Cole walks through Skyhold largely unseen.
He’s not a ghost; this much he knows. He scares people still; this much he also knows. They jump when they spot him, eyes flying wide, strange boy, who is that, why doesn’t he speak, what’s wrong with him-
He sheathes himself in the darkness, and soon they forget. But not her.
She sees him. Her eyes don’t slide over him like the others’ do; her attentive gaze snags on his face like burrs on soft clothing, catching and sticking, her smile broad, chestnut eyes that shine like the gilded gates of Val Royeaux.
She sees him.
Maybe he doesn’t belong here. Maybe he should sink back into the Fade like the Lord Seeker said. But Lyanna sees him, and that makes him real.
Cole holds his dagger loosely and waits in resignation for Lyanna’s judgment. The soldier’s pain is pulsing, pounding, breath rattling like rocks in a barrel, Maker take me, let it be done.
Cole corrects himself. Not Lyanna; Inquisitor. They call her Inquisitor, so he should call her Inquisitor too.
She frowns as she studies the soldier. The expression contorts the winding tattoo around her left eye, and Cole’s shoulders slump slightly. She disapproves; he can see it in her furrowed brow. She thinks he’s a murderer. But is he a murderer? Is it murder or mercy if the only other choice is pain that drags, pulls, sinks deep like swords through unprotected flesh? What would Rhys have thought? Would Rhys have been disappointed?
Inquisitor takes a deep breath and meets his gaze, and Cole is surprised: there’s no disapproval there after all. Her face is like an open door, and Cole doesn’t understand it.
“I think Solas is right about you,” she announces. Cole tilts his head in confusion; he’s not sure what Solas has to do with this, but before he can ask, she nods her head to the soldier. “Go on, Cole. Do what you think is best. I trust you.”
Cole stares at her. “You… trust me?”
She nods, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “If there’s really nothing more that can be done for him, then helping him die in peace is a mercy.”
He gapes at her more incredulously than ever. He’s the one who reads minds, the one who sees what people are thinking. No one sees his thoughts. Does she have special powers too?
The soldier’s ragged breath draws his attention anew. He kneels, then gently slides his blade into the soldier’s ailing heart. Dull bite of agony, then fading, washing clean, finally I can go home…
The soldier is gone. Cole carefully wipes his blade on the grass before sheathing it. He gazes down at Inquisitor, feeling awkward now that the deed is done. Other hurts are calling him, piercing pains big and small, but he’s held in place by the little elf and her big brown eyes.
She smiles. “Thanks, Cole. I’ll leave you to your, um, activities. We’ll talk later, okay?”
A dull wiggle of familiar disappointment writhes through his chest as he watches her leave. She won’t remember him. Most people never do. But perhaps it’s for the best. Rhys remembered, and it almost cost him his life. Evangeline remembered, and it did cost her her life.
Inquisitor won’t remember him. It’s for the best. He trudges toward the kitchen. Food is good for healing many kinds of hurts, and the kitchen is good place to start.
He slips down the stairs and tucks away the thought of Lyanna’s open smile like a secret. She probably won’t remember him, but hope alights like a tiny flame in his chest.
The world is big - much bigger than he thought it was, and everything is so new.
He trails behind Inquisitor as she moves through the Hinterlands healing every hurt she finds. There are lots of little hurts, and those are easy to fix: a lost goat named Jimmy who whispers good fortune; an errant vial of blood that glows a sickly red, returned to a lonely mage. The big hurts are harder to fix, gaping like unhealed gashes, frothing and fulminating with anger and pain: bandits, murderers, power-hungry apostates and cruel templars who are nothing at all like Evangeline.
Inquisitor helps the ones who hurt and stops the ones who hurt. She burns away despair one step at a time, and Cole hovers quietly at her shoulder with an unusual warmth blooming in his chest.
He doesn’t talk much during their travels. Vivienne and Sera don’t like it when he talks. He only wanted to help, to soothe the inky rivers in their thoughts, but they scowl and speak in pointed words, and he doesn’t want to bother them.
Inquisitor scowls too, but not at him. When they go to the Storm Coast, she brings Dorian and the Iron Bull instead. Cole still doesn’t speak very much, but when the others’ thoughts are so loud that his voice can’t help but join the voices of their minds, Dorian and the Iron Bull don’t frown and lash him with their tongues. They even ask him questions sometimes, and when he replies, Lyanna smiles. Her head tilts, her eyes wide and curious, and the warm feeling in his stomach expands like a bowl filling with hot soup.
