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like a stream needs stones to keep its course

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It was a few days later when the door opened.

The rogue slipped inside, leaving it hanging wide open. Anders could have bolted, if he’d had the energy. “I’m Cole,” they said. "You should come with me.” They offered their hand.

Dazed and more than a little confused, Anders took it, letting Cole pull him to his feet. He swayed; Cole braced a shoulder against his side, taking more weight than he would have expected given their scrawny build. Then again – Anders and Justice knew a fair bit about looks decieving, themselves.

Which, in a meandering train of free association, led them to a more pressing question. “And what does the Inquisition want with me, now?”

“Not them.” Cole shook their head, a tight, jittery motion. “You can’t be here. Dark, dank, cold, cramped, how much longer? What if they forget me?” Their voice rose in fear, then broke, a little shaky. “They forgot him, in the dark, and he died. I couldn’t help. You would have fought for him, if you’d been there, but you weren’t, so you couldn’t. So now I help you.”

Anders blinked, dizzy at the rush of words, chest tightening at the reminder of his own claustrophobia, and latched onto the idea that gave him a flutter of hope. “Is this a rescue?”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t come sooner. I can hide us. You can get away. You should be safe. You should be safe.” Cole’s inflection shifted at the repetition, speaking to someone else – to Justice, they both realized at once. “You’re still you. It’s not easy on this side. It’s hard when you hurt, when you’re trapped-tied-tangled and there’s no right path.” They huffed, a breath out through their nose, then stopped. “Someone’s coming.”

"Should we -- ?"

"Shh," Cole hissed, "I can't do it if you -- "

Something fell over them, dark and clinging like a soaked funeral shroud. It made Anders feel short of breath and Justice squirm uncomfortably, but when the guard came patrolling down the corridor, she passed them by without even a glance.

“What ... ”

“There will be more,” said Cole. When Anders glanced down at them, they were pale, shivering with effort. Anders fell silent.

Cole’s ability got them out of the fortress, out of the settlement beyond, completely unseen. A commotion in the halls as they left suggested the guard had discovered Anders’s absence, but the soldiers stepped around them as if they were an inanimate obstacle. Same with the settlement -- people drifted aside to avoid them without seeming to realize they were doing so. It wasn’t any ability Anders had ever heard of, even outside the Circle. What exactly was Cole?

Something about gift horses, Anders thought, and let the idea drop for now.

They were well out of the village, hidden in thick trees, by the time Cole let their shroud dissipate. They staggered, stumbling away from Anders’s side to collapse against a tree -- their face was paper-white, their hair soaked in sweat, their whole body shaking violently. Alarmed, Anders reached out, only to pull back when they flinched.

“I’m a healer,” he said. Healer -- right. When had anyone last let him claim that title? Not that it was any less true. “Can I help?”

“Burns, burning up, burning me, ashes and char where the tree used to be -- no -- no, I -- I’ll be f-fine,” muttered Cole. Their hands flapped and fluttered, seemingly with a mind of their own -- without thinking about it, Anders found himself rocking in place sympathetically, rolling his weight from toe to heel and back again.

Abruptly, Cole slammed their head against the tree bark. Anders startled, but it seemed to help Cole more than hurt; they pushed themself to their feet unsteadily, patting the spot on the tree that they had hit.

“It’s hard,” they said, their chest still heaving, “to hide other people. I’m barely here at all, so it’s easy to make the world forget. You’re real. It’s much harder.”

What? Anders shook his head. “As long as you’re alright,” he said, tentatively. Cole seemed benign, if enigmatic; they had saved him and Justice from a truly awful position, and Anders genuinely didn’t wish any harm to them.

Cole straightened a little, their head turning back towards Haven like a hunting dog towards a rustle in the brush. No -- more like a startled bird. “They know you’re missing,” they said. “We should go.”

It felt almost like being in the Wardens again, stumbling over roots and slipping on leaf mush.

