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Learning to Compromise

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SOMEWHERE ON PANDORA

 

Y’know, in the stories on the ECHOnet that all the horny kids are writing, it's Jack’s hot-but-helpless PA that gets kidnapped and roughed up and ultimately saved by Jack himself, The Hero, yada yada, blah blah blah, rescue sex, the end. But that's just how it is in the fun, erotic shit, right? Jack is all for it, of course — who doesn’t like reading porn about themselves? — but when it comes down to it…

No. The one the bad guys are gonna come after is be the Big Man himself, duh. They aren’t going to worry about some spindly-ass kid, no matter how hot he is. Nope, Jack tells himself as he watches the ceiling go past above him. You’re the prize, Jack. It’s all about you. These bandits hit the Jackpot. 

Heh, Jackpot.

‘You’re delirious,’ says Rhys, only he doesn’t really say it because he's not really there. Jack gives him a wide, bloody smile as the bandit continues to drag him through the abandoned facility.

‘Sh’up, cupcake,’ Jack says, his mouth tasting coppery, lip stinging where the butt of the bandit’s gun had split it against Jack’s teeth. ‘You’re not real. Or maybe you’re the delirious one, huh?’ 

Rhys rolls his eyes. His skagskin boots make no sound on the concrete floor as he follows the bandit, who drags Jack around a corner and into a side room, where he drops him unceremoniously on the concrete.

I should try and get up, Jack thinks, but his body seems to be having trouble responding to orders right now. The rope once tight around his wrists has loosened enough to slip it it, but… nah, he’ll just stay here in the dust for another minute. Let the bandit think he’s won for a little longer, before Jack shows him — no, them . There’s another stinking lowlife leaning over him now.

‘Holy shit,’ the bandit says, and wow, his breath is bad . He’s got, like, one tooth in that black hole that’s meant to be a mouth. ‘It’s Handsome Jack!’

‘Told ya,’ says the bandit who’d dragged Jack from the crashed car out in the Badlands. ‘Told ya I weren’t lying.’ 

‘I thought you’d got wormbrain when you said over the radio,’ says Badbreath. 

‘Your ma’s got wormbrain,’ says Wormbrain.

Jack sniggers. Hey, it’s a classic.

‘Shut up!’ Badbreath’s foot hits Jack’s chest and shit Jack doesn’t remember his ribs getting busted, but it must’ve happened in the crash ‘cus his sternum is on fire. His pocketwatch sparks where it’s still clipped to his jacket, long past any cloaking capabilities.

‘He was babbling all the way here,’ Wormbrain whines. ‘I nearly shot him just to get a minute of quiet.’

‘Good thing you didn’t,’ Badbreath says. ‘Reckon people would pay good money to do it themselves.’

‘What? No? I was gonna give him to my girlfriend. For like, her birthday.’

‘Your- what, you mean, your girlfriend?’

‘Y’know. Maggie. The one who hangs out with Gutmasher. With the cute webbed toes?’

Badbreath rubs his hands over his face. ‘She ain’t your girfriend, bro.’

‘Yeah, but she might be if I get her a badass birthday present.’

‘Wow, Jack.’ Rhys chooses this moment to pipe up again. ‘ These are the geniuses that managed to catch you, huh? This is the intellect it takes to capture Handsome Jack?’

‘Fuck the shuttup, Rhysie.’ Jack is mildly aware that the words aren’t quite in the right order there. ‘They didn’t catch me.’

‘Who are you talkin’ to, big man?’ Badbreath leans right in, and Jack won’t ever admit it, but he feels the slightest, smallest sliver of something that might be panic as the bandit’s fingers touch the metal clasp of his mask at his right temple. It’s enough that Jack’s uncooperative limbs finally respond to his jangling nerves: he slips the ropes and grabs Badbreath by the throat — hey, it’s muscle memory by this point.

‘Get those stubby little sausages away from my face,’ he snarls, scrabbling to get himself into a less vulnerable position, ‘or I’ll feed them to you. After I cut ‘em off, obviously.’ 

‘Smooth,’ he hears Rhys say, but before he can reply a hand grabs a fistful of his hair, pulling hard and Jacks head meets the floor with a —

 

***

 

HELIOS, RESIDENTIAL SECTOR

 

‘Suck it!’ Rhys crows, dropping the controller to get that victorious double fistpump. 

Vaughn looks at him in disgust. ‘Bro, you cheated.’

