Something is wrong with Redcliffe.
The rifts are weirder than usual, the Grand Enchanter is acting like she didn't run into Lavellan in Orlais, and there's way too many mages around for Bull's comfort. All the Tevinter people are mages, even the ones in full armor; the way they hold their swords gives it away. Some of the southern mages still try to hide their staves under their cloaks, like the shape of a staff isn't recognizable, and they're all tired and hungry. That won't end well. People do things they regret when they're desperate, and a frightened mage can do more damage than one strong man with a sword.
Bull can't believe this town hasn't gone up in flames yet.
"I don't like it, either," says Lavellan, as they exit the tavern. He reaches over his shoulder towards his quiver, absently tapping each arrow. "While we're here, we might as well walk into the trap."
It's not a trap, but adding another Vint to this mess doesn't help. The man they meet in the Chantry is all smiles and quick wit, addressing them with an odd kind of grace, like he's on stage. He's fascinated by Lavellan and the mark on his hand, and Bull doesn't trust that for a minute.
"Watch yourself," says Bull, keeping his eye on Dorian. Four against one. One exit. He could bring the Chantry down on their heads with his fire, but Bull knows that mages can't cast as well without their hands. First: the hands, and then the throat. Keep his axe ready, in case a demon claws its way out. "The pretty ones are always the worst."
Dorian takes that as a compliment, beaming. His smile falters when he glances at the axe on Bull's shoulder.
"Suspicious friends you have here," says Dorian, and then the Redcliffe problems get weirder.
Later, Bull gets exposed to red lyrium and dies fighting a horde of demons.
That's what Lavellan and Dorian tell him, anyway.
"Bullshit," says Bull, for the fifth time.
"No, it's not," Solas insists, and launches into another explanation of the kind of shit that Bull doesn't want to understand. He lets the lecture drift into the background, his eye on the snow-covered mountains in the distance.
They're on their way back to Haven, escorting what's left of the mages. Arranging for separate transport will take too much time, so hundreds of them move west, guarded by Inquisition soldiers. It's a long walk, and slow going; these mages aren't used to a soldier's march. There's too many of them, and they're mostly young—twenties and younger—or elderly. Everyone else must have died in the fighting.
It's not that surprising. Bull has been fighting wars for a long time. They don't change.
Dorian isn't used to this kind of travel, either. He seems relieved by the slow pace, and he complains bitterly about cramped tents and bland food. Still has the habits of a richer man. Bull doubts Dorian used to travel anywhere without slaves and a dozen horses. It probably took him ages to learn how to dress himself, with all those buckles.
"—and it isn't as simple as…"
Solas stops talking and looks up at Bull, his lips pressed together in a firm frown.
"You stopped listening a long time ago, didn't you."
"Nah," says Bull. He pitches his voice higher, mimicking Solas's accent, and recites, "It isn't as simple as moving an object between two spaces."
"Ah, you were paying attention," says Solas, sounding pleased. He usually is when Bull shows any hint of intelligence, but Bull thinks Solas would be just as happy if he flew into a rage and tried to kill them all.
"I can walk and listen to you," Bull replies. Solas hums, like that's something to be proud of. "Just don't ask me to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time."
Once the sun sets, they stop to make camp. Bull discovers he has a shadow.
Dorian trails behind him while he helps set up tents and fires and continues to follow him after supper. Twice, Bull walks from of the camp to the other and still, Dorian follows his path. He'll stop and talk to Lavellan or offer to help one of the mages, but he's always there, just out of sight.
Why, Bull has no idea. But there's an easy way to find out.
Near a line of empty tents, Bull stops. He turns around and fixes his eye on Dorian, waiting for him to step out of the shadows.
"I can see you," says Bull, when Dorian still lingers behind a tent. "Don't try and hide."
"Ah," is Dorian's reply. He clears his throat and steps closer, into the torchlight. "Well, now that you've spotted me, can we speak?"
A conversation. That's all? He could have asked. Bull shrugs.
"Thank you," says Dorian, bowing his head in a curt nod. "A question, first—"
"These are real." Bull reaches up and grips one horn near the base, giving it a firm yank. He grins, watching Dorian's eyes follow his hand. "See?"
"I'm sure they are," says Dorian dismissively, returning his gaze to Bull's eye. He folds his arms across his chest. "You're the first Qunari I've seen since I came south. I was wondering how you ended up following an elf marked by Andraste. Are you one of those Tal-Vashoth?"
"No," Bull answers, too harshly. They both flinch. "No, I'm not. Just a spy pretending to be a hired hand."
Dorian tips his head to the side, bewildered. "If that's true, you're terrible at your job."
"I do okay," Bull replies. People tend to trust him more once they know. Krem did. Lavellan, too. "So, is that it?"
"No," says Dorian, shaking his head. He looks at Bull, his face softening with something like grief. "I wanted to thank you, for what you did in Redcliffe."
"Wasn't really me," Bull points out. Just someone who looked like him, in a world that won't ever exist. "But hey, you're welcome."
"It was you," Dorian snaps, his voice growing thicker, "and I watched you die. It was not…not a clean death."
