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Left.

Right.

Left.

Right.

Left.

The chair beneath the head of the mixology department squeaks from the strain, the same note it always plays when leaned on at just the perfect angle. It’s high and annoying, but not to Darnold. To him, the sound is normal, welcomed. 

Squeak.

Right.

Squeak.

Left.

Repeatedly, Darnold shifts in his desk chair, the wheels beneath rolling ever so slightly across the stained white tile of his laboratory. Rather than do something rash like panic or let anxiety consume him, the man continues his movements. His hands still sting slightly from an hour ago, when he’d— when he’d shot a soldier of the US military. 

He had really killed someone.

It was not easy. Those lunatics lied to him. They disrespected his potions, made a mess of his lab, then left, the only evidence they’d been there at all were the blood stains on the walls, toppled over containers, and his drenched, sticky computer. Technically, it was he who left first, cracking under the pressure and absconding with his rocket shoes, but Darnold thinks he deserves the right to mope a little bit, considering all the damage they’ve done to him emotionally.

No, no. Don’t think about that yet.

Squeak.

Right.

Squeak.

Left.

When you’re a simple potion maker alone in an apocalypse you’d just been told exists an hour ago, what else can you do but take a breather? With the way his lab is set up, the world could damn well be ending around Darnold and he wouldn’t know it. He didn’t know it up until now, and he had honestly preferred it that way. But no, Dr Gordon Freeman just had to be the bearer of bad news. 

Apparently this ‘Science Team’ was going to put an end to all this alien nonsense and save the world. Darnold has yet to see a single alien, so he’s skeptical this isn’t all just one big prank, but he’s not exactly wishing to see one for proof. If it means living, he’ll risk being the embarrassment of MTV’s newest reality TV show and stay cooped up in his own personal bubble of safety.

Apart from Dr Freeman and his asshole security guard friend, Darnold doesn’t have much reason to distrust the rest of the group— not to imply he fully trusts them either. 

Dr Coomer is a familiar face and name to Darnold. The old bastard has been around Black Mesa longer than Darnold has, and his clones were everywhere . Even though they circulated entirely different departments on practically opposite ends of the facility, the man had a reputation before him. He was the champion and founder of the Black Mesa Boxing Ring, after all. A decade earlier in his more youthful years, this was something Darnold found exciting. He still does, but not nearly to the same extent. 

Another member of this team was Bubby, if Darnold recalls the title correctly. Oh yes, he knows that specimen all too well, just not by this new name. The infamous Ex Nihilo Project, having gone on for well over fifteen years now, was complete! Black Mesa must have finally succeeded in creating a life form that didn’t deteriorate into one of the nasty prototypes they trashed in the deep depths of the Waste and Wacky Torture departments. 

Being a bit of a senior scientist himself, Darnold is well versed in the history of the Ex Nihilo Project, having worked on it in its earliest stages, long before he was transferred to the cybernetics and mixology unit. Though seemingly unwelcoming in personality, Darnold does regret not taking a moment to approach the Bubby personally and prod his brain for some information. He is a scientist, after all, and would have loved to learn of the prototype’s experiences as the sole successful survivor of its kind. 

However, it simply was not the proper moment for chit-chat at the time. Perhaps if they get out of this entire mess Darnold can goad Bubby into some tests and observations for old time’s sake. You work on a project once and you grow curious about its end results. Who could blame him?

The last member of the team was a very familiar face, though Darnold can’t tell if he’s seen the man before or if he just had one of those faces. The kind that looks like several other people you’ve met, you know? But… no… Tommy Coolatta’s face was too familiar to just be coincidence. 

Or maybe Darnold is trying to find an excuse for how much he was openly staring at it, because damn if that man wasn’t handsome. He was not very talkative compared to his teammates, but the excitement in his voice when he mentioned the Powerade was beyond charming. Darnold isn’t used to having vocal fans of his work— Black Mesa never gives him any credit for his stunning achievements in flavor and potionology— so it’s just his luck that his biggest fan is also an attractive man he will have one conversation with before he’s gone, no work e-mail to write down and certainly no phone number to hit up later.

Darnold’s always been a bit too invested in his work. Maybe this end of the world stuff isn’t so bad? If all goes well, and he’s praying to every god he believes in that it does, he can explore life outside the walls of Black Mesa. Drink something other than an energy drink or coffee, live life, get back into dating, fly a kite, box, go swimming; the possibilities are endless.

He must sit there stimming in his rolly chair for hours, his train of thought long since departed from the rails, when there’s a blue light that engulfs his vision. At first, Darnold believes that he is dying. This is it. Either the Science Team failed and the world is ending, or those nukes lying dormant directly above his lab finally activated.

But no, he’s just on a tram in space suddenly, that’s it. Tommy—no, wait a second— fucking G-Man , the head honcho of the entire operation, is standing before him, suitcase in hand and blue eyes glowing. Holy shit. That’s why he recognized Tommy! They must be related somehow! Honestly Darnold was beginning to believe G-Man’s entire existence was just a myth made up to scare Black Mesa employees into order, but here he was, standing right before his very eyes!

Darnold also stands, frazzled but undeterred in a pursuit for knowledge. He’s always been a firm believer of the idiom 'Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.’ Holding out an eager hand, Darnold approaches his boss.

“G-Man, sir! My goodness, it’s an honor to meet you in person! What’s going on? Where are we? Did the world end?”

G-Man motions for him to lower his hand. Okay, so no hand shake, Darnold can respect that. The man in the suit nods his head a fraction of an inch to the right, indicating the green portal in the place of the tram’s exit. Like straight out of a cartoon. 

“Hello, Dr Darnold. It seems my… son… has, taken a liking to you. The world, it— has been saved… for now… by Dr Freeman and his team of scientists. Why don’t you join them, hm? It is my dear boy’s… Birth. Day. We are celebrating. Just on the other side of that. Portal.”

“So he’s your son .” Darnold rubs his chin in thought, nodding to himself. “That certainly makes more sense than my theory. Or, well, less sense, depending on who’s perspective you look through.”

“Theory?” G-Man asks. He almost sounds amused.

Darnold, realizing he’s been thinking of hitting on his scary boss’s next of kin , promptly shuts his mouth and grins innocently, taking a gracious step towards the portal.

“What? Nothing! Was I rambling? Well, I’d better be off, sir. Don’t want to keep Dr Coolatta waiting at his own birthday party!” Darnold chuckles nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. The last thing he wants right now is to be thrown through a window into the endless voice of space. 

