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Wanderers and Cast Offs

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The whole gang was together again as they had not been in the two years since they opened the Vault. Beyond them, there were a few dozen Atlas employees and assorted Pandoran denizens filling out the banquet hall. The hall itself was part of a walled complex of buildings Rhys had constructed to house his thriving Atlas corporation.

Ostensibly, they were there to celebrate Rhys’ most recent product launch, but the secondary purpose was for Sasha to show off her baby bump to their friends and allies. The host and hostess stood near the more happening side of the party along with Fiona, Loader Bot, Gortys, Janey and Athena.

Vaughn sat at the bar, sulking away from his best friend’s happiness. He hoped nobody would notice he was keeping to himself but he was skilled at going unmissed.  

The mirror on the back of the bar showed his reflection. The over all look of the room was corporate casual, but he would more easily fit in with a grizzled group of bandits. Even though Rhys assured the area was secure, Vaughn chose to keep his weapons, shield and relics on his person. 

Since Rhys returned from the Vault Vaughn had begun to feel unnecessary. The Children of Helios threw their lot in with Rhys and his Atlas corporation which freed him to wander off and explore Pandora and himself.

It worried Rhys to no end.

Vaughn could tell. He was sure his friend would again try to convince him to take a job at Atlas. For the umpteenth time he would have to turn him down. The work he probably would have enjoyed, but he felt too much like a third wheel since Sasha came into the picture.

It would have been better, he thought, if he had not heeded the party summons. It was too late for that, so he opted to get drunk.  “Another shot of rum please,” he called to the bartender.

The well-dressed server poured it and he picked it up to toss it back.

From behind him he heard a low voice, “Look who we have here.”

Vaughn turned sharply to see the lean form of August looming above him.

The blond brawler settled on the stool next to him. “It’s been a while,” He said, before getting the bartender’s attention to order, “Gimme a beer… and a shot of whatever he’s doing… and another for him.” 

“Hey, August,” Vaughn said. His shoulders tensed.

August picked up his bottle took a long gulp before setting it on the bar. “I saw you had gone local, but I didn’t expect it would still be true. I thought you’d be working for Rhys by now.”

Vaughn shorted, “He wishes. I’m done with… all that. How’ve you been?”

August shrugged, “Been better, been worse. You know how it is.” He glanced over to Rhys and Sasha.

Vaughn followed suit before he turned back to pick up the shot glass. “Kinda surprised you came,” he  said.

“What, I’m not welcome?” August arched a blond brow. “I’m sure they invited me.”

“No no, not like that just… I dunno. Is it weird to see Sasha… like that?” Vaughn regretted being so tactless.

August sipped from the shot of rum, unphased. “Yeah… and no? On some level, I never really dated Sasha. Not the real one. I dated a con version of her she created to my tastes. What I’ll never be over is that she that she picked him of all people.”

Vaughn shrugged did another shot. 

He leaned in close to Vaughn, closer than expected and said, “How bout you. Is it weird for you seeing Rhys with her?”

“What? Why would it? No. No …” Vaughn protested. “Psssht of course not.”

“Sure.” August said and his tone conveyed his disbelief.

Vaughn sighed and set the glass down.

“I always thought you were  too good for him.” August said.

Vaughn choked on his own spit and started a coughing fit just as Rhys appeared at his other side. “Vaughn! My man.” For August he gave a much less enthusiastic, “Hey.”

August tilted his head and said, “Hello, Rhys.”

Rhys sounded unconvincing as he said, “I’m really glad you could make it, August. Thrilled, in fact.”

“I bet,” August replied with a grin. He leaned in close and said to Vaughn, “I’ll catch you later.” He snatched the bottle of beer of the bar and walked away.

Rhys laughed with a nervous edge as August wandered off, “Wow, he’s still friendly as ever.”

Vaughn cleared his throat and shrugged. “Guess so.”

Rhys sat down at Vaughn’s other side. He sat up and took a deep breath before saying, “Thank you for coming too. It means a lot. I was hoping that you were planning on staying a while.” Rhys’ mismatched eyes were full of obvious hope.

Vaughn closed his own, “We talked about this.” It felt frustrating to have to go over it again.  

Rhys said, “Hear me out. Sasha and I and Fiona and Yvette… the bots... we’re worried about you, Bro.”  

“Oh god, here it comes.” Vaughn groaned.

Rhys plowed ahead, as was his style, “I want you to stay here. Join me. You don’t have to work for me. Do you need venture capital? Do you want to be your own boss? Do you want me to just give you money?”

“I am my own boss.” Vaughn said, “I get money when I need it.”

“C’mon Bro I am worried about you. I’m never sure if you’re alive or dead… you don’t answer my Echos half the time… and the rumors I hear are terrifying.” He shook his head in dismay, “Vaughn… What are you even doing out there?”

Vaughn’s brows drew taught as his annoyance skyrocketed, “Sorry. I’m just not… comfortable here. I stay when I can. Like I keep telling you, you’re a busy man and you have family on the way and you need to focus on that. I’m… finding myself.”

“You said that a year ago.” Rhys pouted.

He usually found it cute when Rhys was petulant but  was over it tonight. “Yeah, well… it takes time.”

Rhys leaned in and grabbed him by the forearm, “Vaughn, seriously. Did I do something to… hurt you or… offend you? If I did I am so sorry. Just… tell me what I fucked up, Bro. I’ll fix it.”

The worry in his Rhys’ brow softened Vaughn’s expression, “No. You didn’t do anything wrong.” he sighed, “Please just… stop asking me.”

Rhys leaned in closer, “Okay… sorry. I’ll stop. The offer stands.”

Vaughn put his hand on Rhys’ knee and said, “I get it. I just slaved away in cubicles and offices for years of my life already. I’m learning… different skills out here. I’m not ready to go back to that yet. I’m not sure if I ever will be.”

Rhys said, “I’m just scared. I’m scared I’m losing you. I’m afraid going to be a terrible dad to my kid. I just… miss you is all. I hate to spring this on you but… I wanted to ask you if you’d be my best man… and you haven’t been around to ask.”

Vaughn was more surprised by the question than he should have been. He put aside his feelings and threw his arms around his best friend to hug him. He was genuinely happy for Rhys in every way that mattered and he felt ashamed that this awkward feelings were hurting his friend.  

“You’ll never lose me. Yes. I’d be happy to be your best man.” He kept Rhys locked in the embrace so he did not yet have to meet his eye. “Congratulations. You said yes?”  

“Shut up, I asked her,” Rhys said before snickering.

After a few perfunctory back pats Vaughn pulled back, “Well I guess I have to stick a round a bit more. You should have lead with that.” The alcohol helped him pretend he was fine.

“Thanks. I am so stoked. You are going to be the world’s greatest Best Man… but,” There was a judgmental squint to his eyes as he looked over the rough and shabby appearance of his friend. His lips pursed.

Vaughn gave him a dead-eyed expression. “I’ll give you my measurements for a suit but I’m not losing the beard or the hair.”

Rhys looked immediately relieved, “We can work with that. Come on… have a glass of champagne with us and we’ll make the announcement.” He was all smiles now.

Vaughn smiled back against the pain, “Sure thing, Bro.”

The party was more fun than Vaughn thought it would be. He did his best to push all negative thoughts from his mind and enjoy spending time with the members of his found family. He also caught up with a few of the former Children of Helios who were now working for Atlas.

He supported his friends through the night’s announcements of due dates and wedding dates. For Rhys, he even gave a testimonial on the new pistols Rhys was producing to vigorous applause..

After the happy couple retired for the night, he snagged half a bottle of rum from the bar and made his way outside to the patio area. It was quiet out there and he needed space to process the enormity of his feelings.

Elpis was bright, beaming her reflected light down on the Pandoran night as he sat in a far away bench near a small decorative fence.

August appeared as promised though Vaughn had long since forgotten about it. He too had a bottle clutched in his hand.

“So… that was all… something.” He said as he settled close next to Vaughn.

“Yeah.” Vaughn nodded his head. “I’m happy for them. Rhys he’s got… all the things he wanted… it’s all happening for him.”

“What about you? What do you want?” August asked.

“I don’t know.” He changed the subject, “What did you steal?”

“Truxican tequila, you?”

“The rum.”

“Good choice.”

They drank a few minutes in silence before August spoke, “You know I couldn’t help but watch you and Rhys earlier.”

Vaughn’s hair rose on the back of his neck as he said, “Don’t go telling anyone your wild theories. Leave it be.”

“Not just my theory V. In fact the only guy who seems to miss the fact that you love him is Rhys himself.”

Vaughn shushed him though there was no one nearby, “Dont… don’t tell him. Don’t talk about it.”

August held up one palm in a peaceful gesture. “I won’t. Calm down.”

“Just leave me alone alright? This all sucks enough without your ribbing.”

August took a long swig from his drink. “What makes you think this is ribbing? Also you didn’t answer my question.”

Vaughn sighed, “Which one.”

“What do you want?”

Vaughn again did not answer, “Are you another one of the ‘worried about Vaughn club?’ I’m a grown man and I’ll do whatever I want.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you it’s rude to answer a question with a question? I figured you’d go back to civilization with Rhys after he resurfaced but you’re still living wild. I’m not worried per se… I wonder what you’re looking for.”

“We’ve never exactly been besties August. I don’t understand the sudden interest.”

“We’re partners in misery where Mr. and Mrs. Ten Mil are concerned. Why drink alone when you can drink with me?”

“I guess.” Vaughn said. Against his better judgment he made a complaint. “He wants me to stay around him more, but it’s weird. And he doesn’t even realize why it’s weird, but if I tell him, then I’m making my private problem his problem. I don’t want to be around, but now I have best man duties. But I can’t say no. I care for him. He’s my best friend.”

“I don’t know how he doesn’t know. I mean Sasha knows.”

“How does Sasha know?” Vaughn could not keep the shock and horror from his face.

“Knows… assumes,” August shrugs. “Kinda the same thing.” he put his foot up on the decorative fence.

“She told you?”

“Fiona told me.”

“Why would Fiona tell you that?”

“I don’t know, Vaughn. People talk about things with their friends … or so the friends I now have told me.”

“You and Fiona hang out?”

“Not like that , but yeah, we keep in touch. We spent a few months living together at the Purple Skag while I was… not doing real great. I talk to Sash now and again. I talk to Fiona more.”

Vaughn looked astonished. “Huh.”

After another pull from the bottle, he set it on the ground. “Lot of things you don’t know. I hear you get around these days, but you haven’t come out to Hollow Point since you started your midlife crisis.” He produced a joint from his pocket and flipped open a metal lighter to light it.

Vaughn squinted. “Is that what you’re all calling it? My midlife crisis?” He took another gulp from the bottle.

August’s nodded and said, “Well… Yeah.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Vaughn growled. “Did someone put you up to this?”

August inhaled the smoke and looked at the end of the joint, “I wasn’t sent to you by some sort of committee, no. I came to talk to you because you look like you need company and because I thought we were friends.”

“Since when?”

“Since we teamed up and opened that Vault.” He frowned.

“You aren’t exactly nice to me.” It seemed fair to point this out.

August held in the smoke as long as he could before exhaling. “No, I don’t go out of my way to kiss your ass. Doesn’t mean I don’t like you. God Damn, you and Rhys are the two stupidest motherfuckers I’ve ever…”

“Hey!” Vaughn frowned, “And see? This is not the way friends talk.”

“No? Sorry I’m not fit for the country club V. No offense you ain’t looking like you are anymore either.”

Vaughn shook his head and took the joint from August. Though he had no idea what was in it he inhaled. He tasted weed but there was something else that was unfamiliar. A wave of coughing hit as he exhaled.

August shook his head and clapped Vaughn on the back as he leaned forward to cough hard.

A feeling of pure euphoria nonetheless ran through him.

“I should have warned you to go easy.” August mused.

“No shit,” Vaughn coughed. “Okay so… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that you had any interest in being my friend and so I never visited. Uh… what have… you been up to?”

August’s lips stretched into a radiant smile, “Apology accepted.” Then he shrugged, “What I’m up to is not much… the bar, mostly.”

Vaughn coughed out, “Just the bar? No huge criminal enterprise?”

“Nah.” August kept the joint to himself now, perhaps not trusting his companion to smoke any more.

“I was laid up too long after Ma died to… leverage any of that, plus everyone knew I’d turned against her… the odds were good if she hadn’t died on her fool’s errand she would have killed me herself.”

“I’m sorry,” was all drunken Vaughn could think of to say.

“Don’t be. What’s done is done and we can’t change shit, so why spend eternity being butt-hurt about it. I get by. I got some you know, side hustles. They say you’re a mercenary now.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.” Vaughn paused,  “I mean I guess. Yeah. Technically… I am… by definition a mercenary… but I do jobs to keep cash flowing. I try to do them for the right people. I kill no one who… probably doesn’t deserve it.”

August leaned back and took another puff giving Vaughn a grinning side-eye as he exhaled a swirl of smoke into the cool night air. 

“What?” Vaughn asked? “What’s so amusing.”

August said, “You. I Just remember how you were when I met you… you both came off like a couple clowns but I could tell you were the brains. God you were like a mouse in a bow tie.”

Vaughn’s lips twisted into a wry grin, “Oh you and Sasha weren’t much better. Idiots, all of us. I found you intimidating as hell, and that was before I saw you kill people.”

“You still intimidated by me?”  August grinned as he arched his brow up high.

Vaughn chuckled, “No. There’s a real chance you could kick my ass if you set to it, but I’d give you a good fight.”

August dropped the joint and crushed it under his sturdy leather boot. He scooted closer to Vaughn and leaned up into his personal space to whisper against his neck, “I’d love to feel you fight underneath me some time.”

Vaughn breathing stopped as he felt the other man’s breath on his neck. His mind reeled from the liquor and the realization he was being hit on by August the Brawler. Mouth agape, he blinked several times as he willed his mind to cooperate. It took focus to deal with the sudden revelation. “I’d uh… oh… fuck… Wait. Before I say something stupid… Could you elaborate?”

August looked into his eyes, squinting with impatience, “Yes, I’m hitting on you, asshole.”

Vaughn starred as though for the first time. August had never even crossed his mind as a potential squeeze. The realization struck him that he had never  considered anyone other than Rhys.

There was no reason why. August was tall, which he liked. His eyes were pretty and so god damn blue. By most standards, he was a hot guy who oozed a sort of manliness that Vaughn knew he would never match no matter how much of a bad ass he became. He asked the obvious question, “Why?”

August’s looked at Vaughn through narrowed eyes, “Look if you aren’t interested you aren’t interested.”

“Wait… I’m not uninterested… I’m just… I’m kind of in shock here. You think I’m… good looking? Me.”

August rolled his eyes, “Yes. And I have for a while. I almost went for you when we fought the monster but I was still… not ready. Why is it so hard to believe you’re attractive?”

Vaughn snorted, “Let’s see. I was a fat kid… then a fat young adult… and then I started taking care of myself and became a weird looking older adult. No one’s ever formed a line to date me.”

August laughed, “Shut up. First off, you’re handsome as hell. The whole thing you’ve got going on works for me, okay? And second, you’re pretty hardcore from the shit I’ve heard. You’re like a badass. I brought up the stuff about meeting you because I’m interested in the guy that went from that to this . Look at you. You’re in a civilized party in Rhys’ little neck of the world and you’re still wearing guns and a shield… and this.” he lifted the polyhedral, alien artifact Vaughn wore around his neck on a chain.  

Vaughn pressed his lips together. August was making a persuasive point even though something deep inside him warned that the math didn’t add up.

“You know who wears this crap? Vault hunters and monster killers and bad ass sons of bitches. Is it true… Did you really kill a Wormhole thresher single handed?”  

Vaughn beamed a grin and hid his face behind his forearm, “Yeah. But I had a lot of grenades.”

August growled in a deep and primal way as he grabbed his wrist and pulled it away from his face. “See what’s not to fuck about you?”

Vaughn laughed so hard it brought tears to his eyes. He took a final drink for courage and set the bottle down. “You win. I am forced to concede that you are my friend and I’m sufficiently fuckable.”

August chuckled, “God damn, that took a lot of talking to get there. I can think of much better things to do with my time and mouth.”

Vaughn took one last swallow from his bottle and dropped it on the ground. It broke.

They both stared at it in silence for a moment before laughing. When he’d mostly recovered he gazed into August’s ridiculously blue eyes and found his courage, “Do… did… you want to come back to my suite? It’s pretty nice.”

“I thought you were never going to ask.” August said as he ran the studs of his leather gloves down Vaughn’s cheek before taking him by the bearded chin and kissing him hard.

Vaughn tasted the tequila on Augusts lips first. He smelled like leather, weed and liquor and it awakened a deep need. He broke the kiss in the name of getting to his room as quick as possible. All he wanted now was to be alone with August.

The party was in the dying stages as they walked back through the hall. He had an arm easily slung around August’s waist without thinking much of it until he passed Fiona and Yvette playing cards with each other at one of the tables.

Fiona nudged her partner to look.

Yvette blinked at them before a giant smile took over her face.

“Whoo! Go get it Vaughn,” Fiona called out with both thumbs up.

“Call me tomorrow.” Yvette added.  

He walked faster and August laughed.

They weaved their way through the streets of the growing boom town. Between the two of them they were able to walk in an almost straight line.

Vaughn fumbled with his key card and made his way in. From a central hallway branched off several doorways and a stair leading to another floor above.

“I can already tell your room is gonna be nicer than mine is,” August said as he looked around.

Vaughn snorted, “Yeah well… Rhys is desperate to have me work for him so he got me a nice place to stay.”

August grinned, “And me… he hopes I’ll never return to one of his soirees again.”

Vaughn chuckled. He made several attempts to get his key card to fit in the slot as motor function was rapidly declining.  After he ushered August through the open door, it shut and locked behind them.

Chapter Text

“Vaughn… Wake up. C’mon. V…”  Someone was slapping Vaughn’s face without much force.  

Vaughn's stormy blue eyes opened a slit to find August was standing in front of him wearing only a pair of teal boxer briefs.

“Hmmmm?” he blinked in confusion before things started to drift back to him. He had picked up August at the party and came home. What happened last night? He winced as a wave of nausea hit him. His head pounded like a jackhammer was being applied to it.

“Coffee… Drink it.” August said and helped Vaughn into a sitting position.

Vaughn took the cup and said, “Head… hurts. Damn… what was in that joint last night?”

August scoffed and said, “You drink half a bottle of rum and blame the joint?”

“Okay, point… uh…” He used his free hand to rub at his eyes, “This is going to sound… terrible but did we…”

“No.” August gave him a amused grin. “No, we did not.”

“So… uh… Why am I naked?”

August eyed him, still grinning. “You threw up on yourself.”

“Oh fuh.. Oh no. I’m… I’m sorry… So why are you…”

“You threw up on me too,” August cut him off.

Vaughn groaned and his shoulders slumped, sure that this was the end of August’s interest.  “I am… so sorry. I never drink that much.”

August chuckled, “Probably for the best, but don’t sweat it. No big deal.”

“No big deal?” Vaughn looked up at him brow furrowed.

August leaned back against the wall. “Yeah, I dragged you into the shower and hosed you down, made you drink a glass of water and put you to bed. You’re light. I hope it’s okay I stayed.”

“It is. Did you sleep… in the bed with me?”

“Yeah… no funny business though. Just slept. I’m not a creep.”

Vaughn’s entire world was regret. “That’s totally cool. I was… just curious.”

“It turned out I was… pretty fucked up too… and I have no other clothes until your dryer finishes running. I threw your stuff in too.”

Vaughn gave the coffee a test sip and finding it at a consumable temperature he swallowed more, “This is humiliating…”

“Quit it. It's fine. Oh and I made you breakfast... if you can stomach eating. It’s done, so I figured I’d wake you up.”

Vaughn slowly pushed himself out of bed but everything felt a little painful and stiff, “Let me use the bathroom and… I’ll come eat with you.”

August nodded and headed back for the kitchenette, “Sure.”

Vaughn relieved himself and washed his hands. He did the bare minimum to make himself functional. He brushed his teeth aggressively, took two aspirin and brushed his hair out to put in a bun. After dressing himself in a pair of jeans and a beat up Atlas T-shirt, he carried his coffee out to the small eating nook and settled across the table from August.

There was a platter with scrambled eggs, a short stack of toasted bread and some canned meat hash with an empty plate on either side.

Vaughn found himself hungry the sight and scent of the food made him hungrier than he expected to be. “Thank you, for this. You cook?”

“I can make a thing or two.” His tone made light his skill. “I hate to tell you, because  I’d like stay and rock your world, but I gotta split back to Hollow Point.”

“Aww,” Vaughn tried to keep his disappointment in check as scooped some eggs on to his plate. “You just got here didn’t you?”

August poured himself a cup of coffee, “Yeah, but I can’t stay away from the bar too long. The dumbasses who work for me can’t be trusted on their own too long.” When Vaughn finished, he served himself up food.

Vaughn nodded, “I understand. I’m sorry I messed things up.”

“We were both a little in the bag. It might a been a liquor-dicked failure. Just come and see me soon, a’ight?”

Vaughn blushed and hated himself for it. “Okay… I promise. Just give me a couple days to handle some business things and I’ll come visit you.”

August smiled in a way that was unguarded and warm. “I'll be waiting.”

Vaughn looked away and asked, “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.” August nodded and stabbed a piece of egg with his fork.

“So,” Vaughn drawled, “I’m not a virgin but… I’m not… widely experienced either.”

August's lips stretched into a rakish smile as he said, “That’s precious, but also doesn’t change my mind. I promise I’ll go slow.”

Vaughn cheeks grew warm, “That’s not what I mean. I'm trying to say... are you sure we’re compatible ?”

August laughed outright,  “Top, bottom… it’s all BS. I don’t dig labels. Here’s the thing about me. I like sex… I like sex a lot... giving, receiving, fucking, being fucked; it’s all golden. So yeah… I can roll with a lot. It’s all good as long as we’re both into it. So you’ll have to tell me what you like.”

Vaughn sank his teeth into his lower lip before he said,  “I’ll… definitely… be thinking about it.”

“Good,” August said. “So will I.” he grinned.

There was a short spell of quiet as they ate before Vaughn said “Thank you for not leaving me to drown in my own vomit.”

August swallowed his bite of eggs and pointed at him with his fork. “What the hell? That’s a disturbingly low standard for a friend much less a lover. You're welcome, but what the fuck?”

“Let me rephrase, thank you for taking care of me. My brain is hot garbage right now, but this all helps a ton.”

“That’s more like it.” August said. The timer buzzed on the dryer and August got up and slipped over to the laundry nook.

Vaughn watched him dress while he finished his breakfast.

August took the rest of the clothes out and folded them into tidy shapes before taking them into Vaughn’s bedroom. When he returned to his spot at the table, he was carrying his boots. He sat down back down in his seat to pull them on. “You still never answered my question last night about what you want.”

Vaughn realized the reason he could not tell him is that he had no idea what he wanted. He didn’t want to admit that. It seemed boring. “I’ll… I’ll work on the answer to that and when I see you… I’ll tell you then.” He gave a small smile and prayed to no particular god that that answer would satisfy.  

August met his eyes to ask, “Who was it that hurt you? Was it Rhys?” He leaned forward, “Do I need to punch him?”

Vaughn snorted and shook his head, “ No . What do you mean?”

“I would. I totally would.”

“No thanks.”

“Just,” He pantomimed throwing a punch while making a clicking sound with his tongue.

Vaughn cleared his throat, “ August .”

“Sorry.” August looked mildly sheepish.

“It’s no one… in particular that messed me up. I doubt you want to sit through a series of tales on the schoolmates who bullied or shunned me for being a nerd.”

“I’d kick all a their asses.” August said, without hesitation. “But I think you could do the same now.”

Vaughn chuckled, “The real hard thing was being the ugly friend of a hot guy, but that’s not his fault. Rhys was always supportive, my biggest defender.”

August shook his head, “I’m absolutely sure you were never ugly.”

“How would you even know?” Vaughn asked, a touch defensive.

“I think you filter everything you think about yourself through a lens of other people's opinions.”

“I’m sorry my yearbook’s not here to prove it to you.”

“Negative self talk. That’s what that is,” August opined.

Vaughn let the sarcasm flow from his lips, “Is it, Doctor August?” Without giving him a chance to reply he said, “I’m a man of logic. I let the conclusions follow the data and the data over the years has strongly suggested that I am a massive nerd who should just keep to himself and not attempt interacting in a meaningful way with anyone.”

August had a hard look in his eye as he pushed his seat right up close to Vaughn. He put his hand on Vaughn’s thigh and squeezed it. “To hell with your data. I’m going to give it an anomaly so hard it’s going to be skewed for all time.”

Vaughn  stared at him, speechless, until a wave of laughter hit him.

It turned infectious and the blond man joined him in full belly laugher.

“I’m sorry for laughing,” Vaughn took a deep breath, “That’s the hottest thing anyone’s ever said to me… but it’s also hilarious.”  

August rubbed his thumb over Vaughn’s thigh before withdrawing his hand, “Thank you for an interesting night.”

“Uh you’re welcome. I'm sorry things didn’t… work.”

August’s eyes narrowed and he said, “If you say you’re sorry one more time, I’m gonna smack you.”

“Sorry,” Vaughn said and winced at realizing he said it again.

“Ooh you’re asking for it.” August teased him as he sat up again, grinning.

Vaughn chuckled looked away, stricken with shyness.  All this attention to him was so unlike what he was used to and it was both wonderful and terrible.

“Just promise me one thing.” August said and shook him out of his own mind.

“What’s that?”

“This isn’t my place to talk but I’m gonna do it anyway.” He set his hand on the table and tapped at the metal surface with his fingers.

“O-kay,” Vaughn said with a twinge of wariness. He sat up straight.

“Don’t let Rhys push you around. He’s gotta understand that him finding what he wants is great and all, but he can’t dictate to you what kinda life is going to make you happy, okay? I get that you’re all super best friends for life and whatever crap, but you’re not his sidekick.”

Vaughn was close to protesting but there was wisdom in those words. “Wow… Thanks August.” He paused, “I’m… realizing now that I don’t… know you, because you keep surprising the hell out of me, but I want to.”

August stood up and took Vaughn’s hands in his and helped him to his feet. He bent down and said, “You’re welcome. I wanna know you too.” He leaned in close to kiss Vaughn’s lips.

It was a gentler kiss, this time though it burned with need. When at last they broke it he squeezed August in a tight hug burying his face in the other man’s chest. The arms that held him were strong.  

“I’ll be in touch” August said, his nose pressing into Vaughn’s hair before he let him go.  

Vaughn stepped back, “Good.”

“Good. Bye for now.”

“See you soon.”

His eyes followed August and watched him until the door closed. Those muscled arms around him had made him weak, and he darted out a hand balance himself on a chair.

What the hell just happened?

Recovering himself,  he hurried into the bedroom to look for his Retro Atlasio. It only took a moment to find as it was It was vibrating underneath his bed and flashing a pale orange. He strapped it on to his wrist and saw a barrage of incoming texts.

From Rhys: ‘Call me when you wake up.’ Followed by. ‘Just brainstorming but here’s some ideas’. This was followed by a few dozen pictures of suits, flower arrangements and centerpieces.

From Yvette: ‘If you love me you will call me immediately. I need details.’

Fiona texted: ‘Meet me for a beer today.’

He loved them and they were important to him, but he was not ready for invasive questions about his non-evening with August, so he muted the ringer and turned off the vibrate function for now.

The rest of his gear August had piled on the counter in the bathroom. His vulnerability slipped away as he put on his shield and relic before pulling on his fingerless gloves of tan rakkskin. Vaughn was stronger and faster when he wore it them, a sensation that never grew old. He tucked the relic down under the collar of his orange T-shirt and threw on his robe.   

The clothes he had been wearing the night before were sitting on the bed where his companion had put them. The tips of his fingers caressed the T-shirt and felt an elation inside him. No one ever did anything like this for him and it felt like sunshine.

For the first time he experienced the feeling of being wanted and it was sweet and bitter but most importantly terrifying. His brain, as it always did, poisoned the moment for him.

It was weird. Suspicious. It felt too out of the blue to be true. Such thoughts played with his nervous nature until he was in a state of extreme anxiety that of late could only be soothed by shooting things.

Within a half hour he had gotten on his motorcycle and hurried through the checkpoints so he could get out into the desert. The roar of his engine drowned out his thoughts for a while.  

He had first taught himself to shoot and forage in these canyons. It seemed like a long time ago but was only over a couple years. A year of Rhys being missing followed by a year of him traveling to avoid Rhys.

There were so many mouths in those crazy days when the Children of Helios first fell from the sky. He had to spend so much time hunting for them and defending them from dangers then. Now he supposed he could call himself deadly.  

Now Rhys fed them. He housed them and directed them all to work towards a kinder, gentler corporate culture.

Vaughn wanted none of it. The work would have been fun. He truly loved numbers and missed work that utilized his numerical precision, but the corporate structure was not something he could return to. He did not, nor would he ever begrudge to give free advice and guidance to Rhys as he got Atlas moving, but the idea of sitting in even a nice office all day felt like slow strangulation.

In time, he found some quarry. It was a lone Rakk of decent size he picked off against Elpis’ light with his favorite sniper rifle before field dressing.

There was something August had said weighed on him as he replayed what he could remember of the conversations last night and this morning.

Sasha was explicitly aware that he loved Rhys.

He was not even sure how to face her after hearing such a thing. There was no way that Rhys was unaware. Did they discuss it? Was it a problem for them?

He always thought Rhys was just a little dense but maybe he did not give him enough credit on this.

“What do I even do with that?” Vaughn said aloud in frustration. As he revved up the engine on his motorcycle, he realized that he did not have to return to Atlas Headquarters. He could head straight for Hollow Point. It’s not like Rhys had never broken a promise to him. Still, that was not the kind of friend he wanted to be so he made his way back towards Rhys’ civilization.

The motorcycle he parked in the service area so he could go through the kitchens and deliver the meat.

He checked his watch and saw an unreasonable amount of texts from everyone and sighed. Rhys had sent the most.

Blowing past Rhys’ administrative assistant,  Vaughn pushed his way into the office..

Rhys looked up at him from his desk. He was sitting in his shirtsleeves, slouched terribly and sour-faced. “You left? What the heck. You said you weren’t going to leave right away!”

“I didn’t leave , I went out . Thanks for the concern, Dad and/or Messiah: whatever you’ve decided to be today.”

Rhys gave him a grim look with narrowed eyes. “Is that blood on your shirt?”

Vaughn looked down at his shirt, “Oh… yeah. I went hunting.”

“Why? There is literally no need to hunt anymore, Vaughn.”  

“It’s something I do. I don’t have to explain it to you.”

Something you do ?” His brows arched as he snorted, “Do you ever even listen to yourself? Do you hear how you sound? You used to be the guy that wanted to sip daiquiris on a moon beach and play Sudoku, bro. Now you’re… action man and you barely want to speak to me.”

“I barely want to speak to you because you keep pushing the job thing.” As soon as those words slipped free he wished he could take them back.

“So you admit you don’t want to talk to me. That’s real cool.”

“Rhys. Come on.”  Vaughn hated the hurt on the cyborg’s face. He pinched the bridge of his nose before gesturing wildly. “Yes, I’ve been avoiding you. I admit it, okay? I’m sorry. I love you and you know that I absolutely will be around for you when you need me but I can’t live here full time. If you can understand that I won’t… avoid your messages.” His eyes watered profusely.

Rhys took in a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry I’ve been pushy about the job and settling here, but you’re my best friend and I’ve been so worried. And I feel like maybe...you’re the one that’s outgrown me?” Now his eyes were watering as well.

“Never Bro,” Vaughn said. “From the moment I’ve known you always knew exactly what you wanted out of life. To run your own company and I have happily spent like a decade of my life working on that.  I never had a dream of my own, so I latched on to yours. I’m so proud of you for what you’ve been able to accomplish, and happy for you that you are doing it, but I can’t.. And I don’t want to. My job now is to help people and I fuck up assholes. It makes me happy.”

“I’m so proud of you too, bro. Sorry I’m a control freak and that I’ve been pushing so hard, I just miss you so much and I worry so much.”

“Please don’t worry about me,” Vaughn smiled wanly, “I’ll be here when you ask me and I will make sure your wedding is run like a well-oiled and fiscally responsible machine, but it's time for the small accountant to fly free of the nest.”

Rhys’ face went through a couple stages of grief before he sprang from his chair to tackle hug Vaughn. “I understand. I don’t want to, but I do. I love you, bro. Sasha loves you too. You’re family and don’t ever feel like you have to stay way. Do your own thing… just don’t forget me, eh?” His voice was squeaky by the end

Vaughn grunted as Rhys lifted him off his feet and swayed him, “I love you too, Bro. Both of you. You’re my best friend I’m not going to forget you… Please put me down before I get sick.”

Rhys set him down before taking him by the shoulders, “I just always thought it would be ours. I credit you with everything. You’ve done just as much to me to get us here. I owe you and it feels like you won’t let me pay you back.”

“You could never owe me. I’m your friend.”

“You can ask me for money. I’m telling you: just tell me you need money or gear and I will get it to you, because I wouldn’t be sitting here without you.”

Vaughn smiled up into his shining eyes, “Thank you, bro. You’re the best.”

“No you are.” Rhys crushed him with his metal arm.

They held each other and had a moment before they released each other and walked off in a separate direction to blot their faces.

When Rhys turned back Vaughn noticed that his golden echo eye was flashing. His brows climbed up towards his hairline.

“Hey Vaughn ?” Rhys’s expression changed from shock to a stupid grin, "Did you pick up August last night? Fiona told Sasha you did.”

