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Last I saw him, it was… Thursday? Last Thursday. The day we got back. We were standing in Dr. Kleiner’s new lab, Gordon had his arms sticking out at either side and Kleiner kept telling him not to move while he rounded him and checked on the HEV suit. It had definitely seen some action before it made its way to Gordon, but no one had ever worn it continuously for 6 days. It was around the 5 minute mark when his arms started to tremble a little and he gave me an exasperated look. Amused, but tired. So tired. I was tired too, and since I knew he’d stand there all day if Kleiner asked him too, I spoke up.

“Doc, any chance you are going to let him out of that thing sometime soon? I know you’re eager to check the damage, but we’re exhausted.”

To his credit, Kleiner immediately bolted upright and started spewing apologies about how he’d gotten lost in all the data, and started unfastening plates. Gordon gave a good natured smile and shrugged a little, having been there and done that just about every day of his life. Two other techs were recruited to get the back and chest plates off, which exposed a network of tubes and wires running above and underneath a slim grey suit that fit him like a second skin. After they’d removed the three life support IVs and told him he could sit, Gordon stretched out his shoulders and winced as something made a satisfactory popping noise. 5 nights of sleeping in that thing. 6 days running. Fighting. Even a little swimming. My clothes certainly hadn’t held up as well.

“We’re going to give him a physical, so I’m going to need to keep Dr. Freeman for a while longer, Ms. Vance. Why don’t you go get some rest?” I gave Gordon a questioning thumbs up, and he returned it with a grin. I’d already gotten my physical -- minor scrapes and bruises, a possible cracked rib, and some medicine for headaches. “See you for dinner!” I waved and he waved back. Kleiner handed him a questionnaire to fill out. I walked out and headed for a hot shower. “Alyx, wait just a moment -- oh blast, where did I put the damn thing --” I popped my head back in and saw the doctor rummaging around on his desk for a moment as a med tech urgently motioned for him to look at something on the suit. 

“What is it?” I asked impatiently, already mentally prepared to be warm, wet, and clean. 

“Oh well, I’ll get it to you later,” he said, giving in to the curious tech beckoning from the suit. “Go, go! Get some food! And sleep!” Well, you didn’t have to tell me twice.

So yeah, Thursday. He didn’t come down for dinner. I wasn’t worried, although I was a little selfishly annoyed. When I walked with Gordon around the base, people gave us space. When they saw it was just me, I got bombarded with people’s well-meaning questions and concerns and support and thinly veiled attempts to get me to tell them everything. No wonder Gordon kept quiet. Everything was so much simpler when you were simply… unavailable.

He does talk, by the way. It’s painful if he keeps it up for too long, I came to learn, although he wouldn’t tell me exactly when or how that started. Maybe even he doesn’t know the answer to that. But he seems to be able to make simple conversation without much of a problem. At least, he does outside the base.

I don’t blame him for keeping quiet around civilians, even if it does perpetuate several increasingly ridiculous myths and theories of mysticism. I had been feeding myself the same assumptions until I caught him in the corner of a little cave using some very inventive curse words about the utility light refusing to turn on. He thought I’d been getting water. He saw me leaning against the entrance with my arms crossed and my eyebrows up and he immediately gave me the “I’ve been caught, haven’t I?” look that I perfected in my teens. When I burst out laughing, he did too, and, well, the whole “savior of humanity” thing became just… Gordon. Just a guy, somewhere in his late 20s, although that age makes sense to nobody. 

I got to hear the story from his point of view, in bits and pieces, and everything started to feel more real. He always wanted to be someone who took things apart (or blew them up) just to see how they worked. Didn’t want this particular job, of course, but someone else would’ve just screwed it up, and seeing as how he didn’t really have a choice, he did the best he could, etc. I filled in the rest from what I learned on the road. 

