The guy blew into the Purple Skag just before it closed down for the night. He shoved an unconscious drunk out of a chair, sending him sprawling to the floor before he sat himself down at the bar.
“Gimme whatever, sweetheart” the guy grunted. He leaned over and spat a mouthful of phlegm and black liquid onto the floor.
Fiona rolled her eyes, reclining at a table tucked in the corner. Ugh. The clientele at the Purple Skag had certainly not improved any in recent months. Up at the bar, Sasha was giving the guy a disdainful once over as she poured a shot into a glass and shoved it at him.
August looked up from where he was counting inventory under the bar, eyeing first the guy, then Sasha, then back to the guy. Sasha gave him a tiny reassuring smile.
The guy tipped the shot back and drained the whole thing. “Nice place y’all got here,” he commented.
Sasha snorted. “Whatever. You want another?”
She poured him another shot. He drained this one too.
“Where’re you comin’ from?” August asked, standing up and grabbing a rag. Fiona sipped her drink and watched August position himself near one of the guns she knew he kept beneath the bar.
“None of yer damn business, is it, pretty boy?”
August’s brow furrowed and Fiona could see him mouth the words ‘pretty boy’ to himself slowly. Sasha looked like she was trying to force down a laugh. She reached out and brushed her fingers down August’s arm as she grabbed another bottle of liquor from the cabinet behind him.
They do make a nice pair, Fiona thought to herself, watching her sister. Despite August’s rather colorful history with them, he clearly cared for Sasha, and she clearly cared right back. Fiona had been surprised when Sasha had come to her, jaw set stubbornly, and told her she was getting back together with August.
“August?” Fiona had asked, uncomprehending.
Sasha, clearly expecting protests, nodded.
“Not—” Fiona had cut herself off before she could finish her question, but Sasha knew her better than anyone else and had known immediately what she’d been about to ask. Her sister’s face had split into a wide grin.
“No, Fi. Rhys is all yours.”
Fiona spluttered, feeling her face flame. “Yeah, right. As if I want anything to do with that Hyperion idiot.”
“Ex-Hyperion,” Sasha reminded her. “And don’t act like you don’t miss him.”
Fiona scoffed, folding her arms. She didn’t miss Rhys. He was busy, trying to build up a defunct corporation from its burned out massacred remains. She was busy too. It wasn’t like she’d expected to see him every day or anything. Grinning at her, standing so close his shoulder brushed hers...
It wasn’t like what they’d had was going to last. Whatever it had been.
Sasha swept the little shot glass back towards her. The grimy guy burped in her face and for a moment, Fiona thought both Sasha and August were going to launch across the bar at him, fists swinging.
She shifted her feet, uncrossing her legs and placing them both on the floor. If it came to blows, she’d be right there with them.
“So. You folks know where a guy can fence some stolen Atlas tech or what?”
Sasha’s eyes flicked to Fiona, who shrugged. It wasn’t her problem if Rhys couldn’t hang onto his stuff.
“What’re you selling?” Fiona asked, barking the question across the bar. She slid into an old skin she rather liked – Malta, a tech fencer from Themis. The guy turned, surveying her. She reached up and tipped her hat up, looking the guy up and down.
He spit on the floor again.
“Jus’ some tech picked up from an old Atlas joint. Now that that guy is pickin’ the company back up outta the dust again, we gotta get in and out ‘n nab the good stuff ‘fore it’s all gone.”
Fiona kicked out the chair across from her. The guy leered, shoving himself up from the bar and sauntering over.
“That new CEO’s been cracking down on the thieving then?” she asked, picking up her drink.
She ignored the grin Sasha shot her over the bandit’s shoulder. Yeah, yeah, shut up. It wasn’t her problem if Rhys couldn’t hang onto his stuff, but it wasn’t like she could just let it walk on by her either.
“Hell yeah,” growled the guy. He leaned back in the chair, throwing his arm over the back of it. It looked pretty uncomfortable to sit like that, actually. Fiona raised a slow eyebrow. “He’s makin’ it hard to make a livin’ fencin’ Atlas tech. Gonna have to start siftin’ the Hyperion wreckage pretty soon.”
Fiona’s eyelid twitched. “I thought the Hyperion wreck had been picked clean.”
The bandit shrugged. “Not what I heard. Ain’t no matter. Word on the street is the new Atlas CEO’s all wrapped up with his new wife anyway. Don’t imagine he’ll have much attention for patrolin’ old facilities soon enough, so maybe it won’t matter.”
Fiona dropped her cup. It hit the floor, sending liquor splashing across the warped floorboards. Across the bar, August choked on a poorly-timed peanut and Sasha reached up to slap his back, hard, as he spat it across the bar.
The guy shrugged. “Word on the street is the guy won’t shut up about her. Don’t ask me. Do I look married t’ you?”
“Definitely not,” growled Fiona. Sasha came around the bar, August close on her heels.
“Tell us more about this rumor.”
