Dorian falls roughly onto the bed, his left arm twisted behind his back. The mattress muffles the impact, but Bull's hard grip on his wrist remains. He inhales, wool and hemp and candle smoke, and his own thick desire. Arousal is a spark to the powder line of his patience. Bull yanks on his arm, and his shoulder and cheek sink into the blankets. His free hand clamps on a fistful of fabric.
"Stay still." Bull's right hand slides hot and purposeful across Dorian's bucking back.
"Make me," Dorian snarls. Wrenching sideways, he tries to scramble off the bed. His foot thuds against a pillow as Bull presses his bent leg across the backs of his knees, trapping them.
His heart beats a wild tattoo of anticipation. The bed is a wreck, pillows askew, covers bunched.
"Gladly," Bull mutters, and Dorian believes him. Wants him to. He tries again for leverage, until a bloom of hurt in his left shoulder voids that thought. Bull holds him there, on the skirling edge of fear and pleasure. Dorian squeezes his eyes shut: darkness grasps at him. The ache loosens as Bull lets him slacken an inch, just enough for want to reassert itself.
There's salt on his tongue, sweat on his lips. His cock throbs, hard and untouched, against the bed. Bull chuckles above, and his breath wafts against Dorian's bowed neck.
"I wonder," Dorian manages, "if I was unclear on the 'ravish me' part." The hayloft smell of the freshly stuffed mattress intrudes on the dark, beckoning current in his mind.
Take me. Make me sink.
With a grunt--lust and control wound together--Bull sets his weight on Dorian. His hand leaves Dorian's flank to fumble at the side of the bed. Dorian forgets to squirm, dipping into the images the gesture summons.
Slick, utterly sure fingers on his thighs, leaving him breathless. He makes a low wail of want, and his hips jerk ineffectually. Bull has him pinned with simple weight; his own free hand is good for no more than a grip of the linens.
His tongue, however, is not yet tied. "Vishante kaffas, will you just--just stop stalling."
"Keep trying." Bull's voice is pitched between a threat and a promise. "Let's see how far you get."
"Oh?" Dorian's laughter rasps. "It seems this won't get very far, from where I'm--ah, ah!"
Bull swipes a streak of warm oil across his hole. Dorian shouts, hoarse and inelegant and entirely heedless of the latter.
"Not until you stay still."
Dorian's breath wheezes. "Bastard."
The insult has no teeth--Qunari don't even have the concept--and Dorian would like for his mind to shut up and let him submerge. Taut energy sings through him, clashing with the edge across which there is silence and surrender. He burns and shivers with it.
"You want to make this hard?" Even the husk of Bull's voice tugs him back and forth. With a shift of his leg, Bull pins Dorian's kicking foot, and his knees are splayed to the bed. "I can do that, too. Get the rope and leave you here until you behave. The long way or the short, you're mine now."
And that should be it.
Instead Dorian's breath flees as if he'd slammed into a wall. It's a smack of horror, not the dread-delight of being held down, spread and teased to someone else's whim. Ice threads into his veins and, unintended, frost on his fingers. He's trapped and cornered and his breaths too shallow.
Air. Words. One word in particular.
"Katoh," he stammers. "Katoh." His hands fist to contain the ice. Bull lets him loose, and he tumbles off the bed and presses his chilled palms against his temples. "Fuck."
The bed dips, the joinery shifting. Dorian keeps his head down as Bull lowers himself next to him onto the rug. Through his curl of misery Dorian knows he remains at the crux of Bull's attention. Only the reason has changed.
What? he asks himself, because Bull won't. They're old hands at this by now, and Dorian knew what he wanted when he wandered in Bull's door.
"All right?" Bull's open hand hovers above Dorian's arm; Dorian shakes his head. No, he doesn't want to be touched.
"I'm fine." He musters a look at Bull, who returns it with a slitted glance of concern.
"What do you need?" How different that question is now, from an hour or so ago, when Bull spoke it into a gasping kiss by the doorjamb, Dorian backed up against it. The memory stirs a muted echo of heat under his skin.
He works his throat. "To understand."
He nearly expects Bull to offer up a suggestion, some canny observation that'd set him on the right track. It might be wise to let Bull tend to him, accept the comforting touch and shake the sharp wrong turn. His mind has its jaws around the problem and it hangs on like a wolverine on its prey.
Dorian's never been particularly wise.
"Take a blanket at least?" Bull is still asking, and warmth ripples in Dorian's chest at that. "If you're gonna sit on the floor picking apart whatever that was."
This is the rule: no questions asked. No questions on why he slid to the floor in the middle of quite marvellous sex. The rest are Bull checking on him, grounding him, hemming around until--if--Dorian wants to talk.
It is some kind of unfair, Dorian thinks tangentially, that if he wanted to crouch here until his head was clear, Bull would pull over a book or a ledger or a piece of gear in need of repair, and sit with him for half the night. He sighs against his fingers.
"I should..." His assertion of I'm fine was no lie: unease churns in his chest, but it's not the squeeze of dread or the knife-edge of panic against his throat. Once, he used the watchword more out of curiosity than discomfort; another time, out of need. Both times Bull stopped with the same sure quickness. Dorian imagines that Bull knew the difference, or worked it out later, but the outcome never varied.
