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Recipe for Disaster

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Chapter One: Pandoran Days

 

Being stuck in someone’s head is not what Jack expected out of life.

Being stuck in some code monkey’s head is even worse, because it just reminds him of where he came from. Once upon a time he was just a lowly Hyperion programmer himself, after all; he rose in the ranks by taking what he wanted, murdering his way up the corporate ladder, and attempted to ignore the fact he started from such a low point.

But now he is stuck in a code monkey’s head. A moral code monkey’s head, too. He hasn’t been in this guy’s head for very long, but he’s young and naïve and worse, he’s too moral. He doesn’t want to kill people; Jack doesn’t even have to be that far into his head or see him in action to know that. It’s written all across his face every time he looks at it. That stupid face with the ECHO-eye and that stupid, slicked back hair. God, this kid’s getting on his nerves and he’s only been stuck in his head for not even one Pandoran day.

It makes him miss Helios. It’s hard to count the hours in space, but he prefers that over the 90 hour days on Pandora, and just the general chaos of this place. This is such a lousy, no-good planet. He can’t believe he ever wanted to save it in the first place. It would be better to just nuke it and go somewhere else. If there weren’t vaults on Pandora, then maybe he would have done that ages ago. He should have.

But he can admit he was greedy and wanted what was in those vaults, so he tried to fix the planet. One would think the Pandorans would appreciate that; he was bringing order to them when before it was just completely chaos, but no, they decided to hate him for it and just become bandits.

He hates bandits.

At least, he decides, they are away from those two Pandoran girls – Fiona and Sasha, he thinks their names are, but he’s never been good with names. Why bother? No one is worth his time except his daughter.

Angel.

For one brief moment, Jack thinks longingly of his daughter. He wonders where she is, if she’s okay, if she thinks he’s dead like apparently everyone else does on this crazy planet… He wonders if she’s being looked after, but then realizes… who would watch out for her in his absence? It’s not like he went around telling anyone about her. She was the best kept secret in Hyperion, and definitely the best kept secret on Pandora. The last he remembers – though it’s all foggy, which is weird because he’s a hologram so fog isn’t really a thing, is it? – he was on working on getting the vault hunters to let him attack Sanctuary, their last little hideout with the resistance or whatever the fuck they’re calling themselves.

But he’s apparently been dead for six months. Apparently killed by said vault hunters six months ago, and that makes him worry about his daughter. He hates everyone, he really does – he might have tolerated Nisha, but he never told her about his daughter, because in the end it all came back to the fact Nisha is a bandit. She might be better than other bandits, taking down the bad ones, but she’s still a bandit nevertheless, just one which benefited Jack for a while. And the sex was fucking great. Nisha was a naughty girl indeed.

But anyway, back to the hating people.

Because he does.

He hates everyone but himself.

Everyone but himself, and his daughter.

She is the only person he loves – the only person he’s ever truly loved. Once upon a time he might have loved his mother, but then she ditched him to live with his grandmother. It was strange, as a kid – to have a home and a semi-normal life one moment, and then to suddenly have it taken away when he’s dropped off on Pandora of all places, to live with a woman he’s never met and barely even heard of.

His grandmother wasn’t the best, to put it simply.

He still has the scars on his side from her buzz axe.

So he hated his mother after that, and never saw her again. Never learned what happened to her after she promised to come back and then didn’t, but never bothered to look, either. Because he hated her. And he hated his grandmother.

He thinks he felt fond enough of his first wife, Angel’s mom. She wasn’t so bad. But then she went and died, leaving him alone to take care of a small, powerful Siren, and so yeah, a part of him hates her, too.

But Angel…

He loves Angel, even after what she did to her mom.

She was a child – innocent and sweet, and she didn’t know what she was doing. She reminded Jack of a better time in his life, and he couldn’t be mad at her for it. So he hid her away.

He told his next wife about her. There was a touch of something in that relationship, but Jack was never really fond of her. He just thought Angel could use a mother figure in her life, and after careful research, this woman seemed to fit the bill. Nurturing and kind, with experience with kids. Also, she was a teacher from Eden-6. So she could help with Angel’s studies while Jack was busy with work, even though Angel was probably smarter than her, even at such a young age.

But then his wife went and betrayed him by suggesting they shut down the ‘Angel-project’, and yeah. He had to get rid of her. No one threatens his baby.

So he hid Angel even more. Hid her from absolutely everyone.

And now he’s left wondering who might care enough to look after her. Who might care enough to find her, where he’s hidden her. Angel’s smart; she could probably break out if she was desperate enough, but then what? She has no friends, because no one can be trusted. Where would she go?

Jack needs to find her.

But first he has to get back to Helios, and get his own body. Get out of this guy’s head. Whatever the fuck his name is. Ryan? Ren? Rhys? Rhys. His name is Rhys.

He thinks.

“Don’t know what state of being I’m in now but, uh, walking still sucks,” Jack says for what has to be the third time or so, but honestly, it does suck. He could just travel in Rhys’ head, but it’s awkward in there. Awkward because he’s not really existing in there. It’s more like he’s sleeping, but there’s no dreams. It’s just like he stops existing for a while, and that’s really unsettling, because he’s not a ghost. He’s not a hologram. He’s not dead.

The heroes aren’t supposed to die.

“So you’ve said,” Rhys mutters, mostly under his breath, but his freakishly buff nerd friend looks over at him anyway. “Uh, sorry – Jack’s being annoying.”

The nerd frowns somewhat. Jack’s still not a fan of the whole ‘let’s tell the buff nerd everything that’s going on’ plan of Rhys’s, but there’s nothing he can do about it right now. He has no power here; he’s just a fucking hologram. Except he’s not. Because he’s not dead. Heroes don’t die.

“Where are we going, anyway?” Rhys asks. “It’s going to be getting dark soon, I think.”

Jack snorts, but the kid’s not completely wrong. The sun is setting, but with the 90 hour days here… yeah, it’ll still be a few hours before it’s completely set. Still, the temperature drops dramatically in the desert, at night, especially with Pandora’s night cycle, and while Jack can’t feel temperature, that doesn’t quite mean he wants to be out in the cold. Mostly because these two losers will freeze to death.

Which, normally he’d be fine with, but he’s kind of stuck with Rhys for the time being, so letting the kid die isn’t good for his own well-being. So, there’s that.

“What are we going to do at night?” the nerd asks, suddenly worried.

Earlier he was so excited to have lived a few moonshots, and a rakk hive. Now he’s close to panicking and looking at Rhys like he knows what to do. Which is hilarious. Rhys is a stranger on Pandora; he knows nothing.

He’s too moral to survive here.

“We’ll manage,” Rhys says. “Yvette knows where we are. She’ll… do something, I’m sure, if we’re in real trouble.”

The kid sure places a lot of trust in this Yvette chick. That’s going to be his downfall, Jack is sure. You can’t trust anyone. You can only rely on yourself. One day he’ll learn that lesson. Hopefully before he dies and takes Jack with him.

“You could… ask Jack, right?” the nerd asks timidly. “I mean – right?”

Rhys looks skyward for a moment. “90 hour days, huh? We still have a few hours before we have to really worry. Let’s keep moving and see if we can find some shelter. And I still have my stun baton.”

A baton is the kid’s weapon of choice. Granted, Jack hasn’t seen this baton in action, but it’s a fucking baton, it won’t do any good against guns. Christ, what has he gotten himself into? He looks skyward himself, toward the big H in the sky. He wants to go back there. It was never home, but at least it was better than Pandora.

Rhys seems to want to get back to Helios, too, so that’s something, at least. Jack can work with that.

He’s good at manipulating people, after all; so that’s what he’ll do. He’ll manipulate Rhys into going back to Helios and giving Jack what he wants. And maybe Jack won’t kill him after it’s all over. Who knows?

More walking, and yeah, walking still sucks. Even if it’s only because he’s bored. They have no real set destination in mind, the deserts of Pandora are vast and wide, so it’s not like they’ll be out of here anytime soon, if they remain on foot. There’s a flicker of worry deep inside, but he’s not sure where it comes from. He’s not worried about these losers, but if Rhys dies, then he dies, too.

So, that’s something to think about.

xXx

They find a cave to stay in that night. It’s cold and dark, but at least it’s out of the open, and maybe a bit safer. Rhys isn’t sure what to think of it; but again, at least it’s out of the open. If they’re going to be attacked, hopefully it won’t be by bandits.

And that’s really all one can hope for on Pandora.

They’re both shivering, and Jack is nowhere to be seen for once, thank god.

For a hologram in his head, the guy can sure get annoying.

For one, he doesn’t like being ignored, apparently, and constantly answering him gets tiring, especially with how Vaughn looks at him when he does it. He’s not sure if Vaughn completely believes that Handsome Jack is indeed in his head, but maybe it doesn’t really matter. Hopefully they can figure all of this out soon; someone on Hyperion will want AI Jack. Maybe they can use it as a bargaining chip if they really need to.

Thinking about it gives Rhys a headache, though.

Vaughn is shivering when Rhys waves his hand in his direction, the light emanating from his robotic palm allowing him to see his friend properly. He frowns; he doesn’t like seeing Vaughn so uncomfortable.

“Think you’ll be able to sleep tonight?” Rhys asks.

Vaughn shivers more, and shakes his head. “N-No,” he says, teeth chattering.

Rhys has far more layers of clothing than the accountant does. He sighs and takes off his vest, handing it to the guy. It won’t do much, but it will be big on him so maybe it will offer him at least some warmth. Vaughn eyes the vest carefully for a moment, before he accepts it with trembling fingers.

“Thanks,” he says quietly.

Rhys shrugs and keeps his palm open so there’s light in the small cave, and he sits carefully on the ground with his back against the cave wall. Vaughn sits a few feet away, still shivering, attempting to wrap the sleeveless vest around him as much as he can. Poor thing. Empathy shoots through Rhys and he sighs heavily.

“Come here.”

Vaughn looks over at him, frowning. “Excuse me?”

“Come here,” Rhys repeats. “I can’t have you freezing to death, and at least one of us needs some sleep. I’ll keep watch. Come here.”

He’s always had this protective instinct about Vaughn, though he’s not sure why. Maybe because the guy was his first true friend; he doesn’t know. All he knows is he can’t stand to see his friend suffering like this, and he’s going to fix it.

Vaughn hesitates, before the cold gets to him and he shuffles closer so he’s right up next to Rhys. Rhys throws his flesh arm around his friend, pulling him into his side. Vaughn’s shivering slowly subsides. Rhys smiles.

“Get some sleep,” he says.

“You’re a good friend,” Vaughn says tiredly.

“I know, I’m awesome. Don’t forget this when I’m grouchy in the morning.”

Vaughn laughs sleepily, settling further against him. It’s not the first time they’ve cuddled; they were roommates for a time, after all, and they fell asleep together on the couch more than once. But this is the first time they’ve done it purely for warmth.

It’s a survival tactic, though.

“Aren’t you two sweet,” Jack says, causing Rhys to flinch.

Vaughn blinks his eyes open, waking very briefly, before he quickly drifts back off to sleep.

Rhys throws a glare at the hologram. “It’s freezing, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Is it?”

Rhys rolls his eyes. “Hologram.”

Jack’s eyes narrow. “Better watch your mouth, cupcake. Hate for something to happen to it.”

“Do you have anything useful to say, or are you just here to bug me?”

“This is no walk in the park for me either, pumpkin,” Jack says, rolling his eyes, managing to sound absolutely insufferable in a way only a hologram can. “I don’t want to be here any more than you do. So you get me back to Hyperion and we’ll get this sorted out, capiche?”

Rhys sighs. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll get right on that when we’re not blacklisted and stranded in the middle of the desert, thanks.”

“Feisty, huh, cupcake?” Jack smiles, all teeth and no grin. “I like it.”

“Please stop talking,” Rhys says, feeling his face heat up. Thank god it’s dark in the cave and Jack can’t see him. “Where have you been, anyway?”

“Around,” Jack says evasively.

Fine, don’t tell me.

It’s not like it matters.

He doesn’t care anyway, of course.

“ ‘s it Jack ‘gain?” Vaughn mumbles into his shoulder, which he is using as a pillow.

Rhys sighs, glancing down at his friend’s barely parted eyes. “Yep, Jack again. Go back to sleep, Vaughn.”

“ m’kay…”

He shakes his head, smirking faintly at his friend before he lets the light on his robotic palm die away.

With it, Jack disappears, and Rhys sets about keeping watch for the long Pandoran night.

xXx

Rhys falls asleep many hours later, when Vaughn wakes up ‘refreshed’ but sore, still curled into Rhys’s side. Vaughn says he’ll keep an eye on things if Rhys wants to sleep.

Rhys’s eyes are already falling shut before he can fully agree with Vaughn’s suggestion.

xXx

Vaughn falls asleep a few hours after that.

Jack is not amused. He’s a hologram but he’s stuck keeping watch, and he has no idea how to wake these idiots up should something happen. He has half a mind to just let them die, but then he’ll die, too.

So. There’s that.

Maybe if he focuses enough he can get into Rhys’s head and wake him up.

Well. He’s bored, so why not try to give the kid a headache?

xXx

Rhys’s head is killing him.

It’s the pain that wakes him, emanating from his neural port on the left side of his head. He groans and drags his flesh hand up to rub at it, grimacing. As he moves, Vaughn nearly topples to the side since Rhys was the one holding him up, even in his sleep. Vaughn catches himself with a jagged, shocked breath, hands splayed across Rhys’ chest in an attempt to keep himself upright. For a moment they stare at each other, both in shock, before Vaughn quickly pulls away and Rhys blinks, rubbing at his head again.

Jack is laughing. He’s very loud.

“Oh, this is perfect,” Jack all but cackles. “You two losers are priceless.”

“Rhys, you okay? You look pale…” Vaughn says, unaware of Jack’s words and his loud laughter. Lucky him.

Rhys groans, closing his eyes. The sun has definitely come up, and while it’s warmer, it’s too bright right now. It hurts.

“Rhys?”

“I’m fine, just a headache,” Rhys says before Vaughn can worry too much. If there’s one thing Vaughn does well, it’s worry. All the time. About everything. Especially his friends. Which isn’t bad, but can be a bit… overwhelming, at times. Rhys swats Vaughn’s probing hands away, blinking his eyes open despite the pain and the light. “I said I’m fine. I’m okay. Headache. Normal.”

Jack’s still laughing off in the corner, holographic blue form bent over so his hands are somehow not sliding through his knees.

Rhys throws him a glare. “What are you so giggly about, anyway?”

“How’s your head feel, cupcake?” Jack asks with another laugh.

Rhys blinks at him, then narrows his eyes once more. “Wait a minute – are you saying you gave me this headache?”

Which, no. That’s rude and painful and he’s not happy about this, dammit.

“Well, I had to wake you up somehow, didn’t I, pumpkin?” Jack asks, looking absolutely smug in all the blocky glory of a hologram.

“Rhys?”

Rhys blinks at his friend. “Sorry. Jack’s being rude.”

“You were both asleep; I had to wake you up,” Jack says, crossing his arms over his chest like he’s insulted at being called rude, which is a lie. Rhys knows for a fact Jack has been called a lot worse. “Good to know I can if I really have to, I suppose. But it wasn’t fun for me either, cupcake.”

“Stop calling me that,” Rhys says.

“Huh?” Vaughn asks, utterly confused as Rhys pushes to his feet.

“Not you,” Rhys tells him.

“Jack? What’s he saying?” Vaughn asks.

“He keeps calling me…” Rhys hesitates. Telling Vaughn what Jack is calling him can’t be a good idea, he’s sure.

Jack is laughing again.

Damn it.

“What? What’s he calling you?” Vaughn asks, curious.

“Nothing,” Rhys tells him. “Alright – the sun is up. Let’s keep moving. We need to get out of this desert.”

Vaughn looks like he wants to argue, but he doesn’t. He just snaps his mouth shut and follows Rhys out of the cave. Holo-Jack is waiting for him outside already, still snickering. Rhys throws him a glare and walks past him.

xXx

“Do you think the girls are okay?” Vaughn asks later.

Rhys sighs; it’s not the first time Vaughn has asked, and while he admires the guy’s loyalty and concern for the girls, answering him is getting tiring because Rhys doesn’t know the answer. The last they saw of the girls, they were in the caravan, running from moonshots. Yvette said she got the moonshots to stop for the time being; hopefully that meant the girls are okay and got away.

But if they did… where are they? Are they really not going to come looking for them?

He knows they aren’t exactly friends, but he likes to think that after what they’ve been through together so far, there’s at least some loyalty – some concern, like Vaughn is exhibiting for them.

They entered a death race together, after all; they hunted down the money together. They entered an underground bunker together, and got pieces of the ‘Gortys Project’, whatever that is. Which might lead to a vault.

But Rhys still has his piece; Fiona has hers.

So if they want to get to the vault they’re going to at least need Rhys’s piece. So they’ll have to come find them eventually, right?

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Rhys says as they keep walking.

“Boring,” Jack huffs. “I’m so bored. You two are boring.”

Rhys tries to ignore him.

Jack does not like being ignored. At all.

“Aw, c’mon, cupcake, don’t be like that.”

“Stop calling me cupcake!” Rhys hisses, practically stomping his foot in irritation, and Vaughn blinks at the sudden outburst. Rhys sucks in a breath and forces his posture to relax.

“Cupcake?” Vaughn asks.

“Don’t ask,” Rhys says, glaring at him. “Don’t you even ask.”

Vaughn holds his hands up harmlessly. “Wouldn’t dream of it, bro.”

“Good. Good. See that is stays that way.” Rhys runs his robotic fingers through his hair in that nervous habit of his. “Alright. Let’s keep going.”

They begin walking again. Jack is still quietly laughing as he follows behind them.

Rhys ignores him as best he can.

xXx

Annoying Rhys is… well, it’s not fun, but at least Jack isn’t as bored as before. That’s something, at least. Definitely something, because being bored sucks, especially when he literally can’t do anything about it except give Rhys a headache.

Not that he doesn’t want to give Rhys a headache. Because he does.

But he already did, and having the kid crippled in pain in the middle of the desert isn’t such a great idea. See – Jack can think ahead. He knows better than to trust the desert, especially with these two idiots. He can’t leave them alone and making the only semi-capable one of them – Rhys – unconscious with pain just isn’t a good idea right now. Maybe later.

Maybe the buff nerd could surprise him, though.

He’s surprised by the random muscles, of course, but that hardly means the nerd is okay in a fight.

He’s too short to be even the least bit intimidating, even with that body.

Which Jack is totally not jealous of, but he was serious when he said he could never get that toned no matter how much he worked out. Saving the planet doesn’t leave much time for the gym, after all.

And now he’s comparing his body to a buff nerd, because he’s bored, and there’s this little part of his mind that wonders what Rhys looks like under all the layers. Is he buff, too? Did Jack just miss the memo that suddenly all his underlings are buff for no reason? Did they all somehow find time for the gym?

He doesn’t know, but he’s bored, and it’s driving him crazy now.

“Rhysie,” he says as sweetly as he can, which is just, ugh, sickening for him to do, but he does it nevertheless. Instantly, he has Rhys’s attention, blue and brown eyes latching onto him, a suspicious twist to the kid’s lips. Which is just rude, really. Jack can be nice if he wants to. He doesn’t have to have a reason.

“What?” Rhys asks, frowning.

“Huh?” the nerd asks.

Rhys shakes his head, keeping his gaze on Jack.

The nerd takes the hint.

“You don’t need to look at me like that, okay, cupcake?”

Rhys scowls. “Why do you insist on calling me that?”

“Sensitive, are we? Is it your time of the month, Rhysie?”

Rhys rolls his eyes, huffs, and turns away from Jack, stomping away like Jack won’t immediately follow.

No, you know what? Jack won’t follow.

Screw that guy.

He stops moving. It’s strange. He can’t feel the desert sand beneath him, but then he can’t feel much of anything, really. There’s like this electric hum going through his body, but that’s really about it. He can phase through some things, but not others, it seems like. Like the ground, for instance. Yep, that’s pretty solid. Not phasing through that.

The further away Rhys gets, Jack does start to feel something else.

It’s not quite… physical, but if he had to compare it to something, it would be his throat closing up, his windpipe not wanting to work properly. A tight feeling somewhere. It reminds him vaguely of panic, or at least what he remembers panic to feel like. He hasn’t felt that in a long time, though, and he’s certainly not feeling it right now. Because no. He is not panicking. He is not some clingy hologram who-

He growls in frustration, stomping angrily after Rhys and the nerd.

Then he stops, because no, he’s not giving into this thing, whatever it is. He is Handsome Jack, and Handsome Jack doesn’t just give in to things. He especially doesn’t feel panic, nor does he follow nobodies like Rhys.

He folds his arm across his chest and stands his ground.

“Oh my fucking god,” he hears Rhys grumble from yards away, suddenly stopping to turn and face Jack. “Could you keep up, please?”

“Why?” Jack asks, mostly because he’s curious, but also because – Rhys is not his fucking boss and Jack does not follow orders.

“Because I don’t like suddenly feeling like I left the stove on,” Rhys growls back at him. “It’s making me paranoid, so could you just?”

Jack frowns somewhat. Hmm. So Rhys feels it too, but it’s not as pronounced? Weird. Definitely weird. But something to focus on, at least; something he can attempt to unravel. He might not be in this holographic form for long, but he can at least attempt to figure out how it works. Because, hey, he might actually be stuck here for a bit, until they get back to Helios.

That might take a while, unfortunately. Especially since they’re stranded out in the desert. And right now Jack really has nothing better to do.

“We’re waiting for a hologram to catch up…?” the nerd asks, confused.

“Aw, what’s the matter, pumpkin? Can’t stand to be without me?” Jack asks, standing his ground.

Rhys’s shoulders stiffen. He shakes his head and turns away from Jack, stomping off angrily.

The yanking, panicked feeling returns somewhere in Jack’s nonexistent chest. It’s so fucking weird. The further apart they get, the more he feels like-

And then he teleports.

He doesn’t mean for it to happen. He’s literally watching Rhys walk away one second, and then the next he’s inside of the kid.

Rhys freaks out.

“Don’t do that!” the kid shouts, jumping out of the space the hologram is currently occupying, hands rubbing awkwardly down his chest as he shivers, like he’s covered in invisible cobwebs.

Jack blinks. Suddenly teleporting is a bit disorientating. “Oh, like I did it on purpose, cupcake. Calm down.”

The nerd stares at Rhys. “What just happened? What did he do?”

“Oh, like it’s my fault,” Jack says, insulted.

Why does the hero always get blamed for everything?

“He just… teleported to me, suddenly,” Rhys says, shaking his head. “It’s nothing. Sorry.”

The look he gives Jack is supposed to be angry, he assumes, but instead it just looks exhausted, like Rhys is tired of this. Well, screw him. Jack’s tired of this shit too. It’s not like he asked for this, after all. It’s not like he woke up one morning and was like ‘oh, hey, I’ll just be a hologram uploaded into some code monkey’s head and irritate the shit out of him, yeah that sounds like fun’. No. He didn’t do that. Because this sucks.

“Note to self,” Jack says, not to himself. Loudly. Because fuck you, Rhys, that’s why. “We can’t be too far apart or I will teleport inside you. Bet you like that, huh, cupcake?”

“Please stop talking,” Rhys says with this whole ‘kill me now’ tone of voice, and his cheeks are red.

Jack smirks. “You do like that, huh, cupcake? I bet you like all these pet names, too.”

“For the love of god, stop talking,” Rhys groans.

The nerd looks at him like he’s crazy.

“Don’t even ask,” Rhys says.

“No, go on, ask,” Jack says, like the nerd can hear him. “I want to hear you explain yourself.”

Rhys gives him a withering look and then turns to walk away. Jack laughs, following a few paces behind him, mostly so he won’t teleport suddenly again. Useful ability if he could control it but he honestly has no idea how he did that. So. There’s that.

“So this crush on me…” Jack says.

“It’s not a crush!” Rhys says loudly, throwing him another withering look. “I already told you, I had Hyperion issued motivational posters! Everyone had them!”

“Are you… okay, Rhys?” the nerd asks, clearly stunned at the sudden outburst.

It makes Jack laugh harder. Rhys really looks crazy right now. “So this crush on me,” he says again. “How far does it go? Because you’re blushing more than usual there, Rhysie.”

“Oh my god…” Rhys looks away, shoulders slumped. “What did I do to deserve this? No, really – what the hell did I do to deserve a hologram picking on me in the middle of a desert on Pandora?”

“Well… we did steal ten million dollars,” the nerd says helpfully. “And attempted to steal Vasquez’s deal. And stole his car. And broke a vault key, which wasn’t really a vault key. And-”

“Okay, you’re not helping!” Rhys says, tossing his friend that same withering glare.

“Rhysie, I didn’t know you were such a little thief,” Jack says, mostly because watching Rhys suddenly blush is amusing, and he’s bored. “A kid after my own heart. But you broke a vault key?”

“It wasn’t real,” Rhys says quickly. “Fiona and Sasha made it to look like it was real, but it wasn’t.”

Of course. The Pandoran con artists. “And that actually worked on you?”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Rhys says. “I was following what information I got from hacking Vasquez’s computer. It’s not my fault he was overconfident and didn’t realize it was a fake. I didn’t even know until I saw the key and tried to scan it; there was this EMP blast or something and it… I dropped it. It broke. Pretty clear it wasn’t real then.”

That is quite possibly the most Rhys has spoken to Jack since he came to life in the kid’s head. Huh. Interesting.

“Okay, only hearing half the conversation is a bit confusing,” the buff nerd says, catching Rhys’s attention.

Rhys sighs. He’s so dramatic. “Right, yeah, sorry, Vaughn. Let’s keep moving.”

They’re already moving, but they pick up the pace a bit.

Jack sighs and follows after. He really has no choice. It’s either that or teleport again.

When Vaughn asks about the girls again, Jack sighs and focuses on Rhys’s head.

Rhys winces as Jack inserts himself back inside, in a dreamless sort of slumber.

xXx

On Pandora, the day cycle is 90 hours long.

That’s roughly 45 hours of daylight, 45 hours of night.

It’s too long.

The heat is harsh, and they’re both thirsty. It’s hot and humid and there are no clouds, of course. Of course there’s not. Because the planet hates him. Everything hates him. The universe hates him.

That’s why they’re suck here, on this chaotic planet, in the middle of a desert, and he has a hologram stuck in his head.

Because everything hates him.

They’re going to die out here if they don’t find water or something soon.

He brings up his robotic palm, attempting to call Yvette again, but sadly she doesn’t answer. He sighs, closing his palm and dropping his arm back to his side. Vaughn looks at him hopefully, then sighs sadly when Rhys shakes his head at him. Still nothing from Yvette.

He won’t say anything about it, but he’s worried how much longer they can last.

Panicking Vaughn won’t help matters, though.

“Do you think the girls are okay?” Vaughn asks, again, and something inside of Rhys snaps.

“Would you stop asking about them already?” he snaps, shooting his friend a glare. He’ll blame his rage on the heat later, but for right now… “What does it matter how they are? They don’t care about us! They left us here to die! You’re so worried about them, but they obviously don’t care about us, do they? Or they’d be here!”

He waves around them as he spins in a slow circle, making it a point to show that they are, in fact, alone, in this desert wasteland.

“It’s just you and me. If they cared at all they would have come to find us by now.”

Someone’s panties are in a twist,” Jack comments, a flicker of blue in the corner of Rhys’s eye. He growls and rounds on the hologram.

“Shut the hell up,” he snaps. “I am not in the mood for your shit right now, okay? If you have nothing helpful to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

With that, he starts walking again.

It takes a moment, but eventually Vaughn’s footsteps follow after him.

There’s not a lot of conversation after that.

xXx

Rhys doesn’t like losing his temper.

He tends to lash out at people and do and say things he regrets once his mind is a little less fogged with anger. Vaughn doesn’t deserve his rage, after all.

“I’m sorry,” he apologizes later, with a weak voice and a dry mouth. It’s so hot, and they still haven’t found any water or anything. At least Vaughn is wearing his shirt on his head again, but Rhys refuses to just strip in the desert.

He becomes increasingly self-conscious when he has fewer layers of clothes on.

And with Holo-Jack stalking him, he would feel really self-conscious. Yeah, no. Not happening right now. Not today. No thanks.

“It’s cool, bro,” Vaughn tells him. “The heat’s just getting to you, is all.”

They walk in silence for a few more minutes.

“You do have a point, though…” Vaughn admits.

“Hmm?” Rhys glances at him.

“About the girls,” Vaughn says. “It’s been like… half a Pandoran day since we were separated, right? They have a vehicle. They could come find us, but instead…” He shrugs. “So you’re not completely wrong, you know.”

Rhys knows he’s not wrong, but hearing Vaughn sound so downtrodden is not what he wanted. “It’ll be okay,” he says as confidently as he can. “We’ll be fine.”

Vaughn nods, but he doesn’t look convinced. Of course he’s not convinced. Rhys himself isn’t convinced they won’t die in the next few hours if they don’t find something to drink soon.

And it’s very unlikely they’ll be able to find another cave to stay in tonight, so there’s the matter of shelter to deal with, if they make it to nightfall again.

The days on Pandora are too long.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two - Betrayal

 

It starts with a moonshot, a few hours later.

They’re barely moving, too tired and hot and thirsty to do much of anything, when suddenly there’s this sound, and they look up to find something firing from Helios. “About time,” Rhys says thankfully, assuming it’s Yvette finally coming through for them and sending them the supplies they requested so long ago.

The moonshot is coming right for them, though.

“Looks like that tracker is working,” Jack laughs at the look on their faces, no doubt.

Rhys and Vaughn jump out of the way of the moonshot. It hits the ground and opens to reveal a car driving into the distance due to the momentum, before it turns quickly and heads back toward them. The car looks very familiar, even if the color is wrong, and a knot forms in Rhys’s stomach.

That’s not help.

The car stops suddenly in front of them, kicking up sand and dust into the air, leaving them coughing. Rhys scowls as the window rolls down to reveal Vasquez.

Great. As if the day couldn’t get any worse.

Vasquez gets out of the car, smirking at them all the while. Rhys hates his stupid face.

He gets out of the car with a red Hyperion shotgun in his hand. “Fancy meeting you two here,” he says calmly, with that smug smirk and tone of his voice. “Here I was, out for a nice drive… and I land right on just the guys I was looking for.”

“I thought you wanted a black car,” Rhys can’t help but say.

Vasquez laughs. “I see what you did there. That’s funny. You steal my car, you make jokes about it. That’s good, that’s great stuff.”

He steps forward threateningly. Rhys and Vaughn share a quick look before they both back up, away from the man with the gun.

“Look,” Vasquez says, “I know we had a deal…”

Deal?

Rhys thinks back to the death race, when Vasquez called him right in the middle of it. Oh, right. Vasquez offered him a deal; set Vaughn up for the fall, turn on his best friend, and he could be allowed back into Hyperion and they’d forget this whole thing ever happened. Yeah, right! Like he would turn on his best friend.

He would never do that.

“And while I don’t like to go back on an agreement…” Vasquez continues, still walking toward them until their backs are pressed against a large rock formation behind them, “made man to man… the circumstances have changed.”

Rhys opens his mouth to tell Vasquez where to shove his little deal, when-

“That’s right,” Vaughn suddenly snaps, causing Rhys to blink at him, tearing his gaze away from Vasquez briefly. “We did have a deal.”

Rhys stares at Vaughn, something painful clenching in his chest. Ouch. Fuck.

“You convince me to double-cross my best friend, and the day isn’t even really over when you’re double-crossing me?”

Each word Vaughn speaks is painful in Rhys’s chest.

Vaughn, what…?

“Wow, Vaughn,” he manages weakly, causing Vaughn to at least flinch and look at him finally, “wow.”

Vaughn gives him this look, all doe-eyed and apologetic, before he glances back at Vasquez. “Should’ve known better than to trust a snake like you,” he says to the guy.

Rhys keeps staring at him.

His best friend.

Who… turned his back on him. Betrayed him.

Was going to just hand him over, let him take the fall, take the blame, let him be killed…

And why?

It makes no sense.

Rhys tries to think of a reason Vaughn might do this. He can’t think of one. Vaughn never seemed like the type to betray him before, so to suddenly have him saying these things, making a deal with Vasquez behind Rhys’s back…

It fucking hurts.

Rhys trusted Vaughn. He had Vaughn’s back.

He turned down his chance at getting out of this unscathed simply so he wouldn’t have to turn on his friend.

And yet… Vaughn went and turned on him.

He thinks back to Vaughn’s words through the night.

He said Rhys was a good friend.

Rhys is a good friend.

Vaughn… not so much.

It hurts. Like hell.

He’s almost glad he’s dehydrated right now. At least then there aren’t any tears at the sudden ruins of a friendship he thought was true.

“Don’t be like that, little guy, it’s the way of the… uh…” Vasquez trails off briefly. “Listen, I’m gonna go see if I have a shirt in the trunk, ‘cause your body is making me uncomfortable. Hold tight.”

He turns his back on the two of them and walks toward the car, confident they won’t escape.

He’s right.

He has a gun and a car; running won’t save them.

And right now, Rhys doesn’t even care to try and run.

He folds his arms across his chest, something he does when he feels hurt, and stares at Vaughn, who is looking at him again. All wide-eyed and apologetic.

Rhys’s eyes narrow into betrayed slits.

“Look,” Vaughn whispers urgently, “I told him I would sell you out, but I was never gonna do it. I was just saying whatever he wanted to hear to get that jerk off our backs. I wasn’t gonna follow through with it. Please believe me. I swear, Rhys, I would never betray you.”

Rhys stares at him. Tries to summon up the will to believe him.

Can’t.

Because Vasquez offered him the same deal, but he didn’t take it, and Vaughn is smart. He knows better than to trust Vasquez, to attempt to get him off their backs that way. He’s only apologizing because he was caught and turned on by the man he trusted over Rhys.

His supposed best friend.

Rhys says nothing. Vaughn’s expression falls.

“Rhys?” he whispers. “Please believe me.”

And then Vasquez is coming back over to them, having not found a shirt in his trunk. It’s easier to focus on him and his own impending death than on Vaughn’s betrayal, and the pain in the back of his throat.

He doesn’t process the fact Vasquez has anything in his hands before a shovel is thrown at him. He barely manages to catch it before it knocks the air from his lungs, and another shovel lands on the ground at Vaughn’s feet.

“You two freaks start digging,” Vasquez says, smirking at them. “I wanna see a decent grave going before too long.”

Vaughn slowly picks up the shovel.

Vasquez looks at Rhys.

Rhys glares back at him. Tries to think of a way out of this. Thoughts are too scattered because of the whole I thought you were my friend, Vaughn…

“Let’s work this out,” Rhys says without thinking, mind working on auto-pilot.

He can feel Vaughn’s eyes on him.

“We’re way, way past that,” Vasquez says, keeping a light grip on the gun.

Think, Rhys.

“You and me, we could, uh…” Rhys trails off there, because there’s not really anything he has that Vasquez could want. He could tell him about Jack and offer that as a trade for both his and Vaughn’s lives, but he knows Vasquez. He knows he’ll betray them, kill them both anyway, and take what he wants. So there’s really no point in trying to talk this out.

He’s quiet for too long.

Vasquez steps forward, suddenly slamming the gun into Rhys’s chest, effectively knocking the air from his lungs. He gasps, losing his grip on the shovel. It clatters to the ground just in time to be out of the way as Vasquez suddenly head-butts him in the mouth.

“Rhys!” Vaughn says.

It hurts – the pain is sudden and sharp and ouch. Rhys holds a hand to his mouth, wincing painfully. Out of the corner of his eye he sees blue flicker to life. Vasquez takes a step back, holding his forehead where he hit Rhys in the mouth, seemingly equally pained. Good. Serves him right.

“Ughh! Damn,” Vasquez says, wincing. “Damn that smarts. I think I did that wrong. You got a tough noggin. It looks so easy in the movies…”

“Amateur hour,” Jack says. “You gotta aim for the bridge of the nose, dum-dum.” Rhys glances at Jack out of the corner of his eye, and finds the hologram watching him now. “How is it every time I show up you idiots are in a worse situation?”

Rhys sighs, running his cybernetic hand through his hair – a nervous habit. Great. Now not only is he going to die in the next few minutes, but he’s going to have to be picked on, too. Just great.

The day can’t possibly get any worse.

“You’re not helping,” he mutters to the hologram.

Vasquez straightens up, removing his hand from his head, revealing a red mark from Rhys’s mouth. Good. Serves him right. Asshole. “Alright, fun’s over,” he says. “Looks like we’ll be settling for the shallow variety of grave.” He brings the gun back up, leveling it with Rhys’s chest. “Rhys, you die first, and then he can load your body into the car. I’ll bury Vaughn myself.”

“What?” Vaughn asks shakily.

“Yeah, they want this idiot’s body for something up there,” Vasquez says, confused. “Something, ah… important floating around in his head.”

Rhys glances at Jack, catching his eye briefly.

“This is a prototype,” Vasquez says smugly, glancing down at the gun still aimed at Rhys. “Most advanced gun Hyperion has ever made.”

“Someone’s overcompensating,” Jack comments in Rhys’s ear, sending shivers down his spine because wow, Jack is really close to him suddenly. If he actually had to breathe to speak those words would be ghosting across his ear, all breathy and warm and no, he does not need this right now.

He tries his best to just ignore the hologram in his last moments of life.

The gun charges up, an orb of energy surrounding the muzzle, and Rhys swallows thickly. This is it. This is the end of his life.

He’s going to die here.

But suddenly the gun messes up, somehow.

It stutters, and the strange energy orb disperses. Rhys smirks, quirking a smug brow as he watches Vasquez attempt to fix it, looking all over on the gun.

“Any… last words?” Vasquez asks absently, looking the gun over.

Rhys chuckles faintly. “Two. Eat shit.”

“Yeah, that’s the spirit,” Jack says somewhat proudly. It’s… odd.

“I’ll be sure to put ‘ate shit’ on your tombstone,” Vasquez says, shaking his head.

“I’d be more worried about my tombstone if you knew where the safety was,” Rhys says.

“You’re hilarious. I’m gonna miss your…” Vasquez trails off, still attempting to find the safety.

“Okay, look,” Jack says, suddenly stepping in front of Rhys, partially blocking his view of Vasquez and the gun. Only partially because the guy is a hologram, after all. “As much fun as it would be to watch this idiot kill you two idiots, I can’t let that happen. I’m… I’m not inside you but I’m… Look, if you go, I go. I’ve enhanced your ECHO-eye, so use it to hack something that can get us out of this jam. You can figure out how to pay me back later.” He steps back to stand next to Rhys. “I’ve got your back.”

There’s this… feeling as Jack tries to clap a hand to Rhys’s shoulder, like they’re friends or something. It’s so strange. It feels weird, and Jack’s body just flickers and goes through him anyway. He wishes Jack would stop trying to touch him.

“Okay,” Jack says, “mess this guy up.”

Rhys activates his ECHO-eye with a thought, seeing the electric bits of the Hyperion gun and the car behind Vasquez. He goes for the car, hacking into it, and smirking when he realizes he can now see deeper subsystems than he could before. He now has access to other things… like the accelerator.

He activates the accelerator with a thought, using it to control the car.

While Vasquez is busy with the gun, Rhys quirks a brow and turns the car around so it’s aimed at Vasquez.

Then, he sends the car rushing toward the guy.

Rhys jumps out of the way as the car smacks into Vasquez and through the place he previous occupied. Vasquez winds up on the ground, winded but not dead, and Rhys gets back to his feet, attempting to turn off his ECHO-eye, but it’s taking longer than usual for some reason.

Jack is doing that loud laugh of his.

Rhys’s cybernetic arm suddenly reaches out, fingers curling to point at Vasquez as Jack keeps laughing.

“Uh… what are you doing with your arm?” Vaughn asks.

“I’m… I’m not doing it,” Rhys says, smacking at the arm with his flesh hand.

“Oh, hello,” Jack says smugly, and next to him the hologram’s hand turns palm-up. Rhys’s cybernetic hand does the same.

Oh. Oh fucking shit.

Just fucking great.

Jack is controlling his cybernetic arm.

The hand moves off to the side briefly, and then toward Rhys’s face.

“C’mon, let me hit ya,” Jack says.

Rhys fights the cybernetic arm away with his flesh hand. “No, this is my arm! Get out!”

His grip falters briefly, and the cybernetic hand smacks into his face, momentarily blinding him from the pain. Jack laughs in his ear but vanishes in the middle of saying something. Hmm. Odd.

He doesn’t have time to think about it though, because now Vaughn is running away.

He looks over and Vasquez is getting up.

Oh, shit.

Rhys moves to chase after Vaughn, then thinks better of it. Because Rhys is a thinker. He likes making plans. He’s good at it. It’s not his fault if people don’t listen to his ideas.

He uses his ECHO-eye to regain access to the car’s subsystems.

He forces the car out of Vasquez’s reach as the guy tries to climb inside it, presumably to run them over. Instead the car swerves around Vasquez and straight toward Rhys, stopping next to him to allow Rhys to enter said car. He gives up his ECHO-eye access and drives the car after Vaughn, leaving Vasquez shouting at him in the dust.

Vaughn keeps running, presumably thinking the car is driven by Vasquez.

Rhys drives in front of him and stops, throwing open the passenger door.

“Get in!” he snaps.

Vaughn does as he’s told, immediately climbing inside the vehicle.

And they drive away from Vasquez and the desert heat.

xXx

“I’m sorry,” Vaughn says quietly, after they’re driving for a time. They’re finally getting out of the desert, it seems; he can see greenery around them now.

Rhys ignores him. It’s all he can do to keep calm right now. He’s exhausted and pained and hurt in more ways than one. He doesn’t want to talk about this right now. He just wants to get out of the desert.

“Rhys? I’m sorry.”

“I heard you,” he says, not unkindly, but not pleasantly either. It’s this dull, flat sort of tone he usually hates and tries not to use on Vaughn, but he’s too exhausted right now. He doesn’t care how it makes his friend feel. Are they even friends anymore? Fuck, he doesn’t know.

“I would never betray you,” Vaughn tells him timidly. “You have to believe that.”

“He offered me the deal too.”

Vaughn’s quiet for a moment. When he speaks again, his voice is full of shock. “Oh, really? What… What did you say?”

“I told him no,” Rhys says flatly, giving his friend a dull look before returning his gaze on the road, right foot pressing down on the accelerator a little more, causing them to speed up.

I told him no, and you told him yes. You sold me out. You were going to sell me out.

And it fucking hurts.

Rhys never had a lot of friends growing up. He came from a poor part of Eden-5; his parents had little to do with him for the most part, busy trying to earn a living, which was understandable. At the age of thirteen he was caught in a bandit raid, half of him blown to hell and back. He lost his left eye and his right arm. He was born left-handed, but had been raised ambidextrous, so losing his right arm wasn’t too bad. It could have been worse.

Nevertheless, only having one arm and one eye was terrible.

He was a freak.

The planet fell into a depression of sorts, with all the major companies searching for vaults and riches and everything across the universe.

His parents couldn’t afford to feed him anymore. None of the kids his age had anything to do with him after he lost his arm and became a cripple.

His parents sold him to Hyperion to be part of their experimental cybernetics program. It was a win-win, to them. They got money for handing over their son as a ‘volunteer’, and Rhys got his arm and eyesight back. Simple. It was a long and painful process, though, back in Tassiter’s days of running the company. That guy was a grade-A asshole. Thank god Jack killed him.

Maybe that was one reason Rhys looked up to Jack for so long.

He took out the man responsible for a lot of unnecessary pain on Rhys’s part.

The experimental process of getting a cybernetic Hyperion limb, and an ECHO-eye, was painful and dangerous. Most of the subjects died. It was painful to learn that, to his parents, that wasn’t a downside. They couldn’t afford to feed a cripple like him. If he had to die, at least it wasn’t by starvation, and they technically did what they could for him. In their eyes, this was fine with them.

That hurt.

Betrayal always hurts.

But he didn’t really have friends. Didn’t understand the concept.

Not until he met Vaughn when they were twenty and twenty-one, respectively. That was six years ago.

Six years of friendship, and Vaughn is willing to just turn on him.

It’s painful, and it sucks, and Rhys doesn’t have time for this shit.

Vaughn was his first real friend, his best friend, and Rhys would do anything for him. Anything.

And Vaughn was going to sell him out.

Betray him, like everyone else.

First his parents, then those scientists and engineers at Hyperion, then Fiona and Sasha not looking for them, and now this. Vaughn betraying him.

It hurts worse than losing a limb.

And he’s well-acquainted with that feeling.

“Rhys…?”

Vaughn’s quiet voice breaks him out of his thoughts. There’s a lump in his throat. Swallowing hurts.

“What?” he asks weakly, feeling utterly drained.

“You… You’re going to break the steering wheel…”

Rhys takes in a shallow breath and looks down to see that his cybernetic hand is indeed close to crushing the steering wheel with his tight grip. He relaxes said grip and looks back at the road ahead.

They’re finally out of the desert.

“Are you…? I know you’re not okay, forget I said that. Okay. I just. I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry.”

“Please stop talking,” Rhys says tiredly.

He’s too tired and spent and hurt for this. He can’t do this right now.

“Rhys, please… what would you have done? I was trying to buy us time and get him off our backs!”

“What would I have…?” Rhys turns a glare on his friend. “I told him no! He offered me the exact same thing he offered you but you know what the difference is? I didn’t turn on you.”

He snaps his mouth shut and leaves it at that.

Fuck. He hates snapping at Vaughn.

Hates it so much.

It does nothing to settle the cold ball of hurt in his stomach.

Lashing out isn’t a good idea, ever.

“I’m sorry,” Vaughn says quietly. “I’m so sorry, Rhys. I just… I didn’t know what to do. I thought I could play him. I thought… I was just… I wasn’t going to betray you. I just wanted him off our backs. You’re my best friend, Rhys. I wouldn’t… I would never betray you.”

He keeps saying that.

Rhys isn’t sure who he’s trying to convince: himself, or Rhys.

“Let’s just play the silent game,” Rhys says flatly.

Vaughn, thankfully, stays quiet.

xXx

Vaughn looks at Rhys occasionally. His friend’s jaw is clenched tight, muscles jumping haphazardly. He really messed up. He knows he did, and he has no idea how to fix it. He’s apologized over and over again, but Rhys won’t listen.

I wasn’t going to betray you, Rhys…

He really wasn’t.

He would never betray Rhys. Ever. They’re best friends. Vaughn was always a nerd, always teased and picked on and bullied for it, and Rhys was his first real friend. When he realized his new roommate was a cyborg of sorts, he wasn’t sure what to think at first – a bit terrified, maybe, from watching those old movies about cyborgs trying to take over the planet, but that was just the nerd in him showing.

Rhys didn’t look like a nerd, but he definitely was.

He and Vaughn got along so well. It was perfect. His first real friend, and his roommate, no less. It was the best.

They aren’t roommates anymore, of course; they each have their own apartments on Helios now. Or, used to. Because they’re blacklisted now, and that panic from earlier threatens to consume his mind again. They’re blacklisted, and stranded on Pandora, and everyone’s trying to kill them, it seems.

Vaughn wasn’t lying earlier when he said he never felt so alive.

It’s… exhilarating, being on Pandora like this, but it’s also terrifying and unsettling because he’s not used to this. He wasn’t made for this. He is an accountant for crying out loud. He’s good with money and numbers; not surviving on Pandora. Mixed up with vault hunters and bandits and grifters and…

And now Rhys hates him.

It hurts, it really does.

He didn’t think things through enough, and that’s his own fault. When he accepted Vasquez’s deal, he was merely trying to get him off their backs. He had no doubt Rhys would come up with a plan to get them out of this mess; he always had a plan B. He always came up with something out of nowhere. He’d get them out of this mess. They just needed time.

So he tried to buy them some.

And it backfired spectacularly.

The way Rhys looked at him… so betrayed… so confused…

He never saw it coming. He trusted Vaughn.

Which is great, because Vaughn didn’t betray Rhys. He never would.

Rhys is his best friend – the only person in the universe who probably gives a damn about him, besides Yvette. Rhys has been his best friend for six years. Vaughn would never betray him, but Rhys won’t listen to him.

Vasquez offered the same deal to Rhys, and Rhys told him no.

Vaughn should have said no, too. He just… didn’t think things through…

And now Rhys hates him.

And he has every right to, because Vaughn messed up and broke Rhys’s trust.

I’m so sorry, Rhys…

“S-So,” he says weakly, before clearing his throat, hoping his voice sounds at least a little stronger now, despite how small he feels. “Where are we going?”

Rhys spares him a quick glance with his brown eye before looking back out the window. Rhys can’t even stand to look at him.

I’m sorry…

“We could meet up with the girls in… um… Hollow Point…” Vaughn starts to offer, before remembering that Rhys is angry with the girls, too, for not coming back for them. It’s just another betrayal in his eyes, he’s sure. Vaughn swallows thickly. “Or we can go to Old Haven. We know where they’re going to be eventually going, so… they can just meet us there…”

Rhys is silent for a long time.

The silence is uncomfortable and wrong. Usually, their silences are companionable and easy, but now… now it’s suffocating, and he hates it. He just wants Rhys to talk to him.

“Rhys?”

“Hollow Point,” Rhys says with that same flat tone as before, the one Vaughn really hates.

“Okay,” Vaughn says, because at least Rhys is talking to him, right? “So we’ll meet up with the girls?”

Rhys nods once, and says nothing more.

Well. There goes that.

“Can you ever forgive me?” Vaughn asks softly.

Rhys’s grip on the steering wheel tightens again, a muscle jumping in his jaw as he grits his teeth, keeping silent.

“I wasn’t… I wasn’t going to betray you… I would never… You have to believe me, Rhys. You’re my best friend, I… please forgive me?”

“I’ll think about it,” Rhys says finally.

It’s not much, but it’s more than Vaughn had before.

He nods and goes quiet, knowing it’s what Rhys wants. He’ll give it to him.

For now.

Chapter Text

Chapter Three – Hollow Point

 

Jack does not like to keep blacking out randomly.

There’s a common theme when it happens, he’s sure, but still. It’s disorientating. It’s not like when he goes into Rhys’s head of his own accord; instead it’s different and cold and empty and he does not like it.

When he fizzles into existence again, he’s in the backseat of that one guy’s car, and Rhys and the nerd are up front. There’s this awkward, tense silence between them. The nerd keeps looking at Rhys like he’s hopeful about something, also very guilty about something. It’s this torn expression Jack is rather familiar with. Hmm. What happened?

“Miss me, cupcake?” he asks, mostly to see Rhys completely flinch. His hands jerk on the wheel, causing the car to go sideways for a moment before he straightens out their path, throwing Jack a glare in the rearview mirror.

“W-What was that?” the nerd asks.

“Jack’s back,” Rhys says flatly, looking back at the road.

Hmm. Okay. Yeah, he missed something. Something’s definitely wrong here.

“What’s up, buttercup?”

“What do you care?” Rhys mutters, mostly under his breath, but the car isn’t exactly huge, and everyone hears him.

Jack frowns, unable to stop himself. He likes picking on Rhys; it’s amusing, and takes away the boredom, and he’s used to Rhys snapping back at him occasionally, but this is different. Something is wrong.

“I care because I’m stuck in your head, cupcake,” Jack says. “So tell me what’s wrong. What did I miss?”

Rhys shakes his head, and doesn’t answer.

Jack does not like to be ignored. He opens his mouth to start yelling at the kid, when Rhys catches his eye in the rearview mirror again.

“I’ll tell you later,” he mouths, but doesn’t actually voice.

Jack’s pretty good at reading lips, though. It’s a useful trick to have, after all.

Huh. Okay. So he doesn’t want the nerd to hear? That’s… strange. Aren’t they friends?

Yeah, he really missed something.

But, Rhys does plan on telling him, and that’s something, at least.

So he nods and remains silent.

xXx

It takes a while, and a lot of gas, but thankfully Vasquez’s car was full of gas when they took it. They finally reach Hollow Point as the sun gives way to the harsh, chilly night.

Rhys isn’t sure why he decides to go to the mechanic’s place, but he’s got a feeling that’s the first place Fiona and Sasha would go. They need their ride fixed, after all.

Sure enough, as he pokes his head inside, he sees the caravan being worked on by said mechanic, but the girls are nowhere to be seen. Of course they’re not. It’s been, what? Probably a day since they arrived? So about 90 hours?

They’re probably staying somewhere.

They’re from here, right? So they probably have a place nearby.

Rhys has a few options.

  1. Find the hideout and the girls – offer what help he can.
  2. Leave them here and head to Old Haven. They can meet him there when they’re ready.
  3. Forget about everyone and take off on his own. Vaughn will be fine with the girls.

He sighs, running his cybernetic hand through his hair again.

The third option is tempting.

Rhys is a selfish person at heart; he’s greedy and selfish and self-serving. He’s perfect for Hyperion. He likes getting what he wants.

But he’s also empathetic. Ditching his friend will hurt him.

He’s also into surviving, and sticking with these people…

He’s not sure when Vaughn got thrown into the these people category, but it leaves his breath catching in his throat. It hurts. None of these people are his friends.

Maybe in time, he’ll forgive Vaughn… but for right now, he’s angry, and hurt, and he needs to be alone.

“You stay here,” he tells Vaughn as he walks past him, back out of the garage. “I’m going for a walk. Maybe I’ll find the girls.”

“I don’t think you should go alone?” Vaughn says, confused.

Rhys fingers his stun baton, dormant in his pocket. Vaughn swallows and nods.

Rhys leaves without another word to him.