Vaughn wanted to cry again, “I’m such a fucking idiot Rhys. I took him home and threw up on him and passed out.”

Rhys expression sobered, “Oh no.”

“Yes! And for some… reason… he stayed and… cleaned me up, washed our laundry and made me eggs!”

Rhys squinted, “What?”

Vaughn sniffed and pulled himself together, “I… still can’t believe it myself.. He wanted to talk to me… he wanted me to take him back to my room… and then he stayed even though I humiliated myself.”

Rhys moved back to his desk and sat down, brow furrowed, “Well… he must… really like you because that’s a young relationship deal breaker. What happened after breakfast?”

Vaughn hopped up to sit on the edge of his desk like he used to back in Rhys’ old Hyperion office. He said, “I promised to meet him as soon as I could… in a few days. Then he had to leave because his employees are terrible at their jobs, but he was very… adamant I visit him. He was really nice to me… and super complimentary about how… hot and badass I am. It was so weird… but so hot.”

Rhys nodded and said, “You are hot and badass.”

“He said I do too much negative self talk.”

“He’s right. We’re talking about the same August right? Tall, blond, blue-eyed and a little psychotic?”  

Vaughn chuckled and settled back into his chair, “The same one that once held us hostage and whose mother stabbed me in the side, yes.”

Rhys added with a grin, “And the same one who turned against Vallory's goons to side with Sasha and Fiona and who has been our loyal though… colorful friend ever since.”  

“It’s all kinda crazy,” Vaughn said.

“Sasha tried to kill me by pushing me out the Caravan door that one time,” Rhys grinned, “yet here we are, getting married, because life is strange on Pandora. Do you think that you’re legit interested in him?”

Vaughn said, “Yes/ I mean he's… hot, and he's got a really nice body a really sexy voice.. and he was kind. I didn’t even think he liked me as a human, but apparently has been interested a while.”

Rhys said, “I grudgingly respect his good taste in partners.”

Vaughn chuckled, “Thanks. I just don’t know how to act.”

“Be yourself… if he likes you he likes you.” Rhys pursed his lips and said, “Look there’s no need to start planning the wedding right now.  When you get a moment look over that stuff I sent you.”

Vaughn laughed, “I will all,  57 messages worth.”

Rhys looked up at him and said like a threat and a promise, “It’ll be more by tomorrow. Go. You don’t have to stay here when you have something going on. Go follow him, but text me when you get there so I know your safe and…  remember how much of a hole Hollow Point is.”

Vaughn put his hand over his heart, “I will send you back a report on what you’ve sent me with notes while I’m there. And I’ll swing by after and we’ll make plans, okay?”

Rhys said, “Sounds Perfect.”

Vaughn hopped off the desk and said, “You will be great dad. Okay? And Sasha’s going to be a great mom and your kid will be the most gorgeous baby the world has ever seen.”

“I know, right?!” Rhys agreed. His phone rang and Rhys looked at his screen, “Shit… I have to take this… am I the worst? I’m the worst.”

“Yes,” Vaughn said, “And the best.” He gave his sitting friend a quick hug and said, “Going to head out then… I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Drive safe!” Rhys waved him off.

“I will!”

He sent a message to Fiona while walking back to his apartment, “Raincheck on Beer? Need to be off.”

Fiona failed to respond by the time he reached his apartment, nevertheless she was standing by his apartment door waiting for him. She leaned against the wall with her arms folded, though she looked up when he drew near.  “You can raincheck on beer, but let me in.”

“Sure,” Vaughn said as he unlocked the door and held it open for her.

She walked in and sat down on his small gray loveseat. “How did it go with August? Is that blood?”

“Terrible, and yes, but it’s Rakk.” Vaughn threw himself into an armchair, “I got super sick and he… took care of me... and had to leave, but he asked me to come see him and I want to go. Rhys said… I should… and I feel like nothing is real and I’m losing my mind.”  

“Take a deep breath. I wanted to make sure you knew that August came out because I told him you’d be here. Wait where did the Rakk blood come in? Never mind. I don’t care.”

Vaughn realized he had sold all his friends short in keeping them at arm’s length over the past year. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He would have to fix this, but not now. Right now he had to get to the Purple Skag.

“When would I have, and would you have believed me?”

“No.”

“There you go. I want you to know, if you want to get with him, that August… is sort of a complicated guy on some levels… and kind of an idiot on others, but he’s family to Sasha and I now because he had our back when it mattered. And we had to have his back too. There were a few vultures that wanted to come at him when he was down.”

“Was he sick?” Vaughn leaned in steepling his hands to listen.

Fiona looked away, “He was messed up pretty bad physically when we took him home but… most of it was mental… depression. He was… just… ugh… seldom got out of bed for a few months.”  She gritted her teeth, “It was bad… but he’s a lot better now. He’s working on himself.”

Vaughn nodded, “Thank you for telling me. I… think he’s more… tender as a person than I ever thought he might be.”

Fiona nodded her agreement. “He is… that being said he can still dismantle someone with his fists if they cross him, but he’s got a soft side. If you’re good to him he’s good to you.”

Vaughn couldn’t help taking on a dreamy whisper of a voice as he said, “Okay… so I’m reeling. No one ever gave me a lot of interest and part of me still worries that this is some kind of joke.”

“August would never joke about anything like that.” As for herself she did not say. “I promise you that.”

“Can you do me a favor?”

“Is it hard?”

“No.”

“In that case, sure.”

Vaughn grinned, “Since nothing happened and I need to get out on the road… can you call Yvette and fill her in so I can get going?”

“She’ll still be annoyed at you," Fiona grinned, “But I know how to calm her down.”

Vaughn grinned wryly, and added suggestively, “I’m sure you do.” He said, “Thank you so much. Okay… I’m going to grab my bag… and go.”

She got to her feet and tipped her hat to him. “Don’t let me keep you. Happy trails, Vaughn.”  

In minutes he was roaring through the darkness down the path towards Hollow Point and everything smelled of dirt, diesel and excitement.  

Chapter Text

The long Pandoran night still clung to this stretch of land. Light had just appeared on the horizon but it would be many hours before it would be properly daylight.

The drive was mostly quiet. Vaughn only had to fire a few rounds here and there to deter wildlife. He whipped along roads and places where roads never existed until at last he entered the mouth of the cave system.

Vaughn had only been to the dark city on a few occasions to visit Janey and Athena a night or two before moving on.

The lamps were lit, as they always were, against the ever present darkness.

His watch fed him the coordinates and he drove with a wary eye through the streets until he came to the illuminated building calling itself “The Purple Skag.” It was larger than expected and the signage rendered him utterly charmed. It reminded him of the old style pub he and Rhys used to frequent in college. “He’s got a little monocle,” Vaughn said to himself of the painted mascot.

It seemed well lit, so he parked his bike by the stairs in, where he could keep an eye on it. Snagging his bag, he walked up to the door and tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge.

He wanted it to be at least somewhat of a surprise so he knocked on the door instead of calling. The street was quiet beyond some howling from a nearby alleycat.

The door swung open, but the man who answered was not August. He was a massive man with a blunt face and a large chin. His hair and eyes were brown, and all he was wearing was a pair of overalls with no shirt underneath. “We’re closed. Go on, get.”

“Wait…” Vaughn said, but the door closed in his face again.

He knocked again.

The door opened again, and the man looked annoyed, “I told you.”

“I need to see August,” Vaughn interrupted. “Is he in?”

The large man looked suspicious, “Who is asking?”

“Vaughn, I’m a friend of Augusts.”

Tector’s face lit up, “Oh shoot, you're him!” He backed away to make room for Vaughn to come inside, “We wasn’t expecting you so quick like. I’m Tector and you should come right in and get comfortable.”

“What about my bike?” Vaughn asked, “Is there somewhere I could park it that's safer.”

“Not one problem, sir. I will go put it in the garage for you… just… sit down. Pour yourself a beer if you like. When I get back, I’ll let the boss know you’re here.”

He stepped inside and looked around. “Thank you.” It was in some ways nicer than many of the bars he had been to across Pandora. It was cleaner than most and cooler than many. He did not want to go poking around without permission so he sat down at the bar to survey the place and set his bag on the stool next to him.

Someone was stomping around on the second floor. A basket came careening down the stairs to land at the bottom and flop end over end dumping a pile of laundry on the ground. August came jogging down the stairs after it and froze and with wide eyes.

He was wearing a white tank top and a pair of bright red athletic shorts. A purple bandana was tied around his head to cover his hair. Clunky boots made the outfit even better. “Oh shit,” he looked embarrassed as he flipped his basket over and jammed the clothes into it. “So… You’re early,” He said in a tone full of accusation.

Vaughn frowned a little, “I hope it’s okay... I couldn’t wait to see you.”

August lifted his basket and walked near to Vaughn, “It’s all good. Tector let you in?”

“Yeah, He’s putting my bike away for me.”

“Good… sorry I was just… cleaning my bedroom.” His face was turning pink. “And You caught me right in the middle of it. Get yourself whatever you want to drink. Let me go in back and run this laundry.” He came near, set the basket down to give Vaughn a quick hug and a peck of a kiss on the lips.

Vaughn chuckled and blushed too, “No problem… No need to rush because I jumped the gun.”

“I’ll be right back.” August said and carried on with his chore.

Vaughn got up to walk around the back side of the bar to see what he could find. There were all manner of Pandoran brews along with a small selection of popular off world brands. Alcohol was still not calling his name after last night, however, so he poured himself some water.

There was a bang of metal and from another room the sound of a washing machine and dryer roared to life.

When August returned, he carried an armload of what looked to be bedding. “I hate to be a dick, but I’m going to finish up and get dressed… I’m sorry I didn’t expect you to be here so soon. I had more I wanted to do. You said days.”

He chuckled, “Take your time. I’ll wait here. I have to check in with some people anyway so no one thinks I got eaten or shot in the face traveling.”

“Cool,” August said and proceeded back up the stairs.

Tector returned soon and locked the front door behind himself and resumed his task of sweeping out the floors.

“So… Tector are you guys closed this time most days?” Vaughn asked.

“Oh no. Usually we’d be open, but the boss thought we should take time off and clean the bar.”

Vaughn grinned in quiet amusement. This was for him. He decided at once he liked the place. It was quirky and had character just like its proprietor.

The massive man hummed a melancholy tune to himself as he moved about the room with his broom.

Vaughn tapped out a message to Rhys on his watch.

‘Arrived Safe in HP.’

Rhys replied, ‘Hope your vaccinations are up to date.’

‘Prick.’

‘Are tails on a tuxedo pretentious?’

Rhys really was obsessed with this wedding business.

He replied, ‘Not my style but your whole style is not my style. You should ask Fiona.’

‘Why her?’

‘She has more style than either of us and you don’t want to be sick burn’d on your wedding day.’

‘This is why I need your advice.’

‘I’m not the kind of gay guy who does fashion. You know this. You’ve seen 10 years of my outfits.’

‘It’s been a wild trajectory from polos and sweater vests to tiny psycho of the wastes chic. Ok. I’ll ask Fiona.’

‘Cool. I’m turning everything off. August’s back bye.’

Rhys gave him a final thumbs up sign.

August returned down the stairs looking like himself. He was wearing no gloves but his jeans, T-shirt and hoodie were in place. The do-rag was now missing.

“You don’t have to make a fuss over me,” Vaughn smiled. “I’m… well beyond my neat freak years.”

August shook his head. “I thought you came from a civilization and I’m supposed to be the back-planet asshole?”

“There’s no such thing as a civilized planet,” Vaughn proclaimed. “Just different levels of incivility.”

“Never would have taken you for a nihilist.” August said as he walked behind the bar.

“I’m not. Pandora’s just more up front about its horrors. There are a lot of terrible things on every planet.”

August smirked as he blew in a glass before filling it with beer from the tap, “All I’m trying to say to you is I’m sure on civilized planets people make an effort when they want to impress someone… and I’m appalled that for you this is special.”

Vaughn’s eyes widened and gave his companion a bright smile, “You want to impress me… that alone is… impressive!” Than he winced, “Wait, that doesn’t make me seem any less sad, does it?” He furrowed his brow and leaned his chin on his hand, pursing his lips.

August chuckled, “Nope… and I was a child gangster who never went to school... which is also sad as hell.” He raised his glass to Vaughn before taking a gulp.

Vaughn said nothing to that, just taking a drink of his water.

August added with a scowl “Ma taught me what she thought I needed to know, the rest I had to figure out on my own.”

“I can’t imagine what that would be like. School was the only thing I was good at.”

“Look, I’m not ignorant. I taught myself things, so you know.” August pointed out. He seemed prickly about the topic

To reassure him, Vaughn said. “I never thought you were, August. To be honest, I’m not much smarter than anyone else. I’m good with numbers and I genuinely love math… but beyond that...”

“How can you love math? What’s to love?” the concept seemed to unsettle him.

“There’s math that underlies almost everything and every force in our lives. And the more you know about it the more open you are to understanding the secret things in the universe. Math is like a language. It’s kinda cool, to me, and I am very uncool.” He looked away and sighed.

August took a swallow from his glass and thought about it a moment, “You make it sound kinda… poetic. I’m good with numbers too. I skimmed cash off of my Ma's operations for years.”

“That sounds dangerous.” Vaughn was not eager to broach the subject of August’s mother.

“My youth all around dangerous.” He looked as though he was struck with a thought and he changed the topic, “I’ve wanted to ask you… Fiona told me you were in a death race with her… the one that piece of shit Bossanova hosted.” He chuckled.

“Oh yeah.” Vaughn’s eyes brightened as laughed. “Yeah. First day planet side. It was terrifying.”  

“I did a few races, when I was younger.” He leaned back against the counter behind.

“No shit?”

August chest rose as he took a deep breath, “No Shit. Never won, but didn’t die, which is really the most important element. I learned to drive doing the races.”

“That’s incredible. I still can’t believe I didn’t die.” Vaughn grinned.

August's eyes were a little more open and expressive than normal as he smiled with real warmth, “Way Fiona tells it you were mighty impressive- and you know Fiona doesn’t like to exaggerate to make other people come off better. She was sure you were just gonna get her killed, but she said you guys tag teamed it.”

“We’re all surprised she was wrong,” Vaughn chuckled. “I haven't thought about that day for a long time.”

“That was a hell of a shitty day for me, let me tell you.” He took a drink and shook his head.

Vaughn made a slight grimace before saying. “Yeah… I suppose it was… losing a girlfriend and 10 million dollars. It was a bad day for all of us. Hyperion wasn’t going to let me live after stealing the money.”

“If I wasn’t Vallory's kid... I would have gone the way of Vasquez.”

“Nepotism has its perks.” Vaughn said dryly.

“Can I say something to you… to clear the air?” He leaned his elbows on the bar and stared across it into Vaughn's eyes.

Vaughn looked down into his cup for a moment to gather courage as August looked at him before he set it down and said, “Sure. Say whatever you want to say.”

August’s eyes narrowed and his brow furrowed, “I don’t think I ever apologized to you for- you know, those times I took you hostage. The violence… et cetera… and that time my Ma stabbed you.”

“What’s a little kidnapping between friends?” Vaughn laughed but it was weak.

“I’m serious here, V. I’m sorry you got stabbed.” August said.

“That was slightly more Fiona’s fault,” Vaughn said in protest.

August agreed with a nod, “Fi has a mouth on her, for sure, and Ma never took a lot of guff from anyone. I still wish It hadn’t happened.”

Vaughn said, “I’ve been stabbed so many times since then it’s barely even a traumatic memory anymore,” Vaughn gave a wavering grin, “So I forgive you and I also regret… a bunch of things. I wish I’d been a better friend to you too… especially after Rhys and Fiona disappeared.”

“Thank you for that. What matters is that you’re here now and I have an empty bar.”

Vaughn’s shifted to Tector. “Uh…”

August seemed to have forgotten the hulking Hodunk was still present, “Hey Tector… head home man. We’ll reopen at I dunno... noon, or some shit. I don’t even really give a fuck right now.”

Tector lay the broom aside, “Thanks Boss. Nice to meet you, Mr. Vaughn.” And he ambled out the front door.

“You Too!” Vaughn cheerily replied.

August looked back to Vaughn, “We now have an empty bar.” He rose to chain the front door and activate an electronic lock.  

“He seems… nice. What’s his deal?” Vaughn asked.

“Tector? Ah, some vault hunters slaughtered his whole clan for some revenge shit. Same ones that work for that Fire broad up in Sanctuary. It wasn’t a real big loss. The Hodunk's were pretty gross as clans go... but, he's ok. It worked out.” He paused and looked at Vaughn before gesturing to the stairs, “You wanna lay in my bed and listen to music?”

Vaughn hadn't been asked to do anything of the sort in a long time. It seemed a blissful idea. “Yeah. Let's do it.” He picked up his bag and took it with them.

August looked pleased and ushered Vaughn up a flight of stairs and down a hall to his bedroom.

The room was tidy and well kept. It even smelled good, like incense.

August fiddled with his music player giving Vaughn a chance to look around.

There were no photos. The few things that served to decorate the walls were posters. Two were from Death races and the rest were for cage fights, boxing matches and assorted brawls. Some of them even bore his name: August the Brawler in bold lettering.

Vaughn removed his shield and his belt of pouches and gear so he could get comfortable on the bed. He lay down on his side. The queen sized bed was comfortable as far Pandoran mattresses went. These days he slept rough often enough that any form of comfort was grand.

Hard pounding beats and electric rhythms thundered to life over the overpowering speakers making Vaughn startled enough to yelp.

August winced as well and turned it down to a more conversational level. Grinning wryly, he walked away from the speaker and sat down on the bed before crawling close to Vaughn to lay next to him.

Vaughn leaned against August and lay an arm across his abs, needing to touch him. “I tried to think… about what it is I want… and I wasn’t able to pin anything down that would… fix my problems. The biggest one is that I'm really lonely so right now… I just want you.”

August looked up at him and nodded, “Good. I want you too. I’ve also been... pretty lonesome. I’m on my own nowadays. To be completely honest with you, I don’t have the money, guns, or respect that I used to have. People don’t fuck with me based on my reputation,” He squinted at Vaughn, “but all I have is this bar, Tector, and you jackasses.” His face softened, “So I’m real glad you’re here.”

“Me too. I’m enjoying the music. It’s not familiar, but I have eclectic tastes.”

“We have a good Radio Station in town, Radio Hollow Point, that plays a lot of local stuff. I used to be more up on that scene.”

Vaughn said, “Oh yeah, the one Sasha DJ’d for.” He chuckled, “Anti Hyperion propaganda and music, right?”

“They don’t bother with the Anti Hyperion stuff anymore. I met Sasha because of DJ Rakk Attack. I was a fan of hers so… I guess it made me an easy mark.” He changed the subject, but it made things worse and not better, “How did you and Rhys meet?”

“College. Freshman year we were randomly assigned each other as roommates.  We’re from the same planet, so we bonded over that and we liked the same games and movies and stuff. From there we requested each other for the next three years and when we graduated, I made sure our resumes got us both accepted at Hyperion. We spent five years busting ass, stepping on backs our whole way up but doing it together, living together.  Now… he’s living with someone else… and change is hard to accept. I’m not used to being this alone.” August felt warm against him. It felt right.

“Damn,” August said. His rough fingers brushed over the top of Vaughn’s arm. “That’s got to be rough.”

“It’s no one’s fault, but it sucks.” He sighed. “It’s like I’m being divorced from a relationship I was never in… except I put in the hours. I even did his goddamn dry cleaning and told him when to time the echo messages to his mom so they would get received on time. You know what I’m never doing again?”

August’s eyes widened, and he guessed. “Whatever the hell dry cleaning is.”

“You’re goddamned right. Rhys is officially Sasha’s problem now. I love Rhys but I don't think he realized how much he took advantage of how much I was willing to do for him.”

“You two had a… uh... physical relationship right?”

Vaughn frowned and shook his head. “No… no. It wasn't like that.”

“Wait… you’re telling me you two never had sex?” August turned to see Vaughn’s face better with flagrant skepticism on his own.  

Vaughn shook his head, “Nope.”

“Really?” August could not get over this point, “You two never banged?”

This time, more vehemently, “No!”

“Never a hand job… robot hand job. No kneel and bob?”

Vaughn shook his head, “Stop! Why is that surprising?”

August grew cagey, “Uh, I dunno.” He shrugged his shoulders.

“Do we give off blowjob friend vibes?”

August burst into laughter he couldn’t contain, “Big Time.”

Vaughn’s eyes narrowed, but he laughed too. “You suck. I presume you and Sasha did… things.”

“Oh yeah,” August sighed. “This is pathetic. I’m sorry I brought up exes and past fuckery. I’m shit at conversation and a big walking piece of trash..”

“Now who has the negative self talk.” Vaughn teased him.

August narrowed his eyes at him, “Me.”

Vaughn gave him a wry grin as he changed the topic, “I want you to make me a playlist for when I’m traveling. I listen to a lot of music on the road.”

August said, “Sure thing. Any particular vibe you’re going for?”

“I need good music to fight to.” He grinned.

“High energy mix is what you’re saying. I can do that.”

“Yeah.”

“You must be a sight to see when you’re in action. I still can’t get over how good you look.”

“You look amazing too. It’s nice to see you in your own element. I’m a little surprised. I’d thought laying in bed and listening to music was a euphemism but all our clothes are still on.”

“Is that a complaint because I can fix that?” He pulled off his hoodie and threw it off the edge for the bed before removing his shirt.

Vaughn chuckled, “It wasn’t, but,” He sat up and popped his own shirt off, “I guess we are overdressed.”

“Everything about Pandora agrees with you.” August ran his hand down Vaughn’s abs.

“Even the scars?”

“Especially the scars.” He leaned forward and licked a trail tracing one on Vaughn’s arm. “What’s this one from,” he asked, before he blew on the skin where his tongue had been.

“A very cranky Loader Bot… not our LB, but one of his model. Random sentience was a huge problem in that line.”

“I bet… did you ever see the constructors? Those fucking things were something else. I only ever saw one from a distance... because I didn’t want to get my ass killed.”

Vaughn said, “I knew of them, but I never saw one in person.”

“It was this massive… ugly yellow piece of tech with a red eye. It digistructed robots, endless waves of them.... to protect it while it built still other things.”

“Yeah, they were like a mobile factory. Super expensive… billion dollar equipment, with a B.”  

“Those things gave me nightmares. You know your boy Handsome Jackass was literally trying to exterminate me and mine while you were up there keeping the books.”

Vaughn bristled at the sudden accusation, at first but soon realized it was fair. He took a deep breath, “I know. I was never a fan of Jack, but if you put your head down and stayed out of his way, it wasn’t too crazy up on Helios. It was easy not to notice anything. I mean… most of my life up there was so absurdly normal. We weren’t… privy to much of what was actually happening on Pandora, but I don’t… take my part in it lightly. I never intended to sign up for mass murder, but I did.”

“People are good at not seeing what they don’t want to see.” August shrugged.

“I’m tired of it… the whole thing. Of everything about my life the way it worked before. I thought I wanted money, but money seems overrated when you see how the sausage is made. What I’m doing now is a lot more soul affirming and I don’t have anxiety over if I remembered to make my Student Loan payment on time to avoid penalties.”

“Well if you wanna live outside of society- Pandora sure is the place to do it. Me… I still want money.” August frowned, “It’s shit being broke, but I’m just… tired of being what I was raised to be. A thug. An enforcer. It’s hollow.”

Vaughn said, “I find that commendable… and since we’re already in the habit of being forward with each other, I’d like to offer to go over your books sometime. I am a highly skilled accountant I’d be more than happy to see if there are some ways I could help you save money or get more cash flow.” It felt a dicey offer to make.

August considered that with a nod, “I would… appreciate that.”

Relieved that he had not insulted him, Vaughn said with enthusiasm, “Yeah! I’d love to. I’m amazing with budgets. And if you need more guns, I am your guy. In fact, I have a super-fun Torgue shotgun on me I’m not using. You could have it.”  

August's pale cheeks were turning pink and something about that sent the blood rushing to Vaughn’s groin.

“Thank you, that’s… god damn it you’re cute. That’s sweet.” He sat up, “Do you mind if I roll a joint? Last night we were too drunk. Today I think we’re too sober.”

Vaughn sat up, “Yeah… that sounds great. Do you have a bathtub by chance?”

“A shower and it’s kinda shitty, but you’re welcome to it. Door across the hall on the left.”

Vaughn got up and picked up his bag. “Give me a bit to get ready, because when I come back we’re using our mouths for anything but talking.” This he followed with finger guns before hurrying out of the room like a dork.

“Hurry back,” August said, casual as can be.

Vaughn knew his confidence would not rev up unless he had a moment to do some long neglected beard trimming and emergency manscaping along with a shower to wash off the dust of the road.

Like a good guest he cleaned up after himself before leaving the room wearing only his towel. He left his hair down and damp, but well brushed.

He made his way back to the bedroom and dropped his bag inside the doorway and shut the door behind himself.

The lighting and music in the room had changed. It was dim now with a single light on the wall opposite the bed that changed colors and pulsed with the beats of the music; which had grown slower and more sensual.

August was standing near the edge of the bed, smoking his joint. He held it out to his guest.

Vaughn took it between his fingers and raised it to his lips.

“Easy this time.” August said in a sultry voice.

He inhaled slower this time and did not do as much. He still coughed when he blew out the smoke but it was easier this time.  

“Better?” August smiled with a twinkle in his eye.

“Better,” He agreed.

August gave him a sly grin before he put the joint out on his tongue.

In that moment this was the hottest thing he had ever seen. “Don’t make me get naked alone.”

August undid his belt, “I wouldn’t.”

Vaughn removed his towel and reclined himself on one elbow in what he hoped was an alluring pose.

August turned away and removed his blue jeans and boxer briefs. When he turned around Vaughn’s eye couldn’t help going straight for his crotch.

August must have caught his surprise as he suspiciously demanded, “What?”

“I thought you might have a piercing.” Vaughn grinned. “I’m relieved you don’t.”

August chuckled. “You’re a trip.” He climbed onto the bed and climbed over Vaughn to gaze down at him. One of his hands moved down grab his back to just above his ass.  

Vaughn looked him in eye and any lingering resistance in him dissipated. Hands down August was the hottest guy who had ever shown interest in him and he was dazzled.

He was unreasonably handsome.  His body was a tapestry of scars over tight muscles and it made Vaughn weak. He was rough, rugged and more than a little dangerous.

“I…” Vaughn swallowed hard. “I want you to have me as you will... but first, kiss me until my lips hurt… and I think I want you to bite me… and I think I want to bite you.”

“We can do all that and more, baby.” August crooned before he gathered Vaughn into his arms and kissed him forcefully.

Vaughn nearly lost all composure it at being called an endearment, but then he was being kissed and he couldn’t think of anything but how warm August’s body felt. Anywhere his hands touched was electric. He kissed back hard.

August pushed him down against the bed and broke the kiss. “I want to look at you.” He grinned. “You’re… so fucking hot.”

“You're… gorgeous.”

August leaned into kiss him again, biting his lower lip before moving down onto his neck. He was freer with his teeth now biting and sucking on the marks. His free hand moved to brush Vaughn's hair back out of his face.

Vaughn made a soft whine at the bite that turned into a lustier moan at the kissing and sucking.

Not content with that, the brawler’s fingers sought out one of his nipples to squeeze it between calloused fingers.

Though his cock was begging for attention, Vaughn let August take his time. Right now they had all the time in the world.

August shimmied lower on the bed. He paused to run the tip of his tongue across Vaughn’s nipple. He kissed and licked a trail down Vaughn’s abs as he reached his hand out and wrapped it around the base of his thick cock.

Vaughn was dizzy with delight when August looked up at him only to wink before licking his lips.

When they slid over the head, Vaughn closed his eyes and let his head fall back with a whimper.

Like a man on a mission, August’s lips worked their way down to the base of his aching cock.

Vaughn writhed at the pleasure until August used his free hand to push down on Vaughn’s chest to hold him still.

“That’s… oh… oh my god… that’s...  Fuh…” Vaughn mumbled. He forced his eyes open and was mesmerized as the lights on the wall danced in waves of rainbow flashes while the sultry beats droned ever on. August was like a golden god with his beautiful body bent and contorted to pleasure him. On a whim he stretched out his arm and took him by the blond hair and tugged.

August growled and looked up. “What do you need, Your Majesty?”

Vaughn laughed in surprise, “Your what?”

August grinned, “They all you the Bandit King… and I aim to give you the royal treatment. Part of that is worshiping this dick.”

Vaughn felt hot from how flushed he was. “Okay, but if I pull your hair stop.”

“Yeah… good.” August said dipped his head back down between Vaughn’s legs.  

As much as he loved it, there was no way Vaughn could long withstand such skill.  After moaning, whimpering and nearly crying, he had to jerk August’s hair hard enough to make the blond cry out.

“Fuck me…” he begged.

August gave him a smug smile before he turned to reach in his nightstand. The bottle located, he lay on his back on the bed. “Let’s start you out up top. You can control the action a little better.”

“Okay,” Vaughn said, though all his attention now was on August’s magnificently jutting cock while he stroked the lubricant on with his fingers.

“Come here.” The larger man’s voice was quiet but commanding.

Vaughn crawled over and straddled his body before he leaned and kissed his lips.  

August’s hands gripped his hips. From behind, he could feel the press of his partner’s intimidating length brushing up against his ass.

Vaughn invaded August’s mouth with his tongue, kissing him with all the fervor in his small body. He needed the golden god to know his passion without words.

August positioned himself and pushed past the yielding muscle with care. One arm held Vaughn close to him while he claimed him with a low moan of unrestrained pleasure.

Moaning against his mouth, Vaughn pushed back against the intrusion.

Patiently, the blond took time to let his lover get used to the feeling of being so full before  He broke the kiss to check in, “How is that, V.”

“Good. Oh my god, August.” Vaughn bit his lower lip, “I’m good. Please… more.”

“Yeah, that’s my hot little merc.” August’s hands moved to his ass cheeks, grabbing and kneading them while he pushed his hips upward.

After a bit of experimentation, Vaughn pushed himself up, to get into a better position to bounce and really ride that dick.

August watched him with an easy smile as he raised himself up and sank back down to their mutual pleasure.

They fell into an easy rhythm with each other and subconsciously with the music. August would buck up his hips to thrust as Vaughn sank back down hard onto his cock.

Any self doubt or worry slipped away from him to Vaughn own surprise. If August said he was hot and handsome than he was. Stretching out his arms above his head he pushed his thick hair back while pushing out his well shaped pectorals before starting to touch them as well.

“You are smoking hot.” August declared before abruptly throwing Vaughn off of him.

Vaughn gave an indignant squeal as he landed unharmed on the bed, only to find himself being unexpectedly wrestled.

“You feel so good… but I want to kiss you while I fuck you.”  August kissed him and bit his lower lip.

Vaughn moaned, “Whatever you want… just don’t stop. I need you.”

“Aww fuck, I need you too.” He pulled Vaughn’s legs apart and climbed between them before grabbing him under the knee to fold his legs up.

Vaughn found it quaintly missionary, but was more than happy to oblige if it meant he got to keep kissing his lover.

August eased himself back inside of Vaughn before leaning down to maul him with his lips.

One of his arms stayed on the bed to steady himself while the other threaded into Vaughn’s dark hair to cradle his head and gain purchase for force full kisses.

Vaughn just opened himself to it all, drinking in each sensation. There was no time to analyze it or worry about it. There was pleasure and the very moment that existed right now. Everything else did not matter.

August was adept at stopping the onslaught of his hips just before Vaughn could be overwhelmed. He would bring him back down from the edge of orgasm and work him slowly back up there again. His power was matched with his stamina and he was dying to impress.

Vaughn alternately clutched the sheets or dug his nails into August’s back, writhing against him. There was only so long he could last. He broke their kiss, “August I… I don’t think I can…”

“Shhhhhhhh.” August smiled, “Come for me this time, baby.” August switched the arm he was using to support himself. He other he used to touch the side of Vaughn’s face, stroking over his cheek and beard.

“Okay,” Vaughn whispered. He let his eyes drift closed as August kissed him and started working his hips again. All his senses were overwhelmed as his partner worked up speed and strength gradually.

In time he couldn’t even coherently kiss his partner back so he threw his head back against the bed. “Oh god… more… more… more!”

August bared his teeth and redoubled his efforts. His hand snaked between them to take Vaughn’s bobbing cock into his hand and squeeze and pull it to put him over the edge.

Yet it was only when he bared his teeth and bit Vaughn’s exposed throat that the erstwhile bandit king came in thick ropes against August’s stomach. The pain and pleasure was exquisite. His arms drew tight around August and he clung to him like he was everything.

In just a few more fevered thrusts Vaughn could feel the wet warmth of his climax inside him before August stilled.

Vaughn just lay back and breathed deeply.

Sluggishly, August pulled free and dropped to Vaughn’s side.

Vaughn stretched out his legs which were near to cramping and turned on his side to snuggle against August. He was gratified to find him to be very inclined to cuddling.

August wrapped an arm around him possessively and stroked his skin in silence.

With his face pressed against his lover's chest, Vaughn closed his eyes.

The music played on.

Chapter Text

Vaughn kept quiet. Aware of his propensity for blurting out dumb things, he dared not speak at all. August’s hands was roaming up and down a strip of his hip while he stared up at the ceiling with unfocused eyes.

It had never been his opinion that perfect moment’s existed, but this just had to be one. It was heavenly in August’s arms. Not only did he feel desirable and alive, but he felt sated as he had never been.

The moment passed too soon as moments always do and he began to hope August would hurry and speak because he found he needed to pee.  