He's come to trust that. Bull is committed to the boundaries of his own making. What a rare feeling that is, to rely on another person so solidly.
Sweat cools on his skin, drying in runnels against his throat. The bed's a mess, and so are both of them.
"I should go," he finishes. He holds Bull's dark, scrutinising gaze as he speaks it. Bull's frown deepens, tightening the scrunched corner of his good eye.
"If you say so." That's as close to disputing him as Bull will come, in the circumstances.
Dorian scoops up his shirt. The laces are knotted, dragged into tangles by impatient fingers, and in another moment that'd amuse him. Had things gone to plan, he might have fumbled for his scattered garments only in the morning, got his ear caught in the laces and lost another sock under Bull's bed. He feels a heaviness in himself like a Wintermarch snowfall, flake upon flake until the load bows his shoulders.
"I rather ruined the moment," he says. "I know."
"You know that's not what happened." Wary of his knee, Bull levers himself up. At a furtive angle, Dorian watches him put the bed to rights, tug the pillows into place and spread the thick blankets properly. Bull isn't sloppy with his space--an old soldierly mindfulness guides his habits--but he spends long enough on the bed that Dorian has time to get all his clothes on. It'd pass a surprise inspection by the commander's most stickling lieutenant by that point.
He wants to say something. Bull will accept no apologies, whether sincere or superficial. Dorian knows enough to know he did not misstep.
"I need to work this out," is what he settles on.
"You said that." Bull remains naked, as he straightens after his task, yet Dorian feels himself exposed, like he's been poked in a tender bruise, the pain radiating from a core of old hurt. "Go do your thinking, 'Vint, if that's best for you."
He did not misstep in calling an end. Listening to the measured beats of Bull's voice, Dorian wonders if his error lies elsewhere. His limbs are loose, warm with their ebbed play, but his heart sits low and laden under his ribs.
"Good night." The door rattles its familiar rattle, the upper hinge forever loose. Makes it harder to sneak in, Bull persists, and Dorian can't be bothered to pester him about fixing it anymore.
" 'Night," Bull says, over his shoulder. As if Dorian just had an early departure and it were best for him to sleep in his own bed. His brows hold that same dent of concern or chagrin between them. Dorian closes his hand on the doorframe so he won't turn back, reach out and stroke it smooth.
The unrest in him is not kin to the one in Bull, he thinks not. They're both something to solve, the long way or the short.
He goes while he has the heart to do it.
Dorian sleeps in stints and spurts, drifting into and out of dreams of Qarinus. The many-hued tile floors of his ancestral home, the smell of his mother's roses outside his barred windows, the rustling steps of the slaves that might be the only sounds of other people he caught all day.
It didn't do to mistreat him, even when he was trammelled in his rooms. His father was explicitly clear on that. Good food and wine in moderation, most of what he wanted for study or for distraction.
Anything but company of his own choosing, or a breath of free air. On the bleakest days he even relished his walks in the garden, because he could pretend the house guards were on their rounds and didn't always have an eye upon him.
If you'd only see reason, had been the refrain. Discretion, Dorian, please, if you must carry on these juvenile misadventures. You will be thirty in no time.
Misadventures, indeed. He is thirty now, counted the year on First Day last winter, and a small, stubborn part of him still searches.
He crawls out of bed before dawn in a bitter gloom, sidles into the press of soldiers and castle labourers at breakfast, and is guiltily elated to see that the cluster of Chargers in the mess doesn't include Bull. Naturally he could've waited for the later morning meal served in the great hall to the better folk. As one of the Inquisitor's close companions, he occupies a flexible place in the hierarchies of Skyhold: on display at receptions if it benefits an alliance, at the forefront of an expedition when the Inquisitor is called to the field, and brushing shoulders with commoners in the tavern because it's the best place for ease and merriment to be found.
Cassandra calls his name from a table by the door. Despite the gapes of blustery air as people come and go, he sets his tea and oatmeal at the seat next to her, and sits down to slice a sour winter apple into his bowl. They eat in a kind of silence he's learned to appreciate: the mellow, matter-of-fact quiet of those who know each other well enough.
Finally Cassandra seems to have her fill of it. "Are you well this morning?"
"Have I given any indication to the contrary?" Dorian pastes a veneer of self-irony on his face. "Other than the fact that I was up to hear the morning watch change, and that the rain was frozen in the ponds when I came to breakfast."
"Winter comes. That is one thing we can't fight." She fills her mug, then his as well, though the tea's over-brewed for his taste. He compensates with an extra spoonful of honey from the jar on the table.
"It seems to be putting a stop to the things we can fight, too." He falls back on familiar, unfraught topics. "Isn't this how you wage war, too? Oh dear, snow on the ground, better cease hostilities until spring."
"What would you suggest? Shall we bring in an army of mages to melt the snow?"
"There has to be that one Chantry mother whose face you'd like to see fall when you float the notion," Dorian fires back.
Cassandra smiles. It crinkles the scar on her cheek, giving her face an almost rakish cast. He'd bet she's entirely unaware of that. "I do not deny that. Even if it must remain a pleasant fancy."