He was generous. Curious. Sometimes a little too focused. Never seemed to sleep for more than an hour at a time. Always put too much salt on his food. Every time I pointed at something for him to check out, he would come stand as close as he could to where I was standing (and even bend down a little) just to see it from my exact point of view. I made fun of him for this once, I told him it made me feel like I had a monkey on my shoulder. He started plopping his chin on my shoulder, and bam! Our first inside joke. When he did it in Kleiner’s lab, looking over my shoulder as I held the results from my blood work, I started giggling, and the techs were all looking away and suddenly very busy. “Careful, Dr. Freeman. You’ve got a reputation to uphold,” I teased. He rolled his eyes and went to go find something to tinker with until it was his turn.

Dr. Freeman. So stoic, so courageous, so untouchable, almost inhuman… except he wasn’t in the slightest. Spend more than ten minutes with the guy and that image falls apart. I heard the alerts from the suit about accelerated heart rate. Not just in the middle of battle, but in the middle of some conversations. In the middle of the day after stepping on a branch that cracked. During sleep. It wasn’t hard to tune out; it was faint, just a tinny automated noise meant for him to hear. But it was a nice reminder, sometimes, that he was human like the rest of us. 

He was strong, but not invincible. After what happened with my dad, he dragged me out of there, somehow got me into the car, and drove as fast and as far as he could before it started going dark. At first I thought he had shut down, but as we took turns too quickly and drove over things we shouldn’t have, I saw it for what it was -- frantic concentration. And the second we hit a clearing, he barely had the thing to a stop before he stumbled out of it and threw up. The drive didn’t get us any closer to a particular place, but gave me time to be lost in my own grief, and finally appreciate, as we set up camp, that I didn’t have to grieve alone. Gordon had known my dad almost as long as I did, I think. My dad was always so fond of him. I definitely said some selfish and unkind things when Gordon was dragging me away from the scene. I remember trying to apologize that night after staring into the fire for probably an eternity, but he just put his arm around my shoulder and shook his head. We sat like that for ages, and we both cried. You tend to become more than colleagues after a thing like that.

Anyway, you really start to miss someone when you turn to tell them something and they’re gone. It was the fourth day in a row of eating lunch in my room (cafeteria was too crowded, everyone looked bleak and covered in ash). I wanted to ask him if he’d been getting any sleep since coming to the base, but of course, he wasn’t there. So I started wandering. People had heard by now about Dr. Eli Vance’s tragic death and the return of His Daughter, Who Saw Everything, and I could freely walk around without anyone bothering me. Despite the circumstances, it felt nice to finally be invisible. 

I ran into Barney entirely by accident. He was looking over some security cams, killing time before a new group of refugees arrived and he would have to give them rudimentary weapons training before they were allowed in. He always complained about having to put the wide-eyed, skittish newcomers through ‘gundergarten,’ but I knew he secretly enjoyed having such a hands-on role.

“Hiya, Alyx. Come to show me a few new tricks?” He gave me a lazy smile and adjusted some knobs under the screens.

“Not today. Sorry to seem in a rush, but you haven’t seen Gordon anywhere, have you? He’s been MIA since we got back, and I’ve got some cool stuff I want to show him.” I tried to sound lighthearted. I’m not very good at pretending. Barney knows this.

“Uh… Yeah, I’ve seen him. Or at least I saw him a day or so after you did, I guess. Couple white coats were helping him get to his room. I called out and waved, but he must not have heard me.” He might have seemed unconcerned, but Barney isn’t good at pretending either. I saw on one of the screens that the convoy was approaching, so I make some excuse to go, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Helping him get to his room? Like, giving him directions? No, Barney would have said helping him find his room. But Gordon was fine when I’d left him. No limping, no serious injury, and not sick, as far as I could tell. Just tired. He even seemed cheerful. Where was he staying? What if I needed to find him? Did he know where to find me? No, this was too many questions. Time to find Kleiner. 

He was in his lab, looking over spreadsheets on a monitor and comparing them to something in his hand. I stood in his field of vision for a full minute before clearing my throat.

