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Dorian hadn't been expecting company. In fact, he wanted nothing less. But when the rap came at the door, it was only the Inquisitor. She stared up at him with wide eyes, her small frame bent under the weight of the pack that she had slung over one shoulder.
"Dorian... how are you?"
Mercifully, she had the good grace not to mention how dreadful he must look. Ever since their last ill-fated adventure through the eluvians, he had closeted himself in his room at the Winter Palace. He'd been so lost to his own anger, to his infuriatingly ill-deserved grief, that it was easy to forget he wasn't the only one who had been betrayed.
"Inquisitor. How's the hand?"
He was avoiding the question and she knew it. With a sigh, she nodded to the pack. "This is—"
"It belonged to the Iron Bull." Dorian winced, correcting himself. "To Hissrad."
"He left some of his things in the tavern. I thought you might want to..."
"What? Keep a souvenir? I've had about as much of the Qunari as I can stomach, thank you."
Once, she might have made a joke at that. Oh, how she had loved to tease them. He felt anger flare again, but it wasn't her fault. She hadn't been the one who....
The Inquisitor forced a smile. "You know, there's a quiet courtyard out back. Don't think anyone would notice a few fireballs."
He chuckled, the sound hollow, bitter. "Shall we have a bonfire? Toast to his memory? I doubt that he would care."
"I just thought it might help." Shifting the pack on her shoulder, she turned to go.
Dorian sighed. "Wait. You can… leave the bag."
She gave him a tired smile as she set it down. Then after a moment's thought, she threw her arms around him. "I am sorry. For what it's worth."
"Little, I'm afraid. Though I appreciate the sentiment."
With that, she left him. Dorian stared down at the pack for a long moment, cursing himself for a fool. What did he hope to find? He should burn the thing, as she said. It might even feel good. But instead he grabbed the strap, grunting with effort as he dragged it into the room. It was heavier than it had any right to be, clanking with bits of spare armor and Maker knew what else. Bull – Hissrad – had always been the strong one. Dorian had at least thought himself more clever, but it seemed that too had been a lie.
He hadn't seen it coming. None of them had. Bull had been with them – with him – for years. Years! Dorian bit a curse, slamming the door shut behind him. He sagged back against it, pinching shut his eyes. He should be stronger than this, better than this. Tears were more than Hissrad deserved.
Qunari did not love. Bull had told him as much, had told him that this was different. Vishante kaffas, his very name meant liar. How he must have laughed, making merry sport of the 'Vint, wearing him down with his vulgar attempts at charm. Had he actually convinced him...? Had he actually...?
Leaving the bag where it lay, Dorian sank onto the edge of the bed.
Oh, Bull had played his part well. He'd been very... thorough, very convincing. And Dorian had wanted desperately to believe. The fault was his, wasn't it? He had been used before; he should recognize the signs. At least the others had done him the courtesy of admitting it.
Maker help him, he had called the man "Amatus." And he had been his "Kadan." Barking a laugh, he buried his face in his hands.
He couldn't say how long he sat there. Even looking at the bag was difficult, but he could feel the weight of it, as though Bull himself was watching him from across the room. He could almost imagine that voice calling him closer, gruff, teasing, thick with longing.
Dorian bounded up, crossing the room and delivering a swift kick to the pack. It clanged and he cursed, reeling away as pain exploded through his toes. Sinking to his knees, he stared into the flickering shadows of the hearth.
In the end, Bull had turned on them without a second thought. He hadn't hesitated, hadn't explained, hadn't even looked at him. He hadn't said goodbye.
"Damn you, Amatus. Damn you."
Slowly, he pulled the bag toward him and opened the flap. It was the smell that hit him first, the smell of blood and earth and battlefields, of sweat and rich musk. The smell of him.
Dorian pushed it over, scattering its contents on the carpet. There was armor, yes, a few small blades, and a handful of teeth that had undoubtedly been pried from the mouth of a dragon. Bull had been absolutely mad for the beasts. Dorian had often teased him about his eagerness, but he'd had few enough complaints about what came after. The ardor of a Qunari frenzied on dragon's blood... he'd never known anything like it.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed the memory away. Those moments – whatever they'd been, whatever he'd thought at the time – they meant less than nothing now. Hissrad had proven as much.
He picked up a familiar red tunic, tuning it in his hands. A shame, really, to let such a garment wrinkle, but in this case Dorian couldn't judge. It was still missing the two buttons that he himself had ripped off. The first time they had come to the Winter Palace, Bull had cleaned himself up, even bathed. The sight of him in formal wear, the way the tunic had strained across his shoulders... it had taken Dorian's breath away. They had even shared a dance in the garden, to the absolute scandal of their Orlesian hosts. The memory drew a unbidden smile. And then they had found a darkened corner, Dorian's fingers sending the buttons flying in his haste to strip the tunic away.