No, not Lyanna. Inquisitor, he thinks. He has to try and remember. The others call her Inquisitor, so he should do the same.
At night when they return from their travels, she comes to visit him in the attic, and Cole is shocked every time she returns. She jokes that she has an excellent memory, and that must be true; he can’t understand why else she always knows to find him here. He doesn’t understand why she comes to spend time with him at all, but here they sit, her feet dangling and her smile broad as she perches on a pile of abandoned crates.
Sometimes she asks him questions, and he answers them the best he can. Expressions ripple across her face like waves on a pond as she listens to his replies, and he hopes he’s answering properly. He must be, because she always nods and asks another question.
Sometimes she doesn’t ask him anything all. Sometimes they sit in silence - or near-silence, at least; Cole sometimes has to speak when the whispers he hears crescendo into cries of pain, or when the despair of a thought threatens to swallow him whole. But Inquisitor doesn’t seem to mind. She gazes at him with wide eyes and asks him what he means, but try though he might, Cole usually can’t tell her. The thoughts are flighty, a whisper of agony or a jagged shard of pain that’s gone in the blink of an eye, and he worries that Inquisitor will be angry that he can’t explain.
But Inquisitor never gets angry. She gazes at him pensively then smiles, and they fall into silence again. At times she squeezes his arm - a gentle squeeze, not an angry grip like the templars - and he feels the heat of her slender fingers on his arm long after she leaves.
He listens to the thoughts as they cross her mind like the papers that slide across Josephine’s desk. She thinks of the people they know, the work they have to do, the porridge she ate for breakfast. But there’s a susurrus of sorrow underneath it all, and Cole wonders what made her sad.
Sometimes she travels without him, and Cole worries when she’s gone. There are bears out there, and bad people with weapons in hand and murder in their hearts. She carries two daggers on her back and wields them like extensions of her arms, but Cole still worries.
So he cloaks himself in shadows and follows. Just to make sure.
He concentrates hard to make sure he’s hidden. He knows some people don’t like to be followed, and he doesn’t want to anger her. But he has to make sure. He follows quietly, and he hides himself in the darkness, and she doesn’t even know he’s there.
Later, she comes to the attic and folds her arms. “So, Cole. You’ve been following us, haven’t you?”
He’s completely gobsmacked. How did she know?
He ducks his head in shame, but she’s smiling - how is she always smiling at him? - and he cautiously meets her eyes. “Yes,” he admits. “How… how did you know?”
She tilts her head thoughtfully. “I thought I saw you at the corner of my eye, but I thought I was imagining it. Then I caught Solas talking to himself. But he wasn’t talking to himself at all, was he? He was talking to you.”
Cole stares at her. She’s right; Solas did speak to him at one point today. But Solas is like a piece of home, his voice ringing with the fullness of both worlds. Cole understands why Solas speaks to him. He doesn’t understand why she does.
Before he can think twice, the question pours from his lips. “Why do you talk to me?” he says.
Her little smirk melts into an unguarded expression of surprise, and her thoughts suddenly ring in his mind: I’m lonely.
The thought is loud and dark, a stark contrast with her sunny disposition, and Cole blinks in confusion. “What?” he asks.
She tilts her head. “I said, you’re lonely. Aren’t you? You spend so much time alone. I just… I thought you could use a friend.” She drops her eyes, and the heavy feeling of her words deepens and gapes wide before she meets his eyes again. “You don’t mind my visits, do you?”
“No,” he says quickly. “I’m glad to talk with you.”
She smiles at him, and the darkness behind her eyes wanes. Her shoulders relax as she sits in her usual spot on the crates behind him. “Good,” she says. “I like talking to you, too.”
Cole listens to the ebb and flow of her thoughts as she talks about Fairbanks’ mysterious past. The longer they talk, the more her sadness loosens and lifts and lightens until she rises to her feet.
“Goodnight, Cole,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nods. “Yes,” he says. He believes her. Most people forget him, their memories drifting apart like ashes from last night’s fire, but Lyanna always remembers.
