oud player about to begin a song. He was still, though, worried eyes fixed on the Bull’s face.
If they told him to do it, he’d reach out, put both hands on Dorian’s head as the man blinked at him in confusion, and twist. Easy, quick, painless.
“No. I’m fine. Do it already.”
“Bossy,” Dorian chided, but he was smiling. Then his eyes fell half closed as he began to focus.
For a moment, nothing happened; there was no white glow, or anything like a tingling. Then Dorian’s fingers began to change color–no, glow, until they were all red and translucent at the edges, like he was holding them in front of a candle flame. The Bull could feel the heat of them as they hovered over his skin. He almost jerked his leg away, instinct telling his muscles to move away from fire and boiling things, but he clamped down on it just in time.
Then Dorian’s fingertips fell on his skin, and there was no searing heat at all. Just a rather pleasant warmth as a sheen of white seemed to pour over his leg, like cream out of a jug, shivering over him like a barrier before it began to sink into his skin.
When it had almost disappeared, Dorian squeezed, and heat bloomed in the Bull’s leg–immediate, full, swelling all the way from his knee to the tips of every single toe. Holy shit, it felt like it was coming from inside his bones.
The relief was immediate. It was as if his knee and ankle had been shocked into behaving; the pain receded with almost alarming speed. Then there was pressure, fingertips digging into the Bull’s melting muscles, kneading up and down his lower leg in strong, sure motions. He wasn’t sure if he made a noise. Hopefully not, but it was hard to care when there were things humming inside of him.
Holy fucking shit. He wanted to tear all his clothes off and offer Dorian all the gold in the world, if only he’d do this all over instead of just on the leg.
“Blimey, look at his face.” Stitches, except he sounded like he was on the other side of whatever thick woollen blanket had been draped over all of the Bull.
Someone snickered, closer by, and the Bull half opened his one eye–when had he shut it?–to glare. He wasn’t sure it if really worked. His vision was swimming a little.
Dorian was looking at him now, face tilted towards the Bull, a rather sly and cocky tilt to his smile. His fingers didn’t stop rolling along the sides of the Bull’s knee, thumbs digging in gently. His lips were moving, sound escaping from them in a low murmur.
“What are you saying?” The Bull hadn’t meant to whisper, but he did, and immediately felt a bit stupid.
Dorian answered him just as quietly, though. “Ancient Tevene. I’m directing the spell with my voice rather than my hands, since those are rather occupied at the moment.”
“Right.” Better not make him talk again, then. He might lose control and fry the Bull’s leg clean off.
Oh, who was he kidding? That wasn’t going to happen. Look at him, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He really must’ve done it hundreds of times.
The Bull felt a vague urge to go and kick himself some, as soon as his leg wasn’t made of porridge anymore. He was a fucking idiot. Could have had this ages ago, if he’d let Dalish at him with her very special archery, though he was pretty sure she wasn’t remotely as good at this as Dorian. Fucking shit.
He struggled to focus his eye as Dorian’s hands slid down his calf again to wrap around the sore ankle below. Dorian’s head turned away as he kept a close eye on his handiwork, all concentration once more.
Fuck, but that was a nice profile. The Vints sure made them pretty.
And too fucking trusting. The Bull stared at the long line of Dorian’s neck, a handsome layer of muscle folded over tender flesh and arteries.
The Bull would kill him, if the Qun demanded it. This wasn’t a moment of weakness, some grand epiphany of doubt–he’d do it if they told him, because that was what he did. He knew what he was. But the thought of doing it brought a prickling unrest rushing through his blood, so jarringly different from the utter bliss that was his leg that it made the Bull want to claw his own skin off.
He breathed in, and out, and pushed it aside, until all he heard were the voices of his boys and the soft murmur of Dorian’s spellcasting.
Chapter 4: Skyhold
A paper attached to the wall of the Chargers’ barracks in Skyhold, over the small desk used by Cremisius Aclassi and The Iron Bull to handle company paperwork
Written in two different hands, both very neat
Chief, did you tell Pavus to butter me up? He brought me chocolate nuts, like the ones from Asariel we found in that Cumberland market once.
Crap, where did he get those? Can I have some? You’re my favorite, Krem-puff. -TIB
Get your own, and I didn’t ask where he got them. Why is he buttering me up now? Is this some kind of plot of his to get into your bed? Just tell him you’ll drop trou for anything that asks.
Have, lots of times, he’ll come around. I think he’s just trying to be nice to you. He doesn’t like it when people don’t like him. -TIB
He’s an Altus. They don’t give a shit whether you like them or not, so long as you lick their boots like a proper little Soporati.
Dunno, I feel like this one cares. -TIB
You’re going soft, Chief. All that staring at his ass is turning you into a big grey pile of potato mash. You’re going soft and I’m telling Skinner.
Oh, come on. -TIB
I told Skinner. Also, what’s with the initials? I know your handwriting. You know my handwriting. What?
I hear it’s what the fancy Vints do. It’s so people who read your stuff later will know who said what. You should do it too so future generations know you. You could be a prophet, you already got all those opinions on what’s good and not good. And the Ashkaari beheld the scene in the tavern and said, What the fuck, Chief. -TIB
What? For the hundredth time, I’m not joining the Qun. And what future generations? I don’t want children.
Other people’s future generations. -TIB
What’ll they care what I said?
Never mind. (in fresher ink) Was it fucking Skinner? -TIB
The one who strung all of Pavus’ silky smalls across the courtyard? Yeah. I already chewed her out.
Make her stop sneaking around and come over here so I can do it again. He’s already got people hissing and spitting at him everywhere he goes, he’s not her friend, and he’s done nothing to her. That wasn’t a joke, it was public humiliation for someone who didn’t deserve it. -TIB
I think it’s okay, Chief, he was laughing.
No, he really wasn’t. Shut this shit down, Krem. It’s not because I’m mooning after his pretty ass that he deserves to be a target. -TIB
Note slipped under Dorian Pavus’ door
Sorry again for that crap this morning, big guy. Looks like I owe you again. We’re a little far away from the fancy shops right now, but can I promise you something nice from the next town we go to?
The Iron Bull
Note slipped into The Iron Bull’s belt while he left the Chargers’ table to get more tankards at the bar
It was really nothing. I heard far more cutting mockery in my family home every day, and I really won’t lose any sleep over these plebeians having no idea what civilized undergarments look like. I pity them, and the grubby burlap sacks with leg holes that they cover their privates with.
But I certainly won’t decline your peace offering, as I do adore receiving gifts. Cocoa? Is that something that can be gotten down in these forsaken lands?
Note slipped between Varric Tethras’ papers on a table in the Great Hall of Skyhold
Varric, I need a thing. Meet me behind the tavern at dusk. Don’t tell anyone.
Written on the back of a requisitions order, dropped on the floor under a table in Caer Bronach
The paper was covertly passed between The Iron Bull and Dorian Pavus while Inquisitor Adaar and Sera were having trouble keeping their hands next to their plates
Can we not intervene? Can you go crash around on the battlements to simulate a dragon attack? I bet Varric five royals that they’d not get it on until Wintersend. -DP
Aw, let them. It’s young love. -TIB
Young lust, more like. Also, Adaar is older than you. At this rate I shall perish of thirst in a foreign land because a scribbling dwarf took all my gold. -DP
It’s literally raining buckets out there. You’ve only been whining about it since the moment you opened your eyes this morning. -TIB
I shall perish of thirst if I cannot pay that thief Cabot for my wine. Rainwater is not a drink. It is a corrosive substance that destroys my robes, ruins my hair, and turns dull every bit of metal or stone on my person. I’m sure you’ll be interested to know that I had to spend half an hour polishing my staff after we got to this dismal little castle. -DP
Aw, sorry to hear that. Wouldn’t want to let your staff lose its shine. Want me to polish it for you next time? -TIB
As if you would dare touch my staff. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you are deeply uncomfortable with magic. -DP
Yeah, I am a bit. Exactly how magical is your staff? -TIB
I’ve been told it’s a wonder not seen since before the Blessed Age. -DP
I’ll polish it if you hold my maul for me. -TIB
I cannot believe I am committing these words to paper, but does your maul require any care besides mere holding? -DP
Hey, you’re already doing great if you manage to lift it. Human hands’ll barely fit around it, and it’s real heavy. I doubt you can handle it. -TIB
Have you ever slept with a mage? A real mage. Not some southern conjurer who wasn't allowed to learn anything more complicated than how to melt snow off mabari. -DP
No. Why? -TIB
What, Dorian. -TIB
There exist certain specialized applications of magic that you may be unaware of. -DP
Skyhold was a perfect base of operations, if you liked trekking up and down five great ice mountains every time you wanted to go do anything at all. Cullen’s intrepid squads of burly soldiers were doing great work clearing paths that would probably shave days off everyone’s trips into civilized lands, but it was hard going.
The Bull was happy to help with dragging rocks when Adaar didn’t need him for jaunts to swamps or forests or plains with even more snow than here, but there was a limit to what he could do all by himself. Every day, the humans he was working alongside were looking punier and weaker. It was frustrating; if he had even four or five other Qunari here to boss around, they’d already be skipping down a beautiful clear mountain road whenever they wanted to go wander around Orlais.
He was almost tempted to ask the Ben-Hassrath to send more people, but the idea of having the others here was… strange. Not in a good way. It was already plenty creepy to know that he probably wasn’t the only spy for the Qun in the castle, at this point.
Which was a useless thing to worry about. He hung up his saddle blanket and chatted a bit with Dennet, about the new horse, the new stables, and the ominous-looking clouds overhead. As he brushed the horse, he let his mind wander towards the more relaxing things he could do for what remained of the day. Have a bath. Go challenge Krem to a round or two in the courtyard, if the asshole could be pried away from the damn bard before it started to rain (the Bull was not jealous, nope, no matter if Skinner and Stitches had opinions about that; they were also assholes). Maybe go track down Dorian and treat him to a few beers. The banners flying over the keep signaled that the Inquisitor was in residence, meaning she’d returned from that mysterious trip to Redcliffe that she’d dragged Dorian and Cassandra and Sera on.
Yeah, Dorian first. The Bull had missed his babbling. With any luck, he could surprise him in the baths or something…
There was a woman he didn’t know standing at the entrance to the stables.
“Messere The Iron Bull. Welcome back.”
It was the voice that did it: he did know her, had seen her in the library. He’d always avoided addressing her directly, although he kept meaning to. It wasn’t her fault that she was fucking creepy, and Dorian had mentioned her with surprising fondness once or twice.
“Oh. Hey, Helisma.”
She inclined her head. “It would be good if you could come to the library. Messere Pavus is in need of assistance, but he will not listen to me because I will not bring him more bottles of wine. Grand Enchanter Fiona and Messere Solas attempted to speak to him, but he was rude and they left.”
Uh oh. The Bull put his pack down on the floor; Dennet would keep an eye on it until he could come back.
“Sure, I’ll see what I can do. Lead the way.”
”Thank you, Messere.”
The trip to the library was… odd. The pace was off. Helisma walked quite sedately, ignoring the raindrops that were beginning to fall from the sky. The Bull had no idea if the slow and steady pace was all she was capable of, or if she was dawdling because Dorian didn’t need help all that urgently. He probably wasn’t hurt, at least. Solas wouldn’t have abandoned him otherwise.
Dorian was in what had swiftly become his usual chair, indeed entirely unhurt. He didn’t have a book, or anything else; he just sat there, sagged against the plush red back of the chair, both hands holding on to the armrests.
The Bull stooped a little. “Hey, Dorian?”
Dorian looked up.
“Oh. Bull.” He gave the Bull a long, flat stare. For a moment, he looked so much like Helisma that the Bull’s eye flew to his forehead. Which had no sunburst on it, of course; what a dumb thing to think.
The Bull knelt until his head was more or less on the same level as Dorian’s. The man’s eyes were glassy and bloodshot. He stank.
“Are you doing okay, big guy?”
The Bull could practically hear Dorian’s brain sloshing around in a skullful of wine as he put his thoughts in order.
“I am very drunk,” he enunciated, quite carefully. “I cannot stand, and I have been informed that I am a nuisance to those around me. If you help me to my room, I’ll jerk you off.”
The Bull’s eye flew to Helisma, who was standing well within earshot at the entrance to Dorian’s alcove. She didn’t even twitch.
“Uh, that won’t be necessary. I’ll just help you.”
Dorian blinked. He still wasn’t moving very much, which was unusual and unsettling.
“You will change your mind about compensation. I will vomit on you.”
That was pretty damn likely, but while the Bull wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, he’d been covered in worse shit.
“Then you’re in no state to be handling my cock. Save it for when you can appreciate it, huh?”
Dorian’s face twisted into a painful-looking frown.
“I can do what I want,” he sneered, with a mean edge to his tone that the Bull had never heard from him before. “I can jerk you off if I want. I can suck you if I want. I can ride you like a druffalo if I want.”
“Not saying no, but not right now, okay? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume you can’t walk. Mind if I carry you?”
Dorian closed his eyes and shook his head. His frown had gone from vicious to bitterly unhappy.
“Messere, take this.”
The Bull blinked. Helisma was holding out a dark blue blanket–when had she left to find that?–with a pattern of Orlesian lions on it.
“It is his,” she droned. “We put it on him when he falls asleep here.”
“Oh. Thanks.” The Bull took it from her.
“At your service, Messere. Thank you for your assistance.”
She bowed and walked away, every step perfectly, unnervingly even.
The Bull shook out the blanket. “Okay, big guy. Let’s get you wrapped up. You don’t want the whole keep seeing you, your mustache is crooked.”
“Oh no,” Dorian moaned. His hand flew to his face. He hit himself in the nose.
He managed to stand so the Bull could wrap the blanket around him like a cloak, but then he more or less fell into the Bull’s arms. Dorian was tall and solid, but after a day of dragging rocks around, he felt like a strangely light weight.
The journey from the library to Dorian’s room above the Chantry garden was blessedly short, and the Bull remembered just in time that he could cut across Viv’s balcony instead of carrying Dorian across the great hall in full view of Varric and whoever else happened to be lounging around. Not that Varric wouldn’t sympathize with an incapacitated teammate, but the Bull could see the top of Dorian’s face between the folds of the blanket. He looked somewhere between on the verge of puking and on the verge of tears. Better not to risk any stops or interruptions.
He stepped out onto the landing along the garden rooms. It was surprisingly quiet up here, just the wind, the flapping of banners overhead, and a gentle murmur of voices from the garden as people packed up and moved to get out of the rain. It felt like a different world from the tavern with all its torches and loud laughter. Muted, contemplative, grey. Uncertain. It didn’t really feel like Dorian’s kind of place.
The Bull lowered his voice without thinking. “Hey, big guy. Which room is yours?”
“Middle,” Dorian whispered. “Vivienne at the end. Varric here.”
That arrangement had to make for fun neighborly chats. The Bull pushed the door to the middle room open with an elbow–not locked, no traps on the other side, he was going to have another little safety talk with Dorian once he was no longer dying–and carried his burden into the room.
“Basin,” Dorian croaked.
The Bull managed to put him down ass first on the flagstones, whip the empty wash bowl from the dresser, and shove it into Dorian’s arms just before the man began to throw up. Okay, that could have gone worse. Experienced drunks were always easier to handle.
He left Dorian to the tatters of his dignity and went to create a semblance of order in the pile of blankets on the bed. It was a fairly small room, barely half the size of the Bull’s, with a single bed, a chest, a desk, and a low dresser with about a dozen little pots standing around on the top in no discernible pattern. Dark in the gloomy afternoon, not many decorations, but Dorian had managed to make his mark on the space in the short time they’d spent at Skyhold. It was a riot of books and clothes strewn everywhere, covering the furniture and even parts of the floor. The Bull would offer to find him some more shelves, but some people couldn’t be helped with more horizontal surfaces. They just filled them with more crap. You had to want order before you could make it happen.
There was a candelabra, and candles, but nothing to make sparks with. Fucking mages. Good thing the Bull was still wearing his field belt. He dug around for the flint and steel lighter contraption that Rocky had constructed for him, messed around with it for a minute, and managed to light the candles. They illuminated only part of the room, the bit around the desk and the foot of the bed, and the flames immediately began to leap up and down nervously. There was a draft in here. Maybe one of the panes of the window in the back was broken.
There was a full jug of water on the dresser. The Bull poured some of it into a cup and put it on the nightstand, then began to wander around and read some of the titles on the books as he waited for Dorian to stop retching. It was a pretty eclectic collection. Fereldan history, Nevarran history, treatises about Marcher politics, something theoretical about the Fade, more history, a random set of mathematical papers from the University of Val Royeaux…
He got a bit engrossed in the weirdness of it all, and it took him a moment to notice when the sounds of drunken misery behind him died down.
“Oh. Hey, big guy? You ready to get up?”
He half turned his head, just in time to catch Dorian’s nod. “I did not eat much,” he murmured.
Rather than let him struggle, the Bull grabbed him by the upper arms and–slowly–pulled him to his feet. Then it was only a few steps to the bed. He kept Dorian from falling onto it, making him sit up and hold the cup of water instead.
“Drink up, you’ll thank yourself in the morning.”
“I am aware I need to drink water.” That nasty tone from earlier was gone, at least, but he still sounded a lot more peevish than usual. It was unnerving. This wasn’t Dorian’s usual general displeasure with the weather, the food, the ravens cawing and shitting above his library, and every other superficial annoyance he could see. There was a note of real anger in his voice, something that came from deep within, vicious and personal.
They sat on the bed together for a while as Dorian finished his mug; there was a chair by the desk, but it didn’t look sturdy enough for the Bull to risk it. Dorian managed to use his chamber pot with minimal assistance, and then immediately directed the Bull to bring more water and add a pinch of some minty-smelling powder from one of the little pots.
When no more instructions were forthcoming, the Bull sat down again. Dorian was slumped over his already half-empty mug of water, eyes half closed. He was starting to look downright disheveled; he hadn’t bothered to fix his hair after the Bull carried him, and a bunch of his straps and buckles were hanging lose, like he’d made a half-hearted attempt to undress and then given up.
Right. Out with it. “Dorian. What’s going on?”
Dorian’s hands tightened around the mug.
“This is not fair,” he snarled, the reply so immediate that it startled the Bull a bit. “I ran across the world to get away from him, but he comes all the way over here like nothing ever happened. To judge me.”
His voice was low, sharp, almost hissing. The Bull was taken aback by the sudden coherence. That was fast–did he have some kind of magic trick for sobering up? That seemed unlikely. If such a thing existed, surely Dalish would be both using and selling it.
“Uh, who came all the way over here?”
Dorian forged ahead like he hadn’t even heard the interruption. “There are Venatori and maleficars and darkspawn Magisters murdering little Fereldan children, and he takes time out of his busy political schedule to come across the world to judge me! For liking cock!”
The Bull blinked again. “Who does?”
“My father! Magister Halward,” Dorian sneered. “He was at Redcliffe. He wants me to come home. To get married.”
Whoa, there were more Magisters down here and the Bull had missed them? Tallis would eviscerate him. “What?”
“Ah, my dear father. You’ll like his story. Another one of those good men who just prove that even the most well-meaning mage will turn to evil when pushed, just like your Qun says. A real bas saarebas.”
The grin on Dorian’s face would have looked amused at a distance, but the Bull was not at a distance. Also, the water in his mug was starting to steam.
“I’m his only child,” Dorian went on. “If I don’t marry some woman I hate and stick my cock in her to beget heirs, our line will end, and all of Magister Halward’s scheming will come to naught.”
Oh no, it was crazy Vint family crap. The Bull had been hoping he’d never have to deal with that up close again, after Krem. You’d really think they’d start seeing the point of the Qun, with all those so-called parents and children tearing into each other left and right.
“Uh oh. That sounds shitty.”
Dorian inhaled. The minty smell wafting up from the cup was strong now, filling the room and making the Bull’s nostrils flare involuntarily. It wasn’t just mint in there, he realized; he was smelling longleaf. What did the Vints call it? Eucalyptus? Where the hell had Dorian gotten this stuff down here? He had to be selling his soul to Varric, or something like that.
“He was going to use blood magic on me. Summon a demon to change me.”
The Bull’s mind stuttered.
“What the fuck?”
There must have been something funny about whatever stunned look he’d let slip onto his face, because Dorian barked a laugh. He reached down with one hand–the Bull almost grabbed for the mug of hot liquid, but Dorian kept it righted, if barely–and began to tug at the tiny buckles of his left boot.
Whatever he was doing, it didn’t seem to be going so great. “Fasta vass,” he muttered, putting the mug down. He tugged his foot onto his knee so that he’d have at least some of the flickering light from the candles to work by. There was definitely a broken pane in the back window–the Bull could feel the draft now, a chilly touch on his face and shoulders.
Another few seconds of fumbling, and Dorian produced a small square from his boot that looked like a very tightly folded paper. He waved it in the Bull’s face.
“Ta-da! He locked me up–I didn’t know why, at the time–but one of our slaves found this in his study and showed it to me.”
The Bull plucked the square from Dorian’s fingers and unfolded it. The paper was yellowed, all worn and soft, and crammed full of Vint gibberish. Half of the page was taken up by a drawing of a circle with a lot of lines and pointy bits sticking out, and little indecipherable scribbles on all sides. The rest was a text, only slightly more legible. The handwriting was unfamiliar, but the shapes of many of the letters–the p, the d, the s with its little flourish on the end–looked remarkably like Dorian’s style.
At a glance, the Bull only caught a word here and there. Transform, heal, love.
“What’s all this?”
“Dear Bull, the details are very complex and will bore you. Let me simplify.” Dorian jabbed a finger into the middle of the circle. “First you draw this pretty picture on the floor. Then you put Dorian in the middle. Then you take a slave, probably the daughter of the woman who snuck this paper to me, and you slit her throat. Then you say this list of words right here, and poof! A beastie will come out of the Fade and make Dorian never want cock again! Maybe he’ll also never talk or walk or think again, but at least he won’t want cock! Magic!”
The Bull dropped the paper like it was on fire. Fuck. What the fuck in all the hells of all the gods in Thedas…
“Right? And he wanted forgiveness for that! He was going to put a demon in me!”
The Bull stared at him. He… Somehow he’d really, truly believed he’d seen all the horrors that Vints were capable of, back on Seheron.
They did all that shit to their own kids. Oh, he’d known in theory, you learned a thing or two in Ben-Hassrath training. But…
“Oh, Bull. I am sorry,” Dorian sussed, either unaware of the Bull’s shock or misinterpreting it. He seemed a little lost in his own head right now. His eyes were fixed on the paper on the floor, and he was wringing his hands, so tightly that the Bull could hear the knuckles pop. “I accused you of reducing us to one thing only. But we do the same to ourselves. I passed my Harrowing at sixteen. I made full Enchanter at twenty-one. I won debates on the Circle floor, I published alongside the most celebrated scholar of the age, I never lost a single duel. I walked across the world to bring battle to those who would diminish our nation, and now I fight alongside the great Inquisitor herself. But in the end, all I amount to is a cocksucker.”
It wasn’t just the nervous shadows making it look like Dorian was swaying, the Bull realized. The man was rocking back and forth on his bed as he spoke, slowly, the rhythm of it stuttering and uneven.
Okay. Okay. There’d be time later to contemplate the ramifications of this. For now, the Bull could treat the symptoms. Calm. Soothe.
He reached out and put his hand over Dorian’s.
“Hey. Fuck that shitbag, no one here thinks of you like that. I don’t think of you like that.”
Dorian went very still. He was looking down at where the Bull’s enormous hand engulfed both of his own.
Then it hit the Bull that he was touching Dorian’s skin. Again. He hadn’t even thought of the demons. Dorian didn’t feel like demons, though. His hands were warm from his drink, a little tense, but otherwise just like other non-qunari hands–small under the Bull’s fingers, but still strong.
He eased the pressure, backing off a little. Had to be careful with the human bones.
“You’re so kind,” Dorian whispered, eyes still fixed on the Bull’s hand. “I’ll suck your cock, if you want. I’m as proficient at it as my reputation suggests.”
The Bull closed his eye for a moment, focusing on the patter of raindrops against the glass of the window over the desk. It was getting loud enough that it was actually more unnerving than soothing, though.
Fucking Vints and their nasty shit.
“Some other time, big guy. When we can enjoy it more.” He made himself squeeze Dorian’s hands, carefully, once. Then he let go. “Hey. Don’t be sad.”
“I am not sad, I am angry. I do not deserve to be treated this way.” His hand shot out towards the Bull’s retreating fingers, and he looked up at the Bull, all urgency. “The way he treats me. Not you. You’re good to me.”
The Bull really wished he could do something about that broken window pane. It was letting in sound as well as cold air, a faint, faraway moaning of wind through the mountains. He’d heard enough of that howling to last him a lifetime.
The Bull nodded, trying to look kind and steady for Dorian. “That’s right, you don’t deserve it.”
“No, you mistake me. I do not need confirmation from you, I know I don’t deserve this.” Dorian’s frown grew fierce, and an edge of that unsettling, nasty, hating tone crept back into his voice. “I despise that man. Rifts spewing demons all over the countryside, darkspawn Magisters destroying villages full of innocents, and he doesn’t give one flying magisterial shit. Because the more pressing crisis is clearly that Dorian won’t quit his filthy habit of spreading his legs for any man who wants it.”
The Bull’s throat tightened as he was overcome by a rush of cold, disorienting helplessness. There was a wrong here. He wanted to do something about it, something real.
But that just wasn’t what he was here to do. He could put drunk people to bed, sit up with lonely people, pat sad people on the head and help them blow their noses and say the right things to make them feel a bit better. That was easy stuff he’d been trained to do. He could do harder people stuff too, of course; he was great at it. Tama had said so, and the Bull knew it. But there was always a limit to what one could do for bas. You could soothe them for an evening, maybe even get rid of their problems for them, but they’d just go and inflict new wounds on themselves. There was no way to bring them true, lasting peace, not while their heads remained full of nonsense and untruths.
Of course, they could be taught the truth.
This was a chance, an opportunity for the Bull to step in. Guide Dorian. Push him, gently, gently. The Bull didn’t have the training to convert, he wouldn’t know how to do it if someone walked up to him and begged for it. But he could make Dorian ready to talk to someone who could help. Maybe he had been unkind, to assume that Dorian could never be viddathari. To decide for him that he could never know true understanding. To deny him his only chance for peace, for balance. Hissrad wasn’t trained to perform that kind of assessment anyway–he’d overstepped with that one, though Tallis had neglected to call him on it.
He could give Dorian a chance. Try. It really might be a kindness. He wanted to help…
But this line of thought was as useless as a dress on a qalaba. They wouldn’t let Dorian in. The Qun had plenty of viddathari living outside of Par Vollen, openly in Rivain or embedded in cities around Thedas, but none of those were mages. They just couldn’t be trusted. Any mage wanted to join the Qun, they had to go to Par Vollen and become a proper saarebas.
The Bull had never heard of any mage volunteering for that. Dorian would set him on fire if he knew what the Bull was thinking of right now.
Dorian was staring at the floor, where the Bull had dropped the paper with the ritual on it. He looked almost resigned, as if he’d been here before.
Then his urge to be in motion seemed to get the better of him again; he swung himself to his feet, using his grip on the Bull’s hand for balance, and began to pace around the room. Or tried to–as soon as he let go of his hand-hold, he tottered.
The Bull grabbed for him with both hands. Dorian caught one and clutched at it as he struggled to right himself. He managed, after a moment or two, and the Bull slowly lowered his free hand.
“I once told you Corypheus was what is wrong with Tevinter. I was wrong,” Dorian went on, bouncing in place instead of trying to pace again. “Or rather, I gave an incomplete representation of the issues. He is what is wrong with Tevinter. Magister Halward and all the egotistical, myopic assholes like him.”
“Hmmm,” the Bull agreed, twisting his hand so he could take hold of Dorian’s fingers.
“And assholes like me, who spend three quarters of their time fretting about the opinions of people like Magister Halward instead of focusing on actual problems.” Dorian looked around his dark, messy room like it was suddenly giving him great displeasure. “I’m going back to the library. I was doing research. For the Inquisitor. On Corypheus.”
The Bull tightened his grip on Dorian’s hand as he began to pull away. Wouldn’t do to have him crack his head open on the stones now. “Whoa. You know that’s nonsense, big guy. You couldn’t even read your own name right now.”
Dorian’s expression turned thunderous. “Because I got pissing drunk. Because I was fretting about Magister Halward and his…”
The frown disappeared as quickly as it had come, before the Bull had even finished analyzing it. Damn. Most humans seemed cursed with these infuriatingly changeable moods, the Vints in particular, but the inside of Dorian’s head was like a sack of cats sometimes.
Dorian took a deep breath. “I apologize. I am sorry, truly very sorry. Please return to your duties. I promise to make up the work tomorrow.”
The Bull shook his head. “I don’t have anything better to do, big guy.”
“No reports to write? No intel to gather? Whatever will the Qun think.”
Yeah. Good question.
“Who knows?” the Bull demurred. He patted Dorian’s hand.
His thoughts stuttered to a halt as Dorian reached out with his free hand. His fingers curled around the Bull’s, soft, almost hesitant.
“I like having work,” he whispered.
The Bull stared at their joined hands. Dorian was starting to lean back, letting the Bull’s arms take his weight.
“Yeah. It’s nice to be useful.”
“It is,” Dorian mused. He began to sway a little, pulling at the Bull’s left hand, then his right hand, then back at the left again. “If I have no work, I start drinking and whoring, and whoring and drinking, and… drinking. Always happens.”
Dorian stared at him, gaze wide and honest. “Yes. Such is what I am. What do you do when you have no work?”
“Dunno. That doesn’t happen to me. The Qun always makes sure I have a purpose somewhere.”
Abruptly, Dorian’s grip tightened until it was almost painful. Impressive, given the size of his hands compared to the Bull’s.
“How wonderful. To have a place in the world like that,” he mused.
Push him. Come on. Push him. Tell him what he could have, you’d be doing him a kindness, he’s fucking miserable.
No, the Bull had to remind himself again. What could Dorian have that the Bull–that the Qun could offer him? An arrogant, mouthy bas saarebas, from Tevinter no less? Nothing. Nothing he wanted. Nothing he needed.
The Bull pulled him upright, forcing him to stand on his own power. Dorian produced a small noise of disappointment.
“You’re not going to be so complimentary about the Qun when you’re sober, big guy.”
“Fuck the Qun,” Dorian laughed. He immediately winced, brows curling. “Oh, I am so sorry, I did not mean to… I will regret myself so much in the morning. This. Myself. Will you stay until I sleep?”
Right. Good that someone was putting an end to all this, because the Bull wasn’t feeling like he was helping much.
