Normally when Rhys was away, Jack would double his efforts to be a royal pain in the ass. Rhys had mastered the art of the reproachful look to the point it even worked on the cat, and just as she had learned to stay off the kitchen counters, Jack had learned to dial back his unhelpful remarks back to about seventy-five percent of their usual acidity. The moment the CEO stepped out of the door, though, Vaughn’s every move was fair game for his running commentary.
This time around, though, Vaughn was beginning to suspect that something was wrong. Breakfast took place in silence, Jack pushing his scrambled eggs around the plate a few times before abruptly getting up from the table and disappearing. Naturally suspicious, Vaughn pulled up the facility diagnostics, but there was nothing indicating any of Jack's usual attempts at humour.
Vaughn was dismayed to find that the absence of his taunting voice was even more distracting than working with him around - he resorted to filling in with his own unspoken insults, but after an hour or so, he was forced to admit he didn’t quite have Jack’s way with words.
In the silence, he could hear the faint rumblings of gunfire and one-liners from the TV in the lounge. He frowned. Jack had already watched Cult of the Vault III twice in the last week; he had to be running out of continuity errors and anachronistic Hyperion guns to bitch about.
He found the man draped listlessly over the makeshift mountain of pillows and blankets he still called a bedroom, a half-empty mug of cold coffee just beyond the fingertips of one hand, the other arm curled around a large cushion as if trying to prevent its escape.
“Hey,” he said.
Jack grunted, barely glancing at him.
“You sick again?” Vaughn doubted it; the last time a mild cold had passed through the facility, Jack had taken every opportunity to sigh dramatically, fling himself onto the furniture, and demand food and water from whoever was nearest. On the other hand, perhaps it was bad enough that Jack really was dying this time. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
“I’m just fantastic, buddy. So don’t ruin it by standing in front of the screen.”
Vaughn crossed his arms. “Look, I don’t know what your deal is, but we’ve got work to do. Rhys called, and -”
“When?” Jack’s eyes narrowed.
The interruption threw him off balance. He cleared his throat. “Uh...an hour ago? He needs us to send through that wireframe model you were working on.”
“Well, he didn’t call me,” he said. “So it doesn’t count. You do it.”
“He doesn’t call you because you always answer with something gross.”
“Aw, c’mon. Atlas Bunny Ranch was hilarious and you know it.”
He exhaled pointedly through his nose. “Are you gonna get off your ass or not?”
All Vaughn got in response was a bored stare and a hand waving him aside. Rolling his eyes, he turned on his heel; he was already composing a message to Rhys by the time he reached the next room, warning him to to check the contents of every attached file before opening them in public.
"Consider this unpaid leave," he called over his shoulder.
Back at his desk, Scraps laid herself along the bottom of his keyboard, purring and making it impossible to type; he soon gave up, figuring he deserved a break, and gave her a gentle scratch behind the ears. Curious, he loaded up Jack’s files to take a look for himself. He had been an armchair expert on specs and models at one point, but living on Pandora had replaced his encyclopaedic knowledge with more practical concerns. He figured he had a lot of technical advancements to catch up on.
A notification popped up at the edge of Vaughn’s heads-up display, letting him know that someone had swiped in to his makeshift gym. He frowned. He’d come to trust Jack enough that he no longer tracked his movements within the facility - but this was the one place where nobody could go without him knowing, not even Rhys. He was obsessively protective of the workout equipment he’d scavenged and repaired; the only reason he didn’t go ahead and lock the door was that he knew it wouldn’t stop either of them.
But Jack hadn’t shown an interest in the place for weeks, and even that had only been after a snide comment about age and stamina. (Rhys was convinced Vaughn had said it; Vaughn was sure he remembered the words coming out of Rhys’ mouth with crystal clarity.) Something was up, and he would have to sort it out.
Scraps stood when he did, looking at him with reproachful eyes.
“Sorry, sweetie,” said Vaughn, tapping her gently on the nose. “You know how he is. I can’t just leave him.”