“Oh, Alyx, my dear! How have you been? Headaches still a problem?” I’d been roaming the facility for over an hour now, asking around, and was starting to get a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I rubbed my hand absently over it and got to the point.

“No, no, the pills worked fine. Thanks, by the way. But where’s Gordon got to? You guys haven’t sent him somewhere, have you?”

“What? No! Of course not!” He looked genuinely surprised, which made me feel a little better. I had just started to consider the possibility that he’d had a new mission lined up, and was prepared to fight for the man’s right to take a goddamn break, or at least get pissed that I hadn’t been asked to go. “No, no, nothing like that, he’s only recovering from the HEV. It’s unpleasant, but won’t kill him. In fact, after that examination, I’d be surprised if anything could kill that man. You should’ve seen the bruises, he was partially concussed too -- but then, you were there! You must’ve seen the beatings he took. Not to mention the bullets. Did you know the chestplate’s integrity was almost completely compromised? Another gunfight and he may as well have been wearing tin foil!” He saw me cross my arms and had the good sense to get on with it. “...But surely he’s been keeping in touch with you? He said he would,” he finished, looking a little scattered, as if he hadn’t realized who he was talking to. 

“Wait, recovering from the suit? What do you mean? What does that -- and how the hell would he be keeping in touch with me? Does this base suddenly have a postal service or something that I don’t know about?” I was starting to feel like I was going crazy. Kleiner’s look of confusion deepened, which made me furious. Then, all of a sudden, he looked guilty. 

“Oh. Oops.” He looked at the floor.

“Doctor.” I said, taking a step closer using a tone I remember hearing my mother use once with my father, cold and tight. It was half question, half absolute guarantee of imminent retribution. You’re on thin fuckin’ ice, pal. It was very effective. Kleiner positively dove for his research table and pulled a small square box with a screen out from under several stacks of paper and put it in the palm of my hand. 

“I, um, had it made. For better communication around the base. It’s just a prototype, and I wanted to give the two of you my first attempts. Thought you could use it to talk while recovering, and in the process, help me work out some of the bugs. Gordon’s already taken his apart twice.” I turned the device over in my hands. It was just a black screen, a button on the top, a slider on the side… I pressed it, and something that looked like a miniature (but unmarked) keyboard slid out underneath and locked in place. The whole thing could be held somewhat comfortably in two hands.

“What does it… do?” I gave up, asking after about a minute.

“First of all, let me apologize. I was going to give it to you as you were leaving the lab the other day, but you were in a hurry and I was… distracted.” Suddenly I remembered Kleiner calling after me, telling me to wait, and then changing his mind. I’d wanted a hot shower, he’d wanted to investigate some readings on the suit. “Anyway,” he continued sheepishly, “it’s a low tech communication device. Walkies and radio work fine in a control room, or between bases, but a number of us have been working on something like an old pager for a more discrete way to send messages. We have an internal messaging system of course, but not everyone is going to be in front of a computer all the time. This one has a range limit, so isn’t exactly suitable out in the field… but as we’ve been getting more and more people coming in… well, Eli had always been just as persistent about making strides in restoring the human community as well as human combat ability.”

I turned the device over and over in my hands, thinking about my dad. He always said that humanity’s greatest strength was not in our claws or teeth or even ability to use tools, it was our ability to come together for a common purpose. The thought of him still struck bone, but it was paired with an immeasurable burst of love. I suppose it will always be like that. I liked the idea that I was holding something brand new that he had inspired, even though he was gone. Still gone.

“Gordon got one too. They run on rechargeable batteries, and tap into the Ethernet we’ve got running through the building, so,” he handed me a small grey cord with a square plug on the side, “any time you see a port in the walls -- and there should be one somewhere in your room -- you should be able to transmit written messages to up to three recipients. The button on the top there turns it on, just hold it down until things start lighting up. We haven’t put letters on the keyboard yet, but I’ve seen you type without looking at your hands, so you should be able to figure it out. It takes a few minutes for the thing to power up. Do let me know if you run into any problems,” he finished, wringing his hands. I can write him messages? Anytime within the base? I almost wanted to compliment him on such elegant work, until I remembered I was unspeakably cross with him. 

