To add insult to more insult, it rains in Crestwood: the sort of rain that makes a man forget the halcyon days of dry socks and warm toes. Were they ever real, or were they nothing but a fantasy?
Doorjambs drip. The ground squelches and suckles. Southern boots are as much made of mud as they are of leather. It’s worse weather than on the Storm Coast, and that’s unacceptable.
But when you’re surrounded by the blighted undead, what else but paltry, petty complaints bolster a man’s spirit, letting him know he’s still—miraculously—alive?
‘I suppose I should be grateful for the mud,’ Dorian says. ‘It obscures the truth so prettily, doesn’t it? Without it, I’d know if it was dog shit I was stepping in, and I’d rather not.’
Knowledge itself scars the land, hillsides shambling like corpses. Why, it’s knowledge such as a magister’s twisted wisdom, for example, born after storming the Golden City without knocking on the maker’s boudoir door first; knowledge that, with a withered hand, takes up rusted blade and shuffles, groaning, from the lake.
‘Nonetheless: eugh,’ Dorian adds.
He can’t scrape the mud off onto more mud. It’s a metaphor for life or somesuch—attempting to clean with the unclean, which never works.
‘Hey, look on the bright side,’ Varric says while their brilliant, charismatic, unfaltering herald rucks through the possessions of a felled corpse.
‘Where would that be?’ Dorian asks. ‘Behind that cloud, or that one? Tell me, have you been hiding the bright side down the front of your shirt? It would explain the glow.’
The wind’s bitter nip buffets already shivering windows. Dry socks were definitely an illusion, another cruelty conjured by the dreadful black divine.
‘Well,’ Varric tells him, ‘there could be a dog.’
It’s still raining in Crestwood when they set up camp, as though tents could possibly stand against the onslaught, the veritable flood. What’s worse is that there are some who don’t seem to mind, tending their massive war-axes or what-have outside of the tarpaulins’ shelter.
Granted, it isn’t all terrible, though it’s no easy task to appreciate the sight of bare chests, rivulets of rain, and deep scars when one has to wring out one’s socks.
The fire sputters. Dorian feels a flicker of empathy. Warmth can’t survive here. Heat, passion, every lustrous flame—they’re all doomed, and for what? The relentlessness of condensation?
‘Won’t it rust?’ he asks.
The Iron Bull shrugs one of his outrageous, possibly illegal shoulders. His voice isn’t dissimilar to the approaching rumble of thunder. ‘Not when you know how to treat it just right.’
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t watch, if it’s that personal.’
‘Ah, but you will,’ the Iron Bull replies.
Dorian doesn’t. He watches the flames diminish instead, pointedly staring at their determined, blue-hot centers. He can’t feel nine out of ten toes and the one he can feel, he wishes he couldn’t. The tent is no comfort; Varric’s already snoring within. Everything, living and dead, smells of the same thing, which is a bouquet of the dreadful: beleaguered grass and fetid earth, rotting wood and the musty dank of soaked stone. He wiggles his fingers, most of which he can still feel, and the flames jump a little higher in answer.
No one’s ever thanked him for playing with fire, but it helps him feel warmer, and that’s the only reason he did it.
They solve the decade-old trouble in Crestwood, because of course they solve it. Just a bit of snooping into this, a pinch of prying into that, and suddenly they’re mending rifts in the Fade like darning holes in their socks. When they emerge again from below ground, the sun is up and out and the tall grass is a friendly golden brown.
Dorian wrinkles his nose.
‘Ah,’ he says. ‘So it was dog shit all along.’
‘Hey, Sparkler, we found the bright side.’ Varric points toward the friendly sky.
‘Naturally. Yet, somehow, it’s still too cold.’
‘You think this is bad? I should tell you about the winters in Kirkwall.’
‘You already have,’ Dorian says. ‘Three times. Possibly more. I’m not certain; I stopped listening.’
‘Careful the way you talk to a man,’ Varric replies. ‘With a honeyed tongue like that, he might just fall in love with you.’
Their fearless leader laughs. At least they’ve amused a real hero.
