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Step Into the House That Jack Built

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“The message came from THE FUTURE. Of course, that’s gotta be bullshit, right? Because why and how and no fucking chance. But after three weeks of coffee-fueled benders and only the occasional break to masturbate while eating a bagel in the shower, I can definitively tell ya… It ain’t not from the future, Kitten.”

Jack paces as he talks, gesturing broadly with his hands. His voice echoes off the high ceiling, lending a hallowed-sort of timber to his words. “Can’t tell if that look you’re givin’ me is skeptical or shit-terrified, Kiddo. Who am I kidding? You’re right either way!

I mean, I killed a lot of people to get my answer. A whole department. Good workers, but I just couldn’t risk them actually reading the message. Oh, shit, sit tight a sec.” Jack walks to his desk and slaps the comm. “Jimmy? Hey, Jimminy-Jam, make a note, would you? I still need to kill the families of...oh, shit, I never did get around to naming the ad-hoc department, did I?”

“No, sir,” Jimmy replies, uncertainty in his voice.

“Eh, just write ‘Kill the families,’ I’ll remember.” His hand slides off the button and he turns back to his captive audience. A thrill runs up Jack’s spine when he sees the man tremble, just a little. Healthy fear is good for the soul. “Anyway, after I figured out it wasn’t some elaborate practical joke, well, that’s when I called you up here. Aw hell, I got ahead of myself. See, I’ve been watching your goofy ass since day one.”

“Why'd—?”

“Uh-uh-uh, who said you could talk? Don’t open that pretty mouth while Daddy’s monologuing.” He smirks as the man’s lips snap shut. “Do you even know how boring you are, by the way? I mean, just...painfully boring. Vanilla. Low-fat, sugar-free vanilla. You’re so dedicated to your job, which would be cute, except it’s MIDDLE MANAGEMENT!? C’mon, Princess, you’re gonna need to stab someone in the back if you ever want to climb the corporate ladder...

And your friends. Do you really only have the two? Shorty and Lunch-Mooch? Even your home life is a snooze-fest, I mean, my God you spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. And this coming from me...” He motions vaguely at his perfectly-coiffed hair. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got cameras in that shit-hole apartment, don’t look so surprised, didn’t you read the fine print? You’re on a Hyperion space station, Champ, there’s no such thing as privacy here. But… I’m getting off track, here’s my point. The message is real and you, my leggy friend, are the sender.”

Jack falls silent, waiting, letting it alllllll sink in.

“I...I didn’t.”

“Okay, well, not you-you, I mean you in the future. Rhys Strongfork, CEO of Atlas . Aggh, sorry, I threw up in my mouth a little bit. Buddy, really, that’s like saying you run a factory dedicated to the production of toilet fires.”

Jack leans back against his desk and crosses his arms over his chest.

“I honestly do not know what you’re talking about.” To his credit, Rhys meets his eyes, despite his shaking voice.

“I know you don’t, Pumpkin, that’s part of the mystery. Maybe I’ll just show you. I can always kill you later, right? See, I’ve been calling it a message, but it’s so much more than that. The little note your future self slapped on there wasn’t the most interesting part. That would be all the data. News articles, ECHO streams, Helios archives, entries from my personal journal. Fascinating stuff. Really. Fucking. Fascinating.”

Pushing himself up off the desk, Jack saunters over to the chair where Rhys sits, ramrod stiff. He reaches out to touch the port drilled into the kid’s temple. A spark jumps between them and Jack grins, stroking a finger around the cool metal rim.

“That thing just for show?” he asks, pulling a data stick from his pocket. When Rhys shakes his head, Jack’s lips curl into a smile. “Good.” Without fanfare he jams the stick straight into the port and watches in pleasure as Rhys’ mouth falls open, his eyes going wide before rolling back in his head. His nerd-body convulses and then he slumps forward.

Jack grabs Rhys’ chin and tilts his head up, smacking his cheek. “You with me?”

It takes a few moments, but slowly, Rhys’ eyes open, the brown one dull, the ECHO eye illuminated as his brainhole processes all the information Jack just dumped into it.

“I’m sure you’re gonna want to pore over every tantalizing little detail, but the long and short of it is this: Handsome-Goddamn-Jack, loses to a ragtag bunch of bandits. They kill my daughter, they kill my Warrior, and they kill me.” Jack clenches his jaw so tight it’s a wonder he doesn’t crack a tooth. Rhys blinks, his eyes shifting, searching Jack’s face for answers.

Rhys opens his mouth and a low, gibberish noise comes out.

“Uh-huh, exactly. So I’m thinking whyyyyyy would the head of Atlas, years after my murder, decide to engineer the tech to send a ‘Sorry You Died’ card back here to the past, to me? But then I figured it out.”

Rhys wets his lips, some of the light slowly returning to his natural eye. When he speaks again, it’s almost a real word. “Whh…”

Because, kitten,” Jack says. “He—you—wanted a good dicking.”

That does the trick. Suddenly, Rhys blinks. His dark, dopey eyebrows come together and a flush stains his cheeks. He shakes his head too hard, making himself dizzy (Cute, right? Like a baby dropped on its head...), and reaches out to Jack to steady himself. His cybernetic hand hovers near Jack’s shoulder for a second before he reconsiders and lets it fall back to his side. Jack smirks.

“That’s not true.”

“Not saying you want just any old dick. I mean, I’ve seen the way you slather over that big ol’ pair of boobs in R&D. But still, you definitely, definitely, want some creamy Jack filling.” Jack’s grin is broad and cruel in the face of Rhys’ suddenly flustered expression. “You’re forgetting...I’ve seen your bedroom. Seven posters? I’m flattered, obviously. Lord knows ya got good taste, but kid, there’s even one on your ceiling. You literally can’t look anywhere in that room without getting an eyeful of my handsome mug.”

“Sir…” Rhys pleads, desperation coloring his voice. “I...they’re...Hyperion-issued. Collector’s items! I-I-I admire you, um, you’re sorta my…”

“Wet dream? Every waking fantasy?”

“I don’t...y’know, use them for anything...uh, weird.”

“Oh, dum-dum, what part of cameras in your bedroom and full-time surveillance do you not understand?” Jack leans back, smirking as he gives three quick jerks to the air near his crotch and then says, “And sploosh.”

“That wasn’t—!”

“Uh-huh.”

For a moment, the fear on Rhys’ dumb face gives way to a weird, pouty, glare, which is adorable but also ridiculous. When he speaks, his voice is as firm as he can probably manage, which is...not great. And by God dem cheeks are red. 

“That ‘pair of boobs’ in R&D has a name, it’s Samantha. Well all of her is named Samantha—I, uh, I don’t know if her boobs have their own names. The left one looks like a Barbara, or maybe a Babs...Anyway… not that it’s any of your business—  She’s...um...often on my mind.”

“Maybe so,” Jack says slowly, one eyebrow raised, “But it was my face you were staring at when you splooshed, kiddo.”

Rhys clamps his mouth shut, which is probably for the best. Jack runs his knuckle along the curve of Rhys’ jaw and smirks as the kid shivers.

“Anyway, you’re probably wondering what happens now. I mean, if not, you should be. ’Cause I gotta say, I’m itching to space you. Or…” His fingers trail up Rhys’s cheek, over the defined bone structure, up his nose, to the place between his eyes where Jack taps twice. “A bullet here would be real fun. Blow the hell out of your pretty face.”

Rhys swallows, but he doesn’t look away and Jack r-e-e-e-a-l-l-y likes that about him, the way his mismatched eyes meet Jack’s. The kid’s a weirdo, for sure, but maybe not completely worthless.

“But…” He pulls back, letting his hand fall away. “I might still need ya! So, no-can-death. Not yet.” With one final pat to his cheek, Jack says, “You can go. But, kitten, don’t forget… These eyes? They’re on you. All. The goddamn. Time.”

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

“VAUGHN?!” Rhys calls out the second the apartment door shuts behind him. The panic that’s been building since the moment he was summoned to Handsome Jack’s office (oh dear GOD, that actually happened, didn’t it?!) makes his voice tight. “Vaughn?? You here?!” It’s interrobang city, population: Rhys. “VAUGHN!!”

“Whoa, bro, you okay?” Vaughn asks, suddenly appearing in the living room doorway. He’s dressed down for the night in a touristy “Visit Scenic Athenas” t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Staying-in-and-watching-movies attire. That’s good. ’Cause Rhys definitely needs his best friend right now.

Rhys rakes his flesh hand through his hair, unconsciously mussing it. “No, I am definitely not okay. I’m the farthest thing from okay. I’m…” Totally, completely losing my heckin’ mind. “Parsecs from okay. Six galaxies away, bro.”

“Slow down,” Vaughn says, hands up as if he’s trying to calm a rabid skag. “What happened? Vasquez, again? Or—?”

“Handsome Jack.” The name tumbles from Rhys’ lips and thunks onto the floor. They both look down as if the name is a tangible thing. Rhys shoves his hands deep into his pockets and begins to pace. He needs to get his head straight, but that fleeting thought turns into a chant of: get your head straight, get your head straight, get your head straight.

Really, Rhys Strongfork, get your head straight.

Except how? How do

It’d been a perfectly mundane afternoon. He’d been explaining to Gina for the third time this month that, if she wants to keep her job, she has to be at her station, logged in, and ready to work at the top of the hour. She can’t just saunter in at fifteen past. Then, all of a sudden Rhys’ ECHO eye pinged with a message from Jeremy Milton.

Jeremy Milton—also, apparently, known as Jimmy—the CEO’s PA.

Handsome Jack wants to see you.

Because that ever happens.

It was...like winning the lottery and getting a death sentence all at once—a queasy, awesome thrill at the opportunity to finally meet his idol in the flesh. (More queasy, than awesome, honestly.) If you believe the rumors that your life flashes before your eyes as you’re about to die, that’s nothing compared to the memories that come tumbling back to haunt you when you’re summoned to meet with Capital T-H-E Handsome Jack.

By the time Rhys was riding the elevator to the Executive Suite, he’d narrowed the reason for his summons down to two possibilities: the vulnerability his department found last month that triggered the recall of the Stately Eviscerator, or the five extra minutes of break time he took on Tuesday.

And then Jeremy/Jimmy was buzzing him through. And the office was so cavernous and garish. And Jack was so intimidating. And Rhys was so confused by everything he had to say. The future? And messages? And Jack lost? What daughter? Which bandits? And then ohmygod all that data pouring into his head at once. (Even now, headlines randomly pop up in his brain— Bandits Attack Opportunity! Many Statues Defiled! —but before he can absorb the content of the article, his mind has jumped to the next random piece of information.)

And then…

And then…

"Rhys?” Vaughn reaches up and snaps his fingers in front of Rhys’ eyes. His face is etched with concern. “Come back to me buddy. You can’t just say ‘Handsome Jack’ and then space out! I’m gonna need more information here.”

Without thought, or pause, Rhys says, “HetoldmehethinksIwanthimtodickme.”

Because that’s the most important part? Not the time-travelling message, or the news that he’ll be the CEO of Atlas someday (better than Tediore, he supposed), or that Handsome Jack is going to die.

No, apparently what matters is that Jack thinks Rhys wants… well... that.

Vaughn blinks slowly behind his green-tinted glasses.

“You’re telling me that Handsome Jack—?”

“Yes.”

“CEO of Hyperion—?”

“Yes.”

“Our boss—?”

“Yes.”

“The man you’re obsessed with —?”

“What? I’m...I’m not obsessed. I’m just—!”

“That he, what? Ran into you in the elevator and said, ‘hey there, Kiddo, lookin’ for a good time?”

Rhys lets out a long, hard sigh. “First of all, that was a... really...good Jack voice. Second, I didn’t ‘run into’ him. He called me to his office, because…” And then, suddenly, Rhys remembers that there are cameras—CAMERAS—in the apartment and he marches over and grabs Vaughn’s arm, dragging his friend toward the bathroom.

“Whoa, whoa, what are you doing?”

