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The Joining was a highly anticipated event for Gray Wardens. Few survive the Joining for it is a test of the recipients’ physical and spiritual resolve. To drink the blood of darkspawn can result in a tragic death sentence, and John was willing to take that risk. Anxiety was driving high. Three new recruits have already died before his turn. He stepped up to the Warden-Commander and shakily took the chalice from his hands. His last thought was of his daughter, Angel, when the warm liquid touched the back of his throat. He felt his body waver and crumble onto the ground as visions of terrible archdemon plagued his mind.

Music stirred him awake. His throat stung like the burning of a thousand suns that he sputtered and coughed at the feeling. The string playing stopped. He felt a strong gentle hand cup the back of his head and gingerly lift him enough for him to drink the bowl dry.

Jack let out another cough and exhaled. “Thanks, pumpkin.”

“Uhhh, you’re welcome…?” A somewhat deeper, sheepish voice answered, “Welcome to the Gray Wardens, John.”

“Call me Jack--Mmm augh, jeez, how long is this taste gonna be in my mouth for? Damn, that’s gross.”

“Aheh, you get used to it after a week.”

“A week?! Come oonnn...” Jack massaged the bridge of his nose before finally opening his eyes. His caretaker was a fellow, familiar-looking Gray Warden. He had a beard and square tattoos around his eyes that follow to his ears like glasses. Jack squinted at him and vaguely pointed his direction. “Wait, wait, wait, I know you, don’t I? You’re, like, the only dwarf here. Augh, maker, don’t tell me-- I’ll get it... Ron?”

“Vaughn.”

He snapped his fingers. “Vaughn! That’s what I said. Let me guess, ol’ Commander assigned you to me?”

“Is that a problem…?” Vaughn cautiously titled his head.

“What? No, I don’t got a problem with dwarfs, unlike you-know-who. I swear humans are so freakin’ anal about everything.”

“And elves aren’t?”

Jack gave a wavy hand gesture alongside a hum before resting it against his eyes. “Are we supposed to get headaches after drinking that shit?”

“Sometimes but it won’t last too long. You probably just need food, you’ve been out for six hours.”

Jack groaned, “Later, too tired. Hey, where’d that music go?”

“Oh, that was me.” He picked up the aged guitar beside his leg and held it in his lap.

“You any good?”

“I hope so. I’ve been playing for at least a decade.”

“Debatable. Play somethin’.”

“You just said you had a headache.”

“Yeah, and I wanna not focus on it. So play something.”

Vaughn clicked his tongue. “Okay...” He adjusted his seating situation and Jack let himself be enraptured in his playing. The tune was recognizable but his brain was too fogged up for him to try to place the name. It was indeed helping him not concentrate on the pain and put him back to sleep.

Jack was ill suited to be a Gray Warden, Vaughn had decided. He was cocky, an initiate, and got distracted too easily with the priestesses. He wasn’t exactly a runt out of the Warden. He held his own fairly well in combat. To Vaughn, it seemed like Jack joined the Wardens for no reason. He never talked about any family members or aspirations. He was too free spirited to share the same experience with Vaughn, which was a lack of purpose. Yet, who was he to judge. This behavior could be his way of coping. Although, it was annoying.

From his stool, Vaughn watched a fellow Warden be clotheslined into the bar counter. He laid there, groaning softly. Jack was definitely making a name for himself in the ranks, much to the Commander’s dismay. Sparring was good for morale and Jack seemed to use it as an excuse to flirt with the barista, who couldn’t give a skag’s ass. Vaughn rolled his eyes and took another swing out of his pint until he was interrupted with a hard clap on the back.

Speaking of the devil, Jack smiled broadly at him and gave him a wink. “You enjoyin’ the show?”

“I was enjoying this beer.” He coughed, pounding his chest.

“Aw, c’mon. I haven’t seen you take any of these bozos out. You holdin’ back?”

Vaughn snorted, “There’s a reason why people don’t want to fight me, Jack.”

Jack leaned on the bar. “Ahhh, you do have a height advantage.”

“It’s not just the height advantage.”

“You can’t just say that and not show me. Oh, or are you just the guy who plays guitar and I’m totally misreading this?”

Vaughn looked to the elf and his wicked grin. There was a little spark in his gut that told him to not egg on his ego while the rest of his conscious encouraged him to wipe the floor with him. Maybe it was the liquid confidence talking or Vaughn was just feeling good about his chances. Jack fought dirty but as long as there weren’t any gaping wounds, anything was allowed. With his mind made up, Vaughn drank the last of his mug and hopped down from his stool. “Let’s take this outside.”

“Oooh shit!” Jack barked with laughter. “Ohhohohooo! This is gonna be good.”

Their legs were tangled up in each other as Vaughn had Jack in a choke hold for a solid minute as the two caught their breath. The grass around them had become trampled or was dug up by their heels. The elf heaved breathlessly, “Man, I’d hate to see you do this with a sword… You--uff, sure you don’t have like a title? Like, Ruthless Vaughn.”

Vaughn broke into a wheezy laugh. “I really don’t think that’s necessary.”

“You’re too damn modest--erf. Work with me.”

“I don’t need a title to kick your ass.”

“Theere’s the shittalking I was looking for! I knew you had it in you.” Using his elbow to dig into Vaughn’s side, the dwarf partially released the hold enough for Jack to throw his head back and knock the dwarf off him.

Vaughn found himself with his hands above his head and his legs tied up as Jack towered over him. His usual pristine wavy hair fell across his face in a wet heap that Vaughn found annoyingly attractive. “Gotcha.” Jack winked.

Vaughn gulped.

The elf hoisted him onto his feet and clapped him on the back once more. The crowd around them broke up due to the Warden-Commander’s vapid need for attention. Vaughn could hear him over the sound of his heart pounding in his ear but by his frantic hand waving and signaling towards the east, they needed to move out as quickly as possible. As the Commander pushed his way out of the thinned out circle, Jack stuck his tongue out. “What a bitch. Are we ever going to hear a ‘Attaboy, fellas’ or ‘Hey, here’s a big pile of money’ from this guy?”

Feeling an exceeding amount of weight on his head that was not from a headache, Vaughn shoved the elf off. “Don’t bet on it. We need to get moving.”

“Aye, aye, Captain Serious.”

“Jack, it’s kind of our job to be serious.”

“Uh, yeah, I know, but we’re basically heroes here. The old man should let us have some fun. Maybe if he gets laid, he’ll loosen up. As if anyone is willing to bone down with that guy.”

Not wanting to take part in the conversation, Vaughn merely hummed and continued packing up their tent as Jack droned on, until the dwarf dropped his stuff into his hands.

The dwarf smiled at the elf’s pout as he moaned. “Do I have to carry all this? Don’t we have people to do stuff like this for us?”

“If I say no, am I going to hear the hero spiel again?”

“Pshh, c’mon, Vaughn. Am I not right in saying that we’re heroes?”

He put the guitar strap over his shoulder. “I mean, I guess so? We are pretty equipped to fight darkspawn.”

“Right?! People should be thanking us! Free food, a real place to stay not in the middle of nowhere--Tell you what, cupcake, when we make a pitstop at… whatever town we’re going to stop at, I’ll show you how it’s done.”

Rolling his eyes, the dwarf took out the first peg out of the dirt. “I’m really not interested in ‘picking up girls’, Jack.”

“I said nothing about girls, Vaughn.”

His face was engulfed in a reddish hue like a wildfire that sent Jack into hysterics. Vaughn took his shield and roughly hit the elf’s side. “Shut up!”

“Is thaaat why you joined the Gray Wardens? To look at all the cute boys in armor-- OooooOooo~ Vaughn, you sly dog!” Jack leaned his weight on him as he cooed.

“Andraste's-- NO! That is not why, you asshole! Is that why YOU joined you-- you-- Augh!”

“Good comeback, kid.” Jack watched in amusement as he fumbled with deconstructing the tent. “If you tell me why you joined, I’ll tell you mine.”

“No.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll go first. I became a Warden for my daughter.”

All the anger drained out of his body in a flash. Vaughn dropped what he was doing and looked up to the oddly stoic Jack who didn’t meet his gaze. He blinked. “You’re a father? No offense, but I really didn’t expect that out from you.”

“You’re not the first to say that.” He said with a sad smile. “I was married once-- twice, actually. First one died, the second found someone better, so it was just me and Angel against the world. She’s in the Circle right now. She’s such a brilliant mage. I know she’s working hard in there. She’s… she’s my sunshine. I just want her to have a father to be proud of, you know what I mean?”

After finding his voice, Vaughn nodded, “Absolutely.”

“That’s why I’m here. I’ve been writing her since the Joining. They don’t let anyone in the Circle write back, because dumb political reasons or maybe they just don’t like me, whatever. I just hope she’s doing okay. I’d kill them if they made her tranquil. She’s too brilliant to let all that talent go to waste.” Jack let in a heavy inhale before turning back towards him. “Your turn.”

Vaughn didn’t answer at first. He resumed his task of rolling up the tent and then banded it together. He sheathed his sword and put the tent roll under his arm. When their eyes met, Jack was gazing at him with genuine concern that it made Vaughn stumble. “It’s… not as touching as yours.”

“This isn’t a contest, kid.”

That didn’t give him much confidence to work with. “I… I lost my will to live. I was either going to die or become a Gray Warden. So, as you can tell, I have a purpose now.”

“That… shit. H-hey--”

Vaughn waved his hand away. “Please, don’t. I’m not looking for sympathy.”

The area around them was clearing up significantly. Jack shadowed him to the entrance to the camp, which was an abandoned church on its last leg. What an odd metaphor. Jack hummed.

Steadfastly ignoring the Commander the moment he started talking, Jack bent down slightly and nudged the dwarf with his elbow. “It’s more of empathy.”

Vaughn sighed, “What?”

“I said it was more empathy. I totally get where you’re coming from. You wanted to let someone that wasn’t you decide your life, absolutely... But are you happy? Do you regret this choice?”

“... I don’t know.”

“That’s completely okay. Look, kid, you come to me if you want some help, alright?”

“I... don’t know what to say.”

Jack gave a useless shrug, “You don’t have to say anything, Vaughn. Just don’t give up.”

By the maker, Vaughn was starting to like this guy.

As they approached Lynchwood, Vaughn’s heart fell into his stomach at the sight of darkspawn destroying the town. They were briefed beforehand and he could feel their presence tingle his brain, yet the dwarf was not expecting there to be hundreds of them at once. Buildings were totalled by their destruction. The clock tower’s base looked to be partially blown up.

Suddenly, Jack screamed, “Nisha!!”

“Hey!” Vaughn hurriedly stopped the elf from running ahead by grabbing his arm. “What are you doing?!”

“My girlfriend is stuck in that! She can’t handle all of that by herself! I need to get in there.”

“You do that and you’ll die before you get the chance!” Vaughn shook him. “We’ll get there and I’ll help you look for her, okay?”

Jack nodded vigorously. “Okay, okay, okay, okay… fuck...”

“Stay with me, alright?”

“Y-yeah, yeah. You fought those thing before?”

“Yes, but not this many.”

“We’re so outnumbered.”

“Don’t lose faith, Jack.” Vaughn gave him a reassuring pat on his back and pushed him onward until Commander Tassiter gave out a battle cry and everyone broke into a run.

As he ordered, Jack followed Vaughn’s heels and shielded his backside. Vaughn felt something off about the darkspawn. He could see a faint greenish glow around each demon that he had never seen before. When a genlock swung at him, he parried and struck it with his blade. No blood came oozing out of the wound. It fell and disintegrated as if it was a mere illusion. He looked back at Jack and watched him take down three Hurlocks in a single swing, turning into smoke. A mage was controlling the darkspawn and terrorizing the town with his abilities.

“Jack!” Vaughn shouted over the onslaught of mayhem around them. “We need to find the source!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“Just follow me!” Vaughn shoved and sliced his way through the mix of darkspawn and demons. The Warden-Commander was nowhere in sight for him to yell out his plans. If the mage was close, it would be a bad idea anyway to loudly explain in the battlefield. He could see the other Wardens struggling against them and were dropping like skags. Now that he noticed, there weren’t any civilians that littered the grounds. He wishfully hoped that they evacuated safely before they arrived. The closer he got to the clock tower, the more the darkspawn could live through fatal strikes. The mage must be inside.

“Jack-- The clock tower!” Vaughn called out behind him as he finally finished off a rage demon. “Jack?!”

As Vaughn turned around, he saw the face of a beastly ogre and it was charging at him with high velocity. Unable to move, the dwarf stood there and watched an arrow abruptly strike the ogre in the head and explode on impact, blowing its head off its shoulders and the body fell onto its side. Before Vaughn could react, a grapple roped around his waist and yanked him backwards.

Vaughn found himself inside a building and looked to see a stranger close the door. In replacement of darkspawn growling and skin ripping, he heard ticking and tocking ringing in his ears. Stumbling onto his feet, he pointed his sword at the figure and shouted. “Who are you?!”

The woman returned the gesture by pointing her crossbow at him. “I saved your ass, you ungrateful rock shitter. I called you Gray Wardens to save my town. Good job so far, by the way. Mostly everyone is dead.”

“Oh, uh...” Vaughn retracted his weapon and rubbed the back of his neck. “We’re trying, Miss Mayor.”

“Sheriff Nisha.” The human retorted as she looked through the barred window.

“I’m Vau-- Wait, Nisha? You’re Jack’s girlfriend?”

“Yeah, and you’re his little dwarf friend. That’s why I saved you.”

“Oh… uh, count me lucky…?” Vaughn had no idea how to respond to that odd comment. “Thanks for not letting me die, I guess?”

“No problem. Now, where is he?”

“Jack? I thought he was behind me this whole time. We were heading to the tower and-- and the darkspawn are stronger here than they were at the edge of town. I think there’s a mage hiding here.”

Nisha looked at him through questioning, narrowed eyes. “A mage?”

“Yes, if a mage is powerful enough, they can control darkspawn. Those things out there aren’t normal. They are supposed to bleed but it’s like we’re fighting reanimated corpses and only mages can do something like that. He has to be here or behind-- Do you not believe me?”

“Look outside, Vaughn. There are hundreds if not a thousand of those assholes and you’re telling me that one mage can do all that? And why my town?! I don’t have qualms against mages!”

He put his hands up in defense. “I’m just saying what I know! I don’t know how many mages there are, but obviously their magic is stronger here, in the middle of your town. I’m sure you’re a lovely person, but some people don’t need a reason to destroy a whole town these days!”

Nisha took another glance outside and frowned. “If you think so, I hope you brought back up. A lot of your Wardens are dying out there. I’m going to look for Jack--”

Vaughn stood in front of her. “Don’t! I’m an expendable, I’ll look for him. You stay here where it's safe, Miss Mayor--Sheriff-- Nisha-- uh, ma’am? I’m going.”

Opening the doors, the dwarf sprinted back out into the field and scanned over the crowd until he found the Warden-Commander in the thick of the battle. Thrusting himself back into the fray, Vaughn focused on dodging out of the way of the hordes of armored darkspawn that pounced or hurled their weapons at him. One of the daggers that were flung at him got caught in his shoulder blade but Vaughn carried on despite the blasted pain.

Finally, after narrowly slipping out from under another ogre, Vaughn found the Commander and stopped dead in his tracks. Jack was there but he had his back to the dwarf. Out of shock, Vaughn dropped his weapon. Jack had plunged his sword into Tassiter’s stomach and was now ripping it out of his flesh with a forceful kick. Commander Tassiter’s lifeless body hit the ground as Vaughn screamed, “Jack?! What the fuck!”

Whirling around, Jack stared at him with wide eyes. “Vaughn! He-he was corrupted! I was doing him a favor!! He was trying to kill me! Hey!” Jack ran over to his side and pulled him out of the way of an hurdlock’s axe coming down at him. The elf shoved the darkspawn back with his shield and kicked Vaughn’s sword in his direction.

As he tried to shake off his surprise, Vaughn grabbed it and yelled in a shaking voice. “We need to go to the clock tower! Nisha’s there.”

“She’s alive! Yes! Let’s go! Go, go!” He cut off the spine off one of the skeletons and made a mad dash towards the center of town with Vaughn trailing behind him.

As they drew closer, Nisha hauled the door open and slammed it shut, locking it with a wooden plank underneath the handles. The three looked at the windows in wait, but the darkspawn seemed to be waiting for them to come back out. Their hissing and dead stares sent a chill up Vaughn’s spine.

Breathlessly, Jack smiled and approached her with open arms. “Nisha! Man, am I so happy to see--” She slapped him across the face. Stunned, Jack slowly touched his red cheek and glared at her, baring his teeth. “What the hell is your deal--mmm!”

Nisha closed his mouth with her own and pulled him tightly into her by the arms. Jack quickly reciprocated with vigor as he grabbed her hips, growling loudly when he slipped his tongue through his lips. Meanwhile, Vaughn looked away, feeling slightly violated.

“Now that’s the hero’s welcome I was looking for.”

“We need to talk. In Private. Now.”

Vaughn jerked his head. “Now?! We’re in danger!”

“Then stay here and keep watch like a good little dwarf.” As Nisha advanced towards him, Vaughn backed up. “If you think I’m being unreasonable then I have news for you. You’re NOT the only person who has witnessed a massacre today. I couldn’t save a single person out there except myself. Do you have any idea how that feels?!”

Jack rushed over and held her by her shoulders, “Nisha! Hey--! Hey, hey, don’t cry. It’s going to be okay. Your hero is right here. We’ll get out of this soon.”

Vaughn timidly stepped forward. “I-I’m really sorry, Nisha. I’ll... I’ll make sure no one comes down the stairs while you two talk.”

Jack took the initiative and smiled at him as he lead Nisha towards the door labelled employee longue. “Thanks, kid, I owe you. C’mon, sweetheart.”

Closing the door behind him, Jack gently nuzzled Nisha’s neck. “I didn’t think you actually cared for those morons, but don’t worry, I’ve got you, babe.”

“I was acting you idiot.” She hissed as she tore herself away from him.

Jack blinked. “Oh, well... Damn, you’re good at this.”

“I know. Now why is he alive?”

“Uhh...”

“Let’s kill the Gray Wardens, you said. It’ll be soooo easy, you said. Why haven’t you slit his throat yet? He knows what’s going on. He told me that there might be a mage hiding out here controlling the darkspawn.”

“He knows it’s Angel...?”

“No, he called her a ‘he’. Seriously, Jack, if you keep him alive, he’ll try to kill you when he finds out about this.”

“Babe, c’mon, I’ve got that dwarf wrapped around my finger-- speaking of, why did you let him come get me? He saw me murder that Tassiter asshole!”

“Don’t point fingers at me! I didn’t let him do anything! I tried to go after you but he ran off. Did you want me to blow my cover that soon?”

“Nisha, I love you. I’m glad you didn’t, but give him a chance. He’s grown on me. He’s a good kid. I think he’d be a great asset to the team.”

“You said the same thing with that elf girl and look how great that turned out for you.”

“He’s not Athena, babe! He’s not just muscle, he has experience that we need. Let’s give him some time. Maybe, it’ll be like Hugo. He just as eager as you were when I finally told him.”

Nisha looked at him through annoyed eyes. “Fine. But if he does anything I don’t like, I’m killing him.”

“Pff, fine by me.” Jack opened the door and looked out to see that Vaughn had disappeared. “Vaughn? Little buddy! Helloooo? Where’d you go?”

Nisha squinted upwards. “... You don’t think he’s heading up to the clock, do you?”

“... Shit.”

Vaughn opened the trapdoor at the top of the staircase and climbed into the giant room. Above him, gears spun and clacked as they worked to move the four faces of the clock in unison. Vaughn whistled at the sight of the craftsmanship. He wondered how his guitar would sound in this big space. Shaking out of his amazement, Vaughn looked about at the white drapes that rested along old furniture. There were some huge chests that were locked that Vaughn assumed to be tax from the civilians, waiting to be shipped out to the empire by the end of the year. There weren’t any signs of unusual lumps in the cloth as far as he could tell.

It was a risk, but it was possible that the mage or mages had a reason to not storm the clock tower to murder them. Vaughn sheathed his blade and called out in a friendly tone, “Hello? Is anyone up here? I just want to ask you a couple of questions. I won’t hurt you. I’m sure you’ve got your reasons for, uh, killing… everyone. We all make mistakes-- no, this is not a mistake, what am I saying? Uh, here.” Vaughn untied and dropped the sheath onto the floor with a loud thud. “I’m unarmed! I just want to talk. It’s just me. Here. I’ll close the trap door too. Did you hear that? It’s closed.”

After waiting another minute, he gained no further response. He saw nothing move inside the room either. Vaughn hummed as he pulled out his guitar, absently plucking at the strings of the song in his head. “You must have a reason not to bring your darkspawn here, so I can wait as long as you can. If you don’t mind some music… or me singing. I don’t think I’m too tone deaf.” He paused as if waiting for a laugh that never came and pressed onto focusing on his vocals.

As Nisha and Jack finally reached the top, he hurriedly stopped her from thrusting open the hatch. She smacked his hand off of hers. “What?!”

“Shhh! Listen...”

Through the floorboards, a beautiful melody accompanied with a silky voice echoed.

You're dislocated
Don't be like that
And you smile when you dive in
Like you're never coming back

“Ok, he’s a baritone, what about it?”

“He’s singing to her.”

Nisha scoffed and threw open the trapdoor, resting her torso on the next level. “The hell are you doing, stunty?”

Vaughn, who was sitting on the floor, jumped in surprise that he stopped playing. “I-I was trying to coax them out.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Jack kicked the back of her leg on his way up. “Ow…!”

Jack hopped into the room with ease, giving her an unapologetic smile, “Sorry, babe. No luck, kid?”

“... Maybe, I was wrong.” A flood of guilt drowned his thoughts. “Fuck, everyone died because of me… Fuck!” He clutched his head.

Jack knelt down, taking him by the arm, “Whoa! No, no! No, no, no one died because you had a hunch. We did the best we could and, hey, you saved me.”

“What are we going to do now, Jack...? We’re stuck here!”

“I’ve got an idea.” Nisha said, raising her crossbow.

Jack shot her a wary gaze, warning her not to kill him. “Nisha, we aren’t doing that. Let’s just spend the night here, think on a game plan, and execute in the morning. How’s that sound?”

Vaughn sniffled, his voice quivering. “Okay.”

Nisha loudly groaned and ducked her head out of sight. Even her footsteps sounded annoyed as she walked back down the staircase.

“How’re you doing--?” When Jack touched his back, Vaughn arched and cried out in pain. Quickly, Jack glanced over and saw a gaping wound that the chainmail was split around. “Shit, why didn’t you say you were hurt! C’mon, Vaughn, let’s fix you up. I think Nisha’s got some supplies back down. Slow and steady, there you go.”

After the trap door shut behind them, the mage waited on bated breath until the footsteps were only faint echoes. Angel exhaled and emerged from her hiding spot. One Gray Warden lived and he was nice. She murdered his friends and he met her with kindness and sang for her. She wiped the tears from her eyes. She wondered what he looked like. Jack’s only description she gave her and Nisha was that he was a dwarf with a beard, which Nisha said in an exaggerated tone, “That is the only way to describe a dwarf, you dipshit.”
She hoped he was better than Wilhelm or Hugo. They didn’t treat her with hospitality as he did. Then again, they had not properly met yet. She wanted to meet him, officially. Jack wrote that he was playing this Vaughn for a sucker, but Angel knew her father. In that moment, Jack was genuinely concerned for the dwarf. Vaughn must have said something that blind sided Jack for him to react that way. The only time she had seen him show an ounce of humanity was when he caught her attempting suicide.
There was a song stuck in her head that she couldn’t help humming along to as Vaughn’s voice flowed through her head. Although the old wood boards creaked under her weight, she needed to dance along to the tune. It was comforting. She needed to feel this sense of comfort.
She wished she would be able to hear him sing more in the future.

When the clock struck midnight, the trapdoor opened again and, although the dark hid her, Angel ducked behind an old couch in the corner of the room as she heard someone gently close the door.

“Daddy’s home, baby girl. You can come out now.”

There was supposed to be a sense of ease that accompanied such sentimental words, but Angel didn’t feel that. Hopelessness struck her core. Slowly, she stepped into the lantern's light.

He grinned and pulled her into a hug. “You did so good today, Angel, you got them all! I’m so proud of you.” He kissed the top of her head. “So proud!”

She mumbled a monotone thanks into his chest. “Who was that man?”

“That was Vaughn. Did you like him?”

“His voice was pretty...”

Jack giggled, combing her hair. “He did have a nice voice. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to introduce you when the time comes, but for now, we’ve got to get you out of here.”

“Are you sure he’s asleep?”

“I checked, pumpkin. You’re clear.”

“And if not?”

“Then I’ll kill him.” He gave her a bone chilling smile as he reopened the hatch for her. Vaughn was just another expendable to him. Angel’s heart grew heavy at the thought. “Tell you what, since you’re not sure, I’ll go down first, you follow behind me, and signal you if it’s safe, okay?”

“Okay...”

“You remember where to go?”

“I do.”

“Good girl. We’ll meet up with you and Hugo soon.”

At the bottom of the stairs, Jack listened and waited for any sound of the dwarf, whether be his footsteps or instrument playing, but there was neither. He gazed up and waved his hand over the lantern. He stopped when he heard her shuffle towards the next set of steps and he headed into the lounge, closing the door behind him.

Jack woke up to Nisha shaking him. He grabbed her wrists, glowering, “What?!”

“You overslept. We need to move. I already packed everything.”

“Andraste's tits, damn, I’m up, let's go--” He noticed that they were the only people in the room of tables and chairs. “Where’s shortstack?”

“Outside playing with his friends’ corpses for the last hour.”

“Wha...?” Nisha moved Jack into the foyer, where the front door was wide open, and pointed at the dirt crossroads. Gray Warden armor was strewn around the pyre Vaughn was sitting next to. Jack cocked his head. “What am I looking at?”

“It’s a dwarf thing. They burn their dead.”

“That’s… one way to get rid of them, I guess. Good. Less work for us.” He called out, “Vaughn! Garas! We gotta get goin’!”

At once, the dwarf jumped up, grabbed his shield, and bolted over to them. His hair clung to his sweaty forehead. He panted, “S-sorry.”

“No need, I get ya. What you did was sentimental. I’ve been forgetting ask, how long have you been with the Wardens for?”

“A year.”

Jack steadfastly ignored Nisha’s exaggerated expression as he faked sympathy. “Yikes… I’m sorry I don’t exactly share the same motions you’re going through, especially since… well, you know.”

“Y-yeah, it’s… I’ll, I’ll be okay.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Jack rustled his already messed up hair. He smirked at his flushed face before leading the group. “Good! You ready to meet some Circle mages? I meant to say this last night but nice work remembering the treaties. I had no idea that was a thing.”

“It would be better if I knew where they were so we can actually give it to them. I searched Tassiter--the town but they're just gone. They are not something you just misplace...”

“Don’t worry, dwarf.” Nisha readied her crossbow. “I can be very persuasive.”

“And if that doesn’t work, I’ll use my award winning smile and charming personality.”

“I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Don’t be such a downer, Vaughn. We got this. If they say no, we’ve got other options! Have some faith in us! I’m sure your dwarf friends will listen to you.”

Vaughn didn’t answer that.

It took them days to reach the entrance to the Circle of Magi. Days of Vaughn wondering why and how the darkspawn decided to leave them alone when they were without an escape route. Even though last night was a bust, he was convinced that it was a mage, who was stuck inside the clock tower with them. Whoever the mage was didn’t want to kill them for a reason, possibly out of fear or wanting a fighting chance. He or she or they could have killed him easily, even though Vaughn let himself be wide open to the mage.

It was a low chance, but the said mage or mages could be hiding out here. Although, he had heard stories of the Circle of Magi being a sort of prison for mages, but it was hard to judge stories these days. Seeing the Circle of Magi up close like this gave Vaughn the sinking feeling that he wasn't supposed step foot inside. It was what he imagined a grand palace to look like with the tower's pristine marble walls and beautifully crafted doors...

Jack kicked the doors open and sauntered into the main hall as if he owned the place. A very important looking Templar was in the middle of conversing with an underling when they stepped in. The lieutenant quickly pushed forward and stopped Jack from moving further by drawing his sword, shouting. “Not a step more!”

“Hey, we’re Gray Wardens, cupcake. Chillax.” The elf shoved the blade aside and approached the Knight-Commander, with his arms open as a strange attempt to stop him from staring at Vaughn. Jack put his arm around his shoulders. “Hugo! How’s Angel training going?”

Hugo was expecting Jack to be the only Gray Warden. Hell, he expected a different entry all together. He tried not to obviously glance at the dwarf... as well as freak out about Jack touching him. “Uh, good. She--She’s doing just fine. What are you… two doing here?”

“That is something that all of us need to discuss, in private, Mr. Commander, sir. If you would please lead the way to your office, that would be mucho apprecinado. And if you could call me Sir Gray Warden Jack, that’d be great.”

Vasquez slowly nodded as he fixed his collar, “Of course, Sir… Gray Warden Jack. Okay… And you are?”

“Vaughn, but you don’t have to give me that title.”

“Right...” Hugo side-eyed Nisha as he opened the doors up to the tower.

Without wasting another moment, Jack buddied up against Vaughn. “You know that there’s a bunch of mages that live here, but you know there’s like other Circles and whatever. You remember my daughter, Angel? She’s staying right here! I know this pressing but I really want you to meet her.”

Vaughn smiled slightly. “So you can show her off?”

“Hell yeah, you know what I’m talking about!”

The Knight-Commander urged Nisha to walk closer as he whispered, gesturing with his eyes at Vaughn. “Uh, what is that?”

“Jack’s pet. He’s giving it a trial run. I want to kill it. It’s useless and slowing us down.”

As they reached the living quarters, Jack waved them off before leading Vaughn through the second door to the right. Hugo pressed on, continuing in a hushed tone, “I don’t think we should be so obstinate. Give him a chance.”

“You’re a kissass, Vasquez.” Nisha said openly, shouldering ahead of him.

“You’re a kissass, Vasquez. I’m Jack’s girlfriend, meh...” Hugo mocked in a high voice to himself.

Sprawled on her bed with a book in her hands, Angel looked as if she was being lulled to sleep until she heard her father’s voice bounce into the room. She hid the book underneath pillow and stumbled out of bed. She easily faked a genuine smile and ran over the moment she saw Jack step inside the dorm, throwing her arms around him. “Dad!”

“Angel!” He lifted her up into his arms and squeezed her as she giggled. “I’ve missed you so much, baby girl. Have you gotten lighter? What are they feeding you in here?”

“Garbage.” She willfully admitted.

“Well, it’s good that your papa is going to have a talk with the Knight-Commander then. I’ll make sure that complaint gets to him, sweetie. Oh, but first--” Once he set her down, he pressed Vaughn forward. “I want you to meet someone. This guy, right here, saved my ass from thousands of Darkspawn a few days ago. My hero, Vaughn.”

Uncomfortably, Vaughn forced a laugh. “Yup, that’s me, alright… It’s nice to meet you, Angel.”

She pitied him. She already knew he was too good for Jack. However, she carried on with excitement. “I’ve heard so much about you!” She pointed at his guitar. “Do you sing too?”

“I dabble.”

“Can you play now?”

Jack chuckled, “Maybe later, Angel. We’ve got an important Gray Warden business meeting to attend.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Are mages allowed to be in the Commander’s office?”

“If you invite me, then I am.”

Jack gently pushed her out. “Then you’re invited, let’s go!”

Angel naturally clung onto the dwarf on their way to the next floor. “What is it like? Being a Gray Warden. Do you fight dragons? Hunt mythical creatures?”

“It’s honestly not as exciting as your father probably made you think. We’re around to help keep the peace, kill Darkspawn, try to stop the blight... For the most part, we focus on recruiting… which is what we’re doing right now. Jack and I are the only Wardens left.”

“Oh… I’m… so sorry.”

“It’s not like it was your fault.”

Jack quickly suppressed his laugh by clearing his throat. Angel wanted to smack him upside the head for thinking that mass murder was funny.

Finally, they reached the Knight-Commander’s office where the Commander himself was waiting on the other side of his desk while Nisha impatiently spun her crossbow bolts in her hands near the edge of the room.

“So,” Vasquez began, “what did you want to tell me, Jack-- Sir Gray Warden… Jack.”

Jack winked and made a clicking noise with his mouth. “Good save. Listen, we’re in some serious danger and I’m going to need some help from the best mages you have. In Lynchwood, we lost...” He put up a disheartening act as he put a hand on Vaughn’s shoulder. “We lost so many good soldiers from our last time fighting Darkspawn... And as my good friend, Vaughn, has told me, since we are Gray Wardens, we’ve got these treaties that were signed, I don’t know, centuries ago that-- if we used them, you must aid us to stop this blight from spreading more corruption throughout Pandora. That’s why we’re here.”

Impressed with his speech, Hugo straightened up in his seat. “That is very unfortunate to have lost your friends, you have my condolences. Let me see the treaties.”

“We don’t have them.”

“... I’m sorry, you don’t have them?”

“Yeah, they are kind of, ah, gone, but c’mon, can’t you take my word for it? We can show you the destruction that happened in Nisha’s town. You think that fire you lit is still going?”

On the spot, Vaughn stuttered.

Hugo raised his hand. “No, no that’s fine. You don’t need to show me-- I think you bringing the sheriff here is proof enough. She’s made it quite clear of how upset she is-- Could you not swing that so close to the windows? They were custom made...”

“I’m not going to break your stupid glass portraits of yourself, Vasquez. No matter how tempting it is...”

“Jack, please control her.”

Rolling his eyes, Jack halfheartedly called to her. “Nisha, let’s not ruin the nice friendship we have with the Templars.”

“I said it was tempting. I wasn’t going to do anything.” Nisha swiftly stuck the bolts inside her quiver and leaned against one of the many pillars placed along the sides of the room.

“Excuse me?” Vaughn piped up. “I have a question.”

Despite Jack squinting down at the dwarf in disdain, Hugo attentively leaned towards him. “Yes, ah, Vaughn, was it?”

“Yes, sir. That night at Lynchwood, the Darkspawn were unusual. Unlike Jack, I’ve been a part of the Wardens for a little more than a year. I’ve seen my share of Darkspawn and lived to tell the tale. From what I’ve heard, they are somewhat on par with Abominations. Mages that are possessed by demons, am I getting that right?”

“Yes, you are correct. Abominations and Darkspawn do share some similarities, why do you ask?”

“Do Abominations bleed, sir?”

“Bleed?” Vasquez hummed. “Yes, I suppose they do.”

“These recent Darkspawn didn’t bleed. They didn’t leave a corpse behind. They just vanished when I killed them. And what’s more confusing is that when the three of us hid inside the clock tower, they didn’t come in after us like I’ve seen them do. They just stared at us all blank, like they were waiting for us to go back out. I think they were being controlled by a mage, sir. My question is did you notice any mages missing that day?”

Frowning, the Knight-Commander stood up and bored down at the dwarf. “Are you questioning my authority, dwarf? You really think I would let any of these mages slip by me? I have Templars stationed at every single level of this building and soldiers on standby outside these walls! No one can even take a shit without me knowing.” He barked, “How dare you disrespect me!”

“N-no! No, I-I meant no disrespect at all, sir!”

“Well, then, you should have started out with that, because as of right now I’m really not liking you. You question my capability as a Knight-Commander?”

“I-It was just a hunch, sir…! I-I really didn’t-- Angel?” Vaughn blinked, surprised.

Jack put a forceful hand on his arm. “Angel, this is not your conversation.”

She ripped herself from his grasp, taking a step towards Hugo’s desk. “He asked you a simple question, Commander, answer him.”

“I already made it clear to the damn dwarf that no one left this tower. There’s only one way out and snipers are posted there. If you really think it’s a mage, I suggest you look somewhere else, because none of these mages are necromancers. It’s highly discouraged and anyone practicing necromancy will be made Tranquil. How does that answer his stupid question?” Fixing his hair, Hugo lumped in his hair and huffed out in anger, “You’re not supposed to be up here, Angel. Leave. And you, apologize.”

“He’s not apologizing.”

Jack’s temper began to spiral. His jaw clenched as he spoke. “Angel. Do as the good Commander says.”

“No! He shouldn’t apologize about asking a question! Vasquez should be apologizing for his shitty behavior!”

“Language! Go to your room now, young lady!”

Gently, Vaughn caught Angel by the shoulder, pulling her back slightly. “I’ll take her down, ok?”

“Fine. We’ll be done in a minute...”

Without looking back, Vaughn took Angel and descended the long staircase. He half expected for her to shove him away like she did with her father. When he lead her back to the sleeping quarters and released her, she stayed in place, crossing her arms.

“Thank you…” Vaughn ventured with a small smile. “But you shouldn’t have gotten yourself in trouble.”

You’re not supposed to be here, Angel wanted to bite back but she held her tongue. Acting like that reeks of Jack and she did not want to follow in that bastard’s footsteps. Quietly, she trudged to her assigned bed and collapsed on top of it, digging her head into the pillow. She groaned into it to get the excess anger out of her body. She laid there, listening for the dwarf to leave. When she did hear him, he was growing closer to her. She could hear the bunk bed creak from applied weight. She removed herself from the pillow and noticed he was resting against the ladder attached to the end of the beds. He wasn’t looking at her. He seemed to be more occupied with tuning his guitar.

“Why are you still here?”

The dwarf lifted his head in curiosity. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“Why aren’t you going back to Knight-Commander’s office?”

“As much as Assquez would want to yell at me for disrespecting him, I rather not give him the privilege.”

Angel snorted. “Assquez.”

“Don’t tell your dad I said that.”

“Yeah, no… I’m sorry you had to see that. It happens a little too often.”

“Vasquez or your dad?”

“Jack. He’s a...” Dick, murderer, asshole, psychopath, bitch… “He’s a little overprotective of me.”

“Mmm, I got that idea.”

“So are you going to tell me that it’s his way of loving me and I should just deal with it?”

“I don’t really have the right to say what you should think. What I think doesn’t really matter here either. Jack did… kinda overreact a little, but that was because of me. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Yeah, you really shouldn’t have. Hugo doesn’t like having his ego poked. He prides himself too much.”

“With that hair, I’m surprised I didn’t realize that sooner.”

“Heheh, yeahhh.” She really liked him. Unlike Jack, he knew when to not ask questions and give her her silence. She didn’t want to think about how Jack planned on using him. Right now, they are up there talking about a world wide siege on Pandora. Jack was going to take the world over through an elven rebellion against humans. Jack suffered during his time in slavery before finally killing his master. To end elven slavery was a good thing, but to go so far as to purge Pandora of humans was taking this rage too far.

How would he handle Deep Roads? The Dwarven culture? They may be what he previously described as fun-sized humans but they weren’t humans. Last time she checked, dwarves never owned slaves. There was nothing between dwarves and elves to begin with. She hoped that means that Jack would leave them alone.

Vaughn didn’t look like the type to give into Jack’s persuasion easily. He didn’t seem like Hugo, where Jack only needed show his cleavage for him to work under him. Literally, if Jack swung that way.

“Hey, Vaughn?”

“Mmm?”

“What do you think of my dad? Your impression of him.”

Vaughn timidly glanced at the open door before answering, “I thought he was the most annoying Gray Warden we ever had, but the more I got to know him, I think he’s just trying to find his place in the world, like me.”

Angel sat up. “... Like you?”

“You don’t want to hear my sob story.” At the sound of stomping, Vaughn got onto his feet and looked with alert eyes toward the door until Jack entered. Red masked over his face, even the tips of his ears were glowing.

Folding his arms, Jack stood over his daughter. “Have you thought about what you did.”

“Yes.”

“Are you sorry?”

“Yes. I’m sorry for speaking out of turn… and for cussing.”

“I don’t want words, Angel. You’re going to show me that you’re sorry by coming with us. I already made the arrangement with the Knight-Commander about it and he agrees that you getting out of the tower would suitable punishment for you. Pack your stuff. We’re leaving.”

From an outside view, that punishment didn’t make sense. Was there a reason why Angel was in this tower besides practicing to be a better mage? Did it cost Jack money to put Angel here and that’s why he was angry? Vaughn knew the brunt end of a misguided father’s rage, so he refrained from asking any questions. He stood back and he, along with the rest of the mages, watched Jack storm across the room, and he slammed the door on his way out, like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum.

Angel stuck her tongue out after him. In a huff, she threw herself off the bed and over to the end-side, where a chest sat. She withdrew a satchel from inside and started to stuff the bag with the items from the chest without a word.

Although confused, Vaughn decided against prying into a family’s affairs and focused on plucking strings that filled the tense space with a folksy yet dark mood when he started to softly sing.

The elf stopped what she was doing as the lyrics practically described the very core of her being. It took her back to nights ago where Vaughn sang to her in the clock tower attic. He was still as friendly as before and his smooth voice rumbled in her ears. He was singing for her again and he had no idea how much that meant to her.

They were heading to New Haven, a forest where elves who had once either escaped slavery or had lost their way joined the woodland elves for security and sanctuary.

“I’ve heard of New Haven,” Vaughn admitted when Jack finished explaining. “But I don’t think they’re going to accept me and Nisha.”

“I agree with the dwarf. Unless you plan on gluing triangles onto my ears, they’re going to throw us out.”

“Plus, Woodland elves are kind of… dicks. They’re going to need to see the treaties to believe us.”

Now walking backwards, Jack bowed slightly, “That’s where I come in. I happen to be fairly eloquent in their language as well as their culture, cause-- I’ve been there multiple times. They’ll help us. But, uh, when we get there, babe, you’re going to have to hide your crossbow. They will take it away from you.”

Nisha groaned in annoyance. “Fine. Whatever. How long until we get there?”

“No idea.”

“We should’ve stolen Hugo’s horse.”

“Damn, we should have! Why didn’t I think about that?”

Vaughn looked at the two confused. “We shouldn’t steal from people who are going to help us.”

“We’re going to be more than heroes, when this is all said and done, Vaughn. We’re going to be their gods! People should start givin’ us stuff, man. Isn’t it basically a privilege to be in with a Gray Warden?”

“I-I… guess?”

“Yeah, well, it’s kind of late to go back now but if I’m reading this map right… we’re going to meet a town at some point.”

Angel tiptoed to look over his shoulder. “That’s three days from now. Stopping there and then heading north is going to take another two days.”

There was a hint of anger in his eyes when he looked at her but he hid it with a smile and gently patted her hand. “You’re so smart. So! Three days from now, we’re going to reach Fyrestone. Luckily, I happen to know someone there that can help us out with supplies and a room.”

Nisha growled, “You’re talking about that slutty mage, aren’t you?”

“That… is who I am referring to, yeah.” Jack replied, somewhat uncomfortably. He glanced over at Vaughn. “My ex.”

“Oh.” That explained everything.

Angel fell back to walk alongside the dwarf and softly nudged him. “I think we could use some travelling music, don’t you think?”

“I will destroy that guitar if you try.” Nisha barked.

Jack jerked his head over to her. “What’s gotten into you lately? I don’t remember you being this angry all the time. Where’s my fun loving Nisha?”

“Wouldn’t you love to know.”

“Yeah, that is seriously what I’m asking what’s wrong with you! Do you not want me to be concerned?”

“I’d start playing.” Angel urged, “You can try doing their song.”

Vaughn’s face twisted with scrutiny. “She likes something?”

“She actually does like music, despite this weird mood she’s in.”

“Alright, give it to me.”

“Um... I don’t remember the title or who it’s by but I think it went like, uhhh…” She shyly started to sing and she clapped to an unheard beat, “Greet the souls you knew before. Enlist them in your hopeless war.” Vaughn proceeded to join in as he played. “Cause glory doesn't need a reason… friend.”

Deaf to the music, Nisha spoke in hisses. “We don’t have a reason to keep that fucking dwarf.”

“Hey, I have my reasons. Seriously, you don’t want to know what I did in the Deep Roads.”

Nisha was taken aback. She knew he had been planning this purge for a while, but this was news to her. “What the hell did you do?”

Jack lowered his voice. “I blew it up.”

That was you?”

“Wilhelm helped! We nearly died getting out of there. You wouldn’t think those dwarves can run fast, but I’m going to tell you right now to not underestimate them.”

“And for what purpose and how?”

“Well, they told me that they needed a mage to help them with Darkspawn, so I volunteered and they were so obedient. First thing we did was take all that red lyrium outside, got most those dwarves in this space, and THEN Wilhelm blew up. The dwarves in their town found out and they’ve been hunting me down since.”

“And… how is that thing going to help you?”

“He’s going to make them think it was an accident, because I’m going to present to him, like it was an accident…”

“I hate to break it to you, but your dwarf is actually smart. If you tell him that you murdered over half his people, he is going to be suspicious of you. Wouldn’t it be better to murder them?”

“... No, they still have that lyrium I left behind. When we get to New Haven, we’re going to plan out how--” Taken by the music, Jack stopped walking and looked over his shoulder at Vaughn and Angel, a grin slowly crept onto his lips.

“Oh, no-- come on, we have to walk for five days!”

Waggling his brows, Jack took her by the waist. “Do you remember when we first danced?”

“I’m surprised you do, considering how wasted you were. Somehow, you are more tolerable when you’re drunk.” She teased, sliding her hand into his as he moved her in sync with the guitar chords. “And cuter.”

“Damn, I should get drunk more often.”

“Pfff, nah, I like you better this way.”

“Oh, I know.” He dipped her over his knee and lightly planted a kiss on her collar.

“You really want to start this?”

“That is why I’m dancing with you, yes.”

Nisha let herself laugh. “Fine, just this once.”

Upon reaching Fyrestone, Jack made a straight line over to a tall building labeled in neon red over the door: “Red All Over”. Thankfully, Jack didn’t kick the door this time but he didn’t open it like a civilized person. He swung it open and stood there with fists on his hips, displaying his Gray Warden armor to the entire bar. Of course, an entrance like that doesn’t go unnoticed. Already, the room flooded with astonished conversation and looks. Jack turned to Vaughn and winked.

The dwarf furrowed his brows. Nothing about this made Vaughn feel special. If anything, he felt like dying as well as the urge to hide in a dark corner and never come out.

The bartender finished filling up a customer's drink. She looked at the elf who waltzed in and leaned over her bar with that familiar hungry grin as his gaze looked her over. “Moxxi, how you’ve been looki-- doing. How have you been doing?”

Nisha gagged.

Ignoring her, Moxxi smiled coolly. “I’ve been doing just fine, sugar. Congratulations on becoming a Gray Warden, although you haven’t changed a bit... you still drool.”

“Huh--? Oh!” Guilty, Jack wiped his mouth as he tried not to make eye contact with his girlfriend. He laughed off his embarrassment. “Listen, Mox, I’m gonna need a favor from you. You see, we’re on Gray Warden business, off to save the world.”

“Mmm, clearly.”

“We’re going to need some supplies, maybe some horses, and if you can give us a room to stay in, that’d be great too.”

“That’s easy to handle, sugar. How do you plan on paying me back?” On her last sentence, she leaned over the counter to more effectively display her features that distracted Jack immediately and disgusted Nisha into another groan, while Vaughn remained perfectly oblivious, and Angel simply rolled her eyes at her father’s behavior.

After struggling to form a sentence for a minute, Nisha cut him off. “Send your daughter to Lynchwood and tell her to find the safe on the first floor. It’s behind the cabinet on the far left side of the room. That’ll be your payment.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll let her know when she comes back. Here: the keys to your rooms.”

Nisha snatched hers from the counter top and hissed into Jack’s ear. “You’re bunking with the dwarf.”

The elf hung his head in shame as she stormed up the stairs. He massaged his head. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”

“You’ve always been ‘easy’, Jack.”

Jack inhaled. “Can I get a shot of whiskey?”

Pleased with herself, Moxxi hummed as she poured one out for him and slid both the shot glass and the bottle of whiskey over to him. She looked over at Angel, “How have you been, sweetie?”

“I’ve been better. My feet hurt. Can I have a water?”

“Sure, baby--” When Moxxi saw Vaughn, her motherly demeanor drastically changed into a flirtatious one. “And who’s this handsome cutie?”

The compliment flew high above his head. He returned her smile, happy to finally get out of the unsavory atmosphere. “I’m Vaughn!”

“Nice to meet you, Vaughn. I’m Moxxi. Would you like a drink too?”

“Okay!”

“Is that a guitar? It’s gorgeous. You must be a man who knows how to use his hands.”

Vaughn shrugged. “Uh, yeah, I’m pretty good." Although Vaughn didn't want to, he offered anyway out of courtesy, "Do you wanna see it?”

“Oh, I’d love to!” Moxxi accepted his guitar into her hands and held it delicately. “My, this craftsmanship is stunning. Did you make this yourself?”

“No, my granddad did. I can’t really work with wood.”

“Such old wood too. I can see the character. How long have you had it?”

“Ten years-- been with my granddad for thirty.”

“That’s amazing. Here, I’m afraid to break it.”

“You’re fine. This kind of wood can take a beating.”

“Oh, I’m sure it can. I’d love to watch you fiddle with it sometime.”

“Sure!”

Angel bit her lip to not laugh at Vaughn’s oblivious nature while Jack was in the room.

“Maker! This is painful to listen to.” Jack slammed down his fifth shot and put his head in his hand. “Vaughn, you’re so dense! She’s talking about your dick!”

“Focus on your whiskey, Jack.” Moxxi scolded. “No one asked you--Ignore him, Vaughn.”

Taken aback, his eyes confused darted around his head, unable to process what he said. “Oh… Okay?”

“I’m going to my room.” Jack finally said after a long thirty minutes of drinking. However, what came out of his mouth was: “Immonin mmrom.”

Drunkenly, he shoved himself off the bar and wobbled to the stairs.

“Hand on the railing, please.” Moxxi called after him and he grumbled a reply, roughly placing a hand on the wooden rail as he trudged upwards.

Vaughn slightly slid off his stool. “Maybe, I should help him.”

“I wouldn’t. He doesn’t accept help when he’s drunk.” The three watched the elf until he safely made it to the second floor. Moxxi returned to her duties, casually glancing over at Vaughn and his concerned stare towards the steps. “How long have you been with him?”

“Who, me? He’s been with the Gray Wardens for over two months now.”

“How come it’s just the two of you and the sheriff of Lynchwood of all people?”

“They...” Immediately tears diluted his vision that he forced back by blinking hard, sucking in a sharp breath. “They died… at Lynchwood… all of them.”

Even though Angel could never say this out loud, Jack would find out somehow. However, Moxxi was capable of putting unsaid pieces together, since she already knew that Angel possessed a keen art of necromancy. So, Angel bowed her head and let grief cemented on her features as she turned away from Vaughn.

Moxxi caught on instantly but she didn’t hold her disbelief for long. She reached over and patted Vaughn’s hand affectionately. “I’m so sorry to hear that. This is a safe space here, sugar. You can stay as long as you like, if you want.”

“T-thanks, Moxxi, but I should stick with Jack… I can tell that Angel’s been through a lot and if my music is helping her then I want to be there. I know Jack’s trying but I’ve… I've been in a similar situation and I want to be that person I didn’t have growing up.”

Her hand clasp over her mouth. Tears poured down her face and dripped onto the wood floors.

Moxxi squeezed his hand. “That is so noble of you. Truly. You’re a good man, Vaughn.”

“That’s kind of you to say but… I’m really not. I’m going to check on Jack… make sure he didn’t vomit in my bed. Thank you for the drink, Moxxi. H-here--” Vaughn began reaching into his pocket when Moxxi stopped him.

“It’s on the house, sugar. You rest, okay?”

Vaughn pressed, taking out his wallet and dropped three gold coins on the table. “Keep it.”

His generosity flabbergasted her. She watched him wordlessly glance over at Angel with a face full of sympathy then took his leave.

“Not a good man, he says. That could have bought four barrels of ale. You’re in such good hands, Angel.”

“Not when he finds out...” She managed to cough out between sobs.

“You don’t know that, sweetie. It wasn’t your choice, remember that. Come here...”

It had been two hours after she put Angel to bed. Despite the bar being closed, Moxxi was still awake in her bedroom. Too many thoughts plagued her mind to try to sleep. She was deciphering Jack’s plans. The man was a psychopath and she could never guess what was going on inside his head. However, he never scared her. Even when he burned down her last tavern, she wasn’t afraid of him. She was afraid of what he would do to the people around him, like poor Vaughn. Neither Vaughn or Angel fitted in his posse of murderers. Nisha murdered the sheriff to get where she was and ruled the town through fear. She didn’t know where to begin with Wilhelm, other than he was obsessed with mindless slaughter and getting paid for it. Moxxi tried to pull Angel out of his hands when she was dating him but failed and it cost her her tavern.

If Vaughn got closer to Angel, he was in deep trouble.

She needed to walk around. After removing herself from her bed, she wondered the hall of doors with her arms tightly folded. She doubted Jack would be up at this hour with how much of a hangover he will have in the morning but she wanted to check on Angel. She crept down the second flight of stairs and from the moment she dropped down the last step she noticed that two room door were ajar. Fear clutched at her heart as she kept a steady pace towards the first door, which was Jack’s and Vaughn’s bedroom. She peered in and found that neither of them had left their covers. Jack still had a whistle of a snore that Vaughn was somehow able to sleep through. This did not subside her fear as she pressed Angel’s door open to see that Nisha was gone from her side of the room.

That was when Moxxi heard the front door open and lock. Determined, Moxxi continued to descend the stairs. On her way up, Nisha nearly body slammed into her if she did not stop her momentum by grabbing onto both railings.

The mage looked her over. “Nice face. What were you doing outside?”

“I couldn’t sleep, so I took a smoke break.”

Moxxi was a gambling women. By that brief look on the sheriff’s before she composed herself told her that what she was doing was a touch and go. “You don’t smell like it. You smoke that fast?”

Wisely, Nisha kept her hands out where Moxxi could see them, instead of reaching for her knives like she knew the sheriff wanted to. “So you’re spying on me?”

“I was just walking down to use the bathroom. You were making plenty of noise, so I don’t consider that spying. So I’ll ask again, what were you doing outside, Nisha?”

“... I was getting rid of something useless.”

“And that is?”

“None of your fucking business. If you’re that concerned, you slut, Jack is too drunk off his ass to ask me to do his bidding for him tonight. Now get out of my way.” Nisha shouldered her on her way forward.

However, Moxxi wasn’t finished, “At least, I get plenty of good times with all of my partners.” She poked, nonchalantly. Nisha paused in her tracks. “And I’m happy about it and so are they. I find no shame in being a slut, honestly.”

Nisha snarled, grabbing the pole. “I cannot wait to kill you.”

“And I assure you that you can.” With a smug smile, Moxxi hopped down the last few steps and waved her off. “Goodnight, Nisha.”

The stomping feet assaulting the stairs pleased her immensely, but her curiosity did not wane. She waited until she heard the door shut before she advanced towards the door. Quietly, she unhinged the lock and peeked out. At first, nothing unusual caught her attention until she looked to the barrel at the end of the porch. There was something long with strings spiraling out of the top that glistened in the torch light.

“Oh no...” Moxxi pulled away from the door and rushed to the side. She lifted the neck and put a hand to her mouth. Vaughn’s guitar was shattered and torn apart. She could see where a knife had been stabbed through multiple times. She couldn’t attempt to fix the instrument. There were too many tiny pieces and she would have to find a person who made that type of string. “It was so gorgeous too… Oh, Vaughn… Nisha, you bitch.”

It wasn’t her place to say what happened. She bargained with herself all night whether or not to remove the few big pieces of the instrument out of the trash so that Vaughn won't see it, but in the end she left it alone. When she saw Jack and his posse come down, packed and ready to leave with their new supplies, her heart shattered at Vaughn’s sweet face as he spoke with Angel.

She continued on, as she normally would and forced herself to smile a little. “Breakfast, sugars?”

“A pill would be great...” Jack mumbled, rubbing his head. He nearly missed his seat. Nisha seemed to be more generous than yesterday, since she caught him and gingerly eased him onto the stool. He nuzzled her cheek before she took her place beside him. “Thanks, pumpkin...”

She hummed in appreciation.

“I can send you to Zed.” Moxxi offered.

“Don’t…we--hic-- need to leave fast. I need a coffee. Black.”

“Nothing to eat then? Alright. Coffee, Nisha? Lots of cream?”

She squinted at her. “I’m sure that’s how you like it. Two sugars.”

“Vaughn?”

“Yes? Oh--! Yes. Um, cream with mine and milk. Half cup. Please and thank you.”

“Both of them? Okay. Would you like some coffee too, Angel?”

“Do-- do you have orange juice?”

“Yes, I do. No pulp? Coming right up.”

When Moxxi entered the kitchen behind her, Nisha spoke and teased Jack’s messy hair. “You took it hard last night, didn’t you? You haven’t even touched your hair.”

“You were mad at me...”

“Aww, that’s sweet of you to care about me to drink yourself sick.”

“M’fiiiiinne.”

“You going to be able to handle yourself in New Haven or am I going to have to carry you there?”

“I’ll be fine!” He said slightly louder. Angel flinched in her seat.

“Clearly. You’ve never been a morning person.”

“You are just taking the piss out of me, babe. Can you not?”

“Can the big handsome man not take teasing? Aawww, the poor baaaabyy.” She squished his lips together with her fingers.

Jack slapped her hand away. “I’m divorcing you.”

“We’re not married.”

Jack grumbled to himself.

“What was that, cowboy?”

“Didn’t say shit.”

“Mmhm.” Nisha kissed his cheek.

Jack hummed, “Why are you in a good mood?”

“I finally slept in a bed again. Of course, I'd be in a good mood.”

With a sinking heart, Moxxi returned with a tray of mugs in her possession and placed each accordingly. “Black, two sugars, cream and milk, and no pulp. Enjoy.”

“So, you didn’t hear those noises last night?” Angel asked, innocently.

For a moment, Nisha froze. “What noises?”

“I heard a lot of weird banging last night. Like a baby skag was stomping down the hall.”

Moxxi turned around to clean her inventory so that her quiet laughter wasn’t too obvious.

Vaughn shrugged after taking a swing of his drink. “I didn’t hear anything.”

“Did you hear anything, Moxxi?”

“Yes, I think I know what you were talking about.”

“Oh yeah?” Nisha challenged through gritted teeth.

“Yes, I think it was a couple of people being a little too rambunctious last night across from your room. I told them to quiet down. The poor girl looked so frazzled like I just caught her doing something awful, but their affair is none of my business.”

She could feel Nisha’s glare on her much to her amusement.

“I think I’m still drunk, because I have no idea what anyone is saying.” Jack slurred.

“Drink your coffee, Jack.” Nisha lifted his hand attached to the mug for him.

“‘Kay...”

“Vaughn?” Angel started. “Where’s your guitar?”

Moxxi hitched in her dusting, holding her breath.

“I… It’s always been in my bag. I know I didn’t take it out last night. I’ll go check upstairs.”

Moxxi did not dare look at Nisha. She quietly resumed her cleaning with a deep set frown on her lip. After a minute, Vaughn returned with a face full of distraught. “It’s not there.”

Angel got up from her chair. “Do you think someone stole it?”

“I hid it under the bed, someone would have seen me-- Nisha.”

“I didn’t take you stupid guitar, dwarf.”

“I saw you smile.”

“Because you’re scared for your guitar! It’s hilarious. It’s a piece of fucking wood.”

“Nisha, what did you do to my guitar? What did you do?!”

Nisha took a long sip from her drink. She clicked her tongue. “I took it apart. The splinter are in garbage out front.”

His soul ripped in half. For a moment, Vaughn lost his balance, nearly fell down the stairs if he didn’t catch himself. His knuckles turned white at how hard he was gripping the railing. His voice quaked when he found it. “Why?”

“Because I’m sick of you.”

Angel grabbed Nisha by the arm, tugging her. “What is wrong with you?!”

She jerked her arm back, glowering down at her. “Hey! Know your place, kid.”

There was a sudden crash and all four looked over to see Vaughn removing his face from the bottom of the stairs and stumble his way to the door, fling it open, and dash out. Angel glared at her, her cheeks puffed out. “Why are you like this?!”

“I hate that fucking dwarf. I can’t kill him yet so I might as well make him cry.”

“He’s suffered enough as is because of us!”

Jack cackled in his seat. “Damn, that was funny-- did you see the look on his face when he fell? That was good, Nisha.”

Horrified, Angel backed away and followed Vaughn out the door. She did not have to look far for him. He was sitting on his knees on the porch, cradling the fragments of wood and string. His body convulsed as he whimpered. Carefully, the mage sat beside him.

“Vaughn…” Her voice cracked, “I’m… I’m sorry that you got to see how Nisha really is.”

When she looked into his face, his eyes were dead. It was like he was not on the same plane as her anymore. With hesitation, Angel wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her head into his shoulder. She sniffled, “I’m so sorry, Vaughn.”

He didn’t respond, but Angel didn’t need him to. She held him tight. He was stiff as a board. She couldn’t tell if he was breathing. Tears continued to roll down his face even though he stopped making any sound. She wondered if he was consulting his life, how to end it. To anyone else, that would be a drastic thought to have but for someone like Angel, it was an everyday occurrence. On some days, it would take very little for her to imagine her corpse. Although she had known him for a week, Angel could tell that he was depressed. If it came to it, she would have no idea how to explain to him that he should keep living without his guitar. Something this personal is irreplaceable.
She gave him a chaste kiss on his head and squeezed him. “Vaughn, if you can hear me, I’m here for you.”

His chest hiccuped.

The door to the bar opened. Scowling, Angel watched Nisha happily step around them and mosey down the street with a skip in her step. Jack took a knee beside his daughter, wearing a more sober, concerned expression that she had little faith in believing that to be his real emotion.

“Has he talked at all?” Jack asked.

“Nope.”

“Hey, kid. You there?”

Vaughn kept his gaze glued to the floor.

“Listen, I am so sorry about Nisha. As we both know, she has a very chaotic personality. I had no idea she was going to do this, otherwise I would have stopped her.”

That was a lie, Angel wanted to add.

“She’s not going to apologize for what she did, but I am going to give you an opportunity, okay? You can stay here if you want. I totally get it. We can come back for you or you can just leave, it’s your call. I’ll give you another five minutes.” Jack patted his shoulder and glanced over at Angel, “You staying with him?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, we’ll be down by the market if you need me.”

As Jack got up to leave, Vaughn stirred, “No.”

“No?”

Angel helped him onto his feet. Although templing, Vaughn kept his balance. “The blight is more important...”

Solemnly, Jack nodded. “If you say so.”

Slowly, Vaughn climbed down the three steps off the porch. His shaking hands lingered over the mouth of the barrel. He was struggling to let it go. It was destroyed beyond recognition. There was nothing he could do about it except throw it away and he couldn’t do it. This guitar had been with him before he was born. It was from someone who meant a lot to him. Someone who had seen the world the same way he did gave him this guitar. Vaughn easily remembered looking down at him on his deathbed and with his dying breath he said that he loved him. When he finally released the neck of the broken guitar, he watched the memory of his grandfather’s warm hand wilt away.
His legs buckled underneath him and he wailed, clutching his head as he fell into the fetal position. “FUCK! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! Fuck, no! Fuck!”

All his senses shut down as the world around him vanished.

. . .

Vaughn watched memories replay in his head that he didn’t recognize. There was someone on the horse he was looking through the eyes of. The three figures around him were shapes. Circles, triangles, rectangles pulsed as they moved.

The eyes blinked and transported him into another scene. There was a campfire. There was a spoon full of soup brushing against the mouth that refused to open. It didn’t open because it didn’t want to or hated the taste of the soup. It couldn’t open as if it was lock jawed. The shapes that were holding the spoon seemed to give up and sit the bowl down on the dirt floor. There was no expressions on any of the figures, but Vaughn could feel the atmosphere. The one closest to the eyes was scared. The shapes on the right were joyful. Vaughn could interpret the moving as if the circle was talking to the triangular shapes sitting beside them. The recipient nodded and smiled. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t read that shape.

Once more, the eyes blinked to a three foot deep river. The ears opened to the sound of the rushing water traveling through slits between large rocks down the stream. Small fish paddled their way up river, despite their lack of strength. The scene was peaceful. No shapes clouded the mind. The water appeared inviting. It called out to him like a siren’s song.

Vaughn awoke to his lungs filling up with water. With a gasp, he jerked his head out of the river and he coughed and sputtered back into the river. After the water was completely gone from his system, he continued to retch for another minute but nothing stirred. Wheezing, he scrambled away from the river back as fast as his exhausted arms could carry him until they finally gave out. He sprawled onto his back and stared at the blurry night sky. His limbs felt like static you would hear on the radio. His chest tingled with irritation while his stomach continued to flip around his abdomen. His mind was filled with one thought: Why did I stop?