“Why help me?” Anders asked, when he had gotten a little into the rhythm of walking. “You must know what I’ve done. All of Thedas does.”

The – well, Anders wasn’t sure what Cole was – nodded. “You set the fire. Broke the walls, broke the stones. She was waiting for an excuse, and you couldn’t let her. They all would have died, and no one would have cared.”

“Most of them died anyway,” muttered Anders bitterly.

“Less than if they hadn’t fought!”

There was a new tone to Cole’s voice – a fierce, frustrated defiance that drew Anders’s, drew Justice’s attention like a candle in the dark. Cole’s shoulders bunched; their hands flew in more purposeful gestures, describing vague shapes as they struggled with words.

“Less than if they hadn’t fought,” Cole repeated. “And now they all fight, and – and – people hurt, yes, but – they were hurting before! Now they have hope! They’re fighting to be free, so no one ever has to die in the dark again! If you hadn’t, they wouldn’t! They would just keep hurting, and no one would help! They wouldn’t know, or they would think it was right! You made them see!”

Yes, hummed Justice, loud and proud. Anders blinked, and shook themself a little. “ … Really?”

“Yes,” said Cole, insistent. “You’re like me. You’re for helping. You can’t be kept, caught, caged. Some of them would kill you if they could convince the rest. It’s not right! You were helping!”

Oh. Anders hunched inwards, folding his arms around his ribs. The self-doubt came second nature at this point, self-hatred following close on its heels. “Was I?”

“Yes!” Cole cried, loud enough to snap the cycle before it could even really start. They skidded to a stop, whirling to face Anders so suddenly he almost tripped. “I – I can’t, it’s all knotted, how do I – ”

They lunged, closing a hand around Anders’s wrist. The healer startled, but Cole’s grip was like iron; even as Anders started to panic, the bright earnestness in Cole’s gray-black eyes brought him back down.

“I’m not like you,” they said. “I forgot what I was. I was scared, and hurt. I hurt people to make myself more real. It was wrong. You were hurt and scared too, but you never forgot. You were always helping, or trying to! If you can’t make it right, you can at least make it stop. Never again. Vengeance. Sometimes it’s all you have.” Their free hand fluttered. “They call me ‘demon’, too, and I know I’m not. They say that when they don’t like you, so they can call you bad and ignore the rest.”

Oh. Justice’s turn, now, humming soft and surprised in the back of Anders’s head. Not that they hadn’t known that – but it was a relief to hear from someone else, when they always worried it had some kernel of truth. Or more than a kernel.

Cole turned to Anders – there was no physical ‘turning’ involved, but a shift in focus that they all felt. “You understand! A healer for the hurt. Hurting to heal. Cut, cauterize what you can’t keep. Better to lose a limb than a life. Tell him!”

“How are you doing that?” said Anders, lacking a proper response. “That – you’re in my head. How does that work?”

They are drawn to hurt, offered Justice. To help and to heal. They see where they are most needed.

Cole stiffened, their eyes widening. “Thank you,” they breathed; before Anders could react, they darted closer and flung their arms around Anders’s chest. “Thank you! You understand! Everyone calls me 'it' and 'demon'! I’m not!”

No.” Justice cut in, their voice rumbling like thunder, their shoulders bunched with restrained anger. “No, cousin, you are far from demonic. It is their failing, not yours, that they believe otherwise.

“Oh,” Cole said, very quietly. “I – I was, but I’m not anymore. Let me help?”

They sounded on the verge of tears, their voice thick with relief. Tentatively, Anders settled his hands on their shoulders. “If you’d like,” he said carefully. “If you’re sure.”

“Oh, good.” Cole tightened their hug, then stepped away, ducking smoothly out from Anders’s hands. They glanced over their shoulder, back at the direction of Haven. “I’ll stay with you,” they announced. “You need me. And I think – ”

They frowned, abruptly puzzled, their hands twisting together.

“Justice. I think I need you, too.”