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It was fair to say that today had not been the best day of Rhys' life. In fact, he really should have just stayed in bed that morning and spared himself the pain.

But no: like a fool, he had gotten up with a spring in his step and dressed extra nice, full of anticipation for the long-awaited promotion he knew was just around the corner.

And what had happened instead? He was tricked by Vasquez, demoted to cleaning toilets, and when he tried to take revenge, got scammed by two unrepentant grifters and robbed by a crazy gang leader pursued by a Vault Hunter. Pandora! What a hellhole of a planet. He should never have set foot on it.

Now he was out ten million dollars, definitely on Hyperion’s blacklist, still with a bump on his head from when he had plugged Professor Nakayama’s ID drive into his system and conked out, and freshly traumatized by a bandit death race.

Oh, and covered in skag blood and guts. Can't forget that.

Heh, at least they had just lucked out on an Atlas bunker under Bossanova's arena.

"So..." he said, peering at the objects floating in a glowy way in the center of the room. "Is it just me or does that look..."

"Incredibly valuable?" Fiona offered. "Yeah. And there's two of them, so I don't have to stab you."

She was smirking, so he took that to mean that despite her words, she wasn't feeling particularly murderous towards his person. For now, anyway.

"That's a bonus," he smiled. "I call the bigger half."

Sasha and Vaughn were already busy with their own loot, it was their turn. They each took a piece and scrutinized them, though it brought no further information on what the hell they were.

"And what is this now?"

The deep modulated voice came from right next to his ear. Rhys gave a shrill scream and stumbled away. Zer0 the Vault Hunter had appeared in the empty space between him and Fiona. His blank faceplate followed his movement, giving nothing away. Rhys grabbed at his chest, the sudden mortification too much for him to take after his near heart attack.

"You... you're back!" Sasha said, as taken aback as the rest of them.

"I heard an ominous sound / Something collapsing. Lucky I came back / I think you have what I want / Fork them over please."

He pointed at Rhys' and Fiona's prizes with one hand each and curled two long fingers invitingly.

"What? No way!" Fiona complained.

"Uh, Fiona—" Rhys started, alarmed, but she shut up fast anyway when Zer0 turned to her.

"You could at least pretend to barter for it," she grumbled, but it was more for show than anything.

The woman was certainly smart enough to know when she was beaten. There were four of them and only one of Zer0, but everyone in the room was well aware of where the chips would fall if things turned sour. Vaughn was cringing in one corner, shielding his brand new watch from view like Zer0 would be interested in a wrist calculator.

"Look, just take it," Rhys said. "For your help earlier. I have no clue what it does anyway."

He held out his piece. But before Zer0 could take it, another disembodied voice yelled in Rhys' ear.

"No way, are you insane? Why should this bozo get it? Finders keepers, dude!"

Rhys turned around and came face to face with Handsome Jack's ghost.

In retrospect, he really felt that dropping everything and yelling like a little girl was a mild reaction. There was only so much a man could take.


 

Rhys had no idea if he was going insane or what, but Jack was just as much of a handful as he could have expected... if, you know, he had ever expected he'd meet his dead role model someday. So he spent the next few minutes away from everyone else, trying to persuade the apparition that it was incorporeal and could it please stop trying to kill him, that would be swell.

Backing up without looking where he was going, Rhys hit his head on a low-hanging girder. When he looked up, Jack's blue silhouette was nowhere to be seen. He glanced around frantically, convinced the ghost was going to rematerialize any second and pounce for his throat. But then Fiona yelled his name. Startled, he lost his balance, going over the guardrail with a shout.

He was gearing himself up for a painful landing on the pointy equipment below when a hand closed like a clamp around his ankle.

A four-fingered hand.

"Th... thanks..." Rhys said, dangling upside down in Zer0's grip. "Uh... how— how long have you been standing there?"

A smiley face appeared on the Vault Hunter's faceplate, but he didn't actually answer.

Ominous, decided Rhys' stomach, which threatened to rebel. Had he said anything incriminating while he was talking to Jack? Oh, who was he kidding! Of course he had!

But Zer0 simply hauled him back over the rail and walked away. Jelly-legged, Rhys tried to comprehend his good fortune. No way would Zer0, one of the very Hunters who had killed Handsome Jack's real, solid incarnation, let it go without questions if he knew a strange guy was talking to the man's ghost. Must not have heard anything after all. He sighed in heartfelt relief.

"Oy, Rhys! Get your delirious ass down there!" Fiona yelled, all patience lost.

"Coming, coming!"

He bounded down the stairs, finding Vaughn, Fiona, Sasha and Zer0 all looking expectantly at him.

"What's... what's going on?"

"We're going to Old Heaven," Fiona declared in a clipped voice, like he already would have known that if he hadn't gone gallivanting around to talk to himself, which, you know, fair.

"Okay... Wait, who is 'we'?"

With the kind of face he would usually wear to announce someone had died or the cafeteria was out of cupcakes, Vaughn pointed in turn at Fiona, Sasha, himself, Rhys, and finally Zer0.

"Uh— what?" Rhys spluttered at the Vault Hunter. "Not that I don't... want you around but..."

"The Gortys Core has / Imprinted on both of you," Zer0 said, gazing mournfully (the mourning being mostly due to the sad emoticon projected onto his mask) at Rhys' part of the thing, which still lay on the ground where he had dropped it. "I better stick close."

"R... really?" Rhys grinned, and he kind of cringed inside at how enthusiastic he sounded.

He shouldn't be enthusiastic! He didn't even know what the Gortys thing was or what Zer0 wanted with it! And what was this imprinting thing about, did he have Gortys cooties inside him now?

On the other hand, badass Vault Hunter "sticking close". Oh yeah.

The ground shook, yanking him from his dilemma.

"Uh... Did you guys feel that? Or am I still hallucinating?"

"Moonshots," Fiona said, face grim.

"Moonshots," Sasha repeated angrily. "Really? Moonshots?"

"We need to get out of here!" Vaughn yelled.

Rhys snatched his half of the core from the ground and then Loader Bot (blessed was he) was here, hauling them up from the underground bunker. They piled up in the girls' caravan and raced out of the arena, leaving the bandits' turf in the dust.

Rhys got to drive, and honestly, for a while it felt pretty awesome, using his Echo Eye to dodge between the moonshots with Zer0's interested gaze heavy on the back of his neck. But then of course came the rakk attacking his windshield, and the back of the caravan blew off, and there was an enormous monster running after them and catching up fast. Zer0 and Fiona were shooting at it, but it wasn't doing much good.

It was Rhys who got rid of it in the end, hitting the caravan's boost to bait the beast straight in the trajectory of a moonshot.

"Most ingenious!" Zer0 yelled over the sound of the wind whistling at high speed through the busted windshield, and for a brief but glorious moment, Rhys felt that everything that had led him to this point in time had been worth it.

"Thanks!" he yelled back, giddy.

But then the boost proved too much for him and he was yanked out of his seat. Despite Fiona and Zer0's attempts to catch them, Rhys and Vaughn lost their grips and flew out of the back of the car.

For a little while, the caravan zipped along. Sasha strained to reach the wheel; Fiona and Zer0 stared behind at the two men already vanishing in the distance; the furniture shook and disappeared after them through the hole.

Later, Fiona would reflect that she shouldn't have been surprised at what happened next. Zer0 needed both Fiona and Rhys alive, and out of the two of them, the one most at risk of croaking soon was definitely the useless corporate man now stuck in the middle of the desert.

But she was still startled when the featureless head turned to her and said:

"Meet you at Hollow Point."

Then Zer0 just... let go.

 

Chapter Text

Rhys came back to consciousness feeling like he had just been shoved through a meat grinder. His head was pounding and the midmorning sun glaring down at him wasn't helping any. Also, he had lost a shoe.

On the other hand, getting dragged through the sand by his own momentum had managed to peel off most of the skag blood from his skin... along with his skin, so you know, ow.

At least he still had Vaughn. And Vaughn was, weirdly enough, in high spirits.

"I've never felt so alive!" his best friend was currently yelling at the top of his lungs. "This is awesome! I can't imagine going back to financial reports... Ugh! Boring!"

"That's the spirit, buddy," Rhys said.

"It's just... I know it's weird to say, but I'm having a great time."

Rhys gave a helpless shrug, smiling.

"Vaughn... I feel the same way."

And he did. Two days ago, he never would have believed this, but here he was: as far as it was conceivably possible to be from his dream job in a dream office up in Helios, sure, but he couldn't even remember the last time his heart had pounded this hard.

"I am not afraid anymore!" Vaughn screamed at the sky, at the moon and the space station that had shot at them just a few hours ago, hanging in plain view up there. "You hear me Hyperion? I am Vaughn and I am not afraid!"

"That's unexpected," said a new voice just as Rhys was hauling himself up to his feet.

"Gah!" Vaughn yelped.

Zer0 appeared from thin air, a red :) floating in front of his helmet.

"We may yet make Pandorans / Out of both of you. Good news."

"Zer0!" Rhys exclaimed, delighted. "You're here! Awesome!"

"Oh. Right," Vaughn said, sounding much less enthused.

"Come on Vaughn, isn't it awesome? Our survival chances just skyrocketed from 'skag bait' to 'looking pretty damn fine'!"

Zer0's head display switched to the heart emoticon he had flashed at Rhys the first time they had met. Apparently, the Vault Hunter wasn't above some flattery, a fact which pleased Rhys greatly.

"An escort mission / Boring, but it must be done / We should start walking."

"Why the hell does this chum think he can boss everyone around?"

Rhys jumped at the reappearance of the Amazing Invisible Jack. The dead CEO gestured irritatingly at Zer0.

"What's he even going for with this dumb helmet, huh? And is he seriously talking in haiku?"

Rhys stammered, eyes switching frantically from Jack to Zer0. It lasted long enough for the Vault Hunter to send him a question mark, and for even Vaughn to squint at him in confusion.

"Uh... Walking! Right! We should get to that."

"Hey, don't you dare ignore me, dude! You know how boring it is in your pea-sized brain with nothing to look at?"

Rhys waited for Zer0 to take the lead, Vaughn following behind at a healthy fear-induced distance, before hissing at Jack:

"Would you stop being obnoxious! This guy is famous on the entire planet for one goddamn reason, and that's offing you!"

Jack's blue-tinted projection stiffened.

"Oh, is he," he growled, and the danger in his voice sent a shiver of regret down Rhys' spine.

"So just... keep it down, alright? I don't want to see what will happen if he finds out you're stuck in my head. Decapitation would not be a good look on me!"

Jack subsided far too easily for Rhys' tastes. The look on his face as he stared at the back of Zer0's head was lethal. But before Rhys could try and dissuade him from whatever was cooking up in his AI brain, he received a call from Yvette.

It was pretty speedy: after checking they were still breathing and apologizing for not warning them about the moonshots, she disconnected with some vague promise of future help.

"Hopefully she can send some supplies," Vaughn said. "We can't be walking in the desert for too long."

Rhys turned to Zer0 with a hopeful look. The Vault Hunter's helmet was projecting a big red :/.

"… Something wrong?" Rhys asked.

The emoticon disappeared.

"No."

(Unbeknown to Rhys and Vaughn, here is what was going on in Zer0's head: that having someone from Hyperion capable of tracking them was very inconvenient, and that the two of them were remarkably naive for placing such trust in a colleague. Zer0 thought of mentioning it, but then decided that not doing so might make things more exciting in the future.)

"One day walk this way / We shall find a Catch-A-Ride / No need for supplies."

"Great!" said Rhys, who was thinking more about how awesome it was to have a Vault Hunter around than about the hell it would be to walk an entire day in the desert with only one shoe (it would come to him later).

They trekked for a little while in silence. Zer0's helmet turned to Rhys. The :/ made a reappearance.

"You need to wash."

The non sequitur threw him off.

"Uh?"

