Chell was in a field.
It stretched as far as she could look, coating the earth in a swirling mass of green. A subtle breeze shifted the pasture and made it dance- one graceful, continuous sway. She felt her hair copying the movement, blowing to the side in time with the ends of her shirt. She was barefoot; Chell noted blades of grass brushing her calves as they bent to tickle her feet.
The sensation bordered uncomfortable. She didn’t mind it too much, but opted to step out of idleness, venturing into the meadow as it gradually stood up again to just above her knees. The grass was thin, and Chell could feel an occasional drop of morning dew deposit itself on her ankles.
Her view was a clear, clay-scented picture. The sky, colored faint blue, rolled grand and ever-present, a nearly transparent cloud filtering sunlight as it sauntered across the star’s path. Chell felt warm despite the cover, and the air around her seemed bright.
She familiarized herself with the landscape. Chell took smooth, steady paces, vision outlining the edges of the pasture. It was so, so green, rippling and uniform, her steps quieter than the rustling meadow as it sang a song of ease. She trekked onward, uncertain of where she was going, but somehow positive that it didn’t really matter. There would be no surprises, no sudden end. She could relax.
Chell loved it. She loved the open sky draped above her, carrying on forever in all directions even when the horizon dropped off. She loved the clarity, the crispness of the wind, how it sliced through without any pushback but was still gentle in its coaxing of the grass. She could smell the soil, walk on the earth, experience it. She felt like she’d reached the top. The climb was over. Nothing held her down-
The feeling dissipated.
Immediately, Chell slumped, just slightly, but slumped nonetheless. Her eyes lowered to twenty feet in front of her as dread- resignation?- slowed her pace, breaking her rhythm. It was a natural reaction for Chell. Well-practiced. Like how calling her name was quickly becoming for Wheatley.
As was shadowing her while she worked. And needing help with things the townspeople had probably learned at six years old. And running up to her with a dozen questions, belting them out one after the next without pause.
Normally, Chell had no issue with these. Sometimes- most of the time, she’d admit- it added to his charm, the way he’d look to her with such trust and reverence, believing her to be an unquestionable source of knowledge on humanity and all its conventional little oddities. His tendencies in language, both by word and body, made her comfortable. Secure. She understood his dilemmas, and she was more than happy to aid him.
Wheatley relied on her explanations- or, in simpler instances, reassurance through a lack of concern- and Chell in turn could rely on his presence. But it was hard to get across that there were times, such as now, when she needed his presence brought to a simmer.
He wouldn’t listen. For all his talk, Wheatley was actually quite good at listening, but that skill seemed to evaporate whenever her frustration, particularly involving him, boiled over. He was familiar with her patience and thoughtfulness, very much willing to pay attention to her meaning then. But it was as if Wheatley couldn’t grasp her clear-cut concept of personal space, or couldn’t understand that while he might be more than willing to project himself onto her, Chell could get whiplash from the persistent close companionship and, on rough days when her mood soured and he remained unconditionally relentless, she needed him to step away. If only for a short while.
Chell found it difficult to explain to Wheatley. It might’ve been partially her fault. Her slipping control from the week’s mishaps, lack of delicate word choice, and awareness that Wheatley would probably misinterpret her words anyway to make it sound as if she didn’t want him around anymore made the task strenuous. The last one especially- a notion like that was the last thing she hoped to imply. But it was getting impossible to restrain herself.
Chell’s final effort, after Wheatley had called her name for the umpteenth time, was fruitless. She didn’t know what he’d wanted to say- she hadn’t given him the chance to talk. Already Chell was trying to express her annoyance, swallowing the bitterness on her tongue and carefully adopting a matter-of-fact tone. He could sense the irritation in her, though- she knew he could, as he proceeded to turn off his mental processing. She was exhausted, he didn’t get it, and Chell, above all not wanting to lose her temper, had clenched her fists, turned away, and walked off. Back home. She didn’t stop for him, and she didn’t turn around.
Nor would she do it now.
She picked up her tempo, resuming the stride he’d jarred her out of, and continued through the grass, leaving that unmistakable voice behind her.
Chell didn’t hear rustling besides her own. He’d had the sense not to follow after her before, though she couldn’t tell if he was resisting the urge now. She considered trying to outpace him.