“Dr Coolatta …” G-Man whispers under his breath, his almost predatory smile only growing wider, like he’s finding entertainment in Darnold’s flustered attempts at saving face. Great, his boss thinks he’s a huge loser, and they’ve only been talking for five minutes. Less talking, more portal hopping! He mumbles a rushed farewell before pushing through the green vortex.

 

Now, when G-Man said ‘birthday party’, Darnold pictured something like a bar or, perhaps an outdoor barbecue in the park. What he instead steps into is…

Chuck E Cheese’s.

………………...

Better this than a TGI Friday’s.




 

It’s late autumn, now. Darnold never liked calling this season ‘fall.’ Why waste such a beautiful word like ‘autumn’ when it was already there? It just felt right, like the word should only be written in cursive in orange ink. Orange is his favorite color, right next to yellow and brown. It smells of spices and crisp air, no humidity, the perfect amount of dryness and cold.

‘Fall’ was just a lame alternative, one syllable easier on the tongue. To fall implies to fail or take damage. He cannot think of one positive connotation for the word ‘fall.’ The leaves falling from their trees; that isn’t a good thing. Those leaves are dead. Though they are much prettier in death, they are still dead, their only purpose now to look colorful on the pavement and get stepped on by children or adventurous adults looking for a brief moment of satisfaction.

Tommy snuggles closer. He’s warm, and a constant energy radiates from his being. ‘ It’s an alien thing ’, he’d assured Darnold when they first started dating. The urge to dissect and study his boyfriend is sadly overpowered by Darnold’s humanity and love for the other man, though, so no science experiments for him. Not any time soon (He’ll get that Bubby prototype to succumb eventually).

For once, they’re not at Tommy’s mansion, instead in Darnold’s tiny little apartment on his tiny couch in his tiny living room. It’s cozy. Certainly much more campy than the expensive palace Tommy lives in. It’s also dim, the only light coming from the television where they’re watching Invitation to Love. Darnold could have sworn this was actually a fictional soap opera from a different show, but they must have made it a real thing while he was tucked away in Black Mesa slaving over Powerade all day.

Whatever it is, Tommy likes it, so they watch it, even if Darnold still has no idea what the plot is. That’s just love, apparently. And an excuse to cuddle. Either or.

Sunkist is also here. She’s lying on her back at the foot of the couch, snoring up a storm that only a dog can. It’s adorable, and the perfect white noise to fall asleep to at night. Her paws occasionally twitch when she cycles through REM and dreams. What could she possibly even be dreaming about? Something related to her owner, certainly. Maybe squirrels?

“I’m tired,” Tommy says in his cute sleepy voice, yawning and snuggling into Darnold even more. They’re both already dressed down for the night, hot cocoa drained from their mugs and set aside, a bundle of blankets cocooning them. 

“I can’t get up if you keep cuddling with me,” he chuckles. Tommy whines in complaint, burrowing his face even further into Darnold’s chest. He pauses the television with the remote, then turns it off.

“Let’s go to bed,” his boyfriend mumbles, barely audible around the cloth of Darnold’s t-shirt. 

“I’m not carrying you.”
“Why not?”

“Because I don’t have freak alien strength like you do. Why don’t you carry me for once ?”

Tommy sighs dramatically before looking up at Darnold with a pout. Darnold pouts right back. Tommy is Six-Foot-Fuck and more muscle than he seems, weighing way too much for Darnold’s old human capabilities. Not that he’s old, he’s just not young. Whatever, point is: he’s not about to carry his alien boyfriend all the way to his bedroom when he’s barely awake himself.

“Fine,” Tommy sighs, pecking Darnold on the lips with a smug smile. In a blink, they’re on Darnold’s bed, blankets and everything. Sunkist is also there by their feet, still snoring away, unbothered by the teleportation/time warp. Darnold groans as his head pounds painfully, shutting his eyes and letting his head fall back onto the pillows.

“I hate when you do that.”

“I hate when you don’t carry me.”

“Go to sleep!” Darnold laughs, pushing Tommy away and turning onto his side. Tommy wraps his long arms around him, pulling Darnold close and nuzzling into the nape of his neck. He’s a barnacle when he’s affectionate and sleepy. Everything about him is just so... 

So unnatural.




 

To be honest, Darnold is handling his emotions pretty damn well all things considered. All those pesky anxieties, questions about the universe and life itself, and worries for his reality are neatly packed deep in his mind, tucked away in a dark little corner he plans on forgetting exists until accidentally rediscovering it years later through a new traumatic experience that resurfaces repressed memories. 

 

Yes, things are very chill in this Chuck E Cheese’s right now. 

 

There are other scientists at the birthday party. Darnold recognizes none of them. They’re partying to a song Darnold can’t make out any of the lyrics to, performing the same dance moves over and over in stationary positions, like they’re hired strippers. The kind that go to bachelor parties for the groom’s one last hoo-rah! Right? Darnold’s never been to one, much less married, himself. 

“Who are those guys?” Darnold whispers to Dr Coomer, seated to his right and chugging canned soda like there’s no tomorrow. The older man pauses his drinking to follow his line of sight.

“Those are NPC’s!”

“Huh?”

“The party would be rather empty without them, don’t you think?”

“What? Yeah, I mean- what do you mean NPC’s? This isn’t…”

“A video game?” Dr Coomer chuckles, his tone void of its signature joviality. “Don’t be ridiculous. Why don’t you go talk to the birthday boy?”

If said birthday boy was not the hot scientist  of whom he was attracted to, Darnold may have refused Coomer’s suggestion and questioned the old man further. However, as if summoned, said birthday boy is now looking at Darnold from across the room, silently beckoning him over with his eyes. His brilliant yellow eyes. 

He walks to Tommy, magnetized by a simple smile and raise of the eyebrows. The man is standing before a poster of himself on the wall, decorated with birthday wishes written in sharpie, different colors and fonts for different friends. Most are near the bottom, but there’s one at the very top in green. 

“Hi Darnold!” Tommy chirps. 

“Hello, Dr Coolatta.”

“Doc-Dr Coolatta? Wh- you don’t- you don’t have to do that. My friends just call me Tommy.”

Darnold accepts the out-held sharpie. Orange. His favorite. 

“Why not? You’re a doctor, aren’t you?”

“Yeah ...” he mumbles. Darnold doesn’t know the man very well yet, but he can tell Tommy’s smile is strained. The other man changes the subject hurriedly. “Do you wanna sign my birthday card? It’s big!”

Pressing the issue further would not make for a good first, proper and not-in-the-middle-of-an-alien-invasion impression, so he nods. The poster is the card, apparently, and everyone has signed it like a cast. Dr Bubby wishes for Tommy’s ‘speedy recovery.’ Very unorthodox as far as birthday parties go, but none of this has been average from the get-go. He signs:

‘Happy Birthday, Tommy. Thank you for the invite. 

