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In Flagrante Delicto

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1.

*

Emilienne, who on Tuesdays and Thursdays managed the paltry library of Skyhold, was not at the desk, nor was she amongst the stacks, nor was she in her usual window sill eating a snack and admiring the soldiers below.

Twiddling two fingers so the rings clicked, Dorian resigned to finding the book on his own. Then he heard it, a fragment of a giggle from the map room. He’d heard Emilienne giggle often enough at the window.

“Emilie,” he said, pushing through the door, “I need Maequar’s Extract on Summonings,” then Dorian swore and in the violence of his recoiling struck his head on the door.

“Mind closing that?” asked the Bull. His hips rolled languidly.

Dorian, swearing again, made to cover his eyes, glanced, and then swore a third time. The Bull was much at ease for someone caught in flagrante delicto, violating a librarian, though the librarian had no complaints.

“Oooh,” sighed Emilienne, oozed across the map table on her ample front. “Maequar’s in the to be filed—”

“This is a library,” Dorian snapped, “is nothing sacred to you?”

“Oh, well, I’m sorry,” said Emilienne, affronted, “but it was only just returned—oh, yes, thank you. Right there.”

The Bull rubbed his palm between her shoulders and Emilienne wriggled happily. “You’re very welcome.” His voice rumbled.

“Not you,” said Dorian to Emilienne, “him. The Bull.”

“Ahhhh,” she said, then: “ah!”

The Bull grinned at her then bent, his huge back flexing, all the muscles cradling his spine tightening along it down to the crease of his arse. He bent to kiss Emilienne’s nape.

“In broad daylight!” Dorian shouted. “In the map room! Where we keep the maps! Cullen is in here every morning.”

Emilienne rested her chin on her arm. She was frowning, though her lips twitched every time the Bull petted her or rolled his hips.

“And he always leaves such a mess, too.”

“You didn’t even have the decency to lock the door.”

“That’s on me,” she said apologetically. “The key’s on my belt.”

“Oh, well, no need to ask where that is,” said Dorian.

“Look, Dorian,” said the Bull.

“Absolutely not!”

“In or out. Either way, close the door.”

“Out,” said Emilienne firmly. “Please and thank you.”

“Spoilsport,” teased the Bull. “Must be doing something wrong if you can still talk.”

Dorian slammed the door behind him but not loudly enough he couldn’t hear how Emilienne’s delighted squeal flowed into a moan, or how the map table began to moan too. If it were possible to have slammed the door louder, he would have done so.

The library was empty but for Dorian. Like a mad person, he thought: Do I have to stand watch now? No greater horror could man know than this. What was he to do? Open the door and ask how much longer they’d be at it.

The table groaned. “No!” said Dorian to the library.

If Emilienne wished to be caught en flagrante by a soul less discreet than Dorian then so be it. He beat the country dust off his boots: he was acquitted of all involvement.

Through the stacks Dorian stalked to the library’s sole door. He did not flee so much as seek sanctuary; but there was no sanctuary in the mountains, only mud. He kicked the door shut behind him.

*

“Ha,” said the Bull. “Found you.”

Dorian, contemplating the edge of a fencing foil hung from the rack of its fellows, said, “Please tell me you bathed.”

“Why?” the Bull wondered. “You’ll nag me either way. All right. I took a bath.”

“Liar.” He turned away from the rack. “I could smell you halfway across the practice yard.”

“See? Nagging. You fence?”

“The benefits of a noble education,” said Dorian, “and inelegantly, so no.”

“Wouldn’t want to look bad doing something.”

“Exactly.”

“Maybe we could spar sometime,” said the Bull, “if you don’t mind getting your nice clothes dirty.”

To this, Dorian clicked his tongue in the negative. It hardly deserved a response of any sort. He left off the foils.

The Bull said, “Here: hands up. Emilienne said to give this to you.”

Dorian caught the little leather-bound book; he snatched it from the air. Maequar’s Extract. His duty done, the Bull crossed his arms over his mountainous chest and leaned against the door frame.

“What do you need it for anyway?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“Kill a guy for being curious,” said the Bull.

Pocketing the book in his jacket, Dorian sidled past the Bull out of the fencing room. He was careful that they did not brush.

“What were you doing in the library?”

“Well,” said the Bull, “don’t make it easy for me.”

Dorian rolled his eyes heavenward and muttered a prayer for strength of moral character to be bestowed upon those most deserving.

“You surprise me.”

“I surprise a lot of people,” the Bull agreed.

“I didn’t know you could read.”

The Bull laughed and ducked beneath a door frame, angling his head as he bent so that he could slide his horns through without fuss. He did it casually. An outsized Qunari in a fortress made for elves.

“And here I thought you had a dirty mind.”

“You’re the filthy one,” said Dorian. “Walking around smelling of debauchery.”

“If you wanted to sneak a peek, you could just ask,” said the Bull.

“What?” Dorian squinted. “No joke that it must make me homesick?”

The corridor narrowed, and the Bull’s elbow nudged at Dorian’s biceps, just a glancing sort of blow. The regular thing to be expected when you walked in close quarters with someone as colossal as the Bull. Dorian weathered it.

“No,” said the Bull, like a man thinking of home, “no joke.”

Dorian scowled at the approaching bend, where the corridor intersected with another running perpendicular to it. He wished the Bull would joke: take the bait and be cruel.

“It’s my own fault,” Dorian said. “I should have known better than to think you wouldn’t profane every room in Skyhold.”

“Not every room.” The Bull’s eye creased. “Haven’t seen yours.”

“And you never will,” Dorian snapped.

As the intersection neared, the Bull said, “Oh, well. I bet you have, what, four dressers? Need a fifth just for all your belts.”

“What a fertile imagination.”

“Gotta have something to do,” said the Bull, “since I can’t read. See you around, Dorian. Try knocking before you open a door next time. Maybe that’ll help.”

“If you really want to help,” said Dorian, “why don’t you lock the door behind you?”

“I’ll let Emilienne know you said so,” said the Bull, and he clapped Dorian’s shoulder before he turned to go to the right.

Dorian rolled his shoulder and frowned after the Bull, who walked at his regular pace and jingled. The leg brace clicked softly with every other footfall. It was the long way for Dorian, then, as he turned left.

The book was light in his jacket, and he’d forgotten about it. He pulled his jacket off in his room, to dress for the evening, and as he folded the jacket over his arm, the book fell from the pocket.

Dorian crouched to retrieve it, opened with the spine bowing. The sweet vanillin scent of old paper: then another smell, perhaps imagined, beneath it. He slapped the book shut upon his palm and tossed it on his bed.

Preserve him from heathens, barbarians, and large men with slow-moving smiles.

Fixing his dinner jacket, Dorian looked to the mirror. It wouldn’t do to embarrass this ragtag ensemble of mercenaries, thieves, and pornographers at the meal Josie had planned, wealthy patrons invited for the night. Critically he tugged his collar straight along his throat.

“Ah,” he said, “there you are.”

A very handsome man smiled winningly out of the glass. What cheer it brought Dorian. At least he’d always have that jaw.

He glanced at the book, lonesome on his pillow. What a dull thing. He couldn’t recall why it had seemed so vital to borrow it. Alas, poor Maequar, forever sullied by association.

Dorian scooped the little tome off his bed and put it safely on the dresser on the other side of the room. Then, turned out to his finest, quite content in and of himself, thank you dearly, he went down to dinner.

The Bull was not present. He rarely was for such events. Perhaps that was for the best. He’d frighten those delicate court flowers, or worse, he’d take them to his bed, or a table, and then let them go again all flushed and smiling and wobbly-kneed.

“Are you going to hurl?” Lavellan whispered. “If you’re going to hurl, do it in that fern.”

Dorian sipped from his wine glass. “My constitution’s fine.”

“Because I hate that fern.”

“Do I dare ask why?” Dorian wondered. “Can I hope for a rational reason?”

Aginas patted his arm. “Don’t worry. It’s completely irrational. Like your hatred of Bull.”

“That’s different. For one,” said Dorian to Aginas’ arched brow, “I have no intention of vomiting on the Bull.”

“Well,” said Aginas, “you say that now,” then the lady Montilyet had descended upon them to whisk their holy herald off in the name of wooing the wealthy.

More than a few of their silk-fitted guests eyed Aginas—short Aginas, with his messy hair and sloped shoulders—with interest, intrigue, perhaps even intent. All the attention drove Aginas to hunch his shoulders. If Cassandra were present, he’d be looking to her for rescue.

Dorian finished his wine and thought how abominably sad it was that he would rather be reading. Was it possible? Was he at last growing old? The cold pricking claws of the grave tickled at his heels. Dorian stole another wine glass from the table and wandered.

A slim man on the other side of the room glanced at Dorian and then smiled. A quick smile, that. He was dressed finely and his face was new. A guest, then.

Oh, well, thought Dorian. Flings were for the young. So they said.

Cradling the glass by its long stem between two long fingers, Dorian took the abominable liberty of introducing himself. Most graciously was he forgiven.

“I won’t be here very long,” the man murmured.

“Oh, well,” said Dorian. “Let’s make the best of it.”

Dorian did try to focus on the present, but the man had such small hands. He wished they were otherwise: rougher palms, too, and fingers less obviously aristocratically smooth. As Dorian pushed him backwards onto the bed, he thought as well that he might have liked it better if the man hadn’t tumbled so easily. Well, you couldn’t ask for everything. So he’d heard.

*

Once more on the road, for glory and for honor and for the salvation of all the Maker’s beloved kin, be they small or be they great.

“You look like someone worked you over with some brass knuckles,” said the Iron Bull.

“Let this be a warning to all,” said Aginas, made pious in his suffering. He was wearing a hood over his head, but the brightness of the sun and bareness of the path gave little aid. “Drink in moderation.”

“Gopher hole!” said Sera as Aginas tripped. “Aw, you found it.”

Aginas clutched at the dirt road as though it were his only anchor in an unsettled world.

“Go on without me.”

“Wish we could,” Sera said, “sad we can’t. C’mon. Up, up, up. Gotta be killing things so we can be saving the world.”

The Bull glanced sidelong at Dorian with lidded eye and crooking mouth. His nose pulled again: he’d been doing that all morning, looking at Dorian and then sniffing at the air. Let him smell. Perhaps he’d get an idea of the benefits of hygiene.

“How’s your book?” he asked Dorian as Sera tried to haul Aginas to his feet by the seat of his pants.

“Educational.”

“Hm,” said the Bull. “Maybe I oughta skim it when you’re done.”

“It’s very complicated theoretical work,” said Dorian. “Don’t be too upset when you have trouble with the introduction.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Why don’t you read it to me?”

Dorian snorted loudly. The Bull was grinning leanly, all his teeth out.

“Nah, think about it,” he said. “Anything I don’t get, you can explain to me in small words. You’re the kind of guy who likes being the smartest in the room.”

“Condescend to someone who wants condescending. If I wanted my ego fluffed,” Dorian said, “I’d give lessons to a turnip.”

The Bull said, “Ouch,” but his grin widened to crinkle his brow.

Sera gave up their herald. “Fine! Just go to sleep in the dirt. But I’m going to draw things on your face until you try to stop me.”

“That’s fair,” said Aginas. “I deserve that.”

“And wouldn’t it stick at you?” Dorian pressed. “Learning from a mage. Not afraid I’d corrupt you?”

Already he anticipated the next volley, something about corrupting Dorian, sexually, when everyone knew (Dorian would retort) it was impossible to corrupt a Tevinter when they were born to hedonism.

The Bull’s smile shifted. His cheek flexed, and he scratched at it with his thumb. The breadth of his wrist hid his mouth. Hefting his shoulder, the Bull said, “What good’s faith if it can’t make it through a test?”

“Yes,” said Dorian. He licked at his teeth. “Well. Don’t expect me to test you.”

“People don’t test you. Life tests you.”

A breeze ran lazily along the path, kicking up dust. Sera was singing rudely as she pulled on Aginas.

“Through the people you meet! You say it as though it doesn’t matter, how someone challenges you.”

“Never said that,” the Bull countered. “Just that… The further you get from home, the more you learn how to listen. People believing things you don’t, that’s not a test.”

Dorian muttered, “I wonder about your schooling,” and then sneezed, too much dust in his nose. He glared at the Bull. “How is this not bothering you? You keep snorting.”

“Not the dust,” said the Bull. “You.”

“Excuse me!” He dropped his hand, indignant. “Unlike some, I bathe.”

“Not well enough.” The Bull flicked at Dorian’s nose with two fingers. “Too tired after the night you had to do more than a quick rinse, huh?”

Dorian slapped the Bull’s wrist away with great force, enough the Bull winced before he laughed.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” Dorian snapped. “Your nose, too!”

“Nothing to be ashamed of,” said the Bull. “I was starting to wonder if you ever. You know.” He waggled his eyebrows.

Dorian’s chest was thick, his breath thicker.

“Don’t think about me—you knowing!”

