Monday, October 19, 2015

Porn: It Just Ain't What It Used to Be

In light of people unnecessarily orgasmically celebrating and bemoaning Playboy's decision to stop featuring fully nude photos, I love this perspective on the whole thing.

The fact of the matter is...who the fuck cares?

For the activists claiming this as a feminist victory, you're kidding right? When was the last time Playboy really felt relevant in the current porn culture? Honestly, most people who still have a subscription to this magazine really do read it for the articles (which are often quite good, mind you). And they still do sexy spreads (check out this one on "The 10 Hottest Women on Youtube") so, really, does this count as a win?

And, for all the people whinging about how this is just one more way people are taking their porn away, really? Really?! Like the article points out, for better or for worse, anyone can get any kind of porn at any time for free. It's ridiculously easy to find much more graphic, much more intense porn today online than anything that has ever been featured in a Playboy magazine.

Hell, you can find racier, more well-shot porn with a basic Tumblr search.

And, really, we need to start accepting that as an unchangeable truth. 

We need to stop irrationally panicking about this. 

Because having a variety of porn isn't the terrible downfall of modern society so many people make it out to be.

If you're that worried about porn's impact on our culture, talk to your kids about it. Give them context to the porn they will inevitably find. Teach them what good sexual health looks like. Teach them about consent. Teach them that the sexual landscape is complicated and will often be hard to navigate. Teach them that communication and partnership and intimacy are tools to help them navigate that landscape better.

And, yes, teach them that porn exists. That all kinds of porn exists. And that there is a time and a place for porn. That it can be a healthy part of one's sexual health or a harmful one, depending on how one uses it. 

And don't demonize people for their desires.

Instead, help them find healthy ways to explore them. There are so very few kinks--I honestly can't think of a single one--that can't be realized with a little creativity and a lot of consent-centered communication. 

And, if the LGBT right struggles have taught us anything, demonizing people for their desires doesn't cure people of their desires; it isolates them and pushes them underground. It makes those desires dangerous, especially for the people with those non-normative desires who don't always know what to do with them. Which can make them manifest in not so healthy ways. " 'One size fits all wasn't fair,' [Dan Savage] said, because it didn't help those interested in non-normative body types, desires or kinks. 'Non-normative desires make people feel like freaks or alone.' 

People want what they want and they will never stop wanting it. Giving them the tools to explore those aspects of their sexuality safely, sanely, and consensually, rather than shaming them or trying to shut them down, should be the goal.

"With the shift away from the plain old nude photo, those who lose out are the young people who are just starting to understand sexual desire -- and the adults whose tastes were satisfied by a centerfold, the experts said. 'It makes people with normative desires feel panicked the way it used to those with other desires,' Savage said." Because now they have face that the world is much bigger than they thought it was. Than perhaps they want it to be. And, for better or for worse, they have to learn to live in it.

But calm down, normative vanilla people, plain old nudes will still exist. Vanilla porn isn't going anywhere. The existence of more variety, by its very nature, doesn't eliminate options. Quite the opposite.

And, even if, for some reason, one day, vanilla porn disappeared, anyone with a smartphone can make more. They're probably doing it right now. I promise.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Adoring Bull - Part Two

Watch Words - An Adoribull Fanfic
Part Two


Bull stiffened but, beyond that didn’t move. He lay there quietly—thoughtfully—for a moment. “Tell me about Rilienus.”

Dorian’s spine straightened indignantly. Rilienus. The man from his past with skin the color of the whiskey Dorian could feel burn within him. Dorian hadn’t thought of him in a very long time, but there’d been a time in his life where Rilienus had consumed so many of his imaginings he was sure he’d never think straight. Dorian ran his tongue over his lips, tasting the liquor linger there like a memory.

He shut his eyes and turned his face. Dorian set the bottle back on the table, the sound sharp in the quiet room. “I told you,” he said primly, “I don’t talk about that; it’s part of the past and it’s completely improper to ask.”

Bull snorted. “So you don’t kiss and tell because you’re a gentleman. But you expect me to?” With a philosophical lift of his impossibly broad shoulder, he asked, “What do you suppose that makes me?”

Dorian rolled his eyes. “I don’t think anyone would accuse you of being a gentleman.” Then he relaxed a bit and nodded. “But, I take your point. I suppose asking you for details about someone else that I’d rather not disclose—or have disclosed about me, for that matter—is rather hypocritical.”

Yet.

He bit his lip, worry still niggling inside him. “But I’m asking anyway. Were you and Vivienne ever involved?” Were they still?

Bull turned his head to look at him, his gaze assessing. Piercing, really. He could feel it shoot straight through him, seeing parts of himself no one else had. Possibly parts Dorian himself was hesitant to look at too closely.

With a sigh, Bull sat up, his legs still sprawled out in front of him. “I am with you.” His voice was so steady and sure, it was like a soothing balm over Dorian’s soul. “And, so long as that’s true, I’m with no one else.” Then he shrugged, turned, and pulled his legs up to sit cross-legged, so they faced each other. He planted his arms over his knees. “That’s all you need to know but, so long as your past is off-limits, so is mine.”

Dorian bowed his head. “Fair,” he admitted, feeling better but still bothered, “but you’re sure that, whether or not she’s part of your past, that she’s not part of your present?” He looked up at Bull, hoping he didn’t appear as pleading as he sounded. “Because you can’t keep that from me, if she is.” He just had to know. Whatever the answer, he had to know.

Bull shook his head. “And I wouldn’t keep something like that from you.” He gave Dorian a sympathetic smile. “No, I am not having sex with Vivienne.”

Dorian swallowed and studied his fingers, trying for nonchalance. “But you’d like to?”

Bull let out an annoyingly hearty laugh. “She’s beautiful and strong and frighteningly intelligent.” He shrugged as if that explained away everything. As if there was nothing to be done about his reaction to that. Dorian supposed there really wasn’t. “Kadan, there are a lot of people I think about having sex with.” He reached out a hand to Dorian. “Doesn’t mean I do or am even planning on it.”

Dorian knew that. He did. But still. He slowly made his way to the bed. “She would sleep with you, if you asked.”

Bull arched an eyebrow as he watched Dorian’s patient approach. “You think?”

Dorian rolled his eyes at the other man. “Of course. The way she acts around you. She acts like she owns you. Like you’re hers already. Why do you let her push you around like that?” He shook his head, still not getting it. “With everyone else, you’re this hulking, strong force to be reckoned with. The Iron Bull.” And Dorian loved that about him. Found it oddly compelling somehow. “But, with her,” he shook his head, standing beside the bed, as he said, “you’re a kitten.” A lap dog. “And you wonder why I’m…”

Bull smiled and ran his hand along the length of Dorian’s arm from shoulder to wrist. The touch left a tingling warmth all along his skin. “Jealous?”

Dorian scoffed and shifted his body out of the other man’s reach. “Concerned,” he corrected. “Curious.” At most.

Bull nodded. He reached out again. “C’mere and I’ll try to explain it to you, kadan.”

Dorian sighed and let himself be pulled into Bull’s lap. It was always amazing to him that, even if Bull was so different from the kind of man Dorian had always wanted—maybe because he was so different—when he was with him, Dorian felt something inside himself, that had always felt restless and lost, settle. As if the twist of this man’s arms wrapped around him felt like home.

Not that Dorian really knew what home felt like.

But, whenever he’d imagined it—what he thought it was and what it ought to be—this was the closest he’d ever known.

He sighed and let that comfort cover and shield him. “So explain it to me.”

Dorian felt Bull’s chest rise and fall with a heavy breath. “When I’m with someone, I like to be what they need.” He shrugged, the muscles shifting against Dorian’s body. “Even when I’m not with a person, in that way, it’s second-nature to know what they want and need.”