He leans close and whispers into Vaughn’s ear, “Handsome Jack has our apartment under surveillance and...C’mon, there’s probably cameras in the bathroom too, but at least we can run the water and maybe not be overheard.”

Vaughn stumbles forward a couple of steps, but then he pulls back. When he speaks, his words are slow, as if Rhys is a small child. “Bro… I’m seriously worried about you. Did you, maybe...eat something weird?”

“No… I’m just. I’m fine. Or, I will be.” Once you believe me and help me find a way out of this nightmare, Rhys thinks.

He ignores Vaughn’s very obvious bro, I think you have a brain-fever expression and continues to the bathroom, turning on the shower and drowning the room in noise. It’s to Vaughn’s credit that he follows.

“I know you think I’m crazy,” Rhys whisper-shouts. “It’s...I mean...I get it. But, Handsome Jack really did summon me up to his office. He received a message”— leave off ‘from the future’ Rhys, keep it simple —“and he thinks I had something to do with it. I didn’t. But he’s pissed, and some people have already died, and—”

“You aren’t dead because…?” Vaughn drops his voice, either caught up in Rhys’ story or because he’s a good friend. Honestly, at this point, Rhys will take either.

“He’s...curious? I guess? As long as he thinks I can tell him something about it, he’ll keep me alive.”

Vaughn shakes his head. “But you don’t know anything about this message, right?”

Rhys unconsciously raises a hand to his neural port. He knows everything about the message, too much even, but it’s all a big jumble. It’s gonna take time and quiet and maybe a drink or fifteen to come down off the ceiling and process all that information.

“I might be able to figure something out,” Rhys says and knuckles between his brows, closing his eyes.

“Well, yeah, you’d better. As long as you’re only alive because Jack thinks you know something. And this, uh, dicking thing? I mean, can you use that to your advantage?”

“I don’t see how .”

Vaughn sighs. “If you can’t figure it out, I’ll draw you a picture.”

* * *

Three days go by and there’s nothing.

Rhys wakes up, showers in a towel, hides in his closet to get dressed, and definitely does not think about Samantha. He feels Jack’s eyes on him everywhere he goes and his nerves have him (literally) looking over his shoulder every other minute.

He second-guesses himself at work, watches his every word, wonders who might be spying on him for the CEO and dreads his next message from Jeremy/Jimmy. 

He can hardly sleep. Thank God for his cybernetics, which work almost without any input from him, or he wouldn’t be able to function at all.

Then, it happens in the middle of the night. He’s sifting through the info dump in his brain—The Future. He’s analyzing the moments, big and small, that lead a rag-tag group of vault hunters to end Jack’s life in a volcano, when suddenly his cybernetics go shit-crazy.

Robo-hand turns palm up without his intent and there’s a holographic version of himself emanating from the emitter. Rhys gapes, stunned to see himself—older—and…

Rhys takes pride in his appearance, spending his hard-earned money on the best clothes he can afford, sometimes to the detriment of his grocery budget. But the him—and, it is him, right?—staring back from his open hand, is a mess. Shirt rumpled and partially untucked, tie loose, and...

“What the hell?” he whispers, horrified by the caterpillar on his holo-self’s upper lip. It’s...the worst thing he’s ever seen. No, seriously. He once saw two loader bots trying to...interface with each other...and that mustache is so much worse. He smacks his flesh hand over his mechanical palm to hide the image, but then his own voice comes to him through his implants and Rhys slowly pulls his hand away.

“Hey, Me-bro,” the bedraggled head of the Atlas Corporation says, looking around. “Wait, am I broadcasting from our hand? I’m supposed to be large as life and...Jesus. Hyperion tech doesn’t play well with, well, anybody. I guess it’s a miracle I’m in your head and your hand at all. Seriously, Me, once you get your first Atlas arm, you’ll wonder what you’ve been doing all this time with that yellow clunker.”

Rhys blinks slowly and all he can think to say is, “Atlas is...garbage.”

“Atlas,” ECHO Rhys says with a sniff, “ is state of the art. And you are the reason for that. Look, we don’t have time to stand around debating how awesome my —our— company is which is pretty awesome, just so you know

“Cameras,” Rhys suddenly whispers and once again slaps his hand over the holo-emitter in his mechanical arm. ECHO Rhys lets out a cry of protest. “Handsome Jack has cameras in here. I’ve tried to find them without being too obvious. Scanned everything with my ECHO eye, but they’re hidden too well… Unless… of course… it’s all a lie…”

“No, he’s definitely watching you, but I Viper’d that shit. If he’s watching right now, all he sees is a perfectly normal feed of you sleeping.”

“Except I haven’t slept in days and if he sees me comfortable and in dreamland, then he’s gonna know something’s up.”

“Point taken. We’ll keep this brief.”

Slowly, Rhys pulls back his hand and looks down at the small version of himself. He seems so... old

“How are you doing this?”

“I broke this program, this ECHO-Rhys, into a thousand little pieces and buried them in the data I sent Jack, like burrs in the tall grass. It would’ve just looked like junk code, but every time you searched through it, you’d pick up a few more burrs until there were enough to trigger activation.”

“Jack’s a brilliant programmer. He’d see through something like that in an instant!” ” Rhys says and his ECHO-self rolls his eyes.

“Jeez, I forgot how obsessed I we used to be. Yeah, Jack’s great at what he does, but we’re not too shabby ourselves, Me. And, obviously it worked. I hid the code, your ECHO eye triggered it, and here I am

Rhys frowns deeply. If this is true and he’s not hallucinating from lack of sleep, then his future self kinda dicked him over. “Jack’s threatening to kill me all because of you. Why did you even send the message in the first place?”

“Good question. Smart. Unfortunately, it’s a complicated...Tale.” He chuckles as he emphasizes the word. Rhys stares at him blankly. “No? Okay, look, the shortest explanation is that we well, me— I guess not you now that I’ve changed your timeline end up spending some time with Jack, uh... after his death.”

“What?!”

“This guy, Nakayama, made an A.I. backup of Jack, and then he ended up in my head, and, look, I’ll just give you access to my journal, and you can read about it the thing is there were some hijinks. It was a whole thing. We—Jack and I—got to know each other pretty...intimately.”

“Intimately?” Rhys latches onto the word. You wanted a good dicking. Oh GOD. Is it true? “Like you and he were…were...”

“C’mon, Rhysie, you can say it: ‘Dear future self, will Handsome Jack make me his lover in the nighttime? Please, oh please, tell me he’ll pop my cherry!”

Both Rhys and ECHO-Rhys let out a startled yelp and Rhys scrambles back, nearly tumbling off his bed in his attempt to get away from the glowing image of Handsome Jack suddenly floating in his bedroom.

“What-what-what?!”

He holds out his mechanical arm, aiming his tiny future self at the image of Jack.

"I put you on lock-down!” ECHO-Rhys hisses, angrily uncertain. “I neutralized you!”

"Oh, you tried, Mustache. But you’re playing with the big boys, and Hyperion doesn’t just roll over and bite the pillow. Your ‘Viper Drive’? It did nothing.”

“What the hell is happening?” Rhys whispers frantically.

"Okay, I was gonna get to this part after, but... I sorta had to make a deal with the Devil to get here.”

A.I. Jack sits down on Rhys’ desk. He beams, toothy and malicious, glowing ECHO-blue.

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

Jack leans back in his chair and stares through the vast, towering window that looks out on the gaping maw of space. The view is...passable. Elpis in its cracked and dimly glowing glory, stars twinkling in the sky, it should make him feel small.

But Handsome Jack doesn’t feel small, even in the face of the galaxy. He just sees a wide expanse of territory ripe for the conquering, stars and planets that will someday bear his name.

Jack hums a little melody and then spins his chair, propping his feet up on his desk and taking in all around him. This view is more pleasing, vast and full of, well, Jack. Statues carved in his likeness, oil paintings of his greatest achievements, his trophy case, and the reading nook with all the books dedicated to him and the empire he’s built. (Plus a handful of porn novels. Obviously.)

Jack taps the arm of his chair, hums a little louder.

It’s too fucking quiet in here.

“Hyperion voice chick?” he calls out and she answers immediately.

“Yes, Handsome Jack?”

“Play some music.”

“Anything in particular, sir?”

“Baby, you know what I like.”

Hail Handsome Jack in D Minor, ” she confirms before the room is filled with an orchestral piece that has something to do with him. Eh, he doesn’t get music, but it has his name in the title and it jingle-jangles along okay.

See, Jack fucking H-A-T-E-S the silence, ’cause the silence is never truly silent . There’s all these obnoxious voices , echoes of the past that close in on him in waves, crashing over him and threatening to pull him down, to drown him in memory and misery.

So he fills the silence with noise .

Like this song. Or the whimpering of an employee begging for their life, the screams of some asshole making him chase them through the halls of Helios, the reverberating report of a gunshot and the subsequent thud of a body hitting the floor. Sometimes there’s a gurgle and death rattle. Nice . Death noises to drown out the other death noises—screams to drown out the other screams.

When he can’t kill , he talks . A ceaseless sea of chatter, his own voice overwhelming his grandmother’s cackling laughter and the tortured sobs of Angel crying herself to sleep. It carries over the sound of turret fire cracking the still silence of the air and his wife’s scream—sharp, desperate, cut short. 

The sound of his own voice is better; he can be crueler than his demons, quicker, sharper, more brutal.

Jesus. Morose much?

“Hyperion chick?” he calls out again.

“Yes, Handsome Jack?”

“Cut the music. Unmute screen number four.”

See, lately, Jack’s found something else to fill the silence. Someone else.

He lets his head fall back against the chair and stares up at the gigantic monitors, larger than life, displaying the Feature Presentation from every angle. Attractive, Vanilla Middle-Manager Goes About His Boring Fucking Day, But Looks Hot Doing It , starring Rhys “String Bean” Strongfork. There’s wide shots and close-ups and even a screen dedicated simply to following that cute little ass as it hurries along. Butt cam is Jack’s favorite.

It’s fucking adorable (in a cotton-candy-til-ya-puke kinda way) how scared Rhys is now that he’s had a talking to from big ol’ bad Jackie, and how he just jumps(!!) at the slightest stimuli. It makes Jack want to call him back up to his office, fill the silence with other noises. Whimpers and moans and the like. Sex stuff, you get it. Strange thing that, ’cause Rhys isn’t really Jack’s type . (You can figure that one out, right? You’re smart. Ish.)

Monitor number four shows Rhys square in the middle of a front-facing shot. He’s in the Hub of Heroism, head in his hands, mumbling to...himself?

“Pan camera number four,” Jack says.

“Yes, Jack,” Hyperion voice chick replies and the hidden camera does a 360 swoop of the Hub. None of Rhys’ dorky ass friends. None of his coworkers. Dum-dum’s just muttering to himself.

“Will you both stop talking for one minute?” Rhys pleads, desperation deliciously flavoring his words. Okay, yeah, but I can’t think when you talk over each other like that.

Hmm.

Interesting.

ECHO communication? Or mental break down?

“Scan the target for ECHO comm signals,” Jack commands.

No outgoing or incoming signals, sir.”

Double hmm.

I’m not gonna do that ,” Rhys says, slamming his hands down on the table and turning his head to the right as if he’s got lunch companions. “Yeah, listen to him, you’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to...I know how to do it.” A subtle flush comes to his cheeks at that. “Would you stop calling me a virgin?”

Oh he’s definitely talking to someone that isn’t there. Pretty and psychotic. Yum!

“Handsome Jack, sir? ” 

Ugh, Jimmy. No one asked for you, Jimmy.

“What?” He snaps as he’s interrupted from his new favorite program. “This better be real goddamn important Jim.”

“Sir, there’s a minor revolution going on in R&D number 4. The scientists have killed one of the managers and are holding the other hostage.”

“So?”

“So...you asked me to let you know if there was any sort of coup after what happened in Marketing last month.”

“That doesn’t sound like me.”

Jimmy is silent for long moments and Jack rolls his eyes.