He just needs to be alone right now.

Sadly, when one has a hologram in their head, they’re rarely alone.

“Okay, cupcake, what did I miss?” Jack asks the second he’s outside of the garage, away from Vaughn but clearly not alone.

“I’m just a little angry.”

“A little? Rhysie, you have anger problems if this is a little angry. And I know angry. Trust me. I wrote the book on angry.”

The guy loves the sound of his own voice, doesn’t he?

“Look, I just…”

“Yessss?” Jack draws out.

“Vaughn was going to sell me out to Vasquez,” Rhys says in a quick breath, just wanting to get it off his chest because fuck it hurts… “He was going to let me take the fall and hand me over and let them kill me and – and he says he didn’t mean it, that he wouldn’t betray me, but I just-”

“Wait!” Jack says sharply. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait – that loser, he was…? He betrayed you?! That nerd?”

Rhys nods weakly, unsure what else to do. “And he apologized and said he didn’t mean it, that he was just trying to get him off our backs, but I just… Vasquez offered me the same deal, and I said no, and Vaughn said yes, and I just… I probably shouldn’t be angry. I’m probably overreacting.”

Jack’s eyes narrow at him. “Uh, no, pumpkin, you’re not overreacting. You’re reacting perfectly normally, actually. In fact you should be more angry. That little dweeb turned on you? Betrayed you? If you let him live, he’ll only do it again, and you won’t make it out next time.”

Jack looks… intimidating, when he’s angry. He’s got this tone in his voice, and his eyes are glowing somewhat in the new darkness around them. But, of course, Hollow Point is basically an underground city, in a network of caves, so of course it’s dark here, but even so, it’s the night cycle now.

Rhys shakes his head. “I’m not going to kill him, are you crazy? He’s… He’s my friend.”

“He’s not,” Jack says, scowling at him. “Look, Rhysie, cupcake, pumpkin – if you have friends, they’ll stab you in the back. You don’t have friends, you have enemies. If he was your friend he wouldn’t have turned on you in the first place.”

Rhys sighs, looking at the ground. He honestly doesn’t know what to think.

“I’m just so angry,” Rhys admits quietly, running his robotic hand through his hair again. “I just… He’s my best friend. And I said no, and he said yes, and he’s so sorry, but I just… I don’t know if I can…”

“Don’t believe him,” Jack tells him. “Are you listening to me, cupcake? Don’t trust him. He’ll only stab you in the back again. Keep him around for now if you have to, because you seem to do better in a group and you’re going to need help opening the vault, but don’t trust him.”

“I don’t know… I just… I don’t know. Fuck it. Let’s just… I need to find the girls.”

He starts walking again. If anyone saw him right now, he’d look crazy, talking to himself and basically answering himself, but oh well. He doesn’t care about that right now.

He’s going to have to get better at ignoring Jack, though, if they’re going to be around more people now. Especially the girls. They’ll throw him out if they learn he’s got an AI program of Handsome Jack in his head.

Oh well, a darker part of Rhys’s mind whispers. You don’t have to trust them. Use them, because they’re using you, too.

His hands clench into fists at his sides, and he pushes onward through Hollow Point.

He doesn’t make it very far before his shoulder is grabbed and he’s thrown harshly to the ground. He groans and rolls over so he’s on his back, looking up at the masked figure. Oh, great. Bandit gear. Fucking perfect.

As if today wasn’t sucky enough already.

There’s a sudden sharp pain in his head. He groans and rolls his head that way to find a bandit moving away from him – a second bandit. Who kicked him in the head. Fucking ow.

Jack has vanished again, flickering out when his head got hit.

Huh.

That’s… what, three times now, that he’s vanished after Rhys’s head was hit? First when he bumped his head into the girder, then he reappeared that one time, suddenly, when Rhys was head-butted, and then he vanished again when he hit himself in the head.

Or, when Jack hit him in the head. Whatever.

Huh… strange.

He doesn’t have long to think about it, though. The bandits are eying him – or, he thinks so, anyway. It’s hard to tell with the masks and everything.

Hyperion,” one of the bandits says. “You should know better than to come down here.”

Oh, right. His vest. Fuck.

He really needs to not have it on when he’s on Pandora.

It’s just… he’s used to having it on.

He likes that vest.

A kick to the ribs, then.

He coughs, groaning loudly as the air is ripped from his lungs.

He’s already sore from Vasquez; he doesn’t need this right now. Shit.

He rolls over and manages to get to his knees.

“I don’t want any trouble,” he manages to wheeze, holding onto his ribs with his robotic arm. “I’m just passing through.”

“Nice try, Hyperion,” the same bandit says distastefully. “You got a lot of nerve showing your face here after you ruined this planet.”

I didn’t ruin this planet. Jack might have. But it was already a crappy planet anyway.

So, see? No ruining. Not his fault.

But of course they aren’t going to listen to him.

You know what, fuck this.

It’s been a really long day. Rhys is tired and sore and hurt, and he really doesn’t have time for this crap right now. His left hand reaches into his pocket, the flesh fingers pulling out the stun baton, which just looks like a little silver stick right now, since it’s not turned on or anything.

“What’s that?” a bandit asks, aiming a gun at him.

“Flashlight,” Rhys says.

“Put it down.”

“Okay, okay, just-”

His thumb pushes down on the button at one end of the stick. A length of pulsating, electric energy emerges from the opposite end, and it does that odd thing again. Like when he first turned it on for the first time, it sends the bandits flying away from him with this pulse of energy. It ripples across Rhys’s skin, hums and vibrates through him, but doesn’t hurt him in the slightest. It’s so weird.

Rhys gets to his feet, holding the stun baton in his left hand.

The bandits crawl back to their feet.

By the time they realize what’s happening, Rhys has jammed the end of the stun baton into one of their stomachs, and they fall to the ground in a gasping, wheezing heap as electricity surges through them. The second bandit reaches for their dropped gun, but by the time they have it up to aim it at Rhys again, Rhys is on them.

When he first did this, he felt remorse. Remorse as he murdered bandits.

Now he feels nothing, because it’s been a long day and he’s so fucking tired.

He rams the length into the bandit’s eye, into his head.

The bandit screams.

Then collapses. It’s over in just a few seconds.

Rhys turns off the stun baton, the electric, pulsating energy fading away before he pockets the stick.

Stepping over corpses is getting a lot easier.

xXx

“Righteous father, I have found you again.”

Rhys blinks, still startled from the Loader Bot suddenly landing in front of him like that. And it’s still so strange to hear it calling him that. Nevertheless, he smiles.

“I have missed you,” Loader Bot says, looking at him with that one red eye.

Rhys’s smile grows. “I missed you more,” he says, and realizes how true it was. He takes the two steps forward and hugs the bot as best he can. He’s always liked robots; they’re more genuine than humans, at any rate, if given the chance.

Vaughn betrayed him.

Maybe Loader Bot… won’t.

Maybe.

The knot in his stomach reforms.

“Do you know where the girls are? Where have you been, buddy?” Rhys asks, releasing the bot.

“Looking for you,” Loader Bot says in that robotic voice of his. “When I could not find you I came here to find the girls, and found you first.”

“Well, it’s good to see you,” Rhys says, smiling genuinely. He really is happy to see the Loader Bot, having thought he’d lost him for good when the bot fell off the top of the caravan during the rakk attack. “Do you know where the girls are? I’m looking for them. Vaughn’s back at the garage.”

At least, he assumes he is. Rhys left the garage about an hour ago, and has since been attacked by bandits and everything. He hopes Vaughn’s still at the garage, where it’s safer. He’s still not sure where he and his friend stand right now, but that doesn’t mean he wants to see him hurt or anything.

“They are this way,” Loader Bot says, and suddenly Rhys is on the bot’s shoulders as the bot takes off into the air. Okay. Yeah. This is… yeah. This is happening now.

Rhys does not like heights. At all.

He clings to Loader Bot’s… neck? Sure, why not. He clings to it as they fly through the sky, only to land about a minute later. A woman with a fancy-looking shield is standing in front of Fiona and Sasha, who are backed into a corner, clearly worried. Okay. So this woman is not a good person.

Rhys jumps off Loader Bot, reaching for his stun-baton.

Loader Bot beats him to the punch, though, easily grabbing the startled woman with the shield, and throwing her over a building. She’s probably okay, Rhys surmises. Even with that fancy, physical shield, she probably also has some type of shield on her as well which will consume most of the damage from her fall, lessening what actually manages to hurt her.

He’s not sure why he’s worried about it, though.

“Was she bothering you?” Loader Bot asks, looking at Fiona and Sasha.

“Little late for that,” Sasha informs him with a smile. “It’s good to see you.”

“Rhys, that you?” Fiona asks.

Rhys walks up to stand next to Loader Bot. He nods once, but says nothing, pocketing his stun-baton again.

“Where’s Vaughn?” Sasha asks, frowning at him.

“At the garage,” Rhys replies tiredly. “Let’s go.”

“It’s not safe through here,” Fiona informs him, like he doesn’t already know. “There are bounty hunters after me.”

Huh. Well, okay, that’s new.

“Loader Bot can take you two back to the garage.”

“Wha-…? What about you?” Sasha asks, frowning again.

Rhys shrugs. “Bounty hunters aren’t after me.”

He doesn’t think Loader Bot can carry all three of them. It won’t be a long ride, but still, why risk it? If Loader Bot crashes randomly into a building because his balance is off with three people, that won’t be good for anyone.

“Besides,” he says at their hesitant faces, “I have this.”

He pulls the stun-baton out, but doesn’t turn it on because it has this weird habit of throwing people that aren’t him off their feet. Sasha grins, because she tested it out at the death rally. Somehow, when she turned it on, it didn’t do that odd, ‘let’s throw everyone’ thing it does. Huh. Interesting.

“If you’re sure…?” Fiona asks, frowning at him.

Rhys shrugs, stuffing his hands, and the baton, into his pockets. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll meet you there.”

He’d like to be alone for a little longer, anyway.

Fiona and Sasha share looks before climbing into Loader Bot’s shoulders. “We’ll send Loader Bot back for you,” Fiona says.

Rhys nods and waves them off as they take to the sky. The dark, cave-filled sky.

He shakes his head as they disappear from view, and begins walking through the streets in the direction they went. He’ll make it back to the garage, but it will be a slower journey.

As he walks down a deserted alley, he remembers, fleetingly, to take his Hyperion vest off.

And with it goes the tie, which he usually likes. He likes his ties and socks.

But they feel too… Hyperion.

If he doesn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention, he’s going to need a change of clothes.

He checks his pockets again. He has some money, but not much. Enough for a change of clothes at the very least, though. He’s been wearing these for a few Pandoran days.

He could also use a shower, but he’ll deal with that later.

He looks at his Hyperion vest for a moment before letting it fall to the ground. He steps over it with the ease he’s used to stepping over corpses with.

It’s almost like it’s a corpse itself – a shadow of his former life.

He’s not Hyperion anymore. He’s blacklisted.

And despite what he was told in his youth, he’s not Hyperion property anymore.

There’s… a bit of freedom in that knowledge.

He’s almost smirking when he walks into a small shop.

xXx

Vaughn looks up as the sound of footsteps approaches his location inside the garage. He’s been sitting in the corner for a while now – waiting for Rhys to get back, fighting the urge to go after him, but he has no idea what direction he went or anything. The mechanic – Scooter – saw him pacing around and made him sit down over here where he can ‘keep an eye on him’ or whatever that means. He honestly doesn’t know with these Pandorans.

Fiona, Sasha, and Loader Bot enter the garage.

Vaughn’s eyes widen. Rhys actually found them, as well as Loader Bot.

But Rhys doesn’t follow after them.

“Uh – where’s Rhys?” he asks, frowning at them.

“He sent us back on Loader Bot,” Fiona says. “Said he’d walk back.”

“Is that… I mean, is that a good idea?” he can’t help but ask, because there are bandits everywhere on Pandora, and Rhys doesn’t have a gun.

He has that stun-baton, but Vaughn hasn’t really seen it in action.

And it won’t do anything against a gun.

Fiona rolls her eyes. “I was going to send Loader Bot after him when we got back, relax.” She looks over her shoulder at Loader Bot. “Go get him, please.”

Loader Bot blinks at her with that one red eye it has, and then turns and leaves the garage. It certainly has come a long way since that time when it would only listen to Rhys’s instructions.

“What’s up with Rhys?” Sasha asks, looking at him.

“Uh – what?” he asks, frowning.

“Something’s… off about him,” she says. “But I don’t know what.”

Vaughn swallows thickly. He knows what’s wrong with Rhys, but admitting his perceived betrayal, even if he was never actually betraying Rhys… he doesn’t want to do that. So he shakes his head and sighs. “He’s just – going through some things, that’s all.”

“Aren’t we all?”

Vaughn shrugs, honestly having no response to that.

“This guy says he’s a friend of yours,” Scooter is saying when Vaughn tunes into the conversation taking place around the corner, near the caravan, which is completely fixed, so that’s good. He looks over and finds Fiona speaking with the mechanic.

“He is,” Fiona says with a smile.

“Oh,” Scooter says, like he can’t believe it. “Well, okay then…”

Fiona waves them toward the caravan. “Rhys will be back soon, let’s get ready.”

Vaughn and Sasha head toward the caravan.

Twenty minutes later they’re all ready to go, but Rhys and Loader Bot aren’t back yet.

Vaughn hates the worry that coils in his gut; he’s not sure he has the right to worry about Rhys anymore. Are they still friends?

But even Fiona is looking worried now.

Vaughn paces in front of the caravan, waiting – impatiently. “We should go look for them,” he says, for about the fifth time now.

“They’ll be here soon,” Fiona says, but her usual confidence is beginning to waver.

About that time, there’s commotion in the entryway, and they look over to find Loader Bot putting Rhys down, who is currently scowling, arms folded across his chest. He levels his glare on Fiona for once, and it’s nice not having it leveled at him, Vaughn has to admit. He’s not used to facing Rhys’s wrath; Rhys is always careful not to get too angry with him, especially since he’s so much bigger than Vaughn, and has that strong, cybernetic hand.

Seeing Rhys angry is… disturbing, really. Rhys is never angry.

At least he’s angry at Fiona right now, and not Vaughn.

“You said you’d have him come get me, not fetch me,” Rhys complains.

Fiona smirks. “Eh, either way, we’re all here, and ready to go. Good work, Loader Bot.”

“Traitor,” Rhys mutters, shooting Loader Bot a quick look even as he smiles faintly, showing he’s not really angry with the bot. If Loader Bot can pick up on that, that is. That one red eye blinks at Rhys before Loader Bot climbs on top of the caravan, the only place the bot will really fit.

Rhys stops short of getting into the caravan with the others.

“Uh, Rhys, you coming?” Fiona asks, frowning at him.

“I think I’ll take the car. Seems a shame to just leave it here after I liberated it and all,” Rhys says, chuckling nervously as he does that thing of his, where he runs his right hand through his hair.

“Car?” Fiona asks.

“Long story,” Rhys tells her. “But it feels wrong to just leave it here. I’ll follow behind you guys.”

He waves over his shoulder, and walks away from the caravan.

Vaughn moves to follow – because that’s what he does. He follows after Rhys.

But right now, Rhys is angry with him, and still hasn’t quite forgiven him.

Maybe he just needs some space.

Normally Vaughn would follow Rhys to the car.

Now, he forces himself to stay in the caravan, and sits awkwardly at the table as Fiona goes to take the wheel and lead the way out of this place.

xXx

“Riding in style, I see, and alone,” Jack’s voice says, alerting Rhys that the AI is back with him, currently sitting in the passenger seat, atop the small bag of Rhys’s few items he purchased at the shop.

Jack doesn’t seem to notice.

“Good for you, cupcake,” Jack says. Rhys’s hands tighten on the wheel marginally, the cool metal of his fingers firm and unyielding. “You don’t need those traitors anyway. Let anyone get close and they’ll stab you in the back.”

Getting praise from Handsome Jack is… weird, Rhys decides.

“Now, what are we going to do about those traitorous assholes?” Jack asks.

Annnddd, that’s why.

Jack always has a motive.

“I get that we need them for the vault, but after that…” Jack says almost delightfully, like it’s fun plotting what they’re going to do to these ‘traitors’.

Rhys wants none of it.

But he’s tired of arguing, and talking, and keeping silent seems like a good idea. Plus, Jack’s almost in full rant mode now, so there’s really no way for him to get a word in edgewise anyway, so his silence isn’t noticed.

Which is fine.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four – Old Haven, New Problems

 

It doesn’t take them too long to get to Old Haven; with vehicles, traveling is much faster, of course.

Rhys parks behind the others and looks around the town as the caravan doors open. Old Haven is deserted and empty; a ghost town, so to speak. Sasha jokes that the bodies of the Crimson Raiders, who once occupied this town, are still wandering around. Fiona tells her to stop and Vaughn just looks a little creeped out. Just a little.

The sight is almost refreshing, and makes him smile faintly.

His smile fades away as they begin looking around the town for whatever it is they’re supposed to be finding. He has no idea what they’re really looking for. With a thought, he activates his ECHO-eye, instantly noticing the wires underground, which is interesting. He follows them to a power box, and uses his eye to hack into it so he can open it. From there, he pries it open, moves some cords around, and watches as one of the three power sources twitch to life.

Oh, good. They’re getting somewhere.

He looks around for the other two boxes, finding one next to Vaughn, who is standing off to the side away from the others, attempting to look small as his gaze is focused on the ground. A flicker of pity ebbs in Rhys’s belly. He sighs and walks toward the smaller man.

Vaughn looks up as he approaches. Rhys avoids his gaze and hacks into the power box, before flipping on that power source, too. Afterward, as he’s closing the box, he finally turns his attention toward the accountant.

“Hey,” he says quietly.

Vaughn looks surprised. “Hey,” he says back quickly. “U-Um… Hi. Hello.”

Rhys smirks faintly; Vaughn can be so terribly awkward when he’s nervous. And he’s nervous because of Rhys. It just seems so strange. Vaughn’s never been nervous around him before; he’s never had a reason to be nervous, because they’re best friends. Right?

Which brings him back to his dilemma.

The smile falls from his face.

Vaughn notices. “So… y-you’re still mad at me, I take it? I mean, I don’t blame you, of course, I just…”

“I’m working on it,” Rhys assures him, and it’s the most he can do right now.

Vaughn smiles. “Thank you.”

Rhys nods before switching the subject. “So how was the ride with the girls?”

“Okay, I guess. They talked about Scooter the whole time.”

Rhys snickers faintly because Vaughn seems irritated. “Oh, did they, now?”

“They don’t even like him like that, so I don’t even know why he was the topic of conversation for two hours. Two hours!” Vaughn looks at him timidly. “Uh – next time, can I ride with you?”

Rhys frowns, because he didn’t realize Vaughn needed to ask. But then, that makes sense, doesn’t it? Because they’re at odds right now, and he did enjoy the ride alone… It gave him time to think, even if Jack was talking pretty much the whole time about how they could get back at these ‘traitors’.

Maybe Rhys overreacted. Vaughn didn’t actually betray him – he just planned on it. He never actually got around to doing it.

And he apologized so many times…

Maybe he’s just overreacting.

“You can ride with me,” Rhys tells Vaughn.

Vaughn beams at him. “Thanks, bro.”

Rhys nods even as he looks around. “You wouldn’t happen to know where… Oh. Okay. Never mind.” He spots the third and final box atop a building, next to a billboard. Great. How is he supposed to get up there? “Okay, new question – have any idea where a ladder would be? Wait, never mind… again… Loader Bot! Heyyy, buddy.”

Rhys approaches the Loader Bot, who blinks at him with that single red eye.

“Hi,” the robot says.

“Hey,” Rhys says, grinning. “How you doin’, buddy?”

“I am fine.”

“Good, good, that’s good. Hey, mind giving me a lift?” He points at the building he needs to get on top of.

Loader Bot regards him momentarily, before doing the robot equivalent of a nod. Which is odd without a neck. Then the bot takes hold of him and suddenly they’re in the air, lifting off the ground due to the boosters in the robot’s feet, and then the next thing he knows, they’re on the building he needs. Yes, this was a great idea.

“Thanks, LB,” he says, turning toward the box he needs. He opens it and moves another wire around, before the third cylinder of power flashes in front of him.

Suddenly there’s movement on the ground, in the distance. He runs to the edge of the building and looks to see something appearing out of the ground. Oh. Okay. That’s new.

There’s a secret facility hidden beneath the town. Of course there is. Freaking Atlas.

The building is huge, too. It towers over the other buildings. Not very subtle, once it’s unearthed, literally.

Loader Bot takes him back to the ground, and he walks forward with the others toward the entrance of the building.

“Alright,” he says, eying the entrance as they stop a few yards away. “Here’s the plan.”

And he goes into how they’re going to quietly sneak inside using stealth, in case it’s a trap, but before he even gets the first sentence out, he turns to find them already mostly inside the building. All of them. He glares at them, because this is the third time they’ve left him behind like this. And he’s tired of it.

He huffs and follows after them, glaring at the backs of every one of their heads.

They make it inside, and there are bodies everywhere. Not surprising; this is Pandora, after all, but the bodies are fresh. The blood is still wet and sticky, not dry, crusted and brown. The bodies are so fresh, and he’s getting too used to stepping over corpses.

Someone was here very, very recently. They must have just missed them. Or they could still be around.

As he’s opening his mouth to tell them all to be a bit more careful, footsteps approach them. A lot of footsteps. He spins so his back is toward the large wall behind him, and he finds the blond gang leader, August, standing next to Vasquez. That asshole made it out of the desert after all. And now he’s… what? Teamed up with August of all people? The guy who Fiona and Sasha screwed over on the vault key deal?

Great.

Everyone backs up as August, Vasquez and a bunch of other men step toward them. Without thinking, Rhys brings his robotic arm up, partially shielding Vaughn behind him as the smaller guy cowers.

“Reeeeze,” August says, somehow still mispronouncing his name. It’s not a hard name. Rhys. Very simple.

“Rhys and Vaughn’s new little playmates, right?” Vasquez asks, looking at Loader Bot, Sasha and Fiona. “It’s very good to meet the two of you. It’s a shame we couldn’t be meeting under different… circumstances.” His gaze goes back to Vaughn and Rhys. “Vaugh. Rhys. You didn’t think I’d have August handling all my dirty work, did ya?”

“How do you keep finding us?” Rhys asks, scowling at him. “Seriously – we’ve escaped you how many times now?”

“Loader Bot, attack!” Vaughn shouts as Vasquez takes a threatening step forward.

Loader Bot jumps into action, moving to attack Vasquez by punching him in the face with a giant, robotic fist. Vasquez merely smirks and holds up some kind of button, which he presses just as Loader Bot is about to land the punch. The fist stops mere centimeters from his face, and the whole bot freezes.

“You didn’t think I’d come down here without the universal remote, did you?” Vasquez chides, looking oh so smug.

“I am shame,” Loader Bot says, before Vasquez presses another button.

Loader Bot falls to the side in a limp heap.

“LB!” Rhys says, worriedly. The red eye is still moving and blinking, though, so at least Loader Bot is okay, just… unable to move. He glares at Vasquez.

“The Gortys Project,” Vasquez says, going into his ‘rant mode’, as Rhys calls it, as he paces around them, “two halves of the Core, everything leading to a Vault… we’ve got it all.” He gives Rhys a smug grin. “Checkmate, amigos.”

Rhys scowls at him.

“What’d you think, Rhys? That you could pilfer something from my toybox, no strings attached? You never could follow through. That’s your problem.”

Rhys takes in a slow breath, steeling himself, taking a step away from the others, mostly because Vasquez’s anger seems mostly directed at him. No one else needs to get caught in the crossfire. “Sasha, Fiona… even Vaughn… Leave them out of this. They had nothing to do with this. All of this has been about me, trying to screw you over. So just… leave them out of this.”

“I’ll screw you over, you little asshole,” Vasquez says sharply, and suddenly there’s ow fucking shit what as he’s knocked to the ground. Vasquez has a hell of a right hook. Why is it always the face?

Rhys groans from his position on the ground as he sits up.

Suddenly Jack is laying next to him, also sitting up.

“Ohh, you guys would not believe the dream I just had, holy crap…” Jack says as he flickers into existence. “Wait, wait, wait, wait… what… What the hell is this? Didn’t I just do this? With this guy? Kiddo…” The hologram gets to his feet while Rhys stays sitting on the ground. “I admire your consistency, but, uh… god…”

August raises his gun, signaling for two other guys to move.

“Oh, and who is this princess?” Jack all but groans.

He’s really not helping.

Rhys flinches when there are hands suddenly on him, until he realizes it’s Vaughn, helping him to his feet. Oh. Okay, then. That’s fine. He gets up with the help of his friend. Rhys notices then that August is walking toward the fallen Core piece on the ground, the one that Rhys took for himself, while Fiona took the other half. His piece is the bigger one.

“Wait,” Vaughn says suddenly, “they-”

August’s fingers land on the piece and he’s immediately shocked, instantly retracting his hand.

“… shock other people…” Vaughn finishes weakly.

Rhys picks the piece up, shaking his head as it doesn’t shock him, just everyone else.

“Oh. Yes,” Vasquez says slowly. “I knew about that. Um. Don’t touch the Cores.”

“Right. Thanks… asshole,” August says under his breath, wincing as he wiggles his fingers.

“They’re gonna have to do it for us,” Vasquez says, looking at Fiona and Rhys. “You’ll cooperate, right?”

Why the hell should I? Rhys thinks, but says nothing.

“Because I figure if you don’t… well, I can think of all sorts of things to do to your little friends.”

Rhys glares at the guy, and says nothing. He already knows they don’t have a choice.

He and Fiona share a brief look.

How are they going to get out of this?

“Two hallways, two halves,” August says, looking at the doors on either side of the room, which each have a picture of one of the separate pieces of the Core on them.

“I’ll take my soon to be dead janitor,” Vasquez says, walking up to Rhys, “and you take miss Fancy Hat down the other one.”

“Boys,” August says, looking at the other men in the room, whom have surrounded Vaughn and Sasha, “you keep an eye on these two. Especially this one. Don’t believe a thing she says.”

“Aw, how sweet,” Sasha says.

Rhys can feel Vaughn’s eyes on him. He takes in a breath and offers a reassuring smile toward the smaller guy – at least, as reassuring as he can make it, considering they probably won’t be seeing each other again. As soon as they get to the room, he knows Vasquez is going to shoot him. And August will shoot Fiona.

“Yeah, you sit tight,” Vasquez says, putting a hand on Vaughn’s shoulder. Rhys’s reassuring smile falters. Vaughn growls and angrily shakes off Vasquez’s hand.

“Get your hands off me!”

Vasquez’s eyes narrow. “Either of these two move, you shoot ‘em where they stand.”

With that, there’s a hand splayed across Rhys’s back, and he’s being led away from the group by Vasquez. He looks over his shoulder at Vaughn and Sasha; Sasha is watching her sister being led the other direction, Vaughn is watching Rhys worriedly.

Rhys looks back ahead with a sigh, as Jack follows him and Vasquez.

xXx

Vaughn watches Rhys go, worry a tight and heavy knot in his belly.

They’re all going to die here. He won’t be seeing his best friend again. Rhys is going to die still angry with him, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

He looks over at Sasha, but she’s busy looking in the other direction, toward the hallway Fiona disappeared down. Her jaw is clenched tight; she is having similar thoughts, minus the whole ‘still angry’ thing. Fiona is her sister; of course she’s worried about her. And Rhys is Vaughn’s best friend – he’s worried, too.

Worried for his friend, and for himself, because holy crap I’m going to die here…

It’s a thought that has definitely consumed his mind more than once since he and Rhys came down to Pandora. There are so many things that can kill them down here, not just the people but the wildlife and weather as well. They could have died the moment they stepped out of Vasquez’s black car, when asking for directions for the World of Curiosities. They could have died in the fight that ensued, when Loader Bot first arrived. They could have died in that death race. They could have died when Helios was flinging moonshots at them. They could have died in the desert.

And now, here.

But the difference between all those times and now is – Vaughn wasn’t alone then.

Rhys was with him, and some part of him was certain Rhys wouldn’t let anything happen to him. It was a certain trust he had in his friend he was only now realizing. Rhys always came up with a plan; Rhys always did what he could to defend Vaughn. Back when they first stepped out of the car, and that bandit leader tried threatening Vaughn, Rhys stepped between the two of them and the guy backed off. And during the death race, Rhys might not have been with him, as they’d gotten separated, but he was still there, just in a different part of the area. And Fiona was with him, and while he didn’t trust her very much to keep him safe, after revealing that the money was locked onto his bio-signature and there was a bomb hidden in the case that would go off if he wasn’t the one opening the case, then she seemed rather concerned with keeping him alive. So, there was that.

And out in the desert, again, Rhys was there. Even when he was digging his own grave – a terrible, terrible thought – he had faith that Rhys would somehow get them out of that situation, like he always did.

But now…

He is alone.

It’s just him and Sasha, surrounded by people with guns. And Loader Bot is motionless on the floor.

There’s no way out of this that Vaughn can see.

And they’re going to die here, and for some reason all he can think about is that Rhys still hasn’t forgiven him.

He’s ripped out of his thoughts quite suddenly when Vasquez comes marching through the door from the hallway he went down, looking quite livid.

There’s also a very distinctive lack of Rhys.

Vaughn’s stomach drops.

He’s dead.

Vasquez killed Rhys and there wasn’t anything Vaughn could do about it.

August is suddenly there, as well – having returned from the other hallway.

“Where’s Fiona?” Sasha snaps.

Where’s Rhys? Vaughn wants to add, but his voice is lodged somewhere behind the lump in his throat, and he can’t find the words. Mostly because he doesn’t want to hear the answer.

Rhys is dead; what’s it matter where he is? Vasquez already said he wants to take the body back to Helios. Because people are interested in what’s in Rhys’s head, and killing him doesn’t concern them. They just want the AI version of Handsome Jack.

Vasquez growls and faces the large window in the room. Vaughn noticed it when they first entered, but it was in the background, the room beyond mostly dark, so there was no point looking into it. Now the light is clearly on, and as he steps closer to it, he can see-

“Rhys,” he breathes, relieved. Rhys is alive.

So is Fiona.

They are standing on separate platforms that are moving toward each other, until they finally connect. Fiona and Rhys speak to each other briefly, and glance toward the window, but Vaughn can’t hear what’s being said. It’s like the glass is soundproof.

But, they’re both alive.

And hope re-ignites in Vaughn’s chest.

Rhys will figure out how to get out of this.

xXx

Rhys’s stomach still hurts from that sharp hit from Vasquez he received in the hallway, but he takes in a slow breath and looks through the window across this strange room they’re in. Vaughn looks… relieved, it seems. And unharmed, which is good, although now Vasquez is waving his gun around, glaring at Rhys through the glass.

Asshole.

Rhys looks at Fiona, and they move wordlessly toward the opposite sides of the platform to start pushing the pieces together. The cylinder upon which Rhys’s piece rests is a lot heavier than it looks, considering it moved apart so easily when the platforms combined. It’s very heavy, and he huffs as he pushes it closer to Fiona’s piece, which she is also moving toward the center.

Finally, their pieces connect.

There’s nothing overly spectacular about it. The cylinders just combine, and Rhys steps back, frowning at it. Fiona sends a look his way as the pieces glow. The light is blinding, and when it finally dies down enough that they can see correctly, a sphere of some sort is waiting for them.

“A metal sphere…?” Rhys mutters, mostly to himself.

It’s just hovering there, in the center of the platform.

“And this is supposed to lead us to a vault?” Fiona asks, frowning at the floating sphere.

Rhys shrugs. “Maybe it can be a bargaining chip.”

“Huh?”

He sighs and nods toward the window. Fiona glances over, her expression tightening as August stands next to her sister.

“Right,” she says softly. “A bargaining chip. Well, grab it.”

Why me? He thinks, before he moves to do as she said.

As soon as his metallic fingers touch the sphere, however, it drops – whatever energy that was holding it in place suddenly leaving it. It hits the ground and rolls toward the edge of their little floating platform, and yeah – that’s a long way down. He hurries over and manages to catch it just before it falls over the edge.

There are alarms going off now.

“Gortys Project compromised,” a robotic voice says, coming from nowhere in particular.

“It did not like that, Rhysie,” Jack says helpfully. “It didn’t like that at all.”

“No, no, hey, see, it’s fine,” Rhys rambles as little security robots start hovering in front of him, eying him with red eyes. They remind him almost of the cleaning bots up on Hyperion – small-ish, but with a distinct look, almost a triangle of sorts, but rounded. And they definitely have guns.

Which are pointed at him.

Oh. Great.

“Hey!” Fiona shouts suddenly, and Rhys looks over to find her staring at the window. Following her gaze, he realizes that there are bots in that room, too, aiming at everyone in there, and that includes Vaughn and Sasha. Sasha currently has a gun aimed at her that does not belong to a bot – instead, August is aiming at her, gun practically held to her head, despite the dangerous bots behind him.

Rhys’s eyes narrow. This is not good.

The bots haven’t fired on them yet, but it definitely doesn’t look good right now. He needs to think of a way out of here.

But how?

How are they going to get out of this?

Fiona suddenly grabs the sphere from his hands. The sudden loss of the cool weight leaves him gaping for a moment, before he turns to find her holding up a grenade as well.

What the hell is she thinking?

“What the hell are you doing?” he hisses at her.

She’s not looking at him, though. Instead she’s watching the window. He turns his gaze back toward there and realizes Vaughn is now being held up against Vasquez. Vasquez has an arm around his neck, keeping him in place, and a gun against his temple, and his look is murderous.

What – does he think Rhys planned this? None of this was his idea!

He growls.

“Rhysie, you gotta let me into your subsystems,” Jack says in his ear suddenly. “We can take over this whole facility but you gotta let me in. I can almost guarantee no one will die… unless you want them to. Probably. Whatever, just let me in.”

Rhys hesitates.

Fiona has a grenade. If she has a plan… he’s not sure he wants to be exploded right now. What is her plan?

He doesn’t know if she has a plan, and he knows Jack has a plan.

Trusting Jack can’t be a good idea, but really, it’s a plan and it’s all he has right now.

He has to go with that.

“Okay,” he whispers softly, ECHO-eye activating.

“You talking to me?” Jack asks as Rhys glances at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Yes,” Rhys says, making sure Fiona can’t hear him. “Do it.”

Jack laughs almost giddily. He’s too happy about this.

Rhys doesn’t know what Jack does, but suddenly there’s a surge of something flooding through him. It’s electric and powerful and intense. Overwhelming. His ECHO-eye has never felt so alive, and he’s never felt this much raw power flooding through him before. It is… intoxicating, in its own way. And terrifying. Definitely terrifying.

But still amazing.

His robotic hand is moving, and he’s not in control of it. Jack is moving it. Flexing the fingers, twisting the hand a little, getting used to moving it. And he’s still laughing. Loudly.

Thank god Rhys is the only one who can hear him.

The bots seem to stutter mid-air, before they turn, the red lights turning golden. And they fly away from the platform.

“How are you doing that?” Fiona asks, shocked.

“I’m not… really…” Rhys says uncertainly, still feeling that overwhelming something shooting through his system. The power at his fingertips… it’s incredible.

He raises his flesh hand, aiming it toward the control panel off to the side, clearly out of reach for a normal person. But Rhys is not normal. The control panel flares to life, and then there’s a long, heavy prong supporting the platform they’re on. And then they’re moving toward the window and the force field it has.

With a thought, they break through the window and force field. The way it shatters throws everyone back and to the ground. The power flows through him, and it’s absolutely wonderful. He feels numb with it, dizzy with it, consumed with it.

Vasquez’s stupid face is there, looking up at him.

Rhys smirks and raises his metallic hand, the palm open and pulsating the same light blue color as his ECHO-eye. One of the bots shoots Vasquez in the arm, and suddenly he has only one arm. There’s blood gushing everywhere, and the smirk on Rhys’s face grows. Oh. That. That is exhilarating. That is… intoxicating. That is…

That is power

[Yes, Rhysie, that is power.]

Jack’s voice is so very sudden in his head. It’s not spoken words even though Jack is still laughing right next to him as they step off the platform. Rhys doesn’t have much time to think about it, because as soon as they step off the platform, everything flickers. His eyesight in his ECHO-eye goes dark momentarily before it comes back to life, and he doesn’t have that incredible rush of power like he did before. It’s still there, don’t get him wrong, but it’s more in the background now.

He’s not in control of the bots anymore. Instead of golden eyes, they now have blue eyes.

And Jack’s still fucking laughing.

And then it just – kind of stops. The power fades from his body as Jack takes a breath, actually taking a step back like he’s exhausted himself in some way.

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Jack says to him. “I left you one. It’s a little on the dumpy side, but I figured it’s perfect for you.”

Said dumpy bot flies up to Rhys. It’s the smallest of all the bots – a tinier version of the others. It looks like it was an old version which was scrapped, but one managed to stick around. Definitely dumpy. Does it even work?

Rhys raises his metallic hand. The palm opens, and a screen pops up.

“Alright, Dumpy,” Rhys says, smirking at the little robot, “let’s see what you’ve got.”

And then he’s controlling Dumpy – helping it fly around the other robots which have decided to turn against everyone, now that no one is controlling them. Dumpy might be small but it packs quite a punch. It does this electric shot on the other robots, knocking them out of the sky, and since it’s smaller and faster than the others, it nimbly dodges their attacks.

The ‘universal remote’ is on the ground. Rhys sees it through Dumpy’s eyes.

With one shot the remote is gone, and Loader Bot gets to his feet, giving him a thumbs up.

Vasquez is crawling into a corner, holding onto what was once his right arm. At the elbow, the lower half is missing, shot off by one of those bots.

If Vasquez was a different person, Rhys would probably feel at least a flicker of regret and remorse for what he did. After all, he knows how it feels to lose a limb. But as it is, it’s Vasquez, and he can’t muster up any pity. The guy deserves everything he gets.

Rhys could kill him now.

But despite everything… Rhys is not a killer.

He is not fond of violence. What purpose does it serve?

So he calls Dumpy back to him.

On the way back, Dumpy gets shot by another bot.

It lands in a crumpled heap in front of Rhys. Rhys swallows and carefully reaches out, picking up the damaged little bot, before stuffing it in his pocket, since it’s small enough to fit. He can fix Dumpy. He can. He’s not really an engineer, but he knows enough. More than anyone else with them, at any rate.

And Jack probably knows a lot about building robots.

Loader Bot grabs the statue in the center of the room, and pushes it over, flinging it at the remaining gunmen. The gunmen are either crushed or manage to make it out of the way – Rhys doesn’t look to see what happened.

Instead, Loader Bot grabs them all in his arms, making a rather tight squeeze, and flies very low to the ground on the way out of the building. It’s obvious it’s a struggle for the bot to carry this many people at once.

Loader Bot nearly crashes into the caravan, but manages to stop in time. He puts everyone down and climbs on top of the caravan so he can travel with them again.

Rhys heads toward the forgotten red car he stole from Vasquez in the desert. That makes two cars he’s stolen from that guy. But he deserves it. He’s such an asshole.

Vaughn follows him to the car, and they both climb in.

Then they’re all quickly leaving the town of Old Haven, kicking up dirt in their wake.

“What just happened?” Vaughn asks a few minutes later, still pumped with adrenaline. “How did you do that? That was amazing!”

And he sounds so excited.

Rhys smirks to himself.

“It was pretty awesome, wasn’t it, cupcake?” Jack asks from the backseat, making Rhys jerk the wheel as he wasn’t aware of the hologram’s presence until then.

“Ahh!” Vaughn shouts before calming. “Oh. Hey. Don’t jerk the wheel, bro, not cool.”

“Sorry,” Rhys apologizes. “Jack startled me.”

“Come on, pumpkin – you have to admit that was pretty fun.”

And the strange thing is, it was fun. Intoxicating. Breathtaking. The power

Rhys grits his teeth against admitting it. He should not feel so alive when Jack took partial control of him. Just because he had a power boost, in a way, that doesn’t mean he had to enjoy it as much as he did. He shot off Vasquez’s arm, for crying out loud! And he liked it.

It was satisfactory.

What is wrong with him?

“Uh… Rhys… the steering wheel… you’re gonna break it,” Vaughn says slowly.

Rhys realizes his metallic hand is indeed going to break the wheel if he’s not careful. Huh. He loosens his grip. His robotic hand is really a lot stronger than his flesh hand, but somehow he keeps forgetting that. Maybe instead of punching that one bandit – back when they first arrived on Pandora – with his left hand, he should have used his robotic right hand. He’ll do that next time, even if he’s not really right handed.

It would also take the pain away from hitting someone. His knuckles hurt for hours after punching that guy in the face.

“Something wrong, bro?”

Rhys shakes his head. “Everything’s fine.”

“Damn right it is,” Jack says. “That was awesome. You can’t tell me it wasn’t. I know you enjoyed it.”

The sad thing is, Jack is completely right. Rhys did enjoy it. And he shouldn’t have. He shouldn’t have enjoyed it at all, let alone as much as he did. Because he took away half of Vasquez’s arm. He reveled in the way the blood spurted into the air.

Hell, he even smiled!

“Rhys?”

He takes in a slow breath. “I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? Because you don’t look fine.”

“I’m fine.”

He doesn’t mean to snap. He doesn’t like snapping at Vaughn. Nevertheless, that’s how it comes out.

“Sorry,” he mutters. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”

“Stop apologizing,” Jack groans. “He betrayed you, or have you forgotten that, Rhysie?”

“It’s fine,” Vaughn tells him, oblivious to Jack’s words. “It’s been a rough day.”

It really has. A rough, long day. Rhys is ready for it to be over, but it won’t even be nightfall for a few more hours yet. Pandoran days are just terrible. Absolutely terrible.

They drive in silence for a while – it’s not as tense or awkward as it was before, thankfully. Rhys is grateful for the silence, to be honest. It gives him time to think. Even Jack is silent, but that might be because he’s busy attempting to see if he can influence Vaughn in any way by jabbing his hand through his head. Except, of course, Vaughn can’t feel him because he’s a hologram inside Rhys’s head.

That doesn’t stop Jack from trying.

And Rhys finds himself trying not to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Vaughn asks, confused, when he actually snickers, unable to hold it back anymore.

And then he just bursts out laughing, and Jack’s fingers are through Vaughn’s nose, poking out of his face, wiggling.

“Nothing,” he says. “I just thought of something funny.”

Jack’s hand does a karate chop move through Vaughn’s head, made more pronounced by the way Vaughn turns his head to regard Rhys properly. “What? Do I have something on my face?”

Rhys laughs again, loudly. “Jack, I’m pretty sure that’s a waste of time.”

“What is?” Vaughn asks, confused.

Rhys shakes his head. “Jack’s just – being silly.”

“Excuse you,” Jack says, sounding appalled. “I am not silly. I’m trying to give this asshole a headache.”

“Well, it’s not working,” Rhys replies. “So you can stop.”

“What’s not working?” Vaughn asks.

“Nothing, nothing.”

“Is it working? I think it’s working,” Jack says.

“It’s really not,” Rhys tells him, shaking his head, returning his attention back toward the front, and the caravan leading the way. He’s not sure where they’re going, but the location doesn’t really matter.

Jack finally stops, sitting back with a sigh. “Why are we even following those two, anyway?”

Rhys isn’t really sure. Vaughn’s with him in the car, and they already went to the Atlas base and got attacked… so there’s really no reason to follow them anymore. And yet…

“They have the sphere,” Rhys says.

“Well, yeah,” Vaughn says, like he’s forgotten somehow.

“Ahhhh, I see,” Jack hums thoughtfully. “Keeping them close so you can get the sphere, huh? I like it.”

That’s not the only reason Rhys is following them, but if that’s what Jack wants to think, then that’s fine for now. Because Rhys isn’t entirely sure why he’s sticking with the girls. It wasn’t like they came looking for them in the desert, after all. So why are they sticking together now, after everything has fallen apart?

Well, he can think of one reason. He doesn’t know where they’re going. He knows little about where to go on Pandora; the girls grew up here, so they at least know their way around if nothing else. So for now, he’ll follow them. He has nowhere else to go.

He’s not sure how long they drive.

When they finally stop, the sun is finally setting, beginning the long night cycle. It has been a very long day, and Rhys just wants to sleep and put it behind him. It’s been the day from hell, starting with waking in a cave, to getting caught by Vasquez, learning Vaughn betrayed him, finding the girls, finding that Atlas facility, getting recaptured by Vasquez, striking that deal with Jack and taking control of the security bots…

Yeah, a long fucking day.

Rhys is so tired.

“Uh… Rhys?”

He grunts in response.

“I can… I do know how to drive, if you want to switch up? We can catch up to the girls in this no problem if we stop for a second,” Vaughn offers somewhat tentatively, and that makes Rhys feel bad because Vaughn should never be tentative with him… but it’s been a long day and he’s too tired to care.

“Uh… right. Yeah, okay,” he mumbles around a wide yawn, lifting his foot off the accelerator to instead tap the brake. The car slows, and the caravan speeds away from them. A part of Rhys wonders if the girls will even notice that they aren’t right behind them anymore; another part wonders if they’ll even care, if they’ll slow down or just keep going.

Thinking about it is not a good idea, though. It’s just going to make him angry again.

They have the sphere, and their caravan back to themselves, and they escaped with their lives. They really have no reason to wait for Rhys and Vaughn. They have everything. Leaving the guys in the dust would be so easy for them.

Rhys’s robotic hand threatens to crush the steering wheel again. He relaxes his grip (with considerable effort) and brings the car to a stop, forcing the driver side door open. He steps out of the car with a yawn and stretches gratefully. The car is nice and all, but he is taller than Vasquez and has long legs – stilts, as they are sometimes called. He’s very tall. So being cramped in a car for a long time is uncomfortable.

He walks around the front of the car, passing Vaughn as the smaller guy moves toward the driver’s seat. A moment later they’re both settled back in the car, and they pull away again.

It takes a moment for Vaughn to adjust the seat so his shorter legs can reach the pedals. Rhys scoots his seat as far back as it can go, and tilts the back enough that he is at a much more comfortable angle. Ah, yes, that’s nice. And now he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his eyes on the road or the caravan; he can actually relax.

“What are you doing, cupcake?” Jack asks, suddenly in the backseat again.

His blue glow is much more prominent in the dying light.

“Get some sleep, Rhys,” Vaughn says quietly. “I’ll wake you if there’s trouble or when we stop.”

A part of Rhys wants to argue, because there’s still that part of him that’s angry with Vaughn. A part of him that remembers being left behind in the caravan, remembers being left behind again after that, and again at the Atlas facility, when everyone else ran inside. A part of him is still angry about that. He does not like being left behind.

Nevertheless, he trusts Vaughn, for now. He’s too tired to care.

So he nods, mumbles a quick, “thanks”, and lets his eyes fall shut.

“Rhysie, what the hell are you doing?”

“Gonna sleep, Jack,” Rhys mutters under his breath.

“Huh?” Vaughn asks.

“Nothing. Wake me in a few hours if we’re still driving.”

He settles more against the chair, and lets the whispers of sleep take him.

xXx

Rhys dreams of Helios.

He dreams of a simpler time.

Yvette and Vaughn during their weekly pizza night.

Their weekly game night.

Of all the times Yvette has mooched off their lunches, all the times he’s paid for her food.

He dreams of friendly ribbing and bickering. He dreams of their heated fights.

He dreams of home.

And he misses it, terribly.

Through every scene in his dreams, he’s struck by a pang of want, and it’s raw and aching and powerful.

And then Jack’s laughing the background. “Stick with me, Rhysie, and we’ll both go home.”

And this is just a dream but in his dream – in his dream he agrees.

And Jack isn’t a blue hologram out of the corner of his eye. He’s real and whole and made of flesh and blood. And he’s wearing his trademark mask, blue and green eyes looking back at Rhys – looking up and down the length of his body like he’s some piece of meat, and he doesn’t even care because he wants to go home.

“Pandora sucks, huh, kiddo?”

“I hate it here,” Rhys says, and his voice echoes around them a few times. Darkness falls around them, the only visible things himself and Jack like they’re standing on a black platform of some kind.

“We both do, kiddo,” Jack says with a nod. “This shithole of a planet is the absolute worst. I don’t know why I ever bothered trying to save it.”

Rhys stays silent, mostly because, even though this is a dream, pissing off Handsome Jack isn’t wise.

And if you die in a dream don’t you die in real life? And Jack looks pretty real at the moment, so best not to tempt fate lest the man strangle him, because that’s what Handsome Jack does.

A part of Rhys… a part of Rhys wants to be like him. Just like him.

There’s a sudden weight on his left shoulder. He glances over but no one is there. Jack is still in front of him.

“Rhys – time to wake up…” a voice cuts through the dark fog suddenly around him.

Rhys looks back toward Jack, but the man is gone.

Everything fades away.

Chapter Text

Chapter Five – The Trouble with Bandits

 

Fiona looks in the rearview mirror, noticing for the first time that Rhys and Vaughn are no longer behind them. There’s a stretch of empty desert lit by the large moon, Elpis, and that’s it. There’s a strange, sudden flicker of panic deep in her stomach, which she stifles by gritting her teeth and slamming on the brakes. She doesn’t know how long they haven’t been behind her; she doesn’t usually check the rearview mirrors since she’s usually not the one driving this caravan – Sasha likes to drive – but Sasha went to sleep about an hour ago… and now Fiona has lost the boys.

She’s not entirely sure why she cares. It’s not like she should.

They are from Hyperion – fucking Hyperion. And they cost her a lot of money with the vault key deal. Hyperions can’t be trusted. They’re all evil and manipulative and in it for themselves and these two are no different. They’re greedy.

But then… so are Fiona and Sasha. Not as greedy as Felix, who took the money for himself and left his ‘daughters’ to fend for themselves, but they are greedy. They are con-artists, after all. Of course they’re in it for the money. And the only reason they trusted Rhys and Vaughn to help them in the first place was because they shared a common goal of wanting the money.

But now the money is gone… and the sphere, whatever it is, is with them in the caravan.

So technically they don’t need the boys.

They could forget about them and move on.

They don’t need them anymore.

Except there’s a flicker of doubt with that plan, because this is Atlas technology, and while Fiona is street smart and good at getting out of situations alive, she doesn’t really know technology. That’s Rhys’s department, and he seems pretty damn good at it. At first she was skeptical of him; he was a hacker but was clearly in over his head, even with his cybernetic enhancements. But he came through in the end – he plugged that ID drive into his head, and they located the money, and he apparently hacked into the system at that place with the death race, getting himself, Sasha and a vault hunter named Zer0 to the surface so they could find the briefcase of money. He also fought well with his stun baton, according to Sasha, which was… impressive, coming from her sister. Sasha was not easily impressed but she said the Hyperion wasn’t ‘completely useless’. Which is a lot, coming from her.

So Rhys is handy with technology, and he did go looking for Fiona and Sasha in Hollow Point. Even let them ride back on Loader Bot while he himself walked back alone, which was dangerous.

A part of Fiona… thinks that was noble.

And nobody is noble on Pandora.

That is the problem.

There is a part of Rhys that is almost too good to be true.

And she hates it.

He’s definitely greedy – he’s Hyperion, after all – but he decided to track them down in Hollow Point instead of going straight to Old Haven. He could have ditched them and been done with it. Instead he went looking for them and saved them from Athena.

And now Fiona has lost them somewhere in the desert… and that niggling worry resurfaces in her mind just as it did when they were separated before, when her grip on Rhys’s foot faltered and the two Hyperions went flying out of the back of the broken caravan.

She didn’t go looking for them then. It wasn’t safe. The caravan was busted to hell and they were running from moonshots, which turned off shortly after, but still – turning back wasn’t wise, and she had to look out for herself and her sister. Sasha will always be her main priority, no matter what.

But now… now the caravan is fixed, and there’s no reason not to wait, or go looking for them. Except she doesn’t know how long they haven’t been right behind her.

No reason to not go looking… except every reason.

Every reason to just keep going.

She has Sasha. The caravan is fixed. They have the sphere which might lead them to a vault, which is big money.

She doesn’t need them. At all.

And yet…

And yet.

She growls under her breath. The air is silent in the desert at this time of night, the sun finally disappearing. It’s chilly. They’re Hyperions and it’s cold and dangerous alone in the desert. She left them like that before… and didn’t really expect to see them alive again.

What’s changed since then?

What’s different now? She didn’t care this much then, so why now?

They came back for me and Sasha…

And Rhys was good with technology. Of course. That’s why she wants to find the boys – because she might need their help with this sphere.

That’s all. Nothing sentimental or crazy, just a simple plan.

And she’s so good with plans.

She’s about to turn the caravan around when she notices headlights finally appearing over the hill in the distance. As the lights get closer she notices it’s the car Rhys and Vaughn apparently stole from that Hyperion asshole, Vasquez.

And there’s this wave of relief which passes through her, which is really uncalled for.

She can’t stop the smile from spreading across her face as she presses down on the accelerator again.

xXx

“Rhys – time to wake up…”

Rhys mumbles under his breath as his eyes blink open, the ECHO-eye focusing faster than his human eye. He takes in a slow breath and focuses on Vaughn, who is shifted in the driver’s seat enough that he can easily shake Rhys awake. His hand is still on Rhys’s shoulder. “Ugh… are we there yet?” he asks through a yawn.

“Kind of,” Vaughn tells him, still holding onto his shoulder. “We all need gas, and this town… has some, but the locals are… unfriendly.”

“Unfriendly,” Rhys mutters, shaking his head, rolling his neck to get the kinks out of it. Something pops and he sighs in relief. “So what’s the plan?”