Like he was reading his mind, August murmured near his ear, “I’m gonna wash up and make us some food. When you’re ready to join me it’s the back corner room.”

It surprised him how excited he was to have August cook for him again. “I’m starved . Never ate after breakfast.”

“Me either and you took all my energy.” He grinned and rose to walk naked over to his stereo. He turned the volume down low and shut off the light show before heading to the door.

“Hah, Yeah.” Vaughn admired his tattooed back and fine ass as he walked away with curiosity On his right shoulder was the adorably dapper Purple Skag mascot set in a diamond-shaped frame in black, grays and purples. Across his other shoulder were four circles set in a square formation each with a unique symbol: red mushroom, a blue cave rakk, a green varkid and a spider ant lined in black.  He made a mental note to ask about them another time.

When August ceded the bathroom Vaughn washed up. Since they had made no plans that involved leaving the bar, he dressed in all of his clothes except for a shirt. His hair, too, he left down. Let August bask in his shirtless presence.

The kitchen he found by his nose. There was something sweet and savory in the air that worsened his hunger. As he came closer, he heard the sounds of sizzling.

He passed through an archway into a room much larger than August’s bedroom. It seemed to be a kitchen, dining and sitting room all in one. A large round table of battered metal in the back had six seats surrounding it. A strip of metal cabinets and cupboards with a battered refrigerator and a four burner stovetop was opposite the table from a seating area with a patched couch and two mismatched chairs.

“Sit.” August said with a grin. Now clothed, he worked cooking out of two skillets. One held sausages and sliced onions and the other was engaged in making pancakes one by one.

“You have a nice place.” Vaughn settled at the far side of the table where he could watch August the easiest. Just looking at him was pleasant. He realized he never dated anyone before that could count as a bad boy before, but here was with a pierced and tattooed ex gangster.

“Thanks.” Without looking away from his work he said, “Consider yourself free to stay here whenever you’re in the area.”

“I definitely will. Your bed is better than Janey and Athena’s couch.” Vaughn bit his lower lip, brows furrowing.

August turned his attention from his cooking after fishing another pancake out of the pan and on to the platter with the others. “What’s that look for?” He looked worried now too as though Vaughn’s anxiety was contagious.  

Vaughn blinked, “What?” He took in a deep breath, “Nothing. I’m great, just, overwhelmed a little.”

August cast a devilish at him with at him over his shoulder, “Whatever you need from me, Vaughn… you just gotta ask, a’ight? If it’s too much and you want to go slower.”

Vaughn flushed and his eyes went large, “No, not like that. That was the perfect speed. I ah… you were Awesome.”

“Good.” He shook his pan of sausages and onions effortlessly in spite of the heaviness of the cast iron. “Can I make you more comfortable? Fuck. I didn’t offer you coffee yet.”

Vaughn said, “Coffee sounds great. You don’t need to do anything. I’m just being super anxious because I’m not used to this kind of attention focused on me. After a pause he blurted out, “Do I sound like a teenage girl if I ask what this makes us?”

August opened a cupboard and grabbed a mug before filling it with inky black coffee. “I was hoping you would stay a couple days so we could work that all out.”

“I would love that,” Vaughn said.  

He set the mug next to Vaughn and put his hand on the bare shoulder closest to him. “You need to know that I am so fucking into you. If you’re worrying if this was a one and done thing, no, it’s not.” He walked back to his pan and poured out the last of the batter. “I am by no means done with you.”

“I feel the same,” Vaughn said. “Sorry I’m so needy.”

August shrugged, “You want to know here things lay. You’re an up front guy. I like that.” He played with edges of the pancake with his spatula. “You don’t have to be nervous. If you want to be my boyfriend or whatever- you’re my boyfriend.”

Vaughn was glad August wasn’t looking at him now. He picked up his mug of coffee and stared into it. “Yes. Definitely. Are we exclusive?”

“Is that what you want?” He flipped the pancake over before turning off the flame under the sausages.

“Yes!” If he sounded too eager so be it.

“Then we are.” August grinned over at him. “I don’t like cheaters, so I’ll say that right away.”

“Me either.” He blew across the top of his cup to make it a consumable temperature.

“Good,” he said with a nod.

“Wow… that was way easier than I practiced in my mind.”

“Yeah? What did I do in your mind?” He fished out the last pancake and plated them up some food.

Vaughn ducked his head, “Worst-case scenario was you changed your mind on me entirely because you didn’t like the sex.”

August laughed, “The sex was awesome. I want more of it. The only lame thing is I do eventually have to run errands, get some sleep, and open this damn bar. I’d much rather just hang with you, but you know how it is.”

“Oh I understand,” Vaughn said. “Not a problem. I’m not here to interrupt your life or anything. I’d be glad to help.”

“You’re not interrupting. You don’t have to stay and watch me work. You can go see if your lady friends are back from Atlas.”

Vaughn said, “I would love to hang out while you work… in fact… you could teach me how to bartend.”

August carried the plates over and set one in front of Vaughn and one in front of the seat next to it. He moved back to the counter and brought back his own cup of coffee and a bottle of brown syrup and a bottle of hot sauce.

Hot sauce was a the most popular condiment on Pandora as it made almost anything more edible as long as you didn’t mind your mouth going numb.

August mused upon it as he settled into his chair, “I can’t pay you much.”

“Good thing you totally don’t have to pay me.” He beamed at the other man.

August smiled and said, “I’d like the help, but won’t that cut into your bottom line?” He gave the hot sauce bottle a hard shake before slathering his sausages in the dark orange sauce.

“Maybe in the long term but I work for myself… and if I want to take down time to learn bartending from my super cool boyfriend than I’d love to! This smells so good. You seem to know how to cook more than a little.” He used the edge of his fork to cut the sausages into smaller bits. Heavily spiced, they smelled delicious no matter where the meat came from. He took the hot sauce from his companion and made a small pool to dip into.

August revealed a sliver of pleasure at the praise, “Thank you.” He stabbed his sausage whole at one and bit the other off. He chewed and swallowed before saying, “I do okay with what I got, but my pantry is in a sad state.”

Vaughn took a bite of the sausage and the burn was worse than expected. Though his eyes watered, he bravely carried on the conversation after swallowing coffee, “I cook too, but not so much these days. I kind of live off Rhys’ Atlas meal bars when I’m out.”

August made a face of revulsion. “Yergh. Atlas bars are terrible . Fiona and Sasha made me try them all. I thought they were trying to kill me.”

Vaughn laughed and quickly ate a bite of his food,  “Mmmmm. This is awesome. The Atlas bars aren’t that bad, but I’ll take pancakes and sausages over them any day.”

August smirked, “The chocolate flavored one is legitimately a war crime.” He poured out the syrup over the cakes before handing it to Vaughn, “So… Would you mind holding down the fort while I run out and do some errands?”

Vaughn poured a modest line syrup on top of his pancakes. “I can do that. Is leaving the bar empty a problem for you?”

August chewed and swallowed before talking, “My Rakk Ale shipment is coming in. Someone needs to be here for that, though I’ll probably be back by then. Thing is, I don’t like leaving the Skag empty. I feel secure as long as there’s someone downstairs swinging a bat or holding a gun. Don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to fuck up my bar. If it’s a problem, I can send for Tector.”

Vaughn shook his head, “No need. I can totally handle the delivery, no problem! Anything else I can do for you while you’re gone?”

His head shook, “Nah, I’m already asking too much out of you.”

“You are not.” Vaughn fished in his pocket and pulled out a couple hundred dollars from his wallet and pushed them towards August. “Here take this.”

August looked at it suspiciously, “What’s this for? I don’t want your money.”

“It’s for necessaries. I’m staying a few days so I’m contributing to the grocery fund. I’m small but I eat a lot.”

August considered it with an intense, almost angry look in his eyes before he relented, “Very well.”  

The easy acceptance was a relief. “ Cool. When you’re gone, I’ll clean up the food and dishes and take a peek at the books.”

August grinned and any trace of anger evaporated, “Cleaning supplies are under the sink. Thank you… you know they said you were tidy. Neat freak is what Rhys called you.”

Vaughn snorted, “Old me was. I deal with things here regularly that old me would have noped right out of… so I don’t know if neat freak fits me anymore, but I’m never opposed to pulling my weight.”  

“Not afraid of hard work, eh?”

Vaughn winked, “Never.” That was corny, and it filled him with regret.

At least until August winked back at him with a playful grin. He finished his last sausage and gulped down the oily black coffee. “Lemme see if there’s anything else… Fire extinguisher is behind the bar. There’s a single Anshin med hypo in a box under the bar if needed.”

Vaughn nodded dutifully and committed the information to his memory.

“I’ll only be gone an hour or two tops.” He fished in his pocket, “Here’s the office key. There’s a desk with $800 in it for the ale… if  you can haggle them down, do it. Otherwise just give them the full amount.” He placed the key in Vaughn’s hand and let their handles lay touching a moment before he pulled away.

“I’ll keep everything safe and sound while you’re gone.” There was no question in Vaughn’s mind that this was something he absolutely could not fuck up if he wanted to prove himself as proper boyfriend material. He secured the key in one of his pouches.  

August rose but leaned down to take Vaughn’s chin so he could raise his head enough to kiss him.

The kiss made his heart flutter and lips tingle, but that part was possibly just the hot sauce.

“Call me if you need anything,” he sounded so tender.

“I will,” Vaughn said as August thumped him lightly on the shoulder and walked away. “Later.”

A sigh of pure contentment escaped him. There was no point in denying it to himself, he was smitten by August. He replayed as much as he could of the past two days over in his mind as he washed up the dishes.

Would the others think he was moving too fast? Was he? They barely knew each other, but that part could be easily fixed. There was nothing to prevent him from hanging about the bar until that was rectified.

Then again, perhaps it didn’t matter. Pandora was the sort of planet where you grabbed something and hung onto it when you could, because you never knew when it would disappear.  

The first hour passed easily enough. Vaughn familiarize himself with the bar. He located all the items August had mentioned. Eventually he even put on a shirt and geared up on the off chance he had to bust in some heads in the bar’s defense.

When he felt comfortable with the lay of the land, he unlocked the office. It was a small and crowded room dominated by a roll-top desk over which hung a dark and looming portrait of Vallory. She stood tall adorned in a coat trimmed with bullymong fur. She was in her prime: tall, blond and intimidating with an arm looped around a rocket Launcher like its weight meant nothing to her. Though younger she looked no less terrifying as she was when he met her.

In vivid detail, his mind started a replay of her punching him repeatedly after tried to choke her. Though he’d gotten punched many times since coming to Pandora, her fists were the most memorable and she had worked him over good.

He shook off that memory when he found the worn ledger. August’s handwriting was quite legible for a boy criminal with no schooling. The ledger quickly proved too full of undefined acronyms for Vaughn to make any sense. Further analysis would require August’s presence to decode it.  

Instead, he whiled away an hour texting back and forth with his two best friends about his encounter so far. For Rhys, he spared the details. Yvette demanded them all. They were sweet and funny with both teasing and congratulations but eventually they had meetings and such to attend.

Worry pricked him in the third hour August remained gone and he paced around the bar. He could just call August, but he just as worried that would appear too clingy. August was a grown man who lived in this city a long time. Surely he was fine, just running late. Errands had a way sucking up time.

A temporary distraction appeared in the form of the ale shipment. It took time for them to move the product into the storeroom and pay the delivery people.

Once they left, his anxiety returned full tilt.

He got out his Echo Com and called August only to feel his stomach drop when the call didn’t connect. In his mind he debated calling Athena and Janey. Though Athena was aloof, Janey and Vaughn were fast friends. She would doubtless loan her wife out to help him track down August. Just as he decided to dial her, August returned.

The brawler lived up to his moniker, sporting a black eye and a battered nose. Blood ran down the front of his shirt and stained his beard part-red. He clutched a sack in one hand and blood was visibly caked on the studs of his knuckles.

“Crap, what happened?” Vaughn jumped up from his stool.

August made straight for the stairs without even looking in Vaughn’s direction.

This was a strategy Rhys also used when he didn’t want to talk about something. “Hey man… wait,” Vaughn said. He blocked the path to the stairs.

August stopped short in front of Vaughn and glared hard, his eyes cold and angry. A vessel was burst in the black eye creating a horrible red blotch on the white.

“Are you okay? What happened to you?” He reached out to rest a hand on August sensing that he seemed unsteady.

August’s free hand lashed out to snatch Vaughn’s before he could touch him. He squeezed it in a vice-like grip and bared his teeth.  “Don’t,” he said before he pushed him away.

It hurt Vaughn’s heart more than his hand. Both raised in surrender and he backed off, “Woah… Sorry.”

August huffed loudly and stomped off up the stairs with a pronounced limp.

Vaughn was unsure how to take this. Deflated, he settled into a seat at the bar. He could follow but it seemed August needed cool down time, so it was probably best to give it to him. He was not unaware of the man’s troubled nature. Glumly, he sat and worried.

A half an hour later August walked stiffly down the stairs. He had cleaned the crusted blood away from his swollen face and changed into a different shirt.

Vaughn looked over at him as he came down the stairs but said nothing. Once more he would wait for August to say the first word.

August walked up close to him and lowered his eyes to the ground. In a small voice he spoke, “I’m sorry, for acting like that… and hurting you. I won’t do it again.”

“I worried about you,” Vaughn said, “I almost called Athena.”

Angry again, he grumbled, “Don’t call her into this. She does not like me.” His eyes rolled.

“Okay, fine .” Vaughn snapped in frustration.

August limped behind the bar and grabbed himself a glass before pouring a beer from the tap.

Vaughn grew impatient, “So are you going to tell me what happened to you?”  

August hung his head in shame. “What happened is I got my ass kicked in by the Guvner’s gang.” He guzzled from his glass of beer.

“Hollow Point has a Governor?” Vaughn asked in confusion. He was sure only anarchy governed Pandora.

“No. It’s just some jerk hole that calls himself that cuz all the warlord-wannabe fuck-sticks on this planet have to give themselves a gimmick.” His expression slipped from disgust into woe, “I didn’t mean to make you worried about me.”

Vaughn grimaced, “August… I’m still worried. You look like you need medical attention. I got a couple Anshin on me.”

“I’m fine,” August said tersely and drank more.

“You’re in pain.”

“I’ve been in pain half my life. I don’t need your hypo,” August reiterated.

Vaughn watched as a fat rivulet of blood oozed out of his broken nose to his lip. “Your nose is bleeding again.”  

“Shit…” He pulled his handkerchief free from his pocket and wadded it up under his nose, “Those things get expensive.”

“I don’t care about that, it’s on me. So who is this Guvner and what’s he got against you?” He fished the hypo out of his belt satchel.

He tilted his head forward as he wiped his nose, “When Syndicate’s like my Ma’s break down other families move in and fill the void. And when you used to be up near the top… and now you’re not… people get ideas. People remember old grudges.” He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket.

“You said people didn’t mess with you.” Vaughn said.

“Well, not… much. I mean… I think I won, if it matters.”

“It doesn’t.” Vaughn said, “Are they still alive?”

“I dunno.”

Vaughn shrugged, “Pour me one too.”

August obliged and passed the glass it across the bar top once it was full.

This time Vaughn caught him by the wrist and held it.

August just seemed resigned and did not pull away.

“May I please stick you?” Vaughn said as he readied the hypo in the other. “I don’t like seeing you in pain.”

“Fine. Do it.” He made a face as the needle jammed into his arm. When released, he pulled his arm away and stretched out his shoulders. It only took seconds for the damage to reverse. The bruises faded while the blood vessel in his eye repaired itself.

From experience Vaughn knew that it hurt initially, but eventually left you feeling much better. Unconsciously, he held in a breath.

August grunted and clenched his teeth, “I think that was a broken rib… or three.” When the pain passed he sighed in relief, “Thanks Vaughn. I needed that.”

“Obviously.” Vaughn replied with narrowed eyes, “You need a better shield too. Something that will burn fools or shock them if they attack you.”

August looked up at the statue of the bar’s mascot above the bar and frowned. “Are you sure you want to be with me? I don’t want to give you false advertising about who I am. I gotta break it to you, V, I’m a total fuckin’ mess. Everything around me is a never ending shit storm and I’m not nearly so nice a guy as you are. I don’t have any business dragging you into my fucked up life.” Only at the end did he glance back to the other man.

“What? No, dude… ” Vaughn shook his head, “It’s okay. You’ve got your baggage… I’ve got mine. Plenty.” It was too late. August was his boyfriend now and there was no way he was going to let that slip away.

August looked down, “Even my baggage has baggage. If you get involved with me I’m just going to drag you down to my level.”

Vaughn shook his and said, “Too late. I’m involved. You involved me. I’m afraid to inform you you’re stuck with me.”

August squinted as though still in pain and said, “I’m so sorry I hurt you.” He took another drink from his glass before setting it on the back counter and folding his arms. “I don’t want to be someone that would hurt the person he’s with. I hope you forgive me.”

Vaughn’s breathed, “It’s ok. They really fucked you up… I should have probably asked before touching you.”

August seemed confused, “Why? You shouldn’t have to ask for that. That’s just like… a given.”

Vaughn took a swallow of beer before pushing the glass to the side. “Except it’s not. Consent still matters in everything… even with a partner. Especially with one. Look, I guess I don’t know how to read you yet, but I’ll learn.” He kicked off his boots and climbed over the bar top. “It’s going to be okay.”  

“What are you doing?” A blond brow quirked in confusion.

Vaughn settled on his ass and let his legs dangle off the inside of the bar. He opened his arms and said, “August do you need a hug?”  

August cast his eyes down at the ground and mumbled, “Yes.” Before shuffling close to grasp Vaught tightly and lean against him.

Vaughn closed his arms and legs around his lover to hold him close. He rubbed a hand up and down his back while the other held the back of August’s neck and toyed with the hair there. He kissed his temple and his brow.

One of August’s hands balled up in his T-shirt and his breathing was hard, but it wasn’t lusty. This was need of a different kind.

Vaughn rested his forehead against August’s, “You still need to sleep before you open. Let’s take a nap.”

“Kay,” August said in a quiet voice before he pulled away and lifted Vaughn off of the bar to set him on his feet.

“You said you’d open at Noon. We can still get five good hours of sleep.” Vaughn took him by his hand and drew him up to the bedroom.

Both of them removed their shirts and pants and they climbed into bed before August put out the lights.

Vaughn stretched out on his back and August lay on his side with an arm fast around him.

“Where you from?” August asked.

“A planet called Hephaestus. It takes months to get there from here.” He hadn’t thought about home in a while.

“What’s it like?”

“Greener than Pandora, but still a company run planet… so fairly industrial. Parts of it were nice,” He yawned, “Boring, all said. All native wildlife got whacked centuries ago and replaced with things that can’t eat humans.”   

“Do you miss it?” August was brimming with questions.

It gave Vaughn hope he might get answers to his own some day. He had to think about his answer, “I miss my family… but not the planet… though honestly I’ve changed so much.  I don’t know what I’d even say to them if I saw them. They probably think I’m dead.” It was a sad thought, and he didn’t want to think about it. “I’m happy to be here, I think. I really started living on Pandora. Like before it was all just waiting for life to begin.”

“Was your dad an accountant too?”  

Vaughn chuckled, “He is in fact, also an accountant. My mom’s a nurse for the same health conglomerate he worked for. Lay on your stomach.”

It stirred something in him when August obeyed him without question.

When turned over, the larger man pulled his pillow between his arm and his face and rested.

Vaughn cracked his knuckles and placed his hands on August’s back to rub his shoulders.

“Oh, that’s good.” August said. It seemed to stop his questions for now, which was the goal. He needed rest.

Vaughn made his voice a low croon, “Close your eyes… and think restful thoughts… and let go of all this tension you’re holding in your shoulders.”  

“Kay,” August mumbled.

Before too long he had fallen asleep.

Smiling, Vaughn curled up next to him so he could sleep.

Tomorrow, he would have to gather more information about this so-called Guvner.

Chapter Text

Vaughn awoke in terror to the thunderous blaring of screaming death metal in a language he did not even recognize. His confused brain was on high alert so he grabbed for his nearest gun on the nightstand. It was so loud he could feel the vibrations through the bed.

August barely moved. One forearm appeared out from under the blanket to slap around on the nightstand.

“Holy shit That’s loud!” Vaughn yelled over the din. He dropped the gun and sat up to cover his ears from the aural onslaught.

August managed after a few tries to hit the alarm clock in the right spot and the audio ended. His head peaked out from under the blanket. “Ugh. Fuck everything.”

“Why is that your alarm?” Vaughn’s heart wouldn’t stop racing, and he suspected that was the sort of decibel level that leads to hearing loss.

“Gotta make sure it wakes me up.”  August shrugged and sat up.

“Do you typically sleep that deep?”

August wiped the crust of from his eyes, “I do when I drink.”

“How much have you been drinking?”

With a sheepish duck of his head, he said, “I was just going to ask if you wanted a beer with breakfast.”

Vaughn looked appalled, “That’s probably not a great idea for either of us. How about I make us something to eat while you go do whatever you’ve got to do to open the bar? You can show me how I can help.”

“Kay.” August said. He leaned in to steal a kiss from Vaughn.

With a wicked grin, Vaughn said, “Tonight after you close… we’re going to play a game.”

“What kinda game?” He raised a brow in curiosity.

“Bed Wrestling. Winner takes loser.”

A low laugh came from August as his face lit up his face into a crooked grin. “You’re on.”

Vaughn added, narrowing his eyes, “I’m going to win.”

August bit his lower lip a moment before saying while he looked Vaughn straight in the eye. “That so?”

Vaughn nodded with an easy grin. “That is so.”

“Hot damn.” August leaned in and kissed him again, harder this time. His hands grabbed for Vaughn’s shoulders.

Vaughn accepted it kissing back with equal eagerness. Still, August had things to do so he pushed him away and cut it short, “Go.”

“Tease.” August said with a small pout of his lips as he got up.

“Think of it as delayed gratification,” Vaughn replied.

 

__________

 

Vaughn soaked every bit of instruction up like a sponge as August showed him how he ran his operation. He learned how to use the glass washing sink, to pour from the tap so the beer had a decent head and to make the house cocktails.

August gave the instructions his casual way, but Vaughn saw hints in the words he said and how he acted that he loved his bar. It was endearing.

Business was light but steady. Clientele on this day included no one of much interest. Just the typical locals getting their drink on.

When he felt he grasped the basics of August’s system, he Vaughn switched his focus to sitting at the bar and going over the business ledger. With August there to be his Rosetta Stone he got an accurate picture of August’s finances.

The picture was not great. The Purple Skag  was not earning enough to cover all his current expenses and debts. His cash reserves were dangerously low. The bar was treading water, but would not be able to do so much longer at the current rate..

That was okay. Vaughn was up to the challenge. He materialized his Echo specs into his hand and put them on like he meant business.  Hunkered down on his bar stool, he went over the finer details, asking questions when needed in between August serving his customers.

“You make beer on site, right?” He asked.

“Back behind the office I have a small brewery. I can show you later. Why?”

“Okay so… Do you have any means of increasing the amount you produce?”

August stroked his beard while he thought about it, “I got space for maybe another couple brew kettles, fermentation tanks and the works but not the cash to put them in. Why?”

“You make the most money off your own product and it’s among the cheapest thing you sell. The import costs on the off world stuff are killing you. It would maximize profits to increase the amount you make in-house.”

August considered it with a nod of his head while he dried metal tumblers. “Well, If I ever have that kind of money lying around again I’ll let you know.”

Vaughn made a soft hum, “How much are you talking?”

August ran over the number in his own head, “I dunno. About twenty large for the equipment and help setting up.” He sighed, “Back in the day I’d get that kind of money in no time. This place was only ever supposed to be my front… to handle the real business out of the back.” He spoke softer than normal as he didn’t want to broadcast his business to his patrons.

Vaughn nodded and matched his low tone as numbers cascaded across the inside of his glasses. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you went straight.”

“Thanks. It’s funny… the thing I’m best at in this world is violence. Never thought I’d lose the stomach for it.”

Vaughn said, “There’s way more you’re good at than violence.”

“Sometimes I dunno if that’s true. Also, so you know, this place needs at least… I’d say Fifteen Grand in repairs If I can get even find workers.”

“I’d help you,” He said.

“I don’t have the money so the point is moot, shrugged.”

Vaughn hummed, “This isn’t as bad as it seems August. You own the building so you’re not paying rent… There’s definitely a few places I see where you can tighten up even just in the short term until we get you back in the black.

August snorted and put away a stack of glasses. “Please explain how it’s not that bad. I don’t have the money to deal with current debts and it’s not like Pandora is crawling with people that want to loan you money except for the kind that get real nasty when you don’t pay them back. That was one of my old jobs.”

Vaughn suggested, “We both know a guy.”

August realized who he meant before he said another word gave an emphatic, “No.”

“Come on,” Vaughn said, “Hear me out.”

August spat out the words, “I’d rather go to a loan shark than suck at Rhys’ teat, no offense.”

“Ew. No one’s sucking anyone’s anything. He owes me… so it wouldn’t be Rhys loaning it to you, it would be me . And it’s not a gift. I can even charge you interest if you insist.”

August’s attention drifted for a moment and he said, “I don’t even like using this word, but you are so fucking cute in your nerd glasses.”

“Uhm thanks?” Vaughn grinned and looked away

August leaned in and muttered, “Makes me want you to raw me while you explain how a 401K works.”

“We can definitely do that.”  He blushed and laughed.

August slipped back suddenly into serious mode and said, “So… I can’t think too much about this money shit now… can we talk more after close?”

Vaughn nodded, “Sure thing, babe.”

August, gave him a funny smile at the endearment. He reached a hand across the bar top to squeeze Vaughn’s hand saying nothing before he walked off with his rag.

It became clear as the shift wore on that August needed secondary bartender. With no one to cover him he must be routinely working 14 hour shifts. Though it would be an expenditure to hire someone, it was unhealthy for him to go on indefinitely working insane hours. For the time being he could help, but he wondered if there was a way to work it into the budget to hire someone.

When he realized he would need more information on the exact supplies and equipment needed to expand the operation he gave up the budget up for the night and returned the books to the office.

As long as he had the privacy he’d deal with the next issue, the Guvner.

Fiona answered, sounding cheerful, “Hey, Vaughn. What’s up?”

“Fiona! Hello,” he replied.

A second voice peeped up from nearby. “Hi Vaughn!” said Sasha. She too sounded far more delighted to speak to him than he would have guessed.

“Hello Sash! Uh - so, hey.”

“How are you guys getting along?” Sasha drawled with obvious curiosity.

“Good! August is… treating me well. I’m trying to return the favor.”  

Fiona’s voice spoke next, “Is something wrong?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. Do you guys know about some Hollow Point gang run by a guy called the Guvner.”

“Ugh,” said Sasha. “That guy again.”

Fiona said, “We know of him. He’s a big player in and around Hollow Point. What happened?”

“This ass clown had his people beat August to a pulp. He had that thing, with his eye, where it’s all bloody inside and fucked up. It was horrible . They broke his ribs. I don’t think these guys wanted him to live. And he’s liked weirdly casual about it. Please help me figure out how to handle this. You guys know him better than I do.”  

“We’ve had run-ins with the Guvner’s people before but we thought we’d dealt with the problem,” Fiona said.  

“I guess it wasn‘t permanent,” Sasha added. “It’s been a couple years.”

Fiona sounded dead panned when she asked Vaughn, “What do you plan on doing about it?”

At the same time Sasha said, “Is August okay?”  

“He’s fine. As for I’m going to do… I’m going to make sure no one lays a hand on my boyfriend again.”

Sasha made a soft squee, “Congratulations Vaughn! That’s great! You being together… not August getting his ass kicked.”

Fiona was more stuck on the odds, “The Guvner has an entire gang… dozens of foot soldiers. You’re one guy. One tiny guy.”

“That’s why I need information. You guys also know Hollow point way better than me.”

“I can get it for you,” Sasha said sounded excited, “I have lots of contacts for intel. I’ll see what I can find out about their numbers.”

Fiona admonished her sister, “What’s Rhys going to say when you get Vaughn killed?”

“I won’t get killed,” Vaughn protested. Besides, if things get dicey I can always call Athena and Janey. They’d help me.”

It sounded like one of them was covering the receiver so they could argue amongst themselves.

After several moments they both came back to the line and sounded calm again. “We‘ll get you that info,” Sasha said.

“I’m coming to Hollow Point to back you up,” Fiona added.

Vaughn blinked. This had not been anticipated, “Do you think that‘s called for?”

“Absolutely.” Fiona said.

“I can’t come,” Sasha said. “Rhys would lose his mind if I told him I wanted to ride out into the desert with a baby on board, but I will be here to coordinate in between endless nachos.”

Fiona faked gagging, “It’s disgusting. My niece will be born with an addiction to spicy cheese.”

“You’re having a girl?” Vaughn asked. No one had thought to pass this information on to him yet.

Sasha said, “No! We didn’t even have the test yet. Fi’s just projecting her hopes.”

“We have five grand riding on it.” Fiona added. “I say girl. She says boy.”   

“It’s gonna be a boy!” Sasha declared.

Vaughn chuckled. “I appreciate you both helping me. Fi, if you feel it’s best to come out, then I’ll tell August you’re coming. Sasha, I really appreciate this.”

There was the rattling sound on the other end of the line.

“Hey!” Fiona said, sounding faint.

“Hold on! I just need to talk to Vaughn alone for a sec!” Sasha was louder now.

These words filled him with dread.

“Oh, come on,” Fiona protested.

He calculated that there was 78% chance of this being an extremely uncomfortable conversation if it had to be private.

A door slammed closed and Sasha said, “Vaughn, you know I love you, right?”

“I hope so?” An icy feeling welled up in his gut.  

“You’re family to me. So is August. To me that’s the people who have your back whenever you need it. I get that things are… kind of weird given all our histories here… but I just wanted to tell you I think you’re an amazing guy and I’m glad you and August found each other.”

“Thank you. I love you too.” Vaughn felt in equal measures mortification and pleasure at her sentiment.

Her voice was faint, “I hope I didn’t do anything to make you feel you had to leave… or stay away from Rhys and I.”

“Oh Sash. No. It was… I thought I needed to give you guys space so I let too much space get in between us because it was hard to deal with. I’m still figuring out who I am and I couldn’t do that falling back into a replica of my old life, standing in Rhys’ shadow, punching the clock.”

Sasha scoffed, “Bullshit. Rhys would never make you punch a clock and you know it. You could name your own terms, title, pay and schedule to him and he’d take it, I guarantee it. Telecommute from Hollow Point … He’d let you.”

“I know for a fact he has accountants as good or… almost as good as me, I used to work with them. He doesn’t need me.” Vaughn said in mild protest.

She said sternly, “He needs you because he can trust you and he wants you because he always planned to share everything he’s achieved with you.”

He had admiration for her fierceness, even though it was directed at him.

Sasha paused and said, “I’m sorry. I’ll stop… I’m not trying to pressure you about the job thing. What I am trying to twist your arm about is that Rhys has missed you terribly… and I do too. We support you doing whatever you need to do, but stay close, okay, even if just by voice? We want and need you in our lives.”  

“Thank you Sasha. That’s… something I needed to hear from you. I will be. I promise.” Vaughn did his best to not make crying noises. It was his own fault everything got this bad. “I’m sorry. I hurt you both, but I never meant to.”

“It’s okay. Thank you for letting me talk to you. Now don’t be stupid and get yourself killed okay?” She sniffled too, but at least had the excuse of being pregnant.

“No guarantees, but I don’t plan on getting killed.”  

Sasha sounded pleased, “Good. Fiona will drive out ASAP. I’ll find out what I can find out by calling around and you just hold down the fort in the meantime… oh and call Rhys. Don’t make me have to tell him you’re trying to start a gang war.”

“Thanks Sasha. I’ll call him. And thanks for the advice and being a good friend.”

“Any time.” She said. “Take care of August. I think you’re good for him.”

“I hope so.” He said.  “I’ll talk to you soon.”

“Over and out.” She said and disconnected the call.

He let his head drop with a thump against the desk. That conversation was off the charts levels of awkward but it was probably long overdue. After a few deep breaths he felt lighter.  

Next he dialed Rhys.

“What’s up Vaughn! How’s go things in the Sunless city?” Rhys said, sounding in good cheer.

“By turns exhilarating and terrifying, like most places on Pandora. This isn’t strictly a social call.”

“What do you need, Broski?” Rhys asked in his smoothest most welcoming voice.

“Can you put uh $40,000 in my account? I remember you were talking about sending supplies. I have needs.”

Rhys had no questions other than, “Sure. What Else?”

Vaughn took a deep breath, “August may be in some trouble and I’m trying to set it right.”

“Wow… bailing him out already?” Of everyone in their circle, Rhys and August got along the worst, but this seemed extra-douchy.

Vaughn was in no mood for his snark, “Rhys… It’s not bailing him out. A gang beat him so bad he could barely walk yesterday.”

Oh no ,” Rhys whispered. “I’m sorry. Is he okay?”

“Yeah. I got him patched up. This gang has gone after him before per Fiona who is coming out to meet me and help me settle this. I refuse to let my new… situation… get screwed up by jag-offs messing with my boyfriend.”

“I understand. I’m glad to help. Whatever you need… I’ll get to you.”

“Thanks. I need a good shield for August… Possibly something with an elemental defense against melee.”

“That’s specific… On it. The 40k is already in your account. Guns? You need guns? What exactly are you planning?” Rhys sounded a little anxious about the whole idea

“Hell yes guns. I need a better sniper rifle. I thought I liked my current one, but it uses too much ammo. I definitely need grenades and mods if you have them lying around. I've been looking for a good transfusion grenade.”