He really couldn’t take a hint. It was a shame, there was a part of her that hated leaving him behind like this, but she wouldn’t continue to humor him. Chell stared straight ahead, at nothing, and focused on her walking.
He called her name a few more times. Chell ignored him, blending the sound into the environment until she heard the shouts as an undeciphered buzzing. She hardly noticed the guilt-stemming tension in her neck. And she walked.
Eventually, it occurred to Chell that she couldn’t walk forever. But then again, neither could Wheatley. Though the volume of his noise, her name, never seemed to cease.
For a while.
How long had it been? The sun never seemed to move. Ten minutes? Thirty?
Had they even gone far? Everything looked the same, though she supposed it would- there was nothing but grass and sky.
At some point, she started to feel that first lick of tiredness. But it wouldn’t stop her.
What would stop her, actually? What would compel her to quit? What would make him quit? He had to sooner or later- his legs might’ve been longer, but his stamina didn’t meet hers.
But that’s when she noticed.
It was quiet.
Once she comprehended that, Chell felt like she’d woken herself from a reverie. She slowed, marginally, sure that Wheatley hadn’t called out in a while. Or maybe it’d only been a minute. She kept going anyhow.
The soreness in her bare feet turned more poignant, and Chell found the answer to her question. Finally- she was almost disappointed- she allowed herself to stop. And she turned.
What greeted her was a picture that looked exactly as it did facing the other direction: grass and sky. The only thing to reveal one way from the other was the sun’s placement, as even Chell’s trail in the field had disappeared. But she wasn’t paying much heed- there was no two-meter body, no blonde hair, not one lanky limb.
She scanned the meadow, looking for any sign of Wheatley. She didn’t think it’d been so long that he would’ve been able to head beyond the horizon- the ground was too flat. But he didn’t seem to be anywhere in her vicinity.
Chell observed the green, worried that he might have collapsed-
And was nearly blown over by a thunderous gust of wind.
She had to take several steps back to regain her balance. The rush of air was deafening, ramming into her like a torrential river to stone. She shut her eyes against the current, digging her feet into the ground and shielding her face with her arms, but it disappeared as abruptly as it came, and Chell had to catch herself the other way before she could finally stand up straight again. Utterly fazed, she looked around her.
In those few moments that she’d been off her guard, the sky had changed. It was bizarre but, in truth, there was almost no sky at all- just an insurmountable layer of gray cloud. Already bustling in waves, in pieces, making its way over her entire upward view at an incredible speed. A chaotic mass that had no face, took no notice, and had all its business being there. In the few seconds that she caught sight of a small window of blue, the beast swallowed it up. Gone. The thing was angry, blind, and much, much larger than she. Stunned, a distant crackle of lightning made Chell blink.
The storm carried stampedes of wind that lowered all the way down to where she stood. The grass, twenty shades darker now, shifted furiously, not dancing in its quiet freedom but cowering, pushing past itself, pushing at her legs, urging her to move. Her hair flew past her face and for a moment she couldn’t see. Where before there was hardly any noise, now there swam a constant pierce of what sounded like rain, the unfurling of leaves blown on branches despite there being no trees, no water. It was dry, and the wind sprung out of docility and pounded at her back.
Chell used it to her advantage as she sprinted the way she came.
Her voice felt raw- she was capable of yelling, definitely, though it wasn’t often that she did, and not while racing and tired. Her feet were in pain, but she couldn’t stop. Adrenaline- from the surprise still ringing dully in the back of her head, from the surety of a clear and obvious objective, and from the fear building very starkly and unhindered in her chest- worked Chell like a machine.
The rest was lost in a squall, flying past her face and tossing his name beyond her path. Thinking twice, Chell ground her feet into the earth and slowed her pace a fraction. With the wind acting up, one of them wouldn’t be able to hear-
Thunder. Hammering its way into her skull.
Eaden had plenty of storms, most fervently in the warmer weather, but never had it made her skin crawl so much as it did in that moment. She shivered as something ominous traversed up her spine, something making her hair stand tall and giving her goosebumps as she chanced a look at the clouds. There was no break, no time to stop, no allotment for catching her breath.
It seemed to be getting darker, too.