“Fiona says we should steal it,” Vaughn says, nodding out the front window. Through the darkness, Rhys can make out Fiona and Sasha waiting outside the caravan with Loader Bot, thanks to the light from Elpis.

“Steal it,” Rhys echoes. “From bandits?”

Vaughn shrugs. “We don’t really have a lot of options here, Rhys. We’re running very low on gas and bandits always hoard it for their technical vehicles. It’s not like we can just ask them nicely for it.”

This is true, but to hear Vaughn saying this is slightly unsettling.

“Fiona and Sasha think they can sneak in okay, but they want you to stay here and check out that sphere thingy,” Vaughn continues, oblivious to Rhys’s thoughts.

“And what about you?” Rhys asks slowly.

“They want me to wait in the car,” Vaughn mumbles. “Loader Bot is going to be the lookout and if shit hits the fan I’m supposed to have Loader Bot go in and get them, while you get the caravan ready and I follow in the car. We’re going to need to leave fast.”

Rhys is not sure about this plan.

But he is curious about that sphere, and he really doesn’t want to go sneaking through a bandit camp.

So he nods. “Alright, sure, sounds like a plan.”

Vaughn smiles and nods toward the girls.

Rhys smiles back and gets out of the car, stretching his long legs before walking toward the girls. It feels so good to be out of the cramped car. At least in the caravan he can stretch his legs and get comfortable.

“Did Vaughn fill you in on the plan?” Fiona asks.

Rhys nods. “Yep, I’m sufficiently filled in. Uh – be careful, I guess.”

“We will,” Fiona says with a slow smile. “You too – I guess.”

Rhys smirks and heads inside the caravan while the girls, hefting their SMG guns, head away from said caravan.

Rhys finds the sphere on the couch, which doubles as the kitchen area. He sits behind the table, sliding across the cushions which are almost too firm to be considered cushions, and lifts the sphere onto the table. It looks so… different, now. It’s not floating, or falling after he touched it.

It’s just a sphere of some kind.

Red and white.

Nothing too special, really.

He sighs and gets to work.

Scanning it with his ECHO-eye gives him an instant migraine. There’s a rush of information too quick for him to properly decipher, and it’s gone by the time he blinks, wincing as he brings a hand up to rub at the area surrounding his neural port. A shiver crawls through his spine and suddenly there’s a flicker of blue out of the corner of his eye.

Jack’s hand lowers, having gone through his shoulder again. He really wishes the guy would stop trying to touch him. It just feels like he’s walking through cobwebs.

He’s not sure if he feels it, or mentally registers the fact something is passing through him and thus he should feel something… but it’s weird either way.

“A lot of fuss for that little thing,” Jack says. “I’m not impressed. How is this going to lead us to a vault?”

“I have no idea,” Rhys says with a heavy sigh, rubbing tenderly at his head once more. There’s a dull ache behind his eyes now, but at least the pain has lessened. He rolls the sphere around on the table, looking at it from every angle, and notices a small patch that’s unlike the rest of it. “Well, hello,” he says with a smirk, pressing his left index finger against the spot.

It seems to be a button of some sort.

Instantly the sphere rolls away from him, and he jerks away in surprise. It begins to levitate again, spinning slowly as it does so, and Rhys sits back against the short cushions, transfixed. Next to him, Jack is just as motionless and silent.

“Start-up sequence initiated,” a robotic, feminine voice says. “Gortys protocol activated. Happy birthday.”

There’s a bright light, blinding in its brilliance, and when it dissipates, the sphere isn’t a sphere anymore.

Instead it’s this little robot with a rounded frame and rounded bottom, and two little arms, and big optical blue and black lenses for eyes.

Rhys stares at it, mouth agape.

“Hi! Wow, hey! It’s so great to meet you!” the little robot chirps so enthusiastically, waving while its eyes do this odd turning thing, making the pupils wider and curved so it’s almost like the little thing is smiling with its eyes.

And it’s fucking adorable.

“Cute,” Rhys comments, lips twitching upward.

“Thank you!” the little robot, Gortys, replies happily. “You’re not so bad yourself. Meow.”

Rhys bursts out laughing, unable to stop himself. Oh, wow, really? Did this little robot just say that?

Gortys looks around the room, then, little wheel on her bottom speeding across the table. Rhys catches her before she falls off. Wow. She’s heavier than she looks. She was a lot lighter as a sphere.

“Uh, Gortys?”

“Hiii!” Gortys says, turning her focus back to Rhys.

“Uh… hi,” Rhys says uncertainly. “Um… what are you programmed to do, exactly?”

“Well… since you activated me, I assume you want to find a vault,” Gortys says with that same cheerful tone.

It’s cute.

Jack is still silent, but Rhys sees the blue move out of the corner of his eye, so he’s still around.

And Gortys can’t see him.

Not that he thought she could, really – since, you know, no one else can see Jack, not even Loader Bot.

He puts the little robot on the ground. “Yeah, that,” he says, nodding. “Please do that.”

“I don’t know every detail,” Gortys says, “but I was created by Atlas as a last ditch effort to get a leg up on those Hyperion guys.” This she leans in to say conspiringly. Rhys smiles nervously.

“Well we are still number one,” Jack says finally. “Wait – we are, aren’t we? How long have I been out of action?”

Rhys ignores him for now, focusing on the little robot.

“Atlas had facilities all over Pandora working on the pieces of me to get it done faster, but then this lady, Athena, made it a little difficult to assemble by killing every Atlas employee.”

Rhys thinks back and remembers Athena. The lady who had Fiona and Sasha cornered in that alleyway. The woman who supposedly killed all those Crimson Lance guys in that Atlas facility they were just in not that long ago. She’s seriously bad news.

“Oh-ho-ho,” Jack says, “Athena.”

Oh. Okay. So Jack knows her too. Great.

“Well,” Rhys says, “how many more pieces are there?”

Gortys is incomplete, it seems. She can’t find the vault unless she’s complete.

Why does everything have to be complicated?

“No idea,” Gortys tells him. “But the next piece we need is, uh…”

She wheels off, riding around the interior of the caravan before finally stopping and pointing in a random direction.

“That way!” she says enthusiastically.

Rhys sighs heavily. Okay. So it’s going to be like that, huh? Just great.

How much longer is he going to be stuck on Pandora? Granted, Helios isn’t all that great, but it’s better than this planet right now. It’s too chaotic. At least Rhys knows what kind of danger to expect on Helios. He’s uncertain here on Pandora.

“Okay,” Rhys says, nodding. “Sure, that sounds good, but just, uh – we gotta wait for… the others to come back.”

“Others?” Gortys asks excitedly, rolling back up to Rhys. “There are more?!”

“Uh – yes?” he says uncertainly.

This bot is too cute.

“What kind of a bot is this?” Jack asks, scowl evident in his voice. “It’s too… nice to do anything lethal.”

“That’s kind of the point,” Rhys mutters.

“What is?” Gortys asks innocently.

Rhys shakes his head. “Nothing, nothing. My uh… The others will be back soon.”

I hope.

Gortys looks up at him all wide-eyed and innocent.

Rhys really shouldn’t be the one talking to her.

He’s going to ruin her; he just knows it.

He’s too tarnished for anything innocent.

xXx

An hour later and the others are still not back. How long does it take to sneak into a bandit camp?

Rhys keeps himself busy by chatting with Gortys as he gets to work on the damaged little security bot which is actually smaller than Gortys. What did Jack call it? Oh, right. Dumpy. What a shitty name.

Pun definitely intended, because Rhys is still tired and he’s worried about the girls.

He’s not sure why, but there’s a knot in his stomach and it’s been in there since they left.

As time passes it just gets worse.

Rhys isn’t an engineer by any meaning of the word, but he knows his way around computers and wires and anything electronical. And this little robot is electronical. It just needs a little rewiring and a power boost, and it should be good to go even though the hull is a bit damaged. But that’s just aesthetics for now; he’ll do what he can to keep the wiring safe, and worry about how it looks later.

His yellow arm is bulky for a reason. It’s an older model, sure, but it also has a built-in mini tool compartment along the forearm. It’s partially why it’s so heavy. He digs through the tools and quietly hums to himself while he works on the broken robot. After a time Gortys goes silent and just watches him.

“Not bad, cupcake,” Jack comments, watching over his shoulder. “But what do you say we give this bot an upgrade?”

“Upgrade?” Rhys asks somewhat absently, still working away inside of the little bot.

“Well, yeah,” Jack says. “He’s my gift to you, so he needs to be better.”

Rhys snorts. He doubts anything is really a gift from Jack, but… well, he did get a robot out of trusting him. Even if it was the smallest of those bots, and did wind up getting shot…

“What do you suggest?” he asks, running a quick scan over the circuitry in the bot. Yeah, everything looks good so far. He just needs to keep mapping out this wire and shove it in… ah, there. That’ll work, he hopes.

Again, he’s not really an engineer. He’s a code monkey. A data miner. A hacker. A programmer of sorts.

Not a builder.

“Well, I suggest-” Jack starts.

Rhys’s finger decides to slip then – his flesh one, which is holding back the wires so his robotic index finger, equipped with a little tool, can fix the appropriate circuits. There’s this rush of electricity as his skin lands on the exposed wires, and there’s a spark of light.

It doesn’t hurt, really, but there’s a rush of something that goes through him then. It’s… confusing as hell, but he doesn’t really think much of it as he catches the wires again and starts trying to fix the circuits once more.

Jack, however, can’t seem to let it go, which is weird.

“Whoa, Rhysie,” Jack says. “You’re glowing.”

“Uh… thank you?” Rhys comments absently, focused on the task at hand.

“No, Rhysie – you’re glowing. Your tattoo is glowing. What the hell, cupcake?”

Rhys frowns, because that doesn’t make sense. He brings a hand up to the tattoo on his neck somewhat unconsciously, knowing his others aren’t visible through his clothes. “What are you talking about? I just-”

His finger slips again. There’s that rush of something again.

“Whoa,” Jack says, grinning. “And now your eyes are glowing.”

“My ECHO-eye does that,” Rhys says, rolling his eyes, fixing his fingers again.

“They’re both glowing, cupcake.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on, but do all humans glow like that?” Gortys asks, making Rhys flinch because he momentarily forgot he wasn’t alone in the caravan. Great. Now he probably looks crazy, talking to himself.

Rhys can’t see his neck, or his eyes, but if his tattoos are glowing, he does have other ones.

Sighing, he loosens the neck of his collared shirt and yanks it down, unbuttoning it enough so that he can look down and see the cylindrical blue marks going across his chest cavity and up toward his collarbone.

The blue marks are, in fact, glowing.

Not very brightly, but definitely glowing. Shimmering. It’s… really weird.

“What the hell…?” Rhys asks, staring down at himself.

“Where’d you get those marks, Rhys?” Jack asks, suddenly serious, and whoa, that has to be the first time the guy has actually called him by his name, and not ‘cupcake’ or ‘Rhysie’ or something else.

“Uh… I don’t… I don’t remember,” Rhys says, frowning. “I must have gotten them when I was really young. I don’t know…”

He just always assumed his parents got him tattoos when he was little, too little to remember any of it. Which is still strange, because his family was never especially wealthy, so why get tattoos?

He never thought about it much.

Now he wishes he did.

“Or you were born with them,” Jack says. “Oh, this is good. This is great. You and me, Rhysiecakes! We’re going places.”

Rhysiecakes?

Great, another nickname.

“These are some weird birthmarks if I was born with them,” Rhys says, shaking his head. “Sorry to burst your bubble.”

“Oh, you expanded my bubble, pumpkin. You’re something special, Rhysie. And I’m the first one to see it.”

There’s something like pride in Jack’s voice and it’s really unsettling how much Rhys likes that tone. Because he shouldn’t. Because Jack is crazy. But damn it’s been so long since someone was really proud of him… and to have it come from the man who was once his idol

He takes in a slow breath. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not special. I just have fluorescent tattoos, is all.”

Jack laughs. “Just do me a favor, cupcake, and don’t tell anyone, okay?”

“Uh… why not?”

It’s not like Rhys was going to tell anyone – because this is personal, okay, and he doesn’t need to be taking his shirt off for people to see glowing tattoos – but still, it seems like an odd thing for Jack to suddenly say.

“Well, do you want everyone gawking at you, babe?” Jack asks.

And babe is definitely new.

What the hell?

“Not really,” he answers, frowning at the hologram.

“The buff nerd doesn’t know about this, does he?”

“Uh… n-no? I’ve never been shirtless around him. I’m kind of… I’m…”

“Self-conscious?” Jack asks with a slow smile.

Rhys swallows. “Uh – yeah…”

“Good. I don’t want you showing your body to anyone but me, understand?”

“Uh… what?”

What the hell is this?

Jack just smiles. There’s nothing sweet or kind about it, but the way he’s looking at Rhys right now is… he doesn’t even know. It’s like Jack wants to… It’s… It’s predatory, almost. And definitely a little possessive.

Which is just fucking weird, coming from Handsome Jack.

“Uh… Rhys?”

Rhys blinks, turning his attention away from Jack and that smile, instead looking down at Gortys who is watching him carefully. “Yes, Gortys?”

“Is everything okay? You’re talking to yourself a lot…”

Rhys sighs; Gortys thinks he’s crazy. Great. “Yeah, yeah, everything’s okay. I just, uh… I do that sometimes, when I’m… I just do it sometimes. But I’m not crazy.”

“I… never said you were?” Gortys tries.

“Never mind. Let’s just, uh… keep this between us, okay?” he asks hopefully, because the last thing he needs right now is Gortys telling Fiona and Sasha that he talks to himself. Or that he is currently glowing, because yeah, that hasn’t stopped yet. “And uh… don’t tell them about the glowing… please.”

If he’s still glowing when they get back, then… then he’ll hurry out of the caravan, hiding his face, holding a hand to his neck to cover that particular tattoo, and he’ll even close his eyes if he has to.

“Ohhh, is this a secret?” Gortys asks excitedly. “I’ve never had secrets before!”

“Yes, yes it’s a secret,” Rhys says. “Exactly. So… please don’t tell anyone?”

“I won’t!” Gortys says. “It’ll be our little secret!”

Rhys sits back, releasing a relieved breath. “Good, good. Thank you.”

There’s a moment of awkward silence, and he can feel Jack’s eyes on him.

But then that might all literally just be in his head.

He sighs and gets back to work on the little robot.

After connecting a few more wires – this time without his fingers slipping, damn bulky fingers – the bot on the table spurs into life, moving so suddenly Rhys bites down hard on his tongue to keep from shouting out as he lunges backward in the seat.

“Nice one, Rhysie,” Jack says, standing next to him, legs through the cushions, arms folded over his chest as he eyes the little bot. “It’s actually working again. Nice to know you have some brains after all, kiddo.”

Rhys shakes his head, watching the bot as it flies around the room for a moment before its little golden eye focuses on Rhys. It flies toward his face and he cowers back, remembering what this little thing can do. He’s not in control of it right now; it might be pissed that he got it shot, if it’s sentient like Loader Bot and Gortys.

For some reason a lot of the robots are becoming more and more sentient lately, ever since Jack died. It’s… strange.

The bot doesn’t attack him, though. Instead it bumps lightly into his face before backing off, and there’s this staticky sound which is really painful to Rhys’s ears.

“He likes you!” Gortys gushes. “That is so cute! He says you saved his life, Rhys! He wants to hug you but he doesn’t have arms.”

So that’s what the bumping was. Well… okay then.

Rhys looks at the flying little bot. “No speech function, huh?”

Another painful sound.

“He says it was damaged,” Gortys says. “But you can fix that, right, Rhys?”

“I’ll, uh… I’ll work on it,” Rhys says with a nod. He has no idea if he can fix it, but he’ll try.

The bot flies toward him again. Recognizing it for the attempt it is, Rhys brings his arms up and holds onto the little bot, smiling down at it.

“Aw, I like you, too,” he says. “We need a name for you, little guy.”

Because Dumpy is the worst name. And no. He’s not calling anyone that, robot or not.

More painful noise.

Rhys winces. “Okay, buddy – I like you and all, but please, stop trying to talk. That hurts. I’ll try to fix it as soon as I can but in the meantime… is there any other way you can communicate?”

The bot seems confused for a moment, that unblinking optical sphere staring back at him. Then a series of golden symbols flash across its face, like a projector of some kind. And Rhys laughs because that reminds him of Zer0, right down to the faces the little bot is making.

And the little heart. Zer0 gave him a little heart after he called the guy cool.

“There we go,” Rhys says. “Gortys, what should we name him?”

“Dumpy is a perfectly fine name,” Jack says.

Rhys ignores him.

“Oh! I get to name him?” Gortys asks, eyes wide. “Are… Are you sure?” She sounds positively thrilled.

“Within reason,” Rhys says. “We have to agree on the name. So does my new little buddy.”

Gortys pauses to think about it, until suddenly the little bot is flying toward the door, making angry, painful sounds as an angry emoticon, complete with angry brows, flashes across its face.

Rhys gets to his feet, frowning. “Something wrong, little guy?”

It’s then that Rhys hears it – gunshots, in the distance but closer than he would like. Bandits, then. Coming this way.

Something has gone wrong.

“You guys stay in here,” Rhys says, pulling out his stun baton. “I’ll check this out.”

The safe thing to do is to stay in the caravan, but Vaughn is outside, so are the girls and Loader Bot, and Rhys needs to know what’s going on. But he isn’t going to drag these two small bots into a fight, even if his new little buddy is able to shoot strange, electric shots.

An unhappy frown flashes across the new little bot’s face as it hovers near Rhys’s shoulder.

“Aw, don’t worry, buddy, I’ll be fine,” Rhys says with a smile.

He can’t help it. He likes that bot. He likes robots in general. They’re just… more genuine than people, somehow.

“Am I still glowing?” Rhys asks, to no one in particular, as he looks down at himself. His tattoos seem to have stopped glowing, finally.

“Nope,” Jack says.

“Is there something wrong?” Gortys asks, wheeling toward him.

Rhys shakes his head. “Everything’s fine, I just need you to stay here, okay? Can you do that for me? It’s important.”

Gortys does her equivalent of a nod, which is really just her hands moving up and down. “Yes! I’ll stay here.”

“Keep baby bot with you,” Rhys says, before looking at said ‘baby bot’. “You stay with Gortys, okay? Protect her. Don’t let anyone get near her.”

A determined face. Wow. Little bot went all out on that one.

Rhys smiles. “Great. I’m just going to step outside real quick…”

He opens the door to the caravan and steps outside, closing the door behind him quietly to make sure the bots stay in there. Jack flickers to life next to him, leaning against the caravan, arms folded across his chest.

“You’re pretty fond of robots, huh, kid?”

“Robots are easier than people,” Rhys says honestly. “I can… trust them more than humans. I mean – at least robots are programmed to stab you in the back. Friends just… just…”

“Friends will be your downfall, Rhysie,” Jack warns. “Don’t trust anyone. This is Pandora; it’s not about trust. That’ll get you killed.”

Rhys runs his robotic hand through his hair, holding onto the stun baton with semi-limp left fingers.

More gunshots, closer by this time. If he squints he can make out the muzzle flare.

Vaughn sticks his head out of Vasquez’s car. “What do we do, Rhys? Loader Bot already went that way…”

What do we do?

Rhys doesn’t know.

He doesn’t really have a plan, which is… strange. He likes to cover all the bases and have a plan, but he was asleep when the plan was discussed and was tired and half out of it when he woke up… so he doesn’t really have a plan.

Plus he doesn’t even have a gun, so what good is he, anyway?

And that really sucks.

“At the first sign of bandits, we leave,” Rhys says finally. “The girls are with Loader Bot; he can carry them easily enough. We’ll hide somewhere in the hills, and they’ll find us. If the girls get here first, then all the better, right?”

Vaughn hesitates. “I mean… I guess. Okay. So are you driving the caravan, then?”

Rhys nods. “Yeah, I’ll do that. Keep your head low, buddy. That sounds like a lot of gunfire.”

Vaughn nods, sticking his head back inside the car. Carefully, he turns the car on, revving the engine slightly. Thankfully it’s not too loud. Not that it really matters right now anyway. Rhys heads back inside the caravan, moving through it toward the front so he can climb into the driver’s seat.

The last time he drove this thing, it was so he could use his ECHO-eye to avoid the moonshots. Being in this seat didn’t help him when the boost was active, though, and after a bumpy patch, he was sent flying from the seat and ultimately out of the caravan and into the hot desert sun with Vaughn.

Now he sits in the seat and turns on the caravan. There’s a slight rumble as it comes to life; Scooter does good work. This thing was an absolute mess the last time Rhys was in it.

Baby bot is currently hovering over his shoulder, watching what he’s doing. Gortys is at his feet, not quite tall enough to see out the window.

“What are we doing?” Gortys asks.

It’s like having two little puppies following him around.

Except they talk. Or, one of them does.

“We’re leaving,” Rhys says, before moving the caravan, moving forward and turning just enough so that the front window is now facing the direction of the bandits. This way he can see them coming from here. The sound of gunshots is definitely getting closer, and louder.

He squints, noticing figures along the hilltop ahead of them.

There is no telltale white hat, nor a Loader Bot.

Not the girls, then.

Bandits.

Rhys grits his teeth, fingers tightening on the wheel.

Where are the girls? Where’s Loader Bot?

The bandits get closer, but still no sign of the girls. Rhys growls under his breath and slams his foot down on the accelerator, yanking sharply on the wheel so he can turn away from the gunfire, which is now focused on the caravan. Bullets ricochet off the metal hull.

“Whoa!” Gortys says, rolling backward slightly at the sudden acceleration.

Rhys looks in the rearview mirror, and sure enough, Vaughn is behind him. That’s good, at least.

They drive away from the hillside and further into the desert, before they hide in a valley of sorts, hills all around them, and Rhys turns off the caravan, killing the lights. They’ll wait here for the girls. If the bandits show back up, they’ll move further away.

Hopefully the girls show up before the bandits do.

“Hey, Du-… er, you,” Rhys says, gesturing at the little flying robot, “your weapons still work? Because I don’t have a gun and neither does Vaughn.”

The girls took the only guns they had.

But that’s okay, Rhys reasons; it’s not like Rhys is very talented with guns anyway.

He’s not sure about Vaughn. Once upon a time he would have said Vaughn was terrible with them, but after coming to Pandora and everything… well, he’s just not sure.

Either way, they don’t have any guns anyway.

The little bot flashes a smiley emoticon, and Rhys smirks.

“Alright, well, there’s that, at least.”

At least they aren’t completely defenseless.

“What’s the plan here, Rhysie?” Jack asks.

Rhys grits his teeth again, because he honestly doesn’t know. They need gas. The girls went to get the gas. They can’t leave without the girls. So what can he do?

Go get them and the gas.

They might have been captured. Or something.

If he can’t find them he can at least find the gas and get away from this bandit camp long enough to come up with a better plan.

“How far away is the bandit camp?” Rhys asks aloud, even though he’s pretty sure no one here has the answer. He releases his grip on the wheel and holds up his robotic palm.

Images from the satellite system on Helios flashes from his palm. He rotates it over the desert he assumes they’re in, and zooms in. These images are old, but they should give him the basic layout of the area.

Ah, there!

He spots the camp. It’s not too large, but there’s a watch tower and a wall surrounding it. Along with a gate. Sasha and Fiona had to have snuck in, so how…? He rotates the image more and smiles. Ah, there. That’s how they got in.

Part of the wall is a bit run down; if one is quiet and careful, they could climb up the side. Getting out… he doesn’t have a good view of the other side of the wall, not from this angle, but at least he has a way in on the south side of the camp.

And they are currently… east of the camp.

Rhys gets to his feet.

“Rhysie?” Jack asks.

“I’m going to the camp.”

“Not that I don’t admire your gusto, kid, but uh – all you have is that little stun baton,” Jack says. “Impressive as it is, it’s not exactly a gun.”

Rhys looks at the little unnamed flying robot. “You can come with me.”

“What about me?” Gortys asks cheerfully, unaware of the severity of the situation. “Can I come too?”

“You stay here,” Rhys says, making sure to soften his tone and smile at the bot. “I need you to hold down the fort. Think you can do that for me?”

Gortys’s eyes tilt into that smile again. “I can do that! I won’t let you down!”

She wheels off, and Rhys smiles after her before looking at the little flying robot, still unnamed.

“Okay, BB,” he says, short for ‘baby bot’ for now, “let’s go.”

He grabs tight to his stun baton and opens the door of the caravan. BB follows him out, hovering just over his shoulder, making little noises.

Vaughn gets out of the car, frowning at him. “Uh – what are you doing? And what…? You got that working again?”

Rhys nods. “Yes I did.”

BB flies toward Vaughn, hovering in front of him before making some more loud painful sounds. Vaughn winces, scowling at it.

BB’s guns are suddenly activated; an alert pops up in Rhys’s ECHO-eye, since he was previously tapped into the little bot’s systems.

“Whoa!” he says. “BB, no, hey – Vaughn’s not the enemy. He’s a friend. A friend.”

Vaughn backs up from the bot, looking at Rhys then back at the bot uncertainly.

BB hovers there a moment longer before the weapons go offline. For now. The bot makes another loud noise before turning and flying back to Rhys’s side.

“It was going to attack me?” Vaughn asks.

“He’s just… nervous? I think,” Rhys says, shaking his head.

“When did you get that working?”

“I dunno, not that long ago?”

“In the caravan?”

“Yes?”

Vaughn blinks at him. “I thought you were working on the sphere?”

“Oh, pfft, that’s taken care of,” Rhys says, waving his hand dismissively. “Gortys is waiting in the caravan.”

“What do you – Gortys?” Vaughn asks, confused.

“Oh, uh – the sphere turned out to be a cute little robot,” Rhys says, realizing Vaughn doesn’t know about Gortys yet. No one does.

Vaughn stares at him for a moment, before smirking. “You’ve been busy.”

“A bit,” Rhys says, shrugging. “Anyway – I’m going to go look for the girls, and the fuel.”

“Wha-? You can’t,” Vaughn says, frowning. “You don’t have any weapons and you don’t even know where you’re going!”

“I have BB,” Rhys says, gesturing at said robot. “And the stun-baton. And I do know where the camp is, and I know how to get into it.”

Getting out is the problem.

Vaughn is staring at him again. “You can’t,” he repeats.

Which is irritating.

“I didn’t ask for permission,” Rhys says somewhat sharply. “We can’t just sit here.”

“What if bandits come here while you’re gone?” Vaughn asks. “Or the girls?”

Hmm. Rhys didn’t think of that.

If Rhys and BB leave, they’ll leave Vaughn and Gortys completely unprotected. Fuck.

He bites his lower lip, hesitating.

“BB, you stay here,” he finally says. “Keep an eye on Vaughn and Gortys.”

The little bot gives him an angry emoticon.

“You can’t go in there alone,” Vaughn says, frowning, and BB beeps in agreement. “You don’t even have a gun.”

“Then what do you want from me?” Rhys snaps.

“Just wait here,” Vaughn says softly. “I’m sure the girls will show up soon. They have Loader Bot, after all. And guns.”

That’s what worries Rhys, though. They have Loader Bot, and guns, and they’re still not back yet. The bandits made it to the caravan first. That’s not a good sign.

“If we just wait here the bandits will eventually find us,” Rhys tells him. “And we need the fuel to get further away. It’s not safe just sitting here. Look… wait in the caravan, and at the first sign of trouble, get out of here and don’t look back.”

Vaughn stares at him again. “Are you kidding me?”

Rhys scowls.

“I’m not leaving you behind,” Vaughn tells him firmly, folding his arms across his chest, and suddenly Jack’s laughing behind Rhys.

“Oh, that’s rich, isn’t it, Rhysiecakes?” the hologram asks. “After he sold you out and everything. He was more than willing to leave you behind then, wasn’t he? And now he expects you to believe this?” More laughter.

Rhys grits his teeth. “Wait in the caravan, and leave if there’s trouble,” he repeats. “No point in all of us dying. Look after Gortys.” He looks at the little flying bot. “You stay with Vaughn and Gortys, okay?”

More angry emoticons.

Rhys smiles fondly at the thing. “I’ll be fine.”

That’s a complete and blatant lie, but he has to go, and he can’t just leave all of them unprotected. He can’t do that to Gortys and Vaughn, even if Vaughn did betray him once already. Rhys isn’t like that. He won’t just leave them unguarded if he can help it.

And he won’t even be angry when Vaughn drives away.

“This is crazy,” Vaughn says. “Jack!”

“Oh, fuck me, what does this nerd want?” Jack asks, coming to stand next to Rhys. Vaughn is currently looking around like Jack might just suddenly materialize in front of him, but even if he did, Vaughn wouldn’t be able to see him.

“He’s here,” Rhys says, just as confused as Jack.

“Good – then, uh, Jack… could you please talk some sense into Rhys? He’s going to get himself killed and that means you’ll die too.”

“I’m right here, you don’t have to talk about me like I’m not right-” Rhys starts.

“Ohhh he thinks I don’t agree with this plan, that’s rich,” Jack laughs. “But he does have a point, cupcake. If you die, I die, and I like living. In whatever state of being I’m in right now. So take the dumpy bot with you. The buff nerd has the getaway vehicle, which is… I don’t trust him, and you shouldn’t either, but he can get away if he has to, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

That’s probably the most Jack has spoken to him in a single stretch, without Rhys getting a word in edgewise.

“Alright, fine,” he mutters, and there’s this look of hope on Vaughn’s face. “BB, I guess you’re coming with me. Vaughn, you still have the getaway vehicle.”

The look on Vaughn’s face shatters. “What? No, you-”

“I don’t need your permission,” Rhys informs him flatly, turning on his heel to walk away, in the direction of the bandit camp. There’s the soft whir of BB following after him. “I’ll be back, or I won’t. Look out for Gortys.”

“Rhys, wait,” Vaughn says. “This is crazy!” Vaughn’s footfalls follow after him.

Rhys sighs and turns. Why is Vaughn being so difficult? It’s not like they have a lot of options here.

“Stay here,” he says, narrowing his eyes at Vaugh. “At the first sign of trouble get yourself and Gortys out of here. Keep that little bot safe.”

With that, he waves and turns back in the direction he was going. Vaughn moves to follow him but BB rushes at him, beeping loudly, and Vaughn stops.

That’s the end of the argument.

Rhys disappears over the hilltop.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six – A Psycho Situation

 

The bandit camp is quiet for the most part, which is surprising. It seems the bandits have congratulated themselves on a job well done, and have consumed too much rakk ale. It happens. A lot, on this planet, but also on Helios. But with much, much better alcohol.

This makes Rhys’s job a lot easier, though, since everyone has passed out thanks to the alcohol. He wonders, briefly, what they were celebrating. It doesn’t matter, though – it’s not why he’s here. He’s here for the fuel, and if he can find them, the girls.

Leaving the girls behind is wrong, even if they did leave him and Vaughn alone in the desert for so long. He’s not like them, though. He’s not like that. If anything, he’s too loyal, and he knows that. He stayed loyal to a dead man, after all.

Jack flickers next to him, walking in pace with him.

“So what’s the plan, kiddo?”

Rhys grits his teeth, eying the slumbering bandits and psychos as he walks past them quietly.

“Welllll?” Jack drawls.

He sighs. “Get the fuel, get the girls, get out,” he mutters under his breath so he doesn’t disturb anyone – even though he’s pretty sure he could shoot a rocket launcher right now and no one would wake up if they weren’t touched.

“You don’t need the girls,” Jack says.

Rhys ignores him, stepping over a bandit’s leg. Some of them are snoring, others are silent. Rhys keeps moving through the bandit camp, in search of the fuel and the girls.

He rounds a corner, seeing technical vehicles in the distance, and figures the fuel is probably near the vehicles. He’s unprepared for the hand that suddenly grabs his ankle, and he barely manages to bite down on his tongue to keep from shouting in surprise as he nearly face plants, catching himself on his hands. BB makes an irritated, angry noise, flying toward the attacker but not shooting. Rhys looks at his ankle, already reaching for his stun-baton, when he realizes the fingers ensnaring his ankle are, in fact, metallic. Robotic.

He follows it to the arm and then the upper half of the body.

“Loader Bot?” he breathes, as those fingers loosen, allowing him to roll over so he’s sitting on the ground, staring at half the robot.

“Hi,” the bot says.

“Wha…? What happened to you?” Rhys asks, because he’s pretty sure the last time he saw Loader Bot, he was a complete robot, with arms and legs and a torso and everything. Now he only has the torso and his arms. Where the hell are his legs?

“It is a long story,” Loader Bot tells him. “We must find the girls.”

Rhys nods. “Did they get…? Are they okay, do you know where they are?”

“They were captured. They are not far.”

“Alright, good, that’s good.” Rhys’s teeth catch his lower lip between them. “And the fuel?”

“It is by the vehicles,” Loader Bot says. “It, also, is not far.”

Rhys runs his flesh hand over his face. “Alright, yeah. Okay. Lead the way to the girls, and we gotta be quiet.”

Loader Bot starts leading the way before Rhys can backtrack and remember that he doesn’t have legs anymore. That doesn’t seem to matter to the bot. Loader Bot now uses his long arms as legs, pushing metallic palms against the ground and moving quickly. Rhys almost has to jog to keep up, looking around to make sure the bandits are still sleeping.

It only takes a few short minutes for Loader Bot to stop outside of some hut-looking place. It looks uninhabited and run-down. Rhys grimaces at the sight. “The girls are in there?”

“Rhys?” a woman’s voice hisses, sounding a lot like Fiona.

He smirks and goes around the corner. There’s a vent there, but not nearly big enough to crawl through, even for Vaughn and his small size. Rhys sighs, pinching at the bridge of his nose with his flesh hand.

“Fiona?” he asks, just to be sure.

“Rhys!”

“A little help would be nice,” Sasha says, so at least she’s okay, too.

“Working on it,” he says. “And please be quiet – they’re sleeping pretty deeply but you never know what will wake them.”

“There’s two guards at the door on the other side,” Fiona tells him. “That’s the only way out we can see.”

The things I do for you people.

He sighs. “LB, keep an eye on things; let me know if anyone else is coming. BB, go around the other side but be careful. Try not to shoot me.”

The little bot gives him a smiley face, and goes around the other side of the building, disappearing from view.

“Uh – Rhys? Who are you talking to?” Sasha asks.

He ignores her, and carefully edges along the building, keeping to the shadows.

“Not a big fan of this idea, Rhysie,” Jack informs him with a click of his tongue. “They have guns. Not sure what your little stun-baton is gonna do.”

It goes apeshit around me, he thinks but doesn’t say, instead gritting his teeth as he keeps moving, around the building.

There are two guards in front of the door, but they aren’t exactly guarding it. Instead they’re in an arm-wrestling match which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They’ve reached a stalemate. Rhys sighs quietly. Bandits. Always so quirky.

His fingers clasp around the handle of his stun-baton, but already BB is coming around the corner. Red lights flash in Rhys’ ECHO-eye, alerting him of nearby enemies BB is locking onto. All systems go, he thinks, and watches as BB fires. It catches both the bandits off-guard, but it’s a little too loud. Shit. He’s not sure what would have been worse; the sound of BB firing, or his stun-baton going crazy again and flinging everyone away with an electrical display. Too late to worry about it now.

He quickly moves toward the door and finds the lock on it. He smacks it hard with his metal hand, and it gives way beneath the pressure. He pries the door open and Sasha and Fiona come out of the room. Fiona smiles at him, and Sasha looks over his shoulder to frown.

“Uh, is that the dumpy bot?”

“His name is BB,” Rhys says. “Be nice to him.”

BB flies toward them, making little whirring screeching sounds, an angry emoticon on his face. Sasha rears back like it might shoot her, but BB isn’t target-locking on her like he did with Vaughn earlier. He must know they’re not the enemy right now.

Good. We can work on his social skills later.

“We need to get out of here,” Rhys says. “Sleeping or not, they’re bound to have heard BB firing.”

“Let’s go,” Fiona says. “The gas cans are this way.”

A part of Rhys wants to argue and say they really don’t need to be worrying about the gas cans right now; they just need to get out of here. But he keeps his mouth shut because they do need the gas if they want to get away from here. There’s no getting around that. So they round the corner, following Fiona, and Loader Bot follows them with only half of his body, using his arms as legs.

Rhys still wants to know what happened to him, but now isn’t the time to ask.

Jack is being extra quiet; Rhys looks around and finds him trailing behind him, arms folded across his chest.

“I still don’t like this plan,” he says, aware Rhys is looking at him.

Rhys shakes his head; Jack’s never happy, is he?

But then he remembers in the caravan earlier… when Jack seemed almost possessive of him… and proud

He swallows and keeps following Fiona.

The gas cans are stacked on top of each other – five of them. He’s sure there’s more elsewhere, but they must have brought these out of storage for quicker use. Somewhat smart of them, but they lose points due to the fact absolutely no one is watching them right now. They’re just sitting there, ripe for the taking. Everyone must be off celebrating, thinking they’ve already caught the would-be thieves. No need to keep watching the cans, then.

Idiots, Rhys can’t help but think.

Fiona and Sasha each grab two cans, leaving Rhys with one. He’s not quite sure how to feel about this; not only is he male, deemed the ‘stronger’ race, but he has a robotic arm which makes lifting things much easier. He should be the one to hold two cans. He doesn’t argue, though, because they don’t have time for that and at the moment, he’s the only one with a weapon.

They slowly begin making their way out of the camp, careful to not make too much noise. The gas within the cans jiggles, making an audible slushing sound which leaves Rhys looking around worriedly for any sign of movement.

It’s because he’s being vigilant that he spots it. Movement in the shadows.

A psycho bandit rushes – tall and laughing, moving quickly even with its oversized torso. There’s a buzz axe in its right hand and it’s already swinging. Rhys curses and pulls out his stun baton.

“Get to the caravan!” he orders as he faces the psycho.

Carrying two containers each and without weapons, the girls don’t really have a choice but to comply. Rhys tosses his own can aside, stepping back away from the approaching badass psycho.

“It’s time for another pound of flesh!” the psycho shouts, charging at him.

“I told you this was a bad idea, Rhysie,” Jack all but hisses. “If we die here, I’ll kill you myself!”

Rhys hits the button on the side of the baton. The rod emerges with a jolt of blue electric energy. The shockwave forces the psycho back several steps, even managing to stun it as little tendrils of electricity cling to its skin, continuously shocking it. Enraged, the psycho charges forward.

Around him, Rhys is all too aware of other bandits awakening at the commotion. They reach for their guns, shouting at him that he’s dead meat and he shouldn’t have come here.

They have guns, and all he has is a baton. Maybe Jack was right; this was a bad idea after all.

But it was the only idea. The only move he had, at the time, and he can’t bring himself to regret his choice. That doesn’t mean he’s okay with dying here, though. He’s come way too far to let it end here of all places.

He twirls the baton in his grasp, rounding on the more immediate threat. The psycho is charging at him, sure, but the guns are the primary threat here. They can hit him quickly from a distance. He looks at the gathered group of bandits around him, all aiming their weapons. He holds the baton outstretched in his hand, jabbing it forward slightly so it’s jutting outward toward the growing mass of people, and there’s that shockwave again. Powerful, directional – all without harming him. It’s so strange, but it’s useful, so he can’t bring himself to hate it.

In fact… he kind of likes it.

Kind of.

A little.

It’s nice, not feeling weak for once.

The bandits get thrown off their feet, flying back several feet. A few scream as they are electrocuted – steam rises from their bodies as they crash to the ground in a twitching heap, the scent of burnt flesh strong in the air. Rhys takes only a moment to stare at what he’s done – and then he’s back in the action, unable to worry about it right now.

It is, after all, easier to walk over corpses than it used to be.

Maybe that’s not a bad thing. This is Pandora, after all.

Jack whistles loudly. “That’s what I’m talking about, Rhysie! You and me, kid! We’re going places!”

Hearing praise from Jack is still so incredibly weird.

Unnerving, even.

Loader Bot is swatting at several bandits’ legs as he maneuvers across the ground on his hands, since he’s just a torso at this point. BB hovers just above Rhys’s shoulder, shooting little electrical shots at the psycho behind him. Right. The psycho.

Rhys spins and just barely manages to duck beneath the incoming swipe of the psycho’s buzz axe. It’s a whirring, cutting drill of death next to his ear – loud and overpowering. Rhys jumps back a few steps, swinging his baton so it’s outstretched toward the psycho. When the psycho charges again, the baton taps right against his chest cavity – and send a jolting, bright electric shock through him. The psycho screams, a loud, hysterical sound, and then he falls silent as his body falls over, twitching. The scent of burnt flesh fills Rhys’s nostrils again.

He looks around at the carnage around him. Bodies everywhere, some dead, some simply knocked out – and it’s all his doing. His and his bots’.

They make a good team, actually.

He smiles to himself.

“Remind me never to underestimate that little baton of yours again, cupcake,” Jack says, laughing, and Rhys’s gaze flits toward the blue hologram. Jack is grinning at him. “That was awesome! With a little training and finesse – you might make a decent fighter yet, Rhysie!”

He sounds almost proud. It’s a tone Rhys shouldn’t like so much, especially coming from Jack of all people, but it leaves him grinning nevertheless.

He did it. He did this. He survived.

He had help – but he did it.

The adrenaline is still coursing through his body, leaving his mind dizzy with anticipation. Light-headed and frantic. He looks around, knowing this can’t be all the bandits.

He hears shouts in the distance, but rather than wait for them, he pockets his now-dormant baton and picks up his forgotten gas can which has somehow survived the assault. He quickly begins making his way after the others.

When he crests the hill, he nearly runs headfirst into Fiona and Vaughn. They both stop and stare at him, shocked.

“You’re okay,” Fiona says, almost incredulously.

Rhys blinks at the two of them and smiles. “Uh, yeah – I’m fine. We should probably get this back to the caravan.” He jiggles the gas can he’s holding as BB makes a semi-angry beeping noise as it hovers over his shoulder still, and Loader Bot pounds his hands into the ground to keep up with him.

“Of course you’re fine,” Fiona says, rolling her eyes. “You had two robots with you.”

Rhys smiles and keeps quiet about his stun baton. He’s not sure why. Jack told him not to mention the tattoos glowing, which, yeah, he’s definitely not looking forward to revealing that odd bit of information to anyone, so that’s fine. But Jack said nothing about the stun baton. That’s all Rhys. He’s just not quite sure how to explain it – and admitting it to others might make it real. Might cement the fact that it does act differently for him, and that’s what worries him. It’s easier to dismiss this oddity when it’s just his own mind he has to fool, and not everyone else around him.

Rhys passes by the two of them and heads toward the caravan. Sasha is peeking out of the caravan’s windows and exits the vehicle when she sees them approaching.

“I see you made it back alive,” she says.

“Aw, don’t sound so upset,” Rhys says, smirking at her.

She rolls her eyes but grins back at him.

“Where do you want this?” he asks.

“We need gas for the car,” Vaughn says.

“I’ll fill up the caravan,” Sasha says.

Rhys nods and takes his can toward the car he stole from Vasquez.

Vasquez.

A knot form in his stomach. He shot off Vasquez’s arm. He doesn’t know if the man got medical treatment in time or if he bled out in that Atlas facility. He’s not sure which option is worse – that he murdered someone other than a bandit, or that he left someone crippled in a way similar to him. Both are horrifying in their own right.

He thinks it might be easier if Vasquez is dead. The two were certainly not friends, and Rhys is getting better at walking over corpses. He’s getting better at leaving a body count in his wake. While that’s certainly terrifying in its own right – it’s getting easier. Something he can get used to, can accept as a necessity, because it’s not like he took those lives in cold blood. They had it coming – they deserved it. They were trying to kill him.

He’s justified, right?

He quietly fills up the car’s tank and stows the gas can in the backseat. Sasha appears to be ready, too, because the lights on the vehicle turn on.

Then the door bursts open.

“Rhys!” Sasha yells. “Why is there an adorable robot threatening me?”

Gortys. Right. He forgot.

He walks toward the caravan and peeks his head inside. Gortys’s eyes are downturned into what could pass as an angry frown. Huh. He didn’t know that little bot was possible of such a thing. BB beeps over his shoulder, flying toward Gortys. Gortys’s eyes turn upward when he steps inside.

“Hey,” he says. “These are the other people I mentioned.”

“Hiiiii!” Gortys says, suddenly cheerful as it – she? – turns to face Sasha. “It’s so nice to meet you!”

Sasha stares at it, then laughs. “Right. Where did this thing come from?”

“Her name is Gortys,” Rhys says.

“Are you naming all of them?” Fiona asks.

Rhys shrugs. “She came with a name. And anyway, she’s the orb we got from the facility. She can help us find the vault but we have to locate her missing pieces. She’s incomplete.”

“Does she at least know where they are?” Fiona asks.

“That way!” Gortys says helpfully, running in the same direction she did before.

“That way,” Rhys repeats, smirking.

Fiona sighs heavily. “Alright. Let’s just get out of here for now – we can worry about the rest after a good night’s sleep.”

Rhys nods and backs out of the caravan. BB follows him. Movement above makes him look up to see Loader Bot settling in on top of the caravan. The bot raises one hand and waves at him. Rhys waves back and returns to the car.

Vaughn has apparently decided he’s driving, which means Rhys is relegated to the passenger seat.

Which is perfectly fine. It’s been a long day. Rhys is tired, despite his nap however long ago. It doesn’t feel like so long ago now. He’s repaired a bot, activated another, and staged a rescue and assault on a bandit camp. That’s enough for one day.

He settles into the passenger seat, leans the seat all the way back, and closes his eyes.

“You’re gonna let this loser drive?” Jack asks from the backseat.

This time, his presence doesn’t make him flinch. It’s almost… natural, having him around now, and that’s somewhat worrisome. BB settles in the backseat as well – Rhys can hear its soft whirs and beeps.

“So,” Vaughn says, and Rhys mentally groans because he just wants to sleep. “You saved the girls.”

“I let them out of their cell,” Rhys says. “I don’t know if that really counts as saving.”

“Okay, we’re going to have to work on this modesty thing, Rhysie,” Jack says. “You took on a badass psycho! With a silly stun baton! Own that shit.”

“Are you… okay?” Vaughn asks, almost hesitantly.

Rhys blinks his eyes open and glances at him. His grip on the steering wheel is tight and white-knuckled; even that’s visible in the darkness, which is saying something. “Are you?” he asks.

Vaughn sighs heavily. “I felt useless. I couldn’t do anything.”

“You stayed with the getaway vehicles,” Rhys says. “That’s something.”

“But I didn’t want to leave you behind!”

Which is different, right? He betrayed Rhys earlier, was going to leave him behind then, but now he’s against it. Maybe that means his words are true and he didn’t want to betray Rhys – he’s not sure. He’s still too hurt to really think about it too much, and right now, he’s too tired to air out that dirty laundry.

“Well, you didn’t have to,” he says, closing his eyes again. “I’m gonna sleep now. Wake me when we get to where we’re going, or if you need me to drive.”

He rolls his head away from Vaughn, ending the conversation, and settles in for some sleep.

xXx

Jack’s bored. And annoyed. And excited.

It’s a strange mixture of emotions, to be sure. It makes him shift in the backseat of the car, like some antsy guy uncomfortable in his own skin. Which, he’s not. He’s perfectly comfortable in his own skin, even if he is a hologram right now. He glares at the back of Rhys’s head. The code monkey has let down his guard and entrusted the buff nerd with his safety, which Jack is not a fan of, and thus instead of slipping back inside of Rhys’s head, he keeps tossing glares at the nerd in the driver’s seat, because someone has to keep watch and if Rhys won’t do it, that means Jack has to.

One wrong move from him and Jack will… something. He’s not sure what. He’s not exactly physical, and he knows he can’t do anything to the nerd. He can give Rhys a headache, though, which should wake him up. Then he can defend himself.

So far, the nerd hasn’t tried anything. Yet. Jack doesn’t trust him for a minute, though. He’s already betrayed them once. He’s not sure when they became a them, but they are now, because his fate is tied to Rhys’s for the time being. He’s not a fan of this situation, but it does have its perks, he supposes.

He never thought he’d be trapped in the head of siren, after all. Let alone a male one. All sirens are supposed to be female, and there are only six of them at any given time. He knows this. His daughter is a siren. A powerful one, too. Lilith is also a siren, as is Maya. He knows of three of the six sirens, and to his knowledge, there’s no such thing as a male siren. They’re all female. Always.

And yet…

Rhys has the same tattoos. The same glowing tattoos, which glow in the same exact way as Lilith’s, Maya’s, and Angel’s. He might not be as powerful as them – yet – but he’s also only now apparently coming into his powers. Angel’s powers appeared at a very young age, leaving him struggling to both hide her and control her so she didn’t lose control herself. She did so once, after all – it cost them her mother’s life. When her powers appeared, it was mostly emotional at first – she threw kid tantrums like most kids do, and when angered or upset, her powers revealed themselves.

Rhy’s powers didn’t emerge after the nerd’s betrayal. They didn’t emerge in all the times he could have died here on Pandora. Instead, his tattoos started glowing when his finger slipped in the wiring. Add to it the fact that his electric stun-baton seems to work far better for him than Jack has ever seen one work for anyone else, and it doesn’t take a lot to come to the conclusion that Rhys isn’t the most powerful siren. Sirens control the elements – all of them. He seems to only be able to alter and absorb electrical surges. One element.

That’s not to say he couldn’t do more, though. With a little… refining, he could be a powerful weapon. A special one, as the only male siren. An anomaly.

And Jack’s the first one to see it.

It’s gotten… easier, being tied to this code monkey, but this just makes it almost worth it. Sure, he’s down on his luck right now, but what a rare find! And it’s all his. Rhys is his.

Now all he needs to do is find a way to get rid of the rest of these losers and the two of them can make history.

Maybe he can keep him and Angel together, hidden away safely. Angel would like a friend.

Thinking of her just makes this whole situation worse, though. He misses her. He wants to find her, to know she’s being taken care of – to know what happened to her after his death.

Death.

There has to be a mistake. He didn’t die. Heroes don’t die.

The good guys always win. He can’t be dead.

Thinking of his supposed mortality is… depressing, though. It makes this place in his holographic chest hurt, and he hates that feeling. He can’t be dead. This is just a misunderstanding.

He must have faked his death. Yeah, that’s it. He faked his death and is biding his time somewhere, ready to rise from the ashes.

And then he gets out of this holographic form, there will be two of him.

He’ll be more than ready to kill those traitorous bandits then.

People like Lilith. Moxxi. Roland.

They’ll all pay.

Now there are new names added to the list, though.

Fiona. Sasha. Vaughn.

They’ll all pay.

No one betrays Handsome Jack and lives.

Maybe they don’t know about his existence – except Vaughn – but they betrayed and abandoned Rhys, which is just as bad because Jack’s stuck in his head at the moment. A betrayal against Rhys is a betrayal against him.

And they’ll all pay.

His revenge will go smoother if Rhys trusts him, though.

He thinks he’s done a good job of proving he’s a much better asset to have on the code monkey’s side than the others – even in his holographic form. He’s helped Rhys hack things several times and even kept an eye on things while the code monkey slept, which is rather generous of him, isn’t it?

If Rhys knows he can trust Jack, he’ll see how unworthy everyone else is. He’ll feel the betrayal more keenly, like he should, and will want revenge just like Jack.

And then everything will fall into place.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven – The Art of Ignoring

 

Vaughn glances over at the sleeping Rhys. He looks mostly peaceful, save for a slight crease to his brow, but that might be because he’s sleeping in a car and hasn’t been able to really relax yet. None of them have. It’s been a long few days. It feels like weeks, months, since they first left Helios to steal Vasquez’s deal, but he knows it’s only really been a few Pandoran days.

Still a long time – long enough for him to reexamine his life.

At Hyperion, he knew what he was doing. He knew what each day entailed – everything was neatly planned. He had a job, an apartment, and great friends in Rhys and Yvette. Things fell apart after Jack was killed, but things somehow got better, too. Jack was a wild card, a loose cannon, and everyone could see. Most people feared him because he was known to shoot the messenger, so delivering bad news to him was a death sentence. A literal one. Other than that, though, profits were through the roof and everyone was keen on working long hours to impress the boss and not bring his wrath down upon them. In a company standpoint, business was booming, and that was thanks to their CEO.

A dangerous CEO, but at least he got the company working. A lot of people liked that.

Rhys never seemed to realize the threat Jack posed. Vaughn often kept his mouth shut about it because, really, how likely was it that Rhys would ever meet his hero? Especially after Jack’s demise. So, it was safe to let the adoration linger because nothing could come of it. Now, though, things have certainly changed.

Jack is in Rhys’s head. He’s not entirely sure how that works, but Rhys did pass out after uploading the data into his head, which isn’t what was supposed to happen. He’s seen Rhys upload data into his mind several times, and it’s always been a smooth, easy process. But this time was different, and he knew that, but he let Rhys shrug it off with an ‘I’m fine’ like always.

And now Jack’s in his head, influencing him.

He won’t lie and say that he didn’t mess up – that he didn’t break Rhys’s trust in him himself. But he can’t help but wonder if it’s Jack’s influence that’s keeping Rhys from forgiving him. They’ve always been able to talk things through just fine, but Rhys won’t even talk to him about it now. He just shrugs off the conversation. Not that there’s been a lot of time to sit down and talk things out, but still – he feels like Rhys is avoiding him, even if they’re in the same car together now.

Which he deserves, he knows. He did break Rhys’s trust.

But how is he supposed to win back that trust with Jack in his head?