“What’s there to tell? Whaddy’all care if the guy’s married?”
Chairs scraped across the floor. Sasha threw herself into the one on the guy’s left. On his right, August was sitting on his chair backwards and was faux-casually wiping down a huge jagged blade with a rag.
The bandit side-eyed the blade. “A’ight. Weirdos. Like I said, ain’t much more to say. Rumor is the new Atlas CEO is some young ex-Hyperion guy. Came outta the wreckage without an arm. Which sounds like skag-shit to me but whatever.”
The guy shot August’s methodical cleaning another sidelong glance. August gazed at him flatly, completely unperturbed, and continued to drag the rag across the flat part of the blade.
“Aaaaanyway.” The guy edged a little closer to Sasha, clearly unsettled. “Word is he up and married some Vault Hunter babe. And he’s totally sappy about it too. Won’t shut up about her in board meetings. Heard he got mugged a week ago and spent the entire time he was bashin’ the dude with some kinda wicked stun baton laughin’ about how his girl woulda fucked him up way harder.”
The bandit shook his head. “Don’t know why you three care. You know that guy or somethin’?”
Sasha shot Fiona a look that she returned, just as confused. A Vault Hunter? Rhys had gotten married? Who the hell…?
“No,” Sasha said finally, turning back to the bandit. “Never met the guy. Just interested in the local gossip is all.” She threw him a smile.
The bandit looked caught off guard by her smile, but recovered quickly. He leaned in close, head in the palm of his hand. “Well, ain’t you a pretty thing,” he began, but was interrupted by a crack as August stood up and stabbed the blade he’d been cleaning into the tabletop.
“Babe,” Sasha said calmly, not taking her eyes or her smile off the bandit. “No blood in the bar, remember?”
“I remember,” growled August. “Hey, guy, how’s about you and me go outside for a bit? Have a chat?”
The guy paled. “Actually, you know what, I think it’s time I left.”
“You sure? We were havin’ such a nice conversation. Real prolific. Here. Lemme walk you out.”
The bandit whirled on Sasha, clasping his hands together in sudden desperation. “Please don’t let him kill me! I got dreams and aspirations!”
“Come on, August, let him go.”
But Fiona wasn’t really listening anymore. She knew plenty of Vault Hunters now, sure, with this new life she’d decided to lead, but she didn’t think Rhys knew any of them. Especially not well enough to marry one. And without telling any of them?
Fiona blinked. The bandit was gone. So was August. She hadn’t heard any screaming, but she decided not to ask anyway. Sasha was standing by the table, looking a little concerned.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
Sasha folded her arms and cocked her head, studying her sister. “It’s just a rumor. You know that, right?”
Fiona frowned. “Sasha. I don’t care if—”
“Ok, you can just go ahead and cut that out right now.” Sasha pulled the chair out and sat back down next to her. “I know you better than anyone else, and I think I got to know Rhys pretty well too, considering I was constantly saving his butt for a while there. Any idiot could see that there was something going on between you two.”
Fiona shut her mouth. She could spin words into a web around anyone on the planet except the girl sitting next to her. It wasn’t even worth it to try and lie to Sasha. “I told him to stay away from you, you know. At the Vault. After Gortys?”
Sasha blinked, sidetracked by this new information. “Wait. You gave Rhys – our Rhys – the shotgun talk about me?”
Fiona shrugged one shoulder, staring at the scarred tabletop. There was a big chunk missing out of it where August had stabbed it. Sasha chuckled.
“What did he say to that? Did he cry? Oh man, that’s hilarious. I bet he freaked.”
Fiona thought back to that moment, to the soft, almost awkward look on Rhys’ face.
“I’m… interested in someone else.”
“No. Actually. He told me… I didn’t have to worry. Because he was interested in someone else.”
Sasha leaned forward, eyes wide. “He didn’t say who?”
Fiona shook her head. She fidgeted, folding her hands and cracking her knuckles before sliding her fingers apart.
“Fiona. It has to have been you. You know that, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Fiona sighed. “We were at each others’ throats the whole time.”
Sasha shook her head. “I have never seen you click with another person like that. Well, other than me. And did you see his face when you covered for his dumb ass with Scooter? You called the guys our friends and I thought the damn sun had come out for Rhys. You can’t tell me you didn’t see that.”
Fiona hunched her shoulders. “What does any of it matter if he went and got married?”
The door to the Purple Skag slammed open and August strode back inside. The blade was slung over his back. There was no immediately visible blood, which was promising.
“Fi...” Sasha began, but Fiona shook her head sharply. They were not having that conversation with August in earshot.
“Guy’s gone,” August announced, dropping heavily into the available chair. “And no, before you ask, I didn’t fillet him.”
“Good job,” the sisters chorused as one and August gave a little mock bow.
“So when did Rhys start shackin’ up with a Vault Hunter, d’ya think?” he asked. Sasha kicked him under the table and he winced, bending down to rub his ankle.