Her heart jumped. So he was still here. Part of her swelled with relief, but she heard the unadulterated terror in his voice and couldn’t find much to be glad about. She needed to get to him. Chell darted in the direction of the noise.
“Wheatley!” She waited, but to her distress, he didn’t immediately call back. Their voices were lost in the storm.
She yelled louder, “Wheatley!”
Chell had been right. It was indeed getting harder to see. She scanned for him again, trying to understand whether Wheatley was concealed in the grass or she was just missing something.
Chell turned nearly all the way around, feeling like a rock had been dropped in her stomach. Somehow, she’d passed him. Or the wind was fooling with them.
She ran back.
She ran back a few times, in fact. Chell headed in one direction, heard another call, and then rerouted herself accordingly. And did it a few more times. And then again. And again. She couldn’t know how many times- everything looked the same, the only change was the perpetual darkening of her surroundings, and she didn’t recognize where she’d already looked. The wind, ready to toss her around like a broken doll, ruthlessly impaired her; she couldn’t trace a pattern. The gale was always howling, and the voice it carried seemed to come from everywhere. Chell could hardly hear and now she could hardly see.
The grass, once so calming and uncomplicated, was overwhelming. It was like wading through cement, trying to sink her at the knees. Disorienting her. She felt small. Alone, and not in a pleasant way.
Chell dimly registered that it might’ve helped to slow down, but she couldn’t. Wheatley was terrified- he abhorred storms, hated the dark and the cold, hated loneliness- he needed her, and the fear in his voice was a clear indication of that.
But she couldn’t-
- to him-
- and it hurt.
“WHERE ARE YOU?!” she shouted.
It hurt a lot.
Her throat, her feet, her legs, everything. The frustration was hellish, she was so lost, she didn’t know how long she’d been at this but she felt for sure like she was going to explode or pass out or just sink, sink into that grass. But she couldn’t do that- that wasn’t her goal. So she cried hot tears that stung her face and kept moving.
Cement and cloud, cement and cloud, cement and cloud and dark and him, somewhere-
That time it wasn’t a gust blowing away her call- she just couldn’t do it anymore. Her voice had given up on her.
She couldn’t move, she had to move, she couldn’t stop moving, keep going-
She couldn’t scream. She knew, she tried to.
She probably looked like a madwoman. Didn’t matter, even if anyone could see her in this blackness. Chell could hardly discern the ground five feet in front of her. There were no stars, there was no moon- maybe it was still daytime. Either way, there was no light. It’d been driven out.
“Chell! HELP ME!”
Was that even real? As horrifying as it sounded, it constantly rung in her head by now, so close. Perhaps it’d been her own imagination.
And then something peculiar happened. It was like her own thought had triggered it, had ripped through the fabric of reality and of fate and decided to flip everything on its head.
The wind stopped.
It silenced without warning. Like a dying animal put out of its misery. She was still blind, but nothing dragged at her anymore- not the air, not the field. It all felt hushed. Chell realized that she was on her knees, the nearby grass almost touching her shoulders. The quiet unnerved her at first- she’d grown used to the roaring and now everything was both shallow and full. Surreal. She didn’t trust it, didn’t like how fast it had ended.
Then again, the wind had been her enemy. It had kept her from him, and now it was dead.
Desperate, Chell tried calling out and, shockingly, she could. It was too loud, though, way too loud, the only sound in the universe, in the void, but that meant she’d be able to hear his reply and know exactly where it came from. No more wretched tricks.
She tried to stand. She could. Chell’s exhaustion had died with the gale- she was confused at her newfound vigor, no longer supplied by the despairing energy of adrenaline, but like she’d had a long rest. Her feet and legs didn’t ache. At the ready, she called his name again. And again.
And then her world shattered.
Chell hurried. She was certain she could’ve heard a pin drop had she a moment to pause. She probably did- probably had all the time in existence, or absolutely none at all depending on how someone looked at it, but she refused to accept either. He was here, dammit, she would find him, she had to find him, he’d been scared and he’d been here, she could find him now, she would manage it and she wouldn’t stop until she did, until he was safe-
She tripped, of all things. Couldn’t really be blamed, though, when the whole world was just an unending, undiffering pasture, and she didn’t expect for something to be lying in her way. Something soft, impressionable, something very inordinary from the rest of everything. Except for her, maybe. Something cold.