"One never knows. We hold the only vaguely military force of mages south of the Imperium."
"That depends on how optimistic you feel. Few of them were war mages before the fighting began. There are promising recruits, but some still flinch at the sight of a templar coming at them."
Dorian masks his twitch by rolling a shoulder. "Tell me, my friend. Have you ever been struck blind? Had a hand chopped off?"
"Obviously not." Her gaze sharpens.
Later he'll blame his poor night's sleep for his bluntness. "Indeed. And even so, the analogy is pale. Your Seeker skills can cut a mage off from the Fade, but you don't know the impact of it. The way a part of you simply shuts off."
The horrors of Haven were many, but none surmount this in Dorian's memory: a red templar's smite fell upon him with concussive force, numbed and muted and staggered him. Tevinter templars do not learn such abilities. He'd never felt the like. A humming wall hung between him and his magic, as if the power he'd carried since he was seven had turned into a phantom limb, an inert, inutile longing.
It was Cassandra who heaved him back onto his feet and pushed a lyrium potion into his trembling fingers. He's never mentioned it to her since, though he knows now to prioritise those red templars in a fight who have enough wits left to remember their training.
"I take your point," she says. He gauges by the dip in her voice that he sounded harsh. "The fear isn't the problem. It's learning to manage the effects. Our enemies won't be so kind as to spare them--or you, for that matter."
"Me?" Dorian flattens a hand to his chest. "Am I to understand my performance is lacking in some way?"
Cassandra snorts, which is probably all the answer Dorian deserves. Then she says, more softly, "You're capable. You were not used to battle, but you've adapted quickly. My concern, such as it is, is for when you can't rely on your magic."
"Well." Dorian is trained in certain physical disciplines such as are taught to any noble child in the Imperium. A pristine mind demands an honed body to house it. He knows his way around the staff as a weapon as well as a focus tool, but it is true he never expected to wield it in the thick of a melee. He's scraped by so far. "I shan't be one to turn down an expert opinion without even hearing it."
She stands, picking up her used dishes. "If you wish to have mine, I'll be in the training yard in an hour."
A laugh bubbles from him. What other plans does he have? Retreat to the library and brood over whatever dusty manuscript he was going to spend today on, his mind too full to get any work done? The Inquisitor is afield with Solas, Sera and Blackwall, which leaves the rest of them to attend to other business--or, with Dorian's present luck, to stew in their own turmoils.
"I suppose I'll take you up on that."
"Good," Cassandra says. "Wear something that weathers stains."
The night before coated the training yard in a spidering rime of frost. By the time Dorian arrives, the morning drills of Cullen's troops, followed by a mercenary company or two, have broken the ground into a damp, dense mire of sand. A group of Orlesian sellswords are testing their bows on the archery targets, but the fanged wind has chased most onlookers to warmer corners of the fortress.
Cassandra tosses a plain yew quarterstaff to him, chosen from the storage racks to fit his height, and comes at him as soon as he has a grip on the haft. She's a single-minded sparring partner, which is exactly what he prefers today. None of Vivienne's studied flair or Bull's chaotic swerves from fighting dirty to near playacting. Both of those work for stretching his wits. Cassandra's relentless rain of blows narrows their bout to a furious give-and-take, no room for anything but the next parry, the next sweep. It is good. Liberating, even.
Dorian knocks aside her block and presses his advantage. A quick step takes him inside her reach to align a jab at her exposed chin. He hears the stymied, pleased hiss of her gasp, and maybe that'll earn him a dry word of praise later. Her fingers parting from her staff, her hand thrusts out--
The soundless thunder of her Seeker craft breaks against his mind. Like an avalanche it whites out the dancing hues of the Fade at the rim of his awareness. He stumbles, more from the shock, shouting protest, and she charges him.
Instinct saves him, a hard shove of his staff into her path; it's enough to make her veer to his left. He follows on a rush of surprise and irritation, neither quite hitting home as he strains to tilt her upper hand. They circle and struggle for a moment. Though his ears keep ringing, he forces himself to move, meeting every strike she dishes out with stubborn purpose. A block brings them face to face over their crossed staves, Cassandra's jaw set and eyes alight, and she leaps back to yield him a pace of ground.
"Don't go easy on me, now." Dorian thumbs at a blooming bruise on his wrist. His leather vambrace didn't quite absorb the strike. "I might start thinking I stand a chance against you."
"You do. You should." Cassandra loosens her stance, without relaxing all the way. "That is the point. I do not make a habit of showing mages how to withstand a smite."
"Least of all suspicious yet dashing pariahs from Tevinter."
"Consider yourself the lucky exception, serah." From many others, he'd suspect couched mockery. Cassandra is too brusque for it. One of her blessings is that with her, what one sees is what one gets. "Given the things we fight, I cannot always defend you."
"I rather thought that was a mage's work," Dorian says, his tone between sprightly and serious. She seems to hover in the same midde. "With all the handy glyphs and barriers I, for example, have at my fingertips."
"Until you tire out." She snaps the staff out at empty air in a swing that courts a sprained wrist.
