"Bad idea," Vanna said, mouth pulled into a hard line of disapproval. Her horns curved gently upward, polished to a smooth finish that gleamed under the lanterns. "My advice? Just drop the job. There's more to be had out there, I hear."
The Iron Bull shrugged one huge shoulder, let her dump more stew into his bowl. "Hey now, there's no need to be like that. Some of us have a reputation to keep up."
"I don't know how it works wherever you come from," she said, "but from where I'm standing it looks like there's not much point to a reputation if you're not around to enjoy it."
"Well," The Iron Bull said, "if some demon steps out of Tevinter to snatch me up, at least that's one of your lot who catches a break. Not going over the border, anyway."
"You'll do as you like, of course," she told him, and although the look they exchanged bordered on confrontational, the argument ended there. He was right, after all.
The Iron Bull left the Vashoth who'd sheltered him in the early morning, while the light that filtered through the high canopy was still faint. Unknown night animals rustled through the undergrowth on their way to their secret dens, and Vanna watched him go while the others slept; she'd been good to him, and he was pretty sure she prayed to her ancestors that he wouldn't come back, with his uncomfortable scars and guarded looks. Oh, she'd been born Vashoth for sure, but she'd known Seheron's marks when she saw them just the same. Who wanted to break bread with the dregs of that mess? Nobody smart.
She had warned him in particular about the path by the river, and so that was the way he turned. The water was black and slow-flowing, the banks overhung with curling ferns and trailing grasses. There was grass between the ancient stones of the road, too, forcing its way up toward the light.
As he walked, the undergrowth grew thicker, but the background fidgeting chatter of the birds faded curiously.
The Iron Bull, satisfied, touched his hand reflexively to the haft of his axe and pressed on.
The sun was high overhead when The Iron Bull found the clearing: a sudden startling flood of sunlight as the canopy opened up above him and the tree-trunks gave way to a small meadow, flowers scattered all through it, right down to the river. The scent of them rose in the warm air.
Antivan crap. Three magical flowers from a special clearing in one particular forest. Still, if he was going to be paid well, he didn't really have any inclination to share his views on intricate human rituals. Good coin was good coin, and there were people who needed it more than some noble.
The place was peaceful. Beautiful, too. Made him want to lie down and stretch himself out in the sun and sleep.
That should have been the first warning.
But The Iron Bull was on guard for a different sort of bewitchment, and there was no movement between the trees; the feeling seemed, as such things often do, an entirely natural one.
He sank down onto his knee in the long grass. Delicate white flowers like small stars. Between his thick fingers they seemed to become even smaller, but they resisted being picked; it required just the right sharp tug to break the stem.
One he had picked and laid carefully on a spread scrap of cloth beside him, and his fingers were closed on another, when he felt it: the sickening tug of magic around him, like freefall from a cliff-edge.
"I wouldn't pick another," a voice said from above him, "if I were you."
The Iron Bull looked up slowly, forearm pressed to thigh to steady himself. Before him, a man, short robes over leather, a glimpse of brown skin here and there. Broad shoulders and fine fingers, and the first hints of wrinkles around the corners of the eyes. He had a groomed, haughty look to him, and he stood before The Iron Bull as a lord surveying his vassal. But his tone had not quite managed to match his imperious look.
His clothing shimmered a little in the sun, but nothing else about him looked unworldly. Still, The Iron Bull wasn't a fool. It wasn't a matter of being quiet or careful: he just hadn't been there at all, and then he had been.
They watched each other in silence. The Iron Bull's knee began to ache from holding the position.
"Oh yeah?" he said, finally. "And what if I do, Tevinter? Going to take my soul?"
He might have expected many responses, but not this: a startled, almost hysterical laugh, bitten off with force. A quick chase of emotions across that pretty face. "Well," the man said, with a certain edge of instability to his tone, "if we're to deal in hearsay, I imagine most would say that you should be far more worried about my designs on your body."
It was the lack of conviction that decided The Iron Bull. "Really," he said, and, with a deliberately exaggerated motion, broke the stem of a second flower.
The man's expression wavered again, and again he collected himself quickly.
Funny, The Iron Bull thought, to see a demon who hesitated to follow through.
"Oh, for goodness' sake," the man said. His gaze lingered on The Iron Bull, not with the calculating manner of a butcher, but with a hot interest, poorly hidden. The muscles of his arms, the breadth of his chest: these were the things the man focused on. His lips, for a beat, before the man turned his face sharply away.
Designs on his body, was it? A chance for follow-up innuendo, completely wasted.
"You know," The Iron Bull said, keeping his tone carefully conversational, because you really could never fucking tell, "not that I'm complaining, but aren't you meant to try and screw me over about now?"
"Ah," the man said. "Yes. I am, after all, some sort of evil demon from Tevinter."
"You know," he added, "I'm not entirely sure you aren't a demon, if it comes to that."
The Iron Bull snorted. A dismissive noise. Control. "Well then, here we are."
"In the event, it makes no difference, I suppose," the man said. "A price has to be paid, you know. Laws are very dull things."
"Right," The Iron Bull said. "Right. Sure." It would be hard to get the drop on the man like this, but he thought he could probably do it. Axe over his shoulder and brought down foreward in one motion, let the momentum carry him up onto his feet—hadn't he come here looking for a fight where he wouldn't feel bad about pulping his opponent? Hit some shit, prove a point?
The man pressed two of his fingers to his lips, as if in thought. He said: "You know, in this situation it would be usual," and then, in startlement, as The Iron Bull came up swinging, "vishante kaffas, you are a fucking savage."
The Iron Bull's axe met no resistance, thudding down solidly into the soft earth of the meadow. He hadn't even seen the man move. He certainly felt the rest of his reaction: the overpowering surge of magical energy that slammed him forward onto the ground beside his axe and held him there, unseen and irresistible.
