He's not sure when it happens, exactly. Everything gets worse and worse the longer that he's out. At first the path is straightforward. He doesn't have Rhys, but he doesn't have the Spire either, not the tower full of towering terrors and mages crying out in calamities, cry soft, cry soft, lest they hear. He doesn't have that place to go back to anymore, not after what he's done and what Rhys knows, but he doesn't have to return there, either. The world is big. The world is big, and Cole hears Circles everywhere.
But sometimes the world is too big. When Cole tried to help people before, he hurt them. He killed them. It hurts to think about it, and he doesn't want to remember, but if he doesn't remember -- doesn't do what others show him, what they try and teach him over and over -- he might become that way again. A demon, without realizing it. A thing that can see only one way out, instead of what that action means.
He has to become someone who doesn't kill. Killing isn't helping enough. He could have known more. He could have done more.
Killing isn't helping.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. Cole knows that. He knows.
So Cole has to see what others say now, has to follow what they feel, because otherwise, he won't know how many other options exist. He has to listen to them, to what they say is good and bad. To learn. Has to remember, that's not good, Cole. Has to remember, people don't want that, Cole. Has to remember. Can't forget.
But learning makes him real, puts lines and roads around him like turning a map from hazy fog into earth. Learning makes him full of features that stay still instead of sliding up and down like the tide. The more real he is, the more it becomes impossible to do everything. He tells himself, no, and no again. He listens to what one person wants, and tries to remind himself that even if he can see the cause that leaves them open, heart wide and weeping, he shouldn't always fix it.
He should only do what other people say is right.
Solas says, follow what you feel is natural for you, even if it makes more work for others. But Varric says, and Sera says, and Vivienne says, and the scouts say, and the cooks say and the mages say -- and all the words slosh like soup out of a pan, fire burning low, spoons too hot to hold.
("A demon is a spirit that cannot carry out its own nature," Solas enunciates patiently through the crackle of the campfire. Rabbit juices hiss and spit. Vivienne scoffs. Cole scrunches his hat down over his ears, and tucks his knees against his chest like a wall of tumbled bone.)
Words catch and cling. They stick to him in layers, people's thoughts like wet clay, outlining him like oil in a pot. Like the darkness had been back at the Spire, but this time it's sharp all over, not like smothering water at all. This is nothing like falling and sinking and trying to keep out of the blackness; no, this is like being buried in a cage of thorns, wrapped around him so that every time he breathes, he bleeds.
The stone says one thing. The iron of the bull says another. The sky says something else, the sky holds them all here at Skyhold, and Cole could fall back up into it as if there was a rift waiting to swallow him whole.
Varric muses aloud and it blots out everything else, like ears submerged in a bathing tub. Varric knows so many things in the world, so many people. He's a good guide, having sung his stories to stack truth between the notes. Cole lingers and lingers and tries to learn everything he can whenever he's around Varric, nuances like wood grain, smooth as silk, rivers running around knots unseen. Fingers on the tables, tracing marks as they talk. Varric has history everywhere.
Varric is wonderful; he makes everyone calm and clear around him, brings things together. Everyone thinks in the same direction when Varric's in the room, hearts bound together while listening to his storyteller speech. Cole makes himself into a little moth by the fire and relishes the peace, the agreements hiding like still pools as people listen to what Varric wants them to hear.
But even in Varric's thoughts, things don't work properly. Kindnesses don't add up. The stone has fractures and faults, faults that are faulted. Regrets, telling itself it did the best it could. That there was no best to be found.
Sometimes a person says there was no harm done, even though everyone is hurting. Sometimes one person says to forgive, but another says to forget. Cole tries to stack it all up inside him like a parcel of polished pebbles, one rule supporting another. If he's going to do things right, then he has to make sure to listen. He has to make sure to understand.
Even now, what he wants is wrong sometimes (they say, Varric says, Rhys says -- Rhys), and Cole keeps putting down walls, lines to guide him, keep him corralled like a horse on a path. He stops himself from reaching over them so often. Who he is doesn't know what to do out here in the world, so Cole has to become someone who does know. Someone better.
He can't breathe, but shouldn't need to breathe anyway, doesn't need (shouldn't need) and he shouldn't have needs, not these ones of pain and fear and failure. He shouldn't be him if he can't be him.
One thing's right. Then it's wrong. Cole can't do it. He's trapped in a maze that gets tighter and tighter with ideas, spiraling inwards while he searches for its nature. It's not pure. It's not like the Fade. He wants to help, but what he thinks is help isn't, and it's hard to learn. What Rhys taught him isn't enough, because what Rhys thought was help is what others call sedition, and still others called salvation. What he learned from Rhys ended up broken in the end, but Cole might have broken it first.