She yawned and turned away with a dismissive wave of her tail, wandering off in the direction of Rhys’ room, presumably to leave her customary coating of fur on his pillow. Vaughn braced himself and headed up to the gym.
The door was wide open, as he expected. To his relief, the machines were untouched, along with the weight rack. Living with two people who were a foot taller and far less disciplined meant he spent too much time just keeping things in order. Just then, he heard three dull thuds in succession; stepping cautiously through the doorway, Vaughn finally caught sight of Jack at the far end of the room.
He was stripped down to his undershirt, staring down the punching bag with a sneer on his face, hovering in a loose combat stance and flexing his fingers. Even at this distance Vaughn could see the angry red patches on his knuckles - but it didn’t stop him from unleashing another combination of punches, followed by a brutal round kick to the side of the bag that sent it swinging.
“Nice,” said Vaughn, crossing his arms and leaning against a wall. “You’re flexible. You know, for an old guy.”
Jack’s head snapped up. There was a dangerous look in his eyes reminiscent of a skag having its meal interrupted, but it quickly faded into contempt. “What do you want?” he snarled.
Vaughn shrugged. “Keeping tabs on company morale. Maybe I’ll talk the boss into getting a foosball table.”
Grunting in frustration, Jack wound up for another attack and rammed his fist directly into the leather. Even the sound of the impact was painful; he drew back with a loud, hissing exhale, clearly fighting the urge to clutch the hand to his body. It would have been impressive if it hadn’t been pathetic.
“Mind your own business, dickface,” he said through gritted teeth. A drop of blood rose to the surface and broke through his skin, and he licked it away, eyes locked on Vaughn’s.
In all his years at Hyperion, Vaughn had never been taken in by the propaganda films featuring Jack as the swaggering, invincible hero - and having the real thing at Atlas had dispelled even the few notions left. But in the time they’d spent together he’d caught sight of something beneath the surface - something raw and dark and magnetic that called to a part of him he could never face directly, afraid of what he might see.
“Nah. Don’t think I will.” Vaughn took a step forwards, arms loosening and chin held high. “Besides, you’ll figure it out a lot faster with something that hits back.”
Jack turned to face him as he approached, baring his teeth in a grin that didn’t reach his eyes. Slowly and deliberately, he rolled his shoulders back, stretching to his full height.
"Never thought you'd ask, Tiny." He raised both fists. "So what are we playing? No shirts, no shoes?"
Vaughn mirrored his stance. "No nut shots."
Jack snorted, looking almost amused. "No promises."
They closed in on each other, the silence underscored by the hum of the facility. There should be music, thought Vaughn, his eyes locked on the other man's as they paced in a slow circle.
He took a step forward without shifting his weight, allowing Jack to break the impasse with a lazy jab at his head, which he dodged easily. They smirked at each other, closer than before, and Vaughn dived forward to catch Jack in the stomach.
Suddenly his arm was caught in a two-handed iron grip, and his momentum was carrying him forward to slam into the punching bag. He only just managed to grab it before falling, steadying himself as Jack’s laughter echoed behind him.
“Too slow, sweetheart!”
Undaunted, Vaughn closed the distance once again. He kept his fists up, deflecting a flurry of punches with both forearms despite the pain as each one connected harder than the last.
“Fucking hit me, you tease,” Jack growled.
Vaughn leaned back just a fraction before slamming his right elbow across Jack’s chin. It sent the taller man staggering back, gripping his face in wordless shock.
“My pleasure, you sicko,” he spat back. He spared a moment to glance at his bruises. There was a kind of perverse satisfaction in having them, like something on the inside was being painted on his skin, loud and clear.
Jack leapt on him with a roar of frustration, shoving him against against the exposed brick with both hands around his throat.
“You - drive - me - crazy,” he said, voice shaking like it would crack any moment.
