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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.