Things can go to shit awfully fucking fast. She knows this. She knows from experience. The first time things went to shit--the first time, and the time that started a long, long string of other times, because that’s also how things work--she was barely old enough to remember. Noise, light, chaos. A little like being born. Being born, she’ll reflect later, is really the first and penultimate time where things go completely to shit.
And then there’s the last time. Last for one person. For everyone else, everyone left, it’s always a lot more complicated.
She’ll try to not be angry. She’ll drown the anger in other things. Adrenaline, terror. Exhaustion. Whatever’s to hand. In the end, she’ll let some of the anger through, because though it isn’t his fault, though it can’t possibly make any difference to him now, the anger can help keep her going.
And the anger is drowning something yet other. If it weren’t for the anger, she would collapse in a boneless heap, and scream, and never, ever stop.
No, he thinks. It’s the first thing he can think at all, denial of everything, denial of the light beating against his retinas and the agony tearing at the edges of his nerves. Not fully felt yet. Soon. He’s been here before, but it’s never been this bad, and when it’s this bad every fiber of the body wants to deny it. It seems beyond belief. Easier to not process, to retreat into darkness.
But her. But Alyx. But no.
He turns in the rubble, or tries to, hands scrabbling weakly against broken cinderblock and concrete. For a hysterical moment he thinks of newborns struggling in afterbirth, birds fighting their way out of eggs. His glasses are gone. There might be blood running into his eyes. He might want to laugh. He’s been through hell after hell, fought his way past gods and demons, been called a messiah, drifted, uncaged, in and out of space and time. And now all it ends up taking is the right bomb in the right place at the right time, and there’s no Man in Black, no chanting Vortigaunts, no one. Pain and blood and too much light.
Gordon fucking Freeman. Sick grin pulling at his mouth. You went and bought your own hype.
They’re supposed to be linked now, through the Vortessence, or so he was told, but he can’t feel her; before, he thinks, maybe he’s tricked himself into believing that he can. So maybe that was all a lie too, maybe all of this was, and he should be used to it by now, the feeling of being a game piece on a very large and complex board, but...
The HEV suit creaks as he tries to move. Grinds. Damaged. Like the rest of him. He drops limp onto his back, everything going slack. The world around him is a mad blur, faintly shifting, but overhead, though the pluming dust and smoke, he can see shreds of a mockingly blue sky.
In the distance, the thump and wail of the striders.
Life on the run. She’s used to that, comfortable, even, but now it’s taken on a flavor that she can’t get used to. Can’t incorporate into the whole. She huddles in ruins, in makeshift bases, and this isn’t like the death of her father, not at all, because that was a tragedy that also felt like sacrifice. Like horror that worked toward an end. The end remained intact. The death of Eli Vance had not meant the death of resistance. It had not meant the death of hope.
Winter now, and they’re slowly being pushed further north as the forces in the south reconstitute. Leaning against a shattered wall, surrounded by the breathing forms of men and women, she bundles her coat around her and tries to steal an hour or two of fractured sleep. But sleep doesn’t come. Leaders never sleep easy, she’s heard. She never realized that this might mean that all leaders are insane.
Faith, she reflects, is like many things: you don’t realize how much you needed it until it’s gone. You don’t realize how strong it was until it’s dead.
You don’t realize how much you love it until you have to be the one to put it down.
He does feel her. It comes over him all at once, and he remembers the beach, the ocean, long ago and far away in another world, another life. He remembers lying in the shallows of a rock pool, water sun-warmed, feeling it surge around him and buoy him up. It’s like that now, and he uncurls into it, reaching for her with his being if he can’t reach with his hands.
Something is very wrong.
Hands on him, turning him over, and now he feels the awful lopsidedness of his own body. Blue sky again, too much light in his eyes; some of the dust must have subsided, the smoke died down. He coughs and it’s like barbed wire in his throat. He tries to speak but words get stuck behind that wire, trapped behind enemy lines.
“Oh, God.” Disbelief, and that familiar denial, in her voice if not in her words. He feels a pang of sympathy. Yes, I know. “Gordon...”
She touches his face, cradles his cheek in her hand. That sense of wrongness grows, pervades everything. More than destruction of the flesh. There’s something wrong inside him. “I’m going to try to get you out of here.”
He can’t speak, no, but when she hooks her hands under his arms and pulls, when she starts to move him, the cry rips its way out of his mouth, echoing through the ruined building, and it sounds like the striders’ wail. The world blurs out for a while, but before it does, as his body slides free of the rubble, he looks down at where his left leg should be and catches a glimpse of where it isn’t, raggedly torn flesh and too much blood, bone showing white through the red, then air, nothing, darkness.
