The hart lowered its great head, snuffling at the apple slice in Talan’s hand. Its soft-bristled nose grazed his palm as it crunched the fruit.
“I thought you’d like that,” Talan murmured, taking advantage of the solitude of Haven’s stables to speak his native tongue. He sliced the rest of the apple and held it out piece by piece, smiling at the hart’s eagerness while he reached with his free hand to stroke its shaggy neck.
He didn’t hear anyone approach, but looked over his shoulder when the light in the stable dimmed, blocked by the unmistakable silhouette of the Iron Bull in the doorway. Bull had to duck a bit to enter, eyeing the hart curiously. “Making friends?”
“I wanted to help him settle in,” Talan replied. “He’s not a halla, but I thought there’d be a good chance he’d respond the same way.” The hart crunched the remains of the apple core but didn’t withdraw, leaning down to snuffle at his jacket in its search for more. The force of its investigation sent him stumbling back a step, and he laughed before he realized he was going to.
Bull crossed his arms and leaned a shoulder against a support beam. “I thought you seemed like the type to like big horns.”
“Did you, now.”
“Ben-Hassrath. I’m good at reading people.”
It wasn’t the first time Bull had said something like that, but it was the first time he’d done it while no one else was around. So this time, instead of letting it pass without comment, Talan smirked and gave Bull a sideways glance. “There’s something to be said for a creature with big horns, but until you ride them it’s hard to tell for sure what you think.”
Bull’s laugh shook the rafters and he stepped forward to give Talan a startlingly hard clap on the back. “I knew you couldn’t possibly have a stick up your ass all the time. Come on, this means Krem owes me a drink. We’ll make him buy you one, too.”
Talan glared up at him, but allowed Bull to steer him away from the hart’s stall and towards the door. “You were betting on me?”
“More like we had a difference of opinion on whether or not you had a sense of humor. Krem thought you were hopeless.”
Talan snorted, reluctantly amused but trying to hide it. “You were betting on me.”
“But it gets you free ale.”
“A reward of questionable merit, considering the quality of the ale,” he said dryly, “but I accept.”
“So. Inquisitor, huh? Pretty impressive.”
Talan gave Bull a dark look from beneath his brows. “Not you, too.”
“Not me what?” The bench creaked under Bull’s weight as he sat down across from him.
“You don’t buy into this, do you? I can’t believe you ever have.”
“Buy into what, exactly? That you’ve helped hold this whole operation together? That you’ve made a shitty situation better for a lot of people? That you managed to patch a hole in the sky with that sparkler on your hand? Or that you bought time for all these people to escape while you outsmarted an asshole darkspawn and a dragon?”
“I never said I didn’t - ” He made a frustrated noise and started again, lowering his voice to keep from being overheard in the crowded tavern. “This ‘inquisitor’ nonsense. They don’t really want me to lead them. They want a figurehead and I was the first convenient option.”
Bull gave him a level look. “So?”
“So it’s only a matter of time until they realize I’m not what they want - never mind that I’ve been telling them the whole time - and then they’ll turn on me.” He made a wry face. “The shemlen have an unsettling habit of burning people at the stake when they think they’ve gone too far, as their Chantry continually reminds us.”
“I don’t think burning one person at the stake counts as a habit ,” Bull mused, “but I see your point.” Talan waited to see if Bull would say something else, but he didn’t. He waited in silence until Talan finished his ale, then stood up. “Come on, let’s grab a drink.”
Talan blinked, gestured at his tankard. “What did you think I was doing?”
“Just come on. And put your hood up.” He plucked at the back of Talan’s coat, tugging the hood awkwardly up over the back of his head. Talan shoved irritably at his hands but didn’t argue. He didn’t know what Bull wanted but they’d been friendly long enough for him to go along without questioning him.
He pulled his hood more securely over his head as they left the Herald’s Rest - a name he could hardly say without wincing - slipping behind and slightly to the left as Bull gestured. It was a bit of a relief; following behind in the newly fallen darkness, no one paid attention to him. If anything, the refugees and soldiers noticed Bull and gave him a respectful berth, hardly seeing Talan as he walked noiselessly behind.
He remained silent when Bull brought him over to join a pair of soldiers playing cards, and took the tin mug of watered-down ale they offered him with a muttered thanks. He didn’t object when Bull introduced him as one of his men, and listened without comment when Bull got the soldiers talking about why they had joined up.
Even after Bull said goodnight and took his leave, leading him away, Talan remained silent until they’d withdrawn to an isolated corner of the courtyard. He kept his hood up and didn’t raise his head as he asked, “Why did you do this?”
“I know every soldier under my command,” Bull replied. “You don’t get that option. But I figured a few faces might help.”
“Help what , exactly?”
Bull crossed his arms. “Were you listening to them? They may have joined because they thought you were the Herald, but they’re staying because you saved them. You, not Andraste or whatever magic crap they might think.”
“They don’t need me!” Talan flung out his arm, pointing toward the distant wreckage of Haven. “I stayed behind because someone had to, and there weren’t any other soldiers left who’d have a chance. It had to be done, so I did it. But why do you think they even let me stay behind? The breach was closed, I’d done what they wanted, so what did it matter if I died?”
“Is that what you think?” For the first time Talan could recall, Bull looked genuinely stunned.
“Am I supposed to believe differently?” Talan asked bitterly.
“Uh, yeah , you are.” Bull frowned. “First of all, Cullen didn’t let you stay behind. He’s a soldier, he followed your lead, and believe me he wasn’t happy about it. Second of all, you didn’t hear what happened when everyone realized you hadn’t made it out. They were afraid for you. Yeah, some people might’ve freaked out about their missing Herald, but the people who actually know you were worried about you - not you the Herald, but you Lavellan.” His tone softened as he added, “And for the record, I’m sorry we didn’t go back for you either.”
Talan stilled. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t say it, but fact is you ended up cornered by Corypheus and his dragon with no one at your back.”
He suppressed a shudder at the memory. “I told you all to go.”
“I didn’t - I don’t blame you for that.”
Bull’s face was impassive. “The Vint wanted to go back for you when he realized you weren’t with us. But you gave us an order and you’d be pretty pissed at us if we ignored it and got ourselves killed, right?” His tone gentled. “We shouldn’t have left you.”
Talan dropped his gaze. “It worked out,” he said. “Like I said, don’t worry about it.”
“It won’t happen again.”
Bull didn’t raise his voice, but there was a solemn finality in his words that left Talan feeling oddly shaken. “Right. Well.” And then because he wasn’t sure what else to say, “...Thank you.”
“It’s late. I’m going to turn in.” Bull patted his shoulder with a heavy hand as he walked past him. “‘Night, boss.”
“Good night.” Talan answered mechanically, standing in the frost-stiffened grass for a moment before turning toward the castle. The thought of climbing all those stairs to his assigned quarters almost made him change his mind and find a quiet spot near the tavern - but the idea of solitude was a more powerful lure. So he ascended the steps, stepped around the piles of stone and wooden beams in the great hall, and trudged up to his room.
He undressed in the dark and climbed into his cold bed. In spite of his weariness, he lay awake staring at the ceiling, turning Bull’s words over in his mind until he finally tumbled over the edge into sleep.
They’d set up camp well away from the forts with the smoldering body pits, but the reek of rancid ash clung to Talan’s clothing and hung about him in an inescapable cloud. The campsite had settled with the gathering dark, leaving him mercifully alone with his thoughts. He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees as he stared over the fire into the darkness beyond.
He hadn’t thought anything could be worse than the wretched fallow mire, but he was wrong. He felt sick, a creeping nausea that had manifested the moment he set foot in the Exalted Plains, brought on by the shattered landscape, wasted trees, hordes of undead, and monument upon monument dedicated to the crusade that had crushed the elves of the south so long ago. He’d known what had happened in the past - of course he had - but he hadn’t realized what it would do to him to face it head-on.