“You sound super-cool right now,” Rhys noted. “August’s a lucky guy.”

Vaughn dodged the compliment by carrying on, “Anyway, right now I‘m just gathering intel and supplies. We‘re going to figure out what to do once Fiona shows up.”

Rhys said, “I support you in anything, but I will be worried about you. Be careful and don’t bite off more than you can chew.”

Vaughn smiled. “I will. Thanks a million bro, you’re the best.”

“No you are. Send me a message if you need anything else. I’ll try to catch Fiona and send your stuff with her.” Rhys said.  

“Cool. Thanks!”

“Tell August I said ‘hi.’”

“I will.”

“Give Sasha a hug for me.”

Rhys sounded sly, “I’ll crouch down on my knees to give her the authentic Vaughn-hug experience.”

Vaughn chuckled, “Ass. Love you!”

Rhys laughed in amusement with himself, “Love you too. Have fun storming the castle.”  

As he exited the back room, he saw August chatting with two tough looking women and a scarred man while dropping them off a pitcher of beer. He moved back behind the bar and leaned on it waiting until August returned, “So Fiona is coming out,” he said.  

“Out where?” August’s brow furrowed.

“Here.” Vaughn said, “I told her about what happened and…”

August’s face screwed up in sudden fury and he cut him off to demand, “What the hell? Why would you do that?”

Vaughn’s anxiety skyrocketed, but he pleaded his case, “They attacked you. They could have killed you.”

“They didn’t cuz I can handle myself! I don’t need Fiona coming here to fight my battles, damn it.” August reached out his finger and poked it into Vaughn’s chest. “You should have asked me first!”

“I didn’t ask her to come. She insisted on coming when I told her what happened.”

August seethed, his eyes bright with anger, “You had no right to go spilling my business to everyone. What the fuck? Am I a project for you? You got fuck else better to do so you want to renovate my goddamn life? Gonna fix me until I’m palatable enough for you?”

That stung. “Wow. That’s not fair. I’m not trying to change you… You need a hand and helping each other is something friends do.”

“I don’t need help!  Not from her , not from Rhys , not from you . I could make these fucking streets run red with blood if I had a mind to.” He loomed over Vaughn.

Vaughn held his ground and folded his arms. With narrowed eyes he said, “I never doubted that, but everyone needs help sometimes. There’s no shame in having people who love you worry about your safety.”

The front door opened and Athena the Gladiator walked in with her hood pulled up and eyes red. She held the door for her wife, Janey Springs, who looked cheerful as ever.  

August took one look at them and gave Vaughn an accusatory look, “You called them in too? Unbelievable!” He spun on his heel and stalked into the back room. The door slammed behind him.

Vaughn stared after him with a slack jaw. This reaction was not what he expected. He pulled himself together and moved to greet the women.

Athena shook his hand and said, “Fiona thought it might be a good idea for us to come by. She said August is under attack.”

Janey gave him a big hug, “Hey Vaughn! Good to see ya. Sorry bout the circumstances.”

“Good to see you too.” He shook Athena‘s hand, “Thanks for coming.” He beckoned them to the bar. “Can I get either of you anything?”

“I’d take a beer,” Janey said.  

“Nothing for me.” Athena said, solemn as usual.

He poured Janey’s beer and said to Athena, “I’m just going to make you one of the non-alcoholic cocktails Rhys used to make me during finals so he wouldn’t be drinking alone.”

“As long as its non-alcoholic. I need to be at my best if there is to be any combat,” Athena said.

Vaughn grimaced, “You guys kinda came at a bad time. Seems I’ve stepped on August’s toes about telling people about his problems and he is not happy with me. Can you guys keep an eye on things a moment while I try to talk to him? I feel like a mega dick.”

Athena picked up her Shirley Temple and shared a look with her companion. “Of course.”

“By all means,” Janey said, saluting him with her glass.  

Shoulders slumped, he walked to the door to the back room and knocked.

“Come in.” August‘s voice was gruff.

Vaughn entered and said, “August. I’m sorry that I… violated your boundaries. I didn’t… realize I was doing so.”

August sat in the chair at the desk with his head bowed in front of the portrait of Vallory. When he spoke his voice was calm. “I’m sorry too. You mean well. I shouldn’t have yelled at you, but I got this… anger problem. Sometimes, I need to take a breather… calm down.”

“It’s okay. I can tell Fiona not to come and send Janey and Athena home.” Vaughn said, “let me make it right.”

“No. You did good. I’m just being a dumb bastard in denial about the trouble I’m in.” He sighed.   

“You’re not dumb,” Vaughn said firmly. “Why are so reluctant to seek help?”

He looked up and met Vaughn’s eyes. “Do you know what My mother thought was more important than anything in the world.”

“No.” Vaughn said.

“Money… but after that was strength or at least the appearance of it. She couldn’t stand weakness in men or women… or children.” He frowned grimly. “You had to be tough to work for her… she drove weakness out of you.”

Vaughn realized he was clenching his teeth. “It’s not any kind of weakness to need help now and again. It’s part of being human. I didn’t ask Fiona to come. I told her you were in trouble and wanted to come because she cares about you. Sasha also stressed how much she cares about you… and Rhys offered me anything in his arsenal because even though you two get along like rabid toddlers he considers you one of his friends. No one ever doubted you were strong on your own. But you’re stronger with your friends.”

August looked away, “You trying to tell me those two out there are my friends? Cuz, I think they're your friends.”

“Why not? They could be. Athena doesn’t seem friendly even to the people she likes, but if you accept that she’s a little terse… she’s great. Just don’t play Bunkers & Badasses with her. Janey is as friendly a woman as you’re likely to meet as long as you’re friendly to her.”

August looked skeptical, “I’ll… try. Were you serious about loaning me that money?”

“So serious I had Rhys put it in my account, but let me stress again I am not trying to push you or control you or make you do anything you don’t want to do. If you want me to help you get the place up to par and up your capacity with the brewing operations, I want to help you. It’s just an offer.”

August gave him a small grin, “You’re not gonna stage a hostile takeover if I don’t pay you back quick enough?”

Vaughn chuckled. “I don’t want a bar. I want to watch you run your bar. Which you really should go do because Athena will prevent people from stealing but there’s technically no one serving.”

August got up and threw an arm around Vaughn’s neck as he exhaled, “Come on… let’s finish tonight and figure out what the fuck we‘re gonna do.”

He looped his arm around August’s waist, relieved that the spat was ended and they left the back room together.

 

Chapter Text

In the hours it took Fiona to arrive, August tried to make friendly conversation to Janey and Athena in between his duties, but saw he kept busy enough to not speak to them very much. Still,  It was going well enough. He took the time to catch up with them more than he had at the party.

They closed the bar at midnight which coincided with Fiona’s arrival. She drove to the back dock with a truck full of goodies.

They hauled in the crates from the back alley fast so as not to draw much attention from any lurkers. With five of them together they got them inside and locked up the back door.

Fiona took time to give everyone a hug. When at last she got to August she narrowed her eyes and said, “Were you going to call me and tell me about this?”

August shook his head, “Probably not.”

“You’re so damn stubborn.” Fiona shook her head at him.

“You’re so damn pushy.” He said back, with no malice.

Vaughn was nosy about the crates so he said, “If no one objects, I’m popping these bad boys open.”

Janey said, “Let me help. I wanna see what kind of care packages Rhys is sending.”

Rhys did not disappoint. Inside the crates there were all kinds of excellent gear. For August, Rhys provided a shock generating shield. The transfusion grenade mod Vaughn requested was also given. There were several cases of new Atlas guns and a few ammunition crates.

Vaughn saved the biggest crate for last. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open as he realized it was a building shield generator. “ Holy crap .” Those things were expensive.   

August looked over from the conversation he was having with Fiona and Athena. “What is it?”

“A gift from Sasha and Rhys,” Fiona said. “It’s why I took so long to get here. Rhys put it together special for you.”

Janey whistled in appreciation for the device, “Shouldn’t take too long to get it up and running.” Janey said. “Athena and I can handle the install on that no problem. Oh! This is a nice one.” She wiggled the unit out of the crate of straw before climbing into the crate to feel around in the packing material.

August stepped closer and asked, “Is that a shield generator… for my bar?”

Vaughn said, “It sure is. These things can block an insane amount of damage.”

Blond brows furrowed, and he asked, “Don’t they take a lot of juice to run?”  

“They do without one of these.” Janey said as she pulled a smaller unit in chrome with blue bars of light lining it. “These batteries are a pricy too but they last a good while.”

“That’s awesome! This is better than Mercenary’s Day!” August said with big eyes. “I’ll call Rhys tomorrow… thank him. I’m speechless.” His joy gave way to a somber mutter, “And thank you all for… all of this, especially you ladies for coming out. I’m…” He seemed lost for words for a moment before he mumbled, “honored.”

Athena said, “When we defeated a Vault monster together you were a good ally. I appreciate your desire to clean up your act and move away from preying on the weak.” She wasn’t wrong, but it was blunt as only the Gladiator could manage.

August looked blindsided by her wording, his mouth dropping open.

Janey added, “You’ve also never said anything rude about our tits or made any other body commentary. I always appreciate that.”

Vaughn burst into nervous laughter as he grabbed August‘s hand and squeezed it.

August squeezed his hand back and laughed too, with a minor delay. “It ain’t easy trying to escape the past, is it?” He asked, looking at Athena.

“No,” Athena agreed. “But admirable to try.”

Fiona broke whatever tension there was by saying, “I need a drink and I’m starving.  Such a long and boring drive.”

Athena said, “We should get the shield installed right away.”

Janey nodded. “Good thing I brought tools. Just show us where the juice comes in and I’ll get it running.”

August said, “Fi... you can pour your own beer and go upstairs. I got bread and such for sandwiches. Eat whatever you want. I’m gonna help Janey and Athena.”

“Will do,” Fiona said.

“I’ll head up too. Can I make anyone else a sandwich?” Vaughn asked.

“Please,” said Athena.

“I could eat,” said Janey.

“Me too please, babe.” August said.

Vaughn beamed, “Gotcha! Good luck.”

August gave him a thumbs up and turned off to help the women lift the unit.

Vaughn followed Fiona as she poured her beer, knowing he was smiling like an idiot, “I can’t believe Rhys sent the building shield. Do you know what those cost?”

Fiona nodded, “A small fortune. They insisted on sending it.”

“What modifications did Rhys make?” he asked as they headed up the stairs.

She headed to the kitchen with the ease of one who once lived here. “Just wait,” She flashed him a grin and removed plates from the cupboard to set them on the counter.

“All right then, keep your secrets,” Vaughn grinned, “I’m glad you’re here, but August was pissed at me for telling you. I think he’s over it now.”

“He’s a fool. I told him if these jerks bother him again to call me. Does he? No.” She found the meat, cheese and bread with no trouble.

“I think he just wants to ignore it and hope it will go away, but I don’t think it will.” Vaughn said. He washed his hands to help with the work.

“Probably not. Janey said they’ve had to chase off goons a few times at the Catch a ride.” Fiona said.

“She mentioned it,” Vaughn said. Between the two of them they sliced ingredients and assembling the sandwiches. “What did you guys do last time to get August off this guy’s radar?”

Fiona looked at him with narrowed eyes and he thought for a moment she might lie to him. Instead with a sigh, she said, “We paid him off.”

“Oh,” Vaughn grimaced.

“It made August sick to do it, but he was just too unwell for anything else. We brokered a deal with the Guvner’s underboss, like a buyout. We pay a bunch of money and the Skag would be neutral territory. It lasted until Rhys and I got bounced through space for those months and when I got back, he told me not to worry about it, because he had it handled.”

“That’s good of you both. You’re good friends.” He smiled at her.

She grinned back and said, “We try to be when our friends let us help them. Back then it was just the three of us and Sasha and I had most of the Hyperion money. We might not have been alive to spend it without him so we all pooled money for the buyout.”

The power cut out and left them standing in the dark.

Vaughn turned his wristwatch to flashlight mode so they could see. “Whoops.”

Fiona said, “I hope this doesn’t last long.” She paused what she was doing.

The lights came back on moments after.

August called Fiona and Vaughn from his Echo device, “Sorry about that… We’re almost done down here.”

“No problem! Do what you have to do.” Vaughn replied.

“Cool.” August said and dropped from the line.

They finished assembling the sandwiches and depositing them each on a plate.

When they finished, she rinsed her hands and said, “Let’s go back down… you want to see this.”

They walked to the stairs as the lights overhead gave a final flicker when the shield kicked on.

August shouted, “That’s Awesome! Vaughn come see this!”

Vaughn hurried down the stairs to see August, Janey and Athena crowded around the door to look outside.

Outside the door was a dome made of hexagonal plates of light now protecting the building. Instead of a cool blue or atlas orange, Rhys had rigged them to light up the perfect shade of purple to match the rest of August’s aesthetic.

“God Damn, that’s pretty.” August said he hooked an arm around Vaughn and pulled him close to his side.

“It is,” Agreed Athena. “Rhys did a nice job.”

Vaughn beamed. “It’s super cool.”

This was classic Rhys. That man loved a grand gesture and while it was expensive Rhys would never send anything he could not afford.  

August seemed touched on a profound level but was trying to look unaffected. “Let’s eat,” he said as he shut the door and flipped the locks. Turning away, he jogged up the stairs to disappear into the bathroom for a time.

Vaughn got the women settled with food and drink.

About ten minutes after August joined them “Alright, so we calling Sasha or what?”

Fiona got out her echo device, “Now that you’re back I will.”  

August nodded and settled at his chair. He picked up his sandwich and took a bit.

“Hi Fi.” Sasha said through the comm.

“Hey, I’m with Athena, Janey, Vaughn and August. They installed the shield and it looks great.”

“Yay!” Sasha said. “Do you like it August?”

“I frigging love it,” August replied. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Rhys is asleep but I’ll tell him when he wakes up.”

Fiona was all business, “Were you able to find anything out on the Guvner?”

“Right,” Sasha too got down to business, “The Guvner lives up on the Highest tier of town where most of the better to do’s live. He’s got a compound up there. My friend, Tricky Ricky, DJ’d up there before and he said that when he was there, the place seemed pretty well fortified. They have a pair of Auto Turrets and a lot of guards. More than he could count… which isn’t that high to be honest. He’s a good DJ but very dumb. My other friend DJ Cryoburnz said he’s pushing his protection racket hard all over the city and most people are paying. Other‘s said the same thing. With the kind of money he‘s making surely he‘s hired a ton of help.”

August admitted, “I was paying protection... until a few months ago.” He folded his arms and hunched down over the table.

All eyes shifted to him.

Vaughn held in asking him why he had not mentioned that until this point. He was sure he knew the answer, anyway. It also explained expenses labeled P.M. that kept showing up in his ledgers until three months ago. Protection Money. Duh. August had told him not to worry about it.

Fiona did not hold in her questions. She sounded angry, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Seriously, August,” Sasha took a similar tone. “We told you we’d back you up.”  

“Don’t harp on me, okay? It’s embarrassing ,” August grumbled. “I didn’t wanna bother you all with it, okay? You were… busy.”

“I would have preferred you did.” Fiona said.

“Never too busy for you,” Sasha added.

Janey, ever a team player, spoke up, “It doesn’t matter how you got here. What matters is what we plan to do about it. I don’t intend to pay some asshole just to take money out of my pocket.”

Athena turned to her wife, “That’s committing to a lot of violence, Darling.”

“Sometimes violence the only answer.” Janey said.

“Then we’re in, too.” Athena said.

Vaughn said, “I’m in, because blowing up scumbags is more or less my job now.”

Fiona said, “I’m in. If they violated the agreement, I want my money back.”

“I’m in… for intel.” Sasha said with a crackle of static in her connection.

August said, “Okay… I appreciate all the sentiment and enthusiasm here but are we just going to go straight at him with little information and hope for the best? Because I’m tired and not up to deadly combat after working all day.”

“No,” Sasha said, “I think we should wait until I get a hold of a few more people. For the time being the bar is secure.” She yawned, “And I’m tired. Rhys’ alarm goes off so early.”

Athena said, “It is getting late. I’ll gather some intel myself after some sleep. Of all of us I have the most training in infiltration and moving silently.”

Janey beamed with pride, “It’s true, she nearly scared the piss out of me just coming to bed the other night. One moment I’m alone reading a book and the next she’s sitting right next to me.”

Fiona said, “I’ll check with my own contacts and follow up on anything else Sasha finds out.”

August said, “I’ll stay here. If I need anything in the meantime, I’ll take Vaughn or Tector with me.” He shrugged.

Vaughn nodded. “Good idea.”

August said, “Thank you Sasha, get some sleep. And see if your friend can draw us what he remembers of the security systems and the layout.”

Sasha said, “Will do. You’re welcome. Sasha out.”

Fiona said, “Bye! If it’s all the same with everyone, since it’s secure here I’m going to sleep at their place.” She gestured towards Athena and Janey. She collected her comm from the table and put it away.

Janey said, “You’re always welcome.”

Athena said, “Please do.”

“What’s wrong with my couch?” August asked, eyes narrowing.

Fiona looked him dead in the eye and said, “I don’t want to hear you and Vaughn bone down all night long. I want to sleep.”

Vaughn laughed in shock and his face grew pink and warm. He risked a saucy comment, “You better save yourself. I plan on being loud.”  

“See?” Fiona said in a monotone voice, “I can’t live with that.”

“Come with us.” Janey chuckled.

August bounced to his feet said, “I’ll walk you all out.”

Vaughn waved. “Sleep well, guys.”

“Good night blokes,” Janey gulped down the rest of her beer before rising.

“We will deal with this.” Athena said to August as she stood and offered him her hand.

He took it and shook it. “Let me just say again that I can’t thank you guys enough for all of this. I owe you one.”

Athena said, “A threat against any of us with legitimate businesses is a threat against all of us.”

After they left, Vaughn gathered the dishes together and washed them, happy knowing that everyone had gotten along fine.

August returned as he was finishing up to throw himself onto the couch, “What a day.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn said. “How… are you feeling about all of this?”

“I’m riding the line between gratefulness and emasculation,” he said.

Vaughn grinned and rinsed his hands. “Most guys would just be grateful to have a squad of hot chicks and one decent looking former accountant dropping everything to help them.”

August beckoned him to come sit with him. “Shut up, you’re smoking hot and I am glad… it’s just still hard for me to make sense out of it.”

He walked to the couch and sat next to August. “Do you want to talk it out?”

August struggled to start, “I always felt I was an outsider with your group, but now everyone wants to help, and it’s weird.”

Vaughn squinted at him, “It’s not weird. We’re your friends… and not to be too blunt… but you kind of made yourself an outsider, Mister ‘I don’t really like most of you.’ If I recall correctly, you once thanked me for shutting up when I offered condolences.”

August’s lips peeled back into a grin and he chuckled. “My Ma caused a lot of chaos with you guys. Everyone acting like they were so sorry she died seemed… disingenuous at the time.”

Vaughn chose his words with care, “We may not have been super sad that she died on a personal level, but we wanted to make you feel better. Share your pain. That kind of thing. The thing friends do.”

August looked away, “I see that now. It‘s just weird.” He exhaled and said, “I also know… you have questions… and I know you’ve been holdings them back because I was so… hostile about talking about her before. You can ask them.” He seemed nervous, twitchy even. His blue eyes fixed on a bullet hole in the wall.

Vaughn said, “I know so little about you. For example, I don’t even know how old you are.”

“I’m 33 and I was born on Pandora. Never been off world except that stupid mission to Hyperion and frankly, that put me off space travel. At least with Rhys.”

“I’ll be 30 soon,” Vaughn said, since he was sure that would be new information. “Tell me more.”

August looked at his lap. “I don’t know what to tell you.”

Vaughn thought about it, “Anything… you want to… and if you don’t want to you don’t have too.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.” August folded his gloveless hands just to have something to do with them. His eyes dipped down and he collected his thoughts.

There was no need to interrupt him. Vaughn just let him gather his thoughts.

“I’m worried that it might be too… fucked up for you… and you’ll think I’m hopeless. Disgusting.” He cracked his knuckles.  

Vaughn shook his head said, “I won’t judge you for the hand life dealt you. What matters is the choices made since I met you. I heard the story about Rhys, Sasha and Gortys on the front of your car. You could have killed them, but you weren’t trying too hard.”

“No,” August said, “I was not. When I first met Sasha, I was just trying to get enough money to get out of this shithole. We were going to split it three ways. Three and a third mil would have been enough to set myself up somewhere decent. Then everything went to hell, but though she betrayed me, I couldn’t hurt her. I didn’t want to.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t make it off world.”

“Ehhhh,” he shrugged, “I like my bar. It’s the only thing I’ve ever owned that was decent. And If I have to get back in the ass kicking game to keep it I’m fine staying here.”

Vaughn grinned, “I’m also sorry to drag you out of retirement.”

“It’s ok. Believe it or not, I’m doing better now than I have in ages. Been… reading and listening to a lot of… Echocasts about,” he cleared his throat, “Clinical Depression… and other issues… I may have… with my jacked ass brain.”

Vaughn smiled a little, “I think that’s smart. Thank you for telling me. It’s hard having mental issues. I’ve had Generalized Anxiety Disorder my whole life. Stopped taking my meds due to availability issues… about three years ago, but I’ve done okay without them on Pandora. I think it has to do with getting more sun. Have you ever heard about Space Station Affective Disorder?”

“No?” August looked at him for the first time since they started talking. He leaned closer, curious, “What is it?”

Vaughn explained, “On a space station like Helios was, there’s no day or night. Everything is just always kind of lit and on, but you don’t get the kind of light you get from a sun and it can cause depression and a host of other issues. You don’t get enough of the right light because you live in a cave. On some planets it’s caused by seasons.”

“Huh,” August frowned. “That’s always what I liked about Hollow Point. No unrelenting sun.”

“Yeah but it could be helping to fuck you up. It’s an easy fix though. There’re these lights that emit a full spectrum that mimics the sun. I could probably acquire you one.”

“And that would help me, you think?” He asked with interest.

“I mean… obviously… it’s not a cure all, but it’s a step to correct an issue dragging you down. Are these books are helping you?”

“I guess? It’s giving me a… vocabulary to discuss what’s going on with me… That’s more than I had before. I used to just smash things, beat up dudes, and drink.” He reached into a pocket and grabbed a joint and a lighter.

Vaughn watched him but it between his thin pink lips and light it. “So what have you learned?”

August inhaled, held the smoke in a and blew out in the other direction. He offered it up to share.

Vaughn took it. He didn’t need new bad habits, but he enjoyed the little euphoria of the occasional toke of the devil’s lettuce.

August sighed, “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that everything that my mother did… wasn’t my fault. Ma was not a very maternal woman. Shocking, right?”

After exhaling a cloud of smoke, Vaughn said, “You were born into rough circumstances. No one can help who their family is.”

“I don’t think she ever meant to have me. She was more stuck with me… and let me tell you I cramped her style. But as awful as she was, I still can’t handle hearing anyone shit-talk about her. There’s some bull shit part of me that still wants to love her, still does. I’m so fucking stupid.”

“You’re not stupid.” Vaughn said as he passed it back.

August snorted, “She’d have told you different. She always told me I was stupid… useless. Weak. Nothing I could ever do was good enough… and I went… to terrible lengths to do things to please her, but I was only ever as important to her as I was useful.”

Vaughn only nodded as he listened. He didn’t want to interrupt. Nothing August had said so far was a shock, but he hated now Vallory more than ever before.

The brawler’s blue eyes turned glassy, and he said, “I killed my first man at 12.” He took another hit before offering it again.

“No thanks. How?” Vaughn asked, soft and somber.

August’s jaw tensed. “I shot him. He was one of my Ma’s lovers… Dahl mother fucker. She often had gross dudes around when I was going up. This asshole made the mistake of thinking he could lay hands on me…  so I grabbed a Jacobs shotgun and filled him with holes. Ma beat the shit outta me for it cuz it fucked up whatever scam she had running. Made me sleep outside with the beasts.”

Vaughn did his best to look calm. He was careful to avoid any expression the other man might take as pity.

In silence, August pinched the tip of the joint until the flame died and put it back in his pants pocket. “Oh, here’s another great fact about me… I got no idea who my dad is. He was never in the picture. I‘m talking, I don’t even know a name. Once I asked her straight to her face. She either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me to spite me? I dunno, but she pistol whipped me for my trouble. Not my business, she said.”

Vaughn slid his hand into August’s, “I’m not… shit talking your mom, but I’m sorry you went through any of that.”

August’s head shook and squeezed the hand in his. “I did her dirty work my whole life: running errands and acting look out as a boy to collecting debts, fighting her enemies, fighting in the ring. No amount of moving mountain’s for this cold ass woman would ever make her love me and one day I wised up to that. I saved up my earnings and built the bar. I’d hoped it would… give me an excuse to stay away from her, but she just used it as another of her properties. She couldn’t just let me be, she had to keep her thumb on me. She always had to control me… so I betrayed her… now she’s dead.”

“It’s not your fault she’s dead. She rushed into opening the Vault like her army of idiots would do anything against that creature. She got herself killed so don’t blame yourself for that.” In his heart he ached for August. This was a sort of pain he could not fathom.

“Yeah… I told her not to. That we knew nothing about what we would find when we made Gortys put her final piece in… but she wouldn’t listen to a thing I said. Wouldn’t even patch me up.” His other hand reached up to rub at the center of his forehead.

“What made you go against her, up on Helios?” It maybe was not fair to ask, but he needed to know.

“Fiona.” He chuckled though it sort of tapered off into a hoarse cough as his hand dropped back to the couch. “She started mouthing off about me being a mama’s boy and I realized that she was right. I didn’t want them dead. I knew there was no way Sasha would get back with me but I still couldn’t let her die. Not at the Atlas Dome and not on Helios. Those two royally fucked me over with the key deal, but they acted in good faith during the Helios mission. I liked them and they did everything they said they were gonna do. I couldn’t let Ma execute them, but you gotta understand… I knew Finch and Kroger for years. Since I was a kid. They used to back me up in my fighting days.”

“I can’t imagine turning against your family for a bunch of jerks you barely knew. Do you ever regret it?” Vaughn asked.

“No. Never, but it doesn’t stop hurting, anyway.” He slid his hand out of Vaughn’s and got up off the couch, “Can we… just lay in the bed and talk. I just want… darkness. I’m getting a headache.”

Vaughn suspected there was more to it than that, but said, “Yeah, definitely.” He rose from the couch.

August lead the way back into his bedroom. With his back turned away he powered on the stereo to play instrumental music at low volume. He pulled off his hoodie and the shirt under it and turned the lights off.

Vaughn stripped down to just his boxers and climbed into the bed. “Come here.”  

August shucked off his jeans and flopped without ceremony onto the mattress.

“Face the other way,” Vaughn said, “and you won’t have to look at me. You can just talk.”

Once more he listened without a question.  

Vaughn spooned against him with an arm wrapped an arm around his waist. “There. I’ve got you situated for maximum hug power. I want you to know nothing you’ve told me has changed anything I think or feel, okay? All I‘ve heard is that you were hurt by someone who should have taken care of you.”

“Thanks V. You guys are too kind. I never imagined… You would go to these lengths for me.” There was a crack in his voice.

Vaughn could feel the convulsions in August‘s diaphragm as he sobbed in the dark.  “I’m proud of you for sharing all that.” He kissed the back of August’s neck. “If you have some stuff to get out, do it. Yell or cry… whatever feels right.”

With a strangled cry, August let go and allowed himself to weep. He turned around and pushed Vaughn onto his back so he could press his wet face to Vaughn’s sculpted chest. He curled around the smaller man‘s body and squeezed him.

Vaughn cradled the back of his head with his hand. “It’s okay. It’s just you and me… and you can trust me.”

August clung to him like a life preserver.

Letting his instincts take over, Vaughn held him and crooned soft words at him. “It’s alright. Get it off your chest.”

In time, the blond drew away from him and sat up. “I’m sorry.” He scrubbed his palm over his eyes.

Vaughn sat up after him. “For having feelings? Don’t be.”

“You didn’t sign up for this mess,” August sniffled

He scoffed, “I absolutely signed up for this. Do you feel any better?”

“A little, yeah” August said quietly.

“Good. It’s bad for you to hold your feelings in too long,” Vaughn said. “Lay back down. I’ll hold you more… if you like.”

“I would,” he said. He lay back down, this time facing away.

As he had before, Vaughn spooned him.

“I… like you Vaughn. You’re sweet.” August said.

His vulnerability was more endearing than Vaughn was prepared for. “I like you too. You don’t need to worry about appearances with me. Whatever happens between you and me is between you and me. I sometimes cry at children‘s movies.”

August chuckled, “You’re a weird dude.”

“You like it.” Vaughn scooted up so he could kiss August behind the ear.

“I do. And I’m thrilled you came… and didn’t leave after seeing my life.”

“You took care of me when I got too drunk. All I really want in life is someone I can depend on.”

“I‘ll try to be that person, V.”

He nuzzled against August’s neck. “I‘ll do the same for you."

“That feels nice. You’re so sensual.” He pushed back against Vaughn.

“I suspect we’re both a little starved for touch.” Vaughn trailed his hand over August‘s chest.

“I know I am.” August said. “There’s more... I wanna tell you... just not right now.”

“That’s totally fine,” Vaughn agreed. “Let‘s get some sleep for now.”

“Thanks, babe.” August murmured.

“Welcome babe.” Vaughn smiled and cuddled him to sleep.

Chapter Text

Vaughn awoke to his hair being brushed away from his face by careful fingers. His eyes opened, and he looked up to see August watching him.

“Good morning,” August murmured. He was naked but for a towel wrapped around his waist with damp hair combed but unstyled.  

Vaughn smiled, “Morning, handsome. What’s on the agenda for today?”

“No schedule today. We’re just going to hang out, because fuck it. Oh... I fixed my alarm. No more loud metal.”

“Cool.” Vaughn sat up and yawned. “You smell nice.”

“I feel good, too.” August said. “I may be on the shitlist of a powerful boss, but my bar’s safe, and I have Pandora’s sexiest merc in my bed.”

Vaughn laughed and said, “Wow. I don’t know about that. Sexiest? What about Axton? He's hot.” Good job bring up another good-looking blond dude , he thought to himself.

August said, “Are you kidding? Maybe if you’re looking for an ex-military bootlicker. I ain’t. Don’t get me started on the things I like about you. You’re like a grenade: tiny, but packing a huge amount of power.” He bent to kiss Vaughn’s shoulder. “And you got a banging body.”

“Oh you,” Vaughn grinned, “Let me pee… and shower. I’ll be right back.”

He went through his morning routine fast as he could, eager to get back into bed.  

When he returned, August was laying in bed in his underwear. This pair was a dark red with black stars strewn about. His towel lay near the edge of the bed.

Vaughn’s boxers were black. They said ATLAS across the ass in red lettering. Like most of the clothing he wore, they were free branded stuff from Rhys. He sauntered back to the bed staring at the other man’s body. “I want to know more about what you like, sexually.” He climbed back into the bed and lay against August.

“I’d like the same,” August said with a curious expression. He looked so normal without his normal styling.  

As soon as Vaughn settled, August reached out to play with a strand of his long hair, stroking it between his fingers.   

“Deal. Well… I’m versatile… like you. Like I told you, I haven’t had many partners… or much sex… but I am… interested in things .”

“Like what?” August watched him through slitted eyes.

Vaughn shook his head, “Nope. Your turn, spill.” Without warning he threw one leg over August and straddled him around the waist to look at him.

August raised one brow but responded by laying back and looking up in defiance. “Make me.”

He leaned forward and held August by his shoulders. With an imperious look he licked his lips.

The vibrant blue eyes of his lover stared up at him in anticipation.

Vaughn felt like they were having a psychic battle as they stared each other, each one waiting for the other to break the stare-down. “I can’t give you what you want if you don't tell me what it is.”

August lost the battle of wills when he looked away. “ Ugh .”

He reached a hand out and took August’s nipple between his fingers and squeezed it. In a sing song voice he asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me? I won’t judge you,” he added in earnest.

August squirmed beneath him his jaw tight before he sighed. “Okay, let’s  not dance around it, I’ve noticed you’re real good at giving orders.” He was still dancing.

Vaughn’s grinned mischievously, “I’ve noticed you’re real good at taking them.” He drawled his words out, “August are you submissive?”

August bit his lower lip hard and his cheeks flushed, but he admitted, “I am.” His expression became guarded once more. “It’s pretty fucked up, but you may as well know now.”

“Shh.” Vaughn said, “It’s not. People like… what they like. I’ve always had a fantasy about tying a guy up and having him under my power. A tall, strong guy like you.”

“Yeah?” August looked up at him with wide eyes, “That sounds… way hot.”

Vaughn took August’s face in both hands and held it still while he looked at him, “Let me make one thing clear, I don’t want to degrade you or break you down or hurt you in any meaningful way. If you’re looking for that, I can’t do it. What I want to do is exalt you; bind you and worship you like a God before I give you what you want and need, whatever that is.”

With a slack jaw August stared up at him.

Vaughn scooted lower to grind his ass against August’s erection. “Cat got your tongue?”

August gave a sharp burst of laughter, “All the blood is somewhere other than my brain. Yes… please to everything.” His voice sounded uncharacteristically soft, “Let’s try that.”

“Do you have a safe word?” Vaughn enquired as he stroked August's hair.

“A what?” He sounded disarmed and shy.

“A code word if you need me to stop doing anything… so you can say the word ‘no’ all you want… without me stopping.”

His blond brows lifted, “Oh, I see . How about… whiskey sour?”