“You are crazy,” Vaughn rasped back at him. He gripped Jack’s wrists hard enough to feel his pulse thundering.
“Go on. Say ‘harder’.” Jack licked his lips. “Say it just like Rhysie does -”
In one fluid move, Vaughn broke the hold on his neck and rammed his heel into the bridge of Jack’s foot. Before Jack could even make a sound, Vaughn had pushed off the wall and charged straight for his stomach, and they both went to the ground with an echoing thud.
He scrambled to get on top, raining down punches everywhere he could reach, Jack laughing hysterically in between grunts of pain. At last he drew his arm back for a final, vicious blow to the face.
“You should’ve stayed dead.”
Jack caught his fist in midair, just inches from his nose. Vaughn's eyes widened.
“Now, that just hurts my feelings,” said Jack.
The hand closed around Vaughn’s and yanked it aside, while the body underneath him twisted to throw him off, and then Jack had him facedown on the floor with a knee dug into his spine and both wrists pinned down.
“You look good like this, sunshine,” Jack purred. “Maybe under happier circumstances next time, huh?”
“You wish.” Vaughn struggled with the energy he had left, but when Jack increased the pressure on his back he had to bite down on a cry of pain.
Jack’s voice was close this time, dark and dangerous. “You really need to learn who you’re dealing with.”
“So show me.” Vaughn threw a defiant look back over his shoulder. He coughed, tasting blood. “Take off that fucking mask and show me.”
There was a deathly silence, and he felt the weight disappear from his body. He stayed where he was for several moments, breathing hard; Jack was backing away across the floor, staring straight through him and into nothing with a hollow look in his eyes.
At last, pulling his aching arms back under his chest, Vaughn managed to lift himself off the floor to sit back on his heels.
“Or don’t,” he said, exhausted. “But I am done with your shit for today, Jack.”
Jack ran both hands through his hair as he seemed to come back to his senses.
“You know…” he began, the words coming out slowly, as if he himself was surprised by them. “Not a lot of people have ever seen my face. Could probably count the ones who are still alive on one hand.”
Vaughn managed a chuckle despite the pain in his ribs. “That bad, huh?”
The older man shot him a dirty look, then examined his fingernails. “Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of old photos to burn. Not much of a summer vacation family.” There was a pause, and at last Jack shrugged heavily. “Ah, shit. Get over here.”
Vaughn sidled over as he reached for his temples, the clasps coming undone with a precise, metal click. He didn’t look at first, distracted by the suddenly lifeless mask, but Jack shoved his shoulder.
“Baring my soul here, pal.”
“Wow. You…” He stared, frowning. “You look like some random guy. I was expecting more.”
His face was a strange mix of young and old, with deep crows’ feet at the corners of his bright eyes. The skin that had been under the mask was a shade paler than the rest; he suspected the effect was more striking after a few days in the sun. His cheeks looked like they were a few spare pounds away from being sunken and hollow, but his jaw remained sharp and strong.
“I had this scar,” said Jack. He held his fingers up to his left eye, as if to check his vision. “Now that was ugly. Had half my face burnt off in a vault, and got the mask to hide it. Don’t ask what happened to that doctor, by the way.”
Vaughn leaned over to touch his cheek, far more scientific than tender. “And when we brought you back...”
“The ECHOnet model didn’t have it.” He shrugged. “But it took me five days after coming back to check.”
“It’s a good thing, right? Not having it?”
“Dunno. It was pretty motivational at the time. But that life’s over, isn’t it? And I lost.” He clenched his teeth for several seconds, then relaxed; his shoulders dropped. “Been so long this doesn’t feel like my real face anyhow.”
The hand traced the bridge of his nose for several seconds. “Rhys hasn’t seen you like this, has he?”
Jack flinched away from the touch. “Naw. Why should he? He wants the hero of Hyperion, not some loser dick from Tantalus. So that’s what I give him.”
A look of absolute bitterness flashed across his face for half a second, just long enough for Vaughn to seize on something.