Whatever they’ve fixed, it doesn’t happen all at once. The ground still squelches. It has so much from which it needs to recover in order to become more than a glorified bog, if it ever has been, or ever could be.
‘And some of us,’ Dorian adds, ‘without so much as a shirt. One would think he has enough attention being larger than a barn—but apparently not.’
Bull laughs too. Ha ha ha, and all that.
Dorian discovers the hole in his boot soon after he sees his first struggling flower by the side of the road.
The guilty mayor flees. The townspeople are shaken but grateful. For the most part, they have their own rooftops to thatch or patch or whatever it is they use to get the job done. Wattle and drab daub, no doubt. Returning to Skyhold should be a relief but it’s an enormous stronghold in the middle of a snowy mountainscape; one must sacrifice the finer comforts of life for defensibility against darkspawn hordes.
At least Dorian’s chair and alcove are in direct sunlight for the better part of the day. He doesn’t so much bask as he behaves like a vine when it clings to walls and to life.
On his way to the tavern he passes the healing tents and considers showing his numerous instances of frostbite to one of the healers in residence there, but he has compassion, perspective, even restraint, and he refrains, although he probably needs the attention.
The damn songs the bard Maryden sings at night have wormed their way into his brain, rising to the fore the moment the door swings open. Empress of fire, in the reign of the lion, something, something, we Orlesians. Of course they never sing songs about Tevinter unless they’re the sort that warn you never to stray from the path in the woods or never to delve too deep below ground.
What he wouldn’t give for a song like that just now. He settles for a tankard of something delightfully foul, the bartender’s name something delightfully dwarven, and every delightful scene separated table by table like illustrations out of a picture book on Southern living. The blunt-faced; the shouting; the sweating; the red-cheeked and the eager; and Bull’s Chargers, singing out-of-tune and out-of-time, only careful not to waste their ale with their toasts.
Dorian crosses his legs and uncrosses them, then crosses them again. His brand new boots—a necessity—pinch slightly in both little toes, but that could have something to do with the two pairs of socks he’s wearing.
He was raised on ancient and expensive bottles of Aggregio Pavali. He knows how to judge the legs and the terroir, how to talk about each in sublime company until they surrender to his superior grasp of alcoholic poetry.
He prefers the brutish ale. It does a better job of getting one drunk.
When the barkeep brings him another tankard to replace his first, now empty, Dorian scans the room for any sign of his admirer. It’s about time someone bought him a drink.
Across the room, surprisingly without a barmaid perched on one thigh, the Iron Bull tips his flagon and taps it against one horn.
No doubt the Chargers are laughing at him all the while, but Dorian drinks the offering anyway—a point of practically, not of pride.
‘You know,’ Bull says, some three days later, after a return to the Storm Coast where the rain isn’t magical and hasn’t stopped, ‘you could join us. I hate to see a man drink alone.’
‘What, and listen to your resident mage talk about how her staff is really a bow while the rest of the louts make lewd gestures about it?’ Dorian replies.
Actually, it doesn’t sound terrible at all.
‘Besides,’ Bull says, ‘when someone buys you a drink, it’s only polite.’
‘Polite!’ Dorian doesn’t finish scoffing before realizing that’s the extent of his comeback. ‘Is that how you’d describe the company you keep?’
Bull claps him on the shoulder, strong enough to send him staggering but meting the force to minor impact. It reminds, rather than bullies. ‘Come join us sometime,’ he says.
Dorian doesn’t. First, there’s a letter; Felix is dead, which is no surprise. Even the man himself was resigned to the fact; he wasn’t ever afraid of the inevitable day. And it could have been so much worse, a wretched fate Dorian saw with his own eyes and fought to prevent, and even changed. There are things worse than death, Dorian—but Dorian doesn’t have to remind himself of that, neither with Felix’s voice nor with his own. The letter comes and the man is dead and what’s one among hundreds, thousands, bodies abandoned or buried, men loved or unloved? Death has never been about the dying.
