First there was a letter, received over lunch at a very fine Minrathous restaurant, renowned both for the quality of its kitchen and the rarity of poisonings on its premises. The runner was terribly over-exerted, and more than a little red in the face, and very young indeed. Dorian's lunch companion looked rather taken-aback, but Dorian only smiled—at the runner first, and then at his companion—and tipped well.
He read it with a carefully still face.
I must have you in Qarinus by Summersday, and I will not accept excuses. I recommend the sea route. Nonus has strong opinions, but perhaps this is not the time.
A quiet tingle of magic in his fingers when he touched her signature, all in order.
Mae's note was very exactly phrased, but it had been written in haste, the letters slanting and sprawling. They so often were these days; elegant handstyle was for communication with one's enemies, the perfect embellished curl of one's letters twisting around an insult. Mae and Dorian were allies in a war that the Magisterium would rather pretend it was not waging. All that mattered was speed.
She would not have written at all were it not important.
"A problem?" his companion asked, with a little too much hope.
"No, no, only an overzealous petitioner," Dorian said, laughed. "I do of course do my best to help where I can, but this sort of urgency over a matter which could easily have waited an hour or two—well, people do have their ideas, don't they? Of course they do. I suppose they can't help it. Have a little more of the Verdicchio, it really is quite excellent. Southern Antiva's finest export, I suspect."
Dorian had always loathed sea travel, but he left Minrathous within the week, following Mae's coded instructions as to choice of ship. Under the summer sun, the waters of the Nocen sea glittered a brilliant turquoise; the wind was light but favourable; and the sea-swell was quite nearly tolerable.
On the other hand, there were Qunari to be considered. Somewhere not far to the north, Seheron was a battle-ground. No more of the skirmishing of his youth, the occasional raiding parties he had run from as a boy. The island burned. He rather thought the haze of it was visible on the horizon, interrupting the otherwise seamless shift from sea to sky. The coast of the mainland, too, was becoming less safe. The sea was certainly dangerous.
The crew were on edge with it, and no other passengers had decided to dare these waters at all. What danger had there been, then, on the land route? Something terribly exciting and deadly, presumably.
Dorian had, as a young man, harboured a terrible secret love for low-brow fiction; he thought of it now. Perhaps a seduction by a dashing elven assassin with a tragic past?
More likely a poisoning, or a knife in the back while he slept. Perhaps one of his staff had been bought. Perhaps Magister Larcius had finally solidified his plans to ensure Dorian's death of natural causes. Spontaneous exsanguination, for example. Such a useful legal classification. Typically, it was used for registering the deaths of slaves.
Maker preserve us all from my colleagues, Dorian thought. He felt, if he was to be honest with himself, rather tired. He had been fighting his fight for five years, since the death by natural causes of the previous Magister Pavus. He was not altogether young any longer. Not old, oh no. But nonetheless.
Diversions, of course, did exist. There was a sailor who particularly appealed to him, tall, not broad but well-muscled, a little stubble, very dark eyes. His skin was several shades darker than Dorian's, and his hands were delightfully rough against Dorian's skin. He laughed at Dorian's jokes, and let his gaze linger on the hollow of Dorian's throat when Dorian drank, and he was, as it turned out, quite an obliging bed partner. Dorian had always enjoyed sucking cock, but to find a fellow enthusiast in Tevinter was unusual, and they kept one another very pleasantly entertained in their free moments. In the South, it had been easier, in a way; he'd had good sex frequently, although love he had not managed to find. Here, something easy and unashamed was to be treasured in itself.
He took his pleasure, and gave in return, and considered it rather a respite from Minrathous. And then there were of course letters to write, notes to put in order, strategies to consider. He was not idle, those first days.
From time to time, he quite forgot to complain of sea-sickness.
Naturally, none of this could last. It had a simplicity to it, and simplicity was something Dorian was quite poorly acquainted with.
His life had for many years been quite entirely ludicrous. The entire business in the South had been a very bizarre sort of joke from start to finish, between the demons, the accidental time travel, the brief trip to the fade and the entire business with the ancient darkspawn magister. It had been very important, and he had felt the effects of that time deeply ever since, but it had also been undeniably implausible.
Why he should have expected anything about his life to become more sensible when he began work to reform the Imperium he really couldn't say; perhaps it was only that there was a sort of weight to the thought, a suggestion of a dignified figure doing what was right despite personal cost.
Possibly, if he was very successful and very lucky, they would one day make him sound like that sort of person in some treatise on the history of Tevinter.
In reality, he was the kind of person who really ought not be in the least surprised to be accosted, a week and a half into his journey, by a Qunari pirate ship. Somehow, he contrived to feel surprise anyway. Qunari pirates were, really, always somewhat surprising.
No matter how big one thought of Qunari as being, up close they were invariably larger.
An explosion: not a direct hit but a warning, setting the crew running to the rigging, a quick discussion between captain and first mate and helmsman. No, no point in trying to come about and run. Fight? Surrender? Dorian's staff was under his pack in the hold. He could run for it now. He should run for it now. It would be hard to get at, he'd put it away well; a concession to the comfort of the crew, who were in large part Antivan.
The Qunari ship glided in beside them. A jolt as it knocked up against them, its great bulk sending the modest vessel tilting dangerously.
On the deck, above them, someone was yelling orders in rapid Qunlat: the largest of the Qunari, horns practically as broad as his considerable shoulders, the shaft of a great maul laid over those shoulders only emphasising their size and strength.
Dorian thought first, naturally enough, of fire. Pyromancy was a natural strength of his. Sparks into their faces as they came aboard.
His next thought was of the unbroken horizon, the unknowable fathoms of water below him. Wood and rope and pitch and nowhere to run. Certainly, he could probably extinguish his own fires. But he was the only mage present on the ship, and if he were knocked down—
It was in this moment of indecision that he lost the advantage.
The Qunari were already aboard, leaping easily down over the edge of the gunwale. Blades glittered in the sun. This one at the neck of the boatswain. This one pointed between the captain's eyes.
There wasn't going to be a fight at all, Dorian realised, and felt sick. No chance now to run below for his staff. The crystal which would allow him to call to Adaar for help, too, lay beyond his reach—but what a ridiculous thought. Speaking to her would do nothing but frighten her.
Two of the men got their hands on him. No pointed blade for him; he was physically held with a strength which he couldn't hope to match, although he made the attempt.
Their hands tightened on him in response, just short of bruising. Both of them towered over him. They were bare-chested, elaborate red markings painted across their skin.
In other circumstances he might have paid good money to be so manhandled.
What a terrible thought. He was certainly about to die, at best. At worst, taken prisoner. Did Qunari hold hostages? Not particularly, that he could recall.
His mother's voice in his head: Dorian Pavus, could you for once in your life take something seriously?
And then there was the Qunari captain, leaping down with a laugh, going to one knee as he landed and shifting it into a fighting stance on the instant, although there was nobody to fight. Showy. Rather un-Qunari, in fact.
He looked directly at Dorian with his single eye. Of course he only had one eye. One ought probably be grateful that he hadn't gone so far as a hook for a hand in his adherence to stereotypes.
"Take that one," he said, in accented common. His natural mode of speaking seemed to be only a degree away from growling. "Leave the rest. They'll carry the message." A broad grin. "A Tevinter Magister! What a good day this is. Anaan esaam Qun!"
"Are you entirely serious," Dorian said, because although he'd been told a great many times that his smart mouth was liable to get him into trouble it really didn't seem as though it would make much difference either way now. "I'm being kidnapped! By Qunari pirates! This is ludicrous. This does not happen. This is the plot of the worst sort of novel."
"Oh?" the captain said. "You'd like me to kill you now? Because I have to tell you, I really don't want to. I have plans for you, bas saarebas."
The two Qunari holding him had claws. They dug sharply into Dorian's upper arms where his skin was bare, prickling points that drew blood, a slow welling as from thorn-wounds.
"You should know," Dorian said, "that I'm only going along with this for the sake of the crew."
"I know," the captain said. "That's because you're a fool. Come!"
They'll collar me, of course, he thought. But none of them had a collar in their hands. Once they'd retreated to their own ship, then. Before they had the chance—
Dorian opened himself to the fade, pulled carefully at the shape of it; built a fire in his mind. A burning thought held in readiness.
He was half-dragged, half-shoved up a plank that'd been dropped between the decks. The ships shifted and creaked and dragged against each other. For a dizzy moment, a space opened between them; it was a long drop to the sea. He flicked his eyes hurriedly upward.
Discipline, Halward Pavus had said. You must be able to empty your mind of all distractions. Damn him. Damn him for being fallible, damn him for getting assassinated, damn him for existing in a place between hatred and love in Dorian's mind. He was dead, and still Dorian was not free of him.
He emptied his mind. Breathe in, breathe out. A fire. Air to fan it.
He stumbled over the gunwale, the drop to the deck greater than he'd expected; a moment of lost balance.
The space between the ships widened. A length between them.
"Shit no," the captain said from somewhere in front of him. His voice had changed, Dorian realised in surprise. Not a growl at all, although a hint of accent remained. "Look, sorry about this."
A pair of cuffs snapped closed around his wrists.
The fire stuttered and died before it could become real. Dorian reached frantically after it, and got only nausea for his effort. The fade was lost to him. It very much like being smote—a charming Southern custom he would certainly have been happy to leave in the South. And this time he hadn't been mentally prepared for it.
Well, that about did it.
His knees seemed inclined to give way.
It was the captain who caught him, huge hands firm under his elbow, against his waist. "Easy," he said. His expression—his expression made no sense at all. It couldn't, in any possible world, be one of mild concern.
"Why?" Dorian snapped. "Is it terribly important to you that I stand while you sew my fucking mouth shut?"
"Hey," the Qunari said. His eyes, Dorian noted, flicked to Dorian's mouth for a moment, rested there with a sort of interest Dorian was entirely familiar with. "Hey, I'm not going to do that. Easy. Let's get you to my cabin."
Dorian didn't mean to laugh, but then, what else had gone to plan so far? It was an awful sound, hysterical, too close to a sob.
The Qunari let go of him hurriedly, raised his hands in what seemed to be meant as a placating gesture.
"Oh, no," Dorian said. "Why should we do that? If you're going to fuck me or torture me or whatever it is you like, why not invite everyone? Go ahead! You have a notoriously depraved Magister at your mercy! Make a party of it!" He went to throw his arms wide in invitation, but links between the cuffs caught, trapped his hands palm-up in front of him. "Fasta vass."
Curiously, the rest of the crew seemed to be studiously pretending not to hear. Nobody was so much as looking in their direction. Around them, the business of the ship went on as though everything about the situation was normal, orders shouted in common and Qunlat both, the canvas of the sails creaking as ropes were pulled taut.
It was all too entirely absurd.
"Stop," the Qunari said. He looked angry now, and Dorian felt a bitter satisfaction at that. If provocation was all he had left, then at least he was terribly good at it.
"Stop," the Qunari said again, and took a step towards Dorian, reaching for something in a pouch at his belt. He lowered his voice. "I'm working for Magister Tilani. Here."
He pressed a heavy pendant and a scroll of parchment into Dorian's hands, and took advantage of the moment for which this sequence of events robbed Dorian of the power of speech to steer him towards the stern and into a large cabin, cluttered with tools, charts, piles of books.
In an enclosed space, the wretched man seemed even larger, which ought not reasonably have been possible.
"Going to take the cuffs off now," he said. "Check Mae's magic failsafe shit before you set fire to anything. Time enough to kill us all after if I'm fucking with you. Deal?"
Dorian stared mutinously up at him, but found his gaze met with perfectly even patience. Finally he sighed, and held out his hands, and focused on the captain's large fingers as he unfastened the cuffs to avoid having to meet his eye. The tactic was less than successful. No way around it: the touches to Dorian's wrists that couldn't be avoided were quite ludicrously careful. Gentle, even.
Just because he isn't holding you for the Qun doesn't mean you're safe, he told himself sharply. The man had abducted him, laughed at him, cut off his magic. The contents of the parchment, whatever they were, might be forged.
The cuffs fell away. The pressure in Dorian's head released all at once.
"Alright?" the man asked, and Dorian, unable to think of a reasonable response, turned sharply away from him.
Mae's signature was entirely in order.
Dorian stared blankly at it.
"This letter is bizarre," he said flatly. "Which is, I suppose, at least in keeping." He scanned it once more. "The Iron Bull? Really? I am to believe that Mae is employing someone who goes by the name The Iron Bull?"
"Goes with the horns," the Iron Bull said, unnecessarily. "Pendant's the important bit."
Dorian turned the pendant over in his hand. It was quite an ordinary thing, a diamond teardrop hung in the centre of a ring of elaborate gold foliage, rather on the wrong side of good taste and certainly some century out of fashion. He examined it for seams, hidden compartments, concealed markings; tested it finally, carefully, with magic tingling through his fingertips.
This time, the diamond glowed at his touch. Well, an unconventional sort of sending crystal, certainly. Helpfully discreet, at least.
"Oh, Dorian, thank goodness," Mae's voice said. "I'm deeply sorry for this subterfuge, but we seem to be having something of a Venatori problem again."
"Something of a Venatori problem," Dorian said blankly, when the pendant had gone dead again. "That certainly is one way of putting it."
The Iron Bull considered him in silence. Dorian looked up at him, and felt very tired, unsure whether he was meant to resent the man or feel grateful, and leaning as ever towards the former. It was unjust of him, certainly. But habits were habits, and he had recently been dragged from a really unusually comfortable sea voyage and into the middle of a reality where a remarkably extensive plot on his life had necessitated his temporary disappearance.
It was too much. If the Iron Bull would just say something that he could respond to with viciousness. If he could be as rough and inconsiderate as expected.
The cuffs had been a fine start. Something to hate.
The look of concern on his face was less promising.
"I'll clear out," the Iron Bull said finally. "Give you some time to figure this shit out, send for some food. Bed's yours if you need it."
"Oh, by all means," Dorian said savagely. "Be courteous."
The Iron Bull raised his single eyebrow at Dorian, shrugged. "Yeah. Well."
He had to duck his head to get his horns through the door. Dorian watched the process with considerable irritation; thought of doing something pointless and dramatic like throwing something breakable across the cabin, and then thought guiltily of the Iron Bull stooping to clear it up with his huge, unbearably careful hands.
"Why," he said, to nobody at all. "Whatever did I do."
Considering the day he was having, he considered it a small mercy that no answer came.
Dorian awoke to the uneven flickering of lamplight, dancing red and gold, sending shadows leaping and twisting across his eyelids. The bed he was curled up on smelled quite definitely of someone unfamiliar, which was not an unusual circumstance in and of itself, except that he was quite sure he hadn't—
"Oh," he said.
He opened his eyes.
The lamp was hanging from the ceiling of the cabin, swaying with the motion of the boat. It seemed incongruously elaborate in the otherwise utilitarian cabin. The metal fittings were made of dawnstone, gleaming a gentle pink.
"Welcome back," the Iron Bull said from the other side of the cabin, raising his head from whatever it was he'd been bent over. On the wooden wall behind him, the shadow of his horns became enormous, like the great head of a high dragon. His face, relaxed and well-lit, seemed just then curiously at odds with that imposing image.
Certainly it was one huge network of scars, and badly shaved besides. Certainly the features were unconventional. Not beautiful in the way of Tevinter in the slightest; no marble statue in the ancient plazas of Minrathous for a face like this; no subtly erotic painting of a heroic figure Rilienus had ever commissioned held its likeness. But there was something to it, all the same. A quality Dorian was considerably more inclined, by his basic nature, to appreciate.
Anger had saved him from seeing it before. Now, drowsy and less than entirely guarded, he was not so fortunate.
"Food's on the table," the Iron Bull added, when Dorian failed to do more than watch him.
"Ah," Dorian said. "Well. Thank you."
The Iron Bull shrugged. "Hey, any time. Sorry about earlier. I hoped maybe cuffs wouldn't fuck you up as badly as a collar, but I'd rather not have done it at all."
"That's—unexpected," Dorian said, not as lightly as he'd hoped to. He considered his options. If he thought too hard about the feeling of the cuffs, the terrible pressure of having his magic constricted, there was still some irritation there. But, in fairness: he had been about to set the entire ship on fire. "Rather novel, really. Thank you, I accept your apology. I trust it won't happen again."
"Huh. Novel? Really?" The Iron Bull seemed to be considering him. "Not used to people saying sorry for stepping on your delicate little toes?"
"Perhaps you ought to stop talking," Dorian said. "I was beginning to feel almost charitable towards you for a moment." But he smiled.
The food was good, if simple. Crispbread with herbs baked into it, soft goat's cheese, dried dates. Some sort of curried mutton, not in any style he was familiar with, hot and fragrant.
"You've got your own cabin," the Iron Bull said. "Got some clothes of yours from Mae's place in a bag in there, and a staff she said should suit you. Aim's to avoid you needing to fight for your life, but—" he shrugged.
"A careful man," Dorian said. "You certainly didn't give that impression, before. And I'm afraid I made rather a poor show of defending myself today, but I promise you, I'm generally quite able."
The Iron Bull laughed. "Yeah. I believe you. Stories I've heard, your Mae might be overreacting."
It would be nice if that were the case. But Dorian's skill lay far more in open combat than in avoiding assassination attempts. "I'm quite sure she has the measure of the situation," he said. "She generally does."
"Yeah," The Iron Bull said. "I'm just saying, I don't think you're weak for needing our services, and I don't think you're as soft as most of your lot. I know you pulled your weight for the Inquisition. Don't sweat it."
"My reputation really does precede me, then," Dorian said. "And naturally I'm not a weak man. I am, in fact, quite ludicrously talented."
"Not to mention handsome," The Iron Bull said.
"Certainly," Dorian said, with his most brilliant smile, and felt rather more like himself again.
Here, then, he was: indefinitely confined, albeit more willingly and comfortably than he had anticipated, on board a ship full of Tal-Vashoth. She was quite a beautiful ship, now he had the time to consider her. Her great ram, jutting out from her prow at the waterline, was embossed to a dragon's likeness; she was narrow and quick, well-kept, with both sails and oars to propel her, although the oars were just then out of use.
Her name was Ataashi. It was a word Dorian had reason to know, and it amused him rather that this should be the case.
"I've fought a number of dragons, you know," he told The Iron Bull, leaning on the gunwale rail, his eyes on the horizon rather than the dizzy frothing rush of water past the ship's hull.
"Shit, seriously?" The Iron Bull said. He sounded impressed. "I heard the stories, but you know how things are. My network's not what it used to be, I figured—damn."
"Oh, yes," Dorian said. "It was—an experience, I grant you, although I didn't entirely share the enthusiasm of some of my companions." Adaar and Sera had been running on a high for days after the first one, talking it through again and again. That had been shortly before they first fell into bed together, hadn't it? Possibly not a coincidence, that, now he thought about it.
"Damn," The Iron Bull said again. "Should've joined the Inquisition after all."
Dorian glanced up at him, startled. "You were going to?"
"Yeah," The Iron Bull said, rubbed at the back of his neck as though he was self-conscious about something, which was ridiculous. "I was a spy back then, got my orders from the Ben-Hassrath to get close to the Inquisitor. But it never worked out. Bunch of other shit happened first. Wouldn't have done them much good, I guess. I went Tal-Vashoth not long after that."
He sounded bitter, but which part was the reason for the sentiment was impossible to say.
We could have known each other, Dorian thought. We could have hated each other on sight. Natural enemies made to work together.
What a strange thought.
In fact, Dorian would have found himself entirely comfortable going on as before in his new situation, but for one detail which only occurred to him after that first day of exploration: he did not have any of the papers he had been working on at his disposal, nor any of the books he had been referring to for his research. Even the option of correspondence was lost to him. Even the option of talking to Adaar, and mustn't she be worrying now?
"I'm not entirely certain whether your plan was to save my life or to force me to go on holiday," he told Mae, who only laughed at him.
"Well, I've heard that sea air is good for you," she told him. "And I thought you might enjoy the view. But as to the other matter, I do have some leads to run past you."
All well and good. For an hour, Dorian felt quite nearly useful. And then it was done, and Mae was called away on other business, and Dorian was quite at a loss as to what to do with himself, stranded at sea on board a ship full of half-naked, extremely muscular men.
He ran the last part of this thought through his mind again, and then lay on his cot and laughed until his ribs hurt.