Why was I surprised? Ask another.

One more followed: Why did it feel wrong when other times it felt right?

Why did I stop?

His body convulsed at the feeling of his hand being grasped. However, his fatigued kicked back in immediately and he was only able to move his head to the side. When he did, he saw Angel. Her eyes were wide, red, and puffy and they yearned for answers. At first, neither of them spoke. Vaughn wanted to speak, but it was like before, his jaw was locked.

“You’re wet.” Angel stated, her tone was drenched with anxiety.

Vaughn returned his gaze to the stars. He couldn’t look at her with what he decided to say. “I don’t understand why I couldn’t do it… It’s like I woke up from a nightmare.”

“Do you want to try again?” Despite her phrasing, she wasn’t offering the idea to him. It was a question she needed to hear the answer to.

“I-I… I really… want to say that I do, but… I don’t. Nothing came to me... I just… stopped.”

“You were like a zombie… You wouldn’t eat. For the longest time, I watched you while everyone was asleep and you just… just stared. Do you not remember any of that?”

“I don’t even remember existing today… How long have I been out here?”

“I don’t know. I woke up and you were gone.” I got scared, she wanted to add, but that would only make him feel worse, so she kept it to herself.

Tears crawled out from his eyes. His heart hitched in agony. The carved wood on his back wasn’t there anymore. “It got me through so much… It was my only way to cope and it’s gone.”

Angel didn’t acknowledge that with a response, for fear of losing the answer she craved.

“It pisses me off… It was the last friggin’ thing my grandfather gave to me. He… He was the only person who saw the world like I did… who knew what I needed. He gave me hope-- if someone like me can live that long and die from old age, maybe… It’s a nice thought at least. I know it sounds so stupid but that guitar saved my life over the last ten years… I felt like I had to keep living, wandering around. I couldn’t… I hated… I-I-I… never…” Vaughn sniffed through a clogged up nose and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “It didn’t belong in anyone else’s hands… I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. No one could ever treat it right... I was cast out the second he died. He was protecting me… It was my turn and… and... All because of that fucking--” He pounded his fist into the ground and screamed at the sky, “I hate her guts!! ‘Because I’m sick of you’?! What did I do?! I’ve done nothing but try to figure out what’s been going on!! Is that so wrong?!” His voice strained and forced him into a short coughing fit. Heaving deep breathes, he laid there until noticing how the grass made his skin itch, yet he was too tired to get up. “I’m so mad… Angel?”

“Mmm?”

“I’m sorry that you had to see me like this...”

“... Do you want to live, Vaughn? See this to the end?”

Vaughn paused to think, but nothing stirred in his mind but a feeling. “I think so...”

“Ok… I will too.” Angel squeezed his hand, which he returned. “We should get back to camp. You need to dry out.”

“Yeah, about that… Um… can you help me? I can’t move.”

“I can try.”

. . .

New Haven was gorgeous. Vaughn gawked at the luscious green scenery as the head elf led the group to a beautiful temple that had become one with moss and vines. Walking closer to the building, Vaughn noticed that the tree trunks had eloquent unreadable designs etched in the bark.

“I think it’s their history.” Angel guessed, “I recognize these pictures from my books.”

“You mean you don’t know your language...?” Vaughn hesitated to ask.

“I know a few words, but I’m not as fluent as Jack. He didn’t have time to teach me that much. To be honest, Elvish is really hard to learn...” Only her last sentence was honest, it took her five years to completely hone the language; however, her accent was still atrocious, according to Jack. “I’m sorry I can’t translate what Jack will be saying to everyone.”

“That’s okay. I just hope he can convince them.”

“We’ve got a plan B if he doesn’t.” Nisha reassured with a grim smile that made his gut boil.

Inside the temple was just as beautiful as the outside with greenery taking over and squeezing through the stones. There was a wolf statue on the right side up a staircase that led to a door that looked like it hadn’t been opened for centuries. He was amazed that the elves decided to keep this place in such condition. He had never seen such clean stones.

In the middle of the temple was a platform with large decorated basin made out of polished granite. The head elf urged the rest to stand behind Jack with his hands. The crowd of people around them was already giving him anxiety. So he was set to focus on anything, like the head elf gentleman Jack was talking to. He was bald and his tattoos traveled across his scalp with tree-branch patterns. Angel leaned down slightly to whisper, “Those are Vallaslin dedicated to Mythal.”

For a moment, Vaughn nodded, pretending to understand what she said. “Who?”

“Mythal, we’re in her temple. She’s an elven goddess of protection and love. I have her mark too.” She pointed at the tree branches on her cheeks.

“Ohhhh… What about Jack?”

“Elgar'nan, Mythal’s husband, god of the sun and god of vengeance.” Fitting.

“What’s the use for it?”

“It’s a sign of passage. You become an adult if you are quiet during the ceremony.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad--”

“It was.” Angel cut him off. “I wanted to scream. It hurt so bad. Did yours not hurt?”

“Mine…” His voice grew softer, “hurt for a different reason.”

“Sh--crap, I’m sorry.”

“You’re fine.”

Jack was well into his speech now, moving his hands in an exaggerated way that captured the audience. Angel was a master of hiding her true emotions underneath but understanding the meaning behind his words made her skin crawl. She was having trouble keeping a straight face.
He was promising them a war, a rebellion, eternal life, vengeance… It was making her sick. Her work was never meant to be over. He planned for her to uproot the dead for his purpose. She wanted to kill him and rip his prideful soul asunder until there was nothing left to travel into The Fade. He would make the perfect demon, and she could not allow that. For now, she tuned out her father.

Suddenly, she felt herself be grabbed and hauled to a dark corner of the room. Jack’s piercing impatient eyes dug into her. “Well? You wanted to talk?”

“I-I wanted to talk about Vaughn. I… I don’t think you’ve thought this through.”

“Oh yeah?” He crossed his arms.

“He’s got facial tattoos.”

“... Ok?”

“Jack--I mean, dad, sorry. Dwarven culture is not the same as ours. Those tattoos are for dwarves that are casteless.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he cannot go back to his people. He’s been disowned. If you take him back, they aren’t going to listen to him because of his tattoos. We are not going to be getting your lyrium that way.”

Thoughtfully, he put a hand to his chin, stroking it with one finger. “That does make it harder… Hmm. I’ll think of something. Thanks for telling me, pumpkin.”

“You’re not planning on hurting him, are you?”

“Aww, sweetie, relax.” Jack caressed her cheek. “I’m not going to do anything to him… well, not yet. I promised Nisha she could kill him when he becomes useless-- which is not now. Let me think about it.”

As he left, her gaze fell upon Vaughn who was still standing up on the elevated pedestal with Nisha. She could feel his icy glare on the sheriff from where she stood. When they were walking to the temple, she noticed a grand marketplace beside the entrance with one stand in particular catching her eye. She withdrew Jack’s wallet from her pocket that she stole from him when he took her aside. “Stupid old man...” She mumbled to herself with a giggle.

Angel cradled a newly bought lute in her arms. She knew there was a difference between a lute and a guitar, but she hoped that Vaughn would accept it, nonetheless. What was in her hands wasn’t an ordinary lute either and she was about to test out her charm on it. Nisha was testing out elven bows in the outer part of town and Angel made a beeline for her, looking around frequently to make sure Vaughn couldn’t see her, wherever he was.

Angel couldn’t help but smile to herself as she approached the sheriff. She didn’t interrupt her right away. She waited until the arrow left her bow and they watched it cut through the air and strike just outside bullseye.

Nisha hummed softly, tugging at the string.

“Nisha?”

A frown tugged on her lips. She looked down at her, noticing the lute immediately. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I just wanted your thoughts on this. I was going to give it to Vaughn.”

Nisha yanked it out of her hands. “Have you bought it yet?”

“Nope.” Angel lied coolly. Through a smile, she watched Nisha’s malice brightly glow as she slammed the lute into the ground and then rapidly diminish when the instrument refused to break.

“What the fuck--? Of course. Why am I surprised. It’s like having Jack as a mage around, except more annoying than cute.”

Aggressively, Angel ripped the lute from her. “Thank you for testing it out for me.”

“Whatever. He can enjoy it while we’re here.”

The mage was three feet away from here when she said that. Angel turned, clutching the neck. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means I get to kill him soon if Jack can’t think of anything to do with him.”

“Y-you’re lying.”

“Two days, Jill. If we are here longer than two days...” For emphasis, she released the arrow and it split the first arrow in twain. Without a word, Nisha gazed over at her and winked with a snarky grin.

Shivering, Angel broke into a run.

Looking all over New Haven, she couldn’t find the dwarf anywhere. She hurried back into the temple and onto the upper floor where they were told to stay. She jogged down the hall to Vaughn’s chambers to find the room empty. Eventually, it clicked her head. They followed the river here.

Out of breath, Angel doubled over at the riverbank. She wiped the sweat from her forehead and looked around until she found his head peeking over a giant tree root. Through her aching ankles, she made her way over to him. Keeping the root between them, she quietly laid the lute against it in a way that it was unable to be seen on the other side. Angel leaned over and poked him. “Vaughn!”

He was reading a pocket book that he quickly closed when he heard her voice. The cover had a shirtless dwarf who was surrounded by an elfish man, also shirtless, in a position that Angel couldn't identify. Vaughn’s face was pink. “Angel! Uh, what’s up?”

“What were you, ah, reading there?”

Without looking, he put a hand on top of the cover. “Uhhhh, just some-- uh, light reading about… math?”

“Mmmhm, I’m sure a homoerotic book has a lot of math in it. Is that one by Varric Tethras?”

“I-I didn’t know he wrote gay stuff so--ummm...” Digging into his own grave, Vaughn’s head withdrew further into his shoulders. “... It was on sale.”

“Dude, I am not judging you in the slightest. I got something for you.”

“An-Angel, you didn’t have to do that...”

“I know. I’m kind of taking a risk here with this, because I know I could never try to replace something. So this isn’t a replacement. I think it’s a good idea to have a way to cope so I… Here.” She presented him the lute, which he stared in awe at for a minute before taking it. Nervously, she pressed on, “I-I know it’s not the same. I tried to find a guitar but I could only find this kind and, like, wind instruments. An-and I’ve seen how you kind of move your fingers when you get stressed. So--so I hope this is okay and I didn’t step over any lines or anything.”

She took the time to stop talking to hear him pluck at the strings, listening to each note as he tuned it. Not wanting to disturb him, Angel stepped over the root and sat on his right with her legs tucked in. He ran his thumb slowly over the strings when he was done. When he started humming, Angel realized he was playing a song. She could tell by how his body slouched at the sound of the lute that he was transported into his own head. His eyes were closed as if he was soulfully concentrating on the feeling of each vibration. He was relaxed.

It pained her to see him like this. She should be happy. In fact, she was happy but that was cancelled out by Nisha’s words. She couldn’t warn him… right?

The lute had stopped singing. Suddenly, Vaughn threw himself onto her, hugging her tightly. She froze at the contact before melting into his touch as tears clung to her eyes.

“Thank you, Angel." His voice trembled. "You… you have no idea how much this means to me.”

“I can’t take this anymore.”

Alert, Vaughn pulled away, holding her by her arms. “What happened?”

“You’re in danger.”

“What?”

“Nisha’s going to kill you. I don’t think she’ll be able to wait anymore.”

Vaughn blinked, tilting his head slightly. “She hates me that much?”

“You need to leave. Get your stuff and go.”

“Angel, I-I don’t… I really don’t think she’s that physcotic.”

“Vaughn.” She cupped his face. “Trust me. Please. Leave tonight when everyone’s asleep.”

“What about you?”

She blinked back tears. “Why are you thinking of me?” I killed your friends.

“I want to know if you’re going to be okay when I’m gone.”

“Vaughn, I-I appreciate your compassion. I’m thanking you for all the songs you sang to me, but I’m not your responsibility.”

“But you are my friend.”

She wanted to tell him that he was living a lie. They weren’t friends, no matter how badly she wanted them to be. Jack would kill him if she thought about saying it out loud. She pulled him into a firm embrace and whispered into his ear. “Please, be careful.”

Vaughn waited until the moon was high in the sky before he left his sleeping quarters with only his lute and the Gray Warden armor on his back. He headed further down the hall towards a door where light was seeping through the cracks. He wasn’t leaving New Haven. He opened the door to what Jack had claimed to be his study and found it to lack said Jack. Multiple candles were lit by the desk that was consumed with papers. The room was small and littered with misplaced books and shelves that lined the walls. Vaughn could make out ink splatters on the aged tiles that were still fresh. He must have just missed the elf.

After closing the door behind him, Vaughn let curiosity rule him and he snooped around his desk. Jack must have been looking for something about dwarves here since it was the only matching word across the papers. These were written in Elvish. Vaughn pulled a page that was peeking out of the corner. There were multiple sentences that were furiously scratched out that it was ineligible. He turned the paper over to see that this whole page was used as a list in common speak. Multiple items were crossed out whether from accomplishing or not, Vaughn couldn’t tell. What he did notice was that the list branched off.

> acquired dwarf “Vaughn” (whoops?)

> use him to bypass the dicks at whatever it's called THE BACKBURNER I’m so smart

> steal all the red lyrium to make super awesome corrupted templars for my sweet army, hell yeah

> Kill Vaughn after that if he doesn’t obey me (or get Nisha to kill him, it’s kind of hot when she talks about it, yeah, I’ll get Nisha to do it so I can watch)

> According to Angel, Vaughn got thrown out of his clan now I have to think of some other way to do this. That’s so stupid. Did I carry him around for nothing?

> New plan: same as the old plan, except I’m running out of ink why am I still wr

His hands were shaking so much that Vaughn dropped the list. Angel was right. His legs jerked him around but the moment he grabbed for the handle, the door opened and Jack entered with glass of ink in his hand. For a moment, his eyes were wide as he took in the sight. To Vaughn’s fear, Jack shut the door and he heard it lock behind him. He placed the ink on one of the shelves. “Vaughn." He smiled coiled so innocently that it sent chills down his spine. "Haha, were you looking for me, bud?”

“I… I was.”

“Well, I’m here. What do you look so scared f--” As he advanced towards the backing up dwarf, his gaze shifted when he saw a paper out of place from the stack. Instantly, his smile vanished. “Right, you found out. I really didn’t expect you to come in here. Nisha, yes, but not you. You found out, congrats. I’m sure you have soooo many questions.”

Vaughn stammered but he was unable to form any kind of word and that was pissing Jack off.

Roughly, he grabbed him by the arm. In that touch, Vaughn felt all the adrenaline and stamina that was escalating when Jack entered drained out of his body so fast that it was painful. He fell onto his knees from the shock. Life was being sucked out of him and all he could do was gasp. Jack tightened his grip, his nails dug into Vaughn’s skin until blood drew. “Spit it out, shortstack!”

Once Jack released him, color flooded back into his face. Wheezing, Vaughn clutched his wrist. He looked to his hand which was now covered in blood. “W-wwhhy… why are you doing all this?”

“I’m helping Pandora, dwarf.” The elf broke into a laugh, “I’m sorry. I got ahead of myself there. You know, I’d like to think that I’m a reasonable person. I shouldn’t have gone for the jugular like that, that was stupid of me. Picture this, Vaughn.” Jack brought him onto his feet by the tugging on his shoulders and pulled him into his side. He gestured outward with his other hand. “I can get you back into your society, accepted and all, if you just keep doing what you’re doing and not stop me. And hey, I’ll even tell Nisha to leave you alone because you’ll officially be one of us.”

“So… she is going to kill me?”

“If you say no? Oh yeah. It’s going to be sexy. Or, I mean, this is all about you here. I could give you a quick death right now. I mean, my daughter killed all your friends and dogs so why not join them?”

“Angel did what...?”

“Oh, I thought you knew that already. Wait, I scratched that out, didn’t I? Yeah, I think I did. I need to get another--”

“No! That can’t be-- she--she couldn’t.”

“Uh, yeah, she did. I ordered her to. So you were right, Vaughn, you smartass. It was a necromancer. Good on you!” He slow clapped for him. “You should feel good about yourself.”

“I don’t...”

“Well, sucks to be you then. So, are you going to make up your mind or what? Cause, I don’t do this often. Right now I actually still like you or I would have made you a corpse by now.”

“You’re crazy!”

“I’m guessing you’re leaning towards no then?” He asked sarcastically. Fluidly, he removed a small blade from his waist, spinning it around casually, which effectively freaked Vaughn out. Jack smiled again. “Tell you what, I’m feeling generous today. I'll give you a head start.”

Humming to himself, Jack unlocked the door and opened it wide. He bowed with a mocking flair, “You have ten seconds… One… Two...”

Vaughn sprinted out of the room. Jack didn’t wait for him to disappear down the hall. He banged on Nisha’s chamber door, shouting. “You’re on, cowgirl! He’s all yours!”

“Finally!!”

Thunder roared overhead while Vaughn scampered out of the temple. Suddenly, he was caught in the arms of someone he couldn’t see. Violently, he jerked and squirmed until he fell out of their grasp. He looked up to see Angel. As fast as he could, he got onto his feet and put as much distance between them as possible. Her concern wordlessly faded. He knew. Respecting his distance, she merely pointed at the horse tied up to a tie feet away from the entrance.

Vaughn glanced over then back to her.

“Go!” She yelled.

Almost tripping over his feet, he ran to the horse and began untying the knot. An arrow burrowed through his shoulder and into the bark. He cried out in pain. He didn’t have to look to know that Nisha was behind him, loading another shot.

“Nisha, stop!” Angel pounced, trying to pull the crossbow out of her hands.

“Get off me, you little shit!”

“Angel!” Jack hurried over and grabbed his daughter from under her arms. “Stop helping him! You’re grounded, do you hear me?! Grounded!!”

After jerking her crossbow into her possession, she shot another bolt at Vaughn while he was climbing onto the horse and caught him in the back. From the shock, he slid off, but he was resilient to keep going. As she launched another bolt, a green barrier surrounded the dwarf shattered the arrow.

“Angel!!”

Vaughn took advantage of the confusion. Kicking the horse, the beast whinnied and galloped him out of the magical ring.

Nisha put her fingers into her mouth and whistled. An accompanied neigh responded and a blonde horse rode up and Nisha jumped onto it as it ran by.

“Maker, that was hot! Ow--Fuck!” Angel back kicked him in the groin to escape his clutches.

She booked it towards the stables as her father yelled in Elvish behind her. The elves who ran the stables hurriedly stepped outside, which made her squeak in surprise. She mind blasted the two stablemen into a daze and effectively stole a horse out of their lot. She drove the stallion after Nisha, dodging trees in her path.

Vaughn kept his head low when a bolt soared over him. He cursed himself for not thinking to grab his shield let alone his sword. Another arrow hit him in the leg, sending a surge of agony up his thigh. What did she line these arrow tips with?! They were making the skin around the wound swell up like whelps. He tried to put trees between them by careening his horse around but Nisha kept up with him, laughing like a maniac.

"You're gonna cry for me, dumbass!” She whooped, taking another shot at him that pinned him in the shoulder blade. He doubled over from the shock that lurched through his body like he was electrocuted. “Hurts so good, don’t it?!”

“Would you just-- leave me alone?!” Vaughn shouted over the lightning. He fought to keep from passing out from the overwhelming anguish pulsing through him. He made a sharp right turn in the mud that Nisha’s horse had no problem making.

“You have no idea how cathartic this is for me!”

Vaughn could hear a second horse catching up. Looking behind him, he saw Angel closing in on Nisha. He watched her wave her hand that was surrounded by a purplish glow. Nisha, consumed with horror, screamed as her terrified horse butted her off before leaving her tumbling upon tree roots.

With his hazy mind, Vaughn didn’t know what to believe in. He was having trouble deciphering how many lies he blindly trusted after being stuck in the middle with them for this long. Angel heeled and just gazed after him with a sorrowful expression. He must have been imagining that. He shook himself out of his daze and drove onward out of New Haven’s forest. Hours passed and he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. He fell into his horse’s mane as it galloped to it’s home. Fyrestone.

Riding on her horse driven caravan, Ellie was on her way to Moxxi’s tavern with new inventory that would set them for the next few months. The rain was beginning to sprinkle at this point. She wondered if she should take refuge somewhere until the storm passed or try to outrun it. She was less than half a day away from Fyrestone. Maybe the storm would be move along as long as she kept going.

The rain was getting harder now. No, that wasn’t the rain. It was still soft and gently pinged against her armor. She was hearing the sound of hooves rapidly pounding towards her cart. She shifted her weight to the side and bent over until she could see a familiar horse about to pass her.

“What the hell?” Her voice drawled. After stopping her wagon, she hauled herself off the cart and whistled. “Teeny! It’s me, girl!”

Teeny skidded to a halt, rearing back as Ellie grabbed her reigns. There was a loud slushy thud that followed after. On the ground was a Gray Warden, covered with arrows like a porcupine. Gathering up the dwarf, she put a finger below his nose. As she hoped, he was breathing. “Oh, thank goodness… You poor thing-- Handsome too.” She stared towards New Haven, waiting for something to come up over the horizon. Nothing stirred. “No idea what you was runnin’ from, but don’t worry, you’re safe with me.”

Moxxi’s smile was lying to her customers. She pretended to be happy and witty until the last one left with a wave. Her worry rose to the surface. She rested her torso on the bar counter and she heaved a long sigh. Jack was up to something. She just couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Angel said they were heading towards New Haven, but why would he be going there? He was unpredictable in his motives, one of the many reasons why she dumped him.

She couldn’t stand to see that sweet dwarf at his side. Jack was taking full advantage of his kindness and she hated it. She hated having no idea what to do about it either. Jack kept his hands clean for the most part, even when he set her old bar ablaze. Her worries transformed into anger and she took in a deep breath. She counted as she exhaled. Getting angry at him wasn’t going to fix anything and she had a beer stained floor she needed to mop up.

The door forcefully busted open, making her jump out of her skin. Moxxi put a hand upon her chest as Ellie shouldered in through the small door. “Ellie! How many times have I told you not to--” She gasped at the sight of Vaughn in her daughter’s arms.

“Mox! I-I found this Gray Warden on Teeny--well, fell off of Teeny. I can’t get him to wake up. I-I didn’t want to try to move all them arrows out--”

“Get him into my room.” She commanded.

Cycling through her drawers, she found some bandaging and fresh ointment in the back. As Ellie hauled herself in, she looked around. “Where do you want ‘im? He’s got arrows all over his back.”

“I know he does!” Moxxi snapped, ringing her hands. After sorting about, she moved the comforters up her bed. “Here, lay him on his stomach. Wait-- let me take that off his back first.”

Placing the lute against the bedside table, Moxxi waited for Ellie to fully situate Vaughn on the mattress. Inhaling, the mage hovered her hands over his body as a light green glow emitted from her palms. “I don’t sense anything broken.”

“That’s good...”

Hesitantly, Moxxi reached over and touched the bolt in his shoulder. On contact, Vaughn lurched and let in a painful gasp. Fear glistened brightly in his eyes when he looked at her and he frantically moved away, dispute the overwhelm pain he was under. Vaughn gave a short pathetic scream when Moxxi grabbed him by the wrist. “No, no, no, no! Please, let go! Let me go...!”

“Vaughn, sweetie! It’s Moxxi. Moxxi-- don’t you recognize me?”

His dazed gaze searched her as his voice struggled not to panic. “Mam--Mox…?”

“Moxxi, that’s right. You’re safe here, sugar.”

“Ss-ss-safe?”

“Yes, back in good ol’ Fyrestone. You can thank Ellie for that.” She affectionately stroked his arms. “You’re going to be okay here, Vaughn, I promise. Can we try to get those arrows out of you?”

“... Please...”

“Alright. Ellie, help me with this take his armor off...”

. . .

Moxxi listened to Vaughn’s heavy breathing as she finished bandaging his shoulder. She gently touched his face and moved it side to side to make sure she had cleaned up the rest of the blood from his nose. His eyes had become vacant for the last thirty minutes. She was afraid to impose. As she removed her hand, he blinked and his sleepy gaze shifted from her onto Ellie. He spoke with a hoarse tone. “Thank you… Is there anyway I can repay you for getting me here?”

Her heart panged at that. Ellie brushed the sentiment off with a wave of her hand. “Don’t think nothin’ of it. You just focus on restin’ your handsome noggin.”

“... I’ll think of something...”

Moxxi smiled sadly. She helped him lay his body onto the mattress. “I’m sure you will. You’re too sweet.”

“M’not… I was helping a crazy elf...”

She didn’t have to ask for clarification. “What did Jack do to you, Vaughn?”

“He, like...” The dwarf stiffened at the thought. He could still feel his skin burning where Jack had grabbed him. “Was sucking my soul out or some crap-- It hurt like hell. I couldn’t breathe. The-then… he sent Nisha after me and… Oh, Angel… I don’t know what to think of her anymore.”

“What happened?”

“Jack… Jack told me that she killed everyone at Lynchwood… and then she goes and tells me that I’m in danger and… and she saved my life-- she threw Nisha off her horse so that I could escape. What… what if she let me go so they could follow me here?”

“I made sure no one was followin’ us here.” Ellie reassured, slapping her chestplate. “They’d have to go through this.”

Moxxi moved the hair from his eyes. “Angel is a sweetheart and I can tell she likes you a whole bunch… I hate to think about what Jack is doing to her right now...”

“I-I need to get her!”

“You are not moving!” The mage ordered with a snarl. “Going back would be suicide. You are staying right here.”

Vaughn sunk into the large pillows in dismay. His eyes drifted towards the lute. He could see Angel's shy smile in the wood. “She gave me so much and I just left her...”

Frowning, Moxxi pushed herself onto her feet. “Just rest for now, Vaughn.”

“Moxxi?” Vaughn beckoned with a hint of concern.

“What is it, sugar?”

“I, I think I’m done being a Gray Warden... So, when--when I’m all better, I-I want to help around the place… to repay you! If that’s okay.”

“Oh, Vaughn, I don’t know--”

Ellie gently nudged her, smiling slyly. “I think it’s a good idea, Mox. It’d be nice to have such a sweet and chiseled man like Vaughn around.” She added in a whisper. “Be good eye candy too.”

After taking another glance at his bare abs, Moxxi hummed in agreement. “That is a good idea. Okay, Vaughn. We’ll put you to work as soon as you’re able, sound good?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Holler if you need us, sugar.”

“And don’t try to do anything by yourself-- okay?” Ellie warned with a playful point before closing the door behind her and Moxxi.

Vaughn waited a moment until he made sure that the two had full left him alone in the room. Holding his breath, he leaned over and hauled the lute alongside him. Moving his shoulder hurt like hell despite the ointment Moxxi put on it. He kept his shoulder still and moved his elbow along the neck of the instrument as he picked the strings. A sense of calm washed over him like a ripple echoing through a pond. It told him he was safe.

For the past three months, Vaughn was in the care of Moxxi and Ellie. His wounds have healed but his mind was lagging behind. After the Joining, dreams are never the same. Figures of Darkspawn plagued his mind, but now something more sinister was added into the mix. It was affecting him so badly that he was disturbing the overnight guests. He stopped when Moxxi plucked the feathers from her hat and rested them on his ear. She must have charmed them. His dreams were the same, yet muted in a way that he wasn’t waking up sobbing or screaming anymore.

Moxxi and Ellie found the dwarf invaluable as well as an excellent bard that Moxxi didn’t know she needed in her establishment. He provided such a positive atmosphere that bar fights had become nonexistent. He was always doing more than what was expected of him and he seemed to be enjoying himself too. Moxxi didn’t expect him to be a genius when it came to numbers, either. She wanted to ask, but she respected his privacy due to the tattoo on his face. Ellie was spending more time with him than the horses. Moxxi giggled to herself when she started to flirt with him and she watched her words bounce off him with little effect. Moxxi found them to be cute together, even though it was obvious that Vaughn didn’t feel the same way that she did for him. However, Ellie was persistent.

The night was getting old and only a few customers sitting near the door remained. She didn’t need to kick their drunken asses out just yet, there was still fifteen minutes left and they weren’t causing any trouble. The dwarf was on his break and sat with his lute on the high stool as Ellie stood beside him, leaning her weight on the end of the bar.

“Who taught you how to play?” She asked as he sipped his drink.

“My granddad. He was a bard too. He practically raised me. I think I spent more time with him than I did with my parents.”

“I remember my grandpappy… he was an ass.”

“Ellie!” Moxxi snapped.

“Well, he was! He liked Scooter more than me.”

Vaughn cocked his head. “Scooter?”

“My brother. Mox sent him to the Circle.”

“Mmmhm, his mentor Janey’s been sending me letters about his progress… and she keeps flirting with me.” Vaughn’s aww made Moxxi snicker. “I like the girl, but she’s a little too-- much at times.”

“What kind of mage is Scooter?”

“He’s taken a very keen interest in fire. I’m always worried that they’re going to deem him Tranquil-- he’s a bit… stupid.”

“How much crap has he set on fire?”

“Too much.” Ellie replied with a snort. “Better there than here. Hey, Moxxi, remember when we was kids and he sneezed and he set my hair on fire and we had to shave it off?”

She smiled, shaking her head. “I thought you were never going to stop crying.”

“I didn’t cry! Maybe a little bit cause it was burnin’ my scalp. You should have seen me Vaughn, I was ownin’ that look. I was the talk of the town. Scooter was so jealous. I was plum cute-- Hell, I’m more than cute now. I’m bangin’ bodacious and sexy as hell now. It's my thing.”

Vaughn smiled. “Aw, Ellie, you’re just delightful!”

“Don’t I know it! Never get tired of hearin’ it from a chiseled little man like yerself though.” She flaunted back with a wink. “Ah-wink.”

“Did you just-- say wink while winking--?” He laughed nervously, “Okay. Anyway. I’m gonna keep, you know, doing my bard thing.”

Vaughn hopped down from his chair and sauntered to his corner of the room, filling the tavern with a playful tune.

Moxxi nudged her daughter. “You’re not giving up, are you?”

“Nope.” She said cheerfully, watching the dwarf with her hand to her chin.

After five peaceful minutes strolled on, the false sense of security ended the moment the doors burst open. At the sight, Vaughn stopped playing and his heart skipped a beat when Jack waltzed in. His party had gotten a bit bigger since the last. On his heels, Nisha was still at his side followed by a man with horns growing out of his head. With him, there was an elf who had a striking resemblance to Jack down to the tattoos, except he wore an anxiety ridden expression instead of an punch-able, annoyingly smug face. In the middle was Angel. Their eyes met instantly. Vaughn tried to make himself appear smaller by pushing himself against the wall and holding his lute closer to his body.

No one else seemed to notice him. With swagger, Jack put his elbow onto the bar and gave her a wicked smile. “Moooxxxi! How’ve you been? Great, don’t care. You haven’t seen my little buddy Vaughn around have you?”

Taking hold of the situation, Ellie moved over in a position that blocked their view from Vaughn. Silently, the dwarf crept over to the bar with his body hunched over.

“Oh? Did something happen between you two, Jack?”

“It’s Handsome Jack, Mox. We got a little mix up last time we talked. Huge miscommunication issues and I just want to apologize to him. Get him back on the team, you know how it is. Are you sure you haven’t seen him?” He asked this while looking over the counter.

He couldn’t let Moxxi take the brunt for him. Vaughn didn’t want to be at fault again for getting someone hurt or worse. Vaughn stood up and stepped around Ellie. His hands shook with anxiety. “I’m right here.”

An eerie grin crept onto his lips as Handsome Jack approached him. “Vaughn! You little scamp, I thought I lost you… What’s with the outfit? Don’t tell me you quit being a Gray Warden?”

“It… wasn’t for me.”

Jack dramatically faked a sympathetic pout. “That is a bummer. I’m sorry to hear that and I honestly feel like I’m at fault for that. I am so sorry--”

“I don’t forgive you.”

Jack laughed out of surprise. “Wow, look who grew some balls! You really want to say that to me, little man?” He held out his hand that glowed in a yellowish hue that set Vaughn’s heart racing. “After all I did for you?”

Vaughn swallowed, “S-sir, if you’re not going to buy anything, I suggest you and your friends leave. We’re closed and you’re disturbing the staff.”

Jack straightened up and looked around the bar. The people in the corner of the room had left. They had the whole tavern to themselves. No witnesses. However, Jack knew better than to start a fight with Moxxi involved. He ran his tongue over his lips. “Okay then… Yo, Mox! I need a round of beer and a water for Angel, you got that?”

“Transparently.”

“And you, shortstack, play something spicy.”

“I don’t take requests unless you tip.”

Vaughn knew he was stepping in dangerous waters by the grim look the elf gave him. Without breaking eye contact, Jack fished inside his pocket and chucked a gold piece at the dwarf, which he missed by a foot and a half and it hit the wall instead. “There’s your freakin’ tip, asshole.”

Fighting the urge to smile, Vaughn picked up the coin and placed it in his vest pocket as he sang before performing on his lute. “If you're having girl problems I feel bad for you son, I got ninety nine problems but a bitch ain't one."

While Angel was quick to conceal her laughter, Jack’s double could not stifle his fast enough.

“What’s so funny?” Handsome Jack countered with a scowl.

“Na-noth-nothing, me-- Jack-- Handsome! Jack, sir.”

“Right… Why don’t you and Angel go take a seat then. ‘Ey, Wilhelm.” The Tal-Vashoth warrior lumbered over and Jack began to whisper in his ear while Nisha leaned in. Ellie watched them with a wary eye but she wasn’t close enough to hear them. Coming out of the kitchen, Moxxi dropped the three beers onto the counter before sashaying over to the occupied table. Ellie straightened up when she saw Jack getting himself up onto the bar.

“Hey! You step down--!” Ellie’s hand was snatched away by Wilhelm’s crushing strength that took her by surprise.

“Easy, cupcake.” Jack swirled his mug around. “I’ve just got a little announcement I wanna make. So if you want to play some inspirational music for us--” Vaughn stopped playing. “Hah, that’s just as funny the second time. Let me try again. Wilhelm.”

With his hand still holding tight onto Ellie’s wrist, Wilhelm pushed it backwards until Ellie screamed. Moxxi stepped up and tugged on the elf's pant leg. “That’s enough, Jack!”

Nisha pointed her crossbow at her. “I’d stay put, ‘sugar’.”

Begrudgingly, Vaughn pressed on with a methodical tune and the two drew their hands away. Briefly, he looked to Angel who dared to not meet his gaze.

“Much better… Tonight! Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to make a big step in history, because of your leader and hero: Handsome Jack.” He bowed slightly and half of his gang applauded enthusiastically. “Thank you, I know. I’m too much. But let’s focus on all of you, the ones who helped me get here. Nisha, the best damn girlfriend I’ve ever had, no offense Moxxi.”

“None taken.”

“I didn’t ask. Nisha, you’ve always been so supportive of me and I just want you to know how much I care about you.” He booped her nose. “Wilhelm! Damn, you are good at crushing skulls. You know, I think the second time going to The BackBurner was even better than the first. Mostly because I got to watch you split baby dwarves in half. I got to gouge out someone’s eyes with a spoon. Ahhhh, that was great. And me!” Jack pointed to his body double. “You’re really sexy, so don’t drink too much! If you ruin my figure, I’ll slit your throat.”

His double drunkenly raised his glass in acknowledgement before downing the rest of the liquor.

“And Angel, you have just been the greatest daughter a father could ever ask for. So obedient and loving. Maybe, I’ll even unground you after this.” Angel kept her eyes to herself.

“And I’m including you in this thanks, Vaughn.” Jack raised his glass towards him. “You were such a hassle to deal with, but, man, was it worth it to watch your stupid face when I stabbed Tassiter in the back. You were like all ‘Whaaa! Jack, what are you doing? Aaaaah, noooo!’” Jack broke into a long laugh, “Thanks for being so naive, pumpkin. You put on a great show for us. I’m sure your granddad is real proud of you. I met your folks by the way, don’t worry. They died fast-- relative to everything else that was going on. You know, if you didn’t leave, I would have spared them.”

Moxxi slammed her rag down. “Jack, stop!”

“You’re right. I’ve been going on for too long. Anyway, to us! And more importantly, to our conquest to civilize Pandora!” With an accompanying cheer, Jack took a swing of his beer with a reluctant sigh. Crossing his legs, he plopped down on the counter and leaned his back towards Moxxi. “You know, you can still apologize.”

She squinted at him. “Apologize?”

“Uh, yeah, apologize for breaking my heart. I could use you on my team. I’d kill to have a blood mage like you on my side.”

“Then keep looking. I know this whole charade isn’t so you can recruit me or Vaughn, Jack.”

“You know, that's what I always liked about you, Moxxi. I don't have to explain myself all the time to you. It's a damn good change from the idiots I've worked with." He took a glance over at Vaughn. He lowered his voice. "I just wanted to check on the people who betrayed me. Make sure no one’s killed you yet… because I’d have to murder them instead and that would just ruin my day.”

“Awww poor you.” Moxxi pouted and shoved him off her bar. “Now get out before I call the police.”

Jack put his drink down and raised his hands in defense as he backed off. The know-it-all look on his face made her feel uneasy, as if he was done playing with her. “Okay, Mox, you made your point. Let’s go, everybody!”

At first, Vaughn wanted to run over to Angel and help her pick up the intoxicated body double but his legs were locked in place. He watched her carry him underneath his shoulder and follow her father out the door.

Jack poked his head out. “Oh! One last thing-- Nah, it won’t be as fun if I tell you. You’ll know. Buh-bye!”

Vaughn fell onto his knees, wheezing heavily and clutching his lute. Ellie scurried and put her arms around him. “I’ve got you, snugglemuffin.”

“Nonono, something’s wrong. Something’s really bad.”

“Ellie, get him in the cell--” Moxxi stopped and sniffed the air. Gasoline. “Shit! Stay close to me!”

When she raised her arms, a blue shield surrounded them right as the scaffolding exploded above them.

Chapter Text

Moaning from pain, Timothy Lawrence woke up to feel his skin burning. His lungs spazzed as if on the verge of collapsing. He coughed until he wasn’t able to breathe. He laid there and forced himself to take long deep breaths. He couldn’t remember what happened prior to waking up. He was in a dark room where only candle light and magic coming off the mages' scepters illuminated his body. He could see elf mages leaning over him. His eyes popped open. That wasn’t his body. Slowly, he felt around his face. The Vallaslin hurt to the touch. The last time he was supposed to get his tattoos he screamed and they deemed him unworthy of responsibility. All the blood ran straight to his feet. This wasn’t his face and this wasn’t his Vallaslin.

“What in th-- eughh--awuh,” His throat tingled when he spoke. “Thi--this is not--? Oh god, what happened to me? I sound like an asshole...”

No matter how hard he cleared his throat, his voice sounded nothing like he remembered. He sat up and slid off the bed to survey the unfamiliar room. From the mold, foliage, and dust, he pieced together that he was inside Mythal’s temple. The room was small yet crowded with old broken furniture and a chest that sat at the end of the bed. There was a large shard from a mirror that looked like to been shattered for years with the amount of dirt and dust on it. Timothy used his sleeve the brush some of it off. The face of Handsome Jack looked back at him.

He screamed. “That’s not me! Wha--what happened to my eyes?! Where did my freckles go?? Ohhh nooo, I-I even look like an asshole…!” Timothy stared at his reflection, unable to take his hand off his new face. “This can’t be real.” He pinched his cheek. “Fuck. It is real.”

He was having trouble breathing again. Stumbling through the dimly lit room, he threw the door open and fell into the corridor. With one hand on the wall, he wandered throughout the arches until he found one that led him outside. Storm clouds hovered over New Haven. A cold chill blew right through him. He inhaled deeply and let his weight rest against the column. He rubbed his arms as his mind toiled.

“I’ve got to be missing something… I look… familiar.” He ran through his day before waking up as a literal new man. He ate breakfast, he was helping around the temple, healed a little kid who busted his knee open from not watching where he was going, someone named Jack came in and made a speech he didn’t agree with, he helped around the market stands and sold a lute to girl-- his train of thought stopped. “Wait. That girl was with Jack-- I think he said that was his daughter? Wait, I’m Jack. I have Jack’s face.”

He sunk until he hit the floor. He ran his hands through his hair. The memory was extremely fuzzy but he could see himself being led into the temple by that pretty human Jack was with and then he woke up in that bed.

Timothy wondered how much time has passed since then. He remembered the forest being shadier than usual from cloud coverage, but they weren’t dark and scary like the ones overhead that reeked of implied drama going down somewhere.

He noticed something big slowly approaching the temple. He squinted until he could finally make out the shadow. Jack held his daughter by the wrist and with the other escorted a horse that a human sat on. The human looked fairly shaken up. The clouds weren’t lying. That was definitely some drama. He could see the angry lines of the elf’s face and how tense his hands were as they drew closer. Jack noticed him immediately and gave him a simple nod that Timothy didn’t know how to take. He watched as Jack gently pushed his daughter away. Without taking a look at Timothy, she ran through the entrance. Her hair was tangled and stained with mud but he briefly saw her distress as she rushed by. Jack helped the human lady off her horse and kissed her cheek that she took begrudgingly. Holding her chest as if she would fall apart at any moment, she side eyed him before trudging on with a deep frown.

“You’ve got impeccable timing, kiddo. I really wasn’t expecting you to wake up this soon.” Jack appeared to be trying to shake off the remnants of his frustration that still stained his voice. “At least the mages did a damn good job on you. Good… Good, good.”

“Should I… ask what’s going on?”

“Ahh, little bastard tried to stab me and take the credit of my hard work for himself. Unfortunately, he got away.”

He assumed Jack was taking about the only person that was missing in the group. “The dwarf...?”

“Yeah, that guy.” He sniffed. “Trust me, don’t believe everything you hear about those guys. They’re nothing but traitorous assholes. Man. I really wish I was in a better mood right now. I’m sorry. You’re seeing me in a bad light right now. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions too. Look, I’m up, you’re up. Let’s just talk in my office.”

“Ah, sure, yeah... Let’s do that.”

Jack reassured Timothy that his uprising team was doing the greater good to build up a massive army to stop the blight and become heroes. Timothy’s job was to be where he couldn’t and make his decisions for him in his ‘style’. Timothy was given a week to hang around until he mastered the art of ‘being Jack’, after that his work began.

“But you’re a Reaver, not a mage.”

“You noticed my genius. Y’see, I want people to be inspired by me. Handsome Jack: anyone can be like him. Mages, rogues, warriors, all that jazz.”

“So, where’s the rogue?”

“He’s been busy. Don’t worry, you’re not going to accidentally run into him and ruin the facade. I’ve got everything planned out.”

“If you say so… but how am I going to be performing, uh, ‘miracles’.”

“You use your mage stuff! Do what I would do. Give to charity, heal the rich, get laid, yadda-yadda. Do what you think a hero would do and do it, like saving a cat from a tree or something until I call you.”

“For what?”

“When my plan gets in full swing. You’re going to come along with us and we’re gonna pick up Wilhelm and go to The BackBurner to get some supplies. That should be a little more than a trial week because I don’t think being here is going to give you the full Jack effect. After that, I’ll give you your assignments and off you go. Helping out the little guys in my name. Sound good?”

“I… guess so?”

“Good-- Oh! And remember, don’t say that you’re anyone else but me. Got it, pumpkin? You only respond to Jack. So, kiss old Timmy goodbye, kid, because you’re never going to see him again.”

His ears rang. Timothy Lawrence... was dead.

Two days have passed and Timothy already hated his job and Jack all together. Quitting was impossible considering that he will never have his old face and voice back. However, he was getting the hang of being fake Jack, which boiled down to: snarky hero complex who thought he was sexy, not that Timothy was a good judge at that.

They were to leave for The BackBurner tonight. Despite having horses, it was going to be a lengthy hike that he wasn’t looking forward to. He didn’t have much to pack either since his belongings were nowhere to be found, thanks to Jack. Timothy was dead… He exhaled loudly as he pressed on with getting their stallions ready.

He heard footsteps edging closer that he elected to ignore as he tightened the reins. Then he heard a scuffle behind him. He turned to see who he assumed to be Angel, since he hadn’t seen her in person after the dwarf incident. She had tripped and was now gathering tomes and books from the ground. She angrily brushed the dirt and mud off the covers.

“Here, let me help--”

“Don’t.”

Timothy stopped moving and looked at her. Although she didn’t meet his gaze, he could feel a conflicting storm surging through her. Jack told him that Angel was deeply upset about the dwarf lying to her. Clearly, she had not calmed down since then. He said in a small voice. “Okay. Sorry...”

Angel lifted her head, her face lined with tired confusion.

“Oh, right, sorry--” He cleared his throat as he went on sarcastically. “I’m Jack and I’m the best and I love being Jack. I’m sooooo attractive.” He added, batting his eyelashes.

That coaxed a temporary smile onto her lips. “I’d watch what you say. Jack doesn’t like being made fun of.”

“Yeah, I know, you just-- you looked like you needed a laugh.”

Angel blinked. “... Thank you. You’re different from the others. It’s Timothy, right?”

“Y-yeah, that’s me-- well, not anymore. Don’t tell Jack I said that. Wait, was that a test?”

She helped Jack handpick each of his body doubles and they all shared one characteristic: money. They didn’t care what they had to do as long as they got paid. She had picked him because Jack needed someone who had a strong connection to the Fade. Knight-Enchanters is nearly a dead specialty few mages could grasp. Jack wasn’t with her when she consulted the healers of the clan and they pointed her towards a blonde freckled Timothy with a weary finger. His teacher had died a year ago and left him with very little to go off on. To please Jack, Angel took any opportunity the world gave her. She wondered if she had chosen in his favor. It was a hurried decision and if she didn't choose right...
She had been able to talk with the doubles when they came to her for their payments. They were selfish and blindly following Jack like dogs. None of them seem to care for her well-being, not that she was looking for it. They played their roles too well, which made Timothy the odd man out. That concerned her.

“No, I wasn't testing you.” She placed the last book inside her satchel. “I’m sorry about before… Everything’s been changing too fast. I know Jack’s probably told you about me but I’m Angel. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I’m ‘Jack’--clearly.” He dramatically rolled his eyes at himself that made Angel snicker. “It’s nice to meet you too, Angel. What books do you got there?”

“Some are about the Fade but most of these are about dwarven culture and their history.”

“Oh, that’s smart of you. I have like, no idea about dwarves, at all and it’d probably be uh, good to know. Is it okay if I can borrow one?”

“Sure, and I’ll even give you my notes since you asked so nicely.”

“You saying that makes me feel like I shouldn’t have.”

“You’ve still got time to hone down the Jack thing.”

“Unfortunately.” He said with a smile. “We got any ideas on how we’re going to convince those guys to join us, exactly?”

“I’ll handle it.”

“Just… you?”

“I know how to be persuasive, besides, it’s for a good cause...”

“You’re right. You know what I find weird though?”

Angel tied her bag straps into her saddle on the side of caution. “What?”

“Why is Jack letting me, I don’t know, be seen with him? It kind of breaks the illusion, don’t you think? Should I bring that up to him?”

She let a breath of relief quietly slip through her lips. “It’s better if you don’t. Who knows, maybe he’ll change his mind or wants to station you there.”

“Maybe. What, uh, what kind of magic do you do?”

“Well, I dabble in everything, really, but my favorite is ice.”

“Jack of all trades, then?”

“Ha ha.”

“Thank you for fake laughing. I try to be funny.”

Their conversation stopped when Jack and Nisha showed up. After Vaughn's "betrayal", everything was running smoothly, which only made Angel’s chest ache. It was as if there was a hole where her heart was. It was sweet of Timothy to try to remedy that, but she was already convinced that she couldn’t change anything. She will always be caught. Something will go wrong, like it always does. She didn’t want to get attached to someone again just because they were nice to her once. She hopped onto the saddle and sat behind Jack. Taking a glimpse over her shoulder, she watched Timothy immediately fall off the horse the moment he got on. She broke into a laugh that she muffled with her hand as he struggled to get his foot out of the stirrup. Nisha just glared at him, shaking her head. This was going to be a long week.

While they took refuge in T-Bone Junction, a rather large city that reeked of horses filth, the real Jack and Nisha decided to “rest” to the inn as Angel took Timothy for a trial run around the market. Although, the elf was becoming exceptionally good at playing his role without letting it go to his head, Timothy was definitely not Jack. He was too nice. He couldn't turn down a business card from a scantily clad lady that he had no idea what to do with.

“Uhhh, I’m not looking for a job right now.”

Angel pressed her lips together. Oh maker, he wasn’t joking.

The human politely laughed and pointed at the card. “No, sweetie, this is for when you get lonely tonight. Just follow the address and ask for Sweet.”

“Oh. Okay, thank you.” When she strutted away, Timothy looked to Angel and whispered. “I have no idea what this ‘Magic Touch’ is. Is it a store for mages?”

“You don’t get out of the forest much, do you?”

“Nope.”

“That was a prostitute and that address is to a love motel.”

His face glowed red. “... Oh. Oh, wow! Uhh! Well then! Ok, now I feel bad, because I’m really not into this at all. Do you think they sit and talk about the Fade or--or would that make them angry? Angel help me, I don’t know what to do.”

“Would Handsome Jack go for it?”

“... He has a girlfriend, so… nnnno?”

“If you really think so.”

Timothy stared at the card further, panic rising. “Wait-- Would he?!”

“I’m not the right person for that question.”

“Ohhhh… maker. I hate this.”

“Just stuff it in your pocket for now. You’ll be okay. Let’s get some of that stuff on the list. You can try to flirt your way into a discount.”

“Oh no.”

“Hey, I’m here to coach you, ok? Just use any petname you can think of and look like you just asked me if you have something up your nose. Like this.” She raised her head until his nose was pointing at the sky. "Hey there, cupcake, I've got the biggest dick in all of Pandora. I know you want a piece."

Timothy laughed so much that he snorted. Quickly, he covered his mouth and cleared his throat, sheepishly. He avoided Angel's stare by looked down at his shoes. “… I know Jack only threw us out to get some ‘alone time’, but you honestly have no reason to help me. Seriously, you could have just wandered off. So I just want you to know that I appreciate it.”

“Uh, you’re welcome-- Jack.”

“Jack, right. That’s me. I’m great. I’m confident. Leaking confidence. Boy, I’m confi-dence.”

“You first.” She gestured with her hand to the door of a rustic shop.

“Please don’t make me do this.”

“You’re older than me! You can do this.”

“Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I have my life together! I have crippling anxiety, Angel!”

“You can do it, Tim. I believe in you.”

Timothy took a deep breath. “Okay. If you believe in me… but please do not let me go in by myself.”

“I’ll be right behind you. Here’s the list. Just give it to the person behind the counter and work your magic.”

“Ha-ha... Okay.” His anxious demeanor drastically changed. He put on Jack’s flashy smile and lowered his brows that inspire his rest of his body to appear self-assured. He sauntered into the store with his hips swaying. The employee was a bored dwarf with braids and beads that traveled into her beard. She was seated on a stool so that she was able to look over the counter and access the register.

She lazily took to Timothy with a cocked brow, “Can I help you?”

“Yes-- I’m sorry, let me get this out first, because I’m freaking out. I’m really jealous of your beard. It’s so pretty.”

A genuine smile tugged at her lips at his enthusiasm as she absently touched her chin. “Thank you so much. Can elves not grow beards?”

“Trust me, I’ve tried. How long does this usually take you to braid and do all that?”

“About an hour. My hair gets really frizzle and mangled in the morning so I have to iron it out by hand before I can do anything.”

“It looks worth that hour.”

“You’re so sweet. Is that list for me?”

“Oh, yeah, here.”

The dwarf looked it over and headed into the back of the store. Angel nudged his side with a smirk. “Got a thing for beards, huh?”

“I’ve always wanted one. Everyone makes them look so soft. My teacher had one that curled like this." He made loops with his fingers off his chin. "It was so cool.”

“Wait, your teacher wasn’t an elf?”

“Right? It surprised me too, that, you know, they let a human into New Haven. I thought it was a step into the right direction for us learning to unlearn that humans aren’t all scumbags.”

“How did he die?”

“In his sleep. We really couldn’t do anything about it and he wanted to rest, so we let him go. Took him a week. I was kind of already at peace with it. He’s kind of just one with nature now. It’s what he would have wanted. He kept apologizing to me that he couldn’t keep pestering me about my magic, but like, c’mon. Him getting old isn’t anyone’s fault.”

“He sounded like a good man.”

“Heheh, yeah he was. Who taught you?”

“The Circle.”

“Ahhh. That fun place.”

“Mmhm, had loads of good times. No one liked me because I learned too fast. Not even the advanced mages could keep up with me.”

“Hey, that’s something to be proud of. You’ve got some real talent in you. It took me a whole year to even conjure a fireball.”

“Yeah, that took me around five seconds.”

“I can see why they hated you.” Timothy smiled at her laugh.

After another minute flew by, the dwarf came back with a bag that she plopped onto the counter. “Greater Ice Salve, 3 Flasks, Acid Flask Recipe, Lifestone, Poisoned Caltrop Trap Plans, Interesting Lure Trap Plans, Choking Powder Cloud Trap, Mild Sleeping Gas Trap Plans, and Concentrated Demonic Poison Recipe comes down to 12 gold and 179 silver as your total.”

Timothy dug in his pocket uselessly. “Uhhh-- oh no.”

“I’ve got it.” Angel handed him Jack’s wallet that he totally didn't steal.

“Thanks, pumpkin.”

Something flourished inside her. ‘Pumpkin’ should be endearing like this and not spat in chagrin like she had heard countless times. His smile that accompanied that sentiment gave color to her the world around her. She knew this was all an act, yet she let affect her emotionally. She found herself thinking Timothy as the Jack she wanted to see. She needed to stop that. It wasn’t healthy. He was going to die as a pawn in Jack’s plan. She had learned from the start of this to not get too heavily involved. She was still feeling, despite it all. She was really liking Timothy in such a short amount of time, just like Vaughn.

“Angel? You okay?”

Angel blinked. They were outside. He was holding her hand and rubbing his finger over her knuckles. She wanted to push him away. It was too late for her to act like everything was fine. She squeezed his hand. “Yeah, just… You’re too good at this.”

“Crap, did I freak you out?”

“I-I’ll be fine. Really. By the way, I don’t think you noticed but she totally halved that total for you.”

“She did? Sweet. Man, you’re right, I do have the hang of this. But I am really sorry that I scared you.”

She snatched her hand out of his grasp. “It’s okay. I just need a second.”

“Ok, uh, Nisha wanted specific bolts that they make here too, so I’m going to grab those. You wanna wait here?”

“Yeah, I’ll stay.”

“Ok-- I know you can handle yourself but if anyone tries to grab you-- scream. Like, loud. So I can be your moral support while you kick their asses. There you go, there’s a smile. You will scream though, right? Like ‘Ahhhhh!!’, y’know?”

Angel snickered. “I will. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“I am constantly embarrassing and you’re just going to have to deal with it. Ok, be right back.”

He was a mess.

This was a mess. The outskirts of The BackBurner was drenched with the smell of smoke and it was becoming more intoxicating the closer they walked. Wilhelm was a beast in Angel’s eyes. A blood lust Tal-Vashoth that was at Jack’s beck and call if gold was involved. He barely spoke but when he did it was gravely and rough around the edges, as if he was gnawing at a bone. Angel picked him out for his willing nature and right now, he was to do what she was about to command. Glancing over at Timothy, he was preoccupied with the sights and sounds of The BackBurner. They had little time to speak after their pit stop at T-Bone Junction. He was walking fairly close to her even though he was supposed to be lagging behind with Jack and Nisha. She didn’t blame him. She didn’t expect him to forgive them quickly after they tried to trick him into a threesome that ended up with Timothy having a terrible panic attack that took him half the night to ease down from.

They had done that before to other body doubles to give the excuse that it was okay. While some have been more favorable to either Jack or Nisha or both-- Timothy made it clear that not every body double is going be indifferent or enthusiastic about something so intimate. Angel couldn’t give him a sense of comfort. If he was happy with being beside her, she wasn’t going to push him away. What she was about to do was going to push him away for her.

As they crossed the threshold into the town, Nisha pulled Timothy to the back lines to ‘watch with a view’, as she said. Already, Angel and Wilhelm were making a scene just by strutting through to the square. Timothy stared in confusion. He could feel the Fade strongly in the air that was directly connected to Angel.

Jack was giggling with excitement. “This is going to be so great.”

“I told you it was a good idea.” Nisha nudged him.

“Yeahh, remind me to listen to you more often.”

Timothy assumed due to his long beard that the old dwarf was the leader of the town was approaching Angel and Wilhelm. “What’s happening?”

“This, kiddo, is why you don’t cross Handsome Jack. Watch.”

“Wait--what did they do?”

“Shut up.” Nisha barked. “We’re going to miss it.”

He couldn’t hear what the dwarf in charge was saying but when Angel lifted her hand into the air and snapped her fingers, the world buzzed with Wilhelm's war cry. In a blink, mayhem rampaged through The BackBurner as a wall of fire surrounded all exits. Nisha and Jack let out screams of excitement and rushed with their weapons flourished. In horror, Timothy watched Handsome Jack take a head clean off a dwarf running away from the square. The poor body of the dwarf fell over in a crumpled heap as his head rolled in his direction.

Gulping hard, Timothy could only look upon the world around him as his own head spun. Everything around him was needless gore he didn’t understand. Nothing prepared him for such a graphic massacre. His eyes focused on Angel who was still standing in the middle of the chaos, unflinching. The wind whipped wildly around her hair. Suddenly, wings from the Fade spread out of her back and she lifted herself into the air.

Some of the dwarves that were more battle ready overcame their shock and he could see catapults aiming for her. Bolting into the fray, Timothy drew out his staff and cast a shield around her before the flaming rocks hit her. Whirling around, Angel looked down at him in stunned silence.

Timothy shouted through his hysterics. “I’ll keep you safe!”

Angel was dying to just say something, something urgent. She wanted to tell him to run, but her throat had shut down from over stimulation. She had to press on with her magic despite the risks. She raised her hands and the ground erupted and tore down houses as the cracks swallowed up the dwarves seeking refuge. In return, strong amalgamate illusions of Darkspawn seeped through the rocky ground.

Timothy’s system shut down at the sight. Around him the town of BackBurner, home to the dwarves, was becoming extinct in front of him.

This is what… heroes do?

No one was alive, except for Handsome Jack and his band of ‘heroes’. Right. Destroying a race was not what heroes did, not in his book. He was beginning to wonder if what Jack was saying about that Gray Warden was true. Was this his home? Did he live here? Was all of this just an act of revenge?

As he let his legs carry him around The BackBurner, he could barely tell what was a house and what used to be a road since everything was stained red. His gaze occasionally traveled to the main entrance. Templars with horse drawn wagons were already loaded with red lyrium that Timothy didn’t want to ask about. He was already afraid that asking too many questions would lead him to the same fate as these dwarves. He stopped moving when he stepped on a headless doll sprawled on the ground. It was burned around the neck and feet. Maker, they killed everyone. Timothy felt sick to his stomach. For twenty more years, he was stuck like this. Stuck with this face. Stuck with this self proclaimed hero doing things like this.

“Fucking psychopath...” He turned and stumbled when he saw Angel behind him. She looked haggard and on the verge of fainting. She was holding a folder tightly in her hands.

He held it up to him. “It’s… this is your work list from Jack and from now on you report to me as Body Double 13. You are to follow the Templars and speak with Hugo Vasquez about--”

Timothy stooped down and wrapped his arms around her in a firm embrace. Angel stopped breathing.

“No, no, no, no, let go of me, please--!” She vainly squirmed out of his grasp to have him hold her closer.

“This isn’t your fault, Angel.”

Her squirming halted. Before she could stop herself, tears dripped down to her chin and she openly sobbed into Timothy’s neck. She wanted to be in his arms forever so she could always feel that sense of ease that she needed so desperately. She was digging herself into another hole but she stopped caring. She just wanted to feel happy again.

“Angel, they’re leaving without me. I’ve gotta go, I’m sorry...” He cupped her face, drying her tears with his fingers. “You be safe. I’ll write to you, okay?”

“Okay… I’m sorry for crying on you.”

“Pfff, that is, like, not even the grossest thing on my clothes right now. You’re fine. I’ll see you later.” He patted her head, took the folder, and quickly ran for his horse to catch up to the Templars.

Nisha rested her elbow on Jack’s shoulders as the two watched Timothy flail off the saddle again. “You know, he kind of reminds me of when you rode your first horse. That shit was hilarious.”

Jack pouted. “It was not! Your dumb horse hated my guts and kept bucking me off! His doesn’t give a shit!”

“She eventually warmed up to you.”

“After biting my freakin’ hand. And threw me into a wall. Or that time she kicked me into the water. My tailbone still hurts from that.”

“At least she likes Angel.”

Coming into the conversation late, Angel didn’t feel like asking what they were talking about. Timothy had correctly gotten onto his steed by but now he wasn’t moving. She could his confusion on his face. She put her hands around her mouth. “Squeeze your calves!”

“Right! I forgot! Sorry!” Timothy called back with a nervous laugh. “I’m going now.”

. . .

Red Lyrium Report -- Body Double #13

The Red Lyrium experiments are not going so well. I had to watch a Templar explode from the torso up and it was the second most graphic thing I’ve ever seen. I still feel sick. So, the dose *Handsome Jack recommended was too much. We decided to half the dosage and that seemed to help. But then an hour later he died from his bowels imploding. Will update when there is a significant change in “upgrading” the Templars.

 

*Please don’t tell Jack that I had to scribble “Handsome” in there because I forgot. He doesn’t read these, does he?

P. S. I think this Hugo Vasquez is coming onto me.
P. P. S. Hugo Vasquez is absolutely coming onto me and I’m uncomfortable. He knows I’m not actually Jack, right?

 

Red Lyrium Report -- Guardian Angel

Handsome Jack does not read these reports. Your report has been put under consideration that Handsome Jack has decided to neglect because and I quote “the dose was already smaller than Hugo’s dick” end quote. However, the results have peaked Handsome Jack’s interests. Templars exploding when contact to such a dose to Red Lyrium is slightly unorthodox. Templars’ bodies are supposedly addicted to the stuff. It’s odd to hear it be violently rejected. Do keep us posted.

As a body double, you are not to say that you are not Handsome Jack unless it’s to a cooperative party. Hugo is not part of the party, therefore don’t tell him. However, you do have my pity. If he does become more unprofessional, I am required to tell you to “turn on the Jack”. I am told this is not a sexual thing even though it really sounds like it. Basically, just do your job and be Jack: Turn him down.

 

Red Lyrium Report #2 -- Body Double #13

The selected Templars J, A, and K and their tests have been running better. They are finally showing the symptoms of extended use of Red Lyrium. Templar A and J are becoming somewhat paranoid over nothing. Templar J seems to be keen on this song in his head that no one else can hear. Templar K is looking fairly ill. He also bit me. There wasn’t any blood, thankfully. Although, I would have taken the poisoning over Hugo’s pampering. I “turned on the Jack” and that seemed to scare him. He stopped coming into my room when I’m working now so that’s a plus. I guess there are some perks to this job… Please do not tell *Jack I said that.

*Handsome Jack! Sorry.

 

Red Lyrium Report #3 -- Body Double #143

Out of all the Templars, Templar K is progressing the most. He has crystals growing out his neck and rib cage. It’s really gross. His veins are like poking out too. He also kind of smells. He keeps singing to himself. None of the “untested” Templars know what that meA_________/

Sorry about the ink scratch, Hugo burst through my door. Templar J escaped and attacked some of the apprentice mages. Three mages have minor injuries and one died. I have already punished the Templar by kicking him down the stairs. He’s fine aside from a broken back that I feel really bad about. Templar K died while singing. Hugo supposes that the song drove him to suicide. I had Templar K checked. There was no penetrations or injury of any kind besides the crystals. There were also no weapons in his test chamber. I think the extra dosage caught up to him.

P. S. This is probably the most depressing job I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve worked with treating dying elves. I didn’t think I would be required to corrupt normal people like this. I asked Hugo what he thought about it and he didn’t seem to care. How can you not care about your employees? I don’t get it. I’m not trying to get out of this, even though I’d really like to. I’ll keep going and keep you updated.

Can I ask how you’re doing, Angel? It has to be better than this.

 

Red Lyrium Report -- Guardian Angel

Handsome Jack says he likes your style and to keep up the good work. He recommends a choke hold if another Templar messes up this vital test.

13, I am not to disclose any outside information to you and you cannot address me by name in case these reports get stolen or misdirected. We cannot be more than partners in this professional climate. Please, do not attempt to burn this letter or use any magic. There is nothing left on this document. Please, continue your research and do not unnecessarily write personal notes.