Huh. He sounds genuinely upset. Bull wonders how much death he's seen.
There's always blood spilling in Tevinter—magister against magister, the constant war with the Qunari—but most of it comes from slaves. If Dorian's family didn't use blood magic or kill slaves for shit like forgetting which fork goes where, he might have been shielded from that kind of violence.
It's possible. Not everyone knows war. Bull forgets that, sometimes.
But—no. Dorian can't have lived this long and not seen some deaths. How old is he? Late twenties or early thirties, Bull guesses. He's not that young. And if Dorian managed to travel south, alone, without seeing a single death, he's either very lucky or he doesn't pay much attention to the world around him.
"It usually isn't," says Bull. He can kill quickly, try to make it as painless as possible, but it's still death. There's still blood.
Dorian shifts, rubbing his fingers along his arm. "I know."
"I'm not dead," says Bull, because the sorrow in Dorian's voice sounds louder than the crowds of soldiers and mages around them. He flattens his palm over his bare chest, saying, "Still beating," and offers the other hand to Dorian. "Wanna feel?"
"No, thank you," Dorian answers. A little too quickly, Bull thinks, but he still lowers his hands and nods. "I think you've missed my point entirely. The last time we spoke, you ended up on the ground with a demon's claws buried in your chest. Seeing you walk around is somewhat distressing."
Makes sense. Bull knows he'd be thinking demons if he saw a dead guy walking and talking.
Shit. He doesn't really want to think about Redcliffe and Tevinter magisters with too much power and not enough sense, or all the shit that happened to someone else with his face and his mind. Poor guy. And it didn't even happen. Not really, because Lavellan and Dorian took another path, and that world doesn't exist anymore. It never did, and it never will.
He changes the subject.
"If you wanna see me on my back," says Bull, because the Iron Bull likes to joke and flirt, "all you have to do is ask."
Dorian's surprise is comical: eyes wide, mouth hanging open. It's quickly replaced with confusion. "I beg your pardon?"
Might as well be blunt. "I'm talking about fucking."
"Yes, yes, I understood that," says Dorian, bristling, and now he looks annoyed. Poised for a fight. Bull nods and takes a step backwards, raising his hands, but that just makes Dorian heave a sigh. "I'm not—"
He stops talking, jaw snapping shut, when a group of soldiers approach, loudly discussing some jousting tournament. Once they pass, he continues, "I'm not propositioned by Qunari men every day. Give me a moment to reflect on how much my parents will be disappointed in me."
"That was just an offer," says Bull. Shit, this is easier than talking about the kind of magic that shouldn't exist. He feels like he has his feet on the ground again. "You want a proposition, I'll get a lot dirtier."
"I'll hold you to that," says Dorian. Casually, but there's a glimmer of interest. There usually is. "Don't distract me. I'm trying to tell you—"
"That I died," Bull interrupts. He's slipping. One, two, three. One mage in front of him, more than ten behind. Two soldiers on his left, three on his right. More (hundreds) around them. Light wind. Some moonlight. Ten campfires. Torches at every third tent. One, two, three. "So did Solas. So did everyone else."
"And you don't care," says Dorian faintly. He makes a small sound, like a laugh. "You didn't in the future, either. You said that you hoped you'd die fighting."
That's not surprising; a good fight is the kind of death that Bull hopes for. Against an enemy—a real enemy, not some lucky Tal-Vashoth or Vint or bear—in a bloody battle, which is remembered for generations. And if he dies, maybe he dies protecting his boys or his comrades. That's something to be proud of.
Bull shrugs. "Sounds like me."
"You," says Dorian, and he stops, shaking his head. He turns around and says the rest over his shoulder. "You're a strange man."
* * *
A fight, in the desert. There's too much blood on Bull's axe. Cole dances with a pair of gladiators, his boots barely leaving a mark in the sand, while Lavellan fires arrow after arrow over the massive shields. Many of the dead around them are charred and smoking.
A few left. One falls, an arrow lodged in his throat. Another cries out when Cole leaps behind him. The last—running away? No, towards Dorian.
Bull tackles the man before he can make it. His sword scratches over Bull's belly, falling silently into the sand, and he dies with Bull's hand around his throat.
Dorian is not pleased, to say the least.
"You could have been killed," Dorian snaps. He jams his staff into the sand and leans into it, chest rising and falling with each quick breath. His forehead and neck are damp with sweat, and empty lyrium flasks rattle in his pockets. "You fool. I had—"
"This is my job," Bull cuts in. He pushes himself up and wipes the dust off his hands before touching his stomach. The sword barely did any damage; he's not even bleeding. He presses his fingers into his ribs, checking for hidden bruises, and glances around the battlefield. Blood. Corpses. Dust. Cole crouches beside each one, armed with a quick knife, while Lavellan empties their pockets. "Don't get your skirts in a twist."
"Bull," says Dorian, his teeth clenched. "I am not a delicate man in need of rescue."
Of course he isn't. Dorian is more than capable in a fight; he's a skilled mage, and dangerously talented without a staff. He can throw a decent punch, for one. Better than any other mage Bull has known, except Dalish.
But Dorian is tired, and Bull should be the one to take that hit.