He wanted to sigh. Dorian might take it the wrong way, though. “Sure, big guy. Need help getting out of that buckled number?”
He hadn’t meant to go as far as undressing the guy, but now that he was sitting here anyway, he might as well help. And Dorian had already partway untangled his ensemble.
Dorian did actually sigh. He looked almost wistful. “Yes, please.”
“All right. You do the little buckles, I’ll take stuff off.”
It was a procedure; Dorian didn’t seem very used to having to instruct someone on how to undress him. Or maybe he was too far gone to think more than two buckles ahead. Pretty likely, that; when the Bull lost patience, hooked his thumbs into the leggings and pants, and pulled the whole affair down in one go, Dorian burst out laughing and almost fell ass first on the floor. Very shapely ass first. He was wearing the dark blue silky thing that had been the Bull’s favorite among the collection Skinner had displayed over the courtyard.
The Bull threw Dorian’s mass of duvets and blankets to the foot of the bed. Dorian laid down, with only a little less grace than he usually displayed, and began to pull the covers up towards himself. It didn’t look easy; he seemed determined that each had to lie perfectly straight and parallel to the wall before he could put the next one on. It was a strange, silly contrast to the mess of the unmade bed the Bull had found when they came in.
As Dorian struggled, the Bull’s eye fell on the paper they’d abandoned on the floor. He couldn’t just leave it there. It looked just a little bit alive as it trembled in the draft from the window, and the drawing of the circle seemed almost malevolent, staring at the bed and its occupant like it was just waiting for an opening.
The Bull picked it up by a corner, gingerly, taking care not to touch any of the writing. The paper flapped a bit in the wind, and Dorian’s eyes were drawn to the sound. As soon as he saw where it came from, he shrunk into the bed a little.
The Bull frowned.
“Hey, why do you even keep this? Better get rid of it before someone finds it and thinks you’re planning a blood magic ritual or something.”
Dorian’s eyes were fixed on the paper as if it might leap up and stab him in the face.
“Yes, yes, that’s why I hide it,” he murmured. “But I need it to remind me. What we are.”
The Bull stared at him. He wished, deeply, achingly, for something he could do.
“I don’t live in your head, big guy, but you don’t seem the sort that needs reminders to be a good person.”
A wobbly sort of smile made it onto Dorian’s face.
“The things you say,” he whispered.
He stared at the Bull, one eye almost hidden in his pillow. For once, the Bull couldn’t make a single guess as to what he was thinking.
“I’ll just put it back in your boot for now, okay?”
A quiet sigh. Dorian’s eyes slipped closed. “Yes, I’ll deal with it.”
As the Bull stuffed the vile paper back out of sight, Dorian stretched with a little squeak and rolled onto his back. It messed up his blanket arrangement, and he spent another few moments grumbling and tugging until all bits of fabric were aligned.
Just when the Bull thought he was about to go to sleep, Dorian’s face scrunched up in a look of fierce concentration. Almost at the same time, a pale lyrium-blue glow emerged from his left hand–no, from the sole gold ring on the index.
The Bull blinked. “Dorian?”
“A moment,” Dorian mumbled, distracted. His hand had tightened into a fist.
The blue light faded. Then Dorian opened his eyes halfway, all tension melting from his face again. “My apologies. Did you say something?”
The Bull pointed. “Your ring was glowing.”
“Hmmm, yes. It’s enchanted,” Dorian murmured. He shifted on the bed again. Before he could start his great blanket rearrangement charade, the Bull tugged the covers up higher for him and patted them down on his chest.
Dorian sighed. He looked almost peaceful now.
The Bull had to smile. “What’s it do? Glow blue when it’s bedtime for baby Magisters?”
Dorian chuckled. He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers, making the ring gleam in the flickering candlelight. “Lummox. It wards against demons. In a way.”
The Bull’s hands froze in the midst of tucking the top blanket under Dorian. His fingers tightened around Dorian’s upper arms.
“There’s a demon here?” He whipped his head left and right as the shadows of the room leapt at him, or seemed to, in the corner of his eye–but there was nothing solid there. He had no axe, but there was a good nasty knife in his boot. A second to retrieve it, another half-second to get up and away from the bed so he could take a defensive stance in front of Dorian…
“Nooooo,” Dorian yawned. “Just in my head. I told it to leave, ’s okay.” Then, “You’re squishing me.”
He smiled, quick, kind, as if he were trying to reassure the Bull that this was all not so terribly serious. It sent a sharp, almost electric shock through the Bull’s hands.
He’d almost forgotten that he was holding a vat of demons. This man under his fingers was one wrong thought away from dissolving into an Abomination–not just right now, but all the time, every moment of every day and night.
The first emotion summoned by that thought was not dread, as was proper, but a disjointed sense of wonder. The Bull frowned.
How did he do it? How did he keep himself in check like this? There was no one supervising him, no one looking out for him–his mentor was locked in the dungeons under Skyhold, his Circle was half a world away, he’d never even seen an arvaarad. How did he live with this hanging over him?
He looked down at Dorian. Dorian stared back at him, eyes pale in the flickering half-light.
He was getting too used to Dorian, and to people like Solas and Viv. The Bull had worked with mages before, but regular ones, a couple of apostates and some low-level Enchanters sent from circles to serve the same nobles who hired the Chargers. And Dalish. The people in the Inquisitor’s inner circle, though–they were all the magical equivalent of whole warehouses of gaatlok, the sort of saarebas that would be put down sooner than trained because they were just too much. But you wouldn’t know that from the way they swanned about Skyhold, painting walls and sipping tea and reading books and doing all manner of other unassuming things.
“You’re frowning.” Dorian sounded three quarters asleep. “Why are you frowning?”
The Bull struggled to parse the sense of awe that was welling up in him. He should be more afraid than this.
“You really scare me sometimes, big guy.”
One of Dorian’s hands snuck out from under the blankets. His fingers squeezed the Bull’s, warm and soft.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered, as though he hadn’t just demonstrated that he could make the Bull forget all he’d ever learned with a curl of his lips. “The Iron Bull? Will you do something for me?”
The Bull smoothed the blanket over Dorian’s chest again. There. Order. “Sure, what?”
“Kiss me goodnight?”
The Bull guessed there was about a fifty-fifty chance of this being Dorian wanting to thumb his nose at Magister Halward. Better to tuck him in and just let him sleep it off. But fuck, he looked sad again. And yeah, sure, there would be a better moment somewhere down the line. But who gave a shit when tomorrow could be the day a rift opened in the tavern and sucked the Bull into the Fade or something?
The Bull blinked. Why was he even debating this? It was a perfect opening. Dorian wanted it. He was practically throwing himself at the Bull.
Dorian made a little noise as the Bull bent over him, a come-hither sort of whimper; the Bull swallowed it as he put his lips on Dorian’s, a gentle push, barely more than a touch.
He didn’t move except to fit their mouths together better. Let the guy’s sleepy brain catch up.
Fuck, he was soft–his mouth, the cheek the Bull’s nose was pressed into, the skin of his naked shoulder under the Bull’s fingers. He didn’t taste of anything remarkable or Fade-ish. Just a man, a man who’d had some mint and longleaf tea and was rather in need of his regular evening bath.
The Bull lifted his head a bit, meaning to ask something like Okay there? But Dorian followed him, surging up as his hands reached for the Bull. His fingers stuttered across the Bull’s neck, feeling their way across the muscles until they slipped around to the back of the Bull’s head.
“Oh,” he whispered. “You’re so big.”
Sure am. The Bull lifted a hand to support Dorian’s head, enveloping it from one ear to the other, and Dorian produced a very satisfying little whimper.
It was… a kiss. Oddly chaste, for what it was; after that first push, Dorian seemed more intent on feeling the Bull, his lips wandering along the Bull’s face as if mapping every groove and scar. His hands were gentle on the back of the Bull’s head, stroking the skin and kneading the muscles underneath.
The Bull let his free hand wander to Dorian’s back, spreading it wide over the shoulder blades to lift Dorian up and against him. Dorian’s arms immediately moved, wrapping themselves around the Bull’s neck so he could hold on closer, as if he wanted nothing more than to keep the Bull here forever. He still wasn’t focusing on the kiss much.
Maybe a hug was what he’d wanted in the first place. He could have asked. Still, it felt good. Warm. Sweet.
“Oh,” Dorian said when the Bull drew away and gently lowered him back onto the pillow. “Oh.” His lips didn’t stop moving for a few more seconds. Neither did his fingers.
He was also struggling to keep his eyes open. It was a lot like watching a baby nug try to stay awake, and the Bull smiled. If you knew what your mustache looks like right now.
He leaned in again and pushed a kiss on the middle of Dorian’s forehead.
“Sleep well, big guy.”
“Oh, I shall now,” Dorian whispered. He didn’t open his eyes again.
The Bull sat by the bed until Dorian was definitely out. Then he straightened the covers over him one last time, took out the chamber pot and the basin Dorian had vomited into, and propped the door open to a sliver to let the breeze in.
He sat on the threadbare rug as he waited for the room to air out, cross-legged in the customary position for study and meditation–or as close to it as he could manage with the blasted knee, at least. He closed his eye and breathed, felt, tried to let the sounds and smells of Skyhold at night wash away his thoughts. It really was different here, so far from his room above the tavern. So quiet.
It might have worked better if Dorian hadn’t kept interrupting. He was restless even in sleep, shifting almost constantly, and every creak of the bed shot through the Bull’s attempts at not thinking like an arrow from Sera’s bow. Dorian muttered whenever he wasn’t moving, unintelligible nonsense words. Should have known he’d be like a thorn in the brain even while he was out cold.
He didn’t fit in. Too many strange ideas, too sure of himself, too clever. There would be never be a place for him under the Qun. The Bull had no escape to offer him.
Dorian’s mumbling increased in volume, popping the bubble of the Bull’s thoughts like a hot needle through a boil.
“Felix Alexius, you are an ass and I shall tell your mother so…”
A grin curled over the Bull’s face. When the Inquisition finally managed to track its nemesis down, they should just send Dorian ahead armed only with his chatter and his bewildering talent for distraction. Corypheus would be so confounded that he wouldn’t even notice Adaar sneaking up behind him.
Chapter 5: Emprise du Lion
Note delivered to The Iron Bull by a serving girl bringing firewood
The Iron Bull,
Please disregard everything I said last night. I am very embarrassed about my behavior, and promise I will not impose on you like that again. I apologize most sincerely.
Thank you for your discretion, and also for the blankets, and the water and elfroot on my nightstand. It was kind of you.
If you ever find your leg paining you the way it did in the mountains, tell me, I will take care of it again. Consider this a standing offer.
Please don’t tell anyone what I said.
Note delivered to Dorian Pavus in the library
Don’t worry about it, happens to all of us. My boys have done way worse. Glad I could help. And thanks for the offer, I might take you up on that, the leg’s shit and being up here in the cold all the time doesn’t help. You really don’t need to compensate me for anything, though. Do you even remember anything you talked about?
Thanks for always including the article, a lot of people forget.
The Iron Bull
Note delivered to The Iron Bull by a different serving girl bringing him a surprise snack during training
The Iron Bull,
I always remember exactly what I did and said while inebriated. It is a curse. Before you arrived, Grand Enchanter Fiona told me to stop drinking in the library, and I made a truly deplorable remark about Grey Wardens and imbibing certain substances. She is not here today, and I am still trying to find words to convey my remorse. I also insulted the Veil and now Solas is not speaking to me.
I beg of you, please do not discuss what I said with anyone. It may be pertinent here to mention that my other offer from yesterday also stands.
Note slipped under the door of Dorian Pavus’ room
My lips are sealed. Seriously. I wasn’t mentioning it because I wanted to get anything out of you.
I did want to ask if you actually might want to have sex, or if you said all that stuff because you thought it’s what I wanted to hear. I’ll stop the flirting if you like.
The Iron Bull
Note somehow left on The Iron Bull’s bed while his door was locked
Obviously, I do want to suck your cock. Andraste save me from my ridiculous impulses.
Thank you for the kiss also.
Note slipped under the door of Dorian Pavus’ room in the middle of the night
That’s good to know. You deserve some downtime, and in case nobody’s told you yet today, you’re fucking gorgeous. My door’s open. Come and see me so I can tell you from up close.
Letter transferred via a dead drop inside Skyhold’s gatehouse
The text is in Qunlat.
We sought for information on the Warden named Gordon Blackwall, but found little that was consistent. Be vigilant.
We request more information on the defenses of the fortress named Skyhold, and more details about the defenses of the stronghold named Caer Bronach that featured in your report on the events in the village of Crestwood.
You did not mention Dorian Pavus in your last two missives. Please report on any further information he has revealed about the Altus families you discussed with him, and also on the progress of your attempt to gain his trust.
Letter transferred via a dead drop inside Skyhold’s gatehouse
The text is in Qunlat.
Please report on Dorian Pavus.
Letter transferred via a dead drop inside Skyhold’s gatehouse
The text is in Qunlat.
My apologies, I have made little progress with Dorian Pavus. I will inform you at once if anything worth mentioning occurs.
The Bull planted his feet firmly, set his elbows on his knees, and focused on his breathing as he surveyed the organized chaos of Inquisition scouts setting up the new camp inside the courtyard of Suledin Keep. They were getting better at it all the time. Fast little buggers. He hadn’t expected them to get everything up by nightfall, but there the first stars were, and he was surrounded by tents and campfires. Some of them were a bit crooked. Should bring Krem-puff to yell at them about how crooked tents were the first sign of a severe breakdown in discipline.
The Bull twisted his fingers together, made the joints pop. Breathe in. Breathe out.
His leg hurt. Not as much as it could have, though. It had started whining at him only hours into their trek through the Emprise, which was made entirely of ice and rock, the exact two things it hated most. They’d been here for over a week now, and the pain should have been debilitating. But Dorian had come to the Bull’s tent yesterday evening and done the thing with the liquid light magic again. Must have you in top form if we’re to commit proper suicide by throwing ourselves at a giant-infested ruin, he’d said.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Adaar walked by, arguing with some Orlesian whatever about how there were too few braziers and whose fault that was.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Sera emerged from the healer’s tent and immediately descended on the steaming pot of stew over the fire. She shrieked something about how it was almost empty, threw a handful of snow at The Bull, and then began to scrape out her share of the treasure, hopping on one foot the whole time. She’d lost her left snow boot during the fight, and it looked like covering one’s toes against freezing cold wasn’t a priority when you had one perfectly usable foot left.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Dorian sat on a bench, close enough that the Bull could smell him, a grey wolf pelt wrapped around his shoulders. The Bull watched him spoon stew into his mouth. The stuff was going in fast, and without a single word of complaint too. Either they’d finally found a scout who could use spices to Tevinter standards, or Dorian was so famished that he didn’t care what he was eating anymore.
In. Out. Existence is a choice.
Probably famished. The fight for Suledin Keep had taken all day, with barely any breaks, giant after templar after demon after fucking giant coming at them until they couldn’t remember what it was like to not feel cold and battered and puny. The Bull had devoured a whole pot of stew all by himself while Dorian was still being tended to by the healer. He’d had to go first, before the Bull and Adaar and Sera.
In. Out. There is no chaos in the world, only complexity.
They’d been battling the last giant. Dorian, long out of lyrium and with his strength faltering, had kept edging closer to the fight so he could cast over shorter distances. He hadn’t had a prayer of dodging when the monster suddenly turned around and grabbed for him.
In. Out. Knowledge of the complex is wisdom.
There’d been no sound, no scream, just Dorian abruptly not being where he’d been a blink ago–and then he was flying through the air, in a horrifyingly long arc during which the Bull had plenty of time to think he’ll hit the wall, he’s going head first, he’s dead.
The Bull closed his eye for a moment.
In. Out. From wisdom of the world comes wisdom of the self.
As it turned out, Dorian had more defenses against being tossed around by critters than the Bull himself. He did hit the wall, but not head first, and not before slamming up a barrier between himself and the oncoming frozen stone. Combined with the second barrier that Adaar managed to cast on him while he was airborne, that was enough. He smacked into the wall with a dull thud, dropped like a rock into a snowdrift below, and came stumbling out of it on his own two feet in time to see the Bull hack the giant’s head clean off.
In. Out. Mastery of the self is mastery of the world.
My hero, he’d said as the Bull hurried towards him. You have avenged my poor, sorry dignity. Then he’d fallen over, more or less into the Bull’s arms, and they’d had to pour elfroot potions into him and sit next to him for half an hour before he was up for pressing on to deal with the demon.
In. Out. Loss of the self is the source of suffering.
And now here he was, only hours later later, sitting at the fire and stuffing his face with mediocre stew. The only hint that his day hadn’t gone perfectly smoothly was the utter mess of his hair, a mess he hadn’t fixed yet. He was looking a little dazed still.
In. Out. Suffering is a choice, and we can refuse it.
He should have been dead.
In. Out. It is in our own power to create the world, or destroy it.
The Bull lowered his face onto his joined hands. Felt his own hot breath on his trembling fingers.
He’s not dead. You’re not dead. Nobody’s dead who shouldn’t be. All is in balance.
Dorian put his empty bowl down in the snow, straightened, and immediately reached for the belt pouch where the Bull kept his whiskey bottle.
“Excuse me,” he muttered.
The Bull sat still as his belt was jerked into his side by Dorian’s slightly uncoordinated attempts to remove the bottle. His fingers were shaking.
He wasn’t about to call Dorian on not being as recovered as he was pretending to be. Anyone would be feeling off after a close shave like that. The Bull watched him drink, a little too fast, a little too much.
Dorian held the bottle out to him. The Bull took it and knocked it back.
“Hey, Dorian,” he said. Dorian was staring at his face, eyes a smidgen too wide. Someone wasn’t going to have nice dreams tonight. “You ever had maraas-lok?”
A blink. “What now?”
“Qunari liquor. Knocks you right out of your smalls.”
“Never heard of it,” Dorian said, still wearing that wild-eyed look. “And I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“Got some around here,” the Bull said. He had to dig deeper for this than for the whiskey, but it was there, a small black bottle that gave a satisfyingly dull slosh when he shook it (carefully). Plenty left.
“That’s it?” Dorian didn’t look impressed. Hah. He was so fucking cute.
“Take really small sips,” the Bull cautioned as he handed the bottle over.
Dorian had been edging from arrogance into sheer recklessness lately, as wave after wave of Venatori, Red Templars, and assorted monstrosities failed to bring him down. Apparently he wasn’t so overconfident that he couldn’t take a hint, though. He gave the maraas-lok a cautious sniff before putting it anywhere near his lips, and reared back a little.
“Vishante kaffas! What’s the meaning of this? Did your superiors tell you to assassinate me because I’m too brilliant to leave alive?”
Well. That was unfunny.
“Just try it, big guy. Do you good.”
Dorian took a sip. He scrunched up his face, but didn’t cough.
“Well. That’s invigorating.” He blinked a lot. “Possibly quite literally. I should try this on the corpses instead of bothering with necromancy.”
“I know, right? Hey, leave some for me,” the Bull said as Dorian took another sip.
Laugh lines crinkled around Dorian’s eyes. “Don’t give me things if you don’t want me to accept them.” He surrendered the bottle, though, and didn’t look away as the Bull tipped it back.
The Bull began to count down from ten as he drank. He got to seven before Dorian opened his mouth.
“I wish our illustrious leader could have chosen a campsite further away from this red lyrium. It’s giving me a headache, and I don’t imagine it’s much better for her. I do understand the value of occupying this fortress for the Inquisition, but no heap of Elven rocks is worth our magely sanity.”
The Bull didn’t like the shiny red shit either, especially with Varric around to tell ominous stories about it all day long, but they were actually about as far away from the stuff now as they’d ever been. There wasn’t even any in the courtyard, though he could see the malevolent red glow from a couple of cracks in the walls.
“It is loud for you?” He asked. “Just a buzz for me. A real nasty buzz, but I can’t even hear it from over here.”
“Oh, I hear it,” Dorian sighed. “Ah, please distract me. I wish to revisit our discussion about shirts. I argue that you, wonderful specimen of the qunari species though you are, need a shirt right this instant. You are shivering and covered in blood.”
The Bull blinked down at himself. His pants did look a little gory, and yeah, it was nippy around here now that he was sitting still. Even if the drink helped a bit.
“No shirts big enough for me in this camp. I’ll go sit in my tent or something soon.” That idea had occurred to him before, and he did have reports to write. And writing would help him shake off these blasted jitters. But he didn’t feel quite ready to let Dorian out of his sight again.
“I’m still winding down, I think,” he confessed. “A bit restless today. Fucking giants.”
They passed the maraas-lok between them and talked about inconsequential things, like Krem’s adorable little crush on the bard, the new washerwoman in the keep who did such a wonderful job on the Vint robes that Dorian suspected she might be a runaway Tevinter slave, the state of Skyhold’s library, and how Adaar had almost put the demon Imshael’s eye out with a nipple. The Bull’s head wasn’t really in the conversation; for most of it, he made hmmm noises in the right places and let Dorian’s voice wash over him. Even Dorian sounded less alive than usual, though–muted, stilted, like he wasn’t feeling quite himself either.
At some point he let his latest ramble peter out, handed the bottle over to the Bull, and sat in a pensive sort of silence for a few moments. Then he folded his hands together in front of his face and closed his eyes.
The Bull watched his lips begin to move in an almost-soundless murmur. It was always curious to see the bas pray. They had so many different ways to perform the ritual: the Chantry sisters knelt fully, Cullen crouched, Leliana went down on one knee, Dorian didn’t do more than bring his hands together against his lips. But somehow, you could always tell when they were doing it. There was a universal stillness to it, and something uncomfortably reverent that fell over their faces like a veil.
It was starting to snow again. Dorian looked almost poetic, sitting there looking so calm while flakes of white settled on his mussed hair.
“What are you talking about?” The Bull kept his question to a whisper, hoping that wouldn’t be too rude. He wouldn’t interrupt, say, Cullen or Cassandra, but Dorian seemed a bit more casual about the whole thing.
“Just conveying my gratitude for my survival today,” Dorian murmured against his fingers. “It’s good to make people feel they’ve done you a favor. It makes them well disposed towards you, and more likely to help again. I am hoping it works on deities as well.”
Not a bad strategy, probably. “Sure. Say hi to Andraste for me.”
Dorian smiled against his fingers. After a few more moments of silence, he lowered his hands and looked up at the Bull.
“She says you must bathe immediately, for you reek of rotting giants who voided their bowels upon the moment of death.”
Heh. “Will do, soon as she brings a bathtub to Suledin Keep.”
The Bull curled his toes inside his boots. Dorian had it wrong about the cold, actually. It barely bothered the Bull even at the worst of times. He wasn’t shivering. He was vibrating, and it wouldn’t fucking stop.
He didn’t want to try and calm down by changing his clothes and cleaning his weapons. He didn’t want to chat. He didn’t want to write reports. He was getting sick of drinking, that never helped him sort out his post-battle tension anyway. He sure as hell didn’t want meditate. He wanted to throw Dorian over his shoulder, find an empty tent, and fucking get to it already.
They finished the maraas-lok. As if on cue, Varric came wandering by, three enormous and steaming mugs of mulled wine in each hand. The Bull relieved him of two of them; Dorian barely paused for a “thank you” before he sniffed at his mug and immediately took a large sip. The Bull watched the column of his throat and imagined biting it.
The Bull drank more slowly, inhaling the aroma of the spices, trying to pick them apart. Cloves and cinnamon for sure, one or two other things he couldn’t quite identify. They had to be using something to substitute for oranges down here.
They probably made great mulled wine in Tevinter. Dorian had to miss it; he missed everything from home, and the alcoholic stuff the most. The Bull watched him drink. He was emptying that large tankard at a steady clip that would have been alarming for anyone else, but no one would care if Dorian got drunk tonight. They were very unlikely to be attacked here, and the man could handle himself.
And maybe he’d fall into the Bull’s arms again. He’d looked good, lying on his bed as the Bull loomed over him, his hair all tousled and his lips swollen from kissing. Damn good.
“The Iron Bull.”
He blinked. “What?”
Dorian was letting his empty mug dangle from one finger by the handle. His eyes were fixed on the Bull.
“You’re staring, The Iron Bull. In a particular fashion that I may or may not be misinterpreting.”
The Bull’s heart seemed to slow down. His tankard sat in his hand, forgotten, the steam from it dissolving into the air as the wine cooled. Something noisy had started up close to them, a couple of scouts hammering on things as they yelled instructions at each other in a strange accent that the Bull barely recognized as some form of Orlesian. His mind tried to divert itself, identify the language, but Dorian’s stare held it firmly in place.
“Staring, am I?”
Dorian tilted his head in answer, exposing a tantalizing stretch of neck between his jaw and the edge of the wolf pelt. A couple of snowflakes drifted down into the gap, and the Bull imagined them melting, running down Dorian’s neck and pooling in the hollow of his throat.
When he spoke, it was so low that the Bull almost didn’t catch it over the din behind them. “Do you want to take me to bed?”
The Bull took a moment to deliberate.
Did he want? Yeah, sure. But that didn’t matter much. A want was a small thing, so easily snuffed out through a simple conscious decision. You realized you wanted more bread than your share, you decided not to take it. You noticed yourself wanting to do something shitty, you decided not to do it. It was really that simple. Amazing how the bas just couldn’t seem to help themselves. All you had to do was wave something shiny in front of their eyes–or in the case of the Vints, something magical–and they went for it like cats after a dangling piece of string, so drunk with desire that they seemed to lose all ability to think.
But the Bull’s hands were still vibrating. He wanted, and so did Dorian. The man had some very specific coping strategies for dealing with shit that upset him. Get sloshed, then get fucked by the nearest willing man if any were available. The Bull had seen him do it, though not for a while now, and definitely not after he’d propositioned the Bull in the middle of the library. Dorian had snuck off sometime during the celebrations after they closed the Breach, and the Bull hadn’t seen him again until the middle of Corypheus’ assault, raining fire down on the Red Templars from atop the Chantry platform. He’d done it again after he got word that his friend Felix was dead, though the Bull hadn’t found out for a couple days that that was what he was moping about. Dorian had disappeared from the tavern halfway through the evening and returned wearing a very specific kind of disheveled look. Both times, the Bull hadn’t caught who he was sneaking off with.
He’d thought about it, though. Imagined them behind the Herald’s Rest, Dorian sinking to his knees in the grass in front of some scout as he unbuckled enough of his outfit to free his cock.
“Yeah. I wanna fuck you so hard you can’t walk straight tomorrow.”
He wasn’t doing this right. Not for the right reason, at least. He should be thinking about how to get Dorian to trust him, and fuck him only if that’s what it would take. He should be remembering why he wasn’t going to touch that, and keep his guard up. He should be doing anything except pounce on the guy because he couldn’t come down from his own battle lust and wanted to stick his cock in something.
Dorian sucked in air, slowly and audibly. Then he released it, a gentle cloud of white in the frozen air in front of him, like a dragon breathing.
“Surely you can make that proposition a little more attractive. I was grievously wounded only moments ago, after all.”
“I’ll take you into my tent. You’ll like it, one of the scouts gave me one of those big bear pelts for on my bedroll when we got here. I’ll finger you open while I suck you off, and you can grab my horns and steer. Then I’ll hold you down and fuck you silly. If you can’t keep quiet, I’ll put a hand over your mouth.” Shit, this shouldn’t be so easy, but he couldn’t make himself stop. “I’ll fuck you however many times you like. However you want.”
Dorian bit down on his lower lip, then released it again. It blossomed red, outwards from the couple of white dots where his teeth had been.
Then he smiled, slow, inviting. It transformed his face, as if he was discarding his post-battle disquiet for a much more pleasant and familiar act. He reached out and put a fingertip on the side of the Bull’s half-full tankard. A cloud of steam wafted up from it immediately.
“If you amend your offer such that I get a taste of your ridiculous cock before you put it anywhere unsanitary, you have yourself a deal.”
“I like your ideas, big guy.” The Bull made one more attempt to rally. “You sure you’re okay to go? Could wait until we’re staying at the Winter Palace. I’m sure there’ll be some great feather beds there for me to pound you into.”
Dorian inhaled, slowly but audibly.
“I don’t give a nug’s arse about feather beds, and I’m quite fine.” He rose to his feet. “Your tent. Follow me once you’ve finished your nice hot beverage.”
He swept off, drawing his pelt tighter around his shoulders. Sera yelled something at him about frozen arses, and Dorian threw her a rude gesture over his shoulder. It looked very affectionate.
The Bull stared into his tankard. He took a deep breath through his nose, letting the spicy vapor rush into his head. Damn. He was barely close to tipsy, and this stuff was hardly even alcoholic by northern standards, but damn.
The dark had settled in fully now, helped along by the snow. The Bull drank his nice hot beverage and observed. The edges of the camp were getting blurry in the distance. Snowflakes were beginning to drift down into his wine, some even making it through the steam. These were the large, thick kind that would pile up until the entire camp was blanketed in white. The scouts would keep the fires free and put tarps on the tables covered in requisitions and potions, but they were all going to have jolly good fun digging themselves out of their tents come morning.
Good. Snow muffled sound.
The Bull knocked back the last of the wine before it could start to cool again. Then he got to his feet, took a moment to stretch his surprisingly-not-too-bad leg, and slipped away towards his tent.
Dorian was waiting for him, sitting cross-legged on the Bull’s enormous bear pelt. There was a neat pile of clothing next to him, and he was entirely, gloriously naked.
The Bull stared. His tent had its own little brazier, but the coals were burning low, and Dorian hadn’t stoked it. It wasn’t freezing in here, but still more than a little chilly. Certainly too chilly for delicate northern Alti to be lounging around in any state of undress.
Dorian’s lips curled into a satisfied smile as the Bull stared. He leaned back on his arms, making his upper body curve forward.
“Finally. I was getting bored. Please do tie that tent flap, I’d rather not be treated to a flurry of snow on my bare arse whenever the wind blows a little.”
Well. There was a sight you didn’t come home to very often. The Bull took his time closing the tent properly, sealing them in away from the cold, and began to free himself from his snow-caked boots.
His eyes wandered along the strong muscles of Dorian’s neck, over the wide planes of his chest (shaved, almost definitely), and down to where his soft cock lay in a neatly trimmed bed of hair. He looked good. He’d been black and blue after that giant had grabbed him, but now there wasn’t a scratch or bruise left on his skin. No sign of cold damage on his tender footsies. A hint of a flush on his cheeks, probably from the drink. He looked perfect. Strong, healthy. Alive.
“Aren’t you cold, big guy?”
Dorian leaned forward and opened his hands. Round fire glyphs covered his palms, the fey orange light of them blooming in the half-dark of the tent.
