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When Zer0 arrived on Pandora, three years ago, the only thing they had desired was a single, worthwhile challenge.

What they found was the Vault: an ancient Eridian relic of immense power, containing a living superweapon, and coveted by one of the most powerful corporations in the galaxy. It was more than they would have dared hope for.

Zer0 hadn’t planned on sticking around after opening it. They were never the type to stay in one place for long, and back then, they had figured the Vault was all they needed out of Pandora. But the planet proved to be simply too alluring for them to simply abandon. It was unforgiving and deadly in all the right ways, consistently providing the bloodshed they coveted. And, in Sanctuary, they found a haven for all manner of outcasts, criminals, and freaks. For the first time in Zer0’s life, they had a home, and they were perfectly content.

Of course, it didn’t last. Boredom, as alway, caught up to Zer0.
Pandora entered a dry period.

It wasn’t as if they weren’t killing anything. Sanctuary had become a one-stop shop for any Pandoran in need of help, as was only natural for a town known to be home to multiple renowned vault hunters. The bounty board in town square never lacked for job postings, which Zer0 turned to after failing to find anything of interest through their own exploits.

Sometimes they’d get lucky, but the bounty board rarely hosted the most exciting of missions. Usually, it was filled with straightforward jobs, along the lines of “kill so-and-so” or “find this thing for me” or “scout out this area”. Enough to give Zer0 something to do, but usually leaving them unfulfilled.

Their fellow Vault hunters didn’t seem to mind these jobs. Some were happy just for the chance to help people. The rest would kill anything for decent pay (or just for the sake of bloodshed).

The only thing Zer0 ever really wanted was a new challenge.
Pandora was failing Zer0. Everything was falling into patterns.

Most of the bounties were for bandits, of which Pandora seemed to have an endless supply of. Take one group out, another would move in within the month, no tougher than their predecessors. A new bounty would come in once those too became a nuisance, and the cycle repeated.

The wildlife of Pandora wasn’t much different. Kill, wait, repeat. Occasionally you’d get an oversized skag or something, which were usually good for a bit of fun, but the novelty ran out pretty quickly. If you’ve fought one big skag, you’ve fought them all.

The last time they had any real fun was the fight against the Traveler. They remembered that battle especially fondly. It wasn’t every day that they got to pilot a giant robot in a fight (especially not while being fawned over by their biggest fan).

They had only gotten that opportunity because they’d taken that rather unexciting “Gortys core” mission that Moxxi had posted. In their pursuit of the core, they crossed paths with one hapless Hyperion company man, who was quite impressed with their skills, and would, months later, offer them a place aboard the Traveler mission.

That was a fluke, though. More often than not, the jobs that caught their interest were either outright lies, exaggerations, or pure misinformation.

Tips about things like "newly uncovered vaults" would turn out to be poorly-executed attempts at ambushes. People the Vault hunters had “wronged” would occasionally hire low-grade mercenaries to take vengeance. These attempts ranged from pitiful to pathetic.

The targets who got labeled as "warlord terrors" were almost exclusively flashier-than-usual bandit leaders, with average-sized gangs of twenty-or-so underlings. Mostly the sort of opportunists who were unused to their targets fighting back with any measure of success. Easy.

Once, there was a report of the Warrior, returned from the grave. It was a skinny bullymong with a skin disease. Zer0 felt foolish, falling for that, and didn’t bother to follow up with their employer on that one.

They learned to resent these bounty board jobs, but they still took them, even after letting go hope for another coincidence that would lead them to a foe on par with the Traveler. It was better than doing nothing, and sometimes the rewards were worthwhile. Sure, money didn’t motivate them, but that didn’t make it less of a necessity. Zer0 had to eat, despite the rumors saying otherwise. Not to mention there was always the prospect of some shiny new guns.

It was this kind of job that brought Zer0 out to the Dead Sands. An ECHOcomm from the administrator of the newly bandit-free and resettled Lynchwood: a bandit encampment was raiding the town, and a sizable reward was promised to whoever cleared them out.

Boring, but necessary. The sort of job they'd done hundreds of times.

Zer0 reached their destination as the sun was setting. They parked their runner far enough away to avoid detection, continuing on foot to an outcropping of rock that overlooked the camp. Crouching, they peered through the scope of their sniper rifle to determine exactly what they were working with (Not that it mattered so much, they were confident they could handle any surprise that mere bandits could offer).

A pair of goliaths congregated in the shadow of the water tower, on the near-side of the camp. Those two were probably the most dangerous, but that title held little value among a group like this. Another fifteen or so run-of-the-mill bandits meandered through the camp. From experience, Zer0 was able to guess that their leader was most likely the big one, who wore the spikiest scrap metal armor (For some reason, bandits seemed to universally accept spikes as a symbol of power. Zer0 didn’t really get it, it wasn’t as if the spikes made it any harder to put a bullet through their brains).
There was no sign of clan symbols or colors, which tended to be a good thing. Less chance of revenge being taken on the people of Lynchwood after Zer0’s work was finished.

There was no real risk, nothing to calculate, it was going to be a massacre, and they might as well get it over with.

They lined up their first shot.

A bang, the first goliath fell, and the camp was sent into a frenzy. The bandits had been caught by surprise, and were unable to identify where the shot had come from. The confusion gave Zer0 the chance to take the second goliath down, along with another two bandits. This took four more shots (the second goliath had a second or two to rage before Zer0’s second bullet brought him down. In retrospect, it might have been more fun to just watch him tear apart the entire camp. Maybe next time).

When they lined up a fifth shot, their target sighted the glint of Zer0’s helm. He pointed in their direction, beginning to yell something to his companions. He was cut off with a bullet exploding through his skull, but the others had already been alerted.

Now that they knew where Zer0 was, the remaining bandits had the sense to fire from cover. Bullets whizzed past Zer0 and ricocheted off the rock face harmlessly, none of the bandits dared to leave cover for a clear shot at them.

Zer0 could always wait them out, pick off whichever bandits were foolish enough to expose their heads, one by one. It was less risky that way. but that was boring, and this mission was mundane as it was. Better to create their own fun.

Zer0 leapt down from their perch, drawing their sword.

Naturally, it was a bloodbath. Even on easy jobs like this, there was a certain amount of satisfaction that came with some good old fashioned ultraviolence.

"Are there any left / Who wish to challenge my blade? / Or have you all died?" they asked their silent surroundings, as they kicked aside a severed head. It rolled a few feet, leaving a trail of dripping blood.

There was no response.

Sighing, they sheathed their sword.
Maybe there would be some worthwhile loot, at least. Lynchwood was a fairly wealthy town, and its administrator had never requested that Zer0 recover their stolen goods. Finders keepers, and all that.
They turned to enter the nearest shack.

And there was a loud bang and a blinding flash.

Zer0 stumbled, dazed, their vision white. Without hesitation, they drew their pistol, firing off a few blind shots at their surroundings.

The sound of gunshots was muted.

So was the sound of the return fire. They didn’t feel any shots connect, but a notification came up on their helmet’s HUD, clear against the white of their vision, “SHOCK DAMAGE: Shield at 0%. Find cover to recharge”.

They had no chance to act before they were met with the familiar burning pain of a bullet, tearing through their abdomen.

“Shit.” Did they miss a bandit?

A dumpster sat by the shack to their left, and even near-blinded they were able to half-dive, half-fall behind it. They were rapidly recovering from the flashbang’s effects, but white spots still burned into their vision.
While it would put them at a disadvantage to retaliate while still half-blind, their opponent would have time to reposition if they waited for their vision to be completely restored.

Zer0 leaned around the side of the dumpster, scanning the camp for their opponent.

Nothing. Since when were bandits so sneaky?

A sudden icy sting bit into their neck.
They instinctively swatted at it, finding a deeply embedded dart.

"You've become careless, assassin." A distorted voice spoke. Zer0’s hearing was still muffled, and they couldn’t get a read on the speaker’s location.

"So it seems." Zer0 said, and cloaked, leaving their hologram behind.

They just needed the moment to get their bearings. To find their target .

The Decepti0n sensor made everything appear clearly, even at night. The visual information was sent straight to their implants, bypassing the lingering effects that the flashbang had on their eyes.
To their surprise, it picked up not one, but four humans:
A sniper, using the same post Zer0 had.
A thin figure twenty feet in front of them.
A third, indistinct, lurking between tents in their periphery.
And the last, rapidly closing in from their back.

Zer0 swung around, expecting to catch the flanker by surprise.

"You're going to need some new tricks," a feminine voice spoke, and a blade pierced through Zer0’s ribs before they could fire a single shot. "Cloaking tech is kind of old hat."

Blood sprayed as Zer0 yanked themselves away and fired at her, but she’d vanished. Their sensor picked her up a second time, behind them again, before it immediately glitched, every highlighted form pixelating before vanishing suddenly. Their right arm went limp with it.
“And wow, I mean, have you ever heard of an EMP?” the woman laughed.

Zer0 bounded forward, anticipating her attack from behind.
They were fast enough to avoid being pierced again, but the blade slashed their back, cutting them shoulder blade to hip. They let out a cry of pain.

There were more gunshots.

More pain. More blood. Too much blood.

They stumbled, barely managing to keep their footing. Steeling themself against the pain, they retreated.

"Really, now, Zer0? Running isn't like you." It was the first voice again.

They ignored it.

The camp ended abruptly at a steep slope. They had no chance to hesitate or find another route, the tell-tale beeping of a grenade to their back made the decision for them.

What was supposed to be a graceful slide to the bottom turned to a tumble when their leg gave out, earning Zer0 a cracked helmet and at the very least some bruises. Broken bones wouldn’t be surprising, yet they were able to get back on their feet and miraculously, keep running. Shots were fired after them, but they were either spared more bullet wounds or too pumped full of adrenaline to even feel them.

They only dared to stop and take inventory of their wounds when the bandit camp was far out of sight, sparing no more time than was absolutely necessary. They injected the single insta-health they carried with them, not enough to heal them, but enough to stave off death, at least for awhile. They then hastily bandaged the worst of their injuries, before continuing on, slower now.
Adrenaline was fading, replaced by exhaustion, and more pain.

The only thing Zer0 could do to distract from the pain was to recount the ambush, picking it apart, trying to understand what had happened.
The attackers knew Zer0, and had the skill to catch them by surprise. They’d been able to see through their cloak, even had an EMP ready to short out their cybernetic enhancements.

It wasn’t the first time Zer0 faced an enemy who was prepared for their tricks, but it was the first time that knowledge was matched with skill. It was the first time that Zer0 had been beaten without being able to so much as lay a single scratch on their opponent.

These were professionals, specifically targeting them.
Their runner would be watched.
As would the Catch-a-Ride.
And the fast travel.

Still limping, they pulled their ECHO device from their belt, hand shaking. It was broken.
Probably damaged on their fall down the slope. For the best, they supposed. If their attackers were tracking ECHO signals, which wouldn’t be surprising, calling for help would be a big, flashing target over their position.

Regardless, their chances of survival looked bad, even if their mysterious assailants didn't catch up. Pandora had a way of ridding itself of the weak.

Of all the places this could happen, it had to be this remote corner of the Dead Sands. Both Ellie’s Garage and Lynchwood were too far to reach on foot. As far as they knew, those were the only two friendly establishments in the entire region.
They could only hope for a miracle, which was not something they tended to place much faith in.

As far as Zer0 could tell, there were two choices and four likely endings, all of which were death:
1. Rest and regain their strength, only to be hunted down by their attackers. They doubted that a second encounter would go any better than the first.
2. Move. Encounter hungry Pandoran wildlife and/or bandits. They were definitely too weak for a fight, it wouldn’t take much to take them down.
3. Move. Manage to avoid hungry Pandoran wildlife and/or bandits. Succumb to exposure. Pandora tended towards the extreme even in its weather. The Dead Sands scorched during the day, and froze at night.
4. Move. Miraculously avoid becoming dinner, while somehow surviving the elements. Succumb to blood loss and/or infection.

Moving seemed to be their best chance to delay death the longest, at least. So they walked.

Of course, it stormed.
The Dead Sands region, as its name suggested, had been in a drought for years, but when Zer0 was at their most desperate, its skies finally broke. A cold, ruthless downpour.
It was very like Pandora. The pitiless planet went out of its way to kill people.

There was no shelter from the rain, and even if there had been, Zer0 still feared their pursuers catching up to them.

The sands in this part were more of a fine dust, which turned to thick mud in the ran. It sucked at their boots, making each step a struggle.
Zer0 slipped twice. The second time they simply lay in the rain for a while, too exhausted to move.

They didn’t remember getting back on their feet, but an hour later they were trudging through mud again.

The storm ran its course in some hours, only to be replaced by the blistering midday sun. At first, the warmth was a relief, saving them from hypothermia. Then it became a discomfort. It wasn’t much longer before heat stroke rose to the top of Zer0’s list of most likely deaths.

At least they'd be dry.

In the end, Zer0 collapsed, unable to go any further. They had lost track of how long they’d walked for, and they had no way of telling where they even were. Their thoughts were becoming cloudy, filled with only pain.

Giving up and lying down wasn't exactly the way they expected to go. Maybe, if they had the energy, they would feel embarrassed about it.

Chapter Text

"Zer0? ...Zer0?! Oh man, um… Are you okay?!"

Odd. That voice seemed familiar. Where were they? They didn’t remember falling asleep… Everything hurt.

Oh, right.

They were dying, weren’t they?

“Come on, please wake up.” the voice was louder now.

They were in the middle of the Dead Sands, the only people here would be bandits, and bandits would at best put them out of their misery before looting their body. Most likely just go straight to the looting.

Maybe it was an auditory hallucination?

That seemed right. It would make sense for that sort of thing to be triggered as their brain shut down. In a few minutes or so, they probably wouldn’t even be cognizant enough to question it.

"Crap, you're not dead, are you? Crap crap crap crap..." It was a man’s voice. There was a panicked lilt to it.
They couldn’t remember whose voice it was, but it was strangely comforting to hear.

Something softly nudged them. Then they were being gently shaken, gripped by their shoulder. Or was this another delusion?

There was more nudging, less gentle.

Okay, that was a really annoying amount of nudging, and it was soon accompanied by a panicked stream of profanity.
Dying was supposed to be peaceful, wasn’t it?

They cracked open their eyes just enough to make out the blurred silhouette of the man ruining their already pretty crappy death. A real person, then.
Though it was possible they were hallucinating this, too.

A scrolling column of Decepti0n notifications appeared down the side of their vision, the red text bright and perfectly clear, even with their eyes just barely open.
-WARNING: Malfunction of right arm cybernetics
-WARNING: Severe hemorrhaging
-WARNING: Hyperthermic conditions
-WARNING: Unidentified toxin in bloodstream
-WARNING: Death imminent in ???
-ERROR #334899A
-ERROR #45822C2

After a few seconds, another line popped up at the bottom:

Their tormentor’s surprised yelp confirmed that Decepti0n’s emote projection was still completely functional. Thank god for that.

"Shit...O-Okay, I honestly have no idea if that means you're alive or dead, but...I'm going to act on the assumption you're alive and uh..." Zer0 felt a pair of arms worm their way under their body, painfully rubbing against their wounds. "Sorry but...I think I gotta...move you…?" The words were punctuated by grunts, the man struggling to stand while lifting them. "Oh thank god, you're really light." He chuckled, unconvincingly.
Zer0 could feel him shaking under their weight.

...Weird. They were very aware of these details for someone who was supposedly almost dead.

Forcing themself to open their eyes beyond a squint, they were able to clearly make out the face above them.

A familiar pair of mismatched eyes stared back.

...Handsome Jack?
No, Jack was long dead. And this man’s face was softer than Jack’s, kinder.

“Oh, hello, Rhys,” they said.

"Augh!” Rhys cried out, struggling to keep a grip on them. "Zer0! You're alive!"

"Am I? Surprising. / I am unsure it will last. / ...Please, do not drop me." They almost didn’t recognize their own voice. It was soft and rasping, the mechanical sound was more pronounced than usual.

"S-sorry! But...What...How...Erm, are you okay?" Rhys stammered. He did that a lot, at least when Zer0 was around.

A new notification appeared in the side of their vision: “-PROJECTING//ಠ_ಠ”

"Blood spills from my wounds. / You...find me collapsed, near death, / And you ask if I'm okay?" Zer0 started to laugh, but a sharp pain in their chest turned it into a groan.

"Okay, yeah, dumb question,” Rhys admitted, “Um, please don’t die on me."

"I will try not to.” they felt their weight shift awkwardly as Rhys stopped walking, and stood on one leg, leaning his raised knee against something to keep balance. He shifted part of Zer0’s body onto that leg, freeing an arm.
“What are you doing?" they asked, when a car door clicked open.
Miraculously, Rhys managed not to drop Zer0, nor fall over.

"I’m getting you to a doctor." Rhys leaned forward with a soft “umph!”, awkwardly laying Zer0's body in what they could safely assume was the backseat of his car. He adjusted them so that they lay across the row, their knees bent to fit. “I...don’t really know how I’m supposed to do this sort of thing, sorry.”

"A doctor... That would be unwise," They warned.

"But..." Rhys hesitated. "You- You are literally full of-of holes! I know you're a badass but...Can you even move?"

They considered this for a long moment.
Their left hand was able to open and close, albeit painfully. Their cybernetic right arm had broken, its hand stuck in a fist. "Not able to move...much."

"Then you need to see a doctor," Rhys said, voice firm as he leaned over Zer0. A seatbelt clicked, and then a second one, so that both their legs and torso were buckled in.
The back door shut loudly, and another was opened, as Rhys presumably entered the driver's seat.

"Not safe...Surveillance. / Might be rediscovered. / Death...Death a certainty." Zer0 argued. Okay, haikus were getting difficult.

"What?" Rhys’ voice was starting to sound far away.

Zer0 struggled with a response for what felt like a long time.
The car was moving now. They almost lost their train of thought to the rumbling of it.
"...Targeting me... A danger to you, as well..." they finally managed.

Rhys was saying something again. A distant sound, unimportant. Zer0 closed their eyes, drifting off.

Their name being was being frantically called.

"Zer0?! Zer0?! Stay with me! Shit, please say something!"

"....Med vendor?" They suggested as they slipped out of consciousness.

"I'll patch you up whenever you need it!" the electronic voice of a man, presumably the so-called “Doctor” Zed announced.
Just how delirious was Zer0? Everything about the machine, from its location in the absolute middle of nowhere, to its blood-spattered exterior, screamed: “shady as hell”. Surely this wasn’t a replacement for an actual doctor?

Alas, there wasn’t time to waste worrying about tetanus. Either the suspicious Anshin brand "Insta-health” would save Zer0, or Zer0 was screwed.

Rhys made his purchase on the holographic keypad, hoping the product would come with instructions...Or at least some sort of explanation.

A single, unpackaged syringe was digistructed in the bottom compartment.

"Of course..." He sighed as he retrieved the syringe, trotting back to the car.

