The whole gang was together again as they had not been in the two years since they opened the Vault. Beyond them, there were a few dozen Atlas employees and assorted Pandoran denizens filling out the banquet hall. The hall itself was part of a walled complex of buildings Rhys had constructed to house his thriving Atlas corporation.
Ostensibly, they were there to celebrate Rhys’ most recent product launch, but the secondary purpose was for Sasha to show off her baby bump to their friends and allies. The host and hostess stood near the more happening side of the party along with Fiona, Loader Bot, Gortys, Janey and Athena.
Vaughn sat at the bar, sulking away from his best friend’s happiness. He hoped nobody would notice he was keeping to himself but he was skilled at going unmissed.
The mirror on the back of the bar showed his reflection. The over all look of the room was corporate casual, but he would more easily fit in with a grizzled group of bandits. Even though Rhys assured the area was secure, Vaughn chose to keep his weapons, shield and relics on his person.
Since Rhys returned from the Vault Vaughn had begun to feel unnecessary. The Children of Helios threw their lot in with Rhys and his Atlas corporation which freed him to wander off and explore Pandora and himself.
It worried Rhys to no end.
Vaughn could tell. He was sure his friend would again try to convince him to take a job at Atlas. For the umpteenth time he would have to turn him down. The work he probably would have enjoyed, but he felt too much like a third wheel since Sasha came into the picture.
It would have been better, he thought, if he had not heeded the party summons. It was too late for that, so he opted to get drunk. “Another shot of rum please,” he called to the bartender.
The well-dressed server poured it and he picked it up to toss it back.
From behind him he heard a low voice, “Look who we have here.”
Vaughn turned sharply to see the lean form of August looming above him.
The blond brawler settled on the stool next to him. “It’s been a while,” He said, before getting the bartender’s attention to order, “Gimme a beer… and a shot of whatever he’s doing… and another for him.”
“Hey, August,” Vaughn said. His shoulders tensed.
August picked up his bottle took a long gulp before setting it on the bar. “I saw you had gone local, but I didn’t expect it would still be true. I thought you’d be working for Rhys by now.”
Vaughn shorted, “He wishes. I’m done with… all that. How’ve you been?”
August shrugged, “Been better, been worse. You know how it is.” He glanced over to Rhys and Sasha.
Vaughn followed suit before he turned back to pick up the shot glass. “Kinda surprised you came,” he said.
“What, I’m not welcome?” August arched a blond brow. “I’m sure they invited me.”
“No no, not like that just… I dunno. Is it weird to see Sasha… like that?” Vaughn regretted being so tactless.
August sipped from the shot of rum, unphased. “Yeah… and no? On some level, I never really dated Sasha. Not the real one. I dated a con version of her she created to my tastes. What I’ll never be over is that she that she picked him of all people.”
Vaughn shrugged did another shot.
He leaned in close to Vaughn, closer than expected and said, “How bout you. Is it weird for you seeing Rhys with her?”
“What? Why would it? No. No …” Vaughn protested. “Psssht of course not.”
“Sure.” August said and his tone conveyed his disbelief.
Vaughn sighed and set the glass down.
“I always thought you were too good for him.” August said.
Vaughn choked on his own spit and started a coughing fit just as Rhys appeared at his other side. “Vaughn! My man.” For August he gave a much less enthusiastic, “Hey.”
August tilted his head and said, “Hello, Rhys.”
Rhys sounded unconvincing as he said, “I’m really glad you could make it, August. Thrilled, in fact.”
“I bet,” August replied with a grin. He leaned in close and said to Vaughn, “I’ll catch you later.” He snatched the bottle of beer of the bar and walked away.
Rhys laughed with a nervous edge as August wandered off, “Wow, he’s still friendly as ever.”
Vaughn cleared his throat and shrugged. “Guess so.”
Rhys sat down at Vaughn’s other side. He sat up and took a deep breath before saying, “Thank you for coming too. It means a lot. I was hoping that you were planning on staying a while.” Rhys’ mismatched eyes were full of obvious hope.
Vaughn closed his own, “We talked about this.” It felt frustrating to have to go over it again.
Rhys said, “Hear me out. Sasha and I and Fiona and Yvette… the bots... we’re worried about you, Bro.”
“Oh god, here it comes.” Vaughn groaned.
Rhys plowed ahead, as was his style, “I want you to stay here. Join me. You don’t have to work for me. Do you need venture capital? Do you want to be your own boss? Do you want me to just give you money?”
“I am my own boss.” Vaughn said, “I get money when I need it.”