They return to the coast, where the cold has a color: gray. The foam, the water, the shale, the tree roots are all gray. The sky meets the water in a gray embrace. They fight spiders in a cave, eldritch bodies quivering moments before—and after—they die. It would be gray there too, if it wasn’t so black in the dark.
Still, it keeps a man busy. Wet, but entertained.
Does he want to talk about it? Ah, but isn’t there another mission?
There’s always another mission. That’s the fun of it, even if you don’t entirely agree with its missives. Like this latest, for example, which involves brokering an alliance with the qunari over a spot of slaying venatori , all while protecting a bloody dreadnought moored off the coast.
Granted, the dreadnought is lost to gaatlok and flames sparking brightly against the gray, and the mission goes awry, an alliance dashed on the rocks. The Storm Coast doesn’t seem to notice the men that almost died there that day, much less those that did.
Tal-vashoth. The phrase has an interesting taste. Their party returns to Skyhold in relative silence; for once, not even Varric knows what to say.
Dorian doesn’t change boots before the tavern, although he really should. A toe is going to fall off one of these days, and then they’ll be sorry. Someone’s bound to be. But the Chargers are celebrating within, singing their hideous songs, and the Iron Bull’s celebrating with them.
Resilience is the better part of everything that matters.
Dorian buys him a drink, never one to let a debt linger, and leans against the wall beside his fellow Tevinter—although they have about as much in common as a Dalish Keeper and a cutpurse in an alienage.
‘Did I neglect to tell you that when you buy one charger a drink, you buy one for all?’ Bull says.
‘Ha, ha,’ Dorian replies.
‘Oh, he’s serious,’ the Tevinter says. ‘Always is, after a bloodletting.’
If Dorian relents, he’ll be seen as too easy. If he doesn’t, he’ll be the stingy magister, hoarding all his coin to himself. Never mind that he had to sell his birthright on the road for enough coin to fill his empty belly. Perception is the better part of everything that doesn’t matter, which is a lot.
‘A clever ploy,’ Dorian says. ‘And here I fell directly into your trap.’
‘No traps,’ Bull replies. ‘When I’m coming for you, you’ll know.’
The Tevinter rubs his ribs, moving stiffly against bruising. ‘And how.’
‘In any case,’ Dorian crosses and uncrosses his arms over his chest, then crosses them again, ‘I’ll buy you filthy lot drinks, but only when I have a chair of my own and I’ve been introduced.’
The clamoring begins, and it doesn’t stop.
‘Grim,’ Dorian says, pointing. The man in question may or may not be the man named. He certainly isn’t awake.
‘Uh-uh.’ Bull shakes his head, breath stinking of the qunari brew he’s favored all night. ‘Try again.’
‘This isn’t fair, you know. I drank your whatever-it-is, probably has gaatlok in it for flavoring, and now we’re playing memory games.’
True to his Ben-Hassrath training, Bull’s face doesn’t change. He’s covered in scars, but he doesn’t flinch. A dreadnought burst mere hours ago, splinters scattered through the sky, and Dorian’s joking about the very powder that blew the beams to the clouds.
‘You’d think I’d tire of eating my own boot eventually,’ Dorian says. ‘Wait, I’ve got it—that one’s Grim.’
‘I take offense to that,’ the Tevinter replies.
‘Not you.’ Dorian waves in a direction vaguely behind-like. ‘That one. You’re Krem; I know that much.’
‘Even with gaatlok in your belly?’ Bull chuckles with no sign of melancholy whatsoever. It’s fascinating. ‘Impressive.’
‘I am. Say it again.’
‘Get a room,’ the Tevinter says, and returns his head to a more comfortable position between his folded arms.
‘A novel idea,’ Dorian says. He laughs. Bull doesn’t.
‘No. Not tonight.’ Bull rises, one large hand on the table, scarred knuckles and blunted fingertips and all. The table could break. Bull could do that. Dorian notices every grain in the wood and every fletched wrinkle on the back of Bull’s hand before he pushes away and leaves through the back door.
‘Your pants are hideous,’ Dorian calls after him. ‘They’re awful. Like a circus on your legs.’