Rhys can complain about Jack all he wants, but Vaughn knows there’s a part of him that likes having his idol in his head. Rhys might not realize how deep that part goes just yet, but one day he will – and then he might start listening to Jack over Vaughn. Jack’s already fairly deep into his systems – he can control Rhys’s cybernetic hand occasionally, using it to hit Rhys in the face when he wants. And that’s too far.

He’s worried, but he can’t bring up those worries to Rhys just yet. Not when his friend is still so angry with him. Even if Rhys seems to have calmed down, it doesn’t mean things are back to how they used to be.

He’s beginning to wonder if things will ever be okay again. If they’ll ever be how they were before.

They’re blacklisted now. Hunted by their former coworkers. Yvette’s up there all alone, and they haven’t heard from her in a long time. He wonders how she’s doing – if she’s okay, if they got to her, if she’s locked away somewhere alone and scared, or worse… if she’s hurt, or already dead.

He can’t think about that, though. It feels like defeat.

And he wasn’t lying when he said Pandora somehow makes him feel alive. When his pulse is racing with adrenaline all the time, it’s hard to think about defeat. Defeat means death, and he’s not ready to die.

He doesn’t realize his grip is too tight on the steering wheel until he starts losing feeling in his fingertips. He loosens his hold and exhales slowly, allowing the tension to ease from his body.

Things will work out in the end.

Rhys will think of something.

Like Jack, they have that one specific thing in common.

Neither knows when to give up, and they always have a plan.

Hopefully that’s where their similarities end.

xXx

Rhys wakes hours later. They’re still driving, showing no signs of stopping. The caravan’s taillights are just ahead, leading the way through the vast darkness. He looks over at Vaughn, who is utterly focused on the road ahead even though he’s basically just staring at the caravan’s lights.

Rhys stretches, causing Vaughn to startle and glance over.

“Oh, you’re awake,” he says. “I mean – uh – sleep well?”

“Pull over,” Rhys says.

“Uh – what? Why?”

“I need to take a leak, and you look exhausted.”

It’s a testament to how tired he must be that Vaughn just stares at him in response. Rhys smirks back at him. He can read Vaughn too well. He holds his gaze until Vaughn sighs and slows the car, pulling to a stop.

Rhys gets out and does his business before he trades places with Vaughn. He looks almost small in the seat which is pushed back as far as it can go, laying all the back as well to accommodate Rhys’s long, lanky body.

“Thanks,” Vaughn says, curling up in the seat.

Rhys bites his tongue to keep from replying. It’s almost too easy to fall into this normal rhythm, to forget that Vaughn betrayed him. Forgetting means forgiving, and he’s just not ready to do that yet. Maybe when this whole thing is over, and they’ve found the vault, and he can sit down and finally think about it and accept it. Right now, though, he’s in no place or shape to do that.

Vaughn slowly falls to sleep.

“Finally,” Jack says from the backseat, nearly causing Rhys to jerk the wheel in shock, but he manages to refrain from doing that at the last minute. “I thought the dweeb would never sleep. Okay, so what’s the plan, cupcake?”

“Follow the girls,” Rhys says quietly, careful not to wake Vaughn.

“Well, yeah, for now – until we get to the vault,” Jack says. Rhys can picture him rolling his eyes. “But what then? How are we going to get revenge on these traitors?”

Rhys slumps in his seat. Jack really wants revenge, though Rhys isn’t sure why. Not really. They betrayed him, after all, not Jack. Everything he knows about Jack points to Jack only looking out for himself. Since he’s stuck with Rhys right now, is a betrayal against Rhys the same as one against him? It must be. It’s the only reason he can think of that Jack would be this gung-ho about helping him.

“I don’t know,” he says. He doesn’t want revenge, not really. He just wants to be able to look back one day, and forgive it all. Is that wrong? Or should he be hung up on revenge like Jack? What constitutes revenge? A prank? Or something more substantial and dangerous? Considering it’s Jack saying this, it’s probably something violent, and he doesn’t want that. “I can’t think about it right now. Get back to me after this is all over.”

Jack sighs. It’s this long, worn out sigh like Rhys is trying his patience. Instantly, Rhys’s body tenses because he doesn’t especially like that sound. It’s the same sigh his parents used to give whenever he couldn’t accomplish simple tasks because he was a cripple – it was the sigh of someone done with helping someone else, tired of trying when the person in question could never reach those expectations. “You’re killing me here, pumpkin. These assholes betrayed you. Two of them left you in the desert to die, and the dweeb tried to hand you over on a silver platter! Tell me you’re not just going to let that slide.”

“I…”

He doesn’t know what to say. He swallows and tightens his grip on the steering wheel.

“Loyalty is nice to a point, cupcake. Now it’s just sad. They don’t deserve your loyalty! They haven’t had your back this whole time.”

“But you do?” Rhys asks, looking at him in the rearview mirror.

Jack smiles, all predatory passion and no real mirth. “Of course I do, Rhysiecakes! You and me, babe. We’re going to own this planet. And everyone who ever hurt us is going to pay.”

Rhys exhales slowly. What do you care who hurt me? But he doesn’t say anything.

He just refocuses his gaze on the taillights ahead, attempting to catch up to the girls.

Jack sighs again. That same heavy sound. “You’re too good for your own, well, good, Rhysie. You need to set aside this friendship idea and focus on the fact these assholes all left you to die. If I hadn’t been there when Vasq-fuck found you in the desert, what would have happened?”

This is a rhetorical question, Rhys knows. He knows exactly what would have happened if Jack hadn’t been there to enhance his ECHO-eye. He would have died, Vaughn would have died, and that would have been the end of the story.

Except…

He looks back at Jack in the rearview. “Why’d you help me, anyway? Letting me die would have gotten you back to Hyperion faster.”

Jack rolls his eyes, looking miffed. “Seriously? If you die, I die, genius.”

“Do you, though? They seem to know about you somehow. Surely they’d know how to extract you even if I was dead.”

“And give fuckface the glory? Hell no, kiddo! You and me, babe! We’re in this together.” That wolfish grin is back. “And when we both get back to Hyperion, we’re going to own it. You and me! We’ve got each other’s backs.”

Rhys sighs. He wishes it were that simple.

Jack makes it sound like he’s doing this for Rhys – but Rhys knows better.

He’s always idolized the man, maybe even crushed on him for a bit, but if there’s one thing he knows for certain, it’s that Jack looks after himself first and foremost. Screw everyone else.

So where does that leave Rhys when this is all over?

Jack might be talking a big game now – playing up the fact that they’re both going to come out on top. But Jack doesn’t share the spotlight with anyone. At the end of this, he’s going to be extracted from Rhys’s head and Rhys is going to be tossed aside – either alive or dead, but either way, down the drain. There’s a big road of nothing ahead for him, waiting at Hyperion.

After they find this vault, his life is going to be over.

Somehow, he can’t help but wonder if that’s such a bad thing.

Jack is right, after all. They’ve all betrayed him. At one point or another, they all chose themselves over Rhys.

Rhys can’t do the same. He can’t choose himself over Jack, can he? He can’t just not deliver Jack to Hyperion and let him regain a body of his own. He might have died before, but he’s alive now, in whatever way he can be as a hologram – but he has his own thoughts and feelings and memories. That’s a soul right there, isn’t it? That’s a being. It’s not something Rhys can just squash, can he?

And Hyperion really has fallen apart with Jack as its CEO. Jack has is faults – and many of them – but he is the one who put an end to Tassiter and all the unnecessary pain he inflicted on people like Rhys. So, doesn’t that mean he owes Jack, at least a little?

It’s a jumbled, confused mess in his mind. He can’t think straight.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do when this is over. He doesn’t know what will happen.

All he can do is worry about the present and push all that aside for another, distant day.

“Hellloooo? Rhysiecakes? This is your better half speaking, I expect you to listen to me.”

Rhys blinks, tuning Jack back in. He’d tuned him out because it seemed like he was going to go on a rant about vengeance again, much as he had on the way to Old Haven. “Huh?” he asks.

Jack huffs. “Finally! I don’t like being ignored.”

“Why not?”

Jack glares at him. It’s this cold, narrow-eyed look Rhys doesn’t particularly like. “Just don’t ignore me, pumpkin,” Jack says almost icily, before he grins again. “Anyway, as I was saying, for revenge we should-”

Rhys slams on the breaks, having not realized the caravan in front of him stopped until then. He stops just short of the caravan, flinging himself and Vaughn forward. Cursing, he flings his metallic arm outward and holds Vaughn back against the seat even as his friend’s eyes open and he flails about, startled. Since he’s keeping Vaughn in place, he doesn’t have the strength or positioning with his flesh hand to keep himself from flinging harshly against the steering wheel. Maybe a seatbelt would have helped, but they’ve been out here all alone so far – he didn’t think it was necessary, and was a little too distracted to worry about it.

“What the hell, Rhys?!” Vaughn gasps, looking around as Rhys groans and removes his arm from keeping Vaughn pinned against the seat.

“Ow,” he says, rubbing his chest from where it hit the steering wheel.

“Are you okay?” Vaughn asks.

“Gotta wear your seatbelt, Rhysie,” Jack says, clicking his tongue on the roof of his non-existent mouth. “Amateur hour. I live in your head so you have to keep it safe, huh?”

“I’m fine,” Rhys says, before looking out the window.

The girls are outside the caravan, waiting.

“I’ll just… go see what they want,” he says, opening the driver’s door. He climbs out of the vehicle and approaches the girls. They both look tired in the moonlight – hell, he’s tired too. They all are. It’s been a long day. “So, what’s up?” he asks, catching a flicker of blue next to him to tell him Jack as decided to join him.

“This oughtta be good,” Jack says.

“We’re tired,” Fiona says around a yawn. “We should be safe enough here if we take turns keeping watch. We can set up a small camp and actually get some sleep.”

Rhys nods. “Alright, I’m game. I can take first watch.” He just woke up from a nap, after all.

Fiona looks relieved. “Oh, good. I was hoping you’d say that.” She grins. “Maybe you’re not so bad after all, for a Hyperion.”

“Well,” Rhys says, smirking, “you’re not so bad yourself. For a Pandoran.”

She laughs.

“Ugh, kill me now,” Jack groans. “Don’t tell me you’re actually flirting with her. Come on, Rhysie! Where are your standards?”

Rhys ignores him. He’s not flirting with Fiona, but it feels nice to joke around. To forget all the bad blood between them – and there’s a lot of it. Nothing is forgiven, but at least he can pretend things are okay for the time being.

“I’ll set up camp,” Sasha says. “Wanna help me?”

“Sure,” he says.

“Ugh, and her too, now?” Jack asks.

Rhys spares him a glance and a quirked brow, but follows after Sasha before either of them can ask what he’s doing. Jack stomps after him.

“You don’t actually like them, do you?” Jack asks, suddenly serious.

Rhys ignores him.

“Rhysie! Are you ignoring me again? I told you how much I hate that!”

“So what do you need help with?” Rhys asks as Sasha opens a side compartment outside the caravan. It seems to be filled with luggage and supplies.

“You’re taller than me and have that robotic arm,” she says as she grabs a few items from the compartment. “You can make the tents higher and life heavier things than I can.” She sends him a sharp look. “Not that I need the help. It would just be… uh… helpful.”

He smirks. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

“Helllooo? Handsome Jack here! You know – that part of you that doesn’t like being ignored? Ringing any bells? C’mon, cupcake, don’t ignore me!”

Rhys doesn’t even glance his way as he walks past the blue outline and heads for the spot Sasha has designated as ‘camp material’.

“Ugh,” Jack huffs. “Fine. Whatever. I guess I’ll just give you a headache, then.”

He throws Jack a quick, nasty look while Sasha is looking away, focused elsewhere as she describes how she thinks the camp should be set up.

“Gimme a few minutes,” Rhys huffs.

“What was that?” Sasha asks, looking back at him.

“What? Uh – nothing! Nothing. I was just… talking out loud. To myself. Give me a few minutes to stretch and I’ll be ready to help you,” he says. “I was, uh – napping in the car, before we switched drivers so I’m just a little stiff. Sorry.”

She eyes him for a moment, and then nods. “Alright. I’ll go get the rest of the stuff while you stretch, then.”

She walks away, and Rhys rounds on Jack.

“Are you serious?” he asks, glaring. “Why are you being such an ass right now?”

“You’re ignoring me!” Jack says, clearly offended. “I told you I hate that!”

“I kind of have to in front of everyone else, and you know that,” Rhy says, rolling his eyes. “Unless you want me to tell them everything?”

Jack sighs, deflating. “Fine. But I don’t like being ignored.”

Wait, that worked?

This is certainly not what he was expecting. He was expecting Jack to go into full rant-mode, but apparently that’s not the case.

He frowns. “Are you okay?”

Jack laughs – loud and stubborn. “Of course I’m okay, cupcake! I’m great! Thanks for asking!”

He rolls his eyes. “Fine. Don’t tell me.”

He turns away from Jack to look at the supplies in front of him. He’s gone a few short-lived camping trips with Vaughn and Yvette, so he knows the basics of setting up camp, but none of these are standard-issue camping gear. He’ll need Sasha’s advice as to how to set this up.

Jack’s quiet for a moment. Rhys glances over at him to see him standing with his arms folded across his chest, silently fuming as he glares at Rhys all the while.

A dull headache forms.

“Seriously?” he snaps, glaring back at the blue outline. “Why do you hate me so much? What have I ever done to you?”

“I don’t hate you,” Jack snaps, sounding utterly angry and like he does hate him, despite his words.

Rhys snorts. “Because you’re just so trustworthy right now.”

“I don’t like being ignored!”

“I’m not ignoring you! Here I am – this is me, talking to you!”

They glare at each other until Sasha comes back.

“Uh – are you okay?” she asks, stopping to frown at him.

He must look ridiculous, glaring at nothing in particular. He relaxes, smiling at her. “I’m great!” he says, false cheerfully. “Did my stretches and I’m ready!”

There’s a flicker of blue from off to the side. He winces as Jack re-inserts himself in his head, disappearing from view.

Good. He’s tired of this stupid argument with Jack. He’s tired of Jack acting like a needy kid.

He knows Rhys can’t speak to him openly in front of others. Vaughn, maybe, because he knows about Jack’s existence, but not the girls. They hate Hyperion, and they hate Jack. They barely tolerate Rhys but that could change the minute they find out about Jack being in his head. No, he can’t tell them.

He’s silent the whole time he and Sasha are setting up camp.

xXx

Jack awakens himself sometime later. Rhys is keeping watching, quietly poking at a fire to keep it burning, moving the wood around before it can burn away completely. The others are asleep around him, buried in covers for the cold Pandoran night. He himself can’t feel the air, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Perks of being in this whatever-it-is state of being. A downside as well, though, because he can’t really be alive if he can’t even feel the air around him. It’s something he used to take for granted, but now that he’s less than, he feels the loss acutely.

Just like he feels the loss of certain other things.

He looks back at Rhys, who has yet to notice his presence. Or, if he has, he doesn’t acknowledge him.

He hates relying on Rhys for the only bit of conversation. Rhys is the only one who can hear and see him, though.

He knows Rhys needs to ignore him occasionally to save face with the others. He knows that.

That doesn’t mean he likes it, though.

Deep down, he might even admit it hurts, being ignored like that. Like he’s not actually here, like he’s a ghost, like he’s less than. He absolutely fucking hates it, and he hates that this is his life for the foreseeable future. At least until they open the vault and get back to Hyperion to find a way to get him out of Rhys’s head.

And then… ohhh, and then.

That’s when the real fun will begin. With Rhys at his side, he’ll bring this shitty planet to its knees. He’ll find his daughter, get revenge for his supposed death, and have a hot siren at his side.

Wait.

What?

He glares at the back of Rhys’s head, like he’s somehow responsible for this.

He didn’t just think that. No.

Rhys is… fine, sure, but he’s not hot. Not like that. No. He’s tall and lanky and he has giraffe legs. He’s clumsy and moral and everything Jack usually hates.

Usually.

For some reason, it seems to work on Rhys. Which is just stupid.

And makes him glare more.

“I can feel that,” Rhys says, stoking the fire. “Could you quit glaring at me, please? What did I do now?”

“Oh, so you’re not ignoring me now?” Jack asks, still glaring.

“Is that what this is about?” Rhys finally looks away from the fire, blue and brown eyes focusing on him. The look is grounding in a way little else is.

When Rhys looks at him, it’s like he’s actually here, real and solid and not a hologram. It’s stupid, and he hates being reliant on some stupid moral code monkey to feel like he’s actually still human. But with the others, they all look past him like he’s not really there – because in their eyes, he isn’t. He doesn’t exist for them. He might as well be a ghost.

But when Rhys looks at him, talks to him, all of that seems to fade away for a moment. He doesn’t need to breathe in this state of being, but at least when he’s being looked at and spoken to, he feels like he actually can breathe. The rest of the time it feels like he’s slowly suffocating, and he hates it.

This is not how the story was supposed to end. This is not what’s supposed to happen to heroes. This can’t be right.

He exhales slowly, shoving all that nonsense into the back of his mind. He’s not dead, after all, so why worry about it? “I don’t like being ignored, Rhysie.”

Rhys rolls his eyes. “So I’ve noticed. But I can’t just talk to you like normal all the time, you know.”

“We could go off on our own. We don’t need these assholes.”

“You know we can’t do that.”

Jack sighs. Deep down, he does know that. If they’re going to open the vault, they’re going to need help. He knows that much at least, so sticking together in a group for the vault fight is a wise idea. He’s just not sure why it has to be these assholes.

“But why them, though?” he asks, voicing his thoughts. “They’ve betrayed you. Dump them and we can find others.”

Rhys’s eyes narrow. “I’m not leaving.”

“They’re going to be your downfall, cupcake.”

And mine, he thinks with a heavy sigh.

The buff nerd rolls over in his sleep, muttering under his breath. Rhys looks away from Jack and that strange, hollow feeling returns. He really fucking hates it when Rhys isn’t looking at him, or talking to him, or paying attention to him, or-

Fuck. He sounds needy.

It’s just temporary, he tells himself. This is all just temporary. Things will be fixed soon, and he’ll own the world.

And it will be the true ending to the story. His story.

And he’ll have Rhys and Angel at his side.

Nothing will stop them then.

He just has to make it through this existence first, which is certainly easier said than done, but Jack is nothing if not determined.

If only Rhys would stop ignoring him.

“Is it so much to ask for a simple conversation, pumpkin?” he asks, as sweetly as he can.

Rhys looks back at him, but says nothing.

Jack huffs. “You’ve got Handsome Jack all to yourself, Rhsiecakes! You should be thrilled. I mean, you had such a crush on me and everything, you’d think this was a dream come true!”

Rhys’s expression darkens. Jack actually likes that stubborn look of anger. It suits him well. If only he’d use it more, against others. “Fuck off, Jack,” Rhys says, before looking back into the fire.

Fury ignites somewhere within him. “Fuck off? Fuck off?” he hisses, stomping toward Rhys. Rhys looks back over, shocked at the fury in his tone, and good, he should be scared. “Fuck you, you little asshole!”

Rhys scrambles to his feet as Jack swipes at him. It won’t do anything to him really, but the fact Rhys is backpedaling is really doing wonders for his ego. He grins.

“Not so quick to snap at me now, are you, kiddo?”

“What do you want, Jack?” Rhys hisses, quickly looking around at everyone to make sure they’re still asleep before settling his full attention on Jack, glaring at him.

And really, fury just looks great on him. He should wear it more often.

“I am in your head, Rhysie,” Jack says, grinning at him. “I want your fucking attention, cupcake, what do you think I want? I don’t like being ignored. I told you this. And then just go and snap at me. A guy could get the feeling he’s not loved here.”

Rhys sighs, the anger deflating. “Is being ignored really such a trigger for you?”

Jack’s eyes narrow. “Yes,” he says seriously. “It is.”

Rhys doesn’t ask him to explain why. Doesn’t ask for any explanation at all.

He just nods, like that settles things. “Alright,” he says simply. “I’ll try not to ignore you unless I have to when I’m with the others.”

“Just like that?” Jack can’t help but ask, because usually people worry about silly things like reasons.

Rhys shrugs. “If you really hate being ignored, I figure you have your own reasons. I can respect them. And I get how being in your position might be really frustrating right now, so – yeah. Just like that.”

Jack stares at him for a moment. That’s actually kind of… touching. It makes him want to puke, actually. Rhys is too fucking nice to survive in this world. How the hell has he managed to survive this long without Jack?

“Can I get back to the fire now?” Rhys asks, looking over his shoulder at the fire burning a few feet away.

Jack says nothing, still staring at him.

Rhys takes his silence as a yes and moves past him to retake his seat at the fire.

Jack walks after him. He doesn’t really have a choice in the matter. The further apart they get, the more he just… feels awful. So, really, he has to be close to Rhys.

And maybe being close to him isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe. All the time.

“So,” Rhys says quietly, stoking the fire again. “What do you want to talk about?”

Jack stares at him again. He’s so… accepting. It’s odd. Really, really odd. “Let’s talk about you, Rhysie,” he says, because there’s no way he’s talking about himself. He might share a brain with Rhys at the moment, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to talk about his own past and memories and everything. And, he is curious about Rhys. It’s kind of hard not to be.

“I’m pretty boring,” Rhys says.

Jack grins. “I find you quite interesting, pumpkin.”

“What’s with the pet names, anyway?”

“What? You saying you don’t like them?”

Rhys scowls at him, tossing him a quick look.

“See, I think you like them just fine,” Jack says, smirking. “And anyway, I asked about you. So, tell me about you.”

Rhys puts new wood on the fire and pushes to his feet. He nods his head away from the others, toward the car, and Jack quietly follows after him.

“Sorry,” Rhys says as he climbs into the car and Jack appears in the backseat. “I didn’t want to risk waking them. I can keep an eye on things from here, and with the windows down I can hear everything too, but I don’t have to risk waking them. I’ll have go back soon and stoke the fire but we should be good for a little bit.”

That’s… thoughtful of him. Not just for Jack, whom Rhys is clearly tolerating, but also for the others who are trying to sleep. People like Rhys are why Jack kills things.

“So, get with the talking,” Jack says.

“Uh, I don’t know what you want me to say. I grew up on Eden-5. I lost my arm and eye in an explosion, and got it replaced by Hyperion. I was one of their original, uh, volunteers.

The way he says it makes Jack scowl. “Do I need to kill someone?”

“Huh?” Rhys frowns, shaking his head. “Nah, you killed Tassiter. I guess that fixes it.”

Jack laughs. He can’t help himself. “Yeah, that guy was a grade A douchebag.”

“He really was.”

“You met him, then?”

How is it Rhys worked for the company, knew Tassiter, and yet he and Jack never crossed paths?

“Briefly,” Rhys says, scowling. “He liked to check in on his, uh, property.”

“Property,” Jack repeats flatly, a hot knot of anger forming somewhere in his non-existent stomach. “Explain that to me.”

Rhys shrugs, like it’s no big deal, but there’s a certain tenseness to his shoulders that says otherwise. He’s good at hiding it, though. Better than most people. “He gave me an arm and an eye,” Rhys says. “They were both Hyperion property, and it was experimental technology and an experimental procedure. He said that meant he owned me.”

“Oh, do I almost regret the fact he’s already dead,” Jack says, growling under his breath. “I should have made that asshole suffer more before he died. He didn’t own you, Rhysie.”

Rhys shrugs again. “It was years ago. It’s fine.”

“Well, no one owns you, pumpkin.” Except me.

Rhys is his. And anyone who tries to lay a hand on him is going to feel the full and complete wrath of Handsome fucking Jack.

“But, uh, anyway,” Rhys says, snapping him from his thoughts, “that’s my story, I guess. Joined Hyperion and worked my way up. Met Vaughn and Yvette. Tried to steal Vasquez’s deal, and the rest, I guess, you know.”

“What made you want to steal Vasquez’s deal?” Jack asks, curious. Rhys seemed like a nice guy – too moral, really – so why go through all the trouble to do something like this which would clearly get him into trouble?

Rhys sighs heavily. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I guess I was angry. I worked my ass off for that promotion, and then he just comes in out of nowhere and takes it and rubs it in my face. Then he decides to promote me, to the head fucking janitor.”

“Oh, that asshole,” Jack groans.

“Yeah. After that, I learned about his deal and I wanted to get back at him. So I stole his new car he was so proud of and took it on a moonshot down to Pandora with Vaughn. Things didn’t exactly go as planned, of course.”

“At least you tried,” Jack says. “I’m actually kind of proud of you, kiddo. You took initiative.”

Rhys goes quiet for a moment, biting his lower lip thoughtfully. “Thanks,” he says finally. “I think. Even if that’s what caused us all to be in this mess.”

“Without you, I guess I’d be stuck in some data drive for who knows how long,” Jack says distastefully. “At least now I can walk around and think and speak for myself. So, uh… thanks for putting a random data drive into your head. I guess.”

Fuck, it’s hard to say thanks. Feels like he’s needy, then. Like he needs Rhys, and he doesn’t. No. He’s just tied to him for the time being, and maybe, on some level, he can acknowledge that being tied to him isn’t the worst thing ever.

Rhys stares at him for a moment.

“I know I don’t have anything on my face,” Jack says, scoffing. “I don’t have a face. Not really.”

“Just, uh… I wasn’t expecting you to thank me. Or anyone.”

“I can be nice,” he says defensively.

“I’m sure you can, I just, uh – wasn’t expecting it. That’s all.”

Jack rolls his eyes.

“Anyway,” Rhys says, “it’s been kind of… nice, talking like this. We could, uh… do it again sometime, if you want.”

“Sure, Rhysie,” Jack says, smirking. “We’ll call it a date.”

Rhys groans. “Ugh, do you always have to do that?”

“Do what?” he asks mock innocently.

“You know what,” Rhys huffs.

Jack just grins, and Rhys rolls his eyes and gets out of the car. Jack follows after him as he walks back toward the fire and the others.

He sits back in his spot and stokes the flames, before leaning over to prod Vaughn awake. Vaughn wakes with a soft start, looking around worriedly before his gaze lands on Rhys and he smiles.

“Your turn,” Rhys says.

“Yeah, sure,” Vaughn says, sitting up as he rubs the sleep from his eyes. “Get some sleep, bro.”

Rhys curls up in the sleeping bag and covers Vaughn previously occupied, his eyes quickly falling shut.

Jack glares at Vaughn, not trusting him for a minute.

If Rhys won’t – and can’t – stay up and watch his own back the whole time they’re out here, then as a hologram who doesn’t need to sleep himself, that tasks falls to Jack. Someone has to make sure they don’t get stabbed in their sleep, after all.

He’ll stay awake and make sure nothing happens to him or Rhys while the code monkey sleeps.

And then, soon, it’ll just be him and Rhys.

Him, Rhys, and Angel – making the world fall to its knees before them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight – Compromises

 

It’s still dark when they abandon camp and get back on the move, but that’s to be expected on Pandora. It’s Rhys and Vaughn in the car again while the girls, along with Gortys, and LB, take the caravan. BB hovers in the backseat of the car, looking this way and that, little notifications popping up haphazardly across Rhys’s field of vision due to his ECHO-eye and its attachment to the little bot.

The bot is curious. Asking what things are, wanting to learn about the world. It still can’t speak, not really, but in Rhys’s vision a smiling emoticon might appear next to an outlined object of interest, or a question mark. The little bot is so curious, and Rhys feels his heart melting with each little tidbit the bot wants to learn.

He spends the drive describing things to the bot while Vaughn drives in near-silence. It’s still dark out, most of the things Rhys is mentioning not even visible to his normal human vision, but the little bot can see it, and so can Rhys with his ECHO-eye. He doesn’t even realize Jack is also in the backseat, actually sitting quietly as he describes stuff to the bot, until he feels that cobweb-like feeling slide through his shoulder, causing him to flinch and twist around to see that Jack is lowering his hand, having tried once again to touch him.

“You really like bots, huh, kid?” Jack asks, staring at him.

“I already told you yes,” Rhys says, twisting back around to look out the window.

“Huh?” Vaughn asks, because this is something different than he’s been listening to for the past two hours.

“Oh, sorry – Jack’s here,” Rhys says, frowning somewhat. He’s still not really comfortable discussing Jack’s existence to anyone, but Vaughn already knows about it. Still, that doesn’t mean he likes speaking to Jack so openly with any witnesses, even if they are Vaughn.

He feels this uneasiness is justified, though. Vaughn did try to betray him. He might be sorry about it, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that when push came to shove, Vaughn was more than willing to sell him out. And that still hurts, still burns deep inside, but he’s gotten better at ignoring it lately.

“And, uh… what’s Jack got to say?” Vaughn asks, uneasily.

Rhys glances over at him. Vaughn’s grip is tight on the steering wheel, and quickly scanning him reveals that his heartrate is elevated and he’s nervous. Why, though? Jack can’t do anything to him. He’s trapped in Rhys’s mind. He’s Rhys’s problem, not Vaughn’s.

“About robots,” Rhys says, seeing no reason to lie.

“Oh,” Vaughn says quietly.

Rhys frowns at him.

Before he can say anything, though, BB is targeting a new location with a brand new question mark. Rhys relaxes into his seat and smiles as he goes into his easy explanation about the skag in the distance.

“Are you going to describe everything to the dumpy bot?” Jack asks, almost incredulously.

Rhys scowls, even though he’s not looking back at Jack. “He’s curious and eager to learn. Of course I’m going to explain things to him.”

“The bot?” Vaughn asks.

“Do you have a problem with me telling him about things?” Rhys asks.

“Uh, I don’t,” Vaughn says.

“Not you,” Rhys sighs.

“Oh…”

“I don’t have a problem with it, pumpkin,” Jack says, almost warmly. “It’s just odd to see someone so patient with a dumpy bot of all things.”

“He has a new name now. It’s BB.”

“I can see that, cupcake. Just – most people wouldn’t bother with it.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not most people,” Rhys huffs, folding his arms across his chest.

“I’m beginning to realize that,” Jack says, a little too seriously.

Rhys twists to look back at him, but Jack isn’t anywhere to be seen. There’s the familiar twinge of pain as Jack hides away in the back of Rhys’s mind. He wonders, briefly, what that must be like for him. “Huh,” Rhys mutters as he slips back into his seat.

“What?” Vaughn asks.

“Nothing,” Rhys replies, shrugging. “I’m not, uh… annoying you, am I?”

“What? No! Of course not. I think it’s… it’s great that you’re teaching the bot things. It’s great that you, uh, care so much…” Vaughn trails off, grip tightening on the steering wheel again.

“You’re acting odd,” Rhys says, but he’s not sure he has any real right to say that. He himself has been acting odd since they landed on Pandora, he knows. It’s not only because he has a hologram stuck in his head, but that’s definitely part of it.

I’m acting odd?” Vaughn retorts, shooting him a quick glance. “You’re the one talking to yourself!”

“It’s not to myself,” Rhys snaps, glaring. “You know it’s not to myself!”

“Fine! Then you’re the one talking to Handsome Jack!”

“And?”

“You should stop!”

A silence follows Vaughn’s words as Rhys simply stares at him. Hurt and confused.

He’d thought they were past this. That Vaughn believed him. Believed in him. But then, maybe he shouldn’t have thought that or trusted that feeling so much. Vaughn did betray him already, after all. All of them have, except the bots. Rhys doesn’t like holding grudges, but it’s so hard to look past the hurt and focus on the logic of Vaughn’s supposed betrayal. Self-preservation is a strong, powerful thing, after all, and almost anyone would do anything to save their own skin. He can’t really fault Vaughn for throwing him under the bus to ensure his own survival, can he?

But now this. Getting snapped at for talking to himself, when he knows Vaughn knows he’s not. He’s the only one who knows. Getting snapped at for talking to Jack in the first place. Which, what else is he supposed to do? Jack doesn’t like being ignored, and while Rhys might be the only one capable of seeing and communicating with him, that doesn’t make him any less real. He’s clearly here, and has a mind of his own.

He could walk around Vaughn and see how many fingers he was holding up and accurately relay that information to Rhys. What kind of random computer program in his mind could do that? Could see something he himself couldn’t see? So while Jack might be a hologram comprised of coding and data, he still has his own mind and can still think and see for himself, without Rhys’s own input. He’s still a person, even if he’s a hologram right now, and he can’t just deny Jack the smallest bit of normalcy by ignoring him completely, especially now that he knows how much Jack doesn’t seem to like it.

He’d thought, of everyone, Vaughn would understand this. Would side with him.

Maybe he should have realized how wrong that assumption was. Vaughn did betray him. Vaughn threw him under the bus. If it hadn’t been for Jack, they both would have died there in the desert. In the end, it wasn’t his best friend that had his back, but a madman stuck in his head.

He’s not sure what that says about their friendship.

The silence stretches on.

Vaughn sighs heavily. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “I’m sorry. I just… I guess I’m just worried.”

“Jack can’t do anything to you,” Rhys says flatly, keeping his gaze focused out the passenger window, anger brewing through him. If he looks at Vaughn right now, he’s not sure what he’ll say.

“No, but… but he can to you.”

“He can give me a headache. Big deal. Not like I don’t get those anyway.”

It’s a downside to having a neural port in his head, connected to his brain. Helpful for work and definitely helpful when trying to survive on Pandora – but at the end of the day, it’s still a big risk to his system. His body. Normal people don’t have to worry about silly things like computer viruses literally killing them or downing them for any length of time – not physically. Rhys is one of those very few people who do have to worry about that.

So, yes, migraines are common. Jack can also make on spring up on him.

But so what? Migraines suck, but they’re nothing new. He knows what to do to lessen the pain and get through it. It’s not really hurting him – not in a way that lasts.

“Yeah, but…” Vaughn sighs again. This long, drawn out, tired sigh. Like he’s exhausted and tired of this situation.

Well, so what? Rhys is tired too. Vaughn, at least, has gotten thrills by trying to survive on Pandora. A part of him seems to like it here. He doesn’t have all this pressure on him to come up with plans or be backup. In fact, the one time Rhys needed him to be there for him, to help him, he sided with Vasquez and tried to hand him over.

And he’s not the one with Handsome fucking Jack in his head, so really, he has no reason to be complaining.

If anyone is tired here, tired of this, it’s Rhys.

“Look,” Vaughn says slowly, and Rhys keeps his gaze firmly locked out the passenger window. “I don’t want to fight. Okay? I don’t. I… I’m sorry. I just worry about you, bro. You… I… Jack’s trouble, okay? He’s manipulative and crazy, and I don’t like that he’s able to control your arm.”

“Only sometimes,” Rhys says.

“That doesn’t matter! What if he tries to kill you with it? Kill someone else?”

Rhys hadn’t even thought of that. Fuck.

Vaughn has a point.

Jack is a loose cannon, and is sometimes able to control his strong, robotic arm.

“I won’t let him do that,” he says, swallowing thickly.

“How can you stop him?” Vaughn demands.

I’d kill myself and take us both out before I let him hurt you guys.

“Just… don’t worry about it,” he verbally replies. “I’ll… think of something. And if it seems like that’s happening, just… Fuck. Shoot me.”

Shoot you?” Vaughn all but squeaks, and Rhys can feel his gaze on him. “Shoot you? Shoot you! That’s your great plan! I’m not going to shoot you! Are you crazy?”

“What do you want me to say here, Vaughn?”

“Not that!”

“Well, it’s all I got right now!” Rhys snaps, finally tearing his gaze from the window to focus on the man in the driver’s seat. Vaughn looks small in the large seat, his grip on the steering wheel white-knuckled. “I’m sorry if that’s not good enough!” I’m sorry if I’m not good enough.

BB swings toward Vaughn, making loud, angry, painful sounds. He must be sensing Rhys’s anger and knows it’s directed at Vaughn. At least, partially.

Rhys can’t really be angry with Vaughn for his logical worries, can he?

What if Jack does use his body to hurt the others?

Jack, as a hologram, can’t hurt them, but Jack in Rhys’s body certainly can.

Rhys is more angry with himself for not realizing this earlier. For not breaking off from the group before this.

Because that’s what he’s going to have to do, isn’t it? Break away from them. Forget about the vault and try to handle Jack, because Jack’s going to be pissed if he learns Rhys is breaking away to not find the vault and to not return to Hyperion. Maybe he can calm him down by trying to find a body for Jack, or working on building one himself, but somehow… he doesn’t think that’s going to work.

Fuck.

There’s no easy solution for this.

“Rhys?”

He swallows, coming back to himself, refocusing on Vaughn, who looks distinctily uneasy.

“Could you, uh – call off your bot, please?”

Rhys looks at BB, who has his weapons out, aiming at Vaughn. “Whoa, BB, no,” he says quickly, causing the little bot to hesitate. “Vaughn’s not – he’s a friend, okay? A friend. We don’t shoot friends, no matter how angry we get around them.”

The little bot seems confused, but seems to sense Rhys doesn’t want Vaughn shot, so its weapons go offline and it beeps aggressively, seemingly giving Vaughn a stern warning before it returns to hovering in the backseat.

“Sorry,” Rhys says. “Sorry. I didn’t, uh… I guess I need to work on this. I keep forgetting he’s tapped into my brain, so…”

“He’s what?” Vaughn asks, staring at him briefly before returning his gaze back to the road to keep from swerving off-course. “How is he in your brain?”

“Uh…”

That’s complicated. And a long story.

Or, maybe it isn’t.

“It was a gift from Jack.”

“A gift from Jack?” Vaughn spluttered. “Are you serious?”

“He, uh… well, he helped me there at the Atlas Facility. With, uh… controlling the robots. And he left me Dumpy. I mean, BB. And after I fixed him up, whenever he gets curious about something or wants to shoot something, or someone, he, uh… an alert pops up in my ECHO-eye, connected to him.”

And that’s… a lot. It’s a lot to take in for someone that’s not Rhys, who isn’t living it and experience it himself.

“I can’t believe this,” Vaughn groans. “How far is he into your systems, Rhys?”

“Well…”

“How far?”

“Kinda far?”

Vaughn growls under his breath. Rhys can’t tell if it’s anger or frustration or a mixture of both. “Rhys! Do you not understand how dangerous that is? For all of us?”

“That’s why I told you to shoot me!”

“I don’t want to shoot you!”

“Well, sorry!”

The tension is building up again. BB beeps angrily in the back, a question mark forming around Vaughn in Rhys’s ECHO-eye, colored red for aggression. No, BB. No threat. Easy.

Thinking at the bot seems to work. But, that makes sense, doesn’t it? The bot is in his system, about as much as Jack is. Maybe he can think at Jack when they’re talking instead of actually talking to him – but Jack seems to need the verbal responses for some reason. Rhys didn’t ask why, because that felt rude.

This must be hard for Jack, after all – being here yet not here. Trying to come to terms with the fact he’s less than alive right now. Maybe he’s even struggling with the fact he died, still. It seemed to confuse him and hit him hard before. Rhys can’t imagine being in a similar situation.

Maybe that’s why he’s easy on Jack? Talks to him, let him into his subsystems? Because he sympathizes? Wants to help?

Fuck. His own good heart is certainly going to be his downfall. And he’s a man aware of his own selfish tendencies and greed – and yet he does care about people, too.

Vaughn seems to visibly deflate after a moment. He sighs. “Look, I just… I hope you know what you’re doing, Rhys. I’m just… worried about you, bro.”

Rhys exhales slowly, willing his cybernetic hand to unclench from the fist it had formed. He wills the tension from his body and hopes that his relaxation calms not only himself, but BB as well, because that’s something he’s going to have to think about now, too. He can’t let his emotions influence the little bot like that. He’s going to have to be more careful.

“Yeah, well… I’m scared too,” Rhys admits quietly, because it’s the truth and he is scared, and worried, and he feels alone.

He just wants things to go back to how they were before – back when he could always count on Vaughn to have his back, could tell him anything…

“I’ve got your back,” Vaughn says.

Rhys smiles thinly. “Yeah, okay.”

Except he can’t really trust that anymore, can he? Because what if Vasquez or someone else comes back around and offers Vaughn another sweet deal for the low, low price of betraying his best friend? He’s done it before, so why not again?

Guess I really am alone…

And it’s the worst feeling of all.

BB beeps, bumping into the back of his chair. His thin smile turns a little more real.

Right. I still have you. Thank you, little bot.

At least he can count on the robots. Unless someone reprograms them – they’ll have his back, right?

It’s not much, but right now, it’s going to have to be enough because breaking down in a car in the middle of Pandora is certainly not a good idea.

He has to keep it together a little longer.

Or, forever. Keeping it together forever sounds good.

Just don’t think about it and never break down. Sounds like a plan.

xXx

Five hours later, they stop again. It’s just beginning to turn daylight, the sun’s first rays on the horizon, casting various shades of color across the sky.

They’re mainly stopping to rest a little and stretch their legs, then it’s back on the move to follow the direction Gortys is giving them. Rhys wishes her directions could be a little better, a little more specific, but he guesses he can’t complain. She will lead them to a vault at the end of this, after all, and if they have to use vague directions to find her pieces and put them back together – then that’s okay. They can do this. They kind of have to.

“Alright,” Fiona sighs as they’re all seated in a circle outside the caravan. “We should probably set some ground rules.”

“For?” Rhys asks, quirking a brow.

“Well, if we’re going to be traveling together for a while, we should discuss sleeping arrangements. Stopping to set up camp isn’t really an option, is it? It’s not really safe.”

She has a point.

“We should all just travel in the caravan,” Sasha says. “While someone’s driving, the rest of us can take turns sleeping and switching out with the driver. Then we won’t have to stop as often, and when we do stop, we can at least be safe in the caravan. It’s better than a flimsy tent.”

“All very good ideas,” Vaughn agrees. “And we’ll only have to gas one vehicle instead of two.”

Rhys bites his lip. He can’t agree with this. How is he supposed to talk to Jack if he’s trapped with the others in a tiny vehicle all day? He can picture the headaches Jack will give him if he agrees with this. Besides – he likes the car. He likes the privacy it provides. He likes having his own space – that’s sometimes shared with Vaughn, but still, a place where he’s not surrounded by strangers.

“Rhys?” Vaughn asks, frowning at him.

Everyone’s looking at him now.

He folds his arm over his chest almost defensively. “I like the car,” he says. “Besides, what happens if we get in a tight spot and have to split up? The caravan’s nice, but a getaway vehicle is good too, right? Or what if we need to run off for supplies? Taking everyone in the caravan might be dangerous. A quick drive by one person in a car would be more efficient and not slow everyone down.”

Everyone is quiet for a moment.

“I guess you have a point,” Fiona sighs. “Fine. We’ll keep the car. But we can tow it behind the caravan to keep from using gas unless we need it, right? And stay together in the caravan.”

He’s not sure why she’s so set on traveling together, in close proximity. To his knowledge, she and her sister hate him and Vaughn since they’re from the ‘evil corporation’.

Still, he can see he’s clearly outnumbered, and this way they do save on gas and get to keep the car. It’s a compromise. To argue otherwise would be foolish because this is logically the best move.

That doesn’t mean he has to like it, though.

“Fine,” he sighs, shaking his head. “I guess we’ll do that.”

“Don’t sound so happy about it,” Sasha says, rolling her eyes. “Are we so bad to be around, Hyperion?”

“I’m not a corporation,” Rhys tells her. “And I like to, uh… work on the robots alone. Helps me concentrate.”

“We’ll give you space for that,” Fiona promises. “I mean, it’s not like we’re going to be driving all the time. We’ll stop and rest and stretch our legs, but this way seems more efficient. Right?”

He shrugs. “Right.”

Jack is not going to be happy about this. Rhys isn’t so ecstatic about it, either.

The day might just be beginning, but he can already tell it’s going to be a long one.

xXx

He’s right. Jack is not happy.

“What the hell is with the tight quarters here, cupcake?”

There’s a crease to Jack’s brow, barely visible at the top of the mask’s edges. A tone to his voice, incredulous but also annoyed. Great.

Rhys sighs, pinching at the bridge of his nose with his flesh hand. He looks up and smiles as Fiona walks by him on the way to the couch, as he’s leaning against the wall near the door as Sasha drives. Vaughn is at the back, sitting on the floor, looking through a roadmap of Pandora.

“Rhysie? I don’t like being ignored.”

Rhys sighs and looks at him, shrugging helplessly.

Jack’s eyes narrow. “Did you do this on purpose, Rhysie? You tired of talking to me? You think you can avoid me this way?”

Wow. Being ignored or avoided is really a trigger for him, isn’t it?

Rhys coughs into his flesh hand. “Uh, I need a little fresh air. I’m just… gonna head up to the roof.”

No one stops him, so he heads to the back of the vehicle, up the ladder and through the hatch leading to the roof of the vehicle. LB and Gortys are up there, near the front of the vehicle as Rhys closes the hatch. Jack is already waiting for him, arms folded across his chest as he sits on the edge of the vehicle.

“Well, cupcake?”

Rhys sighs. “Look, this wasn’t my idea, but it’s logical.”

“Uh huh. And what’s logical?”

“We’re towing the car with us to save on gas, and… now we’re all in this caravan together so I can’t really just, uh, talk to you. Sorry.”

Jack is quiet for a moment, silently glaring at him. A dull headache begins to form behind Rhys’s eyes.

Now Rhys is angry, too. “You can’t just give me a headache every time you don’t get your way, you know!” he hisses, frustrated.

“Says you, but it looks like I can, pumpkin,” Jack says smugly. “And I can make it worse, too.”

“Why? This doesn’t help you.”

“Maybe not, but it hurts you, so that’s good enough for me!”

Rhys growls under his breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that?”

“You know, cupcake, not many people get to insult me and live to see the next day,” Jack says somewhat darkly. “So I’d watch yourself, kid.”

“You’re stuck with me,” Rhys hisses, glaring. “You can hurt me all you fucking want, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t help you, does it? You’re still just a hologram in my mind.”

Jack’s expression, his whole demeanor, darkens. “I’d be real careful what you say next.”

“Fuck,” Rhys says slowly, still glaring, “you.”

Jack lunges at him. Rhys holds his ground, not even flinching as that cobweb feeling encases his neck as Jack attempts to strangle him. He glares pointedly at the hologram. A moment later, Jack sits back, shoulders lifting and lowering furiously as he gives exaggerated breaths.

“Not a good idea making enemies with the guy who lives in your head, Rhysie,” Jack seethes.

Rhys exhales slowly, a tendril of fear wrapping around his heart, but he can’t show weakness. He’s tired of being afraid. “I didn’t start this conversation looking for an argument, you know. I was just explaining things, and you’re the one who got all aggressive and turned it into something angry.”

The two sit there, glaring angrily at each other for a long moment.

Finally, Jack tosses his head back and laughs. Rhys stares at him, utterly confused.

“Oh, Rhysie,” Jack breathes, wiping a nonexistent tear from his eye. “Not many people have the balls to stand up to me, hologram or not. So kudos, kid. You’ve officially got bigger balls than half the toughest men on Pandora. And I might actually let you live.”

Rhys sighs. “You know, you’re exactly inspiring my confidence in you with words like that. You don’t always have to be such an arrogant ass, you know.”

“Watch it,” Jack says, expression sharpening again.

“I’m just saying. I know we’re stuck together and yeah, that sucks, not only for you, but me too. But we don’t have to keep arguing and threatening each other. I want you out of my head, Jack – I want to help you get your own body. So, really – making enemies with the guy carting you around in his head isn’t such a great idea either, is it?” He smiles faux sweetly.

Jack stares at him for a moment, and then grins. “I underestimated you, cupcake. I like this side of you with a backbone.”

Rhys rolls his eyes. Jack’s mood swings are giving him whiplash. “So can we just get along for once, please? I’m tired of arguing.”

“I don’t like being ignored.”

And it always comes back to that, doesn’t it?

“I get that,” Rhys says, sighing. “I really do. But you have to understand why I can’t just speak to you openly. I know you understand why I can’t. So don’t get mad at me just because I can’t openly speak to you all the time. Hurting me with headaches doesn’t help you – it just pisses me off.”

“But I don’t like being ignored,” Jack all but whines, like a child.

“I’m… sorry?”

Jack glares at him for a moment. “I’ll tolerate your ignoring me for a little while, but I demand conversations through the day.”

“Why?” he can’t help but ask. Why is conversation so important for Jack?

“Just because.”

He rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he huffs. “If I can sneak away or get some alone time – I’ll talk to you. But don’t actively keep giving me headaches just because you don’t get your way. That’s childish.”

Jack huffs. “I’ve been called worse.”

“I’m sure you have. Do we have a deal?”

Jack grins. “Deal, Rhysie.” He holds his hand up for a high-five.

Is he serious? He knows this isn’t going to work, right?

Nevertheless, attempting to mend bridges, Rhys raises his hand and high-fives the hologram. It’s not at all satisfying because his hand just slides through the blue one and that numb, cold feeling of cobwebs returns.

“Well,” he sighs, “that wasn’t remotely satisfying.”

“Yeah, not really,” Jack agrees, almost dismally. “But good effort!”

“Who are you talking to?” LB asks, and Rhys flinches at the sudden robotic voice. He glances over to find LB and Gortys watching him.

“Uh…” he says, swallowing. “Myself.”

“Do all humans do that?” Gortys asks, clearly confused.

“Yep!” he says. “It’s just not something we advertise and it’s kind of embarrassing, so if you could just not mention this to the others…”

“Oh!” she says, cheerfully. “Is this another secret?”

“Yes! A secret, exactly.”

“Okay!”

“Thanks,” he says, smiling at the bots.

“This is great,” Jack laughs, causing Rhys’s attention to go back to him. “Even the bots think you’re crazy!”

“I’m not crazy,” Rhys snaps, before wincing because to the bots, that will certainly sound crazy.

“I never… said you were?” Gortys says.

“You are weird,” LB says.

“Ugh, I know,” Rhys groans, shaking his head. “Just – don’t mention this to the others, okay? For my sanity.”

The bots just stare at him.

Ugh. Great.

A sudden alert pops up in his ECHO-eye.

[DANGER – ALERT – DANGER]

There’s red all over his vision. He blinks and activates his ECHO-eye.

BB has detected a threat ahead. Something coming toward them quickly, and it seems to have the girls worried and on high alert in the caravan below.

“RHYS!” voices call from below. There’s banging on the hatch leading to the roof. “RHYS!”

“Shit,” Rhys breathes as he zooms in with his ECHO-eye, pushing his way to the front of the vehicle.

There are three vehicles heading for them with mounted guns on them.

In the front seat sits August and another lady Rhys doesn’t recognize.

In another vehicle sits Vasquez.

That’s when a rocket launcher is shot at them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine – Divide and Conquer

 

“RHYS!”

Vaughn bangs on the hatch door, pulse racing.

“RHYS!”

He doesn’t know if Rhys can hear him and his fingers are trembling too much to open the hatch’s latch.

“Oh no,” Sasha says from the driver’s seat. “Incoming!”

Vaughn twists around to look out the front window. There’s something coming at them. Something dangerous. If he squints he can make out the rocket launcher missile coming at them, and they have no way to stop it.

“Brace yourselves!” Fiona shouts, diving into a seat.

Vaughn clings to the ladder, frozen in terror. Rhys is on the roof; if that hits, he’ll get flung off or worse. “Rhys!” he yells again.

There’s a loud boom as the rocket missile explodes, but there’s no violent shaking. The caravan doesn’t seem hit – no one is knocked off their feet, although everyone is still clinging to something, bracing themselves for a moment longer before they hesitantly look up and realize they aren’t, in fact, hit.

Vaughn stares at the smoke ahead, where the missile used to be.

It’s gone. The vehicles are still coming, but that shot is gone.

Vaughn’s grip on the ladder is still tight, despite the relief ebbing through him. He looks back at the hatch and forces semi-numb fingers to finally grasp the latch and shove. The hatch opens upward and he climbs up onto the roof.

Rhys is at the front of the vehicle, neural port glowing as he holds his robotic hand in front of him, a barely visible screen flashing from his palm. Next to him is Loader Bot, back-up guns online and ready despite the fact it makes him immobile, since he needs to use his arms and hands to move due to his lack of a lower body. The weapons are weak and not very accurate at long-range – unless guided by someone else.

Vaughn exhales slowly, not wanting to disturb Rhys’s focus should another rocket launcher missile be shot at them. He takes a few steps forward to stand behind Rhys, Loader Bot, and the little robot Gortys. Briefly, he wonders if Jack is nearby, if he’s watching Rhys or giving him pointers. How can a hologram give pointers or help in this situation? Didn’t Rhys say something about Jack helping him at the Atlas Facility? Now that he thinks back on it, Rhys was rather… strong there, in a way he’s never been before. He’s been good at hacking and programming, sure, but he’s never managed to do so without an actual computer system he’s linked into, despite his upgrades.

But that day…

At the facility, he waved his hands and things reacted. They moved. They shot.

It was almost… scary, to be honest. Intimidating in a way the taller man usually wasn’t. Not that Rhys couldn’t be a force to be reckoned with – he just usually wasn’t. He was usually a nice, goofy guy with a brain. He looked normal, and not like a dork, but he was just as much a nerd as Vaughn.

He isn’t scary.

Until suddenly, he is.

Watching him now, focused on the cars ahead – all he has to do is flick his metal finger and Loader Bot seems to know exactly what he wants, what he needs, firing off a few quick shots guided by Rhys’s personal targeting system in his ECHO-eye. No words are spoken. His presence goes unnoticed.

Rhys is in his element, surrounded by robots, in the heat of battle atop a quickly moving caravan. It’s intimidating, it’s scary, and it’s everything Rhys usually isn’t – but somehow it suits him. Like it’s natural, like this is where he belongs, and a part of Vaughn struggles to accept this fact, struggles with disconnecting this version of Rhys from the friend he knows and loves.

