The real problem was the door, of course.
Well, no. To begin with, the real problem was the time travel; but time travel being as it is, it makes for rather a tenuous beginning to anything. It may as well be the end, regardless of which way one's moving.
So the door it must be, strange and unknown, something in its lines attempting to turn Dorian's stomach. He on this side; on the other, Alexius. On the other, salvation.
And no clue as to how to open it, not anywhere in the castle they had scoured and scoured again.
"Someone has to come in and out sometimes," Cadash said, narrowing her eyes at the wretched thing. "We can wait."
"No," the shell of Leliana said, the word harsh in her throat. "I think not. I think we must leave now. All of us may die, except for you."
Dissonant whispers from dying mouths like prayer or abjuration. He comes, he comes.
Give me an open door and an hour, Dorian thought, and I will work you a miracle.
But the door was closed, remained closed.
"For shit's sake," the great Qunari mercenary who called himself the Iron Bull said. Tired, so tired, his voice nearly as lyrium-warped as the people they'd killed.
"Courage, my friend," Dorian said. "We may all die, but you will at least not die in the basement of this awful place."
"Not comforting," Sera said.
"I don't know," the Iron Bull said. "Going down fighting sounds like an improvement to me."
This thing Dorian will remember, in the past, with great clarity: the Iron Bull standing tall although every joint in his body must be screaming, blood-spattered, determined. The strength of his voice, despite it all. Another sort of beginning.
Dorian knows, in the past, a great many things about the Iron Bull; about his fears, his sense of self. He knows every part of the Iron Bull's body that aches in bad weather, which scars pull tight and grow sore in dry heat.
He knows that the Iron Bull, in that moment in the future, must have been terrified.
And he didn't flinch anyway.
Down into the dark, Leliana's secret passage close around them. Soil and death, rusted metal.
Cadash struck a light, spark and flicker, and for a moment their pale exhausted faces were illuminated, huddled around a makeshift torch.
It didn't take, of course.
"If you would allow me?" Dorian said, and at Cadash's noise of assent, called fire carefully to life between his hands; let it curl in on itself until it was one of those glowing, free-floating lanterns that had been considered such tasteful mood lighting in Tevinter.
Fine parties. Quiet rooms, fumbling hands, breath panted against a pillow. Another life. Another person called Dorian Pavus who had taken everything head-on, unafraid because he had no idea what it was he should fear.
"We are beneath Redcliffe now," Leliana said. "Whatever may remain of it."
From what little Dorian knew of her, knows of her, in the before that should be now, she had always had steel to her, terrifying and sharp. Had shown it in her dealings with him, justly suspicious. But any covering she ever gave it is long since stripped away. She is a skeleton, daggers for cheekbones, poison pooling black in the hollows of her eye sockets.
"Go or wait?" Cadash asked.
Leliana laughed. The sound was unpleasant. "Why do you ask me? You never cared much for my opinion."
Cadash sighed. "I never cared much for your brutality. Your opinion? Yeah, I care about that."
"What a curious creature you are," Leliana said, in a way which didn't sound as though she were curious in the slightest. "It must be a luxury indeed to have such ideals."
"Yeah," Cadash said. "The carta was real luxurious."
"Don't fight," Sera said. "I can't sodding—just don't, alright?"
The Iron Bull was silent, leaning back against the wall of the tunnel, now rough stone. Dorian joined him, also in silence. Waiting on a decision.
Cadash and Leliana, sniping back and forth.
The Iron Bull sighed, and Dorian felt a strange flicker of solidarity with him, with his exhaustion, deep in a nightmare that should never have become reality.
"Go," Cadash said. "If whoever they were all on about comes, I want to be as far away as possible. Might be safe down here, or might get buried alive. No idea what we're dealing with, right? That says keep fucking running to me."
So they ran. Under the green curtain of sky that wasn't sky, with no idea what they were running to or what they were running from.
Redcliffe village was a ghost of itself below them, burnt-out buildings hazy in fog. Dorian remembers that clearly, in the past; remembers it as he sits on the docks with his head in his hands, as he sees his own reflection, red-eyed and emotionally exhausted, in the mirror-still water.
He feels like a wreck himself, then. Fragments of a world that never will be, that nobody wanted. Fragments of two versions of himself he can barely imagine. What if his father had done as he wished, in that past time in Tevinter?
What if Dorian had never grown to know the Iron Bull in a non-existent dying world, in a future they must prevent?
How sickening both of these thoughts are, in their own ways.
And then, of course, there's the Bull, unknowing, dropping himself down to sit beside Dorian, close and almost comfortable, if Dorian imagines that he is another version of himself.
The Bull says, "You doing alright, Dorian? I know family stuff can be rough," and Dorian, Dorian who can never be good enough for anyone, who is drowning in grief, snarls at him as though it will help.
But because he is weak, he does let the Bull buy him a drink.
That flight was the beginning of something unreal, undefined, days sliding into one another with no sun to mark their passage, not a single moon to rise and fall. They skirted the sunken corpse of the lake, moving north and east, the same small pathways Dorian had used on his way south.
Dead trees were white as bone. Somewhere distant, something that might have been a bird cried out, and even this was a sound like death.
The master of this fragment of the fade whispered fear in Dorian's head with every breath.
You see, Dorian, you couldn't save Felix. You can't save Alexius. How much more will you destroy with your weakness? How far will you go in your attempts?
Just like your father.
"You doing alright there?" the Iron Bull asked, and Dorian looked up sharply, surprised.
"Oh, yes," he said. "I'm not the one who spent a year in the delightful company of red lyrium. What about you, if we're going to make small-talk about how we're feeling?"
The Iron Bull shrugged. "Dying. It's fine."
"Come now," Dorian said. "I sincerely doubt that."
"Oh, I'm definitely dying."
"I know," Dorian said. "I meant that I find myself doubtful as to whether you've really made peace with it."
"Asit tal-eb," the Iron Bull said. And then, "Ugh, sometimes I think the Qun is full of shit. Probably isn't any Qun any more anyway."
He rubbed at his face with the heel of his palm, pressed down against his single eye. Bowed his head.
"Not much use pretending," Dorian said. "I mean to say, not that I don't appreciate a good bit of posturing, but I suppose the end of the world does alter one's perspective a little."
"Yeah," the Iron Bull said. "You can say that again."
They didn't needle one another, in the future. They didn't have the energy for it.
In the past, Dorian complains of the cold, and the Bull says, "What, not enough slaves around to rub your footsies?"
In the past, the Bull swings his axe with apparent carelessness, and Dorian, slow to react, snaps, "watch where you're pointing that thing," and the Bull says something filthy back, and Dorian can barely stand it.
In a recess of a cave, they made a fire. Rain trickling and dripping through unseen cracks in the rock, rain on the barren ground outside, thudding heavily. They ate fragments of the rations in Cadash's pack, and although hunger gnawed at them, Dorian was thankful that she had such an obsession with keeping her gear with her. What would they eat, here?
He sat first watch, cold near the cave mouth.
When the Iron Bull sat down beside him, quiet in his movements, Dorian could only be grateful for the heat of him. For the company.
"You're Qunari, then," Dorian said. "Properly, I mean. Quoting the Qun."
"I was," the Iron Bull said. "Don't know as I'm much of anything, now. Came to the Inquisition as a spy, though. Sent a few reports. Cadash knows. Leliana too."
"Bizarre," Dorian says.
"Any of it."
"What I'm wondering is what you know about the Qun. You're Tevinter. Eastern, maybe?"
"Qarinus," Dorian said.
"Right," the Iron Bull said. "That'd do it."