He breathed in. The glow seemed to travel up his arms, curling over his shoulders, then pouring down him in rivulets that ran down his sides and towards his groin. Then it streamed along his folded legs. In moments, every bit of his skin looked covered in a barrier the color of flame.
It sank into him, like the white light had become absorbed into the Bull’s leg back in the Frostbacks. The shadows of the tent crept closer again as the glow faded.
“I’m quite toasty, actually,” Dorian murmured.
“Crap.” The Bull remembered to blink. “Why don’t you do this all day?”
Dorian smiled. He stretched his legs, as if luxuriating in the heat of an invisible bonfire. “The spell takes up a lot of mana, both to produce the heat and to maintain it. A shame, I know.”
The light was gone, but the magic was still there. The Bull could feel it–a hum in the air that was like a friendlier version of the red lyrium’s buzz, something that was alive inside Dorian and looking back at the Bull through Dorian’s pretty grey eyes, which weren’t looking so grey at the moment.
Dorian’s grin widened, his lips parting just a little. The glow was there, behind his teeth.
Ataashi, the Bull thought. And, Fucking hell.
One of Dorian’s hands curled towards him. The glyph was still on his palm, swirling red and orange.
The Bull stepped forward, set in motion by an intense desire that was only half lust. Oh yeah, this had been a great idea. He’d run with it. He had good instincts, he should trust them.
“Take off your monstrous excuse for clothing and touch me,” Dorian whispered. “I won’t burn you.”
Burn? The thought hadn’t even occurred to the Bull. Koslun’s hairy ballsack, he’d be totally happy to get burned at this point.
Off went the pauldron, and the gauntlets, and the belt; he dropped it all next to Dorian’s neat little heap of clothing. Nice part of the show, that. The Bull had seen what the inside of Dorian’s room looked like.
Dorian’s eyes stayed glued to the Bull’s hands the whole time, and he leaned forward a little as the Bull began to untie his pants. The intensity of it was almost a little much. The Bull made himself slow down, letting his chilled fingers feel every ridge in the soft cotton rope that kept his pants up. He didn’t quite have the patience to put on a show today, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy being drooled over a little.
Dorian had to be reading his mind; when the Bull dropped his pants, the man’s eyebrows climbed up, and the Bull was almost sure he saw a hint of little pink tongue in the corner of Dorian’s mouth.
“What, big guy? You’ve seen me bathe. You knew what you were getting into.”
With some apparent difficulty, Dorian tore his gaze away from the Bull’s groin. It traveled up his belly and chest in a long, languid arc.
“Oh. Quite. Let me make some more room.” He began to spread his legs.
Another step forward brought the Bull close enough to sink to his knees between Dorian’s feet, the bear pelt and the bedding below it cushioning the shock to his legs.
Enough ceremony. He wrapped his hands around Dorian’s calves and jerked him forward, a sharp tug that made the man land on his back with an oof of surprise. His swelling cock fell on his stomach. Pretty Vint. Real pretty cock, dark and smooth, thick enough to fill the Bull’s mouth just right.
“Yes,” Dorian breathed, eyes fixed on the Bull looming over him. He reached up with both arms. The fire glyphs blazed on his palms, bright and hot.
The Bull leaned down just far enough for Dorian’s hands to touch his shoulders. They landed fingertips first, ten pinpricks of heat on the Bull’s skin. Gradually, slowly, Dorian lowered the rest of his fingers, then his palms. It was like he was giving the Bull time to get used to the temperature. Should tell him about how thick qunari skin was, sometime. He clearly didn’t have any experience with it.
Dorian’s lips parted a little as his hands began to knead the sides of the Bull’s neck. That felt fucking good.
”You’re so tense,” he said.
The Bull felt a smile tug at one corner of his mouth. “Yeah. Gonna help me out?”
Dorian grinned, flashing a glimpse of the fucking glow in his throat. He stretched, letting the motion of it travel along his upper body and up his arms. His fingers unfolded, trembling with tension, before they relaxed again on the Bull’s shoulders.
“Oh, is that what I’m here for? Post-battle relief for your victorious Qunari self?”
Fuck, he was gorgeous. “We’re here for what you want. Tell me what you want.” It was what the Bull always said, in these circumstances, and the words fell from his mouth without him even having to think about them. He let a note of command creep into his voice. Dorian would take it or leave it.
Dorian’s breathing grew audible.
“Come here,” he exhaled. “Closer. I want to feel you on top of me.”
As the Bull shifted to oblige, Dorian’s hands wandered across his collarbones, down to his chest and then back up along the sides of his biceps, stroking, exploring. “Sweet Andraste, you’re massive. Look how I have to stretch my arms for this,” Dorian murmured.
“Always bigger up close,” the Bull agreed as he began to lower himself down on Dorian. Not according to plan, this, but fuck the plan. Like he was gonna refuse the guy anything right now.
Dorian linked his hands behind the Bull’s neck as soon a he could reach, and began to pull him down. Damn, that was hot. He was strong, for a human.
“Hey. Easy there, I don’t want to crush you.”
“You won’t,” Dorian said. “Come here, let me feel you…”
He didn’t quite put all his weight on Dorian–the guy didn’t know what he was asking for. But enough, more than he usually put on human partners, just enough pressure on the chest to get in the way of–yes. He could hear the hitch in Dorian’s breath when he tried to fill his lungs with air and found that he couldn’t, not entirely.
Just as the Bull was about to push himself up a little, Dorian’s arms snapped tight around the Bull’s head, holding him in place. Fuck. Okay.
The Bull stayed where he was, fingers digging into the pelt, and felt Dorian struggle to breathe under him. Dorian’s cock pressed against his belly, warm, insistent.
The Bull buried his face in the side of Dorian’s neck and inhaled. Wine, snow, the sweat of battle. Neither of them had bathed. He sure didn’t care, and it looked like Dorian was either too tipsy or too out of patience to remember that he liked acting fastidious.
A small sound, and then Dorian shifted, pulling himself up by his arms–the Bull let him move, just for a moment–until the Bull’s cock was slotted in between their hips, next to Dorian’s own. Mmmm. Yeah, that was better. He really was full of good ideas.
A foot slid up the side of the Bull’s leg, then another on the other side, a little too fast to be seductive. Dorian tried to clutch at the Bull’s middle, but he couldn’t quite manage with his legs forced as wide as they were.
He sucked in a shaky breath, and the Bull felt it move under his lips.
“Maker,” Dorian whimpered. Whimpered.
The Bull chuckled. “So. You in for a spot of conquering after all?”
“Oh, please do shut your great piehole.” Dorian snapped his hips, or tried to.
In warning, the Bull dropped a little more of his weight on Dorian’s pelvis. Dorian stilled under him, eyes fluttering.
Then his voice changed, dropping a little into a sultriness that was almost unnatural. “The Iron Bull. Would you prefer I beg for you? Struggle in your mighty grasp? I can do that. Not so much fun when you’re fucking other mages who really do have the power to render one immobile, but I’ve done more of it in the south.”
The Bull nuzzled at Dorian’s jaw, then began to move over his cheek, feeling the day-old stubble with his lips. “Oh?”
Dorian’s mouth twisted into a teasing smile. “Oh, yes. You’d be amazed how many Nevarran merchants and Fereldan innkeepers will offer a meal and a room for the chance to have a Tevinter Magister squirming under their authority.”
What the… “Dorian, what the fuck?”
Dorian’s eyes opened wide for a moment, alarmed. Then he went pliant again, the curl of his lips turning cocky. “Ah, don’t make that face, it was only a game. Tell me, The Iron Bull. What will be your pleasure tonight?”
The Bull must have spent a moment too long wondering if he should stop right now for the safeword talk, because Dorian’s smile began to fade.
“Bull, I did tell you about the whoring. Don’t tell me it bothers you, I’m aware of your own reputation.”
“No. Fuck, no.” Fucking Vints. He was going to think more on this. After. “My pleasure is, I’m gonna take care of you. Treat you right.”
Dorian’s eyebrows rose. He looked, very briefly, surprised. “Ah?”
The Bull put his weight on one elbow, freeing his left hand. He slid it under the small of Dorian’s back and pulled him up. Dorian shuddered, a soft groan falling from his lips as their cocks slid along each other.
The Bull leaned in, brushing his lips over the warm skin of Dorian’s forehead. Warm. Everything was getting warmer here–the air had gone from chilled to hot in minutes.
“What do you want, Dorian?”
Dorian found his voice again. “Oh, you wish to grant me my every desire? Make all my terrible fantasies about great ravaging brutes come true? I like this.” He lifted his head, inasmuch as he could, and let his lips follow the scar that ran along the Bull’s cheek.
Then he whispered, voice like a curl of smoke blown straight into the Bull’s ear. “You can treat me right by putting that thing in me and fucking me with it until I can’t speak. That’s what I want.”
He was mixing shit up there. Wants and needs were very different things. When it’s a friend, you give them what they need. When it’s an enemy, you give them…
Dorian nipped at the Bull’s earlobe, and shit, his breath was scorching.
Oh, damn it all, he just wanted to know what Dorian felt like when the Bull made him come screaming. And he wanted to fuck. Okay, maybe no screaming, the snow on the tent wasn’t going to muffle that, but…
“Dorian,” he said, and grabbed at the side of Dorian’s ass to get his full attention. Mmmm. Now there was a nice handful. He was going to bite that before the night was over.
Well, it worked. Dorian’s eyes were going a little glassy, but all his focus was clearly on the Bull’s face. “Yes?”
“You want to stop this at any point, you say katoh and I’ll let go right away. Got it?”
That got him the start of a frown. “Katoh what?”
“Katoh. Safeword. Talk more about it later. You got it for now?”
The Bull hadn’t realized he’d started to rock his hips a little, but he sure did when Dorian surged up against him with what had to be every bit of strength in his pretty Vint body.
“Yes, yes, I’m familiar with the concept–Maker, if you stop I will set you on fire.”
Good enough, good enough. And the Bull could really get used to being called a deity.
He slid his hand from under Dorian’s back so he could brace himself with both arms. Fuck, Dorian looked good under him, all still except for the slight heaving of his chest. He hadn’t even exerted himself yet–it was anticipation and anticipation only that made him breathe this hard. Damn. This guy deserved to be shown a good time.
The Bull grinned down at him. He shifted some weight to his knees, giving his hips room to move. “Hold on, big guy. And remember to be quiet, okay?”
Dorian’s hands twitched on the Bull’s neck, scratching, almost angry. “I know a hundred times what you know about silence, you great raucous–aah!”
That was not quiet. The Bull should help the poor guy keep it down, really.
On the next grind of his cock against Dorian’s, the Bull captured his mouth in a hard kiss. For serious this time–he took no quarter, bearing down on Dorian to keep his head pinned against their makeshift bed as he dragged the kiss from experimental to filthy in the space of a few heartbeats. Fuck, he could taste the heat in the back of Dorian’s throat. He began to lick into Dorian’s mouth, quick and messy, in time with the snapping of his hips.
A few slower thrusts to make sure they were both comfortable, and then the Bull set a fast pace. It was artless, this kind of rutting, but fuck did it feel good. It was hard, it was fast, it was what he wanted. Dorian under him, clutching at the Bull’s neck for dear life as the Bull plundered him for every gasp and every little noise he could get. Soft, hot skin to rub his cock against. Strong thighs clasped around him, all hard muscle, squeezing, trying to hold him in place.
As if he fucking could; the Bull was easily twice his weight. He pushed, crushing Dorian down against the bed, breaking the grip of his thighs as he forced Dorian’s legs wider. Before the man could recover and try to grab the Bull’s middle again, the Bull shoved one knee forward, pushing up one of Dorian’s legs to pin it almost up against his torso. Ha. Try holding me now.
”Oh fuck,” Dorian gasped, straining up against the Bull. His breath was racing already. “Fuck, fuck me, fuck me…”
”Yeah,” the Bull grunted. He put a hand on Dorian’s free leg and put pressure on it, just a bit, just to let Dorian knew that he was completely stuck. He was rewarded with another enthusiastic whine. “Yeah, I’ll fuck you. I’ll fuck you good, you just wait…”
Dorian would have to wrench his own leg out of its hip socket if he wanted to move at all, but he clearly wasn’t planning to give up and lie there. He bit at the Bull’s mouth, sharp teeth snapping. His fingers and nails were everywhere, scratching up and down the Bull’s throat, the back of his head, his horns.
“Hold them,” the Bull growled, and Dorian did; no tentative scrabbling, just a fast, tight grip around each horn, close to where they met the skull. He clearly expected the Bull to tell him if he was doing anything uncomfortable. The Bull could work with that.
Then Dorian began to pull, angling the Bull’s face so he could take control of the kiss. He couldn’t have budged a thing if the Bull hadn’t let him, but damn, it was hot how he just kept trying.
“Yeah,” the Bull growled into Dorian’s mouth. “Yeah, you can steer. I wanna jerk your pretty cock anyway.”
The fingers on his horns flashed hot. “Yesssss…”
He was so screwed. “Second,” he rasped, one hand flat on Dorian’s belly to keep him down as he reached out with one arm. “Oil in my pack.” Shit. Asshole, he should have taken the stuff out before jumping the poor guy.
Both of Dorian’s hands shot out to grab his arm. “Wait! Let me…”
The Bull opened his mouth. Then he clapped it shut again as Dorian tugged the Bull’s hand towards his face, pressed it down against his mouth, and began to murmur into it.
“Big guy,” the Bull whispered. The brush of lips against his palm was really fucking distracting, as was the rhythmic way Dorian’s fingers were kneading his hand. And Dorian was looking him straight in the eye while he was doing… whatever. “Dorian. What’s that?”
He could feel Dorian’s grin as his palm began to tingle.
One more almost gentle squeeze of the Bull’s hand with both of his own, and Dorian released him again. The Bull lifted his hand. It was covered in a thick layer of something warm, glistening, and extremely slippery. It smelled like fucking roses.
He raised an eyebrow at Dorian.
“Magic, The Iron Bull.” Dorian looked supremely pleased with himself. Some of the slick had gotten onto his face; there were a few smears of it along his chin and in his mustache, and a shining dollop of it on the tip of his nose.
The Bull reached out and wiped it off with his thumb. Well. Shit. Magic.
“You got a little something there,” he mumbled. Dorian jerked away from the touch with a shocked little laugh.
Fuck, he sure was something.
Without any further ado, the Bull wrapped a loose fist around Dorian’s cock and immediately thrust his own alongside it. Dorian’s head thumped back onto the pelt, then again as the Bull pumped his hand up and down, and again and again. The cocky grin began to twist into a grimace of concentration, his teeth bared as he bit down on whatever was trying to escape from his throat. He was still glowing inside.
Damn, he was a fucking vision, and the stuff he’d conjured was good–just the right kind of buttery, slick but not so greasy that it felt unpleasant. And it was warm, and still tingling like there was static electricity in it–the nice sort. That sure was a novel thing to feel on his cock.
The Bull set a fast pace again, eager to get the edge off for both of them. He was absolutely, entirely sure that Dorian was going to stay for a second round, and he couldn’t wait.
He tightened his grip on both their cocks, and Dorian let out a shocked gasp. The Bull muffled it with a hard kiss.
“Come on,” he growled into the man’s neck. “Come on, you can do it, come on!”
Dorian stiffened, head snapping back against the bedding, and the Bull almost let go in surprise. He hadn’t expected that to work so fast.
Shit, but the result was gorgeous: the arc of Dorian’s throat, the long low whine that tore out of him as he spilled all over the Bull’s hand. The Bull still had his legs and hips pinned, but he could see the muscles on Dorian’s belly ripple, sending tremors up his chest and all the way down his arms. The Bull could feel them, right where Dorian’s fingers were raking along the sides of his neck.
As Dorian sank down with another groan, the Bull let go of him and focused on jerking his own cock just right. Fuck, he was close already, just a few more moments of the hard, twisting grip he liked best…
Dorian had pushed himself onto one elbow. He was panting, chest heaving like he’d been running for his life for five hours, and his eyes were fixed on the Bull’s cock. He looked absolutely riveted.
“Like that? Tell me how you like that,” the Bull said, struggling to keep his voice mostly even. “Gimme some pretty Vint words.”
A rather incredulous grin split Dorian’s face. He was still breathing hard, one hand clutching at the pelt under him and the other drifting towards the mess he’d made on his stomach.
“I apologize…” He produced a sound that was perilously close to a giggle. “…for every time I… called you a name. You are glorious. Your cock looks glorious.”
The Bull let his hand speed up. “Oh yeah?”
“I’ve been thinking of it for weeks,” Dorian said, voice low. He was looking the Bull in the eyes now. There was a smear of kohl away from his left eye; he must have done it himself just now, that hadn’t been there moments ago. “I’ve been thinking about it since Haven. How enormous it is. How you could hold me down and fuck me with it until I couldn’t breathe from pleasure.”
Fuck. Fuck. Yeah, that was so happening. If that’s what he wanted, the Bull would provide. He worked himself–rough, the slick was running out, it would get painful in a few minutes but he was almost there–as Dorian sank back into the bedding, head tilted away to offer his throat.
“You gonna take it for me? You think you can take this?”
Dorian smiled. He palmed his own soft cock, gently, and then let his fingers wander down until he was cupping his balls. He pulled them up and out of the way, tilting his hips up, and–fuck, that had to be hurting him with his legs still pinned, but the fucking view.
“Oh, try me.”
Be quiet, the Bull reminded himself, just in time to bite down on a yell as his climax rushed through him. He managed to make it into a grunt, but fuck, he was going to convince Dorian to do this again in a place where they could both scream.
Dorian did make a sound when the Bull’s spend hit his stomach–a gasp, and then a hungry little whine that made the Bull want to eat him. He did the next best thing, leaning in to capture Dorian’s mouth as soon as he wasn’t breathing like a winded bronto anymore. Dorian pulled him in until the Bull was lying almost on top of him again, and turned the sloppy kiss into something oddly close to sweet.
“Ah. That was nice,” Dorian breathed. He gave a pained whimper as the Bull lowered his leg to the bedding again. Then he inhaled, slowly, and let the air out again in a soft whoosh.
He smiled and pecked the Bull on the cheek. “I actually do apologize for the name-calling. You’re entirely as advertised, mostly by yourself. Very big. Most impressive.”
“Not so bad yourself,” the Bull breathed against Dorian’s mouth. Dorian huffed a laugh. “I’m serious. You’re a fucking delight, you are.”
“Aren’t I just?” Dorian groaned, a long throaty sound of pure satisfaction, as he stretched and then sank back into the fur. “Mmmm. Oh, but you should fuck me. Do fuck me, I will wheedle and beg until you do it.”
He looked so good. Glowing, the edges of him–the shells of his ears, the sides of his neck–a luminous red, translucent enough for veins to show.
Shit. Shit. What was that, what if some rage demon…
No. Asshole. It was just Dorian, just the spell from earlier. It really looked just like when he’d heated his fingers to massage the Bull’s leg, except now it was all over him.
“The Iron Bull.” Dorian’s eyes were open again, and he was frowning in a way that suggested the Bull had let something slip. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” the Bull said. He hoped it sounded normal. His heart was racing, and he knew it was from the sex, he knew that fear and excitement were so close together that the body got them mixed up sometimes, he was supposed to be good at separating this shit out…
Dorian blinked, eyes focusing as if he could see the Bull even in the dark–as if he was seeing right through the Bull’s skull.
“You fear me,” he mused, sounding almost surprised. “Why? Don’t fear me, I…” His eyes widened. “Was it the spell? The slick? I wasn’t actually casting something on you, it just touched your skin, and… I apologize, I should have asked anyway.”
Why not tell him? the Bull’s mind supplied. Why not be honest about his doubts? What did he think could go wrong if he told Dorian the truth here, admitted this one small weakness?
“Not afraid of your magic, big guy. I’m used to it now. Just a little hard to put the demons out of my head sometimes.” He kissed Dorian’s cheek. “Childhood fear. It’s dumb.”
Dorian’s smile became almost tender.
“Oh, Bull. There will be none of those while you’re with me. I’m ever so good at making them go away.” His fingers came to rest on the Bull’s neck again, squeezed the hard flesh underneath. “You have nothing to fear.”
His hands were roaming up and down again, following the cords of muscle that led from the Bull’s jaw to his collarbones. That little tip of pink tongue crept out again to move over Dorian’s lips. Heh. You really like them big, don’t you?
The warm tips of Dorian’s fingers tickled along the Bull’s ears. It was a very gentle thing, a scratch of nail here and a rubbing finger there, and it felt really good. So soothing. Almost enough to forget…
The Bull felt like he was looking down on himself from a height. Naked and vulnerable, bent over a bas saarebas with light under his skin and fire on his breath, a bas saarebas who was making flippant promises about safety that he didn’t have a prayer of keeping.
Dorian closed his eyes, just in time to miss the ambivalence that surely passed across the Bull’s face in that moment. He was still smiling, looking as relaxed and blissed-out as the Bull had ever seen him. Like he felt sated, and safe.
After a minute or so, Dorian rocked his hips up into the Bull’s still-soft cock. Once, twice.
“Please?” he whispered. “I want it so badly.”
The Bull kissed him. “Shit yeah. Can’t say no now that you’ve said the magic word. Gimme a little while and I’ll be up for it again, okay?”
Dorian hummed. The Bull could feel his smile against his own cheek.
The Bull wasn’t keen on having to wash come out of his nice bear pelt in some icy little river tomorrow. He tugged a more washable blanket out from under the pile, scooped Dorian up with one arm, and lifted him out of the way so he could spread out the new covering. Dorian laughed out loud when the Bull dropped him onto the bedding again. Damn, that was a nice sound and the Bull was going to get him to make it again. After.
The Bull turned him over onto hands and knees, legs spread, positioning him with nudges and murmurs. Dorian went, his quick breathing the only hint of his excitement.
It was so quiet here. Every word a whisper, and not a sound coming from outside. The roof of the tent was starting to sag under what had to be a thick layer of snow.
And this space was so small and dark, barely enough room for the Bull to move around without hitting his horns on the ceiling. The brazier had gone out almost entirely, and there was no more light save for the red glow still blooming under Dorian’s skin. It wasn’t a radiant sort of thing; it was there, it made it a bit easier to see, but didn’t extend itself very far beyond Dorian. It was like there was nothing left in the world to look at, nothing but him. And he was here for the Bull only.
He fucked Dorian with his fingers, because he needed a little time to recover and because–he didn’t doubt that Dorian knew what he was asking for, not after all that–but the Bull was reluctant to get it over with. He wasn’t entirely sure they’d get to do this again, and Dorian was scary and gorgeous and strong, and the Bull wanted to take his fill of him tonight. Just in case.
He put a hand between Dorian’s shoulder blades to push him down, and Dorian groaned and arched his back into a beautiful curve. It only got more exquisite as the Bull increased the pressure, and soon he was almost leaning on Dorian, twisting two fingers in and out of him at a steady clip.
It was hard, maybe a little brutal, a lot harder than the Bull usually tried on humans, but Dorian could clearly take it. He was doing something down there; his fingers were drawing invisible lines on the blanket, a definitely non-random pattern, and his swollen lips were moving almost frantically against a growing wet spot on the blanket.
This was madness, putting his fingers in a mage who was casting unknown spells while the Bull was naked and distracted. He should have paused, at least asked what the fuck Dorian was doing, but he didn’t really care to. He just wasn’t spooked enough to interrupt this–the undulating motion of Dorian’s spine as he fucked himself backwards on the Bull’s hand, the wet in-out sounds of the Bull’s fingers, the muscles bunching in Dorian’s shoulder as he worked his own cock with his free hand, the gleam of slick running down his thighs to soak into the blanket. The stuff had just appeared again. The Bull wasn’t going to question it, or complain about the copious amount; Dorian was going to need it, and besides, the squelching sound of his fingers moving in it was obscene and amazing.
Dorian’s breath was beginning to grow harsh again, but that was the only sound he made. He was clearly used to fucking quietly. Even when he came again, shuddering, it was with no more than a thin whine that sounded like it came from around a mouthful of blanket. The Bull fucked him through it, scissoring his fingers against the clenching of Dorian’s muscles around him, just to hear that sound break into a low cry.
His own cock had filled again by that point, throbbing and heavy. For the sake of his own wrist as much as to let Dorian breathe, though, he decided to take a quick break. He was sweating like an ox in the heat of the tent. The air was an almost tangible thing now, thick and sweltering like the Bull hadn’t experienced it since he left Seheron.
The thought was surprisingly easy to shunt aside when he had Dorian to look at. What the fuck else was he supposed to focus on except the man in front of him, ass in the air and knees spread so wide he was almost lying on his belly, his thighs and ample backside glistening with slick? Some of it had spilled over and run down his back; the Bull thought he could see a little pool of it between Dorian’s shoulder blades. He was going to reek of it for days, maybe until they got back to Skyhold and had access to real baths again. Fuck, Adaar would probably be able to smell it.
The Bull held on to one trembling leg, just to give Dorian some support as he panted and whimpered through the aftershocks of his orgasm. He felt wonderfully alive under the Bull’s hand, so touchable, rock hard muscle under dark skin that was beginning to bruise from the Bull’s teeth and fingers. Dorian’s skin was wet too, the Bull realized, but it wasn’t quite a layer of sweat on there. He was still doing the glowing thing, still blood-hot to the touch, and his skin was steaming. The air above him was actually shimmering a little.
Amazing, he was. The Bull ran a hand along Dorian’s shivering back and down his flanks, petting him like he would a tired horse. Then he palmed his own cock and gave it a few strokes, just to ease the strain a bit.
”Hey, Dorian. You doing okay there? Need anything? I got some water in a canteen here.” Somewhere. Why oh why hadn’t he put all this stuff within grabbing distance to begin with?
A hitch in Dorian’s ragged breaths. It sounded like he was trying to laugh but didn’t have the air for it. He was definitely shaking his head, though.
It was another minute or so before he wasn’t huffing quite that hard anymore. He mumbled something into the blanket, then began to twist around, causing the little puddle of slick to slide down his side. He looked over his shoulder at the Bull. His eyes were almost black.
The Bull shot him a crooked grin. “Hi.”
Dorian managed half of a grin. It widened as his eyes dropped to where the Bull’s hand was wrapped around his cock.
“Ah… A moment…”
He began to move again. The Bull let go of his leg, expecting him to collapse in a boneless heap.
Dorian didn’t. He got his arms under him and heaved himself up until he was on hands and knees again. He dropped his head, letting it hang between his shoulders, and braced himself.
“Go on,” he whispered.
The Bull stared as his cock twitched in his fingers. Fuck. Fucking shit. “Dorian, we can take a breather, it’s fine–“
“I don’t want a breather,” Dorian rasped. “Take it. All yours, take it…”
He tilted his hips. His thighs were still trembling a little.
The Bull pushed himself to his knees and let his hands drift to Dorian’s hips. He squeezed as he pulled Dorian backwards, let his fingers dig in to feel the curve of the bones underneath, watched the shape of his own cock where it came to rest on the man’s ass. Fuck, humans never stopped looking tiny.
He let his cock slide along Dorian’s heated skin, through the layer of slick there. He scratched up along Dorian’s thigh to gather up more of the stuff, then coated himself with it, letting his knuckles nudge at that little hole.
Dorian’s breath hitched, loudly, almost a sob.
”You sure?” the Bull heard himself say. He was feeling a little dazed.
Dorian thumped a fist on the blanket. “By all the Old Gods, I said to take it!”
The Bull mounted him, pushing forward in one long, slow stroke until he was flush against Dorian. Vashedan, it was so easy, it was like sliding a finger into warm butter, how had he done… The shock of it made the Bull freeze for a few moments.
Dorian’s voice cut through the daze. “Move, take it, please, I am begging you…”
The Bull slammed forward, into the clutch of Dorian’s body. Again. Again. Yes. Yes, this was what he’d been wanting all night, hot and willing and slick and easy…
Dorian buckled under the force of it, arms bending until he was down again, face on the bed as if the Bull’s hand was still between his shoulder blades. His fingers tore at the blanket as the Bull drove into him, a stuttering chain of ah-ah-ah muffled into the fabric.
The Bull grabbed at his hips, his thighs, trying to gather Dorian up against him even as he struggled to focus on anything beyond the gripping heat around his cock. Fuck. Fuck, it was so easy, what had Dorian done to himself? He hadn’t cast anything on the Bull for sure, he wouldn’t have…
He could barely tell who was holding who up; the Bull had one hand on Dorian’s belly and the other on his chest, clutching Dorian to him as he fucked him with what short, hard thrusts the position allowed him. He could almost feel the movement of his cock through Dorian’s insides, a faint nudging against his tense fingers. It was a phantom sensation, almost certainly, but the Bull pressed his hand into Dorian’s stomach anyway.
Dorian wailed, a helpless, thin sound. His hands left the bedding entirely and grabbed hold of the Bull’s forearm.
The Bull curled forward and bit him, tentatively at first, teeth following the line of Dorian’s shoulder until he reached the soft side of his neck. Then he clamped down as hard as he could without actually ripping skin.
Dorian convulsed, body going vice tight around the Bull’s cock. The Bull looked down on him–his hands grasping at the air, his thighs trembling as they were forced open across the Bull’s legs–his pretty cock as it yielded another weak spurt of seed, completely untouched.
Oh, fuck. This was what it was like, the demon shit he’d always been afraid of. This was how they got you. This was what it was like to fuck a desire demon who could do anything, give you everything you ever wanted, took everything you could give. But better, because Dorian was so perfectly real. No demon could conjure this kind of detail–the hammering of a racing heart under the Bull’s hand, the curls of the hair clinging to Dorian’s wet temples, the crooked mustache, the thin line of spit that fell from his open mouth to the Bull’s forearm.
It was a few moments before Dorian began to breathe again. The Bull felt it where he still had his teeth in Dorian’s neck, so close to breaking skin, so close he could smell the blood.
He wanted to move. He wanted to stay like this forever, all of him tied together and concentrated in one point of blind desire. He wanted…
He was growling, the Bull realized dimly, his voice rumbling against Dorian’s neck as he worried at the throbbing skin. Fuck. Fuck, he was scaring him, he had to…
“Bull.” Hoarse, wet and bubbly like he was on the point of tears, but not a hint of fear. “Take it.”
The noise that tore out of the Bull’s throat was something he’d only ever heard himself make on battlefields.
He fucked into Dorian, hard, holding him up off the blankets with one arm still across his belly and the other crushing him against the Bull’s chest by the shoulders. Dorian’s fingers clawed at his skin, struggling to hold on to the girth of his forearm.
He shifted his mouth, licked through his own spit on Dorian’s skin, and bit down again just to hear the man wail.
