Despite what Varric would one day claim- or use as a plot point in his novel, which amounted to much the same thing- it was not the flirting that did it. The Iron Bull flirted; the Iron Bull was a flirt; it would not surprise him in the least to learn that the Iron Bull was responsible for making flirt into a noun rather than a verb. He had met the man before he started sleeping with him, and he was perfectly aware of what he was getting into bed with.
That wasn’t to say that it didn’t bother him, but it bothered him the way many of the Bull’s bad habits bothered him. It wasn’t even the most distressing of his bad habits: that distinction went either to the way he keep a large number of sharp objects within reach of the bed, or perhaps the way he would wake from a nightmare and lay there, stiff as a board, until Dorian’s sleeping mind remembered that he hadn’t actually fallen asleep on a literal mountainside, and woke him up enough to banter sleepily until the other man relaxed. It was, maybe, an annoyance on par with his tendency to make terrible puns.
So when he walked in on the Bull and that redheaded barmaid- Adele? Anais? Adelais? What was her name?- it wasn’t the fact that they were flirting that threw him off. She was a redhead, and she came with beer, of course the Bull was flirting. But the Bull was also smiling, soft and genuine, and touching, brushing a strand of hair that had come free of her bun behind her ear, his expression sincere and fond and…
And that was the point at which his self-preservation instinct kicked in and he stopped gaping and left the tavern.
Stupid stupid stupid…
The northwest corner tower was mostly abandoned still, and just barely repaired enough to disqualify as a disaster waiting to happen. That also made it deserted, and as good a place as any to get a grip on himself.
Stupid stupid stupid stupid…
What had he expected, really, that it hurt so much? It wasn’t as though they had made any promises to each other. There had never been talk of being exclusive, for all that Dorian hadn’t slept with anyone else in quite some time, and hadn’t found any sign that the Bull had indulged elsewhere either. Clearly he’d missed something.
A whole lot of something.
Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid…
Why did he do this to himself? Why couldn’t he just shut it off, stop caring so bloody much and setting himself up for disappointment: with his father, with Alexius, with Tevinter, with a depressingly long string of men which now ended with the Bull…
What had made him think this would be different, anyway? The Bull was Qunari, there was all kinds of cultural baggage that would have made a relationship impossible, the very least of which was the war between their peoples. The Qun disallowed such entanglements all together: was the Bull even capable of-
He cut that thought off before he could complete it. Of course the Bull was capable. The Qun did not allow for familial relationships any more than it did romantic ones, but he’d defy anyone to look at the Chargers and not see a family. The question wasn’t whether the Bull could have a relationship with him, but whether he would want to?
And why should he, when their something had been so unequal from the start? The Bull had been a lot of things for him: a furnace on cold nights, a shoulder to cry on, one fantastic lay and a surprisingly indulgent cuddler. It had taken him a long time to realize that the Bull had been doing far more for him than he was for the Bull. At first it was simply force of habit from Tevinter: for a very long time, every fond gesture and affectionate caress had to be catalogued and memorized, because they were fleeting moments, unlikely to be repeated- or even meant to be fond or affectionate in the first place. They were also just about the only things he could hope for, so he made do. By the time he realized that yes, the Bull was affectionate and fond and very open to being so time and again, he wasn’t really sure what to do with himself. Indecision paralyzed him for a time, and then when he did start to try to reciprocate a bit, he found that the Bull was just as uncomfortable with being taken care of as Dorian was with public displays of affection. He’d had to be sneaky about it: pay attention to what foods he ate with gusto as opposed to just eating, track down his supplier of Qunari whiskey and acquire an inventory of the goods he could supply, swallow his pride and whatever snide remarks Krem could come up with on short notice and ask the man for help, and then utilize no small amount of trial and error.
He’d thought that the Bull was being stubborn, or prideful, when it came to refusing help. Bull-headed, even.
Maker, it’s not even a real relationship and you're picking up his bad habits.
