“Help me — ”
“Whoa!” The Iron Bull startled, flailing away from the source of the voice. “Don't sneak up on people like that!”
“S-s-sorry,” stammered Cole. They shrank back, as if they were going to leave and try again. The Iron Bull shot out a hand.
“Hey, hey, hey now,” he said quickly, “no need to be sorry. You're alright, what's up?”
Cole still looked skittish, but they didn't bolt, and the Iron Bull could still remember getting startled, so they probably hadn't done their thing. They rocked back on their heels, wrapped their arms around their chest, twisted their torso away. “Help me — he wants to — I — no, no, no, no, no!” They bunched inwards like a crumpled cloth, rocking back and forth rapidly, pounding their head with both fists.
Anger sparked in the Iron Bull’s chest. He might have been scared shitless of Cole, himself, but the kid had a good heart, and they deserved better than this kind of scare.
The Iron Bull knew the look. He had it; half the Chargers had it. Bad experiences that stuck to the bones and wouldn't let go, that drove people to panic, bite and bolt like wild animals, or else freeze up entirely, or start babbling all kinds of things to deflect whatever they thought was coming. Cole practically stank of that kind of fear — if the Iron Bull had been slightly more magically sensitive, he imagined he could see the memories dripping off the kid. Someone had set them off, bad, and whoever it was was going to get a taste of the Bull’s horns.
He kept his voice level, though, to ask, “Who's this ‘he’? Did someone threaten you?” No point in spooking the kid further.
“He,” stuttered Cole, shivering. They shook their head so violently their whole body jerked from side to side. “The stone, the bleeding iron, black blood, a shining sword, the stone eats him so he eats it back to make it stop, he — ”
That was creepy, but the Iron Bull had resolved to get to the bottom of this, try and help the poor kid, and damn it if he was going to let his own nerves stop him. “Slow down,” he said, light and easy. “I can't understand you. What's this about — eating stones? A bloody sword?”
Usually Varric was ‘the Stone’, as far as the Iron Bull knew, but he couldn't imagine Varric doing something to put Cole in this state, and that wouldn't explain the “shining sword” or “eating stones” business, anyway. No, that all sounded like …
Ugh. The Iron Bull’s voice dropped even lower. “Did a Templar threaten you?”
Cole nodded, wrapping their arms around themself. The Iron Bull couldn't see their face under that massive hat, but their hands were going white-knuckled on their shoulders, and they trembled like an old pier in rough seas. “Help me,” they rasped, their voice small and broken. “Hide me, I — I — ”
Alright, thought the Iron Bull, he was going to kill whoever’s fault this was. He swallowed the growl and crouched instead, bracing one hand on his knee and reaching out for Cole’s shoulder with the other. He waited for a tiny nod before touching them — ah, shit, his one hand practically swallowed their shoulder, completely engulfed Cole’s own. “‘s alright,” he rumbled. “You came to the right place. No one's gonna hurt you ‘less they can get through me. And nobody gets through me.”
Cole nodded again, the motion tight and terrified. Shit. They were a Fade-thing, the Iron Bull knew that, no matter how convincingly they pretended to be a person; dangerous, untrustworthy, a corrupting influence whether they meant to be or not. But this? Here? This was a very, very scared kid with nowhere else to turn, cringing away from help as if the very act of asking would call down some new hurt, as if they expected to pay for any favors in blood.
“S-sorry,” they stuttered. “Sorry. Sorry, I — !” They slipped out from under the Iron Bull’s hand like smoke, simply there one moment and a foot sideways the next. He did his best not to jump. “I shouldn't,” said Cole nervously, shifting a foot back as if to bolt. “Shouldn't, I, I'm sorry — ”
The Iron Bull let his hand drop, kept both carefully low. “Yes, you should've,” he said, light-voiced. “Something’s got you real scared, scared enough to come to me. Now what's up? What Templar is this?”
“Shining armor,” said Cole, “shining gold, gilt over the grime — Captain, Commander, he says he changed but he — but he — !”
“Cullen,” said the Iron Bull. Cole nodded. Ugh. The Iron Bull had always gotten a slimy feeling from the man, like if you touched him the paint would come off on your fingers. “He won't touch you, alright? Not with me in the way. What'd he do to spook you this bad?”
“The,” they stammered. It took them a solid thirty seconds to get the word out.
“Take your time,” said the Iron Bull. Cole nodded, twitchy — then all at once went still.
“The Inquisitor met a woman with a shining light inside her, a trusted friend she couldn't bear to lose,” they said. Their voice echoed, their demeanor suddenly distant and chill. Despite himself, the Iron Bull shivered. “The Commander thinks of different lights — different, darker — ” Cole’s voice stuttered, then broke. “He wants to hurt her,” they said, looking at the Iron Bull for their first time, their eyes wide and wild and frantic. “Put to fire and sword — abomination — split the skin to sever the spirit, or slay her trying! He can't — but — b-but — ”
Pieces fell into place. “But you're a spirit,” said the Iron Bull. “You're scared he’ll hurt you.”