"Dorian Pavus," he said sternly to himself. "You have spent far too long arguing with the Magisterium. I fear you're becoming old."
That collection of tawdry literature he had maintained in a box under his bed as a young man had featured, naturally enough, more than one story of Qunari kidnappings, never mind the plausibility of such a thing. They had been among his favourites, in fact. Few of them were outright pornographic—not, at least, as pornographic as he would have preferred—but he had been blessed with quite a vivid imagination. Hints had been more than enough to build an active fantasy life around. Altus Dorian Pavus had bedded men and elves, but he had daydreamed of larger bodies, of a strength he could not hope to resist; of being pinned down and taken thoroughly and repeatedly and screaming his pleasure through the whole until he was hoarse with it. Quite the opposite, in other words, of the decidedly furtive sex he had experienced at the time, where orgasms were easily come-by but not necessarily of any particular quality.
He had learnt to find better sex, with age. He had experienced sex in the south, where scandal was not an automatic consequence of discovery. He had grown in a multitude of ways.
He had never quite outgrown that fantasy, though, had he?
Because he was not an over-entitled child any longer, he did not immediately rush off to proposition some as-yet unknown crew-member with better things to be doing. But he allowed himself to imagine. Sat with the men for drinks in the evening, took meals with them, made small-talk. Companionship was more than welcome in itself, and they were a delightfully rowdy group—reminded him, in a way, of the south. Adaar's kith stumbling through Skyhold in the soft evening light, the day they'd finally been recruited. Sera had sat balanced on Adaar's shoulders, and all of them had sung bawdy tavern songs in a variety of keys. There had been that easy sort of joking passed back and forth between them, and a quite atrocious poetry reading, and Adaar had suddenly looked very much more like a woman who had been a mercenary.
How he missed Adaar. And Sera too.
It was good, after all, to have people to drink with. Had he drunk without considering who had his back in case of an attack since Skyhold? Certainly not.
A game of suggestion, then, which was an enjoyable enough thing even if nothing was won. He thought idly of possibilities at breakfast with the off-duty crew, considered carefully the smile Asaar gave him when he accepted a bowl of thick porridge. Did not look away when caught considering Kai's rather wonderful arms, but rather raised his eyes slowly to Kai's face, raised an eyebrow. His shirt he had left open, and his neck was displayed to full advantage; he knew very well that he was looking terribly dashing, his brown skin glowing in the sun, the corner of his mouth turned up into a teasing smile. Kai, it seemed, knew it too.
This game he was eminently well-qualified to play. He had played it for so very many years, and he knew a great many local variations. It was a question of setting lures, and waiting, and making himself useful in the interim. Ropes coiled and potatoes sliced. Not an aloof Magister, but someone to talk to. Someone to approach.
And late at night it was the Iron Bull he sat with, perched on a corner of the desk with a cup of wine between his hands, watching the Bull fill out his ledgers meticulously.
"You use a cypher," Dorian said thoughtfully, traced his finger over dry ink.
"Habit," the Bull said bluntly, and then seemed to consider further. "Exercise," he added.
"Hmm," Dorian said. "You have a great deal more in your head than you want people to believe, I suspect."
"I don't know," the Bull said, looked up at him with an unreadable expression. "Can't be hiding it that well if you think so, can I? Maybe I'm not all that clever."
Dorian laughed, and poured him some more wine, leaning in over the Bull to do it, a hand on his shoulder, a flash of a smile. His skin was very warm. "Have it your way, I suppose. All Qunari are savage brutes, even the spies. My younger self would agree, I'm sure."
Another night, a small huddle gathered in the centre of the deck, out of the way of the rigging. The stars were clear and bright, the air mercifully cool. Ataashi moved sedately, her sails loose, no great hurry to be anywhere at all. Maevaris' work had borne no fruit that day.
"Wicked grace, is it?" Dorian said, inspecting Kai's hand over his shoulder. "Alas, I haven't a coin on my person just now. I rather miss it. Will you allow me to watch, at least?"
He couldn't remember the name of the man who laughed at that, tall and rather narrowly built, the stumps of his horns capped with beautifully curling silver. He ought to learn it.
"Could bet something other than coin," the man said, and Dorian joined in the laughter, delighted.
"Perhaps another day, my friend," he said, considerably heartened by the suggestion. "Allow me some time to appreciate the virtues of the players in peace tonight."
The man nodded assent, and Dorian folded his legs under him beside Kai, who flashed him a grin and nudged a tankard towards him across the deck. Dark ale, like a taste of the South, a terribly welcome surprise. Kai looked a little younger like this than he had under the harsh sun. Now, relaxed and clean-shaven, his skin surprisingly smooth, he looked perhaps five years younger than Dorian himself. Charmingly enthusiastic, but not naïve.
Dorian drank deeply, and passed it back to Kai, who looked at him as though issuing a dare and drank from the very same spot, his mouth fitting entirely over the place Dorian's lips had been.
"Now," Dorian said primly. "Eyes on the game, or you'll lose your coin."
Kai lost his coin in any case, and seemed not to mind terribly.
Dorian finished Kai's drink for him, and stood.
"Well, then," he said. "I suppose I'll retire, unless you're in terrible need of consolation."
Kai's footsteps shadowed his the entire way back to his cabin.
"So, here we are," Dorian said, closing the door behind them. "What is it that you enjoy, I wonder. Personally I'm rather of a mind to be fucked, but I'm ever so flexible."
Kai laughed at that, wrapped an arm around Dorian's waist. His arms really were very strong, circled Dorian easily. Oh. That was nice.
"I bet you are," he said. "Fucking you works for me, though." He bent to Dorian's ear, kissed his neck just below. "Been thinking about that arse of yours."
"Then by all means," Dorian said, with a breathless laugh, and coaxed Kai back up to kiss him on his beautiful dark lips, open-mouthed and wet, the taste of ale between them.
Like this, then: Dorian on his hands and knees on the narrow cot, hands clutching desperately at the wooden edge of it, head hanging to see the sway of his cock between his legs as Kai fucked him with quick, rough strokes. Every movement of Kai's cock inside him had him gasping, ah—ah—ah—oh—yes—harder—fuck, fuck, please—oh—
Kai's hands on his hips lifted his knees very nearly off the bed to change the angle, and Dorian cursed breathlessly, toes curling, sweat running down his face. His mouth hung open on a long moan as Kai slammed home again. Hardly a touch to his cock so far. He had a hazy sort of suspicion he wasn't going to need it, wanted very much to test the idea. Kai was huge, and rough, and it was perfectly, perfectly, painfully good. An ache that sat deep inside him. Frustration and satisfaction in one.
"Your hands," he managed. "Tighter, tighter, bruise me—"
Kai's hands clenched convulsively, as though he couldn't have done anything but obey. Vashoth blunted their claws, but they felt a great deal more than fingernails anyway, ever so solid. Kai gave a ragged groan.
"Yes," Dorian cried, and, "oh—I'm—"
He came with a drawn out moan, careless of who might hear, rather startled by the sudden intensity of it. His arms shook. Kai, still thrusting into him, jerky little motions of his hips, got a hand under Dorian's stomach to help him stay up, and Dorian leaned gratefully into it, gasped at the pressure, caught between the press of Kai's cock inside and his hand outside. His cock pulsed weakly again.
"Damn," Kai said. "Damn, you're something."
"Oh," Dorian said weakly, "don't tell me you're done already. You might at least come in me."
Kai groaned. Dorian shifted helpfully against him as best he could, a little roll of his hips, a game attempt at squeezing around Kai's cock.
"Hard," he said. "Make it too much."
"Shit," Kai said, and Dorian made a small noise of protest as he pulled away. But he was only adding more oil. He pushed back into Dorian in one long slide, settled like that to coax Dorian into rearranging himself, shoulders down on the mattress. Kai's hand between his shoulderblades.
"Oh, stay like that," Dorian said, and Kai laughed, obliged, and began to fuck him properly again, brutally hard thrusts, leaning to pin him firmly in place. No chance of Dorian getting hard again so fast, but the heat of it twisted through him anyway. He felt rather dizzy with it. Moaned and moaned, and it was his whole body trembling now, but the hands on his back and his hip kept him grounded through the overstimulation.
Kai shuddered, breath hot against Dorian's back as he bowed over him. Came wonderfully hard, deep inside Dorian, muttering incoherent fragments of words that Dorian was beyond trying to interpret.
Stroked his hair back from his face, afterwards; lay with him in a messy heap, firm hands stroking down his arms until he began to feel steady again.
"Hmm," Kai said finally, yawned. His horns scraped a little across the wooden panels of the wall as he shifted. "Got to go sleep for a couple of hours before next watch. You good?"
Dorian considered. He was more relaxed than he'd been in months, his body singing with it even as aches began to set in. No sleep for him, not yet, not while he felt this good. But it must be about time for the Bull to head back to his cabin, and Dorian might join him, share a drink, pretend not to be amused by the terrible quality of his puns.
"Yes, yes," he said, stretched, thinking his way through the process of finding some cleaner clothes. "Do go on. I'll manage tolerably well without you. Drink with me some time again."
A brief kiss in the doorway, a smile.
Dorian considered the lack of shame with which Kai conducted himself, found himself fond of it.
He dressed himself a little haphazardly, and took the most perverse delight in not fussing over the mess of his hair, and went to find the Bull.
As hoped: there the Bull sat, legs stretched out in front of him, head tipped tiredly back. One hand rested on his thigh, fingers pressing, testing some tired muscle.
"Hey," he said, when Dorian came in, looked up at him with a grin. "You've had a good night, then."
How he had fought Adaar over milder comments even than this. But that was a long time ago.
"I certainly have," Dorian said, threw himself down on the bed with a sigh of contentment. "It lacked only your terrible trousers, and so here I am."
"Oh, really?" the Bull said. "Would've thought you'd be tired out. Sounded pretty energetic. Kai, was it?"
"Not like that, you horror," Dorian said, and then: "It was, of course. Does your leg hurt?"
"Strained something," the Bull said. "Guess I'm starting to slow down. Not as young as I used to be."
"Hmm." Dorian considered this issue, and found that he felt magnanimous. Charitable towards the entire world, even those parts of it which had some days previously put magic-dampening cuffs on him. It would in fact have been a shame to burn to death and miss all this. "None of us are. If you pour me a drink and come over here, I can do something about one part of that."
The Bull considered him. "Can you."
"Heat," Dorian said, "is quite wonderful for easing tension. And I happen to be very good with my fingers."
"Alright," the Bull said, and heaved himself up, came to perch on the edge of the bed. He brought a bottle with him, clear amber liquid. Perhaps brandy.
Dorian thought about fire. This time he thought only about embers, the warmth from a well-tended fire burning slowly through the night. It glowed around his fingers, gentle and comfortable. It was easy to do. It suited his current state very well.
"Here," he said, and laid his hand lightly against the Bull's leg, through which a slight tremor ran at his touch. It stilled almost immediately. The Bull sighed.
"Alright," he said. "Your magic fingers win this one. That's pretty good."
"I know all sorts of tricks," Dorian said, shot the Bull a pleased smile. "Oh, you were going to tell me how you know our beloved friend Mae. Who didn't have a single piece of good news for me today, by the way."
"She'll get there," the Bull said. "You keep going through her leads. Anyway, you know that summer place she has down South?"
"Certainly," Dorian said. "The one with the atrocious murals. I'm regrettably familiar."
"Charmingly rustic," the Bull said, so very seriously, and Dorian, after a moment's consideration of the merits of arguing this point, burst out laughing.
The Bull grinned.
"Yeah, that place, anyway. So she's had it since before her husband died. It's got a basement. A Dwarf-y basement, miles of tunnels, secret entrances, the works."
"Seriously?" Dorian said.
"What, why not? She never showed you? Ask her to see her cave, she'll love it."
"I am sincerely disinterested in seeing Mae's cave," Dorian said, and pretended, when the Bull laughed uproariously, that he hadn't intended the innuendo. "Get on with the story before I fall asleep and drool on your pillow."
"Yeah. Well. There was this surfacer, Merchant's Guild maybe, or Carta, or both. I can never tell the difference."
"It's all in the quality of the alcohol," Dorian said.
His legs were aching wonderfully. The Bull's thigh was slowly relaxing under his hand.
"Definitely Carta, then," the Bull said. "He had this story, lost wealth of his ancestors and all that crap, the usual. Had a seal with a house crest, and he showed us this door with the same crest on, told us to get at whatever was in there and return it to him."
"I collect that your activities are many and varied," Dorian said.
"Oh, yeah, we do all sorts. Got this whole gang who aren't here. Only took Vashoth for this one. Krem's a good man, but he'd make a shitty fake Qunari. Rocky'd be even worse, and he'd get sea-sick. Plus, people might recognise them. They see a ship full of Qunari or Vashoth, it's all just horns to them. Great cover."
"That's—rather terrible, actually," Dorian said, who knew it very well to be true.
The Bull laughed. "Hey, it's working in your favour right now."
Dorian huffed without the slightest bit of real irritation. "Do you refer to my miraculous disappearance, or to my energetic bedroom activities?"
"Hey," the Bull said, "both seem to be going well."
Dorian waved a hand in dismissive agreement. "Mae," he said.
"Right. We got Rocky, and he blew the doors off. It was all looking fine, completely disused, but it wasn't any kind of vault that I'd even seen, more like this long tunnel. Further in we got, the less ancient and dusty everything looked."
"Oh," Dorian said, stifling laughter.
"Yeah," the Bull said.
"How exactly did you avoid getting set on fire by Mae?"
"She did set Krem on fire. But we talked it out, and she cut us a deal. Ran security for her for a while until she could get all those entrances blocked up properly, got paid well. Mae's alright." A thoughtful pause. "Never would've thought I'd trust a Magister. Not that we're on the same side every time, but—"
The Bull shrugged.
He was very relaxed indeed just now under the hand of Magister Dorian Pavus.
What was one to make of that?
Dorian shook his head. "This is unbelievable," he said. "I'm going to have such words with Mae. This is the first I've heard of the entire incident. She must have laughed herself sick."
"Probably," the Bull agreed. "Soon as we were out the door. Her control's pretty great."
"Of course it is," Dorian said. "She lives under attack."
"She's not the only one," the Bull said.
Dorian patted the Bull's leg, failed to contain a yawn. "Please. It's hardly as bad as it appears. I am, in the end, a terribly frivolous creature."
"Are you," the Bull said, brushed Dorian's hair carefully back from his forehead, an odd mirror to Kai's comforting touch earlier. This touch, though, sent sparks across his skin. Not terribly soothing. But he liked it a great deal anyway.
"Mm," Dorian said drowsily. "Ever so. Quite the despair of all around. Never a serious thought in my head, nor a care for anything beyond my strange proclivities."
The Bull was looking at him strangely, but if he had a question, Dorian didn't hear it. Between one thought and the next, he had fallen quite entirely asleep.
Another day. "Mae," Dorian said, staring blankly at some unseen point far beyond the cabin partition and nurturing a growing headache, "I'm quite tired of going in circles for today. I haven't the faintest, just now. But I do have an idea for a motion. Write this down for me, would you? And perhaps you can look up current praxis. You know I would do it myself if I could, but—no, no, of course I don't mean to suggest you aren't competent, I was merely—yes. Yes, naturally you can. You are terribly magnificent and I remain in your debt. Thank you."
To work in fragments was an endless frustration. As well to scrub the deck, perhaps. Take Nishok up on that offer of learning his way around the ropes.
Obligation, although distant, remained. It was quite remarkable that he found himself with the space to let it go even in moments.
Dorian knelt, his knees spread.
It was just past lunch, but the nature of sailing being as it was, someone was always coming off duty, and someone was always resting. People came and went constantly. There was very little privacy to be had outside of his own cabin.
"That a thing for you, then?" Asaar asked. "You like it that someone might walk right through here any minute?"
"Oh, well, I don't mind it," Dorian said, smiling up at him indulgently, admiring the curve of his cock, almost fully hard now, quite long but not overly thick. "It can be delightful to be caught, I suppose. By the right person. But right now I am really only interested in expediency. If you've no objections yourself, of course."
Rows of barrels lashed firmly together provided a partial screen, but not enough to keep them entirely from view.
"Oh, well then," Asaar said, and Dorian rather thought he was blushing a little, although his skin was quite a dark grey to begin with. He seemed slightly uncertain, although anything but disinterested.
"Allow me," Dorian said kindly, and leant forward to press a kiss to the tip of Asaar's cock, took it between finger and thumb to slide the foreskin gently back from the head.
Asaar made a small sound in his throat—perhaps surprise. "I—yeah. Please."
"Don't trouble to hold back," Dorian said. "Grip my hair if you like. I rather do enjoy that."
A heavy, smooth weight on his tongue, the stretch of holding his jaw wide open for such a substantial cock. The thick taste of it, a little sharp, filling his mouth. Dorian's moan of satisfaction was thoroughly muffled.
Asaar's hand twisted in his hair, more firmly than he would have expected from that initial hesitation, and Dorian let himself sink into it, let himself be pulled around, Asaar's thrusts firm but never too deep. Dorian pressed his fingers to the sensitive skin behind Asaar's balls to feel his cock jerk, to hear him gasp.
Dorian was terribly hard himself. But that could wait.
He closed his eyes, and focused only on Asaar's cock.
"Fuck," Asaar said, with a kind of wonder, his voice pitched low. "Fuck, look how well you take it—never fucked a human before, didn't think you could—oh—"
Dorian blinked his eyes slowly open, pulled back to smirk up at Asaar. "Oh, I can do a great many things," he said, and closed his lips delicately around the head of Asaar's cock again.
Asaar's laugh was shaky. "Well, now I believe you."
"Infuriating," Dorian said. "I wonder sometimes how we are ever to accomplish anything in this wretched political system. But I suppose burning everything down without a plan very rarely does wonders either." He sighed.
The Bull poured another drink. Dorian let the gentle rocking of the boat tip him slightly against the Bull's side.
"Look," the Bull said. "You're working for reform. That shit's always slow. Grinding. You've got to think long term."
"Please," Dorian said. "I'm well aware. I'm not a complete fool. I'm simply a little tired. I know Mae wants me to stay here, but I'm not sure I shouldn't leave when you next put in for supplies. I feel quite entirely useless like this."
"Alright," the Bull said, tone neutral. "I'm not your keeper. I did my job. You're your own."
"But you have an opinion," Dorian said.
"I may not know you very well, but I can tell you that I'm quite sure you always have an opinion."
"Guess it takes one to know one," the Bull said, still in that annoyingly neutral tone.
"Tell me," Dorian said, perhaps a little too sharply.
"Look. Like you say, we haven't known each other long." The Bull sighed. "What I think is, it won't damn well kill you to take a break. Might kill you not to. Seems like a pretty straightforward call to me."
"I think," Dorian said, "I may need a stronger drink."
When they put in for food and water at a tiny port town somewhere which might well be east of the border, he didn't leave. He stayed below decks, well out of sight of any curious locals, and let Nishok teach him knots, at the end of which lesson he was quite thoroughly sweaty with exertion, and pleasantly sore around the wrists and shoulders.
He was tired, yes; certainly not tired enough, however, to reject the advances of Kai, returning from shore leave in high spirits; encouraged Nishok to bind his arms again, to hold his wrists down and watch as Kai lifted Dorian's legs up and across his shoulder, slicked the insides of Dorian's thighs with oil and pushed his cock between them, slow and sure. A delicious press up against his balls, against his half-hard cock.
He shuddered at the feeling, arched his back off the bench they had him laid along, moaned open-mouthed.
When the Bull had ducked into the cabin he couldn't have said, but suddenly he was there, looking apologetic. Nishok let go of Dorian's wrists. Dorian cursed.
"Oh, carry on," the Bull said. "Don't suppose you know where Meraad is?"
Dorian let his head thud heavily back against the bench, groaned. "Certainly not. And would you please close the door? You're quite welcome to watch, only—oh, don't you dare stop—"
Kai ducked his head sheepishly, stroked apologetically at Dorian's ankles, still crossed over his shoulder. Nishok bowed his head over him to press a kiss to Dorian's forehead, his horn-caps gleaming as he moved. He was grinning.