“Dorian totally fucks,” said Sera. She pocketed her pen and then, pinching Aginas’ pointed ear between thumb and finger, dragged him groaning to his feet. “Slam-bammed that stick at the thingum last night. Betcha made him wish he was staying longer. Betcha got farther than Aggie did with that lady with the...” She gestured broadly.

“Stop yelling,” Aginas said, “I’m a man dying.”

“Don’t get so hot under the collar, mage.” The Bull clapped Dorian’s back and squeezed his shoulder in passing. “A quick tussle’s good for you. Gets the steam out of your kettle before you pop.”

“And I’d thank you not to think of me popping either,” Dorian said hotly.

“Can’t help it when you shriek your head off about it,” said Sera.

“Let’s just go and be done with this,” said Aginas dolefully. “So I can lie down and die.”

Soon the Bull carried Aginas on his shoulders like a father did a toddling babe, and Aginas, like a worn out child, folded his arms together on the Bull’s pate and buried his face in them to sleep.

“Haven’t you shame?” Dorian wondered.

“Leave the ickle baby be,” said Sera.

“Jealous?” asked the Bull. “You can take turns riding my back. Sera’s next.”

“Pass!” she said, throwing her hand up. “I’ve got my own feet. Dorian can ride you next.”

“Dorian will ride no one,” Dorian snapped.

The Bull laughed and said, “Don’t tease the poor guy, Sera.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Sera, “he might pop,” and she was waggling her eyebrows at Dorian.

“Ever considered shaping your brow?” asked Dorian. “Perhaps we could have a go at it with a machete and a controlled forest fire.”

“Ever considered an arrow up your arse?” asked Sera as sweetly. “Magister?”

“Not a magister. Altus.”

The protest was on Dorian’s tongue, but the Bull had beat him to it, and so, like a fool, Dorian had his mouth half-open and the breath still in his throat. Glancing sideways at him, the Bull smiled at Dorian as if to say: don’t worry. I’ve got you.

The Bull most certainly did not.

“Yes,” said Dorian, “I’m an Altus mage, not a magister. It’s a—”

“Title you have to earn,” said the Bull.

“Nothing in your holy texts about interrupting?”

“Though limbs may block the stream the water cuts a new path.”

“Tree limbs,” said Dorian smartly, “or limbs of the conquered?”

“Magister, Altus mage, blah blah,” said Sera, flicking Dorian’s ear with her nail like a hornet come to sting him, “it’s all the same magey crap, innit?”

“It is not the same!”

“Kids,” said the Bull, “stop fighting.”

Dorian’s shoulders swelled. “Kids! I’ll have you know, I’m—” Too late he realized he did not entirely wish the whole of the world to know precisely how close he was to the auspicious four oh.

“Dorian started it,” Sera was saying.

“Older than you, anyway,” Dorian finished, and he made to slap at Sera’s arm though she darted silverfish-like into the shadows of the trees slowly thickening on either side of the path. “How old are you again?”

The Bull shrugged his vast shoulders. “Don’t know. Birthdays aren’t real important.”

“Under the Qun.”

“You really think it matters,” the Bull asked, “how old you are?”

“Ask him when he’s pulling out grey hairs,” suggested Sera.

“Have you not discovered dyes in the south?” asked Dorian. “Remarkable. So everyone goes around with their natural hair color?”

The inquisitor stirred. Almost regally he lifted his head off the Bull’s head to squint down at Dorian and Sera.

“We’re not taking turns,” he proclaimed. “I’m the boss and that makes me on top.”

“Boss is on top,” agreed the Bull. “Makes sense.” Gently he patted Aginas’ knee, crooked over his shoulder. “Go back to sleep, Aginas.”

“Wake me when we camp,” said Aginas, and he went back to sleep.

“Honestly,” said Dorian, half-fond despite the absurdity of it, or perhaps because of it. “The fate of the world lies in his hand.”

Sera nudged Dorian and, with surprising tact, she whispered, “Ha! You are jealous. You want to ride up on Bull’s shoulders. I bet you want to be the only one riding them, too, because—”

“Yes!” said Dorian. “It’s true. I long to command the highest view. Well, I won’t give you it, Sera. No matter how you plead. Mua-ha-ha.”

“Is that your best evil laugh?” Sera snickered. “Good thing you left.”

“Imagine if I’d stayed,” he said, allowing his arms to fall. “They might have had to kick me out. Maybe that would have been easier. Less dignified, though.”

The Bull’s wide back rippled as he carried Aginas so carefully upon his shoulders. The shrugging earlier had unsettled Aginas, and so the Bull had to bump him up again.

“It’s never going to be easy,” said the Bull, his back to Dorian. “Taking that look at everything you know or think you know and then having to turn away. Whether you make the choice to do it or someone else makes it for you. You have to live with it. But hey,” he said, brightening, “you’re still living.”

“If you call this living,” said Dorian, but he was looking at the trees rather than the Bull’s steady shoulders or the Bull’s large hand braced upon Aginas’ knee when he said it.

*

2.

*

The practice yard held little appeal to Dorian. His talents were best honed in the once sacred spaces of the library, or a quiet corridor.

The Bull’s lieutenant, the tall man with the broad face, wiped dirt from his face and shouldered that great, crude mace of his.

“If you’re looking for the chief, he’s out.”

Sticking the foil under his arm where he clamped it to his side, Dorian circled his wrists, stretching them, and began to pull on gloves. He very studiously did not survey the yard. So, the Bull wasn’t overseeing the Chargers’ practice. Well, that made the afternoon all the more pleasant.

“I’ll let the next person to actually come looking for the oaf know.”

“Chargers have the yard till three, your worship,” said Krem.

“And you’re welcome to it,” said Dorian, withdrawing the foil. He glanced at Krem and took in the man’s presentation: the cut of his hair, the way he rounded his vowels.

“Be at ease. What are you? Soporati?” Dorian considered what he knew of the Bull’s political leanings. “Liberati? Profugus?”

A muscle in the man’s wide cheek twitched. He rolled his shoulders one at a time and hefted his chin as he tipped his head. The effect was immediate: the mace settled heavier upon his shoulder.

“Perfuga,” Krem corrected. A defector, rather than a runaway.

“Then we have something in common.”

“One of many, I’m sure,” said Krem, then with a deeply deferential turn of his hand, “Altus.”

Dorian crossed to a much abused post, padded for sword blows.

“We might as well try to get along. There are so few other ‘vints outside the Imperium.”

Krem laughed and wiped at his nose. A few other Chargers had stopped in their routines to watch, and he grinned at them before he turned that grin on Dorian.

“What’s your angle? Trying to butter me up so I’ll butter Bull up for you?”

The apostate with her odd-shorn hair rested her chin upon her staff and (a marvel to find such a thing in the wilds of a mercenary company) giggled. Krem’s grin turned to a distant, square scowl.

“What a dirty mouth, Krem,” she said. “Chief doesn’t need your buttering.”

“At last someone agrees with me!” said Dorian. “How do you? I’m Dorian Pavus.”

She took his hand as offered and laughed again when Dorian made a show of bending to kiss her knuckles.

“Oh, he’s fancy, is he?” She tossed her asymmetrically long hair back to her ear so she could look archly at the lieutenant. “Why don’t you ever kiss my hand like that, Krem? Aren’t all ‘vints mannered city-folk?”

Dorian straightened and squeezed her hand again. “Only the cultured.”

“Back to practices, all of you lot!” said Krem, gesturing with his free arm. “We only have another half hour before the Templars take it over again.”

“No bow today?”

“I have my bow right here,” said the apostate, twisting her staff so the butt ground in the dirt. “Where’s your staff?”

“It’s occurred to me that I’ve neglected some other areas,” said Dorian. “I never did get your name. Miss—”

“Dalish,” she said, and her smile edged. “Not Servus. Or miss.” The corners of her eyes crinkled. She was a sly one. “Don’t worry. I already knew your name. We’ve heard all about you.”

Dorian tried his tongue on his teeth. “All good things, I hope. How could it be else?”

“Dalish,” said Krem.

“All right,” she said, “fussy fellow,” and she made a little bit of a face at Krem before she darted off to the stout dwarf.

“She’s fond of you,” said Dorian to Krem. “Remarkable how you don’t see it. Particularly remarkable since you’re so unfriendly.”

“I’m plenty friendly,” said Krem, “when I like someone.”

“Poor Dalish,” said Dorian. “She’ll be heartbroken to know you don’t feel the same way about her.”

Krem sighed. “What do you want, Altus, that you had to disrupt our practices?”

He flourished the sword. “To practice, myself. I’d thought perhaps to find someone with whom I might practice, but.” Quite at ease, Dorian shrugged his shoulder.

“Like clockwork,” Krem muttered. Then he swung the mace down and grasped the handle firmly, balancing the weight in his arms.

“Try tomorrow,” he advised Dorian. “Or you could try at the tavern tonight. The chief usually likes to have a drink or two before bed.”

“As if I’d spar with the Bull!” said Dorian.

Very loudly Krem snorted through his nose. He glanced up and down Dorian and then his mouth crooked.

“Oh, aye,” said Krem, throwing it over his shoulder as he left Dorian to the post, “delicate Altus flower like you. He’d crush your stem. No wonder he’s tiptoeing.”

“Tell your archer her arrows will fly truer if she carries the staff higher,” said Dorian, rather than any of the number of very rude things he could have said in answer to this crass, presumptive comment.

He wasn’t much the swordsman, but he left the post with a few more scars than it had before the day it ran afoul of Dorian Pavus.

*

A scene, characteristic of the whole:

“How did you lose that eye?” asked Dorian.

The server left to fetch another pitcher. The Bull waited till the crowd had swallowed the lithe man to look at Dorian.

“Hm?”

“The eye,” said Dorian, over-enunciating. “The scarred one. That the gentleman was so fascinated by.” He trailed a finger down his own cheek, demonstrating, and the Bull’s gaze flickered.

Varric rallied on the other side of the table. “Yes, tell us! There’s probably a good story in that.”

“Interesting,” was what the Bull said. He was looking at Dorian.

“How so?”

“That you phrased it like that.” He settled back in his chair. “Losing something.”

“Well, didn’t you?” Dorian gestured toward the patch. “The eye’s gone. And what did you get in return? A scar?”

“A story.” Varric grinned at the Bull. “People like stories about scars.”

“Mm,” said the Bull. “Got that, yeah.” He stirred. “Eh, Krem was in some hot water. Figured I’d help the kid out.”

“Krem!” said Dorian. He snatched a sweet roll from the sadly depleted platter before Varric’s inquisitive eye sought it out. “I don’t think your lieutenant much likes me.”

“No, Sparkler,” said Varric, “that can’t be. You’re such a people person.”

“You could be less of a…” The Bull see-sawed his hand in the air.

“Less what?” asked Dorian. “Be direct about it. Less what?”

“Less of a rich asshole,” said the Bull.

Varric laughed loudly and in his laughing had to cover his mouth to keep from spraying.

“Thank you,” said Dorian, as Varric began coughing, “for that estimation of my asshole.”

“Sure it’s a very nice asshole,” said Varric, and he reached for a drink to soothe his throat.

“He had a rough time of it. Leaving your armies.”

“Varric?”

“Krem.”

The tavern was crowded, as was usually the case, and thus the air very nearly sweltering: a welcome heat in contrast with the chill outside. Dorian picked at his sleeves.

“He called himself deserter,” said Dorian. “Deserters usually have a rough time. Don’t tell me your people are kind to defectors.” He’d meant to drive the needle deeper. Then he caught his tongue at his teeth.

“Careful, Sparkler,” murmured Varric.

But if the reminder of his relatively recent demotion from Qunari to forsaken whatever sat uneasily with the Bull, he hid it by quaffing the rest of his drink. The ball in his throat bobbed; his fingers curled upon the table. Dorian cleared his throat.

“Ahhh!” said the Bull. He slammed the mug to the table and beamed at them each in turn. “How about another round? This one’s on you, Varric.” And they all moved on from dark waters to something safer.

Outside the tavern, in the cold grasp of night, Dorian tipped his head to watch his breath stream whitely toward the black sky.

“It wasn’t just that he deserted,” said Dorian. “Your Krem.”

“Not my Krem,” said the Bull.

“Oh?”

The Bull stirred, pushing off the outside wall.

“People don’t own people.”

“Not all Tevinters are blood-thirsty dictators,” said Dorian. “A few are even kind.”

Steadily the Bull looked at Dorian with his one eye. “You can’t own another person.”

“Well, I don’t own anyone now. So save your sanctimony.” Dorian hugged his arms to himself.

“Cold?” The Bull neared, huge before Dorian and no hotter than any other person.

“You are a master of observation.”

The Bull’s scarred mouth curled. “I like to look.”

The vagaries of their conversation lingered, in Dorian if not between them. The Bull took another step, and the slope of his right horn blocked out the light of the torch set beside the door. His breath came ghostly across Dorian’s skin, and Dorian did not close his eyes.