-Darnold’

He’ll have to properly thank him through actions later rather than writing, seeing as that invite probably saved his life. How lucky he is to have met Tommy, if only briefly. Would he still be stuck back in his lab right now otherwise? Alone, waiting for his doom? 

“Yay!” Tommy grins, his hands flapping delightfully by his sides. They look lovely to hold. He’s known this man a few hours and he’s already in the deep end. The fact that Tommy inadvertently saved his life definitely has something to do with it. Can that be considered a strand of Stockholm Syndrome?

His pining thoughts are interrupted by one of those gentle hands taking his own and replacing the sharpie with a flip phone. There are charms of cartoon characters dangling from the bottom, most notably a cat-unicorn Lego figurine. The screen displays a page for entering a new contact. Oh! Tommy watches him expectantly. 

“I’m going to be honest,” Darnold starts as he enters his cellphone number and name. “I still have no idea what is happening right now.”

He returns to Tommy his phone, skin prickling at the sensation of their fingers brushing. It’s so cliche. There are butterflies and everything. 

“It’s my birthday!” Tommy helpfully supplies. 

“Yes, but-“

“We should be- be having fun!” The man cuts him off, a hand clapping his shoulder. “I’ll tell you all about it after the party! Now come on, let’s play ski-ball!” Tommy’s hand slides down to his wrist and pulls, dragging Darnold towards the arcade. 

Okay, this is fine; he can wait a few more hours for some proper answers. Today is Tommy’s day, and they’re almost holding hands, and the yellow silly bands around Tommy’s wrist are very fitting and make Darnold smile. He’s got baby blue sea bands on as well. Are they for stimming? Darnold wonders faintly- hoping, even- that they’re similar in that sense. 

They play ski-ball, amongst other arcade games. Tommy is naturally an expert at most of them whereas Darnold needs a few attempts before getting the hang of them. They avoid the ball-pit; Tommy mentions offhand that he hates the texture of the balls and the sensation of the entire mess, a sentiment which Darnold instantly agrees on. Plus, ball-pits are gross. 

They bond, the two of them, as they play these games made for children. The act of playing and having fun with no fear of judgement is something Darnold hasn’t experienced in many decades. He can have unrestrained fun with Tommy without the threat of embarrassment lurking just around the corner. Every minute spent with the younger scientist just further solidifies Darnold’s premature crush on him. 

‘Crush.’ See? He really is channeling his inner child now. Crush is also a type of soda, mainly competing with Coca-Cola’s Fanta and Sunkist. 

Sunkist is also the name of Tommy’s perfect immortal dog, designed and created by the man himself. She stays in a general proximity to Tommy at all times, little balls of light occasionally leaving her mouth as she barks at arcade games or the NPC’s. The scientists . Darnold doesn’t want to call them Dr Coomer’s term. 

“She’s my service dog,” Tommy explains over a game of speed-hoops, his aim impeccable. “But I can usually- I can- most of the time I don’t even bring her to work. Black Mesa is boring for dogs.”

Ah, yes, her entertainment is the highest priority of course. Not her safety or the general workspace rules. Darnold laughs. 

“You made her all by yourself? That’s incredible! An entire team of scientists could barely create a functioning human, yet you single-handedly made the perfect dog?”

Tommy beans something bright, his cheeks glowing red as he scratches under his propeller cap. 

“Well, I guess my dad had something to do with it somehow. I think I have alien super powers!”

“You… think?”

“Oh, yeah! I didn’t even know I had a dad until today! I thought I- I thought I was an- an orphan!”

“Wow… that’s a lot of information to unpack.” Way too much. So many questions immediately flood Darnold’s mind. All of them are too rude to ask, no doubt (They would all be answered over time, but in the moment he almost short-circuits). Is it wrong his first desire is to run tests and collect data? Oh, absolutely. Darnold really needs to work on his first-date etiquette. Not that this is a date. 

In an attempt to distract himself from these thoughts, he aims a warm smile Tommy's way. 

“Well, you seem like a very intelligent scientist. I’m sure your father had nothing to do with your own achievements. Give yourself some credit.”

Not expecting the praise, the man can only laugh, bowing his head to hide a startled cough and a tiny ‘thank you.’ Impressively, it hardly interrupts the speed at which he continues to shoot hoops. 

After a few more rounds of air hockey and whack-a-mole, Tommy finally tires of the arcade and drags Darnold to the table. Food has been served, and his stomach rumbles at the sight of several pizzas laid out on platters. It’s cheap rat pizza, but it’s still pizza, and Darnold hasn’t eaten in… well, he can’t even recall! 

Tommy, the star of this whole shebang, sits at the head of the table, patting the spot on the table to his right for Darnold. He accepts the invitation, but can’t help and glance at their company. Dr Coomer and Bubby sit across from him, the former subdued and quietly draining his umpteenth soda while the latter is rubbing his palms together eagerly as he hungrily eyes the pizza. Gordon Freeman sits opposite of Tommy at the other end of the table, his face unreadable behind his glasses, hand replaced with a new, slightly more fitting appendage than the one Darnold’s potion grew (he liked the tubes more, personally).

He assumes this ragtag group of men have become close over the course of events this past however-long-it’s-been (Darnold wouldn’t know), so it seems peculiar to him that they’re not showering Tommy with attention. It’s his special day, isn’t it? Shouldn’t good friends you’ve taken to an alien planet and fought a space god with be more sociable?

“Not that I don’t enjoy your company, Tommy, but if I may ask; is there a reason you’ve been dragging me around specifically?” He whispers, leaning in close to the man, hoping the others can’t hear him over the blasting music and their pizza tunnel vision. Tommy leans in as well, his smile a bit exasperated. 

“You’re, uh well you’re the closest to my age, I guess. I dunno.” 

“Wait, really? How old is Gordon?”

“He’s only twenty seven!” Tommy frowns. “Yet sometimes he- he tr- treats me like a child. And he’s been grumpy since he got here.” 

It’s true; Dr Freeman has been moping around like a lost puppy since he arrived, his party hat unfitting above the constant perplexed frown upon his face. It’s almost as bad as Dr Coomer’s mysterious melancholic state. The old scientist keeps staring into the distance silently, his brow furrowed. It’s ominous and unnerving. And Bubby is, well.

Suddenly understanding Tommy’s predicament in lack of befitting company, Darnold nods. This poor man had to traverse all of Black Mesa on foot with these neurotic assholes? His existing respect for the man increases in tenfold. 

