Blood and fire. The ground is pitted unevenly, gouged and scorched, long tears ripped through the shallow soil to show the bones of the land. The rocks are buried in shallow graves here in the wreck of the plains.
The work of counting the unburied bodies is for Leliana's people, with their deft hands and sharp eyes, scrounging information like carrion birds. Early rules, those. Boundaries. I will be clear, Red said. I use your information and I have respect for your people. I do not trust you. No digging through the pockets of the fallen before my agents have had their turn.
The Bull takes a mental inventory all the same. You can't help habit. Couple of heavily armoured men with the look of bodyguards, servants rather than slaves. Little personal touches give it away: the patterned loop of a belt at odds with the aesthetic of the armour whichever of the fallen mages they served picked out. A pouch at the waist that looks to have been made by a child. Tokens of lives.
Still, turns his stomach less than killing slaves. These guys were willing to take the bloody money of the Magisters.
"Maker," Dorian says. Draws his hand across his forehead, leaving a smear of blood and soil. Sighs out his breath. True exhaustion to the sound. The heaviness of it. "Well, that's done. He always was an arse, but I never thought—oh well. I shan't pretend to be sorry, although I suppose I should light him a candle all the same."
Speaking of blood, and Magisters.
But Dorian is a thing with a different significance, for all that his blood is Tevinter. Something not completely comfortable, still—the flare of violent death, the violet curl of terror. Ash on the tongue and a stone in the throat. His spells brush past the Bull in battle and trail an intimate, fleeting hand of fear across the Bull's skin, like a dark mirror of the way Dorian touches him when he's thinking about inviting him to bed—
And now the battle's done, and he's another thing again.
"Light him a candle?" the Bull asks. Leans his weight heavily on his axe, lets himself begin to feel the drag of tiredness.
"Purification," Dorian says. When the Bull takes a sidelong look at him, he's looking a little bit sheepish, like it's something to be ashamed of. "A part of the tradition of Necromancy. Quite ridiculous, of course. The practice is its own purification. That's rather the point of it, used conventionally."
But Dorian uses it in a way twisted ninety degrees from the point, and lights the candles all the same. Alright.
"It's also All Soul's tomorrow." A step closer, so that the Bull can feel the brush of proximity without touch, the slow awareness of another living thing just beyond the limits of the skin. "That makes it a little more important."
"A certain—closeness to the departed, say. Superstition. You purge the bad and you honour the dead."
A considering pause. The Bull shifts his weight, feeling the stretch of his muscles down the backs of his calves, the shift of the knee that feels like something creaking even though there's no damn sound.
"The latter part's getting a little out of hand, to be honest," Dorian says. "How many dead am I to honour? People really must stop with this ludicrous practice of getting themselves killed."
"Honouring. That's not the same as lighting a candle for a person as purification, huh?" the Bull asks.
"You very well know it isn't."
"Yeah, well. Maybe you just looked like you needed to talk about it."
"I feel as though saying do you want to talk about it, Dorian, would have done as well as playing the fool," Dorian says. "I know very well that you're trying to creep past my defences. I'm no more of an idiot than you are."
The Bull shrugs.
"Well, perhaps a little," Dorian says. "Fasta vass, let's find somewhere to sit that doesn't reek of blood."
A weak line. They're covered in the shit themselves. Dorian's staff-blade swung sharply up through his Venatori friend's stomach, and Dorian laughed at the rising blood that flew wildly around them as the man lost control, sharp and bitter.
People always think that Dorian likes to be neat, and maybe in some ways he does. A precision to the movements. But he's not one to make a death clean.
"Sure thing," the Bull says.
They don't go far—can't risk it between Freemen and demons and Venatori. The Exalted Plains are a shithole, to be honest.
But there's a tumbled-down house just beyond the area they trashed in the fighting, and Dorian ducks around the corner of it, sinks down against the peeling yellow paint of a half-fallen wall with a groan. His staff goes beside him, leaning its twisting head against the bare wooden ribs of the house's inner wall where the outer stone has fallen away.
The sun is golden on Dorian's face, sets it glowing, makes it gorgeous as a statue—and then he smiles, and it's something else again. Gone too fast.
The Bull lowers himself carefully down beside Dorian, using his axe for support; leans the axe on his other side, so that they're sitting there, four in a row, death and life and life and death.
"I got a letter, of course," Dorian says.
"I'm amazed you haven't already read it. Or perhaps you have? Are we playing another game?"
"I don't read your letters," the Bull says, a little stung even though the accusation's fair.
