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this youthful heart can love you

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Josephine's organized a party in the time it takes for the lot of them to make their way back to Skyhold, battered but miraculously not beaten. Victorious, even. It's quite a lot to process, and Dorian’s doing a damned good job of pushing most of it aside so that he can enjoy the moment — walk with his compatriots and compare stories, clasp arms, laugh, freely and without guilt.

Skyhold is bursting with people, come to celebrate the Inquisition, come to ingratiate themselves to the Inquisitor, and it's almost too much for Dorian, no denouement for their story, not yet — the climactic defeat of a Void-cursed darkspawn magister and then politics, politics, politics... The actual event isn't to be held until the following evening, to give everyone time to rest, but still Dorian feels exhausted by it, by the mere thought of it.

He stands in the doorway to his empty, cold room and loathes how lonely it looks, how lonely he'd feel were he to hide himself away until he had to make an appearance. So he forces himself to change, to wash up, and leaves his cold and lonely room, makes his way around the battlements — Maker, how the people he passes look at him now, no fear in their eyes, no judgment. He helped to save the world, you know. He’ll need to hunt down Mother Giselle to reacquaint himself with mistrust, before he subjects himself to the manipulations of Tevinter.

He doesn't bother to take the time to knock on Bull's door, lets himself in and moves immediately to stand in front of the fire roaring in the hearth.

"I see how it is," Bull rumbles from somewhere behind him, the low timbre of his voice settling the unpleasant roiling in Dorian's gut.

"My room was simply abysmal," Dorian says, and he closes his eyes and holds his hands out towards the flames.

Bull can move so quietly for a creature of his size, particularly once he's shed his harness and brace — by now Dorian knows this, but he's still pleased when he doesn't startle when a large, heavy hand curves around his waist, a solid wall of muscle pressing against his back.

"Made it back in one piece, world saved," Bull says, and he sounds as surprised as Dorian’s ever heard him sound. He's careful with his emotions, Dorian has realized — easy with laughter, with sex, and serious when the subject calls for it — but there's little beyond that to be seen most days, anything more weighty masterfully concealed by years of training.

Which means that Bull’s either completely out of his depth with what they've experienced, or he's comfortable with not keeping anything from Dorian... Dorian's not sure which is preferable.

"Yay us," he finally replies, and leans back into Bull’s embrace.

It's selfish to wonder what will happen to... them, now. He feels like a child, his future open-ended and his priorities out of sorts — but then what does he have left to do here? What is his priority now, with the venatori slaughtered, head of the snake chopped clean off, Corypheus moldering as he rightly should be?

"Copper for your thoughts," Bull says, before kissing the top of Dorian's head. As always, what should feel demeaning or at the very least patronizing instead warms Dorian to the bone, one of the only things in this damnable country that does. How far he has fallen, the great altus Dorian Pavus of House Pavus, that he allows such comfort from a beast, nay, that he very well craves it. That he leans back against Bull and closes his eyes, imagines for one moment what he would say if he felt no responsibility.

"I'm an overdramatic bore," Dorian says, and it starts out sounding properly sarcastic and cracks halfway through, his voice too honest — a mistake then, to say anything in the first place, when he feels so adrift from who he is, who he should be.

Bull tightens his arm around him, breathes out slow and loud like he's disappointed. Dorian expects nothing else. When Bull does speak, his voice is too tender, hatefully so. Always more gentle than he should be. "You freaking out?"

"What reason would I have to be?" Dorian snaps, immediately regretting it, Bull always reads him like a book. No, anyone could, it's not special to Bull, obviously.

Bull's arm slides off of his waist, and for one sickening moment Dorian thinks he's leaving, going to clothe himself and retire to the tavern, abandon Dorian to his pathetically morose thoughts and entertain himself with beer and easy sexual conquests. But Bull rarely does what Dorian expects of him, and Dorian drops his head forward between his shoulders when Bull wraps his well-worn saddle blanket around Dorian’s shoulders. It had smelled of horse and qunari sweat when Bull had first lent it to him what feels like decades ago, after Haven had been destroyed and the snow bit into Dorian’s skin — nowadays, Dorian doubts it has a purpose outside of Bull’s mother-henning him.

He grabs the edges of the blanket and pulls it closer around him, and Bull moves back into his personal space, no sense of propriety, presses kisses to the back of Dorian’s neck. It’s almost unbearably intimate. Dorian has so few walls left for Bull to break down, break through, and he feels another crumble before he even opens his mouth. “Thank you."

It's not what he meant to say, but it fits in with tonight's general theme — poorly executed actions with little to no prior thought process. He rounds his shoulders, and Bull makes a low noise behind him, places his hands on either side of Dorian's hips. "You overthinking things again, vint?"