‘Nu uh. How would I even cheat at this, it’s not like I can use the eye to aim a blue crystalisk at your cart.’ He gives Vaughn his best puppy eyes, and surreptitiously closes the game guide he’d called up with his eye mid race. ‘I’d never cheat you, Bro.’

Vaugn coughs, a cough that sounds oddly like ‘Monopoly’.

Rhys doesn’t start a discussion about how Monopoly doesn’t count, and instead picks up his echo from where he left it on the coffee table. He’s not checking his messages, he knows there’s nothing new, because he would have seen the alert pop up. He’s just looking at his ECHO, like a normal, non-clingy, non-desperate —

‘So it was a pretty bad fight, huh?’ Vaughn says.

‘What? No. I mean — what d’you mean? What fight?’ Rhys drops his ECHO again and instead grabs a massive handful of popcorn, shoving it in his mouth and immediately choking. Once he’s stopped coughing, Vaughn continues like Rhys hadn’t nearly killed himself trying to avoid the topic.

‘You and Jack. You’ve been here for, like, twenty-four hours. I love you bro, but you don’t live here anymore. You need to go home, and quit avoiding him.’

Rhy groans, and flops backwards, draping himself over the arm of Vaughn’s couch, that used to be Rhys-and-Vaughn’s couch, back when Rhys was single and things were less complicated and Rhys wasn’t orbiting Handsome Jack like a… like a stupid moon. The penthouse couch isn’t lumpy, and it doesn’t have stains on it and it’s really comfortable for… doing stuff on, and by stuff Rhys means Jack, but.

But.

He didn’t spend an hour with his best friend trying to get the penthouse couch into an elevator to get it from the shopping district to residential. The penthouse couch doesn’t have a soda stains on it from when Vaughn made Rhys laugh so hard his drink came out his nose.

‘It’s really dumb,’ Rhys says.

‘What?’

‘The fight. It was dumb. Its wasn’t even a fight, really, just…’ Just Jack and Rhys, fucking up a good thing. Like they always do. ‘Jack turned the thermostat down like… ten minutes after I turned it up.’

Vaughn waited a second, before saying, ‘That’s all?’

‘Yes. Well, no. Cus he said I should just put on a warmer sweater, and I said he could take off some of his stupid layers, then he ’s like “oh, Rhysie, you need to learn to compromise!” And I said, “ I need to compromise? Maybe you shouldn’t have invited me to live with you if you’re not ready to share!” Rhys took a deep breath. ‘And then he says “well pumpkin” — but it’s in that sarcastic way he does, you know? Like, “Well, pumpkin , I guess you can set the thermostat to whatever you want for a couple of days, because I’ve got some stuff to deal with down on Pandora.” And then he just left.’

Vaughn leans over, and pats Rhy’s shoulder.

‘Also,’ Rhys adds, ‘I hate his couch.’

 

***

 

PANDORA

 

It’s been at least twenty-four hours since Jack last had coffee, and he’s feeling it. He’s also feeling at least two broken ribs, a mild concussion, some blood loss from his busted leg, and dehydration. 

He’s also still seeing Rhys, who is a hallucination. He has to keep reminding himself about that last part. Especially when he woke up without his mask, because that was fun .

‘So, what’s the plan?’ Rhy paces the cell. Well, not technically a cell — from the looks of things this was an Atlas break room once upon a time, complete with defunct coffee machine, but it’s now functioning as a cell for the motley assortment of bandits calling this abandoned facility home.

A hand with closely bitten nails snaps its fingers in front of his face. ‘Hey,’ Rhys says. ‘You’re not giving up on me, are you?’

‘Of course not.’ Jack braces himself, and uses the wall to lever himself to his feet. His left leg doesn’t seem to want to do any work, probably because there’s a significant amount of blood oozing from his shredded calf. ‘Vents.’

‘Vents?’

‘Yeah, dumdum. Vents. Crawl through ‘em, like in the ECHOvids. I’ve done it loads of times.’ He points at said vent, high up on the wall in the far corner. 

Rhys looks sceptical. ‘It’s pretty high up. How are you planning on reaching it?’

‘I figured you could give me a boost, cupcake,’ he smirks, ‘assuming that little noodle arm of yours can take all this.’

Rhy just looks at him, and it takes a moment.

‘...Fuck.’ Jack wants to sink back down to the floor. ‘I keep forgetting.’ He needs to get his goddamn head on straight. Get out, get back to Helios, rain moonshot hell down on this dump.

‘I wish I could touch you right now.’ He hates the sound of pity in Rhys’s voice.