Flinching when Tommy lightly places a hand over his own, he snaps his attention back. They’re very close. Close enough that Darnold can clearly make out the faint freckles around the birthday boy’s smile. Tommy giggles. 

“Plus, I like you!”

“I like you, too,” he blurts out, then clears his throat, ears warming. “You’re a fun person to be around, doctor.”

 




Waking up is a different experience for everyone. 

For people with severe anxiety like Gordon Freeman, who is forever traumatized by being rolled down a ladder like a barrel in his slumber, the moment sleep ends is the moment his eyes open, wide and alert, heart racing, scanning the area for immediate threats. 

Bubby does not dream, wasn’t programmed to, so sleeping is just a way to recharge his batteries and an excuse to bury his face into his husband’s warm pecs. He powers on moreso than he wakes up, not unlike a computer. 

Dr Coomer snores heavy and loud and is slow to rise, preferring to bask in that blissful period of bare consciousness where you know you’re awake but the responsibilities of the day haven’t even entered your mind’s orbit. 

Tommy always stretches with a small groan when he wakes up, like a dog who’s just had the best 4 PM nap of its life. Usually his shuffling is what wakes Darnold, since they spend most of their nights in the same bed, but the disturbance of his sleep is no problem when it earns him a sleepy kiss and a warm breakfast in the kitchen.

When Darnold is alone, he simply wakes up. There are no notable quirky traits he can think of that make him worthy of talking about. So, go figure, it’s a bit of a surprise when his sleep is interrupted by the sound of his own panicked shout, a hoarse scream whose volume is only dampened by the dryness of his throat. This immediately alerts both Tommy and Sunkist, who make haste in hovering over him as he collects himself, heart racing from a fleeting feeling of… terror? Darnold can’t recall what caused this; even in the far reaches of his short-term memory he can only see a dark void and numbers like coding. Why would he be scared of that, though? He’s well aware at this point of their place in the universe.

“Babe?” Tommy asks, his voice slurred with drowsiness he hasn’t yet shaken off. He’s got a reassuring hand placed on Darnold’s lap, his bedhead wild and sticking up in every direction. Darnold smiles, sighing through his nose and relaxing his shoulders, then lies back down, pulling Tommy with him. Sunkist lies her head on his shin.

“I’m fine. I don’t know what that was.” He brushes a stray hair from his boyfriend’s forehead. Tommy yawns, fighting to keep his eyes open. It’s only five, and Tommy becomes a wreck if he doesn’t get up at exactly 7:11 AM, so there’s still time for sleep. 

“You’ve never done that before.”

“Mhm. I’m aware.”
“You okay?”

Darnold chuckles. It’s obvious Tommy is battling the grip of unconsciousness hard, but his eyelids droop lower with each coming second. Darnold kisses his cheek, petting his jaw tenderly, like a human luring a kitten to sleep with repetitive strokes. 

“Fine,” he reiterates. “Sleepy. Go back to bed.” He’s not tired at all, but he doesn’t want to worry Tommy over a nightmare he doesn’t even remember nor care about. 

Like clockwork, the alien almost purrs as he drifts off, exhaling and cuddling closer to Darnold’s chest. The mixologist lies still, awake, hyper-aware of the two sleeping figures that rest on his body. Sunkist has already begun snoring again, a bit of drool soaking the sheets on his leg, and Tommy’s breathing is even. His heartbeat is slow, much slower than any human rate. 

What does it look like? Is it shaped like a human’s? Tommy’s blood is red, darker than average and just a bit thicker in texture. A few weeks ago Darnold had actually taken samples of everyone’s blood in case of emergency, whether it be transfusions in the face of injury or for other medical purposes. Sure, his passion lies in mixology, but he is a man of many doctorates and professions, deeming him the science team’s go-to for biological mishaps (second to Dr Coomer). 

Darnold really needs a new hobby- one unrelated to the field of science, because his obsession with his strange group of friends’ anatomies is growing concerning. Mixology will always be his number one passion, but a break from potion-making would be welcome. After turning his hobby into his job, the shackles of capitalism and its blockage of creative freedom burnt out his desire to explore the endless realm of possibilities within this once beloved field. 

He could always take up an art like painting or knitting. Retired people did shit like that, right? Busted out the rocking chair and went to town? Or maybe he could try taxidermy. Ah, there he goes again, thinking about cutting bodies open and exploring them, modifying them to his will. Can he really be blamed, though? The world is full of fascinating creatures, and three unique life forms are his friends! One is his boyfriend who he’s thinking of even marrying! The general population of the world doesn’t even know aliens exist and yet Darnold, a man of science and discovery, is lying with one asleep and vulnerable right before his very hands. 

It would be so easy to succumb to the dark, scientific desires within him. Would Tommy suspect a thing at all if he slipped an aphrodisiac into his drink one day? Took him by surprise with a hidden syringe?

These ideas, disgusting and reprehensible, are so vile that Darnold has to lock his muscles to restrain from shuddering. Intrusive thoughts claw and trample through his mind, unwelcome but present nonetheless. Driven by the guilt of uncontrollable urges, shaky hands pull away from Tommy and tuck into their owner’s chest. The troubled man rolls over, abandoning the comfort he knows he doesn’t deserve, biting his bottom lip harshly at the sound of Tommy’s sleepy whine of discomfort, no doubt missing the warmth of Darnold’s embrace. 

With open unmoving eyes he stares at the alarm clock. Red numbers glare back, daring him to find escape behind his eyelids, knowing their vibrant light will pierce through his futile attempts at protection. 

He could achieve so much alone with the data recorded off of these alien beings. Black Mesa may have ultimately failed as a company, but their discoveries could have changed the world itself if properly utilized. The world that was, of course, merely a simulation serving the purpose of entertaining Gordon Freeman. Well, that’s not entirely true. While Gordon was the main character of the game that was their life, it’s not fair to call him the protagonist, is it? Every game needs a player, after all, so was it truly Gordon who was in control?

Darnold hasn’t much pried Gordon’s mind since meeting him, seeing as the man was going through enough stress and PTSD without assistance, but if he were to ever sit down and interview him for research purposes, he would make sure to ask about his experience as a puppet. How else can he be described? Sure, the others like himself were merely side characters to aid Gordon on his journey, but the only thing controlling them was coding. Gordon was being played, by an outside force none of them have yet to even fathom. Certainly it was not God; there’s too much evidence proving otherwise, like the alien planets and bending of the space-time continuum. 

Is the player still watching them? Are they living freely now? Is this still part of some written narrative? Or have they truly broken free from the game like Dr Coomer and Tommy insist they have?