I really hope this comes out well and I’m not smudging up words. Everything has been hectic here too. I have had to do things that I don’t want to talk about. I’ve been hurting a lot of people who have been figuring out who Jack actually is. I’ve become his assassin. I hunt them down and make some magic to them and the people they have told. Then I have to replace them with our people. We’ve been acquiring a lot of them recently. Some unfortunate humans are keen to keep Jack on his good side. I have to keep an eye on them for him, though. Ok, maybe I can talk about it, but it hurts nonetheless.

I used to run this like clockwork, just do everything Jack says and try not to think about it too much. But I’ve been feeling things again. I already knew what Jack was doing wasn’t right. If I tried to save anyone, he would resort to a violent punishment for me. You remember the Gray Warden? He was my best friend and I helped him escape the night you woke up. He... really didn't like it.

This has been really hard for me to not completely shut down. He doesn’t react to that well. I know you’re in the same place that I am in. I’ve been here longer than you have. I’ve seen too much. But, how are you mentally handling all this?

 

Red Lyrium Report #4 -- Body Double #13

I apologize for being too presumptuous.

Crystals are beginning to form on Templars J and A. They are walking around like how a corpse would walk like they cannot control themselves. They look like corpses. Their skin is sunken in and their veins are more prominent, kind of like the opposite of what a leech does. Because they suck blood and not the meat. juices. Fuck Sorry, I have a lot on my mind. Everything is going fine. No one has escaped. No injuries this week. I’m sorry to make you wait so long for a reply. I was totally not looking up on how to write invisibly.

I can’t say I am handling this that well. Sleeping is a nightmare. To be honest, sitting down and writing reports to you is what calms me down at night. I wanted to write, growing up. I thought I could make a living out of it. Turns out a lot of publishers really don’t like it when letters come from New Haven. My name is pretty human-like. You’d think I was just there travelling through or something. Maybe not, since why would someone travelling stay in the same place… I’ve been getting mouth ulcers from all the stress. It hurts to talk. I got some medicine from one of the head mages. She was nice about it, which is rare. I’m not supposed to go down stairs too often. Hugo won’t let me. I’m not supposed to be here, even though I am a mage. The woes of being Jack, I guess.

I’m running out of room. Stay strong, okay, Angel? I know this is too much of a risk already to do this. I don’t want you put you in harm’s way when it’s my fault, you know? I am pretty much encouraging this.

 

red lyrium report guardian angel

please tell me about your story ideas

 

Red Lyrium Report #5 -- Body Double #13

I have enclosed unseen by the public eye documents of top secret KTFJBTIYNTIHMC aka Keep These From Jack Burn Them If You Need To I Have More Copies. I hope you like them. :)

 

Red Lyrium Report #5/6 -- Timot Body Double #13

Templars J and A have become terrifying. There are monsters. They no longer look human. I’ve had to create a screen so that no one can hear the sounds of them constantly screaming in their chambers. It’s awful. Is this what Jack wants?

 

Timothy Lawrence

I hope you’re okay. I miss you. [in the corner of the paper there’s a little scribble of a fluffy bear with a heart next to it.]

 

Red Lyrium Report -- Guardian Angel

Apologies in advance. Upon changing location, it has been difficult to get back to you. We hope that this letter makes it to you safely. Please translate the rest of this letter for the new location address.

 

Red Lyrium Report -- Guardian Angel

I’ve gotten your reports. This is exactly what Handsome Jack has been looking for. Your new instructions are enclosed in the accompanying envelope.

I adore your bear drawing! Thank you for the stories, Tim. I read them before I go to bed every night now. They’ve become my way to cope lately. Frank is my favorite. I can tell you pulled a lot of yourself into him. I’m sorry that I couldn’t write to you sooner. We had some difficulties on our end with dealing with the Qun. Jack killed their leader. He rules the Qun now. They’re still adjusting but most seem to know their place. His plans are unraveling faster than I predicted. I’m really scared. I really want to stop this, I just don’t know how.

I really wish you were here, Tim. This might never happen but would you consider reading your stories to me? You’re a great actor. Be safe on your travels. And hey, you can finally get away from Assquez. Congrats!

 

The Public Eye Experiment -- Body Double #13

Made it to Tartarus Station. I haven’t found Jeffery Blake yet. Everyone says he’s out of town but no one knows where he’s gone. Does Handsome Jack know about this?

I've been thinking, Angel. What if we killed Jack? Is that too far?

 

The Public Eye Experiment -- Guardian Angel

Handsome Jack has issued a search party for Mr. Blake. We will keep you posted. Continue your job as normal in Tartarus Station.

No. Jack needs to be stopped.

But I think he’s onto me. I’ll keep this short. He wants to call an Archdemon. He needs me to open the gate and a sacrifice. I’m sorry to say but he has already picked you to be the sacrifice. That’s why he bludgeoned you with questions about your magic. He needs someone whose very close to the Fade to bring out the Archdemon’s full potential. Play the part of the sacrifice. Stab him. Push him into the Fade instead. It will kill him. However, you’ll still be alive so I’ll be able to drag you out. I’ll close the portal from there.

It will work.

 

ATTENTION!

Body Double #13 -- you are needed at these coordinates within the week. Mayhem is coming.

 

. . .

The outskirts of Fyrestone was pretty even if it was a half desert and the sun was boiling him alive. He wiped the mop of sweat from the top of his head and frantically flicked it off his fingers. Miles away there was a swamp of tents that his horse trudged towards. He could hear the clattering of swords against shields ride along the stiff, hot wind that blew into his face. That camp was going to be Handsome Jack’s grave. He hoped it would become his grave. The plan was a wishful one that neither had any clue if it would work in their favor. Angel seemed convinced and he trusted her on that. Timothy was willing to take the risk to save Angel from that monster. What would happen after that was beyond him.

“Tim!”

Looking up, he put his hand up to block the sun as he squinted at someone rushed towards him with their arms waving. He pulled the reins until his steed slowed to a stop. “Angel?”

“Tim!”

Joy hit him in the chest and his smile took up over half of his face. He fell as he hoisted himself down but the brief pain did not stop him from running towards her with his arms out. “Angel!”

Angel collided into his gut and knocked him into the sand with her arms wrapped around his back.

“Oooooh, you’re so heavy.” He coughed, “I can’t breathe...! My lungs are gone.”

“I’m sorry--!”

“I can’t move.” Apologizing, Angel removed herself from him but Timothy gathered her into a firm embrace and stood up, spinning her around as she squealed in delight. “Just kidding! I’m so strong.”

He assaulted her forehead with kisses that she laughed so happily at. It was making his chest feel tingly and warm with pride. "I've missed you."

"I missed you too! I'm glad you're safe."

"You too." He gave her another peck onto her temple and set her onto her feet. “I got you something.”

Angel gaped. “You got me a present?”

Out of his pocket, he withdrew a silver bracelet that was decorated with sapphires. “The merchant told me that this helps with willpower, which I think you’re going to need today. Do you like it?”

Carefully, Angel took it from his hands and held it up to the light. The sun’s rays bounced off the jewelry which made a blue and silver sparkling effect on her hands. “I love it, Tim...” She sniffled and put it on. “I have something for you too.”

“I hope we didn’t get each other the same thing. That’d be awkward.”

“No, I didn’t get you a bracelet.” She held out an amulet with a pearl that gleamed inside. “I made it myself. Helps with stamina.”

“Shit, for real? Angel! You shouldn’t--” He took it and flipped it over. On the other side of the amulet there was carving writing in Elvish that translated to “My Heart”. His lower lip puckered out as he whimpered. “Angeeelll, nooooooo. You’re so sweeeet. I'm gonna cry...”

“No, that’s you. You're the sweet one.” Angel pulled him into another hug and she buried her face into his chest as he rubbed her back.

“Fine then, we’re both sweet. I can’t believe you made this! It looks so good! Don’t you dare tell me you did this in one try.”

“No, it took me, maybe, five tries… five hundred... tries. I’m not good with metal.”

“Well, this one is perfect. I’m proud of you, pumpkin.”

It was real. If it wasn’t before it was now. Timothy solidified every doubt in her mind and comforted her entire being. She nuzzled into him with a happy sigh. Her ease reverted to its original frightened state when she heard feet crunching the sand. She looked over her shoulder to see Handsome Jack with his hands behind his back.

“Glad you could join us, kiddo.” Jack welcomed with a sickeningly pleasant grin. “Ahh, Angel, Mr. Heyo down there got his hand infected by putting it into Wilhelm’s mouth. Go heal him for me, would you?”

They had plenty of healers at the camp who could tend to Steve, but Angel knew better than to correct Jack when he was in one of his moods. Swallowing her distress, she released herself from Timothy and ran back to camp.

“Thanks, sweetheart!” Jack called after her. He then looked to Timothy and put his hand out for him to grab. “You ready for the big day?”

“As ready as I’ll--” When he touched Jack’s hand, all the energy in his body suddenly flushed out of him. He wheezed but he couldn’t bring any air into his lungs. He felt flat and hollow. His skin was turning an ashy gray. Gravity was pulling hard on him. Everything he tried to do was too cumbersome. He couldn’t see. His vision was becoming iridescent and foggy. He could feel the familiar touch of the Fade as he hung in suspension. It was green and comforting and... Jack finally dropped him and Timothy coughed back to life.

Before he had a chance to properly breath, Jack hauled him onto his feet and dug into his eyes. “I know what’s been going on. I know your plans with Angel and if I see you step out of line I will kill you. It’s going to be soooo so sooo slow and painful. You know what? Step out of line right now, do it! I want to kill you so bad! Do it! Right now! Stab me! Oh, wait! You can’t!” Jack broke into a short maniacal laugh and shoved Timothy onto the ground where he laid motionless, groaning. “Having an identity crisis really is a pain in the ass, I get that but let me make this absolutely clear you to. You are NOOOT Handsome Jack. I own you! You’re my slave. And guess what! You’re not her father either. So get that sick--” Jack kicked him in the side. “--fantasy! Out of your head! Angel is happy with me!” He kicked him again. “Not you!!”

Blood ran down his chin after Timothy suffered through another coughing fit. His throat could barely manage to talk over a hoarse whisper. “You… seriously think that…?”

In a flash of rage, Jack was on top of him, grabbing him by the neck. Suddenly that anger was gone and he broke into a knowing smile as he gave a low chuckle. “Oh… Oh, you’re sick. You get off on this don’t you, cupcake?”

“I’m not you, Jack.”

“It’s. Handsome. Jack.” He gave him a firm warning squeeze before getting off him. “‘I’m not you, Jack’, yeah, right, you keep telling yourself that, kid. Go make yourself presentable and meet us in Fyrestone. I need a drink.”

Timothy laid there, watching Jack leave until his eyes shut. From there, his memory was patchy. He remembered drinking heavily. The pain that pulsated throughout his body did not dull even with added alcohol. He felt incredibly fucked up. He recalled Angel beside him looking at him with such small frightened eyes that he just wanted to hug her and not let her go. Did he comfort her in that state?
There was a fire. Or was it an explosion? It didn’t matter. No one in that bar lived. His drunken mind was focused on one person. He wondered if Angel had any idea what Jack did to him. She kept glancing at him. He knew she wanted to be close to him, but Jack had her in chains. Metaphorically, speaking. But Timothy could see them.

Suddenly, sober hit him when he felt the Fade effectively wash through him as if he was dunked into a horse trough. Blinking wildly at the night sky, he gawked at the green aura surrounding Angel as a portal was trying to open at her feet.

“This is it!” Jack declared, raising his sword. “We’ve almost got The Warrior!! You.” He pointed at Timothy with his blade. “Come here.”

The Warrior was an Archdemon. The one who supposedly started the Blight. This was his cue. That was the original plan. To take the knife in his sleeve and jam it into the bastard and send him into the Fade to die. Timothy should have told her what had happened instead of getting wasted at the bar. Jack stole his knife. He was holding it in his other hand, twisting it like it was a child’s toy. Timothy was forced to play his role and Angel would not be able to bail him out. He was going to die.

Swallowing, he slowly walked on. The tremors shook the world beneath them. The crowd behind him buzzed with shivering anticipation and anxiety. His chest tightened as he watched Angel withdraw a dagger from her side and leaped at Jack. Timothy screamed. “Angel! Don't--!”

Handsome Jack whirled around and both of his blades to her neck as she threatened to stab his chest. He spoke in disgustingly sweet tone. “Angel, sweetie… Drop the knife.”

“Only if you use someone else.”

“You know I can’t do that, baby girl. Put the knife down. Listen, you’re stressed from all that lyrium but daddy’s here and there’s no need to jump to doing reckless behavior. Okay?” He dropped his sword to solidify his point. “See? Just like that. Now. Angel. Drop. The Knife... Angel.”

Timothy put his hands out. “Angel. Angel, look at me.” He tried to give her a reassuring smile even though he was writhing with anxiety inside. “Hey, hey, pumpkin, hey. It’s me. Everything’s going to be okay. I’ll just be a spirit from now on. I can’t do anything, Angel. Please don’t do this, it’s not worth it. You’ll die.”

Angel trembled. “No! You don’t get it. I can’t do this again! I’m sick and tired of being a damn puppet! I’d rather die!”

“Ah! Language!” Jack grabbed her.

“Fuck you!” She took her own dagger and plunged it into her stomach. Screaming, Timothy clutched his hair as his entire body shook. Brokenhearted, Angel met his gaze. He could read her lips. “I’m sorry, Tim.”

Handsome Jack looked on in horror. He quickly caught Angel as she fell. “Nononono! No! No! Dammit, Angel! Stay awake!” He fell onto his knees as he cradled her head to his chest. “Nisha! Get someone! Fuck--! Please, Angel, baby, please don’t go… If you just let me do this for you, I can still forgive you, baby.”

“Dad…?” She clasped Timothy’s knife behind her back. “Is that you…? Can I…?”

“Yes, it’s daddy, baby.” He put both hands onto her face and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I’m right here. What is it--?” He lurched in pain. Shaking, he looked down at the blade’s handle sticking out of the left side of his chest. Blood seeped into his lungs and bled out from his nose and mouth.

“You’re an asshole.” Using what was left of her strength, she pulled herself and Jack into the portal.

“ANGEL!!” Timothy forced himself into a sprint but he was too late. The portal closed with one final tremor that sent him tumbling onto his face. For a moment, he stayed there, listening. The crowd of Jack’s minions were panicking. He could hear Nisha running over to him. Beside him, he heard sand shifting and raining down. She was frantically digging as if the portal was just below the surface. It was gone. There was nothing left but a small puddle of blood and Jack’s sword. Clutching his fists full of sand, he sat on his knees as the familiar tingle of the Fade was surging around him. He let it engulf him and encourage his rage.

“That piece of shit!! What was she thinking?!” Nisha shook him. “Hey, asshole! Wake up! Get that fucking portal open right the fuck now! I know Jack’s still a--oh shit.”

White, irate eyes pierced into her skin until she shriveled into a ball with the amount of pain pressed onto her. It was like her whole brain was being squeezed. Steadily, the crowd got louder and more out of control. Nisha had no idea what Timothy was doing but all she could see was flashes of greens and yellows that stung her eyes.

. . .

Under the burning tavern was a cellar hatch hidden by magic. Inside was dimly lit. There were barrels of ale, crates of emergency supplies such as candles and water and blankets, and two mattresses next to the latter connected to the hatch. Frazzled, Vaughn rested on one of the beds and had the blanket coiled tightly around him like he was the inside of a burrito. He wasn’t sleeping. He couldn’t sleep. However, that didn’t stop Moxxi and Ellie from thinking he was.

“I don’t think we should have taken him in, Ellie. You could have gotten hurt.”

“What?!” Moxxi quickly hushed her. Ellie continued in a whisper. “How can you blame him for what Jack did...! You told him he was safe here!”

“I lied to calm him down. Ellie, I really do like Vaughn, b--”

“Why are we even having this conversation?! Jack already thinks we’re dead! We’re fine now.”

“You do not know Jack as well as I do! He did this to scare us straight. He’s unleashing an Archdemon as we speak.”

“How do you know?!”

“Because I was there the first time he did it! These are not normal earthquakes. We need to stay down here until this is over.”

“We can’t stay here forever, Mox. What about Vaughn?”

“He needs to leave. It’s the only way we--.”

“If he’s leaving, I’m going too!”

“Ellie, please. I need you here.”

“If you really need me here, you’d know that you would need Vaughn too! He helped us out so much in three months. He’s an asset. He’s one of us.”

“Ellie… I don’t know.”

Vaughn ripped the blanket off his body and gazed at them with a curmudgeon look. “Just. Stop.”

Taken aback, Moxxi slowly rose from her chair. “Vaughn, I… I’m so sorry.”

“You want to protect your family. I get that. But I’m not leaving. I’m so sick and tired of running around. I can’t go home... Moxxi, I’ll do anything--anything.” Another tremor shook the cellar. Ellie pressed her back against the barrels to keep them from falling over until the shaking died down. Vaughn shouted over the noise. “Please! I don’t want to be alone anymore. I’ll be in your debt for as long as you want… please.”

For a minute, Moxxi was quiet as she was set into deep thought. Her finger softly stroking her cheek. She glanced over at Ellie, whose face was full of conviction, then over to Vaughn. “I’ll hold you to that. When this is over, you’re rebuilding my bar and you work until you’ve fully paid your debt. According to DAHL’s jurisdiction, you must always be under careful watch to make sure anyone who is indentured doesn’t plan to escape or do anything illegal. I know that isn’t who you are, but it’s necessary. Ellie will be at your side from now on.”

“That kind of sounds like what I’ve been doing.”

“It is, but, if you fail to do them correctly, I can’t wave it aside anymore. I will have to publicly punish you...”

“Oh… no pressure.”

“I’m so sorry, Vaughn. It’s what we do here.”

“You’d think after three months I would have noticed.”

Ellie spoke up softly. “That’s because I make sure you’re busy when it happens. That poor one-eyed elf that Saul has been getting a beating lately.”

“Why would you keep me from that?”

“You’re too sweet of a man, Vaughn. You would have tried to stop him. It would be bad for business...”

“That’s… awful… Fine. I promise to stay focused on my job.”

Moxxi crossed over to his side and planted a ginger kiss on the top of his head. “I really do apologize for earlier. Ellie is right. You are one of us.”

“... I forgive you.”

“Thank you, sugar.” She said with a small smile. "I'm happy to have you here, truly."

Chapter Text

After Handsome Jack’s death, a full year passed in Fyrestone and Moxxi’s Red All Over bar and motel stood in full majesty since Mercenary Day. Vaughn was back to playing his lute that sung over the attendees that crowded the room. Since Moxxi relinquished the designing to him, Vaughn decided to give the place a dwarven touch. Instead of wood, rocks and bricks were used and effective gave the building a more homely vibe. The bar stuck out like a beacon. The inside was more impressive in size, fitting up to a hundred people in the bar and up to fifteen rooms in the inn portion. He even built Moxxi an elevator so that she and Ellie could swiftly move from floor to floor. The only thing he wasn’t finished with was the stables, which had been caught in the crossfire. Fortunately, the horses were safe. Even a steed that Jack stole returned home a while Vaughn was starting the foundation of the building.

They were letting him have a break from building. His knowledge of numbers saved him from having to completely redo the scaffolding. He injured himself a few times in the process. His once fractured arm was still healing but he was able to strum away on his lute. However, his sleep schedule was more than messed up. Outside, he didn’t seem to mind. He happily strolled in between tables as he sang wholeheartedly.
Although she was refilling glasses, Moxxi watched him with a smile. She was pleased that he was managing to keep his spirits aloft. He would have to get back to work in the morning. With how well he was doing and how exhausted he must be inside, she wondered if she should lighten his load. He was nowhere near reaching ending his debt. She was still missing a lot of supplies for her customers, aside from liquor. For now, she would get Ellie to grab it so Vaughn could rest. He would be against it, she knew he would. She felt as if she needed to reward the dwarf for working so hard for her. She decided to tell him when the night was over.

There were rumors flying about recently and Moxxi was the keeper of gossip. The reason this entered her mind now was because Saul Henderson entered her bar in a haggard state with that familiar one-eyed elf tailing behind him with his shoulders touching his ears. One of Saul’s old employers stole over half of his shares: his money and all of slaves, and now the man was here to drown his sorrows. The old man sat down at one of the few empty tables while his elf remained standing. Clearly, he only brought his elf here to drag him back to his estate, even though his arm was recently chopped off. That bastard.

Moxxi motioned Vaughn over. The dwarf continued playing, seemingly ignorant of the new customer with how curiously he gazed at her.

“Vaughn, dear, don’t bother greeting our new guests.” She flimsily pointed at his table, “Henderson has a bit of a racist streak. I’m not sure what he’s like when he gets drunk, so stay vigilant… Vaughn?”

Vaughn was caught in a loop. His fingers continuously played the same two notes over and over, growing softer and softer. He was leaning forward slightly as he stared drunkenly at the elf. She could tell that he wasn’t breathing by his chest holding still.

Although she was well acquainted with that lovestruck look, Moxxi couldn’t stifle her laughter. “Vaughn? Sugar?”

She poked him. Wincing, Vaughn stopped strumming and looked at her in fearful shock. “What? What is it?”

The mage clicked her tongue. “I’d be very careful, Vaughn. Love does terrible things to people.”

Vaughn laughed nervously. “Whaaaat? I’m not in love. I-I just… I just think he’s pretty! That’s all! Love at first sight? Ha--! Haha, ha I-I don’t believe in stuff like that.” He cleared his throat, resting his elbows on the countertop in a failed attempt to be casual. “Nope.”

“Just because you don’t believe in it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.”

“What?! No! No no no. No. Nooooo, no no. Nah. No. That-- ha, no.” After the eleventh no, Vaughn caved. “Fine, he’s really pretty and look at him! He’s so sad! I wanna help him.”

“You’re so chivalrous, Vaughn, but he doesn’t belong to you.”

“He shou--”

“One moment, sugar.”

Vaughn eyed her through an impatient stare as she delivered Saul’s drink and then casually waltz behind the bar again. She gestured with her open palm for him to continue. Vaughn huffed. “He shouldn’t ‘belong’ to anyone. He’s a person, not a freakin’ item!”

“I know this, dear, but people like Saul aren’t going to be open to change. It’s best not to say or do anything.”

Defeated, Vaughn sighed and let his gaze wander over to the downcast elf. He was in a position to do something. He wasn’t sure how often this Henderson was going to come but he knew he needed to make a lasting impression on this elf. Lasting may be overextending but his heart blossomed with determination.

He hopped off the stool and tried to appear nonchalant as he strolled to the middle of the bar. Strumming along, he occasionally glanced towards the elf. He could perfectly see the tree like tattoos that stretched over his forehead. His eye was wide and it bored into him with acute interest. Vaughn realized too late in his singing that he shouldn’t be making eye contact for this long; however, he was committed. Every customer in the vicinity was too drunk to notice the fireworks that were exploding inside his chest that felt tighter than a wine cork in a bottle. This wasn’t subtle and Moxxi has the best view of it. It didn’t matter to him. Vaughn was verbally telling this elf to stay strong in the only fashion he knew, and he was praying that it would stick in the way he intended it. The elf never broke eye contact. He looked hopeful yet scared. His fingers that clawed at his ragged shirt stopped fidgeting over time.

As soon as the song ended, he rapidly began another, tapping on the wood of his lute. Taking one glance over at the bar and Moxxi’s sly smile, Vaughn decided to redirect his focus onto mindlessly staring at the instrument. His songs reflected the mood of the tavern, so he had to be careful with what he played. He’s never caused a ruckus or a bar fight with his music, if anything he prevented them, except for one. That was because of a racist traveler. Thankfully she was a terrible shot when she chucked a wine glass at him. It landed about a foot in front of her. He could tell that he was shifting the atmosphere with his previous two songs in a dumb attempt to comfort this elf he didn’t know. He didn’t let himself feel guilty about it. He didn’t want to live through another situation where he could save someone. He looked up to see the elf was still staring at him in awe.

The bar was leisurely cleaning out. Moxxi had become engrossed with bussing tables as they become empty and saying friendly goodbyes. Despite the mood Vaughn was putting off, no one seemed to have found it odd except for him. A song like this was not good to end on so he carried on. He haphazardly wandered around the tavern as he removed the tense mood and dialed it into a steady walk, singing beneath the throat.

Saul didn’t seem to pay attention to anything. He downed the rest of his drink before finally shoving himself from his seat. Seeing him wobble, the elf fled to his side and held him under the arm. Vaughn watched them leave feeling like a coin being dropped and stepped into the ground. He didn’t get to finish singing.
Moxxi, who was near the door, pulled it open and waited for them to clear the threshold before gently closing it. He wondered if he should keep going since there were a few stragglers, some were passed out. That was decided for him when Moxxi pointed at him and then to the backroom.

Vaughn didn’t wait long for her. She opened the swinging door and smiled. “Well now, I never thought I’d see that side of you. Poor Ellie.”

He tilted his head slightly. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing. I was thinking, sugar. You’ve been ever so helpful to us that that I want to extend your break-- Ah, ah! Don’t say a word. I already told Ellie and she agreed that you need to catch up on your sleep so she’s going to Crazy Earl’s without you tomorrow.”

“But--!”

“No buts! We can’t have you over exhaust yourself, you understand? And drinks are on the house.”

“Buuuut...”

“Don’t make me strap you to your bed, Vaughn.” She shoved him out of the backroom. “Go sleep and dream sweet dreams about that sweet elf.”
She laughed behind her hand at how red his face flushed as he bolted up the stairs.

Thankfully, Vaughn didn’t try to go against their wishes and stowaway in the back of Ellie’s wagon. Instead, Moxxi found him sound asleep in his room with his leg and arm hanging off the edge. What was difficult was pulling Vaughn away from doing anything labor intensive. With Ellie gone, Moxxi had to handle the slippery dwarf by herself. She found him in the cellar building another ale barrel from what she deemed as unusable wood. He would be trying to work on the stable or checking out the structures inside. It finally occurred the Moxxi that he just needed to do something with his hands that wasn’t playing an instrument. So she beckoned him into the kitchen and he helped her start lunch for themselves and for travelers upstairs. She could talk to him for hours. His positive attitude was addicting.

For the next two days, Moxxi became attuned to the mood within her bar when the evening crowd streamed in. It picked up instantaneously when Henderson entered with his elf. She could physically feel the shift into romantic tension Vaughn created with his singing. It was so obvious that even regulars were asking Moxxi if Ellie finally asked him out. Moxxi would tease them back with untrue gossip to keep them satisfied. Vaughn didn’t have a chance with him, but Moxxi loved to watch him try to bridge the gap. He even got the elf to smile at the floorboards a few times. She could tell that that shy smile made his evening that he was dancing around more lively than usual. Vaughn constantly talked to him through lyrics and surprisingly the elf would respond with a shake of his head or through his hand. Moxxi couldn’t bare to tell Vaughn to stop. Every morning, he hummed so gleefully as he went about doing his chores. His lovesick nature was too adorable for her to shut down.

This crush was going to break him if he wasn’t careful and that worried Moxxi. Middle of the weeks were always slow nights. Only a handful of people came around to drink, including Henderson. Saul must be getting morbidly depressed about his situation. He had already downed three beers and fell asleep in his chair. He was drooling over the table.
This inspired Vaughn he pull a chair for the elf and sit across from him. The elf looked to Saul through a frightened gaze but the dwarf eased him onto the stool, giving him a comforting smile that he returned.

In that moment, Vaughn couldn’t think of what to say. He laughed at how useless he felt now that they weren’t staring at each other from across the room. “Uhhh… Hhhey.”

“Hi.”

“What’s your name?”

He glanced over to Henderson who was still sleeping. “It’s… Rhys.”

“I’m Vaughn.” As he held out his palm, Rhys suddenly shrank away. “It’s… it’s a handshake.”

“Right! Handshake. I’ve seen those before.” He giggled out of a nervous fit as if trying to reassuring himself. He grabbed and shook his hand a bit too loosely, but he did have the technique down. “I’m, ah, glad that we’re able to talk now.”

“Y-yeah, me too.” His ears were turning pink.

“I like hearing you play.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it kind of makes me feel welcomed here.”

“Good! That’s really good. I’m glad I could do that for you. You seemed to need it.”

Rhys hummed sadly. “I’ve been doing everything recently, but you don’t want to hear about that.”

“If it’ll make you feel better to talk about it, you can.”

The elf blinked. “If it makes me feel better?”

“You know, to lift the burden, get all your emotions out.”

“You’d… let me complain?” When Vaughn nodded, Rhys’ world turned upside down. “I… You’re not from around here, are you? You’re not supposed to care.”

“That shouldn’t change anything. It’s basic decency to care about someone. Trust me, people do care-- it’s just...” His eyes darted over to Moxxi who was making another drink. “Rules. Bad for business...”

“Why aren’t you following the rules then?”

“The rules are bullshit and I want to make sure you’re okay.”

Subconsciously, Rhys reached over and touched his limp sleeve. Once he realized what he was doing, he sighed and put his hand on his lap. “Hey, um, Vaughn? Can I… make a song request?”

“Sure, of course. What would you like?”

“What’s your favorite?”

“... To The Top. I think you’ll like it.”

Singing it now changed his mind about the lyrics and tempo. Singing it now changed his mind about the lyrics and tempo. The times that he had sung a song like this was full of inspiration of pressing forward, now it ached with desperation, encouraging despondency yet conviction. In the beginning, Vaughn thought Rhys needed him, but as he drove on, as his heart hurt from the raw intensity of his own mind. He realized that he was the one who needed Rhys. He was in pain from realizing their situation. They could probably never talk like this again. Vaughn will always be in the corner of the bar, singing until his lungs collapsed, while Rhys stands and listens with pain behind his smile. He could stand it anymore. He had to do something tonight. He just didn’t know what.

The song ended a while ago and left Vaughn feeling like an odd empty husk. They have been talking for a while now. It was mostly Rhys avoiding answering questions about himself. He kept looking over at Henderson, who remained motionless. It was making Vaughn hot with vindication of his own thoughts.

Moxxi ended their conversation by taking Vaughn by the shoulder. “We’re closing up. Excuse me, dear, are you able to help Saul to his house? I can call someone--”

Rhys stumbled out of his chair. “No, no it’s okay! I’ve been getting better at it.”

Standing up, Vaughn rush over to his side. “Let me help.”

With a frown, Moxxi put a hand to her hip. “Vaughn, you can’t.”

“Mox, please! No one’s going to see. Let me do this just once.”

Moxxi looked at him through an unreadable expression. She breathed a heavy sigh, “... Just this once, Vaughn. Please, get back here as soon as you’re done, okay? I trust you.”

“Thank you…! C’mon, Rhys.”

Rhys was undeniably thankful for Vaughn’s help. He probably wouldn’t have gotten Saul up the stairs without fracturing his ribcage or dropping him. Quietly, Rhys closed the bedroom door and turned to Vaughn, smiling. “Thank you so much. Oh, I should give you something--”

“No, that’s completely okay, Rhys. You don’t have to do that. I should… get going anyway.”

“R-right…” He itched the nap of his neck then extended his hand towards him. “Thank you, again. I hope we see each other tomorrow night.”

“I… I hope so too.” Vaughn found himself unable to pull away from the handshake.

“What’s wrong, Vaughn?”

It finally clicked in Vaughn’s head why Moxxi specifically said that she trusted him, because what he was thinking right now was the biggest stupidest risk he thought about taking for someone he barely knew. He had a hunch that he was willing to dive head first in. “Run away with me.”

His eye grew small. Darting his gaze to the door, he squeezed Vaughn’s hand as he guided him down the stairs, through the hall that curled to the right, and into the kitchen. After Rhys peeked through the curtains and made sure the windows were completely shut, he whirled around, dumbstruck. “What?!”

“L-look, I know this is out of nowhere -- we just met but Rhys, I-... I can’t stand seeing you like this. You’re a person, not someone’s slave. You deserve to be out in the world and not suffering in some asshole’s house. I know he took that arm off. You’re not safe here, Rhys.”

He blinked hard to keep himself from tearing up. Rhys pursed his lips together. “You’re right. I don’t want to be here, but where will we go?”

“Anywhere! We can go wherever we want to go!”

A smile slowly crept onto his features. “Just you and me?”

“Just us.”

Rhys breathed in the silence while his fingers fidgeted his rope belt. “I-- can we go right now??”

“Uhh-- Yeah! But we need supplies.”

“Well,” Rhys puffed his chest out slightly. “I’m pretty much the only elf he owns now and Saul is shitfaced, so I don’t see anything wrong with stealing the rest of his shit. I’ll go get some bags--”

A sudden knock rapt at the door and Vaughn’s confidence vanished. “Oh maker, that’s Moxxi.”

“I’ll tell her that you left!”

“She would have seen me if I left!”

Their heart froze over at the sound of the front door creak open. Vaughn pointed. “I’ll get the food together. You get her out-- What are you doing--? Put the knife down...!”

“What if it isn’t Moxxi??”

“... Good point, go go go.”

Brandishing a kitchen knife, Rhys closed the door behind him with his foot and nearly tripped himself in the process. He carefully stalked into the main foyer. The door was left wide open. Rhys gulped and pressed forward. “Helloooo?”

A voice came from upstairs. “There you are, sugar.”

Jumping out of his skin, Rhys shrieked and frantically pointed the shaky knife in her direction.

“Whoa--! Easy there, it’s just Moxxi.”

Swallowing hard, Rhys lowered his weapon. “Oh… Ms. Moxxi. Hahaha, how did you…?”

“I knocked the first time. I tried the knob and your door was open, so I let myself in.” She said matter-of-factly as she hopped down from the last step.

Rhys turned on the pathetic slave act and lowered his head. “Oh, Mr. Henderson isn’t going to be happy that you did that. He’s going to take it out on me for slacking...”

“Oh, darling…” Moxxi put a hand to his cheek that he flinched away from. “I wasn’t going to hit you.”

“You weren’t?”

“No.” She frowned, glancing back towards the stairs. “Don’t worry, sugar. He’s not going to find out. May I ask for your name?”

“It’s… It’s Rhys.”

“Rhys, have you seen Vaughn?”

“Yes…?”

“I’m sorry I mean, did he leave?”

“Yes. You just missed him.”

“Hmm… I suppose I did.” She peered around the room, mostly towards the ground. “He’s such a small little thing… My, Saul is quite the decorator, isn’t he?”

“I-I guess? I’m sure Vaughn is back by now.” He pushed, biting his lip. “Please, Ms. Moxxi, I don’t want to get in trouble if someone sees you talking to me.”

Holding pity, Moxxi decided to not torment the elf. “Alright, dear. You have a good night, Rhys.”

He smiled a little as he watched her leave. “Good night.”

As carefully as he could, he balanced the knife between his three fingers as he locked the door with his index and thumb. After hovering there to listen, he assumed that she left the vicinity and he quickly rushed to the closet and grabbed two travelling bags.

He burst into the kitchen to find Vaughn gone but there was produce, water, and fruit on the countertop along with a box of matches and a lantern Rhys didn’t know Saul had. He scoured the kitchen for the dwarf, softly calling his name. “Vaughn? Vaaaaaughn? Moxxi’s gone and I locked the door this time. Vaughn? Please don’t be dead...”

When he heard footsteps, he looked to see Vaughn with some folded blankets and pillows that he stole from the couch in the drawing room.

Rhys heaved in relief. “You scared me. I thought she snuck in here.”

“Sorry! I thought I’d chance looking around. How’d you handle Moxxi?”

“Yeah-- I mean, good. I think. We shouldn’t go out the front door though. Just to be safe. She kind of scares me.”

“To be honest, with what we’re doing right now, both of us should be scared of her. Do you have any extra clothes?”

Rhys blinked. “No? Why would I?”

“Right… Okay, we’re buying you some new clothes.”

“With what money?”

“I found this in a drawer.” Vaughn brought out a coin purse that was about to burst at the seams.

Rhys smirked. “Hold on, I know where his safe is and the combination. I want to leave Saul with nothing.”

Vaughn was impressed. He handed him the empty bag. “Fill it up, Rhys.”

His giddy giggling set his heart aflame. He was going to be on the road again, but this time he wasn’t going to be alone with his guitar.

Satisfied with the amount of goods stolen from the drunk Henderson’s nose, Rhys led Vaughn to the back door.

“I’m so excited…!” The elf beamed, “Are you excited? Not only do I get to leave this hellhole, I get to screw over that asshole! Ha! Wait, what if we get caught?”

“Then we run?”

“Oh! That’s a good idea. Crap--!”

Seeing a shadow seep underneath the door frame, Rhys pressed himself up onto Vaughn as he back him against the wall. Unfortunately, when he did this, the lute sang a pitchy note that made the dwarf die inside. Unable to ignore how close Rhys was, Vaughn had to restart his brain in order to speak. He whispered. “Please tell me you locked that door.”

“I think I did...”

The knob jiggled and the two ceased breathing until the person on the other side gave up.

“Vaughn. I know that’s you.” Moxxi’s tone was borderlining sweet and anger.

Vaughn covered his mouth.

“... Fine, don’t answer. I’m giving you a second chance and I want you to really think about it. We may not be able to do anything about Rhys, but I assure you that going out by yourselves against Pandora is a mistake neither of you should make. I know you’ve done this before, Vaughn, but you have responsibilities now. You have a debt to pay off. If you don’t come back, I will send Ellie after you… You’ll know where I’ll wait. Please, make the right choice.”

Waiting, they strained to hear her footsteps against the hard sand until there was nothing but a brisk wind flowing between the wooden planks.

“Vaughn…? What was she talking about? You didn’t tell me you had a debt.”

The dwarf swallowed. “I honestly didn’t plan for any of this. I saw you… I mean, the look on your face and it just jumped out.”

“Oh...” Rhys paused, pushing himself off him. “Why don’t we try again when you’re not in debt?”

“No!” His voice came out louder than he intended. The two stood anxiously for something upstairs to stir but only silence answered. Vaughn continued on in a hushed tone, “It might be too late by then. I don’t want to think about what happens to you if we don’t go now. He took off your ARM, Rhys… My debt doesn’t matter right now. What does matter is that I need to get you out of this hellhole.”

Staring at him in amazement, Rhys nodded. “Okay. I trust you, Vaughn.”

“... Thank you, Rhys. That really means a lot. Uh… why don’t you check first?”

“Right!” Rhys unlocked the hinge and peered through, craning his neck from side to side. “We’re clear.”

Guilt penetrated Vaughn as he took Rhys by the hand and bolted out of Fyrestone. He was going back on his promise, metaphorically backstabbing the people he loved by taking action on a hunch. He was leading himself and Rhys to their deaths by running away into the wild and ruthless Pandora. They had to keep moving in order to get a decent head start before Ellie returned. Vaughn could already see the wanted posters in his head. He stole an elf from his master and broke Moxxi’s heart and soon Ellie’s. Neither one of them had a weapon to defend themselves. Instead of slowing down, he pushed himself to keep running until Fyrestone was just a dot on the horizon. With his mind full of doubt, he looked to Rhys. Glimmering hope beamed from his face like a beacon as he caught his breath through wheezing laughs. He was laughing so much that he let gravity pull him onto his back. “I’m free...!”

He brushed his hand over the grain and watched it fall between his fingers. Dropping his hand, he gawked at the night sky that supplied endless blues and purples streaming over his head. “Holy shit…” Like an upside down turtle trying to flip over, Rhys managed to roll onto his knees and scramble onto his feet all while staring up at the stars. He closed his eye and inhaled in the cool desert breeze.

He finally turned to Vaughn with a wanderlust look to his smile that made him fall all over again. “We did it… I-I can’t even seen Fyrestone from here. We really did it!”

Vaughn broke into a wide smile. Without a word, he dashed to his side and wrapped his arms around the elf tightly.

Rhys tried to pull away from his grasp in his midst of terror. “Oh maker, what are you doing?! Are you strangling me?? Was this all a lie!!?”

“Rhys!” Vaughn let go of him and took his shaking hand. “I was hugging you!”

“You weren’t killing me?”

“What? No! I would never! How do you not know what a hug… is...?” His mind grinded into a stop when he remembered Rhys’ violent reaction to his hand. Uncomfortable, he dipped his head. “Shit... Okay-- let me explain. A hug is a consensual thing, so that’s my fault. I should have asked first. I’m sorry. I got excited... It’s-- uh, what people do when they’re excited, or sad, or any emotion, honestly? You just wrap your arms-- uh, arm around the person, like what I was doing before. So like this...” Slowly this time, he placed his arms over his back and pressed himself against his chest. His heart relentlessly pounded into his ear. Rhys put his hand onto his head, his fingers flexed into his hair.

“Like this?”

“Y-yeah, just like that.” He cleared his throat and stepped the embrace with an awkward laugh that broke when he saw how devastated Rhys looked. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing.” The way Rhys smiled and spoke reminded Vaughn of an exaggerated radio show host. It was making him uneasy. “I think I’ve been missing a lot, heh. We’re going to stick together, right? You’ll teach me stuff?”

“Yeah... of course.”

“Cool, well, ah, I think we should keep going. I’m too ecstatic to sleep. Let’s go!” Rhys urged by waving his hand. “I’ve always imagined what it was like outside Fyrestone. Pandora felt so huge and it-- it is soooo huge. You’re a bard, right? I hear bards travel everywhere. You must have seen some really cool places. Have you ever been to Ashes? One of Mr. Henderson’s coworkers is from there. When he had his employers come over I got to eavesdrop about what was going on out in the real world, about whatever eridium stocks are, skag population, stuff like that. Have you ever come across spiderants? I heard that they burrow under Pandora itself and big ones have torn up entire towns! Do they really get that big?”

Vaughn finally caught a moment where he could butt into Rhys’ monologue. “Rhys!”

“What?” There it was. Under the lantern’s light, panic glittered in his smile before remembering to go on with the innocent act.

“Hey, I’m never going to hurt you, Rhys, okay? I don’t expect you to unload everything onto me at once, but if I do say something you don’t like, let me know. We have a long road ahead of us and I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you!” Rhys reassured with that overselling grin.

That didn’t work. Vaughn pressed again. “I know, but I meant in the future. I don’t know how long you’ve been a slave for or what Saul did to you. I just want you to know that you are allowed to be yourself here. You’re free, like you said.”

He knitted his brows. “Yeah, I know.”

“I’m making this weird, aren’t I?”

“What? No, you’re not… making anything weird.” His smile fully formed into a pursed line upon his lips. After a minute of wordless solitude as they climbed up a dune, Rhys piped up fanatically once more and pointed at faraway patch of New Haven. Vaughn merely listened, his grasp on the lantern handle loose.

Vaughn expected him to lack any survival skills, but that didn’t distinguish his enthusiasm about lighting the campfire. He let Rhys hold the stick in place while Vaughn rapidly sawed until the friction finally gave birth to flames. The elf grinned with self satisfaction as Vaughn took the stick from him and threw it into the fire. He saw a flash of his life as a Gray Warden reflect within the glow. He shook his tense shoulders and rolled his neck. With nothing to distract him, his thoughts fell back to Moxxi and Ellie. His whole speech to them felt like an elaborate ruse. He really hurt them. Intentionally. He had known them for over a year and he left them for someone whose name he acquired hours ago.

His gaze drifted to Rhys. His head was completely lifted to the sky while his hand massaged through the sand. He watched it flow in between his fingers as they flexed and relaxed. He would grab the grains and let them slip through the slits in his fist.

Please, make the right choice, her words repeated. In a moment of infatuation, Vaughn believed that he did the right thing. Guilt and doubt crushed him like a firm weight on his shoulders. It was a familiar feeling, before his days of being a warden. The days where he wandered around without a coin to his name and waited for something or someone to strike him dead. Unlike those days, he had responsibility. He could accept it or shove it away and he had no idea which sounded better in his head.

Suddenly, sand splashed at his forearm and it shocked Vaughn awake. Rhys was pointing at nothing. As Vaughn squinted, he realized that he was tracing the stars.

He made an upside down V and surrounded it with a circle. The dwarf barely made out his whisper. “Right there. The Vault.”

Not wanting to scare him again, Vaughn pretended that he didn’t hear him and tended to the fire. He kept Rhys in his peripheral. He could see his hand hover over his shoulder before jerking it into his chest. The elf made a small alert noise that Vaughn quickly responded to. “Did you say something?”

“Y-yeah, uh. Weird question.”

Rhys stared at him expectantly until Vaughn realized that he was waiting on him. “Oh, go ahead.”

“Have you ever-- I mean… Vaults, do you really think they’re real?”

“Hmmm, it’s hard to say. Everyone tends to make up their own stories. I think Pandora is a weird place. There’s obviously something here. I’ve heard mages talk about it in Moxxi’s bar. They think it’s connected to the Fade... You remember when Handsome Jack died?”

“How could I not? I was outside when the sky exploded!”

“The sky?”

“It was like-- turning into greens and yellows. I couldn’t see! I felt so… weird after that. My hand wouldn’t stop twitching for two weeks. Do you think that was the Fade?”

“I think Jack was trying to open a Vault, yeah.” Vaughn didn’t feel any strange twitching that day. All he could remember was the earthquakes and him yelling at Moxxi that he quickly shoved aside. “It was really surreal.”

“I heard they had people go to where Jack died and dig up the spot. Said they found pieces of sizzling body parts. Nothing was identifiable.”

“Ew.”

“Yeah, ew.” Rhys ran his tongue over his lips. “I’ve always wondered what happened to that guy.”

“Whatever it was, he got what he deserved.” Vaughn didn’t mean to say that outloud. He shut off before he said anything more. He was never going to tell Rhys that he was a Gray Warden. He wanted to leave his past to die in a burning heap. If this was going to be a new beginning, he needed it to feel fresh. Rhys didn’t need to know that about him, because it wasn’t him anymore.

“Poor Ms. Moxxi. You worked so hard on that place, huh? I remember seeing you outside every day working on it. I saw you get heat stroke and fall off that ladder… That freaked me out. I thought you died.”

Vaughn blamed it on the heatstroke since he couldn’t recall that happening. “I… don’t remember seeing you around.”

“That’s the point… Knife-ears aren’t supposed to ‘be seen’.”

“Don’t call yourself that.”

He winced, his nose scrunching up. “Okay, how about ‘Pointy’? Or ‘pixie’... long legged freak.”

“Rhys...” Frowning, he reached for him.

Rhys involuntarily flinched away. When he looked at his expression, one that did not hold any spite against him, the elf cursed under his breath. He hung his head in shame and tried to cross his arms. He eventually gave up and his hand fell into his lap. Vaughn lowered his fist. He scooted closer until he was brushing onto his thigh. Rhys didn’t protest but Vaughn felt him tense up at the touch. The dwarf studied the cloth bandaging around his head that covered his other eye. It pricked at him. His thoughts dug into his privacy. Did Saul take that away from him too? Were those comments from him? It was getting harder to calm the boiling anger he felt surging through his veins.

“Rhys… I’m not going to hurt--”

“I know you’re not!” Rhys exploded, jerking his head to glare at him with his good eye. Vaughn fell onto his elbows/ “I can’t help it! Yes, I was abused for all of my life. Congrats, you got that out of me. What else do you want to tell me, Vaughn? What other unsolicited advice do you want to tell me, oh wise one? Tell me how else I should think!”

“... Whoa.”

Rhys’ irritation shattered at that noise. He searched Vaughn’s astonished features before he one handed crawled about two feet away from him. He drew up his knees and rested his head upon them. He splayed his arm over his head, his fingers tugging at his hair. “I wanna go back…” He finally said. “It’s safer.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“I don’t care. I wanna go home.”

“After all that trauma, you would call that home?”

“It’s all I know! I-I don’t like this anymore.”

“Rhys, you can’t be serious.”

“Yes, I’m serious!” He uncoiled his limbs. “You can’t blame me for chickening out! Your master is sending her hitman after us, if we go back now, maybe... Maybe, I won’t be punished as bad...”

“She’s not my-- Rhys, is that what’s been bothering you?”

Rhys raised his guard once more. “What’s it to you?”

“Rhys, bud, it’s okay--”

His rage flung open and Rhys snarled, thrusting himself forward. “I am not your ‘bud’! Don’t you dare tell me that it’s okay! NOTHING is okay! You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

“I would like to know if you would just--” Vaughn took in a deep breath through gritted teeth in order to not let his building anger take over. Riding on the exhale, he pushed himself into being the adult. He eased in, slowly, “Rhys, listen… I’m sorry. I’m just--”

“No, you’re not!”

Vaughn couldn’t bottle his annoyance quick enough when his face twisted in a way that made Rhys recoil. The dwarf crossed his arms and turned away from him. It was decided for him then. The dread stabbed him through his head so roughly that it physically pained him to speak. “Fine. If you want to leave, then go.”

“By myself?”

“Yup.”

“W-where will you go?”

“I’ll be staying right here.” And wait for death to catch up, he desperately wanted to add. He was exhausted. Angel was dead and he couldn’t help her. If he couldn’t help Rhys either after taking a risk in having a life with him, then he might as well bury himself alive in the sand. He was tired of feeling useless and avoidant. He had never fallen in love until Rhys. Even that was a mistake. Trusting elves was a mistake. He felt numbing static creep up on him again as shapes filled the space surrounding him. It clawed at his throat. It grind its teeth into his skin.

“I’m sorry.”

His body stiffened at how close his voice was. Steadily, he peered over his shoulder to see the elf had pushed his weight into his side. His skin was freezing cold.
The world around him had changed. The fire had dissolved into illuminated ash. The lantern was lit and sat beside the elf. A bag was missing out of his peripheral vision. Rhys did leave and Vaughn just sat there, letting his thoughts torment him into becoming numb. Speaking of being numb, he felt his cheeks flair with warmth when he noticed Rhys’ arm was wrapped around his neck. When he didn’t respond, Rhys leaned forward and nuzzled into his temple. He was out of breath.

Rhys ran back to him.

“I’m really sorry.” His voice quivered over a whisper, “I don’t want to leave you. I’m so sorry.” He took his wrist and put his hand onto his face. “Go on, hit me. I deserve it.”

“N-no, no no!” Vaughn pulled him in. “I’m NOT hitting you. Don’t you ever say that you deserve to be hit.” He pressed his hands against his face. “You don’t deserve any of that… I’m sorry. I’ve been too up in my own ass that I… I was trying so hard to make sure that you were comfortable that I made it worse. I came in really strong and I’m so sorry.”

“Part of that is… my fault. I was afraid of saying anything.”

“So it’s both of our fault then... How about we start over?”

“That’s a good idea.” Rhys wormed his arm and held his palm out. “Hi, I’m Rhys.”

He stifled a burst of laughter. “I-I didn’t mean that far!”

“No, no, go with it.”

“Okay.” He lightly shook his hand. “I’m… Vaughn.”

“I’m Rh-- I said that. It’s nice to meet you, Vaughn.” Through the dim torch light Vaughn could see him blanche and his giggling got the best of him. Flustered, Rhys softly nudged him with his wrist with a laughing smile. “Stop laughing! You’re making me laugh! Let me think!”

“Sorry! Sorry.”

“Sooooo, uhhahahah uh… Do you come here often…?”

“... Sure.” He snorted.

“Nevermind, this is so stupid.”

“No, it… it kind of works. How do you feel?”

“I feel… I feel happier. What about you?”

They were laughing. The tension died with the fire. The guilt was still there but it wasn’t restricting him. “I feel… Yeah, I feel really good. Kind of cold, but good.”

“I’ll start the fire--!” He grabbed a not so burnt stick, examining it awkwardly before looking over at the dwarf. “Uh, help me start the fire?”

“Of course.” Rhys handed him the twig. “Hey, can I give you some unsolicited advice?”

The elf giggled out of anxiety. “That was… I was out of line there.”

“You weren’t wrong.”

“No, I… need advice. Give me all the unsolicited advice you’ve got, Vaughn.”

“Kay. I know it’s easier said than done but try not to, well, push yourself. I don’t know how long you’ve been without an arm. I’ve only ever heard about phantom pains from the people around me. My point is that I suggest you take it easy. Let me do the heavy lifting. Learn how to relax.”

“Relax.” Rhys held it on his tongue, letting mull about until he finally sighed. “Relaxing sounds great.”

“You deserve it, man. I know how hard it is to break a habit, so… if I see you hating yourself because you got something wrong, I will smother you with kindness that you will have to be nice to yourself to get me to stop.”

“You’re weird.”

“You say that now, but you’re going to get used to it someday. There we go.” Vaughn extinguished the fire from his stick.

“... Speaking of getting used to things...” Rhys faltered, rubbing his shirt. “Nevermind.”

Vaughn leaned slightly. “Yyyyes?”

He groaned a little. “Fine. I don’t want to… flinch every time you want to hug me. I was wondering if you knew how to, you know… you know.”

Avidly, Rhys watched Vaughn mull over his words with a finger scratching his beard. He hummed a few times, opening his mouth then closing it, until finally. “I think I do.”

“Yeah?”

“Will you let me...” Maker, there was no non-dirty way to say this. After he swallowed, he pushed on, “... Touch you? It’ll be like, reprogramming your brain with something positive than negative.”

“That… that could work? Try it--Wait!” Vaughn retracted his hands. Awkwardly, Rhys coughed into his fist and vaguely gestured at the cloth wrapped around his head as he eyed how totally exquisitely the flames rose and fell in the wind. “Do you want me to take this off?”

“Do you want to?”

“Well, no but--”

“Then don’t.”

“No! Hear me out.” Rhys took a moment to collect himself, grinding his teeth. “Mr. Henderson didn’t do this. I was born without an eye. The doctors called it some long name that I can’t remember. It’s just some mutation. So, I just have a skin socket. It freaks people out so they gave me this. So I’m asking you if you want to see that because… I… I trust you.”

For some reason, Rhys felt undeniably small when Vaughn looked at him with awe. His eyes were sparking a beautiful green among the stars that reflected back at him. Rhys felt his face heating up. He hoped that it was just from the fire. His fingers twitched and fumbled amongst each other when Vaughn finally spoke. “Um… can I do it?”

“Uh, yeah. Go for it.”

Vaughn stretched his arms around his head and untangled the firm knot that he struggled with for a minute.

“Do you need help?”

“N-nooo, I’ve-- almost. I got it.” Vaughn resumed sitting down as he took the bandaging away. It was just how Rhys described it. Extra skin layered over the socket where an eye should be. It even caved into his head slightly.

“See? It’s gross, right?”

His attentive hum surprised him. Vaughn eased his hand over his cheek. The gesture was so light that he could barely feel the warmth in his palm. “It’s different. Nothing wrong with different.”

Rhys hiccuped, blinking hard. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to bat him away, say he was revolting, something he was familiar with. Everything was wrong with being different in this damn age, he wanted to shout. It had to be killing Vaughn to be this nice to him. He must be lying, he must be. Rhys had bad depth perception. Whatever, Rhys decided, he has lived with it for over two decades. It was fine. Rhys didn’t want to be pitied. He didn’t want to be smothered with sympathy with that “poor elf” bullshit. He wanted the truth. He wanted…

Rhys felt his thumb run over his cheek. It was wet. Rhys was crying. He was expecting to be smacked upside the head or be yelled at. When he looked at Vaughn, the sweetest most comforting smile he had ever seen was on his face and it spoke in a tone that wasn’t pity. It wasn’t sad. He wasn’t familiar with the emotion, but it’s what he hoped love would sound like. Maybe, he wasn’t that far off. “Rhys, you’re okay.”

That punched him so hard that his stomach hitched. He lurched forward and embraced him. He squeeeeezed him as hard as he could with his left arm as he buried his head into neck. “You’re… you’re too nice, Vaughn…”

“You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Rhys’ laugh was music to his ears. One that he hoped to hear often.

The bar was on fire. His legs refused to act. He couldn’t stop it. Vaughn watched in horror as the flames parted for Handsome Jack to walk through. His grin coiled into itself like a snake. He had Angel by the throat.

Venom dripped from his mouth as he cackled, his forked tongue slivering out of his teeth, “You promised, cupcake!”

Vaughn woke up in a cold sweat. He felt like vomiting. Pushing his nausea away, he dug through the bigger bag of the two and pulled out a stolen pan. The sun had just risen over the horizon. It was just a dream, he reassured himself. A stupid, too real dream. He wondered why Moxxi’s feathers didn’t work their magic.

Rhys rose to the smell of meat cooking. He was already drooling. He gave a sleepy good morning to the dwarf who responded with a grunt. Rhys didn’t pay much mind. He was too tired to process anything other than the thought of good food. He liked Vaughn’s cooking. It was nothing like what they prepared for Saul Henderson. It was simple. Rhys liked simple.

“Thanks, Vaughn.”

“Mmhm.”

With his stomach full, he was alert to his uncharacteristic hums. “Didn’t sleep good?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

Rhys shifted uncomfortably. “Youuuu wanna talk about it?”

“It was just a nightmare. That’s all. I’m fine. We need to move out.”

“Ah, okay.”

Packing up only took a minute. It wasn’t enough to distract Rhys from worry about his companion. He seemed to be okay when their hands were interlocked like last night. The elf reached out and touched his hand. With a yelp, Vaughn jerked his arm away and looked at him in stunned silence.

Instinctively, Rhys backed off, hiding his face. “I’m sorry, Vaughn! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean--” His voice died when the dwarf reached and softly took his hand into his, interlacing his fingers. “Oh… This is okay?”

It wasn’t socially acceptable by any means but they were out in the wilds. Where no one would see them or care. It was fine. Rhys was new to the world and needed some grounding, Vaughn figured. He wasn’t going to swat away an innocent gesture. “Of course. No need to be shy about it. C’mon.”

Used to the dry heat, he should have expected Rhys to be ill equipped for this journey. Well, he did expect it. What he didn’t was how the elf complained about it. Endlessly. At first, he considered it cute with his pouty lips but after another day with him, Vaughn was plain agitated that he ceased to speak. It didn’t help that their hands were sweaty as well. He knew Rhys needed to get the bitching and moaning out of his system but Vaughn was wearing down on the idea not to snap at him. At one point or another Rhys finally did release his hand. Without looking, he could hear him pause and deeply gulp water.

The sound of silence didn’t concern him. It was that his hand lacked pressure for a fairly long time. He stopped in his tracks to look at Rhys. Ways off, the elf was facing behind them. Squinting, Vaughn waited for something to show up in the sand. On another sand dune, a lone skag hopped along the top. Nothing stirred anxiety. The spiderants have been pretty quiet recently. Vaughn will have to wonder about that more later as a staggering thought entered his head that disappointed him. “You second-guessing yourself?”

Rhys shook his head. He didn’t turn around. Curious, Vaughn closed the gap to study him further. When he was standing beside him, he saw his fingers were twitching. Rhys took to be consumed in thought, yet his eye was small and frail as if he was experiencing a tremendous pain.

“Rhys? You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah I just… I felt something weird.”

He raised a brow. “Like someone’s following us?”

“I-I don’t know. Do you smell that?”

“... No?”

“It’s bitter. Why is it bitter now?”

“Uh, I think you might be on a whisper of a heat stroke. Let’s camp here for tonight, okay, buddy?” Patting him on the back caused him to cringe and that made Vaughn feel like an asshole in return. “Um, I think we have some water still.”

“C-can we keep going? Away from here? I really don’t like this.”

“Yeah, sure… Rhys? Rhys.” The dwarf pulled on him but he didn’t budge. Vaughn shook him by the shoulders until his eye wildly blinked as if caught in a daze. “Rhys, what just happened?”

“I… Can we get going, please?” Brushing him aside, Rhys shouldered on with his long gait that Vaughn was forced to actively keep up with. He stretched to touch his hand but the elf swatted it away. His fingers were still twitching.

Finally, Vaughn managed to catch his breath after thirty minutes of racing with Rhys, who was slinging the bag off of his shoulder and splayed his body on top of the sand with a thud. Wiping the sweat off his head, Vaughn searched him for an answer that neglected to push out.

“Well, that was fun.” Vaughn said with a fake laugh in hopes of prodding something out of the elf. As a result, he responded with nothing. Vaughn tried again. “You really scared me, Rhys. I thought we had skags on our asses, since...”

Rhys ripped the bandaging off his head and stuffed it into his mouth. Clutching his shoulder, he curled up into a ball. Heart in his throat, Vaughn sprinted over and knelt in front of him.

“Rhys! Rhys, talk to me.”

Vaughn roughly translated his pained grunting to “it fucking hurts”. Rhys shivered and spat the cloth out of his mouth, stretching his jaw. “It’s been hurting--mmmph.”

“Does it still hurt...?”

“No, no it’s getting better. Nope--” He grunted again. He stayed coiled, tightly holding onto his chest. “I’m fine. This is normal.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Vaughn, I don’t need that right now.”

Inhaling, Vaughn bit his tongue. “What do you need?”

“I-I just gotta ride this out. Don’t... Don’t touch me. I-I’m sorry I didn’t say that before.”

“You’re fine… Is that why you couldn’t move?”

“Y-yehah--fuck. I-I wanted to walk it off... I’m okay. This is normal.” He was pleading. “This is normal.”

“Do-do you want water? Food?”

“Don’t. I’ll throw it up.”

Vaughn was desperate to comfort him, but Rhys’ feelings were more important than what he thought would help him. With his hands shaking, he forced his legs to work and he began setting up camp just to do something with his hands, which only took a minute. Rhys was still in the fetal position when he was finished with the fire. He could hear him groaning softly. Vaughn sat alongside him and shifted his lute into his lap. Given the situation, it felt inappropriate to burst into song so Vaughn strummed a low tune.

Although the pain was equivalent to his skin being on fire, Rhys closed his eye and let himself be rapt within the music. He felt himself drifting into memories of entering that bar. Seeing Vaughn made him feel so at peace. They were recent but they felt so far away at the same time. A sense of comfort streamed through his veins as his breathing regulated into a steady pace. As he released his tense fingers, he stretched and flexed them for a minute until the cramping eased. He refused to move for fear of Vaughn stopping.

Every night inside Henderson’s basement was the same: too cold, damp, and stressful. His first time out in the Pandoran sand was full of bouncing anxiety that transformed into a wonderful night. Last night was the happiest and hottest he had ever been, despite the chilly night air. Tonight, Rhys felt so unbelievably happy that he was smiling in spite of his phantom pain.

. . .

Vaughn didn’t notice that Rhys had stopped in their walk until he was merely pulling on his arm. He turned with his head tilted and followed his gaze. There was a mass of people with tents that created a straight walkway. From here, he could see that they were shops from handmade clothing to “fresh” meat hanging on hooks. Rhys finally asked, “What is that place?”

“A tourist trap.”

“Really? It looks like a farmer’s market.”

“You could call it that too.”

“But what makes it a trap?”

Rhys leaned down as he followed Vaughn’s finger. “Look at the signs and how expensive everything is. That one right there looks like it was put together by a toddler. It’s not well put together and it’s hard to read so that you can’t report that guy from giving you food poisoning. See how fresh is in quotes...” Vaughn bit down a smile. “Rhys, you can’t read, can you?”

“What?” Rhys scoffed. “I-I can read! What gave you that idea?”

Wordlessly, Vaughn dug in his pocket and pulled out a small novel that has seen some wear and handed it to him, with the back facing him. “Read the synopsis outloud for me.”

He paled. He forced out a laugh. “Right! The synopsis… which one is that?”

“The only paragraph on the back, Rhys.”

“Oh, that paragraph!” He clicked his tongue, his eye searching. “Uhh, yess… Arthur Hastings was a simple country boy on the rise to becoming a popular private investigator in 1972. In the city of Essex, he meets a small wandering elf who went by the name of Caroline Ritchie whose voice was as smooth as silk. She dreams of being the first elvish opera singer and she needs Hastings’ help in covering up a case of murder under her name. See? I can read.”

Astounded, Vaughn almost wanted to him to keep going with his impressive rambling. “No, but you certainly know how to bullshit. That was amazing, Rhys.”

Sheepishly, he shrugged and returned his book. “Mr. Henderson always listens to radio stations when he goes to bed. They always start out like that. It was loud as hell and kind of comforting to listen to, honestly. Anything was better than…” Rhys paused, his expression held a wince of pain. “Nevermind.”

Vaughn eased him away from the subject. “I’ll teach you to read sometime, if I can find a better book than this.”

“What’s wrong with that one?”

“Uh, it’s too wordy. You’d get lost. Maybe we can find one in there, if you want.”

“But you said it was expensive.”

“I know how to haggle. Besides, it’s not like we’re low on money, thanks to you.”

Puffing up his chest, Rhys grinned with smug glee. Vaughn took a mental note to compliment him often.