“It’s fine, Sasha,” Fiona stood up, pushing back her chair. “I’m gonna go—”
“Well, hell, if you guys are so freaked out about a stupid bandit rumor that’s obviously untrue,” August grumbled from under the table. “Just go ask Rhys about it. Pretty sure the two of you have lifetime passes into the Atlas offices, right?”
Sasha raised an eyebrow at Fiona, a grin spreading across her face. “That’s a great idea! Fiona, go do a little recon.”
Fiona shot her sister the flattest look she could muster. “I don’t think so.”
“We have to know.”
“Then you go ask him.”
“Fuck, I’ll go ask him,” August muttered.
Sasha folded her arms and leaned back in her chair, kicking one leg up to cross it over her knee. “Call it closure, Fiona. Besides, when’s the last time you saw him? You’ve both been so busy.”
Fiona raised an eyebrow at her sister, folding her arms to mirror Sasha. Sasha let her shoulders drop, her face sliding into a softer expression.
“Real friends are rare on Pandora, Fi,” she said softly. “No matter what.”
And yeah, OK. That was definitely true.
“Fine. I’ll go in the morning.”
Fiona lied for a living. It was the way she’d survived to her twenties on the hellscape wasteland that was Pandora. But because she lied for a living, there had always been two people she’d sworn to herself she would never lie to.
One, of course, was Sasha.
The other was herself.
So Fiona was perfectly aware that the thumping of her heart sped up just a breath whenever she pictured the soft, crooked smile Rhys sometimes aimed in her direction.
She knew, alright? She knew that she’d done something completely insane and dangerous and stupid, and grown a little too attached to him. She’d taken one look at him and written him off as another corporate idiot, but Rhys had proved himself funny. Smart, clever, ridiculous. Charming, though she’d never admit to it.
Fiercely loyal, to a fault, to the few people he felt he could trust.
He’d given her that trust and Fiona had clutched it close, growing more and more aware of how precious it was as she watched everyone Rhys knew stab him in the back. And slowly, she’d started to trust him too. To trust him to have her back in a place where the only person she could ever trust was her own blood.
She’d thought he was dead. Until Loader Bot had dragged him into the camp, bound up and scowling and talking his ass off, she’d thought he’d died when Hyperion had crashed to Pandora.
It had felt like losing a limb.
Fiona hadn’t even realized what the trust had grown into until that bone-shattering relief had sent her breathless, even as she cussed him out, even as they swapped insults, bound together on the hard-packed earth with a gun pointed in their faces.
She’d fallen for him, somehow, over the course of their ridiculous and death-defying adventure. She’d fallen for him hard.
And then she’d gone and lost him.
Fiona stared up at the Atlas building. It was pretty rundown, clear signs of wear showing in the paint, but it was humming with activity. It was alive, and somewhere in there was her friend, pumping life into it.
She stepped up to the front door. A palm pad bio-lock winked at her.
Hesitantly, Fiona reached out and placed her hand on the pad. It hummed and with a blink and a click, it flashed green.
Oh. Well. So August had been right.
Something warmed in Fiona’s chest at the thought of Rhys making sure the Atlas bio-locks were programmed to allow them to pass. It was exactly the kind of sappy thing he’d have done. She’d be willing to bet that Vaughn had a free pass in and out too, despite none of them being employees.
“Oi!” A guard came stomping up to her, a long rifle slung across his back. “How’d you get in here?”
Fiona cocked her head at him, crossing her arms. People hummed around the lobby, going up and down the flight of stairs that led to a bank of elevators at the back of the room.
“I used the bio-lock to open the door,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “Just like everyone else.”
“You’re not dressed like an employee.”
“Hey, Reg, come on, chill out.” A second guard was trotting toward them, holding up his hands in apology. “That’s… you know. Here to visit the Boss?”
The last question was directed at Fiona, who blinked and nodded.
The first guard’s eyes got big and round. “Ah, shit, why didn’t you say something? Terribly sorry. Here, let me show you to the elevators.”
“I think I can find my way,” Fiona said, a little baffled by the guard’s sudden change in demeanor.
“Of course, of course. Mr. Rhys’ll just be up on the top floor then. Office is down the hall, all the way at the end. If you get lost, his little robot’ll be there.”
The second guard cracked a smile. “Yeah. Little round thing. It’s probably the cutest robot in the actual galaxy.”
Fiona bit back a smile. Rhys was bringing Gortys to work with him? How on earth did he get anything done?
Gortys probably loved every minute of it.
“Thanks, gentlemen,” she said airily, realizing that they were waiting for acknowledgment. “Uh, dismissed.”
They turned and marched off back to their posts on opposite ends of the lobby and Fiona started up the long staircase towards the elevators.
She caught bits and snippets of whispers and conversation as she passed. For some reason, she was attracting a lot of attention. That was… well, different. Fiona prided herself on being able to blend where she needed to and all the eyes were starting to make her skin crawl.
She slapped the button to call the elevator and reached up to tug on her hat, pulling it low over her eyes.
