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(Do It) For The Kids

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The shelter was… unimpressive, at least to Dorian’s slightly-trained eye. A concrete building, maybe once an apartment block or corner store. There were flyers, ragged and scotch-taped on the glass near the entrance.

“It’s just charity work, Dorian,” Leliana said, appeasing him before he could start. “You’ll have a fine time.”

“Hmm.” Dorian leaned against the window of the car, his forehead sticking a little to the glass. He had a stack of pre-signed books - for donation, obviously - sitting on his lap, and a painfully empty notebook beneath those.

Leliana took the key out of the ignition, but she turned to face him instead of getting out of the car. “Am I going to have to hold your hand for this?”

“No, no…” Dorian waved a hand, and sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Those who can’t do, teach. Isn’t that what they say? The thought was sour in Dorian’s mind, though sour in a candy sort of way - he could at least take some enjoyment in the irony, or whatever it was.

“Our contact said that we’ll be set up in the rec room,” Leliana continued, somewhere inside. “I have the materials already.”

And it wouldn’t be terribly challenging. Sensory prompts, designed to take up a paragraph or two. Easy to skim over and critique. Tell the story behind one of your favorite smells. What would you consider a perfect meal and why? Is there an album you associate with a particular time in your life? Like that. Easy to reach into and pull from. Anyone could run with those.

Easy to reach into. Right. Well, those who can’t do…

The rec room looked about as cheerfully shabby as the rest of the place. The hallway leading to it was glossy-painted brick with posters for various community events and concerts stuck up with masking tape, and the floor was cheap linoleum. This continued into the rec room, which had the addition of some bookshelves and card tables to give it purpose, as well as a seemingly mandatory plaid sofa set. There was a massive, tube-screen TV in one corner, under which were sprawled a cluster of outdated video game controllers.

It felt lived-in, alive, even though nobody was really present. Charming. Dorian found himself smirking a little. “When is this all supposed to start?” he said.

“Three PM. It’s quarter-to, now,” Leliana replied, checking her phone.

“And is someone going to be meeting us here, I expect?” Dorian said. “Whoever your contact was.”

“Probably.” Leliana seemed to be scrolling through emails, and Dorian couldn’t really blame her.

The books were getting a little heavy, so Dorian set them down on one of the nearby card tables and reached for his own phone. His inbox whined with a few dozen unread emails, though it remained open on the message that had gotten him here in the first place.

Leliana had forwarded it to him to read personally, since she figured he’d have appreciated it. And, truly, he did. The sender was some person with the last name Bull - Dorian had to assume that “iron.bull@chargeforth.td” was some sort of pun on it - and they had written to express thankfulness for Dorian’s work.

The shelter, it seemed, specialized in providing a safe haven for young cast-outs and runaways, particularly queer ones. Dorian’s books, Bull claimed, were an enormous source of hope for a lot of them, and it would mean the world to them if Dorian would sign some copies from the shelter’s lending library, or at the very least write back.

Leliana suggested that he do one better and offer to visit personally and do a small writing workshop. Dorian couldn’t have refused. Even if the shelter was in a particularly shitty part of town. Actually, especially if it was in a particularly shitty part of town.

Hope came from seeing one of your own pull themselves out of the shit and into the light, after all. Convincing yourself that you could do the same.

Whoever this Bull was, Dorian thought, they were probably old. Well, older. They wrote loosely, enthusiastically, and in Comic Sans - so, more or less exactly like a grandmother just barely learning how to use the internet. Which was, honestly, why Dorian was mostly expecting an older woman, but he knew better than to make assumptions.

So when a young man that looked like he knew what he was doing approached them, Dorian let Leliana handle it. She probably knew who he was. All Dorian knew about him was that he had a smart undercut and an outfit that clearly belonged to someone else’s older brother.

“Mr. Bull, I assume?” Leliana said, all the same. Her phone went to sleep with a gentle click as she slipped it back into her bag.

“Mr. Aclassi, actually,” the young man replied. He had a low, yet youthful, voice. “But you can call me Krem, it’s what all the kids use. Bull’s running a little late, so he sent me ahead to make sure you were all taken care of.”

“Mr. Aclassi. I see. Thank you.” Leliana nodded, and held out her hand. “Leliana Nightingale, I’m Mr. Pavus’s manager.”

“So I assumed,” Krem said, shaking it. “And you’re Mr. Pavus himself, I take it?”

