“You are, without question or doubt, the most intolerable, oafish, smug, barbaric—oh,” Dorian strangled out, “—what was I… Oh, damn you, are you done yet?”
“A little more than halfway,” Iron Bull said. He patted Dorian’s thigh. “You’re doing fine.”
“I am not doing fine,” Dorian said. Whined, really, he had to admit, but under the present circumstances, he gave himself all the credit there was to be had for continuing to produce anything like coherent sentences. “I can’t imagine what I was thinking letting you persuade me oh, oh, oh!” the last escaping him on a cry. Bull stopped, or at least paused, and after an embarrassingly large number of moments Dorian managed to collect his breath and himself.
Really, the problem was, he had never learned how to say no. Well, to himself, anyway; he was perfectly capable of saying no to other people. But self-denial had always seemed so boring, and no one really felt it a necessary skill to an altus. Want something? Your father’s a magister, so you can have it! All the way up until you couldn’t, of course, but by the time you got there it was too late to unlearn the habit.
Not knowing how to deny yourself, that was how you ended up creeping along the battlements at night to the bedroom of a maddening beast of a Qunari giant. That was also how, when he said conversationally, “So, how about I put you on my cock now,” you ended up saying “Yes, why don’t you,” even after he unbuttoned his pants and showed you exactly what you were getting yourself into—onto—and oh sweet fucking Andraste what had Dorian been thinking.
“Almost there!” Bull said, cheerily. “Damn, you’re tight.”
“Always—happy to—give satisfaction,” Dorian said. He was panting in little desperate bursts, beginning to feel vaguely lightheaded. And he’d even brought the good oil. His own cock was remarkably undeterred by the proceedings. Bull was giving him a stroke every so often, rather in a gardening spirit it seemed to him.
“Try and relax,” Bull said.
“Easy for you to say!” Dorian would have hissed, except Bull was rubbing very nice warm circles around the base of his spine, and he was starting to feel rather boneless, actually. And then Bull was shifting their weight back, positioning Dorian up over his hips—moving him about as easily as if he’d been a sack of feathers—oh. Bull was going to have him just slide on the rest of the way. Dorian made a noise, something like a whimper.
“Keep talking,” Bull said. “Take your mind off it.”
“Are you joking?” Dorian said. Oh, Maker, he could feel it opening him up.
“Hm,” Bull said, thoughtfully. “Something I’ve been curious about. Solas.”
“You want to talk about another man now?” Dorian said. “I’m insulted.”
“You’re a mage,” Bull said. “Does his story check out?”
“Wha-what story?” Dorian said, struggling to get his breath.
“Self-taught, from a small village,” Bull said. “Seems a little odd.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, it’s not odd,” Dorian said. “It’s unheard-of. You can’t just go mooning about in the Fade all on your own, sightseeing and chatting up the friendly spirits. He ought to have been snapped up by a demon any of the first ten times he tried it. You know, I think I need to slow down a bit.”
“I think you’re all right,” Bull said. “Just keep taking deep breaths.”
“Nnh,” Dorian said.
“So which part is he lying about?”
“I didn’t say he was lying,” Dorian said. “Unheard-of things happen all the time. It’s not like he could be pretending to be a mage all this time. You’ve seen him cast spells yourself.”
“Yeah,” Bull said. “Kind of different from the way you do it, or Vivienne. Or the boss, for that matter. Closer to what she does, but not really.”
“Certainly less stylish than me,” Dorian said. He hadn’t really paid attention. A battlefield wasn’t like a magical salon; he found he was usually too busy trying to keep out of range of the claws and teeth and swords to notice the finer points of his companions’ spell-casting. “Most mages have their own technique.”
“Hrrm,” Bull growled. The noise rumbled through his entire body. Dorian gave a small gasp and slid resistless the final inch down. “Ahh,” Bull said in satisfaction. “There we are.”
“Yes,” Dorian said faintly. “There we are.”
“How are you feeling?” Bull said.
“Absolutely stuffed to the brim with cock,” Dorian said.
“It gets easier,” Bull said. “The third time, you won’t believe how fast it goes in.”
“Third time?” Dorian said. “You think I’m ever coming back for another round with this monster?”
“Third time tonight,” Bull said.