"I admit, you're the first Qunari I've encountered without running as fast as I could," Dorian said.
"Yeah, I bet," the Iron Bull said. "How's that working for you?"
"Acceptably," Dorian said. "I suppose I ought to ask you when you're going to stab me in the back and so on, but I think in the circumstances we can dispense with those pleasantries."
"Yeah," the Iron Bull said. "Hey, you ever been to Minrathous?"
And oh yes, the question makes him homesick when the Bull poses it again in another life.
"The circle tower, then," Cadash said. "Whatever's left of it. If you're going to put together your freaky experimental magic without the amulet you wanted, or to get past that sodding door, you're going to need supplies. Better hope there's something there, fuck if I know where else to try."
Dry bracken cracked beneath their feet. Sera flinched at all sounds, kept her bow in her hands. Who was she, before? Dorian never spoke to her. She wasn't this, at least; held herself easily, ran and climbed and laughed louder than anyone.
The Iron Bull was watchful back then, and retained this surface image of himself now. But Dorian remembered that he had laughed, too, in the past. He didn't laugh now, not with real feeling. None of them did.
But they walked side by side, Dorian and the Iron Bull. What should have been enmity became solidarity. A cultural proximity.
"I was on Seheron," the Iron Bull said. "For, shit, ten years. Burnt me out. We call it Asala-taar. Soul-sickness."
"Maker," Dorian said, and, "I've never been to Seheron. My father disapproved of the idea of that particular duty."
"Just as well," the Iron Bull said. "It's a shitshow."
"He disapproved of so many things," Dorian said; he did laugh then, but it was bitter.
"Disapproved of you," the Iron Bull hazarded.
And Dorian, tired, so tired, almost dizzy with it, simply said, "Yes."
The Iron Bull reached for him then, as though to touch his shoulder. Cursed and came up short.
"Lyrium," he said. "Fuck. Shouldn't touch you. Touching this shit messes people up, I've seen it enough times. Sorry."
The mages from Redcliffe, whispering to themselves in the dark.
What did the Venatori do to them? What happened to the Iron Bull, to Sera?
"No matter," Dorian said. "I'm sure we can live with that."
A poor choice of words, truly. But the Iron Bull was kind enough not to mention it.
Red around the eyes, red shimmering on the skin, marks of things survived but only for a time. Red settled in the lines and hollows of old scars. A beginning and an ending.
Felix's veins darkened, his skin grew pale.
Weisshaupt refused them aid.
Perhaps it was that past failure which made Dorian feel so strongly for the Iron Bull's fate, and for Sera's, looking at them then.
Perhaps it was only that he has struggled, always, to watch people suffer.
He knew, in the future, that the Iron Bull was suffering; knew that he felt himself, in some essential way, to be already dead, even as he clung to life. But here he sees what it is that the Iron Bull felt he had lost.
The Bull is a creature of bravado where the Iron Bull was all defiance.
Filthy songs in the tavern. No man can beat the chargers!
"Drink with us," he shouts to Dorian, as though they had, in this life, exchanged any words at all that lacked an edge of hostile tension outside of the incident in Redcliffe.
And of course Dorian does. Drink with them, laugh when they sing.
Cremisius looks at him with open curiosity, and he doesn't quite know why.
Fighting red templars was an unpleasant business. There was no reasoning with them, no intimidating them.
The Iron Bull fought them with single-minded determination, quick and brutal. Leliana, likewise. Silent. Sera swore with every arrow, a personal curse for a hated enemy.
Blood on the bone-white trees, on the shards of red lyrium that grew from them here and there. Dorian's clothing grew filthy, sweat and dirt and death, as though he were one of his own raised corpses.
More templars closer to the tower.
"This isn't looking good," Cadash said, when they made camp in an abandoned inn. Hard bread scavenged from the cellar clutched in her hand, stale but edible. Ale. "Probably using it as a base. What the shit do we do with that?"
"Kill everyone, I assume," Dorian said. "That is rather our specialty, isn't it?"
The Iron Bull and Sera slept uneasily, leaning back to back against one another on a ratty mattress pulled from a collapsed frame, and were it not for the lyrium, Dorian would have joined them in a heartbeat. As it was, he very nearly did it anyway.
There was, in this place, a terrible need for comfort. For life. Had he someone to fuck, he would have leapt at the chance, filthy and exhausted as he was. It was a kind of comfort he was very familiar with. Would not have minded in the slightest.
Rilienus who would have him and care for him in small physical ways, but who would never love him. Rilienus, beautiful Rilienus, holding him after that terrible flight from his father's house. There, there, you made it out didn't you. I'm here.
But there was this, at least: himself and Cadash, close, murmuring quiet words. And Cadash leaning against him in the silence that fell between them, like she felt it too. That need to not be alone.
"Yeah," she said finally. "I guess it is. Go and get some rest, Dorian."
And he did, as best he could. Woke up with the Iron Bull close against his back after all, their bodies separated by the thick blanket he had pulled across himself against the cold.
How strange to be so cold all the time. Although he complains, this has nothing on that other time; is not that cold which seeps into the bones and becomes a part of one's being.
And of course there's Skyhold in the sun, unnaturally mild for its exposed mountain position, trees and flowers and chaotic life.
Dorian walks the grounds, and looks for peace in the routines of others. Hay to the horses, flour hauled up the steps to the kitchen. By the lower wall of the rotunda, a sharp discussion between merchant and visiting lady's maid, a play repeated with new actors in the roles each day.
But of course in the middle of it all there's also Cadash, staring up at him with a measuring expression.
"Dorian," she says, "are you sure you're doing alright?"
"I can't imagine what you might be referring to," he says. "If this is about my father, I assure you, I drank my feelings and am in considerably better form now that the hangover is out of the way."
"Hmm," Cadash says. "Come with me."
Up to her quarters, the highest point of the fortress, the view breathtaking.
No wine, but a rarer treat: coffee, from Maker knows where, poured from an elaborate glass flask into delicate cups.
"From Madame de Fer," Cadash says, with a grin. "I'm going to learn to be a lady."
"And this was her idea?"
"Mine," Cadash says, and extends her little finger as she drinks, smirking at him over the rim of the cup.
But she sobers fast.
"Let's talk about mourning," she says, and Dorian snorts, looks quickly away.
"I'm completely serious," she says. "We're going to talk, whether you like it or not."
"Is this about my father after all?"
"It's about a lot of things," Cadash says. "One of which is your dad, yeah."
And the one of the others is the Iron Bull. Well, certainly.
The Iron Bull said, "My Tama, she used to call me Ashkaari. Thinks too much, cares too much. She was kinda pissed when they picked me for Ben-Hassrath, I think. Never said it, but I guess she hoped—" He shrugged. "Don't know as I'd have been that great at being a Tamassran, not really. Bits of it. Maybe she just hoped I wouldn't end up on Seheron. If she could see me now—"
His mouth twisted in distaste.
Unburdening oneself at the deathbed of the world. As they felt a need for intimacy, so too there was some need to confess.
"And I was never what my father hoped for," Dorian said. "Shall we drink to that?"
"Why?" the Iron Bull asked, while the aftertaste faded. "I mean, you seem like a good guy, for a 'vint. Pretty and strong and powerful. Thought your people loved that shit."
A real flicker of curiosity in his otherwise dull exterior kept Dorian from dismissing it. That engagement felt like something to treasure, all compliments aside—and Dorian did so hate to lay compliments aside.
He collected fragments of these people who were becoming his friends. Say that he succeed. Someone must have seen them, engaged with them. Someone must remember them.
And so he was honest, as well as he could be.
