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If I Could

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Eager to relax after a long afternoon spent tinkering with White Forest’s notoriously finicky alarm system, Alyx Vance entered the base’s dining hall, carefully balancing a bowl of headcrab soup and a full cup of coffee on a flimsy tray.

She scanned the large, crowded room in search of a place to sit, and was relieved to meet the eyes of a somewhat distressed Barney Calhoun, who appeared to be trapped at a corner table, helplessly observing a heated debate between Drs. Kleiner and Magnusson. Barney frantically waved her over, clearly eager for more pleasant company.

Alyx made her way over to the table and slid into the empty chair next to Barney. “Thank God you’re here,” the former security guard muttered through gritted teeth, casting a sidelong glance at the bickering physicists. He continued in a stage whisper, “They’ve been on this for at least 20 minutes and they keep tryin’ to drag me into it whenever I try to leave.”

Alyx rolled her eyes in an expression of empathetic exasperation and paused to take a long sip of her coffee and listen in on the argument.

After a moment, she turned to Barney with an incredulous stare and quietly exclaimed, “Are they still arguing about which of them had a better claim to Dr. Morton’s office after he retired?”

“Yep,” replied Barney, popping the ‘P’ and rolling his eyes. “We were having a perfectly nice time, relaxing and tellin’ Black Mesa stories until Magnusson brought it up, and you know Kleiner couldn’t resist the bait.”

Alyx furrowed her brow, trying to recall the last time she’d overheard an iteration of this particular argument. “Didn’t… someone else get the office?”

“Yep,” Barney repeated, noting that the scientists were too engrossed in their heated discussion to pay them any mind. “And somehow I feel like this ceased to be relevant the second Black Mesa got nuked, or whatever.” Alyx nodded in agreement, though she had to admit to herself that it was refreshing to see her colleagues finally relaxing enough to re-hash silly, pointless debates from a lifetime Before.

“Anyway,” Barney continued after a beat, “thank you again for coming to my rescue. I owe you one. So, how’s it goin’?” Alyx realized she’d barely spoken to anyone all day and was more than happy to provide an update about her work with the alarm system, dry as the subject was. In turn, Barney regaled her with a perhaps slightly over-dramatized account of his afternoon spent hunting headcrabs and other Xen fauna, a necessary task for both food and population control in the nearly post-Combine world.

As Alyx finished her soup in between bouts of laughter, Barney abruptly changed the subject. “Hey, have you seen Gordon around today? Before these two launched into Office Debate 2: Electric Boogaloo, we were all talkin’ about how nobody’s seen him around since, like, yesterday morning.”

Alyx tensed involuntarily at the sound of Gordon’s name, and then quickly forced herself to relax, hoping Barney hadn’t noticed. No, she hadn’t seen him, and that was probably for the best. It was easier to be childishly annoyed with him when she didn’t actually have to face him.

Unfortunately, Barney had caught the sour expression that briefly flashed across her face. “Trouble in paradise?” he smirked, unable to pass up an opportunity to tease his younger colleague about her not-entirely-subtle crush on his old friend.

When Alyx didn’t reply, his expression softened. “Hey, seriously, what’s goin’ on with you? Did you two have a fight or something? This is the first I’ve heard of it, if that makes you feel any better.”

Staring resolutely at her empty soup bowl in an effort to avoid eye contact, Alyx sighed loudly and sat on her hands. “It’s stupid, and I know it’s stupid, but I just—ughhh, can I vent? And will you promise not to say anything to him?”

“Scout’s honor,” Barney replied, grinning and raising his hand in a snappy 3-finger salute. Alyx rolled her eyes at the gesture but chose to take her pseudo-uncle’s goofy display in the sincere spirit in which it was intended.

After taking a moment to organize her thoughts, Alyx decided to get right to the point instead of tiptoeing around the issue. “Am I an asshole for being hurt that Gordon suddenly talks to damn near everyone except me?” she blurted, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and relieved to have finally said it out loud.

