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I Bet the Devil Was Handsome Too

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       “Welcome to Sugar and Spice where a smile is guaranteed. How can I make your day sweeter?” Elizabeth mumbled; her lips on autopilot as her eye lids drooped ever lower. The chipper words that waltzed from her mouth clashed with the bags under her eyes. With what had to be the hundredth yawn that day, she could feel the effects of another long night of studying kicking her ass.

        The customer slightly grinned at her and let out a small chuckle, “A smile guaranteed? How am I supposed to do that when you’re not even smiling?” When the man was only met with a raise of an eyebrow and a sarcastic stare, he coughed uncomfortably into his hand and muttered, “Just a raisin bagel and a coffee, please.” She gathered his order and as he left she said with a lazy wave, “Have a delicious day.”

        With no one else in sight, her head gave way to the tug of gravity, and dropped down to her crossed arms. She knew Moxxi would tear her up for sleeping on the job, but what Mox didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Besides, the only people who needed donuts at one in the morning were drunks, stoners, and drunk-stoners. None of which she had to be presentable for.

        Her face peeked out from above her arms; eyes fluttering open. They started bugging out as soon as she caught sight of the bright pink walls of the tiny shop; the ceiling lined with white trim resembling icing on a cake. She blinked a few times, trying to rid herself of the eye-floaties blurring her vision. To top off her headache, the agitating tune of “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” was bouncing happily around the empty room.

        With each infuriating tick of the clock, her eyes grew heavier, and her head followed suit, bobbing up and down as if someone had attached a long string to her ponytail, and was pulling on it like a hungry fish. Her gaping mouth didn’t help the resemblance at all.   

        As she continued to struggle to keep her head from bashing the counter, she took the time to mentally kick herself for taking those extra credits at the beginning of the semester. Psychology definitely demanded satisfaction. She couldn’t even sleep anymore without Ivan Pavlov haunting her nightmares. Eh, more like “psychoanalyze”. A chuckle escaped her throat as she pathetically giggled at her own joke.

        But she only had one more year to ride out. One more year and she was done with the late nights, and the pots upon pots of coffee. She was going broke with all the java she bought.

        Not to mention her social life was practically non-existent. It seemed like most of the time she lived to work rather than worked to live. Her friends had all but given up on getting her out of the workplace, and she couldn’t help but feel a tang of self-pity whenever she saw pictures of them at parties on her Echopic.

        She quickly got over it each time, but lately it seemed harder to do with the countless selfies they sent her, or with each passing keg stand pic she received. She didn’t even like alcohol, but she longed to be creating memories with them; hazy, nausea-inducing memories. College was supposed to be fun. Why wasn’t she having fun?

        Oh, right. She knew why. Failing her goddamn Statistics class had set her back at least half of a semester. Not to mention the year she took off to figure out what the actual hell she wanted to do with her life. And here she was a year later, still confused and broke as hell.

        When she came back that following semester, she ultimately figured Psychology was a safe enough major. The money was ideal, and it had a steady enough supply of jobs she could fill straight out of college, but she couldn’t help but feel hollow. It seemed a normal life was in store for her; a normal life where she would just be one more face in the crowd.

        She couldn’t help but cringe when she thought of the inevitability of getting married to a boring man, buying a boring house in the suburbs, having boring children, and dying a boring death. Many sought that dream, but it just wasn’t in her repertoire. Whenever she attempted to explain these feelings to her parents, they only laughed at her, calling her an ambitious hippy. Their suspicions were confirmed when she told them she joined the Drama club at school.

        She had to disagree. She wasn’t a hippy. She was an idealist; an idealist with a dream. The only problem: she didn’t know what that dream was. 

        But now that her parents were no longer behind her money wise, she thought it best to just stick to the road more traveled. So, like it or not, she had to buckle down and put in the extra time to get herself back on track. And that meant spending every waking moment at the Sugar and Spice. That, or locked away in her room studying.

        Adult life she had learned was just plain hard. Why couldn’t her life be like one of those feel-good movies where the rich guys falls madly in love with her just because she treated him a normal human being, or where her long lost grandmother turns up to tell her she’s royalty? The thought of being a kid again sounded appealing, too. The least she wanted was for someone to make her some ravioli from a can.

        Though, she had to admit her job was not rocket science. She found it hard to complain given it was pretty damn easy, and paid well too. Plus, Moxxi was super sweet, albeit a little crazy. She was helpful, at least when she was around which was hardly ever it seemed. She spent most of her time at her pride and joy, Moxxi’s Red Light, and usually left the girl to her own devices. That meant either waking her up at the ass-crack of dawn, or sending her home in the pitch black. Nobody wanted donuts during the day; that would be absurd.

        Not to mention they were in the heart of Pandora where all the psychos lived. Not sure what Mox was thinking when she bought the cruddy place. Elpis was so much nicer; the people were so much less murdery.

        Not a day passed by without the report of another killing in Pandora flooding the news; be it a shooting or downright cannibalism. It scared the living shit out of her, so she actively strayed as far away from those points of interest as possible. She didn’t want to end up on the news as another statistic. She groaned when she remembered Statistics again; what a stupid class.   

        Just as she felt the thrum of The Supremes lull her to sleep, the ring of the door’s welcome bell snapped her eyes open, and she was brought her back to the counter of the shop. For the shortest of seconds she was annoyed until she caught sight of the figure coming in from the dark. She blushed.

        A tall man strode in; a hand running through his dark hair fixing it from the night air, and the other adjusting his coat. For a brief moment she was solely transfixed on his hands. They were big, but slender and his fingers were long. They looked powerful. Her eyes then traveled up to the rest of him. He wore a dark grey suit jacket with a yellow undershirt that matched the yellow handkerchief in his suit’s pocket. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows revealing strong arms; a secret weakness of hers, but by the staring anyone could tell it was no secret. His jaw line was strong and his chin held a neatly groomed soul patch. She wasn’t usually a fan, but on him it just worked. He was lean but well built, tall but not lanky and he was all around…handsome.

        His suave demeanor was a stark difference than that of the cheery donut shop which she graciously welcomed. His brow was firm above alert eyes as they scanned the room idly, taking in the décor with what looked to be a grimace. The grimace disappeared once their eyes locked. She noted the sly smirk that grew across his features when he noticed her gawking from behind the counter. He looked at her coyly before walking over, his stride giving him an air of confidence that made her attention perk.

        As he drew closer, she estimated he was probably in his late thirties to early forties given the fine streaks of gray within his locks. It looked like a waterfall between two black mountains. He approached and she drank in his height. She was by no means short, and was usually taller than most of the men she knew, but compared to him she barely reached the midpoint of his long nose.

        As he leaned over the counter, one arm propping him up by his elbow and the other planted firmly on his hip, his cologne overtook her senses. It was intoxicating. The scent of rum and cedar flooded her nostrils and the slightest hint of something sweet. Vanilla?    

        When she recollected herself, she managed to look him in the eyes, but was instantly taken by his heterochromia; one blue, one green. God, was this man celestial?

        Although, one peculiarity that managed to catch her eye now that he was close enough to see- let alone touch- was the striking difference between the olive tone of his neck and arms, and the cream color of his face. The slight scarring gave her the presumption it was surgical, but she was not one to judge. His lips drew her away from the oddity, pulling her back into his strapping good looks

        Also, she couldn't quite place it, but the man was somehow familiar to her. She knew it'd be hard to forget such a face. But those eyes, that hair, and that jawline triggered something skeptical in her. Whatever it was she did not know. Maybe you saw him in your dreams, Elizabeth told herself, producing a smile. He smiled wider when he noticed her beaming up at him.          

        “Welcome to Sugar and Spice where a smile is guaranteed. How can I make your day sweeter?” She asked her voice cracking. He gave an amused grin and furrowed his brow. “Oh, I know just how you can make me smile-” He paused, glancing down at her nametag, his eyes almost lingering, “Elizabeth.” Well shit. His voice was candy too. Although, despite the increasing heat in her cheeks, the line did put her off a little.

        “I’m sorry, what-” She started, but was cut off with a finger to the lips. “No words, alright pumpkin? You look great, so I don’t really want to hear how dumb you sound. Just wanna know if your boss is in.” It took Elizabeth a moment to fully grasp what had just happened. She went cross-eyed to stare down at the finger against her lips.

        Oh, hell no, She thought, his touch making her blood simmer.

She might have been enthralled with the man a moment ago, but all feel felt now was annoyance. She glared at him for a few moments trying to wrap her brain around him, his finger still shushing her. The silence was thick.

        The smirk disappeared from his face and impatience took place, “Hello, I asked you a question. Your boss. Is she in?”

        The Professor of her Women and Gender Studies class suddenly appeared within her brain. He looked pissed too, his shaded glasses thinly veiling immense anger, and his unreal muscles almost popping out of his shirt as they so often did whenever he got into a heated discussion about gender equality. She heard him scream in her head, “There’s nothing more badass than treating a woman with respect!” 

        The blush from her cheeks fell away as she immediately pegged this guy for the cocky asshole he was. She knew men like this too well. She wasn’t willing to give him the satisfaction of seeing her fawn over him no matter how hot he was. Without a word, she simply looked up at him with a newfound fire in her gut.

        The silence was obviously infuriating him. She could almost see his anger grow by the minute like a tea kettle ready to scream. His finger finally left her lips, and he rubbed his temples in frustration. A growl shook his Adam’s apple; a primal noise that made Elizabeth shudder, but it failed to break down her walls. She fueled the fire by putting away some stock behind the counter completely ignoring the red growing within his pupils. His teeth produced an awful grind, but she paid him no mind.

        Sure it was immature, but she had to admit she enjoyed watching his façade crumble. It was uncharacteristically mean of her, but whether she liked to admit it or not, he had successfully pushed her buttons. It had been awhile since someone had managed to do that. He pinched the bridge of his nose as if her disobedience were actually giving him a damn headache. Guess he was used to getting his way.

        “No comprendo? Your boss. Got jugs out to here, can’t miss ‘em,” He said groping the air around his chest. She paused only to give him a terrible side glare.

        “Are you an idiot or just another dumb blonde, cupcake?” He snapped his fingers in her face making her glare deepen.

        With a viper like quickness, Elizabeth snatched his hand from in front of her face, and forcefully brought it down to the counter. Before he could react, and before she released his hand, she gave him one hard look then went back to stocking items. On the inside she cheered at her own badassery, but on the outside she gave nothing away.

        To say the man was mad was a complete understatement. With another furious growl he leaned in closer to her, but she didn’t bother turning to look at him. He didn't deserve her attention. She was solely transfixed on the maple bacon bars within her gloved hands. She didn’t even turn to see what shade of red he had slowly become. She had guessed burgundy.

        “Who do you think you are; some goddamn fairy princess with a magic wand shoved your ass? You’re really starting to piss me off. Do you know what I do to people who piss me off?” He warned. His voice was uneven as spurts of anger shot through his hushed tone.

        Knowing he was well on edge, she decided to have one last bit of fun. She rolled her eyes dramatically as she pretended to pick up the phone from the other side of the counter. She lazily twirled the cord within her fingers and gave him a sideways glance as she said, “Hello? No, I can talk. Nothing important going at on at all. How is it in the kingdom of fairy princess land; good weather?”

        “Hey, I’m talking to you!” He yelled as he slammed his immense hands on the counter top making her jump; a few items falling off the side from the impact. She took a half step back, alarmed, and released the phone from her grip letting it fall to the floor. Her eyes grew wide as she realized he had successfully crushed her cold front. The smirk returned to his face, but she would be damned if she didn’t get one last dig in. With an audacity that surprised her, she remarked, “You told me ‘no words’, sir.

        At first he was pissed. Then the side of his lip curled deep into his cheek. Suddenly, he threw his head back to release a full belly laugh into the open room which managed to drown out the ending of “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch”. The man’s laugh was similar to that of a hyena’s; feigning amusement but ready to kill at any moment. Was this guy from Pandora? He seemed crazy enough. If he was then that meant he had the lethality to back up the insanity.

        As he finished he looked back down at her with a grin. His smile, or rather his baring teeth, sent a chill up her back. His canines were almost animalistic as he loomed over her. That’s the moment Elizabeth knew she was going to die. He was going to chop her up and throw her into Crater Lake, and she would have nothing to leave behind but a goldfish and a shit ton of student loans. She would be another murder people would be angry at for about a week before continuing on with their lives as if nothing ever happened. Another statistic.

        He leaned in so she could smell that enticing cologne again. It messed with her brain something fierce. He spoke quietly. It terrified her that he almost sounded sweet. She would rather have him shout or growl; something she’d be able to read.

        With a finger, he jabbed at Elizabeth’s nametag then ran a thumb over the pink “S&S” insignia embroidered on her work shirt. “I don’t think you understand who I am, sweetheart, so I’ll let you off this one time. Next time, I know I won’t be so nice. Now Moxxi. Where. Is. She?” He emphasized. The words slid through his white teeth, and his fraternal eyes glowered up at her from beneath sharp, dark eyebrows, freezing her from the inside out.

        “She’s not here. She’s at her bar, Moxxi’s Red Light,” She squeaked, “I can get you the number.”

        Elizabeth wanted nothing more than for this interaction to be over. She mentally calculated how long it would take for her to reach the phone to call the police if this guy tried anything. She determined that she would most definitely be able to call them, but she would most definitely be dead by the time they showed up. She then made note of the pepper spray at the bottom of the counter. Her fingers itched.

        He threw his hands up in rage and spun on his heel. “I don’t need the shitty number, I own that goddamn bar! I own this entire city!” His tone was utterly offended. He took long strides towards the door, but before exiting he turned and cocked his head mockingly, looking back at her with a pout, “In fact, I own you, kiddo.” Her shoulders tensed from the look in his eye.

        “This crap hole is mine too which means you work for me. Isn’t that peachy?” He teased. His nose and eyes scrunched to make room for his sneer. He had taken the upper hand yet again.

        “Maybe next time you’ll be more hospitable when serving your boss. So, it’d be wise to remember my name; Handsome goddamn Jack, baby!”    

        With a flip of the middle finger, he slammed the door shut, and the bell attached to it came crashing to the ground producing a metallic shriek that reverberated through Elizabeth’s ears. He started walking away then stopped when he noticed an open window. She could do nothing but watch him as he put his mouth to the screen of the window and say, “I’m going to make your life hell, cupcake.” She felt his words kick start one final stroke of nerve in her stomach. She raised her hand to wave at him and called out, “Have a delicious day!”

        She could practically feel the daggers from his glare slice into her, and she knew she was pushing her luck, but she had already dug herself this far. Why not deeper? She thought grimly, My family won’t have to pay for someone to dig my grave.

        He gave her one last chilling smirk and finally her boss, Handsome goddamn Jack, slinked off into the night. The sudden quiet that pervaded the room left her feeling like she had effed up entirely. At least she wouldn’t be having nightmares about Pavlov anymore.

Chapter Text

“You spoke to Handsome Jack like that? The Handsome Jack?!” Jess shrilled over the phone. The girl’s sudden outburst almost made Elizabeth drop the device from its resting place between her cheek and shoulder; her hands busy with homework. The brightness of the computer screen illuminated her face and paper as she worked tirelessly on a Mind and Behavior worksheet. Her thumping heart betrayed her languid disposition. She couldn’t quite forget last night as much as she wanted to.

“I didn’t know it was him, Jess,” Elizabeth mumbled. She heard an exasperated groan resound over the line, “How could you not?” Elizabeth hated to admit it, but she was right. How could she not recognize the man she had been programmed since grade school to believe was the “savior” of Pandora; the same man who the children of Pandora pledged their allegiance to every single day of their lives?  

Since middle school, everything had shifted for the worse. She was only thirteen at the time but she could remember the exact moment Handsome Jack came to power. She could distinctly recall how her parents were consumed with worry when they discovered their boss, the former CEO of Hyperion, had vanished and the position was immediately filled by this nameless man; this Handsome Jack.

Her parents would often wonder about the sudden, not to mention mysterious disappearance, but after a while and after a few dropped investigations, they grew to learn that it was best not to ponder such things out loud. 

Elizabeth may have been young, but even then she knew something was seriously awry when the man’s face suddenly started appearing everywhere she looked; at school, on buildings, on television. His constant stare would have made her uneasy were it not for his overwhelming charisma. He had a funny way of attracting people, and from the get-go, his overwhelming charm won over his citizens including her parents.

That admiration soon turned to confusion and terror when Jack declared his rule over the state; an authority that was practically handed to him. No one quite understood how he had obtained such a high power, but they were a fool to question it. Nothing Jack did was ethical. They would just leave it at that.

Things were never quite the same for the people of Pandora after that. Hell was a loose term to describe day to day life.

Jack was more of a dictator than anything he claimed to be, and he had the backing of many wealthy companies and families to assure he stayed in that position. It was well-known he had the perpetual support of one of the most influential families in the country, the Hammerlocks, and their constant patronage was anything but frugal. Their aristocratic lifestyle was infamous, so it was no surprise the two fascist parties clicked almost immediately.

Elizabeth could feel her skin crawl as she pictured that stupid face popping up on her television set to preach once again about the change he was willing to bring to the "rat hole" known as Pandora. The only problem: the only change people saw was the increase of slums and the decrease of jobs.

She knew she should count herself lucky, though. Her parents, loyal employees to Hyperion, were secure in their job status. Being miners they were not rich by any means, but they were well enough off as far as being able to survive. Still, was surviving really the same as living?

“You seriously didn’t know?”

“Oh, totally. That’s why I made a total ass of myself in front of the most powerful man in Pandora. Real good thinking on my part I’d say,” Elizabeth quipped as she nodded like an idiot to no one in particular, “Of course not! He just waltzed in like he owned the place and started getting weird, so I accidentally decided to be an asshole. It was a spur of the moment thing!” Elizabeth whined recounting the terror that was fresh in her mind.

“He does own the place Lizzy! Moxxi may run it, but she works for him all the same,” Jess said, “And how the hell do you accidentally decide to be an asshole? You’re lucky he didn’t off you right there!”

That made Elizabeth pause. She put her pencil down trying to think rationally.

“Jack’s just a guy with a lot of power. He’s not a murderer, Jess,” She said, trying to convince not only her friend, but herself as well.

“I’m not so sure,” Jess said, her voice growing smaller over the line. Elizabeth wondered if there was a bad connection, but she soon realized it was fear weighing down her friend’s voice.

“He’s a shady guy, Liz. He’s been in so many scandals, and has walked clean from every single one. If he murdered you, he would have enough power to get off scot-free.” It felt as if a large apple had lodged itself in Elizabeth’s throat. She tried to dislodge it but it refused to budge.

“I heard he throws people in front of trains, or ties bricks to their feet and drowns them in the lake. Or-” Jess rambled over the line becoming more and more frenzied. Elizabeth could feel her heart’s pace quicken with Jess’ growing hysteria.

“I don’t really want to have this conversation before I have to go to bed, please,” Elizabeth tried to laugh but it came out choked. The line was silent for a long while as the two girls tried to think of something to comfort one another.

“He was hot though, right?” Jess finally asked. Elizabeth sighed, “Very.”

They talked for a few more hours avoiding the topic at hand, and instead elected to talk about the cute mechanic girl, Janey, Jess had a crush. One who just so happened to be involved with the coach of the rugby team; a stoic, powerhouse of a woman who Jess said could knock her flat on her ass if she so much as looked at Janey. “Lucky girl,” Jess commented.

After a while they both bid each other goodnight. “I’ll see you tomorrow, chickadee. You still on for coffee in the morn’?” Jess asked.

“You know it. I’ll pick you up around nine if you want,” Elizabeth offered. As much as Elizabeth wanted to sleep in on her day off, she craved human interaction much more.

“Sounds good; see you then!” And with a click she was gone, and Elizabeth was left alone with only her thoughts.

She began to itch at her head through her sandy blonde hair to try and scratch out the image of Handsome Jack’s smug face from her brain. Jess didn’t have to remind Elizabeth that Jack was a guy that shouldn’t be messed with. She had heard countless stories from whispers exchanged in class to slurred chit chat held at Moxxi’s bar and everywhere in between. Some were full on horror stories that kept Elizabeth checking the locks on her windows at night.

One time when she was working the morning shift at the Sugar and Spice, she had overheard the radio report the death of a man who had literally had his throat ripped out right outside the city of Lynchwood. When she returned home to research it more thoroughly, she found that, coincidentally enough, all evidence pointed to Jack. Still, he walked away unscathed from the charges.

And the one thought that continued to nag at the back of her head like a fly that was just out of reach of swatting was that no matter where she went or where she hid, he would find her if he truly wanted to.

As CEO of Hyperion, one of the leading corporations in the whole country, Jack controlled Pandora like his own personal chess board, and that included Pandora’s vast resources. Pandora was definitely shitty, but ever since Eridium had been discovered in the area, things had been slightly less shitty.

Too bad Jack was sucking every last bit of it dry like a leach. He was reaping all the benefits of the invaluable ore for himself, and not saving a single penny of it for the people. Jack claimed he wanted what was best for his people, but how could he when his people were dying in the street; most by his hand?

And the way he spoke made it seem Pandora was hardly enough to quench his thirst. He wanted absolute control; that much was certain, and at this rate he would get it. He already had his claws rooted deep into Elpis, and it wouldn’t be long before he took it for his own. Next would be Promethea, Artemis, and she hated to admit it, but the whole country was not out of question.

It was no secret everyone was terrified of the powerful man. He was like some sort of God. The stigma attached to his name was a powerful one. The mere mention of the name “Handsome Jack” had some of the biggest politicians cowering. It sure had that effect on her.  

What did Elpis even look like anymore? Elizabeth could only slightly recall their yearly family vacations to Concordia, but that had been at least a decade ago. Ever since Jack had the borders of Pandora loaded to the nines with guards and checkpoints, barely anyone left. Only the highly wealthy ever got to see the outside world anymore. Oh, how she loved Elpis; hardly any murders. It was great.

Although, the crazies of Pandora were one thing; Jack was another. To think, millions of lives were being held captive in the hands of a single psychopath, and she could feel hers wriggling right under his thumb. She had to face that she had been caught within the spider’s web and all because she had decided to be a dick to the biggest dick in the land. She had been thoroughly out-dicked.

There had been some talk of rebels gathering an army in the city of Sanctuary, but she waved it off. They were probably just a bunch of vigilantes who were in way over their heads. Still, she couldn’t help but admire their cause.   

Once she was done with homework, she fed Horatio who swam around contently in his bowl, and plopped down into the welcoming the mattress that seemed to fit to her form perfectly. She snuggled deeper underneath the cool sheets as the anxiety of the day faded some. She let out a dramatic sigh, and stared up at the cracks in her ceiling, letting her mind wander.

The apartment she lived in off campus was undoubtedly shitty since it was the cheapest she could find, but the solitude away from all the hustle and bustle was nice somehow. And for once, the ceiling wasn’t leaking; that was a perk. Of course, if she could afford something nicer, she would do it in a heartbeat, but ever since her parents had cut her off, she’d been flat broke. So, she was stuck living in a dump. But she had to admit, she had a roof, a bed, and warmth on good days. She couldn’t complain too much. 

Although despite her preference for privacy, she found herself lonely at times. She would watch dog videos to fill the void, but it never seemed to fill up to a point where she was satisfied. She knew she was part of the problem, though. Jess always reminded her she could have guys over whenever she wanted or that she could throw parties on the weekends, but all Elizabeth really wanted to do was eat ice cream in her underwear and watch Echoflix. They sometimes shared these nights together, laughing and crying until four in the morning; something Elizabeth cherished deeply. Those were the nights that made sleeping alone sometimes painful.                

Her head met with the softness of the cotton scented pillow as she flicked her bedside lamp off. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness as she looked outside to the stars. Before sleep could set in, she caught herself thinking about him again, and she scolded herself. Handsome Jack. What a narcissist.

  9:16 a.m 

Elizabeth’s eyes peeled open as she awoke to the blaring of “Flawless”; Jess’ ringtone. She slapped her hand down on her phone and brought it up to her ear to mumble a groggy, “Hello?” “I’m guessing you overslept?”

 It took a while for Elizabeth to process. She squinted from the glare that shone in through the translucent curtains. “…Oh, shit! I’m so sorry. I’ll be there in ten!”

9:26 a.m.

The sky was drearily overcast that morning, refusing to let the sun shine. Cold air whipped through Jess’ short black hair, freezing her skull. Her feet padded the pavement in rhythm as she attempted to accumulate heat in her numb toes. Her dark, slender fingers trembled in time with her chattering teeth. She was on the corner of the street when she saw the little, blue clunker trudge up the road pathetically. She smiled when she caught sight of the driver who looked close to death. She saw the window roll down, and the blonde leaned across the passenger’s seat to wink at her.

“Hey, babe, you come here often?” She said; her hair clearly untouched from the night before.

“Business or pleasure?” Jess laughed and hopped in.

“I’m so sorry I overslept,” Elizabeth said rubbing her temples, “I just stayed up way too late.”

The heat warmed Jess up from the inside out, and instantly put her in a good mood. “It’s cool. I should have known to tell you to pick me up at eight, cause then you would have been ready on time.” She stuck a tongue out teasingly and looked into the passenger mirror to fix the headband in her hair. That’s the one thing Elizabeth always appreciated about Jess. No matter how many times she screwed up, Jess retained the ability to forgive and forget. It was pretty admirable.

They arrived at The Clap Trap, and as soon as they stepped in the doorway they were welcomed by warmth and the smell of freshly brewed coffee; the chilly air melting off them instantly. They shed their layers, and took a seat on the worn arm chairs by the electric fire place. An electric blonde waiter came buzzing over to them with a smile plastered against his young, optimistic face. He had fervor in his step that contrasted the gloom of outside.

“Welcome back to The Clap Trap, ladies! The usual?” He asked. His baby blues seemed to be busting with excitement.

“Yeah, thanks, Trap,” Elizabeth nodded to the waiter who she recognized from her Water Aerobics class, but for the life of her, could not remember the name of. She usually just defaulted to the nickname she bestowed upon him. Fitting since he didn’t know how to shut his trap, but unbeknownst to her, he appreciated the nickname immensely. He might have been annoying but he was nice enough, and he made some damn good coffee.

When they were alone, Jess looked up at Elizabeth with a timid smile. “You get a call from Moxxi yet about…you know?” She asked, tentatively side-stepping over the sensitive subject, but still longing to know if her friend was truly safe.  

Elizabeth sighed and took a long look at the paintings decorating the brick walls; most of them created and donated by local students. She had always thought about donating one of her pieces, but she doubted she was good enough. It would probably just be thrown in the back with all the other failed works. Or maybe she was too critical of herself

She also noticed the cracks in the wall the portraits were attempting to conceal. Cracks defined no doubt by years of decay and lack of money inflow; both an obvious catalyst to the gloomy deterioration. It seemed to her everyone was in the same boat. They were all sitting on a gold mine yet the money was nowhere to be found.   

Her gaze traveled around the room looking for anything else worthy of note, and hoping to avoid the question entirely, but before she could lose herself in thought, Jess snapped her back.

“Liz, stay with me,” Jess said, “Don’t ignore the question, please. I’m worried about you.”

Elizabeth could hear the chatter of the other patrons, and suddenly became self-conscious. She didn’t want to speak too loudly if they were going to be talking about him. If he really did have as many connections as people believed then there would no doubt be some nearby. She looked at her friend who looked back expectantly.

“I haven’t-” Elizabeth started.

“Here are your drinks!” Trap announced making both girls jump. They simultaneously shot him a glare, but he continued to smile.

“Ignore the puffing burn marks on my arms. I spilled both of your drinks all over myself the first time, so I am in tremendous pain! Enjoy!” He said and bounced away. The girls shot each other a look, and Jess muttered a brief thanks while Elizabeth tried to stifle a laugh.

“Okay, so…?” Jess said giving a wave of her hand for Elizabeth to continue. Elizabeth sucked in air and looked to the side, her shoulders hunched.

“No, I haven’t gotten a call. I’m not even sure Moxxi knows what happened,” She said, squeezing tighter on her coffee.

“Then you have to tell her. If anybody can do something about this, it’s Moxxi,” Jess said and Elizabeth put a finger to her lips for her to quiet down. The last thing she wanted was for them to be noticed. They were quiet for a few moments.

“Maybe he forgot about it. It was probably just another normal Friday night for him. You know, threatening a college kid; same old, same old. He probably doesn’t even remember what you look like,” Jess offered and added, “I mean you are just another plain white girl.” Her amused expression was met with a hard stare from Elizabeth.

“He told me he was going to make my life hell, Jess,” Elizabeth said, “And I think he’s winning.”

Suddenly, “She’s a Lady” blared out of Elizabeth’s phone startling the two girls. Jess roared with anger making the other patrons turn, “If this keeps happening I am going to have a heart attack at twenty-three!”

Elizabeth looked down to her phone cautiously, knowing exactly whose ringtone it was.

