A/N 16.02.2021: Huge thanks to Sweden's Pride for alerting me to the fact that chapters 5 and 6 didn't upload properly - this should be fixed now. That'll teach me to check every single chapter before I walk off into the sunset. (Thank you also for the lovely review! Really appreciate it, made me smile.)
Rhys volunteered to change the tyre.
Fiona thought it was surprisingly nice of him, until she reasoned it was probably because he had to concentrate and therefore wouldn't have to talk to her. Suited her just fine.
Besides, it gave her the first real opportunity to just... take him in. How long had it been? Almost a year, since Helios fell from the sky in flames? Taking him with it, or so she'd thought. The complete lack of contact from him following the collapse of Hyperion's ugly space station had only served to fuel her gut feeling that he'd died with it.
Nobody had been more surprised than she had been to find out he'd actually survived. A single piece of ECHO-Mail had dropped into the old device of Felix's that she'd managed to get working again not long after they'd arrived back in Hollow Point. Fiona had checked it several times a day, at first. Sasha thought she was being silly and Fiona had found herself checking it less and less as the days, weeks, months went on.
So, when the mail had arrived with a gentle ping, she'd nearly fallen out of her chair. It was brief, a quick message asking her to meet him back at the place where it had all started, where the fateful vault key deal had almost taken place.
Of course, it hadn't actually been him, instead, a trap laid by their mysterious captor and she'd gone and fallen for it because... what? She'd practically tripped over her own feet in her haste to meet him and mostly it was because she wanted to scream at him for ruining her life. For making them think he'd died, not bothering to contact them in any way. Or, at least, that was what she'd told herself and she definitely hadn't felt overwhelming, suffocating relief at the news that he was alive.
"So, are you just gonna... lurk ominously while I change this tyre, or what?"
One brown, one amber and both of them fixed her with a withering stare as he knelt by the flat tyre he was working on.
"Yeah," Fiona shrugged from where she was leaning with her back against the technical, arms folded as she watched him work. "It's only fair, when you used to lurk as I did all the work on the caravan."
"Cool, alright, just so we're clear on that. But could you lurk a bit less ominously?"
"I'm a Vault Hunter now, Rhys. I've gotta be ominous, it's practically in the job description."
"If you're Athena, maybe, though she's less 'ominous' and more straight-up 'holy-shit-we're-dead'," and Fiona couldn't disagree with that, letting out a small noise of agreement. "Zero, though?"
"Nah, they've got the whole 'ominous but like, in a really cool way' thing going on. I think Sasha approved heavily, judging from her stories about your escapades in that death rally, anyway."
"Did she tell you that I used their sword to slice a whole monster dog... thing open? I bet she left that part out, didn't she?"
"Yeah, I haven't heard anything about that. Maybe don't abandon your corporate dreams to become a Vault Hunter. How's that neck-snapping career going, though?"
Rhys huffed and turned back to his tyre. "He had a thick neck, ok?"
They fell silent as Rhys got to work again. Fiona took the opportunity to study him again, as subtly as she could. He'd shed his jacket in the heat and the rolled-up sleeves of the black shirt underneath revealed the robotic arm that was so very different to the one she'd been used to seeing.
Sleek and chrome and a very stark contrast to the heavier, overwhelmingly yellow one he'd had. It was almost as if he'd deliberately gone for something completely different, maybe to separate himself from everything Hyperion, as much as he could, anyway.
His eye, too, though that could hardly be described as yellow when it was was so much more than that and to describe it as yellow would do it a disservice. Warm, bright amber and a much closer colour to that of his natural eye.
Why change the eye, she wondered? If Rhys had wanted to distance himself from Hyperion, the blue colour of the eye she'd been so familiar with would have been much more further removed from Hyperion than the new one. Colour-wise, anyway.
He glanced up, exasperated and there was something very captivating about the amber. Her heart skipped the smallest beat.
"Alright, the lurking I can deal with, but what are you staring at?"
"Your complete inability to change a tyre," Fiona said as smoothly as she could, but she could tell even he thought that was bullshit. He raised a single eyebrow as he stared right back at her.
The old Rhys would have bought into her bullshit, probably shied away from questioning her. Fumbled over some response as he looked away. Certainly wouldn't have held her gaze for as long as he was doing now. It had only been a year. What had happened in that year?
"... Alright," Fiona conceded because the curiosity was winning as she took in this new Rhys fully for the first time since they'd been forcefully reunited. She sank down from where she was standing and sat cross-legged, her back leaning against the rear tyre of the technical, and looked pointedly at his arm. "New arm. Looks expensive."