"No, you aren't," says Bull. He points at the corpse. "But he needed killing."
Dorian considers this, glancing between Bull and the dead man on the ground. He jerks himself upright, scowling, and rolls his eyes. "Fine."
"Good." Bull picks up his axe and heaves it over his shoulder. He rubs at his arm, where a mage's lightning hissed across his skin. "It was pretty hot, right?"
"I can hardly contain my arousal," says Dorian dryly. He brushes against Bull's shoulder when he walks past, calling out to Lavellan.
Bull watches him go, grinning. The Iron Bull is a role he created for himself, years ago, and it was a relief to discover that it's an enjoyable one. Comfortable. It's easy, this flirting and teasing, and he likes that as much as a night in bed with someone pretty.
If this goes nowhere, that's okay. He's having fun.
* * *
I would conquer you is a misstep, but it goes somewhere.
One night, Dorian joins a card game in the Herald's Rest. He sits close to Bull, laughing at Rocky's jokes and matching soldiers drink for drink, and makes his interest known. A leg, pressed tightly against Bull's. A look.
Small hints, but Bull knows what Tevinter is like.
People leave, for more drinks or to vomit or go to bed (and, in the case of poor Corporal Harper, all three). Dorian stays.
"You're the only one who can keep up with me," says Dorian. He clinks their glasses together. "C'mon, then. Drink up."
They sit behind the stairs, away from the soldiers and dancing and singing, and talk. Tevinter. Par Vollen. The state of Skyhold's library. Bull tells a story about Seheron without naming the place, and Dorian puts it together and stays quiet, head bowed.
Bull raises his glass, but it's empty.
"I think I'll go," says Dorian. He's not slurring or speaking with the exact preciseness that only comes with drink, but his tongue still sounds thick. The result of those empty glasses, on the table beside them. When did they stop drinking?
"Don't," Bull says, shaking his head. Dorian ducks, as though Bull's horns are anywhere near his head. "Stay. You're good company."
Dorian nods in agreement, but he still stands, using Bull's shoulder as leverage to push himself up. "It's late. I should go to bed."
His hand lingers, deliberately, before slipping off. Bull wishes he thought of catching them, so he could rub his thumb along Dorian's palm.
"All alone?" Bull asks.
Dorian's answer is lost to the dull roar of the crowd behind him. Bull points at his ear and beckons Dorian closer, and—hesitation. It's small and brief, flickering over Dorian's face like candlelight, but Bull still sees it. He waits.
"I said," Dorian says, and he reaches for Bull's shoulder again, holding himself upright as he leans down to murmur the rest in Bull's ear, "that you ought to be careful. I might think you're implying something."
Bull turns, slightly. Close enough to kiss, if he wants, but he doubts Dorian does—tension coils over his shoulders, and his fingers flex absently against Bull's skin. Not here. Not where people can see.
"I am," Bull tells him. Keeps his voice low, so only Dorian can hear him. "Thought I made that clear."
Dorian doesn't reply, and the silence between them swells over the rest of the tavern. Someone is telling a story, voice growing louder with each sentence, while people interject with questions and wild laughter. Upstairs, a woman is singing, slightly off-key. Cabot is busy behind the bar. A barmaid walks between the groups of soldiers, serving tray held high above her head.
No one even glances towards them. No one cares. That's good. Bull doesn't really care, but he knows how much Dorian does.
Dorian, who is still quiet.
Bull figures he's pushed it all too far. Flirting is easy for both of them, and Dorian certainly enjoyed playing along, but maybe he never intended to take this any further. Might have been too afraid to say it. That happens, sometimes. Bull understands.
He draws back, putting some distance between them. His horns knock into the wall.
"Sorry," he says. Dorian's hand is still warm on his shoulder. "Sleep well. Drink some water first."
Dorian doesn't move. Behind him, a soldier starts singing. The crowd joins in, and someone stomps on the floor to keep a beat.
Finally, Dorian says, "No." He takes a step closer, putting one boot between Bull's legs, and leans closer. His mouth brushes against Bull's cheek. "I want to suck your cock."
Oh, fuck, that's something Bull can do.
"Yeah?" Bull says, instead of groaning. He shifts, knocking their knees together. "What, here?"
Dorian's laughter is quick and bright, loud enough that a few soldiers glance over their shoulders. His eyes shine with it. Bull wants to make him laugh again.
"Upstairs," Dorian tells him, and—
A locked door. Hands on his trousers, fumbling. A groan, a murmured, "Maker's breath," as Dorian gropes him. Bull walks, backwards, into the edge of the bed.
"Sit," Dorian tells him, so Bull does, and—
Hand on his cock, tracing the entire length. Studying. Dorian is on the floor, kneeling between Bull's legs, and a sharp noise catches in the back of his throat when Bull touches his head. Hair, caught between his fingers.
"Don't be gentle with me," Dorian tells him, and—
His cock, slipping in and out of Dorian's mouth. Wet heat, fuck. Gentle, because Bull won't do otherwise without some rules laid out, and it feels like Dorian is too eager to talk. He lets Dorian set the pace and tells him that he's doing well, that he feels so good, that he looks gorgeous like this, that—fuck—fuck—
Dorian swallows. He rests his forehead against Bull's knee. A buckle clangs. Arm, shifting. A gasp.