Automatically, Vaughn felt like he was shrinking with the amount of people in the market. He pulled the fabric on his head over his eyes to hide his tattoos. He felt the strange suspicion that someone would recognize him here. He didn’t see anyone he knew but he wanted to be cautious nonetheless. When he glanced over, Rhys was consumed with amazement, his head darting from booth to booth. He was so excited that he was cutting off circulation in his hand. Vaughn could practically drink his bouncing energy that he forgot his worries.

“You wanna look around? We can find you some better clothes.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah, man. Pick something out.”

Letting Rhys guide him, the two meandered to and fro throughout the market. The longer they stayed, the more Vaughn noticed a distinct awareness he felt etching into his collar. They were being stared at by the owners of each booth. Hearing his heart in his ears, he thought that they were about to be found out. Then he realized that their gazes were low. A dwarf and an elf were holding hands in public. With his panic building, Vaughn slipped through his fingers inconspicuously.

Unfortunately, Rhys caught on fast. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s noth--!”

“Don’t lie to me.” Rhys’ sharp tone sent his confidence down to his feet. “I can tell you’re scared. Who did you see?”

“No one. I…” Vaughn lowered his voice, “Rhys, people like us aren’t supposed to hold hands so casually in public.”

“Then they should mind their damn business.”

“Rhys, you don’t get it. You’re literally wearing rags and I’m not. You might get hurt if the wrong people see us like that.”

“What wrong people? What do my clothes got anything to do with that?”

“They are slave clothes, Rhys. We both know I don’t see you as a slave but they do. I don’t want you to get in trouble because of me. I know, I know it’s upsetting. It’s just…” It physically hurt him to say it. “... It’s easier this way. We’ll keep holding hands when we get out of here, okay?”

“No.”

“Rhys…!”

“I’ll fight them.”

“Rhys, please, be reasonable…! Let’s focus on getting you some clothes, bud.”

Vaughn peeked over his shoulder to make sure Rhys was following him. He was taken aback to see how close he was to him. If he suddenly stopped, the elf was sure to be elbowed in the stomach. Even when he tried to quicken his pace after pausing at a table to purchase a few books, Rhys closed the gap in an exasperated huff. Vaughn could hear him muttering complaints at the general public.

Eventually, they found a booth where the owner was sound asleep in his chair. Vaughn hoped that this will give them a chance to be themselves. He sorted through the small articles of clothing to find the larger sizes. He held up a long sleeve blue shirt and looked to Rhys, who was glowering at any passerby with a pout.

“Rhys?”

His expression changed instantaneously. He gazed at him with a wide interested eye and sweet smile that sent his heart racing. “Yeah, Vaughn?”

“What do you think of this?”

“... That is in fact a shirt.”

“I mean the color.”

“It’s blue...” Rhys said slowly with a cocked brow. “Are you colorblind?”

“I am not color...” Vaughn gave up and pressed the top of the shirt onto Rhys’ shoulders. The size definitely fit him and the puffy sleeves stopped at his elbows. Against the royal blue of the fabric, Rhys’ gorgeous brown eye popped out in a way that left Vaughn momentarily breathless. “Yeah, blue’s a good color on you.”

“You think so?”

“Mmhm, let’s try to match with it. Go for some gray or beige… and find a good belt.”

“... I feel overwhelmed.”

“Oh! Here, I’ll pick something for you then. How about you hold them?”

“Okay.”

After awhile of scavenging through clothes that would fit a smaller dwarf, he found a long billowing jacket that came with two sashes and pants that was cinched at the ankles. If only they could find suitable shoes for his bare and incredibly sore feet. Once Vaughn handed them off to Rhys, he rummaged through his pocket for his wallet.

“Why don’t we just steal them?”

“Not everything is worth stealing.”

“These were probably stolen. This tag has a Hyperion symbol on it and we’re in DAHL territory.”

“A Hyperion symbol?” Vaughn looked at him curiously as he slid a handful of coins to where the proprietor could see them and stuffed his wallet away.

“Yeah. This one.” Rhys tapped his finger on the collar that a yellow H inscribed into the fabric.

“Huhhhhooohhh no.” Behind Rhys, he saw a familiar looking wagon driven by the horse Ellie affectionately named Teeny. After a searching glance, he found her busy by the meat booth holding up two posters. “Rhys. Run. It’s her…!”

“By myself?”

“Yes, run! She’s going to see you!”

His gaze hardened. “I’m not leaving you, Vaughn.”

“Dammit, Rhys, then hide.” He lifted the tarp underneath the clothing table and pushed Rhys under it.

Rhys poked his head out. “What are you going to do?”

“Talk her out of this.”

Frowning, Rhys tugged at his leg. “Hide with me!”

“No, I know she’ll listen to me.”

“Moxxi didn’t.”

Vaughn blanched. “You’re right. Give me some roo--”

Vaughn!

Too late. Vaughn dropped the table cloth over Rhys’ face. “Hey EllieeeAAH--!”

He rolled out of the way of an axe swinging down at him. With his legs shaking like they were ready to collapse, he held up his hands as she advanced. “Whoa, whoa-- EASY! Ea--eeesy!” He ducked out of another swing that destroyed the integrity of an unfortunate stand.

“You son of a bitch!” She screamed. “How could you?! What did that elf do to you, Vaughn?! You ain’t never been like this!”

“He has a name!” He ducked again.

“You promised!! You went back on your promise! Back on your family! What is wrong with you?!”

“Ellie-- Maker, I’m sorry! I’m really sorry!”

“If you was sorry, you would have come back, you bastard!”

“Ellie, Ellie, please listen to me--FOR JUST A SECOND!” Ellie halted midswing. She slung the ax over her shoulder and scowled at him. Gulping, he prayed Rhys wasn’t listening. “I… Ellie. I don’t know what Moxxi told you but… I couldn’t stand it. Rhys really needed help and it didn’t look like he would last that much longer. Ellie, you’ve got to understand why I decided to do this. I fell in love with him. It just happened all at once--”

“Stop it.” She clenched her fists as if ready to take another shot. As silence sunk in, Vaughn noticed how deep the shadows under her eyes were. The life was completely drained from them. They were bloodshot and stained with tears. Maker, he did that to her.
Ellie massaged the bridge of her nose. “Yeah, no, Moxxi told me everything. You ain’t in love with him. You just think you are. You are seriously hurting yourself, Vaughn. You’re chasing somethin’ dangerous, something you can’t have… that is just like you men. I thought you were different from that, Vaughn. Would you please tell me this was all a mistake, help me find that elf, and come back. I can get Moxxi to not punish you… You really broke her heart, Vaughn… You broke mine. She hasn’t been the same since you left. Does that make you happy?”

“What? No! I’ve be--”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Ellie exhaled. “I don’t want to hear anymore excuses out of you. All I want right now if for you to answer me... You’ve caused so much chaos with that stunt back home. Henderson is acting like a rakk with its head cut off and he’s taking it out on Mox. I don’t want to keep hounding after y’all. I really really don’t. Is all that elf really worth all the trouble? Answer me, Vaughn.”

He could picture the mascara running down Moxxi’s cheeks perfectly. He didn’t know what to say because there wasn’t an answer. Ellie was convinced that there had to be, but Vaughn was not about to lie to her. If he did lie, it would not make this scene any better or worse. Imagining what could happen if he and Rhys returned to Fyrestone gave him goosebumps.

You just think you’re in love with him, he repeated. There was a space in his chest turned into a blackhole that sucked up his memories of Rhys to its bare bones. He was afraid to confirm. He didn’t want to. It felt like a coax to doubt himself and it worked. He was desperate to know more about Rhys, watch him learn and grow into his own person. Was that not what love was about or was he just a hopeless romantic who had no idea what he was doing? The sound of wild clopping trampled his hearing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rhys on Teeny’s back as he struggled to control her.

“I don’t know...” Vaughn finally confessed. He waited another breath for the elf to bring the horse closer. “But I’m about to find out.”

Vaughn leapt onto the horse as Rhys galloped by. The elf hauled him up by the back of his shirt and handed him the reins. “Please tell me you know how to drive this thing!”

“But you were doing so well!”

“Vaughn!!”

Seeing a DAHL soldiers pointing crossbows at them, the dwarf yanked on the lead and Rhys pulled on his stomach as Teeny rose to her hind legs, kicking. As the horse puffed and snorted in frustration, Vaughn gently patted her neck. “It’s okay, girl. We’re going to be okay.”

“Are you sure about that?” Rhys squeaked, eyeing at the soldiers.

“Uh, haha, yeah.” He said while ignoring the pit in his gut. “We’re going to be just fine.”

The head soldier gestured with his weapon towards them. “Harold, grab the slave.”

Reacting on his stupidity, Vaughn held Rhys as the soldier tried to tug him down by his arm. “You’re not taking him!”

The DAHL soldier on the right aimed his crossbow into his face, jerking it forward slightly to force the dwarf back. “Release him or die.”

Ellie shouted, “Ey! I need that dwarf alive!”

“Then come over here and take him before I go ahead and shoot!”

A burst of electricity surged out of nowhere and electrocuted the soldier holding Rhys. Everyone around them stopped and watched the human’s head exploded while his body collapsed into a heap on the ground. In the midst of confusion, Vaughn snagged the crossbow from the head soldier and bashed it across his helmet.

With a yelp, Rhys firmly grasped Vaughn as they rode out of the tourist trap.

“What just happened?!” The dwarf called over his shoulder. So far no one was following them. Before going down a hill, he saw a mass of panic enveloping the market and tents being torn to shreds.

“I don’t know! Just drive!”

After a long haul of drawn on hours upon horseback, the sun just peeking over the horizon when they arrived in a makeshift town that occupied the space between Fyrestone and Tartarus Station, which was still a mighty trek away. Vaughn planned to take a train to get as far as possible from this side of Pandora. As he paced about their room inside the unshapely hotel, he consulted pamphlets that he took from the main longue while Rhys was making some unpleasant noises outside due to the horse riding.
There was the Frozen Wastes, Highlands, and Ashes and none of them sounded remotely pleasant than where they resided in the Dead Sands. Ashes had too many earthquakes, Frozen Wastes’ problems were in the name, and the Highlands steamed with terrifying animals. How can anything be worse than a damn Rakk Hive?

The door handle jiggled open and Rhys stumbled into the bedroom, wiping residue off his chin and onto his clothes.

The dwarf glanced up from his reading. “You feeling any better, man?”

“A little. I still feel like I’m riding on that thing.” Rhys hiccuped. “I asked for something to drink but the maid told me to get it myself. So I pretended that you were my master and it was your water. So if someone knocks, it’s mine. What’re you doing?” He felt the elf’s chest pressed against his ear.

His throat tightened. “I’m looking at our options. Ah, I put your clothes on your bed. Try them on.”

Feeling the warmth pull away, he resumed breathing. With his lips resting on his fingers, his eyes were on the maps but his thoughts were occupied elsewhere.

You just think you’re in love with him…

They were ex-Hodunks. They took love very seriously, although it was mostly insestual going off rumors. Her words rubbed him the wrong way. Out of scorn, did she say that to make him doubt? Vaughn had never been in love. He had flings, but that was it. They were flings and he liked it… He liked it a lot. He had crushes but they were pushed aside by his own helplessness. He found to be too useless in a relationship. He assumed they would leave him after they realize how awful he is. It was clear to Ellie and Moxxi that he went back on his promises. No one wants that in a lover.

“Yo, Vaughn, how do I look?”

When he looked at Rhys, he didn’t need to push what wasn’t there. Complicated feelings stung his throat and chest. In fact, he couldn’t breathe. The surprise caused him to forget the pamphlets in his hands that measly dropped onto the floor. His thick hair fell across his face in a sweaty heap that Vaughn found dangerously attractive.

“Vaughn?”

“You look...” Maker, he sounded so hoarse. “You look handsome.”

Drawing back his shoulders, Rhys consumed the compliment that inflated his pride. “You really think so?”

“Hell yeah, man. You look high class.”

A knock came at the door that Vaughn passed by him to get but Rhys stepped in front of him. “Ah, ah, I’ll get it.”

Beaming with confidence, which sent something powerful boiling below his belt, Rhys sauntered across the room, combed his hair back, and opened the door. Vaughn could see the maid’s astonished features as she looked him up and down when Rhys plucked the glass of water from her hands and thanked her before closing the door in her face. He turned with a giant grin and burst into a fit of laughter that Vaughn preemptively joined.

“Did you see the look on her face?!”

“I thought she was going to start bowing to you!” Vaughn interlaced his fingers and put them to his cheek. “Oh, forgive me, sir! You are clearly outclassed! We are not wooooorthyyyy.”

Eventually calming down from their euphoria, Rhys hummed, still snickering. “I wouldn’t mind that, to be honest. Being bowed to. It sounds nice...”

The dwarf nudged his side. “Seriously, man. You should keep that confidence. It suits you.”

“It… It does feel good. Hmph. Rhys Strongfork: a man of confidence.” Rhys took a sip from his drink that he immediately spat back into the glass. He ran his tongue under his teeth. “That’s nasty. Ugh...”

Trembling, Vaughn couldn’t help but giggle from the look on his face. For a moment, Rhys felt a flush of embarrassment before diving alongside his contagious laugh.

The night was different from yesterday. Rhys was the happiest he could have been that day. Tonight, he felt empty in his bed. At the first hour, he loved the feeling of a comforter on his back and a mattress on his stomach that he loudly complimented about, which sent butterflies to his belly whenever Vaughn giggled. It inspired him to keep talking until the dwarf bid him goodnight and flipped off the lights. Being sandwiched in between two things brought him relaxation and a nice coolness to his skin. Then feeling died. There was something missing that he couldn’t place. They didn’t need a fire here. Although the heater didn’t work, the covers were doing just fine with keeping him warm. The drafty living space breathed familiarity. The door was secure with three locks. The window was bolted. He was safe. Vaughn was safe. He knitted his brows. What was missing?

He twisted to look over at the dwarf. He was alone in his bed. That was only natural. It was normal for people who were sleeping in a room to have separate beds. Yet, Vaughn seemed so far away. He usually slept beside him. Not directly, but their heads would touch sometimes. Rhys liked that feeling of community. The elf rolled over and sat up. Before he continued, Vaughn’s voice entered his head. Some things were not for the public eye. Were hotel rooms public? Someone could see them through the transparent curtains, Rhys supposed. He didn’t see anything wrong with sharing a space. Removing the covers, he rose to his feet only to stop again. How would Vaughn react? Rhys poked out his chest in bravado. He will simply tell him the truth, which was… Rhys froze. Holding up the covers in his hand, Vaughn moved in his sleep, peacefully turning his back to him with a little grunt.

Rhys had no idea what he was going to say. What he was feeling was not something to be translated into words… but with confidence, Vaughn may understand. Worming his way into the sheets, the elf occupied the little space left in the bed. He was full on pressing against the dwarf. Maker, he was warm. If Rhys tried to move, he would fall off and he would rather die than be embarrassed like that, so he did the opposite. Laying his arm over him, he smothered his face into his hair. He smelled exactly like that soup in the bathroom that reminded him of lilacs. He never sniffed a lilac but the flower was so pretty looking in pictures that-- Vaughn groaned and twisted in his sleep. With a dry mouth, he waited for the dwarf to open his eyes. Instead, he encased the elf in a loose hug and nuzzled into his chest, sighing in content.

Oh.

Oh, this was nice. Really nice. He inhaled a deep breath to further drown himself in his scent. This was very nice...

Then he woke up with a throbbing headache. He heard someone yelping and then gravity grabbed him and tossed him onto the floor while his long legs were hooked onto the bed. When he opened his eyes, there was a blurry frazzled Vaughn looking at him from the bed with bugged out eyes. His hair stuck out from all angles and the light clung and lit up his pink cheeks. He looked so cute and fluffy… his train of thought halted.

“... Good morning, fluffy.”

“What were you doing in my bed...?!” He was out of breath.

“... Sleeping?” He answered innocently.

“You have your… Why did you?”

His confidence he told himself to rely on was dwindling the second he opened his mouth. “Uh, well, last night, I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t figure out w-why. S-so I thoughht I-I-I would, y-you know, crawl in w-with you… and… I mean… because I... I missed you.”

“What did you say?”

“I said last night I couldn’t sleep--”

“No, the last thing.”

“I said I missed you. We--we usually sleep, you know, close? Ok, maybe not that close that was a new kind of close. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong? I-I just thought it was normal! D-don’t get me wrong! My bed is fine! I really liked it, but it didn’t feel the same and you looked lonely.” Vaughn slid off the other side of the bed, rounded to the opposing side and helped the elf up all the while he frantically rambled. His gaze shifted to and fro, unable to retain eye contact while his hand made wild gestures. This was too much too soon. Vaughn wondered if the world was playing a cruel joke on his feelings. He thought a good night’s rest would do him some good, but to wake up to find Rhys right there... It was too intimate. The way he clung to the dwarf and how he occasionally rubbed his nose into his hair. Vaughn hated himself for loving that. He didn’t mean to push him off. It was a reflex.

He wasn’t about to apologize for it. “It’s--It’s not… okay, it’s a bit of a deal. I wasn’t prepared to see your face right in front of me. I need my space sometimes, especially when I’m sleeping. You understand that, right?”

“Space! Right, yes. I do. I’m sorry. I just felt...”

“It’s okay, seriously. I forgive you.”

"That-that's good. Good." Rhys offered an awkward smile. "You wanna go get food?"

"Frankly, if their food is as good as their water then we should just hit the road."

"Do we have to ride that horse?"

"I’m not making you ride her but she is going to carry our stuff for us."

"Oh, that's smart." Rhys took the coat from the lone chair and hoisted the jacket over his shoulder. "What's our next move?"

"Prosperity Junction. Should be able to get there before dark. We're finding some shoes for you there, then we’re heading to Tartarus Station and get a ticket out of here."

"Can we get skag skin ones? I like those."

"Rhys, you can get whatever you want."

"Is there anything you'd like?"

"Oh, I'm fine, don't worry about me."

"I will worry about you! You've been doing so much for me. You got me out, gave me clothes, books, food, this!" Rhys gestured to the bed. "And I feel like an asshole for not having anything for you yet. It's not like this is all about me. You're in this with me too." He playfully nudged him. "I'm treating you to Prosperity Junction, okay? I do want to get shoes first but after that I'll pay for you whatever you want. Deal?"

"Rhys, this is not--"

"Deaaaaal?" He stretched out his hand so far that he poked Vaughns's chest.

Maybe, Vaughn was in love. He was going off so little to be in love with, but as Rhys grew more comfortable being who he is, he found himself falling deeper into that hole. It was too late to dig out. He realized that when the elf put on those fresh Hyperion wear. Vaughn was looking forward to the road with him. He was sweet. That was plain, but Vaughn wasn’t expecting him to be so forward. He didn’t like how much he was enjoying it. It dug him another foot downwards. He couldn’t come out and say it when Rhys had no idea what was going on his mind.
Vaughn grabbed his hand, giving it a firm shake. "... Deal."

"Awesome. C'mon, bud, let's go!” Rhys pulled on him with an ecstatic grin. “Come on!"

. . .

Last time Vaughn journeyed through Prosperity Junction it was a high business town full of life and vigor and willing people who gave him extra coins when he played for them. It was strange to see the buildings so esteemed and great to look deconstructed and condemned. It was overrun with bandits. Vaughn clutched the reigns to Teeny. “Maybe, we shouldn’t keep going.”

“Why not?”

“Look at it, Rhys. Thugs, thugs, more thugs! It’s a death trap for people like us who are very aware of how much money we have in our wallet.”

“We’ll be fine. We have a horse.”

“Rhys, as much as I like your confidence, I really don’t think it’s a good idea here. Remember what happened yesterday? We’re not going to be saved by a random lightning strike… without clouds… and the sun was out. And no one looked like a mage...”

“That was yesterday and you don’t know that.”

Vaughn looked at him suspiciously.

“Trust me, man.” Rhys smiled. “It’s just a quick in and out. I’ll even go in by myself so you can watch the horse. How’s that?”

“I’d feel better if we could actually find a place. I can’t even read half these signs.”

“They could do with some refurbishing.”

“More than that. Did you not see the guy hanging from a freaking noose at the entrance...?!”

“How could I miss that? I’m trying not to think about it.”

“Well, I’m glad you can put it out of your mind. You know what? Fine. Let’s ask someone for directions.”

“What an excellent idea.”

Rhys smiled at the blush that blossomed on his cheeks. “Um, thanks. Why don’t I do the talking?”

“Yeah, you do that.”

Rhys took hold of the horse as Vaughn ventured to one of the gruff looking bandits resting his weight against a rail post. “Excuse me?”

The bandit spat in his direction.

“... Nevermind.” Making sure to step over the spit, Vaughn moved onto the roundabout of the town where the old fountain was displayed. The once renowned statue of the town’s founder was destroyed and the water, or rather mud, sputtering out of the broken pipe and onto the road. Standing before it was a Tal-Vashoth, tall and intimidating with face paint all over him. He was already staring at him, so Vaughn decided to approach him after taking a look at Rhys, who brought himself and Teeny closer so that the dwarf wouldn’t feel too scared. Vaughn appreciated that.

He cleared his throat. “Excuse me? You don’t seem to be busy.” He squinted at the name that was stitched into his shoulder pad. “Rudiger. We’re looking for a shop, for uh… shoes?”

Rudiger’s face didn’t budge. He simply stared at him through half lids.

“Uh, should be one around here…”

“You lost?”

“Well, kind of… I remembered there being one here last time I--” his voice trailed off at the sight of the dagger in his hand. The bandit’s gaze held on a moment or two longer at the bags. Surrounding the small area, a multitude array of bandits blocked their exits, some had swords while others had bows. One of them was playing with fire in his hand. Rhys gulped.

“Mind telling us what you got there?” Vaughn began backing off with the horse as the bandit leader approached. Rudiger cooed, lowly. “Hey, shortstack, what’s in the sack?”

Suddenly, Rhys stood before him, leering down at the bandit at his full height. His hand was twitching again, however; Vaughn could see something sparking in betwixt his fingertips. The elf growled all while his twitch grew more and more intense. “Back. Off.”

Rudiger smirked. “Never heard a lil pin-up slave snarl like a dog before. I’m sure you give great handies with that one arm. Johnny, Ken, kill the dwarf, we’re keeping this one.”

As the bandit grabbed him in an act to throw him aside, he shook with an electric jolt at the touch. Screaming in pain, he let go and clutched his forearm as his entire arm spazzed out.

Rhys looked to his hand which shook with unbridled energy. Bounds of small uncontrolled lightning bolts shot off his skin and into the dirt. The bandits shushed, drawing their weapons close to their bodies. Fear was swiftly replaced by curiosity. Turning his hand into a fist, another shock reigned out spooked the horse as well as everyone else. Power coursed through his body and, damn, it felt almost sensual. After a pleasant shiver, a moan transformed into a dark chuckle as Rhys surveyed the lot and moved his hand with fluidity, watching the sparks jump from finger to finger. “Hmmm, got quiet all the sudden... No one expects the poor defenseless elf to do… this?!”

A flashing wave of purple light followed by roaring thunder filled the roundabout as he struck down with his arm. The electricity wiped out half the squad barricading their escape. A whinny broke out and Teeny bucked their bags off her and scarpered away. Vaughn tripped after her. He quickly collected the bags. “Rhys--Rhys! We need to go!”

After recovering from the shock, Rudiger finally stood up and he let out a roaring battle cry that resulted in an onslaught of another entourage appearing out of nowhere. Wordlessly, Rhys ran in suit after the dwarf down a narrow alleyway.

Rhys kicked a ladder and slowed the bandits progress behind them. “Where are we going?!”

“I don’t know! How come you never told me you were a mage?!”

“I had no idea! But that was wicked, right?!”

After a sharp turn, Vaughn skidded to a halt at the sight of a giant, heavily wardrobed warrior who was in midswing. The dwarf pulled out his lute and the sword brutally collided with the instrument that sparks slid out from the metal. Vaughn shoved against the brute and slammed the body of the lute into his head. To his surprise, the warrior collapsed onto his back. Vaughn blinked, studying the unscathed wood. “Huh… the spell still works… Rhys?”

He turned back and he saw bandits heading in the other direction.

“Fuck.”

With a slew of bandits on his tail, Rhys decided not to shy away from using his newfound abilities. He sliced his hand through the air, expecting another wave of lightning to spur out. Instead, it was an electric field that looked like a giant moth trap. The thugs who fell for the spell seemed to vaporize when he glanced over his shoulder again. He took a turn out of the alley and found a line of archers aimed for his head. Pride clutching his gut, he held his hand up in defeat… then he snapped his fingers. His thoughts came to life. The bows ignited on fire and he hastily made a break for it.

“Vaughn!! Vaughn, where are you?!” Beads of sweat temporarily blinded him. He felt tired all the sudden. “Vaughn!”

His voice distantly responded. “Rhys! Rhys, if you’re dead, say something!”

“I’m alive!! AH! HELP!” A flaming bolt whizzed past his ear and set fire to the ground that he quickly hopped over. The balls of his feet burned at the sensation but he forced himself to keep running. Mindlessly touching porch posts on shops as well as anything that could burn spontaneously combusted as soon as he removed his hand.

Out of the blue, Vaughn burst out from between two buildings. In a second, the two collectively crashed into each other and fell in a tangled heap. With his head pounding, Vaughn forced Rhys to stand up and hauled him into a run. “We’re almost out of here, Rhys!”

“They’re going to follow us!”

“No, they aren’t!” Vaughn shoved him to the side as he created a fair distance between them. He stumbled back and faced him, holding his lute by the neck. He was gazing at the junction.

Overridden with exhaustion, he doubled over. “Vaughn, what the hell are you doing?!”

When he saw a fleet of bandits drawing closer to the entrance, Vaughn shouted, “Shoot me!”

What?!

“Shoot me, right now!”

“I’ll kill you!”

“You won’t! Trust me!”

As he imagined it, a ball of lightning formed within his palm and readied to throw it. He fell onto his knees in a panic. Rhys threw his voice, sobbing. “Vaughn, I can’t do it!”

“Yes, you can, bro! If you don’t do this, I’ll never forgive you, because I’ll be dead!”

Igniting his soul, Rhys rose to his feet and recreated the lightning ball. He screamed as he chucked it at the dwarf. Hitting the lute, the electricity sprung into the town as a destructive rampant web of fire. Nabbing Rhys by the wrist, he dragged him up the hill and pushed him to keep running until they were far, far away from the burning station. Rhys’ coughing subdued him. His legs gave out. Vaughn already lifted him off the sandy floor and carried on, unable to keep his eyes off him. He was afraid of blood dripping out of his mouth at any second.

“We’re going to be okay, buddy. Just hang on… Just hang on.”

A smaller controlled fire was lit among a collection of leaves and twigs. It wouldn’t last them thirty minutes at most. Vaughn hovered over Rhys, who was sprawled out on a blanket, clasping his hands over his. He wasn’t crying but his voice was on the verge of breaking. “Please tell me you’re okay?”

“I’ll be fine, Vaughn… My chest hurts, that’s all. I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything at the junction.”

“Don’t joke about that. You almost died.”

Rhys wheezed out a laugh. “I didn’t think you cared that much.”

“Shut up. Of course, I freaking care about you. How can you just laugh--!”

“Bro, I was teasing... Are you okay?”

“No! No, I’m not okay! I almost killed you!”

“... But I’m not? Vaughn, what’s wrong? Tell me.”

“It’s nothing! I’m fine! I’m just… shook up. I didn’t think you had that in you...”

“You and me both, but it was pretty cool though, right?” Rhys frowned as Vaughn’s distress spiralled through how much his hand quivered. “Vaughn. Come here.”

When he tried to pull away, Rhys retained his grip. Vaughn growled. “Rhys, let the fuck go right now.”

“No.”

“Rhys. I need space.”

He wasn’t afraid of Vaughn hitting him anymore. Even if Vaughn did, it wouldn’t phase him. He placed his hand onto his forearm and pulled him into his blanket bed. Vaughn didn’t fight him. Although, Rhys knew how much he wanted to just by looking into his troubled gaze, hard like rock, unmoving.

“What do you think you’re doing? This isn’t helping me, Rhys. I don’t want this. Let me... Let me go.” His eyes shifted in that moment.

Rhys pushed, placing his hand on his back and closed the gap between them. “You need a hug.”

“You’re so...!” He bit his lip.

“I’m so what? Tell me.”

“Dammit, Rhys, I can’t...”

“Why? Why can’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know! I really don’t. Please, believe me Rhys, I have no idea what’s wrong with me. I just feel so… so pissed off.”

“At me?”

“No...!”

“At Ellie? Moxxi? Henderson? Those bandits?”

“No! I-I hate myself so much… so pissed off. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I shouldn’t have fa--” He covered his mouth. He trembled alongside hysteria as his voice transformed into a wail as he angrily pulled on his hair. “I really shouldn’t, ohh why am I… Ohhh, Maker, Ellie was right…! Why am I like this?! I’m so fucking stupid!!”

He didn’t know if this is what Vaughn wanted to hear, but he took the chance, regardless. “Vaughn… I don’t know what Ellie said to you but... you can be yourself around me. It’s okay. It’s just us.”

His eyes shrunk. Tears were flowing freely now. The dwarf hastily embraced him with a loud mournful whine. Rhys felt something moist rest briefly upon his neck. He thought it was his tears but it was so intimately tactile that the sensation sent a tiny jolt down his spine. Rhys let his confusion die when the familiar lilac scent wafted into his nose. He closed his eyes, listening to the poor dwarf whimper and sob into his shoulder.

Vaughn had not made a sound in a while, so Rhys assumed that he fell asleep in his arms. The elf winced slightly when his meek voice trailed into his ear. “... You awake, bro?”

“Mmmhm. What’s on your mind?”

Vaughn shifted a little, no doubt noticing how their legs tangled in each other by how he tensed up. Then he melted into the hug once again.

Much to Rhys’ delight, he gave him a happy squeeze. “I told you you needed a hug.”

Vaughn mirthlessly chuckled. “I guess so… I was thinking...”

“Yeah?”

“You had no idea you were a mage. Did Henderson know?”

“Probably not. He wouldn’t have kept me if I was. None of us were mages.”

“So… You never felt so mad that lightning struck the house? Or something set on fire when you felt like you were in danger?”

“I always felt in danger and that has never happened.”

“Hmm… Imagine something for me, Rhys, can you?”

“I can try.”

“I want you to try to imagine this. Picture me… now picture a bandit holding a knife to my thro--ow!”

It was a dramatic exclamation but it scared Rhys nonetheless. He squeezed the dwarf. “I’m sorry!”

“I probably should have seen that coming.” That was a genuine laugh. “You protective of me, Rhys?”

Flustered, Rhys chuckled. “You’re my best friend, Vaughn. Well, you’re my only friend but you’re still the best! Why wouldn’t I be protective over you?”

“... I’m your best friend?” He repeated softly. After a moment’s pause, he returned the squeeze. “You’re my best friend.”

“Aaww, Vaughn.”

“... But I am worried about you. You don’t seem to have full control of your magic.”

“You’re right about that… I kept setting fire to everything I touched.”

“Yeesh. I’m glad you’re not doing that now.”

“Yeaaah… Where do we go from here, then? I heard about New Haven, but they probably wouldn’t let you in. I hear they hate dwarves.”

“Aheh, that’s, yeah, out of it. Besides, that’s too close to Fyrestone… Wait.”

“Mmm?”

“The Circle...”

“The Circle? Oh, them. I heard bad things about that place.”

“If word gets out that we set Prosperity Junction on fire, they’ll come steal you away from me instead.”

“But, Vaughn… we’re on wanted posters. You saw what Ellie was holding. What if they send us back?”

“They’ll probably send me back, but you’ll be safe. I doubt Henderson wants a magical elf that can electrocute him.”

Rhys pouted. “I don’t want you to leave… I want us to go together.”

“But I’m not a mage, Rhys. People like me don’t have that kind of connection.”

“You have to make them or else I’m not going.”

Vaughn sighed, “Rhys, be reasonable.”

“I am being reasonable. We’re friends. That means I’m not leaving you on the curb. I’ll talk to them and force them into letting you stay.”

His cheeks flushed. His fingers curled into his coat as he pushed himself closer into the embrace. “I’ll talk to them, Rhys.”

I don’t want to risk you being made Tranquil because I didn’t step in.

. . .

The Circle of Magi outwardly appearance had not changed since Vaughn last saw it. Unfortunately, he could see the stain glass pictures of Hugo Vasquez near the top of the tower. That he hoped would have changed since then. It made him feel queasy to look at. Was he still the Knight-Commander even after working with Handsome Jack? Would he recognize him if he was? Hesitantly, Vaughn opened the giant door and walked in after Rhys.

Upon entering, a familiar lieutenant Templar stalked over from the opposing side of the room, pointing his spear at them. “State your business!”

Before Rhys had the chance to take action, Vaughn stepped in between him and the Templar. “Uh, hi there! I’m Vaughn, this is Rhys. He’s a mage. You, ah, train mages here, right?”

“It’s called the Circle of Magi, dwarf. No, we train animals here for the circus.”

“You do--?” Rhys inquired, “Wait, that was sarcasm, wasn’t it?”

The Templar gave him a quizzical glance. “Right…”

Vaughn stepped in, “Look, we just want to talk to the Knight-Commander so my friend here can learn--.”

“No one just walks in to talk to the Knight-Commander! Do you have an appointment?”

“Appointment?” Handsome Jack waltzed in and got to converse with Hugo without a problem. It occurred to Vaughn at this moment that that whole scene was planned from the start. Dammit.

“Are we having some trouble over here?” The three men turned. A human woman in Templar wear with dark dreadlocks approached them with smarmy smile. Vaughn didn’t recognize her at all.

“These two dumbass don’t have an--”

“I wasn’t asking you, Lieutenant. Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” She spat venomously. She watched as the Templar huffed, muttering under his breath and marching back to his post. She faced the dwarf and elf with that same smile. “What were your names again?”

“Uh, Vaughn.”

“Rhys.”

“I’m Yvette. I’m sorry about Doug. He’s a dick because he can’t get promoted. Appointments aren’t for people like you. You said you wanted to see the Knight-Commander? He’ll be thrilled to hear of another mage joining us. Follow me.”

After sharing a concerned glance, Rhys and Vaughn followed her towards the stairwell.

“Who are the appointments for then?” Rhys ventured to ask.

“Special people, like royals, arls, people with money. It’s an act to make the Circle of Magi feel like it’s more important than it actually is, but don’t tell anyone I said that.”

Vaughn decided to delve into his curiosity. “How long have you been working as a Templar?”

“About a year or more. I was transferred here six months ago. I used to live in the Highlands. Have you two ever been there?”

“No.” They replied in unison.

“It’s not as bad as everyone says it is. Our last wildlife accident happened only two years ago and it’s been quiet since. They’re still recovering.”

“You mean The Overlook Massacre? The one Handsome Jack caused?”

“The courts are still debating whether or not it was him or one of his body doubles.”

“It’s still his fault...” Vaughn muttered.

After reaching the top of the final staircase, Yvette knocked on the only door in the hallway and let herself in. “You two stay here for a moment.”

“Okay.” The dwarf looked to Rhys who was doubled over, heaving.

“I hate stairs...”

“Just catch your breath, Rhys.”

“What are you… going to say… to him?”

“I-I don’t know yet.”

“That does… give me any… crap, I’m tired. Do you think I can levitate? Like… summon a cloud to sit on…? That’s a thing, right?”

“I don’t think you should try.”

The door reopened and Yvette slipped out. “He would like to see you, Vaughn. Rhys, if you would follow me please, I’ll show you around.”

Vaughn took her arm. “Wait! Why does he want to see me and not Rhys?”

Yvette shrugged. “I’m just as confused as you are. Don’t keep him waiting.”

Holding his breath, Vaughn waited until they were out of sight before pushing against the door. Slowly, he crept inside. The room put off an eerie vibe due to the curtains being drawn. He wasn’t sure if he should be thankful for that or not. The tall marble columns, the large desk that could seat eight people, the leather chair was turned away from him. Nothing had changed. Not even the nameplate on the desk that read: Hugo Vasquez.

Vaughn frowned and rolled his eyes. “If you’re trying to make a dramatic entrance, I’m not impressed.”

Hugo spun his chair around and scowled at him. “You’ve never been fun, Vaughn.”

“How are you still Knight-Commander, Vasquez?”

“I don’t know what you mean.” He answered innocent, leaning back.

“You worked with Handsome Jack. You know. The guy that tried to destroy Pandora?”

“So did you.” He grinned at Vaughn’s discomfort. “And now you’re crawling back to me to apologize.”

“I’m clearly not crawling anywhere near you and I’m not apologizing.”

“You grew some balls since the last time we spoke. Very impressive for someone smuggling a runaway slave.” Hugo rose to his full height, his hands clasped behind his back as he rounded his desk. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about you and your elf friend, Vaughn. We also heard about that stunt you pulled in Prosperity Junction. I will say that you are relatively smart to bring your friend here… but that does not mean that he’s safe.”

“Get on with it, Vasquez. What do you want?”

“An apology. A real one.”

“... That’s it?”

“I’m a simple man. I’m not so cruel to the people around me as you might think. He’ll be in great care.”

“I doubt that.” Vaughn murmured, tired of his charade. “What about me?”

He snapped his fingers in fake realization. “That’s riiiight. I remember the posters now. A mighty former Gray Warden resides as a slave to couple of Hodunks. Quite a low blow, Vaughn, very low blow. How did you manage that? Couldn’t take the fame?”

The dwarf snarled. “My life is none of your business.”

“Don’t worry your tiny head, I’ll keep you safe too. But if we’re doubling the number, then we double the num… you know what I mean.”

“I apologize to you twice then?”

“You do more than just apologize to me.” Vasquez was practically on top of him, leering at him with a sultry grin made his blood run cold. He paused for dramatic effect. “You’ll be a janitor starting right now. You won’t stop working until I feel like you’re done, that’s my arrangement. If I hear you complain at all, I will arrange a trip to Fyrestone where you two will be VIP members. How does that sound?”

The punishment was a lot better than what Vaughn was thinking when he saw the look on his face, but he didn’t lead onto that. He couldn’t complain. That was easier said than done. He had never complained with Moxxi or Ellie, but that was because he wanted to do the work. To work for Vasquez and clean up his messes didn’t sound bad. However, he was sure that the Templar will make it a miserable experience. Vaughn shook his hand. “... I’ll do it.”

“Excellent! Since you’ve already met Yvette, tell her to come up here. You’ll report to her from now on about your duties. Don’t slack off.”

“I won’t.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Get out of my office.”

Yvette lifted her arm and gestured towards the bunk bed. “And this is your assigned bed. You’ll take the bottom one. Make sure to put whatever belongings you have into your assigned chest over here. Any questions?”

Rhys surveyed the large sleeping quarters. “Yeah, uh, do you provide shoes?”

“Oh, absolutely. We’ll see about you getting fitted soon.”

“Cool! So, where will Vaughn sleep?”

“Vaughn? He’s not a mage.”

“I-I know he’s not, but he’s my best friend. We’ve been together for a while now and we usually sleep nearby. Why are you laughing?”

Yvette put a hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry, are you, heh--Ahem, are you sure you’re just friends? Nothing more?”

“Nothing more? What do you mean?”

Hearing footsteps behind them, she waved it aside. “Forget I said anything.” She looked to see an unenthusiastic Vaughn march up to them. “Oh no, what did he say?”

“Well, in order for me to stay I’m taking up janitor duty. He wants to talk about that with you, Yvette.”

Yvette scoffed. “We keep this place spotless already, what the hell does he think he’s doing? Sorry, don’t tell him I said that. I’ll be right back.”

Letting herself into his office, she pushed the door shut and waltzed up to his desk, exasperated. “Really, Hugo? I have to be his freakin’ babysitter?”

“He’s a Gray Warden, Yvette. We have to keep an eye on him. He’s too smart. He’ll catch on if we’re not careful.”

“And what makes you think that this elf is going to be the one, huh? He’s missing limbs.”

“Exactly. Don’t you think that’s a perfect driving force for him to accept Jack into his head?”

“I guess...” She crossed her arms. “What if--”

“Just trust me on this one, Yvette. He’s gotta be it. C’mon, you talked to him. What’s he like?”

“He seems to be overly trusting. His depth perception isn’t that bad-- I tossed an apple at him. He’s got one eye, Hugo, I just told you this. He’s gullible. I made him demonstrate his magic and he accidentally shocked me. He’s practically a baby.”

“That’s good.”

“He’s really into that Vaughn. He wouldn’t stop mentioning him. I think they might have something going between them.”

Vasquez frowned, sinking into his chair. “That… makes it harder for us to get that elf alone then. How do you think it’ll take him?”

“To train him for The Harrowing? I don’t think it’ll take that long. He looks to be a fast learner. I saw the moves he was doing in Prosperity Junction, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hm… Actually, keep them together. Make Vaughn clean the spaces where Rhys is. It might prove useful.”

“You think that’s going to help him?”

“Look, you just keep up your Templar charade and let me know about his progress. Remember, this is between us.”

“Whose progress? Vaughn or Rhys?”

He flicked his wrist. “I don’t care about the dwarf. Just make him miserable and too tired so that he doesn’t suspect anything.”

Yvette had a small amount of respect for a former Gray Warden. She was curious to know his true story. For now, that was pushed to the bottom of her list. “Yes, sir.”

A week already flew by without Vaughn’s knowledge. He wouldn’t be able to tell night from day if it wasn’t for the windows. His tasks kept him awake and fatigued. The only time he was able to sleep was when Yvette tapped him out. She was kind to him, sneaking him food and letting him take breaks inside the broom closet so he could catch up on sleep. He liked her but that doesn’t mean he trusted her. Something about her was off to him. She kept asking him personal questions, things about him, things about Rhys. Outside it looked like casual conversation but Vaughn was lying to her. He didn’t like how often Yvette scaled the stairs to see Hugo or how she talked to Rhys in hushed tones. He convinced himself he wasn’t paranoid when she overheard her talking to one of the other Templars and the word ‘Jack’ peaked his interest. It was possible that she became a Templar around the same time Handsome Jack was alive. It made Vaughn wonder if his body doubles were still alive and continuing his work. That scared him. He didn’t dare talk about it, not even to Rhys. He only got to talk to him when they were not in the immediate presence of Templars. Those times were rare and short but his sweet smile and one armed hugs kept him going.

Hugo was making his work miserable, of course. Vaughn didn’t have to guess that everything he did was on purpose even though he pretended that it was an accident. He knocked down books he had just finished filing, kick his cleaning bucket over, or drop food that Vaughn had to pick up. He even ordered the dwarf to shine his shoes. He was fishing for a complaint but Vaughn was apt to deny him. What stopped him for a few days was when Rhys used his magic to freeze the tiles under his feet and Hugo fell on his ass in the process.

After a fortnight rolled by, Vaughn was beginning to notice a pattern. He was always in the same room as Rhys. Always. Whether it be in the library, in the magical stockroom, the Circle's Laboratory… He never worked in the kitchen or below the first floor. There were people on the constant move down there as well as any other floor. Why was he never instructed to mop that up?
Looking up from his tile scrubbing, Yvette seemed keenly preoccupied with watching Rhys trying to levitate a globe. He hummed. He never understood the Circle. He noticed that only Rhys had a Templar guard on him at all times: Yvette, which made Vaughn more suspicious of her. The other Templars were busy guarding doorways, stalking the halls but none of them took interest in a mage like Yvette did. He wanted to safely assume that it was because Rhys was the only mage in the whole Circle without a limb and his work was undoubtedly impressive to everyone else, including Rhys himself. If that were the case, wouldn’t there be more Templars than usual to watch? The mages seemed to be more interested than the Templars. Rhys was making fast friends with a few of the other apprentice mages… It was enough to make Vaughn jealous.

He stopped scrubbing in surprise. He wasn’t jealous. Rhys was fine to make new friends. In fact, he was happy there was more people in his life who saw what Vaughn could see while everyone else gazed at him with scorn. None of the mages or Templars liked him all that much, saying how punchable his face looked or asked him accusing questions like why he dressed like a hobo. Rhys’ friends were dicks, but who was he to say that when his friend was having a good time? If Rhys was happy, he was happy. He was still as sweet to him as ever as he tried to invite him to their games but Vaughn always turned him down with a fake smile.

He was washing the windows in their sleeping quarters when he saw one of the humans who Rhys affectionately referred to as Stacy. She was always giggling, touching his arm, playing with his hair, being in his personal space. The elf blushed when she brushed up against him. It was driving Vaughn up the wall that he moved his bucket in front of her feet when she walked by. It was such a petty thing to do. He couldn’t control who Rhys fell in love with. That wasn’t his decision. Vaughn so caught up with Stacy successfully tripping and became soaking wet with dirty water that he didn’t care about how selfish he was being.

He didn’t count on her slapping him so hard that he fell onto the floor. She was casting the blame onto him so vehemently, calling him every slur imaginable, that he was afraid that she was going to throw him out the window until Rhys stepped in. Using his height to his advantage, he towered over her as lightning flicked off his fingers. Yvette stepped in immediately and stopped the magic war before it started.

Rhys stopped talking to her after that and Vaughn felt incredibly guilty. So guilty that he finally fessed up.

“But you like her! I know you do.”

“And now I don’t.” Rhys scoffed, resting his head on his hand. After a few days, Stacy was still a touchy subject, as to be expected. The elf didn’t even meet his gaze. “Your point?”

“My point is that I’m really sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, bro.”

“Yes, it was. I put it there on purpose!” He retreated into his shoulders when Rhys gawked at him in surprise. “... It... it was her fault too! She could have stepped over it.”

The quiet consumed their conversation. Rhys stared at the floor for some time before his gaze leisurely traveled up Vaughn’s body. Vaughn hoped his swallow wasn’t as obnoxious as he felt it in his throat. He wasn’t sure whether to feel violated or turned on at how Rhys was looking at him or how long it was taking the elf to meet his eyes. Both seemed to be on the table as Vaughn squirmed in place, hating every second of this silence. Rhys finally spoke, “You’re perceptive.”

He blinked. “I am?”

“Yeah, I mean, you didn’t like her. I know you were trying to hide it from me but I know you, man. You should have told me she didn’t like you and I would have dropped her. Does anyone else not like you?”

“I mean, yes, but that’s normal for me. No one really likes dwarves these days after what Handsome Jack did. Don’t lose your friends because of--”

Rhys stood up, shoving the chair onto the floor, which made Vaughn jump. “That shouldn’t BE normal! No, shut up! You hear me out! If none of my friends are good enough to take the time to be your friend too then they’re missing out! Because you’re the greatest person I’ve ever met and if they can’t see that, then they don’t deserve to be my friends. C’mon, Vaughn, tell me.” He put a hand on his shoulder. “Have all of them been mean to you?”

The guilt melted away instantly at his kindness. “W-well… everyone but Yvette… She’s been sneaking me food.”

“Really? That’s great! I like Yvette too. We’ll keep her. Okay, I’ll be right back, Vaughn. You stay.” He gave him a quick side hug and rushed out of the room.

“Yup, I’ll be… I’ll be right here.”

Ellie was wrong. She was so wrong.

. . .

The Harrowing was upon them. Shaking with anxiety, Rhys paced around his bed and continuously combed back his hair. Vaughn noiselessly watched him from the couch. Yvette decided that the dwarf was allowed to come off duty to take part in the special day. A day where if Rhys failed his test, he would succumb to the Fade and die. The dwarf wasn’t able to sleep the night before. He stayed up with Rhys, who was sobbing into his pillow the whole night. Yvette reassured him that the test was simple as long as your willpower is strong. Countless times, Rhys asked if Vaughn could join him. It was a pointless question. Vaughn was a dwarf. A dwarven mage was impossible let alone enter the Fade.

As the two were led by Yvette, Vaughn affectionately squeezed his hand. “I know this isn’t comforting to hear, but sometimes there will be cases where I won’t be beside you. This is one of those times.”

“That doesn’t mean I like it.”

“Of course not! You don’t have to like it. I don’t like it either. I think this is an unfair test. How are they supposed to know you passed or not if you’re asleep?”

Yvette answered for them. “You’re given a time limit. If you’re still asleep after time runs out then… well, you’re killed.”

Rhys whined, “There has to be some case where a mage finishes right before they’re killed!”

“… Templars are not one to publically voice their mistakes.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” Vaughn glanced up at Rhys once more. “You can do this. I know you can. I’ll be right beside you when you wake up. Show Assquez how amazing you are.”

“Heh… Okay.”

Letting go of his hand, they entered the locked up chamber. Vasquez and a few other Templars were standing around a pedestal that was full of some kind of liquid. Hugo smiled and opened his arms. “Welcome to The Harrowing, Rhys. Are you ready?”

“Not really.”

Hugo chuckled. “Yeah, well, that’s normal. However, we know that you’re ready. Go on. Drink and the test will begin. The spirit will guide you during the test, just obey what it says and you’ll pass. And, uh, don’t say your name. Understand?”

Vaughn took and squeezed his hand once more for Rhys to look down so he could give him another reassuring smile. “You got this, bro.”

“I… I got this.”

“Yeah, you do.”

Vaughn stepped aside, waving his hand in encouragement. He watched the elf slowly approach the pedestal. He bent over slightly and used his hand to scoop up the liquid. The moment it touched his lips Rhys fainted.

“Rhys!!”

Yvette stopped him from running by grabbing him by the underarm. “Don’t touch him!”

“Don’t worry, he’ll be just fine.” Hugo said with a sly smile.

Vaughn shook her off and folded his arms in a huff. “How long will this take?”

“We’re giving him five minutes.”

“Five?!”

“As I said, Vaughn, the test is simple. He’ll pass.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard from the mages I talked to. This is supposed to be a difficult trial that takes hours to get through and you’re giving him five minutes!”

Hugo rolled his eyes. “Do you really think they’re telling you the truth.”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

A despairing voice jolted Rhys awake. Stumbling to his feet, he whirled about. “Vaughn?! Is that you? Bro! Where are you?”

The Fade didn’t respond. It carried his words around the vacant yet full plane. Unwillingly, Rhys followed the only path. It spiraled down into a valley of dead trees and vines. As he stepped into the center, he expected for something to approach him like Hugo said but there was nothing for him to meet.

“Uh… Hello? I’m here for my test? Any… anywhere home?”

A low laugh replied.

He clung to his shirt. “Is… there… someone…? Some-- thing?”

Suddenly, there was a pool of water in front of him. That wasn’t there before. Confused, he gazed down at the reflection and gasped. He had a second eye… and an arm. Rhys took a step closer. He could move it… he could move his arm in the reflection.

“You want it back?” It didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like radio static but underwater.

The spirit will guide you during the test, just obey what it says and you’ll pass, Hugo echoed. Just don’t say your name.

“C’mon, cupcake, don’t be scared.”

Rhys flinched, shying away from the pond. “H-how do I know you’re not a demon?”

“Hahaha, you got me there, kid. Give me a second while I phone a friend.”

“Phone a--?” His words halted when out of the water emerged strange purple goo that shifted and vibrated until features formed in their appropriate spots. It shook its head under the hair fell into place. An old guitar spurted from its back. When it opened its eyes, green smoke trailed from the irises.

“... Vaughn?”

Vaughn gave him a toothy grin. “What’s up, bro?”

“How did you do that…?”

“Ahh, eh, it doesn’t matter. Look, bro, you’re almost out of time. What’s keeping you?”

“I-I… Vaughn, come look at this.”

Vaughn creeped over to his side and looked into the pool.

“You see this right? I-I have my arm again…! And an eye! See? And then I heard… I don’t know, something asking me if I wanted them back.”

“That’d be pretty sweet, bro. Why haven’t you said yes yet?”

“Tha-that’s… I don’t know. I-I really want it. I want my arm so bad but...”

“But what? Don’t you want me to be proud of you?”

“Y-yes! I do! S-so this is a test, right? B-but this feels so… so wrong. I don’t get why. Vasquez didn’t say anything about a pool.”

“He’s not a mage, bro. He has no idea what happens in here.”

“This is why I was telling you how I didn’t like this. It feels staged, like I’m supposed to fail.”

“You won’t fail. I don’t want you to die here, bro. I’ll be sad.”

“I-I know. I don’t want to fail either! I… What do you think?”

Vaughn slowly slid across his waist. “I think it would be really sexy.”

“Se--sa--sax-- Saasesssexy?” Rhys trembled at his touch. “Va-Vaughn? What’s gotten into… in- into… you’re really close… to my face.”

“C’mon, bro, you know how much I love your confidence. With a second hand, I’m sure you can just imagine it… Just say yes, bro, and I’m all yours. Just say your name.”

Rhys felt dizzy as he felt his hands drifting lower and lower. He had an idea that Vaughn had some kind of feelings for him after that incident with Stacy. He didn’t mind it. In fact, he found it endearing. He wanted Vaughn all to himself so badly that it was getting difficult to think with him batting his gorgeous green eyes at him like that.

“Rhys... It’s Rhys.” His eye widen as a pounding agony recoiled throughout his mind. Vaughn laughed and laughed and laughed until his form finally dissolved into a sinister shadowy form that leered over him with an evil grin. The pain in his shoulder was killing him. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t breath. “You’re not Vaughn…!”

“And you’re too easy, Rhysie. Shhhhh… Sleep.”

Vaughn shoved Yvette off him and bolted over to Rhys’ writhing unconscious body. He was moaning and whimpering in pain. Frantically, he shook him by the shoulders. “Rhys! Rhys, wake up! C’mon, bro…!” His head spun on a swivel as he looked to the Templars before landing on Hugo’s smug face and glowered. “Why is no one doing anything?! He needs help!”

“No, he doesn’t. He passed the test. He’s reaping his rewards right now.”

Rhys’ scream made every person in the room jump. Quickly, Vaughn gathered the elf into his arms and pressed his head into his shoulder. “What reward?! He’s in pain!”

“It’s called The Harrowing for a reason, dwarf. He’ll be fine in a couple of hours.”

Yvette carefully knelt down and put a hand over his shoulders. “It’ll be over soon, I promise. Just leave him here with us and he’ll be--”

“Don’t touch me!” Jerking away from her, he rose to his feet with Rhys in his hands. “I am not doing that! Rhys isn’t leaving my fucking sight! He stays with me until he’s better.”

“Vaughn, you can’t do that!”

“Watch me!” With that, he stomped out of the chamber.

Yvette stumbled a little when she rose to her feet. She threw her arms up. “Dammit, Hugo, he knows! Why are you letting him get away? He should be dead!”

“I don’t like making a mess, Yvette. Besides, he’s still has some use.”

“Like what?! He’s going to tell Rhys. They are probably going to try to escape!”

Hugo rolled his eyes. “I was going to let him go anyway. Jack needs to experience the world again and lull him into a false sense of security. He can’t do that here. I want you to follow them when they do decide to leave. From there, you can let us know when Jack’s ready.”

“Sooo, you just planned this all this time or are you making up as you go along? Because last time I talked to you, you said you wanted to keep Rhys here so you could talk to Jack.”

“Plans change all the time, Yvette! Jack knows Vaughn and if we kill him Rhys isn’t going to be as willing to let him in.”

“... I get it. Vaughn is the prey?”

“Now you’re catching on!”

. . . 

Startled awake, Rhys hit his head on the bottom of the top bunk and grabbed his head, blinking hard. He felt uncomfortably tight from the waist downward. That wasn’t Vaughn, his mind echoed, yet it felt so real… and his touch felt so good. When he looked down, he flinched at the sight of the dwarf, who was asleep on the floor beside his bed. He shoved the thought away. That dream was cruel, playing with his emotions like that. Vaughn would never do something like that. That was only in fiction. His heart stopped. He looked down at his hands.

There it was. A second hand. It was green and semitransparent, as if the Fade kissed him, or at least to him it did. He passed the test and for it he got a new, seemingly magical hand. He felt it with his palm. He could touch it. It was real. His eyes watered up. Oh, shit, his eye! Attempting to move, he was thwarted by his own legs that were too heavy to lift up. Rhys reached for Vaughn but he stopped.

“Space… right… He needs space.” He muttered, moving the hair from his eyes. “I probably scared the shit out of him.” As a matter of fact, Rhys couldn’t think to talk to him. He still felt dizzy from that demon pretending to be Vaughn… toiling with his emotions. Was that how he truly felt about his best friend? He blamed it on the adrenaline, but he had read up on demons, and desire demons could, in layman’s terms, royally fuck up a mage with their inner desires. Rhys wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with that.

“Rhys?”

“V-Vaughn! You’re awake…!”

Sluggishly, Vaughn sat up. “I’ve been awake.”

Rhys shivered at how he stared at his new arm up to his eye, both gave off vague greenish glow and trails of smoke that had no scent attached to it. Rhys barely heard him speak. “What happened to you?”

“I-I passed. Aren’t you proud of me?”

Vaughn looked to his arm once more. He seemed afraid to touch it. “That wasn’t a test, Rhys.”

“It… wasn’t?”

“You were supposed to fight a demon. The other mages were talking about how The Harrowing has changed ever since Jack’s death. I can’t be sure but...” Vaughn didn’t want to say it. He didn’t want to admit to Rhys that he had the soul of Handsome Jack inside him. He didn’t want to believe it. “How are you feeling?”

“I… I feel…” Rage bubbled in his heart. “I feel lied to.”

His gaze searched from door to door before he shifted his weight closer to him, his voice quiet. “I am too. They’ve been playing us… including Yvette.”

“Yvette? But she’s so nice.”

“Exactly. She was trying too hard.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that she was hiding something. I’ve been suspecting it for a while. I had no idea what it is but I knew it has something to do with The Harrowing… You have a demon in you, don’t you, Rhys? He tricked you.”

So, the dwarf has the brain cells between the two of you? Rhys winced at the voice. He darted around the room for the source but everyone was asleep. The eerily familiar voice mocked on. Duhh, I think it was all a trick! Aw, man, how could you tell?! It’s not like it was obvious… Well, maybe it wasn’t, it was my plan. I mean, I’d kill them if they let on for even a second but who cares, really?

“Rhys?”

He drew back from his touch. “I’m fine. I’m just… shaken. But hey! This may be really bad for me but I have an arm again! It-it makes it worth it, right?”

“How is an arm worth becoming an abomination?”

Wow, look at that face. You must feel like the dumbest person alive, huh, ‘bro’?

Rhys flinched, sinking into his pillow. “Admit it, you think I’m the dumbest person alive.”

“I wasn’t thinking that at all! What did that demon even say to you?”

“He…” Rhys shivered at the thought. “He looked exactly like you, talked like you… He told me how happy you’d be if I said yes. I fell for it, Vaughn. I couldn’t help it. I fell for it so hard. Why didn’t I see anything wrong?!” He could hear the demon laughing at him in his head.

“Shhhshh!” He looked over his shoulder. “Rhys, hey, don’t beat yourself up. We’re going to fix this. I don’t know what they’re planning now that they have…” He bit his tongue. “Whatever it is in you but they probably want us to separate. We need to leave tonight and find someone to exorcise you. Can you walk?”

“I don’t know.”

“Here, let me.” Vaughn was surprised to find out that his Fade arm was solid to the touch when he lifted it over his head. Rhys legs caved underneath his weight but he managed to stand up after the third attempt.

“Vaughn… Do you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you, Rhys.”

“Are you disappointed in me?”

“No, you couldn’t have known… I should have told you but I was going off on little info. You probably would have thought I was paranoid.”

“Yeah… maybe. I’m sorry, Vaughn.”

“We’ll get you out of this. I promise.”

Something was wrong. Every Templar they came across was knocked out or gagged. Rhys clung onto Vaughn by his vest as they tiptoed through the second floor.

“That’s like the fifth Templar. What is going on?” Rhys whispered.

Why don’t you ask them, cupcake.

“Shut up.”

Vaughn faced him, puzzled. “I didn’t say anything, Rhys.”

“Not y--” The door to the library slowly creaked open. Vaughn pushed him into the wall behind a pillar. The two peered out to see two women, who were definitely not mages, enter the hallway with bags half full of stolen goods strapped to their waists.

Without a confirming glance, the dwarf and elf followed after them as they retreated to the stairs. They were talking just above a whisper.

“We’re stealing from the Circle, Sash, not from the poor kids who are forced to be here. They wouldn’t have good stuff on them anyway.”

“There’s always a possibility. The Templar’s quarters are just above them.”

“I know they are but there’s also Templars!”

“Alright, alright, you made your point.”

Once they hit the ground floor, the two shadowed them into the kitchen area. One of the thieves unveiled a hole in the wall. Vaughn was too unfamiliar with the kitchen to figure out how no one has noticed such a sizable hole. His surprise died instantly when one of them turned around and saw them. She tapped the one about to jump, feverishly. “Fi--!”

Lifting herself out of the tunnel, the thief pulled out two daggers from her belts.

“Whoa, hey! N-no need for that…!” Vaughn laughed nervously, pulling Rhys’ twitching hand behind him. “We’re just trying to leave! Like you guys!”

“Like us, riiiight,” echoed the leader. “You just so happen to want to leave while we’re robbing the place. That sounds too suspicious, dwarf. Why is someone like you here?”

“That’s none of your business! Look, you have no idea what it’s like in here. Something terrible is going to happen if we don’t leave right now…!”

“Uh-huh...”

“Fi! Look at him!” The shorter one pointed at Rhys. He winced at the sudden spotlight. “His eye...!”

The one called Fi squinted at him. “... What the hell are you?”

Vaughn stepped in front of him. “Don’t objectify him! He’s a person!”

“He’s literally smoking!”

The older thief with a scar through her eyebrow caught her arm and lowered it. “Sash, we can’t do this right now. Let them do what they want. They’re not a threat.”

“And just let them follow us?!”

“We won’t!” Rhys squeezed Vaughn’s hand. “Promise!”

“We just want to be free from the Circle, that’s all.”

“See? Let’s move.” She pushed the one named Sash into the tunnel and she jumped in after. Quickly, Vaughn and Rhys followed in suit.

Chapter Text

August wasn’t exactly her boyfriend. He was a target. Nothing more, nothing less. It didn’t stop Sasha from making her feel unhappy about that. They had an anonymous tip. A tip that would set them up for life. All Sasha had to do is find the keys to that lone house on the other side of the cave. Lock picking the house last time set off an alarm that resulted in Fiona’s bounty getting higher. She was with August for half a year as his girlfriend. Things started to get serious, which was something she wasn’t totally against.

She did love August, more than she thought she would, but if he found out the truth about her, things will never be the same for them. He was a bartender and played a role in a terrifying mercenary gang. August kept her out of it for her own safety, which she appreciated more than anything. She didn’t like the men and women who would come into the bar that he would bring in. He would look at her with an earnest smile as he did it. There were many times that the people he brought upstairs didn’t come back down until Sasha had left. There was a worry in the back of her mind that August will find out about herself and Fiona before the time is right.

It took her ages to get him to trust her. She wasn’t counting on him falling in love with her but it was a bonus. It made things easier. Fiona didn’t agree with it at all. Tonight was the night of the final push. Since things in her relationship were going in a more intimate fashion, why not go along for the ride? August's room was always closed and she never had a chance to go pick his lock. He never left the bar. It didn’t help that the walls were as thin as paper and Sasha could hear them murmuring from the supply room.

“I hate that you’re doing this… with a half-human of all things.” Fiona scoffed, tilting her hat up. She was sitting on the couch made of pillows stuffed with straw and newspaper. Their caravan wasn’t in the nicest condition. The back was open to weathering their supplies. They slept on the moldy floorboards. Their horses were getting old but they were good girls, nonetheless. It’s what Felix left them with when he died.

His death was a flaming argument between them that rose and fell with neither side winning. Fiona started hating elves ever since Handsome Jack. He tried to explode Hollow Point until it was nothing but rubble, however, something must have happened between explosions. Everyone had their own stories about what happened last year. Fiona was convinced that Felix died in that explosion, that he died because of an elf. All they could find of him was his arm, but it was cut from the elbow, not blown off. Fiona wouldn’t listen to her. In turn, Fiona became highly protective of Sasha and angry at her decisions.

“Well…” Sasha finished tying the bandanna around her head and briefly checked her work in the mirror. “If it was you, we wouldn’t have made it this far.”

“You’re my sister, Sash. You shouldn’t be stooping yourself so low.”

“Consider me lucky for not bringing you along then.” She muttered with a sigh. Without Felix, her once carefree nature was forgotten. Sasha missed her sister. Who she used to be. “Stooping so low? We’re not exactly high society, Fiona. Have you looked around lately?”

“You know what I meant.”

“August is a person, just like you and me.”

“Half a person.” She corrected. “Elves don’t get facial hair.”