(Varric says, when you become more used to being a person, you'll just know.)
But no one knows. No one knows what works for everyone.
He asks the Inquisitor what to do, and the Inquisitor simply smiles, with teeth so bright and eyes like stars.
He thinks, maybe, he didn't ask the question the right way.
Solas discovers him later, on a back stairwell where Cole is pretending to be a step. The mage halts his descent, head inclined as he lowers a knapsack beside him, careful not to let the contents roll. "Is everything all right, Cole?"
"I don't like hurting," Cole says, relief relieved: Solas understands these words.
The mage does not press for details, settling himself on his haunches while he considers the problem. He fishes a hand into his knapsack and retrieves an apple, only slightly bruised from its pilgrimage from the Hinterlands.
"It is the nature of people to be confused about what they truly want." Fetching a small blade, Solas begins to carve precise chunks out of the apple, devouring them as he speaks without showing his teeth. "They mistake assistance for pain, and pain for aid. In addition, even should you act with the truest of intentions at the time, there is no guarantee it will be of longer benefit. What was kindness for a heartbeat becomes the greatest of cruelties over time."
"I just want to help." Cole's voice is so small that he barely recognizes it. He is silent for a moment, and then is unable to stay that way, the question bursting out of its own accord. "If you know what the right thing is when you’re finally a person, does that mean there are no people here?"
Solas blinks once, very slowly, in that way of his when he is privately horrified. "No, Cole. You are correct. You are more correct than you know."
Cole tries hard, though.
He whispers into the ears of two guards who keep arguing over the security of Skyhold's gate, each one worried and seeking to protect the scouts on the road, holding their fears so tightly to their chests that they cannot let go without all their thoughts tumbling down. Talk to the Commander about it, he nudges steadily to them both, before the rot can set in. Let him solve this fight for you.
It takes time, and persuasion, and so many more arguments before both sides are willing to follow his suggestion, but afterwards their tension is unbound, unguarded and able to be patted down and soothed to sleep. They accept Cullen's orders on how to adjust the vantage points, and Cole is pleased: now things will be better.
But when Cole tells Varric about it later, the dwarf shakes his head.
"They won't learn that way, kid. And Cullen's got his hands too full to deal with every complaint. You should have let them figure it out on their own."
Not good, then, this time. Good once. Not again. It felt right to the guards to listen to the suggestion, but Varric says it wasn't, and Varric knows how good becomes bad, and Cole should remember. Cole should follow the lines.
Everything feels wrong inside him. Loops and traps and mistakes twisting him up, a wad of yarn wrapped and squashed until everything's knotted in a mess that makes itself fresh with every turning.
"But they needed help," he manages aloud. "They were hurting."
Varric's mind ripples with sad, weary acknowledgement. "I'm sure they were. But sometimes... sometimes, the best way to help is not to help at all. Sometimes -- look, kid. Sometimes you just shouldn't get involved between two sides, even though it seems worse just to stand back and watch. When you're the force that sets everything off, the price can be high. Way too high, for everyone."
Taste of salt and iron, waves of fire splashing down from rock. Waves crash against coastlines in Varric's chest. Old sadness and yearning fill him up like a jar, along with the desire to be so alone that he can pretend -- for at least a little while -- that he is stone itself. Stone, that does not speak. Stone, that does not feel.
Obeying the need, Cole backs away. Only afterwards does he remember: the rules say he should have stayed.
Solas does not find Cole on the stairs this time. He interrupts him instead in the courtyard, where Cole is pacing between knots of weary soldiers and traders, and the smells of a dozen dinners rising from the campfires dotted around the castle. The door to the tavern is propped open, an inviting eye of warmth and song. The Chargers are already deep in a round of cards, judging from the distant laughter.
Cole is not laughing. His feet don't take him in any direction, only around and around, circles circumnavigating people who cannot see him. He is in and out of their vision; he feels in and out of his own as well, losing sight of himself even in his borrowed skin. His fingers are too tight on their bones.
Then -- between one buzzing group of merchants and another -- Solas is there, slipping through the conversations as if he, too, is a spirit. The weight of his thoughts is a cool wall against the world. "Peace, Cole. You are agitated."
Cole stops his feet, and then his face, which has been frowning so long he does not remember which way to adjust it at first. "I can't help when I help," he blurts. "What's helping isn't helping. It helps one person, they feel better, but someone else says no, that hurt them instead. But the second person doesn't always know the first. And the first person must not know themselves either, if they don't even know they're in pain."