Bull lets his hand slip off Dorian's head and tugs on his shoulder, pulling him up. The mattress dips under their weight and Dorian stumbles forward, the heavy swell of his cock still trapped under his robes, and—
A kiss. Almost incidental, the way their noses bump as Dorian shifts, one hand fumbling at his clothing. Bull can taste himself, still lingering on Dorian's tongue.
"You should fuck me," Dorian tells him, and—
Slick on Bull's fingers, while Dorian sprawls on his back and arches into the touch, cursing and groaning. A kiss. Hands on Bull's chest, trailing over his skin. Another kiss, sloppy and damp against the side of his mouth. Then: his hands, fitting neatly over Dorian's hips. Dorian digs his fingers into Bull's back.
"Harder," Dorian tells him, so Bull does.
After, Dorian gets dressed.
"You can sleep here," Bull says, scratching at his belly. He pats the empty side of the bed.
They've slept beside each other before: several Inquisition camps across Ferelden and Orlais, in Haven, in Skyhold when everything was under construction, and that one memorable Highever inn that didn't have a bed big enough for Bull. (He slept on the floor instead, between Dorian and Cassandra, and Blackwall tripped over him in the middle of the night and nearly twisted his ankle.) It's not a new thing for Bull—Qunari don't waste resources, and the Chargers usually travel with one large tent—but he knows it took Dorian a long time to get used to sleeping near other people. Being around Sera at night probably hasn't helped, since she always snores like a bear.
Bull knows what Dorian looks like in the morning: huddled under a blanket, hair mussed, eyes soft with sleep. He thinks he'd like to wake up and see that in the privacy of this little room. Maybe go another round. Fuck, this was fun.
"That won't be necessary," is Dorian's reply. A little stiff. Formal. He returns Bull's smile, at least.
Eventually, Dorian seems to consider his attire good enough. His boots are laced and his robes are straightened, but he smells like sweat and come and there's a mark on his throat that his collar doesn't cover. Bull stares, remembering the way Dorian groaned.
"I hope you'll keep this to yourself," says Dorian, adjusting his collar. "I like my privacy."
Bull nods. That's an easy request.
"Well." Dorian clears his throat. He glances at Bull and offers him a quick bow. "Thank you. I enjoyed myself thoroughly."
"I did, too." Bull shifts his weight and tips his head to the side, watching Dorian's eyes flick lower. "You should come see me again."
"Perhaps," Dorian answers, hiding a small smile. "Not tonight, though. Give a man some time to recover, won't you?"
Bull chuckles. He tugs the blankets up to his chest and spends too much time adjusting them, so Dorian can retreat to the door. "G'night, Dorian."
"And you," says Dorian quietly, and then he's gone.
For the next few days, Dorian hardly says a word to Bull.
It's not what Bull expected, but he doesn't push on it. If Dorian is ashamed or embarrassed, or he's had his fun and doesn't want anything else, there's nothing Bull can do. His disappointment isn't going to change anything, and directly confronting Dorian about it is a bad idea. It won't scare him, but it will definitely annoy him, so Bull waits it out. If the silence keeps on for too long, he'll talk to Lavellan about it. He and Dorian frequently work alongside each other; any problems should be resolved quickly.
It doesn't come to that, thankfully.
The silence breaks one night in the Herald's Rest, when Bull finds Dorian sitting on the edge of his bed, drinking from a bottle of wine. That's a surprise. Bull expected an awkward talk before Dorian showed up in his quarters again.
"You shouldn't leave your door unlocked," says Dorian, warm and happy and smiling. He brandishes the wine like a blade. "Help me finish this, won't you?"
Bull shuts the door and steps closer. He reaches for the bottle, tilting it so he can get a better look at the label. He whistles. "The cheap stuff? You're falling, Vint."
"I know," says Dorian, with a heavy sigh. He sets the wine bottle on the floor and places his hands on the bed, leaning back. "That's enough talk. Get your cock out."
"Good to hear you've recovered," Bull says. He takes a step towards the bed, watching Dorian's gaze drop lower. It stays there, hungry, when he thumbs at his trousers. "Think you can look me in the eye after?"
Too blunt, probably, but it has to be said. Dorian grimaces, nearly shrinking back into himself.
"Yes," says Dorian, still wincing. He sits up straight and gathers his hands together in his lap, linking his fingers together. "I am sorry for that. Truly. It was incredibly rude. I had an excuse, but…" He glances down at his hands. "It's a poor one, and I doubt you're interested."
Embarrassed, Bull guesses. Not because he slept with a man; Dorian doesn't have that kind of shame. Maybe when he was younger, but not anymore. More likely he's embarrassed about fucking a Qunari, his country's enemy, or Bull. That's understandable.
Still, if Bull is going to be a secret, he won't be a shameful one.
"You don't need to have one," says Bull. He reaches down and nudges Dorian's chin up with two fingers, letting his hand linger. Dorian's lips part. "Just tell me what you want."
