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Reckless Serenade

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Sunsets on Pandora range from having the soothing cathartic effect that one would expect from witnessing the sun change the sky’s colours for a few crucial moments of the day to instilling nothing but chilling, panic inducing fear at the thought of the wildlife that came to life at night. Skags, Rakks, bandits, the creatures of the day all have to sleep at some point. It’s waking those who slept during the day that scare some who inhabit Pandora.

Vaughn, on the other hand, feels nothing.

The chain of events that led to sleeping in clothes that had been worn for several weeks now, without a shower, or any proper hygiene that was afforded on Helios were things that he did his best not to think about. There was the vault of the Traveller, losing his best friend and Fiona for a while, and there was the founding of the Children of Helios. It all seems to blur together now. He has no way of telling time on Pandora, so as far as he knows the girls have been missing for several months, if not years. He hasn’t spoken to Rhys in weeks. It’s all starting to weigh in on him in ways he really wouldn’t be able to explain.

The roof of the room he’s designated for himself within the Backburner is now shared with someone named Axton. A former military guy who’s sound asleep on the opposite side of the room in another bed. Axton’s nice enough, but Vaughn’s sure the cramped rooms that are being used as bedrooms throughout the Backburner are making nobody happy. Outside of the sleeping situation, he’s definitely grateful for the company. It’s helped with the process of not processing what’s happened to him in the relatively short span of time he’s spent on Pandora. If the path to the Backburner is blurred, the path to Pandora is all but lost. Most of all, he won’t think of the remnants of Helios. The people who he’d not only worked with, but also learned to survive on Pandora with. He’d tried to be a leader and failed.

He looks to Rhys, the one who was always going to do things with his life. The one who went head to head with Handsome Jack himself and won. Rhys was a leader. And that was just the reality. Rhys was now the face of Atlas. Atlas had been on a slow but steady rise and should another corporate war arise, Vaughn is sure Rhys can take it. And that was just the reality. Rhys was always meant to do great things and Vaughn knew this from the day they met. But, him? Not so much, it seems. The Children of Helios were something he thought he could handle. They had the wreckage to keep them safe, the entire armoury of Hyperion weaponry on at their disposal. It shouldn’t have been hard to form a proper bandit clan and defend their own turf.

And yet he failed.

He was never a leader. He was never meant to do great things.

As he stares to the ceiling corroded by the weather and what he’s sure are bugs that eat wood and metals, he lets himself fall into the same thought pattern he’s been trying to avoid, and failing at as well, for the past several days. He rolls onto his side, away from the sleeping commando. It’s as if his thoughts are being broadcasted through the Echo-net for everyone to see and turning his back on the world will fix it. He shuts his eyes, but sleep doesn’t come. He’s looking at the corroded walls now. The lack of sleep has helped him cope with the sudden feeling of sharing the Backburner with people again, too. He’s prone to say wild things, bandit-esque that most of the newcomers seem to respond well to.

And he sighs.

He grips the flimsy blanket that’s providing less warmth during the Pandoran fall than the clothes he’s wearing until his knuckles go pale. He shudders and takes a deep breath. It helps for a second. And then the wave of emotion comes rushing back and he holds back the burning sensation in his eyes, forcing them to calm down until he’s only left with a blurrier vision. He blinks away the tears and takes another breath. It helps for another second. It gives him the chance to think of Lilith and how scared she appeared to be when left alone. She was never paying him any attention, so he’d been able to catch her in several moments of what he’d call desperation.

He’d been not too far when he’d heard her talking to someone named Roland. There was no Roland in the Backburner, but Vaughn assumes he’d been someone important, to both Lilith and her cause. He’d overheard her asking Roland for help and she’d sounded close to tears.

He wonders if he could try and talk to Lilith about being a leader, but her cause is much more noble than his is. She’s going to save the world, he’s pretty sure. His inkling about Rhys had been proven right, so he was confident in this new bet on the siren. Vaughn is just some ex-Hyperion money man who got everyone who’d survived the crash-landing of Helios killed. She’d be a fool to pay him any attention.