“This is nice, Doc, but it would’ve been nicer to have a week ago. And you still haven’t answered my questions about Gordon. Is he sick? What the hell is the suit doing to him?” Kleiner sighed and sat heavily in his chair. He adjusted his glasses.

“Listen, I was serious when I spoke about what kind of shape he came back in. Never seen that much widespread damage on someone still alive. I know it just looked like ugly bruising, but there were deeper injuries, too. Torn muscles. Frayed ligaments. Several jammed and bruised bones. A couple hairline fractures. Three toenails are definitely going to fall off from what I can assume is kicking things or having things dropped on them.” I grimaced. I’d had it happen to me a couple times, and I knew they would heal and regrow, but still. Ouch. “Point is,” he said, leaning his elbows on his knees, “that every time the suit senses enough pain to keep the wearer from staying on their feet, it dispenses a heavy military-grade painkiller. And morphine, like any other medication, is not without side effects. Not to mention the fact that it eventually wears off.” And just like that, I understood completely. 

I knew his suit was dispensing morphine. It announced it every time. Well, every time up until one night Gordon got sick of the voice and slapped a button on his wrist. The little orange light on his collar still blinked, though, as did the red one when dispensing whatever cocktail of antibiotics, antiinflammatories and muscle relaxants kept him alive. I tried to remember how many times I had seen it start blinking, which got me wondering if it had ever actually stopped. 

“So… he’s going through withdrawal? On top of everything else?” I was starting to get a little upset at how much the world seemed to be dumping on this guy who was doing everything in his power to save it. I half turned from Kleiner and sat on the desk behind me, letting out a weary sigh. The device in my hands was beginning to emit a warm green glow as it started its basic start-up programming. I stuck one end of the cord into the wall, trying to think what kind of message I would send.

“My sentiments exactly. We gave him small doses at first to wean his body off, but at a certain point, you just need to stop administering completely. It’s safe, and we’ve got him under constant watch, but you know how much he hates being hovered over, so we’ve tried to keep medical intervention to a minimum unless absolutely necessary,” he finished. Something made frantic beeping noises and Kleiner popped up and around, staring at the results on his computer. “Ahh,” he said, pleased. “The connection is back up. Sorry Alyx, but I’ve really got to get these results to the boys in the test room.”

Just then, the communicator in my hands started buzzing. Ten times it buzzed, and fell silent. I stared at it, trying to figure out its controls, and absentmindedly said goodbye to Kleiner before realizing he had already left the room.

 

5032020

MSG1001: Well this is new. I’m impressed. Is yours up and running yet?

(3:37PM)

MSG1002: Nope. I literally just watched yours buzz on the table. He forgot to give it to you. Of course.

(3:37PM)

MSG1003: Asked one of the techs if you got your comm unit yet. They said probably. One saw doc k carrying it around earlier

(9:22PM)

5042020

MSG1004: Slept the whole night. Woke up sore as hell. Who knew pillows could be so uncomfortable. Same problem on your end?

(8:12AM)

5052020

MSG1005: shit is this how everyone feels when I don’t talk to them? You mustve thought I was such an asshole in the beginning

(12:02PM)

MSG1006: i’m in room 1606. You probably never got your comm but i’m going to rebuild mine just in case nothing is going through

(1:49PM)

MSG1007: they won’t let me get out of bed. I’m so bored please come tell me stupid stories. Did you know it’s possible for your elbows to be sore

(6:25PM)

MSG1008: not that your stories are stupid i just want to not thinkabout the fate of the world for 5 secs

(6:27PM)

5062020

MSG1009: i think i’m dying and i don’t know what to do. They said i’m fine but I can’t remember what they said is wrong wiht me and I don’t want to look stupid and ask

(3:11AM)

MSG1010: please comeoever

(4:57AM)

 

The last two messages were dated May 6. Yesterday. Nothing from today. God damnit. 