His tongue shivered. He felt the quivering in his skin, so minute it was as though only his flesh buzzed. Electrified, the heart of him. Electrified, as the Bull bent his head. Those horns were haloed in the torch light.

Here is what will happen, Dorian thought as the Bull very gently touched one finger to Dorian’s jaw. That one eye was on Dorian: the Bull searched him, and again. And Dorian thought: He’ll ask and you’ll say yes and it’ll be fun but then that’s it.

Goosebumps lined Dorian’s skin. The hairs on his arms stood on end. In his chest something hot coiled about itself and squeezed.

The Bull said, “Hey, Dorian,” and the rough pad of his fingertip brushed the soft skin just behind the corner of Dorian’s jaw.

Dorian said, “I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” and closed his hand about the Bull’s wrist to push his hand away.

The silence rang. The Bull’s fingers curled. He looked at Dorian in such a way. How? As though uncertain of the ground.

His voice came hoarsely. “I’m sorry, Dorian. For pushing you—”

“Oh, shut it,” said Dorian, irritated, “I’m not a wilting flower. Stuff the apologies down your throat; I know you have the muscle strength.”

As he said this he put his hand up on the Bull’s mouth; he hadn’t meant to reach that far. Anyway, if his hand was there: he pushed. Pushed the Bull back, pushed himself away.

End it here, Dorian thought. He could do it easily. Tell the Bull to stop and he would stop. The tips of Dorian’s fingers itched.

“I only meant I’ve had too much to drink,” Dorian was saying, taking his hands from the Bull. “No need to stop your fun for the evening. Eat, drink, be—discreet, at least.”

His breath stuck in his throat, cold as the air on his face. The Bull shifted his weight. His hand moved, as if to touch Dorian’s elbow; he stopped short. His eye was intent on Dorian. There was an apology yet lurking in those cragsome features.

“Are you all right?” The weighted vibration of his voice dragged at those erect hairs on Dorian’s arms. “To get back to your room.”

What was so terrible about that? That the Bull was wholly in earnest, Dorian realized: that he would escort Dorian to his rooms and then leave him there, unless Dorian were to ask him in. An unceasing tide was overcoming Dorian.

“Yes, marvelous thing,” said Dorian, stepping further away, further, further. He made his tongue sharp, that it would be easier for the Bull to believe him. “I know how to walk. Go back in. Debase yourself. It’s what you like to do best. Honestly, I’d only bring you down. Tell your Krem I said ‘hello.’ Not your Krem. Just Krem.”

People didn’t belong to each other. Of course. He knew that. Hadn’t he left to show the honorable Magister Pavus that Dorian didn’t belong to him? Who wanted to belong to someone? Who wanted to be owned?

He’d left the Bull outside the tavern but Dorian felt the weight of that solicitous gaze all the way back to his room, a journey managed entirely alone, thank you very much. Well, fuck the Bull’s sincerity. Dorian could stab the man a thousand times and he’d still smile at Dorian as if he hadn’t just reminded the Bull that he was persona non grata with the Qunari.

“God!” said Dorian. “He’d buy me a drink after!”

The Bull pushed and pushed and then he backed off at a moment’s notice, and what was Dorian to do with that? What was he meant to think?

Dorian staggered alone back to his room where he threw, at the wall, both his boots in turn, kicked Maequar’s useless self-important ramblings under the bed, and fell furiously into the sheets where he did not think of anything or anyone at all.

He was very unsurprised the next morning when he met the serving man from the tavern coming disheveled and smiling down the stairs. The man’s hair was a disgrace, his boots held in his hands.

“Had a good evening?” asked Dorian.

“Oh, yes,” he said, with a particular breathy quality, “thank you.”

They crossed the landing, Dorian’s heels clicking cleanly on the wood and the man’s bare feet rasping. The man glanced at Dorian and smiled again.

“You were with the Bull last night.”

“No,” said Dorian, “I think that was you.”

The man startled at Dorian’s tone. Brilliantly, Dorian smiled at him, and the man looked behind him then at Dorian then briefly to the ceiling. With every appearance of gallantry Dorian gestured him forward to the stairs.

“Please. I insist. After you.”

He beat hell out of the swords post that afternoon. Even Krem, as rightfully suspicious of Dorian as any Soporati would be an Altus scion, in exile or not, looked vaguely impressed with Dorian’s ability to whack a thing into submission.

“Oh, nice!” said Dalish encouragingly. “That one looked fantastic. Do a flourish on the next one.”

“For my audience? Anything,” said Dorian, and he stabbed the padding through, driving the tip into the wood.

Krem whistled and shook his head. “Maker,” he said, passing Dorian, “I’d hate to be whoever’s pissed you off.”

*

It was all so impersonal for the Bull. The thought soured in Dorian’s mouth. Impossible to avoid hearing of the Bull’s proclivities. Either the Bull bragged of it or Cole would start dreamily reciting some barmaid’s internal monologue.

“I don’t brag,” the Bull said.

Dorian snorted, and the Bull looked about at the cloudless sky and the dry heather.

“Is it storming?”

“You most certainly do!” said Dorian.

The Bull’s brow creased. “Storm?”

“Brag!”

“Ah,” said the Bull, to whom this was an enormous joke. Gravely he nodded.

“There isn’t a person in the whole of Thedas you haven’t tupped. And you let everyone know about it, too.”

“You keep saying that,” said the Bull, “and it’s pretty flattering, Pavus, but I haven’t tupped everyone.”

“And you’re the one always bringing it up,” Aginas chimed in. A week out from the grand fundraising party, he had largely overcome the hangover that had struck him so low. He squinted at Dorian. “You don’t have to mention it every time the Bull winks at someone. Sometimes he’s just blinking. Because he only has one eye.”

“Thanks, boss,” said the Bull dryly.

“You’re welcome.”

“This is unbelievable,” said Dorian. “So you don’t care that he’s got half the kitchen staff out sick because they’ve all sprained their hips?”

“He doesn’t,” said Aginas, “and I don’t care, because he’s a grown man and he can do whatever—”

The Bull added, “Or whomever.”

“He wants.”

“At least you’ve mastered grammar,” Dorian muttered at the Bull. “That’s more than I expected of a Qunari.”

The Bull frowned at Dorian, not sharply, but with a particular furrowing of his brow as though he were perplexed. Dorian couldn’t see how the Bull should be confused: he had been very clear from the start with him.

“Just stop with the Qunari versus ‘vint stuff,” Aginas sighed. “I’ve got enough to worry about without you at each other’s throats.”

“No worries about that,” said the Bull. His frown turned to a warm and crinkling smile for Aginas, short, scruffy Aginas. “The ‘vint’s throat’s his. I got no plans on it.”

“I’m flush with relief,” said Dorian, and he stood from the balcony table to leave the inquisitor and the Bull to their brotherly warmth.

The Bull glanced at Dorian as he left them. In his passing, Dorian discerned a line in the Bull’s brow, as if he frowned again. Dorian didn’t bother to contemplate why any more than he bothered to slow to enjoy the horrid, brisk day. The Bull was far outside the scope of Dorian’s understanding.

*

3.

*

He returned Maequar’s Extract after a long and unpleasant month of hard jobs. With such work to be done on the behalf of the Maker’s beloved children, who’d time to read? Certainly not Dorian.

He would have passed if Emilienne quizzed him; he’d read it before. Maequar summarized summoning thusly: call a demon, then the demon knows how to call you. But Emilienne, at her desk, did not ask if he’d enjoyed the book. Nor she did test his trivia.

“Oh, I wondered where that was!” she said. “Thank you, Dorian. You’re a much better patron than some people.”

“Cullen left the map room a mess again?”

Emilienne scribbled her initials in the receipt column pasted to the inside of the front cover.

“Oh, every morning. Without fail. The commander’s such a scatter-wart sometimes,” she said. “Do you still play chess with him? Is he any better at that?”

“Cullen? At chess?” Dorian shrugged. “He’s passable. Well. Rather good, actually. He has a general’s brain under all those curls.”

“Hum,” said Emilienne. “He must be like the Bull, then. The Bull’s very messy, too.”

“Didn’t bother to clean up the map room?”

“Oh, no, he was very courteous!” She’d missed Dorian’s tone entirely. “He even promised to send up a Charger to help fix the table, and they did. Wish he’d sent that Dalish girl. I do like an archer.”

“Yes,” said Dorian, “an archer. How thoughtful of Bull.”

Emilienne glanced sharply at Dorian. “Well, yes,” she said. “He is that.”

He fiddled with a pen on the desk. “He’s come around again, then?”

“Heavens, no! I only wanted a taste. I mean, goodness,” said Emilienne, “he’s hardly someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, is he?”

“Ah,” said Dorian. “No. I should think not. He is a Qunari. I’m sure they’ve rules about that. You’d have to convert.”

“Lord,” said Emilienne, “and me just a simple librarian with a humble dream. But it wasn’t all bad, you know,” she added, leaning near as though she were the one who meant to proselytize. “And he did speak highly of you after.”

He threw his hands up before him, the pen clutched between palm and thumb.

“I don’t want to hear it!”

“Oh, nothing rude!” Emilienne laughed. “He said if I was worried it would get out, about me and him, you wouldn’t tell anyone. But I wasn’t worried. I’ve been bragging for ages. No one else in the archives has the nerve to approach him.”

“The nerve!” Dorian repeated. “The Bull must be the easiest person in the world to approach. Like an enormous, smelly hound.”

“I know!” Clapping, Emilienne rocked backwards as she laughed. “And he’s so sweet, too. Do you know, he kept stopping to ask if I was all right?”

Dorian quirked a smile and said, “It doesn’t surprise me, no. Hardly anything could with the Bull.”

“Well, he’s good at that, too,” said Emilienne. “Anyway, we both just wanted some fun.”

“And so you grabbed it.”

“And then some!”

“I’m suitably impressed,” said Dorian, smiling still, and Emilienne said, “Oh, I was, too,” and then covered her face with both hands as she laughed.

He wondered as he left if that was what the Bull liked: some fun, just that. A romp to let the steam out of his kettle, as the Bull had joked. Odd, he thought again, that anyone would be so nervous of approaching the Bull, when the Bull was so careful to sit calmly and to move with restraint, like a man afraid to break the world about him. Well, the Bull had reason to fear that.

Dorian rolled his shoulders and sighed. The truth of it was, he thought as he glanced out a window, he did perhaps need to let out steam. He could have lied and said to the bird sitting in the tree outside the window that it was only an itch, something to be soothed by a fleeting affair.

“And so what of it?” He propped his elbows on the sill and studied the bird, twisting its head to peep at him. “As if I’ve any idea of how to love someone properly. No,” he told the bird lightly, “you’ve the right idea of it. Come as you please. Leave as you like.”

The bird peeped solemnly again and then ruffled its feathers and fluttered its wings and darted from the tree to the practice yard below. Its trail beckoned, so Dorian relented.

The yard was nearly empty, but for Aginas blocking Cassandra’s sword with flickering barriers. He was grinning, though he sweated and his hair stuck in clumps.

As Cassandra swung to cleave his head from his shoulders, Aginas reached out to her and turned the blade aside with the back of his wrist. Like lovers, as they danced.

“All love,” quoth Dorian, “is unrequited.” He supposed that ought to have made him feel better.

What had he thought as he took that finely dressed man, at Skyhold only for the night, to his room?

“Be honest, Dorian,” he muttered. “You thought it would be easy.” Nothing to fret about if he’d no reason to fret: no need to ask what else they might want if they were gone in the morning.

In the dwindling light of the day, Cassandra bent to give Aginas her armored hand, to lift him with her strength from the dirt.

“How fortunate I,” said Dorian, “to have never loved.”

*

Krem, Dorian spotted first, as Krem was standing up from the table. He bent a moment to speak with the Bull, and then laughing he moved through the crowd.

Their eyes met: Krem, recognizing Dorian, looked startled then as though he had to fight to keep from laughing again. The back of Dorian’s neck ought to have burned; they had clearly been talking of Dorian. Why, he could not say.

“Looking for the chief?” asked Krem.

“Not anymore,” said Dorian. “But thank you.”

Krem patted Dorian’s shoulder. “Well. Good luck. Altus.” As he moved off, he ducked his head again, a hand at his mouth, but the sound of his laughing carried regardless.

The Bull had spotted Dorian, and as Dorian neared to the table, the Bull leaned back in his chair with tankard in hand. The fingers of the other hand braced on his thigh.

“Let me guess,” said the Bull. “You want to take your frustrations out on me.”

Dorian stood at the table and pulled the breath in through his nose. Krem’s shoulder clap had thrown him off balance. Briefly, he considered turning away.

“No,” said Dorian. “I want to buy you a drink.”

With a tankard halfway to his mouth, the Bull stopped and looked, startled, at Dorian. He recovered. “I have a drink.”

“Then another drink,” said Dorian. “Your next drink.”

The Bull sipped at his ale but went on studying Dorian. “Buttering me up?”

“Oh, just take the drink,” Dorian snapped, and the Bull laughed. He smiled with the tankard at his lips, his cheek rumpling.