This was a terrible idea. What was she even going to say? Oh, hey, Rhys, yes, I know we haven’t seen each other since the Vault of the Traveler thing, but I heard a rumor that you were married and well, we can’t have that because I went and caught feelings, so here I am, bothering you at work to ask you invasive questions about a Vault Hunter you may or may not have married?
Actually, wait, that wasn’t half bad. Clean it up a little, and—
The elevator dinged and she stepped inside. An Atlas employee was staring off into space, flashes of green light blinking by at lightning speed across his glasses. He ignored her, which suited Fiona just fine. She punched the button for the top floor and the elevator doors slid smoothly shut.
They rode in silence for three seconds before the employee glanced her way and his eyebrows shot up into his hairline.
Fiona eyed him out of the corner of her eye as the employee looked her up and down for a moment before snapping his gaze back to the elevator numbers blinking above them.
With a ding, the elevator stopped and the employee got off, shooting another quick look over his shoulder as the doors slid closed again.
“Weird,” Fiona muttered.
Finally, the elevator stopped at the top floor and Fiona stepped out into a short wide corridor that ended at a large steel door. A bio-lock glowed red in the wall next to it.
“Well, hello there! Welcome to the top floor! Rhys isn’t in his office right now, but—”
The familiar bright robot voice sputtered abruptly as Fiona looked around, a wide grin spreading across her face as she spotted her friend.
“Fiona!” Gortys zipped up to her, sounding over-the-moon delighted.
“Hi, Gortys,” Fiona crouched down and brushed a hand over Gortys’ head. Gortys beamed at her, as only a small robot can beam.
“Wow, wow, wow, it’s really you! You’re here! I haven’t seen you in so long! Do you remember me?”
“Of course I remember you.” Fiona sat back on her heels. “Do you… uh, work here now?”
“I’m helping Rhys!” Gortys considered her for a moment. “I missed you, Fiona!” she declared finally, reaching out and placing one metal hand on Fiona’s knee. “I missed you a whole whole lot!”
Fiona patted Gortys’ hand. “I missed you too, Gortys. You know you and Loader Bot can always come visit us, right?”
“That’s great! Oh! Rhys told me he wants to come out and visit you guys too. Can he come too? Or...” Gortys lowered her voice. “Is he not invited?”
Fiona cracked a smile. “Of course he’s invited too. Speaking of...”
“Oh! You’re probably here to see him, aren’t you? That’s great! I think Rhys missed you even more than I did. He’s gonna be so excited to see you!”
Gortys buzzed off down the corridor towards the doors. After a moment, Fiona stood up and followed her.
“Rhys isn’t in his office right now but he said he’d be right back so you can just wait inside! I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He’ll come right back if he knows you’re here.” Gortys was chattering, reaching up and clicking the bio-lock into override. The door slid open and Gortys zipped inside.
Rhys’ office was dimly lit, with a huge bay window looking out at the desert beyond providing most of the light. There was a desk, covered in prototype tech pieces, a huge stack of Echos, and a massive computer holo-monitor.
Fiona looked around, taking in the sights. “Huh. I expected it to be… more ridiculous, honestly.”
Gortys looked around too. “It sure is an office!” she agreed, before rolling up to the computer. A cable snaked its way out of a compartment in her body and jacked itself into the system. “Let me just send Rhys a message that you’re here.”
Fiona walked around the desk, looking at the prototypes. She picked one up, a small piece of metal with a blinking light on the top. Shrugging, she put it back. Her hand bumped the stack of Echos and she winced, lunging for them before the entire pile went toppling to the floor.
It was then she noticed what was behind the stack.
Two small picture frames sat on the desk. Fiona picked up the first one and peered at the picture.
It was from Athena and Janey’s wedding, weeks ago. Come to think of it, that had been the last time they’d all been together. It was a group shot Fiona remembered posing for – she had a copy of the photo as well hanging up at home.
They were all grinning at the camera – Sasha had an arm slung around Vaughn’s neck, both throwing up a peace sign and frozen in mid-laughter. August stood behind Sasha, his arms folded, looking highly uncomfortable with being in the picture at all. Loader Bot and Gortys were near the edge of the frame, looking towards the camera, while on Vaughn’s other side, Rhys stood grinning with his metal arm around her waist.
Fiona studied her own face, her frozen grin, the way she’d tucked herself into Rhys’ side, and felt a twinge twist in the pit of her stomach.
They all looked so happy in that shot. Thinking back to that moment, she could almost feel the cool metal of Rhys’ prosthetic against the thin material of the dress she’d dug up for the occasion.
She put the picture down and picked up the second one.
Her stomach swooped, heart stuttering before picking up speed to a low hum. “What the hell?” she mumbled, studying the photo closely.
It was also from Athena and Janey’s wedding – it had to be, they were still dressed up – but Fiona couldn’t remember this picture being taken.
She and Rhys were dancing, frozen in place, neither looking at the camera. Fiona had one hand in Rhys’ and her other hand on his shoulder, Rhys holding her hip as they pivoted in a slow circle.
