MSG1022: I think I might be able to trick them into letting me out. Gonna test it in the morning.
MSG0012: haha good luck getting past the Warden. What was that nurse’s name again?
MSG1023: Her name is Caroline. and she scares the hell out of me
MSG0013: I know she does. But remember, she’s probably just as scared of you as you are of her.
MSG0024: she is scared of nothing. I swear. She’s the only person in this place with 0 regard for the one free man. Threatened to tie me to the bed if I kept trying to leave
MSG0025: With zip ties. Not sexy
MSG0014: You’re an engineer, you could figure it out
MSG0026: PHYSICIST. How dare you
I spent a couple hours with him every night for the next 3 days. It became part of my routine: wake up, answer the two or three increasingly coherent messages from the night before, go for a run, meet with some of the science guys for coffee, shower, some busywork in the physics lab, grabbing two dinner trays from the cafeteria, stories with Gordon. He was starting to act more like his normal self -- sitting a little straighter, eating more, sleeping less. On the fourth morning, after my run, I grabbed an instant coffee packet and some boiling water and made my way to the little makeshift break room in the corner of the gymnasium that some of Kleiner’s workforce had put together. At first I was a little disappointed to not see Bo, Anita or Thomas, three new scientists set to join Kleiner’s little crew of assistants. I’d been sitting with them in the mornings, talking about my experiences with the gravity gun (stories which they greedily drank in), and had almost managed to get Bo to stop looking so nervous every time I entered the room.
But instead of my newfound companions, I found… something else entirely. A tall young man, with reddish brown hair, neatly swept to the side. A navy blue shirt and slacks, with an old style Black Mesa lab coat that looked almost new. He had one foot up on the bar under his chair, helping him support the massive book of notes in his lap. I was such an idiot, in hindsight, to have not recognized him immediately. The sight of Dr. Gordon Freeman, the scientist, casually sitting in an office chair at 9 in the morning, dressed for, of all things, work -- it simply didn’t make sense. He looked up at me and tilted his head to the side, trying very, very hard to look serious. You could still see the darkness under his eyes and he was still pretty pale, but the whole ensemble painted a picture of a someone shockingly handsome.
“You--” I started, as he folded the book and set it on the table. “But--” I tried again. Didn’t work. He was smiling now, all pretense of seriousness gone, and stood up to take a couple steps towards me. Good lord, he was wearing a tie. “I didn’t-- You lied, didn’t you? About Caroline? About the threats?” He stood in front of me now, taking the hot water and coffee from me and setting them on the table. I didn’t know where to look. Two other people lingered nearby at their tables, clearly oblivious to the fact that the hero of the rebellion was joining them for breakfast.
“Didn’t lie. Just left out the part where I was discharged this morning.” I leaned forward to shove playfully at his chest, and no one was more surprised than I was to find myself hugging him instead. I couldn’t help it. He looked tired, and thin, but otherwise in good spirits. I’d been so worried, with a nagging thought or two in the back of my head telling me he’d never quite be himself again.
He jolted at the touch, caught off guard, but then returned the embrace after only a moment’s hesitation. He smelled like shaving cream and something pleasantly dusty, like an old attic. We stood like that for just a few seconds, my arms around his waist and his around my shoulders, and when I returned to my senses, I found that he was the one holding tighter. I don’t know what I looked like, but when we let go and sat at the table, he went about mixing my coffee powder into the steaming mug with calculated precision and a rapidly fading blush. I had to talk, suddenly.
“You look better. Nice to see you properly dressed, for once. Where’d you find the getup?”
“Coat was in storage.”
“Somebody actually dragged that lab coat all the way here from New Mexico?”
“Not Black Mesa. White Forest. I think they owned the place before everything.” Everything. People called it different things. 7 Hours War, the Resonance Cascade, The Incident, All This Mess.
“So you really think White Forest was a Black Mesa facility, all this time?” I wondered. Gordon nodded, looking lost in thought, still absentmindedly stirring my coffee.