Now more than ever, he missed his clan. Encountering the Dalish that day had made him so homesick that it was hard to breathe, awakening an ache that he’d managed to ignore for months. Woodsmoke, the grassy, earthy scent of halla, the snap of the aravels’ hoods in the wind, the murmur of voices speaking his mother tongue, being called brother and da’len - all of it reached out to welcome him, even as the southwestern dialect made it just difficult enough to understand to force him to speak common. His left hand curled into a fist, clenched as tight as his heart, as if he could crush the mark that had made him indispensable and unable to return home.
“Hey.” The Iron Bull, right behind him. “Everything all right? You don’t look so good.”
Talan didn’t startle, but it was a near thing. “I knew what happened here,” he said dully, without looking around. “We all know what the shemlen did at Red Crossing, the damned exalted march that came after. But I never…” He swallowed thickly. “We don’t talk about it much, back home. Or at least I didn’t. And seeing this place now, the wreck of what’s left - ” He broke off and bowed his head, suppressing a wince at the wrench of muscle across his shoulders, tense and drawn after firing countless arrows into wave after wave of undead.
Bull stood watching him in silence for a moment or two before reaching out his hand. Talan’s shoulders drew uncomfortably tighter as Bull’s palm came to rest at the nape of his neck. Bull waited, but when Talan didn’t shrug him away his touch became less tentative and his fingers started to move, stroking along the cords of tension running down his neck from the base of his skull.
Months. Nobody had touched him in months, and now Bull’s hand - both hands - were on his shoulders, strong fingers digging into the knots, firm pressure that hurt at first but left relief in its wake. Warm hands, wide enough to span his narrow frame, broad thumbs kneading between his shoulder blades. He shuddered, stupidly overwhelmed by the contact, and reached back over his shoulder with one hand to grip Bull’s wrist.
Bull stilled, though he didn’t release him. “Boss? You all right?”
Talan lifted his head. Bull regarded him seriously, gaze soft and concerned in a way he hadn’t seen before. His wrist was thick and corded with muscle beneath Talan’s hand, palms heavy and warm on his back even through his clothing, and Talan hadn’t been touched in months.
Bull met his burning gaze with a thoughtful look of his own and squeezed his shoulder. “Let’s take a walk.”
He rose without thinking, without looking to see who might watch them leave, let Bull steer him to the edge of the firelight and beyond, over a rocky ridge that hid the camp from sight. Bull kept a hand on his back and Talan leaned into it, pushing slightly against him until they came to a halt, alone in the dark.
Talan grabbed Bull by the front of his armor and pulled him in. It wasn’t a kiss. It was just another point of contact, but it was soft where Talan was tense and patient when he pushed for more. When he finally broke away to catch his breath, he was shaking.
“Hey.” The low rumble of Bull’s voice, one hand rubbing soothingly up and down his biceps. “What do you need?”
Talan shook his head, sharp and dismissive, and gasped, “Anything.”
“Right. Come here.” Bull turned him and tugged him in, arms heavy around him as he pulled him against his chest. Talan let himself fall back, soaking in the mass and warmth of him, but when he felt the touch of lips at the junction of his neck and shoulder he turned his head aside. It was too much, that kind of tenderness had no place in this blasted land, it wasn’t what he wanted -
Bull made a soft sound of understanding and drew back, and then just...held him. Talan didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it wasn’t this. Tension and impatience curdled in his gut, and he clenched and released his fingers aimlessly. But after a few moments he felt himself start to relax in spite of himself. The heat and pressure of Bull’s arms around him and at his back was reassuring even when reassurance wasn’t what he wanted. He felt the barrel chest behind him rise and fall, and without meaning to, his breathing slowed and steadied along with it.
Without releasing him, Bull’s hand shifted on his chest to loosen the buckles of his armor. His hand, large and impossibly warm, slipped into his clothing. Callused fingers grazed his skin, and Talan closed his eyes.
Bull kept holding him, kept him on his feet with one arm around his chest. He didn’t let go of him even after his armor was put to rights again, long after the point they should have returned to camp. Talan stood there and let him. The embrace was just past the point of being too tight, but rather than feeling restricted, he felt grounded, as if the pressure was pushing together pieces of him that had begun to crack apart.
A light touch at his temple, brushing hair back behind his ear, pulled him out of the haze he’d fallen into. He shifted and tried to turn, reaching for Bull, but Bull just shook his head and turned him around again, re-settling him against his chest. “Nah. I’m good.”
Talan frowned. “I didn’t intend for this to be one-sided.”
“It’s not one-sided,” came the matter-of-fact reply. “I asked what you needed. I’m good. Think you’ll be able to sleep?”
“I - yes.” He gently pried himself out of Bull’s arms, still feeling a bit wrong-footed but not sure what else to do. “Thank you.”
He couldn’t see Bull’s expression in the dark, but he sounded pleased. “I’m no tamassran, but you’re no Qunari. It all works out. Besides...” He tugged lightly at a loose strand of Talan’s hair. “You know me and redheads.”
The teasing helped his uncertainty dissipate, and Talan let out an amused snort. “As if you let anybody forget.”
They walked back to camp together. One of the scouts was clearly trying not to stare, but Talan paid them no mind as he headed for his tent.
He answered without turning around. “Good night, Bull.”
Talan could feel the Iron Bull watching him from across the room as he politely but firmly dismissed the footsoldier who’d come over to chat him up. He ignored the one-eyed stare as long as the soldier was vying for his attention, but when he was alone once more, he met Bull’s gaze directly, holding it as he lifted his tankard and took a long pull.
Bull gave him a slanted smile and got up, strolling over to join him at his table. “So,” he said, stretching his feet out in front of him, “that was the third person in as many weeks you’ve sent packing. Any particular reason why?”
Talan gave him a skeptical look. “You’re actually paying attention? And keeping track?”
Bull grinned. “Ben-Hassrath.”
Talan rolled his eyes. “Fine. Yes. The third person I’ve told to look elsewhere for an evening’s entertainment. What does it matter?”
“Can’t a man be curious?”
“I think the bigger question is why is the man curious?”
Bull shrugged one massive shoulder. “Ben-Hassrath. I like to know things.”
“That answer isn’t going to work for you forever,” Talan said dryly. But he sighed, flexing his gloved left hand. “People generally avoid me. Either they’re afraid of the mark, or they don’t want to ‘defile the Herald of Andraste’ - yes, that’s a thing, believe me, I was trapped in an agonizing conversation with a Chantry sister...” He made a sour face as Bull chuckled. “...and the people who aren’t deterred, well...I can’t be bothered to figure out why. Is it some unsettling religious devotion because they think I’m somehow chosen by their martyr? Is it something they can brag about later? Is it because I’m an elf and it would be scandalous? Because I’m Dalish and might have more tattoos elsewhere? You don’t know how tiresome it is to be told you’re exotic in some way - well, maybe you do,” he amended, glancing at Bull’s horns. Bull barked a laugh. “Bottom line, I’d rather be left alone entirely than wonder about people’s motives for trying to fuck me.”
Bull watched him over the top of his mug. “ Do you have more tattoos?”
Talan laughed and kicked him under the table.
Three nights later, Talan went to Bull’s room, and Bull uncovered the spray of autumn leaves spread like wings across his shoulders, inked in russet and brown and gold.
“...And that concludes our business with the Tallerand family.”
Talan slumped in his chair, legs stretched in front of him. “Ugh, Creators be praised. Is that all?”
Josephine smiled the way she always did at his exasperation and relief, but it didn’t last. “I do have...one more item to discuss.” She leaned forward, hands folded together on the worn wooden surface of her desk. “Please know it was not my decision to ask you about this, and I am not trying to pry. But there have been certain...rumors that have begun to circulate.”
Talan gave her a weary look. “About?”
“Concerning you and the Iron Bull.”
“Oh, that.” He laced his fingers together and rested his hands on his stomach. “Well, those aren’t idle rumors. They’re true.”
“There have been concerns,” Josephine continued, “about the head of the Inquisition associating with a Qunari spy.”
Talan raised a brow. “I’m a spy as well, if you recall. It’s how I got into this mess to begin with.” Seeing Josephine start to frown, he sighed heavily and cut her off before she could speak. “Look, not that it’s any of your business, but it doesn’t mean anything. I’m not going to fall head over heels for a Ben-Hassrath agent and run off to elope while Corypheus swallows the world.”