"I know how to pace myself, Cassandra." An exaggeration, but not too outrageous. "You don't need to mother-hen me. Surely it'd be bad for your Seekerly image to coddle the--?"
The square-cut end of her staff taps against his chin. He halts in mid-flinch, staring at her down the braced length of the weapon.
"Do not oblige me," she says, low and tart. "People come to me--to us in Skyhold--for many reasons. We take them and shelter them, and we use them if we can. Anyone that's asked to stay has some skill or advantage we desperately need. So as much as I might wish, I cannot coddle any of them."
"I beg your pardon," Dorian begins, through his perplexion. She forges on over him.
"Least of all you. You, I have to trust with the Inquisitor's life. With all our lives." She lowers the staff, which he neglected to push aside himself. "But do you see? Out there, you are in my care. One of mine. I've lost too many not to count those I have left."
She rounds on her heel, shoulderblades tight to her spine under her scuffed gambeson. Before he can speak, she smacks her practice staff back into the rack, and that truncates the training session. Dorian pulls off his scarf and shakes the clumps of sand from it.
This week must have it out for him. This is the second companion in as many days he's somehow rattled--and been rattled by in return.
He straightens the staff Cassandra flung into place, sets it neatly into its slots and puts his own away next to it.
Despite its abrupt ending, the spar allowed Dorian to vent some of his restless energy. He might get some work done at least. On his way to the library, he runs into Vivienne in the great hall, and has a reinvigorating argument over his latest barrier improvements with her, made better by mulled wine and cherry pastries from her private stores.
"No, no," she says, the picture of long-suffering. "I appreciate the goal of increasing the duration. But if you keep feeding mana into the spell tether after the casting, it'll disturb every other spell you cast. Parallel but separate. That's always the principle. What do your enchanters teach you?"
Dorian scrapes a clot of cherry jam from his moustache as discreetly as he can. "That magic is our Maker-given right, for one."
"Which leads to the illusion that you can do anything you please, if you only thrust enough mana at it." Vivienne leafs through his sketches and scribbles a note in a margin in her high, slanted hand. "One person only has so many resources."
"We enjoy the idea of alliances more than the reality." Dorian leans over to see what she's writing. "It's so much easier to say, I did this, and that, and that's mine as well, than to be beholden to anyone. Until someone stabs you in the back for rising too high."
"Such insight." She chuckles. "Perhaps there's hope for you yet, here in our savage south."
He diverts her back into his barrier design before the topic turns too chancy. Eventually she shoos him away from her comfortable fireside, citing urgent correspondence. Their discussion puts a spur in his side to take apart the problem of the duration, though. Like anyone avoiding an even thornier conundrum, he lets himself be immersed into his arcane dilemma.
Evening drops misty and chilly over Skyhold, blotting the watch torches into filmy, flickering plumes. Dorian bothers a passing servant to ask for some food from the kitchens, too preoccupied to descend for dinner at the long tables in the hall. She brings back a plate of salt-fish stew and hot cider in a horn-carved mug, which is an additional kindness. He thanks her, lets his face light in a smile, and rues it a little when she flushes to her ears in response.
As a reaction, it beats the sour glances and stinging words that fly his way on occasion. The stigma sits deep, though he's been with the Inquisition a whole year. Part of the Inquisitor's company in a likely doomed effort to set the world straight again. In the wild south, where no one gives a wad of spit about whose son, whose heir, whose student he is. Here he is his own man, among allies of circumstance who are becoming more.
He should find Cassandra. Buy her a round to smooth her ruffled feathers and let her know that he... appreciates her sentiment. In a roundabout way, he knows of her losses: the Divine dead, her Seekers gone missing. She is the sort to remember every soul that dies under her command, if it were practicable anymore, given the Inquisition's swelling numbers.
Out there, you are in my care. One of mine.
She showed that by shriving him from the Fade without warning. So that the next time it happened, he'd slough it off the quicker for the practice. The long way or the short, and she chose the direct route.
Taken aback by dawning realisation, Dorian lets his spoon chime on his plate. His papers are pushed out of the way, a mess of incomplete sketches and trailed-off thoughts. He makes a heap out of them, snips the flames from the candles, and pauses to examine his epiphany.
Finding Cassandra would be the simpler step, but in good conscience, he should start with Bull.
When no one answers Bull's door, Dorian tries the tavern. The inner circle of the Chargers is gracing the common room with their presence, engrossed in a knucklebones game between Skinner and Stitches and the usual flurry of bets in its periphery. Bull is not in evidence, and as Sera's on the road, Dorian can't find a ready target for an underhand inquiry. He resolves to make a round of the upper bailey, never mind the damp soaking into him.
The few people out and about slink along the walls of buildings; even the familiar shapes of the castle grounds are obscured by the mist. Dorian shortens his steps as he patters up the stairs towards the garden. With the temperature plummeting into a icy low, the steps will be slick and treacherous by morning. It'd take a miracle to drag a complaint out of Bull, but he's no more fond of the cold than Dorian himself.
The yearling bushes of rose and dragonthorn that make up the hedge maze stand bare and black in the deep twilight. The entire thing was a gift from some Orlesian benefactor--they're in high vogue in Orlais--but the Inquisitor enjoyed the idea, with Josephine's delighted endorsement, so saplings were planted and paths laid in the summer.