Moxxi lit up the phone screen; her tight, black curls outlining her beautiful, heart-shaped face heavily clad with makeup as per usual. Elizabeth hardly ever saw the woman without her face done up, or her work outfit on since she insisted it was “bad for business”, but the girl secretly enjoyed when the woman let her guard down around her. It made her feel like a confidante of sorts. Plus, she thought her southern accent was cute.

“It’s Moxxi,” She gulped. Jess took a light sip of her caramel macchiato, and set it down gently as if the slightest movement would overload her friend.

“She’s probably just telling you to not come in to work tomorrow because you’re just…” Jess struggled to find the right words then pumped her arm with weak enthusiasm, “such a damn good worker.” 

With a swipe of her finger, Elizabeth reluctantly answered the phone, “Hey, Mox. What’s up?” She could feel herself shaking, her seat squeaking in response. The shaking lessened once Elizabeth felt a warm hand land on her and found Jess rubbing her arm.       

“Hey, sugar. Just calling to see how you were doing. Haven’t heard from you in a while,” Moxxi’s naturally cool tone was unusually on edge; an edge that Elizabeth couldn’t place. Was it anger, maybe fear?

“I’m good,” Elizabeth said softly, unsure how to continue. She absolutely hated not knowing what to say. Jess quietly inched herself closer to the phone to eavesdrop, her ear suctioning on to the cover.

The line was quiet for a second before Elizabeth started again, “Listen, I have to tell you something about the other night. There-” She was cut off with an abrupt hush.

“Shush, sugar. Let’s save this discussion for when we’re in person, alright? Meet me at the bar and we’ll talk this out. You’re not in trouble, darling. We just need to make a few...arrangements if that’s alright with you.”

“Of course, no problem,” Elizabeth laughed nervously. Huge problem. As she internally screamed, Jess was simultaneously freaking out by her side. “I’ll stop by around seven, then?” Elizabeth asked.

“Sounds perfect; see you, sugar,” Moxxi affirmed briskly; the nonchalant velvet of her voice falling momentarily. They said their goodbyes and hung up.

Jess and Elizabeth sat in silence for a beat, until Jess put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and both of their brown eyes met, “You’re boned.”

Moxxi’s Red Light, 6:57 p.m.

It took around ten minutes for Elizabeth to find a parking spot in the over-crowded lot. The doors were overflowing with people trying to get into Moxxi’s Red Light, and the crowd didn’t look pleasant. It certainly wasn’t the type you’d see walk into church worship on a Sunday morning.

She took a moment to scold herself for her brash judgement. They were probably all wonderful people with wonderful backstories, and they all scared the absolute crap out of her.

It didn’t help that her vision was slightly blurry from the two shots Jess insisted she take before leaving for the bar; graciously donated, by the way, straight from Jess’ personal stash. She wasn’t a fan of drinking and driving, but dying in a car crash was the least of her worries.    

Elizabeth tapped the phone in her pocket nervously remembering that Jess had told her to not hesitate to call if things started looking shady. She stuffed her hands deep within her pea-colored fall jacket, and kicked a few stray pieces of gravel into the street. Despite the cool and calm pulse of the night air, Elizabeth felt a bead of sweat drip down her spine. With a deep gulp of breath, she dove into the crowd and pushed her way through the booze and body odor.

The strobing red and purple lights blinded her momentarily as she wrestled through to the heart of the bar; the chilly nip of the fall wind replaced with the thick suspension of grinding bodies. Elizabeth’s step quickened as she felt a pelvis catch her in the hip. Her hands and eyes automatically flew above her waist; unwilling to see or touch anything she might regret. When she was directed to the back room by one of the bartenders, she suddenly felt a pit grow inside her stomach.

Her footsteps were lead as she trudged towards Moxxi’s office, and gripped the doorknob for support, wobbling some. She mentally cursed herself for being such a light weight.

The pounding of the bass thumped her heart out of her chest, clouding her already muddied thoughts. She felt like she was going to be sick. With a push, she lightly pressed the door open.

“Moxxi, you in here?” Elizabeth peeked in and saw the chair to Moxxi’s desk facing toward the back wall. She noticed a slight movement to the chair, and she could see Moxxi’s hat peeking out from above her velvet swivel chair. She was there, so why wasn’t she answering? Was she really that angry? From the way Moxxi talked about Jack, she would have expected at least a promotion.  

She then mustered up the courage to continue, “I wanted to talk to you about the other night. I’m sure you’ve already heard, and I’m so sorry. It was a huge mistake. That guy- that Handsome Jack threw me for a loop. I had no idea it was him. I was stupid and I was disrespectful and I just don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m drowning, Mox, I really need your help.”

The chair creaked almost tauntingly, but it never gave her the satisfaction of turning around. The maddening silence made her desperation rise. She took a few steps forward, furthering herself into the room; the smell of citrus and cranberries making her nose tingle. The decorative hanging lights attached to the ceiling and walls produced a soft glow that matched the fruity scent. The magenta spinning chair slowly rocked back and forth patiently, seeming to coax her on.

“Moxxi, please, he’s going to kill me!” She pleaded, but yet again, she was only met with silence. After all they had been through, this was how she was going to treat her? The remaining alcohol left in her system heightened her emotions. Anger flooded her senses as she began to see red. Elizabeth clenched her fists as she took a few more sharp steps forward to forcefully turn the chair around, “Answer me!”

Instead of the curvaceous woman Elizabeth was expecting, the girl was met with a fat, raggedy man who was slouched deep into the velvet material of the seat. His eyes were bloodshot, and it seemed his mind was on another plane of existence. He let out a few unintelligible gargles as his tongue shot out from the side of his mouth. A top his balding head sat Moxxi’s iconic hat. Elizabeth took a step back in shock.

“What the hell?” She muttered with a grimace.

Suddenly, she felt the touch of a large hand connect with her shoulder. Its vice-like grip dug into the crevice of her collar bone painfully. She froze as the soft scent of fruit was suddenly overthrown by something that made her pause. The smell was infamous. It made her head spin as it wrapped itself around her entire being. She tried to place the richness of the smell, but her thoughts were jumbled from the adrenaline pumping through her veins. It was the intoxicating mixture of rum, cedar, and…vanilla.

Her hand flew to her mouth as she let out a surprised, “Shit!”

A boisterous laugh boomed out from the scent, startling her shaken form, and as it continued to degrade her, she whipped around to find Handsome Jack quite literally laughing in her face. This was the nightmare scenario.  

“God, I got you so hard, you idiot!” He roared passing her to turn his attention to the man in the seat. With one swift movement, he took the intoxicated man by the collar, dragged him to the door, and threw him out into the thriving bar life where he stumbled around before falling flat on his face. Jack slammed the door, effectively cutting off both the music and the link between his world and the real world. He then went back to reclaim the seat for his own, and propped his feet on the desk as he did so, marking his territory. He continued laughing at her as she stood there before him, utterly dumbfounded, her mouth agape and eyes wide with terror.   

“H-Holy shit!” Elizabeth yelled, taking a quick step away from the man, almost tripping over her own feet to clutch at her chest defensively, “If you’ve done anything to Moxxi I’ll scream! I’ll-” Jack gave a quick tut, which silenced her words into nothing more than a quiet whimper.  

“Language,” Jack warned in a low tone, “Still no manners I see. And who do you think I am; some kind of a psychotic baby-eater? Good Christ!” He laughed, his hands emoting enthusiastically as he twirled the chair, “But you are right about one thing, baby.”

Jack grinned up at her, his eyebrows knitting themselves tight over his heterochromia.

“You made a huge mistake.”

Chapter Text

          “Ha! Holy crap, you should see your face right now! God, you have no idea how long it took to plan that out. At first, I was going to be waiting in the chair, right? Then I was like “No too cliché.” But then I was all “Hold on, new plan. Get some grubby bar-rat to be sitting in the chair, so when she shows up you can literally scare the shit out of her twice.” And I’m not going to lie, kiddo, you look like you’re going shit yourself. I’m dying,” Jack cackled as he began to search within the desk.

          “But seriously, Mox has got to have a mirror in here somewhere. This is too priceless; it would be a waste if I only got to see it.”

          Elizabeth stood there dumbfounded as she watched the grown man giggle to himself. She struggled to find the right words to say. She contorted her mouth into a series of shapes trying to form some type of cognitive sentence but none came. She simply asked, “Where’s Moxxi?”

          “Killed her and stuffed her body into a trash compactor.”

          Elizabeth made an audible squeak as she jumped back and Jack laughed again. “For real, you think I’m that bad of a dude? That’s hilarious!” He supported himself on the desk as he wiped a solitary tear from his eye.

          “I mean I would do it, but maybe not to Moxxi. Well, if she pissed me off I’d bust her head open like a cantaloupe, but that’s only because we got history. She ever tell you that? We used to date actually. Got down and dirty most of the time. Not gonna lie, probably in this chair.”

          “Where’s Moxxi?” She repeated herself. Jack raised an eyebrow at her and his amusement faded.

          “I bet you’re real fun at parties. She stepped out for a bit. I told her she didn’t have to be in here for this. She just needed to deliver and she did that flawlessly. Now you’re all mine and we get a chance to talk. Doesn’t that sound great, pumpkin?” He said flatly, scrunching his face and intertwining his fingers underneath his chin, “Take a seat.”

          Her mouth stretched into a pained half smile as she sat. Yeah, great.

          “What’s with the face, pumpkin? You didn't really shit yourself, did you?”

          “So, what do you want exactly? You got me here. You must want something other than an outlet to practice your witty one-liners on,” She boldly asked with a poised smirk. He snorted slightly and looked her once over. Her smirk fell as his eyes scanned her; her cheeks turning red hot in response.

          “You make me want to strangle you, but at the same time you make me laugh. For your sake I hope you keep that up,” Jack said standing and suddenly towering over her, but she refused to flinch from his terrifying form. The last thing she wanted was for him to know how much he frightened her. Her body betrayed her as it began to shake in what she could only assume was fear. Or… was it excitement?

          This was hands down the most exhilarating thing she had ever experienced. It felt like she was living a crime-drama- only the stakes were much higher than running out of food before the commercial breaks. The only rush she ever seemed to get anymore was when she had to order pizza over the phone and not online, but this; this was something else entirely. And as much as she hated to admit it, she craved spontaneity. Despite the possibility of dying, she found it absolutely enthralling. Maybe she was crazy.

          “You pissed me off the other day, and I’m not gonna lie, I spent a good chunk of my precious time planning on how to murder your ass. But it didn’t matter which angle I went from, it all seemed all wrong,” He rubbed his chin and stepped around the desk. His scent grew stronger as he circled around her. Once again, it lured her into him.

          “Y-you… you were planning on killing me?” She asked incredulously, “For ignoring you after you blatantly called me stupid?”

          Jack waved his hand nonchalantly, “Eh, Details.”

          “I wanted to make you suffer, but strangulation and blunt force trauma didn’t seem justifiable. Death in this case seemed a little too naughty even for my tastes. Despite what you may think, kitten, I am a good guy,” Jack grinned; his canines pressing into the bottom of his lip. For once, Elizabeth knew to hold her tongue.

          “Still, I wanted some payback. Call it petty, but you did cross me, pumpkin, and I have a reputation to uphold. Can’t have people going around calling Handsome Jack a bitch now can I? Way too many throats to rip out; it’d just get messy. You know how it is,” Jack said.

          “...No, I really don’t,” She said, squinting.

          “No? Shame. Anyhoo, long story short, I wanted some good old-fashioned revenge and I wanted it to be muy dulce.” He said with a shiver, his eyes focusing on something far away, “So that got me thinking.” She dared to steal a glance up at him as he leaned over her left shoulder from behind. He clutched his large hands on the back of her chair as his eyes came level with hers. They were unfaltering as they challenged each other.

          “You sure do like to turn your nose up at me; try to ruffle my feathers. You act like I don’t get to you, but we both know that just isn’t true now, is it? Your stubborn act is cute and all, but face it, honey. I terrify the shit out of you, and that honestly just tickles me,” He said, “So, believe me when I say I don’t want to break your legs. No, no, no, far from it. What I want is to break you; you and that attitude of yours. That is the revenge I want,” He whispered. His breath was hot against her face making her heart shake her entire chest.

          He stared at her; his eyes travelling back and forth between both of her pupils. They seemed to wait for a response. The slits of her eyes thinned as she repeated slowly, “Your point?”

          Jack gave her cheek a quick double pat before he sauntered back behind the desk. He crossed his arms behind his back; his right hand wrapping around the thickest part of his forearm. As she gazed down at those tantalizing, exposed arms, she noted the blue tattoo on his wrist.

          She marveled at how powerful he looked as he had his back to her. The image of Ares, the God of War, suddenly popped into her mind, and at once she was back in her Greek and Roman Studies class. She could practically still see the hellish God projected across the screen at the front of her classroom, brutally mutilating the frightened people of Greece.

          Once she was brought back to reality, she let herself indulge in his impressive back muscles which folded his suit jacket neatly against every one of his defined ridges. As much as she hated to admit it, he definitely commanded attention.  

          He kept his back to her as he looked up at Moxxi’s array of automotive posters plastered to the wall; his jawline set. Elizabeth had always respected Moxxi’s limitless interest with machinery and engineering- and limitless talent to boot. Whenever she had car troubles- or any kind of trouble for that matter- she never hesitated to go to Mox. She had always seemed to be there for the girl when she needed her. Where was she now?

          “I’ve been reading up on you,” He said severing the uneasy quiet of the room, but unfortunately, replacing it with an equal amount of uneasiness. The disclaimer came quickly, “Nothing creepy, all business."

          He took the folder from the desk and opened it, licking his finger tips to flip through the notes, "I noticed you’re a student at Opportunity University.” He paused and looked back at her with a grin, “My University.”

          Elizabeth couldn’t have felt more naked even if she had stripped down right there. He had been researching her? This guy was seriously crazy.

          “Yes, I’m going to be graduating,” She said under her breath, keeping her head down. He went through all this trouble just to get back at her for one little mistake she made? Talk about petty. But deep down Elizabeth had a hard time believing this was all just because of that Friday night. Why was he obsessing over her; a boring college student who would otherwise never appear on his radar? There had to be more, she just couldn't figure out what. 

          “Elizabeth Berry,” She shuddered at the way her name slipped off his tongue; it felt gross, “Graduating with a Bachelor’s in Psychology at the age of twenty-four. Skipped a year and decided Psych was a safe bet, huh?” He scoffed. She remained silent as he continued to obliterate her calm front.

          “Despite living in the wonderful, prosperous city of Opportunity you consider New Haven home,” Jack shook his head disapprovingly as he gagged.

          “Don’t get me wrong, New Haven’s great. Especially if you like having thieves and murderers sneak into your home in the middle of the night to do horrible, unspeakable things to you when you wake up to take a piss. If that’s your thing, I’m not one to judge. Frankly, I’d be a little impressed and more than slightly turned on.”

          Elizabeth stared down at her hands grasping the fabric at her knees. The whole room seemed to spin as her finger nails dug deeper into the denim of her jeans. As she tried to keep a hold on what little reality she had left, her knuckles blanched from her tightened grip. Her elbows locked as straight as an arrow and her shoulders were drawn up to her cheeks defensively. At this point, she wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and to never wake up.

          Jack cleared his throat, obviously disappointed from her reaction- or lack thereof.

          “Daughter of Marcia and Gerald Berry. Now, that little tidbit happens to be my favorite; extra spicy stuff. So, I’ll come back to it a little later, okay? Don’t let me forget,” He said as he wagged his finger.

          “Let’s see, you’re going on your fourth year in the High-rise Chamber Choir,” Jack said, reading from the file. He then leaned across the table; a few papers shifting under the weight of his hand, “You’ll sing me a little something sometime won’t you, precious?” This time he didn’t wait for a response as he faced the wall once more. Her eyes burned into the back of his head, and she hoped to God he could feel it.

          Yeah, I’ll sing you something. I’ll sing over your casket when your mother finds your body face down in the river, She thought bitterly then backed that train wreck up, Holy shit, where did that come from? Little dark, take it back a notch, crazy.

          “A frequent member of the Feminism Activism Club- thank you for letting me know we have that by the way, I’ll be sure to remove that as soon as possible- and you’re a solid 3.2 student. Overall, you’re pretty average, babe. You're as interesting as a piece of bread; not toasted, not whole wheat, just plain white bread,” He said, shutting the file with a shrug, “It was definitely good reading material before beddy bye. Put me right to sleep.” 

          “But imagine to my surprise when I found that you, my dear, received my Hyperion for Hope Scholarship,” He said pivoting on his heel to point a single finger at her. He added a wink for good measure. Her brows furrowed.

          “Should’ve told me you had ‘rents who worked for me. Made my night when I read that. Just picture me sitting on my king size sipping away at some chamomile tea from my gold and diamond encrusted coffee mug, which alone costs more than you and your whole family combined,” He gave an arrogant cackle and shrugged, “I should know, I did the math.”

          “You’ve got to be shitting me,” Elizabeth murmured as she rubbed her tired eyes and cursed every penny she had ever received from OU. Since her parents were currently employed by Hyperion, she was granted a five-thousand dollar Scholarship to attend the school. At the time it was a no-brainer to apply, but now she felt like flipping burgers and walking dogs wouldn’t have been so bad.

          She regained what little composure she had left and pressed, “Your point?” She was sick of this game; his game. Whatever he had in store for her would be better than listening to him drone on like a douche-hole.

          “You, my lucky lady, are going to be working for someone you know and desperately love. When you say his name everyone else pales in comparison. Drum roll, please.” Jack gave a few pats against his legs. “The one- the only Handsome goddamn Jack,” He said and threw down double deuces like he had just released the biggest shit storm unto her, “Boom, bitch!”

          She blinked. This was it? This was the big punchline, the big reveal? She was wary for the catch. Truthfully, she didn’t know how to take it, so she just blinked again. He seemed less than enthused at her indifference. He stood straight and put a hand on his hip to shoot her a look.

          “You know, I took a good five minutes out of my day to plan this, the least you could do is act a little more distraught. It’s just polite, kid.”

          She perked at his words and put the back of her hand to her forehead melodramatically and moaned. He glared on as she dared a, “Woe is me.” 

          “You keep bringing my hype train down, pumpkin, and I don’t appreciate it. See, I don’t think you understand what type of hell I’m going to put you through...” He warned, his eyes darkening under the furrow of his brow like a storm cloud shadowing a valley.

          “Well, for one, do you normally conjugate your name with an expletive? It seems like a day-to-day kind of thing,” She said plainly, making his face sour, “And two, I work for Moxxi.”

          “You worked for Moxxi. Now you don’t. Now you work for me, capiche? Let me know if I’m going too fast for you, babe. You know what? I’ll just slow it down. Don’t want to overheat that pretty little head of yours,” He mocked. Every word he uttered was painfully slow and deliberate, and each felt like an individual slap in the face.

          “Mox works for me, yeah? That means vicariously- oh, sorry. Big word! That means you do too. Wherever I want you, you’re going to be. She’s already handed over your paperwork, so you’re all mine. Welcome to the Hyperion life kid,” He said and clapped his hands, “Oh, I can’t wait to see you crumble under the beautiful monotony of business!”  

          Mox already handed her over? Just like that? Her grip tightened on her jeans and the sound of grinding teeth echoed inside her head.

          “Yeah, I get that, but what’s in it for you?” She asked, subconsciously trying to pick his brain. The Psych major in her longed to solve the puzzle that was Handsome Jack, but each time she thought she got closer to completion another piece would come up missing.

          “Don't get me wrong. You put a lot of thought into this, I can tell; the dramatics, the set-up, but it's not the best punchline. I was honestly expecting more. It's all just annoying at best,” She spoke genuinely, but the look he gave her was proof enough she had provoked him.

          “Oh, you’re one of those. All quiet until you got some smart ass comment to make. No wonder I wanted to kill you. Okay, so what exactly is your definition of revenge?” Jack asked. What was he doing? Was he playing with her?

          The dull expression on his face screamed frustration. Someone’s obviously not a fan of sharing the spotlight, Elizabeth thought. He had made such a grandeur of things, she was sure he was dissatisfied on how unaffected she seemed. Now that was sweet revenge. She mused a bit before carefully answering. The slow tapping of her finger on her chin made his frown deepen.

          “It depends. Revenge can make people do some pretty stupid stuff; they don't think straight. I personally think it’s best for people to move on with their lives without doing something they might regret. Of course slashing tires and smashing bottles over heads would feel good for a while, but in the end nothing changes,” She said, forgetting for a moment who the hell she was actually talking to.

          The cathartic feel of the words suddenly transported her back to her old Philosophy class. She could still see her Professor at the front; always drunk, but somehow acutely aware of his surroundings. His laid-back behavior had won her over, and she was well aware of how much of a suck up she was around him. Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind. She still occasionally visited him to help grade papers or to take care of his incredibly intelligent Common Hawk, and he in return was always happy for the company.  

          When her surroundings came back into place, she could suddenly feel Jack’s unfaltering gaze upon her, making her stumble over her words slightly, “N-Now, k-kindness, in my opinion, is the best type of revenge. Kindness can be acid to the face compared to anything actually physical. It messes with the other person’s head, because they’re stuck on hating you but they can't figure out why. So, in the end they're the bigger dick. I guess that's my definition of revenge.”

          There was a moment of silence as Elizabeth looked up at Jack expectantly, but her shoulders sank as soon as a loud guffaw burst from Jack who had doubled over laughing. Elizabeth stared on, unamused.

          “You’ve got to be kidding me! That’s the best you got? Kindness?” He howled as he held his gut, "In what world has kindness ever been as satisfying as a punch to the balls, kiddo? It’s like you stepped out of a children’s book. I’m crying!" He wiped his eyes and sighed, "God, college kids are so pretentious.” 

          She glowered up at him through the bottom of her lids; her head low and her mouth puckered with anger. Before she could think, she let her lips control her mind.

          “At least I’m not some lonely coward who can only kill and threaten people to get what he wants!” She yelled; the thump of the bassline from the next room surging her anger.

          Her eyes widened as a hand slapped over her mouth, but it was too late. The words were out in the open, but they hadn’t seemed to reach Jack quite yet. He looked as if he were still processing, his narrowed eyes making her stomach flip.     

          He stood straight, his face unreadable as he put his hands in the pockets of his dark slacks and made his way back around the desk. He sat down at the front of the desk overtaking her view of the whole back of the room and propped his feet on either side of her chair, effectively pinning her to the seat. She shook as he leaned down toward her; their noses barely touching.

          Jack’s twisted grin revealed pink gums and his nose flared as a single strand of dark hair fell to his forehead. The shadows that darkened the creases of his pale, sculpted face reminded her of a marble bust. He looked feral, almost like an animal.

          He must have noticed her uneasiness, because his default smugness returned as he leaned back and coolly smoothed his hair back into place. The animal was gone for now and replaced once again with the man, if she could even call him that.

          “I think the last time we met- and correct me if I’m wrong here- I let you off with a warning for being a total bitch to me. Now, you know who I am and you’re still acting like a thunderbitch. What’s the deal, kiddo?” He probed, “Is Uncle Jacky making you upset? If you want to let off some steam, go ahead. Be my guest.” He turned his face to the side and patted his exposed cheek. She could clearly see the weird surgical markings at the side of his face again. He declared, “I’ll even give you the first shot.”  

          Despite feeling out of control herself, Elizabeth elected to ignore his antics as she attempted to reclaim the reigns of the spiraling situation, “W-What if I don’t want to work for you? I’ll just quit.”

          “Oh man, I hadn’t thought of that. Well shucks, this day is just going to the pits. Boy, I was really hoping you’d want to work with your good old pal, Handsome Jack, but it looks like there’s nothing I can do to change your mind,” He groaned, sticking out his bottom lip. His pupils went skyward as he added, “I’m guessing your parents will be fine with unemployment too then, huh?”

          She froze. There it was. The catch.

          “You wouldn’t,” She said as she let out a breathy choke.

          “Yeah,” He scrunched his nose with a smirk and gave a curt nod, “I really would. You see, kiddo, you quit and I’ll see to it that mommy and daddy never work in Pandora again.” His voice raised pitch as he bent over to put his hands on his knees, acting as if he were speaking to a toddler. God he was an ass. He continued, “And judging by their annual income, they really, really need that Handsome Jack dough in their life.”

          “You can’t! We’re struggling enough as it is; they’ll die out there!” She begged. The surprise was clear on his face when she put a hand on his knee. She used this to her advantage. She gave a few dry sobs hoping to touch what was left of his heart or whatever the hell he had pumping away in his chest.

          “My mom- she's sick and my father can hardly pay for her hospital bills. That’s why I work overtime most days. If none of us can make any money, she’ll die, Jack,” Elizabeth said then added a sickly sweet, “sir.”  

          Okay, so she was lying through her teeth. Her mom was fine, but she needed leverage. She wanted nothing to do with his “proposal”, if you could even call it that. Her mouth formed a hard line as she studied him, waiting for a reaction- any reaction. His hard stare forced the clockwork within her head to turn as she began to strategize her next move.

          She sniffled a few more times before lowering her head slightly, but letting her eyes travel up to meet his. With a gentle squeeze of his knee, she pleaded with a pitiful brokenness that she, herself, couldn’t help but be impressed by, “Please don’t do this.” As she stared up at him she thought bitterly, Screw you, Handsome Jack.  

          He gave her a doleful look as his hand met her cheek with a surprising softness. It was startling how warm his touch was. As his hand slid down to her chin to raise it, he smiled mournfully. He let a dejected sigh dance off his tongue and the hope that she had him- hook, line, and sinker- bubbled within her gut.

          “I’ve been around for a while and I’ve had a lot of people I care about hurt me. I don’t really have anyone who wants to stay around me for very long. It can really wear on a guy, you know? It probably started with my parents. They weren’t around much. I don’t know, maybe that’s the reason I lash out and push people away,” He whispered looking down to the side.

          There was an uncomfortable quiet as she cringed with guilt; her previous confidence shriveling down to a nub. She definitely didn’t mean to open this can of worms. The moment Jack laid his head down to cradle his face within his hands, Elizabeth knew she had effed up. She tried to peek through his fingers, but his large hands covered his slender features entirely. As his shoulders shook silently, her belly turned hollow.

          Then it hit her like a crow bar to the face. As she gradually accepted the unwanted epiphany, she took in a slow breath.  Uh oh, she thought, Now I’m the asshole.      

          “Jack, I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to- I didn’t know, that is-” Elizabeth stumbled over her words looking frantically around the room. What could she say? She straightened her posture and placed an awkward hand on his shoulder. She was terrible at comforting people, but there was no harm in trying.

          When she was younger, her father, being the natural care-giver he was, had tried to teach Elizabeth how to be a more caring person herself, but she had obviously not inherited his trait. Still, her empathy was vast and she hated to see people in pain; even people as scummy as Handsome Jack.   

          As she ran a thumb over his shoulder in what she hoped was comfort, she said, “I won’t leave, Jack. If that’s what you want. I’m sorry I even brought this up. I won’t-”

          Suddenly, a harsh snicker spewed from in between his fingers; a snicker that managed to cut through her words, slicing them off at the seam. Her heart sank down to her toes as she saw the man’s body shake with laughter, his head still in his hands.

          “Jesus, I have literally never met someone so gullible! It’s almost sweet how naïve you are, cupcake; naïve and just so stupid!” Jack kicked his heels back, hitting the front of the desk and his fists slapped down on to his thighs. He was laughing so hard his laughs became silent; the only thing registering was the occasional snort. The clanging of the desk filled the whole room as he raved on.

          “I can’t believe you bought that shit! “I’m Handsome Jack and my parents were abusive. I don’t have any friends. Wah, wah, wah!” Oh God, I’m such a freaking rockstar!” He kicked one leg out and gave a quick strum of his air guitar.   

          The hilarity of it all flew past her like a baseball narrowly missing her skull, but she still felt the cold sting of the wind graze her cheek like a razor. With a flare of her nose, she released her tender grip on his shoulder. She would allow him no such sympathies.

          “Oh, come on. I’ve seen a lot of bad acting, but you babe, you take the cake. Don’t be mad that I’m smarter than you. A sick mom? You think I haven’t heard that one a million times before…” Jack said as he ran his fingers through his hair, “Well, I mean, some of them were probably true, but do you really think I give a rat’s ass about some idiot’s dying mother? Moms are overrated anyway. I didn't have one and look how successful I turned out!” He puffed up like a proud bird as his feathers took up the entire room, suffocating her.

          Without her consent, her eyes rolled so far back into her head she swore she could see the gray matter of her brain. 

          Jack immediately caught the disrespect and the air around him thickened like a blood clot through an artery. He was a damn spring trap. One wrong move and he would flip entirely. She could only compare his temperament to that of a hurricane; civil and calm in the eye, but as soon as you pressed too far against the designated boundaries, you were asking for trouble.

          Fear shot through her from his terrifying stare. She instantly stiffened as her hands clasped one another in her lap and she looked at him attentively. The last thing she wanted was to make this worse than it already was.