“I get that,” Dorian said. He knew the man’s history; knew about his Ben-Hassrath training. The man was an expert at reading people and anticipating movements. “But it’s not as if you go around doing and being everything for everyone.” His lips thinned a bit. “Vivienne is special; with that woman, she bats her eyelashes and you fall all over yourself to please her.” He shook his head. “Why?”

The man gave out a bit of a chuckle. “That’s a flattering image.” He laughed a little more. “Be kinder to Vivienne. You don’t see her when she thinks no one’s looking. There’s something…” He shrugged. “Sad, maybe. Definitely regretful. She’s careful, so you’d never see it. You have to look close.”

Dorian huffed. “Yes, I’m sure you’ve taken quite a few long, close looks her way.”

Bull chuckled again. “She is easy on the eyes.” Dorian fought the urge to pout. Wasn’t it lovely that he kept bringing that up? “And, like most beautiful people,” he said pointedly to Dorian, “they’re the ones who worry most about what other people think.”

Groaning, Dorian elbowed him.

Bull’s shoulder shook as he fought not to laugh, but he didn’t push, just continuing on. “She likes to feel important, relevant. It’s important to her that people listen to what she says and take it seriously. So I do.” He shrugged. “Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vivienne looks like the tamassrans. You know, all tall and with those horns.” He shook his head and laughed again. “She just plays into that part of my mind that knows, when the tamassrans—literally translated as ‘those who speak’—talk,” he said with a shrug, “you listen.”

Dorian pursed his lips. “So you’re saying, if I buy myself some tall shoes and pointy hats, maybe you’ll listen to me better.”

Bull let out a mirthful snort. “I promise, I pay attention just fine just as you are, kadan.”

“Is that right?” Dorian turned back to arch his eyebrow at him. “Then, please,” Dorian said, giving an inviting wave of his hand, “tell me what I need.”

Bull sat back, his arms falling away to rest at his sides. Dorian fought the urge to shiver at the loss. “You need someone to blame.”

Dorian blinked. What in the world did that mean?

Bull planted his fists next to his hips on the mattress. “With your past and upbringing, I get it; too many people made you feel damaged and guilty for who you are too many times.”

Dorian stiffened.

“They told you, taught you, that there was something wrong with you.” Bull made a sad, angry sound and shook his head. “They made you believe it.”

Dorian didn’t want to talk about this. He turned away.

But Bull kept talking. “So, because of what they did to you, you need someone to take responsibility over your actions and desires. Because of all that, it makes it easier on you to say that I tempted you, or made you, or forced you, into this relationship.”

No.

Dorian furrowed his brow.

That wasn’t true.

He shook his head.

Not exactly.

He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably.

It wasn’t like that.

Dorian frowned.

Was it?

“And that’s okay.”

What?

Dorian’s head popped up in surprise. He tried to turn to face him, but Bull bent his head so his cheek rested against the crown of Dorian’s head, the tip of his horn just above Dorian’s shoulder, keeping him in place. “You think that I don’t understand that.” He wrapped his arms around Dorian, holding him tight. Safe. “But I do. And I was willing do that—be that—because that’s what you needed.”

He was willing.

Dorian swallowed, feeling so small and vulnerable. “What about now?”

Bull sighed, but didn’t let go—for whatever that was worth. Dorian held on to that. “I don’t know,” Bull admitted. He shook his head. “I’d hoped, by now, we’d move past that.” He shrugged and sat up a little. “We didn’t.”

Dorian took the opportunity to move out of the man’s lap and face him. This felt important. “Move past what into what?”

The other man wouldn’t look at him. He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”

Dorian leaned forward. Damnit, Bull. “It really sounds like it does.”

The other man just shook his head again.

Maker’s breath, this was it. Cole had tried to warn him. You’re losing him, the spooky boy had told him once. The tighter he tries to hold you, the further you slip away. Dorian hadn’t understood before, but this was what he’d meant.

Dorian felt his face pale and his whole body go cold.

He was losing him.

He couldn’t lose him.

Not like this.

“Bull, I—” His voice choked on the words.

“It’s okay,” the other man said, reaching for him. “Asit tal-eb. I can be what you need.” He moved to his knees and touched Dorian’s cheek. “For you, kadan, I can.” Bull leaned down to press his lips against the other man’s. “What do you need?” Caressing his lover’s neck, Bull breathed the words into his mouth. “Tell me.”

Dorian leaned back, looking into Bull’s face. He bit his lip, knowing—in exquisite detail—what he wanted to say.

But he also knew he couldn’t speak a word of it. Not aloud. It was a secret he’d carried too long, buried too deep, he didn’t know how to let go of it. He also knew he should. He wanted to. He was too old to be letting other people’s opinions rule his life. But he didn’t know how to make his mouth form the words.

Bull lowered his gaze and nodded resignedly. A sad smile softened his face and made Dorian’s heart lurch. “For you, kadan. All for you.”

Dorian closed his eyes as Bull kissed him. He prepared himself to be swept away by the other man’s lust. To let the force of it overwhelm him.

But it didn’t.

Don’t get him wrong, the kiss was…nice. Sweet, really. A nice, sweet, tender brush of lips. A gentle hint of tongue. Dorian felt the man’s hands, calloused and hard, coast over his shoulders and back.

Dorian wrinkled his brow. He gripped Bull’s face in his hands, trying to deepen the kiss. He thrust his tongue into the other man’s mouth.

Only to have Bull just…take it. He just lay there, willing enough, Dorian supposed, but passive. Not even submissive, not eager or inviting, but tolerant. Almost resigned.

Dorian maneuvered the larger man over his body, needing the solid weight and breadth of Bull pressing him down into the mattress. He grabbed Bull by the horns, pulling his face close, and bit his bottom lip, sucking it deep, trying to provoke a response from him.

But Bull just ran his hands through Dorian’s hair. Delicately. Before pillowing his head with his hand as his lips took small sips from his.

Breaking the kiss, Dorian twisted his face away. “Stop.” This didn’t feel right. “Wait.” There was nothing really wrong, per se, but things were certainly not right either. “Katoh.” Just katoh.

Bull leaned back, raising up on his arms to look into Dorian’s eyes. “Did I hurt you?”

Dorian looked at him confused. Of course, he hadn’t. How could he? He’d barely touched Dorian.

Bull gazed at him in concern as he lifted his weight off the other man. “I didn’t mean to—” He shook his head. “I was trying to—” He pushed himself up to sit back while Dorian scrambled out from underneath him. “We weren’t even playing yet.”

And that was the problem.

Dorian shook his head. He’d hardly ever used their watchword before; it felt so foreign in his mouth. He’d used it once when he’d thought someone was coming that time they’d snuck into the stronghold’s kitchen for food and…more than food. Another time when he’d noticed that the tie Bull was using on his shoulder might leave rope marks in a place his armor would reveal. And preemptively—laughingly, really—when Bull had wanted him to wear a gift he’d gotten for him—some gaudy bit of jewelry with a dragon’s tooth or some such nonsense—that, while he’d appreciated the gesture, had not been particularly his style.

But he’d never expected to use it like this.

He sat back too, pushed to the other end of the bed. He stared at the length of mattress between them. Furrowing his brow, Dorian asked his partner, “Is something wrong?”

Bull shrugged. “I should be asking you that; I wasn’t the one who stopped.”

“You’re,” Dorian said, shaking his head, “different tonight.”

“Different, how?”

Dorian grunted. The great, lumbering idiot knew exactly how. “Different!” He pulled his knees up and underneath his body before wrapping his arms tightly around himself. “Your touch is just so…” The Tevinter mage fumbled for the right word. “Gentle.”