“Well, if it keeps your skirt from twisting.”

“I’m wearing trousers this evening, if you haven’t noticed.”

“I noticed,” said the Bull as Dorian took the seat opposite him. “Krem was sitting there.”

“He’s sitting with Dalish now.”

“He is, huh?” said the Bull, leaning forward to glance at the corner booth as Dorian gestured. The Bull’s smile crooked into something soft. “Damn. Dumped again.”

“Not the Chargers, too.”

“Nah,” said the Bull, still watching the booth. Dalish was folding a napkin into a frog as Krem pretended to study his hands. “Too big a difference in standing. Power. I’m the boss,” he clarified.

“That’s…” Dorian tested it on his teeth, the admission. “A smart policy.”

The Bull glanced at him again. “So,” he said, “you’re buying me a drink.”

“Don’t assume. I only wanted to apologize.” Dorian scowled and crossed his arms on the table. “It’s possible I’ve been not entirely pleasant lately.”

“You?” said the Bull. He rested his chin in his hand and grinned between his fingers. “Nah. Not you. You’re a little ball of sunshine.” By all rights it should have been cruel.

Dorian cleared his throat and said, “So. Let’s put it behind us. Surely we can get along.”

“Don’t mind sharing a drink with a Qunari?” asked the Bull softly. His fingers were still upon his cheek. Steadily he smiled at Dorian.

“If you don’t mind sharing one with a ‘vint.”

“Never did.”

“Then I’ll order,” said Dorian.

“All right,” said the Bull. “You do that.”

They were two drinks in to things when Dorian gave up on shouting over all the other shouting and simply moved to a closer chair.

“But what I don’t understand,” he tried again, “is how you, you reconcile your, ah, affairs—”

“Dorian,” said the Bull, “that’s dirty. What if someone heard you?”

“Let me finish,” Dorian said, slapping his arm. “How do you make sense of it with, with the Qun? Isn’t there something about, oh…” He circled a finger in the air. “That?”

“Mm.”

The Bull’s eye drifted closed. The eyelashes were stubby, sparse. He recited something long and rather poetic sounding, a series of soft rises and deep falls. As he did so, he ran a fingertip along his eye.

Dorian drank rather than look at that finger or the short lashes the Bull stirred.

“Meaning?”

“The waves break a shell on the sand,” the Bull translated slowly, “the shell breaks to sand, the sand goes out to sea.”

“Meaning?” asked Dorian again.

“You have to make sacrifices.”

“Not much of a sacrifice, is it?”

The Bull’s eyelid rose. His gaze was yet low, though, fixed at Dorian’s elbow. Then he pulled in a breath through his nose and smiled and said,

“Made harder ones, yeah.”

“Please, don’t,” said Dorian, already weary in anticipation. “Stop. Enough of your cock.”

“Then don’t mention it.”

“You brought it up.”

“That was you,” said the Bull.

Dorian rolled his eyes. “So what harder sacrifices have you made, then? Cut and run rather than pay your tab?”

“You’re paying tonight.”

“Only for the one drink. You’re paying for the rest.” He drank deeply of his ale: cheap, naturally, as the Bull claimed it was all he could afford.

The Bull toyed with his tankard. “What’s to say? You can probably guess most of it.”

“There’s always plenty to say with you,” said Dorian. “Out with it. Brag about your conquests.”

“Nothing to brag about,” said the Bull. He made it light: “I was the best and then I wasn’t. Now I’m here.”

“That how you got all those dreadful scars?”

The Bull turned sly. “If you wanted, I could show you.”

“You show everyone,” Dorian said scornfully, “running around shirtless everywhere.”

“You like it.”

Dorian quaffed the rest of the ale and signaled for another round. As he shouted for the bartender, the Bull stretched his arms and settled back in his chair.

“Is it getting any easier for you?”

“Is what getting easier?” asked Dorian.

“Leaving home,” said the Bull.

The maid arrived with laden pitcher, to refill both tankards. Expecting the Bull to flirt with her, Dorian was surprised instead to find the Bull watched him steadily. His throat stuck. Dorian looked away.

“I suppose,” said Dorian. “It’s hard to miss anything when the world’s ending.”

“Can’t argue with that,” said the Bull. “Nothing like a good fight to clear your head.”

“Or a good tussle,” Dorian muttered.

The Bull weighed him then said, a tease, more than he’d made in weeks now since that night Dorian leaned away from him: “Are you offering?”

“No!” said Dorian, and the Bull, chuckling, held his hands up for peace. The ale did much to soothe Dorian’s warm throat. It did much to calm his head, too.

He paid very little heed to the shape of the Bull’s slow smile or the weight of his hand when he brushed Dorian’s nape or how the Bull said, “Night, fire-spitter,” in a low murmur that caught on the skin and stuck in the ear.

*

“Nice collar,” said the Bull. “Goes, uh, well with your…” He rubbed his chin.

Wearily Dorian said, “Just get it over with.”

Preparations for the journey had led the party out to the courtyard, where Cullen’s soldiers worked to load the carts for the mountain campaign. Dorian, recognizing a face among the men from a few nights ago, stood with his back to them.

“Eyes?” suggested the Bull. “Makes ‘em look browner.”

Dorian squinted at him. “That can’t be it.”

“Sure.” He was enjoying playing the fool again. The Bull tapped his nail, or claw, against Dorian’s eyebrow. “Brown.”

“Not that. What you were going to say.”

“What?” The Bull folded his arms over his chest, a monumental campaign in its own right. “You’ve got nice eyes. For a guy so full of shit.”

“Ha ha ha,” said Dorian, then, as he was still thinking: “ha ha. You’re the one with the brown eyes. If you haven’t noticed.”

“My eyes aren’t brown,” the Bull said. “Maybe if you respected me for more than my body you’d know that.”

Dorian sucked in a breath and said, “I—that’s not even the point! You were going to say something smart about my—wearing a high collar.”

“Why would I do that?” The Bull shifted his harness, adjusting the pull of it like another man would his belt. “You want to do something with your time, that’s your call. Makes no difference to me, or anyone else worth thinking about.”

Glancing about the yard, at all the chaos of readying for the job, Dorian said, “And suddenly you’re worth thinking about?” but he’d no heat for it.

“Hey, you buy a guy a drink,” said the Bull, “he’s going to start thinking you think he’s worth thinking about.”

“You have such a way with words.”

The Bull accepted, graciously. “And you worry too much. About everything. People are going to judge you no matter what you do. Aren’t you the one always going on about Qunari this, Qunari that, blah blah blah?”

“Not always,” Dorian muttered.

“And I still think you’re an all right guy. So, hey, buck up.” The Bull shoved Dorian’s shoulder, a friendly push that had his hand lingering but a moment on the bare skin there. Then he bent to whisper to Dorian: “You want to go a few rounds with one of Cullen’s stick in the muds, then good on you.”

In the vulgate Dorian snapped off what the Bull could do with his stick, and the Bull laughed loudly, slapping Dorian on the shoulder a final time.

As Dorian watched the Bull saunter off he huffed, and then he looked about again in the event someone, anyone, had witnessed such shameful melodrama. Dorian tugged at his collar. Buttoned to his chin, it bit at his throat.

So unbutton it, he imagined the Bull saying. Who cares?

Frowning, Dorian shook out his wrists. The buttons so cruel to his throat remained happily in their holes.

*

The campaign went well, for the records. The cult quelled, the twin rifts sealed, and several powerful artifacts recovered: truly the herald of Andraste had seen her will done.

“I can’t do this,” Aginas said to his hands, and Dorian ducked behind the tent again before he was spotted.

Cassandra was with Aginas, Cassandra in the twilight with her cropped hair sweat-stuck to her brow. She knelt on the one knee before the herald.

“You must do it,” she said, more gently than Dorian had ever heard her say anything. “What this is, is bigger than any one person.”

“So why should I do it? I’m just one person,” said Aginas, “and I don’t have any more right than anyone else to lead this.”

She was stern, the Seeker, and she was certain, more so than anyone Dorian supposed he had ever known. Her face was turned up to Aginas, as Aginas had turned his face up to Cassandra in the practice yard so many days ago. Two weeks; only that.

“The mark gives you the right. And it gives you the charge of it,” said Cassandra. She reached to clasp Aginas’ knee. “You’re the only one who can close these rifts. You were chosen—”

“A bloody accident!” Aginas shouted, his head coming up so swiftly his curling hair swung. Cassandra’s hand jerked; she hesitated with her gauntleted fingers gone stiff. “That’s all it was. A stupid accident, and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all it was!”

“Accident it may have been,” said Cassandra, “and Corypheus’ fault, but it is on you—”

“I don’t know how to lead men—”

“You led them to victory—”

“And they died!” said Aginas. “They died.”

“Ser Lavellan,” said Cassandra, and she touched his knee.

Someone touched Dorian, too, fingertips light on his shoulder. He nearly broke the Bull’s nose on his knuckles, or his knuckles on the Bull’s nose; he would have if the Bull, recoiling, hadn’t caught Dorian’s fist on his palm. The bandage strapped to the Bull’s un-armored shoulder bowled upwards. Dorian still had blood beneath his fingernails.

“Whoa there, firecracker,” whispered the Bull.

Dorian snatched his hand back and scowled. Taking no offense, the Bull twitched his head towards the tree line, several feet from the command camp. He turned.

“I don’t know why I should follow you.”

The Bull swept a young tree’s branch up so that he might pass beneath it into the darker shadows of the copse. He’d sweat and grime along his back, but for his shoulder and arm, where the healers had washed the skin before bandaging him.

“You wanted to eavesdrop?”

The intimacy of the moment had made of Dorian an intruder: disloyal. Would Cassandra have grasped Aginas’ knee if she’d known Dorian lurked beyond the herald’s tent? Or Aginas shouted as he’d done?

“Ah, no,” said Dorian. He, too, ducked beneath the branch. The thick woods smell washed over them, pine needles and chilled sap and the fall’s leaves rotting on the earth.

“I seem to be walking into sensitive moments a great deal lately. Why did you bring me out here?” he asked. “You don’t have someone hiding behind a tree.”

“Figured you needed a break,” said the Bull. “Distance. Get your head back together.” Pushing the branch higher again, he made to leave.

“Get my head back together?” said Dorian. “This isn’t the first battle I’ve fought.”

The Bull’s gaze swept over him. So clinical.

“First time you’ve known someone who died in it,” he said.

The presumption blanked Dorian; the truth made him still. He sucked at his cheeks to wet his tongue.

“And how would you know that?”

The Bull’s quiet and unglad confidence faltered: he glanced towards the camp. The simple soldiers, the regular men, they camped just beyond; and the Bull, Dorian knew, camped with them.

“Lucky guess,” said the Bull.

“You don’t make lucky guesses.”

The Bull shrugged: a purposeful motion, meant as retort. It had to be a guess, he said, because, as Dorian was fond of telling the Bull, he was just a brute.

“Don’t give me that,” Dorian snapped. He was suddenly tired of it, all of it. “You’re not as stupid as you like to let me pretend you are. What was it, then? What gave it away?”

Now the Bull had gone blank. The persistent, laughing lines of his face unfolded. He lowered his hand, and the branch dropped to its natural angle.

“In the courtyard,” he said. “The day we left. You were avoiding someone.”

“And how can you be so certain?”

Another shrug, this one sardonic to match the lilt of his brow. “Like I haven’t noticed you need a reason to talk to me?”

Dorian’s tongue pressed to his teeth. He said, “Don’t be absurd. I’m not. I wouldn’t use you. Have you ever considered I might have wanted to talk to you?”

“Really,” said the Bull.

“Yes!” said Dorian. “Really!”

But the Bull rolled this off his injured shoulder. “And I saw. When you found him.” He scratched at his jaw. “I’m, uh, sorry. That must’ve been hard. I know what it’s like when you lose someone like that.”

Dorian stared at the Bull through the greenery, the shadows, the distance the Bull meant to give. He saw the Bull, the Bull with the poultice bound to his shoulder, though perhaps the Bull thought Dorian saw instead that soldier lain in the dirt with a quarrel through his throat.

Shifting under Dorian’s glance, the Bull rubbed at his shoulder next, mindful of the wound.

“Well, keep your pity,” said Dorian. “I only fucked him the once, and he never gave me a name.” He hadn’t asked for one either; it was enough that the man had large hands and a broad jaw. “Move.”

He didn’t wait for the Bull to move, and he didn’t shove the branch out of his way. Dorian simply charged past him, swinging low to avoid catching a mouth full of pine needles.

“Dorian.” The Bull brushed Dorian’s sleeve then no more.

“I’m not some sheltered babe,” Dorian snarled, turning only to throw this at him. “You needn’t condescend. He isn’t the first person I’ve seen dead.”

Go to hell, he thought to add; but if he spoke any more he was sure to say something rash or cruel or both. He could spit fire if that was what the Bull wanted of him.