He fucked, and fucked, and not a thing in the world could have made it last longer than a minute or so. The Bull could hear his own heart thudding, the rush of blood almost loud enough to drown out Dorian’s quiet little mewls as the Bull began spilling into him. He held the man in place with both arms, pushing him down and grinding up into him. Not a drop lost this time. Not one fucking drop.
He wanted, still, not just now but more.
Dorian whimpered, still pinned, his hands tugging weakly at the Bull’s arm.
“Bull,” he croaked. “Bull.”
“Yeah,” the Bull said, making a supreme effort to focus. He had to let go now. Lift Dorian until the Bull’s cock slipped out of him, then lower him to the ruin of the blanket, gently, without jostling any stiff limbs. He’d be sore after; the Bull was sore, aching, every muscle screaming already. He could barely feel his left leg. Might have to get Dorian to do the magic fingers massage again. In the morning.
His fingers shook only a little as he cleaned Dorian off, wiping him down, humming soothing nonsense as the man whined. Then he rubbed the muscles in Dorian’s legs, his thighs, kneading and pushing until Dorian was soft and boneless under his hands, and almost entirely asleep.
He loved this part. Holding them after, relieving their little hurts and inconsequential discomforts. He’d wondered, once or twice, what it would be like to be a tamassran, no matter the utter uselessness of such bizarre fancies. He’d been sent to where he was most needed. He was what he needed to be, and…
“Bull,” Dorian whispered. He was awake, blinking, arms open and waiting.
The Bull went, letting himself be lulled away from darker thoughts. He lay in the dark, warm and sated, woolgathering with his chin on Dorian’s head as he waited to slip away.
Dorian was gone in the morning, but he’d left the Bull a present of a very nice pair of silky underthings. They were dark purple, and immediately distracted the Bull from having to think about his upcoming day of trundling through yet more snow batting away at yet more Red Templars.
He got even more distracted after he emerged from his tent and waded through the snow to get breakfast. The only one already there, besides a few half-asleep scouts, was Dorian. He gave the Bull a perfectly ordinary Good morning, but as soon as the scouts were looking the other way, he tugged down the thick scarf he was wearing. The skin on one side of his neck was an enormous, blotchy mess of lurid colors, centered around a large, swollen bite mark.
Dorian raised a very unimpressed eyebrow and mouthed You drooled all over me. The Bull grinned and tried to look at least a little bit sorry.
He expected Dorian to go for the elfroot as soon as the potions table had been excavated from the snow. But Dorian did nothing at all about his neck for five more days, until they returned to Skyhold and he could no longer get away with large scarves.
Chapter 6: Halamshiral
Note delivered to The Iron Bull’s room
If you can tear your hands out of Dorian’s underthings for a moment, I have a mission for you and the Chargers. Leliana has contracted two assassins to deal with a Venatori camp in the Hissing Wastes, but they called for backup because the whole operation is a lot bigger than our scouts reported. There’s dozens of slaves there working on some kind of excavation and they’ll be in the middle of whatever happens, so this attack has to be planned and executed perfectly.
I want you to take the Chargers, finish the mission, and tell me what you think of these two. If they’re competent and trustworthy, they’ll stay in the Inquisition. Take Dorian along for extra firepower and so he can evaluate whatever the Venatori are digging up. No need to thank me. Leave tomorrow.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull in the Skyhold stables by a harassed-looking scout
Dorian came to say that you caught fire pox yesterday and are dying of fever. Stop packing immediately and go back to bed. Let Krem take over for the mission in the Hissing Wastes.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull’s room
Yes, Dorian is still going. He actually is essential to the mission, unlike you. He says it’s fine and that Sera will play nurse for you. Good luck. Don’t drink anything yellow that she gives you.
Note left on The Iron Bull’s pillows
The Iron Bull,
Thank you for your concern, but I’m a big boy. I will be on my best behavior around your terrifying ducklings, and I’m sure they will act like the consummate professionals they are. I am also reassured by the knowledge that there are no flagpoles in the Hissing Wastes from which my smalls can be hung.
Truly, things are mostly in good fun these days. It has been over a month since Cremisius last called me a name that I did not roundly deserve, and he has been most helpful assisting with some Tevene transcriptions that were taking me forever. I am glad you have him as your second, he seems as capable as any Imperial citizen should be. One would never guess he is from Vol Dorma.
And yes, I will miss your grotesquely large cock. I will come to say goodbye to it before we leave.
Already looking forward to my return to civilization,
Noted delivered to The Iron Bull’s room by a barmaid
Yes, we’ll be nice to your Vint squeeze.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull while he was drinking alone in the tavern
Yes, we’re being nice. He’s fine.
Crossed into the Hissing Wastes today. Very sandy. Always too hot or too cold. Pavus wasting all his mana making ice and heating rocks for everyone. He’s teaching Dalish as I write, so I suppose he might not keel over before we even get there.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull while he was destroying training dummies in the courtyard
He’s still fine. So are we, in case you care. Dalish wants to tell you she’s got three different colors of sand in her privates.
We met the magekilling assassins Sister Nightingale talked about. Friendly Nevarran, moody Vint who won’t talk. We gave up, but Pavus is still chipping away at him.
Attacking the Venatori camp tomorrow night. Solid plan, no surprises so far, not expecting any difficulties.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull while he stood on the battlements staring out at the road
Mission accomplished. On our way back with twenty-three freed slaves. No casualties, smooth cooperation with newcomers, excellent performance by everyone.
Pavus is now best friends with the Vint magekilling assassin. You’re never getting rid of that prancing peacock, he’s fucking relentless.
Also, is it true you got Varric to get you cocoa for him? And Orlesian lavender soap? And silk undies from Antiva? Chief, that’s excessive. We have questions.
Letter transferred via a dead drop next to the road leading to Skyhold
The text is in Qunlat.
I have observed Hissrad, as you requested. He is bedding Dorian Pavus with some regularity and is friendly with him in public.
Lettered transferred via a dead drop next to the road leading to Skyhold
The text is in Qunlat.
We will soon have an opportunity to act on your concerns. Remain hidden and do not get involved under any circumstances.
Dorian visited the Bull’s room on the night they returned to Skyhold. He returned two days later, and the next day. Then there was a five-day stretch where he made himself so scarce that the Bull wound up asking Adaar if he’d been sent on some kind of secret mission. That was not the case, but Adaar found the question hilarious for some reason.
The Bull finally located Dorian in some cobweb-infested little underground library space that looked like a parody of how the Qunari pictured the studies of evil Magisters. Dorian seemed weirdly embarrassed to be found at first, but he got over it and ended up on his knees on the dusty carpet. He hadn’t lied about his prowess at cocksucking.
Dorian told few outright lies, the Bull was starting to find, and not in the way that the Bull himself told few outright lies. Distorting the truth was par for the course among the Alti, and Dorian had clearly learned to do it often and convincingly. Whenever Josephine ambushed him with visiting Orlesian nobles who were curious to talk to Skyhold’s evil Magister, Dorian told them whatever fabrication popped into his head with a completely straight face. However, the man hated lying to people he considered friends or allies. It seemed to make him feel deeply ashamed of himself, and he avoided it whenever humanly possible.
It was endearing, in its own way. The Bull tried pushing it a bit, curious if Dorian would lie about his new association with a brutish Qunari mercenary.
He didn’t. He groaned and sighed rather dramatically when the Bull brought it up in front of Adaar and Varric, but he denied nothing and appeared in the Bull’s tent that very same night, in a curious mood that vacillated between annoyed and jubilant.
Just before daybreak the next day, the Bull woke up when Dorian slipped from his arms and began to collect his clothing from around the tent in practiced silence. He didn’t stir, or give any other indication that he wasn’t asleep; he just lay listening to the stillness, a stillness that was only emphasized by the occasional soft creak of leather or clink of one buckle hitting another.
When Dorian fell silent entirely, so quiet that even his breathing became audible, the Bull risked cracking his eye open just a sliver. Dorian was sitting on his knees at the foot of the Bull’s bedroll, half dressed, the rest of his elaborate outfit cradled in his arms. He was looking at nothing, eyes downcast to somewhere near the Bull’s feet, and he was smiling.
Shit, that looked lovely.
Making Dorian smile was a pleasure as simple as it was strange. It was also as good a thing as any to be focusing on. The Bull needed something to point his mind at. A simple task, one he was capable of performing frequently and reliably, so it would be obvious right away if he started messing it up.
Dorian smiled a lot these days. More than before; the Bull had been paying attention. He smiled when the Bull sat next to him at breakfast and passed him the bread basket. He smiled when the Bull cut an apple into fine slices for him. He smiled when the Bull brought him cookies in the library, and he smiled longer when the Bull remembered to bring enough that Dorian could share with the other researchers. Apparently Grand Enchanter Fiona really, really liked cookies.
Dorian smiled when the Bull kissed him, through quick breaths and gasps. He laughed when the Bull splurged on new blankets from Bonny Simms for the winter, a thick Fereldan quilt and a grey silken spread that shimmered in almost the exact shade of Dorian’s eyes. When he’d finished wiping sweat and come from Dorian’s trembling form, the Bull wrapped him in the silk and held him close, and Dorian whimpered very quietly whenever the Bull’s thumb brushed over the lovebite on his covered shoulder. He still smiled.
I’m hoping we’re good for each other, the Bull said when Adaar came prying. It wasn’t a lie, exactly. He did hope that. He wasn’t sure how it could happen, but he hoped.
It was getting tricky, writing reports for Tallis without mentioning Dorian too much. Adaar loved the man and took him everywhere, so he was almost always involved when the Inquisitor did something important.
Like go to a ball at the Winter Palace to do politics with the actual Empress of Orlais. The Bull hadn’t had to work very hard at securing his own invitation from Josephine; all it had taken was a promise to wear a shirt, and more importantly, to help convince the Inquisitor that the occasion called for upper body garments. Things got dicey for a few days when Dorian and Sera decided to be little shits, encouraging Adaar in her pigheadedness and making loud plans for how they would all go shirtless. The Bull was briefly intrigued, especially when Dorian mentioned the nipple piercings that he’d once had and really missed. However, Dorian switched sides with great alacrity when Josephine threatened to leave him in Skyhold, and that was the beginning of the end for the shirtlessness alliance.
The Winter Palace was actually pretty great. Fancy food, lots of variety in the entertainment, and an endless parade of people who thought the Bull couldn’t understand words and discussed their most delicate personal and political matters right under his nose. It was almost too easy. Tallis was going to be pleased, quite possibly pleased enough that he’d forget to ask about Dorian for a month or so.
Before the Bull could start thinking that through and get himself worked up, Adaar found more Venatori, proving once more that she was the best boss. The rest of the evening was a great party, and the Bull spared a thought for his poor Chargers and all the fun they were missing out on. All those shems that Skinner could have stabbed. Unfortunately, Josephine had declined the Bull’s offer to bring some extra bodyguards, and the Bull ended up in his–sumptuous, ridiculous–bedroom alone, to have the afterparty between just himself and a few bottles he’d liberated from a spindly cart in the hallway.
Things got much better when Dorian showed up at the door in a plush white robe and nothing at all underneath, damp from a bath, hair curling in soft waves over his forehead. He was half drunk already, though mostly on the adrenaline of the evening and the opulence of his surroundings. It was like he was drawing power from the damask curtains and the little gold nonsense figurines on the wall shelves. It was clearly his sort of place.
The Bull fucked him over an otherwise patently useless little table thing, one hand fisted in the back of the white robe, polished wood creaking under the force of his thrusts as Dorian gasped and laughed and egged him on. They moved to the bed to share the rest of the wine, and the Bull sucked Dorian off until he learned to beg for mercy in Qunlat. His pronunciation was shit, but who cared about that when he was making the Bull’s language sound like a one long, lewd sex noise.
After they'd exhausted themselves, the Bull cleaned them both up and grabbed some sheets from the chest at the foot of the bed. Dorian made a nest for himself among the pillows and fresh bedding and began humming himself to sleep. He looked like the cats that curled up in the Chargers’ barracks sometimes: like he couldn’t possible get any more comfortable, and everything was right in his world. Which was a pretty fucking absurd thing to feel when the greenish glow of the breach was falling through the windows of this very room, but here they were.
The Bull spent a minute or so at a window trying to figure out how to close the curtains and block out the hole in the sky–who the fuck made curtains that were just decoration? Then Dorian called his name from behind. Whyever are you over there waving your privates at the Imperial gardeners, when you have me in your bed, he muttered. And, Come here.
Helpless, the Bull went. Dorian didn’t settle again until they were curled up together under several layers of painfully straightened blankets, lying diagonally across the bed so the Bull could let a horn hang from the side.
They slept. Or rather, Dorian slept and the Bull dozed, hand spread over Dorian’s warm back. He could feel the echo of Dorian’s heartbeat under his fingers. Dorian’s hair tickled against the Bull’s chest, along with the soft rush of his sleepy breaths. He was so at ease here, like the Bull was the best bed he’d ever had. And he fit in the Bull’s arms so well. It shouldn’t feel this good, just holding someone close.
You could keep him, his mind supplied, unbidden. He would let you.
The Bull frowned. No.
Do you not deserve a prize, after your decades of loyal service? After you sacrificed your blood, your fingers, your sanity? You ask for so little. Only the right to keep one small human.
What…? That wasn’t how the Qun… how anything worked. He’d never needed rewards to be a good man.
His mouth was full of lovely sweetness, but the texture of it was off. Gravelly. He didn’t want to think this shit, he didn’t want…
We can draw a veil over his ears and eyes, make it so that he hears your lies and accepts them. Accepts you for what you are.
The Bull blinked his eyes open. The ornately painted ceiling of his guest room swam above him for a moment or two; then the lines of the fresco came into focus, its vibrant colors muted in the cold light from outside.
Oh. Maybe that really dry wine hadn’t agreed with him after all–Dorian had warned him it was shitty. Though it was pretty rare for any kind or amount of alcohol to make his mind wander in such unpleasant…
And we can draw a veil over the mind of Tallis, so he permits you to do this. There are ways, something that was not him said.
Only years of training helped the Bull not yell, or grab the blankets, or make any sort of sound or movement. He forced himself still against the spike of fear, as still as death until he’d assessed where he was and what danger he was in.
Dark shadows on white sheets and white furniture, with that slightly greenish tint that colored everything at night. White walls, blue drapes. The fresco of lions doing something Orlesian on the ceiling.
All was quiet. All felt real. His arms were empty.
A quiet sigh, somewhere to the side, very close. Dorian. Dorian.
The Bull released a long breath. What had he just heard?
He moved his head, looking around the half-dark of the room. Dorian was sitting cross-legged at the foot of the bed, naked and facing the windows, face tilted up, hands cupped around something steaming that smelled like jasmine. The light from the Breach gave a pale, unnatural cast to his skin.
The Bull wondered what Dorian saw up there. For the Bull, it was a gaping maw full of demons. Was it different for Dorian? Some kind of magnificent wellspring of magic, maybe? He looked so at ease sitting there in the acidic light with his little cup of tea, like he was sunning himself next to one of those pretty rivers in the Hinterlands. The restful picture he made was an almost painful contrast to the heart-hammering unquiet roiling inside the Bull.
He pushed himself up on one elbow. “Hey, big guy.”
Dorian looked at him, blinking in surprise. “Oh. Apologies for waking you. Go back to sleep, I’ll come back to bed in a moment.”
He was already on the bed, but details. The Bull nudged his thigh with a foot.
“Anything the matter?”
A fond smile stretched over Dorian’s face. “It’s better now, Bull. Nothing you’d enjoy hearing about anyway.”
The Bull frowned. “Hey, try me. What happened?”
Dorian shrugged. He looked all right, as far as the Bull could see. More lost in thought than upset in any way.
“A desire demon came to talk to me in my sleep. Nothing unusual, of course, and I sent it packing without any trouble. But it spoke of things I haven’t thought of in a very long time, so I suppose I’m feeling somewhat pensive.”
Oh. Fuck. That was really fucking reassuring.
“How do you defeat a demon in your sleep?”
Dorian took a sip of his tea. “Oh, it’s rarely an actual fight. Most of the time they only need a firm “no,” maybe a couple of repetitions. The only times it gets at all difficult is when they disguise themselves and try to trick you into promising them things.”
Sure, that didn’t sound hard at all. Piece of cake. “I fucking hate demons,” the Bull informed the room.
Dorian chuckled. “They have few fans.”
“Can they come take you over at any time? Asleep or awake?”
Maybe there was something unusual in his tone, but Dorian’s eyes sharpened. He gave the Bull a wry smile.
“I’m not sure if I should be telling you all this. Are you only going to get more concerned?”
“I sure am concerned now.”
Dorian heaved a great sigh. “Very well. Would you like a cup of tea first?”
”Nah, that flowery stuff makes me need to piss all night.”
Dorian made a face. ”Right, never mind that. So. To answer your question… Yes, demons can get into a mage’s head at any time, start promising things. However, they’re often drawn to intense emotional distress, especially great fear, grief, or anger.” He blinked up at the ceiling for a moment. “Though last month Sera stole the last peach jam sweetroll from my plate during breakfast, and suddenly there was a rage demon in my head, promising me vengeance if I surrendered my soul. That was very bizarre.”
Now there was a picture. The Bull grinned in spite of himself, and Dorian’s smile brightened immediately.
Still. Demon stuff.
“So a demon talked to you tonight?” the Bull pressed. “What’d it say?”
That got him an imperiously arched eyebrow.
“That, my friend, is the rudest and most intimate question you could possibly ask a mage. I’ll give you a pass this once.”
“Sorry. Just worried.” The Bull patted Dorian’s bare knee in apology. “We almost never had to fight demons in Seheron. We were fighting everything but demons. Every now and then some Vint or Tal-Vashoth saarebas would go nuts, but that was it.” Never mind that those run-ins with Abominations were among the most terrifying memories of the Bull’s–Hissrad's–youth.
The Bull sighed. “And, you know. We Qunari, we don’t dream like you guys do. But sometimes…” He tilted his head, trying to get a better angle on Dorian’s face, to see if he understood. “You see stuff sometimes? Like when I was little. Or when I got sick on Seheron. Tama… my tamassran, the woman who took care of me when I was a kid… She said it wasn’t real. But sometimes it feels real.”
He was no longer little, and he was neither on Seheron nor sick. He couldn’t have dreamed. He didn’t.
Dorian steepled his fingers. He seemed to give the Bull’s words a great deal of careful consideration.
“I know nothing about Qunari education or Qunari dreaming, obviously, but you do have some connection to the Fade,” he finally said. “You wouldn’t have mages otherwise. I’d be surprised if you were entirely free of anything resembling a dream-like state. I should do some research before I say more, though. Maybe–Andraste give me strength–confer with Solas.” He smiled. “But you can ask me if you have any concerns, I’ll be happy to help however I can.”
The offer was entirely genuine and unconditional, the Bull knew that by now. Being honest with Dorian had turned out just fine before. He was a weirdly kind and gentle thing, once you got to know him.
The harder part was figuring out what it was exactly that he wanted to ask.
“Are there reasons why they’d want to possess me? Could they?”
“It’s not likely that any demons will ever try to get into your head, they almost always want mages.” Dorian cocked his head. “Bull. Did you see something? Recently?”
Kind, and too clever by half.
“Yeah,” the Bull admitted. “Just now. When I was asleep.”
“Tell me,” Dorian urged. He reached out and let his thumb draw a few small circles next to the Bull’s eye.
“It was a voice. Like honey with sand in it. It said shit about giving me stuff I want.”
Dorian closed his eyes for a moment. Then he covered his mouth and looked up at the ceiling, staring at it as if all the secrets of the universe were written on the crown molding.
Dorian waved a hand. He looked almost embarrassed.
“Nothing, nothing.” He gave the Bull a considering look. Then he reached for his own left hand, removed the ring on his index, and held it out. “Allow me to provide you with some comfort. Keep this on you at all times, especially when you sleep.”
The Bull blinked at it. “But that’s your demon ward thing.”
Dorian reached for the Bull’s hand and pressed the ring into his open palm. “I have several backup tricks, don’t worry about me. This does not stop demons from entering one’s dreams, anyway–nothing can do that. It simply makes it easier to recognize them. They will not be able to trick you into thinking they are anything but what they are. The ring will grow warm and glow when a demon is near, and you will notice this even when asleep.”
The Bull made to pick it up between his thumb and forefinger, but refrained at the last moment. It looked surprisingly plain, the lines etched into the outside of the band so faded as to be almost invisible. The Bull could identify only one shape: a capital A, stylized in the way of the very old Tevinter writings that they’d sometimes discovered in ruins in Seheron.
“It’s pretty. Looks old.”
“It is. In the Imperium, it is traditional to pass on some piece of ancient family jewellery after one’s son or daughter passes a difficult milestone. A Harrowing, an examination for Enchanter, that sort of thing.” Dorian’s smile grew fond, as if he was reminiscing about a pleasant memory. “It’s a way to anchor the young mage to the long and illustrious past they fit into.”
The Bull twisted his palm in the light of the Breach, just to see the gleam on the ring move. “That’s a pretty qunari thing to do.”
“Ah, but it’s more about how you’ll reach new heights and continue the glorious traditions of your family. Not much about how you’ll fit into the whole of Tevinter society. Although I suppose we could debate on it…” Dorian shook his head. “Regardless. I got this after I passed the examination for Enchanter at the Circle of Minrathous, which I obviously did with flying colors. It’s old, but the enchantment is in excellent shape.”
The Bull studied the golden band. It looked innocuous enough, lying there in his palm, but he imagined he could feel the magic in it–that hum he was starting to recognize, a kind of curious sense of alive-ness that just wasn’t there in normal objects.
Dorian’s eyes crept from the ring to the Bull’s face, suddenly uncertain. “You don’t have to take it. I’m sure the Qun doesn’t approve of magical bas trinkets. It’s a loan, anyway, not a gift–I’ll be expecting this back as soon as our grand demon adventure here is over.”
Dorian was rubbing at his empty finger now, picking at the lined skin, slightly lighter than the rest of his hand. It was the sort of mark left by a ring worn religiously for years, and rarely removed.
“Dorian.” The Bull grinned. “Thanks. I’ll take real good care of it.”
And there was his favorite smile, the one that made the Bull feel like he was the only man in the world.
“I have no doubt that you will.” Dorian reached out, closed the Bull’s fingers over the ring, and patted them for good measure. “It will help. Rest assured.”
The Bull nodded, shifting around on the bed so he could reach the night table and gently put the ring in the middle of it. He’d have to figure out a way to keep it on his skin, so he’d notice that warming thing. A chain on his neck? Maybe, but that was dangerous in a fight. And he couldn’t imagine the hullabaloo he’d cause if he showed up in front of the Chargers wearing a ring he’d gotten from his Vint squeeze.
“What does the letter mean? The A?”
Dorian shrugged. “I’m afraid I sold all the baubles my parents ever gave me, my trip southwards was a bit expensive. That ring was a gift from Gereon Alexius.”
Aw, fuck. No wonder Dorian dragged the man up and down a bunch of mountains, if they’d been close enough that the Magister gave him stuff that you’d usually only pass on to your own kid.
“Right. How’s he doing? Haven’t heard a word about him since the Inquisitor sentenced him.”
“I haven’t actually gone to see him. Not since Felix died,” Dorian said. “But we’re… corresponding, in a way. The Inquisitor wants him to figure out useful practical applications for our time magic research. Applications that aren’t likely to tear the world apart. I don’t have time for that myself, but I take the things Alexius makes out into the field to test them.”
Ah, right. The Bull had seen Dorian and Adaar fiddle with magical whirligigs during expeditions, but he’d figured they were experiments of Dagna’s. “Having fun with that?”
“I am, actually. He…” A pained frown crossed over Dorian’s face. “Trust me, I will never forget what he did. But it’s a relief to see him at work again. I think it helps him. He sounds almost like himself now, when he responds to my reports. And Adaar thinks he’s making very useful things.”
That was good. Probably. The Bull might have worried for a moment whether the Magister was being properly controlled, if he didn’t know how closely Cullen monitored the situation in the mage tower.
He kept up the grin. “All because you saved him. You’re a really sweet guy, you know?”
Dorian smiled, a peculiar thing, delicate and a little confused. It was hard to tell in the weird light of the Breach, but the Bull would have bet his dawnstone axe that he was seeing an actual blush there, too.
“I have too few friends and family. I cannot afford to let any go without a fight.”
Oh, the Bull believed that. He was starting to learn a thing or two about Dorian fighting.
“So,” he said, to save Dorian from what looked like a really confusing tangle of thoughts, “What do I do when that ring starts glowing?”
Dorian rallied, straightening back into his teacher pose again. “It means that whatever you’re seeing in your dream… or wherever Qunari minds go… is a demon, and you should tell it to sod off forthwith. I’ll also teach you how to make them go away faster if they don’t respond to your commands immediately. There is a chant called the Litany of Adralla that has some effect on anything that attempts to control your mind. It offers no guarantees, but most demons seem to hate it with a passion. It should repel any but the most determined, in your case. They truly don’t care much for non-mages.”
“Okay. Sounds good.” It actually did. This was really useful.
Dorian leaned forward and gave the Bull a peck on the cheek, so quickly that he couldn’t do more than blink.
“You’ll be quite all right. If anything happens at all, come see me. I’m no Somniari, so I cannot enter your dreams and ascertain what you see, but I can talk with you and help you determine if you saw anything that requires some kind of action.”
Dorian seemed to hesitate for a moment; his fingers were plucking at the silk top sheet, pulling it up and smoothing it out again.
”Don’t worry, Bull, truly. After that charming trick my father tried to pull on me, I spent quite some time learning about every possible way to resist demons. Just in case he tried again. I do actually know quite a bit about this topic.”
Right. Understandable. “Right.”
They sat in silence for a moment. The Bull wanted to ask more about what sort of magic he was going to be putting against his skin with that ring, exactly, but he could tell by Dorian’s nervous stillness that there were more words forthcoming. He waited.
“Bull, I…” Dorian’s hands clasped each other tightly. “Another reason why you shouldn’t worry too much is… That is, it’s very likely that the demon you saw tonight simply gravitated over to you from the dream I had. After I tossed it out, it may have looked at dreams close by and… recognized you.”
The Bull blinked.
“From your demon dream? What the fuck was I doing there?”
“Most likely the demon was only curious, and not at all interested in possessing you. There is nothing it could achieve by that,” Dorian sussed, as if that was any answer to what the Bull had just asked. “I can never promise you with absolute certainty that demons will or won’t do this or that. They’re demons. But you’re safe with me, truly. Just let me know if anything happens.”
Aw. He was so sweet. “Thanks, big guy.”
Dorian’s smile widened. He put his hands on the Bull’s shoulders, spreading his fingers wide.
“Dearest Bull. Could I possibly distract you from your concerns?”
The Bull reached for Dorian with both hands, lifting him to save him a bit of a scramble trying to get into the Bull’s lap. Being manhandled always made Dorian laugh, which was pretty damn distracting.
“It’s what you do best, big guy.”
Dorian kissed him, slow, almost tender. The Bull tried to sink into it, into the feeling of those strong hands on his shoulders, squeezing, stroking, comforting. It didn’t work quite as well as usual.
It must have shown somehow, because Dorian drew back and made his concerned face again. “Bull, have I reassured you enough? You still seem troubled.”
The Bull shrugged with one shoulder. Dorian’s hand bobbed up and down with the movement like a little boat on a wave.
“Dunno. Feels like the more I learn about demons, the less I get them. It’s freaky.”
“Ah, but such is the way of learning,” Dorian murmured as his hands traveled across the Bull’s back, aimless, soothing. “The more we know, the clearer it becomes how little we actually understand of the world. The chaos of it all only becomes more obvious the more we try to grasp it.”
He settled against the Bull fully, a blanket of soft warm skin, and laid his head down on the Bull’s shoulder. His cheek felt hot.
“The Qun says there’s no chaos,” the Bull whispered into Dorian’s messy hair. “Only complexity. And knowledge is mastery. ‘To know something is to possess the power to master it, and only in the lack of knowing lies weakness.’ That’s from the Tome of Koslun.”
Dorian drew back a little, just enough to look the Bull in the eye. One of his hands began to trace the shell of the Bull’s right ear.
“Ah. I respectfully disagree, at least in part. Knowledge must absolutely be pursued whenever possible, and it does lead to increased control in many ways. But it’s an illusion to believe that we can know and master everything. A mirage to soothe our fears.”
He was smiling now, stroking the Bull’s face, as if he was trying to soften the impact of his words.
“What’s knowledge for then, if it’s not to master stuff?”
Dorian shrugged. “The more of it there is, the likelier it becomes that someone will make discoveries. Maybe that’s all there is to it.”
“Just that?” The Bull actually knew a thing or two about collecting information. He just didn’t quite see the point of chasing new shit just because it was new.
Dorian tapped his fingers on the Bull’s shoulders, the ra-ta-ta pattern of someone thinking hard.
“Possibly just that, yes. If I’ve learned anything during my sadly truncated research career, it’s that there is great value in seemingly useless information or failed experiments. It’s good to have as many ideas as possible, as much material as possible, as much randomness as possible. The more puzzle pieces lie on one’s literal or metaphorical desk, the likelier one is to see a pattern.”
“I suppose,” the Bull said. “We look for patterns in the Qun too. But I feel like it’s a bit more targeted.”
And people sure weren’t encouraged to chase chaos for the heck of it. Things like the tamassrans’ research or the Bull’s spying, they were ways to collect knowledge with the aim of putting it in its proper place, or using it to put things in their proper places. Distilling order from chaos.
“Oh, but you see, it’s actually very exciting,” Dorian began, then paused for a deep breath.
The Bull grinned and settled back against the pillows so he could listen better. Dorian let himself be pulled along, falling on the Bull’s chest with a little oof that barely delayed the tangent that the Bull knew was coming.
“See, the nice thing about working with large amounts of knowledge is that at a certain point, discovery of patterns becomes not merely possible but inevitable. Either the solution becomes so obvious that one is bound to notice, or someone else with a fresh view on things comes along and sees what’s been staring you in the face.”
Dorian was still rapping out that rhythm on the Bull’s shoulders, but it was getting a little uncoordinated as he gathered momentum.
“It’s quite remarkable how this can happen. Did you know that the Haste spell was developed in Tevinter by three different scholars in three corners of the country, virtually at the same time? They had a spectacular fight over who’d copied whose work, one of them killed the other two, it was a bit of a shitshow. But it turned out that none of them had had any contact with the others. They’d simply been reading the same books and treatises, and got the same new idea independently. They all happened to be living at a time when all the building blocks for the Haste spell were present, in the works of other scholars, in the trends of the debates being held at the Circles in those days. The materials were there, just waiting for someone to assemble them.”