          He smirked yet again as he muttered a nauseating, “Good girl.” That line sickened her. She didn’t want to be obedient. She wanted to defy him; to make him mad. She wanted him to whine and bitch. Instead, she was doing exactly what he wanted. What he expected from her. What he expected from Pandora. 

          “So, what’s it going to be, kitten: Dead parents and a life of eating and shitting in the street, or a chance to work with the greatest guy in all of Pandora?” He leveled the options out with his hands, his arms tilting back and forth; one clearly heavier than the other.

          What other choice did she have?   

          “When do I start?”

Moxxi’s Red Light: Bathroom

          Tears streamed down the woman’s cheeks, effectively creating streaks of pale against the porcelain white of her makeup. How could she do this? She was supposed to be stronger than this. Why the hell was she still afraid of that jackass? He had no control over her. That’s what she desperately wanted to convince herself.

          A knock came from the bathroom door and she replied with a composed, “Occupied, sugar; will only take a minute.” She then went back to wallowing in her own self-pity. She held her face within her hands, shielding her eyes from the harsh glare of the fluorescent lighting. 

          Here she was trapped in a bathroom stall while Jack was undoubtedly sinking his claws into that poor girl. She could only imagine the manipulation Jack was putting her through. Elizabeth was practically a second daughter to the woman and how had she repaid her? By throwing her to the sharks.

          As she sat atop the lonely toilet, the cold ceramic chilling her exposed thighs underneath her form-fitting dress, she could still hear his voice burn within her head. He always seemed to stick there.

          “I want you to call her. Call her and tell her to come here. That’s all you have to do,” Jack purred, “Your hands will be clean, Mox.”

          Moxxi wouldn’t have said yes. She would have told him to leave and she would have told him to keep his face out of her bar- she should have… that is until Jack brought Scooter and Ellie into the equation. He swayed her with a, “It’d be a shame if something were to happen.”

          If there was even the slightest chance that she could protect her children from the irrationality that was Handsome Jack, you bet your ass she would take it. Even so, it didn’t numb the pain of the call any less.  

          “Why are you so obsessed with her? She’s just a kid, Jack. Will ruining this kid’s life really make you feel any better?” Moxxi pleaded; her accent slipping through but for once she did not care, “She hasn’t done nothing- anything to you. Just leave her alone.”

          Jack toyed around with a few things strewn about Moxxi’s office, appearing as though he hadn’t heard her but the grin on his face was all too telling. He took a wrapped candy from the jar she had sitting on her desk and waved it in her face, “What the hell is this? Hard candy, Mox. Really? What are you, some kind of a grandma?”

          “Don’t ignore me, Jack,” Moxxi said, swatting his hand, “Are you going to kill her? Will I just be sending her off to the slaughter if I hand her over to you?”

          He gave her a long stare before walking toward her filing cabinet. He noticed a small doll sitting on the top of the dusty cabinet and gently wrapped his fingers around it, taking it with him as he circled the room like a caged lion.

          “You bruise me,” He said, clutching his chest, “And no, I don’t want anything like that. I just want somebody who’s competent enough to organize my files, but stupid enough to try and cross me whenever I make her mad. You should have seen it, Mox; she’s really cute when she’s pissed.”

          “People are so boring nowadays. All of my employees are too scared of me to do anything, but her? She’s still got that young, unbridled feistiness I’m looking for, and frankly, I just want to have her around to see all the dumb stuff she does. Call it selfish, but I think she could be a laugh riot. Something to make my day go by faster,” He said, crossing his arms.

          "I know you, Jack. Nothing's ever that simple with you," Moxxi said gravely, "What the hell are you planning?"  


          "It hurts that you think I have some ulterior motive, Mox. That just ain't me. I just want to have some fun with the girl, that's all," He said, his grip tightening on the doll; the air trapped within it making the doll’s eyes bulge. He placed his thumb on the head of the doll and began to press. “Then when I’m done, I’ll kill her whole family and make her watch.”

          Moxxi gave an audible gasp as her shoulders tensed, “You’re not serious…are you?”

          Handsome Jack gave a low chuckle as the pressure from his thumb popped the doll’s head clean off.

          “I’ll keep my options open. Man, it’s good to be king.”       

Chapter Text

          She stood outside of the tall, platinum skyscraper holding her mitten clad hands within the pits of her arms; the bitter cold cutting through her winter coat like an icicle through soft, muddied ground. She kept her head down and hidden from the wind within the warmth of her scarf as her knees knocked together from unforgiving shivers.

          Harsh wind whipped her sandy locks across rosy cheeks as light from the sun finally rose and spread its rays across downtown Opportunity; the dark velvet of twilight suddenly replaced with the soft golden glow of dawn. The empty streets were ghost-like as she searched for any sign of life and eventually spotted a single stray cat making its way down a side alley. She clicked her tongue trying to get it to come to her, but with a flick of its tail it traveled down the alleyway leaving her heartbroken.  

          With her back planted firmly against the main entrance of the building, she warmed her vocal chords with a low hum. As she descended a major scale, she glanced up at the vast, daunting structure of Helios; vertigo hitting her hard as she did so. The sunlight reflected from the multitude of windows and thawed her from the inside out.

          Just then, from the corner of her eye she noticed a figure making its way down the pavement creating a silhouette directly in the path of the rising sun. She shielded her eyes from the brilliance as she attempted to make out the figure as it drew nearer. A man took shape.

          He was slender and tall and was clad in a baggy, yellow jumpsuit, and even from a distance she could see the Hyperion logo he was sporting on his chest. His brown hair was slicked back from his slim, pale face and his eyes were downcast to the ground. The difference between his mature attributes and his awkward lankiness left her guessing his age. She estimated he couldn’t have been more than thirty.

          He trudged down the sidewalk against the blowing wind, and with each step he took forward his feet seemed to grow heavier as if he were walking through wet cement. As he lifted his head and their eyes met, his step seemed pause in the air for a moment, stopping time altogether. A shy smile crossed the man’s face as he pulled a set of keys out from his jumpsuit.    

          “I don’t usually see people out here this early and if I do, they usually try to steal my shoes. Please don’t do that, okay?” The man grinned as he skimmed through his ring of keys. She smiled and suddenly felt warmer in spite of the cold. She said, “Don’t tempt me.”

          “What are you doing out here? I feel like I would recognize your face,” He said and cringed, “That… sounded less creepy in my head, heh.”

          “Well, if it makes you feel any better, it definitely sounded more creepy not in your head,” She teased giving a strained smile.

          He blushed in embarrassment as he stuttered over his words. The sudden pink in his cheeks made her laugh interweave with her apology, “I’m just kidding! I’m sorry, bud.” She noted the deep shade of pink his cheeks turned, and his lips gave way to a smile as he rubbed the back of his head nervously.

          “Playing on my crippling self-doubt; always good for a laugh!” He coughed into his gloved hand as he tried to unlock the door. When it failed to open, he went back to skimming.

          “Oh yeah? Well then, I’ll be sure to do it more often,” She said, “And I’m just doing what I was told.”

          “And what was that?”

          “To be here at five sharp; no earlier, no later,” She said crossing her arms.

          He raised an eyebrow, “But the doors don’t even open until 7.”

          “Yeah, I figured as much after the first hour. The second hour was just overkill.”   

          While she seethed at the thought of Jack sitting in his bed laughing at her own expense, the man offered her a different kind of laugh; a laugh that was neither mocking nor degrading. It was genuine, it was nice. After his laughter had died down, she was surprised to find herself smiling as well.

          “So, I take it you’re new here?” He asked testing another key. He let out a quick “Shit” when it didn’t work.

          “Unfortunately,” She chuckled garnering a quizzical look from the man, “Yes, I am. I kind of got pulled into the job actually. Believe it or not, Jack handpicked me, himself. Lucky me right?” Elizabeth blew a raspberry. The man was silent as he registered her words.

          “Handsome Jack? You’re telling me the Handsome Jack hired you?” The man turned to her suddenly star-eyed and mouth agape, “Oh, God. I should be so lucky! I’m just grateful when he remembers my paycheck, let alone my name. The closest he’s gotten is ‘Rice’ and I don’t have the heart to tell him he’s wrong… Well, I did once but he spit in my coffee, so I just let it go now. ‘Rice’ is good enough for me.”

          She saw the opportunity and took it, “So, what is your name?”

          “Rhys.”

          “Reeze?”

          “Rhys.

          “Roose?”

          “Rice.”

          “Ah, gotcha.”

          “So, I’m guessing you’re some type of whiz kid then. What are you, like a super engineer? I am truly humbled by your presence. I am but a lowly servant, my lady,” He said. He chuckled pathetically then gave a weary sigh, “That was lame.”

          She looked to the side and shrugged, her hands coming out of her pockets, “Please, I can’t even pass my required math class. I’m only here because I pissed Jack off last week. Now I have to work for him.”

          There was a moment before he laughed, “Good one.”

          “Not kidding,” She insisted, “Wish I were.”

          His brows knitted together as he blinked slowly. “Wait- what really? He hired you for that? I don't follow."

          “Trust me; I’m just as confused as you are. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches Pandora throws at you,” Elizabeth said, “I learned that a while ago.”

          "Okay, you're totally sure you’re not missing anything? Got anything suppressed bouncing around in there?” He asked giving a knock at his head.

          She frowned, and he put his hands up ready to defend, “I’m just saying that if people got a raise every time somebody pissed Jack off, it’d be Christmas 24/7 around here. Instead, they get thrown off the fortieth floor.” Elizabeth’s head tilted to the sky as she noticed just how high the fortieth floor was. She then took a step back from the brownish stain she was standing on. Rhys put another key into the door and said, “You have to admit it doesn’t make any sense.”

          A click was heard, and Rhys pulled the door back for her to enter, “After you.”

          She muttered a grateful “thanks” as she walked passed him and into the heated building, and as she passed she caught a whiff of fabric softener and hair gel. It entered her nostrils like a burst of flavor on the tongue contrast to the flat, frigid aroma of the morning air.

          The heel of her boots clicked across the charcoal marble flooring of the main lobby and echoed off into the open air as she marveled at the sight before her.

          Everything was sleek as hell from the spotless, glass windows to the silver, crackling fire place. To her right was a crescent welcoming desk and at the far end of the room glistening elevators lined the wall. In the middle of it all was a chrome fountain feature and when she looked up to the main wall she could see the massive Hyperion logo. It quickly reminded her exactly where she was. She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t expecting the whole place to be covered in fire and brimstone. Corporate hell, she thought.      

          “Nice fountain,” She commented watching the water spill over the marble.

          “You like that? I think it’s kind of gaudy.”

          “I eat that shit up.”

          “Hot damn, fountain queen.”

          “But seriously, I’m in the same boat as you, Rhys. I have no idea why I’m here. I was just working night shift at my old job when he decided to pop in. He started being him, and I didn’t take it very well,” She said as she rubbed her cheeks trying to gain feeling back into them. 

          "Where did you work?" He asked.

          "The bakery down the street," She answered taking off her heavy coat as she neared the digital fireplace; the artificial heat warming her bones.

          “…Hold on. You talking about the Sugar and Spice?” He asked.

          “...Yeah, why?”

          “God, I knew I recognized you. Okay, check it. Who am I?” Rhys’ face melted into a sour expression as he slouched against the door frame, arms crossed sassily “Welcome to Sugar and Spice where a smile is guaranteed. How can I make your day sweeter?”

          As he straightened his posture, that cute smile eventually found its way back home on his face, “How do you like my acting? I’ll actually be playing Meryl Streep in her upcoming documentary.” She cocked her head to the side and pinched her eyebrows together, trying to comprehend. He gave a nervous laugh, “S-Sorry, It’s uh... it’s you. I came in the other day. I got a bagel and coffee.”

          “…Oh, raisin bagel guy! Oh shit, sorry about that,” She winced remembering her behavior, “I’m usually not that much of an asshole. It was a long day.”

          “Good, I’m ‘raisin bagel guy’. That is my legacy,” Rhys awkwardly pumped his arm.

         He then put a hand on the side of his neck as he said with a chuckle, “But yeah, you were definitely a little bold that night. Looking back, I can kind of see why Jack blew up on you. A guy like that must have a lot on his mind, and I’m sure the last thing he expected was to get backtalk from some college kid. The guy commands a lot of respect, and I mean- he deserves it. The man is trying to single-handedly fix Pandora. It’s pretty admirable when you think about it.”

          There was an immediate shift in the mood. Elizabeth’s pupils traveled over the hills and through the dales to deliver to Rhys one of the biggest side eyes of the century, “I’m sorry, but have I entered the twilight zone?”

          Rhys blushed, and backpedaled, “I didn’t mean- what I meant to say- he probably wasn’t…” He fumbled over his words searching for what to say, but he couldn’t think of a single thing that could salvage this inevitable ship wreck. He sighed and settled with a, “I didn’t mean it like that.”

         “What did you mean? That I deserved to be harassed?”

         “No! I’m just saying Handsome Jack has done a lot for Pandora. He’s brought life back into this place. He’s cut the crime rate in half and has disbanded over ten gangs in Opportunity alone. Imagine what he’ll be able to do with the rest of Pandora.”

         “I’d rather not. It sounds like a nightmare. And most of those gangs were created because he’s nothing more than a money-hungry, self-obsessed narcissist. If you believe that he would take the time out his precious day to even think about helping his citizens, I’m sorry but you’re dead wrong,” She said trying to rip down this pedestal Rhys had created for Jack; a pedestal he didn’t deserve.  

         As her voice hit the open air, she could suddenly feel the security camera’s presence burn the back of her neck. Her hair began to stand on end as pins and needles electrified her skin. Out of her peripheral she could see a single camera facing down at her. She knew she was being watched. With a gulp, she managed to pull her eyes away from the camera and back to Rhys.

         She knew she was going about this all wrong, but she desperately wanted for him to see what she could see. So, the venom continued to spew, “He doesn’t help people, so they help themselves. If people had the necessary means to live they wouldn’t turn to violence. Trying to live is a basic human instinct, and living is human right.”  

         “But he’s given jobs to so many people!”

         “Coming from a Hyperion employee,” She snapped.

         “Holy shit, no way!” Rhys exclaimed, tugging on his jumpsuit to look at the logo on his chest, “Well, I’ll be damned. How did that get there?” She took in a slow breath trying to calm herself.  

         “And now you’re one too, funny how that works,” He said as he went behind the welcome desk to turn on the lights, “All I’m saying is that Jack has a weird way of helping people.”

         Her answer was thoughtless and sharp, “Like murdering them?” 

         Rhys went rigid, his hand resting on the light switch.  “No offense-” He started.

         Before he could finish, she cut him off, “Usually when people say ‘no offense’ they’re about to offend somebody.”

         “…No offense, but you weren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows the other night, either. Actually, you made me feel pretty stupid… stupider,” Rhys said letting a small smile cross his pale, pink lips; both their anger dissipating some. She stifled a laugh with her hand, embarrassment coloring her face. Her laxness allowed Rhys to loosen, his languid disposition slowly returning.

         “And hey, I get that it was a bad night, and that you were in a crappy mood, but you have to admit, you were acting like a real bit-” He stopped when he realized just how much he valued his life, “Bit cranky. And when you fight fire with fire you get burned. That’s what you did to Jack, isn’t it? You got burned.” Rhys mused over his choice of words then shook his head slightly, “Not that kind of burn, but you know what I mean.”

         Elizabeth pulled her mouth to the side as she took in the brutal honesty like a penicillin injection. The tension in her jaw released as she suddenly felt the guilt in her stomach know together.

         “…I’m sorry. I won’t try to make an excuse for myself. I was a grade-a bitch, and I am very sorry,” She said as she looked down to the marble flooring, absentmindedly twirling a piece of hair. Although her attention was drawn to her countless split ends, Rhys seemed transfixed with her fingers which were carefully entwined between blonde locks. Her nostrils then flared as she added, “But I won’t act like I didn't give Jack the exact treatment he deserved.”

         Rhys gave a sigh. As much as he admired her spirit, she was definitely working her way up the ladder as one of the most bull-headed people he knew. She was just under Sasha at this point.

         “Okay, real talk. You don’t have any special skills, no specific talents, yet you’re going to be working here at Hyperion; the life source of Pandora’s economy. And I'm guessing you don't even like Hyperion.” He said exasperated.

         “Not a fan of guns or the mass production of weapons in general. And no offense, but I don’t think I can do any more damage to Pandora than what Hyperion has already done. Fun fact: when my friend and I were in high school, we used to think of fun ways to insult Hyperion. ‘Hyperion Hoe Bags’ is my personal favorite,” Elizabeth quickly added, “No offense, of course.”  

         “Okay, let’s just agree to disagree, sound good? Just remember that Jack gave you a job. He didn’t have to, but he did anyway. One that’ll pay a hell of a lot better than some local bakery,” Rhys said and pulled at his uniform, “Better than being a janitor, I’ll tell you that much.”

         “Wait, you’re throwing me for a loop. Just a few seconds ago you were singing Hyperion’s praises, but you don’t even like your job?”

         “I was on my way to becoming vice president of the corporation. I’d say this is a bit of a step down, wouldn’t you agree?” He said bitterly.

         “You were? What happened, did you forget to pick up Jack’s laundry?”

         “Nope, I was demoted. This asshole, Vasquez, and I were competing for the same position for months, and when he finally got the job he made sure I was lowered to bottom tier. I won’t be down here for long, though; that I can guarantee.”

         “That’s super shitty,” She huffed, “But you’re pretty optimistic about it.”

         Hyperion. I’d just be giving Vasquez what he wants by calling it quits. So, I’ll wait for him to slip up, and who knows? Maybe I got something up my sleeve even Vasquez won’t see coming. I mean, I don’t want to brag but I’ve been told my magic tricks are pretty good. I didn’t win my middle school talent show just because of my good looks.” 

         His voice cracked in confession, “…I didn’t win. I got third to a thirteen year old juggler, and a girl who sang a ballad from Les Miserables.”

         “The judges obviously couldn’t recognize real talent if it hit them in the face,” She said.

         “Thank you, I’m so unappreciated in my time. And I thought I had it in the bag with my Twenty One Card Trick.” He gave a willowy wave of his arms as a mystifying noise left the O shape of his mouth.

         She snorted as the sight as she reassured, “I would have voted for you!”

         “Thanks. Fourteen years too late, but I appreciate it,” Rhys smirked.

         “I’ll be rooting for you, Rhys,” Elizabeth said, “And if it makes any difference, I believe in you. I’ll see you around, okay?”

         With a curl of her fingers, she made her way toward the elevators. He watched her short hair brush her shoulders as she turned to go, and mouthed a silent ‘bye’ as she left. His eye then caught a pack of gum falling from her purse.

         “Wait-” He said bending over to pick it up. She turned as he reached out to her, and their gloved hands touched. Through the fabric, Elizabeth felt something odd. It took a moment for her to run her hand over the angular edges of Rhys’ hand as he continued to study her; a blush taking over his cheeks. When she gave him a look of confusion, Rhys lifted his sleeve to reveal a bionic arm.

         “Hyperion work. Had it done after I left college because I could finally afford it. Same with this,” He said pointing to his left eye. She hadn’t even noticed its glassy blue makeup contrast to the natural brown of his right eye, “I was a sick kid, and nothing about me worked right, but I never had the money to do anything about it. That’s why I like this place. It gives people a chance to succeed. It gave me my chance.”

         She marveled at the craftsmanship and admired the design of the connecting joints of his arm. It was colored in Hyperion’s signature yellow. He noticed her staring, and teased her with a flex, “Pretty impressive, right?”

         “Very,” She admitted. She then then began to lift up her own sleeve, “Definitely more impressive than this.”

         The arm she revealed was covered in scarring. Little designs of white lightning decorated her skin as if a storm had imprinted itself against her forearm. Once untouched flesh now smothered in the pale blemishes. It looked as if someone had brought a hacksaw down on to the limb, and carved ‘til their hearts content. Rhys shook his head at the sight and asked, “What happened?”  

         Elizabeth rubbed up and down her arm feeling the textures of the scarring tickle her fingers, “When I was little, I got separated from my parents at a local Market. I don’t remember how, but it was probably my fault. I was always screwing around.” She laughed as she shook her head, recounting all the trouble she had gotten herself in. “Anyway, it was one of the biggest turnouts they had had in years. There had to be around a thousand people there, and me being the rational ten-year old I was, thought the world was going to cave in on itself. Not gonna lie, at the time it was comparable to D-Day.”

          “You’re never too young to have a Vietnam flashback,” Rhys pointed out.

          Elizabeth snorted, “That was Word War II, dummy.”

          “War never changes,” Rhys said gravely, and they both chuckled at their own stupidity.

          “Anyway, I was trying to find my parents when suddenly this guy just shows up out of nowhere, and grabs my arm. He starts pulling, and I freak out. Before he could drag me into the nearest alleyway, a few locals started helping. The next thing I knew, the man pulls out a serrated knife, and just starts going to town on my arm,” She hesitated as she remembered the mental picture of her own blood spilling on to her small, pink shoes, “…I had never seen so much blood. The guy managed to get a few more stabs in before the people managed to pry him off of me.”

          “I was rushed to the hospital, and they were able to save the arm, but it took months of rehabilitation to get it back into working condition,” She said, balling her hand into a fist. Rhys took her hand into his, and looked it over. “Damn, we could have been twins,” He said with a smirk.

          Just then, people started flooding in the doors, heads down as they crowded toward the elevator doors. Some had their noses to their watches checking the time, while others had their ear planted firmly to their cellphone. She felt a push come at her from the side, and then another at her back. She quickly realized she and Rhys were clogging up the walkway like two pebbles in a faucet.

          “Go. You don’t want to be late for your first day of work,” Rhys said shooing her off. As she walked away she heard him call out from behind her, “Have any idea what the day has in store?”

          “Not the slightest clue,” She said shaking her head and pressing the button to the elevator. Once the door opened people flooded in around her, “Still not sure what Jack has planned for me, but I am terrified.”

          “You hide it well.”

          She smirked as his eyes sparkled with playfulness, “Nice meeting you, Rhys.”  

          7:32 a.m.

            Elizabeth felt she had been on the elevator for what seemed like hours. With every floor she ascended, a horde of people would pile out of the elevator only to have a new wave of bodies pile back in. As the doors shut on the thirtieth floor, she took a look around at her fellow employees, but was only met with craned necks over phone screens. She followed suit.

Mornin dollface. First day in hell. Wish me luck!~

And hope you do well on ur chem test <3

Delivered 7:35 a.m.

            Jess wouldn’t be up at this hour since she didn’t have class until eleven, but Elizabeth knew Jess loved waking up to texts. Unlike Elizabeth, Jess was a diligent sleeper, and practically a professional at getting all nine hours- maybe even closer to twelve. Being a Biology Major, Jess’ schedule was incredibly packed, but what amazed Elizabeth was how much control Jess sustained. She was naturally smart, and gifted in all things science and math. She was head of five different organizations, and she managed to keep a 4.0 with ease. On top of that, she still found time to party, and actually have that foreign thing only a select few knew as fun. As much as she admired her dexterity, it made Elizabeth’s head swim.

            Elizabeth could barely go to class without feeling overwhelmed with all the stuff she had to do. So, what would she do? Procrastinate obviously. Every time she so much as opened her planner to check what was due, she could literally feel herself start to shut down.

            Her thoughts traveled back to Rhys and she smiled to herself. Although he might have been second-hand embarrassment personified, she admired his personality. She had a feeling he would make this place just a bit more bearable.

            She then caught sight of another security camera hovering just above her head in the corner of the elevator. With a huff, she scowled at it. It was a terrible feeling being watched.

            As the elevator neared the top floor, more people began filing out until eventually she was left all alone with nothing but the tune of elevator music to occupy her frantic thoughts. She tried to straighten her posture, hoping she seemed more confident than what she felt. With a jolt, the elevator stopped, and she stepped out into Handsome Jack’s office.

            If the décor of the lobby was impressive, Jack’s office was undeniably awesome. As she stepped out of the elevator, a trail of bright blue lit up the lustrous glass floor, mimicking an unraveling carpet. It beckoned to her, welcoming her into the office’s depths, and like an idiot, she took the plunge.

            The lofty ceiling allowed light from the gigantic windows to bathe the room in blinding yellow. At the back center of the room was Jack’s desk. The steps elevating it were also lit up. The light from the rising sun washed the desk in golden rays. It reminded her of a throne. It all felt incredibly futuristic, like she was in an entirely different world, and the one thing she couldn’t help but notice was that it all smelled like him. She wanted to hate it, but the scent persuaded her senses dulling her disgust.

            Disgust resurfaced when she noticed a number of portraits of Jack hanging from the walls accompanied by a bust of him sitting on a podium. As she approached the bust she whispered an apathetic, “Tacky.” As she studied the bust’s chiseled face, she noticed it didn’t seem to quite capture Jack’s personality. She couldn’t quite pinpoint what was missing, but something was off. 

            “There’s my shining star! Comment allez-vous mon chou? Is the she-devil ready for her first big day of work?” Jack exclaimed as he clapped excitedly, whipping his coat off in one extravagant movement, “Because I sure am! Could hardly sleep, kept thinking of fun things we- I mean, you could do.” There it was; the talking. At least the bust knew how to shut up.

            She could feel his presence at her back. His approach was that of a predator stalking its prey, ready to sink its teeth into unsuspecting flesh, and never let go. Too bad she wasn’t prey.

            “Nice French. Did you look that up on the back of a cereal box before you got here?” She asked keeping her attention on the statue. It seemed to glare back up at her. When she heard the sound of footsteps halt followed by a deep inhalation, her fingers immediately went to her lips to hide a smirk.

            “Still got that unbridled feminine rage I see. Thought the early hours would have sucked it right out of you, but you’re a resilient little shit, I’ll give you that. Maybe another hour will cool you off. How does 4 a.m. sound?” He threatened in her ear, “And it’s called culture, sweetheart. Something you Pandorians could use more of. You know, instead of the usual festivities of inbreeding, and getting scared of fire.”

            He straightened his suit jacket as he slid across the slick flooring to claim his throne, his steps rhythmic with the music in his head. As he dipped down into his chair, he propped his legs up on to the table and let out a content sigh, “Perfect fit.” He then beckoned to her with the wiggle of his index finger, and she reluctantly trudged up to meet him.

            “Here’s a list of things I want done by noon,” He handed her a slip of parchment paper and squeezed her cheek, “My little assistant.”

            Elizabeth’s jaw dropped as she went down the day’s agenda. The entire paper was filled with nothing but an endless stream of demeaning tasks and odd jobs, and as soon as she read “pick up my dry cleaning” her blood began to boil.

            “You want all of these done by noon? That’s impossible! There has to be a hundred things on here!” She exclaimed.

            He turned to his laptop to begin typing, “Then you better get started. You see? Made sure you wouldn’t be twiddling your thumbs all day. Didn’t want you to think Uncle Jackie was holding out on you.”    

            “Some of these don’t make any sense! ‘Videotape yourself eating a spoonful of cinnamon, and upload it to EchoTube’. ” She said clutching her throbbing head. She felt like she had bought a one way ticket to crazy town.

            “I like to laugh during the day. Sue me.”

            “‘Go to the store and buy stuff for guacamole. Proceed to make guacamole. Feed me said guacamole’.”

            “I get hungry!”  

            She hesitated, “…You- You want me to fire all these people listed?

            Jack suddenly sat upright, and paused in consideration, “Ignore that. I’ll do that myself; they deserve to hear it from me.” 

            She was taken aback, “Wow, Jack. That’s surprisingly-”

            “I love doing it! The way people beg for their jobs. ‘Please, I have a wife and three kids, and a dog named Scruffy who will be euthanized if I get fired!’ Priceless!” Yep, there it was. She should have known better.

            “As much as I like looking at you, beautiful, you'd better get started. Don’t want to fall behind; the workload can pile up pretty quickly,” He said, his words so slimy she could practically feel them leave a greasy residue across her skin. A low, guttural noise shook her throat as Jack gave a quick flick of his wrist to shoo her away, and like a lamb getting sent to the slaughter, she obeyed.

            Her feet carried her into the elevator as she reread the list over again. As she pressed the lobby button, she glanced up to see Jack’s eyes still hadn’t left her. She wasn’t safe. Not yet.

            After what seemed like hours, the doors finally closed cutting off Jack’s stare. Elizabeth’s back met the wall of the elevator as her knees were weak. They struggled to support her shaken frame. She muttered a frustrated, “God.”

            No! What are you doing? Stand up, Elizabeth! Just breathe, Elizabeth, She thought, her back sliding back up the elevator. Once she readjusted her sweater and leggings, her chin tilted up to the fluorescent light; its harsh rays burning through her closed eyelids, Okay, everything’s alright. We’re going to do whatever he says even if it’s awful. Especially if it’s awful! And you know why? Because you’re going to prove yourself to this jackass. Goddammit, you’re stubborn enough. If he gets to you, he wins. If you give up, he wins. Don’t let him win, you competitive son-of-a-bitch. Now, let’s do this.