What Dorian would not have expected is that Bull likes to walk the maze, often in the hours of dawn or dusk. It reminds him of a Qun practice, he said, one with a soft liquid name that roughly means, "a coil of thoughts", a pattern you walk to clear your head.
Dorian can empathise. Still, something makes him halt at the end of the folding path. The fir spreading there drips condensing mist onto his cheeks. Tiny shudders begin in his arms, and he stifles the urge to pace back and forth. That'd be a greater sign of disquiet than he wants to let on.
It's not as if he's uneasy. He is quite lucid and certain, on his own part.
The mist curls so dense that Bull seems to part it as he rounds the last switching turn. His eye seeks out Dorian, both of them aware of the other's footfalls. A taut knot in Dorian's mind eases when Bull's mouth quirks up. "Thought I heard you come up."
"I..." Now he's tripping on his words again? He smothers an exasperated noise. "We left a conversation unfinished."
Not an indisputable truth. He called an end, and that was that. He can measure that much in Bull's countenance, as they stop a couple of paces apart, out of some tacit agreement. Usually Bull might clasp his shoulder or Dorian brush Bull's arm in greeting.
"Which conversation do you mean?" Bull shrugs one shoulder. His question escapes in whorls of vapour. "Since one isn't a talk at all. The other, maybe."
"I mean my exit last night," Dorian says, in a burst of courage that he prays will carry him. He could've inspected this impulse a little more closely. "There is..."
"Probably somewhere warmer where we can talk?" A tint of humour, both endearing and aggravating.
"There is a fact I should make plain." A fact that just coalesced for him and is gaining weight and meaning.
"If it makes you feel better."
Dorian tenses his jaw against a tremor not entirely born from the chill. "I am not yours."
The moment stalls and swerves upon the words.
Dorian can't chart the shifting contours of Bull's face before it flattens into a choppy neutrality. Sometimes Bull's seeming unassailability is a cover for deep wells of emotion, but Dorian's been privy to them on only a handful of occasions. Bull's voice is even. "Yeah. You fall into my bed or out of it, it's your call."
He draws a sharp, indelicate breath. Some time this is to recall his fumbles of last night. "I'm not making light, so I'll thank you to refrain, too."
Bull stands still as a stone, wide and stolid. "I don't joke about fucking." Dorian must make quite the face, because he adds, somewhat stilted, "Not about who I take to bed. Not when it bothers them."
"You just tally your exploits to anyone who cares to listen."
"Hey," Bull huffs. "I only ever share good things. In the right company."
"Dumat's bones," Dorian grouses, a rare choice morsel of blasphemy. "Your dubious discretion is not up to question here. I only need to set this straight. You say that I owe no explanation, and I appreciate that, but..."
Bull's breath shivers. The spotty lanterns along the garden paths offer scant light and no warmth. "You need time, take it. You want to call this off, do it." He makes a low guttural sound. "I don't make claims on the people I sleep with, Dorian. Even the witty, pretty ones who keep coming back."
"That's a particular list of traits," Dorian says, with the realisation that he's on cracking ice.
"Thought you'd appreciate that, too. I did."
I did and It's your call, and Dorian's confusion splits into shrapnel of clarity. "Maker. You think I'm quitting you."
Unthinking, he reaches out, only to jerk his hands back at Bull's expression. It's the same curbed frown from yesterday, twisting from bemusement to something akin to hurt or relief, if they can wind that close together.
"I mean," Dorian amends, "that I'm ending this arrangement of ours. Such as it is."
"It sure sounded like an airing of grievances, the way you started." Bull hunches forward. He has a way of diminishing the height he has on others, sitting or leaning down, when he thinks he's looming. Dorian swallows past a choking feeling.
Dorian Pavus, you are a fool.
"May I start over?" He lets a trifle of wan humour into his expression. "Hopefully from the beginning."
He might not deserve the way Bull pulls his contrition from those few words, but he can see it sink in, bit by bit. "That's probably best."
"If you'd care to come up to my room? I do have tea, and possibly some Rivaini brandy. Better than the horrendous stuff they distill in West Hill."
After a beat, Bull nods.
A servant has been by to top the firewood basket by Dorian's fireplace. He chose this room, despite its smallness, for its toasty warmth. His windowsill is vanishing under books and notes that have drifted along from the library, and his desk is wedged between the clothing chest and the washbasin, but the gentle heat on their faces when he opens the door makes up for the close conditions.
They become that much closer when Bull enters, too, hanging his coat and scarf while Dorian scrounges up the tea. It was a gift from Josephine after he helped her wrangle some more esoteric points of Tevinter courtesies: once the trading agreement was secured, she sent him a box of fine leaves, dashed with jasmine, from the merchant's wares.
"That is proper tea." Bull sits down in one of Dorian's two chairs. "Guess I'll take the brandy separately."
Dorian points him to a set of tiny Tevinter cups on a shelf; he has no brandy glasses, so the vibrant, glazed earthenware will have to do. Such nadirs he has sunk to. He can well imagine his mother's incandescent disapproval.