"Sex," Dorian answers, almost immediately. His eyes drift from Bull's face towards his arms, then slowly—deliberately—down to his groin. "There are many things about you that I can appreciate."
Bull pats Dorian's cheek and lowers his hand. "My personality?"
Dorian tips his head back, laughing. It's a delightful sound. "That, too. Aren't you a fun one."
"That's what they say," says Bull. He steps closer, flattening his palm over Dorian's chest, and nudges him down onto the bed. "What d'you need from me?"
Dorian stretches his arms above his head and shifts, hooking one leg around Bull's good knee. He makes an unhappy sound when Bull doesn't budge.
"Tell me," Bull says. He tugs on Dorian's clothes, fingers catching on buckles, until Dorian bats his hands out of the way and undresses himself. "I need to know what I can give you."
"You're about to," says Dorian, fumbling at his belt. His hips rise off the bed. "Are you inquiring about romance? That's not something I—look, I don't expect love. Just sex—"
He stops, inhaling a quick breath, when Bull kneels on the bed and leans over him.
"Just sex," Dorian says again. He reaches up and, after a moment's hesitation, wraps his fingers around Bull's horns. "Which you are remarkably skilled at."
Sex. Bull can do that. Most people come to his bed only once. They get their curiosities satisfied or just a quick need fulfilled and that's it, but he's not insulted. He gets what he needs, too. And Dorian's a good guy.
This will be fun.
"Thanks," says Bull. He reaches between them, palming Dorian's cock through his trousers. "You're not so bad yourself."
Dorian grins, all teeth. "You're too kind."
They fuck again a few times that week.
And the next.
* * *
Lavellan falls into the Fade, but he manages to crawl back out. While he recovers, the Inquisition takes some time to prepare for Orlais.
Bull brings his Chargers to Val Royeaux.
The job itself is easy: retrieving a family heirloom from an alleged thief. It's something that any of the Chargers could do without the full company support, but the client paid for a big qunari, so Bull is the one who speaks to the guards at the front gate and muscles his way into a dinner party. His company trails behind.
"Evening," says Bull. The noble's guests avoid looking at him. One drinks all of her wine, eyes wide and frightened beneath her mask. "I have a request."
The heirloom is returned quickly, with no blood spilled. It's a simple necklace, hardly worth anything to someone with a home this lavish, but Bull figures there's a heartwarming story behind it. He bets their client will tell the tale before they can get paid.
"Thank you," says Bull, nodding curtly. He glances at Krem and the rest of his boys, who are still waiting patiently with the noble's guards. "Chargers, move out. We're done here."
They don't run into any trouble on the streets. Skinner is spitting curses after a few minutes; the Orlesian vowels sound strained between her gritted teeth. She doesn't like simple jobs, especially here, but Bull trusts her to work out that aggression cleanly. If she can't, she'll come to him or Dalish for a good talk or a quick fight.
Returning the heirloom takes twice as long as retrieving it. There's a story about a young woman and forbidden love; Bull's heard it before. Their client likes the sound of his voice, and he especially likes talking to Bull in front of his family and friends. But he's paid, and paid well, so Bull sits and listens and asks about the man's kids, to be polite.
"Let's head back," says Bull, once they're back on the street. In Orlais, they usually bunk with Inquisition soldiers, just outside the city. It's safer and cheaper, and the Chargers never have to pay for drinks. "Get some rest. We'll leave early tomorrow."
In the morning, a soldier hands Bull several sealed letters, wrapped with a red string. For Commander Cullen, she explains, since the next supply caravan isn't coming for weeks, and she trusts Bull to deliver them safely. Bull tucks the letters into his pack and promptly forgets about them until they are a day's ride from Skyhold.
Letters. Sealed. Hiding delicate information, then, and he hadn't even thought of looking. Shit, he's getting careless. Or old.
Bull is no forger, but opening papers and resealing them is child's work. He can open a letter without breaking a seal, and these—it's not even a real seal, just a lump of wax. It's almost an insult. Maybe it is? A little joke, and he'll laugh about it with Leliana back in Skyhold.
He doubts these letters have anything useful. Probably requests from the soldiers posted in Orlais, which would mean a list of people who need new socks. Or they're just letters to a friend. Cullen has known most of his officers for years, and he exchanges personal letters with them frequently.
Doesn't matter, Bull reminds himself. Everything is useful. Everything has a purpose.
Shit, he can't remember the last time he wrote home with anything worthwhile.
A wrong turn while traveling at night means circling the same road for hours, so they get back to Skyhold later than expected.
There aren't too many people wandering the castle grounds. Soldiers on the battlements and a few surgeons sitting by the fires in the infirmary, but everyone else is either in the tavern or the castle. After the Chargers return their horses to the stables, Bull dismisses them. Skinner and Dalish disappear into the tavern, Rocky and Stitches close behind, while Krem heads for Josephine's office to discuss future jobs.
Bull makes his way to Leliana. He greets Solas with a nod and climbs the stairs into a nearly empty library. Tranquil mages are returning books to the shelves, and one of the librarians is asleep in the corner, snoring into a hefty tome. Dorian isn't in his usual spot; Bull hopes he's getting some sleep.