"You read the one from my father."
"Sure," the Bull says. "Didn't know it was gonna be about you. Some letter comes in from Tevinter, not to the damn Inquisitor or the Ambassador but to some Chantry Mother? You bet I took a look."
"Hm," Dorian says.
It's not really an argument. They've had the argument. Didn't speak for a week after it, until Dorian came and sat down beside the Bull in the tavern like nothing had happened, and then, the terms of engagement reestablished, tied the Bull to the bed and wrung him out like nobody'd done since Seheron. Not cruel or rough, but thorough, some weird inscrutable logic behind the thing that the Bull still hasn't figured out but that sure as shit worked for him. The intense focus on every part of the Bull's body, by turns. The play of pleasure and denial.
There, Dorian said, sitting all proper on the edge of the bed, not a hair out of place and his dick still hard and unattended while the Bull heaved unsteady breaths, come spattered across his stomach. Let's put this behind us, shall we? You are a spy. You spied. Not even on me, in this case, although I'm sure you do. I'm an unnecessarily dramatic arse, and was duly dramatic. Would you like to suck my cock, or shall I take care of myself?
The Bull figured the whole episode was as much about what actually happened in Redcliffe as anything else, and didn't push, and eventually Dorian told him. All about the blood.
"I don't read your letters," the Bull says again.
"I suppose you aren't a spy anymore, if it comes to that," Dorian says, and alright, that feels a little bit raw, scrapes against the inside of the Bull's ribs. But not as much as he expected.
"That's not why."
"I know," Dorian says, much quieter.
They sit there, watching the Inquisition flags fluttering where the scouts are marking the road. The shift of the clouds and the swaying embrium.
It's been a long day of fighting, and with the plains the way they are, the policy is to burn the bodies as quickly as possible. The smoke from the first of the pyres is beginning to curl through the air, drifting past on the breeze. Dorian turns his face to it, and there's something wistful in his expression.
"You got a letter," the Bull prompts.
"I got a letter. I suppose you remember Felix."
Not enough magic to light a candle, but still a living breathing Altus. The Bull'd never seen anything like it before. The kids without enough magic suffered inexplicable deaths, out on the hills or with pillows over their heads.
He'd been sick, Felix. Beloved enough for his coming death to break his father, make him into something mad, like a piece of Qunari propaganda about the dangers of family.
There's the thread that pulls the whole conversation together. Pulls the latest puzzle of Dorian together. The heavy vicious mood he's been in. The distance.
"Sure," the Bull says. "Seemed nice."
"Really," Dorian says. "You hated me on sight, but you liked him? Well, I suppose it makes sense. He was the best sort of man. Being the suspect one was very much my job." A sigh. "He's dead, of course."
"You told the Boss?"
"No," Dorian says. "I was going to. But I got the letter just when we were leaving, and it didn't seem—" He shrugs, his arm shifting against the Bull's.
It didn't seem like staying in Skyhold to grieve would do any good, and that's what Lavellan would have ordered. No liabilities in the field.
Dorian's swallow is audible, a little bit of a damp quality to the breath he takes after. He's blinking away something that's probably the threat of tears when the Bull looks across at him again, but not actually crying.
"I did know he would be dead soon," Dorian says. "But perhaps I hoped for a little longer."
"Blighted, right?" the Bull says.
"Mm," Dorian agrees. "Alexius and I worked on containing it. That was in the beginning, before he got truly desperate. I wonder, if I hadn't fought with Alexius and stormed off to be drunk—but never mind that. You know how that entire wretched story ended, in any case."
"One time on Seheron," the Bull says, and hesitates, weighing the thing—will it become a story in solidarity or an unwelcome recentering of the conversation?
But Dorian seems to be paying attention, his focus slipping sideways and down from the clouds and the smoke to the Bull's hands.
"I had this friend," the Bull says. "Comrade. Whatever. Close. We'd say—I don't know. Heart-friend."
"That sounds rather romantic," Dorian says.
The Bull, who's never been that great at leaving his own thoughts well enough alone, manages to catch the tail end of the reason he didn't just say kadan, and then kind of wishes he hadn't.
"Not really. I mean, I guess people hide romance under it. We don't have relationships under the Qun, but you name someone your heart, you play the game—I never did it like that. He was a friend. Maybe in some other world. Or not. No use poking it."
The Bull stretches his legs out in front of him, amazed all over again at how the sun in the south can fail to warm when faced with the smallest damn hint of wind.