"I mean, I didn't want to say anything," Vaughn joined in. "But man, you do. You kind of reek of congealing blood. It's gross."

"Hey, at least you're not wearing it," Rhys said, picking at his sticky clothes in disgust. "Trust me, it's grosser from where I stand. Ugh, I'm never going to get all the blood from this shirt."

"Slag is effective / Good for all kinds of fabric / Be sure to wear gloves."

"Hey, thanks!"

Zer0 flashed a smiley at him. Jack muttered dark imprecations about murderous housewives.

They kept walking. Vaughn provided some more distraction by taking his shirt off, revealing himself to be unexpectedly buff. Rhys was starting to slowly cook to death in his shirt and vest, but no way was he exposing himself to that kind of unfair competition. Besides, he burnt easily.

Just when the heat, the thirst and the boredom were starting to really get to him, a faint booming noise came from the sky. Something was dropping from Helios.

"It's about time!" Vaughn said.

Rhys couldn't argue. Whatever Zer0 said, he could really do with some water right now. They stopped, waiting to see where the package would land.

"Uh..." Rhys said after a few seconds. "It's coming right for us..." And then, louder and much more panicky: "It's coming right for us!"

A four-fingered hand snatched him by the collar and yanked him out of the way of the incoming drop. Rhys rolled around in the dirt and saw a car meet the ground just where he had stood. It continued on its way, carried by its momentum, before turning around and coming back toward them. It skidded showily to a stop just in front of Rhys and Vaughn, showering them in dust.

Vasquez got out while they were still coughing their lungs out. He was flaunting his smuggest grin yet, and one of the biggest guns Rhys had ever seen.

"Fancy meeting you two here. Here I was, out for a nice drive... and I land right on just the guys I was looking for!"

Rhys hauled himself to his feet and wiped at his eyes, the better to glare.

"How did you find us, Hugo?"

The asshat started laughing in the most obnoxious manner. But he cut himself short and looked around them suspiciously.

"Listen, uh... Wasn't there...? I'm pretty sure I saw three of you idiots on the way down. You might wanna get your pal out where I can see them before, you know, my finger slips."

He hefted the gun in his arms and aimed it at them. Vaughn flinched, but despite the impressive size of the thing, Rhys found himself smirking. Jack had vanished when he had knocked his head on the way down, but he wasn't the only one to be conspicuously absent.

"You sure you saw someone else? You know what the desert does to people, Hugo. You see things appearing and disappearing, flickering out of the corner of your eye... First sign of an incoming heat stroke, really."

Vasquez hesitated, actually looking worried for a second. Then his grip on the gun tightened.

"Nice try, freak. You...!"

He swallowed the rest of his words back with a delightful squeak. A glowing blue blade was pressed against his throat. Zer0 materialized behind him with a gleeful :D.

Rhys was wondering if he really enjoyed taking people by surprise this much when he was proven wrong: Zer0 snatched Vasquez's gun with eager hands. He let the man go and Vasquez staggered back, hands held up in supplication.

"Ca— careful! That's a prototype! You... you probably shouldn't... I mean, there's all kinds of securities on this thing..."

Deft fingers flicked over switches Rhys couldn't make head or tail of. The gun turned on with an agreeable whine.

"Oh," Vasquez said.

Rhys gave a shout and ducked behind a nearby rock, just in time to avoid the rain of gore and blood. He peeked out to see that Vaughn, not yet scalded like him, had not been as quick. His glasses and naked torso were drenched. His face was frozen in abject horror.

As for what remained of Vasquez... Rhys turned away and tried to keep his stomach down.

Unperturbed, Zer0 cradled the gun close to his chest and flashed a contented smile at Rhys. Rhys laughed, helpless and just a tad hysterical.

"Right... Enjoy the loot, I guess. And hey, now we've got a car!"

Zer0 climbed into the passenger seat with his new toy, leaving Rhys to drive. Vaughn gingerly loaded himself into the backseat, a near inaudible whine keening from his throat.

"You... alright, dude?" Rhys asked cautiously.

Vaughn gave him a shaky thumbs up.

"Alright, well... Here we go!"

 


 

They joined the girls in Hollow Point.

More accurately, the girls found them at the garage where they had left their van for reparations, and where Scooter was in the process of regaling them with tales of Zer0's glory during the fight against Handsome Jack. The mechanic had been thrilled to see the Vault Hunter again, and had presumably thought the story would annoy the two Hyperion salarymen.

Joke was on him, because Rhys was hanging on to his every word.

"A flying city, really?" he was gasping as Fiona and Sasha came in, Loader Bot in tow.

Zer0 gave a shrug under his star-struck stare.

"Looked cool from below / But boring and annoying / I get nauseous."

"Aww, that sucks," Rhys said in sympathy.

From Hollow Point, they went to Old Heaven. There, they discovered a hidden Atlas facility where they assembled dear little Gortys and good times were had by all.

Okay, good times were had mostly by Zer0, who had a blast mowing through all the security robots. And maybe Athena, who seemed to like destroying Atlas property as much as she could conceivably like anything.

Oh yeah, because Athena joined them during the fight. Apparently she was contracted to protect Fiona and Sasha, so now they had two Vault Hunters around...

Whatever. Zer0 was still Rhys' favorite.

(And here is what happened when they left Old Heaven, blissfully unaware: Vallory and her gang screeching into town, late to the party, because Yvette had lost time hacking into Vasquez's data to find August's contact info.)

Chapter Text

Rhys yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He gazed forlornly at the caravan he was following.

He had decided it was a good idea to keep Vasquez's car, just in case they had a problem with the van again, but now he was driving it all alone. Everyone else was inside the other vehicle or, in Loader Boat and Gortys' case, on top of it. He had thought he could at least count on Vaughn to keep him company, but apparently the car held traumatic memories for him.

He had no idea how far they would have to go to find Gortys' next part, but this was setting up to be a long trip. He was considering pulling up next to the van so he could ask for a backup driver when he heard something slam into the top of the car. He hunched instinctively over the wheel.

"Please don't be a rakk, please don't be a rakk," he chanted to himself.

He shouted suddenly. Zer0's upside-down head had appeared in the passenger window. By the time his heart started beating again, the Vault Hunter had opened the door and slid himself into the seat.

"Oh my god. Where did you come from?" Rhys said, mopping the sweat on his forehead.

"I jumped."

Zer0 pointed at the top of the caravan.

"I used Decepti0n / Didn't want to startle you / You'd have swerved the car."

Rhys had swerved the car when he had noticed him. And still Zer0 had managed to hold on and get in. This guy was really something. A scary something.

Zer0 settled in, cradling a sniper gun in the crook of his arm. He seemed content to look out the window in silence. Rhys, of course, was not.

"Soooo... why are you here?"

"Too crowded in there / The roof is better but Gortys / Asks many questions."

"Heh. Yeah, she sure is an enthusiastic one. You, uh, you getting along with Athena? I mean, it's not a problem that she's here, right?"

Zer0 gave a shrug.

"It's less loot for me / But allies are always good / I can do teamwork."

"Good. That's... that's good."

They rode on for a little while. Now that the ice was broken, Rhys was more at ease, but he found he still wanted to speak with Zer0. He so rarely got the chance.

"So, uh... what you said back in the desert... about, about being Pandorans. You're not from Pandora, are you?"

He would have heard about it if Pandora had a species of natives with four fingers per hand, right?

"No," Zer0 agreed.

"But you... like Pandora?"

"Yes."

Zer0 flashed a smiley at him.

"Blood, death, and violence / A challenge every day / What's not to like here?"

That was kinda expected, Rhys thought. Worrying, but expected. But it's not like Zer0 was one of those psychos who just ran mindlessly after death, be it their own or other people's. What made someone sane like him love fighting so much? Rhys couldn't even begin to guess at how people like that reasoned, and it made his heart sink a little.

Zer0 rolled down his window and sighted down his gun's barrel. Rhys peered over his shoulder. There was a small point in the sky that might have been a rakk. Zer0 shot. The rakk dropped. He grunted in satisfaction and closed his window.

Rhys picked his jaw off the floor and looked forward again. That degree of accuracy was incredible. And completely unnecessary. At such a distance, the rakk had been no threat.

Except... what Zer0 had just said.

"You... are really big on challenges, aren't you?"

:D, showed Zer0's faceplate.

"Yes."

Another flash of unexpected understanding.

"Is that why you speak in haikus?"

Zer0 tilted his head in intrigue.

"Yes."

"Wow," Rhys laughed. "That's... that's pretty amazing. You're pretty amazing, Zer0."

Zer0 smiled again.

"What about you?"

"Me? What about me?"

"Why Hyperion?"

"Aaah..."

Rhys nodded, pensive.

"Yeah... That was a challenge too, I guess. I... wanted to head the company."

He shook his head with a self-deprecating laugh.

"Who in there doesn't want to head the company? Helios is chock-full of self-important jackasses. Myself included, you know. At least when I was still up there."

"So you weren't bored? / Paper pushing sounds awful / But if you had foes..."

"No, I was!" Rhys cackled. "Now that I've been down here, I can tell you: it was really super boring. It was all about looking meaner and more arrogant than the next guy, like little bullies in the playground. And kowtowing to the right person, and then having that person be shoved out of an airlock, and being demoted to cleaning trash cans. Terrible! And the food sucked!"

He couldn't stop laughing. For some reason, admitting it all felt like such a relief to him.

"So... why do it?" Zer0 asked.

Rhys calmed down. He shrugged.

"Hyperion is the biggest company in the galaxy. The kind of clout you get if you are its CEO... I wanted that. I mean, think of all the things you could do with Hyperion at your back!"

He cut himself off suddenly and threw nervous glances Zer0's way. Maybe proclaiming in front of him his wish to become the next Handsome Jack wasn't such a good idea.

"Like... not open a Vault and try to control an alien weapon of mass destruction. Or, you know, not try to destroy Sanctuary and all the Vault Hunters in it. Definitely... not that. Because only someone insane would do that."

Unbeknownst to him, Jack had materialized in the backseat. He scowled ferociously at the back of Rhys' head. He didn't try to interrupt or even announce his presence. Instead his eyes switched back and forth between his employee and the Vault Hunter, expression murderous.

Zer0 seemed oblivious to Rhys' anxiety. He was fiddling with his gun.

"A worthy pursuit."

"Y... yeah?" Rhys said hopefully.

"The salt of life is / Ambition, in all its forms / Mine is killing stuff."

"Killing challenging stuff."

"Yes," he said with a happy smiley.

"Ha."

Rhys shook his head, smiling himself. Silence befell them once more. Soon, Rhys began drooping again.

Zer0 twisted suddenly to deposit his gun in the backseat. Jack scowled down at the barrel now occupying the same space as his crotch. Rhys was still too busy ogling Zer0's lithe figure to spot him.

"Whatcha doing?"

"You need to rest now / I think it's my turn to drive / Kindly shove over."

"Oh. Thanks!"

Rhys made to stop the car so they could switch seats, but Zer0 was already contorting after his gun. Jack threw his arms to the sky in exasperation and disappeared before he could get a faceful of Vault Hunter's ass. Rhys only realized what was going on when Zer0 stretched a hand above his shoulder to take the wheel.

"Oh... Oh, okay!" he squeaked.

He clumsily shuffled to the passenger seat. His foot had barely left the pedal before Zer0 moved to take his place. Consequently, there was a full second where the entire line of his body was pressed flush against Rhys' flank. Rhys shoved himself against the window, bright red. Zer0 settled himself behind the wheel like the entire thing was a perfectly sane way to switch drivers. Maybe on Pandora, it was.

"Sleep, now."

"Uh, yeah... T-thanks."

Rhys huddled himself in his corner and tried to quiet his hyper-awareness of the Vault Hunter. Sleep was a long time in coming.


 

Rhys wasn't always the one in charge of the backup car. Sometimes Athena needn't space from the "insanity" of the rest of them (which, really, who was she to talk?) and Rhys gladly let her spend all that latent aggressivity by running vanguard. Fiona would often accompany her.