Now, he had to concede to the possibility that the Bull simply hadn’t wanted Dorian’s help.
Stupid stupid stu-
Right. Enough. This is… unbecoming.
For a long while, Dorian merely stood there, breathing through his nose with his lips pressed into a thin line. He counted heartbeats until the threat of tears had been wrestled into submission, and then let himself start thinking again.
This was hardly the worst case scenario. The Bull had someone else, someone who made him happy? It was hardly Dorian’s place to begrudge him that: he wanted it to be, but as of this moment he wanted to not want it more. They’d never defined their something, so it wasn’t fair to blame the Bull just because Dorian had believed it to be more than it was. He doubted the barmaid was a new development, so the way he and the Bull acted together was unlikely to change unless he said anything. He’d go back to his room, wall that part of himself off again, drink enough of the wine he had stashed under the bed to be able to make himself sleep, and then carry on as usual. He’d put up with much worse than a bit on the side of what was never going to be any sort of romantic anything: he’d been the bit on the side, emphasis very much on the word bit. And it wasn’t like any of those men had been quite a free with their affections as the Bull was- it really shouldn’t have surprised him like it did, to find that he wasn’t special in that regard.
Nothing had changed simply because Dorian was better informed. If he were lucky, the Bull wouldn’t notice any oddities in his behavior and they could continue on as they had been. Or, if he did notice, perhaps he wouldn’t care enough to comment.
This is rapidly becoming maudlin.
It was probably past time for him to head back to his quarters. He pushed off and away from the wall and made his way to the stairs.
The Bull was at the bottom of them, frozen on his way up. Dorian blinked down at him.
“Cole found me,” he explained.
“Ah,” Dorian replied eloquently. He wondered just how many stupids had made it out into the Bull’s ears. “I don’t suppose he managed to keep his mouth shut for once.” He winced. That was more uncharitable than he really should be.
The Bull shook his head.
Dorian sighed. “Look I- I just- you don’t-” He wondered if maybe Cole could materialize here and try and pluck the words out of his head, even if he had been rather mean to him a moment ago. They could hardly sound more pathetic coming from the spirit than himself.
“Why don’t we talk back at my place?” the Bull suggested.
Dorian thought, more than a little longingly, of the wine in his room, and the wall he’d been planning to reassemble tonight. Then he dismissed the thought. It was probably for the best, that they get this over with now. “All right.”
Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid…
That particular helpful mantra repeated itself in his head all the way back to the Bull’s room, giving way to a near-total buzz of dread when the door clicked shut behind him. This was probably going to be the end of things- of their something. He was going to have to gather his belongings- an involved process, as there was too much here for him to carry in one trip- and then never return. No more warmth in the cold, no more shoulder to cry on, no more indulgent cuddles; no more scrambling for curry powder or mangos, no more waking in the middle of the night to soothe away whatever fears were making the Bull so tense, no more swearing at mortar and pestle as he tried to create horn balm or a poultice for his bad knee. This was it, the end.
The Bull sat down on the bed, his leg brace thumping against the frame. Dorian leaned back against the wall, and jutted out his chin.
Let’s get this over with.
“I care about you,” the Bull blurted out. “A lot.”
“But..?” Dorian prompted with the Bull declined to continue.
“Your ass is fantastic?” the Bull joked weakly.
“That was never up for debate,” Dorian reminded him. “What’s up for debate is- is us. Assuming there is an us?”
“There’s an us,” the Bull confirmed.
“And what is us exactly?”
“You and me.”
There were times where he really could do without the vast differences in their cultures, to say nothing of the fact that they were primarily communicating in a language that wasn’t either of theirs. It made it really difficult to tell what the Bull was trying to say sometimes.
“Well, full marks for grammar, but you can’t possibly think my problem is with the first person plural.”
“I think you might have problem with persons, plural,” the Bull replied.
Dorian narrowed his eyes. They’d been doing their something for long enough that he was starting to recognize when the Bull was herding him towards something, and he found he didn’t have the patience for it tonight.