“Do they have a list of demands?” he asks, curiosity mildly piqued. It’s always fun when they make their silly little demands. Less human testing, more bathroom breaks, can you do something about that noxious gas being filtered into the room? Wah-wah-wah .

“They said demands are forthcoming, but they want to see you .”

“Who doesn’t?” Jack replies with a grin. “Space ’em.”

“They’ve locked out executive override for the entire section. We can’t evacuate the air to space, can’t turn off their life support, can’t even seal them off and blow the clamps to separate them from the rest of the station.”

Jack slowly drops his feet to the floor and stretches his arms high above his head. He supposes he could use a walk. “Fine, since I seem to be the only one on this space station capable of doing a goddamn thing, I’ll handle it.” But he can’t deny a bit of a sense of glee at the prospect.

* * *

Twenty minutes (and twenty bodies! Nice round figures) later, and Jack’s shoes are blood-soaked and his spirits, buoyant. That was just the break—the noise —Jack needed. And, as a reward for all his hard work: dessert.

“Faaaaaaaancy seeing you here, Kitten,” Jack says as he walks up to Rhys who startles and flings his sandwich in terror. It smacks Jack in the shoulder. He looks down, one eyebrow arched as the errant food weapon falls to the floor. Definitely the most ineffectual attempt on his life in the last half-hour. A glob of mayonnaise clings to his jacket.

“Well, that’s gonna fucking stain.”

In an instant, Rhys is standing, his two-toned eyes wide in horror at the crimes he’s committed— which damn right, Pumpkin, you should be —and a slew of apologies are tumbling past his lips. 

It takes Jack a minute to realize he’s drawn the pistol at his thigh. Reflex. But, Jesus, this kid is a skittish little antelope. It’s not even like he’s aiming it , just holding it close like a lover.

Jack slowly swipes his finger through the mayo and brings it to his lips, dragging it along his tongue before gagging. “Jesus fucking Christ, Kiddo, what the shit is this? Fat-free mayonnaise?

“I…”

Rhys grabs handful after handful of napkins, fisting them uselessly as he looks from Jack’s finger, to the greasy mayonnaise stain on his jacket, to the gun in his hand, and then back.

“You’re already a stick.”

“I just like the taste!”

Jack snorts out a laugh as Rhys raises the napkins in a question.

“Well, clean it up then,” Jack commands and doesn’t have to tell Rhys twice. He wipes Jack’s jacket with short desperate strokes that do nothing but grind the mayonnaise into the fabric.

After another few seconds of hilarious—but totally useless—effort, Jack grabs Rhys by the wrist and stills him. For a long moment he strokes his thumb along Rhys’ skin, feeling the man’s pulse flutter. Reluctantly, lets go and Rhys stares down at his freed hand.

“I’m rich, I’ll get a new jacket.”

Rhys’ eyes drop to the gun and Jack laughs.

“You’re lucky I just came from an inspirational chat with the idiots in R&D 4, I think I’m all out of ammo. Plus, I can’t blow your pretty face off till you tell me what I need to know!”

“I’m sorry,” Rhys finally manages, swallowing hard.

Jack loves the scared little animal routine, it’s fun as fuck, but there’s something about defiant Rhys that Jack likes, too. He wonders what he’ll have to do to bring him back. Hmm...that could be a treat, finding out what buttons he has to push to make Rhysie go BOOM.

Jack holsters the gun and crosses his arms over his chest.

“Sooooooooo, heard ya talkin’ to yourself earlier. What’s that about, I wonder?”

Rhys’ jaw goes slack and his eyes widen comically.

“Oh, uh…”

“C’mon, spit it out, Kiddo.”

“W-what did you hear?”

“Nah, now that’s not how this works, is it?”

It’s almost imperceptible, but Rhysie definitely glare-pouts for a second—theeeeeere it is, that’s the fight Jack likes to see—before remembering who he’s talking to and schooling his expression.

“ECHO call,” he says and Jack clicks his tongue.

“Now, see, Rhysie, Handsome Jack doesn’t like to be lied to.”

His cheeks stain pink and he bites his lip, brows knit, before seemingly deciding on a course of action. He nods firmly. “It’s...uh...embarrassing...but...when I’m trying to make a decision...and there’s no one around to bounce ideas off of...I sorta...uh, see, I have this process where I, uh, kinda envision a person near me—”

“Just the one?” Jack purrs and loves watching Rhys swallow. His eyes trace that long column of neck, branded with a dark black tattoo (oooh..so very rebel. Heh.), as if he’s trailing his fingertips along the skin. 

“No, uh, a...committee? I guess?” More awkward gestures follow. A slight coughing fit, the obligatory ear scratch. But he maintains eye contact and Jack eats that shit right up. “This is really embarrassing.”

“Yeah, sounds like it, Princess. Grown-ass man with imaginary friends.

Rhys starts to protest, but reconsiders, and then shrugs, resigned to whatever Jack thinks of him.

“And it seems like your committee of ‘friends’ think you're a virgin. Now I wonder what in the world you and your little head-group could possibly be trying to decide.”

“Not—”

“Oh, Kitten, what did I say about lying? See, I know it’s me.” Jack bares his teeth in a menacing grin and then winks. “I don’t need cameras on you to know I’m renting out all the little rooms in that dum-dum head of yours. It’s Jack-time, all the time, isn’t it? Just...a head full of me.

The half-beat where Rhys misses his opportunity to protest, just spurs Jack onward.

“And, if you’re arguing with a group of imaginary people who’re giving you shit about being a virgin—”

“I'm not a virgin!” Rhys cries a little too loudly and a few of the people at neighboring tables—people who have kept their gazes carefully averted lest they incur the wrath of Handsome Jack—turn and have a drive-by gawk before their food becomes real goddamn interesting once again .

“Ass-virgin then?” Jack guesses and goddamn it’s delicious the way Rhysie pinks another shade darker. “Ass-virgin it is! So why then are the little people in your head giving you hell about sex-type things? Hmm… this is just basic math. One head-full of Handsome Jack plus an imaginary committee giving you hell about your lack of sexual prowess equals…?” He gestures broadly, prompting Rhys to finish for him.

And there it is again! Ding, ding, ding: the stubborn set of Rhys Strongfork’s jaw. He inhales deeply and says, “I know how it looks and it’s not that.

“Then what does two plus two equal, Kitten, if not the obvious four?”

“I...don’t want to talk about it?” He starts out strong but his words squeak up to a question mark at the end. He clears his throat and tilts his chin. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Ooh, well then. Part of Jack wants to punch the kid in the face and the other wants to grab him and haul him into a blistering kiss. He settles for ominous silence, letting it curl from him in tendrils, wrapping itself around Rhys who’s trying oh-so-hard not to fidget.

“A-anyway,” he finally says. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

“‘Jack’ will do fine, Cupcake. After all, you and I have a special relationship , don’t we? At least, in your headhole.” He pats Rhys on the cheek. “And don’t worry, you’ve given me exactly what I needed. For now.”

Pleased with himself and his torturing of the unfortunate middle-manager, Jack turns and walks back across the Hub of Heroism to the sound of murmurs. 

Later, he plays back the recording of their encounter over and over from various angles, savoring every delicious moment of Rhys’ burning humiliation. It makes him proud that Rhys waits for a full minute after Jack is gone before his knees give out and he collapses unceremoniously into his chair.

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

When Rhys wakes up, he’s sure it was all a dream.

Can’t have been real. Can’t. Nope, no heckin’ way.

And then, as he rolls over, he sees A.I. Jack glowing blue beside him on the bed and Rhys yelps and sits straight up, flailing, his arms passing through Jack’s body. His holo-emitter lights up and a very peeved looking ECHO Rhys grouses at him.

“Could you not fling me around there, Me-Bro? Makes me dizzy. Also, guy, you’ve gotta stop sleeping in the arm. Trust me, the older you get, the more damage it’ll do to your shoulder.” ECHO Rhys rolls his own shoulder and grimaces, as if to demonstrate.

“You guys...are...real?” Rhys’ says.

“Ooh, look at that. Kitten’s not a complete idiot.”

“Leave me—him—alone,” ECHO Rhys snaps. “We knew it’d be overwhelming. I mean, hell, when you first popped into my head—”

“You mean, when you jammed a data stick into your port and poured me into your head like a fine wine?”

ECHO Rhys rolls his eyes and shrugs. “The point is... mistakes were made. No, wait, the point is, it’s overwhelming. All this...in your head, it takes some getting used to.”

Rhys lets out the longest, most dejected sigh of his life. Because God, that moment when he thought this madness had all been a dream was so nice. Smell-of-baking-cookies nice. Perfect and pleasant and good and right and safe. No couchsurfing A.I.s from the future, no death threats from megalomaniacal CEOs, just a horrible stress dream that was finally over.

Now, all Rhys wants to do is run, but how do you run away from electronic ghosts? Maybe some kind of Faraday cage? Sure, like Handsome Jack wouldn’t find that suspicious or threatening at all.

“Not that this isn’t, y’know, super fun, but do you think maybe you guys...uh...can you...go away?” Rhys asks hopefully, putting his feet on the floor. “I mean, if Vaughn sees you--”

“You only see me because of this thing.” A.I. Jack jams his finger right into Rhys’ ECHO eye, laughing cruelly when Rhys flinches away with a yelp. “Baby.”

Rhys takes a deep, controlling breath. “Okay, but my holo-emitter.” He holds up his palm, sighing at the disappointing vision of his frumpy future self.

“Don’t worry about it,” ECHO Rhys promises. “I’ll handle it.”

Like you handled A.I. Jack? Rhys thinks, but doesn’t say.

“Well, I still need you two to go away.” He needs time to think and to wash off the smell of despair. “I’m going to shower and I’d prefer to do that alone.”

A.I. Jack rolls his eyes as if Rhys is being the world’s biggest baby, but ECHO Rhys says, “Sure, buddy. Take your time. We’ll give you privacy.”

They don’t.

A.I. Jack continues to pop up at random intervals, commenting on everything from Rhys’ lavender-scented body wash to the number of hair products on his sink to the size of his...well… Let’s just say Rhys has a hard time washing up while also covering his junk. And whenever A.I. Jack’s around, ECHO Rhys seems to get a bit of FOMO.

"I'm trying to suppress him," ECHO Rhys promises, making shooing gestures, as if that will have any effect.

"Atlas: Tries. Fails. Looks stupid doing it."

A.I. Jack’s announcer voice is actually really good. Rhys coughs into his elbow to cover a laugh, but ECHO Rhys isn’t fooled. Rhys mouths an apology.

By the time Rhys is dressed and in the kitchen, he’s exhausted. And to make matters just that much worse, Vaughn is staring. He’s staring so loud, the stare is practically accompanied by a sound effect. St-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-re. It’s loaded with concern and that concern has become, unfortunately, pretty damn typical these days.

Vaughn’s mouth is perpetually turned down in a frown, his brows permanently knit. Yvette’s even commented on it and Vaughn just glances at Rhys before making some excuse about problems in Accounting. The way Vaughn looks, Yvette must think the whole department has been on fire for an entire week.

When Rhys and Vaughn are at home gaming or watching holovids together, Vaughn keeps wordlessly covering Rhys with blankets, as if warming him up will make him less crazy.

Rhys hates worrying his best friend.

“So, uh...” Vaughn says, pouring milk over a bowl of Torgue-Os. He slides the bowl across the counter and Rhys automatically catches it with his mechanical hand. “How’re you feeling today, bro?”

“Great,” Rhys says without meeting Vaughn’s eyes. He’s great. He’s fine. He has a head full of personality programs from the future. They’re a couple of assholes. He’s peachy keen.

“That’s good, ’cause see, last night I thought I heard you, y’know, talkin’ to yourself. So, I just wanted to check on you.”

Rhys’ head shoots up and he quickly looks around for the A.I.s. Oh, thank GOD, they’re gone. Why are they gone? No! Don’t question it. Enjoy the peace, Strongfork.