I suppose it made sense. There was so much existing infrastructure in the old rocket silo, most of it compatible with the types of tech we’d already been working on. Gordon remembered working at the old labs first hand, as did Kleiner, Magnussen, Barney and… Well, just them now, I supposed. Anyway. If he thought it smelled of Black Mesa, he was probably right.
The base we were in now wasn’t a part of White Forest, although it wasn’t far. After the attack from the Striders and later the Advisors, the bulk of the civilian resistance made their way to a secondary base cleared out a couple years before, and held as a back-up. It looked like it might be some kind of old school, or hospital, but everyone was starting to call it the Asylum. It wasn’t as big as White Forest, and was an hour or two drive south. More and more since the Citadel had been destroyed, we’d started sending people here as a base for survivors not fit for combat.
It had big open areas indoors for people to camp together, as well as lots of little rooms for people who needed a bit more privacy. There was running water, electricity, a rudimentary lab put together for Kleiner, and a fairly involved medical station in order to treat things requiring more than first aid and field medicine. Magnusson still ran things over at White Forest, giving Kleiner run of the Asylum. Both he and Barney split their time between both facilities.
I’m glad we’d ended up here. I don’t think I could have gone back to White Forest after everything that happened. The people here talked about their life before, those who’d had one. They shared recipes using local ingredients. They taught each other how to write in different languages. How to knit. Folk songs played on beat-up old guitars. There were people here my age, and a few younger -- some of the youngest from the Last Generation (as they called the last kids born before the suppression field). There were old people too, grandmothers and old fishermen and veterans missing limbs. Nothing about this place had the feeling of a military base, and while Gordon and I were still very much in the fight, the idea of staying here for a time to rest and recover before darting off to the freezing Antarctic wasteland was delightful.
After what seemed an eternity, Gordon finally stopped stirring the coffee, took a generous sip, and slid it over to me. I took it gratefully, savoring the bitter, stale smell I’d come to love, took a few sips of my own and slid it back. He raised his brows at me, but accepted. We did this in silence for a couple minutes, until the cup was almost empty. Things felt normal again. Then, just as I was about to offer to get some more, and broach the subject of Gordon’s good health, his communicator buzzed. It was plugged in on the counter behind us. I frowned at it, and then remembered what Kleiner had said about “up to three recipients.” It wouldn’t be the doctor, who was somewhere across the wide room we were in.
“Barney?” I guessed. He must be sending messages from his computer in the security room. He nodded before even looking at it, a smile ready on his face. He read the message and gave a good chuckle that made the tips of my ears feel warm. “What’s he done now?” I asked, trying to sound disapproving. Still grinning, he passed it across the table to me.
MSG2048: come on, don’t leave me hangin. did she like the surprise? did she spit out her coffee?
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “He was in on this too?” Gordon stuck out his leg to the side, and I finally noticed that the pants, while clean and freshly pressed, were 2 inches too short.
“All I had were sweatpants,” he shrugged.
“May I?” I asked, gesturing to the screen. He nodded. I typed out a response.
MSG0044: She does like it. And no, she didn’t spit out the coffee. She may have almost dropped it, though. I heroically grabbed it before she could make a mess.
I meant to sound obviously like myself, but Barney didn’t seem to notice.
MSG2049: Aah, good man. She should’ve seen you back in the day, with all your swagger and charm
MSG0045: are you suggesting my swagger and charm went somewhere?
MSG2050: Not at all, it’s just rusty. All I’m saying is, if this were still your post grad days, y’all would be doing more of a tango and less of a slow dance. Population aint gonna rebuild itself kid
I froze. I looked up at Gordon across the table, who looked, despite the playful look on his face, like he was itching to ask for the comm back. It had all started as a silly joke, but leave it to Barney to miss the obvious and plow right on ahead into uncharted territory. Feeling like I’d overstepped, I awkwardly slid the screen back across the table. Gordon’s brow furrowed until he saw the end of the conversation, and what little color he had regained drained from his face. He abruptly stood up, and I felt awful. I hadn’t meant to embarrass -- but no, he was only refilling the coffee cup. Thank God.
