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an empty cage, if you kill the bird

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Art by Zycros.


It’s late into the night that Bull finally gets a break in this damn investigation.

Six people have died in their homes in the last week of causes ranging from accidental electrocution to blood loss because their fucking arm was torn from their body, and Bull’s been convinced since the third death there was something linking ‘em together. He couldn’t say why — call it a hunch. The rest of the boys in the precinct laughed at him but let him have his conspiracy, and Krem even brought him coffee earlier tonight in a show of “support if not agreement, you crazy bastard”.

But he’s got it. There’s a link between them, between one guy’s overdose and some lady’s strangulation. The hours spent sifting through receipts and schedules has finally fucking paid off: each of the stiffs had made their way down to Vintown recently, to one shop in particular, and purchased a pet. The pets vary — there's a bird, a lizard, a nug of all things — but who cares what the people bought? It's where they bought them that matters. It's gotta be the vint owner enchanting people, fucking with their heads; or something darker, something deeper he's gotta uncover. But it's there, that's undeniable. His hunches are always right.

"Shit yeah!" he shouts in the empty bullpen, and punches the air.

 

==

 

"So the pet bunny rabbit made her do it?"

"Listen, Krem," Bull replies, tapping his fingers against the bag of receipts he's gathered from each victim's purchase. "I've got a feeling there's something here."

Krem's sitting on the top of his desk like he always does, laptop balanced on his thighs, and he keeps typing while he mocks Bull. Merciless bastard. "If a dog tries to tear your throat out, don't hold it against him. Your ugly mug'd do that to anyone."

Bull snorts and knocks one of Krem's knees with the back of his hand when he brushes past, unsettling Krem's laptop. "And if the vint who owns the place tries to tear my throat out, I'll hold it against you. Keep a handle on your countrymen, Aclassi."

"That was weak even for you, chief," Krem calls to him as Bull heads out, and Bull laughs all the way to his cruiser.

 

==

 

Finding parking in Vintown sucks. Bull feels pretty shitty when he parks in front of a fire hydrant, but it's that or walk for half a mile in the hot Orlesian sun, and with the hours he's been keeping — and shit, the caffeine he's been ingesting — that might kill him. He turns his hazard lights on.

The shop's tucked down a side street, away from the main bustle of tourists and locals alike buying charms and tonics. (There's a crowd forming around another store — Bull makes a mental note to follow up with Krem and his partner Rocky about how that place is doing with keeping their wares in code. They've had too many run-ins with that douche canoe and his "oh, but this falls well within the guidelines set by the state" potions that're way too fucking powerful to be sold to people without background checks.)

It doesn’t look like a storefront so much as a club, or some fancy ass private residence. There are no windows, and the black door’s solid with a golden dragon’s head knocker right in the center, a thick ring held in the dragon’s snarling gob. He tries the handle but it’s locked, so he resorts to hammering the ring against the plate several times. His gut’s twisting up about this place, all senses telling him he should find someplace else to be — but that's a good thing, right now. Means there's something here he should look into.

He stands up tall, swinging his shoulders back. He's got the qunari thing going for him, broad chest and horns stretched out to here, but no vint who manages some kind of murder ring's gonna be intimidated by Bull unless he brings his A-game.

He doesn't hear anything through the door for half a minute, so he pounds the knocker again. It's normal business hours. Who's closed at 2PM on a Thursday? He's halfway to debating the risk versus reward of finding a way in around back when there's finally the heavy click of a latch sliding on the other side of the door.

A man stands in the opening, somebody you'd know for a vint even if you saw him in the suburbs and out of his element. He's tall for a human, with long dark hair pulled back into what Bull can tell is the beginning of an elaborate braid, all interwoven with golden threads and shit. The guy's wearing his weight in gold, thin chains strung between piercings in his ears and nose, wrapped around his neck and his bare forearms. He's wearing a heavy white robe decorated with, what else, a snake and a fucking dragon spiraling all over.

Bull can admit to himself, in the privacy of his own mind, that he's maybe focusing on how vinty the guy is so he doesn't think about how he's actually pretty hot, all dark kohl and plump lips and black nail polish.

The man raises one finely-arched eyebrow and curls his shining lips into a controlled smirk. "Is there a purpose to your disturbing me, or may I shut the door in your face without repercussions?"

"Detective Hissrad, VRPD." Bull taps the badge over his left breast with a fingernail. "I've been investigating several recent incidents and wanted to pick your brain about 'em." The man's expression doesn't change one whit, but then anybody who manages to somehow magic five people to death in a week is probably a stone cold hardass. "Gonna let me in, or should I just start asking questions?"

The man hums, narrowing his eyes in a way that should make him look suspicious but just makes him look this weird mix of bored and amused. "Do come in, Detective Hissrad, VRPD." He leaves the door open as he turns back into his store, and Bull doesn't let the sense of foreboding rippling through his chest keep him from following.

The inside's the same as the outside — in that it sure as hell doesn't look like any kind of store Bull’s used to seeing. It's like... those late night ads on TV, with the old grandmotherly hedgewitches telling you they can safely commune with the spirits to tell you your future, how they're always sitting in front of heavy red drapery with gold spangles hanging everywhere. It's like that, except not all clearly bought at a theatre supply store.

The walls have deep blue embossed wallpaper, the kind you see in swank hotels, and the white carpet’s lush enough that Bull has to pay attention to make sure he lifts his feet high enough off the floor so he doesn't trip and fall flat on his face. Also, who the fuck owns white carpets? Especially for a pet store. Krem's girlfriend Lace has a nug that finds ways to stain the ugly brown shit that passes for carpet in their apartment. The cleaning bills for this place must be staggering.

Or, more reasonably, this place isn't a pet store. Where are the pets anyway? All Bull sees as he follows the man — shit, gotta get his name, the store’s listed under a “Magister D” which isn’t a name, for fuck’s sake — is classy ass interior decorating and Tevinter metalwork sculptures.

The man leads him into what looks like someone's rich worldly aunt's sitting room, and gestures to a plush blue sofa before disappearing through another door. The polite thing would be to sit, but Bull’s too wigged out by this place for politeness. So he putters around the room, sniffing the red flowers on a side table, trying to figure out what the sculpture on the floor behind the sofa is — probably something about the supremacy of magic and Tevinter’s mighty triumph over having to give a damn about demons — and eyeing the three untouched doors on one side of the room, each of ‘em dark wood with different animal-faced knockers in the center of ‘em. Maybe that’s where the guy keeps the animals… or the contraband. Innocent-looking trinkets that pack a wallop of magic when you least expect it. Maybe he enchants the fucking dog tags that you get when you pick out your mabari puppy and next thing you know you’re holding a gun to your head and kissing your ass goodbye.

Yeah, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. But none of this does, so Bull’s theorizing is in good damn company.

Bull’s standing in front of the bear door when the guy returns, carrying a tray with a stainless steel teapot and dainty little black porcelain teacups. And — sure, of course there’s a thin black snake curled around his neck and shoulders, like some kind of scarf.

“Won’t you sit, Detective?” The man sets the tray on the fancy coffee table and folds himself into one of the chairs across from the sofa. He pours whatever’s in the pot into two cups and leans back into the chair, cup in-hand, tucking his feet under his legs, the limber little fucker.

He and his weird-ass snake follow Bull with their eyes when Bull moves to sit across from him on the sofa.

Bull’s surprised when he picks up his own cup and breathes in the scent of rich chocolate, and even more surprised when he takes his first sip and the bite of cinnamon hits the back of his tongue. The barb’s halfway out of his mouth — good to know Tevinter picked something up from the qunari — when he figures he should at least try for diplomacy. Or as diplomatic as you can be in some wacko’s retro Tevinter foyer, wondering where he hides his skeletons. Literally, maybe.

“S’good, thanks,” is what Bull says instead, and the man smiles at him like he heard the other thing anyway.

Bull clears his throat and doesn’t think about the curve of the man’s lips. “So you’re Magister D, right? Or do you have another name I can call you that’s less awkward?”

“It’s not my name,” the man says, and sips at his cocoa. “But it’s what you may call me.”

Bull snorts and sets his cup back on the coffee table. When he leans back, the man — Magister D? Aw fuck no, D is the most Bull can manage — glares at the cup, then up at him. Bull lifts an eyebrow and D’s pretty lips curve further down, and Bull moves the cup to one of the blue doily coasters scattered on the table.

D hums and drinks again.

“Anyway,” Bull says, and D curls both hands around his cup and holds it under his chin, “thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I’ve been looking into several recent accidental deaths in the area, and I noticed that they all had something in common: each victim had purchased an animal from ‘Magister D’s Pet Shop’ no more than a week before they kicked the bucket.”

D blinks lazily, turning the cup in his hands. He reaches up briefly, to stroke a finger along the top of the snake’s head.

He looks damned underwhelmed by the information; anybody normal would at least show some sign of concern — and Bull would know if the calm was faked, too. D’s calm isn’t faked. He genuinely looks like he doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

“I’m sorry,” D eventually says, when Bull doesn’t continue. “How unfortunate for them.”

And this guy is for real, Bull thinks, and rests his elbows on his thighs when he leans forward. Kind of hard to be intimidating when you're sitting on the equivalent of a fucking expensive cloud, but Bull’s got a lot of faith in people's being freaked out about staring down a qunari. Krem's always jealous of that. "You seem pretty okay with that," Bull says, and D actually lifts his shoulders in a shrug, reaching up again to ensure the snake has remain settled.

He sets his teacup down on another doily and crosses his legs at his stupidly delicate ankles, which are of course circled in golden bangles that somehow don't jingle annoyingly every time he moves. "I'm sorry, Detective, are you accusing me of something?"

"Not yet," Bull replies, and D's mouth twists sharply into a grin, showing his teeth. Bull’s mouth goes dry — maybe Krem should take lessons from this fucker.

D extends his arms, palms up, wrists together. The snake wraps itself around one of his arms, head resting in the crook of his elbow as it stares unblinkingly at Bull. “Shall you be taking me in this afternoon?”

Bull doesn’t try and avoid the sudden image of whipping out his cuffs and shackling D right quick, and then showing him exactly where he’d be taking him — Andraste in a basket, inappropriate. And counterproductive. Damn vints, and damn his overactive imagination. D probably put something in the cocoa, backhanded tricks all they’re fucking good at.

D’s smirking at him, and he keeps his hands in front of him until Bull huffs out a no, and then picks up his cup again. The snake returns to his shoulders. Bull’s half-convinced it’s some sort of familiar, following any mental direction D sends its way. “You mentioned you wanted to ask me questions? You may do so.”

Bull’s got the patience of a saint, and he employs it now, not rising to that bait. He pulls out his notebook and starts with the first vic.

D recalls each of the “patrons”, as he refers to them, and keeps up the facade of not being bothered at all by what happened to them in the safety of their own homes. What a fucker. If he’s not instigating the killings himself, he’s got a hand in it: Bull knows it in his gut. Nobody wearing a snake outside of a circus is good news.

He gets what amounts to diddly-squat from the guy by the end of his visit — except for the surety he’s involved, somehow. D looks disinterested even by Bull’s more probing questions, and when he leads Bull back to the front door and Bull turns to him one final time, he raises both eyebrows expectantly.

Bull stands on the stoop and uses the added height to really stare D down. “This doesn’t look like any pet shop I’ve ever been in.”

D smiles, flashing his teeth again, says, “Thank you, Detective” and shuts the door in Bull’s face.

 

==

 

There’s no way he’s gonna get a warrant on his hunch, the vint’s suspicious attitude and choice of pet notwithstanding, so Bull readies himself for the long haul, for too many hours when he doesn’t have anything pressing that he can spend going over notes, reviewing new reports that he can maybe trace back…

“He was pretty, huh?” Krem asks one morning, leaning over Bull’s shoulder to read the top of the folders he’s got spread across his desk.

Bull went to bed late — and slept like shit anyway — the night before and is only awake now through the grace of caffeine and sugar, so it takes him a second to parse out Krem’s snideness — and then he rounds his shoulders and shoves the folder into the “maybe involved” pile. Nobody’d bought any pets recently at that sucker’s place: he’d just managed to die on the crapper all by his lonesome. “Ain’t got nothing to do with it.”

“So he was pretty,” Krem says, and Bull considers upending his coffee mug over the bastard’s head.

Krem makes it up to him later when he brings over a case file and drops it in the middle of Bull’s desk. Bull immediately starts going through it, and by the name of the vic — Ser Gaspard de Chalons — he's whistling low under his breath. Sheeeeee-it. The prime minister's cousin, dead of an apparent overdose, found by the help in the wee hours of the morning.

Bull flips through the report and lets out a rush of breath, leaning back. "So this is a tinderbox waiting to blow. What's the news making of it?"

"Total shitshow," Krem says, folding his arms over his chest. "But what you need to know isn't mentioned in that file."

"You gonna fill me in, or are you gonna stand there and make me guess?" Bull asks, looking back to the file for anything he missed during the skim.

“Tempting,” Krem ribs him, but leans forward, ducking their heads together. “Madame Prime Minister recently acquired a pet.”

It’s a weird sensation, the bottom falling out of your stomach at the same time that you get a punch of adrenaline to the chest. “You’re shitting me.”

Krem gives Bull half a smile before standing up straight. “Maker’s honest truth. Some kind of bird: Rutherford down in Major Crimes tipped me off. Seems they’ve heard about your little hate-on all the way up on floor 7.”

“Major Crimes can go fuck themselves,” Bull breathes, the insult second-nature, but he’s also wondering if he should send Rutherford and his crew of assholes a fruit basket. Or a stripper.

Prime Minister de Chalons purchases some pretty bird from Magister D’s Pet Shop of Magical Fuckery and in short order her warmonger of a cousin is dead in a puddle of his own bile. “They’re gonna question her,” he says unnecessarily, and ignores the long wincing squeak his chair makes when he tilts back, folding his hands behind his head. “And nothing’s gonna seem suspicious because who suspects some wackadoodle animal lover sold her more than a pet?”

Krem snorts. “You accusing the prime minister of putting a hit on her cousin?”

“Can’t be that simple,” Bull admonishes, and thinks. So it’s not as straightforward as D getting his ya-yas out by magicking random strangers to death. Could be anything from connections with those punkass dragon cultists who keep tagging the metro trains with variations of “They Will Rise” to requests coming in from over the border, bleeding down from Tevinter through Nevarra. But why the fuck would any of that result in the corpses of a couple of middle-aged sad sacks and the prime minister’s dick of a cousin?

Krem knocks him on the shoulder and walks back to his desk. “You let me know if you need any more case-changing insights, chief.”

 

==

 

Bull gets there early in the morning, parking across the street from the shop and waits, drinking his weight in bitter coffee and trying to look inconspicuous. After an hour of nothing he pulls out his phone and loses the next hour to Candy Crush, glancing up between stages to look out on the deserted street and heave sighs.

People start milling around about 9, but he never sees D come down the street, open the shop. Maybe he lives there, behind one of the unopened doors.