“I know , Inquisitor.” Josephine raised her hands placatingly. “I told you, it was not my idea to speak to you. I promised I would pass on the concerns, and I did. You are free to make your own choices.”
“You didn’t say anything to Bull about this, did you?”
“Of course not.” Her tone softened and she gave him a tentative smile. “For what it’s worth, I am glad you have found companionship. I hope that whatever sort of relationship you have with the Iron Bull is a comfort to you.”
Talan wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he just thanked her. He hesitated, and when she didn’t say anything else, he stood and walked out.
The sound of the bodies crunching against the ground when they hit was distant but no less sickening. Bull cracked his neck and turned back to face him. “Sorry, Boss. I thought I might need backup. Guess I’m not even worth sending professionals for.”
Talan stared. “You knew the assassins were coming?”
“Little change in the guard rotation tipped me off.”
“So you wanted me as backup ,” he repeated, “And you didn’t think warning me ahead of time would be a good idea? What the hell , Bull?”
“Did you go through years of Ben-Hassrath training to hide facial expressions when I wasn’t looking? If I’d warned you or the guards, the assassins would have been tipped off.”
Talan gritted his teeth. “In case your Ben-Hassrath observation skills missed it, I’m unarmed! It’s not as if I carry my bow around Skyhold with me! What were you expecting me to do ?”
Bull snorted. “This wasn’t serious. Sending two guys with blades against me ? That’s not a hit, that’s a formality. I just wanted someone to watch my back, just in case.”
“All I would have been able to watch was you getting killed, you ass!”
Bull’s brows drew together slightly, gaze sharpening. Talan clamped his mouth shut. Even considering the circumstances, he was disproportionately angry and worried and he knew it - and of course Bull could tell, damn him. With an effort, he swallowed back his frustration and forced himself to be calm. “Are you all right?”
Bull brushed idly at the still-bleeding wound between his ribs. “Fine. Hurt myself worse than this fooling around in bed.”
Humor was absolutely the last thing on his mind, but raking Bull over the coals wouldn’t make him agree with Talan about this, and would only make a bad situation worse. And the last thing he wanted to do was cause Bull more pain. So he gave in and deliberately muffled his anger until only embers remained, small enough to ignore for the time being. He folded his arms loosely across his chest and quirked an eyebrow. “So does this mean you’ve been holding out on me?”
That startled a halfhearted laugh out of Bull, and when Talan stepped closer to look at the wound, he didn’t move away. Despite Bull’s lack of concern, Talan frowned. Unprofessional or not, the assassin had thrown his axe with deadly precision, carving a deep gash between two ribs. It was the sort of wound that could kill even without hitting anything vital - breach the chest, collapse the lungs, and even a small wound could prove fatal. Luckily, Bull’s thickly-muscled torso seemed to have withstood the attack. “Regardless of what you may or may not have done in bed, this doesn’t look good. And they could have used poison.”
“Oh, they definitely used poison.” Bull smirked wryly when Talan looked up in alarm. “Saar-qamek. But I’ve been dosing myself with the antidote. Otherwise I’d be going crazy and puking my guts out right now. As it is, it stings like shit, but that’s about it.”
“We should probably have one of the healers take a look at this.”
“Nah.” Bull waved him off. “I’ll get it cleaned up and let Red know what happened.”
Talan huffed. “Just...at least let me give you a hand.” Even as he made the offer, he thought Bull might still brush him off, but after a minute, his posture relaxed, and he nodded.
Talan stopped briefly in the garden to pick elfroot leaves and retrieve dried embrium petals and a couple basins from the storage room, then obtained a jug of hot water from Cabot before making his way to Bull’s quarters. He found Bull sitting on a stool near the hearth, carefully dabbing at the blood on his side with a damp rag. He helped Bull remove his harness without comment, then turned his attention to the supplies he’d brought. The grassy, slightly bitter tang of elfroot filled the room as he crushed the leaves into a paste with the hilt of his dagger. He scraped them into the steaming water along with the powdered embrium petals, the scent of the flower tempering the strong elfroot.
Bull sat unmoving while Talan dipped a cloth in the herb-infused water and sponged the blood from his side. Aside from a slight quickening of breath when he held the saturated cloth against the wound to soak, he didn’t react.
Talan glanced up at him. “This will need to be sewn closed.” Bull made a face but Talan didn’t give him a chance to argue. “Do you want me to do it, or do you want me to get Stitches?”
“You’re already here, you might as well,” Bull grunted.
Talan dipped the cloth in the water and pressed it to the wound again. Bloody streaks trickled down Bull’s skin, rust over stone. “Why would the Ben-Hassrath bother wasting lives by sending assassins after you as a formality?”
Bull didn’t look at him. “Just making it clear that I’m Tal-Vashoth.” He sighed heavily through his nose. “Tal-Va- fucking -shoth.”
The bitterness in his voice was something new. Talan did his best not to react, keeping the movement of his hands steady and gentle as he squeezed more water over the wound to flush it clean. “You lived like a Tal-Vashoth for years,” he said. “That didn’t change you. Neither does this.”
Bull pulled away from him. “That was just a role . This is my life. I’ve killed hundreds of Tal-Vashoth in Seheron; bandits, murderers, bastards who turned their back on the Qun.” He gritted his teeth. “And now I’m one of them.”
Talan pressed his lips together but didn’t look up, keeping his attention on his task. “Bullshit. You’re a good man.”
Bull still wouldn’t look at him. “Without the Qun to live by...”
“Hey!” Talan cut him off, smoldering anger flaring to life once more. “You’re a good man. If the Ben-Hassrath don’t see that, it’s their loss.” Once again, he’d spoken too heatedly, sounded too affected by what had happened, but it was too late to try and control his reaction. So he held his ground when Bull turned to look at him, in spite of the hot, self-conscious prickling under his skin, and met Bull’s sharp look with a glare of his own. “And if you don’t believe me ,” he went on, “then ask Krem what he thinks. Ask Dalish and the others.” Bull didn’t back down or look away, but a spasm flitted across his face that he couldn’t manage to hide. Talan sighed, ire dissipating as quickly as it had arisen. “You haven’t told them yet.” Bull did avoid his gaze then, shoulders rigid with tension. “Why haven’t you?”
“It hasn’t come up,” Bull said flatly.
“They’re going to find out sometime. You know they need to hear it from you.” Talan blotted the last of the water from Bull’s side before reaching for needle and thread.
“I’ll tell them,” Bull gritted out. He twitched faintly when the needle first pierced his flesh but didn’t move after that.
Talan guided the needle with a pair of forceps, closing the gash with smooth, steady movements. He tied it off neatly when he was done, gently dabbing away the last of the seeping blood. Bull sighed. “Thanks, boss.”
“Whatever you need,” Talan said quietly. He sat next to Bull in silence for a minute or two. “I’m sorry I spoke sharply to you.”
“You were worried about me,” Bull answered in the same tone.
One side of Talan’s mouth flicked up briefly. “Ben-Hassrath training reading me again?”
“No. I just know you.” He nudged Talan’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Thanks for having my back.”
The simple reply shouldn’t be so comforting, shouldn’t kindle the surge of warmth and affection welling in his chest. “Whatever you need,” he said again. He waited to see if Bull would respond, but he remained still and silent. So Talan pushed himself to his feet, gathered the supplies he’d brought, and moved to the door.
He paused halfway into the hall. “Yes?”
“Will you tell Krem I need to talk to him?”
His tone was low and vulnerable in a way Talan hadn’t heard before, and he almost turned around. Almost. The desire to return to his side, to comfort him, to hold him, was nearly overpowering. But that wasn’t something they did, wasn’t something Bull had ever hinted that he needed, even when Talan asked what he wanted. So he ignored the tightness in his chest and resolved to do as Bull asked. “Of course.”
Talan didn’t expect to see Bull again that day, but long after nightfall, he heard the soft but unmistakable rumble of a knock coming from the bottom of his stairs. He pushed back from the piles of tedious correspondence on his desk and stretched the crick out of his lower back before hurrying down to unlock his door. He kept both the concern and relief off his face as he looked Bull over. “Is everything all right?”