Dorian arrived in such a state at his tent that he went in without taking his filthied boots off first. He swore at the muddy clods, the scraps of leaf, the Iron Bull. To hell with the Bull, and to hell with what the Bull wanted.

Yanking the buckles open, Dorian kicked his boots savagely out the tent. He’d no illusions as to what the Bull wanted. No one could possibly miss it.

“What sacrificial spirit!” said Dorian, but of course he was alone. Dorian ran his fingers through his hair. Sweat, dirt, smoke and blood: the detritus of war.

“You think we’ve been at war all this time?” the Bull had said once, surprised. Again Dorian pulled at his hair. He wanted badly to kick something over but he had so little to his name these days, even less when they were on the road.

Oh, it was war, all right; it had always been war. He paced in stocking feet in the narrow tent, his head bent to allow for the low ceiling. Three steps forward then three steps the other way.

For Dorian’s sake the Bull wore a bandage. The flesh cleaved, nearly to the muscle. A bloody wound, vulnerable as any to infection, but not a debilitating one.

“And who asked him to jump in the way?” muttered Dorian to his fawning audience of no one and nothing. Dorian hadn’t asked him to do it.

*

Fighting came easily to Dorian; he’d done it all his life whether he needed to do it or not. Magic was breath, and he was never meant to heal but to break and to burn.

He’d shoved through the cultists readily and taken a defensive point between the rifts, as Aginas, bare-handed and slowed by the armor Cassandra insisted he wear, pushed to close the first. Magic was breath, and breath was fire, and Dorian swung the staff about and fired.

“You having fun yet?” the Bull had called. He hefted his axe with his hands fixed at opposite ends of the haft.

“I’m having a ball.” Electricity crackled in the back of Dorian’s mouth, a sharp and acrid taste come to numb his tongue. “No need to ask if you’re enjoying yourself.”

Dorian tapped the staff’s crown upon a point in the air, and from the globe a net of lightning exploded, lancing swiftly through the crowd.

Aginas shouted, “Done!” and Cassandra bellowed, “Get out of the way!” to run escort to the second rift. The quivering mouth of it rippled.

“We might have company soon,” Dorian warned.

“Promise me something,” the Bull grunted, bringing that colossal hammering axe over his head and upon a ghast, spattering it wetly across the earth.

“Anything for you,” Dorian said, mocking.

“If a demon gets in me,” the Bull said, pivoting heavily on his heel to sweep another ghast to ruin, “kill me. Before it makes me kill you.”

“Surely it won’t come to that.”

Dorian relented a moment on the offensive to strengthen the barrier shield he’d placed about Aginas. The rift was shuddering more violently now, contracting at a regular pace.

“You haven’t enough brains for it to latch.”

“Hey, now,” said the Bull, grinning at Dorian, “look at you, you old softie. Trying to make me feel better. Worried about me?”

“Hardly!” said Dorian.

The Bull’s eye darted left: he looked over Dorian’s shoulder. Dorian began to turn, his staff rising; the heel of his boot scraped earth. In two steps, the Bull closed the distance.

He shoved Dorian out of the path of the falling sword. The blade bit into the Bull’s naked right shoulder. Staggering to keep his balance, his staff made like a cane, Dorian thrust his opened hand toward the cultist.

Fire erupted from the man’s mouth and eyes, and at his feet the earth stirred, a concussive blast to drive everyone else back. The Bull, heaving his axe, swayed, made unsteady. From within the cultist incinerated; his skin lit up like paper. The screaming was tremendous.

An answering heat pulsed once inside Dorian, near to burning, a necessary consequence of channeling the magic through flesh rather than the staff. The cultist stretched his guttering hands to Dorian, and Dorian swung his staff through the man.

What was fire collapsed to ash. The sick burnt dust got in Dorian’s mouth, his nose. Dorian brought his staff back. The cultists converged now on the second rift. So little time now. His skin was prickling, the small hairs on his knuckles standing on end.

“Are you all right?”

The Bull, grunting, rolled his shoulders. Blood ran freely down his arm. Dorian reached to cover the wound with his palm.

“Had worse,” the Bull said. “Nice trick with the fire.”

“Why the hell didn’t you get him with your axe?”

“Wind-up for a decent swing would’ve taken your head off your shoulders. Maybe later you can kiss and make it better.”

The blood coated Dorian’s fingers; it soaked into his sleeve. Fumbling for a handkerchief in his pocket, he made to bind the wound.

“Can’t you keep your mind on the matter on hand?”

“Aw, shit,” said the Bull, looking at the rift as it roiled, “here come the demons. Lay off it; I’ll see a healer later.”

“Move, and I’ll light you like a match too,” Dorian snapped. The handkerchief was too narrow to tie about the Bull’s arm, and so Dorian ripped a jeweled clip from his cuff and used this to pin the ends together.

“Finished fussing?” the Bull teased, “or do you want to let Cassandra have all the fun?”

The iron smell of blood stuck in Dorian’s nose, this and the stench of melting flesh and of soot. His hand when he grasped the staff in both was slicked from the Bull’s blood. The Bull, breath filling him, hefted his axe. Dorian turned his head and spat ash.

“By all means,” said Dorian.

The thing was over soon after that. Then, the tedious work of searching the dead fell to the survivors; most had survived. The soldier had not survived. Someone with a very strong arm had lost their blade in his throat: a cleaving stroke angled southwards, and the edge caught in bone. Dorian crouched beside the body and pulled the short sword out of his spine.

“You know him?” asked Cassandra.

“No,” said Dorian. “Only the face.”

Cassandra did not press him though she glanced again at Dorian before moving on to check the next body. They were all of the dead laid out like so much carrion.

Twisting his tongue to draw spit, Dorian swallowed more of the ash. He passed his hand over his mouth. Two of his fingers trembled. The rest were still. Then Dorian closed the man’s eyes with his thumb. The skin was cool, the eyelashes crusted.

When he stood again the Bull, some few yards away with a hand on his shoulder, was looking at him. The handkerchief was sodden: a loss. The Bull’s eye flickered; he considered all of Dorian. He took a heavy step not towards the healers, tending to other wounded, but toward Dorian.

Dorian wiped his thumb on his shirt front and turned away. His teeth hurt. Something was shifting very quickly inside him. He walked from it. The unclipped cuff fluttered at his wrist.

The Bull did not follow him. Not then. He’d no desire for the Bull to follow him; he’d no desire at all. Go to the healers, you lump, he thought to say; don’t look at me. Smoke weighted the air and clung to his nose.

The dead were all around, and here he looked at a dead man and thought of a living one. A quiet terror loomed. He fled this too.

*

4.

*

“Thought I might find you here,” said Dorian, “and so I have. Rather cold to be outside at night.”

“Not that cold,” said Aginas. He’d curled up in a chair beside his table, and he’d his arms hooked about his knees and his face buried in his arms. The points of his ears stuck out from his thick hair.

“Absolutely that cold,” Dorian said. “I’m practically freezing, and I at least had the wisdom to put on a coat. What is that you’re wearing?”

“I forgot,” said Aginas.

“Have you been drinking?”

“No,” said Aginas, “never again, I’m done forever with drinking. Swear to follow me always, and let’s go down and set fire to the wine cellars together.”

Dorian perched on the table and crossed his arms over his waist. “Nothing would make me happier, dear Inquisitor, than to share our friendship before a cozy bonfire on this damned cold night. But I think some might protest.”

Aginas set his chin on his arm and made a truly horrific face. “Cullen can shovel dirt up his nose. And Josie—”

“You wouldn’t tell sweet Josie to shovel dirt, would you?”

“No,” Aginas admitted. “And really it’s Cassandra I’d be afraid of.”

Dorian settled into this jesting routine as Aginas was rousing to it.

“And with very good reason. Cassandra is terrifying. In a motivational sort of way. She reminds me, in some small measure, of my grandmother.”

“She doesn’t remind me of your grandmother,” said Aginas.

“That would be a trick.” Dorian leaned toward him as though to divulge hideous secrets. “You’ve never met my grandmother.”

Aginas leaned in, too. “I don’t think I’d like your grandmother. No offense meant.”

“None taken,” said Dorian. “I don’t think you’d like my grandmother, either. She had very outmoded ideas of elves.”

“In comparison to?”

“Sera?”

Aginas laughed and set his right leg down. The left he kept crooked to his chest, his arms loosely cast around his calf.

“We aren’t all so bad,” Dorian said. “And things are changing, slowly, in some places. And…” He sleeked his mustache with thumb and first finger. “I may owe you an apology for something said long ago.”

“How long ago?” asked Aginas. “My memory’s notoriously bad, if you happen to remember.”

“Well,” said Dorian, “I may have said something or other about elves, and not knowing what to call you, and, well.” Once, twice more he stroked his mustache as he spoke. “With some time it has occurred to me that might not have been terribly sensitive.”

“And oh, you’re always sensitive,” Aginas teased.

“No,” Dorian said, “I am many things. Cultured. Handsome.”

“Humble.”

“Generous with my good humor,” Dorian added, to Aginas’ expected amusement. “But sensitive? No. Of the two of us, you are the superior, in that regard.”

“And only in that?”

“Well,” said Dorian, and Aginas laughed again.

“Thank you,” said Aginas.

“For apologizing?” asked Dorian. He sketched a little bow. “You are entirely welcome.”

“Not for that,” Aginas said. “For talking to me.”

“Everyone talks to you,” Dorian said. “You’re a very popular man, for all that you dress like a lost child.”

“Mm. Well, I may have been avoiding a few people,” Aginas said.

Dorian considered this. “Would that be why Cassandra’s been in so bleak a mood for the last two days?”

All their progress lost: Aginas buried his face in his hands. He said, “She hasn’t. Not on my account,” but he said it like a plea.

Dorian sighed and weighed what he might or might not say now. Cop to eavesdropping on Aginas’ small breakdown after the battle, or try to work around it? But Aginas spoke again before Dorian could decide on a course.

“It is on my account,” Aginas said, hopeless. “She must be so. Just disappointed in me. After the battle, I—”

He looked suddenly to Dorian, who schooled his features to polite ignorance.

“I can’t be this, this heroic figure she wants me to be, Dorian. All this heralding business, this—being someone people have to look up to—that’s what she’s good at, not me.”

Dorian waited to see if more was forthcoming. More was not. Touching his brow, Aginas lowered his head. His fingers, gloved as ever, curled and uncurled and curled again in his hair.

“Would you like to know what I think?”

“Actually,” said Aginas, “I would.”

“I think,” said Dorian, “that you’re being a little dramatic.”

“A little—” Aginas shot upright. His left boot clopped to the stones. “Dramatic! Dorian, my hand glows!”

“You don’t have to take your glove off! I’m well aware! And I didn’t mean it like—”

Aginas yanked the glove up his wrist. “A little dramatic! You said! A little—”

“Yes!” Dorian said. “All right! I see now that perhaps I was wrong in my choice of words!”

“A little dramatic!” said Aginas again. “Dorian, I close rifts, that let demons through, with my glowing hand!”

“Fine! You’re being appropriately dramatic!”

“And anyway,” said Aginas, mollified, “if anyone’s dramatic it’s you. Acting like Bull’s cheating on you every time he looks at someone when—”

“We’re not talking about Bull!” Dorian pointed fiercely at Aginas. “We’re talking about you and your astonishing inability to not make a total cock-up of your relationship with Cassandra. And this isn’t about Bull!”

Aginas had sunk to the table at the mention of Cassandra’s name. “Have you gone to see him?”

“Bull?”

“Well, yes,” said Aginas.

Refolding his arms, Dorian looked over his shoulder across the expanse of the open receiving yards of Skyhold. The mountains were black in the night, and the waning moon had nearly gone, swallowed up by the dark.

“Not yet,” said Dorian.

“Well,” said Aginas. “It’s only been a couple days.”

“Oh, don’t make excuses for me,” said Dorian. “I can make my own excuses.”

Aginas frowned and folded his hands to his elbows on the table. “Don’t make any excuses.”

“Am I to take your example?”

“I don’t make excuses.”

“You’re making excuses for giving Cassandra the cold shoulder,” Dorian said.

“I’m not giving Cassandra anything.”

“That,” said Dorian, “is exactly the point.” Aginas groaned. “No, look. You’re mistaking her faith in you as a person as her wanting to, I don’t know, cast you in bronze and put you up on a pedestal for everyone to gawk at.”

“Could at least cast me in silver,” Aginas muttered. “Dorian. I think I might have been an ass.”

“We are all asses in our own unique ways,” said Dorian.

“That’s very wise,” said Aginas.

“Thank you,” said Dorian. “I thought so too.”

Aginas pushed off the table. “I’m going to go talk to Cassandra.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Dorian. “But put on a coat first so you don’t die.”

“I keep telling you,” said Aginas, “it’s not that cold out. You’re just a baby.”

“I’m not a baby,” said Dorian, “I am a grown man.”

“Who is also an ass,” said Aginas.

“Better to be an ass than a fool,” said Dorian.