"Do you really think," the man said, and paused on a sigh. The Iron Bull found that he could roll over onto his back, although if he tried to sit his body resisted him. The man's hair was a little out of place. He breathed hard. Anger seemed more likely than exertion.
The Iron Bull had tried to hit him with a fucking axe, and that was it.
He was also frowning.
"Do you really think," he said again, "that you can get the better of me? Split my chest open, perhaps, or—or pin me down?"
I'd buy you dinner first, The Iron Bull thought, and wanted to laugh.
"Not today, apparently," he said, testing the limits of his freedom once more for the hell of it, though he knew that it wouldn't do any good. To fight a losing battle for the sake of it was pride, and there was no place for that under the Qun. That was probably why he did it. Messing with himself like a real Tal-Vashoth. "Let's hear your damn terms, then."
"For the first flower," the man said, "I will have—your name." He was playing for drama now, a heavy pause and a little flourish with his hand.
His name. A Tevinter could do a lot with a name, The Iron Bull had heard. Although not quite as much as with blood. But, shit, there he was. No leverage to speak of beyond the distant possibility that the man found him attractive, and that wasn't necessarily going to work in his favour.
"The Iron Bull," he said. "Mind the article, it's important."
He found himself the subject of careful study.
"No," the man said. "That won't do. It's too new, and you don't quite believe it yet."
The Iron Bull gave him a flat look, which was met with a shrug.
"Hissrad," he tried. Somehow, he was starting to doubt that was going to fly either. Maybe a few years ago. But Hissrad had ceased to be.
The continuing silence seemed to confirm this theory.
"Must you make this difficult?" the man said finally. At least he sounded as if his patience was genuinely being tested. A small consolation.
"Yes," The Iron Bull said. "It's what I do. I'm good at it."
"I have a very long time, and magic at my disposal," the man said, a little flare of real anger. "I can make your existence very miserable indeed. You don't want to do this."
He was right, of course, The Iron Bull thought, though it frustrated him. Maybe one day he'd have used his new name enough to break it in, make it comfortable. He'd turned it over in his mind constantly, said it to himself to feel the shape of it, but when he woke in panicked confusion over memories of blood and death, struggling to remember who he was, the name that he thought was still—
"Ashkaari," he said, defeated, and let his head slump back heavily onto the ground. Stared up at the blue circle of sky above them, shaded to white by the glare of the sun.
Tama, if it gets in my head, how do I cut it out?
"Thank you," the man said, with an exasperated sigh. "Was that really so hard?"
The Iron Bull rolled his eyes. Obviously he'd get ensnared by the kind of demon who loved the sound of his own voice.
The man pretended not to notice. "For all others, the price is the same. You stay here in this clearing until the sun leaves it. A day for a flower."
"All others," The Iron Bull said.
"You hardly seem like a man who knows when to stop."
"You just can't get enough of me, can you," The Iron Bull said, and smirked up at him. Ideally it'd have been a leer, but his position stuck on the ground was cramping his style a bit.
"Did I say I would be here?" the man said, and then, "You agree?"
The Iron Bull didn't really think about the prospect—not much of a choice to be made. Two flowers taken, one to go, and not much prospect of fighting his way out of his current predicament. But he took a moment to give the impression of consideration.
"Sure," he said.
The air cleared of magic, and The Iron Bull took a shuddering breath, tested moving and found that he could sit up.
"Call me Dorian, I suppose," the man said, and stretched out a hand as though meaning to help The Iron Bull to his feet. The Iron Bull pointedly ignored it, and remained sitting—he could heave himself up, but right at that moment there was a definite risk that his leg would fail to take his weight. Better, always, to avoid showing particular weaknesses.
Dorian withdrew his hand and settled himself down onto the grass as well, facing The Iron Bull. There was none of the visible performance of fastidiousness that The Iron Bull was expecting, but somehow his robes ended up perfectly arranged anyway.
"Why are you here?" he asked, after watching The Iron Bull for a very still moment, eyes on his face, his broad horns. "We're a long way from Par Vollen."
"Long damn way from Minrathous, too," The Iron Bull said, "but here you are."
A moment ago, there had been a liveliness to Dorian's expression. The Iron Bull had not fully registered it, but it became notable in its sudden absence. "Do you mean to say you know who I am?"
"A guess," The Iron Bull said. "You smell like—"
"Ah," Dorian said, and, curiously, seemed to relax a little. "Some of my fellows have been spending time on Seheron, I take it?"
There had been a warning, spoken to him long ago:
Those who are of Minrathous carry the scent of the orange groves that nestle between their ancient buildings with them. But you must never accept their food.
The Iron Bull, who had been Hissrad then, had wanted to laugh at that. As though he would accept food from anyone of Tevinter. Minrathous, Vyrantium or Qarinus, they all needed to die.
But he hadn't forgotten the words. Funny.
"Some of your fellows have been killing children on Seheron," The Iron Bull said, "if that's what you mean."
Dorian sighed, a definitely pained look on his face. A crease between those expressive eyebrows. "Of course they have."
The silence they lapsed into was watchful, but without the unease that ought to have filled it. No bird sang to break it, still, and the river ran too deep and slow to make a sound. But a wind that couldn't be felt in the clearing stirred the tops of the trees, setting them sighing.
The shadows lengthened very slowly.
"I was to go to Seheron, or perhaps to Nevarra. A brief visit, but all the same." Dorian hesitated, sighed again, letting all his breath go at once. "I—"
But the last of the sunlight had left the trees around the clearing, plunging them entirely into cool evening shadows, the first beginning of twilight. The flowers that filled the clearing had closed their petals.
"It's time for you to go, I think," he said. "You don't owe me anything more."