Darnold blinks. His eyes have grown bleary from staring at the clock for too long. Thinking. Pondering. He considers himself a ‘chill guy’ in these circumstances, but even he can’t help but question his existence and purpose in life from time to time. 

Well, if someone is watching them, he hopes they are at least enjoying the performance.

The alarm clock finally beeps, freeing Darnold of his existential prison— for now.

What awaits him today is chicken and waffles for breakfast, as promised by Tommy the night prior. The older scientist decides to focus on that instead and yet again buries his worries in the meantime. Certainly these cursed desires will fade away with time. 

Certainly. 




 

“Dear god I’m going to be sick,” Dr Bubby groans. He’s just scarfed down an entire pizza and three Grape Fantas, and his cheeks are tinted with a sickly green hue. It’s almost comedic how dramatically he shudders. “I am goingtogogoodbye!” 

He runs off into the direction of the bathrooms, a hand clamped over his mouth with cheeks puffed like a chipmunk. Darnold lowers his own slice of pizza mid bite and pushes his plate a few inches away. For some reason he’s lost his appetite. No clue why. 

Dr Coomer watches his husband leave, his smile fond yet worried, though not concerned enough to follow him. Besides, he’s got his twentieth can of Coca Cola to finish, and a singular Gordon Freeman to keep company since Tommy and Darnold are certainly not striking up a conversation with the man. It’s not their fault; they’re on the opposite end of the table! It’s basic dinner table etiquette to only talk to the people closest to you. 

Okay, so maybe that’s a load of bullshit, and the two are just too busy giggling and flirting under their breath to one another around their food to pay attention to anyone else, but Gordon isn’t exactly the most riveting guest to converse with right now. Something in the air of the party has changed, just slightly, like they've entered the eye of a hurricane. The music is lower, the NPC’s are gone, and personally? Darnold is growing a bit sleepy. Maybe it’s the soda, but his vision is beginning to fizzle around the edges, too. Even Tommy’s speech has begun to slur. 

“We launched two rockets . It was- it was so cool.” Tommy holds up three fingers. “Well. Three I think. One of them was to kill a big monster. The other two were for fun.”

“How did you manage that?” Darnold asks. 

“I used to be an aerospace engineer, for a little bit. That was before I made Sunkist in the bio engineering department!”

“That’s incredible.”

“It was nothing. We sat on a few keyboards in the- the Wikipedia room, mixed the caution and danger gas, and pressed a big red button. It was so easy!” 

“You went to the actual Wikipedia room?”

“Yeah!” Tommy takes another sip of his soda, nodding to Dr Coomer as the other man does the same. Unbeknownst to Darnold, the two share a look with meaning much deeper than just soda-based camaraderie. They both know what is coming. 

Darnold yawns, covering his mouth with a palm. 

“Wow, sorry, that was rude. I’m just a bit beat. Long day. Crazy stuff. You get it. Well, you might not, since you’re an alien-“

“I get it,” Tommy chuckles. “I’m tired, too. I wanna go home.”

“Then… why don’t you? What- are we waiting on cake?” 

Tommy mumbles something about Vin Diesel behind his fingers. 

Darnold eyes his surroundings. The sun is setting outside on the eerily empty parking lot, casting a beautiful yellow-orange light into the establishment windows. 

The Minion Things have been… deflated? Darnold has no fucking clue what was up with those, but they were out of service now, and there was no more music, no more dancing, and certainly no more games being played. It seems like the party is very close to ending. Jesus, how far is this Chuck E Cheese’s from his apartment? Wait a second, he doesn’t have an apartment. He lives in the Black Mesa dormitory. Those are inaccessible now. Where is he going to stay? Why did he think he had an apartment? 

“Um, Tommy?” He lowers his voice, doing very well to hold back any panic that wants to settle into his mind. 

“Yeah?”

“Can you explain it now? The- the everything?”

Tommy looks around, his eyes lidded. He looks almost sad- or. Content? What is this indescribable emotion on his face? It should worry Darnold but he kind of just feels like he’s floating. This time he does notice the look Tommy and Dr Coomer share. 

The younger man stands, nodding towards Coomer and Gordon with a courteous hook of his lips. 

“I think- we- I think we should, um, give them some privacy. I want to give you something!”

Before Darnold can reply, Tommy grabs his hand, their palms pressed together, and leads them towards the front windows. There are trees on the horizon, the sun resting atop their branches, a bright red orb in the purple sky. It’s beautiful and warm. Peaceful. Serene. His adrenaline must be completely run dry, because he needs to lean against the glass slightly just to keep himself from nodding off. 

“Here,” Tommy says, then uncaps a shiny gold sharpie marker and begins writing on Darnold’s forearm. It’s a bunch of numbers. Tommy sticks his tongue out the corner of his mouth in concentration as he writes. It’s cute. He’s kind of like a big dog. Speaking of, Sunkist has lied down by their feet. Even though she also looks sleepy, her tail wags slowly. 

Tommy’s eyes are golden in the sun’s light, just like his marker. Radiant. Bold. Striking. And they’re looking right at him. 

“I’m glad we met you, Darnold.” He sighs, done with his writing but still holding Darnold’s arm. What’s that melancholic look for? Is he about to break the bad news? He’s already seeing someone? He doesn’t like men? Darnold braces himself for it, but Tommy is worried about something else entirely. 

“You wanted- still want- to know what’s happening and- and I wanna tell you but. I think maybe I’ll wait. Just a few more minutes. Or hours? Days? I don’t actually know how long…” he looks outside, his eyes widening just a fraction. Is the sun already gone? Darnold begins to follow his gaze but Tommy forces their eyes to meet with a gentle but firm hand to his cheek. 

Yellow eyes. So hypnotizing. If he weren’t so lost in them and their brilliant honey flecks, Darnold might notice the world falling apart at the seams around them, the black bars and lines of frantic coding closing in on a certain man seated a ways away. Because Tommy speaks, he doesn’t hear the muffled sound of Bubby’s startled shout or the clacking of bare bones jostling together in a skeletal dance. 

“This birthday was really nice. I had fun! Did- did you have fun?”

Darnold nods. He did have fun. Tommy makes him feel young again in a way he’d never understood before. Feeling young does not negate his matured physicality, of which isn’t doing much to keep his eyes open. 

It’d be so embarrassing and weird to fall asleep standing up like this, but his eyes are sliding shut anyways. It must be okay, though, since Tommy is holding him up. Their bodies are so close. He barely knows this man but they’re standing together so intimately. Is this what love at first sight is? Sparks flying over one date in a Chuck E Cheese’s? 

At least Tommy looks satisfied. He’s grinning, in fact.