Chell didn’t move. She probably could have moved, this time, if she truly attempted to, but she couldn’t- in a whole other sense. She didn’t want to. She didn’t want to. She couldn’t breathe. She could, actually. She was breathing. Inhale. She didn’t want to. Exhale. She didn’t want to.
But she did it anyway.
Slowly, very slowly, Chell opened her eyes. She was lying on her stomach- not very common- and facing the head of her mattress.
She stared at the wall, the innocent amber light of her lamp coating the bedroom like honey. She was probably relieved- probably, because she didn’t want to start breaching the dam with a too-likely flood of emotions in her gut, didn’t want to even begin mulling over what she’d seen, what she’d done-
The soft glow of the item usually soothed her, like a loyal old friend leading her from bad dreams and helping to calm her mind until the panic ebbed away. But this time, the lamp wasn’t what she needed. She knew what she needed.
Stiff as a board, unwilling to think, Chell rolled onto her side and was greeted by the empty half of their bed.
Wheatley was sleeping.
It was an empty sleep, colorless, not really nice at all. The kind of sleep that left a person more tired than when they’d entered it. Still, it was sleep.
He’d needed sleep, when he’d returned to her house. He was drained, completely bushed, as Garret liked to put it, or “beat” worked too. Whatever the term, he’d needed rest, but he couldn’t go upstairs. She was up there, already in bed by then, just as he’d hoped. Avoiding him. Not that he faulted her for it.
He should’ve known better, honestly. Chell had been fatigued all week, pushed to her limits by unfair, unfortunate circumstances, and he’d had the quick wits and coordination to do absolutely nothing to account for it. Sarcasm, of course, he’d been a right fool. Though it sure would’ve been nice to have realized it before she walked off earlier.
That’d been awful, the feeling he was left with. He’d disappointed her, had let her down and made her strung up enough that he’d become more of a nuisance than a help to her struggle. Definitely hadn’t enjoyed that conclusion. Made him furious with himself.
Wheatley stayed away as long as he could- he really did, hard as it was when he knew she was upset. Spent some time with Garret, helped around a bit, talked with some children, meant to clear his head and make some sense of everything. Course, making sense of things was what she was good at, though he tried. For her. Him as well.
Garret had made him go home when it turned late. Wheatley was secretly relieved for it, the excuse to go back to where he’d become familiar, near to her and her world. He hadn’t known what was the proper thing to do, but Garret wouldn’t let him spend the night over, so that made things rather easy. That is, until he’d walked through her front door.
The house was quiet, ground floor empty. Good, he told himself, that meant she was in bed and getting some much-needed sleep. But then there was him- his own body, what to do with it. The answer, quite simple, wasn’t accompanied by a eureka-worthy lightbulb, but a bland, nostalgic feeling as Wheatley grabbed a blanket and made his way to the couch. The thought of going upstairs never occurred to him as a viable option.
So Wheatley slept, for a while. Until sometime in the early hours of the morning, when he awoke to seemingly nothing but his own discomfort, and he very quickly and very dumbfoundedly noticed something warm curled against his back. Something strong, something indisputable and with obvious presence and her arms wrapped around him as best she could manage, her legs against his thighs and feet tucked into the backs of his knees. She breathed- slowly, easily- against him, nose buried near the lower half of his spine.
Wheatley didn’t know what to make of it. For all her movement while she “tested,” he’d never known Chell to sleepwalk- then again, it hadn’t been that long he’d known her. Still, it was curious, the way she gripped him with such…well…grip. But he was too tired, really, to ponder it, even with the surprise slapping his brain a couple times. Surely he would better figure it out in a few hours, when she had to get up and start her day, than he would now on his own.
Yeah, that sounded about right. Maybe, just maybe, he could be of some help to her. Or not- whatever she liked, whatever she preferred, but definitely he could. He would.
Wheatley smiled. He felt fuzzy, comforted by the idea, and savored the feeling of her at his back. Eventually, he drifted off and dreamed sweet dreams, of fresh bread and the coming morning and her smile that could outshine a thousand sun-ups.
They slept past noon.