Cole nodded. They seemed about to say something, but all they managed was a strangled wheeze. Their shoulders heaved; their mouth opened, but no sound came out, only their wheezing growing increasingly loud and desperate.
“Ah, shit,” the Iron Bull muttered. “Hey. Hey, look at me. Not at my face, if you don’t want, but look at me. Focus on my chest, there’s plenty of that.” He offered his hands, open with the palms turned up. Cole grabbed for them like a drowning man, their fingers icy-cold and clammy. The Iron Bull kept his hands open, kept talking, kept his voice low and calm. “Breathe with me. Alright? In — ” He inhaled, counting in his head. “Out — ” He exhaled, for a slightly shorter count, then paused before inhaling again.
After a few rounds, Cole picked up the rhythm. Stuttering and shaky at first, with gentle encouragement their shoulders dropped and their shivering eased. They still looked ready to bolt if startled, their eyes wide and watery, flickering at small sounds, but they always looked like that; at least they were breathing, and didn’t sound like they’d been stabbed in the lung.
“There you go.” The Iron Bull shifted back onto his heels, letting out a breath as he thought. “Nobody is gonna hurt you on my watch, alright?” Cole still had that coiled-spring look about them, tense and shifty — no, guilty almost, in a way that was definitely not normal. “That’s not all, huh? It’s not just that you’re scared he’ll hurt you. Something else you wanna talk about?” The Iron Bull paused a moment — realizing belatedly that Cole wasn’t, actually, one of his Chargers, and wouldn’t necessarily know the rules — then added, “You don’t have to. Just offering to listen.”
Cole bit their lip, twisting their shoulders away. Their hands clenched, but stayed in the middle of the Iron Bull’s palms, as if that touch was the only thing holding them in place. Hell, maybe it was.
“I s-s-shouldn’t,” Cole said. “He hurts! T-that’s why he would h-hurt her, if he could. That’s why he’s afraid of me, because of what they did, that’s why if he could — ” There was the distinct feeling of something snapping; Cole’s eyes went wide and white, staring at something far away as they muttered to themself. The Iron Bull barely caught any of it. “ — wouldn’t — nobody — know, or — ”
Their breath caught, and they shook themself. If they folded much further inward, the Iron Bull thought, they’d fold themself right back through to the Fade.
“I should help him,” they said, their voice shaking. “B-but I c-c-can’t! I don’t even want to! He would hurt me if he could, but — ”
Their eyes slid back towards the Iron Bull even as they twisted away, nervous like a caged animal, waiting on something — waiting on judgment, the Iron Bull realized. He sighed, taking a moment to pick his words.
“Look,” he said, his voice artificially casual, his speech artificially blunt. “I don’t get this whole spirit business so well. But you’re scared of someone who you know wants to hurt you. So you’ve got common sense and some basic survival instinct.” The Iron Bull shrugged. “So he’s got some kinda back-issues and he hates spirits. But I’ve got my issues, too, and if I were going to hurt you, we wouldn’t be talking. Right?”
Cole nodded, then ducked their head, staring at the ground. “If I don’t have to help him,” they mumbled, “what am I?”
“You’re a smart, kind kid who knows to stay the hell away from people who’ll hurt you.” The Iron Bull shook his head. “You owe that guy nothing, alright? He decided to think you’re a monster, when it’s obvious to anyone you’re nothing over the sort. Forget him. He doesn’t deserve your time.”
Cole mulled that over for a while, their eyes tracking a beetle as it crawled up a grass blade. They pulled one hand away and crouched, catching it on their finger when it seemed about to fall.
“Really?” they asked, their voice quiet. “Is it obvious?”
“As obvious as I’m not an elf.” The Iron Bull grinned, leaned back and stood. “I was gonna meet up with the Chargers when you caught me. Wanna come?”
Cole blinked up at him, craning their neck at an angle that must have been uncomfortable. “Eyes for each other,” they said, tilting their head. “Back to back. It’s like walls, but better.”
“Yeah, that,” the Iron Bull agreed. “Safety in numbers, huh? Better than anything. Coming?”
Cole put the beetle down in the grass, shooing it away. “I … would like that.”
“Great!” The Iron Bull patted them on the shoulder when they stood. “You’re alright. Nobody gets through us, not for anything. And — ” His grin flickered, his voice dropping. “Hey. If you go missing, we’ll find you, alright?”
Cole stared at their feet, fingers tangling together as they swayed from side to side, but their voice was soft and their shoulders loose when they answered. “Alright.”