"I could tell," he says, "I fucking knew the place was getting to him. Seheron does that. You live long enough between that many factions, with that much fighting dirty—ah, people can't cut it. Nobody can. I couldn't. You turn yourself over for re-education, or you die, or you go rogue. And I knew he was gonna snap, one way or another. Getting real cagey, twitching at everything. He had these damn nightmares, wouldn't know where he was when he woke up. Swore up and down he was fine."
"Felix would wake up like that sometimes," Dorian says. "A thing that happens quite often in the wake of terrible things, mother said—it was one of the years when we were actually speaking." It's one of those times when his voice suddenly goes soft and his expression falls open and you get a good look at the heart under all the sarcasm.
He's a sweet guy, Dorian, when it really comes down to it. Vivienne's got it right. He's not really a shark, although he also wouldn't hesitate to punch a shark in the face, or possibly explode it in the most creepy way possible.
But the Bull knows a few things about having too much heart.
He's been told enough times—
"Yeah," the Bull says. "Pretty much. Usually you'd report a guy for that kind of thing, let them get help. But I guess I didn't want—I felt like I was looking out for him, keeping him out of re-education. And then he got himself killed."
The last words drag, come out slow and tired.
It's been years.
"And you wonder," Dorian says, "whether, if you'd only done something differently—yes, I see. And you're telling me that it doesn't matter—that another world would be, well. Another world."
"It matters, don't get me wrong," the Bull says. "Just no use tying yourself in knots over shit."
"To be honest, I'm not sure I can imagine my life if I hadn't been in the South to join the Inquisition," Dorian says. "A lot of things have happened. I don't feel terribly good about that, given all the circumstances, but there it is. Do you have a trite little line for me about things being as they're meant to be now? I believe that's the part of the conversation we've reached."
"Shit no." The Bull nudges Dorian in the side, shifts his weight and shifts his arm to leave a space for them to sink closer against one another. Is pretty gratified when Dorian, despite the sharpness his tone has regained, settles into it. "I left that crap to the Priesthood. Got the tide all up their asses."
"Not a cryptic statement at all," Dorian says, but there's a little bit of laughter shaking his shoulders. "No, don't explain, I'm so enjoying the mental images."
People are calling from another other side of the fallen house, the one away from the pyres. Practical shit. Which way to bring the wagons with the tents. Who's gonna strangle who if there's any more snails in the food. Lavellan's voice is clear over it, fast and rolling in Elvish, and the kid who joined up a while back from the Dalish clan is laughing, and that's pretty good, that's good, maybe one of them can be a bit less homesick for a while. She's their last hope for that one; Varric's no good, spends his evenings on the road scrawling untidy approximations of the streets of Kirkwall in the margins of his papers when he thinks nobody's looking.
"Hey, Dorian," the Bull says. "How do you honour the dead? The All Souls thing."
"You've never seen?"
"Nah, not really. Vints on Seheron, they weren't really the festivities types."
"You've been in Minrathous, though."
"Yep," the Bull says. "Satinalia."
"Maker save us."
"Ah, not as much fun as it sounds."
"I'm aware," Dorian says, laughing properly now. "I did live there for some time, if you'll recall. Well, All Souls involves quite nearly as much brandy, and quite a lot of dancing in the streets in ludicrous clothes, so you're halfway there, I suppose. I did have a fun time one year with a young man wearing only a death mask and some interesting body-paint. It was a scandal. Very improper. No respect for the rites at all." He shrugs. Tilts his head back against the Bull's shoulder to smirk up at him. "Well, the sex was good. What can I say."
"How about the other half?"
"Ah, you'd like to hear about the years when I actually had people to remember. I see."
"You never have to tell me anything," the Bull says. "You know that, right?"
"Oh, do stop," Dorian says. "Taking me seriously. Really. Well—there are special offerings for the shrines. These little cakes, very delicate and absolutely insubstantial, as though the spirits might take offense at anything which could really commit to existing. Incense—sandalwood and cassia. Libation wine. Actual libation, thank you, not that."
"I didn't say anything."
"You were about to."
"That's stuff," the Bull says, ignoring this entirely accurate comment. "What about the things you do?"
"I don't tend to pray," Dorian says. "But I've said the rites since Livia. Alexius, that is. Rather strange, not to have a proper shrine to say them to. I had one I kept with me, a small thing, but I didn't bring anything south with me. I know I told you they're not the same thing, but the rites for a Necromancer and for someone honouring the dead can use the same shrine. It's not incompatible. They belong to the same—ah—aspect, I suppose you could say, although I wouldn't say it in front of just anyone. People get ideas, and with all of this Dumat nonsense floating around—"
"Yeah, probably better not," the Bull says.