"Uh, Zer0, it would really help if you could tell me how to do this..." he tried.
They were unresponsive, as they had been for the half hour it took to find the med vendor. There had been a few times where he thought he’d lost them, but if he listened carefully he could make out their shallow breaths.

Rhys kicked himself for skipping out on those annual first-aid conferences Hyperion employees were encouraged to attend. He had no clue how to handle any of this, and he would never forgive himself if he accidentally killed Zer0.
He’d always assumed the ECHOnet would have any first-aid info he needed, but the region’s service had been knocked out by the previous night’s storm.

But okay. Fine. He’d seen medical dramas before. He could figure it out. This insta-health stuff probably worked more or less like the injected healing accelerator drugs that got used on planets that had actual hospitals. So, it would be injected into a muscle, the deltoid being a common one. Like a flu shot.

It would probably be easier, or at least more sanitary, if he could actually see Zer0's skin...or whatever they had under their suit. The flesh revealed by torn fabric was too bloody for him to get much of gauge on what was actually going on, epidermis-wise.

But, Zer0 was, as far as Rhys could tell, all about that whole "mysterious assassin" thing. Which possibly meant they’d kill them if he saw what was under there. But Zer0 couldn't blame him, right? He was trying to save their life.

Rhys steeled himself. “Okay, okay, please don’t kill me for this.”
Shutting his eyes, he gripped the zipper.

A hand suddenly clasped around his wrist, in a surprisingly strong grip.

He yanked away with a yell, steadying himself on the doorframe.

"Take the cap off, and I can handle it.” Zer0’s voice was soft, wavering.

He obeyed, cursing himself for being embarrassingly jumpy again.
Zer0 shakily took the syringe, plunging it into their thigh.

“I will likely need another two,” they requested.

"Oh! Um, Sure!" Rhys rushed back to the vendor.

Zer0's breathing was steadying when he returned, but otherwise, they didn’t seem much better off.
One at a time, Rhys removed the syringe caps and handed the insta-healths to Zer0.

To Rhys' (probably naive, now that he thought about it) disappointment, the assassin wasn't leaping to their feet, miraculously recovered. The wounds visibly shrunk, and too Rhys’ eyes, they looked less deadly, at least for the immediate future.
They didn’t look great, but far better.

Zer0 managed to sit up, with a grunt of pain. "That...should have done more,” They said. “...Do you have water?"

"Oh! Yeah!" Water really should have been the first thing he offered upon finding Zer0 in the desert. That was like, wasteland-101 or something. He leaned into the front seat to grab his half-empty water bottle from the front cup holder, offering it to them. "It's uh, warm. Sorry."

"Thank you, Rhys." They took the bottle, but made no move to drink, only staring at Rhys. After a moment, a "..." appeared on their visor.

"R-Right!" Rhys took the hint, turning away to give them privacy.

There was a click as Zer0 removed their helmet. Rhys forced all curiosity out of his mind until the emptied bottle was thrust in his face. When he looked back at where they’d been sitting a moment before, Zer0 was gone. The back door slammed shut.

They were limping away.

"Woah woah woah! Woah! Zer0?! What are you doing?!" Rhys scampered after them, almost grabbing their arm before thinking better of it.

"I cannot stay here. / They may still be after me. / I am well enough." They didn’t bother to look at him when they spoke, and the did not stop walking.

"Okay, I get that you're like, super badass- and I really, completely mean that- but we’re in the middle of nowhere, and you literally almost died!" he protested, following.

"I fail to see why / This would have any bearing / On what I do now."

"Are...Are you joking? I mean, look at you!" Stepping in their path, Rhys dramatically gestured at their whole body. Their right arm was bent at an awkward angle, the hand stuck clenched in a fist, and hastily bandaged wounds were scattered from the neck-down, at least one of which had begun to seep fresh blood, probably as a result of them standing. "You...You're bleeding! And...And do you even have any guns?! Can you even shoot right now?!"

The last question seemed to give Zer0 pause. They glanced down with a question mark projected from their mask. "...It seems they are gone. / Must have lost them as I fled. / Can always find more." They started to walk again.

Rhys was about to grab them, potential threat of stabbing be damned, when Zer0’s wounded leg gave out from under them, sending them sprawled out on the ground.

"Crap," They said.

Rhys was crouched beside them in an instant. His hands hovered a few inches away from Zer0’s shoulders, his momentary confidence lost.

"Perhaps I do need your assistance," they admitted, pushing themself up from the ground. Rhys stood up, offering a hand to aid them. They took it, and he helped them to their feet.

"Great! I..I mean it’s definitely not great that you're hurt, but, well... Just the whole...Not running off to die thing..." Rhys trailed off when he realized that Zer0 wasn't listening, already limping their way back to the car.

"I will need medical attention." They announced when Rhys caught up.

"I thought you said-”

"Yes, but I may die, / If I am left untreated. / Discretion is key." Their faceplate projected a “:\”.

"Right... So, what do we do?"

"First, we get somewhere safe." They slid into the car, again taking the backseat.

"Any suggestions?" Rhys asked, following.

"You own Atlas now," They said.


"Deep in Old Haven / There is a top-secret base / You live there, correct?"

“No...I mean yeah, I’ve been sleeping there for awhile. But I wouldn’t call it...” Rhys rubbed his neck, embarrassed to be admitting to his current living situation. "I cleared out the corpses and got things fixed, kinda. I’m just staying there while I work on rebuil-. wait. How do you know about that?"

"I find it wise / To research likely targets / For future conquest."

Rhys gaped in the rearview mirror. "Wait, you researched me?! Have you been following me? Future conquest? Does that mean assassination?!" The prospect was absolutely terrifying, but also almost kind of flattering, in a weird, "You're important enough that I might be hired to kill you, and also I actually do pay attention to your life" kind of way.

"Do not worry, Rhys / I will refuse any jobs / You have earned a pass." A “<3” was projected.

Rhys diverted his eyes to focus on the road, blushing.

Chapter Text

It was a long drive to Old Haven.

Zer0 spent most of it drifting in and out of consciousness.

It was rare that they spent any more time than necessary asleep. It was a waste of time that could be spent doing better things- even being conscious and bored was more productive than sleep.

But they were so exhausted, and their periods of consciousness were plagued with pain and troubling thoughts.

Three insta-healths should have been able to almost completely heal them. Sure, it was possible that these ones just happened to be defective. There was a first time for everything, and it would fit their recent streak of bad luck.
But something else roused their suspicion.

The dart.

It was still clenched in their right hand. Somehow, during the fight, they must have had the foresight to not throw it away. A good thing, too: in their experience, the prospects for a poisoning victim were far better if the poison was identified.

With that in mind, they sat up, leaning against the car door. Using their left hand, they pried open the fingers on their right, just enough to get a better look. They rarely used poisons in their own work, but they at least had a passing familiarity with some of the more common ones.

The projectile was similar to a tranquilizer dart: a clear syringe with yellow tufts at one end, and a collared hypodermic needle at the other. The plunger was pushed completely down, but traces of a translucent purple fluid still clung to the syringe’s sides.


Eridium slag exacerbated any wound it came in contact with, which would explain why they weren’t healing properly. But why use a dart for that effect? If one wanted to kill someone outright, slag-coated bullets would be a more straightforward, reliable route.

The effects of slag were variable, depending on the method of administration. While those who came in external contact with slag faced intensified wounds, those who were injected with it tended to mutate or go insane. More often than not, both.

Zer0 wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, or if slag even affected them. For all they knew, the symptoms could take days to manifest, if they were injected with enough to even see symptoms. It seemed like a small dose, at least. Possibly even watered down- slag was usually thicker and more opaque. Or, it was in Zer0’s experience.

Of course, there was always the possibility that it wasn’t slag at all. In which case, they were at a loss.
To be honest, they were at a loss either way. What did their attackers hope to achieve by injecting them with this stuff? If instead of a dart it had been a bullet, Zer0 would have died instantly.

In retrospect, the whole attack made no sense. Their assailants had ample chance to kill them. Zer0 shouldn’t have been able to escape...

These thoughts were interrupted when they met Rhys’ eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Hey uh, how are you holding up back there?” Rhys asked.

“Terribly, really. / But it seems I am not dead. / Which is a relief.” They projected a smiley face in an attempt to reassure him. There was no reason to tell him, it wasn’t as if he would know what to do about poisoning.

Rhys gave Zer0’s reflection a searching look, before returning his focus to the road ahead.

“Did you cloak or, uh…?” Rhys asked as he pulled into Old Haven. Throughout the car ride, he’d been periodically glancing back at Zer0. The last time, they had vanished, not thinking to give Rhys a head’s up beforehand.

“Yes, I am here. / It is safer that I cloak. / Until we’re inside.”

“I don’t think you need to worry… No one else lives in Old Haven, it’s just me and a bunch of bots,” Rhys assured, parking outside the entrance to the Atlas facility, where rubble had been cleared out to make room.

“Still, we may be watched. / I’ll leave through the driver’s door. / Pretend I’m not here.”

Rhys may not have harbored the same concerns as Zer0, but he humored them, leaving the front door open long enough for Zer0 to follow him out.

“Another request. / Please shut down your surveillance. / So I may uncloak." they limped into the dimly-lit lobby beside Rhys.

A fallen statue of the titan, Atlas, lay across the front of the room. It had broken at the ankles at some point. Further back, the feet were still attached to a central large pedestal. There was no sign of the globe he presumably once held.

"Isn't it more surveillance?"

"You do not realize, / How easily it’s accessed. / I’ve done so, before,” they said. “Did you not test your own security?”

“You...You really hacked my surveillance?” Rhys frowned up at one of the cameras overlooking the lobby.

They ignored his reaction. "Delete recordings, / Of the past couple minutes. / You appear suspect."
At Rhys' blank stare, they added: "You appear to be conversing with thin air."

"Right...But uh, I kind of wish I didn't know about you spying on me," Rhys said. He opened his palm interface, accessing the security files.

Uncloaking, Zer0 projected a red “SRY” from their faceplate.

“Only this front room. / I did not intrude further. / It’s less fun, that way.”


“As an assassin, / I prefer some surprises, / When infiltrating.” They projected a winky-face emote in place of the “SRY”.

They reactivated the “SRY” within an instant, realizing that Rhys was more afraid than amused.
"When I have the chance, / I will install a firewall, / That is more secure." they offered.

"Oh...Uh, thanks? If you want to...After you recover. Which, uh, what do we do now? Because you still look really bad. I mean, injury-wise.”

"If you are able, / Could you contact Athena? / Do not mention me." Zer0 sunk down to the floor, leaning against the pedestal.

“What should I say?”

"Tell her you need help. / That there’s an emergency. / bring Maya?" It hadn’t occurred to them before now, but Maya’s powers worked differently than any healing product. It was possible she could do what the insta-healths couldn’t.

"Maya?" Rhys had opened his contacts list on the palm interface, but waited for further explanation before making the call.

"She is a siren. / I believe she could perform / The basic first aid." Zer0 stretched their legs out in front of them. They were still so tired...

And they had started bleeding again. Rhys didn’t seem to have noticed, probably thanks to the room’s dim lighting. They were grateful for that. He’d already saved them, they didn’t need him worrying over a bit of blood loss.

Pressing their back into the pedestal, they used their right hand to put pressure on the blade’s exit wound, which was bleeding more profusely than their other injuries.

At least the insta-healths seemed to have done their job of supplying an artificial blood transfusion. They wouldn’t bleed to death anytime soon. Nothing wrong with a little bit of early-stage hemorrhagic shock.

They watched from the opposite side of the holographic display as Rhys made the call.

Four rings sounded before Athena’s face appeared on the video feed. She squinted at Rhys, dark circles under her eyes.

"Hey...Athena..." Rhys managed a pinched smile and gave a small wave of his free hand.

"Rhys? It’s three in the morning, why are you calling me?" she demanded, the resentment in her words offset by a long yawn.

"Oh, is that what time it is? Heh, sorry, just, um..." He started to trail off, but a scowl from Athena prodded him to continue. "There's uh, an emergency? And uh..." he shrugged, glancing at Zer0.

They projected a ">_<", and pointed at the large Atlas logo on the wall.

"It's about Atlas?" Rhys took the hint.

"Can it wait until morning? What's the emergency?" Athena stifled a second yawn. In the background, an equally tired-sounding Janey called Athena back to bed.

"It definitely can't wait, and it’s not really something I can explain- I know that sounds fake, but believe me, it’s something you're going to need to see… Oh! And bring Ma...Maya?" His voice tilted upwards at the name, and he looked back to Zer0. They gave a shaky thumbs up.

"Maya? Do you know her?" Athena asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I...Know OF her?" Rhys admitted. "Look, I know this sounds suspicious as hell, but trust me, please. It's serious."

Zer0 was drifting off again.

Hopefully, Rhys would be able to handle this on his own. Athena wasn't exactly the most trusting of women, and she didn’t seem to hold Rhys in the highest regards, but she had to realize that there was no reason for Rhys to lie to her. He may have been ex-Hyperion scum, but he wasn’t exactly Handsome Jack.

They projected a "ZZZ", letting Rhys know they'd no longer be of help.

Rhys cursed under his breath when Zer0's latest projection appeared.

"Rhys, if this is your idea of a joke..." Athena left the threat unsaid.

"It's not! I swear this is really important! Lives are literally on the line! And I...I can pay you?! Both of you?! Please."

Athena sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Fine...I'll be there soon."

"...And, erm, Maya? Because-"

"I'll see what I can do, but I can't make any promises," Athena interrupted, sparing Rhys the trouble of fabricating an explanation.

"Thanks. You’re a lifesaver. I mean that literally?”

With an affirmative grunt from Athena, the call clicked off, leaving Rhys alone with an unconscious Zer0.

Rhys took a deep breath, sitting on the pedestal a few feet away from them. "So, I guess we wait?"

Unsurprisingly, there was no response.

Looking down at them, he noticed the fresh blood soaking through their bandages. Their good hand was ineffectively covering their chest wound.

“Shit, Zer0, you should have said something…” Rhys sighed, removing his jacket. He scooted off the pedestal to kneel next to them, gently taking their wrist to move their hand out of the way, and used his balled up jacket to apply pressure.

Getting comfortable like this without putting himself in a compromising position was impossible, but after moving Zer0’s legs ever-so-carefully, he managed to make room to sit on his knees, off to Zer0’s side. It was slightly more bearable, though still awkward. He could only really stare at them or the side of the pedestal. He settled on studying Zer0.

Rhys had only seen them twice before today, and during both encounters, they'd been doing stuff that was frankly, fucking badass. They had seemed untouchable.

Now though, looking down at their slumped body, Rhys was uncomfortably aware of how easily some goliath or bullymong could snap them over a knee. It was hard to believe this was one of the people that took down the Warrior. Not when they looked so fragile.

His gaze was drawn to something yellow, grasped in Zer0's currently useless right hand. A combination of curiosity and boredom led him to activate his ECHO-eye, expecting a dull entry about whatever material the fluff consisted of.

An ECHO window opened in his vision, announcing "ANALYSIS COMPLETE". Underneath it read:
“Achlys Slag Dart
Manufacturer: Hyperion
Dosage: Approximately 0.5mL per dart
Lethal Dosage: Inconclusive

“Achlys eridium slag is the byproduct of eridium collected and refined in [REDACTED], and was used in experimental procedures at [REDACTED]. Hyperion Research and Development began tests of the biological warfare capabilities of this substance in 2876, as part of project [REDACTED]. Funding was cut shortly after Handsome Jack's death, later the same year.* A limited supply of prototype Achlys slag weapons have made it into circulation prior to this, due to manufacturer error.*
*Those responsible were [REDACTED].

“Properties: Unlike generic eridium slag, Achlys slag has demonstrated no effects on test subjects who are merely subjected to external exposure. Its effects only manifest in subjects who are injected with the substance, either intravenously or intramuscularly. Human and animal subjects show symptoms approximately 24 hours after injection into the bloodstream.

“Symptoms include: Severe weakness, fatigue, [REDACTED], myalgia, headache, dulled senses, restricted healing, reopening of old wounds, pallor, fever, and fainting. The effects vary by dosage and species. Severe injury close to the time of injection increases the risk of death. Typically, the chemical takes nine to sixteen weeks to run its course in human subjects.”

Rhys hoped Athena and this siren got here soon. He was in over his head.

Chapter Text

Zer0 woke to silence and a familiar warm, light sensation. Decepti0n was no longer bombarding them with warnings of hemorrhaging and potential death. They felt surprisingly okay.

Or unsurprisingly okay, once they were awake enough to remember the hour preceding their loss of consciousness.

"Oh, good. You made it / After all I had gone through / It would suck to die." Zer0 greeted. They didn’t need to open their eyes to know Maya’s presence.

“Really? That’s all you have to say? No, 'Thank you for saving / Me with your powers, Maya / It was pretty cool.'?" she tried to mimic their monotone, but couldn’t help the smile that broke into her voice.

"Thanks for saving me / With your cool powers, Maya / For the thousandth time." Zer0 projected a “=P”.

“You're welcome. Mind explaining why I got dragged out here at 3 AM, though? Is that-” she gently poked the torn fabric at their ribs, “-from a sword?”
Of course, Maya just had to get straight to the point.

“Wow. Not a moment / Without interrogation / To enjoy my health?” They looked down at the wound, now only a small gash.

“Just answer the question.” she huffed.

“You didn’t finish healing it. It’s still open.”

“It’s barely even a paper cut. Don’t try to distract me, Zer0.”

“An open wound could get infected.”

Maya narrowed her eyes. “Zer0, do you see how much blood is on you? Do you know how early it is? I’m not in the mood.”

The remains of the Atlas statue were suddenly immensely more appealing than Maya.
“...Yes, it was a sword.”

“Was that so hard?” the smile was back, but this time her voice sounded strained. “So, how did someone with a sword even get close enough to do that?”

Zer0 projected a “D<”. All Maya needed to know was that they got hurt but now they were fine.
No one needed a play-by-play.

“I’m not trying to insult you, I’m trying to understand how this happened. I was really scared when I saw you, you know?” Maya used the tone that a human parent would take with their petulant offspring. The last time Zero heard her use this particular voice was when she caught Gaige planning to saw off her own leg.
This was the first time it had been directed at them.

They continued to study the statue.

“If you’re embarrassed-”

“There were four of them / An ambush, naturally / I was unprepared.” A faint bitterness snuck into their typically emotionless voice.

“Right… So, details? You can ditch the haikus if you want, I won’t tell.”

Zer0 knew better than to keep deflecting. If Maya wanted to, she could phaselock them until they talked. They’d seen her do it.
With a defeated sigh, they recounted the ambush, making some minor omissions. They left out their inability to land a single blow, and their clumsy tumble down the cliff face.
Maya could do without knowing the exact degree of their shame.

"They had been prepared / To counter each of my moves / They were hunting me." They glanced back at her as they finished. The hint of sympathy in her expression only served to irritate them more, and they returned their gaze to the titan.

"Shit… And you have no idea of who they are or what they want?”