The Bull opened his mouth, but Dorian took another deep breath and rambled on. “Do you understand the implications of that? None of these three knew what they were doing. They were conduits for a discovery that was waiting… wanting to be made.”
Wait, this was sounding a little Qun-like after all. “So… order from chaos? The chaos wanted to be put in order.”
Dorian made a pained face. He was starting to rock to and fro.
“Not… really. More like, the chaos wanted to be understood.” He shook his head. “No. Chaos is always with us. We work with the raw energy of the Fade made into fire and fear and lightning; it would be the height of folly to believe we can ever truly wrangle such things into any semblance of order. Searching for order is futile, because believing in the very existence of such order is futile. But the more we learn about what this energy can do, the more we understand of the laws that do seem to govern some aspects of magic. And when we understand, we can turn magic to our own purposes. Control it just enough that it does not harm us, and–this is very important–that we no longer have to fear it.”
He was actually bouncing in the Bull’s lap now, as if he couldn’t quite contain his nervous energy. It was an interesting experience, with them both bare-ass naked.
“When that minimum of control is there, and when that fear is gone, that is when we can truly start using magic for good. To accomplish feats of wonder that cannot be reached by any other means!”
The Bull blinked. He was starting to feel like he wasn’t quite awake enough for this, and possibly a tad distracted by the plump Vint ass jostling his cock.
“So, wait, let me back up. What you’re saying is… The point of knowledge is to find purpose in chaos?”
Dorian graced the ceiling with another one of those long, thoughtful looks. Then a delighted smile spread across his face.
“If you will. Yes, you’re right. Purpose from chaos. Perhaps that is a good way of describing how we do magic in Tevinter. Or how we should, at least.”
“That sounds pretty nice. In theory.” It… did, actually. Something he might want to remember.
“In theory indeed. A shame about all those Magisters screwing things up in practice.” Dorian gave a wistful sigh. “But it does sound nice, doesn’t it? Maybe you and I should write a paper on differing approaches to the control of magic. A Tevinter and Qunari perspective? Order from chaos versus purpose from chaos… We would be the sensation of the season in Minrathous’ academic community. I wonder if we can get Vivienne to contribute as well…”
As if they hadn’t seen enough carnage tonight. “Nah, big guy, I’d rather you not get filleted.”
“I resent the implication that I would lose that fight, but yes, it might be more fun with just the two of us.” Dorian’s bare shoulders lifted as he sighed, a sinuous motion, but he was smiling still. “We are a pair, aren’t we. One day I must write to the Ben-Hassrath and inform them that you spend your days lounging around in feather beds debating the metaphysical with a Tevinter necromancer, instead of doing all of your very important spying work. I’m sure this is not what they pay you for.”
Something inside the Bull curled up, painfully tight and hot.
“Qunari don’t get paid for doing their jobs. We just do what we have to do.”
The words fell from the Bull’s mouth without him hearing them, from rote memory, even as that sharp, burning ache spread. His thoughts jumped off their tracks, careening elsewhere like a runaway mine cart.
Shame. It was shame, this feeling, utter and complete shame at the idea that he’d dared deceive this kind, kind man. Revulsion, at the memory of every time he’d laid an eye or a hand on Dorian with anything but adoration.
This was wrong. He shouldn’t have lied. He shouldn’t have told Tallis about the stuff Dorian said and did, even if he’d stopped doing that. He shouldn’t have…
He’d been a good person. Done what he was supposed to do. Done his job. And at the same time, he’d done wrong.
If his mind was capable of producing a thought like that, he was already lost. How could he have thought that he was doing better? How had he missed this? How in the world had he gotten distracted enough that he didn’t notice himself cracking open entirely?
“How dedicated you are,” Dorian murmured. He didn’t seem to notice the Bull’s conflict, lost as he was in exploring the lines of the silver scars over the Bull’s left shoulder. He'd tilted his head to the side, exposing his neck.
The Bull stared at where he'd left the bite mark weeks ago. Nothing there but flawless skin. He imagined himself mad, out of control, bitting down and ripping...
He couldn’t do this anymore. He wasn’t working anymore, he just wasn’t fucking functional.
And that meant he wasn’t reliable. He couldn’t be counted upon to notice when he truly lost it. The damage he could do if he went rogue, if he started fucking shit up without even knowing, if he went Ta… He was going to tell Tallis. They would help him. They…
Would it be the re-educators again? Or straight up qamek? If he were a re-educator, he wouldn’t trust himself again, not after two enormous failures.
But he couldn’t do this anymore. Not to Dorian, he didn’t deserve this shit and he’d be right in the line of fire if the Bull snapped. He had to talk to Tallis, or… or…
“Bull,” Dorian whispered, close, his heart thudding against the Bull’s. Faster than usual. Nerves. “You’re a hundred miles away. What’s wrong?”
The Bull grabbed at him, held him as tight as he could, both arms around Dorian’s back. He only just remembered to check his strength. Only just, crap, crap.
Dorian made a surprised little noise. Then he returned the embrace, though, wrapping his arms around the Bull’s neck as far as they could go and gripping the Bull’s middle with his legs.
The Bull held him and tried to breathe. He had to keep himself together, at least for the time it would take before he could be safely removed from where he could do damage. He should tell people. Red. He should warn Dorian, make sure he was alert, ready to…
He noticed it only because he was keeping so still, and because Dorian was gripping him so tightly that his body didn’t have any room to move at all. A vibration under his fingers, very faint. It immediately reminded the Bull of the one time he’d traveled on a dreadnought, on his way to that raid on Qarinus. He’d stood on deck, trying to stay out of the way of the crew. Placed his hand against a wall. Felt a tremor, a faraway echo of the engines, thumping away at the other end of the ship like the heartbeat of a great beast.
Magic. He could feel it now, the hum of it, under his hands, under Dorian’s skin. It wasn’t any particular spell; he was pretty sure Dorian wasn’t doing anything. It was simply a presence. There. Like a blanket all around him, in the hands rubbing the back of his head and the strong thighs clutching at him, the face pressed into the softest part of his neck. It was strong, strong, coming from so deep inside Dorian that the pulse of it was no more than a quiver by the time it touched the Bull.
He knew it was another utterly insane thought the moment it popped into his head, but he felt good like this. Contained. Safe. Dorian had the power to boil the Bull in his skin, and that was a good thing.
The Bull tried to speak. He didn’t get further than an indrawn breath.
Dorian drew away, but only far enough that he could put both hands on the sides of the Bull’s face and stare him straight in the eye. There was a heartbreaking sliver of uncertainty in his expression, but he looked determined, almost fierce.
“Bull… Is this all right? Are you happy to be here?”
It was always hard to tell what bas meant when they talked about happiness, about their peculiar need for whatever it was, but... To be able to feel whole for just a few moments, safe and undivided, with so much kindness and power wrapped around him to hold the broken bits of him together? To have someone with him who could do that?
Kadan, the Bull thought, and he didn’t know whether he wanted to laugh or cry. What he said was, “With you? Shit yeah.”
Something seemed to pass through Dorian in a full-body shudder. His eyes fluttered closed as he leaned in, his cheek brushing along the Bull’s stubble.
“Such a way with words,” he hummed, breath hot on the shell of the Bull’s ear. “Please, we have only hours before we must say farewell to this wonderful cloud of a mattress. Take me again.”
Yeah. He could do that. He’d do the right thing.
Chapter 7: Skyhold again
Letter delivered to The Iron Bull by Charter
The text is in Common.
Put this proposal before the Inquisitor.
The Qun wishes to meet with the Inquisitor to discuss the possibility of an alliance. We have received reports of this red lyrium substance appearing in the Tevinter Imperium, which is cause for concern for both the Qun and the Inquisition.
We propose a meeting near what you call “Driftwood Margin Camp” on the Storm Coast, in three weeks’ time. There will be a lyrium shipment leaving for the Imperium then. We hope the Inquisitor will join us to disrupt this Venatori operation and discuss further opportunities for cooperation.
Letter transferred via a dead drop inside Skyhold’s gatehouse
The text is in Qunlat.
Bring your mercenary company and Dorian Pavus, we wish to observe them.
Note delivered to Inquisitor Adaar in the war room
Your plan looks good. I’ll fill you in on as much as I can while we’re on the road to the Storm Coast. I have to repeat here that I’m not sure what they want.
Agreed on bringing Blackwall and Varric. Yeah, good thing Solas and Dorian aren’t around to butt in. Pretty sure the Qun wouldn’t like to see either of them.
You sure we shouldn’t send the Chargers to deal with that varghest thing in the Hissing Wastes first? It sounds pretty serious.
The Iron Bull
Letter delivered by raven to Gracevine Camp, addressed to Dorian Pavus
Hey big guy,
How’s the exploring going? I hope the Graves don’t have as many giants as last time, and Solas isn’t nattering your little ears off.
Things are good here. Sera says hi. Adaar picked some flowers for her in the Chantry garden, and she's so fucking excited. It's cute.
Adaar and I are taking the boys to the Storm Coast the day after tomorrow. We got a message from the Qun proposing an alliance between them and the Inquisition. Nothing to worry about, probably.
The Iron Bull
Lettered delivered by raven to The Iron Bull, upon departing Skyhold
To the great and indomitable The Iron Bull,
Exploring is dreary and endless. The giants have spawned again. Nature is intolerable. Yesterday a bear chased me up a tree and I tore my blue robe. Cassandra is being a spoilsport and keeps insisting that we cannot “waste time” exploring ruins that are unlikely to contain anything useful for the Inquisition, even when they are very interesting ruins. Solas is bearable when he can be distracted from the topic of elves, which is twice per day at the very most. If I hear the words “elven artifact” one more time, I shall throw myself into the path of the nearest charging bronto.
However, today we found what may be a tomb from as far back as the Black Age. Neither Solas nor I have any idea who is in it, but we have told Cassandra it is very likely to contain a legendary enchanted sword. We are to excavate tomorrow. I am quite excited, almost as excited as I am to hear of Sera's romantic adventures. I will write her to demand details.
I find it is somewhat difficult to sleep here. The tent is much colder without you in it.
I wish you much luck on your own expedition. It sounds unusual, though, and I’m not sure I understand what you’re implying. Are you quite all right?
Letter delivered by raven to Direstone Camp, addressed to Dorian Pavus
Hey big guy,
Good to hear you’re having fun. Say hi to Cassandra and Solas and the scouts from us. How was your tomb?
I’m fine. It’s just a little weird to think the Qun is coming over here. I’m used to them being over there, and I don’t know what they want this time. Wish you were coming with us, I think Krem misses you.
I really like you, big guy. Be well.
The Iron Bull
Letter delivered by raven to Driftwood Margin Camp, addressed to the Iron Bull
The Iron Bull,
The tomb appears to have belonged to a female mage of some importance, as it contained an Arcane Horror wearing a dress and a very nice tiara. Cassandra is not amused.
Good luck with your meeting. I’m certain you will manage matters admirably, as you always do. Keep your ring close so you don’t have to be concerned about demons.
Wrap up your Qun business quickly and return to your happy tavern at Skyhold. I can’t say how much longer we’ll be stuck in this dismal place, but I will also return home as soon as I’m able and lavish attention upon you. I ask only the very small price of another cup of cocoa.
Please give Cremisius and the other Chargers my regards. These camping trips are just not the same without the thrill of having to constantly guard my undergarments against interference. I still think daily of the campfire song Dalish performed on the topic of my blushing buttcheeks.
Yours in impatience,
Letter delivered by raven to Direstone Camp, addressed to Dorian Pavus
Hey big guy,
Glad to hear you’re doing good. We’re okay. Alliance isn’t happening. Thanks for writing.
Letter in Tevene delivered by raven to Direstone Camp, addressed to Dorian Pavus
Drop your magical crap treasure hunt and come back to Skyhold right now. Run.
They left me. They didn’t help. They left me.
The Bull blinked up at the hole in his ceiling. It showed only plain dark grey, a dull overcast sky without a star to be seen. Nothing there. Every bit of his skin that was in contact with the sheets itched, fiercely, a crawling and uncanny feeling that reminded him of Dorian's necromancy. Clawed fingers in the Mire, dragging him underwater.
They left me. They left me.
He was alone in his head, now. Nobody to help him think. Nobody to distract him from...
The Bull's room was close to Skyhold’s gate, and whenever the lookouts blew their horns, it was like they were standing right next to his bed. It was handy for when you wanted to be the first to know when new important people were arriving. Less fun when you were lying flat on your back in bed in the middle of the evening, so dizzy from saar-qamek that you barely knew what way your head was facing anymore.
The Bull’s heart skipped a beat at the first blare of the horns, his limbs jerking painfully in surprise. Then he recognized the staccato pattern that meant the return of an inner circle member. Only one, which confused him for a moment... or at least more than he was already feeling with the remnants of the poison itching in his skull. The only people still out of Skyhold right now were the Emerald Graves expedition, and that was a three-person group.
Maybe it’s him. Maybe. Maybe. Krem says he wrote.
He should get up, in case it was Dorian. Make a light, at least. Krem had lit candles for him in the brazier, three little flickering flames that the Bull had stared at for about an hour. Then a draft had come in through the ceiling and extinguished them. The Bull hadn’t liked that one bit, but he hadn’t fixed it for some reason. Maybe because he still had other things to focus on–the moaning of the wind outside, the muted voices from the tavern below, the footfalls of the evening watch on the battlements, the occasional creak on the stairs behind the tavern door whenever Grim shifted into a more comfortable position. The Bull knew it wasn’t Skinner out there anymore, because you never heard Skinner until her knife was in your left kidney.
The remnants of the saar-qamek hadn’t really hit him until he was halfway through his debriefing with Red. She’d waved him off, saying that the assassins were dead and not likely to change their condition while he took some rest. She said she’d deal with things.
She was wrong. She thought she could handle this, but she was wrong.
The Bull squeezed his eye shut.
No. That was the saar-qamek talking. Even partly cancelled out by the antidote, that dose was just enough to addle his mind for a time. Confuse him. Frighten him. He had to compensate.
But he couldn’t deny that the poison was only amplifying what he’d already known and felt during their ignominious retreat from the Storm Coast. It had begun growing then, with every step of the Bull’s horse that carried him further away from the wreckage of the dreadnought. A sense of harrowing, directionless fear of everything around him.
They left me.
He wanted his candle flames back. They were prettier than the other sights and sounds around here, they reminded him of Dorian, and they’d help him see all corners of the room. He wasn’t liking the dark right now. It was fine for when he was sleeping, but he wasn’t asleep and he didn’t plan on being asleep anytime soon. Now he couldn’t see what was around him; he just knew that it was chaos, a jumble of stuff that wasn’t in its proper place because the Chargers had moved the furniture around and thrown shit everywhere. They’d done that for a good reason–to barricade the doors that gave access to the Bull’s room from the battlements, in case there were more assassins sneaking about. They were worried and trying to protect him. He just wished they hadn’t made such a fucking mess. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, and now that it was too dark to see the disorganization, it kept getting bigger and bigger in his head. He didn’t know how to stop thinking about it. About anything.
The Bull hadn’t expected this. He’d figured that it was going to be either death or a chance to redeem himself. That he’d be returned to Par Vollen, in any case, to be taken care of however was best.
It hadn’t occurred to him that they might just let him go. Leave him, abandon him to his own head and whatever was happening in it. And now that it was done, he didn’t know what would change, or how, or why. And he didn’t know what he would do. He could barely think through his dismay.
Was this a form of punishment? An attempt to land a blow against the Inquisition, releasing the Bull among them even as his mind had already begun to rot? Would he even know it, the moment his thoughts weren’t thoughts anymore? What was he going to do?
They left me.
Focus. He had to focus. Right now, half of what was in his head might be the saar-qamek talking. There were times when you definitely couldn’t trust your own mind. He’d been calmer than this yesterday, and before, during the journey back from the Storm Coast. He hadn’t been well, but he’d been calmer than this. More numb.
They left me.
He focused on breathing. A simple task, and he’d know right away if he started fucking it up. In. Out.
Footsteps on the stairs outside his door. Two, probably human, making no attempt to muffle the noise they made.
A frightened thing uncoiled in his chest as he recognized them. Krem-puff, solid and steady. Dorian, quick and sure. His best Vints.
Dorian spoke outside the door, almost whispered, in Tevene. Krem replied just as quietly. Then they were chattering away, the sibilant tones and clear vowels of their bas tongue flying so low and fast that the Bull couldn’t make sense of it. Krem had figured out years ago that the Bull couldn’t understand his Tevene if he spoke quickly and let his heavy Western brogue take over.
Almost as soon as it had begun, the murmured discussion was over and the Bull’s door creaked open, letting in a brief burst of sound from the tavern. Krem had refused to lock that door, preferring to put a guard in front of it instead while the Bull recovered from his extended dizzy spell. The Chargers were really good at guarding shit. The Bull had tried to squeeze past Skinner earlier when he got an inexplicable craving for Cabot’s bacon, but she’d threatened to chop his little toes off if he didn’t go back to bed. Hadn’t even gotten him any bacon, either.
They should have locked that door, the Bull decided. Locked him in. They were only thinking about how to keep people from entering, not about how to stop the Bull from leaving if it came to that.
A gentle clanking of buckles, near the door, and then a tap of wood hitting stone as Dorian shrugged off his staff harness and hung it on the peg he’d claimed for that purpose. Then came footsteps approaching the Bull’s bed; the creaking of the new leather boots Adaar had gotten Dorian for his birthday; the whisper of soft fabric moving over softer skin.
A prickle of magic, then a quiet woosh of flame, and light bloomed beyond the Bull’s closed eyelid. Light, beautiful light. Thank fuck.
“Bull? Are you awake?”
The Bull opened his eye. Dorian was looking down on him, his own eyes crinkled with worry.
“Hey, big guy.” His voice cracked from thirst. “You’re back early.”
Dorian immediately moved to the jug on the nightstand, poured some water, and returned to the Bull’s line of sight with a cup in his hand.
“Cremisius wrote to say you were in need. Solas and Cassandra will just have to handle the last of the ruins without the benefit of my vast knowledge and astute insights. Sit up a little and drink, Bull.”
The Bull frowned but obeyed. They needn’t have dragged Dorian away from his research expedition like that. He’d been having such a good time over there. He’d been beside himself to go in the first place. Hadn’t slept a wink the night before he was due to leave, alternating for hours between rants about his elven ruin theories and enthusiastic attempts to have sex.
As soon as the cup was empty, Dorian took it from him and filled it up again. “He most certainly did not, seeing as I have returned to find you injured and bedridden. Do you need a healer?”
“Nah. Just a little queasy.”
Dorian settled on the bed, one leg hanging down. His other thigh was pressed against the Bull’s side. He was still in his riding clothes, and he smelled like humans tended to after a couple weeks of camping. Except a little better, because he was Dorian and he’d bathe every day, even if he had to do it in an icy forest stream while fending off brontos and bears with one hand as he soaped himself up with the other. His hair was looking pretty windswept, though. Must have legged it over here right after he rode in through the gate.
“You’re absolutely certain? It’s not possible that they developed a new strain of this…saar-qamek that you didn’t have a perfect antidote for?”
The light of the candles was a lot stronger than when Krem had lit them with normal fire. They were still going a little crazy in the wind from above, though. The Bull gathered his thoughts for a few moments as he watched the light leap over Dorian’s face.
“I'll be right as rain in a few hours. Already better than before.” It was true, that. Two hours ago, he’d gotten freaked out by the hole in the roof and Krem had had to hold his hand. “Don’t worry, big guy.”
“All right,” Dorian murmured. His hand settled on the Bull’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. “But I certainly won’t let you out of my sight until you’re your usual obnoxious self again. I’m sending for some dinner. Would you like soup and bread? Or something more solid?”
Bacon was what he wanted, but that probably wasn’t what his stomach needed right now. “Soup’s good,” the Bull murmured.
Dorian patted his hand as he rose. “Good. I’m rather hungry as well.” He was smiling, but it looked a little bit off. Uncertain. The Bull didn’t like it when even Dorian looked uncertain.
The Bull closed his eye again as Dorian headed for the door. The hinges squeaked. There was a brief, murmured conversation–more Tevene, sounded like Grim had been released to get some dinner of his own–before the door shut again.
”Cremisius has agreed to get us some food,” Dorian said. Then, after a few moments, “Goodness, look at the state of this place. Did a barbarian horde go through? I see the point of blocking those doors, but was there really a need to make such a mess?”
More footsteps, criss-crossing the room, accompanied by the sounds of objects hitting shelves and a lot of muttering about southern mercenary savages. It was nice of him to tidy. He was certainly putting more effort into the Bull’s room than into his own.
”There,” Dorian said after a few minutes, louder now. “A semblance of order has been restored.”
His boots erupted in a chorus of new-leather-creaks, then fell silent entirely as he put them away by the door. He’d line them up neatly, as he always did. Then he’d take the dirty clothes out of his travel pack and pile them up near the door for the washerwomen. Then he’d take his neat wrap of writing implements and put them on the Bull’s desk.
The stuff in the Bull’s room was starting to shift, moving to make room for more and more of Dorian’s extensive collection of necessities and crap. He did have a really weird amount of robes, especially if you knew that he’d arrived at Skyhold with only the clothes on his back and had been here for only what, six months? Seven? He was also starting to bring over books. There was now a small library in one corner of the Bull’s room that had started as one tower of books, but it was expanding, growing taller and spawning new little towers around it.
It was good that he was spending at least half of his nights in the Bull’s room now. Maybe he could be convinced to just move in. It would be safer for both of them that way.
Is there a chance that they will target those close to you next? Red had asked.
Nah, that’s what the Vints would do. The Qun doesn’t work like that.
He knew it was the truth, especially after they sent only two little guys with pig stickers for that assassination attempt. If they weren’t even really interested in killing him, they sure as hell weren’t going to be wasting resources on pointless vengeance against others. But he wished she hadn’t asked about it. Now the idea was in his head, and his head wasn’t doing so great, and he couldn’t fucking get rid of it.
Dorian would be so easy to kill. So would Krem, or Dalish or Stitches or any of the others. However strong and capable, they were so small in the end.
A rustle of paper rattled him from his thoughts. Dorian dithered at the desk for a few minutes; the Bull heard the scratching of a pen. Then there was a knock at the door. Another creak of hinges, and then the room was filled with the smell of onion soup and bread. Freshly baked bread, too, and at this hour. Damn.
There was a dip in the mattress. The Bull opened his eye.
”Food. Sit up, now, don’t think I’ll be spoon-feeding you. I know your hands are perfectly functional.”
They ate in silence, Dorian wolfing down his portion with a remarkably balanced combination of speed and basic table manners. He finished first, then took to pointedly staring at the Bull’s bowl.
”Finish it all,” he urged. “Cremisius says you haven’t eaten since this morning.”
”I got poisoned,” the Bull complained. Dorian just huffed, and didn’t stop staring until the Bull had polished off his bowl of soup.
Dorian had put on a clean shirt and pants, the old stuff with the soft, worn fabrics that he sometimes dressed in when it was too early to get naked and under the bedcovers, but so late that he didn’t want to bother with his usual complicated outfit. He busied himself with the empty bowls for a bit, then finally returned. He looked antsy, like he didn’t quite know what to do with himself.
“Bull,” he finally said, after a few minutes of playing with the dangling ties of his old shirt. “I’m sorry for what happened. Is there anything I can do for you?”
The Bull considered how to answer that. He should have a ready reply to the question by now; plenty of people had asked already. But the most honest answer was I don’t know, and he didn’t want to disappoint Dorian with something so wishy-washy. The poor guy looked so anxious.
If they’d taken him to Par Vollen, he’d never have seen Dorian again, but instead, here they both were. Here the Bull was, in his bed, surrounded by his things, hovered over by his team. All that was missing was any sort of certainty about anything at all. He felt like his brain had been purged of everything he’d ever known or understood.
The Qun had left him. They’d cast him out. They hadn’t even thought him worth the trouble of taking him home and repurposing him.
He couldn’t stop fretting over the 'why' of that. It ate at him. Was it the injuries, on top of his obvious mental instability? He’d thought of writing them, try to make them reconsider. Had even started the letter a couple times, on the way back from the Storm Coast. My arms are as strong as ever. I have learned to compensate for my lack of depth perception, and my leg is entirely manageable. I would be a good builder. Please.
He’d burned every scrap of paper he put his pen to. It wasn’t that he thought they wouldn’t listen, though that was pretty damn likely. He’d just been too fucking scared. He just hadn’t known what to do. What if the re-educators tried to fix him instead of giving him qamek right away? He wasn’t sure he had the heart to go through that again. And what if they put the shards of his mind back together in a new order, changed him so that they could send him back to the Inquisition as a walking bomb, use him to hurt the people here? His boys? Dorian?
The Bull didn’t know what he was anymore, but at least he remembered his friends. That was… not nothing. It was all he had. If he could just manage himself somehow…
He was doing his best. Quite possibly, he was even succeeding. He’d started building failsafes even before this, performing certain actions specifically so he’d notice when he started doing them wrong. When he stopped making Dorian smile, that’s when he’d have to take action against himself…
Crap, his head was swimming. Was he making sense? No, probably not. He just didn’t know.
What did he know?
Well. Dorian was still sitting next to him, there was that. So patient, waiting while the Bull ordered his thoughts.
Dorian smiled. He reached out and scratched behind the Bull’s ear. “Yes?”
“I got a lot of stuff in my head and it’s all shitty. Can you talk to me a bit?”
A soft chuckle. “Of course, that’s one of my specialities. Conversational and sexual services, entirely free just for you. What would you like to hear about? Ah, wait a moment, let me settle in…”
He swung his feet up on the bed and began to scoot backwards towards the headboard. He froze halfway.
“Oh, wait. Would you like me to rub some horn balm on you while we talk? Would that be acceptable?”
The Bull looked up at him. Kadan, his mind supplied again, out of nowhere.
“Yeah. That’d be nice.”
Dorian slid off the bed again, padded over to the Bull’s dresser, and returned holding the large red pot that the Bull had gotten from Adaar a couple months ago. It was Vashoth stuff, different from what the Bull usually got from Par Vollen, but not bad. Smelled spicy.
The Bull let himself be directed as Dorian settled. He pulled the Bull’s head towards him until the horns framed his middle and he was pinned against the headboard. It took a little doing, but soon they were both comfortable, with Dorian’s legs over the Bull’s shoulders and the Bull’s head nestled in Dorian’s lap. His ears felt all cozy and warm between Dorian’s thighs.
“Good. Now,” Dorian said, shifting one more time until he was apparently satisfied with the positioning of his limbs. “What would you like to hear about?”
“Say something in Vint?”
Dorian blinked down at the Bull, upside down. “I’m sorry?”
“Your accent is different from Krem’s.”
Dorian’s hands ghosted over the Bull’s horns, once, from the middle to the very tips.
“Well, naturally. I’m from Qarinus. Cremisius spent his youth in Vol Dorma, where everyone speaks like they stumbled in from the Anderfels pissing drunk and with their mouths full of sand.”
The Bull chuckled as he was visited again by a thought that had occurred to him once or twice–that if Dorian had grown up a penniless street rat instead of a Magister’s son, he’d be Sera. Maybe a slightly smoother version, but still Sera.
“Didn’t notice the difference until I heard you talk Vint.”
“Tevene,” Dorian corrected as he picked up the pot of horn balm and untied the string holding its wax paper covering in place. “Honestly. You know the word, don’t pretend you’re a dumb beast with me.”
He'd pretended to be things a great deal worse than that.
“Fine. Say something in Tevene.”
Dorian heaved a great sigh, but his smile was fond. “Very well. What would you like to hear?”
“Dunno. A poem.”
Dorian grinned. “He wants poetry! Very well. This was one of my favorites when I was a boy.” He straightened a bit and positioned his hands on his knees, like a child preparing to recite a lesson, even as he still held the pot and its covering. “Ahem. Paedicabo ego vos et irrumabo…”
The Bull expelled a loud snort. “I will sodomize you and face-fuck you? What the fuck is that filth?”
Dorian’s straight-backed pose crumbled as he laughed.
“You do understand it! I knew it! It’s a real verse by a very famous poet from the Towers Age, I swear. But it’s almost never included in collections of his work, and Circle students have been forbidden to memorize it for generations, so of course it’s a classic.”
Damn, the Bull kind of wanted to see the inside of a Tevinter Circle. Growing up in there sounded like a weirdly good time, minus all the magic shit. “Fucking Vints. Degenerates, every last one of you.”
Dorian’s grin was elated. “Oh, yes, that’s us. We’re just incorrigible.”
They sure were. Vints. Multiple. It was still a little weird that he had multiple Vints now, instead of just the one. Weirder still that that was a pleasant thought.
It was good that Krem seemed to be getting on with Dorian now. He’d missed Tevinter, the Bull was sure of it. Every single time he’d caught Krem talking to Dorian without anyone else there, they’d been speaking Tevene amongst each other. It was a little weird to hear Krem-puff use the same words as the Vints on Seheron, but he looked happy doing it. Or different, at least; all of him seemed to adjust to a different register when he talked with Dorian, his body shifting to express the quicker and livelier cadence of the northern languages. A more languid stance, more emphatic hand gestures. It was kind of fascinating to look at. Dorian, of course, prattled in Tevene like it was his favorite activity in the world.
Lucky assholes. The language was still theirs, no matter how far away they’d wandered from the actual country. They were citizens of the Imperium no matter where they went or what they did. They had words they could claim, old words of power that bound them to centuries of history.
The Bull wasn’t going to read or hear any Qunlat, from now on. The words weren’t his anymore. You left the Qun, you left it all behind. Who would he speak it with, anyway? Dorian had absorbed some very basic terminology from his books and a couple sex words from the Bull, but he couldn't string anything together. The only other person in Skyhold who understood even a little bit of Qunlat was Adaar, and she mostly knew swear words that she’d picked up from her Tal-Vashoth parents. She hadn’t grown up with it. She hadn’t learned it at the feet of Tama… a tamassran, listening to story after story about the world and her place in it.
The Bull had started thinking in Common a couple years after he came south, sometime in between saving Krem and fishing Skinner out of a trash heap in Verchiel. He honestly hadn’t noticed it until he was in the middle of writing a report on some noble or other, and suddenly found himself struggling to recall a perfectly ordinary Qunlat word.
He should have known then where he was headed. He’d done this to himself. He’d started letting go of the words of the Qun, and bit by bit, he’d started letting go of the Qun itself. So the Qun had let go of him in return.
“Bull.” Dorian’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts, gentle and insistent. “Would you like to hear a different poem? I know many that are much nicer.”
“Later. Tell me about Tevinter.”
“Certainly. What about it?” Dorian dipped two fingers into the pot of horn balm and began to rub his hands together.
“The things you like about it.”