He takes another breath. His hand is beginning to grow numb. He squeezes his eyes shut, forcing his vision to go dark rather than blurry. He stays lost in his thoughts. The memories come back full force, breaking the dam he’d done his best to build in his mind. He hears the screaming again, the crying. There was gunfire everywhere, his own the loudest. He’d been yelling for people to get to cover, but everything happened so quickly. He screamed and no one heard him. He sees the blood stained faces, the twitching limbs. He shakily reloads his submachine gun, the clip won't fit into its socket from how badly his gun is shaking.

And then Axton snores and snaps him back to reality.

Vaughn takes several deep breaths as he falls back onto his back and rubs at his eyes. He’d been freely crying during the flashback. He takes a final shaky breath before his breathing returns to something relatively normal. The sleeping commando has now turned his back on Vaughn. The irony of it all.

Vaughn rubs at his face with both hands, wishing he had an answer for the problems he had. He wishes he-

A beep and a flash of a grey light from his Echo device that rests on the crates he uses as a bedside table tear his attention away from his panic. He nearly lunges for it and with shaky hands, sets it back into place at his ear. He knows who it is.

Hey,” comes a tired voice on the other end. There’s clicking in the background that Vaughn recognizes as keyboard clicks. It makes him oddly nostalgic for math.

Hold on…” Vaughn responds in a whisper as he pats around for his glasses on the bed. It takes him longer than it should, but eventually he manages to grip them by the lenses and nearly shove them onto his face and adjust them with the earpiece. Through the smudges of his dirty fingers he sees the HUD display, the minimap of the Backburner pops up in one corner, and on the opposite corner, he sees the photo Rhys chose as his Echo-net display.

With as much grace as he can muster, Vaughn leaves the room as quietly as he can and nearly sprints down towards where Moxxi has set up a new bar. She’s asleep somewhere, also probably cramped with a roommate. Vaughn takes a seat at one of the stools and he catches his breath quickly enough.

Sorry,” he says, embarrassed, suddenly, “you wouldn’t believe what’s happened lately.

Tell me about it,” Rhys says calmly, genuinely interested.

Vault hunters showed up. Zer0 was with them. They’re led by this siren lady named Lilith. Their home base was taken over by some plant man named Hector and they took him down. But, they destroyed it in the process so they all kind of… live here now,” Vaughn says. It feels anticlimactic now that he’s re-told it like that.

Back in the vault hunting action?” Rhys asks as the clicking gets a little quicker.

Me? No. I was… just kind of hanging around the Backburner when they showed up. To be fair, there had been some weird plant people who’d tried taking over the Backburner, too… so it was a win-win for all of us,” Vaughn replies sheepishly.

That’s great,” Rhys says. The clicking slows, but remains steady, “I’m glad you’re not down there by yourself anymore.

Yeah…” Vaughn says, picking at some of the wood on the bar that’s begun to chip off, “how are you?” he asks.

The clicking slows and Rhys sighs on the other end before saying, “it never ends. I am in meetings every day, I’m writing up things that I have to send down the chain of command that then get sent back to me for final revisions and then back down, I’m looking at gun designs every day. I’d rather be holding them. I miss Pandora sometimes. I miss the girls.

I miss them, too,” Vaughn responds. Having Sasha or Fiona around would have been ideal. He’s sure they could have been a formidable force together. Well, he already knew they were. Rhys, the girls and he made up a vault hunting squad, after all. Even if they all wouldn’t admit it. Sasha would, he thinks. And he laughs, still picking at the bar.

How’ve you been holding up?” Rhys asks, picking up the pace of the clicking.

I just sai-” Vaughn stops picking at the bar. He looks up.

Vaughn,” Rhys cuts him off. The clicking has stopped completely.

I just told you the wild stuff that’s happened!” Vaughn says as loudly as the still night will let him.