He pressed it to his face now, breathing deep. Maker help him. He should be angry. He was angry. There should be no room left for grief.
He wanted to rage, to shout, to rail against him. Bull had given him nothing, nothing that made sense, nothing that could explain why it had been so easy to turn on them – turn on him. That was the worst of it. The helpless, the confusion, the utter lack of reason… it was more than he could bear. The Inquisitor had undoubtedly thought to give him closure, in some token, in some act of explosive violence against these meaningless items that had once made up a man. But there would be no closure, not for this.
Something in the pile caught his eye, a scrap of pale silk. Unlike the rest, it had been carefully folded and tucked away. Dorian had cut it from his own robes, had used it to bandage an arrow wound in Bull's arm. They had been deep in an ancient thaig, low on supplies, beset by darkspawn, and yet somehow he remembered the moment fondly. Bull claimed to have a resistance to the most common poisons – undoubtedly a result of dosing himself with those foul-smelling vials that he produced every morning – but there was no telling what the darkspawn used on their arrows. Dorian had been concerned, even doting. Of course, Bull had teased him mercilessly, but he had submitted all the same, watching with that infuriatingly secret smile as Dorian soaked up the blood.
That gave him pause. Gingerly, he unfolded the cloth, revealing the familiar stain.
No. This was a terrible idea. Yet he pushed to his feet, carrying the cloth with him as he cracked open the door and peeked out into the hallway. The coast was clear. Shutting the door behind him, he took a deep breath.
The wicked Tevinter ambassador, skulking in the shadows of the Winter Palace, practicing blood magic. Oh, the Mortalitasi didn't call it that, of course. The blood was merely a conduit, a means of focus when a body was not available. The stigma was worse in the South and many in the palace distrusted him on principle alone. Perhaps it was time he acted the part.
He lit a candle. If he was going to do this, there could be no room for doubt. Tomorrow, he would be angry. Tomorrow he would be strong. But tonight….
Some magic required a mage to clear their mind, to remain entirely in control. But calling across the Veil, locating a specific shade in the world of the dead, that required emotion, raw power. Dorian exhaled, letting it flow into the empty spaces, the disbelief, the fear, the regret, rage and sorrow, hatred and need. He let it fill him until he could bear no more, the sensation familiar, almost ecstatic, tinged with memories of fraying rope and clawed sheets. Throwing back his head, he gasped. All of it he fed into the fire, the candle glowing brighter as he lowered the cloth into the flame. The blood sparked, sending tendrils of violet flame toward the ceiling.
He watched as they coalesced and took shape, descending slowly. A part of him wanted to look away, but he needed to focus, needed to admit that he wanted this. Whatever it meant.
When it was done, the Iron Bull stood before him. The shade was hazy, silent and shifting, watching him without expression. Letting the remains of the cloth fall, Dorian stepped away from the candle.
The bound dead did not speak, he recalled, not without explicit command. What would he say? Could he simply command the spirit to tell him it had all meant nothing? Did he truly want to hear the answer?
The shade towered over him, awakening a familiar ache. How many times had those thick arms wrapped around him? How many nights had he lay with his head pillowed against that massive chest? The echo was gaining clarity. Those eyes watched him with the same keen intelligence, but his expression was somehow sad. There had been a man beneath all that bluster, beneath the jokes. Maybe Dorian had been the only one to see it, but they had shared something, at least for a time. "Kadan" might have been a lie in the end, but when Bull had whispered it breathlessly into his ear, he had believed it.
And now Bull was dead. Hissrad, too. It was a wonder they had been able to defeat him. He truly was a marvel, huge and incomparably strong. That sword of his had never missed, not in all the battles they'd seen, not until it had swung for Dorian. Had it been a feint? Had he imagined it? Dorian had been too stunned to defend himself, but he could remember clearly now, could see the blade coming toward him, ready to part his head from his shoulders. And yet it hadn't. Bull, impossibly, had been the one to fall.
The spirit was smiling at him now. The shock of it staggered him. Was it possible? Hissrad had been commanded to fight, but perhaps it was the Iron's Bull's choice to lose.
Dorian stepped closer, staring up at him. Until the candle burned out, the shade was his to command. He would defend him, fight for him. But Dorian was through fighting.
The spirit followed him to the bed, standing sentinel as Dorian sank against the pillows and curled onto his side. It settled behind him, wrapping him in its hazy warmth, arms that were not arms sliding round to hold him close. An echo, a shadow, and yet he felt their strength, imagined that he felt some unspoken need calling to him across the veil. The emotion overwhelmed him, filling his mind with a single, unspoken word.
Dorian breathed deep. Tomorrow he would be strong, tomorrow he would begin again. But tonight… tonight was theirs. One final time.
He didn't dare sleep. Nor did he dare turn around. And so he simply lay, wrapped in shadows, watching the candle burn low. When at last it winked out, he felt the spirit dissipate, spreading out around him in a burst of violet light. Then he was alone again.