In the rookery, Leliana is kneeling in front of a statue of Andraste, hands clasped. Bull waits.
"Welcome back," says Leliana, without looking up. She murmurs something to herself and stands, pulling her cowl straight. "How was Orlais?"
Bull shares what little gossip he picked up. Someone sneaking around on their husband, someone losing too much coin in gambling dens, someone trying to ruin an arranged marriage. The usual. She shares equally insignificant rumors about the Fereldan nobles that visited Skyhold while he was away.
"Perhaps it will prove useful in time," says Leliana, which is a graceful way of saying their information means nothing.
What they've talked about, anyway. She knows more than what she's told him, just like he does. And she's aware of it, too, because she's good at her job. The Ben-Hassrath would love to get their hands on her.
Of course, that wouldn't work. Leliana wouldn't break.
"Maybe," says Bull, shrugging. He wishes Leliana a good night and cuts through Solas's room to get to Cullen's office.
The door is slightly ajar, which means he's allowing visitors. People walk in and out of his office all day, so unless the door is firmly shut, all Cullen expects is a brief knock. Bull raps his knuckles against the door before he tugs it open.
He hears Dorian say, "Well, it does suit you," and then sees Cullen slump over his desk, shoulders shaking. His laughter is interrupted by several loud snorts, which just sets both of them off again.
There's evidence of a quiet night in: a chessboard on top of the desk, pieces strewn over papers and reports. An empty wine glass, on Dorian's side of the desk. It's rare for Cullen to unwind like this; Bull is pleased to see it.
Cullen lifts his head from his crossed arms, saying, "Yes—?" in an expectant tone. Lips pressed together, damp eyes peering at the doorway. Expecting a soldier, Bull figures, but Cullen relaxes and slouches back in his chair. "Hello, Bull."
At Bull's name, Dorian glances over his shoulder. His entire face lights up with a broad smile.
Oh, Bull thinks, as he follows the lurch in his chest. Oh.
"Hey." He places the papers on top of Cullen's desk, beside the abandoned chessboard. "What's got you so worked up?"
Cullen reaches for the papers and unties the string. A small giggle slips out of his mouth. His cheeks are still pink.
"I'd have to start from the beginning," says Dorian. He clears his throat. "There once—"
"Mercy," Cullen interrupts, wiping at his eyes. His voice is muffled behind his palm, and his shoulders shake with silent laughter. "Don't start me up again."
"Another time, then." Dorian tips his head back, still smiling. "Welcome back, Bull."
Bull wants him. Fuck, he wants to—kiss him, taste him, hold him close and murmur sweet things in his ear, sit in the same room and do nothing but see him. It's a greedy want, clinging to him like oil, and it rises, spilling over the rest of his thoughts.
Maybe it's because he hasn't seen Dorian in weeks, but this—no. He knows lust and affection, and the need to satisfy an urge. He knows fondness, and the need to stay close to a person and keep them safe. And he knows love. This feels different. There's hooks in this, tugging him down, and he's stumbling.
He thinks he should be frightened. He's curious, more than anything.
"Thanks," says Bull. He rests his hand on Dorian's shoulder, squeezing. Dorian reaches across his chest and covers the hand with his own.
The faintest of smiles flickers over Cullen's face. Bull doubts that Dorian noticed.
"Bull, if you're feeling up for a drink, you should let me buy you one." When Bull doesn't decline, Dorian gives his hand a quick pat. "Yes, of course you are. Cullen—?"
"Oh, no," says Cullen, shaking his head. He shuffles some papers together into a stack. "I've had enough entertainment for tonight. Have fun." He glances up at Bull. "Nice to see you again."
Bull squeezes Dorian's shoulder again before he crosses the room and waits at the door. He stays there, watching Dorian gather the scattered chess pieces into a box, and pulls the door open to let Dorian through first.
Once they're outside, Dorian curls his fingers around the harness across Bull's chest and pulls him closer.
"Hey," Bull says, just before their mouths meet. They kiss, slow and gentle, while the night air whistles past them. He wraps his arms around Dorian and turns, shielding him from the worst of the wind. "I missed you."
"That's very sweet," Dorian murmurs. He huddles closer, sliding his palms over Bull's shoulders. "I managed to survive, but I'll admit to missing you, too."
* * *
It's raining, and Gatt is gone. The Chargers aren't.
"Hey, chief," says Krem. A little smile tugs at the corner of his mouth, but it doesn't reach his eyes. "All right?"
"Yeah," Bull says. He clasps Krem's shoulder and gives it a good shake. Something inside his chest is squeezing, threatening to break. "Yeah, I'm here."
He yanks Krem into a hug and holds him there, resting his chin on top of his head. There's a muffled complaint and a few filthy curses, but Krem thumps him on the back and stays. Bull's throat hurts.
"I'm next," Dalish announces. She jabs Krem under his arm and wriggles in closer, tentatively touching Bull's shoulder. The rest quickly follow suit.
He closes his eye, listening to Krem tell him about this new thing called soap, and holds them all tighter.
"Bull," Lavellan calls, some time later. "We should get moving before dark."