And I’m glad you’ve shared that with me!” Rhys says a little louder, “but, I’m asking how you are doing now. Are you still having nightmares?

And Vaughn remains silent for a few seconds and looks back down at the bar immediately, as if to avoid contact with someone who isn’t there.
Not always,” Vaughn says after a few moments of silence. Silence that never felt awkward. Not with Rhys, never with him.

Hold on,” Rhys says in response. His tone is soft.

Vaughn hears the keys click a couple more times before there’s the shuffling of papers and the sound of a rolling chair moving. He hears steps, the clicking now of the heels on Rhys’ shoes. He hears beeping sounds. An elevator?

“R-” Vaughn starts before the connection disconnects. His heart sinks a little. He sighs for a second, letting his elbows come up to the bar so he can rest his head in his hands. He could try calling Rhys back, but odds were he got called up to something at the Atlas base and wouldn’t be free to talk for another few weeks. This is how it was.

The thought is immediately debunked. He knows what’s happening when he hears the sound of someone being digistructed at the fast travel machine. Vaughn doesn’t turn around to meet him. He stays at the bar. He hears the crunch of the dirt underneath Rhys’ shoes and he still doesn’t turn to look up at him. Vaughn hears him sit down at the stool next to him.

Vaughn sighs and rubs at his face with one of his hands, using the other to lift his glasses up. Only then does he turn to look at Rhys. He’s sitting there dressed up in his fancy new Atlas brand getup, next to Vaughn, with one elbow resting on the bar, the palm of his hand underneath his jaw, supporting his tilted head as he watches Vaughn with the faintest hint of a smile on his lips.

“Hey,” Rhys says softly.

And Vaughn could play up the pride. He has before. He’s told Rhys that it isn’t a big deal, that he doesn’t need Rhys around to play parent or whatever it was he thought he was doing. They were both grown men. And, if Vaughn thought about it, it wasn’t even a pride thing. He just didn’t want Rhys worrying about him. He could say all of this, any of this. But, tonight, he doesn’t have it in him.

Instead he opts to lean over and lets himself fall directly into Rhys. Rhys turns and catches him in time and for a few minutes they just stay there. Vaughn is mostly on his feet, forehead pressed into Rhys’ chest and Rhys remains seated on the stool. Rhys wraps his arms around Vaughn as loosely as he can, only tightening the grip when he leans forward a little and nuzzles into Vaughn’s hair.

“You smell disgusting,” Rhys says, still softly, and still close. He rests the side of his face on Vaughn’s dirty hair.

“Yeah. Hyperion grade soap’s all gone, I’m afraid,” Vaughn says with a little laugh.

Rhys laughs in what’s more of a soft exhale and says, “come back with me, then. I’ve got a shower. You can sleep in my office if you want. You don’t have to stay for long if you don’t want to.”

He knows the offer is genuine, but the sinking feeling in his chest still comes. Ever since Atlas had become more of a prominent figure, Rhys has all but offered Vaughn his old job back. A better one, even. But, Vaughn’s tasted the life vault hunters lead, the life led on Pandora. He likes that so much more than he ever thought he would. He can’t leave it, especially not now. He owes it to everyone who died. He has to survive on the planet.

“I’d stay with you, but-” Vaughn starts, but Rhys cuts him off.

“I know,” he says softly, “I know. I get it. I really do.”

A silence sets again and Rhys’ fingers rub at the sides of his arms in slow, gentle motions. Vaughn lets himself breathe Rhys in. He smells like sterile soap with the slightest hint of cologne, to a degree he still smells like Hyperion. And in that same vein he smells like home. He pulls away for a moment to meet Rhys’ eyes. Rhys’ hands stay at his sides as Rhys breaks the silence.

“You gotta stay the bandit king,” he says with a little smile that warms Vaughn’s insides.