Weight on the Bull’s forehead as hands pressed down against the base of his horns. “Well, that’s also very broad.”
The Bull sighed. “Just tell me stuff?”
“Of course,” Dorian agreed, sounding like he was being indulgent towards a mildly bothersome child. “There’s a very great deal I like about Tevinter, obviously, but one of my favorite things compared to the south is how magic is simply everywhere back home. One is surrounded by it at all times. I realize this may not sound like a positive trait to you, but it is for a mage.” He sighed. “Layers upon layers of spells, accumulated over centuries, even in the most mundane of places. Take the forum in Qarinus. The buildings are unspeakably old, but they’ve been frequently damaged in earthquakes and invasions and yet…”
As he spoke, his hands began to move. They stroked outwards to the bend of the Bull’s horns, then back towards his head again, warm and sure.
“Whoops,” the Bull murmured. “Sorry ‘bout those invasions.”
A soft laugh. “Whoops indeed! Well, we invaded most of Thedas at some point or another, so we can hardly cast stones.” Dorian began to twist his hands around the horns, and the Bull let out a little groan.
Dorian chuckled. “You do like this, don’t you? Where… Ah. Sometimes my father would take me down to the forum when he had political meetings there, and he would leave me to wander around with minimal supervision while he worked. I spent hours hanging around the shops. There were butchers, bakers, fruit sellers, you name it. They all knew who I was, and gave me free samples of their wares in the hope that I would like something and tell my father to buy more of it.”
There was something the Bull had no problem whatsoever picturing. “You were a little asshole, weren’t you?”
“I was what, seven? Did you expect me to turn down any gifts at seven?” Dorian paused his ministrations so he could take some more balm. “My father did put a stop to it when the strawberry lady tried to poison me. So unfortunate. But where was I going with this? Ah, the buildings housing the shops are ancient, and…”
“Wait, someone tried to poison you when you were seven?”
The warm hands returned, pressing the Bull’s head down again. “Kind of succeeded, actually, but I lived. Through quick action by the butcher, who noticed me turning an alarming color and made me vomit up the strawberries. I believe he’s still the sole purveyor of meats to House Pavus, and lives in a much nicer house than before. Anyway, it was most likely revenge by a political rival whom my father had ruined–he exposed her illegal wine trading, you see–but we never managed to pin it on her for sure.”
The Bull couldn’t even try to be surprised. Vints. “I asked you to talk about what you like about Tevinter.”
“Yes, yes, I was getting there until a rude yokel in circus pants interrupted me.” Dorian’s thumbs circled the tips of the Bull’s horns. It was a struggle not to moan outright. “The stones of the shops look ancient, and they are. But they’re not actual stone at all. They’re just energy from the Fade, enchanted to look like sandstone.”
The Bull blinked. “Seriously?”
Dorian nodded. He grunted a little as he increased the pressure of his fingers, almost wringing the Bull’s horns in his hands. “Yes, it’s beautiful. The spell is beyond ancient, and there are no records of who put it there or why. Qarinus has several other buildings like that. The city lies far away from any quarries, and all stone for building has to be shipped in. The prevailing theory is that the harbor was blocked sometime during the Ancient Age, possibly by pirates, just when an earthquake struck and destroyed much of the forum. Qarinus’ Magisters resorted to creating matter from pure Fade energy to keep the city from crumbling further.”
The Bull raised his eyebrow, staring up into Dorian’s face. “Was it blood magic?”
“Surprisingly enough, no. I wouldn’t be bragging to you about it otherwise,” Dorian sussed. “It’s the most remarkable architectural spell in the city, but nearly all of its buildings are enchanted to some degree. The air just shimmers with magic, if you know how to look. It’s actually visible to the naked eye once it gets dark.” His fingers had stilled. He looked like he could see his city in front of his eyes, right there in the Bull’s bedroom. “I loved being in Qarinus after dusk. The spells glisten in the corner of your eyes, in all colors of the rainbow. There’s nothing to be seen when you’re looking straight at something, but if you tilt your head away just a fraction…”
Dorian tipped his head back.
“Ah, I wish I could take you there so you could see it,” he mused.
Dorian didn’t ask what Par Vollen was like, which was nice of him, the Bull supposed. He was sure Dorian was dying to hear about it, and stuff the knowledge away in whatever bottomless brain pocket he used to store his vast collection of random tidbits about every topic under the sun.
“Magic sounds pretty when you talk about it.”
Dorian’s smile took on an almost hilariously beatific quality.
“It’s dazzling. Breath-taking, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why it is a thing to be feared, for some. But to hate it outright, the way the Qun does? To wish it gone from the world? I just can’t understand…” He shook his head. “Have you… have they ever looked at a man performing a spirit healing, stitching lethal wounds with the power of his voice? A woman holding lightning in the palm of her hand? The golden glow of a well-formed Haste spell? Magic is beauty.”
Yeah. You are.
“Uh, Dorian? Can we not talk about Qun stuff?”
Dorian’s brow immediately twisted in concern. He bent over and kissed the Bull on the cheek. Pretty limber guy, Dorian.
“Yes, of course. Forgive me, Bull.”
He was silent for a minute or so, but clearly still fretting, so the Bull waited him out. It wasn’t like he had anything useful to say himself.
“Bull, I… don’t understand the implications of this change very well. I don’t know what to say to help you.” One of Dorian’s hands moved to stroke the Bull’s cheek.
It felt good. He felt good. Better. Calmer. “Can you just keep talking?”
“Is my dulcet voice a comfort? I’m not surprised.” Dorian was grinning again, albeit with a dash more forced bravado than before. “Oh, I have a story you’ll like. One day when I was five, I was pestering our gardener, and he happened to be digging a large oval rock out of a flowerbed at the time. He told me it had to be a dragon egg, and would surely hatch if I sat still on it long enough…”
The Bull began to feel almost pleasantly sleepy as he listened to the adventures of a little bas saarebas who’d clearly been a lot fonder of dragons than his adult self. It was almost like being back home, way back when he was an imekari sitting at Tama’s feet. At that age, most of the edifying stories they heard about Vints were about Vint children, maybe because those were easier to relate to.
“You lying liar,” the Bull chuckled when Dorian had finished recounting his profound grief at his egg’s refusal to hatch, even after many months of tender care. “You do like dragons.”
“I most certainly do not. Did you see what the last one did to my gloves? They were good silk. Very sturdy and serviceable. Vivienne was ever so mad that I destroyed her thoughtful gift.”
The Bull let his grin widen. “You like dragons. I can tell by the crinkles next to your pretty eyes when you talk about them.” He reached up to poke at the side of Dorian’s face with a finger.
Dorian threw his hands up.
“What? First of all, I do not have wrinkles, and second of all, I do not like dragons. Get away from me with your nonsense Ben-Hassrath analytical theatri…” He snapped his mouth shut so quickly that for a moment, the Bull feared he might have bitten his own tongue off. “I apologize. I forgot myself.”
The Bull closed his eye. “It’s okay. Tell me another story?”
“Of course, let me think…” Dorian yawned.
Aw, poor guy. He’d come riding all the way from the Emerald Graves in a week, and now the Bull was keeping him up with nonsense. It had to be almost midnight. The noise in the tavern was starting to die down.
The Bull patted the bed next to him. “Hey, sorry. You can go to sleep if you’re tired.”
“No, no, I don’t mind.” Dorian frowned for a moment or two, then brightened. “Ah! I have another one you might enjoy. Let me regale you with the long, convoluted, and entirely ridiculous tale of how Ge… Alexius managed to spend a full year convinced that Felix and I were secret lovers. It began when he saw us embracing in the garden through a window…”
He had such a beautiful storytelling voice. Deeper than the way he usually spoke, warm, and alive with real excitement. Dorian could fake emotions just fine when he applied himself, but he didn’t have to when speaking about something he enjoyed. It was amazing, how clearly he put it all on display. Dorian fucking loved those magic stones in Qarinus, and that fake dragon egg, and the people whose shenanigans he was recounting right now.
It made the Bull feel real, lying here and sharing in that wealth of feeling. It wasn’t all second-hand, either. Dorian kept his eyes on the Bull’s face nearly the entire time, smiling, making faces when his story called for them, winking whenever the Bull huffed a laugh. He was talking about shit he loved, but he was doing it for the Bull. To make him feel better.
“…and I could not look the poor man in the eyes for weeks without bursting out laughing. No one in the entire household could. There are no words in any language to express how awkward laboratory time was. I don’t know how I made it through without expiring of sheer embarrassment.”
The Bull chuckled. “I can’t believe his wife played along for months.”
“Lady Livia had a rather singular sense of humor. You would have liked her.” Dorian shook his head with another little laugh. “What a comedy. I was offended, really. Even if I had felt any inclination to seduce Felix, I wouldn’t have dared to act upon it, let alone under the family roof. As if I would insult Alexius like that.”
The Bull let his eyebrow climb until it was almost touching his horn. “You didn’t want to sleep with the guy even a tiny little bit?”
Dorian shrugged. “It crossed my mind. I lived in that house for years, and Felix was there and hardly a chore to look at, so of course it crossed my mind. But not seriously. It was more like how I’ve wondered what it would be like to bed… Cullen, or Blackwall.”
“Oh? Been wondering about our burly friends, have we?”
Dorian grinned and patted the Bull’s chest. “Don’t worry, nothing I can imagine holds a candle to your glorious cock.”
“Good,” the Bull said.
He’d been meaning to ask… Ah, yes. There was a definite pattern in the way Dorian talked about the Magister that really needed some poking at.
“Hey, Dorian. Silly question?”
Dorian was toying with the Bull’s ears again, gently rubbing the shells of them between two fingers. His smile had gone very soft.
“It wasn’t the son you were sweet on, was it?”
Dorian’s fingers stilled at once. The Bull looked up, but found that Dorian had tilted his face up towards the ceiling, hiding his expression.
”All right,” he whispered after a few long moments. “You caught me. Your clever deduction is correct. Happy now?”
There was so much feeling in that quiet admission that the Bull almost regretted asking. He felt like he’d gone somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, and he should backtrack right now.
”Hey,” he said, nudging Dorian’s leg with one finger. “It’s okay. He’s a Venatori, but it’s still kinda cute.”
“Oh, please don’t tease me, it was ten years ago. I…” Dorian stopped. Took a deep breath. He sounded upset–truly, bizarrely upset.
The Bull risked another gentle nudge, ignoring the part of him that was starting to feel he was poking a vat of gaatlok.
”Hey. Big guy. You okay? Did anything happen with him?”
”No,” Dorian moaned. “Of course not. It couldn’t. I sat on it for a couple of years until it went away, I couldn’t help it, I just… I have a terrible, shameful weakness for men who are good to me. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now.”
The Bull could feel his chest expand with something other than air. He stared at the underside of Dorian’s jaw, felt the very gentle tremor in his fingers where they rested against the side of the Bull’s head. He hadn’t pulled his hands away.
Good job, Hissrad. You fucking did it. Give that man an extra ration and another tour on Seheron. We send him out to gather some intel, he comes back with the heart of a future Magister on a platter.
The thought was like a kick in the head. What had he done? What could he do with Dorian’s affections, now that he didn’t have use for them anymore?
The Bull blinked, mind racing furiously. He had to do something–this wasn’t the sort of stuff you could just ignore with most bas. It was important for them. This kind of sentiment was fodder for all their grand tales of romance and betrayal. On a smaller scale, they used it as mortar for their families. They used it to tie people together, sometimes forever, sometimes against all reason. They went mad with it. It wasn’t so different from magic in its irrational and destructive nature.
What would Dorian want with it, though? He talked more and more about going back to Tevinter, about changing things there to the best of his ability. If he wasn’t staying in the south, surely he wasn’t looking for anyone to create that kind of bond with? The Bull had seen the bas when they got serious about who they claimed to love. They sunk their teeth into them and did not fucking let go. The Vints were terrible about it, they really couldn’t do anything just by half.
I’m hoping we’re good for each other, he’d said. He’d meant that, even if he hadn’t known exactly how he’d meant it.
What a joke this was. He didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe there was nothing he could do, and these feeble attempts to figure out where he could go from here were just stepping stones down the road to real madness. How could he make plans when he didn’t know what the right thing was anymore? When the best he could come up with was take random guesses at what some bas might want, and do that? Dorian wasn’t some lodestone that the Bull could point himself at and be okay. He was just a very human man.
He could simply… take what he could get, from this. Not think too much. Not make it complicated. Just stay for as long as he could, enjoy what was still enjoyable, and make absolutely sure that he’d know when it was time to leave. He wanted Dorian to stay, he knew that much. Everything was better with Dorian there to talk to him and hold him and drink with him. The Bull didn’t even have a name for how good it felt to have him there. How much safer. Kadan, for sure, but not like Krem was kadan. Different. More.
Maybe they were even fairly alike in this. Maybe Dorian had no clue what he wanted either. Maybe this had been an accident, something he hadn’t meant to confess. Maybe he wanted the Bull to ignore it and move on. Maybe he’d also enjoy just being with the Bull, until he had to go to Tevinter or the Bull had to walk into the mountains, whichever came first.
Shit, that sounded like something Krem would be slapping him for if he were here. Maybe he just wasn’t making an ounce of sense at all. Not all of the saar-qamek was out of his system, and his mind was tired. Compromised, darting every which way. He had to rest, regroup, and decide how to talk to Dorian.
Because whatever happened, they’d have to talk about it, about where this came from, where it could go and never go. Dorian had to understand, if he was to be safe. The Bull would have to tell him about shit, and Dorian would be angry for sure. He might want to leave entirely.
They left me.
Something jostled the Bull’s right arm, and he blinked. Dorian was stretching his leg.
The Bull took a deep breath as he took stock of his situation. Dorian hadn’t moved much otherwise, but his hands were trembling against the sides of the Bull’s neck. He was pressing down harder against the skin in an attempt to hide it, and he was still looking up at the ceiling.
“Bull,” he began. Then he tried again, now in a peculiar glib tone that the Bull hadn’t heard him use before. “Will you promise not to tell anyone what I said? About Alexius? It’s all quite embarrassing, I was such a child still.”
Poor guy. The Bull reached up, took–careful–hold of one of Dorian’s hands, and pulled it forward. He pressed a kiss to the fingers.
With his head still resting against the base of Dorian’s stomach, he could feel the man exhale.
“Yes. Thank you. You look tired, Bull. Let’s go to sleep, shall we?”
Talk to him. Now. He’ll be angry if you put it off.
No, that was a terrible idea. He should think it over. Figure out the right thing to say.
We can draw a veil over his ears and eyes, make it so that he hears your lies and accepts them. Accepts you for what you are.
No. If there was one thing the Bull was still sure of, it was that he shouldn’t take a demon’s advice on anything. If a demon said to lie, surely the Bull had to do the opposite of that immediately. He had to talk with Dorian. Be honest about what he was, what he’d been, what he wanted.
There are ways, the voice said, almost too clear to be a mere memory.
The Bull’s eye snapped open. He tensed, focused, felt for the sharp pressure of Dorian’s demon-detecting ring on his hip. It was inside his belt, strapped against his skin, where he couldn’t possibly lose it or fail to notice if it heated up.
It was cold. No demons. His mind was his, still.
On the heels of that realization came an abrupt, terrible awareness of how close Dorian was right now. The exposed column of his throat, less than two feet above the Bull’s face. The strong fingers rubbing the Bull’s temples, fingers that would break like twigs in the grip of a qunari hand. Warm thighs, the faint throb of blood in them just audible to the Bull’s sensitive ears. The tender softness of his stomach, just behind the Bull’s head, inches from the tips of his horns.
If a demon got into the Bull’s head, it could make him gore Dorian in an instant. He was built to do it. His horns were sharp enough to puncture skin with enough force behind them, force that his neck muscles were more than strong enough to provide. Just one quick jerk to the side. Dorian would be holding his own guts in his hands before he even registered the pain.
The Bull closed his eye.
His mind was still his. But for how long? Would the demons take over, if he didn’t go mad by himself? Who knew if he’d even have a mind to think with, tomorrow? In an hour?
He didn’t know. He didn’t know what was going to happen.
Now. While he still could. Dorian would help him, or leave him; in both scenarios, he’d at least know to be alert. Be ready to defend himself, if it came to that.
“Dorian, there’s something we gotta talk about.”
The light was bad and reading expressions upside down was tricky at the best of times, but something seemed to drain out of Dorian. His mild expression didn’t change, but it suddenly looked like a wax mask instead of a person’s face.
“Yes, Bull? What is it?”
“You’re gonna be mad.” He was stalling. Not a helpful tactic in these circumstances, not to mention unlike him. Uncertainty and nerves were contagious. He was only making it likelier that Dorian would freak out.
Dorian’s smile looked carved out of wood.
“Mad? We’ll see about that. Try me, I’m the forgiving sort.”
Right. He was. He was, and that was all the Bull could cling to right now.
“I told the Ben-Hassrath when you showed up here. That’s what I did back then, write home to tell them what was going on.” Back then until two weeks ago.
“I… see? And?” Dorian’s voice was perfectly neutral, but his fingers were still as death on the Bull’s shoulders. The Bull forced himself to look up.
“They told me to make nice with you so I’d find out if you were doing shit for the Imperium. And in case you ever got your stupid dad’s Magisterium seat.”
The benign smile eroded from Dorian’s face. It happened so slowly that it made the Bull want to scream.
Dorian was still blinking, and it was the only way the Bull could tell he was looking at a living person.
“Make nice with me.”
The words fell into the silence like a dead rat into the morning porridge.
The Bull opened his mouth, but Dorian’s right hand shot up in a warning gesture. The suddenness of the movement made the Bull snap his teeth together so hard they hurt.
“Off,” Dorian whispered.
What? Off… Right, right. The Bull sat up at once, fast enough to make his spine crack, and turned to face Dorian on the bed.
But Dorian had already slid down to the floor. He was standing three steps away, out of grabbing distance, and the look on his face chilled the Bull to the bone. It was the way Dorian stared at demons when he was still figuring out what spell he wanted to rip them apart with this time.
”You claim that you seduced me because the Ben-Hassrath ordered you to.”
Well. More or less. “Yeah. But…”
Dorian’s hand shot up again. ”Do not speak. Show me the ring I gave you.”
White flame leapt up from the candles in the brazier behind Dorian, blazing, blinding. The Bull recoiled on reflex.
”Do as I say,” Dorian intoned, and there was something behind his voice–a sense of power, of command–that wasn’t natural.
Before the Bull realized he was in motion, his fingers were digging under his belt, extracting the ring. And then it lay on his palm. It was cold and dark.
Dorian’s lips thinned. He closed his eyes.
The glaring light diminished, shrunk, until it was no more than three weak little flames sputtering over barely-there candle stumps. As the Bull stared, Dorian’s right hand went up to clasp at his chest, over his heart. His fingers twitched like little river things caught in a net.
Then, before the Bull could figure out what to say, Dorian snatched the ring from his palm–almost without touching the Bull's skin at all. The Bull watched him turn, stalk over to the door, and begin jamming his feet into his boots.
You’re forgetting your socks, your footsies will get cold, his brain supplied.
“Well,” Dorian began, voice shockingly loud in the dark room. “Since you no longer have any use for a source of information on Tevinter, I’ll leave you to your new pursuits. Whatever those may be.”
No. Fuck. Shit.
Don’t leave me.
“Dorian. No. Wait. I wanted to say sorry.”
A scraping of leather across wood as Dorian dragged his pack towards the pile of dirty clothes he’d left by the door. He began to stuff them back in with quick, jerky motions. When he looked over his shoulder, his eyes wandered somewhere around the Bull’s face, left, right.
“Whatever for? You were doing your job. I understand. Kind of you to tell me now, rather than string me along.” He tied his pack, walked over to the Bull’s desk, and began to collect his writing implements. The Bull had seen him do this dozens of times, and it was a small labor of love. The pen went in its own little wrap, the papers were aligned to perfection on a kerchief of sturdy silk, the ink pot also got its own–tighter–wrap, and then the whole collection was folded into a large square of supple, waterproofed nug leather.
Dorian threw everything on the nug leather wrap in a careless heap, then tied it without even looking at it. One of the straps snapped.
“No. Dorian, I mean, you’ve… You helped me. I felt shitty about the Qun before, and you helped me, and… I wasn’t trying to take advantage.”
Dorian’s fingers stuttered on the ties of his pack.
Idiot. He should have thought this through, why had he just dropped this on both of their heads without even planning the conversation?
“It’s quite all right,” Dorian said, his tone so bright that it approached unbearable. “Glad I could be of some assistance during your trials. It’s really quite fine. I’ve been a port in a storm before, I understand.”
The warning hand shot up again. Dorian crouched over his pack, motionless save for the trembling of his fingers.
Then he stood up, hoisted the pack over his shoulder, and snatched up his staff and its harness where he’d left them on the other side of the door.
“Though I must say, I don’t think I appreciate being bedded for the information I might spill during pillow talk. Usually there’s at least some interest in my person involved, if only the outwards appearance of it.”
“I never meant…”
Dorian whirled around. “I am not finished speaking.”
He spun his staff in his hand, letting the heavy stone on the end drift just above the ground.
“This is not a nice sensation. I really don’t appreciate it. I believe I am, in fact, quite angry with you.” He swept an arm across the room, the bed, the mess of blankets and pillows on it. “And what was the meaning of this? Letting me crawl into your bed before you spoke up? Were you hoping I’d warm your cock one last time before you rid yourself of my verbose presence?”
“No,” the Bull said. His voice came out a good deal softer than he’d intended.
The wood of Dorian’s staff creaked under his grip.
“Sweet Maker, why…” He squeezed his eyes shut, and the bitterness in his face was breathtaking. “No. I know why. Don’t speak to me again. And don’t tell anyone about this, I’m sick of you blabbing to all and sundry about what goes on with us.”
“Dorian, wait.” He didn’t know what he was doing. Was this it? Was this what it was going to be like without the Qun? Just not knowing what the right thing to do was, not knowing what to say, until it drove him mad? “There may be other spies from the Qun in Skyhold. They’ll probably leave you alone, but you gotta keep an eye out anyway. You gotta be careful who you talk to. Please.”
Dorian sneered, a fierce, malevolent thing. The Bull was suddenly reminded of the camp in the mountains, so many months ago: of Dorian raging at him about the Bull’s dismissal of the Magister. He’d looked almost as vicious as this, then.
“How considerate of you to warn me. I shall be properly suspicious of any other men attempting to make nice with me.”
He shot the door to the tavern a filthy glare, then turned towards the one that opened onto the battlements. Krem and Grim had barricaded it with the heaviest of the Bull’s two dressers.
The dresser shot to the side and shattered against the wall with an almighty crash.
No. Don’t leave me.
“Dorian, I’m sorry. I like being with you.” Those were the only things he knew for sure anymore.
“I’m so glad you find me entertaining,” Dorian said. “Enjoy your freedom.”
And with that, Dorian swept out of the room, just as Krem began to hammer on the other door demanding an explanation for the noise.
Chapter 8: The Deep Roads
Letter lying on Dorian Pavus’ desk, spattered with fresh wine stains about an hour after Dorian Pavus broke a dresser and stormed out of The Iron Bull’s room
The text is in Tevene.
Thank you for your extensive report on the third iteration of the amulet, and also your offer to bring samples of diseased tissue and materials from your upcoming expedition to the Deep Roads with the Inquisitor. Painful as the topic is, I agree with you that since no modern scholar has spent more time and effort on studying the Blight than we have, we have a responsibility now to continue our work for the good of all. I will ask permission to receive the research journals that were recovered from Redcliffe Castle, if they were not burned in the destruction of the mountain village.
Thank you also for the books, and your expression of concern. Rest assured that I find this tower room comfortable. I need nothing save ways to keep my mind occupied, and the Inquisitor and Grand Enchanter Fiona provide these.
I do have one wish. As enjoyably familiar it has been to correspond with you these last few months, I would very much like to see your face again. It would be efficient to discuss further avenues for research in person, as you are no doubt aware. Please disregard these words entirely if you have no desire to meet. I would, of course, understand.
There is another matter I wish to discuss. As you know, I was stripped of my title and the Alexius seat in the Magisterium, but they could not touch my possessions and land holdings. I wish to take an interest in them again, and distribute them among deserving heirs and causes while I still live. If you will accept it, I wish to grant you from my inheritance the traditional share for a successful apprentice. I realize that this an antiquated custom, but the law enabling it is still on the books. While I foolishly squandered much of my gold in the last few years, the estates in Trevis and Vyrantium are in good condition and will produce valuable harvests if managed appropriately. Choose whichever one appeals to you the most. You have a bright future, whatever you decide to apply yourself to, and I will not see you destitute if your idiotic sire elects to disown you entirely.
Tending to an estate is no small task, and I have no idea whether such a responsibility fits in your plans for the future, but consider it. Please bring brandy if you do visit, I miss it rather terribly.
As you are aware, I have no more use for the concept of a Maker, but I know you still believe. May He bless you and your forgiving heart, and keep you safe in the Deep Roads. I know it is no longer my place to tell you where not to go, but the thought of you descending amongst throngs of darkspawn stills my heart. Be careful. Close your mouth when you fight them.
Draft letter written on the back of the previous letter, but never copied over to a new paper and never sent. Portions of the text are scratched out with angry pen strokes
The text is in Tevene.
Your journals are intact. One was on my person when we fled Haven, and the others were found during a recovery mission led by Lieutenant Cremisius Aclassi of the Bull’s Chargers mercenary company. He is also of Tevinter. You may remember him from the mountain, he built our shelter.
Your offer is most generous and touching. I am indeed planning to return to Tevinter, where I hope to continue the reformation work that we began so many years ago. I may have mentioned that I am still in contact with Maevaris Tilani; she has put forward a number of interesting suggestions as to roles I could play. Whether my father retains me as his heir or not, it will be decades before the Magisterium seat will pass on to me. In the meantime, it would be a great help for me to have an independent source of income. I would very much like to ask you more about the estates and their management.
There is a small complication. One that I would like to ask your advice about, if you are still as willing to listen to my prattling about juvenile matters as you were when I was nineteen.
I have met a man. He is good and kind to me, but I am being silly and afraid, and do not know what to do. I have reason to believe the Imperium will not welcome him. Your insights would be most valuable.
I look forward to my return to Tevinter.
I will bring you all the brandy I can lay my hands on. And yes, I will be careful in the Deep Roads. I cannot say I am not apprehensive, given how intimately familiar I am with what slow death will stalk us there. But what have we done all our lives, if not stubbornly believe in our ability to conquer the darkness?
Note delivered by a kitchen boy to Lieutenant Cremisius Aclassi in the Herald’s Rest, two hours after Dorian Pavus broke a dresser and stormed out of The Iron Bull’s room
The text is in Tevene.
My apologies for writing you when you are only at the other end of the castle, but I am extremely drunk. I will make more sense this way.
You are no doubt aware by now that your employer and I are no longer involved. I do not know what he has told you. Please do not be alarmed; I very much intend to honor my promise to locate your father. When I hear from Magister Tilani, you will be informed at once.
May I avail myself of your refreshing candor once more? I am making plans for my return to the Imperium, after our Corypheus business here has been concluded. While I now have some idea of what I can do to tackle the causes of our homeland’s unfortunate reputation abroad, I would greatly value your input. I also need assistance with a delicate matter that must be concluded before I can travel, involving an Altus house amulet that I need but foolishly lost on my way south. May I offer you a dreadful beer of your choosing in the tavern sometime soon so we can discuss any help you might be able to offer, and of course compensation?
I also owe you an apology. It was very unwise of me to dismiss the warning about your employer that you delivered so many months ago. I was conceited and entirely wrong in my assumptions.
I was beginning to think that maybe I was so wrong.
Do forgive me for rambling on. I’m not sure I feel entirely like myself. I am out of wine also. The rascal bringing you this missive refuses to get me more, and I would crack my head open attempting to navigate the stairs to the cellar by myself.
Please come see me and bring me something to drink, I beg of you.
Yours in continued friendship, I hope,
Note delivered by the same kitchen boy to Dorian Pavus’ room
The text is in Tevene.
Actually, the Chief’s not saying shit. Just that it’s his fault and you should tell the story, but he also wants me to leave you alone for now. You’re both assholes who make no sense.
I’m coming over with more wine. I’ll decide who gets how much. We’ll get shitfaced and you can tell me what happened, okay? Wait just half an hour, don’t go to sleep, I need to make sure the Chief won’t do anything weird before I can leave. He’s not all there, I think that saar-qamek shit kinda got to him. Never seen him like this.
Note delivered to The Iron Bull’s room a few hours later
The text is in Common.
Updating you know because I know you’re still up and tearing your horns out over your Vint squeeze. He’s alive, I put him to bed and I’m hanging around a bit to make sure he doesn’t puke and choke himself.
You’re a fucking asshole. I can’t believe you honeypotted him.
You wanted to know how he’s doing. Imagine he’d walked up to you and admitted he was spying for the Archon this whole time. Every time he smiled at you, it was so you’d hurry up and spill Qun secrets that his boss could use to fuck over your buddies back on Seheron and Par Vollen. Every time he touched you, all that horn scratching and knee warming and dick sucking, it was all poison. He didn’t give a single fart. He wasn’t fixing shit for you at all, everything he did was to hurt you and your entire people. He led you around by the dick for months, and everything about him was a great fucking lie. Imagine falling for that. Feel shitty yet?
And he’s a Vint, Chief, keep that in mind, shame’s kind of a big thing back home. You’re fucking lucky all he did was blow up furniture. But there was no way you could’ve told him this that wasn’t going to end in explosions. You probably did the best you could, even if you’re an asshole.
I kinda talked to him about your Qun stuff. Sorry. But I think he understood, a bit. He knows it’s not your fault you were born in Par Vollen and you liked your people and you tried to help them. He still hates your guts right now. Might calm down a little tomorrow. Shit, I kinda hate your guts right now. You know why.
If you want him back, it’s on you to make it happen, he’s not gonna come crawling.
I’m sorry everything’s shitty right now, Chief. I’m mad but I’m gonna be there when you wake up tomorrow morning, okay? Go to sleep.
If you’re not going to sleep, Stitches had a good idea earlier. How about you keep writing your reports, but just don’t send them? Might help you feel like your head’s still on straight. I’ll read them if you want, I can let you know if you sound weird.
Written on the top sheet in a sheaf of papers, stored on The Iron Bull’s desk alongside copies of his previous Ben-Hassrath reports
The text is in Common.
Dorian went to the mage tower today. Was carrying a basket from the kitchens. Stayed for three hours, then came out and went back to keep immediately. Didn’t see him again. Not in the tavern.
Didn’t see Dorian today. Nobody did. Viv says he woke her up in the middle of the night yelling something. She went to check but he said he just had a nightmare.