"There's nothing demonic about it, Bull," Dorian says. "Nothing bloody."
"I know," the Bull says. "I know you don't do that shit. I know it's—ugh. All the family stuff."
"As you so eloquently put it."
Dorian's towering rages, his own bad dreams. Blood and blood and blood. And he'll never bleed himself for power; like fuck he'd bleed anyone else. That's not one of the places where they've ever struggled to fit.
"What're you going to do tomorrow?" the Bull asks.
"I'll have to do something, certainly," Dorian says, and there's that little wobble in his voice again, all the pain close to the surface. "Do you think getting blindingly drunk, setting a cabbage on fire and eating the slightly less lumpy porridge would cover it?"
"You tell me, death expert," the Bull says.
"Oh, Maker," Dorian says. "I miss him so much. I never expected to see him again, and still—"
"Yeah," the Bull says. "Hey, I'll come along and set fire to whatever you like. Not as good at it as you, but I can give it a shot."
"I'd like that, I think," Dorian says, all quiet. "I think maybe Felix would have liked that too."
"He always liked my little scandals," Dorian says. "I like trouble. The big ones, not so much. But I haven't spent two weeks drunk in a brothel for years now, so never mind that. We all grow old and sober, I suppose. Or old, at least."
"Aw," the Bull says. "I'm only a little scandal?"
But Lavellan is headed their way, the sound of her armour distinctive from around the corner of the building. The way the right knee's been catching oddly since that terror demon the other day. Her sword clinks in this particular way against the back of her scale-clad hip.
"No, carry on," she calls back towards the camp, the answer to some unheard question.
The Bull gets to see the process of Dorian putting his face back on up close. The smoothing of the furrow between his brows, the quick flick of his fingers across the lower lids of his eyes that leaves the khol around them looking no less artfully smudged than it was before. He never did actually shed a tear, did he?
"I'll hold you to that offer," he tells the Bull, smiling his one-sided smile, all the shit he's feeling only there in the eyes now. "Perhaps you can fuck me up against a wall. You could wear your ridiculous helmet. It'd be almost like old times in Minrathous."
Talking shit always did make him feel better.
"I'll put on that vitaar you like," the Bulls says. "All the feathers."
Dorian laughs. "You think I'm joking."
"Well, yes. But that's not the point."
And then there's Lavellan, rounding the corner at a stride.
"Oh, damn," she says. "You actually have all your clothes on. Varric wins this one."
"You thought we were fucking, and you just barged right in," the Bull says.
"Obviously. It'd have served you right. This is a terrible place to have sex."
"I've had worse," Dorian says. "Offer me the good alcohol you're pretending not to have in your pack and I might tell you."
Most of the edges smoothed over. Lavellan's probably not attentive enough to notice the ones that're left. She's pretty great, got her priorities sorted when it matters, but she's got her blind spots.
"Deal," she says. "Come on. Time to do some work so we can pass out at some point."
And she's off again. Always in motion.
"Tomorrow, then," Dorian says, standing slowly, wincing at the stiffness that's settled into his hips and back from stillness after effort. He brushes himself down in brisk strokes. "You did mean it, I assume. I'll be sure to not make it too creepy."
"Yeah," the Bull says.
"Not that it'll have any meaning for you—but it's good of you."
It might have some meaning. It's Dorian. And it's ceremony. Sometimes that's helpful. The Qun knows it—a dead body's a dead body, there's nothing valuable left in it. But the prayers are fervent all the same. They focus you. Help you work through shit.
Maybe it'll be nice, actually. In a backwards kind of way.
Maybe he can think about Vasaad. About other kinds of loss, disconnection, Tama severed from him, in another world, treating him as the disgraced dead. Or maybe not disgraced—damn, someone told him something about that, but he can't quite remember.
"Come on," Dorian says, and offers him a hand. "That's quite enough melancholy for one afternoon, and you need to bathe. I'll even watch, if it means that much to you."
"Nice," the Bull says, and Dorian snorts, real amusement made theatrical.
Side by side, they round the corner, pick their way over the uneven ground down to the growing camp, with the river glittering beyond it. All the life of it, the heavy fabric of the tents flapping as the scouts try to pin them down, the stamp of the horses. The tired laughter. Made it through another day.
Tomorrow there'll be another still.