He takes Rhys in for a few moments, noting the subtle differences in him. He looks a lot more tired than he did when they worked for Hyperion, even his Echo eye seeming tired somehow. The lines around his face are a little more prominent. His hair is a little longer and as they sit at Moxxi’s makeshift bar, it isn’t styled in any way. The longer parts near the front hold a slight poof, but strands still fall down the sides of his face. It’s then that Vaughn leans forward again, but instead of hugging into him again, Vaughn puts his hands on Rhys’ chest for balance and he kisses him.

In the second that it happens, he realizes that he probably also tastes just as disgusting. And he pulls away, almost scandalized with an apology on his lips.

Shit, sorry. I bet that wasn’t as-” Vaughn starts. And Rhys cuts him off, again.

Rhys’ arms move up to hold the sides of Vaughn’s face and this time it’s Rhys who leans in to kiss him with a little more gusto. And they stay like that, too. For a few moments, the Backburner ceases to exist, the issues that plague the both of them are gone. Vaughn lets one of his hands slide up to hold one of the sides of Rhys’ face and he rubs his thumb in a circle across the smooth skin. Rhys hums softly and the kiss remains intact for a few more seconds before he pulls away again. He smiles at Vaughn. The warmth reaches even his Echo eye. Vaughn smiles back.

It’s then that Rhys leans forward to rest his chin on Vaughn’s shoulder and pull him into a proper hug.

“I miss you; you know?” Rhys asks, his tone softer.

“I do, actually,” Vaughn says, his hands now fully on Rhys’ back, rubbing one of his hands in slow circles, “I miss you, too.” There’s a pause before he adds, “we can go to Atlas. For tonight.”

Rhys pulls away, a larger grin on his face, “alright,” he says, leaning in to kiss Vaughn again one last time before getting up and taking Vaughn’s hand in his to lead him back toward the fast travel machine.

“You’re going to love it. The base we have is so well decorated. I’ve just recently hired someone to help me deal with everything that’s been going on, that will keep going on. Her name’s Lorelei. You’ll love her. I’m also sure I can get you something set up, permanently. Not that you’ll have to stay there always or at all, but I think I can have it set up. Just somewhere you can go if you need it,” Rhys rambles as they head over to the machine.

Vaughn watches Rhys’ expressions change as he goes through the topics. The slight pride in the mention of the décor, the relief of an assistant, the excitement of the offer of a space in the Atlas base. It makes Vaughn feel warm inside again. It makes him happy to see Rhys, it makes him happier to see him succeed.

Rhys keeps talking about the Atlas base as he uses his free hand to put in the coordinates that’ll take them back to Atlas. His excitement apparent.

When they digistruct again, they appear inside what Vaughn assumes has to be Rhys’ office. It’s grandiose. Better than Handsome Jack’s. Not that Vaughn had ever seen Handsome Jack’s, but Jack’s was debris on the Pandoran landscape now, so Rhys won if only by default.

The space is massive with pastel grey walls and a shiny gunmetal coloured floor. A large desk sits at the back centre with a hovering screen in front. Hundreds of sheets of paper spread across it. From what Vaughn could make out as they passed by, some were proper documents, some had pictures of guns on them. At the foot of the desk was a long carpet that led to a door that Vaughn could only assume was the rest of the building. A small library is put together in a corner of the room opposite the desk, complete with a sofa, sofa chairs, and bookshelves lining the wall.

To the left are a set of doors that Rhys leads them to.

“This one’s the bathroom,” Rhys says as he points at the door on the right, “and the other’s the bedroom.”

Vaughn nods and looks up at him. The grandeur of the office still pales in comparison to how amazed he is by Rhys, just in general, on a daily basis.

“What are you gonna do?” Vaughn asks.

“I’ve got a couple things I need to send out before tomorrow,” Rhys says sheepishly. He offers Vaughn an apologetic smile.

Vaughn steps toward the door leading to the bathroom and turns back to look at Rhys, the warm smile back on his face, “go get your work done, Mr. CEO.”