          12: 15 p.m. Handsome Jack’s Office

            A loud crack alerted Jack to Elizabeth’s presence, and he turned from his work to take her in. She had her hands planted firmly against her back, stretching it backwards to pop out a few more satisfying cracks. She looked like absolute hell, and Jack couldn’t have been happier. He gave her exhausted form a quick once over, suddenly feeling some type of giddy. Being worked to the bone really suited her.

            “So how did it go?” He mused as he dipped a chip into the guacamole bowl, waiting for her response.

            “Got your Ferrari waxed, scheduled your massage, flipped off a Dahl security guard, egged at least three people, went to that sketchy neighborhood to deliver that sketchy package-” She ran a hand through her hair as she attempted to tame it. She pushed up her sleeves as she triumphantly stated, “but I’m done- and by noon. I did it.”

            “Eh, eh eh…” He put a finger up as he checked his watch, “According to my watch it’s a quarter past twelve. I’m afraid I’m going to have to deduct that from your pay.” He sucked air through his teeth, “Tough luck, babe.” Red blinded her, her teeth smashing together like a car through a compactor.

            “You have got to be kidding, I went through hell today! I got all your shit done, and you have the nerve to tell me that bull-” She stopped as soon as she saw a satisfied expression spread itself across Jack’s face. With a slow intake of air, her features softened yet her anger lived on within the folds of her tightened fist, “That’s fair. I didn’t get done on time. I’ll try harder next time.”

            He frowned, his face elongating. A finger found its way to the side of Jack’s face, and he began tapping, revealing frustration. The one thing Elizabeth appreciated about Jack was how easy his emotions were to read; they were practically stitched into his sleeve. 

            “Good. See that you do. I expect the best from everyone in this company, and I mean everyone. Even someone as unimportant as you." She let out a huff. "Slackers aren’t tolerated around here. They'll reap the benefits of everyone else’s hard work and take what isn’t theirs until they’ve cleaned house; bastards who'll leave everyone else without a pot to piss in,” He said standing up to look out the window; the sunlight engulfing his form. He clutched his hands behind his back as he spit out, “They’re no better than bandits.”            

            She cocked her head at him, “That’s a surprising spiel- especially coming from you.”

            “You don’t think I want what’s best for Pandora? I want this place to thrive. I want my people to live their life without having to worry about some bandit murdering their kid, and dumping the body in a dumpster,” He said, slightly turning to her; the image of the man with the serrated knife entering her thoughts. She rubbed her arm tentatively.

            “I am the hero this wasteland needs. Sure my methods may be unconventional, but do you really think just any asshole could control this place as well as I do? I pay for people to live here for Christ’s sake. For Opportunity to live up to its name, sacrifices have to be made whether or not people agree with it,” Jack said, “And if that means I have to wipe out every single bandit thug out there, so be it. They’ve dug their grave, and I’ll happily direct them into it.”

            “You think you’re a hero?” She asked.

            He stepped up to her, pressing his thumb against his chest, “I know I am.”

            She mulled this over. Handsome Jack was a piece of shit; anyone with eyes could see that. So, then why did she want to believe him? The reflection tore her conscience in two as part of her believed that in his twisted mind, Jack legitimately thought he was doing what was best for Pandora. The other saw nothing more than a tyrannical monster. But Pandora was a brutal wasteland, and she had to agree with Jack when he said not just anyone could run it. Maybe it took someone as awful as Handsome Jack to control such a beast- or maybe she was just a sucker for redemption arcs.

            He had done more than his fair share of harm, but Rhys was right; Jack had brought the crime rate down, and he did pay his citizens to stay in Opportunity. The economy was awful, but she’d be lying if she said it was ever any good. And bandits were a huge problem even before Jack took office. But he was absolutely mental if he considered himself a “hero”. To deny people their basic freedoms, now that was a crime unto itself. While Jack had his back turned, Elizabeth lifted her sweater sleeve to examine her scars.

            “As much as I hate to admit it, Jack- and I do hate to admit it- I think you’re right. I don’t think anyone has the nerve you do, and you definitely need a lot of nerve to run a place like this.”

            “Balls, kid. I’ve got the balls.”

           She rolled her eyes. At this rate, cataracts were inevitable, “...What I’m saying is that if you keep your ego in check- if that’s even possible- you could be the change this dump needs. Maybe I'm just an idiot who likes pretty words, but the way you talk about bandits makes me want to trust you; it makes me want to believe in you," She said. Her words made him turn slightly; his mouth firm and his arms crossed, but his eyes were considerate. It was the first time she had ever seen him so authentic.

           "Jack, I'm sure that if you promoted keeping your citizens safe, people wouldn't be so prone to be afraid of you." She deliberately left out the subject of murder. She’d start with baby steps. "Instead of using fear to control Pandora, why don’t you use your passion, your charm? Lord knows you’ve got enough of it.” He scowled as he turned back around to the window. 

           “Fear runs the world, sweetheart. As long as I have fear, I have the people’s love,” He said plainly. Then his eyebrows rose in realization, “You think I’m charming?” She felt her face grow as hot as burning asphalt.

           His smirk spread as he said, “You’re funny- stupid, but funny. You’re a goody two-shoes know-it-all, but for some reason you don’t take my shit, and oddly enough, I can appreciate that. It makes me want to beat the living hell out of you sometimes, but then you go and say something cute like that. I think I’m going to like having you around.” She shuffled her feet, unsure of what to say.       

           Before they could exchange any more words, the elevator door let out a soft ping which was promptly followed by a, “Where is my handsome man; doing all kinds of hard work, killing assholes and taking names and shit?”

           The rough, yet sultry feminine voice caught Elizabeth’s attention, and she turned to find a tall, dark woman clad in knee-high boots and wearing a slim jacket. Her hair which curled down past one of her eyes was a dark brown. It was accessorized by a magenta cowboy hat. Her luscious, full lips were tinted a dark purple, and her sharp, amber eyes resembled that of a tiger’s. She was beautiful albeit intimidating as hell.

            “Nisha, baby, long time, no see. You drove all the way out here to see me, hot stuff?” Jack made his way down the stairs, arms spread wide as he made his way toward the woman. Elizabeth was afraid for the woman’s safety until she saw the .44 caliber hanging from her hip. The woman tipped her hat at Jack jumping into his arms, her legs coiling around his waist like an anaconda. As they proceeded to suck face, Elizabeth tried to focus on something else in the room but failed. They looked like two dogs fighting over a piece of meat as they nipped at each other’s lips. She couldn’t tell if it was kissing or assault.

            After an uncomfortable long amount of time, they finally parted to breathe. Nisha said catching her breath, “Took out another gang in Lynchwood today. They gave up without a fight, so I hung up each one of their testies from the traffic lights. Now they really don’t have any balls. Thought I’d come see how my guy is doing. Having fun without me?”  

            “You know I never do. And awesome, a good bandit is a dead bandit. God, you’re so hot when you talk like that.”

            “Oh, you like that? Well, I’m the baddest sheriff in town, and I don’t appreciate your disrespect. I’m going to ride you all the way to the county jail!”

            “Please, Officer. I ain’t done nothing wrong. I was just admiring-”  

            “That’s Miss Officer to you! Don’t make me cuff you, scum!”

            “God, please do!”

            Elizabeth stared on in horror as they practically dry humped each other. Jack’s shoulders seemed to tense once he remembered Elizabeth’s presence, and briskly turned around towards her. Nisha followed suit, her eyes aflame in an instant. Elizabeth expected to see rage, but the only thing she saw in them was a certain type of mischief. For a split second Elizabeth glanced down, but once she caught sight of Nisha’s midriff she was entranced. The lady was toned AF.

            “Oh, almost forgot you were here, cupcake. Lizzy, this is my girlfriend, Nisha. Nish this is my newest employee, Liz,” Jack said, taking a step back as Nisha approached looking like a cat ready to pounce. Yeah, it would make sense Jack would be dating someone with the exact same mentality as him: effing crazy.

            "Wow, Jack. You actually found someone who can stand being around you? I'm impressed," Elizabeth said. 

            Before he could react, Nisha laughed and pressed her lips to Jack's cheek bone, "You're damn right, baby. Love this man." 

            She then extended a hand and winked, “So, this is the new girl. What’s up? Name’s Nisha. I’m the Sheriff of Lynchwood; basically a badass with a lot of bullets and even more pent up rage. I hate bandits and people who don’t blink enough, they creep me out.”

            As soon as the name Lynchwood was uttered, Elizabeth knew exactly who this woman was. She had seen her face on television countless times before; always in trouble with the law, usually from police brutality, but with each new case she always seemed to come out clean. To consider it luck was naive. Jack’s power was all the luck Nisha needed. They were definitely a match made in Heaven- or Hell.           

            “Nice to meet you, Sheriff. I’m Elizabeth Berry. I'm just a girl under a lot of stress at the moment. I don't have much, but I have a goldfish, and you’re right. People who don’t blink are creepy,” She said, remembering to blink a few times for good measure. She was at a loss for words as the woman stared down at her making her feel less than that of a bug. Elizabeth managed a, “You’re much taller in person.”     

            “Ha, what a stupid thing to say,” Nisha laughed, her piercing eyes scrutinizing Elizabeth. Her chilly gaze sent a cold shiver down the girl’s spine. It made her want to slink off into the nearest hole and die. “You say stupid shit a lot?” Nisha asked. You would think by this point she would have learned to keep her mouth shut, but Elizabeth wasn’t a fast learner.

            “Only to assholes,” Elizabeth spat out. Then with abrupt understanding, Elizabeth was suddenly hyper-aware of the fact that she was in a room with the two most volatile people in Pandora. Nisha and Jack stood there dumbfounded as if calculating their next move. Elizabeth then gave a big laugh in spite of her shaking knees, “But what do I know, I'm so full of shit. My dad used to tell me that's why I have brown eyes!”

            Her heart rate returned to normal as Nisha began to laugh again, the mood lifting, “You’re such a little weird-ass! Jack didn’t tell me you were such a riot! He just said I’d want to wring your neck after the first five minutes, but you’re alright.”

            “…Thank you?”

            “You’ll be at the Hyperion anniversary party tomorrow, right? I definitely want to laugh at you some more.”

            “I didn’t know there was one,” She admitted, “But no, I'm having a movie night with a friend.”

            Jack clicked his tongue and sighed, “Yeah, about that, kiddo, you’re working the party. Be there by 6:30 to get dressed and to set up dinner plates.” Jack took his place in front of Nisha as he picked at his teeth, “Good guacamole, by the way. You should bring some tomorrow.”

            “What- you can’t do that! It wasn’t on the schedule, I planned everything out perfectly. Tomorrow night is my one free night without any classes or work. Please, Jack,” Elizabeth whined. Nisha let out an excited titter, “I like it when she begs.”

            “Life’s just that way I’m afraid. You can complain all you want because honestly, I’d love to hear it but it won’t change a thing. I’ve already made up my mind,” Jack said, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

            “What would I even do? Shine people’s shoes for fifty cents?”

            “Don’t tempt me, because that’s not a bad idea. But no, you’ll just stand there passing out refreshments and looking pretty, but for the love of God, don’t open your big mouth, got it? I don’t want the guests getting sick all over the dance floor. So, go get some rest my little slave cause tomorrow you’ll be serving the higher ups and I don’t want some slack-jawed monkey making a mockery of my company, is that clear?” He said towering over her.

            “Crystal.”

            “Now, where were we?” Jack said, turning back to Nisha to blatantly grab a handful of ass, his fingers crinkling her denim. Elizabeth cringed. Couldn’t he just wait until she was out of the room? As Jack kissed the crook of her neck, Nisha put a hand up. “…Wait- I kind of want her to watch,” Nisha said eyeing Elizabeth’s flushed form.

            Jack read Elizabeth’s distress in an instant. He began to smirk until he noticed the disheartening sag to the girl’s shoulders, brushed by strands of blonde hair which swayed over exhausted eyes. Suddenly, her words were there plaguing his mind, You could be the change this dump needs. 

            He ate up every last bit of her helplessness, but the look in her eyes make his stomach turn. He gave a few tuts, “You’re a kinky girl, Nish, but I can’t work my employees too hard. Maybe next time.”

            As Nisha groaned, Jack watched relief flood over the girl. She then made her way to the elevator, unaware of the heterochromatic eyes following her. He loved watching her. Her facial expressions, her anger, her bashfulness- he ate that shit up. He was pleasantly surprised she was turning out to be more interesting than he originally thought.

            The way you talk about bandits makes me want to trust you; makes me want to believe in you...

            Jack went back to kissing Nisha’s jawline as he splayed her across the desk prompting a moan to bubble from her throat, her hands going behind her head as she closed her eyes, ready for him. He then began to wonder how she would moan. Would it be light and soft, loud and rough? With a shake of his head, graying locks blurring his vision, he shook her from his mind, “Say my name.”

            “You’re the Handsome Jack.”

          Apartment 7:35 p.m.

          Elizabeth was beat. Each time she tried to sit up from the bed her muscles screamed at her. She huffed in annoyance and muttered, “I need to start working out.”

          The room then lit up in a bright white as her phone buzzed awake. She managed to roll to her side to see if Jess had sent her updates on the situation with the blue haired chick in her science class, but when she saw she had a new friend request from a certain Rhys she sat upright. She enlarged the profile picture, and immediately recognized the brown haired dork. She couldn’t forget that cute smile. He looked extremely happy as he was clinking glasses with a few other people. She couldn’t have hit the accept button fast enough.

          Almost immediately after she had lied back down, her phone buzzed again. With a groan, she rolled over to see she had a new message, and perked once more.

Rhys the Company Man

Hey, it’s Rhys. You would not believe how many

Elizabeth’s live in Opportunity and have

an Echobook account lol

Sent 7:35 p.m.

I hope that’s not weird. You were just really cool

and I just wanted to talk to you

Sent 7:35 p.m.

Okay yeah seeing it typed out is a little weird

Sent 7:36 p.m.

Well if you haven’t already blocked me

that would be a miracle lol

Anyway how was your first day?

Sent 7:36 p.m.

She smiled to herself as she read the messages. She could practically see him frantically stressing over the phone. She knew she shouldn’t make him wait long so she responded.

It was perfect Jack was sooo nice~

he actually gave me a raise

 AND paid my college tuition

Delivered 7:37 p.m.

Nah im just kidding he was awful

but  its over so yaaay

u goin to the hyperion party tomorrow?

Delivered 7:37 p.m.

Rhys the Company Man

Yep

lot’s to clean up

so little time…

Will I see you there??

Sent 7:38 p.m.

Unfortunately

but we should ride together!

text me at (415) 479-3634

Delivered: 7:39 p.m.

            Rhys gave a punch of his arm in the air as he cheered to the high heavens. Vaughn pounded both fists on the couch, and stomped his feet on the ground in celebration, his glasses falling from his face, “You did it, bro! Holy crap!” Rhys began to sing as Vaughn joined in halfway, “I am the best around! Nothing’s gonna ever keep me down!”

Rhys the Company Man

Cool that would be great

Sent 7:41 p.m.

Chapter Text

“Nope…wrong…dumb…were you even trying?” Elizabeth glanced up from the work she was grading to watch Mordecai verbally assault the paper he held within his calloused hands. As he flipped through them, a look of frustration spread over his wrinkled face. Defeated, he squeezed the bridge of his nose with a disappointed shake of his head, “These kids don’t treat this seriously, Berry. They don’t question anything; everything’s at face value with them.”  

“What are your students working on right now?” She asked.

“They had to write an essay analyzing a philosophical question of their choosing and only half of them even turned in the damn paper. And those who did just don’t get it. They aren’t questioning what they know, they aren’t trying, they aren’t-” Mordecai gave a dejected sigh – “interested.”

 “Damn freshman,” Elizabeth smiled.

“You were always so interested in what I taught. You weren’t afraid to experiment with existential shit and your papers were fun to grade. I’ve never liked suck-ups but you turned out alright, Berry,” Mordecai said propping his feet up on the table and with a flick of his skinny wrist he whipped his black tie off. 

“Tell that to my math teacher,” She said pulling out the front of her sweater to air out her sweltering body, “I know you like it hot but damn, it’s boiling in here.” Mordecai laughed as he turned up the electric fan; the worn blades producing a soft buzz as it failed to cool the blazing room.

“Gotta keep it toasty for my girl,” Mordecai said turning the fan toward Elizabeth, “Bloodwing loves the heat and I guess I’m just used to it. To make up for the changing weather, I crank the heat for her. Isn’t that right, Bloodwing?” To her right sat a great brown hawk who gave a content squawk as it groomed its mangy feathers a-top a wooden stand. Bloodwing was a severely ugly thing but Elizabeth had a soft spot for the bird. She leaned over to give her head a well-deserved scratch and Bloodwing’s feathers ruffled in response; her bloodshot eyes closing to revel in the sensation.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, Berry, where you been? Been busy?” Mordecai asked flipping a cigarette into his mouth. As he lit it, Elizabeth tapped her fingers against her knees nervously. With a rub of her palms, she said, “Yeah, you could say that. A lot of classes, a lot of work…”

She tried to hide the tremor in her voice but as soon as he gave her a look, she knew she was caught. Mordecai was the sharpest man she’d ever met. If even a single thing out of place, Mordecai knew about it. It was as if his eyes were drawn to the smallest of details; he was definitely a stickler for them.

Sometimes to mess with him, Elizabeth would rearrange things around the room to see if he would notice. She started out big, a new poster or chair, then tried for missing pencils and a reorganization of just two or three books at the top of his dusty, old shelf- which she knew he barely touched. He always immediately caught the changes as if they were an itch at the back of his neck.

Before he could speak, she reassured, “There’s just been a lot on my mind lately, school and all. I guess senior year is just hitting me harder than I expected.” In more ways than one, she thought grimly. He ran his hand over the graying scruff that was his beard. Although he seemed to let the answer slide, she wasn’t completely convinced he had bought it.

“I know how that can be. I wasn’t a great kid in school. I hardly went to class, barely did any work, got drunk or high before every test but always managed to ace them. I felt like I was cheating the system, but it only got worse after my parents died,” Mordecai said letting out a puff of smoke into the open room. He looked at the poorly concealed disgust on her face, muttered a quick “sorry”, and opened the window. The cool wind that blew in cascaded over Elizabeth’s skin and she welcomed it gratefully as it froze the sweat along her back.

Mordecai’s skinny body relaxed as he took in another inhale of smoke and exhaled it into the afternoon. As he took his glasses off to rub his tired eyes, he put his arm out straight to the side. Bloodwing recognized the motion and jumped from the stand and on to Mordecai’s forearm; her talons curving over his scraggy arm like a band. He gave her chest a scratch and she cawed happily.  

“I got involved in the wrong crowd; a bunch of thugs who hurt people. I hurt people. I was good at it, so I started getting paid for it. I want to say I fought to live but I was just fooling myself. I lived to fight. I had no one to talk to and no one I wanted to talk to. I had Bloodwing and that was enough,” He said, grabbing a piece of dried jerky from his desk drawer to give to the bird, “But then I met a guy who actually wanted to help an asshole like me. He got me out of that situation and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the bastard. Even if I am a roaring drunk of a professor with a fuck-all attitude, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. He was and still is my best friend.”

Elizabeth clung on to every word Mordecai spoke; obviously lost within his words. She loved to listen to him. He was a man with a lot to tell.

“I’m rambling but do you get what I’m trying to say?” He asked and she was silent.

“What I’m trying to say is that you got a lot of people who care about you, kid. Don’t bottle things up; it’ll just eat you alive,” He said placing a hand on her shoulder, “I would know, I did my fair share.” The sudden contact of his warm hand threatened to release a floodgate of emotions, but she kept it trapped within her throat, her face expressionless. She wanted to plead for help but what could he possibly do for her? 

She worked up the strength to smile at him, but he didn’t smile back. He ran a hand through his messy dreads and went back to his desk, passing her. Even though the smell of weed and bourbon was strong, it was almost a comfort to her. Bloodwing tittered in the background as she chewed on her piece of jerky.

Mordecai sat down at his desk as he placed a hand on his head and looked back at her with a sullen expression, “You’d tell me if something was bothering you, right, kid?” She could only nod. He was without a doubt the sharpest man she knew.

            Jess’ Apartment

            “I can’t believe you’re going out and I can’t even dress you up! What kind of BS is that?” Jess whined as she looked through her closet, “Can you at least model some new clothes for me? I want to see how they look on someone else to make sure they look alright.” Elizabeth laughed as her friend pulled out a light pink sundress.

            “You know I’d love to, but I can’t stay long; Rhys will be picking me up in a little bit. And trust me, Jess, you could make couture out of a trash bag- you don’t need me to remind you that you’re super hot… Although I gladly will- you’re super hot.” Elizabeth winked and Jess blew a raspberry as she crossed her arms; a smile lifting the side of her purple-stained lips. She bit it trying to keep her frown.

Elizabeth said, “Besides, I already have my uniform for tonight. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s not considered going out if it’s for work.”

            “Please tell me you’ll at least look cute?” Jess asked and wiggled her eyebrows, “For Rhys!” Elizabeth made a teeter totter with her hands and pulled out her uniform. Jess groaned, trying to avert her eyes from the monstrosity. “What? You don’t think it’s cute?” Elizabeth laughed, slapping her hand on her lap. The uniform was a bright, yellow suit-jacket with black trim along the cuffs and vest and it was accessorized with a long, black, lace neckerchief.      

            “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but yellow isn’t your color,” Jess said putting a finger to her cheek. Elizabeth sighed as she scanned over the uniform, trying to find any remaining pieces of white fur stuck to the itchy material- courtesy of Jess’ cat. The little fur ball thought it’d be a good idea to make her clothes his personal nap area while the girl had her back turned.

“Yeah no kidding, I’m pale enough as it is. I can only imagine the guest’s faces when a giant, well-dressed banana approaches them with appetizers. Hopefully I’ll be too busy serving to care about how I look,” She said picking off a strand.

“I guess…” Jess said. The dejection in her voice made Elizabeth’s head rise. She asked, “…What’s wrong?”

“Ugh, I don’t know. It’s just really shitty that I’ve only seen you like twice this week. I miss our nights together. I didn’t think it was possible to see you less than before, but… surprise!” Jess said letting down her black ringlets from her hairband as she sat on the bed. She put a dark, freckled hand on top of Elizabeth’s and said, “You mean so much to me, Liz, I don’t want to lose you.”

Elizabeth’s heart began to ache as she ogled over Jess’ sweet brown eyes. It hurt too much to look, so her eyes travelled down to their linked hands. This wasn’t just about hanging out was it? This was something else entirely. Elizabeth could feel herself start to choke up and quickly caught a few tears with her sweater sleeve. The salty liquid vanished into the fabric, leaving a dark, wet spot where they had soaked in. Elizabeth’s puffy eyes scrutinized herself as she stared hard into Jess’ mirror.

She placed her clammy hand atop Jess’ and cleared her throat. For the first time she was hesitant of what to say to her best friend. It was ridiculous. She shouldn’t be feeling this way. She could tell Jess anything. She was her confidante- her sister. Jess made her feel so sure of herself- so safe- she always had. So, why was now any different?

“I swear to you that once this is all figured out, I will do my best to spend more time with you. Everything is just very… hard right now and I have no-” Elizabeth’s voice caught in her throat, “No idea how to handle any of this, but I won’t ever leave you. I promise. We’re best friends forever, Jessie. I can’t just bail on my partner in crime. Who else would I go on road trips with to do things I would never be comfortable enough doing by myself? You’re my second-half whether you like it or not, chickadee.”

Jess gave a small smile as she hugged her pillow to her chest, “Remember that time when we went swimming in that pond outside of Overlook- the one with the twenty foot ledge? I dared you to jump with me and it took you like an hour to even get you on the platform.”

“Don’t forget the few minutes of crying,” Elizabeth added. Jess laughed, “Yeah! And you only jumped because I promised I’d buy you a chocolate cone!” “Can’t say a cone made up for the trauma, but hey, it was an experience,” Elizabeth giggled.

“I swear, you can be a real chicken sometimes, but you still try the craziest shit- just for me. You’re always there when I’m acting dumb, and I want you to know I really appreciate that- like really. You’re my sister, Liz….” She paused as she looked over Elizabeth’s pale face and then down at her own dark skin, “A fraternal sister.”

“You stole all the cool genes in the womb. That’s why the only dance move I know is the robot,” Elizabeth sighed making her friend laugh. After their laughter had ceased, a restless silence formed between the two girls until Elizabeth finally asked, “I have a bit of time if you want to do my hair. I’d love to show off your signature braid at the party tonight.”

Jess was quiet for a moment. Then, she halfheartedly nodded, “Okay.”

Helios 7:30 p.m.

            The party was extravagant to say the least; much more grandeur than Elizabeth had ever witnessed. It was held in Helios’ ballroom which was decorated in white drapes with an exquisite gold to match. The high ceiling was covered with a fantastic mural of the galaxy; stars and planets painted across the entirety of the structure. She had a hard time believing she was a part of such splendor, albeit having to work it.

Throngs upon throngs of people quietly chatted amongst themselves across the ballroom floor as they patiently waited; eager for the man of the hour to arrive. Handsome Jack was late as per usual, but the buzz of his eventual arrival pumped life to the room.

Elizabeth placed herself close to the refreshment table, standing as stiff as a board as countless people passed her rigid form. Each guest was dressed to the nines in their tuxes and gowns; their mere existence radiating brilliancy, formality, and of course, douchery. They refused to acknowledge Elizabeth but if they did, she was often shot with a look of disgust. She ignored the harsh stares as she held a bottle of Dom Perignon within her shaky hands. She had to admit, the growing number of bodies was making her anxiety escalate, but she held her own as she practically hugged the wall, hoping to God she was blending in.

But she knew that was damn near impossible when she had a giant mud stain on the front of her suit jacket laid out for all to see. She scratched at the hardened dirt but the damage was done. Her anger reignited as the scene scratched its way into her head. Elizabeth and Rhys had parked and were walking the rest of the way to the party when suddenly she was pushed off the sidewalk by this brickhouse of a woman and straight into a muddy puddle. She could still hear her smug tone, too.

“The pavement is not for commoners, darling; not when more worthy people require it. You should learn to step down for your superiors. It’s only polite, my dear.” She could’ve exploded right there, but she refrained when she saw the woman disappear into Helios’ doors. She would maintain herself for the night. She’d get along with these assholes and maybe- just maybe if she played by the rules, Jack would let her off for good behavior. She could only hope.

Rhys had tried to help her with the stain before having to leave, but not without apologizing profusely. It was weird, she almost felt bare without him. The ride over had been amazingly comfortable and along the way they discovered their mutual love for baking videos, so cake took up most of the conversation. The same could not be said for extraction videos. Pimples definitely didn’t thrill Rhys the same way they did Elizabeth. In fact, the mere thought had him dry heaving. Still, Rhys was a friend in a dark place and she was grateful for that.

She began pouring a glass of champagne for a guest when someone cheered, “He’s here!” The room, like a stampede, flooded toward the doors to observe their savior’s arrival. Flashes of a hundred of cameras blinded Elizabeth as people pushed past her in a rush to get a good spot; a stray arm catching her elbow on its way past, making the champagne bottle in her grasp start to slip. She blew a sigh of relief as she steadied the bottle within her hands and only joined the rest of the mob when all was finally settled. And suddenly, there he was standing in all his glory. The hero of Pandora: Handsome Jack.

He looked like a dime; head to toe in absolutely gorgeous attire. He wore a three-piece charcoal gray tux, highlighted by a yellow tie; the whole ensemble fit him like a dream. His usually wily hair was slick and maintained, and his black shoes were shining as bright as the stars. But why the hell was he wearing sunglasses at night? And he was inside, for God’s sake. As good as he may have looked, the douche overpowered the allure.

On his arm was Nisha sporting a dazzling magenta gown with a thigh slit cut so high it could give the Alps a run for their money. She sparkled underneath the brilliancy of the hanging chandeliers; the hundreds of sequins along her boobs- which looked bomb by the way- painting the room in a colorful hue. Her dark hair was pulled back revealing both of her razor-sharp eyes and her smile publicized her beaming confidence- or arrogance. Elizabeth couldn’t tell which.

The couple glided along the waxy flooring as they continued to ignore the mounds of people confessing their undying love to them. Over the roar of the crowd, Elizabeth could hear Jack yell at one of the workers, “Where’s the effing mic?” And they instantly scurried off to fetch it. When he was given the microphone, Jack smacked it a few times before taking his place in the middle of absolutely everyone; his eyes ablaze with that unyielding vanity he so often exposed. As she laid the champagne bottle down on the nearest table, Elizabeth thought, He’s got every single eye in the room on him; bet he’s through the roof. What an attention whore.  