Solas closes his eyes for a moment, and it stings Cole like a blade to see the expression, so much a mirror to Varric's own. "Sometimes, it can be necessary to have a little pain in order to learn how to surmount greater ones in the future," the mage admits. "Just as you kill others to stop them from causing more harm in the long run."
Kill others, Cole thinks, and it sends a sharp pang like lightning in the dark, like a stone thrown into an abyss that echoes. The darkness, he knows, and shudders away from it; he will not become a demon again. He can't.
People don't always want to die. He needs to remember that.
"There aren't -- there aren't any answers," he stutters. "Bad and good, at the same time. Nothing is just one. Letting hurt happen lets the infection out sometimes, lets it heal, but sometimes the pain only spreads."
The evening is growing cool around them, mountain temperatures falling with an avalanche's grace. Solas stands fixed, a stone pillar in the gloom. Reluctance wraps him like a burial shroud; the mage does not wish to speak, and Cole almost asks him not to. There are agonies that Solas carries with him, hidden deftly inside his thoughts, so deep that Cole can barely brush them even with all his willpower extended.
Now those memories stir, outlines rippling in the mire of Solas's heart. "That is the nature of this world, Cole. The solutions are never clear, and people's opinions of the truth never agree." Another burst of laughter ripples from the tavern, and Solas shakes his head, closing his mind back up automatically, a fan folding tight. "There are reasons why spirits must remain simple, Cole. It is healthiest for them if they do. They react strongly to living beings, so strongly that they become prey to such conflicts of perspective, and cannot protect themselves. A spirit who is not spared such pressures is forced to develop the same complexity as mortal beings -- and mortals become crazed just as readily, driven to heights of madness by the same moral riddles they cannot reconcile. Perhaps," the mage continues, drawing breath and determination both, "it would be best if we find a way for you to return to the Fade immediately, without delaying any further."
"No." Cole can feel the conviction coming from Solas, hardening from suggestion into steel. "No. I want to stay here. I want to do as much as I can. When I wasn't myself, when I didn't know before, I did terrible things. Being simple wasn't enough. I am what I do. If this world is big, I have to become big. But big is... it's dangerous. It isn't clean."
But Solas is still shaking his head, not seeing the teeth that are latched into every inch of Cole’s body, under the skin where they gnaw and gnaw. "You acted as you did because you forgot what you were when you were first drawn through the Fade. The shock of your passage took away your identity. All you knew was death, and yet you still sought to use it to help those around you. Now you know which methods are true to your nature and can remain self-aware, which will help keep you from becoming a demon even should you follow your instincts. Your instincts are not wrong -- they are the essence of what you are, as a spirit. Listen to that," he counsels, his words pressing against Cole's thoughts, like the flank of a beast moving heavy inside its oiled fur. "Listen to that compassion inside you, even if others do not agree."
"No," Cole repeats again, again, backing away a step even though he cannot tell where the danger is anymore. The mage freezes, careful and cautious, but Cole's hands are up and warding. Protecting himself, protecting his friend. Protection pleading for a pause. "No. No. Thinking that they're doing right is how people end up doing wrong. I've seen it. It's happening everywhere. Varric says no. People say no. Which means my instincts can't be right. They’re not right at all."
Cassandra's idea of helping is loud and bright. It cuts through conflict, but always comes back afterwards to help the things that fell off. She sings in straight lines, makes her own roads, and leaves a trail wide enough behind her for everyone to follow safely.
Sera's idea of helping is pushing off tops of cakes, pride off pedestals. Everyone down in the same place together, wrestling in the mud, but at least the mud doesn't have armed guards. No one's bits getting broken off without the chance of retaliation; everyone's the same when everyone's the same size.
Cullen's idea of helping is never again. Never again for him, and never again for the other templars; they can be monsters, have been monsters, will be if they sing the wrong lyrium song, but not on Cullen's watch. The Commander will not defend the Order, but he will defend the people who are ordered: a distinction that cuts and lifts along a line as fine as a thread, so fragile at first glance and so strong when stitching things together. A sympathy that supports, knowing that there are no differences between yourself and them. No way to look down on someone, without looking down on yourself.
Dorian's idea of helping is love, love fierce enough to be angry when what it treasures doesn't match up with the picture in Dorian's head. Tevinter could be better. Father could be better. They are better already and just aren't acting that way, and Dorian fights and fights in one long, glittering shout for people to be as good as he knows they are on the inside.
Varric's idea of helping is for Cole to be more real, because being real is supposed to give him the right directions, laid out like a dancing master, step left and step right. Being real is supposed to show what helps most, but everyone else who's already real gets tangled up in their own rules. Walls and webs, they don't connect. Being real doesn't give anything on its own. Being not-real, says Varric, means you can't give anything on your own. You have nothing. Not like a person would.