Rhys rolls his eyes but smiles nonetheless. He leans forward again for a second and Vaughn does too, but they stop at the last second. Rhys looks down with a slight blush on his face, his hand rubbing at the back of his neck. Vaughn clears his throat and takes an awkward step to fully open the door as he awkwardly says, “I should… shower first, probably… it has been weeks…”

“Yeah…” he hears Rhys say behind him. Vaughn misses the full blush that creeps onto Rhys’ face as he closes the bathroom door.

Inside is nothing out of what he’d been used to up on Helios. It was a bathroom, after all. It was clean. He takes a look at the reflection in the mirror above the sink, only just above his shoulders. He can’t see his clothing, but he figures all of his garments are as disgusting as his face is. They’ve got water on Pandora, but it’s hardly ever a filtered source and in the time he’s recently spent, he’d stopped caring.

As he stands, there’s general grime all over him and his face is just a shade or two dirtier than his arms, most likely from all the times he’s rubbed at his own face in an attempt at grounding himself. He’d cut his hair months ago, opting to let it hang as it would so long as it wouldn’t get in his face. And he looks a lot better than Rhys does, at least in terms of general exhaustion. It strikes a small pang in of guilt in his chest, thinking of how life as a bandit on Pandora is somehow kinder than being the top of a company like Atlas.

He runs his hands under the water in the sink, letting most of the grime come off before he runs his hands over his face one more time. When he looks down at his hands and how they’ve become just as dirty as they were before, it occurred to him that Rhys had kissed him like this. Now that was a little embarrassing.

The shower in itself feels like he hadn’t ever had one before in his life. Never mind that he grew up and spent the majority of his adult life on the higher end of the luxury spectrum that anyone who worked for Hyperion could afford. The water’s just the right temperature and somehow the Atlas towels feel softer than Hyperion’s ever did.

When he steps out, towel wrapped around his waist and hair dripping wet onto his face, Rhys looks up at him through the screen above his desk. Rhys smiles at him again and says, “take anything you want out of my closet.”

“You know your pants don’t fit me,” Vaughn snaps back almost immediately. There’s a playfulness to his tone, but he also means it. Rhys offers him another apologetic smile in response. Vaughn knows Rhys doesn’t know what to respond to that. He heads on through into the bedroom.

It’s big. A lot bigger than Vaughn thought it would be. Bigger than Rhys’ bedroom had been on Helios, even. There’s a bed in the far-off corner, a large one at that. There’s another work desk in another corner, a loveseat, a full body mirror, a fur carpet, a shelf, and then another door leading to what Vaughn assumes is the closet.

Stepping through directly to the closet, to a lesser surprise, it’s a walk-in closet. Several different sets of clothes tailored to the Atlas CEO specifically hang directly to his left, casual and formal clothing on the right, and the section of room directly in front of him has an entire set of shelves dedicated to shoes, a mirror, and a dresser that Vaughn assumes is filled with socks.

As he steps around, looking at what Rhys would likely miss the least, he comes upon a familiar shirt. An aqua colored shirt with stripes. He pushes the other things that are hanging around it off to the side and comes upon the entire outfit that Rhys wore on the first day they were on Pandora. Complete with the vest that has the Hyperion logo etched into one side. It always struck Vaughn how oddly sentimental Rhys was. After they’d reunited on the wreckage of Helios, they’d spent some time digging through the wreckage for things and Rhys had walked away with several Hyperion relics.

It doesn’t take Vaughn much longer to settle on a short sleeved blue shirt with stars on it. As expected, it’s too big on him and the dark grey set of Atlas themed sweatpants he picks out also have to be folded several times before he can seven see his feet, but he makes it work. He ruffles his hair in the mirror, the wetness of it letting it stick up in several places like it usually does when he’s wearing the goggles, and he steps back out into the bedroom.

He passes the shelf on his way back into the office and takes a glance at what’s on it. The rights to Atlas, Rhys’ old Hyperion ID card, a pocketwatch-looking thing that Vaughn recognizes but doesn’t remember Rhys walking away from Helios’ wreckage with, several other Atlas achievements, and up in the middle shelf at the centre, a transparent box with a Hyperion grade Echo-eye propped up in it. Vaughn knows what that is, he knows what lives in there.