Bull waves over his shoulder. ‘I know!’
Assassins come. That’s one of the constants a man can rely on in the Dragon Age.
If you go to the Storm Coast, it will rain; if you join the Inquisition, you’ll need new boots; if you fuck over the Ben-Hassrath, there will be assassins.
None of the Chargers seem to care about the fresh wound on Bull’s left arm, carved just below the shoulder from a throwing knife, most likely. They’re used to it. They don’t so much have meaningful conversation as they headbutt one another, as though bruises are a currency and scars an investment.
Dorian doesn’t care about the fresh wound on Bull’s left arm, but that doesn’t mean it goes unnoticed: a rich and untended red under the flecked sunlight as it filters through the greenery in the Emerald Graves. The herald is unconcerned, hopping around tree roots, enjoying the flowers in between bouts of stabbing red Templars from behind.
‘If you wore a shirt, that wouldn’t happen,’ Dorian says.
Bull chuckles. ‘Wearing a shirt wouldn’t stop a blade, Dorian. Armor only encourages an enemy to lash out harder.’
‘Yes. That’s all it does. In fact, if there weren’t armor, there’d be no injuries at all. We ought to tell the commander—let him know he’s outfitted the troops all wrong.’
‘I need my freedom.’ Bull flexes. Fresh blood darkens the scab.
‘Is that what freedom looks like?’
‘Difficult to spot for a Vint, I know.’
‘Because I’d rather thought it looked more like a half-naked qunari who enjoys showing off.’
‘Ah,’ Bull says, ‘but it’s working.’
Leafy underbrush, skittering nugs and nervous foxes, and halla with their supplicant horns ever-reaching toward the sky—it doesn’t rain in the Emerald Graves, even if the temperature is below optimal for a man of Dorian’s constitution, but the handsome villas fallen to decay, portraits abandoned by heaps in the garden guest homes, are a sad affair.
Cole and Bull come up with names for the unnamed.
‘Hortensia,’ Bull says. ‘That one is definitely a Hortensia.’
‘But how do you know?’ Cole asks.
‘It’s in the nose,’ Bull replies. ‘Now you try. What about that one?’
‘I don’t know.’ Cole pauses. ‘The nose doesn’t say anything, the Iron Bull.’
‘Albrecht,’ Dorian suggests.
‘Hmm.’ Bull’s chuckle comes soon after, rumbling upward from the depths of his lungs. ‘What do you think, Cole?’
‘Nameless, numb, nothing left,’ Cole says with a mournful cadence. ‘All forgotten. All left behind. She painted the portrait because she wanted to remember, but it didn’t work.’
‘Lovely game,’ Dorian replies.
The frostbite’s gone that evening, but it’s been replaced by blisters. If Dorian’s limping when he enters the tavern, then it’s well within his right.
The barkeep’s name is Cabot, almost certainly. Maryden’s attempting to woo Sera, which isn’t going to work. Bull is in the corner and again, there’s no one in his lap, although it’s built for perching, sitting, even settling in. Dorian shakes his head and leans against the bartop, hips canted to one side.
This can hardly be called flirting. It’s rudimentary at best. Bull sets his hands on his thighs, at the juncture where they join his hips, meeting Dorian’s gaze across the floor.
‘It’s Leliana’s insufferable crows, you see.’ Dorian saunters Bull-ward—he hasn’t done that in a while, a proper saunter—and there’s no reason not to enjoy the attention, certainly. It rakes him over from head to toe, and it’s decent to feel visible, really seen. ‘They’re always cawing. You can hardly think in that place. Then again, it isn’t much better here.’
‘Your footsies,’ Bull notes. ‘They’re bothering you.’
‘As much as two blistered icicles can bother a man, yes.’
‘Stitches has a poultice that works wonders. You could try it sometime.’
‘Yes,’ Dorian says. ‘Once I remember which one “Stitches” is.’
No invitations, obviously. Nothing offered, nothing taken. It’s exactly as it should be.