“That wasn’t wise at all,” said Aginas.

“Go shovel dirt up your nose,” said Dorian.

Aginas, short, uncute Aginas, eyed Dorian at the doors. “You know,” he said, “you ought to go shovel dirt up your nose, too.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Dorian said.

“Good,” said Aginas, “you should. And Dorian. Thank you. You’re a good friend.”

Dorian cleared his throat and said, “Think nothing of it,” but the feeling came through regardless. Smiling, Aginas made a shooing gesture with his hand, and then he left Dorian.

“Luck to you,” said Dorian, “and mercy too.” They’d all need of that. Perhaps love could happen, somehow.

He walked without really thinking of where he was going or what he meant to do when he got there, but Dorian wasn’t much surprised to find his feet took him to the tavern or that there was company inside: Bull’s company, the merry, drunken lot of them.

“Ah, look who it is!” said Krem. He clapped the Bull’s bared shoulder, the one that wasn’t thickly swaddled, and crab-walked about the Bull. “Here he is, our favorite stuck-up.”

“Well!” said Dorian.

Dalish swooped in from some space between the rest of the crowd to latch on to Dorian’s arm. “Don’t mind Krem. He’s just a bit…” She wobbled her hand along with her eyebrows.

“Dalish!” Krem thundered. “Don’t go telling the stuck-up all our secrets.”

“He likes you, really,” Dalish insisted, as Krem pulled his lips down, looked directly at Dorian, and shook his head. “It’s only he’s had a bit to drink. Go sit, go sit.”

“Dalish,” said Krem, “a word.”

“Have four,” she said merrily. “Have five!”

“Just one.”

“At least two.”

Dorian, pushed onwards, sat heavily on the bench near to the Bull. The Bull had his elbow on the table and his chin in his palm, and he looked over at Dorian with his one eye and his usual good humor.

“Hullo, Dorian,” said the Bull. “What’s up?”

“Ah,” said Dorian, “hello. Bull.”

Then he was rather out of things to say. Someone walking by jostled Dorian, and he swayed slightly on the bench, closer to the Bull and then away again.

“Want a drink?”

“No,” Dorian said, “I didn’t come here for a drink.”

“Well, then what did you come here for?” the Bull asked, laughingly. “You know, taverns are for drinking. And sleeping, if you’re Sera.” His voice rose. “Or Krem!”

A peculiar sensation of unrooting washed over Dorian. The Bull acted as thought it were simply a normal evening.

“I’m afraid Krem doesn’t much like me,” said Dorian.

“You can be a hard person for some people to like,” said the Bull, sipping at his beer, “but don’t take it personally. Krem’s naturally suspicious. If he really didn’t like you, you’d know it.”

“I know that he doesn’t like me,” Dorian muttered.

The Bull said, “Well, can’t have everything,” and downed his beer.

I shouldn’t have come, Dorian thought. Then he took a breath.

“How’s your, ah, shoulder?”

“Hurts like hell,” said the Bull, “but that only makes me feel more alive!” He stretched widely then, both shoulders bent. Then the right shoulder, the bandaged one, trembled, and he swore, swore and laughed as he eased out of the stretch.

“Nah,” he said, though Dorian had said nothing, “it hurts, but I don’t mind it.” The Bull grinned sidelong at Dorian. “Just means one more thing that couldn’t take me out.”

His eye flickered: he looked Dorian over. His smile crooked.

“Plus, uh, lot of babes want to check on how you’re doing, when you got a good knocking. That always helps with the, ah, recovery process.”

“Oh, yes,” said Dorian, “how could I forget the babes?”

The Bull was looking at him, still. He was always looking at Dorian. The Bull set his mug down on the table and then he turned on his stool. The whole of the crowd seemed to recede when the Bull turned to Dorian like that.

In a low, husking voice, he said, “Dorian,” as though it cost nothing to say.

“I wanted to apologize,” Dorian said. He hadn’t intended to say it, but there it was and it was true. “I’m on something of an apologetic kick tonight. So please, indulge me.”

“All right,” said the Bull after a moment. He blinked once but his gaze remained, lingering on Dorian. “I’m indulging.”

“For what we discussed in the grove, after everything that happened.” Dorian fluttered his hand, to encompass all of it and then to dismiss it. “I am … sorry. Of course you’ve lost more—”

“Not a competition,” said the Bull. “If it was, it’d be a pretty sucky one.”

“Yes,” said Dorian, looking to the Bull’s unhurt shoulder, “it would be. Bull. The dreadnaught… That night—”

The Bull cut him off. “And you don’t have to tell me you’re sorry. Although you could have made it prettier. I did sort of condescend to you.”

“No,” Dorian said, “you didn’t. You were right. It was the first— Well. Since. Anyway,” said Dorian. “That was what I wanted to say.”

“Dorian,” said the Bull, and he reached to take Dorian’s hand. His fingers were warm on Dorian’s palm, his thumb rough but gentled in how it bent to cup Dorian’s fingers.

“And I’m sorry for your shoulder,” Dorian said, “though I would have you remember that I didn’t ask you to step in front of me and you had no reason to do it.”

“Plenty of reasons,” said the Bull. “Better me than you. Look,” he said, tugging on Dorian’s hand, “if it’s eating you up that much. Don’t let it. I would’ve taken the sword for any of the rest of these guys, too.”

Dorian looked at the Bull. His long, narrow face. All those harsh scars, a lifetime’s worth. He’d given up that eye for Krem, Krem who didn’t like Dorian, Krem who was second in command of the Chargers.

Grey, Dorian thought. The Bull’s eye was grey.

“Yes,” said Dorian, “I know,” and he took his hand from the Bull’s and the Bull sat there. He watched Dorian go. He sat there and he didn’t follow Dorian or call out to him, and he watched Dorian leave, and then Dorian had gone.

*

Sera intercepted his course in the stairwell winding up to the second set of doors to the library.

“Oi!” said Sera. She swung up the rails and landed lightly on her toes. “Who sat on your head?”

“Good morning to you, too,” said Dorian.

Sera winched her nose. “If I meant good morning I’d say so.”

“They don’t teach you manners on the streets?”

“They teach you ‘em in your towers?” Sera dug her elbow in his side. “Or your manners too fancy to waste on guttersnipes?”

He looked away: again, his tongue had got away from him. “Guttersnipe,” he said. “Is that what you are?”

“Better a guttersnipe than a spell-sucking toady with his nose up his arse.”

“I couldn’t possibly fit my nose up there,” said Dorian, by way of amends. “Not when I’m holding all those arrows for you.”

Her wide mouth lost its edge, and when Sera turned to him on the landing outside the library she was smiling again.

“That why you look like you look?” she asked. “‘Cause you tried stuffing it up there anyway?”

“What a curious fascination you have with my arse,” said Dorian. “Is this a new fetish for you?”

He preceded her into the library then graciously held the door open for her. Mockingly Sera bent her leg before her and then kicked past him.

“Or is your new fetish reading?”

“Oh, yeah, books,” said Sera, “they really…” She scratched at her nose. “Slick the butter in my jams.”

She was having a laugh, surely, but Dorian, who’d so little literary-inclined company in this god forsaken mountain, said, “Well, if you need any recommendations. Perhaps a primer? A short history of magic in Thedas? You can’t cling to your prejudices forever.”

“Watch it,” said Sera, “or I’ll make you read a… Short history of ways your people fucked it up for everyone else. When you showed up. In Thedas.”

“I’ve never fucked anything up for everyone else,” Dorian protested. “I keep the consequences of my fuck-ups to myself.”

“Yeah, but you got to fuck up because you had the gold shits and the dew-eyed slavies and the sparkly sparkly fear me oooh magic—” She wiggled her fingers as she spoke. “So’s you could get away with it.”

“Well,” said Dorian, glancing to the upper stories of the library. “Not anymore. My shits are sadly no longer gilded.”

“Stinks, doesn’t it? Having to drop out smelly stuff like the rest of us lesser beings?”

“Believe me, Sera,” said Dorian, “there’s nothing lesser about you.”

She laughed, very loudly for a library, and she didn’t at all seem to care how the noise of it echoed in the spaces between the lofted rafters. The librarians would be stirring soon, called forth like bears in spring.

Grinning, the corners of her mouth twisting in madly, Sera said, “Or Bull. Eh? No lesser ‘bout that.”

The reality of the week pushed through the veneer; he thought, horribly, of the Bull standing in the small clearing in that shadowed grove with his head bent and his horns framed by leaves and the bandage white on his shoulder.

Then Dorian said, “I fail to see what he has to do with my upbringing. Or your upbringing. Unless we’re to discuss the importance of being present in your child’s life.”

“Pull it out,” said Sera. “I already heard what happened.”

He made for the twining iron staircase leading to the second floor.

“I’m sure the Bull’s bragged about his heroic sacrifice to anyone who would listen.”

“Got it out of Cassie, ac-tu-al-ly,” said Sera.

Indelicate though her manner and her speech, she walked lightly on her toes, and the staircase shook more from Dorian’s stride than it did hers as she followed him up.

“Cassandra?” Dorian turned on her. “What does Cassandra know?”

Sera shrugged. “Bull got a sword to the shoulder saving your soft arse. Why I’m here. Cass is all blarh because Inky Aggie’s got his Dalish tats twisted because of something or other, so I thought I’d—”

“Annoy me into spilling gossip?” asked Dorian.

“Shut it, rudey!” said Sera. “So I thought I’d find a mucky dirty book for her to sort her kinks out on, and maybe kick you in the arse while I’m at it.”

“Is there a reason my arse deserves this abuse?” he wondered, moving away from her toward the aisles. “You’re fixated on it.”

“Something’s up with you, and I don’t like it.”

He steered her to shallower waters: ground he’d rather cover than that which she meant to take him.

“After all this time.” He sighed. “Still suspicious of the Tevinter mage.”

“Not ‘cause of that. ‘Cause you’re my… Well, you know!” said Sera, scowling.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m your what? Arrows storage?”

“Friendly like thing,” she snapped. Sera hooked her fingers in her belt, rather like as though she had to do so to restrain her self from violence. “I like you, Dorian. Ass.”

Caught, Dorian glanced to the bookshelves. He felt at the crumbling spine of a book next to his hip.

“I like you as well.”

“Then—good,” said Sera. “Ass!”

“But,” he said more lightly, “concerned about your cornering me in a dark library to confess this feeling.”

“Don’t even!” said Sera, “you utter ass. Catch you in here with that librarian with the wide thimble and see what I’ll start telling the rest.”

“So,” said Dorian, turning again, “I’m an ass.”

“Utterly.”

“And you’re?”

“Thinking I ought let you try and stick your nose up there,” said Sera. “Oi! These are magic books.”

“Read one,” he suggested, “learn something. Broaden your horizons.”

“Just tell me where the muck is.”

He directed her to the appropriate aisles of fiction, on the lower level, and then, surveying Sera with her jagged bangs and uncouth angles, he said, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Look for books to bring to Cassandra. You’ve made it obvious that you’d rather you were … intimate with her.”

“Not everything I do is trying to get into girls’ pants,” said Sera scornfully. “She’s my friend too, same as you are.” Her mouth opened again.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “ass, I know.”

Mollified, Sera sniffed. “Even if she’d rather tumble with Aggie. He’s all right enough for a—”

“Man?”

“Dalish.” Sera brightened. “And anyway I can tease her a bit for wanting to hold his hand or whatever it is lovie-dovies do.”

Dorian wandered out of the aisle to the railing. As Sera got to the stairs, he called to her:

“Does it bother you?” He folded his arms along the rail and leaned into the cradle thus formed. “That she doesn’t return your interest.”

Sera lidded her eyes and stuck her tongue out. “Not a shit.”

“Oh, of course not,” said Dorian. “No one would ever call you a shit.”

“It bother you that Bull gave up a chunk of his arm to save your neck?” asked Sera.

Dorian’s teeth clicked. He said, “Please at least try to be civilized.”

She lit. “It does bother you!”

“Wouldn’t it bother you?” Dorian shoved off the rail and grabbed at his elbows, crushing the joints in his hands. “I hardly asked him to step in. I would have been fine if—”

“Wouldn’t bother me, not dying.” Sera hopped down the steps with her hand ghosting along the guard rail. “Why don’t you go tell him all that rubbish? It’s not like he did it to get in your pants. He’s only the way he is.”

“That,” said Dorian, to the absence she left, “is exactly the problem,” and he lingered in the stacks, considering the facets of the quandary as he understood it.

A lesson his father had gave him: what is the shape of the thing? What is the nature of it? Does it sink or does it float?

“Animal, person, plant, or mineral,” muttered Dorian. Make it a game and then what did it matter if you lost? He brushed his thumb over his mustache. The corner of his mouth twitched. And you, thought Dorian, you were ever a cheater.

The calling of the crows started up again; someone had picked a fight with a roosting mate. Perhaps they’d peck each other to death and then Dorian would be rid of two voices in the omnipresent cacophony.