"You are absolutely not stealing it during the night to sell on the black market," he narrowed his eyes at her, causing her to scoff, "and anyway, it's still a prototype. Got a few bugs to work out, still."
"You built it?" Fiona was stunned as she studied it properly, the sunlight gleaming off the polished, metallic finish of his forearm.
"Yeah!" He lit up suddenly with almost child-like excitement, and here was the Rhys she remembered. He rolled the shirt sleeve of his right arm up further and, to her surprise, shuffled across to where she was sitting. "Atlas tech. Didn't have much available to me at the time, but, I did find a top-of-the-range microprocessor just lying around at the facility, I mean, who leaves those lying around?! And it was kinda not that different from the Hyperion one so I did have a head-start, but, oh man, Fiona, the range of stuff this one can do compared to the last one, and..."
Fiona leaned forward to get a better look. She knew literally nothing about the sort of technology that went into building a whole limb, but had to admit she was impressed. She looked up at Rhys' face as he very animatedly talked about his accomplishments, pointing out different parts of the arm as he explained about the different components, and couldn't hide a smile. One of the most endearing things about Rhys during their journey to find the vault had been his boundless enthusiasm whenever he found a computer or piece of technology he could hack away at.
"You're impressed, aren't you? C'mon Fiona, you're impressed," and he grinned at her, the most genuine thing she'd seen from him since the start of this new, strange journey they were being forced along. And goddamn if it wasn't contagious as hell and she found herself grinning back as a warmth spread from her chest right into the tips of her fingers.
Bloody hell. She was supposed to be mad at him!
Stupid Rhys and his infectious smile and his stupid, wonderful energy and the stupid socks he was probably wearing underneath the stupid corporate boots.
"I... am impressed!" Fiona tilted her head at him in a gesture of respect. "Seriously, Rhys, that's... that is badass."
"A compliment? From you?" Rhys held his left hand to his chest in mock shock, prompting Fiona to throw her hat at him. He caught it, laughing, and gave it a long look. "I, uhh, like the new hat. The new, um, well, everything," he gestured at her whole outfit, "it, uhh, it's- it suits you."
Fiona wasn't sure whether it was the sun that had caused him to go slightly pink as he couldn't quite meet her eyes, or something else, as he unknowingly reverted back to the more awkward Rhys of the past. She felt the warmth again in her chest.
"Made it all myself," she preened - her time to show off. Alright, it wasn't a new mechanical arm that she'd built from scrap materials, but it had taken her a while to make. And now it was getting all dusty in the desert.
"That is badass, Fiona."
She snorted as she took the hat back from him and replaced it on her head. "Well, I'm gonna sleep better tonight with that knowledge. C'mon, better get on with that tyre. That guy's gonna get antsy if we take too long."
"Yeah..." Rhys glanced behind her to where the mysterious figure stood in the distance, before shuffling back over to the tyre, and Fiona found herself missing the close proximity.
The other, human arm hadn't escaped her attention. She'd not missed the blue tattoos that underlined his collarbone, but the apparent rest of the tattoo had been hidden underneath his jacket. She traced the shapes with her eyes as he worked, following them down to where the tattoo ended at his wrist.
With them all having lived together in such close proximity while they'd travelled to find Gortys upgrades in the caravan, it had been inevitable that the odd embarrassing incident or two would happen. Long story short, Fiona had accidentally come into close proximity with Rhys, while she'd fumbled around to try to fix the sudden hot water issue they'd had, as he'd been wearing only the fluffiest towel the caravan had to offer.
The towel and, hilariously, those god-awful socks.
Anyway, Fiona was pretty convinced she would have seen that tattoo as they'd awkwardly danced around each other, both blushing furiously while Rhys had made as much noise as possible to try to drown out some of the painful embarrassment.
So, it was new. A statement?
She wondered how much was still hidden beneath the shirt.
Fiona furiously quashed those kind of thoughts before her mind could stray too far into thoughts of tracing it all with her finger.
She tore her gaze away and stared off into the barren distance. This was the guy who had been responsible for her and Sasha's lives turning to hell. The aftermath of the Helios crash had been... difficult, to say the least and, despite the ever-present hope that he'd survived, the anger had steadily grown over the year, as they'd struggled to patch up their lives.
And yet, so much of that anger had already melted away. He'd been dragged back into her life, layered in black and amber and god, how it suited him, now he'd apparently shed Hyperion and the catalogue cut-out Hyperion look for good. This was all his own. And, he looked good. He looked very good.
She'd never actually tell him that, of course.