“In the flesh,” Dorian said, with an acceptable flourish.

Krem smiled a little. “The Last Resort of Good Men got me through high school, you know,” he said. “Probably heard this before, but it changed my life.”

“Glad to have made a difference,” Dorian said. He didn’t have to fake his smile, then. “I could sign your copy, if you have one.”

“After the kids have their turn,” Krem said. “But, sure, I’ll be taking you up on that offer before you leave.”

“Spectacular,” Dorian said.

“Where would you like us to set up, Mr. Aclassi?” Leliana continued.

“Tables should be all right. Bull will be in with the kids and the rest of the staff, though, they’ll take care of the rest,” Krem said.

And this was true, yes. Bull was in with the kids and the rest of the shelter’s volunteers a few minutes before 3, and they did a fine job of keeping the excitement contained and the teens assigned to tables. Everything as it should have been.

That said, nothing could have quite prepared Dorian for Bull himself.

He had horns. And an eyepatch. And a shitty little mustache. The man wrote like a grandmother, but his appearance seemed contrary to this in every aspect.

Except, well, his smile. Especially once their eyes met, and his smirk turned into a grin.

“The man of the hour!” he said. His voice was warm and rough at the edges. “God, I can’t believe it. You’re actually here! Coming out all this way for us.”

Dorian had to look up to keep eye contact. His throat tightened. “Your letter was quite, er, convincing,” he managed, and swallowed.

“Mr. Bull, then?” Leliana said, smoothly inserting herself beside them.

“Iron Bull, at your service. The Iron Bull, if you’re feeling it,” he added. He winked his one good eye.

Iron Bull?” Leliana’s voice softened with a laugh. “So that’s really your first name?”

“Got the papers to prove it. Ain’t it amazing, how you can just go to a courthouse and get your name changed like that?” Bull replied. “Course, I had to settle for Iron and not The Iron…”

“Don’t encourage him,” Krem said.

“Killjoy,” Bull replied. “Just call me Bull, though. I like to keep things simple around here.”

“Mr. Bull, then,” Leliana said. She nodded. “Leliana Nightingale, Mr. Pavus’s manager.”

“A pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

“We have our materials for the workshop already, but is there anything further you need us to provide?” Leliana continued.

“Just the talent,” Bull said, and the way he tilted his head made it look like he was aiming his smile.

“I’ll try not to disappoint,” Dorian replied, and he cleared his throat.

It was almost a blessing that Bull got out of the way once the workshop started, letting Dorian speak without interruption. Or distraction. Explaining the prompts was simple enough, but… well, you didn’t see men like that every day.

Dorian thought he might have been able to get through it with some amount of dignity, but then Bull just had to go and work with the kids when they broke for writing. The closest thing to a distraction that Dorian had was in doing the same.

Not like he got much workshopping done, anyways. The kids he spent time with were more interested in talking to him about his books than their own writing. Not that Dorian minded. The kids weren’t so much interested in the writing exercises as they were interested in him. And no matter what they were there for, they had stories.

So many of them were narratives in parallel. Run away or cast out for being… different, in some way. Loose cogs in foster systems, the queer and the questioning. Young people denied identities and purposes from the ones supposed to provide for them.

Dorian didn’t even make an attempt at pretending his books weren’t based on his own life - maybe a little happier or sadder, here or there, but drawn from a deep and nearby well. And always with light at the end. It didn’t feel hokey to do that - it felt more like a necessary service. Dorian’s life was a series of stories with increasingly happy endings, though that was only visible on hindsight. It wasn’t lying to do the same with his own books.

When the time came to sign books, Dorian tried to remain occupied. Listening to the stories, making the dedications personal, meaningful. But Bull just kept being there.

He watched the great man, stuffed onto a folding chair, gently trace a finger over a line of written words as he worked with one of the kids. He was reading aloud, softly, and his voice seemed soft and deeply present, like a heartbeat. He sounded so damn sincere.

“Leliana,” Dorian said, as if the thought had only just then occurred to him, “is my schedule open for around this time next week?”

Leliana checked her phone almost idly. “Nothing planned that I can see. Why do you ask?”

“I’d like some more time to… check the writing that was done today. Give better feedback,” Dorian said. “I was thinking I could bring it back home and return for another workshop.”

“That’s a thought,” Leliana replied. “Go see what Mr. Bull thinks. I’m sure he’ll be delighted by the suggestion.”