‘Yeah? This doing it for ya, Rhysie?’

‘You know what I mean. Obviously, because I’m a figment of your imagination.’ Pausing, like he’d just realised something, Rhys bent down and pulled up his trouser leg. ‘Right down to these freaking awesome socks!’

The socks are garish and awful. They’re the ones Jack had ‘accidentally’ dropped behind the laundry basket so the cleanerbot would miss them.

‘It would be so much easier if you would just disappear like a good little hallucination,’ Jack groans, pressing his hands over his eyes. Right. Enough of this shit. He is getting out of here.

 

He doesn’t have to wait long before Wormbrain comes to his cell.

‘You’re waiting behind the door, aintcha?’ The bandit says, peering in through the tiny perspex panel. ‘I’m smarter than average, see? I know all your Hyperion tricks.’

‘Oh yeah,’ Jack says. ‘You got me there, cupcake.’

‘Get where I can see you.’

Jack obligingly shuffles to the back of the small room, in good view of the window.

‘I’ve gotcha fresh bandages and water,’ Wormbrain says, ‘but you won’t get them if you don’t say please.’

Jack fights the urge to roll his eyes, grits his teeth, digs his nails into his palms and spits the word out.

Please .’

The lock clunks. The handle twists. Jack covers his face and flings himself into the furthest corner to avoid the explosion.

It had been Rhys that had come up with the idea of cannibalising the remains of the pocketwatch and combining it with bits from the Atlas AmBrewsia™ coffee maker to make something go boom. Jack was kind of annoyed at how smart it was, until he realised that, as Rhys was his hallucination, it was technically him that came up with it.

If anything, though, it was a little too smart. And a little too boom.

‘Jack!’ Rhys peers into his face. ‘Why aren’t you running? The other guy will be here any second, and there are probably more of them.’

Jack staggers upright. He can hardly see five foot in front of him from all the smoke. He’s pretty sure he’s only alive by virtue of the door blowing off its hinges and trying to bludgeon him to death before the fireball got to him.

His boots slide in the tacky red stain that is all that’s left of Wormbrain’s lower half, and he limps his way out of the smoking hole that was formerly the the cell door. Hot air makes his eyes water, and the skin normally covered by his mask stings. Beyond the ringing in his ears he hears yelling, and he heads in the opposite direction — for now. He needs a weapon, he needs water and his mask, and he needs to kill every son of a taint that so much as looked his way in the last however many hours.

‘C’mon Rhys,’ he says. ‘There’ve gotta be some sexy guns somewhere in this joint.’

 

By ‘sexy’, Jack certainly hadn’t mean this piece of junk shotgun Vladof had obviously crapped out after a rough night in Fyrestone, but beggars something something choosers, and whilst Handsome Jack has never been the sort to beg*, he knows that not every gun can be a Conference Call. 

‘That thing is gonna blow up in your face, Jack.’

Jack ignores Rhys and checks the clip — not as many rounds as he’d like, but certainly enough to take down someone who might be carrying more.

The room in which he’d found the gun was probably once a boardroom, long since converted to a makeshift bandit’s mess hall, smelling of stale chips and turning skag meat. Jack twists the cap off a bottle of water and —

‘Don’t —‘

— chugs the whole thing before choking most of it back up.

‘Little sips,’ Rhys says, and Jack would have shot at him if it weren’t for the limited ammo. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, scanning the room for anything else useful.

But he’s out of time. Running footsteps pound down the hall outside. Four sets — no, five? At least five. 

He upends a table and crouches behind it. Rhys settles beside him, close enough that Jack should be able to feel his body heat. But he can’t, of course.

Everything’s gonna be fine, because he’s the hero. But, just in case, he says, ‘Hey, Rhys…’

Rhys looks at him, his ECHO eye glowing, expectent look on his dumb face. When this is all over, Jack’s not letting him out of bed for a week except to answer the door for takeout.

He blinks back the black spots from the corners of his eyes. Nah, everything’s gonna be fine.

‘Nevermind.’ A thought strikes him — Rhys has never seen him without the mask. A shard of panic stabs at his gut.

‘So, what d’you think of it?’

‘Of what?’

Jack gestures to his face. Rhys smiles, that smile where just one side of his mouth quirks up, the one that Jack hasn’t figured out the meaning of yet, but he knows it's not a purely happy one.

‘I didn’t realise the moniker was meant to be ironic, Handsome.’

Yeah. Yeah, that’s what he thought.

——————————

 

*outside of limited bedroom situations