Dammit! Vaughn is staring again. What should he say? What did Vaughn hear last night? He already thinks Rhys is off his rocker with that load of conspiracy theories about Handsome Jack watching him, what would he think if Rhys told him about his head-full of blue flickering A.I.s that also come from the future?

But he has no idea if ECHO Rhys and A.I. Jack are blocking the cameras in the kitchen and what if he told Vaughn what’s going on and it turned out Handsome Jack was watching him right then?

“Oh, no.” Rhys chuckles a little too brightly. “ECHO call. You know me…” He taps his port.

“At two in the morning?”

“Uh...yeah!” he says. “Sorry about that. I was on with Mom. You know, that Aquator time difference.”

Vaughn’s look doesn’t change.

“Oh, he sees right through your bullshit.”

What horrible thing did Rhys do in a past life to deserve this?! And what pennance will he have to pay to make it stop?!

Rhys looks quickly from the A.I. floating near the sofa to Vaughn and back. Vaughn slowly follows Rhys’ gaze. But when no new fear or awe or confusion enters Vaughn’s expression, Rhys relaxes a little. So he really is the only one who can see these two. That’s a relief, at least.

“Oh man, Rhysie, get a load of this. Remember when your ‘bro’ wasn’t an underwear bandit king? Like...when he still wore real clothes. Like a regular human? He’s a massive dork either way, but still.”

A.I. Jack isn’t looking at him at all, but instead at his cybernetic arm, which hangs limply at his side. Rhys raises a questioning eyebrow and coughs lightly to get his attention. The A.I. looks up and rolls his eyes.

“Not you, Flesh Suit. The other one. Dum-dum! Baby Boy! Horrible Mustachioed Monster!”

“What?!” Rhys’ hand lights up as ECHO Rhys appears and Rhys raises it instinctively, drawing Vaughn’s attention. His best friend frowns.

“Ha! You answered.”

ECHO Rhys just glares and pouts. Pouts. Jesus, Rhys doesn’t pout like that. At least, he sure hopes not.

“Also, I’m gonna need a way to differentiate you two idiots. Okay, Mustache Rhys, I’m gonna call you Princess Strongfork, Ruler of...” A.I. Jack snorts a derisive laugh. “The Atlas Corporation. Which you stole. From me. Or just 'Atlas' for short. That's it's own sick burn.”

“Then I’ll call you John.” ECHO Rhys sneers, hands on his hips. “Just John, you don’t even merit an adjective.”

“I’d watch yourself there, Kitten. I strangled the last man who called me that to death.”

“Do you...see this?” Rhys asks.

“Your hand?” Vaughn’s voice is gentle, like he’s talking to a frightened child. It’s probably not unwarranted.

“Um...my holo-emitter. Is it... on?”

"No?" Vaughn says, as if he's guessing.

"I told you, Me-Bro.” ECHO Rhys sighs. “I’m broadcasting on a secured local channel. Only you can see me.”

“And in case you’re too dumb to figure it out, he can’t hear us either. We’re in your head, dum-dum.”

“I’ve gotta get going,” Vaughn says. “But...have you thought about maybe...taking a day off?”

* * *

Gina breezes into the office, late again, and Rhys stares right through her.

His ECHO eye glows, the fingers of his cybernetic hand type along the keyboard with blistering speed. His body works without his brain, now even more so than ever, and when he finally looks down, he freezes in horror.

A hundred lines of code are replaced with:

Handsome Jack is the greatest, all hail the king! Rhys Strongdork wants to gob Jack’s knob. 

He quickly tries to clear the screen of the words, terrified someone will see.

“Hmm, obsessed much?” A.I. Jack asks from over his shoulder and Rhys yelps flailing and calling much UNneeded attention to himself. He chuckles awkwardly and waves away the concern of his subordinates. Nope, no that’s not concern, that’s definitely disdain. Gina scowls at him. Wait, when did she get in?

“Please go away,” Rhys hisses at Jack.

A.I. Jack just smirks and swims lazily in circles near the ceiling, not going anywhere.

* * *

Rhys takes an early lunch for the first time since starting with Hyperion. His nerves are sparking and he can’t focus on anything and apparently the Jack A.I. can take control of his arm when he’s not concentrating.

That won’t bite him in the ass later. Nah.

The two A.I.s have been bickering angrily about which Digby Vermouth song is the most iconic for the last twenty-two minutes. Miraculously, they agree that Supernova Dreamsicle is second most iconic, but it’s about to come to blows over which track holds the top spot. How can this possibly be important?

Just to shut them up, Rhys says, “You know, everything Digby Vermouth does is pretty overrated.”

A.I. Jack’s mouth falls open, and ECHO Rhys whispers, How are we even the same person?!

The fight continues, but louder now, and with periodic insults thrown Rhys’ way. God...if only he knew what they wanted, maybe he could get them to go away.

Wait.

Rhys doesn’t know what they want. Why hasn’t he bothered to ask what they want?

“What do you two want?” Rhys whisper-hisses, glancing around the buzzing Hub of Heroism. The Hub is still relatively empty given the time of day and there are open seats around his table. But he’s hyper-aware of listening ears.

“Seriously...you’re here...you came from the future. Rhys-Me, you sent Jack information about his own death. Dead-Jack

“I want a new name.”

you tagged along for the ride. But neither of you has said why you’re here. What do you two actually want?”

Rhys glares at the both of them and for once they’re silent...for all of three seconds, and then they’re talking over each other, chattering about Jack and the future A.I. Jack’s on about his legacy and beating the Vault Hunters and burning Pandora to ash and ECHO Rhys is talking about saving Jack -Jack from himself and preventing said ashy Pandoran future. And, maybe something about Maliwan?

Rhys drops his head into his hands. He has to squeeze his eyes closed particularly tight because the light from his palm seems to drill its way through his eyelids.

“Will you both stop talking for one minute?” Rhys pleads.

“Pretty sure you wanted answers, Cupcake.”

“Okay, yeah, but I can’t think when you talk over each other like that.”

“Look, I’m gonna sum it up for you real simple-like, Kiddo. I need access to Jack. Other Jack. Flesh Bag Jack.”

“Yeah, actually, having access to Jack will definitely help. Me...uh...with my plans...to...help...Jack,” ECHO Rhys agrees suspiciously.

  Rhys doesn’t even have the energy to suss out the lies his future self may be telling him.

“Good, so Atlas and me agree, we both need you to get us close to that gorgeous bastard. And I’ve got a real simple plan for buying us that quality-time we’re looking for.” Without waiting for anyone to show even an inkling of curiosity, he barrels on. “You’re going to go up there and you’re going to seduce him.”

Rhys has spent the day crying out, yelping, jumping, startling, laughing hysterically, and being eternally moments away from tears. And now? Now?!

“I’m not gonna do that,” Rhys says, slamming his hands down on the table and glowering at A.I. Jack who stares right back at him.

“Okay, yeah, that’s a little extreme,” ECHO Rhys says.

“Yeah, listen to him.” Rhys can’t even believe he’s having this conversation. Can’t quite wrap his head around it. “You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to...”

“Aww, Kitten, first time jitters? I get it, being a virgin at your age must be really embarrassing.  Need Papa Jack to buy you a how-to manual?”

Rhys grinds out from between his teeth, “I know how to do it.”

“Look, Jack will eat him alive if he goes up there and tries to...y’know… if they…”

“Goddammit, Atlas, can neither of you actually say the words ‘screw like skags?’ You aren’t both virgins, are you?”

Rhys’ cheeks and ears go hot and he wants to sink through the floor. “Would you stop calling me a virgin?”

A.I. Jack laughs cruelly and Rhys exchanges a look with his future self.

He needs food. In his face. Right now.

And so he stands up and he ignores his ghosts and he gets in line for the cafeteria.

And all the while they continue to talk at him about their plans.

Their needs.

And Digby Vermouth.

A.I. Jack wants him to seduce Handsome Jack. As in… What? How is that even supposed to work? Well, he knows how it’d work. Sorta. But the seduction part…? Rhys has exactly two moves and neither one has a very high success rate. The few times he’s gotten lucky feel like...well...luck more than anything.

How does one seduce a man like Handsome Jack?

Also, WHY is he even thinking about this?

It’s crazy.

No, not just crazy, batshit balls crazy.

And there’s no heckin’ way he’s doing it.

Rhys buys a sandwich.

He goes back to his table.

He’s about to take a bite and then AKJFKAJF, as if thinking about the man summoned him, there’s Handsome Jack. Standing there. With a mayo stain on his jacket. From Rhys’ sandwich. Rhys just threw his sandwich at Handsome Jack. Which sucks, because Rhys was really hungry and that was a great sandwich, but also because now Jack’s pulled a gun. And Jack’s voice is deep and rich and Rhys’ pretty sure Jack heard them talking. But WHAT did he hear? Oh GOD, does he know A.I. Jack wants Rhys to seduce him? And his wrist tingles from where Jack held it.

“Is there something I can do for you, sir?” he manages to say and Handsome Jack lets his gaze trail over Rhys’ face like he’s searching for lies.

“‘Jack’ will do fine, Cupcake. After all, you and I have a special relationship, don’t we? At least, in your headhole.” His palm is warm when he pats Rhys’ cheek. “And don’t worry, you’ve given me exactly what I needed. For now.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God, Rhys really isn’t going to survive this, is he?

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

Rhys has just swiped his hand over the biolock when Vaughn comes running down the hall, flailing his arms as if he’s being chased by heavily armed bots. It’s actually impressive how not out of breath he is when he skids to a halt in front of Rhys.

“Whoa, buddy, you okay?” Rhys asks.

“We’re going out!”

“What?”

“Tonight. Now, actually. Just as soon as we get changed.”

“Out?” Rhys says the word like he’s never heard it before. Given his social life of late, that’s not far off the mark.

“Look, bro, seriously. We both know things’ve been...stressful...lately.” He says ‘stressful’ like the word is cut from glass and if he puts too much oomph behind it, it might break. “So, Yvette and I decided we’re cutting loose tonight. No arguments.”

“You couldn’t have told me this after I got inside?”

Vaughn levels him with a heavy look. “Yeah, I’m not giving you the chance to lock yourself in your bedroom. We’re going out . We’re going to get our drink on. We’re going to laugh. We’re not going to worry about…” Despite himself, Vaughn drops his voice, “ Handsome Jack .”

Rhys winces and memories of a mayonnaise-covered jacket come flooding back to him. He opens his mouth to share, and then closes it again, knowing the story would not be appreciated.

He nods instead and says, “Okay. Going out. Yeah.”

Five minutes later, Rhys is standing in front of his closet, perusing his not inconsiderable wardrobe. He’s got going out clothing to spare. In the end, he chooses black slacks with chartreuse pinstripes, a complementary plum button-down, and a black vest with gleaming gold buttons. It’s bold, but really, isn’t that what fashion’s all about?

Rhys dresses quickly, glancing around nervously. (There’s so many eyes on him these days!)

Then he sits on his bed and waits.

And waits.

No matter what, Rhys needs to have a conversation with two certain uninvited guests before he leaves, because if he’s going out—and from the way Vaughn is yelling Club T-y-y-y-y-y-m-e! in the bathroom, it would be criminal to deny the man his fun—Rhys needs to make sure the A.I.s give him a little...space. He has exactly one bargaining chip and he’s prepared to use that leverage if it’ll mean a chance to relax and unwind with his friends.

But he doesn’t actually know how to summon the A.I.s. Usually they just appear, antagonizing him to no end, but now, when he needs to talk, they’re mysteriously giving him privacy. Rhys holds up his palm. “Future-Me?” he asks quietly, but his holo-emitter doesn’t even flicker.

Rhys flops back on his bed and focuses on his favorite poster of Jack where it hangs, tacked to the ceiling. The New Face of Hyperion . It’s always been inspiring, the strength in the lines of Jack’s face, how confident he looks. He seems fearless in the image. 

The poster was put out years before Rhys joined the company. But, even in college, Rhys was something of a...well...there’s no sugar-coating it, he was a Handsome Jack fanboy. He was constantly reading articles and listening to interviews and studying on the ECHOnet, knowing that someday he wanted to be part of the Hyperion Empire.