Dorian on Viv’s balcony around noon. They had tea. He left pretty soon. Was in the courtyard later in the afternoon, bought something from Bonny Simms, looked like a bottle. Went to the mage tower and didn’t come back until after sundown. Not in the tavern.
Dorian in the training grounds today before dawn, destroyed two practice dummies. Then not seen all day. Not in the tavern.
At the bottom of the paper, in a different hand
Chief, is this helping? Anything else you want to write about?
Under that, in the original hand
You said to focus on what helps. This helps.
At the bottom of the paper, in a different hand
Shit, Chief. I’ll talk to him again, okay? Meeting him for drinks tonight before you all leave.
Good luck in the Deep Roads. Keep writing, I think it does help. Everyone’s saying you seem better.
In the next week, the Bull exchanged exactly seventeen words with Dorian. They were Do you want me to ask the Boss to take me off the Deep Roads expedition, and a No that must have curdled every pail of milk in Skyhold.
Adaar backed the Bull into a corner in the courtyard, frustration coming off her in waves, and demanded an “end to nonsense”. She only left when the Bull promised her that he’d talk to Dorian before they all had to get on their horses, travel for over a week to get to the Deep Roads, and then work together well enough to not get killed by darkspawn.
Dorian was a ghost. He didn’t show his face in the tavern at all, and the Bull didn’t dare set foot in the keep, let alone go anywhere near Dorian’s usual haunts. The one time he’d had to go see Red in her rookery, he took the long way around through the kitchens so he could sneak through the library without having to pass Dorian’s alcove.
Dorian wasn’t even there, but Helisma was. She stared right at the Bull the whole five seconds he was in there, and her empty stare followed him out again when he returned.
The Bull wrote reports. He made summaries in Common for Krem and made copies of the extended versions, as if he was still planning to send off one and keep the other for his own archive.
The evening before the Deep Roads expedition, there was a knock at his door–the one leading to the battlements. It was Dorian.
“Uh,” the Bull said. “Hi.”
Dorian kind of looked like crap. Crap that had done a good job covering up the bags under its eyes with make-up, but still crap. He also looked very angry. Possibly drunk, too, but that didn’t always mean much with Dorian.
“Good evening.” The tone was clipped, flat. “The Inquisitor thinks I am being an ass, and in her infinite wisdom, has ordered me to speak to you so that she can be reassured that her Deep Roads team is functional and reliable.”
The Bull had actually been expecting Adaar to show up any moment, to tell him that he was off the mission because he clearly couldn’t work with Dorian anymore. He had no idea why that hadn’t happened.
“Makes sense. Come in,” the Bull said, making a supreme effort to sound friendly and contrite, but not so much that it would just piss Dorian off. It was hard. All he wanted to do was beg.
“Here will do,” Dorian snapped. It was an unseasonably cold evening for Cloudreach, harsh gusts of mountain wind making the banners above them snap incessantly. It looked deeply uncomfortable out there, but Dorian wasn’t hunching his shoulders or doing anything else to protect himself.
Right. This was it. He was getting another chance to apologize. He’d thought about it more, now, and talked about shit with Krem too. Krem deserved to be written into the Chant or something.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I did that to you. I didn’t want this to happen.”
The reply was immediate. “If you didn’t want it to happen, all you had to do was not obey your superiors like some mindless drone.”
Yes. True, that. “You’re right. I just didn’t think–“
Dorian’s eyes flashed in the light that fell on him from the Bull’s door. “Yes, it must be so hard for an intelligent man like you to form opinions on anything. How are you even managing without the Ben-Hassrath whispering in your ear? Do you have Cremisius tell you when to wash and when to take a shit?”
The Bull blinked.
Dorian squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. The warding ring he'd taken back from the Bull wasn't on his hand.
“That was unworthy of me. I apologize.”
He didn’t sound sorry.
The Bull watched him, standing there on the dark battlements a good four feet away, well out of touching distance, a stiff pillar of rage and wounded dignity.
This wasn’t going anywhere. At the very best, Dorian would get a bit of the poison out, and the Bull could give him a few words that might make things a little bit better. He’d spent the last ten days plunging the depths of his mind for things to say, and while he had some ideas, none of them felt anywhere near good enough. Maybe Krem was right, and there was just no way to make this better. Everything was shitty. All the Bull could do was hurt and bear it, and hope things would improve. For Dorian at the very least.
Well. At least Dorian was managing to distract the Bull from the Tal-Vashoth fiasco. The grief made it difficult to focus on all the other shitty stuff.
“They said to get close to you,” the Bull told Dorian’s cold mask of a face. “They didn’t say to fuck you. I decided to do that. Because I liked you.”
“You liked me!”
Dorian shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I told you about my fears and my secrets,” he hissed. “I let you fuck me. I let you tell people you were fucking me. I let them point and laugh at me for it, because I thought it was worth it, because I liked…”
He took a deep breath, and the Bull didn’t even think of interrupting. Please feel better after you let that out. Please.
Dorian didn’t seem to be anywhere near the realm of "better". The anger twisting his features was morphing into something terribly close to anguish.
“What if this information reaches Tevinter? Do you know what they’ll do to me if it gets out that I was bending over for a Ben-Hassrath agent who was passing my every word on to Par Vollen? I’ll be lucky if I’m stoned in the streets before the Magisterium gets its hands on me! Let’s play cultural exchange one more time. What’s the punishment for treason in Par Vollen? In Minrathous, you get stripped naked and flogged to death in public.”
Fuck. He hadn’t thought of that. He hadn’t thought of how it would look, what this could mean for Dorian if he ever went home.
Of course he hadn’t thought of it. It hadn’t mattered, in the beginning.
“I apologize. I’m so sorry,” the Bull repeated. He held out both hands, palms up, offering he didn’t even know what. “If you want anything, tell me. Please.”
Dorian looked down at the Bull’s hands as if they were skittering vermin. “There is nothing you took that can be returned to me.”
The Bull had thought he’d felt as shitty as he possibly ever could after he got back from the Storm Coast. Ha. Fuck me. Damn me to the Void, or wherever it is your cursed people go.
Before him, Dorian took a deep breath. He was looking pale, much paler than before.
“If they hadn’t kicked you out of the Qun, would you ever have told me?”
“I don’t know that,” the Bull whispered. “I hope so.”
Dorian closed his eyes. He joined his hands together, as if in prayer, and stood still as the cold wind made short work of his careful hairdo.
“Cremisius asked me to…”
He fell silent again.
The Bull waited.
“Very well. Here is what we will do,” Dorian finally said. “I… believe your claim about your intentions being good towards the end, and I believe that you are no longer obeying the Ben-Hassrath. My personal humiliation is hardly worth weakening our effort against Corypheus. I will stay and fight, and you will stay and fight, and I will not speak ill of you to those who have to work alongside you. I will protect you in battle as I have always done, and I expect the same courtesy from you.”
The Bull blinked. “Yeah, of co–“
“I am not finished,” Dorian snapped. “In return, you will leave me be and allow me what dignity remains to me. I will not spend the remainder of my time here constantly assaulted by well-meaning questions and pitying glances. You will not speak of what passed between us to anyone. Except Cremisius, since he knows already. If anyone asks you anything, just say that… it didn’t work out. I don’t care what you spin it into, just don’t tell them about this.”
It was to be shut away, then, as if it had never existed at all. That was appropriate. It didn’t feel right, but the right thing to do wasn’t always what felt right.
“What if Adaar asks? She’s being nosy.”
“Send her to me. I’ll dissuade her,” Dorian replied. His eyes were open now, and fixed on the Bull’s face in baleful accusation. “Do not speak of this. I cannot bear the thought of them knowing. And do not tell me it wasn’t my fault, I’m perfectly aware of what happened and I still don’t want them to know.”
The Bull still had his arms out. They ached, oh, how they ached. “Yeah. Of course. Anything you want.”
Dorian stared at him. He looked almost confused now, as if he’d come here braced for an argument and didn’t know what to do with himself now that it wasn’t happening.
“You…” He stopped. Tried again, with a sound that was an ugly parody of a laugh. “Ah, I don’t even know why I’m so angry with you. You were really quite straightforward about being Ben-Hassrath, and you told me the truth the moment you could. I did this to myself, I should just have kept my legs closed. I…”
Dorian shut his eyes and raised his hands to his face again. When he spoke, it was barely audible over the moaning of the wind. ”But I didn’t deserve…”
“You didn’t,” the Bull agreed quietly. He reached out a little further, until Dorian could have touched him with no effort at all. “Hey…”
Dorian stared at the hands hovering between them. His own fingers moved to cover his mouth.
“I can do no more than this right now,” he whispered.
The Bull nodded and lowered his hands.
“Okay,” he managed. His throat hurt. “Okay, big guy. See you on the road tomorrow.”
Dorian turned and disappeared into the night.
The journey to the entrance of the Deep Roads was… painful. Dorian ignored the Bull entirely, and there was something off with his attempts to talk with the rest of the team. He got better at it after a couple of days, and he sounded almost normal by the time they got to the big stone lift. The Bull was almost entirely sure the joviality was fake, but what was he going to do about that? Dorian was doing the best he could.
So was the Bull. He was feeling calmer now, after plenty of time to sleep off the very last of the saar-qamek and a couple of pep talks from his boys. Cassandra and Cullen had shown up and invited him to the sparring ring, and Cassandra had even brought the feelings stick. That had been nice, too. Now the Bull didn’t feel like he was teetering over some ravine anymore, or at least, the feeling wasn’t so acute. He still had his head with him. It was just full of fucking useless misery and gloom.
At least Dorian seemed to be sleeping better. He was in a separate tent now, so the Bull couldn’t know for sure. He missed the guy like a fucking limb. All of him ached, the way he used to ache when he caught lung fever on Seheron: everything throbbing, sore, all the stuff in his chest swollen and straining against his ribcage.
Funny, that the Bull had to descend into an actual ravine just as he’d almost pulled his brain out of a metaphorical one. The Deep Roads were no better than a tomb–a vast network of cold, dank catacombs, each new hall a little bit shittier than the last. If he were Varric, he’d have spun some elaborate analogy about black chasms and labyrinths and eyes glowing at him from the darkness. As it was, the best the Bull could do was be grateful that he got lots of distractions because there was so much shit to kill.
Or hit until it couldn’t get up anymore, at least. Apparently it was an open question whether darkspawn were alive or already dead. That was just fantastic. Dorian had opinions on it and tried to debate them with their dwarf guides as they descended step by step, endlessly, but none of them really put their heart into it. Dorian should have loved the place, really. So much dead shit. But he was mostly quiet, and it didn’t feel like it was just because of his crap with the Bull. Nobody felt like talking much. The silence down here wasn’t the kind you wanted to break; it was a malevolent thing, hanging in the dead air like an invisible miasma.
The Bull had seen quite a few graveyards. He’d even walked through a Nevarran necropolis, once. This place was easily the least serene or peaceful crypt he’d ever had the misfortune to be in. Valta kept carrying on about returning their dead to the stone; the Bull imagined he could feel them around him, thousands of dead dwarves in the rocks, their presence overwhelming that of Adaar’s small party of living souls. He tried not to look at the walls too much. Dorian tended to walk in front of him, as he always did when they had to go single file during missions, so the Bull focused on him instead.
The further down they went, the more darkspawn they encountered and the more subdued Dorian got. He was as fierce as ever when they were battling the nasty critters, but the revulsion that crossed his face whenever a bunch of hurlocks came pouring out of a side passage was downright extreme. Usually, he liked to sneak too close to any fight so he could get a couple smacks with his staff in. But now he hugged the walls as he cast, keeping as much distance between himself and the darkspawn as he could possibly manage. He seemed a lot more scared of these assholes than he was of regular old demons. The Bull wished he could hold his hand.
It happened two days into their miserable sojourn underground. They’d walked into a new hallway and gotten piled on by three fucking ogres and what seemed like infinite hurlocks, because that was just the Bull’s life now. Slice hurlock with axe blade, smash other hurlock with axe head, repeat. Keep mouth closed, no war cries, no fun allowed. Check on Dorian whenever he had a moment, because he couldn’t help it.
It took them at least half an hour to bring it down to one injured ogre and a handful of hurlocks, and their whole party was pretty much staggering around by that point. Even Valta and Renn were starting to tire. Sera, long out of arrows, was trying to dart behind hurlocks so she could stab them. Adaar was still casting, but the magic looked thin and shaky. Dorian was just using his staff blade to hack away at anything that came in reach.
Like that hurlock behind him. He was going to notice it and turn around any moment now.
Sometimes you just knew when some particular bit of nasty shit was going to happen; you looked, you saw the possibility there, and you knew with total certainty that it was coming. And still you were somehow frozen, entirely unable to take action. It had happened about every other week on Seheron. The Bull had never talked about it with anyone else. The feeling, the premonition, was too much like magic to admit to it out loud.
Dorian pivoted and began to swing his staff, and the vision unspooled in the Bull’s head with horrifying slowness. He’s standing too close. All he can do is slash upwards. If he slashes upwards, he’ll hit the edge of that helmet, and he won’t be able to make the body spin away from him before the blood from the artery starts to spray. It’s poison. The blight’s in the blood.
Dorian slashed upwards. His staff blade caught on the hurlock’s helmet with a terrifying screech of metal on metal. Blood spouted out of the thing’s throat like wine from a shattered bottle–
–directly at Dorian’s head.
Dorian jerked back like a puppet with cut strings, dropped his staff, and careened into a pillar as he clawed at his face.
The Bull’s legs began to move, just as Adaar’s voice rang around the hall like a dragon’s roar of fury.
“DORIAN! BULL, GET HIM OUT OF HERE!”
The Bull swatted away another hurlock that was trying to bite through his armor. Fucking shit monsters, getting in his way… “On it!”
Dorian didn’t seem to hear any of the shouting. He was stumbling backwards blindly, catching his feet on the dead hurlocks, trying to rub his face and doing absolutely no good with his leather gloves and gauntlets.
The Bull ran for him, trying to think of something he could say to reassure him, make it so Dorian wouldn’t try to cast at him or open his eyes or mouth in his panic. Was there a word, something that would get through to him quickly…
Fuck it. He ducked behind Dorian and grabbed him, pinning his arms and covering his face with a hand. Push up under his chin, don’t let him open his mouth.
“Don’t open your eyes! It’s me!”
To his considerable surprise, Dorian stopped thrashing almost before he’d started. The Bull squeezed his shoulder, his face, gently, trying to convey something reassuring.
“I’m taking you to safety. Don’t open your eyes. Don’t blink!”
He half-lifted, half-dragged Dorian backwards until they were back in the hall they’d just come from. He crouched, Dorian’s shaking form still clutched against his chest, and peeked past the open door.
There was a gaping fissure in the stone ground, spewing liquid flame straight into the air. It was directly between them and the fight, which was moving away in the direction of the closed door on the other side of the hall.
Thanks, Boss. You’re the best.
“Okay, the Boss is handling the darkspawn,” he said. Keep talking. Give him something to focus on. “I’m going to put you down so I can clean your face. Don’t speak, don’t move a muscle. Breathe through your nose, as shallow as you can. Got it?”
Dorian’s fingers dug into his thighs, hard–once, twice. The Bull began to let go, settling Dorian on the ground as he scrambled to get his pack off. He had blankets in there, things to wipe with, water…
It was then that he became aware of the noise–a wretched, hair-raising humming that set every nerve in the Bull’s body alight with shared misery.
He knew that sound. The smothered voice of a saarebas with their lips sewn shut.
“Dorian,” the Bull whispered, almost breathless at the blast of pain that spread through his chest like lightning. Dorian’s face was barely visible in the gloom, a mask of thick blackish blood. The Bull grabbed his hands instead. “Dorian, shhhh, it’ll be okay. Don’t be scared. We’ll wash it off. Shhhh….”
A thump next to them. Then light, bright yellow mage-light that made the blood gleam, and something pushing against the Bull’s arm.
“Here’s cloths and water,” said Adaar. She was panting.
“Hold his hands,” the Bull snapped.
As soon as he’d transferred Dorian’s claw-like fingers to the Inquisitor’s iron grip, the Bull grabbed the first cloth off the top of the pile. It was already wet. He could see others moving at the edge of his vision, Valta pouring water from her canteen on the pile of rags. Would have to thank her later, if…
“I’m going to touch a wet cloth to your face now. Don’t move.”
He drew the cloth through the thick coating of viscous liquid, sweeping away from Dorian’s mouth and nose and towards his jawline as much as possible. Fuck, the nasty shit was everywhere. It was drying way faster than normal blood–it already felt more like honey than like water. And it stank.
“Doing good, big guy,” he whispered when a shudder went through Dorian.
The Bull dropped the cloth, grabbed a clean one, and made several more passes around Dorian’s nose, careful to soak up droplets close to his nostrils before swiping at the area.
“There, you can breathe normally through your nose now. Don’t worry, just breathe. I’ll do your mouth next. Boss, some more light here?”
The glow intensified, sharpening the glint of the blood. It was so hard to tell it from the flickering shadows down here. Fucking pit.
The Bull pressed the cloth to Dorian’s lips, to soak up as much of the blood as possible first. “Dorian, tilt your head down so your mouth’s parallel to the floor. That’ll make anything on your lips move away from you.”
Dorian needed a gentle push on the head, but he moved, until he was on hands and knees with his head bent low. The Bull went with him, crouching so deeply that his spine began to protest. The light from Adaar’s staff sank with them. The others were quiet, so quiet that the Bull could hear Dorian's fingers scrabbling at the gravel on the ground.
“Open your mouth. Slowly.” Dorian did, with a small, utterly terrified gasp. The Bull forced his hands steady as he swiped clean corners of a rag first along the upper, then the bottom lip. “There. Don’t move, I’ll clean them again.”
He did, ruffling the mustache with the cloth several times for good measure. Dorian didn’t produce even a token whimper of protest.
“Okay, eyes now. Sit up a little again. You’re doing great, big guy, we’re almost there.” He began to dab at Dorian’s eyes. The skin under his hands felt so thin and porous. Surely the sickness couldn’t get through skin. Valta and Renn had said it got in through the mouth most of the time, but…
“Breathe slowly. There we go.”
Dorian shuddered again. His lips moved, but it took him a few tries to produce sound.
The Bull rubbed his back, in slow, gentle circles. “It’s okay, Dorian. Almost there… Done. You can look now.”
Dorian opened his eyes. He looked like he was staring straight into the mouth of death itself.
He coughed. “Did it get in my ears?” he whispered.
The Bull patted his arm. “Don’t think so, but let me check. Boss, light?”
He took Dorian’s chin and turned his head, left, then right. Dorian’s body moved under his hand like he was a wax doll.
“Nothing to see, big guy. You’re good. Did you have any scratches on your face?”
“I… don’t believe so.”
“Okay. We’re good, then,” Adaar said. What she meant was We’ve done all we can; there was no way to wash properly down here, not until they found a plentiful source of reliably clean water. “You guys take a breather. Everyone else, check if we can easily barricade ourselves in this hall. I don’t know if it’s noon or midnight, but we need some rest.”
Good plan. Dorian looked alive, but only in the very technical sense of the word. He’d need a moment before he was up for dealing with the possibility of more hurlocks jumping at them from around every corner.
If he wasn’t going to start shaking and puking his guts up any minute.
Don’t think of it.
“Thanks, Boss. Valta.”
The dwarf nodded. “You’re all brave to come here. Rest a moment.”
As if by unspoken agreement, they all left the Bull sitting in front of Dorian. Dorian didn’t seem to have any opinions on that. He was staring into the darkness, hands clenched on his legs, as still as the stone of the blighted tomb around them.
“Big guy? How are you feeling?”
Dorian blinked. It made him look like a person instead of a statue, which was a fucking fantastic development.
“Physically… A touch jittery. But normal, I believe. Oh. I smell… do you smell something sweet? Or is it just me?”
“Yeah. Rotten sweet, I smell it, it’s not just you. We’re gonna need five baths, but you’re okay.” Please. Please. “Should ask Valta for the symptoms of blight poisoning, maybe?”
“Tremors in the extremities, nausea without the ability to vomit, blurred sight, lack of coordination,” Dorian rattled off immediately. “I spent two years of my life attempting to heal a blighted man, I think I’ve rather seen what it’s like!" He sounded one loud boo away from hysterical, but the Bull supposed he’d earned that right.
“Yeah. Okay. And you’re not feeling any of those?”
Dorian closed his eyes. He sat perfectly still, hands now held loosely on his thighs. It went on long enough that the Bull wanted to shake him to see if he was still alive.
“No,” Dorian said, making the Bull jump a little. “However, we cannot be certain that the taint definitely produces immediate symptoms in each person afflicted. I can’t test for it, I don’t have anything down here. Ge… Alexius can do it at Skyhold, we developed a procedure, it’s as good as foolproof…”
His hands were starting to tremble again. Tremors in the extremities...
No. No. The Bull reached for Dorian's fingers. “Hey, it’s…”
Dorian was still fucking fast. Within the blink of an eye, he was sprawled on his ass a good three feet away from the Bull.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Sorry,” the Bull heard himself say. Something in his chest wrung itself into a tight knot.
Dorian frowned fiercely. “No, I mean…” He sighed, more than a touch of annoyance in the sound. The gravel under his feet crunched as he twisted to sit against the wall. “We never saw any indications that the taint can pass from human to human, or between other creatures, through touch or otherwise. I touched Felix frequently without any ill effects. But I’d really rather not risk it.”
Okay. Right. They were still both wearing gloves, and the Bull had had his hands all over Dorian’s head just a couple minutes ago. But all right, precautions sounded good.
The Bull rummaged around in his pack until his fingers touched wool. “Here, put a blanket on then. Get a little warmth on you. You’re shaking, big guy.”
He was now, a little. It wasn’t the bad, sickly kind of shaking, though–more like a nerves-leaving-the-body sort of thing. The Bull was almost entirely sure of it.
“All right. I suppose,” Dorian said.
The Bull dropped the blanket on Dorian’s hands. It was another moment or two before Dorian’s fingers actually closed over it, but then he shook it out and slung it over his shoulders. He immediately pulled a portion of it over his head, hiding his face from view.
Right. Privacy it was. The Bull couldn’t leave him alone, though–they’d cleared out this passage before, but you could never be sure that the darkspawn wouldn’t find a way to sneak up behind them through some other tunnel somewhere.
The Bull took up a comfortable stance, hands on his axe and back against the smooth wall, and stood guard. He ignored the whining twinges in his left leg. Nothing to be done about that, though lying down for a while might make some difference. He really missed the magic massages.
He didn’t actually know what it was like to die from blight sickness. That was something he’d managed to not see, in all his years up north and down here. There were no Deep Roads entrances on Seheron and no darkspawn, thank fuck for small mercies. The Bull had still been on the island when the Fifth Blight began in Ferelden, and it had been over by the time he heard of it. Today, darkspawn made it to the surface rarely enough on the mainland that even a mercenary company that really got around might never run into any. None of the Bull's Chargers had ever fought darkspawn. Until now, of course, if you counted the Bull himself. Which he supposed made sense. He was a Charger too.
Was it a fairly quick death? That’s what the Bull had been led to believe, but the case of Felix Alexius suggested otherwise. He’d been kept alive through all kinds of dodgy magic, though. Could the Magister do the same for Dorian? Would Dorian even want that? The Bull had seen Felix Alexius when he left Redcliffe to return to Tevinter. He’d needed help from Dorian to get up on his horse, and he’d looked light and empty, like everything under his skin was already shriveling up. He’d ruffled Dorian’s hair before he rode off. The Bull tried to picture Dorian like that, pale, fading, unable to walk to his library or to the tavern without having to pause every couple minutes.
He was broken out of that frankly shitty fantasy by movement to the side. Dorian was stretching his legs out in front of him, one after the other.
“Well. There’s always the Wardens,” he sighed, loud in the oppressive, dark silence of the hall. “I wouldn’t wish to deprive the Inquisition of my inestimable services, of course, and Warden life seems like the opposite of fun. I’ve been to Weisshaupt, it was ghastly. But I don’t want to die.”
It was the longest he’d talked to the Bull since… before. Fuck, he sounded so nervous. Poor guy.
“You’re probably okay, though.”
Another sigh, much softer. Dorian glanced to the side, giving the Bull a shadowed glimpse of his face. His mustache looked a fright.
Dorian closed his eyes and made a quiet sound of fatigue. He was still trembling.
The Bull’s arms were aching again, and only a little of it was because he was tired of swinging his axe. He wanted to hold something, and that was a feeling he was damn good at recognizing, because Tama had told him about it when he was little and one of the other imekari was sick with something contagious. She’d said, Sometimes we want to soothe, but we are not allowed, and we must accept that. And, You will be a good man when you grow up, Ashkaari.
Fuck, if she could see him now. Little Ashkaari from Par Vollen, gone all the way south via Seheron and Rivain and everything in between there and Ferelden. Standing around in the blighted Deep Roads, Tal-Vashoth, wanting to cuddle a Magister’s son who’d also meandered here from way up in Qarinus.
The Bull remembered Qarinus. Not very clearly; it was over twenty years ago since he’d been there, and then only for a couple of hours, most of which he spent scuttling about dodging pissy Vints who were trying to blow him up. It was mostly a blur of screams and blood and colors. He didn’t even remember what the objective of that raid had been. Kill someone? Find someone or something and take them? Distract the Vint garrison from a covert operation happening elsewhere?
Dorian would have been what, eight? It might even have been the same raid he’d talked about months ago, the one in which his father ruined his back running from the Beresaad with a flour sack’s worth of squirming child in his arms. It wasn’t impossible, the Bull supposed. But he wasn’t even sure about the exact year he’d been there, and there had been a lot of raids on Qarinus in those days.
The Bull did know for sure that they didn’t meet, because Dorian wouldn’t be here if they had. Back then, Hissrad was just another Qunari. Dorian was a little Vint who’d grow into a bigger and more dangerous Vint if left alone. If they’d come face to face in the chaos of the Qarinus docks, if Dorian had gotten in his way or tried to attack him, Hissrad would have cut him down without hesitation. He’d have captured the child if circumstances allowed it, to be turned over to the re-educators, converted and molded into a saarebas if he had his magic already. Trying to turn a grownup Vint into a proper saarebas was almost impossible, but they had a better success rate with the young ones. Not a good success rate, mind–the Vints were easily the most ornery and prideful folk in all of Thedas, and even their kids were tough little rotters.
He’d have done it without a second thought. Killed the boy with a blade in a split second or with chains over a period of years, and lived out his life without knowing that he’d crushed his own heart in the bud.
A useless what-if, that. It hadn’t happened. Dorian had survived, and so had the Bull.
They’d been so close for so many years, though. Ten years on Seheron, and Dorian had been just across the Ventosus Straits, trying to hatch dragon eggs and being a terrible child and growing taller and stronger every day. The Bull had been able to see the strip of green that was Tevinter from atop the cliffs of southern Seheron, when the weather was clear. Which, granted, wasn’t very often around the Straits.
The whole time he’d been on that hellish island, Dorian had been right there. Just a day away for a ship that managed to catch a good wind. There was even a good chance they’d come within a spear’s throw of each other once, on one strange day over two decades ago. Had Hissrad chased a man carrying a child, in Qarinus? He didn’t remember. It probably hadn’t been him, but did that matter? It could have been.
They’d been so close. So fucking close. It was a dizzying thought, one that the Bull had no idea what to do with. It meant nothing, and also everything, after how far they’d both wandered to be here, now.
He hadn’t come this far to give up.
He’d worked for Dorian, damn it. He’d worked to like him, to not be afraid of him, to win his trust. Whatever his motives at the start, he had done this. The Iron Bull. He had made it so Dorian could make the whole world feel safe and right when he put a hand on the Bull’s arm. He had made this feeling, day by day, week by week, month by month, piece by piece, gift by letter by conversation by round of fucking fabulous sex, and it was his. The Qun hadn’t given it to him. Hadn’t even wanted him to have it. It was his.
The Bull hadn’t gone through all this shit just to let all go without even trying to fix it. Doing so would be a criminal waste, under the Qun and outside of it too. Besides, he didn’t want to let it all go, because it was his.
And he’d take what he could get.
After one last careful inspection of the dark, quiet hall stretching out in front of them, the Bull lowered himself down on the stone floor. A bit of gravel immediately dug into his buttcheek. He was so sick of these nasty catacombs.
Dorian looked almost boneless, slumped down against the wall under the Bull’s ratty grey blanket.
“If you have to go join the Wardens, I’m gonna come with you.”
Dorian’s eyes snapped up towards the Bull’s face. He leaned away as far as he could without falling over.
The Bull grinned. “You said it, they don’t know how to have fun. You’re gonna need someone there who’ll talk shit and get drunk with you.”
If he’d ever seen a more affronted face, it wasn’t any time in recent memory. Dorian looked like the Bull had disparaged the library of the Circle of Minrathous.
“That is the most absurd… You can’t do that, you can’t just up and go drink darkspawn blood for no reason!”
“Can, will,” the Bull interrupted. “I’ll do anything for you. Any fucking thing.”
Dorian remembered to blink. He was looking a little owlish.
“But… What about the Chargers?”
That was not what the Bull had expected to hear. He’d expected Dorian to remember himself and start getting mad right about now.
He shrugged. “They can handle themselves. Krem’s been training to take over whenever he needs to.”
“Bull, there are no Wardens who are qunari. Vashoth. Kossith. Whatever you are.”
“If you want the race, the old word’s kossith, but qunari works better these days.” The Bull risked a small grin. “You know that, big guy. Don’t play nasty dumb Vint with me.”
“Whatever, there are no Wardens like you!”
That was a pretty important observation. The Bull gave it all the thought it deserved.
“Then they better start making bigger uniforms. Imagine the size of the griffons they’d need to put on my shoulders.” He actually imagined them. Those would be some big, badass griffons. Worth wearing a shirt for.
Dorian shook the blanket off his head, apparently so he could aim his death glare better. Poor guy, the Bull had scrubbed his face way too hard. His skin was all red and blotchy.
“What I mean, you dolt, is that a good portion of regular new recruits die during the Joining. People who were selected because they were judged likely to survive. Nobody knows whether qunari are even theoretically capable of surviving a draught of darkspawn blood!”
Which was true, and a tad concerning, but entirely beyond the Bull’s ability to answer or fix. He shrugged.
“Hey, there’s qunari darkspawn, pretty likely that it works for us like it works for the rest of you guys. And I’ve probably drank worse.” He gave Dorian’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze, and Dorian seemed too stunned to protest about infection. “Give up, big guy. I’m not letting you get banished to Weisshaupt all by yourself. Some things you just need a friend for.”