“Not in your wildest dreams,” Dorian said.
Bull shrugged his massive, chiseled-rock shoulders. Why, why, why did Dorian have to have such a weakness for shoulders. “Let’s see how things go,” he said.
And then he gripped Dorian’s hips, rolled them forward—keeping him clamped firmly on—and thrust. Thrust wasn’t really the right word, though; rather like calling an earthquake a few rocks falling. “Maker help me,” Dorian said, very calmly, and wrapped his legs as best he could around Bull’s waist.
Bull lowered his head, smiling long and lean, gleam in his bright eye. “Just hold on.”
Dorian clutched at Bull’s horns—well, they were convenient. Bull made a low half-purring sort of noise and thrust again. And again, and again, and after that Dorian lost count, he was just being thoroughly, gloriously, overwhelmingly fucked out of his mind.
It turned out Bull was quite right about the third time. Dorian was lying flat on his belly for that one, limp and still quivering, and when Bull said, “How about it?” it seemed only gracious, given the proceedings so far, to say, “Yes, all right.” Bull stretched over him, the massive weight of his body pressing Dorian down into the bedclothes, and pushed his cock back in with one smooth, steady stroke. He nuzzled at Dorian’s neck and ears and temples, leaving small startlingly tender kisses across the skin, and fucked him one last time gently but firmly, with full slow strokes, withdrawing and plunging back in again and again, like an inexorable tide pounding away.
He stopped finally, all the way in, said, “Ahhh,” and came right there inside him, long and pulsing and hot, without even asking. It was outrageously rude of him. Dorian shuddered all over. “You like that, huh?” Bull said. “Like me filling you up with it?”
“I do n-not,” Dorian said. “I do n—I do. Oh, Maker’s breath, I do. Do you like hearing that? Knowing you’ve utterly—utterly—nnh.” He writhed as Bull growled over him and bit him on the shoulder, seizing Dorian’s hips and pulling him back hard onto his cock for a half-dozen more torturously shallow thrusts. And all the while he kept coming, the pulses each actually palpable, and Dorian said any number of absolutely ridiculous things about Bull taking possession of him and using him and doing anything he liked whenever he liked, and then to crown it all, Dorian came again himself, all over his thighs, even though Bull hadn’t gotten around to touching him that time.
“Ha-hah!” Iron Bull said, with a level of triumph which would have been intolerably obnoxious if it hadn’t been quite so well-earned. Dorian didn’t remember the details of the next quarter-hour or so, which he spent drifting in a gloriously fucked-out haze while Bull wiped him off and tossed most of the bedclothes and flipped the mattress over—this required him slinging Dorian temporarily over one shoulder, which evidently didn’t pose much of an obstacle—and dumped him back down onto the bed. Then Bull climbed back on and tugged Dorian into his arms, head pillowed on his shoulder, and pulled the blanket over them. It wasn’t cuddling, Dorian decided. They were just taking a well-deserved rest after their considerable exertions.
“I suppose he might be an escaped Circle mage, or a Dalish who ran away before they marked him,” he said. “Or he got some training somewhere along the way from someone who shouldn’t have. Hardly worth lying about, and why does it matter, anyway? Surely what counts is that he’s competent and he’s here.”
“He’s here,” Iron Bull said. “That’s why it matters.”
“I’m here,” Dorian said. “You’re here.”
“I’m here because I was a Qunari spy. You’re here because Corypheus recruited your teacher. Solas just happened to be in the neighborhood. Kind of a coincidence. I don’t like coincidences.”
Dorian didn’t ordinarily go in for deep thinking right after a magnificent fuck, but his brain was starting to really focus on the question. “Lavellan’s—fond of him,” he said after a moment.
“Yeah,” Bull said.
“Understandable,” Dorian said. “It can’t be easy, going from the Dales to be surrounded by shemlen all at once, and then suddenly you’re the Inquisitor. He’s been very helpful to her, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure,” Bull said.
“There are markers of schools of wizardry. Rather like a family tree sort of a thing,” Dorian said. “The way you were taught to frame your incantations, the method you use to draw on the Fade. I ought to pay more attention to our friends’ techniques. After all, you never know when you might need to cover for a gap in someone else’s training.”