The Iron Bull got heavily to his feet, stretched out the aches that had settled into his joints from too long in the same position. Pulled his axe from the earth and cleaned the blade, not very efficiently—something to do before he slept. "Right," he said.
"Take your flowers," Dorian said. "You've paid for them, after all."
The Iron Bull settled his axe into its place on his back, and bent down to collect the flowers in their loose cloth wrapping.
When he straightened up again, the clearing was empty—of Dorian, and of the underlying peaceful feeling that had held him all through the day, against all reason. Like Dorian's liveliness, The Iron Bull understood it first by its absence. How much had that quiet suggestion of peace persuaded him to give up?
Unsettled, he walked back along the path the way he had come. Vanna would probably allow him another night, to sleep, and to order his thoughts.
Vanna saw it on him right away, sniffed at him. "If I were to put iron to you now, would you burn?"
Superstitions. But she accepted the deer he'd felled on the path back, feeding in the fading dusk, and she accepted his coin for a tent.
"One night," The Iron Bull said.
She shrugged. "Stay as many as you choose. It isn't us you'll destroy."
"I'll only need one," he said, and felt the wrongness as he said the words. He was not a person who liked to indulge in self-deception.
"As you say," she said, and meant: liar.
Liar had been his name once. But, as Dorian had seen, no longer.
He slept poorly, and woke at sunrise. When he looked at the flowers he'd taken they showed no sign of wilting, and when he left the camp, it was by the same route he had taken the previous day, and every step of the way he thought of a reason he shouldn't go back. Not even for one more flower, not even for good money.
In the clearing, peace settled over him.
"Ah," Dorian said. "I thought as much. You simply can't resist my marvelous good looks or my wit and charm."
The Iron Bull laid his flower carefully in a pouch with the other two, unhurried, before he turned to look.
Dorian was smiling, as though at an excellent joke. It creased the corners of his eyes. The expression suited him.
He's a demon, The Iron Bull reminded himself. But he felt disconnected from the idea. He thought: maybe this is what being Tal-Vashoth is like. Losing your sense of judgement.
He felt disconnected from that as well right then, with the warmth of the sun on his face.
"Hey," he said, "you're an attractive man."
Dorian hid his startlement quickly, but for a moment it was plain. The way his throat moved as he swallowed.
"As you say," he said softly, but he didn't look at The Iron Bull as he did so.
There was silence between them again. Dorian turned away, and sat himself cross-legged in the grass. He had a book with him, and this he lay open on his lap. The parchment looked old, the pages tending to try and curl. As he settled it, the heavy binding creaked.
He was unguarded. Civilian, The Iron Bull thought, reflexively cataloguing his enemy. Or his opponent, at least.
Dorian was dangerous, definitely, but The Iron Bull couldn't see him as a combatant, unless he was playing a deeper game than The Iron Bull would've credited him with, trying to get him to drop his guard in turn.
Demons, he thought again, and failed again to believe it. The disgust he wanted to feel was beyond his reach.
He couldn't see Dorian's face, but his fingers rested delicately on the page, traced lines of text and lingered on illustrations. He seemed—not deeply absorbed, but as though he would like to appear to be.
"So," The Iron Bull said, sitting himself down, laying his axe very deliberately aside as a token of goodwill, "these flowers. What is it about them that's worth all this?"
Dorian's fingers stilled, only the very tips against the page. He wore many rings, and they caught the sunlight unpredictably, sparking and shining as though with their own inner magic. It was a slight tremor in Dorian's hand that caused it, The Iron Bull realised. A moment later he understood the tremor to be laughter.
"Do you really mean to tell me," Dorian said, "that you agreed to my price without knowing what you were paying for?" He had turned slightly, enough for The Iron Bull to see his expression in profile, the amused little curl of his lips.
"I'm getting paid," The Iron Bull said.
"Paid enough that your true name seemed a reasonable price for something you don't understand?"
"Oh, come on," The Iron Bull said. "That's low. I didn't ask you to explain what you're doing out here. Although, come to think of it—"
Dorian closed his book very deliberately, and fastened the metal clasp that held it shut. "Really?" he said. "We're really doing this?"
"Hey, you wanted the pleasure of my company."
"That's not," Dorian started, and broke off with a noise of frustration. "Naturally. I must detest peace and quiet."
The Iron Bull had a growing suspicion that this last was in fact true, but held his peace on the topic. "You were going to say something yesterday," he said instead. "Thought maybe it was something you needed to talk about."
"You're very concerned with my feelings for someone who considers me a demon," Dorian said. "I know what Hissrad means, you realise. I'm sure you don't need my life story if you're planning on having me bound and leashed and sent to Par Vollen as a toy."
He'd found the word, maybe, The Iron Bull thought, but he probably didn't know it was a role, what it involved and didn't involve. Not a discussion he felt that keen on having, anyway. Better to turn the blade and be done. "You said yourself, I'm not Hissrad. You want to be bound and leashed, that works for me, but Par Vollen's got nothing to do with it."
Dorian's brown skin didn't show blushes well, which was a damned shame.
"So long as we're entirely clear," he said, which was, interestingly enough, not a denial.
It was the right moment to press for information, The Iron Bull knew: get in while Dorian was off-balance and flustered.
Dorian seemed to have realised the same thing.
"Besides getting paid," he said, the barest moment before The Iron Bull opened his mouth to speak, "what are you doing here?" The words came out in a rush, a scramble to get in ahead of The Iron Bull. Interesting in itself.
The Iron Bull shrugged. "Getting paid isn't enough?"
"No," Dorian said, thoughtful. "You used to be Hissrad, but you aren't any longer. You're trying to be The Iron Bull, but you don't believe you are. You're a veteran of Seheron wandering the borderlands. I have the feeling that getting paid is at best a gross simplification. I rather think there's a story to you, Ashkaari."