The brandy serves, its bite mellowed by the tang of peaches, and the absence of correct glasses is all one to Bull. If not the phantom of parental censure, then another ghost sits in the room. Dorian puts his drained cup on the mantel. "So."
"So." Bull inhales the steam from the tea with evident contentment, then gives Dorian his attention. "What's eating you?"
I could ask the same of you. First things first, though. It makes no difference how agreeable it'd be to let the conversation branch elsewhere, to lighter things, and make this an evening like any other between them.
It should alarm him that there's such a thing in his life as just another evening in Bull's company.
"I tend not to talk about my family." Dorian curls one foot up onto the chair so he can wrap his arms around his knee. There was Redcliffe, and a hurried retreat instigated by the Inquisitor, and with the slam of the inn door Dorian resolved to put the matter behind him. The resolution survived two days in a stupor of cheap ale, mixed imprudently with stronger spirits. It still holds, as well as one can expect, when its subject is a matter of the heart in the thorniest way.
"The boss told me some things after you got back from Redcliffe," Bull says, an admission. "She slipped in a lot of Elvish. Pretty sure none of that was polite."
"All more than justified, I'm sure." Dorian waves a hand. "I'd rather not bore you with the details. You have some notion of filial obligation, yes?"
"It's not that different under the Qun. You tend to want to please the people who brought you up. Parents or tamassrans."
"Oh, indeed," Dorian murmurs.
"This ties back into last night." It's a statement, but a weighed one. Bull is checking that he understands.
"Presumably I don't want to ask what you're thinking," Dorian says, a thin laugh in his throat. Before Bull can counter the quip, he goes on, "In any case, it does. I suppose I never thanked you. For things such as last night, when they go right."
Bull glances out towards the corner where Dorian's bed stands. "I'll accept that, but it's not like I get nothing out of it."
"I should hope so." Dorian blusters. Andraste's mercy, but it matters, beyond the hypothetical blow to his pride at being claimed a substandard bed partner. He can't form a glib reply. "What I mean is that it has been good. What we have. To my surprise, even."
Bull takes a pensive drink of his tea. "The lack of vocal complaint clued me in to that one. Glad to hear I was right."
"Of course you were." Dorian drops his head back against the wood of the chair. "Your pardon. I had a point. I had many reasons for leaving Tevinter, but not the least was that my parents and I disagreed profoundly on my future."
Bull only nods. His eye is narrow, reflecting the fire in a gleam of gold.
"As far as Tevinter tradition is concerned, I was--I am--a terrible, ungrateful child." Oh, frankness. Dorian recalls with lively sharpness why he abhors it so. "I scorned every plan they had for me. If I hadn't, I would not be here."
I'd be mad or dead, or the worst of both possibilities.
"Might be a weird question--" That's barefaced courtesy from Bull, so Dorian doesn't dare guess how maudlin he sounds. "They tried to make you into something that didn't fit. No other options?"
His own sardonic laugh nearly surprises Dorian. "For the only scion of an altus family? No. None I was prepared to accept."
Bull is trying to set his parents' heavy-handed insistence into the frame of his own understanding. The Qun hands a role to its every follower, measures them and guides them to the life that's judged best for them.
"Sounds dire," Bull says, distance in his voice, like the topic transported him somewhere else. "You talk about going back, though."
"My parents are hardly all of Tevinter. I'm not entirely without friends in the Imperium."
"Those friends are more flexible about your options, too, I'm gonna guess."
"Yes." Dorian nods for needless emphasis. Maevaris wrote to Josephine not long ago, a request for aid layered in pleasantries. His own last entreaty to Mae was far more blatant. I have to get out of the city. Help me. A smuggled note, a swift answer, a delicate hand undoing the wards around the estate for long enough for him to slip away with little but his staff and a change of clothes.
She refused to consider him indebted to her. If you must, then come back, and help me with my work. Saving your life was a small feat in comparison.
"I can't go back to Qarinus. Not after I fought with my father so."
Rearranging himself in the chair, Bull takes a moment to continue. "Will you bean me with the teapot if I call you on that lie? Both parts."
"Andraste preserve me." He can't spill the whole sorry history now, if indeed ever. It's done and over with. They have a world to save. "Your people dedicate their lives to the Qun. The alti dedicate theirs to the bloodlines. Everything is done to put children into the best schools, the best marriages, the best positions for advancement. Tevinter nobles don't have children, they have heirs. Carefully crafted dynastic aspirations."
His hands flicker through terse, unhappy motions. "So when I left, I... chose to be my own. Not my father's heir, not my mother's son. Just Dorian."
I am, of course, a singular thing to be, he'd like to finish, but it's not in him. He takes his cup and pours himself the last of the brandy.
A draft through the window flutters pages of his latest translation efforts across the floor. With a huff, he stands to salvage them before they slither under the bed and out of mind. The chafe of Bull's chair betrays that Bull turns to follow his movement. Dorian aligns the sheets into a sheaf, dropping them onto the desk, while the silence winds in upon itself like an Avvar torc, threads and threads under tension.
"Say something," Dorian mutters. Was he hoping for catharsis? All he feels is low and raw. "Surely I can expect some ridiculous repartee after all that. A bad turn in bed and I dredge up a whole skein of family feuding. The jest presents itself, does it not?"