The vehicles are closer now. Vaughn can hear the rough revving of their engines despite the wind lapping at his face.

“Rhys!”

Vaughn flinches, startled as the voice shouts from right behind him. Fiona rushes past him, pushing through the bots to get to Rhys. Rhys switches his gaze toward her, ECHO-eye glowing.

“We need you at the wheel,” Fiona says quickly. “You can dodge them like before, right?”

They were chased by a rakkhive before, after all, as well as being shot by moonshots from Helios. Rhys managed to dodge them when he was at the wheel due to his ECHO-eye predicting where they would land and helping him avoid them.

It had been one of those moments where Vaughn felt validated in his belief that Rhys was, in fact, amazing. Not that he didn’t think that anyway, because his friend was awesome. Rhys was a great friend, and he had some good ideas and a good head on his shoulders. But in that moment, the assumption that Rhys could get them out of anything felt validated, and Vaughn wasn’t the only one to see it that time. Fiona and Sasha seemed impressed, too.

“Are you sure?” Rhys asks. “What if they shoot more rocket launchers at us?”

“You can dodge them,” Fiona says again.

“Dodge rocket launchers?” Rhys asks, frowning at her.

“Can you or can you not help us?”

Rhys exhales loudly. “Fine. Let’s go.”

He notices Vaughn for the first time then. Vaughn smiles timidly, waving slightly, and Rhys nods at him as he walks past. It’s somehow more than what Vaughn was expecting, despite the fact that until very recently, they were best friends. He wonders, idly, if they’ll ever be that close again – if being this close to Rhys will feel as natural as it used to, or if it will always feel a little awkward since he doesn’t really know where he stands with Rhys right now.

They all three head back inside the caravan, leaving Loader Bot and Gortys on top. Rhys trades places with Sasha and slides into the driver’s seat, ECHO-eye activating again, and it’s oddly reminiscent of last time – before they were left stranded alone in the desert, ultimately having to steal Vasquez’s car to escape.

Vaughn wonders if Vasquez is still alive. His arm was shot off at the Atlas Facility, after all. He can’t really see that August guy patching him up willingly.

It doesn’t really matter, though.

Vasquez is dead to him.

It was his stupid deal that ruined his friendship with Rhys, and for that, Vasquez will never be forgiven.

The caravan jerks to the left harshly under Rhys’s erratic steering, throwing Vaughn off his feet. He crashes to the floor, wincing when his head knocks against the wall. The girls are sitting on the couch, holding on for dear life, and he quickly scrambles to join them. Next to him, the little dumpy robot, BB, hovers somewhat nervously, making scratchy, beeping noises which really grate on his already frayed nerves.

He glares at the little robot. “Could you back off?” he mutters.

The bot rushes at his face, beeping wildly, but stops suddenly, backing off before it rushes to hover over Rhys’s left shoulder.

Rhys spares the little bot a quick glance, giving it a tiny nod, before he goes back to looking out the front window. Vaughn can make out the vehicles quite clearly, which leaves a knot tightening in his stomach.

“Oh shit,” Rhys suddenly mutters. “Hold onto your seats! This might get rough.”

He jerks the caravan to the side. Something explodes on the ground near the wheel, causing the vehicle to jump upward, balanced on two wheels for a moment before it slams back to the ground. Vaughn’s head throbs from the whiplash and jerky movements, as well as the fact he smacked his head.

“Can’t this thing go any faster?” Vaughn asks.

“You want to get closer to the people trying to kill us?” Sasha asks.

“We can pass them if they’re in mid-boost,” Fiona says suddenly. “Rhys! Slow down and get them to boost at us! If we pass them when they’re in mid-boost, they can’t just shut it off and turn around! They’ll have to wait for it to end and then turn! It could give us a head start!”

“Got it!” Rhys calls back.

The caravan slows. Vaughn’s fingers curl uncomfortably tight into the couch cushions. The table in front of him is a steady brace against his chest. He squeezes his eyes closed, tension bleeding through him, his heart racing in his chest as he struggles to remain calm in this car chase.

The adrenaline Pandora brings is real. Strong, addictive, but also terrifying.

Is this how everyone feels on Pandora?

It’s like a drug in and of itself.

The caravan has slowed to a crawl.

There’s the loud sound of their enemies’ engines as they whiz past them. A second later, Vaughn is thrown to the side as the caravan shoots forward, Rhys activating their own boost.

It’s not as violent as before, and he doesn’t have to worry about flying out the back of it like last time. It’s still nauseatingly powerful, though. He flies out of his seat despite his hands clawing at the cushions, and he hits the back wall harshly, sliding down it to sit on the floor. It’s like his heart is trying to beat out of his chest.

A minute later, the boost ends. They’re still speeding through the Pandoran wastelands, but it feels like a snail’s pace compared to how fast they were previously moving with the boost engaged. Vaughn shakily gets to his feet, rubbing at his head which throbs painfully. He’s familiar enough with treating headaches, though he doesn’t often get migraines himself. He knows what helps Rhys, though, but somehow, right now, he doesn’t think it’d go over well if he asked Rhys to do the same for him.

They’re still not on ‘best friend’ terms.

He wishes they were, because he misses him. He misses his friend. He misses their easy comradery. Their easy friendship. How natural it felt, so un-forced.

Now it’s all so messed up, and he knows it’s his fault, but how long can Rhys hold a grudge? He’s never held a grudge like this before.

Granted, Vaughn has never betrayed him like this before, either, but still. Is Jack influencing him that much?

Jack. The man in a nuisance, even in death. Vaughn never much liked the guy, but he was head of the company he strived to work for, mostly to follow after Rhys, but the company had some nice benefits despite its president being a homicidal maniac. Then Jack died and it was easier, but also worse. Everyone vied for power, including Rhys, but Vaughn couldn’t blame him for that. He and Yvette helped Rhys as much as they could, but then came the vault key deal.

Now they’re stuck on Pandora, and that homicidal maniac is in his best friend’s head, influencing him, hurting him, and there’s nothing Vaughn can do about it because he’s just an accountant. Rhys has always been the technological one, but even he seems confused as to how to get Jack out of his head.

He also doesn’t seem to be trying all that hard, either.

Vaughn winces almost as soon as he thinks it. It’s not Rhys’s fault. He knows that. They’ve been busy, and they’ve been running for their lives, hunted by Pandorans and their former coworkers alike, so it’s not his fault that he hasn’t had time to attempt to get Jack out of his head.

But a part of Vaughn wonders if Rhys would try to do it anyway.

If he’d yank Jack out as easily as putting him in.

He feels horrible for thinking that, for doubting his friend at all, but Rhys has been acting different since Jack started appearing to him. He’s been distant, and quiet, and angry. Quick to anger, quick to argue, taking everything offensively. It almost feels like he can’t just talk to Rhys anymore, and he hates that feeling with a passion.

They’re best friends, after all – he shouldn’t feel like he can’t tell Rhys everything.

It’s an odd, foreign feeling that he absolutely hates. He misses his best friend.

Whatever adrenaline he’s getting from Pandora, he can’t wait until they get back to Hyperion, get Jack out of Rhys’s head, and he gets his friend back.

“Where should we go?” Rhys asks from the driver’s seat. “They’re not within visual range yet.”

“Keep heading for the next piece,” Fiona says. “We need Gortys put together. After we find the vault, we’ll have more than enough money to get off this planet and make new lives for ourselves.”

Rhys is quiet, but he turns right around a rocky mound, kicking up dust in the air.

That’s when the moonshots start.

xXx

Son of a bitch!

What else can go wrong today?

Rhys grits his teeth, ECHO-eye re-activating as he tracks where the moonshots will land. Dodging them is trickier, considering there’s extra weight in the back thanks to Vasquez’s red car.

Wait…

Bad idea. Very bad, terrible, awful idea.

“Take the wheel,” he says, pushing to his feet.

“What?” come several voices.

“Hyperion’s after me,” he says. “And Vasquez’s car is much, uh, well it’s easier to maneuver in. No offense.”

It makes sense in his head. It’s a terrible idea, but it keeps them safe, and he has a higher chance of dodging quickly in the car. This way, they don’t have to worry about the moonshots and August and Vasquez.

They can divide and conquer.

“That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Vaughn says, staring at him, horrified.

Rhys grins. “Oh, come on. I’m sure I’ve had worse ones before. Remember that time I said we should steal Vasquez’s deal?”

“I’m serious!” Vaughn says, glaring at him.

“I’m kind of siding with Vaughn here,” Fiona says, frowning at him.

Sasha has, thankfully, slid into the driver’s seat, aware that Rhys has abandoned it. “Seems kinda suicidal to me,” she says.

“I can dodge them,” Rhys says. “This way you don’t have to worry about the vehicles chasing us and the moonshots. Divide and conquer.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“Uh, I’m kinda siding with them on this, pumpkin,” Jack says from where he’s leaning against the back wall, watching them all.

“Okay,” Fiona sighs. “It’s… logical.” Her eyes narrow. “You really think you can dodge them all?”

“Of course,” Rhys says, smirking at her.

“What?” Vaughn says, frowning. “This is crazy!”

“Be careful,” Sasha says, glancing back at him quickly. “But, uh, be quick, because I can’t dodge these things like you can!”

A moonshot lands right in front of her, causing her to jerk the wheel to the side quickly. Everyone is flung off their feet, including Rhys, who hits his flesh elbow hard against the table. Ow, fucking shit! He holds said elbow, grimacing.

“How do you plan on even getting into the car while we’re moving?” Vaughn asks. “This is a terrible plan!”

“Kinda agreeing with the nerd here, Rhysie,” Jack adds.

Jack. Rhys grins. “I can hack the car like before. Cut it loose, get it driving, and jump in when it’s next to the door.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, hurry!” Sasha snaps. “I can’t dodge these!”

Rhys looks pointedly at Jack. Jack glares back.

“I don’t agree with this plan, cupcake. Why should I help you?”

Really?

He stalks toward Jack, acting like he’s just going to grab a knife from the back counter where the silverware is stashed. “Please,” he huffs under his breath.

“Ugh, please?” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “That’s so childish, Rhysie. I don’t like this plan. What if we die?”

Please,” he says again, in a quiet whisper, staring pleadingly at Jack.

Jack sighs heavily. “Fine, but if you even think about dying I’m going to give you such a killer headache-”

As he goes on with his threats about inflicting pain upon Rhys’s person, Rhys turns and smiles at the others, holding out the knife he grabbed. “Alright, I’m ready. Incoming shot, by the way – jerk left… now!”

Sasha jerks left. They barely dodge the moonshot, the caravan shaking with the effort. Rhys staggers but regains his footing.

“New plan,” he says. “I’ll climb up top, jump on the car, cut it free, and start it before I jump in so it’s already moving into position. Then I’ll send a broadcast out to let them know I’m here.”

If he tries to bring up his profile and access his work files, they’re going to know it’s him and be able to pinpoint his location. It’s why he hasn’t tried since before he put Nakayama’s ID drive into his head and his life went to hell.

“Whatever, just do it!” Sasha snaps.

“This is stupid,” Vaughn says. “You can’t honestly think this is a good idea! Fiona?”

“If he thinks he can do it, I say let him,” she says, nodding at Rhys. “But be careful. We can’t afford to lose anyone right now.”

He smiles at her. He’s not sure she actually cares about him, but at least she’s trying, even if it’s only pretend.

He climbs up the ladder, pushes the hatch open, and stands on top of the caravan.

“Moonshot incoming!” he shouts down the open hatch. “Jerk right in 3.7 seconds!”

He’s already jumping when the caravan jerks. He barely lands on the car which lags behind a second. He’s on the roof of it now, wincing at his aching tailbone which took the brunt of his fall onto the car’s surface. He takes his concentration off the moonshots to instead focus on the car, easily finding the ignition and acceleration interfaces. He starts the car, revs the engine, and reaches forward to physical cut the cable pulling the car behind the caravan.

There’s a harsh jerking motion as the cable cuts loose and the car spins out of control, untethered but speeding. Tires squeal, spinning against the loose dirt on the ground as Rhys clings to the hood for dear life. A second later, power floods through him like it did in the Atlas Facility – Jack helping him. Empowering him.

Just like before, it’s almost overwhelming and intoxicating. Like he can do anything. The sky’s the limit.

He inhales slowly, breathing the power in, and finds he doesn’t need to climb inside the car. His metal hand has a death grip on the hood, scrunching a bit of the surface. Filled with power, he quickly sends a broadcast to Hyperion letting them know his location has, in fact, changed. As long as they’re only after him, they should stop aiming for the caravan and instead shoot at the car.

He veers right, away from the caravan.

The moonshots land closer to him. He follows their trajectory, filled with Jack’s helpful power, and manages to steer around the next few moonshots rather easily. It’s like he’s not even sitting on top of the car guiding it and calculating the moonshots’ trajectories. Instead, it’s almost like he is the car – like they’re one in the same, a single entity with a common goal in mind.

All other thought fades from his mind.

It’s just him, the car, and the moonshots.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t let the power go to your head, babe.”

Jack’s voice jerks him from his thoughts. The car jerks to the side as well, well before it was supposed to. The moonshot lands right next to it, causing the car to tremble and shake, threatening to make it spin in an out-of-control donut but he manages to wrench his control on the auto-steering and realign it with its desired axis.

He throws a glare at the hologram sitting next to him on the hood.

“Not helping,” he hisses.

“I’m helping quite a lot, actually,” Jack points out, and he’s not wrong. Without his help, Rhys definitely wouldn’t be able to do this right now. “While I’m happy to help, pumpkin, this is kind of draining and it’s not gonna last much longer.”

Rhys throws him a quick glance. The blue outline of the man is dimmer than usual, and flickering erratically. Jack looks tired. Like helping Rhys like this is draining his energy.

“Oh,” he says, suddenly realizing. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

“Uh huh,” Jack says nonchalantly, like he’s not flickering like a mad man, in and out of existence right now. “Moonshots should be out of power in another three shots. Take a while to recharge.”

Jack would know, of course. He helped design the damn thing.

The next moonshot gets a little close to home. Jack’s power is obviously diminishing; Rhys doesn’t feel like an all-powerful god right now – instead he feels a little overwhelmed, trying to keep track of everything at once by himself. When he glances over again, Jack is nowhere to be seen.

“Great,” he mutters, attempting to focus on everything all at once, “on my own now.”

He can do this, he tells himself. Easy.

This is easy.

Just focus on the car – acceleration, steering, ignition… all at once.

Just focus on the moonshots – shot speed, trajectory, how he needs to maneuver to avoid it.

Just focus on holding on – gripping the car’s hood tightly and willing his suddenly exhausted body to hold on and move with the sudden turns.

It’s like the power steering is going out. It’s hard to spin the wheel.

Suddenly he wishes he was actually inside the car, but that’s his own fault. He should have climbed in anyway instead of staying out here, but it seemed easier at the time – less movement, less chance for him to fall while trying to climb into the moving car, less for him to focus on. Now he regrets everything.

And Jack’s not here to help. He didn’t realize how much Jack was helping him until now.

He’s so tired. His head aches, his neural port feels like it’s on fire, and he’s beginning to wonder if his robotic hand will ever unclench enough to release the bunched up metal of the car’s hood.

The final moonshot fires from Helios.

That’s when his ECHO-eye decides to go dead. The pain in his temple is bordering on unbearable, and he can’t focus on the moonshot and the car at once.

He focuses on the moonshot.

Tracks its trajectory.

Manages to dodge as he’s flung off the hood of the car, his cybernetic arm jerking painfully at his shoulder as his fingers stick to the curved metal. He forces his fingers to release and flies off the hood of the car in the final turn, letting his concentration die away as the car begins to stall and spin out of control.

The ground is rough and unforgiving beneath him. He hits it rolling, hoping to lessen the pain of the fall, but it still hurts anyway. His head smashes against the ground.

Then there’s nothing.

xXx

He comes to sometime later. It’s the pain that wakes him, and dreams of fire all around him. the burning pain ignites and sparks clarity, however briefly, into his shattered thoughts. His eyes open and he sits up, his last thoughts of adrenaline and escape.

It’s dark out.

Fuck.

How long has he been out? It was daylight before.

His head hurts. A lot. He brings his flesh hand up and touches it to his forehead. Blood comes away wet and sticky on his fingertips, despite however long it’s been since he lost consciousness. A shallow wound, but steadily leaking blood. At least it’s not deep, or he’d most likely be dead.

He looks around. He’s alone. In the distance is a vague outline of a car in the moonlight offered by Elpis. At least the car is still here, but where is everyone else?

And that’s when he remembers: Oh yeah. We never agreed on a rendezvous point.

He’s stuck out here alone, and injured, and no one is around at all. He doesn’t know where to meet the others.

Suddenly his awesome (read: terrible) plan to ‘divide and conquer’ seems like a real failure. A stupid idea. But Rhys is full of bad ideas.

He lays back down. Everything aches – his body, his head, his eyes. Even his ECHO-eye hurts. The port on the side of his head is unbearable. It’s the source of the burning fire, the white-hot pain.

“Jack?” he calls quietly, and winces at the sound of his own voice.

Jack’s not around.

Hasn’t been around.

Right. So, on my own. The usual, I guess.

He’s not sure when it became the usual, but it is now. And he doesn’t really like it. At all.

He sighs and brings his cybernetic hand up to his forehead. The chill of the metal is soothing, calming against the white-hot pain in his head.

Come on, Rhys, he tells himself, mentally urging himself into action. You can do this. The car will be so much better. More comfy. Definitely warmer. Just get up and get inside the car. Safer. Warmer. Comfier. C’mon. You can do it.

He doesn’t move. Hurts too much.

Closes his eyes.

“-sie…”

A voice echoes around him. There, but not there. Confusing as hell. He ignores it because thinking hurts way too much right now.

“Rh-”

Please go away.

“Rhys!” the voice comes in loud and clear that time.

Rhys’s eyes snap open. Jack’s hovering over him, glaring down at him.

“Don’t sleep, pumpkin,” Jack says, and while his face is twisted in what looks like anger, his voice is actually calm and almost worried. What the hell? “You got a nasty bump on your head, kid. Get up. Get moving.”

Oh, now he wants Rhys moving? Where was he this whole time?

Moving hurts. Better to just lay here. If Jack’s here, he can sleep, right? Jack can keep watch…

“Hey – hey!” Jack snaps, and that cobweb feeling passes across his forehead. “I said no sleeping. It’s not safe here, cupcake. If you die out here because you decided to ignore me and sleep the night away I am going to be super freaking pissed, do you hear me, Rhysie?”

Jack’s voice is oddly soothing. A constant flow of similar sound. Like a lullaby almost.

Rhys’s eyes close.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten – Missteps

 

“Rhys!”

Jack can feel himself slipping – flickering, like he’s being pulled away into a sea of nothing, and he absolutely hates it. He glares down at Rhys’s stupidly pale face. The blood on it contrasts with the pallor, making him grimace. The kid is in pain, he knows, and sleep might sound like the best idea in the world, but it’s not.

Jack has no way to force him to stay awake, though. He knows Rhys’s head is already on fire; creating more pain will just make him pass out completely, and that’s not what he wants. That won’t help either of them.

Rhys is slipping, which means Jack is slipping, which means everything is slipping.

Panic mingles with his anger. Anger at this stupid idiot for doing this stupid shit in the first place. He told him it was a shitty idea, but did the code monkey listen? No. And now here they are, both of them slipping – Rhys from pain and injury and the chill of the night air, and Jack because Rhys himself is slipping. Jack isn’t a physical manifestation, not really, so what the hell is he supposed to do to keep them both alive out here?

Fucking hell, kiddo, he thinks with a groan. Since when was he the responsible one?

He doesn’t like flickering like this – feeling here and not here, alive but something less than. It’s a push and pull of sensations he really doesn’t need right now, not when he’s trying to focus. Rhys’s face is flickering in and out of existence, though – Jack’s own vision is failing, but why? He’s fine. He’s not hurt. Rhys is.

He grits his non-existent teeth and jabs his finger against the port on the side of Rhys’s head. Instead of simply sliding through like it does with everything else, his finger stabs at the port and he can actually feel it, like it’s something tangible.

The second his finger touches the port, Rhys’s eyes fly open wide, a shocked breath emerging from his mouth.

“W-What?” Rhys asks, looking around wildly.

“Up and at ‘em, kiddo,” Jack says, flicking the port again. “Rise and shine!”

Rhys jumps to his feet, passing right through Jack’s non-existent body. Jack steps back, grinning at the kid.

Well. Had he known it was that easy to get the kid moving, he would have tried that a lot sooner instead of doing something stupid like worrying. Because Handsome Jack doesn’t worry. It’s just not in his nature. No.

Jack is tired too, after all. Sharing his… energy, or whatever it is, with Rhys during the car chase wasn’t easy. Empowering the kid like that isn’t easy. It’s tiring and exhausting and he remembers himself just… slipping away, similar to how he was this time, but… At least last time, he had the knowledge that Rhys was awake and wouldn’t let the two of them die.

He doesn’t like being the responsible one, in charge of Rhys’s physical safety. Giving him a headache to wake him up is one thing, but it’s another matter entirely when the code monkey is hurt and slipping into unconsciousness rather than sleep.

Rhys’s energy is dying down again, now that the shock from before is fading.

“Where… are we?” he asks, spinning in a slow circle to look around them.

Jack shrugs. “In the Pandoran wastelands somewhere. I don’t know. It was your shitty idea.”

Rhys throws him a brief glare, but there’s no real heat behind it. He seems too tired for that.

“Probably better to get in the car, kid. Get away from here.”

The car isn’t too far away, visible in its outline thanks to Elpis’s light. It’s not great shelter, but it’s far better than the chill of Pandora’s cold nights and offers better protection. At least it will take a skag a minute or two to eat through the car’s door before it gets to you. That’s something, at least.

“Yeah, okay…” Rhys says, exhaling slowly. “Let me just-”

He stops suddenly, frowning.

“Vaughn?” he asks, rubbing at his head.

Oh, great. What’s the buff nerd want? He didn’t come looking for them, Jack knows, so what does he want now?

He folds his arms across his chest and glares at Rhys.

“We’ve done more than enough for them, Rhysie,” he says sternly. “If they’re not coming to pick us up then we’re done with them, do you hear me?”

Rhys needs medical attention, at least. Jack’s incorporeal for the time being, so he can’t help with that and Rhys isn’t currently carrying supplies for that to patch himself up, so as much as Jack dislikes his meat-buddy’s friends, at least they can help him in a way Jack can’t right now. Soon, though. Soon he’ll be physical again. Just not yet.

“Where are you guys?” Rhys asks seriously, frowning. “Um… I don’t-…” A heavy sigh as he runs his flesh hand through his hair, wincing as it hits a knot on his head, fingertips coming away red. “Okay, I’ll… see what I can do. I don’t… Just stay safe.” He sighs, the ECHO-chat apparently ended, and he makes his way toward the car.

“So…” Jack says, following behind him, glaring at the back of his head. “What’d the nerd want? Is he coming to get us?” God help you if the answer is no, kiddo.

“He and the others, uh… ran into some trouble,” Rhys says quietly, using his metal arm to pry the car door open. He all but falls inside, very ungracefully, and Jack sighs as he appears in the passenger seat.

“Uh huh. What kind of trouble?”

“I guess Vasquez and August captured the girls but Vaughn got a message through to me. They need help.”

Jack settles the full force of his glare on the code monkey, watching him wince and rub at his head. “And you said you’d help, didn’t you?” he accuses angrily. “Of all the stupid things you’ve done today, Rhysie, this takes the cake! You’re in no shape to help them.”

“I have to try,” Rhys says, frowning as he rests his forehead briefly against the cool steering wheel. He looks pathetic and miserable and Jack sighs heavily.

“Well, I say no,” he says firmly. “You’re in no shape to help them or even look after yourself. I’m in no shape to help you, either. So we’re not going.”

“Uh… I wasn’t asking you?” Rhys tries, sparing him a quick glance.

His pupils are all uneven and stupid-looking. Fuck.

“No,” Jack says again. “They had their chance. You did the stupid suicidal thing and lived. Got the moonshots off their back, did your stupid little plan. Now it’s their turn to take care of themselves and if they can’t do it, tough luck. We’re not helping them.”

“I can’t just leave them,” Rhys says.

“You don’t even know where they are.”

“I do, actually. Vaughn, uh… gave me coordinates.”

Jack glares once more. Amping up the kid’s headache. “I said no.”

Now Rhys is glaring back at him, defiance written all over his face. “Well, I said yes.”

This stupid code monkey! Does he really not get it?

“I’m trying to help you here!” Jack snaps.

“Could have fooled me!” Rhys says back.

“If you run out there injured like this, half-cocked, you’re going to get yourself killed!”

“What do you care!”

“I live in your head, genius! I kind of need you to stay alive!” The anger burns away inside of him, like it’s physical and he’s not. “It’s one thing to throw your own life away, princess, but it’s selfish to throw mine away too!”

“You already died!” Rhys snaps, glaring back at him.

Jack glowers at him for a moment in silence. Finally, he huffs, “I’m not dead.”

Rhys deflates slightly. “Sorry. I didn’t, uh… Fuck. I didn’t mean to snap at you. You’re only looking out for me, which is… weird, but… well… thanks.”

“Are you done being a little bitch yet?”

“I have to help them,” Rhys says, sighing heavily. “What do you want me to say here?”

“Maybe that you value your life – and mine – a little more than you seem to be showing.”

“I’m sorry… I don’t want either of us to die, but I can’t just sit back and leave them behind.”

“They left you behind, pumpkin.”

There’s a long, drawn-out silence after that. Jack glowers at the code monkey, arms folded across his chest as he leans back in the passenger seat. His knees go through the dashboard since the nerd was the last one to have been sitting in the passenger seat, leaving it pushed forward since he was so short.

“We can’t find the vault without them,” Rhys says finally, glancing at him. “The core of Gortys or whatever is imprinted on both of us. We need the caravan and its equipment to survive on our own, and we’ll need the fire power opening a vault, right? It’s better to work in a group, and that means going after them.”

“Or we could find other people to help us,” Jack points out easily.

“We still need Gortys, who was in the caravan with the girls. Which means August and Vasquez have her.”

Fuck. The kid has a point. Dammit.

“Fine,” Jack huffs, glaring at him. “But we’re not doing this half-cocked. We’re going to rest for a while, find a way to patch you up, and when you’re not under 50%, we’ll worry about getting their sorry asses.”

Rhys blinks at him. “Alright, deal.”

“They probably won’t kill them if they’re trying to get you too,” Jack says. “They’ll try to use them as bait, and I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what your little friend’s message was.”

Rhys remains quiet.

Jack sighs. “We’re going to have to work on your self-preservation instincts, Rhysie. In the meantime, drive this baby somewhere secluded and you can rest for a bit. I’ll keep watch.”

“… Thanks.”

“Don’t be getting soft on me, pumpkin.”

Rhys rolls his eyes, then winces at the movement. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Just get going, cupcake.”

His patience is already wearing thin. He doesn’t agree with this plan, just like he didn’t agree with the previous plan – but he can’t exactly stop Rhys, can he? The most he can do is help and make sure they both don’t die, or at least put up a fight first.

He almost admires Rhys’s determination, but there’s a fine line between reckless and suicidal.

It takes Rhys a long moment to be able to turn on the car. After the engine starts, Rhys sits there, looking rather ill, swallowing harshly against the bile in his throat. Jack smirks at him.

“That nausea getting to ya, kid?”

“Shut up,” Rhys mumbles, blinking at the steering wheel. “Just… let me get myself together.”

“Uh huh. No one’s stopping you.”

“Fuck. My head hurts.” His cybernetic hand goes up to rest on his forehead.

“Concussions will do that.”

“You’re really not helping.”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Well, I can’t do everything, kiddo! I told you this was a stupid idea. Just like I told you your last idea was stupid, but you didn’t listen to me then just like you’re not listening to me now. You act like I’m trying to sabotage you here.”

“I can’t argue with you right now,” Rhys groans, rubbing at his head. “And your voice is stupidly soothing so just – stop talking. I’m tired.”

“My voice is not stupid-” Rhys’s words catch up to him. “Wait, soothing? What? Uh, kiddo, the hell?”

Rhys groans. “Just ignore that.”

“You like my voice, kiddo? I mean, of course you do. Everyone does. Hell, even I do.”

Rhys sighs. “Please stop talking.”

“How do I know you won’t fall asleep if I stop talking? Sleeping at the wheel is a shitty idea, kiddo.”

“How do you know I won’t fall asleep with you talking?”

Jack scoffs. “I could always poke your port again.”

“Is that what that was?” Rhys asks, grimacing. “That felt… weird. And painful. Don’t do that again.”

So he did feel something, though. It almost makes Jack want to poke it again, just to be felt. It’s something physical he can do. Something that makes him feel less… like he is.

And then he’s angry for even feeling that way in the first place. He might look incorporeal, but that doesn’t make him less than. He’s still here. Still alive.

“So uh, we gonna get moving or you just gonna sit there all night?” he finally asks, looking out the passenger window.

“Yeah, just… fuck. Okay. Yeah, let’s go.”

He looks back at the kid. His expression is scrunched in pain.

Nevertheless, Rhys starts driving.

xXx

There’s a lot of pain. Throbbing. Incessantly.

Fuck me.

His vision blurs in and out. His ECHO-eye struggles to compensate, but even its vision is flickering in and out. The pain is a burning white-hot needle digging into his skull, threatening to send him back into unconsciousness.

When he brings his flesh hand to the port on his head, he feels the crusted blood around it. Did he hit the port when he was flung off the car? Is that why it hurts like a bitch? It’s the only explanation that makes sense. If it’s damaged, it would explain the pain, the way his ECHO-eye won’t really focus, and why Jack seems to keep flickering in his seat.

He wonders if Jack has noticed.

Jack hasn’t spoken to him since they started driving. Rhys isn’t sure how long they’ve been moving; his sense of time is skewed to hell. He keeps spacing out, and when he comes back to himself, he finds he can't remember the past few minutes, or hours, or however long. There are chunks of travel he can’t recall.

He knows that’s bad. He knows the pain in his head is bad. The damaged port is worse; it’s connected to his brain. Any damage to it can be life-threatening.

He knows he’s not 100%. Or, according to Jack, even 50%. He feels shitty.

But Vaughn and the girls need help. He can’t let them down.

He wonders how they got captured, but Vaughn didn’t elaborate. First he asked if Rhys was okay, which was touching. Then he said they were all in trouble, and warned him that they were being used as bait. Apparently they forgot to take Vaughn’s glasses from him, which could double as a small computer similar to Rhys’s ECHO-eye, but not as detailed or attached, physically, to his body. So Vaughn was able to get a brief message out, calling for help and warning Rhys.

But what could Rhys do? He knows this is a trap for him, but he can’t just leave them at Vasquez’s mercy.

Vasquez. His anger at the man continues to grow.

He blinks, aware that he’s spaced out again. It’s getting too easy to do that, to forget spans of time.

When he can’t see straight and the world continually seems to spin, he finds a place to park in the darkness, hidden by rocky cliffs around him, and turns off the engine.

Speaking is difficult. The words don’t want to form, but he struggles to push them out nevertheless. “Gonna sleep,” he says, vision swimming.

“Is that a good idea?” Jack asks.

“Probably not… but gonna do it anyway.”

He doesn’t even bother shifting the seat back at a more comfortable angle, or climbing into the backseat. He just slumps over the steering wheel, darkness claiming him.

xXx

Awakening from unconsciousness rather than sleep is a terrible experience, at least in Rhys’s honest opinion. It’s not like waking up from sleep. It’s not a slow rise to clarity and awareness. Instead, there’s darkness one minute, then sudden alertness the next. You’re just flung into it, left sitting up gasping for breath, adrenaline suddenly flooding through you – and it’s a terrible feeling.

Rhys springs forward and nearly whacks his head on the driver’s side window. Confusion floods through him, memories taking longer to appear through the haze of pain, fear, and chaos clouding his mind. He’s in a car in the middle of nowhere; it’s dark, it’s chilly, and his head is killing him.

His body is sore, too.

He groans, rubbing at the back of his neck, fingers digging into the stiff muscles, attempting to work out some of the tense knots. A flicker of blue to his right leaves him jumping, startled as he looks over and finds Jack watching him, arms folded across his chest. The hologram quirks a non-existent brow at him.

“Better, cupcake?”

Rhys swallows, struggling to find his voice. “How long was I… uh… asleep?”

“Asleep? Pfft, you weren’t asleep, pumpkin,” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “But you were out for a good ten hours.”

“A good ten…” His eyes widen. That’s bad. Why is that bad? “Vaughn. Shit.”

The others were captured. He has to help them.

“Fuck…”

“I found something interesting in the trunk, by the way,” Jack says nonchalantly. “I tried to wake you up but, you know – you weren’t having it.”

“What is it?”

“See for yourself.”

And then Jack’s not next to him anymore. Rhys sighs and opens the car door. The first step he takes out of the vehicle, his legs threaten to give way and drop him to the ground. He takes a breath and manages to steady himself before he makes his way around the car toward the trunk. Jack stands in front of it, tapping his foot impatiently.

“C’mon, cupcake,” Jack says. “Open it.”

It’s a painful thought that gets the trunk open, after Rhys has entered the cars subsystems again. He pulls the trunk hood up and holds it there while he looks inside.

“Oh,” he says, blinking. “Well, that’s helpful.”

A roadside repair kit, blankets, and a med kit, as well as a spare tire.

“At least Vasquez had the car stocked, I guess,” Rhys sighs, leaning against the edge of the car.

“Should get some of the good drugs from that kit, Rhysie,” Jack tells him.

“I need to keep a clear head to find the others.”

“You’re not gonna help anyone walking around wounded like you are,” Jack huffs, rolling his eyes. “Take care of yourself first and then worry about your stupid suicidal missions. Which I still don’t agree with, by the way.”

Rhys sighs and grabs the med kit.

It’s heavier than he thought it be for its size, which is saying a lot because the med kit seems rather large. Of course it’s a good med kit, though – Vasquez would certainly splurge on it, the car, and everything that came with it after he stole Rhys’s promotion out from under him.

He pries open the med kit, peering inside.

“Ah, yes, that’s the stuff, kiddo,” Jack laughs. “Just stick those in your arm and you’ll sleep for a week!”

Rhys stares at the drugs in the kit, as well as the bandages and tape.

He exhales slowly. Painkillers sound good, but he doesn’t have time to waste here. He doesn’t have time to be less than 100% right now.

“I’ll use it later,” he says, tossing the kit aside.

He turns to leave when his metal arm jerks back violently, causing him to stagger back a few steps. He winces, the attachments at his shoulder wrenching painfully, and he sees his cybernetic hand picking up a syringe on its own.

“Jack?” Rhys swallows, attempting to uncurl his fingers, get the hand to drop it. “What are you doing?”

“Doing this for you, pumpkin,” Jack sighs.

“What do you mean?”

The arm moves, attempting to stab the syringe into his neck. Rhys brings his flesh hand up to intercept it, growling under his breath as he fights with himself. But his cybernetic hand will always be stronger than his flesh one, and he knows that.

The syringe sinks into his flesh. The plunger depresses.

There’s a rush of something through his veins.

He’s not aware of falling.

He’s barely aware of the cobweb-like arms attempting to catch him.

A voice nearby. Soothing but also somewhat frustrating.

Then darkness, again.

xXx

Jack paces back and forth as he watches Rhys sleep. Well, sleep is a nice word for it, but he’s not actually asleep. Instead, he’s unconscious thanks to the drugs Jack injected into his body. But it was for the kid’s own good! He needs the rest, he needs to heal, and he was in pain. He was no help to anyone, even Jack, when he was in such a state.

He was too stubborn to ask for help. Too stubborn to sit down and take care of himself for a moment, to just wait until he was better before going after the others. Which, fine, yeah, maybe they do need to get the others to get to this vault and the treasure, but that doesn’t mean Jack has to like any of this. Because he doesn’t. At all.

He hates that he’s stuck babysitting a suicidal idiot code monkey who doesn’t seem to understand how to give into self-preservation and take care of himself.

He glares at Rhys as the kid sleeps. Rhys doesn’t even notice his presence, but that’s to be expected with the cocktail in his system. Standard Hyperion issue good quality meds, guaranteed to knock you on your ass and leave you high as a kite and feeling good for hours. Maybe even days. He doesn’t expect the kid to sleep that long, of course, and he’s going to be furious with Jack when he wakes, but what the fuck else was he supposed to do? The kid won’t look after himself so the duty falls to Jack. Who has apparently been demoted from President of Hyperion to lowly code monkey babysitter, which is not okay.

And now he’s bored and stuck keeping watch with no real way to wake Rhys should something happen. He can move Rhys’s metal arm a bit but that’s a far cry from getting his body up and moving.

Huh.

Well, there’s a thought.

Can he do that?

Fuck it. He’s Handsome goddamn Jack – he can do anything he wants.

And if he wants to take over Rhys’s body for a bit while the kid sleeps – then that’s just what he’s going to do.

He focuses on the metal hand. Manages to get the fingers to flex and curl into a fist. Manages to swing the wrist, jerk the elbow, roll it at the shoulder where it connects with flesh. After that, it’s a dead zone. The rest of his body isn’t cybernetics like the arm – except for his eye and the port.

The port looks damaged right now. Jack runs a ghostly blue finger across it, feeling a jolt run through him even as Rhys grimaces in his not-sleep.

Huh.

Jack blinks and he is Rhys’s port. He is the neural implant. He doesn’t have a physical (read: holographic) body anymore, but he’s inside of Rhys in a way he hasn’t been before. Sure, he can move his arm occasionally if he sets his mind to it – and it’s easier now that Rhys has let him further into his subsystems – but that doesn’t mean he’s ever been like this before. Usually when he’s in the code monkey’s head, he’s dormant. It’s a dreamless sort of non-existence which helps pass the time because it’s a period of time he doesn’t have to be aware of it. He just sort of skips forward a few hours. It’s a nice way to  ignore the boredom, but it also leaves him feeling off. More ghostly. Like he’s not fucking here, and he is.

This whole situation is so frustrating.

But right now is different.

He is in Rhys’s head, but it’s not the dormant way. He is Rhys. When he wants to move his arm, Rhys’s arm moves. He focuses on his left arm – Rhys’s flesh one, the one he couldn’t control before. It moves the same as the cybernetic one, and just as easily.

Jack feels the laughter bubbling up inside of him.

Rhys laughs. Well, it’s Rhys’s voice that’s laughing, but it’s Jack laughing. That’s Jack’s hand waving in front of him. That’s Jack’s tongue rolling across his lips – the first real physical sensation he’s had in so long.

And it feels fucking great.

He pushes to his feet. Rhys’s body is tall and lanky – taller than Jack’s own body but not as built. The first few steps he takes, he nearly face-plants after tripping over the back of his own heel and losing balance due to this stupidly lanky frame. How the hell does Rhys walk around on these stilts for legs?

By the time he makes it to the car’s driver side door, he thinks he has the hang of walking in Rhys’s literal shoes. He’s almost giddy, actually – hyped on adrenaline because he’s actually walking. Moving. In an actual body instead of that stupid holographic form.

He cracks his knuckles against the steering wheel just to see if he can feel pain. There’s a brief spark of ouch, and yes, he can definitely feel that. He grins, laughing again. Why the hell doesn’t Rhys ever laugh like this? It sounds great. It feels great. Fuck. Jack should get him to laugh more.

Now that he’s in Rhys’s body, though – Rhys’s pain starts to make itself known to Jack.

He feels the aches and pains all over. Feels that sharp burning sensation near the port. Feels his breath catch in his throat at the pain ebbing through him.

Rhys might have been knocked out on the good meds, but Jack wasn’t.

Well. At least the kid’s in the car now and not laying outside on the ground. It’s mildly safer, and now Jack knows he can do this. He can slip into Rhys’s body if need be. It sure beats giving Rhys a headache to try and get his attention.

Slipping out of Rhys’s skin is significantly more difficult than it was to slip into it. It’s like he’s slogging through a thick fog, like his limbs don’t want to work. He focuses his attention on disconnecting himself from Rhys – pictures his stupid holographic form, and after a few long minutes of nothing, he flickers into existence in the passenger seat, sufficiently out of the kid’s body.

He smirks at the slumped over form. There’s an exhaustion burning through him he’s getting more familiar with; he needs to recharge. He hates that this is a thing, that he’s even aware of it being a thing, but whenever he ‘expends his energy’ helping Rhys or whatever, he just feels so damn tired. He usually disappears back into Rhys’s mind in that non-existent slumber for a while and he’s better when he pops back into existence. It’s like recharging, like Rhys is his stupid battery.

Jack tries to fight it this time. He’s tired, sure, but he can’t just leave the kid unconscious in the car like this on his own. No. That might get both of them killed.

So he stays in the passenger seat.

There’s a pulling, yanking feeling. He finds himself unconsciously staring at the kid’s head, focusing on how he can fit himself snugly into the back of it for a nice, dormant slumber. Tears his gaze away and curls his fingers into the chair beneath him, despite the fact his fingers just slip right through the fabric.

No. He won’t give in. He won’t let this beat him.

He’s Handsome Jack. He doesn’t give in.

But as the minutes tick on, he feels weaker. When he looks back over at Rhys, he’s closer to the kid now, like he’s floating toward him. He glares and puts distance between them again, sitting back down in the passenger seat.

I won’t let you win!

There’s a pain building behind his eyes. Like his eyes are literally burning. It feels reminiscent of when that vault symbol was burned into his face, blinding him in one eye. It’s that same burning pain, and he reaches up to attempt to take off his mask – it’s painful, and no one’s around to see him right now – but his fingers just slip through the clasps. He can’t even touch himself now. And he’s too tired to worry about how wrong that sounded.

What the hell is-

He doesn’t finish the thought.

Instead, he’s yanked back into Rhys’s head, into a dark void of nothing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven – Storming the Castle

 

Rhys wakes slowly, like he’s rising through a thick fog. His movements are slow and sluggish, limbs weighed down with exhaustion. There’s a welcome, floaty feeling his head – like his head weighs nothing and he’s just floating above the ground. When he finally pries his heavy eyelids open, he finds himself slumped in the driver’s seat of a car, the steering wheel in front of him.

For a brief moment, he wonders how he got there. He has no memory of slipping into the seat. It’s hard to tell what his last memory actually was, if he’s being honest with himself. It’s a big blur, but he thinks he remembers cobwebs somewhere on him. All he really knows is he’s in some car with no memory of how he got here. Did he and Vaughn go planetside for a binder? They’d do that occasionally.

He’ll have to ask Vaugh what the hell-

Vaughn.

Just like that, it all comes slamming back into. His head throbs sharply, painfully, and for a moment he relives flying off the hood of the car. His fingers go up toward his port, crusted with dried blood. He winces as the prods the tender area, but at least it’s not on fire like it was before.

Before.

What happened? Did he pass out driving?

Jack warned him against that.

Jack.

He looks around, but he’s alone. He feels alone, like he usually does when Jack is dormant or whatever. He doesn’t know what to call it.

Okay, so Jack’s not here right now. He has the car to himself, a foggy brain attempting to fit the pieces together to figure out exactly how he got here, and he knows he has to find Vaughn and the girls. Fuck. How long has it been since he passed out? What if Vasquez and August got tired of waiting? What if they’re already dead?

No.

He grits his teeth. He can’t think like that. If he starts thinking they’re all dead, then it’s really over and it can’t be over. He’s been through too much shit these past few days for it to just end like this. He won’t let it.

He starts the car and starts moving again. His ECHO-eye helpfully maps a course for him, despite the pain throbbing through his head. He feels incredibly sore, like he does after a long night of drinking with Vaughn. It’s akin to a hangover, and he can’t tell if it’s because of his injuries or because of the meds.

Meds? What meds?

He frowns. Meds. The trunk. Jack.

Jack took control of his arm and forced the meds into his system. He didn’t want to take them at the time because they would knock him out and he couldn’t afford to lose more time after having already been knocked out for ten hours. Jack apparently disagreed and took control of his arm, again.

Again.

Fuck, this is getting out of control.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, after all. He’s supposed to keep Jack at bay. Supposed to keep him from taking over.

But he keeps slipping. Jack keeps taking over his cybernetic arm.

Jack isn’t around to yell at right now, though, so Rhys exhales slowly and wills the anger into the back of his mind. He doesn’t have time for anger right now. Later, he tells himself. He can be angry and upset later, but right now he needs to focus.

Focusing isn’t easy, though, not with the pain in his head and his general confusion thanks to the fog still in his brain. How did he get in the car? He doesn’t remember walking to the car. He thought he just feel on the ground, so how is he here?

It’s possible he woke briefly after taking the meds and managed to make it back inside the car, probably due to Jack’s nagging. It would explain why he doesn’t remember it; he would have been high as hell on those meds. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

He drags his flesh hand slowly across his face, sighing heavily.

He has a long drive ahead of him – a good two hours or so, which is time he really doesn’t have. He’s already wasted so much time and he doesn’t even know if the girls and Vaughn are still alive.

On impulse, he activates his cybernetic palm and tries to contact Vaughn, but the signal is blocked. Huh. They must have realized Vaughn got a message out or something. Either that or they just became paranoids about possible messages and tracking devices. But Vaughn said they wanted Rhys. To be more specific, they want what it’s in his head.

They want Jack.

And Rhys might let them have Jack. They’ll just take him back to Hyperion, where he wants to go anyway, and he’ll be out of Rhys’s head. He won’t have to deal with the hologram trying to take over his body anymore. He won’t have to worry about Jack attempting to use his cybernetic arm to hurt the others.

The only downside to this is he knows they’ll probably kill him the minute he stops being useful – the minute Jack’s out of his head.

Freedom for Jack means death for Rhys.

Thinking about it only makes his head hurt worse. He forces the thoughts away and focuses on driving, pressing the pedal all the way down until his foot is mostly flat, an ache in his ankle from the continued angle.

He’s wasted enough time already.

xXx

Vaughn paces anxiously in the room he and the girls have been thrown in. It’s small, hot, and suffocating. There’s not a lot of room with the three of them in here, and the room is hot – he can’t stop sweating. The girls are trying to fan themselves with Fiona’s hat, and Vaughn has lost his shirt again to attempt to cool down.

It’s been roughly twenty-four hours since they were captured by August and Vasquez. Rhys’s idea to divide and conquer worked, to a point, but a wrong turn left them stuck in a dead end with a rocky cliffside blocking their exit, and Vasquez and August boxing them in. Instead of just killing them outright, they sent Vasquez out as a spokesperson.

They were captured instead, and not harmed. They want Rhys, or at least what’s in his head. They also want Gortys, but Fiona said that since she is imprinted on both her and Rhys due to the fact they were the first ones to touch the pieces of her core, she can’t possibly work right without Rhys. Gortys seemed confused at first, because she is clearly past the point of needing both of them around to be activated, but after a few harsh whispers from Fiona, she readily agreed that she did, in fact, need Rhys before she could continue finding her pieces.

So now they’re just waiting for Rhys to show up. Vaughn knows he will, even though he warned Rhys it was most definitely a trap. Rhys won’t leave them behind.

Or, at least, he didn’t think he would.

It’s been twenty-four hours now, though, and Rhys still isn’t here. Has he given up on them? Did something happen to him after he ended the call with Vaughn? Did Jack get to him? Vaughn honestly doesn’t know, and it’s left a tight knot of dread weighing heavily in his stomach.

It’s the not knowing that’s the worst.

He doesn’t know what happened, or if Rhys is even still alive.

For all he knows, he’s out there dead somewhere, and soon they’ll all be dead too because he never showed up.

Vasquez has threatened them several times, and August has questioned Rhys’s loyalty to them. The girls are beginning to doubt he’s coming, too. What’s worse is Vaughn himself is starting to doubt his friend, and the guilt eats away at his stomach.

Rhys won’t leave them hanging. Right?

But then – where is he?

Why isn’t he here yet?

How are they going to get out of here, even if Rhys does show up?

He doesn’t know. The uncertainty leaves him anxious, a tight ball of nerves, and so he paces.

Back and forth. Back and forth.

Again and again in this small room.

“Would you knock it off?” Fiona finally snaps.

He stops and glares at her. “I’m sorry if my anxiety is inconvenient for you,” he mutters back.

Her eyes roll. “You’re going to make a trench there if you’re not careful.”

“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” Sasha says, yawning. “We could dig our way out.”

“Through cement floors?” Fiona asks incredulously.

“I never said it’d be easy,” Sasha sighs. “But at least it’s better than waiting around for Hyperion to show up.”

“Rhys will be here,” Vaughn says.

“Uh huh,” Sasha says doubtfully. “And then what? He magically brainwashes them all into letting us go? What do you think is gonna happen when he gets here? They’re gonna capture him too, and kill us all.”

Vaughn feels his shoulders slouch in defeat. She’s not wrong, exactly. Even with Jack in Rhys’s head, Rhys is still only one person made of flesh and blood, despite a few cybernetic enhancements. Those enhancements certainly don’t make him invulnerable. Sometimes, Vaughn even argues they make him more vulnerable, such as those long nights trying to help Rhys through a particularly rough migraine, or helping him sort through data when his filtering system is on the fritz due to a new company-mandated update. Sometimes, Hyperion likes to treat their ‘enhanced assets’ as actual computers, which is wrong on a variety of levels.

Even with those enhancements, Rhys is still only one person and he doesn’t see how one person is going to get them out of all this – but he tries to stay hopeful. Rhys always has a plan, he tells himself. There’s always a Plan B.

Because if this is it – if there is no Plan B – then this is where they die, and he can’t let it end with Rhys still angry with him, killed by their former associates.

xXx

The hours pass in a vague blur. Rhys remembers bits and pieces of the drive, exhaustion weighing through him. There are long stretches of time he doesn’t remember, can’t recall, but he’s been awake this whole time with his foot pressed down on the pedal, all the way to the floor of the car, as far as it will go. A few times his foot has slipped, and he’s caught himself slowing down only to shake himself out of his fatigue and re-focus on the road ahead of him.

Why is it so hard to concentrate? Everything feels so foggy, like he’s stuck in a place where he’s constantly half-asleep. He’s tired, sure, but he slept for a long time, didn’t he? Or maybe it’s just his body’s way of coping with the damage done to his port. Sure, he took meds, which should definitely jump-start the healing process – but that doesn’t mean it’s fixed.

When you’re someone whose brain is half cybernetics, health hypos aren’t always the go-to answer for everything injury-related. Maybe it’s not an injury. Maybe it’s a malfunction. Because he’s a machine now, isn’t he? At least partially. Usually he’s okay with it, despite the company-mandated updates which threaten to drive him crazy for days on end as his implants try to reconcile with their own memory banks and what the Hyperion network says. Rhys’s memories, his living, breathing memories, vie for dominance over the mechanical. The work-related files. Sometimes there’s not enough room in his head for both.

He can’t decide if it’d be easier to go fully cybernetic like Jack’s enforcer, Wilhelm – or if he should rip out all of the cybernetics entirely. He didn’t ask for them, after all. The neural port was vital to fully access his ECHO-eye, but he could have turned down the system updates. He could have said no, after Tassiter was dead.

But at that point he’d begun to rely quite heavily on his cybernetics. At least he wasn’t completely a cripple when he had them, and it was nice to see out of both eyes again – even if one wasn’t really his. It was nice to have two arms again, and the extra strength the cybernetic limb brought left a tendril of confidence shooting through him, until he looked upon his cybernetic limb with something akin to pride.

That was before Jack died, though. Before things really changed.

Before he got stuck with an AI in his head because of those very implants.

And now health hypos aren’t the cure-all they used to be, at least not for him. Now he needs something else.

He needs an engineer. One familiar with cybernetics and the brain.

The real question is how to find one whilst one is stuck on the wastelands of Pandora.

Maybe Jack knows, or used to know, but he’s been mysteriously absent for the whole drive thus far. Not even a vague flicker out of the corner of his eye to hint at the hologram’s presence. It’s somewhat worrisome, and he wonders if his damaged port has left Jack… lost, or something, but thinking about it hurts. Physically. It leaves a sharp pain stabbing through his skull and he forces his attention back to the road.

The road he can’t remember driving down half the time.

Which is really a problem, if he’s being honest. He doesn’t like forgetting stretches of time like that, and he knows he needs help.

But to get help, he has to first give help himself. He has to help the others. He has to save Vaughn.

There’s a lot he has to do, and he has no idea how to even start going about doing it. He has the location Vaughn sent him, and he knows August and Vasquez are working together, wanting access to Jack inside Rhys’s head. He knows that. It’s a known quantity. What’s not known is the number of people waiting to cut his head off the second he arrives at said location.

August and Vaughn are just two people, both irritating in their own rights, but he knows they’re going to have others backing them up, just like before, at the Atlas Facility. They’re going to have weapons, robots, and a single painted target in the center of Rhys’s forehead.

Either they want Jack out of him and want to toss Rhys away, or they want both of them dead and just interested in the supposed files Jack was storied onto. Having an AI of this magnitude is bizarre, almost otherworldly, and it’s definitely the type of technology people would kill for.

Have killed for.

So, what am I gonna do?

He has absolutely no idea. No idea how this is supposed to all work out in their favor.

He’s just going to have to wing it.

Wing it, and hope Jack might be conniving enough to get them both out of this mess alive.

The thought leaves him scowling. That’s a quick way to die if he’s ever heard one. Jack’s a hologram – he’s not solid or anything, so he can’t do anything to physically help Rhys, can he? Except enhance his cybernetics.