These two seemed to be getting along. There was some kind of weird mentorship going on, but Rhys kept away from the details. Fiona was enough of a handful without being actively taught how to be scary and dangerous, was his personal opinion, but nobody was interested in it. Except maybe Vaughn, and his opinion was that Rhys had no room to talk, given that he too was joined at the hip with a Vault Hunter these days.

Rhys felt he was exaggerating. Sure, Zer0 made it a habit of coming with Rhys when he was the one driving, but he was mostly after some peace and quiet, same as Athena. (It was still very much awesome. Rhys was so happy he had chosen to keep the car.)

Whoever was or wasn't in the caravan during the day, they would all camp together come nightfall. Rhys felt weirdly warm that, as motley as their group was, they seemed to fit with each other a little more each day. He had probably lost his job and any future he could have had in Hyperion, he had no idea what he'd do with himself when this little trip was over, if he even made it out alive, but he was making so many good memories down there... he was surprised how much this mattered to him.

One of his favorite moments came one evening as he was playing pong with Vaughn on his friend's watch/supercalculator thingy.

They were neck to neck on the score, doggedly smashing the buttons, when Zer0 stopped by to observe the game. By now, Rhys was too used to the Vault Hunter to lose focus when his helmet appeared in his peripheral vision, leaning close to look at the small screen. Vaughn was still nervous around him, though, and he was perturbed enough that Rhys ended up winning.

"Wouhou!" he crooned, pumping his fist.

"What is this?" Zer0 asked.

Vaughn shrugged awkwardly.

"Just a game," he said with the kind of voice he'd use to try and shake off the jocks back in college.

"Wish there was something a little more sophisticated than pong on this thing," Rhys said, "but it'll have to do, you know."

"Pong?" Zer0 said, tilting his head.

Rhys and Vaughn exchanged a look of perfect horror.

"Wait..." Vaughn said.

"You don’t..." Rhys said.

"… know pong??"

Zer0 answered with a :/ face. Rhys and Vaughn nodded solemnly at each other. Rhys left his place to the Vault Hunter. To his amusement, but not really his surprise, Vaughn took to teaching Zer0 with no trace of the unease he usually showed around him. And to his glee, but also a growing sense of impending doom, Zer0 took to pong like a fish to water. It only took him a few matches to crush Vaughn and his twenty years of experience.

And of course, afterwards, as Vaughn was staring at the screen in astonishment, Zer0 turned to Rhys with an eager grin on his faceplate.

"Your turn."

Doom confirmed. Rhys crossed his arms and smirked.

"Want to take on the master, don't you?"

"Yes."

Vaughn gave him a dark look at daring to announce himself the better of them two (so far the total score was 83 to 81 in Rhys' favor, so hey, it totally counted), but he extended his wrist so they could play.

Rhys was proud to say that it took Zer0 two tries out of three to trash him.

And then Zer0 turned to look for his next contender. He hailed Athena who was just coming down from her watch turn.

"I think we've created a monster," Vaughn whispered to Rhys.

"Yep. It's done now. Too late to back off, bro."

Athena only took one incredulous look at the screen.

"Wow, look at you three super nerds," she scoffed before going on her way.

Rhys scowled at her back. Just because she didn't like it didn't mean she had to throw names. Vaughn was sensitive about these kinds of things. He glanced at his best friend, wanting to make sure he was okay, but Vaughn was busy gaping at Zer0. The Vault Hunter was projecting a forlorn :(.

"Look at all this pride / Can't lose if she doesn't play / She is a poor sport."

"Oh my god. You are a nerd," Vaugh said.

Zer0 sent him a question mark. Rhys grinned, delighted that he was finally seeing what Rhys had realized after all of an hour in Zer0's company.

Zer0 was hyper competitive; Zer0 created his own games to keep himself entertained, whether they involved impossible physical feats or obscure poetry forms; Zer0 could often be heard saying things like "being the Rembrandt of killing" and generally bragging about being a badass.

Zer0 was most definitely a nerd.

Rhys elbowed Vaughn, grinning ear to ear.

"Hey. Frontierlands with an actual sniper?"

Vaughn's eyes widened.

"Oh my god. Our team would wipe out the entire Hyperion tournament!"

Zer0 turned his question mark to Rhys.

"Dude. There is this game we just have to recruit you for."

:D went Zer0.

"Nerd central," Athena muttered as she passed by again.


 

Of course, introducing Zer0 to Frontierlands would require a Hyperion terminal connected to Helios, and the lag would be awful as long as they stayed on Pandora. Rhys was grumbling to himself about it, stabbing fingers at his holo-interface in search of a solution, when he got new company.

"Well, kiddo, ain't you moving up in the world."

Rhys jumped and closed his fist, the interface disappearing with it. He threw a paranoid look over his shoulder, but the others were settling for the night around the fire. Handsome Jack's glowing blue presence loomed over where Rhys sat on a boulder, invisible to anyone but him. The man straightened and crossed his arms with a laugh.

"Seriously, dude! You're going to go a long way if you keep buddying up with the most deadly people on Pandora. Take it from me. Man, this brings back memories! Minus the nerdy games tournament, I mean. What's up with that? Classy it up, kid. Nobody wants to see that."

"J-Jack. Hi. It's been a... ahem... a while."

"Yeah, hasn't it?" Jack enthused. "Well, you know, I've been keeping an eye on things. I'm sitting on the side bench, all ready to enter the fray! You need help, I'm your man. But you've kept a solid grip on stuff, you and er... your new pals. So, yeah. Not a lot of room for good ol' Jack to give a hand. Which is fine, right?" he chuckled. "Obviously. You're doing great, kiddo."

Even as he said that, though, he wouldn't meet Rhys' eyes. Rhys started to feel a bit guilty. It's not that he had forgotten about Jack, per se, but... he had kinda been doing his best not to think of him. Enough had been going on that adding the unknown quantity that was Handsome Jack sharing headspace with him had felt like additional stress just waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, though, the man had to be bored out of his skull. He had gone from being the most powerful person in the solar system with hundreds of minions at his feet to only being able to communicate with one unimpressive ex-Hyperion employee who had spent the last few weeks ignoring him. What was he even doing in Rhys' head all day? Rhys couldn't see how Jack would be able to help with people shooting at them, but the fact that he wanted to was telling. He felt like an ass.

"Y-yeah... It's been a crazy couple of weeks, huh?" he laughed weakly, not knowing how to apologize.

"You're telling me! Man, Pandora. Gotta love it. Hey, so, uh... You remember not to tell anyone about me, right? Cause, like... one guy at risk of cutting your freaking head off if he hears is one thing, but you just had to pick up another one."

"Cut my... another..." Rhys repeated in a shrill voice. "Wuh?" He looked at the others again, brain struggling to work through his rising panic. "Do you mean Athena?"

"Yup! What were the odds, huh? An entire planet and you just keep stumbling onto people who hate me. And I'm not even exaggerating, this chick's nuts! She'll kill you no questions asked."

"Oh," Rhys said, reedy.

The knowledge settled heavily in his stomach. How could he have been so careless? Athena was one thing, she was way too scary and he avoided her like the plague anyway. But what the hell was he doing spending so much time with Zer0? What if Jack materialized one day while Zer0 was there and Rhys jumped or did something to betray himself?

But then again, Jack had been very careful about not appearing in the Hunter's vicinity since Rhys warned him about him. Had he done that on purpose? Was that why Rhys had seen him so little lately?

Now he really felt like the bottom of the barrel. You could say a lot of things about Handsome Jack, but he had confidence in spades, he was cunning, ambitious, and he got things done. All traits Rhys had admired and tried to emulate to his best. And here the dead CEO was, having to skulk around while Rhys chatted it up with his murderer. Sure, Jack had his faults, but damn... talk about being an asshole.

"Got it," he gargled, and then had to clear his throat. "I'll, huh... I'll keep away."

From Athena and Zer0 both.

Rhys was looking at his shoes, so he didn't see the satisfied smirk that crossed Jack's face.

"Atta boy! So, hey, fill me in. Did I miss something?"


 

Luckily for Rhys, he didn't have to spend too long making excuses to avoid Zer0, because they finally made it to their destination.

The Atlas terraforming facility was weird, derelict and a death trap, but they found the next Gortys piece with only some moderate risk of dying.

It was afterwards that everything went to hell, because that's when Vallory rolled into town.

Chapter Text

Not for the first time since he had left Helios, Rhys wondered how much more ridiculous his life could get. He was alone, in the middle of a jungle, and running after a car. Why? Why was he doing that? As if he had any chance in hell of catching up to a car! He stopped to catch his breath, dismayed.

He had no idea what had happened over the last ten minutes. Nothing made sense. One second Fiona was stopping Athena from skewering the old Atlas scientist they had found in the facility, and then this huge guy dive-bombed through the window and charged at Athena, and then something was exploding in the middle of the room, and when Rhys woke up, there was this tall lady with a rocket launcher on her shoulder, and apparently she was August's boss, and the Vault Key deal gone wrong had pissed her off and now she was after Gortys? How did she even know about Gortys? How had she found them? He couldn't think and his lungs were on fire...

A rhythmic thumping noise was his only warning before Loader Bot, sans legs, came charging down behind him and knocked him over his shoulder. He righted himself with a wild look for Sasha, sat on LB's other arm.

"Where is Gortys?" she yelled at him over the racket of the robot running.

He pointed to August's outrunner ahead of them. The little robot was just managing to keep clear of the car's front tires.

"Have you seen Zer0?" he yelled back.

He had left Vaughn distracting the angry mob boss lady, which hadn't sat right with him, but at least he knew where his best friend was. He hadn't spotted Zer0 since the explosion.

Through her goggles, Sasha threw him a look as if he was mad.

"He isn't with you?"

"Uh, no?"

"Well, he's got to be! He needs both you and Fiona, and he knows Athena has got Fiona. He's pretty much your designated bodyguard. If you don't know where he is, how should I know?"

When she put it like that, it... actually explained a lot about Zer0's tendency to stick by him. His stomach twisted. He should have known better. He did know better. He was just a job to Zer0. Zer0 was a professional and... he should be too.

That's it, he told himself firmly. No more mooning over the mysterious Vault Hunter.

"Look," Sasha said. "Let's just focus on stopping that car."

Before she could make a move to do just that, a lithe figure jetted from the trees behind them, landed with his feet planted on either side on Loader Bot's head, and sprung forward. Rhys gaped at the incredible jump Zer0 made, naked blade extended behind him, before he dropped in a shower of blood on the guy manning the outrunner's roof cannon.

Nope. Still very much mooning.

They were coming up to a blockade in the middle of the path, Vallory's men scattered among their cars with guns pointed their way. Zer0 shoved the body off the roof, took control of the cannon and shot at them liberally. The vehicles caught fire and exploded, knocking out the thugs that hadn't already taken a bullet or three to the chest.

In the outrunner's driver’s seat, August cursed. He braked and turned the wheel, unbalancing the car in the hope of launching Zer0 off. Zer0 raised his sword, tip pointed straight down at the driver's reinforced glass roof.

"Don't kill him!" Sasha yelled suddenly.

The sword swooshed down. There was the sound of breaking glass and a scream of pain. The car stopped abruptly. This time Zer0 was thrown off. He rolled to the ground in a tumble of limbs. With a shout, Rhys jumped off LB to check on him.

Thankfully, he was alright, and already getting up when Rhys reached him. He still accepted the hand he offered with a cheerful smiley.

"You... are..." Rhys said with an incredulous laugh.

He shook his head, unable to find the rest of his words. Zer0's faceplate switched to a wink.

"You may keep going / Appreciation of my art / Is always welcome."

"I'm appreciating! I'm very much —" He cut himself off with a cough, suddenly reminded of all his promises to himself. "I mean, uh, we should probably... Sasha?"