“I barely saw them.” The statue’s legs were covered in faint bloodstains. A tell-tale misty spatter from a bullet wound, mixed with some lovely arterial spray.

“And they used this?” Maya held up the dart. She must have forced their hand open, while they were still unconscious.

Zer0 glanced at it briefly, before returning their attention to the statue. “Yes. Why? Do you know what it is?”
There was some smudging of the bloodstains from an attempt to clean them, long after they were made. It took away from the aesthetic, but Zer0 supposed it was for the best. Old blood would begin to smell. Still, the sculpture itself was subpar, and honestly improved by the blood, in their opinion.

“According to your friend, it’s a type of Eridium slag, ‘Achlys’. Apparently it’s some weird experimental Hyperion stuff?”

This revelation made it harder for Zer0 to focus on art appreciation.
“I thought it was slag / Yet I retain sanity? / Perhaps I’m immune?” They said, somewhat reassured by Maya’s lack of worry.
It was a small dose, after all. They’d taken small doses of slag through their wounds before, if those counted.

“Yeah, apparently, it doesn’t work like that? Your friend pulled up a long list of symptoms, but I have no idea how many of them apply to you.” she shrugged. “I don’t think there’s an antidote or anything like that, but it probably won’t kill you. At least, not now that I’ve healed you. But it’s safe to say you’re going to be out of commission for awhile…Sorry.”

“Great.” Zer0 slumped down. They’d probably lose their sanity anyways, sitting around not doing anything. At least insane eridium mutants got to go out and kill things.

“Hey, look at it like a vacation. Hang out in Sanctuary for a while, play video games, catch up on ECHOnet shows…Entertain Claptrap?” she tried. Obviously, she wasn’t even convincing herself.

"That would be unsafe. / Sanctuary will be watched. / I will have to hide.”

“Really, or is this an excuse to avoid babysitting Claptrap?” It was a weak attempt at making light.

“Only partly so. / But, for the most part, it’s truth. / Embarrassing truth.” They projected a “-_-;”.

"Sanctuary is the safest city on Pandora, and you’re in no shape to be hiding out alone. The rest of us can take turns keeping watch."

Zer0 shook their head. “Babysitting me. / Throwing away resources. / Completely futile.”

“Futile?! Really, or are you just embarrassed?” They could practically hear her patience snap. “Look, Zer0, I know it sucks, but the rest of us wouldn’t have fared much better. You’re being childish.”

Zero was unaffected by her outburst. “I have killed targets, / Who were guarded on all sides. / It takes one slip-up.”
It was the truth. An assassin had to be patient. They would study the routines of everyone surrounding the target, and find the opportune moment to strike. In the best case, they would slip through a crack and take Zer0 out when the other’s backs were turned. In the worst case, there’d be additional casualties. Dying like that was humiliating enough, but having someone else die protecting them reached a whole new level.

“We won’t slip-up, then.”

“Everyone does.”

Maya closed her eyes, taking a deep breath and letting it back out. “Fine. Okay. Zer0, I think you’re being completely paranoid, but sure, you’re the expert, or whatever. And I guess we can’t really force you to come back? Or, we technically could, but that would probably end in some choice stabbings, huh?" she had successfully regained her composure by the time she finished talking. She still didn’t look too happy, though.

“Most likely.”

"Okay, but you don't get to completely disappear. We...We’re your friends, if there’s trouble, you call us. And next time, you might want to come up with an easier method of doing this sort of thing than using a suspicious ex-Hyperion lackey as your messenger."

A red "!" popped up in front of Zer0’s helmet, their attention finally wrenched away from the statue. "Where is Rhys? Is he okay?"
They hadn’t even considered it before now, but Rhys was the sort of guy their friends would naturally distrust. Most Pandorans had a lot of reason to hate Hyperion, and Atlas didn't have a much better reputation.
They scanned the room. The only fresh blood on the floor seemed to be their own, at least. That didn’t rule out other types of injuries. Phaselocking was often bloodless.

"He's fine" Maya grinned. “Krieg gave him a pretty good scare, and we threatened his life a little, but no one got hurt. Not seriously, at least.”

The exclamation mark turned into a “:\”.
“Unnecessary. / Why did you bring Krieg along? / Rhys is no danger.”

“Krieg insisted. You know how he gets.”

Zer0 gave her a long, silent look.

"Okay, in my defense, Krieg had run inside ahead of us. I caught up to him a minute later, and there’s this guy covered in blood, trying to threaten Krieg with your sword. What was I supposed to think? The whole thing was suspicious as hell, we were all a little bit cranky, and it was like four AM. I get that you were paranoid about ECHOs or whatever, but if Athena hadn’t caught up with us, we might have killed him.”

“He...used my sword?” they tilted their head. Krieg was over twice Rhys’ size, and Zer0 had seen him slice bandits in two. It was a wonder Rhys even had the guts to stand up to him. Impressive, in the sort of way it was impressive when a skag pup tried to chase a full-grown bullymong.

“The important part of that was how we almost killed him, but yes.”

“Where has he gone to? / I regret involving him / I should make amends.” Zer0 didn’t feel guilty, per se. Just annoyed that someone who already saved their life had to go through that, while they uselessly bled on the floor. They were starting to rack up quite a debt to Rhys.
Also, Rhys hadn’t been anything but nice to them. He deserved better treatment.

“I kicked everyone out so I could focus on healing you. I think they all went to the break room for coffee or something?” she shrugged. “...Since when do you care, though? A LOT of people resent you."

"It is abnormal, / I would be offended now, / If you weren't right," They chuckled softly. "Perhaps I have a head wound you missed?"

"You know I’m better than that.”

“I am having doubts / Some wounds have been left open / An unfinished job.”

She lightly punched them in their good shoulder. “Maybe if I let you suffer through some little scrapes for once you’ll think twice before you almost get yourself killed again.”

They projected a “DX”. Their entire body was still fairly sore.

Maya ignored the silent protest. “Anyways, you probably don’t need to apologize. He was just really worried about you...” she trailed off for a moment, looking thoughtful. “...He’s the fanboy, right? The one that had the giant Vault guardian-fighting robot?"

"...Yes?" They’d never considered Rhys to be a “fanboy”, but they supposed that may be an appropriate label, if perhaps a little degrading to him.

"Great! Stay here, I'll be right back." her smile seemed sly.

They projected a "?!" after her.

Athena wasn’t the best conversationalist, as Rhys had learned during the brief period they’d traveled together on the caravan. Lack of sleep certainly hadn’t improved that. After asking her about her day and learning that she’d spent five hours helping Janey clean guts from various creatures out of outrunners, he decided that small-talk wasn’t the best way to distract himself.

Naturally, Athena didn’t seem to mind the silence. She sat across from him, slouched over an empty espresso mug. Rhys had offered it up as an apology for waking her. Genuine Atlas brand espresso.

It had managed to turn her tired scowl into a less-tired scowl, if nothing else.

Rhys was considering a second shot to help overcome his own exhaustion. It had been a long day, and a near-sleepless night before it. Sleeplessness was nothing out of the usual, he hadn’t rested well since coming to Pandora (aside from the times he’d been literally knocked unconscious). He stayed one step ahead of exhaustion through copious amounts of caffeine and constant distractions. Tonight, those came in the form of espresso paired with a small helping of Zer0-related anxiety.

And Krieg-related anxiety. The large man was standing right outside the door, angrily muttering to himself. Something about “gouging” and “eyeballs”, which Rhys sincerely hoped didn’t have anything to do with him.

Athena had offered some reassurance regarding the psycho, going so far as to call him “pretty much harmless”. Perhaps Rhys was narrow-minded, but that was hard to believe. The fact that Krieg had almost decapitated him less than an hour ago certainly didn’t help.

To pass the time and distract himself from Krieg’s violent mutterings, Rhys pulled up the ECHOnet browser on his palm interface. He attempted productivity for all of three minutes, but found that it was a total bust.

Instead, he resorted to social media. Aimlessly scrolling through his feed turned out to be almost as fruitless a distraction.

His eyes kept traveling to the time displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the holoscreen. Stupid, he knew, considering that Maya hadn’t given them any time estimate. She’d only assured him that Zer0 would be okay, and then kicked everyone out.

Salvation came in the form of footsteps echoing down the hall, exactly thirty-three minutes after he’d first checked the time. Rhys straightened up and shut down the holoscreen, staring at the open door.

Maya paused there, addressing Krieg first. “Hey, mind keeping an eye on Zer0 for me? I’ll be back over in a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll eat their death!” Krieg announced, enthusiastically.

“I don’t think we have to worry about that. Just let me know if they start bleeding again. And make sure they don’t try to leave.”

Krieg grunted in acknowledgement and skulked off.

The word “again” appearing after “bleeding” was a good sign. Rhys opened his mouth to ask for details, but all he managed was an “Uhh...”

“They’ll be okay,” she answered the unspoken question.

“Great! So then, uh-”

“They’ll be okay, but I can’t do anything about the slag poisoning. They’re going to be in recovery for a while. If they’re right, and these people are hunting them, that’s going to be a problem.” She took a seat at the table, facing Rhys.

“Right…” He had assumed that with these certified badasses coming to their rescue, Zer0 was out of danger.

“These guys sound tough, and we don’t have the resources to keep Zer0 well-guarded at every hour. At least, Zer0 doesn’t trust that we do, and I can’t convince them otherwise. They seem determined to go off on their own and hide in some cave or something. Like an idiot...Which is where you come in.”

“Me?” Rhys frowned. She’d seen his attempt to protect them earlier. It involved shaking like a leaf with a sword, yelling poorly thought-out threats.

“You’ve got a good place here. I saw some of your security on the way in. Outside of Sanctuary, this would probably rank as one of the safer places on Pandora.” Maya sounded confident.

“Seriously? There must be a better place than this. Athena went on a literal killing spree through here, and that was when it actually had soldiers. It can’t be that safe.” Rhys looked to Athena for backup.

He had caught her mid-yawn. “What? ...Oh. Yeah, the facility’s security recognized me as an Atlas employee. Otherwise it would have gone on full lockdown. It should be safe enough from anyone else, in theory. From the looks of it, you haven’t been drawing a lot of attention to this place, right?”

“I…” Rhys racked his brain. “I...guess not. My employees don’t even know I’m staying here?” There’d been a couple visits from Vaughn, Fiona, and the rest, and of course Cassius knew of his plans with this facility, but most of Pandora had yet to even catch on to the resurgence of Atlas.
Normally, he’d see this as a negative.

“And I’ve killed everyone who used to work here, which leaves very few living people who are even aware this place exists. Even less who know what it is. At its full potential, it could be one of the most secure places on Pandora.” she yawned a second time. “It’s built like a fortress, with defenses to match, if you get it up and running properly. Make the exception protocol stricter- no strangers get in without your clearance, add a few more guns, and it’s… Well, it’s not nearly impenetrable, but safe enough.”

“What Athena said.” Maya nodded. “We’d repay you, after this is all sorted out. We’re Pandora’s best vault hunters, if everything goes well, these assholes should be dead within the week.”

“I...Hm... I guess?.”. He figured Vault hunters would be knowledgeable about stuff like this. ...Plus, it would be an excuse to hang out with Zer0. That was kind of anxiety-inducing and scary, but also pretty cool.
Not that he was glad about the whole slag poisoning thing, of course. But hey, he was looking at the bright side. “Okay, sure. I can do that. I’ve been meaning to upgrade my defenses anyways.”

“Wait, really?” Maya seemed to have been caught off guard. “I mean, that’s great! I just kind of thought you would take more convincing.”

“Yeah...If it’s safe for them here, why not? They’re cool and- they- I- erm…”

“You’re prone to hero worship.” Athena finished for him, voice deadpan.

Maya snorted. “So Fiona was serious? He is their biggest fan?”

“What? No! I never- never said that.” Rhys protested, perhaps too fervently. “Sure, I admire them, but...I just...It would suck if they go off and get killed or something when I can easily help and...and uh...It-It gets kind of quiet around here, so uh…and...I mean, if Zer0’s okay with it?”

Chapter Text

“Did you threaten him?” Zer0 was sitting on the front desk, briefly projecting a “:\” as they looked from Maya to Rhys.

Maya may have been the one under suspicion, but Rhys felt like he was being regarded as an accomplice.

“Didn’t have to,” Maya said, shrugging. “Turns out, he doesn’t want you to die either.”

“Yeah, she didn’t,” Rhys affirmed. “I-I mean, she threatened me earlier, before you woke up, but that had nothing to do with this, so... I thought it sounded like a good idea? I-”

Zer0 was off the desk, looming over him before he could finish. “Rhys, it is unsafe / You may become a target / Do you realize that?”

They were uncomfortably close, and Rhys’s face was dimly reflected in their visor. He hadn’t realized just how disheveled he looked.
“Well, uh,” He stepped back, combing his fingers through his hair. “To be honest, since I’ve come to Pandora, I’ve gotten used to the idea of my life being constantly in danger?”

“You value your life / You do not take needless risks. / Not usually.”

“Yeah, of course I don’t! But I don’t think it’s um…’Needless’?”

“What is there to gain?”

“Well, uh… I mean...” he briefly considered telling the truth: that he really admired Zer0 and he was kind of lonely and yeah, his own mortality always seemed a pretty abstract concept.
Somehow he didn’t think that would appease them.

Thankfully, Athena spoke up, and Rhys was rescued from Zer0’s expectant gaze. “If these people follow your trail here and you aren’t around, it’s likely that they’ll end up seeing Rhys as a source of information.”

“Pop open his brain with a corkscrew!” Krieg helpfully elaborated, from his perch on Atlas’s former pedestal.

“Yeah, I uh, I think I’ve got it, thanks.” Rhys’s mind was already well into producing a vivid series of gruesome images. Between bandit encounters and Handsome Jack, his imagination was not short-supplied when it came to torture methods.
Leave it to Athena to bring up the worst possible scenario...

“Is that a guilt-trip? / Are you trying to shame me, / to make me stay here?” Zer0 couldn’t exactly glare at anyone, but Rhys assumed that was more-or-less their intention as they stared her down.

“I’m just laying out the possibilities of what happens if you run and hide,” Athena said, impassive.

“An appeal to pride / Makes a better argument / I can admit that.”

Well, at least Zer0 seemed to care for him on some level. What that level was, and how much of it was fueled by their own ego, Rhys couldn’t begin to guess.

Thankfully, he wasn’t given too much time to dwell on it. Zer0 stepped back in front of him, this time allowing for a reasonable amount of space between them.
"If I'm intruding / You need only tell me, Rhys / You have done so much,” they said, with a “<3”.

Just like that, rejection was gone from his mind.
“Are you kidding? It'd be gr-Erm, I mean-" He paused, taking a breath and straightening up. "I’m not about to send you off alone with people hunting you down, and it's pretty empty around here, anyways, so... It won't be a problem?"
Yup. He could play it cool.

Zero simply nodded, then turned to address Maya.
“Don’t tell the others / My survival is secret / Even among friends.”

“You can trust them, you know,” she said, frowning.

“Yes. But, it’s safer. / People are better actors / When they’re not acting.”

“So, what? You want us to pretend we have no idea what happened and organize a search party?”

“Yes. That would work well / The trail to the enemy / May be found, that way.” Zer0 either ignored or completely missed the sarcasm.

For a moment she looked like she might argue. Instead, she sighed, shaking her head. “Fine. I’m not happy about it, but fine. When you come back, you’re the one who’s going to take full responsibility for this, though. And I’m warning you, these sorts of lies do not end well.”

They projected a “:D”.
“Discover the dart/ Somewhere out in the desert / Tannis may want it.”

“Tannis? The last thing we need is her reverse engineering it,” Maya said. “I’m giving it to Lilith. It’ll be a lead, no more than that.”

Rhys began to tune them out as they began to discuss people he’d never heard of, and plans that were irrelevant to him.
He was starting to feel like he was only contributing the bare minimum to all this. He had the power of Atlas behind him, after all. Not that Atlas was particularly powerful at the moment, but still, he had resources at his disposal. He wanted to be more than “the guy who Zer0 is crashing with”.

...Not that kind of “more”. He just wanted a to take an active role, was all.

If Atlas had the power it had even six years ago, doing so would be as easy as sending out Crimson Lance operatives. Alas, Rhys was only barely managing to staff his factories. Manpower was surprisingly hard to come by.

Besides, taking direct action would attract too much attention.

“Anything else?” Maya asked, breaking him from his thoughts.

“I’m hiring you.” He blurted out.
It was impulsive, sure, but what would he be if he wasn’t? Certainly not the CEO of Atlas.

Athena shot him a glare. “Excuse me?”

“N-not you! Maya and Krieg! I knew you wouldn’t go for it, heh...”

“THE DAILY GRIND AND KILL!” Krieg shouted. Rhys hoped that it was a remark of enthusiasm and not anger.

“What do you mean?” Maya, at least, sounded genuinely interested.

“I was thinking, It would be kind of weird if we kept up communications for no reason. Just me calling you guys over tonight probably will look suspicious, if don’t have a good excuse for it.” He managed to sound confident enough, despite working out the details even as he spoke.

“So you want a cover, then?” she asked.

“Yeah, that!” It was far less than he wanted to do, but it was something.“We’re relying on these guys straight-up not knowing about this place, but you and Zer0 are still going to need to communicate. Through me, right?”

Maya looked to Zer0 for their answer.
“Most likely,” they said.

“So what if I’m hiring Vault hunters to promote Atlas products? A sponsorship deal type thing? You wouldn’t have to do anything different. Maybe our logo on your gear, you use Atlas guns, and, uh, talk us up a bit? Until-until this is dealt with, at least?”
Even without the current situation, Atlas could use some promotion. It was a win-win.

“Not just charity / You’re quite opportunistic / I should have guessed that.” Zer0 projected a “:D” with their words, leaving Rhys unsure whether it was intended as a jab or a compliment.

“I… I mean I… Did that sound skeevy?”

“About as skeevy as I’d expect,” Maya said, smirking. “But pretty reasonable, regardless. That is, if you pay us. What do you think, Krieg?”

“Shiny as a disembowelment!” Krieg threw his fist in the air.

“That’s a yes,” she confirmed.

Maya insisted on sticking around for a few more hours, “So we can be sure you actually stay healed”. Zer0 strongly suspected that she was actually simply too tired to return to Sanctuary, seeing as she immediately asked into Rhys’s bed situation.
Of course, any on-planet corporate facility like this would have to provide ample lodging for a full staff. In this case, those lodgings included a couple ritzy suites, intended for use by Atlas VIPS.

Rhys set the Vault hunters up in a room that, judging by the insignia on the door, was formerly meant to house a Crimson Lance Commandant- though it seemed that it had never been used, judging by how pristine everything looked.

It was furnished in Atlas red, black, and white- a combination of colors that were easy to use tastefully (as evidenced by their bloodstained suit) but in this case looked like the work of an edgy teenaged vampire.

Still, it was a fancy place, tacky decor aside. Zer0 couldn’t complain.
Okay, they could complain, and likely would within a few days of being cooped up. But not about the furniture.