Wait a minute…

A slow grin spreads across his face. The fog in his brain clears somewhat as thoughts begin to connect together, a plan finally forming.

xXx

When Jack snaps back into existence, it’s sudden and jarring. He’s flung into form sitting in the passenger seat of the stolen car, and if he had a heart in his chest right now, it’d be trying to rip its way out. What the hell was that? He takes a moment to catch his non-existent breath and looks sideways at Rhys, who is tossing him curious glances every few seconds.

“What? Miss me?” Jack asks, smirking.

Rhys shrugs. “Actually, yeah.”

Jack pauses, frowning at him. “Wait, what?”

This isn’t how their ‘banter’ usually goes. It starts with Jack annoying the hell out of Rhys and ends with Rhys getting frustrated and giving into whatever Jack says. That’s how it’s supposed to go.

“I have a plan,” Rhys says, grip tightening on the steering wheel.

“Uh huh,” Jack says, eying him suspiciously. “I’m not a big fan of your ‘plans’, kid. They tend to be idiotic and suicidal.”

“Sometimes,” Rhys says. “But you could help diminish the threat, couldn’t you?”

“I’m not a miracle worker, babe.”

“No, but you are an AI.”

Jack’s eyes narrow. “Watch it, kid. Keep in mind who you’re talking to.”

“Exactly!” Rhys says, like that was his point all along, leaving Jack utterly confused. “You’re Handsome goddamn Jack, President of Hyperion, and who are we about to infiltrate? That’s right! A Hyperion base!”

Rhys’s sudden enthusiasm is really harshing out Jack’s own energy. He feels coiled and tight, ready to spring into action because Rhys is enthusiastic about it, and he hates this.

Nevertheless… Jack can see why the kid would be excited.

“Ah, I see,” he says, smirking. “You know, Rhysie, you’re thinking more like me every day!” Which is mildly off-putting, if he’s being honest. How is he supposed to entertain himself if the kid is like talking to a mirror? Not that he’d super mind it, of course, because he is awesome and why wouldn’t he want to speak to himself? Still, though… it doesn’t seem like Rhys.

Maybe he bled more into Rhys when he took over his body for a bit. It’s a thought. Not exactly worrisome, but not idle either.

Rhys blinks at him. “Uh, thanks?”

“We’re going to bring them to their knees,” Jack says, picturing the upcoming attack now. “Cripple their defenses, hack their ‘superior universal remote’, upgrade baby bot and kick their collective asses!”

He’s actually getting hyped for the fight, just like always. Jack loves a good fight. He loves getting his hands dirty. There are some who call him a coward who would never face someone head-on, but that’s a bold-faced lie. He started from the bottom and killed his way up the corporate ladder, which he assumes even Rhys can relate to. It’s just how it is at Hyperion. It’s not even how Jack made it, it’s how it was before he even came along and he just beat the system. No guts, no glory.

But he likes fighting. And just before a big fight, usually physical in nature because crushing someone’s windpipe with his bare hands is actually quite exhilarating, he gets this huge burst of adrenaline, amping him for said fight. His lungs expand, his lizard brain activates, and he cracks his knuckles, readying himself.

This time isn’t physical, at least not on his part. It’ll be digital, electrical, robotic. And somehow that’s still okay, because damn if he’s not the best AI to ever exist because he can do this. He can win this. He can help Rhys this way.

He’s not sure when helping Rhys became super high up on his to-do-list, but for some reason it is. It is, his mind argues, a surefire way to get Rhys on his side, and he needs this siren on his side for the war to come. It also happens to keep himself alive, in Rhys’s head, so it’s a win-win, really. Helping Rhys helps him get what he wants, and he’s all for that.

He’ll need to charge up for the fight though, which is just, ugh, so distracting. Why is this a thing? He does feel better after being yanked back inside Rhys’s head, but he’ll stubborn hold a grudge against that very idea because no, Handsome Jack doesn’t need to recharge like some dead battery, thank you very much. He’s his own person. A holographic person right now, but that is temporary, and he doesn’t appreciate being constantly reminded that he is less than, because he’s not.

Still. Better to charge up for the fight so he doesn’t get yanked back into Rhys’s head at an inopportune moment. Even he can think ahead and realize this might be a problem.

So despite his grudge and annoyance, he slips back inside Rhys’s head to recharge anyway – because at least now he knows why it sometimes feels like a great idea to be dormant for a while.

It doesn’t make him less than.

It just makes him stronger.

xXx

They arrive at the desired location soon enough. Rhys is sore from the cramped space during the drive, and once-again curses his long legs. He stretches as he exits, exhausted but also filled with pre-fight adrenaline. He could die here. They could all die here. He has to stop it. He can’t fail them, not now.

“Jack?” he calls quietly, spinning in a slow circle to search for the blue outline.

Jack sparks to life next to him, stretching and yawning as well. “I was having the nicest dream, kiddo,” he says.

Rhys exhales slowly, jittery with nerves. His lizard-brain is going haywire. “Are you ready for this?”

“Oh, cupcake,” Jack laughs, “I was born ready. Let’s do this.”

Rhys’s enhanced ECHO-eye activates, scanning the building as a whole. It’s a Hyperion-based building with standard issue Hyperion defenses. It makes sense Vasquez would take them here, injured after the Atlas Facility. The facility would be stocked with meds, food, and supplies, not to mention vehicles, which would explain where they got them during the car chase. So August is really interested in helping Vasquez, though Rhys can’t determine why. What’s he get out of it? He seemed like a normal bandit. Then again, he surmises, so did Fiona and Sasha when he first met them, and they’re… not. Not normal bandits, anyway.

Everyone on Pandora has their own personalities, their own lives and backstories. Clumping them all together under the term of ‘bandit’ just feels wrong. Just like the Pandorans clumping all of Hyperion together under the label ‘Hyperion’ feels wrong. Rhys isn’t a corporation – he is a prong on the ladder, one person in a sea of people, and lumping him together with the likes of Vasquez just makes him feel dirty.

He wants to believe he’s not nearly as bad as Vasquez. That he wouldn’t murder his boss to steal a promotion. That he wouldn’t be a pompous dick about everything.

But, hell. Maybe he is exactly like Vasquez. Here he is, plotting… murder.

Because that’s what’s going to happen here.

A lot of death.

Just like before. Just like always.

It’s somehow become the norm, and while death happens on Helios a lot, it never felt as pronounced as it does now. Is he used to corporate murder but not the normal kill-or-be-killed king? What kind of monster is he?

What kind of monster does Hyperion make you?

He shakes the thoughts away. All disturbing, and all for another day. Today he has to focus.

It’s a Hyperion layout. Hyperion weapons.

And he has the superior override code to everything – even the universal remote.

Because he has the President of Hyperion on his side, and if people thought Handsome Jack didn’t install a few fail-safes just for himself in case his primary system was hacked or betrayed – then they didn’t know Jack at all.

“Alright, Jack,” Rhys breathes, stepping toward the building. “Hack the weapons and the cameras.”

Suddenly Rhys is everywhere. It’s jarring on a whole new level, and takes a few seconds to adjust to. He’s in the building, in all the hallways, guarding all the exits, keeping an eye on the prisoners. He focuses on that camera. Vaughn, Fiona, and Sasha are in a room at the bottom of the base, underground, with low lighting. At least their alive.

Vasquez is pacing back and forth with his stubby shoulder bandaged. Rhys can’t bring himself to regret shooting his arm off, at least not right now – right now he’s angry, because Vasquez looks distinctly impatient and he just keeps coming after them, time and time again, even without an arm. It occurs to Rhys than in trying to screw over Vasquez, he might have ruined the man’s life. Definitely ruined his life. Altered it. Especially now with the arm gone. He’s forced Vasquez into siding with bandits, his previously sworn enemy, just to apprehend/kill Rhys and his friends.

A part of Rhys must have known, from the beginning, that this would happen. That he’d ruin Vasquez. Hell, maybe a part of him even wanted it.

But it wasn’t his primary goal in trying to steal Vasquez’s deal.

He just wanted to come out on top for once. To screw Vasquez over instead of the other way around. He worked hard for that promotion, screwed other people over, went through Hyperion’s ‘proper’ (read: disturbing) channels, and still lost anyway. All because Vasquez went and introduced their boss to the wrong side of an airlock. It was stolen out from under him, and he wanted to steal the vault key from under Vasquez.

And in the process, not only ruined Vasquez’s life, but Vaughn’s too. And his own. And who knows what’s happened to Yvette alone up there. He’ll never forgive himself if she’s hurt, or worse, because of his mistakes.

Just thinking about it makes him angry. With a small thought, the turrets activate on a room of armed guards.

They hear the whirring of the guns shifting to aim at them. They spin, confused, to face them. They’re all bandits, despite the Hyperion facility, one of the few remaining in good condition down here on Pandora after Jack’s fall. There’s only one Hyperion employee among the group, and that’s Vasquez, and he’s currently being watched by August away from the consoles for the turrets.

They’re only confused for a few short seconds. After that, they’re a bloody mess on the ground, but Rhys doesn’t feel sympathy. Not right now. He’s just angry.

He’s aware of his physical body moving forward, his flesh eye seeing the path before him. He lifts his robotic hand, curls his fingers in to a fist, and the Hyperion doors jerk open. He can feel Jack empowering him even as the former CEO walks behind him, laughing all the while, just like at the Atlas Facility.

And, just like then, it feels good. He likes this. He likes being this powerful. He likes killing people with a thought. He likes getting back at Vasquez. People will learn not to mess with him, to quit stealing shit from under him.

Or maybe they won’t, because they’ll be dead.

He’s too angry to truly care about that right now. Just empowered with a rage burning through him, and on some level he realizes this is wrong – but he’s too gone to care.

He’s in the facility, walking down the halls like he own’s the place. Because right now, he does.

He is Handsome Jack. Handsome Jack is Rhys. They blur together.

They’re both of them, and everywhere. They’re neither of them, and nowhere.

It’s disorientating on a whole new level. He doesn’t remember grabbing his stun baton, but he must have at some point because there’s an electrical flare around him which sends the approaching guards out of his way. They had their weapons raised but didn’t fire – they just stared at him as they walked forward, which is really odd, but he can’t focus on it right now. They’re out of his way.

He continues down the hall.

In another room, Vasquez and August have apparently heard the gunfire. They’re now running through the hallways with Vasquez lagging behind. August has Vasquez’s shotgun in his hands, and Vasquez has a pistol in his singular hand. They’re coming at him from the right, like they know he’s there, but Rhys knows for a fact they’re running blind because he is in control of the cameras right now.

They quickly hop back around a corner when a well-placed ceiling turret turns to fire at them. August yells something at Vasquez, who looks distinctly pale. He’s fumbling with his pistol, trying to hold onto it and reach for the universal remote with one only one hand. He drops the pistol, yanks out the remote, and-

“Ah, ah, ah,” Jack says, smirk evident in his voice. “You didn’t think you were gonna make it out of here alive, did ya?”

Vasquez presses the button. Again and again and again. Stabbing his index finger into it, smashing it with his entire palm, anything to get it to work.

It doesn’t.

Rhys can’t help but laugh himself.

He knows where they are. He could go after them.

“Yes, do it, Rhysie,” Jack says, almost giddily, like he’s also energized by the fight. “Kill them all!”

The thought is very tempting. He might have done it if he didn’t see movement outside the room Vaughn and the girls are in.

The anger re-ignites inside of him.

They’re being taking from the room at gunpoint, by several armed guards.

He fires a few warning shots from a nearby turret after activating it, but he doesn’t intend to hit the target. The shots might hit the others.

“Uh, why are you playing with kiddie gloves there, pumpkin?” Jack asks, irritated. “I give you all the power and your throw your punches, are you kidding me?”

“Can’t kill them,” he says, and it takes an effort to use his actual voice. He realizes, belatedly, he hasn’t needed to do that since he stepped into the facility. But somehow Jack hears his thoughts.

Huh.

That’s… new.

And worrisome. But also a thought for later because right now-

Four armed guards come around the corner ahead of him. They seem shocked to see him, having been running blind. They’re lucky, actually. No turrets around this particular intersection – a bad call on Hyperion’s part, he’s sure – but he’s not completely useless, either.

They hesitate before firing, staring at him like the ones before him. He’s not sure what they seem quite so fascinated by, but he’s already raising his hand.

His stun-baton-less hand.

His hand is empty. Before this thought can process, instinct dictates that he open his palm.

An electrical nova forms around him. Little electrical burts shoot forward to zap the guards, who are stunned enough to fumble their weapons. As they’re trying to re-orientate themselves, Rhys steps forward on auto-pilot.

They stare up at him in horror.

Then they promptly turn and run down a different hallway.

A bad call on their part. The turret fire is loud and echoing in the hallways, and he watches from the cameras as their bodies hit the ground.

He takes a right. Finds the stairs.

Little blind spots are popping up in his vision.

Vasquez and August, poking his eyes out.

Shit.

Vaughn and the others are nearby. He just has to get to them. The guards are holding them hostage, yelling at a camera – but the cameras don’t have sound. So that doesn’t really help him.

He can hear distant echoes, though, so he’s definitely getting closer.

“Uh, Rhysie,” Jack says. “Not to burst your bubble here, pumpkin, but uh, losing energy here, kiddo. And you’re glowing like a freaking flashlight so could you just tone it down a bit there, babe.”

Rhys blinks, the fog in his brain clearing slightly. “What?” He turns to face Jack.

Jack’s flickering in and out like before. Low on energy, he said. Is Rhys his battery or something? Is that a thing? Does he need to recharge?

The second half of Jack’s statement catches up to him. “What do you mean, glow-”

He sees himself on camera, focusing on this singular hallway for the first time.

He’s glowing. Even though his clothes, it’s visible. The side of his neck is bright, and his left hand is-

He brings his flesh hand up. It, too, is covered in spiraling marks similar to his left side and neck. What. The. Hell?

Panic claws inside of him, vying for dominance. He’s allowed to freak out, right? He has weird, glowing, growing tattoos. He’s allowed to panic.

“Calm down, Rhysie,” Jack says, almost soothingly. “I feel for ya, kiddo, I really do, but you gotta tone it down, okay? Trust me, you do not want everyone else seeing you like this. Remember out little agreement? No one sees this but me? So just calm down.”

But he can’t calm down. He can’t calm down because he’s glowing, his eyes are glowing, and he just attacked someone without his weapon.

He shocked people without his stun-baton. And they ran from him in fear. In horror.

Cobwebs, on his shoulders. Jack’s hands slide through him, but the flickering gaze is grounding in a way little else is, when Jack is all that’s in his field of vision. “Rhys. Rhys, you need to calm down. We’ll talk about this later, but right now I need you to just chill out. Take a deep breath. That’s it – in, out. In, out. Breathe with me, kiddo.”

Rhys follows Jack’s instructions, Jack breathing in time with him until he feels decidedly more steady on his own two feet. His heart isn’t racing as much, fit to burst out of his chest.

“How… how did you know to do that?” he asks shakily.

“My daughter got similar panic attacks,” Jack says, a tightness to his face. Which is really saying something, considering he has a mask on his face.

“Your daught-”

“Not now, cupcake.” A ghostly hand pats his cheek. He ducks away from the touch. “Talk later, fight now. I’m tired, so I’m gonna, ya know, recharge or whatever.” He sound slightly bitter about the whole thing, but Rhys can’t blame him.

He can’t think about much of anything right now, except that Handsome Jack helped him through a panic attack.

He vaguely knew of Jack’s daughter existence in the general sense as everyone else – that it was probably just a myth, but some said he had one. A rumor, nothing more.

Apparently, Jack did have a daughter. Does have a daughter. Fuck. That’s not a conversation he’s looking forward to having with said daughter.

“Save your useless friends,” Jack says sourly. “Ugh, those assholes. I’d leave them behind if I were you, Rhysie, but you need them for the vault so just – go be a hero.”

Rhys smiles faintly. “Get some rest, Jack.”

“Ugh, don’t say it like that,” Jack says, scowling, before he slips into Rhys’s head.

Rhys looks at himself on cameras again. The glow has faded from his eyes and skin.

Okay. Deep breaths. Calm breaths. Just stay calm and you’ve got this.

Right. Calm.

He continues down the hallway. He’s still in the Hyperion system thanks to Jack’s ice-breaker, but watching all the cameras and controlling all the turrets like before is too disorientating now, without Jack’s help bracing himself against the onslaught. He focuses on the cameras watching Vaughn and the others, and their armed guards, and keeps a hold on that turret that hasn’t fired since the warning shots, and makes his way for them.

He just needs to hold it together a little longer.

He rounds the corner at a casual stroll, stepping into eyesight of the armed guards and the others. They’re all staring at him, but he knows he’s not glowing right now.

“Hey, guys,” he says, grinning. “I think we’ll be going now.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve – Like Jack

 

“Rhys, are you doing this?” Vaughn asks shakily, staring at him.

Rhys brushes away the ache that Vaughn’s mistrust brings. He must think Jack is controlling him, but he’s not. He can’t deal with that hurt and anger right now – he needs to stay in control. He can’t lose it with these people.

“You underestimated my hacking prowess,” he says.

“How are you doing this?” one of the guards asks. “Vasquez said he had it on lockdown!”

“Let’s just say I got an ice-breaker for your little program,” Rhys replies, shrugging. The turret heats up, cylinders spinning, ready to fire. “Now. I said we’ll be going. There’s been enough bloodshed so I’m willing to let you live if you just hand my friends over and let us walk about of here safe and sound. What do you say?”

The guards share looks. One of them speaks up. “Our orders are to keep them from you.”

“Orders?” Rhys makes a show of looking around. “That’s funny, ‘cause I don’t see your boss standing here with you. Seems like he decided you could be turret bait while they escaped. Unfortunate for you, of course.”

An awkwardly long silence, combined with more shared looks. They’re worried, he knows. He’s edging them toward doing what he wants. Hyperion guards might stand there all day under threat of death and Handsome Jack’s rage – but these are bandits. They fight to survive to the next day, and get paid, if Pandora has taught him anything.

The front guard raises his weapon. The others slowly do the same, aiming at Rhys.

“We kill you, we win,” the front guard says.

“Maybe,” Rhys says. “But how quickly can you pull the trigger? Because with a thought, I can activate these turrets, and all of the ones in the entire building. I can put this building on true lockdown mode, and you’ll never get out even if I’m dead. Of course, that’s if you escape this turret.” He cycles the cylinders again. “It’s got an increased rate of fire, did you know that? You shouldn’t feel it when they rip through you because you’ll already be dead. It’s actually a small mercy.”

Everyone, absolutely everyone, is quiet. Everyone – everyone – is staring at him in horror.

Keep it cool, Rhys. Just a little longer. Just keep calm a little longer, it’s okay, you’ve got this.

He exhales slowly, and grins widely. “So, what’s it gonna be? Let us live and leave, and we can all go our separate ways. Or we all die here and now.”

“You wouldn’t kill your friends,” the front guard says, but his voice is shaky, uncertain. “You stopped firing the second they were put in danger.”

Rhys laughs – a bitter, shaky sound. “Friends? You think they’re my friends?” He casts a dispassionate look at his ‘friends’, who are still staring at him in open-mouthed horror. “They’re not my friends. Every single one of them has left me to die for their own benefit.” He looks at Vaughn. “That one there tried to sell me out to your boss’s friend just to save his own skin – and that’s after being best friends for years! Friendship isn’t a thing on Hyperion, or haven’t you heard? We’re all psychopathic murderers up there. And these two?” He looks at Fiona and Sasha. “They left me behind to die in the desert heat, for days. I don’t think a single one of them would care if I died, so really, what friends do you think they are to me?”

Another long, drawn out silence.

“Rhys,” Vaughn says quietly. “You can’t seriously think-”

“Hush now,” Rhys says, shooting him a quick glare. “Hyperion is talking, little accountant.” He focuses again on the bandits. “You know,” he says, shooting off a few warning shots near the bandits’ feet which makes everyone jump, “I’m getting kinda impatient. I’ve offered you an out – I suggest you take it, before I rescind my offer.”

“If you’re not here to save these people then why are you here?” another guard asks, speaking up for the first time.

Rhys smiles, nodding encouragingly. “An excellent question! I’m glad you asked. I really only need this one,” he points at Fiona, “but I’ll take them all. I can’t cook for shit, after all, and this one is pretty great at that.” He points at Sasha. “And this one,” he points at Vaughn, “is good at stealing Hyperion money that won’t be missed and giving it to me, so, you know, it’s a win-win all around if I have them all for the low, low price of all your lives.” He laughs, in a fashion similar to Jack. “You’d be idiots to turn me down, but then, you Pandorans are all idiots, aren’t you?”

“Wow,” Sasha says, staring at him, “you really are just like Jack.”

It hurts, but he has to roll with it for now. He can explain things later but for now – now he has to do this.

“Time’s up, kiddos,” Rhys says, because if he’s going to be accused of being ‘just like Jack’, he should probably make it count. “Or I blow all your asses into meaty little bits I can feed to skags. So what’s it gonna be, cupcake?”

Another long silence. Then the bandits drop their guns,  one by one, and slowly back away with their hands raised.

“Nice choice,” Rhys congratulates them. “Maybe you Pandorans aren’t so stupid after all.”

“You’ll let us go now, right?” one of them asks.

“Sure,” Rhys says, nodding. “As soon as you get in that room.”

He points at the room Vaughn and the others were previously locked in.

“As a fail-safe, you know,” Rhys adds. “Can’t have you changing your mind last second, now can we?”

They share looks again.

“Oh, please,” Rhys breathes, grinning as he stalks forward, random turret shots firing at the ground. “Try my patience. I’m begging you. Let’s do this the hard way.”

They back into the room. He steps into the doorway, grins at them all, and promptly shuts and locks the door.

“Your buddies will be by to get you once we’re out of here,” he calls through the door before turning back to face the others.

They’re still staring at him.

“Oh, good,” he breathes, losing the façade and letting his exhaustion shine through as his shoulders slump. “That worked. You’re okay. I’m gonna… say hello to the ground now.”

He promptly falls forward, right on his face.

There’s movement around him. A hand gently touches his shoulder. “Rhys?” Vaughn asks quietly. “Is that, uh… Are you okay?”

“Everything aches,” Rhys mutters. “I hate this planet. This planet hurts me. Emotionally and physically. Can we go now?”

“Uh, can you get up?” Fiona asks from somewhere in front of him.

He shoves his hands under him and lifts until he’s on his knees. His vision blurs in and out, his ECHO-eye dark.

Everything hurts. His head is searing.

Talk about overextending yourself.

“Remind me to never, ever, do that again,” he manages to breathe, blinking heavily.

“You, uh… had us worried for a minute,” Fiona says, crouching in front of him.

“You sounded a lot like Jack,” Sasha says quietly, crouching on his other side. “I get that it was an act, but-”

Relief floods through him. “Oh, good,” he says, hanging his head low. “You knew it was an act.”

“Well, of course it was,” Fiona says. “You were obviously saying whatever you could to get us out of there. I mean, Vaughn wouldn’t betray you. Clearly it was a lie.”

Rhys stiffens. Vaughn jerks his hand away from him.

There’s an awkward silence.

“Wait,” Sasha says. “Wait. You mean…?”

“You tried to sell Rhys out?” Fiona asks incredulously.

Rhys lifts his head. Both of the girls are glaring at Vaughn now.

“Are you kidding me?” Sasha asks, shaking her head. “That guy offered Rhys a deal – to turn you in and get his old job back, his old life back, get the bounty off his own head and be hailed a hero for turning in the traitor known as Vaughn… but he didn’t do it! He said no! Are you kidding me? You said yes?”

This is not what Rhys was expecting at all. What the hell? Since when do they give a crap about him? Why are they ganging up on Vaughn?

“You’d sell us out too, wouldn’t you?” Fiona asks sharply. “Just like Felix!”

Oh. So that’s why. It’s personal for them, and they’re watching their own asses. It all makes sense again.

“Uh, guys…” he tries.

“It wasn’t like that!” Vaughn says, eyes wide. “I wasn’t actually going to betray him, I was just saying whatever Vasquez wanted to hear to get him off our backs for a while!”

“Uh huh,” Sasha says skeptically. “And when did he offer you this deal? Because he offered it to Rhys in the middle of the whole death race fiasco, and Rhys said no even before the moonshots and Vasquez pursuing us to the Atlas Facility. Before he even became a problem. So when did he offer you the deal, and you said yes?”

There’s a long, awkward silence.

Now really isn’t the time for this, but Rhys can’t bring himself to stop the conversation. Not now. Not when he wants that very answer. Not when it’s been eating away at him.

“When, Vaughn?” he asks quietly, causing Vaughn to look at him.

Vaughn swallows thickly. “What does it matter? It’s a choice I’ll regret for the rest of my life, and I never intended for it to go this far. I just wanted to give us breathing room. I knew you’d come up with a plan to get us out of there, Rhys. You always do. I just had to buy us time. I never wanted to betray you.”

“But you did,” Rhys mutters, looking away. You did betray me.

Vaughn’s avoiding the question.

When did Vasquez offer him the deal? Before or after Vasquez himself became a real problem? Because that suddenly matters a lot.

If it was after the moonshots, when they were stuck stranded in the desert, then maybe he can forgive Vaughn. At that point, self-preservation would have truly kicked in because they were in dire straits. If it was before that, during the death race, then… then Vaughn did things the Hyperion way.

He sold Rhys out to rise through the ranks.

Because Rhys really is just a prong on the corporate ladder.

There’s hurt, anger, and panic unfurling in his chest all at once. It’s hard to breathe.

His vison blurs.

“Rhys?” Fiona asks, and then her hand is on his shoulder. “You got really pale. Is that blood on your face?”

Now everyone is looking at him.

He swallows, taking calm, deep breaths. “Damaged my port,” he says. “Gonna need to fix that soon, but… well… right now isn’t really an option.”

“Damaged your port?” Vaughn asks, sliding forward again despite the accusatory eyes on him. “How did you hack everything with it damaged? How are you even moving around? You’ve got to be in excruciating pain.”

“It’s… pretty bad,” Rhys admits, eyes closing.

“Then let’s get you out of here,” Sasha says, slipping one of his arms around her shoulders. Fiona slips onto the other side, easily nudging Vaughn out of the way, to take his other arm, and suddenly he’s being lifted.

The ascension is disorientating. It takes several seconds and several long blinks to be able to refocus his vision. Having sight only out of one eye is also frustrating.

Not to mention painful because even the dim lighting around him is painful.

“Shouldn’t I be getting you out of here?” Rhys asks.

“You opened the door for us,” Fiona says. “Now we’re repaying the favor.”

“Is there, uh… anything we need to worry about nearby?” Sasha asks.

“Sight’s dead,” Rhys says, eyes falling shut. “As far as I know, the path is clear, but Vasquez and August might still be a problem.”

“We’ll deal with them,” Sasha says darkly.

“Without weapons?” Vaughn asks.

“I think Rhys has proven how deadly your mind can be,” Fiona retorts. “We’ll think of something. We always do.”

The stairs are a pain in the ass. Rhys has to actually put effort into walking up them, since he’s so tall and lanky and the girls are struggling under the added weight of his robotic arm. It’s a long, slow process – at least in his mind, but in reality it takes maybe a minute.

They continue making their ways through the hallways. At this point, Rhys’s mind going dark, his body moving on sluggish auto-pilot, and he starts to let himself drift off.

He’s jerked back into awareness when they come to a sudden stop, the movements jarring as his head hangs low, shooting pain spiking through his skull. He drags his heavy head up and pries reluctant eyelids open to find August and Vasquez in front of them. Vasquez has lost his pistol and is looking distinctly pale, his stubby shoulder bleeding again, red staining the bandages. August stands in front of them with the Hyperion shotgun out and ready.

“I don’t know how you got in here like you did or what you did to all my men,” August says slowly, glaring at him in particular, “but you’re gonna regret the day you crossed me.”

Oh, for crying out-

The pain as he activates his ECHO-eye is sharp enough to leave him yelping as his legs give way. He’s dragged downward, the girls’ hold on him faltering, as he causes the gun to continuously backfire. It’s a new and improved Hyperion model shotgun, after all – top of the line, with many added benefits.

Just a lot of pitfalls when it comes to someone like Rhys with Jack’s ice-breaker.

He is the universal remote.

The girls lift him up again and quickly drag him past Vasquez and August, who are attempting to not get shot by their own gun.

There’s a darkness calling Rhys’s name. It’s soothing, and welcoming, and so very tempting.

Not yet, he tells himself. He can pass out later, but right now… right now he has to make sure they all get out of here.

“Where… are the bots?” he manages to push through reluctant lips.

“Locked in the caravan, under guard out back,” Fiona says. “Uh… did you not see them?”

“Came in the front door,” Rhys tells them.

“You just… walked in?” Sasha asks.

“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Did no one try to stop you?”

“Uh… they failed.”

“How?” Fiona asks.

“My stun-baton,” he replies.

“What can it do against guns?” Vaughn asks.

None of them have seen his stun-baton in action, when he’s using it. Not really.

“I hacked turrets and cameras too,” Rhys mutters, groaning. “What’s it matter? Can we go now?”

“We’re going,” Fiona replies.

More sluggish movements. A drowsiness pumping through him, chasing away the previous adrenaline. The power from Jack is gone – like a lingering ache somewhere inside of him. He actually misses him. Misses that power.

It’s concerning.

He hangs his head low, floating in and out of awareness as he’s all but dragged along.

“Uh… Rhys?”

He registers his name, but not who said it. Just that it’s said again and again, and someone is lightly shaking him. “Hmm?” he manages, to get them to stop.

“Rhys? We need this door open. Come on, it’s the last door, I promise,” Fiona coaches soothingly.

Rhys pries his eyes open again. Looks at the door blocking the way.

One more door. He can do this.

Just one more time.

Then he can sleep. Let them deal with the guards.

He raises his hand. Belatedly, he realizes it’s his flesh hand and not his cybernetic one, but the door is already opening. Fire rolls through his head like a tidal wave of pain and misery, and with that last spark of awareness, he collapses.

Darkness consumes everything.

xXx

Rhys dreams of home.

Of his apartment. Sitting on the couch with Vaughn having game marathons.

Yvette, arriving late with pizza and a small apology for adding it to Rhys’s tab.

Yvette, using his money to buy the group lunch.

All three of them on their shared camping trip to Pandora. Laughing around a campfire and roasting marshmallows.

He dreams of home, and he dreams of hurt.

Of longing and want combining with betrayal and anger.

Vaughn, selling him out to Vasquez. He relives the hurt in that moment.

Yvette, denying them supplies.

Yvette, telling them she’s tracking them and will send what she can.

Vasquez, arriving in his car at the exact location Rhys and Vaughn stand.

He dreams of a deep burning rage.

Everything is electric blue.

xXx

“How long’s he been out?”

“What do we do?”

“How do we help him?”

There’s a flurry of voices around him, all combining with each other into one annoying entity. Rhys tries to drown them out and slip back into that inky darkness, but he can’t. They’re nearby, rushed and loud, and the bed beneath him is moving.

Wait, bed?

The fingers on his flesh hand curl instinctively into the cushions beneath him. Belatedly, he realizes he must, in fact, be on the couch in the caravan. They’re driving.

A fight. He vaguely remembers a frantic rush of adrenaline, panicking, Jack soothing him, and-

No. Now he knows he’s crazy.

Jack did not help him through a panic attack. No. That didn’t happen.

He must have hallucinated that part. Why was he panicking, anyway?

His mind searches for the answer but it’s like his thoughts are slogging through mossy waters. It’s a slow walk, a slippery slope into more pain. It’s the sudden spark of pain near his port that leaves his eyes finally flying open.

That’s when he sees Jack. Crouching next to him, face hovering over him, hand pulling back from his head.

“Jack?” Rhys whispers, frowning.

Jack grins. “There you are, kiddo. Was wondering when you’d finally decide to wake up. These idiots have been arguing for twenty minutes now and it’s driving me crazy. Could ya do something about that, pumpkin?”

Rhys rolls his head slightly, twisting enough to see Vaughn and Fiona near the back of the caravan. He looks around and finds Sasha driving, but the robots are nowhere in sight. They made it to the caravan, though, which he vaguely remembers being mildly problematic. They must be on the roof like before; it’s the only way they’ll all fit.

No one seems to have noticed the fact he’s awake. Maybe that’s a good thing. He’d hate to have to try to explain why he said ‘Jack’.

Why does it feel like I have a killer hangover?

“Did I get drunk?” he asks, loud enough to catch everyone’s attention finally.

Fiona and Vaughn stop talking, both looking over at him. Then they share a brief look before quickly approaching him, crouching down in Jack’s personal space. Jack flickers out of existence and reappears at Rhys’s feet, sitting on the end of the couch with his arms folded across his chest as he scowls at the others.

“About time,” Jack says.

“Are you okay?” Vaughn asks.

“How do you feel?” Fiona adds.

“Are you dying?” Sasha throws from the driver’s seat.

“Uh…” Rhys says, because he is intelligent like that. “I feel like we went on a massive bender last night, and my head hurts. Dying is a relative term, so… could you be more precise?”

They stare at him for a moment.

“He’s fine,” Fiona says.

“You’ve been out for thirteen hours,” Vaughn tells him worriedly.

Ugh, again? Just sleeping my life away here, apparently.

“I was tired,” is all he says on the matter.

“We saw that,” Fiona says dryly. “You just went to sleep in the middle of a doorway. Left us to carry you and fight to get the caravan back.”

Rhys makes a show of looking around. “Well. It looks like you won, so…”

“I thought you said you had your stun-baton?” Vaughn asks.

It’s a random question. There’s no possible way Rhys can remember everything that happened prior to him blacking out, so he just stares blankly at Vaughn. “Did I?”

“It’s dead,” Fiona says, sighing. “I guess even Hyperion tech needs to recharge once in a while.”

“Dead?” Rhys repeats, frowning. He didn’t even know it needed to charge. It never showed a battery life or seemed to be dying.

“We tried to use it when we, uh… got the caravan back,” Vaughn says uneasily. “But it didn’t work.”

“Oh,” Rhys says blandly. “Must have drained the battery. Whoops.”

They frown at him for a moment.

“What?” he asks. “It’s been a while since it was charged on Hyperion. I’m surprised it lasted this long. Not to mention, it was a bit of a fight to get to you guys, you know.”

All very adequate statements, in his opinion. None of them lies. Good. Maybe he can do this whole ‘deceiving’ thing after all. Not that he really wants to, because he doesn’t, but at the same time… he’s panicked about his weird new powers and glowing tattoos, and he can’t handle their own interest/worry on top of it. Maybe Jack is right. He really can’t let them know about this – at least not until he himself knows, too.

A part of him distantly makes the odd connection that the tattoos remind him vaguely of siren tattoos – sprawling across one side of the body, down the neck, torso, arms and legs. All on the left side. Just like his.

It’s a nagging though, but he can’t look there right now. No. He has to stay focused on the here and now. Panicking won’t help.

He smiles. “So, what’d I miss?” he asks.

“We got the caravan back, obviously,” Fiona says, shrugging. “The robots helped. That little, uh… little flying bot wouldn’t leave you alone and it was in our way when we tried to help you so we, uh…”

“Banished him to the top with Loader Bot and Gortys,” Vaughn finishes, almost sheepishly.

Now that he mentions it, there is something nagging at Rhys’s mind – something other than the fact that he has strange glowing tattoos. It’s a small alert, just noticeable at the edge of his ECHO-eye vision, unseen until now. He access the blinking file and winces at the sudden flood of information which enters his system.

A lot of little emoticons. Question marks. Exclamations.

So many.

He has to shut the file down to keep his sanity as he swallows back the sudden nausea.

“Wow,” he says. “Um. Okay.”

I’m okay! He sends BB’s way, hoping the little bot gets the message. I’m okay, stop message spamming me!

Wow. Little bot was really worried, huh? That’s… touching.

It really is.

“Where are we?” he asks, mostly to distract himself from BB’s happy emoticon responses.

“The middle of nowhere right now,” Fiona admits. “We just picked a direction and drove off. Have to make sure we’re not followed. I don’t know how they keep finding us.”

And then it all hits Rhys like a train. His dream. The pieces he connected in his sleep, little bits of information his conscious mind refused to connect because the thought hurts.

“It’s me,” he says, sighing. “They’re tracking me.”

“How?” Vaughn asks.

“It’s Yvette,” Rhys says, for the first time aloud. “I let her into my system to track us when we came down here, and she’s been tracking our location every since and reporting it to Vasquez.”

What?” Vaughn all but squeaks, which is really undignified of him. “Yvette? Yvette? You can’t be serious!”

“Who’s Yvette?” Fiona demands.

“Are you kidding me, Rhysie?” Jack is muttering across the caravan, hands thrown into the air in frustration. “Another ‘friend’ who betrayed you? This is why you can’t have friends! They’ll only stab you in the back! I freaking told you!”

Well. He’s gearing up for a lecture. Great.

Rhys focuses on Fiona and Vaughn as he finally sits up. The world tilts nauseatingly for a moment before he finds his proper balance. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Who’s Yvette?” Fiona asks again.

“She’s our best friend,” Vaughn says. “So she couldn’t have done this!”

Rhys levels him with a flat look. “You were my best friend, and you betrayed me. How is this any different?”

Vaughn all but shrinks in on himself, deflating, mouth opening to retort before he just closes it and shakes his head, looking away.

“Think about it, Vaughn,” Rhys says, bit more gently. “What did she say, before Vasquez first found us in the desert?”

“She said that she was…” Vaughn’s eyes close. “She was tracking us, and that she’d send something to us if she could. And then…”

“Then Vasquez landed right on us,” Rhys finishes for him. “Kind of lucky, huh? For him to just know where we were. Knew our exactly location to the point he could moonshot his car on us. We had to jump out of the way, even.”

“Okay, yeah…” Vaughn sighs, opening his eyes again to glare down at the ground. “That’s kind of suspicious, now that you mention it. But maybe Vasquez stole the data from her! We don’t know she betrayed us!”

Rhys frowns. “I mean, I guess you’re right. He could have done that, but I just…” Something in his gut just tells him to expect the worst. That Yvette has betrayed them, just like Vaughn betrayed him. Because she is Hyperion through-and-through, and if Vasquez offered her the same deal as him and Vaughn – then she would readily accept it. She’s not the one stuck on the ground, after all.

It feels wrong, expecting the worst from such a close friend… but he’d rather expect the worst and be happily surprised when he’s proved wrong, or be prepared for the possibility he is right and she is, in fact, a traitor.

Either way, he’s going to have to reboot his system and lock her out.

“This is gonna suck,” he mutters, mostly to himself.

“What is?” Fiona asks.

“I have to reboot, so to speak. To lock out her access.”

“And uh… how does that work, exactly?”

Rhys shrugs. “It’s a process.”

It usually involves a technician, opening his port and manually making him reboot. Sometimes his cybernetics will reboot on their own, during a Hyperion update, but usually there’s ample fore-warning so he’s not doing anything vital when half of him stops working.

“I got ya there, kiddo,” Jack says.

It’s all the warning he gets before a finger touches his port and everything goes dark.

He doesn’t even feel his body crumple to the ground.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen – Accusations and Revelations

 

Rhys is really getting tired of being knocked unconscious. Waking from unconsciousness is always disorientating, flung into awareness after coming from a dark nothingness where pain doesn’t exist. He wakes with a gasp, immediately sitting up only to pass through something that makes him shiver. He opens his eyes afterward and finds Jack flickering in front of him, smirking down at him as he sits up on the couch.

“There you are, cupcake,” Jack says. “Was wondering when you’d finally wake up.”

“What happened?” Rhys asks, before looking around to see if anyone saw him talking to himself. Surprisingly, no one is around. The caravan is empty, and it appears to be dark outside. How long has he been out? Where is everyone? “Where is everyone?” he asks.

“Outside,” Jack says. “And I upgraded your system, Rhysie. No more traitorous Yvette tracking you.” The hologram grins down at him.

Rhys blinks, attempting to remember what happened. Now that Jack mentions it, he vaguely remembers telling Vaughn what he pieced together about Yvette, and Vaughn defending her. He remembers thinking it was better to just expect the worst, and that he would need to reboot his system to lock her out, and then Jack promptly touched his neural port.

“How did you…?”

Jack shrugs. “I’m an AI, pumpkin. I can do amazing things. I’m already so deeply rooted in your systems I can make you a god, Rhysie. You and me, kiddo! We’re gonna run things from now on.”

Rhys exhales slowly. “So you just… locked her out?”

“My ice-breaker is good for a lot of things,” is all Jack says on the matter, shrugging indifferently. “Anyway, cupcake, how’s that head of yours?”

“Uh… okay. Why?” It’s not like Jack to worry about him.

Jack rolls his eyes. “Because I live in it. I need to know if you’re less than 100%, kiddo. Honesty time here.”

Rhys sighs. “I’m… okay. My head hurts but not like before. I guess rebooting, and sleeping, helped.” He swallows. “Not to mention the health meds. Which you forced on me.”

Jack doesn’t even look remotely apologetic. “You needed it,” he says, like that solves everything.

“I said I didn’t want them and you took control of my arm and forced them on me.”

And that’s not okay. Not at all.

Jack shrugs. “Okay, sure, but I did it to help you, pumpkin. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Rhys frowns at him. “Since when are you so gung-ho about helping me, anyway?”

“Uh, have you not been paying attention? I live inside you. If you go, I go. I thought we had this conversation already? Having memory issues there, Rhysie?”

Rhys scowls. “You’re a data-file, Jack. I’m sure they could take that from my body after I died.”

“You don’t know that for certain,” Jack says, glaring back at him. “And I’m not some stupid program, so quit it. I’m alive, even if I’m not exactly physical right now. And would you quit thinking I’m out to get you? Even if I could be pried from your cold dead body, maybe I don’t want you dead. Did you ever think of that?”

Rhys stares at him. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you… care?”

Jack is quiet for a moment. He moves to sit next to Rhys on the couch, flickering briefly. “You remind me a lot of myself, kiddo. I don’t hate you, and I hate everyone. Plus, you’re something special, Rhysie. You just don’t see it yet, do you?”

“How am I special?”

Jack just smiles at him. All possessively, like before, when his tattoos were glowing when he fixed BB. A small shiver flits down Rhys’s spine. “You just are, and a lot of people would kill to have you. But you’re mine. Got it?”

“Uh – what?”

The hell is he talking about?

Jack chuckles. “You really don’t see it, which means your little friends won’t see it either. I’m the first to notice, and it’s going to stay that way.”

“What are you even talking about?” Rhys is so confused.

“You’ll see soon enough. But you’re mine, got it?” Jack’s eyes narrow at him.

“What does that even mean?”

“Got it?” Jack prods.

“What am I agreeing to here?”

“That you won’t reveal yourself to anyone, kiddo.”

“Reveal myself?”

“No fancy glowing tattoos, no going shirtless. To anyone but me.”

Rhys scowls at him. “I’m not going shirtless for you.”

Jack’s grin is wolfish. “Not yet, pumpkin, but you will.”

“I’ll – what now?” Jack is really creeping him out.

“I didn’t hear a yes, babe.”

Fine,” Rhys says, rolling his eyes. “I’ll only reveal myself to you. But what the hell are you-”

“Great talk, Rhysie,” Jack says, grinning like a madman.

And then he promptly inserts himself inside Rhys’s head like he belongs there. Which, he kind of does now. The feeling of Jack slipping back inside his head is getting more and more familiar. Talking with Jack like he’s actually there is getting more and more familiar, too. Rhys isn’t sure what that says about him.

All he knows is he’s sufficiently confused.

He pushes to his feet, stretching stiff and sore muscles. Jack said the others were outside, so he pushes the door open and steps out of the vehicle.

The others are sitting around a small campfire, along with the robots. BB rushes toward him, making strange whirring sounds of excitement, a happy emoticon appearing on its face. Rhys grins and raises his hands to catch the little bot as it flies at him, hugging it to his chest.

“Aw, I missed you too,” he says.

“Are you okay?” Vaughn asks from the campfire, and he realizes everyone has turned to face him.

He releases the little bot, letting it hover next to him. “I’m okay,” he says. “How long was I out?”

“Six hours,” Fiona replies. “You just kind of collapsed. What happened?”

“I was rebooting,” he says.

“Just like that?” Sasha asks, frowning.

“Uh, yeah,” he says, nodding, aware of Vaughn’s probing gaze. “Advanced neural upgrades. Gotta love it.”

“Weird,” Fiona says, shrugging as she turns back to the fire. “Sounds complicated. Did it hurt, getting those implants? Was it worth it?”

“Uh… I mean, the alternative was being a one-armed, half-blind cripple, so, yeah, kind of,” Rhys says as he joins them at the fire.

“Oh,” Sasha says. “I thought you Hyperion guys just chopped off your arms for the fun of it to get the fancy upgrades.”

“Some do,” Rhys says. “I wasn’t one of them.”

“What happened?” Fiona asks.

And that’s not something he’s comfortable sharing. He shrugs.

“Accident as a child,” he says. “But it’s all in the past. So, where are we?”

“Gortys says one of her pieces is this way, but probably a little while away,” Sasha replies. “We decided to stop for a bit and enjoy the calm night.”

It does seem peaceful out. It reminds him of his camping trips with Vaughn and Yvette, but that just makes him remember the betrayals, by both of them. He stares into the fire.

“Uh, Rhys?” Vaughn says, pushing to his feet. “Could I have a word with you, privately, please?”

Rhys frowns, but gets up as well. “Okay.”

He follows Vaughn back to the caravan. Vaughn opens the door and holds it open for him to pass inside, and then shuts it behind them.

“What’s going on?” Vaughn demands. “I know you can’t just reboot yourself like that. What are you hiding?”

Rhys almost wants to snap back at Vaughn for demanding answers like this, like he has any right to after he betrayed him and Rhys went out of his way to save all of them, hurting himself along the way. But he bites his tongue and just sighs heavily. “Jack helped,” he says.

“Helped,” Vaughn repeats flatly, staring at him. “How?”

“He, uh… rebooted me. Himself. And locked out Yvette’s access.”

Vaughn stares at him for a moment, shocked. “He can do that?”

“Uh, I guess.”

“He can just turn you off? Just like that?”

Well, it wasn’t so terrifying until he put it like that. Now Rhys swallows thickly, realizing just how much power over him Jack has. It makes him distinctly uneasy, nausea building in his throat.

“I guess,” he manages.

“Fucking hell, Rhys!” Vaughn says, throwing his hands up, frustrated. “And you just let him?”

“I didn’t really have a say in it,” Rhys says. “He just did it. And I didn’t realize what he did until I woke up.”

“That’s… that’s fucked up, bro,” Vaughn says, shaking his head. “That’s scary, actually. He can just… just do that to you. Turn you off like that.”

The way Vaughn puts it makes Rhys feel a little too much like a computer, which he’s not. Still, he’s not wrong. It is scary.

“And what happened at that facility?” Vaughn asks, sounding distinctly uneasy himself. Good, he can join the club. “You sound like… a lot like Jack back there. I wondered if it was really even you, or if it was him.”

Rhys exhales slowly, letting the hurt bleed out of him. “Yeah, well… I had to act like that to get you guys out of there, but you have to know it was just an act.”

Vaughn eyes him skeptically, which really hurts, deep down. He shouldn’t feel like this anymore. He should be over Vaughn after his betrayal – but years of friendship don’t just magically disappear, and deep down, Vaughn is still his best friend. Or maybe it’s former best friend, now. Vaughn clearly doesn’t trust him anymore. Hell, Rhys doesn’t exactly trust himself, either.

“What about the turrets? The hacking? Did Jack help with that?”

The way Vaughn says Jack’s name, it’s like an accusation. Like he already knows the answer but is making Rhys admit to his mistake anyway.

“I needed his help,” Rhys says, but the words feel wrong to his own ears. Flat, pathetic, desperate. He doesn’t know. He just knows he hates how Vaughn is making him feel right now – like he’s two inches tall and completely in the wrong, when he’s only ever tried to do the right thing.

“You let him in again, didn’t you?” Vaughn all but demands, sounding distinctly angry now.

“I had to,” Rhys says, but it sounds like a weak excuse.

“Do you like having him that far in your systems? Do you like the power he gives you?”

Anger burns through Rhys. “I’m getting tired of your accusations, Vaughn. Watch your tongue.”

“Or what? You’ll hurt me? Leave me as skag food?”

Rhys grits his teeth. “I’m not Jack,” he spits out angrily.

“You don’t even see what he’s doing to you, do you?” Vaughn asks, frowning at him. “Or maybe you do, and you just don’t care. You’re obsessed with him.”

“I’m not obsessed!” Rhys snaps, stomping his foot angrily, like a petulant child. The instinctual reaction just makes him angrier.

He takes an aggressive step forward, towering over Vaughn. A part of him likes the slight touch of fear which sparks to life in Vaughn’s eyes. Good. He should be scared, because accusing Rhys of things like this are going way too far. All Rhys tried to do was help, but apparently that’s not good enough for Vaughn.

He growls low in his throat, glaring down at the smaller man. “I am tired of you accusing me. I’m not obsessed with Jack. He fucking scares me, okay? I’m scared for my own fucking life but guess what? I can’t just ignore him either! You don’t know what he can do to me if I don’t pay attention to him. And yeah, maybe he makes me powerful, and maybe I kind of like it. But you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know how great it feels, to not be weak, to be empowered and feel like you can do anything. It’s addicting, and tempting, but that doesn’t mean I want it.”

Vaughn swallows, staring up at him, backed into a corner. Rhys didn’t realize he was backing Vaughn up until he stops in front of him, glowering down at him.

“Rhys…” Vaughn says quietly. “You’re scaring me.”

“I scare myself!” Rhys snaps back. “I just want things to go back to normal but they won’t! I had to let him into my systems. I had to do it at the Atlas facility to get us out of that tough situation, and I had to do it again this time. If I didn’t have his help, I would have died.”

Silence follows his words.

Rhys takes in a slow, calming breath. “I crashed the car. I fell off it. I hit my head. Jack got me up, got me moving, and even forced health meds on me. If it wasn’t for him and his help, I…” He brings his hands up to run through his hair, tugging at the strands. “I might not be here right now. And neither would you.”

If it wasn’t for Jack and his help, his prodding, his controlling Rhys’s arm to make him take those meds – he might have died before getting to Vaughn. Then he wouldn’t have been able to help the others, and they would have been killed too. Jack might me a homicidal maniac sometimes – but he really saved their asses.

Rhys feels utterly grateful for that, appreciative of that, but also skeptical of Jack’s willingness to help, which brings to mind their previous conversation and his confusion from then.

It’s all a giant mess in his head, and he really doesn’t like arguing with Vaughn like this. Doesn’t like scaring Vaughn like this.

Doesn’t like scaring himself like this, either.

“It’s all so messed up,” he whispers, letting the fear and worry wash over him.

“Hey…” Vaughn says softly, reaching out tentatively to place his hand on Rhys’s flesh arm. “It’s okay, man. We’ll get through this. Together. I’m sorry if I… if I came off like I was accusing you. I was just… I’m just worried about you, Rhys. You’re not yourself anymore.”

The laugh which rips free of Rhys’s lips is bitter and broken. “I know,” he says shakily. “I know that.” And it scares the hell out of me.

He doesn’t know who he is anymore.

He’s Rhys, but he’s Jack, but he’s Rhys, but he’s… not himself.

He doesn’t know anymore.

The panic starts to unfurl in his chest. His breaths become short and choppy, and he feels entirely too light-headed. Everything is wrong, and nothing is right, and he can’t breathe

No, no, no, don’t panic, he thinks, terrified. Last time he panicked his tattoos and eyes glowed, and he can’t let that happen here in front of Vaughn. He can’t.

He covers his eyes with his hands, pushing his palms into the sockets as he takes deep, calming breaths. They’re uneven and shaky and he can’t quite seem to calm down. Worrying about panicking only makes him panic more.

“Rhys? Rhys! Are you okay?” Vaughn’s voice is too close. He’ll definitely see everything lowing, and Rhys can’t let him know. He can’t.

Jack! JACK HELP!                          

It’s all he can think to do. The one person he can think to ask. He’s not sure what that says about him, what that says about his relationship to Jack. All he knows is in that moment, he needs help, and Jack is the first person he calls.

“Whoa, Rhysie, calm down!” Jack says, suddenly next to him, like he summoned him out of thin air. Ghostly hands land on his shoulders, grounding in a way Vaughn’s hand on his flesh arm isn’t. “Deep breaths, Rhysie. In, out. Breathe with me now. Focus on my voice, pumpkin. That’s it. In, on… in, out…”

Rhys follows the instructions, breathing in time with Jack even though Jack is just a hologram and doesn’t need to breathe. It takes a few long moments, but slowly he starts to feel more in control of himself, more grounded thanks to Jack’s soothing voice and those ghostly hands. It’s wrong on a variety of levels to feel this way, especially about a maniac like Jack, but he can’t help it. Anything that calms him down is fine with him right now.

He exhales slowly and moves his hands from his face, opening his eyes. Jack stands in front of him, between him and Vaughn, partially blocking his view of the smaller man. They’re both talking at once, but Jack’s voice is the loudest.

“That’s right, kiddo,” Jack says calmly, soothingly. “Nice, even breaths. You’re doing great, Rhysie.”

Hearing something like that from Jack is utterly bizarre, but in that moment, it’s everything.

Rhys swallows. His legs feel shaky. “I need to sit down,” he says, the first words he’s spoken in several minutes.

“Yeah, man, go ahead,” Vaughn says, quickly moving aside to allow him access to the couch.

He sits on the couch, all but sinking into the cushions once his legs refuse to carry him anymore. Jack sinks down next to him, all but hovering, which is certainly not something he thought he’d ever see Jack doing.