At noon Bull takes a pit stop inside the little c-store he’s parked in front of and buys a stack of meat buns, chomping into one as soon as he’s back on the sidewalk. He almost chokes on his bite when he notices two women approach the shop — and open the door on the first try, no knocking required. They disappear inside and Bull fumbles with his keys for half a second before abandoning the bag of food on the roof of his car and hustling across the street.

The door’s still unlocked when he tries it, thank fucking Andraste, and he lets himself in and heads down the hall towards the voices. It’s D and the couple sitting in the living room, and while the women — an elf and a Rivaini, well-dressed, likely from the other side of town — look at him and then politely look away, D stares at Bull for a good fifteen increasingly uncomfortable seconds while his nostrils flare. It takes Bull a minute to even realize that in addition to his freaky snake D’s got a red fox laying across his thighs, his fingers curled in its coat, like the thing’s a lapdog.

“Detective Hissrad,” D says eventually, voice clipped, interrupting the elf as she talks about their last pet, a cat or something. When she stops talking he seems to realize what he did and looks at her, his expression going kind and open and absolutely 100% faked, “I apologize, Ms Reina. The detective and I have business that he insists upon. You may browse the pets at your leisure, and I will be with you once I’ve seen him out.”

Bull keeps a lid on the grin that he so badly wants to flash at the guy. Not so proper and aloof when he’s caught off guard, is he.

D taps his wrist and the snake winds its way down to settle around his forearm, and then he lifts the fox from his lap to his shoulders. The fox — easy as anything — curls around his neck like a shawl. So situated, D shows the couple to the door with the griffon knocker, rapping three times before opening it for them and gesturing them through. “Please take as long as you need. It is important that both you and the animal choose each other.”

The couple says something that has D smiling politely, and then he shuts the door and fucking rounds on Bull, mouth drawn down into a sneer that somehow still works for him. He’s all done-up like he was the other day, but he’s wrapped up in deep layered purples and… yeah, he’s not wearing shoes.

Vints.

At least the fox is looking at Bull like it’s amused.

“And to what do I owe this pleasure, Detective Hissrad?” He folds his hands in front of him, careful of the snake amidst all of his jingling rings and bangles, and doesn’t move back to his chair.

“Y’ever get distracted by how much noise you make?" Bull could be diplomatic, but he's not feeling it today, not for a fucking murderer at least. He sits down on the chintzy little sofa and picks up a tiny cake, bites into it, and hums.  Cherry and chocolate, rich too. Only the best for this wacko and his clients. "I bet the weight's good for your arms though."

"I would like you to leave," D snaps, lifting a hand to steady the fox when he moves to stand in front of Bull, the coffee table between them. Bull has no idea why the fox isn’t freaked out by a snake. Aren’t they natural enemies? Something like that? "Say your piece and let me return to my customers. It's important that I observe their... interactions with the animals."

"Oh yeah, 'course, important," Bull says, spitting crumbs. Rude of him — his tama raised him better than that and she'd box his ears for sure — but he knows what he's doing. The vint's ears go several shades darker, flushing with an anger he's doing a fairly decent job of concealing otherwise. "What if I'm here for a pet?"

Both of D's eyebrows shoot up, and he moves his hands to his hips. The fox looks fucking ecstatic, somehow, and lifts it head to chitter. D ignores it, though Bull sees one of his eyebrows twitch. "I've doubts about your sincerity. But if that's the case, Detective Hissrad, we can get this over with posthaste." Something happens to his face, his expression twisting from exasperated to expectant, and Bull feels the shiver start at the base of his skull and shoot down his spine. Motherfucker looks downright thrilled at the prospect.

So it has to be something with... buying a pet, that marks his victim. His target? Somebody's target. But then the prime minister would be dead and not her warmongering fuckheel of a cousin... Shit, Bull’s never been great at subterfuge.

He leans back, draping his arms over the back on the sofa and looking D straight in the eye. "So how's it work then? I take a cute puppy home and in three days someone bashes my head in? Electrocutes me in the shower? Leaves the iron on?"

D's unmoved by the list of possibilities, frankly looks bored by them, and clucks his tongue once Bull’s done. "Detective, I do not organize the murders of my customers." He's staring down his nose at Bull, and Bull has half a mind to tell him it's not accomplishing the haughtiness he's going for 'cuz he can see straight up his nostrils. "I am in the business of connecting animals with humans, and... ensuring that the contract both parties are beholden to is understood."

Fancy words for buying a pet — could be that D just talks like that, or that there's something hidden in what he's saying. "Contract" is suspicious, at the very least. And... "Whaddya mean, 'both parties'? What's a dog gonna do other than eat, sleep, and shit?"

D's expression sours, his pretty mouth turning down at the edges, and he picks the fox up off of his shoulders and sits down in his chair, crossing his ankles delicately and steepling his fingers on his thighs. The snake slithers down his hand, wending its way between his fingers. The fox vaults off of his lap onto the floor and disappears under the coffee table. "Animals are far more complex than you could begin to imagine, Detective, even with what you are."

Bull huffs, and reaches forward to swipe another dainty bite of cake. The fox is sitting under the edge of the table, staring up at Bull with its wide dark eyes. It’s… watching him, which, sure. He’s used to that in Orlais, even if he’s never been singled out by a fucking animal before. "If that's an oxman jibe, you're gonna need to be more overt. That's basically one of my nicknames nowadays, I get called it enough."

Weirdly enough, when D frowns Bull’s got this feeling it's not at him. "The qunari are an ennobled race," D says in clipped tones. "Anyone who insists otherwise is a fool, unaware of history."

Bull stares at him, trying to find the tease in his words, his expression, but D looks sincere as a heart attack.

Bull eats the cake he lifted, well, politely. Doesn't even lick his fingers after. "You're a fucking bizarre vint."

"Magister D," D... corrects? and Bull snorts. And then realizes he's lost the plot of this conversation, let himself be directed down a path of inquiry that's not immediately useful. (But he's got things to ponder later: the vint saying "humans" and not people, the fuck; whatever a "contract" for buying a pet is; and something about qunari and history.)

The door the women disappeared through earlier opens abruptly and D stands in a smooth motion of silk and leather, turning to face them with his hands clasped in front of him, snake coiling up his arm like jewelry. "You have chosen," he says, and Bull gets the sudden, unnerving feeling that D's not talking to the people.

"She came right up to me," the elf enthuses, and she ducks her head so the mabari pup in her arms can headbutt her. Her face blooms into a smile and her wife giggles, petting the pup from ears to tail.

"Marian is very direct in her affections," D says, and Bull can't help but lean forward, as though that'll give him a better take of the situation — but D sounds thoughtful, and sad. "Let me fetch the contract."

D walks past Bull — glares at him on the way, thanks — and through the door behind the sofa, and the couple goes between being distracted by the excitable pup the elf’s holding and sneaking glimpses at Bull.

"Do you have a pet?" the Rivaini asks, giving him one helluva onceover. When Bull shakes his head, she continues, "We came here on a recommendation from a friend. He found the sweetest cat. Puts up with him, anyway, and he’s a bit of a bastard so that counts for something. He wouldn’t stop talking about how amazing this place is."

Bull can't help himself. "How long's he had the cat?"

The Rivaini glances at the elf who screws up her face, shrugging a shoulder. "Just over two months? The magister’d just opened shop when he got her."

Bull knew not every customer who walked into the shop could possibly end up dead — but it's still shitty to hear, the confirmation. Well, not that people aren't dead. It's good to know the magister isn't bloodthirsty in addition to being a bastard.

"Thanks," Bull says, standing up and brushing crumbs off his lap. D's still off in some part of the shop pulling up one of his weird contracts, or maybe he’s finding another animal to drape over himself — and Bull could miss something, probably will, but he doesn't particularly want to be here anymore.

He'll remember their faces, notice if either of them turns up dead. For now, he should get back to the station. "You both have a good day."

They smile at him, real pretty-like, pleased as punch by the pup the elf holds in her arms; and Bull palms another of those little cakes and sees himself out.

He’s halfway back to the station when he realizes he didn’t ask D a damn thing about de Chalons, and the curse he lets out echoes between the high rises.

 

==

 

Bull's apartment is small, but he doesn't spend a lot of time in it. He's not sure if it's a chicken or egg thing — if it were larger, maybe he'd spend more time on the couch reading or watching the boob tube, instead of eating whatever's not gone off in his fridge and passing out in bed as soon as his head hits his pillow.

Regardless, it's a place to rest his head, and where all his mail gets sent, and it's dirt cheap because it's an absolute shithole. There's a stain in the corner of the ceiling that Bull’s not questioned since he moved in, but knows is growing every month. Shit, he's named the cockroaches in the bathroom after Major Crimes.

But it's fine by him. It does what it needs to do, and he’s got a lot of respect for the strictly functional. Besides, it’s better than what some people have.

He doesn’t pass straight out that night. He grabs the box of case files and the notebook he keeps on the floor next to his bed, and spreads all of it across his mattress.

By the time he glances at his watch, he’s spent a little under four hours going over shit he already knows backwards and forwards, with nothing to show for it except the beginnings of a headache, right behind his eyes. He rubs his hands over his face, seeing stars, and leans back against the wall, knocking a horn against the plaster. A couple of seconds later there’s a heavy pounding from the other side, and he lets out a slow sigh, closing his eyes.

“Sorry, Mrs Raleigh. Have a good night.”

There’s no response, but that normally means she’s accepted his apology. If she hasn’t, he can make it up to her tomorrow — grab her paper from the front stoop and tell her he had a doozy of a time with the crossword, could she share her answers with him when she finished? She’d glare at him and tsk about cheating, but the completed crossword would be outside his door when he got up for week the next morning. She was a big softie under all that guff.

When he looks back over the shit spread across his bed, he knows he’s lost any train of thought he was striving for. There’s nothing new to figure out: there’s the connection between the people all pointing to D and that frigging shop, and there’s how weasel-y D is in person, but people are allowed to be unsympathetic douches all they want. No law against that.

He collects each of the files and stores them back in the box, setting it just inside his front door so he’ll trip over it on the way to work tomorrow, and makes himself a cup of hot milk in the microwave. It used to work wonders on him when he was a kid — his tama would shake nutmeg over the top and it’d send him straight to sleep. Doesn’t work so well nowadays, but that’s got more to do with him than anything else.

He shucks off his shirt and pants, peels his socks off, and settles back on the bed with the warm mug between his hands. He breathes in the steam and shakes off the frustration of the day, or tries to. Going to bed frustrated is a perfect way to wake up in a crappy mood, with less ability to act as opposed to react: he didn’t make detective in Val Royeaux so he could get dismissed as a fucking uncontrollable oxman when he was just having a bad day.

He finishes the milk and places the mug just under the side of his bed, in case he wakes up at some point and can’t think past whatever’s ricocheting around his head. He gets comfortable on the mattress, or as comfortable as he can, and stares up at the ceiling.

It’s bare like the rest of his apartment, but he likes to follow the cracks in the paint. It helps him concentrate, slow his breathing, lose the tension in his shoulders… something like meditation, he guesses — a focus point that made anything jostling around in his head quiet down. They talked about that sometimes, his tama and the other tamassrans, how sometimes you needed to slow down and use your head, concentrate as Koslun had, until you see your way forward.

He wishes he’d brought his copy of the Qun with him. It hadn’t seemed important at the time, but that was before he knew there are no Qun ministries in Val Royeaux, only a handful across the whole of Orlais. Before he knew how Orlesians aren’t big on the whole religious liberty thing if you’re not Andrastian.

So this is his sad attempt at giving himself something to concentrate on, until he sees his way forward.

Normally all Bull gets out of it is eventually falling asleep. Thank fuck he gets it tonight.

 

==

 

“You didn’t wait to review the contract,” D tells Bull as soon as he opens the door. He makes no effort to keep Bull out, leaving the door ajar when he drifts down the hallway towards the sitting room.

Bull follows him at a distance, trying to figure out what made him show back up here. Nobody's died from anything weird in the last week — well, died and bought one of D's animals recently, at least.

Maybe it was the stack of files on his desk, each one as ordinary as the next, robberies and burglaries and fucking domestics, run of the mill as anything.

Maybe it was Rutherford in Major Crimes, gracing the cretins in the bullpen to make broad generalizations about the quality of their work, and probably their mothers. (Bull tends not to listen when anybody shows up to stir the pot: Krem'll tell him later anyway, three beers in at Harold's and loose with his exasperation.)

Maybe it was the smile on the couple's face that last time he was at the pet shop, so fucking happy to be getting a dog from a strange vint.

Shit, maybe he just wanted to see the fox again.

"What, d'you make 'em sign it in blood?" Bull asks, and ahead of him D laughs, soft and unnatural — like a wind chime tinkling on a porch when there's no fucking wind — and Bull takes his seat on the sofa, unsettling the, huh. The yellow… cat? That he hadn’t noticed sitting there. It’s a cat, he repeats to himself when the thing disappears over the back of the sofa. Any appendages he saw growing off the back of it like wings were just some weird mutation, or the fucking vint messing with blood magic. Sure. That's more logical.

"Why would I do that?" D asks, tone all reasonable, drawing Bull’s attention back to him. D’s standing at the ornate desk on the side of the room, opening a box and withdrawing a rolled sheet of paper. He holds it out to Bull, and when Bull takes it he smiles thinly. "It's straightforward, you see. In case you were sincere about wanting a pet of your own."

Bull watches D sit and pour himself something from the shining teakettle on the coffee table between them. Probably hot chocolate again. Weirdo.

"Open it, Detective Hissrad," D directs, and Bull glances down at the rolled... shit, is it parchment? Fancy pressed paper, feels expensive when Bull breaks the seal — seriously, red wax and everything, he should've gotten a good look at the symbol on it — and opens it up on his lap. He brushes the bits of wax onto the carpet and swallows the smile aching to stretch his mouth wide when D glowers at him.

It's not any paperwork Bull’s ever seen for a normal pet adoption, all "will you keep your cat indoors" and "how much time can you spend with your dog". This one's for a fucking chimpanzee, to start with, and one of the instructions listed is "do not feed after midnight, regardless of what transpires".

"You sellin' gremlins?" Bull mutters, thinking of the cat thing, and D huffs and rolls his eyes.

"Gremlins are notoriously fickle creatures," he says, and when Bull glances up at him, he's got a tiny smile on his face. "Though I have found after a certain time of day, feeding only results in uncomfortable indigestion."

Bull stares at him for a bit, half-convinced he's imagining D saying stuff. Somehow. "...Heartburn and farts?"

D's smile doesn't change, but Bull would swear his eyes fucking sparkle when he takes another dainty drink from his cup.

 

==

 

Bull reads the rest of the contract and it's weird but nothing's illegal, and nothing suggests anything about getting whacked. Except... Bull reads the final line, before everybody signs, once more, twice, and frowns when he looks up at D.

"What's this mean? 'I accept all risks that may come to me as a result of breaking this contract.'"

"I find that quite clear," D replies, curling his hand under the bottom of his cup and resting it on his thigh.

Bull breathes out heavily, leaning forward. "What're the risks? What happens if I feed the chimp after midnight?"