The woman stood in front of the car. Zer0's sword pointed out of the broken windshield like a sinister flag. Rhys had a moment of guilt and regret when he saw the limp form of August. But then he noticed the weapon only speared the thug through his shoulder. It pinned him to the seat, but even Rhys could tell it was not a lethal wound. He was just unconscious.

He stepped up to Sasha and put a hesitant hand on her shoulder. She shook her head without looking at him.

"I don't know why I said that. That guy is... He's an asshole. Who cares if he lives or dies? Not me. Or... I shouldn't anyway. I don't. I don't care. Why did I say that?"

"Hey," Rhys tried. "It's okay. I mean, you spend enough time with someone... You don't have to like the guy to not want him to die."

She scoffed.

"You're a teddy bear, Rhys. That's not how it works here on Pandora."

But despite her words, she seemed mollified.

"Hey guys! What did I miss?" Gortys said, rolling toward them with cheerful abandon, Loader Boat behind her. He must have caught up to her and told her she could stop running.

Sasha shook her head as if to dislodge the cobwebs from her mind.

"Hey!" she said. "Good to see you okay, Gortys. Here, I think this is yours."

She held up the Gortys piece Fiona and Athena had gone to fetch in the Atlas facility.

"Yes it is!"

Rhys didn't get to watch Gortys transform into a slightly bigger robot with legs. At that moment, he was distracted by the sound of glass breaking some distance away.

"Uh... so the angry mob boss lady is still at large," he nervously reminded everyone.

"Fiona and Athena," Sasha said. "That sounded like it came from one of the greenhouses. Let's go!"

They made it there in time to learn that the others had had much less luck than them. Fiona was stuck under the hefty weight of the angry mob boss lady's rocket launcher, unable to do anything but flop around on the ground like a seething fish. Athena was unconscious on the ground. Vaughn was nowhere to be seen. Rhys and the others scurried out of sight.

Vallory stood over Athena's prone form, framed by the huge guy from before and a wiry man with dreadlocks and a pair of sniper goggles.

"When you have to get rid of a Vault Hunter, just bring in two Vault Hunters," she said to herself.

Vault Hunters? Rhys freaked out inside. These two guys were Vault Hunters? And Athena was down. They would have to play this very carefully. He was desperately trying to come up with a plan when Zer0 materialized in full view of their three enemies.

"Yes, about that," he said, with a :/ on his faceplate.

Rhys' jaw unhinged. Zer0 had his gun out, but he wasn't even aiming at them! What was he doing? If there was ever a time for him to play the invisible sniper card, it was now!

Unexpectedly, the big guy threw his arms up.

"Slab!" he yelled, beaming.

"Hey man," the other Vault Hunter greeted Zer0. He was harder to read with the goggles, but his voice also showed all signs of a pleasant surprise. "Whatcha doing here?"

Rhys and Sasha exchanged a wide-eyed look.

"Who is that?" Vallory said, wary. "Was he with them?"

"Yes," Zer0 said, not even trying to lie. "I am quite put out / You have knocked down my colleague / It's not very nice."

"What?" the big guy shouted. "You working with Athena?"

"We have a common mission."

The two Vault Hunters looked at each other, then at Vallory.

"You said one Vault Hunter," the sniper guy told her. "She was after your targets, you said. We get there and not only is she working with them, so is Zer0!"

"So what!" she snapped. "I didn't know about the other one. You need Athena as much as I needed her out of my hair. Come on, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement!"

The sniper scratched at his head under his red bandana.

"Well, it's true that Lilith is gonna have a cow if we don't bring her Athena back..."

"But come on, the guy and his crowd are the coolest of all my slabs!" the other exclaimed with a wild gesture toward Zer0.

"No, I know, Brick. I don't want to fight them either, not when they tried to help Bloodwing for me."

"Oh, for..." Vallory seethed. "Look, I'll pay your regular fee. Twice your regular fee, even. Then you can have the money and Athena."

Brick and his friend seemed torn. Rhys had to wonder how often it was that Vault Hunter ended up pitched against Vault Hunter. They were essentially mercenaries, finishing their missions was key to their reputation. But they were known for working together, too. When these things clashed, it was bound to get messy.

"If I may butt in / A counter proposition / I wish to make here."

"Yeah?" the sniper said.

Zer0's faceplate switched to a gleeful :D. He said only one word:

"Vault."

Brick smashed his fist into his open hand.

"Now we're talking!" he crowed. "A Vault, Mordecai! Come on, not even Lilith can say no to that!"

Mordecai threw a shrewd look at Vallory. The mob boss, feeling the wind turn, had started to slowly back away.

"Another one of these things you 'didn't know'?" Mordecai mocked.

Just when Rhys was starting to breathe easier, three cars crashed through the greenhouse's already cracked glass walls. One of them was August's.

"Come on, boss!" he shouted.

"Oooh!" Sasha exploded. "I should have just let you die, you ungrateful filth!"

She jumped on his car as it passed by their hiding place. He barely saw her coming before she laid him down with a vengeful right hook.

Vallory had managed to climb into one of the other vehicles, though, and they made their getaway with screeching tires.

"Damn it," Rhys coughed in the dust cloud they left in their wake.

He walked up to Fiona. Between the two of them, they managed to shift the rocket launcher enough that she could wiggle out from underneath it.

"Thanks," she said, panting.

"Sure. Where is Vaughn and his rock hard abs when you need them, eh?" he joked feebly, just as winded. "Oh. Wait, Vaughn! Vaughn? Vaughn!" he shouted.

"I'm here! I... I'm here."

To his great relief, his best friend appeared from the trees, practically draped over the shoulders of the Atlas scientist. His face was black and blue, his white shirt torn and dirty, and his glasses cracked beyond salvage. The old man was clearly sporting more of his weight than his own wobbly legs. But he was alive!

"You're alive!" Rhys squeaked in happiness, running up to them.

They all assembled around Athena's unconscious body. Fiona crouched by her side.

"So..." she said, looking up warily at Brick and Mordecai. "You're... leaving her alone, then?"

The two Vault Hunters exchanged a look and shrugged.

"We can leave it for now," Mordecai said. "There'll be time to pick up where we left off after the Vault. This time she'll even be warned fair and square."

She looked unsatisfied with that.

"Can't you just drop it? She's a Vault Hunter, like you!"

"Hey, lady, there's all sorts among the Vault Hunters, you know. This one here used to run with Handsome Jack. That got her plenty of enemies, believe me. At least we're somewhat polite about it."

Handsome Jack? Rhys looked at the woman in disbelief. They must have had quite the falling out.

"So, wait," Rhys said. "You're... coming with us? Is that what's happening?"

"Less loot, more backup," Zer0 said, echoing their conversation about Athena. "A Vault's Guardian is badass / Always; might need them."

He seemed in high spirits about the whole thing, so Rhys gave an amiable shrug.

"Hey, works for me. I'll just let the professionals shoot the big monster."

Zer0 smiled at him.

"Soooo where's the Vault?" Brick asked eagerly.

The rest of them took turns filling him and Mordecai in. Then Athena woke up, and they had to fill her in on everything that happened. To say that she wasn't thrilled about their two new members was an understatement. She didn't walk off in a cloud of rage, though, so Rhys counted it as a victory.

They had four Vault Hunters around, now. This Vault was practically in the bag!

Then Fiona asked Gortys where her next part was. And the little robot pointed straight at Helios.

Yeah.

They were all doomed.

Chapter Text

 "Look, how about... how about we just sit on this one, huh? We can probably find a Vault somewhere else, like... anywhere, anywhere else. Doesn't that sound grand?"

Vaughn was nodding vigorously at Rhys' words of wisdom, but Fiona glared like he had just suggested drowning a litter of puppies. Granted, if they didn't go after Gortys' last piece, Brick and Mordecai would probably be quick to sit on the deal and go after Athena again. Said woman was currently nursing some serious bruises from Vallory's rocket launcher; it was doubtful she would oppose much resistance.

"Come on! Don't be such a wet blanket!" Jack said, and Rhys side-eyed his glowing blue silhouette, wishing he had stayed away longer.

They had reconvened around the caravan and Vasquez's car, near the monstrosity on four wheels that the Vault Hunters had used to get here. The bearded Atlas scientist had gone back to hole up in the broken station now that no one was dying or in danger to. August was propped up against a car's wheels and pretending to ignore them, the black eye Sasha had given him hilariously prominent.

Everyone else... that is to say: four Vault Hunters, Fiona, Sasha, Gortys and a legless Loader Bot stood in a semicircle around their two Hyperion ex-employees, staring expectantly at them.

"Come on, buddy, this is cake!" Jack insisted. "I mean, seriously. You've got me to help out! This is my moment to shine, here!"

Well, granted... and hadn't he promised himself to stop ignoring Jack?

"Annnd," Jack wheedled, leaning close to Rhys to whisper in his ear: "I even know where the thingamajig is."

He waggled his eyebrows.

"What do you say, heh, kiddo? Partners?"

In the end, though, the deciding factor was Zer0 walking up to Rhys' shoulder.

"No need to fret, Rhys / You won't get a single wound / I will protect you."

"Oh! Uh... Ha... Thanks," he grinned awkwardly.

The way Jack and Vaughn both groaned in disappointment at Rhys' easy defeat would have been funny if anybody but him could have heard it. Right, he shook himself. No mooning over the Vault Hunter.

"First step is to locate where we need to go," Mordecai said.

"Right. Gortys, you're sure you can't give us something more focused?" Fiona asked the little robot.

"No, sorry. If you've got an idea for a place, though, I can scan and see if my beacon is there!"

Rhys turned expectantly to Jack. The hologram grinned, smug at finally being needed. But before he could open his mouth, Athena said:

"Try Handsome Jack's office. Asshole was big on trophies, and I bet he got a hard-on crushing Atlas."

Gortys let out a chime.

"Beacon detected! We got a winner!"

Jack threw out his arms with the most offended expression. Rhys could only shrug in apology.

"Send me the data, Gortys," he said.

She happily did, and he projected a map of Helios over his palm for everyone's benefit.

"Now all we need is a plan..."

"At least, we can count on Yvette to help, right?" Vaughn sighed, shaking his head.

August snorted. Rhys turned to frown at him.

"Something to say?"

"Nah," he drawled.

"Uuh, who is Yvette?" Sasha frowned.

"She's not an ally /" Zer0 said before Rhys could answer. "She's proven untrustworthy / This cannot go on."

"Wha... wuh?" Rhys said, incredulous. "What are you talking about?"

"Enemies follow / Everywhere you go they're here / A coincidence?"

"You're blaming Yvette?" Vaughn rebelled. "For all we know you've been the one sending people after us. Or any of you! Why should we trust a collection of murderers and con artists?"

"Wow, eff you too!" Sasha retorted, offended.

"Wait, am I understanding this right?" Fiona said. "You two chuckleheads have been giving our location to someone from Hyperion all along?"

The argument started to escalate. Fiona, Sasha and Vaughn were yelling at each other, and neither Athena's scathing comments nor Gortys' frantic attempts to calm them down helped the matter any. Mordecai and Brick exchanged looks and shrugged. Rhys tried to interject, but was ignored. He glanced at Zer0, who just stared back at him, then at Jack, who shrugged.

"Don't look at me, kid. I don't even know who we're talking about. But hey, you know what Hyperion is like, right? I know, because I built it!"

"I— I do..."

He cut himself short, remembering that Zer0 was close enough to hear him. He pressed his eyes closed, trying to think despite the racket. Yvette, a traitor?

He whirled toward August. The bandit was smirking as he watched the chaos he had created. Rhys' eyes narrowed.

"Hey. Hey! Cut that out! Freaking fairy, I don't swing that way!"

The argument stopped at August's yelling. They all turned to see Rhys searching the man. Zer0 extended his sword, brushing the tip against the bandit's throat. He grudgingly settled down, teeth bared.