Strange how that can sound almost like an endearment now, but then, Bull surely means it like one. He calls Krem a vint nigh daily, and Krem does little more in response than call his chief an oaf, or comment on his bosoms — Dorian doesn't understand their relationship, and he hopes that he never does. Which of course implies he will continue to associate with them. Which implies….

"When will you be leaving the Inquisition?" Dorian asks, lifting his head and rolling his shoulders back. He's a proud man. He should act like one, no succumbing to emotion or exhaustion. What would House Pavus think?

Bull hums behind him, shifts his great bulk between his feet. "Depends on what the coffers say. If payment keeps rolling in, it's a good gig. My boys have a semi-permanent roof over their heads, and the Inquisitor always takes me with her when she's going after dragons."

Dorian sighs heavily. "And you rarely escape the fight unscathed. I'm shocked you've not lost a limb, or a horn, or your damned life."

"I love it when you care, kadan," Bull says, and Dorian can hear the smile on his face. It twists something up in his chest, makes him feel a fool, as though he weren't raised to plan his words, his demeanor, the whole of his presentation. All of it goes out the window, and as... this, whatever this is, has gone on, Dorian has felt it slip more and more frequently, even when they aren't alone. He hates it. It makes him feel lost, feel as though he's traded his gilded Tevinter cage for strong grabbing fingers, tight around his wrist, unyielding in their affection.

"Shut up," Dorian snaps, and he tugs himself out of Bull's grip, shifts closer to the fire, squats down so he's level with the flames. When he was a child, fire was the element that came easiest to him — his mother chided him with what he thought was love in her voice, what he knew later was pride at having achieved what she'd intended to with him. At four he threw a spectacular tantrum, lit up an expensive rug as he stamped his feet, and she hadn't even been cross with him. Their house slaves had extinguished the flames while she had gathered him up in her arms, cooed over him, told him how naughty he'd been in the same voice she used when she told him she loved him. In the same voice she'd used when Dorian had slammed into their home after he'd fled his father, asking him what could possibly be wrong — he'd thought she hadn't known, for a split second, until her expression soured. For one moment he'd entertained the idea that she'd put his wellbeing above her own. Maker, what would she think of him now...

"Dorian, talk to me."

Bull hasn't moved closer, Dorian would feel the mere presence of his lumbering bulk if he had, and Dorian drops a knee to the floorboards and pulls the wretched blanket tighter around himself, he's not sure why, he's not cold. The fire's positively overbearing.

"I came to Ferelden to stop the venatori," he says after what feels like ages. His mouth is dry, and his throat clicks when he swallows. "And now we have. I've done what I came here to do."

Bull remains silent, damn him. He remains silent, as though he has nothing to say, when Dorian knows full well he always has something to say, some piercing bit of insight that will cut through Dorian's carefully constructed boundaries.

"I should go back." Dorian finally says, the silence itching under his skin. "I should return home and try to change what Tevinter has become. I've learned so much from these southern barbarians." The barb's weak. He can feel himself flushing, and not only from the nearness of the flames.

"What've you learned from us northern barbarians?" Bull asks, his voice plain, bland, and Dorian wants to grab him by the throat and shake him. Bull's propensity for calm is unnerving. Dorian knows him in battle, has stood in close quarters with his ridiculous muscles and even more absurd axe, learned the shape of his swings and when to dodge, when to lean in, when to protect Bull from his own stupid bloodlust.

This, though. This never fails to send Dorian into fits. The quiet steadiness Bull offers him… When Dorian is exhausted and well-fucked, that’s one thing. “Nothing,” Dorian grinds out, and closes his eyes, shaking his head once... No. He’s behaving like a fool. Like the child he very well isn’t. He opens his eyes, licks his lips. Stands, shrugs the blanket off of his shoulders and turns towards Bull, who’s still on his knees on the floorboards.

“I’m sorry. I’m… being unkind. You’re no more the root of my anger than — I don’t know.” He’s off-centered enough he can’t even find a comparison. How humiliating.

Bull doesn’t get up, looks up at him with his one all-seeing eye. He’s not wearing his eyepatch. Maker, has Dorian really not looked at Bull since he invited himself in? Bull’s wearing his circus tent pants and his belt, and nothing else. He must have been in the process of disrobing when Dorian barged in. Perhaps he was going to take a bath. Dorian should let him—

“Why’d you come to my room?”

Dorian purses his lips, breathes in. “My room was cold.”

“You could’ve gone a whole lot of places that aren’t my room.”

“Yes, and I also could have launched myself from the battlements, or gotten absolutely shit-faced in the tavern, or receded to the library and set all of the useless books aflame, but I’m here instead.”