D seems to find that funny. He rolls his shoulders back, sitting up straight in the chair — Bull hadn't noticed he'd been leaning forward too — and moves his hand from underneath his cup to brush a lock of hair behind his ear. "Oh, he would never choose you. I've written that up for someone else."

"And what happens if that sucker feeds the chimp after midnight?"

D smiles, and Bull holds himself still through the chill that shoots up his spine. "That individual will only get what is coming to them."

"You wanna elaborate on that? Because from where I'm sitting, that could be anything from 'a pissed off monkey' to 'somebody dropping a curling iron in the bathtub'." Bull watches D's face closely when he says it — and sighs internally, like he's gonna get anything from the vint's carefully-maintained mask of indifference. He's gotta get through that before he can observe anything reliably.

D sets his cup on a saucer on the coffee table, and when he leans back he looks down at his hand, running his thumb across his plum-colored fingernails. "You are attempting to apply what you understand about this world to things beyond it," he says, as though that's some sort of answer. When he glances up at Bull, he's smirking. Bastard.

Bull snorts, and swallows one of the little bon bon things D's got laid out in a single bite. D's smirk twists into a grimace, ha. "The shit you say doesn't make a lick of sense."

"And yet you continue to ask me questions, as though I will provide you with anything beyond what I have given you already."

"You don't think it's weird that half of the people you sell pets to end up dead?"

"They bring their deaths upon themselves," D replies crisply, and he stands in one fluid movement of silk and leather. It's not often that Bull has to look up to somebody, even while sitting, but D seems to fucking tower over him in that moment, ten feet tall with eyes like encroaching glaciers. "Detective Hissrad, we cannot continue to have these conversations. There is no point to them, and I've no desire to sit and watch you spit crumbs at me: I've not the endurance for it."

"And I don't have the 'endurance' to deal with another fucking 'accidental death'," Bull snaps back. Even if D doesn't have anything to do with 'em, the lack of empathy he's showing is sketchy as shit.

"If you're not planning to arrest me, I would like you to leave." D doesn't wait for Bull’s response, just swishes off through the snake-headed door and leaves Bull alone in the sitting room.

Bull stays there for a good three minutes, working his bottom lip between his teeth, until he hears a drawn-out hiss coming from under the sofa.

He palms a couple of the bonbons for the boys at the station, and sees himself out.

 

==

 

"So here's the thing," Krem starts with, holding both of his hands in front of him like he's presenting a class project. "Waddles went the way of the dragons last night and Lace is heartbroken."

Waddles is Krem's girlfriend's pet nug, but Bull'd swear it had at least another two to three years left to nug itself around. "Aw shit, give Lace my condolences."

Krem's eyes crinkle when he smiles at Bull, and he shakes his head as he laughs gently. "You big softie." He leans against the side of Bull’s desk. "But I want to surprise her with a new one, or maybe something different enough I'm not trying to replace it? And I was thinking about how you haven’t had a reason to bug that pretty vint recently..."

"He’s not pretty, Krem," Bull responds automatically, and then frowns. "And fuck no. Magister D may not be contracting hitmen to take people out, but there's still something shady about that place."

"Probably," Krem agrees, "which is why we'll probably not take anything home. But what better way to really understand what's goin' on than getting right into it?"

Bull drags a hand across his face. He doesn't even know where to start, with how bad an idea this is. It's all well and good to say you're not gonna adopt a potentially-cursed parakeet but what happens when it blinks its eyes at you all sweet and asks you if you want a cracker, and a week later it's stuffing them down your throat until you choke? ... Somehow?

"This is a fucking terrible idea," he says.

"Yep," Krem replies easily. "Wanna head over around 3?"

“A fucking terrible idea,” Bull repeats, but when three o’clock rolls around he’s following Krem down the station steps to his SUV anyway.

 

==

 

The door to D's shop is unlocked, but when Bull leads Krem down the hall towards the sitting room D's sitting in his chair alone, cup of tea precariously balanced on the chair's arm, a book spread across his lap. He doesn't even look up when they trod in: not when Bull elbows Krem and points him to the sofa, and not when the both of them sit and pilfer — aw shit, éclairs? éclairs — from the table.

Bull finally wads up one of the fancy ass napkins and aims it for D's cup of tea, and when it sinks into the cup and the cup starts to slide, D squawks and flurries into action, grabbing the cup before it can spill across his lap and leaning forward to protect the book. "You impatient ingrate," D hisses, setting the book on the stand next to his chair before balling the sopping wet napkin back up and flinging it across the sitting room.

Bull catches it easily and can't keep the grin off his face, something truly great about seeing the flush to D's dark cheeks, stretching up to his ears. "Didn't seem like you were interested in our business."

"Oh, but if I could convince you to take a pet from this place," D starts, voice heavy with promise, and Bull shrugs a shoulder and gestures to Krem. D pauses as though he hadn't noticed Krem was there at all, and blinks slowly, shifting back in his seat and straightening his back. Looking all regal and mysterious, and not at all like he was about to get into the beginnings of a food fight with a cop. "Welcome."

Krem eyes Bull before nodding towards D. "Thanks. Sorry for bringing the chief along, but I figured he couldn't do more harm than good."

D frowns at him before looking to Bull. "'Chief'? And here you told me you were a detective, Detective Hissrad."

"Nah, he's nobody special," Krem replies, shooting Bull a quick grin. "Detective, same as me. When we were kids he always insisted on police chief when we played cops and robbers and it stuck. Fucking boring role to play as a kid, but he liked telling us what to do."

Bull drags a hand across his face and ignores how he feels embarrassed by Krem telling a potential homicidal maniac about the shit they got up to on the home's playground. "Right, so Krem wants a pet. Something cute and easy to take care of that won't murder him in a week. I don't know why he wanted to come here." Which isn't true, not entirely: it gives them an in they wouldn't have had before, and if there's some threat that shows up then they can take care of it. If all's well that ends well, then they've just got a new nug or whatever.

D ignores Bull entirely, turning his whole body in his chair before addressing Krem: "You may tell me what you have in mind, or I may lead you through the shop and we may see what happens."

"The latter sounds good. I don’t got any ideas." Krem claps his hands on his thighs and stands.

D smiles beatifically, sinking into his salesman shtick, and glides up from his chair towards the doors. He takes the ring lodged in the dragon head's mouth and knocks twice, and pushes the door open before stepping back, gesturing Krem forward with a flourish of his hand. He glares at Bull when Bull brushes past him too — a crack in his performance, makes Bull feel all warm and fuzzy inside — but closes the door behind the three of them anyway.

At least Bull thinks he does. Bull’s kind of stuck staring straight ahead of him at the... room? Is this even a room? It's a good hundred square feet in size, best Bull can guess, but it looks like it goes on forever: the floor slopes, like they're at the top of a hill, and halfway down Krem drops to a squat and slides his fingers through the carpet.

"It's grass," he says, and when he glances up at Bull his brow's furrowed and his mouth's a thin line. "You're still on carpet, right?"

Bull drags his shoe against the plush green carpet underneath him and nods, and then looks back to D, who's standing just inside the door with a smug look on his pretty face.

"If you merely wanted to contemplate the interior decorating, I could have led you through the shop ages ago." He walks past Bull down the hill, pausing when he nears Krem, who's still in the roughage. Something passes over his face, like he's remembered something distasteful, or eaten something nasty. "You're from Tevinter, are you not."

It doesn't sound like a question, but Krem shrugs a shoulder, and pushes himself back up to his feet. "Yeah. Been in the south for years though."

D's eyes narrow, but he doesn't look pissed, at least not at Krem. "Tevinter treats many people unkindly," he says, and then without any explanation of that — it almost sounded like a condemnation, and D's been nothing but the vintiest vint to ever vint since Bull met him — D continues down the hill, his robes billowing around him in the breeze.

The breeze. There's a fucking breeze in here, somehow, and Bull squints when he tries to get another look at the other side of the room, the back wall, what's gotta be there, what Bull swears he could see before, painted yellow with gauzy curtains... but it looks like a horizon now, far beyond what could possibly be contained in a building.

What kind of veil-bending blood magic is this?

He hustles his ass down the hill onto the grass, and there are trees now — were there trees before? how the fuck are there trees? — rising up on either edge of the path D's strolling down, Krem behind him, Bull trailing. Pine trees, old growth: Bull can smell the sap and moss and dirt, and he needs to get Krem the hell outta here.

D abruptly leaves the grassy path, diverting into the trees, and Krem follows him like he's programmed to do it — and Bull breaks into a jog, shit, fucking shit, he got complacent and comfortable and Krem's gonna get offed by a wacko in his magical murder forest.

"Krem?" The trees are packed tight together, dense enough that there's a significant drop in lighting when Bull gets three or four trees deep. He stills, listens for something to give him an idea where they've headed — snapping twigs, crushed needles — but all he hears is the wind moving through the branches, like he's taking a hike through the Emerald Graves. "Krem!"

And there is a noise when he shouts, a crack to his right. When he looks all he sees is a white hare, hesitating where it stands, one paw held above the ground like it's reconsidering. "Krem!" Bull hollers again, and the hare whips around and hightails it into the trees.

Bull's considering ways to climb one of the sturdier-looking pines — or how best to knock 'em down, start a domino effect maybe — when he hears twigs breaking again and... the hare is back, looking up at Bull with wide black eyes. It tips its head, like it's telling Bull to follow it, which is... ridiculous.

About as ridiculous as walking through a door in a pet shop and ending up in a forest with trees that stretch far above what Bull knows is the height of the building.

He lifts an eyebrow at the hare and it tilts its head to one side before turning around again and hopping off. So he follows it, keeping up with it easy enough, has to be sure not to overrun it in the end — and he lifts his arm to block the sunlight suddenly breaking through the trees, burning his eyes.

Before he’s adjusted, he hears a croak of outrage and gets a brief glimpse of D’s silk slippers stomping on the grass. “You stupid man,” D snaps, and he drags Bull’s arm away from his face.

Bull immediately looks around the clearing — grass and wildflowers, trees on all sides — and when he spots Krem knelt down next to the hare, petting it, sure, he lets the tension bleed out of his shoulder, heaving a sigh. “I’m not the guy who fucked off into the trees.”

“It would have served you right to die in the woods,” D huffs, his voice doing something weird halfway through the sentence, like he tried to swallow the words. Bull’s distracted from his anger, his fear of a minute ago, and feels the anxiety unknot itself in his chest, melt into something warm. He has a hard time looking away from D's face, his mouth as he keeps on chewing Bull out for getting lost. "You worried about me?"

D’s eyes go wide, and he jerks his hand away from Bull’s wrist and whirls around, stalking back over to Krem. “Fortunately for you, Cole has a soft spot for lost causes.”

He sinks to his knees and offers the hare a little cakelet he’d hidden somewhere in his robes. Bull’s not sure animals are supposed to eat that much condensed sugar but the hare stands up on its hind legs and takes it from D all normal-like.

D stands again and starts off across the clearing at a quick pace. "Do keep up this time, Detective."

Krem gets up and walks over to Bull, and neither of them follow D immediately. Bull’s still trying to figure out where his certainty D was gonna kill Krem went — fell out his ass, apparently, as soon as D was back in his sights — and Krem looks like he does when he's trying to solve the crossword before his girlfriend does.

"That was a rabbit, right?" Krem eventually says, just as D gets to the edge of the clearing and is turning back to yell at them.

Bull narrows his eyes and glances back to where the hare was half a minute ago. "Yeah?"

Krem breathes out in a rush, and drags his tongue over his teeth. "That's what I thought you'd say."

Bull frowns, and keeps frowning even when Krem starts walking towards D. "Why? What'd you think it was?"

Krem shakes his head and glances over his shoulder. "A rabbit," he says, and Bull doesn't believe him for a second.

 

==

 

They go on their weird nature walk — and Bull’s not gonna let that go, where the hell all of this came from, how's it all fit in a damn building in Vintown, but he has trouble remembering to be skeptically pissed off when he can hear rushing water in the distance, like there's a waterfall just through the next copse of trees — and run across more animals: deer, a raccoon, a handful of nugs.

At some point D pauses, halting them both with an upheld hand, and they watch a big ol' brown bear that doesn't give them the time of day trundle past them. "She would have approached us more directly if she were interested," D says as though that's some kind of explanation, and Bull wonders A) how the hell people can adopt a bear of all animals as a household pet, and B) why there aren't more people being mauled by the pets they adopt from this place. Electrocution seems like a lot of work; why not sell a guy a fucking cougar instead.

"Where would you keep it...?” Krem mutters, and Bull adds that to his list of questions too.

Bull's starting to think there's no point at all to this aside from messing with their heads, when D comes to a stop at the edge of a clearing, waving his hand back towards Krem, ushering him forward. Krem goes as beckoned, and as Bull approaches he can see a grey-tan cat standing out in the grass. It’s a good couple feet high, with fluffy ears that are twitching non-stop as it stares at them.

D walks into the clearing, Krem at his side, and comes again to a stop in front of the cat. D sets a hand on Krem’s shoulder, and gestures with his other towards the wildcat. Actual wild cat, living in D’s shop, watching Krem and D like it’s got nothing better to do.

Krem hesitates next to D, glancing at him. "What is she?"

"She is a lynx," D replies, and Bull can see the smile on his face even in profile. "She's quite taken with you."

Bull's not sure how D knows — the lynx isn't doing anything in particular, just sitting at Krem's feet and looking up at him with its wide eyes, its ears flicking every few seconds.

"Not... sure our place is big enough for a wildcat," Krem says with a laugh, but Bull can see it in his face — he's got the same expression he always gets whenever he's gonna go for something. He wore it before he asked Lace to move in with him, and shit, when he told Bull he was gonna be a cop too, when they were kids.

"It even legal to own one of those things?" Bull asks, and Krem laughs when D huffs loudly and glares.

"I am not a criminal, Detective," D sniffs, which isn't really an answer to Bull’s question, but he's not gonna press it when Krem's slowly squatting in front of the cat, stretching his hand out — and freezing when the lynx shifts forward to bump its forehead against his palm.

"Does she have a name?" Krem asks, tone quiet, and D's back to smiling.

He looks pleased as punch at Krem's question, or maybe how Krem phrased it. "Mae."

"Hey, Mae," Krem coos, and Bull swallows his laugh — Krem's got a bit of an edge and it's always good to see it fall apart, but he doesn’t want the guy to think he’s mocking him.

D turns then, walking towards the edge of the clearing — and there's a path there now, leading through the trees. (So not only is this fucking place magic, in violation of probably a dozen building and magic codes, but D just makes stuff happen whenever he wants it to. Sure.)

He pauses at the treeline, and locks eyes not with Bull or Krem but with Mae, who — shit, bobs its, her head and pads forward after D, Bull and Krem hustling to keep up.

 

==

 

Krem doesn't even wait for Bull to ask, passing him the contract as soon as he's read through it.

Bull goes through it line by line, no speed-reading, going back over each commitment like there are hidden meanings between the letters written in D's frilly script. It's all very "no grains" shit, the same kind of stuff Bull sees ads for those fancy cat foods talk about where they compare a house cat to a lion. And there's the line about mutual respect, which. Sure, you're gonna treat your pet well, that's why you get a pet in the first place.