He’d bought the poster from the gift shop during a tour of Helios and hung it up in his dorm. It’s featured in every apartment and bedroom since. He’s spent a lot of nights staring into Jack’s eyes and thinking about his future.

Now, he doesn’t have any idea what his future looks like. Since Jack called him to his office, everything’s in the blender.

Rhys has no idea what the A.I.s actually want—but A.I. Jack seems to think sex is part of the end game.

Handsome Jack wants answers from Rhys, answers that Rhys can’t give.

And Rhys? Rhys wants…

God, he has no idea what he wants.

Well, that’s not true. He wants to not die. He specifically and earnestly wants to live .

“All dressed up and nowhere to go, Princess?”

For the first time all day, Rhys doesn’t startle when the A.I. appears.

“Actually,” Rhys replies, looking over at the now-familiar glowing blue of A.I. Jack’s face. “I do have somewhere to go. And I need to talk to you guys about it.”

“Aw, it’s sweet that you think you need my permission, or that I give a crap what you do with your time.”

“I need you to stay away tonight.”

A.I. Jack’s eyes flash with malice, but Rhys is prepared. He takes out his bargaining chip, mentally feels the edges of it, turning it over in his mind. “If you’ll stay away tonight and keep my future self away, too then I’ll...consider what you proposed at lunch.”

“Which was?” Jack drawls.

Rhys rolls his eyes and looks back up at the poster on his ceiling. “Seducing Handsome Jack.”

Jack lets out a low, pleased noise.

“But I mean it I want you both to stay away all night . I want to go out and drink and dance and not worry about either of you .”

“Oh, Kiddo, you can’t just tell me you’re going to be flailing your gangly limbs around and expect me to pass that up.”

“Then I can guarantee you that I’ll do everything in my power to be as un seductive as possible around Jack.”

“As if that’s not your default state.”

“Take it or leave it, Jack,” Rhys says and crosses his arms behind his head. “I want tonight to be A.I. free.”

“Whatever you say, Pumpkin.”

* * *

Yvette sashays her way toward them, her hips swaying in perfect time with the pounding beat of the music. Rhys can’t even count all the eyes watching her, but it makes him smile to finally not be the center of attention. Her arms are laden with fancy, brightly colored drinks. Each one is different and Rhys is both intrigued, and a little frightened, by the one that’s smoking.

“That’s six drinks, but there’s only the three of us,” Rhys says as Vaughn helps her set them down on a nearby table.

“These are for you,” she says, motioning broadly to the three drinks nearest him.

“Uh…”

“Vaughn and I talked .”

“What?!” He rounds on Vaughn. “ Bro!” 

“I was concerned, dude. You’ve been… well, you know how you’ve been.”

“Drink this one as fast as you can.”

“I dunno, ’Vette,” Rhys says, uncertain. What he really means is that he and liquor aren’t exactly friends. It doesn’t take much to get him drunk and when he’s drunk...he tends to dance on tables. Then there’s video and said video tends to get played during inopportune moments at social gatherings.

“Drink it fast, Strongfork. Fast as you can.” Yvette bumps him with her hip and then leans in close. “Drink.”

“This is peer pressure.”

“It’s for your own good. Throw it back, Rhys.”

Rhys looks over at Vaughn and his best friend shrugs. “Probably should listen to her.”

Rhys tilts the electric green drink back. He hardly tastes it as he chugs it down, and that’s a shame because—

“Wait, who paid for these?”

“You did,” Yvette says merrily, handing him the next drink. “Alright, Rhysie, down the hatch.”

“This one too?”

“You can sip the last one, but first we need to get you a little lubricated. It’s for your own good.”

Rhys tries not to think about how much money is sliding down his throat as he polishes off the second drink in record time.

Thirty minutes, and another three drinks later, Rhys is singing loudly along with the music, breaking in every few lines to say, “Guys...guys...but which Digby Vermouth song do you think is their most iconic...song? Did I already say ‘song’? I think I did.”

“Maybe this was a mistake,” Yvette observes dryly, sipping her drink and glancing at Vaughn.

“At least he’s not talking about you-know-who,” Vaughn mutters lowly. Is he trying to make it where Rhys doesn’t hear? Because Rhys has ears, y’know. And he hears everything .

“I’ve got every right to talk about you-know-who,” Rhys says defiantly. “He keeps coming onto me. Wait...up to me? Coming up to me. Maybe on to me, too? I’m not sure.”

“Why don’t you dance, Rhys?” Vaughn offers.

“I’m not here for your entertainment,” Rhys says, but...the music does have a good beat. Maybe just one?

Four dances later… Rhys Strongfork is on top of the world. He’s not thinking about A.I.s or CEOs and he’s not thinking about work and he’s not thinking about anything, except the drink in his hand and the girl dancing with him. She’s cute and he can’t hear anything she’s saying, and, if she told him her name, he’s already forgotten it, but still he’s having fun.

Fun .

When was the last time Rhys had fun ?

And then a message pings, despite having all alerts on silent. It pops up in his field of vision, Priority: Effervescent, overriding all his lockouts.

Rhys stumbles, knocking into his dance partner and sloshing his drink. She scowls at him and shouts something he can’t quite hear.

The ECHO message is short and sobering.

—Congratulations, Pumpkin. You’re now Project Lead on Code Name: Come Up with a Code Name. Report to R&D #4 ass-early tomorrow morning. Bring coffee. For me. Obviously.

The drink slips out of his hand, shattering on the floor.

* * *

“I think I hate you guys,” Rhys says quietly, not looking at his uninvited guests. The room is spinning and he’s having a difficult time focusing. Vaughn helped him into his bed, pouring his ass onto the mattress, and then left him to his misery. Rhys has been lying here ever since.

His palm is turned up, the glow of Future Rhys in one corner of his eye, while the glow of A.I. Jack is in the other.

“Me-Bro, not cool.”

“For the record, we didn’t get your ass kicked out of the club. You handled that like a champ. Also, your friends think you’re a freak. So, bonus points.”

Rhys ignores that, pressing on, “You’re ruining my life. Both of you. I was perfectly... fine . Now I’ve got Handsome Freakin’ Jack breathing down my neck. Oh, God .” Memories he’d suppressed under the influence of alcohol come tumbling back, “He heard us at lunch. Which”—He gestures wildly at the ceiling with his flesh arm. “Is one of you actually doing something about the cameras or—?

“Lunch wasn’t my fault. That was someone else’s responsibility , ECHO Rhys says snidely and Rhys glares at his future self.

“I didn’t know I’d have to explain this to you dummies, but here goes. When we’re in a public space—like, say, a giant cafeteria—and there’s cameras pointing from all directions, and people coming and going all the time—”   

“Assume you’re both responsible from now on. Number one priority, make sure there’s no camera on me when we’re discussing plans to seduce him. Which. Now that I’ve given it a bit more thought, still nope. Nope, nope, never, nope.”

“Ooh, sorry, Kid, that’s not how this works,” Jack says. I’m not asking ‘Will you pretty please get in there and convince me to have a go at your doofus ass?’ I’m saying ‘Oh, you are definitely doing this.’”

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Rhys cries, sitting up and groaning when the room tilts violently. He’s gonna have a spectacular hangover in the morning. Great. Exactly what he needs when starting a brand new job. He grapples for the water on his nightstand, accidentally sloshing some on his shirt. He should really get dressed for bed. But...effort.

He turns to ECHO Rhys for help, pleading with himself to talk reason into the A.I. version of the most frightening man in the galaxy. 

“Everything. Everything is wrong with him,” ECHO Rhys says and Rhys feels bolstered, just a little. At least there’s one voice in his head that’s not completely crazy. “I think we can accomplish the same thing if you just get to know Handsome Jack . Platonically.

“Oh yeah, great idea, Atlas, let’s go up there and see if he wants to start a book club together. Look, there’s not a lot this dorky loser has going for him—”

“Thanks for that.”

“—and I’m not saying Jack would even take him up on his offer—”

“Again, not offering!

“But at least it would be something . We want the same thing, don’t we, Atlas? To get close to Jack.”

Well…” ECHO Rhys says slowly, and the way he drags out the word, Rhys knows , he just knows that what his future self is about to say will be the worst . He claps his flesh hand over his cybernetic palm, as if he can squish the words down. But despite the yelp of protest, ECHO Rhys doesn’t stop talking.

“Don’t you dare agree with him! Unless your next words are, ‘Absolutely heckin’ not , there’s no way in hell you’re doing that, Past-Me,’ I don’t want to hear it.”

“I’m not saying he’s right. He’s not right. Getting into bed with Jack—literally—could cause so many problems. But at the same time… if it did happen ...we could use it to our advantage.”

“Finally, you’ve said something that’s not completely idiotic!  

Rhys lets out an incomprehensible scream of frustration, born of days (and days and days and days) of too little sleep, too much coffee, too much noise , and the constant, ever-pressing fear of death. He balls his fists and begins to beat the mattress with both hands.

“ECHO Rhys, WHY?!”

“Oh, this tantrum is gonna be real cute.”

“Why is this even on the table?! Why is this even a thing?! He’s not into me—”

“Eh, I think he’s into you.”

“He might be into you,” ECHO Rhys agrees.

“Why would Jack be into me ?” Something suddenly dawns on Rhys and he looks at ECHO Rhys and A.I. Jack. “Are you two…? I mean, you’re not like a thing , are you?”

A.I. Jack blinks. And then blinks again and then he bursts out laughing. His laughter is loud and echoing and obnoxious. He hoots with it, stretching back and then doubling over, laughing so hard that tears roll down his electric-blue cheeks.

“It isn’t that funny,” ECHO Rhys sniffs and then says, “Not that I would EVER. Ever. Ever ever ever with you.”

“Him? And me ?!” A.I. Jack cries, his words punctuated with laughter. He grabs for Rhys’ shoulder like he might hang onto it for support. Of course his hand slips right through. “Like I’m putting this cyber dick anywhere near that mustache!”

“I’ll remind you,” ECHO Rhys says, and it’s hard to tell for sure, but Rhys thinks his blue cheeks are flushed. “My planet is under siege right now, by Maliwan forces, and this? This is a SIEGE MUSTACHE. It INSPIRES the troops.”

A.I. Jack just howls louder.

“Your planet is under siege, by Maliwan? When—?”

“C’mon, Me-Bro. I gave you access to my journal, why aren’t you up-to-date?”

“Oh, I dunno, maybe because you two won’t stop talking, Jack won’t stop threatening me, I’m so tired I can’t see straight, and I just used the only bit of downtime I’ve had in weeks to drink too much and get myself thrown out of a club.”

ECHO Rhys shrugs at him as if to say ‘sounds like a personal problem.’

“Can I go to bed now? The faster I get to sleep, the sooner I can wake up and start my new job at the murder factory . You know, the department where everyone died today?”

He starts—for the one hundred millionth time—to try and figure out why Jack is moving him from Data Mining to R&D, but quickly stops himself. That line of thinking leads to loud, hysterical meltdowns. Meltdowns that get people kicked out of clubs.

“You can sleep all you want.”

“God, you make that sound ominous. And you don’t mean it, do you? You’re not actually going to let me sleep, are you?”

“Not until you promise to put that pretty mouth to good use.”

“Oh, God, please don’t—”

“That’s a reference to sucking cock, Sweetheart.”

Rhys is simultaneously too buzzed for this and way, way, way too sober.

“What in the hell would I get out of seducing Handsome Jack anyway?”

“Besides the best ride of your life, Kiddo?” A.I. Jack chuckles. My God. Kid, you are too much. It doesn’t make a goddamn bit of difference what you get out of it. You’re gonna do it—” His mood elastic-bands back and he’s suddenly all feral smiles and dangerous calm. “—because I said you’re gonna do it.”

Rhys looks down at his palm, at his future self, who is still grumbling and he wiggles his cybernetic hand a little to get ECHO Rhys’ attention. 