“Right… I’ve gotta get going. August doesn’t like it when I’m late.” With another glance at her sister, she dropped out from the back of the caravan and began walking out of the alleyway.

“Sasha, wait.” Fiona rose, clearing her throat. “Let me give you some advice.”

“... Okay?”

“If he refuses to take no for an answer, don’t be afraid to stab him. That doesn’t just go for August.”

“Heh, I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll see you at the house, Fi.”

The Purple Skag was empty when Sasha let herself in. Even the bouncer left for the night. The closed up bar set an odd atmosphere for her. It was giving her a weird feeling about tonight, one that she couldn’t explain. August wasn’t behind the counter. She rounded a few tables to check upstairs. The moment she put her foot on the second step, she saw the backroom door open and the elf stepped into the room. He gazed up at her with a blank stare.

“There you are!” Sasha admitted, hopping down. “I thought you were going to try to scare me.”

“Ah, no. I wasn’t.” August remained behind the bar, putting his elbows on the counter top. “You’re early.”

“What’s wrong, hon?” She sat down at one of the many stools. “Was this what you wanted to talk about?”

He shook his head, not meeting her gaze. “No, it’s not. It doesn’t matter.”

Sasha put a hand upon his cheek and moved his face so she could meet his troubled eyes. “Tell me.”

“I can’t. Confidential.”

“They didn’t find out about us, did they?”

“No.” He smiled, breaking into a small laugh. Taking her hand into his, he leaned forward and kissed her head. “Don’t you worry about that, babe. We’re safe. I know you’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself, but I will beat them to death before you get a chance.”

“My hero.”

“Speaking of us, though… I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Uh oh.” Sasha said with a smirk.

“Hey, it’s nothing bad! Well, I guess it depends how you look at it. I know you don’t believe in anniversaries but...”

“Please don’t tell me you got me something.”

“No, I didn’t. It’s more of a… non-tangible gift, if that makes sense… I mean, if you think this is serious. I mean, this is serious, but what I want to say is that. I want to get serious… with you. You don’t have to say yes, if we’re not on the same page or I'm going too fast. I do have a backup plan if that’s the case. We could go out--”

Sasha squeezed his hand. “I’ve been thinking about that too, August. I… I also want to get serious with you.”

“Really? It’s not just me?”

“No, silly. I love you…” Her eyes flickered up and down his body to solidify her intentions. “...a whole lot.”

Whether that was true or not was beyond even Sasha at this point.

August lurched forward and pressed his mouth into hers as much as he could since the bar was between them. After briefly getting lost in the touch, August grunted and hoisted himself up onto the bar with a mischievous grin as he stooped down to catch her by the waist. He pecked her neck. “C’mon up here, pretty girl.”

“Aaahaha, August! You little shit--!” Sasha almost let him convince her this was a good idea until the thought of Fiona shoved her out of the trance. “I know danger is a turn on for you, but I prefer not to crack my skull when we inevitably fall over.”

“Ah… right.” August smiled sheepishly. “I got a little carried away. I’ve got my room upstairs. I kind of need a new mattress though and it’s a bit of a mess--” A jacket slapped him on the head and fell onto the bar.

Confused, he looked up and noticed that Sasha was already at the stairs gazing at him through half lidded eyes as she was leaning over with her own wicked smile. “You coming?”

His eyes lingered on her chest before he finally blinked. He rounded the counter, gesturing with her jacket in his hand. “Ohhh, you are playing such a dangerous game right now, Sasha.”

“I thought that’s what you liked?”

“I don’t like being teased.”

“Aww, not used to being in control...” She reached under the railing and grabbed him by the shirt, tugging him closer as she knelt down to meet his eyes at the same time she lowered her hand down his abs. “Sweetie?”

Reflexively, August shivered and groaned a little. He grabbed her by the wrist. “You are in for it now.”

“Try to keep your pants on until we get in your room, hon.”

“No promises.”

Squealing, Sasha raced him up the steps and he chased through the hall to the last door at the end. August slammed his hands on either side of her and closed the gap between them. Grinding his pelvis against her, he hungrily sunk his teeth into her neck as his hands explored over and under her clothes in a way that Sasha was not minding in the least. She moaned, giving him a false sense of control until the door eventually opened. She shoved him onto the bed and poised on top of him. She was adoring how he gawked at her in pure awe when she tore off his shirt and then her own.

“I am so turned on right now...”

“I’ve noticed.” She said, beginning to rock her hips and move her hands to his groin.

His eyes rolled back as his elbows buckled. “Fuck, you’re torturing me.”

“Just let it happen, hon.”

“S-slower-- yeah, like that.” His mouth held ajar with a quiet moan and his eyes fluttered closed. “Oh, sweet maker, keep going…!”

Using her other hand to keep him distracted, she reached into back pocket and pulled out a bottle of chloroform. Popping the cap off with her teeth, she put the bottle underneath his nose and in an instant August fell backwards onto the bed, unconscious.

“Sorry, August. As much as I like this...” Shoving the chloroform into her pocket, she slid off the bed and nabbed her shirt from the floor. “Fiona can’t wait all night.”

Without any regard, she tore his room apart looking for the key. Clothing covered most of the floor. Furniture was pushed off the wall. Any antiques were pushed to the side. She pocketed a few of his best weapons from his closet. Panting, Sasha dragged August onto the floor and began searching the bed.

She dug her hand underneath the mattress and pulled out a rusty key with a V inscribed onto it. She frowned. “Really, August? You put it in the most obvious place? I am so mad at you...”

August grunted in his sleep.

“I’m sorry, hon.” Part of her wanted to stoop down and kiss him but she didn’t want to chance waking him up. Stepping over him, she ran out of his room with the key clutched in her hand.

The house they agreed upon was beyond the entrance to Hollow Point. It was so far butted at the end of the cave that Fiona equipped herself with small sticks that glowed in the dark. She hoped they would be dim enough to not attract any unwanted attention. So far, she did not hear anything inside the house. The windows were still boarded up since she last scouted the place. It looked like no one lived in the decrepit building for hundreds of years and it was on the brink of collapsing. She stared up at the vast darkness overhead as she impatiently sighed. What was taking Sasha so long? August better not have--

“Peep peep.”

Fiona relaxed, lifting her weight off the stone wall. “Peep.”

She waited until she could see Sasha advancing towards her with a smile and tossed her something that glimmered in the light. She caught it in her free hand. The key. “Nice work. What took you so long?”

“He wouldn’t stop talking about work. I didn’t want to force it, Fi.”

“Right…" She squinted at the key. "Huh, it’s old.”

“It matches the house. What do you think the V stands for?”

“No idea... but for us it stands for Victorious-- because that’s what we’re going to be after this… when we find the panel, at least.”

“You’re such a dork, Fi.” Glad that’s still with you, she wanted to add. “Let’s just get in there.”

“What’s the rush?” She teased. She casually hopped onto the tiny porch and inserted the key into the handle. As she turned the knob, the door loudly creaked open. “So much for being quiet.”

Sasha snickered, lightly pushing her along until Fiona finally stepped into the house. The house was just as old as the outside. The floorboards reeked of mold and skag pee and the wallpaper was peeling.

“Yup, this is exactly what I was expecting.” Sasha hushed her. “What?”

“Don't you hear that?”

The floorboards were creaking above them. Any normal person would say that it was nothing but the house resettling. Neither of them were normal. They were experienced con artists.

Fiona nodded. “We’re not alone. Do you still have that bottle?”

“Yes. You?”

She revealed what looked like wrapped up pills in her palm. “We’re good.”

“Nice… What exactly are we looking for?”

“Let’s figure that out after we deal with our unwanted residents...” She gestured with her head towards the stairwell. Following her, the floorboard gladly gave their presence away with each step.

“Are you sure about this, Fi?" Sasha whispered, looking back to the door. "We can leave right now.”

“Not a chance. We’re prepared. We’ll be fine.”

“What if they’re also prepared?”

“Then they’re in for a bad time.”

Sasha sighed. “Perfect...”

Fiona put her arm out in a motion for her to stop walking. Obeying, Sasha listened intently to any sound. The upstairs room looked to be fit for a toddler with the once colorful now faded rugs and toys that looked to be chewed to shreds by a rabid animal. There was a knocked down crib in the corner that was giving Sasha cold chills. From the room, there were four doors and only one of them was closed. There was no use pretending that they were merely mice. Fiona raised her voice, hovering a hand over her blade. “We know you’re here. Come out and we won’t hurt you.”

“Ain’t that nice of her? Saying that she won’t hurt us if we come out. Do you believe that?” An arrogant voice replied behind the closed door.

“Not a bit.” Came another.

Sasha stepped up beside her sister. “We’re not playing games. If you know what’s good for you, you’d come out.”

“A’ight! We comin’” The first voice responded. Creepily, the door opened in a painfully slow fashion.

“Hurry up.” Fiona snapped.

“Got no sense of drama, either.” Said the second voice with a tsk. The man that belonged to that voice stepped out. He had a mohawk and tattoos around his eyes that brought out his eyes. In his hand was a spiked mace that made the hairs on Fiona's neck stand up. The second voice slid through the door with a mustache that was just as atrocious as his friend’s hair.

“Well, here we are.” The one with the mustached raised with a longsword in his hand.

Fiona looked back and forth between then. “W-who are you?”

“He’s Finch, I’m Kroger.”

“... That’s it?” Sasha tilted her head.

“We’re not really the type to tell our life stories to people we’re about to kill.”

“Waste of breath.” Finch agreed.

“Whoa, kill?” Fiona tried to lighten with a smile. “I think you’ve got the wrong people.”

Kroger stepped forward. “Nah, we definitely got the right person, Fiona-- with one extra. No one told us about you.”

“Don’t she look familiar to you, Kroger?”

“Fin, I can barely see in front of my face.”

Fiona straightened her back, hoping to derail the conversation as she fished in her pocket. “So the anonymous tip was a trap.”

“Smart one there.” Kroger said as he gestured with his sword.

“Not a complete trap.”

“Ey! What do you think you’re doin’?! What happened to waste of breath?”

“They about to die anyway! It don’t matter.”

“They doesn’t mean you should still say it!”

Fiona and Sasha quickly exchanged smirks. Sasha covered her mouth as Fiona thrusted the knockout gas in front of the two men.

“Hey--! Dammit…!”

“You stay there, mis--” His coughing cut him off

Unable to hold their breaths, Kroger and Finch inevitably succumbed to the gas and passed out, their weapons clattering onto the floorboards.

When the gas finally subsided, the sisters grinned at each other. Sasha pushed her aside. “I call the mace!”

Fiona chuckled. “They’re all yours, Sash.”

Briefly, she watched her sister hold the glowing stick up to the weapon as she examined with excitement glittering in her smile. Fiona was glad to see her so entranced. It reminded her of when they were younger and full of hope. Speaking of hope… stepping over Kroger, Fiona hesitantly peered into the room. It appeared to be a tiny home office since she could see all four corners in the room without squinting. There was a desk and a lone bookshelf with no books on it, because they were covering the floor.

Fiona hummed, mumbling, “They had to be in this room for a reason, right?”

“Did you find something?”

“Just a sad excuse for an office." She called, "I don’t know if it’s that significant to us.”

Sasha strapped their assassins’ weapons into her back. “That guy did say that we weren’t completely off track.”

“Which makes this even weirder.”

“Right?”

Suddenly, there was a desperate meow. After listening for another moment, Sasha could hear the faint noise of claws scratching wood.

Sasha scrunched up her nose, looking at Fiona who seemed just as confused. “Did you hear that too?”

Fiona didn’t answer. She moved into the room, feeling out the walls until she found discoloration in the wood. “Well, hello. What’s this?”

Putting the glow stick between her teeth, she grabbed and yanked on the panel until it final gave into her struggle. When she tossed it aside, there was a cubbyhole with nothing but a litter box, food and water dish, and a cat with abnormally bright blue eyes who stared at her curiously.

Sasha slowly knelt down beside her sister and put her hand forward. “Hey, kitty kitty. It’s okay.”

“A cat… is what’s going to set us up for life?”

“Maybe it’s in there with the cat? C’mere, precious girl.” Timidly, the small cat pawed her way over towards Sasha, put her paws onto her knees and leaned up to sniff her face. “Oh, you have a collar.”

As she lifted the tag, she noticed there was something else attached to the leather. It was a stone, part of a stone. The rock emitted a soft purple glow that illuminated the name tag that read ‘Gortys’.

“Gortys…?”

Fiona abandoned her search. “Nothing but cat shit.”

“Were you looking in the box?”

“Ew--ga-- NO! I wasn’t, Sasha!”

“Just asking.”

Her glared lasted for a moment before her gaze honed in on their furry companion. “Aaww, aren’t you cuuuute? What’s your name…? Gortys? Am I saying that right?”

“No idea.”

“And why does it have a rock?”

“I don’t know, but it looks like it’s supposed to connect to something. See how it’s hollowed out? Maybe, this is it, Fi.”

“Does the cat have to come with it?”

“What do you have against cats?”

“Nothing, I just--”

“Then she’s coming with us.” Sasha said defiantly, scooping up the cat and walking out of the room with it.

Defeated, Fiona hung her head. “All this for a cat? A cat. Cats don’t even sell well.”

“We’re not selling the cat, Fiona! Look at her! How can you hate this faaaaace.” She held Gortys by her under arms, letting her body dangle in the air.

“I don’t--!” Fiona paused when her next thought popped into her head. “Wait a second. What if that’s not just a regular cat.”

“She looks normal… but if you do start talking I am going to drop you.”

Gortys mewed.

“C’mon, Sasha. She’s just letting you hold her like that! No normal cat does that.”

“You’re just mad because animals like me.” Sasha said matter-of-factly as she hopped down the steps.

“What I’m getting to is that maybe this is the scouting kind of cat, you know?”

“Isn’t that a dog thing?”

“I mean… yes.”

“Wait, wait, I think I get where you’re going with this.” Sasha placed Gortys at the bottom of the stairs and urged her with a pat. “Lead us to money, Gortys!”

Her tail flicked back and forth until the cat turned around and brushed her body up against Sasha’s leg as Gortys snaked around her feet.

“I can’t believe the real treasure was friendship all along. We can’t live off friendship, Gortys!”

Fiona snorted. “We’ll figure it out, Sash. Let’s get out of here before they wake up.”

“What about August?”

“Right… We need to be long gone before that asshole ruins everything.”

“At least we have company this time.” Sasha said hopefully, lifting Gortys into Fiona’s arms. She cackled at the puzzled expression on her sister’s face as she fumbled and squeaked at Gortys who was trying to climb onto her shoulders. She was praying at this point. One day, she will get her sister back in full action instead of seeing small parts of her resurface for only a moment.

. . .

Gortys wasn’t as troublesome as Fiona led herself to believe. The beautiful gray short hair kept herself occupied with cat things like grooming, playing with strings or Sasha’s bandanas or hair, sleeping, and grooming. She half expected it to start talking and send them on a magical adventure to find a lost city of treasure underneath Oasis or something along those lines. So far the cat acted like a cat, it didn’t reveal anything to them or try to communicate to them outside of meowing. Fiona took the liberty to unravel the stone from her collar to examine it better. Unfortunately, there was nothing more to the stone other than it was part of something she hoped would be big.

She didn’t believe in spirits or signs, but the dreams she kept having didn’t make sense, not that dreams have ever made sense. Fiona had this one recurring dream where she was eating pasta under a body of water before ending up being chased by a fish who also wanted the pasta. Her dreams changed drastically after touching the rock. She kept seeing an elven girl with long flowing black hair and green tattoos all over her body. She would look at her and smile before disappearing. No words were exchanged.

She tried to explain it to Sasha but ended up at a loss for words. As she began to talk about the elf, the less she remembered the dream and what she looked like. All she could recall was that she was glowing. It left her feeling the desire to follow her. She glared at herself for that. Why would she want to follow a little elf around? She could only picture nothing but trouble. That’s all elves were. Beacons of… really bad things, she lost her train of thought. Sasha stopped talking to her for days now. Maybe, she shouldn’t have said that out loud.

It had been a week since the Prosperity Junction Fire. Sasha stared at the half demolished buildings in fear. Local bandits and thrashers didn’t even give them a second glance. There were burnt victims everywhere. Blood stained most of the roads their horses tread upon. Sasha could hear talk as they steered by, about an elf mage and many of him there were. Sasha shrank in her seat, clutching Gortys. Mages had some terrifying power. This had to be the work of a whole gang of them.

“It’s good that we weren’t here when it happened.” Fiona said offhandedly, her focus honed on the road.

“I just hope that our hideaway is safe.”

Fiona gave her an unconcerned glance. “It should be. It’s on the other side of the town, not where most of the outbreak happened.”

“What do you think caused this? I mean, obviously fire but what reason?”

“Handsome Jack has plenty of his damn body double still roaming around doing shit like this… I’m sure from above the destroyed buildings spell his name or something.” Fiona said through her teeth. “Just keep an eye out for anyone interested in our cart.”

“Not every disaster is Handsome Jack related, Fi...”

“You don’t know that.”

Sasha leered at her momentarily before sighing in defeat.

“Excuse me, miss.” Came a drawn out voice. Sasha braced herself for the jerky stop as Fiona tugged on the reigns. Sasha peaked over her shoulder to see a hefty woman in armor. She was holding out two wanted posters. Her gut lurched down to her shoes as the lady pressed on. “I saw you two come from out of town, have you seen these two men?”

Men. She was looking for men. Sasha breathed a quiet sigh of relief and looked over the posters. The one on the right was of a dwarf, sporting a goatee and had a guitar strapped to his back. Underneath his picture read; Vaughn Little: -Bard from Moxxi’s Red All Over, -Smuggler, -Danger: low, -Wanted Alive. Reward: 1,000 g

The left one pictured an elf with one eye and a frightened expression. His name depicted; Rhys Strongfork: -belongs to Saul Henderson, -Thief, -Danger: none VERY DANGEROUS -Wanted Alive. Reward: 10,000 g

“They don’t look familiar. You?” Sasha shook her head. Fiona turned back and raised a brow at the large red inscribing of 'VERY DANGEROUS'. “What did a slave do to gain such a high level?”

“He, uh… burned this whole town.”

Sasha arched her back. “One person did all this?”

“So I’ve heard. I had a feeling that elf was some kind of mage after my last encounter with them… or Vaughn lied to me again.”

“Sounds like you and that dwarf have history.” Fiona commented, bending slightly towards her. Sasha narrowed her eyes at her in confusion.

“Yeah, you think you can trust someone who got injured on your doorstep… Damn him.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that. How long have you been hunting them for?”

“A while now.” She gave a hopeless sigh. “I don’t got much help these days. No one is taking a runaway mage seriously, saying that the Circle will git ‘em soon. I may have to make some changed just so they can get more attention than the harmless thief types.”

Fiona offered her a smile. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll keep a special eye out for them, spread the word for you.” She winked.

“Oh! Oh, that would be so great if you could. I tell you what, when this is all said an’ done, you come by to Fyrestone and tell Moxxi that Ellie owes you. She’ll get you a right special drink for both of yous. I’m holding y’all up, you be safe now!”

“You too, Ellie.”

As Fiona turned and clicked with her tongue to cue their steads, she kept her gaze forward to try to ignore how intently Sasha stared at her. After a struggling two minutes, Fiona caved in and barked, “What?”

“You were so flirting with her.”

“No, you were the one flirting with her.”

“I barely got to speak, Fi, and I’m not the hopeless lesbian here.” Sasha smirked at her halfhearted grunt and she dug deeper. “Maybe you should have been the one holding the cat to further your point that you like--.”

Fiona elbowed her in the side.

“Ow! Hey, watch it! Gortys could have freaked out!”

“Then don’t talk.”

“Jesus, Fi, I’m just glad that you’re letting yourself loose for once.”

“I’m always… loose.”

“No, you’re not.”

Fiona glimpsed at her frown as her tone lowered. “What does that mean, Sash?”

“Let’s just focus on making sure our hideout is okay.”

“That’s another few minutes. We’ve got time to talk. I mean, we’ve always got time to talk.”

“My time or your time?”

Fiona nearly gave herself whiplash when she jerked her head to her. “Excuse me?”

“Fiona time is much shorter than my time. That's all I'm saying.”

“The hell are you talking about?”

“You barely have any patience to talk about what I want to say! You keep cutting me off when it gets too uncomfortable for you or you just hate the topic.”

“I don’t hate what you say...”

“You hated my decisions with August but look how that turned out for us.”

“You’re right! My mistake. We have a freakin’ cat now! You pretending to love that creature got us sooooo far, Sash-- or, or if I am misunderstanding like you think I am? Were you actually in love with him? I saw that hickey on your neck while we were grabbing that damn cat.”

Sasha tucked her legs into her chest. “Ok, fine. I did love him. I… I saw a side of him I didn’t think I would. If you were in my shoes, you would have thought the same thing. You would have felt guilty.”

“I don’t feel guilty about elves. That slave we just saw was a prime example of why they should stay--”

“Stop talking like that! You have never talked like that before Felix died!” Sasha’s scream silenced her. “What happened to my fucking sister?!”

Breathing fitfully, Sasha stole the reigns from her hands and halted the caravan. In a huff, she jumped down from the box seat, holding Gortys close to her neck as she booked it down the path between two buildings towards their hideout. A minute passed, Fiona sat there with her hand uselessly extended out. Her yell was still ringing in her ears as she slowly stepped down from the seat. After taking a second check her surroundings, Fiona jogged after her in a hurry. “Sasha! Sasha, nothing happened!”

She shoved the metal door open and flicked the light switch on. “Sasha…! Nothing hap… happen...”

Reaching for her dagger, a rope sharply snapped her shins so fast that she fell over. In the fall, a hand snatched her by the wrist, forcing her to uncomfortably stretch. She glowered up at August who was standing before her with arms folded and a grim frown on his lip. Behind him, Gortys was locked inside a metal cage while Sasha was gagged and held by Kroger. August knelt down, pressing a knife into her cheek until blood drew. “You shouldn’t have messed with me, Fiona. I don’t like it when people think they can steal from me.”

Fiona gathered and spat in the elf’s eye.

August blinked, wiping the saliva with his free hand. “Gross.”

“I could have spat in your mouth but I rather not give a knife-ears my cooties.”

“Ouch.” Kroger commented, somewhat offended. “You really gonna let her say that to you?”

“I’ve heard worse insults. Doesn’t do you any good, you know. You’re wanted alive or dead now.”

Fiona closed her mouth, his eyes drifting to the floor.

“Now with your mortality on the line, you shut up. Typical.”

“Listen, August, just let Sasha go. I made her do it. Punish me.”

Beneath the gag, Sasha gargled in dismay, exaggeratedly shaking her head.

“Oh, you’re going to be punished, alright.” August’s dark smile made her skin crawl. He waltzed over to Gortys cage and plucked it from the floor. “But not by the law. Finch, take her to the boss. Kroger, you’re on cat duty.”

“Wait, so the cat is valuable? Ow--watch it!”

“I’m as clueless as you are.” August willfully admitted as he handed the cage off to Kroger. “We have no idea why she wants this thing.”

“She doesn’t reveal anything to us.” Kroger explained with a shrug. “Comes with the job.”

“To mindlessly be controlled by someone you can’t even share the name of? That’s typical--Mm!” Fiona almost choked on the clothe being tied around her mouth.

“Get her out of my sight.” August gestured with his hand. He faced Sasha with a raw unguarded expression that left her breathless. “I’ll take care of this one myself.”

“We’ll see you later, boss.” Finch hauled the door closed behind them.

Sasha held her breath in wait for anything, to be stabbed, to be slapped, poisoned, anything. She winced at the pressing weight on her shoulder. She slowly opened her eyes to see August, completely vulnerable with his head resting on her. His hands were hovered at her sides, desiring to pull her into an embrace. Eventually, the elf removed the gag and peered into her with such a begging gaze that Sasha couldn’t keep eye contact from all the guilt she felt at once.

“Sasha, please… Please, tell me that she was right. That none of this was your fault. Please, if you don’t agree with her, I have to do something awful to you.”

“Then do it.”

“No!” His became a shrill as he grabbed her by her forearms. “Say the right answer! Please--! Say the right thing...”

“W--hhhy are you…? I kept so many things from you. Why are you giving me a second chance? I lied to you.”

“We’re alone and I want the truth.”

“August...”

“Did you ever… ever love me?”

Sasha stood there, her teeth grinding hard against each other. She didn’t expect this question to be answered out loud. She never gotten the chance to think about it while on the road. The longer she hesitated in hopes that Fiona would come bursting through the door to save her; the more August looked distressed and the more devastated her heart became.

“I think I did…” She finally opened.

August gave a long breathless, almost heartbroken laugh that ended with shaking hands combing his hair. He gazed at her with tormented smile. “You think…?! What does that even mean? You think you did?”

“I enjoyed our time together… I really did. I liked kissing you. I loved kissing you. It was an accident, honestly. I wasn’t intending to actually fall in love with you… then it just happened.”

“What just happened?”

“I looked at you and saw a future with you. A future we’ll never have. We’re not supposed to be talking like this, you told me that when we started dating.”

“I made a mistake… but it was a good mistake.”

“A good mistake? How is any of this good? My sister is going to die and so am I.”

“You’re not going to die--”

“You’re taking my sister to her fucking grave, August! I would rather go with her than have her die alone!”

“You heard what she said to me! I’m basically an abomination to her because of these fucking ears! She deserves what comes to her.”

“She’s in pain!” Sasha barked back. “She’s in pain and she won’t let me help her!! If you were just different--!”

“Different?!” August pointed an accusatory finger at her. “Ah! You admit it! You are just like her!”

“N-no! That’s not what I meant! You know that’s not what I meant!”

“Then what?! What did you mean? I’m all ears since that’s all I’ve got to you pricks.”

“If you just let her see the sides you showed me she wouldn’t be so… caught up. Handsome Jack did a number on all of us, not just humans. He fucked up your livelihood too, August. I know he did.” As his expression twisted away from anger, she saw her chance. “Listen to me, hon.”

“Don’t you dare call me that.” He hissed, turning his back to her.

“August… I know you. I like to think I know you and I know you can’t trust me right now. It’s hard for me to really say that I do love you because… My sister's life is one the line because of you. Fiona can get better if you give her the opportunity. Your heart is in the right place, August. You can do the right thing, I know you can. Please, August, she’s the only family I have left. You can save he--”

“Shut up!” The elf faced her with a coiled blade between his fingers. He couldn’t look at her traumatized gaze. He clutched the dagger in his hand. “You don’t know a thing about me.”

. . .

Fiona didn’t fight with Finch, not like she could since she was being carried on his shoulder. She couldn’t reach her pocket knife without causing suspicion. She was blindfolded, gagged, open to the sounds of Finch and Kroger discussing the food in Prosperity Junction. She let dread consume her soul. She let Sasha down. Her last words to her were ‘nothing happened’. She felt stupid, undeniably stupid. Her opinion towards elves was stupid. What did happen to her after Felix died? Why did she let herself become so prejudice? She wasn’t her sister, she secluded herself and transformed into an annoyed stranger. No wonder Sasha stopped being so open to her. She should be free to love whoever she wanted… Fiona exhaled out of her nose. So much for being a good sibling.

Fiona hated herself.

Abruptly, Fiona found herself with dirt and dust up her nose that she couldn’t sneeze out. Above her, she could hear Finch struggling with something or someone along with Kroger shouting. The cage was dropped onto the ground and Kroger unsheathed his sword, which ended up, from what Fiona could tell, being knocked from his hands. The blade landed uncomfortably close to her. Thinking fast, she shimmied towards it and ran her wrists on the edge of it until the bonds snapped. Ripping the cloth from her face, her vision took a moment to adjust as she barely saw an oddly bright person in front of her. The stranger had long flowing black hair and fur at the collar. Glowing elven tattoos traveled down the arms onto the fingers. Before Fiona was Finch and Kroger on the ground once more, but they were conscious. They were being held down by chains… blue, dripping with magic, chains.

The elf slowly turned her head and looked down at her. Her crystalesque eyes gave her the weirdest sense of calm and the image of Sasha smiling and safe in her mind.

“Run.”

“Who are you?”

“Sasha will meet you outside of town. She will be unscathed and happy to see you.”

“How the hell do you know my sister?”

“I’m your guardian Angel.” She replied with a coy smile. “I know everything. Don’t forget the cat.”

Fiona grabbed Gortys’ cage and bolted. She feared to look behind her as the back of her mind screamed that an elf saved her. An elf of all people. She had to have been seeing things in her hysterics. She had never seen an elf like that. No one glowed like that and Fiona was too frantic to think about believing in spirits. She couldn’t even figure out where she was in the town.

When she started wondering about her caravan, that same voice perked up to her right. “Your carriage is this way!”

Fiona nearly fell onto her butt as she tried to turn too sharply. There she was. That elf. The moment she saw her, she ran off down an alleyway. Fiona sprinted after her. “W-wait just a second! How did you--?”

“Over here!” Fiona jerked her head up to see the elf girl waving at her from the rooftop. She pointed at the ladder on the side of the building. “They’re following you. Hurry!”

Deciding not to argue, she hurriedly scaled up the ladder and hauled herself onto the roof. As she gazed down, Kroger and Finch were at the bottom.

Kroger pointed, “Don’t you do it--!”

Fiona kicked the ladder over and unfortunately Finch caught the ladder before it crashed.

“Attaboy!”

She fished into her pocket for anymore knockout gas but her hand was torn away and she was soon tugged along by that same elf. “Agh! What are you?!”

“Didn’t I answer that already?”

“Nothing about this explains how you appear out of nowhere!”

The Guardian Angel giggled so wholeheartedly that it took the wind from Fiona’s lungs. “You’re funny! I like you.”

“How is this funny?!”

“You’ll be laughing about it eventually, why not start now?”

“Sasha is in danger!”

“No, she isn’t. August would never hurt her. He loves her too much.”

Fiona scoffed, “how would you know?”

“I told you, Fiona. I know everything!”

. . .

“Go help your sister. They probably made it out of town by now but you can still catch them.” Sasha gawked at him with her mouth wide open. His gut lurched. “I’m letting you go, Sasha! Go get her!”

Various emotions pelted her at once. He was shaking but his expression held true. There was so much love in his eyes that she couldn’t take it. She lifted her hands over to him.

He slapped them away. “Get. Out.”

“August...”

“Don’t! You’re wasting time! Don’t make me do this.” He flourished his dagger once more.

“Come with us!”

“The hell are you saying?”

“We’ll protect you-- I’ll protect you! We can show Fiona that y--”

“I’m not proving myself to ANYONE, Sasha. Dammit, this isn’t about me! This isn’t about us anymore! I’m tired of you...” August steadily approached her with the blade pointed towards her. His voice trembled through desperation. “Leave and don’t come back… Get as far away as you can, please.”

Sasha stepped forward.

“Stop.” August urged, his hand struggled to hold the handle with how badly he trembled. “Stop making me feel this… Sasha...” He finally let go of the knife as Sasha pushed his arm aside and collided into his lips. The taste was twisted with bittersweet flavor along a sense of underlying guilt. He softly whimpered, following after her when she pulled away. He watched her run out the door as the hole inside his chest grew tenfold.

Sasha jumped into the box seat of the caravan and yipped until the horses were urged into a gallop. She didn’t bother to swerve out of the way of anyone trying to cross her path. She was putting a lot of strain on these old stallions and she wasn’t going to add tipping the caravan over onto her list of worries.
As she drew closer to the town’s entrance, she noticed something in her peripheral. On the rooftops, she could see someone being followed by two other people who were all trying to catch up to her cart. Sasha’s eyes widen. She jerked the reigns towards the edge of the road and pulled on the lead enough to slow the pace. “Fiona! Fiona, jump for it!”

“Sasha!” Fiona leaped off the roof scales and braced herself as her body tore through the overhead fabric that used to cover their belongings from rain. She hoped the couch would break her fall but landing on it proved that the pillows were basically bricks and the wind was knocked out of her instantly.

For a while, Fiona laid there motionless, unable to catch her breath with how violently the caravan rocked. Gortys meowed unhappily in her cage.

Although her vision struggled, somehow, she could clearly see the same elf bending over her. Her long hair tickled her nose. She was smiling childishly, full of glee and pride. She took her index finger and pressed it gently onto her nose. “Don’t forget to go to the Circle.”

When Fiona blinked, she vanished.

Why was the image of the Circle of Magi burned into her brain?

“Fiona?”

She startled awake, noticing immediately that the world changed around her. The sky was fading into darkness. The cart was still. Gortys was lounging on her chest, purring loudly. She looked to her right to see Sasha lit by a lantern. Suddenly, she lunged at her, pressing her head into her neck as she hugged her. Her throat hurt to speak. “Sasha...? What happened?”

“I couldn’t get you react to anything. It was freaking me out... I'm so happy you're okay.” She was wiping her eyes.

Her heart panged. Fiona grunted as she pushed herself enough to rest her back on the arm of the couch. “I don’t remember that… I’m glad you're okay too. How did… uff, how did you get away?”

“... August let me go.”

Her gaze flickered back to Gortys. She hesitantly put a hand on her soft, warm fur. She braced herself for anything as she blurted out, “I’m sorry I never listened to you.”

She waited for a yell or a slap on the face that didn't come. Slowly, she looked to her sister to meet a cautiously surprised expression. Sasha blinked. “You are?”

“Yes, I should have said that a long time ago. I’ve been… I’ve been a real asshole.”

“Don’t sell yourself short." She put a hand onto her shoulder. "You’ve been a gigantic shithead.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Sasha said with a sad smile. “What are you going to do then?”

“My best… I can’t promise anything, really.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, Fi.” That was a genuine smile.

“You better… By the way, where are we?”

“We’re near the Circle. It kind of popped in my head all the sudden. They probably won’t think to find us here.”

“You’re so smart.”

“Psh, please.”

“I’m serious. It’s all because of you that we got this far.”

“But what is ‘this far’?”

“I don’t know, staying alive? We might as well stock up at the Circle while we’re at it.”

Sasha snorted… that wasn’t a bad idea. The Circle wasn’t exactly an easy target, but knowing Fiona, she would find a way. “And after that we can head to Lynchwood. It’s not that far from here.”

“You wanna do that?”

“Eh, sure, but shouldn’t you rest first?”

“We’re on the run, Sasha.” Fiona said and held Gortys as she sat up. “We’ll rest when we’re dead.”

. . .

Fiona slowly opened the door out of the mage’s library and looked from side to side to see that the hallway was clear. Clinging onto the bag at her waist, she urged Sasha by the arm to head out in front of her. Sasha motioned her to tail her down the stairs as she whispered. “I’m still not too sure about this… This is starting to feel kind of wrong.”

“We’re stealing from the Circle, Sash, not from the poor kids who are forced to be here. They wouldn’t have good stuff on them anyway.”

“I mean... there’s always a possibility. The Templar’s quarters are just above them.”

“I know they are but there’s also Templars and I'm running out of traps.”

“Alright, alright, you made your point.” Sasha glanced over their shoulder and grabbed her arm. “I thought I heard something.”

Fiona paused momentarily to check but there was no sound following them. She swallowed, “... Let’s get out of here.”

Once they hit the ground floor, the two slipped into the kitchen area. Fiona pressed forward and heaved a loose cabinet to the side to reveal a hole in the wall. She dropped down and felt her waist to see that her glow stick had died. “Damn. Sash, hand me your light.”

As Sasha turned to reach into her back pocket, she saw movement behind them. She grabbed Fiona by the shoulder. “Fi!”

Lifting herself out of the tunnel, Fiona pulled out two large daggers from her belts and took a stance to face the intruders. Before them in the dim light was that dwarf from Ellie’s wanted poster and an elf. Automatically, the elf held his hand out as red fumes began to smoke from his fingertips.

“Whoa, whoa! Hold on! N-no need for that…!” The dwarf laughed nervously, pulling the elf’s hand down. “We’re just trying to leave! Like you guys!”

“Leave just like us.” Fiona glanced at Sasha who shared her disapproving gaze. “Riiiight. You just so happen to want to leave while we’re robbing the place. That sounds too suspicious, dwarf. Why is someone like you here?”

He pouted. “That’s none of your business! Look, you have no idea what it’s like in here. Something terrible is going to happen if we don’t leave right now…!”

“Uh-huh...” She said with an eye roll. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Fi...!” Sasha pawed at her arm and pointed at the elf. “Look at his eye, it’s glowing…!”

It was glowing. There was fumes coming out of it too. Now that she was looking at him, his arm was somewhat transparent as well. Fiona clutched onto Sasha by her shirt and pulled on her slightly to bring her back. “... What the hell are you?”

The elf shrank away, hanging his head. Protectively, the dwarf stepped out. “Hey! Don’t objectify him! He’s still a person!”

Sasha wildly gestured with her hands. “He’s literally smoking!”

Remembering her guilt, Fiona caught her arm and lowered it. “Sash, we can’t do this right now. Let them do what they want. They’re not a threat.”

“And just let them follow us?!” Sasha hissed under her breath. “Fi, that’s the elf that burned the whole town down…!”

“We won’t!” The elf pressed with an uncomfortable smile. “Promise!”

“We just want to be free from the Circle, that’s all.” The dwarf added, holding his hands up to imply that he wasn’t crossing his fingers.

Fiona whispered in return. “Then we don’t cause any trouble. Let’s get moving.” She pushed her sister into the tunnel and jumped in after. The two were apt to ignore the two men behind them and scarpered fast through the crawl space until Sasha was the first to break into fresh air. After pulling Fiona out of the dirt, the two booked it down the hill to their caravan. Taking another glance, she didn’t see the elf or dwarf coming over the peak as she threw her bag into the cart.

“C’mon, Fi!”

“I don’t think they’re following us.”

“They’re probably waiting-- get up here!”

Fiona hoisted herself onto the box seat and flicked the reigns. “Keep an eye behind us, Sash.”

“Already doing that. Uh, Fi?”

“Yeah?”

“The lights in the Circle are turning on.”

“Shhhhit.” She clicked her tongue and the steeds trotted into a gallop. Every now and then, Fiona glanced over at her sister whose head was still turned around. It was until the Circle of Magi was only visible at the horizon by how bright lights shone in the windows like a lighthouse.

“I think we’re in the clear, Fi...”

“No unwanted passengers?”

Sasha ducked her head into the caravan. “Nope. I don’t think we should slow down yet though.”

“You’re right... Do you see Gortys?”

“... She’s sleeping on the couch.”

“How the hell did that cat sleep through all that?”

“I think both of us could learn a few things from her.”

“Right?” Fiona let her hand free from the lead for a moment to pat Sasha’s leg. “I know you’re scared. Do you want to talk about it?”

“... You’ll let me talk?”

“Yes.”

Sasha smiled a little. “Maybe later, right now I want to tell you how proud I am of you.”

“What did I do?”

“You didn’t do what you usually do… you know, throw shit at them. You let them give us some insight. I was scared of that elf-- still kind of scared of him, but it made me realize that since he was at the Circle, he’s just a baby mage who lost control of his powers.”

“That doesn’t make him any less of a threat, Sasha.”

“No, it doesn’t. But if you just started fighting them, I would be dragging your broken body back here. You showed restraint. That’s good. You’re making progress.”

“Yeah… I only did that because that dwarf was clearly his babysitter. Did you see how he grabbed his hand like that?”

“It kind of reminds me of us a little. He’s protective, like you.”

“... I’m not that short, am I?”

Sasha pushed her, playfully. She was giggling. “Don’t go poking his height! They can’t help it.”

“I said nothing about his height.”

“Sure, you didn’t...” She trailed off.

“Sasha?”

“Nothing, I’m just thinking too much.”

“About what?”

“You’re not… forcing yourself to pretend that you’re okay, are you?”

“How else can I be okay if I can’t fake it until I make it, you know? Like confidence.”

“I guess?” She sounded somewhat convinced.

Fiona sighed, “Look. I saw something back at Prosperity Junction. I just don’t remember what it was.”

“Uh, what?”

“Something about that place changed me somehow. Made me realize what I was doing to myself and you. There was some girl.”

“You mean Eeeeeelllliiiieee?”

“Oh, maker, shut up! No, it wasn’t her! She was younger… a lot smaller. What was her name?”

Sasha carefully stole the reigns from her palm. “You haven’t slept much recently, Fi. Why don’t you take some time off? I’ll get us to Lynchwood.”

Fiona gave up. It wasn't worth the trouble. “... Oh… alright.”

. . .

Sasha remained awake until they reached the outskirts of Lynchwood. The sun was merely peeking over the horizon. She poked Fiona awake once they were parked behind a small decaying building. “Good morning, sweepyhead.”

“Shut up...” Fiona adjusted the hat on her head and stretched her neck. “Ow. I think I slept weird.”

“I’ll handle carrying the bags in then.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, Fi, I can.”

After hopping down from the seat, Sasha rounded the caravan and stopped in her tracks at the sight of that elf and dwarf from the Circle stowed away and fallen asleep in each others’ arms with Gortys resting on the dwarf’s face. She blinked in amazement. “How did I not see them last night?” She cleared her throat. “Uh. Fi? We may have a problem.”

“Did the bags roll out?” The carriage leaned slightly when Fiona stepped off.

“No, we packed extra luggage.”

“Packed extra lugg-- Oh, for...” Fiona’s grimace at the two lasted for a second as it quickly turned into a sly smirk. “Let’s bring them in. They brought this upon themselves.”

“Are we going to turn them in to Ellie?”

Fiona winked. “Do we still have rope?”

After finishing tying the dwarf to one of the few chairs in their hideout, Fiona peered behind her to see that Sasha tie the knot at the elf’s back and let him rest against the wall. Sasha looked and gave a thumbs up as she lifted herself back onto her feet. “Where did you put the posters?”

“Kitchen counter.”

Sasha tiptoed over the sleeping elf gangling legs and rounded the counter to find the posters rolled into each other. When she uncoiled them, she was greeted with a rather friendly sketch of Vaughn Little and a scrappy drawing of Rhys Strongfork. “Pff, Strongfork and Little. Those are some sad surnames.”

Fiona leaned over and tapped a finger on Rhys’ picture. “He looks almost nothing like this now.”

Sasha hummed. “He got a haircut.”

“And an eye.”

“‘Pathetic slave owned by Saul Henderson’. That’s not very--” Sasha put down the poster, her tone turning grave, “Sasha, look at this.”

“What?”

“Look at this! They added that he’s a Gray Warden! Didn’t Handsome Jack lead them… or what was left of it after the Fall of Lynchwood?”

Fiona scowled from the words and to the picture of the dwarf who bore a slight smile, then over her shoulder at the same dwarf who was peacefully snoozing in the chair. She scoffed in disbelief. “He can’t be. He’s not remotely threatening. Should have drawn him with a frown or something.”

“Appearances can be deceiving, Fi.”

“I’ve seen more intimidating dwarves than this guy… I’m surprised that he’s still alive.”

“Not every dwarf died at The BackBurner, you know. Besides, he’s a Gray Warden, maybe Jack spared him. I thought he only had a problem with humans.”

“That elf isn’t the sparing type, Sash. The only person that asshole cared about was himself.”

Sasha frowned, shrugging her shoulders. “So, who do we wake up?”

“The Gray Warden. You saw how that elf was looking at us back there.”

“You pulled a knife on them. How was a mage supposed to react?”

Rolling her eyes to herself, Fiona withdrew a glass bottle from her pouch and waltz over to Vaughn. “You ready?”

“Ready.”

Popping the cork off, she moved the bottle underneath his nose. Within a few moments the dwarf groaned into consciousness, “Rrrhyyyys...?”

Letting the quiet settle, they decided not to say a word until his mind fully un-grogged itself, which took about five seconds. His eyes shrunk and he jerked the chair slightly at his jump. He pushed against the ropes but to only make the chair and himself fall on their side. "Ooooohahahaaooowwww... why can't I mooooove...?"

Fiona put a hand to her forehead and swiftly moved over and used her foot to help prop the chair and the dwarf up. He blinked hard.

"Guh, thanks-- Uh." His mouth dried up at the sight of her. His eyes darted to his sleeping friend. "Ah--"

“I wouldn’t.” Fiona cocked her head and Sasha stepped forward until she was standing above the elf with the knife pointing downward.

His jaw closed with a click.

Fiona twirled her own dagger between her index and middle finger. “So, dwarf, what exactly made you think sneaking into our caravan was a good idea?”

“Uhhhhh… I thought it would help us get away from the Circle faster?”

“That’s valid.” Sasha nodded.

“After saying you wouldn’t follow us, obviously. Do you have any idea who we are?”

He looked her and her sister over for a minute. He raised a brow as he guessed. “Common... thieves?”

“We’re con artists.”

“Were or are? Last time I checked, con artists don’t steal from places like the Circle anyeee--!” Fiona jabbed the dagger closer to his neck.

“You realize you’re tied up, right?”

His voice pitched as he spoke. “I am acutely aware of that now, yes.”

“Why don’t you tell us what’s actually going on then? It must have been pretty bad for you to smuggle sharp-ears out of the Circle.”

“He has a name and it’s Rhys. And! There’s nothing for you to gain from me telling you. So there.”

“No, but both of you are on wanted posters all over Pandora, so I suggest you cooperate.” She unfurled his poster. “Gray Warden Vaughn Little.”

Vaughn blanched. He sunk in the chair, his head hanging low. He spoke quietly, “I’m… not a Gray Warden… anymore. I’ve never been worthy of that title.”

Raising a brow, Fiona decided not to question that. “Alright then, Vaughn. Go on and tell us and we’ll let you and your elf go.”

“Rhys is his own person… And how can you guarantee that?” Sasha was beginning to appreciate his viewpoints.

“Depends on how believable your answer is.”

Exhaling, Vaughn shifted in his restraints. “Then… you really aren’t going to believe me unless you wake up Rhys.”

“We’ll see about that.” Fiona crossed her arms. “Talk.”

Sasha drew back her knife a little when Vaughn hesitated. Eventually, he cooperated. “There… there’s this test that apprentice mages have to do in order to be full on mages. It’s called the Harrowing. Turns out the test was a scam because… Rhys has a demon in him and we’re going to find someone to exorcise him.”

Fiona turned to her sister. “Sasha, kill the elf.”

Vaughn shot up. “What?!”

“Fiona, I’m not doing that!”

“He’s an abomination!”

Vaughn fought against the ropes. “He is NOT an abomination! Look at him-- he’s fine! He just needs help.”

Rhys flinched and began to mumble dazedly, scrunching up his nose.

“Oh no.”

“What do you mean ‘oh no’?”

Vaughn faced her, expectantly. “You need to untie me right now.”

“Like hell I am!”

“Do you want to be electrocuted...?! I’m the only person in this room that can calm him down.”

Fiona scowled at him, skeptically. Looking back, she watched Rhys slowly woke up and blink wildly at the bright lights until he noticed Sasha over him with a dagger. Green flashed through his eyes. With a twitch of his fingers, the knife was shocked out of her hands and it stuck into the ceiling with a twang. Sasha stumbled away from him in horror as the ropes restricting him instantaneously turned into ash. He stood up as his fist burst into flames. He growled, lowly, “Where’s. Vaughn.”

Wordlessly, Fiona sliced through the knot and rope fell off the dwarf. In a rush, Vaughn tackled him the same time Rhys lunged for Sasha. The fireball forming in his hands disengaged into the ceiling fan, which shattered on impact.

“Rhys!” The dwarf tugged on him by the face. “Hey! I’m ri--”

“Vaughn!” His anger melted away the moment he laid eyes on him and relief crashed in place. Grinning, Rhys grabbed him and pulled him into a tight embrace that Vaughn timidly relaxed into. As Rhys’ gaze lifted up and surveyed the two sisters, his Fade hand slowly moved from the dwarf’s back and raised in their general direction. Static popped. Fiona took Sasha by the arm and reflectively dragged her behind her person.

“Rhys.”

The electricity in the room stood stagnant at his voice in his ear that gave him an unaccustomed sensation in his chest. “Y-yeah?”

“Don’t.”

“Wha-- but, they could have hurt you!”

Vaughn broke their contact. He shifted through his discomfort at how he was basically straddling the elf. “They were just about to let us go.” He turned his head just enough to side eye the sisters. “Right, Fiona?”

Fiona glared at him. “... Yup.”

“See, Rhys? We’re going to be just fine.”

His gaze flickered from him to Fiona, then Sasha, back Vaughn. He gave him one more glance over for any injuries and brought him into another embrace. One where he affectionately nuzzled his neck with his nose, which sent a surprising shiver up Vaughn’s spine.

“R-Rhys? Are you--?”

“I’m fine. I’m just glad you’re safe.”

“I’m… not used to you hugging me with two arms.”

Rhys chuckled a little. “You and me both, man. I like it.”

Vaughn let himself smile and wrap his arms around his neck. “Me too, bud.”

The scene touched her heart, even though at the same time it made her miss being in a relationship. Despite the pain, Sasha couldn’t help but smirk. “You know, I kind of feel bad, Fi. We shouldn’t have stolen from these harmless love birds.”

Vaughn flinched, shoving Rhys away as he got up. His face was bright red. “Love birds?! Ha! W-whaaa-- we’re not birds! … That was not the right thing to say. What I meant was that we’re--!”

“Bros!” Rhys floundered, who was equally flustered.

“Bros! Thank you for finishing my sentence, because I did not like what was about to come out of my mouth. Uh, yeah! We’re just two bros! You know, friendship! But with bro! A broship!”

“A bromance!”

“A brolationship!”

“Brorade!”

“Brotual!”

“Brotual?”

“Bro and mutual?”

“Ok, stop.” Fiona put her hands out. Out of the corner of her eye, she glowered at Sasha who was dying from silent laughter at what she had done as she tried not to smile herself. “We get it. You’re not a couple.”

“Couple of flowerBUDS!” Rhys snapped with an overeager smile. “Ge-get it? Flower-- because we’re friends? Buds?”

“Yeah, I got the joke.”

“I’m dying...!” Sasha wheezed. “Ohh maker!”

Vaughn tried to ignore the younger sister’s enjoyment of his internal pain. “Look, can we go now?”

“And can we have our stuff?” Rhys pointed out.

“Oh, right. Good call, Rhys--" The realization stuck him. "Hey! Did you s--?!”

“Relax, dwarf. Yes, you can have your stuff back. It’s over there.” Fiona waved her hand vaguely. She watched them attentively through narrowed eyes as they searched the bags. “We haven’t gotten a chance to touch anything, but if you steal anything from us, we will hunt you down.”

“Join the club.” Rhys scoffed. “We probably have the Circle after us now along with DAHL soldiers and a hitman.”

“Ellie isn’t a hitman...”

“What is she then?”

“Uhhhh...”

“Ellie?” Sasha managed to speak. “Oh, we know her.”

Vaughn dropped the bag out of shock, which landed on his foot. “Ow! I’m okay, Rhys...! Um, y-you do?”

Fiona joined in, “Absolutely. We met her in Prosperity Junction, you know, that town you two burned down.”

Rhys put out a Fade finger. “For the record, they were going to kill him and I’m kind of tired of being a slave at this point, soooo they got what was coming to them.”

“The whole town?”

He retracted the finger. “Uhhhmmmmmmmaybe not the… whole town, no. I-I could barely control my magic at that point. Right now, I'm pretty okay... I think.”

Vaughn cleared his throat after hoisting the strap over his shoulder. “It looks like we have everything. Uh, mind telling us where you took us?”

“Welcome to Lynchwood.” Fiona said with a smile.

Panic reached his throat. “Lynchwood?! Crap, we have to get out of here now.”

“Whoa--!” Rhys gently took him by the arm. “Vaughn, easy, what’s wrong with Lynchwood?”

Sasha gave him a quizzical brow. “Yeah, I thought a Gra--”

“Gray clouds!!” Vaughn busted out, looking at the elf frantically. “Bad gray clouds! Above us! If Nisha sees me, we’re going to be more than dead. Very bad clouds.”

“You know the sheriff?”

“OfcourseIknowthesheriff.” He spat with gritted teeth.

“Right, you’re a Gray--” Fiona began.

“Gray trousers!” Vaughn slapped himself in the face.

Rhys stared at him in concern, leaning over to try to see his flushed face. “Youuu aree… gray trous... Are you okay?”

“No. I hurt myself.”

“You… did just slap your... Are you sure you don’t have a demon in you?”

“Rhys, don’t joke about that.” After taking in a heavy breath, he grabbed the elf by the wrist and tugged him along. “Let’s just go. Thanks for, uh, not turning us in, ladies. Bye.”

“Good luck out there,” Fiona said, halfheartedly. “You two clearly need it.”

“Uh, thanks?” Rhys acknowledged before Vaughn shut the door behind them.

Sasha tiptoed over to the door and peered through the peephole for a while. “Aaaand… they’re gone.”

“Good riddance.”

“I feel bad, Fi… I feel like we should have helped them.”

“And do what?” She asked with a curt laugh. “We can barely get by ourselves, Sasha, with your boyfriend and his goons tracking us down. They’re extra baggage we don’t need.”

“You’re right...” Sasha looked out once more even though the two boys were long gone. “It’s still weird that he kept cutting us off when we tried to say he was a Gray Warden.”

“It’s good blackmail, whatever the reason. I suspect that his elf friend has no idea about his not so secret secret.”

“Probably… So, what now?”

“We… we lay low until the heat dies down.”

“And how long is that?”

“... I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

He kept having dreams of Handsome Jack ever since Angel died. They served as catalysts for his overwhelming anguish. He royally fucked himself up while he went on a murder spee through Handsome Jack’s army. He could still hear that bastard’s whiny voice in his ears and constantly repeating these words in his mind: ‘I’m not you, Jack’, you keep telling yourself that, kid.

He wasn’t Handsome Jack. He wasn’t. He didn’t murder innocent people. Those guys were just as bad as him, right? They had to be. If they had to be, then why was he feeling like the embodiment of garbage? He hadn’t eaten in a while and when he does it’s very little. Most of his diet consisted of stealing cold half eaten trash from dumpsters. Unfortunately, due to the spell he was still under, his appearance never changed, not even his weight. No matter how much he tried to mess up his hair, it would stretch back to that swoop like it was made of rubber. He had watched his self inflicted wounds on his skin heal up drastically. The pain was internal but the magic hid any blemishes.

He hated it, but he wasn’t going to try and chance death. He didn’t want to go out like that. In fact, he didn’t want to die at all. He could hear Jack laughing every time he considered it. He thought himself pathetic and he was. Sitting in an abandoned barn that was being eroded away by the weather. He had been running for his life for longer than he could recall. So, he spent his days sleeping, staring at the stars, listening to citizens chatter through the walls. No one dared to venture inside… Except today.

The barn door obnoxiously slid open and woke him from his sleep. He groaned into the straw pile and stretched his back before turning over and resettling himself. It was probably some child who had heard rumors of the haunted barn and wanted to check out the homeless elf taking refuge there, at least those were the stories he told himself for comfort. He could see horrible light shining through his lids and he covered his face with his arm. His throat surged with pain as he finally spoke. “Fuck off...”

“I didn’t think I’d find you here, Jack. If that is your real name.” That deep, distinct voice sounded strangely familiar.

“Whooo are you? Could you turn that off?”

To his surprise, the person accompanying the voice dimmed the light. He pretended to be hurt. “You don’t recognize me? We spent quite some time together at the Circle.”

“Circ… le?” His body tensed up. “Get out, Hugo.”

“You do remember!”

“Unfortunately.”

“Come on, that’s no way to greet an old friend.”

“Eat shit and die.”

“... Okay then. I’m electing to ignore that. ” Hugo gently nudged his arm. “You just sit tight and listen, okay, sport? Handsome Jack’s plan is just beginning. His new plan--”

Timothy choked on his spit. “He’s alive…?”

“Noooot… exactly? New apprentice mages have been, ah, stifled due to a demon. They say that they keep having these weird dreams. They are scared of something that’s in the Fade and I know it’s Jack. I know that’s him giving me signs through their dreams.”

“Are you sure you’re reading them correctly?”

“I hired a translator-- well, not exactly a translator, she’s more of a, uh--”

“You know what, I don’t care. I’m trying to sleep.”

“Oh, fine. I’ll get on with it. We need you.”

“‘We’ -- who?”

“That’s the, uh, royal ‘we’. Jack needs someone to inhabit for a while. I think we need someone who has entered the Fade before. I’ve dug up your old records from New Haven. They say that you were the few who had that talent. Are they wrong?”

Begrudgingly, Timothy sat up and glared into Hugo’s eyes.

“Wow, you’ve got some dark circles-- and you reek.” Hugo made a face as he tried to keep his dinner down. “Damn, how long have you been here?”

“There is no way in hell that I’m putting Handsome Fucking Jack into my body. I’m. Not. Jack.”

Hugo scoffed. “You’re trying to back out of this? I wasn’t asking your permission. You’ve been the only body double I’ve been able to find. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been searching for one of you that’s alive AND a mage?! You belong to Handsome Jack and you ARE coming back with me!”

Timothy pounced, pressing his fingers into his throat as he straddled him to the ground. “I’m not going anywhere. You listen to me, you little bitch. You’re going to take your dumb ass out of here and never come back. If you even think about showing your stupid face back here, I will beat the shit out of you and then force feed it to you! Do you understand?!”

Hugo gargled in reply, saliva foaming out of his mouth.

“Well?! Do you??” As realization punched him, Timothy crawled off him in a hurry. He felt incredibly nauseous. He put his hands to his head, clawing at his hair.

Vasquez eventually caught his breath after a coughing fit. “Alright…! Alright, I’ll goAck--Ahem.” Slowly, he eased onto his feet, backing away from the elf with his hands out. “I’ll find someone else...”

Acting on impulse, Timothy grabbed the lantern Hugo left behind and chucked it in his direction. “LEAVE!”

He managed to catch the lantern after it collided into his noggin and hung in suspension for a moment. Clutching his head, Vasquez ran out the door and slammed it behind him. Timothy could hear his pained howl echoing through the wind.

“No, no no no, I’m not Jack… I’m not…!” He pleaded with himself, tears streaming down his face. “It was a reflex! I was defending myself! Jack’s dead. I’m not Jack. I’m not him. I’m Tim-o-thy. Just Tim! Hahahaha, ha… haha… It’s just me.”

You sure about that, cupcake? His intrusive thoughts shook him to his core.

Timothy buried his head into the hay and screamed.

. . .

Rhys pulled against Vaughn as he was dragging him through Lynchwood. “Vaughn-- slow down!”

Vaughn whirled around and loudly shushed him. “Don’t say my name so loud...! I’m not welcomed here, Rhys.”

“Why--? Were you and the sheriff a thing?”

“Awh, maker, no! Ew!” The dwarf stuck his tongue out in disgust. “Never! Gah, that’s really gross to think about.”

“Ooookay, damn.” Rhys raised a brow at him. “But what did you do?”

“What didn’t he do?” The demon in his head added with a sneer.

“What do you…?”

Vaughn offhandedly waved it aside. “I’ll--I’ll tell you later, when we are not here. Because the longer we stay here, someone is going to recognize me. This place, Rhys, is bandit central.”

“And that’s bad.”

“Extremely bad. And I’d really prefer if we didn’t fight our way out this time.”

“Sooo… we can’t stock up here?”

“We can do that later!” Vaughn snapped, making Rhys flinch. “Sorry-- shit, I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean to yell at you. I’m really on edge and I want to get moving. I’m not mad at you, I promise.”

“... Okay.” Rhys said quietly.

Vaughn attempted to squeeze his hand in reassurance but as he turned away to guide him, his smile fell into an anxious frown.

“So, um… can I ask what she looks like?”

“Uh, Nisha? You’ll know if you see her.”

“She’s that different?”

“Well, yeah, she’s got the most rockin’ bod I’ve ever seen on a woman aside from Balloon Tits.” The desire demon filled in. “She’s got a sexy nose ring and hair that falls in all the right places and a great ass. Don’t worry, kid, I’ll make sure to point her out.”

“Uh, thanks, I think?”

“But if you try anything, I will choke you out. Not enough that you’ll die. I mean, I’m kind of inside you-- okay, not totally in you... Listen, if you go, I go.”

“Oh… g-great. That’s… that’s just great.” Rhys smoothed his hair and tried to distract himself by looking around the town. “Do you know what happened here, Vaughn?”

“Darkspawn...” He answered, unwillingly.

“Darkspawn? Oh! I read about those… Man, they did a number on this place.”

“Yup… Glad to see there’s some rebuilding happening.”

The demon hummed curiously. “I guess she does care.”

“What do you mean?”

“I shot the sheriff and gave this town to her as an anniversary gift.”

Rhys’ eyes widen. “Oh. That’s… quite the gift.”

“Yeah, she really liked it...” His voice trailed off. “Hey! There she is! Hey! Nisha! It’s me! You see me?”

The elf frantically looked around until he saw a woman in a long billowing coat with a cowboy hat on her head and cigar smoke pouring out of her nostrils like a pissed off dragon. She was leaning against the blown up church that was currently under construction and… she was looking right at them. She didn’t look happy.

Although they were both out in the open, that didn’t stop Rhys from grabbing Vaughn, running ahead, and slipping out of the main road into small path through broken buildings. Rhys didn’t stop until he pulled Vaughn behind an old worn out barn that the Darkspawn didn’t reach.

“R-Rhys?” Vaughn called, panting. “Did you see her?”

“I think so.” Rhys poked his head out. “She was staring you down.”

“Shitshitshitshitshitshit--!” Rhys watched in awe as Vaughn devolved into hysterics. He bit at his fingers until the elf saw blood drip out of his mouth.

He could hear the demon laugh and somehow he could tell that he was pointing at the dwarf. “Ha! Look at that mighty Gray Warden! He’s practically pissing himself! Ohhh, I hope she finds you two, I really hope she does. It’s going to be soooo gooooood!”

Glaring at the air, Rhys shook his head and yanked Vaughn’s hands out of his mouth. “Vaughn!” He gazed down at blood streaming from his fingertips. “Don’t do that to your hands. You can’t play pretty music if your fingers are chewed up.”

“I don’t care about that right now! Let me go!”

Hearing boots crunch gravel, Rhys threw the barn door open and shoved Vaughn through it and closed it. Vaughn spat hay out of his mouth. His body itched at the straw covering every section of him. His heart stopped when he heard Nisha’s muffled voice on the other side of the door. He stared at it, waiting for it to inevitably open. Suddenly, a hand clasped over his lips and jerked his head back. His blood ran cold when the fire lit from the stranger’s fingertips shaped his face. This was it, this is how Vaughn died. Every part of him was gearing for him to pass out. His heart pounded hard inside his ears. His body trembled from adrenaline overdose.

Handsome Jack stared menacingly at him, but then his brows raised up in astonishment. “Hey, aren’t you that bard from Fyrestone?”

“Y-yyyynnnnnooo?”

“Yes, you are. You told Jack off in song form. It was hilarious!”

Vaughn blinked a few times. “You’re not Handsome Jack.”

“That’s what I tell myself every night.”

“Oh, wow, that’s… that’s sad.”

“Yeah. It’s Timothy, by the way.”

“Um, I’m Vaughn… Nice to… meet you, Tim. Uh, y-you’re not going to hurt me, are you?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.” Timothy flinched at the sudden feminine yell from outside. “What was that?”

“Rhys…!” Vaughn scampered onto his feet. “Oh, maker, what is Nisha doing to him?”

“Nisha? She’s here?”

“We’re in Lynchwood, Tim.” Timothy stared at him so Vaughn continued. “She’s the sheriff of Lynchwood… which is where we are, right now. How do you not know that?”

Timothy put a hand on his neck. “I don’t get out much. Why is she here?”

“She’s looking for me.” Another yell made his skin crawl. “Rhys!” He tried the door. “He locked it…! Dammit, Rhys! Let me ou--!”

Timothy covered his mouth once again and pushed him to the side. He hissed below a whisper, “Shut up and stay here, you moron. I’ll distract her. You get out of here, okay?”

“Oh-okay, okay.”

As the lock on the outside door unhinged, Timothy slinked into the dark as Nisha stepped through the threshold. Vaughn held his breath as she scoped the area, carefully edging further into the barn. “I know you're here, dwarf. You better show your ugly face before I make your elf friend scream without his tongue.”

He could see the elf moving through the dark, rounding the sheriff until he was fully behind her. With his hand, he motioned towards the exit and Vaughn quickly escaped, shutting the door behind him. The noise made Nisha turn around and bump into him. For a moment, she fought for balance. Then Timothy caught her by the arm and pulled her into his face, drawing the fire in his palm close. “Fancy seeing you here, Nisha.”

“Jack? Is that you?” Her moment of vulnerability died the second it rose. Nisha shoved him off with an angry shout, “You’re that body double! You almost killed me!”