“If everything works out, I’m gonna go watch a movie after this, but you’ll call me, right? I wanna learn more about the evil flavor. And you. Like- uh, like a date? Or just as friends. Both are cool.”

Oh, a date. What luck! He’ll have to remember to call Tommy tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep in his bed in the apartment which he definitely owns. As Tommy continues to speak, Dr Coomer begins his speech to Gordon, unheard by a mere side character’s ears. 

Tommy’s eyes are so brilliant, but it’s getting harder to see them. Why? Aren’t Darnold’s eyes open? Why is it so dark? Ah, no matter, Tommy wants him to look at him so he will. There’s no reason not to. They’re going to go on a date, later, and he’ll tell him all about the fun flavors of Powerade still in beta. Maybe even whip up a batch of Tommy’s favorite flavor, homemade just for him. A late birthday present. A gift between friends. 

He’s going to have a life outside of Black Mesa again, and it will be so wonderful. 

 




Today is the first day of December. Snow descends the gray sky slowly. Small light flakes of frozen water. Everything is cold, which leaves perfect opportunities to create heat. A snippy gust of wind versus a hot cup of coffee. 

Darnold holds his drink between two shivering palms. 

His shift at the brewerie ended an hour ago, and he already misses the warmth of his office. Hush money can only get one man so far, and unemployment left the soul bored and aimless. It’s a boring job; technical brewer. But it’s something to keep his mind and hands busy and away from the scalpel or operating table. Beer is gross, bitter, and never Darnold’s preferred choice of drink, but it provides him with a semi-fun challenge. Can he make this shit tier beverage taste decent through the power of science and his passion for mixology? Not yet. It’s an ongoing conundrum. It’s something. 

Tommy, who is currently ice skating circles around a wobbly Gordon Freeman, started working as a bioinformatics scientist. This means he works long hours in a database laboratory. It’s two hours out from his house, he says he doesn’t mind the drive, but Darnold sure does miss him when he’s gone. They barely go out anymore. That’s just adult life, though. Work and work then work some more. Even an alien who helped save an unknowing world has a job to uphold. 

Darnold is happy Tommy has found a new job in the science field where he can put his brilliant mind to use. The man’s genius would certainly be wasted outside of a laboratory. He just can’t help the envy that lingers in the back of his mind, is all. It’s for the best- the ‘best’ being his mental health- according to his therapist, that he takes a break from medical science for a while. At least, until he’s sure he can step into an operating room again without yearning to feel the flesh of a test subject beneath his fingers. 

Those pesky underlying traumas are the worst. The ones that aren’t outright and exposed until the storm has calmed and you’re beached with no distractions to keep your messed up brain occupied. Now that Darnold has been free of Black Mesa’s fucked up clutches and operations for some time now, the bad habits and tendencies he’s picked up are making themselves more known, and they are not welcome. 

Why did he ever think it was okay to do the things he did? Why does he still want to do them again so badly? It’s hard to even look at Bubby on his worst days. The intrusive thoughts are less intrusive than they are permanent guests in his mind at this point. 

The therapist says that’s okay; intrusive thoughts don’t define the man. But what if those thoughts are memories? 

At least the medications are helping. 

Work is helping. 

His friends are helping. 

Tommy is still here. In fact, he’s performing a very elegant spin right now, his limbs pointed gracefully in all the perfect places. How does he know how to figure skate? It’s so hot Darnold fails to register the temperature of his own drink, earning him a burnt tongue as he hisses and pulls his drink from his lips. Forzen snorts and- Yeah, Forzen is here, too, because apparently he wasn’t just some NPC and managed to claw his way out of the rubble of Black Mesa and get into contact with his ex-best friend Benrey. The ex-military Team Nice troop now works at a GameStop and volunteers at a retirement center on the weekends. Tommy doesn’t like him that much, Darnold hardly knows him, and Benrey acts weird around him, but he’s a pretty nice guy if you ignore his obsession with video game YouTubers. 

This entire friend group is a mess. 

This is their first time all together as the science team since Darnold and Tommy found employment. It’s been, what, weeks? Months, even? They can almost all be mistaken as normal people, living average lives with normal jobs, all scattered about in the state of New Mexico. It’s a miracle in itself that no one has moved abroad yet, but maybe they’ve all grown just a bit too codependent of each other to break free. 

One day Darnold hopes to move to someplace where it doesn’t snow, like Florida, but that’s a dream for a day far in the future. For now, he’s stuck in this spot, leaning against the rink barrier, watching as his boyfriend shows off his skills and his coffee grows cold. 

“Are you done with that, yet?” Tommy says. He skids to a stop in front of Darnold and pulls him in for a quick kiss by the front of his coat. Darnold swishes his drink around. There’s about half left. 

“No,” he says meekly. He’d gotten too lost in his thoughts and forgot to drink it, and now it’s gotten luke-warm. Tommy takes it, chugs it, and crushes the container against his temple before flicking it at Forzen with a sweetly sinister smirk. 

“Now you are. Come skate with us! I promise I’ll hold- I’ll hold your hand the whole time.”

“I know how to ice skate, hun.”

“Sure you do.” Tommy snickers as Forzen stomps away to the trash can with the crushed cup. Apparently his debt for lying about a Beyblade and kidnapping Sunkist hasn’t been repaid. Darnold’s not sure it ever will be if Tommy’s love for petty revenge is a factor in any of this. The only reason Darnold knew of Forzen’s existence before his arrival was because Tommy had a mouthful to say. 

Sighing, Darnold complies to his partner’s request and pulls on a pair of skates, trudging to the outdoor rink’s opening where the taller man stands patiently waiting for him, hand already outstretched and inviting. He’s pulled in and out onto the ice as soon as their fingers meet, the both of them spinning as Tommy leads, his smile pressed against Darnold’s cheek. 

“I love you,” he whispers, “thanks for sh-coming out tonight.”

“I love you, too,” Darnold replies, pulling him in for a proper kiss. They glide across the ice effortlessly, ignoring their friends as they bask in each other’s warmth. “And in case it wasn’t clear, I do know how to ice skate, thank you very much.”

“You- are you sure it isn’t because I’m holding onto you? I can let go,” Tommy teases. Darnold wraps his arms around the man’s waist, leaving just enough room between them to skate safely. 

“I’m good here. You’re warm.”

“I can be warmer if you want me to.”

“Get a room!” Bubby snaps as he flies by them. “Or at least stay out of my way!” 

Dr Coomer is hot on his trail, small specks of ice spraying up beneath his feet as he tears through the rink. The two old men have engaged in what looks like a dangerous, high stakes race, scaring away any stragglers to the walls or non-skate zone. This includes Gordon, who hugs the railing on the wall in fear/preservation of his life. This excludes Benrey, who is sitting criss-cross smack dab in the middle of the rink. He doesn’t even have skates on. But he does have a cute blue hat with flappy ears and a puff ball on top.