"Enough." The word resonates. Even though Bull doesn't rise, it feels that he's more here, eye clear and shoulders down, his mouth soft with movement. "Dorian, stop. Sit down."
He slides back into the chair, not thinking to refuse Bull. Bull leans in, leaving him an arm's length of space. He'd be exasperated if he had the wherewithal, but there's solace in Bull's steady presence.
"It was a close call," Bull says. "For what it's worth, I'm glad you made it here."
Dorian's breath rushes through him a like a wingbeat. A-slant in the chair, he stares at the dimming fire in the grate and lets Bull's voice enfold him. "As am I."
Possibly, he thinks, he's stood on his own long enough. I am not yours, but I am not alone.
His forgotten brandy exudes a sweetness into the air, thickened by the smell of burning whitewood, mixed into the birch and spruce wood for its density and fragrance. The castle sighs and creaks with its nightly noises, the evening bell having rung while they spoke.
In the room, silence, floating and flickering like the fire. Dorian starts when a shutter bangs under a gust of wind. He glances at Bull to find him glancing back.
"Would you be--"
"Want me to--"
Dorian's abashed laugh mixes into a chortle from Bull. "You go first," Bull says.
"I've talked all evening. Go on."
Bull stands, disturbing the moment further, but his voice drops again. "Do you want me to go?"
Mirroring his movement, Dorian comes close. The words jitter and fall, a heartbeat behind his hands as he sets one on Bull's arm, the other on his face. "You know my bed is cramped. Stay anyway?"
Bull strokes long, heavy fingers through Dorian's hair, and what would sometimes be a tease to muss his hair and get a rise out of him, is now a caress, clean and simple. "For sex or sleep? Neither?"
"Full of questions, aren't you," Dorian says, even as he has to ask himself the same things. He spent only a couple of hours not touching Bull, keeping a conscious distance. It rings in him as a hollow lack.
"Just checking." A crooked finger on the shell of Dorian's ear, and he leans into the contact. Bull never treats him as breakable--one reason their liaison has held this long--but his hand is light on Dorian's skin.
No questions asked. It's a good safeguard. Dorian trusted it almost before he trusted Bull; it drew a clean line to separate their tumbles from the rest of them, as colleagues, as comrades, as friends.
As a friend, Dorian has to understand that Bull let him go, but his leaving left a mark.
He draws Bull's hands down to press them, fingers curled, against the buckles of his vest, against his quickening heart. "For both, if you agree."
Dorian lets Bull undo the buckles, draw the vest down his arms, peel away his shirts, wool and silk in layers. The first slow spread of Bull's fingers across his bare belly goes to his cock in a swift, delightful rush, as if it'd been weeks instead of a mere day. Bull laughs in his ear. Dorian wrests at Bull's pauldron fastenings, and bites into his lip when Bull palms his cock just, evidently, to feel it flush and fill under his hand.
They leave a chair scattered with clothing, Bull's belt flung over the back, Dorian's last shirt crowning the pile once Bull saves him from getting tangled up in it. He ducks up to steal a look at Bull before the firelight dies into embers. It dances ruddily on Bull's cheek, darkening the gouges of his scars. Bull's arm comes up around his shoulders.
"What's on your mind?" Dorian traces his thumb along the scar that splits Bull's mouth. Thinks about kissing him, in a languid shiver of an idea.
Bull smiles, almost too thinly to be seen in the shadow. "You."
Thwarting himself, Dorian noses his jaw, breathes into his skin. "Oh, then please, you're permitted to suit action to thought."
"As soon as I know which one to pick." Bull strokes the line of his spine, back and forth from the small of his back to his shoulderblades, until Dorian melts against him with a gasp. "Get on my knees and suck your cock? Bend you over the headboard and fuck you--how'd you want it, this time?"
Any way you like, Dorian muses, some part of him too pliant for pretensions. He enjoys the goading and teasing as much as Bull does: both of them relish the fact that the other will give as good as he gets. Not tonight, not quite. Bull's hands linger, not with purpose but with contemplation, as if the only point were to keep Dorian close.
Canting Bull's head down, he makes a warm space between them where a kiss should go. "Take me to bed. We can take it from there."
So they do.
Dorian puts his mouth on Bull's cock, easy and familiar. Bull's hand guides him, firm in his hair, at last pulling him up so Bull can brush the spit and sweat from his mouth and tell him, rough-voiced, how good he is, how gorgeous. Dorian laughs in ready agreement. "You can barely see me."
"Plenty of memories to go by," Bull returns, and his tone makes Dorian swallow hard.
From there, Bull guides him to kneel by the footboard. Kisses his shoulder. Opens him up with heedful fingers and stops only barely short of Dorian spending himself.
Grabbing a bedpost, Dorian drops himself at a slack angle. His breaths are a rush and an ebb, the peak of his own pleasure wavering with them. Hands on his hips, Bull slides into him, thick, full, breathtaking. Dorian's fingers teeter on the wood for long breathless seconds. "Oh, oh, holy Maker, don't dawdle."