Rhys straightened, August's communicator in hand. It took the work of a moment to bypass the security and access the device's call records. Some of them had been rerouted, but he was familiar enough with Helios' servers that the obstacle didn't resist him for long. He opened his mechanical hand to compare the data to his own. He frowned.

"… That's Yvette's ID."

Vaughn slouched, unable to accept what he was hearing. Rhys frowned harder.

"Aaaand here's Vasquez'. Aren't you well connected."

August glared in response.

"I can't believe this," Vaughn said, voice faint. "I... I can't... How many lunches does she owe us?! We should have just let her starve!"

Rhys had nothing to say to that. Yvette's betrayal was literally staring him in the eye and he still couldn't bring himself to believe it. Maybe Sasha was right. Maybe he was a teddy bear. A dumb, trusting, naive teddy bear.

"Aww, don't make that face, chump," Jack said. "You don't know what happened there. Maybe she got blackmailed. I mean, while I was on top, we preferred big guns and shoving people out of airlocks to solve our problems, but, you know, times change... Let me tell you though, this one time I actually...!"

"Yes, yes, right," Rhys muttered impatiently. He'd feel sorry for himself later. He turned to the others. "At least that means we still have an in."

He glared down at August, who finally seemed to realize he should have kept his big mouth shut.

 


 

Whether or not Yvette was blackmailed, they needed a spaceship. Fiona and Sasha named that mechanic from Hollow Point, Scooter, which all four Vault Hunters were quick to greenlight. The problem being, turning out in Hollow Point would have been stupid and guaranteed to get Vallory back on their trail.

So that's how a rendezvous was set up in Sanctuary, bastion of the Crimson Raiders.

"Yeah," Vaughn said, shaking his head, as Mordecai closed his communicator. "No way. I'm not going."

"Are you crazy?" Fiona said, obviously excited. "It's Sanctuary! The flying city! Badass base of the Vault Hunters! Even Handsome Jack couldn't take it." Then she took another look at Vaughn's unimpressed expression and his very Hyperion-like clothes. "Oh."

"Well, now I want to go," Jack declared.

But Vaughn had a point. Even without Handsome Jack nestled in his noggin, Rhys would have been reluctant to set foot there. Besides...

"Yeah, um, I'm not going either," he said. "It's okay, we'll join you guys when the ship is ready. Less time spent making people nervous this way. Zer0 can keep us company!"

Zer0 sent a :D his way, apparently delighted to have an excuse not to endure his airsickness. Rhys tried and failed to stop some preening. In his back, Jack rolled his eyes hard enough that he would have sprained something if he had been corporeal.

"I'm not going either," Athena interjected with a baleful glare for Brick and Mordecai. "I can take care of the two idiots."

"Well that's reassuring," Rhys whispered under his breath.

"Two of us, then," Zer0 insisted.

"You sure, slab? You haven't been back in a while," Brick asked.

"It's fine."

So most of the group, August tied up and gagged in tow, disappeared through a Fast Travel Station. The other four of them set up camp nearby, but not too close, because Athena was paranoid about an army of Vault Hunters jumping through to snatch her.

Instead, the one who showed up was Janey Springs: Scooter's associate and, apparently, Athena's girlfriend. She proceeded to ream her out for taking a Vault Hunter mission while lying to her. So maybe Athena hadn't been paranoid enough.

Vaughn made himself scarce and Rhys retreated behind a boulder with the handful of electronics Janey had brought for him.

"Oh!" he said at discovering Zer0 already seating there, in the middle of an ECHO communication. "Uh, sorry, I didn't mean... I'll just..."

He made to back off.

"No need," Zer0 said, gesturing him down.

Since he had already turned back to his call, Rhys sat down gingerly.

"Who was that?" said a tinny voice from Zer0's helmet.

Zer0 turned toward Rhys and the picture from the call appeared on his faceplate. It was a red-haired woman squinting in his direction.

"This is Rhys," Zer0 said.

Rhys gave a dorky hand wave and started fiddling with the voice modificator, trying to ignore the fact that he was being stared down by someone who was probably Lilith, the Crimson Raiders' terrifying Siren.

"That's... not how I pictured Hyperion employees. Huh," she said. "Anyhow, you need anything? Munitions, health kits? You know you can come through, we can put up with two Hyperion flunkies for a while, so long as they don't snoop."

"But no matter what / Athena won't come with us / Don't split the party."

"Ugh," Lilith sneered. "Why did you have to ally with her? Make sure she doesn't bail, alright? We need the information she has."

Rhys glanced at Zer0. His helmet let nothing through, and his body language was neutral, but Rhys was sure he was displeased. Zer0 was the straightforward kind. You were either his ally or target practice, and if you were from the first category, he would happily murder for you. This whole thing with Athena had to be grating on his nerves.

He was saved from having to answer when another feminine voice jumped onto the call.

"Is that Zer0? Are they okay?"

"Yeah, he's... I mean, they are... Hey, just call yourself!" Lilith retorted.

"They're so bad at answering calls, though. Hey, Zer0!"

A head with short blue hair appeared next to Lilith. Zer0 answered with a happy smiley and a jaunty wave, so whoever she was, they were close.

And she... she had...

Rhys' brain short-circuited.

She had called Zer0 "they". Oh shit. Oh damn.

Rhys had always assumed Zer0 was male, because he was, like... his chest was, well, flat, but... Zer0 had four-fingered hands!! Who cared about a flat chest? Who the hell knew what was going on under this suit?

Should he have asked? Not whether Zer0 was a guy or... but, like, how Zer0 wanted to be called?

He totally should have asked, right? Oh shit. Oh damn.

While he was panicking inside, Zer0 had finished the call. At noticing his wide, unseeing eyes, they projected a question mark at him. Rhys opened his mouth to vomit a torrent of apologies and incoherent inquiries.

But then he caught sight of Handsome Jack, sitting on the boulder behind Zer0 and watching him with an eyebrow quirked in curiosity.

"Uh... Nothing. Sorry, just... staring into space."

With an unconvincing laugh, he went back to his task.

Chapter Text

Tricking Yvette into letting them board Helios inside their rickety spaceship was disappointingly easy. The disappointing part being that all it took was Sasha, wearing her August's disguise and voice modificator, calling her to "collect payment".

Rhys waited with bated breath inside the ship while "August" went out to negotiate with her.

"What the hell?" came the voice of his once friend, and he closed his eyes against the anger. On the other side of the door, Vaughn shook his head sadly. "Why did you come? All you had to do was send word and I would have sent someone to the surface for retrieval."

"Yeah, and risk you tricking us? I don't think so. It was bad enough when the other guy disappeared on us."

Sasha's impression of August was uncanny. She certainly had spent enough time with the guy.

"I told you, Vasquez is probably dead... Whatever," Yvette sighed in impatience. "You're here now. And you brought Rhys, right?"

Rhys and Vaughn exchanged an alarmed look.

"Uh... Yeah, course," Sasha said, taken aback herself. "We got the other guy, too. Whassisname... Vaughn?"

"So what, you want a round of applause? He wasn't part of the deal, you brain-dead skag. Keep him, use him for spare parts, what do I care? You aren't getting more money."

Rhys and Vaughn were communicating using grimaces and emphatic shrugs. Why did Yvette and Vasquez want Rhys only? There had been two of them involved in the ten million scheme.

Finally, at Sasha's signal, Brick and Mordecai stepped up. They were both wearing bandit costumes, their too-recognizable faces hidden behind tin helmets. They gripped Rhys, already trussed up like a turkey, and dragged him out. He had time to see Fiona bend down to free Vaughn of his own bindings before he was out in the hangar bay and the others, carefully hidden inside the ship, escaped his sight. He was dropped like a fresh carcass at Yvette's feet.

"And he's alive, too," she said. "Good, so you can follow instructions."

"Hi, Yvette," he said, narrowing his eyes balefully at her. "Did you put on weight? Cause it kind of looks like it, from where I stand. Been stress-eating, maybe?"

"Oh, don't be like that, Rhys. You're the one who got yourself into this situation." And before Rhys could make a slide comment about her helping them get the ten million in the first place, she added: "You know what, gag him. I'm not in the mood, and I doubt management will have the patience for his mouthing off."

As Mordecai obeyed, Rhys glared at everything and nothing in particular.

"I'll take it from here," Yvette said, motioning two Hyperion guards closer.

"Oh, hell no," Sasha/August retorted. "I ain't leaving him out of my sight 'til I get my boss' money."

"Fine! But your goons are staying here."

"Then so are yours."

They glared at each other, equally stubborn. Eventually Yvette just threw her arms up.

"Fine! Damn it, hurry up and let's finish this already."

She turned and walked away on her high heels. Sasha followed, dragging Rhys on the floor behind her.

"Sorry," she whispered when he grunted as he bumped up two stairs.

She was already winded. She may look like August, but she didn't have his muscles. Rhys hoped they didn't have far to go. Not only for Sasha, but also... He spied something shimmering from the corner of his eye and saw a transparent silhouette slip into a new shadow. He relaxed a bit.

So far, despite some unforeseen circumstances, their plan was working.

"Alright," Yvette was muttering to herself as they walked. "Just gotta contact management so they can retrieve whatever is so damn valuable in his head..."

Rhys froze again.

"Whoops," Jack laughed, materializing just for the occasion. "That's me. It's me they want, right? Whoowhee!"

Sasha looked down at him in askance, but he was too busy panicking. If she or the others connected the dots... Luckily, even Yvette didn't seem to know what management was looking for.

"Okay, come in," Yvette said, entering an office that had definitely been Vasquez's last time Rhys had been here. "I've got a phone call to make and then I'll get your money brought in."

Sasha dropped Rhys with some relief. A moment later, the door closed and locked under some invisible command. Yvette turned around.

"Hey, what did you..."

She gasped as Zer0 appeared behind her, their sword nudging her throat.

"And I reappear / Not a single eye saw me / Ghosting through the field."

"You're the bomb," Rhys swore as Sasha untied him, earning himself a heart.

"Rhys, what the hell?" Yvette said.

"Oh, what? It's fine if you stab people in the back, but you can't take a little comeuppance?"

"It's not like that! Come on, don't make this harder than it needs to be."

"I can't hear you~" he sang as he dropped into her office chair. "Alright, cameras, cameras... It's just gonna take a minute, guys."

It actually took a little more than a minute, and in the end, he only managed to hack through Helios' firewall thanks to Jack's smug assistance. But whatever got the job done.

Then it was only a matter of guiding Fiona, Gortys and Athena (the latter decked up in corporate attire and looking ready to tear the clothes apart) to the Hub of Heroism so Fiona could take the place of the tour guide for Handsome Jack's office. He also checked on the hangar bay, but Loader Bot, Brick and Mordecai were milling around the ship without problems. Vaughn had stayed inside, out of sight.

"What are you doing, seriously?" Yvette complained. "You really think you're going to get away with... whatever it is that's happening here?"

"I don't kill her?" Zer0 checked with a :/

"Err... yeah, I..."

Rhys exchanged a look with Sasha, finding he understood much too well her reluctance to kill August.

"Please don't. Sorry, du—" Not dude, not dude!! "Uuuuh-ace," he eventually managed, drawing out the vowels beyond recognition.

Wow. Not smooth. Sasha was giving him her most weirded-out look and he cringed, but Zer0 didn't seem to notice anything amiss.

"Oh, it's fine with me / She's no challenge anyway / But she's annoying."

Yvette managed to look alarmed and constipated at the same time.

"Why are you working with a Vault Hunter?" she whisper-yelled like Zer0 couldn't hear every word.

"Why don't you shut up?" Rhys retorted, looking at his screen to avoid her eyes. "In fact..." Struck by inspiration, he got his stun baton out of his pocket.

"Oh, come on! Rhys, I'm on your side here!"

"This lady sure knows how to talk shit," Jack commented.