The Iron Bull held onto his self-control, but it was a close-run thing. "Don't," he said, and saw that Dorian flinched at his tone. "You made me give you that name, but you don't call me that. I'm The Iron Bull."
He expected to have to negotiate, give up something more for the pleasure of not having his past dragged up over and over again, but Dorian just winced and said, subdued, "I—I apologise."
"Damn right," The Iron Bull said, and let his shoulders fall, easing the worst of the tension out of them breath by breath.
Dorian sighed and shifted, laid his book aside on the dry grass and settled himself closer to The Iron Bull. It seemed a conscious gesture. The Iron Bull imagined for a moment that he could feel the warmth radiating from his body, but it must only have been the sun.
"To answer your earlier question," Dorian said, "I find myself here because my situation at home is increasingly difficult. I have a role to play, one which is deeply distasteful to me, and I—require space to consider my options."
"What," The Iron Bull said, "not enthusiastic enough about the blood of virgins?"
"Not nearly," Dorian said with a rather sharp laugh, and then, sobering, "and far too interested in—well—I suppose it doesn't matter. My choices so far have been less than acceptable, and I imagine there will eventually be consequences. I suppose being a pariah does go rather well with my dashing good looks."
This last was accompanied by a sidelong look at The Iron Bull. It seemed coy, as though Dorian couldn't quite decide whether he was flirting or not. As for the rest—well, he'd met people who were better at hiding their shit, but there was something about Dorian that was hard to read all the same.
There was a pull to that. It was attractive, as mysteries often were.
So was Dorian. A high collar that parted at the front to leave his throat temptingly bare, framed and emphasised. His eyes were lined with kohl, the lids very delicately shaded with powder. Those wrinkles at their corners suited him well, especially when he smiled.
The Iron Bull struggled briefly with the urge to try and make him smile again.
"I must say," Dorian said, and he was smiling again now, although The Iron Bull hadn't done a damn thing to cause it. "I wonder what you think of us. Do you believe every story you hear? You seem rather too intelligent a man for that."
This time it was The Iron Bull's turn to be surprised into laughter, and Dorian's smile deepened.
"Really?" The Iron Bull said. "Intelligent, is it? And here I believed all mages from Tevinter made pacts with demons. Which I'm guessing you're going to tell me you don't."
A shadow passed over Dorian's face, but his recovery time was good. "I most certainly don't," he said, mouth twisting in distaste. He brightened. "Next you'll be telling me you believed the one about the cows. Although that one's very nearly true, I suppose, if you care to go on technicalities."
"Cows," The Iron Bull said, trying very hard not to be charmed. "Damn. Now you're just fucking with me. Go on, then, tell me the one about the cows."
Dorian laughed, and told him about the cows which had only sort of been flying over Minrathous, and smiled the entire time he was doing so.
The sun was sinking, the light turning warm and golden. The shadows of the trees stretched out until they touched the tips of The Iron Bull's boots.
"I apologise again," Dorian said. "About your name—I had no idea, when I asked—"
The Iron Bull shrugged. "Forget it," he said. "It's done."
He watched the shadows' advance in silence for a time, and reached a decision. "We don't have names under the Qun," he said, finally. "Got numbers, and titles. But my Tama, she used to call me that. Ashkaari, like—uh—too smart for my own good, probably."
"Oh," Dorian said, a little sound of surprise, and looked for a moment as though he might reach for The Iron Bull, touch him. He began to raise his hand, and faltered, as if he were unused to offering comfort.
Just as well, The Iron Bull thought. He had what he needed now, he shouldn't be getting himself more tangled up in this mess. Next thing, he'd be the one telling elaborate stories about home.
The idea didn't seem so bad.
But it was almost time to go. He got to his feet without being asked this time, picked up his axe, looked around to meet Dorian's eyes in the fading light.
"Do be careful with that thing of yours," Dorian said, full of righteous but not entirely convincing indignation. "Swinging it around like that, honestly."
"Oh," The Iron Bull said, "you're pretty dirty, huh? I'm always careful. Want to find out?"
Dorian's eyes widened. "Your weapon," he snapped, but he was not, in fact, looking at The Iron Bull's axe.
"Well, hey," The Iron Bull said, "you change your mind, I'm around."
Dorian looked as though he had a retort ready. But then the sun was gone, and The Iron Bull stood alone in the clearing again.
Back along the path, Vanna was expecting him. Of course she was. She didn't say a word this time, just shrugged and turned away from him, gesturing towards the tent he'd used for the last few nights. No saving fools, probably. Well, he couldn't argue.
It was a bad night for sleep, although The Iron Bull was quite well used to making do on snatches of rest where he could. This time, sunrise was still some hour or two away when he rose, full of restless energy. The road south-east to Antiva was long, and he had in his mind some idea of making good headway, putting some distance between himself and the borderlands.
At the crossroads he stood for some time in private conflict, the same one that had held him from sleep. In truth, he knew already what he was going to do. The memory of Dorian's shifting expressions, his surprise and fascination, was too clear.
When he finally turned, it was not south and east, but west, with the river.
In Dorian's clearing, he found himself standing again. Although the walk was not a short one, the sun was only just clearing the tops of the trees, a thin sliver of bright light falling across the westernmost edge of the clearing. Slowly, the flowers opened their petals.
I'm losing it, The Iron Bull thought.
He bent and picked a flower.
"I rather thought three would have been enough for you," Dorian said.
There was an uncertainty and a strained note to his voice that he almost certainly didn't mean to let show. The Iron Bull straightened up, held the flower to his scarred lips as though to kiss it, breathed in the scent of it. Dorian seemed unable to look away. He was, The Iron Bull noticed, decidedly less groomed today: hair a mess, a bruised look to the skin beneath his eyes.
"Three was enough for my employer," he said, lowering his hand. "One's enough for me."