“Bar themed, cute. Committed to memory. Is there anything I shouldn’t do? Tell me your hard and fast rules.” He held August’s head so he could not turn away.

August said, “I’m plenty, you know, adventurous . One thing, though, I can’t stand being slapped… across the face. It enrages me… anywhere else is fine.”

“I won’t ever do that, then.” He hunched low  and turned August’s face so he could kiss one cheek than the other. “I promise.”

August’s voice had a low rumble to it, “Otherwise, I’m a… pain and adrenaline junkie. Tie me down. Hurt me. Fuck me. Whatever… just don’t pee on me. So I guess that’s two things.”

Vaughn grimaced before he laughed, “I can work with that.”

“And it doesn’t always have to be one way the other I like to mix it up.” It was pulling teeth to get him started, but he was opening up now.

“Variety is the spice of life. This is awesome because I still plan to have you ravage me from time to time.”

August chuckled. “You know I will. You have only to ask.”

He got up off of August as an idea struck him. “You know, I happen to have a pair of handcuffs with me.”

Both of August’s brows lifted in surprise, “That’s awesome, but, uh, why do you have handcuffs?”

“You never know. Sometimes clients want people alive for bounties so I’m prepared.” He leaned over to the nightstand and withdrew the handcuffs from a pouch.

He licked his lips, “And you got the key for them?”

“I do,” Vaughn knew he sounded too cheerful, but he could not help himself. He felt around until he found his key ring. To show his good faith, he unlocked them before re-locking them. It was a nice pair of handcuffs. Shiny and chrome they glinted in the lamp’s light. This time he unlocked them both making the click loud and obvious.

August sat up with a wild look in his eye. “If you think I’m letting you put handcuffs on me, you’ve got another thing coming.”

Vaughn said with narrowed eyes, “Don’t want to go down quietly, eh?”

August pursed his lips and winked. “You gotta fight for the right. You promised.”

“I am a man of my word,” Vaughn said as he lay the handcuffs on the corner of the bed.  With no further warning he threw himself at August.

They tumbled into a flailing pile of limbs. Though not trying to hurt each other too, neither one held back their strength or ferocity as they grappled and flipped each other over on the bed.

August’s strength impressed him, but Vaughn knew he had an edge. By his own admission August had not been fighting. Vaughn was out living rough and needing to be sharp and on his toes at all times. Speed, also was on his side.

August was not afraid of biting him to gain an edge and things escalated into mutual pinching, biting, groping and the occasional bit of hair pulling as they grew sweaty.

By the time Vaughn flipped August on his face and pinned his hands to the small of his back, they were breathing hard. He snatched the handcuffs up from where they lay and snapped them into place behind the brawler’s back. “Ha hah!”

The blond craned his neck to look behind himself. His pale skin was flush from exertion. “Guess you win V.” His shoulders shifted as he tried to test the chain between handcuffs. It made his muscles ripple under the tattooed skin of his back.

Vaughn grinned and lay a hand on August’s ass, rubbing over the thin fabric of his boxer briefs that covered the tight mounds. “That means this ,” He grabbed a handful of August’s ass and pinched it. “Is all mine .” He followed that up with a loud slapped to the spot he had pinched.

August pushed his butt up for more and Vaughn was happy to oblige. He smacked one cheek then the other back and forth before rubbing them. “Don’t be afraid to tell me if you like or don’t like what I’m doing.”

“Sure. Just having your hands on me is driving me wild. I don’t give a fuck what you do.”

Vaughn flipped August on to his back with his hands pinned under himself. He leaned in close. “Tell me about the kind of submissive you are. Do you want to serve a master with acts of submission and service?  Or do you just want to lay back and have things done to you?”

“I’m no pillow princess; I earn my keep in the bedroom. I like serving and having things done to me,” August said. “Let’s just say I am motivated to do whatever you want me to do for you or to you, but I’m not looking for someone to run my life outside of the bedroom.”

Vaughn said, “Don’t worry. I’m barely running my own life, my dude.”

August laughed in response.

“So,” Vaughn wanted to be sure there was no miscommunication, “What I’m hearing is you’re just submissive in the bedroom and that is totally cool, I’m far more into collaboration on other life matters.” Vaughn said.

“I think we could collaborate very well together.”

“Me too, but since we’re in bed… you better strap in and prepare to take it.” Vaughn gave him a wink he knew moments later was regrettable and cheesy.  

August laughed hard until Vaughn grabbed him by his face and used it to push it to the side so he could bite his neck. “Oh, son of a bitch… yes .”

“Can I mark you with my mouth?” He asked with his lips to August’s ear

“I’ll be disappointed if you don’t,” August said.

He bit him again, this time sucking on the mark afterwards. With a tentative hand he palmed the bulge in August’s underwear.

He was rock hard and pushed his hips up to meet Vaughn’s hand while breathing out a moan.

Vaughn’s erection was straining his own boxers. This was more fun than he had imagined it might be. What a pleasant surprise, to be so compatible.

He licked, kissed and bit a trail down August’s chest until he got to his nipple. He took the nub in his teeth and ever so gently squeezed it between them. It earned him another moan. There was no sound more erotic in the world.

When Vaughn sat up again, he said, “I don’t think you need these.” He peeled down the spangled boxer briefs until August’s cock bounced free of its confinement. August looked so good with his pecs popping out.

Vaughn’s brain went into overdrive and he was stricken by a bout of nervousness. He forced himself to calm down and stay in control. Experimenting, he gave him a slap to his inner thigh. “I like you like this.” His fingers rubbed over the skin before he repeated the gesture.

August took in a sharp breath.

Vaughn said, slapping him again in the same spot for a third time in a row, “You’re a beautiful man. Every bit of you.” He crawled between August’s legs on all fours like an animal before bending and biting the pink splotch he had made. When done, he blew softly across the skin.

“Fuck,” August whispered.

He repeated the ministration on the other side. Three good slaps followed by a hard bite, suck and blow. Vaughn liked the thought of ignoring August’s dick for a while. Sitting back up on his heels he methodically started to slap the inner side of one thigh.

“You don’t fuck around, going for the inner thigh right away.”

“I want you to remember me when you’re standing and they press together.”

August smirked, “I see.”

Vaughn wasn’t hitting him very hard, not nearly as hard as he could, instead snapping his wrist just so to make it sting. When satisfied with the pinkness on his left leg he did the same on his right.

August just watched him intensely. He gave no indication that he was in any pain, which wasn’t surprising given his toughness. It appeared he enjoyed it.

“You’re so pale, your skin pinkens so pretty.”   

August kept his legs spread as far a part as he could. “You gonna take all day cuz I am ready for you to put that dick in me.”

In response, he grinned smugly, “No. I am gonna fuck you nice and hard, when I’ve made you good and ready.” He lowered his head and took the tip of August’s dick in his mouth and swirled around it with his tongue before biting hard enough to get to reaction.

The blond squirmed back against the headboard. “Holy shit…”  

Vaughn looked him in the eye, “You come when I tell you can.”

August ate it up. “Yes sir.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” He climbed over on the mattress so he could flip August on his face again. “How sturdy is your headboard? If I looped the cuffs through the bars, would it hold?”

August nodded and said, “Yeah, It’ll hold.”

Vaughn grinned, “Now are you going to fight me when I free your hand?”

“No Sir,” August said.   

“Good.” He was on guard in case August was lying. Snatching the keys from the nightstand, he undid the lock on one of them.

The submissive stretched his arms out in front of himself and waited obediently to be secured.

After walking on his knees to the top of the bed Vaughn looped the cuffs around one bar and reattached it to his lover’s wrist.

Vaughn climbed to straddle his back and press his dick against his back. “Good boy. You’re very pleasing. Kiss me.”

August turned head to the side to kiss him as Vaughn leaned closer and their mouths met in a hard and desperate kiss with teeth and tongue.   

Gripping him by his hair and pulling tight, Vaughn separated them so he could hiss into his partner’s ear. “I’m going to whip you and fuck you until you shout my name.”

“Make me yours,” August whispered.

“On your knees,” he said as he slipped off of his back.  

August shifted onto his knees and each of his hands wrapped around a bar on the headboard. His face he leaned against the mattress.

“Good, very good.” Vaughn said, affecting a lower voice than usual. “Spread them a little more. Show me everything.”

The bound man obeyed without question.

“Good, very good.” He admired the tight ass laid out before him and the weighty hang of his balls and beautiful cock.  Slipping off the bed he pulled his skag leather belt from the loops on his jeans before folding it in half to make the snapping sound.

August twitched in anticipation.

Vaughn took the buckle in the palm of his hand and wrapped the leather around his hand once to shorten the length of the supple leather. “Ready, gorgeous?”

August lifted his face to speak, “Yes, your Majesty.”   

Vaughn grinned. He liked that moniker. It made him feel even more powerful. He didn’t need to be a master if he could be a King.

“What do you say to make me stop?” Vaughn wanted no miscommunication.

“Whiskey sour.” August said.

“Good.” Vaughn settled on his knees on the bed. He put his left hand on August’s lower back and had a moment of anxiety. As much as he had fantasized about a scenario like this, the actual power of it left him momentarily overwhelmed. He was in control. Responsibility fell on him for making this a safe, sexy and enjoyable experience for his new lover.

Taking a deep breath, he lay the belt across August’s ass and rubbed it across the mounds before he drew it back a distance and whipped him with it. The slap of the leather on his skin was soul satisfying as was the white line that bloomed after a few moments into pale pink.

August made a soft noise, but barely reacted otherwise.

That was okay. He wanted to take his time to build this up. With exceeding care he lined up his next lash and laid it just below the first.

The blond pushed his ass out further in a silent request for more.

Vaughn would not deny him. With satisfaction he lay down more stripes, escalating the force and the tempo of his blows until at last August growled when the blows fell. He even struck him on the backs of his thighs, though he was careful to do it with less force.  

He paused and set the belt on the bed to rub his palm up and down the reddened ass and legs, pinching and poking as he saw fit. He dipped his hand between his legs and cupped his balls, touching them as intimately as he desired.

August moaned and the naked vulnerability of the sound was music to Vaughn’s ears.

“Would you like some stripes for your back?” He wrapped his fingers around the other man’s erection.

“Yes, please.” August murmured.

Vaughn released him and picked up the belt again to knee crawl higher on the bed. His free hand gripped and pulled Augusts hair to hold his head up while lashing him across his upper back.

He just hissed in response.

Vaughn whipped him again across the tattooed upper back. He dared not hit him on his lower back for fear of doing him actual harm.

August groaned and buried his face back into the mattress.

“That’s it. Let me hear you moan. Make noise. Let me know how much you love this.”

The blond obliged with a deep throaty cry as was lashed again and again.

Vaughn gave him a break, “How are you doing, sweetheart?”

“More… please .”

His body shuddered and shifted as Vaughn let go of his hair and took turns between striking his thighs, ass and upper back until they were gloriously pink and welted.

August’s knuckles grew white for how hard he gripped the bars of the headboard but he never cried.

Vaughn doubted if such a minor issue as physical pain could even cause this golden god to cry. Not that it was his goal. His tears last night had been hard enough to bear. He only hoped to make him cry with pleasure.

When August’s body shook, and he made a soft sob Vaughn dropped the belt.

He rubbed both his hands over the marks made to soothe them and absorb the heat. “You’re so fucking hot and I still can’t believe that you’re mine. You are magnificent and I am so proud to have you like this.”

August sucked in deep breaths like he’d never had fresh air before. “Thank you Sir.” August responded so well to the praise, lifting his head to watch Vaughn as he got the lube out of the nightstand.

Vaughn looked at him. He treasured the way August’s eyes looked up into his with such open need. Sinking a knee onto the mattress he climbed over behind him to kneel. He opened the lube and poured enough into his palm to make his shaft slick enough to aid his entry before wiping his hands on the towel.  

August had given up trying to look at him and just planted his face into the mattress as Vaughn gripped him by the hips and jerked him backward several inches.

Vaughn grinned to himself. This was the hottest thing he had ever seen in his life.

“Don’t make me beg for it.” August whined. “I’ll beg though… if that’s what you want.. Please… please give it to me.”

Vaughn chuckled, “You don’t need to. I’m coming.” He nudged the tip of his cock against August‘s hole and worked it inside.

As patient and slow as Vaughn tried to be, August was impatient, pushing back to meet the thrusts with what little slack the cuffs allowed him.

Vaughn had something to prove, and he hoped he would be up for the challenge. He grabbed August’s lean hips with a tight grip and thrust into him.

The blonde's shoulders, pink with welts where not tattooed, shifted as he struggled against the cuffs holding his wrists. He writhed and made the most beautiful sounds.

“Is this how you like it? Is this rough enough for you?” He slapped August’s flank for punctuation.

“Ah! Ha! Yes .” He shouted his response.

“Good.” As amusing as this was, he could see he was pushing August forward so his face was now against the bars.

August didn’t complain or even notice.

Vaughn pulled out and rolled his tall lover onto his back just to worm back between his legs so he could spread them and push them up in the air. “I want to see your face.”

With eyes glazed from lust and endorphins August watched him.

Gripping his hips, he pulled August closer to and lifted his legs to enter him with none of the gentleness of last time. One hand held himself up, and the other sought August’s cock to stroke it as it leaked with pre come.  

His eyes closed as Vaughn resumed his rhythmic thrust.

Vaughn concentrated hard, trying to ignore the overwhelming pleasure so he could hold himself off until he satisfied his lover. It was his duty, as the man on top, to make sure August came first.

August was panting. His head rolled to the side and his white teeth sank into his lower lip only to groan.

Vaughn bent low and bit his chest and neck again while drilling him as hard and fast as he could. The looming threat of hand and leg cramp propelled him redouble his efforts. "Come for me, baby. Come for your King." 

August heels dug into Vaughn’s back and shuddered beneath him before he made a soft and wavering cry. He jerked his arms forward and struggled against the cuffs as he climaxed.   

Vaughn paused the motion in his hips to enjoy the way August tightened around him while he squeezed his spasming cock.

When it had run its course, August sank into the mattress and ceased struggling.

Well versed in sexual etiquette, Vaughn had no trouble withdrawing and using his slick hand to finish himself on August’s stomach as he lay over him. It only took a few more strokes to put him over the edge and he lay his head on his lover’s shoulder.

Like a large cat, August pressed his face against Vaughn’s and nuzzled against him.

When he recovered his senses, he turned his head so they could share a languid kiss.

They lay there another moment before Vaughn climbed off and snatched the towel. He wiped down his hand and August’s stomach before laying against his side.

“I needed that.” August sighed in contentment. “I ain’t gotten laid that well in years .”

Vaughn snickered, “I’ve… never done anything like that before.”

“You’re a natural. Did you like it?”

“I… loved it.” Vaughn said with more vehemence than he intended.

“I did too.” His eyes were lidded, and he appeared peaceful.  

“I wasn’t too rough?” he asked.

“Nah. You’re perfect.”  

Vaughn hummed in happiness and kissed his lips again. They were just like heaven.  

Chapter Text

Vaughn started a joint pile of their laundry while his new beautiful new partner went to handle breakfast. He was still in a tranquil, post coital haze and even the act of washing their clothes together felt like an extension of growing intimacy.

August was trusting him on so many levels. He would not allow himself to take that lightly on any of them, including the laundry. With care he separated their whites and darks and he got first load running.

He was on his way back up the two flights of stairs from the laundry machines and had started processing how much he hated Vallory and how protective he felt about her son, when the sound of Rhys voice pulled his attention.

Hey August How are you doing? Everyone safe?” Rhys asked.

Vaughn knew, objectively, that eavesdropping was wrong, but was powerless to resist his own curiosity. Out of line of sight with the kitchen he froze.

“Yeah. We’re doing okay,” August said in his normal gruff fashion, “Vaughn’s here with me. Fiona decided to stay with the Springs’ They’re going to gather some intel today. We’re sitting tight.”

“Great,” Rhys said. “You guys kick some butt and if you need me to send Loader Bot, let me know.”

“Kay. So I, uh,” August sounded less confident as he continued, “I called to thank you for sending all those supplies. I know this is a favor to Vaughn more than it is to me, but really, Thank you. The building shield is incredible.”

“Come on, man,” Rhys said, “It’s not like that. I do owe Vaughn … and a lot of that was just sending what he asked for… but you’re part of our family , whether or not you enjoy it, and I’m not going to leave you out in the cold without backup.”

“You mean that? I’m your family?” August sounded perplexed.

“I do!” Rhys said. “You chose team Awesome when it mattered and saved Sasha, Fiona and Gortys. You’re my brother.”

August sounded at a loss for words, “I’ll… somehow… pay you back, eventually.”

Rhys said, “No need. It’s a gift and I insist. Atlas is doing well enough I can afford gifts for my friends and family .”

“You  made it purple. That was cool.”  

“I understand the importance of cultivating your own aesthetics,” Rhys said in a chipper tone. “Keeping the Purple Skag purple seemed important.”

“I love it. I was… am blown away.”

Vaughn presumed August must be dying inside, but was proud of him.  

“Good. Hey when all this current run of bad business is over for you, come out to Atlas again. We didn’t get to talk much at the party. There’s also a bunch of cool stuff in development I want to show you.”

Vaughn covered his mouth lest he make an exclamation. Rhys was extending an olive branch. It was better than he could have dreamed.    

“I will,” August said. “I’ll be freer to travel once we get this particular monkey off my back. It was nice to get out of Hollow Point and see the sun. Vaughn says I have some kinda ‘living in a cave’ depression.”

Rhys chuckled, “Maybe, but take Doctor Bandit, M.D. with a grain of salt. He always used to spend too much time on those medical Echo sites and get himself worked up about having exotic diseases from planets he hasn't been to.”

Vaughn frowned. Rhys! 

August laughed. “I can see that, actually.”

His frown deepened. August! 

Rhys’ voice grew serious, “Speaking of Vaughn... and, like, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m begging you to please take good care of him. He’s a special guy. Not that I’m trying to butt in, or imply anything, but he’s important to me, okay?”

“Understood,” August said without seeming to take any offense. “It’s fine. I promise you. We’re… taking care of each other. I’ll be good to him. He’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”

“Good. Tell him I said hello.”

“I sure will. Thank you, Rhys. You’re a good guy. If you need anything, you let me know, okay?”

Vaughn’s hand dropped to cover his heart. This was swoon worthy if ever a thing were. They were not sassing, agitating or aggravating each other in the slightest. Now it was up to Rhys to not blow it in the final moments.

“I will,” Rhys said. “Keep me posted on the gang war.”  

August snorted. “Sure. With Athena around I’m sure we could kill anyone or anything like that.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis.  

Rhys laughed, “Yeah, she’s great, isn’t she? Terrifyingly great. She’ll set your enemy problem right.”

“I’m gonna let you go as you’re a busy boss man, but,” He gave a drawn-out sigh before muttering, “Thank you… for being my friend. No way I could do any of this on my own as things were.”

“You don’t need to thank me, Bro. I’ll talk to you soon.” Rhys stuck the landing. It was beautiful.  

“Sure thing. Bye.” Clearly, August was not yet ready in his heart to say 'Bro’ back. That day might still come.

When the call ended, Vaughn wasn’t sure if he should pretend not to have heard or admit that he was there eavesdropping.

“I hear you out there, little mouse,” August called to him with a stern undercurrent.  

Busted, he shuffled into the kitchen with his head bowed and said, “I’m sorry that so I’m nosy.”

“It’s fine.” He seemed amused. “If privacy mattered, I’d have called from the office, you sneaky little fucker.” August leaned down to embrace him.  

Vaughn hugged him back and sighed in relief, “It’s just super duper mega important to me that you guys get along.”

“He called me family.” His face was soft with confusion, like the very concept both distressed and intrigued him.

“I heard!” Vaughn beamed, “I am so stoked. For a second I worried he was going to ruin it by saying something dumb, because that’s pretty much how he does everything, but he didn’t. He called you Bro. That’s significant.”

With a smirk, August said, “At the party you’d mentioned that I didn’t talk to or treat you like a friend… so you weren’t aware I liked you. I’ve been thinking about it since then.”

“And?”

“I realized may be too brusk, mostly with Rhys.”

“Just… a smidge.” Vaughn pantomimed the small amount with his thumb and forefinger.

“So I’m working on that. I think I did ok. Didn’t I?” He stared down with an expectant expression.

There was no way Vaughn would deny him a compliment. He beamed, “You did!  I think you’re doing a great job. I am so proud of you for… looking inward in the deep, dark truthful mirror that is self reflection and making changes. A lot of guys never have the guts to do it.”  

“Thank you,” he gave Vaughn the softest smile. “You’re so… encouraging. I always thought you were like Rhys’ hype man, but it turns out you’re just like that. You lift people up around you.”

Vaughn smiled like a fool. “I am a very supportive friend… and I like the way it lights your eyes when you’re complimented. I think you want to be appreciated, and no one has ever properly done it.”

August nodded and looked away. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Well prepare for appreciation city, man. We’re going to run into something where we don’t agree at some point… and we’ll probably have arguments… but up front I am promising you I’ll treat you with respect even if we do.”

August sighed, “I’m… still figuring out how to deal with all this anger I’m dragging around. I’ll try… my best… to manage it better than I have in the past. If only there had been someone like you in my life long ago.”

Vaughn said, “Well… I’m here now. If you ever want to talk more about anything… please do. I will listen to you without hesitation. You’ve clearly been through a lot and it helps to get things off your chest, I think.”  

With a furrowed brow, August said, “I’d like to discuss this shit like a reasonable, rational adult but I hate the thought of being judged, though there is an array of legitimate reasons why I deserve to be.”

“I won’t judge you… and anything you tell me in confidence, I will never repeat. Though I’ve never been in a relationship that didn’t fizzle out into nothing… I’m certain that even if we broke up, I wouldn’t use your trauma to hurt you. That’s not who I am. That being said, if you don’t want to discuss it, don’t. I’m already thrilled at how much you’ve trusted me.”   

August stepped over to the stove and took the skillet off the wall to set it on the stove burner. “Sit, I’ll make some quick food.” He turned the dial and the flame underneath the pan whooshed to life with the scent of gas.

Vaughn nodded and took a seat at the table. “Okay.”      

August took a pronounced breath. "My ma was real close mouthed about many things, but she told me she came here as slave labor." He got eggs and a tub of lard out.

“Oh wow, she was one of the old Dahl prisoners? I never realized they sent women.” Vaughn noted the way August talked with much more ease while focused on a chore.  

“Never as many as the men, but they did. As you may recall, my ma was strong as a fucking bullymong. I guess she organized some prisoners and busted out. When free she did what she knew to survive... knocking heads until everyone feared and obeyed her. She raided and generally fucked with Dahl operations, then Atlas and Hyperion. Terrorized colonists… the usual. I guess that was all fine and dandy until I happened. It’s left me to wonder if I’m just that disappointing or did she have a beef with whoever the hell fucked me into her?”

“Some people should just never have kids.” He cleared his throat, “I’m… it should be said… one of them. Not that I think I’d be a bad parent, but it’s just too much anxiety for me to deal with on even a civilized world.”  

“Me too, for damn sure.” August spooned lard into the skillet. “Though, I doubt I could fail as epicly as my ma did, but I still don’t want to expose a frigging kid to me. I don’t even know what childhood is, because I had a steady job… and duties to the Queenpin.” He tilted the pan about to coat the bottom.

"Parents are supposed to want better for their children," Vaughn opined.

“Yeah? No one told Vallory that. I wanted to tell you more about… the stuff from last night. When I killed the Lieutenant.”

“Of course,” Vaughn said. Seeing that the coffee pot had finished filling, he got up to pour them each a cup.

“So at the time all of this went down we were living out of these series of shacks out in the Dust. Just your typical shitty, old trailers around a shared courtyard with a fire and the animals. Dogs… skags. Usual shit. It was Pandoran night so it was pretty cold out.” He cracked several eggs into the skillet as he spoke and they sizzled amongst the grease.

Vaughn carried the filled mugs back and set one in August’s place before settling back down. He curled his hands around the warm mug.

“I was there minding the camp, and this prick walks in demanding to see her. Lieutenant Perkins… I think that was his name… Parker? Something like that. He got there that night before Ma did. Now he didn't like me and I didn’t like him, either. I talked some shit at him and he up and backhanded me so hard I fell to the floor. Just boom, straight down.” He pantomimed the action of slapping someone across the face but with the spatula still in his hand. "I went savage... All kinds of rage mode. I could put up with catching hands from Ma but I wasn’t going to let this son of a bitch get away with it.”

Vaughn could feel his brow furrowing but forced on himself  neutral expression. It was good August wasn’t looking at him except the occasional glance.

“I wasn’t so strong then, but I was pretty damn fast. So when I realize I’m not gonna be able to take this meathead down I lifted his shield right off him while he was smashing me against the wall. Now I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but shields in those days were low grade. Basic as shit. Not like the fancy fucking one you and Rhys gave me that harms the attacker, so it was real easy in close combat to just snatch em.”

Vaughn nodded, this was all news to him. He never even wore one until he was down on Pandora. “What happened?”

"He pulls back to punch me in the face and I’m reeling, but I’ve got enough sense to whip out my fine ass switchblade and stab him straight in the neck." This time the spatula was the knife, and he stabbed once decisively into the air.

Vaughn hunched down over his cup as he listened.

August flipped the eggs, “He's so shocked that he drops me... but gets out his pistol. I bolted to the coach gun and dropped the clown before his shield ran out on me. Didn't get shot once. Ma and her raiding party come home and here’s me with a shotgun and her dead lover-slash-mark laying in a pool of blood all on our floor.

“She goes ballistic on me and makes me tell her what happened. Like an idiot I tell her the fucking truth. She has some guys loot the body and feed it to the skags while she whips me so hard I can’t sit right for a week after. When she's done she tosses me out to sleep in the yard because she can't even look at me.”

“That's terrible ,” Vaughn said.  “You were twelve… and you were already hurt.”

He got two plates out of his cupboard with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "The guys were all around the fire drinking and whatever, but no one wanted to offer me any support for fear of pissing her off. I didn’t blame them. Ma was always the most angry about things involving money so I figure I must have cost her money by offing the fucker. If she lost money… they lost money.”

“Still,” Vaughn protested.

August just kept on like he needed to get all of this out. “I’m getting to the important part. The yard was that shitty loose soil with the rocks and I had to just lay in it in the dark and cold like a miserable little fucker. I pretty much wanted to die.”

"No one helped you, at all?" Vaughn’s poker face sucked, so he examined the scratches on the metal surface of August’s table.

“Everyone was afraid of her and what did they care? I was just the brat, you know? Around not by anyone’s particular choice and useful when I had to be. Still… a couple hours go by. I’m also hungry as fuck because she kicked me out without feeding me.”

Vaughn moved his hands under the table where August would not see how he was digging his nails into his palms.

“The only person who took pity on me was Kroger." August said.

"Oh…" Vaughn had more of an idea of where this was going now.

"He was like… ten years older than me. Still young himself at the time. He creeps up to me real quiet after everyone else has either passed out or gone off to do the watch." August turned on a second burner and picked up a piece of bread with a pair of tongs to toast it over the flame.

“He gives me his coat and one of those military meal-ready-to-eat pouches those Dahl guys always had and sits with me as I wolf it down. I warn him that Ma’s going to be pissed at him when she finds out, but Kroger doesn’t give a single solitary fuck. I thought he was cool as hell.” He paused, “Stupid… but cool. He let me rest my head in his lap and ruffled up my hair until I fell asleep.” When the bread was done he set it and the tongs down to stir the eggs and crack pepper into them.

Vaughn asked, "Did she find out?"

“She did.” He picked up the tongs and started toasting the next piece of bread, “She always found out everything I got up to. I woke up to her yelling at Kroger about interfering in her discipline. He was trying to placate her… saying I'm just a kid, it was cold, et cetera. She wound up giving him a busted eye, but that was the end of it. After that I was put on his crew and made his responsibility since he was so keen to ‘mother me’.

“Had you been on one before?”

“No… She was impressed that I was able to kill him after she calmed down. Decided since the old murder cherry was popped that I may as well run with the big boys. I ran with Finch and Kroger for a few years. Kroger was always good to me.” He inhaled deeply through his nose and said, “He probably died hating me." He tossed the bread onto the plate. "Can't blame him."

“I was there when he died. When LB killed him.” Vaughn said. He took in a deep breath and waited for the reaction.

“Yeah. Fi told me about it. He should have given up his ridiculous revenge quest, but they were together a long time, him and Finch.”

It was a relief that he knew. “They were a couple?” Vaughn asked. “I didn't realize."

"Yeah. It still fucks me up. He was like an uncle to me. They both were." He plated up their breakfasts.

“I can't even imagine. You gave up so much when you chose us.” He ached in side at the sheer fucked-up sadness of all of it.

August brought the plates over one in each hand with the bottle of hot sauce jammed into his front jeans pocket.  

The food set before him smelled good, but he was without appetite suddenly, “I don't know what to say… to make it better.” He reached out and took August's hand in his.

The frustration in August’s eyes was clear now that they were sitting close. "I don't want it made better. There is no making it better. You just need to hear it."

“Now I’ve heard,” Vaughn said, “and I still don ' t blame you . You were a kid. A literal child.”  

August shrugged, “Eh. I was bad news then and nothing has changed.”

Vaughn took Augusts knuckle and lifted it to his lips for a kiss. "I can't absolve you of your sins… or mend your past, but I don't think you're bad newsl. I think you're incredible to have survived so much bullshit." He released the hand.

August shook his head and picked up his cup of coffee, “No you're fucking incredible. I'm trash.”

Vaughn said taking a serious tone, “You're going to have to stop that. You're not trash. No one ever gave you a choice in how you were raised and when you could, you broke with it.”

“Can I really, though?” August asked his eyes locked on to Vaughn’s. “Is it possible to really break away from it? What if I'm dragged down by the weight of the shit I've done forever."

“Is that why do you keep the portrait of Vallory up in your in your office?" He squinted, “Are you punishing yourself?”

“I don't know. It's partially some lingering sense of obligation. It's also the only tie I have to any sort of past. I can get rid of it, if it bothers you.” He took a sip from his coffee.

“August… Dude… No way. I would never ask that, man. I’m just trying to wrap my brain around it.”

“Good luck with that because I don’t understand it myself. When I talk about this shit I get so angry… and I feel this intense hate for her… but other parts of my mind kick in and remind me of the acts of decency she managed. There were good times. I have plenty of... decent memories.” A ringing endorsement.

Vaughn sat up, “I get that you’re conflicted, but after hearing that I wish I could bring your mom back from the dead so I could have the opportunity to kill her myself.” The regret was immediate, but he refused to try to walk it back because he meant it.

August’s face slowly twisted up into a scowl, “Fuck off, man. I told you I don’t like people shit talking her.” He slammed his fist against the table and rattled everything on it.

Vaughn did not fuck off. He persisted, “She was a terrible mother to you and she still has you feeling like you owe her. She has you convinced that you were the problem. You weren't.”  

“Were you not listening? I wasn’t a good kid, either.” He folded his arms and closed off his posture as he sat back in his chair ignoring his food.

“Irrelevant! No kid deserves that, no matter how much of a brat you were… and you shouldn’t have been home alone running a god damn bandit camp… but… damnit.”  Vaughn pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m… sorry. I was tactless and now you think I’m judging you. I’m not. I’m judging her for hurting you and making you feel like you don’t matter. You do.”  

August narrowed his eyes and was silent for a time before he changed the topic entirely to put Vaughn under pressure, “Okay fine, so enough about me. Let’s talk about you and your problems. Tell me about Rhys... Just how in love with him are you?”

Vaughn imagined his soul leaving his body as he breathed out. “That sure is a question… that… you want me to answer.”

August just stared at him, his emotions hidden behind a mask of calm. Now there was a real poker face.

Vaughn swallowed, “Wow so… uh… I’m always going to love him and care for him. He’s my best friend, but it was easier to dwell on my unreturned feelings when there was no one else who wanted me. I once thought Rhys was the only person who would ever understand me enough to like me, but then you came along and I’ve never honestly never felt what I’m feeling now.”

“Me either,” August admitted. “Not like this.” The anger seemed to be fading away.  

Vaughn continued, “I don’t know how much I'm in love with Rhys vs. how much I love him as a friend, but that desire to live with him again… that fantasy of being with him is over. I want to be with you.” He added, "Now was that a real question or a deflection because I was being an ass?”

“A deflection,” August admitted, “though I appreciate the answer anyway. I knew what I was wading into when I got with you.” He sighed, “And I know… that Ma didn’t treat me right… and I guess… you’re entitled to have feelings about it. I’ve got more than I can handle at times.”

“I should not have expressed it that way.” Vaughn reiterated, “And I’m sorry I did.”

August shrugged and his lips quirked up, “In hindsight, it’s kind of funny… and I guess I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Don’t worry, babe, I don’t know how to perform necromantic rituals.” Vaughn picked up his fork.

August smirked at that and unfolded his arms to pick up his own fork. “So if you wanna be with me. Does that mean you’re moving in with me.”

“Yeah,” Vaughn said. “I think I am.”

A real smile lit up his face, “Cool… If you wanna take over the spare room to put your own stuff in or anything, I got one. I’d just have to move the weight bench out.”

Vaughn let him change the topic. This was exciting news, “You have one? And

weights?”

August said, “There’s not much point to the bench without the weights. You lift?” He shook hot sauce all over his eggs.

“Yes! Though mostly just rocks and such because Pandora does not exactly have a network of quality gyms. One of the best things about visiting Atlas HQ is their corporate workout facility.” He scooped some eggs onto his toasted bread and ate it.

“Cool. Can I spot you after breakfast? I got a punching bag too.  All this… mining of the past makes me want to hit something.”