In the stacks he found Maequar’s Extract. He tugged it from the shelf. The book fell open, but there was nothing relevant to his situation to be found on the page. Nor did any scent cling to the book but for the faintly sweet smell of decaying glue.

How had Maequar put it? Summon the beast if you will but know that you give it a means to find you. Dorian closed the book on his thumb and thought not of Maequar’s simplistic philosophizing or of the hugeness of the thing before him, but of the Bull outside the tavern, looking across the spaces between the two of them at Dorian, as though he too hurt with the wanting.

What had Dorian said to him? Eat, drink; be merry.

“Tomorrow,” Dorian told Maequar, that old conservative, so afraid of testing the bounds, “we die.” And he put the book back upon the shelf.

He left empty-handed a half hour later, intent on exercise to exorcise. Sera had perched upon the desk with her legs crossed at the knees.

“Oh, yes,” Emilienne was saying, her arms folded beneath her profusive chest, “I’ve seen you shooting in the practice yard. From the window, over there.”

“Oh, have you?” asked Sera. “I’m a fair shot with a moving target.”

“Bless all lovers,” muttered Dorian as he snuck out the side doors. “Though they may only be lovers for the hour.”

It was unkind; he knew it to be unkind; he knew it, too, to be a hypocrite’s comment. What did it matter if someone sought out a fling or two? A casual night of pleasure was hardly indicative of moral deficiency, and he’d known both casual nights and moral deficiencies. If they were all happy and satisfied with the state of things, then there was no room to pontificate.

Let the Maker make of it what he would, if anything could be made of it. All Dorian wanted was an emptied head. Yes: that was what he wanted. The glory of purpose was upon him, the freedom of self-realization. He intended to take what he wanted. He meant to exact it.

*

He hadn’t learned the rudimentary forms of the sword to please his father; he learned it because it was done. Dorian traded his finer clothes for plain cloth and donned gloves.

The whole of Skyhold might as well have seen him walk from his quarters to the weapons room. Self-important to think so. The enormity of resolution loomed.

The foils waited on their racks, blades for practice, common swords for the man too sure for wood. What was fencing but a game? Dorian folded his arms; he grasped his elbows; he stayed a time, looking at the blades.

The hour inched on. Soon it would be three. A half hour till. He stirred. At last, Dorian selected his foil. He tested it as he walked, flourishing the beaded tip through the air. The blade whipped beautifully.

“Gather up your arms for war, lads,” said Dorian, mocking, to his shadow. Come see how he fared, his fine silhouette. Andraste, speak with your husband, that Dorian might survive with dignity yet.

He emerged from the dimly lit corridor into the dusty expanses of the practice yard. They were all of them there, at their posts or their targets or each other; yes, and their leader was with them, too. The Bull had a shield on his arm, so too Krem, and they pushed at each other.

Dorian swung the foil up to his shoulder. The little whistle it made as it cut the air satisfied. Heads turned. Faces raised to greet him. He sauntered, one foot deliberately placed before the other and a hand in his pocket. Dalish, staff balanced high, smiled at him and then turned her smile to Krem and the Bull.

“Typical,” said Dorian. He stopped before them and twisted his heel in the dirt, grinding at it. “Why bother with strategy when you can just bash one another?”

Krem, distracted, took the next hard push through his shoulder. He fell back into a crouch, staggering as he threw his arms wide for balance.

The Bull, grimacing, straightened. Sweat marked the Bull’s chest, his thick neck. He wiped at his brow with the inside of his elbow. No bandage on the shoulder. Just the seam showed, the ragged flesh sewn together.

“You think that because you’re not looking for the strategy,” said the Bull. Absently he brushed at his shoulder then left off it.

“So educate me.”

The Bull offered his hand to Krem and Krem, accepting it, heaved upright.

“Strengthens the shoulder,” said the Bull, whose shoulder, tensing to pull Krem up, was creased red. “The back. Teaches you how to survive a blow. Ground your feet. Sometimes I’m the one who gets knocked into the dirt.”

Krem said, “No worries, chief. I’ll happily knock you into the dirt. You just say the word,” and the Bull, grinning, slapped his open hand between Krem’s shoulders.

Dorian swung the foil free of his shoulder: a harsh stroke downward. That little whistling caught the Bull’s pointed ear, and the Bull looked to Dorian. Krem, too, all of them; but it was the one eye for Dorian.

“So,” said Dorian again.

He rocked onto his toes. Languorous in intent and execution Dorian unfolded his arm with the foil extended, the bead pointed southerly. He curled his lip, tipped his chin, lidded his eyes: in short, issued challenge.

“Educate me.”

The Bull stared at Dorian. Krem stared at Dorian. So far as he knew the whole of Skyhold stared at Dorian. Let them stare. He smiled at the Bull. It was not a kind smile; it was ungentle.

Krem looked at the Bull then he looked at Dorian then he looked to the heavens and said, “Clementia stultis.”

“Yes, whatever would I do without the gallery’s commenting?” asked Dorian.

“You like to have an audience,” said the Bull. He reached for the shield’s straps.

“I do, don’t I?” Dorian gestured with the end of the foil. “Leave the shield on. Let’s test that shoulder of yours. That is why you’re playing this game. To strengthen your shoulder.”

The Bull was looking at him yet. Dorian bore his gaze. He was patient about it.

“Yeah,” said the Bull, “it’s to make you tougher.” He tipped his head. “And we have fun with it. But that doesn’t make it a game.”

“And here I was under the impression it was all a game to you.”

“Not all of it.”

He tugged on the straps. Dorian’s stomach rippled in his gut, but the Bull was only securing the shield on his arm. Krem, fussing with his own shield, made a quiet retreat then bawled for the Chargers to gather to him.

“All right,” said the Bull. His face lifted. He gave Dorian that easy charmer’s smile, but his brow was canted wrongly for a laugh. “I’ll play with you. But better watch that temper of yours if you lose.”

“So certain of yourself!” Dorian straightened the foil and settled into position. “And if you win, do you mean to gloat over every barmaid who will listen?”

“No,” said the Bull, so very easy, so very charming. “Just over you.”

Dorian’s skin was thrumming, as if he held a staff and not a sword. His thumb slipped about to grip the haft tightly.

“And should I win?”

The Bull shrugged his scarred shoulder. “Win, lose. Stop wondering how it’s going to end up.” Shrewdly he considered Dorian. “That’s your problem, Dorian. You get so worked up about whether you’re going to come out on top or below that you never see it through to the end.”

“Oh, is that my problem now?”

The Bull spread a hand generously. The ease of his smile slicked. “One of ‘em.”

“Well,” said Dorian, “why don’t we finish this game then?” and he struck.

The Bull’s arm came up to break the blow upon the shield. No meaty crack, no stuck blade. Dorian withdrew and then struck twice more. Both, the Bull blocked.

The dirt gritted beneath their feet. Perhaps the Bull outweighed Dorian as a mountain did a fish. What Dorian lacked in bulk, he put into speed. Darting blows rather than cleaving ones: of course a foil could not be used to gut a man, not readily.

“You weren’t lying.”

“I never lie,” said Dorian. “Unless it’s important.”

The Bull’s cheek wrinkled. His teeth flashed; his nostrils rounded. Then he lifted his chin and laughed.

“That’s true,” said the Bull.

“And who are you to decide whether or not someone else is lying?”

“Nobody,” the Bull agreed, “just a guy.”

“Lies! But what should I expect?” Dorian cut in low. He nearly caught the Bull’s wrist with the tip of the foil, but the Bull turned in time to block that too. “From a professional liar.”

The Bull’s laugh had faded from him. “I’ve never lied to you, Dorian,” he said quietly.

“Once or twice,” said Dorian.

“Never.”

“Everyone lies.”

“Not to you,” said the Bull. “Not about— What is this about?”

The Bull, straightening, took a step toward to Dorian. In kind did Dorian side-step. He moved circularly about the Bull, gauging the distances.

“Dorian,” warned the Bull.

“You’re the master spy,” said Dorian, to cut. “Why don’t you take a stab at it?”

The Bull’s jaw tensed. He lowered his chin, near to his throat.

“I want to hear you say it,” he rumbled. “Yourself. The truth now.”

“We don’t always get what we want,” Dorian said, and he swung.

Again the Bull caught the foil on the shield. He was unmoved. The hugeness of him would not allow it. With a staff Dorian could do real damage; with his bare hands he could channel fire or shape lightning or tug ice out of the moist air.

Sweat beaded Dorian’s throat, his nape, his armpits, and he’d dust in his mouth, a thin grime to stick under his tongue. The foil was useless to Dorian. He used it anyway.

“Try to take this seriously,” Dorian said.

“You’re not a swordsman,” said the Bull.

“How did you know?”

“Way you hold it,” the Bull said, glancing at Dorian’s wrist. “How you position your fingers on the shaft.”

“No lewd joke?”

Something like a smile flashed across the Bull’s narrow face. It softened at his eye; and then it had gone.

“That. And you told me,” said the Bull. “Inelegantly. That’s the word you used for it.” He quoted: “You fence but inelegantly. So you don’t fence.”

Dorian frowned. “I don’t remember that.”

“I do,” said the Bull, and he knocked the foil to one side with the shield.

Dorian was fleetingly open to the Bull. His arm was cast out, his chest exposed. In the moment of this Dorian was without recourse: he had the breath he drew, and he had the heat in his fingertips, but his eyes were wide and he looked to the Bull.

The Bull stepped backwards. He did not take the victory. The moment ended, and Dorian recovered. There, now: his temper, so vaunted.

“Would you like to know what your problem is, Bull?”

He gave up on elegance and resorted instead to striking again and again, harassing the Bull. If the Bull would stand his ground then Dorian would have no choice but to accept humility. Instead he migrated as Dorian pushed.

“Got me figured out, huh?”

“I admit,” said Dorian, “it took some time. Longer than it should have.”

“Well, hey,” said the Bull, “I couldn’t just give you all the answers. You, you’re a guy who doesn’t appreciate coddling,” but he leaned his bad shoulder out, away from Dorian. Not to favor it, Dorian thought, but because at last Dorian had him pressed.

It moved hideously through him; he allowed it: Dorian smiled. He brushed his shoulder along his mouth, cleaning the sweat from his nose. The foil wavered.

The Bull’s eye tracked neither Dorian’s shoulder nor the small movements of the blade, held at the ready. The whole of his concentration was upon Dorian. The weight of this ought to have frightened him.

“I know you.” He said the name cleanly: “The Iron Bull.”

The Bull scoffed. “Everyone knows me.”

“You say I won’t finish anything I’ve started. Fine,” said Dorian. “No one’s perfect. Even I’m not exempt.”

“Hey!” said the Bull, smiling lazily. “Good on you. First step’s acknowledging it.”
“But you aren’t exempt either,” Dorian said, “I wasn’t finished. Your problem is that you won’t start anything.”

“You sure about that one, Dorian?” asked the Bull.

“Very,” said Dorian.

He moved, not to strike, but to tap the Bull’s chest, and he caught the shield instead. The Bull had lifted his arm to stop the foil short.

“You say it’s out of respect for others,” said Dorian. “And perhaps it is. But I wonder if you’re not a little afraid, too. If someone else starts, then it isn’t your fault.”

The Bull half-laughed, incredulous. He looked away from Dorian then back again. The laugh seceded.

“I’m not afraid of jack shit.”

“I think you are.”

“You’re wrong.”

Dorian was sidling nearer. The Bull did not step away. The distance closed. Dorian lowered the foil. The tip ground into the dirt. When Dorian drew breath his chest near to brushed the shield. The Bull would not lower his arm.

“So,” said Dorian, “then prove it.”

He saw the Bull’s nose pulling: he breathed in deeply. His lips twitched; a muscle tugged at the center of his top lip, creasing it. The Bull closed his eye. He shook his head.

Dorian said, “I never would have pegged you for a coward.”

“Not cowardice,” said the Bull, his eye yet shut to Dorian, “to let someone else say when to jump.”

He wondered if he might feel the scars on the Bull’s cheek through the leather of his glove.

“Cowardice,” said Dorian, “if you do it because you’re afraid that you want them to say it.”

“That’s pretty fast,” said the Bull, “turning it around on me.” He opened his eye. “Where’d you learn how to spin like that?”

Dorian looked up at the Bull. “I know a thing or two about jumping.”

They were the both of them sweated, the both of them smeared with grime. The Bull bore the worst of it; he’d fought longer. Grimacing, he rolled his shoulder. It pained him still, then. So why take the blow?

The practice yard was empty. The Chargers had gone. The sun sank; lowly, it sank.

“I know a thing or two, too,” said the Bull.

“Such as?”

The Bull shook his head. He was pulling away again. “I’m not going to fight you, Dorian.”

“What a sudden change of heart. You just did,” said Dorian. “You are, right now. You’re fighting me.”

And still the Bull shook his head.

“So what is it?” Dorian asked him. “What is it that you want from me?”

The Bull turned away. He was stripping off the shield. Impossibly, Dorian’s temper stoked again.