“A little creaky as excuses go. It could do if you don’t talk about it too much,” Bull said.
“It is not creaky,” Dorian said, annoyed, “and even if it were, I think my discretion can hardly be criticized by the spy who goes around telling everyone he’s a spy. I suppose you’d prefer I told Solas I was on to him and I was going to be investigating the source of his magic?”
“No,” Bull said. “Don’t do that.” There was a heavy, flat finality in his voice, like a warning.
“You don’t think I’m equal to anything he might try? I’m wounded,” Dorian said.
“Dorian,” Bull said, “you’re very good in a fight. You have a gut instinct for where your magic needs to go, and you go there. You don’t overthink it. You do what needs to be done, and you’ve got a lot of power.”
“All very flattering, I’m sure,” Dorian said. “But?”
“Solas has that killer instinct, too,” Iron Bull said. “He sees where his magic needs to go, and he knows what he has to do. And then, every time, he spends anywhere from one to five seconds thinking about whether to do it. And once in a while, he does something else.”
Dorian frowned at the candle guttering by the bedside, because lifting his head to frown at Iron Bull was entirely too much effort at the moment. “You think he’s more powerful than he’s letting on.”
The mountainous chest beneath his cheek shrugged. “Or he’s just bad at fighting. Could be that, too.”
“I didn’t think so,” Dorian said. “Fine. I’ll sneer at him instead, tell him it shows he trained in a barn for the indecorous way he turns his barirums and the ghastly way he mangles his elfroots. Better?”
“Yeah, good,” Bull said. “Always play to your strengths.”
There were only so many ways to do things, and they weren’t that easy to stumble on, otherwise all mage-children would have been setting themselves on fire by the age of five, instead of just the really precocious ones. Solas might have managed to connect to the Fade somehow on his own, but as far as spells went, he would have learned them here and there, stumbling over hedge mages who each had one good trick, or escaped apostates with secondhand lore from one or more of the Circles. Throw in a scattering of Dalish techniques, maybe a little blood magic, and you had yourself a nice little hodgepodge—effective, even if inelegant.
Solas might even have crafted some of his own spells—he seemed young for that, but he did often speak of himself as though he were an aged greybeard. Dorian supposed that perhaps spending half your life asleep in the Fade kept you young. Dorian had certainly never heard of this Veilfire stuff before, and he’d read all the Tomes of the Dreamers available in the Library of Minrathous. But even if Solas were making up his own spells, they’d show the traces of his other sources. There was nothing new under the sun.
Except when Dorian started taking every excuse to keep Solas in sight while they were fighting, it turned out none of that was true. Solas didn’t have a hodgepodge style at all. In fact, despite what Dorian liked to think of as the boundless depths of his ingenuity, he was going to have to find something else to sneer at Solas for, because his magic was more elegant than anything he’d ever seen.
He had a hard time putting his finger on the right word to describe it, until one day a band of red templars ambushed them in camp. It was a suicidal attempt: the poor lyrium-mad bastards were just hoping to get lucky before the end, judging by the way all six of them went barreling straight for Lavellan. But they had gotten lucky and managed to surprise them all, and Lavellan had already taken off her armor and put aside her staff for the night.
Dorian shouted a warning, grabbing for his own staff. Bull was starting up from his seat; Varric was grabbing for Bianca; half a dozen Inquisition soldiers were drawing their swords—and they were all going to be too late. And then Solas, who’d been sitting talking to her, without a pause seized a handful of flame out of their campfire and flung it into a roaring wall at the templars’ faces.
Sprezzatura, Dorian thought instantly—a quality he’d never associated with casting before. Such a perfect lack of effort that it seemed there were scarcely any difference for Solas between speaking words and casting a spell.
That was also the moment when Dorian suddenly realized that he’d recognized literally nothing of Solas’s technique, after nearly a month of regular observation. Which was absurd. Even if Solas really had learned all his magic from friendly spirits in the Fade, some of those spirits would have taught him spells Dorian recognized at least in some fragment. Instead the only remotely familiar thing Solas did was his staff-work: and that was straight from Brynnlaw, just outside Arlathan Forest, in Tevinter itself. There was a small collegium there, not really prominent; it was the sort of place apprentices got sent if they got too enthusiastic in their studies without being equally enthusiastic in their ambitions, and mostly they never left again and just stayed there, moldering among the books and abstruse research. But their magic was as characteristic as their staff technique, and Solas didn’t share a bit of it—as though he’d dropped by, picked up staff-work, and sauntered onward. Which was even more ridiculous. Staff-work was one of the easiest and therefore earliest things a mage learned.