For a moment, Dorian thought the Bull really might stay to watch, felt the interest in his gaze. He was a little shocked at how the thought thrilled him, intensifying the heat in the pit of his stomach. But then, he certainly had been telling the truth to Asaar: it could, in fact, be very pleasant to be caught in the act. If it was the right person doing the catching. They had played those sorts of provocation games at some of the meeting-places of his youth, and he had some distinctly fond memories of them.
A disappointment, although Dorian would not have expected it feel like one, had he been asked five minutes earlier: "Not today," the Bull said, and closed the door carefully behind him on his way out.
"I must congratulate you," Dorian said. "Your crew do indeed tie excellent knots. Rather impressive, for fake pirates."
"They're real sailors, they're just not always at sea," the Bull said, not looking up from his writing.
"Oh, yes, I'm very much aware," Dorian said, with a satisfied sigh. He touched a hand lightly to the Bull's shoulder, a courtesy warning before he sat himself in his now-customary spot on the corner of the desk. "Such a shame you were too busy to stay and see the full effect of their handiwork. Would you like a report?"
The Bull looked up, finally, capping his ink. The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile, but it vanished quickly. "Only if you're telling me because you want to."
Dorian laughed. "Why else would I tell you, exactly?"
He regretted the words as soon as he'd said them. The Bull's expression had turned searching.
"You want to provoke me," the Bull said.
Dorian could feel his cheeks growing hot under the Bull's scrutiny.
"Vishante kaffas, it was a rhetorical question," he snapped. "Why must you always—understand?"
He looked sharply away, took a careful breath, raised his eyes once more to meet the Bull's gaze.
"Perhaps," he said, into the expectant silence, "I am—not ever so familiar with other forms of invitation."
The Bull continued to watch him with that same scrutiny for a beat longer, during which Dorian had the greatest of difficulty not squirming where he sat.
At last: "Yeah," the Bull said. "Yeah, fine. You going to tell me about how they fucked you, then?"
"I suppose I must," Dorian said, with a relieved laugh. "It would be entirely unfair to keep you in suspense."
In a neat pile on the floor in Dorian's cabin: three books on thaumaturgical theory, one of which he hadn't read; a thick sheaf of writing paper; a bound roll of documents which proved, upon inspection, to be transcriptions of intercepted intelligence with notes alongside in a hand he was by this time quite definitely familiar with.
"We'll put out to sea again today," the Bull said as Dorian closed the Bull's cabin door behind him. "Been here too long, it's getting risky. But I wanted to wait for word from the rest of the boys."
"They certainly do seem to have been busy," Dorian said. "Bull, may I ask why there's a pile of very expensive books in my cabin?"
"I bought them," the Bull said. "That a problem?"
Ah, yes, of course. He would be blunt about it.
"Why exactly are you going to the trouble?" Dorian asked, robbed of the script he'd been planning to follow.
"Look," the Bull said. "You think every nice thing someone does for you is a trick designed to get under your skin. Getting you to owe someone. You're not in Minrathous. It's a present for a friend."
"You are entirely impossible," Dorian said. "A friend. We barely know each other."
"That so," the Bull said.
He didn't sound hurt; he didn't sound disappointed. There was only that neutrality. A space left for Dorian to consider his own words.
Dorian cursed, rubbed at the bridge of his nose. Gratitude. He knew about gratitude. He knew about friendship. Somewhere far to the south, Adaar was presumably thinking of smacking him without having the faintest idea why.
"No. I'm being unjust. Thank you for a very thoughtful gift."
"Alright," the Bull said. "You read through the papers? There's a few things I had ideas about. You want, I can run them by you."
"I'll read them now," Dorian said, glanced at the Bull's bed, hesitated. "May I?"
"Any time," the Bull said. "Door's always open."
Dorian lay himself down on his stomach, spread the papers across the pillow. A deep steadying breath, the smell of the Bull all around him.
He settled down to reading, soothed by the slow creaking of the ship's timbers around him, the scratch of the Bull's quill.
The shore out of sight again, Dorian made himself useful on deck. In this heat, no need for a shirt at all; his skin darkened steadily, and his muscles improved. He felt that he couldn't have been in such good shape since the days of the Inquisition's infancy. He began to dare the rigging, to learn to pull the sails in and secure the reef-points as the wind built, to remember the calls and gain the speed to follow them.
"Not bad at all for a Magister," Meraad said with warm approval, and Dorian bowed in recognition of a genuine compliment. The Bull was the boss, but he wasn't much of a sailor; Meraad was the one who, in practice, captained the ship.
He was also one of the last to warm up to Dorian. But here they were.
Meraad's hand on Dorian's bare shoulder wasn't so much of a friendly pat as a suggestive touch.
Dorian smiled encouragement. Consented, two nights later when the wind failed them, to wicked grace in Meraad's own cabin, with Nishok and Talan to make up a more satisfying party.
"So," Talan said, shuffling the cards with expert hands. "You've still no coin on you."
"I certainly don't," Dorian agreed mildly.
Talan smiled. "You remember my suggestion?"
Oh, it had been weeks ago now, before he had known Talan's name. He had begun to wonder if it he would be obliged to raise the topic again himself. "I certainly do," Dorian said.
"How about this, then," Talan said. "You want to fuck, and we're up for it. But the winner decides how."
"By all means," Dorian said, restraining his eagerness as well as he could. Difficult, when the thought alone carried a hot weight, settled deep in his gut like a promise. "I've no objection."
"Words to veto," Meraad said, took them in turn, repeated them back. "Deal, then."
A circle on the floor. Measuring looks between them. Dorian's hand was poor; but then, he rather thought he might enjoy losing.
The sea was as still as a mirror, the moons as bright on its surface as in the sky, and the night air was humid. On the deck, silence. Kai and Reth had watch, sat like statues in the crow's nest and on the aft deck. Kai nodded acknowledgement to him, turned back to the horizon. They knew where he was going, as the others had known when Dorian refused to submit himself to Talan's ministrations after. Knowing looks as he pulled on his clothes.
How Dorian had searched their faces for traces of anything worse than faint amusement. Old habit. But he had found nothing.
This much at least he had allowed, then: Talan delicately fastening his buckles for him when his fingers didn't quite cooperate; Meraad's huge bulk behind him, holding him steady until the job was done. Their quiet laughter at his habitually sharp tongue, as though they were far better friends than Dorian could have hoped.
The Bull's cabin was in darkness when Dorian crept in, the Bull an indistinct bundle of blankets on the bed. He stirred, though, when Dorian closed the door behind him.
"So much for asking you to drink with me," Dorian said, voice hushed, a little hoarse from sucking Nishok off, and from Talan's careful hands closing around his throat. Why did he trouble to be quiet? The Bull was already awake. But something about the stillness of the night seemed to demand it.
"You could persuade me," the Bull said. "Come here. You been with Meraad?"
"Oh, yes," Dorian said, settled on the edge of the bed, hissed at the pressure against his arse, although it felt anything but bad. "Hm. We played. I've been quite thoroughly spanked, I must tell you. I'll be feeling it all week." Meraad instructing him just how to spread his legs, how to angle his body. A sharp smack to his arse to reward quick obedience, another for the pleasure of making him moan.
He allowed the Bull to pull him down into the bed; sighed against the Bull's neck.
"You like it rough sometimes," the Bull said.
"Please," Dorian murmured. "Don't tell me you didn't know that already."
"I had a theory," the Bull said.
"You've been thinking about me," Dorian said, smug and too boneless to trouble hiding it. "What do you think about?"
"Ask me again when you're not floating," the Bull said. "Forget that drink, just go to sleep. I've got you."
"Mm," Dorian agreed. "That's true."
The Bull's arms tightened around him, and Dorian didn't entirely understand why that should set his chest aching. But there it was.
Dorian woke alone to a world in violent motion, and it took him a moment to realise that the weather must have shifted abruptly in the night. Above him, feet pounded across the deck. Everything loose had been swept hurriedly from the desk and chairs in the cabin and thrown haphazardly into an open chest on the floor, leaving the space strangely bare.
The hanging lamp lurched with the roll of the boat, flaring and sputtering; he feared it might fall.
Dorian's stomach, too, seemed inclined to turn. To become accustomed to fair-weather sailing was one thing; this, another entirely.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then swung himself upright, a hand against the bulkhead for support as he made his way outside.
The Bull was hunched on the aft deck, busy with great ropes; what he was doing, Dorian didn't entirely understand. At the helm, Meraad was frowning in concentration, Reth at his side. The sails were almost all furled.
"Can I do anything?" Dorian shouted, although the prospect of vomiting hadn't abated in the slightest. The wind must have taken his words, but after a moment, the Bull, who had heaved his ropes over the stern, caught sight of him and stumbled over.
"Best just get back below," he said. "We're only in the way for the rest of it. Unless you're a damn impressive mage."
Dorian heaved a deep breath. There was no slight to the words; what possible reason could he, as a Magister, have to know the sort of magic which would see a ship safe through heavy weather? No shame to go below decks and wait it out while Meraad ran them ahead of the storm, balancing them on the mountainous waves. But he had fought a war once.
"Barriers for the rigging," he said. "I can do that much. And—" he considered carefully. "I can slow the ship, if it's needed."
"Might be," the Bull said. "Sit tight. Back in my cabin, or tuck yourself down below the rail. I'll get your staff. I'm quicker than you in this shit."
"You don't mind?" Dorian asked, when the Bull returned. "I thought perhaps you disliked magic."
The Bull passed him his staff. "I'm, uh. I'm not that fond. Makes me think of demon-y crap, you know. But I don't mind mages. It's fine. Like you well enough, don't I?"
"Do you?" Dorian asked, but the question was a distracted one. Staff in hand, his mind was on the flow of magic through him, calculations of scale and force. Stance was difficult to maintain on the shifting deck, but he'd cast more quick and dirty spells than these.
A barrier to spread over the masts, the rigging, the rudders; to tighten the covered oar-ports against the waves. It flickered and glowed from the mast-tops like spirit-fire.
"Well, shit," the Bull said. "Look at that."
"Yes, yes," Dorian said; took the Bull's elbow to steady himself. To spread his conjured protection so wide and to maintain it was draining, and between that, his queasiness and the harshness of the rain and sea-spray he was beginning to feel both rather too unsteady and entirely frozen. "I'm quite marvelous, unlike this wretched weather." How strange, this new awareness of the entire ship, of all its strength and fragility. He rather disliked it.
Not the moment to think about it, perhaps.
"Hold tight," the Bull was saying; helped him into a crouch by the ladder up to the aft deck, tucked in out of the worst of the wind and with plenty of handholds. Then he ducked away, leaving Dorian alone with the enormity of the magic he had volunteered himself for.
But he was not left alone for long. The Bull was back in a moment, wrapping a heavy blanket around Dorian's shoulders, pressing some manner of vial into his hands.
Surprised, he spared it a little attention.
It was lyrium.
The Bull settled into a crouch beside him, his huge bulk rather improving Dorian's shelter. "Geir's a mage," he said, seeing Dorian's confusion. "He says he's a shitty one, likes arrows better. But he heals burns for us sometimes. Good to have potions around in case."
The ship lurched violently, the prow jerking sideways, threatening to spin them broadside to the waves. For a terrible moment, Dorian looked straight across the deck and saw the sea heaving below him. He had stood physically in the fade and felt himself terribly mortal; he felt himself quite as small now.
"Shit," the Bull said. "I'll get up there and help them hold course. Grab the next person to pass and get them to make sure you're steady down here. They can take shifts, get you stuff you need."
Dorian spared the Bull a quick glance and a tight smile; took a deep breath and strengthened his spellwork.
It became a long day. Dorian lost all sense of time between the heavy dark clouds and the agitated sea; it could as well be evening as noon when the wind finally began to subside. His lyrium was long gone, despite conservative use; the Bull had returned to his side several times, brought dry blankets and bits of food. Others had sat with him: Nishok singing terrible songs, each bawdier than the last; Kai silent but solid against his side, eyes sharp on the rigging and the solitary strip of sail.
Finally, the Bull again. "Meraad says drop the spells," he said. "If he didn't say it, I would. You've been out here too long. We're through the worst."
"By all means," Dorian said, and let go of the threads of magic he had held so carefully all day, allowing himself to feel the exhaustion he had been forcing himself through for some hours settle into his limbs. He sighed. "But if you expect me to stand, I'm afraid you may be waiting some time."
The Bull's hands under his arms lifted him; he found himself swung up into a loose hold, the Bull's arms around his shoulders and under his knees. Dorian, without the energy to do more than rest his head against the Bull's shoulder, quite forgot to protest.
It wasn't far to the Bull's cabin.
"You know," Dorian said with a tired laugh, letting the Bull shift him this way and that to get him out of his sodden clothes, "this wasn't entirely how I imagined it when I thought of you stripping me."
"Now who's been thinking about who," the Bull said evenly. He was gentle with Dorian, but entirely businesslike in his manner. Nothing suggestive in his work. Rather regrettable, really.
"You going to sleep in my bed?" the Bull asked. "I've got things to get done, but I'll be in here for the most part."
"Mm," Dorian agreed. Had the Bull hesitated over that offer? Why exactly should he? They shared the bed quite often in the ordinary way of things. It was practical after drinking together, and it was practical now.
Last night, though—
Ah. Yes. Last night. There it was. In the chaos of the storm, he'd managed to forget. But it was clearly a thought to be taken apart another day.
Dorian awoke, as had become usual, alone in the bed that smelled so much like the Bull; as was usual, the Bull sat at his writing-desk, facing away from him, bent over his work. He worked a great deal, it seemed; wrote and wrote and wrote. Calculated and considered, talked with Mae at length. Complicated logistical discussions about that group of his, currently so far away but clearly much on his mind.
Now, Dorian thought, the Bull sat a little strangely. His outline was so familiar, but today it was not entirely as expected, although the reason was not immediately apparent. Was he hunched a little to one side? Perhaps not.
Dorian swung himself out of bed, tried to run a hand through the salt-tangled wreck of his hair, winced at the result; pulled on his trousers, and went to the Bull, a hand to the shoulder in familiar greeting: hello, it's only me, I'm up. This, too, was usual.
Unusual, though, was this:
The Bull flinched.
Here, then, a terrible moment:
I have, Dorian thought desperately, crossed some manner of line without knowing it. He thought: I knew this game we played was a delicately balanced sort of thing, but I had hoped—never mind what I hoped—
He was not given to shame over his sexual habits. He had fought long and hard for the right to fuck whichever willing partners he pleased as often as he pleased and not feel that it made him in any way lesser, deviant, perverse—Halward Pavus had used so many words for it. But he had taken pains, too, in his later years, to learn others' boundaries as his father had not.
"Shit," the Bull said through clenched teeth, hand to shoulder, head bowed.
A beat, Dorian's hand frozen above the Bull's shoulder.
"You're hurt," Dorian said.
The Bull grunted. He turned his face away, hiding his profile. Dorian had an idea that it might be because he couldn't entirely control his expression.
"Wrenched it at the helm yesterday," he said, after a further silent moment.
"And then you carried me to bed," Dorian said, in horror. "Of all the idiotic, stubborn—here, let me see."
The Bull's shoulder was, now that he had lifted the lamp down to get better light, visibly swollen.
"Can I put ice on it?" Dorian asked. "We can get a poultice from Geir, if that's in his line, but I rather think you need something cold."
"You're not going to fall over, are you?" the Bull said. "Because you were pretty drained a few hours ago, and I don't think I'll be catching you this time if you run out of energy."
"I'm not going to fall over," Dorian said. "If you're so terribly worried about my safety, we can sit on the bed.”
"Yeah," the Bull said. Another grunt of pain as he got to his feet. "Just do it."
Ice had always been a little more difficult for Dorian than fire, perhaps because he was rather averse to its existence in his general vicinity. But it came to him well enough now. Packed snow, he thought. The crunch of it underfoot on the mountain paths leading out from Skyhold. The sharp, clean smell in the air.
He sat cross-legged with the Bull before him, cupped a careful hand just above his shoulder. A frozen river outside a half-ruined town.
The air around his fingers steamed gently like ice breathing in the winter sun.
I'll tell Adaar that her dragging me out into the Emprise wasn't for nothing, he thought. She'll laugh terribly, and I daresay she'll have earnt it.
But here and now, the Bull slumped before him.
Dorian touched his fingers very carefully to the Bull's shoulder, and then his palm. No pressure or movement. They sat together in silence, breathing deeply in time with one another. A great stillness in the cabin once more, as in the middle of that other night, in the calm before the storm.
Slowly, Dorian sank forward to rest against the Bull's back, cheek to good shoulder. Slowly, the Bull released a sighing breath.
The Bull's back relaxed a fraction against Dorian's body.
Peace. Not a peace to shatter with the questions he most wanted to ask—not now, not yet. Better to tell stories. Make jokes.
"Tell me," Dorian said, "have you ever met the Valo-Kas?"
"Know their reputation," the Bull said. "Good bunch by all accounts. Wouldn't mind working with them any more. I stayed clear of Vashoth for years."
"Clearly things changed," Dorian said.
"Well—yeah. It's just one more thing, like magic—took a bit of time."
"Why specifically Vashoth, though? Magic I do understand, but—"
"My job," the Bull said, hesitated. "My old job. I've hunted down enough Tal-Vashoth for the Qun that it felt—ugh—"
"You were a spy, you said."
"That was after. Standing in the background while Orlesian nobles made tits of themselves and writing letters home about it. Before, back on Seheron, I was more like—I kept order. Bit of a special case. Didn't have a fixed set of tasks really. Hey, here you go, stop the whole island tearing itself apart however you can."
"Oh yeah," the Bull said, huffed a laugh, grunted as it jolted his shoulder. "It went about as well as I guess you'd expect. I was in there a long damn time."
"Frankly, I'm amazed that you're dealing with your life as well as you seem to be."
"Yeah," the Bull said, "well. I'm Tal-Vashoth, aren't I? They gave me my space and let me run around playing mercenary for a few years, and when they came to pay a visit and see how I was getting on, remind me who I really was, I—maybe didn't handle it that well." He dragged his hand down his face. "Not one of my best moments."
Dorian thought about the attempted invasion of the south. Thought of the Bull in heavy armour and vitaar, called in from his spy duties to help the cause, one more enemy standing against the Inquisition.
He did not say: I'm glad anyway. The Bull's sorrow was too deep for that, and that he was allowed to see it at all seemed as though it demanded a certain respect in return. But he thought it, gave thanks to an absent Maker that the Bull hadn't been a barely-considered battlefield death among the many Dorian had caused.
Silence, again; Dorian alone in his contemplation, even with the Bull's body against his.
"So," the Bull said finally. "The Valo-Kas. Tell me about them."
"Yes," Dorian said, shaking himself free from those unpleasant thoughts. "Yes, of course."
After a frustratingly fruitless morning, a different sort of frustration for the afternoon.
The cabin was terribly warm; sweat trickled along Dorian's hairline as his head rolled back against the mattress. His feet scrabbled weakly on the sheets.
Reth laughed breathlessly. His mouth wasn't touching Dorian's cock at all, which was awful; worse still, his huge fingers were closed tight around it at the base.
His other hand was closed over Dorian's hip; not hard, it might have been better if it was hard. Only relentless, no give to it no matter how Dorian tried to shift his hips, squirming in search of more sensation, or less, or—
"Easy," Reth said, in a tone that meant he was probably smiling. His thumb stroked little circles against Dorian's hipbone, down, closer to his cock.
Dorian shuddered, pressed the knuckles of his hand to his open mouth to keep from crying out.
When Reth's lips finally closed around the very tip of his cock again, he cried out anyhow; wailed, rather, the sudden contact jolting sharply through his entire body. The gentle press of Reth's tongue, slow suction. It might have felt luxurious, had he not been denied release three times already.
When the Bull knocked on the door, Reth had Dorian's balls in his mouth, his hand stroking Dorian's cock; Dorian was making steady helpless gasping noises with every movement, fingers pressed down on his tongue, chest heaving.
"Dorian?" the Bull called. Reth released him carefully, let Dorian sink down against the mattress.
Dorian shot him an irritated look. "I don't know why you're stopping, exactly, but I will set you on fire if you don't reconsider immediately," he said, when he could manage words again, and then, louder, as Reth laughed and rolled his eyes and bent his head to close his mouth around Dorian's cock again, "oh, do come—ah—come in."
The Bull closed the door quietly behind him, paused to take in the scene. Under his gaze Dorian felt abruptly far more aware of the state he was in, the deep flush of his cheeks, the matching state of his cock.