They come to her because they want her to explain it to them, because they seem to feel that no one else can, and she doesn’t blame them for feeling that way, but she thinks she might hate them for it. They won’t let her forget. They won’t let her deny. Faced with the collapse of the closest thing that anyone now has to a religion, they demand to know what they are to believe in. And she can’t say nothing, nothing, because they have to keep fighting; she feels this in her very marrow, though she can no longer say why.
She never bought the messiah thing--this is what she likes to tell herself. That she could go on without him. That the loss of him would not be the loss of everything. There are lies, she thinks, that you only realize once they’re no longer sustainable. In the very fact of their collapse, they’re revealed. This is horribly unfair. Huddled around campfires, listening to the deep-earth thump of the striders and the scream of the gunships, the crackle of a thousand Transhuman voices outside, she tries to explain what they have to do.
The lie she’s told herself has collapsed. Now she can’t escape the feeling that she’s only telling a new one.
He’s cold. This is not so strange in itself; everywhere is cold so much of the time now, the sun distant and thin, and now the sun is fading, the light dying, and he’s sure that it’s not just the failing of his own eyes. Night is coming. He hasn’t been afraid of the dark since he was a boy, not even when the imagined monsters of his childhood had been traded, in adulthood, for very real and very lethal creatures, but now he shivers away from it, trying to feel for Alyx with hands that no longer seem to want to obey him. There’s scrubby grass against his cheek. The stalks bend against his skin but it hurts.
“Gordon?” She’s turning him, kneeling beside him; it’s like she’s materialized out of thin air--which could happen, he supposes with thin humor. He can feel the warmth of her, a bright little thermal star in all this cold space. “Can you--? God. I don’t want them to find us, but I think I’ve gotta risk a fire...”
Fire. Warmth. He wants to tell her that he thinks this is a good plan, that he supports it, but he can only manage something that might or might not be a nod, that she might or might not even see. He feels her leave him, that warm star receding into the dark. Under the cold, he feels pressure, as though something is pressing against the inside of his skin, trying to push it off his frame.
He tries to think. If these are the last moment of his life, he doesn’t want to spend them in a state of idiocy.
What was in that fucking bomb?
The world doesn’t darken or go gray; it simply blanks out for a while, and when color and dim light filter back in through the blankness, there’s a little more heat and a soft crackling, and she’s there again. Turning him toward the fire. He feels horribly unbalanced; it takes him another minute or two to remember the leg.
Like she can hear his thoughts, she says, “I got a tourniquet on it. But it’s not gonna do much for long.” Her voice is thick, choked. He wonders if she’s crying. She’s leaning over him and he tries to see, but the brighter firelight throws her face into deeper shadow. “I’m sorry, Gordon. I don’t know what the fuck to do.”
So don’t do anything. You’re always so focused on doing things. But he’s always been the same. It’s what got them here, though this wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a routine recon mission, and it’s what brought the bombs down on them, tore his leg off, turned his insides into something dark and wrong.
Maybe Breen hadn’t been so wrong about that. Maybe people close to him just suffer. Except... He tries to lift a hand and he just about succeeds, brushing a fingertip against her cheek before his wrist goes slack again. She seems all right. Somehow, she seems all right.
Just at the moment, he’s not entirely startled to discover, that’s the most important thing to him.
“I think that bomb was dirty.” She’s pulling at the hem of her shirt; a tearing sound and the touch of damp fabric on the side of his face. “The cellar contained most of the blast... might be why I seem okay. But you were--” Her voice goes thick and choked again, but this time it’s cold rage. “They were going after you. Fuck, they...” She trails off again, shakes her head. He looks up at her, his vision suddenly and bizarrely clear, maybe the clearest it’s ever been since he started needing the glasses at a gangly fourteen. She was crying. She’s not now. She’s looking back at him with something in her eyes that he hasn’t seen there since Eli died. The kind of despair that ends worlds.
Neither of them will say what they’re now looking in the face. She won’t. He can’t. It comes to the same.
Out of nowhere, perhaps the same nowhere that’s given him that odd clarity of vision, coughing seizes him and wracks him until agony pierces his muscles like rusty screws. He wants to cry out again but his throat is too raw. Whatever the bomb had carried with it as non-explosive payload, it’s getting worse, eating into him, making every breath tear at his lungs, the very air become an instrument of torture. The coughing lets him go gradually, but he’s shivering again, even as she leans forward and tries to cover him with her own body, moving them closer to the fire.