Dorian tried not to groan. Leliana, darling, why did you have to put it that way?

Still, appearances and keeping up and all that. Dorian approached Bull, who was collecting the papers off the tables. “Excuse me, but I’d like to take that home with me.”

“What, the papers? Or me?” Bull said. He let out a snort of a laugh. “Kidding, I’m kidding. What do you need these for?” he continued, holding up the stack.

“I’d like to take them home and give them some more… personalized feedback. Come back in a week and go from there,” Dorian said.

Bull laughed again. “Seriously? Come on, you could come up with a better excuse than that to come back. I’m always up for a cup of coffee.”

“...coffee?”

And something seemed to dawn on him. “...wait, you’re seriously going to take all that time and do that for them?” Bull said, quietly.

“Well, I - yes, I’d rather like to,” Dorian replied, trying not to clear his throat. “I seem to be making a difference here, and I’ve got nothing better to do, so...”

Bull looked so pleased that Dorian almost thought he was going to make another double entendre. Luckily, he didn’t. “Are you serious? Oh-ho, man, I can’t wait to tell the kids! Yeah, here, take the papers, I’ll let ‘em all know what you’re planning.”

The backs of their fingers touched for a moment as Bull handed the stack over. Dorian couldn’t help but notice the size of his hands. He hoped to god that he wasn’t blushing, if he wasn’t already.

“Yes, well, it’s the least I can do,” Dorian replied. “Personally, knowing that I’m reaching an audience so directly, well… I should be thanking you.”

Please,” Bull said. “I didn’t think you’d even show. You seem more the… I don’t know, I don’t know any celebrities.”

“To call me a celebrity is to stretch the definition of the word to its extremes,” Dorian said, his mustache twitching with a smile he was trying to shrink. “Really, it’s not as if I’m a god or something.”

“Coulda fooled me,” Bull said.

“Yes, well,” Dorian said. He signed off with a prim, “My manager will keep you informed,” and left the rec room, hoping he wasn’t developing a verbal tic.

Dorian was relieved to find his… nervousness? Ironed out - no, not ironed, just gone - as the day ended. Krem approached him as he and Leliana were leaving. He had a worn paperback copy of The Last Resort of Good Men in his hand. “Still good for your offer of signing this for me?”

“I’m not just good for it,” Dorian replied, “I insist.” He took a pen out of his lapel, and Krem handed him the book. “You said you read this in… high school?”

“Kept a copy in my backpack,” Krem replied.

“And what is your story, dear boy?” Dorian said. “If my humble work has helped you so much.”

“Eh. Got thrown out of the house when I was sixteen, drifted for a bit ‘til Bull found me. He got me cleaned up and back in school, but it was your book that kept me going,” Krem said. “Y’know, showin’ me that maybe there’s a place for me in all this, even if it didn’t seem like it.”

“And I’m very glad you did,” Dorian said. He finished the inscription - To Krem: May there always be a light for you to follow. - and handed the book back.

“You mentioned that Mr. Bull found you,” Leliana said. “Were you originally a foster here?”

“Me and half the staff,” Krem replied. “Hell, only one from my generation that isn’t living here is Stitches, and that’s ‘cos he went out and got a nursing degree.”

“Quite the story…” Dorian said. “Well, then, you can expect to see me next week?”

“Looking forward to it,” Krem said.

--

“That seemed to go rather well, didn’t it?”

Dorian’s mind had wandered somewhere well away from the car, and Leliana’s voice stirred him a bit too strongly. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I said, that seemed to go rather well, didn’t it?” Leliana repeated.

“Oh, yes, I would say so,” Dorian replied. For lack of a better action, he flipped through the papers of the kids’ writing, which Leliana had put into a folder.

“Seems that the children weren’t your only fans,” Leliana continued.

Dorian snapped the folder shut a bit too quickly. “It was… nice to meet Mr. Aclassi, yes,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll get the opportunity to meet the rest of the staff next time.”

“You know that’s not who I’m talking about.”

“I was under the impression that… Mr. Bull was not a fan, himself,” Dorian said. “Just a… very observant caretaker.”

“If you say so,” Leliana replied.

She dropped him off at his apartment with a clipped, uniform schedule reminder, and a warning to not work himself too hard. Dorian gave a rote response, a goodbye, and shut the door behind him.