Bull sighed. “Yeah.”
He gestured toward the stairs behind him. “Do you want to come in?”
“Nah. Nah, I just.” He looked tired, which wasn’t something Talan was used to seeing, but he smiled very slightly. “I wanted to say...whatever happens, whatever I regret...this is where I want to be. I just wanted to make sure you knew.”
“Oh.” Talan’s concern didn’t ebb, exactly, but he felt something tight begin to uncoil beneath his ribs. “Well. I’m...glad. Thank you for telling me.” They stood there looking at each other for a moment before he ventured again, “You’re sure you don’t want to stay?”
“I’m sure.” He took a step back, gently but decidedly beginning to withdraw. “Sleep well, boss.”
“You, too.” Talan made himself shut the door, and if he perhaps gripped the handle too tightly or leaned his forehead against the wood once he was alone, there was no one to witness it.
They killed a dragon.
A fucking dragon.
Granted, Talan hadn’t set out to kill it. He would rather have let it alone, but it had attacked first and refused to flee, and they hadn’t had a choice.
He hadn’t been prepared for Bull’s reaction.
Bull never held back in battle, but watching him fight a dragon - when he had a fleeting instant to tear his eyes away from the ice-breathing behemoth - was magnificent. When the dragon finally fell, Bull threw back his head and roared, and then his eye sought Talan, standing at the edge of the dragon’s lair. He grinned, gore-spattered and glorious, blood mingling with the vitaar slashed across his face, and the sight of him stole Talan’s breath.
Talan did his best to draw himself up as Bull stalked over to loom over him. “If you think you’re getting near me without scrubbing that off, you’ve got another thing coming.”
His words were stern but Bull heard the want in his voice and his laugh rumbled in his chest like a growl as he saw Talan suppress a shiver. “Whatever you say, boss.” He walked past, close but not touching him, and led the way back through the trees to the Rush of Sighs. They all stopped at the bank of the river to clean themselves off, but Bull took the longest, being the only one who fought within melee range of the dragon.
Dorian sidled up to Talan while they waited for Bull to wash the tacky dragon blood from his torso, leaning over to speak in a low voice with a sly smile. “We’ll go on ahead. Solas will get a head start on setting noise-cancelling wards around your tent. Won’t you, Solas?”
Solas barely spared him a glance, responding with a chilly, “No.”
“Fine. Then I will.” Dorian tipped him a lascivious wink and stepped away, ducking the halfhearted swat Talan aimed at the back of his head.
Solas leveled them both with a flat look that turned into a faint, reluctant look of amusement as Talan gave an expansive shrug. “We will see you back at camp.” He turned and followed after Dorian.
Talan strolled up to the edge of the water, arms folded across his chest as he watched Bull scrub the last of the vitaar from his face. Bull turned around and waded over to him. “The mages get bored?”
Talan smirked. “You heard everything.”
“Sure did,” Bull said with a grin. He seized the front of Talan’s armor and pulled him close. “Let’s walk slow. We’ll give Dorian time to finish before we test his work.” Talan laughed and let Bull press him back against the rock wall behind him.
The wards did, in fact, work.
But the wild gleam stayed in Bull’s eyes until they returned to Skyhold, until he’d dragged Talan to the Herald’s Rest and gotten both of them drunk on hazardously strong qunari liquor; and though the night was a blur by the time he’d finished his first tankard, Bull’s fierce glee remained in his memory, clear as diamonds.
“You know,” Dalish remarked, nocking an arrow, “since the chief started passing time with you, there have been a lot of disappointed bar staff working the Herald’s Rest.” Her casually fired arrow embedded itself in the training dummy precisely where the left eye would be. Unorthodox “bow” or not, she was still a deadly archer when she picked up a longbow. Talan’s next shot missed, barely scraping past the dummy before spinning into the stone wall behind.
His ears grew warm under her sly scrutiny but he didn’t look over. “Well,” he said, lining up another arrow, “I’ll let you be the one to mention it to Cullen the next time he asks about morale.” She snickered and let the subject drop, but her words stuck with him. He’d never taken any other partners, but he’d known Bull did from time to time. Or at least, he’d used to. They’d never discussed it, but he didn’t know that Bull had stopped; he was surprised and somewhat alarmed at how pleased it made him to hear Dalish say it.
Talan knew he should take a step back. What had started as an occasional dalliance with an acquaintance - later, a friend - to relieve the constant feeling of isolation had turned into nights spent together on a regular basis every few weeks, simply because he found it enjoyable. Even when he didn’t join Bull in his quarters - always Bull’s room, since Bull wouldn’t have fit in Talan’s bed just on his own, let alone sharing it with him - Talan spent most of his time with him or the Chargers, and he knew it wasn’t just passing idle time together any more. He liked Bull, cared about him, and he knew Bull cared for him even if he didn’t know exactly what that meant.
Aside from the initial drive and attraction that had brought them together, Bull was good company just for his own sake on evenings when they didn’t end up in bed. He was sharp-witted and kind, and Talan never doubted that he’d have his back. And although he’d never been the sort of person to give his trust easily, he trusted Bull; more than enough to explore and enjoy the new direction their encounters had begun to take. And when they’d found Talan’s limit - suddenly, shockingly, when Talan discovered that having his eyes covered was too much - when his mind went abruptly blank-white with panic, so much so that he forgot the agreed-upon watchword, Bull had understood him anyway. He’d immediately stopped, removed the blindfold, unbound Talan’s shaking hands, and then simply held him, solid and reassuring. Bull was safe .
Talan missed him on the rare occasions they didn’t travel together, and even though Bull wasn’t the first person he sought out first whenever he finished discussing missions with his advisors, when all his obligations and complaints dealt with, he was always the last. Bull was where he came to rest.
He needed to take a step back, but he didn’t and neither did Bull. So when he returned from his latest slog to Val Royeaux, trudging wearily through the gates, despite the late hour he let his feet carry him to Bull’s door.
A storm front had rolled through while ascending the last three miles to Skyhold, and Talan was soaked through. The inside of his pack had remained dry, though, and that was the important thing. Bull opened soon after he knocked, welcoming expression shifting to bemusement as he saw the unreasonably frilly box that Talan produced out of his satchel.
Talan rolled his eyes and held it out. “The vendor picked the box, not me.”
Bull smirked as he untied the lacy green ribbon. “What, you didn’t pick the color to match your eyes?” A waft of sugar-scented air drifted out of the box as he lifted the lid, and he let out a surprised bark of laughter. “Where the hell did you get these?”
“Val Royeaux, obviously.”
“You’ve mentioned them before. ‘Guimauve’ isn’t exactly a word you hear every day. When the vendor offered them to me, I remembered. That’s all.” Talan crossed his arms, self-conscious at the look Bull gave him. Bull had mentioned the confection...once, to Varric, months ago before they’d even started sleeping together, idle talk Talan had overheard during yet another trek through the Hinterlands.
Bull’s expression shifted into something more familiar as he asked, “Did you try any?”
“Yes. At the vendor’s insistence.” Talan made a face. “Too sweet. How do you eat those?”
“You just haven’t had them the right way.” Bull stepped back and gestured him in. “Take a load off. I’ll be right back.”
Talan went over to stand by the fire, steam rising in gentle wafts from his damp gear. He looked over his shoulder when Bull returned, carrying a kettle. “I’ve never known you to be a tea drinker.”
“It’s not tea. It’s milk.” Bull set the kettle down on the hearth to warm before stepping away to rummage in one of his trunks. “Here. Your stuff is soaked.” He tossed a wad of dark blue fabric over Talan’s head.
Talan grunted as he extricated himself. “What is this? Is this a shirt? You own shirts?”
“Yeah, because I haven’t heard that line before.”
“There’s room for at least three of me in here. I’ll look ridiculous.”
Bull shrugged, sitting next to him again. “So? Who’s gonna see?”