They’re miles from anywhere. There’s Combine all around, in the shadows, the dark places which now constitute most of the world. There’s no way to get word to anyone. There’s no way to get home.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this, he thinks. But how was it supposed to end? How many times has he cheated death? And he hasn’t cheated pain, and in that respect this is nothing new. It’s ending, is what matters. The sooner they both accept that, the better.
No messiah. No One Free Man. And even if he was a messiah, even if he is, that story ends only one way.
She holds him--he doesn’t know for how long--and at last he gathers up the strength to fumble for her gun, close his hand around the grip, tug at it. She pulls back, half confused in hard shadow. She looks at him, down at his hand, shakes her head. He can’t speak, but Alyx is her father’s daughter, and she doesn’t miss a thing, and she knows what he’s asking for.
“I can’t do that,” she whispers, her voice barely audible over the crackling of the fire and the roaring in his ears. “I can’t. Don’t ask me to.”
He feels a wave of frustration. Alyx never gives up, not even when it might be in her own best interests to do so, and he loves that, because it’s kept her fighting, but now he doesn’t want to fight about this. The truth is, he’s tired of fighting. The truth is, fighting is all he can clearly remember doing.
And now she’s going to have to keep fighting alone.
Please, he wants to say. Please, it hurts. Because it does, and it’s going to keep on hurting until at last it doesn’t anymore, but before then there might be hours of hurt, and if they stay here they’ll be found, and if she tries to leave with him it’ll hamper her movements and it won’t be long before they catch her. And if she leaves him alive here, and they find him soon enough... He doesn’t even want to think about that. Not with the things he’s seen.
He grips her hand, looks at the gun, at her, her face blurring out again and wavering in the firelight as the clarity leaves him. Please. She shakes her head but he nods, and he manages to find some force from some remaining pocket in himself, inject it into the movement. Who knows. It’s a big universe, and it’s only one of many. This might not even be the end. You need to go. Alyx, you need to go now.
He never talked much, not to her. There had always seemed to be a shortage of things to say. Now he feels like he can’t say enough, and he can’t find the voice to get any of it to her ears. I wish things had been different. I wish we’d just had more time. I wish I hadn’t been the one in the test chamber that day...
But then I might never have met you.
Now she’s crying, he’s sure. She can’t cry, she has to see clearly to do this, and her hands can’t shake. She is shaking, trembling with the force of something beating against the inside of her; Alyx can be a contained storm, he knows, a hurricane in a bottle, passion and violence. It can be beautiful and it can be terrible, and right now it’s both. It hurts him worse than almost anything else.
He touches her hand and she stills. It’s as though her trembling bleeds through her skin and into him; he shivers more violently than he yet has, and the pain and the weariness are close to torture. Now.
She presses her lips against his forehead and again he thinks of that beach, the rock pool, the touch of the sun.
If the Vortigaunts are right, everything is linked. Every boundary, every border, every transitory line is only an illusion. Everything is alive. Everything is true. He’s staring into her eyes as she presses the barrel of the gun against his temple. Then he isn’t staring at anything at all.
She is not the first person in this situation. She thinks back to those left behind in the demise of a figurehead, a leader, a symbol of whatever’s fought for. She thinks about what it takes to pick up the pieces. Others have. Others have emerged stronger, more centered, more bent on whatever it is they want. And were they lying to themselves? How did they do it? There are leaders, and there is insanity, and she keeps coming back to that same supposed link between the two. But she can’t be insane. Insanity might be preferable to this, a reality so cold and hard and lonely that it leaves bruises on her heart.
She picks up the pieces of herself. She doesn’t put them back together again but instead carries them, heavy in her arms, heavy like Gordon’s body, heavy like the memory of what he had silently begged her to do. Heavy like the knowledge that it was the right thing to do.
Killed her hope. Now she has to make her own from scratch. She doesn’t know if she can. But she thinks about him in the lonely places, and she feels a little less lonely. This might be another lie. It might be a bleeding across boundaries, what the Vortigaunts would call perceiving the Vortessence. Whatever it is, she takes it and holds it and is grateful. It might not last.
Things can go to shit awfully fucking fast. And you have to figure out where to go from there. Away from the fire, now bigger, consuming what she couldn’t bury. Into the night.
On the horizon, so distant that it seems to have next to nothing to do with her, dawn is breaking.