"I found a new gun today," said Vaughn, just to break the silence. His voice came out in a rasp, echoing strangely in his head. Clearing his throat, he realised with only vague surprise that it was the first time he'd spoken all day. “It’s nice. Hyperion pistol. I’m not sure if it...came down with the rest of us, so I’m trying not to think about it.”
He risked a glance up at the metal monstrosity. The spotlights in the valley caught the edge of its neck before being swallowed up by the dark sky, throwing the unexpected absence of the head into sharp relief.
Vaughn’s stomach lurched. That tiny part of him that was still Hyperion knew that vandalising one of Jack’s effigies meant alarms and guards and death would swiftly follow. But there was sand in his boots, dust in his hair, and another name scrawled in red across the statue’s chest, and as he let his eyes follow the familiar shape of the letters he felt his pulse return to normal. Vaughn let all the air out of his lungs in a long sigh before he leaned back against the leg closest to him.
“It’s probably for the best, bro. They kept making it worse anyway. I guess they didn’t look at you as much as I did.” He paused, folding his arms awkwardly and glancing at the ground. “Sorry, that...came out wrong. I mean, of course I looked at you, you were always...”
Vaughn bit his lip to stop himself from talking. He was finally getting used to life without a recording device around every corner, but there were still some things he wasn't ready to hear put into words - especially in his own voice. He tucked his hands under his arms, trying to hold himself together. The silence in the valley hung over him, heavy with something like accusation.
He pushed his glasses up his nose and cleared his throat again. "So what’s the weather like where you are? I know, I always ask, but it’s Pandora. Anything could happen. One minute you’re getting heat stroke, the next thing you know there’s a sandstorm ripping your skin off."
A warm breeze curled around him, blowing loose strands of hair against his face and neck. He brushed them away. Vaughn hadn’t looked in a mirror for at least a month out of fear of what he might see, but he knew it would be at his shoulders soon. So far he’d resisted the temptation to hack it off with a blunt knife, if only because it kept his attention off the beard. He hated the feeling of it growing day after day like vines over an abandoned house, choking off the last few connections to his past. Whoever he had been, whatever his failings, starting from scratch would be worse.
"Speaking of storms, we got hit pretty bad about a week ago. Turns out it does rain on Pandora. Also turns out dirt huts don’t stand up so well to rain. Anyway, that’s why I haven't been to see you lately. So, uh...sorry?"
He felt stupid, like he always did after the first few minutes talking to an inanimate object, but some part of him really did want his best friend’s forgiveness. Vaughn needed him to know that he hadn’t forgotten him. Closing his eyes, he reached for the sound of Rhys’ voice: words, phrases, late night conversations, trying to splice them into new words in the hope of an answer. But the tape kept slipping through his fingers, the same fragments playing over and over until the words blurred into meaninglessness. He blinked and shook his head.
"I know, it's weird. I just...I'd like to think you miss me too. Is that mean? 'Cause it would probably be better if you're happy, wherever you are. That'd be a nice thing to hope, right?"
Vaughn refused to believe that Rhys wasn't somewhere. The alternative had seeped through his soul like a poison the night the station fell, keeping him awake for three days before plunging him into nightmares, and he could never bring himself to look it in the eye again after that. It was locked away somewhere, its black tendrils trying to sneak through the cracks. He had done whatever it took to keep it there, alternately working until he collapsed or drinking until the same.
"Yeah. You're happy somewhere." He picked at a stray thread on his scarf. "It's okay. I wouldn't remember me either."
He looked up at the jagged edge of what had been Handsome Jack's neck, and he allowed his mind to fill in what the Children of Helios had been unable to recreate. A slim, angular face that somehow softened in a genuine smile - the wave in his hair that never went away, no matter how hard he tried - Vaughn’s chest filled with a longing as comforting as it was painful. There was familiarity in that kind of wanting. It was simple, unburdened by the hope of resolution.
He tried to peer closer, to really see Rhys’ face in front of him instead of indistinct shapes. He couldn’t remember which eye was supposed to be blue. God, what did his nose look like again?
Nothing lined up. Nothing was good enough. Vaughn twisted his fingers together as he tried to remember, a sense of horror growing as he found he could no longer see his best friend in his mind’s eye. He'd played all the memories back too many times, lived in them as a copy of a copy until all he had left was some warped, blurry idea of a human being. He clutched his hands to his chest, desperately searching for something he could use. A lifeline. A fix.
The harder he looked, the more the images faded into static. At last, empty, he let himself sink to the ground, sitting a moment before curling up by the statue's feet.
"You were real, right?" Vaughn asked quietly. “I didn’t make it all up?”
But Rhys didn't answer, and the wreckage of Helios stood half-buried in the sand like it had always been there, watched over by a dead man.