Krieg and Maya were quick to make themselves comfortable, claiming the king-sized bed. Athena, on the other hand, looked to be barely containing the urge to burn the place down.

“Isn’t this the site / Of one of your victories? / Why should you be dour?” Zer0 asked her.
The two had a healthy respect for one another, as an assassin and an ex-assassin, but Zer0 didn’t know her particularly well. They were aware of her hatred of Atlas, though. That was hardly a secret.

“I didn’t do anything worth celebrating. I’d rather be getting back to Sanctuary.” she didn’t look up at Zer0, opting to instead glower at the ugly red and black carpet.

“You can go alone / There’s a nearby fast travel / Your work is finished.” They suggested.

“Your situation gives question to the wisdom of traveling alone.”

They considered this, for a moment.
“That is surprising / I expected less caution / Have you gone craven?” Only after they said it did they remember that implying cowardice was generally insulting. They’d only intended an innocent question.

If she was offended, she didn’t show it.
“I promised Janey I would stop taking unnecessary risks,” she said.

Oh, so it was the “Janey” thing again. Zer0 knew this woman to be the reason Athena had gotten out of Vault hunting, but they hadn’t realized just how deep it went.
It wasn’t something they cared to understand, they decided.

“Weren’t you supposed to be resting?” Athena asked, before Zer0 had the chance to speak again.

They projected a “:I”. Maya had been firm in her orders that they get as much rest as possible, especially this first night. But they’d spent most of the day unconscious, and didn’t relish the idea of even more sleep. Sure, they felt weak, but they weren’t about to take up a role of the frail, bedbound victim. Not more than they already had, at least.

Besides, how were they supposed to rest when covered in so much sticky, drying blood?
...It would probably start to smell soon, too.

Rhys was still awake when Zer0 entered his suite, absorbed in a large holo-screen at his desk. He hadn’t seemed to notice them coming in. Not surprising, no one ever did.

Zer0 briefly watched Rhys work. Most of the information displayed on the screen was inscrutable to their eyes. Boring looking business documents, filled with numbers and graphs. There were a few photos, too, construction sites and the like. Equally uninteresting.

“Rhys.” They said, right as he scrolled to a dark photo of a dig site, in what looked like the Eridium Blight.

“Augh!” There was a loud slam as Rhys jumped in his seat, his knee hitting the bottom of the desk. The screens flashed off suddenly- controlled by his cybernetics, they realized. Perhaps he was up to something less boring that they’d assumed.

“It is only me / I did not mean to scare you / You are quite jumpy.”

Rhys spun the chair around. “O-oh! Hi Zer0, don’t worry about it, I didn’t hear you come in?” He glanced back at the blank space the screens had inhabited.

“I was not worried,” they said.

“Oh…Well uh...”

“You are still awake / Shouldn’t you be asleep, now?/ What are you doing?” They cocked their head.

“I, uh, stupidly had a four AM espresso, so I’m catching up on a bit of work. Just...Just sales figures and boring stuff like that.” Rhys was a poor liar. Surprising, considering his line of work.

He was on edge, too. Had they seen too much?
Or perhaps he was afraid of them. They had promised not to kill him, hadn’t they? Did he doubt their word?
Okay, that would be completely fair, probably even wise. Regardless, it was a problem, if they were to be living with him. They decided against questioning him further. Shady business dealings didn’t interest them that much, except for when assassination was involved. Rhys didn’t seem the type.

“S-so, uh, what’s up?” Rhys prompted, after the long moment of silence.

Zer0 projected a “:)”, hoping to ease his fears.
“I need some fresh clothes / I could use towels, as well. / The bathroom lacked them.”


“I enjoy bloodshed/ But gore gets quite disgusting / When drying on me.” They tugged at their bloodsoaked top, which made a peeling sound as it unstuck from their skin.

“Oh.” Rhys cringed. “Is that really all blood?”

They looked down at their suit for a moment. The darker bits of fabric obscured the reds and browns of the dried blood. A useful quality, when trying to hide one’s own weakness.
“It’s not just my blood / I slew a group of bandits / I think it’s theirs, too.”

“Oh. Well, um… The, uh, quick-change here is broken but, I might have something that fits you? A-and clean towels.” He rose, sparing a brief up-and-down glance at Zer0. Rhys was maybe four inches shorter than them, regrettably.

Zer0 followed, lingering behind as Rhys stepped into his walk-in closet. It was mostly empty, apparently meant for someone who had a far more extensive wardrobe.

“So, you need something that, uh, covers everything, right?” He asked, rifling through hangers, occasionally adding a garment to a pile on his arm.


“Right, uh…Okay.” He grabbed a few more items, before returning to them with a towel and a bundle of clothes. “I think some of these should fit you? I uh, found a scarf- if you need something to cover your neck? Gloves too- erm, I mean, now that I think of it, I guess mine wouldn’, at least not well, because...fingers, but…”

“Mine will be okay,” they said.

“Great! Oh um, and if you want to wash your clothes, I have a machine.”

“Thank you Rhys,” They turned to leave, propping the bundle against their chest with their good arm.

“Oh! There’s also an armory in 3C, it might have some stuff that’s your size, I’ll look into it tomorrow?”

“Yes, I would like that.” They flashed him another “:)” over their shoulder, opening the door.

“Wait uh-”

They stopped, looking back at Rhys.

“Your arm? You-You need it fixed, right? I can do that. If you want.”

They paused at the door, considering his offer.
“I would like that, too.”

Chapter Text

Rhys woke to the sound of shrill beeping.

He was still at his desk. Judging by his aching neck, he’d been asleep for at least an hour or two, though he had no clue what time it was or when he’d dozed off.

The facility was windowless. It used artificial sunlight, likely meant to reduce negative health impacts of sun deprivation in Atlas workers. Rhys usually just abused its refreshing properties to pull all-nighters.

It wasn’t pleasant to wake up to when one of those all-nighters failed.

Without lifting his head, he reached out to the keyboard, pressing a few keys he judged to be in the general location of the mute button. The attempt only managed to repeatedly set off the computer’s error sound. The obnoxious beeping continued.

He groaned, slamming the keyboard with his entire hand a few times, and still failing to make the sound stop.

“Oh, duh…” It was his arm’s incoming ECHOcomm alert. That particularly annoying one he chose after sleeping through some urgent calls- a responsible decision that he regretted very much right now.

Steeling himself, and praying it wasn’t someone important, he projected the ECHO application from his hand. Maybe he could get away with refusing the call and going back to sleep (this time in his actual bed). He wasn’t exactly prepared to talk to potential investors or associates, anyway.

“Oh, thank god.”

It was only Vaughn. Not someone who’s financial power he desperately needed, just a friend who worried about him too much. Still not great- he liked hearing from Vaughn, but recently Vaughn had been giving him a hard time about petty concerns, like his health and the wisdom of living in isolation.

Okay, Vaughn always worried about those sorts of things, but before Pandora, he’d only ineffectively protested Rhys’s actions. It had always been easy to talk him down from his concerns. Now Vaughn had developed confidence, and worse, initiative. In theory, Rhys was happy for his friend’s growth. Pandora suited him.

But a Vaughn who acted upon his concerns was a force to be reckoned with. The last time that Rhys got sick, Vaughn showed up at the facility and threatened to physically restrain him if he didn’t get rest. When he found out that Rhys was living off of possibly expired Atlas MREs and ice cream, he took Rhys grocery shopping. He even made a list to ensure they covered all the major food groups. And when Rhys made an offhand comment about his worry of a scythid infestation, New Haven saw a gruesome, one-man insectoid massacre. Vaughn was simply too good of a friend. That would be a problem with Zer0 around.

Rhys wiped away a streak of drool off his chin and tried to smooth out his hair before allowing the comm through. The less he gave Vaughn to worry about, the better.

“Hey, Vaughn! How’s it going?!” Rhys injected as much cheer as he could muster into his voice.

Vaughn was clearly unimpressed. “Dude, where the hell are you? Did you just wake up?!”

“Erm...No? I’ve been up for hours. Been busy working and stuff.” he stifled a yawn. “Why? What’s up?”

“Are you- are you joking? Rhys, it’s two PM! You were supposed to be here two hours ago!” Vaughn hissed and glanced over his shoulder. “Do you know how hard it is to convince these people that their Great Liberator has NOT abandoned them?”

“...Who? What are you…” Rhys mentally cycled through his plans. He’d been sure he was free for the day... “OH! Shit! Was the ribbon cutting thing today?! Shit, I’m so sorry Vaughn, something came up and...Well...”

“Something came up?! We planned this ages ago! What could have happened that- Wait...Is that blood?! Were you bleeding?!” Any trace of annoyance had vanished, Vaughn was now in full overly-concerned-friend mode. Crap.

“Wh-what? Where?”

“On your face! Are you okay?! Do you have a head injury? Do I need to come over?”

Rhys ran his hand over his face, finding a decent-sized spot of dried, cracking blood on his cheek. Oh, yeah, blood! Heh.”
How’d it end up on his face? Had it been there when he was talking to Zer0 earlier?

Vaughn leaned in closer to his ECHO device’s camera, voice dropping to a whisper. “Did something happen with the-”

“No! It-It’s fine! It’s nothing. I mean, it was only a bad nosebleed, it looks worse than it was. It...I... I fell.”

“You fell?” his voice was flat.

“Yeah. On my face. You uh, you know how accident prone I am?” He forced a chuckle. “Yeah. I slipped on some oil. Leaked in the workshop.”

Vaughn regarded him suspiciously.

“It’s a really small scratch, it just bled a lot. Look, you can hardly even see it.” he pointed to his cheek, where there was definitely no scratch.

“...If you say so. But seriously, Rhys, this is like the third time you’ve blown me off in the past month. Fiona says she and Sasha haven’t even seen you in almost three months, and Yvette’s got this theory that you’ve started snorting Eridium. The last time you were acting this level of weird was when Hands-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” He’d prefer the Vault hunters didn’t happen to overhear that particular tidbit. They probably wouldn’t look kindly upon a close association with Handsome Jack.
“I understand why you’re worried, but I swear, I’m totally fine. I’ve just been really busy.”

“You know, you could hire people to help you. I worry about you living alone, I’m pretty sure this is how people end up insane?”

“I’ve got a ton of robots…”

“Robots? Really?” Vaughn gave him a stern look.

“I mean, they’re…kind of like dogs? Look, I can’t bring anyone onboard this project until I... Until later. Atlas is still really fragile, and we’ve gotta do this right if we don’t want to get completely murdered. You heard what happened to S&S? We’re way smaller than they ever were.”

“Yeah, I get it. But still.”

“Don’t worry about me, I get out a lot. Hey, just yesterday I drove out to Lynchwood and met with some potential investors. And I set up a sponsorship deal with a couple of Vault hunters? I’m doing great! And seriously, I not as isolated as you think.”

“Whatever you say.” In all likelihood, Vaughn was already planning some sort of intervention for Rhys’s nonexistent Eridium addiction.

“Just tell the Chil...Children-” God, he hated calling them that. “-that I’m on a spiritual journey? And I sent you to act in my place. Like, as my conduit or something?! Hell, I’ll even address them on ECHO later, give them a speech and everything. They go nuts for that stuff, right?”

Vaughn sighed. “Okay, seriously, Rhys. I know I’ve said this before, but if you don’t want to keep playing along with them, I’d completely understand. I know this stuff is super weird. They’re super weird- so I get it. I don’t want you to feel pressured into this, I mean, it’s kind of messed up and I don’t think I’d be okay with being worshipped after...Erm, I mean, not that I’m judging you if you are okay with it. Just think about it, okay?”

“It’s not that big of a deal, but fine. I’ll call you back later.”

“Right. Take care of yourself.”

With a click, Vaughn hung up.

Rhys got off easy, Vaughn was obviously feeling guilty about almost bringing up Helios, meaning he’d leave Rhys alone for a day or two. He sunk back in his chair with a deep sigh.

Only to jolt back up when a glowing, red “LOL” appeared, reflected in the empty monitors.

“He suspects something / I would expect better lies / From a businessman,” Zer0 said.

As far as surprise appearances went, this one didn’t exactly surprise Rhys. Well, at least, he expected Zer0 to pop in unexpected, but his heart was now racing. No living thing should be able to move so quietly.

They leaned in the doorframe, the “LOL” still floating in front of their helmet.

“Oh, hey. Did you-Erm, How long have you been standing there?” It was disconcerting, seeing them in his clothes. They almost would have fit in on a Hyperion casual Friday, though, buttoning one’s cardigan as crookedly as Zer0 has managed would be grounds for being summarily dismissed- out of an airlock if rumor was to be believed. And then there was the helmet, of course. “...The clothes working alright?”

They ignored both of Rhys’s questions. “Will he be a problem?”

“A problem? Vaughn? No, he’s fine.” Rhys gave a half-hearted laugh, unable to convince even himself of that. If he didn’t appease Vaughn soon, he was almost guaranteed to show up at the facility. “He’s just worried about me, but he has no reason to suspect anything like...this?” he gestured vaguely at Zer0.

They simply stared in response, and it occurred to Rhys that he didn’t have a solid grasp on Zer0’s moral compass. Was he trying to quell their doubts or negotiating for his best friend’s life?

“Even if he somehow were to find out, he’s totally trustworthy! I mean, of course, you don’t want him to find out, I don’t want him to find out- but…” he hesitated. “He won’t be a problem.”

“Good,” Zer0 said. They paused before adding, “...Am I in the way? / You’ve missed an important event / On my behalf, yes?”

“Oh, um…N-no- I mean, yes?” Again, they’d become considerate out of seemingly nowhere, catching Rhys off-guard. “I mean, yeah, I missed a thing, but it’s not an important thing. Just a uh. A charity thing? I was supposed to be at this opening ceremony for a schoolhouse. Children of Helios kids.”

“That is your cult?”

“...Well, technically it’s Vaughn’s bandit gang...cult...thing. They worship me for me, but...”

“So, your cult.”

“...Yeah, I guess. B-but it wasn’t my idea or anything. I cannot stress that enough. I’m uh, actually pretty relieved that you gave me an excuse to miss it? The whole situation is kind of- super weird.”

“Understandable / The beheaded effigy / Is quite macabre.” They projected a “:)”.

Rhys surprised himself by laughing. “Yeah, I kind of got worried they were going to try to sacrifice me. Like, to free me from my mortal form or something?”

“That would be foolish / You’re far more entertaining / Alive and breathing.” This came with no emoticon.

“I uh- Er-...” Rhys had almost been at ease talking to them, and then they dropped this on him? He’d woken up at most like ten minutes ago and was in no place to decipher what they meant by that, and whether to feel terrified, insulted, or flattered.
He settled on slightly overwhelmed.
“...Sooo um, did you want something, or?”

“I’m meant to get you/ Maya wishes to speak with you/ Before she departs.”


“You should wash your face / There is still some blood on you/ You dislike that, right?”

Rhys seemed upset.
Zer0 had almost been proud of how well they were doing with him. They’d tried to follow the advice Maya offered them that morning.

As she’d poked and prodded at Zer0’s newly emerged scars, they’d confided in her, "Rhys is confusing/ I promised not to kill him/ More than once, even."

“...Okay, and what exactly are you confused about?”

“He gets uneasy/ Around me. I don’t get it/ I’ve not threatened him.”

Maya gave them a blank look before breaking into a laugh, prompting a “?” from Zer0’s visor.

“Sorry Zer0, but are you serious? Everyone’s uneasy around you, I thought you did that on purpose.”

“To some small extent/” They admitted. There was a lot to be said for the power of psychological warfare, and that came naturally to Zer0. They were a skilled killer, greatly enjoyed doing so, and had no qualms about using tricks. Of course, this left them with a reputation, a powerful weapon its own rights. Zer0 saw no reason to discourage it.
“Do I make you uneasy?/ I had not noticed.”

“I mean, now? Not at all. When we met you though? Didn’t you notice how you never got put on watch alone at night? We all half expected you to kill us in our sleep and go over to Handsome Jack’s side or something.”

“I considered it/ Though, not as you were sleeping/ No challenge in that.” Zer0 projected a “;)”.
Back then they’d even planned for the possibility. They weren’t deluded enough to think they could take all five Vault hunters in a fair fight, so they would have to split them up. They’d strike one by one, playing to the other’s weaknesses. Or perhaps they’d arrange deaths that looked to be the work bandits and stretch it out over a few days.
But they were an assassin, not a serial killer. Jack never contacted them to request a contract, and they’d soon decided that it was far more fun to work with the underdogs. After all, there were thousands of Hyperion targets and only five Vault hunters.

“Okay, first of all, I would have melted your brain if you tried anything. Second, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Now imagine I’m some scrawny, helpless businessman whose prior image of Vault Hunters mostly comes from like, Hunter Hellquist. Who we killed, along with Rhys’s former CEO, that CEO’s girlfriend, and thousands of his co-workers.”

“‘He is not helpless.”
Rhys deserved some credit.

Maya ignored them. “If you want my advice, you need to start thinking about the context of your words. You’re an assassin with a kill-count in the thousands- you don’t want to remind him of the fact that you could murder him without breaking a sweat. Try to keep the macabre haikus to a minimum, don’t tell him exactly how you would kill him, and just...don’t be creepy in general? That also means not sneaking up on him, and definitely avoid the thing where you quietly loom over people. Also, don’t be an asshole.”

Zer0 had done their best to follow her advice, yet somehow they seemed to be failing. By the time the two stepped onto the elevator, it appeared that Rhys was now purposely avoiding looking at them. He instead pretended to be fixated on adjusting the cuffs of his shirt.

Okay, they snuck up on him when they came to retrieve him. It was an accident, they weren’t consciously stealthy. It hardly seemed to upset Rhys, anyway. He’d acted nervous about Vaughn, though, but that wasn’t their fault.

No, the problem arose when they’d complimented him. They had even taken Maya’s words into consideration, specifically telling him that they appreciated him being alive. Was it because they’d called him “entertaining”? It was intended as praise, how else could Rhys have read it? That they wanted to see him tortured for kicks?

...Shit, that was plausible. Rhys undoubtedly would have heard the Hyperion propaganda claiming that Zer0 was an interdimensional child-eating demon.

They caught Rhys looking up at them as they passed the third floor. Cocking their head, they projected a “?”, but Rhys had already averted his gaze.

They sighed. Maybe they were placing undue value on Rhys’s comfort.The last few years of mixing with others had caused them to lose sight of their priorities. Rhys’s trust was virtually worthless to them, but a bit of fear might even keep him loyal, especially when mixed with admiration.

Still, they found themself glaring at Rhys by the time the elevator opened to the first floor. Their confusion (Or was it frustration? Annoyance, perhaps?) was amplified by the fact that Rhys’s composure shifted almost instantly. He stood up straighter, his chest out, shoulders back, feet apart. Zer0 supposed he intended to look confident, but it reminded them only of how Handsome Jack carried himself.

That is to say, like a douchebag.

This act collapsed with an “AAGH!” when Krieg’s oversized hand darted out and grabbed Rhys by the head, stopping him in his tracks.