"Too disinclined to lie with women, too open about lying with men," he said. "Shameful and promiscuous and very much invested in provocation. Oh, let's not, you'll make me morose."
"Can't have that," the Iron Bull said. Shrugged one great shoulder. "Nothing wrong with enjoying fucking guys. You know that, right?"
"Are you trying to comfort me?" Dorian asked. "You wretch, stop that. As though I were the one in the direst of straits here."
"Uh-huh," the Iron Bull said.
Dorian sighed. "I do know it," he said. "For all that Tevinter would have it otherwise, which did rather limit my options. My father, however? No, acknowledging my inclinations was rather beyond the limits of his progressive leanings."
"Shit," the Iron Bull said. "Yeah, that sounds messy."
"You have no idea," Dorian said. Laughed, and oh, when had he last laughed with real humour.
"Don't have to tell me," the Iron Bull said.
"I think," Dorian said, "I rather want to. Purely in the interests of fair exchange."
How many stories of Seheron he had heard. How much brutality the Iron Bull had lived through.
Words exchanged, fragments of lives. A dangerous sort of balance.
When Dorian had first seen the Iron Bull, standing in the Chantry a pace behind Cadash, he had known that he was regrettably destined to fantasize about the man. The strength of him, the stark lines of his face, his lips pulling into a smirk, the suspicious narrowing of his eye. Yes, Dorian had certain preferences beyond the obvious; this much he knew of himself. To want to be fucked by the big dangerous Qunari mercenary? Of course.
But here below the sick green sky, he wanted to kiss him. Terrible and impossible, stranded together in a world beyond recognition. Perhaps it was only desperation. But still:
This time, he was the one who reached for the Iron Bull.
This time, he was the one who had to hastily still himself.
The Iron Bull was studying him very quietly, and where Dorian had expected to see something distant, something to restore things to what passed here for their correct order—
Where he expected to be told in looks or words to let it go, he saw want.
"Vishante kaffas," he said, savage. "We can't."
"Yeah," the Iron Bull said. "Yeah, I know."
Had it ended there, had they found a way to return to their proper time that week, perhaps all would have been well.
But here he is, blinking unhappily in the sunlight. So much sunlight here, above the lowest of the clouds. The sky is quiet. Scarred, like the gash across the Bull's lip. But so very blue.
Cadash is still watching him. He spends so much of his time watched these days—the Bull's curious eyes, Cremisius' measuring stare. Cadash, checking in on a recalcitrant patient.
"I can't," Dorian tells Cadash. "I can't talk about it. I don't want to talk about it."
"There really is an it to not talk about then, huh?"
"Maker preserve me," Dorian says, "from my friends."
Cadash lays her hand over Dorian's. "Excuse me for worrying about you. It was a fucking mess, and we hardly had time to land before some ancient piece of crap dropped a dragon on our heads. And then Halward fucking Pavus put in an appearance, and if you try to tell me all of that's fine I'll call you a damn liar."
"Oh, I wouldn't say fine," Dorian agrees. "But please trust me when I say that I won't allow it to affect my work. I have your friendship, and Sera's, and that is enough."
"And the Bull?"
"The Bull is the Bull," Dorian says. "I'm sure I can't imagine what goes through his head. May I remind you that he is in fact a spy? You seem in danger of forgetting, although he told you to your face. Not a bad tactic, in its way."
Coffee running down the outside of the cup, hot against his fingers.
"Deflection," Cadash says. "Alright, Pavus. Have it your way. Didn't seem to bother you before."
"He didn't have anyone to receive orders from before," Dorian says.
There was no circle tower, and there were no templars; wreckage only, crumbled walls, burnt books.
But there was the sturdy basement of the place, dug deep below the surface. Holding it were dwarven woman, a small collection of terrified-looking former apprentices, another dwarf who bore the uniform of a grey warden and a casteless brand, and an elf who very much looked to be a Crow.
Survivors, banded together.
"Brosca," Leliana said, in her broken voice, and for a moment Dorian thought she might actually fall to her knees, might come apart entirely with the shell of her emotional armour pierced. "Zevran."
"My dear," the assassin said, withdrawing his blades from the general area of Dorian's neck, "whatever has become of you?"
Leliana shook her head. "It is of no matter. Brosca—they told me the Wardens had fallen."
"They have," Brosca said. "For the most part. That's why I'm hiding in a hole in the ground and pretending I can still do some good somewhere. Do you remember Dagna?"
"From another lifetime," Leliana said.
"You were the one who liked nugs so much," Dagna said. "They're quite darling, I suppose. And they'll probably outlast us."
"They deserve to," Leliana said, with the same bitter humour that Dorian recognised in himself, in the Iron Bull. In every one of them.
"They don't care about lyrium, you know," Dagna said.
"Well, bloody nice for them," Sera said. "Some of us are dying of the shite, alright?"
Dagna looked her over, a quick assessment. "Oh. Sorry. I'll see what I can do. Might not be much, but I don't think anything's impossible." She looked up at the sky. "Maybe improbable."
"You'll see—?" but Dagna had already turned away from Sera's astonished face.
"And what's happened to your hand?" she asked Cadash. "It's like the sky."
"To be honest," Cadash said, "that's exactly what I'd fucking like to know."
Down below the surface of the world again, into a place which could be a quite ordinary base in a quite ordinary war. Ancient hoarded artifacts shuffled off to the sides of rooms to make way for beds, racks of weapons kept spotless, a great table covered in books and notes and a tattered map.
"We thought we'd be running a resistance," Brosca said, grim, tired. "Not much point, as it turns out. But it's harder to give up than I thought. Shale's still out there somewhere, I think, but Alistair's gone, and Oghren. We lost Sigrun just last week." He sighed heavily, dragged a dirty hand across his face. "I haven't heard anything from the north since Summersday. And I'm still here. Wasn't even meant to make it past the end of the Blight."
The Crow, Zevran, touched a hand to his shoulder. He relaxed back into it, lay his own hand over it.
"I had friends," Cadash said. "Inquisition."
"I'm sorry," Brosca said. "They were the first ones the damn Elder One went after. I think they died well."
Cassandra and Vivienne, fierce in the face of their own destruction. Dorian didn't know them well, didn't care for them particularly on a personal level, but he could imagine that they'd make it as difficult as they could, until the last. Could respect that.
"Well," Cadash said. "Shit."
"Your little collection of mages," Dorian said, because he couldn't stand the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, couldn't stand the silence that fell between them. Couldn't stand one instant more of inaction. "Which of them has an interest in thaumaturgy?"
Brosca looked to Dagna, who shrugged. "Edina," she said. "Me, of course."
"Then I need your help," he said.
"Really? You're skipping right over the bit where you tell me that I won't be any use because I'm a dwarf and I get to show off."
"Dagna," Cadash said, "I don't know how the fuck you're still sounding so chirpy. But you're alright."
Edina, when they found her, turned out to be a badly injured young elven woman, sitting on a bedroll with her leg splinted, her right arm in a sling. Blood on her robes, her face bruised.
"Did you know that healing magic gets weaker the worse things get?" she asked. "That's a good joke, isn't it. We fight and fight and this is what we get. Pride demons can take a fall."
"Ah," Dorian said. "I'm sorry about your injuries. But I'm very much hoping that time magic will be getting stronger. Would you like to help me find out?"
"Maker," Edina said, "at least it's something to do."
Sera and Dagna laugh together at the Bull's table in the tavern, nudge each other and whisper into each other's ears. Sera sketches stranger and stranger things at shouted requests from the Chargers.
In the future, the two of them barely had time for each other, Sera withdrawn into herself, Dagna engrossed in frantic calculations, obsessed with the end of the world.