“Is there something wrong, Dorian?” Solas said to him, a few days later.
“Oh no,” Dorian said. “Nothing whatsoever. Although perhaps I should mention, I don’t know if you’ve realized, the Inquisition has managed to acquire a few spare supplies nowadays. Boots, for instance. With toes, even! Tunics that haven’t been lifted off dead bodies. Frivolous expenses, I know, but there are appearances to maintain.”
Solas glared at him, but evidently took the remarks at face value. Dorian was no closer to solving the puzzle of him, though, and he was increasingly worried about Lavellan. He spent most of his days in the library, and it was hard to miss that she visited Solas regularly. Eavesdropping over the bannister was beneath Dorian’s dignity, especially when there were other people seeing him do it, but even small doses of snooping made it all too plain that she was visiting with intent. “Tell me of your journeys in the Fade,” honestly. And Solas was by no means discouraging her.
“And I’m convinced he’s hiding something, but that doesn’t give me anything to tell her,” Dorian said, sprawled back against Bull’s chest. “Except to say that there’s nothing to tell her. And she’s thoroughly gone on him, I’m afraid.”
“The boss isn’t an idiot,” Bull said. “Take her the right piece of evidence, and she won’t pretend it’s not real because she doesn’t like the implications.”
“Easier said than done,” Dorian said, but as it happened, Lavellan came to him, instead, a few days later. She came silently cat-footing up the steps and crept up behind him while he read—Dorian hated how she did that, and particularly that she didn’t even mean to make him jump—and said, “Would you have a minute?”
She didn’t want to talk in the library, and she even insisted on taking the far stairs down, even though it let them out further from the courtyard entrance. He didn’t really think anything of it until they were outside looking at the rather scraggly elfroot plantings and she said abruptly, “Dorian, have you ever been in the Fade and—not known it?”
“There’s a charming custom in Minrathous called the Selection,” Dorian said. “On your twenty-first birthday, you have to make a showing of your talents in hopes of attracting a mentor, a patron, from outside your family to take you on.”
Lavellan had that eyebrow lift going on that meant she would be patient with him, but she’d prefer he reached the point sooner rather than later. “That’s how you formed your connection with Alexius.”
“Yes,” Dorian said. “However, that came after a week of parading myself in front of every reputable magister in the city, knowing that there were another fifty young bloods as determined as I was to get one of the ten worthwhile mentors who might take one of us on. It’s a rare week I don’t relive that truly delightful experience in the Fade. Frequently while naked, and occasionally caught en flagrante in one of the demonstration rings.”
But she was shaking her head. “That’s not what I mean,” she said, and he didn’t understand what she did mean, but she was staring straight through the elfroot pot, seeing something else, and there was something in her face that made him pause.
“What happened?” he asked.
After a moment she said, “I met Solas. In the Fade. He—we walked together a while, back in Haven.” She was silent a moment, then added, “I didn’t know it wasn’t in the waking world. I still don’t know, not in my heart. It wasn’t anything like a dream. It wasn’t like being in the Fade at all.”
“Dream-walking,” Iron Bull said. “Is that common?”
“As far as I know, there haven’t been any true Dreamers since the fall of Arlathan,” Dorian said.
“And now she’s one of them?”
“That’s not the point,” Dorian said. “The Anchor connects her directly to the Fade in some way, she’s been there in body. I’m not entirely shocked she’s developing the ability. The point is, Solas met her there.”
“Isn’t that his thing?” Iron Bull said. “Walking in the Fade?”
“You’ll have to take my word for it, but lucid dreaming isn’t the same thing as being truly awake in the Fade,” Dorian said. “Although apparently you’re correct. It is his thing. Which means that either he’s independently rediscovered the greatest secrets of the ancient elves of Arlathan—”
“Or?” Bull prompted, when Dorian stopped.