“Well, if you already have me figured out, enlighten me,” he told the Bull.
For a very long time the Bull did not reply, merely stared at him as Dorian grew increasingly anxious. He should probably just leave now- when the Bull did speak, he was probably going to reply with something more caustic than he actually wanted to say and-
“I don’t know,” the Bull admitted finally. “I didn’t even know there was a problem until Cole materialize on the table.”
This was the point where Dorian should speak, should say something, should explain so that they could move the night along and he could retreat back to somewhere safe and lick his ridiculous self-inflicted wounds in private but-
“Talk to me, Dorian,” the Bull said. “Tell me what you need.”
That was the problem, wasn’t it? Dorian already had everything he needed: adequate food, clothing and shelter, the company of people he trusted not to kill him (some of whom we even tolerable conversational partners) and a place to do his research. Everything else was a luxury- not to be relied on, or put on par with the necessities. He’d have thought his panicked, fumbling flight from Tevinter would have taught him that, but he’d thought wrong.
Stupid stupid stupid… when will you learn?
“You’ve already given me what I need, and more,” Dorian said. “I’m… sorry that my personal problems caused Cole to inconvenience you and the barmaid.” Which had sounded less venomous in his head than it did coming out his mouth. Kaffas, why couldn’t he shut it off?
“Is that what this is about?” the Bull asked, sounding surprised. He must have thought Dorian already knew. “Lindza?”
Dorian shrugged. At least now he knew her name.
“Dorian, she’s pregnant.”
Dorian gaped. She was- how was- seriously, he had left Tevinter, walked across half the bloody continent, taken up with a qunari mercenary, and he was about to be dumped because of familial obligations involving procreation? And people wondered why he believed in the Maker! There was no way that there wasn’t some kind of omnipotent force at work here, not with his life being as full of irony as it was.
“I didn’t even know humans and qunari could interbreed,” is what actually left his mouth.
“Wait,” the Bull said with a frown. “Hold on. Lindza is pregnant, not by me, she and her girlfriend are planning on raising it, and someone somewhere got the idea that if it’s a son he’ll suffer for having two mothers rather than a father. Seeing as we don’t really have fathers under the Qun, she came to me to ask if I felt like that was something I felt I’d missed out on.”
“I see,” Dorian said, trying to fit that information into all the apparently erroneous suppositions he’d made about the two of them tonight. Very quickly, he came to the conclusion that he was a complete and utter idiot who’d all but thrown a tantrum for absolutely no reason at all.
“You thought the two us were hooking up behind your back?” the Bull asked.
“And clearly I was wrong,” Dorian admitted. “Not that you would necessarily need to go behind my back. We haven’t exactly made any promises of exclusivity.”
He immediately regretted the addendum.
Why can’t you stop pushing for once in your life and accept things as they are?
“Well, I haven’t been seeing anyone else, and neither have you,” the Bull said.
“That’s what I thought, yes,” Dorian confirmed.
“But you just said that you thought Lindza and I were together,” the Bull reminded him.
“That’s what I thought before entering the tavern, and now that you’ve corrected me, I know it to be so,” Dorian clarified.
“But when you thought we were together, you got upset. Really upset- Cole was panicking,” the Bull said.
Dorian winced, both at the memory of the loss of control and the reminder that Cole and his bloody empathy had been caught up in it. “Not my finest moment, I admit.” He’ll have to apologize to the spirit later. Perhaps get him a new hat.
“So you were upset that you thought we were exclusive, and then you thought I was sleeping with someone else,” the Bull checked.
“Yes,” Dorian said, because that was easily the least embarrassing part of this mess.
“Were you- was there someone else you turned down because you didn’t want to cheat on me, and then regretted it?” the Bull asked.
“Festis bei umo canavarum,” Dorian swore, because where the fuck had that question come from? “No. Maker, no. Why the hell would I do that? We’ve- this has been good, between you and I. It’s good, us.”