Zer0 chuckled.
“You’re inattentive/” They started, but again they found themself overtaken by the irrational desire to avoid scaring Rhys. Telling him how he was making himself an easy kill would be counterproductive. They left their haiku unfinished, for the moment.

Krieg bent down, eye-level with Rhys.
“I spy!” he growled, pointing a finger dangerously close to Rhys’s ECHOeye.

“Um, hi?” Rhys cracked a nervous smile. “Can you, uh, please let me go...maybe?”

“I know exactly how you feel!” Krieg said. He did not let him go.

“I um... What?”

Maya was watching from behind Krieg, apparently quite amused.
“I think he means the eye thing?” she said. “That, or he’s talking about how your hair literally feels. Hard to tell.”

Even Athena made no move to do anything.
Zer0 supposed they shouldn’t be surprised. Rhys may have proven himself trustworthy, even good-hearted, but he made himself such an easy target for some light torment.

“Oh, um...Thanks? I guess? This kind of hurts...” he said.

Krieg seemed pleased by this. “Altruism!”

Rhys looked to Maya for help.

“Relax, he’s most likely not going to kill you,” she said.

From behind Rhys, Zer0 projected a “PLS” at her. Not that they didn’t find it entertaining, but it probably wasn’t reflecting well on Vault hunters in general. Which meant Rhys might have another reason to be frustratingly nervous about them, specifically.

“Fine.” Maya relented and put her hand on Krieg’s shoulder. “Hey, remember what I said about personal space?”

Krieg briefly glanced at her before turning back to his captive.
“The lying eye is a dying sun!” He yelled, and stared Rhys down for a moment longer before releasing him.

Rhys stumbled backward, already combing a hand through his now mussed-up hair.

“Don’t worry, he likes you,” Maya said.

“Heh, obviously.” Rhys’s smile was almost convincing, though the addition of finger guns pointed at Krieg seemed rather forced. “Eye buddies, right?”

“Shoot a blind man and he can feel it all!” Krieg raised his buzzaxe in a cheer.

Zer0 expected Rhys to at least flinch at this display, but if he was nervous, he was expertly hiding it behind the whole Handsome Douchebag thing. Krieg could easily grab Rhys and break his neck before anyone could act. Hell, he’d nearly killed Rhys mere hours ago!
A “???“ flashed on Zer0’s visor, vanishing before anybody noticed.

“So, Maya, you wanted to talk to me?” Rhys asked.

“Yeah, I want to be sure you’re prepared. At least, as prepared as you can be, considering...” She glanced at Zer0.

It made them a little indignant. Perhaps they had been somewhat...immature with Maya, but they didn’t intend to give Rhys a hard time or even interact with him much, outside of necessity. He was already giving them food, clothes, and shelter. And they’d asked him to fix their arm. Anything more would be pathetic.

“You said so yourself, this place is well defended,” Rhys said. “And you should have this dealt with fast, right?”

“Hopefully.” Maya sounded less confident than she had the night before, though Zer0 wasn’t sure what changed. It seemed unlikely she’d suddenly see the sense in their concerns. “Still, how are you on provisions? Food, water, medical supplies?”

“I have more food than I know what to do with, and the water supply here is actually surprisingly safe? There’s a purification system built into the facility,” he said. “I dunno about the medical stuff, though. I mean, there’s a clinic in D, it probably has some stuff. What should I need?”

“Bandages, Health-nows, maybe a suture kit, just in case. If there’s anything those can’t fix, you’re gonna need me again.”

“Wait, Health-nows? Are those different from uh...Insta-healths?”

“They’re name-brand and markedly less fishy. I’m pretty sure Zed cuts Insta-healths with Rakk ale,” She said, frowning at Zer0. “Follow the instructions, Zer0 doesn’t know what they’re talking about. You can overdose on them, more than two at a time is way too many.”

Regrettably, Zer0 didn’t have an eye-roll emoticon in their repertoire. Instead, they settled on using “>(” again. If one could overdose on instant healing products, every Vault hunter would be dead.

“Oh, heh. I thought that uh…” Rhys cleared his throat. “Yeah, okay… Is that everything?”

“Just about. I’ve sent contact info for me and Krieg to your ECHO, you should be able to get ahold of at least one of us if you need to. I’ve also included an address to send those guns to.”

“Yes! Deliver the skull breakers to bring the gore!” Krieg sounded delighted.

“Haha, yeah.” This time, Rhys stepped back. “I’ll do that.”

“From now on, I’d like to be left out of this,” Athena spoke up. “Getting called over here, by you, to deal with a late-night emergency that I can’t tell Janey about is not a good look. I’m not doing it again.”

“Sorry. I uh, sent you a payment, actually. I included a memo that I needed your biosignature to get through some old Atlas security? You can tell Janey that? I figured it sounded plausible. But yeah, sorry. I wouldn’t have called you in if I knew what else to do.”

“Fair enough.” She muttered and turned towards the door.

Maya began to follow, Krieg behind her. She stopped and turned back to add “Oh, and one last thing. If by some chance you get found-”

“You want us to escape them/ Rather than to fight.” Zer0 finished.

She nodded. “Yeah. Otherwise, stay here and get rest until we’re sure you’re recovered. I don’t care if you figure out where they are, or get bored. No training, no going out. I know you don’t like it, but-”

“I am not a fool/ I will recover first, then/ I will end their lives.”

They still had yet to decide whether or not this was a lie.

Chapter Text

Maya hadn’t been entirely honest with Zer0.

They were adamant that she wasn’t to bring any attention to their disappearance for a minimum of two days. She accepted this; it seemed sensible enough- at least, if spies were truly an issue, and if the enemy was as well coordinated as Zer0 believed. Honestly, she would have been happy to postpone telling Lilith. The last thing the overworked Commander of the Crimson Raiders needed was to be burdened with the loss of a Vault hunter.

As it turned out, Maya got no choice in the matter. Lilith ECHO’d her before she’d even left the Atlas facility, interrupting breakfast.
“Hey uh… You haven’t happened to have heard from Zer0, have you?” she’d asked.

Maya had been mentally rehearsing how to break the news to Lilith since the moment she’d agreed to Zer0’s plan.
“Hey, Lilith. You might have noticed Zer0’s not been around recently.” She’d say. “Now, I’m sure they’re alive, but I think someone might have attacked them and pumped them full of poison. Not enough to kill them, just leaving them in a weakened state.” That was probably too specific, it was a work in progress, though. She’d continue, “They were probably forced to go into hiding, but again, they’re definitely not dead, so you don’t need to worry about that. Anyways, I have some leads, but I’m going to need your help.”
Or something along those lines. She assumed she’d have gathered a little more information before going to Lilith.

Instead, Maya barely managed to swallow her mouthful of Atlas brand instant oatmeal and force out a “...Huh?” followed by a weak “No…”.
It was marginally better than her first impulse, which was to break down and confess everything.

“Crap,” Lilith said. “Krieg’s with you, right?”

“Y-yeah. He uh, hasn’t seen them either.” Maya looked at him across the kitchen table, putting a finger over her lip in a silent “Shhh.” before adding, “Why do you ask?”

“We might have a problem? Zer0’s missing. Can’t get them on the ECHO, no one’s seen them, and uh. It looks like some serious shit might have gone down?”

“Woah, what?” Maya was able to sound genuinely surprised, partly because she was. Worrying about them was one thing, but it was far too soon for Lilith to know something had actually happened. “O-okay, but, it’s Zer0? A few days isn’t that long for them. Maybe they’re somewhere without good ECHO reception? Or they-they’re busy?”
She looked to Athena helplessly. Athena shrugged, mouthing what looked to be “You’re fine” to her, and returning to her breakfast.

“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to think.” Lilith gave a half-hearted laugh. “I still kind of hope that’s the case, but you know Harding? Lady in charge of Lynchwood?”

“I know of her, yeah?”

“She hired Zer0 to take out a bandit camp a few days back. They never came back for their payment, so she sends a team out to check out the site. And uh, Zer0 had definitely been there, killed everyone, and then vanished.”

“Isn’t that norm-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, wouldn’t be weird on its own. But they abandoned their outrunner- which again, isn’t unheard of. But uh… Well, okay, I didn’t think it was anything, but Harding sounded really worried, so I humored her and sent Mordecai to check things out, and he…He says it looks pretty bad.”

Maya swallowed. Zer0 was a room over. The were conked out and extremely weak, but completely safe. All it would take to ease Lilith’s fears would be to turn on the ECHO’s video feed and show her. Zer0 probably wouldn’t even wake up, they wouldn’t have to know.

Instead, she asked, “Bad...How?”

“It looks like they were attacked. Mordecai found their stuff scattered around the camp, blood everywhere. Evidently, they took off into the desert on foot, just before that big storm. They were probably badly hurt, and then they uh, either got captured or uh...Yeah...” her voice fell as she trailed off.


“So yeah, pretty bad.” There was a long pause. When Lilith spoke again, she used her best attempt at a composed-leader-voice. “I’m having everyone else searching the area. But I figured you ah, well...Friedman tells me you’re the closest thing Sanctuary has to a detective, and I’d be inclined to agree. I have everyone else out searching the nearby area, but I’m sending you the coordinates to the Bandit camp. Maybe you can find something Mordy missed.”

“I-I’ll do my best.” It was what she’d planned to do anyway, just without anyone else knowing about it. “I...I’m sure they’re fine. Don’t stress yourself out over this too much, it’s...It’s not the first time one of us has gone missing.”
If she couldn’t tell the truth, she’d at least try to be reassuring, for whatever that was worth.

“Right. I’m gonna make some other calls. Good luck.” With that, Lilith hung up.

Maya slumped back in her chair, groaning. “Zer0’s not going to like this.”

She heard Athena laugh. “Probably not. But look on the bright side, you survived.”

“Miraculously. That was thoroughly unpleasant.”

“I could tell,” Athena said. “At least you have a lead.”

“You mean Harding?”

“Yes. I can’t say I know more about this woman than what I heard now, but even then, I find her actions...Questionable. What’s her story? She doesn’t owe Sanctuary any loyalty, does she?”

“No. To my understanding, she and a small group reestablished Lynchwood and its Eridium mines on their own- they outright refused aid when Lilith offered it. A lot of them are former Hyperion, abandoned here after Jack died. They’ll hire one of us on occasion, but they’ve avoided directly aligning themself with the Raiders. Still, maybe she’s more compassionate than I took her for?”

“No town administrator is that compassionate. Who’s going to lift a finger to help a missing mercenary? Especially one they owe money?” Athena countered. “She was risking sending her men to their deaths, not knowing whether the job had been completed or not.”

Maya nodded, closing her eyes. It might be nothing, maybe they were overthinking it. Maybe Harding legitimately cared for Zer0’s well being, for whatever reason that may be.
“I’ll have to pay a visit to Lynchwood,” she decided. “I have to wonder what she’d have to gain, though. It seems unlikely that-”

A door slid open and she went silent.

Zer0 walked into the room without acknowledging any of them, making a beeline for the pantry. Maybe it was the lack of armor and the unusually loose clothes, but they seemed to be slouching, and their movements seemed to lack the usual effortlessness.

For a moment she just watched as they dug, one-armed, through the pantry.
“Uh, hey, Zer0.”

They only grunted in response.

“So uh...You…” Maya found herself fumbling for words. “Nice cardigan.”

They froze in the middle of pulling canned skag from the cupboard, looking down at their shirt.

“It’s Rhys’s.” They said, setting the can on the counter and beginning to dig through drawers. Finding a fork, they wordlessly retreated with their meal.

Both Maya and Athena stared for a long moment after the door shut behind them.

Krieg broke the silence with loud laughter. “Ah, you’re EXACTLY right! This accursed wasp has no sting, after all! Alas, Missus Inclement Weather, we should move our picnic out of that ol’ rot nest! There will be NO spiderants in MY pie! Slice and men, after all!” He gestured as if reciting a classic soliloquy.

“Good point,” Maya said, defeated.

Athena’s baffled stare settled on her, now. “Pardon?”

“What Krieg said,” she explained. “I’m not sure Zer0 will stick to our plan, we’ll need to be...Delicate.”

“So, you’re not telling them, then?”

“I…Started to.” she said. “But they seem tired, I should at least let them eat first, maybe they’ll be in a better mood afterwards?”

Athena rose an eyebrow, doubt plain on her face. “I have no stake in this, but if you don’t want to tell them, I wouldn’t blame you. Speaking as a former assassin- albeit, under different circumstances- I expect that might be the right decision.”

“What, really?”

“Overestimating your enemy is generally safer than underestimating them. A good assassin knows better than to get cocky. A really good assassin is bound to get cocky anyways. Zer0 did, and they paid for it, so now they’re going to overcompensate in the opposite direction. An unexpected change in plans is going to make them flighty, and if former Hyperions are possibly involved in the attack, why should they trust Rhys to not be involved?” she said. “In their place, I’d work under the suspicion of a revenge scheme against the Raiders, or something of the sort.”

“...Huh. Now that you mention it, you don’t think Rhys is involved?” She’d heard about him taking down Helios, but an enemy of Hyperion wasn’t necessarily their friend.

Athena shook her head, smiling. “He’s corporate scum, a bit of a jackass, and probably not above scheming, but he’s hardly a sadist. Really, more than anything? He’s a moron with a surprisingly strong loyal streak. And he genuinely likes Zer0. I’ve been on an annoyingly long road trip with him, I’d know.”

“Yeah, I guess that whole scene with their sword couldn’t have been an act…” Maya would have laughed at the thought of it, were it not for the more pressing matter. “So, you think if I tell them they’ll run off?”

“It’s a risk, there was a time I might have done so in their shoes. Sitting tight and waiting for someone else to deal with the problem would have been hard enough. Doing so when I had a lead would have been intolerable. Add to that the possibility that my allies are being manipulated into assisting my foes with their pursuit? If nothing else, it’ll put Zer0 on edge.” She stood, taking her bowl to the sink to rinse it. “If it helps, look at it this way: what do either of you have to gain from them knowing?”

Maya considered this. The was the chance Zer0 would be able to provide some insight, but they’d given her all the details they had on their attackers. It seemed unlikely they’d suddenly recover some vital memory if she told them about Harding.

Sure, it felt morally questionable to leave them in the dark, but they were doing the same thing to all their friends in Sanctuary, and on a much larger scale. Besides, they didn’t need to be stressing out about a mystery when they were supposed to be recovering.

In the end, she didn’t tell them.
By the time she departed, leaving Zer0 with only Rhys, she felt she had made the right choice. At least, they were cooperating. Maybe they weren’t being entirely honest with their promise to wait until their recovery before trying anything, and she’d rather they didn’t put so much weight on personally getting revenge- she hoped to have the problem dealt with long before they got the chance to step back into the ring- but still. It was something.
It also helped ease her mind that Rhys seemed to hold a surprising amount of sway over them- maybe even more than her in certain regards, seeing as Zer0 was even actively trying to learn how to be considerate of him. And Rhys seemed to genuinely want to help.

It was probably best she could get out of this situation.

The sun still hung high in the sky when Maya and Krieg fast-traveled into the Dead Sands, which were rendered nearly unrecognizable by the recent storm.

“Bullets piercing the ground! The garden party broke out!” Krieg announced before Maya had the chance to process what she was looking at.

Zer0 had mentioned a storm, so a little bit of greenery spotting the wasteland wouldn‘t have surprised her. But she didn’t expect the usually desolate landscape to fill up with a thick, almost knee-high layer of colorful plant-life, practically overnight. It did resemble a garden. It might even have been pleasant if they weren’t trekking two miles through it, under the scorching afternoon sun. Pandoran plant life was diverse, but unified in the fact that it all managed to be either pointy, or itchy, or straight up deadly.

They found Mordecai waiting for them next to Zer0’s abandoned outrunner, left on the side of a hill. Talon was perched on the barrel of the mounted turret, preening. Upon sensing their approach the bird looked up, letting out a loud squawk in greeting, and Mordecai clambered to his feet.

“Hey!” Maya waved, carefully weaving a a path through a thick patch of newly sprouted cesium plants. Behind her she heard the gooey sound of Krieg purposely stomping on each one.

“I was starting to think you’d gotten lost,” Mordecai said, half-yawning. “Or just admiring the scenery?”

“No, we just got a little held up, sorry about that.” Once she reached the runner she turned to look outwards. She couldn’t remember another time she’d seen so much life in one place. “It is pretty, though.”

“Eh. Makes it a bitch to find much of anything. As if the rain wasn’t bad enough on its own. Lilith’s filled you in, right?”

Maya nodded. “More or less. You really think it looks as bad as she says?”

“Depends. I told Lilith not to freak out about it. Gonna go out on a limb and guess that didn’t do much good?”

“I mean, wouldn’t say ‘freaked out’, but ‘highly stressed’ would be accurate.”

“Right.” Mordecai rubbed his neck. “If I’m being honest, that might be the right reaction. It’s hard to say how much they were bleeding after this rain- enough that Talon could still pick out its scent, though. Got a trail heading west into the desert for about a quarter mile.” He pointed his thumb in the direction. “We found their ECHO, completely trashed near some empty insta-health syringes, and that’s about where Talon started to lose the trail.”

“Because of the storm?”

“Probably. If I had to guess, I‘d say they had to have been bleeding pretty bad for us to get a trail at all. Once they got themselves patched up there wasn‘t much for Talon to follow. He caught traces of them a few times further out, but not much to go off of.”

“The twig snapped into blood!” Krieg had plopped down in a clump of bladeflowers, methodically pulling apart every stem in his reach.

“Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s not looking good,” Mordecai said.

“Oh… You uh, you don’t think they’re dead, do you?”

“Eh. Can’t really say one way or the other. They apparently managed to heal up, but they were being chased. They’d be better off letting themself get captured, the desert would probably kill them otherwise.” He paused, seeming to scan the horizon. “That said, I personally doubt they’d surrender, but they also wouldn’t die in such a mediocre way. Not if they could help it. But I guess that’s wishful thinking.”

Maya found herself impressed by Mordecai’s accurate read on the situation. Without the rain, he probably would have tracked them all the way to Old Haven. She almost wished that were the case, then she could wash her hands of all responsibility.
“No, I think you’re right. They’re not the type to die without making a spectacle of it. Besides, if they were able to treat their wounds? That seems pretty promising.” She offered a reassuring smile. “So, where’s the crime scene?”

“Just over the hill.” He gestured behind him. “Fiona’s already there, getting a head start.”

“Wait, Fiona?”

“Yeah, she offered to help. Said she was supposed to be shadowing you today?” He shrugged. “I sent her ahead to look around before you got here. Hope that’s not a problem, but I figured it might save you some time. And I’m not exactly in the mood for…That.” He gestured vaguely.

“Oh, no, it’s no problem,” Maya lied. “I could use the extra set of eyes.”

The first corpse lay at the edge of the camp. Aside from being literally in two pieces, cut in half through the abdomen, it was remarkably intact, though some parts were turning a pale green shade. While decomposition went slow on Pandora, as the planet lacked most of the microorganisms traditionally involved in it, its assortment of large scavengers more than made up for it. A body, left in the open, would usually be picked clean in a matter of days. Or it would be swallowed whole the moment a large enough skag found it. Usually.