None of them mean the same thing.
He's going to pieces. Bits of him, flying off, lost in the maze of Varrics, discarded for being wrong. Left behind, replaced by lessons. Cole keeps trying to fit all his newfound knowledge inside him, gathered up like lonely mice, and his body is too small to contain it all. Feelings bounce around inside him like clotted blood. Stones where his heart should be, a human heart without one. Drum drum drum, the templars all come, and he knows how even doing nothing can hurt (they say, he sees, doing nothing makes you just as guilty, just as harming), and everything he does isn't right, and it's worse than the Circle. It's so much worse now, because it's not just the mages and the templars and Rhys, not just Evangeline, it's everyone telling him to be different. Him, himself, his self. The real parts he put together so carefully now being measured and chopped into walnut-sized lumps, wistful and wanting. Wandering, worrying, and warned over and over that what makes sense is wrong --
He can't help people; when he helps people, he hurts them. He can't not help people. He can't, he can't, he can't --
Then something breaks, something bursts, and in a beautiful moment of relief, there is a single point of stillness in all the noise. He reaches for it, past the confusion that drowns him worse than the black waters had, worse than the cells, past everything that had been so terrifying that he couldn't imagine ever breaching it before. He reaches, and finds the moment wrapping itself around him, making him solid, helping him breathe in measured heartbeats while the chaos recedes harmlessly away like smoke inverting into fog.
He's figured it out at last.
Varric's right. He just knows now.
A hundred forms of help, but they all have the same goal in mind. The answer is simple. All Cole has to do is pick the right way for each person. There's something special for everyone, something perfect just for them, and he cares so much to make sure each of them receives it.
It was always that simple all along.
He visits Sera first.
Sera never had much time for him before, after all.
Blackwall is easy. Blackwall was already alone, keeping to himself in the stables while simultaneously yearning for visitors to fill in the gaps in his life. Safer on his own, with no one to punish his shame. His penance is his protection.
Blackwall is alone and has no one to turn to when Cole comes to visit, so late in the night that even the embers are slow and asleep. Like Blackwall's fingers, fumbling groggily in the blankets to push them aside as he rolls over. Like Blackwall's hand, reaching for his sword.
Cole goes looking for Solas as well, of course -- but Solas is gone, leaving behind a shadow that engulfs the murals, stretching like a finger's silhouette expanded by a candle flame. The darkness covers colors that once sang of triumph. There's no sign that the mage's departure was recent; the table is empty, abandoned of paper and pride.
Cole tastes the air with his mouth, experimentally, and then slides back into the hallways and moves on.
The Iron Bull is like a game, for a man who has played thousands. A structure that resembles impenetrable metal on the outside, but not solid, no. Hollow by necessity, flexible within, reinforced with people-struts and place-names and lies to keep the liar whole. His Chargers, tied to him like tent pegs, holding up the cloth and making it into a shape to shelter. They live inside the skin of The Iron Bull like starlings inside a coop.
Remove them, and The Iron Bull closes up like a turtle, hard knot of the Qun as the last armor left, the king piece of the gameboard. Take away the Qun, and there is nothing, there is nothing but the center of The Iron Bull that he has never had to look at before, marching to the steps of his role. His Hissrad. He is a name that is unnamed.
The mage is what could go wrong first, so Cole visits Dalish first. Then Grim. Then the rest. Krem is like Varric, so hard to unsettle, so Cole doesn't waste any time there; he guts Krem during a bath, when the Charger is alone. He's not rude, however -- he takes the body out of the tub afterwards, and puts the armor back on, everything that fits right and makes Krem himself. Then he leaves it on The Iron Bull’s floor to be discovered.
(Do you think about how to kill everyone you meet?)
(Do you not?)
Cole makes sure to tell The Iron Bull this, all of it, over and over in a voice that sounds just like the Qunari's own.
Varric is complicated. Harder to help. Cole almost hesitates there, remembering all the warnings and rules, forking pathways of what is and is not. So many directions. So many chances to go astray.
But there are ways that are just right for Varric too, and Cole isn't so thoughtless as to ignore him. He doesn't give Varric a chance to worry. He doesn't want Varric to accidentally drop Bianca, either, so he makes sure to move quickly. He is deft and neat and helpful as he takes the dwarf's tongue and hands, and props what's left alive on a chair, dripping with just enough potion to keep Varric from bleeding out.