He tossed the folder of writing on top of his closed laptop, and he had barely dressed down before he picked it up again and began to read.

What, he wasn’t lying when he said he wanted to give the kids some more personal feedback. In hearing their stories, in their brief conversations, he heard enough to make him curious, and his curiosity was a hungry thing. Even if the writing was… sub-par, it got things out, and that gave him a starting point.

There was a paper in the middle that gave him particular pause, however, and he adjusted his largely-unnecessary reading glasses and squinted in trying to read it.

Tell the story behind one of your favorite smells.
Tomato soup. I think I was Sick or something and had to stay Home from school. I was Really sad because there was something at School that was supposed to be Fun. I can’t Remember. I was Crying that day and had a bad Fever. Matron went into the Kitchen herself and she made me a Grill Cheese and Tomato Soup. It wasn’t Cafeteria food. Nobody had ever cooked for Me before and that made it taste Really good. When I smell Tomato Soup it just reminds me of that. Matron was a Pretty cool gal.

What would you consider a perfect meal and why?
Beer and a Shit ton of Wings and Fries but only if Everyone was eating with Me. Just a Whole bunch of pitchers of Beer for Everyone. Really anything I can eat with Everyone is a good meal. But Beer and Everything that would just be Really good in General!!

Is there an album you associate with a particular time in your life?
Phantom Of The Opera Highlights Album. I don’t even Know where I got it but it was my first CD and it stayed in my first Car forever. That Synth shit is still pretty Good.

Dorian had to read it maybe three times. Unlike the other papers, there wasn’t a name on it.

He went and finished the rest of the papers, adding little comments in little red scribbles of ink.

He read the Weird Page again. Tried to figure out why it felt familiar.

He waited until the morning, and in checking his emails he stumbled upon the answer.

His email icon said he had twenty unread messages, but when he tapped it there was an email already open. Dorian didn’t have to read more than a few sentences for his face to grow furiously, irrationally warm.

Dear Mr. Dorian Pavus,

My name is Bull and I am the head Caretaker at a Shelter for Young People downtown. I learned not Long ago that Lots of the kids at the Shelter are Big fans of yours. They are all here for their Own reasons but a Lot of them are Gay or Queer or Trans-Gender and thrown out of their Homes for it. Your stories are very Inspiring to them!

Dorian swiped out of the email and covered his mouth with a fist. Had that - enormous man filled out a writing prompt? When? And, more importantly, why?

And, most importantly, why do I care?

He wasn’t even reading them but small, sincere, simple words about tomato soup were snagging on his chest. The elation and gratefulness in Bull’s voice when Dorian said he’d be coming back.

Oh, for heaven’s sake, he was just cute, and nothing else. Like an enormous mabari. No shame in that. He would get on with things and stay focused on the task at hand.

And yet, and yet, Dorian took the opportunity of an empty afternoon to visit the shelter. On his own time. Not any sort of professional business.

He wandered in with the folder of writing as an excuse, and he had sunglasses on, which made him fairly inconspicuous, as far as he was concerned. And he’d dressed modestly - black, skinny pants and boots paired with a gold-accented sleeveless shirt, nothing terribly audacious.

There wasn’t much in terms of reception, as Dorian remembered, so he took to wandering about and hoping for serendipity to do the rest. True to form, it did.

“Mr. Pavus! What are you doing back here?”

Dorian turned around and tried to look casual. Bull was wearing cargo shorts and an unbuttoned plaid shirt. It was a significant struggle, but Dorian managed. “Oh, I just finished with the papers a little early, so I thought I’d return them to you before the workshop,” he said.

“No shit, you really read them all?” Bull’s smile was twisted, awkward - unexpected.

“Well, yes, about that…” Dorian thumbed over a few of the pages. “Did you… end up filling one out yourself?”

“Uh…” Bull began to scratch his jaw in anxious embarrassment. “How did you… know I filled one out?”

“You have a rather… unique way of writing. I recognized it from the email you sent me,” Dorian said.

“Huh. Unique how?”

“I’ve never quite seen someone use capitalization so profusely. It’s practically artistic.”

Bull snorted. “Never heard it described that way,” he said, “I always thought of it as a bad habit.”

“No complaints here, so long as it’s grammatically correct,” Dorian said. “Speaking of, are you an aspiring author yourself, then, looking for feedback from me?”