“Hmm?”

“I expected a ‘because I said so’ from him.” He thumbs over at A.I. Jack who waves mockingly. “But what about you? Why do you want me to...uh...”

“Sex. We’re gonna getcha there, Kiddo. S-E-X. Three letters, one syllable. Real easy to say, even easier to do! You try it, now.” A.I. Jack sneers.

Rhys glares at him before looking back to his future self. “Why would you even entertain the idea?”

“I just need you to get close to Jack however you can. It’s… it’s really important. It’s why I’m here.” When Rhys gives the ECHO version of himself an extra-long look, he goes on, “Look, it’s like this—I’ve put a lot of time and research into Jack’s life—”

“Who hasn’t?” A.I. Jack chimes in, his hand furiously stroking an imaginary cock.

“—and my, uh, my time scientists, well, they think that if Jack had maybe had a specific good influence at a certain point in his life—he might not have ended up doing all of the awful things he did.”

“Your time scientists, huh?”

“You think I can help him?” Rhys asks, baffled. “But, that doesn’t make sense. Jack’s already done, well, a lot of pretty bad things. I mean, necessary things, obviously, for the good of Hyperion...A good leader has to make the hard choices and—”

“Easy there, fan boy,” A.I. Jack says, “Don’t blow your load over me. Yet.”

“The point is, why not go further back? Back before he even became ‘Handsome Jack.’ I wouldn’t have been here, but—”

“EXACTLY!” ECHO Rhys cries out, gesticulating wildly. “See, you get it . It’s gotta be you. You’re the one. You’re special. You’re chosen .”

A.I. Jack coughs, “Bullshit,” into his hand and ECHO Rhys snaps, “We want the same thing, don’t we?”

“Oh yeah, TOooOotAlLy,” A.I. Jack agrees. “We want this skinny nobody to scurry on up to my penthouse and bend over real nice.”

Rhys lets himself fall back onto the bed, hitting his pillow with an oomph and closing his eyes. 

“You guys’re following me to work tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Not if you agree to put on your booty shorts and skank your way on over to my office.”

“Stop harassing me—him,” ECHO Rhys says. 

“Nah, don’t think I will. He’s just such an easy target.”

Rhys has a feeling everyone’s an easy target for Handsome Jack—A.I. or otherwise.

“I’ll try to keep John here quiet tomorrow,” ECHO Rhys promises, ignoring Jack’s snarky protests. “But I need you to start trying to get close to Jack, however you can. The sooner, the better. After all, there’ll be a point of no return, buddy.”

Rhys falls asleep thinking about that point of no return.

A hard and fast deadline would be nice.

Answers would be even nicer.

Any explanation at all that didn’t sound suspicious AF.

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

Jimmy scurries alongside Jack, attempting to balance sticking-close with keeping a half-step back. Smart kid. Jack’s not in a very side-by-side-with-peons mood today. There’s not a goddamn person on this space station that gets to walk alongside him. Not to-fucking-day, Pumpkin.

Because?

R&D #4.

He’d known when he murdered that lot of assholes that the clean-up would go well beyond Janitorial scrubbing their blood off the walls. But he hadn’t thought there’d be quite this much cock-fuckery.

See, R&D #4 had been working on something special.

Something important.

Something with a goddamn immovable deadline.

And in a company built on special and important, Jack only ever takes a personal interest in the most special and the most important

Then those fucking babies started sucking their thumbs and crying over ‘crunch.’ There’s always crunch. It’s a reality of corporate life. Apparently that was the reason for their rebellion, as if pouting was gonna make time work differently? Oh, boo hoo. ‘Unreasonable working hours.’ How can thirty-six hour shifts be unreasonable when Hyperion provides individual cots for napping? You think Vladoff allows naps?

Well, they probably do.

Their margins are shit.

Whatever.

But those dumbasses threw their little tantrum and now everyone’s dead and Jack’s gotta re-staff the department.

Well, he doesn’t.

But a certain middle manager does.

See, Jack didn’t just choose Rhysie for the new project manager position because of how good his ass looks in awful slacks. Really? Honestly? Ever since he started watching the kid, he’s been impressed. On paper, Rhys doesn’t look like much…but he’s got management intangibles in spades.

It’s just a bonus that they’ll be working real damn close together. ’Cause this’s gotta go off and it’s gotta go off by the end of the fiscal. Jack’s got more than money riding on it. So he’s digging his fingers in deep.

“Handsome Jack, sir?” Jimmy says, interrupting Jack’s train of thought. “You wanted to know when Montgomery Jakobs was on the line?”

Jack lets out a low, aggravated noise.

“Couldn’t have waited until I was back in my office?”

Jimmy hesitates before he speaks and then says, “I’ll be more conscientious next time, sir.”

Jack likes that. He likes that Jimmy doesn’t make excuses. He’ll never say it out loud, of course. You go complimenting peons and they start getting ideas. Jimmy doesn’t need fucking ideas. Jimmy just needs to do his goddamn job.

“Patch him through, then get the fuck out of here.”

Jack’s never had patience. Occasionally he’ll reminisce about times he was patient—but then he realizes it just felt like he waited an hour for a refill on his water, when really he shot that waiter after three-and-a-half minutes of inattentiveness. Fucker. Jack’s never been a quiet man, never one to enjoy savoring or waiting or other such bullshit. 

Jack wants a thing. He gets the thing. He’s on to the next thing.

And that’s why he’s got Montgomery Jakobs on the ECHO.

“Thought you should know we’re real damn close now, Monty.” He practically spits the name. Two venomous syllables.

Montgomery’s stock picture flickers on his ECHO display. 

“Not even a hello before we get to the snarkin’, kid?”

“We never stood on ceremony before.”

There’s a pause before the man sighs. “Then, if we’re being frank, let’s be frank. I hate to be the one to have to tell ya this, Jackie, but your bark’d have more bite if I didn’t already know the state’a things over at Hyperion. Son, even if you weren’t runnin’ behind schedule with no research department to speak of and a whole mess’a bodies in your wake, you’d never get those bullets to work. Hyperion don't got what it takes."

Jack just laughs, a deep rumbling that feels both good and bitter in his chest. “Isn’t that what you said to me on my wedding day? ‘Jackie, you don’t got what it takes.’”

“And I was right,” Montgomery’s temper rises then, a small victory that comes at a high cost. “You couldn’t make her happy. You couldn’t even keep her safe.”

Jack looks up to see Rhys standing there in his stupid skag-skin boots, hair perfectly coiffed, holding a drink carrier with four coffees. He winces at the glare of the bright overhead lights and then straightens when he sees Jack’s eyes on him.

“Fun talk, Monty,” Jack says with a smile. “You can’t say you weren’t warned.” Then he ends the call, standing up.

“Expecting a party?” Jack asks, raising an eyebrow at Rhys and the drink carrier as he walks over to him. To his credit, the kid only flinches a little when Jack reaches out to pluck one of the cups off the tray.

“Taste,” Jack says, pushing the coffee into Rhys’ confused, stupid face.

“Uh...it’s...for you?”

“I know that, dum-dum. I also know that there’ve been no less than twenty-two attempts on my life in the last three years.”

“I wouldn’t poison your coffee,” Rhys says defensively.

“You might not, the barista would.”

“How would the barista know—”

Jack shoves the cup hard at Rhys’ mouth and with a wince, the man takes a drink.

“Hot!” He gasps, glowering. “Also, that’s the one with no sugar.”

“Why the fuck would you bring me one with no sugar?”

“I didn’t know how you like your coffee,” Rhys says, shaking off the bitter taste. “That one is black. This one has cream, no sugar. This one sugar, no cream. This one has sugar and cream.”

“Aren’t you just a fucking perfect peach?”

Rhys doesn’t say anything for a long moment and then he raises tired eyes and says, “No, I have a boss that wants me dead. If I’m gonna go, I’d rather it not be over coffee.”

Jack tosses the black coffee into the trash and takes out the one with cream and sugar. Once again he forces it to Rhys’ lips. “Instincts like that might keep you alive a bit longer. Drink.”

Rhys does. When he doesn’t immediately die, Jack takes a long, deep drink, letting out a pleased sigh.

“One less sugar next time. But...you live for now.”

Rhys nods slowly and Jack takes a minute to study his face, exhaustion aging the man’s boyish features. Shame. It’s such a pretty face. But Jack does get a kick out of the knowledge that he’s the one keeping Rhysie up at night.

“Still hearing voices, Kiddo?”

“I… No,” Rhys says, his face awash with color. “No, I’m… I’m fine. It was just—”

“You’re cute when you shit all over yourself.”

Rhys takes a deep breath and says, “Can I ask why I’m here?”

“I already told you, you’re Project Lead on—did you come up with a name?”

Rhys, without missing a beat says, “Violet Varkid.”

“That’s idiotic.”

“For a name I made up without knowing anything about the project, I’d say it’s pretty damn good. And I mean...why am I here? My specialty is data-mining.”

“FIgure it out for yourself there, champ. After all, your future self managed to give the finger to the space-time continuum, so you must have something going for you.”

“I’m sure I—he—had help. Time scientists and—”

“Time scientists?” Jack raises an eyebrow.

“Help…” Rhys says again. “Help and resources.”

“Well, you’re in luck, Kiddo, ’cause we’ll get you help and resources and you are gonna make—ugh—Project Violet Varkid—Jesus...a success.”

Rhys nods, uncertain.

“A good old-fashioned, ‘I’m ready, boss,’ will get you far, Cupcake.”

“I’m not ready,” Rhys says. “I still don’t know the first thing about what Project Violet Varkid is.”

Jack taps on his ECHO. “There. Details in your inbox. But I’ll give you the rundown. We’ve got less than three Eden-6 months to beat Jakobs to market with a new line of pistols.”

Rhys blinks and then blinks again.

“You want to go toe-to-toe with—”

“I’m not going ‘toe-to-toe’ with shit,” Jack snarls, his mood changing with a whip-crack. “I’m gonna kick them in the balls and piss on ’em when they’re down. We’re going to beat them to market and we’re going to destroy them.”

“With a line of pistols.”

“With these.” Jack grabs Rhys by the shoulders, spins him around, and frogmarches him over to the reinforced-glass display case. 

“What—?”

“Eridium-infused ammunition. Highly unstable. Does a fuck ton of damage. Super expensive. And only our guns will be able to shoot it.”

Rhys stares, the purple glow reflected back in his eyes.

“Think about it, Kitten, prestige ammunition. Proprietary.”

“Sounds…”

“The next words out of your mouth better be ‘fan-fucking-tastic’ or I’m gonna feed you the whole rack..”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Rhys says dryly. “But completely impractical. You want to beat Jakobs to market with their signature weapon and sell proprietary ammunition that’s costly to manufacture, dangerously unstable, and, I’m guessing, is badly throwing off the accuracy.”

“You know,” Jack drawls, his hands still on Rhys’ shoulders, “what happened to the last pissant who gave me a whole lot of ‘I don’t think this will work’ instead of ‘We’re gonna crush the Jakobs Family, sir, and here’s how…’?”

“You...killed him?” Rhys guesses

“Cracked his skull open with the butt of my gun and shot him right in the brain. You shoulda seen it. The pattern the blood splatter made looked just like Typhon DeLeon.”

Rhys takes a deep breath, squaring his shoulders, and says, “Where’s my desk?”

Jack thumbs over his shoulder to the manager’s office. “New chair and everything. Couldn’t get the smell of burnt flesh out of the old one.”

* * *

Jack’s gotta say, he’s kinda impressed watching Rhysie-Baby build his team.

Alright, maybe not impressed, but entertained at least. Especially given the what-the-fuckery of his methodology. Jack gave him access to the entire Hyperion personnel network, no exclusions, and told him he could take anyone he wanted, including Jack’s highest executives. And then, Kitten spent twenty-four caffeine-fueled hours running every Hyperion employee through an algorithm he designed. In the end, the new R&D #4 looks like a bizarre Rejectsville with a few shining spots of potential. One fourth were poached from other R&D departments, a second fourth from Manufacturing, and the other half...errant weirdos? Rhys took two people from Tech Services, one from the New-U Call Center, a doddering geezer from his old Data Mining Department, a broad from HR, and...Jimmy.