It felt as though he was watched for a very long time, although it could hardly have been more than a few heartbeats.
"Just need Mae's pendant," the Bull said finally. His eye was somewhere around Dorian's navel.
Reth swallowed around Dorian's cock, and Dorian moaned, moaned again at the look of appreciation on the Bull's face.
"Top drawer, there," he managed, voice ragged; waved a hand in more or less the correct direction.
His body jerked again under Reth's thorough attention. A hand tugging at his balls, fingers pressing up behind them, sliding further back to press at his hole. Wet heat around the entire length of his cock, oh, oh—
The Bull was rummaging through the drawer Dorian had indicated, stooped, his shoulders hunched. Absurdly, Dorian couldn't look away from him. More absurdly still, he could feel the insistent build of orgasm tightening deep inside him, thought: I wonder if this is the time Reth will let me come, right where Bull can see—such a hot thought that he quite nearly did come on the spot.
Reth was too quick for him, that ungentle grip around the base of his cock again, the loss of his mouth, so frustrating that Dorian, despite himself, sobbed.
The Bull straightened, looked down at Dorian's face, expression curiously soft. His hand found Dorian's, a quick squeeze, question and comfort in one. Dorian, heaving an unsteady breath, managed a smile.
"Later," the Bull said, squeezed his hand once more—turned away, leaving Dorian to his wonderful, drawn-out fate.
Later, and Dorian found the Bull in his cabin, but not at his desk nor yet in bed. Rather: he paced.
"Going to have to change our plans," he said, when Dorian had closed the door. "Nothing for you to worry about, but I'm putting ashore as soon as we can find somewhere safe for it. Meraad'll look out for you."
"What?" Dorian asked, in blank confusion. "Why?"
"I spoke to Mae," the Bull said. "No word from Krem this week. Gave it a couple of days, but still nothing."
"Bull," Dorian said, and then again, more insistently when the Bull didn't turn to him. "Bull. Look. Naturally we have to go and find them."
That did it. The Bull looked up sharply.
"No," he said.
Dorian pulled himself up, quite forgetting the exhaustion he felt, all those aches that came from good sex. To be haughty was reflex. "And what do you mean by that, pray?"
"I mean that I'm being paid to keep you from being killed," the Bull said. It would, perhaps, have been better if he had snapped. The coolness of his tone was just as provocative as more heated denial would have been.
"I believe," Dorian said, with a terrible calm of his own, the one he kept for the Magisterium, "that you may have mentioned my life being very much my own responsibility. I was given to understand that you were paid only to arrange my disappearance. If I choose to help a—a friend—"
The Bull noticed his fumble after words; of course he did. They stared each other down for a moment, and both understood the ways in which Dorian was lying. The ways, too, in which he was being honest. Terrible, terrible, that dawning understanding in the Bull's eyes.
Dorian looked away, chin raised. "I will not have you go blundering through Tevinter without someone who knows how to move safely there. I will not be looked for on Tevinter soil. You saw to that."
"You're going to bet on that, are you?" the Bull said, and now his irritation was beginning to bleed through. "For a bunch of mercenaries you've never even met?"
"And why not?" Dorian said, sharp. "Am I to play the disinterested Magister, without regard for the people around me? Am I to let you run to your death because I didn't care to act? I assure you, I have no interest in the role."
"That's not the point. This isn't your risk to take," the Bull said. "They're my boys."
"Oh, for—I'm offering my help because I like you, you insufferable—" Dorian broke off, huffed in irritation. "I know this is important to you. Why would I not make sure you succeed, exactly?"
They stared each other down, unmoving.
"You—" the Bull began, but what he would have said Dorian never found out, because it was at that moment that the pendant, lying on the Bull's desk, began to glow.
The Bull grunted, reached over to brush a finger against it.
"Yeah," he said. "We're both here."
"Oh, I'm glad," Mae said. "I just received word from Cremisius. They're quite well, only they had some problems on the highway."
The Bull's shoulders slumped. He rubbed wearily at his face.
"Right. Right. Good."
"I'm so very sorry to have worried you," Mae said.
"Nah, you did the right thing," the Bull said. "Thanks for letting me know. You need Dorian for anything?"
Mae didn't. Nothing to report. Fortunate, really; how would he have managed to hold a civil conversation?"
"Shit," the Bull muttered, when the glow from the crystal had faded again.
Dorian sighed. He was at risk of developing rather a headache. "I'm not going to apologise for wanting to help," he said. "I may have done a great many things wrong in my life, but attempting to help people I care for—" he trailed off, conscious of the connotations of his phrasing. Cleared his throat. "I refuse to regret it," he added, finally, rather more softly than he might have preferred.
The Bull shrugged his huge shoulders. "Doesn't matter now."
"I suppose not," Dorian said, tired. "I rather think we've both earned a drink now, to be honest."
An unease, then, that followed Dorian through the next day. He had thought: well, so long as it doesn't interfere, why should I worry about this thing with the Bull? Certainly, they were on their way towards—something or other. Certainly, he had considered that something and felt a pleasant hum of anticipation beneath his skin. And yet—well, it seemed that one never did learn.
People I care for, indeed.
Physical labour, he thought, and volunteered himself to help scrub down the deck, shoulder to shoulder with Talan on his right and Evin, as broad at the waist as at the shoulders and unfailingly kind, on his left. Bowed his back into it. But there was too much space for thought anyway.
Imagine: Aquinea walking the halls of the Pavus family home, the final dowager of that proud house, and disapproving deeply enough to be felt across the ocean. Dorian, my darling, why must you risk yourself in this way? No opinions on how many Vashoth he might care to fuck, she; doubtful if she would have any opinions even if she were to hear that he had encouraged half the ship to fuck him, beat him, bind him, come on his face—so on, so forth. One did not like to imagine one's mother thinking too hard about one's sex life, naturally, but he could not imagine any particular censure being directed his way for that alone. Halward Pavus she was not. She understood that people had—inclinations—yes, let us call it inclinations.
Proclivities, the ghost of Halward Pavus suggested.
Dorian ignored him. This spirit he had no wish to raise today.
Certainly, then: inclinations.
A memorable conversation during his time of confinement, that dreadful period of his youth when he lived with the knowledge that his father would rather lock him away than let him fuck around, but did not yet live with the knowledge that his father would rather have him a vegetable than a deviant:
Of course, Aquinea had said. I do understand. You should know that men have never held any interest for me whatsoever. I have contrived to make do tolerably all the same. I do not mean for you to be obliged to fuck some woman; there are other ways to do these things, as your father has very good reason to know. But you must marry. How coarse one may be, if one is only noble enough.
How to continue that argument? He did not, as far as he could recall, have anything much to say to her on the topic at the time. Just think:
But mother, what if I want to marry a large, muscular man who will look at me with adoration and fuck me until I scream and take me to all the most unacceptable parties?
Don't be so absurd, my dear.
I am approaching forty years of age, Dorian thought, with a certain bitterness. And besides, who said a thing about marriage? I only wish—
I only wish—
I only wish, just now, that I might stop thinking about this.
More pleasant things to focus on, then, were in order.
Meraad, taking dinner by himself for a moment of peace, didn't seem inclined to object to Dorian's appearance; looked him over, considered, and waved him in.
"Looking a bit tangled up there, Magister Pavus," he said mildly, as Dorian perched himself on the edge of Meraad's bed, a cot very much like his own. "You might want to talk to the chief about that. He's a decent sort, he'll understand you don't know what you're doing."
He took a bite of his bread, chewed it thoughtfully.
"Not sure he knows what he's doing either, if it comes to that."
Dorian laughed, unsteady with a nonspecific sort of horror at the idea that Meraad had dedicated any amount of time to picking apart his relationship with the Bull. But of course it must look like—it must look—well—
"I was rather hoping you might do something about it, actually," he said, as though offhand. "I have a mind to spend my evening doing something that requires as little thinking as possible."
"Tell me," Meraad said, and then, when Dorian had, "Better fix some rules."
Dark cloth drawn across his eyes—this he was in the mood for on occasion. His arms bound behind his back, certainly. That he should ask for a gag, crave it—? That was unusual. He did not, though, feel entirely usual just then. All that heat, the Bull's fraying patience, the swell of worry inside Dorian which tried to come out as anger—
Strange that an argument which had come to nothing should worry at him so, he thought, and knew that it wasn't strange in the slightest.
Meraad fastened the gag with slow, careful movements, tested the tightness, angled Dorian's head this way and that with a large hand under his jaw—inspecting his work, perhaps. Nothing terribly complicated; this, too, only a strip of cloth, allowing Dorian to moan or cry out, but freeing him from the obligation of speech.
"Good?" Meraad asked. Rather a matter-of-fact man, no performance there. But wasn't it freedom from performance that Dorian had come to him seeking?
He nodded, sighed softly. Meraad's hand rubbed soothingly at the back of his neck, slid down between his shoulderblades to find his bound hands, tested the tightness of the rope there too. A balance between Dorian's desire for marks and Meraad's caution. A stone pressed into each palm, and his fingers closed firmly around them. Drop the right to slow down, the left to stop. This, too, they had agreed; this, too, Meraad repeated.
"Stand where you are," Meraad said. "If I want you to move, I'll move you."
"Good," Meraad said, that hard-won little hint of approval in his voice again. "I'm going to stop touching you now. Just let go."
Slow breaths, in and out through the nose. Under Dorian's bare feet the wooden boards were smooth, well-worn. The ship rolled gently, and he shifted his weight in compensation, found that it came very naturally, now, to do so.
Deprived of touch, it became impossible to tell where Meraad stood. Breathe in; breathe out. The slow creak of the ship all around, masking footsteps.
Meraad's hands splayed across his stomach, across his chest; the heat of Meraad's body behind him; the press of his cock, half-hard against Dorian's hands, sliding up against his bound wrists.
Meraad's fingers against a nipple, rolling it between them until it hardened, tweaking sharply at it so that Dorian gasped. A flat palm pressed heavily below his navel, keeping his hips from jerking forward. Not even the slightest brush against his cock; not a thing he could do about it, not by movement or by provocation or by pleading.
What a relief.
Here, then: a slow game of torment and denial. A caress, a blow, or nothing at all, until Dorian was dizzy with anticipation, awareness so focused on his body, on where he might be touched and what might be done to him, that there seemed to be nothing else.
A hand around his throat, forcing his head back onto Meraad's chest, so that he whined with it, a prayer that could not be communicated, more, more, please—
He got only the careful flex of Meraad's fingers, no harsh stranglehold; but then came the scrape of claws down his chest, surely hard enough to raise angry red lines behind them. Meraad's fingers buried in the coarse hair above his cock, a fresh drag of claws, upward this time from groin to navel, no gentler. Dorian whined, tried to arch into it; Meraad's other hand closed hard on his hip, squeezed to the point of pain, restraining.
"You're going to kneel on the bed now," Meraad said beside his ear, not loosening his grip. "I'll guide you. Nod so I know you're with me."
The words took a moment to sink in, Dorian's mind slow to follow, blessedly unfocused.
"Dorian," Meraad said. "Nod or I stop."
He nodded, a deliberate movement. Meraad sighed, released Dorian's hip and ignored the sound of protest that Dorian couldn't contain.
Meraad moved him by the wrists, tugging at the bindings until Dorian's shoulders began to feel the strain, guiding him step by step; encouraged him, when his shins met the wooden frame of the cot, forward onto his knees.
It was late by the time Dorian stumbled into the Bull's cabin, aching and wrung out but not, in fact, entirely sated. The Bull was reading in bed as though he had been waiting, and Dorian wanted him so terribly, in that moment, that he could not possibly have contained himself from expressing it, even if he had intended to.
The Bull looked up at him; marked his place and laid the book very carefully aside with an almost comical deliberateness.
"Bull," Dorian murmured, took a shuddering breath—so improbable that he should still feel aroused, and yet there it was, curling and twisting and growing again inside him, want and need and desire. "I rather think you might fuck me."
"Meraad has already fucked you," the Bull said, sitting up—naked, he always slept naked, but it seemed to matter more just now. Still: plain fact. Assessment rather than judgement, because the Bull was wonderful like that.
"Oh, yes," Dorian said, laughed breathlessly. "Twice, in fact. He took me kneeling while he twisted my arms behind me first, and then when he was hard again he untied me and pushed me down on the bed and lay over me, and it was wonderful, but I still thought about how it would feel if it had been you. Will you show me?"
A long, considering silence, the Bull's gaze dragging over his body, studying his face.
Dorian took a step towards him, another; let the Bull see him better, the marks at the base of his throat, the redness of his wrists. Whatever it was that the Bull was reading from his expression. He wanted desperately to be touched, felt unbearably hollow, felt that he could hardly bear another moment of this scrutiny.
"Hmm," the Bull said. "You went pretty deep this time, huh?"
"Mm. Bull, please—"
"Not going to fuck you like this," the Bull said finally. "Not the first time." And then, before Dorian could do or say anything terribly humiliating, "come here."
The Bull's hands were gentle as they lifted his loose shirt, unlaced his trousers. He took his time, touched all the marks on Dorian's skin until Dorian shivered at it; pulled Dorian down into the bed to lie over him, skin to skin; the soft swell of the Bull's belly, the muscles of his chest.
"I want to kiss you," the Bull said, brushed his huge fingers over Dorian's face, smiled up at him. "Only kiss. That alright?"
"If you must," Dorian said, and smiled back, leant his cheek against the Bull's palm; let himself be pulled down to meet the Bull's parted lips, a hand sliding around to cup the back of his head, an arm around his waist. Murmured, on the point of kissing, the very slightest of spaces left between them, "you terrible deviant," and won a laugh from the Bull, a huff of breath right against his mouth.
A scenario many times imagined, but as a prelude, and rarely like this: slow, soft kisses, one sliding into the next. The scrape of the Bull's teeth against his lower lip, the heat of the Bull's open mouth—the small noises the Bull made, deep and satisfied, as though he could want nothing more. Messy, wet kisses. His head swam with it.
Even as a teenager, had Dorian ever kissed for the sake of kissing? Had kisses made him feel this giddy, and had they comforted him so at the same time? Surely not. He had barely ever been kissed after fucking; to be kissed after fucking someone else ought, besides, to feel a little filthy. The smell of that third person left on his skin, the odd looseness between his legs. Forbidden. Well, and what of it? Why should he be ashamed?
"You're back to thinking too hard," the Bull said. "Nothing to worry about. Kiss me again."
One ought to say: oh, if you insist. One ought to say: really, how quaint. One ought—
"Oh, yes," Dorian said, and suited action to word.
An unfamiliar sort of awakening: to sink slowly down into one's own body and feel that nothing was wrong.
Dorian stretched and shifted. Twisted his foot gently until the slight stiffness in his ankle released, rolled his shoulders idly. A deep breath.
He ached in a dozen places. Scraped and bruised and chafed. His lips—ah, yes; of course they would be a little tender, kiss after kiss, the scratch of the Bull's stubble, the softness of his tongue.
Ought he feel embarrassed? He had, after all, come to the Bull's bed with the intention of having sex; had fallen asleep still lying on top of him, having done no more than—nothing less than—
Well. Nothing more or less than he needed and wanted in the moment, once expectations were put aside.
He opened his eyes slowly, considered the gently swinging lantern.
No, he didn't feel embarrassed. Perhaps later, perhaps if the Bull didn't want him for anything more—not a thought to have now. Fool that he was, he had never learnt not to hope, and it would be quite criminal to ruin such a good morning with hypotheticals.
His eyes had drifted closed again by the time the Bull returned; he opened them at the sound of a tray being set down, dragged himself up to sit cross-legged on the bed. Blinked at the Bull's offering of porridge and coffee and dried fruit; blinked, too, at the Bull himself, in a moment of uncertainty. Resolved himself to boldness, and reached out an arm to coax the Bull down for a languidly slow kiss.
"Huh," the Bull said, grinned down at him, pressed their foreheads briefly together. "No sarcasm?"
"What do I have to complain of, pray?" Dorian asked archly. "Your daring to kiss me when I invited you to? Or perhaps," he waved a lazy hand at the breakfast balanced precariously on a stack of journals, "all this? I'm aware that I am not always the kindest of men, but I don't presume to complain at your feeding me."
"Not today, anyway," the Bull said.
"No." Dorian laughed. "No, not today."
It seemed so natural for Dorian to tilt his head up for another kiss. Against his mouth, the Bull smiled.
"Bull," Dorian said, soft, a request unspoken in that name.
The Bull obliged him. Another kiss. Another.
"Are you needed soon?" Dorian asked. The Bull's fingers were buried in his hair, the Bull's knee pressed down on the mattress by Dorian's thigh for support. He was dressed, of course; that damnable loose shirt that did nothing to cover his considerable quantity of chest, offensively striped trousers. I want this man so terribly, Dorian thought, and wanted to laugh, wanted to drag the Bull down on top of him and strip him of his incredibly offensive clothing. However did I end up like this. Only one way to deal with it, really.
A miracle, then: "Not if I can help it," the Bull said. "Why, you chatting me up?"
"How common," Dorian said, delighted. "Certainly not. I'm seducing you. Using my evil Magisterial wiles to bend you to my will."
"Oh, well, in that case," the Bull said, grinned at him and pulled away—the idea of protesting occurred to Dorian, but all that happened was that the Bull slipped his shirt off, let his belt fall heavily, his trousers pooling around his feet. His cock hung soft between his legs, wonderfully large even so. Dorian wanted to take it in his mouth and suck the Bull hard. The fat of the Bull's stomach above it begged, too, to be touched. The crease at the top of his thighs. The line of his hips. So many places to learn.
"Ludicrous," Dorian said. To the Bull's little performance. To himself.
The Bull shrugged, still smiling, softer now.
Came to him.
Dorian very much enjoyed sex, of course; prided himself, by now, on knowing his own body very well. A great many years of experiments and missteps had led him to a certainty in his conclusions. These things, he sought out: playful roughness, to be physically restrained, to be marked.
This, though, he had not considered to be his area. To be laid out on his back, pressed down onto a bed with a gentleness that ached, held and looked at and kissed. What a strange intimacy.
The Bull's body sliding against his, the slow roll of his hips, his hands on Dorian's face, between them on his stomach. Admiring kisses pressed to yesterday's marks. Such care in every touch.
"You think you can look at me?" the Bull asked. His body angled, weight to one side, his hand slick between Dorian's legs. His left knee pushed Dorian's right leg up, spreading him. Fingers pressed carefully against his hole, rubbing little circles, stroking back and forth.
The Bull waited for Dorian's eyes to drift open before he pressed inward, a fingertip only, but oh—grinned at the shudder to Dorian's exhale, at whatever shift in expression he saw on Dorian's face.
Kissed him softly, and at the same time pushed in far enough to curl his finger against Dorian's prostate. Slid his other hand under Dorian's shoulders; when Dorian arched, held him there, pressed so very close against the Bull's huge body.
Dorian gasped against the Bull's mouth at the tiny motions of the Bull's finger inside him, felt curiously sensitive, needed, needed, "oh, do that again—"
His cock was damp against his stomach, pressed down against it by the bulk of the Bull above him. The shift of the Bull's body, trapping him and teasing him.
"Take it easy," the Bull murmured. "Yeah, that's it, nice and slow. Fuck, you're gorgeous. Yeah, look at me, I want to see. There you are. There you are." As though he were amazed. As though Dorian had given him a gift in the openness of his expression, the bow of his spine. In the slow easiness of morning, mind still settling into wakefulness, it hardly occurred to Dorian to wonder at the meaning of these gestures. It seemed obvious that it should happen in this way. The Bull's lips on his brow, cheekbone, jaw. Mouth, again.
Like this, then, at last: the Bull's cock sliding deliciously slowly inside Dorian as the Bull kissed him. A gentle hand holding Dorian in place, leg lifted, body turned; shifted until they found an angle that had Dorian making low, helpless gasps at every movement. Such a simple thing, but how could one feel embarrassed when the Bull, too, groaned and gasped and shuddered, head bowed with pleasure.
Dorian, near overcome by the drawn-out intensity of it, raised a hand to curl around the Bull's neck, something to anchor him. But the Bull shifted his weight again, took Dorian's hand—turned his head to kiss the palm, the pads of his fingers. Held on: warm skin, rough work-calluses, the convulsive flex of the Bull's fingers around Dorian's as they fucked.