When he sat back down, this time with two mugs, I decided to change the subject fast.
“How are you feeling?” He sat, adjusting his coat, and then stirred his coffee with serious determination. After a minute or so, he shrugged.
“Not so bad. Better when I’m up walking around. Tired of sleeping.” He burned his tongue a little on the coffee and inhaled sharply, but almost immediately took a second sip.
“Do you want to go for a walk around the place? There’s a lot I haven’t seen yet.” The idea had only just occurred to me, but sounded nice. Gordon looked up at me, a little surprised, and then nodded emphatically.
We walked for the better part of the morning before finding ourselves in an area that looked a little less move-in ready. There were almost no other people on this side of the Asylum, and we started to find mounds of debris where the panelled ceiling had fallen in, or cinder blocks had piled up from a nearby wall demolition. Gordon’s voice had started to give out, so we had taken to just pointing at things we thought were interesting, or me asking yes or no questions. You could have a pretty decent conversation that way, so long as you knew the right things to ask.
The awkwardness from breakfast had fled, as it always did, leaving behind a comfortable, observant silence like we used to have when out on our excursions. It was different now, of course. We didn’t walk so fast. Gordon’s footsteps were still steady, but softer. And we walked side by side, instead of me following behind or scouting ahead. We were now deep enough into the uninhabited part of the building to hear more birdsong coming in from broken windows than buzz of conversation back in the cafeteria and gymnasium. I closed my eyes as I walked, only for a moment, savoring a brief span of sunlight coming in through an intact row of windows.
Or at least, I enjoyed it until my foot hit a small section of the concrete floor warped by the roots of a tree growing just outside. I stumbled, whipping my hands out of my hoodie pocket to throw them in front of me, but never got the chance. Gordon had already grabbed my elbow and steadied me.
“Thanks,” I said, feeling stupid. Only I would go walking around derelict buildings with my eyes closed. He didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t relinquish his light touch on my elbow. To my surprise, he slid his hand down my arm and entwined his fingers with mine. A light squeeze. You’re welcome.
I warmed at the sentiment and expected him to let go, but he didn’t.
“You didn’t have to do all that.” His voice came as a surprise after the 20 minutes or so we’d had of silence. Do all what? I scrambled to think of a response, but didn’t get a chance. “I don’t remember a whole lot from the past few days. But I remember you were there, and we would talk, and I remember falling asleep…” he let his voice trail off as he kept a solid grip on my hand. I chanced a look at his face, and he was alternating between looking away and looking at the floor. It was my turn to squeeze his hand.
“You don’t have to thank me for that. You’d have probably done the same. Or more. Hell, Gordon, you’ve pulled me out of more scrapes than I can count. You don’t have to thank me for anything.” Lucky for me, the words came out sounding genuine and warm. He stopped walking and turned to look at me. With my hand in his, I turned too.
“Is… that what this is? Repaying favors, back and forth? Don’t mistake me, I’d be happy to do that forever.” His voice sounded hoarse. This was getting ridiculous.
I kissed him.
It was no small feat, since he was almost 6 inches taller than me, but with one hand pulling on his and the other reaching up to pull his face to mine, the whole motion was nearly seamless. I expected shock, or at least for him to freeze, but instead he just wobbled a little and fell into the kiss like a sun falling into a black hole. It was just physics. This was the whole reason for the walk, I realized. Why he’d been so eager. The teasing from Barney. Surprising me at breakfast. The only kink in the plan was that I’d gotten around to doing it first. And it was only now that his lips were on mine, clumsy and eager and breathless, that I realized how badly I’d been wanting this. How badly I didn’t want it to stop.