 

I don’t remember leaving the lab, but I do remember bumping into a curly haired scientist scurrying past me. I grabbed her ungraciously by the arm and asked where the 1600 wing was. She either recognized me or recognized that I was about to sock the next person who didn’t give me a clear answer, because she relayed a surprisingly understandable string of words detailing exactly where to go. I was outside 1606 in less than 3 minutes.

There were a couple medical charts in a plastic bin outside the door, but other than that, nothing special. I fought the urge to kick the door down after seeing a sticky note on the door frame that said ‘Enter supervised only. No visitors’ but settled on squaring up my shoulders, ready to tackle some poor nursing assistant, and gave a polite knock. No answer. Perfect. I shouldered the door open carefully, feeling delightfully sneaky as the door didn’t so much as scrape the floor. I weaseled into the dark room, silently shutting the door behind me, and turned -- Oh, god. Gordon.

He was on the bed, curled up into a shape way too small and not moving. Blankets piled everywhere. There was a fire burning in a little furnace across the room, which, along with the wood panel walls and warm rug on the floor, gave the feeling of a bedroom rather than a hospital room. There was that, at least. Some food was laid on the table next to the bed, small pieces of army rations and oyster crackers and a single chocolate chip cookie. They’d been giving those out in the cafeteria two days ago. Has he not eaten for two days? Are these leftovers? Jesus. What was I even doing here? I suddenly felt like an intruder.

There was a bucket on the floor under the bed, clean for now. I need to leave, I thought. I need to leave. This is ridiculous. I could’ve at least sent a message first. The whole time, however, I made my way steadily towards the bed. No backing down now, Alyx. Plus, he asked me to come over. So here I am. I have every right to be here. Right? Right.

Gordon was asleep, but not comfortably so. I found myself sitting on the edge of the bed watching. At this point I felt like I’d watched him sleep a million times, but this felt different. Out there, I’d be on watch while he did his half-awake-half-asleep nightly routine until it was time for us to switch. But this… on the one hand, I’d never seen him so deeply asleep, but this didn’t look like good sleep.

He was soaked and trembling. Piled in blanket upon blanket, with more at the foot of the bed, and combined with the heat of the furnace, he had to be boiling. The sheets were a dark burgundy color, but not so dark that I couldn’t make out the even darker, sweat-stained halo around his head and shoulders. His hair was a mess, plastered to his face in a way that made him look terribly young. His beard was starting to lose it's clean cut look he’d managed to keep out on the field, so he’d probably shaved that first or second day before the mandatory bed rest. 

His eyes were sunken and dark. I’d never actually seen him without his glasses on, I realized. Even when we slept out in the ruins, he had always been propped up against something (he said it was the most comfortable position the suit would let him sleep in) so he never really took them off except to clean them. I looked around for them for a moment until I saw them loosely held in his hand, peeking out under the blankets. He lay curled up, facing the wall away from me, and as I moved his glasses to the table so they wouldn’t get crushed, I saw the slim grey cord protruding from under the blanket near his hands. He had his comm plugged it. Still waiting for a reply.

I’d never really had a friend this close. I thought I had, and five minutes earlier I would’ve even been able to name a few, but not now. Watching him sleep uneasily, shivering, sweating, sick. I felt like screaming. I remembered vividly the way he’d grabbed my waist to pull me out of the way of some falling scaffolding, and later admitting he hadn’t even known what he was doing at the time. The way he always stood directly under where I was climbing, just in case. The first time I heard a poison headcrab victim sobbing as it staggered towards me and I couldn’t move. He’d gently turned me towards him and shot it twice in the head. I remembered the look on his face when a headcrab dropped down right in front of him while he was on guard duty and I was trying to sleep. I’d never seen a crowbar move so fast. The damn thing not only died on impact, but skipped like a stone on water until falling over a small nearby cliff. I’d been about to give a small whoop of triumph, but stopped when I saw he was terrified and trembling. When he finally turned to see if I had been woken up, I was feigning sleep believably enough for him to sink to the floor and let out a self-indulgent sigh of relief. That time he drove and drove until he puked.