"It's very important, Detective," D says, and when Bull glances up at him, D's eyes are locked on that line in the contract. "Humans rarely understand what respect is due, when they take in something wild."

"Good thing I'm a qunari, huh?" Bull replies, and D blinks rapidly, looking up at him. The mystical far-off look on his face is gone, and — ha — the tips of his ears are red again.

Krem snorts and takes the contract back so he can sign it. Bull doesn't stop him — there's nothing in there that suggests Krem's gonna end up dead. He's not gonna mistreat anything. He's not gonna disrespect... huh.

Bull hangs back when Krem takes Mae out the front door, loading her into the backseat of his SUV. D stands next to him, arms crossed over his chest.

"I'm gonna ask you a question, and I want you to be honest with me."

D opens his mouth, his lips already forming a protest, Bull can tell, so Bull cuts him off. "I almost got lost in a magic forest you created out of thin fucking air, so you owe me this."

"That was your own fault," D snaps, but then keeps his mouth shut.

Bull watches Krem climb into the front seat and get himself settled, glancing up at Bull and waving a hand at him impatiently. "The 'after-midnight' thing with the chimp, or the final line about respect. It's binding, once somebody puts their name on the line. That's how this works. That's how people die."

D purses his lips. "Not 'that's how I kill people'?"

"People still end up dead," Bull says, "and that's... really fucking wrong, D. You're gonna act all snooty about it, but you know it's wrong. Nobody deserves to die because they're an asshole, even if it's to one of your magical pets."

"That's an interesting philosophy for a qunari to hold." Bull stares at him, and D looks like he's elsewhere, back in his head. Gone is the man who smiled as Krem fell head over heels for a cat. "I don't kill anyone, Detective Hissrad. Sometimes mortals bring death upon themselves. It is neither justice nor mercy to allow someone who relentlessly plods forward with no thoughts towards those beyond themselves, who consistently devalues the very carbon with which they're constructed, to survive and thrive in this world."

Which is... a lot, more words than Bull normally gets outta D, and a shit ton to process besides. "You get to decide that?"

"I decide nothing. I simply provide them with a situation, and they act as they are wont to do." But D's not passionate when he says it, his voice even, like he's reading from a book. It's cold and calculating in a way D isn't, not when you've seen him lose his pretty little head 'cuz he thinks you've lost your way in the woods.

"Who messed you up?" Bull asks before he really thinks through the question, and D's eyes go wide and then snap shut, and before Bull’s aware of what's happening, there's a hand — a strong hand, stronger than what a human should be able to pull off, on his back shoving him out the door, so it can slam shut behind him.

 

==

 

Bull doesn’t sleep well that night, and sleeps like absolute shit the night following. By night three he’s coasting the line between exhaustion and that high you get when your body’s given the fuck up.

He lies in his bed and follows the paint cracks in the ceiling, and eventually digs his cell out of his jeans and thumbs through his contacts. He’s got a couple friends, well, acquaintances who are normally down to fuck, and his thumb hovers over one of ‘em — Becca, this curvy little dwarf with luscious red hair, she’s probably up right now, she works nights and keeps odd hours — but even the thought of her does absolutely nada for him. He scrolls through the rest of his contracts, eyes glossing over the names after a while. Everybody sounds like oatmeal and he’s craving steak. (And fuck, he likes oatmeal, he’s eaten oatmeal every day for the last five years… which. May have something to do with why he’s not feeling it now.)

But he’s tired, and pissed off, and apparently nobody’s good enough for his dick except. Except whatever “steak” is.

He pushes that thought aside, all of it starting to get into dangerous territory even if he’s too drained to pinpoint the trajectory, and he shoves his hand down the front of his shorts and doesn’t think about anything other than a sneering mouth and plum-colored lips, swollen and spit-slick.

 

==

 

The rest of the week blurs together. There’s a robbery in the market district, somebody hitting up Madame de Fer’s, making off with a good thirty thousand in designer handbags. They expect the Bard’s next door is gonna be next, but even with several cops on surveillance, they somehow miss the piece of shit sneaking off with enough fancy shoes to pay Bull’s rent for the rest of his life.

It bogarts Bull’s workday, and sticks with him at night until he paces across his apartment, trying to figure out how the fucker got past de Fer’s wards, their whole set-up. On Friday, he forces himself to quit thinking about it — goes with the boys to grab a couple drinks at Harold’s. Getting drunk on southern beer is pretty impossible for him, at least on his salary, but he hangs out for a couple hours and they shoot the shit, swap stories, enjoy each other’s company.

Bull feels miles better when he wends his way home that night.

He collects his mail and slams the box shut because the latch is funky, and peeks his head in Mrs Raleigh's open door to see if she needs anything. She's just ironing, waves him off with something about pesky neighbors, so he leaves her to it and sorts through his bills... and hesitates outside his apartment at one of the letters. "No shit."

The door sticks so he's gotta shove it, and once he's inside he drops everything but the letter into the basket of mail hanging on the wall.

The letter's light, cheap paper and only a page, two maybe, and he holds it under his nose before opening it, breathing the scent of it in.

And then he laughs at himself, shaking his head and plodding over to the beat up sofa and sinking down onto it. There's nothing to smell. It's been passed through a dozen hands before getting to him, and she wouldn't be so sentimental as to spray it with anything.

He turns the letter over in his hands, reading over the careful lines of his name, his address. The return address is a stamp: red ink with a stylized vinca blossom in the blank space after the country.

Fuck, the postage was probably an arm and a leg.

Bull breathes out heavily and drags a nail under the envelope flap.

It's three pages, thin paper, covered in precise Qunlat that starts to go shaky halfway through the second page. He skims it at first, words jumping out at him — happy, rain, donations — and stares at the valediction for a long time before starting over, to really read it.

The home is doing great, still standing, still taking in kids and churning out adults on the regular. In the great storm (did you hear about that on the news in the south, my heart? did it make the news where you are?) many of the windows were broken, but everyone remains safe and hearty. They receive donations from a local Andrastian ministry, the missionaries mostly well-intentioned and content with rattling on about their Maker in exchange for the assistance they provide.

She hopes he is well, and that he has remembered his prayers and obeisances. One of the children reminds her of him — a child wide-eyed and eager and mischievous, who makes her hips ache from all the running she must do to keep up with them.

She fasted for him during Koslun's feast, with thoughts for his success in his work and in his life. She does not say that she misses him, only that she thinks of him always.

Bull's eyes glaze over again at the valediction:

With my heart,
Tama

He carefully folds up the letter and slides it into his front jean pocket when he stands. His living room is mostly bare save for the poster on the wall Krem got him as a gag gift one year, a kitten holding desperately onto a branch with the caption "hang in there, baby!" that Bull still genuinely likes.

He drags his hand over his face and feels stifled, grabs his keys on his way back out the door.

He hits the sidewalk and starts walking. He'll just walk, get some fresh air. Walk around, see the sights, try not to run into tourists gawping on the street probably. He ends up on the subway, finds some sort of comfort in the rush of the air through the cracked windows of the car, lets some old lady have his seat while she gushes about people being raised right. Shit.

He gets off at Dumat Station and walks out into the crush of people trying to get where they're going, and lets them buoy him along until he's under the gleaming golden dragons breathing actual fucking fire that stretch across the main street of Vintown.

Sure. The vint'll be an easy distraction. Piss him off, poke at him for a bit, and it'll take Bull’s mind off how his tama's hands are shaking more, how difficult it was to read that last page in her unsteady script.

The door to the shop's unlocked like it normally is nowadays; just about anybody could walk right in here and steal one of D's fancy vases, or shiv him and steal a cheetah. D's probably got at least one cheetah through one of those magic dimension doors of his.

D's sitting in his chair sipping what smells like peppermint tea and reading from one of his dusty old books, but he glances up when Bull lumbers in, a smile dancing across his face and then gone. "I was wondering when you would next darken my stoop with your presence," D snips, and Bull takes his own seat and heaves a sigh.

Maybe adding a catty vint to his mood wasn't the best of ideas. "I can go," he starts, and D waves the hand not clutching his cup airily.

"If you must, Detective Hissrad." He puts his cup down and pours Bull one, and returns to his book.

Bull drinks the peppermint tea and tries to wrap his mind around how this is the first place he went because he was fucking homesick for a shitty orphanage —  with great people, sure, but in the middle of the chaotic wasteland that is Seheron, so that voids a lot of what was good about it.

He tries to wrap his mind around how he’s got a handful of places — a handful of people — who could distract him enough, could pull him out of his mood. And here’s where he ended up.

He looks up at the vint, curled up in his layers of robes, his naked feet hooked over the edge of the seat. For once, he’s not wearing the snake and there aren’t any animals gathered at his side like he’s some kind of fucking faery princess. D just looks... content, peaceful, and Bull sighs and leans back on the sofa, crossing his arms behind his head.

The both of 'em are silent for a handful of minutes, until D clears his throat and Bull lifts his eyelids to watch him resettle on his chair, setting his book aside and hooking his hands under the seat, on either side of his feet.

"To what may I credit your presence this evening, Detective?" His voice is quiet, nothing like the piercing sneering he maintains most of the time. Maybe Bull’s caught him at a weird time.

"D'you ever think about home?" Bull asks, and D's expression screws up into a confused frown. "About where you grew up?"

"I find no pleasure in considering the past," D says, tone clipped, and Bull sighs again — there goes the softness.

Bull huffs, looking up at the dark ceiling. "I grew up in this home for kids... an orphanage, I guess. The women in charge were Qunari, raised us all under the Qun, so it's not like families were a thing. You didn't get adopted out: you were there to get raised right."

"Krem was raised under the Qun?" D asks, tone skeptical, and when Bull glances at him, he's shifted again on his chair and is holding his teacup carefully between his hands, his legs crossed on the seat.

Bull chuckles. "He'd have done okay. May've done better in some ways." Krem had been fascinated with the concept of aqun-athlok when Bull’d first mentioned it, at least — the idea that a society had a built-in role for somebody like him. The Qun would've chafed at him otherwise. "But nah. The worst of the bombing started when I was… six? A lot of us were shuttled outta Seheron as refugees, ended up scattered across the rest of Thedas like bird shit."

"Tevinter," D says, mouth twisting into a sneer. He doesn't lose his looks when he's pissed, but something happens to his eyes... like he's older than he could possibly be. Sends a thrill up Bull’s spine, that dark gaze, like he's staring down something ancient and ugly. "Humans are insistent on their superiority, and will do whatever it is in their power to convince each other of it."

If Bull had a royale for every time D trotted out the “humans” thing…. Which he may not know what to make of; but it's not hard to see that D doesn't loop himself in with civilization, let alone the rest of the country — regardless of how his shop's in fucking Vintown.

Bull asked a variation on it once, but maybe it’ll fly now: "How'd Tevinter chew you up and spit you out?"

D scoffs, setting his cup down on the table. He spreads his arms out along the sides of the chair, fingers pressing into the upholstery. "Humans, Detective. Tevinter is merely one of the many places they can be found, and my home. But I've no presumptions that were I to have heralded from another homeland, that anything would have changed." He holds Bull’s gaze, and Bull holds his breath. "Mortals rarely understand things beyond them. They would rather control and eradicate than understand."           

"So what'd they do to you?" Bull presses. Doesn’t ask so what’re you if you’re not human? Tries to ignore how powerful D looks in this moment, like he's sitting on a throne, about to pass judgment.

“Controlled and eradicated,” D says, his voice dipping until it sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of his chest, deep and resounding in the small room. Bull’s not sure if he’s imagining the echo. “You like to call me a vint, but they would rather worship my people from a distance than consider us comrades. Would rather kill than understand, when inconvenienced.”

Bull grew up in Tevinter, remembers the bizarro cults on the news, how quickly the staff would change the channel if something came up about them. There was this whole made-up scandal about daycares sacrificing kids to their weird gods, it was a hoot, everybody frothing at the mouth about... Bull’s mouth moves faster than his brain, and he’s already tensing up when the words get out: “You expecting me to believe you’re some kind of ancient fucking drag — thing?”

D says nothing but smiles the most beatific smile, until it stretches his face, showing his teeth. Bull has the sudden overwhelming urge to put the couch between the two of them, a smart move were it not for the fact that D’s watching him as though waiting for the right moment to strike.

“What a strange suggestion,” D says, and he finishes his cup of tea and slides to his feet. He sets the cup on the table and glides around it, coming to a stop directly in front of Bull. “The Qunari worship dragons, in a way, do they not?”

“Not anymore,” Bull says, voice thick, and he passes his teacup between his hands, trying to figure out where to put it, or if he should throw it at D to give him some time to run before he’s magicked to the Fade and back. “The whole ‘being of chaos’ thing got the axe during the reformation.”

“Mm, a history lesson.” D hums, and bends one of his knees, resting it on the sofa next to Bull’s hip. Bull glances down, catching a slim line of brown skin between D’s robe and the height of his stockings, and he forces himself to breathe out steadily. To angle his head back, to look up at D. "What did your tamassrans teach you, Detective Hissrad? About the ataashi?"

This time, Bull has to stifle the urge to vault off of the sofa and out the front damn door. This is... crazy talk, first thing, and beyond that D's some kind of wacko who likes to give people dangerous pets and let them deal with the consequences, so. So.

So Bull swallows. D's trying to intimidate him — is intimidating him, doing a great job of it actually, but Bull’s not gonna let that get to him. Whatever the fuck D's got going on for him, Bull’s never been intimidated by a vint in his life. He's not gonna start now, even with D’s creepy-ass hinting. "D'you want the children's books they read us before bed," he asks, and keeps back his smile when D's face twists in subtle surprise, "or the shit Krem and I dug up in the adult section of the library in Qarinus? Because holy shit, let me tell you, vints have got some ideas about dragons."

D lets out a low sound of disgust and retreats from the sofa, turning his back on Bull and striding to one of the curtains against the wall, disappearing behind it. Bull can hear him tinkering with something that creaks and thuds though, and when D returns he's holding another one of his big old books in his hands. "Nothing you read or heard from any of your disgraceful sources would even approach the truth," he snips, and Bull swallows back a laugh — D's pomp and circumstance and fucking otherworldliness evaporated in the face of Bull being a jackass. Good.

D stands in front of Bull again, glancing down pointedly at the sofa, and when Bull shifts to one side D sits down next to him and opens the book. He lays it across his lap and runs his finger down each page until he finds what he wants, what looks like fifty pages in. "Here: an account of my forefathers, and the tragedies mortals seem so insistent upon."

Bull leans in to look over his shoulder, and huffs a laugh once he gets an eyeful of the pages. "I can speak Tevene as good as the next refugee, but the ancient bullshit's beyond me."

D breathes out loudly through his nose and rolls his eyes, but when he slams the book shut Bull notes how he’s left a finger on the page he wanted. So dramatic. “Tevene was once the language of every learned scholar and aristocrat in Thedas, intrinsic to one’s success in high society.”