“Good evening, you beautiful bastards! How’re all of you doing?” Jack announced garnering an immediate applause; a couple of people giving hearty whoop of enthusiasm- some crying. Elizabeth spotted Rhys at the edge of the group; mop in hand and gazing completely star-struck up at Jack. She snickered as he turned to her to excitedly point at his idol. He then waved for her to come over and she obliged, scooting silently closer to him.

“Hyperion has been my home for many years, and as soon as I saw my home start to shit the bed, I did what any insanely talented- not to mention gorgeous- man would do. I took matters into my own hands and you know what else I did? I made it great again. We are currently leading in weapon sales and we continue to grow throughout the country. Let’s be real, our competitors don’t stand a freakin’ chance against us! Just take a look at Atlas. That wannabe, piss-slit of a corporation thought they could mess with us and look where that got ‘em!” There were a few cheers from the crowd as people started to lose their shit.

“Anyway, I plan to run this place for another fifty years, even if those bandit idiots have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers- which I won’t have to worry about with our new, top-of-line of combat rifle, the Destroyer. And all of this was made possible because of you glorious people- mostly me, but you guys too… a little,” He said pinching his fingers together.

“So, enjoy the refreshments, mingle a little, get laid tonight, and when you go to bed remember to be grateful for the life I’ve given you. Believe me when I say Hyperion will always be there to protect you and your family, so don’t be a dick and be there for Hyperion- yada, yada, yada- let’s get drunk!” He raised his fist in the air. “Screw Atlas!”

“Screw Atlas!” The crowd cried.

With that, Jack stepped out of the spotlight to go socialize with his associates. One of which Elizabeth recognized as the woman who pushed her off the sidewalk. Her voluminous black hair extenuated her ebony cheekbones as if she had plums implanted into her face. The flawless texture of her skin was gently caressed by the white tuffs of fur along her collar, and her blue pantsuit was perfectly tailored to fit her full figure. Although she was still bitter about the encounter, Elizabeth couldn’t help but admire the woman’s style.

As Jack approached her, the smile she presented seemed lackluster; a sort of necessary formality instead of a friendly welcome. As they exchanged an awkward handshake, Jack placed a kiss on the back of her well-polished hand; a look of disdain appearing across her face immediately. Her tightness loosened as he withdrew and Elizabeth could see the woman’s voluptuous lips utter a short comment making Jack cackle in response.

Elizabeth elbowed Rhys, “Hey, who’s that lady Jack’s talking to?”

“That? That’s Aurelia Hammerlock, heiress of the Hammerlock family. She stops by every once in a while to represent her family since they’re one of Hyperion’s biggest sponsors. She’s a total bitch,” Rhys said, “Her and Jack go way back, even before he became CEO. Even though he has a huge support system from the Hammerlock family, Aurelia hates Jack. No one really knows why.”

“I probably know why.”

“I’m sure you do,” Rhys said patting Elizabeth’s shoulder. He continued, “Rumor has it they had a falling out a long time ago. In any case, if she wants the partnership to work out, Aurelia has to put on a nice face- which has got to be at least a day’s process for her- and hold back from saying something that could potentially destroy everything her family has culminated.”

“How do you know all this?”

“…It was in Jack’s auto-biography.”

“Oh my God,” Elizabeth laughed as she slapped her forehead, “You seriously read his auto-biography?”

“It was really interesting!” Rhys defended.

She patted his shoulder, “I’m sure it was, you fanboy.”

Rhys rubbed the back of his neck as his cheeks flushed, “Am not…” His head then snapped up as he noticed a friendly face approaching, dressed fresh to death in sharp black suit, albeit a little big for the man’s short frame, and a green bowtie. Rhys gave the young man a firm pat on the back as he joined Rhys’ side.     

  “Buddy, you are looking good! No. Better than good- you look fly, bro,” Rhys said exchanging knuckles with the man, “I never see you out and about looking so professional.” The man laughed nervously and hunched slightly making him seem even shorter than his already small stature.

“Yes you have, I wore it to senior prom, remember? It was my dad’s. He let me have it after graduation; said a suit would give me more confidence, but I just feel like a member of the lollipop guild in this thing. If we ever go camping, I got the tent covered. I seriously could fit a family of five in here.” He pulled at the sides of his suit. “But thanks, bro. I wish I could say the same for you. You look like some creepy janitor from a murder mystery cartoon.”

“That’s very… descriptive, thanks,” Rhys said.

Vaughn then looked beyond Rhys to peek at Elizabeth, his glasses sliding down his nose a bit as his hazel eyes expanded. With an impish look, he looked back to Rhys to give a wiggle of his eyebrows. “Rhys, you’re not going to introduce me?” Vaughn said with a sly grin.

“O-Oh, yeah! Elizabeth, this is-”

“Hi, I’m Vaughn; Rhys’ best friend. I’m Hyperion’s main money man-”

“He’s an accountant,” Rhys interjected earning a frown from the short man.

“…better known as an accountant, I guess,” Vaughn reluctantly confirmed, “Rhys literally cannot stop talking about you. Like yesterday he told me how excited he was to be riding with you to the party, but he was so afraid he was going to do something stupid like throw up in the car. He also said how much you scare him, but if it’s any consolation, you don’t seem that intimidating. Oh! And then he said-”

“VAUGHN,” Rhys interrupted clapping the man on the back, “You’re so funny. Heh, don’t mind this jokester; always cracking jokes, cause that what jokesters do… they crack jokes. Don’t know where he comes up with this stuff- comedy gold.” Vaughn looked up to his friend, perplexed. “But Rhys, you said-” Vaughn started but shut his mouth when he saw Rhys’ horrified expression. “Oh yeah, that was someone else; my other friend… also named Rhys… who also came to the party. It’s a weird coincidence, I know.” There was a slap as Rhys’ hand connected with his face.

“Small world,” Elizabeth snorted; a grin forming her lips.

“Anyway, it’s awesome to finally meet you,” Vaughn said shaking Elizabeth’s hand.

Elizabeth laughed, “Nice to meet you too. How long have you guys known each other?”

They looked at one another and began counting fingers. “Well, we became friends in…what- fourth grade? So, that’s got to be at least seventeen years. Yeah, almost seventeen years now,” Rhys said. “Holy crap, we’re old, man. We’re practically married, and you haven’t gotten me a single anniversary present,” Vaughn said.

“I’m sure I’ve gotten you something. I bought you eggs once, I think.”

“Watch out girls, this one’s a real lady-killer,” Vaughn announced, “Hey, Remember the first time we met? We were at recess when you tried to stand up to those bullies who literally tried to use me as their human punching bag?”

“They ended up beating both our asses…” Rhys said unamused.

“Our first bond, it seems like only yesterday!” Vaughn said proudly.

“They stole all my business cards,” Rhys flat-lined, “I worked so hard on them.”

“You had business cards when you were a kid?” Elizabeth asked incredulously, pulling them from memory lane. Rhys smiled sheepishly and scratched the side of his face. “Can you tell I’ve always wanted to run my own company? Look where that got me.” He said bitterly, tugging at the mop in his hand.

“Up until high school people always picked on us. We didn’t have anyone else to talk to; that is until our friend, Yvette, started hanging out with us freshman year. She intimidated the hell out of anyone who would so much as try and copy our homework, and in return we always bought her lunch. It was awesome; we finally had a friend who was semi-cool. Well, cool enough to get us into the captain of the math team’s house parties,” Vaughn grinned. “She actually works here too, but I haven’t seen her tonight. She should be around here somewhere.”

“Oh, there she is; schmoozing with Vasquez. I’m going to barf,” Rhys muttered, crossing his arms in disgust.

Elizabeth turned to see a skinny, dark-skinned woman talking to a bulky, bearded man whose hair looked like it could drown a baby seal. The woman, whose angular arms were crossed tightly against her chest, had her entire torso hitched backward in a defensive manner; her attention unwavering. As they continued to talk, Elizabeth noted the underlying shrewdness of their shared glances; their sharp eyes scrutinizing one another.  

Elizabeth had seen that look before. There was ambition burning within their seemingly unceremonious exchange, but nothing went unplanned with these people. Their talking was an act of formality, but it wasn’t the guts of the conversation- not really. Anything they needed- or wanted- to know was there for the taking; hidden within their eyes. Elizabeth couldn’t help but wonder if they knew they both had been betrayed by their own irises.

Watching the scene unfold made Elizabeth uncomfortable. Seeing them search for value in one another as if choosing the perfect cut of meat. It felt unpleasant to say the least.

When they were done talking, they shook hands and parted. Vasquez then turned around, snagging Rhys’ attention and started wiping the floor with an invisible mop. As he whistled, he swayed back and forth into the crowd. Rhys’ face burned like a red hot nickel ball; his bionic fist tightening around the mop’s stick, effectively producing a loud crack. Vaughn and Elizabeth took a step back from his burning fury.

As Yvette approached she paused when she felt the stab of Rhys’ glare. She glanced at his face and asked, “Rhys, how’d you manage to get a sun burn in November?”

“It’s not a sun burn; it’s the face of a man who has been betrayed by their traitor of a friend, because that it was you are- a traitor. Et tu Yvette- Et tu?” Rhys scoffed, shaking his head. Vaughn then stood on his tippy-toes to get a closer look at Rhys’ face and said, “Dude, I think you do have a sun burn. I can see the peeling.”

“…Okay, it might be a sun burn but the majority of it is anger!” Rhys exclaimed.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Yvette asked taking a step back, her head turning to give Elizabeth a once over, reading her immediately, “You must be the new girl Rhys texted me about. What’s up? I’m Yvette.” As Elizabeth opened her mouth to talk, Rhys pointed an accusatory finger at the woman who looked one hundred percent done with his dramatics.

“Don’t change the subject. You looked pretty chummy over there with the number one douche king himself. What were you two talking about exactly? Trying to suck up to the VP?”

“Is that what we’re calling him now? The last time I checked it was admiral stick-up-ass.” Yvette put her hand on her hip as she readjusted her glasses. “And I wasn’t being a suck up. Unlike you, Rhys, I actually try to be nice to people I hate; gets you further in life. For example, Vasquez just told me if I keep playing my cards right, he’s going to make me Head of Requisitions. With a promotion like that I could make lunch on me for a change.” She pressed her lips. “Probably not, but I could.”

“Vasquez has no say in whether or not you get promoted- Jack does. And do you really think Jack sees Hugo as anything but a dumbass? I wouldn’t be surprised if Jack pulled his name out of a hat when he made him Vice President,” Vaughn said, “Cause what does Vasquez do anyway? Jack handles all the work. Vasquez just sits around in his office all day doing God knows what. Vasquez is basically a potted plant with a fancy title. You’re lucky, Rhys. At least, you get to do something.”

“Yeah, cleaning up the men’s restroom is so much better than being in my own office and having people respect me. I’m blessed,” Rhys grumbled. Elizabeth listened on quietly as the three friends bickered. It was like a sitcom.

“Vasquez may not have the power to promote me but a good word never hurts. You guys need to take charge if you want to actually break the Hyperion hierarchy,” Yvette said; a shine from the chandelier catching her glasses and temporarily concealing her eyes.

“I was already at the top just in case you forgot. It was being a doormat that got me…” Rhys presented himself with a signal of his hands, “here.” He then went to clean a spill, his friends following close behind. “If only Jack knew how much better I am than Vasquez. I could seriously help this company. I could offer my ideas, my thoughts- he’d never give me the time of day, though. He’s always held up in his office and-” Rhys paused as he lifted his head from the mess. He then whirled around to Elizabeth who gave him a small wave, “Hi.”

“You!” Rhys exclaimed, his sudden fervor making her jump. He grabbed her shoulders, smiling as wide a child who had just opened their first first Christmas present.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner! You can talk to him! You can tell Jack all about me. You know, how incredibly hard-working and loyal I am. You’re the only person I know who’s been in Jack’s office- well, the only person who hasn’t disappeared on sick leave,  so maybe you could ask him to meet with me or like, write my name onto a paper on his desk and he’d be all, “Who the hell is Rhys? His name is taking up space where important stuff usually goes, so he, himself, must also be important. I must find him immediately”!”  

“One: Nice Jack impression and two: If I could I would, but do you honestly think he’s going to listen to me of all people? He hates me, Rhys. He’d probably fire you just to spite me. I don’t want to risk that,” Elizabeth said trying to let him down softly.

“Please, Elizabeth. I have worked so hard and I just want the chance to prove myself… and I guess if that means risking it all, I am ready for it,” Rhys said with a look of determination that matured him immensely, his usual awkwardness gone. Elizabeth had to admit, Rhys was surprisingly ambitious. At first, she wasn’t sure how a person like Rhys could have possibly survived for so long in a cut-throat place like Hyperion, but now she knew. On the outside he may have seemed unsure, but on the inside he was a man who knew what he wanted out of life- and on top of that he was willing to fight for it. She couldn’t help but envy his ambition.

She begrudgingly agreed, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though.”             

“That’s all I need. Thank you,” Rhys said, gratitude lifting his cheeks.

Yvette faced Elizabeth, her pencil skirt tightening as she widened her stance like a bird surveying land. “You just started yesterday, right?” She asked. Elizabeth nodded. “And from what Rhys told me you have no experience in business and yet, you’re Jack’s right hand,” She said subduing her doubt, “How is that?”

“I wouldn’t say right hand- not at all. I’d say I’m more of a pet monkey who does all the shit Jack doesn’t want to do. For whatever reason, I’m not exactly sure,” She spoke openly.

 “Then that’s risky business, Rhys; entrusting someone like her with your job. Not the approach I would have suggested,” Yvette commented and Elizabeth felt her face flush.

“You told me to take charge. I’m doing it anyway I can,” Rhys countered. He turned to place a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and gently shook her back and forth. He felt her lean into his touch, “Besides, I believe she can do it- and if not, I guess I’ll just have to be content with losing it all because I can’t be satisfied with what-could-have-beens.”

“And hey, my couch is always open if you become a jobless hobo,” Vaughn offered. “You really think I couldn’t make it on my own?” Rhys asked somewhat insulted. Vaughn chuckled, “I know you couldn’t. You’d last one day out in the streets, maybe two tops. If the gangs don’t get you, those wild dogs by the docks would. Either way, you’d probably lose your face to some tripped out psycho- just saying.”     

“Oh, they’d do a lot more than that. They’d rip out your insides while you’re still conscience just to make you watch them flip your newly parted skin inside out, all so they can make their infamous “skin suits”. Ever seen one? They’re horrific. Then after that, they’d hang you upside down to bleed out while you scream, barely holding on to your life. And as you clutch on desperately to that one final breath of life, one of them rips off your face to make their specialty “face pizza”. I’d say that’s a bit more accurate,” An acquainted voice explained cutting through the conversation.

The group spun around to find Nisha biting into an hors d’oeuvre consisting of spicy jelly on a cracker, her hip angled out to the side as she licked her fingers of the cream cheese spread. When she finally focused her eyes, she idly looked over the daunted group, her amused leer revealing pleasure at the expense of their dread. “S-Sheriff, it’s uh- it’s great to see-” Yvette started.      

“Scram. I want to talk to the newbie alone without you ass-kissers lingering around polluting the air,” Nisha commanded in a tone that immediately had Vaughn and Yvette turning on their heels to leave. Rhys gave Elizabeth one last look, narrowly missing a direct shot of Nisha’s glare and said, “I’ll talk to you later.” With that, the girl was left alone with the Sheriff of Lynchwood. A gut-wrenching feeling shot through her as Nisha sipped away at her whiskey, her menacing company setting Elizabeth on edge.

“I hate parties,” Nisha said breaking the silence. Elizabeth looked up, but Nisha’s eyes were fixed on the throngs of people surrounding Jack. She took a sip, “And I hate people.”

Elizabeth paralleled Nisha’s gaze. She rubbed her hands together as her heartbeat threatened to pump out of her chest. “I hate crowds,” Elizabeth said, “They make me nervous.” Nisha gazed down at Elizabeth from above her drink glass. “Really? I just think they’re all a-holes. They try and fake nice but they’re all snakes in disguise; every last one of them,” She said and offered Elizabeth a sip.

Elizabeth raised her hand to decline but then took the glass and gulped the liquid fire down her gullet. She felt the burn slide down her throat only to land in the pit of her stomach like a combusting roller-coaster. Like a hot coal, it sat uncomfortably within her gut. As she cringed, Nisha laughed and patted her back. “They shouldn’t make you nervous, kiddo. You’re probably smarter than all of them combined. These idiots think sucking Jack’s ego off will reward them somehow, but they’re just fooling themselves. Jack likes it straight up- probably why you’re still alive,” She said.

Elizabeth wiped her lips as she returned the glass. “You guys definitely make one hell of a power couple,” She said, not quite sure if she meant it as a compliment, but Nisha grinned anyway, “I have to ask, though- and I hope I’m not overstepping any boundaries- but what do you see in Jack? What about him- I don’t know, swept you off your feet?” The laugh that shot out of Nisha’s mouth echoed off the ceiling of the ballroom.

“Please, honey, there was no feet sweeping. It was more of an act of vehicular manslaughter. I swear, when I met that man I felt like I had been hit by a bus in the best way. See, I grew up on the streets of Pandora and was even in my own gang for a while. When Jack contracted me to handle a few odd jobs there was no denying the immediate attraction. He was hot, I was hot, and after our first major contract, he convinced me to quit the gang life and join him- what more could a girl ask for? Every day’s been an adventure since we met,” Nisha said, allowing herself to smile.       

“So, are you like Jack- do you believe you two can save Pandora?” Elizabeth asked curiously.

“Honestly, Pandora can suck a chode,” Nisha said bluntly, making Elizabeth chuckle. She downed the rest of her drink, “I don’t like Pandora, but I like Jack. I like what he stands for; wiping out those bandit sons-of-bitches is my life. And I may sound like a dumbass, but I’d follow Jack to the ends of the earth. Two heroes making this place a little more bearable one dead bandit at a time.” Nisha swirled the ice in her glass around.

Elizabeth listened on eagerly as Nisha spoke. Although she was an insane bully who had the temper of a rabid honey badger, Nisha was halfway decent when her personality wasn’t stimulated by Jack’s. Elizabeth stood straighter beside the tall woman letting her shoulders align with Nisha’s poised posture. She could feel the alcohol burn her cheeks.

“Anyway, I just came over here to make fun of your stain. What happened- did your dog shit on your outfit before you came?” Nisha said backing up; two of her fingers balancing her empty glass against her hip. Elizabeth pulled at the bottom of her suit jacket. “Nah, just forgot to run to the store for toilet paper,” She cheesed. The woman shook her head, “Sicko.”

“Hey, hey, hey, there are my two favorite ladies. How’s it going, Thelma and Louise? Having some good, old-fashioned girl on girl bonding time?” Jack announced to the party of two.

“Hey babe, how’d you manage to get away from those leeches?” Nisha asked as Jack wrapped an arm around her waist. They kissed and Elizabeth feared of a repeat of yesterday, but since the alcohol in her system had a mind of its own, she couldn’t help but glue her eyes to the spectacle.

“Told ‘em I’d personally paint the walls with their own brain matter if they didn’t buzz off,” He said and looked to Elizabeth, “You enjoying the party, cupcake?” Elizabeth looked around the room and nodded vigorously.

“I feel like I’m in a storybook. Everything’s glammed out to the max, you really pulled out all the stops for this party,” She said trying to cover her stain, once again self-conscious in Jack’s presence.  

“Drink it in, babe. This is the Hyperion life; never a dull moment,” He said, his head undeniably swelling, “By the way, I didn’t know you were friends with tweedle dee and tweedle dumbass over there- kinda hilarious, actually.” Jack gestured over to Rhys and Vaughn who were busy throwing grapes in each other’s mouths. Vaughn lobbed one up to Rhys which ended up nailing him in the eye.

“Yeah, they’re good guys,” Elizabeth said ready to defend them, “That one- Rhys, the tall one, was actually up for a promotion as your Vice President.”

“Ha! It’s cute how you people actually think that means something.” Jack downed the last of his champagne. “I don’t even know the name of the poor sucker who’s my VP right now. Who the hell is he, Nish?” Jack asked and Nisha shrugged.

“You got me. I don’t like remembering their stupid names,” She grumbled. He snapped his fingers trying to jog his memory. “Vazz- Vacky- Vacuum- ugh, it’s on the tip of my tongue.”

While he rambled on, Elizabeth remembered Rhys’ request. “Oh, I have to ask you something- for a friend,” She said, but Jack’s cocky smirk made her hesitate. If she were to ask him about Rhys right now in front of his colleagues, he would make a spectacle, she was sure. He would have no qualms with degrading her in front of hundreds of strangers, so she elected to wait. “Uh…When you selected your Vice President- did you just pull a name out of a hat?”

His matter-of-fact retort made her gears grind, “Excuse me, I flipped a coin. Do you really think I’d waste my time writing out individual names just to put them in a hat? I don’t have that kind of time, kiddo.”

Yearning for their undivided attention, a group of people encircled Jack and Nisha instantly, shamelessly swooning over their very existence; the crowd’s fancy attire and graceful air rendering Elizabeth a sore thumb. As the horde buzzed around like bees drawn to the first flowers of the season, Elizabeth was forcefully pushed out of the circle. With a dig of her heels, she planted herself firmly to the ground, keeping her stance as the group attempted to elbow her back. For a bunch of people who looked like they hadn’t done a hard day’s work in their life they were pretty strong.

Annoyed with her insolence, the group began muttering hushed comments about “the help” Jack was associating with. Once these whispers reached Jack, his regard for Elizabeth soured instantly. His exterior hardened as he took a step back, distancing himself from the girl.

“Shouldn’t you be working? I’m not paying you to stand around gawking at my guests and flirting with my girlfriend. Get back to work, pumpkin,” Jack said, shooing her away with a wave of his hand. His attention then turned back to his fans, “Don’t you just love it when they think they’re important? God, so cute.” The laughter that boomed throughout the ballroom shook Elizabeth, her throat clenching from the overwhelming embarrassment. It tore her apart like a million buck shots through her body.

To top it off, Nisha gave a final wave goodbye and said, “I hope you buy some toilet paper soon, you little weirdo.”

Giving an indignant huff through her nose, Elizabeth turned to leave; totally ready for the night to end. She reassured herself that she wanted no part of the awful group anyway. They were all deplorable, so why should their opinion matter? Although it was a nice sentiment, it did little to soothe the sting she felt ripping at her self-esteem. Her mother’s words came to her as she sifted through the mass of people, Normal people should only have one face. Any more and you’re friends with an actor.  

Before she could walk off, though, Elizabeth’s attention was drawn back to the mob. There was a sudden variance within their ranks that pulled at the girl’s peripheral like a kid’s eye in a candy store. She suddenly became acutely aware of a tiny, red dot that had made a home for itself on the forehead of Jack. It looked like a red spot of paint on an artist’s canvas or a needle through the head of a doll. She couldn’t decipher the anomaly, so without another thought she inched a bit closer, forcing her way back into the horde. Yells erupted from her zombie-like pushing, but they were static to her ears. What the hell was on his forehead?        

Jack was quite literally marinating in praise when he heard the commotion start, popping his good mood instantly. He was confused- then he was furious. He watched the girl’s slow approach, her boldness once again testing his already thin limits. He hated how easily she got under his skin. The worst part was she hardly knew she was doing it. She was just being an idiot half the time, and it drove him insane; acting like she knew all the corners of the world. The kid didn’t know a goddamn thing about the world.

The heat of the bodies surrounding him made his temper rise as he pushed a couple of people at arms-length. “What are you doing, you idiot? I said get back to work,” Jack warned, but she failed to hear his words. She was completely entranced on something else- something above him. He looked up in confusion. When he saw nothing, he glared back down at her. His fists tightened as he asked, “What the hell are you looking at? You’re creeping me out!” She proceeded forward despite Jack’s rising hostility.

Time seemed to stop as Elizabeth noticed the slight sway of the red dot upon Jack’s forehead. It resembled a laser pointer. When the dot lowered itself right in between Jack’s tight brows, Elizabeth’s heart plunged; realizing in an instant exactly what it was. She gasped making heads turn. She didn’t save time for thought as she leapt forward.

Elizabeth’s arms wrapped around Jack’s waist like a constrictor and with all her weight, she took him to the floor, knocking a few people out of the way during their graceless tumble. Her body tensed on top of Jack’s as she prepared herself for the shot that would inevitably ring out, but much to her dismay, it never came. She dug her fingers into the fabric of Jack’s suit as she propped herself up from him. The dot had disappeared, but Jack’s anger had not. Unfortunately, it had intensified.

She gave an awkward laugh as she hurriedly thought of an excuse, “My bad. I thought I saw a bee… good news- no bee!”

Jack’s rage came out in the form of a growl as he pushed her off of him, her back being caught by a couple of shins. They both sat facing each other like children on a play mat, his face growing red in a mixture of fury and humiliation. The whole ballroom went deadly silent as they watched the ordeal unfold; their mouths agape as they waited for Jack’s next move.

Their electrifying stares crawled up Elizabeth’s back sending her neck hairs skyward. Elizabeth hesitantly looked up to Nisha whose eyes were suddenly ablaze with fury; their previous mischief replaced by something utterly terrifying. So, this was the infamous anger of the Sheriff of Lynchwood. Shit.

“What…the hell… did you just do?” Jack whispered, his bared teeth transforming him into a baited wolf. Everyone waited for her response, but the entire English language evaded her as if it too wanted no part of this. She tried to gulp down what felt like an apple clogging her throat. How was she going to explain this? She knew she saw that damn dot, but how the hell was she going to convince all these people? She was nothing to them. She was an idiot, and very expendable.

With a snake-like quickness, a hand shot out to seize Elizabeth by the collar and roughly pull her from her feet. A squeak popped from her mouth as she dangled helplessly within Nisha’s grasp. With a single fist, she was holding Elizabeth’s entire- not exactly small- body up in the air.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, dumbass? You got a death sentence, because after I’m done you’re going to wish you were dead!” Nisha yelled, waving the girl around as easy as holding a ragdoll. From Elizabeth’s vantage point, she couldn’t help but marvel at the impressive yet terrifying girth of Nisha’s biceps as she cowered in fear. “Well?!”

Elizabeth opened her mouth when suddenly a shot pealed throughout the room like a crack of lightning across metal- the shot Elizabeth was waiting for. Her eyes instinctively closed from the abrupt sound that literally felt painful to her ears; the vibration making her head throb. A shrill ringing entered her ears, deafening her from the intensity of the shot- not to mention proximity. When she felt Nisha’s grip loosen on her jacket, she opened one eye; the smell of iron strong and the blaze of steel burning her nostrils. She met Nisha’s eyes. All she saw was confusion- that is until she saw the blood.

It dripped down Nisha’s long neck like honey in a jar. Its origin- a hole located just below her jawline; the wound resembling a red blossom. “I-” Nisha gurgled, mouth spilling red. Then came another shot. This one Elizabeth saw. Straight through her head. Out the side. Blood spilling.

She fell from Nisha’s grasp as the woman’s dull amber eyes rolled back into the abyss of her skull and with a sickening thud, Nisha was on the ground. From the fall, her leg had twisted awkwardly underneath her and a single hand had fallen tenderly against her still-beating chest.

All Elizabeth could do was watch as the red liquid soaked Nisha’s unmoving form. She had no words, so she just stared. Warmth trickled down Elizabeth’s face and she touched the sensation only to have a sticky redness coat her fingers. There was a scream- it was her own.

Everyone scattered like rats in a cage, screaming as they ran toward the exit. An earsplitting noise like that of crunching bones came from the stampede of frenzied feet over shattered glass. What once was the window was now evidence of the surprise assault. Jack was over Nisha’s body in an instant, his fingers entangling themselves within her bloodied hair before her head had a chance to slip back in between her shoulder blades.

Elizabeth held on to her face, failing to process what exactly had happened- what the hell just happened? A woman was killed- no, murdered right in front of- how did- why did? Her mind was a mess as she paced back and forth, attempting to ignore her blood soaked shoes. She kept pacing in spite of the panicked crowd as she tried to desperately pull the scene from her mind.

 Another shot pulled her from her panic as she gripped on to Jack’s sleeve. She saw the smoke of a bullet-hole rise from the ground like a burning campfire. It was dangerously close to Jack, but he did not budge. She gave his sleeve a hard tug and Jack whipped around from her forceful touch, his face the definition of pissed off. “We have to go! We have to get out of here!” Elizabeth yelled over the blare of the mob. He looked at her with big eyes, glanced back at Nisha, then back again. Elizabeth put her hand out and begged, “Jack!” With a roar, he grabbed her hand and they sprinted toward the door.

“I have a car in the garage we can use! If someone wants me dead they’re going to have to come get me,” Jack said as they reached the elevator. He slammed his fist on the button for the ground floor and Elizabeth collapsed at back of the elevator; sliding her way down to clutch her knees to her chest. She clung on to her shoulders as if they were her last lifeline. Jack didn’t look at her as he stepped back from the door, head remaining level and face staying firm- almost unnervingly so. The shaking of Elizabeth’s body was involuntary as images of Nisha flashed across her mind.