I was replaying all these little moments in my head when he turned, still asleep, away from the wall and onto his other side. The blankets slid down and I saw he was wearing a thin white shirt, also soaked and stuck to him. I should go. I pulled the blankets up around his shoulders and, in a moment of pure affection, brushed away the hair that was stuck to his forehead. His skin was not burning up like I thought it would be, but was clammy and cold.

I frowned. Why was he so cold? He was sweating. It was about a million degrees in here. That didn’t make any sense. I reached under the blanket to touch his chest, and found it to be cold as well. At some point during the minute or two I spent deciding whether to call the nearest doctor, I saw his eyes. Still bright, but feverishly so, and unfocused. He was watching me.

“Hey,” I said simply. He just kept staring. “You look like shit.” And then, a smile.

“Alyx.” His voice was hoarse, probably from coughing or vomiting or both, but he sounded relieved. I took his wrist to check his pulse, but he misread my action and turned his hand so he was holding mine. Fine by me, as I could still feel his heartbeat -- stronger than I expected -- and apart from the cold dampness of his fingers, the position seemed natural. I felt less in a rush to leave.

“Are you as cold as you look?” I asked.

“Colder.”

“Should I call somebody?”

“Ugh. Rather you didn’t.”

“That annoying?”

“Mhm.”

“What can I do?” I asked, earnestly. If I was going to stay, I might as well be useful.

Gordon looked around blearily for a moment before squinting at his glasses. I grabbed them and wiped them off before clumsily putting them on his face.

“Help me get over there?” He pointed limply at the furnace. 

“Yeah, absolutely. One sec.” I stood from the bed and scanned the room before my eyes settled on three round floor pillows stacked in the corner. I grabbed two of them and placed them as close to the furnace as I dared. I was already warm, but I’d stopped caring. I went over to the shelf at the foot of the bed and found several clean white shirts like the one he was wearing now, and grabbed a new one. I headed back to the bed and began peeling layers off of Gordon. The blankets became increasingly more damp as I went (Acrylic sheets? Whose idea was that?! No wonder he was sweating) and finally took his elbow and helped him into a sitting position. He looked queasy and disoriented, but was very pliable. He seemed content to have someone else -- or maybe just me -- moving his body so that he didn’t have to. He didn’t complain when I peeled him out of the shirt, he just sat there swaying a little, shivering so hard I’m surprised he didn’t fall off the mattress. I helped him swing his feet over the side of the bed, and when I got a shoulder under his arm to help him walk to the pillow in front of the fire, I almost launched him into space.

I’d helped Gordon walk once before, when he got hit in the side of the knee as we were running for the entrance of a small house. There was no time to wait for his suit to kick in, and even with the painkillers, he’d been wobbly for a couple hours afterwards. It was like having to move a small car. I braced myself for the weight again, expecting the immovable density of the suit, and was alarmed to find myself supporting what felt like a six foot tall third grader. Compared to his stature before, he felt hollow. I kept reminding myself that this was not a disease, not some incurable thing eating away at him, just a bad break. Just withdrawal. Just the strongest person I’ve ever met, reduced to almost nothing.

I got him to the furnace without throwing him across the room, and he collapsed with a huff in front of the open flame. His hands shook as he held them out, almost touching the grate, and I took a moment to stare in shock at his skin.