As Maya got closer, she realized why it had been left untouched. The innards spilling from the two halves of the body weren’t green from putrefaction, but were covered with tiny, green tendrils, each with a little bulb at the top. The tendrils began to sway and pulsate as she neared.

“Huh, that’s...Pretty weird. Is… Is that what I think it is?” she asked, kneeling down a few feet from the body. She couldn’t see a speck of red on it- where she’d expect blood, there was just green.

“Baby necrophage? Yeah. Made the mistake of trying to touch it when I got here. Nasty stuff.” Mordecai held up a hand, showing where the fingertips of his glove have corroded away, the fingers beneath blistered. “It’s all over the place, at this size it’ll grow out of every speck of blood.”

“I’ve never even seen necrophage growing in this part.” Maya experimented with reaching one hand closer. The sprouts began to vibrate rapidly, threatening to spew a mist of corrosive chemicals if she touched them.

“Yeah, the sandstorms usually kill it when it’s out in the open desert. Some of those bandits must have come out of the old Friendship Gulag, they’d bring spores with ‘em. The rain would give it the chance to grow.”

“Might be a lead. Who’s controlling the Gulag now, anyways?”

“Skullgrinders, last time I checked. Unless the Skin-shredders got it back in the last few days, but they got beat pretty badly last time.”

Maya looked back at the corpse. Zer0 had said these guys were unaffiliated, far as they could tell, and she saw no evidence that they were wrong.
“Who’s to say that a bandit brought the spores? They might have come from somewhere else, right?”

“Sure, necrophage has a pretty wide range,” he conceded. “Could have come from anywhere. The Gulag’s just the most obvious spot, but even going over the mountains might leave you carrying spores.”

“Good point.” She guessed it could at least be a fallback.

“On the bright side, the ‘phage is probably the only reason it’s possible to tell what happened here. After two days and a storm, the scene shouldn’t be so intact. You can even see where all the blood was.”

“And there was a lot of blood.” It was Fiona’s voice. Maya looked up to see her standing at the edge of the camp. “It’s basically the Caustic goddamn Caverns in there. Hey, Maya. Krieg. What took you so long?”
It seemed that she’d also fallen victim to the necrophage, her coattails singed and shortened.

Maya smiled apologetically. “We had a mission out in the Rust Commons, there’s only one working fast travel out there.” That part, at least, was partially true. Old Haven was only a half-hour away from the fast travel station, but there weren’t any others for miles around. After Hyperion abandoned the planet, most had fallen into disrepair, save for the strategic few that the Crimson Raiders took charge of. “I hope you weren’t waiting on me too long?”

“Eh. I took the chance to get a look around the place,” Fiona said. Her voice chilled when she addressed Mordecai, “I can give them the tour, if you want to get back to...Whatever you were doing with the bird.”

Mordecai sighed. “...Right. Thanks.” He turned away, stopping to add, “Good luck. If you need me just shoot me an ECHO.”

Fiona scowled as he left.

Still? I thought you’d forgiven them.”

“I forgave Brick,” Fiona clarified. “He earned it. ”

“I see...” Maya decided against questioning that, there were more important matters than Fiona and Mordecai’s ongoing feud. “So, you find anything interesting?”

“Depends on what you call interesting. A bunch of dead guys, some bullet casings, and a used flashbang...Zer0 doesn’t use flashbangs, do they?”

“Not last I was with them, no. Wouldn’t expect bandits to use them either.” The moment Fiona’s back was turned she slipped the Achlys dart to Krieg. He took it without a word, perhaps understanding the urgency in the look she gave him. “Where’d you find it?”

As she’d promised, Fiona gave them the full tour of the camp, before they slowed down for a proper investigation. It was tedious work, made worse by the clumps of aggressive, caustic plant life covering most of what could be considered evidence. She didn’t see why Zer0 felt the need to dismember, decapitate, and bisect so goddamn many of them, when a simple stab would suffice.

Regardless, Zer0’s description proved to be accurate enough that Maya was able to reconstruct their story after a few hours of work. Whoever had attacked them didn’t make any attempt at hiding their hand, aside from the flashbang they’d left bullet casings, bits of Zer0’s armor, and a small crater where one had thrown a grenade after Zer0.

The suspects hadn’t left anything else, though. Not that she expected an ECHO with their names, motive, and location, but even a bloody shoeprint would be nice. At least, she assumed that sort of information could come in handy down the line. Now the sun was going down, and there was one last corner of the camp, with one last headless corpse.

Krieg was trying to plunge his hand into its neck. “Punctuated!”

“Krieg, no!” Maya grabbed Krieg’s hand just in time.

The necrophage shook violently at the disturbance, and Krieg made a displeased grumbling sound.

“Do you really want necrophage burns?” she scolded.

“Yes! Eat the death away! A caustic baptism!”

Maya frowned. “I know you’re bored, but I’d really rather you didn’t.”

“But that’s how it all happened!” he argued. “Boring into the skull! The cure for nothingness: PURE BURNING AGONY! ”

“Is...Is he gonna be alright?” Fiona asked from a good ten feet away.

“He’s fine. Right, Krieg?”
The tension on his arm let up as he stopped reaching towards the body, and Maya released him. She turned to face Fiona. “Guess this is the last of them. Sword wound again.”

“Of course.” Fiona‘s eyes followed the trail of necrophage that traveled from head to neck, eyebrows knit. “So...Definitely no shock bullets used on any of them?” They’d stumbled upon the shock bullet casings, scattered alongside casings from Zer0’s own rifle, on the ledge above the camp. It seemed Zer0’s attacker fired more shots than had actually hit them- she wondered if that fact would make them feel better or worse.

“That must have been from whoever attacked Zer0. Or one of them, I think it was a group- three or four would make sense. Much more than that leaves too many variables- if you want to covertly take out a target, you need a small, highly trained group. Plus, it seems as if there were a few different weapons used.”

“Couldn’t there have just been like, two guys? Switching out weapons?”

“True, but then why did Zer0 run off the cliff instead of making an easier escape? Look at this place- there’s way too many escape routes for just two people to cover. If Zer0 was already wounded, with their shield down, they’d want cover from the sniper. The best cover is to the east. Even north would be a better option if they‘d cloaked. But instead, they went west, towards open land. Not to mention they obviously hurt themself more on the way down. So either Zer0 panicked, or those routes were blocked, and they aren’t the sort to panic.”

“That’s...a good point. I think? Or, you’re totally bullshitting me and making it sound pretty smart.”

Maya laughed, maybe a little too nervously, judging by the skeptical look Fiona was giving her. “You-you're right. I’m making some educated guesses here. I mean, it could have only been two. Heck, it might have been one extremely fast person, or Zer0 could have really messed up. But honestly? I have trouble seeing them getting taken down by any less than three without there being more evidence of a fight. I guess that’s putting a lot of faith in Ze-”

“The ANGUISH in my hands! The stabbing purple venom!” Krieg interrupted, rescuing Maya from her clumsy attempt to justify herself. He thrust his fist between the two, opening it to reveal the feathered dart. The final thing she needed from this investigation. She’d have to thank Krieg later.

“What...Is that?” Fiona stared down at it, bewildered.

“Looks like a tranquilizer dart,” Maya said, carefully taking it from Krieg. She hoped her reaction seemed natural. Maybe she should have acted more surprised?

“Where’d you find that, Krieg?” Fiona asked.

“It STABBED into our missing void and now our insides are just like TWINS! All dressed in purple! And so the lying eyes were blood and then mismatch and then storm clouds and now one’s GONE! But the stormcloud wins her violet-violent prize back!” He confessed, being completely, yet incomprehensibly, honest.

“Right. So uh, I might actually be a little rusty on my psycho, you got a translation?” Fiona asked.

“Something about Zer0 getting shot with it? Don’t know where Krieg could have gotten that, though. Or found the dart, for that matter.”
She gave Krieg a look that she hoped translated to “Please don’t say anything else”.

Krieg nodded rapidly. “DING! I’m clocking out! No more perjury!”

Chapter Text

Rhys’s shaky businessman countenance seemed to fall away the moment the other three Vault hunters left. Replacing it was the expression of one who’d hit the wrong button on a fast travel, to find themself in the middle of a heated game of bandit headball. If that person suffered from a profound preoccupation with their hair.

The silence had actually become intolerable to Zer0, master of awkward silences, by the time Rhys finally spoke.
“Soooo...Guess it’s just us again, huh?”

“Is that not the point?”

“Ye-yeah. Of course.” Rhys managed a wavering smile. “I just, uh... Make yourself at home, I guess. It’s a big place, obviously- so uh. If you want a tour...But, I mean, I guess you’ll need to rest because-”

Zer0 felt like weights were attached to their remaining limbs, and their senses seemed to be dimming by the minute, but they were so, so sick of sleeping. Sleeping was admitting that they’d been bested by a chemical, crude and foul.

“-Or-or not? Just uh...” His smile fell. “I have books, ECHOsims? Whatever you need, I can probably get.”

“I need my arm fixed / You said you would repair it. / Sooner is better.” They’d barely managed to get dressed without being forced to ask Maya for help. That, they could have beared, she’d never put them on a pedestal. But now Maya was gone, and Rhys didn’t need to know just how far they’d fallen.

“Oh! I did say I’d do that, didn’t I?” Rhys seemed relieved, perhaps because he’d been freed from the social obligation to entertain them.

“Yes. You did.” Zer0’s voice was monotone as ever. They’d hadn’t intended to sound so curt, so they added a “:)”.

“Right, sorry, I almost totally forgot. But yeah, I uh, I can do that. At least, I can give it a look. I have a repair kit in my workshop, and I uh-I managed to fix my own arm, so if it’s anything like that, no problem.”

Their smiley was replaced by a hopeful “:D”.

Then things got awkward again.
The elevator ride to the fourth floor was approximately thirty seconds long. It was another fifty seconds of walking to Rhys’s workshop. A total of seventy seconds where Zer0 was painfully aware of their lack of conversational talent, while Rhys, not much better, anxiously preened. He combed a hand through his hair, adjusted and readjusted his sleeves, checked his fingernails, checked the joints of his metal fingers, smoothed out his shirt, rubbed at a scuff on his arm, and combed a hand through his hair a second time. All the while he would periodically steal glances at Zer0, only for his eyes to dart away when he saw them returning his gaze.

In the last ten seconds, as the elevator door opened, they decided to comment on it.
“You are well-groomed, Rhys,” they said. “A rare trait, on Pandora. / You need not worry.”

They were entirely unsurprised when Rhys’s face turned pink. He sputtered out something that might have been a “Thanks.”

“Uh, sorry about the mess.” Rhys spoke again when they reached a door labeled with the word “CONFERENCE ROOM A2” in blocky, vertical letters. Rhys typed a series of numbers on a keypad, and the door slid open.

Its label was accurate - even calling Rhys’s workshop a “repurposed boardroom” would have been generous. It was more like someone took a boardroom and a workshop and haphazardly smashed the two together. There was even a large portion of the concrete wall that had been knocked open, exposing pipes. Rhys had apparently made some alterations so that the pipes supplied a DIY sink.

A long metal conference table sat in the middle of the room, sleek except for a large spot where the sheen had been worn away. It was covered in a variety of clutter, mainly tools and what looked to be unfinished projects, as well as some miscellaneous trash.
Only a single metal stool sat beside it - one that had been obviously taken from another room. The actual conference room chairs sat in a cluster, pushed up against the far wall. Rhys dragged one of those next to the stool.

“Okay, sit here, I-I guess,” he said. “I need to uh, get some tools together.”

“Odd choice of workspace / Surely this facility / Has a real workshop.” They sunk into the chair, letting themself enjoy the comfort for only a few seconds before sitting up straight. It wouldn’t do to show just how exhausted they felt.

“Yeah, but this room is only a floor below my suite. The actual workshop is over in another building. Not-Not that I’m lazy, but this is pretty convenient and uh, it was pretty bad there…” He plucked a few tools out of the mess.

Zer0 cocked their head at him with a “?”.

“Oh, so Athena’s uh, murder rampage. I-I think she ran out of ammo around there and switched to using grenades and...power tools.” He paused, shuddering. “I’ve seen some gruesome shit out there but uh. You’d uh. You’d think most belt sanders would stop working after going through that much...face. But yeah, it-it’s fine…” He shook his head as if he were shaking off the thought of it. “Okay, if you could take off your glove and roll up your sleeve. Let’s see what I’m working with, here.”

Zer0 hesitated. Rhys had probably seen a little blood-covered skin already, considering how tattered their suit had become. And their arm was simple robotics. Still, it was way more of them than most people would ever see.

“Rhys, I…” Zer0 began, intending to warn him of the consequences of sharing anything he saw. They thought better of it. After all, they were making a point of not scaring him, little as that seemed to be working.
“I’m grateful / You’ve proven dependable / Surprisingly so,” they finished, peeling off their glove.

“Oh! Uh.” He got that vaguely lost, startled look again.“It’s no problem. I-I mean, if it weren’t for you, I would have definitely gotten eaten by a skag like two different times. I mean, I guess the second time you didn’t save me on purpose, you just dropped your sword in a convenient spot, but still, you being there during that whole death rally thing meant the rest of us didn’t get made into skin pizza, And then you helped out with the Traveler? ...N-Not to say that I’m only doing this because I owe you- I mean, I definitely owe you but, I just, y’know, we uh...” He stopped, noticing Zer0 pulling up their sleeve to reveal blue-black metal. “Right! Your arm, yeah. Fixing it now.”

"Do you really think / That you will be capable / Of this repair, Rhys?" Zer0 asked, in a tone that might have been gentle.

Rhys gaped at the arm, swallowing down the urge to grab their hand for a closer look. He never had much desire for the fancy, streamlined cybernetics, his arm served its purposes just fine. But the level of craftmanship that went into that kind of arm… It would have to cost at least a lifetime of Hyperion loyalty.
“Wow… I think I can, depends what’s broken,” he answered. “But... You- You’re sure you’re okay with that? I mean, I’m not gonna break it. Probably. But I uh… I’m not sure I can guarantee that it’ll be up to par with uh, how it should be…”

“A subpar repair / Better than a useless arm / I’m sure you get it.” They shrugged their good shoulder.

“Heh, true. Well, it looks like some of your joints didn’t completely lock up, at least. What still moves?”

“A shoulder joint’s loose / It moves straight - forwards and back.” They demonstrated for him with some jerky movement. “My elbow’s limp too.” On cue, their forearm started to fall in towards them as they held it out. They lowered it before it could smack their visor.

“Huh. In that case it’s probably an electrical issue. Depending on how it’s wired, at least? Some joints got stuck in the locked position, and other stuff probably went out mid-motion and ended up limp. That, or, uh, you broke all those joint actuators. Which, probably not, right? That’s...A lot. A lot of actuators to break. Or at least, it looks like it’s pretty actuator’d out.” God, he must have sounded like an idiot.

“Sensation is gone / Disconnections in wiring / Seem the likely cause,” they said, courteous enough to ignore his stumbling.

Rhys reached out, hesitating midway. “May I?”

Zer0 blankly stared at him before loudly scooting their chair closer. They spun the chair to face away from the table, then lifted their arm up and plopped it on the table in front of Rhys. Their shoulder’s inability to bend outwards forced them to twist towards Rhys. It looked uncomfortable, but if it bothered them, they didn’t show it.
“You kind of have to,” they said. “That is, if you’re to fix it / Don’t be so scared, Rhys.”

Rhys felt his face heating up. “Y-yeah. I’m uh, not scared, I just...”
That was a lie. Actually touching them again, now that they weren’t bleeding heavily and possibly dying was absolutely terrifying. It was a completely irrational fear, of course. Zer0 wasn’t an untouchable god, they were just unbelievably cool and a total badass and oh my god they were actually trusting him to fix their fancy probably-extremely-expensive cybernetics.

Rhys realized he’d froze with both hands grasping their arm.
“Sorry. This is just- I’ve just never seen an arm shaped so realistically. A-a cybernetic arm, I mean. You uh- It’s really cool, you know that?”

“Yes.” A “:)” lit up.

Rhys halfway returned the smile, felt awkward about it, and shifted his attention back to the arm.

Its plating fit together almost seamlessly, none of the inner machinery was exposed. The places where most cybernetics would have open spaced to allow for joint movement were covered by a synthetic material that perfectly mimicked the elasticity of skin, better to disguise the limb under their suit. The palm side of the hand was covered in the same material, most likely with simulated nerve endings worked in, allowing for complete control over grip strength. An arm suited for the most delicate of tasks, but also undoubtedly sturdy. It had clearly seen as much battle as Zer0’s scratched and chipped helmet. The worst damage was a number of shallow divots where bullets had struck, yet even that was completely superficial.

“Okay, so there’s no major dents or anything, my guess is something inside got knocked loose or broken? Hopefully something in the arm, ‘cause I’m way less good at brain surgery.”

Zer0 looked at him, not responding.

“B-because uh, if your brain implant got damaged...Controlling your arm would be...Y-you know? I-. That uh. That was a joke.”

“I know,” they said, toneless.

Rhys let out a weak chuckle. Yep, they definitely thought he was an idiot, and honestly, it was hard to blame them. “Okay. I’m...going to remove the shell because uh- I- To fix it.”


“Y-yeah. Naturally.” By now Rhys’s face was probably Atlas red. He was a CEO. He’d literally taken courses on charisma - not that he needed to be taught it. At least, he’d thought he was. Being around Zer0 was turning him into a highschool aged Vaughn, all fidgets and stammers and sweaty hands. Sweaty hand, in Rhys’s case. Actually, that was uncharitable to Vaughn, he generally didn’t struggle to communicate the most basic of ideas.

The arm was precise down to the tiniest of tritanium screws holding it together, perfectly aligned with the surrounding metal as to be almost invisible from a short distance. It took a few tries to find the right sized screwdriver to begin disassembly. Further complicating matters was the arm’s limited range of motion. Rhys found himself repeatedly repositioning both it and himself to get full access. Zer0 apparently noticed his trouble once Rhys attempted to access a screw on the bottom of their upper arm, holding the limb awkwardly above his head. From then on they proved to be an attentive assistant, offering the aid of a third hand whenever Rhys needed it, without him even needing to ask.

With Zer0’s help he made good time on removing the outer plating, even feeling a little less terrified by the end of it.

The inner arm was almost macabre, like flayed flesh. Veins of wire intertwined with a complex muscular system of motors and pneumatics, supported by a skeleton of xenocarbon fiber. Much like the outside, it had been refined to near-perfection, likely able to perfectly match an actual arm’s flexibility, speed, and precision.

At least, it would, if not for the huge crack in its power core’s poly-asrite casing, which spilled out most of its corrosive contents, leaving a crusty blue deposit throughout a large section of the upper arm.

He almost laughed at how simple it was.
“Well, there’s your problem!” he lifted the arm to give Zer0 a clear view.