Dorian stands at a safe distance, and Bull simply looks—not in his direction, but directly at him.
He loses two games of chess in a row with Cullen. It’s shameful. On the one hand, it gives the man a chance to feel good about something, to have a solid victory, to build up personal morale, but at what cost? It’s Dorian’s pride on the line.
He doesn’t think it’s worth it.
‘You’re distracted,’ Cullen says. ‘It happens to everyone. No need to feel bad about it.’
Dorian offers the following excuses. ‘It’s the cold.’ ‘It’s also stopping to pick elfroot in a grove full to bursting with agitated giants.’ ‘Did I mention the red templars that appear out of nowhere with lyrium blades for arms?’ ‘No, mostly, it’s the cold.’
Snowbanks in Emprise du Lion.
‘A little Southern cold’s good for you,’ Cullen says. ‘Wakes you up in the morning.’
‘Naturally—but only when it allows you to sleep at night.’
‘You should invest in furs,’ Cullen says, and Dorian thinks he could also invest in another nighttime heating system that doesn’t smell like dead animal—at least, not as much.
He drops a few hints. Emprise du Lion makes it easy, if nothing else. He’s up to his knees in snow and ice; he almost misses the Crestwood rain.
‘Surely you must be cold, Bull,’ he says.
Cole is having a grand time of it. In between rifts, he makes snowballs, likely because spirits don’t know what cold is, since they can’t feel it nipping at their fingertips. There’s a demon named Imshael somewhere in the distance; the town is a shell of its former self, which couldn’t have been much to brag about to begin with; there are doors in walls unattached to houses and without rooftops, and that’s what there is to recommend the place.
Bull stretches his arms overhead, the muscles in his back rippling. ‘I find the weather bracing. Puts hair on your chest.’
‘That explains Varric,’ Dorian says.
He drops a few more hints, less subtle and more pointed statements of fact. ‘It’s cold.’ ‘I’m cold.’ ‘That was supposed to be a fireball, but it came out all frozen like that. Do you think I need to see someone about this condition?’ ‘No wonder Southerners are so miserable all the time. The cold explains the songs, certainly. And the facial expressions.’
He might as well be shouting into a rift for all it works. Bull’s oblivious when he isn’t staring Dorian down over a tankard of thick, brown brew.
Dorian drinks to keep himself warm. The other bodies in the tavern do a fine job of that, as well—heat off skin; heat from other hearts. The cut on Bull’s arm has long since healed and once Dorian steps outside, he’ll be besieged by nighttime wind; it whistles through the cracks in Skyhold’s stone walls and slips under the bedclothes, between the thighs and between the ribs.
‘Right,’ Dorian says, the last of the tavern stragglers already asleep, while Bull nurses his latest drink like a babe in arms, ‘here’s the question. I need someone to light my fire.’
Bull’s grin is quick and cut of stronger stuff than the ale. ‘That wasn’t a question.’
‘I was getting to the question. Patience, Bull, patience. You can’t just charge headfirst into these things like a— Right, the question is: do you care to light it?’
‘That’s your specialty, isn’t it?’
Bull’s hands are on his thighs, braced between muscle and bone and brightly-colored fabric.
‘Let me try again,’ Dorian says. ‘Your pants are offensive to anyone with functioning eyes. Allow me to do us all a favor and remove them?’
Bull’s rooms are on the ramparts where there isn’t a proper roof, just glimpses of starlight and clouds and what no doubt augurs a nascent snowstorm glittering between darkness and the haphazard beams. There’s a wheel of cheese behind the bed and an axe sunk into one of the posts. Dorian has something to say about it, a lot to say about it, but Bull’s hands are on his thighs—the backs, specifically—holding him high off the floor.
‘Now aren’t you glad I don’t wear a shirt?’ Bull says.
Dorian tugs uselessly at the one-shouldered pauldron and its leather strap, a buckle that’s been knotted too tight. ‘This is more difficult than a shirt, I’ll have you know.’
‘You’re one to talk.’
Buckles everywhere, Dorian thinks, pressed between their bodies, cold metal on Bull’s warm, bare chest.