This Rhys was different to the one she'd known months ago. More confident, for one. More able to hold his own in their bickering, more assured, quick to call her out on her bullshit while she embellished her stories a little. She'd hoped that, if they were to ever meet again, they could just go back to how it had been during their journey to find the vault. Silly, given everything that had gone on a year ago, but Fiona had missed their friendly banter in the last year, in amongst the conflicting feelings.
But, the Rhys she'd known was still there. It had been a year, and Fiona acknowledged that she'd probably changed in that time, too. Different... but not in a bad way.
"Alright," Rhys sighed as he set his wrench down, "I'm done."
"Don't let him know just yet," Fiona nodded towards their captor, who'd apparently been standing guard while Rhys had worked, gun aimed toward the horizon. "I'm tired of talking so much. Nice to just have a few minutes' break."
"Yeah, I feel that," Rhys chuckled as he shifted to lean his back against the technical. "Who knew you could talk your saliva dry?"
"Makes a change from drooling it all over my jacket," Fiona smirked at him, prompting a scowl in her direction.
A few moments of comfortable silence passed as they both stared into the distance, watching some of the desert dust kick up in the breeze. It was oddly peaceful, for Pandora. Apparently they were in a particularly sparsely-populated part of the desert and it was a nice change from the usual constant threat from something, anything, around here.
Well, other than the strange man who constantly pointed a shotgun in their direction. That was quite tame, for Pandora.
"We'll be ok after all this. Whatever this is." He gently tapped her ankle with his expensive-looking booted foot and she looked to him to find him smiling gently at her. Why was her mouth suddenly dry?
"Never doubted it for a second," she countered confidently, also smiling. "I don't know what this guy's game is, but we've survived worse."
"Yeah." His smile faded and he looked back to the horizon. "There's... still a lot of talking to do. Just- I guess... there's gonna be some... unpleasant stuff. And, well, there's stuff I regret. I just... I hope that we'll be ok, Fiona."
It was a relief to hear it from him. She gently tapped his ankle back, eyeing up the fashionable boot attached to his foot.
"A lot of shit went down. I guess some stuff is still gonna hurt. But... there's no reason we can't come out of the other end of this," she said fairly, desperately hoping that last part was true.
"Was kinda hoping you were gonna say that," and she was rewarded with another gentle smile that was so achingly similar to the one he'd given her at that old Atlas facility so long ago.
"Yeah. But Rhys, there is something I have to ask, something very important," she said, tone serious, and he turned to face her, suddenly wary.
"... Uhh... A-alright, I can handle this... Hit me."
"... Do you still have those awful socks on under those boots?"
Rhys stared at her for a whole beat, wide-eyed, before he let out a loud laugh and all the tension melted out of him.
"Hey, I know Hyperion was awful, but they did one thing right and that was those socks. The craftmanship, Fiona, the colours-"
"You still have them, don't you?"
"You're literally wearing them right now, aren't you?"
"I am not, as it happens. If there's anything Atlas can do better than Hyperion, apart from literally everything-" and Fiona became alarmed as he pulled his left foot toward him and began unfastening the boot.
"Oh, Rhys no-"
"I mean, fashion is very subjective, but these-"
"Leave the boot on, Rhys. Leave. The boot-"
"I don't deserve this. The bones of the skags and bandits littering this landscape don't deserve this-"
"Socks," and he pulled the boot off with a flourish to reveal perhaps the most hideous socks Fiona had ever laid eyes on. To his credit, the amber and black colours did go with the rest of the get-up, but the pattern was so swirly and psychedelic it made her eyes hurt. And, were those tiny glowing mushrooms patterned across the whole foot?
Fiona suddenly felt lighter than she had done in months. A giggle bubbled its way up her throat.
She let out a loud noise of protest and dramatically covered her eyes with her hand. "Are you trying to hypnotise people with those things or what?!"
"Oh, Fiona, your distinct lack of fashion sense is tragic and frankly, disappointing." He narrowed his eyes in pretend disapproval.
"Oh hey, show that guy! Maybe you can wave your feet in his face and convince him to let us go."
"He'd be too busy admiring my exquisite taste in foot fashion to even think about- aaaand, he's coming this way."
"Crap!" Fiona leapt to her feet as the stranger walked back toward their position and felt a weird, sudden desire to hide her face, which was oddly warm. The mysterious man stopped just short of them and stared at Rhys as he hopped awkwardly on one foot, trying to get the boot back on. Fiona had to work to hold back a snort.
"That's an odd way to change a tyre," the man commented dryly and Fiona smirked across at Rhys as he scowled. "Let's move, we have a lot of work to do."
"Can you drive?" Rhys asked her quietly as they headed for the vehicle, "I... have sand in my boot."
"You only have your alarming enthusiasm for socks to blame for that," Fiona said dryly, but she took the driver's seat anyway.