"I do not appreciate—" Dorian began, heated, and broke off with a sound that was close to a growl, all frustration, low in his throat. "You are impossible."
"You like it," The Iron Bull said, never one to let an opportunity to state an obvious but unwelcome truth slide.
Dorian narrowed his eyes. For a moment, the line of his mouth tightened with some emotion The Iron Bull couldn't quite pin down. "Well?" he said. "And what if I do? Do you simply plan to stand there and—and wave your cock around, or do you have a point with any of this?"
This was a shift. The Iron Bull hadn't entirely expected it; had thought that Dorian wanted him, that he got a secret kick out of the flirting, sure. But this was something else. "Depends," he said, keeping his tone neutral. "You want me to be going somewhere?"
"I want," Dorian said, and swore under his breath. "I want you to believe that I'm not a demon. And I want—"
There were only two paces between them, and Dorian closed them swiftly. There was no gentleness at all to the press of his mouth against The Iron Bull's, nor to the urgent clench of his hands against The Iron Bull's chest, nails digging sharply into skin. A shock, not unpleasant but disorienting. Something had happened between yesterday and today. Some variable The Iron Bull hadn't known to account for.
He groaned. There was an overwhelming intensity to it all: the drag of Dorian's teeth against his lower lip, the desperate pressure of Dorian's lips. Out of nowhere. He brought his hands up to Dorian's side, his back, stroked careful circles there, keeping his touch light, and ignored the urgent roll of Dorian's hips for the moment while he was still figuring out the situation.
"Hey," he said, "hey, easy there. We've got time."
Dorian panted against him, breath hot at the base of The Iron Bull's throat where he had pressed his face. "We have time, he says. Would you please be so very kind as to get on with it and fuck me already? I am not a terribly patient man."
There was that strain to his voice again, more pronounced now. Need, tangled and twisted up with fear and want.
"Something happened, didn't it," The Iron Bull said.
"I am currently entirely uninterested in—oh—talking about my feelings," Dorian said. He had worked a hand between The Iron Bull's legs, and was occupied with the task of exploring, dragging his fingers along the line of The Iron Bull's cock, pressing, teasing.
Focus despite temptation. Dorian's hands were unsteady, and his breath shuddered. Everything about his urgency said that he was going for a temporary escape, to be held and taken so thoroughly that he couldn't remember why he was afraid, to not have to talk about it, to not do anything but feel. The Iron Bull could probably manage that; he knew the feeling well enough. But he knew, too, that Dorian probably wasn't very interested in minding his own limits at that exact moment. Sex outside the Qun was a messy thing, he had learnt—not that there weren't rules, but people hated spelling them out. That could be fine, it could be a lot of fun, but it worried him sometimes, that kind of chaos.
Right now, it worried him immensely. The two of them, nothing to anchor them, and all of Dorian's sharp edges on show—
"Right," he said, "right—Dorian—"
Dorian pulled back to look up at him with hazy eyes, and The Iron Bull felt compelled to run his hand up Dorian's back, to stroke carefully over the soft skin of his neck, drag his fingers lightly along Dorian's jaw. Dorian shivered, but his eyes gained focus.
"Well?" he said, impressively imperious in tone considering the circumstances.
The Iron Bull thought about hostile targets and desires and extracting information, and then about Tamassrans. Needs and clear boundaries and certainties.
"You're going to have to tell me what you need," he said. "You want to play rough or whatever, that's fine, but we set rules first. You don't try to provoke me into hurting you."
"Is that the price?" Dorian said.
The Iron Bull gave him a lopsided smile. "If you like."
"How positively Tevinter of you." Dorian more or less managed to return the smile, although it looked to have cost him. The breath he took before he spoke next was deep and uneven. "I rather hoped—but I—I accept."
The Iron Bull curled his fingers gently under Dorian's chin, tilted his face up a fraction further, just to the edge of strain, and bent to press a chaste kiss to his parted lips. Relief and approval. He felt steadier in himself already.
"Tell me," The Iron Bull said.
"I," Dorian said, and hesitated. Another deep breath, his eyes flickering closed, open again. Resolve through fear. The Iron Bull could respect that. "Fight me. You have to overpower me. Don't stop, even if I—well, just don't stop, I suppose."
"I can do that," The Iron Bull said, though in an all-out fight he really didn't know if he could. He considered the rest. "No weapons. You want to actually stop, you tap out, like this." He tapped the fingers of the hand that wasn't on Dorian's face to his arm, three times. "Or you call an end. My tongue, so I know it's not play. Katoh."
Dorian's mouth moved as he tested the shape of the word in silence. The Iron Bull stroked his knuckles across Dorian's cheek, watched the flutter of Dorian's eyelids at the gesture. He didn't understand it, but there was a need in him to take these moments of quiet closeness and hold them, to remember them through the rest.
Even as messy and tired as he looked, Dorian was beautiful.
I want you to believe I'm not a demon, he'd said, and he'd looked so damned lost. The Iron Bull didn't know if he believed it. But oh, part of him wanted to.
"Any more terms?" he said.
"I suppose you'd better let me undress first. I ought to be able to take myself home without causing any more of a scandal than usual." He sounded regretful at that.
"You've been thinking about me ripping your clothes off, haven't you," The Iron Bull said, with a grin, and was pleased when that got a laugh from Dorian. "Hey, lots of people like that. Big, strong hands, tearing your robes right off, laying you bare—"
Dorian was smiling up at him, and this time he was flushed enough for it to show. To feel as well, his skin warming under The Iron Bull's hand. "You're terrible," he said, and sounded fond.
"The worst," The Iron Bull said, and kissed him. Softly—had he meant to kiss him so softly? But Dorian moaned against his lips, a tiny involuntary noise of pleasure, and it was right.
"And," Dorian said, when The Iron Bull pulled back, "you should mark me, but only in places I can hide. I want—" he trailed off.