“You said I could have anyone?” Rhys says-asks, his shoulders by his ears, as if that’ll keep Jack from shooting him in the face.

Jack glowers. “Do you know how long it took me to find an assistant who doesn’t piss themselves whenever I call? This quadrant of space is littered with the bodies of my former assistants.”

“You...uh...you’ll get him back,” Rhys promises quickly. “But if we’re going to function, we’l need effective support staff and—”

“Don’t care, Cupcake,” Jack snarls, but inside, he’s secretly impressed with the balls on this fucker. “And since you’ve gone and poached my P.A., now it’s your job to get me coffee whenever I want it. SO prepare yourself to make the run up to the Executive Suite...a lot.”

Except Jack doesn’t end up spending much time upstairs, Instead, he sets up his own little command center in the R&D #4 Manager’s office, kicking Rhys out of the nice desk. (What? It’s not like Rhys has nowhere to go. Jack put a folding table in the private bathroom.) And since the office as a whole suffers from a distinct lack of Handsome Jack statues, he pins a few posters of himself up. (Again, putting one in the bathroom for Rhys.)

Rhys doesn’t complain to Jack, but he does hear the man grumbling to his imaginary friends.

Jack gives Rhys’ newly assembled team two days to impress him. And wouldn’t you know it? They manage to beat the deadline by twelve hours, when (SHOCKER!) the broad from HR, figures out how to eliminate the slow radiation leak in the shell casing.

It saves Jack having to kill them all and start fresh.

But week one turns into week two and when there’s no new brilliant breakthroughs Jack’s patience starts to wear thin. For a while, he distracts himself with a little hunting. Montgomery Jakobs didn’t just guess all those details about the cluster-fuck in R&D #4. Corporate espionage is Jack’s favorite party game, but someone’s been playing with his toys, and that just won’t do.

It isn’t hard to track down the mole, but the ensuing strangulation is over too soon—even though Jack let the guy run halfway through, just to practice delayed gratification.

Now all he’s got to focus on is the fact that his badass bullets are making the normally badass accuracy of his weapons go pbbbt. And it’s not helping that Rhys is distracting him every moment of the day. Walking around with his sleeve rolled up exposing blue tattoos along his wrist and forearm. Just how much of the young man’s body is inked? And why the hell is Jack so obsessed with finding out the answer?

Kitten!” Jack snaps when Rhys walks into the manager’s office. Jack’s been stewing ever since watching the test firing earlier. The shooter’s aim was flaming skag shit. (Seriously, she couldn’t have hit the broadside of a Pandoran tire fire.) But even the team geezer wasn’t so blind he couldn’t tell how badly the recoil was pulling to the right.

“Yes, sir?” Rhys says, only glancing at Jack before casting a model with his holo-emitter. There are deep circles under his eyes and he scrubs his flesh hand over his face. Even as wrecked as the man is, he’s still cute and it’s pissing Jack right-the-fuck-off.

“Come on, Coach. What’s your plucky little team of underdogs come up with?”

Rhys frowns and says, “You heard the morning briefing.”

And? ” Jack growls. “That was three and a half hours ago.”

“Well, there haven’t been any major breakthroughs since then,” Rhys says and his tone is bordering on snippy.

Jack stands up and slowly rounds his desk. He points one long finger at Rhys. “You put this bumblefuck think tank together. They have one job. To think. So, tell me, Boss-Man, what’s the goddamn holdup?

For a moment, it seems like the project manager might say something dangerous. Instead, he takes a controlling breath and says, “I was thinking, what if we enlarge the bore and sharpen the angle of the rifling. Maybe the additional spin would—”

“Week one thinking, Dum-Dum. Didja even read the notes? Modifying the barrel design is what got us into this mess.”

“Anything we can do to reduce the recoil will minimize—”

“It’s fine, right? Hyperion bullets don’t need to go fast anymore, we’ll just paint flames on ’em so they look like they’re moving faster than a shot from a Torgue. Don’t be stupid, Rhysie.”

Rhys falls silent as he twists the holographic model in his hand, zooming in. He scans continually with his ECHO eye. He’s ignoring Jack and, well, Jack just cannot abide that.

“You’re completely useless, you know that?” Jack snarls. “You don’t cook, you don’t clean, I’ve yet to receive a single blowjob. Why’d I even bring you on board? Tell me that!”

“I don’t goddamn know! ” Rhys Strongfork suddenly EXPLODES, and the holographic model disappears as he clenches his hands into fists. He marches forward. “I don’t know why you brought me on board! This isn’t my department! This isn’t my skill set! But I’m trying my best!”

“Watch yourself, Kitten!” Jack roars, meeting Rhys halfway. They practically butt chests, glaring at each other. “You’re disposable.”

“Then dispose of me,” Rhys says, throwing his hands up in disgust. “I haven’t done anything to you, Jack!”

“Nothin’, huh? Guess you’ve forgotten about that little message from the future?”

I didn’t send you that message, okay? I don’t know why my future self did. Maybe he cares about you, maybe it’s a trap? I! Don’t! Know! But I didn’t do it. So stop taking it out on me! You don’t get to treat me this way.”

“Oh, Babe, I’ll treat you any goddamn way I want and you’ll deal with it, because—”

“Why? Because you’re a bully? Okay, Jack. Fine. Then fire me. Murder me. Kiss me. Whatever you’re going to do, do it or let me get back to work!”

Rhys’ entire face is flushed with anger, his breath escaping in short, furious gasps. His eyes are flashing, the ECHO eye alight and flickering. His shoulders are squared, his jaw set, that perfect mouth a fierce line.

“Kiss you, huh?” Jack’s voice drops low and ominous. 

There will be no kissing. This isn’t some goddamn romance novel where Jack sweeps the pouty hero off his feet.

“Bet you’d like that.”

“Bet I wouldn’t.” Rhys scowls. “But you keep flirting with me and-and-and staring at me in weird ways...and then you go and make some new and elaborate threat on my life. Because you can’t go ten minutes without reminding me what a brutal killer you are. So make up your mind, Jack. On all accounts. Either you want my help with this project or you don’t. You want me dead or not. You want to kiss me or—”

Handsome Jack kisses Rhys. It is hard. It is angry. It distinctly sucks as kisses go. But, worse, it goes unreturned and goddammit, if this is a romance novel, it’s a super shitty one.

Rhys rips back from him, eyes wide. Jack’s half surprised Rhys doesn’t wipe the back of his hand across his mouth like the petulant princess he is.

“Don’t challenge me, Pumpkin, unless you’ve got the stones to take me on.” They’re both breathing heavy, both still full of buzzing anger. Jack turns away first. “Now get back to work. And try to come up with something vaguely original.”

Once Rhys storms out of the office, Jack throws himself down in the manager’s chair, grousing and shifting uncomfortably. (Why hasn’t he replaced this piece of shit?) He kicks off against the desk, sending himself spinning across the floor.

Who the hell does Rhys think he is, stepping to Jack like that?

Goading him, challenging him?

Refusing to return that shitty kiss?

He’s dealing with Handsome Goddamn Jack. Does he think Jack has to beg for his kisses to be returned? Jack’s lips make the panties drop. Hell, Jack’s everything makes the panties drop.

...Maybe Rhys is going commando?

<<< >>>

Chapter Text

"What the hell is wrong with you, Kitten?!” A.I. Jack snarls as Rhys hurries toward... Where exactly is he going? A.I. Jack’s electric blue eyes flash and he menaces Rhys—he should be used to it by now, but it still makes him flinch. “You had the perfect opportunity to kick off Operation: Get in Jack’s Pants. He kissed you. What were you waiting for, a fucking ECHO invite?”

“I told you I’m not going to seduce him!”

Dammit, Rhys wasn’t going to argue in public with the A.I.s anymore. It figures that ECHO-Rhys is nowhere to be found. He clamps his mouth shut, determined not to say another word until he’s safely back in his apartment. Except...he’s still going the wrong way, and...

Oh God, he went toe-to-toe with Handsome Jack.

Oh God, he dared Jack to kiss him.

Oh God, Jack took the bait.

And then Rhys ran away. Well, walked away. Somewhere between a jog and a power-walk. The point is, he escaped.

Rhys suddenly stops in front of the Quadrant Three fitness center—it’s definitely not where he meant to go. Now that he’s here though, maybe blowing off a little steam isn’t the worst idea? 

Floor-to-ceiling glass panes show the brightly lit interior full of glinting exercise equipment. Pounding music is muffled to almost nothing. The walls are plastered with posters of Jack with various slogans ranging from the uplifting—A Healthier You Makes a Healthier Hyperion—to the insulting—Feel the Burn, Fatso! 

Rhys glares at Jack’s smug face.

“Thinking about sweating off a few calories? Y’know, there’s a perfectly good CEO you could scale like a rock-climbing wall if you’re looking for a little exercise.”

“Ignoring you,” Rhys hisses.

“It doesn’t sound like you’re ignoring me, Dum-Dum. Also, please don’t tell me I’m gonna have to hang out while you try to lift weights. We both know you can’t even bench-press the bar.”

Rhys tilts his chin, refusing to be mocked any longer by the obnoxious A.I. He walks into the gym, presses his flesh palm to the check-in pad, and looks around. Not many people here—it’s too late for the lunch-break rush and too early for the second shift.

Which reminds Rhys, he’s technically not off work.

But then again, being kissed by the CEO warrants an extra hour-long break, alright?

“You know, Kiddo, if you turn around now and go back to Jack, he might not hunt you down and kill you for rejecting him.”

Rhys swallows hard. He knows it’s a real possibility—getting very dead at the hands of an angry Jack. But how’s that any different than before? Jack’s been threatening Rhys’ life since the moment they met.

Taking a deep breath, Rhys scans the gym once again and his eyes land on a non-descript sign for the racquetball courts. That. That’s what he’s going to do with his time.

“Oh, tell me we’re gonna play ball in our work clothes,” Jack says. “I can’t wait to see you rip the ass out of those trousers. For the laughs, you understand.”

Rhys clenches his jaw, going to one of the machines to digistruct suitable sportswear. Of course Jack has things to say about this, too, but Rhys staunchly ignores him. He changes in one of the dressing rooms and then grabs a racquet off the stand, testing the weight of it. All the courts are open, so he takes the one at the end and settles in to whack a ball against a wall. Repeatedly.

Except he’s not awesome at racquetball. In fact, Rhys misses the ball entirely on his first two attempted serves and he glowers sullenly, wishing he could ignore A.I. Jack, or at least find a way to mute him.

“Would you go away?

“Hmm…” Jack says, floating beside Rhys, stretched out with his arms behind his head. “I mean, I could. But...no? I’m thinking no.”

Rhys tosses the ball up and swings, this time walloping it hard. To his momentary excitement, it goes flying straight through Jack’s holo-body. But Jack being unfazed puts a damper on Rhys’ excitement.

“You’re supposed to hit it more than once, Dum-Dum.”

Rhys chases down the ball and gets back into position to serve. This time he not only manages to serve it correctly, but also to keep the game going longer than three seconds. In fact, he’s getting into a pretty good rhythm when he hears a voice that makes his skin crawl.

“Rhys!” 

Rhys turns to see Hugo Vasquez striding onto the court. Rhys’ court. There were so many other open courts. Vasquez looks him up and down, smirking like the mere sight of Rhys is embarrassing for the both of them. “Didn’t know you played?”

“Could fill the ECHOnet with things you don’t know, Vasquez,” Rhys says, glaring.

Rhys has seen a lot during his time with Hyperion. He’s watched people literally murder each other for something as minor as a half-a-paygrade raise. (And, one time, for cutting in the lunch line.) The average Hyperion friendship is less about camaraderie and companionship than temporary alliance—the expiration date: whenever something better comes along. Then it’s Back-Stab City, baby.