“They must have offed my bodyguards before they tried for me. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen them. Thought they were being discreet, but they’re probably stuffed in a closet somewhere. I should’ve known, dammit,” Jack said, though, he wasn’t talking to her. He cursed as he smashed his knuckles against the elevator door. Jack lowered his head, his hands filling his pockets, “Sorry, Nish…”

He turned to Elizabeth, finally acknowledging her company with a thin smile, “Thanks. It would have been me lying on that floor if it weren’t for you. Thought you were just trying for a grope, but you’re not completely useless. Glad you could recognize a sniper laser.” Elizabeth let out a shaky breath and stuttered, “N-No problem. I’ve w-watched a lot of m-movies.” Jack smirked. How the hell could he be smiling at a time like this?

He knelt beside her and asked with a vein of sympathy in his voice, “First dead body, huh?”

Elizabeth’s mouth dropped in disgust as she pulled back from him. She yelled, “How can you be so calm about this? A woman just died- not just any woman- you’re girlfriend!” Elizabeth stood up and turned around to face the corner of the elevator, unable to look at his awful face. There was a silence until he answered, “Guess I’m just used to it. When you’ve seen as much death as I have, eventually you’re bound to go numb.” She didn’t acknowledge his words as she continued to keep her nose to the corner of the elevator.  

He watched her keep her back to him like the angry feminazi she was; arms crossed and stubborn as all hell. He rolled his eyes and scoffed, pulling his hands out of his pockets to pull her away from the corner, her struggles making his anger grow. He really didn’t need this right now. With a yank, he whipped her around to face him and pinned her against the back of the elevator with a slam. The terror in her eyes made Jack soften slightly. Damn, she was just a kid.

“People die. It happens. The best way to get over it is to not think about it. Don’t think about it, cupcake. If we think about it, we die. The dead will just drag us down with them. Do you want to die?” He demanded. She shook her head quickly. He grinned, “Good, glad to hear it. Now come on. We’re getting out of here.”

Once the elevator door opened, they ran out into the brightly lit garage and Jack located his getaway car… a yellow Lamborghini with a Hyperion emblem gracing the side. Elizabeth made a face as she said, “I think we should try for something a little more…discreet. This is kind of asking for death.”

Jack sighed, “Fine, we’ll take the Bentley.”

As they jumped in, Jack revved the engine and Elizabeth clicked her seatbelt. She did not say a word as she stared at his unfastened belt, but she did shrewdly pull her lips to the side. He huffed as he clicked the belt in place then gunned it out of the garage. Elizabeth held on tight to the sides of the car, clutching on for dear life as he zoomed down the pitch black road, her fingernails digging in to the soft leather interior. As they drove, thick flakes of white snow started to fall from the sky creating a disorienting blur of the road, obscuring their sight; the soft headlights of the Bentley their only form of navigation.

“So, what exactly is the plan? Where are we going?” Elizabeth asked. “Hell if I know. Ideally, we find those bastards and take them down. I’ll ring their damn necks for what they did to Nish- for what they tried to do to me!” Jack growled, “No one tries to cap Handsome Jack and get away with it.”

Elizabeth shook her head in disbelief, “You can’t be serious! Whoever’s trying to kill you is probably highly-trained. They had a freaking sniper for Christ’s sake! Like, who the hell decides one day that they want to be a professional sniper- that is literally mind-blowing that that’s an actual occupation! And there’s no doubt an assassin on our trail right now coming to kill you. I should know- I’ve seen the movies!”

Jack cackled loudly as he slapped the steering wheel. “Do you base everything on what you see in movies? Sorry to burst your bubble, kid, but this ain’t a movie. And you’ve got nothing to worry about, babe. I guarantee we have no reason to be scared of these idiots,” He said, his tone darkening, “If they’re smart, they should be afraid of me.”

Just as Elizabeth looked out the window, she caught a glimpse of the dim, passing lights of the Sugar and Spice. “I don’t doubt that,” Elizabeth said.

The car was quiet as the two contemplated the night’s events, but the one thing that continued to plague Elizabeth’s mind was Nisha. She could not for the life of her shake the image from her mind. She could not unsee the pale takeover of Nisha’s pupils as she slipped from the waking world. Once so full and vibrant, then immediately extinguished. She wondered if it had affected Jack as much as it did her. If it did, he was taking it marvelously well.

Jack then turned the radio to a rock station Elizabeth was unfamiliar with. When the song reached the bridge, the pounding drum solo worsened the pain in her head, but she kept silent, thankful for the guitar riffs and clashing symbols drowning out the thoughts afflicting her.

“It’s surprising you didn’t let that bullet carve my head like a pumpkin. You could’ve just as easily kept your mouth shut, but you didn’t. I appreciate it, really. And I really hate to say it, but I owe you. Whatever you need- no matter what the cost- I’ll try my damnedest to see that you get it, no questions asked. You want a car? I’ll get you a car so effing expensive everyone you know will want you to run them over for a liability claim.”

She actually laughed as he fixed his hair and took a brief look at her. “But seriously- thanks, kid.” She met his eyes and nodded, “Anytime.”

She doubted his proclamation was sincere, but it was a nice sentiment, nonetheless. It was the most genuine she’d heard him, but he was a good actor. Of that she was painfully aware. The atmosphere grew heavy as the unforgiving wind thrashed against the windows, beating the ever-living crap out of the hood of the car. The brutal attacks- along with the trauma of seeing a woman’s head be blown to bits- had successfully set Elizabeth on edge.

Jack noticed her discomfort and flipped the switch to her seat warmer. She felt the heat flood her bones immediately and she sank into its embrace, her eyelids growing heavy. “Thanks,” She said. He nodded, “Anytime.”  

Suddenly, a blinding light shone through the back window of the Bentley, highlighting the two in a bright yellow. Elizabeth whirled around to see a single light protruding through the dark of the night. The black silhouette riding low of the light resembled a motorcycle, its tires picking up fallen snow and flinging it into the blistering wind. As she attempted make out the rider, the car accelerated to a speed that would have made Doc Brown jealous. Then there was gunfire.

A few shots ripped through the air tightening Elizabeth’s grip on her seatbelt, making her knuckles whiten. The car jolted as the bullets ricocheted off the bumper and impenetrable window. “Oh shit!” Elizabeth cried, ducking her head in between her knees while Jack gunned it further.

“These assholes think they can ride me?” Jack howled, “Liz, there’s a gun in the glove compartment! Hand it over! We’re going to show these bastards who they’re messing with.” Without delay, Elizabeth popped the compartment and passed the handgun to Jack who loaded it with a click. “Thanks, babe.”

“Be careful!” Elizabeth shouted over the roar of the wind as Jack rolled down the window. “I’m always careful!” He called back, lifting himself from the seat, “Take the wheel, I’ll end this bullshit!” She grabbed at the sliding wheel as Jack popped his torso from the window. He turned around toward the attacker, bracing himself with one hand planted against the roof and began firing. He fired off a number of shots and the motorcycle swerved a few times dodging the oncoming rain of bullets. Elizabeth tried to keep the car straight but the slick snow had other plans. She had an idea. It was a stupid one, but it was an idea.

“Hold on!” She called out as she grabbed on to Jack’s pant leg. With a pull of the wheel, Elizabeth took a sharp right down a conjoining street in an attempt to lose the pursuer. She could hear Jack shouting obscenities at her from outside, but she ignored them as she regained control over the vehicle. A bead of sweat dripped in front of her line of sight and she swiftly wiped it away. There was no time to think, there was only do. She scrunched her nose in concentration as the adrenaline produced a high she had never experienced. It was crazy to say, but she liked it.

“I think I got ‘em! I think-” Jack called when suddenly a screech shook Elizabeth. She peeled her eyes from the road to see Jack holding on tight to his right shoulder; blood dripping through his fingers like a failed patch job. She grabbed him by the hem of his suit jacket and pulled him into the car where he slumped against the seat, wriggling in pain. “Goddammit, lucky bastard got my shooting arm!” Elizabeth watched as the blood poured from his wound. Her mind went blank.

Without warning, Elizabeth looked to the road to see a dead end sign. “Shit!” She cried as she launched herself across the arm rest to slam on the breaks; the tires sliding from the lack of friction against the snow. The Bentley came to a sudden halt against the fence of an alleyway. The car’s overheated engine created a sputtering noise that resounded above the silent swish of crunching snow. The motorcycle’s roar calmed to a low purr. They were coming.

Elizabeth looked to Jack whose skin was paler than even his off-colored face. He was going to bleed out if Elizabeth didn’t do something quick. She grabbed his arm and slung it over her shoulder to help him out the vehicle; managing to grab the gun from his weak grasp, despite his delusional grumblings. As soon as she stepped foot out of the car, Jack’s weight had her crashing to her knees in the freezing snow. God damn, he was heavy.

The silent approach of the assailant drew closer as their dark silhouette stepped in front of the motorcycle’s headlight. Elizabeth could see a slim form start to take shape, one clothed in all black. Atop their head they wore a sleek, black helmet donned with a red stripe on the side, concealing their features from the world.

Elizabeth let Jack’s back slide against the fence as he sat in the snow and Elizabeth stood; knees shaky and tears forming, but she was determined. She raised the gun at the advancing figure. “Take one more step and you’re…” She started but she was she really in the position to make threats?

The figure paused in their approach to give a curt laugh, “Dead? I think the word you’re looking for is dead.” Elizabeth’s heart leapt but she nodded slowly. “You don’t even know how to use that thing, do you? By the way, you’re holding it the wrong way. You’re thumbs are liable to break when they’re crossed like that,” They said. Elizabeth glared at them but reluctantly undid her thumbs.   

“Look, you’re just a kid, I get that. Let me have Jack and I promise I won’t bother you. Just go back to your normal life, and act like none of this ever happened. It won’t be your fault.” The figure took a step forward revealing a gun. “Just look at him. He’s half dead already. Why risk your life for this asshole?” Elizabeth dared not turn her eyes from the menacing figure, but she wanted so badly to look at Jack. Whether it was for guidance, reassurance, or for something else she didn’t know, but he was no doubt face first in the snow by now.

“Do you think you have the right to kill him? Does that make you any better than him?” Elizabeth challenged.

“No, I never said it did. But he has to die. Whether or not that’s for the greater good, you can decide, but for now, let me have him. If you don’t, I won’t have any remorse killing you, I’ve done it a thousand times.” A sob escaped Elizabeth’s throat as terror overwhelmed her. What the hell was she doing? Why didn’t she just leave now? Leave and never see Jack’s slimy face again. Yet, if she did she’d have to live out the rest of her days knowing for the few moments Jack trusted her, she let him die.

“My girl’s loyal to the end, Lilith. She’s a rock- won’t budge a freaking muscle. So, if you’re going to take her down, you’re taking us both down, you bitch.” Elizabeth felt a hand grasp her shoulder for support and she turned to find Jack clutching on to her, looking worse for wear. Guess he made the decision for her. The figure sighed as they took off their helmet to reveal a strikingly pale woman with bright, unnaturally red hair and piercing yellow eyes. Her languid yet ready disposition reminded Elizabeth of a fox.

“Anyone who’s dumb enough to defend you, Jack, deserves to be put down,” Lilith said acrimoniously. As she aimed her gun at the duo, Jack placed his hand over Elizabeth’s, and followed suit, his ragged breathing hot against Elizabeth’s cheek. They were at a standstill.

Just then, Lilith put a hand to her ear as if intently listening to something. She gazed at the ground in confusion which slowly turned to anger as she quietly argued with whoever was in her ear. The anger slowly transformed into an unwilling compliance and she stood straight, facing them once again.

“You get to live another day, Jack. Guess you can thank the kid for this one. She’s a pretty good guard dog, but don’t get comfortable,” She said spitefully, “She won’t always be there for you to hide behind. Do me a favor, Jack, and bleed out.” With one last glare, Lilith traversed back to her motorcycle and zoomed off; the snow around her obscuring her departure until she became one with Opportunity’s backdrop.

Jack called out after her, spitting blood from his mouth like it was venom, “That’s right, run! Run back to your bandit friends!” He stepped forward, and was close to falling to his knees when Elizabeth caught his crumbling form.

“W-We scared her. Like she could have handled us anyway,” Elizabeth joked despite the nausea overtaking her. With a lurch forward, she felt a rush of putrid bile sting her throat, but she successfully kept it down.

Jack cringed, “That’s gross.”

“We have to get you out of here. Here, let me help you into the car, I’m taking you to the hospital.” She put a hand on Jack’s arm but he yanked it away defensively. “No hospitals! Handsome Jack cannot go to a hospital!” He commanded. He wiggled lamely in her arms, his huge body making her sway clumsily. “Do you know how stupid I’d look if people knew I went to a hospital? I’d lose all my respect; my citizens would shit their pants if they knew they had some baby-back-bitch for a leader. I’d have to-”

Elizabeth threw an arm up into the air in frustration. “Christ, okay! Well then, where am I supposed to take you? You’re going to die here if we don’t find someone who can fix you, and you’re probably going to die faster if you don’t shut your goddamn mouth! So, just tell me how to help you, Jack!” She yelled. Jack’s bloodshot eyes focused on her and the silence amongst them felt odd. It wasn’t the angry, intimidating silence she was used to. It was almost thoughtful.

“First, stop the bleeding then we can go see my personal doctor on the north side of town,” Jack said and Elizabeth nodded.

“I hope you don’t like this suit,” She said as she tugged on the seam of Jack’s sleeve. “Please, this is just a backup. Cost maybe a thousand, barely pocket change. Do what you have to do, girl,” Jack said, watching her work as she tried to gingerly pull off the sleeve without disturbing his wound.

She meticulously pulled at the fabric and muttered a sorry each time he would wince, but the pain was a thinning issue. It was the look on her face that made him hesitate. He was aware, and unapologetic that he let his mouth run but for once, he kept his thoughts to himself. She was confusing. She could have let him die a million times over in a single night, but she didn’t. Even after he acted like a dickhead to her in front of all those people.

Instead, she was here with a look of utter devotion painted upon her bloodied face and a gentle hand against his wound. She was either a goddamn guardian angel, or some crazy bitch who’d try to wear his skin by the end of the night. He was excited to find out which.

Once she ripped the sleeve clean off, she wrapped it around his shoulder, slowing the bleeding. With a careful tug, she brought him back up to his feet and helped him in the car.

Doctor Samuel’s 3:45 a.m.       

Elizabeth sat anxiously outside of Doctor Samuel’s work room and slowly counted the tiles on the ceiling, her feet tapping nervously against the floorboards. She tried to busy herself with the thought of Monday’s exam notes, but they were replaced with the agonizing groans of Jack. The sound sickened Elizabeth, bringing the image of Nisha back to her once again. The surprise that flooded her eyes when the bullet connected with her skull was surreal It all happened so quickly. She never even got her last words.

Another wave of nausea swept over the girl and this time it won rather quickly. Thankfully, she made it to the trashcan before she could make a mess on the floor. As she sat back down with a foul taste clogging her mouth, she rested her head against the wall, closing her exhausted eyes. They felt as heavy as a sunken ship confined forever to the lonely depths of the ocean. She wanted nothing more than to be curled up in her warm bed. She wanted to be able to wake up in the morning and know with utter certainty that this was all just a lucid dream, but her aching joints cruelly reminded her it was all too real.

Elizabeth heard the door creak open, and Doctor Samuels stepped out looking weary. Understandable given her sleep was more than likely interrupted mid REM cycle, but Elizabeth had a feeling this wasn’t her first 3 a.m. patch up. Samuels stood in front of Elizabeth as she took off her bloodied gloves, and with a dab of her forehead she said, “He’s going to be fine. Not the worst I’ve seen him, but for once he didn’t have the energy to make some smartass comment. I honestly don’t know how he survives such ordeals. You’d really think he ought to be dead by now, but he’s resilient. I would bet money his ninth life is sneaking up on him.”

“Thank you for doing this, doctor. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience, but you really are a life-saver,” Elizabeth sighed, rubbing her eyes. Samuels seemed taken aback by the appreciation. She stated bluntly, “It’s my job.” She was quiet as she looked to her right, her nimble fingers bringing her glasses up from her jutting cheekbones to rest in her light hair. “If you’d like, you can go in and see him now.”

“…No, I should probably go home. It’s late and he needs rest. I wouldn’t want to-” Elizabeth started.

“Actually that wasn’t an offer. Jack told me to tell you to come in, so I recommend you do, and by recommend I mean I implore you to go in. That is, if you want to save me, and to a lesser extent you, from his bitching,” Doctor Samuels deadpanned. The older woman looked like she had seen some shit and Elizabeth wasn’t one to argue. Carefully, she stood and opened the door to the workroom.

The smell of antiseptics hit Elizabeth hard as she stepped into the room. The fluorescent lighting burned her pupils. She rubbed them, not caring about what was left of her makeup. She knew she looked like shit, what harm would raccoon eyes do? When her vision focused, she planted her attention solely on the hospital bed in the middle of the room.  

Jack looked completely vulnerable lying on the clean bed, his dark scrapes and bruises a stark difference to that of the pristine, white covers surrounding him like a blanket of snow. A thin white sheet was covering his lower half and his shoulder had been successfully patched up.

When he heard her come in, he attempted to prop himself up but fell back slightly, grunting in pain. She offered a hand, but he denied it as he muscled his way up to a sitting position. She rested her hands on the side of his bed as he elongated his back, producing a large crack. “Hey, babe, you sure are a sight for sore eyes.” He gripped his shoulder as he hunched, his belly rolling slightly over. She said, “You should lie down. You don’t want to agitate your shoulder too much.” 

“Trust me, this is nothing. I’ve had more painful shits than this. If Nish were here she’d yell at me to suck it up, and slap my arm so everything after that wouldn’t hurt as much,” He laughed and then sighed, “God, I’m gonna miss her.”

Elizabeth bit her lip and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t even imagine losing someone you love. If there’s anything I can do-”

“Cut the pity party. Nisha knew the risks of her job, and she was willing to put her life on the line for Pandora. That was all her, so don’t you dare take that away from her.” Elizabeth’s drew in a breath then nodded solemnly.

Jack motioned for her to sit and she complied, sliding her way on top of the covers. The air was thick with words they didn’t want to share. The only thing cutting through the silence was the steady beep of Jack’s heart monitor. Jack rested his good arm behind his head to prop himself up as he laid back to stare out the window; a single light from the outside illuminating the continuous snowfall.

“Who was that woman?” Elizabeth asked, “She have some sort of vendetta against you?” Jack’s tongue clicked as he continued to stare outside. “Who doesn’t? She’s a part of that goddamn bandit group in Sanctuary, the Crimson Raiders.”

“They really exist? I thought they were just a myth.”

“Nope, they’re real, but don’t be impressed. They’re just bunch of murdering, mentally-damaged idiots who think they have a snowball’s chance in hell of killing me- me, Handsome Jack! Don’t get me wrong. The fact that they think they can kill me is adorable, and sometimes I even let them have the first shot. No one ever said Handsome Jack wasn’t fair, but good God, they’re annoying.”

“Okay so, this one time I was- I don’t know what the hell I was doing- getting coffee? Anyway, I’m walking down the street, right? And this guy just freaking throws his shoe at me in broad daylight. That was his tactic plan: a shoe. It didn’t even hit me. It flew past me and hit some old broad in the face. Shit, it was priceless. You should have seen it, she was like-” He pulled his face back into a wrinkly, startled grimace.  

“So, this guy’s still standing there like a moron with his other shoe in his hand, and he was so proud of himself, too. He had a battle cry and everything! “This is just a taste of what the Crimson Raiders can do. Be warned, we are coming for you! Yadda, yadda, yadda, I’m a stupid jackass!” I was going to piss myself, I was laughing so hard!” Jack bellowed as he wiped his eyes. He sighed as he managed to catch his breath, “Then I broke his kneecaps and crushed his windpipe.” Elizabeth gave an uncomfortable laugh to humor him.

Jack’s laughing stopped as he wrapped his hands into tight balls. “But the moment they killed Nish was the moment it became personal. Those cowards didn’t even have the balls to face me. Nope, they had to send that bitch in to do their dirty work while they hid in the corners like rats in a hole. I’ll make sure every last one of them burns.” Elizabeth stayed silent as she rubbed her arms. Jack was not one for empty promises.

“Do you know anything about love, kid?” Jack asked giving his neck a crack. Elizabeth was caught off guard by the sudden change of subject, but attempted to mull the odd question over.

“No, not exactly, I’ve only ever had one boyfriend, and he was a real asshole. We were together for about eight months before I found him with another girl. They were making out at my favorite study spot, so he had to have known I’d see them there. I wasn’t too crushed, though. To say he had the conversation skills of a wall would be an insult to walls,” Elizabeth brought her legs up onto the bed to cross them, “It’s sort of funny to say that it was a relief to see him there.”

Wowie, what a major douche hole,” Jack whistled, “That sucks big time, kiddo. But you’re young; you got your whole life to be worried about that shit. A lot of a-holes will want to break your heart, but trust me when I say you’ll end up breaking theirs with those big, brown eyes.” Elizabeth felt her cheeks flare.

“For me, love was always a crucial part of my life. My first wife and I were married when we were still kids- probably around your age. Since then, I’ve been married three times over, I’ve had more girlfriends than I can count on one hand, and when I wasn’t with someone I was always looking for the next prospect,” He said as a shiver wracked his body, shaking the whole bed. Straightway, Elizabeth went to fetch him an extra blanket from the closet. He looked up at her with quirked eyebrows. He mumbled a quick, “Thanks”.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve never been alone. There’s always been someone at my side.” He scratched at his chin. “And, yes, I am man enough to say that I have no effing clue what I’d do without someone constantly in my ear, you know-” Jack stared down at his hands, trying to gather his scattered thoughts, “encouraging me. I’d like to think I’m a pretty passionate guy. I’m passionate about my work, about my love life, about Pandora. I give and give and give, and I’m just overall hilariously generous.”

Although she felt the burn of sarcasm tickle the tip of her tongue, Elizabeth refrained from sharing it. She didn’t dare ruin this surreal moment.

 “Growing up in a shit home with shit people shaped me into a take-no-shit kind of guy who happens to be the pinnacle of loyalty,” Jack said, “Not to mention modesty.” God, was he making this hard on purpose? He then clutched the bed sheet along his lap, wrinkling the fabric into tiny, white valleys. There was a bristle in his voice when he said, “But I have this shit habit of attracting less than loyal friends.”

“Everyone who has ever entered my life has either left me, or has been taken from me. It sucks to admit, but I’m desperate to hold on to those I still have. If I like you, I will go all out for you. I don’t half-ass anything, and I just wish more people felt the same way. I wish people actually gave a damn,” Jack said, shaking his head as a low growl rumbled from his throat, “…Jesus, I sound like I’m on my period. I don’t know what the hell I’m trying to say. I’m sure you don’t want to listen to me complain about bullshit that doesn’t concern you.”

“Come on, I listen to it all the time, what makes now any different?” Elizabeth teased.

“And yeah, not sure what the hell is going on, honestly. This is all very weird, but-,” She smiled slightly, pulling at the ends of her sleeves, “It’s nice that you’re trying. This is the closest I’ve seen you as an actual person, and not Handsome Jack.” She subconsciously put a hand on his forearm, and he flinched from her cold fingers.

He narrowed his eyes as he let out a long exhale through his nostrils. “You really are a riot, cupcake. One minute you’re sharper than a razor blade, and the next you’re sweet enough to be giving me cavities- kinda scary.”

She seriously could not believe her ears. All the effort she underwent to suppress herself was for naught as her quiet snicker wildly turned into a full laugh; a hand hovering protectively above her mouth in an attempt to hide her ugly cackle.

“Coming from the human atom bomb, himself! I’m afraid that if I so much as breathe wrong in front of you you’ll break my spine over a two by four!” She had no idea why she found any of this funny, but she continued to laugh in spite of herself.

Jack’s snicker drowned in her laughter, “You’re just a little psychopath, aren’t you? Pegged you as a masochist from the first time we met, and looks like I was right,” Jack snorted, “You handled yourself pretty well back there, by the way. Thought you were just some punk kid with shit-for-brains, but I’ll gladly accept I was wrong. You’re pretty badass, pumpkin.”

She was about to mention her violent nausea from moments prior, but decided against it. She simply smiled, and said. “Thanks.”  

So, that’s what it took to make her smile; all this sappy shit? Hell, he could pull this crap all day if it meant he got that ray of sunshine on a daily. Although he loved her anger, her smile was starting to grow on him. And now, with having her so close, he could see new parts of her he hadn’t noticed before, including the few crooked teeth planted at the front of her mouth. They looked like little clashing sugar cubes. He also noted the pink tint of her chapped lips; a bit of blood staining the upper groove of her lip. They reminded him of his favorite flavor of Starbursts.

Elizabeth stretched her arms out in front of her as she let out a long yawn, “Welp. I should probably get going. It’s past my bedtime and I have class in the morning. You should probably get some rest, too, can’t be the CEO of Hyperion from a hospital bed.”

Please, I could run Hyperion from my grave.”

“Well, hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” Elizabeth said standing up and giving Jack a quick nod, “Bye, Jack.” She turned to leave.

Rather than continuing towards the door, Elizabeth stopped mid stride as she felt an unexpected tug at her clothes. Before she could react, she was suddenly pulled back roughly, her shins colliding with the metal siding of the hospital bed and her teeth clashing together with something so painfully hard it made the inside of her eyeballs hurt. Her lips, however, were met with a particular softness; a chapped connection of a gentle yet assertive encounter. She opened her eyes to find Jack’s lips locked against hers.

Her surprise was muffled by the pressure of Jack’s mouth over hers, her words lost within the confines of his maw. She felt his soft moans tickle the back of her throat. As she felt her lips slowly lose control under his force, his hands started to wrap around her waist. In an instant she panicked. She put her hands on his chest in an attempt to pry her body from his grasp, but his hands pressed tighter to her sides, unwilling to let go; his strong fingers digging possessively into her ribs. She didn’t want to think about how soft his lips were or how they tasted of stale champagne. She just wanted to rid herself of his hold.

The final straw was the sudden shift of his hips into her lower abdomen as he tried to overpower her. Elizabeth focused her whirling mind and pressed her knuckles into Jack’s shoulder with all her might. She was not having this. With a yelp, Jack’s grip loosened and Elizabeth’s feet connected with the cold, tiled floor; her legs shaky underneath her weight. Her heart began to spasm as she made eye-contact with Jack, his ragged breathing sending chills down her back. Astonishingly enough, he didn’t look mad. He looked… eager.

“I-I… I have to-” Elizabeth stuttered as she backed up toward the door, Jack’s face unreadable. The beeping of Jack’s monitor was frantic as he watched her go. She felt behind her for the door knob and whispered, “I’ll see you.” With that, she turned to briskly walk out of the suffocating room; not stopping to acknowledge Doctor Samuel’s as she passed. She simply walked out of that shit show as quickly as humanly possible.

As she bolted outside, the cold night air hit her hard; a thousand butcher knives carving up her lungs. She didn’t care how she was going to get home or what horrors waited for her in the darkness, she just started walking. Much to her chagrin, the once fluffy snow had turned to sleet against the pavement making her boots slide against the slick concrete. She fell on her butt a couple times freezing her damp pants to her legs, but it never stopped her pursuit for home- wherever that was. She put a hand to her numb lips as she tasted the mixture of sick and champagne on her tongue. It made her stomach flop.

Her march through the snow halted as she looked to the ground, her thoughts running wildly. She felt hot tears burn her cheeks. She had no reason to cry, but the waterworks came regardless; uncomfortably freezing in place on her red cheeks. With a deep breath, she pushed on.    

Apartment 4:50 a.m.

Elizabeth ran a towel through her wet hair as she sat in bed. She rejoiced as she fell back into its warm embrace, letting out an exhausted sigh as soon as her head hit the pillow. Her scattered mind then zeroed in remembering her eleven o’clock class. She gave a groan of disgust. With a dig of her face into the pillow, she made an executive decision to skip it. She had definitely earned a day off from all the bullshit.

After a well needed shower, Elizabeth’s heart had successfully found its way back to a healthy equilibrium. Still, her jumbled brain was relentless as it cruelly replayed the night’s events. She didn’t want to acknowledge any of it, but her brain was persistent as it displayed the horror show from beginning to end; all of which was still very fresh in her mind.

She saw the light of her phone go off and she snatched it quickly; not wanting to let out any of the heat that had developed under the covers escape. She squinted as the light burned her eyes.

Rhys

Hey are you okay?

I didn’t see you leave

Are you alright?

Sent 8:30 p.m.

I wanted to go back in

But they wouldn’t let me

Can you please answer?

Sent 8:45 p.m.

Vaughn said he thought he saw you leave

Sorry this is really freaking me out

Please text me when you can

Sent 9:00 p.m.