He understood Rhys’ odd sentimentality for the most part, Hyperion was a huge part of their lives and letting go completely would always be difficult. Vaughn found himself comparing most things to his old life often, but this? This was borderline ridiculous. But that was Rhys.

Vaughn steps back through to the office and Rhys looks up at him through the screen again.

“Hey,” Rhys says in that same soft tone, his head peering off to the side of the screen to get a better look at Vaughn. Vaughn doesn’t respond. Instead he beelines towards Rhys and before Rhys can say anything, he takes Rhys’ face in his now clean hands and kisses him.

Rhys doesn’t object, in fact he responds in kind, but he does shoot an arm out to swivel the screen so it’s now facing the doors that Vaughn had emerged from. As he does so, the faint voice of a someone asking, “Who is that!?” can be heard. Vaughn jerks away, eyes slightly widened.

“Were you in a meeting?!” Vaughn asks in a loud whisper, completely scandalized.

“No,” Rhys responds, bringing both his hands back up to the sides of Vaughn’s face so he can lower him in for another kiss, “that was nobody important.”

I can still hear you, asshole!” the voice comes through again, thick with an accent.

“Who is that?!” Vaughn asks in the same whisper.

Rhys opens his mouth to respond but the female voice beats him to it.

I’m the clearly underpaid underling, who are you?! Wait- wait I know who you are. Oh my god, you’re Vaughn aren’t you. R&D is gonna get a kick out of this... When they find out that-

“Goodnight, Lorelei,” Rhys says, his tone dripping with sarcasm as he moves one hand off of Vaughn’s face and hits a key on the keyboard. The voice cuts out and Vaughn and Rhys are left looking at one another, both scandalized. Rhys’ hand goes back to the side of Vaughn’s face. He adds, "all my employees get paid ridiculously well."

“You’ve talked about me,” Vaugh says, not moving from the slightly hunched over position he’s in.

“Yeah…” Rhys responds, his hands still on the sides of Vaughn’s face, “why… why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know,” Vaughn responds honestly, “the thought of you having a personal life outside of the business side here is just weird, I guess.”

“Well…” Rhys starts, looking off to the side in thought, still not moving from their current position, “uh, you know I love you, right?”

“Y-yeah…” Vaughn responds. It’d been a while since he’d heard that specific thread of words. He knew, sure, but it was always nice to hear.

“Well…” Rhys looks back at him, still somewhat scandalized, but still in the same position, “it.. may have slipped out once or twice during some things. I don’t know if you’d want your name out there in the mouths of Atlas management.”

There’s something so endearing about the way Rhys is looking at him. He was never remotely upset, but the thought of Atlas management gossiping about them was frankly, amusing. Instead of responding, Vaughn opts to lean forward just enough so that he can kiss Rhys again. And it isn’t like the one at Moxxi’s makeshift bar. That was a soft hello, a grounding to reality, a soft reassurance of momentary peace.

This is deeper, a proper kiss, a promise. Rhys’ hands move down and off his face to slide around his shoulders and pull him forward, mostly putting Vaughn in his lap. And there isn’t much space on there to begin with, but they make do. Vaughn’s hands slide up and into Rhys’ hair and realizes he’d forgotten how soft it could be. They break apart for a few seconds, grins on either of their faces and Vaughn huffs a laugh and says, “I missed you.” And he kisses Rhys again.

And they carry on like that for a while. It escalates as much as two lovers who haven’t seen each other can. It ends in the bedroom, naturally. Through some last-minute decisions, Vaughn decides to spend the night. They end up tangled in the luxury sheets Rhys has, eventually falling into a position they’d recently only rarely had the chance to indulge in. Rhys is on his back, mechanical arm discarded off to the other end of the room, with Vaughn straddling his stomach, head buried in Rhys’ neck, just breathing him in. And they lay like that for a while, just living in the moment, in the space they have.