The Bull was still holding his hand when Dorian came, his other hand wrapped loosely around Dorian's cock. When Dorian cried out and shook against him, the Bull only kissed him, kept stroking him slowly. Dorian panted against the Bull's mouth. Bull, Bull, Bull—
"Oh, fuck, you're so—" the Bull said, grunted, and came, hips jerking against Dorian, cock pulsing inside him, such a distinct feeling. "Shit, Dorian."
His forehead fell against Dorian's chest, horns bracketing Dorian's head.
Dorian, still breathing in gasps, managed in any case to lift his free hand, stroke gently at the base of one great horn, feeling the ridges of bone, the sensitive skin.
The Bull made an incoherent noise, deep in his throat. It vibrated through Dorian's chest. His fingers tightened again around Dorian's hand.
What had Dorian thought would happen if they lay together? That it would provide some sort of relief from the terrible tangle of affection and desire that pulled so uncomfortably in his chest?
As though that had ever worked for him before.
Indeed, this could only be taken as one more punchline in the elaborate joke that was his life.
"Don't," he said, when the Bull went to pull away. "Stay just a moment."
"Alright," the Bull murmured. "Alright. You got it."
A sigh. Dorian wrapped his arms around the Bull, and closed his eyes, and let himself drift in the warm echos of pleasure. Just for a short time.
At anchor in a quiet bay, far from port towns and common shipping routes, the domestic business of cleaning and washing and taking stock took priority. Smaller pleasures, too, could be allowed: to walk on the empty strip of beach, fascinated and a little unbalanced by the stillness of the ground beneath one's feet. Stripping bare to swim close to the shore with half a dozen others, laughing and shouting.
Breakfast and lunch with the crew, dinner with the Bull, and wasn't it always curious: that even when something shifted inside oneself, one's days could go on very much as before. Books and arguments and manual labour until he had exhausted himself.
One such afternoon: on Dorian's bed, an untidy spread of open books and loose papers. In the midst of it, the pendant, glowing gently.
"No," Dorian said impatiently. "I'm telling you, I thought that as well, but I simply don't believe that our dear Magister Larcius actually has that kind of standing within the Venatori. Consider the tone of this missive that our mutual friend's company so helpfully intercepted for us. Consider the sale of his property in Vyrantium. I believe that he is involved, certainly. That he hopes to buy status within the Venatori by means of my severed head, quite definitely. But a mastermind? I find myself in doubt."
Quickly scrawled notes. Oh, to have a scribe's system of abbreviations.
"Hmm," he said. Flipped hurriedly back through a different book, by now heavily annotated in the margins.
"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said. "I'll see what the Bull thinks."
"I simply trust his powers of reasoning."
His quill-tip sputtered ink in an unbecoming line across the page.
"Well. If you must be like that. Yes. Do take care, Mae. I'll speak to you tomorrow."
"Do you have a moment to talk?" Dorian asked, pushing the Bull's door closed behind him. The slight scrape of the hinges, the extra little push needed to make sure the latch fell into place.
The Bull looked up at him, seemed to consider him with unwarranted seriousness. "Sure thing."
Dorian blinked. "Did I sound as though I had something of terrible moment to say to you? I promise, it's nothing more than Mae's latest theories."
The silence was ever so slightly too long. The Bull's face had turned unreadable. "Nah. Let's hear it, then."
Very well: an opening. A chance to go ahead as planned and ignore the strange tension that the Bull had given him a glimpse of.
"So," Dorian said. "You believed I was going to say something else. Perhaps you wanted to talk about something else, even, and hoped to create a space where I would feel it was my idea to bring it up?"
The Bull's face was impassive.
Dorian tapped a finger to his lips. "You feel, perhaps, that we ought to talk about my eventual departure. Or else about where we stand with regards to sex and so on. Something else I am as yet entirely unaware of, possibly. I have to tell you, I would much prefer to be asked directly in any case. I don't mean to say that I'm not able to play these sorts of games, but when a large part of one's life consists of them one does become rather tired."
"Yeah," the Bull said, sighed. Rubbed tiredly at his good eye. "Force of habit. Sorry."
"Well, then," Dorian said, a smile to soften a prim tone, "shall we try again?"
"Yeah," the Bull said again. "You want to come over here?"
Dorian went to him, soothed by the Bull's hands coming to rest on his hips, the slow shift of them, up and down.
"What are you wondering about, then," he said. Stroked a hand over the Bull's cheek, acknowledging the apology carried by the Bull's hands.
"Wondering what you want," the Bull said. "Sex and the rest. We can do this however you like. But I don't know what that is. You've got how you feel about sex that's just sex figured out, but this thing we're doing, it's not like you getting Reth to suck you off. Any guy can suck you off. What do you want from me?"
We can do this however you like. Dorian could have laughed, and it would have been awfully unsteady, and the Bull would have looked at him and measured him and added some more pieces to his map of Dorian. He would probably have been very kind about it.
Dorian swallowed against the urge.
"However I like is a terribly open proposition," he said instead. Smiled a teasing smile. "If I were to suggest that we marry upon the instant and establish a home for war orphans I imagine you might have some qualms. Do have a care, Bull."
Even this flippant statement was measured. The Bull drew him closer, down to sit beside him. A hand sliding huge and firm up the line of Dorian's back.
"You want this to be exclusive, that's fine," the Bull said, with exactly as much consideration given to the contents of Dorian's attempts at needling as was merited. "You've got my full attention for as long as you want it."
Attention was not affection. The Bull had been Qunari, and they had ideas about sex and feelings, Dorian knew. Did the Bull keep to those ideas?
He shied away from the thought.
"And if," he said, "I wanted to continue fucking my way through your crew, but to come to you afterwards?"
"Then I'll always take care of you," the Bull said. "Fuck you again, if you like. I know you've been angling for it."
Dorian laughed, even as he felt his cheeks heat. "And here I thought I had been terribly subtle."
"Oh, yeah," the Bull said, grinning, and kissed Dorian—on the temple, how absurd, what a fond sort of gesture. How much Dorian wanted it to mean—
How much Dorian wanted it to mean anything at all. He knew himself this well: for the prospect of love, he would do a great deal too much.
The sensible thing to do, of course, would be to avoid any sort of repeat performance. The Bull thrusting into him so slow and sweet, the messy slide of their lips, the building heat of it unravelling all of Dorian's defences—that was dangerous. It was dangerous because it looked far too much like another kind of fantasy, the sort he had long since been obliged to put aside.
"I—think I would enjoy that, I must say," Dorian said. "But is it what you want?"
"Hey," the Bull said. "Getting to see you all fucked out and relaxed and safe in my bed? I'm more than good with that."
"Hmm," Dorian said. "Very well. I'll be gracious, then. I would so hate to deprive you."
He turned his face up to the Bull's, lips parted, a silent demand for a kiss.
The Bull laughed. It was a low, rough sound that settled in Dorian's chest, where it turned to something which contained, but was regrettably not limited to, lust.
A kiss. The Bull's hands running up his back to make a mess of his hair.
"Hey," the Bull said. "Hey, you've got me. I'm all yours. Don't need anyone else."
Oh, Dorian thought. Oh. Well then.
It was as well that the Bull held him. He felt unsteady. To be given what one needed, now as when he'd come to the Bull's bed full of demands—such a profoundly strange feeling.
Evin, hauling a bundle of heavy cloth, caught Dorian just as he'd finished going through his notes.
Dorian blinked at him. "Well, I suppose it would suit the entire spoilt Magister idea were I to be indignant at the suggestion, but yes, in fact, I do."
Sitting in a tent outside Redcliffe mending a tear in his best robes, too often damaged. What Felix must have thought of the state of him then.
No, that was wrong. Felix certainly wouldn't have cared. And to Adaar he'd probably looked entirely presentable. Advantages of the South, perhaps.
"Thought so," Evin said. Laughed. "Good with your hands, yeah."
"I'm ever so talented with all my body parts," Dorian said serenely. "Sailcloth?"
"Yeah, fucked up the outer jib before the storm." Down into the quarters most of the crew shared as they talked, more than half empty now. The sail half-unfurled across the floor. "Two big tears along the edges, see? Stitching's gone. Think you can take that side?"
It became a peaceful afternoon. Hard work, the cloth heavy and stiff, the quality of the stitches vital. People moved carefully around them, nodded greetings, nodded approval at Dorian's progress. A shared dinner, finally, their work put away, sitting around cross-legged on the floor.
Evin was attractive, not as tall as many of the others but broader, stomach soft with fat, face rather kind, rather charming. His horns were short, only very slightly curved, back and down. A beautiful mouth. He'd watched Dorian work attentively, and smiled at him, and Dorian certainly wouldn't have any objections to fucking him, should he express interest. He rather thought he'd like the press of Evin's body against his back. He was entirely certain he'd like Evin's lips around his cock.
But the thought was distant just then, secondary to the fact that the Bull hadn't stopped by all afternoon, wasn't there to eat with them. Perhaps some other day.
He clambered to his feet, stretched, feeling how his shoulders had stiffened from bending over his work.
"He's been in his cabin all afternoon," Kai said, without looking up from his food.
Dorian laughed. "I suppose I must resign myself to being entirely predictable."
How would it feel, anywhere else, to be so known?
He shrugged the thought off.
A plate of food for the Bull. That was a simpler thing, quite definite and practical.
The Bull was indeed in his cabin, and unlike Dorian he seemed never to have escaped from the drifts of notes and paperwork spread over his desk. Dorian, feeling fond, nevertheless took considerable pleasure in putting a bowl down right in the middle of the entire mess.
"Oh, really," the Bull said, looked up at him. "That's how it's going to be, is it?"
"For someone who is so very invested in my remembering to eat," Dorian told him, "you're quite terrible at it yourself."
"Hey now," the Bull said, grinning. "I'm not starving. I like food."
"And yet here you sit," Dorian said, undeterred. "Will you eat, or must I tear you from your work by spilling stew all over it?"
"You shitting me, waste food? You bet I'm eating it." Another of those alarming moments of softness, the Bull's grin fading to a smile, his hand catching Dorian's for a moment. "Hey, thanks for this."
"As though you haven't done the same for me a dozen times," Dorian said. Airily? Did he manage that much, at least? "We cannot have you wasting away, can we now?"
"Why," the Bull said, with easy good humour. "You planning on wearing me out?"
"Do you ever," Dorian said, "think of anything but sex?"
The Bull looked up; Dorian met his gaze levelly for a moment, but he could feel his lips trying to twitch, laughter bubbling deep in his chest.
Laughter, laughter, laughter. Dorian clutched at the Bull's shoulder, clutched at his own stomach, laughed until he felt sick with it. The Bull, too. A hand wiping at his eye, his shoulders hunching.
"Maker," Dorian said, gasped, slumping against the Bull.
He had laughed more in these months at sea than in the year preceding them.
And if they did not have sex that night? If they only curled together on the Bull's bed as they had done so many times before?
No objections from the Bull, no appearance of disappointment. An arm around Dorian, pulling him close against the Bull's side. A kiss to his hand, to his temple. As though—
Fuck, Dorian thought absently, and fell asleep, the vague concern he felt not yet fully articulated.
"I think," Maevaris said, "that we will have them within the week, you know."
Fuck, Dorian thought, with emphatic force, before he could catch his own thoughts.
"My theory was correct, then?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," Maevaris said. He could hear her nails tapping against the crystal as she moved it. "Very elegantly thought through."
"Naturally it was," he said. "I thought it."
He must have sounded a little sour, a little sharp, because Maevaris sighed.
"I apologise," he said, curled up on himself, head to knees, grateful to be unseen even as he was heard. "It's only that you find me rather tired."
So: a week, then, perhaps, of suspended reality. And then what? Qarinus to lay plans with Mae, or the long haul across the sea to Minrathous and directly back into the tangle of duty and manipulation he would find there.
So: an ending.
To what? To escapism and good sex and sleeping in another man's bed as though they were lovers. Lovers of an open-minded sort—what an idea.
One did not simply receive all of one's fantasies at once.
Dorian cursed himself for a fool, and considered his options, and went to find someone to fuck him until he couldn't remember how to be frustrated about it all.
He had the fortune to find Talan in an obliging mood, just finishing sorting through his gear. Those hands, Dorian thought, watching him, waiting to be noticed. How careful they were and how inexorable.
"You have an idea, I take it," Talan said to him, finally, and oh yes, certainly, of course he did; the sort of terrible idea he ought to have grown out of at least two decades since.
"Come with me," he said, and smiled his most charming smile.
There were, presumably, lines. Dorian and lines had a history of mutual antagonism; why change a losing strategy? Oh, Dorian, Dorian—whose voice of disappointment was this now? Felix's, maybe. The one most likely to inspire guilt, that, certainly. Sorry, Felix, but you know how it is.
Fuck whoever you want, you're always welcome in my bed was not fuck whoever you want in my bed.
"Oh," Dorian said, voice breaking on a moan, "oh, there, that's—"
His face pressed into the pillow that smelled of the Bull, Talan's fingers thrusting into him with brisk, merciless efficiency. Not a terribly elaborate thing, admittedly, but the situation in itself was—might be seen as—well, wasn't there something a little dirty about it after all.
"Would you just fuck me," Dorian said. "With your cock, if you please." And Talan laughed and didn't, only kept fingering him, a hand on his thigh, sliding up his side, back down between his legs but never lingering on his cock.
Like this: the Bull's footsteps outside the door, a brief exchange—was it Meraad that he spoke to? It hardly mattered.
"Yeah," the Bull said, "later, then."
And opened the door.
Talan twisted his fingers sharply inside Dorian, who jerked at the feeling, gasped—because of that spark of pleasure? Because of the weight of the Bull's gaze?
"Look at you," the Bull said, and he sounded—he sounded so fucking admiring, fuck, fuck—
Speech was lost to Dorian. He managed only to cry out, face turning to press more fully against the pillow, fingers twisting in the sheets.
"Shit, you're hot like this," the Bull said, closer now. "Always knew you would be. Alright if I touch?"
"Please," Dorian gasped, although he hadn't meant to say any such thing; only found that he wanted it too terribly to pretend otherwise.
"There you are," the Bull said, soothing and low, as though trying to to calm some skittish wild thing—well, and why not. Wasn't that how it was?
The bed, as little give as there was to it, still shifted under the Bull's weight.
The Bull's hand was gentle against Dorian's neck, against his scalp, fingers rubbing through the short hair on the back of his head.
Dorian bit his lip, so caught between sensations. Between feelings.
"You know," the Bull said, conversational, his hand never leaving Dorian's head, "you dig your claws into his hip properly right where your hand is now and keep fucking him like that, you might get him to come on your fingers."
"Oh, really," Talan said, and his hand tightened on Dorian's hip, not quite enough, not quite perfect, but it hardly mattered, not when Dorian was trembling just from the Bull's casual comments, how did he remember—I mentioned once—fuck—
"Harder," the Bull said. Sharp. A command.
Dorian keened—a long broken noise. Damningly, it was not only because Talan obeyed.
His hand fumbled for the Bull's thigh, squeezed; the Bull took it, covered it, rubbed his thumb over the back of it.
Dorian came, shuddering and crying out, with his hand engulfed in the Bull's.
"Right," the Bull said, squeezed Dorian's hand reassuringly, waited for Dorian to find the energy to nod acknowledgement. "Turn him over. I want to see his face when you slide your dick into him."
Another pause. The words had a definite note of command, but both Talan and the Bull seemed to be waiting for—oh.
Dorian nodded again, made to start moving himself.
"You have a word if you need to stop, right?" the Bull asked, restraining him with awful gentleness.
"Venatori," Dorian said.
The Bull let go of him, let Talan do the work of helping him turn his body until he was spread on his back, legs wide apart to make space for Talan's broad hips. The Bull leaned in over him, smiled.
"Hey," he said. "Alright?"
"Mm," Dorian agreed. When the Bull bent to kiss him briefly, his breath stuttered in his chest.
Talan rubbed at Dorian's hip, waiting patiently.
"Some time this year, perhaps," Dorian said.
From the Bull, a grin, approval. From Talan, a rough groan.
The Bull watched him the entire time, all the way through Talan shifting him, lifting his hips; all through the slow press of Talan's cock against his hole, not quite pushing in, a tease, a test. Dorian bore impatiently down against him, gasped at the feeling; tried and failed to meet the Bull's eye, so intent still upon him.
Instead: Talan's head was bowed, his hair in a loose knot at the back of his neck, strands escaping to curl around his horns. A look of intent focus, but not on Dorian's face—his body, rather.
Easier, by far, to take.
It was an excellent body, after all; naturally it should be admired. Naturally it merited the full attention of all who were permitted to see it.
How must I look, he thought hazily. What must the Bull be seeing just now. Has he solved me yet, do you suppose.
"Hands under his thighs," the Bull said, that sharpness of command again, fuck, fuck. The things it did to Dorian. Words alone. "Spread him. You don't get to touch his cock."
The Bull's hand stayed steady around Dorian's.
Whenever Dorian looked up at him, the entire way through being fucked, through all his gasping and moaning, all his twisting and arching against the bed—always, the Bull was watching him. A hand to hold him together and a look to take him apart.
"Fuck," Dorian cried, scrabbled against the sheets, tried to twist against Talan's grip; tried to reach for his own cock with his free hand, only to have the Bull take that too, draw it to him, kiss it. "Fuck—would you just—"
"Would I just what?" the Bull asked, and the amusement in his voice was enough of a relief to let Dorian glare up at him in a pantomime of offense. The Bull smiled. "What do you need?"
"I rather think," Dorian managed, "that you," a sharp inhale as Talan hit that perfect spot inside him, "that you know."
"Oh," the Bull said, grinning again, "but I'm just a stupid brute of a mercenary. You might have to spell it out."
Would the stroke of the Bull's thumb across the back of Dorian's hand ever stop making him feel that strange lightness in his chest? Did he want it to? He couldn't help but laugh, in any case; breathless frustration, helpless amusement, oh—
"Just let me touch myself," he snapped, although the tail end of the laughter hadn't left him. "If you have no intention of doing it yourself you might at least—ah—ah—"
The Bull kissed his hand once more.
"There you go," he said.
Dorian, traitor to himself that he was doomed to be, rather wished that he hadn't.
So: Talan fucking him at the Bull's pace, hard and rough, hands harsh against his legs, keeping him held up in a way he was going to feel low in his back.
So: the Bull, murmuring encouragement, that's it, touch yourself, I've got you.
Altogether too much.
Would that it might never end.
Alone, then: only Dorian and the Bull and Dorian's tangled emotions. The bed a hopeless mess.
The Bull's hands were still so gentle on him.
"I apologise," Dorian said. Eyes closed. What expression did the Bull wear now?
"Don't know why," the Bull said. "That was pretty fucking hot. So long as you're feeling good, I'm good."
"I ought to have," Dorian broke off, sighed. "I spoke to Mae earlier."
"Alright," the Bull said, in the tone of one waiting for all the information.
"We're very close to dismantling this entire plot," Dorian said. "Isn't that wonderful."
He opened his eyes. The Bull was frowning. Thinking away in there, putting all the pieces together—
"Don't," Dorian snapped. "Whatever you're going to say, I would rather you left it be. Yes, I'm a terribly unpleasant person, and yes, I do go out of my way to provoke you, and no, I have nothing more to say about Mae's plans. Do take your gloves off and stop being gentle with me."
"Oh, I can be rough with you," the Bull said. "That what you want?"
"I don't know," Dorian snapped. "I want—"
Only unnameable things.
To stay forever, to run before this got any worse. Wasn't it those conflicting impulses that led him back once more to the Bull's bed, but compelled him to bring company? As though that would change the way the Bull saw him in any significant detail.
How was one to make a performance of being shameful when nobody else present was in the least ashamed of sex? So much for the coping mechanisms of his younger self.
"I want a drink," Dorian said. "And I want you to fuck me, but I suppose you're going to be too polite to contemplate it again. It's only that you are, as you well know, terribly good at this. And I would rather like to stop thinking."
"I'll fuck you," the Bull said. "Let me check you over first, though."
Careful hands on him again, turning him, inspecting him. Fingertips pressing around his hole, sliding through the mess of oil and Talan's come.
Dorian shivered, arched a little.
"You liked it," the Bull said conversationally, pulling away. "When I ordered Talan about. That really did it for you, didn't it. You want to be told what to do?"