I can’t go to sleep

Are you home?

Sent 12: 03 a.m.

Elizabeth?

Sent 4:32 a.m.

Without hesitation, Elizabeth texted back. Whether Rhys was up or not, she wanted him to know she was okay. She was more than relieved to hear he was.

im okay

Sorry I made you worry

Looong story

Will tell u later

Delivered 4:54 a.m.

Elizabeth waited.

Rhys

Thank God

That is so good to hear

Goodnight Elizabeth

Sent 4:54 a.m.

She smiled as she attempted to choke back an onslaught of tears. God, she was sick of crying, but she could hardly believe it. He had stayed up all night worrying about her. Her heart broke as she pictured him staying up to routinely check his phone to see if she had responded, growing more worried each time there was no new message. God, this kid was a gift.

As Elizabeth began to put her phone away she noticed another notification in her messages. It was from a number she didn’t recognize. She assumed it was just spam or a wrong number, but checked it regardless. The message read:

Unknown

Hi, you do not know me, but I know you very well.

Do not be afraid, I am here to help.

I have been watching and would like a moment of your time when you can.

After you get this next message erase it immediately-

I am at the address 202 Bunker Hill.

I will not be in any of the surrounding neighborhood-

I am hidden away but this is how you can find me.

There will be a code under a statue of a swan near the edge of a pond-

The code is 00101010

Erase that as well.

   I want to discuss the position you keep with the man known as Handsome Jack.

I look forward to our meeting.

I know this may seem an odd request-

And you have no reason to trust me, I understand.

But I implore you to come.

I may be able to help you.

-A.

Elizabeth ran her eyes across the words multiple times before she could understand the mysterious message. Even then, she could not fully grasp what she was reading. This was not the craziest thing she had been subject to tonight, but it definitely itched at her curiosity. This person could have been a murderer for all she knew; ready to draw her in with pretty words and build up a false sense of security just to slit her throat in a private area. The excitement Elizabeth felt overruled her practicality.

Her thumbs hovered over the keyboard as she read the last line again. I may be able to help you. As if they had a mind of their own, her fingers went to work.

This is pretty dumb of me but

Yeah sure

I’ll meet u there

Tomorrow @ 4

Sent 5:03 a.m.

            Despite feeling as if her emotions were about to transform her body into a chaotic symphony, Elizabeth wasn’t an idiot- not entirely, at least. She brought herself back down from the clouds and went through her contacts to find Jess.

U wanna go on an adventure?

Sent 5:04 a.m.

            Jess was not one to shy away from the tantalizing idea of reckless escapades, no matter the cost. This was the same girl who explored abandoned buildings every other weekend just to find moss and rust samples for her labs, and unfortunately, Elizabeth was her right hand in these endeavors. But Jess had definitely given her friend her fair share of heart attacks in the past. Maybe it was time to return the favor.

            Elizabeth heard her phone shake the table with a quick vibration. She checked it in anticipation.

Wonderful!

-A.

  

Chapter Text

The brittle grass crunched below the girls’ feet as they trudged uphill toward the gray pond, their hands locked firmly within the confines of their pockets. The area was absolutely deserted; no sign of life stirring. The bleak landscape was compiled of mud with the occasional patch of yellow grass clinging to the side of the moss ridden pond.

Jess’ chattering rose above the thrum of cars zooming down the highway making the cold a bit more bearable. Once the frost-bit girls reached the side of the pond, they wheezed out a few shaky breaths, the icy air nipping at the back of their throats. Elizabeth scanned the horizon line for the swan that this A. promised would be there. At the back of her mind she feared it was just some elaborate prank pulled at her expense, but her curiosity inevitably got the best of her.

Elizabeth flinched as Jess put her arm through the crook of her own to entangle them. Jess locked the exchange by placing her hand back in her pocket.

“This is where they said to come?” Jess asked burying her nose into a quilted scarf. Elizabeth nodded and looked over the horizon.

“They said there would be a swan at the edge of the pond. Do you see a swan anywhere?” Elizabeth asked.

Jess squinted around, but ultimately shook her head. Elizabeth’s mouth pulled to the side as her stance shifted. She looked down at her phone, the messages from A. pulled up. She couldn’t help but wonder if Jack had something to do with this. Was he just trying to make her look like an idiot? Maybe she had embarrassed him yesterday; maybe he wanted to her back at her for it. It would explain why he wasn’t at work. She thought back to this morning.

She had walked into Helios feeling a bit heavier than usual. Her feet were lead, her head was splitting, and her uterus had turned on her overnight. It felt like a mad dog was ripping at her insides. Worst of all, she was not ready to face Jack.

The kiss that had plagued her all weekend replayed ruthlessly within her head. She could still feel his lips painfully crash into hers like a siege upon a castle. The unwelcoming thought burned her face with fury. The surprise was over. All she felt now was anger.

He had no right; none! She should have done something- she wanted to do something, but in that moment she was frozen. She wished she could have slapped the stupid out of him. She wanted to remind him exactly what she meant to him, and exactly what he meant to her. Nothing.    

She wanted to scream at him for Nisha’s sake. Jack rebounded before the the woman’s brain matter could even hit the floor.

And sure, all his sentimental crap had her swooning in the moment, but without his eyes swaying her, she could think clearly. He was a manipulator. And she was manipulated.

As she entered the elevator, her upper lip stiffened in preparation, but an unshakable tingle at the nape of her neck weakened her knees. She admitted that despite the anger she felt, she was dreading the imminent confrontation. What would he say? What the absolute fuck would she say?

The elevator dinged to life, and there he was, sitting plainly at his desk, although of course, he was not plain. He hadn’t done a single plain thing since the day they met. As she stared at him through the elevator door, just watching him sign papers, she wondered where the fire inside of her had gone. She figured that he had stolen it, for he was a ball of fire personified; one that seemed would never burn out. She began to wonder if he had the innate ability to surprise her.

A mound of words bubbled up from her throat, and she barked, “Hey!” His head snapped from the papers to her.

She entered the room, and began her trek to his desk. “I want to talk with you about the other night,” She said, stumbling slightly over her wobbly legs, “What you did was inappropriate, and if we’re going to be working together I think we should set some g-ground-,” She coughed to clear her throat, “ground rules.”

As she neared Jack, she could see his eyes widen with confusion. She trailed up the stairs to his desk, and tried to gain the upper hand by leaning in closer to him; their eyes meeting square. Her anger refueled as she witnessed him trying to play coy, his heterochromatic orbs searching for some kind of safe space throughout the room. He leaned back slightly as if he were actually intimidated by her.

She huffed as she looked behind him, and out the window, “You don’t get to play dumb here, Jack. You made me feel like a complete idiot.”

“Holy shit, I am not Jack,” The man sighed in relief. His sweaty form deflated on to the desk. Elizabeth took a step back, puzzled.

His voice was that of Jack’s, but the whine that painted its edges contradicted the confidence Jack worked so hard to sustain. She paused, taken aback by the man’s sudden change in disposition, and silently noted the color of his face. It was the same as the rest of his skin.

Elizabeth sighed, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who are you, then?” He lifted his darting eyes to hers, his shoulders hunched self-consciously.

“I’m Jack’s body-double. I come in to Helios when Jack calls off. He thinks having his face here twenty-four-seven will keep the workers in line, but honestly, I think it’s just so he can skip work and still get paid,” The man said, gritting his teeth in fear as he slouched further into his seat; eyes turned toward the window, “And he almost got shot yesterday, so that’s a thing. Not a great feeling looking like the world’s biggest asshole, and everyone and their grandma wants you dead.”     

“I thought I had seen all the weird shit to be had in this place, but shit keeps getting weirder. Do you know when he’ll be back?” Elizabeth took two fingers to pinch the bridge of her nose. He tapped the eraser of his pencil on to the notepad in front of him.

“Who knows? Sometimes he’s gone for weeks at a time doing only God knows what. I’m fine with it, though. I’d rather be here than with him doing his business, which usually involves screaming followed by mutilation followed by more screaming.” He stopped the tapping of the pencil. “Want to leave him a message?”    

“Not at all, it actually might be nice to have him out of my hair for a while,” Elizabeth said, not quite believing her words.

“He’s got you tied down, too?” The man asked resting his chin on his knuckles; a look of understanding in his eyes. She nodded solemnly.

With a sigh, she proceeded to unload every last piece of baggage Jack had strapped on to her from the past week; the blackmail, the humility, the trauma. The kind man did nothing but listen intently to her grievances. It was cathartic somehow. She barely knew him, but somehow she felt he was the only one who understood exactly what she was going through. It was just a plus he looked identical to Jack. Now she could complain about him to his face without having to fear for her life.

She moaned, “I mean, he was willing to put my parents out on the street just to get back at me. How fucked is that?”

“Wait, you know Moxxi?” The man asked, a slight burn taking over his face.

“Yeah, Mox was my boss before Jack took over. I haven’t heard from her in so long.” Drawing in a long breath, she checked the time. “I should probably get going. I have to meet my friend in a few.” Before she took off she gave the man a small smile, and said, “Thank you for listening.”

“No problem, it was nice hearing what I’ve been holding in for years. Glad to know there are still sane people out there,” He said with a toothy grin. He was quiet for a second, searching for what to say, “And hey, if you happen to see Moxxi, can you tell her that TL says hello? She’ll know what it means.”

“What’s that thing above the grass?” Elizabeth was pulled from her thoughts as Jess pointed to a patch of high grass at the edge of the smooth pond. They made their way over to the grass, and sure enough there was a white piece of porcelain sticking out from shrubs. When they pushed away the tall grass sure enough there was the face of a chipped swan.

“I feel like I’m in a spy movie,” Jess said, fidgeting with the swan head, “Think this thing comes off?”

Suddenly, under the force of her fidgeting, the breast plate of the statue popped off revealing a series of numbers. Jess let out an audible gasp, and jumped around in a tight circle; arms flailing around with glee, “Holy shit, you weren’t kidding! This is really happening!”   

Elizabeth gulped as she checked her messages, and pulled up the text from the mysterious -A. As she typed in the code, she whispered a definitive, “Here goes nothing.”

With the punch of the last number came a slight rumble of the ground. Without warning, a series of stairs were revealed underneath the mossy earth as the ground pulled back from the side of the hill. The dark passageway seemed to call on them to enter.

The two girls stood at a distance away from the spectacle to view the descending stairs. After a moment of silent disbelief, Jess let out an impressed whistle, “I was honestly hoping someone was fucking with you, Lizzy.”

            Spooky-ass passage 5:45 p.m.

The two girls traveled through the dimly lit passage with their only light being that of Elizabeth’s phone to guide their way. The sides of the passage were composed of a thick cement, and oozing from the wall corners was a dark green sludge; residue from the pond hovering just above the secret tunnel. They walked together, arm in arm, ready to brave whatever lay at the end of the tunnel; mace securely attached to Jess’ hip.

“I must really love you to be doing this shit,” Jess said, wiping a bit of slime from her coat, “Why is it when white people get a mysterious anything they have to see what it is instead of leaving it the hell alone?”

“The same reason you go to crazy, stupid lengths to get samples for your labs,” Elizabeth retorted.

“Oh, curiosity?”

“Nope, stupidity.”

“Fair enough.”

As they continued their march forward, the walls began to close in further, shrinking the chasm until it was a tight, lonely hallway. It seemed as if they had already walked miles. They had to have been back within city limits by now. Their grip on each other tightened as the hallway stretched on.

Suddenly, there was a door at their feet; a light pink door among the cold, gray of the walls.

Elizabeth brought her phone to her face, the sudden urge to message this person overtaking her. She longed to receive the assurance that they were in the right place; that they were doing the right thing, but much to her dismay, she found the signal was just as lost as they were. They looked at each other; both of them pleading with their eyes, but neither of them making the suggestion to turn back. They proceeded through the door.

The girls were blinded by an onslaught of light. It felt like a personal attack on their eyes. When their vision began to settle into focus they found themselves in what appeared to be a small child’s room. The bedding and walls were pink, and the dressers were decorated with soft pastel flowers.  The corners of the room were packed with plush, fur animals; all staring at them with tiny, beaded eyes.

What stood out against this scene were the hundreds of gadgets hooked to the walls, making the entire room look like a hacker’s wet dream. Computers beeped meticulously in time with the tick of the clock hanging at the far end of the room. Thousands of cords were aimlessly draped across the room creating an intricate environment. Panels upon panels of what Elizabeth could only assume was security camera feed lined the walls. Elizabeth stared at one of the monitors, recognizing the inside of Helios on the screen. 

The room was also complete with a bed, and an occupant. Sitting on the bed was a thin, young woman, no more than twenty; her hands clasped politely together as if patiently waiting for the girls to arrive. She was wearing a loose, blue gown that hovered just above her knobby knees. Her dark, black hair which contrasted with the translucency of her skin, hung from her shoulders like a veil. It shielded the side of her pale face like oil in snow. Her electric blue eyes grew wide to greet the girls, and they pulled at Elizabeth; familiarity latent within them.

Elizabeth attempted to exchange another glance with Jess, but her friend’s eyes were transfixed on the thin girl before them. The Vitiligo along Jess’ cheeks reddened as the young woman stepped up to the pair; the smell of flowers, and something acidic following her.

“I’m so glad you made it,” The young woman said with a warm smile against thin lips, “I was afraid my message was too straightforward. Not just anyone would be willing to meet with me under such precarious circumstances.” She stood, and Elizabeth was half afraid the sudden movement would knock her frail frame to the ground.

“Good thing we don’t have much common sense,” Elizabeth laughed lightly, “But yeah, this is still a little…precarious. Why did you message me?”

“Like I said, I’ve been watching you work your way through Hyperion walls. Handsome Jack has taken an interest in you, which has alerted some surrounding rebel groups,” She said stepping up to one of her computers. She clicked the spacebar, and a symbol flashed its way on to the screen. It was a symbol Elizabeth recognized; the Crimson Raider symbol. “For example; you hindered the mission of a Crimson Raider the night of Hyperion’s anniversary party. I doubt this was intentional, but you’ve earned a place on their radar, and for good reason.”

The frail girl blinked a few times before finally acknowledging Jess’ burning stare. She stared up at the dark woman, her eyes burning a hole right through Jess’ heavy coat and into her fiery skin.

“Who are you?” The girl asked.

Jess’ voice seemed to be caught within those blue eyes. Elizabeth stepped in to salvage her friend’s sudden misplacement of the human language, “Better question: Who are you?”

The girl put a spindly hand to her forehead, embarrassed by her own thoughtlessness, “Oh, I’m really sorry; I didn’t mean to be so rude. I just rushed straight into business. My name is Angel. What is yours?” Angel asked, though her attention seemed to be directed toward Jess who by now had her vocals in check.

“Jessica Goddard. I’m just a friend,” Jess said plucking away at her acrylic nails, “Got to make sure this one doesn’t get kidnapped by crazy cultists, or in your case, pretty girls.” Angel’s cheeks puffed out as she gave a soft laugh; one that would fail to break the thinnest of snowflakes.

“‘Goddard’. Viking times, Norman origins. It’s a derivative of the Germanic name ‘Godhard’ meaning all the components that make up the being we know as God,” Angel gave Jess a once over, her innocent façade slowly fading with where her eyes decided to travel, “So, does that make me the angel to your God?”

Elizabeth could hardly watch as her friend was not only equaled in the art of seduction, but thoroughly beaten. It seemed Jess was equally unprepared. Never had Elizabeth seen Jess’ flirtations outmatched. They were usually unrivaled.

“Not trying to ruin whatever’s happening here, but why did you call me here again?” Elizabeth interrupted their eye-sex.

Angel snapped back into business as she steadied her thoughts, “What is wrong with me, today? I’m sorry. I just haven’t had visitors in a long time. I need to get my head straight.” She hurried over to her desk lined with medicine bottles branded with little purple labels. She pushed passed them to grab a notepad, and hurried back with a pen in hand. She blotted the tip of the pen against her tongue, and put it to the notepad to begin writing.

“I work as a mole for the Crimson Raiders. Through Hyperion’s security feed I am able to keep updates on Handsome Jack, and what his next moves will be.” Angel’s shoulders hunched as if she were trying to guard herself from the world. “And we’re afraid he’s planning something terrible.”

Elizabeth pursed her lips, confusion filling her, “How do you have that kind of Intel?” Elizabeth had always wanted to use that word, but never found a need to in her day to day life.

Angel paused, “I’ve hacked my entire life. It’s what I’m best at. Not even Handsome Jack is able to see through my defenses. How do you think we were able to so easily take over Hyperion’s system during the party? They never even saw us coming.”

Then it clicked. Elizabeth let her mouth hang ajar as the events of the weekend pushed their way back into her brain, front and center. Nisha’s battered skull was in her mind once more; all bloodied and broken.

“Oh, shit,” She mouthed, “You bastards almost killed me! One of your people almost shot me in cold blood!” Elizabeth fumed, her feet entangling in a couple of stray cords. Jess put a hand out to steady her friend.   

“Yes, we almost made the mistake of inserting you into the same category as Handsome Jack and the Sheriff of Lynchwood given your proximity to the two, and we are truly sorry for the confusion, but we also notified our Raider to nix her mission because of you,” Angel said in defense.

“But why?” Elizabeth asked.

Angel gave a smirk that brought blood to her cheeks. “It may surprise you to know, but you have people who care about you. In a world so cold, it’s good to keep those people around you. You may live longer,” Angel informed. She continued, “The Crimson Raiders would like your help in ending Handsome Jack’s tyranny.”     

Elizabeth went rigid. This is what she feared. Subterfuge was definitely not her forte.

“Why me? I can’t do this. I can’t even pass Statistics class, and you want me to bring down a dictator via rebel group? No fucking way.” Elizabeth felt her chest tighten.

Angel approached slowly to gently take Elizabeth’s shaking hand. She guided her to the bed, and laid her hands on Elizabeth’s shoulders to softly sit her down. She gave a reassuring squeeze to her shoulders, and Elizabeth looked upon into Angel’s narrow face.

“I’m sorry if this is tough to hear, but this is not because it’s you. It’s because of what position you hold; your closeness to Jack. You’re the only one who can gain that closeness while still maintaining a…pardon my saying, mundane guise. He would never suspect someone like you to overthrow him; not when he has so much power over you, currently,” Angel explained as she brought a glass of water to Elizabeth’s side. Elizabeth gulped it down gratefully.

Angel sat down next to the trembling girl to put a delicate hand on her shoulder; a comfort to some she realized, but Angel only found resentment in pitiful strokes. She only received such tenderness when she obeyed commands, completed duties like a good, little soldier-- a slave. Still, under her touch, Elizabeth was relaxing.

Angel said with a voice so tender it could lay itself upon a frozen petal without chipping its ice, “The Crimson Raiders would like to meet you. You might find you have more friends there than you think, so do not be afraid of the unknown. I have their location on this piece of parchment, so if you would like it, I will give it to you. If not, and it is completely understandable. I will tear it up, and you will never have to worry about this ever again.”

Elizabeth bit her lip in thought as she struggled to decide; the lingering taste of his lips clouding her judgement. Could she really play a part in the elimination of such a prominent figurehead? Would she be made out to be a martyr if she were eventually cut down, or would she go down in history as the villain? She honestly feared that less than being forgotten. She stared directly ahead at the monitor of Handsome Jack’s office where he had chosen to imprison her; a place befitting of the mockery he had in store for her. She glanced up the screen at his chair, and grimaced. It was a symbol of injustice for not only her, but for millions.

She curled her fists into tight balls against her knees, and with a shaky hand took the parchment within her sweaty palm. She said, “I’ll meet with them.”

Jess was at her side in an instant, fear apparent on her face. “Are you sure about this, Lizzy? I know you feel this is your battle to fight, but it isn’t. You weren’t meant to be a part of any of this,” She said, wiping a stray tear from her own cheek, “Just let these rebels deal with their shit, and you can worry about school like you should.”

She grasped her friend’s hand, and pulled it close to her heart, big tears falling from her face now. She muttered, “Please, I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I don’t have a future in Pandora while Jack is in power, Jess. No one does. And if I’m one of their best chances to win then-,” Elizabeth said with a slight choke, “it’d be a little selfish of me to refuse.”

Jess looked up with an understanding that resonated within both girls. Jess then whipped her head around to Angel who seemed startle by the look in the young woman’s eye.

“If she gets so much as a scratch on her, I’m coming down her to whip your ass personally!” Jess threatened.

“That might actually be fun,” Angel snickered playfully.         

Chapter Text

Harsh shadows lined Elizabeth’s faced as she stood under a lonely lamplight. She stood before an abandoned warehouse sat at the end of a rickety pier, its docks leading toward a black lake. This was the Crimson Raiders’ top secret hideout; a dingy warehouse with boarded windows and the smell of fish looming in the air? It definitely wasn’t what Elizabeth had in mind.

But she had to admit, despite the ominous feel of the dark pier, she felt safer here than she ever did within Jack’s reach. This place was miles away from civilization, and that meant miles away from Jack. It was practically on the outskirts of Pandora. She was honestly surprised Jack’s patrol didn’t reach this far. 

From off in the distance, she could hear the howl of a wild skag and where there was one, there were bound to be a pack not too far behind. Without hesitating, she quickly approached the door, and slammed on it with a tight fist. She could hear approaching footsteps.

Her breath hitched as the door opened slightly; a chain lock restricting it. Through the crack appeared an eye that loomed about two feet above her. She craned her neck to meet its gaze.

“Who the hell are you?” A male voice boomed.

Elizabeth suddenly forgot the English language.

“I’m- uh…I’m with… A. She said you’d be expecting me,” Elizabeth gulped. She waited for a reply, the foggy lake air dampening her cheeks. “You know her?”

“No.” The door slammed shut and Elizabeth stood there gob smacked.

She looked around for help, but she was only met with the sound of crashing of waves and the faint howls of nearby skags.

She slammed on the door again.

“Please, I’m here to help! What can I do? I’ll do anything!” She begged.

The door opened once more, the eye returning, “Anything?”

Elizabeth set her mouth in a hard line and nodded, cold sweat chilling her skin.  

“Yes.”

“Cut off a finger.”

Elizabeth audibly yelped at the command, “What!”

“Cut off your finger to show us you’re the real deal.”

Elizabeth choked down a sob as vomit teased her throat. She looked down to her fingers, not willing to part with any of them.

Before Elizabeth could answer, the door swung open and a huge man stood before her. He let out a boisterous laugh as the metallic door slammed against the building. This man was built like a brick shithouse. His neck alone was thicker than the entirety of Elizabeth’s torso. The smile on his face that pulled at his many scars betrayed his intimidating appearance.

“Ha! I got you so good! Angel said you’d be a squirrely thing, but damn, you are a nervous wreck! What, you’ve never cut off a damn finger before? You got nine others to spare!” The man roared with laughter as he threw his arm around Elizabeth, his large frame almost knocking her off balance. She marveled at the size of the man as his huge arm engulfed her like a boa constrictor, “Name’s Brick, come on in!”

The warehouse was very spacious. It looked like a workout room had a baby with a gun range. Lined up against the far wall were humanoid targets— nope, given a second look, they were definitely just humans. Painted on their heads and torsos were red bullseyes riddled with bullet holes. Elizabeth averted her eyes. On the left side of the room was a makeshift boxing ring complete with a few punching bags and dumbbells strewn around the area. No wonder everyone here looked like they were sculpted by the gods themselves.

As Brick ushered in a speechless Elizabeth, a sharp whirring noise flew past Elizabeth’s ear and landed with a solid thud in the wall behind her. She looked back to see a knife protruding from a familiar face. A picture of Handsome Jack was pinned to the wall; a series of stab markings lining his smug grin. Elizabeth looked back to the source of the throw.

Standing there, hip cocked and arm extended, was the red headed assassin-- the one from a few nights before. She looked back at Elizabeth with her piercing yellow eyes. The woman lazily smirked.

“Good to see you again,” She said, her sultry voice matching her strut as she walked over to the picture to retrieve her knife.

“Yeah, you too,” Elizabeth could barely look the woman in the eye. Every time she did, Elizabeth saw the barrel of a pistol staring back at her. “Thanks for not killing me…sorry for trying to kill you.”

The woman shrugged as she approached Elizabeth. She reminded Elizabeth of a jungle cat, almost lazy in her demeanor until ready to strike. “Eh, shit happens.” She extended a hand toward the girl.

“Name’s Lilith.”

Elizabeth took it.

“Elizabeth.”

“And you probably shouldn’t be thanking me. You’d be six feet deep with Jack right now if it weren’t for your guardian angel over there,” Lilith said nodding her head toward a man at the side of the room.

As Elizabeth looked at the man and studied his lanky frame and long dreads, realization poured over her. With wide eyes and a dropped jaw, she muttered, “Holy shit.”

Mordecai was leaning up against the wall, his cigarette smoke wafting into the rafters. Mordecai gave Elizabeth a hard look that made her blood go cold. She had never seen that type of anger in his eyes. Bloodwing was perched on his shoulder, and as Mordecai shifted to a standing position, Bloodwing took flight toward Elizabeth, landing on a metal chair beside her. Bloodwing chirped happily, “What the fuck! What the fuck!”

“You took the words right out of my mouth, Bloodwing. What the fuck! I asked you,” Mordecai began as he walked toward Elizabeth, fists curled, “I asked you if anything was wrong cause I knew some shit was up, but not something this big! You’re lucky I didn’t accidentally pop you in the head at that party, too!”

“Wait, you’re the one who shot Nisha?” Elizabeth asked incredulously. Mordecai just continued to glare down at her, his cigarette propped upward in his mouth from his scowl.

“Wow, okay. I’m sorry, I know you’re mad at me, but I just have to say how cool it is that my professor is a sniper in a rebel cause. Like holy shit, that’s awesome.”

“I’m glad you find it so awesome,” Mordecai said sarcastically, “but you shouldn’t even be here. You should be back on campus studying instead of trying to play hero.”

That hurt. Elizabeth sucked in a hard breath as she said, “I’m not trying to play anything. I didn’t ask to be here.”

“Then go, goddammit,” Mordecai shot back. Elizabeth felt a hard lump form in her throat.

“That’s enough. She’s here to stay, Mordecai. I suggest you drop it,” A handsome, dark-complected man said stepping into their quarrel. He looked like his picture would be under the word soldier in the dictionary: he had the muscles, the stature, the composure; all he was missing was the patriotism. Mordecai huffed as he walked away back to his corner of the room, grabbing a bottle of liquor and bringing it up to his lips.  

“Sorry about that. He’s been pretty shaken up since the whole anniversary mess,” The man took Elizabeth’s hand into his own. Elizabeth noted the coarseness of his palm.

“I’m Roland. It’s great to have you on board, Elizabeth.” 

“Likewise. So, what do you want me to do with this whole Jack situation? I’m not exactly an expert in this type of stuff,” She smiled pathetically, “I should say I’m not…anything with this type of stuff.”

She could hear Mordecai scoff.

“We need your eyes and ears-- nothing more. If Jack so much as looks at you funny or you feel anything is up, you let us know. As long as we have you to keep us up to date on his schedule, we’ll be on his tail the entire time. We won’t be able to get close to him for a while, since his men are bound to be on high alert, but when the time comes we’ll be ready,” Roland said with admirable determination.

“So, how is it that I haven’t seen one of Jack’s patrols out here?” Elizabeth asked, “I thought Jack controlled all of Pandora.”

“This place is safe; a sanctuary, if you will,” Roland started, “Well, not this place, but the entire surrounding area. There’s no money to be made in these parts, so Jack doesn’t bother with the people living out here. He mostly leaves them for dead, but what he didn’t account for was us. And lucky for us this place is usually barren. Sure, we’ll have a few wandering patrols, but we have a few ways we deal with them.”

He gestured to the human-targets lining the gun range.

“Clever,” Elizabeth commented. 

Roland reached into his pocket to pull out a disposable cellphone, “Keep this with you at all times. It has all of our contacts in it.”

Elizabeth took the phone and began scrolling through the list of names in the contact list.

Roland continued, “There are many more of us that couldn’t be here tonight, but trust me when I say we will be there for you when you need it-- anywhere at any time.” 

“Roland this really doesn’t make sense. We’ve gotten close to him once, we can do it again. We don’t need some kid to snuggle up to him just so we can get a clean shot,” Lilith said twirling a knife within her fingers.

“I’m with Lilith on this one,” Mordecai said shooting Elizabeth a hard look.

“It took us years to infiltrate Hyperion. Without Angel we might have never been able to hack their system, and there’s no doubt they’re changing the whole setup as we speak. With Elizabeth’s help, we might be able to end this thing within a couple months,” Roland explained.

“Send me in there, Roland. I’m sure I can really butter Jack’s roll,” Brick said cracking his knuckles as a snarl twisted his lips.

“Butter Jack’s roll!” Bloodwing repeated as she fluffed her feathers.