They were staring at each other like they were alone in the room, wrapped up in their conversation. Rhys had a soft half-grin lingering on his lips, and Fiona...
Fiona felt her face heat as she stared down at their faces. Who had taken this? And why did Rhys have it framed on his desk in his office?
If that was the look on her face whenever she looked his way, it was no wonder Sasha had been giving her shit about it for the last several weeks.
“Oh, hell,” she muttered, putting the frame back down and dragging a hand across her burning cheeks.
Outside the office, footsteps sounded hurrying down the corridor. Fiona leaped back from the desk as though she’d been caught setting it on fire. The doors slid open and Rhys walked in, talking a mile a minute, staring at the screen he was projecting from his palm.
“—because I still remember the last time we just winged it, Harold. That’s why.”
The door slid shut behind him and Rhys rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, reaching with his free hand and swiping through a menu on the screen in his hand. “Alright, yes, you’re right. We were fine. That doesn’t mean I liked scrubbing that gunk off my shoes.”
Gortys went spinning towards him, bumping into his shins and Rhys smiled down at her distractedly.
Fiona watched him, leaning back on his desk and folding her arms over her chest. He was dressed reasonably well, hair a little longer than when she’d seen him last, but still slicked back over his ears. His gold EchoEye implant was glowing as he flicked through notes on the screen.
“Alright. I believe you. Make some magic happen. Just… try to keep it within budget? Budget magic is still magic.”
Rhys looked up and his eyes landed on her. He blinked, clearly surprised to see her leaning against his desk, before a wide smile spread across his face.
“Gotta go, man. Catch me up on your progress tomorrow morning.”
The screen in his hand vanished back into his palm as he reached up and tapped the earpiece he’d been talking on.
“Fiona!” Rhys strode across the office towards her. “You’re here! What are you doing here?”
“She came to visit!” Gortys chirped. “Isn’t this exciting?”
“So exciting,” Rhys agreed, sharing a conspiratorial look with the little robot. Fiona bit back her own grin. She really had missed him. Just standing there looking at him brought a rush of affection bleeding down into her veins.
“Well, not just a visit. We caught a guy in the bar last night trying to fence some stolen Atlas tech,” she said, cocking her head as she studied her friend. Rhys raised an eyebrow.
“Well, that’s not very nice. Bet I know who, too. That guy’s been kind of a pain in my ass.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Sasha and August took care of him.”
Rhys snorted and headed around the back of the desk. Fiona turned with him, watching as he grabbed the rolling chair by the arms, dragging it around the corner of the desk and motioning for her to sit. “Oh, I bet he about pissed himself. Did August drag him outside? Do the whole intimidation schtick?”
Fiona pushed off the desk and sat in Rhys’ desk chair. Rhys glanced at Gortys. “Gortys, can you—”
“Another chair! I’m on it!” Gortys saluted him and went zipping out of the room.
Rhys laughed, shaking his head and taking Fiona’s spot leaning against the edge of the desk. Fiona leaned back in the chair and kicked her feet up, crossing her boots and resting her heels on the edge of the desk next to Rhys’ hip.
“Yeah, August dragged him outside, but he spent the entire time the guy was in the bar cleaning a knife at the table, which I’m pretty sure terrified him more than anything else.” Fiona tapped Rhys’ hip with the toe of her boot and he put a hand on her ankle, giving it an affectionate squeeze that sent tingles shooting up her leg.
“I’m terrified just thinking about it.”
Fiona scoffed. “I still can’t figure out if he was more pissed that you apparently can’t hold onto your toys, or that the guy wouldn’t stop calling Sasha ‘sweetheart’.”
Rhys chuckled. “Yeesh. Sweetheart? And the guy’s still breathing?”
“You know, we’re not really sure. There was no visible blood after he came back, so we’re optimistic.”
“Aw, August. He’s really trying.”
Chuckling, they lapsed into a comfortable silence. This, this was what Fiona had missed. Being able to sit here with Rhys and know that he was just as comfortable in her presence as she was in his. To be able to let her guard down, just a fraction.
“Well, it’s good to see you,” Rhys said quietly. “If I’d known it took a thief trying to sell off my stolen property to get you to come say hello, I would have left my doors unlocked a long time ago.”
Fiona rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dumb.” She hesitated. “You… could have called too, you know. Or something. I would have answered.”
Rhys cast her a sideways glance. “You think I didn’t want to?”
“You didn’t. Figured you were busy.”
“Not for you.”
Rhys shifted, lifting his hand off her ankle and crossing his arms over his chest, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, you’re kind of a big deal now. Vault Hunter who took out the Vault of the Traveler. Figured you didn’t want a ex-Hyperion corporate ore-monkey lackey cramping your style.”
Fiona sat up in the chair, lifting her boots off the desk and putting her feet on the floor. “Rhys,” she said in disbelief. “You can’t be serious.”