“You alright, pumpkin?”

“I’m okay,” Rhys says, nodding. “I’m okay.” Maybe if he says it enough times, he really will be okay.

“I’m sorry,” Vaughn says, crouching in front of him. “I didn’t mean to uh… I didn’t mean to make you panic like that. It was my fault, wasn’t it?”

“What did this asshole do?” Jack demands, casting a glare at Vaughn.

Rhys shakes his head. “It’s fine,” he says, to both of them. “I’m okay. Sorry. My fault. I just… let everything in all at once.”

“No, it was this dickhead’s fault, wasn’t it?” Jack says, still glaring at Vaughn. “I will kill him. Do you hear me, cupcake? If he touched you, I will kill him.”

He sounds like he’d do just that, too.

“No, no,” Rhys says, quickly shaking his head. “Everything’s fine.”

“Rhys, it’s okay if you’re upset,” Vaughn says calmly, unaware of Jack’s heated gaze or his threats.

It’s really not, though, because if he gets upset he might panic, and if he panics, everything is ruined.

Thinking about it makes that knot return to his stomach. He can feel the panic creeping in.

He stamps down on it, swallowing thickly around the sudden lump in his throat.

“I’m fine,” he says again, like a broken record.

His left hand curls into a fist. He doesn’t realize it’s not him doing it until he sees Jack rolling his wrist, and his own wrist twists as well. Oh shit.

“Vaughn, could I just… just be alone for a minute? Please?” Rhys says quickly.

Vaughn’s eyes widen. “Of course, man! Sorry. I didn’t mean to crowd you. I’ll just… be outside.”

He takes his leave quickly enough, the door shutting behind him.

Rhys exhales slowly.

“What the hell did you chase him off for?” Jack asks. “I could have ended that fool!”

“No,” Rhys says, throwing a glare Jack’s way. “No hurting Vaughn. No hurting anyone without my say so! Okay? Just… no.”

“He hurt you, Rhysie.” There’s a harsh edge to Jack’s voice. “He betrayed you.”

“I know, and it… it still hurts, but I just… please? Don’t hurt him?” It feels weird, pleading with a hologram like this, but the fear is real. Jack can control his cybernetic hand. He could hurt Vaughn. Really hurt him. Even kill him. And that panic is back.

“Why are you defending him?” Jack snaps, glaring back at him. “He stabbed you in the back! You can’t have friends on Pandora!”

“I know!” Rhys snaps back. “I know, okay? I know he stabbed me in the back. I get that, I really do. But I don’t want him hurt. Okay? Please?”

“Why?” Jack demands. “Why protect him?”

“Because he… he was my friend,” Rhys says. He realizes saying he ‘is’ his friend won’t go over well with Jack, and he’s not even sure of their friendship status at this point, so this seems like the easiest way. “I get that we’re… not anymore, but years of friendship don’t just go away. He got me through a lot on Hyperion. I was a mess for a while. So I just… please, don’t hurt him. For my sanity.”

Jack glares at him for a long time, defiance etched across his face. Rhys doesn’t know how else to plead with him, to get him to not hurt Vaughn, and he doesn’t know what to do if Jack won’t just promise him he won’t hurt him.

Finally, Jack sighs. “Fine, Rhys. But the minute that loser turns on you again, if he even looks at you wrong – I’m ending him. Do you understand me?”

Rhys swallows under the intensity of Jack’s glare. “He won’t,” he says.

“He will,” Jack spits back. “It’s just a matter of time. But for you, I’ll play nice for now. But the second he hurts us again… I’ll kill him. And you can’t stop me.”

It’s that threat that leaves Rhys shivering. He’s not wrong. Rhys can’t stop him. Jack can control his arm and he doesn’t know how to block him out, keep him from doing that.

It’s terrifying.

Also… kind of touching? In a weird, bizarre way? Because Jack seems like he’s doing this for him, even if a part of Rhys knows he’s not. He’s doing this for himself, like always – he just happens to be attached to Rhys at the moment, so he takes betrayals against Rhys personally. Oh well. It’s… nice, to have someone so candidly in his corner.

Even if it’s just an illusion. Even if it’s a lie.

“Thank you,” Rhys says quietly.

Jack grunts in response, glaring at the door like he can see Vaughn through it. “What did he say to get you so upset?”

“Huh?”

“Don’t lie to me, Rhysie. What did he say to you?” Jack asks, looking back at him.

Rhys shrugs. “Nothing much, he just…” He accused me of being just like you. Of not being myself. And he’s not wrong. “I guess everything just kind of caught up with me. Thanks for uh… thanks for the help.”

“You summoned me,” Jack says, frowning. “I didn’t know that was a thing.”

“Neither did I. Sorry if it was… disorientating for you.”

Jack shrugs. “Nah, it’s fine. At least this way if you’re in trouble and need my help, you can just summon me. I guess that’s fine.”

“Still… thanks.”

Jack didn’t have to help him, after all. He didn’t have to help him through another panic attack. But he did.

“You said… you said you helped your daughter through something similar?” Rhys asks hesitantly.

Jack’s expression goes flat. “We’re not talking about her.”

“Oh,” Rhys says, nodding. “Okay.”

It’s best not to argue. Clearly it’s a sore subject for Jack.

Jack glares at him for a moment, before the heat dies away. “I don’t like talking about to her to people,” he admits, tentatively, like it’s some big secret. Which, it probably is. “But… I guess you and I are pretty tight.”

Rhys remains quiet. The last thing he wants to do is ruin this moment for Jack. He doesn’t need an angry AI on his hands – again.

“Her name’s Angel,” Jack says, frowning at him.

A silence follows his words. Rhys swallows. “That’s a nice name,” he says quietly. “You must love her.”

Jack looks away, gaze unfocused as he looks at the ground, but he’s not really seeing it. “I do. She’s my little angel. I want to… find her, when this is over.”

“Okay,” Rhys says.

Jack looks up at him, eyes narrowed. “Just ‘okay’? Just like that?”

“Why would I keep you from your daughter?”

Jack smiles, the anger fading. “I think you two would get along. I’ll have to introduce you.”

Rhys blinks, because that’s something he certainly was not expecting. “Sounds great,” Rhys says. “I look forward to it.”

“It’ll be great, Rhysie,” Jack says, energy returning to him as he pushes to his feet, grinning down at him. “You, me, and Angel. The perfect team. We’ll bring this planet to its knees.”

Rhys smiles, hoping it looks genuine enough. There’s something… off, about Jack’s statement. Rhys doesn’t want to bring Pandora to its knees like Jack seems to keep implying. He just wants to go home.

The problem is, he’s not sure where that is anymore – or if it ever even existed in the first place.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen – Failsafe

 

They’re back on the road again. It’s almost normal – all together like this, in the caravan, with an easy silence surrounding them. There are hideaway beds and small cots to sleep on, but usually they just take turns sleeping – Rhys has his own permanent cot, somehow, and he’s not sure how that happened but he’s not complaining because his head hurts and he’s grateful for the actual bed instead of the couch. The others take turns sleeping on the other two cots and the couch, while rotating drivers as well. They haven’t asked Rhys to drive yet, but that’s okay – he honestly doesn’t know if he’s up to it.

His head is healing, if only slowly. The port is still damaged and he wonders if a data drive would even fit in his head now with the way it seems swollen over the edges of the port, like the port was pushed further into his head. It’s a worrisome thought, but Fiona keeps him stocked up on health meds – Felix’s back-up stash, she said. He won’t need it anymore, after betraying them. She doesn’t seem to like talking about him, or his betrayal, but Rhys can’t blame her – he doesn’t like talking about Vaughn’s betrayal, either.

Everyone is being surprisingly nice to him. It’s… nice, sure, but it’s also making him increasingly uneasy. The longer he stays in this vehicle with them and their… their niceness, the more he feels like he’s slowly suffocating in this tiny enclosed space. A part of him misses the animosity from before – because at least then he didn’t feel like he was suffocating. He was used to it from being on Hyperion, so it was a dialogue he understood and could work with – now, what’s he supposed to do? Just say thank you over and over? It’s making his head spin.

Jack is currently glaring at the back of Vaughn’s head as Vaughn drives for a bit. He mostly ignores the girls, but Vaughn? Vaughn, he takes every opportunity to glare at and swipe his hand through where Vaughn’s throat is, even if he knows Vaughn won’t feel it. It makes Rhys distinctly uneasy, because that could be his arm swiping across Vaughn’s throat. Those could be his fingers crushing the life out of his friend, and he won’t let that happen. Can’t let that happen. Won’t.

He needs to have another private talk with Vaughn, but Jack certainly isn’t making it easy.

Since his second panic attack, Jack has been keeping a close eye on him. He’s not sure why, or what this means for their ‘relationship’, but it’s… not all bad. Not completely. He finds he actually relaxes when Jack’s around, which is definitely not something he thought he’d ever say when this all started. Jack’s mere presence used to make him tense up and grit his teeth together – but now… now it feels almost natural.

Like it’s always been like this.

Him and Jack. Jack and him.

Like he’s always had someone in his head.

It’s a disconcerting thought and he doesn’t like looking at it too closely.

He doesn’t mind Jack’s continued presence – but then sometimes, he does.

He needs to talk to Vaughn, but Jack doesn’t seem like he’s going to let that happen anytime soon. It’s a conversation Rhys needs to have with his former friend that Jack can’t know about, so while having him around for his own peace of mind is actually kind of nice, surprisingly, he needs his privacy too.

But there isn’t really such a thing as privacy when someone lives in your head. At least Jack can’t read his mind or go through his memories or anything.

Small blessings, he supposes.

Vaughn doesn’t seem to understand what’s happening. He keeps trying to talk to Rhys, though Rhys isn’t entirely sure why, and every time he does Rhys can’t help but tense up because Jack is glaring daggers at the smaller man and the fingers of his cybernetic hand keep curling without him doing it. So he tenses and quickly flees Vaughn or otherwise ends the conversation saying he’s tired and laying down or something.

He thinks he can see the hurt in Vaughn’s eyes when he turned away the last time, but maybe he was mistaken. Vaughn’s the one that doesn’t trust him, after all.

He isn’t sure when his life became so complicated – but having two minds in his head doesn’t help.

xXx

It’s late. A quiet, dark night. It’s peaceful in a way little else is, and for a moment, Rhys just closes his eyes and imagines.

Imagines what it’s like to just relax. To picture himself on just another camping trip with his friends – nothing more, nothing less. He’s surrounded by people he cares about, people who have his back, always.

But then he blinks and the image passes. Instead, there’s a perceived knife in his back from both of his so-called-friends. They both betrayed him in their own ways – maybe they never had his back to begin with.

Maybe it was a lie from the start. Just using him to climb the ranks of Hyperion. He was the only one in a position to do that, for a time. Now, who knows?

The betrayal taints everything. Every memory he has of his friends, every laugh they shared, every time he felt safe and secure in their presence.

But if he thinks about it too long he’s not sure what he’ll do. It’s a dark corner of his mind he’d rather avoid.

So he shoves the thoughts away and stirs the flames of the fire by jarring the wood in the flickering embers. Everyone else has gone inside to sleep while Rhys remains here, keeping watch. For once, Jack even seems to have left him, and there really shouldn’t be a gaping whole somewhere in his psyche because of this – but there is.

He hasn’t been alone, not really, in days.

The sudden absence leaves him… thoughtful.

And when his thoughts roam, the betrayal lingers and that dark corner of his mind is revealed once more, leaving him breathless with his need to forget.

At least when Jack’s around, those thoughts are kept at bay – if not for his own sanity, then to reign in Jack’s violent tendencies. If he thinks about it too much when Jack’s around, the AI becomes rather violent – threatening to kill everyone, especially that ‘traitorous Vaughn’, whom he seems to dislike the most, even despite the fact two of their companions were probably once considered ‘murderous bandits’ in his eyes.

He’s not sure, exactly, why Vaughn takes the brunt of Jack’s anger – only knows that it keeps him from thinking about the betrayal too much, so as not to set off Jack’s continued rage and lose control himself.

Another panic attack won’t help anyone, and will possibly only make things worse with the whole ‘Jack and Vaughn’ situation.

Vaughn.

Rhys sighs, glancing back toward the caravan. It’s a calm, quiet night, if not a little chilly, but it’s rather cozy here by the fire. Jack is surprisingly not around, for once. Maybe he needs to recharge, however much the AI seems to hate that particular thought.

This might be his only chance to have that private conversation with Vaughn.

He just hopes Jack doesn’t materialize during the middle of it.

He pushes to his feet and enters the caravan. Vaughn is snoring on the couch while the girls take two of the cots. He exhales slowly, eying his abandoned cot in the back – covers pushed aside like he left it a few hours ago when he woke to keep watch. Jack was hovering, then, but at some point, when Rhys was lost in his thoughts outside, he slipped back inside of Rhys’s mind. It should worry him that the AI did so without him noticing – but the action has become far too natural recently.

Like that’s how it’s always been.

He’s getting a little too comfortable with a killer in his head, taking up real estate. He knows that’s wrong – but on some level he doesn’t care.

Because Jack, while a murderous psychopath, makes him feel grounded in a way few people can right now, and he can’t bring himself to regret their tenuous connection – even if it will ultimately be his downfall.

Which brings him back to Vaughn.

He lightly prods the accountant’s shoulder. Vaughn wakes mid-snore, cutting it off abruptly with a loud snort. Rhys looks around to make sure the girls haven’t noticed; they both seem deep asleep still, and he wonders, idly, if Felix was a snorer too.

“Hey,” he says quietly, as Vaughn’s eyes focus on him. “Can we talk?”

Vaughn jumps up before he’s quite steady on his feet, sleep obviously still clouding his mind – but he’s more than eager to have a conversation with him, which really stabs at Rhys’s heart.

A new cut, a new wound, he’ll have to look at later. He can’t right now.

He leads the way out of the caravan and toward the fire. Waits a moment, to make sure the girls haven’t woken and followed them, and that Jack won’t just pop up now that he’s alone with Vaughn.

The AI’s continued absence leaves him exhaling slowly, relaxing as he glances at Vaughn, who has waited patiently.

“What’s on your mind?” Vaughn asks, the firelight dancing on the reflection from his glasses.

“Jack wants to hurt you,” he says, deciding to be blunt. “He doesn’t like you, for uh… for betraying me, I guess, and he just… look, he takes it personally because he’s in my head right now so he takes it as a betrayal against him, too, and he’s not happy.”

Vaughn stares at him for a moment. “Oh,” he says shakily. “Is that all…”

“He can control my cybernetic arm,” Rhys says, realizing that admitting this opens him to verbal attack – Vaughn has already accused him of being too ‘like Jack’, for letting him so deeply into his sub-systems. “When you’re close and he’s around, he uh… he takes control of it and wants to hurt you. That’s why I’ve been distant.”

“How much can he control you?” Vaughn asks timidly.

“I don’t know. I just know he’s taken control of my arm a lot lately and he can get me to do things I don’t want to do.”

“Like what?”

“He forced meds on me in the desert, after we were separated,” Rhys says. “That’s why I was so late getting to you guys. I was hurt, and passed out for a bit, and when I woke up he said he found something interesting in the trunk. A standard Hyperion-issued med kit. I said I didn’t have time for it and turned to walk away but he took control of my arm and forced the meds on me anyway, knocking me out again.”

A silence follows his words. The popping and crackling of the fire is suddenly too loud, in the absence of speech as Vaughn just stares at him.

His eyes are wild, wide. His gaze flickers briefly toward the aforementioned limb, like it will suddenly attack him. Rhys tries not to let it bother him – but it does.

In that dark corner of his mind, it does.

He smiles brittlely. “I’m losing control of the situation,” he admits. “So I need you to do something for me.”

Vaughn’s eyes narrow, expression clouded with doubt. “Like what?” he asks somewhat dubiously – like it’s a trap.

“We once talked about you shooting me.”

Anger overtakes the doubt on Vaughn’s face. “I’m not doing that.”

“Well, you might have to,” Rhys snaps, glaring back at him. “Look, this isn’t easy for me, okay? And if Jack finds out about this conversation… Just… I need you to do this for me.”

“What are you asking me to do here, Rhys?” Vaughn asks nervously. “I’m not okay with shooting you.”

“I just need you to promise me you will if you have to,” Rhys says. “I let it slide before. But now that he’s controlling certain parts of me… I don’t know how deep his control runs, but I can guess.”

“What do you mean?” That timid tone is back now – the one Rhys used to hate. Still hates. He still hates seeing Vaughn so anxious and worried. It claws at some dark corner of his mind, stabs at his heart – even if accepting the fact he still cares about Vaughn threatens to ruin him completely.

“If I seem… not myself, then I need you to shoot me. At the very least, knock me out, but… Look, after I passed out from the meds, I woke up in the car. I don’t remember moving to the car. I mean, I must have, but what if…” Here he hesitates, because it’s a thought he’s barely even acknowledged to himself; admitting it aloud seems like too much, but he pushes forward nevertheless. “What if he took control of my body too? If he moved me to the car. If he walked in my skin. If it’s not just my arm.”

Another long silence follows his words. He settles his gaze on the fire, but can feel Vaughn’s penetrating stare, like it sees through him, like it sees Jack sleeping somewhere in the back of his head.

“Fucking hell, Rhys,” Vaughn finally says. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“I’ve been trying,” Rhys says, wincing at the hurt in Vaughn’s tone – it just makes that ache all the more real. “He just… doesn’t like you. He wants to hurt you. You, more than the others, but he wants to hurt them too. So just… I need you to promise me, okay?”

“I can’t do that,” Vaughn says. “You know I can’t do that. You’re my best friend, I…”

Another awkward silence.

His words echo in Rhys’s head. You’re my best friend.

Once upon a time, Rhys believed that, without question. Once upon a time, around a fire just like this, he trusted Vaughn implicitly. Around a fire just like this, Rhys once felt safe, surrounded by his close friends.

But the memories are tainted. The thought weighs heavily on his mind like a dark suffocating silence, like the one that surrounds them now.

“The girls used an EMP on me before,” Rhys says, and if his voice comes out rough like he’s been gargling sandpaper – well, Vaughn doesn’t mention it. “I’m sure they have more. I can show you how to tweak it, make it stronger, attack certain… aspects of me.”

Rhys,” Vaughn says – pleads.

“Keep it on you at all times. If I come near you… if I’m not myself… then you use it.”

“That could fry your port,” Vaughn tells him, like he doesn’t already know – like he hasn’t been arguing with himself for days now. “It could hurt you. It could kill you.”

“It’s either that or shoot me, Vaughn.” Rhys keeps his voice flat and steady, even as his insides twist uneasily at the worry, the fear, in Vaughn’s voice. He keeps his gaze focused on the flames, because if he looks over and sees the worry on Vaughn’s face – something might snap, and he might try to ignore the fact Vaughn betrayed him… and then where will they be? “Take your pick.”

“There has to be another way.”

“There’s not,” Rhys snaps, a little too sharply, as he closes his eyes. The flames cast odd shadows behind the closed lids, but it’s better than looking at Vaughn right now. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, okay? There’s not. The gun would be easier, but you’re not the best aim. If it goes wide, if it misses… then Jack will be on you.”

Rhys…” Vaughn says again.

“The EMP will definitely hit me – no chance of missing that. But Jack might also notice it because he tends to notice electronics like that, so… I mean… He might go after you just because you have it. It’s risky, but will be a surefire way to…” Here he hesitates, the words tumbling out of his mouth. “Take me out.”

Another silence.

Long, lingering, suffocating.

“Don’t make me do this,” Vaughn finally says.

Rhys opens his eyes and looks at him, finally. Vaughn’s eyes are wide and panicked as he stares at him, as though finally realizing the enormity of the situation. For a moment, they’re not on the run from Hyperion. For a moment, they’re just on a camping trip, spilling secrets and making promises. For a moment – just a moment – they’re the best of friends, and Rhys knows he can always rely on Vaughn because Vaughn has his back.

For just a moment… it’s okay.

The moment shatters into a million broken pieces because it has to. This is his reality now. This is what needs to happen.

No matter how much he wishes he could just linger in that moment.

“Please,” he says quietly.

Vaughn’s entire body stills, coiled tight with tension ready to spring – but he just sits there, frozen in place despite the warmth of the flames.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Vaughn manages to say – though the words come out weak and stilted.

Rhys laughs bitterly. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. “But it’s not something I can control, so I just… need to hear it from you. That you’ll protect yourself. That you’ll protect them.” He nods toward the caravan, where the girls are still sleeping.

At the mention of the girls – after realizing his own safety is not the only matter at hand here – Vaughn’s shoulders slump, the rigidity stolen from his frame to instead be replaced with a look of broken understanding.

“Okay,” he says quietly – in this soft, weak whisper, like the words physically hurt him. “I promise.”

They hurt Rhys, too. Cut to his core, because his best friend just promised to hurt him – kill him.

But there’s also relief. A lot of it.

Now he has a fail-safe. If he can’t keep Jack in line, if Jack takes over – at least the others will be safe.

His whole frame relaxes. He smiles at Vaughn, feeling better than he has in days now. “Thank you,” he murmurs.

Vaughn’s eyes narrow. “Don’t thank me,” he snaps, jumping to his feet. “I don’t want any part of this, Rhys. I don’t want to-… so just… don’t lose control.

He says it like it’s so simple.

It’s not.

The smile on Rhys’s face is brittle, but present. “I’ll try,” he promises, because it’s all he can do right now. He’ll try.

But if he fails… at least he has a back-up plan.

At least Vaughn and the girls will be okay.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen – The Burden that I Face

 

That buff nerd is trouble, Jack knows.

He’s nothing but trouble, and Rhys can’t see it. Is protecting him for some reason, and for some reason, Jack is listening. Why the hell is he listening to the code monkey? Why is he doing as he’s asked?

Maybe it’s the sincerity of Rhys’s words. Maybe it’s the fact they share a head, so pleasing his meat-buddy is a surefire way to get back to the top and get back to his old life – with a hot new siren at his side. If that means caving eventually and giving Rhys what he wants, well, then, Jack can’t be blamed for that, can he?

Still. It doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. He continues glaring at Vaughn every chance he gets because the stupid little nerd thinks it’s okay to get into Rhys’s personal space. He just steps up close like that’s his right, like that’s not Jack’s place as the entity in Rhys’s head. Vaughn betrayed them both; he doesn’t get to just be close after that. It makes Jack’s non-existent skin crawl and before he knows it, his fingers are twitching, and so are the fingers in Rhys’s cybernetic hand.

He could kill that idiot so easily. Just wrap his hand around that throat and squeeze. Even with Rhys aware and fighting him, he’d still be able to do it before either of them realized what was happening. It’d be so easy

But he doesn’t do it.

Because Rhys doesn’t want him to.

And he hates it.

He hates this inaction. He hates the why of it.

And he hates that Rhys is still protecting this fool! Why won’t he just see reason and let Jack take care of the problem? What is with people ignoring his helpful advice? He tried to save Pandora, gave the planet every opportunity to mend itself into something great, but instead of heeding his warnings, the murderous bandits fought back like he was the bad guy.

Why can’t anyone just listen to him? Why can’t he kill the stupid nerd?

For some reason, Rhys thinks he still needs Vaughn, and he doesn’t.

Patience. He just needs a little more patience and soon, Rhys will see that all he needs is Jack.

He won’t need anyone else.

The thing about patience is, though, that you have to keep it up all the time. And Jack’s really not the patient type. He can wait to charge a vault key, sure, and wait to set a long-con into action… but generally, him and patience don’t get along. He hates being so inactive. He’s bored, and angry, and Vaughn’s stupid face is right there.

But he stays his hand.

Because that’s what Rhys wants, and for some reason, that’s important to him.

To earn his trust, of course. He needs to earn Rhys’s trust if he’s going to get him away from these idiots. He needs to know he can count on Jack above everyone else, trust him more than the others – and while Jack has never strived to be trusted, in this one instance… it’s a challenge. A challenge he’ll happily accept, because the ends will always justify the means.

Rhy’s trust is a fragile thing, easily broken. Playing a fine line between right and wrong, here, but that’s okay. That’s what heroes do – they blur the edges and complete challenges and earn people’s trust.

So Jack can do this. He can. It’s just a process and requires a lot of patience.

Which is really a problem with Vaughn around all the time like he is, just creeping into Rhys’s personal space like Jack doesn’t have that covered already.

He glowers at Vaughn but of course the nerd doesn’t see him, doesn’t feel the heat of his gaze.

Rhys does, though.

When he glares too much at Vaughn, or starts curling cybernetic fingers into an unwitting fist, Rhys will usually attempt to steer clear of Vaughn – which is a plus. Maybe the code monkey isn’t hopeless after all.

Rhys heads outside the caravan. Jack stays behind the glare at Vaughn, who still doesn’t notice him and goes about his time eating a plate of fruit.

He’s idly aware of Rhys stalking away from the caravan – probably away from prying eyes to have a conversation with Jack. Well, Jack doesn’t want to talk right now, thank you very much. He just wants to sit here and glare at Vaughn.

But the further away Rhys gets, that tugging, yanking feeling returns with a vengeance. A panic unfurling in his chest – like he needs to be at Rhys’s side right now, which is just ridiculous. Rhys is fine. Jack knows that much at least; he’d know if Rhys was in trouble.

Rhys takes another step, and another.

Jack teleports.

Without his consent, without Rhys summoning him – he just appears inside of Rhys.

Rhys curses under his breath and quickly steps out of him, rubbing at his arms as he throws a glare at Jack. “What did I say about that?”

“Oh, like I can control it, cupcake,” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “I take it you wanted to talk, so talk.”

“Why do you keep glaring at Vaughn?” Rhys asks.

“This again? You know why.”

Stupid little bitch thinks he can just steal you away from me without my knowledge?

It’s an oddly possessive thought… but Jack is nothing if not possessive, and somewhere along the line, he decided that Rhys was his and it’s going to stay that way. Even if he has to burn the world to the ground – that’s how it’s going to be. Angel and Rhys are his, in their own different ways, and that’s just how it’s going to stay. And if anyone tries to take them away from him, god help Pandora.

“Vaughn’s harmless,” Rhys tells him. “And he can’t see your glare anyway.”

“Oh, I know that, pumpkin,” Jack says, smirking. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to glare at him. And he’s not harmless, have you not been paying attention? He hurt you.”

Which is strictly unforgiveable. He betrayed Rhys, which meant he also betrayed Jack – but he also betrayed Rhys, which means he wronged something that’s Jack’s, hurt something that’s Jack’s, and that’s strictly not allowed. Ever.

“That was a while ago,” Rhys says quietly.

Jack’s eyes narrow. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking about forgiving him, Rhysie.”

“I mean… no, of course not,” Rhys says, shaking his head. “Just thinking out loud. I just… he didn’t even betray you, so you can relax. It probably happened before he even knew you were around.”

Jack can’t help but smirk as he stalks forward, into Rhys’s personal space – which is his right. “You think this is just about him betraying me, pumpkin?”

Rhys shifts his weight to his left leg, which stands slightly behind his right, causing him to lean ever-so-slightly away from Jack. “Isn’t it?”

“Oh, Rhysie…” Jack smirks and shakes his head. “If it was just about him betraying me, he’d be dead right now. But since you’re the slighted party here, I’m being awfully nice, letting him live. You should honestly be thanking me here, cupcake.”

Rhys scowls at him. “Quit with the threats,” he says somewhat sharply. “I told you I don’t want him hurt.”

Jack groans in frustration. “I know. I still don’t see why. He’ll only do it again if you give him the chance.”

Jack knows this from experience, after all. Letting someone live to shoot you in the back is a surefire way to fall from grace – and leave you with a mask on the rest of your life. That’s why you need to kill your enemies first – to hell with that ‘keep your enemies closer’ nonsense.

“Still don’t want him hurt,” Rhys says again.

Fine,” Jack mutters, glaring back at him and his stupid mismatched eyes. “But if he touches you again, pumpkin, I’m ending him.”

“Touches me?”

Jack scowls. “Don’t act like he’s not mocking me.”

“How is he mocking you?”

“He knows I can’t touch you, so he is,” Jack says, because that’s what’s happening here. Vaughn wants to steal Rhys away from him, probably make him ‘get rid of’ Jack so he can have Rhys to himself. He knows Jack is a hologram at the moment and can’t physical touch anyone himself, so he’s touching Rhys in front of him to mock him.

Honestly, Jack should get a trophy or a medal for how unbelievably calm and patient he’s being.

Rhys stares at him, bewildered. “Are you… jealous?”

“Nuh uh, cupcake,” Jack says, shaking his head. “Jealousy implies coveting something that’s not mine. You are mine. I’m possessive. There’s a difference.”

More useless staring.

Of course, if you have to stare at something, Handsome Jack is probably the best thing to stare at.

“I’m not yours,” Rhys finally says, eyes narrowing.

Jack grins wolfishly. “Oh, but you are.”

“No, I’m not. You can’t just declare I’m yours like… like you own me,” Rhys spits out, glaring at him. “Quit being creepy, Jack. It’s freaking me out.”

“Your friend is the one trying to steal you away from me,” Jack says. “As if he has any claim over you after betraying you!”

“You don’t have any claim over me either!”

The outright defiance in Rhys’s voice should make him angry, but it doesn’t. It just makes him smile – all bared teeth and wolfish intent. He takes another step forward, and Rhys takes a step back, maintaining the distance between them.

“No one has any claim over me,” Rhys continues, like Jack’s silence is acknowledgement of his previous statement.

It isn’t.

Rhys might be a bit slow on the uptake, but Jack is definitely in the right here. And soon Rhys will realize that he’s Jack’s, and only Jack’s.

He just needs a little more patience.

Fucking patience.

“If you say so, Rhysie,” Jack says, smirking at him.

“I’m serious.”

“Of course you are, cupcake. That’s why you’re pouting like a kicked puppy.”

“I’m not pouting.”

Jack lifts a skeptical brow. “Uh huh.”

Rhys huffs in frustration, flesh hand coming up to rub across his face as he sighs heavily. “Just… leave Vaughn alone, okay?”

“Again with the nerd?”

How is that their every conversation turns toward that annoying dweeb? What kind of hold does that nerd have over Rhys? Yet another thing he flings in Jack’s face every chance he gets.

“Okay?” Rhys repeats, glaring at him.

Jack rolls his eyes. “Yeah, sure, whatever, cupcake. As long as he stops hovering over you.”

“We’re in a small caravan; we’re going to have to be near each other.”

Jack scowls. “I’m aware of that, Rhysie. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. But still, stay far away from him and I’ll think about not killing him while he sleeps.”

Rhys’s eyes narrow. “That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”

“Yeah, well, your self-confidence isn’t any problem of mine. Just stay away from the dweeb.”

Done with this conversation, Jack inserts himself back into Rhys’s head, and into a dreamless slumber.

xXx

Jack is getting creepier.

Rhys wasn’t sure that was possible until now. Now, all he can think about is that predatory gleam in the hologram’s eyes, that wolfish smile like he was stalking his prey, the way he moved forward and laid claim to Rhys’s personal space…

It’s a lot to absorb, and honestly, he’s too tired to think on it much right now. Maybe when this is over and they have all the pieces to fully assemble Gortys and find the vault. Then he can worry about unraveling the mystery that is Handsome Jack, and maybe, just maybe, get away with his life.

But that’s a while down the road. Right now, he’s just going to have to play nice with the psycho in his head – and somehow, it’s not that hard to do.

Jack is… actually kind of easy to get along with, in a weird sort of way. If he just lets his guard down, trusts the hologram – then it’s easy.

But he can’t do that.

He knows it’s a terrible idea to even think of letting his guard down around Jack. Jack will always – always – have ulterior motives and his own agenda.

But Jack has quieter moments, too. Softer ones. Like when he’s helping Rhys calm down, or just… generally caring about his well-being. Even if it’s a ruse, even if it’s a lie to make Rhys drop his guard… he can’t help but like it.

His life is a whirlwind of conflicting, violent emotions and tendencies right now. Jack’s the furthest you can get from ‘stability’, but he’s stubbornly consistent in what he wants, which is somehow a trait that helps keep Rhys stable. If there’s one thing he can rely on, it’s that Jack always gets what he wants, and if he wants Rhys to make it out alive so he can get out of his head – well, then Rhys will live, won’t he?

There are darker moments too, of course.

Like when Jack is threatening Vaughn.

He can’t trust that Jack won’t try anything.

He spends stolen moments over the next forty-eight hours to help Vaughn assemble and upgrade a simple EMP, making it strong enough to encircle a decent blast radius and do sufficient damage. Vaughn is quiet all the while, stealing nervous glances at him as they work together, and Rhys tries his best to ignore him.

If he talks about it, he might just fall apart.

Easier to just keep quiet. Just a little longer.

He can break down when this is all over, but until then, he needs to keep it together.

Vulnerability is the perfect opening for Jack, after all. He can’t appear vulnerable or weak if he wants to help keep his friends alive.

Still. Jack’s words linger in his mind.

Are they worth his protection? Certainly Vaughn is, right? He betrayed Rhys, sure, but he’s sorry. Even if he evades a lot of questions and keeps accusing Rhys of being too much like Jack. He’s not wrong; he is becoming more like Jack, and it’s about as terrifying as it is invigorating. He’s never seen people tremble before him before – never seen them cower away from him in fear and uncertainty.

He never thought of himself as an intimidating force of nature before.

It was always him looking up at others who liked to put him down. Like in Henderson’s office when Vasquez revealed what his new job would be. He tried to stand tall, defend himself and his position, and Vasquez punched him so hard he fell over. He did nothing about it but leave the room, because fighting always felt so foreign to him. Computers, robots – those were always so much easier to deal with than actual people.

But now…

Now he’s intimidating. Now people are afraid of him. Now he has power.

And he kind of likes it, in that dark corner of his mind. The allure of easy power, of that simple intimidating presence, is increasingly difficult to turn away. It’s a temptation playing on his vulnerabilities, on his own worst fears.

All his life people have thrown him away. His own parents, tossing him to Hyperion. Tassiter, claiming to own him – throwing away his own self-image and identity, treating him like simple property, an object to be owned. Vaughn, dismissing their friendship and siding with Vasquez. The girls, driving off in the caravan and not turning back, leaving them to die in the desert.

All his life, people have used and abused him.

Jack isn’t any different.

It’s just a different kind of pain. A different kind of cage.

Jack lays claim to him. He still isn’t sure what that means, but maybe that’s because he doesn’t want to know. A part of him wants this to be different – wants Jack to be different. Just wants someone to please, stop treating me like a tool, an object.

He felt more human back on Helios with Vaughn and Yvette.

But now… after the betrayals and everything…

Maybe feeling human is overrated.

Maybe he should just give in. At least when he’s an object, he doesn’t have to feel anything.

He’s just a tool to be used and tossed aside as seen fit.

And maybe that’s not so bad after all. Anything is better than this swirling mess of half-formed thoughts and unasked questions churning in his mind, brushing past those dark corners he doesn’t dare to look at for fear of falling apart from the inside out.

Maybe being used is okay. At least he doesn’t have to feel, this way.

He exhales slowly, drawing Vaughn’s gaze away from their shared project. “Everything okay, Rhys?” Vaughn asks.

Rhys forces a grim smile. “Of course,” he says, faux-cheerfully. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You seem, uh… kind of down,” Vaughn says, shifting uneasily in his seat across from Rhys. They’re sitting at the table in the caravan, which rests near the couch when not in use but is pulled up to the couch when they need to eat or work on something, which they’re doing now.

“I’m fine,” Rhys says, dragging his gaze away from Vaughn to instead look back down at the EMP they’re working on.

Vaughn sighs. “Are you sure Jack doesn’t know about this?”

“Not yet,” Rhys says. “He’ll learn eventually.”

“And then what do we do?”

“Well, I guess you’ll have to use it, then.”

“You… think he’d attack me? Just because I have an EMP on me?” There’s an incredulous note of hysteria in Vaughn’s voice. A tone he’s not fond of, especially coming from Vaughn. Something slips inside of him – a knot loosening, a threads tightening, and he looks over at Vaughn and has to fight the urge to hug him.

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Rhys says. “But hopefully this is just a precaution.”

A necessary precaution. Hopefully it won’t need to be used… but it’ll be helpful if Vaughn has to use it.

“How do you… How do you know he’s not listening to use right now?”

“He has to recharge,” Rhys tells him, almost-absently, as he adjusts the wiring with his fingers, attempting to up the voltage should this thing need to be used.

“Recharge?”

Rhys blinks and looks up at him. Vaughn frowns at him, confused. “He uses up energy the more he’s, uh… out of my head, I guess, and eventually needs to recharge. So he… disappears, for a while.”

“Recharge,” Vaughn repeats flatly. “Like you’re his battery. You’re giving him power.”

“It’s not like that,” Rhys says quickly. “It’s not like I’m willingly giving him power.”

It’s not like he can just keep Jack out of his head, right? How is this his fault?

Vaughn just frowns at him for a moment, and then goes back to helping him with the EMP. A knot forms in Rhys’s stomach, combining with the knots already there.

At this rate, it’s a wonder he has any space left to breathe or eat.

Just a little longer, he tells himself. Just keep it together a little longer.

xXx

Vaughn sighs heavily in the quiet of the caravan. Everyone else is sleeping, and he contemplates slipping outside for a breath of fresh air.

It’s dark, and quiet, save for the soft sounds of them sleeping. Occasionally a snore is heard.

Rhys looks more peaceful asleep than he ever does in his waking hours. Once upon a time, that statement wasn’t so true. Pandora, Vaughn decides, can be a terrible place for friendships.

That’s not quite fair, though. He knows he has only himself to blame.

He let Rhys put that data-drive in his head. When he blacked out afterward, he didn’t bother to rip the drive from his head and attempt to wake him – he just let him rest there on the ground, dragged away by the girls, leaving Rhys alone, unguarded. What if Jack wouldn’t be in his head if Vaughn had taken initiative and torn the drive out of his head instead of letting it remain there longer, transferring more data? Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference; maybe Jack was in Rhys’s head the second the drive entered his port. But maybe it took longer; maybe Vaughn could have helped.

It’s this ‘maybe’ that troubles him.

Did his inaction hurt Rhys? Put them in this mess?

Not only did he possibly fail him then, he also made that stupid deal with Vasquez which completely backfired and ruined their friendship. He feels set adrift in a storm, with the state of their friendship right now. He’s always been able to count on Rhys, always been able to relax in the certainty that they were best friends.

Now, though…

He messed up. He screwed up so badly, and he just keeps making things worse by doubting Rhys. He knows this, but he can’t stop it, because he sees how Rhys is changing. He sees how Jack is influencing him. It’s not necessarily Rhys’s fault, and he should stop blaming him… but he doesn’t know what else to do, other than point out the similarities growing between Rhys and Jack. Maybe if he keeps bringing Rhys’s attention to it, things will change – Rhys will shy away from their similarities and be more… himself.

He’s not himself anymore. Rhys clearly sees this, too, as he said it scares him. It scares Vaughn, too – watching his friend slowly lose himself like this, watching him turn into someone else… someone neither of them recognize.

Rhys wants him to kill him if Jack takes over.

Vaughn isn’t sure he can do that.

Okay, maybe not kill him, but hit him with an EMP which might kill him, or will, at the very least, knock him out and buy Vaughn time. Still, though – it’s not something he thinks he can actually bring himself to do.

It sits in his pocket now, completed. Heavy and cold, a dead weight he doesn’t want.

His palm keeps brushing over the small lump, unable to completely tear his hand away. Isn’t sure if he wants to just pull it out and throw it as far away from him as he can, or if he should keep it on him for the girls.

The girls.

It’s the one piece that sways him.

The only reason he said okay to this crazy plan of Rhys’s.

If it was just his own life at stake, he’d say no. He’d have faith in his friend, would believe Rhys could handle the situation, take back control should Jack try to actually hurt him.

But the girls…

They don’t know about this situation. They don’t know about Jack.

They won’t know what to look for, what signs that Jack is in control. Won’t realize what it means when Jack steps toward them wearing Rhys’s skin.

So, for the girls, he said yes.

And now he has this stupid EMP.

A responsibility he didn’t ask for, resting on his shoulders – heavy and encompassing.

All he can really do is pray he doesn’t have to use it. Pray it never comes to that.

Rhys’s own worries gnaw at him, though. He’s always believed that Rhys can handle anything – but now, Rhys is doubting himself. Doesn’t think he can control Jack, knows he’s slipping, acknowledges the danger.

And if he’s doubting himself like this…

How is Vaughn supposed to believe everything will be okay?

He’s never been a rock before. Someone’s rock. Rhys has always been this decisive force of nature – he always knows what he wants, and formulates plans to get to that goal. Vaughn has always remained safe in the knowledge that Rhys has this. Rhys always has this. He’s always in control, even when the odds are against them.

But now it’s different, and Vaughn is left adrift in this sea of uncertainty, the waves threatening to swell over his head and drown him in doubt.

He keeps the EMP in his pocket, and watches everyone sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen - Dome, or Doom?

 

What the hell is this place?

They’re in some kind of dome of some sort. There’s lush wildlife inside despite it being cold outside the dome, with snow falling and ice everywhere. Inside, though – it’s surprisingly warm, and a variety of trees and bushes and mushrooms exist. Rhys resists the urge to scan everything – Jack has taken over his scanner and feeds him the information in his own little way, but gets annoyed if he keeps scanning stuff, frustrated that he’s forced to receive the information his ECHO-eye used to just deliver to Rhys naturally.

So Rhys stomps down the urge and instead follows everyone through the undergrowth. Vaughn seems more jumpy than usual, and seems to be avoiding Rhys at every turn – actually spinning away from him when he approaches to see how he’s doing when Jack’s preoccupied, going on and on about the mushrooms he used to have Helios and how high they made him.

Well. That’s okay. If Vaughn wants to avoid him… it’s honestly for the best, right?

They made a stronger EMP. It should work, if needed. It’ll definitely down him, if not kill him. At least he can rest safe in the knowledge that should something happen, Jack can be stopped before he hurts someone. At least Vaughn has it on him, and has a way to protect himself, and others, from Rhys.

From Jack, he corrects himself. Protect himself from Jack.

“Are you sure your piece is here?” Fiona asks, frowning down at Gortys. “It’s a jungle in here. What is this place?”

“It looks like an Atlas facility?” Vaughn said. “At least, the outside had the first few letters of Atlas, and… well, this is obviously some kind of experimentation facility. I haven’t seen trees or anything like this anywhere else on Pandora, have you?”

“We haven’t,” Sasha confirms uneasily, and she would know because she’s had to live down here on this broken planet, unlike Rhys and Vaughn who only saw it on their occasional trips planet-side.

“It’s here,” Gortys says cheerfully. “Somewhere.”

Somewhere. Great. Rhys looks around, frowning as he scans another mushroom with his ECHO-eye. Jack’s response is to glare at him while the ECHO-eye, or ‘Jack-o-pedia’, tells him to quit standing around staring at stuff and do something. It almost makes him smirk, loosens the knot of dread – annoying Jack can be fun sometimes. Huh. Who knew?

He scans another mushroom. If looks could kill, Rhys would certainly be dead due to Jack’s murderous gaze. He stifles a laugh and spins away to follow the others.

They move further into the Dome, looking this way and that. Searching for what, Rhys doesn’t know, but they’re here now – how hard can it be? It’s a dome. A big one, sure, filled with various plants and trees – but it’s still a dome. There’s only so many places this thing can be.

“Should we split up?” he asks.

It’s the smart play, to cover more ground in a quicker amount of time, but there’s a hesitance even to his own voice. Not because he doesn’t realize how logical splitting up might be – but because he doesn’t particularly want to be alone with another person right now, unless it’s just himself.

He doesn’t know if Jack will attempt anything while they’re separated, try to pick them off one at a time.

And he’s left utterly confused – and angry at himself – when he struggles to comprehend how he can both simultaneously enjoy Jack’s presence and also be so terrified of it. How is this possible? There must be something seriously wrong with him, deep in his core.

He likes the power Jack gives him. Likes their tenuous connection, even if it’s a lie. Jack has quieter moments, after all – he cares enough to calm Rhys down, right? That has to count for something. And Jack is, for the moment, the only person Rhys can trust right now. At least they have a shared goal of staying alive, which means helping each other, for now. Jack might turn on him down the road, but for right now, he has Rhys’s back in a way he can’t be sure the others do. Not after all the betrayals. Not after always being left behind.

“Alright,” Sasha says, shrugging. “Rhys and I can go that way, you two can go that way?”

Rhys is shocked she’s nominating herself as his partner – it’s flattering and almost touching, but with the way she’s casting odd looks at Vaughn, maybe it’s not about accepting Rhys so much as it’s about still being somewhat angry at Vaughn for his earlier betrayal, even if it wasn’t against the girls, but against Rhys. In her mind, perhaps it’s too similar to Felix, whom she still seems to harbor quite the grudge against – he doesn’t know. It’s not really his place to analyze, as he doesn’t really have any say in her life, does he?

“Uh,” Vaughn says, eyes widening. “Maybe I should go with Rhys. We need to, uh… talk.”

Rhys inclines his head in agreement – not because they need to talk, but because it’s better if he and Vaughn go together. At least then, if Jack tries anything, Vaughn is prepared to defend himself and has the means to do so, and he’s also the only one who knows of Jack’s existence right now. The girls still have no idea.

So it’s best if he’s partnered with Vaughn.

“Ah, hell no,” Jack says, glaring at Vaughn as he stands next to Rhys. The fingers of his right hand twitch and he quickly moves both hands behind his back, flesh hand holding onto his cybernetic fingers in a please calm down motion. Surprisingly, it works. For a moment, those fingers stop twitching aggressively, and Jack’s gaze lands on him. “We’re not going with him, cupcake. Nuh-uh. No way.”

He settles a flat look at Jack, and makes it seem like he’s just staring off into the distance thoughtfully instead of looking at someone who isn’t there. “I think I should go with Vaughn,” he says, nodding, as he looks back at the girls.

“What? Hell no, Rhysie. Did you not hear me? Go with the freaky Pandoran chick, not that traitorous nerd.”

“Nuh uh,” Fiona says, shaking her head. “Sasha goes with you, Vaughn goes with me. This way, we’ll stay together after we find the piece. What’s to keep you Hyperion guys from running off with the piece if you find it and we don’t?”

She has… a point. In a messed up sort of way.

Rhys sighs. “You really think we’d do that? We went to get you two at Hollow Point instead of just rushing to Old Haven, didn’t we? Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Fiona’s expression softens. “I’m grateful you came for us. But that doesn’t mean I trust you not to bolt the second you get what you want.”

Fair enough, Rhys has to admit.

Still, though. He needs to go with Vaughn. It’s safer for everyone that way.

“I should go with Vaughn,” he says. “I mean – who do you trust to have your back, Fiona? Your sister, or a Hyperion guy?”

Fiona stares at him for a moment, contemplating. So does Vaughn, for that matter, but his look is more hurt than anything. Rhys keeps his gaze carefully neutral as he watches Fiona, awaiting her response.

“Rhysie, do not go with that nerd,” Jack says from his side. Cobwebs slip across, and through, his shoulder and he grits his teeth as Jack’s hand drops through him. He really wishes he would stop trying to touch him – it just feels so weird.

“Who’s to say you won’t leave without us?” Sasha asks, frowning at him.

Rhys glances at her. “You’re going to have trust someone, at some point,” he says quietly. “You can’t just hate everyone, all the time.”

Sasha and Fiona share a look, both of them hesitant.

Finally, Fiona shakes her head. “Sasha should go with you. She has a gun, and I have a gun. This way both groups have a gun. We have no idea what’s in here, or if there’s anything dangerous. We need to be prepared.”

“I have a stun-baton,” Rhys says.

“Which is out of battery,” Fiona reminds him.

Oh. Right.

Rhys sighs. “Fine,” he says somewhat reluctantly.

Sasha grins at him. “Oh, don’t sound so upset! Is spending time with me really so bad?”

“Not really,” he says. It’s just that Vaughn has the EMP so he’s safe. You’re… not.

“Then it’s settled,” Fiona says, glancing at Vaughn. “Come on.”

Vaughn frowns at Rhys, and then follows after Fiona.

“What about us, Rhys?” Gortys asks, wheeling toward him eagerly. “We’re ready for action too!”

Oh, hell no. He’s not giving Jack more things to hack and take control of. He’s not sure if Jack can hack Loader Bot or BB, but, well, he’s already hacked BB once, hasn’t he? Why can’t he do it again and force the little bot to shoot Vaughn, whom the little bot already seems antagonistic toward? No. Rhys doesn’t need to worry about that on top of everything else.

He smiles down at Gortys, crouching in front of her. “I have a very important job for the three of you,” he says, looking at all the bots.

“Oh! Really?” she asks enthusiastically.

“Of course!” he tells her, nodding. “I need you three to stay here and guard the entrance, okay? We don’t need any wild animals wandering in, or unexpected visitors, you know? We need to be able to have a safe exit when we find your… what was it? A chassis?”

“Yes!” Gortys says, spinning in a small circle before she angles back toward him. “We won’t let you down!”

“I know you won’t.”

She wheels back toward Loader Bot. BB hovers uncertainly near Rhys’s shoulder.

“Keep an eye on them,” Rhys tells the little bot. “You’re the only real fire power they have right now.”

The bot beeps an affirmative, bumps into Rhys’s chest for a quick little hug, and then flies off to follow after the other robots. Rhys watches them go, an ache in his chest. He really likes those bots.

“I’m watching her, Rhysie,” Jack tells him, arms folded across his chest. His eyes are these fine yellow pinpricks, narrowed dangerously. “Don’t trust her for a second. She’ll stab you in the back the second they find this thing, just you wait.”

Rhys grits his teeth to keep from responding, and follows Sasha in the opposite direction from where Vaughn and Fiona went. He throws Jack a quick look over his shoulder, which clearly says, Knock it off.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m just keeping an eye on him.” The look Jack throws him is innocent, which is how Rhys knows it’s not genuine. Jack isn’t innocent. “Last I checked you don’t have eyes in the back of your head, Rhysie. I’m just looking out for you.”

Which is just… odd. But also… kind of comforting. Fuck. Rhys is so screwed. What is wrong with him?

His life has become one massively confused mess, and he doesn’t know how to fix it – how to even start fixing it. If it can be fixed. If he wants it fixed…

Huh. Where’d that thought come from?

“Rhys?”

Rhys blinks and focuses on Sasha, who is watching him strangely as she slows to walk next to him. “Yeah?”

“Are you… okay?”

It’s an odd question, coming from her. So far, he’s thought she doesn’t really like him. He can’t really blame her, though. He is Hyperion.

“I’m fine,” he replies, nodding at her. “Are… you?”

There’s something wary in her gaze. Something he can’t place.

“Vaughn betrayed you,” she says.

He shrugs. “He’s sorry.”

“Yeah, but… I can’t believe he did that. Is that… what it’s like up there? On Helios? Do your friends just… sell you out?”

“It’s rough up there,” Rhys tells her. “No matter what position you hold, what your job is, you’re just a rung on a latter, one of many. Everyone is vying to step over everyone else to get to the top, and they’re more than willing to kill to do so, if necessary.”

Sasha falls silent, her green eyes wide as she looks away, biting her lower lip worriedly.

“It’s not always like that, though,” Rhys continues. “I had friends. Vaughn and… and Yvette.” The names leave a semi-sour taste in his mouth as he remembers both of their betrayals. “It wasn’t all good, but while I was up there with them… we had each other’s backs. Always. But I guess… that’s changed now.”

“It sounds awful,” Sasha murmurs.

“It is. But it’s… At least I knew what to expect up there. Down here, it’s all so crazy. So messed up. How do you handle the constant chaos?”

“I guess you just get used to it. You think down here is terrible, but I think up there is worse,” she says, shrugging. “But, I guess we each just get used to our version of chaos. It’s everyone else’s chaos that throws us for a loop.”

“I guess.”

“Helios isn’t so bad, kid,” Jack says, cutting in. He walks between Rhys and Sasha, partially phasing through Sasha’s shoulder. She doesn’t seem to notice, of course, but Rhys shivers at the mere thought of that cobweb-like feeling. “It’s got its problems, sure, but a good CEO can change that. We can change that.”

I don’t want anything to do with Hyperion anymore, Rhys thinks. He’s not sure if it’s true, or if it’s just his bitterness shining through, but in this moment, he’s done with Hyperion. They’ve hurt him enough.

Yeah, there might be potential with the right head of the company – but power corrupts, and the allure of so much power is not so easily avoided. Anyone who makes it to the top will be just as violent as the previous CEOs, because that’s the only way to get there – to murder your way up the corporate ladder, destroying every rung along the way. Every person on the way.

Rhys wants no part of it anymore.

“Hey, what’s that building?”

He blinks and looks around at Sasha’s sudden voice. She stands in front of him, stopped as he points.

He follows her point and finds a building in the distance, just barely visible through the trees.

“Well,” Rhys says, shrugging, “it’s something, at least.”

“Come on! Race you!”

Sasha runs off, laughing like a little kid, and it’s the first Rhys has seen her so open.

He smiles and chases after her, her enthusiasm rubbing off on him.

They push through the trees into a small clearing filled with bushes and glowing blue orbs, floating in the air. They’re some kind of animal, he thinks; they have a shell-like body and little webbed arms, of some kind, and they’re absolutely breathtaking. They both stop and stare at the creatures floating in the clearing, oblivious to their presence.

“Whoa, what is this?” Sasha asks quietly.

“I don’t know,” he answers, just as softly.