“Yes that would rock absolutely. I also desire to hit things.” He grinned. “And pump some serious iron.”

August shook his head with a look that was unabashedly fond, “You got it, goofball.”

Chapter Text

Vaughn had worn a revealing tank top to show off his arms while they worked out in the Purple Skag’s small home gym.

August wore a deep V-necked T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, most likely for the same reason.   

Of all the things Vaughn enjoyed doing with another person, working out was among his favorites. There was comradery in getting sweaty together while eyeing each other’s bodies. 

To warm up, they took turns watching each other work on the battered old punching bag. 

Watching August go at it reminded Vaughn how savage the brawler was with his fists. He must have been a sight in his youth; full of piss and vinegar and unafraid of death. That was an August he would never meet.

When they switched to free weights he kept losing track of his reps from watching August who was most certainly trying to be a distraction.

Vaughn accepted the first turn at weight bench, pressing a few different sizes of weights under August’s eye. It seemed important to display proof of his strength and physicality. When satisfied he had put on a good enough show, he wiped down the equipment and ceded it to his partner. 

Now he took his turn to watch August’s hard body as he lifted a series of heavier weights on the barbell. 

August grunted,  “So let’s hear some stories about you.” He breathed and pushed the bar up and slowly brought it down again. “What happened in the life of young Vaughn?” 

Vaughn had to think for a moment, “Not much. I was often lonely. I’m an only child, too, like you. My parents worked all the time, so I had to do things for myself from a youngish age… and I didn't have friends, so I don’t have wacky hijinks to share. Though, I was almost Valedictorian of my high school graduating class.” 

“What’s a valid Victorian?” August asked before pushing the bar up again with a grunt.

Without correcting him, Vaughn said, “Oh it’s like… this tradition we had where the kid with the best grades who had done the most impressive academic stuff gets to make a big speech and it a college application super boost.”

“How did you fail?” He was ever so blunt.

It occurred to Vaughn that this was another area where their lives had been very different. Still, he felt the need to defend himself, “Well, I didn’t so much fail as… abdicate.” He cleared his throat. “I had a nervous breakdown at the thought of public speaking. See, the Valedictorian has to give this big important speech. The Principal of the school tried to talk me into accepting it and… I… told him I’d kill myself if they made me do it, so they didn’t. The problem was, my parents made me see a therapist for the entire summer before I went off to college because they thought I’d meant it.” 

August was trying not to laugh and failing. “You were that scared of just talking?” That threw him off his task and he struggled to take a breath from laughing and seemed momentarily pinned.

Vaughn glowered down as he wrapped his hands around the barbell and helped August move it back into place. Before August could let go of the bar, he grabbed his wrist and held them tight. “It’s not just talking. It’s writing a speech. I’m a math guy. If I could have solved equations for ten minutes and explained my work, that would have been doable… but you have to write it about how much you’ve learned and changed and how great school was for you... and then you have to say it with thousands of people looking at you including your whole family.”  

That seemed to resonate with him. “Ew. Okay. How pissed were your parents at you for failing to be the... super special child? I imagine that’s big-time nice-planet bragging rights.” August lay there, content to just let Vaughn hold his arms in place while he stared up.

Vaughn held a steady gaze back at him. “They weren’t angry, just… disappointed."

“Ugh.” His eyes rolled up a moment. “Sometimes that’s worse.” 

Vaughn shrugged, “More than anything, they worried I would hurt myself. Which I wouldn’t ever do because… as hard as life gets, the alternative seems worse. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t. You know?”  

August admitted, “I’ve contemplated it out… the voluntary check-out option.... but… nah I’d rather keep kicking.” Before the topic could be considered more, he moved on, “Here’s a question for you.”  

“Shoot.” Vaughn said and let his wrists go with reluctance. He missed the contact immediately. 

August folded his arms across his chest and gave him an impudent look, “If, as you claim , you aren’t very smart, then how were you the best kid in your school?” August seemed curious of the answer. “Have you been lying to me?”  

Vaughn squinted down at him, “I never said I wasn’t smart. Obviously , I’m smart, but not super smart. I worked hard and put in long hours studying.” He paused, “Not there was much competition for my time other than… video games.” he frowned at the memory. 

“How many other kids were there in your school?”

“My graduating class was about 1500 kids. I went to a huge public school. Good old Region 9, Sector G Highschool, The Fightin’ Clerks." With a sigh he added, "I say ‘good old’, but high school was hellish for me. I was a frequent curve breaker.”

August said, “Please tell me that is something at least somewhat deviant.” 

Vaughn squinted, “No. It means I did so well on tests it fucked things up for other kids when they graded on a curve. Thus, I suffered all the classic teen torment techniques such as atomic wedgies, toilet bowl swirlies and, because I was small, locker entombing.”

“Were you a dick about it? No one likes a know-it-all,” August informed him. 

"A little? Possibly? I just wanted kids to like me, but I’ve been told I'm irritating… and people don't like my face."

August’s eyes narrowed, “There’s nothing wrong with your face. Your face is beautiful. Those kids were just jealous little shits."

Vaughn asked, "Of me?" He extended an arm.

August clasped his hand and used it to pull himself to a sitting position. "Yup. And they sound like a bunch of little bitches who should have worked harder so they could break curves too."

"You’re amazing for my Ego, August… though I suppose I should admit that there was one occasion where I may have… hacked the school servers and raised my grade for gym class.” This was a tale only Rhys had heard before.

“Ha! Now you’re talking! I knew you were dirty,” August crowed with delight before he squinted. “How did you get a bad grade in gym? Were you in a coma?”

“No, I was just lazy and unathletic… and frankly, I’m insulted you thought I wasn’t dirty before. That ten million dollars from the Vault Key deal was stolen from Hyperion and who stole it? This guy .” He gestured to himself with his thumb. “I also may have also cheated on a few tests in college, but… I always kind of thought if I was smart enough to get away with it than it’s still like I deserved the good marks. That takes intelligence and planning to cheat effectively, but that was only for stuff that didn’t involve numbers.” 

August said, looking even more impressed. “I so fucking pleased to know how much of a bastard you are. It’s a real relief.” 

Vaughn smirked, “Anyway, the bastardy really kicked up into high gear when I met Rhys. We were a pretty good team in college so we decided to stick together.” 

"Then you got the Hyperion gig?" August asked.

"Yeah. Rhys was better at fitting in there over all, but I did well for myself in my career. Accountants have kind of our own culture."

August snickered and grabbed his towel to dab the sweat off his body. "I'm sure it's very rich," he replied with thick sarcasm.

“I got along well with people in there. I might not have done as well in any other department. It's not that accounting wasn't cut-throat, It could be."

August just laughed as though the concept of accounting being dangerous was hilarious. 

Vaughn poked him in the side. "Every department in that Corporation was dangerous… just some more than others. We did a lot of bad things to move up, but that’s the way it worked up there. I helped do things that still bothers me now. So I am definitely not in any way innocent.” 

“Innocence is overrated.” 

“Rhys, Yvette and I had a pact that we’d all help each other whenever we could in our careers and if one of us made it big, we’d make sure to pull the others up so that we’d all be rich and live it up on luxury. Of the three of us, Rhys had the most charisma.”

August could not contain his mirthful grin. “That’s what’s passing for charisma?” 

“Shut up. You like him now, no take backs,” Vaughn insisted with all due maturity. 

“I do, but when he smiles at me my mind inserts a bling sound at the sight of his teeth.” He followed it with his impression of Rhys’ smile.

Vaughn's mouth opened, and he said in dismay, “Now mine will too. Thanks for that.” 

August looked so amused with himself, “I’m just saying, he comes off as kinda fake but then he’s a good guy… when he’s not being a smarmy prick.”

“I will grant you, he does sometimes drift into used car salesman mode.” It pained him to say it, but truth was truth.

“Exactly. See? You get me." August thrust a finger in his direction. 

Vaughn tried to be diplomatic, “Rhys has always been a fake it till you make it guy and he’s finally made it. He doesn’t need to do the act anymore, but he does." He frowned as he thought about it. "I feel kind of bad talking bad about him behind his back."

August laughed with pure mirth. He’d never seen him in such a good humor than talking about this stuff. It could just be work out endorphins. 

“Do you not know who your friends are?” August asked. “You can’t be that naïve.” 

“Okay… that’s a good point.”   

“He is one hundred percent talking shit about both of us to Sasha, possibly at this very moment. Don’t feel bad. It’s like a special couple’s privilege.” 

Vaughn laughed, “Is it now? I listened to you and Rhys bagging on me on your Echo call. So it's not so much a couple’s privilege, is it? It’s more like wherever two of us are gathered we’re talking smack about the rest?”

August snickered, “Yeah, well... Don’t be sore about that. It was funny, but I still think there might be something to you advice. You know more about a lot of things than me. Though, I’ll tell you right now there’s one thing I think you may have overlooked in all of this.” 

“What’s that?” Vaughn’s eyes narrowed. 

August leaned in, “Best men also have to give big important speeches in front of a ton of people, don’t they?” 

Vaughn could feel his face falling, “Don't remind me! It’s terrible. I just keep thinking I’ll worry about it later, but I hate procrastinating but the idea makes me feel nauseous.” 

August majestically backpedaled, “But babe, you have months to work on it… and I’ll help… and you can practice it with me. We’ll imagine everyone’s naked. It’ll be fine.” 

Vaughn chuckled though it was faint and kind of pathetic, “Come again?” 

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” August asked, “Imagine everyone naked so you’re not nervous.” 

Vaughn looked squeamish, “I think that would make me way more nervous.” 

Backtracking yet again, August said, “Forget that part. We’ll... figure something out,” he reassured him with a smack on the back of Vaughn’s shoulder as he moved past him to grab his water bottle. 

Vaughn took in a breath and smiled, filled with warmth at the support, “Yeah. We will.” 

“I’m in the wedding on Sasha’s side,” August said before taking a long drink from his water bottle. 

“Heard that from Rhys. That’s cool.” He did the same. Working out was thirsty work.   

August wrinkled his nose. “I’m a little ehhh about the whole thing, but what can I do? She asked, I caved.” He sighed, “Yeah, I am not feeling this, but I can’t say ‘no’ to Sasha... or Fiona. Now I gotta wear some kind of asshole suit and get eye fucked like a jerk. I despise uncomfortable clothing.” 

Vaughn chuckled and waited for the rant to finish before he countered. “Dude… I hear you… but… you only have to wear it like six hours tops and I will lust after you so hard the whole time. Then you get the best part, where I tear every stitch off you and stuff whatever god-awful tie Rhys picks out in your mouth so no one can hear you scream my name as we bang like animals in our sweet Atlas apartment.”

The blond blinked a few times before nodding, "In that case, bring on the suit, though,” August gave him a wry grin, “I have no fucking idea how to tie a tie.” He pursed his lips and waited. With his face red from the work out it was hard to tell if he was blushing. “Not exactly a relevant life skill for me. You know?”  

“I can tie it for you, or teach you,” Vaughn said, without judgement..   

“Good.” August said. “I like you better like this, just casual… but I suppose there’s something to be said for getting a man who can do both.”

“You’ll look super slick. I promise … unless Rhys curses us with terrible choices… but I’m involved in that process so I’ll make sure they’re good.” 

"Okay,” August chuckled. "Don't let me down on this."

“Come on, let’s get decent. I’m getting anxious about the girls. No one’s called us yet.” 

Nodding, August said, “Yeah... “He turned and opened the door. “I’m sure it’s fine. I bet Athena’s just cautious. You can’t stake shit out if your line is blowing up.”

Vaughn nodded, “Yeah… probably.” 

They crowded into the bathroom together to wash up and dressed in their street clothes. 

It mesmerized Vaughn to watch August put his hair up into its spiked majesty facilitated by the liberal application of gelatinous pomade. 

This sort of thing was beyond Vaughn’s personal experience. He never used any hair product other than shampoos and conditioners. That was so much more of a Rhys thing that it amused him to think the two men had something in common.

It didn’t take August long. He was quick with practice and in a little time he had created his signature spikes.  

“What?” August met Vaughn’s eyes in the mirror reflection.

“Nothing.” Vaughn grinned as he took his relic out of his pocket and put it around his neck. Since his anxiety creeping ever higher, he got out his ECHO and called Fiona so they could both talk to her.

The line rang, but she did not pick up.  

“Hmmm.” Vaughn’s brow furrowed, and he dialed Sasha.

 It was the same. Only ringing.

“Sash ain’t answering either?” August asked as he washed his hands. 

“No… let’s try Janey next.” 

August nodded and his frown deepened perceptibly. 

The line rang endlessly with no pickup. 

Vaughn said, though fear twisted in his stomach. “Okay… this isn’t… this doesn’t mean anything… Let’s go downstairs and we’ll try them again. Maybe they’re… in a place where they can’t answer.” 

August nodded, “Yeah.” 

They headed downstairs and Vaughn placed the ECHO comm on the bar and sat down. 

August walked behind the bar and grabbed himself a bottle of beer from the fridge under the bar.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Vaughn hoped his sarcastic tone made it obvious how unimpressed he was with this decision.

August looked him dead in the eyes and said, “Vaughn… at this point not drinking is a bad idea.” He positioned the cap over the edge of the bar top and held the bottle with one hand while the other smacked down. The cap popped off onto the floor and he gulped down at least half the bottle. 

Vaughn frowned at that implication but his disapproval was cut off by the Ping from his Echo. 

“Have you heard from Fiona?” Sasha asked with a plaintive note of desperation in her voice that made his heart hurt.

“We can’t get a hold of anyone,” He blurted out. 

 “I can’t either!” Sasha said. “This isn’t like her, Vaughn. She always checks in with me. She hasn’t checked in with me in three hours.”

“Let’s not panic.” Vaughn could not believe he was the one suggesting that. It was always his first instinct.  

August started pacing behind the bar. “Ok, Where was she last when you talked to her?” He asked. 

Sasha replied, “Spring’s place. They were eating breakfast and Athena and Fiona were going to head out.”

“I’ll head over there. They could be busy… or sleeping.” Vaughn determined to keep things positive until they knew something.  

August nodded his agreement. 

Sasha said, “I’ll keep trying them. Call me if you find out anything..” 

“Ditto.” Vaughn said.  

August spoke. “Hey, Sash… It’s going to be okay. No need to assume the worst.” 

“Yeah…” She took a deep breath and said, “You’re right.”

Vaughn said, “If Tector can bring my bike out I can ride over there right now and just… check on them.”

“Could you?” Sasha asked. “I’m sorry to ask, but this.. Doesn’t feel right.” 

“Yeah…” Vaughn said. “I’ll call you in a bit.” 

“Okay… take care guys. I’ll be in touch.” She said and dropped from the line without awaiting a reply. 

August touched his earpiece to make a call. “Hey, bring Vaughn’s bike up and come sit tight with me while he runs out... Yeah. We dunno, something’s possibly happened to our friends... Thanks.” He looked to Vaughn, “He’ll over in a minute. I guess I’ll hold down the fort and wait to see what you find out.” August said. “ Or I could come with.”   

“I think it’s best if you stay here.” Vaughn walked around the bar and took the bottle out of his hand and set it down on the bar.  

August let him. “Okay… I know you’re tougher than you used to be, but… be careful, okay?” 

Vaughn smiled at him, “I’ll be right back.” 

“Call me if you need help.” He tried to make the offer sound casual, but he still had tells. His jaw was tight and his posture tense as he looked down with his intense eyes boring into Vaughn’s.

Entranced, Vaughn stared up at him. “I will. It’ll be thirty minutes tops.” 

“Okay.” August said, affecting casualness. 

Before Vaughn could think or react,  August swept him up in his arms and dipped him backwards for an impassioned parting kiss. With the intensity of his lips he communicated how concerned he was that Vaughn was going alone.

Vaughn received the message loud and clear, but couldn’t afford to melt. He shook off the daze of it once placed back on his feet.

August turned away and touched his ear listened a moment before he said, “Good he’ll be right out.” Looking to Vaughn he said “Tector’s here… You’re ready to roll.” 

“See you.” Vaughn said. 

“Yeah. Thirty minutes,” August said as they walked together to the doorway. When it was unlocked and opened it the purple light of the shield shone in through the doorway that bathed the area in neon purple. 

Vaughn hurried away from him and walked out and down the stairs. He gave quick thanks the large lackey as he took the bike from him and drove off towards the elevated roads that would lead him to the neighborhood where Janey ran her Catch-A-Ride. 

The city was quiet. A person was more likely to get shanked in an alley way than go out in a hail of gunfire in Hollow Point unless some kind of gang war raged. He rode fast as he dared, not wanting to draw any suspicion by being in too much of a hurry.

The Catch-A-Ride was well lit but closed when he pulled up. He walked around to the door to the entrance to their adjoining apartment and materialized his best pistol into his hand as he saw the door was ajar. 

He nudged the door open and said, “Athena? Janey? It’s Vaughn.”

There was no reply. he cleared the apartment with increasing horror as could not find any of the women. 

The kitchen worried him most of all. There were two chairs pulled around the little dining room table, and one overturned and laying on its side. Three places were set, each one having a takeaway cup of coffee and half-eaten plate of scrambled eggs with toast. His heart was beating fast as he touched his earpiece to call Sasha. 

“They’re not here Sasha… I think something bad happened.” He hated to be the bearer of this news.

“Oh no… no… no. Vaughn, Why do you say that? What do you see?” Sasha asked. 

A loud bang sounded in the distance but he could not tell if it was gunfire or grenade. 

“I’m at the Catch-A-Ride… and they’re not here… the door was open… there’s a partially eaten food. It’s like they left in the middle of breakfast. It has to be the Guvner.” 

Sasha breathed hard and her voice broke when she said, “I’m… I’m going to send Loader Bot… and whoever else we can spare. I have to talk to Rhys. I’ll call you back.” 

“I’ll get back the Purple Skag.” 

Next he called August. He heaved a sigh of relief when the line picked up. "August… hey.” 

The line crackled, and a grunt was heard before the call dropped.

When he dialed again, no one answered. 

Another bang from a different part of the city echoed through the cave.  

Elsewhere, Psychos screamed gibberish as cave rakks soared above stirred by the smell of blood in the air as the night erupted into chaos. 

Vaughn ran to his bike and revved the engine before tearing off for the Purple Skag with his pistol in his hand.  

They should have all taken the threat to heart. Had they all stayed together they would have been much harder to pick off. Too late to focus on the past when the future was still uncertain. He drove twice as fast on the way back to the bar, ready to shoot most anyone who got in his way. Driving fast and evasively, he got himself back to the bar in mere minutes.  

It was still too late.

“No.” Vaughn whispered the tire came to a screeching halt inches from the stairs. The reinforced door had been cut through around the window and rammed open. 

A pair of dead psychos and one raider lay drenched in bullets and blood on the sides of the stairs, though the streets here seemed empty now. 

He dropped his bike and passed through the destroyed door. Something powerful and fast made that cut, a laser weapon if he had to guess.

The bar was a mess of splintered wood and broken glass with corpses of psychos littering the floor where they had died.

In the center of them laying in a pool of blood was Tector Hodunk with one heavy arm across his chest.

Vaughn ran to his side to see if he was still breathing.

Multiple lacerations from buzz axes and bullet holes rent his overalls and his flesh.  

“Oh god… Tector.” Vaughn feared the worst, but touched the man’s neck anyway trying to find a pulse. 

The massive bouncer gave a shallow, gurgling breath. He was clinging to life, but would not last longer without intervention.

“It’s okay. I got you.” He pulled his last Med Hypo from his inventory and jammed it into the man’s arm. 

Tector gasped and spasmed in pain before rolling onto his side.  He coughed up some blood before he could whine out the words, “They got him… they took the boss.”   

Chapter Text

On the floor of the Purple Skag, Vaughn knelt to pull the least bloody pair of orange pants from one of the downed psychos. He took in a deep breath pressed the button on his earpiece to call Rhys before unfastening the dead man’s pants. 

Rhys answered the line with a desperate question. “Have you heard anything?” 

“I think The Guvner got them,” he said.

Sasha’s voice cut in, “ All of them?” Her voice held disbelief that may have been willful.

Vaughn felt sick to his stomach, but he pushed through it to confirm the news, “All of them… and August. By the time I got back to the Skag there’d been an attack… There are dead bandits everywhere.  

Rhys said, doing his best to sound reassuring, “We have troops incoming. It’s going to be ok, Vaughn.

Sasha asked, “Is Tector okay?” 

The man in question was up and limping about in sub-par shape, but he had enough faculties to work at welding the hole in the door shut with scrap metal and an enormous blow torch. 

“Yeah… He’s tough. He managed to hold on until I could revive him. Right now he’s working on fixing the door. There was some kind of terror campaign all over the city. I think the Guvner’s consolidating his power tonight.” He peeled the pants down the dead man’s spare hips.

Rhys said, “Just hold tight and we’ll have people in range in two hours tops and enough firepower to stop a Vault monster.”

Hold Tight ?” Vaughn’s voice pitched high then shifted to a hard edge, “I’m not waiting.” He grabbed at the pant legs and started pulling them off of his corpse’s feet. “I have a full Psycho disguise available. I’m stealing some wierdo pants off a dead guy as we speak.”

“Ew,” said Rhys.

“Yeah,” Vaughn agreed. “ Hopefully , the Guvner’s keeping them prisoner and I can just wander in like I belong there and set them free. Then all of us together can handle anything this clown can throw at us… or at the very least we can all stand behind Athena. So getting out shouldn’t be a problem. Back up will be coming… if we get pinned down.”

Rhys started to speak, “I dunno if this is a good idea…”

Sasha cut him off and said with no hesitation, “Do it. We don’t know what this scumbag is planning or how long they have left.” 

“Wait,” Rhys said, “ Vaughn .” It was more the way he said it than how he said it that conveyed his reluctance to let Vaughn risk himself. 

Rhys ,” Vaughn said, “Don’t say anything dumb. You know I have to go. I have to save our family.” It was a triumph to get one leg free. 

“I wasn’t ,” Rhys sounded offended, “and I do, but please be careful .” 

“I will.” His voice had a weirdly cheerful note to it as he said, “If things don’t go according to plan,  avenge me as per the traditions of this savage land.” He jerked the other leg free. 

Sasha sounded pained, “Don’t talk like that Vaughn.” She switched into motivational declaration, “ You go and put on your little psycho pants and save our family. It will not come to this, but know that I would fire every rocket, grenade, and bullet in all of Atlas’ arsenal to avenge you and Fiona.”

“That’s all I ask.” Vaughn made a face as he began the unpleasant process of turning into a psycho. He pushed down his jeans and stepped out of them, “I can do this, Sasha.” Putting on the pants was gross enough. They smelled, and the fit wasn’t great but that only made them look more appropriate. 

“I know you can.” Sasha’s voice sounded strained, “I feel so useless. Thank you so much for doing this.” 

Vaughn said with gentleness , “You both need to just stay where you are, and try to just think positive thoughts okay? Stress isn’t good for the baby.” With a sigh, he materialized his combat knife into his hand and gripped his bun of brown hair one hand and held it tight while he sliced it off close to his scalp. Psychos rarely wore any hair. Not that it was out of the question, but it would make him stand out when he could not afford to do. He set the lump of brown hair on the bar top. 

Sasha said, “We love you.” 

“Yeah. Love you,” Rhys agreed. “Good luck, man. If anyone can rock the smaller-than-average psycho look it’s you.”

“I love you guys, too,” he said. “I’ll call you when I’ve found them.”

“Roger that.” Sasha said,  “I’m sending you the location to your echo display now so you know where you’re going. I’m sorry you have to go in blind because I think Tricky Ricki betrayed us.” 

Vaughn learned on that day to trust no one with 'Tricky’ in their name. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll find them.” 

“Godspeed, my friend,” Rhys said .

“Vaughn out.”  he disconnected the call. 

From the dead psychos took some wrist wrappings, boots, and other accessories and put them on to make his disguise more authentic. 

He dashed up the stairs having already spied August’s clippers earlier in the visit.  They were of decent quality which made it easy for him to sit on the toilet, lean forward and shave the rest of the hair from his scalp. Later there might be regret and even the mockery of the very people whose asses he was saving, but he couldn’t let that distract him. 

At least he could keep his beard as the mask would hide it. He already owned a suitable mask that Fiona bought him to drive in Bossanova' s death race. He had worn it enough while out in the wastes enough that he enjoyed the feel of it on his face . There was peace in the anonymity becoming unpredictable and dangerous on sight. He hid his shield with a bit of draped fabric and wore his relic tied around his wrist under the edges of his fingerless gloves. 

Like a makeover scene in a bad teenage romantic com edy, Vaughn walked down the stairs to Tector turning and looking up in awe with his welding mask pushed up over his face. He said, “You’re the spitting image. I want to fill you full of explosive rounds just looking like that.”

“Good… wait,” he bent down and grabbed a still functional buzz axe and hefted it up, “Is there any way to get out of here unnoticed? What if I left through the back alley?” He spied a shitty bandit pistol and took it before going to the ammo crate to top off all his grenades and ammunition. His weapon slots were almost full. 

His head shook, and he pointed down at his feet. “There’s a better way. August’s got a secret tunnel in the sub-basement… lets out a few houses down under a raised road. I can’t tell you there’s not a varmint or two down there, though, but it’s the best way of leaving here unseen.”

“Why didn’t he just escape when they came for him if he has a tunnel?” He remembered to take the Med Hypo from behind the bar and put it in his inventory as he was down to zero and would doubtless need them.

“That’s how the boss is. He doesn’t like to back down from fights and I’m too big for that itty bitty tunnel… you’ll see… but you’re smaller’n him even. You’ll get through just fine.”

That language gave him pause. Still, it made the most sense to take the least risk. “You’re a real bro. Show me where the entrance is and I’ll go get August and our friends.”

Tector followed him down to the basement and kicked a small pile of garbage to reveal a hatch. “I’ll be here. Good luck now. Don’t get yourself killed.” In his big hand he clicked on a flashlight and shined it on the hatch. 

“Thanks. I’ll try not to.”  He turned the latch and pulled up and it opened with a waft of stale air. It was about a 10 feet descent into the dimness with the only light being from above. Vaughn materialized his light into his hand and shined it down the narrow corridor from the already claustrophobic chamber in which he stood. Though reluctant, he slipped down the small hall. There were places he felt even he was scraping by and he wondered why August would make such an enclosed nightmare of a tunnel.  

At least, being short, the headroom in the tunnel helped his claustrophobia , but it was still distressingly narrow. “This is my hole, it was made for me,” he murmured to himself, macabrely as he shimmied down the space which angled downward as it continued.

There were creatures, but nothing that warranted drawing a weapon. Slug like beings with faint cyan bioluminescence fed on some greenish fungus growing along the damp seam in the rock. He tried to avoid stepping on them, but he was in a hurry. They left a glowing blue smear when he failed. The air quality did not improve, as this added a sour odor.

It occurred to him the mushrooms might be psychoactive as a brief bit of drowsiness passed over him.  When he could smell fresher air he knew he was near to the exit back to the main cave. He eased the rock that hid the exit back into place.

As promised, it let out into a place underneath where the raised roads abutted the storefronts of the lowest-level of this neighborhood. There was no one in sight. The rock that hid the entrance pushed back into place. 

From there he had only to head to the Guvner’s. The fastest way would be with a vehicle so he planned on stealing his own motorcycle from in front of the Purple Skag, if someone had not already done so. Luckily , his bike was still present and soon he was tearing off down the road to the highest wards of the city.

Sporadic gunfire still sounded, but it seemed more celebratory than predatory. 

Vaughn found he was not the only bandit returning from the raids to the Guvner’s compound, but it was down to stragglers. He overtook them as they loped on foot. 

His scalp felt naked and cold. Even that could not distract him from his worries. Was August even alive? Were his friends? They had to be. Why else take them and not kill them on the spot? The alternative was too terrible to think about.

The path choked down to a single file lane as it neared the checkpoint into the lofty neighborhood. His Echo display stated that this compound was named the Rookery. There was no room on the small road to bypass the slow bandit technical in front of him so he followed at a safe distance. 

He could see the shape and entrances of all the buildings here but he would have to figure out which one held his friends. The coordinates from Sasha only lead to this compound, not a specific building.

Vaughn forced himself to take a deep breath as he neared his turn at the checkpoint. Acting was never his forte, but he had to do this for his friends. He tried to practice it in his head, but decided it might sound forced. When he pulled up to the gate, he hunched over the handlebars and shouted, “Midnight meat train never sleeps!” in as shrill a voice as he could make.

“It sure doesn’t,” The guard’s obscured his face with a black mask. “Nice bike. Where did you find it?”

“Tribute for the offering! Blood has been spilled !” He wailed and revved the engines. “Vroom vroom!”

The guard laughed. “Ok, calm down, buddy. Just hand the bike off to Hardcore Kevin and he’ll give you something shiny .”

Vaughn revved the engine , and the guard waved him through the checkpoint. It seemed too easy. On the other hand, Psychos didn’t carry any form of identification. He pulled through.

He never recalled this many Psycho’s in the city. It wasn’t just them either. Many varied bandits walked about the camp, including a pair of massive nomads and at least one Goliath. They all seemed to be celebrating.

There was no point in doing anything other than giving away his prized bike to the indicated bandit.  For his pain, Hardcore Kevin gave him a insulting reward of a crappy bandit pistol. He walked away from the man holding the gun by the barrel and clubbing it through the air. “Teeth smash! Smash them all.” He declared. 

The man let him go. 

Most people seemed to be gathering in a large central building, so it seemed to Vaughn that that might be the best location to start his search. It appeared to have multiple entrances , so he looked for some way other than the main one. He maneuvered on the outskirts of the compound to creep around and see what else he could see. There was a door up ahead of him that did not seem to have anyone going in or out.  

Out of nowhere in the darkness, a hand grasped his wrist and Vaughn startled with a cry of, “ Arrrrrrrrrgh .” 

It was another psycho. This one was about the same height as him, his small body painted with strange symbols though they were common motifs for bandits. He squealed, “Early Threshers eat the first children!” And attempted to drag him along. 

Vaughn let him as they were at least going in the same direction. 

The man gibbered to himself as he ducked into the doorway dragging his new friend along behind him. 

Vaughn was unsure where this would lead, but he followed with the hope this might help him find his friends. 

This building, like many in Hollow Point was built of Industrial scraps, cargo containers, and miscellany. This building seemed large and labyrinthine. They moved down a staircase to a lower level carved down into the rock. 

The psycho’s grip on Vaughn’s hand was tight as he hurried towards a trapdoor in the room's corner . He shimmied down it and beckoned Vaughn to follow. 

It led them down to a small trash filled room where two bodies lay side by side with a doorway on the far end. 

It was a relief that he did not know these men, but he was sure he had not seen them in his life. 

His compatriot crouched down and pulled a small, sharp knife from his pocket. He declared, “Pizza party!” and grabbed the corpses jaw so he could work at cutting the skin off of the deceased’s face. It seemed he’d hoped to share some quality bonding time with a psycho bro.  

A wave of nausea hit him, and he wasted no time in grabbing his buzz axe and making a quick cut in the back of the neck to put the psycho out of his misery. 

From there he was unsure if he should back track or try this unknown doorway. He decided at least, to see if there was anywhere obvious the tunnel lead. 

There were more psycho’s down here, but he navigated past all of them with the chattering of gibberish and the occasional head butt. Muffled sounds from above grew louder as he progressed towards what he figured was deep under the central part of the building. 

From the distance came the sound of a man’s hoarse scream. 

Vaughn had a gnawing feeling that he was on the right track and hurried towards the sound. 

This corridor ended in a barred doorway. A single disinterested bandit with a shotgun sat in a chair near the door. The gun was leaned against his leg while he was playing with his Echo Device. He barely seemed to register the incoming psycho as a person. 

Vaughn was able to walk up close enough to headbutt the man until his body went limp before draining the life out of him with a quick cut across the throat. Using the keys on his belt, he moved into this restricted area. 

In a large room, cages meant for animals housed at least two dozen human beings. Some people in the were hog-tied, and some appeared to be unconscious. They were mostly two to a cage. 

A woman in one of them make a choked sound of fear at Vaughn’s approach. There was no discernable way to open the cages. He could not even see the mechanism to unlock them.  

He checked three cages before he found one with people he recognized. Fiona had flipped herself onto her side next to Janey Springs. She was awake, but with dilated pupils that could be seen when she could keep one or the other of her eyes open.  “Yeah… you come here you little psycho shit bag . I’ll bite your face off,” She mumbled threateningly .

The next cage held Athena alone. She was unconscious and trussed up in a way undignified for such an amazing warrior. The Guvner knew just how dangerous the Gladiator was and attempted to put her on the sideline. It was terrible to have to triage them in priority of usefulness, but Athena was most important to get back in the game.

He shook the bars of her cell but they held firm before he forced himself to think. He straightened looked around the room until he found a battered control panel. It took trial and error but soon the cage doors all opened at once. 

Closer and more urgently , a man screamed again. It was August. 

Vaughn raced to Athena and jammed the Med Hypo into her thigh and pushed the plunger. In a moment, he had a knife in his hand to slice one line of her bonds before springing backwards to get out of her striking range. He did not want to get murdered as a psycho. 

The full effect of the medicine had kicked in and Athena was quickly ripping away the rope. 

The delay gave Vaughn enough time to remove his mask and say. “It’s me. Vaughn!” 

Athena looked confused, but adapted easily . “Where am I?” 

“The Guvner’s compound under his… I don’t know stadium? Party palace? They drugged you . There were bandits everywhere terrorizing the city.” He put his mask back on and started pulling guns from his inventory to pass to Athena. “Take these… and free everyone. I have to go get August.” 