Tommy and Darnold slide to the middle, out of the way of the race that’s climbing in speed, definitely inhumane and very dangerous. They don’t sit, but they do hover next to Benrey with their own respective nods in greeting. 

“Sup.”

“Hi!”

Any normal people (so-anyone not on the science team) flee the rink as the impromptu battle heightens. Some even leave the premise entirely. Who can blame them? Two old men, one a brick shithouse and the other glowing yellow, suddenly growing competitive and tearing up the ice could scare any sane person. 

As seasoned married husbands with supernatural powers do, Bubby and Coomer start fighting as they race, a punch here, a shove there, Bubby even busts out the claws and swipes, tearing into Coomer’s expensive coat. Aw , Darnold was hoping to borrow that for a nice evening out of town.

Eventually, the two men forget about the race altogether, the competitive nature of their relationship always leading right back to violence, usually in the form of wrestling. This time it’s on ice, so it’s even more exciting. 

“Bets on Coomer,” Benrey says, holding up a ten dollar bill. 

“I’ll cheer for Bubby!” Says Tommy.

“Um. I’ll go with Dr Coomer.” 

“Fuck you!” Bubby yells before getting clocked in the jaw. 

“Correct choice!” Coomer laughs. “Two thirds in my favor! Let’s see you try to prove them wrong, my dear!”

“Fuck yeah old man fight!!” Forzen cheers. 

“Please just don’t kill each other again!” Gordon whines. He’s made it to the sidelines safety, standing next to Forzen and looking way less enthused about this battle. Darnold empathizes with him; violence isn’t exactly his favorite activity either. 

Bubby lands a deep scratch across Coomer’s chest. The bigger man retaliates with a fury of pummeling fists, most strikes evaded with super speed. A shove. A laugh. A hiss. Then, with agility no old man has any right having, Bubby flips backwards onto his hands in a perfect arc, a skate slicing upward and through Coomer’s left arm. 

“Ha! Take that, asshole!” Bubby cries victoriously as the dismembered hand splats onto the ice. Blood and oil quickly stain the frozen surface as the cybernetics of the arm fizzle, wires and cleanly cut tendons pulsing. 

It’s beautiful. Black oil mixed with red blood. A strike so precise it’s cut neatly through bone and flesh and metal, as though cutting through a steak with a freshly sharpened kitchen knife. 

Is it suddenly hot? And is the world spinning? Tommy shoots him a concerned look. He can only openly stare at the twitching hand stuck to the ice, his own hand tightening its grip on Tommy’s. 

Do the rest of Dr Coomer’s insides behave like that? Twitching. Pulsing. Electronics and flesh intertwining like poetry. Man and the machine, one the creator and one the tool, combined to create a hybrid that defies nature. Red and silver. 

“Well done, Professor Bubby! You’ve bested me in ice-based combat! We’ll add that to the score chart once we get home.”

Bubby sticks his nose into the air proudly as Dr Coomer collects his hand. 

“Its doctor! But I’ll allow it seeing as your pride has clearly been injured as well.”

“Such a gentleman~!”

“Darnold?” Tommy murmurs. He nudges his arm. “A-are- are you okay?”

He swallows, closing his eyes. Just a moment to breathe, that’s all he needs. A moment to fight back the thoughts. 

Twitching. Under his hands. 

A body that never fights back but wishes it could. 

It’s so unethical. It’s what’s expected of him. 

“Darnold.”

Mm. Right. Tommy. He exhales through gritted teeth. 

“M’fine.” He is. This is what therapy has been training him for. But he’s not moving, nor is he opening his eyes. If his boyfriend weren’t an alien with an incredible pain tolerance, he might have pulled his hand away from Darnold’s tight grip. 

“I can take you home, if-if you need.”

“The car.” Their car is parked outside. They can’t just leave it behind. 

“I can come back for it later.”

“I’m really okay. Just give me a second.”

More like a minute. Hopefully he doesn’t sound as frustrated as he feels. They stand there in awkward silence as Darnold controls his breathing. He’s only human. He wants to question them. Beg them for answers. ‘Why isn’t this bothering any of you?!’ But he knows the answer already. It doesn’t make his mind hurt any less. 

They’re supposed to be real now. He’s been doing so well believing this false reality up until this point. Actually, he’s been doing a good job lying to himself about how well he’s been. It just doesn’t make sense. None of this does. 

If this is the real world, how can they just shrug off injuries and death like it’s nothing?

Why do aliens roam amongst them but no one cares? How is any of this possible if not for the fact that they’re still in a video game? Have the rules of the universe always been this way? How has Darnold never noticed if this is the case?

“I think we should go home.” Tommy sounds certain in his suggestion, but Darnold doesn’t want to go home. He wants to spend the rest of his night with his friends. He wants Tommy to have this night- a deserved break from work. He doesn’t want to pace the halls back at home. 

Right. 

Left. 

Right. 

Left.

One foot in front of the other. Falling apart at the seams. Clawing at his neck, chewing his fingertips, biting his knuckles, over and over and over, dreading his existence as a side character in a video game. He pretends he’s okay every day, can’t he just have this one night? Is it too much to ask to just be a normal person? Someone who isn’t a fucked up scientist? The product of a corrupt company that bent his morals so far back he’s impossible to save?

Would it have been better to never meet Gordon Freeman? What would his life be like as an NPC, never graced with the knowledge that allowed him to enter the new world? Would he be happier? Dead? Would he feel anything? Why doesn’t he feel any different than he had as a man controlled by code all those months ago? Doesn’t that prove something?

They’re back home. Darnold doesn’t register it, but he’s sitting in his favorite bean bag chair with a golden retriever by his feet. It’s warm. His jacket has been hung up. A steaming mug of tea sits waiting to be touched in front of him. A soft blanket hugs his shoulders. 

Warm. Orange. Comfortable. 

So unlike a laboratory. 

A body sits next to him- it’s Tommy, of course, who else? He holds the mug of tea patiently, keeping it warm by exerting his body heat at a heightened rate. He’s such a good person. Boyfriend, too. Would he still stick around knowing the shit Darnold has done? Constantly fantasizes about? 

Tommy Coolatta isn’t innocent himself in the least, no, but he is a good man. To Darnold he’s an angel amongst men. Others like Benrey would agree. 

“Would you have come back for me?”

“Hm?”

“If your father hadn’t teleported me to your birthday party,” he elaborates. “Would you guys have come back for me?”

