Cole likes the tavern.
Everyone comes in eventually, shifting and sliding through the spaces and around the music, sometimes looking and sometimes finding, not always knowing why they’re there. They’re drawn to the light and sound of it, the way it collects other people like a cup gathering drops in a storm – like the Inquisition, deeper and heavier, more becoming more becoming more until it pours out and stops the fire.
He stays away from the busy ground floor unless he’s needed, easier that way – people are loud and crowds are so much louder, lattices of hurt and need. He likes his place above where he can watch and listen and find the cracks that need mending, rips in want of stitches not made of thread. It’s easier to be alone in shadows than alone with people so near, better to not be at the bottom of the glass with the water pushing down. He can float and see and feel and not be washed away in wounds or deafened by so much desperation. People always have more pains than they think.
The Inquisitor comes to see him and Cole tries to help, tries to shore up the weight that hefts so heavy, creaking shoulders and aching hands that reach out and out to everyone who asks, soul stretched tight as a war drum’s skin. He feels the compassion and the exhaustion and how the futility lurks like wolves in the corners, angry-sharp shadows in the brightest places, and does what he can, not enough for someone who never has enough to give but won’t stop giving anyway. He does what he can, because he can do nothing else. He thinks he gets more help in return than he provides, a waterwheel turning and turning between them, but he walks into the world with daggers and hopes it makes things better.
He moves through Skyhold, finding ways to help and heal, soothing suffering in the ones he finds. A solider passes from flesh to not-flesh and doesn’t regret the last thing he said to his mother. The little girl with blackened lungs and brave eyes that have seen so much clings tightly to the mabari doll and doesn’t cry. The man who stood and watched fields, farms and friends all burn, choking on ash thinking, Maker why, why spare me and no one else picks himself up and begins working in the garden. Honey in Leliana’s wine reminds her of a friend with two names who taught her that the bright song rings out even in the darkest places. Strings for a bard. Moving Josephine’s furniture, no more tripping where that wall used to be. On and on, an endless parade.
And then they all forget, because they must and so must he, too much to carry, not enough life to live with it all.
He’s tugged by the hurts and terrible, dark moments that come with dreams, watches all their hope and terror flicker between here and the Fade, crackling through the Veil and changing it in ways they’ll never see or understand. He wants them to know they can be anything in the shaping spaces, that they can be free and unbroken, but then maybe they wouldn’t be them, and that would be worse. To not know yourself is always worse. So he settles debts of nightmare like smoothing wrinkled sheets, uncreasing their brows with a few pulls on paths of meandering memory. He sees flashes of Haven and blurry faces, hears clanking metal and distant screams, echoes of lost childhoods and looming monsters, and he leads them to better things that they’ve forgotten ever feeling. Changing the chorus one note at a time, disarming dissonance until he goes back to the tavern, not to sleep or really rest but to listen, waiting to be needed.
Over and over he finds Cullen up on the battlements, teeth like grinding stone about to split and hands that shake, a raving need under his skin that the mountain air can’t touch even as he faces it unblinking, a moon in each eye and his throat filled with swallowed shards. He tries and fails and fails again, words ignored and help unheeded, too hard to accept when the burdens should all be his. I will not become this. I am not weak. My Creator, judge me whole.
“I need nothing from you, spirit,” Cullen says in raspy, rusty blades thrown badly without looking, thinking of another time and a different cage, comfort is only Yours to give. He’s shivering but he prefers it to the tremors. The old song is fainter in him now, faded like the memory of his mother, humming under her breath as she tended to her garden with sunlight in her hair, a memory he thinks he invented one night in the chilly room with the other recruits, sore arms and too many questions, fearing the future. Soon he’ll go back and stare at the tools again and wonder if this will be the time he gives in, proves himself unworthy at last. “Leave me be.”
“You haven’t failed them,” Cole tells him. “The oaths were already broken and you did the best you could, even at the end when the choices weren’t yours and you wore shame like rags. You stayed and tried to put the pieces back together, but the quake won’t stop just because you’re standing on the fault, no matter how hard you push. You aren’t like her; you don’t need the little bottle to be strong or to save people. You deserve to be here. It’s enough.”
He leaves quickly, so Cullen doesn’t have to talk again, knowing he won’t remember later. Sometimes the only way to help is to not make things worse. He’ll keep moving the letter from Cullen’s sister out from between the pages of the book on the high shelf, something to live for and not just die against. Pain fades, but love lingers.