Rhys shrugged one shoulder and Fiona wasn’t sure if she wanted to throttle him or hug him.
“Rhys, you said it yourself. We’re better together. Even if you are more hair gel than sense.”
A flicker of a smile crossed his face as he glanced at her. “I did say that, didn’t I?”
Fiona leaned back again, putting her heels back on the edge of Rhys’ desk. “Yep. Can’t back out now. You’re stuck with me for life, buddy.”
Rhys ducked his head, fingers going up and into his hair in a nervous motion that was so achingly familiar it immediately brought Fiona back to firefights, kneeling in burning sand, and wild adrenaline-fueled freedom.
It was so distant from the office she was currently sitting in. From the life that Rhys had stepped into as easily as breathing.
“I mean,” she said, a bit awkwardly, “if you don’t care that your competitors will see you hanging around with a Vault Hunter. Might be bad for business.”
Rhys snorted, shooting her a sideways glance as his fingers dropped from his hair. “Yeah, that’s ridiculous. Bad for business? Come on. You-- the Vault Hunters are awesome.”
Fiona didn’t look at him, choosing instead to study the crooked pile of Echos on his desk, the second reason for her visit suddenly heavy on her mind. “Yeah. After all, rumor has it you went and married one.”
Rhys’ balance against the desk slipped. He scrambled for a moment, catching the edge of the desk with his hand before righting himself. He turned to stare at her, eyes huge.
“Wait, I what?”
Fiona shrugged, trying to play it off like a piece of useless gossip. Which, judging by the stunned look on Rhys’ face, it might be. “That’s what the talk is. Apparently, according to our friend the possibly-dead thief, the new Atlas CEO won’t shut up about his mega-hot Vault Hunter wife.”
The crease between Rhys’ brows deepened in clear confusion. “I’m not—”
“He told us this whole story about you getting mugged and beating the guy with your stun baton and talking about how your wife could kick his ass.”
At that, Rhys coughed, the sound a strangled sort of choke deep in his throat. Hot scarlet color bloomed up his neck over his tattoo and into his cheeks.
He said nothing, staring down at the floor.
“I… never said the word wife?”
Fiona gaped at him, adrenaline spiking her heartbeat. She bolted to her feet; it felt like her skin was suddenly alive with prickling electricity, like it was shrinking over her body. “You did get married! You got married and didn’t tell m— us? Any of us? Are you kidding me, Rhys?”
Rhys’ head snapped up. “No! I didn’t… geez, Fiona, of course I didn’t get married. If I were getting married, you’d know.” The color on his cheeks moved up into his forehead, blotching his entire face. “Trust me,” he mumbled. He ran his fingers through his hair again before dragging his hand down over his face, clearly trying to will the blush away.
Fiona folded her arms. “So—”
“Oh, hell, I guess we’re doing this, aren’t we?” Rhys muttered, staring almost wild-eyed at the floor beneath his Skag-skin shoes. “We’re having this conversation. Vaughn’s gonna laugh his ass off.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Listen.” Rhys looked her in the eye, suddenly serious, his mismatched eyes arresting. He chewed his bottom lip. Behind him, his computer let out a soft beep, which he ignored completely. “Promise me something?”
Fiona frowned at him, suspicious. “What is it?”
“Promise me that what I tell you doesn’t… uh, doesn’t ruin our friendship.”
“Ruin our…?” Fiona asked faintly. He nodded. The index finger of his robotic hand tapped restlessly – nervously – against his elbow. “I… promise? What is this about? If you’re about to tell me you’ve married Loader Bot or something—”
Rhys grimaced, looking faintly horrified. “No. No. I am not… no. Why is that the first place your mind went?”
“Then what is it, Rhys? You look like you’re about to throw up on my shoes. Don’t do that, by the way. I like these shoes.”
“Ok.” Rhys let out an unsteady breath, but held up his hand in a sort of vow. “I promise not to throw up on your shoes.”
Suddenly, the door to the office swooshed open and Gortys came zipping inside, dragging a rolling chair along the ground behind her on its side so the wheels clattered against the floor.
“I found a chair!” she announced, presenting it to Rhys with a flourish. He reached out and took it, straightening it, giving the chair a sort of absentminded little pat.
“Thanks, Gortys. Would... you mind giving me and Fiona a second alone?”
Gortys peered at him for a moment. Then she looked at Fiona. Then back at Rhys. Then, oddly, to the photos on Rhys’ desk. Something lit up on her face and Fiona could have sworn the little robot seemed to be beaming at them. “Ohhhhh! OK, I get it! Sure, Rhys! And good luck!”
“Good luck?” Fiona asked no one in particular, bewildered with the entire conversation.
Rhys ignored the question. “Please, Gortys?”
Gortys saluted him. “Yes, sir, Mr. Boss Man, sir!” She purred away, out the door into the hall. The door closed softly behind her.
Rhys laughed, a little awkwardly. “So I bring Gortys to work.”
“Yeah, how’s that going?”