“Where’s my Aspis?” She asked him, but took everything he gave her without question. 

“I don’t know. There are some chests in here… check there… I have to go!” 

She nodded gravely , “Go.”  

Vaughn did not want to run. He needed the plausible deniability of being a stray Psycho. There was no more screaming but he could hear voices before they came into view.

“Two more to go, Auggie,” a hardened voice said. “When I’m done, the Guvner’s gonna use what’s left of you as an example to anyone else that thinks they’re beyond his reach. You may have some fancy friends but you’ll all be dead by the time the party’s over, pal.”

August grunted, “Your brothers knew what they were getting into. No one held a gun to their heads to get into the ring with me.”

Vaughn peered into the room. 

August lay face down on a metal table; his wrists and ankles bound tight with some rope and tied individually to the metal legs so tightly he could barely move. Bloodied jeans and boots were still on his legs, but they had stripped the layers off of his torso which made the blood stand out so much against his skin

A muscular man with a Vault hood on hovered over him, a bloody knife held in one hand as he carved into the skin of August’s shoulder. Of the four tattoos on his left shoulder, two had already been removed in neat squares, leaving visible muscle. Blood pooled in the small of his back and he writhed as much as the rope would allow him.

The bandit lifted August’s head and smashed it on the metal with a sickening thud. “Be silent! You will die and I’ll take over your bar for the glory of the Guvner.” 

The man was angry and distracted which made it easier to sneak up on him. Vaughn materialized his favorite Atlas revolver into his hand and moved in swift and silent to get in a point-blank shot. 

The torturer spun to look at him. His head tilted sideways, but not surprised at seeing a Psycho. “You don’t belong here. Go run along with the others. It’ll be time for fun soon.” His eyes went to Vaughn’s weapon. It was far nicer than any average Psycho deserved.

Vaughn’s mind shifted into the place where normal reason left him and action took over. If you asked him to explain it, he likely could never find the words. He just knew that his mind perceived the possibilities well enough to allow him to predict, in instantaneously calculated percentages, what likelihood he had of achieving his outcome. 

With a squeeze of the trigger he had fired a shot at the man’s stomach but his shield absorbed the bullet’s impact. Vaughn lifted his hand using some innate understanding and loosed another round into his head which further depleted it. 

“You little bastard! Argh !” The bandit lunged for him, swiping at him with the surgical blade as he was shot twice more in the skull. Upon the fourth hit, it exploded into gore. 

Side stepping the falling corpse he moved to free August.

Up close the missing squares of flayed away skin were horrifying. 

August craned his neck to look at him, his face full of bruises, died blood and a blackened eye. 

As he raised his mask and, Vaughn said, “It’s me. We have to go.” He cut both the lines holding his partner’s wrists.

August one open eye blinked several times. You came,” he said, a hint of emotion in the hitch of his breathing. 

Vaughn sliced the rope on one leg and then the other. “Nothing could keep me away.”

The brawler immediately pushed himself off after table and looked around for his shirt. He was not very steady on his feet, but waved away any help.

Vaughn turned his attention to looting body, hoping for another Hypo, but did not find one. “Heads up.” He tossed August the shield and weapon from the torturer.

August put the shield on and held the pistol ready. He found his hoodie laid on a chest. He set it aside and opened it. “We fighting our way out?”

There was the sound of gunfire from the room he had left the others. 

Vaughn stood up straight. “We are. We have to go back up Athena, but first we have to make sure no one gets to the girls from behind. I didn’t clear the rest of this jail. I came straight for you.” 

August gave him a split-lipped grin as he held up the Med Hypo he found before before plunging it into his arm, “I got your back.” He threw it the empty needle to the ground and pulled on his hoodie. 

“Sash and Rhys have men incoming but there’s a lot of bandits here tonight and it will be awhile before they get here. Are you… okay?” Regardless of how fine he was now, whatever he had been through was doubtless traumatic. 

August cocked his weapon, “Let’s get to it. Maybe after that I’ll talk to you about how I fuckin’ feel about it.”

“Fair enough,” Vaughn said. He wanted to  say something that would put his lover at ease, but there was no ease here. So he moved out into the hall and shot a pair of bandits in the back as they ran by to stop the prisoner riot.  

Chapter Text

The mask was off now, put back into his inventory. There was no longer any point for subterfuge. He would show them just how psycho he could be in defense of those he loved with his own face.

August was by his side with his face set in the most frightening glower, but he was not so angry as to be out of control. Instead he seemed cool, collected, and bloodthirsty. 

The gunfire in the other room was sporadic and as it grew more distant resembled the patter of rain on a roof. He was confident Athena and the civilians could hold out until they could get back. 

They downed two more guards in the hall as they explored the last few rooms of the prison. They housed bins of various foods that did not look fit for human consumption. Nor did they contain anything they felt the need to take. 

The last corridor took them to a large doorway. 

This room’s guards were four bandits who stood near five massive crates set in a star-shaped pattern on the floor under rectangular shaped holes in the metal ceiling. They wasted no time firing into the hall. 

Vaughn shot the one holding an Echo device, blowing his arm straight off with the device still in the hand’s grip.

The man screamed and reeled backwards.

The gunfire leveled at him in retaliation drained his shield so fast he ducked back to one side of the doorway to get in cover.

August sprayed bullets into the room and moved behind the other side of the doorway. 

He took one of his precious grenades in hand and primed it while his companion covered them. He hurled it at their enemies and moved back behind cover.

The concussive blast he had expected to hear. The roaring and stamping that it followed was not anticipated. These were not crates, he realized, but cages and they were all full.

The remaining guard turned around to look at the walls which reverberated with the pounding of the beasts from within. It made it easy to shoot him in the back and his body joined the others in blood on the ground.  

Holy shit. ” August stayed put, keeping his gun aimed at the nearest cage that shook with the force of impact from whatever was within it. It roared and thumped ominously.

“What… is this?” The hair on the back of his neck stood up with the chill of primal fear. 

“Some of Pandora’s nastiest fauna, I’m betting. Maybe an alpha skag or a powerful spiderant… That one sounds like it’s full of needle stalkers.” He gestured at one of them with his SMG. 

When it was evident the cage would hold, Vaughn swallowed hard and forced himself to enter the room. Certain he already knew, he still asked, “Why?”

“Blood sport,” August said. He followed, but made for the bodies to loot them. “Probably wanted to make a spectacle of the people who wouldn’t comply with the Guvner’s rules. It teaches the People a lesson and provides his men with entertainment.”

“It’s about to get real entertaining for them.” He headed for the console on the far end of the wall. It was similar to the last set up so it seemed like it would be easy enough to operate. 

August said, “Woah. What the hell are you doing?”

Vaughn turned to beam a smile, “I’m going to release the monsters earlier than they were expecting. At the very least they’ll cause havoc and a body count.”

“Don’t… accidentally release them down here, eh?” The worried furrow of his blond brow was unintentionally adorable. 

Vaughn turned his attention back to his work, “I won’t. I’m going to send them up and let them loose. Then, I’m going to grenade the console and hopefully prevent them from using the cage lifts to come down and get us from behind.” 

“Right,” August said as he snagged a better SMG than the one he was using and a shield to equip. “Found a spare hypo.”  

“Good. We could use it to get Fiona or Janey operational. They’re still drugged or... poisoned” Vaughn looked at the panel and punched the buttons on the lift operation and one by one sent the cages up to the next level. 

“Raise hell, you monstrous sons of bitches.” August said as the cages disappeared from view.

“Hey! What are you doing! It’s not time for that,” crackled a man’s voice from the Echo device lying in a pool of blood on the floor

With a few more keystrokes Vaughn released the cage doors allowing the creatures their terrible freedom. “Okay, let’s get the hell out of here.” 

“No! You Dumbasses!” Screamed the man on the Echo. Gunfire sounded before the line died.

August made for the door, but Vaughn swapped out his grenade mod to something much more corrosive. He jogged towards the exit and turned to throw one at the console. As it exploded, he hoped that that would be enough.

As they jogged back to the others August ventured, “So… wow. Uh… your head.” As though he realized that was not what Vaughn wanted to hear he added, “It looks good on you. The baldness.” 

Vaughn half wished he mortally wounded. “Please not now,” he said. This was no time for low self esteem to cramp his style. 

“Just saying... you look pretty fucking heroic to me, man.”  

Vaughn’s heart melted, but his reply did not indicate it, “It’s only heroic if we all live... so… let’s work on that first.” 

“Sure thing, your majesty.” August smirked.

The increased amounts of gunfire coming from the first room of the jail indicated the situation there had grown worse, so he ran as fast as his legs would take him. 

Psychos were pouring in from the hallway, backed up by well armed bandits come to investigate the havoc below.  

Athena was in cover with Janey Springs’ unconscious form behind one cage, shooting the bandits with skill and ducking back behind cover. Fiona was on Janey’s other side. She crouched to fire, though not with the best of aim. Still, she helped keep the bandits at bay. 

The civilians had some his guns distributed about them and they were doing their best. One picked up a buzz axe and was using it with surprising efficiency. 

Vaughn’s mind blanked of anything other than the knowledge that he must reduce their numbers. He lifted his assault rifle and let his mind do its swift calculations and let that guide his shots.

His golden god walked just behind him dispatching the madmen with that thrill that sometimes only vengeance can bring a man. “Keep coming assholes, I ain’t done killing you yet.” 

They cut a swath through the bandits they dashed behind a cage for cover. With their help the wave of enemies stopped flowing. 

“We’re Back!” Vaughn shouted to Athena. “We found cages full of large monster-animals for some gladiator type business and we sent them up to the arena. I tried to jam the works to stop the cages from being able to come back down but… it’s very possible we could end with enemies behind us. Not to mention beyond the jail is like a maze of tunnels for people to get behind us.”

“Noted.” Athena said. “I couldn’t find my aspis. It’s not here.” 

His lips pulled down into a frown, “I’m betting one of the higher ranked bandits took it. We’ll… have to fight it out and hope we find it on the way.” 

“Agreed.” Athena said before leaning out to fire at the corridor. 

August crouched low and hurried to kneel on the ground by Janey and Fiona. “I got a syringe. Which one should I stick?” He asked. 

Fiona said, though her speech slurred, “I’m fine . I walk great. Wake Springs.” 

August said, “Better if we don’t have to carry anyone,” He jammed the needle into Janey’s thigh.

The blond mechanic’s eyes opened wide, and she sat up like a vampire whose coffin was just opened to slap August’s hand off the plunger before reason returned, “Oh no. Sorry about that, August.”

“It’s fine, here.” He pressed his spare SMG into her hand and said, “You’ve been drugged and we’re in the Guvner’s compound. Time to break out.” 

Janey seemed nonplussed to have gone from breakfast to being in the middle of some life or death situation, “I missed quite a bit of action.” She pulled the needle out of her leg and tossed it.

August grabbed Fiona by the arm and helped her up, saying, “There’s plenty left. Vaughn freed us, now we got to go. Sometimes they gas tunnels.” 

“Oof. Careful.” Fiona said, “You’re making my head swimmy.” 

Athena said, “Thank you, August. Listen up everyone. We have to get moving. The Guvner’s men outnumber us… but me and my friends here are all Vault hunters. We will do our best to get you all out of here. That being said, we can’t just walk away. He’ll chase with everything he has. We have to take him out.” 

Vaughn spoke up, “Back up from outside the city is coming, but we can’t count on it coming in time.”

“We’re so boned, man. We ain’t gonna make it out of here!” A gaunt man wearing goggles whined.

“Shut up, Carl.” August said. 

Athena said, “We will if you keep your wits.  I need every one of you to do your best to stay alive. We can do this, but you have to keep cool heads and choose your shots with care.  

There was slight grumbling among some Hollow Point denizens, but one woman whooped, “Hell yes! Let’s do this, Vault Hunters!” They had no other options than to stay here, so they made peace with fighting their way out.

Athena carried on with her orders, “Now follow me! Vaughn, with me. Janey bring up the rear with Fiona and August.” 

“Sure, ‘Thena.” Janey nodded headed and walked to her post. 

“Yes Ma’am,” August added. He held a protective arm around Fiona. “Come on, Fi. Shake it off.”

"I’m grood! Great!” Fiona insisted while only able to keep one eye open at a time. 

 Athena turned her violet eyes on Vaughn and said, “Got a grenade for the hallway?” 

“I do!” He pulled the pin and sent it careening down the hallway. 

“Aw man.” Said a man’s voice before the explosion and screams.

Then it was on. 

Like the others, Vaughn recognized that Athena was the best among them in combat. Following her orders came easily. Still, he had never pictured himself at the vanguard of a force with her. She was so many leagues above him, it seemed absurd she called him up with her. He charged alongside her  towards the exit. He would do his best or die trying. 

Even without her aspis, she was a fearless warrior, leading from the front with her gun blazing with deadly accuracy at the armed bandits up the hall. 

It was all he could do to keep up.  “Take a left, up here,” he said. “I remember seeing one of those arrows they put up. In my experience, they lead to whoever is running the joint.”

“Good work,” she said. 

“When I was a bandit leader, we put the arrows facing outward. Bandits are seriously dumb,” Vaughn observed. 

“That’s the only good thing about them,” Athena agreed.  

They turned down the corridor, wiping out the psychos that ran at them with reckless abandon. 

Vaughn surprised himself by taking out a suicide Psycho with a headshot. The poor wretch fell and only exploded the other lunatics running with him. 

“You’ve gotten better,” Athena said with terse approval. 

This was high praise from such a woman, but he couldn’t let it go to his head. “Thank you! That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.” 

So far, the pack of civilians were doing well enough. They left the shooting to vault hunters while quarters were tight, but it was helpful to have them as back up when the enemies were fast and furious. 

They reached a chamber with a stairwell, blocked by a squad of foes. Their leader was a large bruiser with an assault rifle. “Kill them all!” He screamed as he raised his weapon.

The horrible centerpiece of the collection of human garbage here was a Nomad with a massive, metal shield. Lashed with chains to its front were three diminutive psychos who were still alive and bleating out shrill screams. 

Bullets bounced off Vaughn’s shield so he fired a few rounds into the room and threw another grenade, “Acid in the hole!” 

Screams and gurgles sounded as the corrosive acid disintegrated the psychos off of the shield and wounded the Nomad. He fired under the shield at the nomad’s legs and he fell over and stopped moving. 

Vaughn could hear gunfire from behind them, but there was no time to focus on that. He could only move and shoot to clear the path in front of them.

When the last of the bandits lay dead on the landing, Athena made a bee line for a better pistol to swapped out and reload it in time to keep an eye on the stairwell. She crept upwards to fight, telling Vaughn, “Wait here.” 

From above there was gunfire and screaming, alongside fearsome roars and shrill cries.  

Vaughn waited until the rest of the group made it through the stairwell. It was an intense relief to find August, Fiona and Janey hale and healthy. With that knowledge he moved onto looting. The need for ammo was ever present.

He opened an old Dahl ammo crate and grinned to find another Hypo among with some pistol rounds. He took it to Fiona and stabbed in the arm with the pointy end. The needle went in despite her layers of fabric and he made the injection before tossing the vial away. 

Fiona said, “Oh.” She pulled away from August and adjusted her coat as the confusion cleared before declaring, “Okay, That’s much better.”  She socked the blond on his arm, “Owe you one for carting me around.” 

“You already owe me several,” he replied, but with enough of a grin as to show he would never collect. 

Weapons were traded about so that by now everyone was at least somewhat armed while August watched their rear. No one else was coming at them from behind.  

Athena crept back down the stairs from her and said, “Okay… There’s no one at the top of the stairs. They’re still dealing with whatever you guys released. We will take advantage of the chaos by going upward. We’ll find the Guvner himself and put a stop to all this.”

“You heard the lady,” August said, “Let’s go.” 

Vaughn looked out onto the dim floor of the Arena as they rounded to take the staircase to the next level up. The scene was pure chaos. A massive Alpha skag lay dead within a ring of charred bandits leaving the smell of burned flesh. The very much still alive and badass spider ant zapper made carnage alongside a bloodied bullymong who was ripping men in half.

The dead and wounded outnumbered the living on the arena floor, but it seemed likely that some of those present had fled. 

Athena spared no further look out, she just ran up the stairs focused on her objective.

They made it up a flight of metal stairs to the level above the arena. From there they followed the arrows and ran along an aisle in a raised row of seating toward the next set of stairs. 

Scattered throughout the seats were bandits helping to shoot down at the creatures in the arena. Some, upon spying their group turned their fire to them instead.  

Vaughn turned to shoot a man in the chest down on the lowest level of seating above the arena floor. It was there he saw it. Near one of the open large, open crates in the middle of the arena floor, was Athena’s aspis. It lay discarded atop a very dead Goliath. Glancing up to tell Athena he saw a mass of enemies was coming out of the stairwell in their path. One had a beat up Dahl rocket launcher. 

On instinct, Vaughn ran down a row of stairs and jumped over a railing to launch himself down to the arena floor. It was a miracle he didn’t break his legs. The monsters seemed too busy killing bandits to pay him attention for the moment. He was sure if he could just get to it and get it to Athena they would stand a better chance. 

 A rocket exploded on the arena floor and it drowned all other sounds out. 

The red Omega symbol on the shield beckoned him as he ran. He bent and picked it up before looking around him.   

There was no way out of the arena beyond the door far behind him. The walls were too high for him to jump. He backed away from the wall in time to see the man with the rocket launcher leveling it at his band of friends as they scattered to take whatever cover they could. 

He hoped his arm would be strong enough to throw it true. “Athena!” he cried, and he threw it with all his might.

The aspis made a blur through the air and the gladiator looked to him in time to see it coming. She caught it in time to stop a rocket from exploding herself and the civilians behind her.  Now she was unstoppable. 

A shadow fell across Vaughn and he turned in horror to see the spider ant zapper lash out at him with one of its terrible legs. He was thrown further into the stadium and he rolled into the dirt of the floor before flipping on his back. 

The great, spotted beast chittered and bounced on its legs before charging him again.  

This is how I go out, I guess. Bummer, he thought to himself just before electricity jolted through him and everything went dark.

 

Chapter Text

Days that Vaughn would never know passed by without him. Left in the limbo of his own mind, time marched on.  

He was unconscious during the tearful Echo call between the other members of his caravan family where they shared joy of reunion and sorrow at his state. 

He was not awake to hear his lover break down and weep over him while Fiona held him against her with awkward but loving solidarity.

Not even the sounds of hammers and construction going on around him roused him when they began on the third day. 

When the world came back to him it did so gradually. He squinted against the dim light of the room. There was a hint of panic as he couldn’t remember where he was or why he was here. The room seemed unfamiliar. 

No , he realized. He’d been there before. This was August’s bedroom, but he wasn’t in the bed they had shared. He tried to move his hands and found they were each strapped to the hospital bed he was laying in. There was an IV in his arm. He became aware of a tube going into his nose and it triggered in him the urge to gag.

His head swiveled to look around the room and saw sitting on August’s bed was Fiona. Dressed unlike her normal self, she wore a simple T-shirt and blue jeans combination that was dappled over in multicolor paint splatters. “Fiona?”  

“Vaughn?” She hopped up off the bed and hurried over to him. “Hey… hey, hey. It’s okay… easy.” 

“What happened?” His voice came out raspy. 

“Shh.” Fiona said, “Try not to talk too much… You’ve got a feeding line in your nose.” 

Vaughn’s heart started to race causing his heart monitor to beep faster, which fed into his panic, “Help me… get it out.” He struggled even though he knew it was useless, which only made him aware of the fact that he also had a catheter put in. There were few things he hated more than doctors, illness, and medical equipment being inside of him.

“Hell no!” Fiona said, “You’re just going to leave that be… and let the doctor do that. Stop moving and stay still.” 

The door flew open and August stepped in. His clothes were also paint splattered down to the banana on his head.  He let out a cry of unrestrained surprise and joy at seeing Vaughn awake which turned to a scowl in Fiona’s direction, “I told you to tell me if he woke up!” He hurried to Vaughn’s bedside.

Fiona was unphased by this tantrum, “Slow down, lover boy. He literally just woke up. I was about to get you.” 

“Shit,” August said, “I’m here, Vaughn, what do you need?”  

Vaughn was in a full panic, but his dry, painful lips overwhelmed all. “Water! Now. Please…” 

Fiona said, “On it,” and jogged from the room. 

August stepped close with his palms up. Joy and worry commingled in his expression; a smile into a grimace and back to a smile, “Easy, there.”

“Set me free!” Vaughn shouted at him in the full throes of hysteria. Though he knew there was nothing rational about it, he could not stop the feeling. 

The blond reached to undo one restraint. “You’ve been out two Pandoran days. I’ve been worried sick… I’m so glad you’re awake.”

Two Pandoran days . His brain did the math in a second. 90 X 2 = 180 hours divided by the 24 hour standard old Earth day. 7.5 days. “A week?” Vaughn exclaimed. 

“Yeah.” August got one wrist free. “I know it’s a little bit of a shock, right? But it’s not… months… or years. Could always be worse? Eh?”

Vaughn reached up and yanked the feeding tube out of his stomach via his nose in one sharp pull that also ripped the tape on his upper cheek with it. 

August’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a horrified grimace and he took a step back. “Yeargh! Vaughn!... Damn it.”  

Vaughn sank back in relief and dropped the tube. “Oh, that’s… better.” 

Stop or I’ll tie your ass back up again.” He caught Vaughn’s hand so he couldn’t mess with his IV. 

“I just want it all out!” Vaughn snapped. 

August grimaced, “Please calm down.” He spoke in a soothing voice, “It’s just an IV. It’s just giving you fluids and meds. That’s what the doctor said. You’ve also got a… tube in your dick so you don’t piss all over yourself.” 

Vaughn groaned, “Don’t… don’t even talk about it. God it hurts just thinking about it.” 

August frowned and glanced away, “Yeah… well… I don’t want you removing it. Just… leave the shit in until the Doctor takes it out.” He ran his fingers over Vaughn’s scalp, which sprouted a faint stubble.  His Hold on Vaughn’s wrist was loose now. 

Vaughn responded by leaning against his hand like an animal wanting a pat. “Okay…” He took in a deep breath. “Okay…” he repeated. “I’m trying, I just… really… really… really don’t like this.” 

His hand continued to stroke the bare scalp, “I know, Sweetheart . You just got to hang in there a little longer. Trust me. You trust me don’t you?” He pursed his lips as Fiona returned.

“Yeah…” Vaughn was beyond charmed by the pet name and how he crooned the words. He forced his breathing to slow. 

She brought the cup to the bed and frowned, “You weren’t supposed to free him. Why is he free?” Fiona demanded with an annoyed squint. 

“He wasn’t comfortable. So what?” August shrugged and kept rubbing Vaughn’s head. 

“And he pulled the tube out? Gross,” Fiona said with another judgmental look at the barkeep.

Vaughn said, “I had to. Ooh! Water… give me!” He withdrew his hand slow enough that August let him, though his arm weighed three times more than he remembered.

As he grabbed lidded Styrofoam cup, Fiona cautioned in a stern tone, “Don’t gulp it. Slow sips. You have done nothing but lay in bed for a week. We don’t want you to make yourself puke.”

“Don’t get up.” August commanded. “You could be very weak.” 

 Fiona asked, “Do you need me to elevate the bed?” 

Vaughn nodded. The bed inclined to sit him somewhat more upright. His singular focus was on that liquid. With bliss he put the straw to his lips and took a small sip and a moan of parched delight. It was like experiencing water for the first time. “Mouth… so gross.” He followed it with another sip, followed by a third. 

“Slower,” Fiona squint intensified as she stared him right in the eyes. 

The pair of them made enchanting nursemaids, for sure. “My nose hurts… and my throat,” Vaughn whined.

August scoffed  and said with no sensitivity, “Yeah, genius, you ripped the tube out with no concern for what it took with it. Now do you want your other hand free and do you promise you will not pull out that needle in your arm?” 

“Yes.. please. I won’t touch it, but I can’t look at it either,” Vaughn said. The water had chips of ice in that soothed the irritated tissue in his throat. Water was amazing. He drank more.

“The doctor’s on her way,” Fiona said.

“Oh good, you called her… look V… you… got fucked pretty bad up during the fight.” 

Fiona exclaimed, “Don’t tell him that! Rhys says its bad for his anxiety.” 

“What?” Vaughn looked horrified. “What… happened? I just… remember fighting.” 

August ignored Fiona. The hardness in his brow made him seem angry, but when he spoke it was dry, “You pulled some bullshit sacrificing your small, idiot body to do it and… I am,” he shook his head, “So god damn proud of you. You saved a lot of lives… and took many to boot. Very bad-ass.” 

“You saved us.” Fiona chimed in. “August, Janey, Athena and I and like a bunch of other business owners. You’re so popular I heard a folk song about you yesterday.” Her eyes rolled. “It was factually inaccurate, but catchy.”  

Vaughn’s hand was too weak to hold on to it any more, so he just let the cup rest against the mattress. “What?” he laughed in a high pitch and it turned into a cough.  

August picked it up the cup and held it for him. “Easy there. Lot of people in this town with your name on their lips. You’re the toast of Hollow Point.”

“You’re a real power couple now,” Fiona’s green eyes rolled.

“Shut up about that.” August said. 

It was too baffling to even worry about follow up questions. His easily distracted mind moved to the sound of drilling coming from somewhere in the building. “Are you building something?” 

August grinned, “Yeah… Janey and Athena are spearheading the operation. We’re doing the repairs and upgrades we’d talked about. Tector, Fiona and I have been doing manual labor in between taking turns sitting with you. Sasha is supervising all like a brooding spiderant and Rhys either sits in here with you or kicks me out of my own damn office to make super important phone calls.” 

“They’re all here?” This did not compute.. 

Fiona said, “I told them not to, but they don’t listen. They insisted the trip was worth it to be together, so we’ve been remodeling and living in this bar packed in like fish in a can. Be grateful you should were comatose for the worst of it.”

“Where is everyone staying?” He asked. There were more important questions, but this one seemed immediate. 

Fiona said, “I’m on the Kitchen couch. Sash and Rhys are in the workout room savoring the odor of old August sweat. Gortys and Loader Bot don’t sleep so they’re just around.” 

They had all come to his side. His whole family. Vaughn replied. “No casualties yet?” 

Fiona chuckled, “Some near misses.” 

“Pregnant women are terrifying ,” August advised. “But it’s been worth it to watch Sasha running Rhys ragged. Guess I dodged a bullet.”

Fiona smirked, “Please, that bullet dodging was mutual and you know it.” 

Vaughn’s vision distorted from the tears in his eyes and he took a shuddering breath. This was too much. 

August opened his mouth to make a reply, but the tears caught his eye. He leaned down close, “Hey… now. Come on V. It’s okay. Do you need anything else? I’ve got you.” 

He had to close his eyes and let the wave of emotion pass over him. He cleared his throat and rasped, “Put the straw in my mouth, please.” 

August held the cup for him so he could drink. 

“Not too fast,” Fiona reminded, before glancing at the door. “I’ll scoot to give you space and let everyone know how You’re doing.” She stabbed a finger in Vaughn’s direction, “Stay resting until the doctor says otherwise. You almost got yourself killed.” 

Vaughn’s eyes widened. “Okay.” 

She frowned and said, “I’m so glad you’re awake. We’ve been so worried.” She paused to lay her hand on his shoulder and gave it a pat before turning and making for the door without waiting for a reply. Admitting emotions other than anger was hard for her. 

“Thanks,” Vaughn said weakly to her back.

“Thank you.” August said, though as soon as the door was closed he added, “For getting the fuck out of my bedroom.” He set the cup on a table nearby.

Vaughn snickered, “You’re not used to a full house.” 

“Fuck no, I’m not. I’ll murder everyone in their sleep if they all stay camped out here much longer.” 

“I feel weird,” Vaughn knew he was whining but justified it to himself. 

“Just relax, okay? I know it feels horrible but you gotta hang in there.” He sighed, “So like, when the doc gets here do you want to see her alone? I could stay and… take down her orders, ask questions, if you want me to. I’ve been keeping track of your vitals and.. Giving you meds and taking care of you per her orders.” He frowned, “I might have questions for her, but if that’s too much of me being in your business I can…  go away too.” The thought occurred to him, “Or I could send Rhys in if that would be better.” 

Vaughn’s brows lifted, “No! No… Please stay. You. I want you to. I’m groggy...”  

August leaned in closer, “Ok… I will. You’re doing good. You’re awake. Everything is going to be okay.” 

Vaughn turned his palm up on the bed and August took without further invitation.. The reassurance of that powerful hand in his helped ease his stress.

“I bet you never imagined being saddled with this.” Vaughn hated to burden anyone.

August said, “It’s not a problem. On the first day after the fight Rhys tried to take you back with him, to Atlas. He said you would get better care at his place. We had a few... words on it even… but we worked it out. The doctor thought there was more risk moving you than benefit from a better treatment level… So I was calmly adamant that you stay in our home and recover here.”  

Vaughn blinked, “Did you guys fight over me?” Within him surged some unnamable emotion. The worry of being a burden melted away under the thought of being a sought-after commodity. 

August grinned, “Yes. I won. Though it helped that Fiona and Sasha were on my side and like me, he can’t say no to them. So here we all are. This room has been spared the catastrophe of the rest of this fucking place for your sake.” He smiled, “And now that you’re awake, Everything’s perfect… or will be in a few days when everyone leaves before there’s a body count.”

Vaughn’s lips stretched into a smile. They were still painful, but it did not bother him. “You say that but you look so… happy and at ease.”

August chuckled and shook his head, “Do I? I’ve been a smoldering powder keg for days, not helped by the fact that I’m near intolerably sober.”

“For me?” 

“I’d do anything for you. You came for me. I won’t ever forget that so long as I live,” He insisted.

Vaughn swallowed a lump in his throat. He said, “I will always come for you.”

“You can’t take care of someone being half in the bag so drying out for you was the least I could do. You know, I wouldn’t have blamed you for cutting your losses and leaving us there.” August said, with all seriousness. “Or at least waiting until Rhys’ military showed up.”

“There was no choice in my mind.” Vaughn was adamant on this point, “You’re my friends and I love you.” 

August turned his face away. 

“What happened to me? I can’t remember anything.” 

The doctor interrupted with a knock on the door before she entered.  

Vaughn felt a certain frustration at not being able to remember, but this visit was now more important. He smiled as he recognized her. She was Rhys’ old primary care doctor on Helios. “Hey... Doctor Shams.” 

“You are very lucky to be alive, Vaughn,” she smiled. 

“Will someone tell me what… happened?” 

Doctor Shams said to August, “You were there, I will let you explain.” 

August cleared his throat. “You wanted to get Athena back her shield, so you ran into an arena with a big ass bullymong and a spiderant zapper of all damn things. You got her the shield which was great for her and the people she was protecting, but then you got trampled by the zapper. I ran after your ass trying to protect you from behind but… a rocket hit one of the roof supports and part of it caved in. It killed the spiderant and his body stopped you from getting totally crushed but it wasn’t good. Athena took out the Guvner… who turned out to be this asshole named Trevor I used to sell guns to.”

Dr. Shams kept things on topic by saying, “You had many broken bones. Significant brain swelling. You were dug out and we administered emergency medical protocols. We’ve since given you enough medication that you should make a full recovery… but it may take time. You may require physical therapy.”

Vaughn blinked before his face fell, “Oh.” He preferred to be the helper rather than the needy. 

August took his hand again. 

Most of the rest of the visit passed by in a haze. He thought he was paying attention to the words she was saying, but could not recall them a moment later. 

The situation devolved into her talking to August in between examining his body. He got real relief when she agreed to unhook him from all the equipment. 

By the end, he was free of all the hated apparatus with a new list of medications and orders that August 

As soon as the door was closed, Vaughn said, “Man. I need a shower.” He tried to sit up.

This earned him a glare and August’s palm on his chest to hold him still, “Did you not hear what she said? Low activity for you for at least a week. You wait here and rest. I figure I’ll toss a folding chair in the shower and help you get situated.” 

Vaughn said, “Am I that bad?” 

“Were you paying attention?” 

Vaughn shrugged, “kind of?” 

August closed his eyes and looked away like he was trying to suppress his outrage, “You almost died. Technically, you died for like a minute or two. Yesterday the doctor told me that in another week I would have to make a decision for you about putting in a surgical feeding tube in your stomach because you can’t use the nose tube more than two weeks. You are not hopping out of bed like nothing happened. You’re weak. Just let me help you so you don’t crack your dome.

Vaughn thought about it and it seemed logical. “Okay. You’re right… I’m sorry this is just all a lot to take in. I remember the arena now… and throwing the shield. Nothing after that.”

“That’s when you got clocked. I tried to take that fucker down but everything went tits up in an instant. I thought I’d lost you.”  August leaned down and hugged him. He pressed his forehead to Vaughn’s.

“I‘m sorry… I just didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“Babe, I’m not mad,  I‘m relieved.” He straightened and said, “When you’ve had a shower you can either come back here and rest… or I can install you on the couch in the kitchen while I make you some broth and maybe some of your adoring people can come see you.”

There were many more questions to ask but the thought of being clean sounded so good he could wait. “I want to do that.” he said. “So I guess, hurry back. I’ll be… here.” 

He attempted to sit up when August left the room. While he managed it, he felt guilty when the barkeep fixed him with a look of disappointment.

“Come on, you stubborn little dick.” He picked the hospital-gowned Vaughn up and carried him through the hall into the bathroom. 

Vaughn did not like being incapable of handling his own transportation, but leaning against the man he’d fought for was at least pleasant. His scent and his strength were comforting.