And neither of them remember. Neither of them were there. These versions of themselves are untouched by that particular calamity.
The Bull is untouched by that particular calamity.
There's only Dorian and Cadash, carrying the most vital parts of the future that they can't permit to happen as carefully guarded secrets inside themselves.
How jealous he is of the rest of them, how unreasonable the emotion makes him feel.
"Dorian!" Sera yells. "Hey, Dorian, come and look at this arse I drew!"
He is disconnected. Watches himself walk across the room, lean in over the drawing, make a show of studying it.
He says, "A masterpiece, truly."
He is a year away. He is a year away, bent over notes and scattered magical artifacts and the Iron Bull is sitting quietly, watching him. Caring.
No, no day and no night. But candles burned down slowly, evenly notched, and so one must assume that time had passed, between arguments and experiments and fearful silence as some horror rumbled overhead.
The Iron Bull was usually in the same room as Dorian. He was there now, sitting with his back to the wall, horn-tips to the stone. Red-wreathed eye closed.
Perhaps he slept.
Dorian hoped that he slept. Hoped it was dreamless. He had grown cold these last few days, drawn on more and more clothing; grown restless, too.
Pretty sure the deal was that I get to die somewhere other than a hole in the ground.
And how Dorian had snapped at that, stung, tumbled head over heels by a wildly breaking wave of anxiety, unexpectedly massive against the steadily undulating surf of the stuff that was his daily life here.
He closed the book he had been annotating carefully, arranged the eccentric collection of artifacts so as to avoid unwelcome interactions. Said, to Dagna, "Wake me if anything explodes, would you? I imagine I'll sleep through anything at this point."
Turned to the Iron Bull.
Gloves were well-advised for handling any magical object whose nature you were uncertain of, and there wasn't a single certainty to be had among their little collection. And so Dorian stood there, before the person he most wanted to touch, regarding his leather-covered hands with sudden breathless realisation.
He crouched before the Iron Bull, watched the steady rise and fall of his chest under the great shirt he had pieced together with surprisingly delicate stitches. Watched the furrowing of his brow, the downturn of his mouth.
His heartbeat was loud in his ears.
He reached out.
Fingers to the Iron Bull's cheek, thumb just barely brushing his lips.
The Iron Bull's eye blinked rapidly open. No hazy slow surfacing; perhaps he had not slept at all. Perhaps he had grown so used to the way people sleep in war-zones that he had never lost the habit after Seheron, or had regained it quickly here.
"Dorian," he said.
And leaned into Dorian's touch.
"Is this alright?" Dorian murmured.
"Shit," the Iron Bull said. "Yeah. Yeah, it's good. Just be careful."
"Yes," Dorian said. "Will you sleep somewhere that won't ruin your back now, if I promise to go with you? You can hardly die fighting if you can't stand."
"I can improvise," the Iron Bull said, but he let Dorian take his hand, glove to skin, and help him up.
He was so tall, always taller than seemed feasible.
Dorian tipped his head back to smile up at the Iron Bull, and found the Iron Bull already smiling down at him. Perhaps a little uncertain.
In this place, a kiss should happen.
Dorian turned quickly away, chest aching. So little comfort to be had.
Here, the Bull seems never to be uncertain. He laughs, raucous, arm around the waist of a kitchen girl. She's perched on his knee, laughing too; turns her face to him, grinning, and swipes his beer while he's distracted.
Games. Bold and filthy and frequent.
How does one describe this feeling, this terrifying mixture of relief and unworthy jealousy?
The Bull lives, and lives, and lives.
The Bull gives no special attention to Dorian, except, perhaps, as something like a friend.
It is like this that he ought to be.
And where does that leave Dorian?
"In another world," Dorian said, quiet confession in the dark, "I would still want you. Perhaps not like this. Not—" he shrugged, dismissing with the gesture the entire uncertain balance of their existence, claustrophobic and intimate, made intense by proximity to death. "But I have always enjoyed certain things. Not terribly admirable of me, I suppose. But I do like strength. You have so much of it. So very many kinds."
"Dunno," the Iron Bull said. "I'm pretty fragile. We all are. Just look at the world we're in."
"I concede the point," Dorian said. "But still."
"I've been broken before," the Iron Bull said. "Properly broken. Seheron fucked me up, I mean really fucked me up. You know about re-education?"
"Horror stories," Dorian said. "Drugs for captured mages."
"Not too far off, I guess, as far as it goes," the Iron Bull said. "I mean, it's brutal if you're not Qunari. But I turned myself in. Knew I was too close to snapping, too bent out of shape." A deep breath in, a sigh out. "Sometimes you've got to break a weapon to make anything useful out of it. Melt shit down and start over. Couldn't go Tal-Vashoth."
"Too dangerous," the Iron Bull said. "I don't want to be a danger to people. Didn't."
Barely anyone left to be a danger to now.
"Dorian," the Iron Bull said. "You get your time magic figured out, you go back, make it all better—I don't know if you should trust the me from back then or not. I don't know what I'd do with direct orders to hurt you."
"Goodness, you'll have me thinking you care," Dorian said. Laid his gloved hand quickly on the Iron Bull's clothed knee to forestall comment, turned his face to let the Iron Bull see his expression, which must be stricken. An intimacy substituted for another, this. Where he could not be honest in touch, he was as honest as he could make himself in his emotions.
The Iron Bull's face softened.
"Hey," he said. "We're not the people we were then. Not even you, and you've only been gone a few weeks. I don't remember how I felt about the Qun, not really. It's been a long time. A lot of shit's happened."
"I know," Dorian said.
"If it helps, I definitely thought you were pretty."
"You said so."
"Yeah," the Iron Bull said. "That sounds like me."
"Would you prefer me bound and leashed?" Dorian asks, vicious, how vicious he can be, how vicious he always is to cover his wounds.
"I'd buy you dinner first," the Bull says easily.
And it does, it does sound like him. Imagine the voice a little wearier. A little bit warped. Making light when he can.
They woke to explosions, the ground shuddering. Plaster from the roof, mortar, a coarse dust.
"Venhedis," Dorian said, "it's going to come down on us. I can't die like this, I have to get Cadash home, I have to—"
Distant groaning and thudding.
"No point trying to leave," the Iron Bull said. "Hey, hey, hold on. You're going to be fine. Still looking pretty solid. Just shaking the loose crap down. It's fine. Safe as anywhere else."
He wore gloves on his own hands now, had never tried to come up with an excuse for them. Cupped Dorian's head, heavy cloth dragging across his cheek. Yes, a dangerous game.
You should kiss him, something said to Dorian. Demon whispers. Everything whispered here. Don't you want it? I could make it happen—you could have him, you know what to do—
"I'm beginning to think we've stayed put too long," Dorian said. Shuddered, leant forward, forehead to the Iron Bull's chest. "I should see if we can't pack up the most useful pieces tomorrow. Later today. Oh, I don't know. We have some good things here, but I don't—I can't—"
"Something happening in that head of yours?"
"Collecting demons," Dorian said. Deep breath. The smell of the Iron Bull, warm and comforting beneath the lyrium sickness. "It makes sense. There's barely any veil at all. We're nearly in the fade."
"Ah, crap," the Iron Bull said.
"Yes," Dorian said. "Quite."
The warped green glow of the fade makes Dorian want to throw up. Oh, yes, the dangers of walking in the fade—the possible consequences.
Would that this were the only reason.
"Everyone, if I get possessed, feint on my blind side, then go low. Cullen says I leave myself open," the Bull says.