Blackwall is soothing even through the knotted feelings he keeps sheltered under steel, his thoughts like footsteps, regular and determined, unwavering against the gale in his head, self-doubt like red-eyed serpents curling and uncurling in his chest. There’s belief too, coursing alongside the dark music in his veins, belief that he can do more if he tries, carrying the banner as his shoulders burn, trying not to look back. The stubborn resolve of a ruin not to fall, only to crumble, brick by brick, but still stay a shelter for others. Assuring himself that they can do good things and good things will happen, if they only keep trying. Cole knows it’s the trying that’s tricky.
He makes Blackwall smile by asking him to carve a wooden duck for Dorian, watches rapt as the wood that remembers the forest becomes an animal instead, alive and not alive and now alive again in a different way, in a memory and as a balm. The shavings fall in a steady pile and Blackwall thinks about long hours spent with cut-sore fingers and thickets of splinters, nothing to do but start again, eyeing his sword and wondering how much more time, how long for luck to die.
“Not my best work,” Blackwall says as he hands it over. He always gives them away: a horse for a girl who couldn’t save hers when the monsters came out of the ground; a cat for the maid whose father hated them; a dove for Josephine left on her desk when there’s no one around to see. Flowers, always flowers, made for Liddy when he can’t sleep or doesn’t want to. She loves me, loves me not. She forgives me, forgives me not...
Cole nods. “You were proud of the face, the eyes that always looked like they were listening, shaggy hair hanging from his muzzle. You spent a lot of time on the paws, remembering how he’d lie on your chest. The bandits ambushed you and you couldn’t reach the archer. The arrow went too deep. His fur was wet, red spilling in your lap. He saved you and you wondered how anything could be that selfless. You said he shouldn’t have decided to follow you, but you didn’t mean it. You left the carving on the mound of earth because you couldn’t stay. You wanted him to know you were sorry. He was glad at the end, that you were there, that he’d protected you like you protected him. He’d follow you again if he could.”
“Right,” Blackwall huffs, shaking his head, turning the knife in his hands. “That bloody mangy... “He sniffs. “Anyway, just don’t tell Dorian where you got it. Next thing you know they’ll all be wanting one.”
“I don’t know if Sera likes ducks,” Cole says, thumb following the grain of the beak. “Maybe I’ll ask.”
The Iron Bull calls him kid and sometimes ducks so Cole sees the smile better, hopes Cole takes it as encouragement,thinking, Way too young to be this sad. When did I become Tama anyway. Shit maybe I’m getting soft.
He reaches out and ruffles Cole’s hair, or tips his hat back and tells him the Qunari names for patterns in the stars that he knows Cole knows are made up, talking to talk because when things are silent it’s harder to ignore the memories, harder not to think of the home he doesn’t want to miss. He answers questions and never gets angry when the walls don’t keep Cole out, shares stories like food from a starving man, batting away the ache in the centre of himself.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. It’s good to remember there’s no such thing as a perfect defence,” The Iron Bull says. “Keeps me from taking myself too seriously.”
“Oh yes that would be awful,” Dorian says from across the camp, standing outside his tent and shaking sand out of his bedroll. “Seriousness? You might sprain something.” A lizard falls free, then another, landing on his feet before scurrying away, and he muffles a shriek. He storms towards another tent. “Sera!”
The Iron Bull tries hard to include him, calls him down the stairs and kicks out a chair, worries about the dark clinging, confining, shadows staining skin, separation like hot cuts carving scars. The true-grey pain of unbelonging. “C’mon, kid, we just fought our way across a wasteland through a shitload of demons and I’ve still got sand up my crack. It’s time for a drink.”
“Still working on that poetry, huh Chief?” Krem says, smiling around a bottle. He offers it to Cole, and Cole takes it, stares through the glass at the sloshing liquid, dark like ink, smell hooking between his eyes, then passes it on.
“You paid him back a long time ago,” Cole tells Krem. “You weren’t helpless – you just needed help. He doesn’t regret it; you were worth saving, and he doesn’t miss the light or mind the pain. You woke him up, and he’s grateful even if he can’t explain it. He doesn’t blame you.”
Krem blinks. “Uh. Right then. Good to know?”
The Iron Bull is still, looking between them. “Just nod and keep drinking,” he says to Krem after a few seconds. “You get used to it.”
Rocky snorts. “Shit, are you kidding, that was a great trick. Should’ve seen your face, boss.” He leans over to Cole, Stitches grabbing him by the hood so he doesn’t tumble to the floor. “Hey, do Grim next. I got this bet with Dalish about him and a nobleman’s wife.”
They find the amulet and it doesn’t work, and then he doesn’t need it. Memories. Forgiveness. Pain. Human. So many thoughts and sounds all his own, choices like the space between the trees, any path he wants. It’s difficult and different, being closer to human, being more. More solid, more real but less permanent. The living change so much so fast, all complicated tangles and twisty depth.