Vivienne is someone he visits when he has the earliest opportunity -- not because he'd forget her along the way, but because she'd notice what was happening immediately, no matter how much he tried to hide. The problem is that she's also the hardest to find. She's the only one out of all of the Inquisitor's companions who is cautious around true danger until she can regroup, while everyone else plunges towards it.
But regroup she will, after tallying her strength, making her observations, and then inevitably crushing her opposition. In the Game, on the battlefield, Vivienne's feints are never cowardice. She picks the territory, makes her enemies chase her. She strikes with absolute judgements.
He tracks her down at last through the maze of Skyhold's older hallways, making note of all the places where ice mines might have been sown. If Vivienne had been given sufficient time to prepare, she would have the entire Inquisition turned against him by now. As it is, she's armed the architecture.
Cole skirts the side passages, giving himself plenty of space to retreat if needed, and makes himself known with the slightest shiver of air.
She's fast. So fast that she's forward and in striking range before Cole can even speak, and he's only saved by an automatic sidestep into the ceiling. Vivienne's eyes track him successfully for an unnervingly long time before he manages to blend into the cobwebs. Even then, she's still watching the room, gaze darting back and forth, senses on high alert.
"Malice," she announces, and he flexes in a bow that sets the decaying curtains rustling all around the chamber in giggled chorus. Her lips tighten. "How droll. I expected Despair."
"Everyone here already knows despair," he explains, sincerely rueful. "How would I be able to help properly like that, when you're all on guard against it?"
"And I suppose your idea of helping is possession." Another flicker of her eyes. He can't tell if she spotted him, or is simply planning in advance. "Are you here to convince me of the virtues of that?"
"Not of possession," he corrects softly, and lets her guess.
When she doesn't immediately pinpoint his location with a bolt of ice, he risks being more bold. He slithers around the stonework, watching frost form on her fingertips in readiness.
"Will you call for guards?" he asks, genuinely curious.
"If you're here, demon, then they're already dead."
He chuckles, letting her hear the sound clearly this time, so rightfully dissonant against her memory of him. Vivienne's soul is strong behind her iron walls, the structure enclosing her and holding her regally upright, a facade of stones instead of a face.
But knock those walls down and she is trembling again and trying to hide it from the templars, thanking her long skirts and tight lacings. They will not allow her to have proper armor, so she will prove them wrong by turning cloth into steel.
"Maybe I should give you some time to think," he offers her gently, so gently, because that's what he is, after all. So very full of gentleness. Crawling into parts of people and saying, it's not worth it, you can't win. Give up. Give in. Helping them understand the better choice. Let me show you why.
"You cannot expect I will sit here idle."
"No," he acknowledges. "You can run for me, or you can run for help. But the important thing is that you run. You know how to do it. So many years, trying to escape." He leans in closer, lets his thoughts drink up and shape themselves around hard knots of resentment, of bitterness, of rejection, until he can woo her back with the echo of her own heart taken out through her throat. "'I'm not like them,'" he recites aloud. "'Don't treat me the same way as those lesser mages. They're weak, and they make me look weak. They make it harder for the rest of us to be respected. Why should I have to pay the price for their ineptitude? They deserve what happens to them.'"
Vivienne's fingers start to flex -- and then she holds them open, splayed and under control, but Cole's not finished yet.
"'As long as they exist, everyone assumes I'm just like them too,'" he continues, picking words like jewels out of velvet. "'Immature children throwing tantrums to get their way. They have no right to destroy the respect that I struggle for every single day. That's what the Circle is really good for. If they can’t handle themselves as adults, they can stay there forever and rot.'"
Vivienne's mouth goes flat. "I know better than to speak to a demon," she says, two degrees away from a hiss, and Cole knows he has her.
"Even when he keeps his eyes shut, he still can't pretend that you're her," he tells her, and watches the barb strike in a sharp, stifled inhalation of breath.
He tells the Inquisitor this, all of it, in a whispered warning one morning, before the sun turns sky and hold to gold. Marries meaning to metaphor, searches for the right words. Words are so important to people, but none of them mean the same thing, even if the letters are identical. Help doesn't mean help. Love doesn't mean love.
Cold in Skyhold, cold, and Cole feels it in every inch of his too-real skin.
"I was a demon once," he says. Said. Will say once more. "Do you promise to kill me if it happens again?"
The Inquisitor smiles. Teeth so bright, eyes like stars. "Don't worry, Cole." Teeth so bright. "We'll make sure things don't turn out that way."
Teeth so bright.
Eyes like stars.
I was a demon once, he says, but it comes out like a story about birds and pebbles off the side of the mountains, rolling and rolling too fast to stop, and the Inquisitor only laughs and reaches over to rumple his hat.