"It's Redcliffe," Zevran said, pulling the doors hastily closed behind Brosca, the two of them looking distinctly worse for wear. They leaned against each other, the only sort of comfort any of them seemed to have to offer each other most of the time. Occasional kisses exchanged before meals between those two. Not even that much for anyone else. "I think that someone has done the last of the work of razing the place. Quite a mess, I must say."
"I suppose that means I should tell Dagna to stop worrying about the wretched door," Dorian said. "And start worrying about whether Alexius still had that amulet, and whether anyone else knew to keep hold of it if he died there. I suppose he must be dead, at least. Unless it was his own work."
"Should probably check out the wreckage anyway," Cadash said, in the tones of one who would rather do more or less anything else, up to and including cutting off her own marked hand.
"Give it some time, yes?" Zevran said. "There were quite a number of demons involved, from what we could see. We did not attempt to get terribly close."
"The journey'll take long enough," Cadash said. "We move slower than you two." Glanced at the Iron Bull, at Sera. They fought well, when they crept out to scavenge food, but they tired fast. Leliana was relentless, granted; but she was only one person.
"You seem to think we're not coming with you," Brosca said.
"You're not," Cadash said. "You're going to check Redcliffe for messages when we've been gone a month, and if you find nothing, or find that we've been caught, you're going to sit down with Dagna and make Dorian's fucking time travel concepts work on your own, and then you're going to go back, and you're going to tear this Elder One's head off."
Silence met this announcement.
"She's right," Dagna said. "I can get it working, I just don't know how long it'll take. They only need to go south to make sure of the amulet, and because they're in a rush to leave before someone kills them. They don't want it wandering around the landscape. I'd love to see it, but—" she shrugged. "They always told me I'd get a sense of perspective sooner or later. Maybe this is what it looks like."
"Good," Cadash said. "Five notches to get your shit wrapped up and packed down. Dorian, duplicate any bits of your notes you need and leave the originals for Dagna. Bull, Sera—rest, so help me."
"Leliana," Brosca said, "are you going or staying?"
"Going," she said. "Brosca, you know I am not your friend any longer. She is dead. And I am going to kill as many demons as I am able in her memory. And then I am going, by Andraste's mercy, to rest. I suggest you mourn her in the same way, at the right time."
"I see," Brosca said. Heavily, in defeat.
"Dorian," Leliana says, "if I might have a word?"
She has rarely had a word here for Dorian outside of witticisms about the current fashions of the South. In the future, she had only scorn. Justified scorn, to be sure; yes, he had thought it a puzzle in the beginning. A game.
He sees that face of hers still, savage in the face of his attempts at humour. Her cheeks are not sunken here, and her eyes are darkened only with powder and kohl.
Still, he is wary of her. Feels that she might, even here, be capable of anything. And he is still a little suspect in her eyes, is he not?
"Certainly," Dorian says, "unless it's on Lady Montilyet's behalf, in which case I am regrettably called away on matters of great import which certainly don't involve disposing of the evidence."
"No," she says. Smiles. "although you realise I will report back to her on your activities now."
"My dear woman," Dorian says, "I was never under the impression that you would not."
Almost the right tone. Sometimes, only sometimes, he is still a little too tired.
"In fact," Leliana says, "I merely wondered whether you were well. You have seemed a little—withdrawn."
"You mean to say I haven't been disturbing your ravens with my exquisitely colourful profanities all morning, and you felt compelled to see whether I or anyone around me had died."
"Yes," she says, and he cannot help but laugh.
"No, no," he says. "An anniversary, only. You'll have to permit me my terribly pedestrian pain. It is my own."
Slow work indeed, the business of heading South again. The landscape was bad, and the Iron Bull increasingly unsteady on his feet. He was dying, after all, Dorian thought, with an edge of hysteria. What had he expected? The process of dying had never been a kind one, not for anyone he cared for.
"It's the knee," the Iron Bull said. "You don't want to look. It's not pretty."
"We can't all be as gorgeous as me," Dorian said. "Sit."
Cadash just within sight, Sera sitting cross-legged on the ground at her side. Leliana, a silent ghost standing against a tree.
The Iron Bull's knee wasn't pretty. Red through the skin, wicked little barbs of lyrium.
Dorian had never been good at healing, and healing barely worked here, and this was beyond magic.
All the same, he took it in, saw it, as though bearing witness. Held his hand a careful distance above, called on what power he had to soothe the pain.
"Not your line, huh?" the Iron bull said.
"What I wouldn't give for some elfroot," Dorian said. "I'm afraid I usually deal with the dead."
"Give it a few weeks," the Iron Bull said. Sighed relief at what little effect Dorian could manage. "Necromancy, right? I go down, you bring me back up. I'm alright with that, if it gets a few more demons."
"I can't have this conversation," he said. "You hate possession and I hate the idea of you dying. Can you walk some more, or do we need to camp?"
"I'm good for a bit longer," the Iron Bull said.
Gloved hands, always gloved hands, curling around each other as the Iron Bull hauled himself upright.
How much simpler fucking would have been.
Dorian, chest tight as though pressed in a vice, brought the Iron Bull's hand to his mouth; kissed the palm of it. Kissed the fingertips, then pressed them in turn to the Iron Bull's own lips.
Felt, as he did so, that the Iron Bull's breath shuddered.
They remained, looking at each other, tension curled tight.
In this place, a kiss should happen.
"Come then," Dorian said.
At the camp by the oasis, Dorian takes a turn on watch. The Bull, restless, sits beside him.
"I may throw you in the water," Dorian says. "Honestly, do you ever bathe?"
Another watch, six months from then, and Dorian sat close beside the Iron Bull, quiet in the shadows. Cold, so cold, winter setting in. Snow in the air although there was no sky for it to fall from.
"Do you know," he said, "I've never been a relationship?"
"Yeah?" the Iron Bull asked.
"Not the thing, you know. In Tevinter we fuck and we depart and ideally we don't know one another's names, although naturally that part has only a moderate chance of holding."
"Don't do relationships at all under the Qun," the Iron Bull said. "Not like that. Got a system for sex, nice and orderly."
"I seem to recall a certain tone to the gossip about you in Haven, as brief as my time there was," Dorian said.
"Never said I was very good at following the Qun," the Iron Bull said. "I don't know. I've still never fucked someone I was friends with. Just people who needed something."
Dorian hummed acknowledgement, stretched his legs out before him. "And am I a person who needs something?"
The Iron Bull laughed. Coughed. He coughed more and more. Thinking about the state of his knee made Dorian shy away from speculation as to why.
"You're a friend," he said. "And you need all kinds of shit. Think I'd have liked to give it to you."
"Was that innuendo?" Dorian asked, suspicious.
The Iron Bull's smile was faint, but there was a flicker of the man he'd heard about in there.
"If you like."
"Rather unfair," Dorian said, "considering we can't."
"Yeah," the Iron Bull said. "Sorry."
"It's as well," he said. "I have a terrible habit of falling in love with people. Sex rarely helps."
"I think maybe I'd like being in love with you," the Iron Bull said. "Shit. Sorry, that's all wrong. Not at my best."
"You're a very curious man," Dorian said, and leaned in against him, head against the cloth covering his broad chest.
The Iron Bull's hand came up to stroke his hair.
"I'm a fucking mess," he said. An attempt at humour.
"Well," Dorian said, "aren't we all."
Perhaps it wasn't love, he thought then. Perhaps it was only desperation, perhaps it was only proximity. The last damn man in the world, showing him a little kindness, and from that he built an illusion of some sort.
But if it ached in him like love, what was the difference?