"What do you want?" The Iron Bull asked, when nothing more followed, and Dorian sighed.
"It doesn't matter. Just let me feel it, if you would."
"Yeah, that's fine," The Iron Bull said, and couldn't resist stealing one more kiss. This time, he could feel Dorian's lips curving into a smile. He was still tense, no missing that, but he'd lost that worst edge of desperation for the moment. Talking had been the right call, The Iron Bull thought, satisfied. He might be a poor substitute for a Tamassran, but he wasn't lost yet. He could still keep hold of himself. Madness would come, but for now—
"How about you strip, then," he said.
Dorian did. His hands fumbled a little over fastenings. So much concentration in his expression that The Iron Bull wanted to kiss him again, take over, tear his clothes off after all. But they had an agreement.
He watched, and he could see Dorian's awareness of his gaze, his arousal, and that was good too.
And then there was just Dorian, standing naked in the sunlight. He was not a slightly built man and, although he'd proven himself more than capable of dealing with The Iron Bull without lifting a finger, he had the look of someone who took care in training his body. The Iron Bull remembered that first impression of him, of a solid physicality, presence.
It had been appealing then, even with his wariness. It was more appealing now. The look Dorian gave him was openly flirtatious - he seemed now unashamed of his interest in the broad bare expanse of The Iron Bull's chest. A good sign.
Between Dorian's legs, his cock was hard.
"You want me naked too?" The Iron Bull asked, and watched with interest as Dorian's cock twitched.
"You can hardly expect me to believe that you consider yourself dressed right now," Dorian said, and then, at a look from The Iron Bull, "boots off, if you would."
There was no way of making an enticing performance out of taking off a leg brace, so The Iron Bull went for efficiency. After a moment's thought, he took his pouch of flowers from his belt and lay that with the rest.
When he straightened up again, careful of how he placed his weight, he found that Dorian, although still undeniably turned on, was looking at him with some expression of—well— some expression that made it look a lot like he cared. Maybe it was a mistake to talk after all—maybe it would have been easier, simpler, just to fuck, like Dorian had wanted to.
It wouldn't have been. It wouldn't have been what he needed and, more importantly, it wouldn't have been what Dorian needed. But for a moment, in the face of how much he wanted to believe himself the object of Dorian's affection, the thought was there.
"Ready?" he asked.
"I have been ready for some time," Dorian said.
The Iron Bull thought about Tamassrans again. State a rule and then reinforce it. "And to stop it, if you can't tap out, you say…?"
"Katoh," Dorian said, the word obviously foreign on his tongue.
"Good," The Iron Bull said, and lunged for him.
Dorian didn't slip magically out of the way as he had on that first day. Instead, The Iron Bull's shoulder crashed against his chest, and he turned his body back and sideways with it, reflexes good even with the air punched out of him. The Iron Bull, getting a rough grip on his arm, used the momentum to twist him off balance—tumbled them both down onto the grass, grunting as he landed with Dorian on top of him.
Dorian was wide-eyed, breathing hard. "You—you brute," he managed, gasped words at odds with the fact that he was grinding insistently down against The Iron Bull's clothed leg. "Oh—that's going to bruise—oh, fuck—"
The Iron Bull drew his knee up to give Dorian a moment of improved contact, and watched in satisfaction as Dorian's lips parted on a moan. Enough of a distraction for The Iron Bull flip them both over. Crushed grass smeared along Dorian's arm.
It made a gorgeous picture: Dorian pinned beneath him, head thrown back against the grass and throat working hard as he swallowed. "Shit," The Iron Bull said. He was breathing hard himself, by now. "You think that's the only bruise you're going to have when I'm done with you?"
He tightened his hands around Dorian's forearms for emphasis, dug in with the blunted tips of his claws, rounded down to a semblance of nails. Dorian hissed in pain, and then laughed, breathless, reckless—arched up against The Iron Bull, the head of his cock dragging damply along The Iron Bull's stomach.
"Oh," Dorian said, "you and your promises—oh, oh—oh, stop that—harder—"
The Iron Bull, who had released Dorian's arm in favour of yanking his head back with a firm grip on his hair, didn't pull harder, but did bend to bite at the junction of Dorian's neck and shoulder, low enough for his damned collars to hide.
"If you do that again, I will make you sorry," Dorian said. His voice had gone breathy, and he was still trying insistently to rub his cock against The Iron Bull any way he could. "You—you—"
The Iron Bull pushed himself up on hands and knees, caging Dorian with his whole body, and did it again, sucked and kissed and bit again until there was a dark bruise over Dorian's collar-bone.
Dorian moaned, full-voiced. His hips jerked.
His arm slammed hard into The Iron Bull's elbow.
"Shit," The Iron Bull said, but his balance was gone, and Dorian was rolling to the side, away and up onto his knees, breathless with laughter. The sound sparked across The Iron Bull's skin, settled hot between his legs. Dorian's expression was bright and defiant, delighted.
It was dragons The Iron Bull thought of now.
The image would not leave him soon.
It was Dorian who threw himself at The Iron Bull this time, hands clenching hard at the back of his neck; their mouths met, and that was hard too, Dorian's teeth sharp on The Iron Bull's bottom lip. He tasted his own blood, burned with it, all the adrenaline of any good fight and more than the usual amount of arousal. A relief that he hadn't been looking for. But he'd needed it.
This time when The Iron Bull threw Dorian he went down hard, shoulder first onto the ground, but he was quick up again anyway, swinging for The Iron Bull with a closed fist.
The Iron Bull caught his hand at the wrist, and meant to throw him down again, get on top of him, but Dorian twisted and yanked his arm free, came in elbow-first quicker than The Iron Bull would have credited.