One of the creatures floats toward them. Rhys lifts a hand and lightly touches it with a finger. It bounces off harmlessly and floats away from him, and he laughs to himself, amazed. How can something so… gentle, exist on Pandora? They’re a wonder to behold.

“What do you think they are? Why are they here?”

Rhys shakes his head. “I have no idea.”

They walk through the clearing. There’s an elevator of some sort on the other side of it, leading up into the building they saw before. It’s not overly large, but there are a lot of power cords running to it from elsewhere in this Dome. It must be important.

“Oh, look!” Sasha runs toward a bush where a pretty flower sits on top of it. She plucks it and sniffs it, sighing happily. “Sometimes I just forget that places like this exist, you know? That it’s not all doom and gloom down here.”

And then the flower shifts, and some kind of liquid is shot onto her face. She screws her eyes shut against the yellow stains on her cheeks and then blinks, glancing at Rhys. For a moment, the two stare at each other, and then they burst out laughing.

“Well,” she says, smirking at him, “guess I had that coming.”

“That flower didn’t like you,” Rhys says, grinning back at her, and it feels so good to laugh like this. To enjoy himself like this. To smile.

To forget about Jack, and all his worries.

“Uh, Rhysie.”

Rhys sighs and looks over his shoulder. Jack is staring up, his posture somewhat tense.

“You made it mad, kiddo.”

Rhys follows Jack’s gaze and sees that the floating blue creatures are now floating red creatures – and they’re moving toward them.

“Ow!” Sasha hisses as one of them touches her back. Rhys hears the sizzling of skin and sees the pain etched on her face from where the thing evidently burned her. She quickly moves away from it, moving to stand next to Rhys as they both watch the creatures come closer. “What’s going on?”

“We should go,” he says, backing up.

Sasha nods and then turns to head toward the elevator. A few paces later, they look back to see the creatures still following them, but they’re moving slowly.

“Finally,” Rhys says, relieved. “Something slow!”

They step onto the elevator. Sasha presses her hand to the ‘up’ button, but nothing happens. The panel remains dark.

“It needs power,” she says.

“Well, I don’t have any batteries, do you?”

He has his stun-baton, but apparently that’s drained.

He pulls it out anyway.

The battery shows full. It sparks to life, as though eager to help. He stares down at it, confused.

“Uh,” Sasha says, nervously, “wasn’t that thing dead?”

“It was,” he agrees flatly.

What is happening?

“Plug it in, Rhysie,” Jack says. “Before those things catch up. Trust me, being burned to death isn’t a great way to go.”

Rhys exhales slowly and then jams the end of the stun-baton into the hole in the energy panel, charging the power for the elevator. The light flashes green, showing that it is ready, and he smashes his hand against the ‘up’ button.

They jerk upward once, and then continue moving very slowly.

“Oh, great,” he mutters, irritated. “Of course this is slow, too.”

Why does life love to hate him? Why does Pandora love to hate him?

It’s at that moment Fiona’s voice chimes in over his earpiece.

“Uh, Rhys? Got a bit of a problem here.”

“Yeah, well, join the party,” Rhys mutters, keeping a close eye on those floating angry orbs. “What do you need?”

“We found a building… Seems important. Got inside. But, well, there’s just… one tiny little problem…” Fiona says with a breathy laugh.

“We’re going to die!” Vaughn chimes in loudly, panicked. Gunfire can be heard through the comms.

“What’s going on?” Sasha demands. “Are you okay, Fi?”

“Define ‘okay’,” Fiona says.

“You need me to deactivate the security system, don’t you?” Rhys sighs.

“That’d be helpful.”

“I don’t even know where the computer system would be to hack it,” Rhys tells her. Those floating things are getting closer. “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

“Help would be good,” Fiona says.

“A little busy right now,” Rhys tells her. “I’ll get back to you on the whole ‘hacking the security system’ thing.”

“Can’t those two handle their own business for once?” Jack sighs, irritated.

“We have to help them,” Sasha says.

“Sure, but how?” Rhys asks, frowning at her. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a bit of a predicament ourselves, here.”

“You guys having problems?” Fiona asks, worried for her sister, no doubt.

They finally reach the top and quickly get off the elevator. They close the door behind them and look around to find themselves in an observation room, of sorts. There are computers everywhere – one whole table is a computer panel. Rhys grins and cracks his knuckles.

“We just hit the jackpot,” he says.

“Of course you did,” Jack says helpfully. “I’m here, after all.”

Rhys carefully sidesteps the hologram, ignoring his words, and sits in the chair in front of the computer panel. Sasha hovers over his shoulder, dancing from foot to foot with nervous energy. Shadows fall across the room and Rhys glances over his shoulder to find that the glowing orbs are attempting to smash in the windows to this security room. Determined little beasts, he’ll give them that.

“Rhys!” Fiona snaps. “A little help would be nice!”

“I’m trying!” he snaps back, fingers flying across the keyboard.

“Well, try faster!”

“It doesn’t work like that,” he mutters, using his ECHO-eye to speed up the hacking process. He knows what he needs to look for; he’s essentially matching symbols to turn off the security system in the computer’s mainframe. It must be running through this whole dome, which begs the questions: Why does this place even exist? An old Atlas corporation, just like the one beneath Old Haven, long abandoned and forgotten.

He knows a little of the fall of Atlas. The shield woman from Hollow Point comes to mind. Something needling at him.

He finds the correct images in the mainframe and makes the connection within the system. Almost immediately, the other end of the comms goes eerily silent, and Rhys holds his breath, fingers hovering centimeters over the keyboard. Please, let it have worked.

Then Fiona laughs, and all those knots in his shoulders loosen instantly. “You did it, Rhys,” she says happily. “We’re moving to pick up the piece.”

“Wait, you found it?” Sasha asks.

“Thinks so,” Fiona tells her. “It’s floating on some mantle, looking all elegant and fancy. I assume it’s what we’re here for. What else could they have been guarding?” A small pause. “Anything else I need to know about, Rhys?”

“Not that I can see,” Rhys tells her. “The security system for the whole dome is shut down now. We’ll probably want to leave immediately.”

No reason to linger in this creepy abandoned facility, after all.

“Yeah,” Fiona agrees, “good thinking. We’ll meet you at the caravan.”

Their connection ends and Rhys stands from his chair, looking at the window. It’s beginning to crack, and the room has become eerily dark, tinted red thanks to the angry red orbs pressed to the glass.

“We should go,” he says.

“Only way down is the elevator,” Sasha tells him.

Right. Of course it is.

He sighs and gestures for her to exit the room. If all the glowing orbs are congregated on this window, then maybe they’re not watching the elevator. It will take them a moment to circle around the building and come at them; they move slowly, thankfully. It might be their only chance.

They exit the building quietly, as though their soft footfalls will somehow mask the sound of the elevator moving and keep them hidden from the orbs.

“Might wanna duck, Rhysie,” Jack tells him suddenly, as they step onto the elevator.

He looks up. Coming at his face are two red orbs. He ducks beneath one and reaches for the stun-baton at his side, only to feel a cold knot of dread form in his stomach when his fingers wrap around empty air. He glances sideways at the power panel, and the stun-baton sticking out of it, keeping the elevator operational.

“Oh, right,” he has time to mutter, before a solid mass of burning energy slams into his chest.

It’s just his luck that he’s too tall to fall safely behind the railing. Just his luck that his feet twists, trip, and sending him sprawling over said railing.

He’s vaguely aware of Sasha crying out to him.

Aware of gravity yanking him downward.

Then nothing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: asdf

 

Rhys is hiding a lot of various aches and pains, Jack realizes belatedly. He’ll have to have a serious talk with the code monkey about that later, but right now he’s too busy reveling in the fact that he can feel things. He’s taken over Rhys’s body – for the kid’s own good, of course. He fell and hit his head and blacked out, and there’s no way Sasha was dragging his freakishly tall ass back through the Dome while running from those angry blobs, no matter how slowly they moved. So, really, it’s in Rhys’s own best interests that Jack takes over for now.

But, jeez. The kid’s head is fuzzy and pained, like Jack’s working through a hangover. He wonders if it’s just from the fall itself or if Rhys has been hiding this from him – from everyone. And then comes the irritation, because Rhys really needs to stop hiding things from Jack. They’re in this together, after all, and hasn’t he proven to be more trustworthy than all of these assholes combined?

He’s pretty sure he’s proven how useful he is.

The pain is only a minor inconvenience, and it’s only really a problem because he can actually feel pain in this state. In his holographic form – not so much. Pain doesn’t really exist there, and if it does, it’s only because his mind convinces him he should feel it. It’s all very strange to him, and coming back to something close to normalcy, in Rhys’s body like this, is both refreshing and also annoying – because of the pain. Pain isn’t exactly something he’s missed, but it’s a physical sensation he’s oddly grateful to feel again.

Sasha keeps sending him worried glances, which is just – ugh, frustrating, to be honest. Like she actually cares. She doesn’t. He knows he’s only helping Rhys for her own selfish interests and she’ll stab him in the back one day soon, when they finish assembling Gortys and find the vault. That’s okay – he’s got his own personal treachery all lined up for her, a plan in his mind to deal with her and her bandit sister, and an even better one for that traitorous nerd.

Vaughn.

Jack really doesn’t like him. He likes to rub his physical form in Jack’s face too much, touching Rhys like that’s his right, when it’s Jack’s. Jack has been there for Rhys; the nerd has betrayed him. Why Rhys still wants to protect this asshole even after everything is still a mystery to him.

Vaughn. A smirk tugs at Rhys’s lips. Jack’s lips.

No one knows Jack can fully control Rhys – not even Rhys himself, he’s sure. If Rhys has any worries about it, he hasn’t shared them with Jack. He can have fun with this, he’s sure. Maybe get back at that annoying nerd – get him to quit getting into Rhys’s personal space when Jack… can’t.

He’s not jealous. No. He’s territorial. Possessive. It’s not jealousy if it’s over something, or someone, that’s yours. Then you’re well within your right to defend what’s yours.

And Jack is well within his right.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sasha asks, again.

Jack scowls at her. Or, rather, Rhys does. “I’m fine, cupcake.”

“Since when do you call people cupcake?” she asks.

He just grins at her and keeps walking.

The exit to the Dome comes into view. The caravan is there, waiting for them, the engine running and the robots on top. The buff nerd is waiting for them outside, and perks up as they come into view. Like a lost little puppy, eyes lighting up at the sight of Rhys. Of Jack.

Jack grits his teeth. Rhys’s teeth grind together in a semi-painful way, but it’s still a step-up from that holographic sense of non-feeling.

“There you are,” Vaughn says. “We were wondering where you were. Fiona wanted to go looking for you, but…”

“Rhys fell,” Sasha says.

Vaughn frowns, looking at Jack. “You fell? How far? Are you okay?”

“It was pretty far,” Sasha tells him, arms folded across her chest. “Hit his head, I think. Now he’s acting weird.”

Now the nerd is really watching him. “Weird how?”

Jack grins at him. “I’m fine,” he says, winking at the nerd with Rhys’s flesh eye. “No need to worry about me, pumpkin.”

“Pumpkin?” Vaughn asks.

And then he pales.

It’s amusing to watch, actually. The way his eyes widen and his face drains of all color, and he sputters out few incoherent sounds as he stares at Jack. Like he knows.

Huh, Jack thinks. Maybe he does know.

That’s okay. He can still make this work, he decides. He wanted to toy with Vaughn as Rhys, but toying with him as himself is going to be fun, too.

Well, himself in Rhys’s body, anyway.

“Yeah,” Sasha says, oblivious to the nerd’s turmoil, “he keeps calling me cupcake. It’s weird.”

Jack laughs. Rhys really does have a nice laugh – a pity he doesn’t do it more often, so Jack can hear it. It’s a pleasant sound, and the way it rumbles up his throat and out of his mouth is honestly rather exhilarating. It’s been so long since he had to breathe, since he felt the rumble of not only his voice, but laughter, in his chest and throat. As a hologram, it feels so very different.

“The last time you called someone a cupcake, you were mirroring Jack,” Sasha says, and this is news to Jack so he stops and glances at her.

“Did I?” he asks, smirking. Was Rhysie emulating me?

It must have been after Jack phased out, in that Hyperion compound. He never did get all the details about what happened, only that Rhys managed to get to the others and get them out, and passed out shortly afterward. It was all these idiots talked about as they bickered while they waited for Rhys to wake up, and wouldn’t listen to Jack’s silent cries to shut the fuck up.

“Interesting,” he says, and steps toward the caravan. He pushes the door open and steps inside, spinning around to find Sasha and Vaughn watching him carefully. He grins. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Maybe you should lie down,” Sasha suggests, stepping toward him.

The freakishly buff nerd remains frozen in place, just staring at him. After a brief pause, as Sasha pushes past Jack into the caravan, the nerd says, “Can I talk to you? Alone?”

Jack bares his teeth – eager for this alone time with Vaughn. Oh, this is going to be great. He can end all their problems right here, right now. Well – some of their problems. He knows if he actually kills Vaughn, there will definitely be repercussions. Not only will Rhys be furious with him, but the bandit sisters are going to want answers, too, and won’t be so keen on traveling with Rhys afterward. They’ll probably leave Rhys and Jack behind in the desert again, like the deserters they are.

If he does kill the stupid nerd, he’ll definitely need to come up with some decent explanation as to why Vaughn is suddenly not with them anymore, that’s for sure. Rhys will know the truth, of course, but he’ll soon realize Jack was right all along, and Vaughn is nothing but trouble.

He steps out of the caravan and closes the door.

xXx

Since coming to Pandora, fear hasn’t been a new feeling, exactly – but the raw terror that grips every inch of him, inside and out, is certainly new, and unwelcome.

Vaughn stalks away from the caravan, pulse racing a mile a minute. After a moment, he hears Rhys’s soft footfalls behind him – familiar, yet wrong. He’s been best friends with Rhys for years – he knows the sound of his gait, knows the pattern of his footfalls, and while those steps behind him seem familiar… they’re not. They’re slight off, confident in a way Rhys never is when simply walking. He’s grown up gangly, after all, and as a kid was blind and unsure of himself. There’s a lack of confidence in his steps despite how sure of his movements he might be now – it’s something purely psychological, and something missing now.

Because it’s not Rhys.

Once they’re out of sight of the caravan, and out of hearing range, he stops and whirls on the person behind him. Rhys stops a few feet away, blinking at him curiously, and he wants to believe that’s his friend looking back at him – but it’s not.

The smirk makes it evident. Rhys just doesn’t smirk like that.

“I want to talk to Rhys,” Vaughn demands, glaring at not-Rhys.

Not-Rhys grins. “But I am Rhys,” he says, with Rhys’s smug inflection – a tone Vaughn is familiar with due to several video game marathons and arguments sprung from the winners and losers of said marathons. Rhys can be quite smug when he wants to be – annoyingly so, but right now, the tone still feels wrong.

It’s the eyes, he decides. They’re Rhys’s eyes in color, but not in reflection.

“You’re not Rhys,” he says angrily, glaring at Jack. “I want to talk to him. Now.”

Jack laughs, grinning down at him, towering over him on Rhys’s gangly legs. “Rhysie’s not home right now,” he says – and while the voice is definitely Rhys’s, the tone isn’t. Jack takes a step forward, and Vaughn tries not to immediately reach into his pocket for the EMP device weighing heavily in his pants. “See, he fell and hit his head. He’s unconscious right now, but I’ll be sure to leave him a message.”

Unconscious. Hit his head.

Vaughn takes in a slow breath which is meant to be calming, but there’s really nothing that can calm him right now. Rhys isn’t here. He’s not awake. He’s not aware of anything that’s happening right now. Jack is in complete control, wearing Rhys’s skin as his own, speaking with his voice, keeping Rhys locked away.

It’s everything he feared would happen, tried to prepare himself for, but now that it’s staring him in the face, he can only cower there. A coward, through and through, because Rhys told him what to do in this situation. It’s what the EMP device is for – to stop Jack when he’s fully taken control of Rhys’s body, but even with it staring him in the face – he can’t do it.

Some part of him had hoped – prayed – that Rhys would be aware of Jack taking control. That he’d be fighting back, vying for control of himself once again, and that it he would win and it would ultimately spare Vaughn from making this choice… from following through with his promise.

But Rhys isn’t aware. He isn’t fighting back.

It’s just him and Jack, staring each other down, and that EMP is so heavy in his pocket. A responsibility he never asked for, never wanted.

A possibility he never thought would actually happen.

His stare turns to a fierce glare. How dare Jack? How dare he steal his best friend away like this? Walk around in his literal shoes?

“I don’t know how you stole his body,” he says somewhat harshly, surprising himself with the fierce determination in his voice, “but you better get out of him.”

Jack laughs – Rhys’s laugh, but too smug and haughty to be him. “That’s cute, kiddo,” Jack says. “But, as you well know, I’m kind of tied to him so there is no getting out of him. Not yet. Soon, though.”

“You know what I mean,” Vaughn snaps, anger flaring. He just wants Jack to let Rhys go. He just wants his friend back. He just wants to forget the EMP in his pocket. Is that really so much to ask? The frustration – the fear and worry of it all – builds within him, and his breaths turn shaky. “Go dormant and recharge or whatever it is you do,” he huffs, glaring, “but let Rhys go. Leave him alone.”

“Yeah, no,” Jack says, shaking his head. Rhys’s head. “See, I’m kind of digging this body. It’s a little too tall but I gotta say – it’s a nice body.” He steps closer, grinning down at Vaughn, relishing the way he flinches at the possessive tone. “Too bad you’ll never get to see it.”

It’s not inherently a threat, Vaughn tries to tell himself, even as Jack towers closer. Just because he said it like that doesn’t mean it’s a threat. It doesn’t mean he has to use the EMP. It doesn’t mean Jack is going to try and hurt him, forcing his hand.

It doesn’t mean he has to kill his best friend right now.

“I want to talk to Rhys,” he says again – and if his voice comes out more like a plea, it doesn’t really surprise him. He just wants to talk to his friend again.

Rhys’s eyes roll. “Sorry, Rhysie’s not here right now. It’s just you and me, kiddo.” He steps closer, grinning down at him yet again. Vaughn is aware of the size difference between himself and Rhys, not for the first time. It is, however, the first time it’s actually worried him. “Just you and me, and nothing to stop me from killing you.”

Vaughn flinches again, his hand finally going to his pocket. His trembling fingers wrap around the cool casing of the EMP, but he doesn’t pull it out, doesn’t even place his thumb over the trigger button. Can’t bring himself to do it. Not to Rhys. “Rhys doesn’t want to hurt me,” he says quietly – like a prayer. Like this is a bad dream, and any moment now, he’ll wake up and realize it for what it was: a nightmare. He takes in a slow, agonizing breath. “He doesn’t want you to hurt me.”

He can see the irritation in Rhys’s familiar gaze. That one human eye is just that – human. Easily emotional, even if his cybernetic eye can be cool and unreadable. “Ugh, you’re annoyingly right about that, but he’s not here right now, is he? What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

Jack reaches out, then, with Rhys’s cybernetic arm. His strongest limb.

In that moment, Vaughn has a choice to make.

He can either let Rhys wake up later to the knowledge that he unwillingly killed Vaughn, and let him live with that guilt on top of everything else, maybe even let him wake up to the knowledge that he – that Jack – killed all of them…

Or he can kill his best friend.

His only real friend. The only person he’s ever really cared about. The first person he really cared about.

Yvette came after, through Rhys, but Rhys was there first. Rhys was always there. He’s always been there.

Vaughn can kill him or let him wake up a monster.

Cold cybernetic fingers wrap around his throat.

They don’t squeeze, though.

His thumb hovers over the trigger button. Please don’t make me do it. Please, Rhys.

“Stay away from Rhys,” Jack says.

It’s so sudden it leaves his eyes opening – and he wonders when they squeezed shut. He frowns at Rhys – at Jack – who is glaring down at him, lips pursed seriously.

“What?” he manages, confused.

“You heard me,” Jack says, voice deceivingly calm despite the tension in his face, like he’s not used to Rhys’s facial muscles and how to mask what he’s feeling. Vaughn can read the anger there clear as day. “Killing you right now would make me happy but would throw a considerable wrench into my plans, so – I’m going to let you live on one condition.”

“Condition?” Vaughn repeats, staring.

Jack smirks, but it’s twisted all wrong on Rhys’s face. Too feral. Too… possessive. “Stay away from Rhys,” he says again.

“He’s my friend,” Vaughn says, like he needs to remind Jack of that fact.

“He’s not,” Jack replies, shaking his head. Those cold fingers twitch along the pulse point of his neck, and he freezes, causing Jack to grin at him. “See, you betrayed him, so you don’t get to call him that. You’re not his friend. You’re his enemy, and it’s only a matter of time before he realizes that. Before he realizes I’m right.

“But that’s not the point, here. I said stay away from him, dweeb. Rhys is mine.”

The words are oddly possessive.

And wrong.

He knew Jack was crazy, but he didn’t think it’d get this bad.

Vaughn glares at him. “He doesn’t belong to you.”

“Well, he certainly doesn’t belong to you, now does he, cupcake?” Jack grins at him again – an expression Vaughn is really beginning to hate. “You had your chance and you blew it. Rhys is mine now, so stay away from him or I will kill you, with or without his approval.”

“He’s not yours,” Vaughn snaps, the anger and frustration from before returning – even with those metallic fingers at his neck. He won’t let Jack just claim Rhys like this – like he’s an object and not a person.

Those fingers tighten, then, cutting off his air. Rhys’s face is twisted into an all-too-Jack snarl.

Vaughn’s fingers brush over the EMP. Just slightly – reassuring himself he can use it if necessary, but he’ll hold off as long as he can.

It’s just his life at stake right now, after all. And Jack’s just angry. He already said killing Vaughn will hurt his plants, whatever that means. So he’s probably just trying to scare Vaughn, not actually kill him.

It is scaring him, though.

But to be honest, he’s been terrified since he Rhys and Sasha returned to the caravan and he realized it was a stranger in his best friend’s shoes. Scared isn’t exactly a foreign feeling.

“Rhys!” A voice calls in the distance. “Vaughn! Where are you?”

Fiona, looking for them. Sasha must still be at the caravan, and they’ve gotten tired of waiting.

Those fingers loosen. He sucks in a greedy breath, blurred vision refocusing.

“Ah, hell,” Jack mutters.

He releases him and steps away.

At first Vaughn thinks it’s because Fiona is looking for them and might stumble across them, but when Rhys suddenly collapses, he’s certain it’s for a different reason.

Jack must have overtaxed himself. He needs to recharge.

Vaughn has never been so happy to see Rhys crumple to the ground like that.

He swallows and hurries forward, dropping to his knees next to his friend. His hands are shaking as he reaches out, and it takes him only a second to realize it’s his whole body shaking, not just his hands.

He could have died just now. Jack could have killed him.

He could have killed Rhys.

It didn’t happen, though. They’re both okay.

Well, Rhys is unconscious, but at least he isn’t Jack anymore. And Vaughn didn’t have to maybe murder his best friend.

The relief is overwhelming.

He can’t stop shaking.

That’s how Fiona finds them – with Vaughn trembling as he sits next to Rhys’s unconscious body.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: Twisting

 

Rhys’s head hurts, but that’s really nothing new.

He pries heavy eyelids open with a low groan, and realizes he’s once again alone in the caravan. He is in a bed, though – his usual bed, which is better than the couch. There’s a fluffy pillow under his head, and he snuggles his face into it for a moment longer, just relishing the short reprieve.

It ends all too soon when the door opens and in walks Vaughn. He pauses mid-step when he sees that Rhys is awake and looking at him, even if it is from beneath a small pile of covers and peeking over the fluff of his pillow.

“Rhys?” Vaughn asks cautiously.

Rhys frowns. “Vaughn?” he returns, confused.

Vaughn shuts the caravan door, and then in the next second, he’s at Rhys’s side, hugging him. It’s an awkward angle, almost painful in the way Vaughn’s elbow threatens to jab his hip, but it’s a hug nevertheless, and it leaves Rhys utterly shocked and confused.

It’s been a long time since Vaughn hugged him.

Since they were this close, even.

“Vaughn?” he asks again, and Vaughn releases him.

“How do you feel?” Vaughn asks.

“Confused,” he admits. “Head hurts, too, but… I mean, I did fall.” His last memory is of falling, anyway. He looks arounds. “Did Sasha drag me here?” It would explain his body’s numerous aches and pains, like he fell more than once.

Vaughn pulls away. It’s so sudden it leaves him mentally reeling, even as he twists to sit up, throwing his legs over the side of the bed. Vaughn stands a few feet away now, arms wrapped around himself. Not exactly folded across his chest – but wrapped around his middle, like he’s holding himself together.

“Vaughn? Did I say something wrong?”

“Is Jack around?” Vaughn asks flatly.

Rhys blinks and realizes that, no, the hologram isn’t around right now. “Uh, I don’t think so,” he says.

Vaughn relaxes slightly, but his arms are still wrapped around himself. “He took over.”

It takes half a minute before those words fully sink in, and when they do, his eyes fall shut and his head hangs low – not quite in shame, but in resignation. He knew it was a possibility, knew it had to have happened at one point in the past because nothing else made sense… but to have it confirmed feels more wrong than he thought it would have. It’s validation for his previous worries, validation he was right to ensure a failsafe, but now that he has it he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

“Oh,” he manages.

“You weren’t… you,” Vaughn tells him.

Nothing new, he tells himself. None of this is news to him. He knew it had happened before, knew it could, and probably would, happen again. It’s not a surprise.

But preparing himself mentally doesn’t save him from the shock of it all.

He exhales slowly. “Okay,” he says. “What did I do?”

Not what did he do, but what did I do, because in the end, it was still him. His body, after all. Jack’s presence, but his body.

Still his fault.

“Nothing,” Vaughn replies.

Rhys blinks his eyes open, certain he’d heard wrong. “Nothing?” he repeats, incredulously.

Vaughn finally twists his head to look at him. “You fell,” he says quietly. “Do you remember that?”

“Yeah,” Rhys says. “I fell off the elevator, I think. Hit my head.”

“Yes, well… He took over then.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t know what happened on the walk back to the caravan, but Sasha said you called her ‘cupcake’ a lot, and it confused her. She said you were acting weird, and thought you needed to lie down.”

Rhys dips his head slightly, in a slow nod. “Could be worse,” he says.

If that’s all that happened, then he’s lucky. Really, really lucky. They all are.

But the way Vaughn’s holding himself, the way he hugged Rhys…

“Something else happened,” he murmurs, watching Vaughn. “Didn’t it.”

Vaughn’s quiet for a moment, before he moves to sit next to Rhys. “I told him I wanted to talk to him, alone.”

Rhys grits his teeth, the panic flooding through him even though he can see for himself that Vaughn’s okay. “Why would you do that?” he demands, anger burning through him. “I told you how much he wanted to hurt you. Why would you just invite that trouble in on yourself?”

It doesn’t make any sense to him. Why would Vaughn do that? Risk his life like that?

“I don’t know,” Vaughn says, somewhat helplessly, his gaze downcast. “I thought I could – talk some sense into you, or something, but you weren’t… I mean, you weren’t aware. You weren’t there. You were unconscious. It was just Jack, with free reign, and I just – wasn’t expecting that.”

They’re both quiet for a long moment.

“Did you…” Rhys swallows. “I mean, I’m guessing you didn’t use the…”

“I didn’t,” Vaughn says firmly. “I couldn’t. I told you I couldn’t.”

“So he didn’t… He didn’t try to hurt you?” Rhys asks, just to be sure.

Vaughn’s quiet for too long. “No.”

Vaughn,” Rhys hisses, shooting him a quick glare. “What did he do? What did I do?”

“Nothing, Rhys,” Vaughn tells him, shaking his head, even as his fingers curl into the covers of his bed, knuckles turning white with the sheer pressure in his grip. “You didn’t do anything. It was all him. And he didn’t hurt me.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Quit saying that!” Rhys snaps. “I know something happened, so just tell me!”

“We just talked,” Vaughn says quietly, in stark contrast with Rhys’s own raised voice.

Rhys swallows thickly. “Talked?” he repeats, like it’s a foreign concept for him. “About what?”

Vaughn sighs, dragging a hand over his face. Over the stubble along his jawline. “He says you’re his,” he finally says.

Rhys’s spine stiffens. “He said what?”

It’s nothing new, of course. Jack has said this more than once. It still sounds just as creepy, just as possessive, as the first time, even coming secondhand from Vaughn.

“You gotta get him out of your head, man,” Vaughn says, glancing at him again. Suddenly Rhys can see how tired he is – the bags under his eyes, the pallor to his face, the darkness to the color of his eyes. This whole ordeal has taken a toll on Vaughn. “He’s dangerous. Not just to me and the others, but to you, too.”

Rhys closes his eyes, tries to drown out the sudden rushing of his pulse, loud in his ears. “I know,” he murmurs. “I just don’t know how.”

He knows he needs to get rid of Jack. On some level, agrees with that assessment. But he doesn’t know how to do it without Jack realizing and attacking someone. He’s walking a very thin, delicate line here, and he doesn’t want to tip their relationship, however tenuous, out of balance. It’s not a complication he needs right now, on top of everything else.

“Then you have to tell the girls,” Vaughn says.

Rhys flinches, glancing at him. “Are you crazy?”

“You have to tell them. They have to know about the danger, too.”

“Do you want them to kill me?”

“Yes!” Vaughn snaps.

His sudden answer leaves them both staring at each other, wide-eyed.

“I didn’t – I don’t mean it like that,” Vaughn says quickly, horrified. “I just – I mean, if they knew of the danger then you could task them with… dealing with you, if he takes over again. Because obviously I can’t.”

“You can,” Rhys tells him, certain in this knowledge. Vaughn can, and will, do the right thing, and if it has to be done he’d rather it come from his friend, no matter how rocky their relationship has been, or might get. He’ll know what to look for, what tells there are for when Rhys isn’t himself, whereas the girls might decide to kill him simply for being grouchy from lack of sleep one day.

“I can’t,” Vaughn says firmly, glaring at him. “I physically cannot do it, Rhys.”

“If your life was in danger, you could.”

“My life was in danger!” Vaughn says harshly. “Your fingers were around my throat!”

Rhys stills, pulse skittering again, panic threatening to unfurl in his chest. He takes several deep, even breaths before he feels collected enough to find his voice. “What?” he squeaks.

“I guess I pissed him off, I don’t know, but he choked me,” Vaughn says, the words almost too quick, like he’s saying them without a breath in-between. “And I still didn’t do it. I couldn’t. I can’t. Why can’t you understand that?”

Rhys’s mind is still reeling from the whole I almost killed Vaughn piece of information; he’s not prepared to answer questions. “Why didn’t you do it?” he snaps, glaring down at Vaughn, twisting to fully face him. “Are you insane? I could have killed you!”

“It wasn’t you!” Vaughn says, glaring back at him.

“Exactly! I wasn’t myself!”

He wasn’t himself. He was Jack. He is Jack – on some basic level, they are the same, and this will happen again. He can feel it.

At least prior to the Dome, he felt at least semi-safe in the reassurance that Vaughn had a way to stop him, and would use it if needed. Now, he has no such reassurance, because Vaughn very clearly stated there was a need for the EMP, but he didn’t use it.

Rhys wants to cry in frustration – something he hasn’t done in a long, long time. His tears dried up after he came to Hyperion; they never helped. The pain, at first, was excruciating, and the anger and frustration and betrayal was ten times worse, but like all things – that river bed ran dry, and the tears eventually stopped. One eye only had so much moisture to spare. Crying never helped anything, never made anything better, and in the end only made him feel worse – dehydrated, embarrassed, ashamed and pathetic.

Crying won’t help. So he bites back the sudden onslaught of childlike remembrance and pushes to his feet. He’s unsteady at first, like he’s knew to his own skin, and he tries not to think of why that is. Vaughn’s quick to follow him, but Rhys whirls away from him because if he doesn’t get away from this conversation right now… he’s going to revert back to that lost, pathetic kid he used to be, and that can’t happen. Not anymore. Not right now.

Certainly not now.

“I’m going for a walk,” he mutters, and pushes out of the caravan.

Vaughn still follows after him. With every quick footfall behind him – Vaughn struggling to keep up with Rhys’s easy gait – his whole body tenses, coils, ready to snap.

“Stay here,” he tells Vaughn firmly, without looking at him.

Those footfalls hesitate, but still trail after him.

“Where are you going?” Vaughn asks.

“For a walk,” he grits out through clenched teeth.

“Is… he back?”

It should have dawned on him sooner, he realizes. What happened to Vaughn – he should have noticed sooner, because it’s like Vaughn is even hesitant to say Jack’s name. Like Jack will hear him, even though Rhys told him Jack wasn’t around at the moment.

“Just stay here, Vaughn,” he snaps, more harshly than he intended, but it does the trick.

Vaughn stops following him.

Rhys marches away from the caravan, and the fire around back where the girls are sitting. He saw them, briefly, in passing, but it’s dark out and he doubts they saw him. Maybe they heard the caravan door open and shut, but they certainly don’t come looking. At least, not yet. Maybe they know what he did. Maybe Vaughn told them, or maybe Jack outed him.

It makes the tense set of his shoulders worse, makes that tight feeling in his chest tighter – like a band stretched too thin, ready to snap and fall apart.

He’s coiled too tightly, and has no way to relieve any of the energy building within him – building purely from stress, from frustration, from emotion.

He’s scared.

He’s terrified.

Not only for Vaughn and the others – but for himself as well.

Because Jack took him over, again, and he had no idea it even happened until after the fact. One would think you’d definitely feel someone riding around in your skin, walking in your literal shoes – but Rhys felt nothing.

Is that how it’s always going to be? Jack just hijacks his body and Rhys has absolutely no idea what’s happening until the damage is done?

And Vaughn won’t even use the EMP, which is another mess of problems.

Why won’t he? Because they’re friends? Because he still feels some tie, some connection, to Rhys? But he betrayed him. He did that, not Rhys. How can he still feel so tied to him that he can’t do what’s necessary to save his own skin?

None of it matches. None of it fits together in his head in a way that makes sense.

Vaughn doesn’t trust him. Vaughn betrayed him. He did that, of his own free will, and ever since he’s been wary of Rhys, despite the fact Rhys isn’t the one who did the betrayal.

And yet he – what? Chose to save Rhys’s life over his own?

What sense does that make?

If he can’t even trust Rhys when he’s actually himself, why not take out the stranger wearing his face?

But he didn’t.

And it gnaws at him.

xXx

They’re encased in annoying Pandoran darkness when Jack fizzes back to life just next to Rhys. Rhys sits on a rock far away from everyone and everything – the caravan, and the others, aren’t in sight and Jack wonders if he missed some vital fight or something. Stupid need to recharge.

“So,” he says casually, leaning against the rock next to Rhys, “what’d I miss?”

The glare Rhys settles him with lets him know his meat-buddy is, in fact, aware of what happened in his absence. Jack sighs.

“Oh, don’t give me that look, babe. I didn’t plan on doing anything. What, did the dweeb tell you it was all my fault? Because I specifically told him I wasn’t going to kill him, and he just had to egg me on, so really, it’s his fault. And I didn’t kill him.”

“Don’t blame him,” Rhys snaps, still glaring at him. He looks all pathetic and whiney – like a puppy, more than some angry cyborg middle manager. “You know I didn’t want anyone hurt, and you did it anyway.”

“Like I said, Rhysie,” Jack says sharply, glaring back at him, “I didn’t plan on doing anything. He wanted to talk, so we talked, and things got out of hand. That’s his fault, not mine.”

“How the hell is it his fault?”

How isn’t it his fault? He did everything he could to anger Jack, despite the fact Jack was being quite considerate and even nice, at the time. That’s all he ever does anymore – rub everything in Jack’s face to anger him, and yet Jack is the bad guy here? How is that fair?

“What’d he tell you happened?” Jack asks, curious.

“He said you choked him! With my hand!”

Of course the dweeb would turn everything around, twist everything to his favor, and make Jack the bad guy. Why did the bad guys always think the hero was the bad guy, and not themselves? Jack was clearly in the right here, and the buff nerd twisted everything to his liking. Why did Jack let him live, again?

Oh, right. Because he’s a hero, and Rhys asked him not to. Fucking great. Also, it would certainly hurt his plans down the road, so as much as he hated the nerd, he was still needed alive – for now. Soon, though. Soon, Jack could finally kill him and bring Rhys around to the truth.

“It wasn’t exactly like that,” Jack says, rolling his eyes. “I bet he also said I was acting crazy, too, right? Or weird? Out of control? Anything to make him right.”

“You were in my body!”

“Is that what you’re mad about?”

Rhys scowls at him. “Why would I not be mad about that?”

“You were unconscious, Rhysie,” Jack tells him calmly. “You hit your head pretty hard, and there was no way that bandit chick was going drag you through the Dome back to the caravan. I had to take over, to get you up and moving. So maybe I misspoke a few times – I can’t really be blamed for that, can I?”

Rhys just continues to glare at him.

“If I wanted them dead, they’d be dead,” Jack reminds him, smirking at him. “You don’t even know how strong you are, Rhys – how intimidating you can be. If you wanted to kill them, they’d be dead in a heartbeat, no questions asked.”

“I don’t want to kill them,” Rhys says, quietly.

Jack’s eyes roll. “Of course you don’t. You’re too nice. But I’m just saying – if I really wanted them dead, they would be, and there’s nothing they, or you, could do about it. But I didn’t kill them. I didn’t even have any plans to set off alone with your little nerd friend until he asked me to. Or, actually, demanded that I speak with him alone. So, really, how is that my fault?”

There’s a certain silence for a long moment. Rhys finally sighs, glancing away, the anger dying from his face.

“Never again,” Rhys tells him – whispers. “Okay? Don’t take over my body again without my consent.”

“You were unconscious,” Jack says.

“So let me be unconscious! Now I have to explain why I was acting strange and – just, don’t do it again.”

Jack scoffs. “Fine, whatever, Rhysie. I’ll leave your sorry ass on the ground next time, as long as we’re both not in mortal danger. Even if you have to get burned by those angry blobs.”

Rhys casts him another quiet glare, but says nothing.

Jack smirks at him. Rhys gave up the argument rather easily – maybe he’s staring to see that Jack is, in fact, right and that buff nerd is twisting everything to his favor. That Vaughn is the bad guy – not Jack.

Soon. Soon Rhys will be at his side, and they’ll make Pandora crumble.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: One Fine Line

 

Gortys has plump little legs. They’re adorable, to be honest, and she’s absolutely thrilled to have them. It does bring to mind Loader Bot’s lack of legs at the moment, though. Rhys still isn’t quite sure what happened to the bot back in that bandit camp to make him lose his legs like that. He gets around just fine, though, by using his hands to walk since his arms are so long – it gives Rhys a heart attack every time LB comes running at him with them and he’s not expecting it, but still, it’s a unique way to get around.

It’s been a few days since they left the Dome. Gortys is having trouble locating her next piece; she keeps odd directions and isn’t entirely sure where to go from here. It’s like they’ve hit a dead end, which leaves them with a lot of downtime.

Normally, Rhys likes downtime. He likes relaxing around a fire or hanging out with his friends outside of actual work – but this is different. These aren’t his friends. The second they learn the truth about the man living in his head, they’re going to either attack him and kill, or flee immediately. Either way, their partnership ends the moment they find out. These aren’t his friends, and this is work downtime – they’re still stuck on Pandora, Vaughn still betrayed him yet refuses to kill him when necessary, and Jack’s an ever-present thought in his head.

Jack is terrifying in a way few others can be – not because he can control Rhys’s limbs and take over his body and make him do things he doesn’t wish to do, but all those things certainly exist and need to be noted. No, he’s terrifying because of his mood swings.

He can be fine one moment – joking around, teasing – and then apropos of nothing, his face will twist and suddenly he’s angry. It’s usually when Vaughn’s around, though, so maybe some of it can be explained – but still, that sudden twist is terrifying. It’s hard to reconcile the teasing Jack, the one who can help him through panic attacks, with the volatile monster of legend. It can give Rhys whiplash at times.

Right now, Jack seems to be in a fairly decent mood. He and Rhys are taking a walk through the desert sun to stretch their legs while Sasha fixes dinner and Fiona scribbles what, in some places, might be considered a map, but to Rhys it’s lacking too many details for him to accurately use as one. The one in his head is better, but he’s no artist, so getting it down on paper, out of his head, can be annoying.

He can have a visual display appear in his palm, but Fiona doesn’t like the idea of trusting some ‘Hyperion stooge’s’ version of her home world over her own. So she’s drawing – or, at least, attempting to draw.

Vaughn occulates between wanting to be as far away from Rhys as possible, and wanting to strike up conversation with him like old times. It’s dizzyingly offsetting, and sometimes Rhys feels he has to do a double take. Vaughn still has the EMP, but still refuses to use it, so him avoiding Rhys makes sense on some level. The other half of his actions can be rather… confusing.

Whenever Vaughn does come near, though, Jack’s mood changes rather instantly, so Rhys has to be the one to keep putting distance between them. It’s getting easier, he decides, to see the hurt on Vaughn’s face as, when Vaughn finally comes toward him instead of away from him, Rhys flees. On some level, surely Vaughn understands why this is happening, why Rhys moves away, but in the moment, all Rhys can see is the hurt in his eyes.

“Helloooo, Rhysie! Your better half is talking, pumpkin, pay attention.”

Rhys blinks and refocuses on Jack, who is currently standing in front of him with his hands on his hips, leaned forward with a semi-irritated expression on his blue, see-through face. Rhys exhales slowly and forces a smile.

“Hey,” he says. “Sorry. You were saying?”

“What’s on your mind?”

“Huh?”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Just… the fact we’re kind of stuck here until Gorty’s can figure out what’s going on and where her missing piece is,” Rhys says, shrugging. He’s not entirely lying; it is a thought, and a worry, and it’s why he has so much downtime to even have other concerns right now.

“How is that supposed to work, anyway?”

“Hmm?”

“Why would you need an Atlas robot to find a vault?”

It’s something Rhys has been wondering, too, but Atlas had a bit of an obsession with vaults back in the day, so it makes sense they’d create one expressly for finding such a thing. “The real question is, how many are on Pandora?”

Jack grins. “Now you’re thinking like me, Rhysie. There’s already been two. Now there’s three, if your little bot can be trusted. How many more do you think there are buried somewhere under our feet?”

Rhys shrugs.

“Oh, c’mon, babe! Get excited! There are vaults to find!”

“I never really cared about hunting vaults,” Rhys admits.

“But you came down here for a vault key.”

“Yeah, but I never meant to actually use it. Hyperion pays top dollar for vault keys, and it was sure to get me promoted for being the one to bring one in,” Rhys explains, almost tiredly. His Hyperion life feels lifetimes away – like it happened in some other version of himself, but not this one. He has echoes of that life, but the longer he’s away and trapped here on Pandora amidst the chaos, the less it feels real. “I just wanted to rub it in Vasquez’s face; I never actually wanted to go vault hunting.”

“So you wanted the vault key, but not what’s in the vault?” Jack asks, like he can’t quite comprehend. “Have you ever seen what’s in a vault?”

“No,” he admits. “I wasn’t high enough up the ladder to get that information, at the time. Not until I got a promotion, which… didn’t happen.”

Jack’s eyes are glowing that yellow hue again – he’s amped up, excited. “Rhysiecakes! We are going to find that vault and then you’ll see what all the fuss is about! We’ll tame the monster and make Pandora crumble. Just think of what those Hyperion CEOs will say when you come walking back with not only me at your side, but a vault monster steed, no less!”

It does sound interesting, but at this point, reality has been beaten into Rhys’s head. That’s not what’s going to happen at all. More likely, they’ll find this vault, and, when everything’s said and done, Jack will turn on him and take over his body. Or, upon yanking Jack out to put into a new body, Hyperion will kill Rhys in the process. Or maybe he’ll die opening the vault. That’s, of course, assuming he doesn’t get killed by the EMP which will almost definitely have to be used at some point before the vault, especially at the rate their search is going.

He says none of this, of course. He just smiles and nods.

“That’ll show them,” he says.

Jack quirks a brow. “Now you’re onboard with going back to Hyperion?” he asks, suspiciously, and that’s when Rhys realizes this was a test, and he failed. “What’s really going through your mind right now?”

“Nothing,” Rhys says, shaking his head. “I’m just – worried, I guess. What if Gortys can’t find her missing piece? What if she’s damaged, or something, and can’t find the vault? All of your plans hinge on the fact that we find and open the vault, but if it was as easy as assembling a robot to do that, don’t you think someone would have done it already? So, sorry, but I’m not as enthusiastic as you that it will actually happen.”

Jack continues to eye him for a moment, before he smirks. “So you’re a pessimist,” he says. “Got it.”

“No, I’m a realist,” Rhys tells him.

“Since when?”

“What?”

“Since when?” Jack repeats, smirking at him. “If you were always such a realist, such a pessimist, why would you steal Vasquez’s car, and his deal? Why make the trek down here at all if you had so many doubts it would work?”

Jack… has a point, to be honest. Huh. It’s definitely something to think about.

He wasn’t always such a downer like this. He had hopes, high hopes, and dreams. To be the new Handsome Jack. The new CEO of Hyperion. Someone that could help the company. He even tried going through the ‘proper channels’ instead of jumping to outright murder like Vasquez did – because he hoped. He hoped it’d be enough. Hoped he’d be enough.

But then they came here. And everything’s changed.

“So, the way I see it,” Jack continues, like he hasn’t just shaken Rhys’s core, “you’re either suicidal, bordering on murderous since you dragged your good buddy down here with you when you had so many pessimistic doubts that it would work – or, you used to be an optimist and something has changed.”

It’s a rather astute observation coming from Jack, but Rhys isn’t surprised. He’s passed that point. Jack isn’t stupid; he’s proven time and again how observant and patient he is, how willing he is to set a plan into motion, how cunning and manipulative he can be. He’s street-smart, and tech-smart, with strong ambitions and abilities to back up his crazy plans. It really doesn’t surprise Rhys that Jack can psycho-analyze him.

He just wishes he saw the changes himself, instead of having them pointed out to him. There’s nothing worse than not noticing the changes in yourself.

Maybe that’s why Vaughn doesn’t trust him anymore. He, like Jack, witnessed his change – his fall from grace, so to speak, and now he doesn’t trust that Rhys knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t trust him at all.

Again, this isn’t surprising. Rhys has seen the uneasiness, the wariness, in Vaughn’s eyes for a while now.

He just wishes he saw his own decline, too.

He did used to be an optimist. He had big dreams and big plans and just hoped for the best. How could he not, after a life of everything going wrong? Things were finally on the rise – he was finally on the rise – and then, like always, everything crashed down around him. Honestly, he should have known this was how it would turn out, but he hoped. Naively, childishly, he hoped.

He hoped for a better outcome. A better life. To come out on top, for once.

He played by what rules there were, and it got him nowhere. So he tried a tactic out of Vasquez’s book – and it landed him here, stranded on Pandora. And worse, he dragged Vaughn into this.

“So which is it?” Jack demands.

Rhys blinks, refocusing. Jack’s arms are folded across his chest, and his eyes are bright and yellow, staring into Rhys’s soul. Or, what remains of it, anyway.

“Huh?” he asks, intelligently.

Jack huffs, impatient. “Are you suicidal, or has something changed? Which is it?”

“I’m not suicidal,” he says. He thought that was obvious. He wants to live.

Jack grins. “There you go. Progress, kiddo. So what changed? What made you so hopeless?”

“This planet,” Rhys says, because it’s the only safe answer. Jack hates this planet, too, so he’ll understand. He’ll latch onto that idea. Try to fix it. It’s an easier conversation than telling Jack the truth – that Jack is why Rhys has all these doubts now. One misstep, and Jack might – will, his mind corrects him – betray him.

Jack nods. “Yeah, this crazy planet will drive anyone mad. But just think, Rhysie – soon we’ll be back up in the big H in the sky – we’ll be home.”

Home. It’s a word that’s never truly held much meaning to Rhys. As a kid, home meant a shabby house falling apart from its own weight, and parents who couldn’t stand to look at him, only through him. Later, home meant tests and pain and system updates and speeches about the ‘greater good’ and how he belonged to Hyperion now. He was property, nothing more.

But then… freedom. For a time. A small home with Vaughn and Yvette. Safety.

It’s ruined now, and thinking about it makes that hole in his heart grow, makes the darkness creep in, and he has to shove those biting thoughts aside for the time being.

He forces a smile. “Yeah. Home. Can’t wait.”

If Jack sees the lie for what it is – if he reads to tension in his face – he doesn’t get a chance to say anything about it, because at that moment, gunfire erupts from nearby. Or, more precisely, from the direction of the caravan.

Rhys isn’t aware he’s running until his lungs ache and burn. He hasn’t realized how far they’ve walked until now.

Jack appears at his side, running too, though he’s, of course, not breathless or exhausted in the slightest. “Uh, pumpkin. What are you doing?”

“They’re in trouble,” Rhys pants.

“Uh huh,” Jack says. “They are. Why are you running toward the trouble? I thought we just established you weren’t suicidal?”

Rhys doesn’t bother answering. If Jack doesn’t understand by now, he never will.

xXx

Rhys is suicidal, Jack decides.

Needlessly reckless.

He just won’t listen to reason. Ever.

Jack could make things so much easier for Rhys. If the others were already dead, he wouldn’t have to keep running off to save them, thus risking his own life – and Jack’s – in the process. If there’s no one to worry about, there’s nothing to fear.

But Rhys doesn’t want that – for some reason. And for some reason, Jack is listening to him. Why?

To ensure his obedience, he supposes. If he behaves just a little longer, Rhys will see how wrong he was to trust the others when they turn their backs on him. They will, again, eventually. They always do. You can’t have friends on Pandora, or any hunk of rock associated with this lousy planet. As soon as Rhys sees this, he’ll be so firmly on Jack’s side he won’t have to do much to convince the kid to join him and Angel.

He just needs to be patient.

Of course, this plan hinges on Rhys managing to stay alive.

Which is apparently a problem. Jack’s never seen someone with so little regard for their own life, even when they’re also housing someone else in their heads, too. Rhys’s survival instincts must have gotten ripped out of him with his arm, because he just runs at the danger like there aren’t bullets flying everywhere.

So, if Jack wants either of them to live long enough to make it back to Helios and set his plans into motion, he needs to keep Rhys alive now. Which means he has to go along with these stupidly reckless ideas his meat-buddy has and be the responsible adult getting them out alive. It’s practically a full-time job with this kid.

The gunfire is a mixture of Hyperion-modeled steady pops and the rat-tat-tat of those typical bandit weapons. Jack’s not being narcissistic when he says his company makes the best sounding weapons. They’re a nice, even tempo.

Hyperion weaponry mixed with bandit fire.

Oh, not this asshole again, he thinks the moment his eyes land on that Wallet-Head guy who keeps hounding him and Rhys.

He’s standing next to the blond guy from before – some kind of bandit leader guy – and they have the others at gunpoint. A few stragglers from the enemy team lay sprawled on the ground, taken out by either Sasha or Fiona’s gunfire, and on the roof of the caravan, the bots aim what little weaponry they have at the enemies, creating an odd little standoff.

Rhys hasn’t been noticed yet. They’re about twenty yards away, stopped behind a rock formation that juts up in a natural arc before slamming into the jagged surface of the rock formation next to it.

“I know what you’re thinking, Rhysie,” Jack says, scowling at his meat-buddy. “And the answer is no.”

Rhys doesn’t even look at him, ECHO-eye activated. Jack gets all the information which apparently used to go straight to Rhys’s eye, so he’s suddenly flooded with too many words and ideas and angles and-

“Hey,” he says, snapping his non-existent fingers. “Stop that. I said no.”

“We have to help them,” Rhys says calmly.

“How many times do we have to save these losers?”

“As many times as it takes.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jack tells him, in case Rhys is just slow and hasn’t realize this himself. “We can’t keep endangering ourselves to save them. If they can’t take care of themselves by this point then-”

“If you have nothing helpful to say,” Rhys interjects, shooting him a quick glare, “then please stop talking.”

Honestly, that would make Jack grin if he wasn’t so furious right now.

“Excuse me?” he snaps, moving to stand in front of Rhys so the code monkey is forced to look at him. “What’d you say, you little shit? I’m trying to be helpful here! I’m telling you it’s suicidal to keep running off to save them when they’ve showed absolutely no sign of ever being able to even look after themselves. It’s just going to keep happening and they’re learning nothing by you saving them all the time.”

If they keep fixing everything the others are never going to learn how to take care of themselves, and Jack is tired of having to clean up their messes. How many times will it be before Rhys realizes it’s too many?

Rhys grits his teeth together, glaring at Jack, ECHO-eye still active. It’s, thankfully, only focused on Jack right now and not attempting to relay a shit-ton of information to him directly, so there’s that. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I want you to admit we’ve helped them more than enough.”

It’s not much to ask, is it?

“I can’t just sit back and do nothing,” Rhys tells him.

Jack huffs, frustrated. “Obviously. I’m just saying. Maybe actually sit back and let them help themselves for once, or at least think of a halfway decent plan before charging in recklessly. I live in your head, you know, so take care of it.”

“Can you, uh…” Now Rhys looks distinctly uncomfortable, brows furrowing together and lips pursing into a thin white line. “Can you help me, again?”

“You mean empower you again?” Jack asks, smirking at him. He folds his arms across his chest and chuckles. “Maybe if you ask nicely.”

Rhys scowls. “Jack. Seriously.”

Seriously.”

Please, will you help me?”

“How can I say no to that pretty face?” Jack asks, grinning. “What’s the plan, pumpkin?”