“And that’s bad?”

Dorian groaned. “No,” he insisted, hating that the other man was deliberately being obtuse—he was sure of it—and making this whole discussion more difficult. “It’s not bad. It’s just not…” he paused before adding, “you.”

Bull winced. “I’m not gentle.”

“No!” Dorian growled. “No, I mean, yes.” He paused. That wasn’t right. “Well, no, actually.” But that was the point. While Bull could certainly be gentle and teasing and tender, that wasn’t what this felt like. Dorian intimately knew what it felt like to be wanted by Bull. He knew what his lust and need felt like, smelled like, tasted like.

And this wasn’t it.

Dorian sighed, running his hand over his hair. “You just don’t seem like you’re all that interested tonight.” He frowned. It was as if Bull wasn’t all that interested in him tonight. “Are you? Interested?”

Panicked, he looked up at the naked man sitting with his legs bent in an oddly mirroring, curled-up position as his own, his knees hiding his erection. Or, possibly, lack thereof.

Had he had one?

How could Dorian not know? Bull was not a small or subtle man. Not in any way. If he wanted you, you knew it.

But, right now—in this moment—Dorian didn’t know.

He swallowed hard as his head—his heart—tried to process that thought. He hung his head.

Sweet Maker, what had he done?

“I thought this was what you wanted.” Bull, who was always so confident—cocky, really—sounded so unsure it worried Dorian. He saw a frown crease the man’s face. “I mean, you’d just said…” He shook his head. “Isn’t this what you want?”

Again! It was all about what Dorian wanted. It was always about what he wanted. Which sounded great, until he began wondering whether that was what Bull really wanted.

You know what The Iron Bull wants, Cole had told him, but you do not want to know.

Except Dorian was pretty sure he didn’t know. Had no idea.

Then ask him.

The boy had made it sound so easy, when it felt like anything but. He pouted. What did Bull want?

Was it him?

Or had all this talk about Vivienne, about the comparison against Dorian, made the other man rethink?

“I can be whatever you want,” Bull insisted. “Just tell me what it is you need.” His voice sounded so strained, so frustrated. As if he were wondering whether he’d made the wrong decision. Was Bull wondering if there wasn’t someone else out there that he wanted more than the man he had in his bed?

And could Dorian really blame him for that?

Dorian stumbled to stand. “Maybe I should just go to my room.”

“Dorian,” Bull said, “don’t—”

He shook his head as he made his way to the hallway. He couldn’t stay. Not here. Not like this.

Because this—whatever this was—wasn’t what he wanted.

———

Dorian wearily pushed the door open to the tavern the next morning. He hadn’t slept well.

Or much at all.

He’d become used to having Bull’s warm, heavy weight beside him, with the oddly soothing sound of his soft, snuffling snores, while he slept. His own room had seemed so empty and cold without them.

Something had to be done about all this.

Still holding his aching head, Dorian nodded to the table where Sera, Krem, and a few of the other Chargers sat, chatting up the bard—Maryden, he thought her name was—between songs. He needed something to eat and drink before he could even begin to deal with anyone else today.

What he really needed was to talk to Bull.

Dorian stopped.

As if thinking about him had called him, Dorian saw the towering man hunched over the bar, his huge shoulders slumped over the wood countertop.

Dorian smiled sympathetically.

Poor man.

He must have had as rough a night as Dorian had.

He walked up to him, moving to lay a comforting hand on Bull’s broad back, when he heard a woman’s cooing voice. “Can I touch them?”

Dorian stopped short.

Still behind the large man, he couldn’t see whomever Bull was talking with and he was pretty sure neither of them were paying enough attention to have noticed him.

But he was close enough to hear the wide grin in Bull’s voice. “Sure.”

Poor man, indeed.

Gritting his teeth and placing his fists on his hips, Dorian coughed pointedly.

Bull turned around, his smile looking shakier than it’d sounded a second ago. “Dorian!” He held his arms out as if for a hug.

Dorian scoffed and glared at him.

Bull’s arms dropped. “Morning.” He gestured behind him to a petite, redheaded woman—girl, really—manning the bar. “Have you met Mavis? She was just about to get me a drink.”

Dorian spared her a territorial look. “Whatever he’s having, make it a double.” His lips stretched into a hard, tense smile. “Thank you.”

Bull whistled when the girl, wide-eyed and worried, hurried off. “Well, you’re in a mood this morning.”

“I said, ‘Thank you.’ ” Dorian watched the girl busy herself away from them. Good.

“Uh-huh.”

Dorian huffed and pulled out a stool to sit. “You’re the one always doubting my commitment to this relationship,” he snapped, “but you’re down here flirting with random women; am I supposed to be happy about that?”

Bull gave a small chuckle. “C’mon, that wasn’t flirting.”

Rolling his eyes, Dorian scoffed. “She was stroking your horns.”

Bull lifted a careless shoulder. “She’s never seen a Qunari before.” He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “I tried to tell her a bit about the Qun, but she didn’t seem all that interested in a history lesson.”

“No,” Dorian said, leaning away, “she seems to respond much better to a more hands-on approach to her studies.”

“Jealous?” With a smug look in his eyes that made Dorian want to smack him, Bull raised an eyebrow. “Or still just curious, kadan?”

Dorian’s hands clenched into fists. “Could you please not call me that name in public?” he hissed as the serving girl came back with their drinks before taking one look at them and quickly leaving again.

Bull picked up his drink and took a swig. “Why not?”

Looking at the drink now, Dorian wondered if it was worth having left his room at all. In a hushed voice, he said, “It’s humiliating and you know it.” There was such a thing as time and place for such syrupy displays.

The mug in Bull’s hands stalled a bit before he set it back on the counter. He turned to Dorian. “It’s a title of honor,” he said, raising his volume, if anything. “It means that, above everyone else, I choose you.” Grabbing the edge of his partner’s stool, he almost effortlessly pulled Dorian’s seat closer to him. In a rough, graveled voice, he leaned in and said, “It means that you’re mine.”

Yes, yes, yes. Dorian primly righted himself on his seat, while turning away, and surreptitiously looked about the room. “But someone could overhear.”

Bull’s gaze hardened and his lips thinned. He tilted his head, the movement stiff. Dorian wanted to kick himself when he saw the hurt and betrayal in the man’s expression. But there was none of that—not even a flicker of emotion—in the Qunari’s cold, distant voice. “Maker forbid.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Dorian insisted, “and you know it.” For such a great hulking beast, the man was so terribly sensitive. He took a sip of his drink and waved his hand. “Besides, you’re not even technically part of the Qun anymore.”

Bull shrugged concedingly and took another drink. “You’re not exactly on the best of terms with the rest of the Vints;” he winked at him and said, “wanna tell the boys about that time I had you grab me by the horns and literally ride my face? That was a hell of a time; I don’t think I’ve ever seen you come so hard.” He gave a wistful sigh. “Though I do miss those curtains.”

Dorian choked on his drink. “Excuse me?”

“Well,” Bull said, sounding far too logical after having just made that ludicrous suggestion, “I figure, if you expect me to abandon all aspects of the culture I was raised in, perhaps you’d join me by removing the stick the Vints implanted firmly up your backside at birth.”

Cheeks flushing and jaw clenched, Dorian glared at him. “That is not even remotely the same thing.” He raised his chin and sniffed. “I would hope that manners and good breeding weren’t culturally exclusive.”

“Manners?” Bull frowned. “Probably not. Being irrationally paranoid about what everyone around you may or may not be thinking?” He nodded. “Yeah, seems like.” He turned to face the smaller man incredulously. “Trust me, Dorian, I’m interested in you and even I don’t find you that interesting.” Dorian opened his mouth to object, but Bull just pressed on. “You narcissistically assume that everyone’s obsessed with who you’re sleeping with. When, in reality—unless it used to be them, is them, or they really want it to someday be them—no one cares all that much about who anyone’s sticking it to.”