He didn't quite have the strength to knock The Iron Bull back; swore in frustration as The Iron Bull held his ground, twisted and struggled even as The Iron Bull got his arms around him and finally sent him to the grass again, came down on top of him, the full length of their bodies pressed together.
Dorian's chest was heaving.
The Iron Bull ground down against him. He got the angle just right; his cock pressed to Dorian's, the fabric of his trousers sliding between them. Dorian groaned in frustration, kicking and struggling to try and get more friction. Between them, his fingers twisted around the strap of The Iron Bull's harness, tugging in a useless attempt to steer him in the right direction.
"Fuck," The Iron Bull said. "Fuck, you're hot like this, all messed up and bruised and sweaty. You're so desperate to get off, to feel my cock in you. Nothing's enough, is it."
"Oh, please," Dorian said, although the dismissiveness was ruined by a moan, "you talk as though it doesn't matter either way to you, but you're just as desperate."
He wasn't wrong, exactly. The Iron Bull could lose himself in this, in Dorian's pleasure, let it echo through him until it was all he knew. He had been made into a weapon, and broken, remade, broken again. To become a tool for another's satisfaction, if only for a few hours—it wouldn't be so bad. In that moment he wanted it, yearned for it with an unexpected heat.
Ashkaari had always tried to look out for the other imekari. To understand what they needed. Hissrad had tried, at times, not to see.
He had failed again and again.
"Can you blame me?" The Iron Bull said, sliding a hand up Dorian's side, making sure to graze over a nipple with his thumb. When he shuddered it was equal parts desire and memory. "Gorgeous man like you, all strong and powerful, trying to beg for my cock without begging for it? That's enough to get anyone worked up."
Dorian arched against him, his feet struggling for purchase on the grass. The sounds he was making were incoherent, fragmented. The Iron Bull paid close attention to them for anything that might be Qunlat, but heard nothing of the sort.
He pressed his hand up, forcing Dorian's resisting arm off his chest and up above his head, pinning him by the wrist; repeated the motion with his other hand, stretching Dorian out, holding him in place; saw the widening of Dorian's eyes as he tried and failed to resist. He lay engulfed in The Iron Bull's shadow, lips parted, staring up at him.
The Iron Bull smiled. "Yield?" he asked, his voice rough.
Dorian's lip curled. He tried to drag his arms free, testing The Iron Bull's hold.
It was, The Iron Bull found, taking in Dorian's expression, still possible for him to get even more turned on.
His cock ached. He could just—if Dorian would just—
"Why on earth should I—do that—" Dorian said, the last words wavering as The Iron Bull bent to kiss his neck, to bite at it, catching at the edges of the bruises he'd already left, compelled to get close enough to Dorian to breathe in the smell of him.
"Oh, I don't know," The Iron Bull said, close against Dorian's ear, and felt how Dorian shivered. "Maybe because you're not getting a damn thing more until you do?"
"Am I not?" Dorian said, and The Iron Bull thrilled to hear the slyness in his tone, the playfulness even as he fought. And he was fighting, feet braced on the ground, shoving up hard with his full body against The Iron Bull's hold.
It wasn't enough to shift him, but The Iron Bull let it happen. Not a mercy for Dorian but an urge to make him keep working at it, to throw him around and see how he loved it. They tumbled sideways together, Dorian laughing for one triumphant moment as he came up on top of The Iron Bull, gasping again in the next as The Iron Bull kept the roll going, threw Dorian and followed over to kneel above him.
Under The Iron Bull's hand, Dorian's throat moved urgently. He flexed his fingers, let Dorian feel the scrape of his claws, the weight of his palm—not pressure so much as potential. Against The Iron Bull's wrist, Dorian's fingers clenched ineffectually, the nails biting hard into The Iron Bull's skin.
He was not trying to pull The Iron Bull's hand away, and he seemed not even to realise that his hips were moving restlessly, thrusting in little urgent circles up against The Iron Bull. Dorian's cock pressed up against The Iron Bull's balls. He looked completely overcome.
"Yield," The Iron Bull said, and this time it had the sharpness of a command.
"Fuck," Dorian gasped. "Fuck, fuck, I yield—fuck me—"
He still cried out in protest at the loss of The Iron Bull's hand. The Iron Bull, hurrying to get himself out of his clothes, fumbled at the sight of Dorian pressing shaking fingers to his own throat. Swore fervently, and, kicking his trousers out of the way, grabbed Dorian by the shoulders to pull him up and kiss him.
The messy press of their mouths only added to the urgency growing between them.
Dorian's hands came up to clutch at his forearms. The slide of his tongue against The Iron Bull's was dizzying. The Iron Bull's chest was tight with want.
"Come on," he muttered against Dorian's lips. "Hey, come on, work with me here. Let me take care of you."
Dorian groaned, leaned in for another kiss before submitting to The Iron Bull's attempts to rearrange them, settling them with Dorian in his lap, Dorian's back pressed to his chest, his hands looking huge against Dorian's chest and stomach.
He pressed his hands experimentally across Dorian's skin. He could feel every movement and gasp and shiver, through his palms, through his chest.
"You still in there?" he asked.
Dorian only nodded, leant his head back against The Iron Bull's shoulder, eyes closed in bliss. It'd be an incredible expression to see properly, The Iron Bull thought. But it was good enough in glances, in profile.
He kept watch on Dorian's face as he slid his left hand back to Dorian's throat. A careful press. A curl of the fingers.
Dorian's lips parted, and The Iron Bull felt the breath shudder out of him, but he hardly made a sound. A whine, on the edge of hearing.
"Easy," The Iron Bull said, and felt as though he was trying to soothe both of them. His free hand stroked over Dorian's stomach, the slight softness there, the flex of muscles beneath. A little lower, his fingers brushing through dark hair, neatly trimmed, his claws teasing at the skin just above Dorian's cock.
"Please," Dorian said.