“C’mon Bro I am worried about you. I’m never sure if you’re alive or dead… you don’t answer my Echos half the time… and the rumors I hear are terrifying.” He shook his head in dismay, “Vaughn… What are you even doing out there?”
Vaughn’s brows drew taught as his annoyance skyrocketed, “Sorry. I’m just not… comfortable here. I stay when I can. Like I keep telling you, you’re a busy man and you have family on the way and you need to focus on that. I’m… finding myself.”
“You said that a year ago.” Rhys pouted.
He usually found it cute when Rhys was petulant but was over it tonight. “Yeah, well… it takes time.”
Rhys leaned in and grabbed him by the forearm, “Vaughn, seriously. Did I do something to… hurt you or… offend you? If I did I am so sorry. Just… tell me what I fucked up, Bro. I’ll fix it.”
The worry in his Rhys’ brow softened Vaughn’s expression, “No. You didn’t do anything wrong.” he sighed, “Please just… stop asking me.”
Rhys leaned in closer, “Okay… sorry. I’ll stop. The offer stands.”
Vaughn put his hand on Rhys’ knee and said, “I get it. I just slaved away in cubicles and offices for years of my life already. I’m learning… different skills out here. I’m not ready to go back to that yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.”
Rhys said, “I’m just scared. I’m scared I’m losing you. I’m afraid going to be a terrible dad to my kid. I just… miss you is all. I hate to spring this on you but… I wanted to ask you if you’d be my best man… and you haven’t been around to ask.”
Vaughn was more surprised by the question than he should have been. He put aside his feelings and threw his arms around his best friend to hug him. He was genuinely happy for Rhys in every way that mattered and he felt ashamed that this awkward feelings were hurting his friend.
“You’ll never lose me. Yes. I’d be happy to be your best man.” He kept Rhys locked in the embrace so he did not yet have to meet his eye. “Congratulations. You said yes?”
“Shut up, I asked her,” Rhys said before snickering.
After a few perfunctory back pats Vaughn pulled back, “Well I guess I have to stick a round a bit more. You should have lead with that.” The alcohol helped him pretend he was fine.
“Thanks. I am so stoked. You are going to be the world’s greatest Best Man… but,” There was a judgmental squint to his eyes as he looked over the rough and shabby appearance of his friend. His lips pursed.
Vaughn gave him a dead-eyed expression. “I’ll give you my measurements for a suit but I’m not losing the beard or the hair.”
Rhys looked immediately relieved, “We can work with that. Come on… have a glass of champagne with us and we’ll make the announcement.” He was all smiles now.
Vaughn smiled back against the pain, “Sure thing, Bro.”
The party was more fun than Vaughn thought it would be. He did his best to push all negative thoughts from his mind and enjoy spending time with the members of his found family. He also caught up with a few of the former Children of Helios who were now working for Atlas.
He supported his friends through the night’s announcements of due dates and wedding dates. For Rhys, he even gave a testimonial on the new pistols Rhys was producing to vigorous applause..
After the happy couple retired for the night, he snagged half a bottle of rum from the bar and made his way outside to the patio area. It was quiet out there and he needed space to process the enormity of his feelings.
Elpis was bright, beaming her reflected light down on the Pandoran night as he sat in a far away bench near a small decorative fence.
August appeared as promised though Vaughn had long since forgotten about it. He too had a bottle clutched in his hand.
“So… that was all… something.” He said as he settled close next to Vaughn.
“Yeah.” Vaughn nodded his head. “I’m happy for them. Rhys he’s got… all the things he wanted… it’s all happening for him.”
“What about you? What do you want?” August asked.
“I don’t know.” He changed the subject, “What did you steal?”
“Truxican tequila, you?”
They drank a few minutes in silence before August spoke, “You know I couldn’t help but watch you and Rhys earlier.”
Vaughn’s hair rose on the back of his neck as he said, “Don’t go telling anyone your wild theories. Leave it be.”
“Not just my theory V. In fact the only guy who seems to miss the fact that you love him is Rhys himself.”
Vaughn shushed him though there was no one nearby, “Dont… don’t tell him. Don’t talk about it.”
August held up one palm in a peaceful gesture. “I won’t. Calm down.”
“Just leave me alone alright? This all sucks enough without your ribbing.”
August took a long swig from his drink. “What makes you think this is ribbing? Also you didn’t answer my question.”
Vaughn sighed, “Which one.”
“What do you want?”
Vaughn again did not answer, “Are you another one of the ‘worried about Vaughn club?’ I’m a grown man and I’ll do whatever I want.”