In those frozen indistinct days, Dorian knows, he did not entirely believe in any sort of return. Yes, he spoke words in confession; not because he believed the Iron Bull's death would render them safe, but because he waited for his own. Unburdened himself, as an old man who fears he has lived poorly.
And here he sits, in the true night of a world which may yet escape destruction, knowing what he said.
Beyond the library window, lights scattered across the courtyards, warm orange and yellow.
Beyond the walls, snowy peaks glitter silver-white in the moonlight.
He breathes and breathes and breathes and wonders if he will ever stop seeing green light when he closes his eyes.
Where the village of Redcliffe lay, the cliff had been tumbled down in ruin. Great shattered chunks of rock, the dull red for which the place was named, threaded through with the more vicious warning red of corrupted lyrium.
The castle was perched precipitously, as it always had been; but it had become a shocking thing, towers and walls tumbled, more lyrium than stone.
"Better see if we can find a way up," Cadash said. "Leliana, with me. Everyone else, set up camp for a short rest. No use wasting energy."
This was how it was: no pretense of trying to maintain the rhythm of a day, only a couple of hours of sleep grabbed here and there in a cave or hollow which allowed for warning should someone approach. Rolls of blankets from the tower thrown across the smoothest piece of ground they could find.
Dorian and the Iron Bull, back to back, lending each other a little warmth. Sera sat perched on a rock above, singing songs below her breath, scanning their surroundings for friends and enemies.
Never much to say to them. Plenty to say, but none of it really directed. Words for the air.
They all coped in their own ways.
"We're not going to find anything," Dorian said, quiet, only for the Iron Bull. "I can't imagine this creature everyone whispers about is so wretchedly filled with hubris as to leave magical trinkets lying around. And this must be his work. Alexius never tore a hole in the cliffs."
"Hey," the Iron Bull said, "it's not over for you yet."
Nothing to say, no way to protest the choice of object. Yes, it was over for the Iron Bull. It had been over for him since before Dorian and Cadash had fallen back into time.
Dorian only reached behind him, twisted until he could touch his hand to the Iron Bull's arm.
They lay like that, silent, half-sleeping, until Sera startled them awake with a whistle.
"Oi, they're back."
Cadash, breathless. "There are demons, but we can get up there. Hardly an army, not right now. But be ready to fight."
And that was the beginning, or the end. The last time lying beside that version of the Iron Bull, fearing the death of one beloved. If he thinks of it now it cannot be with anything but grief, although he must count the loss as necessary.
It was Wintermarch then, or something like it; certainly it is Wintermarch now, although the feeling could not be further from those ruined days.
Sera is wrapping presents of some sort, knitted things, stitched things. "Widdle's birthday," she says. "Oi, quit laughing and help, you prat. You get just as cold as her, don't knock it."
On a hat, bees. On a scarf, branching runes.
Dorian sits himself on the floor beside Sera, although his knees protest, and does his best to follow her exacting instructions, and takes it in good humour when she throws balls of yarn at his head.
It's something to do. A context in which to exist.
The true turning point, then.
It was Wintermarch, or something like it. Bitter and desolate. Without the castle walls, the wind tugged at them savagely. Dorian, throwing fire, lost feeling in his hands all the same.
They stumbled through a place of broken things. Broken walls and broken people, shattered columns of lyrium, smashed tables.
There was the great hall, like the floor of some ancient temple laid bare for study.
There, barely decayed on the freezing exposed plateau, was the body of Gereon Alexius. A man he had loved as a father.
Who had disappointed him as a father.
And the Elder One was a creature of very great hubris indeed. Tools useless for his own ends, he assumed them to be useless altogether; cast them carelessly aside.
More hubris than you, Dorian?
A demon voice in the head.
Isn't this only more temptation? You know the consequences of time magic. But I suppose that matters little to you, with all your grand ideals. How easily you abandon your lover—
"Dorian," the Iron Bull said, "this is it. You've got to do it."
Leliana and Sera with arrows notched to their bows, coming to readiness. No more time, no more time—
He placed his hand to the Iron Bull's mouth, covered his lips.
"I know," he said.
And leant forward, pulled the Iron Bull down.
Kissed the back of his own hand, their faces barely a breath away.
"You're loved," he said. "I'll make it right."
"We'll buy you time," the Iron Bull said. But he didn't turn away, just kept looking down at Dorian. Huge and impossible and gentle even as he came apart. Desperate in his focus on Dorian. Loving, perhaps. "Be quick, alright? I'm going down fighting. Make it count."
You'll have to do better than that.
Say it with conviction. Say it with showmanship, as though you're still playing the game Leliana accused you of months ago.
There's the Iron Bull, alive, alive, hand raised to shield his eye from the flare of magic. There's Sera, tense as a bowstring, angry and defiant.
The same hall, the same people.
And nothing is as it was.
They take Gereon Alexius alive.
"Dorian," Felix says, "don't look like that. He did this himself. I love him, but he was wrong."
"Oh, I know," Dorian says. "Felix—about that moment when we were gone—"
"It was a long time for you, wasn't it," Felix says. "Longer than the day or so your Herald was talking about, if I know that look of yours. Do you want to tell me about it?"
"I don't know," Dorian says. "Possibly I just want to drink until I have no concept of time left any more. Living for several months at the end of the world was rather an experience."
Felix' hand on his arm. He doesn't look good, brave Felix, but he looks proud.
"I have to leave tomorrow," Felix says. "I'm going back to Tevinter to see what I can do against the Venatori. No, don't look like that. If you were dying you'd do the same. You are doing the same, where you can do most good."
"Felix," Dorian says, "what will I do without you?"
"You'll live well," the Iron Bull said.
Even without magic, time shifts and twists. One comes up against one's younger self with a shock upon turning a corner. There he stands, laughing at boys older than himself in a circle tower, certain he knows everything.
There he is, trembling before the Iron Bull at no more than a look.
Here is one of the boys with whom he fought, bleeding out on the ground because he thought joining a supremacist cult sounded like a laugh, and Dorian isn't sorry at all.
There the Iron Bull lay, bleeding out on the ground, and Dorian couldn't go to him.
The Bull laughs. "Man, that was a good fight. Nice job, Dorian."
"I'm very talented, I know," Dorian says, perhaps a little absently.
This is the problem:
How does one mourn a person who stands there at one's side, making terrible jokes, breathing heavily and laughing, giddy with the rush of battle?
The Bull is so very alive, even as another version of him is dead.
"I came to the Inquisition to get close to the Herald," the Iron Bull said. "Didn't tell her anything untrue, but you had it right—it's a tactic. Show part of your hand to make them think they know it all. They used to call me Hissrad. Names are roles. It means keeper of illusions. Not a liar, not outright. Deceiver."
"And what would you have done with that?"
"What I was told to do, maybe," the Iron Bull said. "Don't know. Just remember it."
The same conversation in bits and pieces again and again, murmured between them as they lay or sat, touching-not-touching, like it was the most important thing the Iron Bull could think of to tell him.
In a tavern in Lydes, after, or before, or merely somewhere else, the fire is well-banked. Dorian, for once, is warm. Lounges, bare-armed, on one of the beds. Propped up on his elbows, he reads Cassandra's favourite novel, and oh, it's bad, but it does make him smile.
He is nearly, quite nearly, at ease. He has had very little ease, here, as he had very little comfort there.
"Hey there," the Bull says. A touch to the shoulder to get Dorian's attention, engrossed in his reading as he is. "Snuck some food from the kitchens. You want any?"
But all Dorian knows is the Bull's hand against his shoulder. Bare skin to bare skin.
It is the first time.
It is the first time.
It is the first fucking time.