That was easy for him to say. “You don’t get it; you can’t.” He had no idea what it was like to have everyone who loved you and depended on you look at you with such contemptuous disappointment. All over something you couldn’t change about yourself, much as you sometimes wished you could. And, what was worse, not only did he not grow up in the same world Dorian had but, even if their places were reversed, Bull would never have had to deal with the things Dorian had had to in the first place.

Bitterness—unfair and unwarranted as it may be—bubbled within him as he caught a glimpse of the pretty, freckled, redheaded serving girl. In his place, things would have been so much easier for someone like Bull. “You could be normal,” he said, still staring at the girl, at what she represented, “if you wanted. If you wanted, you could run off with Vivienne or the serving wench—”

“Mavis?”

Dorian wanted to strike that confused look off Bull’s face. “Whomever!” He waved his hand dismissively. “And you could have a normal life.” An acceptable life. He jabbed a finger at his own chest. “I don’t get a choice.” Love—honest and real love—out of the shadows didn’t exist for people like him where he came from. And defiantly wanting it anyway had almost cost him his life.

Bull pushed back his seat and stood, raising to his full height to tower over Dorian. “You think this is a normal life for me? You think that living as a Tal-Va-fucking-shoth is what I wanted.” He waved his massive arms about. “Of all the things that have made a normal life impossible for me, what people think about who and how I fuck don’t even rank.”

Slapping his mangled hand to his huge, scarred chest, he said, “You have no idea what it’s like to be me. The things I’ve seen. The things I’ve done.” He was breathing hard, his chest heaving, and his eyes stared off—somewhere beyond Dorian into a blood-soaked past he rarely spoke of. “The things I will have to live with for the rest of my life.”

Dorian gasped as Bull’s haunted gaze met and searched his. The horrors he knew the seemingly unshakeable man had survived—Seheron, reeducation, Maker knew what else—blazed in his gaze wildly. For a moment, it frightened Dorian, until Bull turned away.

Bull shook his head. “And you never really give it much thought, do you?” He gave a humorless laugh. “How could you, if you think any of this is somehow easier for me?”

Dorian winced, more than afraid that Bull was right. His big, strong Qunari never seemed fazed by his past—awful as it might be—so it was hard to remember that he carried more scars from it than the ones Dorian could see and touch.

Bull shook his head and stepped back, the stool behind him making a loud screech against the floor. “You think I chose to feel this—whatever this even is—for you. You think I want to feel this way for someone who can’t be with me—can’t even look at me—without shame and disgust?”

Dorian straightened indignantly. “I do not—”

“Yes, you do,” Bull cut him off with a sweep of his hand. “Seeing as I’m the one looking at your face, trust me, you do.” With a scoff, he added, “And, more times than not, your voice drips with it too. I may be Qunari, but even savages understand subtext.”

Dorian shook his head. That wasn’t true; he didn’t do that.

Did he?

Well, maybe so when they were out and about. When he had to be cautious about who might hear what. But, when they were alone, he could let his guard down. When it was just the two of them, things were different. “It’s not like that, Bull. I just don’t want anyone to overhear and get the wrong idea.”

Placing his fists on his hips, Bull glared challengingly at his partner. “The wrong idea about what?”

Dorian pursed his lips. How to explain this without saying something he didn’t really mean? Without giving Bull the chance to misread his meaning? After all, there was nuance and detail to all of this. It wasn’t as straightforward as Bull liked to think it was.

“You think people might get the wrong idea and think we’re together.”

Sick of sitting—and of having his every move and tone dissected—Dorian stood too, hating that the gesture had little effect since he was so much shorter than Bull. “People already know we’re together;” he said in an obvious tone, “you’ve made that quite clear.” Paying absolutely no mind to what Dorian thought about it.

Bull nodded dismissively; after all, they’d been having this fight for too long. “Against your better judgment, if not your will;” he said, pointing a finger at him, “you’ve made that just as clear to everyone who will listen.” He scoffed. “And you wonder why I think you’re ashamed of me?”

Dorian stepped back. He looked away.

Was that really what Bull thought?

He’d always thought that Bull, who just seemed to know people instinctively, almost clairvoyantly, understood without having to be told. Dorian knew that Bull saw the shame and disgust, deep down, that haunted him.

But he’d thought the other man understood that it was never with Bull.

It was always with himself.

He hadn’t meant to have the other man think, for even one second, that those feelings—so dark and heavy—were ever directed at him. Had never wanted to hurt him with baggage that had simply always been a familiar part of himself.

How could Bull, who understood him better than anyone else in the world, not know that?

Bull sighed, sounding so tired. “You’re not entirely wrong, you know.”

Dorian inhaled sharply, not sure he wanted to know what—if anything—he’d gotten right.

“I don’t get to choose how I feel;” Bull told him, “no one does.” He took a determined step toward Dorian. “But I decide what that means to me. I decide whether I act on it or whether I deny it. Whether I stay with you or I chase after someone like Mavis.” He thumped his chest again. “I choose that. No one else. And,” he said with a shrug that clearly said the Qunari equivalent of Maker knows why, “I choose you. Every time.”

He looked down at the floor and gave a baffled shake of his head before looking back up at Dorian. “Tell me one thing, kadan,” he said, the expression on his face already disbelieving, yet at the same time almost hopefully pleading, “if you felt you had the choice, would you still choose me?”

Dorian didn’t know what to say. He didn’t think he could force words from his slack-jawed mouth or constricted throat, even if he had. What did one say to that?

They stood together in silence. Even Maryden’s usually sweet voice was absent—what, had the woman gone on a break or something—leaving nothing but Bull’s unanswered question between them.

Dorian could feel the stares of the other people in the tavern on them. Prying into parts of himself that he didn’t want anyone to see.

He couldn’t think with them all around. With the weight of the crowd’s gaze—their judgment—oppressively on him.

He shut his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear it. Venhedis, he wished they’d all just leave!

So he could think.

So he could breathe.

He looked back up to tell Bull that they should take this discussion elsewhere.

But Bull was gone.

Alone at the bar, Dorian was afraid to look around for him. Afraid that, if he did, he’d see everyone else. What they were thinking about him.

He bowed his head and ran a weary hand over his face.

Andraste’s ass, what a mess.

“Looks like I’ll have to tell Cole that it got the joke wrong, after all,” he heard Vivienne’s lofty voice snicker.

Great. Just what he needed. “Does no one mind their own business?” He looked up to glare at the woman, who just smiled at him coyly, her hand on Krem’s shoulder as he stood stiffly by her side. Why was she always around at the worst possible moments? “We need to get you a collar with a bell.” Maybe he could stop feeling like such a fool around her, if he could hear her coming.

Vivienne let out a tinkling laugh. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll leave the bedroom games to you and Bull.” She shrugged and smiled as she took Bull’s abandoned seat. “Besides I’ll be far too busy helping the demon with its little joke.”

Dorian shook his head and glared while the woman crossed her lengthy legs and curled one booted foot around one of the stool’s legs. He scowled, imagining that she could still feel the warmth Bull’s body had left on the seat. Petty and irrational as it might be, he didn’t like that this woman had even that much claim over his partner. “What are you blathering on about?”

Vivienne leaned over the countertop, toward him, conspiratorially. “You were absolutely right, Dorian.” How had the sound of those words become so damning? “The Iron Bull is not a thing.”