“You love him,” he blurted out.
Jack whipped around to snarl at him, wide-eyed. “Ew. Shut the hell up.”
He rose unsteadily to his feet. The pieces were coming together, whether he accepted the picture or not. “And because you have the maturity of a teenager, your response is to sulk and punch things.”
“No. No, no, no. It’s very simple. You and your butt-buddy” - Jack was standing up too, leaning over Vaughn with his hands on his hips - “have your gross little love thing. Rhysie and I have a relationship of convenience based on his pretty face and my massive dick. And sometimes I even put up with you, ‘cause you’re freaky and I can dig that.”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Vaughn said coldly. “But we’re all stuck here now, and you’re being a bitch, and I’m over it.” He punctuated his sentence with a finger jabbed into the other man’s chest.
Jack exhaled through his nose, unfamiliar features twisted in frustration. “You know what? Changed my mind. You’ve seen my face, and now I have to kill you.”
”I’m sure you’d enjoy that,” Vaughn said, folding his arms, “but it’s not going to fix anything, and it’s sure as hell not gonna help with our deadlines. I already pick up a ton of your slack.”
“Ugh, I can’t work with all your emotional bullshit. Who do I report that to? Do we have an HR department?” Jack’s words spilled out rapidly as he puffed himself up. “And all your sexual harassment is distracting. I want to file a complaint!”
“You should show him,” Vaughn said at last, when the bluster was done. For a former CEO, Jack was remarkably bad at keeping his cool. “Your face. I think it’d...mean a lot to him.”
“Shut up, bandit,” snapped Jack. “Can we go back to hitting each other? I can almost tolerate you that way.”
“I said I’m done, Jack. This one’s on you. Figure it out. If not for your own sake, then because Rhys deserves it.”
The climate regulator shifted into its passive phase with a last loud clunk that echoed through the walls, leaving them in a silence that was absolute. Jack pressed his lips together and turned away. “It’s not worth it,” he said quietly. He snapped the mask back into place, but when he finally looked back, there was a weariness in his eyes that it didn’t hide.
Vaughn was almost in danger of feeling sorry for him. He placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder, steeling himself.
“Look. Rhys...cares about you.” His mouth twisted as he said it. Jack narrowed his eyes in suspicion, but didn’t interrupt. “And for whatever reason, he doesn’t know he’s too good for you, so use it. He deserves the truth, and I think deep down - very deep down - you want to give it to him.”
He waited for some vulgar response, but it never came, and he experienced the briefest flicker of pride in the man. It was possible that his best friend was not as bad a judge of character as he’d feared.
Jack grabbed his wrist and dragged him close, chest to chest. The confident smirk across his mask was almost back to normal. "You know this doesn’t change things between us, right? I still hate you, no matter what."
Vaughn just smiled, leaned up on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. "It's mutual."
Rhys didn’t ask about the marks on either of them, just gave his usual exasperated roll of the eyes before letting them welcome him back; he hit the showers while they tried to assemble something coherent out of their stockpile of leftovers.
It was Jack’s turn to choose the movie, which saved time - he always argued with the others about their choices, even if he secretly approved - and with the sun going down, the three of them settled onto the executive-sized couch for an experience requiring zero brainpower and a stack of blankets.
“I’m not tired,” Rhys insisted.
“Uh-huh. Sure thing, pumpkin.”
His eyes closed for several seconds longer than the last time and his body slumped automatically against Jack’s side. Vaughn sighed; he reached over to pat his barely-conscious friend on the knee and rescue the popcorn from his failing grip. He settled back against the armrest where Scraps was curled up. She sniffed his cheek, then rested her head back on her paws, satisfied.
He watched Jack’s expression soften as Rhys’ head sank onto his shoulder. Jack leaned away and angled his body to give him more space, his hand coming up to play with the still-damp ends of Rhys’ hair.
Their eyes met. Vaughn raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t you say a damn word, bandit.”