Bull shifts where he’s knelt, doesn’t rise. His bum knee’s probably killing him. Dorian doesn’t know how to describe the expression on Bull’s face — stern, maybe. “None of those are… particularly healthy responses to stress,” Bull says, and Dorian… laughs. It sounds hysterical even to his own ears, and he raises a fist to his mouth, presses his knuckles against his teeth. This is it, this is where he loses it, where the carefully bred scion of House Pavus is laid bare and destroyed.

Bull groans as he climbs to his feet, shaking out his left leg — he doesn’t bridge the distance between them. Stands still, gazing down at Dorian, not one whit intimidating. “Tell me what’s bothering you,” he says, and because he’s intent on ruining Dorian, adds, “please.”

“I should go back to Tevinter,” Dorian says. He’d hoped it’d be a relief to say aloud, but it only enters the air between them like smoke, fills Dorian’s lungs with the weight of it when he breathes in. He’s surprised when it doesn’t burn his throat. “I must return to Tevinter. There’s much to do, to affect — my homeland is broken, festering, putrescent, and I’ll return and excise those toxic parts with a bloody greataxe if I have to.”

Bull does take a step forward then, slow, as though he’s expecting Dorian to flee before he’s close enough to touch. Bull reaches up, takes Dorian by the wrist, lifts his hand away from his mouth, cradles Dorian’s clenched fist in his own careful grip. “Wanna hear what I think?”

“No,” Dorian says. Pauses. “Yes.”

Bull keeps silent — waiting, to ensure Dorian means it? — and then squeezes Dorian’s hand. He’s looking straight-on at Dorian’s face, his attention unwavering, and if Dorian hadn’t already felt exposed at the start of this then he’d feel utterly vulnerable now. “I think you’ve got this idea in your head of what you’re supposed to do, have had it for a while. Probably raised with it. You’ve had this plan, this ideal, and you don’t want to do it anymore.”

Dorian knows enough about anatomy to understand that hearts don’t just stop, that it’s frivolous hyperbole that belongs in Varric’s bodice rippers, not in Dorian’s actual life. Regardless, his heart stops. His mouth gapes open unattractively, and before he can attempt words Bull continues, “Or maybe you do, but not now. Not immediately. It’s okay to need time to decompress.”

“No.” Dorian stares down at their joined hands. “I don’t need to decompress. I don’t need to work through my feelings about how everything the Imperial Chantry has told me is based on a fucking lie, I’ve no need to analyze my feelings—”

“You sure?”

"Fuck you.” Dorian yanks his hand out of Bull’s grasp and starts to leave, turns towards the door and then… stops. Maker knows why.

“Dorian.” The way Bull says his name feels like a knife in Dorian’s heart. Feels like sinking into a steaming hot bath after too many days astride a mare. It’s pain and comfort and fear in three simple syllables, or it is for Dorian — for Bull, it’s probably simpler. Damnably simpler.

“If we weren’t together,” Bull starts — Dorian winces, “together”, as though they’re old and married or young and madly in love — and Bull lifts his hand as though to touch Dorian. Lowers it again. “If we weren’t together, would you go back to Tevinter, no second guessing? As soon as you’ve got shit sorted here?”

“Of course.” He doesn’t even have to think about it, it’s been the plan all along, he’s not one for altering things willy-nilly. “I told you, I must. It’s my responsibility to—”

“It’s not.”

Dorian startles at the interruption, and then at Bull’s thunderous expression.

“You don’t owe anybody shit.”

“I have a responsibility to—”

“You have a responsibility to yourself, and anything beyond that’s a choice you’ve made, something you wanna do because you’ve decided to do it.”

Dorian swallows, clenches his hands into fists at his sides, what does Bull know about… And he stops. Forces himself to think beyond the anger at the base of his skull, the hurt throbbing behind his ribcage. Bull is Tal-Vashoth, was Ben-Hassrath. The Qun is nothing if not about responsibility. “You’re a fucking awful Qunari,” Dorian says.

Bull’s mouth twists into a smile, one wholly without humor. It’s not a good look for him. “I know,” he says, and Dorian closes his eyes, feels shame curdle in his stomach. Cruel, to respond to Bull’s attempts at helping, however misguided, with the one thing that ever gets through Bull’s over-thick skin.

Dorian turns back to him, clasps his hands in front of himself, looks at the wall just to the side of Bull’s arm. “That was unfair of me.”

They’re both quiet, too quiet, for too long, and Dorian shifts on his feet, tries to track the course of this damned conversation. He shouldn’t have come here, not this out-of-sorts. Perhaps his cold bedchamber would have been preferable.

Bull breaks the silence, his voice low and tired. “Do you want me to tell you to go?”

Dorian’s gaze snaps to Bull’s face, to his one eye open and honest, his mouth a long unhappy line, his multitude of scars cavernous in the low light.