She flicked a hand out to the Chargers second in command. “Krem was just telling me something fascinating, weren’t you?” She made her own sound of confirmation when the other man just glared at Dorian. “You see, it seems that among the Qunari, even the bas—all of us unenlightened people not of the Qun,” she said, gesturing flippantly to the three of them, “literally translated as a ‘thing,’ I believe, isn’t that right, Krem?—are above a Tal-Vashoth like Bull.” She leaned back and thoughtfully tapped her cheek. “I’m sure there’s some amusing play on words there somewhere, if one looks hard enough.” She waved her hand to him in gossipy curiosity. “What do you think, Krem?”

Feeling like the lowest form of life in Thedas, Dorian couldn’t look away from the censure in Krem’s eyes. He knew the other man didn’t like him. Didn’t approve of his relationship with Bull. Bull didn’t understand why.

But Dorian did.

In many ways, he and the self-made man, who hadn’t been born physically a man, were the same. They’d both been raised and lived in Tevinter. They both knew what it was like to hide who they were from people who didn’t understand. They both had families who’d turned their backs on them because neither of them had been born the child their parents expected them to be. They’d both fled lives that had felt too much like lies to stay.

And, even if it wasn’t in the same way, Dorian knew that Bull had claimed Krem as one of his own. Hell, on first meeting, he’d given up an eye to save the then hunted man’s life. Then, he’d given up his place among the Qunari to save Krem and the rest of the Chargers. Even on a more mundane level, Dorian had seen Bull defend Krem, never letting anyone attack, insult, or even question the man’s skill, competence, or right to be who he knew himself to be. Dorian, better than most, understood the importance of that. It inspired loyalty. Krem would fight—would die—for Bull. And made sure everyone knew it.

Dorian wouldn’t even hold Bull’s hand in public.

He winced under the man’s hard gaze.

Krem straightened his spine. “If you’ll excuse me, milady,” he said, his voice harsh, “I think that I’ll go after the chief.” He turned and muttered under his breath, “Someone should.” Dorian could tell by the tone of his voice that the man thought that someone ought to be him. He curled his lip and shook his head at Dorian, bowing his head in scathing deference. “Milord.”

“Well, well.” Vivienne laughed while Dorian watched Krem and the rest of the Chargers leave to follow their leader. “Everyone’s a comedian, it seems.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, fed up with everyone treating his life like entertainment. “This isn’t funny.”

She looked at him in mock surprise. “No?” She shrugged. “Not to you, I suppose.” She leaned in again, as if sharing a secret. As if they were friends. “Not that I personally fault you on not acknowledging him. I can’t say I would, if I were you, either.” She waved a hand dismissively. “A Qunari who became a bloodthirsty Ben-Hassrath, who became a failed commander, who then turned into some Tal-Vashoth mercenary with a bit of fame and reputation, I suppose, but no real standing or worth?”

Dorian’s lips thinned and his fists clenched.

Scrunching her nose, she made a sympathetic sound. “I mean, I’m sure he is quite the intriguing ride but, really, what’s to be gained by such an alliance?” Sounding far too much like the people he’d grown up with—cold calculation couched in cultured class—she gave a decided shake of her head. “No, my dear, the more I think about it, the more I’m sure you’re in the right about this whole thing.” She patted his arm in a patronizingly maternal way. All the while grinning at him knowingly.

Dorian’s frown deepened. If ever there was a way to convince him the error of his ways, that was it. He didn’t think like that. He wasn’t like the people who’d surrounded him—suffocated him—back home. He’d long ago sworn to never be like them.

He stepped away from the meddling woman.

She was trying to mess with him. To get some kind of reaction. To rile him up. She wanted to catch him off-guard, maybe get him to admit something he didn’t want her to know. Maybe something she could use to her advantage.

The question was why. What did she have to gain from it all?

Dorian narrowed his gaze at her.

Frighteningly intelligent, indeed.

Fasta vass, he needed to talk to Bull.

———

Dorian stood outside Bull’s door, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He wanted to knock. Had wanted to for the past five minutes.

All he had to do was lift his arm.

But he simply couldn’t seem to. Instead, he just stood there, shuffling his feet.

The door opened. Bull peered down at him expectantly, leaning in the doorway. He was so large, the space couldn’t contain his impossibly broad, solid form. It senselessly made Dorian want to pant.

Which was completely ridiculous.

And stupid.

And felt so right.

“Can I come in?” Dorian asked.

Bull stepped aside and gestured for him to enter. “Unless you feel like standing out in the hallway some more.”

Dorian stepped into the room. “How did you know I was there?”

Bull snorted as he moved to lay back on the bed. “Don’t need to be Ben-Hassrath to see your shadow pacing in front of my door.” He shrugged his big shoulders before resting his arms behind his head. “So, what can I help you with?”

Dorian bit his lip and began to pace. He shook his head. He knew what he wanted to say. Had been practicing it in his head all day. It was impassioned and eloquent and really quite moving. And, after going over and over it, he knew every word of it by heart.

Why, now that he was here, was it so hard to actually say?

“Did you want something?”

Dorian rolled his eyes. And Bull did not seem to be in a helpful mood.

Not that he blamed him.

Dorian straightened and looked at him. “I choose you.”

Bull stilled—didn’t even breathe or blink—for a moment. “For what?”

Festis bei umo canavarum, Bull! Dorian gritted his teeth. “You’d asked me today and,” he took a deep breath and repeated, “I choose you too.”

There.

He’d said it.

The most important bit anyway. The part that was the hardest to say.

He took a deep breath.

And let it out.

And waited.

For a reaction.

Any reaction.

Shaking his head, he waved an arm out. “Well? Aren’t you going to say anything?”

“What do you want me to say?”

Dorian wanted to scream. “Whatever you want to!” For Andraste’s sake, could it not be about what he wanted for once. “Say anything.” He stared at Bull, who just lay there silently. Dorian tapped his foot impatiently. “Well, say something.”

Bull moved to sit on the edge of the bed, facing Dorian. With his shoulders slumped like they were, it put them roughly at equal height. For a long moment, Bull just studied Dorian, his lips pursed.

Then he sighed. “I don’t know if I love you.”

Dorian felt the air leave his lungs. He blinked, feeling tears begin to burn behind his eyes. He swallowed hard.

Bull shook his head before looking down at the floor. “I don’t even know if I know what love is. Not the kind you’re looking for. Such things are different among the Qunari. And, I’d thought that what I felt for you—which is so much more than I ever have for anyone else—was enough.” His shoulders fell a bit more. “Now, I don’t know.”

He peeked up at Dorian, looking lost. “All I know is that I’m trying. Trying to make you happy. Trying to be what you need. Trying to give you what you want.” He looked away again, his face creasing in frustration. “But I can feel myself failing.”

“Bull,” Dorian insisted, taking a step toward him, “you’re not failing—”

“I am!” Bull slammed his fist against the mattress. “You’re not happy with me. No matter what I do.” He took a deep breath, sounding suddenly defeated. “I just want you to be happy.”

Dorian held himself so still, trying to prepare himself for the worst. “Are you leaving me?”

“If I can’t give you what you need,” Bull said with a shrug, “why should I stay?”

“Because I want you to.” For Andraste’s sake, he’d just said that he chose him. Wasn’t that enough?

“Why?”

Fasta vass, he was going to make him say it, wasn’t he? Fine. “Because I love you.”

How could he not?

Bull was strong and powerful and a force that could feel positively torrential, but he was also fiercely loyal and unwaveringly protective. He genuinely cared about people. Especially those close to him. There was so little he wouldn’t do for those he’d claimed as his own.

And he was fun. Irreverent and always laughing.

Dorian had spent so much of his life despising the lot fate had handed him. Had been so miserable for so long, futilely wishing and waiting for so many unalterable things to change. He’d damned near drunk and wasted his life away trying to run and rebel and rage at a life that was so often unfair.