"Do I strike you," Dorian said, with as much patience as he could summon, "as the sort of person who seems inclined to follow orders, in or out of bed? You should know that my disinclination to do as I'm told is the subject of a truly remarkable collection of official letters from at least four countries. In the future, an archivist's lifetime's work will be to catalogue them. I imagine—"
The Bull cut him off with a hand on his shoulder. Oh, yes, Dorian thought. Talking too much. Wonderful.
But the Bull only shrugged. "Those are separate things, don't you think? If you want orders to fight against, I can do that too. I'm always up for a fight."
"Oh," Dorian breathed.
"There you go," the Bull said. Self-satisfied.
"I suppose I must concede the point," Dorian said. "Perhaps—not right now, though. If you would only—pin me. I need—" he waved a hand, searching for the right words. "Pretend for a time that I'm only yours. If you would. Even if I—well, regardless of anything but the watchword, I suppose."
Of course the Bull could do that.
A hard grip on Dorian's wrists, a drag of blunt claws down his side. Oh, to have them be sharp, breaking the skin—to have them at his throat, cutting off his air—
Not the gentle slide of bodies, this thing. Not long kisses, no slow unravelling.
The Bull was terribly strong.
Dorian struggled against his hold, safely contained. No risk that he would run. Thank you, thank you, thank you, he thought, and when they kissed he bit hard at the Bull's lip. Tasted blood, the Bull's laughter hot in his mouth, felt the Bull's cock pressing deep inside him, harder thrusts than Talan's, the bulk of him greater, his full weight holding Dorian in place.
"That's it," the Bull said. "Scream yourself hoarse. Let everyone hear."
So much, then, for not following orders, Dorian thought hazily—could have laughed, were he not so busy crying out.
How unexpectedly, bafflingly perfect a moment could be, although one had wanted to scream in frustration alone not two hours ago.
The following evening, and a bowl of water shivered silver and gold in the lamplight where it sat on the Bull's desk, cleared of papers. A bar of hard soap, a worn but well-kept straight razor, a folded cloth, a tarnished scrap of a mirror.
The Bull, sitting tiredly before these things, seemed disinclined to begin the process of shaving.
A long day. Asaar's ankle and shoulder wrenched when he took a fall, and thank the Maker it had been no worse; enough of a mishap to throw the running of the ship into low-level chaos, all the same.
The Bull had worked for two. Dorian had worked, too, until dismissed, sent below for the food he'd been neglecting; sat then instead with Asaar, who was somewhat pained by his injuries but far more embarrassed by his misfortune. Yes, perhaps a little distraction had been in order; perhaps Dorian hadn't minded terribly obliging him, with stories and terrible jokes and then, finally, with hands and mouth. Distraction suited him ever so well. So very many things to avoid thinking of.
Asaar was, all things considered, rather sweet. Not particularly inclined to games. That had its own charm.
But that was then. Now, the Bull looked around as Dorian came over to him. Worn. We are neither of us so very young, in truth, Dorian thought. But never mind it.
"You got away at last, then," he said, and bent to kiss the Bull, long and slow and open-mouthed; let the Bull taste whatever remained of Asaar in his mouth.
The Bull hummed satisfaction against Dorian's lips.
"Hey," he said, smiled. Always such easy greetings.
Another brief kiss. A pause—why should it feel so significant? As though the Bull weighed him once more.
"You want to help me shave?" the Bull asked.
"Oh," Dorian said. Breathed, really. "Are you certain? I mean to say—"
I mean to say: you'd let me hold a blade to your throat.
Dorian was not entirely ignorant of Seheron's history. He was not entirely ignorant of the way their people fought there. Ten years, he though. Ten years, until it broke him. Scars all over. So many on his back. Two on his throat.
"Wouldn't offer if I wasn't," the Bull said, so steady that it could only be something he was measuring carefully.
"Then by all means," Dorian said.
The Bull's throat worked under Dorian's fingers. The weight of his head lay tilted back against Dorian's left shoulder, the upturned point of his horn pressed against the right.
His eye was closed.
The razor rasped against the Bull's skin. His pulse was steady under Dorian's fingers, answered by the thrum of Dorian's blood in his thumb where it pressed against the Bull's neck: life, life, life.
I wonder, Dorian thought, if I will ever truly leave this moment. Perhaps I'll carry it with me always. It feels rather like that sort of thing. Like Felix haloed in golden light one afternoon on the Alexius estate, showing Dorian how to stand on his hands, do you really not know?
Like a half-clear winter morning with Sera's arm around his waist and Adaar's around his neck and bright flags flying from every corner of Skyhold, sleeping bodies crowding in every building, laughter between the three of them that misted in the air, in that breathing space where the war was over.
Something so obviously, perfectly correct.
A few weeks, and they would go their separate ways; but also—
No, there was no joke here to soften the intimacy of the moment, or to free it from its inevitable context. The Bull's body was relaxed against Dorian's, as though he had sunk deep into the moment, given himself entirely into Dorian's care.
"You ought, I think, come to me," Mae said. "We can confer and then return to Minrathous together for the session."
Dorian sighed. Leaving the ship outside Qarinus wasn't a bad idea, strategically: no reason to chance sailing close to Seheron now, less still to put the Bull and his crew at risk along the coast of Tevinter. "I suppose you're right," he said.
"And yet your heart really isn't in it, is it?" Mae said kindly. "Oh, my darling. Has this business discouraged you so terribly, or is it something else?"
She must know. Suspect.
"I beg you," Dorian said. "Let it be. I will return to you in Qarinus, and I'll not let our efforts suffer in any particular. The rest is merely—details."
"Dorian," Mae said.
"I mean it," Dorian said, a little more sharply than he had intended. "Allow my affairs to remain my own, and believe me when I say it is nothing of political import."
"Very well," she said with obvious reluctance, and Dorian breathed out—not precisely relieved, although he ought to be.
Nothing for it but to go to the Bull, to kneel on the Bull's bed with his arms braced against the bulkhead; to count blows, hissing with pain that spilled over into pleasure, at the knowledge that his arse would be bruised for days to come. The Bull's hands smoothing over hot skin, the Bull's breath on his neck making him shiver. Twelve—thirteen—fourteen—oh—
On and on until his focus had narrowed entirely to the moment. Until he had lost track of everything else.
"You still want my dick in you, then," the Bull murmured against his skin. Growled when Dorian nodded, gasping.
A hand pressed to his arse again, caressing—a stinging, aching touch, no matter that it was terribly gentle. A fingertip pressed into his hole, still slick and loose, how thoroughly the Bull had fingered him open earlier, on and on, and Dorian beginning to wonder dizzily if the Bull might simply keep opening him up until he could take the entire massive bulk of the Bull's hand. An unrealistic fantasy, perhaps. The Bull really did have terribly large hands. But he felt a jolt of heat only at the memory of the fantasy, all the same. Another at the curl of the rest of the Bull's fingers, digging into oversensitive skin.
"It'll hurt," the Bull said, but it wasn't a warning at all, was it? Fuck, that appreciation, fuck, fuck—
"Oh, yes," Dorian breathed. "it will—Bull—"
"Going to sit you in my lap," the Bull said. "Here, come on, let me—yeah, that's it."
Dorian groaned. He felt loose-limbed, pliant under the Bull's hands. Rearranged as the Bull pleased, nothing to take responsibility for. Finally, finally, finally.
One of the Bull's hands closed around Dorian's throat as the Bull thrust into him, slow and relentlessly steady; his other hand pressed to Dorian's stomach. For a handful of heartbeats at a time the Bull took his breath from him, gave him a moment to gasp in air, frantic to breathe and frantic to be denied.
And Dorian, lost in the dizzy whiteout rush of it all, arousal flaring sharply through him, the ache of his skin, the slick slide of the Bull's cock, the burning in his throat—what did he think, feel?
Nothing but safety. To fall and know one would be caught.
The Bull's words against the back of his neck were incomprehensible to him, low and fervent, and it was almost beyond Dorian's understanding to realise that they were not common at all, but Qunlat.
To think he had once found it a harsh language.
In the stream of sound, one piece repeated—a word, or a fragment of a word.
The Bull held him, afterwards, for such a long time. Held him close and safe, cared for. Held him until he slept.
A slow half-awakening, lying half on top of the Bull. The Bull's arm was thrown over Dorian, heavy and warm.
What a strange flood of gratitude one could feel, for such a simple thing: to not wake alone.
"Bull," Dorian murmured. Heard the hoarseness of his voice, rasping. When he swallowed, he felt it in his throat. When he shifted on the bed, his arse ached. The fog of sleep didn't lift; held him in an uncertain, boneless state.
The Bull's arm tightened around him. Warm breath against his hair.
"Did you sleep?" Dorian asked. "I apologise, I had no intention of—"
"I'm good," the Bull said. That low rumble that his voice became when he spoke quietly. Emphasis on good. He must be smiling, though Dorian couldn't see. "Still early. Meraad'll kick me out if I get up now. You can go back to sleep."
"Do you need," Dorian began, hesitated, sighed. It became a yawn half way through. "That is, I seem to let you take care of me a great deal."
"Yeah," the Bull said.
Dorian's eyelids were growing heavy again. Another yawn.
"That's because it's what I need," the Bull said.
"Hmm," Dorian said.
The Bull kissed his brow.
"Just stay for now," he said. "Don't worry about it."
Dorian slept again.
The week wore on and the Bull grew uneasy; restless, almost, in his bearing. No word on why he ordered all lanterns out one night, but Dorian thought that he heard drums marking time—who knew how distant, sound carried strangely by the water. Perhaps only imagined, no more than an anxious heartbeat.
In the morning, an unnecessarily heated discussion: Meraad bent over sea-charts, Kai beside him, and the Bull pacing.
"No further east," the Bull said. "Need to be ready to come around back to Qarinus."
"Need to not end up in Rivain," Meraad agreed.
"Need to not end up closer to Par Vollen." Kai, looking uncomfortable.
"Thank you," the Bull said. "Just go ahead and yell it out for everyone. I think a few people might've missed you along the coast."
"I think we all already knew that we were uninterested in visiting the North," Dorian said mildly. "I've heard that their hospitality can be rather lacking, and that simply won't do at all. Bull, do sit down."
For a moment he thought the Bull would grow angry; was entirely prepared to be cutting. But the Bull deflated, sank into his chair, rubbed at his face.
"Think maybe we should find a cove west along the Antivan coast and put in for a few days," he said. "Wait for news. Shouldn't be any more dangerous there than out at sea."
Meraad looked uncertain, ready to argue it, but Kai was nodding.
Around and around in circles. And of course in the end they did as the Bull had suggested.
Housekeeping, and hardly a line out of place by the end of the second day. A relief, again, to walk along the shore, blue sea and hazy white sky and the forest sighing in the wind.
The ship lay well-hidden in a natural bay, shielded behind an outcrop of rock, but up on the cliffs Dorian could see that there were indeed ships passing out at sea, water sparkling around the steady roll of their oars, the rhythm of the drums now clearly not imagined.
"Is it a raid?" he asked, eyes shielded against the sun. Kai only shrugged.
"Probably just sending new troops to Seheron from Rivain. But that might mean a raid in a few weeks."
"Lovely. I suppose I may as well arrive in Qarinus just in time to run for my life again," Dorian said, laughed.
"You always this dramatic?" Nishok asked.
"Oh," Dorian said coyly, "you have no idea. Would you like to find out?"
Naturally they would. And if the whole thing dissolved into laughter, well—wasn't laughing one's way through sex something to be prized when one could get it?
A feat, to feel miserably cold below decks while the ship sweltered under the midday sun; but Dorian was nothing if not talented.
"Only the slow work of rooting out the remnants now," Mae said. "Shall I expect you in a week? A little longer? I know it can be an unpredictable journey."
Don't consider it too closely.
"Bull," Dorian said, "would you care to join us for cards? The alternative is getting terribly drunk, but I would rather—I'd like— if you would?"
The institution of wicked grace in Meraad's cabin was by now an established one, although the participants varied, and Dorian had never yet been displeased with the results, whether he had won or lost.
This, though: the Bull, laughing easily at something Nishok said, sitting there cross-legged as just one more in their little circle, relaxed and shirtless and all Dorian could focus on. A jittery, fluttering feeling in his chest. What had Nishok said? He hadn't even heard.
A routine. Words. Deal. And yet the feeling of routine had left Dorian the moment the Bull agreed to join them.
So, then. The game.
Dorian's hand was good, which was a terrible shame. He had a mind to be shown off, directed. The Bull watching him as someone told him how to display himself, to get down on his knees—
Something beyond his control. He needed it, as he had needed the Bull to direct him before.
When would he be able to allow himself that again?
Well, then: he very much enjoyed cheating, and cheating to lose had the value of novelty.
The Bull was watching him. Terrible, that he should be sitting too far away to touch, Evin between them. A denial that sharpened Dorian's awareness of the possibility, of how the Bull's hand would feel on the small of his back. It would be such a solid weight. Grounding and thrilling at once. Fingers teasing his clothing out the way to slide against skin, perhaps—
"Oh dear," Dorian said, with a passable impression of serenity. "It doesn't seem to be my night, does it."
But it was, as it turned out, the Bull's night.
Dorian, meeting the Bull's gaze, felt abruptly breathless.
Meraad collected the cards, shuffled them deftly together. Dorian's eyes were fixed on the Bull. Everyone else's attention was on the pair of them. Dorian could feel it, heavy, all anticipation. It mirrored the weight of his own feeling, amplified it.
The Bull was smiling.
"Alright?" he asked.
Dorian swallowed. "Oh, yes."
Still that smile.
"Stand, then," the Bull said. "Hand on your dick. I want you hard before you strip."
Dorian matched his smile. "Oh, Bull," he said. "Do you honestly imagine that I'm not already hard, with the attention of such a fine collection of men on me? You should know me better."
"You're half way," the Bull said, with certainty. "We can manage better than that, don't you think. Stand. Hand on your dick."
Oh, there it was, that harshness. It did rather a good job of encouraging Dorian's cock to fill even before he had obeyed, a hand between his legs, pressing and stroking through his trousers.
The Bull allowed him to tease himself as he would, apparently content to watch: eyes on Dorian touching himself. For once, not on his face.
Dorian bit his lip.
"There you are," the Bull said. "Shirt off. Unlace those fancy pants of yours. Let them all see." A growl of appreciation at Dorian's prompt obedience. "Look at all of them. Look how much Nishok wants to touch already. Think how wild you're going to make them, putting on a show like this."
"And you?" Dorian asked, breathless. His cock jutted from his unfastened trousers, foreskin drawn back from the head. He ran a finger up the underside, teasing himself, teasing everyone else, then lay his hand alongside it: thumb above and fingers curling against his balls. Framing. "Are you so very unaffected? I must be slipping."
"Oh," the Bull said. "But I know I'm going to get to touch you. It's only a show for everyone else today."
Eye contact. Not the steady build of arousal but one of those wonderful lightning-strikes. He must be flushing now.
"Lose the rest of your clothes," the Bull said. "Then you kneel. Here in the middle, hands behind your back. Meraad, rope."
Knots, then. But the Bull didn't begin immediately. He stood before Dorian instead, a hand on the back of his head, fingers combing softly through his hair.
"You're going to put your hands on your ass," the Bull said. "Spread yourself, show off. You're gorgeous, aren't you? I think they deserve to see. And then," he paused, let Dorian shift, weight forward, back arched, face turned against the Bull's hip for balance, "then I'm going to have you suck me until I'm as hard as you are."
He must have felt how Dorian shuddered. His hand tightened in Dorian's hair, pulling him back, holding him firmly in place. His other hand was undoing his belt, none too hurried. Dorian pressed messy kisses against the back of it, gasped out loud as the Bull tugged harder on his hair.
Such a relief to have the Bull's cock in his mouth. He was large even soft, of course; incredibly satisfying, to tug gently at the Bull's foreskin with his lips, to swallow around the Bull's cock and feel it twitch against his tongue. A decadent sort of pleasure in counterpoint to the sharp pressure across his scalp as the Bull's fingers twisted in his hair without pulling him away.
"They can't stop watching you," the Bull said. "Evin's never fucked you, has he? You'll have to let him some time, I can tell he'd fucking worship your ass."
A groan from behind Dorian. The rustle of clothing.
Dorian moaned around the Bull's cock.
"Let's give him something to look at," the Bull said. "Give me your hand. Nishok, pass me the bottle."
Oil on Dorian's fingers, such a mess, rather too much of it—but then, the Bull was still only using one hand. It ran across Dorian's upturned palm, over his wrist. Down the inside of his forearm. Oh.
"Show them how you like to finger yourself," the Bull said. "Keep sucking me. I'm going to come down your throat. Then I'm going to tie you up."
He was hard in Dorian's mouth now, the head of his cock not quite pushing back against Dorian's throat.
One ought to be sarcastic, witty.
Mercifully, he was unable.
The Bull, then, helping him to his feet, grinning with pride, turning him to face his audience so they could see the wetness of his lips, the flush on his cheeks. So that he could see them touching themselves.
Murmured instructions and questions, less of a show: that's right, stretch your arms out, anything hurting?
Then finally, finally the rope: arms behind his back again, loop after loop and knot after knot, around his shoulders, across his chest.
"You're going to kneel again," the Bull said; held him by his bound wrists as he moved, the strain on his shoulders making him groan. "Still with us?"
"Oh," Dorian said, flashed a playful smile to the others. "Oh, yes."
"Shit," the Bull said, "you look wrecked already. Imagine how you'll feel by the time I'm done with you."
"Promises," Dorian murmured, another more secretive little smile for Evin, as though they were sharing a joke.
Evin laughed. Hopelessly aroused. Well, naturally.
The Bull knelt behind him, one knee to the ground, one against his side.
"Oh, you doubt me?" the Bull whispered against his ear. The shift of his lips. An unseen smile.
His head yanked back by a rough hold on his hair, and the Bull's teeth hard against his neck so that his whole body jerked with the warm bloom of pain.
"Fuck," someone said.
"Is that all," Dorian gasped, because that seemed to be the game, because that seemed to be the best way to earn another mark; and sure enough, the Bull's teeth dug into his shoulder this time, harder, harder, the sting of broken skin. Dorian laughed, breathlessly exhilarated. Twisted against the Bull's hold to sharpen the pain, his shoulders straining, back arched. His cock ached, so hard, on display for everyone. His neck ached. If the Bull would just fuck him—
The Bull released him so abruptly that he might have overbalanced, had he not been steadied at the last moment by a hand between his shoulderblades.
"Shh, easy," the Bull said. "Going to tie your legs. You want that?"
"I was under the impression," Dorian said, "that this was rather more about what you want. I seem to recall you winning the game."
The words were right, but his tone failed. Too desperate, too unsteady. Rather embarrassing, really, with an audience.
The Bull's hand stroked his back, soothing. Nothing you don't want. Never anything you don't want.
"Ankle to thigh," the Bull said. "Alright?"
Dorian nodded. A deep breath to collect himself. In truth, it was precisely the pause he needed. Soothing: the process of being bound, the certainty of the Bull's hands.
The Bull crouched before him, blocking him from view for a moment. A searching look, and then, when Dorian smiled and nodded, a slow kiss.
Dorian let go. Eyes closed, leaning into that sole point of contact until the last of his tension was gone, leaving him pleasantly adrift.
It was only then that the Bull stood again.
"Eyes open," he said, bending down from behind Dorian to speak quietly into his ear, a stage whisper. "You're going to see exactly how much they all want you. Look."
The Bull's hand on his head, turning it so that he was looking at Meraad, hand curled loosely around his own cock, gripping rather than stroking. Nishok, come on his hand, his cock already half-hard again. Evin's gorgeously flushed face.
"Hey Meraad," the Bull said conversationally, "your table in good shape?"
"If it's not you can pay to replace it," Meraad said.
The Bull laughed. "Fair."
So: Dorian, kneeling on the table like a display piece. A practical demonstration in every way he loved to be touched, and oh, oh, how unfair it was that the Bull should have all of them catalogued so thoroughly. How wonderful. Now with tenderness and now harshly. The Bull's body warm against his back, gentle kisses to his bruised and bloody shoulder, harsh claws on his belly. No contact at all but three of the Bull's fingers twisting inside him, rough thrusts that had him crying out. Now tugged sharply back by the ropes around his arms, now forced forward with a heavy hand on his back until his thighs screamed at the strain. Sharp blows to his arse. The Bull bending to kiss his thigh, and then to bite it, suck at it until it was surely going to bruise. The same treatment for his arse.