They all get back to camp, eventually. Bull remembers walking and rain and his Chargers at his side, Lavellan and Dorian ahead of them, and then fire and tents. A bright-eyed scout, eager to greet Lavellan, and curious soldiers gathering around to hear what happened on the coast.
"Sit," Krem says, nudging at Bull's arm. "I'll find someone pretty to bring you a drink."
Someone pretty turns out to be Dorian, who presses a mug of ale into Bull's hand and tells him to spend the night with his boys. He doesn't think he can do anything else right now, but he's grateful for the instruction.
A night by the fire, with Krem at his side. Stitches tells a few good stories. Skinner grumbles when Dalish sneaks sips of her drink. There's singing. It's just like any other night since he started up this company.
He tries not to think about the dreadnought. Gatt. The madness, waiting.
Bull goes to bed in a tent with his Chargers, but sleep doesn't come. He doesn't expect it to. He makes a good attempt, though. Counts backwards. Tenses all his muscles and slowly relaxes them. Thinks of calming things, like soft pillows and slow rivers. All he ends up doing is lying there, awake, listening to Grim snore.
After two hours, Bull gets out of the tent, careful not to kick Skinner and Dalish. The soldiers on watch greet him with a nod and don't stop him when he leaves the camp, heading for the cliff.
It's still raining. Cold slips off his horns and onto his skin, sinking into his clothes. His knee aches. He leans into his good leg, grimacing.
If he closes his eye, he can still smell the smoke.
Bull glances down at the shore, remembering another day of cold rain and Venatori. The day he met the fabled Herald of Andraste: a lean elf, bow slung over his shoulder and stifled anger twisting around his mouth. Bull made his pitch, and here he is.
And now he's back, and it's still raining, and Gatt is gone. Bull is too tired.
Gatt. Scared little boy in the corner, wild-eyed and panicked, while his master bled out on the floor in front of him. Damp cheeks. Thin clothes. Bruises, on his neck and wrists.
(You're safe, Hissrad said. He crouched down and offered a hand. You're free.)
He'll be okay, Bull hopes. Gatt has a temper and doesn't know when to hold his tongue, but he's dedicated. And while he struggled with the Qun, he found peace with it, after all that happened to him. He found comfort.
Bull doesn't know when he lost his.
No, he does. Seheron. Too many days in a row, with too much blood. Too many deaths. Too much chaos. Kill them, fix this, protect them. Day after day. Hissrad turned himself in, begging to be fixed. He got sent to Orlais, instead.
(You're Tal Vashoth, they said. Learn what you can.)
Maybe he played his part too well.
He's so fucking tired.
Footsteps. Bull turns, wishing he brought his weapon, but it's only Dorian. He walks quickly, head ducked low in the rain, and comes to a stop beside Bull.
"There you are," Dorian murmurs. He kicks the mud off his boots, cursing. "Krem was looking for you."
Bull glances over his shoulder. He can see the entirety of the camp, lit dimly by torches and campfires: soldiers walking the perimeter, two scouts sharing a very late supper, and Cassandra's boots outside the Inquisitor's tent. There's a dark shadow moving in the Chargers' tent, which Bull assumes to be Krem's.
"He came to my tent," Dorian adds. He rubs his hands together before he wraps his arms around his chest, shoulders drawn close to his ears. "All panicked. He thought you'd run off."
Something like laughter escapes Bull's throat. "I wouldn't do that."
"I know," says Dorian, so gently. Something cracks behind Bull's ribs. "And he knows, too, I bet."
Bull looks down at the shore again. It's hard to think about anything but the dreadnought. The retreat. Gatt's disappointment. The ache in his ears. He wonders if the sound of the explosion damaged anything. Years of working with Rocky probably hasn't helped.
His throat is tightening again. Bull swallows, bowing his head.
"Asking you how you're feeling is a silly question, so I won't bother with it," says Dorian. He speaks too quickly, like he's trying to race his words. "But I'm here, if you want my comfort. Whatever you need. If you want to talk, or—not, or if you want to be alone. I'm here."
Bull tilts his head, glancing at Dorian out of the corner of his eye. He's withdrawn into himself, shivering, but he meets Bull's eye and offers him a small smile. A warm one, because Dorian is a kind man, no matter how much he tries to pretend otherwise.
He murmurs, "Thanks," and means it, because Dorian does.
* * *
Days pass into weeks and months. It takes a long time for Bull to feel normal again.
There is a part of him that doesn't exist anymore. It felt like a missing limb, at first, but now it's like it was never there. He knows it was—remembers it, clearly—but there's nothing. No link back to the Qun. Not anymore.
He misses it, sometimes.
And when he doesn't, he remembers the smoke and the loss and he thinks about the years he spent tracking Tal-Vashoth, all the years in Seheron—and his chest feels hollow. There's a lot of blood on his hands, and some of those people might have been innocent.
Might have. That's hope talking. Bull knows what he did.
He doesn't like to think about that. Or the madness.
It's supposed to happen. That's what they said, but it hasn't happened yet. Everyone tells him it won't. He wants to believe it. He knows he should.