But Bull saw life differently. Treated it differently. While it infuriated Dorian sometimes, Bull approached life like a game. Full of endless angles and strategies, of challenges and rewards. And Bull was a man who liked to play. If the rules and expectations didn’t fit what he wanted, Bull was always ready, willing, and so very able to change them to suit his needs.

He’d seduced Dorian with his games. By playing with power—giving and taking on different roles, inventing and introducing new rules—Bull had alchemically altered Dorian’s entire world. Changing pain into pleasure. Making bonds feel like freedom. Turning urges and desires, that had caused Dorian nothing but shame and tragedy, into something joyful and tender that they could intimately share together. He’d made him feel cherished. Celebrated and adored in a way he’d never even known was possible before Bull. He’d given him a place to be safe. To belong.

Dorian so needed someone like that in his life.

He needed Bull.

“Please,” Dorian said, his voice quiet and controlled because he didn’t trust it not to break, “stay.”

Silence filled the room.

Why wasn’t he better at this?

Dorian was good with words. Truly. He swore, under normal circumstances, he was. Always with something smart to say. Some clever quip. Or flippant reply. When it didn’t matter, he could weave words into loquacious magic that had nothing to do with his mage training.

But, now, when he needed them most, the words he so wanted were nowhere.

He looked into Bull’s face and tried to make him see what he couldn’t say.

Bull let out a breath. More to himself than anyone else, he said, “Asit tal-eb.

It is to be.

Dorian wished that didn’t sound so depressing and self-defeating.

Bull rested his arms on his knees and nodded. “For you, kadan.” He paused, as if considering. “But...”

Dorian felt his heart quicken. “But what?” Whatever it was, if Bull needed it from him, he could have it.

The other man tilted his head to one side then the other, obviously weighing what to say. “If you need someone that others—the rest of the Inquisition, your family, your people, the world—can blame,” he said, his jaw tensing even as he nodded stiffly, “fine, I can be that. I can play that role.” He paused, a flicker of hesitation or doubt flitting across his face. “But I need to know that, even if no one else knows, you know the truth.”

Dorian cocked his head curiously. “The truth?”

The large man gripped the sheets in his hands, balling the material in his tight fists, and looked up at Dorian intensely. “That I didn’t make you do anything.” He shook his head. “That I’m not misreading or imagining things. That what we did together—what we do together—is about us.” He gave a small, helpless shrug. “Together.”

Dorian’s breath caught as he stumbled back a step.

Maker help him, was that what this was about?

He blinked, feeling as if he were finally seeing things clearly. He shut his eyes and shook his head.

Damn it, how could Bull be so stupid for ever thinking that way?

How could Dorian, for not seeing it?

Bull’s biggest fear was a loss of control. Loss of self. After Seheron—after the reeducation and after being truly ostracized by his people—he was afraid of becoming the kind of insensible Tal-Vashoth monster that, for years, he’d had to put down like rabid dogs.

Bull shook his head. “Tell me that you know, whatever roles we take on—whatever games we play—if you ever said katoh, ever told me to stop, I would. If you ever wanted to leave, I would miss you and wish you wouldn’t, but I’d never make you stay.”

As if that was ever in question.

Bull might have muscles on top of muscles and horns and scars and a bloody eyepatch, but he wasn’t a monster. Quite the opposite. Dorian trusted him with his life. With his heart.

But Bull didn’t trust himself; Dorian could see that now.

He wondered if, after all Bull had seen and done in his life, that was why he rarely let himself want anything. Need anything for himself. Why he always focused so outward, on other people’s needs and wants and desires. He wondered if it was because Bull was terrified of, on closer examination, what he might find within.

“I want what you want,” Bull told Dorian. “And, if that isn’t me, isn’t this,” he shrugged, trying to look nonchalant but failing, and said, “I’ll find a way to be okay with that.” It sounded like a lie that desperately wanted to be true. “But I need to know that you’re here because you want to be.” Bull stared up at Dorian with an aching need that hurt to look at. “Just as I’m here—however I have to be—because I want you.”

Dorian sighed, giving him a sympathetic look. “Oh, Bull.”

The large man grunted and shook his head. “I’m a great, dumb, ridiculous lummox, I know, I know.” He clenched his jaw in obvious self-disgust. “But I need to hear you say it. Even if no one else believes it, I need to know that you do.”

He would give up that much for Dorian. Would play the villain in the public eye, if asked. He would let others speak such slander just to protect Dorian’s insecurities. He would be that strong. Just so Dorian could be weak.

Venhedis, Dorian was a blind fool.

He shook his head and tsked.

Well, that was quite enough of that.

They had both indulged in this foolishness for too long.

Enough was enough.

Dorian straightened his spine determinedly. “You are a lummox,” he told him as he moved to stand in front of Bull, his hands firmly planted on his hips, “if you think you could make me do anything I haven’t already decided to do.” He sighed scoldingly and tapped Bull on the nose. “The nonsense you speak.” He shook his head, thoroughly disappointed. “You may be as strong and stubborn as your namesake,” he said, lifting the other man’s head with both hands so they could look clearly at each other, “but don’t think for a second that means a thing against someone like me, amatus.”

Beloved.

Bull smiled, resting his head in Dorian’s grasp. “Amatus?”

Pursing his lips, Dorian scowled at the teasing tone, secretly glad for his lover’s levity. “Don’t spoil the mood.” A grin flirted with the corners of his lips as they both grabbed on to humor like a lifeline, letting it pull them both up out of the darkness. Together.

“It’s just,” Bull said with a playful shrug, “I didn’t know we were doing the names now.”

Dorian huffed and threw up his arms. “And you’ve spoiled it.” He turned dramatically away a bit. “Are you happy now?”

Bull chuckled and pulled the man close, cradling him between his legs. “Yeah.” He held him flush against his heated body and pressed his lips against Dorian’s. “Yeah, kadan, I am.”

Good.

Dorian tutted again, leaning back to look at the man. “After all this,” he said, reaching out to stroke his horns, “I think you need to be punished.”

Bull snorted. “Is that right?”

“Absolutely.” Dorian clucked his tongue thoughtfully. “A sound spanking should do.”

Bull let out a laugh. “I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “There are some things in our relationship, kadan, that work just fine on their own; no fixing required.”

Dorian narrowed his eyes on his partner. “And you think that’s one of them, do you?”

Bull jutted out his chin cockily. “Let me prove it to you.”

Without more warning than that, Dorian felt Bull grab him by the waist and flip him onto the bed. His middle hit the mattress, leaving his backside thrust up and behind him. He heard Bull murmur appreciatively and felt the man’s large, strong hands caress him. “You have a world-class ass, you know.”

Such a way with words. Dorian laughingly preened. “Damn right.”

Bull chuckled before leaning down and biting Dorian’s neck adoringly. “And it’s all mine.”

Dorian groaned in pleasure when Bull deftly dealt with the buckles on his pants and yanked the material down in swift, practiced moves. He was so good at that.

Bull stroked the man’s now bared flesh. “Damn right.” He grabbed Dorian’s ass and squeezed. “Damn right.”

Dorian chuckled at the possessive satisfaction in Bull’s voice. He could be such an overdramatic barbarian. He grinned and pushed himself into the man’s touch.

He gasped when Bull’s hard hand pulled back and smacked his backside, the difference in touch jarring but not unwelcome. Quite the opposite. Dorian’s body tensed, reveling in the sharp heat that blossomed from the strike.

“See, kadan,” Bull’s voice rumbled from above him, arousal making it low and rough but still so tender, “this is how it’s supposed to be.”

Yes.

Dorian made a hotly agreeable sound.

This was what he wanted.

What he needed.

