Rhys figures he's been holding it together pretty well as his life goes to hell. He's walked into danger and out the other side so many times by this point that he's lost count. But when he watches his best friend's limp body being dragged away across snow and dust, something inside him finally snaps.
“Is - is he dead?” Rhys shrieks, grabbing at Finch’s back until the man turns and shoves him away.
“Chill out,” snaps Finch. “This ain't our first rodeo. Boss knows what she’s doing.”
Fortunately at that moment Vaughn stirs, groaning as his hand lifts weakly to his side. “Rhys…” he mumbles, his eyes fluttering open - but when he catches sight of the massive red stain soaking through his shirt, the only sound he can make is a faint cry of horror before his body slumps again. Unbothered, the gangsters haul him by his arms and legs into the back of a transport, and slam the door in Rhys’ face.
He hammers on it a couple of times with both fists, but there’s no response, just a silence that reminds him he caused it all. Vaughn should be up on Helios, generating expense reports to his heart's content; instead he's here and it's completely, entirely Rhys' fault.
“Well, that went terribly,” says Jack as he materialises, leaning against the truck next to him with his arms folded.
Rhys doesn’t look at him, gritting his teeth and curling his hands even tighter. “Shut up.”
“Aw, c’mon, Rhysie. Cheer up. It’s not like you’re the one bleeding out on the floor of a -”
To his surprise and relief, Jack goes silent. Rhys risks a glance at him. Normally he’d be unnerved by the way Jack narrows his eyes before blinking out of existence, but he can’t bring himself to worry about the consequences. Hyperion, Vallory, the Vault - without Vaughn, none of it matters.
A gentle, cautious hand rests on Rhys’ shoulder, and he’s about to scream until he turns to see Sasha. He swallows the sound and clears his throat.
“Hey. It’s gonna be okay,” she says softly. The pity in her eyes is unbearable.
He lets out a long sigh, closing his eyes in an attempt to compose himself. “How could Fiona do that?” He can’t believe how helpless he sounds, unable to call forth the rage that's writhing somewhere deep in his guts.
Sasha glances away, biting her lip. “I - I’m sure she just…”
She looks torn. She glances over her shoulder at her sister, sitting alone staring into her hat; her jaw is set in grim determination and her knuckles are white. But his anger isn’t all for Fiona. He almost respects her stubbornness even as he wonders who’ll be the first to die from it. Rhys sits down on the truck’s rear fender, propping his head up in his hands.
“I just sat there,” he says heavily. “I did nothing.”
“There’s nothing you could have done, Rhys.” Sasha squats down in front of him.
“I dunno, I could have - offered to take his place or something, or…”
She can’t help but crack a smile at that. “I don’t think we’d have survived the screaming,” she says, not unkindly. “Vaughn’s tough. He’s probably sitting up in there right now asking if he can take a look at their books.”
Just then the door smacks him hard in the back and he tumbles to the ground. Kroger steps out of the truck, looking at the two of them in exasperation.
“We told you he’d be fine.”
Rhys doesn’t even bother to dust himself off, pushing past into the hold where Finch is wrapping a used Anshin hypo in a ratty towel. Vaughn is lying on the floor with his shirt unbuttoned and blood pooled by his side - too much blood, Rhys thinks - his head rolling from side to side and his fingers stretching aimlessly.
“Vaughn,” he whispers, distraught. His friend’s skin is pale, a stark contrast to the dark bloom spreading through the bandage under his ribcage. As soon as he hears his name, Vaughn’s eyes fly open and he stares in Rhys’ direction, but the moment he tries to sit up a groan of pure pain escapes him.
Rhys is by his side in a second. “Shh. It’s okay. I’m here.”
Finch rolls his eyes and squeezes past. “You’re welcome, Hyperion.” He slams the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone under the bare bulb in the hold.
Vaughn’s hand drifts towards the wound and Rhys intercepts it, squeezing it tight. It’s an automatic movement, and so is the way he clutches the hand to his chest, feeling tears pricking his right eye.
“I’m so sorry,” he says thickly.
“No, it’s not your fault. Should’ve got away when…”
Vaughn takes a laboured, shuddering breath. Rhys’ right hand goes to brush his hair off his sweat-soaked forehead, resting the cool metal there as if it can heal him faster. He feels Vaughn’s grip getting weaker and impulsively squeezes his hand.
“Come on. Eyes open,” he pleads. “We’ve come this far.”
“S’fine...just need to...rest for a bit…”
Desperate for some way to help, Rhys boots up his ECHO-Eye to check his friend's vital signs.
Blood Pressure: 420/69
Heart Rate: Who cares
The buff dweeb is totally screwed. What a waste of abs.
The horrible sinking feeling lasts until he realises it's just Jack, taunting him from somewhere in his frontal lobe. Asshole, he thinks at him. There's no response.
Vaughn shivers and Rhys wraps his shirt back around his body for the little protection it will give. He looks small, vulnerable, the way Rhys hasn’t thought of him since seeing his unexpectedly perfect physique back in the desert. It's an image that's been coming back to him every day since, but Rhys internally berates himself for even being able to summon the memory at a time like this.
At last a strange kind of calm steals over them both - if they can get through this, they can get through anything - but when Rhys shifts to try and untangle his legs, Vaughn's eyes fly open, the terror back in them.
"Don't leave me," he rasps.
"Never," says Rhys, trying to stay calm. He cups his friend's face in the palm of his right hand. "No matter what. I promise."
With a weak smile, Vaughn relaxes once more. There's some colour in his face; still, Rhys watches the rise and fall of his chest like a hawk as he drifts in and out of consciousness. He considers lying down next to him but dismisses the thought. Instead he just keeps holding onto Vaughn's hand, running his thumb over the knuckles and wondering how such a familiar face can look so different.
There's a hesitant knock at the door and Fiona pokes her head through the gap. Her hat is back in position, her eyes alert as she takes in the scene. Rhys feels like he's being ECHO scanned.
"How is he?" she asks, her voice clipped.
"Y'know. Better." And then to his own surprise, he adds, "What about you?"
"Eh, I've probably had worse days." She climbs partway into the hold, hovering a safe distance from the blood. "August wants to get everyone together to plan, so…"
"Screw August," mumbles Rhys.
"As much as I agree with that sentiment, we can't really afford to keep them waiting." Fiona cranes her neck to look at Vaughn, unable to hide the flicker of a grimace.
Rhys swallows. "Just...let me stay with him a bit longer, okay? I'll catch up with you guys."
She nods, tucking her hair behind her ear and turns to leave. With her back to him, she sighs. "For what it's worth, tell Vaughn I owe him one."
His attention is already back on his best friend, whose pained expression has relaxed into the blissful ignorance of sleep. "Sure," he says absently, and then she's gone, leaving him alone with the weight of more uncertainty than he's ever known.
"Stay with me too, okay, buddy?" he whispers at last, and places Vaughn's arm across his chest. “I can’t do this without you.”