“Great actually. She’s very excited about pretty much everything. I try and explain that not all of it’s fun, but hey, who am I to steal joy from a robot? I’m not that much of an ass.”
Fiona’s lips twitched despite herself. Rhys looked at her for a long moment. Then, he pushed off the desk and walked around behind it. He picked up one of the picture frames, stared at the picture for a heartbeat, maybe two, then handed it to her across the desk without another word.
Fiona took it. It was the picture of the two of them, dancing at Athena and Janey’s wedding.
She looked at it for a long second. At the softness in Rhys’ mismatched eyes. At her own nervous grin. At the way there didn’t seem to be an inch of space between them. At the way they fit.
“I don’t remember this being taken,” she said, finally, voice soft.
Rhys walked over, around the desk again, until he was standing next to her, looking down at the picture with her. She forgot, often, how much taller than her he was.
“I don’t either,” he confessed, a half-grin crossing his face. “Sasha mailed it to me in the packet with the other one. There was a little note inside the envelope. With a winking face drawn on it.”
Sasha. Fiona was going to murder her.
“We look happy,” she commented instead, trying to memorize the photograph. Her eyes flicked from her own face to Rhys’ and back, to their hands, their smiles, their eyes, the dance.
“We were. Or, I was? I guess… I mean, you looked happy—”
Fiona couldn’t help the snort of laughter and finally, she tore her eyes from the picture to look up at him. “You’re floundering.”
Rhys pouted, folding his arms and hunching his shoulders. “Aw, come one. Don’t laugh at me.”
“Don’t be funny and I won’t laugh.”
“Jerk.” But he was grinning, shoulders relaxing. Then the grin faded, just a bit. “They, uh… well, I have meetings in here sometimes. I didn’t want… Handsome Jack never let anyone in his office unless he was planning on murdering them immediately afterwards.”
Fiona understood. She couldn’t pretend she hadn’t jerked awake in the middle of the night, dreams fading in front of her eyes where she couldn’t hold onto the lever as Rhys climbed up to the lair of a dead madman between silent sawblades. If she were Rhys, she’d also be trying to put as much distance between herself and the idea of Handsome Jack as possible.
“That’s… surprisingly responsible of you.”
Rhys shrugged. “Look, I’ve been making business cards since I was, like, five. I want to do this right.”
Affection bubbled in Fiona’s chest. She reached out and put a hand on his arm, squeezing it wordlessly. He smiled back before nodding at the photograph.
“Well, a couple of people saw the pictures on the desk. Word got out about, uh, my… well, you.”
It suddenly clicked in Fiona’s head, the heavy, obvious truth clunking into place in her brain with an almost audible clang. The rumors flying around Pandora. The deference and grins and interest from the Atlas employees on her way up. Rhys’ scarlet blush as he’d realized what had happened.
“They think we’re married?” she asked, feeling her own blush start to creep up her neck. Rhys shrugged.
“Apparently, I talk about you. A lot.”
They were both bright red now, avoiding each others’ gaze like schoolkids. Fiona chanced another look at the photo in her hands. “And… so when you were busy getting mugged…?”
“First of all,” Rhys said, raising his finger, “I fought the guy off. He had no idea who he was messing with. I did not actually get mugged.”
Fiona said nothing – just folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. Rhys squinted at her. “I didn’t.”
“But… yes, alright, I might have said a few things while I was sort of poking at him with my stun baton.”
Fiona let her arms fall to her sides, the picture still in her hand. “Like what?”
Rhys winced and his arm lifted, fingers finding his hand, tugging at the strands nervously. “You know, I don’t really remember the phrasing—”
“OK, fine. It was something along the lines of ‘you’re lucky I wasn’t with Fiona, you’d be getting torn inside out by a badass beautiful Vault Hunter, you stupid asshole’. Or something.” Rhys hurried through the words, mumbling, letting his sentence trail off as the color on his cheeks flushed even darker.
Fiona’s eyebrows flew up into her hairline. Something aching and warm was nestled in her ribcage, filling her up and spreading to her fingertips.
Rhys sighed. Behind him, his computer pinged again. He spared it a quick glance, then looked back at her. “I guess… I mean, Vaughn said I should have told you this ages ago.”
He reached for the picture in her hand and she let him take it without protest. He put it back on the desk, next to the group shot, adjusting it so it lined up with the other picture. Rhys stood for a moment, hand on the frame.
“Hey. I’m going to… try something. If that’s OK.”
Fiona’s palms were sweaty. For some wild, bewildering reason, it was the only thing she could focus on.
But Rhys was watching her, so she nodded.
Then he was stepping in close, the fingers of his flesh and blood hand tracing a light touch on her cheek before he reached up and plucked her hat off her head, holding it out of the way.
“Rhys—” Fiona began, but that was all she had the chance to say before he’d dipped his head, an awkward little jerk of a motion, and his lips brushed against hers in the softest kiss she’d ever experienced in her life.
She couldn’t help it – she gasped.