“…but?” the Bull prompted.
“No butts but those we shit out of,” Dorian said.
For a long while they merely looked at each other. Dorian could not help but get the impression that he’d walked in here expecting one conversation, the Bull had expected another, and somewhere along the way they’d been ambushed by a third conversation neither one of them knew how to deal with.
“Look,” Dorian said finally. “I like how we are. I don’t want to end this, and I probably won’t be the one to end it. If you get tired of things, or if I’m clinging too tightly, or if you decide that you need space, you’re just going to have to tell me.”
The Bull regarded him. Dorian refused to speak further until the Bull actually said something. He was exhausted, and this wasn’t a matter he could settle on his own.
“Man, we are shit at this,” was what the Bull finally said.
“I don’t even know what this is,” Dorian agreed.
“What do you want it to be?”
Too much. You always want too much, you greedy, spoiled child.
“Maker, Bull, don’t ask me to impose all that on you,” he said. “I like how things are, and I want to see them continue.”
“And if you tell me, what, you’ll think I’ll break up with you for answering my question?” the Bull demanded.
“I don’t want you to feel obligated to reach for some kind of impossible standard,” Dorian explained. “This is good, it’s familiar, I don’t want it ruined because I have some ridiculous fantasy which would never work in the real world.”
“Do you know what I want?” the Bull asked.
“No,” Dorian said. “How could I? I’m not the one with Ben-Hassrath training!”
The Bull blinked at him.
Shut up shut up shut up you stupid-
“Maker forbid you actually come out and tell me anything about yourself!” he continued, before he could stop himself. He bit down on his tongue, and counted back from five before he said anything even more childish. “That was unfair. I’m sorry.”
“I want to thank you,” the Bull said. And of course, of course, he would break up with him so considerately Dorian couldn’t even be properly angry at him- except that wasn’t what he was doing at all. “The horn balm that keeps finding its way into my pack- I’ve checked around, and it’s not any of my boys doing it. That was you, right?”
Dorian nodded once, sharply. The Bull seemed to take it as some kind of encouragement.
“And Stitches keeps coming up with new crap for my knee, and I know he doesn’t have the time or herbs to muck around with different recipes. That’s you too.”
“Yes, well, I wouldn’t want you to be distracted by an aching knee or itching horns in the field,” Dorian excused himself.
“Is that all?” the Bull asked, and really, if they didn’t end up hating each other he should have a talk with him about asking questions he already knew the answers to.
“What else could it be?” Dorian asked.
“I’m not sure,” the Bull said, and though he remained seated on the bed, it seemed like he was getting closer. “But when I slip some of more of your fancy make-up crap into your vanity I’m certainly not thinking about your ability to fight.”
Maker, Dorian hadn’t even realized how long it had been since he’d had to buy new kohl.
“What are you saying then- that you have feelings for me? Some kind of romantic attachment even?” He’d meant it as a challenge, but it came out far too uncertain for that.
The Bull surprised him by not answering his questions with another question. “Yes.”
“Oh,” Dorian said. “Oh.”
He moved over the bed- it felt like he floated- and sat down next to the Bull.
“Oh,” he said again.
You’re very eloquent today, Dorian.
“I don’t know what to say,” he admitted, which at least had the distinction of being words.
“Say that it’s you too?” the Bull asked him.
As though Dorian would ever deny him. “Of course,” he said. “Of course it’s me too, I can’t believe you didn’t already know.”
“It’s not like you tell me either,” he said. “My training can only take me so far.”
He had to touch the Bull then: he reached up to grab that man’s horns, and found himself sliding into the man’s lap. “We’ll have to work on that,” he said. “Later.”
“So, kid, do we need to go up there?” Varric asked.
“No,” Cole replied in his usual serene tones. “They’re happy. The hurt isn’t healed, but it no longer festers.”
“Good,” Varric said. He could get the details in the morning.