I pulled away to breathe, but didn’t go far. I could feel the soft scratchy feeling of his chin on my cheek. His free arm was wrapped around my back, fingers slipped between the fabric of my hoodie and my t-shirt. I still had an arm loosely around the back of his neck. I wanted him closer. I was already too close to see his face, but between the racing heartbeat I could feel where our hands met and the grin I could feel against my skin, I had some idea how he must be feeling.
He tried to prevent the smile from going nuclear by placing a small kiss near my ear, almost experimentally. I stayed still, eyes closed, just listening to the birds and our breathing and the small sounds his mouth made as it made its way down my neck. When he got down around my collarbone, some small part of his goatee tickled the underside of my chin and I couldn’t help it -- I giggled. Once I started, the floodgates opened and I couldn’t stop. And suddenly his shoulders were shaking too, and then it was all I could do to stay upright as we laughed and laughed and laughed. Both my arms were now around his neck, both his hands were around my waist, and we clung to each other as days upon days of struggle and stress and sleeplessness and longing and anxiety melted away.
I could see his face now, as he tottered me backwards to lean against the nearest wall, and it was pure joy. His bright green eyes were shining, his neck and face splotched with red, his teeth very white and parted slightly. He had no trouble meeting my eyes now. He gazed down at me with an affection so sweet it almost threatened to stop my laughter. Once he was securely rooted to the wall, he pulled a hand from my back and attempted to shush me, only to end up just brushing my lips with his fingers, back and forth with his thumb. It had the same effect. I’d begun twisting my fingers through the hair at the base of his skull, which quieted him just as quickly.
I loved this. Learning what he liked. Learning what I liked. Previous encounters I’d had were all spur of the moment things, rushed and fun or frantic and desperate, but I’d never had this . Time. Trust. The suppression field (newly destroyed by us truly) had enforced biological sterility, and had to some extent damped sexual desire, but it hadn’t been able to block it completely. The urge to find comfort in the arms of others was too innately human.
But whether my heightened senses were the result of the lack of Combine intervention or this was a seriously good case of ‘right place, right time,’ I’d never know. All I did know was that this was the most alive I’d ever felt, and I’d spent the last few weeks facing nothing but the concrete reminder of my own mortality. His fingers returned to the space between the layers on my back, and when I pulled myself up to kiss him again, and he met me halfway, it was slower. Languorous. Dizzyingly sensual. The kiss deepened and we found our rhythm. I was suddenly very grateful for the wall behind him, and very aware of the heat of his chest pouring into my own. His fingers teased at the t-shirt, rubbing shapes into my lower back.
Earlier I had been preparing a litany of quips regarding Barney’s claim about Gordon’s so-called “swagger and charm,” but now, I could see it. I could see him as a younger man, dressed in his sharp clothes and his white coat, fresh out of school, eager and confident and carrying none of the cares he carried now, and it occurred to me that Barney had been serious. Gordon had been charming once. I suddenly found myself irrationally jealous of every female employee at Black Mesa who’d had the pleasure of simply knowing him before all this.
Thoughts of those other times and other women disappeared into sparks behind my eyes as Gordon’s cool hands slid their way under the back of my shirt and onto my bare skin. He tried to bring them up, to touch more, but only succeeded in pulling me upwards as I eagerly met his movement with my own, tipping onto my toes and pressing my full weight into his chest. The kiss slowed for a moment as he huffed out a small sound of surprise and delight, and I decided that I wanted to hear more of that kind of thing, and the sooner the better.
“Hey, Gordon,” I managed after a moment, disentangling myself slightly. My voice felt thick and foreign in my mouth. He looked at me expectantly. “I feel like there might be better places for this than a creepy hallway. Got any ideas?” He looked over my shoulder for a moment, biting his lip absentmindedly. Then he looked back at me and nodded, pushing himself from the wall and retaking my hand.