He had a point. Talan shed his wet things and draped them over the chair. The shirt was every bit as big as he’d predicted, but Bull’s grin at the sight of him as he rolled up the too-long sleeves was fond rather than mocking. Talan sat beside him, basking in the heat of the fire. Bull took a box down from a shelf, and Talan recognized one of the containers of cocoa that Varric had procured for him. He added a few spoonfuls to the kettle and replaced it on the hearth, swirling it every so often to mix the contents.
He poured Talan a mug when it was ready, dropping one of the guimauves into it. “Go on, try it.”
He wrapped his chilled fingers around the mug and took a careful sip of the steaming cocoa. It was slightly sweet, but earthy, spicy, and had an underlying pleasant bitterness that tempered the cloying sweetness of the confection.
Bull saw his expression change, and grinned. “Good, right?”
“Not bad.” Talan hid his smile behind his mug. He elbowed Bull in the side but it turned into a lean. When Bull inevitably turned to gather him close, his arms were warm from the fire and his mouth tasted of cocoa and sugar.
Talan was coaxed from sleep the next morning by the featherlight touch of Bull’s thumb skimming the delicate skin beneath his eye, following the curve of his vallaslin. It wasn’t the sort of touch he would usually allow. The Dalish didn’t make a habit of touching each others’ tattoos, and the idea of non-Dalish pawing at them had always made him feel like the other person was exploring a novelty rather than giving an affectionate touch.
But it didn’t feel like that now. Bull’s hand was warm where it hovered over his face, and his finger lifted slightly before re-tracing the branching green tattoo. The tenderness of the gesture made something tremble within Talan’s chest, in awe that the same man who could tear a ghoul to pieces barehanded could show such gentleness. He opened his eyes but kept very still as Bull brushed the pad of his thumb over his cheekbone. Bull lay on his side, propped up on his elbow in deference to his horns. He hadn’t donned his eyepatch yet, and he smiled when he saw Talan was awake. “Hey.”
“Hello, yourself.” Talan shifted onto his back but stayed within reach, stretching his legs beneath the blanket. Some mornings he woke up sore and bruised, welcome reminders of the night before, but this wasn’t one of them. Bull’s hand drifted from his cheek down his throat, and came to rest below his collarbones. The breadth of his hand nearly spanned his entire chest, and it made Talan’s heart give a queer little thump.
What are we doing? The words nearly escaped before he swallowed them back. Maybe it was a conversation they should be having, but he didn’t want to have it now. Later, maybe, when he wasn’t naked, flat on his back, and nearly breathless from the proximity of the man he -
“Hey,” Bull said again, starting to frown. “What just happened?”
“Just...a lot on my mind,” Talan said, evasive but still truthful. Bull wouldn’t push if Talan didn’t want to elaborate, but he always knew when he was being lied to. “I should check in with Cullen. Before I left, he was sending scouts out to look for Samson.”
Bull withdrew his hand. “Right. Well, let me know if you need me to gear up.”
Talan’s chest felt cold. He nodded and rolled out of bed. His clothing was mostly dry, but the fire had receded to embers overnight and it was cool to the touch when he pulled it on. He grimaced at the lingering clammy chill from the folds that hadn’t quite dried.
“If your stuff is still wet, you’ve got other options,” Bull said with a smirk, tilting his head toward the huge shirt discarded on the floor.
Talan snorted. “Thanks.”
Bull climbed out of bed and stretched, neck and shoulders cracking. “Stop back in downstairs when you’re done. I’ll ask Cabot to keep a plate for you.”
His thanks this time was more sincere. He tugged on his gloves, flexing his fingers a few times to settle them, and walked out.
He woke to darkness and pressure and pain. He gasped but couldn’t inhale all the way, couldn’t move, and his limbs twitched in panic -
The air left Talan’s chest in a rush and he slumped against the damp stone beneath him. “Bull.” The word escaped in a rasp.
Bull sighed heavily. “Thank fuck. I’ve been calling you for ten minutes.”
“What…?” Talan tried to rise and failed again, and he realized that he was pinned facedown beneath Bull’s body. “Bull!”
“Well, you’ve got my name right at least.” His voice was thin and strained, and Talan noticed with a surge of alarm that he could feel Bull trembling against his back.
It came back to him in disjointed flashes - scouting a cave on the Storm Coast that had been reported cleared of Red Templars, a Red Templar Shadow that had concealed himself in the dark corridors, brittle laughter as the Shadow triggered a trap deep in the cave - explosions, blinding in the dark -
“You all right, Boss?”
“Are you? ” Talan asked.
Bull grunted. “Gonna need you to answer me.”
Talan was sore and wet, and his right shoulder throbbed in threatening manner that he knew would only get worse if he put stress on it, but he didn’t think his injuries were life-threatening. “Mostly. I think so.”
“Okay, good. Here’s what’s going to happen.” Bull swallowed audibly. “I’m going to push myself up, and you’re going to pull yourself forward and out. The cave entrance isn’t far, so - ”
“Wait - ”
“You’re gonna have to move fast, though, ‘cause I’ve been holding up the rocks this long but I don’t know how much longer I can do this. So get ready.”
Dread chilled Talan’s heart, and his hands splayed on the gritty stone beneath him. “Bull, no, I’m not going to leave you - ”
“On the count of three.”
“One, two, three. ” Bull growled the last word out through gritted teeth and his body went rigid against Talan’s back. His shaking arms tensed and pushed, and with an ominous rumbling of stone and clatter of gravel, the rubble trapping them began to shift.
Talan gathered his limbs close to his body, squeezing his watering eyes shut as his shoulder flared. He braced his foot against the floor but he didn’t move, trying in vain to look over his shoulder. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You’re gonna have to.” Breathless and straining, Bull pushed himself higher, and fresh air brushed against Talan’s cheek.
“Bull - ”
He’d lifted himself almost completely away from Talan now. A tearing growl of effort rumbled in his throat and a distant glimmer of light appeared before them. “Go!”
“Creators damn you, Bull, you can’t just - ”
The growl became an agonized keening. Bull sucked in a ragged breath and roared, “Get out , Kadan!”
Talan gritted his teeth. “Falon’Din take you, you bastard!” He hauled himself forward, gasping as pain lanced through his shoulder and down his side. The moment he pulled himself free of the rubble, it clattered to the ground. He whirled around, nearly tripping over the body of one of the scouts that had accompanied them. No one answered when he called and he didn’t see any of the others. He gritted his teeth and tried to dig through the fallen stone, but he couldn’t move his right arm and when he tried to shift the rock the splintering pain across his shoulder and chest made him cry aloud.
He slumped against the wall, shivering as he tried to catch his breath, frantically watching the pile of shattered stone for movement. “Bull. Bull!” No answer. No answer, and Talan couldn’t help him. If he tried, and if he ignored the pain, he might be able to move some of the collapsed rubble, but some of it would be too much for him; and he could do nothing to help Bull the way he was. The thought of leaving tore at him but if he did nothing and Bull died - swearing furiously, he turned and made for the cave entrance, stumbling back to camp as fast as his shaking legs could carry him.
Solas sprang to his feet when Talan staggered into view, brow furrowing in startled concern. “Lethallin!”
“Solas, please. You have to come,” Talan gasped. He seized Solas’ forearm in a bruising grip, barely keeping his feet as he sagged against him. “Bull is trapped. I couldn’t free him, I think the others are dead...”
Solas reached out to steady him. “Yes, of course I’ll come. But, Talan, you’re bleeding.”
“I’m - ” Talan pulled up short, thrown when Solas answered him in elven, and he realized that he’d slipped into his native tongue without realizing. Solas’ words sank in then, and he glanced down to where Solas’ hand was splayed against the blood-soaked fabric covering his abdomen. “N-no, I’m not…it’s not mine,” he said, switching back to common with an effort. Dread settled like lead in his bones. “It must be Bull’s, I didn’t even notice…”
“But you are hurt.” Solas’ touch drifted to the front of his chest, between his neck and shoulder, and the pain sent Talan to his knees. “Broken collarbone, I think,” he said mildly. “And a dislocated shoulder. That’s why you can’t move your right arm.”