“Nah, nah.” Bull sighed. “Honestly, I just did it to kinda show some of the kids how it’s done, y’know? Helps ‘em open up sometimes, too.”

“Showing them that you’re doing it too, you mean?”

“Yep.”

“That seems to work well for a lot of things, doesn’t it?”

“Oh yeah.”

There was a thick, plastic silence.

“Erm, anyways, you can have these back,” Dorian said, thrusting the folder his way.

“Ah, thanks,” Bull replied. His hand took up half the folder. Dorian tapped his foot and tried not to stare.

“I’ll… be back in a few days, then,” Dorian said. “Er, that is, unless…?”

“Unless?”

“Your… story. It intrigued me. Perhaps you’d… like to meet for coffee and discuss.”

Bull blinked a few times. “So… you went through each and every one of these things for an excuse to… ask me to coffee? For real this time?”

“I never said that!” Dorian said, and sighed. “I found yours completely by surprise and I wish to discuss it further. So, will you meet with me for coffee or not?”

“Oh, oh! Okay,” Bull said. “Sure, I’ll meet you for coffee. And I’ll discuss a-ny-thing you want.”

“Marvelous,” Dorian said, flatly, adjusting his sunglasses. “Is there a time that works best for you?”

“Could go now, if you want,” Bull replied. “I’m not up to anything right now.”

“You can’t be serious.” Dorian could feel himself sweating.

“Hey, if all you wanna do is discuss my… work,” Bull said, laughing at himself, “then there’s no reason to make a date out of it. We got a coffee machine in the kitchen.”

“...yes, quite,” Dorian said. He waved his hand as dismissively as he could manage. “Lead the way, I suppose.”

The kitchen was as shabbily lived-in as the rest of the shelter. There were kitschy magnets on the refrigerator clustered like barnacles, holding photos in place of what Dorian had to assume were past fosters. Bull was in a lot of them.

“You like cream? Sugar?” Bull said. The coffee pot looked more like a mug in his hand.

“Both, thank you.”

“Sounds good.” Bull looked over his shoulder. “Oh, uh, you can have a seat, I won’t be long.”

Dorian did so. He folded one of his legs over the other, and tried not to fidget. Then he took off his sunglasses and let them hang off the collar of his shirt.

“Here ya go. Nice cuppa mud,” Bull said. He handed Dorian a mug with a faded print of the “Hang In There, Baby!” cat on it. Bull’s own mug had “World’s Greatest Grandma” printed on it in an obscene shade of salmon.

“Thank you,” Dorian said. He largely ignored the coffee. “So this… Matron you mentioned, with the tomato soup? Who was she?”

“Ah. Well, I was a foster myself, once upon a time,” Bull said. “Matron was a house-mother.”

“I assumed as such from the name,” Dorian said. “A particularly nice woman, then?”

“She was the best,” Bull said, with a warm smile. “N’fact, when I aged out of the system, she was the one that got me a job at the home, since I seemed to do so well with the younger kids.”

“This shelter, or…?”

“Nah, another one,” Bull replied. “I ended up over here after some… youthful adventures, let’s just say. You’re no stranger to that sort of stuff, from what I’ve come to understand.”

“And… why do you say that?”

“Uh, I read your book?” Bull said. “All of ‘em, actually.”

“You… read my books.” Dorian swallowed.

There was a confused, wrinkled little smile on Bull’s face. “I… take it this is hard for you to believe?”

“Well, um… you said that it was the kids who brought up my - work to you,” Dorian said. He felt as if his entire body was made of tight, tense coils of wire. “I just didn’t expect for you to have also read them.”

“Well, I did. And they’re some good stuff, man, like - wow,” Bull said. He took a sip of his coffee and swallowed loudly. “I can see why they’re such a hit with the kids.”

“One of them… lent you a copy, I take it?”

“Left it on the kitchen table, actually. I flipped through it and… well, there you go.” He shrugged. His shoulders rose and fell like empires.

Dorian wasn’t experiencing Fight or Flight so much as he was experiencing Fight or Flirt. He pointedly reached for his coffee to keep his mouth preoccupied. “And you told me I had a contrived excuse for asking you out.”

Bull blinked a few times before launching into a rumbling, beautiful roar of a laugh. “Oh, no, no, please, I’m not that kinda guy,” he said. “Aside from the fact that you’re - you, all famous and everything, and I’m… eh, a glorified babysitter. Hardly expected for you to write back, much less come and visit.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint,” Dorian said. He finally took a sip of the coffee. It tasted cheap, and sweet, and good. “So… you liked them, then?”