The last time Dorian saw him without his eyepatch, he had kissed those scars, run the pads of his thumbs over the raised tissue, told Bull they gave him character. This is as vulnerable as Bull ever looks. Dorian’s almost used to the sight. He’s been allowed to become used to it, allowed this close.

Dorian doesn’t have an answer to Bull’s question. It would be far easier if Bull told him to keep his promises, to head north and take on the Imperium. But Bull asked him what he wants, not what would cause him the least grief. Before, it was to stop the venatori. Outside of that, it’s not something Dorian has a ready answer for.

“Would you want me to stay?”

Bull’s face appears to crumple in on itself. The shame in Dorian’s gut presses up into his lungs. “’That what this is about?”

“No,” Dorian says immediately. He takes a step back, and Bull takes a step forward.

Bull reaches for him, circles Dorian’s wrists with his long fingers, and Dorian shudders out a breath. Bull tilts his head forward, their eyes almost level. “You’ve never asked me what ‘kadan’ means. I’ve always thought that was weird.”

The thoughts rampaging about in Dorian’s head settle, and he focuses in on Bull’s words. He hates that Bull’s touch is so grounding. “Qunlat wasn’t a priority.”

Bull hums, steps in closer and lifts up Dorian’s hands, holds them to the center of his broad chest. He’s warm to the touch. “The Qun teaches that each segment of society is a part of the whole, functions as a different piece — the military is the body, the priesthood the soul.”

“I know that much,” Dorian says, and Bull squeezes his hands. Dorian presses his lips together.

Bull arranges Dorian’s hands on his chest, lays his palms across his sternum, covers each hand with one of his own gargantuan ones. “Each individual has a role, operates as one part of the whole, for the good of everybody else. There's no use for relationships, like that — but you still make them, there are people who still mean something to you, your friends, your brothers and sisters. 'Kadan' is someone you care about. 'Where the heart lies', basically."

Dorian’s breath catches in his throat. “You don’t follow the Qun,” he says, because it’s the simplest response his stuttering mind can come up with.

Bull laughs, shifts closer until their foreheads touch. “No shit.”

Dorian swallows, feels suddenly lightheaded. On uneven footing. Surely the flooring in this broken-down hovel of a room is slanted. "You don't think of me as your brother."

Bull laughs again, soft, heartbreakingly gentle. "No shit."

Dorian curls his fingers on Bull’s chest, his nails dragging against dark skin, leaving streaks of silver white. Maker’s breath, he feels like he could cry. He might just. How embarrassing. "If this is supposed to be some sort of — confession, you're going to need to be more transparent. We just saved the world from atop floating ruins. I'm not feeling particularly subtle."

“You asked me if I want you to stay. That answer doesn’t matter.” It does, Dorian thinks fiercely, but as he’s opening his mouth to protest, Bull continues. “I think going back to Tevinter’s a fucking terrible idea. I don’t think you actually want to go, and if you did anyway then that pit of vipers would tear you and your ideals apart.”

Dorian tries to yank his hands away from Bull’s, an utterly futile attempt. “Yes, thank you, that’s just what I wanted to hear—”

Bull only tightens his grip. “And if you’re dead set on it, then I want to come with you.”

Dorian freezes, his arms held up awkwardly, mid-pull. He holds his breath until his chest aches.

More often than he’d like, Dorian lets himself sink down into the thoughts of what his parents would think of him now — what they would think of his choices, both good and bad. What they could be proud of Dorian for, what would bring them shame. What they would say of Alexius. What they would think of the Iron Bull. Dorian exhales, drags his teeth over his bottom lip… How his parents would react if their heir returned to Tevinter, but left a part of himself in the hands of a beast back in Ferelden.

“A non-traditional confession,” he finally gets out. Bull drags their joined hands up from his chest, places open-mouthed kisses on both of Dorian’s palms, and Dorian’s knees shake. He sways forward, ever closer to Bull, and when Bull lets go of his hands, Dorian sets one palm over Bull’s ridiculous heart, the other around the curve of his neck. “You’d hate every minute of it.”

“Hey,” Bull says, soft voice turning sharp, teasing, “not every minute. We’d have a lot of sex.”

Dorian closes his eyes and laughs, drops his head forward. Leans against Bull and swallows the sound from the center of his chest when Bull wraps his arms around him, cradles him close in a grip that Dorian knows is careful, controlled, unyielding.

“Stay,” Bull whispers against the top of his head, a plea if Dorian had ever heard one. “Let me come with you when you go, but stay, for a while.”

Now… now Dorian tries to imagine how his parents would react if he brought the beast along with him instead.

“For a while, amatus,” Dorian says, his heart still heavy but not drowning, and resolutely neither cold nor lonely — and grabs Bull by one of his horns, drags him down to kiss.