Bull struck him again, this time on the other cheek. The two blows bled into each other, making his skin feel charged and alive.

He thrust his ass up, eager. Again.

He heard Bull’s laugh as he complied to the wordless request, slapping his flesh in a steady rhythm, over and over, that Dorian felt pulled in by. He shut his eyes and let himself get lost in the sound, sensation, and experience of being with Bull.

Dorian felt Bull’s palm caress his burning skin. He groaned and pressed himself more firmly into the large man’s hands. “Ready for more, kadan?”

He swallowed hard and nodded, not sure he could remember how to speak, much less do it. Please.

He turned back and peeked over his shoulder when he heard Bull bend down and reach for something under the bed. Dorian well knew every tool and implement kept beneath there. The metal clamps that could bite into flesh, trapping blood and sensation there, so every tug and touch intensified even the slightest brush into a jolt to the system. Rope and bonds that restricted movement, forcing your mind to forget about what you ought to do—ought to be and think and say—and focus only on what was happening to you, in that moment, freeing you from the less tangible ties that could bind.

And the array of leather and wood tools Bull had acquired throughout the years.

Dorian smiled when Bull stood up again, a long strip of thick leather, like a buckle-less belt, in his hand. Bull knew that his partner preferred leather over wood. There was something about the touch of it, the smell, and, yes, the taste of it that called to Dorian. The supple feel of it, the way it held the warmth from his skin—from Bull’s—made it feel more intimate than the wooden tools. Even the sound of Bull snapping the leather in his hands made Dorian squirm in delicious anticipation.

“Ready?”

Ready? He was ravenous. He squirmed as the familiar flicker of fear shivered with its own brand of magic through him. Instinctively, his ass clenched in anticipation.

The first hit was just a teasing tap. Just hard enough to feel his skin sting all along the length of the strike. Dorian’s back arched, his already sensitive skin buzzing. He groaned when a shudder ran down his spine.

Again.

Please.

“Like that, do you?” Bull trailed the leather just above his ass. “You must, if you’re shaking that ass at me.”

Dorian moaned and thrust backward.

Bull laughed and struck him again, a little harder this time and lower across the tops of his thighs. Dorian’s legs jerked and he gasped. The next hit, harsher still, made his whole body surge. He panted and fisted his hands in the covers, hanging on as Bull let the leather smack him again and again, each strike slightly more intense than the last. He could feel the edges of the leather bite into his skin, leaving pairs of crisscrossing, fire-hot lines across his ass that sizzled the skin between. He bit his lip against a guttural groan that ripped through him.

Dorian was grateful for the hand Bull pressed against the small of his back. It grounded him as sensation—a mad mix of emotion and feeling—swam inside him. His head felt light and his heart pounded. He needed that touch to stay in the moment.

“How are you doing, kadan?” Bull asked, rubbing his back. “More or move on?”

Dorian took a few deep breaths, centering himself the way Bull had taught him. He shut his eyes and focused inward. Past the torrent of sensation. Past the waves of emotions. He paid attention to his body, what he felt, what he wanted.

“Not katoh.” Definitely not.

He tilted his head to the side and bit his lip. “But,” he said as he turned onto his back, loving that his Qunari’s rough hand trailed along his body, “I am ready for more.” Bull’s hand rested just beside Dorian’s erection, his thumb brushing the hard, ready flesh. He was ready for everything.

Bull’s grin widened while he stroked Dorian’s cock with the back of his knuckles. He murmured approvingly. “I can see that.”

Dorian gritted his teeth and moaned, thrusting his hips up. He wanted more. But Bull just smirked and teased his fingertip over the head of his dick. Dorian squirmed, his burning ass rubbing into the bed. “Bull.”

Bull wrapped his hand around Dorian’s needy flesh. “Tell me what you want.”

This.

Dorian shut his eyes and pumped his hips, loving the feel of Bull’s grasp.

“Tell me, kadan.”

I need to know.

Dorian opened his eyes.

You know what he wants, but you do not want to know.

Because giving Bull what he wanted—what he needed—went against everything Dorian had ever known before. Everything he’d thought was right and how the world worked. And, even though Bull rarely asked for anything else, Dorian bit his lip, worried he couldn’t give Bull what he was asking.

But Bull needed more than shadows and propriety. He didn’t feel safe there, the way Dorian did. He didn’t want to hide.

Which meant they had a choice.

He had a choice.

Because Dorian couldn’t hide without forcing Bull to. And Bull couldn’t live openly without Dorian agreeing to do the same. Not if they were together.

One of them had to take a step. Forward or back. And Dorian couldn’t ask that of Bull anymore, not when it asked him to be less so Dorian could feel more… More what?

Safe? How safe had those shadows kept him? Really?

Had they made his parents proud? Had they shielded him from the disappointment and shame in his parents’ eyes every time they’d looked at him? Had they really protected him as he fell further and further into drunken, debauched self-destruction? Had they stopped the gossip and scandal that followed him, whatever he did or didn’t do? Had they been enough to keep his father from doing whatever in his power to turn him into something—anything—other than what they both knew he was and would always be?

Did the shadows really keep him safe? Had they ever? And was hiding in them worth losing Bull and all he offered?

“Tell me what you need, kadan.”

He needed to make a choice.

Dorian looked at his partner, who was strong enough to let him be weak. No one else had ever done that for him. Had willingly sacrificed parts of themselves so he wouldn’t have to.

And Bull thought he didn’t know what love was.

Qunari or not, there was no one who could love better, Dorian was sure of it.

Wrapping his legs around Bull’s waist, he pulled him close. “You.” Whatever happened, whatever anyone thought or said or did, he chose Bull.

He’d be a fool not to.

And he was done being foolish.

“I want you.” He reached up and pulled Bull down to him, pressing his lips against his. He held him close, enjoying the feel and weight and warmth of Bull over him, before letting his hands travel south.

After a bit of fumbling, Dorian grinned when he heard Bull’s belt fall to the floor with a clang. Together, they shoved his pants down, freeing his thick, heavy shaft. Dorian’s mouth watered as he wrapped his hand around it. He shivered in anxious hunger.

Maker, he was so large and hard and growing only more so in Dorian’s grip. It marveled Dorian to think of him inside of him. To think of the tight, almost overwhelming fit of them joined together. To think of him moving within him, each thrust capable of quaking his world. “Bull, I need you,” he said on a pant as he nibbled his lover’s lips. He sucked Bull’s bottom lip between his teeth. “I need us.”

Bull groaned and thrust his tongue into Dorian’s mouth, feasting on his taste, while he moved rhythmically in his partner’s hold.

Then he pulled away.

Dorian sat up, the loss of him so sudden. He watched the huge man dip down below the bed again, digging beneath the frame. Dorian grinned when he saw Bull uncap the small bottle of lubricant they’d found in a shop in Val Royeaux. He bit his lip and watched Bull work the silky liquid over the length of his hard cock.

Then taking the hand already covered in the slippery solution, he pressed his fingers at Dorian’s opening. “Relax, kadan,” he purred while he probed the tight, sensitive entrance. He gripped Dorian’s thigh, holding his legs open. “Breathe.”

Dorian leaned back, letting his head hit the soft mattress beneath him, and breathed. Relax. Inhale. Exhale. Just feel. His back arched when he felt Bull’s finger slide inside. He held his breath as Bull slipped his finger out and them back in. He felt his body’s resistance ease, letting him accept Bull’s patient attention.

He groaned as Bull added another finger.

And another.

Dorian gazed up at the heated, concentrated look on Bull’s face as he loved him in careful strokes that licked like sensual fire.

“Are you ready, kadan?”

“Yes.” He met Bull’s gaze and let him see it in his eyes. “Please.” He panted. “Give to me.”