“Or he is one of the ancient elves of Arlathan,” Dorian said, and yes, saying it out loud had been a very bad idea. He’d done his best to convince himself the whole idea was absurd, a ridiculous suggestion he was only throwing out because he couldn’t come up with a better explanation, but putting it into the air made it too difficult to ignore how very many puzzles it solved, how many of Solas’ riddles it answered.
“Okay,” Bull said.
“It is not okay,” Dorian said. “It’s the furthest thing from okay. One of the ancient elves is walking among us, immortal, hideously powerful, with an unknowable agenda—”
“Wouldn’t say that,” Bull said. “His agenda looks pretty clear. Take down Corypheus, get back this elven orb, bang the Inquisitor. Not sure about his priorities, though.”
“And more to the point what he plans to do with this lovely elven artifact once he has his hands on it,” Dorian said. “You really don’t have any difficulty with this idea?”
Iron Bull shrugged. “It answers a lot of questions. I like that in a guess. Makes it worth going on.” He was silent, chin sunk on his chest, eyes half-closed, wheels turning. Dorian refused to admit, even in the recesses of his own mind, that there was anything appealing, attractive, or intriguing about it. Bad enough he seemed to keep sneaking over here night after night for the spectacular sex despite the numerous and obvious ineligibilities of the situation. It was certainly stopping there. He was not by any means going to start—mooning over Bull, or anything else equally idiotic and unlikely.
“Hey,” Bull said, and was, horribly, looking at him gently—utterly intolerable. Dorian was about to fling himself out of the bed and use a really profligate amount of magic to clothe and haste himself straight out of the room, and then Bull’s massive hand closed around his wrist—fingers sliding lightly, caressingly, over his palm, and up to interlace with his. “Hey,” Bull repeated, low and rumbling and shockingly tender, pulling him in closer, and it wasn’t pity after all, and oh dear Maker, wasn’t this going to go over well at the next family occasion.
Hm. There was always a silver lining to be found if you looked hard enough. Dorian sighed and settled against Bull’s massive chest. “So what do we tell her?”
Bull was silent. “Nothing,” he said finally.
“Are you joking?”
“Either he’s told her, or he hasn’t,” Bull said. “If he hasn’t, either she’s figured it out, or she hasn’t. If she hasn’t, it’s not because she knows less about him than we do. It’s because she doesn’t want to know yet. And either way, I don’t want her knowing that we know. Lavellan’s not a liar, and it’s hard to keep a secret from somebody you’re in love with.”
“And what, we just let Solas get his hands on this orb?” Dorian said.
“Hell no,” Bull said. “You know there’s going to be a head-on fight with this Corypheus asshole at some point. And Lavellan’s going to be on the front line when it happens.”
“So will we all, I imagine,” Dorian said.
“Yeah,” Bull said. “But Solas is in love with her, so when the smoke clears, the first thing he’s going to do is take a look to make sure she’s okay, and then he’s going to grab his orb. And that means we’ve got a window of opportunity.”
“You want to destroy it,” Dorian said slowly.
“You bet,” Bull said. “I’ve come around on some things, like the way you set the bed on fire once in a while when we really get going. But shit like that orb? No way it ever ends up in something good. That kind of power, the only thing you ever need it for is turning the world upside down.”
“Yes, so let’s just destroy the priceless ancient elven artifact,” Dorian said, groaning.
“There’s a reason the ancient elves are all fucking dead,” Bull said.
“Yes, fine, all right,” Dorian said, sighing. Bull wasn’t wrong: there wasn’t anything they could do with the orb, anywhere they could put it, that the worst bastards in the world wouldn’t immediately converge to fight for it. Which might well include Solas, it seemed. “I’ll look into some kind of containment-rupture spell. Those shards we’ve been finding, the ones that unlock the elven vaults, I suspect their energy’s related to the orb. It’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise, them all appearing at the same time. If I can find some sort of enchantment that will break the casing, I’ll put it on your weapon.”
“Good,” Bull said.
“Bull,” Dorian said after a moment, “—what about Lavellan?”
“She’s a big girl,” Bull said quietly.
“So we’re just going to let her break her heart on the bastard?”
“Or let him break his,” Bull said. “Love’s weirder than magic sometimes. Might turn out to make a difference, in the end.”