“It’s fine, I’ll be fine,” Talan ground out. “Solas, please. ”
“I’ll go right away.” Solas beckoned to the camp surgeon hovering anxiously nearby. “Do what you can for him. The rest of you come with me.”
“Wait.” Talan tried to stand, and only made it to his feet with Solas’ help. “You don’t know where he is, I have to go with you - ”
“We know where to look,” Blackwall interrupted. “The caves past the petrified forest?” At Talan’s nod, he hefted his axe and swung his shield onto his back. “I know the place. We’ll find him. Pavus, would you…?”
“Yes, of course.” Dorian stepped close and took Talan’s weight, gently guiding him back toward the tents.
“There’s a templar Shadow loose,” Talan warned them as they started off. “At least one. He set off the explosion that collapsed the cave.”
Blackwall nodded. “We’ll keep our eyes peeled for him.”
Talan watched the soldiers as Blackwall led them off. Only Dorian and the surgeon kept his legs from failing him as they helped him sit down. Dorian kept a hand on his back while the healer unfastened his armor and eased his shirt off. Her freckled face creased in a frown as she gently prodded his bruise-blackened shoulder. Talan remained silent but couldn’t keep himself from flinching.
“You’ve got a few broken ribs in addition to the broken collarbone, Inquisitor,” she said apologetically. “There isn’t much I can do for those, but good news is the collarbone’s not displaced, and I can fix your shoulder.” She looked at Dorian. “If I set it, can you heal it, ser?”
“I can help with the pain,” Dorian said regretfully, “But I’m not much of a healer. Not for something like this.”
“It’ll be enough,” Talan forced out.
She nodded determinedly. “Right. Brace yourself, then.” Dorian flattened his palms against Talan’s chest and back, sending a pulse of warmth through his body that helped to dull the pain. Talan tugged his left glove off with his teeth - ignoring the surgeon’s flinch at the sight of the anchor in his naked palm - and bit down on the leather.
The surgeon gently positioned her hands on his arm and shoulder, then with a quiet word of warning, gave a wrench. Sparks flew behind Talan’s eyes, and despite Dorian’s aid, he tumbled into unconsciousness.
Cool, narrow hands on his chest, staff-callused palms warming slightly with healing magic. Talan opened his eyes to the dim light inside his tent, Solas leaning over him with an expectant expression.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
“Solas - did you - ”
“We found him,” Solas said, gently holding him down. “He was hurt, but he is alive and intending to remain so. I healed the worst of his injuries before I came to you.”
Talan felt weak with relief. He knew Solas could tell but he didn’t care, and it was only a moment before he said, “I want to see him.”
“Soon.” Solas sat another few minutes in silence before he withdrew his hands. “There. That should be enough until a spirit healer can help you.”
“Thank you,” Talan said earnestly. He had learned to recognize Solas’ subtle signs of strain, and he could tell that the effort to rescue Bull and heal both of them had taken a toll on him.
Solas just gave him a nod and a faint smile before helping him sit up. Healed or not, easing his arm back into his shirt still hurt, and he was grateful for Solas’ help binding the limb in a sling against his body.
The ever-present rain had slackened to a thin mist when Talan stepped outside his tent. The rest of the camp fell still when he emerged and he acknowledged the soldiers’ relief with a distracted nod, though he was relieved to see the rescue party had found the second scout that had accompanied him. She looked shaken, but managed to straighten her shoulders in a salute.
Talan pulled aside the flap to Bull’s tent and slipped quietly inside. He half-expected that Bull would be asleep, but when the murky daylight illuminated the inside of the tent, his eye opened at once. “Hey, Boss.” The lines in his face eased as Talan drew near. “Good to see you’re in one piece.”
“I could say the same.” Talan sat on a stool the surgeon had left beside Bull’s cot. “You saved my life,” he said quietly.
“So does that mean you’re not mad at me?”
Talan huffed a broken little laugh. “Don’t let my calm exterior fool you. I’m furious.” He reached out, and although the only hand he could use was his left one, the palm glowing faintly green, Bull didn’t hesitate to take it. “You called me something,” he ventured at last. “You’ve said it before. When we were drinking together after we killed the dragon. You spoke a lot in qunlat that night, I thought you were drunk, but...it means something, doesn’t it?”
Bull regarded him steadily. “It doesn’t really translate directly. It’s a term that means ‘center’, or ‘purpose’. The equivalent in other languages would probably be something like ‘heart’.” He shrugged one shoulder. “It’s an old word. Not really used much now. It doesn’t have much context within the Qun.”
Talan swallowed through a dry throat. “That doesn’t sound like something I would expect you to say.”
“Because Qunari don’t do relationships or have sex for love?” Bull gave him a lopsided little smile. “I’m Tal-Vashoth, remember?”
It was the first time Talan had heard him say Tal-Vashoth without a trace of pain or bitterness. His heart bounded against his bruised ribs. “Say it again.”
The word rumbled through him, warm and grounding, and he couldn’t keep his voice from shaking when he said, “If we’re having a vocabulary lesson, I’ve got a word for you.”
Bull sat up on his cot and gingerly swung his legs around so they could sit facing each other. His smile was very soft as he tugged on Talan’s hand. Talan moved as Bull guided him, the way he always did, and settled on his knee. Bull put his arms around him and leaned in to press his broad, hard brow against Talan’s, speaking soft and low. “What word is that?”
Talan knew Bull spoke elven, knew he had probably already had guessed what Talan was going to say, but his tone was no less fervent as he murmured, “Vhenan,” threw his arm around Bull’s neck, and kissed him breathless.
To her credit, Josephine did an admirable job of maintaining her businesslike air when Talan asked her if she could requisition a bigger bed for his quarters, but she couldn’t conceal the delight dancing in her eyes.
The dark muttering radiating out from Talan’s position in the garden abruptly silenced as Bull came strolling around the topiaries. He was unarmed, and the tattoos that so many found intimidating were covered by a formal jacket, but the masked Orlesians moved away as quickly as decorum would allow, minnows darting away from a shark.
“Hey, Boss. Making friends already?” he asked, folding his arms casually across his chest.
“I know what these people think of me,” Talan said tightly. “I know what they say about me behind my back, and that’s fine, I don’t care. Let them talk. I agreed to play their ‘game’. But if Josephine thinks I’m going to stand there and smile politely while they call me ‘rabbit’ to my face, she’s got another thing coming!”
Bull shifted his weight to lean his shoulder against the wall. It blocked Talan’s view of the garden and shielded him from the gaze of the Orlesian nobles. “You want to leave?”
Talan pulled up short. “What?”
“Do you want to leave?” Bull repeated. His voice was soft, his gaze gentle.
“What do you mean? We just got here, I-I can’t leave.”
“Why not? Because of that future shit you saw?” Bull shrugged. “Who’s to say you haven’t already changed things? You already stopped what was happening at Adamant. And who knows if those things you saw would have happened in the first place? Magic crap’s unpredictable anyway.”
Talan stared down at the manicured lawn beneath his feet. He’d tried not to think much about the nightmarish future he’d seen, but since the journey to the Winter Palace had been confirmed, it had been at the forefront of his mind. The memory of how Bull had looked - red eyed, moving as if every step caused excruciating pain - left him cold. He’d left Bull behind, watched as he was torn apart by demons, so ignorant then of what he was losing…
“No,” he said quietly. “I can’t leave. But it means a lot that you’d offer.” He glanced up and attempted a rueful smile. “I suppose it’s foolish, getting angry over being called ‘rabbit’. I’ve heard worse.”
“It’s not foolish,” Bull said seriously. “Not if it hurts you.”
Talan’s heart clenched, and the need for Bull to take him in his arms and hold him washed over him so fiercely that he ached, but he reminded himself where they were, who might be watching, and made himself stay where he was. “Thank you,” he said thickly.
“You can do this, Kadan.” Bull gave him a lopsided smile. “Want me to walk behind you and loom? I doubt anybody would insult you when I’m standing right there.”
His smile this time was a little more genuine. “No, I’ll be all right.” He glanced in the direction of the Orlesian noble who’d flounced off in a huff. “I suppose I should find her ring for her.”