He stays in the tavern still, part of the swirling sea of song and safety, in the light and not the deep-down dark, never forgotten. His home. Now others see him and remember, or when they forget it’s not because of him. They look and they notice, think his name, the name of the boy he wasn’t but is now, the boy who died in the dungeon and the spirit that stepped in shadows. The spirit who isn’t a spirit anymore, not altogether. They know him. He’s part of the fabric, tangled like the rest, and it’s good. It hurts but it’s happy.
Cook tuts and drags him to a stool, puts cheese and bread and cured meat in front of him, mutters about rake-thin boys wasting away, seeing him and worrying, wanting to help. So pale, does he live in the dungeons? Seeing another boy who’s far away and hopefully listening to his mother and not that horse’s arse of a father. Maker, why did she marry him. Andraste watch over them, spare them this terrible war. He asks her for a pastry with blueberries and she hands him two, says not to tell. He doesn’t think it counts since Cassandra will already know where they came from. She’ll just be pleased he didn’t steal them, and that he’s getting better at accepting help, even if she only says the first part.
“You died in the White Spire,” Vivienne says, glancing at him, hands in her lap and firelight changing her face like seasons, crystals in her robes sparking. The sounds of the forest fold around them, Inquisition banner flapping faintly in the whining breeze. “You were a mage.”
“Cole – the real Cole – was a mage. An apostate, no matter how hard he tried not to be. He died,” he tells her, ducking his head, shielded by the brim of his hat. “He was starving, forgotten by the templars. So alone and afraid and hurting. I... I tried to help. I failed. I couldn’t save him, so I became him, what he wished for himself, but I couldn’t remember. Now I do. I don’t know if he’d approve. I hope he would.”
“I believe the templars are a necessary institution, essential for the safety of mages and non-mages alike,” she says. She sighs. “But on an individual scale...that level of failure is unacceptable. Unforgiveable.” They look gleeful, watching me with their hands on their swords. I will not fall. I will smile after and savour their disappointment. Their bloodlust is beneath me. She found them all years later, saw to their new positions, demoted or transferred, rendered irrelevant. I will rise while they stay mired in the dirt.
“You’re not afraid of me anymore?” he asks, wide-eyed.
“Are you a demon?” she asks, tilting her head. Covered in fire, hands shaking, the air cracking and spitting as the thing moves closer. I am ice. I am still. Power beneath my skin, iron in my spine. This place will not have me.
“No,” he says, as sure as he can be. “I’m me.”
She stares at him, back straight, feet flat. She nods. “If that should change...”
“I won’t try to stop you,” he says. “I promise. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, my dear,” she says, looking away, into the fire. “Keep your promises, as we all must.”
“Do you truly have no regrets, Cole?” Solas asks as Cole hands him more paint, torchlight throwing shimmering shadows. “About what you’ve become? What you gave up?”Shedding self in waves of grief, no choices but the painful path, the song fading into crushing quiet. What have I done?
“I regret not being able to help the real Cole,” he says. “I regret all the times I couldn’t help. I regret that changing made you hurt, and that your hurts are too far away to heal.”
Solas pauses, brush extended to the wall, looks down from the ladder. “I may have been wrong in my disapproval of your choice, Cole. I apologise.”
“You didn’t want me to lose what I was,” Cole says. “Shut off far away, Veil like a blade falling. Wandering and wondering, so much lost, left behind, and now children fumbling in the dark for a past they’ll never touch.”
“It must be difficult,” Solas says. “Being the lens through which so many of us see ourselves.” He looks away, to the older paintings. “The reality of reflection is a harsh one.”
Cole shrugs, trying to lay down the words. “It’s what I understand. But sometimes it’s easier than looking... inward.”
Solas sighs. “It is a heavy thing, to change one’s nature. It can leave you—”
“Alone,” Cole finishes. “Time beyond telling and tallying, weight of a name like a cloak, walking for days in the silence, feet in both places and heart in neither one.” He looks up and smiles. “But you’re not alone anymore. Neither am I.”
“No,” Solas breathes. He looks at the brush in his hand, turns back to the mural. “No, I suppose we’re not.”
Cassandra has questions – is questions, has them folded through her flesh and faith, accepts a life of asking without answers, layers of belief like bricks building on each other. Belief in her arm to move the sword where it needs to be in time, in those around her to be there if her arm should falter.
They practice together outside, the blur of blades singing, slicing, the crack of steel on wood and straw-stuffed dummies. He has to learn over and over now, or his hands can forget what the knives remember. He needs to go where they tell him so he can help. Cassandra understands, and so she tells, teaches, corrects him.