Never a single touch to his cock, of course. One of the Bull's favourite denials. One of Dorian's also, certainly.
"You're still trying to be quiet," the Bull said. "Don't. You're allowed to fuck whoever you want here. You know nobody cares. Let go."
And then he shifted his fingers in Dorian until he found Dorian's prostate, and rubbed it until Dorian screamed.
Then he did it again.
Dorian could hardly keep his eyes open. His head was rolled back against the Bull's shoulder. His arms were trembling. But the Bull kept up a steady narration for him, exactly how Evin was playing with his own balls, the look on Meraad's face when Dorian shook with pleasure. Dorian was aware—not of any specific person beyond the Bull, perhaps. But of being watched as he lost control. Avid attention.
And he was safe.
"Hey," the Bull murmured. "Going to untie you now before you hurt yourself."
Dorian whined in protest, although he knew the Bull had the right of it.
"I'll tie your hands again in front of you," the Bull said. "Alright?"
One of the Bull's hands firm on his side, the other unpicking the knots.
"You'll fuck me, won't you," Dorian mumbled.
"Yeah," the Bull said. "Shit yeah. Patience."
Someone else said something, but Dorian missed the words.
"Oh, yeah," the Bull said. "Damn right he is." And there was that pride again—he's proud of me—
The worn surface of the table was smooth against his back as the Bull settled him on it. Wrists and ankles carefully massaged. Dorian submitted to the gentle treatment without protest, laughed quietly when the Bull kissed the inside of one wrist and then the other, hummed contentedly as the Bull looped rope loosely around them, padded it with cloth to stop it chafing against the already sore skin.
Dorian stretched, arched, arms above his head, loosening up his shoulders.
"Going to fuck you now," the Bull said. "Let's let them all see how well you take my dick, huh?"
"Mm," Dorian agreed, parted his legs readily; in truth he had half lost track of the kind of game they were playing. It all seemed terribly unimportant. He only wanted the Bull's cock inside him so terribly. It would feel so good, it would be practically too much—
A slow, slick slide. Dorian sighed at it, shifted his hips just to feel the drag of the Bull's cock against his insides, held gloriously at the tipping point between wonderfully sensitive and uncomfortable. How he loved it, to force more pleasure from his body when it felt as though there was nothing left.
But the Bull didn't force, of course. He coaxed. Held Dorian's hips gently, stroked across the bruises without pressing down on them, rolled his hips so very, very slowly.
Finally, then: the Bull slouched in a chair, Dorian on his lap. The Bull looked up at him, held eye contact as he guided Dorian down onto his cock again—shifting him, angling him, showing him off. What must it look like, the Bull's thick cock sliding into his body like this? Oh, to be able to see it—
But he couldn't see anything but the Bull's face, and that sight, the intent focus in his expression, the care—are you doing alright, is this what you need. It was more than enough. It was—it was—
"Oh," Dorian gasped, "oh—oh—Bull—oh—"
Raised his bound hands to the Bull's face, fingers pressed clumsily to the Bull's lips.
The Bull kissed them. Pulled them gently out of the way with one hand, drew Dorian in closer with the other.
A curious simplification, that, for a thing which shook Dorian to his core, sent his hands scrabbling uselessly against the Bull's chest. Longing to hold.
When they parted, what piece of his feelings did he manage to keep hidden?
Not a one of them. It was all on his face.
He saw the Bull cataloguing it. All of it? Perhaps not.
The Bull's lips trembled.
Another kiss: fiercer, messier, more hurried.
They shuddered together, forehead to forehead, the Bull's body curling forward, shoulders hunching to bring them together. Fuck, fuck, oh, fuck, Bull—I—
Dorian's breath dragged roughly in his throat; came in gasps. The Bull's arms were tight around him, hands splayed across his back, his hip. The Bull's head was bowed. His eye screwed shut.
Dorian's hands remained pressed to the Bull's chest. The thud of his heart was heavy against them. Dorian's own pulse thrummed in his wrists, beat against the ropes, never let me go.
Move, he told himself. Move, do something, laugh and say something a little provocative. A look and a smile cast over your shoulder, didn't you enjoy the show.
But it was beyond him.
"Shit," Meraad muttered from somewhere behind him.
The Bull raised his head. But he kept his hold on Dorian firm.
Some silent communication took place, presumably; the Bull said nothing, but Meraad sighed, said something under his breath that had the others stumbling to their feet, heading for the door.
It closed quietly behind them.
The Bull's hands left Dorian's back; lifted him so that the Bull's softening cock slid out of him, settled him back to get at his hands.
"Fuck," Dorian said, with feeling.
The Bull, untying Dorian, fumbled over the knots; cursed quietly.
"Your hands are shaking," Dorian said.
The Bull cursed again. A deep breath, another, eye closed.
His hands steadied.
The rope loosened easily.
The Bull clutched at Dorian's wrists, seemed only to remember his strength after a moment.
"Sorry," he said. "You alright?"
"Are you?" Dorian asked, reached a hand up to rest against the Bull's cheek. "Bull—I apologise for my lapse, I quite lost myself—"
"I should be apologising," the Bull said, tugged Dorian in close to his chest, held him once more. "Didn't figure it out. Really am slipping."
"Directness," Dorian prompted. "If you please. You're usually rather good at it."
His voice shook a little, turned a little sharp, despite every effort.
"Not with this," the Bull said. An uncertain noise. "Look—I figured you needed someone to take care of you. I didn't think—"
"That it had to be you?" Dorian laughed, eyes stinging. If the Bull's hands left him now he would come undone. Only their weight on his skin kept him contained in his body. "Oh, you are quite entirely dense on occasion after all. But I can't precisely fault you. I've been trying to pretend, in my own way, that my feelings could be—other than they are. It would be ever so much more convenient."
The Bull brushed a tear from Dorian's cheek.
"You know I'm in love with you," he said, as though explaining first mathematical principles to a child.
Dorian made a humiliatingly strangled sound, a kind of a sob, a kind of a laugh. It welled up in his chest, a terrible pressure. Became a bitter thing on his tongue that he couldn't help but spit out. Here, take it: everything you've ever dreamt of. Love and trust and excellent sex.
Now leave it.
"That's entirely unhelpful," he said, voice rising. "What am I to do with this information, precisely?"
"I know," the Bull said. His mouth twisted strangely. "I needed to say it."
"Vishante kaffas," Dorian said. "What kind of tasteless joke is this?"
"Pretty shitty one," the Bull said. His arms tightened.
Breathe, Dorian reminded himself. In, out. The smell of the Bull, the smell of sex. The pitch and timber smell of the ship beneath it all.
Never let me go.
"You haven't asked me to stay," he said.
The Bull's turn to laugh. The Bull's turn to make the thing sound bitter. "Can't do that," he said. "You might say yes, and then you'd hate me for it."
"Well there's no need to be right about everything," Dorian said, with perhaps a little more sarcasm than was strictly warranted. A sigh. "Bull, we have to move, we're taking up Meraad's cabin with our dramatics."
"Don't think I can manage it," the Bull said, and probably meant that he didn't think Dorian could.
Well, he wasn't wrong there either.
"I suppose," Dorian said shakily, "that I must consent to having you hold me for a little longer, then."
One might, for a short time, allow oneself to cling.
"Yeah," the Bull said. "Awful. How're you going to cope."
"We all make do as best we can," Dorian said, the words muffled against the Bull's neck. Oh, how filthy he was, sticky with sweat, with his own come, with the Bull's. How much he needed to bathe. How much he never wanted to move.
The Bull's chest heaved. Inhale, exhale.
"I guess we do," he said.
On their way east they had skirted the coast; now, seeing the great blood-red sails that the fleets of Tevinter favoured, they had drawn further out to sea.
To the north-west, the smoke-haze of Seheron grew more and more pronounced. At the helm, the Bull was tense, jaw clenched.
"Is there no peace to be had," Dorian said.
The Bull only snorted. Relaxed a fraction at Dorian's hand on his shoulder.
"Maraas shokra," he said, after a moment, and laughed. "No, there's no peace."
"You mean, I think, something more personal than I had in mind," Dorian said.
The Bull shrugged. "Seheron was a lot of years ago."
"And what should that matter?" Dorian asked. "Come now."
"Yeah," the Bull said. Acknowledgement, of a sort. "You don't have to sit here and watch me work, you know."
"Oh, I'm afraid I do," Dorian said, voice soft. Felt the Bull's shoulders sink.
"Yeah," he said again. This ache they both felt: a terrible, lingering thing.
The wind, at least, was not favourable, and nor were the sea-currents. Ataashi didn't sail particularly well close to the wind, and her progress was a long slow back and forth, painstaking work, taxing for everyone.
Oh, how guilty a feeling, to be glad for that. And all the same.
The outlying islands around Seheron became dark shapes on the horizon, but they were slow to grow clear.
"I was wondering," Dorian said, thoughtful. "Some of your men wear rope-work on their arms or their legs. Why is that?"
"It's a Qunari tradition to begin with," the Bull said. "You work it into patterns. It directs your focus, and then the result is a reminder. Different patterns for different roles. Priesthood loves that shit. Vashoth don't really use it the same way though."
"And here I thought that your skill with knots was entirely a product of creative indecency," Dorian said.
The Bull laughed more genuinely this time. "Other way around."
"So what do Vashoth use that sort of knotwork for?"
"Simple messages, really," the Bull said. "There's a whole bunch of patterns, pretty sure most companies have their own variations. Some use it for ranks. Not us though. We're not exactly a Vashoth company, not when we're all together. We're just a company with Vashoth in."
"What does Geir's knotwork mean, then?" Dorian asked. "Just for example."
"Means he's married," the Bull said.
It was Dorian's turn to laugh. "Oh, the Viddasala would adore that."
The Bull grinned. "I know. I thought I'd hurt myself laughing when I figured it out. It's sweet, though. I think I get it. Took me a while. But—" A sidelong look at Dorian.
They both sobered.
"Yes," Dorian said, leant tentatively against the Bull, not enough to keep him from steering. "I see what you mean."
What else might have been said? This Dorian did not get to find out, in the rush of activity that was needed to bring the ship about onto a fresh tack. But the thought remained with him for the rest of the day; followed him to his sleep that night, curled against the Bull's side.
Sleep was an uneasy thing. In the dark, in the middle of the night, they shifted against each other; woke disorientated and needing and unable to hide it. Clung together, again, again, again.
"If I were to ask you for a token," Dorian said, "would you give me one?"
"Yes," the Bull said.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"You haven't asked if I plan to keep fucking your crew," Dorian said, sighed into the darkness. "You spoke of love, but—does that change things?"
"Hmm," the Bull said, stroking a big hand down Dorian's back. "It's been good for you, right? Getting to fuck around, no shame and no big drama, just fun. Don't have to stop unless you want to. Don't have to keep going if you don't want to. Doesn't mean I feel less for you either way. That's fucking. This is something else. That includes pretty amazing fucking, sure."
So easily said. Yes, it had been good for him. A sort of ease that he could hardly approach with the Bull, where everything carried such significance. That edge of desperation. Oh, Bull—
In his youth, he would have taken this as a rejection of a sort despite all evidence to the contrary; would have snarled angry words he couldn't have taken back. That terrifying, giddy desire to be owned, that craving. To be the centre of someone's world to the exclusion of all else.
Rather less fun in practice, of course. Jealousy had served him well on occasion, but only as play, contained to moments.
Now, he only studied the Bull's face, almost entirely shadowed as it was. Considered.
"But would you believe that I love you?"
"Yes," the Bull said. "Oh, yes, I'd believe it. You think I don't know the difference between how you look at them and how you look at me? Maybe I should give you a token. Make sure you remember it."
How improbable it seemed. How far from the stories of his childhood, the limits of the world that had once seemed possible.
In the dark, filled with that aching, waiting pain, it was all too easy to murmur, "please." To fall into a long, desperate kiss. Into sex: the Bull slicking the insides of Dorian's thighs and sliding his cock between them, the full lengths of their bodies pressed together. Frantic quiet words. Whatever you want. Everything you need. Love.
After, the Bull lit the lamp; a low flame, flickering uncertainly, barely enough light to see. Took Dorian's arm and kissed it, the inside of the wrist, the soft skin below the elbow.
A soft cord, twisted into knot after knot, a light pressure against the skin of his upper arm. Dorian, though he was spent, shuddered at it. The Bull said only single words, voice matter-of-fact, tracing his knots as he did so. Safety. Loyalty.
"They'll all know I'm yours," Dorian said quietly. A type of wonder. "They'll see it when they fuck me."
The Bull groaned low in his throat.
"Good," he said. "You deserve to be shown off."
A kiss to Dorian's sternum, right above the place where the ache of their imminent parting lived.
Kneel. Dorian had always looked good on his knees; he knew it well. Looked good with his head pulled back to show off the line of his throat, looked good with a cock in his mouth, looked good covered in come and sweat. He carried himself well. With conviction.
Naturally he looked good.
Naturally he was admired. One after another they came to him, fucking his mouth, letting him stroke them until they spilled across his skin.
It hardly occurred to him at first that they were all taking a great deal of care with the Bull's knots. They remained unsoiled. Untouched, in fact.
"Gorgeous," Reth said, grinning down at him. "You going to go to him and have him clean you up?"
"Oh, no," Dorian said. It's easy, it's easy, there's nothing at all to be ashamed of. "He'll come to me, of course. You don't imagine I'd deprive him of seeing the mess you've all made in situ, do you?"
"Jaw doing alright?" Talan asked. "Take a moment. Drink."
A breathing space, easy talk, laughter. Evin rubbed the worst tension out of his shoulders, out of his neck. Do you remember the time—and then he—hah! you're shitting me!
This too will be difficult to leave, Dorian thought. People with whom it is easy to laugh, even naked. Who respect the things that are significant and play with the things that aren't.
Dorian kept moving, and time passed too quickly. Fuck, argue with Mae, drink. Clean and carry. Trim the sails. Perform, perform, perform. Be brilliant and sparkling and at the heart of every gathering.
"Hey," the Bull said, gathered Dorian to him. "You can slow down. It's alright."
"It very much is not alright," Dorian snapped, screwed his eyes shut, heaved a sigh. "No, no, I know. I apologise, as ever, for speaking unfairly. A habit I remain unable to shake."
"How does that go down in the Magisterium?" the Bull asked.
Dorian laughed. "Oh, you know, tolerably well. Screaming, fires, the odd assassin." He turned his face against the Bull's chest, breathed in deeply to calm himself. "I must confess I haven't missed blood ritual Tuesdays."
Tell yourself: this is good.
The pressure in Dorian's chest only grew more unbearable. The words wouldn't come.
"What am I to do?" he asked, allowing himself the helplessness that welled in him, here alone, for the two of them alone. So few days, now, until he must wear a mask again. Stand before his fellow Magistrates and plead for change. "Am I to pretend never to have fallen in love? Put this behind me in its entirety? I know you're clever. Tell me."
"I'd come with you," the Bull said. "I know you won't let me."
"I could neither ask it nor allow it," Dorian said. Not: I don't want it. "You have your own life to lead, as I have mine."
Oh, how he wanted it.
The Bull's ropes lay solid against his arm.
But here, the flaw in the plan:
"Tevinter would destroy you," he said.
"It'll probably destroy you," the Bull said. "Not the first time you've had a near miss with a big plot, I hear."
Dorian closed his eyes against the inevitable truth of it. "Oh, I am very well aware," he said. "And yet I am bound. I ask you, Bull. What do I do? What do we do? Would you have me only in fragments, when we happen to meet at some function of Mae's? Be my poorly kept secret? We would hardly speak. You hardly have a, an address to which I can write—"
He shivered against the Bull.
"I don't want to pretend that this didn't matter," he said. "I mean to say—doesn't. Doesn't matter."
"Yeah," the Bull said. "Me neither."
"And yet," Dorian said, "that isn't a plan."
They rested in silence against one another, in tense unhappy thought.
"I fought, when I was younger," Dorian said, "for the right to love whoever I might love, without fear. I fought to be allowed my lovers openly, to keep myself from marriage for the sake of heirs and appearances."
"Alright," the Bull said. Attentive.
"My father tried to change me," Dorian said, very quietly, as though he could lose the words under the sound of water and timber and sailcloth and yet still have them said. Old wounds that ached in the cold. But the Bull was so warm. "He did other things first, of course—dragged me home by force and all that. The usual sorts of things. I was so very unrepentant, and he claimed to have seen no other way to make me—safe. Happy. What are the lives of a few slaves, I suppose. Not to mention that it would very likely have ruined my mind. I don't think he ever understood why it all disgusted me so, in truth. He thought I would forgive him with time. And then he died. And I never found anyone who was willing to—" he fumbled after the words. "To take that sort of chance with me. Sex, of course. But nothing else. And now I know that you would, and I can't allow you. Please understand that I don't refuse to take you with me lightly, or for lack of care. I simply—"
"Yeah," the Bull said softly. "I know. Look, we don't have to decide what to do. We have business, both of us. Mae knows how to get letters to me. Don't think there's an easy answer to this one. We'll just have to—ugh. Figure it out as we go."
"And if I write to you, you'll answer?" Dorian asked.
"I'll answer," the Bull said. Kissed him with gentle care until Dorian could allow himself to sink properly into it. "I'll always answer."
Easy to promise. But Dorian was hardly going to do anything but cling to the hope on offer. Such a need for it to be true. Even though it could never be enough.
A hand on his shoulder in passing, a chaste kiss to the back of his neck as he bent over his writing, a quartered orange placed on a plate beside his books. It was not quite a pretense that nothing had changed, was changing, would change. A deferral, rather. Acknowledge the problem, and make the most of what remains.
"Essays," the Bull said, looking over his shoulder. His hand became the centre of Dorian's world, warm and heavy, fingers curling against his collarbone.
"A little propaganda against slavery for the benefit of the masses, merely," Dorian said. "I've been rather lax with my writing of late. It seemed like the moment to do something about it. Could Adaar speak to me right now, she would certainly tell me so herself."
In fact she would probably tell him to sleep, and then pass on Sera's latest suggestions for what might charitably be referred to as works of political satire, and then tell him to sleep again. But all the same, she was very fond of his more overwrought pamphlets. Indulgent like the proud parent he'd never had. How far you've come, Dorian. Do remember to eat.
"Let me see," the Bull said, and Dorian handed him his completed drafts, and couldn't even find it in himself to feel offended when the Bull started making notes in the margins. Perhaps it was the quality of his suggestions that did it. Perhaps it was the comfortable press of his shoulder against Dorian's as they worked.
Later, and they drank wine from the bottle, passed back and forth between them where they were settled together on the Bull's bed. The taste of the Bull's mouth blended through it.
Dorian leant back against the Bull's chest, draped an arm across the Bull's knee. "Tell me a story," he said. "One I know already."
The Bull hummed. "Am I meant to make a joke?"
Dorian swatted at his leg, caressed it in apology. "Only if it's a funny story, you great lummox."
"Hey," the Bull said, "just checking."
His arm wrapped around Dorian's waist, hand settled on Dorian's stomach. It might so very easily have turned to sex: the slightest slide downward, fingers teasing just above his cock. But they remained as they were.
I'm not disappointed, Dorian thought hazily. I want this as much as that.
I suppose I ought to have realised sooner that I'd fallen in love.
"A story," he said again. "Tell me about Mae."
"You really are going to fall asleep half way through this time, aren't you," the Bull said.
"Of course I am," Dorian said. "I'm quite pleasantly drunk and I seem to have forgotten to be tense and I intend to make the most of it. Do you mind?"
"Hey, whatever works for you," the Bull said, and kissed his forehead, and told him a story.
When had the Bull's hands come to mean comfort, safety? Longer ago than was strictly reasonable, perhaps. Crawling into the Bull's bed after sex just to feel them on him and conscientiously keeping himself from considering why. The Bull holding his hand as Reth sucked his cock, only for a moment, but how Dorian had clung to that touch, shocked himself with how he craved it.
The Bull held his hand now, thumb rubbing across Dorian's knuckles. When Dorian's fingers clenched the Bull smiled against his cheek.