It had been several months since the destruction of the Borealis, and as attacks from the remaining Combine forces had become fewer and farther between, Gordon had started to feel safe enough to regain his ability to speak. Alyx had been startled, to say the least, the first time she’d stopped by the lab and caught him in conversation with Dr. Kleiner, but this had soon become a common occurrence.

Over the span of a few weeks, Gordon had recovered to a point where he could hold coherent conversations with almost everyone at White Forest. Everyone, it seemed, except Alyx. She’d observed that the physicist was still quite shy and not particularly emotionally expressive when speaking to those outside his inner circle, but at least he seemed to be trying for those people.

Barney exhaled slowly, clearly stalling until he could decide how to respond. He’d only recently started to pick up on the fact that Gordon fell silent as soon as he registered Alyx’s presence in a room, and he had his own theories as to why, but that was a whole tangential conversation he did not feel prepared to initiate.

“Alyx, you know he can’t really control it,” the former security guard began, slowly. “He’s been dealing with selective mutism since he was a kid—it’s a real, diagnosable thing, I promise—plus he’s a socially anxious mess on top of that, and so sometimes he just… can’t talk to folks, for whatever reason. He just can’t get comfortable enough to overcome the anxiety, I guess. I mean, we were all so relieved that he found his voice at all after bein’ so stressed out for so long, and it’s… a process. You gotta be patient with him, and it’s not like he doesn’t communicate with you at all in the meantime.”

Alyx nodded dejectedly and looked down at her lap as she felt a wave of shame wash over her. None of this was new information, and Barney was right that Gordon wasn’t completely uncommunicative with her, despite his muteness. She knew it was ridiculous and unfair to be mad at Gordon for something he couldn’t control but come on.

Now aggravated with both herself and Gordon and unable to stop herself from voicing her thoughts, Alyx responded, “But he talks to everyone else. You, most of the scientists, the vorts, that annoying guy who won’t shut up about punching hunters… hell, I saw him talking to Dog the other day when he didn’t know I was around. He will have an entire conversation with a goddamn robot, but the second he sees me, a person he’s spent ages alone with while saving the world from freakin’ aliens, his voicebox just stops working, instantly. I don’t get it. You said it’s a comfort thing, but we’ve literally saved each other’s asses more times than I can count. How much more comfortable can you get?”

When she stopped to take a breath, Alyx noticed with chagrin that her little tirade had caught Kleiner and Magnusson’s attention. Both were now staring directly at her; Kleiner with compassion and perhaps a hint of pity, and Magnusson with annoyance and perhaps a hint of compassion.

She felt Barney rest his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, I get it, I’d be frustrated if I was in that position too. Does it help to hear you’re not the only person Gordon’s had trouble speaking to, despite spending a lot of time together?” Alyx turned to look at him. “Wait, seriously?”

“Oh, indeed,” Dr. Kleiner interjected. “He was a confident and capable young researcher despite his… impediment, but I remember a few situations where we had to work around his inability to verbally communicate with colleagues. For instance, Gordon would go out of his way to avoid Dr. Morton”—he paused to glare at Dr. Magnusson—“because something about the man’s demeanor triggered his anxiety and he would find himself at a loss for words.”

Barney and Dr. Magnusson nodded, and Magnusson offered another anecdote. “And let’s not forget the debacle with that visiting researcher from Australia.”

“Oh my God,” Barney exclaimed, laughing at a sudden memory. “Was that the huge, loud dude who blamed everything that was wrong with the world on some guy named John Howard?”

“That’s the one,” Magnusson confirmed with a disapproving grunt.

“Yeah, Gordon hated that guy and I don’t think he ever managed to say a word to him,” Barney recalled. “He wasn’t mean or anything, but he was so eccentric that Gordon never knew how to react around him, so he just… didn’t. Or couldn’t, I guess.”