“Your books? Oh hell yeah,” Bull replied. “I mean - do you mind? When I read about how In Hushed Whispers was based on your own life, I thought, ‘Damn, this guy had it rough.’”

“What, me? I’m just poor little rich boy that ran away from home because his daddy didn’t approve of his lifestyle,” Dorian said. He leaned back in the chair to make it look like he meant it.

“You don’t mean that.” There was a weariness in Bull’s voice, almost a sigh.

Dorian sat up, uncomfortably. “Mean what?”

“There’s more to the story than that. It’s okay to say you’ve had a hard time in life,” Bull said. “It’s not like you’re using it as an excuse for something.”

“I-I was being sarcastic,” Dorian said, with a flash of a laugh. “Really.”

Bull shrugged again, a smaller movement. “Hey, however you want to deal with it. Writing or… sarcasm.” He smiled again, and his mouth and eye were crooked with gentle teasing.

Dorian buried his expression in his coffee again. This man.

“Whoa, hey, didn’t mean to Mom you or anything,” Bull continued, chuckling. “When it’s what you do all day, it’s kinda hard to ‘switch off’ sometimes.”

“You are hardly ‘Mom’-ing me,” Dorian said. “And, besides, it’s - fiction based on my life. I was practically required to exaggerate.”

Though Dorian tended to exaggerate in the opposite direction, when it came to the more painful parts of his life. There was a reason why it took him so long to write The Last Resort of Good Men after the success of In Hushed Whispers.

Whispers was for Felix. Good Men was because of his father.

“Hey, you’re the writer-guy,” Bull said. “Speaking of which, aren’t we supposed to be talking about my stories?”

“True,” Dorian said. He settled back in his chair. “I’m dying to know about the Phantom soundtrack. Hardly seems like your sort of usual listening.”

“What, you don’t think I had dreams of Broadway, when I was younger?” Bull said, brandishing his mug. He was able to hold it with just his index finger and thumb. “I was born to play the Phantom. I mean, I’m missing half my face already.”

“I bet that’s a story in and of itself.”

“What, my dashed dreams of stardom, or my face?”

Dorian chuckled. “Whichever you feel like talking about first.”

“Well, my acting career is non-existent, so I guess that leaves my face,” Bull said. He took a deep, satisfied breath in, and his lip curled dramatically. “Alas, ‘tis young Krem that is to blame for the loss of my natural beauty.”

“Oh, you mean that boy in the flannel? From the other day,” Dorian said.

“The very same…” Bull’s voice went husky with hammy anguish.

“So, did he attack you? Or was it an accident?” Krem’s half-explained story, his paperback beacon, floated to the front of Dorian’s thoughts.

“Krem… he’s a good kid, really, but he got in with some bad folks after his dad tossed him out,” Bull said, reverting back to his natural voice. “Got into a fight in a bar or something, can’t remember the context. Point is, I stepped in because, hey, I see a kid outgunned by a buncha mooks, and I gotta get involved.”

Dorian leaned forward, both hands on his mug. “And…?”

“And I got a face full of broken bottle and a friend for life, so I’d say I came out the winner,” Bull replied, leaning back contentedly. He took another sip of his coffee. “You should hear how Krem tells it, though.”

“Let me guess - you swoop in, all knight in shining armor?” Dorian said.

“Dunno so much about that. Maybe that’s what you want.” Bull was smiling.

“Pardon me,” Dorian replied, and he dove into his coffee again. “I am not in need of any saving, thank you.”

“Hey, fair enough, shouldn’t have assumed.”

“Assumed what?

“You’re here for stories, not cheap shots at romance,” Bull replied, in an even, “I told you this before” tone of voice.

Dorian felt a pinched and bewildered expression creeping over his face. He held his mug very close to his nose.

“I’m… sorry, am I making you uncomfortable?” Bull said, leaning forward, as if that could make him any smaller.

“Uncomfortable?”

“Like, if it feels like I’m being too forward or anything, just tell me to stop,” Bull continued, looking truly apologetic. “I mean, just because I know what you’re into doesn’t mean I should make assumptions.”

There was a sinking, almost disappointed feeling in Dorian’s stomach. “Er, no, um… That’s not what I… nevermind…” He held his mug so close to his face that his nose was almost touching the coffee.