Thankfully for Yvette, Fiona and Gortys chose that moment to get themselves locked out of Jack's office. Rhys puttered around on the computer, but nothing he did made a damn difference.

"I— I can't seem to get in. I mean, the— the lockdown security system must be on a local grid or something."

"Well, what do we do?" Sasha/August said, impatient.

"Give me a moment, I need to think about this. Uh..."

"Look, give up," Yvette butted in. "You're just making your situation worse, Rhys!"

"Oh, worse than my head delivered on a platter to management?" he said, waspish.

"Listen, you little ingrate, I had to negotiate to keep you alive! All you need to do is give management what they want and no one needs to die. We can still pretend none of this happened."

Rhys measured her with his eyes. She looked sincere, and... he wanted to believe her. Not that it changed much to the situation in the end.

"Yeah, not happening," he said, getting up. "But you know what? If you really want to help, you'll butt out of this and let us do our thing."

"Rhys, come on...!" she pleaded as he came nearer with his stun baton, but he steeled himself and jabbed her in the ribs.

She collapsed in Zer0's arms, who dragged her behind the desk, where her unconscious body couldn't be seen from the door.

"That was the right decision, Rhys," Sasha said, but he wasn't so sure, and Fiona was yelling "Helloooo?" in his ear.

"Yes, I know! We're working on it!" he replied to her, angry, frustrated and not a little bit afraid.

Zer0 put a hand on his shoulder.

"Everything is fine / All of this are mere setbacks / No need to panic."

Without him meaning to, Rhys straightened and took a deep breath, comforted by their unflappability. He nodded with a wan smile.

"Okay, this is taking too long," Jack interrupted, jamming his glowing head between Rhys and Zer0's faceplate. "I'll tell you where to go, champ."

 


 

Getting to the prison level was relatively simple with Yvette's employee badge and Sasha/August pretending to dump her "prisoner" there so that management could deal with him later. So it was mere minutes later that Rhys found himself looking up a long shaft and admiring the multiple whirring and very lethal blades separating him from the trapdoor leading into Jack's office.

He gulped.

Zer0 shook their head.

"This is not classy / Handsome Jack had such poor taste / Too cliché for words."

"Hey! What does this bozo know?" Jack protested loudly. "Death trapdoors are a classic! A. Classic!"

Rhys gave an awkward chuckle.

"Kiddo, you'd better not be thinking of letting this clown into my office. I'm serious. I don't want his murderous ass getting his grubby hands all over my sanctum, you hear me? My stuff. My rules!"

Well, that was... That was kind of fair, really. The death machine up there suddenly stopped.

"Found the switch!" Sasha said.

She let go of the lever on the wall, and the racket immediately started again.

"Um," she said, frowning with August's stupid dumb face, and grudgingly clung to the mechanism.

"Well," Zer0 said, crouching to jump for the ladder.

"Wait!" Rhys blurted out. "Uh... You should... You should probably stay here. We don't know when the guards are gonna patrol the cells and... Sasha could use the backup. I mean." He gestured at where she was pretty much stuck to her lever. "I'll go."

Zer0 flashed a >:( at him.

"But I did promise / That I would protect you, Rhys / Might be dangerous."

The reminder made Rhys feel all warm inside. He patted Zer0's arm, smiling.

"The office is locked up, remember? No one is going to get the drop on me with you guarding the only way in, ace."

Zer0 stayed immobile for a moment.

"I do like this new nickname," they decided while their helmet showed three exclamation marks, and Rhys retrieved his hand for the express purpose of twiddling his fingers, blushing.

"Oh, well, uh, good."

August's face was smirking at Rhys with sardonic eyebrows. He very maturely ignored her. Anyway, Zer0 was kneeling to give him a boost and he stepped in their cupped hands.

One long and nervous climb later (don't slip, Sasha, oh my god I'm going to die), he was in Handsome Jack's office. The trapdoor closed behind him.

He caught his breath, looked around, and turned his communicator on.

"Okay, Gortys, I'm in. I'm gonna show you stuff on the comm so you can identify the piece, alright?"

Gortys, waiting all the way back in the main hub with Fiona and Athena, chirped a "Okay, Rhys! Do your best!"

Then Rhys... took a little more time to gape. He had dreamed of this office for so long! And now, here he finally was. It was just as grand as he had imagined, with the big desk in front of a huge window with an incredible view of Pandora's moon. And also gigantic busts of Handsome Jack everywhere.

"Swanky, huh?" Jack said, materializing in his CEO chair with a grin. "Soak it in, kid. You deserve it. You sure pulled some crazy stuff to get here."

Rhys chuckled.

"Yeah. Yeah, that's true. But uh... better not linger. We don't want Zer0 coming up to see what's taking so long."

Jack made a face.

"That's for sure. Don't know what you see in that guy, but no accounting for taste, you know. Anyway, your beacon is probably over there."

He gestured towards a shelf in the corner. With Gortys on standby, it didn't take long to find the thingamajig. At least it was small enough that Rhys could put it in his pocket.

"Okay," Jack said from where he was still lounging behind his desk. Then his form flickered and he reappeared a little further. "The big seat is all yours. You trigger the trapdoor from there."

Oh, man. An excuse to sit in Handsome Jack's chair? Rhys didn't need to be told twice. Grinning like a little boy, he jogged up the few stairs to the dais where the desk stood and went around it. He sat reverently, brushing his hands over the soft leather of the armrests.

"Feels good, huh?" Jack said with a knowing smile.

"Well... yeah," Rhys admitted with a laugh.

Then he sobered and looked at the ghost of his dead idol.

"Listen... I never said, but I'm sorry it worked out that way for you. I mean, I don't agree with a lot of stuff you did... but it's a pretty rough deal you got. Stuck in my head, bored out of your mind, forced to hang out with Vault Hunters... I just, I'm grateful. For your help. You're getting nothing out of this, but you still helped. I won't forget that."

"Oh, I know. And don't worry, champ, I make my own rewards."

Jack's smile seemed somewhat sinister, all of sudden.

"… Right. Well, uh... How do I trigger the trapdoor?"

"It's that button, see? Near your wrist."

Now kinda impatient to get out of this conversation, Rhys pushed it.

Instead of the trapdoor opening, a thin mechanical arm deployed from the back of the armchair.

"Oops," he chuckled awkwardly. "Wrong one."

"Nope. Right one."

And then Rhys' own mechanical arm wasn't obeying him anymore. With mounting horror, he saw it jerk in front of his face, then grab the chair's extension.

"Ah, Rhys, Rhys, Rhys," Jack said, shaking his head with mock disappointment. "It's unbelievable how dull you can be. I can hack Helios' firewalls, literally the best in the entire solar system, and it didn't occur to you I could hack your damn prosthetics?"

"Wait wait, what are you—"

And then Rhys' hand jammed the cable into the data port on his left temple. His arm returned to the armrest and manacles closed around his wrists.

And suddenly Jack's voice wasn't in his head anymore, because his face was appearing on every screen in the office. His words echoed everywhere.

"Oooh, I can't believe how long I was stuck inside that empty little head of yours! God, it's good to be out! WOO! Well, that shit's done. I'm everywhere in the system now! Not to mention my sweet new body."

"You're a maniac!"

Rhys struggled, but he was well and truly tied to the chair. Jack was on full-on gloating mode.

"Oooh, this just feels right. You know? Like it was meant to be. Vault Hunters kill me, I learn humility, you bring me back where I belong, wiser and stronger. It's a... it's a pretty sweet little character arc, isn't it? Yeah, yeah, except for the part where I learn humility, that's... that's crap."

"Let me go, you asshole!"

Just as Rhys was beginning to panic, Jack added in a gleeful tone:

"Oh, wait, wait! Look who's showing up!"

The trapdoor had started opening.

"Help!" Rhys shouted like a dying animal. "Up here, help!"

"It's your favorite dead bodyguard!" Jack exulted, just as Zer0 appeared in the opening. The trapdoor slammed closed, crushing their ribcage.

Rhys yelled out in horror, but Zer0 flickered and disappeared. The real one became visible as they rolled away from the trapdoor, having been a fraction of a second faster than their doppelganger.

"Oh GOD I hate this friggin' trick," Jack swore. "Stay still and die already, you asshole!"

"Intriguing offer / But why should I do your work? / You're very lazy."

Zer0 whipped out a gun and sighted Rhys.

It's only then that it occurred to him that his relief had been premature. Zer0 had clearly heard part of the whole catastrophe to decide to barge in, and what with the mechanical arm just retreating from Rhys' data port and Handsome Jack's mug on every screen, the whole scene was very incriminating.

So that's how he was going to die.

He clamped his eyes shut.

Two gunshots echoed.

When the pain didn't immediately come, he dared to squint one eye open. Something was starting to itch at his organic wrist. He glanced down and saw corroding shots eating at his manacles and threatening the hands underneath.

With a high-pitched scream, he wrenched the manacles off and jumped out of the chair.

"No no no no!" Jack yelled as Zer0 grabbed Rhys and dragged him around the desk. "What are you doing? That's my new body you're kidnapping, you freak!"

"Now, Sasha," Zer0 said in their comm.

The trapdoor opened just as they came to it. The second that followed engraved itself in Rhys' memory in flashes: Jack shouting "get back here!!"; his stomach taking flight as Zer0 dropped them down the shaft; Sasha/August clinging to the ladder and ducking her head as they passed; Zer0's hand around his biceps, tight enough that his bone protested.

Then he met the ground with all the grace of a big pile of crap, which was pretty much how he felt at the moment. Zer0, of course, landed like some kind of big, sexy, deadly cat.

When his mind returned from the astral plane in which he had briefly projected, Sasha was climbing back down.

"What the hell just happened?" she asked.

One glance to the side showed the lever being propped up by a broom. So that explained why they weren't all mincemeat right now.

August's body jumped to the ground and looked down at Rhys, lying like an amoeba on the crusty layer of blood and viscera that marked the bottom of the shaft. He closed his eyes, feeling nauseous with guilt and his own stupidity.

"I... I messed up," he admitted, miserable.

"What? Look, we don't have time for this. Mordecai called, the guards from the hangar bay are starting to get impatient. Have you got the beacon or not?"

"Yeah, I... Yeah."

"Great, so let's go!"

August's voice shot into the high range mid-sentence. Sasha frowned and jabbed at her voice modificator, turning it back on. It was fiddly technology, it wouldn't hold up for much longer.

"You go back first," Zer0 said.

"What? Why?"

Rhys sat up, feeling grim. Time to face the music.

"Zer0 is right. Here. You go on."

He held up the beacon. Sasha frowned at him, then at Zer0.

"Damn it, whatever. Just hurry up!"

She snatched the Gortys' piece and ran down the corridor, already calling Fiona's group to meet her back at the ship.

Rhys watched her go, then stared down at his shoes.

"I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say."

Zer0 stayed silent for a second.

"While I expected / Something like this to happen / I am still annoyed."

"Wait, what?" Rhys jerked his head up, wide-eyed.

Zer0 cocked their head.

"You weren't subtle / You thought I wouldn't notice / There was something weird?
Easy to assume / That Handsome Jack was involved / I waited for more.
You in his office / Recipe for disaster / Course I eavesdropped."

Rhys gaped stupidly.

"I-I-I thought... I thought..."

He shook his head, unable to compute that Zer0 had suspected all along and not chosen to kill him.

"Thanks," he managed to settle on. "For. For getting me out of there. I don't know what he meant by a new body, but I really wasn't looking forward to finding out."

"I promised," Zer0 said, rather woodenly.

"Well, yeah, but... I mean, given the circumstances... it's really okay if you want to take that promise back."

"I promised," Zer0 repeated with an angry D:<

They were so incredible. Seeing them so obviously pissed off should have made Rhys fear for his life, but at his point all he wanted to do was melt into a puddle of misery and beg for their forgiveness. Instead he hauled himself to his feet and tried honesty, for a change.