“Lucky for me the rest of the world told Tevinter to fuck off ages ago, huh?” Bull replies, and slides a finger in between the pages next to D’s. He carefully opens the book — it’s gotta be old as balls, and if he mistreated it D might go back to the un-fun kind of prickly. “So how ‘bout you tell me what it says? Impress me.”

D resettles, easily pushing Bull’s hand away from the book, and starts to read, in ancient Tevene at first — the words feel like they should make sense, the sounds all familiar but fitting together wrong, though Bull can get a couple words every other sentence — and then transitioning into trade, the change jarring to hear, all smooth sibilants and light clicks of the tongue into fuller sounds, low in his throat. "The glorious ones could walk the land as man, two-legged and without scales, their breath channeled through their fingertips. They lived peaceably with the short-lived, but kept each to their own, residing in the hills and mountains while the short-lived flourished within the valleys and on the coasts. In time, the short-lived sought the knowledge of the glorious ones, of agriculture and industry, of the magic that flowed from and through them, as blood flows; and there was an intermingling of the races. And in time, a short-lived became enraptured by one of the glorious ones, and offered them gifts of gold and expense. The glorious one remained unswayed and rejected the short-lived; and the short-lived, in his indignant self-importance, gathered many from across the land to take revenge on the glorious ones for his injured pride. And the glorious ones, who had lived peaceably with the short-lived, were lost from the face of the earth."

D trails his hand over the last paragraph on the page, following the text with his fingertips. "This is only one such description of what befell the glorious ones. They are all similar, and I was never taught which was the truth; merely that in the end, it is the same. I am one of very few, because the short-lived do not think beyond themselves and their bruised pride. They react without forethought when prompted. I've seen the same since I assumed my position a shopkeeper."

He's delusional, Bull thinks immediately, and then he thinks about the rooms at the back of D's shop, the magic it'd take to sustain that kind of displacement. Maybe it could be accomplished with enough wards, enough focus stones and all that bullshit, but at what point would it start to become improbable for a single person to maintain, fucking vint blood magic or no?

"Who did it before you?" he asks instead of the dozens of other questions running through his head.

D blinks at him owlishly, like it was the last thing he expected after that performance, and he looks back at the book. "My father," he starts, and Bull watches his expression twist, go from something contemplative to frustrated, and then back to the blank mask he's so good at. "My father fulfilled our agreement before I took it from him."

Which — doesn't necessarily mean it was passed to him, Bull realizes. D's careful with his words, and there are a lot of ways to phrase that. "So what's pops doing now?"

D sniffs and closes the book on his lap, looking at Bull out of the corner of his eye. "Father remains in Tevinter. He is not fond of the south."

"That why you're in the south?" Bull replies, and he didn't think it was possible but D's face goes even blanker, like he's forgotten what expressions are.

D stands and looks down at Bull, the book held tightly in both of his arms. "Do not presume to understand the actions I take."

Bull works the inside of his cheek between his teeth for a moment, trying to sort D out. He's not sure if D's telling him just what he thinks is the truth — or shit, if this really is as out there as D's making it seem. Which is… well. Bull will unpack that later.

Regardless, Bull’s shown up at this shop the last couple weeks trying to get to the bottom of what's going on here, and he's gotten fed some of the answers; and if he's honest with himself, he doesn't show up anymore for the kind of answers that'd make sense in his case notes. 'Death by pet store contract' doesn't explain anything to the lieutenant, and Bull doesn't want to get booted off the force for “making shit up”. Which makes the whole situation a fucking mess, really.

But he looks up at D, grabbing his pretty-eyed attention. D’s a weirdo, has been since the first moment Bull met him; and Bull’s gotten used to the way his moods shift, how he goes from catty and holier-than-thou to the frigging cutest kind of surprise, like he’s not sure what to do with how Bull responds to him. So… shit. "Why would you tell me all this, if you didn't want me to make the attempt?"

D’s face does the surprised thing again, his mouth opening in a little o, and he takes a step back. He seems to get a hold of himself and frowns. “A considering man would not pursue what is in front of him. He would understand that it is better to not disturb the beast."

"I get called an oxman more often than a man," Bull replies steadily, and D's frown deepens, "so I guess I'm at home with beasts."

"You do not understand—" D snaps, his hands tensing around the edges of the book, knuckles gone white, and Bull leans forward where he still sits.

"I understand enough to know you're doing something because you were raised to do it, like it's the only thing you're good for. I know a little something about that."

"Yes, the refugee from Seheron, how he understands the weight of millennia, how grateful I am to have been harassed by such—"

"You want me to walk out that door and not come back, I will."

D goes stock still, hands clenching hard enough Bull can see the strain on the leather binding of the book, his face — Bull can tell he's trying for a blank expression, but there's too much confusion there, too much dismay. He looks like a kid who's just found out Fido didn’t end up at a farm upstate when he got old. Like somebody who's been told they have cancer and they've won the lottery, in that order.

"I can't... I have little control over what you choose to do, Detective Hissrad," D eventually chokes out, and slides the book into one hand, smoothing the other hand down the front of his robe.

Bull doesn't gloat even though it'd be easy. It may even be the right thing to do, distract D from whatever's going on in his head and get him pissed off instead of introspective. But he sits back on the sofa and spreads his arms along the back of the thing. He inclines his head towards D. "You gonna sit back down? Or should I get used to this, how I'm gonna get a crick in my neck?"

"You are — infuriating," D whispers, and lifts his free hand to his face, fingers curled along his cheek. "And I am.” D swallows, and Bull watches the long brown line of his throat. “I am needed elsewhere."

He turns on his heel and disappears through one of the doors into the shop. It slams shut behind him, and Bull swears under his breath.

 

==

 

Bull shows up at D’s place the next week with strawberry shortcake in a glossy plastic to-go box and a tin of hot cocoa, not as an apology — he sure as shit doesn’t have anything to apologize for — but to smooth over any of the particularly prickly bits D’s got lingering.

It works, too, D tense and unimpressed until he zeroes in on what Bull’s brought him. It makes Bull’s job easier — if D’s pissed off when he’s there, he can’t really investigate. And he should. Keep investigating.

So he does, starts coming by more regularly. To figure shit out, not because he’s fascinated by the magic of the shop — direct fucking violation of ordinances put in place for good reason, even if he gets sidetracked from hassling D about it when D shows him a room full of hazy sun and warm beaches that smell like the breeze off the coast of Seheron.

And not because when D’s working with people he’s fascinating to watch: calmly vicious, or kind with an air of detachment made kind of creepy by the snake on his shoulders. Bull’s been keeping track, too — nobody’s died since Krem picked up Mae, shit, maybe since Bull first showed up on D’s doorstep. Correlation doesn’t mean causation but if Bull showing up does something, well...

Bull’s in the shop when one woman — military if her posture’s anything to go by, with long blond hair and a permanent scowl on her pale face — leaves with a ferret in her arms. D’s lips curl into a cruel smile, his eyes narrowing, and he says easily, “She will break her contract within the first month.”

He turns his attention to Bull and Bull feels it, the chill and electricity in that gaze. Fucking magic, somehow, in those eyes.

The woman’s dead 2 weeks later, and Bull knows that D didn’t do it, just like he knows D was still involved. He can’t stop thinking about how D knew — so he digs into her life, pulls files and spends time in the records room, breathing in the dust. There’s gotta be something that sets her apart, something…

A squirrely elf shows up at the shop a couple days after she’s found lying dead in her own vomit — painkiller overdose, and then asphyxiation when nobody was there to move her body. He’s sallow-skinned, like he doesn’t get out into the sun all that much, and he’s holding a cat carrier with the woman’s ferret inside. He looks between D and Bull and he sways back, like he’s considering making a run for the door.

But he breathes in deep and slow, and runs a hand through his slicked back dark hair. Takes a couple stiff steps forward, and sets the carrier on the carpet. “I’m not sure,” he starts, and then clears his throat. “My wife, my late wife, this is hers. She bought it here before she.” The man’s hands are clenching and unclenching at his sides and Bull can see the sheen of nervous sweat at his hairline, the healing bruising on his jaw — and it’s hard for him to ignore the feeling he gets in his gut: the guy didn’t kill his wife, but Bull wouldn’t have blamed him if he had.

D rises from his chair and trails over the carpets towards the man, dropping to his knees immediately in front of the carrier. The animal glides out and walks up D’s outstretched arm, settling on his shoulder.

“Thank you for returning him,” D says, and the elf nods a couple times and sees himself out, leaving even the carrier behind.

Bull gives himself time to breathe, to process. D disappears through one of the doors and returns without the ferret, and he curls back up on his chair as though this has happened before. Like he’s used to this.

“The judge isn’t supposed to be the executioner,” Bull says eventually, can’t help it, statutes and due process shuffling through his head, and D smiles at him as though pleased to hear Bull’s disapproval.

He hooks one of his hands around a delicate brown ankle, circles his thumb around the ankle bone. “Neither of us believe in such a philosophy, Detective Hissrad. Neither of us have reason to.”

And Bull thinks about D’s faerytale, and the hot sun of Seheron.

 

==

 

The only warning Bull gets is the snap of a latex glove before somebody’s leaning over his shoulder to stare at his laptop screen. “Working hard or hardly working?”

“Fuck’s sake, Skinner,” Bull hisses, and nearly slams the laptop shut before he realizes the damage has been done. Not that he’s doing anything wrong. He’s just looking at—

“Baby shower or bastard?”

He glares at her over his shoulder. Skinner’s in her scrubs and lab coat, gloves shoved in the breast pocket. She’s got a shit-eating grin on her face that means she’s had a good day of stiffs on slabs, and she’s decided to rise from the depths of the station to rub her attitude in everybody’s faces.

Bull’s been in a weird enough mood that he doubts she’ll annoy him beyond the ordinary — and he can push her off on Krem when he gets back from his coffee break.

She pokes him in the back, hard, and he doesn’t turn in time to notice if she used a pen or the blunt end of one of her fucking scalpels. “C’mon, chief, I’m on tenterhooks. Who’s the book for?” She points a pen — thank Koslun — towards his laptop screen and lifts an eyebrow.

He’s got a couple tabs open — Ebay, BetterThedasBooks, Aedros.com, the valroyeaux/qunari/forsale section of fucking Thaigslist after he got desperate — with varying prices and editions of the book he grew up on. D got his faerytales about rebuked love and genocide and judgment, and Bull got—

“Holy shit, they make a kid’s edition?” Skinner grabs his mouse and clicks between the tabs, and whistles low. “How does anybody get away with charging that kind of money for a kid’s book?”

“It’s out of print,” Bull grumbles, and bumps her hand away from the mouse so he can scroll back to one of the used listings on Aedros. Sixty royales, but cheaper than anything D’s used to having on hand. (Bull’s checked. One of D’s books is worth at least ℜ1500. He’d almost spilled his cocoa.)

Skinner clicks her tongue and steps back — Krem’s partner Dalish just showed up, got waylaid shooting the shit with Rocky, and Skinner’s zeroing in on her like a damn predator (Bull tries not to think about whether they’ve banged on one of Skinner’s stainless steel corpse gurneys) — but pats Bull’s head before she jets off to harass her girlfriend. “Hope it makes the vint happy.”

Bull swears, and when Krem shows up with his coffee he swears at him too, about what the fuck he’s told Dalish who’s told Skinner about D.

 

==

 

D’s underwhelmed when Bull hands the book to him.

He’s wrapped in a swath of gold and cream and accessorized with that damn snake around his neck and the weird cat thing perched on his lap — which does have wings, little ones, Bull still isn’t sure what to think of it. The cat hisses at Bull, big surprise, and D titters at it before petting it from ears to tail. It looks up at D and growls, and D laughs quietly in response.

What a weirdo, Bull thinks fondly, and then forces himself to look away from D so he can grab the book from his briefcase.

“And this is…?” D asks, blinking slowly. He takes the book from Bull and raises both eyebrows, and purses his lips. “A children’s book, Detective Hissrad.”

Bull blows out a breath of air and drops onto the sofa. “Yeah, a children’s book. You talk a big talk, D, about what you say you are.” D glares at him, but Bull ploughs through. “So I thought I’d do the same. You like qunari so much, I bet you’ll like this. It’s all old and classy, too.”

D huffs and opens the book slowly, laying it across his crossed legs. He smooths his palm over the title page, and Bull catches the way the side of his mouth lifts up in what D would never admit was a smile. “The Giving Tree. What a ponderous title.”

Bull settles in as D reads, and thinks about the first time his tama had brought the book out. They’d all gathered around her, clustered close so they could hear her quiet, stern voice as she read to them, told them about the tree whose role it was to support those around her, who gave because it was her duty to give, even when it seemed as though there was nothing left of her to take.

It’s unfair, Bull had whispered when she had tucked him in one night, placing a firm kiss against his brow. She got nothing back. His tama had smiled down at him and flattened his curls.

Imekari, she was happy to be who she was, and to give what she could once it was asked of her. It is no one’s place to decide what is fair. We do what is asked of us, and we are happy because of it. We receive joy from doing what we’re here to do.

He remembers crying, dwelling on the tree stump at the end of the book, about how unfair it was — and again, when he and the other kids were rounded up by the southern aid workers, all of them speaking in strange sounds and wearing stranger clothes. He cried when his tama kissed his brow and told him she would stay, to continue to do what was asked of her. She received joy from doing what she was there to do.

Bull could only assume she was happy.

“Do you believe this?” D asks, and Bull’s jerked out of the memory. D doesn’t look as disgusted as his tone implies, and Bull laughs to cover the strangeness lingering in his mind, the phantom touch of his tama’s lips on his forehead.

He leans forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. He pushes the memory back in his mind, and thinks about D’s faerytale. “Vints in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

“How clever, Detective Hissrad.” D hums, and carefully turns the pages of the book, back to the beginning from the end, and then to the end again. “The boy took everything the tree had, and the tree was happy.”

“The boy did what kids do. What humans do.” Bull shrugs. “He did his part, and the tree did hers, and they were both content in the end. You know something about that, right?”

D snaps the book shut and glares at him. “I hope you are not intending to teach me some sort of moral.” If the book weren’t so damn old Bull’s got a feeling D would be chucking it at him.

“Nah,” Bull replies, lifting a shoulder in a shrug — though D’s not too far off. “You gave me the weird fantasy backstory to explain whatever the fuck you are, so I figured I’d return the favor. Thought you’d like to have it, with how much you go on about how people can’t change who they are. It’s real Qunari of you.”

D blinks slowly at Bull before opening the book again and thumbing through the pages. He hesitates over the conclusion and follows the words with his fingers, and then he closes the book and sets it on the edge of the coffee table.

He doesn’t say anything, not even when Bull tries to prod him into debating whether the espresso batch of éclairs he had delivered most recently are better than the mocha ones from the other day — and so when Bull finally gets up to leave and he reaches to take the book with him, D grabbing his wrist and holding him still is unsettling as all get out.

“It was a gift, was it not?” D asks, looking up at Bull through long lashes, and Bull swallows and nods, and leaves him to it.