“Check the fountain.” Bull jerked his chin in the direction of a small stone decoration behind Talan. “She took it off when we walked through the gate.”
Talan made a sour face. “Oh, did she.”
“You could find it outside the gate, you know,” Bull said with a sly wink. “In a pile of horse shit.”
Talan laughed, surprising himself. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
The rest of the evening didn’t go as Talan had expected - not by a long shot - but it ended pretty much how he’d thought it would: with him losing a fight against a fierce tension headache, and heartily sick of everyone around him. He slipped out onto an empty balcony as soon as he got the chance, leaning heavily on the stone balustrade as he dragged in slow lungfuls of clean night air. His hackles rose as he heard footsteps behind him, but he relaxed when he recognized Bull’s heavy tread.
“They ran out of that cheese dip. I asked for more, and they gave me this...look. The assholes.” Bull leaned his elbows on the balustrade next to him, broad shoulders slouching as he leaned forward to see Talan’s face. “How you doin’?”
“It’s...been a long night.”
Bull snorted. “That’s putting it mildly. I think you made a good call, though.”
Talan glared at the pools of lamplight flickering in the gardens below. “All three of them are vile. Gaspard has a valid grievance but I’m not going to unseat an established ruler. And if Briala can keep the two of them from stabbing each other in the back - ”
“Provided she doesn’t stab them first?”
Talan gave a disgusted huff. “ - it’s as good an outcome as any.”
“You ended a war, you know. I’d say that’s pretty good.” He tipped his head, gesturing back the way he’d come. “Cullen’s giving orders now. We’re just about done here.”
“Good.” He rubbed his eyes with finger and thumb, unsuccessfully willing the pounding in his head to go away.
“Hey.” Bull gently bumped their shoulders together. “Come on. The music’s finally got enough of a beat to dance to.”
Talan looked up to see Bull standing with his arm extended gallantly. His chest warmed at the smile on Bull’s face. He wanted to accept, but the thought of stepping back into the ballroom, back under the scrutiny of hundreds of masked eyes - eyes that he knew viewed him with disdain no matter what he’d done tonight, eyes that would sneer at the sight of him dancing with Bull…
He reached for Bull, feeling something start to unknot in his stomach as his hand was engulfed within his massive palm. “I want to say yes,” he said tiredly, “but...I don’t want to be a spectacle. I don’t want…” He didn’t want Bull to be a subject of ridicule or scorn. He didn’t want curious whispers speculating about what their relationship might be like.
“Yeah. I get it. So we stay out here, then.” Bull gave a little tug. It was light enough that Talan could have resisted, but he didn’t. Bull pulled him close and wrapped his arms around him. Talan closed his eyes, rested his aching head on Bull’s chest, let Bull turn them so Talan was out of sight from any stray glances from the ballroom.
Eyes still closed, Talan smiled as he felt Bull start to sway ever-so-slightly where he stood. “I don’t think you can hear the music from here.”
One hand glided to the nape of his neck, lightly kneading the familiar bands of tension in a manner that had become long-practiced over their months together. “It’s fine. I don’t need it.”
Istmaethoriel’s face lit like the sunrise when she saw him, and she reached out to him with both hands. “Da’len.” Instead of taking her hands, Talan fell into her arms and embraced her. He felt her twitch a little in surprise - he had never been a very tactile person - but then she laughed, soft and low, and embraced him tightly. “Welcome home, child,” she said quietly.
“Keeper.” His voice broke and his eyes stung, and he was home . “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long.”
“You have been missed.”
“I had to come. When Cullen told me what happened, I...Dread Wolf take me, I could have lost all of you. I should have been here. I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner.”
“You were doing what you could. And it was more than enough.” She rested her hands on his shoulders. “It is good to see you.” She stepped back, and the rest of his clan moved in - his First, Ellana, handing her staff to the Keeper as she pounced with a laugh to hug him, followed by his fellow hunters and his friends. The rest of the camp came forward, welcoming the small delegation of Inquisition forces that had accompanied Talan on his journey to Wycome when he put his foot down and refused to delay any longer.
Between the Inquisition’s supplies and provisions offered by Talan’s clan, there was more than enough food and drink as they ate a long, leisurely meal together under the darkening sky. Talan spent most of the evening in the company of the hunters, asking them about their travels and the details about the conflict at Wycome.
“The alienage elves gave us maps of the city,” Corin told him. “If they hadn’t, we would have had a bad time of it. Even so, your Inquisition soldiers arrived just when we needed them to. It was a near thing.”
Despite seeing for himself that his clan was safe, Talan couldn’t suppress the resurgence of the cold dread that had gripped him ever since he’d received word of how precarious the situation had become. “I’m just glad people listened. To me, and to you.”
“It was bound to happen sometime, wasn’t it?” She gave him a wry smile. “Speaking of listening, we’ve heard a lot about you . Have the shems converted you to following their prophet yet, seeing as you’re her Herald?”
Talan rolled his eyes. “Not you, too.”
“Now, Corin, that can’t be right,” Mahanon said with a grin. He stretched out on his side in the grass, propping his head on his hand. “Talan doesn’t even believe in our own gods, much less the shems’ Maker. Word is he’s more of a follower of the Qun nowadays.”
Talan hid a resigned sigh as he sipped his cider, meeting the teasing, curious eyes of his friends in noncommittal silence.
“Come on, Tal.” Mahanon poked him in the side. “You and the Qunari. Is it true?”
“There’s been no converting to anything,” Talan answered. “All you need to know is that his name is the Iron Bull, we’re together - have been for some time now - and I’m not saying any more about it.”
Corin laughed at Mahanon’s expression. “Oh, don’t look so sour, Nonny. You know our Tal’s always been close-mouthed about this sort of thing. He doesn’t want to talk about long walks in the moonlight, or staring tenderly into each other’s eyes…” Her grin turned wicked. “And he definitely doesn’t want to mention anything about stamina or girth - ”
“Hello, Keeper,” Talan said, ignoring Corin’s embarrassed squeak and Mahanon’s burst of laughter. “Do you need me for something?”
“Come sit with me,” Istmaethoriel said, the corners of her mouth twitching as she tweaked Corin’s ear. “We haven’t had much chance to talk.”
Talan rose at once and went to join her. She settled on a blanket near the fire, patting the ground beside her. She looked at him searchingly for a moment before asking quietly, “How are you? There’s been...a lot asked of you these many months. More than either of us bargained for when I sent you to observe the Conclave.”
“I’m...I’m all right,” he said thoughtfully. “Really. It was difficult at first. I was...angry, much of the time. Not at you,” he hurried to add. “Things were just...hard for a while. But I’m fine now.”
“May I see your hand?” Talan hesitated only briefly before pulling off his glove and letting Istmaethoriel take his left hand in both of hers. She frowned a little as her fingertips gingerly traced the glowing fissure in his palm. “Does it hurt you?”
“Not often. And not badly.” He tugged his glove on again when she released him.
“Your Lady Nightingale keeps us informed of what you are doing for Thedas. You are a credit to us, Da’len. And to yourself. I am proud of you.” She paused for a moment, eyes roving over the camp before turning back to him to say, “Tell me about the Iron Bull.”
“Oh - I...hm.” Talan’s face flushed, and he shifted awkwardly when she laughed. He’d been expecting her to ask at some point, yet still felt caught off-guard. “What do you want to know?”
“Just tell me about him. I was surprised when I heard that you had been associating with a Qunari.”
Talan hadn’t bothered to correct his friends about Bull’s standing with the Qun, but he wanted his Keeper to know the truth. “He’s not Qunari any longer. He’s what they call Tal-Vashoth now. He can’t go back to Par Vollen.”
“And was this his choice?”
The failed alliance with the Qunari wasn’t common knowledge, and he thought for a moment before answering. “It’s complicated...but yes. He was disavowed when he chose to save his men rather than follow orders. He didn’t set out to become Tal-Vashoth, but he knew what would happen when he made his choice.”
She nodded, mulling it over before smiling a bit. “You seem fond of him.”