The Bull withdraws quickly.
"Uh, sorry, didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"No, no," Dorian says, desperate for the Bull's hand back, unsure if he could bear it. "You're not at fault, I merely—it reminded me of something."
"Someone?" the Bull hazards.
"In a way," Dorian says. Sighs, blinking against a swell of emotion that pushes up from his chest, lodges huge in his throat, behind his eyes. "Please, I don't mean to brush you off. Some food would in truth be more than welcome."
Dorian touched the Iron Bull's side, grasped at his hand when it was offered.
Laced their covered fingers together.
"Just for a little while," he said.
So here it is:
He likes the Bull. Genuinely, wholeheartedly. He's attractive and lowbrow and full of strange little fragments of softness that Dorian wants to get hold of and protect.
So here it is:
That doesn't mean that he trusts him.
But all the same, they drink together three nights a week. All the same, the Bull is warm against his side.
In another lifetime, they crept through silent woods with the fade gaping open above them. In this, they walked the fade itself, and the Bull was rigid with tension.
That was some time ago now.
"Are you looking forward to this charming little Orlesian ball, then, Bull?" Dorian asks. "There ought to be plenty of opportunities to serve the Qun. Ways to gather information. Perhaps one or two of them don't even involve putting your penis in anything."
"Ouch," the Bull says, grinning. "You jealous, Dorian? You want to ride the Bull? I can arrange that. Take you upstairs, spread you out on my bed—"
"No," Dorian says. Sharp, too sharp. He is betrayed in desire and distrust both. Yes, in his jealousy, perhaps—in a convoluted way. "Do you even know what jealousy is?"
"Second-hand," the Bull says. "Look, you don't like the flirting, I can stop."
"Not so much flirting as a filthy proposition," Dorian says mildly.
"There's a difference?" the Bull asks, grinning.
"For some of us."
Dorian feels he is at a crossroads. The sensible thing, the thing that would perhaps be best for him in an immediate sense, would be to warn the Bull off. He is—well, he is grieving. He can acknowledge that, privately; he has fallen in love, and the object of his love is dead. That he is also sitting at the same table as Dorian and offering to fuck him senseless is admittedly a complication, but nonetheless: Dorian is not, perhaps, ready for that.
Or not ready for that with the Bull, with realities bleeding into one another. One may have love, but not sex; not even a kiss. One may have sex, but not love. Not even trust, not really.
I don't know what I'd do with direct orders to hurt you, his other self said.
"By all means," Dorian says, when the Bull gives him a questioning look, prompting. "I should hate to deprive you of your fun."
"That's the best I'm gonna get, huh?"
"If you get me," Dorian says, "I will be the best you ever have."
"Fuck," the Bull says, and oh, he likes that.
Dorian has him intrigued.
"I knew a 'vint," the Iron Bull said, one night in the ruins of Kinloch Hold. "Employed, I guess. Saved his life."
"And here I thought you were more in the line of killing them," Dorian said.
"After that," the Iron Bull said. "After re-education, when I was doing mercenary work. Wonder what happened to him. Maybe better not to know."
"You were genuinely fond of him. Not only as a cover?"
"Nah," the Iron Bull said. "Not only that. Guess it'd probably have been better if it was all play, but I don't think I was ever very good at that. I had to have something real to build on. But I was good at using the real shit."
Telling Cadash he was a spy.
Running around with a band of misfits he cared too much for and using it as a story. For his superiors? For the nobles who hired him?
"Tevinter isn't that kind to people who don't fit the stories," the Iron Bull said. Soft and a bit sad, like he really got it.
"No," Dorian said. "This much is true."
It is this Dorian thinks of, when he looks the Bull in the eye and says: "Well then, why don't we take this upstairs?"
This Bull might not have lived with him through the end of the world, but he had taken a maul to the face for Cremisius. He might not be loyal, but he was kind. And he might not love Dorian, but he would take care of him, for as long as they were in bed together.
Consider it, Dorian thinks, as a medical procedure. I am set wrong after a fracture. It must be corrected. I am terribly curious because the Iron Bull and I never lay together, and this is as close as I will get.
Consider it as satisfying my curiosity.
He recognises the flaw in the logic. But it is only an excuse. He only needs an excuse.
Its flimsiness is irrelevant.
"If you're sure," the Bull says. "You're not still too messed up over whoever it is you think about when you go all distant on us?"
"Of course you would be careful," Dorian says, exasperated. "The Qunari spy is actually worried about damaging the Tevinter mage."
"Dorian," the Bull says, very patiently, "I'm not into hurting people in ways they don't want to be hurt."
Perhaps another deception, but not an untruth.
"I know," Dorian says, very quietly. He knows, he knows. These pieces of himself the Bull isn't faking. "I apologise. That was rude of me."
"Don't worry about it," the Bull says. "You want to?"
"Yes," Dorian says, and means it so very, very much. "If it wouldn't be some sort of terrible imposition."
"Not the word I'd use," the Bull says. "You're fucking hot. Pretty sure you've noticed."
"Oh, yes," Dorian says. Smirks. "And I meant what I said. I'm very, very good at this."
"Better come on upstairs," the Bull says. Grins in the way that means he's about to say something truly awful. "Unless you want to come here."
And Dorian should puff up, threaten to rescind his offer. But he wants this, he wants it so badly he can hardly breathe. Wants to pretend—that Bull could love him, even when he isn't dying.
The Iron Bull's hands, gentle on his face, rough fabric and smooth leather. Dorian drew in his breath sharply, the sound pained.
"If I could touch you—"
He would touch me gently.
The Bull touches Dorian.
Thumb to cheek, fingers curling against the back of his neck. His hands are so huge and so careful, and in this he is just as he was.
But his skin is warm. A little rough.
"You do kissing?" the Bull asks.
A laugh. "I'll be angry if you don't."
The dizzy anticipation of it.
"Shit, you want this," the Bull says, with wonder, and his breath is hot, and his nails scrape against the base of Dorian's skull.
"What an inane statement," Dorian says, although he could cry, and takes the Bull's shoulder in a rough grip, and hauls him down to kiss him.
A wonder that he survives the emotional onslaught of this. To be able to focus so entirely on the Bull's body, on learning him, everything that makes him groan, that makes his breath catch.
He takes the Bull apart.
And oh, he is taken apart in turn.
What did he expect? Not for this gentleness to endure. Not for the long, slow fuck that he gets, with the Bull shaking against him as much as he shakes against the Bull. Restraint, pleasure, desire.
The Bull is huge inside him. But there's no violence to it, no sense that physical danger could exist here. Dorian was made ready so slowly and thoroughly. The Bull kissed him again and again as he did it, his great bulk making it easy for him.
When the Bull comes it is inside Dorian—deep, deep, so deep.
Dorian holds him to him with heels on his back when he would pull out, flexes around him.
"Oh, no," he says. "Not yet. Why don't you stay right where you are and touch me."
"Yeah," the Bull says. "Shit, yeah."
Feign control. Feign some semblance of composure, as much composure as one might be expected to maintain during a strictly casual fuck. Do not, at least, cry because you are at once so satisfied and so bereft.
They pant together in the wake of Dorian's orgasm. Dorian screws his eyes shut, and holds on tight.
And that's the time he can allow himself. But he isn't ready to leave the Bull's bed yet.
Besides, he made a promise.
"Do you know," he says, as conversational as possible with the Bull still half-hard inside him, with the very last shocks of his own pleasure still washing through him, with his love and his grief overwhelming, "that there are some fascinating uses of magic that would mean you didn't have to pull out of me now at all?"