"It won't," Dorian murmurs, as they sit beside a fire in the Dales. He's tired, slouching against Bull's side with soft eyes. The sun is just beginning to set. "I won't allow it."
"It's not really up to you," Bull points out, but he's touched. He likes it when Dorian gets all dramatic like this. "It doesn't work like that."
Dorian huffs and folds his arms across his chest. "Well, it should."
* * *
In Bull's room, Dorian says, "I have a question for you."
It's past midnight. He's lying on his stomach, buried under a small mountain of blankets, and his voice is thick with sleep. Only his head is visible, and his hair is messy enough that Bull can barely spot his eyes underneath. He blinks, peering up at Bull over the edge of a blanket.
"Ask it," says Bull, without looking up from the letters in his lap.
"I was wondering," says Dorian. His limbs shift beneath the blankets. "What do you require from our arrangement?"
"Whatever I can give you," Bull answers. He likes fun sex with good people, and Dorian has never asked for anything more than that. Neither has Bull. It's not his limit to test. "You need something different?"
Dorian's gaze remains fixed on him. It's almost unsettling, the way he refuses to look away. "Perhaps."
"Okay," says Bull, nodding. He sets aside his work—letters from the last few jobs, praising Krem's work in Orlais—and slings his arm over the headboard, turning so he can see Dorian better. One horn bumps into the wall. "Tell me."
It takes Dorian a few tries, but he manages to sit up without getting too tangled in the blankets. He gathers his hands together in his lap and studies them, his head bowed. It takes him a long time to speak.
"You've been very accommodating," Dorian tells his hands. A small smile flits across his face. "And you've certainly sparked a few interests I hadn't considered."
Bull grins, remembering binding Dorian's wrists to this bed. The smoking curtains. That was a great night.
"Back home, there are many things that I was never allowed to have," Dorian continues. "You know Tevinter's customs as well as I do, so I won't bore you with the details." He glances away from his hands, up at Bull. The smile is still there, but it's smaller, now. Strained. "I never expected that I would want those things with you."
Bull can guess: a commitment, or something like that. Something bigger. Something he couldn't have in Tevinter.
"Yeah?" Bull says. He wants to move closer, maybe gather Dorian in his arms, but Dorian looks like he's bracing for something terrible. There might as well be a solid wall between them.
"Yes," says Dorian, nodding. He links his fingers together, knuckles stiff and strained. "I've found that my interests lie somewhere more…intimate."
"A relationship," Bull supplies, because he doubts Dorian will say it without the prompt.
And there it is: the relief. Dorian's shoulders slump, and he hides a sigh with a chuckle. "Yes. One of those."
"Okay," says Bull, nodding. He can do that. It's new, but he's a quick learner, and Dorian is a kind man. This will work well. He likes the idea of this kind of intimacy with Dorian. They're nearly there already.
He expects a smile or a kiss, but Dorian frowns.
"Really? You don't want to—I don't know, negotiate?"
"This isn't politics," says Bull. Fewer things kill his interest faster than people talking around a problem instead of solving it. "I want what you want."
"You can't," Dorian murmurs, and he sounds so sad now. Bull reaches into his lap, covering both hands with one of his own. "You can't change on a whim, based on what I ask of you."
This isn't a change. Bull knows that much. That opportunity has always been there, if he wanted it, and he thinks he does. This is just another step. He's already taken more than he thought he would—more than he thought possible. One more is nothing.
"I'm not saying yes out of pity, or because you're good in bed," Bull says. He rubs his thumb along the back of Dorian's palm. "I like you, Dorian. And I like making you happy."
Dorian considers this, for a long few minutes. Bull waits.
"Well," says Dorian, finally. He shoves the blankets off his lap and sits astride Bull's thighs, shifting until he's comfortable. "That's settled, isn't it?"
Bull kisses him, humming when he feels the smile. Dorian is warm, joy beaming from him like sunlight. He should always be this happy.
"Yeah." Bull kisses Dorian again, for good measure. "Yeah, it's settled."
"We don't have to leap into this feet first," says Dorian. He inches closer, knees nudging at Bull's hips. "Perhaps you could stop fucking every barmaid and lonely soldier that glanced your way, and we'll see how it goes from there."
"That's easy," Bull replies. Already done, he wants to say. He stopped sleeping with other people after Redcliffe, when Halward Pavus's shadow clung to Dorian's shoulders and stayed there for weeks. "I can do that."
"Because you want to make me happy," says Dorian. Slowly, like that's a new concept.
It probably is, Bull realizes with a start. Shit.
"I do," Bull says. He rests his hands on Dorian's thighs. "You deserve to be happy."
"Hold the filthy talk until we're naked," says Dorian, but he's still smiling. He holds Bull's face in his hands and leans closer, pressing their foreheads together. "This won't end well, isn't it?"
A joke, but there's history there, and not that happy kind. There's more than a few traces of sorrow in his voice. Bull thinks about the things Cole pulls out of Dorian's mind, frowning. He can poke at that later. Not now.
"It doesn't have to end," says Bull. He wraps his arms around Dorian's middle, holding him closer. "Besides, I think we're good for each other."
Dorian snorts and buries his head in Bull's neck. "More like a terrible influence, I think."