"Look. I swear to you, I didn't mean for this to happen."

"You're a Handsome Jack groupie."

"I mean, yeah... Or, you know, was, because harsh words were said and the image of Handsome Jack wearing me like a meatsuit is, actually, pretty distressing, who knew? But I didn't mean for a Handsome Jack AI to end up in my system, and I'm definitely not stupid enough to give him an entire orbital station to play with. He tricked me. I'm not proud of that... but I can't say I'm entirely surprised either."

"You should have fessed up / If you knew not to trust him / ..."

Rhys had the stupefaction to see Zer0 interrupt themself to count syllables on their fingers. They seemed to discard multiple endings before settling on:

"It was too risky."

Their tinny voice was heavy with frustration. For the first time in their acquaintance, they appeared genuinely put off by the limits of their communication form.

"I mean..." Rhys stalled, looking anywhere but at them. "You... and Athena... and then..."

"You thought we would kill you," Zer0 correctly interpreted.

Rhys cringed, but they contemplated this with equanimity.

"A reasonable conclusion," they declared, and even seemed to relax some.

"But!" Rhys added with a shrill voice. "He's no longer in my head, so there's no need to take it off. Right?"

"Right," Zer0 agreed with a happy smiley.

Taken aback by this reaction, Rhys let a few awkward seconds pass in silence.

"Soooo..." he eventually tried. "What now?"

"Now, we kill Handsome Jack again."

"Oh," Rhys said. "Okay."

Chapter Text

Zer0 was arguing with someone on their ECHO comm. Rhys recognized Mordecai's voice and cringed. Even down here, on the less-frequented technical levels of Helios, Handsome Jack was on every screen, harassing employees into finding Rhys and Zer0 for him. There was no way Mordecai and Brick had missed his appearance from the hangar bay. They had to be furious, and with good reasons.

Zer0 pushed Rhys into a side corridor just as a security turret sighted them and released a volley of bullets.

"We will take care of it," they said in a tone that brooked no argument, before cutting the communication while Mordecai was still talking.

They turned to Rhys.

"Jack is out for blood / They are pinned down in the bay / Enduring fire.
Station in lockdown / A jackass in the system / Hangar doors are closed."

"Wow, that sounds bad." Rhys took a deep breath. "Okay, okay, I can definitely open the hangar bay from the power core..."

He was cut off by his own comm ringing.

"Rhys, are they fucking serious?" Fiona bit off. "You brought Jack here?"

"Uuuh," he drawled, incredibly stressed out. Thankfully, the doors to the power core were coming up. "Look, I don't have time for this right now. I'm gonna get you out of there, and then I'll grovel for forgiveness. How does that sound?"

"Don't bother. If Athena sees you, she'll tear you limb from limb."

She hung up. Rhys slowed down, struck by the ice in her voice and the implication that she wouldn't care enough to stop Athena. Sure, Fiona and he had always had their differences. She was testy, he was bumbling, and also they had met when one had tried to con the other. But still, he had started to think of her as a friend.

Zer0 flashed him a :/. Rhys shook himself off. Whether or not everyone hated him, he had started this mess. He had to get them out of it.


 

Killing Handsome Jack again and freeing the others implied Rhys getting electrocuted while trying to hack a console, a lot of Jack snarking at them, Rhys stabbing his stun baton in vengeance at the power core electrical outlets, the power core starting to fail, Jack trying to get rid of them by venting them into the vacuum of space, and Zer0 rescuing Rhys from said vacuum by the collar like a momma bear with her offspring.

"Helios thrusters offline. Orbital integrity compromised," the system's calm female voice warned as Zer0 dragged Rhys back up to the main platform. "Impact with Pandora... imminent. Please begin evacuation procedures."

"Oh, you little assholes! Look what you have done," Jack seethed. "I should have just taken over your arm weeks ago and strangled your little boyfriend to death! You hear me, Rhys? You are fucking dead! He's dead too! Because of you!"

But, Rhys, still struggling to catch his breath from where he was sprawled against Zer0's flank, was close enough to them for his attention to be snagged by their comm ringing.

"Hangar doors are open," Mordecai's tinny voice said. "Last chance, Zer0. Ditch him. He ain't coming back down with us."

Zer0 looked down at Rhys. Rhys looked back, tongue frozen in his mouth. Time slowed down like molasses.

Zer0 hung up.

Rhys gaped.

>:( went Zer0's faceplate.

"Friends are friends. Friends who ask me to choose between friends are no longer my friends."

"… That wasn't a haiku," was the only thing Rhys found to say.

Zer0 switched to >_<.

"DRAT," they said with feeling.

A laugh wanted to bubble out from Rhys' chest. It was buoyed by relief, happiness and a frankly scary amount of fondness and awe that was quickly heading into the big L word. Rhys had the feeling that if he started laughing, he would never stop.

"That was... that was still a very cool thing to say," he managed to choke out.

"Yeah?"

Rhys nodded frantically. Zer0 rewarded him with a happy smiley.

Someone's comm rang out. With a start, Rhys realized it was his. He answered with trepidation, half-expecting Fiona to yell at him some more. Instead, it was Loader Bot, informing him that their ship had just taken off but that he had stayed behind to ensure that Rhys was safe.

"Bro," Rhys said, feeling himself tear up. "Bro... you're awesome. Err... where is... where is Vaughn, by the way?"

Was he really mad enough to have given up on him, too? After everything they had gone through together? Sure, Rhys could have been more forthcoming with the Jack stuff. But they were best bros!

"Athena was very angry," LB provided in his mechanical voice. "She tried to kill him. Sasha pushed him out of the way, but accidentally knocked him out on the bulkhead. Then Mordecai and Brick knocked Athena out. Fiona attacked them and they tied her up. It was all a very big mess. Gortys was safe, though," he added, like this was the only thing to take from the whole explanation.

"Oh," Rhys said, in the absence of anything smarter to say.

"Having friends is messy," Loader Bot observed.

Rhys couldn't help laughing, then.

"Oh boy, you're so right," he said.

Then he glanced at the heavy-duty fire doors that Jack had made sure to close on Zer0 and him before trying to throw them out into space. However strong Zer0 were, they were having a hard time opening them.

"Actually, uh... we could use your help, buddy."


 

The trouble with working for the biggest company in the galaxy was that if your CEO decided to screw everyone over by, say, building a space station and skimping on the escape pods, no one would ever try to call him out on his bullshit. And then you got to the day when said space station was crashing, and you found yourself running around with two of your favorite people, desperately trying to find free pods, while the aforementioned CEO resorted to taunting you from the numerous screens some moron had decided the corridor's walls should be covered with.

"You seriously think you're getting away? Hahaha, oh no way, you morons. Not this time. I'm gonna... Oh, really?"

Rhys looked over his shoulder as Jack's voice warbled to see Zer0 smashing every screen as they passed them. Their faceplate was set to LOL.

He wished he could have shared the joke with them, but all these red lights over the escape pods threatened to send him into a panic. Helios was going to enter Pandora's atmosphere at any time. If they were still here, they would cook to death long before the crash.

He was wishing so hard for it that it took him a while to realize the green light he was seeing was not a fragment of his imagination.

"There's one!"

"What?!" Jack said as they ran for it. "No no, that's not happening!"

A turret deployed from the ceiling, blocking their path, but Zer0 jumped like a freaking ninja and cut it in two. Rhys ignored Jack's scream of rage and stopped before the escape pod.

"Okay, okay..."

He looked around, full of hope, but his heart sank.

"There's only one of them... and there are three of us..."

He gripped his hair, thinking furiously, but no obvious solution was coming to him. Jack had started gloating again, trying to compound on his misery. Behind Rhys' back, Loader Bot and Zer0 exchanged a glance. Without warning, he was pushed into the seat of the escape pod.

"Wha—"

In a flash of terror, he caught Zer0's wrist.

"No, no way! I'm not going back down alone," he said, voice breaking embarrassingly on the last word, but he couldn't have cared less. "That stupid promise is not worth your life."

"It is not stupid / " Zer0 argued with a stern frown. "But I'm not planning to die / Though it will be cramped."

So saying, they abandoned their rifle on the ground and sat on Rhys' lap, chest pressed against his. Their arms looped around his shoulders and the helmet came to rest in the crook of his neck.

Rhys' brain bugged entirely. Given the circumstances, he could maybe be forgiven for taking two seconds too long to remember Loader Bot. It's when LB came closer to reach for the pod's launch button that he yelped.

"LB! Wait, what about—"

"I will be fine," Loader Bot said. "You two are fragile. I will find another way. If I don't, take care of Gortys."

And before Rhys could do anything, he pressed the button. The pod doors closed. LB bro-fisted the plexiglass as Rhys watched in horror. Then they launched, and he was out of sight.

"He is a strange one / I fought his model a lot / But he's pretty cool."

Zer0 marked a pause.

"I'm not fragile, though," they added with a >_< that Rhys could just see from the corner of his eye.

The security harness automatically closed around Rhys' chest.

"I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you kind of are," he argued in a tone that fear made reedy. "These pods are only safe for one person. You're... you're not safe, Zer0."

"It is fine."

It was really, really not.

"Safe is boring, anyway."

Rhys had to swallow down a hysterical laugh. The novelty of having Zer0 in his lap had entirely faded. Grief and terror battled in him, leaving no place for anything else. He closed his arms around Zer0 and held them as close as he could, as if he had any chance in hell of keeping them here if gravity decided otherwise. Zer0 patted his back with obvious fondness. Rhys closed his eyes in misery.

Too soon, the pod began shaking around them. The windshield lit up with the corona of fire that accompanied their entry in the atmosphere. The ground was first a vague notion in the distance, then, far too quickly, it gained color and definition.

And then it was just in front of them. A rock outcropping jabbed out of the earth to meet them. They crashed through it. Rhys felt Zer0 slip out of his arms a second before he lost consciousness.


 

Rhys came to with a jolt. His entire body hurt. His neck, especially, complained about the mother of all whiplashes.

He groaned and looked around, bleary-eyed. The sky outside the pod was dark. Wreckage littered the landscape, lit by fires rampaging here and there. He could see it all through the place where something had smashed through the pod's plexiglass doors.

With a gasp, he glanced frantically around the empty cabin.

"Zer0?!"

He struggled free of the harness and stuck his head through the hole. A figure lay crumpled in the dust a dozen feet away. The light of the flames cast eerie colors on a dark visor.

"Zer0!"

He wiggled his torso out, ignoring the jagged edges that caught on his clothes. His legs followed and he flopped to the ground with a grunt. He half-crawled, half-stumbled to the body.

Zer0 was terribly still, their limbs thrown every which way. Rhys' hands fluttered about, helpless. He lay a palm on their chest and prayed to feel it moving.

No sooner had he touched them that the suit jerked under his skin. Zer0 took a deep breath and groaned.

"Oh thank god! Are you— are you hurt somewhere? Actually, you know what, is there a place that doesn't hurt? That's probably... probably more accurate, right? I mean..."

As he babbled on, sheer relief making him even more of a disaster than usual, Zer0 sat up slowly. They favored one arm, the other one stiff against their side, and Rhys at once offered them his shoulder. But as he leaned closer, a strange sound caught his attention. He shut up, searching for its source. His eyes widened.

"Zer0... You... your helmet..."

A jagged crack had been torn behind the faceplate. It hissed as air escaped from it. Zer0 felt awkwardly for it.

"Woozy," they huffed with a >_<.

The word only served to terrify Rhys more. He slapped a hand on the fissure in their stead. A new possibility had raised its ugly head: that the helmet, instead of being a simple means to hide their appearance, served a more functional purpose. What if Zer0, who was very probably not human, couldn't breathe in Pandora's atmosphere?

"Oh my god, please don't tell me you're dying," he whined. "You're not! You're not dying, right? You can't die, Zer0!"

"You're ridiculous / I'm too badass to die, Rhys / You should know by now."