“I guess I was off by a few inches. Let me fix that--!”

As he reached for her again, Nisha took the initiative and struck her whip, which wrapped tightly around his wrists. She used his weight against him and tugged him into the ground. He moaned in pain.

“You bbbbitch! Let me go!” He gnawed on the rope with his teeth.

Nisha knelt down and ran her hand through his thick graying hair before grabbing it and forced him to crane his neck. “How long have you been here?”

“What is this--a freakin’ interrogation?!” He twisted and turned, trying to kick her. “This is uncomfortable! Would you get closer so I can--” His kick nearly reached her. “Urrff!”

“Maker, you’re just like him.” She muttered. Her shoulders straightened. An idea carefully unfolded in her mind as she looked at him with his moist hair messed up in all the right places and how he glared at her with those hot piercing eyes that shook her in deep place. She missed her boyfriend terribly. She had done nothing but mope for her loss for a whole year. She had more bandits murdered during that time that she ever had before. She wondered why she wasn’t choking him out for reminding her that Jack was dead. Her hands gingerly felt down to his face, holding him up the chin.

Timothy squinted up at her. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve been moping in here for the entire year, haven’t you?”

His eyes shifted at the thought. Has it been a whole year since Angel’s death? He wondered what she would think of him now, lazing around in a barn and letting mold grow on him as he sleeps for months on end. “Yeah… I have.”

“You didn’t think to go back to New Haven?”

He laughed, “What good would that do? I can’t go back to my old job, my old life. It’s gone. Nothing is the same. I can’t move on…”

Nisha slowly nodded. “I get that...”

“You of all people?”

“I died that day.”

“... Oh.” Timothy huffed. “We… we have something in common. That’s surprising. I always thought you were too proud to let something like that...” His voice died. “Why are you being nice to me? I didn’t think you could be nice.”

“I believe in second chances.” Nisha lied swiftly. She slid her fingers through his hair, stroking and gently pulling on it, which unexpectedly sent a shiver up his spine and his eyes rolled back at the touch. She gave a sly smile. “And you must have been lonely.”

“Yeah, it… it kind of sucks. It hurts too.” He whined a little when she removed her hands from his head. He gazed at her confused as she uncoiled the whip from around his wrists.

“Why don’t we fix that?”

“Fix wha--Oh!” Timothy stared up at Nisha who was now straddling him, fiddling with the button on his collar with a sultry smirk. He quickly resumed his glare. Extending his hands to grab her, she caught him by the arms, wrestling with his weight as he tried to turn over. “Get. Off! We were literally just talking about dead people!”

“And this is how I deal with-- grief!” She shakily forced his arms to the floor.

“Well, I don’t! This is not, not how I deal! I hate you! Leave me alone!”

Nisha slapped him across the face. “Don’t you dare say that to me in his voice!”

Suddenly, Timothy became conscious of an eerily familiar, heavy feeling below his belt after being hit. No doubt Nisha noticed too by how her eyebrows quirked up. The silence was unbearable to his racing mind. He had never been slapped before, and now he was being turned on from how wonderfully it stung his skin... by Nisha of all people. He didn’t know how to feel about the way she was looking at him. Something evil was stirring in that head and Timothy did not want any part of it.

“L-listen, Nisha, I-I think we should just--” The slap burned more the second time and her lips pressed against his mouth immediately distracted him from how uncomfortably hard he felt. Caught up in her tongue inside his mouth, Timothy laid there as his moans grew with intensity at how she massaged her hips into his crotch, until Nisha grabbed him by the wrists and placed his hands on her breasts. The realization that he had no idea what to do knocked him out of his trance. He tossed Nisha off and stumbled to his feet. “I-I said no! What is wrong with you?! Just because I look like Jack doesn’t mean I’m your boyfriend!”

“You’re right.” Nisha wiped the spit off her chin. “Jack isn’t a wuss. You wasted my time… There was a dwarf in here. Where did he go?”

Timothy rolled his eyes, mockingly, “Uh, no, there wasn’t. That was me, trying to get your attention so I could kill you.”

“Then kill me, if you’ve got the balls.”

“Ohhhhoho, I’m going to wipe that stupid smirk off your--” his brain fought with him. “Pre-pretty ffffface... Dammit.”

“Aww, you think I’m pretty?” She said smugly.

His lip twitched. He grabbed her by the throat and drew back his free arm as flames rapidly engulfed the space inches above his palm. His bubbling rage abruptly died. He was doing it again. He was lashing out in a way Handsome Jack would want him to. Trembling, he pushed Nisha away as the fireball dissipated. “Just… go away.”

“You’re pathetic.” Nisha snatched her whip from the floor. “I hope you die here.”

Without another jab, the sheriff opened the barn door and slammed it as she left, shaking the foundation in the process. Timothy held his head and sat down on his bed. “I need to get out of here...”

. . .

After Vaughn’s successful escape, he took Rhys’ arm and fled over multiple hills until he finally stopped to look back at the town that was miles away. Exhausted, Rhys fell onto his hands and knees. “I hate… running… so much… It’s too hot for it...”

Vaughn heaved deeply for air, hand on his side. “I think I pulled something...”

“I think I got brain damage from how stupid you are, kid.” The demon mocked.

“Shut up.” He hissed. His nose was numb from the punch but he could distinctly feel the blood dripping from his lips.

“You okay, Rhys? How bad did she hurt you?” The dwarf knelt down in front of him and lifted his face by his chin. Horror mixed with rage flashed through his eyes. Rhys watched his hand scuffle around the bag until he brought out a blanket, pulling out the edge, and began dabbing the blood off his face. His face was twisted with intense anger while he grumbled.

The demon suddenly sneered at his muttering. “I want to strangle you so bad.”

“I’m sorry.” Rhys blurted out.

Vaughn paused. “For what?”

“F-for pushing you. You said you didn’t want me to fight anyone so I pushed you into that building and lied for you.”

Vaughn leaned to meet his gaze. “Rhys, I’m not mad at you for that! I’m more pissed off that Nisha hurt you… In any case, you saved my ass.”

“I did?”

Technically, that Timothy guy did, but that was a story for later when Rhys didn’t look so adorably hopeful this close to his face. “Yeah, you did. I just wish I could’ve helped you out.”

“You did though, you distracted her-- while I was distracting her… I honestly didn’t expect her to start attacking me. She--she really doesn’t like you and that whip really hurts. I do not miss that feeling.”

He poured some of their drinking water on the edge of the blanket and carried on treating his nose. “Did she say anything?” There was no life in his tone.

“She just kept calling you slurs and then she punched me for standing up for you. Then she whipped at my feet to get me to tell you where you were.”

“It was hilarious.” The demon added for his own entertainment. “C’mon pumpkin, ask him.”

“What did you do to make her like that?”

“I existed.” He said curtly. “She hated my music, destroyed my damn guitar. I didn’t do a damn thing to her. She just has a vendetta against me.”

“But how did you know her? You never mention Lynch-- hell, you haven’t told me all that much about yourself. I mean, you were a bard. You’ve had to had some pretty cool adventures, right? Vaughn?”

Vaughn sighed, giving his nose one last look to double check that the bleeding had stopped. “Nope, they weren’t. I’m not those cool characters on the radio who fight dragons through song or anything like that. I was never cool, Rhys.”

“But you are cool.” He frowned at Vaughn’s tormented stare. “Vaughn, you don’t have to tell me if it hurts too much.”

“Maker, you’re no fun.” The demon bitched.

“I don’t?”

“Of course not.” He flinched in pain. “I’m fine! Breathing’s hard--snff. Ugh. I don’t want to force anything onto you. That wouldn’t be cool for either of us.”

“... You’re too sweet, Rhys.”

“I try.”

“Well, you succeeded. I think you’re good for now. Let’s keep moving and find some shade, huh?” Vaughn helped him off the sand by tugging on his forearms.

“Shade sounds good.”

“Jeez, it really is hot.” He said, moving his shirt to fan air up to his face.

“At least you’re wearing short sleeves… Hold on.” Rhys rolled up his sleeve, bent over and rolled up his pants enough so that his knees could breath. “That’s better. I could probably put my jacket in the baaaaaaaaaaaaa...”

Vaughn’s shirt was off. His shirt was completely off and he was wrapping it around his head. Sweet Maker, he had abs. Really really defined and strong abs that were glistening from sweat in the morning sun. His mind was taken back to his time during the Fade. Although he knew that wasn’t the same Vaughn, why was he imagining his Vaughn to be doing what that amalgamation of his friend was doing? The titillating tightness resurfaced stronger than before that confirmed all previous doubts from last night.

The dwarf gazed at him with his head slightly cocked. “Rhys? You’re drooling.”

“Uh! You a boxer? You should be because you’re one hell of a knockout!”

Vaughn eyed at him, unblinking. “... What?”

“Uh It… I… You’re really buff, dude. I wasn’t… expecting you to be, like, at all. Not that I’ve ever thought about--! Shit, um, I mean, it’s-- um, impressive. That, that is impressive.” Rhys had the immeasurable desire to dive into the sun.

The dwarf blushed, smiling shyly. “Oh, uh thank you, I think. You’re still kind of, um...”

“Ah...” Rhys wiped under his mouth with his arm, laughing nervously. Maker, why was his mind so keen on bathing in the gutter?

“Wooooow, and I thought I was filthy!” The demon cackled, his clawed hand unexpectedly close to his face. “Now that I think about it, I’m probably making you more aware of those feelings with the whole desire demon thing.”

Rhys screamed, thrusting himself back to crawl away from the fully formed purple demon beside him that looked similar to Handsome Jack, except with horns and an odd scar on his face. What was worse was that he was mostly naked sans for the loincloth and weird metal circles that covered his nipples.

The demon eyed him quizzically before realization struck him. He pointed at himself. “You can see me?”

Vaughn looked around frantically. “What?! What is it?”

“Of course, I can see you! You’re purple!”

The demon looked himself over. “I think I’m more bluish purple, honestly.”

“Rhys, are you--?” Vaughn faltered, “That demon is talking to you, isn’t he?”

“You don’t see him?!” He gestured while getting back onto his feet. “He’s standing right next to you!”

“Uhh, no. I don’t see him. What’s he look like?”

“I… I kind of don’t want to look at him.”

The demon scoffed. “If I put on some clothes, would that make you feel better about there being totally two stacked dudes? One being way more handsome than the other... I’m talking about me.”

“Just put on some clothes-- Not you, Vaughn.” the dwarf paused in reaching for his shirt. “Y-you’re good. I was talking to him.”

“Fiiiiine, let me work my stuff.” He placed his folded hand onto his lips and blew into his fist, making his middle finger stick out. “Oh! Hey, would you look at that! Magic!”

“... He just flipped me off. Alright, fine. He’s… about my height. He’s an elf with like, horns that curl like this. Hair that swoops like that. He kind of looks like the pictures I’ve seen of Handsome Jack. His eye is kind of smoking like mine.”

“Because that’s MY eye, genius.”

“Aaaand have I mentioned that he’s naked?”

“You have touched upon that, yup.” Vaughn appeared to be uncomfortable, which made the desire demon grin evilly.

“Oh, he knows exactly who I am. Rhysie! Do me a big favor. Ask him if he was a Gray Warden. Go on, do it!”

“W-why?”

“You wanna know more about him, right? Now’s the perfect time.”

“... Uh, Vaughn?” He pressed, timidly.

“Yyyeah?”

“Were you… were you a Gray Warden?”

A tidal wave of rue crashed into his back that he violently winced on impact. His repressed memories all bored into him at once. His chest beached into his throat so that he couldn’t swallow. He stumbled.

Rhys advanced towards him, as the demon barked with laughter behind him. “Vaughn? H-Hey, what’s going on?”

“Look at his face! He’s so devastated! I bet you wish you died in that fire, don’t you, pumpkin! Because I do, very much.”

“Wh--fire? What are you talking about?”

“I set Moxxi’s little bar on fire when he betrayed me!” He said matter-of-factly.

“That was you?! You-you ARE Handsome Jack!” The elf fell off balance for a moment. “Haaa… THE Handsome Jack is in my head.”

“The one and only, kiddo.” He said with a wink. “Always happy to meet a fan.”

“I-I am not--”

“Rhys…!” Vaughn quivered, hugging himself. It was like ever vital organ wanted to pour out of his mouth with the amount of stress he was under. “That... was a really, really dark time in my life, Rhys. I hurt people by trusting him. I never wanted to tell you that I was a Gray Warden, that I worked with Handsome Jack… I played a part in what he’s done to everyone! I wanted that to stay behind me. I wanted it to die!”

“But why…?”

“I didn’t want you to be afraid of me. Or think that I want to hurt you or betray your trust. I was scared that you would think differently of me. I couldn’t handle the responsibility… I still can’t. I couldn’t even save Angel let alone my... damn home.”

“Don’t you dare talk about my daughter like that. She didn’t need to be saved.” Jack snarled. His yell caused Rhys to wince. “She was happy!”

“I’m a terrible person, Rhys.”

“You’ve got that right.”

Rhys ignored him. He put his hands onto the dwarf’s shoulders. “Vaughn, look at me. You’re not the bad guy! This life you have right now is your second chance!”

“How is running away from the law a good start to a second chance? I’m literally avoiding my responsibilities! I lied to Moxxi! All this happened because of me!”

“He’s got you there, pal.”

“Ooo-okay, that did, in fact, happen... But! I have no idea what Henderson was going to be like after another day of drinking. He might have killed me! You tore me away from my life of slavery, Vaughn. You saved me. I got to learn magic because of you! You ARE a good person.”

“And now we’re on the run from Ellie, DAHL Soldiers, and The Circle, AND you have a demon inside you, who is Handsome freakin’ Jack, and is eventually going to turn you into an abomination because of me. It was my idea to go to the Circle.”

He bit his lip. “And if we didn’t, I would become a danger to you! That’s a good thing! I’m not a threat anymore.”

“You have. A DEMON. Inside you, Rhys!” His voice teetered on hysterical.

“That was on me, Vaughn! I let him in! He--” Rhys swallowed hard. “Jack posed as you, remember?” Vaughn gawked at him as he breathlessly pressed on. “I believed him. I thought it was you, but it wasn’t and that doesn’t mean that it’s YOUR fault. He kept praising me-- touching... me-- an, and... I should’ve realized that it wasn’t you! He didn’t have a lute! That’s like a huge red flag, but I was… distracted. It was all on me, Vaughn! This is my fault, not yours.” He moved so that he could hold his hands. “We’re going to get through this. We’re going to find someone who can help me and after that… I-I don’t know, we can... become millionaires! What do you say?”

For the longest time, Vaughn looked him over, until he finally echoed, “Become millionaires?”

“Why not? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

“... Heh, yeah, it does.”

“Then don’t try to push all the weight of the world on your shoulders, man. It sounds like you’ve really went through a lot to get here, but I’m here too, you know? And if you want, we could share, like, you can lean on me. If you’re open to that, I mean. And if you’re not, that’s totally fine too! Leave it to die. I’m okay with not knowing.”

Slowly, a smile rose to his cheeks. He jumped up, standing on his tiptoes to hug him. Rhys bent down a little more as he wrapped his arms around him. He was fairly sticky from sweat but Rhys didn’t care about that in the present circumstances. Vaughn sounded as if he was on the verge of tears. “That’s really great to hear. Honestly. Thank you...”

“Of course, bro.”

His fingers curled into the fabric. “I owe you a lot...”

“You don’t owe me a thing, bro.”

“Yes, I do. I’ve been holding too much back.”

“Vaughn, seriously, you don’t have to tell me.”

“N-no, I want to, it’s just… not all at once.”

Rhys pulled him closer. “I’m good with that, bro. Maybe you can write a song about it.”

Vaughn tittered, “I’m not all that good at writing lyrics. I just sing them.”

“Well, whatever way works for you, I’m happy to listen.”

“You’re almost too much for me, Rhys.”

“Vaaaaauuughn, Rhyyyyyyyyyys, I’m late for my teatiiiime.” Jack bitched exaggeratedly.

“Could you not ruin this moment? Thank you.”

“He’s making fun of us, isn’t he?” Vaughn hoped his blush would be mistaken as the sun burning his skin as he pulled away. “Where is he?”

“Right there.”

Vaughn turned and flipped him off with both fingers. Rhys bent over slightly in his laughter. Jack squinted, unimpressed. “I’m sure that feels reaaaal good to go about your pathetic life without repercussions, you little tool.”

“Hey, no name calling… or calling him out.”

“Yeah, I can imagine what he said…” Vaughn crossed his arms. “And I’m glad I can’t hear it.”

“At least, I take responsibility for my actions, bitch.”

“What did I just say!”

“Just ignore him, Rhys. He’s a sore loser. Let’s go.”

Jack chuckled darkly, “Ohhhh, cupcake, you don’t even know. Don’t worry about it, Rhysie. I’ll play nice. Tell Vaughn that I apologize.”

“Jack says that he’s sorry.”

His face twitched. “... Sure, he does.”

“Wow, shoot the messenger, why don’t you.”

“T-that is what he said--!”

“I’m not doubting you, Rhys! I’m doubting Jack. I know you’ve never met him in person, but just know that he’s a liar and a manipulative jackass. Don’t listen to a word he says.”

Jack tsked, “He doesn’t even know my life story and he’s judging me that hard? That stings, it really does. Trust me, kid, if that guy can’t give you more than just his incite on someone, he doesn’t have his facts straight. Am I wrong?”

“I-I guess not.”

“Right. Besides, I’m not the one who betrayed him.”

He slouched in his walk and tepidly cleared his throat. “So, uh, what is the story between you and Jack?”

A whole minute passed them by before Vaughn collected his words. “I think I should start from the very, very beginning. The days before I became a Gray Warden...”

“If you think you’re ready.”

“I’m not,” Vaughn smiled up at him. “But I still need to get it out somehow. I’ve grown tired of bottling everything up.”

. . .

He shouldn’t have waited but he did, for good reason. He couldn’t wander around aimlessly anymore. He needed a goal… whatever that may be. Over the course of three days, he had assumed the guise of a hooded thief and almost effectively stolen a map, a water canteen, and the hooded cape he was using at the moment, and a scarf to mask most of his face. Those were easy, people left things like that outside all the time. What he needed most was money and he had no idea how to go about pickpocketing someone and he was too afraid to attempt.

He eyed the map of the Dust under the light of his magic and was hit with an astounding realization. He had no contacts and everyone hated him and or wants him dead to skin his face. Sarcasm aside, Timothy wanted to start over and New Haven wasn’t an option. No one liked them there, what was the point in going back to a place where you look like the guy who promised them revenge? His eyes glazed over to Fyrestone. That place was high level wanted zone but there was also that pretty barista who Jack said she was a mage. It was a risk, but where else could Timothy go? He might as well apologize to Jack’s ex for him. He wondered if she was as pretty as he remembered her being.

Timothy stepped out of the barn and was greeted by a beautiful night sky and crisp air flowing through his robe. He felt rejuvenated, taking it in. “Man, being in a barn for a year really makes you appreciate the little things… like food. Man, I’m starving.”

Ignoring his angry stomach, he hid behind the barn doors when he heard the sound of hooves approaching him. Peering out, he watched as a caravan driven by two suspicious ladies with fabric covering their faces, not that Timothy had any room to judge, pass the barn. As he looked, in the back of the caravan, there was a cat perched on the edge with it’s glowing eyes glaring into his soul. Suddenly, the cat jumped off and scampered over to him with its tail up in the air with the tip flicked to the right. Timothy covered his mouth so he didn’t wake up the whole town with his giddy shrill.

“I’ve been chosen…!” He gasped. Carefully, he scooped the feline that was nuzzling his feet and put his head into its warm coat. “I love you.”

It purred in reply.

“As much as I want to keep you, I can barely take care of myself right now let alone another living thing. So let’s get you back to your owners, k?” The cat pawed at his nose. “... After I give you a kiss… many kisses because you’re the cutest THIIIIINNNNG-- Okay, we need to go.”

Breaking into a run, Timothy eventually caught up after shouting a few times for them to stop.

The leader of the two glowered down at him but the hard stare vanished the moment she saw her cat. “Gortys?”

“Hi--” Timothy gasped. He paused, holding his breath. They could recognize his voice. He quickly put on an accent he heard from when he encountered the Zafords. It was nearly spot on if his voice didn’t occasionally crack from the strain. “Sorry, one second. Your-- Ahem, your cat kind of jumped off to say hi. So, here she is.”

“Huh, thanks for not taking her, then.” She held out her hands and gently took the feline from him.

“Yea, she’s an adorable lil’ thing-- Oh!” Gortys wriggled out of her arms and climbed over his shoulders. “Uh--”

Her sister leaned out to get a better view. “Wow, she must really like you!”

“I think she likes those feathers more.”

“This is weird-- yeeesh, claws, clawsclaws--OW!”

“Come here, you stupid cat.” The leader reached out one more time but Gortys swatted at her. “Hey!”

The other one hopped down from the carriage and rounded the horses. The hood fell from her head to effectively unveil her face. She was pretty, Timothy noted. He followed her wordless instructions and ducked down so that his shoulders at her eye level. He hoped that it was too dark for her to see his eyes. She scooped up Gortys, however her claws was securely hooked into his sleeve. The cat growled as she tried to pull back to Timothy.

“Don’t let her go, Sasha!”

“I don’t want to hurt her!”

“And if you would please not hurt me too, that would be great--!” The pretty one let go and Gortys was back onto her perch. She hissed at her.

“Gortys!” She scolded. “Sir, I am so sorry.”

“Yyeah, I don’t know what,” He picked his accent back up, “what to do here, ahem. I didn’t think this would happen to me today, of all things.”

“Well, it’s not like you can reason with a cat.” She slowly looked up at her sister with a glint of realization. “Or maybe...”

“No.” The other hissed.

“Fi, c’mon! You don’t know!”

“You’re right. Let’s trust this clearly suspicious guy who Gortys is attracted too. Look at his clothes! He’s a mage! He probably put some kind of charm on him.”

Timothy gasped and asked in a soft voice, “They make cat charms...? I want twelve…! Oh, maker, I don’t think I’m responsible enough to handle all those cats…!”

Sasha smiled. “I think he’s fine.”

Fi removed the cloth from her mouth. Man, she was pretty too with a side of frightening. “Fine, but I can’t trust someone who covers their face.”

He fought for an explanation, “I’m, uh… ugly. Like, people faint when they see me, kind of ugly. I’m not attractive whatsoever. How many times do I need to repeat the same thing for you to believe me so I don’t show my face to you?”

“How about you give us a peak and we’ll decide.” Fi said, reaching for his hood.

“YeEEAHAhaaaa, no, I’m not comfortable with that. That was very disrespectful what you just did.”

“And that voice you’re putting on is not helping you.”

“What?! I’m not putting on a voice!”

Sasha crossed her arms. “You kind of lost your accent a few times, which isn’t that great by the way. We’ve met the Zafords and you act nothing like them.”

“Oh… I just thought it was… an accent, shit. I need to get out more.”

Amused, Fi eased into a smirk. “Sounds like. I’m Fiona, this is my sister, Sasha.”

“Auhh, Timothy. I’m Timothy and… you really don’t want to look at my face.”

“Why? Afraid that we’ll recognize you?”

“Yes, I’m terrified.”

Fiona blinked. “Not… what I was expecting. Sasha, do we know a Timothy-- your full name?”

“Lawrence.”

Sasha shook her head. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Well, I’m supposedly dead for… reasons.”

“Aaaaand what are those reasons?” Fiona pushed.

“I-I can’t...”

Sasha stepped forward. “Look, uh, Timothy, if Gortys likes you that much that we can’t get her off you, I think that means you’re a good person.”

Fiona jerked her head over to her. “What the hell is that logic?”

“They can tell who good people are!”

“You need to stop listening to the radio. Not everything is true, you know.”

“Why do you think Gray Wardens used Mabaris?”

“Because they can fight Darkspawn?” Fiona squinted. “How does this apply to Gortys.”

“Animals just know things!”

“Can I cut in…? Uh, animals are more susceptible to the Fade. They are easy to possess but they can sense demons and spirits, and to an extent, what Sasha? Sasha. What Sasha was trying to say is that Gortys...” Timothy swallowed at the notion. “Gortys can feel that I’m a good person and so is attracted to whatever scent I’m giving off, which is surprising because I didn’t think I was a good person.”

“Fade scent?” The con artist asked skeptically.

“I believe it… What? We saw someone with an arm and an eye from what was probably the Fade. We found Gortys hiding under that chair when we took Vaughn and Rhys in.”

His eyes widen. “Wwwhat about a Fade arm and eye?”

“I’ll tell you if you show us your face.”

“Nice one, Sasha.”

Grimacing, Timothy actively considered running off with the cat but he wouldn’t get far since it would be horses verses elf legs. With a sigh, he tore off his hood. “There. Happy? Look at me, I’m Handsome Jack’s body double! I’m the beacon of being a good person! I’m the fucking hero, baby!”

Gortys’ sandpaper tongue licked the tears streaming down his cheek, which made him flinch and cover up his face with the cloth. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the sisters. He didn’t mean to burst out like that. All his rage against Jack busted at the seams. He hated himself. He loathed every fiber of his being. He should have stayed in that barn and sleep until his corpse rotted. He should have dove into that portal instead of Angel. She should have been the one to live, not him.
“I’m not Jack.” He whimpered. “I’m not him… I’m not Jack…!”

“I can believe that.”

“Fi?”

Shaking, Timothy slowly peered through his fingers. “What…?”

“Get in the back.” She was facing away from him. “And don’t make me say it again.”

The elf looked to Sasha, who quickly encouraged him with fast nodding, and he scurried into the caravan. Sasha crawled onto her place in the box seat and gawked at her sister as Fiona flicked the reigns. “Fi. Are you serious?”

“It’s what you would want me to do so I’m doing it.”

“You don’t trust him then.”

“Nope.”

“You can’t just be doing this for me...”

Fiona exhaled, “You’re right. I want answers.”

“You’re bringing him into this?”

“He’s the only one that could know, Sash. I have to know about what happened to Felix...”

“What if he doesn’t know, Fi?”

“He has to know...”

Sasha exhaled, adjusting scarf around her neck. “When?”

“In the morning. You talk to him for now. Make him comfortable.”

“Fine.” She said curtly, rising up from the seat. She carefully maneuvered herself to the carvan’s roof and opened the trap door. From there, she could see Timothy has put himself on their not so comfy couch while Gortys took a shine to his lap.

Easing herself into the cart, she closed the trap door behind her and scaled down the ladder. “Sup?”

The elf jumped a little. “Hi.”

“Hey. I was coming by to hold up my end of the deal.”

“Oh… that’s nice of you. I honestly wasn’t expecting you to.”

Sasha snickered at that. “Yeah, normally I wouldn’t but you seem to be smart about Fade stuff.”

“You have questions?”

“Somewhat.” She plopped herself down beside him. “I’ll start with Rhys. You’ve seen the wanted posters, right?”

“Been living in a barn for a year so probably not.”

“Nevermind then. We found these two wanted guys in our caravan a couple of days ago. Rhys Strongfork and Vaughn Little.”

“Oh-- I know them! Well, I know Vaughn. That Rhys guy was on the other side of the door. Sorry, go on.”

“Rhys is an elf. He’s got these green limbs on him. Like, he has, you know, a regular shoulder but the rest of his arm is green and weird looking. He also had an eye that constantly produces this smoke and it glows sometimes. I’ve never seen that before on someone. I’m assuming because I’m going off of stories about Handsome Jack but isn’t that place green?”

“The Fade does have that greenish aura, yes.” Timothy hummed, imagining an elven body with what Sasha described. “I have never seen that before either… Or heard. That is new. He must be a really powerful mage.”

“Vaughn said he just got out of the Harrowing, whatever that is.”

“What? Then he should be dead! Mages aren’t allowed to be that powerful if they can control the Fade like that.”

“Wh...what do you mean he should be dead?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but everyone’s got this ingrained fear of mages and they want us to be kept in line. If a mage is too powerful after or before the Harrowing, they are killed.”

“That… that’s bullshit.”

“It’s what keeps people like me in line, if I had to guess. No one cares if its a human who can fight with a sword who caused mass mayhem over Pandora. Nooooo, let’s confine the mages because swords are more important than trying to heal the world with magic.” Timothy noticed Sasha’s dumbfounded expression and he quickly backtracked. “Sorry! Sorry, that was not… That was ancient elven beliefs talking there. I don’t exactly believe in that. I like humans… some of them… when they’re nice.”

“You willing to give us a chance then?”

“O--oh, sure! Yeah, I mean… You didn’t try to kill me the second you saw this face, so that’s nice of you. Um… Yeah, I don’t know how to explain that Rhys guy. I’d like to see it for myself. I do better when the stuff is in front of me.”

“I get that.” Sasha shifted her legs. “So a barn, huh?”

“Yeah, I’ve been on the run ever since Jack died. That was the only place where no one ever looked-- except one person but I scared him off.”

“How did you know about Vaughn then?”

“Oh, he worked for Handsome Jack until Jack tried to kill him when he found out about his plans. He lied to me about it to try to make him look like a hero but I figured out the real reason… way too late.”

“He was playing you for a sap, huh?”

“The biggest sap. I was so stupid-- Hell, I am still stupid. I just want to get this stupid face off me. That’s why I want to try to get to Fyrestone.”

“Fyrestone?”

“Yeah, uh, I know someone there. Whether or not she’ll want to kill me if I show my face around her is, uh… yeah. Where are you two going?”

“Anywhere. I want to get off this stupid planet. I want to see the whole galaxy, but only rich people get to do shit like that.”

“Fuck rich people.”

“Exactly.”

“Where would you want to go?”

Sasha mulled it over for a moment. “Dionysus. It’s the furthest from Pandora.”

Timothy chuckled. “I’d probably visit the moon or something.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. It’s always right there and it’s so huge. I want to see how different the culture is there. Maybe, they’ll actually like elves.”

“We can only dream.”

“Yeah… Jack really fucked that up for us. Now people hate us more. I wonder if everyone at New Haven is doing okay.”

Sasha blanched. “Do you want to know what happened?”

Timothy didn’t look at her. “What...?”

“It’s gone. The humans burned it down.”

He buried his head in his hands. “I’m not surprised. I’m sure they took everything from them too. Made them Tranquil… I’m sure there is nothing left of our culture now.”

“T-tim… I’m so sorry.”

“You didn’t burn it down, Sasha.” He inhaled deeply. “I’ll be fine. I’ve been through worse.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But it’s true. Handsome Jack ruined my life and it’s been going downhill since then.”

“Yeah, and you’ve done nothing but sit in a barn for a year and sulk instead of trying to get out in the world and undo what Jack has done. Give elves a better name. You could have done something, use Jack’s face to your advantage and be a real hero, but you didn’t.”

“Is this seriously your way of trying to make me feel better?”

“I’m getting to that. You still have a chance to turn everything around. As long as the people of Pandora are alive, you’ve got time.”

“I don’t want to fix what Jack fucked up!” Timothy exploded, “That’s not my responsibility! I just want my life back. I want to be poor and ugly again. I want to write stories again! Am I wrong to want that? If you want someone to clean up Jack’s shit, why don’t you do it instead of putting it onto me? You know, I thought we were having a nice conversation, but no, every conversation I have with a freakin’ human ends up making me want to die. It’s always my fault. I’m Handsome Jack’s body double, I’m definitely heir to whatever rumble of a kingdom he has left so I should just finish it, shouldn’t I? Sure, I’ll continue to live a fucking lie.”

Sasha stared at him through a fragile gaze. He was in a lot of pain and she salted the wound. He pulled on her scarf. “I’m sorry, I was out of line.”

“Aw man, you really think so, dumd--Dammit.” Timothy slapped himself. “Maker, I’m sorry. I kind of… forget… because I’m stupid.”

Exhausted from his negativity, Sasha sighed. “If you really think so, Tim. I’m going to get some sleep. Night.”

The elf flinched at her harsh tone. “Good night.” He then added underneath his breath. “Good job, asshole. She hates you and it hasn’t even been a day yet. You just keep setting new records.”

Upon waking up the following morning, Sasha was surprised to see that Timothy had not moved from his spot and neither did Gortys. She could clearly see the dark circles under his eyes with the rising sun glaring into the open back of the moving caravan. It didn’t look like he slept at all. Sasha pushed the hair from her eyes and sat up to stretch. Her movement didn’t faze him. His gaze was locked onto the horizon as his hands gently caressed the cat in his lap.

Her apology wasn’t going to be enough for him. Whatever Jack did to him seemed to have messed him up royally, and Sasha didn’t want to get yelled at again. She found herself siding with Fiona. Not about Felix, but in general. She knew that Fiona wanted to ditch him somewhere. She was thinking that Fyrestone would be a good place for that. Was that too cruel? Timothy needed help, but the two sisters were not the ideal choice.

Hauling herself onto her feet, Sasha climbed the ladder and propped up the ceiling door. “Hey, Fi. Tim’s awake. You wanna talk to him?”

Fiona lazily glanced over at her and shrugged. “Yeah, I could use a break.”

“Sorry for sleeping all night.”

“I don’t blame you. I heard everything.”

“Oh.” Sasha shifted her arms so that her head rested upon them. “You’re going to tell me that I’m too nice, aren’t you?”

“No. It’s good that you are. You’re the good cop to my bad cop.” Fiona said with a sleepy smile.

“Aw, thanks.” She lowered her voice. “But what do you want to do with him?”

“He said he wanted to go to Fyrestone, right? Then let’s get him there.” Fiona pulled until the horses paused. She rose from the box seat and stretched her back. “Okay--mmmm, gimme some room.”

Sasha hopped down from the ladder and posed herself on the opposing side of the room, taking another look at Timothy. If he had been listening to them, he didn’t show it. He was like he was a statue. Fiona stepped into the caravan and cleared her throat. “Uh, Timothy, we need to talk.”

Timothy didn’t respond.

“Yo. Timmy.” She snapped her fingers twice.

Lurching, Timothy blinked wildly as he looked at them. “Wh-wha-what? What’s going on?”

“Let’s make a deal.”

“A deal? But I don’t have anything.”

“Not that kind of deal. Sasha told me that you want to get to Fyrestone, is that right?”

“Y-yeeah?”

“We can get you there but under one condition.”

“And that is?”

Out of instinct, Fiona withdrew her dagger and held it in between his eyes. Timothy yelped and tried to jerk back but she grabbed him by the collar.

“Fiona!” Sasha cried, grabbing her arm but Fiona pushed her off.

“What happened at Hollow Point?!”

“What are you talking about?!” Timothy squeaked.

“I lost someone that day. Is he dead?!”

Timothy stared at her, dumbfounded. “I-I wasn’t there?”

“Yes, you were!”

“I-I was at the Circle when that happened. Handsome Jack had at least thirteen of us doing his dirty work for him. You probably saw some other mage!”

“He had your clothes!”

“It’s a uniform!”

“You’re lying! You’re Handsome Jack’s body double-- that’s all you’ve ever done!” Her blade shook as she blinked back tears. “Stop manipulating me… You have to know about Felix.”

Timothy didn’t feel upset or angry with her. In fact, he sympathized with her, despite how the dagger was lightly grazing over his skin. “I’m--I’m sorry. This guy meant a lot to you, didn’t he? I, I kind of remember a report of some casualties that we were all held responsible for.”

“Was he on the list?”

“The list was more of a general field thing. The details were only for Handsome Jack to know.”

“So… You don’t know anything?”

“I don’t. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want your fake condolences, you jackass.”

“N-no! I’m serious, I lost someone because of Jack too! I, I lost...” Timothy only ever referred to her as this in his head. He had never wanted to be a father, nor could he imagine being a parental figure. It felt like too much responsibility, but around Angel it came so naturally to him and now… Tears streamed down his face as his voice shook, “I lost my angel. Maker, Jack killed her in front of me...”

Sasha’s heart sank to her feet. Slowly, Fiona pulled her weapon away, studying his face. “You’re not lying.”

“She was my world. She was like a daughter to me. I-I wanted to protect her from him, but it’s all my fault that she’s dead… It’s all my fault… Dammit, stop looking at me like that. It’s my fault!”

“Are you sure? Or are you putting the blame on yourself like I did?”

Timothy sniffed hard to get air into his lungs. “It’s just easier to blame myself.”

“It always is.” Fiona inhaled and hesitantly placed a hand on his shoulder. “You just have to… keep going. That’s what they would want us to do, right?”

“Snff, yeah… I spent a whole year in that barn. I bet she’s really upset with me...”

“Hey, that was then. This is now. You’re with us and we’ll teach you the ropes-- or steal the ropes, whichever you prefer.”

“You’re going to teach me how to be a thief?”

“Pretty much. You’re going to be with us for a while until Fyrestone.”

Sasha gave her sister a pat on the back. “You know, it’s probably good that we have a mage on our team. Maybe, we actually have a chance to get August off us.”

“August?”

“My ex-boyfriend. He’s in a mercenary gang and we stole that cat from them. We’ve been on the run ever since.”

“Oh… fun. I don’t miss that.”

“Sorry, but this is what you’ve got to deal with now too.”

“Perfect.” Timothy said sarcastically. “All this for a freakin’ cat? This cat? Not like a cat made out of Eridium or something?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying.” Fiona laughed a little. “But I think there’s something to her. Hey, Handsome Jack opened a Vault. Maybe you’ll know.”

“Know what?”

Fiona scooped Gortys, who made that startup noise at the sudden contact, into her arms and removed something from her collar. She held up the tiny rock. “This.”

Timothy squinted at it. “Can I hold it?”

When Fiona dropped it into his hand, he felt a familiar magical push. “That… That is definitely from the Fade.”

“It’s from the Fade?” Sasha inquired, amazed. “How?”

“I-I don’t know. The only thing that can come out of the Fade is spirits… or demons, but this… Angel didn’t tell me anything about this.” Out of blatant curiosity, Timothy licked it.

“What the fuck-- did you just lick it?!” Fiona gawked at him.

“It tastes like sour apple. You wanna try?”

“No!”

“We’ve touched grosser things, Fi, and this is where you draw the line? Someone’s cooties?”

“A man’s cooties, yeah.”

Timothy pouted. “What does that mean?”

“I’m a lesbian.”

“... Oh, that would explain it.”

“Anyway… Why?”

“... The Fade has a, uh… taste.”

“Really?”

“I got bored. Have I told you that I lived inside of a smelly, moldy barn, yet?”

“We could have guessed from how bad you smell.” Sasha mused. “So, you can go into the Fade just like that?”

“When I’m asleep, I can if I want to. I was looking for--… I was bored. Talked to a lot of spirits. That’s my whole thing.”

“So you saw something like this in the Fade?”

“Not at all, but it was definitely in there at some point…”

Fiona interjected. “You don’t think it’s a Vault Key, do you?”

“... Shit, I think you’re right.”

Sasha slapped her hand down on Fiona’s spine. “That’s why they’re after us! It is going to set us up for life!”

“But why attach it to a cat? Also that hurt.”

“Like I said last night, animals are susceptible to the Fade. Maybe, they trained this little girl to sniff out Vault fragments.”

“I think we’ve tried that and she didn’t do anything.”

“Gortys~” Sasha cooed, scratching the cat’s ear. “Can you find the next Vault Key fragment, please?”

Gortys stared at her.

Fiona took the fragment from Timothy’s hands and held it up to the feline’s nose. “Got the scent? Now, lead us to the Vault, Gortys!”

Gortys sneezed.

Timothy smiled slightly. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”

“Then you try, if you know so much.”

“I’m good. Thanks. I just know about the Fade, that’s all. Vault Keys are kind of beyond me.”

“Well, thanks for trying, Timmy.” Sasha nodded, “You ready for an adventure with inevitable encounters with death?”

“Can’t wait.” He mumbled.

. . .

Travelling with Timothy was hard to get used to for Fiona. She always found him taking care of Gortys and taking naps with her and that made her wonder if he was planning on stealing the animal. He was scared of her temper, which was a good thing for Fiona. She repeated to herself that it kept him in line, especially when he tried to make moves on her little sister. What she assumed to be moves. She didn’t like how he smiled at Sasha. However, Sasha was beginning to take a shine to him, and Fiona could hear them at night sharing stories until sleep took over. Apparently, the elf wanted to be a writer before taking up the Handsome Jack business. In return for his fiction, Sasha told him about theirs successful cons. Most of them are from when Felix was alive. Hearing her sister talk about it with such excitement gave her childish nostalgia that soon seeped into sadness. At least one of them was able to remember him fondly.

On outings, Timothy kept his face hidden with his cloak and spoke through written notes to clerks and strangers, but when it was just the three of them... he wasn’t pleasant to be around but he was tolerable. He kept wild animals off of their horses by swinging fire at them. Sasha let him help cook more times than Fiona would have liked but she trusted her sister. She did push the body double aside when she deemed him too close. He learned fast to keep a safe distance.

So far so quiet, which Fiona hated. There was no sign or August or his goons for the last couple of days and they still had a way to go before arriving at Fyrestone. Sasha suggested a pit stop at Raider’s Drydock. They had passed through there before and learned the policy quickly. As long as you’re fast or don’t ask too many questions, no one will bother you. Most of the bandits seemed to be busy with keeping other bandit clans out than travellers and merchants. That meant there was plenty of suspicious people around who took refuge in the many abandoned houses. Fiona made it clear to Timothy to watch his back.

As the three stepped out of the local food joint, that was in desperate need of an inspection, Fiona noticed a familiar trio nearby. August, Finch, and Kroger were standing outside a saloon, looking bored as hell. She quickly grabbed Sasha and pulled her along to the side of the building. Confused, Timothy followed in suit. “What are we doing?”

Fiona pulled him by the front of his robe out of the open space. “Don’t just stand there! They could have seen you.”

“Who??”

Sasha peeked out. “Crap, it is them. What are they doing here?”

“Who?! Your ex?”

“Yup.”

Timothy leaned out. “... Which one?”

“The elf.”

He let out a small gasp. “He has facial hair…! How did he get that?”

“He’s half human.”

“I’m jealous.”

“Now is not the time, Tim.” Fiona hissed. “We need to think of a way to get past them.”

“They had to have seen our caravan, Fi. Who knows how many men August has looking for us now.”

“And we left Gortys is the damn cart. Shit.”

“I don’t see her with them. I see--” Timothy gasped as a fourth man stepped out from the saloon, wearing Templar getup. “Hugo Vasquez?!”

“What the hell is a Templar doing here?” Sasha shielded her eyes from the sun so she could see their conversation. “Are they working together?”

“That’s not good.” The elf gulped. “It means something really bad happened.”

“Bad how?” Fiona pressed.

“Bad as in destroy Pandora bad. Hugo worked with Handsome Jack too. He somehow tracked me down in Lynchwood and tried to force me back to the Circle so Handsome Jack could possess me and finish what he started, but I may have freaked him out by going full on Jack on him.”

“... I’m sorry, you lost me at Handsome Jack. He’s alive?”

“No, he’s very much dead, but I’m guessing because he died in the Fade he became some kind of demon.”

“That can happen?”

“It’s possible, yeah. That or a demon was fascinated with him enough that it took his form.”

“Great, so why are they here?”

“He might still be looking for a mage for Jack.”

“So what do we do?” Sasha looked to her sister, expectantly.

Timothy whined. “They’re coming closer…!”

“I’m thinking…!” The gears in Fions’s brain clicked. “Wait, Tim. You said Vasquez is scared of you.”

“Y-yeah?”

“If he’s scared of you, he won’t bother us.”

“I mean I guess?”

“You’re going first is what I’m saying.”

“Are you sure? Why don’t we just say here? Go around the back way, and leave without any kind of confrontation whatsoever?”

“Will you just use your freakin’ face to your advantage here? I-I mean. You got this. Just use your magic if it gets too hectic. We’ll be right behind you.”

Grimacing, Timothy mumbled under his breath and stepped out from their hiding spot. Sasha was about to come out behind him but Fiona pulled her back and covered her mouth. The two watched from their spot to see Hugo notice the body double and quicken his pace after him.

“Hey!”

“Oh no--” Timothy looked, expecting to see two girls behind him, but instead saw the man who was obsessed with him. Gazing over his head, he and Fiona locked eyes and Fiona soon realized her mistake when his face twisted into anger. She could tell he was considering pointing out their hiding place. With a gulp, she waited on baited breath as she listened. “Vasquez… What are you doing here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing, Timothy. Last time I saw you, you were hunched over in that barn in Lynchwood. At least you smell better.”

He put on his Handsome Jack scowl. “If you’re done, chucklenuts, I’ve got places to--” As he turned, he stood face to face with Finch and Kroger. “... be. Could you two move? You’re in the way.”

“Oh, they’re not taking orders from you, despite your little identity issues.”

“I do not have identity issues. It’s called acting. I thought you’d be reaaaaally familiar with that, Hugo, since you keep pretending to have balls of steel when you don’t. Don’t act like I’ve never seen you piss yourself.”

With his back erect, Hugo glared him down. “You think you’re funny?”

“Oh, I think I’m hilarious. I’ve got dirt on you, Hugo, and if you don’t leave me alone, I will use it.”

“Funny thing is that I also have dirt on you. Like your location and a list of pretty determined people who want Jack’s body doubles dead. Don’t make me use it. Capish?”

Timothy’s bravado vanished instantly and his form hunched slightly. “Just what do you want, man?”

“We’re trying to find this mage that escaped the Circle a while ago with something very valuable in his head, that I’m sure you’re familiar with. Maybe, you can help us, Timmy.”

“First of all: that’s for people who I like and I hate you so let’s just stick with Timothy.”

August snorted.

Hugo side eyed him before attempting to open his mouth only for the elf to talk over him again. “Also! I already told you to fuck off. I’m not helping you or Handsome Jack!”

“Are you sure about that?”

Timothy noticed the frightening blades and spiky objects that were ready to skewer him like a pincushion. He spun back to see Vasquez’ overcompensating broadsword in his hands. He gulped.

Sasha tugged on her sleeve. “We’ve got to help him, Fi...! Let me go!”

“He’s a mage. He can easily get out of this, just watch.”

“As I was saying,” Hugo continued, slowly turning the hilt. “You should feel lucky, Timmy. We already found someone who was more willing to take Jack. I’m sure you’ve seen his wanted posters.”

“... I’m sorry but what part of I lived in a barn for a year do you not get?”

“I was... trying to be dramatic.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t get out much or pay attention to stuff like that, so just get on with it-- Ow! Ok! Sorry, sorry.”

“His name is Rhys Strongfork. He’s a mage much like yourself.”

“Yeah, no shit, Vasquez.” August cut him off.

“Did I say you could talk?!”

August scoffed with a click of his tongue.

“What I’ve been trying to get at is that he’s not that knowledgeable of the Fade like you are.” He said with a finger to his temple. He continued, condescendingly. “We need you to help us speed up Jack’s process so he can take over Rhys’ body, do you get that?”

Timothy glared. “I’m not doing that! He’s just a kid...! Let him live his life!”

“He will live his life as Handsome Jack’s puppet, you little asshole!” He suddenly punched the elf in the stomach and Timothy hit the ground with his knees. Hugo gave him an extra kick to the side and held him down. “You don’t have a choice anymore! You gave up your life for this so suck it up! Grab him. We need to move out.”

There was that tangy smell of the Fade again that was accompanied with a voice that made him rethink his sanity, “Fight back, Tim.”

“Angel...?” He mumbled, looking around in a daze as two pairs of hand dragged him onto his feet.

“Don’t let on that someone’s talking to you. Duck.”

“Quack?”

“Move your head!”

Timothy shoved himself downward as a knife zinged through the air and slammed into Kroger’s shoulder. He let go of the elf and tore the blade out of his shoulder. “Who the hell threw this?!”

“Set him on fire.”

For some reason, it was like he was being forced to face Finch as he slowly approached him with his mace. Timothy stared at him hard until his hair burst into flames. Forgetting about the assault, Kroger dropped the knife and fled over to Finch, who was screaming in agony. Then he saw the half-elf.

“Side step.”

When August lunged for him, Timothy watched a rope from the sister’s hideaway lurch out and wrap around his ankle, pulling his weight out from under him.

Hugo cried out, raising his broadsword. “Hey!! What the hell is going on back there?!”

“Say something witty!”

Timothy struggled for words. “Uhbadaauhhh, gaaa… Fuck you, you dick!” He flicked his wrist and ice formed under Hugo’s feet, causing him to slip and loose grip on his sword that helplessly spun backwards.

Suddenly, he felt someone grab his wrist and haul him away from the chaos. He must be going crazy. First, he was hearing Angel in his head and second... It must have been a trick of the light because for momentarily he thought he saw Angel in the flesh, dragging him along. When he blinked again, he saw Sasha.

“You’re not crazy.”

Oh, yes he was. That just confirmed it. He soon found himself in the caravan once more that rattled on the rough terrain. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Hugo and his not so merry men tailing them on horseback. His head must be messing up really bad. Now Fiona was standing beside him instead of Sasha, who he thought was Angel, and now-- “What is going on?!”

“I said I was sorry, Tim!” Fiona barked back, slinging another dagger at August, who was getting too close. He steadily put his foot on the back of the horse, getting ready to jump.

“That is not what I was asking--!”

“Shit!” Fiona cut him off, pawing her waist to find no more throwing knife. She pushed him forward. “Do you thing! I’m looking for more shit!”

“My-my thing? Magic! Right! That’s my thing.” He gestured his hands towards August, who stopped out of fear. “Haa--! Wait.” He snapped his fingers. He tried again. “Why isn’t it working??”

The caravan caved a bit at the new weight that was forcefully added into the back. Brandishing his knifes, August swung at the elf, but then he froze. In fact, the world around him froze in place.

“What’s going on…?” Shaking, Timothy stumbled back and tripped over the couch arm.

. . .

Rhys didn’t think he would miss having a horse. He knew he would miss the shade, which he somewhat made up for by removing his coat and holding it over his head. He wasn’t as confident as Vaughn to simply take his shirt off. He wasn’t muscular at all. Jack already called him a walking toothpick and he was right. It wasn’t his fault that he barely had any nutrition in his life until this point. It also wasn’t his fault for salivating every time he looked at Vaughn’s rippling muscles either. At least it gave him something to swallow while they were running low on water.

“Are we there yet?” Rhys moaned.

“That’s still a no.” Vaughn grumbled, fixing his shirt turban.

“But how long until we get there? Like, are we even going the right way?”

“We should be. Just trust me.”

“Oh yeaaah, because that’s worked so well in the past.” Handsome Jack jabbed back, despite Vaughn not being able to hear him.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Don’t humor him, Rhys.” Vaughn suddenly shot back, making Rhys flinch.

“D-did you hear him?”

“No, but I know you weren’t talking to me.” There was an odd stretch of silence. “What has he been saying to you?”

Rhys blinked. “Eh, a lot of things. He’s got his own commentary about everything. It’s like having a sports broadcaster in my head.”

“That sounds about right. That jackass doesn’t know when to shut up. It’s like he never ran out of air.”

“Jokes on you, I don’t need air anymore so I can talk forever! Ha!”

“Woohoo...” Rhys muttered tonelessly.

“It’s kind of a screwed up twist of fate, to be honest.” Vaughn said as if he was stating the weather.

Rhys caught up to his pace. “How so?”

“Us bros trying to survive out in Pandora and now Handsome Jack is in your head and making me relive my nightmares. It’s just, I don’t know, it’s like the universe has something against us. I just wanted us to, I don’t know, I never had a plan in mind after taking you away from Fyrestone. But we can’t keep running from the law forever.”

“Sure, you can!” Jack exclaimed. “Just start killing people, take up new identities, and they’ll eventually leave you alone.”

“We’re not going to go around murdering people, Jack.”

“Right, because neither of you have done that before.”

“I-I haven’t! Vaughn hasn’t!”

“Are you sure about that, kiddo?”

“We-we haven’t… I-It was in self defense! Those guys at Prosperity Junction were going to kill him and make me a slave again! They weren’t innocent.”

“We all start thinking that way, don’t we, Vaughn?”

Rhys finally looked to Vaughn, who fell as silent as his frown. He looked so disappointed and upset. The elf glared at the demon. “Stop smirking like that.”

“This is my resting face, cupcake. It’s sexy. Unlike Vaughn, who’s got bitch syndrome over there.”

“I’m done with you.”

“What? That is an actual thing, Rhys! Have you never-- I take that back. You’ve lived in a freakin’ dump for your whole life, you know nothing. I never thought someone would have it worse than me but here we are! It’s you.”

“Gee, thanks… Jack?”

The demon was standing incredibly still. Jack’s eyes dilated furiously as if they were adjusting to various sources of light all at once. After a moment, he violently flinched and grabbed his head. “Dammit, what are you doing?!”

 

“Jack?!”

Vaughn paused, turning around. “What’s wrong now?”

“I-I don’t know! He looks like he’s in pain.” There was a strange numbing sensation that was slowly creeping into his brain and then a sudden sharp pain shot through his Fade appendages. Rhys screamed and slapped his hand over his eye.

“Rhys!” Vaughn caught him as the elf fell limp. “Is, is it the phantom pain again?”

“I-I don’t know…! Jaaack?”

Jack sucked through gritted teeth. “SOMEONE is trying to rip the goddamned Fade apart!”

“What?! What does that mean?!” Rhys could feel Jack’s pain coarse through his body and gnaw at his arm and eyeball. He writhed upon the sand. He had the strangest taste of sour apple on his tongue.

“It means…! Someone is trying to get out! Now shut the fuck up, this hurts like a bitch!”

“But why is it--?” It was like someone was hitting him and the pain grew louder and louder which each strike, making Rhys feel lightheaded and nauseous. He stretched his hand out to the dwarf, with pleading yell. Vaughn gathered him up into his arms and held him close to his chest. The elf whimpered into his shoulder, biting his lip. He needed to feel something that wasn’t pain and he didn’t care how sticky or uncomfortably warm Vaughn’s skin felt right now. “T-ti-tighter.”

Vaughn obeyed, squeezing him. He nuzzled his head into his neck. “I’ve got you, Rhys. I’ve got you. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be just fine. This’ll pass. This’ll pass. D-do you want me to keep talking?”

Rhys nodded furiously.

. . .

Timothy felt something gently touch him when he heard Angel’s voice. “I need you to trust me.”

The elf laid stagnant on the couch, looking up with wide eyes at the ceiling. “Am I dying?”

“You’re not dying, Tim… Well, not yet.”

“Oh. Good… Angel, is that really you? Please, tell me that’s you. I’ve been looking all across the Fade for you.”

“I know you have.”

“Th-then why now? Where have you been…?” Tears fell from his eyes. “I miss you.”

“... I miss you too, Tim. I’m, um, might be doing something kind of stupid. It’s going to take a lot but I need your help right now.”

Timothy sat up, taking inventory of the statues of Fiona and August. “Wha--what about...?”

“Your friends are going to be okay, I promise.”

“Did you do this?”

“Tim, we don’t have much time. I can only open this window for so long.”

“O-okay!” He scrambled to get up, searching for a sign. “Okay, what do you need me to do?”

Before him a familiar hand covered in elven tattoos reached out for him from the next plane. Without question, Timothy grabbed the hand and struggled to pull. He positioned his feet in a way so that he wouldn’t slip and tried again. He tugged and grunted until finally there was give and he fell, hitting his head against the floor. As he crashed, time resumed. August swung at the air and squinted out of confusion before finding Timothy at his feet.

“Uh, hey.” Timothy kicked him and the half-elf nearly fell out of the caravan if Finch didn’t catch him from his horse and shoved him back in.

Thinking fast and hoping his magic would work, he pointed a finger at the horse’s hooves and lightning sprouted from the ground. With a wild whinny, Finch’s horse bucked him and Kroger off the saddle as the steed panicked and kicked the air. He didn’t have the chance to enjoy his victory when August toppled him over and pinned him down. Timothy grabbed his hands as he tried to plunge the dagger into his throat. He struggled to push his weight back.

Suddenly, a rope tangled itself along August’s neck and yanked him off the elf. Swiftly, he swatted and cut the rope with his blade and rose to his feet, facing Fiona as she whipped out her weapon.

“Tim, go help Sasha!” She commanded, barely dodging his swing. “I can handle him.”

“Okay--!” Timothy lunged for the ladder and climbed through the trap door. The first thing he saw was Hugo thrusting his sword into one of the back wheels, which nearly threw the elf off the roof. After balancing himself, he watched as Hugo brandish once more as he came upon the front set of wheels. Timothy drew back his arm. “No, you don’t!”

His fireball bounced off the metal. Vasquez jerked his head up and bore a terrifying toothy grin. “Oh yeah?!”

Bringing his stallion closer, he stabbed his sword through the wood (which August had a reaction to inside the caravan and yelled, “That could have killed me, you asshole!”) and used it to haul himself up onto the roof of the caravan. From his waist, he unsheathed another sword that was smaller yet longer than his broadsword and thrusted.

Timothy stepped out of the way, lost his footing from the momentum, and crashed into the Templar, throwing his backup sword into the sand. On top of him, the elf hurriedly formed an icicle into his hand and raised it above his head. Hugo screamed and squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the contact. Timothy raised it higher, gritting his teeth, but he couldn’t bring it in himself to strike. Eventually, Vasquez caught on and took control. He grabbed the elf by the throat and stole the icicle from him. Just as he was about to go for the kill, a dagger dug into his side and Timothy quickly pushed him off the caravan.

“Why did you just sit there?!” Sasha yelled at him, briefly glancing over her shoulder.

“I-I don’t know, okay?!”

Fiona emerged from the caravan. “Do you need help?”

“No, we’re good, aside from, you know, not having a wheel.” Timothy answered with his hands on his hips. “How’s it going with you?”

Fiona glared at him before looking towards her sister. “Keep driving, Sash. We can’t chance them catching up with us.”

“Already on it.”

“What about the wheel?”

“We’ll figure that out!”

. . .

Giant drops of sweat dripped from the point of nose. Careful not to disturb him, Vaughn gently dabbed his face with a wet cloth. Rhys shivered and pulled the covers tighter around him as he groaned in his sleep. The elf had been fading in and out of consciousness ever since his episode with Handsome Jack. Vaughn had to carry him on his back to the tiniest shadiest town on this side of Pandora. Thankfully, he was fairly light. During the trek and when Vaughn got him in their room, Rhys either woke up screaming in pain or ejecting fluids. It was safe to say that Vaughn’s and Rhys’ newly cleaned clothes were being hung over the tub after the dwarf rinsed himself and the elf off. He sat beside him with a bucket that he stole from the lobby. He was going to give it back… after he cleaned it.

Whatever happened in the Fade took a terrible toll on his best friend. Vaughn found his hand stroking the elf’s damp hair. Any other time, Vaughn would have jerked his whole body away and give himself a muscle spasm as a result. Looking down at his face, he saw a tiny relaxed smile on Rhys’ lips and his mind settled. Rhys won’t remember any of this. He was too out of it. Vaughn was hopeful on that. The elf was mumbling to into his ear about nonsense the entire trek. What concerned him was the amount of times he muttered Jack’s name. What Vaughn would give to hear what that monster was telling him.

“Of course, it would happen to us. Why wouldn’t it?” Vaughn grumbled to no one, completely convinced that no one was listening. “‘Oh, heeeyy it’s meeee, the universe, you want some peace and quiet, Vaughn? Well, fuck you! In fact! Let’s make it harder for you to keep it together about this stupid crush you have on this elf. How do you like them apples? Oh, oh and guess what! You get two for the price of one of these elf boys! Satisfaction guarantee. Not really. Go fuck yourself’.”

He rested his head on his hand. “Like whyyy? I can’t… I can’t propose to him while he’s like this. Wait, that sounds like I’m going to marry him...” His face flushed blood red as he laughed. “Y-yeahahaha, no, no, no, no, no, no no. Just because he was drooling doesn’t mean anything. Him complimenting me is-- friends do that! Friends. We’re friends, right? Right. That’s all we are and I’m okay with that. Propose? Pssshhhhh, n-nahh… I… I need to do some research. Why didn’t I grab any of those stupid books from the Circle.”

Vaughn answered himself. “Because you’re dumb and care too much about Rhys that you just forget things, because holy shit you’re touching him and he’s touching you and he’s practically breathing on you. And the way he protects you like that is so incredibly endearing… and kind of a turn on c-cause he gets that… glint in his eye and the way he moves is so-- mmmph... and you want to make out with his face. Oh, Maker, you are so gay, Vaughn. Could you chill for once? You haven’t acted like this since you were a horny teenager.”

“And you’re just so… oblivious.” He moved a lock of hair from Rhys’ face. “That’s a good thing. Maker, if you found out this is what I’m like when it comes to love… Ugh, he was right. I am clingy… but for good reason, you know? I’m easy to forget.” Vaughn chuckled. “And you’re doing everything to make me not feel like that. You’re so sweet, Rhys. I didn’t think you would be. I had no idea what kind of person you were going to be when I rescued you like that. I guess I should have thought about that before I did it, but… you’re so sweet to me. And I have no idea what to do about that. I’m kind of used to being the butt of a joke.”

“I don’t know what I would do if you actually loved me back. I can think of a lot of things, but in the moment? I’m not so sure. I’m not even sure if we could make something like that work with Handsome Jack in your head and all. No doubt, he still wants me dead. I don’t know if we should chance it, you know? It’s best that I keep it locked up until he’s gone. It would probably hurt us more if I didn’t… What is coming out of your-- oh, gross. How are you not awake? Come on, bud, over the edge.”

Although, Rhys may have been unconscious, there was someone else listening to him and he was taking notes.

. . .

Timothy gaped at Moxxi’s Red All Over. Whoever rebuilt the bar somehow made it grander than he remembered. He glanced at the sisters who shared his surprise. If the elf couldn’t guess that Fiona was in fact a lesbian, he could see it plainly by how she ogled and drooled at the poster of Moxxi by the door.

Sasha nudged her with a smarmy smirk. “I hope you’re not going to be embarrassing when we get in there.”

Fiona wiped her mouth. “I’m not going to do anything embarrassing.”

“Nah, that’s going to be me.” Timothy intervened, “I’m the embarrassing one in this group.”

“Just keep your face covered and you should be fine.” Fiona reassured with a smile, that disguised that they were going to totally ditch him after getting their wheel replaced.

“I just hope she’s okay with animals. I don’t want to leave her in the caravan...” Gortys slept soundly on Sasha’s shoulders.

“I’m sure we’ll compromise if there’s any issues. Let’s just focus on the now.” Tipping her hat, Fiona swung the door open and confidently marched through the bar with her head held high. As she got halfway through the floor, her heart skipped a beat at the barista behind the counter. Moxxi was much prettier in person than she was on the poster. Hot damn.

“Embarrassing.” Sasha teased in her ear, making her jump.

“Shhh! I didn’t say anything.”

“Then what were you saying ‘hot damn’ for?”

Ignoring her sister, Fiona continued on and placed her elbow onto the counter, waiting for the pretty lady to take notice of her. After a moment, Moxxi glanced up and put aside the glasses she was cleaning. Her smile held a certain sadness to it that Fiona couldn’t place. “Hey there, sugars. What can I interest you in today?”

“Yyyyyyyeeo--” Fiona cleared her throat. “Sorry, um, actually, we’re looking for a sort of, ah, wheel to help with the mechanic axis.”

“... What?”

“L-let me try that again. You’re-- pretty.”

Moxxi smiled, giggling. “And you’re not so bad yourself.”

Rolling her eyes, Sasha stepped in. “One of our wheels got shredded by a skag and we were wondering if you knew someone who can give us a spare wheel for, uh, cheap. We’re a little tight for cash right now.”

Moxxi hummed. “You happen to be looking at her. I can get that wheel finished if you don’t mind spending a few nights here.”

“And, ah, how much would that be?”

“You said you were short? I can give you a bit of a discount, because you’re so sweet.” She briefly touched Fiona’s hand, making her swoon. “But since there are three of you… plus a cat. Is she litter trained?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Hmm. I’ll tell you what, we’ll discuss this in the morning when we have more privacy. For right now, tonight is on the house. May I have your names?” She put her hand out in front of Fiona, who was red faced.

“Fiona, it’s very, ahem, nice to meet you.”

“Sasha.”

The elf stiffened, slowly extending his hand. “Tim-- Timothy.”

“Timothy… hm.” Moxxi didn’t give him his hand back. Her eyes surveyed his outfit in such a way that made Timothy want to shrink until he disappeared into atoms. He knew she recognized his uniform. He cursed himself for never selling the stupid clothes. Suddenly, she smiled. “I’m sorry, sugar. Someone came in asking about you not too long ago. They said you were Rhys’ teacher up at the Circle. This was his hometown, if you didn’t know.”