The walking had a purpose now, and I found myself appreciative of the hand he held, as it provided me with an excuse to not trip over my own feet. I was surprised to see he was leading us forward instead of back, until I saw things start to look more civilized and realized the layout of this place was a circle. He led me up a small flight of stairs, and I recognized the series of hallways as being part of the 1600 wing, where I’d found Gordon recovering a few days ago. We didn’t enter his room, but instead stopped short at a room two doors down. Apparently, most of the rooms were vacant. And locked. He let go of my hand for a moment to fumble with something small and sharp he had in his coat pocket.
In no time, he had the door unlocked and was leading me inside. Once in, he re-locked the door and put his finger to his lips in a playful ‘shhh’ motion. The room was dark, but there was a small, pitifully dim desk lamp on a bedside table that he clicked on before carefully shrugging out of his starched white coat and laying it gingerly on an empty chair. My eyes started to adjust and I saw daylight peaking in between the dark curtains covering a window on the opposite wall. Gordon turned to me then, standing in front of the bed, and I got the feeling he didn’t quite know what to do next. Luckily for him, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and threw it somewhere behind me on the floor, a sharp contrast to the care Gordon took with the coat. I walked up to him and sat him down on the edge of the bed, which was just an unmade mattress with some neatly folded blankets at the base, and began to pull the tie off. When I slipped it over his head, it caught briefly on his thick-rimmed glasses, which he quickly folded and set on the bedside table.
“So,” I murmured in his ear, bringing first one knee up and then the other to straddle him where he sat. He brought his hands up automatically to my back to keep me from falling backwards. “Just how quiet do we have to be?” I had a moment of fierce pride in seeing Gordon looking up at me, as I was now a few inches taller than him, his eyes glassy and a little crossed as he tried to focus on me without the glasses. He’d always been quiet, true, but this was the first time I got the feeling he was genuinely speechless. When he kissed me again, sitting with me in his lap, the message was loud and clear. I don’t give a shit.
We got a little tangled as he tried to lift my t-shirt over my head just as I undid the last button on his dress shirt. It left him in a clean white undershirt, like the one I’d changed him into the other night, and me in a thin sports bra. He took a moment to take in my shirtlessness, grazing his fingers lightly over the fabric covering my breasts, making me shiver.
“Cold?” he murmured. It was the first thing he’d said since we got here. I laughed a little.
“Are you kidding? I feel like I’m on fire.”
A wicked grin. “Good.” And before I could react, he held tight to my back and lifted me onto the bed properly, laying me down so I was underneath him. He kicked off his shoes, and I did the same.
Kissing in the hallway had been exhilarating, but kissing like this -- half clothed, his weight bearing comfortably down on me, was downright intoxicating. It wasn’t long before the light, exploratory touching had more purpose, the kisses became more demanding, and I started to feel constricted in what little clothes I had left on. I got up on my elbows for a moment to slip the bra over my head and gingerly reach under his shirt, pulling it up, letting him know I wanted it off. He sat back on his ankles to do just that, and I saw for a moment the bruising, more green and faded yellow than the angry purple it had been, that stained almost every inch of exposed skin down to his waistband. If he was self-conscious at all about it, it certainly didn’t show.
It was easy to believe, sometimes, that Gordon really was this larger-than-life figure. He was tall, and the HEV suit gave him the appearance of a very broad chest and a broad stance in general. But the truth was that the suit made him stand like that, because if he didn’t, he’d topple over backwards. The chest and back plates were so wide because of all the tech running underneath them. And he was tall, but even then, the suit’s shock-absorbent feet gave him at least an extra two inches. I bet if he walked the halls in the work uniform he’d been wearing earlier, most people wouldn’t see the same man. I certainly hadn’t, at first.
In the moment when he turned slightly to toss the shirt to the ground, I sat up to kiss the skin on his chest, mirroring the posture we’d had when we first sat on the bed. I felt his little hum of pleasure more than I heard it, and I was once again spurred on by the sound. I fumbled for a moment with his belt before he gently but firmly pressed me back down to the bed, opting to do this part himself. Without the belt, I could see that the pants hung loosely around his waist, being not only too short, but too big, as well (he and Barney really were not the same size). They were much easier to slide off than mine.