It would have been more reassuring if their voice hadn't come out garbled, deformed by the cracked helmet and their own breathlessness.

"Then why is your helmet hissing?! You're losing air!"

A four-fingered hand came up to Rhys'. Cradling it with surprising gentleness, they pried it from the helmet.

"Just loss of pressure / It sucks but it's not lethal / I can deal with it."

"Y... Yeah?"

For a while, Zer0 stayed silent. Rhys got the impression they were studying him. From this close, he thought he could make out the shadowy form of eyes under the faceplate. It was probably just reflections from the fires.

"Pandora's atmosphere is too thin for me," they said suddenly. "That's all. I can breathe it without the helmet, I'll just..." A bright red FML appeared on the faceplate. "… be weak."

"O-oh," Rhys said, struck dumb by their honesty. "But... you're fine?"

"Yes, Rhys," they stressed with a long-suffering fondness that made his toes curl. "Sometimes, when I'm bored, I even turn down the pressure to hunt. More challenge."

"Of course you do," he said, finally allowing himself to relax and smile.

Zer0 gestured imperiously and he got under their good shoulder, helping them to their feet.

"So, um... what happened to..." he trailed off, intrigued that they had dropped the haikus again, but not sure he should point it out.

"Can't make a good one / with 'Pandora's atmosphere' / " they supplied immediately. "Words are stupid, Rhys."

"Sure they are," Rhys agreed, his insides reduced to a molten puddle, because Zer0 was hurt and weak and panting, and they chose to cope by leaning on him and whining like a bratty child in his ear.

And then his guts froze solid again, because something electronic lit up in the distance and a familiar voice roared in anger.

Rhys and Zer0 exchanged a look.

Jack.


 

Going through the wreckage with Zer0 needing to stop every twenty feet to catch their breath and Rhys nursing his own bruises was an exercise in patience and pain. The junkyard they were going through was not exactly stable either, and in between crawling and squeezing in too tight places, they missed getting crushed by falling rubble a few times.

Eventually, though, they found the remains of Jack's office. The huge screens that had once made up a window with a spectacular view on Pandora's moon were now cracked to hell, but still, astonishingly, functional. Jack paced over them like a big blue ghost.

He stopped as he saw them coming up the stairs. His eyes narrowed.

"Well. If it's not the murderers coming to gloat."

Rhys scoffed.

"Big words coming from you."

Jack laughed, grating and nasty. He shook his head with false commiseration.

"Oh, because you still think I'm the worst of the three of us? Amazing! How many people do you think were on Helios, huh, Rhysie? How many of your coworkers did you just eject into space to get rid of me?"

Rhys tensed. He didn't want to think about the answer to this question. There had not been enough escape pods on Helios; hell, even before the station had started crashing, systems had been failing left and right, venting entire meeting rooms into space. Zer0, leaning on him with one arm around his shoulders, turned their helmet toward him. They didn't say anything. There was nothing to say, really.

"I should have seen this coming from the start," Jack kept on, "with the way you were drooling all over a serial killer. Oh, he got you good, Rhys. Made a right monster out of you. Bang-up job, Vault Hunter! Better than I could have ever done myself!"

Rhys scowled. Sure, Zer0 was the one who had proposed getting rid of Jack permanently. But with or without them, he thought he would have made the same choice. What else was he supposed to do? Leave a megalomaniac AI in control of an orbital station?

He didn't know what this choice told about him. But he had made it, and he would have to live with it.

"Though I killed you twice / You're still droning on and on / Unbelievable."

This was the first haiku Zer0 had mustered in a while, but despite their attempt to mask their weakness, Rhys could hear the odd pauses as they struggled for breath.

"Hey, come on. Sit down."

Purposely turning his back to Jack, he attempted to herd the Vault Hunter toward a somewhat flat surface. They >:( at him, but there was no threat, here. Jack was stuck in a screen, with no turret or armchair restraints at his disposal. Pride relenting, Zer0 let themself be deposited on the remains of a shelving unit.

"Aww. The murdering power couple, brought low by their own plot," Jack noted. "What I wouldn't give for a flamethrower right now. Hell, even one of Atlas' lame security robots would do the job!"

"Shut up," Rhys said as he started rummaging around the wreckage.

"You know I could have hacked those at any time? Should have kept one for a rainy day. Or just killed you right then and there, Vault Hunter. Ha, wouldn't it have been something!"

Zer0 let their head fall back against a broken wall, the bold ZZZ on their faceplate emphasizing their absolute boredom. Rhys grit his teeth as he dug around the base of the screens, trying to figure out the location of the equipment where Jack's code had to be saved.

"The last thing you'd have seen before dying would have been Rhys hacking those little babies for me. Man, would that have felt sweet! Maybe then, you'd have understood betrayal, Vault Hunter. Betrayal like I've faced over and over again ever since I came to this shithole of a planet, the kind that rips into your guts and spills them all over the floor. What would you have felt, huh, if you had been stabbed in the back by your kept boy?"

Despite his resolution to ignore everything Jack spewed, Rhys couldn't help jolting at this, unable to take the attack on this fragile, maybe non-existent thing between him and Zer0.

"God, would you just. Shut. Up!" he yelled, backing away toward the collapsed desk so he could better glare at the screens.

"RHYS!"

He made to turn, startled, but the armchair's mechanical arm was already slamming into his data port.

He grappled for it and wrenched it off. Too late.

With one last mad, resounding laugh, Jack disappeared from the screens and reappeared in front of him. Rhys' ECHO eye materialized him in all his holographic glory. He looked pissed. He looked dangerous.

"You think," he said, holding his hand out, and Rhys watched in horror as his cybernetic arm followed the movement, "you can take me out?"

"Rhys!" Zer0 ran up to him and reached out.

"Oh no!" Jack laughed uproariously. "I'm taking you out!"

Rhys' hand closed around Zer0's throat.

"No!" Rhys yelled in horror.

Zer0 grasped at his hand, but they were already weak from lack of oxygen and growing weaker by the second. They made to reach for the sword handle at their waist, but Jack swerved the arm in a wide arc and slammed them into the desk. The sword clattered to the ground and skittered away.

"Hahahaha! Oh yes, just like this, Rhysie! Isn't revenge sweet? You'll murder him with your own two hands! And I. Get. To watch!!"

In fact, Rhys' left hand was very busy fighting the right one, with no success. Zer0's struggles were slowing.

Thinking quickly, Rhys spotted a sharp piece or rebar pointing out of some nearby rubble. Pushing on his legs with all his strength, he wrenched himself away from the desk and slammed his prosthetic upper arm into it. The metal pierced it right through, pinning it into place. Zer0 was pulled to their knees in front of him, still suffocating.

Jack was ranting about the people in his life who had betrayed him and how this, right here, had to be poetic justice. Rhys looked at Zer0's faceplate, panting. He couldn't be sure, but he thought they were looking right back.

Tearing off the cover of his shoulder joint, he scrabbled at whatever ports he could reach and yanked them out. It wasn't enough to loosen Jack's grip.

With a furious, terrified cry, Rhys pulled in the opposite direction, feeling every muscle and nerve on the upper right of his torso come alive in agony.

His cybernetic arm ripped out of its socket. The hand flopped open in a shower of sparks. Zer0 collapsed, their helmet doing nothing to mute their raw, frantic breaths. Rhys fell too, blood leaking from the torn ports into his shirt.

Somewhere above him, Jack scoffed.

"Well. Congratulations, kiddo. He gets to live another day. But what about you, huh?"

He leaned over Rhys, who snagged a piece of glass lying on the ground and tried futilely to slash at him, left arm waving to and fro through his intangible form. Jack sniggered.

"Cause I'm not going anywhere. As long as you've got those cybernetics in you... I'll be sitting here, waiting for my chance. If I can't get him, I'll get you, Rhysie. It's no biggie to me. I can be patient."

Jack wandered off. He pretended to kick at Zer0, gloating at the way they had curled up, barely conscious.

Rhys, however, was looking at the glass in his hand. As long as he had these cybernetics, huh... He looked at Zer0. At what he had done, with his damn secrets and his hero worship of a madman and his plain negligence.

His entire body hurt. There was a hole in his shoulder and shock was setting in. He felt cold and nauseous.

Zer0's head shifted toward him. On their faceplate, Rhys' reflection took the glass to his data port. His hand didn't shake.


 

Rhys woke in a daze. Everything hurt. He had only one eye and one arm left, and he felt the hole in his temple like it had been drilled straight into his brain.

He didn't know how long had passed since he had fainted. Not too long, maybe, since distant firelight still illuminated the rubble above him; but the sky had lightened some.

He wasn't as cold as he should have been. In fact, the entire left half of his body felt like it was cocooned under a heavy blanket. He twitched his chin to look down, regretting it immediately at the stab of his migraine.

"Zer0...?" he mumbled, catching sight of a familiar helmet.

His head rolled back.

"You're awake."

The Vault Hunter's voice carried a hoarseness that couldn't be hidden by the tinny quality the helmet had always given it. They were draped over Rhys' uninjured side, their bad arm laid across his waist.

"What are you doing?"

"Keeping you warm. Preventing shock."

"Oh," he said, because that made sense.

They fell back into silence.

Rhys' mind was empty. This time, Jack was truly gone. He had crushed his last cybernetic to ensure it. He was free. He could relax.

He stared at the sky, thinking of nothing.

He was also, came to him much later, very definitely unemployed. Vaughn was... He had no idea where Vaughn was. Fiona hated him. Sasha too, probably. Yvette... Man, who knew if Yvette had made it out? And Loader Boat...

Yeah.

Zer0's chest moved against his, breathing in, breathing out. The rhythm was soothing. He closed his eyes, the better to feel it.

At some point, they would need to move. They'd have to get up, and locate Zer0's sword, and hope they didn't get eaten by a skag before they made it back to some form of civilization. That's if Zer0 didn't decide he was more trouble than he was worth, after all, and left him to fend for himself. But they probably wouldn't be cuddling with him if that were the case.

"Um... so... we alright? I mean, with the... strangling and the... you know..."

"You were very badass."

"Yeah?" Rhys muttered and, to his shame, started tearing up.

Zer0 patted his chest.

"Yes, Rhys."

Rhys sniffled. So that was... that was something. Yeah. Something good.

Zer0 heaved themself up into a sitting position and shuffled so they could lean against the desk remains. Rhys moved to join them. His head rang so much Zer0 had to help. He collapsed against the support, panting.

What he wouldn't have given for some painkillers. Traveling would have to wait a bit. Zer0 didn't press him, merely staring at the cracked, empty screens in front of them as dawn broke out.

Rhys cleared his throat.

"Hey, so..."

Zer0 didn't move, though an interrogation mark appeared on their faceplate.

"I've... I've kinda been meaning to ask. Do you... like... have preferred pronouns?"

In light of everything, it seemed really silly not to have asked sooner. Zer0 made an indecipherable sound.

"Humans' obsession / With gender, I don't get it / I don't really care."

Kinda sloppy, but it was a haiku nonetheless. That was reassuring, weirdly enough.

"Oh," Rhys said, feeling a bit silly.

"Though I do prefer / when people who stick with me / skip meaningless words."

"Oh," Rhys said again, and his heart was in his throat all of a sudden. "Am I... am I sticking with you? I-I mean... can I?"

The helmet tilted toward him.

"Can you?"

He gulped. He felt like fireworks had set off in his insides.

"Is... huh... is 'they' a meaningless word?"

"'They' is fine."

"Okay," he grinned, and it was probably a very dorky grin, but who cared. "Yeah. Okay."

"So is 'darling'."

He did a double take, bug-eyed. Instead of laughing it off, however, all Zer0 did was flash him a ;-* emoticon.

"I'm..." Rhys said, in a reedy, breathy voice. "I'm... actually... more of a 'sweetheart' kind of guy?"

Zer0 hummed in contemplation.

"Acceptable," they declared.

And they linked their hands together.