 

==

 

Bull’s in over his head with a drug bust for the next week, some jackass smuggling tainted lyrium in from Kal-Sharok to the north. They end up with a shitload of dwarven and vinty stuff in evidence, scrolls and books and magic equipment — Bull doesn’t know any of it from his ass, but all of it makes him uncomfortable.

Late into the night when they’re cataloguing yet another pile of weird artifacts, Bull finds the bestiary, a heavy fucker of a book, bound in some kind of leather with a weird ass face inset on the front cover, ivory teeth and sculpted snout and all like it’s some kind of goth high schooler’s art project.

He glances through it once, taking in the drawings of dracolisks and darkspawn, and can’t help how it sticks in his mind. And yeah, what he ends up doing is mostly on the wrong side of illegal, but who’s gonna get any use outta the thing when it’s locked up in storage collecting dust?

D audibly gasps when Bull hands it over to him the next time they see each other. His mouth stays open for a good half a minute, which is. Well. It’s a good look on him, and Bull distracts himself with the sweets D always has laid out on the coffee table.

"I require your... assistance," D says after some time, after he's finished feeling up the book like it's their last dance at prom before they go to their hotel room. "I was unsure if I should ask you, but you have your uses, it appears." He looks up at Bull through his eyelashes and Bull gives himself a second to take that look in, to lock it away for later.

Bull clears his throat and shifts on the sofa, crossing a leg. If this were anybody but D, he'd just go for it, adjust himself in his trousers and see where they went from there. The sofa's not big enough but D's gotta sleep somewhere, right?

Shit, don't think about that, he reprimands himself, and clears his throat again. D's painted lips are curled up into a careful smirk, and Bull could chase it off his face, say something to get D squawking and chucking a pillow at him... or he could stay silent and take it in.

So he does.

And the smirk slips off of D's face anyway, his eyes widening like he's surprised Bull played it straight.

"You..." D looks at the wall behind Bull’s head, and plays with one of his rings, rotating it around his finger. "As I was saying, Detective, I need you—" He cuts himself off, his expression blank, and Bull ignores the impulse to call him on it. Need what. Play it cool. Shit. "I need you to deliver something for me."

That's not what Bull was expecting. Picking D up something? Bull does that on his own: the books steadily piling on D's side table are testament to that. Shit, they're drinking the cocoa Bull brought over now — they haven't had D’s vint tea in weeks.

“Can’t manage it yourself?” Bull asks, and D huffs and resettles on his chair, crossing his arms.

“I asked a simple question, Detective Hissrad. One that warrants an equally simple answer.” Except that’s D presupposing that anything related to him is simple, which Bull knows is one of the biggest lies in the history of Thedas.

Bull tries to think of a time he's seen D leave this fucking shop. D's talked about the world outside his front door like it's so foreign as to be completely beyond him, but what if that's... literal, somehow. Some weird vint binding spell, maybe; some curse keeps him tied here, and the only reason he's allowed Bull to harass him is because he needs a go-fer.

"Whatever it is that's going on between your horns is unnecessary," D says all snippy-like, then stands and smooths down the front of his robes. He walks to the wall, moving behind one of the curtains to — shit, there's a whole display case there.

Bull's head whips around as he tries to figure out how many of the curtains in the place hide secret furniture, but he has no way to tell until D leaves him alone sometime. Maybe that's how D manages to disappear and reappear without going through doors, too: no magic, just sleight of fucking hand. Bull heaves a sigh... and D smiles at him when he comes back to the center of the sitting room, a small box held in his hands.

"This is a gift for a dear friend," D explains, and he looks down at the box when he says it, at the address emblazoned across it in delicate script. D's never seemed the type for "dear friends" — Bull’s curious as hell as to who it's going to. "I would ask you to deliver it to her, if you could."

Which is as polite as D's ever been in his life, probably. Bull reaches for the box and D hesitates, his knuckles going briefly white when his grip tightens on the package, but he eventually hands it over. He doesn't lecture Bull to be careful, but that's probably only because as soon as Bull’s got it he handles it like it's a baby, light touch, gentle grip.

"What is it?"

"Potential," D replies obliquely, and when Bull glances up at him, D's smiling again, another sincere one. He's always gorgeous, but when he smiles he looks... real. Not a model in some artsy fashion magazine, but somebody you could touch.

"Weird gift." Bull huffs a laugh, and makes sure D's eyes are on him when he lifts the box to his head, mimes shaking it — D opens his mouth to holler before realizing Bull’s pulling his leg.

D folds himself back into his chair and scowls at Bull until Bull plies him with a fresh cup of cocoa and the topmost book on his stack — something vint-y Bull'd gotten down the street, enough dust on the cover to kill an asthmatic.

When Bull finally leaves, package tucked carefully under his arm, D accompanies him to the door. He curls his fingers around Bull’s wrist and stares up at him, eyes dark, and whispers thank you before shutting the door in Bull’s face.

 

==

 

Bull gets buried in cases and doesn’t have any time to even visit D for the rest of the week, let alone do little errands for him. The box ends up on Bull’s desk at work, and everybody has commentary on what it could be: he spends a significant amount of time telling the people who think they’re clever, coming up with insults for the psycho vint, to fuck off. When Lace shows up one evening to head out with Krem, she coos for a solid minute and a half over the expensive wrapping paper.

His original thought was that he’d keep it close so as soon as he had a spare hour he could do something about it — it’s kind of a joke, in hindsight, that’d he have a spare hour. Coming up on Friday, when he’s yet again running low on sleep and high on caffeine, it’s less funny and more a sad reflection of his life.

The address D wrote on the package puts the recipient in the nice part of town, up in the hills of L’arc du Chercheur. Krem lets out a low whistle when Bull tells him, and picks up the box carefully, passing it between his hands.

“Any idea what it is?”

“I know it’s not a bomb,” Bull says through a mouthful of noodles he picked up at the Antivan place across the street from the station. (He’s eaten enough takeout this week that he’s starting to crave lettuce.) “Pretty sure it would’ve detonated by now.”

“Reassuring,” Krem replies with a frown, and sets it back on Bull’s desk. “Any idea why his majesty couldn’t deliver it himself?”

Bull thinks again of D in his shop, tries to imagine D walking out the door into the street, dealing with the noise and people and life — and he can, is the thing. He can imagine it, can picture D bickering with the fruit stand on the corner of Almadrius and Davan about the egregious price of the papaya they insist is from Par Vollen. Can see D glaring at strangers on the tube, pulling his collar tight around his neck and sniffing in distaste at the press of bodies around him. D disappearing into the special collections library Lace talks about with worshipful tones at UVR, coming out with a book in a bag or something after he’s somehow charmed a librarian into probably losing their job.

If Krem had asked the question when Bull had first met D, he’d never have considered it. But he’s seen D’s mask crack, watched the pieces start to slip before D hurriedly repaired it.

Bull wonders what’d happen if D’s mask came off.

“I dunno,” Bull tells him, and he hatches an absolute fucker of a plan.

 

==

 

The thing is, weird ancient creature or no, a guy’s gotta see the sun sometimes: the real sun, not some magic-ass fabrication hanging below the magic-ass roof of a shop. As the day wears on and Bull doesn’t get a chance to leave the station, he figures a guy’s gotta see the moon at least. Shit, and if there’s a good enough wind going, blowing the pollution and clouds out over the water, you can sort of see the stars if you squint.

Krem follows him out the door, mumbling something under his breath along the lines of “this I’ve gotta see”, and the two of ‘em drive over to Vintown. It’s 8:26 by the time they get there, and Bull’s not gonna imagine the shop’s open — and even if it is, D’ll probably be all fussy britches at them. And would they even be able to deliver the package halfway across town this late at night?

Whatever, Bull thinks to himself, knocking on the shop door. D’ll chew his ear off if they can’t, and they’ll reschedule.

The door glides open in short order and D looks confused, his forehead wrinkled and his pouty dark lips pursed. The way his expression smooths out when he sees Bull though — it does something to Bull’s chest.

Except then D notices Krem, and the package Krem’s holding, and he lets out a squawk. “It’s nearly time,” he hisses. “How long have — who’s touched it, Detective?”

Bull and Krem stare at each other, and Bull can tell Krem’s walking through the list at the same time he is.

“My girlfriend,” Krem starts, and Bull adds, “And Skinner in the morgue...”

It’d be funny were it not so frigging weird, how D’s face somehow pales — clashes awfully with his pretty white robes. He doesn’t glare at Bull so much as he looks… shit, lost. Just a little bit. Like this wasn’t an outcome he expected.

“It cannot,” D says, but the words sound like he’s swallowing them. He clears his throat and blinks rapidly, like if he does it enough times they’ll disappear from his stoop. “It cannot be here when it hatches. It mustn’t be.”

For not the first time Bull wonders what the hell it is and for the first time, what the hell does he mean, hatching?

“We must, you must get it to Ms Montilyet immediately.” D steps forward enough to get a good look at the sky, and whatever he sees must not sit right with him: his expression collapses even further, and he looks so much like a kid that Bull has to fight off the urge to wrap an arm around him and tell him it’ll be all right.

“We can do that—” Krem says, and D shakes his head.

He glances back into the shop — Bull can see that damn fox sitting in the hallway, mouth open like it’s laughing at them — and then shuts the door in Bull and Krem’s faces.

Bull rocks back on his heels and breathes out in a rush. This has been… nearly as weird as the day they got lost in the forest, if for no other reason than D’s reactions.

The door flies open again before either of them have a chance to discuss whether or not they should leave or something, and D steps out wearing a long dark blue and gold cloak like he’s some kind of fucking ancient priest, the hood even up and covering his head.

“We must hurry,” D commands, and Krem’s passing him the package before he’s even fully extended his hands for it. D freezes though, his hands on either side of the box, and he pulls his hands back and wraps his fingers around the collar of the cloak, then brushes past Bull and heads down the steps.

Which answers the question of whether or not D can actually leave the shop.

“We must make our way to L’arc du Chercheur immediately,” he says, and Bull catches up to him and heads towards the car. He climbs in the driver side and ducks down enough to stare at D through the passenger window — and D’s standing there like he’s been faced with something outside of his skillset, which. Honestly, which may not be wrong.

Bull gives him a slow smile and pats the passenger seat. “You gettin’ in, Magister? Sun’s a-wasting.”

D startles and — heh, flushes, Bull watching his ears go redder, and climbs into the car.

Once situated, D turns in his seat to stare at Krem and the package he’s carrying. At least until Bull stops at a red light. “You don’t sit your ass down and buckle up, we’re not going another inch.”

D’s attention snaps to Bull and he glares, expression immediately thunderous — but the light turns green and the car doesn’t budge, even when some jackhole honks at them, so D does as Bull said.

They’re looping down Ocean Boulevard when Krem lets out a squawk of a what, and D twists around again and demands Bull pull over, right now.

Bull glances in the rearview mirror but all he sees is the top of Krem’s hair, and when D lays his hand across Bull’s wrist, Bull signals and pulls off onto the shoulder which is of-fucking-course sand. It’s gonna suck to get going again, but D’s already clambering out of the car. Leaves the door open like he was born in a barn too.

“Give it to me, give it to me,” D snaps, and by the time Bull’s outta the car D's halfway to the sea, moving over the sand like he's floating, his robes whipping in the breeze coming in off the water.

It takes Krem and Bull a lot more stumbling to catch up to where D's knelt, but when they get there Krem lets out a low curse and Bull blinks a couple times, like that'll help him get a handle on what he's seeing.

D's set the box aside on the sand and on his lap's an egg, a huge fucking egg about the size of his head, speckled black and red.

"Oh," D says quietly, his tone the same as when Bull surprises him sometimes, and he turns his head and stares up at Bull with wide, dark eyes. "This is..."

"What is it?" Krem asks when D trails off. He moves forward and sinks down onto his knees next to D, but doesn't reach for the egg in a true testament to the self-control the both of 'em learned young in Qarinus.

D blinks at him owlishly, his mouth opening and closing for a minute, and then looks back to Bull. "A very powerful spell," he explains, and caresses the egg with his fingers, curving his palm over the top of the thing. Bull can't figure out what he should look at — the kinda sweet bewilderment on D's face that Bull’s never seen before, or the massive egg on his lap.

“I will need to provide her with something else,” D says softly, like that's some sort of explanation for what's going on, and wraps both arms around the egg.  “This gift has been inexorably tainted.”

He sure sounds damn pleased about it.

They stand there like asshole tourists for a couple minutes before D seems to remember where he is and with who. Then he tucks his chin to his chest, one of his thumbs absent-mindedly rubbing over the shell. “She will hatch shortly. We should hasten back to the shop.”

D places the egg in the sand and rises to his feet, brushing off the bottom of his robe and cloak best he can. He curls his hand over Krem’s shoulder and squeezes once, and the two of them join Bull a couple yards back.

Bull and Krem start back towards the car but D hesitates, so they stand and watch with him for what’s gotta be fifteen, twenty minutes, until the egg starts rocking, fucking hatching. D reaches behind him, fingers spread, and Bull moves closer to him — and D wraps his hand around Bull’s arm and lets out a soft gasp.

When Bull glances down at him, a smile’s stretched wide across his face, showing his pearly whites. Bull feels his heart jump into his throat. He can barely tear his eyes away — but if D notices his gaze, he’ll probably stop looking so sweet. So Bull forces his attention back to the egg, and the three of ‘em watch the thing hatch.



Art by Vatvyr.


What hatches from the red and black speckled egg looks, fuck, like a dragon, little wings and a scale-y body — and Bull’s stepping forward before he realizes it, because it’s a fucking dragon.

D’s hand goes tight on his arm. “No, Detective Hissrad. Watch.”

Like there’s some sort of method to this, like D knows what the fuck to do with a newly-hatched dragon. But Bull does as D asks him to. Stands there and watches this tiny thing, this monster from legend that nobody’s seen on the face of Thedas in millennia, pitch a fit trying to get egg shell off of its back.

Krem lets out a disbelieving laugh and Bull can’t blame him for breaking the silence, tense as it feels — the little thing’s squawking and petering about on the sand like it’s not sure how its legs work.

Legendary terrifying creature indeed.

D’s grip on his arm tightens when the thing, the dragonling, makes a run for the water and trips on its tiny pencil legs. Except then it… it shimmers, like one of those disco ball things Orlesians are so fond of, and it fucking changes shape, gaining mass and growing until. Shit, until there’s a qunari, a kid, stumbling towards the water, horns barely making their way past its temples; and then it shimmers again, back into a dragon — and it disappears into the waves.

Bull’s fucking heart’s in his throat again, and D’s nails are digging into his arm. Krem looks kind of like he did when Rocky gave him a parking ticket.

“Can uh. Can you explain what just happened?” Bull says, and he watches D’s smile go from sweet and wondering to as shit-eating as it’s ever been.

“Potential,” D says, like that’s some kind of explanation, and he lets go of Bull’s arm — but not without patting him. Like that makes up for the frigging gouge marks Bull’s got from his claws.

“Drive me back to the shop,” D demands, and hikes up his skirts and heads back towards the car.

 

==

 

The ride’s completely silent, mostly because Bull can’t come up with a question that he thinks D would answer, and Krem’s keeping his eyes on the road while he drives like he’s worried he’s about to rear-end every other car.