The chair that Bull sat on creaked as he shifted himself. “Mr. Pavus?”

“Oh, please don’t - call me that!” Dorian said. “Dorian, just Dorian is fine.”

“Dorian, then, just tell me to stop if this is unwelcome.”

The response was deliciously, reassuringly textbook. Dorian chalked it up to his profession. “It’s not… unwelcome, it’s just been… a while since anyone’s talked to me like this.”

“Oh.” Bull’s face went slack, maybe surprised.

“Pathetic, honestly, given how much I write about relationships,” Dorian continued, quickly, glibly, a shield of sarcasm coming to his defense. “To my disappointment, I’ve been quite single for some time.”

“Not for lack of trying, I take it?” Bull said.

Dorian gave a half-felt shrug. “One of the constants of the universe, I suppose. Water turns to ice when it’s cold, magnets always point north, and I cannot keep a boyfriend without things ending in abject tragedy.”

“Really? But your books have pretty happy endings,” Bull said.

He sounded so sincere. Dorian’s stomach twisted like a wrung towel.

“...yes, well, that’s… fiction,” he said, quietly.

“...oh. Heh, look at me going and assuming again…” Bull stared thoughtfully at his fingers. He looked more upset than Dorian felt - which wasn’t much, but it struck Dorian as blatantly unfair.

“It’s… all right. Perhaps I’m just not trying hard enough,” Dorian replied. He made an attempt at a laugh. “Funny, you’d think that coming out of the closet would have made it easier to meet people.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to get used to new situations, even if they’re supposed to be better for you,” Bull said, with another gentle shrug. “Like the kids, here. So many of them trying to believe that we’re really looking out for them, since they’ve grown up seeing anything but.”

“I suppose you have a point,” Dorian said. “Old habits and all that?”

“Mm. I could hook you up with some people, though, if you want,” Bull continued, casually.

“E-Excuse me?”

“I got friends who got friends,” Bull said. “Besides, I honestly find it hard to believe that there isn’t someone out there that would love to spend some time with you.”

“...all right, are you honestly flirting with me just now, or is that just wishful thinking on my part?” Dorian said.

“I wasn’t… trying to,” Bull replied. A flustered, curdled smile appeared on his face. “I mean, honestly, I’m not the kind of guy to pity-flirt.”

Dorian made an undignified laugh-snort of a noise. “Pity-flirt? That’s a new one.”

“Hey, come on, you’ve totally been there before,” Bull said. “Someone going on about ‘oh, woe is me, nobody thinks I’m attractive,’ so you find yourself going ‘oh, but I think you’re attractive’ just so they don’t feel bad, even if you’re not really feeling it.”

“In that situation, darling, I usually opt for blunt truth so they stop moping all over,” Dorian replied.

“Really. Should try applying that to yourself, then.”

“Excuse you,” Dorian said, with not-quite-mock outrage. “I’m not exactly moping.”

“Writing off your lack of a boyfriend as a constant of the universe sounds kind of like moping,” Bull said. “Albeit impressively poetic moping.”

Dorian opened his mouth to say something, but sighed instead. “Well, then, so I am,” he said. He paused, a fact fitting into place. “Then… ha! You really are flirting with me.”

“Hey, I said I’m not a pity-flirter,” Bull said. His smile sharpened. “Plus you said it wasn’t unwelcome.”

“If you’re trying to turn this into a date I won’t forgive you,” Dorian said, crossing his arms, fake-pouting.

“Okay, what does that mean?”

“Pardon me, but we are in your kitchen,” Dorian said. “If you’re being serious about this, then at least meet me somewhere decent.”

It took a few seconds for Bull to process, but he laughed mightily once it hit him. Dorian’s face burned, and not unpleasantly. “Oh, I see now. You want this to go somewhere.”

“I have no expectations,” Dorian replied. “Just that we go somewhere so it feels like a date. And not two so-and-so’s having coffee over excuses.”

“You just tell me when, Mr. Pavus,” Bull said, nodding. “I’m very flexible.” The way he arched his eyebrow made it annoyingly, adorably clear that he was trying to force an entendre of some kind.

Dorian resisted. Well, tried, anyways. He was likely apple-red and not terribly concerned with dignity at that point. “Please, I told you,” Dorian said, batting his hand. “Just Dorian. Not Mr. Pavus.”

“Dorian, then.”