As she processed this information, Alyx found herself overwhelmed with a new anxiety—what if Gordon wasn’t just uncomfortable around her, as she’d previously assumed? Maybe it wasn’t that she was too talkative for him, or that he couldn’t open up to her after she’d seen him vulnerable in battle, or that he was still grieving her father and her presence reminded him of their loss. Was it possible that Gordon actively disliked her, and his disability was preventing him from telling her to get lost?

Her face must have betrayed her thought process, because both Barney and Dr. Kleiner immediately jumped to reassure her that she was nothing like the notoriously gruff Dr. Morton or the hilariously eccentric Australian researcher.

“Okay, okay, those were bad examples,” Barney admitted, throwing up his hands in mock surrender. “But there were also tons of completely normal, likable people that Gordon couldn’t talk to at first, or ever. Like… oh, there was another guy on the security team that Gordon didn’t talk to for months.”

Kleiner added, “I don’t think I ever heard him speak to that nice older woman in the cafeteria.”

“He always clammed up when the laundry staff picked up our lab coats,” Magnusson recalled.

“Honestly, dear, he was quite slow to warm up to your mother, initially.”

“There was that kid who distributed mail to the dormitories—oh, what was his name?”

“I’m quite certain Dr. Perez never heard a peep out of Gordon, even though they shared an office for at least a month.”

‘Aw, what the hell,’ Barney thought. ‘Someone’s gotta say it.’ Unable to suppress a smirk, he contributed, “And of course, let’s not forget to include all smart and/or beautiful women between the ages of 22 and 35.”

The three men at the table shared a furtive, knowing, and slightly exasperated glance. Gordon’s infamous social anxiety around women he found attractive was the most logical explanation for the whole situation, but none of the older men felt inclined to personally involve themselves in whatever was going on between their young colleagues any more than they already had. Eli almost certainly would have addressed the elephant in the room instead of letting this play out naturally, fond as he was of both parties involved, but it wasn’t necessarily anyone else’s place to step in, especially given that both Alyx and Gordon were renowned for their stubbornness.  

After taking a long moment to process all of this new information, Alyx sighed and began gathering her dishes in preparation for a hasty exit. “You’re right, you’re right, I’m being irrational,” she conceded. “Thanks for being nice about it and I guess it helps to hear that it’s not just me. And uh, since nobody’s seen Gordon, I guess I could go look for him. Make sure he hasn’t been abducted or fallen through another rotting floor, or whatever.”

Truthfully, she just needed some space to collect her thoughts and avoid another embarrassing emotional outburst, but she was also starting to feel genuinely concerned for Gordon’s well-being. He was surprisingly klutzy without his HEV suit, he was a known workaholic, and was also almost certainly still a target for what remained of the Combine, so she figured someone ought to check in on him.

As she stood up to leave, Barney reached out and affectionately clapped Alyx on the shoulder again. “Try not to let your frustration get to you, alright? Trust me, Gordon enjoys your company,” he reassured her with a surprisingly straight face. “This is just one of those quirky things he’s gonna have to work through on his own. Once you find him, tell him to quit disappearin’ on us, and make sure he’s eaten something today.”

The scientists at the table nodded in agreement and Kleiner stood up to wrap an arm around the young woman in a clumsy half-hug. “Thanks again, and will do,” Alyx chirped, trying to sound upbeat, before making a beeline for the kitchen dish return and then disappearing.

“When will this juvenile nonsense end? This is a Resistance base, not a middle school dance,” Dr. Magnusson muttered, once Alyx was out of earshot.

“Now now,” Dr. Kleiner chided, “they’re not doing anyone any harm, and I for one think they’d make a handsome couple… when they finally get around to it.” Both harrumphed in agreement and Barney took advantage of the momentary conversational lull to escape.

“Gee, it’s starting to get late, and I promised I’d help out with something in the yard before sundown, so I guess I’d better be going,” he rambled as he gathered up his dishes and prepared to make a strategic exit.

“By the way,” Barney called over his shoulder as he retreated, “awfully bold of you two to rag on Alyx and Gordon for acting like children when you spent this entire meal arguing about an office that doesn’t exist anymore that you first fought over twenty goddamn years ago!”