The more time Lyanna spends with him, the more curious he becomes about the dark ribbon that weaves through her thoughts.
The darkness is usually faint, like a trace of dye in water. But it swells when she watches the Iron Bull and Dorian flirting with barbed words and tender thoughts. It swells when she gazes over the banister at couples kissing in the tavern below. In these moments, a name and a face swim through her thoughts - dark-haired, handsome, Ethanil - and her feelings curdle around this face like milk left in the sun too long.
“Lyanna, who is Ethanil?” he asks.
That unguarded expression washes across her face, and her thoughts are a sudden cacophony of pain. Oh no, I didn’t want you to know about this, I didn’t - he left me, he lied, he left me for her-
Cole blinks and stares at her, and she stares back before smiling, but her smile is all wrong. “You heard that, didn’t you?”
He shrugs helplessly, and Lyanna sighs before shoving her hands through her hair. “It’s okay, Cole. I know you can’t help it. Actually, it might be easier this way.” She sighs again, then looks him in the eye. “I know the others don’t love it when you listen in. But you can listen to this. Then I don’t have to talk about it.”
He watches her cautiously for a moment. She nods a silent confirmation, so Cole reaches out and touches her forehead.
I love him, and he loves me. ‘Let’s hunt together’, but he’s always busy. A new member of the clan, a new mage, older than me, prettier than me. Tired of being with a child, he doesn’t say it but I know it’s true. I’m a grown woman, I know what I want! ‘You’ll find someone else. You’re too young to settle down,’ he says, but I know what I want…
Her thoughts are hard and hammering, and Cole wrenches his hand from her forehead. She stares at him with shining eyes, and he stares back for a long moment before speaking.
“I can take it away,” he suggests.
She frowns slightly, so Cole explains. “It clogs, clumps, clotting in your chest. It clutches you and keeps you captive. I can loosen the claws.” She frowns more deeply, and Cole balks at the faint query that crosses her mind. “No,” he blurts. “Not like the Nightmare. Not like that! I don’t steal the pain. It doesn’t feed me. I help it to melt, like ice in the spring. That’s all. It’s not the same.”
She drops her eyes, and Cole is suddenly scared. He only wants to help, to smoothe her pain away, but if she thinks he’s like the Nightmare… but he’s not like the Nightmare, is he? The Nightmare tried to steal people’s fears… but is he doing that, too?
She lifts her gaze, then stuns him by reaching out to take his hand. “Thank you,” she says softly. “I know you want to help. But I think… I just need time.”
Her fingers are soft and gentle, and Cole swallows hard as she squeezes his hand gently. “Just give me some time,” she murmurs.
Her chestnut eyes are glowing again, but the despair is waning, washed away by a tentative warmth. Her thoughts are confusing, and he can’t help but listen in. I still love him, but he’s gone - Cole is so nice - we’re the same age, more appropriate - who cares about that, doesn’t matter, I like him - sweet and caring - big blue eyes - can spirits even feel…?
Cole doesn’t know what to say, so he nods.
A slow smile lights her face, sad but sweet. She steps close and kisses him on the cheek. “Goodnight, Cole,” she whispers.
Her voice is a gentle breeze against his cheek, and he feels it all the way down to his toes. Lyanna squeezes his hand one last time, then runs away down the stairs.
Time passes in jumps and starts. Cole notices its passage by the changing of the castle. Frescoes appear in the rotunda, and the walls glisten and gleam with one mosaic after the next. Frederic’s dragon eggs wriggle and wrench open, and Cole catches fish to feed the baby dragons.
As time goes on, Ethanil dissipates from Lyanna’s thoughts, and Cole is glad; Ethanil made her sad. His face sinks into the lesser parts of her mind as the dark ribbon in her thoughts fades and loosens. It seems that she was right, and that time is what she needed to help.
It’s a concept Cole has never thought much about.
To his surprise, he sees himself in her mind more often than not. He supposes it must be because they spend so much time together. They have supper together every night; she coaxes him down to the Great Hall and doesn’t seem bothered by the whispering people who ask why the Inquisitor is talking to herself. She teaches him to play cards, and she beams at him when she finds him playing wicked grace with Varric and the Iron Bull.
She stays in the attic with him until the deepest hours of the night, talking and listening in equal turn. On one particular night she falls asleep, her legs dangling off the edge of the crates and her head against his shoulder, so Cole carries her to bed.