“Didn’t anyone tell you it’s rude to answer a question with a question? I figured you’d go back to civilization with Rhys after he resurfaced but you’re still living wild. I’m not worried per se… I wonder what you’re looking for.”
“We’ve never exactly been besties August. I don’t understand the sudden interest.”
“We’re partners in misery where Mr. and Mrs. Ten Mil are concerned. Why drink alone when you can drink with me?”
“I guess.” Vaughn said. Against his better judgment he made a complaint. “He wants me to stay around him more, but it’s weird. And he doesn’t even realize why it’s weird, but if I tell him, then I’m making my private problem his problem. I don’t want to be around, but now I have best man duties. But I can’t say no. I care for him. He’s my best friend.”
“I don’t know how he doesn’t know. I mean Sasha knows.”
“How does Sasha know?” Vaughn could not keep the shock and horror from his face.
“Knows… assumes,” August shrugs. “Kinda the same thing.” he put his foot up on the decorative fence.
“She told you?”
“Fiona told me.”
“Why would Fiona tell you that?”
“I don’t know, Vaughn. People talk about things with their friends … or so the friends I now have told me.”
“You and Fiona hang out?”
“Not like that , but yeah, we keep in touch. We spent a few months living together at the Purple Skag while I was… not doing real great. I talk to Sash now and again. I talk to Fiona more.”
Vaughn looked astonished. “Huh.”
After another pull from the bottle, he set it on the ground. “Lot of things you don’t know. I hear you get around these days, but you haven’t come out to Hollow Point since you started your midlife crisis.” He produced a joint from his pocket and flipped open a metal lighter to light it.
Vaughn squinted. “Is that what you’re all calling it? My midlife crisis?” He took another gulp from the bottle.
August’s nodded and said, “Well… Yeah.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Vaughn growled. “Did someone put you up to this?”
August inhaled the smoke and looked at the end of the joint, “I wasn’t sent to you by some sort of committee, no. I came to talk to you because you look like you need company and because I thought we were friends.”
“Since we teamed up and opened that Vault.” He frowned.
“You aren’t exactly nice to me.” It seemed fair to point this out.
August held in the smoke as long as he could before exhaling. “No, I don’t go out of my way to kiss your ass. Doesn’t mean I don’t like you. God Damn, you and Rhys are the two stupidest motherfuckers I’ve ever…”
“Hey!” Vaughn frowned, “And see? This is not the way friends talk.”
“No? Sorry I’m not fit for the country club V. No offense you ain’t looking like you are anymore either.”
Vaughn shook his head and took the joint from August. Though he had no idea what was in it he inhaled. He tasted weed but there was something else that was unfamiliar. A wave of coughing hit as he exhaled.
August shook his head and clapped Vaughn on the back as he leaned forward to cough hard.
A feeling of pure euphoria nonetheless ran through him.
“I should have warned you to go easy.” August mused.
“No shit,” Vaughn coughed. “Okay so… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you had any interest in being my friend and so I never visited. Uh… what have… you been up to?”
August’s lips stretched into a radiant smile, “Apology accepted.” Then he shrugged, “What I’m up to is not much… the bar, mostly.”
Vaughn coughed out, “Just the bar? No huge criminal enterprise?”
“Nah.” August kept the joint to himself now, perhaps not trusting his companion to smoke any more.
“I was laid up too long after Ma died to… leverage any of that, plus everyone knew I’d turned against her… the odds were good if she hadn’t died on her fool’s errand she would have killed me herself.”
“I’m sorry,” was all drunken Vaughn could think of to say.
“Don’t be. What’s done is done and we can’t change shit, so why spend eternity being butt-hurt about it. I get by. I got some you know, side hustles. They say you’re a mercenary now.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” Vaughn paused, “I mean I guess. Yeah. Technically… I am… by definition a mercenary… but I do jobs to keep cash flowing. I try to do them for the right people. I kill no one who… probably doesn’t deserve it.”
August leaned back and took another puff giving Vaughn a grinning side-eye as he exhaled a swirl of smoke into the cool night air.
“What?” Vaughn asked? “What’s so amusing.”
August said, “You. I Just remember how you were when I met you… you both came off like a couple clowns but I could tell you were the brains. God you were like a mouse in a bow tie.”
Vaughn’s lips twisted into a wry grin, “Oh you and Sasha weren’t much better. Idiots, all of us. I found you intimidating as hell, and that was before I saw you kill people.”
“You still intimidated by me?” August grinned as he arched his brow up high.