Bull gives a dark groan, ache and amusement in the sound, and obliges him. He takes Dorian by the thigh and shoulder and fucks him with deep, deliberate strokes; Dorian resettles his handhold on the post and lets himself sink.
A ragged climax builds in him. It rises on each heady thrust, on each flex of Bull's hand on the juncture of his neck and shoulder. The wrung-out noises Bull keeps making tell him that they're closely paced, moving to a common rhythm.
So it should go. Good, certain, known, until they collapse into each other.
Then Bull stops, drawing back with a few harsh breaths. Dorian jerks at the loss of contact, too submerged in sensation to react at once as Bull gathers him close, untidily into his lap. Dorian goes in a wide-eyed fumble, groping behind him for Bull's shoulder, fingers shaky with the strain of his released grip. "What?"
Bull fits his fingers around Dorian's wrist. The hold is steady but searching. That seeps through the hazy want, widens the world enough for him to focus. "A change of plans, I presume?"
Bull's throat works under Dorian's ear. "Something like that." His grip tightens. Setting his knees to the bed, best as he can, astride Bull's lap, Dorian turns back over his own shoulder.
Sex is simple between them. Varied, but simple at its crux. A coming together of common interests, as Bull likes to say, the pun notwithstanding.
His own gaze knit with scrutiny, Dorian meets Bull's eye. Sighing, Bull looks back at him. Quiet, dark, intent, threaded with a sort of wonder.
"All right," Dorian whispers, though unsure why he'd think to whisper. He tries again, with a modicum of froth. "Hold me then, if you please, so we can--"
And Bull cracks into throaty laughter into his sweat-spiked hair. "Seriously?"
Indignation snaps against his bemusement. "What did I say?"
What did he say? Sweet Andraste, so many things, which Bull seemed to take in stride. He isn't sure what to make of the low, consuming mood. This--sex, lust, mutual enjoyment--should be the language they both speak.
" 'Hold you'," Bull says, both wry and awed, "in the tones of 'throw you down and fuck you senseless'."
His voice echoes the way he looked at Dorian. Like there were a secret between them, covertly glimpsed and then shuttered away.
"You started this," Dorian points out. "I'd have been perfectly happy to come against the footboard."
"You still can." Bull does not move. His mouth brushes wet against the nape of Dorian's neck.
It occurs to Dorian that in the end, he did not kiss Bull. It's been a part of their repertoire from the first, nothing to it, though Dorian's fucked many men he never kissed. Such an assumption of intimacy didn't always sit well with them. But he enjoys kissing, even when it's in context of lust, another way to compound desire, to draw it out or tease it higher.
Bull's lips on his skin are not an impetus.
The room seems to fade into the backdrop, like the susurrus of the snagging wind. Dorian breathes the lingering scent of whitewood ash and leans cautiously into Bull's warm, solid bulk. His free hand slides around Bull's head, fingertips dipping into the hollow at the base of his skull. Their mouths nearly touch, Dorian's lips on the seam of Bull's scar.
"Hold me," he says into their soft, melding breaths. "While you, be ever so kind, fuck me senseless."
Bull says something in hushed, emphatic Qunlat.
"I'm going to assume whatever that was, it was ludicrously rude."
"Damn you," Bull mutters, probably not in translation. "And," his voice catches, "you only had to ask."
Whatever snatches at Bull's words also appears to mute Dorian's own. He sets his hand, belatedly, into the crook of Bull's thumb and forefinger to make it a clasp. His back curves to Bull's front, skin to skin, breath to breath.
A gliding, rolling climb, like a tide over a shallow shore. Fumbling until their fingers align and fold together, Dorian lets himself fall into the stuttering rhythm, sweet now for a different reason. Bull's arms around him, the grip of his maimed hand, his rasped, "Fuck, fuck, Dorian, you're--"
He is. Safe and sheltered and held. Wound and warm and here.
When he stumbles into orgasm, clutching at Bull, Bull groans his name and follows him in that same shuddering drop. It drags through Dorian in a surfeit of feeling, until he can only cling to Bull and gasp his way through.
They settle into a mess of limbs and softening breaths in the ember-tinted dark of the room. Eventually, he'll have to roll out of the heavy circle of Bull's arm, wake the fire and make some effort at washing up.
So, instead, Dorian drapes himself over Bull's shoulder and presses his face against the side of his head. Bull shifts, his eye catching some sliver of light.
"Good talk," he says, with rough contentment that slips straight between Dorian's ribs.
"Hmm?" Bull ought not to use such tones if he expects Dorian to follow what he's saying. "Oh. Right. An unfinished conversation. It was a way to settle the matter, no?"
"Are you gonna?" Bull's thumb glides up Dorian's throat, to nudge into the divot under his lower lip. "Feels like there's a piece missing. The pièce de résistance, maybe."
"That isn't what it means." Dorian tries to scoff. It becomes a chortle. "I'm going to put a moratorium on the use of other languages than Common in bed."
"And end up sucking on your own fireball when you break into Tevene next time."
That makes laughter swell from Dorian, but underneath his merriment, he thinks, There will be a next time, and the next, and many after that. It is something to fight for, alongside all the other battles of their days.
He closes the distance shivering between them, and kisses Bull at last.