It made me feel scandalously lucky to see him for who he really was, underneath everything, as he nimbly worked my tight jeans off my legs. His arms were lean cords of muscle, and every ounce of him burned with a sense of inexplicable strength that left you unsure what he was actually capable of. For a man who always looked like he could use a couple cheeseburgers, his endurance was incredible.
And speaking of endurance, I wasn’t sure at this point how (if he felt anything like I did) Gordon was keeping his composure. There was nothing between us now, and all my bravado and sexy confidence was lost sometime around when he started planting kisses up the inside of my thighs. I had my head back and my eyes closed, trying with all my might just to feel , to turn off every other sense but touch. I tensed with anticipation when his lips brushed the hair between my legs (I’d never encountered that particular act, and suddenly felt self conscious at my own inexperience) but I shouldn’t have worried. His lips kept climbing as he moved his elbows up and kissed the sensitive skin around my belly button. I was letting out small gasps at this point, debating whether to let him continue or demand something more urgent, when Gordon’s mouth moved over my exposed breast. My hands twisted in his hair of their own accord, and I was startled to hear a genuine moan radiate from his mouth and roll over my skin like a cool breeze. “Gordon,” I murmured, hoping he caught my urgency. He did.
Two fingers slid inside me, moving rhythmically, and the transition from touch to touch felt like I was standing on a frozen lake and the ice was cracking underneath me. I would fall, I could feel it. I felt like I should move but was terrified of breaking the spell. But my body moved on its own, rolling in time with his hands until I needed to kiss him. I needed to kiss him. “Gordon--” I started, hearing the high pitched plea in my voice and ignoring it. He had his head resting just below my shoulder, but at my voice this time, he looked up at me. I caught his eye and saw a barely contained restraint that was admirable, but failing. There was a palpable beat, a decision made, and then he moved. Fingers were removed, and I ached for them for a moment, but when his mouth caught me in a kiss that lingered on my lower lip, the fingers were replaced by something else entirely. It happened swiftly, the movement of his hips, in time with the kiss that came next.
Gone was any pretense that this was going to be a quiet affair. I don’t think I could’ve controlled any part of my body by this point, much less the urgent sounds that were pouring out of me now. I would’ve felt silly, had I not noticed that with my every exclamation, Gordon breathed a little harder and became a little less coordinated, until he had one shaky hand pinning mine above my head and the other holding on to my waist for dear life. I felt that I could let myself plunge through that ice any second now, and Gordon, either sensing this or hoping I was for his own sake, managed a strangled whisper of the word “ close ” in my ear. I didn’t know if he was asking or telling, but I nodded all the same and let myself fall.
Heat. Darkness. A cry, his or mine, I couldn’t tell. Damp skin and shaking bodies that had nothing to do with cold.
In retrospect, I’m not sure how it could have ended any other way. From the very beginning, when I helped him up off the ground after getting his shit kicked in by Civil Protection, I knew I would follow him anywhere. First as the savior of mankind, then as a resistance leader, then as a friend, and now -- well, there was nothing for it. We lay curled up, both facing the wall, his whole body neatly cupping mine, his arms wrapped around my waist, his lips against the back of my neck. We’d pulled up a couple blankets from the now disheveled pile at the base of the mattress so we didn’t have to get up and get dressed right away. I wanted to savor this, and so it seemed, did he. His breathing was deep and steady, and just when I could’ve sworn he was drifting off to sleep, I felt him lick his lips and form the words against my skin: I love you. I love you. I love you. Each one punctuated with a small kiss. I had one arm under my head as a makeshift pillow, the other resting on his hands over my stomach. So that’s what this was. Love. It felt new. It felt right.
I turned in his arms, both hands now on his chest, and kissed the corner of his mouth. “I love you,” I mirrored back to him. “I love you, I love you.”