“I see. Ew.” They projected a “:(“.

“Hold on. I definitely have cleaner for this.”

It took some more digging around to retrieve everything he needed. Back when he was setting up the workshop he’d wheeled over a few of the less blood-soaked sets of metal drawers from the actual workshop, with intentions to organize his supplies. Instead the drawers ended up a jumble of everything from flattened tubes of epoxy to old Oz kits. Luckily, included in the mess was the can of cleaner, a wire brush, a box of nitrile gloves, and a crushed cardboard box filled with heavy duty trash bags.

“My own arm’s core burst after uh... Pandora...stuff,” he explained, leaving out the fact that it was specifically after he purposely impaled the arm on a metal spike. It happened on Pandora, so it counted as Pandora stuff. Zer0 didn’t need to know the specifics. “Luckily I found a box of this in the basement before burning myself too bad. It smells weird, though. Just warning you, if you uh, can smell through your helmet.” He put on the gloves, struggling to pull the second one over his blocky cybernetic hand - he’d prefer not to damage his chrome finish, after all.

Unsurprisingly, Zer0 didn’t give him an answer. Rhys decided against questioning whether or not they had a nose. Or a sense of smell, for that matter.
He took extra care to avoid exacerbating the power core’s cracks as he wriggled it out of its terminal. Once freed, he placed it in the bag and set it aside.
“Don’t let me forget to throw that out, heh. Wouldn’t wanna burn the place down.”

Zer0 nodded, still silent.

With the wire brush he started to scrub away the worst of the deposits, blue flakes piling up on the table. “Good thing your casing is so watertight, this is some strong stuff.”

Rhys had wondered if he was just talking to himself now, but this time they answered, “Corrosive bullets / Use a similar compound. / I’m used to such burns.”

“Still, it… It can’t be pleasant, right? And you were already in really bad sha-.” He didn’t finish that sentence, catching a “:|” out of the corner of his eye. Right, that was probably a sore spot. Any big-time Vault hunter’s pride would have been wounded after a defeat like that. Rhys hadn’t even been around Zer0 for a full span of twenty- four hours, but he was already getting the sense that they were largely driven by pride. Not that they hadn’t earned it.

The next few minutes were filled with silence save for the scratching of the wire brush. He almost wished he could see Zer0’s face, it would probably make the quiet more comfortable if he could at least get some idea on how they felt. Were they annoyed, or angry, or feeling just as awkward as Rhys was? Though for all he knew, their face would be just as unreadable as their featureless black visor. As it was, they seemed tense. They sat up as straight as they could while maintaining the awkward angle that kept their arm on the table, motionless save for one fidgeting leg.

Rhys felt like he should say something, but nothing was coming to him. Instead he broke the silence with the rattling of the aerosol can as he shook it. The spray foamed up on contact with their arm, turning red wherever it encountered acid.

“It’ll need a few minutes to soak.” The excuse to speak came as a relief. “After rinsing it off I can figure out what’s actually wrong but uh, it did look like you have some cracks in the chassis, and I can patch them, if you want. I mean, they probably should get patched, anyways, and I have an old digi-repair tool I can calibrate for it, but it’s kind of slow, and it’s not urgent, so uh...”

Zer0 looked at him with a “?”.
“If you’re asking me / For payment, it will have to wait. / Don’t carry much cash,” they said.

“What? N-no! I just thought you might get bored sitting around while I work? This already looks like it might be a kind of long job.”

“I can do little / But sit around, in this state.” Pausing, they cocked their head. “...You can amuse me.”

“...What?” Rhys swallowed. Was that meant to sound flirtatious, or threatening?

They shed their rigid posture and a “:)” appeared. “You can talk to me. / Not quite so fun as bloodshed. / Less dull than quiet.”

“Oh.” Rhys felt his face rapidly warming up again. “Right. Heh, you made that sound kind of sinister. I-I mean, it’s probably just me having spent waaay too much time on Pandora...And Helios, too, I guess.”

“No, it did sound bad. / Sinister, second nature. / I apologize.”

Honestly, Rhys was overjoyed to learn that Zer0 wanted to talk to him, even if it came with a qualifier. He looked back down at their arm to hide his grin. “Don’t worry about it. I mean, your pal Krieg threatened to uh, pull my lungs out through my throat, so whatever freaky implications ‘amuse me’ have seem pretty tame in comparison.”
Okay. He had this. He knew how to talk like an actual human being in a casual conversation. All he needed to do was keep the “sinister second nature” thing in mind and not get awkward the next time they said something weird. Hell, maybe “vaguely flirtatious” was their third nature. More likely they were totally oblivious to the way they sounded. And of the many different ways an emoticon could be taken. He was reading too much into it. Still, this was a good development, in his book.

“Sorry about Krieg,” Zer0 said. “I should have guessed he’d come with / And given warning.”

“You-” Rhys almost began to remind them that they’d passed out mere minutes after asking him to contact Athena. But that was just asking for another awkward stretch of silence.
Instead he found himself staring at Zer0 stupidly, his mouth partly open until he found better words. “It’s fine. I uh, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone on this planet who didn’t make me fear for my life at first, so uh… I mean, no offense- you uh, you actually get bonus points for clearing that up pretty quickly when we met. And more points for never threatening to kill me.”

“If I make a threat / I follow it through.” They paused for a long moment, before speaking again with what sounded to be genuine concern, “Sorry. / Was that sinister?”

“I uh... Maybe? I mean, you didn’t threaten me, as far as I can remember. If you had, yeah, I guess that would be a pretty sinister thing to say. Or if you’re planning on threatening me.” He smiled to assure them he knew that wasn’t the case.

“I hadn’t planned to / But if you ruin my arm / I may change my mind.” They projected a “>:)”.

“Right. I’ll try not do that, then.” Rhys chuckled nervously. Less because he thought Zer0 would kill him, and more because he was now forced to consider the possibility of messing things up.

“That was a joke,” they said, echoing his words from earlier.

“I know.” Now would normally be the time for a confident smirk, but Rhys couldn’t manage that. Instead he looked away from them, watching the softly bubbling foam on their arm. It would need another minute to soak. Suppressing a sigh, Rhys began to rearrange the tools around him as he tried to think of something clever, or at least amiable, to say.

He was unsuccessful.

It was a long, painful minute.

“Okay, you can wash that out in the sink now,” he said when it was finally over. It felt like he’d been holding his breath. “And uh. Then I’ll see what needs fixing.” Zer0 began to push themselves to their feet, but Rhys was up first, adding, “Or actually, it’s probably better I do it. So you don’t get soaked.”

They looked at him, flashed an enigmatic “嘆く”, and nodded.

Afterwards Zer0 let their still-wet arm fall back in front of Rhys’s chair. “It looks to have worked,” they said. “I hope you have replacements / For the damaged parts.

“I uh, I might. I can improvise if I have to.” He carefully dried the machinery, mentally listing off which parts looked salvageable, and what needed replacing. The motors that caught his eye first. Not only were a few obviously damaged, but none of them seemed to have data tags or any other identifying markings. Looking over the rest of their arm, he realized the same was true for nearly all of the components. The corrosion could have taken off what was closer to the power core, but looked more like the information had been carefully filed off, then polished until there was no sign left. Even an entirely custom job would usually include a sticker with things like the voltage and RPM.

He hesitated. It was difficult to imagine why they’d hide such basic data, but they probably had a good reason. Still, if they wanted it fixed, Rhys would need to know what he was working with.
“Hey uh, mind if I use my ECHOeye?” he asked. “I’m probably going to need to replace at least one of these, so I’ll need their specs.”

Initially, Rhys took the long look they gave him as one of mistrust, but they said, “Yes, you can use it. / But tell me: You used my sword. / Your eye hacked it?”

Rhys activated his ECHOeye, giving it the moment to do preliminary scans.
“...Maya told you about tha-? Shit!” His vision was filled with static and glitched characters as he looked up at their helm.

“AN໻LJ̴̄̒̉S&#;wS X̵̟͛0MP̸͆̽LeTE
࿡'c ഭ0ᛐh0F Y໻c ጑ᨎ ̵̝̞̞̺̲̥͚͗͗͘ ̷u̵s̴y̶i̷o̶̡̞̲͚̻͌͒̉͒̎̄̾h̸̙͚̰̘̻͔̓̊͝͝͝ ̸̨̭̅t̶̨̃0 cf nfb̵̪͆0 ̷̻͘c̴̬͛v̵̢͐ǔ̷̟ ̵̋ͅj̴̝͠u̷̗͌'̵̡̔t̴͔͌ ̴̯̍t̴̤͌p̷̎͜pp̶̝͋p̶̦̊ ̶̟̈́ c̷̹̏0n̷͎̾f̷̯̃vt1ñ̶̹͍̹̑͝h̷̝̺̾̊͆
̴̰̝͂X̵̟͛if0 ̷͚̖͔̗̔̑̈́̀x̴͌ŝ̴̟͕͖j̸̧͙̱̠̜̿̽ṳ̶̚f̶̜̜̘̈́s̵̘̪͇̭͓͛͊̒͗t̶̖͓͎̃̿͌ v̶t̸f: "̶̞̾͜t̷͍̉͘h̸̼̉0ḛ̵̻͆͝ỷ̶̯"̷̫̲̍ ໻໻s b̸̨̟́̈́ ̵͓̂̒̋tt̴̘̭̝̋î͕ƌ0wks̷͇͑̈́̿ͅs̷ ̷p̸e̶r̸t̸pn.”

A painful, high pitched buzzing rose to accompany the text. He cringed, throwing a hand to his port.

The buzzing’s volume increased rapidly until Zer0 reached over and shielded his eye.

“I should have warned you / My helmet is protected / Against ECHO eyes.” They gave Rhys a moment to recover and deactivate his eye before removing their hand. “Are you okay?”

“Y-yeah.” His heart was pounding. “Yeah, I-I’m fine.” He let his hand fall from his temple, only now realizing he’d been prepared to dig the port out of his head again. With his goddamn fingernails. Zer0 must have not noticed - or if they did, they were polite enough not to say anything. He wondered what would they have done if he’d actually tried? Impulsive self mutilation wasn’t out of place on Pandora, but it was still completely messed up by any moderately sane person’s standards. Swallowing, he pretended to find a wet spot he’d missed with the rag.
“So the uh, glitched text is part of it?” he asked. “P-part of the security, I mean.” The sensation of a sound that only existed in his head was bad enough, but at least there’d been no voice. That combined with the glitched text, though…

Of course it had to simply be part of their security’s counter-attack.

“Yes. Your eye is fine / But are you sure you’re okay? / You look somewhat pale.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He held a smile for about a second before it fell. “So uh...The sword thing, right? What was it you wanted to know?”

Zer0 regarded him for a moment before speaking, making Rhys fear they’d press the subject. Instead, they answered, “Maya did tell me. / She said you defended me / I’d like to hear more.”

“...Really?” Rhys hesitated, still aimlessly dabbing their arm with the rag. The story was embarrassing, but he could use the distraction. “Okay, but in retrospect, I feel pretty dumb about the whole thing. Just uh, keep that in mind.”

“I will.”

“So I erm… I completely panicked and it was the only weapon around and I uh- I figured I’d have better chances with a sword than in a fistfight, heh…”

“Go on,” Zer0 prompted. They sounded genuinely curious - or at least, Rhys thought they did.

“Okay, so I fell asleep while I waited for them - Maya and Athena - to show up. Sorry, I know that uh, that could have gone bad. If you- or if it had been...Yeah.”
Rhys set the rag down and reactivated his ECHOeye, only to be met with another message: “ERROR: Malicious activity detected. Your security might have been compromised. Scan needed before boot. Scan Progress: 1%”. He resisted the urge to ask Zer0 if there was any chance their helmet had given them a virus. They’d told him his eye was okay. If he pushed the subject, they might start to wonder.
Sighing, he continued his story, “I woke up to Krieg yelling about meat and knives, and I guess I kind of freaked out? I mean, I tried to wake you up first, but then, well, yeah. Your sword’s handle-thingy was on your belt. I hacked it to make it digistruct. Sorry if that was overstepping any lines. I swear, I wouldn’t have touched it if I hadn’t been absolutely convinced we were both about to be murdered. I-I mean, it was stupid as hell, I’d just set my security to let Athena in, and she would have been able to give Krieg and Maya access, and there’s no way an actual bandit would ever get in. And the guys after you probably wouldn’t of been yelling about face steaks…”

Zer0 chuckled, and Rhys looked back up at them. They were projecting a “(ง •̀_•́)ง”.

“...Is that supposed to be me? Okay, b-but in my defense, you wouldn’t let me take you to a doctor because of ‘surveillance’ and you made me turn my security cameras off. So yeah, I didn’t think those guys somehow following us seemed that far fetched.” Normally he’d be indignant about being teased, but he needed some levity. Besides, with someone as distant as Zer0, gentle ribbing felt like a victory.

“Still doesn’t explain / Your exact strategy, there / You could have escaped,” they said.

“I couldn’t get us out of there fast enough, so I figured that the sword was the next best plan.” He shrugged. “I kind of hoped if I sounded confident enough about knowing how to use the sword he’d leave, so I yelled a lot of threats. And tried to have the sort of stance you’d use - so I’d look like I knew what I was doing?”


“Hey, I managed to be convincing enough that when Maya came in she thought I’d murdered you. So I must have looked kind of badass” he protested. “Which, sure, it went bad for me in the end, but if they were bandits...”

“Bandits are quite stupid / They’d buy it, but will still shoot / That’s their first instinct.”

“Oh, I-I guess that’s a good point. They do still shoot at you, huh?” He’s seen them effortlessly kill hundreds of bandits in the death rally alone, and yet he couldn’t remember seeing a single one of them retreat.

“Yes, most of them do. / Please go on. I wish to know / How you survived this.”

“Honestly, I just got lucky - Athena had really, really good timing. I mean, I feel like I had things under control , but then Maya showed up and used her freaky...floaty orb power? On me. So I couldn’t move, Krieg charged me, and Athena showed up right before I uh...Got decapitated and- Oh, hey! There we go!” The security scan had completed, detecting no malware, much to Rhys’s relief. It was nice to have some reassurance.

“There we go?”

“Oh uh, my eye is working again... It finished- did a- it was doing a virus scan…Your security counterattack. So, yeah, I’m going to scan your arm now...” Careful to not look at their Zer0’s helm again, he targeted one of the motors. A red text box appeared:

Sighing, he selected “OK”. Maybe he could do with toning down his security system, just a little. It wasn’t like a sketchy motor would install an evil AI in his brain. At least, he thought he could trust that Zer0 wouldn’t knowingly let that happen.

Telam̸̳̫̱̆̚͜͠͠on Electr̫͕̗͗͠͞ì̥͎̞̞̭͐̿̚͡c Motor
M᷊ܩ݂del: #L12C48CST-3313
Manufact&#;w: Hypḛ̵̻͆͝rion
Desĭgner: Hyperion R&D CL4P-TR࿡P A1*
Max RPM: 1000
Status: ࿡npowered
Durable and powerful, yet lĭghtweight and energy efficient, the Telamon ੆otor is the fin͐ȅ͕̘͌s̓͌t on the market for all your robot͙̕ìc̣͚͌̓s needs! Accept no substitutes!**
*Since deactivated.
**Hyperion cyb͓̿ó̲̳́r̠̈́g personnel found employing non-Hyperion motors may be subౡect to disasљembly and termination.”

Rhys’s breath hitched when he saw the glitched characters, but it had to be the damaged code. Just to be sure, he took a moment to scan the first random object his eye targeted, a wrench. The results were normal. It was stupid to worry in the first place, really. Seeing a few glitches wouldn’t reactivate some lingering code in his brain, magically rebuilding the Jack AI. And if Zer0’s helmet had any sort of virus in it, it would probably be something instantly debilitating.

He was fine. His brain was fine.

He let himself crack a smile before scanning the arm’s other components. Each part yielded similarly glitchy - but not completely unreadable - results. Not quite data tags, but they gave him all the information he needed.

“Huh.” Rhys deactivated his eye again so he could look at Zer0. “So, is your entire arm stolen Hyperion tech?”

Zer0’s looked first to Rhys and then to their arm, flashing a “...”.
“Yes,” they said. “I suppose so.”

Zer0 watched silently as Rhys got up to rummage around in the drawers again.
“This actually might work out really well,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Hyperion appropriated most of those designs when Jack bought Atlas, so I should have replacements for everything right here.” He pulled out a few lengths of cables, tucking them under his arm and kneeling to look through the bottom drawer. “They might be dated, but they should work just as good.”

“Good,” they murmured, not paying much attention. Their mind was still occupied with Rhys’s story. Nothing he said explained why he’d stand his ground against Krieg. What did he think he would gain from that? Amusing as they found the mental image of a terrified Rhys wielding their sword with shaking hands while Krieg yelled nonsensical threats, the image of waking up to Rhys’s dismembered corpse and their friends covered in his blood? That was distinctly less amusing. Absurdly, the thought of it went so far as to make their skin crawl, though they couldn’t say why. Maybe it was just the Achlys. Or embarrassment - the feeling of being protected bothered them, and the last thing they wanted was someone to die for them.

“Rhys, you could have died,” they finally said.

“I...What?” Rhys looked at them blankly, then at the glowing blue power core he held, then back at Zer0 again. “I was just- It’s only- What?”

“You are not skilled in combat. / Your actions, futile.”

“Oh! You mean with- Yeah. Yeah. That’s... Definitely true.” Rhys sat back down, laying out the parts. “I guess I almost did, Athena got there like right in time to stop a uh, buzzaxe to the spine, but it all worked out, right? Like I said before, I’m used to having my life threatened. I’ve started getting over it pretty fast at this point.” He grinned in a way that could be called charming. Zer0 imagined that was the kind of smile one perfected as part of their business strategy, a means of inspiring confidence.

“Hm.” They didn’t buy it. Maybe he was gambling with his life. A high risk, low reward gamble, where at best he would prove his loyalty to them in hopes of being repaid. A business opportunity with the Raiders, perhaps? But no, they couldn’t see him taking such a pointless risk without something more solid as a reward. Though, he had been on Pandora for awhile now, there could be more to him than a strategic businessman. Or less, depending on how one looked on Pandora’s tendency to twist the minds of its inhabitants.
“Such self disregard. / Suicidal intentions? / Or a damaged brain?” they asked.

“What?!” Rhys yanked out three cords at once, tearing their corroded ends. “N-n-no! To both things! I-I just… I’m trying to be a good person, is all.” He looked at the stubs of the cords, still attached to their arm, and cursed under his breath.

“Good? By getting killed?”

“By, you know, trying to pro...tect you. Yeah, heh, I uh, guess that wouldn’t work out if I’d gotten killed, but I couldn’t just leave you, I’d uh, I’d feel pretty bad about that. If you’d died, I mean. I guess it’s hard to believe coming from the guy who used to work for Hyperion, but I’d like to think I at least have a shred of honor.”