Elizabeth stared at Brick slowly looking over his large physique. Her eyes were glued to his tree trunk like arms, veins busting from under his skin.

She then thought back to Jack and the kiss. The kiss she didn’t want yet couldn’t pull away from. The kiss she wished ended with a punch to the face instead of her running away with her tail between her legs. She furrowed her eyebrows.

She swallowed then turned to him and said, “Can you help me become stronger?”

Brick looked at her for a second then crossed his arms waiting for more.

She continued, “All my life I’ve been really weak. I want to be stronger. I want to be able to stand my ground. I want to be able to run a mile without having a fucking conniption. So, can you please help me?”

“You wanna be strong?” Brick asked.

Elizabeth nodded.

“Like me?” He added.

She nodded once more.

Brick clapped his hands together as he hollered, “Hell yes!”

Elizabeth beamed, “Thank you so much!”

“Seriously, when you walked in here I was thinking to myself “Damn, she looks pathetic”. At your size I could put your head in between my forearm and bicep and crush it like a grape! Ha! I won’t, but I’m saying I could. After a few weeks with me you’re gonna be able to beat people to death with your bare hands! I’m so pumped!” Brick exclaimed.

From the excitement, Elizabeth blurted, “AlsoIwanttolearnhowtoshootagun!”

Lilith chimed in, “I can help with that.”

“No, absolutely not, I draw the line at that,” Mordecai interrupted.

“Aw, let the kid learn how to shoot, Mordecai. Stop being a little bitch,” Brick said.

Mordecai threw his hands up in the air exasperated, “Fine. Don’t come crying to me when the kid shoots her foot off.”

Brick smirked as he looked down at Elizabeth, “Let’s toughen you up.”  

Helios 12:20 p.m.   

“So, you got dragged out with the crowd and were stopped by the police?”

“Yeah, they took me to the station.”

“And they held you until two in the morning?”

“They were very thorough.”

“How come it took so late to text me back?” Rhys pressed, frustration rising in his voice. Then his features softened, “I mean, I was just really worried.”

“They actually took my phone before the questioning to see if I had any sketchy messages. I’m really sorry I made you worry, but that’s all that happened,” Elizabeth had never been a good liar, but Rhys didn’t have to know that.     

“God, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. Sounds like a rough night,” Rhys sighed leaning back into his chair to drink his coffee.

“You have no idea,” Elizabeth said warming her chilly fingers around her cup.

They were sitting in Helios’ break room enjoying each other’s company before they had to scurry back off to work. Although, with Jack out of the office it seemed they had a little bit more time to kill than usual. Everything was moving at a slightly chiller pace given Jack had decided to take multiple sick days.

“I’m trying to picture you orchestrating the whole thing and it makes me want to laugh!” Rhys said chuckling.

Elizabeth smirked, “What, you don’t think I can plan an assassination attempt?”

“You could definitely plan one, but I’m not so sure you could follow through with it. Hell, I couldn’t do it,” Rhys said, “I mean, did you see the Sheriff just hit the ground like that? I can’t get that image out of my head.”

“Me either,” Elizabeth agreed.

 “You were right there, she landed at your feet,” Rhys said releasing a long, disbelieving breath. He outstretched his arm toward her; his hand intertwining with hers, “If you need to talk about anything, I’m here, remember that.”

She squeezed his hand gratefully.

Elizabeth leaned back to stretch out her sore joints from her workout the night before. They screamed in agony. Brick had worked her to the bone, and it was only their first workout.  As she stood up to go throw away her cup, her legs began to wobble underneath her weight. She felt as if her whole body would evaporate into jelly.

“You okay?” Rhys asked.

“Me? Oh, yeah, I’m great,” Elizabeth said as she struggled back into her seat, “Started a new workout routine, and I already want death to come for me.”

“You’re working out? Do you hate yourself?” Rhys teased.

“I must. I did like a hundred squats yesterday. I thought it was illegal to do more than ten in a day,” Elizabeth said rubbing her thighs. 

“That’s hot,” Rhys laughed, idly swirling his coffee within his cup. His eyes widened as he realized what he had just said. His face reddened as he slapped a hand over his mouth, “I mean it must have been hot in there! The weather!”

Elizabeth cackled as she smacked a hand down on to the table, doubling over with laughter, “Yeah it was pretty hot, Rhys!”

Rhys grinned as he watched her laugh at his own stupidity, “Glad you find it so funny.” Elizabeth wiped her eyes and looked back into his. With him, she felt as if there were no cares in the world. With him, Jack wasn’t real, and her mountains were only molehills.

“Hey, Rhys, you want to go to a party with me on Saturday?” She asked.

“A college party?” He asked with a sly grin.

“Yeah, I know it might be a little lame for a guy your age and I wasn’t going to go, but I feel if we go together it’d be a lot of fun,” Elizabeth said, “Jess invited me and said I could bring whoever I wanted.”

“And you want me?”

“No I want the trash can behind you. Yes, I want you!”

“Let me check my schedule,” Rhys said as he looked at his watch, “I’m going to have to pencil you in. Let’s see, there’s a marathon of Cake Boss at noon which I just can’t miss. And at one I’m ordering a large Domino’s pizza for myself…”

“I guess I’ll just ask Vasquez.”

“I’m just kidding! Yeah, I’m down to go,” Rhys smiled, “Damn, I’m going to really have to tune in to my inner college kid.” Rhys proceeded to shoot her with a series of finger guns, “How’s it going, fellow kids?”

“You’ll fit right in, old man,” Elizabeth teased. She then thought back to that snake Vasquez. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to ask Jack about your promotion. He’s just been out of the office so often and-” Elizabeth started but Rhys cut her off with a wave of his hand.

“Don’t sweat it. I know how weird shit’s been lately,” Rhys said, “I just appreciate you trying.”

From within her pocket, Elizabeth’s phone rang to life. She looked down at the number only to find it was one she did not recognize. She silently excused herself and walked out into the hallway, her short heels rhythmically clicking the floor with each step.

She answered, “Hello?”

Goddamn it’s great to hear your voice again, babe!” Elizabeth’s stomach dropped as she immediately recognized who it was. Why did he have to ruin every good moment?

“Jack, how-” Elizabeth hesitated. She needed to be careful with her words, “How are you doing?”

“Just peachy, sweetheart,” He said hurriedly, “Now come outside, we need to talk.”

“Talk?” Elizabeth asked as she looked out the lobby window. Sitting idle at the curb was a white limo that she assumed was waiting for her.  

“Yes, talk. Please tell me you didn’t get stupider in the few days I was gone. Come on, I don’t have all day.”

All the awful feelings Elizabeth had felt these past few weeks came flooding back into her as Jack continued to berate her. She tightened her grip on her phone until she felt a slight crack. “I’m coming,” Elizabeth seethed.

“That’s my girl.” And with a click he was gone.

Elizabeth looked back into the break room to meet Rhys’ gaze. He gave her a soft smile, “Duty calls?”

She nodded sadly, “Something like that. I’ll text you the details for Saturday.”

He nodded, “Can’t wait.”

As she made her way through the lobby, every step she took leading back to Jack felt heavier and heavier. It could have been the deadlifts Brick had made her do the night before, but this weight was different. This heaviness bogged down her mind. It felt as if he had reattached his claws into her back and was dragging her down into the depths of hell. But she had to remember that this time was different. This time she had the upper hand. The disposable cell phone she kept hidden within her purse was a helpful reminder of that.

Elizabeth made her way outside toward the limo. An impressed whistle escaped her lips as she looked over the ride.

Suddenly, she felt a pressure on her upper arms. She whipped around to see a man pushing her forward. When she turned back around there was another man opening the car door. She was then thrown forcefully into the car, her face hitting the leather seat. They slammed the door shut and she was locked inside.

“I can open doors, you assholes!” She called after them as she attempted to regain her balance. She jerked backwards into the seat as the car began to move.

“Language, pumpkin; you know how much I hate hearing that mouth use dirty words,” Jack said sitting spread eagle on the seat opposite of her. He still looked as good as ever, albeit slightly less put together. Instead of his usual suit, he was rocking a yellow sweater and some jeans. Within his long fingers he held a glass of liquor. Elizabeth was suddenly hyper-aware of his scrutinizing gaze. She waved a loose strand of hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear.

“Been a while, how you been, Lizzy girl?” Jack asked taking a sip of his drink.

She felt daring, “Good, actually; been really peaceful around here.”

“Good to hear, I’m so glad you could benefit from my bad luck. I’m sure you’re even happier now that I’m back and ready to make your life a living hell again,” Jack said, a smirk twisting his lips. The smirk quickly dropped, “Thanks for coming to see me, by the way.”

“…Didn’t think you’d want visitors, especially not me,” She said.

“I’m sure that’s what you thought, kiddo. You know, you’re a shitty liar,” Jack said leaning over to grab a bottle of liquor sitting on the arm rest. He grabbed another glass from an overhead compartment and filled it with the brown stuff. He handed it to Elizabeth who took it hesitantly. 

She sipped at the drink and immediately gagged, “What the hell is this? It tastes like pure fuel!”

“I don’t know what you’re drinking. It looks like shit. I’m enjoying a nice Coke,” Jack said as he gulped back his drink. He let out a quenched sigh.

“What do you want, Jack? You’ve got me here so please say what you need to say,” Elizabeth demanded in a voice that surprised her. It was a lot stronger than she felt.

“I’m hurt. You think there’s something I want? Maybe I just wanted to talk with my best pal cause I haven’t seen her sorry in ass in a few days. Thought that maybe she’d want the same thing, but I guess I was wrong,” Jack shook his head disappointedly, “All business and no play makes Lizzy a dull girl.” 

She wanted to scream. He had no right to act like everything was normal. She was tempted to finally confront him about that night-- about that kiss-- but with nowhere to run in their confined space, she decided against it. 

Subconsciously, Elizabeth began picking away at her nails refusing to look Jack in the eye. She felt a sting as a hangnail formed. She looked down at her fidgeting fingers to see a prick of blood. “…How’s your shoulder?” She asked finally.

“Don’t act like you care. You made your point very clear when you fled the coop like your ass was on fire,” Jack said staring out the window.

Elizabeth rubbed her arm uncomfortably; an embarrassed pink flushing her cheeks. “I-uh…I’m sorry,” She muttered then with a quick shake of her head she loudly proclaimed, “No, I’m not! You kissed me, Jack! How in the hell did you think that was okay?”

He gave her a bewildered look then chuckled, “Don’t mean to rain on your parade, pumpkin, but you kissed me.” Elizabeth blinked trying to connect his words together.

“Hell, you were all over me, you were like an animal!” Jack laughed.

Elizabeth looked at him dumbfounded, her mouth hanging agape. All she could muster was a perplexed, “Huh?”

“I won’t lie and say it wasn’t hot, but kissing a man right after his girlfriend just got her head blown to bits is pretty damn crazy. Didn’t know you were such a little psycho,” Jack said running a hand through his salt and pepper locks, “I’ll forgive you this one time and blame it on the adrenaline pumping through your girly parts. Just couldn’t help yourself, could you, kiddo?” Jack smirked, his smile taunting her.     

At that moment, she was anger incarnate. Her fingernails dug deep into her knees, specks of blood coating her pants. She wanted to scream, wanted to dig her fingers into his throat, but the disposable phone weighing down her purse made her pause. She could burst into a fury, but that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? He wanted a reaction.

She’d be damned if she’d give him any more of her than what he already had. So, she’d wait. She’d wait until the day she could finally say, “I won.”

She filled her lungs with a breath that wracked her whole body. “Oh, yeah, that must have been it. That was wrong of me,” She said looking him square in the eye, “I’m sorry.”

His eyebrows pulled together in confusion, but his façade quickly reappeared, “Don’t sweat it, babe.”

An awkward silence settled between them.

Jack cleared his throat breaking it.

“Funny thing, though. That’s kind of what I’m here for,” He said.

She waited for him to explain.

“As Pandora’s fearless leader and an all-around amazing guy, I need someone by my side; someone who really connects with the public, someone…” He paused to think of the right word, “non-threatening. So, I have a proposition for you.” He regarded his words, “Eh, more like a demand. You’re not really in a position to refuse.”

“…What are you saying, Jack?” Elizabeth asked cautiously.

“I’ll cut to the chase. I need a girlfriend. And since my most recent girlfriend is currently being scrubbed off the floors of the banquet hall, I’m going to need a replacement,” Jack said as the limo pulled up to a drive-thru. “You want a burger? I’m buying,” He said rolling down the window, “What am I saying? Of course I’m buying, I’ve see your bank account.”

“You need a girlfriend? What, you want me to help you find one?”

“Jesus Christ, you are dumb. No, stupid, I’m saying you’re my replacement. God, you can be dense. You want a burger or not?”  

She slammed her fist down on to the car seat, “What!”

He put his hands up defensively, “Strictly to help me relate to my people. You know the type; the lower class you’re so used to hanging around.”

He turned to the lady at the window asking for his order, “Yeah, I’ll take two burgers and a large fry; unsalted. If I find one grain of salt on my fries, I’ll have this place shut down and you out on the street by five.” The worker struggled to smile as she rang up his order.               

He turned back to Elizabeth who was glaring him down, “Come on, pumpkin. You can’t deny the chemistry we got.”

“I thought what we had was hatred.”

“Love, hate, same thing.”

“Look, Jack, you don’t need a girlfriend and you certainly don’t need me! Remember how you said you’ve always had somebody in your ear telling you what to do. You don’t have that anymore, so maybe it’s time you were that person,” Elizabeth pleaded, “Jack, it’s okay to be alone.”

They pulled up to the second window, Elizabeth’s words hanging in the air as the worker handed Jack the bag of food. Once they were settled, he threw her a hamburger; a pickle landing on her pants.

“I don’t give a shit about any of that. I need someone to make appearances, kiss babies and all that other horseshit. People admire a leader more when there’s arm candy at his side,” Jack said through a mouthful of burger, “Look it up, it’s proven.”

“Okay, so then why the hell does it have to be me? There are hundreds of girls who would cut their own arm off to be Handsome Jack’s girlfriend,” Elizabeth asked.

He looked taken aback. He let out a passive chuckle. “Because I trust you, Lizzy,” Jack said as if she should have already known. His sudden honesty startled Elizabeth. She lowered her head slightly as a tiny bit of shame burned her cheeks.

“That night-- it really sucked-- like really sucked; definitely top ten worst nights of my life. And there were times where I wanted to smack the ever-living shit out of you-” Jack began then sighed, “but I’d be a real idiot to ignore just how many times you saved my ass. Now that Nish is gone, you’re probably the closest thing I’ve got to-- I don’t know. Call it what you want, but for now, I’m calling you my girlfriend.”

“…And you really think I’m the best person for that?”  

“Of course you are! I’ve already nailed the hard-ass approach. This time around we’ll try something more subtle. If anybody can touch my pathetic, pussy side, it’s you, babe.”

“…Thanks. So, all I have to do is make you seem likeable?”

“Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”

“And it’s just for the public?”

“Yep, it’s all for show-- with included benefits,” Jack said giving her a wink.

“Won’t it look pretty skeevy; you dating a college girl?”

“How old do you think I am?” Jack asked, hostility growing in his voice.

She thought carefully, “…At least twenty-five.”

“Good answer.”    

She must have been crazy, and at this point she definitely was, but the thought of being Jack’s stand-in girlfriend didn’t seem all that awful. It was definitely a step-up from being Jack’s personal dancing monkey. The title would, without a doubt, force her into the limelight, but who would want to mess with the girlfriend of the most powerful man in Pandora? She wondered for a second if that was what Nisha thought as well.

She couldn’t believe she was saying this, “Yeah, okay. Let’s date, Jack.”

“Hell yeah, that’s what I like to hear. Up top, girlfriend,” Jack said setting her up for a high five. She returned it.

“Now, for my first act as your boyfriend, I’m going to promote both your folks to my accounting division,” Jack said jumping from his seat to hers; his smell engulfing her immediately. He threw a hand around her shoulders while the other rested on her thigh, “So, mommy and daddy won’t have to do all that hard labor anymore and will finally get a paycheck they can be proud of.”

Her eyes widened at his words. Her mouth trembled as she tried to formulate any cohesive word. 

“Jack, holy-” She started. He put a finger up to her lips before she could utter another syllable.

“What kind of boyfriend would I be if I let my girlfriend’s parents live in squalor?” He said. There were no words. She wanted to be cautious and cynical, but the thought of her parents finally getting their due overshadowed any hesitations she had. So, she just smiled back at him, “Thanks, Jack.”

“My second act is going to be a bit of surprise, so you’ll have to bear with me for just a bit longer, babe,” Jack said. His finger found its way to her cheek and gently caressed it down toward her chin. With a single finger he tilted her chin up toward him, exposing her shock for him to plainly see. He didn’t hide his obvious fixation on her lips.

“Are you going to hurt me again if I kiss you?” He asked.

“…Maybe. There’s only one way to find out,” Elizabeth said trying to sound seductive, but a crack in her voice betrayed her. She hated the way he was able to control her like this, but some part of her loved every bit of it.

He smirked, “Let’s save it for the cameras, babe.”

Chapter Text

Dollface <3

Seriously you need to hook me up with this Angel chick

She is the cutest girl I’ve ever seen

Except for you boo of course

But please do me this solid Lizzy!

Delivered 1:35 p.m.

Elizabeth smiled as she read over Jess’ texts, the limo making its way toward Jack’s destination of choice. Wherever that may be, she wasn’t so sure, but if this surprise was anything like the bomb he had just dropped on her then she was actually looking forward to it. To know her parents would never have to work another day of hard labor in their life was something she couldn’t wrap her head around. Maybe Jack wouldn’t be such a terrible “make-believe” boyfriend after all.

“Who’s that?” Jack asked looking over her shoulder. Elizabeth quickly clicked off the messages.

She shrugged nonchalantly, “No one.”

His eyes burned through her. Then his features lightened into something that wasn’t quite a smile. He wrapped his hand around her wrist; each finger locking into place.

“We’re dating now, Lizzy,” Jack said, his tone darkening, “And that means no secrets.” He leaned into her face, his grip on her wrist tightening as she tried to pull herself away.

With his teeth bared he asked plainly, “Got it?”

She reluctantly nodded, afraid of the look in his eye.

“Good, now who is it?” He asked again.

“A friend— her name’s Jessica,” Elizabeth answered meekly.

“That wasn’t so hard. Was it, pumpkin?” Jack said relaxing back into his seat. Well, she might not have been the sole target of his torment anymore, but he was still a huge dick.

“I’m going to need total transparency from you if we’re gonna make this work, babe,” Jack said patting the back of her hand before finally letting it go. She rubbed her wrist gingerly.

“We’re going to do big things, you and me, I feel it. You’ll be the Porcia to my Brutus.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, “Jack, Porcia and Brutus both died by suicide.”

“Hey, no couple’s perfect.”

With a huff, Elizabeth scooted away from Jack to glare out the window where she was met with a familiar sight. She knew this area well—too well.

“Jack, this place—where are we going?” Elizabeth asked. 

“Depends, Lizzy girl, where do you think we’re going?” Jack smirked.

“Kind of scared to ask, honestly,” Elizabeth chuckled nervously.

Dread filled her as they continued on down the block until her worst fears were met. They came to a screeching halt directly in front of her ex’s apartment complex.

She stared at the front door; the same chipped door she had entered many times before. She could still picture her trek up to the third floor where she would watch Derrick play video games for hours on end. She wondered how much time she had wasted on him.

“Jack what the hell are we doing here?” She demanded.

“I just thought it was high time somebody taught this young man how to treat women,” Jack said leaning over Elizabeth to open the car door, “After you, honey bunch.”

“Holy shit, you cannot be serious!” Elizabeth yelled pulling at Jack’s sweater sleeve, “Jack, tell me you’re joking!” He smirked as he pushed past her stepping out of the limo.

She watched him as he walked to the back of the limo to pop the trunk. When he returned, within his grasp was a silver baseball bat. She could see the stains of past victims shine crimson in the sun. Her eyes widened staring at the weapon.

“Jack, you’re not going to use that on him, are you?” She asked cautiously.

He let out a loud laugh, “What do you think I am, babe, some kind of an animal?” He twirled the intimidating bat within his hands, solidifying his grip on it, “We’re gonna beat the shit out of his car.”

Her jaw dropped as she pointed a shaky finger at the bat, “Wha-”

“If you’re going to be my girlfriend, you’re gonna have to toughen up,” Jack said giving the bat a warmup swing, “None of this 'I’m so weak and pathetic’ crap. Jack doesn’t date weak women, and that means you’re going to smash the hell of out this guy’s headlights.”

“Jack, what the hell are you talking about? I am so weak and pathetic! This isn’t me!” Elizabeth pleaded.

“Not yet it isn’t. This is my twelve step program to turning you into a badass. No need to thank me, the look on your face is thanks enough.”

Before she could utter another word, he was dragging her toward the car garage behind the complex. She couldn’t help but wonder how in the hell he even found this place. Actually, she didn’t have to question it. She knew Jack had more information on her in his back pocket than she would ever know about herself. 

“Remember what he drives?” Jack asked resting the bat over his shoulder.

“You mean you don’t already know? It’s a black Prius.”

Jack wrinkled his nose in disgust, “Ugh, what a douchebag.”

“That’s something we can agree on.”

Elizabeth took a quick look around the garage and sure enough, there in the corner was the spotless Prius. She could remember all the times Derrick had made her clean her shoes before letting her into his car. The memory made her cheeks burn red hot. But she shook away the feeling as she turned back to Jack.

“Jack, let’s just leave. I can’t-” she started but Jack’s hand was quick to cover her mouth.

“For the love of God, I don’t want to hear you say you can’t one more time. If it’s not the satisfying smash of that stupid prick’s car, I don’t want to hear it. Now, you are going to take this damn bat, think about all the shit he put you through, and make him regret messing with a crazy bitch!”

With that, he shoved the bat into her hands and spun her toward the car.

Elizabeth stared at the car. She couldn’t do this. She had the temperament of a bunny with the tenacity of a chipmunk. This bat wasn’t fit to be in her hands.

Then she thought of Derrick, her knuckles tightening as she pictured his stupid, stupid face. She hated his face. She hated his stupid fish lips. She hated the way they would purse whenever he would try to mansplain to her. She hated the way he never looked at her when she talked to him. She hated the way he would blow her off to go get high with his friends. And she especially hated the day he cheated on her—  as if she were the undesirable one!

She could feel the blood in her head boil as it pulsed behind her eyes.

Then another face entered her mind. One that was the tipping point.

Jack. 

With what sounded like the roar of a vengeful tiger, Elizabeth swung the bat down hard on the hood of the Prius creating a loud smash that reverberated off the walls of the garage. The sudden clash of metals stung her cold hands, but her anger overshadowed any pain she felt. She aimed for the windshield next. Then another swing came down on a headlight, spraying glass across the concrete floor. Then another. And another. And another.

Jack’s cheering was overpowered by animalistic grunts and smashed glass.

This went on until the car looked like nothing more than a chewed up piece of gum.

Elizabeth was out of breath by the time she lowered the bat, finally satisfied with her work. Her face was flushed from the exertion and she was panting heavily, but she wasn’t tired. In fact, she was exhilarated. She looked over the wreckage giving the scene a curt nod. 

She turned to Jack and pushed the bat back into his chest.

He looked her over, arousal and fear clouding his monochromatic gaze.

“Damn, baby. Remind me to never piss you off,” Jack whistled.

“Too late,” She said walking out of the garage, her shaky fingers occupying her mouth as she chewed her nails viciously.

“How do you feel?” Jack asked. For a moment, she wondered if he was just trying to provoke her, but the look on his face was genuine.

“Honestly,” She said, “I want more.”

“Getting greedy, are we? Well, there’s plenty more where that came from.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask, but against my better judgment I will anyway. What is that supposed to mean?”

He put a hand on her shoulder and twirled her back toward the direction of the limo.

“No talkie, only walkie.”

“Jack-”

“Hush! We have a train to catch.”

Fridge Overpass 9:20 p.m.

The sun had set against the horizon line creating a portrait of pink and orange. The intensity of the colors popped beautifully against the blackness of the train tracks running beneath the overpass. Jack was leaning against the limousine, his attention drawn to whatever was on his phone. His jaw was set as his thumbs typed frantically.

Elizabeth was throwing pebbles from the overpass. She’d toss one into the air and watch it plummet all the way down to the tracks. She’d let out a bored, “Plop” once it hit the ground.

They had been there for about an hour, and Elizabeth was losing her mind. She felt the urge to text Roland and update him on what she and Jack had been doing, but she refrained after remembering how he reacted earlier.

She began to wonder what Derrick’s face would look like when he saw his car smashed to smithereens. Damn, she’d pay to see it.

She heard Jack chuckle from behind her.

“Done and done,” Jack said sliding his phone into his pocket.

“What are you planning?” She asked sounding a bit more coy than she meant to.

“I’m always planning, baby,” Jack said striding over to her, “Heroes always gotta have a plan.”

With her back pressed against the railing of the overpass, Elizabeth had nowhere to go when Jack approached. He slid a hand around her waist pinning himself to her. She put her hands on the railing trying to escape his grip, but he pressed further. He placed his other hand on the railing and gently squared the front of her body toward the tracks. He rested his head on her shoulder, a satisfied smirk plain on his face. 

He was officially too close for comfort.

Her heart raced as she stared out toward the tracks. He could feel his breath against her cheek. It smelled like stale coffee and Spearmint. Despite the chilly Autumn wind, Jack was radiating a heat that practically burned the back of Elizabeth’s neck.

She wanted to enjoy his embrace, but Roland’s face plagued her thoughts. She almost felt guilty knowing she was eventually going to betray the man. Almost.

“Jack…I wanted to thank you,” She said.

“For what, pumpkin?”

“For…pushing me,” She said.

He remained quiet.

The sound of tires on gravel crunched ominously from down the road. A pair of headlights blinded Elizabeth as a black van pulled up beside them. From out of the driver side came a large, beast-of-a-man with streaks of white in his metallic gray hair. His square mug seemed to be set in a permanent scowl. He reminded Elizabeth of a rabid wolverine. 

Jack clapped happily turning toward the man, “Right on time, Wilhelm, my man!”

Wilhelm gave Jack a curt nod as he made his way toward the back of the van. Elizabeth strained her neck in an attempt to peer around the vehicle as she heard a couple frantic grunts followed by a gruff, “Shut up."

As Wilhelm walked back out from behind the van he produced a struggling form within his grip. Elizabeth squinted trying to make out the dark form. That’s when Wilhelm passed in front of the headlights. Her heart fell to the bottom of her stomach.

“Oh, my God,” Elizabeth choked.

“Let go of me, you giant freak!” Derrick cried as he struggled within Wilhelm’s strong grip on the front of his shirt, but the huge man was unfazed. Derrick’s heels occasionally kissed the ground kicking up dirt as he pounded on Wilhelm’s thick arms.

Wilhelm dropped Derrick on his back at Elizabeth’s feet, and once free, Derrick scrambled to his knees. He looked around frantically at his surroundings until he found Elizabeth. She simply stared back into his fearful eyes.

“Lizzy? What— What’s happening?” Derrick panted, sweat soaking the front of his gray shirt, “Is this some kind of prank?”

She couldn’t speak.

Then with one heart stopping noise, Elizabeth’s wildest fears were made true. The thunderous chug of a train engine sounded through the trees.

Elizabeth was thrust back to reality as Jack pulled her to his side. He sneered down at Derrick as if he were an insect.

“This is it, boy. Your long day’s journey into night! Next stop: the underworld!” Jack cheered as he cupped the side of his mouth, the roar of the train almost drowning him out, “All aboard!” He nodded toward Wilhelm who nodded back. With one arm, Wilhelm scooped Derrick back up and dragged him toward the railing.

Derrick screamed bloody murder as he dangled over the tracks waiting for him at the bottom of the overpass. His legs kicked spastically like a spider hovering above water, struggling for dear life. He reached out for Elizabeth yelling something that couldn’t reach past the static in her ears.

She snapped out of it as her name broke though the fuzz, “Lizzy!”

Her hand shot out to grab a hold of Jack’s arm.

The word ‘stop’ was in her throat when Jack gave Wilhelm a decisive thumbs down.

And Derrick fell all the way down to those tracks.

His last words were drowned out by the chug of the oncoming train; words the world would never know.

Elizabeth flung herself back from the railing, protecting herself from the sight— but not the sound. She screamed as her hands shielded her ears. She stood there for a few excruciating seconds; eyes locked tight. She wanted the blackness to swallow her. Then she felt a hot touch envelope her cold cheeks.

She didn’t want to look at him— didn’t want to acknowledge any of this. Because she knew if she did, it would be real.

Elizabeth’s eyes opened, and she was met with Jack’s face only a few inches from her own. He was almost a blur as her world began to spin. She felt her stomach turn threatening to spill its contents all over the ground.

With a smile and a scorching kiss to the forehead, Jack said, “You’re welcome, babe.”