Rhys stepped back like he’d been burned. “I’m sorry! I thought—”
But Fiona’s fingertips were brushing her lips, her brain catching on every sensation, examining and cataloging them in overdrive: tingles sweeping her arms, the corporate familiarity of Rhys’ cologne, heat burning high in her cheeks.
She stepped towards Rhys wordlessly, feeling almost drunk, wrapping her fingers around his tie and tugging him back towards her. They barely missed clunking skulls, twisting at the last minute in a sort of dance and managing to land a kiss. A proper kiss, lips pressed warm and soft together.
Rhys’ stuttered words fell silent, swallowed up in the moment as it crystallized between them. Neither moved in an attempt to deepen the kiss – they just stood, close enough to feel each others’ heartbeats pulsing beneath their skin.
Slowly, Rhys’ arm dropped, the hat still in his hand, and his other hand came up to cup her jaw.
His eyes fluttered shut and Fiona followed suit, slipping into darkness and losing herself to feeling. Rhys’ finger scraped a reverent path along her jawbone and she let her grip on his tie loosen, both hands sliding up his chest to rest there, feeling his heart running ragged under his shirt.
Rhys was the one to break the kiss first, lips parting as he tipped his head back to take in an unsteady breath.
Fiona opened her eyes.
“You have no idea,” Rhys said hoarsely, “how long I’ve wanted to do that.”
Fiona’s lips twitched in a small, shaky grin. “Probably about as long as I have,” she confessed, voice coming out in a whisper.
Rhys’ entire face lit up and she laughed, helpless, letting her head fall forward to thunk gently against his chest.
“Yes, you idiot, me too,” she said, answering the unspoken question in the delight that had spread across his face. She took a breath tinged with cologne and lifted her head again to look up at him.
He put her hat back on her head, tipping it so he could see her properly, and let his other hand join the first in cupping her face. For a moment, Rhys just gazed at her. Then his hands slid down to her shoulders before sliding around her back and pulling her towards him, wrapping her in a hug.
Fiona went willingly, wrapping him up in a hug of her own.
They stood in the middle of his office, next to his desk, clinging to each other. Rhys kissed the top of her head, lips against her hat, and for the first time in her life she regretted putting a hat on when she’d gotten dressed that morning, briefly hating the piece of fabric that stood between her and the feeling of Rhys kissing her hair.
A resounding knock echoed through the office, thump thump thumping on the door, before the door beeped and whooshed open.
“C’mon, Boss, I’ve been pinging you for like twenty minutes! Ain’t you got time to read your damn IMs?”
The Atlas employee – a short, squat man dressed in the crisp new uniform that Fiona was starting to suspect her sister had a hand in designing – halted, freezing in the doorway, an Echo tucked under one arm.
He stared at Rhys and Fiona, wrapped up in each other in the middle of the room, and his whole face went bright tomato red.
“Oh, holy crap, I had no idea you were with the Missus. I’ll uh, oh geez, I’ll just uh—”
He skittered backwards, nearly stumbling over his own feet. Rhys was shaking, just a bit, and when Fiona glanced at him, she could see him trying to smother giggles, trying to corral his features into something resembling stern.
“It’s alright, Addison. Just punch in the ‘do not disturb’ code on your way out, will you?”
“Of course!” Addison nodded, backing towards the door.
And Fiona just couldn’t help herself.
He jumped, eyes snapping to her, flicking up and down, taking in every detail – including the weapon holstered at her hip.
She grinned, just a bit of Vault Hunter sharpness in the expression. “The name’s Fiona. Make sure you use it when you tell everyone about this later.”
He blanched, then nodded before scurrying out the door. It slid smoothly shut behind him and Rhys started to laugh.
“I think you scared the coffee outta that poor guy,” he said, gazing down at her with a mixture of fondness and amusement. “Do you know how rare good researchers are for me to find these days? Don’t come in here and terrorize my employees.”
Fiona blinked, wide and faux-innocent. “I just want to make sure they spread the proper rumors this time. Honey.”
The grin that cracked over Rhys’ face lit up like every star she’d ever stared at, every moon she’d been so desperate to get to as she’d lain awake at night, staring out the window, wondering what could be out there for her.
She tipped her head up and he met her in the middle, the motion smooth and practiced and the kiss warm and sweet and brief. A promise.
Fiona laughed softly, shaking her head. “The con-artist Vault Hunter and the corporate CEO,” she said wryly. “Who would have thought?”
Rhys tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “Hey, rumor is they tore a moon from the sky and scattered the dust of a Vault Monster across the Pandoran desert. Sounds like they deserve a little time together.” He raised a hand and framed an invisible news headline in the air. “Chapter Six: Domestic Bliss.”
Every bit of Fiona warmed at the thought. She reached up and turned Rhys’ face back towards hers, palm resting flat on his cheek.
“Sounds like a happily ever after to me.”
Rhys’ expression softened. “Now there’s a version of the tale I think we can both agree on.”