Zer0 looked at him for a long moment. Rhys didn’t return their gaze, instead focused on carefully extracting the broken cords from their ports with a pair of pliers.

He didn’t seem to be lying. Something seemed off about him, though. Maybe they were just imagining things. They were starting to feel that certain dizziness that came with exhaustion. It was hard to think too much about it.
“Honor works better / When you don’t end up dying / No point to it, then,” they said.

Rhys nodded, still not looking up. “To be honest, I didn’t really consider that dying was a possibility at the time? I uh, I know that sounds pretty dumb, seeing as Krieg has that huge buzzaxe, probably at least thirty guns, and he’s built like a truck on steroids.”

“Yes, that does sound dumb,” Zer0 agreed, chuckling softly. It occurred to them that talking to Rhys was all that was keeping them from dozing off. Any lull and they might lose their grip on consciousness.

“Hey, it worked out, right?”

They shrugged their good shoulder. “Rhys, protecting me / May not be what you desire / In terms of ethics.” It was the first thing that came to mind, and they regretted it instantly. Reminding someone you were an objectively bad person was always a good conversation killer.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I kill for money / And for fun…” They trailed off, grasping for words to finish the haiku. “Without mercy. / Didn’t you know that?”

“Well, yeah, you’re an assassin. But you obviously aren’t a complete monster?” he shrugged. “I actually.. I uh. You. You’ve done a lot of good stuff...Out there.”

Zer0 didn’t know how to respond to that. Worse yet, Rhys was looking at them with that smile again, and they were starting to think it might actually be genuine. They spat out a delayed “Thanks.” and it went quiet again.

Chapter Text

Ahead stretched a dim hallway, lit only by cold fluorescents. The light reflected onto the polished linoleum floor, a bright pathway that seemed to beckon Zer0 onwards.

The lights flickered out behind them as they walked.

It wasn’t supposed to be this dark. It hadn’t been that dark. Zer0 knew that, even if they had no idea where they were.

This place was familiar, but no more than that. There was only the fluorescents, the linoleum, and the raw concrete walls.

They kept walking.

The monotony was first broken with a simple Atlas logo, painted on the wall in bold red letters. Rhys’s facility?
No, that couldn’t be right. This place was bleak and utilitarian, with none of the extravagance of the one at Old Haven. Still, they’d been here before, and they were strangely at ease here.

An alarm began to sound, accompanied by strobe lights flashing at regular points down the hallway.

They kept walking.

Even through the blare of the alarm, they could hear a voice, crying out in pain and fear.
They turned to follow it at the first branch in their path.

“No! Don’t come any closer, I-I’ll do anything you want!” A thin, rough voice. “I’ll give you anything you want! I-I-I’m sorry! Please!”
Zer0 knew that voice. They hadn’t heard it in years, but they’d killed this man, hadn’t they?

He was sobbing.
Oh, they must be killing him now.

They turned a second corner.

Before them lay a dozen corpses, strewn around the hall. Scientists, accompanied by a trio of Crimson Lance soldiers. They must have been evacuating when they’d been attacked.

Zer0 recognized their own work, though they hadn’t been nearly as subtle back then. That, or their client requested such extremity, it was hard to keep track after so many jobs.

The nearest bodies were the soldiers, a single stab wound in each of their backs. Further on, things became muddled. A mess of blood, viscera, and dismembered limbs. Too many non-fatal wounds. Zer0 didn’t doubt this was their work as well, but it was sloppy, at best. A result of hurried desperation.

The last body was an Atlas assassin, split in two with a diagonal cut from collar to hip. Both of her swords were bloodied- she may have presented them with an actual challenge. Old Atlas had trained their assassins well.

“Please!” the doomed man begged, louder this time. Zer0 found that they still remembered his face. He was older, but not yet old. Perhaps in his early sixties, with a square-set jaw, thin lips, and a receding hairline. His half-rimmed glasses gave a kindly aspect to his face, when it wasn’t distorted in fear.
They had decapitated him. A simple, clean kill.

He was sobbing, now.

This past Zer0 was taking too long.

“You won’t get a fight,” they called out to themself, irritated.

Light shone under a door nearly a hundred feet down the hall, to the left.

Inside, the man’s voice wavered through terrified rage. “You’ll never leave here alive! They’ll take you down!”

Zer0 almost laughed. Their old jobs had been so predictable. It would start with pleas and bribes, and when that didn’t work it would be anger and hackneyed threats, always undermined by fear.
He still wouldn’t fight back, they hardly ever did.

As they neared, the man began to scream- agonized screaming that went on for too long. Why weren’t they finishing him off already? They’d won the moment he was cornered in that room.

A heavy thump.


The door swung open and the other Zer0 stepped into the hallway.
Their helmet was still new, unmarred by thousands of battles. Their blood-spattered armor too- only, it had recently gained a few gashes, courtesy of another assassin.

This would have been before they’d started going by Zer0, when they were simply another nameless assassin-for-hire.

This nameless assassin seemed to regard their counterpart, projecting a “0” from their helm.
“It is done, he’s dead. I have no desire to kill you too,” they said. They weren’t even using haikus at this point. "If you wish to live, I’d advise that you leave this place. Now.” They were addressing someone behind Zer0.

A third figure, cloaked in shadow. It was a small, slender creature- humanoid, but like Zer0, far too thin to be human. It backed away, trembling, and fled, stumbling over its own feet.

Their former self watched, motionless, as the figure vanished into the dark hallway. Then, they too turned to leave.
Something was off about them, Zer0 realized with a deep unease. They carried themself wrong, every movement felt empty. Almost as if there was nothing behind that visor. The thought seemed ridiculous, but they couldn’t rid themself of it.

The assassin faded into the shadows.

Darkness had closed in on all sides now, the only light that remained was what shone from beneath the door. Zer0 grasped the handle, reluctant to turn it.
There was something behind that door, something other than the dismembered body they’d left behind. They’d spared something else in there, something they shouldn’t have.

They began to turn the handle.

“You’ve become careless, assassin,” a distorted voice said behind them.

Zer0 swung around, reaching for their sword, only to come up empty.

A gloved hand clamped onto their neck, slamming them against the door.

A blade rushed at them.

“No!” Zer0 was already jumping to their feet when they woke, grabbing for their sword again. This time their arm was stopped short with a dull crunch, followed by a crash and a cry of “Augh! Shit!”

They went lightheaded, their legs shaking under them as they finally drew their sword. They could barely see. Their peripheral vision was gone, everything else obscured with a filter of murky white.

Then their vision cleared, and they remembered where they were. Rhys. Their arm.

“You fixed it…” They held the arm out in front of them, testing its movement. “Perfect.” Even with their heart still pounding, the realization overshadowed the last fragments of the dream. They projected a “:D”.

Oh right, Rhys. He was what stopped their arm, they’d smacked him in the face with the near-equivalent of a metal truncheon.

He was on the floor, grasping his nose, stunned. “Owww...Why'd you..? ...Shit…”

“Crap! I’m sorry, Rhys. / I did not intend for that.” They deconstructed their blade, realizing it was making a contradictory statement. “...Your nose is bleeding.”

“Really? Ugh.” He put a hand to his upper lip, confirming the truth in that. “I...It’s...fine.” He cursed under his breath, cringing. “...Are you okay?”

“Yes.” They projected a “:\”. Judging by the sound it made when they’d hit him, his nose was undoubtedly broken. What was he doing worrying about them? They bent down, offering their hand. Rhys took it, rising unsteadily.

Once on his feet, he pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes tearing up.
“Ouch… Thanks,” he said, as if it hadn’t been Zer0 who’d knocked him over in the first place. “Are you sure you’re okay? Because you just-”

“Yes.” Bad as it was, Rhys’s injury was a convenient distraction. It would be easy to brush off questions regarding their own well-being if Rhys had the more pertinent problem. Explaining that they’d woken in a total panic, because of a fever dream about some half-remembered murder, wasn’t ideal.
They retrieved a tissue box from across the room.
“Here. For the blood.”

Rhys thanked them again and pulled out a handful of tissues, pressing them to his nose.
Zer0 turned to right his fallen chair.

“I uh, had almost finished. With your arm,” Rhys said.

“To your misfortune. / My arm can wait for right now. / Your nose looks quite bad.”

“Does it?” Rhys had all the composure of someone who was entirely used to being hit in the face, full force. He touched his nose and winced.

“Yes. Sit, lean forward.” They gestured to his chair, hesitant to break the news: “I think it’s broken…Mildly. / Stay. I will get ice.”

“Yeah. I mean, I guess that’s about what I’d expect a broken nose to feel like. I can grab some ice, you’re still hur-”

“No,” they interrupted. “You need to sit. / Your injury takes priority. ” They stopped halfway out the door. “Where do you keep ice?”

“There should be some in the freezer in my room.”

Zer0 nodded, starting out again before remembering another thing. They poked their head back in. “Oh, it’s possible / That you have a concussion / Or worse. Stay awake.”

They heard an unexpectedly calm “Gotcha.” as they left.



Rhys’s suite was slightly smaller than the one he’d given Zer0, but it was laid out and decorated much the same. It lacked personal touches, aside from a drooping potted plant and a dented Hyperion cleaning bot buzzing in circles on the floor. The bot sported a name tag that read “HELLO, MY NAME IS”, and handwritten, “Trash”. Presumably, he’d dug it out from Helios’s wreckage. True to its name, anyone else would have thrown it away.

Zer0 stepped over it on the way to the kitchen, idly wondering if this was one of the robots they’d overheard him mentioning to Vaughn. “Kind of like dogs,” he’d called them. Vaughn had been worried for him, and now that they thought about it, that was entirely fair- Tannis probably started out with odd attachments towards shitty electronics too. Being isolated on Pandora did weird things to people...

They paused for a moment on their way out, eyeing Rhys’s desk. He must have been accessing old Atlas databases when they’d surprised him the night before. Somewhere there’d be a record of that facility they’d been in, maybe even information on the people they’d slain. More importantly, they could figure out what had been in that room, if that dread hadn’t merely been a construct of their dream.

It was hard to believe their brain had been tampered with, and that was the obvious answer for why they couldn’t remember. It was possible, though- one of the downsides to cybernetic implants was that they made for a gateway for doing just that. All it took was a clever virus and ineffective security, and there were all sorts of ways to mess with a cyborg’s perception.

There wasn’t time to dig through files, not without Rhys wondering what was taking so long. Simply asking for help would be easier, but what were they supposed to say? “I killed some Atlas, / Brutally, some years ago. / Can you find out more?”

It had simply been a dream, triggered by fever, slag, and this facility. There’d been hundreds of other jobs they’d forgotten the details on, it wasn’t necessarily significant.

Zer0 turned their back to the monitors. If it was important, it would come to them.

Rhys was still in the same place when they returned. They grabbed the first aid kit by the door on their way in.
“Keep pressure on it / For about two more minutes / The bleeding should stop,” they said.

“Oh, good.”
Zer0 sat down next to him, beginning to dig through the kit. It had probably been there for the entire lifetime of the facility, anything that could expire, had expired. The only cold compress sprung a leak long ago, and the dried fluid covered half the supplies in white flakes. There was a bottle of “Dr. Zed’s Bullet Salve”- a product that even Zed was responsible enough to have discontinued.

A pair of insta-healths briefly gave them hope- if they injected one after setting Rhys’s nose, it would be like it had never been broken. But the red liquid had gone four shades darker over the years. It wasn’t worth the risk.

“You should restock these,” they advised as they rummaged. “How have you survived this long?/ So few precautions...”

Rhys let out a short laugh through the curtain of tissues. “Not gonna lie, it’s mostly been luck?”

“Undependable. / But you’ve been weirdly lucky, / I will give you that.”
The only item of any particular use to them was a bottle of aspirin. It had also expired, but it probably wasn’t toxic. Otherwise, setting Rhys’s nose really only required their hands, it was unlikely they’d need to splint it or pack it- a lucky break, they weren’t entirely sure how that worked and it didn’t seem particularly pleasant for either party.

...What else was there? Zer0 was far less interested in healing injuries than in making them, but they’d learned a little over the years. Only, they didn’t always have the most reliable teachers. Once Salvador recounted punching a man hard enough to drive his nasal bones into his brain, killing him instantly. After studying a few human skulls, Zer0 wasn’t sure they’d believed that. It was more likely that, assisted by his brass knuckles, Salvator simply punched the guy so hard that he’d crushed the skull.

Neither nasal bone-related death nor a crushed skull were concerns here, but still, they’d hit Rhys in the head. Hard.

“Does your head hurt, Rhys? / Your vision, blurred? Dizziness? / Do you feel alright?”

“I-I think it’s just the nose. I have a pretty hard head.”

They nodded. “Good.”
A hard head wouldn’t be much help against his brain ricocheting inside his skull, but it seemed like his nose absorbed the worst of the impact.
“If something changes / Tell me. I’d prefer your brain / To go undamaged.”

“Right.” He laughed again. “And thanks. Not to brag, though, but at this point, I’m kind of a pro at not getting brain damage.”

Zer0 didn’t know what to make of that. They projected a “?”.

“Sorry, that was uh- I…Dumb joke...You know, Pandora stuff - a lot of head trauma.” Rhys pulled the clump of tissues away from his nose, cringing at how much blood had soaked into them. The bleeding had stopped, at least.

“I do not know.” They tapped their helmet and projected “:)” before turning to retrieve a small package from the first aid kit.

“Oh, yeah, I guess not, huh? Hey, what- what are you doing?”

“Antiseptic wipe.” They said, ripping the pack open. “Relax, it’s to clean the blood / For a better look.”

Rhys put a hand up to stop them when they leaned forward to swab at his nose.
“I can do it.”

“Right. Of course.” They handed him the wipe, suddenly feeling foolish.



It was funny, less than a day ago their positions had been swapped.

Okay, maybe not funny so much as weird, considering that Zer0 had been pretty much half-dead yesterday. Rhys was obviously the healthier of the two, and he still needed to finish their arm, so Zer0 probably shouldn’t have been the one tending to him.

After all, Rhys had gotten hit in the face more than enough times to be intimately familiar with the procedure for nursing nosebleeds. He hadn’t straight up broken his nose before, a fact that might qualify as a miracle after both working with Vasquez and journeying across Pandora. Still, his ECHOeye could generally provide whatever basic first aid information he needed for this kind of thing. It didn’t seem so difficult.

But Zer0 seemed insistent and Rhys was shocked into cooperation- only partially due to the pain. Mostly, it was the fact that the assassin Vault hunter who’d infamously killed thousands of his former coworkers (and even more bandits) was fussing over him. They seemed about as far as you could get from the archetypal caretaker.

He put the now-pink wipe aside.
“Am I, um, good?” He asked, resisting the impulse to check his reflection in their helm.

Without a word, Zer0 grabbed Rhys’s chin with their gloved hand, tilting his head towards where he assumed their eyes would be- more or less the same place as a human’s. They released him just as suddenly.
“I’m sorry, I, uh- / ...Good news: it’s not too crooked. / I could set it now.”

Rhys gawked at them. Did they seriously fumble over a haiku?
“Seriously, no offense, but are you sure you’re feeling alright?” he asked. First, they’d woken in what he couldn’t interpret as anything but complete panic, now this?

“Yes.” There was no hesitation.

“Oh, well, good.” He didn’t believe them, but he wasn’t going to argue. They hadn’t started bleeding or showing any of the other Achlys symptoms, as far as he could tell.

“Shall I set your nose?” they offered again, this time a hint of insistence entered their voice.

“I uh, I guess, if it’s noticeably crooked? Then, yeah, sure. My striking good looks are a huge selling point for Atlas.” He was embarrassed with himself the moment the words left his mouth. “But yeah uh… So exactly how does that work?”

“It’s pushed into place.” They demonstrated the motion with their hands. “Simple, it shouldn’t hurt much. / Broken noses, easy.”

“So you’re saying you have experience?”

Zer0 took just long enough before nodding to make Rhys worry.

“Sorry, I… I’m just gonna have to ask you to elaborate.”

“Common injury / For Vault hunters. I’ve set some. / Less practiced than most.”

“Less practiced?” Rhys rose an eyebrow. Zer0 seemed like they’d know how to do this, he had no reason to doubt them, but this was a matter of his facial symmetry.

“I am not favored / For such a job. As I have... / Strange anatomy?” They shrugged. “Perhaps you’ve noticed / I’m not entirely human. / People speculate.”

“Yeah.” He chuckled awkwardly, unable to tell if that was sarcasm or if they actually thought he was that dense. “I-I mean, not that I was speculating! Because I definitely wasn’t.”
He was imagining, true. But there was totally a difference. Probably. He still did have to wonder if they had a nose, though.
“Anyways, erm, I guess I’m not going to be getting to a doctor anytime soon, that Zed guy was the first time I’d even heard of one on this planet, and he seemed kind of, um…”

“Not a real doctor.” They projected a “LOL”.

He sighed. “Of course he isn’t...” Worst came to worst, there were always Quick-Change machines, he could probably figure out how to fix his face with one of those. “Okay, yeah, do it before I chicken out.”

“There may be more blood / And it will be quite painful / Will that be okay?”

“Yeah. Please just do it!” He wished they weren’t so goddamn considerate.

Zer0’s lined their thumbs up on either side of his nose.
“Don’t move,” they warned, then pressed firmly and dragging down.

There was a cracking sound as the bone shifted. Rhys recoiled the moment they removed their hands. “Shit! Shit shit shit! Ouch!”

“Wait, let me see it.”

When he looked back Zer0’s helm was inches away from his face. They gave a soft “Hm…”

The reflection of his face was warped and dim in their helmet, broken up by the scratches that covered their visor.
“Well uh, going by my reflection, it looks straight, but it’s hard to say,” he said, smiling.

Red light blinded him in response and he flinched away, closing his eyes.

The “!!!” they’d been projecting vanished.
“Sorry!” The word broke their usual monotone, they sounded genuinely embarrassed, and Rhys felt irrationally guilty.

“It’s fine,” he assured. “D-don’t worry about it.”

Zer0 nodded, turning to close up the first aid kit. “You’re right, though. / It seems I was successful. / Be careful with it.” They handed him the washcloth-wrapped bag of ice, followed by a bottle of aspirin.

“Thanks, seriously,” he said. “But, uh, about your arm…” All he needed to do was reattach the last few plates. It was more aesthetic than anything, but it would keep the joints from catching in their sleeves, too.

“Rhys, I broke your nose, / I would not grudge you some rest. / Use the ice on it,” they urged, flashing a “:|”.

He would have argued, but it did hurt like hell. He pressed the ice lightly to his nose. “Tomorrow, then?”

Zer0 nodded, rising.
“I’m to remind you / About the core. Throw it out. / Lest it starts a fire.”

Zer0 disappeared after that. Rhys looked away for a moment and they were gone. Of course, they wouldn’t hang around him all the time, he knew that. But they could at least say something before vanishing.

Holding the ice pack to his nose, he set Zer0’s remaining arm plates off to the side, wiped up the flakes of dried power core fluid, gathered the bloody tissues, and went out to bury of the core.