When they pull up in front of the shop, Bull slides out of the car to pull the rear door open for D, all fancy and mannerly. D smiles up at him once he’s standing on the pavement, the sweet one, like D’s sugar and no spice, and Bull clears his throat and climbs back into the car.

“Thank you for the ride, Cremisius,” D says through the open window, then fucking bats his eyelashes. Krem blushes like a kid and Bull’d laugh, but then D looks at him again and Bull feels his mouth go dry.

D reaches through the open window, curves his hand around Bull’s arm, and squeezes, once, before disappearing into his shop.

Bull stares at the shut door for what’s gotta be five minutes before Krem coughs.

“Was that real?” Krem says, and then immediately following, “You saw something other than a dragon this time, right?”

The tension in Bull’s gut twists into something a shitload less pleasant than it was before. “Whaddya mean this time?”

“Remember Cole? The rabbit?”

Bull resituates himself in the cab and stares Krem down. ‘Course he remembers the fucking rabbit. He remembers that entire day, because it’s not like he gets lost in a magic forest for fun on the weekends.

“Yeah so,” Krem starts, and then lets out a weak laugh and leans his head back on the headrest. “I saw a kid about half the time I looked at it — pale little pipsqueak with messy hair. And then I’d look again and it’d be a fucking rabbit.”

It takes every skill Krem’s been trained in, physically and verbally, to keep Bull in the car and not running after D to make him explain his fucking shop.

 

==

 

Bull begs off work early the following day, telling everybody he’s got a throbbing headache like you wouldn’t believe; and aside from the one crack about his horns probably causing it, he gets off with no issue. He’s got a ridiculous amount of sick leave anyway, and HR’ll likely be thrilled he’s finally using it.

He makes his way to Vintown, actually finding a reasonable parking space a couple blocks from the shop. He ducks into one of the bakeries on the way — he doesn’t have time to stop at a bookshop anyway, and D’s tastes run expensive with books — and picks up these fancy little cherry things that smell like sweet and spice when he lifts the lid.

When he gets to the shop, D’s not in the parlor. The fox and the weird cat thing are though, sprawled across the sofa like they own it. Bull stares at ‘em for a while and thinks about the dragon turning into a qunari, and the rabbit looking like a kid.

So, feeling like a complete ass, he says, “Uh, d’you know where D is?”

The cat hisses at him at the same time that it rolls onto his back and stretches out lazily, but the fox slides off of the sofa and headbutts Bull’s shin, then slinks across the room to slip through one of the doors — which Bull could’ve sworn wasn’t open before.

Beyond the door isn’t a forest like he half-expected, no waterfalls or horizon stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s just a room with four walls. A big room, but reasonable enough for the fact that. Well. The walls are yellow, the floor tiled blue. And there’s.

The thing is, Bull’s good at details, and over the years he’s figured out that when there’s a fucking elephant in the room, details are easier to focus on. You can distract yourself with ‘em, and distract perps with ‘em. Not that there’s an elephant in the room.

Bull laughs, and raises a hand to the back of his head.

D’s sitting on some kind of pillow, silk probably, literally fancy ass, and on his lap is the head of. One of the heads of. One of the many heads belonging to the giant fucking lizard sprawled across the floor, its bulk shoved up against the back wall, nearly stretching to those on either side too.

Well. Not a lizard. A dragon.

That’s a fucking dragon.

“Is that a fucking dragon?” Bull breathes out.

D’s head whips up and he glares at Bull, the edges of his mouth curling downwards while his hand drifts from the dragon’s head. One of its heads, Bull corrects himself, when the other three — three, for a total of four, one of which is still using D as a pillow — raise in unison and stare at Bull unblinkingly.

Can dragons blink?

Bull’s not sure if he feels ill or amped.

“Language, Detective Hissrad,” D chides. The omnipresent black snake mimics D and the fucking dragons’ posture, head raised from D’s shoulder, tongue flicking regularly out from its weird little snake mouth. Somehow Bull knows the thing’s disappointed in him too.

The dragon head (dragon! head!) still in D’s lap lets out a low rumbling sound and the other heads echo it, before settling themselves back on the thickly carpeted floor, twisted around each other like the world’s deadliest knots tutorial.

Bull laughs, high in his throat. “So that’s… not a fucking dragon?”

D lets out an aggrieved sigh, rolling his eyes, and rubs his thumb over the scales above the dragon’s eyes. “Vita, forgive the intrusion, but if I may—”

One of the heads in the pile shoots up and forward, and Bull nearly shits himself, only manages not to move through the grace of Koslun knows what. The whole dragon’s a heavy bluish-grey, like rolling storm clouds, but this head’s got deep green tones to its scales, like it’s been varnished. Its mouth opens and Bull can’t count the sharp teeth the size of his thumbs. “Yes, a fucking dragon,” the head rasps, and Bull swears and stumbles back onto his ass.

Lavellan,” comes another voice, and then there’s a brown-flecked head vying for a front row view of Bull absolutely losing his shit. “Don’t be rude.” It blinks down at Bull lazily and nods, then chirps, “Hello!”

A third head joins them, this one red and… smiling, if Bull’s reading the twist of its frigging lipless mouth right. “Don’t give the chief a hard time. He’s freaking out.”

And Bull’s still unpacking that one — how the fuck does it know who he is, and why are there four heads, and what the fuck is going on — when D hums pleasantly and the heads snap back towards him as one.

D smiles beatifically up at them, and the fourth head still on his lap rumbles pleasantly. It’s darker than the others, a deep grey, and it opens its eyes and stares straight at Bull. “He’ll get it eventually,” the head says, and Bull supposes he’s gonna take that as a compliment.

“This is Vita,” D says, and the first head, the green one, blows smoke outta its nose and parrots D’s tone:

“Lavellan.”

“Cadash,” the sweet brown head says, flashing its teeth as it smiles, and curves around the reddish head when it says, “Trevelyan.”

“Adaar,” the grey head says lazily, and it lets out this little pleased trill when D scratches the top of its nose.

Bull drags a hand over his face and just… accepts it. Sure. May as well. This makes as much sense as everything else. D’s some kind of ancient dragon person, Krem and Lace have a magic cat they got from a forest inside a commercial district, and the egg D had reverently called potential has four different heads.

“Why’re there four heads?” Bull asks, and when even Adaar’s attention snaps to him he clears his throat and rubs at the base of one of his horns. “Uh, why… do you have four heads?”

Lavellan snorts and recedes back towards their body, but Cadash swings between Trevelyan and Adaar. “Can we? We should. Let’s show him. He’ll love it!”

Which probably isn’t true, but Bull keeps his mouth shut — until the heads jerk as though shocked, and the whole body of the dragon… shimmers, like it’s fading in and out of fucking reality, and where its huge bulk used to lie is a dwarf girl, grin as wide as her eyes.

Bull glances at D — and D’s watching him, neutral expression on his face, weird not to see him looking superior or pissy. Bull gives him a tentative smile and D blinks rapidly and looks towards the dwarf. Not that that stops Bull from seeing the tips of his ears redden.

“You should smile more, D,” the dwarf girl says plainly — in the same voice as one of the heads, Cadash if Bull’s linking them up right — and from the corner of his eye Bull can see D tighten up like a clam.

The dwarf shimmers like she’s stepped through a waterfall and then there’s an elf pushing herself to her feet. The elf bends at the waist and fucking pokes D in the forehead and then the cheek, and Bull’s torn between laughter at D’s expression and just being straight-up impressed at the amount of badassitude that takes.

“C’mon, grandpa,” the elf — Lavellan, she’s gotta be — says, and drops onto her ass and knocks one of D’s slippered feet with her toes. “That potential spell worked out great. Celebrate.”

It takes Bull longer than it should’ve to figure out what that means, and what must’ve happened; but by the time Vita shifts again into a tall human with a smug grin, it clicks. D had been so frantic about who’d handled the box, but it’d only been four of them in the end: Lace, Krem, Skinner, and him. Just them. No big deal, Bull had thought.

Except over the course of the evening he meets the sweet dwarf, the caustic elf, the sarcastic human, and a skeptical qunari who tends to linger nearer to D than the others, and likes his fingers in her hair just as much as she did his hand on her scales.

Bull doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that.

They ask him a boatload of questions, about where he comes from and what he does, about what it’s like to leave the shop. (Lavellan shoots D a long glare when she asks that one, and D huffs something about how they can leave whenever they want to.)

“D’s very powerful,” Adaar says at one point, and while D’s still busy preening, sitting up straighter and looking smug, she continues, “He should have known what the spell would do. He’d have you think he wants for fucking nothing.”

Adaar,” D hisses, and Adaar looks up at him from where she leans against his shoulder. She doesn’t look at all contrite.

“Tell me about Seheron,” she does say, direct and firm in a way Bull knows is uncannily like himself, and so Bull tells her about the beaches and the trees, about the fresh fruit and the sky dark enough to see stars. She presses him for more until he talks about the home and his tama, and about the way the entire building would shake to its foundation when the mortars hit.

D stares at him as he talks, doesn’t even try to hide it, and it’d make Bull uncomfortable save for the fact that D looks almost flabbergasted himself — like the four-headed dragon is normal, but Bull’s childhood’s the weirdest thing he’s ever heard.

“Were you in Tevinter when D was?” Bull forces himself to look away from D — and it’s Trevelyan now, sitting next to D with her legs crossed in her lap.

“We would not have been in the same circles,” D replies promptly, and Trevelyan and Bull snort at the same damn time. “There is nothing humorous about that. My father had strict rules for what—”

“Sounds like a fun guy, your dad,” Bull interrupts, and D’s mouth snaps shut at the same time that Trevelyan shudders and gains mass until she’s. Until they’re a dragon again, big as the room.

The snake around D’s neck — Bull’d fucking forgot about the thing — hisses and D lifts a hand to his neck, letting it coil around his wrist. He whispers to it, something calming, and glances at Vita. He does his… thing, where he pulls himself together and lifts his head and bleeds what feels like magic and his fucking bizarro ancient power. “My father has trusted me with this shop, and with carrying out the vengeance promised by my family. His conviviality or lack thereof has nothing to do with it.”

Bull’s started expecting the veil to tear when D gets on his weird high horse, and the room goes as silent as it can with the three of them there and breathing.

“Oh yeah, I can see why you hang out here all the time,” Lavellan drawls, and Bull feels the tension in his gut unravel.

He laughs, rubbing at his head. “Yeah, D’s weird, but the shop’s better than my apartment.”

D’s whole demeanor shifts — goes from his weird straight-backed etherealness to his tetchy scowling self. “How complimentary,” he sniffs, and Lavellan laughs at him.

“What did you want him to say?” she asks tartly, and D stares at her for several long moments like she’s caught him off guard.

“What did you want him to say?” Cadash echoes, rising above the others to look D in the eye.

The rest of them follow suit, and Bull has the grand fucking pleasure of watching D’s ears redden while four dragon heads turn on him as one and eye him unblinkingly.

“That’s not.” D swallows, and he crosses his hands on his lap, his fingers going unerringly to the snake around his wrist. “Don’t be foolish, Vita.”

“We’re not being foolish,” the heads, fuck, the dragon says, every head speaking as one, and Bull thinks about how massive she is suddenly. That it’s been a while since he focused on the absurdity that is a fucking dragon, an actual honest-to-gods dragon. A dragon that puts D as off-balance as Bull’s ever seen him.

“What’s foolishness to begin with?” Trevelyan asks, her voice blending with Lavellan’s when the other head snaps, “Letting your father dictate your entire life, d’you think?”

Vita.” D’s up on his feet like somebody lit a fire under his ass. Bull has to force himself not to skedaddle away from him and the furious look on his face.

“You could destroy the whole of humanity if you really wanted to,” Cadash says quietly, and Adaar mutters something under her breath about fucking magic. “You could do it, and you don’t.”

Bull watches the snake wind its way up D’s trembling arm, until it curls back around D’s neck and hisses at the dragon. All four heads roll their eyes at once — which would make Bull laugh, if he wasn’t just a little worried somebody’s going to go for someone else’s jugular.

“That is my business,” D says, surprisingly calm for as tightly wound as he’s holding himself.

The dragon’s silent for a couple beats before Adaar laughs, a sound that wraps around Bull’s spine and leaves him shuddering. “You didn’t know your magic could create something like us. Surely your father did. Surely somebody’s figured it out in the millennia since humans killed us.”

“It’s a lot fucking easier to control someone you’re lying to,” Lavellan snarls, and D doesn’t even address that comment, just turns towards Bull and points a finger towards the door.

“You need to go,” he commands, and Bull hesitates, looking between a pissed-off and rattled D and a smug dragon. But when he stands, opens his mouth, reaches a hand towards D — D’s eyes go dark and seem to glow red, and Bull hurries his ass out.

 

==

 

When Bull pulls up the following day, the shop’s gone.

Bull walks to the end of the block to confirm the cross streets. Walks back down the sidewalk and looks across the road to the c-store he’s bought junk food a couple times before waltzing into D’s shop.

There’s a butcher’s shop there now, windows with roasted pheasants and half a pig hanging in ‘em, with a big NOW OPEN sign hanging on the glass door.

He walks in and ignores how the woman behind the counter takes a step forward, running her hand underneath the countertop to linger over the alarm button. He walks to the back of the shop, past the racks of spices and roasting twine, and pushes open the door to the backroom. The woman shouts at him and he presses forward until he’s at the emergency exit — and when he pushes that door forward, he’s in the back alley that he never ran into in D’s shop. Because D’s shop stretched from here to eternity.

He doesn’t bother heading back inside, stalking down the alley towards the bakery he knows D set up deliveries with. Had to get his fancy desserts somehow. The kid behind the display shrugs when Bull asks if he knows where D and his shop went, and then looks confused for a minute — does that mean I should cancel his standing order?

Bull walks back down D’s street — the street where D’s shop is, is supposed to be, and stops at each store, asks ‘em if any of them saw anything, moving vans or cleaning crews or anything. Nobody’s seen shit. They’re all impressed how quickly the butcher shop got set up though: the landlord must really be on top of things.

Bull gets in his car and stares out the windshield and tries to think. Fucking can’t. Doesn’t know where to start — how do you sneak out with a dragon?

He slams his hands against either side of the steering wheel and hisses at the jarring pain that ricochets up his arms. Magic. Magic, of fucking course. The bullshit that D lives and breathes and is, and he’s decided to magician himself outta here because he got what he wanted, found his potential, killed enough people to meet some discretionary personal quota and fuck on out of Orlais.

Because he got pushed too far last night.

Bull heads back to the station because he’s got nowhere else to go that evening, and everybody avoids him as soon as they see the look on his face.

 

==

 

Qunari don’t dream the same way as everybody else. Bull needed some extra cash when he was younger, when he was killing himself to make it through the academy, and he volunteered at UVR for a sleep study where they hooked a bunch of wires and suction cups and monitors to his body and then expected him to fall asleep.