He sifts into her bedroom, then gently lays her on the bed. But before he can leave, she reaches out and grasps his wrist. “You don’t have to go,” she says softly. “You can stay here.”
Cole eyes her quizzically. “Stay here?”
“Yes,” she mumbles. She tugs his wrist, then shifts over in the bed and pats her pillow. “Let’s talk some more.”
Her eyes are closed and her mind is drifting with dreams, and Cole isn’t sure she can hold much of a conversation. But for some reason, he doesn’t want to leave. “All right,” he agrees. Gingerly he slides onto the bed, then sits back against the headboard with his legs crossed.
He folds his hands in his lap and waits quietly, wondering what Lyanna will talk about next. But instead of speaking, she shifts closer to him.
She snuggles her head against his chest and releases a little sigh. Her arms are curled against her chest, her fists tucked under her chin like a sleeping child. She’s warm against his side, like a campfire or a blanket but nicer somehow, and he holds himself absolutely still. He worries that if he moves, she’ll jerk away like a startled halla.
He doesn’t move a muscle as she gently rubs her cheek against his chest. “Your leathers smell,” she mutters. “Like blood and dirt. You should probably wash them.”
“I smell?” he says in dismay.
“I didn’t say that,” she replies. She places one hand on his chest, then pushes herself up and tilts her face toward his neck.
Her nose brushes his neck ever so lightly, and he feels the sound of her inhale. A shiver of heat runs down his spine and pools in his belly. His entire body goes tense at the unusual sensation, and suddenly he can’t breathe.
Lyanna slides down to rest her head against his chest again. “Your leathers smell, but you don’t,” she clarifies. “It’s strange. You don’t smell like anything at all.”
He can’t speak. There’s no air in his chest. That shiver of heat is pulsing inside of him, strange but not at all unpleasant, and he wonders how long it will last.
Lyanna’s breathing becomes heavy and slow against his side, and he can tell from the gentle ebb of her thoughts that she’s fallen asleep. That odd heat in his belly eventually melts away, and Cole’s gaze drifts around the room; he’s explored most of the castle, but he’s never been up here before.
His eyes fall on a small dog-eared book on Lyanna’s night-table. Carefully and slowly, not wanting to disturb her, he reaches for the book and opens it.
It’s a journal, he realizes, written in her neat and loopy handwriting. Curious, Cole begins to read.
The book goes on, pages and pages for every month they’ve spent together. An odd sense of vertigo washes over him as he realizes what this is: a log of every time they’ve spoken. This is how she remembers him: reminders to herself, facts to refresh her mind if her memories start to dim.
4 Nubulis 9:40
COLE: my age (~20 years?), blond hair, blue eyes, haunted-looking. Solas says he’s a spirit and we may forget him. DON’T FORGET! He helps people.
5 Nubulis 9:40
Found Cole in the attic at the tavern. Does he sleep there? (does he even sleep? ask Solas.)
Had a mage friend named Rhys, and a templar friend named Evangeline. (forbidden romance? intriguing.) They abandoned him when they learned he was a spirit.
Cole is lonely.
**ALWAYS CHECK THE ATTIC AT THE END OF THE DAY.
6 Nubulis 9:40
He stole cheese from the kitchens. Can’t explain why. (funny!!) Must ask around, figure out where cheese has gone?
Dual dagger fighter, like me! Train together?
Killed the Lord Seeker Lambert. Dangerous but just. Good.
7 Nubulis 9:40
He likes nugs. SO CUTE.
Told him about aravels and how we use them. HE CAN MOVE AROUND BY MAGIC!! (kind of? is it magic or a spirit thing? ask Solas??) Wonder if he can do that while carrying people?
8 Nubulis 9:40
DO NOT TAKE COLE OUT WITH VIVIENNE AND SERA. THEY ARE MEAN.
He clutches the book tightly in his fist, then reverently returns it to her night-table. She shifts slightly in her sleep and sighs, and her fist slides out from beneath her chin to rest limply against his chest.
He breathes quietly in the dark. Then he gently takes her hand in his.
Her fist uncurls unconsciously at his touch, and he slides his fingers into hers. Dawn will come soon, and sleeping minds will start to call for help. But for now, Cole will enjoy this silence.