He kind of wanted to ask if maybe they could be friends again, but he had no idea how Dorian would react. And it wouldn’t be very fair to press while the guy was still rattled from the darkspawn blood business.
Dorian’s fingers had been toying with the edge of the blanket, but now the fidgeting stopped. He looked straight at the Bull.
“What if I don’t want you to come with me?”
“Hey, I’ll respect that. But I think you’d enjoy having someone there. And don’t think I won’t take the Chargers to the Anderfels at every chance.”
Dorian sighed, but it wasn’t the terribly unhappy kind, and he didn’t get mad. That was something.
There was a tapping on the door. Adaar stuck her great horned head around it.
“Guys, ready to go on? This hall is shit for defense, but if we push ahead for another hour, there’s supposed to be some kind of old storage room. We can sleep there. Eat something hot.” She was staring at Dorian very intently.
Dorian climbed to his feet and began to shake out the blanket. “Back to the grindstone… Yes, Inquisitor, I’m feeling better. Apologies for holding us up.”
“Nah,” Adaar waved. Then, “You look okay.”
Dorian nodded. “I believe I feel normal, yes. For now.”
She grinned, which was damn good to see. She’d been all grim and grumbly since the moment they stepped onto that dwarven stone lift. They hadn’t talked about it, but the Bull was pretty sure she was about as fond of enclosed spaces as he was.
“Good to hear it. March, then, Sera’s got your staff over here.”
“Oh no,” Dorian cried. “She’s touching my staff? It’ll give her demons!”
There was a loud clatter in the next hall. The echo of it ricocheted off the walls in all directions, impossibly loud, immediately followed by the echo of an even louder “Piss off!” and a lot of shushing from Valta and Renn.
It was a testament to how relieved Adaar was that she only shot Dorian one relatively mild glare before she pulled her head back. The Bull sympathized.
“Thank you,” Dorian said abruptly. “For your assistance. It is appreciated.”
“You’re welcome,” the Bull said.
Dorian held out the blanket. He’d folded it into a neat rectangle.
“Here. You might have to burn it after, though. I’d caution against touching it to bare skin. Or holding it close to your mouth.”
The Bull accepted it. “Reckon we’ll have to burn all the stuff we brought down here, anyway.”
Dorian sighed. He was making a half-hearted attempt to curl his mustache with one finger. “Yes. Well. That will teach me to bring the nice robes from Val Royeaux. Shall we?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. The Bull followed him.
Chapter 9: Home
Written on the top sheet in a sheaf of papers, rolled up and stored at the bottom of The Iron Bull’s pack
The text is in Common.
Dorian pretty okay today. Not talking much. He doesn’t look great, but not sicker than before.
Dorian the same. Asked Valta about recognizing early symptoms of blight sickness. She says he’s not showing any but it’s too early to tell for sure.
Going through lyrium caves. Dorian feeling sick, but so’s Adaar. She says it doesn’t mean anything and the lyrium would make any mage unwell, but Dorian threw up from it and she didn’t.
Back topside. Dorian looking glad to be there. He’s paler than usual, but Adaar says we all are. She isn’t and neither is Sera.
Dorian pretty okay today. Still not talking much.
Dorian pretty okay today.
Dorian woke up coughing. Said not to touch him or ride close to him. He looks scared.
He only coughed a couple times today. Reaching Skyhold tomorrow afternoon.
Dorian said that the reagents needed to test someone’s blood for blight infection took a few days to prepare, so Adaar sent a raven ahead to Skyhold ordering everything to be readied by the time the party returned. She kept it a tad vague on purpose, and didn’t mention who might need the test; apparently Red’s entreaties about not needlessly putting delicate information in raven messages were finally having some effect. The Inquisitor’s inner circle contained some of the most influential people in Thedas, and it could be of massive political consequence if one of them became blighted. If the Venatori managed to shoot the bird down, at least they wouldn’t know who it was exactly.
And it sure looked like some kind of rumor had leaked somewhere, because they rode into the castle on a beautiful spring afternoon to find the entirety of the Bull’s Chargers crammed around the gate, every one of them looking terrified. Krem was clearly using every ounce of his soldierly fortitude to look and sound normal when he asked if the Bull was sick.
The jubilation that followed the Bull’s denial was loud, chaotic, and a perfect cover for Adaar to whisk Dorian away to the keep. Unfortunately, it also made the Bull the centerpiece of an impromptu party that would be difficult to sneak out of without having to explain where he was going.
It took them all two hours to calm down enough that the Bull could plead exhaustion–yeah, he was a decrepit old wreck, but they were all still too puny to beat him in the practice ring–and haul himself up the stairs to his room. He dropped off his pack, left again through the door to the battlements, and slunk into the keep by going around through Cullen’s office. Cullen said hello and offered him a cookie from an enormous basket that had been sent by his sister. The cookies were very Fereldan, meaning as hard and tasteless as they looked, but the Bull could respect any baked goods that survived a trip from Honnleath all the way to Skyhold without breaking.
The Bull’s first guess was that Dorian would retreat to the privacy of his room for this kind of thing, and when he stepped out onto the walkway over the garden, he knew he’d been right. There were two uncommonly grim-looking guards in front of Dorian’s door, both carrying templar swords and matching glares.
“Hey, guys,” the Bull said. “I’ll just wait out here.”
They looked marginally less grim at being saved from potential awkwardness. Probably had orders not to let anyone in, but also orders to accommodate members of the Inquisitor’s inner circle whenever possible. The Bull gave them a little wave and settled against the parapet.
Stuff must have been going on in there for a couple hours already, but it was still a pretty long wait. The Bull passed the time studying the garden, the roof, the flowers in the garden, the mountains, and the garden again, without registering much about any of it. At least it was warm out today. If he closed his eye and let the gentle breeze wash over his skin, he could imagine what this place might be like in summer. It was going to be really nice. If they all survived that long.
In the end, he just stood still, looked at the door, and tried to sense the magic happening. He was getting the hang of recognizing Dorian’s casting. It was a kind of invisible presence, like the air itself condensed into something thrumming and sentient.
He couldn’t feel anything now. Everything was still and quiet.
The sun was beginning to sink behind the high western range by the time the door finally opened. The figure that emerged was wearing a hood and entirely nondescript robes, but the Bull could recognize someone by just their chin, especially if that was the way he’d seen them the most often before.
The man looked up at the Bull as one of the templar guards pulled the door closed behind him. The second guard dithered, clearly unsure what to do now that their charge had been intercepted.
“I am no longer a Magister. You may call me Alexius,” he said. His face didn’t look quite as sunken as when they’d met him in Redcliffe, and there was some color in it now. Maybe the Inquisition had better cooks than the Venatori, or maybe it was just that the Bull had never seen him up close in sunlight. He was still clean-shaven except for the little patch of hair under his lip. The Bull wondered if that was where Dorian had gotten it. A kind of homage or something? Wouldn’t surprise him.
Alexius studied the Bull for a moment. “You are The Iron Bull.”
“That’s me.” Okay, enough pleasantries. The Bull nodded at the closed door. “Is he sick?”
Alexius stared at him. Probably wondering whether he could get away with ignoring the Bull altogether.
Then he pulled his hood away and let it fall on his shoulders. He had a little more hair on his head now, all of it steel grey. The Bull had forgotten how freakishly pale his eyes were.
“One could argue that Dorian’s medical condition is none of your business. But no. He does not carry the taint.”
The Bull fought to keep his face from doing anything. Fuck. He’d known it was probably okay, but… fuck.
He stepped aside to let the man and his guards pass. “Okay. On your way.”
Alexius didn’t budge. The two templars were starting to look distinctly uncomfortable.
“I understand you kept him from swallowing the blood,” Alexius said.
Unsure where this was headed, the Bull just shrugged.
“He saved himself. They’d told us to keep our mouths shut while we fought, and he did.”
“Still,” Alexius said. Then, “I remember you from the mountain. You gave me food and shelter.”
Still not clear where this was headed. The Bull shrugged again. “Hey, Dorian asked nicely.”
This guy was really good at looking creepy. Maybe you got special classes in it once you got your seat in the Magisterium. Dorian couldn’t do quite this brand of sinister, or at least not yet.
“He has spoken of you. We have spoken of you.” Alexius did a thing with his eyebrows that almost doubled the creepy, if that was even possible. “You do not deserve him. If you harm him again, I will find a way to kill you no matter the consequences to myself.”
“Hey!” One of the guards grabbed the man’s upper arm as the Bull stood there, blinking. The other guard raised a fist, and Alexius squeezed his eyes shut as he braced for the upcoming Smite. He didn’t make even a token attempt to cast anything.
The guard holding the Alexius’ arm turned to the side, revealing Dorian, both of his hands clasped around the second guard’s raised fist.
“Please refrain, I’ll handle this. Thank you.” Dorian released his victim and turned on Alexius. His frown slipped from a look of anger to something closer to exasperated. “I asked for no death threats. I asked twice.”
Alexius raised an eyebrow. It was a very Dorian thing to do, and it made him look almost human.
“And I heard you both times.” The lines around the man’s mouth softened. It was almost imperceptible. “You should rest. The report on the expedition can wait until tomorrow.”
“I’m perfectly fine, as you’ve just confirmed yourself.” Dorian bowed, the quick, sharp head movement that the Bull recognized as a respectful Tevinter greeting between family members. “Vale.”
Alexius returned the gesture. “Bene vale, Dorian.”
And with that, he drew up his hood and fell in step with his guards as they moved towards the keep.
Dorian rubbed a hand over his face. He looked rather sheepish all of a sudden.
“My apologies. I told him not to, I swear. But the man saw me when I was seventeen and so drunk I pissed myself while snoring on his parlor floor. I doubt I’ll ever have any real authority there.”
“Not a problem,” the Bull said.
They stood there, the Bull on the landing and Dorian still half in his doorway. The breeze picked up for a couple moments, carrying the kind of chill you never got in Bloomingtide except up here in the mountains.
Dorian stared. He looked like he was thinking very, very hard.
The Bull waited him out. It was kind of relaxing, actually, to just look at his face again. And this place was a lot more pleasant on a beautiful spring day. Sunny. Comfortable. Someone had brought birds to the garden downstairs, and it sounded like they were preparing to make baby birds. That was nice.
Dorian blinked up at the Bull a few times.
“Ah. Won’t you come in?”
The Bull blinked back. “Er, I’m good. Just wanted to hear if you were okay. Congratulations, by the way.”
Dorian nodded. “Yes, it seems I remain as perfect and untainted as ever. The world rejoices, no doubt.” He seemed to hesitate for another moment, then took a step back. “Come in anyway.”
The Bull followed.
The room was still pretty messy, but it had gotten a lot cozier and less chaotic compared to the last time the Bull had been in here. There was an extra dresser, and a second candelabra next to the bed. Two overflowing bookcases turned the alcove near the window into a small echo of Dorian’s space in the library. The threadbare rug was gone, and a large red carpet with a border of yellow Chantry suns now covered most of the floor. There was also an extra chair now, a plush-looking thing of worn velvet that had legs shaped like overlarge lion paws. It looked easily sturdy enough to take a qunari’s weight, unlike most chairs in Skyhold, which tended to be sort of hit and miss in that area.
“Sit,” Dorian waved. He heaved open the lid to a sturdy chest and began to rummage around in it. There was a clinking of glass bottles. “Would you like wine? I would like wine. Quite a bit of it, in fact.”
“Celebratory drink now that your guardian’s left the room?”
Dorian rose, an unmarked bottle in each hand. They looked perfectly identical, but he turned them towards the window over his desk, studied them intently for a few seconds, and then put the left one back.
“Hah. Gereon just isn’t allowed to imbibe anything while outside his cell. He enjoys his drink as much as anyone, I assure you. What did you say about us? We’re all gristle and fat in a red wine marinade?”
“You look pretty great regardless,” the Bull said. He immediately wondered if he’d overstepped, but Dorian just huffed. He rooted around a bit longer in his chest, which was apparently full of mysterious wonders, and produced two ridiculously ornate pewter goblets. After a moment’s consideration, he blew into them, expelling some motes of dust that floated in the light from the front window. The room was in a pretty good location, actually–sunlight for the reading nook in the morning, and for the desk in the late afternoon.
“Apologies, I usually just drink from the bottle,” Dorian said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever even used these. Adaar got them from some rich Orlesian merchant, but Josephine won’t let her keep any food-related gifts. Poison and all.”
The Bull held both goblets while Dorian poured. “So she gives them to you?”
“Apart from you and Josephine herself, I’m probably the most poison-resistant creature in this castle at this point. To my own good health.”
“Cheers,” the Bull said.
Dorian downed his wine in a matter of seconds, poured himself some more, and then finally settled in the chair by the desk. He had to shove aside a small collection of papers, little glass things, and vaguely alarming metal contraptions to make room for his elbow on the wooden surface. It all looked a lot like the crap the Chargers had once had to clear out of the workroom of an Abomination somewhere near Ghislain.
“Looks scientific,” the Bull observed.
Dorian was sitting mostly still, but his feet were moving, the tip of his right boot combing through the pelt on the floor under the desk. It looked like that wolf pelt Adaar had given him in the Emprise.
“Most scientific. They’re Gereon’s things, someone will be around to collect them. He’s not allowed to walk through the castle carrying any magical objects. It’s a bit silly. Even if he were to suddenly turn rabid, there’s little damage he could do with a needle and two test tubes.”
The Bull wasn’t so sure about that. Vints were awful creative. He sipped his wine. “Did he say you guys talked about me?”
Dorian raised his eyes to the ceiling. “We talked about many things. I had to sit around for two hours, just watching him putter about. I wasn’t allowed to leave. I wasn’t allowed to help, because the contamination risk and my intensely personal interest in the experiment’s outcome made me an unsuitable assistant. I also wasn’t allowed to drink, in case he needed more blood samples. It was gruelling.”
The Bull grinned. “So you talked the whole time. Sounds like you.”
“It wounds me that you see me as so one-dimensional. I also applied my makeup and tried on every outfit in my possession, and made Gereon comment on them. He still has the fashion sense of a confused plowhorse. I can’t believe he learned nothing from me, I lived in his house for about six years all together.”
Dorian was indeed no longer in his riding gear. He was wearing a silky blue shirt that the Bull had never seen before, plus a bunch of bracelets and a lot more rings than usual. His hair was styled to absolute perfection, the curls on the sides of his head so flawlessly symmetrical that they almost looked painted on. He’d shaved away the stubble of their long journey and applied his kohl again, too.
The Bull wondered what he’d do if he had to twiddle his thumbs for a couple hours while he waited to find out if he was dying. Maybe clean and primp too, except he’d probably focus on his collection of sharp weaponry.
“Maybe he won't even try because he doesn't have a prayer of competing with your beauty, big guy.”
Dorian nodded. “Likely. Quite likely.”
They drank in fairly peaceful silence for a few minutes. The Bull felt like there was stuff he should be thinking through, maybe talking about, but he was finding it hard to get his brain going. He was sitting in Dorian’s room. Dorian, who was very alive and no longer snarling at the Bull like he loathed him above the darkspawn, the Venatori, and all other evils in the world. Dorian, who seemed just as lost in thought, gently passing his goblet from one hand to the other and back again. He was looking out the window over the desk, face to the sunlight.
Then the movement stopped. The Bull tensed, waiting for Dorian to speak.
“Bull, would you answer a question for me?”
Dorian’s fingers twitched. His nails made a tapping sound against the goblet, and he stilled again immediately.
“Did you actually want to sleep with me? Or did you do it because the Ben-Hassrath told you to?”
Oh. He seriously hadn’t expected Dorian to bring it up, at least not within the next three months or so.
“Of course I actually wanted to…” He stopped himself. That way lay another terrible argument, and he wasn’t sure he could take it if Dorian ever turned that hateful tone on him again. “Sorry. There’s no way I can make it sound better than it was. I don’t want to make excuses.”
Dorian sighed and lifted a hand, as if to comb through his hair. He remembered himself at the last possible moment and dropped it again, making the bracelets jingle.
“Bull, what I mean is… I’m not asking for my sake. Did they make you do that? The Ben-Hassrath?”
The Bull blinked. “No. I wanted to fuck you. You're amazing.”
“You were afraid, though. I thought at the time, I’m seeing things that aren’t there…” Dorian leaned in, grey eyes searching the Bull’s face. “You were actually afraid of me. I knew it. You said you’d never done it with a mage before.”
The Bull shook his head. “I was a little freaked out by the magic shit. Not scared, though, by then. You blew my fucking mind.”
He’d expected Dorian to pick up the compliment and run with it, but nothing of the sort happened. Dorian’s frown only intensified as he tilted his head. He was making the goblet wobble on its base on the desk, one finger on the rim.
“Would you have approached me at all if they hadn’t told you to?”
Probably not. He’d have looked, for sure, maybe flirted a bit. But no face was pretty enough for the Bull to ignore that there was a sack of demons behind it. Not at the time.
He looked at Dorian’s knees, and at the warm red of the carpet between them.
“Dunno,” he whispered. “I hope so.”
Dorian turned towards him fully, planting both feet on the floor. His hands slid into view, coming to rest on his knees, one free and one holding the rim of the goblet with four out of five fingers. He still wasn't wearing Alexius' ring, the Bull noted absently.
“Bull,” Dorian began.
He didn’t continue. The Bull looked up, and Dorian immediately closed his eyes.
“Bull,” he tried again. “Possibly this is not the time for a discussion of this nature. But since you invaded my domain while I was trying to recover from two of the most frightening weeks of my entire life, I will feel free to subject you to it anyway. It has occurred to me, recently, that… I mean, I spoke with Cremisius before we left. He set me thinking.”
Whatever happens, Krem-puff, I owe you a lifetime supply of chocolate nuts.
“Yeah?” the Bull nudged.
Dorian swallowed, and then the words came rushing out of him, so sudden and so clearly enunciated that they had to be at least partly rehearsed.
“It is possible that I’m being silly. That I have been too demanding. That I have not made enough effort to… understand where you came from.”
The Bull forgot to breathe for a moment.
“Did Krem say that?”
“No, no, he merely told me about your history with the Qun.” Dorian shook off the interruption, forging on. “And Gereon said that…”
He took a deep breath. Then another.
“…Never mind that. Suffice to say that I have been reminded that our true allies and loved ones are few, and our time with them is all too likely to be cut short by fate and circumstance. That it is foolish to refuse scraps of happiness just because they are not entirely what we were hoping for.”
Crap. “Dorian, you have a ton of friends. You don’t need to–”
Dorian shook his head. “Please, I’m not finished. I cannot afford… That is, it has occurred to me that perhaps I should take what I can have, instead of holding you to impossible standards of perfection.”
The Bull leaned forward, elbows on his knees. They were close; he could probably touch Dorian’s hands if he stretched out his arm. “Dorian, listen. That’s bullshit. I misled you.” He blinked. That wasn’t strong enough. “Tricked. Conned. Cheated.” He needed to make sure Dorian understood, even if it choked the Bull to say it.
Now Dorian opened his eyes fully, and he didn’t look pleased. “I’m aware of what happened, thank you. And you misunderstand me. I’m entirely serious, please give me some credit, you’re not the only one around here who’s capable of considering all sides of an issue.”
He paused for a moment, as if he wanted to make sure the Bull was going to shut up.
The Bull shut up. Dorian drew in a deep breath, as if gearing up for another scolding–and then seemed to deflate entirely. His shoulders slumped, his head fell forward, and his free hand came up to cover his face.
“A moment,” he whispered.
The Bull stared. Then he remembered to hum in encouragement.
Dorian breathed in again, peeled his hand off his face, and placed the goblet down on the floor. He put his elbows on his knees, almost mirroring the Bull’s pose. Then he entwined his fingers, as if he were about to pray in the Southern style. He still didn’t open his eyes.
“I should take you as you are. You have been nothing but good to me, whatever your initial motivations, and…” He pressed his hands against his lips, made a small noise against his fingers. “You have been… wonderful. Wonderful. And to lose this for the sake of my bruised dignity would be…”
His fingers twisted together until a few joints cracked, loud in the quiet of the room.
Holy shit, he can’t even look at me. “Big guy, listen to yourself. I did more than scratch your pride a little.”
Dorian’s eyes snapped open.
“My pride, or literally any other of my many wounded feelings, will not be there for me when I’m in need. It will not hold me in the night, or make me laugh, or buy me chocolates, or ask me about my work. It will most certainly not kiss me or bed me!”
“Dorian, it’s not just about…” The Bull could feel himself faltering, but he didn’t know what to do or say in the face of this. “You don’t need to settle for someone who betrayed you.”
“Yes, yes, I’m aware of what I need and needn’t do, I assure you that my self-respect is, at this point, a multifaceted and sturdy thing. I… Fasta vass!”
He looked the Bull square in the eyes, the very picture of ferocious determination, and the Bull knew this was the last thing hundreds of Venatori and Red Templars and darkspawn had seen before they died. The most unrelenting and immovable man in Thedas, come to rip them apart with his mind just by willing it.
“I miss you,” Dorian said, loud and clear even as his voice wobbled dangerously on the second word. “And I would be happier if I accepted that you are sincere when you say you truly care for me, and that you are the best man I have ever loved, and that you should be permitted your past follies and misjudgments, given what they were born of, and… Oh, Bull, I only wish to forgive you.”
The Bull’s thoughts didn’t often have to race to catch up with something he was hearing, but he wasn’t at his sharpest today, apparently. It was difficult to think anything at all past the swell of feeling in his throat.
He wondered if there were more Vints like Dorian and Krem, or if he’d just had the privilege of meeting both of the Imperium’s very best.
I miss you too, he wanted to say, but that wasn’t enough. It was true, but not what he wanted. He wanted to do something. He wasn’t going to sit and let this be, let Dorian convince himself that he was the one bowing, the one settling for less than he deserved.
He just wanted the guy to like him again. Lavish attention on him, look at him, write to him, worry about him. He wanted all of Dorian's power and generosity pointed at him again, enveloping him, keeping him whole and safe, all of it given gladly and without reserve.
And he wanted for Dorian to let the Bull do the same for him. He wanted to help. He was pretty sure he could help, somehow–he just knew it.
“I want to talk with you,” the Bull said. “And write you letters. And give you things. And share drinks with you, and eat with you, and…”
He offered his hands. Dorian stared at them like he’d never seen the Bull before in his life.
“Can I do that, Dorian? For a bit? And maybe if you like it… If you want to… We can try other stuff again?”
Dorian blinked. His hand moved to his mouth. A brush across his lips, and he lowered it again.
“Are you… asking permission to woo me?”
Oh. Clever heart, always ready with the right word for everything.
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. I am.” The Bull kept himself from making any emphatic gestures, but only just; he kept his hands steady, hovering between the two of them.
Dorian goggled at him.
Now that he’d been given a hint, it was easier to find the right phrases. The bas had lots of ways to talk about this shit, he’d read about them in Krem’s novels. “Don’t tell me no one’s ever courted you.”
From the look on Dorian’s face, you’d think the Bull had asked him whether he’d ever been invited for tea and crumpets with the Arishok. “Well. No. That is… One takes what one can get, in Tevinter. Things are fraught enough as they are. If you make someone work for it too hard, they’ll give up and…” Dorian sighed, eyes sliding away from the Bull’s face for a moment before they returned, just a smidgen sadder than before. “You must know I would take you back right now, if you asked.”
“You don’t need to do that,” the Bull said. “I wanna do this right. You’re not forgiving me for shit until I’ve earned it, okay?”
Dorian pulled his hands into his lap and closed his eyes. He held perfectly still.
“If you are toying with me, you will burn,” he whispered.
It was the absolute scariest, most believable threat the Bull had ever heard from someone who was practically in tears.
“Yeah. No. Not toying,” he said.
Dorian peered at his face, as if he’d be able to tell if the Bull was lying. “Good,” he said.
Fuck, he couldn’t believe this was happening. He couldn’t believe it.
“Dorian?” he urged. “You mean I have permission?”
“Yes.” Dorian swallowed and conjured a watery grin. “A thousand times, yes.”
Oh. He’d agreed. It was going to be okay. Everything was going to be okay. What did you say when someone smiled at you, and it made the world stop spinning?
“Thanks,” was what the Bull finally managed.
He reached for Dorian then, slowly, and curled his fingers around the man’s right hand.
“Hey. You forgive me when you’re sure, okay? I’ll take good care of you. Promise.”
Dorian squeezed back. “I cannot wait.” He sucked in a breath, and his grip tightened. “Bull, this is not only on you. I would learn more about you, I’ve spent far too much of our acquaintance babbling about myself. I should understand you better.”
Aw. Shit. “Sure. What do you wanna know?”
Dorian wiped his eyes. “Ah. Silly me, excuse me. Well, to start with, I wish to learn your language. Language is the bedrock of a culture, after all. Will you teach me? We might struggle to find any suitable books, so I’d have to impose on rather a lot of your time, but I promise I’m a quick study.”
The Bull blinked. He was gonna get to talk Qunlat again. That was… He didn’t have a word for how this felt.
Kadan, kadan, kadan.
“Sure, big guy. Whatever you want.”
Dorian nodded, very firmly. “It’s important. I wish to care for you better. More.”
“Yeah, I get that.” He got that. He really fucking got that. “Anything else you want?" Oh, wait, wait. "Hey, Dorian, d’you like getting flowers?”
Dorian cocked his head. He was still holding the Bull’s hand.
“I… suppose I wouldn’t object to them? Throwing greenery at one another isn’t as common in Tevinter as it is around Orlais and Ferelden.”
The Bull shrugged. He was starting to feel really good. He wanted to leg it out of here, line up all his Chargers, and wipe the practice ring with every one of them in turn. He wanted to run and tell Cabot that he was paying for all the drinks of every man, woman, and child in Skyhold for the whole fucking week. He wanted to march out the gate and go make short work of Corypheus right now. He’d do it with his bare hands, just for giggles, because he could. Maybe he could close some rifts while he was at it. Bash some demon skulls in, give Adaar a break. He felt like he could close rifts right now. Maybe shoot the moon out of the sky, too.
Or maybe he’d just get up and smash through all the walls between here and the tavern, to go tell Krem that he was the best. And send a box of chocolates to the Magister, too. Whatever he’d said to Dorian, it sure hadn’t done any harm.
But flowers. He had to find some flowers for Dorian first. “Yeah, don’t remember hearing about flowers being a thing in Tevinter,” he said. “It’s even less common in Par Vollen, but I might as well act like a local if I’m gonna be sticking around. It’s stripweed you’re allergic to, right? And arbor blessing? Any others?”
He rubbed his thumb across Dorian’s knuckles, and was rewarded with another firm squeeze.
Dorian chuckled. “You remembered. No, it’s mostly those two. I’m fairly certain they don’t go in bouquets regardless.”
The smile was back. The Bull’s favorite. What Venatori? What Corypheus? He could be standing in the fucking forum of Minrathous surrounded by a hundred battlemages right now, and he wouldn’t give a single shit.
“I’ll check about the etiquette. I got some contacts around here.”
Dorian shook his head, but he was laughing now, actually laughing. Quietly.
“Andraste preserve me.”
Fuck, the Bull was the luckiest asshole ever. He was gonna say hi to Andraste later. She was right downstairs from here, if he remembered the layout of this part of the castle right.
But first he had the best mage in the world to pay attention to. “Hey, Krem said Cabot got a bunch of bottles of something Antivan from Adaar earlier.”
Dorian grinned. “I would not say no to something Antivan. If it comes in proper cups, and as a treat, of course.”
“Can do. You wanna go to the tavern, or drink it somewhere else? Bet people’d be glad to hear you’re okay. Sera was spreading tales earlier about your dreadful wasting disease.”
“Goodness,” Dorian said. “Actually, I’d rather avoid the tavern for now. Rather busy.”
Yeah, there might be some awkward questions if the Bull showed up with Dorian there. Better give it a couple days, make sure everyone knew where they stood.
“Ahem,” Dorian began. “There is the little table on the patio in the garden. It should be quite nice at this time of the evening, especially given the temperatures today. And it’s quiet.”
Aw. “Garden, huh? Sounds good. I haven’t flexed at Mother Giselle in weeks.”
Dorian snickered. “Then you should not deprive her a moment longer. If you go fetch that wine, I’ll rustle up a chair that’s your size, and see who in the kitchens can be sweet-talked into providing a poor ill man with a nice cheese platter.”
Well then. Damn. He had a date.
“Sounds great. Let’s go.” He got to his feet. Dorian followed, letting the Bull pull him up by his hand.
Then he let go and held up a finger. “Just a moment,” he said, marching over to his dresser. He leaned over to study himself in the little standing mirror there.
“Passable,” he decided after a few moments, as if he didn’t look ready to swan into an Orlesian soiree. “Very well, let’s be on our way.”
The Bull stepped to the side, opened the door, and bowed, extending his right arm towards the outside with the expansive spinning motion he’d learned at the court of the Marquis of Alyons. It was his favorite of all the greetings he’d encountered down south, because it was the twirliest.
Dorian clearly tried to frown, and it didn’t work in the slightest. “You are entirely ludicrous.”
The Bull grinned. Yup. Accurate. He had nothing to say in his defense.
“Dull,” Dorian continued, eyes fixed on the Bull’s face like he couldn’t look away. “Tiresome. I hate you.”
“Aw, that hurts, big guy. That mean you don’t want me to get you that copy of the Compendium Imperio you were eyeballing in Val Royeaux last month?”
Dorian’s eyes widened. “I did not say that.”
They stepped out into the air. The Bull looked down into the garden, counting the people there (few) and evaluating the state of the plants (real pretty). It was still nice and warm, and the table on the patio was unoccupied. Good. He wondered if he should duck into his room and put on the white shirt he’d gotten for the Winter Palace. It actually looked pretty good on him, and Dorian might appreciate the show of effort.
When he turned to start down the walkway to the keep, Dorian was in his way, also staring down into the garden with both hands resting on the parapet. His fingers were drumming a quick, jaunty rhythm, rings going click-clickety-click on the stone. The smile on his face looked dangerously close to besotted.
“This place does have its charms, doesn’t it? Now tell me, how would one say ‘I require a chair fit for a bronto’ in Qunlat?”
“Easy. It kinda sounds like ‘I’m a little shit.’”
Dorian raised an eyebrow. “That is hardly a fitting start to this trust-building exercise we've embarked upon.”
The Bull grinned. “Hey, I’ll make it all up to you. Don’t you worry.”
Dorian seemed about to say something, but in the end, he just nodded. He was still smiling a little, and his eyes were still fixed on the patio below. The Bull couldn’t look away from him.
He had made this. It was his. It was a jumble of bits and pieces, but he was the one who found them, picked them up, and managed to align them into the shape of something new. Still had to make them stick, but he’d figure it out. Dorian was here to help.