He’s pretty certain the results were inconclusive from that study, because he’s not seen any fascinating breakthroughs in what goes on between qunari ears while they’re passed out, but he’s paid attention to his own dreams since. Seems that if someone’s interested enough in them to pay money, he could try and remember what was running behind his eyelids.

The thing is, this dream’s not really like anything he’s used to. His dreams are usually memories, warped sometimes for added drama for some reason, but he can recognize the time, the place, the general whatever that’s going on, can know in some sense that he’s dreaming.

He’s standing at the railing of a ship, but when he looks down instead of the water he expects to see — the ocean stretching between Seheron and Qarinus, grey and tumultuous like a pot of boiling water — there’s swathes of black and winking yellow and white lights. The city laid out like a satellite photo, stretching out until it runs into the sea on one end and the mountains on the other. It’s beautiful, and Bull ignores the sting of the wind in his eyes to keep looking.

There’s a creak of wood behind him and he turns to see D standing on the deck of the boat, wearing his dark blue cloak cinched tight at his waist, his face almost blank in his surprise.

“Detective Hissrad,” D starts, and Bull feels his stomach lurch — which is straight-up ridiculous, how real it feels, like he’s on an actual boat that’s cruising the clouds of Val Royeaux. “I dared not hope my attempts to summon you would be successful, but I had wanted…”

Bull steps away from the railing and rocks with the boat. There’s an honest-to-Koslun mast to his left, and what’s gotta be a stairwell to below-deck to his right. The last boat he was on — the one he rode as a kid, the one they’d shoved all of the refugees onto, looked nothing like this. He’s never been on this boat, and he sure as fuck’s never been on a boat with D.

He lurches forward in time with the boat’s sway, reaching for D like he can grab him and pull him back to some kind of reality with him.

D steps back and Bull watches the emotions reel across his face, surprise and anger and then a kind of disappointment Bull’s not sure what to do with. D gets disappointed with him all the fucking time, but it’s more… lost? Like he’s disappointed in himself.

“Your city will be safe from my specific brand of justice, Detective.”

“Val Royeaux ain’t my city,” Bull objects, and he wants to keep walking towards D but his body won’t let him — his fucking legs won’t pay attention to his brain. “And you’re gonna, what, move on somewhere else? Sell more pets and never leave your shop? And then do it all over again when you get spooked?”

D turns his head towards his shoulder and now Bull can see that damned snake now, hidden in the folds of D’s cloak. For a long moment, D’s silent — fuck, listening? — and then he glances at Bull. “My business is my own.”

Bull can’t move. If he could, he’d grab for D’s arm, or reach for that fucking lizard and chuck it off the side of the boat. “Tell me that without the snake deciding it for you.”

D’s eyes widen, and then he narrows his eyes and stalks forward, lifting a finger to point in Bull’s face. “Do not presume to understand things you are barely able to comprehend.”

Bull breathes in slow, and directs every ounce of strength he’s got into moving his hand, then his arm: it’s like sliding through sludge, cold honey, quicksand, until D notices the movement and then it’s as easy as moving always is, to reach up and take D by the wrist. “You explain it to me then, all right? I wanna know. You tell me why you’ve gotta go.”

He sees the brief abortive shudder that means D had started to turn back to the snake but stopped himself. He hears the angry hissing, which must be deafening as close as the thing is to D’s ear.

“It is not so simple.” D sounds desperate, but he’s not pulling out of Bull’s grasp. He’s not setting Bull on fire either, and Bull’s pretty certain D could fucking destroy him with magic if he wanted to.

The way the snake’s hissing, Bull’s pretty certain D’s being told to do it.

“I’m a great listener,” Bull replies, and for a split second D’s expression twists into the pissy scowl Bull’s so used to.

“You will leave,” D demands, but his voice shakes when he says it, and Bull can’t help but think of him and Vita, of how last night ended. Bull’d hoped she would’ve talked some sense into D, that Lavellan would’ve cursed him out and Cadash would’ve been reasonable, but instead…

“Where’s the four-headed stepchild?” Bull asks, glancing around the deck, bare as death.

D tugs at Bull’s grip, snapping, “You will not refer to Vita, a miracle by all intents and purposes, in such a way—”

Bull snorts. “Sure, but where is she?”

D’s mouth audibly clicks shut and his eyes dart down, and then the snake starts hissing again — and something about the sound this time worms its way through Bull’s ears and into the base of his skull, down the length of his spine.

He looks between D and the snake and absolutely isn’t imagining the way the snake’s eyes are fucking glowing red like D’s had last night. Which is… D’s always had the snake. It may as well be another limb, as much as D carries it around. It would’ve come with him from Tevinter, may as well have…

Bull doesn’t think it through. He lets go of D’s wrist at the same time that he reaches for that damn snake, and he’s not imagining the sudden burst of pain that rockets up his arm, like putting your palm flat on a hot stove. D hollers something all affronted-like — or scared, the back of Bull’s mind helpfully suggests — but Bull’s already running towards the stairs, the snake held tight in his hands.

Below deck’s dark and there are doors lining the hallway the stairs drop him in. He hesitates, glancing between ‘em, but the pause must give the damn serpent some kind of opening because it starts writhing in his grip, undulating like it’s got some place to go and fast.

He can just hear D above deck, shouting something in a voice more haggard than Bull’s ever heard from him. And then there’s a thought in his head — down the hallway — desperate and scared and too firm to be anything but magic.

Bull swallows down the rush of fear and completely ignores how fucking wild this is, and hauls ass down the hallway until he runs into a final door, bigger than the others. There’s noise on the other side too, like a herd of pissed off horses stomping and huffing, and with the snake still wriggling in his hands he has to drop his shoulder and beat the door down.

It all goes apeshit after that. Even more apeshit.

Vita’s behind the door, and Adaar lunges towards Bull fast enough that Bull falls back on his ass and drops the goddamn snake. She follows it without hesitation and Bull can’t look away as the fucking thing shimmers just like Vita did.

In its place stands a man with greying hair and a permanent scowl, dressed in finery and whispering what Bull knows in his gut is a spell that’s gonna fuck them all up. The man raises his arms — and Adaar keeps hurtling towards him, and Bull shouts and scrambles backwards on his hands and ass when she snaps her jaws down around the guy’s head.

“You fucking asshole,” Lavellan snarls, and dives in to chomp down on a leg — and at that point Bull hauls ass back down the hallway. There are rumblings from behind the other doors now, screeching and roaring and enough hoof-and-paw-pounding that if he doesn’t get topside he’s damn certain he’s gonna get trampled to death.

He nearly careens into D, who’s just about falling down the set of stairs. D lets out a squawk of outrage, and before Bull can reach out to steady him he steps back, hands pressed to his chest. “What have you done?” he snarls, and Bull can feel the power rolling off of him, the way the air around them is electrified, like they’re inside a lightning storm.

“Vita—” Bull starts, but there’s a deafening crack of wood and metal, and at the other end of the boat Vita’s broken open the roof of her room and is climbing up onto the deck. Trevelyan tosses the man’s… fuck, his gnawed-on corpse a dozen feet away from her. And then Adaar slings his detached head over next to it. Fuck. Fuck, what the fuck

D gasps, and then he lets out this sob, like his chest’s been crushed and there’s blood in his lungs. He shoves Bull out of his way and barrels across the deck, no etherealness left in him, and drops to his knees next to the body.

Vita sits back on her haunches and all four heads stand at their full height. Adaar stares Bull dead in the eye, snout bloody and dripping viscera, until he has to look away.

He breathes in slow, pulling his shoulders back and pushing the low-key terror out of his head, and hustles over to D. The guy’s dead silent now, not a single whisper of a sound coming out of him, but he’s. Shit, he’s pulled the head into his lap. Which means the corpse is, was important, somebody D would risk his pretty robes getting blood-soaked over.

“You know this guy?” Bull asks, fucking smooth-like, and he winces when D doesn’t so much shake his head as look like he’s rejecting what’s in front of him. “D?”

“He told me he had entrusted me with the shop,” D says. His voice is dull, even-toned, and when Bull takes a knee he can see that D’s face is calm. No — blank. “He was to remain in Tevinter.”

“He didn’t. He never entrusted you with anything,” Lavellan says, but there’s none of her normal biting sarcasm in it. “And he knew his little game was all fucked when I came along.”

D nods, and tightens his hold on the head before. Before he shoves it off of him and it rolls awkwardly across the deck until it’s halfway between him and Vita.

“Your father has no power over you,” Trevelyan growls, and Bull swears and jerks his attention away, screwing his eyes shut when Vita steps forward and fucking pops the head like it was a beach ball. The head. D’s father’s head.

It’s some kind of morbid curiosity — probably what allows him to look at crime scene photos for too-long hours — that lets him look back at the shitty tableau, at D knelt and brokenhearted and the mess before Vita.

“That may be true,” D says finally, head drifting down between his shoulders, “but what is this, this magic, this task, other than that power made manifest and constant.”

Bull swallows and steps towards him, shoving himself into the middle of a situation he’s… shit, he doesn’t even know where to begin with. This was supposed to be a dream. Maybe it still is — maybe they’re in the Fade, in what’s the worst hour of Bull’s life.

“Listen, D,” he tries, and D snaps around to look at him.

His makeup’s running, Bull didn’t even know he was crying, and he looks fit to tear Bull apart for seeing him like this. Or he did, because it’s only a couple seconds before that sneer’s crumbling in on itself and he’s back to looking just as lost as he ever has.

He pushes himself up onto his feet and folds his hands in front of his waist, like there’s any recovering from what the hell just happened.

“You should not be here,” he says, and Bull’s opening his mouth to agree when Vita rumbles out a low, seconds-long growl that has the both of them turning towards her.

You should not be here,” she replies, all of the heads together, and D has enough sense to snap what before she’s opening her mouths again — and then all Bull knows is sleep.

 

==

 

Bull hasn’t woken up with a hangover since he left Qarinus, so for a good minute he’s convinced he’s dying when he’s blinded by the sunlight punching its way through his apartment’s shitty living room curtains. He smacks a hand to his face and lets out a long stream of curses, and it’s only then — and when someone whispers language — that he realizes he’s not alone.

D’s standing above the sofa where Bull’s laid out, looking more awkward than Bull knew he was capable of.

“I used the facilities,” D says plainly, and sure enough he’s not drenched in, shit, his dad’s blood anymore. Maybe that’s a vint spell: they’d have to have something to get all the blood out after their weird-ass rituals, right? Which… not the point. Not even okay, right now.

But it’s way easier to focus on insulting vints when Bull’s rapidly beginning to understand that whatever the hell that dream was, it was real. Or real enough to end up like… this, D in his apartment of all places.

“Uh, you can.” Bull gets onto his feet and tries not to fall face-first into the coffee table, his head pounding with whatever magic Vita lobbed at him to get him back here. “You can take the couch. I’ve gotta wash out my mouth, it tastes like ass.”

D doesn’t even give him a good offended huff.

Bull stands over the kitchen sink and swigs and spits, and then does it again for good measure.

He’s still there what has to be five minutes later, when he hears D call for him, sounding strained. “Do not drown yourself on my account, Detective Hissrad.”

Bull snorts another mouthful of water down his throat and fucking esophagus, and once he’s done hacking it back up he shuffles back into the living room, dragging the back of his arm across his mouth.

D’s standing between the coffee table and the sofa, and it’s so weird to see him any place that isn’t his opulent shop that it makes Bull hesitate just inside the door.

“So your… shop?” he asks, and D shakes his head once, firmly. Bull has no idea what that means. “And Vita’s… gone?”

D lets out a laugh like a whipcrack, and holds a hand to his cheek, pressing his mouth against the bottom of his palm. “She will take care of the animals,” he says, his voice muffled.

“Sure,” Bull says, and he laughs under his breath. “Sure, okay. And you’re… here.”

“Apparently,” D snaps, and Bull watches the way his face contorts through the different emotions — annoyance, frustration, conviction, all of them a better look for him than the devastation from last night. Last night… when Vita gave him the boot from his own life. Shit.

“So… y’think you’ll be sticking around then?” Bull asks, cracking a humorless smile, and D wraps his arms around himself and sits down on the edge of Bull’s shitty sofa.

“You shouldn’t have interfered,” D replies, but he sounds like he did weeks ago when Bull first met him, when he’d parrot bullshit like it was something he’d read in a book.

“Probably. You got one of your own protests?” Bull asks, and D breathes in and puffs himself up like he’s about to unload on Bull — and then he stills. Breathes out. All his indignation leaks outta him again, and he looks tiny, delicate where he sits.

“I cannot be anything other than what I am, Detective Hissrad.”

Bull’s fingers twitch, his hands ache with a need to touch, but he doesn’t move closer. Outside of that long moment on the boat, D’s always been the one to initiate contact between them.

“Tell me how you got to that conclusion, D.”

D looks out Bull’s shitty tiny streaked window and its useless curtains, and when he speaks his voice sounds airy, dreamlike. “I have a responsibility to punish those who would not think beyond themselves, to enact vengeance where none would otherwise come to pass.”

Bull stands up and moves across the room, sitting down on the edge of the beat-up coffee table and ignoring the faint creak it lets out. If he moved his legs just a little, their knees would touch. He considers it. “I sorta know what that’s like. I’m in law enforcement for a reason.”

D frowns but keeps looking out the window. Bull wants to cup his chin and direct his pretty gaze back to him.

“You insist that we are similar. You have done so since the beginning, since you first determined I was something more than your murderer.” D wrings his hands in his lap, his knuckles going white. His frown’s like a long gash across his face — painful to look at. Makes Bull wanna fix it.

Bull lifts his own hand and then drops it back onto his thigh. “I got to choose responsibility though. I got raised right, taught that everybody has a role to play, and when I decided I wanted to be a cop I knew it was who I was supposed to be. But you? You got told what your responsibility is.”

D drops his head forward between his rounded shoulders and laughs, his body shaking with it. It’s an ugly sound, like it’s pulled from his gut. “And so you will tell me, instead of my father.”

“Fuck, D, no,” Bull objects, but he doesn’t have anything beyond that — what’s he supposed to say? D stops laughing, but he’s still curled in on himself like he’s expecting the skies to open and shit down on him. “That’s not... “

Bull drags his hand over his face. Maybe there’s no right thing to say to this — it sure as hell’s beyond anything he’s ever had to consider. Nobody has experience telling one of the last of their kind how to cope.

He hesitates, hand floating between them, before he reaches forward and runs the back of his knuckles under D’s chin.

D freezes up but doesn’t move, either away or into the touch. His skin is cool against Bull’s hand. Bull can see his lashes fluttering against his cheeks, the slow parting of his lips when he breathes in.

“Detective Hissrad…”

Bull huffs a laugh — cuts himself off when D closes his own hand around Bull’s wrist.

“Bull,” Bull says into the silence that follows, D’s head still down and his fingers slowly warming on Bull’s skin. “Call me Bull.”

D hums. Draws his teeth over his bottom lip and looks up at Bull from under his brow. His hand is heavy on Bull’s wrist. The weight of his gaze locked on Bull’s is heavier still.

Bull,” he breathes, and the tentative smile on his face is the prettiest thing Bull’s ever seen.