“You smell good,” Vaughn mumbles into Rhys’ neck. The vibration from the words tickling at his neck. Rhys moves his arm to rub lightly at the back of Vaughn’s head.

“So do you,” Rhys responds, turning to kiss the top of Vaughn’s head.

“Mmmm,” Vaughn replies, eyes shut and already succumbing to the comedown of post-orgasmic bliss.

“You’ll be alright,” Rhys says softly. He doesn’t notice Vaughn’s eyes open. He continues, “I know… losing everyone was a lot. But, you’ve managed so much on your own. And none of it was your fault. You can’t blame yourself for an attack. Everyone knew how to fire a gun, but none of us were combat trained. We’d never seen what Pandora could throw at someone. You couldn’t have prevented that. It wasn’t your fault.”

And Vaughn sits up just enough so he can meet Rhys’ eyes. There’s concern written on his face that Vaughn answers to with, “but that’s the thing. I knew that. You and I weren’t above anyone, I knew that everyone only knew how to fire a gun. We’d gone on for a while and it never occurred to me that maybe that was something I should have figured out!”

Rhys’ hand goes to hold the side of his face, thumb rubbing down his face once before he says, “you’re not trained to be a warmonger either. None of it was your fault.”

“But it all falls to me. I was the one that stepped up. It was my responsibility,” Vaughn says with a sigh of defeat. He looks down at Rhys’ chest and stares at it blankly.

“Hey, look at me,” Rhys says, tapping at Vaughn’s face with his thumb. His tone remains as gentle as it ever was. When Vaughn does, he continues, “I promise you. That wasn’t your fault. If anything, it was Jack’s fault. He’s the reason Helios is on the ground in the first place.”

Vaughn sighs. He was never going to get Rhys to understand that it was his responsibility in the end. But, he’ll admit the idea of putting the blame on Jack was comforting somehow. He wouldn’t push it anymore, but he appreciated the fact that Rhys was so willing to comfort him. Instead he drops back down onto Rhys’ shoulder.

He asks, referring to the Echo-eye on the shelf, “why do you keep him around?”

Vaughn feels Rhys tense under him and there’s a pause between the question and when Rhys finally answers.

“As a reminder, mostly,” Rhys says, looking up at the ceiling now, “I’m not going to become him.”

“You said you’d had the chance to. I think more than anything that proves that you’re never going to be like him. You couldn’t be. You’re you. And you’re always going to be better than him,” Vaughn responds without hesitation. Because it’s true.

“Yeah…” Rhys keeps his eyes on the ceiling, mind clearly in thought.

“Rhys,” Vaughn says, looking up at Rhys, who’s still looking up at the ceiling.

“I hear you,” Rhys says.

“Hey,” Vaughn says, sitting up again so he can hover completely over Rhys, covering his view of the ceiling, “how about this,” he says, “I’ll try and stop constantly telling myself that it was my fault every survivor of the Helios crash was my fault if you can get yourself to believe you’ll never be Handsome Jack.”

Rhys meets his eyes and a sad smile creeps onto his face as he says, “I think we can try that, sure.”

Vaughn leans down and kisses him again, quick and sweet, before saying, “you are the most amazing person I’ve ever met and everything you do, things that Handsome Jack could and would never by the by, is absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of you constantly. You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

And Rhys looks up at him with a warmer smile now on his face, saying in response, “and you are so much stronger than I could ever be. You don’t know it, but every single military person I’ve ever met has nothing on you. Now that Athena’s retired, it really is just you. I’m just as proud of you constantly. And… well, you are also the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Vaughn smiles and leans down to kiss Rhys again, with a little more passion, a little more intensity. The warm feeling that pools in his chest is indescribable or else he’d have said that, too. He slips one of his hands onto the side of Rhys’ face and holds him there when they pull apart for a second, faces still close.

“I love you,” Vaughn says in what’s barely a whisper.

“Love you, too,” Rhys responds without hesitation, leaning in the fraction of a centimetre to kiss him again.