"I can't believe I never fucked a mage before," the Iron Bull says. Presses his forehead to Dorian's.
A fierce kiss, filthy and tender both.
And oh, yes: he lets Dorian take him apart all over again.
"You should have someone," the Iron Bull said. "Don't assume it's got to be me."
"Do you mean to say you shouldn't have someone?"
He shrugged. "I guess it depends. Ugh, I don't know. It'll be different, for you. For me—" He shrugs. "Doesn't matter. I'll be dead. And he'll be some other guy. Don't even know who he'll be. Just 'cause he looks like me—"
"Very well," Dorian said. "I take your somewhat macabre point. But I think you're oversimplifying."
"Nah," the Iron Bull said. "It's a fucking mess. Just figure you should be thinking about what you're gonna do when you get back."
"If I get back."
Of course it was ill-considered, to give of himself so freely. To accept what can only be physical comfort.
He aches, soul-deep.
"I don't know what's going on," he tells Cadash, and the look she gives him is too like pity.
Perhaps he lashes out a little. He has lashed out too much lately.
"So long as you know what you're doing in the moment," she says, only. "Don't hurt him, and don't hurt yourself."
"You're not worried about the damage he might do?" Dorian asks. Be glib. "For shame. I wasn't the one who broke the bed-frame."
"I'm not worried about the damage he might do," Cadash agrees. "Did you know you're the only person he calls a friend who he's actually fucked?"
"Yes," Dorian says. "But just because I'm pitifully easy to—"
"Stop it," Cadash says. "Just think about what that means."
"It doesn't mean anything," Dorian snaps. "Only that there's a first time for everything."
And a second, and a third.
"I mean," the Iron Bull said, "we had comrades. Friends. Can't be all business. People don't work like that. But you need sex, you go to a Tamassran. Went, maybe. Who knows what's going on in the North."
"Tell me about your friends," Dorian said. "Something good."
The Storm Coast. Rain sheets down, uneven in the squalling wind; soaks through all clothes, leaves them cold and uncomfortable. The Iron Bull holds his shoulders square and his face far too still.
"Hissrad," Gatt says, and, "It means liar."
It doesn't mean liar, not precisely.
Tension between the Bull and Gatt, hidden under laughter. Yes, they have loved one another; fight like family, for all the Qun isn't meant to have families. They knew one another so well and now they're not sure they know each other at all.
Is it because of the future that Dorian cannot hold his wretched tongue? Quite probably. It scares him, the Qun, in a way which has become more intimate than mere national animosity.
It is the Qun which could easily take priority over him, over his friends.
Free from all that pointless free will and independent thought—
He ought to have known he would be too sharp; has been, over and over, needling desperately, receiving only deflection in return.
The Bull gives him a look which is distinctly pained, and Dorian is ashamed. Gatt knows a part of Tevinter which Dorian has long avoided examining too closely.
But here it is, up on the cliff. The moment:
Following orders, the Bull would cause harm to people he loves.
And he is stricken.
He would disobey in a heartbeat if it wouldn't have consequences for the Inquisition, Dorian thinks, with insight which this version of the Bull has not provided him.
He cares too much.
And Dorian's impulse is to hold him.
"Call the retreat," Cadash says, through gritted teeth. "Bull!"
When the dreadnaught explodes, Dorian cannot help reaching for the Bull. A hand to the arm, only. A gentle curl of the fingers against his cold damp skin.
The Bull's eye is closed. His chest heaves. Breath held against emotion.
He leans, minutely, towards Dorian.
They stand like this, with this one small grounding point of contact, while the smoke rises.
Cadash sighs, shakes her head. "Shit. So much for that. Back to camp." A searching look at the Bull. At Dorian, also.
Of course she knows. Of course she suspects, even if he has never said the words to her, not as such. She saw them in fragments, in the future. Looks and careful touches. Has seen them here, too.
And that's all there is.
He left that other version of the Iron Bull crumpled on the floor of a ruined hall.
He left Hissrad on the Storm Coast.
And who is the person who remains here with him, who buries his face against Dorian's neck and fights to keep his breathing even?
Who clings to him in the close quarters of a tent, breaks off words half-spoken?
The Bull. A person, himself; not a mirror-version of someone Dorian loved, but an existence in his own right.
Does he love the Bull? He feels it, of course, in every look they share. But is that part only lingering? Transference?
Too many questions.
He holds the Bull, regardless. Cannot bear to leave him to his grief, knowing how it feels to mourn alone.
So this is what he would have done, given the choice.
This is what he did.
And they remain, tangled around one another in a dozen ways. Friends and lovers, never enemies but sometimes rivals.
Perhaps he is happy.
"You're in love, is what you are," Sera says.
But she isn't addressing him. She's addressing the Bull.
The Bull, who looks across at Dorian's blank face, so quick and reflexive that it feels—what? It feels. He feels.
Hope, and also fear.
"Sure," the Bull says, laughing. "I love a lot of things."
"Not many people though," Sera says. "Not all kissy-kissy like."
The Bull is still looking at him. Like he's trying to find something. Like he's trying to say—
"Maybe I am," he says. "What about it?"
"Maybe you should talk about it, stupid," Sera says. "That's what Widdle told me. Talking about feelings, like grown-ups. Working pretty great for me."
"What a ringing endorsement," Dorian says.
His heart beats loudly in his ears.
His chest is tight.
"Hey, Dorian," the Bull says, "come on upstairs with me."
"That was quick," Sera says.
"You don't know that," the Bull says. "Might be jousting."
There's an odd seriousness to him.
Sera subsides in the face of it.
"Sorry about that," the Bull says.
"Well, you're hardly responsible for everything Sera does," Dorian says. "Although it you'd like to claim responsibility for the set of robes she ruined last week I'll accept reimbursement."
"You talk so much crap when you're nervous," the Bull says, but gently, as gently as he touched Dorian the first night. In the future and the past both.
"I talk crap, as you so eloquently put it, at all times," Dorian says.
"Hey," the Bull says. "Hey, it's alright."
"And what, pray, do you mean by that?"
The Bull rubs at his chin, drops his hand to take Dorian's. Careful space between them, not crowding.
"I mean she's right, but I know you've got your shit. Wasn't going to put pressure on you. Figured you'd either move on or fall for me."
His face makes it clear which he was expecting.
Dorian cannot think of a single thing to say. His hand tightens around the Bull's. His jaw is tight.
He can't seem to relax, not even in a purely physical sense.
"I mean, you came to me to get over someone, right?" the Bull says. "Nothing wrong with that. I know you didn't count on my falling for you. I didn't count on it either."
"Maker save me from self-sacrificing fools," Dorian says. Screws his eyes shut, bows his head. It is too much, to look at the Bull and steel himself for honesty all at once. He is stripped altogether too bare before him already. "Bull, I have to tell you a story."
"Are you in love with me," the Bull says, "or with him?"
Trepidation. He knows the answer will hurt somebody here.
And oh, it does hurt.
Be honest. Those are the terms that he has set for himself.
"I—I don't even know. How would I know? This is rather beyond emotional precedent."
"You were so desperate, the first time," the Bull says. "And you were so intent on me. I couldn't figure it out."
"Well," Dorian says, "there you have it."
"Do you want to be in love with me?" the Bull asks, and Dorian is startled to laughter.
"Of all the—how could I not?"
"Maybe that's the answer," the Bull says. "But what the shit do I know. What do we do about it?"
Two people for whom the idea of a relationship has always been a distant thing. A place denied, or never considered.
And here they are.
"Make something up, I suppose," Dorian says, as though he weren't in danger of collapsing under the weight of his relief. "Isn't that what we usually do?"