"Hm," The Iron Bull said, "I don't know about that." That he closed his hand around Dorian's cock as he said it may have sent slightly mixed signals; it certainly persuaded a laugh out of Dorian, breathless and unsteady as the sound was. That was good. Relaxed was good, laughing was good. And desperate for pleasure was a hell of a lot better than just desperate.
The Iron Bull flexed his fingers—around Dorian's cock, around his throat. It was hard to say which it was that made Dorian moan and writhe the most. It wasn't going to take much to get him off now. It wasn't going to take much for The Iron Bull, either, if it came to that.
He ground up against Dorian's arse, his cock sliding along the cleft of it, and Dorian moaned at that too, pushed his hips back into it, spine arching. That pushed him up against The Iron Bull's hand on his throat, and the sound he made then sounded like a sob.
"Fuck, that's hot," The Iron Bull said; growled, really. He stroked Dorian's cock, squeezed and fondled it, pressed his thumb to the head and rubbed little circles over it, the motion smoothed by the precome gathering there. Stroked again, again, firm and slow. "Fuck. Come on, Dorian—yeah, that's it, like that—you're so gorgeous—"
Dorian was tensing under his hands, his hips moving erratically. The Iron Bull, extrapolating from the available evidence, pressed down against his throat a little harder, just enough to make breathing an effort. Dorian did sob then, his whole body jerking against The Iron Bull's hold as he came apart, spilling over The Iron Bull's fingers, his thighs.
The Iron Bull held him through it, and then through the little shivery aftershocks that followed; stroked the sweaty mess of his hair back from his forehead and pressed soft kisses to his shoulder, the side of his neck. He remembered, then, the urge to kiss Dorian he'd felt before they began. The strange sweetness of it. He had the same feeling now, even coloured as it was by his own arousal.
It was not what he had expected madness to feel like. He had expected something fierce and red.
He had expected it to feel like a loss.
Dorian, still unsteady, turned his face up towards The Iron Bull's, and there was nothing for it but to give in and kiss him, awkward angle and all—Dorian's mouth moving languid and soft against his. A tender thing.
Together, with a little effort, they managed to turn Dorian in The Iron Bull's lap, to settle him so they were chest to chest, slow messy kisses blending into one another until the heat it spread through him became too much to take. Then he lay Dorian down in the grass and leant over him, and kissed him again; stroked himself, his hand still slick with Dorian's come. After a moment, Dorian's hand joined his, light touches, unfocused—but after everything else it was more than enough.
With a ragged groan against Dorian's lips, The Iron Bull came; he had not felt it building, and he could not have held it off. There was a terrifying intensity to it, as though it had been torn from him. But Dorian was there, touching him, moaning as The Iron Bull's come fell across his stomach and chest. He watched The Iron Bull through the whole, stared up at him as though he could memorise every detail, until The Iron Bull, far beyond the point of denying himself, could do nothing but take up kissing him again.
They lay together for a time, drowsy in the sun, settling back into themselves. The Iron Bull ached, and Dorian must be feeling his bruises. But there was a comfort to it: the simple closeness.
Sooner or later, they would have to clean up, The Iron Bull thought. Probably sooner.
But it was Dorian who broke the silence.
"You," he said, a hand reaching out to touch The Iron Bull's face, "are unbelievable." It sounded like an endearment.
It also sounded sad.
"Hey," The Iron Bull said. "You doing alright?"
"Just now, I doubt I could be better," Dorian said. He was still smiling, and he still didn't sound happy. "I should go."
"Not like that," The Iron Bull said, and knew that he was stalling for time, against all reason. "Come on, let's get you down to the river, clean you up."
Dorian hesitated, seemed to realise the state he was in: bruised and sweaty, smeared with dirt and come and crushed grass. "I suppose I could consent to that," he said, and it was a good try at humour.
The Iron Bull helped him to his feet, saw that he winced when he straightened out his back, and that he was favouring his right leg. But Dorian seemed not to mind the discomfort. In fact he was probing curiously at his arm with ungentle fingers, testing the soreness of all the marks.
"Satisfied?" The Iron Bull said, smiling at him, and for a moment Dorian smiled back at him without that shadow of sadness. But it faded quickly.
"Ever so," he said.
The Iron Bull sat him down by the water's edge. Cleaning both of them up with scraps of cloth was a slow process, and he had no wish to hurry it; he allowed them this, a few more gentle touches.
"I won't be back," Dorian said, very softly.
It was no surprise.
The Iron Bull didn't let his hands falter, just kept cleaning Dorian's chest with careful swipes. "Going to tell me why?" he asked.
"I did something foolish—no, more foolish than this." Dorian sighed. He seemed very interested in The Iron Bull's hands, or at least in not meeting his eyes. "I have for some months been engaged to a very beautiful young woman. Or I was, I suppose. As of last night, I am not, to the disappointment of the rest of House Pavus. I will be very much preoccupied with the consequences of my choice."
The Iron Bull knew a gross understatement when he heard one. But if Dorian didn't want to do details then he didn't. And in fact Dorian seemed disinclined to say anything else at all.
Finally the pretense of washing had been drawn out as far as it would take them.
"Thank you," Dorian said, "for—unexpected consideration."
He stood and gathered his clothes, began to dress, turned away.
"You needn't wait out the rest of the day," he said, fixing a final buckle. All The Iron Bull's marks were, in fact, hidden. "There's no debt left between us."
"Dorian," The Iron Bull said, and Dorian turned to him, questioning. But there was nothing else to say. He could only look.
"Oh, please," Dorian said. "Don't concern yourself with me. I'm sure you're far more likely to get yourself in trouble than I could ever hope to be."
I could kiss you again and ask you to let me help, The Iron Bull thought. Utterly irrational.
The thought came too late. Dorian had already turned again, and stepped between the trees, and vanished.