“Enough!” said Dorian. “Enough of this. No more games. I’m tired of your, your baiting—”

My baiting!” said the Bull. The second strap went, then the third. He caught the shield before it landed on his foot. “You’ve been itching for a fight with me since the day we met. And I’ve given it to you plenty of times—”

“Oh, don’t play stupid,” Dorian said, “you haven’t given me ‘it’ once, although I’ve noticed that hasn’t stopped you giving it to everyone else who so much as looks at you.”

The Bull’s brow arched. “Is that what this is?” he demanded. He sounded as though he didn’t believe it. “You’re in a snit—”

“I’m not in a snit!”

“A jealous snit—”

“Don’t flatter yourself—”

“Because, what,” said the Bull, “I’m having sex. With other people? And not you?”

“Yes!” said Dorian. He gestured with the foil, and the Bull leaned out of reach. “That’s what all this is about. Because I don’t have anything better to do with my time than to think about you fucking Emilienne.”

But the Bull looked at him, and it was as though he saw Dorian, saw him truly.

“That is it,” said the Bull.

“It is not,” said Dorian.

“It is.”

“No,” said Dorian, “it isn’t,” and he didn’t lie, not really. The Bull saw that, too.

“So what is it?” asked the Bull again.

“Why don’t you guess?” asked Dorian again.

“Tell me,” said the Bull, stepping to him. “Dorian. Tell me what it is. What’s this about?”

Dorian held the haft of the foil, so firmly it numbed his palm. He could not let the blade go. The dirt would ruin it. So he thought.

“It’s possible,” said Dorian, “you aren’t entirely wrong.”

“About what, Dorian?”

“Why do you want to hear me say it so badly?” he snapped, looking furiously at the Bull.

“Ah,” said the Bull, “well. Possibly I just want to hear you talk. What wasn’t I wrong about?”

Rather than answer him, Dorian touched the Bull’s wounded shoulder. He did it with his empty hand, his opened hand, his gloved hand.

“You would have taken that blow for anyone,” said Dorian.

The Bull looked at him. His eye wandered. He nodded. No posturing, no ego.

“I didn’t need you to take it for me,” Dorian said.

“It’s going to make for a hell of a scar,” said the Bull. “Chicks love scars. Lot of guys, too. You like scars, Dorian?”

“I may,” Dorian allowed, but he narrowed his eyes at the Bull to warn him. “A pity. It was a nice shoulder. For a savage Tal’Vashoth.” Then he was silent, with his tongue hot and shamed.

“You couldn’t take that hit for me,” said the Bull.

“When did I say I wanted to?”

With one finger the Bull stroked Dorian’s cheek. “It’s on your face.”

“Try not to scratch it,” said Dorian, his heart sticking.

The Bull stroked his cheek again, and then he cupped Dorian’s jaw in his hand. His thumb settled against the ridge of Dorian’s cheekbone. The sword’s handle was slicked with sweat.

At last he admitted it. “I don’t like to see how a story ends.”

“Even if it’s a happy ending?” asked the Bull.

Dorian snorted. “There’s no such thing as a happy ending. Any writer who claims otherwise is a hack or a liar. Divorce. Death. Disease. Mutual disenchantment.”

“That’s an awful lot of Ds, Dorian,” said the Bull. “Branch out to the rest of the alphabet. What about the As?”

“Don’t get me started on the As.”

“I’d like to get you started,” the Bull said. He let the shield thump to the ground.

Dorian raised his gaze again to the Bull, from the shield now flat on the earth.

“So why don’t you?”

“Not till you ask me to,” said the Bull. His fingers uncoiled. The claw of the third finger brushed at Dorian’s nape. He thought again of how the Bull had bent to kiss the back of Emilienne’s nape: how sweetly the Bull had done it.

“So, Dorian,” said the Bull gently. “What is it you want?”

“Knowing what I want has never been the issue,” said Dorian. “Rather, the opposite. I’ve never been very good at resisting temptation.”

The Bull’s mouth curled. So too did his finger, so that the pad brushed at the mole on Dorian’s cheek.

“Should’ve said something. If I knew it was causing you so much trouble I would’ve put a shirt on.”

“I did say something,” Dorian said, “several times. There’s no reason for anyone to run around shirtless at all hours.”

“Except to tempt confused high-born ‘vints,” said the Bull.

“Everything you say makes it worse,” said Dorian.

“Sorry,” said the Bull, entirely unapologetic, but he was gentling again.

Dorian wished he wouldn’t. He wished the Bull would be anything but what he was, a tired man as adrift as Dorian. What had Dorian given up that the Bull had not sacrificed, too? At least I can still go home, Dorian thought; but there was so little comfort in this.

“I already know how it would end,” Dorian said abruptly. “Not happily. The face of it is I’m not kind and you aren’t gentle, and you are, after all, a Qunari, with your gang of cutthroats, and I have some noble scheme or other to save my country from self-ruin, et cetera. And neither of us wants the same thing anyway.”

“Well, what do you want?” the Bull asked again, because he would not stop until Dorian did answer him.

“What I want, you won’t give,” Dorian said, “and it isn’t even something I want from the likes of you.”

“What makes you think I won’t give you it?”

The Bull brought his other hand up, to cup Dorian’s face entirely, though it took a moment to do so as his shoulder protested.

“For starters,” said Dorian, “you don’t know what it is.”

“I would if you told me.”

The warmth of the Bull’s hands on his face was strange balm. Dorian scoffed.

“Some spy!”

“You just don’t want to say it,” said the Bull. “You don’t want to say you want a relationship.”

“Not with you,” said Dorian.

But the Bull just smiled and traced the contour of his cheeks again, with thumbs instead of fingers.

Too much of Dorian was bared, and yet he would not flee. He could not do so again. Resolve had brought him here. He held to it. He wondered, suddenly, if the Bull was as uncertain as was Dorian, if it were possible that the Bull was as doubtful.

“What makes you think,” said the Bull, “that I don’t want that shit too?”

Dorian said, “Not with me, surely,” to make it a joke, and the Bull’s thumbs settled at the corners of his mouth, the claws at his mustache. The sword was heavy at Dorian’s side.

“And that’s all getting a bit ahead,” said Dorian, “when we don’t even like each other.”

“I like you,” said the Bull.

“Well, that’s different,” Dorian said, “you like everyone, that hardly counts, and I don’t want— That is, what I’m trying to say is—”

“Take your time,” said the Bull. “Cullen doesn’t get the yard for another…” He squinted at the sky. “Half hour. So, half hour.”

“Look,” said Dorian, “just tell me what you want. Please. For once be straightforward with me.”

“I’m always straightforward with you,” said the Bull. He drew his hands together at Dorian’s chin then drew them away entirely. “I want to buy you a drink.”

Dorian frowned, affronted. “That’s all?”

“What,” said the Bull, “you want dinner, too?”

With the air of one long-suffering, Dorian said, “I want—” and then he could not think how to finish. What did he want?

I know how this ends, he thought. One night. Perhaps two. That was all the Bull could give him. That was all he wanted the Bull to give him. Surely.

There was so thick a yearning in Dorian for someone to touch his face as the Bull had touched it. So deep a wanting to be loved. Had he ever deserved love?

Dorian’s fingers felt the edges of the wound. The Bull, too, looked to his shoulder.

I have a right to ask for love, Dorian thought. Wasn’t that what the Bull had been telling him? And if it was only the one night, then at least he’d have that.

He thought of the visiting would-be sponsor to the Inquisition; he thought of Cullen’s man, dead in the dirt as the Bull took a sword for Dorian. He should have got their names from them, to remember them properly.

“It would be a tremendous mistake,” Dorian told the Bull’s shoulder. “Truly colossal. Stupendous. A mistake of legend.”

“Maybe,” said the Bull, “or maybe not.”

“You’ll regret it.”

“Not with you,” the Bull said, very confident.

“Ah-ah, Bull,” said Dorian, taking his hand from the Bull’s shoulder. “You underestimate me.”

“Underestimate you?” The Bull laughed. He was tired, Dorian thought, despite his boisterous posturing. Tired, to look so softly at Dorian. “Dorian, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about dealing with you, it’s never to underestimate the collateral damage.”

“How touching,” said Dorian, “I hadn’t thought you’d notice.”

“Course I noticed,” said the Bull. “Hard not to. You’re such a show-off.” He brushed Dorian’s jaw again, lightly with the backs of his fingers.

He’ll regret it, Dorian thought, and so will I, and we’ll both wish we’d thought better of it. Too much, to hope for anything more; too costly to want for it.

“If you buy the drinks,” Dorian said, “then I’ll buy the meal.”

“Drinks and dinner? Dorian,” said the Bull, “you big old soft heart. Are you trying to seduce me?” He was smiling, the Bull was, and he was smiling at Dorian.

Dorian’s heart, treacherous thing, was twisting about in his chest. “I didn’t realize you needed to be seduced.”

The Bull shrugged carefully. “I’m always open to new experiences. But you better know beforehand, I’m not a cheap date. I like to eat.”

Dorian thought: don’t want this; don’t do this; this is a mistake. But he didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He didn’t believe a word of it, not then. What was one more mistake in this wretched life? His heart was trembling. His skin was sticky with sweat. He needed a bath, and he wanted to stay.

“I already regret this,” said Dorian.

The Bull traced the shape of Dorian’s mouth with his thumb.

“Say it again,” said the Bull. His thumb rested on Dorian’s lips, without pressure. He was waiting.

Dorian obliged. “I already regret this.” His lips shifted: they parted beneath the Bull’s thumb, so light as to be a ghost. Or perhaps that was a promise, or an offering.

“Say it again without smiling,” said the Bull, “and you might manage to convince me.”

“I’ve changed my mind on what I want,” Dorian said, and the Bull, sighing, took his thumb back. Dorian caught him by the wrist and brought that hand, and that thumb, to his face again. “I want you to start by kissing me.”

“You’re the one who starts things,” said the Bull.

“No,” said Dorian, “I think, in this instance, I’m the one who ends them. And I’m telling you to start right now.”

“Bossy,” said the Bull, his eye creasing. “You always so demanding, big guy?”

“Oh, worse,” said Dorian. “By this time tomorrow, I’ll have you scrubbing floors and ruing the day you met me. I’m even worse than you can possibly imagine.”

“Really?” asked the Bull. “I have a pretty fertile imagination.”

“Just kiss me!” Dorian snapped.

“I’ll kiss you,” the Bull said, his knuckles warm and dirty on Dorian’s skin, “after I buy you a drink.”

“No running from this,” said Dorian.

“No,” said the Bull, “no running.”

So Dorian let the sword go.

He’d clean the dirt from it later, he thought; but in the end he forgot about it, and it was the Bull who gave the sword back to Dorian.

“Drinks,” said the Bull, grinning as he pressed the sword to Dorian’s hand.

Dorian, half-breathless, nodded and then frowned. At any rate, he tried to frown.

“Yes,” he said, “I believe you owe me one or two.”

“One or two what?” asked the Bull innocently. “I can think of a few things, if you’re not sure.”

“Drinks,” said Dorian, touching at his own lips, bruised now and slick to the touch, “you impossible—dirty-minded—”

“Come on,” said the Bull, “you can rip me a new one over dinner. You’re buying.”

What was it Krem had said?

“Clementia stultis,” Dorian quoted to the Bull.

“Watch your mouth,” said the Bull.

“It means,” said Dorian over him, “mercy for fools.”

The Bull looked at Dorian over his shoulder, his wounded shoulder, the shoulder he’d given up to another man’s sword for Dorian.

“And are you a fool, Dorian?” the Bull asked of him.

“It comes and goes,” said Dorian, “why don’t we find out if it’s coming?”

“Take a bath first,” said the Bull, “you’re filthy,” and Dorian supposed he would simply have to get used to smiling, at least for the rest of the day. He wouldn’t hope for more. This, he thought, will be enough. Be satisfied with this.

As the Bull stooped to pick up the shield from the dirt, Dorian thought: wouldn’t it be nice, though? Something was opening inside him. Perhaps he should have closed it, but he let it bloom.

“Let me take that for you,” said Dorian.

The Bull laughed. “I can carry a shield, Dorian. Besides, it’s a little heavy for you…”

“I can carry a shield, too. It isn’t terribly complicated. Please,” Dorian said, “it’s the least I can do,” and he gave out his hand to the Bull, and the Bull, considering him, smiled and gave over his shield.

“See?” said the Bull. “Told you it was heavy.”

“I can handle it, thank you,” said Dorian.

“Yeah,” said the Bull, “you’re a tough guy. Stronger than you like to think you are.”

“Please,” said Dorian, “I won’t hear that kind of talk until you’ve paid for my beer.”

The Bull rested his hand briefly on Dorian’s shoulder, a passing touch that sparked all along Dorian’s spine. Then he gestured as a gentleman would for Dorian, laden with sword and with shield, to walk before him.

“Tough guy like you. Yeah. You can handle it,” the Bull said.

And so Dorian did.