His other hand rested against the small of Dorian's back, a steadying pressure, keeping him in place; a reminder to keep his hips still. Wonderful and infuriating and oh, oh, how unimaginable any of this would have been, mere months ago. And here they were: at anchor in another smuggler's harbour, not two days from Qarinus, and—and—
I need to be fucked until I can't think, he'd said.
"Shit, look at you," the Bull said, and the admiration in his voice was enough to make Dorian bite his own lip. An exhale that became a whine. "Waiting. You're so impatient, Kadan."
"Well," Dorian said, only a little breathlessly, "if certain people weren't so determined to pretend we have all the time in the world—then I might not—oh—"
Fingers thrusting more firmly into him. Whose?
He let his head fall forward against the Bull's shoulder for a moment. Laughter from behind him, rather more breathless even than Dorian's attempt at humour. A little self-conscious. Asaar, perhaps.
"Think he's trying to give you a hint, Asaar," the Bull said, but with more gentleness than Dorian could have expected. "What do you say? How about you give him a little bit of what he wants."
It was the Bull's hands on his hips that shifted him, pulled him up on his knees on the edge of the bed, one of the Bull's broad thighs between them. The Bull's hands that brushed across his neck, across his face.
The Bull's lips that pressed to his forehead.
Asaar's cock sank slowly into him. Always such endearing caution.
"Oh, give me more," Dorian said.
"Patience," the Bull said, took his hand again. "You know you'll get as much as you can take."
Muted sounds, as though far away. Dorian's body sang. How strange, to feel the wonderful slide of a cock inside one and yet to be so terribly aware of one's hands. Of one's forehead, where a kiss was pressed.
"I don't know," Dorian said. Gasped. "Is it ever enough?"
"Guess we'll see," the Bull said.
Other hands on Dorian's hips, someone else's cock again, such a slow pace this one, how he longed to be fucked a little harder—although he had come once already, although this much was enough to make him want to writhe at the overstimulation.
His legs shook.
But the Bull's hands cupped his face, stroked his hair. Slow deep kisses that turned messy from the soft laxness of Dorian's mouth.
"Bet we can get you hard again," the Bull murmured against Dorian's lips. "Get you off again." When he exhaled a groan, Dorian breathed it in, a tiny whine to his inhale as whoever was fucking him ground against him, the smallest movements that kept him so wonderfully full.
"Oh, yes," Dorian said. "I would be—disappointed otherwise—"
That little flare of interest, the first twitch of his cock between his legs. No more than that, not before this man came inside him with a soft grunt.
"Easy. Time yet. You need a break?" the Bull asked, and Dorian considered the strain on his knees, the ache in his back. Regrettably, he quite probably did.
"Only let me sit in your lap for a while," he said. "I don't want to stop, but my legs—"
"Yeah, I've got you," the Bull said, rearranged him carefully, encouraging him to sit as he was wanted. Chest to chest, and Dorian sighed relief at not having to hold up his own weight. "Hey, you want someone to eat you out? You're a mess, bet Evin'd love that."
"What sort of a question is that," Dorian mumbled. "I insist."
"Good," Evin said—close by, somewhere close by—to the left? "I was counting on it."
Dorian laughed, pressed his cheek against the Bull's chest, against the steady beat of his heart.
Evin's hands rubbed at Dorian's thighs, across his arse. Spread him. "Oh," Evin breathed. A kiss.
The firm slide of his tongue, right through all the oil and come that had leaked from Dorian, spread messily between his legs as he was fucked and fucked and fucked.
"I couldn't agree more," Dorian said—slurred, really. The Bull's laughter. Arms around Dorian, holding him in safety. A hand to cup the back of his head. "Oh, would you just—yes, there—"
"You're going to get hard again just from him sticking his tongue in you, aren't you," the Bull said. "You're fucking amazing. You're something else. Every—damn—time—"
Oh, he was going to get hard again. He was. Evin's tongue was—it felt—
"There you are," the Bull said, all that admiration, always so much admiration. "Shit yeah. I can feel you getting hard against my stomach."
Unsteady laughter that became a moan as Evin's thumb pressed against Dorian's hole.
And afterwards, alone together, slow deep breaths in the dark. No tension left in Dorian's body, but his mind was quicker to recover. A pretense of sleep. A slow unease, creeping back to him in pieces.
It had been good, for the evening. And still the day after tomorrow remained.
"We're going to figure it out," the Bull said quietly.
Dorian exhaled. "I certainly hope so."
"Hey, it could be worse," the Bull said. "I could be Qunari still."
"Nations at war, caught between love and loyalty, is it," Dorian said, with a vague attempt at disdain. "Your sense of humour is as questionable as your sense of fashion. As it is I'll be lucky if one or another of my friends doesn't get hold of this and turn it either into the worst sort of romantic literature or a crude series of sketches. Frankly, I can't decide which prospect appalls me more."
The Bull laughed. "I think I might like your friends."
"Maker preserve me," Dorian said, "but I'm regrettably convinced they'd like you too."
Frantic kisses—no slow sweet patience left.
The Bull bit Dorian's lip until it bled, Dorian's nails clawing at his shoulders. Pinned him down and fucked him. More, more, more.
Perhaps he cried. Not a goal he aimed for during sex, certainly; not a goal for the immediate aftermath, either. But there it was. One had all these wretched feelings and they insisted on being expressed.
When the Bull cried it was a near-silent thing, no dramatic sobs, no ugly mess of snot. He just cried, blinked against the flow of tears as though surprised, muttered, "shit."
"I'm not going to leave," Dorian said wetly. His face must be blotchy. Nothing elegant about it; an unfortunate, unavoidable fact. "I fancy I would make an excellent pirate. I have a villainous mustache. Sera has told me so a thousand times."
"Dorian," the Bull said, gripped his arm, dragged him close. "Don't."
"No, I know," Dorian said. "I'm afraid I must be allowed to act just a little like a petulant child. I assure you it will pass."
"It's fine," the Bull said. "Let it out. Probably healthier. Krem's told me that a thousand times, pretty sure."
"And did you ever listen?"
The Bull shrugged. "I tried."
Silence, if one was kind enough to overlook Dorian's stifled sobs.
"You might," he said, hesitated. "You might retie your knotwork. It's loosened a little, and I would like to keep it. For as long as I may."
"Yeah," the Bull said, and wasn't it odd that he sounded so relieved. "Yes. I can do that."
What more, then, to say?
How little Dorian had lived with, these past months. How little to organise and put away. Books and a few sets of robes stuffed into a pack.
Then there were only scraped together cosmetics on the Bull's desk, begged from crew members, bought by someone or other on shore leave.
Khol around the eyes, flicked delicately out at the corners where the wrinkles he had borne for years were slowly deepening. Powder on the lids, across the cheeks. Not quite the perfect shade, but it was—it had its effect, all the same.
"Well," Dorian said at length. "I suppose I must consider myself more or less armed, then." A tilt of his chin. Kiss me.
The Bull kissed him. Lingered against his lips.
"Let me dress you," he said, and Dorian could only nod his consent. If one could not trust one's voice, then—well.
So: reconstruction. Or, more precisely: to become in oneself a reconstruction, a reasonable facsimile of what had existed before.
Dorian sighed, closed his eyes.
Undershirt, leathers, draped robes. Piece by piece he let the Bull build up the last of his walls for him with gentle touches and deft hands. Fabric smoothed, buckles adjusted, tested, adjusted again. These are now the bounds of the self.
A severance. If only in part.
"There," the Bull said, a hand laid against Dorian's chest.
Dorian Pavus opened his eyes.
"Yes," he said. A shuddered exhale and a controlled expression. "Shall we, then?"
Strange, to stand on the deck in formal clothing, a still point around which the crew moved. To separate oneself from the rush of activity to bring the ship into the harbour, slide her in alongside an empty stretch of quay. Shouting and running, lines thrown down and tied off. One could grasp Evin's hand, pat Kai on the shoulder.
But he was no longer a part of it.
The Bull stood a step behind, as if he were a bodyguard. From the quay surely one could not see that his hand was steady against the small of Dorian's back.
He would have come with me, Dorian thought desperately. Pretended—oh, pretended all manner of terrible things. Allowed all manner of terrible things.
I could turn and kiss him right now, and it would make both of us unsafe, and I still want to.
On the ship, stillness.
On the land, running feet, shouted words. Dorian's name, quite definitely.
And then there was Mae, pushing open the door of the most exclusive of the traveler's lodgings along the waterfront, turning her head to search for him. Oh, she didn't run; she wouldn't, not for this. But she managed to move ever so fast all the same, the gauzey folds of her dress fanning impressively out behind her. No question that anyone would think to get in her way.
"Leave as soon as I'm ashore," Dorian said quietly. "It's not safe for any of you to stay here. Resupply further down the coast, somewhere smaller. Back to Antivan waters as fast as you can. Bull—"
Finally he turned and saw the Bull's face. Quite, quite nearly impassive.
"Yeah," the Bull said. "I know. We'll be careful."
His eye was wet again, and Dorian was barred even from crying with him.
The injustice of it was a terrible pressure at the base of his throat, a lump he could hardly swallow around.
"Bull," he whispered, and faltered.
"Don't worry," the Bull said. "I know. Go show Mae you're all in one piece before she decides to come up here and start shit."
"Amatus," Dorian said. But there was still nothing to say which could be contained in this brief moment. "I'll write."
The Bull nodded.
"Be safe," Dorian said.
Turned from him. A smile for Mae. Perform, perform, perform.
"Dorian, darling," Mae said, caught him by the hand as he jumped down onto the quay. "I'm so glad to see you safe."
Her eyes on him were a little too searching.
"Oh, yes," Dorian said. "Grand adventure, really. I'll tell you all about it if you provide the wine. Do sit me down first, though—I'm afraid it may be some time before I regain my balance."
"Well," Mae said. She gave no indication of accepting his act for a moment, but she was far too conscientious to press him in public. "That does seem to lie within my power. I'll call for my carriage and then we'll see about some better clothes and a hot bath for you as well."
At times, Mae's tendency to sweep through the world pulling people in her wake could be overwhelming. Just now, it was an unexpected mercy. Walk here. Not that way. Don't mind the stares.
Her carriage was quick to arrive.
"Oh, Dorian," she said, voice low, as soon as they'd closed the door behind them. "Are you quite well?"
Such genuine worry that he had to laugh, for all that he ached. In the harbour, Ataashi was already edging away from the quay, a few pairs of oars to steer her out beyond the walls. He's leaving me. He's leaving me—
How ridiculous. It was Dorian who was leaving the Bull.
"Certainly," he said. "Whyever should I not be?"
"I worried a little, this last week, I confess. You haven't seemed yourself."
"I—" he shook his head. "A personal matter. Nothing more. I was in the best of hands for the duration, I assure you."
That searching look, oh, why must he only care for people who could see right through him.
"I'm quite sure you were," Mae said sadly. "I'm sorry, Dorian."
"Nonsense. Nothing to be sorry for in the slightest." He laid his hand over hers. "Please believe that I can take care of myself. All will be well."
Hours and hours and hours of small talk and anecdotes and admittedly excellent food and wine and Dorian wanted, at last, nothing more than to sleep for a year; perhaps to engage in a spot of creative arson, for all that he had sympathy for everyone present in a more general sense.
"Retire," Mae said. "It's quite allowed. You'll find some things of yours in your room that I imagine you'll be glad to have back."
She must have read some trace of hope on his face, the thought of his abandoned belongings, the sending crystal—if he could only speak with Adaar—
She nodded, pushed him gently in the direction of his rooms.
And yes: there.
He rummaged through the mess of papers and clothes, clearly thrown hurriedly and inexpertly into the chest they lay in after his disappearance, and—there—
His fingers closed finally around the angular edges of the crystal.
"Dorian," Adaar cried. "You really are safe! I had word that you were, but I wasn't certain I believed it. What happened?"
Sera's yell from somewhere in the background, Adaar laughing in disbelief, sniffing away tears.
Dorian sat on the floor with his shoulders against the bed frame, and let his own confused tears of mingled relief and pain take him over at last. Here it is, then: a life you were content with. Important work. People you adore.
"Oh, you know how it is," he said, found that his voice came out choked and unsteady. "Sometimes one simply has to be kidnapped by ludicrously muscular Vashoth for one's own safety."
"I know why you're crying, but why's he crying," Sera said. "Shite, you're a right bunch." The sound of Adaar shooing her away.
"Dorian," she said, and Dorian sighed.
"Yes, yes," he said. "Mae wondered too. The experience was quite—quite something. I'm very glad to have had it, if I may be embarrassingly truthful. But—"
Dorian turned the crystal between his fingers, considered its shifting blue light. "I suppose the only problem, really," he said, struggled to get the words out, "is that I seem to have fallen in love."
I've named it, Dorian thought.
I've said the words aloud to someone besides the Bull.
"Oh," Adaar said. "Well, shit."
Startled, Dorian managed to laugh. Admittedly, it didn't stop him from crying. But it was something.
"Please stop impersonating the Viscount of Kirkwall and treat my suffering with the dignity it deserves," he said, and then Adaar was laughing too, and that made Dorian laugh harder, harder—the both of them helpless with it.
With the tail end of summer, rains came. They travelled south and west in covered carriages, the swaying and creaking wood almost, almost familiar, the rain beating an uneven rhythm above them. Around them.
Dorian wrote and wrote, and discarded his attempts at letters, began again. A bundle of papers, finally, for his efforts, that Mae swore faithfully to send on.
Never, never, never enough. Where was he now, what was he doing, was he safe.
Do you think of me, he had written in a draft, and crossed it out savagely. As though he didn't know the answer. How trite one became, in the struggle to capture one's feelings on paper. How much easier it was to be witty when one had the smallest amount of emotional distance.
He slept poorly in lodge after lodge. Sat at a dozen different desks and wrote speeches, wrote pamphlets, wrote proposals. Read them to Adaar, who slept poorly too—had slept poorly for so many years now, worrying over secrets that she seemed terrified even to name. Pain in a hand that no longer existed.
A day's travel beyond Vyrantium, the Bull's token on his arm loosening and fraying, and the routine had grown tiresomely familiar. And so if, when something flickered into glowing life in the mess of papers and books on that night's desk, he thought it to be Adaar seeking company through the small hours of the night—well, what other conclusion was he meant to draw?
He fumbled for the crystal without looking up from his notes. But what his hand closed around was not the angular form of the crystal whose twin lay in Adaar's keeping at all.
It was Mae's pendant.
Dorian stared at it, glowing gently between his fingers. Mae was in the next room, there was no reason—unless, perhaps, some danger—
He fumbled to touch the crystal itself, already starting to his feet, considering scenarios, routes of escape—
"Hey," the Bull said. "Dorian?"
Here, then: to stand in an unfamiliar room before a dark window, with the lights of the town glimmering below, one moon in the sky above—to stand in one place, and feel the form of the world shift around one. How many times would he experience this? Oh a great many more yet, one must assume. But all the same—of all the things—
"Dorian?" the Bull asked again.
"Yes," Dorian said, muffled through a hand pressed to his mouth, fingers trembling against his lips. "Yes, oh, amatus, I'm here."
"Shit, I've missed you," the Bull said, in wonder. "You alright?"
Well, I'm crying alone in the dark, but I suppose it's hardly the first—
Oh, Mae, how I wish you would just tell me your plans every once in a while—I suppose you didn't want to inspire me to false hope, but—
His heart beat and beat and beat in his chest.
"I rather think," Dorian said, "that I will be now."
Laughter. Not the helpless hysterical laughter from that first night.
How, then, to live with distance? Stolen moments, whispered words in the middle of the night. A week in the country, say, at the summer home of a dear friend - and goodness, but who else might just happen to be in attendance.
On and on. A bed one longed to share. A terrible longing for one particular person's touch.
How many things Dorian had learnt to fear, in a way he could not previously have conceived of. How very close he had come, on one regrettably memorable occasion, to death—and what had he thought, in his terror?
Bull, Bull, I'm so sorry.
But one lived. One grew a little greyer, perhaps. A little more scarred, in certain cases.
No less handsome for that, naturally.
And one cool Umbralis morning in 9:53 Dragon, a change came.
The Bull was still asleep, and although Dorian was not habitually an early riser he had found himself made restless by the silence. Barefoot, a loose robe draped around him, he walked through the tiled rooms of the villa; came finally to stand in the kitchen doorway. He stood for a time looking out across the garden: overgrown and mist-drenched and wild with late flowers. The sunrise was only a diffuse glowing brightness to the east. The slight chill in the air raised the hairs on his arms, and the air smelled of clean earth.
Perhaps two more days, Dorian thought. Surely two more days may be justified.
An improvised breakfast: coffee brewed over an entirely conjured flame, a plate of fruit.
He sat in the doorway to eat, and he was still sitting there when Adaar's crystal began to glow, a minute mirror of the brightening sky.
He touched it absently where it lay against his wrist, newly twisted in gold.
"My dear," he said, "do you mean to say you're already awake, or are you going to tell me that you have yet to sleep?"
"Sorry," Adaar said. "It's the latter. But it's not insomnia this time. I'm glad you sound awake. Look, I've been with Cassandra and Leliana, arguing in circles. I need to talk to you. It's about—you remember the—that is, you know that I haven't wanted to talk about Fen'Harel." She drew a deep breath, sighed it out again. "Well, I'm ready to talk."
A long conversation, then. Explanations and theories and all the most secret things, the most terrifying. Quiet, desperate efforts which now turned to the north.
Behind Dorian in the villa, the Bull was stirring; footsteps down the hallway, water splashing in the bathhouse.
"Dorian," Adaar said, finally, "who do you trust above all else? I mean, absolutely, with your life."
"Besides you, that is?" Dorian said easily. "Well, I have only two names for you, but that's two more than one might expect of a Magister. Maevaris Tilani, for one. And the Iron Bull. You intend, I collect, that I should take them into our confidence?"
"You're saying you'll help," Adaar said. "So easily?"
"I'm not entirely indifferent to the prospect of the end of the world," Dorian said, gentle. "As you may have collected on previous occasions."
"You know I don't mean that. But you've more obligations now than you used to."
"All of which will be entirely moot if the veil falls, I assure you. Yes, I'll talk to Mae and the Bull. The Bull is here now, as it happens. He may even be conscious."
"Do you think he would agree to join us? I'd like you to come down to Nevarra and sit in on our talks. You say he's sharp. I could use that, frankly."
"I think I might be able to persuade him," Dorian said. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the Bull was standing on the other side of the kitchen. A smile. "It will of course be terribly difficult, but as I'm sure you know, my powers of persuasion are quite impressive."
"I'm unlikely to forget," Adaar said. "Josephine still can't believe some of the things you tricked her into, you know."
"One must, after all, have some skills," Dorian said. "Aside from my remarkable magical talent and notable beauty, that is." The Bull was grinning.
"Talk to them," Adaar said. "If you can possibly manage it, come south within the month. I've a damn mountain of work for you, I have to tell you. But if it takes longer to get everything in order, then it takes longer."
"Yes, yes," Dorian said. "I will endeavour to bring you news shortly."
He touched the crystal again to silence it, letting the light slowly fade back into its depths.
The Bull came over to him, heaved himself heavily down onto the floor at his side.
"You heard the most significant portion of the conversation, I assume," Dorian said; leant in against his side, that comfortable warmth he seemed to radiate at all times.
"Yeah. I mean, you've got some filling in to do on the details. But I get the idea." No questioning it, for all its wildness. A trust returned.
"Would you," Dorian said, hesitated. "That is—I believe I will be riding south as soon as we leave the villa, if Mae can take care of the Minrathous side of things. Would you come with me to Nevarra? A significant degree of danger will be involved in this thing I have agreed to be drawn into. It would, I admit, make me feel easier to have you at my side."
"Getting a bit old for saving the world," the Bull said thoughtfully. His hand found Dorian's, drew it to him, held it warm against his thigh. "But I guess I missed out on my first shot. Seems fair."
What a strange twist of fear and comfort.
"It would, of course, mean a great deal more time spent together," Dorian said. "If you think you can bear it."
A tentative thought which grew between them, fragile as the morning stillness. Terrible danger they had both lived with for much of their lives. But together—
"Shit, Kadan," the Bull said, "don't know if I'll ever be able to leave you again, if it's going to be like that."
"Oh, promises," Dorian murmured, and stretched himself up for a kiss.