“How do you live with doubt?” he asks when they stop, sweating but smiling faintly.
She huffs, amused and impatient for what she imagines he’s going to say. She doesn’t like games, strings, places to put lies like traps underfoot. “You can see inside my mind, Cole, surely you already know the answer.”
“Yes,” he says, “but I’m trying to ask more. Like a person. And it’s different – how things think and how they sound. The lips mask the meaning even when they still think it.”
“Not everyone says the first thing that comes to mind, no,” she says. “And some people shield themselves with words where the truth can hurt too deeply.”
“Like you and Varric.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Me and—” She laughs, surprised at herself, but honest. Self-deception is a kind of blindness. “I suppose so. Despite his many irritating habits, we do have things in common. Just please don’t tell him I said that.”
“He knows already. Hopes. You should tell him. It would make you both happy.”
Cassandra ignores him. “To answer your question: to have faith is to doubt, but it’s important to understand that those doubts can only control you if you allow them to.”
“’The candle is your soul, your light in the dark.’ You still imagine it burning, even though the candle and the voice are gone now.”
“It helps me remember,” she says. “It reminds me that you must believe in yourself and your actions before turning that belief outwards. Without it, your actions are empty.”
“But I don’t know what I believe in,” Cole tells her.
“You believe in easing suffering,” she says. “Righting wrongs and helping those in need. There is no better foundation than that, whatever the object of your faith.”
He smiles. “I understand. Not everything, but more. I’ll keep trying. Thank you.”
Cassandra nods. “I think you’ve trained enough for today. I assume you have more... lessons, with Varric?”
Cole shakes his head. “He said the next one can wait until the hangover wears off.”
“I see,” she sighs. “Please don’t take all of your lessons on mortal life from Varric. One of him is more than enough.”
“Sera said she was going to cut my hair, but I was hoping you’d read to me again,” he tells her. “I want to know what happens to the Knight-Captain.”
“Is this what living is like?” he asks Varric, sitting less stiffly in a chair in the tavern, drink forgotten, looking around. “Having people see you all the time?”
“Sure, that’s part of it,” Varric shrugs. “Though I bet Chuckles would have something to say about that. Mostly it’s just doing your best with whatever crap gets thrown your way, trying to get through it and maybe make things a little better, or at least not leave them more of a mess than they already were. You’ve got plenty of experience with that – the whole helping the helpless thing. You’ve got a heart of gold and good intentions coming out your ears. We can take care of the rest.”
He teaches Cole a story about nugs going down a mineshaft that’s meant to help him tie his shoelaces, but Cole asks too many questions and the strings stay strings and refuse to become bows. Still, he keeps trying, and he’s washed his leathers, cleaned the knives. Dorian put a feather in his hat. Sera hasn’t called him ‘it’ in days, lets him tell her about the tree her bow came from.
Varric laughs, “Just remember, kid: knots. Make a knot and then another, and eventually you won’t trip over your feet so much. Kind of like life, really.”
“They aren’t always where I expect,” Cole says, lingering taste of ale in his mouth, room full of eyes like coins flipping in the air, dropping when he turns and tries to smile. So many afraid of demons, he wants to tell them he is too. Some smile back, because he helped and they remember. A few nod and thank him, pat his shoulder as they pass, and Varric is proud, beaming bright like a beacon. Do better this time, he deserves better, not gonna lose this one if I have anything to do with it.
“Sometimes that’s part of the fun,” Varric tells him, smiling through the fog and thoughts of red. Echoing steps in the passageway. That hum, what is that? A stranger wearing Bartrand’s face as he shuts the door. He’s an ass but he’s my brother. They wouldn’t forgive me if they knew. Dammit Blondie why couldn’t you just talk to us. I can’t tell her where he is, it’s the only peace I can offer him. Should have tried harder. “You’ll have more stories to tell that way.”
“I don’t know if I’d be good at writing,” Cole says, fingers following grooves in the tabletop. “I can’t hold the voices like you can, they just boil and spill, and now sometimes it’s just me. I can’t heal my own hurts.”
“That’s what friends are for,” Varric says, nudges Cole until he finishes his drink and then waves to the barman who rolls his eyes. What’s a demon want with ale anyway. “Don’t sweat it, kid. You’ll figure it out, one stumbling screw-up at a time, just like the rest of us.” He leans back, arms crossed. “It’s not about falling down, it’s how you pick yourself back up.”
“You should remember that too,” Cole says.
Varric stares at the table unseeing, sighs, tries to smile, biting bitterness, anger always there under the skin like glowing coals. “Works in progress, kid.” He picks up his tankard and raises it in Cole’s direction. Cole does the same and their tankards clink together. “We’re all works in progress.”