That liar. Concluding from the wide eye expression the sisters were giving him, he needed to follow up. “Yyyyyup. That’s...” His fake enthusiasm vanished as he bit his lip and sighed. “No, I-I’m sorry but I’m not. He lied to you.”

“I figured. He tried real hard to be convincing, talking down to me like he owned the place. Unlike you.” Her soft side grew sharp. “I thought I told you to never come back here.”

The elf winced. “D-did you? I was kind of wasted last time I was here.”

“He’s with us!” Fiona slid over to his side of the bar and looked at Moxxi in the eye.

Moxxi raised a brow. “I… know that?”

“No, what I meant is that he’s not with Jack anymore. He’s not Jack. He’s like the opposite of Jack. If anything he’s pathetic.”

“Wow. Thank you. Fiona. Appreciate that. Always knew we had something.”

“She’s teasing you, Tim.” Sasha smiled and joined in. “He’s been helping us and honestly not that bad of a guy… if you ignore his face.”

“I feel loved.”

“Our cat likes him a lot too so that should mean he’s a good person.”

Gortys mewed.

Her gaze lingered on him a moment longer. Releasing his hand with a snap of her wrist, Moxxi bent over and withdrew two keys. “This one is for you two. This is yours. Leave it unlocked. I want to talk to you later.”

Timothy blanched and said in a small voice. “Okay...”

“Rooms are upstairs. Enjoy your stay.” Smoothly, she rounded the counter with a tray under her arm as she waltzed by them.

“Step on me.” Fiona whispered.

Fiona.” Sasha rolled her eyes again and dragged her by the arm towards the stairs. “You’re so useless.”

Timothy quietly followed behind them until they slipped into their room. Then Sasha popped her head back out. “You going to be okay, Tim?”

“Y-yeah, I hope so. Uh, if you hear screaming, forget about the caravan and run. It probably wasn’t a good idea to say that you two associated with me… but at the same time, I’m really glad that you did. I was kind of convinced that you two just tolerated me and was gonna ditch me here. I wouldn’t blame you if you did, honestly.”

Stunned, she opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “N-no. I mean. You are a nice guy, Tim, but… you could work on your Jack side a little bit, especially when you get angry.”

“O-oh… Oh! Yeah! Totally. I can work on that.”

“We’ll talk about this more in the morning… if you’re alive.”

“Yeah, preferably.” He chuckled and waved at the two as Sasha closed the door.

She held her breath and waited for his footsteps to disappear. He exhaled, loudly, “Wow. That was…”

“Too close?”

“Yyyeah. I feel bad, Fi. I-- he is a nice person. He’s trying. We should give him a better chance. He didn’t sell us out. I’m sure he wanted to but he didn’t.”

“True but he’s not our problem. You heard the Templar. There’s people who want Jack’s body doubles dead. He’s just going to add more murderers after us. Once we get the wheel fixed, we’re leaving without him.”

Sasha frowned and plunged herself into her bed, covering her face with the pillow.

. . .

Staring at the door, he waited for it to inevitably open. He had no idea what Moxxi was going to say or even do to him. He expected the worst, which made his anxiety skyrocket over the normal scale. Minutes became an hour until finally his door creaked ajar and mage slid into the room, quietly shutting the door. Timothy heard the lock click and he gripped the blankets underneath him.

“Mmmmoxxi?”

The light from the lamp lit her in such a threatening way that the elf skirted further into the wall as she edged forward.

“What are you doing with those girls, Timothy?”

He licked his lips. “Nnnnothing? I didn’t threaten them or anything if that’s what you’re thinking! I swore off magic when Angel died… kind of. We had a deal. They brought me here so I can talk to you. Y-you’re the only mage I know that wouldn’t kill me on sight.”

“Mmm, I thought about it long and hard. If you’re here to make amends, I’m already planning how you’ll return the favor.”

“Uhhhhhh, wow, you’re scary… Ahem, I-I came-- I! I wanted to see you because… you’re the only mage I know who-- Can you take this off?” He pulled on his face. “I’ve tried but I have no idea how they managed something like this.”

For a while, Moxxi looked at him in bewilderment. “That’s it?”

“Yeah--? Wha? That’s it? What were you expecting?”

“Something Handsome Jack related. Templar was practically preaching about it. He tried to promise me a place one some throne. I got my patrons to throw him out for me.”

“I-I want to be far away from that as possible. I-I hate Jack with every fiber of my being. I just want to live a life that I can call my own again, starting with getting rid of his ugly ass face. Can you help me, Moxxi?” He edged closer to the end of the bed.

“Is that the truth?”

“I… um, I don’t like lying to pretty girl-- Iiiiii meaaaheheheean, I don’t like to lie.” He whined, wiping his face. “Maker, I need to shut up. I’m sorry, that slipped. You are pretty and you’re not interested in me at all and that’s totally okay. I get that. I’m sorry. I’m so out of line. If you want, you can punch me and I’d thank you.”

“Hmm... Alright, I’ll help you.” She finally chuckled. Hesitant, Moxxi put her hands upon his head and shuddered. “My, that is strong. I’ve never felt something so powerful before.”

Timothy blushed. “Uh...”

“Let me try something. If it hurts, tell me.”

As she slowly moved her hands away from his face, Timothy felt excruciating pain under his skin. “YUP-- Yeah, it hurts! Fuck.”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah-- no, ow. What was that?”

“I’m not sure. It’s nothing that I’m familiar with… It feels old.”

Timothy was vehement to ignore the rising feeling below his belt as Moxxi touched his face, feeling around his neck and hair and down to his shoulders.

“It covers the whole body as well… Huh. I’m sorry, sugar, but this is beyond me. Who did this to you?”

“I-I don’t know. It happened at New Haven.”

“So elves?”

“Yes.”

“Well, if New Haven was still around, I’d tell you to go there… However.”

“However?”

“I’m thinking.” Moxxi put a hand to her chin. “Janey has been studying elves, granted I don’t know how long but Scooter talks about it from time to time.”

“Who, what? Who?”

“Janey Springs. She’s my son’s mentor. An excellent mage as well… Go see her.”

“Whaaa--really? You think she can help me?”

“If she can’t, she knows almost everyone on Pandora so chances are pretty high otherwise. She lives in the Highlands, in Overlook.”

Timothy was breathless, “I-- Thank you… so much. Tha--that’s amazing, Moxxi. Thank you! You have no idea how much this means to me.”

She touched her chest and smiled almost shyly at him. “Oh, you’re welcome, dear! And thank you for being… yourself.”

The elf grinned a toothy smile and laughed somewhat nervously. “Y-yeah, uh, yeah. Yeah.”

“Goodnight, Timmy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Gggew--good night!” He waved her off as she slipped back into the hallway. Now that he was alone once again, he slammed his face into the pillow and whined. “I’m so duuuuummmbb. Just keep saying ‘yeah’, you stupid asshole.”

. . .

Moxxi was good at eavesdropping. It’s what made her job enjoyable these days with Vaughn gone. As she worked on the new wheel for their caravan, she learned from con artist sisters, who were strolling through the town, about their plans to walk away from the body double. She understood where they were coming from, since she was on the same boat alongside them in the beginning. Moxxi could tell that the man was different. Dating Handsome Jack had it’s advantages at times, but this wasn’t her business. Yet she couldn’t help herself.

She wasn’t going to be direct about it. That wasn’t a good way to get all the juicy details into the open. So, she started small once she saw the girls heading her way.

“How’s our old Fyrestone treating you two?” She eased in with a perky smile, which Fiona quickly returned.

“I like it. It’s got that cozy hometown feeling to it and everyone is so friendly for some reason.”

“Haha! Is that so?”

“We used to live in a cave.” Sasha pointed out, bluntly. “Hollow Point.”

Moxxi nodded knowingly. “I tried to set up one of my shops there, but it’s bad for business to have two bars set up in the same vicinity. Too much blood to clean.”

Fiona gave a hearty laugh at the joke as Sasha rolled her eyes at her sister and pressed on. “How’s it going here?”

“Your new wheel should be done by tomorrow night. Where do you three plan to travel next?”

“No idea. We’ve been kind of just going wherever, lately. It doesn’t help that it’s been getting hotter.”

“Maybe, you should head to the Highlands. Your names have rumors attached to them you know, and Outlook can hide them for you.”

“Oh?” Fiona edged with interest in her tone.

“I can contact a few of my people. I have an old friend, Dr. Zed? I’m sure you’ve heard of him. He’s not above doing dirty work for two pretty ladies.”

The older sister’s face flushed bright red as she laughed again while Sasha simply gave her a shy smile. “That’s really sweet of you, Mox. What do you think, Fi? … Fiona.” She slapped her shoulder.

“What?!”

“Should we go to Overlook?” She lowered her voice, putting a hand over her mouth so her lips couldn’t be read.

Fiona hummed, folding her arms as she contemplated. “It could be worth a shot. We’ll have to sneak onto a train though.”

“I’m sure your friend Timothy can help you with that.”

“He’s not our friend.”

Sasha lightly kicked her ankle. “What do you mean, Mox?”

“He has Jack’s face. He can use it to his advantage. Trust me, there are plenty of crazy non-elven who worship Handsome Jack and his body doubles. He can easily get you tickets if he uses his privileges wisely.”

Fiona cocked a brow up. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“Are you sure, Fi?”

“Why not? It’s not hurting anyone. He’s just acting the part.”

“... I guess? Do we tell him?”

“When we get to Tartarus Station, we will… Trust me, Sash, we should be taking this opportunity. We can finally get them off our backs. We’ll get to slow down and go back to the way things were.”

“You mean that?”

“I do.”

Smiling, Moxxi returned to her work. “Sounds like you have a plan. I hope it works out for you.”

Fiona tipped her hat. “And we hope you get your dwarf back.”

“... Thanks, sugar, but Vaughn’s not coming back.”

“You can’t be that certain. You’ve got Ellie looking for him.”

“No, I mean that he can’t work for me anymore. After a certain amount of time, if someone who belongs to you defies arrest and… well, he and Rhys did burn down half of Prosperity Junction and...” Moxxi put her saw to the side and dabbed her eyes with a hanky. “The law requires Vaughn to be hanged for his crimes.”

“... What?”

“That’s awful. He was just helping his friend!” Sasha agreed, panic lined her face. “What if they just came back quietly? Would he still have to die?”

“Yes. Being sorry doesn’t change anything on Pandora. Being criminals yourselves, I’m sure you two are familiar with that.”

“It’s still not fair! Elves shouldn’t be enslaved regardless. Vaughn was saving him!”

“Sasha, keep your voice down.” Fiona hissed, watching the coast for any eavesdropping passerby.

“I know… but I don’t want him to die by the hands of a DAHL Soldier. They’re corrupted and merciless. They would torture him for days before giving him peace.”

“And hanging him is mercy?”

“It’s quick if you do it right… Those two can’t run forever with those soldiers after them. I just hope Ellie finds those boys first.”

“I’m sure she will.” Fiona reassured, feeling a sort ill pressure in her stomach. “What about Rhys?”

“He’s soon to be an abomination. He’ll have to die too.”

Timothy had been listening since he heard the dwarf’s name. His original intention was to step out into the air that didn’t reek of alcohol and smoke. He stood at the doorway, gazing at the three with wide eyes and a blank space in his mind.

The only thing he could think about was if he agreed to be Jack’s host, would none of this happen?

. . .

Rhys was doing significantly better after spending another day at the inn and take it slow with Vaughn for the remainder of the next four days as they arrived at Tartarus Station. Even though he didn’t like the quiet, he learned to ignore Jack’s menacing smirk towards Vaughn. Jack definitely knew something that he wasn’t going to say and Rhys had to live with that. He wanted to say that he didn’t care but he did, just a little bit. The relationship between them was a terribly rocky one and there was nothing he could do to fix that. Jack was bent on the desire for revenge, and Vaughn wanted to live his life in the present. Rhys just wanted his head to himself again.

Tartarus Station was nothing like Rhys was used to. There were trains pulling into and pushing away from stations and there were so many people crowding the platform that it was making the elf a little claustrophobic. He sidestepped closer to Vaughn as they waited in line for tickets. He could spot shady characters pretending to mind their own business. Rhys certainly didn’t like the guy who was behind them who was giving him the stink eye. He leaned down to Vaughn’s ear. “Are you sure this is a good idea? Our bounties have gotten… really high lately.”

“Stations like this don’t exactly care if you’re on the run. As long as we pay for our tickets, they won’t say a thing.”

“Ok, what if DAHL Soldiers see us?” Rhys pointed to one of the platforms where a large group of armored men and women were waiting for their train to stop moving.

“Well, we don’t get on that train for one.” Vaughn replied in a failed attempt to lighten the mood. “We just have to be careful. Don’t make eye contact with anyone.”

“It’s, uh, kind of hard to do that when you have a green arm and little kids want to touch it.”

“Whoops… It might be it’s too late to hide it.”

“I think these people are scared of me, Vaughn. I can’t exactly tell them that I’ve got a freakin’ demon in me.”

“You rang?” Jack manifested beside them. “Oooh hey, I haven’t been here in a while.”

Rhys straightened his back. “Hit the road, Jack.”

“Ha! Never heard that one before.”

“Really?”

“That was sarcasm, cupcake. You know sarcasm? It’s when--”

“I know what sarcasm is.” Rhys grumbled, folding his arms. He didn’t say a word as Jack rambled on in his ear while Vaughn paid for their tickets. The elf was getting the hang of reading by this point. He squinted, moving the tiny piece of paper closer to his face until he could make out the word “Ashes” and “Standard class”.

Jack scoffed, “What! Standard? You two are literally rolling in money right now. Tell him to change it to first class.”

“You’re inside my head, Jack. Why do you care?”

“Have you ever smelled the inside of a train? You know what a bullymong is-- nevermind. Imagine the smell of wet dog… now picture that dog with gasoline being poured on it and you light it on fire. It’s that, except ten times worse. You don’t get that smell in first class. I’m doing you two a favor so I don’t have to watch you vomit again.”

“Ok, ok! Um, Vaughn?” He sped up his pace so that he was walking beside him.

“Hmm?”

 

“We’ve got plenty of money from Henderson. Why don’t we use it to pump up to first class?”

“What? We’re already in fir… Let me see yours.” Vaughn held up his ticket and frowned. “I-I don’t get it. That guy was an elf! You’re with me. It should’ve...”

“Ooooh, right. I forgot about that.” Rhys gave the demon a puzzled look. Jack continued, “You’re not me, kid. You don’t have authority of a Gray Warden… but your friend does.”

“What if you use your authority, Vaughn?”

He looked up at him with scrutiny. “My authority?”

“You were a Gray Warden! You could vouch for me!”

Vaughn stuffed Rhys’ ticket into his shirt pocket. “No.”

“W-why not?”

“Rhys, do I look like Gray Warden material?” He gestured at his clothes. “Just because it’s on my poster doesn’t mean people are going to take it seriously.”

“Man, for someone so smart, he can be so stupid at the same time. They’re going to care, cupcake. You were with me.”

“Y-you were with Handsome Jack! Of course, they’re going to take that seriously.”

“And I thought I told you to stop listening to him.”

Rhys flinched out of surprise than fear. “Hhhhow did you know?”

“I know him, Rhys.” Vaughn exhaled, rubbing his arms. “Even if I do ‘use my authority’, it’s going to get us into more trouble when we get off the train. We can’t just trust people to not blab about us just because I used to have power. Saying that you were a Gray Warden is practically a joke you play on yourself. I told you about the Fall of Lynchwood, didn’t I? Jack led us there to destroy ourselves. No one knows that but us, Rhys. If I tell anyone else that they wouldn’t believe me. Handsome Jack already made his own versions of his stories known and that he was rumored to die like a hero but I’m not a hero. I’m not going to get that same treatment.” Vaughn paused to breathe. “He hated me. He destroyed my home. He burned down Moxxi’s bar. I can only imagine what fairytale he passed off to make me look like the bad guy.”

Jack put his hands up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I didn’t hate him! I was pissed off that he left, sure, but I didn’t hate him. A-and I didn’t make up any stories about him. I told the truth. I said that he badly misinterpret my intentions and I retaliated. I offered him his old job back and he refused. You can’t blame me for what I did. I wasn’t wrong.”

Taking notice of Rhys’ nervous fidgeting, Vaughn growled, “What the hell is that bastard saying to you?”

“H-he’s defending himself.”

Vaughn rolled his eyes, which Jack mimicked childishly. “Typical. Please tell me that you trust what I’m saying, Rhys.”

“Of course, I do. Let, uh, let’s focus on getting back to the hotel. When are we supposed to get on board?”

“Tomorrow morning around six. We’ve got a lot of time to kill. We could sightsee, they’ve got some kind of revolution memorial in the park we could check out.”

“Yeah, sure.” Rhys let the silence engulf their walk for about five minutes as his mind repeated his words that were full of dread on a loop. He wanted to prove Vaughn wrong. He could see him as a statue in his head with a rainbow behind it for well… symbolism Rhys wasn’t sure he was comfortable with yet, since he wasn’t the biggest fan of labels or with the feelings he had towards his only friend. He demoted those thoughts to being influenced by Jack. Sure, Rhys loved to hug Vaughn. He found cuddling up to him while they slept in that caravan to be the most restful night he ever had. Vaughn was so nice and considerate and tried to take all the blame for him. He lied about himself but that was okay now that Rhys heard the whole story, which was cut short often by the dwarf desperately trying to hide his tears. He was in constant pain and Rhys terribly wanted to relieve it, because… that’s what friends do.

Just because Vaughn treated him like a person doesn’t mean that he was in love with him. Friends care! And Vaughn cared deeply about him; Rhys became aware of that when he was sobbing over him after escaping Prosperity Junction. He recalled Vaughn giving Stacy the dirtiest looks when he thought Rhys wasn’t looking. They had a thing going between them. Rhys liked her quite a bit, because she treated him nicely and kept playing his hair. She had kissed his cheek a few times as a greeting and Rhys thought it super cute. Then he found Vaughn scooching the bucket with his foot just so Stacy could trip over it while she was talking with her friend, and it clicked. Vaughn kissed him while they were embracing that night. That wasn’t his tears. Maker, Vaughn kissed him on the neck. That was what people did when they love someone, right? It was so soft and light… Unmistakably, Rhys found himself craving it, craving his attention, craving to have another look into his perfect green eyes.

Fuck, I had it bad. Rhys swallowed, jerking his hand away when he found it reaching for Vaughn’s. He caught himself in doubt. Was he misinterting his feelings or was he actually in love with him? He glanced over at Jack, who seemed to have not heard his thoughts by how his eyes were glazed over as he walked. None of these thoughts were dirty, unlike when he first saw Vaughn shirtless. Maybe, Jack isn’t as powerful as Rhys first thought him to be. Do I really feel this way?

Who would it hurt to ask?

“Hhhhey, Vaughn? I...” Abruptly, a sword was raised to his neck and accordingly Vaughn pulled him behind his back. Looking up, the three were surrounded by a group of masked bandits.

The leader of the band unfolded their posters and shoved them forward. The reward was raised to another ten-thousand.

Jack whistled, “Man! I wish I could turn you in myself.”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll corporate.”

Rhys opened his mouth but instead Vaughn stepped in. “Are you really asking for our corporation? You know Rhys’ danger level is, like, really high, right? You wanna mess with that?”

“We’ve actually faced mages before. Y’all ain’t that scary when you got a knife in ya chest.”

“... Point taken, but do you really want to cause trouble with us? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen your masks somewhere, like on a wanted poster.”

The masked men looked amongst themselves before the leader shrugged. “Yeah, that’s like a tuesday for us.”

“Your ‘bro’ is being an idiot.” Jack commented, “You should probably stop him before one of you gets shanked and I’d prefer it to be Vaughn… What? I don’t feel like dying twice, okay!”

“Vvvvaughn? Y-you probably--”

“Shut up!” The bandit barked, “if you just hear us out for like a second, we’ll be out of your hair.”

Vaughn crossed his arms. “Oh reaaally?”

“Uh, yeah. Really. We’re just waiting for our train to get here and the boys and I are bored. Play somethin’.”

“Oh… Oh, that’s it? No catch?”

“If you don’t, we’ll turn ya in.”

“Haaaokay.” He laughed uncomfortably as he turned his lute. “Um, any requests?”

“Short Change Hero.” Jack imputed his two cents.

“You know he can’t hear you, right?”

“Aw, man, you’re totally right, I totally forgot, bruv. My bad. My bad. You tell him, oh corporeal one.”

“Uh--”

“Something spicy.” said the bandit leader.

“Uh, ‘spicy’… I think I can do that.” Vaughn tampered with his lute for a moment, tuning it up and playing the first few notes over and over until his face lit up. “Okay, I got it. Ahem… I just need to, uh, warm up for a second...”

“If you’re trying to bide your time, I will call the police.”

“I-I wasn’t! Have you ever played an instrument or sang? Strings and vocal chords kind of get fussy...”

The one wielding the sword nodded in agreement. “Yeah, he got a point.”

“Did I ask? Just sing, Gray Warden!”

“Alright, fine!” He snapped back then cleared his throat again. “Gotta raise a lil hell--” He smacked lute’s body to replicate the sound of a clap.

“You! Pretty boy!” He hauled the blade over to Rhys. “Dance.”

Anger gripped his heart. He bit back, “I am not taking orders--”

The bandit swung at his feet, making the elf yipe as he tripped over himself. “Dance!”

Handsome Jack bent over Rhys, his eyes shifting from one bandit to the next. “Yeah, you better do what they say, kid.”

“I have never danced in my life.” He said through gritted teeth as he stood up.

“Lucky for you, I have.”

You?”

“I know it’s hard to believe but I wasn’t always Handsome Jack. I was a humble servant like you once. Sadly.” He said that last word as an aside even though Rhys could clearly hear him. “I’ve got you, kid. You trust me?”

“Last chance, knife-ears!”

“Ok! Okay, I trust you.”

Jack bore a giant grin and winked. “Just follow my lead, pumpkin.”

Right as Vaughn broke into the next set of lyrics, he watched in jaw dropping astonishment at how provocatively Rhys moved his hips as he danced in circles around him. Effortlessly, he was drawing quite the crowd over that poked at Vaughn’s self esteem. He was well experienced with performing in front of people; it was most of his life and he learned to cope with it. However, this was drastically different. Everyone was looking at Rhys and, for some reason, it ignited something deep inside his belly. It was something he vehemently shoved away so he could focus solely on singing for his life. Half way through the song, he finally caught a glimpse and saw the most blissful smile between lip syncing the lyrics. Rhys was really enjoying himself and the attention he was getting.

Then their eyes met and it was like Vaughn got punched in the sternum. He stared helplessly as Rhys saunted on beat over to him. His whole face burned while he gazed into his eyes. His new eye shimmered bright green in the setting sun. Rhys put his fingers onto his ear, traced his jawline, and left him at his beard, making Vaughn stumble forward as he chased after his touch. Then something flourished in full force inside him. His autopilot focused on his singing and playing so that he could act on his impulse, which was to follow Rhys’ lead and dance with him for the remainder of the song.

His brain blared sirens that Jack was guiding or even controlling Rhys but the warning fell upon deaf ears when he heard the elf’s beautiful voice sing along with him. It was one hundred percent Rhys being himself and flaunting his flair. If he wasn’t restraining himself, Vaughn would act on every single one of his gay thoughts, like tackling Rhys to the ground and kissing him until their lips turned black and blue.

Applause assaulted his train of thought and he winced into reality, blinking at the audience they accumulated. Thankfully, none of them seemed to be any authority figure they needed to run away from. Rhys and Vaughn took each others’ hands and bowed until the crowd began to disband. That seemed to appease the band of masked bandits as they clapped a little longer than the rest before their train finally pulled into the station.

“Well, that went better than I expect.” Rhys put his hands on his hips, puffing his chest out. “Why have we never done that before?”

Vaughn choked on air. “I-I don’t know, but we should...”

There was one hooded figure in the dissipating audience which gave Vaughn the strangest sense of deja vu.

When the hooded man noticed his stare, he advanced towards them after glancing around to see how the town was seeping into a quiet sunset. He lifted the hood from his face slightly and smiled awkwardly at the dwarf. “Well, hey. Fancy meeting you two here.”

“Timothy!” Vaughn gasped.

Rhys asked, confused. “Who--?”

“Timothy?!” Jack yelled, “How in the fuck are you alive?!”

“Rhys! This is Tim, he’s Jack’s body double and the only one in his posse who doesn’t want me dead. Tim, this is my bro, Rhys.”

“Yeah, I-I know about Rhys.” The body double looked him over cautiously, studying his limbs. Rhys could hear Jack growls growing louder in his ear as Timothy faced Vaughn. “You two shouldn’t have done that.”

“Well, it’s not like we really had a choice...” Vaughn surveyed the area. “W-why? Who’s after us now?”

“I may have ran into Vasquez recently.”

“Crap.”

“Yeah, I know about Jack being inside your friend here. He wanted me on his side so I can speed up Jack’s-- whatever you want to call this.”

“Oh really?” Jack purred.

“R-really?” Rhys asked softly.

“Yeah, but I’ve never done anything like that. Hell, I don’t think anyone can even do that! It sounds like he made it up, you know? I mean, no one in history, elven or not, has done something like encourage demonic possession. It’s difficult enough to exorcise one!”

Vaughn eased towards him. “Can you exorcise him?”

“I… It’s a dead practice because it had a one percent chance of working without killing the caster or the guy you’re trying to exorcise. That’s why Templars kill mages that take too long during their Harrowing. I don’t want to accidentally kill Rhys.”

“... Oh.”

“I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“No, no, it’s-- it’s okay.” All four of them knew it wasn’t but no one was going to say that. “Rhys and I are going to Ashes to look for someone there… well, and try to get out from the radar, too.”

“I wish you guys luck then. You’re really going to need it.”

Rhys lowered his gaze.

Out of nerves, Vaughn changed the subject, “So, what are you doing here, Tim?”

Timothy hesitated momentarily, wondering whether or not he should mention the girls. He decided to play it safe. “I was going to catch the first train to the Highlands. I’m meeting someone there who’s going to try to help me out with this.” He gestured to his face. “Hopefully. I’m tired of looking like elven trash.”

“Hoooo, I want to strangle him...!”

“I hope that works out for you, man. You should probably hurry.”

“Right. Night guys, be careful. Like, really careful.”

“We will. Night, Tim.”

Rhys waved slightly as Timothy made his way to the station before Vaughn pulled him along.

. . .

“So! We’re back to square one.” Rhys said harshly, somewhat slamming the door to their hotel room shut. “If I can’t get Jack out of me--”

“He will come out.”

Rhys rounded him so he could try to get a glimpse of his face. “How do you know? Being exorcised could kill me, Vaughn!”

“I know!” The dwarf yelled, glaring at him. “I know, I know, I know! It sucks! Everything sucks right now, I know.”

An apology didn’t arise from him. Vaughn turned away and grabbed his head for a moment before exploding into a slur of profanities as he paced around the room. Trembling, Rhys’ gaze followed the dwarf from one side of the room to the other. His mind was a blank slate and Jack decided to disappear after their encounter with Timothy. That didn’t make Rhys feel safe. It made him feel awful, so awful that only one extreme solution surfaced.

“V-Vaughn, hear me out. What if we tried to find a necromancer!”

The dwarf stopped pacing and faced him. “What? Why?”

“Jack can’t possess me if I’m dead! And then once Jack is out of my body, they can use their necromancy powers on me and I’ll be demon free!”

His smile vanished when Vaughn stared at him, his lips slightly parted. “Rhys… that’s not a good idea. You wouldn’t be you anymore if we did that. You’d be a husk, no personality, no memories. It’s worse than being Tranquil.”

“O-okay, what if they use necromancy on me, while I’m alive so Jack can get out of me that way?”

“That could kill you!”

“Then why not just kill me! Then all of us will be happy!” He briefly covered his mouth. “Sh--shit, V-Vaughn! Vaughn, I was j-- I didn’t mean what I said! I-I’m so freakin’ frustrated… I-I-I swear, I’m not thinking about doing it.”

“Rhys. I absolutely get it.”

“Ga-ge-get what?”

Vaughn slowly approached him and slid his fingers through Rhys’. “This feel impossible to get out of… right?”

“Yeah...”

“We can’t think of anything. What ideas we do have could hurt you or worse and I... I can’t imagine living in a world without you beside me.”

“Vaughn, what are you saying?”

He squeezed his hands. “Rhys… I’m not giving up on you. We’re going to figure this out, okay?”

“I really think you should give up on me, man. I’m just burdening you with what I’ve done.”

“I want to be part of this. I want to help you. You’re my best friend, Rhys. My bro! I would never think to leave you alone like this, not even dream of it.”

Rhys was in love with how he was affectionately stroking and pushing on his hands so he squeezed back. “Thanks, bro. I don’t think I would have made it this far without you. You may not be a hero to the world but you are my hero, Vaughn. You’re the best. I mean that.”

By Andraste, Vaughn couldn’t fight to suppress his emotions anymore. Grabbing him by the collar, he yanked Rhys down to his height and he crashed into his lips. They were dry and chapped from the desert’s humidity that should have made the experience unpleasant but he could taste magical energy from him. Maker, it was addicting. At the discovery, Vaughn finally realized that he broke every single wall he built up and he was KISSING Rhys. Putting distance between them, Vaughn was now acutely aware of everything as he studied him. His stomach felt like a void, ready to swallow him up. He could barely stand. His arms felt numb.
Rhys was understandably surprised and confused with his mouth hanging wide open. He shivered at the fact that the elf could still make direct eye contact with him after that. His hand slowly rose and lightly touched his bottom lip with his index and middle finger.

“Ssssso, uh, Rhys. I-I I can I can explain. Look, I’m not-- It’s not what you’re thinking. I’m not in, uh I-I just got really excited that we can still be with each other in a totally bro kind of way because we’re bros, right?” Rhys creeping closer to him made Vaughn realize just how short he was in comparison. He lost his footing multiple times as he backed away from the slowly advancing elf. His lower back knocked into the bedside table and Rhys was now towering over him, lightly brushing against him. He couldn’t read his expression. He licked his dry lips, which Rhys followed with his eyes. Oh fuck. “I-I didn’t mean to-to to uh do that at all. It just happens because weird stuff just happens when-- when… when you, uh--”

He leaned down. “Stop lying to me.”

Vaughn looked at him, but not directly. It was like he was staring like there was on his nose. He never thought Rhys to be intimidating to him, but in a weird… Vaughn had no idea how to begin to describe why he felt turned on by this. Maybe, it was his eyes and how they bore into him so dangerously. Stop looking at his mouth, he mentally slapped himself. “Al-alright, I… I did mean it. I’m… sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“W-why?” He asked, half hoping.

“I, ah...” The threatening stare vanished anxiety returned to his feature. “I… liked... it? That’s why-- wait, no, Vaughn, what brought that on?”

“Hoooo, boy, um… That, ah, dancing you did back there?”

“Thhhhat?” Rhys laughed nervously, “Tha-that was J--Ja-just, uh, I got absorbed in the music that’s all. Wha-what did I do?”

“Duh-uhh…” Vaughn cleared his throat. “It was a lot of, mmm, hip motions, ahem. What was that all about?”

“What was what all about?”

“The-- uh, ahem… ffface touching?”

His muscles tensed. “Oh! That--! Tha-that thing-- That was Ja--I-I mean! That was… I-I have no idea what I was thinking. It kind of just felt right in the moment, you know? Y-you were just staring at me. You were so cute… like how you are rih--right now. I wanted so much to-tttto to...” He quickly snatched his own hand and pulled it away before it reached Vaughn’s face. His words devolved into laughter. “I--I got caught up! It was for fun! That’s it. I didn’t mean anything by it! Are you-- are you sure your thingie doesn’t got like a magic enchantment or somethin’?”

“O-oh.” His smile caused his heart to shatter. “I-is that the truth? It was just a joke? That’s… That’s funny.” He chuckled sadly as he slid by him and sat down on the bed. “That’s a good one, Rhys.”

“Crap. No, no no! Vaughn, I didn’t mean it like that! I-I was afraid that...” Daring onward, Rhys placed a hand on his cheek. “Is this too much?”

The dwarf leaned into the touch, exhaling through his nose. “It’s… it’s not enough, honestly.”

He took another step closer, putting his free hand on the other side of his face. They gazed, unblinking at each other. Unknowingly hopeful and painfully timid. Hesitating, Rhys took the initiative and stroked down to his chin. His beard was rough from lack of bathing and the unfamiliar scratching tickled his skin. He couldn’t stop touching it, massaging it between his fingers. Rhys melted into Vaughn’s hands as they toiled with his hair. It didn’t hurt when he combed knots out of his hair and pulling it rhythmically that Rhys found himself quietly moaning at the touch.

Vaughn snorted. “Maker, what are we doing?”

“I don’t know.” He nuzzled his cheek, staying there. “But I like it. It feels right...”

“It... does.” That sparked a part of his brain awake. The dwarf caught him by the front of his coat and pulled his body into him, and he wrapped his legs around his hips. His lips trembled. “Can I touch you?”

“Yes!” He bit his lip and attempted to play it cool. “I-I mean, if you want to, yes. You can. Absolutely. Go for it. If you want. It’s your choice.”

His smile set Rhys’ chest fluttering with excitement. His hands were calloused and experienced as he methodically felt him through the fabric and steadily traversed down to the end of his shirt. This was much more even pace than what he felt in the Fade. Hell, it felt way better than what he experienced in the Fade, because this time it was his Vaughn, and Rhys wasn’t shy about letting him know how emaculate this felt. It may have been dipping into how touch deprived Rhys became throughout his years of what he thought would be eternal servitude. This wasn’t a total alien experience, but he had never had someone touch him like this before and do it well. Rhys tended to rush this and not know what he was doing but it was something he needed at the time after a day of abuse.

Clutching the back of Vaughn’s vest, he whined at his warm hands stroking his waistline. His nose gently brushed against Rhys’ ear. Vaughn was suddenly shoved into the mattress with his hands over his head. Breathless, he stared agape at his overly attractive drunken determination that glittered brightly in Rhys’ eyes. His inept hands shot under his shirt as he dove his nose into his neck. There wasn’t a pleasing rhythm to his strokes along his abs but he could tell Rhys was making up for it in his hips. It was more aggressive than what he was used to, however, he didn’t find it awful. He begged for more with another moan that earned him a harder push from Rhys that left him dizzy. Rhys was so curious to find the right spots that Vaughn couldn’t help but laugh.

“Wha-what?” Rhys lifted his head up. “Am I not doing it right??”

“Y-yeah, you are doing it wrong.” He giggled as he cupped his face. “But you’re so adorable, I didn’t want to stop you.”

“No, you.” He argued, softly butting his forehead. He laid down beside him and pulled him into his arms. “You’re pretty and I like how your tattoos bring out your pretty eyes and you’re handsome and I like your beard and you’re pretty… Man, you’re really pretty this close.”

“Rhys.”

“Yeah?”

“Come here...”

Rhys shivered at his beard scratching his chin as he brushed his lips. His eyes fluttered to a close. He could taste his breath.

“Room service!”

Abruptly, Rhys fell off the bed and blinked from shock while Vaughn rapidly got up and rushed to the door. His brain was still attempting to process what had happened between them almost kissing and when he ended up on the floor. He blinked until all the spots in his vision faded off. Groaning, he slowly gathered himself up and used the bed to haul himself onto his knees. Vaughn was just closing the door and Rhys noticed that there was a tray of food that was covered by a cloche on the hotel issued desk.

“Uh, food’s here.” Vaughn announced, awkwardly waving his hand over the desk and then rubbed his arm. “Hey, bro? Do you mind if I shower first? I’ll be quick. I just kind of have this weird musk going on.”

He could feel the unbridle desire to crash into his lips and hold him there until Rhys couldn’t breath bubbling throughout his body, but his confidence was on par with a dripping faucet. “N-no! Go ahead, bro. I, I’ll be here.”

“Do you need help getting up?”

Reflexively, Rhys covered his crotch when Vaughn stepped forward. Even though Vaughn has most definitely seen and felt his erection, Rhys still felt incredibly embarrassed that he had one. “Nope! I’m fine. G-go on!”

“O-okay.” Unsure of what to do with his hands, he gave a small wave and disappeared into the bathroom, hurriedly closing the door behind him.

Rhys waited until he heard the shower running to finally inhale. Slowly, he eased himself onto the bed, combing his hair as his mind drifted to what might have happened if they weren’t interrupted. Out of the corner of his eye--

“Geez-- Jack!” He reached for a pillow and shoved it into his lap. “You are the LAST person I want to see right now.” He took the other pillow and chucked it at him. “Leave me alone!”

The demon gazed at him with an unconcerned brow quirk while the pillow phased through him. “We share a headspace, kid. Whatever you’re thinking or seeing or doing, I have to watch. And MAKER, you’re so useless!” He said, breaking into a long cackle. “What were you even doing with your hands back there?! Freakin’ go for the nipples, that’s where the--”

“Aahh! No, no-- Stop! Why don’t you-- go to sleep or something!”

“Ooooh, good comeback. Demons don’t exactly get tired and go to sleepy-bye, Rhysie. Not like I can with your gay thoughts.”

“Shut up!”

“Whoa, be careful before you blow your load. I can physically feel that tension.”

“What do you mean you can feel it?!”

“... Desire Demon? It’s in the name. Hello?” Jack wanted to strangle his confused face. “You want to fuck him, Rhys.”

“No, I don’t!!”

“Then what is that?! You got a boner from that pillow?”

The elf covered his face. “This is already so uncomfortable. Why are you heeeereeee?”

“Hey, I’m learning this along with you, pumpkin.” Curiously, he moved his fingers in the air and in response, Rhys’ Fade hand struggled to copy his movements. He looked to Rhys who seemed to not have noticed the change as he was distracted by his nervous tick of grooming his hair. Satisfied, he grinned, “I’m assuming it’s because you’re beginning to trust me a bit more. I am trying to help you, Rhys.”

“I-I don’t need help with, uh… this.”

“Really? Because both of you are too chicken shit to deal with--”

“Please don’t say it.”

“Ignoring it is not going to do shit, cupcake.”

“You hate Vaughn. Why are you encouraging any of this?”

“I’ll do whatever to take ovfff...” He quickly caught himself. “To take care of you.”

“You’re a demon… and also Handsome Jack.”

Jack scoffed with a smile. “Being a demon and being nice can correlate, kiddo. And I can be very nice when I want to be. Letting Vaughn live when I could have killed him along with the rest of the Gray Wardens was the nicest thing I’ve ever done to him.”

“Y-you’re trying to tempt me! You WANT to take over my body!”

Jack pouted, “I thought we had something, Rhysie.”

“Had some-- what??”

“Come on! I helped you out back there and this is how you thank me? I save both of your asses from getting locked up. I’m willing to change.”

“You?”

“Look, I may be dead but I can still get some character development here. I got you here. And you got so close to making out with your little boyfriend, going places where you have never been before and I mean that sexually, all that jazz. Since I have the most experience out of the two of us in here, take my advice and go in between the thighs next time.”

Rhys tensed up. He gripped the pillow to suppress whatever noise was about to come out of this throat when the image popped into his head, “Maker, you’re not helping.”

“Oh, I think I am.” Jack untensed his fist and Rhys’ hand responded automatically. He chuckled lowly. “I’ll play dormant for tonight so you can have whatever privacy you have left to yourself, mmk? Have fun.”

Meanwhile, Vaughn wanted to drown himself in the tub. Sitting in the shower was probably not the best move, since the dwarf had no idea when was the last time they cleaned, but he did not consider trying to stand with how heavy he felt. Maker, what was he thinking?! ‘Can I touch you’?? Seriously?! Where did that come from? What in his mind thought that was a good idea to force Rhys into that situation?

Well, he didn’t force him. Everything was kind of… swinging that way in the first place. Rhys seemed to be more than willing to comply and he was… absolutely beautiful to listen to. He never thought about touching Rhys like that before until that moment. Somehow, it felt right, maybe even natural. He learned so much more than he thought. He already knew that Rhys was touch deprived from his lack of personal space towards him and frequent hand holding. But! Their feelings were mutual. No room for doubt on that, what he did doubt was Rhys’ intentions. His eye was smoking more than usual and not in a figurative sense. Jack had to have been behind if not some of Rhys’ actions during his song, but what happened between them on the bed did not feel manipulative. Rhys was over eager to please him and Vaughn loved him for that.

Vaughn gave in to the possibility that he was overthinking again. Rhys would never take him for granted. He respected him too much. On the night of their escape from the Circle, when Vaughn heard him talking to himself. He remembered that Vaughn liked his space and he fell in love once more. Rhys was too sweet to even think about that. When a familiar moan from beyond the wall touched his ears, Vaughn snapped out of his thoughts with a flushed face and stifled his laughter.

He guessed he should have expected that. He did chicken out on him before giving him release. He wasn’t sure where his confidence vanished to when he looked at him with his hair perfectly messed up and wide alert eyes begging him to come back and finish what they started.

“I should have kissed him.” He said with a hopeless chuckle. “What is wrong with me?”

The question resurfaced itself when he stepped into the bedroom, dried and fully dressed. The first thing he noticed was that there were more voices in the room that sounded like they were reading off a script. Then he saw that the trash can near the door had accumulated a multitude of tissues that he wasn’t going to ask about to save Rhys from more embarrassment. He rounded the corner and found the elf reclined on the bed and a half empty plate that was forgotten on the bedside table. His eyes were intensely planted on the small radio and his hands were tucked under his chin. From the language they were using, Vaughn deduced that he was listening to a fictional murder mystery, probably about that Hastings guy he talked about months ago.

Has it really been months since they first met?

Easing his weight unto the wall, he lazily gazed at Rhys’ form, longer than he should have. The elf was relaxed yet tense with intrigue. He adored the astonished lines upon his face when Vaughn assumed they unveiled the culprit.

“Vaughn? What are you doing?”

“Huh...?” Rhys was looking at him. Oh maker, Rhys was reacting to him. His face appeared flushed in the lamp light and his eye was softly glowing in the shadows. Under the spotlight, Vaughn stammered, looking at everything but Rhys. “I was just listening! I thought someone else was in here sooo I was just checking in, bro.”

“You’re lying again.”

“Ah--yeah. I was just… I was looking at you.”

“D-did you need something…?” Rhys awkwardly shifted so that his legs swung over the side. “Uh, your food is still over there. I didn’t touch it.”

“Oh, thank you. I appreciate that, um… No, I didn’t need anything...”

The elf leaned forward a little, his gaze pleading. “You sure?”

“Wwweell, maybe.” Stepping around the bed closest to him, Vaughn steadily edged over to him. His insecurities clicked into place. Beforehand his desires consumed his doubts and submerged him into his instincts; now his anxiety officially settled in and nothing felt correct. Even when he cupped the elf’s face and Rhys pulled him into his lap. His hands were a little more daring this time, holding onto the dwarf by his thighs, not that Vaughn minded. Something was off as he leaned into Rhys. He couldn’t take it.

As Vaughn backed off so did Rhys, much to their individual surprise.

The elf broke into nervous laughter that actually eased Vaughn’s trembling hands. “Aw man, are we on the same page, right now? Because I thought I was ready and, BOY, I was wrong.”

“Y-yes, yea, me--me too.” Vaughn heaved a sigh of relief. “I think we were kind of… going a little too fast. I-I shouldn’t have said anything-- or kissed you like that. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry for doing that, at all. Please.”

“Are you sure? I-I totally stepped over so many boundaries. I-I kissed you! I touched you like that...”

“Hey, you asked the second time and I said yes. Vaughn, I think if you did anything to me, I’d be okay with it.”

“Why?”

“Because I trust you, amongst… other things.”

Vaughn nearly keeled over. “Other, other things? I-I’m just assuming here but do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Like me? Like that? Do you?”

“Is--is that even a question? Like seriously? I wouldn’t have agreed to run away with you if I wasn’t crazy about you.”

“Cra-crazy?” Vaughn asked with a hopeful smile.

“Duh! I’ve actually had a few people help me behind Henderson’s back, but you were like the only person who would pay attention to me in public. I kind of… watched you for a while when you were building. It was hard not to miss you, you know? You were so… so cool and I liked hearing you whistle. And then you started singing and everything felt so much better. And I’m really...” Hesitantly, he reached out and Vaughn placed his hand into his palm. Rhys squeezed it and pulled the dwarf over. “I’m so happy that you got comfortable enough to talk to me about you, about anything. You’ve grown.”

“So have you. I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

“Even with Handsome Jack in my head?”

“Even with that.” He planted a chaste kiss on his forehead and nuzzled into him. “I’m so proud of you, Rhys.”

With a happy whine, Rhys grabbed him by the waist and hoisted him up so fast that they fell onto the bed in a giggling heap.

. . .

Timothy waited for the sisters to come by the empty station any second. He sat on the bench as he stared up at the stars. He couldn’t afford the train tickets and even though Sasha has been teaching him how to pickpocket, he wasn’t confident enough to try to go for someone. They would just have to wait and board the train to the Highlands the following morning and steal someone’s ticket from there. He hoped they weren’t trying to ditch him. They were con artists and he knew what people with that profession were like. He was just a means to an end to them, nothing more, nothing less. He sighed.

He probably deserved it.

Suddenly, he wasn’t alone. He heard heavy clunking boots coming towards him and he sat perfectly still. Those weren’t the sound of Hugo’s shoes. He became well acquainted with the noises that walking travesty made during his time in the Circle. It wasn’t Fiona and Sasha either, it was only one set of feet. He shut his eyes and prayed that whoever this was would think he was asleep and go away. Homeless people took refuge at train stations all the time, or they did a year ago when Timothy was last here. A large hand grabbed him by the hood and tore off his disguise.

Panicking, he shot to his feet and was ready to run when-- It was Moxxi’s daughter. He blinked. “Ellie?”

She squinted at him, frowning. “Oh, it’s you. Uh, Tim? Moxxi told me about you.”

“I-- she-- she did? How?”

“Magic.” She said bluntly. “Here’s your hood back. Sorry for stealin’ it like that, I thought you were Rhys.”

“Oh… yeah, um, what brings you here?”

“... What do you think?”

Timothy lowered his gaze. “Right. I’m sorry. That was a stupid question.”

“Yeah, a little bit.” She exhaled. “I’m sorry you gotta see me this way. I’m usually more chipper.”

“No, that’s okay. Moxxi told me about you and what you were doing. How’s the search?”

“I got a report that they’re resting at the Muriel's Inn. So that’s good news.”

Timothy shifted in his weight. “Oh. That is… good news. So, that’s actually going to happen? Vaughn’s going to hang?”

She nodded, glaring at the ground. “And that poor lil elf’s gotta get killed too so he don’t become an abomination, but that’s for the Templars. I swear, if Vaughn just knew his place, this wouldn’t be happenin’.”

But they’re not going to kill him! Timothy wanted to convey but his mouth didn’t comply. What use would that be? She had no authority to help Rhys even if she wanted to. “That... sucks.”

“Yeeeuup, sucks big time.”

“... You going to get them?”

“I’m waitin’. As long as the sun is in the sky, they could still see me and make a run for it. It’s better to wait until it’s real dark and they’re too worn out to try.”

“That makes sense. I’m… I’m sorry. For your loss.”

“Thanks, Timmy. I appreciate that.” She gave him a sad smile that vanished the moment it arrived. “I gotta get movin’ before any one of them sees me. You take care, okay?”

“You too, Ellie.”

He watched her meander away with an awful cloud above her head. He wanted to warn the runaways, but none of this was his business. He was done with helping Handsome Jack.

. . .

Fiona could tell they were being followed since they arrived at the station. It was a deep set feeling that Felix taught her at a young age. She glanced over at Sasha and saw that she had taken notice too. Neither of them said a word to one another. Sasha held the bag, which contained an unhappy Gortys, closer to her chest. Fiona gave one swift head motion and the two turned into a narrow alley, immediately pulling out their blades and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Fiona peeked out and found no one on the street.

“That can’t be right.”

“I think we’re both on edge, Fi.”

“I don’t know, I still get the feeling like something’s off.” Her feelings told her something weird. Look up. She did. Above them a dark finger with red eyes stared down at them with a shield that reflected in the moon’s light. Fiona knew only one person that used only a shield in combat. Feeling like a mouse trapped in a maze, Fiona grabbed her sister by the wrist and dove out in the open. If someone was going to see them being chased, they had to help them… right?

“What are we doing?!” Sasha yelled.

“What does it look like?!”

“We can take them! It’s two on one!”

“Sasha, I hate to break this to you like this but a fucking Vault Hunter is chasing us.”

“Oh, fuck--!” The sound of lightning cut her off and the two skidded to a halt, looking behind them. The Vault Hunter was curled up on the ground and Timothy stood before them, gasping.

He ran towards them. “Who is that??”

“A Vault Hunter.”

Timothy tripped and rose back up. “I just attacked a Vault Hunter?!”

“Yeah, congratulations.”

“Whawhy is a Vault Hunter after you?”

“We have bounties, you moron!”

“She’s getting up…!” Sasha pulled on her sister’s sleeve. “We need to hide.”

“I’ll take care of her.” Timothy volunteered. “You two go, I’ll find you… if I live.”

“Tim, no--!”

“We’ll meet you at the statue in the park. Don’t die.” Fiona agreed, retaking Sasha’s hand and bolting away from the battlefield as the following sound of striking metal piercing their ears.

Sasha followed her sister for the next ten minutes, weaving and sliding through alleyways until they found a hotel that was unlocked. The two hid in the main lobby and Fiona watched the window as Sasha made her way to the reception desk, which appeared to be empty.

“They just make it easy, don’t they.” She crossed over to the opened the drawer labelled room keys. To her surprise, it was completely empty. “That’s… impressive… then again it is a train town.”

Quickly and quietly closing the drawer and sprinting back to Fiona, Sasha reached out to nudge her as she began to talk. “I think we’re in the clear. Did you get a key.”

“We can’t. It’s full.” Sasha hesitantly followed behind Fiona as she was already making her way up the stairs. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Just listen for someone playing a guitar.”

“What? You don’t think that Vaughn and Rhys are here too, do you?”

“I know they’re here. You were struggling with Gortys when it happened.”

“When what happened?”

“They were making a scene just outside the station, Sash. And they entered this exact building.”

“Why are you telling me this now? Where-- wait, were you planning this?”

“When Athena started to tail us, yes.”

“What about Timothy?! We have to meet him.”

“And chance Athena seeing us again? It’s better this way.”

“Better to leave Tim for dead?? What is wrong with you?!”

“He’s a mage! He’ll be fine.”

“No, you know what happened last time. He needed us to save his ass. What makes you think that that Gray Warden is going to help us? He doesn’t have a sword on him or are you thinking of Rhys? Because Rhys can actually help him… and destroy another town in the process.”

“I’m thinking that we lay low until morning and take the first train out of here.”

“Why do I even bother with you?” Sasha stomped. “I’m going to help Tim.”

“Don’t you dare leave!”

“Why not?”

“Athena is highly trained assassin, Sasha. I’m doing us a favor. We are not that skilled to go up to someone like her. Neither is Rhys.”

“Tim isn’t either.”

“We don’t know that. We don’t know whether or not he was holding back. We don’t know if he’s telling the whole truth and honestly, I don’t believe his whole daughter shtick. It sounds too… It doesn’t sound right. He’s too much like those stories about Handsome Jack. Everything about this feels off, doesn’t it? The way Gortys latched to him. Him pretending not to know a thing about Vault Keys when he’s been in the Fade. How he won’t tell us about himself. We can’t trust him, Sasha. It’s too perfect.”

“I hate how right you sound… but what if you’re wrong?”

“I’ll believe that when it’s not coming from Timothy. C’mon, Sasha, I can hear him playing.”

Defeated, Sasha eased away from the entrance and trudged up the stairs, pulling on her scarf. “What makes you think Vaughn’s going to keep us safe.”

“He’s too nice.”

They stopped at the end of the hall, where the music was the loudest. Fiona knocked on the door and the music accordingly stopped.

There was a breath of silence before the door eventually opened and the dwarf poked his head out. “Uh. Hey? What are you...?”

“We’ll explain but right now move.” After a glance over her shoulder, she pushed through and Sasha rushed in after her.

Puzzled, Vaughn shut the door. “Ooookayyyy. How did you know that we were here?”

“We can hear you from downstairs.”

“... Oh. That would do it. So what’s up?”

“We’re being followed by a Vault Hunter, no big deal.” Sasha shrugged, eyeing her sister.

“What?! And you led them here??”

“She doesn’t know that we’re here, exactly.” Fiona waved it aside. “She got distracted.”

“Timothy saved us.” Sasha ignored Fiona’s stunned glare. “He was with us for a while, but it was Fiona’s idea to ditch him. I still think we should have gone back and helped him.”

“Don’t bring the dwarf into this!”

Vaughn raised his hands up. “H-hey, we’re not going after any kind of trouble today. We’re kind of at risk being here as is. I’m guessing since you… yeah, you totally know about Rhys, don’t you?”

“That Handsome Jack is inside him?” Sasha inquired, “Oh yeah, we know.”

“And yet you two still came here?”

“We just need a place to stay for the night, incognito.” Fiona returned. “We’ll be gone before you two wake up, if your elf friend doesn’t try to kill us.”

“Speaking of, where is Rhys?”

Vaughn gestured with his thumb at the bathroom door next to him, where running water could be heard.

“Oh. Why didn’t we hear that when we came in?”

The dwarf shifted in place. “So, uh, how long have you and Tim been grouped up for?”

“Too long.”

“Yeah, I got the idea that you hate elves.”

“No, it’s not that. I’m actually trying to not be as… resentful. I just don’t trust him.”

“Because he looked like Handsome Jack?”

“Exactly. You were with the guy, weren’t you? You can see where I’m coming from, right?”

“And yet you trust me to be honest with you and not the elf?”

“That’s different! You’re too short to play Jack! That and you’re too nice and not that intimidating, not because you’re short! I’ve met some scary dwarves in my life.”

Vaughn slowly nodded. “Yeah, I get that a lot. I guess, I can see where you’re coming from, since, when I ran into him, his face was like, right there. I’ve only met him twice. I never worked with him. But Tim’s nice! He helped me escape Nisha.”

“You ever going to tell us what happened between you and Nisha?”

“I know that smile and no it was nothing risque or whatever you’re thinking. She’s just hates me. She destroyed my first and last guitar. It… it has a lot of value behind it.”

“Wow, what a bitch.”

“Yeah, pretty much. She probably wanted to hang me or some...” Vaughn paused when the bathroom door opened and Rhys, who only had pants on, sauntered in and swiftly scooped Vaughn into an embrace with such confidence that he melted at his touch.

Rhys tilted his head up and lovingly kissed his cheek for longer than a few seconds and then nuzzled into him. “You ready for bed…?”

Flustered, Vaughn briefly struggled with his words. “Mmmmm… uhhh, R-Rhys? We, we have company, bud.”

“Hmm?” Rhys shot to his full height at the sight of the sisters. Hurriedly, he took the shirt that was in his hand and pulled it over his head. He leaned over towards Vaughn and whispered hoarsely, “Why are they here?!”

“We are literally standing in front of you.”

“Did they hurt you??” Rhys grabbed his head, checking around for injuries.

“No, Rhys! I’m fine, seriously. This is different. We’re helping them this time.”

He narrowed his eyes, glancing back and forth between them. “... Vaughn, they tried to turn us in.”

“I know--”

Fiona jested back. “And you tried to kill us.”

“You tied him up.” He pressed with a growl.

“Hey--” The dwarf grabbed his glowing arm. “Heyyyy, none of that!”

“They’re con artists, Vaughn. They’re probably here to steal our stuff again.”

“Like we’d go for the same thing twice.”

“We technically did with Gortys.”

“They don’t need to know that, Sasha.”

“Oh maker, Gortys!” Sasha unzipped the bag and put it on the floor and Gortys happily leapt out. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean to forget about you.”

The two men looked at the cat in equal confusion. Vaughn spoke first. “You stole a cat? When?”

“That’s… a long story. You didn’t see her when you two stole away in our caravan? She was sleeping on your face when we found you.”

“No, we didn’t. Is… it okay?”

Fiona looked down to see that Gortys’ back arched with her fur sticking up. Her eyes were locked onto Rhys as she yowled. After failing to soothe her, Sasha gazed up to see his lips moving and his green eye begin to glow. She put a hand to her belt. “What are you doing to Gortys?”

“He’s not doing any-- Oh, wait.” Vaughn nudged his arm. “Rhys, they know about Jack.”

He threw his arms up. “Great, so the whole world knows that I’m heir to the throne of Jack-assery, don’t they?”

“N-no, they just… ran into Vasquez. They were with Timothy.”

“Small world--! Jack, stop!”

“What is he doing?”

“Being an asshole. Yes, you are! Stop messing with the cat! You can look at her from over here.”

Eventually, Gortys slinked underneath the bed, poking her little head out to stare at Rhys. Fiona hummed. “So he really is in your head.”

“No shit.”

“Okay!” Vaughn intervened, uncomfortably. “Let’s un-tense this energy.”

“Sure, why not? Let’s start with them apologizing to you.”

Fiona scoffed. “For what? You should be apologizing to us, dumbass slave.”

Sasha stepped up this time. “Ah, no name calling! That’s taking a giant step back, Fiona. That you should apologize for.”

“I’m not doing anything! This freak turned around and tried to kill us when we were going to let them go!”

“I didn’t know where I was!” Rhys angrily explained, “And that one was dangling a freakin’ knife over my face!”

“Hey,” Sasha pouted, “I was just doing what I was told.”

“And I was protecting Vaughn.”

“This is… this is good? Is this good?” Vaughn looked to and fro each person in the room. “We’re talking it out-- aggressively, but it’s working. This is good. Now, uh, were you two going to hurt me?”

“No.” Fiona planted her hands on her hips. “We had nothing to gain by hurting him.”

“There we go. See, Rhys?”

“And how were you protecting Vaughn by harming my sister?”

“I-I didn’t see him!” Rhys fought back. “I didn’t--”

“If you just turned your head, you would have.”

“... You’re calling me stupid.”

“You said it, not me.”

“As I was going to say, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I was focused on why I was in a strange place, tied up, with someone HOLDING a KNIFE to my FACE!”

“And that’s valid!” Vaughn quickly cut in. “Do we all agree that that’s valid? Someone say yes.”

“Just because it’s valid doesn’t mean it’s okay.”

Vaughn deflated. “W-well...”

“It’s not my fault that you didn’t stop to explain what was going on.” Rhys continued.

“Right, should I have told you as you were killing my sister or after? Because there was no beforehand. You just pounced on her.”

“I think he’s in the right, Fiona.” Sasha butted in. “Yes, he tried to kill me. We all get that. Move on. He didn’t follow through. Both of us are clearly alive. You two are just unhealthily overprotective of us.”

Fiona’s once confidence stance shrank as she hunched her shoulders.

Rhys and his hands fidgeted. “It’s not… that unhealthy?”

“Vaughn’s a Gray Warden, Rhys. He’s fought Darkspawn. He can protect himself just fine. Am I wrong?” Sasha looked to the dwarf who briefly met her gaze.

Vaughn flinched. “Uhhh, n-nooo? You’re not wrong.”

“I’m not that protective, am I?” Fiona ventured to ask.

Sasha put a hand on her hip. “On a scale of one to ten, you’re a fourteen when you should be at a three. You have seen me take care of myself just fine when Felix was around. It’s going to take a lot to kill me, Fi.”

“I’m holding you to that.”

“You can apologize now.”

“Oh, right. I’m sorry for being too overbearing.”

“And what are you going to do about it?”

“... Try?”

“I can accept that.”

“Vaughn,” Rhys softly piped up. “Am I too protective?”

“Nnnooo.” He quickly changed his mind, the more he thought about it. “Yyyyeeah, you are.”

Rhys rubbed his neck. “I’m sorry. I just don’t want to los--.”

“I know why, Rhys. I get that, but you can do that… significantly less. A lot of fights could have been avoided if you weren’t so… yeah.”

“Oh...” He hung his head, his gaze drifting to the floor. “Okay. I can try not to be that protective.”

“What you did today was a good start.”

“Yeah, I was kind of… distracted.” He suddenly turned and glowered at the wall. “Would you shut up?”

Fiona cleared her throat and moved closer to the boys. “Listen… Reeze?”

“Rhys.”

“Right, uh… I’m sorry.”

He raised a brow expectantly.

“Ffffor the name calling and not… treating you like a person.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, like how I’ll try not to kill you two in the future. Unless you threaten us again.”

“You know, that’s fair.” She turned to Sasha. “Was that good?”

“It’s a start.”

“Great!” Vaughn exclaimed with a clap of his hands. “I’m so glad we got that behind us so that no one kills anyone in their sleep! Uh, yeah, sorry that was-- I got a lot on my mind.”

“Vaughn.” Rhys turned to him in surprise. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nah, I’m alright. Let’s get to beeee-- wait, how are we going to do this?”

“What do you mean?” Fiona asked.

“The bed situation.”

Sasha shrugged. “Fiona and I will share this one and you and Rhys take that one, since you two seem to have gotten, um…” She grinned as she ended with, “friendlier? I mean, I always suspected--”

Vaughn shushed her. “We’re not--! O… officially. We agreed to take it… very slow, because… Be-- because…?”

“It’s new.” Sasha finished for him. “I totally get it.”

Happy to see him relieved, Rhys leaned down and kissed his temple. “You’re precious when you’re flustered.”

Vaughn shunned his face as he whined into his hands.

“You two are so cute!” Sasha cooed, putting her hands to her cheeks. It made her miss being in a relationship.

“Yeah, he is.” Rhys returned, running his hand over Vaughn’s hair, which made him immediately melt.

Shocked out of his trance, the dwarf took his hand and pushed it back. His face bright red. “Don’t--!”

“Why not?”

“It’s not appropriate when people are watching, Rhys.”

The elf pouted for a moment then he turned towards the sisters. “Leave.”

“We’re not leaving, you asshole!” Fiona rolled her eyes with a slight smile. “Besides, neither of us give a shit as long as you don’t go wild.”

Vaughn grumbled to himself and trudged back to his bed and picked up his lute, carrying on with his previous song.

“Are you going to sing us a lullaby?” Sasha said, half jokingly.

“I mean, I can. I do that for Rhys, because it calms Jack down for some reason…”

Rhys briefly looked to his right. “He says that was the only thing you were good for.”

“Gee, thanks, Jack.” Vaughn shook his head. “Speaking of, do you need that tonight, Rhys?”

“... C-could you?”

“Absolutely. Come here.”

Rhys crawled under the covers, poking his head out enough so that his nose was peaking out. He shimmed a little until he felt he was in a good spot. He cooed, “I’m readyyy.”

“Okay.” Vaughn snickered.

Fiona interrupted the first note. “You’re not going to sing, are you?”

“Do you not want me to?”

“He’s a really good singer!” Rhys defended.

“Bro, it’s not a big deal if she doesn’t want me to.”

The elf grunted in reply.

“No, it’s...” Fiona paused, “do whatever you like. Sasha, leave Gortys alone. She feels safer there.”

Grunting, Sasha flopped onto the bed. “But don’t complain when we miss our train because we can’t get her out.”

“You turning the light off?”

Vaughn nodded, “Yeah, I’ve got it. Good night.”

“Night.”

His tender song trailed behind lumber breathing as one by one each of them fall asleep, leaving him alone and awake with his thoughts On rougher nights, it would take Rhys around twenty minutes to fall asleep so Vaughn could stop but something inside him yearned for the dwarf to remain alert. For another hour, he strummed his lute as his mind shifted and streamed down an endless cycle. He was in a relationship with Rhys. That should be exciting and it was in the moment. Rhys liked him back and that felt amazing. However, his mind told him to recall his original statement, to wait for Jack to leave. He could imagine what Jack was thinking and feeling inside his head. Vaughn felt like he made a grave mistake. It was in his control, yet his emotions took over and ignored his morals. He called himself stupid multiple times which were instantly silenced when Rhys touched him.

He screwed up and it was too late to back out. He couldn’t back out. He was too emotionally invested in him to try. He could never tell Rhys this, not even if there were dire consequences. Rhys would just have to settle for his lies. Vaughn couldn’t bare to break his heart and continue to live with him. That would be cruel. After sorting through all the negatives, Vaughn found a singular positive among it all. He was happy. Genuinely happy. He leaned down and gently kissed Rhys’ cheek and felt the sparks ignite in his heart as he did so. He was so madly in love and he didn’t feel guilty about it anymore.

Then there came a knock at the door.

Chapter Text

Timothy was scared shitless.