In the bathroom, the water was running in the shower with more pressure than it had before and all the fixtures looked new. It looked like it just needed a couple coats of paint.

“Wow,” Vaughn said, “Looks nice.” 

“Right? Janey fixed the pressure issue. There’s nothing that chick doesn’t know how to do and I’m already ride or die for her and Athena.” 

“Yeah? You guys getting along?” Vaughn asked.  

August said, “Real well. Ok, let’s try setting you on your feet and seeing if you can stand.” 

Vaughn felt drained of energy but there was enough that standing for the moment was not too taxing. His hand reached out to grasp the new towel bar. It looked steady enough to hold him. 

August stayed near in case he faltered. “You got it?” 

“I’m okay.” He took the hospital style gown he was wearing off and threw it into the hamper. The bandana he handed to August, who set it aside. “If you want me to I can step outside.” 

Vaughn stepped under the water and sat down. He sat down and let the water wash over him while he worked up the energy to wash himself. 

August said, “If you want me to I can step outside.” 

“No.” He chuckled, “I think we’re beyond that… as mortified as I am.” 

“I hoped so but I didn’t want to assume.” August grinned. He set another towel on the closed lid of the toilet. “There are some changes to tell you about.” 

“What kind?” Vaughn asked. In time he grabbed the soap and washcloth and started to clean himself. The water was invigorating, but not enough to counteract the bone deep tired feeling.

“Athena’s tired of working out of town. So she bought a stake in the bar and brewery business. She’ll also tend bar so I don’t work double shifts all the damn time. We have a plan in place in case… things don’t work out and I need to buy her back out.” 

“Aw you made friends.”

August chuckled, “Yeah. Athena’s cool. She’s about the only person who Ma ever backed down from. I respect that. She is learning to pour a beer and make usual cocktails. I already painted up a ‘Do not hit on the Bartender’ Sign.”

Vaughn chuckled, “Works for both of you. I’m glad you’re getting along.” He yanked off the adhesive bandage off the crook of his elbow and flung it at the waste basket though he missed. 

August threw it in the bin without commenting on it. “Yeah, she’s great. She doesn’t make too much small talk. We talk to each other when there’s something to talk about and that’s it. it’s nice to have a friend you don’t have to talk to. You know?”

“You were so mad at me for when she walked in here for the first time.” 

“It’s hard for me to accept help. I never had friends until some time after I met you. I had inferiors, superiors and associates. I’ve had to swallow most of what pride I have left and… it’s… surprisingly good. It’s nice to have people who help because they want to… and not because they’re afraid you’ll hit them with a barbed-wire covered baseball bat.”

“I’m a good influence.” 

“You sure are. Do you want help?” 

“Yeah…” Vaughn said. “I do.” 

August pulled off his shirt and bandana and leaned to start with his back. He helped him stand and rinse off and escorted him to the toilet to sit down while he rubbed him all over with a fluffy towel.

As he wrapped the towel around him Vaughn noticed something around August’s wrist. At first it seemed like a bit of braided rope, but as it caught the vanity light, he saw it to be his own hair, dark brown with a hint of copper. “August…” 

The blue eyes looked down at him, “What?” 

“Is that?” He raised a hand brush his fingertips over the bracelet. 

August’s face turned pink, “It’s my good luck charm. Don’t judge me.”

“I’m not… Did you make it?” 

“Yeah… I found your hair… on the bar where you left it.  and… I kept it. I know it’s weird… I was sitting there, holding it, while I watched you and I Just… thought it would make me feel better to have a little piece of you, so I wove it.” 

“If I wasn’t head over heels for you before,” Vaughn smiled, “I would be now.”

August washed his hands and readied Vaughn’s toothbrush and handed it to him. “Here.. ungross your mouth so I can kiss you sometime soon.” He filled a cup with water and set it on the edge of the sink to rinse. 

“Thanks.“ Vaughn took it and put it in his mouth to brush the ick away. It took far more concentration than normal.

August moved the chair and said, “Gonna rinse off myself. Then I’ll get you dressed.”

“Mmm hmmm,” Vaughn agreed. 

When August turned his back he could see the place where the skin was carved away by the Guvner’s torturer. It had healed, but not well. The thin skin there stretched and warped between a rectangular outline. The two tattoos beneath it were still there. He took off the rest of his clothes and stepped under the water before he closed the glass door.

Vaughn set the brush on the counter and sipped some water into his mouth to rinse before spitting it back into the cup. The sink was too far. When done, he rested it on the counter. “Who was that man… the bandit... who was cutting you up?” 

August bowed his head.  “Little Joey Rivett of the Rivett clan. Met him when I was in the height of my fighting days.” 

Vaughn prompted him on, “Did you fight him?”  

August lathered himself up while he spoke, “No. I fought his brothers. See, contrary to popular belief not all combat rings here use weapons and not all are to the death. This I was part of had a rule… Fight until you won, go KO’d, or you submitted. Plenty of smarter men lived to fight another day, but if they wouldn’t submit, they had to keep fighting. House always expected the winner to put loser down.”  

“Sounds… like a thing that would happen on Pandora, sure.” Vaughn said. 

“I fought his eldest brother, Big Diesel Rivett and well… we clobbered each other senseless. We were pretty evenly matched, though he was taller than me. It was a hard ass fight, and I thought I would lose the whole damn time, but finally I turn the tables on him. We get to the point where you choose, submission or death. He wouldn’t submit, so I killed him with my bare hands. 

There was a moment of silence and Vaughn could think of nothing to say. 

“After that,” he said, “One by one his brothers kept challenging me to restore their family honor. They had too much pride to just give me the wins. One by one I killed all four of them in the ring in the course of a year.” 

Vaughn said, “oh.” 

He put something onto his hair to wash it and leaned his head back against the stream of water, “I tried to talk the last two of them into tapping, but they were just the most stubborn bunch of fucks. So after a while little Joey tries to challenge me, but he was just a kid and I’d lost my stomach for killing Rivetts by then. I told him to bug off and take care of his Ma since he was her only one left. He swore vengeance and I booted his skinny ass back to his home camp and… I haven’t seen him since then. Until he flayed me. Now he’s dead too.” 

“The tattoos… were for your victories?” 

“Yeah.” August said as he turned off the water. “The Rivetts were a big name in this town 10...15 years ago.” He grabbed a towel from a shelf and started to dry himself as he stepped out of the stall. “Killing big Diesel put me on the map as a real powerhouse. Each one of those assholes going down was a win for my Ma and one less soldier in their clan’s army. Naturally, we later took everything that was theirs. Their money, turf and guns.

“Did it… make her happy, your mom?” 

“Oh yeah. That was a good year for me. The tattoos were her idea. I was still trying to please her, so I got them.” He sighed. 

“At least the scar isn’t… too bad?” 

“It’s a fucking mess, but whatever… it doesn’t matter… I think I’m going to tattoo over it… or Rhys says there’s some surgery he could get me but I’m… not one for voluntarily going under a knife.” 

“Me either…” He shuddered.

“Sit tight. I’m going to throw on a robe and go get us clothes.” 

August returned wearing fresh jeans and a hoodie. He dressed Vaughn in a pair of comfortable black and white plaid pajama pants and a T-shirt that said the Purple Skag, Hollow Point on the bottom of an illustration of the bar’s mascot. 

“Are these new?” 

“Yeah, Rhys and Sasha… uh… well you‘ll see a ton of new stuff. They kinda kitted us out with a bunch of new stuff in gratitude.”

Vaughn said, “Cool… so… do you think anyone would be mad if I did… just… go to sleep instead of talking to everyone? I’m… exhausted just from… getting presentable.”

“No one will mind… and if they do, I’ll them off. You want me to carry you?” 

“Yes please,” Vaughn said. 

August picked him up again like he weighed nothing and carried him back to the bedroom, kicking the door closed behind them. He laid him down on the bed. “Call me when you’re awake again… and we’ll see how you feel. You can make people come to you to visit you if you still feel weak.” 

“Thanks, Honeyboy.” Vaughn was too tired to think of a proper endearment so he just strung words together.  

“The fuck did you just call me?” August asked, his head cocked to one side while his brow furrowed.

Vaughn grinned as he nestled his bald head back against the pillow. “Your hair is yellow… and I think you’re very sweet.” He said it again, over pronouncing each syllable in a sing song way “Honeyboy .”

August looked uncomfortable, “Are you serious?” 

“You like it.” Vaughn insisted, his eyes closing. 

“Sleep tight you little shit.” He bent down and pressed his lips to Vaughn’s. 

The last sensation before he succumbed was the warmth of those lips again on his forehead.

Chapter Text

Vaughn woke from a nightmare that evaporated like a fog until he had no memory of what was so frightening. T he unease was not so quickly shaken off. He sighed and tried to push himself to take deep breaths and calm the lingering fear that kept the hairs at the back of his neck standing up straight. 

His fingers wiped the gunk from the corners of his eyes and tried to meditate on the fact that he was in a safe place, surrounded by friends. 

His eyes shifted across the ceiling to a bullet hole he’d not noticed before, which lead him to wondering on how often his beau shot up his residence. Firing bullets into his own walls and ceilings seemed ridiculous, but it also seemed very on brand for August. On the other hand, getting into gun fights in his home was an equal possibility. 

August was such a strange fellow; n ot at all what he expected and so much more than he’d imagined. It was fascinating how soft his inner layers were once you got past the thorns and shell. He had a gentleness in him that wanted to express itself, but competed with his anger and cynicism into walking contradiction of a man.

There was still so much he did not know, but he yearned to learn every detail and every way to make him smile. Thoughts of that smile grounded him until he was calm again.

When called, August flew to his side and the running thump of his boots on the hall floor came near before the door flew open. He smiled and walked over to Vaughn’s room side of the bed. “What do you need, Your Majesty?” He had a smear of grease across one cheek. 

Vaughn flashed him a smile,  “I think It’s time to get up and see people… and eat something.” 

“We made soup for you. It’s good. We can start you on broth and see how that settles, before we work up to other foods.”  

Aw . I can’t wait. I still can’t believe everyone’s here.” He reached up and rubbed his fingers across the surface of his head . “So… like… My head is naked. Could you lend me a bandana and… tie it on for me? I don’t know how.” 

August chuckled, “You look fine, you know that right?” 

Vaughn’s frown grew deeper. 

With a sigh, August said, “I didn’t realize you were so vain about your hair. I get it, it was nice, but its hair. It’ll grow. I’ll be running my fingers through it in no time. You’ll see.” 

“Will you humor me?” Vaughn gave him his best pleading eyes .

August relented and pulled a bandana from a drawer, “Whatever makes you comfortable.” 

“You have grease on your face. Have you been nuzzling an engine?” 

August frowned, “Whoops.” With a glance in the mirror he said, “I was over at the Catch-a-Ride for a while with Janey helping her do a bunch of stuff. Tit for tat since they’ve helped me out so much.” Within a minute he had tied it into a skull cap.

Vaughn adjusted the handkerchief. “I told you they were both cool.”

“Yeah, yeah. Gloat. She recovered your bike. Fixed it up... with upgrades. It’ll be slick when it’s done.”

“My motorcycle,” Vaughn gasped. “That’s great. I have the best friends in the galaxy and I am super stoked that you’re friends with each other.” 

“Me too.” He smiled. “So, you ready?”

Though confident he could walk, it pleased him to indulge August’s protective desires. “If you want to carry your King, he will allow it.”

“That’s very magnanimous of him,” August observed as he scooped up Vaughn and carried him towards the door. 

Vaughn licked his thumb and cleaned the spot of grease from his cheek. 

August squeezed him tighter and whisked him to the living room. 

When they got to the large kitchen and sitting room, Sasha was standing over a large pot on the stove top. She was dressed in a long and flowing red and gray top that swallowed up most signs of her pregnancy.  “There he is. Hi Vaughn.” She started ladling soup into a large mug. 

Rhys sat in his chair looking at data from his holo projector in his slick, red robotic arm. He wore neatly pressed jeans and a T-shirt and it occurred to Vaughn that it had been years since he had seen him dressed this casual. With a wave of his hand the hologram dissipated, and he launched himself onto his long legs. “Welcome back to the land of the living, bro!” 

Vaughn beamed at him. “It’s good to see you,” he said as August deposited him the end of the couch next to a metal end table. 

Rhys waited for August to move before he bent grapple Vaughn into a bear hug. “I’m so glad you’re Ok.”

Vaughn squeezed him back as tight. “Me too… I’m so happy you came to see me. You didn’t have to come all this way.” 

Rhys’s head shook, “Wrong… we did. We wanted to be here for you and August. Grrrrr .” He squeezed Vaughn tighter before finally freeing him. 

Sasha brought the mug and set it down on the table. When Rhys stepped back to his chair, she took her turn to hug Vaughn. “I’ll never be able to thank you enough.” He hugged her back.  

August settled down at Vaughn’s side.

“You’re welcome, but you don’t need to thank me.” 

“Too bad, I’m doing it.” She grinned. 

When she stepped back, he noticed that there were many new or replaced appliances including an actual toaster and new range. The one that filled him with the greatest pleasure was the coffee machine, “Wow.. Is that an Atlas latte machine?” He felt August’s hand slip into his and lace fingers with him.

Rhys grinned like the Cheshire cat, “It’s a little housewarming gift. Like when we got our first apartment and my dad sent us that super Hi-Fi stereo system and television.” 

Vaughn suspected he was up to something. Vaughn’s Rhys Strongfork bullshit detector was honed long ago. Still the machine excited him. 

Sasha added “It so dirty bachelor in here.”

August frowned a bit. “I’m so glad you’re here. Though I love that machine.” 

“You know what I mean.” She said to him and it seemed to placate him. 

“Well thank you. That’s… nice of you. I’m just… glad everyone’s okay.” Vaughn leaned close to the cup of soup. It smelled good, and he was ravenous but the steam warned him off for now. “What… happened to the Guvner. Dead, I presume?” 

August turned his lips down in disgust and he scoffed, “Call him Trevor. Don’t dignify his grandiose bullshit anymore. He’s still alive… and in custody. He cowered, wouldn’t fight when Athena went for him. She couldn’t muster the heart kill something in fetal position so she just put his lights out. Would have saved me a lot of trouble if she’d have just snuffed him.” 

Vaughn caught how big Rhys and Sasha were grinning but it only puzzled him. “In custody? Like… tied up in the basement? Are there cells here you haven’t shown me?” 

Rhys looked to his partner, “You didn’t tell him the news ?” 

“What news?” Vaughn asked, brow furrowing in suspicion.

“Not now ,” August cautioned with an intense squint  in Rhys’ direction.

Rhys ignored him, and directed both of his arms in August’s direction like a game show hostess, revealing a prize, “Your esteemed boyfriend is now the honorable Lord Mayor of Hollow Point.” He lapsed into laughter.  

Sasha chuckled as she settled into the chair nearest her fiancé. 

“What?” Vaughn looked to August for explanation.  

August narrowed his eyes at Rhys before looking back to Vaughn and grumbled, “First off its just mayor… and second its acting mayor until elections… and third,” his face contorted into one of his more crazy eyed looks of rage as he snarled at the other couple, “ Don’t fucking laugh at me .” 

Vaughn squeezed his hand tighter. 

Rhys forced his mirth back in but was still enjoying himself. 

Sasha shrugged, “If you can’t see the humor August the Brawler turning politician then that’s your problem. It’s not that we’re not supportive.” 

He snorted, “Real supportive.” His head swiveled back to Vaughn, blue eyes haunted by the weight of responsibility, “I didn’t want to but there was no choice. The various factions of idiots in this city started making noise about who should run things… and they were getting shitty and suspicious about Atlas Military being around… and people started talking stupid shit, so I had to step in and… take it. I don’t want it. I’m not going to be some goddamn warlord. I just want a stable neighborhood to run my bar… so yeah. I’m the mayor of Hollow Point.” 

Vaughn wasn’t sure if it was the fact that he just came out of a coma that made this so confusing but he was blindsided, “What does that even mean. You’re going to make a… government?” 

The newly minted Mayor seemed so lost. “I dunno… I’m… just trying to… set up some kind of mutual defense network and basic shit so that the strongest jerk can’t just muscle in and fuck us all up again.” he shrugged, “I’m tired of the same old shit, but I should have just kept my mouth shut. Now people keep trying to come tell me their problems. I just want to kick every in the dick.” 

Rhys was shaking from barely contained laughter. 

Sasha coughed to cover a chuckle. 

Vaughn blinked as he shook his head. “So… let me… get this straight. You’re the Mayor of Hollow Point… and you have the Guv… err Trevor prisoner… where?” 

Sasha beamed, “His own former compound… or as August renamed it....” 

“City hall.” August scowled. 

Rhys wheezed and tears came to his eyes from trying to hold it in.

Vaughn was not amused. Though no wilting flower in insult battles and the meaner sides of friendship, he could see August’s misery. “Well I think that’s amazing .” He ignored the other couple to look in August’s eyes to give him the reassurance and support his eyes begged for. Also to prevent Rhys from getting kicked in the dick. “Dude, you hate people… and don’t enjoy solving other people’s problems so that’s a big sacrifice for you.” 

“You get me,” August said. 

Vaughn said, “I want to help. I’m assuming any security collective will require some kind of budget and budgeting is within my skill set. I also did model government in high school, to prepare for the possibility of some day having a real government again and not a… series of rich people doing whatever the hell they want.” 

August’s agitation soothed into a disarmed smile. “That will help. Thanks V..” 

After clearing his throat he said, Rhys said “All kidding aside, I’d love to supply the latest in atlas weapons and shields… at friends and family discount should your should your security team require gear.”

Vaughn snorted, “Classy, Rhys.” 

Rhys gave him finger guns in return.

Sasha pledged herself to the cause as well, “I’ll help you too. I’m not doing much else at the moment.” 

August lifted his chin and said gave them his coldest eyes, “I appreciate the offers, but I won’t be requiring either of your services. All I need is this guy.” He nodded his head towards Vaughn before turning to Rhys, “And I’ve always been more of a Torgue man,”  

Vaughn laughed at the way Rhys’ mouth opened before his face fell. It was weird to be in a dispute, however minor, and support someone other than his oldest friend. It felt disloyal, but like the old Earth song said, ‘Stand by your man.’ 

Rhys said, “Ouch,” before adding, “I deserved that.” 

Sasha made a nearly contrite face,  “I’m sorry for laughing,” but her green eyes were still full of mischief .

“Ditto.” Rhys said.

Vaughn cleared his throat with purpose at his friend. 

Rhys continued, “And by ditto I mean I too am sorry, but don’t forget you once knocked a man’s head off in front of me with a barbed-wire wrapped bat, so you have to understand why we think it’s funny.”

August said, “I accept and I will take you up on it.”

“When were you knocking off heads together?” Vaughn felt like this conversation was just going to keep getting more confusing.  

Rhys shook his head “I was just there to pick him up. He was the one clubbing people. It wasn’t like… a group activity.” 

“It was one guy, who deserved it… and we’re getting off topic.” August interrupted. 

“What is the topic?” Vaughn asked before he picked up the mug and took a test sip. 

“That you’re amazing.” August said. 

Awwwww ,” Vaughn replied and leaned against him and drank more soup. 

Rhys and Sasha shared a grin before he said, “We’re all so proud of you Vaughn. I can’t believe just walking to the bandit camp like you belonged worked.”

“It was nerve wracking.” Vaughn said. “I… don’t do acting, but shouting incomprehensible gibberish and giving them my motorcycle worked.”

“I bet you made a great psycho.” Sasha said. “If I wasn’t pregnant and miles away I’d have been there to help.” 

Vaughn nodded, “Yeah. Luckily, it all worked out. I hope to never have to become one again. I am not digging being bald.” 

Rhys leaned forward in his seat, “It’s not that bad.” 

Sasha wore a diplomatic smile, “You have a good head for it.” 

Rhys agreed. “You do.”

August groaned as his Echo Comm pinged. He let go of Vaughn’s hand to set the device on his knee, “What?”

It was Athena’s voice,  “There’s a man and woman here that want to speak to you.” 

“About what?” He asked. 

“I didn’t ask. I’m a bartender not a personal assistant,  but I told them your time was a two-drink minimum. Will you come down?”

August rolled his eyes but chuckled. “Yeah yeah. I’ll be down in a couple.” 

“Noted.” Athena said and closed the connection. 

Vaughn grinned, “It’s all good here. I’ll be fine.” 

August rose from the couch, “I’ll be back. These people are killing me.” As he left the room, he chuckled and spoke under his breath, “Two-drink minimum. heh.” 

Vaughn sipped more soup. He said to Sasha, “This is so good by the way.” 

“I can’t take all the credit. August and I made it together. Rhys and I did load you up with off world spices, dried and canned goods. The pantry is packed.” 

“You guys didn’t have to do all that.” He set the mug aside for the moment. 

Rhys said, “We love you, man.” 

Sasha nodded her agreement. She was not in the habit of letting Rhys speak for her, but on this matter she did. 

Rhys’ use of the royal ‘We’ for himself and Sasha didn’t cut Vaughn like it once did and it came as a huge relief.  “Back at you.” 

Sasha said, “We just wanted to support you both. We can’t stay for long , now that you’re awake.” 

Rhys agreed, “We’ll stay another sleep cycle and head out when we wake, but today we’re yours.”

Vaughn nodded and said, “That’s cool.” He chuckled, “August seems a little stressed with everything going on and he’ll likely feel better when everyone’s cleared out. You should be safe at Atlas for when the baby comes.” 

“That’s the goal.” Sasha said, “You should know we’ve been trying to get August to rest. He was really worried about you and he’s barely slept from what we can tell.” 

Rhys stroked his chin with his robotic hand, “He’s going non-stop. I thought I was a workaholic.” 

Sasha rolled her eyes, “You are. August isn’t, he’s doing that thing where you keeps himself moving so he doesn’t have to think about the bad stuff. You do the same thing.” 

Rhys cleared his throat, “Maybe… sometimes.” He put the spotlight back on Vaughn, “I know you don’t need or want my… approval or anything, but I like you and August together.”

Vaughn smiled, ‘I appreciate it.  

“I was a little nervous about you guys hooking up.”  

Sasha looked between them and got to her feet and said, “I will be right back… I have to use the bathroom,” and fled. Vaughn knew not if this was a code, the truth, or both.  

Vaughn grinned as she hurried out before turning back to Rhys, “Why nervous?” He drank more soup in confusion. 

Rhys used the robotic hand to smooth his hair down the back of his neck. “I didn’t want you to get hurt… and August...  He’s kind of a dangerous guy.” 

Vaughn said, “He won’t hurt me.” 

Rhys said, “I’m saying this bad. You’re happy right? He’s making you happy?” 

Vaughn nodded his head, “You have no idea.” 

A ll I mean to say is I’m happy for you… and though I had concerns… after seeing him look after you - and helping for the record, I helped. But, after that I know it’s okay leaving you here… and that also sounds pretty demeaning, isn’t it?.” 

Vaughn chuckled, “A little. But… I know what you mean. Your approval matters to me.”

“I’m glad.” 

Vaughn took a deep breath, “So… you still… by any chance... in the market for a slightly used accountant? Especially one who telecommutes from Hollow Point and sets his own hours.” He added quickly, “and salary?” 

The cyborg's eyes looked like they might bulge out of his head as he gave an emphatic, “Yes!” 

Vaughn held up both hands, “Don’t get too excited yet. I… want to consider it. I’m not saying definitely that I will, but… I think it might be good.”  

Rhys put a hand over his heart, “No pressure. Zero pressure. This is me not pressuring you at all… but if you want to name your terms, you can name them. I just want to work with my Bro again.” 

“I also need some time before I can start… once I decide, I’ll call you. I want to help August with his… government… thing first.” 

Rhys asked him with a solemnness in his mismatched eyes, “Does this mean you’re… done wandering Pandora?” He picked up his neglected mug of coffee and sipped from it. 

Vaughn thought about it for a while, “If people need me… I’ll go… but… I think I’d like to be rooted a while and… explore things here… with him.” 

“All I want is for you is happiness.” Rhys said. 

“I didn’t mean to make you worry… but you… get it don’t you, why I left?” 

The bittersweet pain in Rhys’ expression left Vaughn with no illusions of what he knew . “I do.” The weight of that lay heavy a moment before he said, “It’s been difficult for me too... I’m sorry if me being with Sasha… hurt you, but I love her so much. I didn’t want to leave you behind.” 

Vaughn shook his head, “Bro no… I didn’t know what to do with myself, and the thought of me getting in the way of you two was… I couldn’t do that to you. I had to go… and the more you pushed me to come back the more I felt needed to stay away.” 

“That was wrong, on my part, but It’s like you were punishing for things that weren’t my fault. I missed you and being without you hurt.” 

“I’m sorry.” Vaughn took the discarded handkerchief on his knee and blotted his eyes as tears rolled down his cheeks. “I never intended to hurt you but… I know … how it must have seemed to you. To everyone.”

Rhys got up and transferred himself next to Vaughn to give him a tight hug. In a chain reaction he too was soon leaking tears. “Change is hard… It’s terrifying to be frank, but no matter what I’ll always have time for you. You’ll always be my friend, if you want to.” 

Vaughn nodded against Rhys’ shoulder, “I do.”

They exchanged back pats and squeezes until they parted and each took a deep breath. As a final gesture Rhys held out his fist and Vaughn bumped it gladly. They were still the broest of bros. 

The rest of the day was spent in in good company. The food settled fine, and Vaughn ate several bowls of soup as he held court over his visitors. 

In the late afternoon, Yvette called him to talk and pass along the love of several former Children of Helios. Sometimes, he thought they had forgotten him and the years he spent protecting them. 

More people wished to see him, people he did not know from Hollow Point, but for today it was only for close friends. He wanted to spend as much time with Rhys and Sasha as he could before they went away again to hunker down at Atlas to prepare for their child. 

With Fiona’s blessing, they even managed to agree on suits for the wedding party. Even August agreed was something he could tolerate wearing for a few hours.

The more he was around his friends the more he felt relieved that his self imposed exile was over. The warmth of their company was a balm over his past sadness. 

Wandering had been important in his development of his own sense of self, but it was a mantle he was ready to put down. The lone wolf was never his way. He would always rather be part of a pack.

In the evening, they enjoyed a raucous dinner and lively dessert of flambéed drake fruit. Pouring alcohol on things and setting them aflame was apparently August’s specialty. 

In time, Vaughn played the tired card and after a chorus of good nights August bustled him out of the room. 

He said, once they were out of earshot,  “Maybe tomorrow I can walk on my own. With a cane.” 

“Am I being overprotective?” Blond brows lifted in curiosity.  

Vaughn said in a low voice, “I kind of like it… No one’s doted on me since my mom. Rhys was ok . He’d go get me stuff from the pharmacy and pour me juice if I got a cold… but this is a whole new level. You must like me or something.” 

August kicked the door shut with his heel and lay Vaughn in the bed. “I do.” His jaw went tight as he sat nearby and looked away.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the mayor thing?” He settled on his back.

August sighed, “I didn’t want to short circuit your brilliant but battered brain with too much info… and… I worried you’d make fun of me too because everyone thinks this shit is fucking hilarious and it is not.” 

Vaughn shook his head, “Not me. I wouldn’t ever do that. I shut them down , didn’t I?”

“You did.” He sighed, “Now that you’re awake I don’t give a fuck about anything else. I just want to lie in bed with you, forever… but I can’t. God damn, I want to though.” 

Vaughn flapped a hand in his direction and  said, “It’s all good! There will still be people around if I need anything… and as for, he grinned, “the mayoral business, I’ll help you organize everything, I’m super good at that. It’ll be a pain in the butt for a while, but it will be worth it.” 

August stared at the wall and said, “My ma would laugh her ass off at me if she were alive. I bet she’s rolling in her skag pile grave. This is so beyond me it's ridiculous. I’m such a moron .” 

“Like hell you are.” Vaughn commanded, “ Look at me.” 

August turned so their eyes could meet. His lower lip quivered a moment before he pursed his lips tightly shut. 

“At least you’re trying to do something. You’re not just sitting around waiting for things to be better while you stew in the status quo.” Vaughn smiled up at him, “You always wanted to live your life your own way. This is exactly how you do that: by standing for something in a world that doesn’t believe in anything.” 

“What If I fail?” He took in a deep breath and sighed. 

“Then you fail. And you try something else and I’ll help you with whatever that is, too..” 

“I just want someone to be proud of me… and I want you to be that person.” 

“I already am proud of you.” 

August was quiet, his brow furrowing in a tense despair. 

Vaughn continued, “You’re making new friends, taking help and trying to solve a problem. So what if your mom would laugh at you? She doesn’t deserve to share DNA with you.”

August took in a long breath through his nose and breathed out through his mouth. He seemed so melancholy. 

“Talk to me…” Vaughn urged him. “What’s on your mind.”

August lowered his head and spoke, “There’s something I feel bad about… but I don’t want to bother you with it. You’re tired.” 

“I’m… not that tired. I said that because I wanted alone time. Having everyone’s attention is nice … but when other people are talking to me you get snatched away. So tell me, what’s making you feel bad?” 

It took him a long time to speak, “Like... there are things I owe you now… but it’s the stuff that I’m not ready for.” August glanced up and met his eye but couldn’t keep it. 

Vaughn squinted in deep thought, “Like what?” August’s whole conception of such matters was so foreign. 

He gestured with his hands, “Grand expressions of like… feelings… I dunno.” 

Vaughn clucked his tongue said, “You don’t owe me anything. I may be an amazing accountant, but our relationship will never be transactional.” He shook his head, “You don’t even owe me love, much less declarations about it. Just keep being my guy, August.”

“I will, but need you to know I appreciate you, e ven if I can’t… say it right.” He snorted and said, “ I feel like I should suck your dick 24/7 to make up for all this.”

Vaughn winced, “That sounds great in theory but in practice, no. I know you appreciate me. I did what I did because you matter to me. You’ve taken care of me so well because I matter to you. Kindness and respect… that’s all we owe each other. The rest will flow out of that, don’t you think?” 

August nodded his agreement.

“I’m way not ready either, so don’t worry.” Vaughn reached over and touched August’s back lightly.

August titled his head to the side until his neck made a cracking sound and said, “I told Sasha I loved her three days before finding out it was a con.” 

Vaughn grimaced. “Ouch. I can see where that makes it hard to… trust.” 

His lips formed a sad smile. “It’s not even about that. I trust you. I don’t trust the world, or myself or my luck

“I trust you. Look , I never thought the words mattered so much anyway because people can say anything… but they show you how they feel in the way they’re there for you when you need them. You are a guy worth killing for, babe.” 

In a whisper, he asked , “Can I… can we hug?” 

Vaughn nodded. He opened his arms. “My Honeyboy can have whatever he wants.” 

August crawled across the bed with a soft, ambiguous groan at the nickname. He leaned his face against Vaughn’s chest and draped an arm across him.

Vaughn’s fingers played in the hair of his nape. He seemed to like that.  

“Oh, hell. I missed this,” August said, his voice at a whisper.

“I’m back now… You can have all the hugs you want.”

“Good. You’re the best at it.” August shifted more onto his side and rested his head on Vaughn’s shoulder with an arm around his stomach. “You’re just the perfect size, like a nerd-shaped body pillow.” 

“My body is the marriage of form and function,” Vaughn said with overt sarcasm.

August chuckled. “Tomorrow I’ve go t to do some damn public service garbage… should be home around lunch. I’m also late shift for the bar, too, but we’ll hang out in between.”

“I can always come sit downstairs and keep you company.”

“That’s a welcome distraction. You’ll like what I’ve done in the office. I took all the extra stuff that didn’t need to be there and put that in the store room and made a second desk.” 

“Nice. I like it.” 

“I also… took that portrait of her down. You were right. It wasn’t… helping me.” 

Vaughn sighed.  “I’m relieved and glad you did for yourself, but also that it’s not there anymore.” 

“I want to gaze to the future, not the past. So why keep her hanging up to guilt trip me from beyond the gravel, but I… didn’t throw it away. It’s in storage too.”

Vaughn nodded. “No reason to throw it away when you have the space. Hey… so… would it bother you if I worked for Atlas?”

The blonde nuzzled against his shoulder and neck. He froze and stammered, “I… I’d miss you but, you work for whoever you want to work for. Would you come back on weekends?” 

Vaughn blinked, “I’d work remotely , from here. If I needed to head out to HQ now and again I could, but I’m staying here. Plus, with steady income I could I could pay you rent. Getting paid in guns, loose change and salted skag doesn’t compare to cold hard cash.” 

August exhaled with full melodrama, “You scared the hell out of me. Yeah… that’s cool. Work for Rhys. What makes you think I’d care who you work for?”

“You didn’t seem to want me to work for Rhys when we talked at the party.” Vaughn said, “So I just wanted to check in before I decided.”

August seemed to grasp something and said, “ Ah . No . I was against you working for him if you didn’t want to. Y ou can work for whoever you want... for Handsome Jack’s disembodied head, even, if it was hiring.” 

“Too soon! And no thanks! I’m done working for anyone that has a descriptor in their name.” 

August chuckled and it expanded into a yawn, “Probably wise." He chuckled, "Someone at that company needs to make sure he doesn't wind up Handsome Rhys."

"Ew." Vaughn stuck out his tongue.

August grinned, "Yeah. So its good you're working for him... don’t be mad at me if I fall asleep.”

“Shush. I wouldn’t. Just give me a good-night kiss.” Vaughn tilted his head closer to August and pursed his lips into their most kissable form. It was ever so gratifying receive a tender press of lips in return. 

August said, “You’re the best.” He turned away and settled on his side to sleep.  

Vaughn spooned himself against him and slept well.