On a tense groan, Bull replaced his fingers with his sex. He thrust in slow, steady movements until he absolutely filled Dorian, making him feel complete in a way nothing else could, and they both were breathing hard.

Yes.

He reached up and touched Bull’s chest, his fingers grabbing hold of his leather harness. “More, amatus.”

He saw a fire light in Bull’s gaze. Despite how often Bull called him his heart in Qunlat, Dorian so rarely called him that. Beloved. It felt so personal—so intimate—to call him that in his native tongue. It felt like breaking the rules. Like the world would crack at the word.

It felt right.

Bull shattered so much about what Dorian had been and what he’d feared he would always have to be. He dared Dorian to be more than expectations. To reach for more than the limits of acceptable. To be and long for the exceptional.

Amatus.

Fueled by the name, Bull grabbed Dorian’s wrists in his hand and held him down against the mattress. Dorian gasped at Bull’s thrusts, that weren’t nearly so careful or measured anymore. He moaned at the heat that burned between them, building with each press of hips.

Bull pulled Dorian’s right hand down and forced it around his own hard cock. “Touch yourself.” Bull’s voice was strong but broken, more a gruff grunt than anything. “I want to watch you come.”

Yes. This was what he wanted. This was how it should be. Dorian stroked himself, matching his movements to the rhythm and speed of Bull’s. Sensation rioted within him. His hand on his cock. Bull’s hard length inside him. His hand all but crushing his wrist. His hard, heavy body pushing his still stinging ass against the bed. It all churned wildly within him until he felt it begin to boil over, his climax rushing hot between them.

He jerked while his seed spilled warm onto his stomach and hand. Moaning, he writhed as he felt Bull’s efforts peak. On a gasping groan, Bull’s body tensed before he gave one last, deep thrust. “Kadan.”

The world quieted. Shushed and shrunk down to just the two of them as pleasure washed over the pair. Dorian closed his eyes while his body went limp in Bull’s arms.

Still breathing heavily, Bull grabbed Dorian by the waist and pulled him close before rolling onto his back. Dorian shivered when he felt Bull’s softening, but still stiff cock slip out of him.

They should get cleaned up. They were both sticky, sweaty, and a mess.

But, instead, Dorian lay his head on Bull’s wide shoulder and cuddled close. He yawned while Bull laid his large hand on Dorian’s back. “Sleep well, kadan.”

Dorian kissed his neck and tucked his legs in a tangle with Bull’s. “Until tomorrow, amatus.”

Yawning too, Bull smiled at that as if liking the idea. The idea that they had a future. That, whatever life may throw at them, they had tomorrow. A lifetime’s worth.

Dorian smiled as his beloved cuddled him close and drifted off into sleep.

He quite liked the idea as well.

———

Dorian tsked and reached for his napkin. “Could you make more of a mess of yourself?” Tempted to just toss the bit of cloth at his face, he decided to lean over Bull’s lap and dab at the corners of the massive man’s mouth.

Bull grinned at him. “I thought you liked my kind of mess.” He grabbed Dorian’s hand and wetly sucked one of his fingers. “You did last night.”

“Less so this morning.” Dorian laughed as he remembered waking up needing a wash. “And, if I remember correctly, you quite enjoyed the process of getting clean too.” It may have meant a later start to the day than planned, but Dorian couldn’t find it in him to regret meticulously, adoringly, running a sweet-smelling wash cloth along every inch of Bull’s body before letting him return the favor.

Bull chuckled, the sound low and hot. He wrapped an arm around Dorian, crushing him to his chest. “I remember us getting messier afterward.”

For a moment, Dorian felt the need to scan the room, to see who might be watching. They were in a secluded part of the tavern, but they weren’t hidden.

Because they were done hiding, he reminded himself.

So, instead, he smiled and gave Bull a smacking kiss. Yes, it’d been a good morning and Dorian intended to keep it that way. “I remember.”

“Keep it down, will you?” They both turned at Krem’s teasing voice. “The rest of us are trying to keep down breakfast.”

Dorian saw the cautious—almost daring—hope in Krem’s eyes. He expected Dorian to panic and bluster over getting caught. The loyal man hoped he wouldn’t.

Dorian turned back to Bull and jutted his chin out. “Keep it down?” He spared a meaningful look down at his partner’s lap before raising an eyebrow. “I think that’s a very hard thing to ask.”

The look on Bull’s face was comical all on its own. The way it transformed from blank shock to amused pride. It was a bad joke—Dorian wanted to roll his own eyes at the double entendre—but he knew Bull’s humor and knew it would please him. And, as expected, the man shook with laughter. “That’s dirty, kadan.”

Krem gave Dorian an approving nod. “Much as I’d like to tell you both to get a room,” he said with a slight smile before straightening into soldier-mode, “the boys and I were wondering if we could talk to you about something we overheard in town today. A possible job for the Chargers; it’s small, but sounds interesting.”

Bull nodded before moving to get up. Dorian slid back into his own chair, suddenly less confident with Bull leaving.

He felt Bull’s hand touch the side of his face. He looked up. “I’ll see you tonight, kadan?” Bull asked him.

Dorian nodded and gave him a smile. “Tonight, amatus.”

“Good.” Bull leaned down and gave Dorian a sweet kiss before walking off with his team.

Lingering for a moment, Krem gave Dorian one last, assessing look. He nodded to him, a glimmer of acceptance flickering in his eyes, then he turned to follow his leader.

“So,” Vivienne said as she gripped the back of Dorian’s chair, making him stiffen in surprise, “have you figured out what Bull is yet?”

He was getting that woman a damned bell.

He narrowed his gaze on her when she gracefully moved to the other side of the table, slinking catlike into Bull’s abandoned chair, and smiled at him. “Mine,” he told her in a warning tone. “So you’re not to order him around anymore.” With more amusement than he would have yesterday, he watched Vivienne pick at Bull’s leftover breakfast, plucking an untouched piece of fruit and popping it into her mouth. “You may ask him for things, for favors and the like—and, should he choose to oblige you,” Dorian shrugged as if it didn’t matter, because it really didn’t anymore, and said, “well, that’s his choice—but you won’t treat him like he’s the hired help.” Bull was his and Dorian wouldn’t allow that kind of disrespect to Bull anymore; he was putting an end to it. Now. “Do you understand, enchanter?”

Vivienne chewed thoughtfully. She swallowed, reminding Dorian too much of a snake devouring prey. “Of course, my dear.” She sighed sadly and waved her hand as if deeply put out. “It’s a shame, no doubt,” she said with an acknowledging shrug before her voice sharpened suddenly, “but it’s about time.” She arched an eyebrow at him in a knowing expression.

Dorian studied her, trying not to feel impressed.

Bull was right about her.

She was smarter than most people gave her credit for, playing on other people’s thoughts—their highest hopes and darkest fears—to get her way, all the while making them think she was giving them exactly what they wanted.

She’d played him.

Better than he liked to think possible. He shook his head. She’d manipulated him right where she wanted him. He tipped his head toward the floor and grinned.

A part of Dorian still wondered why. He knew she had some stake in all of this but, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what.

“Oh, and, darling,” Vivienne added cheerfully, “mine or not, I find myself rather fond of The Iron Bull; do have a care with him.” Her own advising tone made him look up at her. Her eyes were sharp and lethally serious. “Few know better than I that, without proper care, even iron can be broken, just like everything else.” Madame de Fer, the Lady of Iron, leveled Dorian with a piercing stare, her voice hard with warning. “It’d be unfortunate if you left him in poorer condition than you found him.”

It was a good piece of advice. One Dorian intended to heed. Still holding her gaze, he gave a slight bow of his head. “Yes, ma’am.”



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