It almost looked, if you squinted, like he was still wearing the HEV suit. His chest and arms were sprayed with orange firelight in the near-black room, and there were dark purple and greenish-yellow bruises in the same shape as the plates on his arms and back. His black cotton shorts went down to his knees, but I could see similar shapes under the hair on his shins and calves. I went back to the shelf and found a thick fleece blanket. By the time I knelt behind him and motioned for him to lift his arms to put on the clean shirt, the sweat that covered him had nearly dried. When he was dressed, I threw the massive fleece blanket around us both. 

I was suddenly reminded of the night by the fire after my dad died. The way he’d put his arm around me to keep me steady, the searing brightness of the flame, the little pieces of his ration bar that he kept breaking off and handing me as I robotically put them in my mouth. It felt… right, me being here, like this, when he had done the same for me. None of this felt awkward anymore.

If I stretched, I could grab Gordon’s chocolate chip cookie off the bedside table without standing. I slipped out of my hoodie (too warm for both that and the blanket) and swiped the cookie, and when I settled back down in my cooler t-shirt, I handed it to him. His eyes were closed, but when he felt the cookie in his hands, he quickly shoved the whole thing in his mouth, regretted it, and then quickly backtracked to act like he’d done it on purpose. Crumbs spilled out of the corner of his mouth as we both silently laughed at the absurdity of all of this, and the last of the wall between us was gone. The blanket covered our shoulders, my arm was around his waist keeping him upright, his head on my shoulder.

I thought I’d had close friends before, but the truth was, I’d never even realized what closeness was. I’d had lovers I felt less comfortable around, and while there were definitely times when I felt a magnetic two-way attraction, this felt much more natural. There was no tension, no stiffness, no hesitation. I sat there for what felt like hours, doing exactly what he’d asked me to do -- tell him stories. I told him about talking to a vortigaunt for the first time. I told him about the time I almost stuck my hand in an industrial coffee grinder. I told him about the time I watched Lamar stalk and kill a rat. I told him about Barney and his trainees, and the way his battle monologues got a little more exaggerated every time he told them. I was convinced he was doing it on purpose to mess with people. I continued on even though I was fairly sure he was asleep, until I told the Barney story and he chuckled lightly at my impressions of him. And when he really was asleep, I kept going.

Eventually, as they were bound to, someone came in to check on us. The young woman looked startled for a moment to see two patients instead of one, but when she recognized me, she relaxed and mouthed, “Need anything?” I explained about the sheets, and she got another med tech to help change them (cotton this time, you dummies). I’d lightly roused Gordon by that point, and the three of us managed to get him, nearly unconscious, back into the clean bed. I took off his glasses and put them on the table. 

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, once the woman and her partner had left. He didn’t say anything, and was clearly dead asleep, but I said it again, more as a promise to myself. I would be back tomorrow, and the day after, and however long he wanted me too. Before I left, I plugged my comm device into the wall socket and sent a brief message. It buzzed reassuringly on his end, and, satisfied I’d done all I could, I dragged myself out of the room towards my own warm bed.

 

5072020

MSG0000: I can get more cookies. I know a guy. 

(SENT 10:13PM)

Chapter Text

5102020

MSG1022: I think I might be able to trick them into letting me out. Gonna test it in the morning.

(1:31AM)

MSG0012: haha good luck getting past the Warden. What was that nurse’s name again?

(SENT 7:15AM)

MSG1023: Her name is Caroline. and she scares the hell out of me

(7:16AM)

MSG0013: I know she does. But remember, she’s probably just as scared of you as you are of her.

(SENT 7:18AM)

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

(7:20AM)

MSG0025: With zip ties. Not sexy

(7:20AM)

MSG0014: You’re an engineer, you could figure it out

(SENT 7:21AM)

MSG0026: PHYSICIST. How dare you

(7:23AM)

 

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.

 

5102020

MSG2048: come on, don’t leave me hangin. did she like the surprise? did she spit out her coffee? 

(9:35AM)

 

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. 

(SENT 9:37AM)

 

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 

(9:38AM)

MSG0045: are you suggesting my swagger and charm went somewhere? 

(SENT 9:38AM)

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

(9:39AM)

 

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.”