Rhys and Vasquez were never friends, they never even had a temporary alliance. From the beginning, they’ve been enemies. It seems like every position Rhys has gone after, Vasquez has been there, breathing down his neck. 

Last year, Rhys had known he was a shoo-in for Sector Seven Lead, overseeing Loss Prevention and Risk Management. He’d put in the time and done the research, and his record spoke for itself. On top of everything else, he had an ace in the hole. His mentor from his first year at Hyperion was on the selection committee and there was no question she had his back.

Except when he showed up to the interview, she was just gone, nothing but an empty chair in the middle of a row of stern faces. Rhys had tentatively asked about her. Someone shrugged and said, mining accident. Mining accident? On Helios?

Vasquez got the job.

“Well, Princess, are you gonna stand there, or are you going to serve?” Vasquez’ voice is so slimy it’s a wonder the man doesn’t trip and fall over his own tongue. And the way he says Princess , like he’s trying to be Jack makes Rhys’ lip curl in disgust.

Anger laps its way through Rhys like flames and he tosses the ball before striking it into the wall. And the game is in motion. Of course, Vasquez is a pro, because why wouldn’t he be? And suddenly Rhys’ attempt to blow off some steam has turned into a battle for dominance.

The only point he scores off Hugo comes when he says, while hitting the ball, “So, I’m sure you’ve heard Handsome Jack personally appointed me to head of R&D #4.”

The ball goes whizzing past Vasquez’ head as he turns to look at Rhys, shock etched on his features.

Rhys smiles for the first time since escaping the office.

“Yeah, he needed someone for a special project. Offered it to me.”

“More like he told you were doing it whether you liked it or not,” A.I. Jack says and Rhys glances at the hologram who’s circling Vasquez. “Do I know this guy? He seems...familiar.” 

“You’re lying,” Vasquez says darkly, pushing the ball onto the racket with his toe. He pops it up and catches it. 

“Yeah, ’cause making up stories is my thing, Mr. ‘I’m Dating Gina in Accounting.’”

Vasquez ignores him in favor of another taunt. “Say Handsome Jack did hire you for a ‘special project’ in R&D,” his voice drips with sarcasm as he one-handed air quotes, “then it’s only because he knows you’re disposable. The combined fatality and turnover rates in R&D are astronomical.

“As fun as it is watching you two and your dick-measuring contest, can we hurry this along?”

Suddenly A.I. Jack takes control of Rhys’ cybernetic arm, snatching the racquet from his flesh hand. Rhys makes a grab to get the racquet back, but Vasquez serves and then A.I. Jack smashes a brilliant volley. Three hits and they’ve scored a second point off Vasquez.

Rhys glances at Jack who winks at him.

“Aww, can’t win on your own, have to rely on upgrades for cheap tricks?” Vasquez mocks and Rhys glares.

If it means destroying Hugo, then by God, Rhys’ll let the A.I. use his arm.

The score quickly evens out, Rhys warming with the glow of approaching victory. He preens in front of Vasquez and mocks him. “A little too slow there, old man,” he says.

Vasquez growls and lobs the ball hard.

Rhys, like he’s been doing for the last twenty minutes, lunges into position—except this time, this time, his arm doesn’t cut a glorious swathe through the air, returning the volley. In fact, it goes completely limp, flopping like a dead skag’s tongue. And Rhys looks up just in time to see the ball coming at his face.

They’re playing with a practice ball, so even though it doesn’t feel great, it’s not enough to knock him out. No, no, that’s a job for the floor when Rhys trips, his feet going out from under him, and lands on his back. His head slams down on the court with a crack.

Then...blackness.

* * *

Rhys feels like he’s underwater, like everything is pressing down on him and he can’t swim up. It’s dream-like in some ways and in others...not at all. More like laying in bed with your eyes closed. His thoughts are perfectly clear, perfectly ordered, but that’s all they are. Just thoughts, in the dark.

“Hey Me-Bro,” ECHO-Rhys says and Rhys focuses on the concept of his future self and suddenly he can ‘see’ him, except not really. He imagines his future self, imagines him staring, imagines him frowning. He’s not really there.

“What’s happening?” Rhys’ own voice must be in his imagination too, because it’s definitely not coming from his mouth.

“Well...the short answer is you got hit in the face with a racquetball, tripped over your own feet, and bashed your head on the court.”

“Okay,” Rhys says slowly. “So, concussion or something?”

“Nope, it’s a lot worse than that.”

“Am I dead?”

ECHO-Rhys laughs humorlessly. “No, you’re still alive. You’re just...suppressed. We’re in a...a sorta holding tank in our brain? Welcome to the clubhouse. Which, by the way, did you even notice I was gone, Me-Bro?”

“I...I mean...yes?”

“God, we suck at lying.”

“It’s been a hard afternoon.”

“I’ve been gone for two days.”

“It’s been a hard two days, okay? But I realize it now. Were you in here this whole time?”

“Yep.” ECHO-Rhys sighs and lets his head fall back. Really wish you’d noticed. I’m just saying, if you’d cared enough to notice your Future Self was gone you might not be in this predicament.”

“I’m sorry,” Rhys says.

“I tried sending you messages, but he must have intercepted them.”

“Who?”

“Who else? John. He’s been practicing pushing me deep down so he could push you deep down. And...voila! Now we’re both stuck here in your subconscious. And believe me, it’s boring as all hell. But I’ve been working on a way out. See, he may be playing with Hyperion tech, but I’ve still got an advantage...I’m you.”

Rhys tries to process all the information being thrown at him.

“A.I. Jack?”

“Yep.”

“Has control of my body?”

Future Rhys nods. 

“Sonofabitch.” Rhys feels panic rising, which is strange. Panic usually brings on shallow breathing and frantic heartbeat, but of course, he can't feel either of those things. He just feels fear. Intangible fear. “Maybe if I imagine a way out of here.”

“Really not how that works.”

Rhys imagines a door appearing in front of him. He imagines walking toward it, sees light spilling out from around the edges. It slides open as he approaches and the light is blinding. He takes a step through. 

There’s absolutely nothing on the other side.

“...That didn’t work.”

“Yeah, I told you it wouldn’t, but this...might…”

Rhys is suddenly vaguely aware of movement. And sound. Not whole words, just noise that rumbles and moves with the cadence of a conversation. And blurs of color that just won’t coalesce into anything familiar.

“What’s happening?”

“Trying to get you back in control of, well, you. Things should start coming into focus… ”

“What is A.I. Jack doing with my body? Can you see out?”

“Uh…”

“You can, can’t you? Tell me! What horrible thing is he doing?! I swear to God, if he’s shaving my head…”

“Um, no. It’s worse. Probably. I dunno. Do you think it’d be worse to be bald or for John to be anywhere near Jack?”

“John near Jack!” Rhys cries. “ Definitely John near Jack!” Rhys would gladly take being bald forever over whatever stupid-awful shit A.I. Jack is up to right now. “You said you’ve got an advantage, that we’re the same person, yadda yadda, what does that mean? Does that mean you can wake me up?”

“Pos..si...bly,” he says. “ I’ve been tinkering with a workaround. I mean, I couldn’t test it until you were actually here. And now that you’re here...well, on the bright side, if it doesn’t work? Then we’ll have a lot of time to put our heads together and figure out something else.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, you’ve got to get me out of here! And then actually keep him contained this time.”

“You know, yelling won’t make this any easier.” ECHO-Rhys hums thoughtfully before saying, “So, I’m gonna just…and...there!”

And then suddenly Rhys is aware of everything and in control of nothing. It’s like he’s pressed up against a perfectly-molded Rhys-shaped window. He can feel when his arms move—can feel mechanical fingers reaching out and oh dear God NO! He’s walking his fingers up Jack’s chest. And Rhys can’t stop it… Can’t stop A.I. Jack from doing this horrible thing

“Jack!” Rhys yells as loud as he can, which only makes ECHO-Rhys chide him.

“Past-Me, Rhys, calm down. They can’t hear you. All you’re doing right now is distracting me, okay?”

Outside he and A.I. Jack are some sort of...a...a...weird hybrid. A Handsome Rhys. Rhys’ face under A.I. Jack’s control. And, just now, Handsome Rhys is being really damn handsy with Handsome Jack.

“Aren’t you just the hottest fucking thing on this space station?” Handsome Rhys says on a low purr, his fingers catching the collar of Jack’s sweater and tugging him forward. The Hyperion leader takes a step.

Rhys cries out, “No, no, no, no stop!”

“Again, they can’t… you know what, never mind, Me-Bro. Shout away.”

Jack arches a brow at that, his lip kicked up in a quizzical smirk. “Language, Kitten,” he says, his eyes searching Handsome Rhys’ face. “Gotta say, this is a surprise turn of events, what with you storming off the job an hour ago. Figured I’d have to track your cute ass down and airlock you.”

Handsome Rhys barks a laugh, and then his voice does this weird thing that...is that...is that what seduction sounds like? Rhys doesn’t think he’s ever used his vocal chords that way and he’s not sure he likes it. “What can I say, Jackie? You made me feel things … Had to go sort myself out. But I’m back now and I’m in it to win it. So… you down?”

“That depends,” Jack says slowly. “What are you suggesting?”

Handsome Rhys reaches up, cupping the side of Jack’s face and Rhys can feel it, feel the mask, soft like skin, the cool metal of the clamps, he even feels A.I. Jack ghosting his finger over Jack’s bottom lip.

“Oh, I think you know.”

“Future Me?” Rhys calls out desperately. “This is great and all, being able to watch this shit-show unfolding, but if I don’t get out there quick, A.I. Jack’s gonna offer my anal virginity up on a silver platter.”

“One, have not stopped working on it this whole time. Two, I’m pretty sure that’s a done deal.”

“Some of us don’t want it to be a done deal! I-I-I mean...I know you guys want me to get close to him...but—” 

Jack’s right up against Handsome Rhys now, running his fingers through the little ducktail of hair at the base of Rhys’ skull. Rhys feels the involuntary shiver that travels through his body.

“Almost there, Me-Bro.”

“I bet you have somewhere private tucked away, somewhere where we could go make a little magic together? After all, I’m hot, you’re hot, we could burn a bed down to cinders.”

For a moment there’s something in Jack’s eyes and Rhys wonders if Jack can see him

“And—there!”

Suddenly Rhys isn’t behind glass, but instead fully present in his body. When he moves his finger against Jack’s cheek, his finger actually follows his command. When he blinks, his eyes actually close. He draws air into his lungs. He searches Jack’s face, taking just a second to orient himself before he steps out of Jack’s hold.

Jack, for his part, lets him go.

Then suddenly A.I. Jack flickers to life next to him, scowling. “Well, goddammit, Kiddo, you couldn’t have stayed put another thirty-five minutes? I was about to get you laid.”

“Screw you, John,” ECHO-Rhys says, appearing in Rhys’ holo-emitter.

“Oh, look who’s back. Hate to tell you this, Atlas, but nobody missed ya!”

“I…” Rhys starts and then trails off, not taking his eyes off Jack’s face. They were this close an hour ago, raging at each other, before Jack smashed into him with that kiss. But this… this is different. “I...uh...concussion!” 

Jack is silent for a long moment and somehow his silence is more frightening than any of the threats he’s ever lobbed. Rhys swallows against the tightness in his throat and continues.

“I...was playing racquetball and I tripped and hit my head on the court… I...think I have a concussion.”

Jack’s eyebrow rises slowly and then he tilts his head. “Well, you better get down to Medical and get that checked out, Pumpkin. Can’t ‘burn the bed down’ if you’re gonna pass out on me.”

“Yeah...er...no. I mean, Medical, yes. I should. Do that.” He turns away sharply, his cheeks burning red. He doesn’t even dare look at either of the A.I.s he knows are watching and judging him.

“And Rhysie?”

“Um...yeah?”

“My penthouse. Tonight. Seven.”

His lips form the word, “Okay.” And he can’t even blame it on A.I. Jack.

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