Yes, Dorian was fairly sure he was looking quite undignified. “Does the afternoon after the workshop on Friday work for you?” he said. “I can drive you.”

“I’d be delighted,” Bull said. “Now, are we going to talk about me some more, or shall we drop all pretense and just shoot the shit?”

“By all means, feel free to direct the conversation,” Dorian replied.

“Okay, then! We’ll talk about me.” And Bull proceeded to speak, at length, about his various charges over the years. Dorian prodded, here and there, but mostly let him go on as he pleased.

As he went on, however, there was a growing feeling of warmth in Dorian’s chest, somewhere near his stomach, and it was familiar and pleasant. He wasn’t quite sure what was bringing it on, but his best guess was that it had something to do with the radiant pride in his voice. That, or his smile. Or both. Hell, he didn’t want to think about it.

The point was, he hadn’t felt that way in years. The feeling became laced with bitterness, once he realized it, but as more of an afterthought than a present emotion.

And there came a gentle, plastic rapping from somewhere nearby, and Dorian realized that almost two hours had passed, and Krem had shown up. “Hey, Boss, the art club’s due in fifteen, wanna help with setup?”

“What, it’s that time already?” Bull said. Dorian, for his part, suddenly seemed to notice how cold his largely-untouched cup of coffee had gotten.

“Yeah. Didn’t wanna interrupt you, but I know Skinner and Dalish are just going to be overwhelmed if you aren’t there,” Krem said.

“Oh, by all means, don’t let me keep you,” Dorian said, waving his hands. “I really ought to get back to my place, anyways.”

“It’s all right,” Bull said. “Besides, I’ll see you Friday, right?”

“Well, of course.”

And Bull reached forward and gently lifted one of Dorian’s hands toward him. Dorian’s fingers covered only half of his palm.

Very softly, Bull kissed his hand. “Looking forward to it,” he said, and Dorian could feel his breath on his fingers.

Dorian’s tongue was stuck for a good long while, and his words shuddered when he finally managed to get them out. “N-Now what was that all about?” he said, pulling his hand away from Bull’s and holding it, almost protectively, to his chest.

“Just felt like it,” Bull said. “Actually, consider it a down payment.”

“...a what?

You know. For our date coming up. Something to look forward to.”

“You have… a very interesting view on things, Mr. Bull.”

“Ah-ah-ah. You don’t want to be called Mr. Pavus. The only people that can call me Mr. Bull are kids who aren’t out of elementary school,” Bull said.

“What, shall I call you Iron, then?”

“No, man, that makes me sound like an appliance,” Bull replied. He paused. “Actually, that’s kind of hot. But for now? Just Bull. Okay?”

“Just Bull. Okay.” Dorian got out of his chair and, feeling a little silly, pressed his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss. “And now we are truly even.”

And Bull, god damn it, touched his hand to his cheek and smiled like the giddy fool he was. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “I guess we are.”

Dorian’s mouth twitched with laughter that he refused to release. “I’ll see you Friday, then,” he said, only a little ashamed that his voice was shivering. He was putting his sunglasses back on, so he probably looked all right.

“See you Friday,” Bull replied. He waved goodbye.

Dorian managed to keep up his composure to some extent as he exited the shelter, but once he was in his car, he took off his glasses, covered his mouth with both hands and, for lack of a better term, squealed, stamping his feet a little for good measure.

A brief, flickering thought of what in the world am I doing? passed his mind before being immediately snuffed out. He’d felt something similar to this, but nowhere near the - happy relieved whatever that this was.

Then, he realized: this was the first time he’d ever, out in the open, no sneaking around, asked someone on a date. Hell, that was probably the first time someone had ever apologized to him for flirting too strongly.

It felt beautifully, impossibly fictional. Like something he’d written off as hope, guidance, a variation on his better but hollow future. And good god Bull was just exceptional.

But there was the mental face of cold water that was his other relationships, the difficulty of reality. And, besides, it was just coffee. Didn’t need to go anywhere, and it probably wouldn’t. This wasn’t going to be his situation for life or anything, no matter how strong the infatuation was for now.

Bull, meanwhile, was standing where he stood, a pleased, ridiculous smirk on his face.

“So, are you just gassy today, or do you really have a thing for him?” Krem said.

“Aw, stuff it, Krem.”

“Boss, you know I already do.”

Bull lapsed into a fit of warm laughter that took him several seconds to recover from.