Vaughn chuckled, “No. There’s a real chance you could kick my ass if you set to it, but I’d give you a good fight.”
August dropped the joint and crushed it under his sturdy leather boot. He scooted closer to Vaughn and leaned up into his personal space to whisper against his neck, “I’d love to feel you fight underneath me some time.”
Vaughn breathing stopped as he felt the other man’s breath on his neck. His mind reeled from the liquor and the realization he was being hit on by August the Brawler. Mouth agape, he blinked several times as he willed his mind to cooperate. It took focus to deal with the sudden revelation. “I’d uh… oh… fuck… Wait. Before I say something stupid… Could you elaborate?”
August looked into his eyes, squinting with impatience, “Yes, I’m hitting on you, asshole.”
Vaughn starred as though for the first time. August had never even crossed his mind as a potential squeeze. The realization struck him that he had never considered anyone other than Rhys.
There was no reason why. August was tall, which he liked. His eyes were pretty and so god damn blue. By most standards, he was a hot guy who oozed a sort of manliness that Vaughn knew he would never match no matter how much of a bad ass he became. He asked the obvious question, “Why?”
August’s looked at Vaughn through narrowed eyes, “Look if you aren’t interested you aren’t interested.”
“Wait… I’m not uninterested… I’m just… I’m kind of in shock here. You think I’m… good looking? Me.”
August rolled his eyes, “Yes. And I have for a while. I almost went for you when we fought the monster but I was still… not ready. Why is it so hard to believe you’re attractive?”
Vaughn snorted, “Let’s see. I was a fat kid… then a fat young adult… and then I started taking care of myself and became a weird looking older adult. No one’s ever formed a line to date me.”
August laughed, “Shut up. First off, you’re handsome as hell. The whole thing you’ve got going on works for me, okay? And second, you’re pretty hardcore from the shit I’ve heard. You’re like a badass. I brought up the stuff about meeting you because I’m interested in the guy that went from that to this . Look at you. You’re in a civilized party in Rhys’ little neck of the world and you’re still wearing guns and a shield… and this.” he lifted the polyhedral, alien artifact Vaughn wore around his neck on a chain.
Vaughn pressed his lips together. August was making a persuasive point even though something deep inside him warned that the math didn’t add up.
“You know who wears this crap? Vault hunters and monster killers and bad ass sons of bitches. Is it true… Did you really kill a Wormhole thresher single handed?”
Vaughn beamed a grin and hid his face behind his forearm, “Yeah. But I had a lot of grenades.”
August growled in a deep and primal way as he grabbed his wrist and pulled it away from his face. “See what’s not to fuck about you?”
Vaughn laughed so hard it brought tears to his eyes. He took a final drink for courage and set the bottle down. “You win. I am forced to concede that you are my friend and I’m sufficiently fuckable.”
August chuckled, “God damn, that took a lot of talking to get there. I can think of much better things to do with my time and mouth.”
Vaughn took one last swallow from his bottle and dropped it on the ground. It broke.
They both stared at it in silence for a moment before laughing. When he’d mostly recovered he gazed into August’s ridiculously blue eyes and found his courage, “Do… did… you want to come back to my suite? It’s pretty nice.”
“I thought you were never going to ask.” August said as he ran the studs of his leather gloves down Vaughn’s cheek before taking him by the bearded chin and kissing him hard.
Vaughn tasted the tequila on Augusts lips first. He smelled like leather, weed and liquor and it awakened a deep need. He broke the kiss in the name of getting to his room as quick as possible. All he wanted now was to be alone with August.
The party was in the dying stages as they walked back through the hall. He had an arm easily slung around August’s waist without thinking much of it until he passed Fiona and Yvette playing cards with each other at one of the tables.
Fiona nudged her partner to look.
Yvette blinked at them before a giant smile took over her face.
“Whoo! Go get it Vaughn,” Fiona called out with both thumbs up.
“Call me tomorrow.” Yvette added.
He walked faster and August laughed.
They weaved their way through the streets of the growing boom town. Between the two of them they were able to walk in an almost straight line.
Vaughn fumbled with his key card and made his way in. From a central hallway branched off several doorways and a stair leading to another floor above.
“I can already tell your room is gonna be nicer than mine is,” August said as he looked around.
Vaughn snorted, “Yeah well… Rhys is desperate to have me work for him so he got me a nice place to stay.”
August grinned, “And me… he hopes I’ll never return to one of his soirees again.”
Vaughn chuckled. He made several attempts to get his key card to fit in the slot as motor function was rapidly declining. After he ushered August through the open door, it shut and locked behind them.