This was up there with all the other dumb decisions he had ever made in his life. Athena was a ruthless fighter, especially when she got a better look of his face. He remembered being warned of an elf welding only a shield when Jack was still alive, but Timothy had never seen her on wanted posters. He had no idea what she even looked like until, well, now. He was getting well acquainted as her shield collided into his head. He felt it tear skin as it slid across his cheek. The magic encompassing his body reacted and reformed around the wounds. Timothy could still feel the tingling pain and blood sliding down under the mask.

He was losing track of where he was. Exhaustion was riding his coattails but he didn’t stop. Timothy kept running in hopes that he could lose her, but after what felt like hours of clearly disturbing the peace, he gained DAHL Soldiers on his tail. He hadn’t seen Athena is a while. He wasn’t sure when that transition happened but it must have. They have to be after her as well, if she was even around at all. Maybe this was another intense dissociation episode or hallucination he was having. He realized he was not relatively sound after pulling Angel from the Fade. His magic only worked half of the time. He felt like he was losing his sense of balance. He was more depressed, and he kept forgetting reality more than usual. His mind was brought back to the present when an something sharp zinged through his cloak, making him trip up in his run.

He had been praying that someone, Fiona, Sasha, Ellie, he didn’t care, would save him from this plight. Calling for help gave him nothing. Sane people were smart enough to not mess with the DAHL corporation. He wasn’t sure when it happened but he found himself retching in a dead end. The walls were closing around him, like they were adding pressure onto his body, uncomfortably squishing him into the fetal position.

“What have you been doing?”

Timothy lifted to see the Vault Hunter standing over him with a disturbed look upon her.

Her question was blunt and left him little to go off on, so he answered the question he wanted to hear. “Please, just kill me. Put me out of my misery. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Her blood red eyes that glowed in the moonlight shrank as she stepped back, holding her shield up as if ready for a surprise attack. “What?”

“Oh, come on, you were just trying to kill me. I’m cornered. Do it.” Timothy begged with big tears clouding his vision. “Please.”

“Uhhh...” She said, awkwardly. “I’m not-- I… What?”

“Do you want me to attack you again? Would that help? Because I can, I mean, would that feel natural to you if I was fighting you again? That’s what you Vault Hunters like, right? Please, I have a giant target on my head. I’m worth millions. I’m worth the trouble. Come on, Vault Hunter, I’m begging you to kill me. I want to die. I’m tired...”

Athena stared at him. She had stopped breathing while he was speaking. Inhaling slowly, she pulled her shield off the brace and placed it on the ground as she lowered onto her knees. “You’re not like the other body doubles I killed. Who are you?”

“Timothy Lawrence?” He stammered. “I-I used to live in New Haven. W-what does it matter? I used to work for Jack, you shouldn’t care! I-I don’t know what he did to you but I’m responsible for the shit he’s done too.”

“People who work for Handsome Jack care about their lives and you...” Her gaze flickered away as she pressed on. “I already killed the Jack that murdered my sister. I’ve been tying up loose ends from there.”

“I’m a loose end...!”

“You’re-- No one has ever begged me to kill them before. It doesn’t feel right.”

“Goddammit, it doesn’t matter! I’m the bad guy! I’ve made some really shitty decisions that hurt other people. Would you just let me see Angel again?!”

“... Are you... talking about Handsome Jack’s daughter?”

“She… Yes, that’s her but… she was so special to me. I guess, I kind of adopting her when she was… I wanted to stay alive for her but after everything that I’ve been through recently, I’m sick of humans, I’m sick of me, I’m sick of being treated like a fucking wet tissue. I don’t want to be alive anymore. None of this is worth anything I wanted to do in Overlook. I give up. You hear that, Jack?! I give up! I lost whatever will I had left because of you! If you’re not going to kill me, Vault Hunter, I’m going to do it whenever you leave me alone.” He had no idea what compelled him to tell her his life story. Maybe to give her some incentive to kill him? He didn't know. He was exhausted.

Her ear twitched at the name Overlook. “Okay. You’re coming with me.”

“Whoa, wha--?”

Athena pulled him up and held him in somewhat of a headlock as she forced him into the streets. She wasn’t choking him, it was that of a firm hold you would have on a toddler having a tantrum. Despite Timothy’s kicking and wiggling, she didn’t let up on her grip. It didn’t take him long to give up either.

“What is the point of this? I've heard stories about you being the most merciless elf in our age! Is this some elaborate plot to kill me? I get it, you want to see me suffer more first?”

“You heard wrong.” She stated bluntly, leaving the topic at that.

Out of breath, Timothy limply tagged along beside her, keeping his head down. The town was dead quiet. He listened for the sound of marching feet. There were never any soldiers following him. This had to be another episode. This Vault Hunter may as well not exist either and he was getting carried away by some homeless person to a cave to be eaten or something. He let it happen. His eyelids were becoming heavier by the second. As dark circles danced around his vision, he could see glimpses of white wings. With each flap, it wafted a wave of warmth that assuaged his troubled mind.

With his eyes glazed over, he stared at what he assumed to be a window. The world around him was zooming by like he was flying. He shut his eyes again. He wanted to see the wings once more. He wanted to be engulfed in them. They reminded him of her, of her smile. It felt so nice and he was so, so tired.

As if nothing had changed, he was back at the barn in Lynchwood again. Sweating constantly in the well insulated walls with only hay to keep him company. The spade was too dull to puncture. He could see himself driving the rusty garden fork that hung on the wall into his stomach. It wouldn’t be a quick death but he would definitely bleed out in the next thirty minutes. It was what he thought to be the best thing to do aside from using his own magic. He didn’t want to burn to death, that caused too much pain and he didn’t want to set the town on fire. Electricity would do the same. Freezing to death was grotesquely overrated and he hated being cold.

He felt ill with how intensely he thought about his own demise, but he wanted a plan. He had to do something to end all of this. Angel was waiting for him. She had to be. She’ll be so disappointed in him but Timothy already saw himself as a disappointment. It wouldn’t hurt him as much. He could finally hug her again and tell her how much he missed her and how he wished he arrived sooner so she wouldn’t be alone for so long and laugh at how bad of a nuclear parent he was.

He wanted to feel normal again and he knew death would be the only way to give him that.

A resounding clap rang in his ears. Covering his head, Timothy jerked and glared at the Vault Hunter. “You’re still here?”

“You’ve been with me for the whole day, granted you were asleep for most of it. You don’t remember getting on the train?”

“Train?” Now that he looked around, he noticed he wasn’t in Tartarus Station anymore. In fact, he didn’t recognize where he was as he turned in a circle. There were stores and abodes that hung beside the cliff’s edge. Everything was green, almost overwhelming green. It was hurting his eyes. For some reason, he could feel himself trembling. His mind blanked.

Timothy reeled back at the human face in his peripheral. She had a big scar on her neck that looked like giant teeth had gashed through. She has short blonde hair and a concerned smile that was positively glowing with compassion. She advanced towards him with an open palm and the elf took another step back.

She took her hand back and stayed in place. “Are you okay?”

“Of course, I’m not okay.”

I just wanted to die.

“Look, ah--? I know how you feel--”

“No, you don’t. Don’t give me that bullshit.”

“I- uh- meant in general,” She gave Athena a wide eyed stare before returning her gaze back to him. “I know how intense everything feels right now. I’ve been there. Let’s start over, okay? I’m Janey Springs.”

“Timothy Lawrence...” He snapped his fingers in remembrance. “Right, you’re Moxxi’s contact. I’m in Overlook?”

“Yeah! You got it.” She beamed. “It’s good to meet you. Moxxi and Athena have told me a bit about you.” He glared at her human hand but he felt compelled to shake it. He obeyed, unwillingly as she pressed on.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be in good hands here. You know about Scooter, yeah? Both of us work at a little church riiiight up this hill next to the town’s stables. Dr. Zed is out of town right now but he’ll be back in a week’s time to help you with the whole face mask. I see you got yourself some stuff to hide your face with, so you should keep that on while you’re out and about. You can take it off in the church, of course. We’re using that as a safe place for Scooter to practice his magic. Come on, I’ll introduce you to him.” After grabbing Athena’s hand as well, she led them both to the top of the cliff.

Her shining happiness was rubbing off on him the wrong way. It was making him feel good. He liked it and he wanted to vehemently reject it at the same time. Wanting to smile gave him a certain hate in his heart that slowly burned into his chest, seering his ribcage.

He didn’t like how Athena leaned over and whispered into Janey’s ear. She was saying something about him. She had to be. The world was practically against him now and he was ready for it to give him the final blow. He felt the world blur around him once more the moment they entered the church.

It was just visions. Slowed down and smudging around his peripheral. He didn’t feel like he was breathing anymore.

Night fell at some point. Timothy must have sneaked out of the church. He couldn't remember. All he saw before him was the cliff's edge. It was a long drop into some rocks. He could see a mass moving down there as well. Probably some stalkers mucking around for food. A suitable death, being eaten after falling head first into a boulder. It was better than stabbing himself. It was going to be quick and if the fall didn't kill him, a quick end was still guaranteed. His bleeding skull would attract the animal and maul him in seconds. It made him sick to think about.

He inched closer and closed his eyes. Staring at it wasn't going to get him killed any faster. He cleared his mind as he steadied his breathing. It was going to be okay now, he reassured himself. It's so close to being over. He fell forwards.

Nearly yanking his arm out of his socket, he felt his wrist caught on something. Before he could react, something grabbed his arm and hauled him over the side, dragging him away from the cliff.

“Jesus Christ…!” Someone was heaving for air beside him. “I know I said I didn’t like you that much but this is goin’ beyond… I didn’t think it would have that much--uh, impact. You okay, Timmy? Awugh, craaap, I think he went into shock. Ok, let’s get you back to the church base, but Imma gonna need you to get up. At least a little bit, I’m pretty strong but-- ‘EY!”

Timothy made a break for it when Scooter faced his back to him. Scooter dove after him and caught his ankles, forcing him to trip up and knock the wind out of his gut.

“I can’t believe you would try to take advantage of me talking sense into you! AH-- Stop kicking me! Lemme help!”

“Letting go of me would help me tremendously!”

“Yeah, I’m not doin’ that. You think I’m some kind of sucker? I’m smarter than I sound, elfy! Come ooooon,” He groaned as he tugged on him. “Janey’s worried sick about you!”

“I don’t give a shit about her!”

“Whoa--! Sit your dumbass down, boy! No one talks about the ladies like that. I know you’re mad but have some respect!”

“Sure, let go of me and I’ll apologize!”

“We-- Heeyyyyyy, I don’t take kindly to manipulation, man. It ain’t cool and I ain’t lettin’ you go. No one dies on Scooter, man.”

Timothy stopped fighting him and laid limp on the dirt. He was too exhausted to cry. He felt too tired to move. The ledge was right there, in arm's reach. He wanted it so bad.

“This is what I’m talkin’ ‘bout now. I ain’t exactly know what’s goin’ on, but do you know what makes everyone feel better? … You don’t gotta guess, but I’m talkin’ about some real nice cookin'. Like real good food that my momma used to make when I was a lil kid. Still tastes great nowadays too. Gives you that nice warm tingling feeling in your intestines. It’s great! What do you say, man? You okay with stayin’ alive long enough to try some stew? It’s got skag meat, some varkid for flavor, green beans, corn, those lil parsnip things-- all that good stuff. You wanna give it a try?”

His stomach growled at the smell his brain imagined. He blushed at how loud the noise was.

“Ha haaaa, you ain’t gotta tell me twice! Let’s get you rollin’.”

Timothy staggered onto his feet and hung onto Scooter as they lugged towards the church. There was a tender warmth to his touch that seared into his rib cage. It didn’t psychically hurt him. It was filling him with a familiar feeling he had once. He didn’t want to reject it. He wanted the feeling to fully encapsulate him.

“Scooter, you found him!” He flinched at the unprecedented hands that touched his face and lifted the elf’s head to the dim light. He opened his eyes and peered into Janey. She looked genuinely concerned with how her teeth grinded together. Her baby blue eyes were so bright. It was like looking into the morning sky. “Are you al--? Ah, nevermind, don’t answer that. You will be alright, I promise. Scooter and I will take care of you, ok? Let’s wrap you up in a warm blanket, yeah?”

Timothy wanted to argue. He wanted to fight but something held him back. He was too tired to analyze it. He let her place herself under his arm and help Scooter bring him into temple. His mind drifted while they carefully ventured down the stairs to the underground living space. He felt light again. Not able to hear what was being said, yet he knew that he was aware of his surroundings. It was like he was looking through a frosty window. He knew he was in a small kitchen, which was the size of a walk-in closet. Janey placed a blanket over his shoulders and sat him in a chair in the corner of the room where he could watch the two mages work the stove.

There was already a big pot on the burner, that Janey used her magic to kick start. He wrapped the blanket over his chest and he propped his legs up so he could cross them on the seat. It wasn’t a comfortable chair, not like he was used to fancy cushions. He was thankful nonetheless, if that was the word for it. His eyes followed around the room, memorizing the patterns on the wood boards. Everything inside the kitchen was cheap. He could recognize a few of the brands, since some of them were sold in New Haven. His heart quivered at the thought.

His ears picked up the sound of Janey humming as she chopped up vegetables and slid them into a measuring cup. It was pretty, whatever song it was. Then he smelled something that was filled with spices. The corner of his mouth dripped with saliva that he quickly wiped off before anyone noticed. He hadn’t had real food in… He didn’t want to think about that. He barely ate when he was burdening Fiona and Sasha. Even the sub par food at hotels were hard for him to swallow. He was too famished to turn something that smelled this delicious down. Dammit, he was drooling again.

He must have had a dazed look on his face because Janey gently pressed her hand into his shoulder as if to push him. She had a wooden bowl held out to him with a wooden spoon inside. The stew looked thick with a hair of too much meat, and Maker, the smell was so rich. He gingerly took it from her hands and gawked at it. He heard Janey forcibly pull Scooter away to clean up, telling him not to stare.

He tentatively stirred the bowl with the spoon, the spin lifting up the diced vegetables from the bottom. It was colorful. He eventually struck up the courage to try it to finally satisfy his stomach’s pleading. Already it was making his nose run but he didn’t care about that. He blew on the steaming spoon and poured a little into his mouth. Tears uncontrollably poured down his face as the flavor took over his entire body.

“Oh, darn it, you hate it.” Scooter dropped his rag in defeat.

“N-no! It’s… I love it.” He sipped it again. “It’s really good.”

“You really think so?” He asked, full of hope.

He nodded. "It's... it's really good... Thank you."

[. . .]

Fiona woke up to Sasha shaking the bed. She was trying to coax out Gortys and ended up hitting her head against the bottom of the mattress when she back out with the cat in her hands. Fiona rubbed the crust out of her eyes and stretched her neck that screamed at how stiff it was. She flinched at the pain.

“Why do I always sleep crooked?” She complained at herself as she untangled her limbs. She glanced over at the clock and noticed instead that the boys were gone. Vaughn's lute laid out on the bed, which gave her a horrible sinking feeling.

She kicked the warm comforting blankets off her and stumbled over to their bed. She carefully picked up the instrument and inspected it. It didn’t have any scuff marks on it. The strings were still in place. There wasn’t any notes scratched into the wood.

“Uh, Fi? What are you doing? We have to go.”

She glanced at Sasha, holding up the lute. “Don’t you think it’s weird that only this is here?”

“I mean, I guess? They could be eating breakfast right now. He probably didn’t want to lug that too.”

“No, Vaughn is obsessed with this thing. When have we even not see him carry this one his back? It’s not like him to just leave it here even if it’s just for a second. Especially since that e-- they probably don’t fully trust us.”

“Okay… You have my attention.” Her face fell. “You don’t think... Hugo grabbed them last night do you? I take that back, if it was them, they’d wake all of us up.”

Fiona nodded solemnly. “I--I think it was Ellie.”

“That makes more sense... Fi? What’s wrong?”

“Sasha, don’t you remember? Moxxi told us that Vaughn was going to get hanged. He doesn’t want that and the proof is right here! He’s trusting us to come save him.”

“But… are we going to save him?”

“What’s that look for?”

“Just-- you know, your track record, that’s all.”

Fiona frowned. “You’re still mad about Timothy, aren’t you?”

“Uh, yeah, I am, but, sure I get it now. Us leaving Timothy for dead was such a good idea now that the Vault Hunter is out of our hair. In fact, let me put myself into your shoes for a second. Following those boys will get us DAHL soldiers onto us for our heads and theirs. This is our chance to get away from all this and start over in Overlook or wherever you decided to go without my input. Vaughn and Rhys are loss causes. Rhys is going to turn into the next Handsome Jack one day. Do you want to be there for that?”

“I… Man, I sound like a jerk.”

“Yeah, well, welcome to my world. Are we going to stowaway on a train or not, Fi?”

Fiona looked to the lute once more. She gripped it firmly by the neck. “No. I want to go to Fyrestone… Are you okay with that?”

Sasha beamed at her sister, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m more than okay with that. Let's go. We've already given them a pretty big head start.”

“Right. We should probably come up with a plan too.”

“Why not wing it? It’s worked so well for us before.” She jabbed as she held the door open for her.

“Aha ha, yes, I get it. I’ve been problematic lately.”

“Lately?”

“Can we, um, focus? You can dig at me later.”

Sasha nudged her with her shoulder with a smug smirk, holding the kitty bag tight in her arms as they ran down the hall.

. . .

Something jolted Rhys awake. He gave a cry of surprise and blinked wildly, wondering if he fell off the bed again. However, when his eyes finally adjusted to the light, Rhys gasped. Vaughn was sitting across from him, his wrists and ankles were tied up with chains. He was awake but there was a distant look in his eye that told Rhys that he wasn’t mentally there. The two were inside a wagon that was drawn by multiple horses from the many clink clanking of hooves he heard. Rhys tried to move but there was a tug that spread from his chest to his legs. Looking down, he saw that his arms were clamped together inside a metal box. His body strapped to the wall. His legs trapped in chains.

Rhys’ mouth hung open. “What…?”

“Good morning, sunshine.” Rhys shot a glare at the demon who was sitting beside him with a smug expression. “Trying to cross the border, huh?”

“This is not funny, Jack.”

“Did you see the look on your face? You were like “huh-derrrhh” He exaggerated his expression until he seeped into laughter. “You hit a dead end, pal. No thanks to your buddy.”

“W-what?”

“He sold you out.”

“What?! Vaughn would nev--” Rhys looked once again to the dwarf as if he had accidentally woken him up. The dwarf sat there with a vacant expression. “Vaughn…! Vaughn, hey, bro? Sa-say something. Vaughn!”

He shifted weirdly. When he made eye contact with him, Rhys felt the hairs on his skin rise. There was no life in his eyes as well as in his tone. “Oh… hey.”

“Are you okay? What’s going on? Where are we? Where are we going?”

“No… I’m not okay.” Rhys felt aware of every tense muscle in his body as the uninterrupted quiet progressed into minutes until Vaughn managed to choke out. “We’re going back to Fyrestone.”

“N-no! No, no, no! This has to be a dream.”

“This isn’t a dream, Rhys. Ellie found us last night. There was nothing I could do.”

“Yes, there was! You could have woken me up! We would have had a fighting chance--!”

“I don’t want that!” Vaughn screamed, silencing the elf.

“Why...?”

“We’re done, Rhys! We lost! We have nowhere else to go! You can’t expect to win every battle. Just accept this like I have.”

“No!” He fought back. “I’m not going to accept this! You said you wouldn’t give up on me! Was everything you said last night just thrown out the window?! I could have won if you--!”

“I don’t want you to end up like Handsome Jack!” Tears rapidly poured down his face. “Face facts, Rhys! I’m going to die and you’re going to live to be a freakin’ slave to Handsome Fucking Jack’s will. You have to go on without me and try to get him out of you by yourself for me. Fight back. I know you can do it.”

“You are not dying on me, Vaughn!”

“Yes, I am. Nothing is going to change this, Rhys. I’m going to hang, and I don’t want you to go on a killing spree because of that. Even if we escape, which we won’t, this will only start over from the beginning. It’s an endless hell, Rhys. This is the only way it can stop.”

“You’re wrong!”

“How? What plan do you have that doesn’t involve killing or hurting Ellie?”

Jack rolled his head back. “Andraste’s tits, she’s going to die anyway!”

“Shut up, Jack!” Rhys cried out, his teeth chattering from anxiety. He looked to Vaughn with desperation. “I can’t stand you being hurt. I don’t think I’ll have the guts to watch you dangle from a fucking rope!”

“Then don’t watch.”

Even Jack was taken aback by his statement. “Shit… Uh...”

“If you say one word to me right now, Jack, I swear...”

“You’re free to swear however you like, cupcake, but you can’t do a thing to me.”

“This is all your fault.”

“Woow, and who was the guy that agreed to my offer?”

“Why couldn’t you just stayed dead and gone?”

“We both know that’s not how the afterlife works here, kid.”

“I hate you.”

Jack simply shrugged his shoulders.

“Vaughn, please, you could have fought back. Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t like fighting, Rhys. I’m not a Gray Warden.”

“You’re right. You’re Vaughn. You’re my best friend… Why would you let this happen?”

“So, you’re blaming me now? I didn’t even tell you what went on last night.”

“I-I-I was asleep! I was just assuming...”

“I answered the door and she took me by surprise. I was handcuffed and gagged and she put me over her shoulder so she could carry you here.”

“That’s not what Jack saw.”

“You’re siding with him over me?!”

“I’m just getting mixed signals and I’d like a clear answer for once!”

“How’s this for an answer? Stop. Listening. To. Jack! I’m damn sick and tired of sounding like a broken record all the time, because you can never understand me!”

“Ohhh! You’re calling me stupid?!”

“Yes! Yes I am! You’re an idiot without me! You’re like a toddler! You’re always getting into trouble and making a giant mess! You’re such a waste of time!”

“Oh gee, thank you so much! Now that you’re on death row, you can finally stop being such a coward and talk about your feelings! You must feel soooo happy with yourself. What else do you want to lie to me about, Vaughn, huh?? Huh?! What shall I do after your death? I’m such a naive little slave. I’m so lost without your guidance, oh wise one.”

“Maker, I hate you.”

“And I hate your guts, you little pipsqueak asshole!”

“I should have never kissed you.”

“Add that one to your list of regrets then, you piece of shit! I’m sure you’re going to have so much shit to look back on and mope because that’s the only thing you’re good at!”

As Vaughn opened his mouth to retaliate, Ellie finally pounded her fist against the wood. “Do I need to come back there and gag both of you?!”

The two fell silent. Rhys glared at the dwarf as he drew up his knees and positioned himself so that he was facing the horizon. Only hate filled his heart as the elf stared him down for the remainder of the day. Nothing was said between them. They communicated with each other through harsh glares until the carriage finally stopped as dusk settled.

Rhys stopped caring that Jack was in his head and possibly affecting his actions. When he saw Ellie round the wagon and open the grate door, he cast his magic upon her and he received an electrifying wave of pain throughout his body that nearly made him black out. His hair fell over his eyes as he doubled over, heaving.

“Good job, moron.” Jack applauded. “You realize those are specifically made for mages, right? I think you’ve already figured out why.”

Rhys was too exhausted to argue.

Vaughn watched as Ellie handled him with care, lifting him into her arms and urged Vaughn to follow her. Stepping out of ankle chains, the dwarf followed her to a rather shabby hotel designed for people on their way to death row. It was supposed to be cozy but Vaughn didn’t see it. The doors were made of strong glass for surveillance, and there weren’t any windows in any of the rooms they passed by. He tailed her as she unlocked the door and placed Rhys on the stiff bed and led the dwarf back into the hallway. She locked it behind her and started down the hall.

Vaughn didn’t move. “Wait, Rhys and I aren’t staying together?”

“After your arguing?” She gazed at him, surprised. “I’m doing this hotel a favor and putting you in separate rooms.”

“You can’t!”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why can’t I?”

“Be-because he needs--” Vaughn stopped himself, unable to stop the tears that welled up into his eyes. “I don’t want to be alone tonight. If--if you hear us yelling again, I won’t fight you. I’ll cooperate. Ellie, I need him. I want to be with him. It’s the only thing I want before I hang.”

“Ye-- you don’t want food or nothing?”

“No. I just want to see him smile again.”

“Oh, Vaughn… you know exactly how to break my heart. Alright… And I’m only doing this because I trust you. Don’t break my trust again.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about that anymore.”

She looked at him sadly as she unlocked Rhys’ cell. She peered down the hall and quietly used one of her own keys on his handcuffs. “That better?”

He massaged his wrists. “A lot better, but you didn’t have to do that.”

“I know, but… if this is really what you want before you die, then I have to give it to you. Here.” She pressed another key into his hand. “It’s for Rhys. The room I set him up should suppress his magic so he won’t attack you or nothing when you get his bonds off.”

“He won’t attack me.”

“If you’re sure, muffin. Get on in. I got the door. Make sure you get him back in his chains when morning comes, okay?”

“Okay. Thank you, Ellie.”

“Don’t mention it. Seriously. For your and my safety.”

He nodded. Vaughn grabbed the handle with a shaking hand and pulled. Ellie held the door open for him as he stepped inside. The temperature dropped significantly compared to the hallway. Vaughn could almost see his breath. He didn’t move until he heard the door lock behind him.

Rhys was a mess. He was curled in a tight ball as he wept openly into the comforters, cursing himself out in a fit of anguish. Vaughn felt his lungs suffocate themselves when he recalled his anger on their way here. He wanted to do terrible things to himself as punishment but he knew that wouldn’t help their situation. Hesitantly, the dwarf approached him, his hands slowly reaching towards him. “Rhys...?”

Feverishly, Rhys recoiled and cried out in fear. He pressed himself against the wall, kicking his legs as if trying to create more space between them, even though it was just disrupting the blankets. Vaughn hopped onto the mattress. “Rhys! I’m not going to hurt you. I promise! I came here to apologize.”

Rhys breathed fitfully, tensing up as the dwarf crawled closer. He shut his eyes tight and turned his head to the side as if he was expecting to be hit.

Vaughn bit his lip. “Maker, I really hurt you.”

He fumbled with the key as he eventually got it into the hole and broke open the seal. He took the box away from his hands and placed it down onto the floor. His eyes met with Rhys and the elf stared at him, frightened.

“Rhys, I know you won’t forgive me, but please, hear me out. I didn’t mean a word--”

The elf grabbed him and hauled him into his arms as he sobbed into his chest, his voice cracking every so often. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I was so mad. I don’t hate you, I swear! I swear, I don’t hate you… I’m so sorry…!”

“I-I don’t hate you either…!” He wrapped his arms and legs around him and cradled his head. “I forgive you, Rhys… Do you forgive me?”

He nodded vigorously. “You’re good for so many things! I’m so sorry, Vaughn. I’m so sorry… I don’t hate you, I really don’t.”

Vaughn softly shushed him, stroking his hair. “I know. I know… It’s okay now.”

“No, it’s not. You’re going to die.” He pressed further into him, moving his knees up so Vaughn could rest his back. “I can’t take that… I wanted to grow old with you.”

Vaughn gave a small whine. “Rhhyyyys. Don’t say things like that.”

“But it’s true. I never experienced love like this and all I wanted was to experience it with you… and now I can’t. And I never will. It won’t be the same.”

“You’ll… you'll have to learn to move on, Rhys.”

“I don’t want to move on! I want to be with you! I want to learn with you. I want you to teach me how to kiss right and ha-how how to t-to… Maker, please don’t leave me alone with him…!”

“Oh, Rhys,” He kissed his head. “You have no idea how often I’ve imagined us alone, in a house for the two of us. I wanted to cook for you. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you...”

“Then let’s get out of here.”

“Rhys, we can’t. You can’t use your magic here.”

“Why not?”

“This room is just a bigger version of that box and I… can’t stand you getting hurt.”

“Dammit!” Rhys squeezed him. “Why me?! Why us?! Why can’t we be left alone...?”

“I’m sorry...”

“Why are you apologizing? None of this is your fault.”

“No, you were right. I let this happen. I did lie to you.” Vaughn quickly filled in the uncomfortable silence. “Ellie and I actually talked for a while. I-I was trying to convince her to let us go but… it was either her or the DAHL soldiers waiting for us at Ashes. I’m doing this because I don’t want them to torture you, Rhys. We can’t keep going on like this. This has to happen.”

“What’s stopping us from faking our deaths?”

“That would work if… you know.”

Rhys glanced down at his smoking green arm. “... I know. You could still fake your death.”

“That wouldn’t help either of us, unless we split up.”

“No.” The elf bit his lip. “Vaughn… Am I… am I a hassle to deal with?”

“What we’re going through is a hassle, but you’re not. If anything, I was the one being a hassle. I was the one that yelled at you first. I said so many things that hurt you.”

“... I wouldn’t be holding you like this if I thought you were a hassle.”

“I still was one. I was so dead inside. It was like I went back to the beginning of all this. I got so frustrated because... you mean the world to me. I, I need you, Rhys.” He pushed his head into Rhys. “Fuck, I need you so much it hurts. I don’t want you to go on without me. I want to always be with you. Fuck! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to stop hugging you. I wanna stay right here.” His words quickly devolved into sobs and Rhys adjusted himself while holding the dwarf so that they were both lying on the bed.

The elf peppered him with kisses throughout his neck and up to his face before finally landing on his lips. His tears continued to flow as Vaughn sank into his touch, gripping and pulling the back of his jacket. Rhys had no idea what to say. There was nothing left to say and, for once, Jack was quiet. No doubt he was watching them with a judgmental eye. There had to be a way out of this that didn’t involve Jack. Rhys wasn’t about to give up on his best friend any time soon.

Vaughn fell asleep in his arms meanwhile Rhys stayed awake. He knew Vaughn. He wanted to comfort him whenever he woke up and Vaughn did wake up a few times throughout the night in the middle of a panic attack. Rhys kept him close. He held the dwarf, humming to him, until he fell asleep once more. The elf was too stressed to sleep. There was no way to tell time in the room. He couldn’t tell how long he had been cradling the dwarf, keeping him warm in the freezing chamber. It didn't matter to him. He wanted to stay like this forever.

Rhys opened his eyes wide when he heard the cell door open and close.

“Wake up, you two." Ellie announced. "We have to get goin’.”

Rhys growled, “You can’t kill him.”

“You’re gonna hafta speak up--”

“You can’t kill him.” Rhys repeated, baring his teeth. “He’s the only friend I have.”

“Easy there, stringbean. I don’t want him dead either, but if I don’t follow through with this--”

“Why can’t you just say you found us dead? You could have helped us.”

“No, I couldn’t! Vaughn and I already talked about this. You wouldn’t last a week without help and you two only got each other. Just let him go.”

“No! He’s mine!” Rhys lunged out of the bed with the dwarf in his arms and put his hand out as he edged for the door. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

“Rhys, there are DAHL soldiers out there that are going to escort us to Fyrestone. If you take one step more, y’all are going to get killed! Just give him to me.”

As Ellie stepped towards him, Rhys produced an electric ball from his hand that dissipated the moment it appeared and the elf felt a wave of shock coarse through his body that made his legs give out. Flinching, he clutched the unconscious Vaughn into his chest and backed into a corner. “You can’t kill him. You can’t do this to me. I need him. I need him. If I can’t have him, kill me too! I don't want to go on without him...”

“Rhys, please, don’t say that.” Rhys felt Vaughn’s hands touch his shoulders as he pulled himself away. “I don’t want you to die either. We’ll figure this out. Okay?”

Eventually, the dwarf rose to his feet, bringing the elf up with him.

Ellie pouted at the sight. “I hate this. Vaughn, I’m so sorry for telling you how you should feel all that while ago. I was pissed off. You love him a whole bunch, don’t you?”

Vaughn nodded.

“I know sayin’ sorry ain’t going to fix this, but I really am sorry.”

“We’ll figure it out.” Vaughn squeezed his hand before putting forward his wrists.

She clamped them together with cuff. “You two got something planned?”

“No. If I become a spirit, I’m going to find him.”

“Yeah, I already got the feelin’ that them Templars ain’t gonna kill him with how you two were talkin’. Them sons of bitches have been goin’ crazy since Handsome Jack died.”

“Yup and he’s inside my head.” Rhys clarified with a heavy sigh, putting his hands out unwillingly.

Vaughn gasped. “Rhys…!”

“What? We were yelling at each other about it. Why keep it secret? The whole world is going to refer to me as Handsome Jack any day now-- or Handsome Rhys, or whatever.” The weight of the box nearly shoved his face into the floor but he managed to balance himself. "Ow, do these things not have lighter versions?"

“You can’t give up like that.”

“I can’t hold him back forever, Vaughn. Not with you gone. Without you, I won’t have any motivation to keep this up.”

“Then let me give you motivation. I need you to fight back for me, Rhys.” Vaughn tugged on his shirt for him to lean down. He kissed him and Rhys gave an unruly moan into his mouth and leaned into his touch.

The elf about toppled over when Vaughn broke the kiss. “... Okay.”

“Could you smile for me? Even if it’s just a little one.”

When Rhys tried to smile, tears broke loose once more and he pressed his forehead against him. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too.”

. . .

Living near a human church was reminiscent of New Haven. After so long, he couldn’t even remember what he did there. It must have not been important. It was all ashes now. The days blurred by like countryside on the railway. He was beginning to recall little things, though. He remembered to do the chores Janey asked him to do one day, and he felt relatively good about that, even though the wave of serotonin left him immediately. His best varied from day to day.

He still wished for death to come pick him up in a fancy stagecoach with a cool skeleton horse that had bleeding eyes, but he was forcing himself to at least try to enjoy his time here. The only reason he wanted to be alive right now was the food and the hope that this Z-whatever guy can help him. He heard good things about him from Janey and Scooter that was wrapped in lawsuits? Apparently, the mage didn’t have a medical license. Timothy was willing to accept any kind of magic, illegal or not, to get this face off of him.

Janey did try to look into the magical mask herself out of curiosity. Unfortunately, she got the same reaction as Moxxi. Even though she was trying to hide it, he could see her fingers involuntarily twitch.

He finally figured out why Scooter was off by himself. He was the worst mage Timothy had ever seen, like, laughably bad. It was no wonder the circle didn’t want him. The church must have some magical property around it. The elf watched Scooter’s uncontrollable fire dim and shatter like broken glass. Timothy never believed in any deity. He didn’t find a point, since he’s life was equivalent to a ring of hell, but seeing that this apprentice’s magic couldn’t even scorch a pew made him think differently. Maybe human gods were different than elven. Maybe they actually existed and cared. Timothy went to bed that night with a mind full of heavy thoughts.

Timothy was used to the smell of stables. It was almost comforting to him and the horses really liked him. A lot of them tried to nip or straight up attempt to eat his hair. There were times when he was particularly lonely that he would read his stories to them, since they were the only ones that listened... until he was thrown out by the owner. Spotted horses were his favorites. They were like giant freckles on horses. He loved them. He loved freckles. Scooter caught on pretty quick after Janey smacked him over the head for asking if Timothy was into beastiality.

Instead of working inside the church, Janey gave him stable duty, which improved his mental state drastically, except for when he had to leave. So she let him stay there as long as he wanted. He even fell asleep there sometimes. He still under the not so careful watch of Scooter, who the horses didn't like as much. The animals tolerated the human mage as long as the elf was around. If anything, it was the horses that were keeping him in better spirits than an actual person. He preferred that. At least going back to the temple was being paired with good food. The bed wasn't the worst or the best either but the elf was thankful to have one for once.

Timothy was relatively astonished when he came back to the church one night and noticed someone new. He had slick salt and pepper hair and large scar around his mouth from an unrecognizable source. Janey was sitting on a pew in front of him. She smiled when she saw the elf and waved him over. It wasn’t her normal smile. It was leaning towards a certain kind of sadness that didn’t sit well with him.

Timidly, Timothy walked to where the intimidating man sat while Janey continued. “Hey, Tim, ah, this is Dr. Zed. Dr. Zed. Tim. I was just informing him about your, your condition.”

“Mentally or magically?” He asked bluntly.

“Both.”

Zed adjusted his weight on the bench, his legs spread wide. “I ain’t a therapist, Janey. I’ve told you that many times now.”

“I knoooow, but you can still give him some meds!”

“I’m not taking any medication.” Timothy jerked, crossing his arms. “I don’t need them. It’ll get rid my spark.”

“What spark?” Janey asked, knitting her brows.

Timothy stared, his eyes huge.

“Ok, seein’ that. I’m gonna put you on some antidepressants after I uh… ‘find’ some… in my lab.”

“I already told him everything, Zed.”

He made an obscure groaning noise “Good, I hate sounding indescribably cryptic. I’m not trying to be scary. I’m honestly trying to help by, you know. It’s got its ups and downs.”

“That… That’s good? I think?” Timothy said, unsure, glancing at Janey, who for some reason wasn’t meeting his gaze.

“But speaking of the down part, I’m afraid I can’t fix your face.”

“What?! You haven’t even tried!”

“Take it easy, young man.” He said in a gentle soothing tone. “I’m just going off of what I’ve been told. I get the idea that what you got here is some real old elven magic. I’m human. If I try to pry that off, it’s going to shock me too. I’m sorry, kid, but I can’t help you.”

Timothy shut down. What was the point? He wanted to scream. What was the point of any of this? He was doomed to die with an infamous face and if that’s how the world wanted him to go, he didn’t care anymore. He was going run back to that cliff and no one was going to stop him this time. But he couldn’t move something was holding him down. He felt his head being clutched by claws and suddenly the shadows and shifting lights that haunted his vision bloomed into the church rows. He saw the doctor again from a much lower angle. He didn’t react to the biting cold tile floor he was sitting on. He felt calm, even though there was a storm brewing inside his chest.

Zed pulled his hand away. “How do you feel?”

“... I don’t know.”

“That’s normal. Usually when I do that, people experience this kind of dread that you can’t explain. I usually do this to, you know, psychically injured but it’s good that it works on you.”

“What did you do to me?”

“I just calmed you down. Not exactly legal magic, but if it helps people, why not do it? I mean, there are a lot of side ef-- I’m going to stop there. What you need right now is some sleep. Janey, I'm gonna need you to--”

Timothy was already feeling incredibly sleepy. As he tried to stand up, he felt his shivering legs give up on him and his heavy eyelids finally close.

. . .

Fyrestone was not a friendly sight, not that it was ever friendly to Rhys. He felt the wagon park as he stared out at the mass of eyes looking in. He recognized every single person in the audience. None of them were friendly either, but he saw pity in many expressions. They weren’t directed at him, however. Everyone was looking to Vaughn. That wasn’t a surprise to him. He was a hero or to Rhys' mind he was. He was the nicest person who lived in this town and he was going to be hung. What a disgusting twist. It made him want to curl up and hide. It was all his fault. He should have said no. None of this would have happened if he didn't runaway with the dwarf. He noticed someone was pushing to the front.

The sight of Hugo Vasquez made Rhys feel terribly ill. His stomach flipped and churned unhappily when the Templar looked and grinned at him. “There you are, Rhys! Been lookin’ everywhere for you.”

Jack scoffed, appearing beside him. “Oh great, it’s this tool bag again.”

Ellie was behind the wagon at this point. She unlocked the gate and unhooked the elf from the wall. She escorted him off the cart and brought him over to Hugo, who nodded towards her. “August, give her the reward.”

“Keep it.” Ellie bit back. “We don’t want it.”

Raising a brow, Hugo shrugged it off. “Alright, but we’re not saving it for you if you change your mind.”

“Whatever.” Ellie walked back to the wagon and beckoned with her head. Slowly, Vaughn trudged through the door.

“Well, Vaughn, I see karma finally caught up with you.” Hugo lavished in his victory. “How does it taste?”

The dwarf didn’t spare him a glance as Ellie tied a rope to his chains.

The elf wanted to punch the Templar for how he chuckled in self-satisfaction, which spurred an idea. He swung his arms back and turned with his weight, crashing the magic repulse box into his pelvis, which sent Jack into a laughing fit. Before Rhys could do any further damage, Finch and Kroger pounced him and held him back by the arms. August helped the whinging Templar onto his feet.

Hugo pointed a shaking finger at the elf as he shoved August off. “You little asshole! I’ll make sure you don’t have the balls to do that again.”

“You can’t! I’m Henderson’s slave, Hugo, and he won’t give me up that easily. Abomination or not, I belong in that house!”

“Oh. You haven’t heard, Rhys? Henderson is dead. Died from alcohol poisoning ages ago.” Hugo smiled at the fear that consumed his eyes. “You belong to the Circle and you know what that means? It means, you’re my servant.”

Jack made a face. “Uh, ew? No, this is not what--”

When Finch and Kroger released him, Hugo decked the elf in the face and kicked him onto the ground. Instinctively, Vaughn tore from Ellie’s side. “Rhys!!”

The rope reacted and it wasn’t long until the abrupt pull on his wrist swept him off his feet and he landed on his side.

Rhys could only breathe the blood that poured out from his tongue. He shivered as he felt it run down his throat. His gaze fell onto Jack while Hugo’s goons picked him up. The demon looked… strangely guilty. That expression quickly vanished when the two made eye contact and he cleared his throat. “You know, uh, Rhys. I could help you.”

“I’m not interested in being manipulated, Jack.” He muttered as he was pushed into the small crowd of Fyrestone.

“Kid, you don’t understand. I can save Vaughn. Okay, yes, I deserve that look you’re giving me right now, but believe me when I say this. I’m willing to hold off on taking over your body if you let me take control of my arm. You understanding me, pumpkin? I won’t be totally out of your head, but you will get your privacy with him… and only him.” Jack glanced towards the hanging platform. “You’ve got a couple of minutes to think about it. That whale just took your boyfriend into Moxxi’s.”

“... But… this thing will shock me.”

“I’m kind of dead, Rhysie. That means this arm right here isn’t alive. You can touch stuff with it but it’s not actually there-- what I’m saying that it’s really old magic and if this box was actually good, you would be dead the second she put that on you.”

“... Cool.”

“So, this thing won’t be a problem for us.”

“I just don’t get why you don’t want to go with Hugo? He’s helping you.”

“He badly misinterpreted my signals and I want him dead, but that’s not going to happen any time soon with you at the reins. I wanted my come back to be peaceful, not announce it to the whole world. I know I already have a fanbase, who would follow my every word, and I love that. But if they see you and not me: they aren’t going to believe me. I wanted to take a couple of years to get used to your body and this corporeal magic crap and perfect it, BUT this chucklenut comes along and ruins my plan, because he’s obsessed with me. Man, I wanna kill him. Can I kill him?”

Rhys opened his mouth to answer but his words became lost in translation when he saw Moxxi guide Vaughn up to the platform with Ellie behind him.

“Come on, Rhysie. What’s your decision?”

“I-I...”

“Gray Warden Vaughn Little.” Moxxi began, solemnly. “For your crimes against Pandora, you have been charged with discarding your contract without permission, kidnapping an elven slave, arson, and committing treason against the Circle of Helios, and helping a mage, who is on the verge of becoming an abomination, escape… You are sentenced to be hung from the neck until dead. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”

“Come on, Vaughn, say something. Say it was my fault.” Rhys whimpered, but the dwarf responded with silence.

“Very well...” Moxxi lowered her script and gazed at him, sadly. “Do you have any last words, Vaughn?”

Vaughn slowly raised his head and locked eyes with Rhys, echoing his name. “Rhys.”

Rhys stared up at him, praying for a signal. Praying for any plans he had to get out of this mess.

“Thank you for the adventure.” He had to audacity to smile at him. “I love you so much.”

The box around his hands suddenly became too heavy for him to hold and he fell to his knees with a pleading cry. He wanted to run to him. He wanted to shove him out from that rope. He twisted and writhed against the hands that grabbed him. “Let me go! Let me gooo!!”

Hugo covered his mouth with his hand and tightly held his head in place. Rhys felt his world spinning. He couldn’t breathe. He was beginning to hear horses galloping closer and closer along with a trailer of… wheels. There was a caravan speeding towards the crowd with a familiar human at the helm. Rhys gaped.

“Stop the hanging!”

August perked up, “Sasha?!”

“Welp, I wasn’t expecting this.” Jack admitted, sounding somewhat impressed.

Pulling the reins, the horses skidded to a not so graceful halt that made caravan wobble on one side for a moment. Fiona stepped onto the roof and drew out her blade, pointing at the dwarf. “Get him out of that noose!”

Putting her hands on the lever, Ellie shouted through her heartbreak, “It’s over, Fiona! Step down!”

Jack took up Rhys’ vision. “Yo! This is your last chance, Rhys. Do we have a deal?”

“I will throw this at you if you don’t move, Ellie.”

“You’ll hang next if you do!”

“Are you going to let her do this?! She doesn’t even have a plan! She’ll end up killing him!” Jack shouted.

Rhys swallowed. “Okay! Fine! We have a deal. As long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

“Don’t you worry about that, Rhysie~

Fear grabbed his stomach watching Jack’s menacing grin bleed into the air as the demon slowly disappeared. Rhys lost all feeling in his right arm. He looked down and gawked at how his Fade hand emerged the metal and flexed, giving Rhys a thumbs up before snapping its fingers. The box suddenly exploded open, releasing his other hand. With a shout from Hugo, his thugs tried to ground the elf, but a bubble formed around him and shoved the crowd away from him. Rhys fell onto his hands and knees, gasping.

“You feel that, Rhys?” Jack purred. A strange yet powerful sensation flowed through his veins, leaving a titillating, bittersweet taste on his tongue that made the elf shiver and softly moan in delight. Behind his eyes, there was an uncontrollable lust for destruction. Jack chuckled lowly, raising his arms and Rhys did the same as he was lifted onto his feet in an alien-like flowing away. “Let’s get sexy.”

The rope resting around Vaughn’s neck burst into flames. Taking advantage of Fiona’s distraction, Rhys vaulted onto the platform and scooped the dwarf into his arms in one swift motion.

“Rhys?!” Vaughn gasped, hanging onto his neck as the elf sprinted to the caravan. “How did you do that?!”

“Ellie!” Moxxi yelled, jumping down from the platform and sprinting towards the stables.

“I’m on it!” Ellie hauled the ax from her back and charged after them.

Hugo shoved his lankies forward, brandishing his broadsword. “Don't let Rhys leave!”

“Catch!” Rhys threw Vaughn up to Fiona and she managed to catch his arm, pulling him onto the roof.

Jack spun Rhys around and he leaped out of the way of the blow. The elf flung his arm to the side and out of his fist a whip made of electricity formed and swatted the air in front of Ellie.

“Sasha, loop around!” Fiona shoved Vaughn down the trap door. “And you stay there.”

“Wait--!” Vaughn called out but she already slammed the door.

Landing before Ellie, Fiona pulled out another dagger from her waist and took a stance as Sasha drove the caravan, parting the crowd.

“I don’t wanna hurt you, Fiona.” Ellie warned, glancing back and forth between Rhys and the con artist. "Stand down."

“I’m sorry, Ellie, but I have two idiot family members to save.” Fiona weaved through her swing and nabbed Rhys by his real arm, dragging him away from the fast approaching thugs.

“I was doing just fine!” Rhys argued back, trying to pull his hand out from her grasp.

“Can I get a thank you for that distraction!?”

“Fine! Thank you! You’re the best. You’re going to pull my arm out of my socket!”

“Would you shut up and focus on getting these assholes off us?!” She cried out as a throwing knife zinged past their ears.

“Don’t tell me to shut up!” He swung his arm and a horizontal wave of lightning flourished through the air and the four unfortunately ducked out of the way. Rhys screamed in frustration, “Oh, come on!!”

Vaughn nearly got thrown out of the caravan when Sasha sharply turned the horses to the right. Scampering, he banged on the front window, “Sasha! Where are we going?!”

“We’re waiting for Fiona’s signal. Just hang on back there!”

“Ok--okay. Uhhhhh… As happy as I am that you guys came by, did you get my lute?”

“It’s somewhere back there. By the couch.”

Vaughn whipped around and was washed over with relief when he saw his old friend hiding behind the sofa. He pulled it out, looked it over for any sign of damage, and slung it over his back with a smile that immediately vanished. Behind them was someone following them on horseback who had a jacket billowing in the wind and a wicked grin on her face as she drew out her crossbow.

“Sashaaaaa!” His tone brinked in panic. “Nisha’s here!”

“Who--” Sasha heard something swish over her head. She ducked down and glanced over her shoulder. “Seriously?!”

“What do we do?! She’s gaining!”

“I don’t know-- throw something at her!”

“Uhhh--uhhh!” He picked up a mirror and chucked it out of the caravan, which Nisha’s horse simply ran over without a problem. Vaughn tried again with a mace he found mounted on the wall. Nisha veered to the side and kicked her spurs into the steed’s thigh as she pulled her whip.

As the dwarf scarpered around, Nisha swung herself off the horse and into the caravan. She unsheathed a dagger from her belt. “Found you.”

Vaughn stole a short-sword that was sliding along the ground and swatted her attack to the side. He pointed the end at her as he tried to catch his breath. “For the love of Andraste, I do not need you right now to make this day any worse! What do you want?!”

“I came here to watch you hang! If that's not going to happen, I might as well do it myself!” Nisha attempted to use her whip to pull his sword out of his hand but Vaughn was faster. He sharply tugged on the rope and forced her to kneel, where he rounded her with the cord and tied her hands by the wrists. He placed his blade to her throat as he secured the grip. Nisha blinked. “This was not how I planned this to go. I thought you were rusty as shit!”

“You thought wrong.”

“Great, so what are you going to do, shorty? You going to stab me or just wrestle me until I get my hands free?” In response to her wriggling, Vaughn dug the edge into her throat enough to make her pause. “Finally! You’re making this interesting.”

“What is wrong with you?!”

“You’ve never been a challenge, dwarf. You have the guts to actually try now?” She kicked his legs out from under him and pulled the cord off of her skin and rose up as he fell. She stepped on his hand when he tried to grab his sword and crushed into it with her heel. She hauled him up by his hair and jammed her dagger into his side. She wiggled it around to make his screaming louder.

He was abruptly thrown to the floor with the blade still inside him. He tried to force himself to stay conscious and propped himself up onto his elbows, looking around in a daze. Nisha’s attention was off him. He could see her face dripping with blood as she posed her crossbow out of the caravan. He followed her gaze, hoping to see Rhys. Instead of the elf, it was Moxxi trailing up onto them with her horse.

“Vaughn!” Sasha called. “What’s going on back there? Was that you screaming?”

“Uhhhh-- I’m losing blood?” He hazily surveyed the puddle of blood he sat in and nodded. “Yup, I lost a lot of blood and it hasn’t stopped!”

“We’re about to meet up with Fiona and Rhys. Stay awake!”

“Okaaaay.” He tried to stand up but landed instantly on his back. “Ow...”

August jumped over the smoke pouring out of the firecracker Fiona tossed onto the ground. The two were in a stagnant battle while Rhys was distracted with the other three on his shadow. She couldn’t look at him, but by the sounds of pain followed by Rhys’ odd laughter, she suspected he was doing well. She shot for the jugular and August whirled her around, deciding now of all places to start a conversation. “You know, you never thanked me for letting your sister go!”

“How about you leave us alone?” She tossed back, blocking his arm and shoving it off, “Then! I’ll actually thank you.”

“I’m sure you would--mmf. Does she--ah, talk about me?”

“Nope.”

“You said that too fast that means you’re lying.” He ragged.

“It does not--” She groaned, “You need to face facts that she dumped you.”

“Not officially!”

“Oh, grow up, August!” Out of her peripheral, she could see something coming at them and she accordingly jumped back. Kroger had been sent flying through the air and slammed into the half-elf courtesy of Rhys. When Fiona looked at him, there was a malicious glint to his smile that made her stomach queasy. She fled to his side and leaped onto the distracted Finch, pulling him with her arms around his neck.

“You play dirty! Get off me!” Finch cried, clawing her skin.

“Rhys!”

His head turned with a crack. Cackling, he used his electric whips to grab Finch by the wrists and Fiona quickly unhooked herself off as Rhys somehow lifted him into the air and shoved him into the dirt. He sent bolts of shocks through him with glee. “Ohhhohooo, sweet Maker! I’ve never felt so alive!”

“Rhys, stop!” Fiona tripped over and shook him, “He’s had enough!”

He stopped and gave her a sultry grin, relaxing his shoulders and slung his Fade arm around her waist. “Ahhh, sorry about that, dollface. I guess, I got a little carried away there. Won’t happen again.”

When Fiona felt where his hand was going, she punched his face so hard he fell onto his ass. “I dare you to do that again, you body hijacking bitch.”

Stunned, Rhys laid on the ground, gaping at the sky. As he moved, it felt like his whole body was lighter than air… and being lit on fire at the same time. He groaned in agony. “Daaaamn. Ooooowww… Fiona, did… did you give me an existential crisis in psychical form because, fuck, I do not feel real.”

Seeing Hugo slowly rise onto his feet with his broadsword in his grasp, Fiona hauled the woozy elf up and looked around for their getaway ride. “C’mon, Sasha, what’s taking you so long?”

“I thought you knew better, Sasha!” Moxxi called out sweetly to her while she kept up with their carriage.

She glanced over at the barista every so often. “We’re returning the favor! The boys are one of us now, whether you like it or not.”

“They’ll be more after you!”

“Comes with the job. But, we know Pandora more than they do!” She flew firecracker rocks at her but Moxxi put up a magic shield, so the rock bounced off and exploded into the air, temporarily blinding the con artist. “Shit!”

Moxxi climbed onto the box cart and snatched the reins from her, stopping the horses. She quickly grabbed the con artist before she jumped away, keeping her hands together. “Can I trust you, Sasha?”

“... What?”

“I want to trust you. I want to believe that all four of you can go on to a better future. And I know you cannot promise me that, but if any of you let Handsome Jack take over poor Rhys, my son will find you and put all four of you into shallow graves. So you better get to work.”

Sasha swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good girl. You keep on going, I’m going to do one last thing to help you out.” Sasha watched her as she stood from the box seat and stepped onto the roof of the caravan, opening the hatch. She heard Vaughn make a sound of surprise that was quickly hushed by Moxxi. As she whipped the reigns, she looked down at the window to the cart and saw her tending to the dwarf’s wounds. She was putting a bottle into his mouth-- ok, she didn’t have time to figure out whether or not she was actually helping them.

DAHL Soldiers were closing in on them. Rhys managed to keep them at bay with Jack seeping in to control his arm. He had no idea he could even do some of the magic the demon was creating from his finger tip. Jack merely gave him directions as he did most of the work. Rhys wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The immersing flow of delectable energy was definitely making him hard, but the screaming freaked him out. Some of the soldiers weren’t moving either.

He couldn’t see the demon but his voice was in the front of his mind. “Easy, pumpkin, I’m not killing anyone. Don't you trust me?”

He was surprisingly lulling. It was like his brain was being massaged. Rhys found himself tripping at the reassuring tone that promised comfort, but Fiona calling out snapped him out of it.

“Rhys, come on! We’re leaving!”

He looked around and saw the caravan behind him. Fiona was inside, using a crossbow to fend off the soldiers rushing to the wagon. Vaughn was by her side, alive, swinging his sword and kicking goons off the back. Rhys shoved forward, chasing after the caravan.

As the elf leaped with his hand outstretched, he felt a sharp cut through his calf that pulled him to earth.

“Rhys!” Vaughn’s screech cut through his soul.

Rhys squirmed to meet the face of Hugo Vasquez, beaming grimly above him as he dragged the elf closer by his bleeding ankle. “You’re not going anywhere, Jack.”

“Sasha! Stop the caravan!”

“Guys, we’re getting overwhelmed!”

Rhys yelped at the tight hold around his neck when Vasquez lifted him onto his feet. “Jack...! Help...!”

“I know you can hear me, Jack. Would you please let me in on what you’re doing?! This isn’t the plan you told me! Did you forget?!” Hugo chided. “You can’t just go with them! You have to come back! It’s inevitable, Jack! If you leave, I’ll come back and force you!”

“I’m... Rhys-- Hugo!” Jack grabbed Hugo’s arm. For some reason, Rhys was feeling more energized as Vasquez gasped and wheezed, his knees hitting the ground. The elf surged out of anger. “And do you know what else is inevitable?! Me being with Vaughn! And you can’t take that away from me!” He flicked his free hand down and a cord of electricity was brought down through his shoulder. Hugo wailed, clutching his limb. Kicking him down, Rhys backed up towards the caravan. “And that! Was for treating Vaughn like shit! And calling me your slave! And--!”

Fiona dragged him onto the platform by scooping him up under his arms. “Would you shut up?! Sasha, go!”

“Fuck you, Vasquez!” He found a loose rock on the floor and uselessly chucked it in the Templar’s direction and flipped him off. “Yeah! HA! Rhys wins!”

. . .

The sun was finally leering over the horizon when Sasha steadied their horses to a stop. She patted them affectionately and fed them some water and well deserved bags of hay as she spoke softly to them. Fiona hopped off the wagon and reached up to the sky while her spine cried in pain. She was beginning to think that she needed to see a doctor, but that was for a later date… when they weren’t running from the law. So. Never. Doctors were just a fancy term for a mage and they were expensive anyway and they only look at you once and shush you away. Fiona never had good experiences with doctors.

Since it was all magic anyway, or at least the doctors they went to were, she wondered if Rhys could simply run a spell over her. Thinking about it, she decidedly disregarded that when she recalled how he fought. He was a good mage, still an amateur at best, but seeing Jack at the helm and bending the elf to his will was horrifying. It was no wonder that Rhys looked like he could fall asleep at any moment. She glanced at him. He was in the same spot everyone left him in, sitting on the edge of the caravan and glaring out at the distance like it insulted Vaughn or something… Speaking of the little guy, she wondered where he went. Probably went to pee somewhere. They only stopped a few times today. They needed to get as far away from Fyrestone as possible before they could relax.

She didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone except Sasha. There was no destination in mind except Overlook to find Dr. Zed. He was a powerful necromancer and was thrown from the Circle for illegal use of magic. He was a man on the run too but he always came back to Overlook to help the sick. It was possible that he could help Rhys with his demon problem, but then again, neither one of the rogues knew much about magic. Fiona hoped that this plan wasn’t leading them to a dead end.

“Hey, Fiona?” She looked down to see the dwarf.

“Hey Vaughn, you got your lute ba-- what happened to you?” Fiona asked, gesturing at his bandaging.

“Uh, Nisha. She gave us a real scare back there. I told you I wasn’t kidding about her. She really wanted me dead.”

“Ohhh, yeah, Sasha told me. Uh, you okay?”

“I’ll be okay. Moxxi helped. I was worse off than I am now, I can tell you that much. Sorry about the uh, the blood. A lot of it didn’t stay inside.”

“You do look a little pale, but don’t worry about it. At least the floor blood stains now match the blood on the walls. It was missing some color.”

“Heheh. Um… Fiona?”

“What do you need?”

“I just… wanted to say thank you to you too. I honestly didn’t think my dumb idea would work.”

“Yeah, no, you’ve made it clear that you don’t leave that thing behind.”

“But I didn’t think you two would care enough to go out of your way and help. So thanks for that.”

“... Sasha was very convincing.” Fiona lied. “You and Rhys are part of the team now. They can’t catch all four of us.”

Vaughn smiled a little. “I guess not.”

“Welcome aboard.”

“Thanks, what the team called?”

“... No clue. We’ll think of something. We’ve got a while...”

“That we do…” Vaughn’s gaze drifted to the caravan, specifically at Rhys, who still had his eyes set on the road behind them.

“Have you two talked at all?”

“Nope. I’ve been kinda sleeping on and off… He hasn’t budged since we left Fyrestone.”

“What’s stopping you from talking to him right now..?” Her arms dangled. “Oh boy, you two broke up.”

“No! No, we did not. I just…” He avoided eye contact, which sent her red flags that he was hiding something. “Rhys is being protective-- for you know, good reason. He watched me almost die today, so, I’ve just been giving him some space.”

Fiona gave a curt hum. “Anyway, we’re going to try to head up to Overlook. Moxxi gave us one of her contacts, Dr. Zed. He’s experienced with the dead. Maybe, he can exercise your friend.”

Vaughn didn’t give her any kind of reaction. He then spoke a little rushed. “I’m going to stretch my legs a bit more before we go.”

“Alright...” She gazed at him curiously as he walked away with a bit of a sway in his step.

Sasha was still taking intensive care of their old horses. Fiona hoped the poor girls would last their trip to the Highlands. With a strut in her step, she made her way back to the caravan and hopped up, taking a seat right beside Rhys. She was directly in his space but he didn’t seem to realize that.

She tried vocally. “Yo.”

He grunted, glaring at Fyrestone.

She nudged his shoulder. “Hey, Rhys, we won. Vaughn’s alive. We did it…. No one’s following us.”

“You don’t know that.” He mumbled, harshly.

“That’s true. I don’t, but let’s look on the bright side. We covered a lot of ground today and used aaaaall the shortcuts that only rogues like us know about. Don’t you think that’s cool?” She frowned at his lack of participation. “Listen, we’re going to help you, but right now, we are finding our motel. Sasha and I used to frequent that place when Felix are around. They’re like distant family. If any of those dickbags come around, they’ll cover for us… Come on, Rhys, don’t you want to go sit down? Relax a little?”

“I can’t relax…” He said more quiet than a whisper. “Jack’s out there.”

She assumed ‘out there’ meant in his head. She rolled her tongue around her mouth, unsure how to respond to that statement. “... I’m, um, sorry... for punching you.”

“Don’t… you don’t have to apologize for that.”

“Seriously?”

“All this was my fault. I deserved it.”

“Eh, you’re half right. This wasn’t all your fault, but, Maker, did it feel good to punch you.”

“You’re welcome, I guess?"

“Hey, I’m… kind of joking. Rhys.”

“What?”

“I can’t promise that we’re going to be fine, but as long as we keep moving and we keep trying to get that mother fucker out of you. You can stay right beside us.”

He snorted. “Is that what Sasha told you to say?”

“No… This is what I’m saying. I know what it’s like to lose everything. But Vaughn’s here. Alive. You can literally go up and talk to him. I can’t do that.”

“I-I-I can’t. I betrayed his trust. I trusted Jack to get him out of this, because, no offense, I didn’t believe in you.”

“... You know what, I’m not even that offended. I was talking out of my ass during that whole thing. I barely had a plan. I mean, what I had could have worked but uh--”

“I still shouldn’t have done that. I can’t just move on… I’m not ready to tell him about it.” The two sat in silence for half a minute. Suddenly, Rhys looked at her with a cocked brow. “Why aren’t you telling me to do it anyway?”

“Oh, shit, is that what I’m supposed to say?” She asked genuinely.

“... You’re kidding.”

“Rhys, I am the absolute worst person to try to comfort someone. Nothing I say comes out right.”

“I hate to be in Sasha’s shoes.” He smirked at her.

“Wow, harsh. I’m working on it, okay?” She said with a cheeky smile. The caravan leaned in reaction to added weight. Fiona eased herself onto the sand. “Sasha’s ready. I’m going to get Vaughn.”

“W-wait!”

“Or… You. Could go get him? I don’t care. Just don’t take too long.”

“I’ll, I’ll get him.”

“He went down that slope last time I saw him.”

“Oh, uh, thanks. Fiona. Thanks.” He trod through the sand that felt like they were begging to swallow his ankles. He wondered if he should try to say something to him. There was nothing simple or easy about telling your best friend that you betrayed their trust again to save their life. Rhys wiped his eyes before they could be drowned with tears. What kind of friend was he, not saying a word or asking if he was okay throughout the whole day? He needed to rehearse what he was going to say and attempt to not sound completely pathetic. As he grew closer to the edge of the slope, he could see Vaughn trudging up the side, holding his bandages. Both of them stopped the instant they saw each other.

His mouth ceased to function. It was open but only air passed through. Rhys trembled in place. Vaughn was alive. There wasn’t a rope around his neck. He was okay.

He was crying.

Vaughn ran and jumped into his arms. Stumbling over his own feet, Rhys staggered with jelly legs until he finally found balance and held Vaughn as tight as he could. He could feel his heart pounding hard against his skin. He cradled the dwarf, grabbing him, touching him, feeling his hair. He smothered his face into the side of his head and choked on his tears. He was so overwhelmed with relief that the lingering dread and guilt was forgotten. Maker, he was so warm in contrast to the cold desert breeze.

His mind kept flying back to when the two were holding each other just like this in their cell. Rhys wanted to say a million things at that moment. They both did. Vaughn wanted to daub him in kisses and never let go with the need to tell him how much he loved him. Rhys already knew. As he walked back to the caravan, holding the dwarf in his arms, he pressed his lips into his skin every so often.

Vaughn was happy, so, so unbelievably happy to be alive.