‘Talk, talk—it’s what I do.’
Dorian gestures to the axe in the bedpost. ‘You aren’t going to use that on me in some arcane ritual, are you?’
Bull drops him onto the bed—throws him, more like, but not inelegantly, and at no juncture does Dorian feel, his dick hard as a hammered heartbeat between his legs, like a sack of potatoes. ‘You seem to think you can handle this,’ he says.
‘Very funny.’ Dorian wriggles and pops one of the buckles. Easy. His hands aren’t shaking at all. ‘Get down here.’
‘Not a joke.’
‘Not a—’ Dorian sucks in a breath before he huffs in indignation. ‘In case you didn’t remember, I’m from Tevinter, yes? Land of all evils—and indulgences. I think I can handle a little—’
‘Not little, either.’
Dorian laughs, frayed and distinct gusts of ha, ha, ha. ‘Ha,’ he adds for good measure. ‘I’m cold, damn it.’
‘And don’t we know it.’
‘Look, if Krem and Stitches and Grump and Pissbag and the rest of the gang are about to burst out from behind the door and have a laugh of it—’
‘Katoh,’ Bull says.
Dorian blinks, hopefully with a half-alluring eyelash flutter. ‘Beg pardon?’
‘That is the word you’ll say if you want me to stop,’ Bull says. ‘Katoh.’
Dorian purses his lips around the syllables. ‘How positively qunari of you.’
‘And no magic,’ Bull adds, a hand on the waistband of his circus tents.
Dorian bends his knees until they’re flat against his chest. ‘Your trousers are ruining the mood. I must insist they be removed forthwith.’
It’s the only command Bull lets him get away with.
He’s asked himself this question before. Was there a single moment, distinct and set apart from all other formative memories, when he knew what it was he preferred?
He knows when that idea of preference became a necessity and he knows when it poisoned the well of familial affection. Those, he can trace so easily back to the source the same way a reader of palms in Rivain traces the lines in an outstretched hand. But did he rise one morning to the sunlight fluttering across his spoiled skin and his spoiled silk sheets to discover what his body loved as naturally as it could shoot bolts of flame from its fingertips?
No. Maybe. Probably not. Or perhaps?
A hard chest and the press of muscle.
Bull binds his wrists and turns him over. Dorian’s bare ass is presented to the cold air, only it isn’t as cold when there’s someone to share it with.
Katoh. He’s not drunk at all, you see, Bull settled between his thighs. With such large hands, you’d think there would be a level of brutishness, of blunt force, of charging—chargers, after all—but that’s not right. That isn’t how it is.
Katoh. He’s not gentle at all, you see, Bull settled between his thighs. His breathing labors through the heat. The bed is never going to make it. The ropes chafe Dorian’s wrists, a faint hum of sensation added in quiet concord to the rest.
Katoh. He’s not anything at all like the stories, is he, fearful and scornful tales spoon-fed every Tevinter child—but then, he’s not one of them any longer, either. Exiled. Still has the horns, though. There are pommel calluses on his fingers, chafing rough between Dorian’s thighs, on softer skin.
Bull covers Dorian’s mouth with one hand and Dorian licks the sweat from his palm.
He doesn’t say a thing.
They fight a dragon in Crestwood. It isn’t pretty. How anyone can stand on the field and shout about how magnificent it all is with lightning shooting out a giant lizard’s nostrils is beyond him.
These are strange people the Herald of Andraste’s taken up with.
When the ground calms and the beast stills, Bull’s laughter settles like an elegy for the fallen creature over their shoulders. Dorian takes the opportunity to breathe, thank you, while the others loot the hot corpse of the cold-blooded. A trickle of blood runs down the side of his face from his temple; he wipes it clean.
‘Crestwood,’ Dorian says, ‘is a hateful little pisshole—and now it doesn’t even have a dragon to recommend it.’
‘You love it here,’ Bull calls back, over a scaly, spiny ridge.
For everything it isn’t, Dorian supposes, which shapes everything it is.