He hadn’t behaved any differently toward Bull than any of the others since they’d arrived at the camp, but he didn’t bother asking her how she could tell. “I am,” he confessed quietly. He glanced over in Bull’s direction. He was too far away to hear what Bull was telling the half-circle of children and teenagers that had gathered around him, but from the expression on his face and his broad, hunched movements, he knew Bull had to be telling them how they’d killed the dragon. Bull roared, and delighted shrieks of laughter drew looks of startled amusement from elves and Inquisition alike. “He’s a good man, Keeper.”
“I believe you.” She paused thoughtfully. “When I was your age, the Keeper would have reminded me that he is not of the People. But the world is changing. Some things are worse, but others are better.” Her cool hand closed around his. “You will always be considered part of the clan, no matter where life takes you. And if he wishes, so will he.”
Talan’s eyes widened. “What?”
Istmaethoriel shrugged and smiled. “The world is changing,” she said again. “Perhaps that means we will be the first clan to count a Tal-Vashoth as one of the People.”
“You would do that? I mean, but we haven’t...I hadn’t said anything to him about that,” Talan stammered.
“Well, if you ever do decide to have that conversation, you don’t have to ask for my blessing. You already have it.” She winked. “I’m saving you a step.” Seeing him floundering, her expression softened and she asked, “Is he good to you?”
“Yes.” The answer came without hesitation.
“And you love him.”
“Yes.” It was the first time he’d admitted it to someone other than Bull, and he ducked his head as he felt himself blushing once again.
“I think that’s all I need to know, then.” She squeezed his hand and let him go. “I am happy for you, child.”
“Hey, Kadan!” Bull strode toward him, unencumbered by the giggling child swinging from each of his forearms like tree branches. “These runts don’t believe me when I tell them I fought a great bear bare-handed. Back me up.”
“He did.” Granted, the bear had sickened from the red lyrium infesting Emprise Du Lion, and Bull hadn’t had to fend it off for long before Talan dropped it with an arrow to the eye - mercifully putting an end to the poor beast’s suffering - but the children didn’t need to know that. “You should have seen it. It was almost as impressive as when he fought the dragon.”
Bull gave a triumphant “Ha!” and raised his arms so his passengers were closer to his eye level. “I told you.”
Istmaethoriel smiled. “Iron Bull. Join us?”
“Yeah, sure.” Bull lowered his arms enough for the children to drop to the ground and scamper away. He sat cross-legged next to Talan, propping his elbows on his knees.
“Tell me about your Chargers,” Istmaethoriel asked. “Talan has mentioned them once or twice when he writes - infrequent as that may be - but he hasn’t told me much about them.”
Despite all his vaunted Ben-Hassrath training, Talan was pretty sure Bull didn’t realize how he lit up whenever he talked about Krem and the others. He watched Bull’s face, fondness swelling in his chest. Slowly, he shifted over - just enough so his shoulder brushed against Bull’s biceps. Bull lifted his arm just slightly in response, making room for Talan if he wanted it, but leaving space if he chose to remain apart. Talan immediately leaned in and tucked himself against Bull’s side.
Bull wrapped his arm around Talan’s shoulders, warm and heavy and sheltering. He didn’t look away from his conversation with the Keeper, but his smile grew.
Talan let his eyes drift over the camp. From the tents to the red sails of the aravels to the sight of Corin’s delighted grin on the other side of the campfire - it was all familiar, all welcoming, everything he had missed. He was home. But when he tried to imagine being back, at some ill-defined point in the future when the war with Corypheus was finally over, he realized with breathless clarity that even with everything he’d missed and everything he’d dreamed of returning to, if he tried to picture it without Bull, it didn’t feel like home any longer.
“Hey.” Bull felt the realization ripple run through him and glanced down. “You good?”
Talan looked up. Bull’s expression was soft and open. He looked happy. Talan smiled and rested his head against Bull’s shoulder. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I’m good.”
Talan sprawled on top of Bull, catching his breath. Down in the main hall, the celebration kept up its momentum deep into the night, but in his isolated quarters, the only sounds Talan could hear were the rise and fall of their breathing and the ever-present wind around the tower. Bull’s hand cradled his skull, heavy and reassuring on the back of his head.
Bull sighed deeply, barrel chest rising and falling. Without lifting his head, Talan asked drowsily. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah.” But the movement of his fingers through Talan’s hair felt methodical rather than idle, and after a moment he went on to say, “It’s weird. I joined the Inquisition under orders from the Ben-Hassrath and stayed because Corypheus was an asshole. Now that it’s done, I’ve got no orders. For the first time in my life, I can go wherever I want.”
Wide awake now, Talan made a conscious effort to remain relaxed. It was easy to forget that Bull hadn’t so much as joined the Inquisition as he’d made a rather insistent job application. He knew there was more to Bull’s decision to join - and to stay - than simple mercenary motivation, but he was a mercenary. And the war with Corypheus was over. Of course he would eventually move on. He lay very still, feeling the beat of Bull’s heart against his own. “And what do you want?” he asked softly.
“I’ve never really asked myself that question before.” Bull slid his hand down the back of Talan’s neck, fingertips tracing vague patterns over the autumn leaves tattooed across his shoulders. “It’s a question you could probably ask yourself, right? You didn’t get much choice in all this, either.”
“I...I don’t think I can go anywhere for a while,” he answered slowly. “Corypheus is dead, but...I’m still the Inquisitor. Although…” His voice wavered despite his best efforts, and he stopped. Bull’s palm flattened against his back. Talan knew he had to be able to feel his pulse pounding through his ribcage. “I won’t be Inquisitor forever, and if...when my time is my own again, I...I would go where you go. If you will have me.”
Bull sat up, shifting back on the bed until he could sit half-propped up on the pillows. The movement startled Talan but Bull wrapped an arm around him to keep him held against his chest, straddling his lap. His gaze was sharp and searching in the moonlight slanting through the wide windows.“There’s no ‘if’ about it, Kadan. But what about your clan? Your home?”
Talan lifted his hand and gripped him by the back of the neck. “ You are my clan,” he said, voice trembling with emotion. “You and the Chargers. There is no home without you, vhenan.”
Bull closed his eyes. “You shouldn’t...I love you, but leaving your clan…”
I love you . Talan knew Bull loved him, but it was the first time he’d said so out loud. He smiled, then let out a short breath of laughter and shifted back a bit to meet Bull’s gaze. “You do realize that not everyone remains with the clan they were born into forever? Otherwise everyone in every clan would be related by blood and that doesn’t bode well for long-term planning.”
“Shit.” Bull’s head thunked back against the headboard.
Talan laughed again at Bull’s flustered expression - actually flustered , which was another first - and rested his hands on his broad shoulders. “The Keeper spoke with me when we visited,” he said, voice gentling. “I will always be one of the People, no matter who I choose to spend my life with. But even if I didn’t have her blessing, I would still choose you.”
Bull’s hands settled heavy on his hips, throat working for a moment before he said, very softly, “Not often people surprise me, Kadan.” Talan kissed him, soft and slow. Bull reached up with one hand to lightly tug on a lock of his hair. “So does this mean you’ll be called Talan Charger now?”
Talan snickered at the teasing. “Traditionally, maybe. But neither of us are very traditional, are we?”
Bull snorted. “Not exactly.”
“But it doesn’t really matter.” He threaded his fingers together behind Bull’s neck. “Everyone will know I’m yours no matter what my name is.”
Bull rested his heavy, solid forehead against Talan’s brow. “Before I met you, it would never have occurred to me to want something like this. What I have with you. And I’m a better man for having met you, Kadan.”
“As am I.” His chest ached - not with loneliness, as it had in the early days after the Conclave, but with love for the man holding him. “You made everything bearable, you know that? Even before you and I were you and I . I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“Sure you could. You just wouldn’t have had as much fun.”
Talan laughed. “Well. That’s true at least.” He smiled fondly when Bull pulled him flush against his chest, sighed into the kiss that began soft and became heated.
Bull’s voice rumbled like distant thunder within his chest. “What do you need tonight?”
“Just you,” Talan murmured against his mouth. “Anything, with you.”