Tommy doesn’t answer. Darnold huffs. He’s not offended. 

“It’s fine. I wouldn’t have either.”

“Wh-“

“I don’t mean that in the self deprecating sense. I just meant—well... We all saw how Black Mesa had gone to complete shit. You fought tooth and nail to get out of that hell hole. I wouldn’t have gone back for one random guy I hardly knew.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be.”

“Well I’m- I’m sorry anyways.”

“Okay.”

“Do you want to sh-sha- tell me what’s wrong?”

Yes. So badly. 

“I don’t know.”

“If you’re worried I’ll judge you, I- I won’t. I promise. I won’t.”

A promise from Tommy is not one to be taken lightly. 

“Black Mesa was fucked up.”

“Mhm.”

“I did horrible things.”

“We all did.”

“But I enjoyed it.” Darnold sips the tea. “I enjoyed it. I miss it.”

Tommy leans into him, sighing. 

“I get you. I think. It’s how we were… made.”

“Coded?”

“Yeah. Even me.”

“We’re supposed to be free. From the code. We should have free will now. Why do I still feel like I did? I still feel like….. me .”

“I don’t think any of us know. Not even my- my dad.”

“How can you be okay with that?”

Tommy inhales deeply, pained. 

“How can I live if I’m not?”

Touché. 

They sit in silence as Darnold nurses his tea, occasionally allowing Tommy to steal a sip. Sunkist lies dutifully before them. 

 




Tommy is 37 now. 

He has friends who learned to treat him with respect, and he loves them. Sure, they’re a mismatched bunch, but they’re more family than he’s ever had in his life. One birthday party doesn’t make up for roughly 30 years of abandonment, after all. His father seems like a fine man- but he’s a fine man who will have to try much harder to gain his orphaned son‘s love. 

Tommy has always known he was different. Apart from his abandonment issues, childhood trauma, PTSD, autism, and ADHD, that is. Plenty of people are like him in that regard. No, he means on a more biological level. He’s an alien. 

Tommy is 37 and not human. 

Strangers have always complimented his eyes first. Brilliant and yellow, ‘like the sun’ they say. The sun is hardly yellow when you look at it, though. It’s white and blinding. His eyes are not like the sun. They’re like sunflowers, ironically named after the very thing Tommy denounces their comparison to. They glow in the dark, like his father’s icy cold blue eyes. 

Hot and cold. 

Darnold prefers warmth. Tommy makes sure his body heat output is above average at all times just for him, because that’s something he can actually control. He can control a lot of things. Time, space, reality- he’s always been able to manipulate it, even if unknowingly. He wasn’t just saying meaningless bullshit when he told Gordon soda made him see faster or that time could change speeds. He just hadn’t known, then, the reason for such phenomena. 

After his admittedly awesome as fuck birthday party, Tommy’s been exploring the limits of his powers. He’ll teleport, like he’s seen Benrey do, or he’ll pause time briefly, practicing and pushing the limits of his powers until he’s worked up a sweat. Darnold always brings him a cold glass of water when he does. His boyfriend is wonderful, despite what he might think of himself. 

Yes, Tommy is fully aware of Darnold’s troubled mind, but it’s not the beliefs that make the man rather than his actions. They’re all a little fucked up, aren’t they? Some more than others, coughBenreyBubbyCoomercough. So what if his boyfriend constantly fantasizes about cutting him open and exploring his body? For all Tommy knows, that could be deemed romantic between men of science in this weirdly constructed world. They’ve cheated death countless times; why would something so tame as a desire for knowledge unnerve him? Tommy isn’t sure if he would actually agree to it, but, alas, Darnold has never asked, so he’s never needed to answer. 

Darnold also hasn’t asked for his hand in marriage, yet, and Tommy’s beginning to think he’ll have to do it himself. Proposing isn’t scary so much as it is difficult to imagine. Tommy has never been a literary genius, and stringing together words in a meaningful way without stuttering is a feat that’d be impossible under the stage-fright inducing anxiety a proposal would cause, even with hours of rehearsal. 

Maybe he can ask Gordon for help- the man did have a wife during some stage in his life. Dr Coomer as well. Though they’re both ex-wives at this point, so maybe those two aren’t the beacons of marriage advice Tommy needs. His father isn’t any help, either. Tommy doesn’t even know if he has a mom, or another parent much less. Sure, he talks to the man sometimes, but the intricacies of Tommy's bloodline are still very unclear. They’ve not yet reached the point in the rekindling of their relationship where Tommy feels comfortable to ask about such a thing. 

So. Yeah. He’s gotta wait for Darnold to do it. His boyfriend is an anxious mess occasionally but the majority of days he’s a very well-put together man. He has a job. He cooks and cleans the kitchen and living room, but not the bathroom. Never the bathroom (It’s okay; Tommy doesn’t mind doing it for him). He locks doors five times, flicks the lights three times, and organizes his closet by texture rather than color or style. 

They’re so alike. But so different. People are so unique, aren’t they?

Darnold once told Tommy ‘You make me feel alive.’

To which he responded ‘You make me feel real.’

He’s never felt more like himself than he does with the mixologist. When he held Darnold’s hands at his birthday bash, fully aware of the world closing in around Gordon- not them, just Gordon- he actually feared it may be the end. What if Gordon leaves with the player? What if this game ends with their non existence? 

So many ‘what if’s. 

In that moment, with the sun setting and reflecting off of Darnold’s beautiful dark skin and his cute nerdy bow-tie, Tommy was both selfish and selfless. Morality is gray, never black and white. He made Darnold look at him, only him, and didn’t tell him it was a game. How could he? It would be so cruel to reveal a life-changing truth in a man’s possible final moments. But Tommy knew. He would bear that burden, so long as he could look into the eyes of a new friend with a kind heart and provide him comfort. 

Poor Bubby hadn’t had the same reassuring support in his final moments within the game, but the older scientist was strong and capable, already somewhat aware of their world anyways. Plus, Dr Coomer had a job to do. One that would, ultimately, end up saving them all. A final message to Gordon Freeman. 

Not the player. 

In the end, their friendship prevailed. Tommy’s always loved that trope; the power of friendship saving the world. Found family and unconditional love were ideas he latched onto as a child, the power of hope preventing a young boy from resenting the foggy memories of a suited man abandoning him in a fast-food establishment. Tommy imagines, in an alternate universe, a young boy allowing his loneliness to dissuade him from enjoying life, rather than strive to make the most of it. 

Tommy is 37 and leaning against the railing on Darnold’s balcony. Snow sticks to his hair and his fingers, melting instantly upon contact. He inhales, focuses on the stinging sensation in his lungs, then exhales. 

If there’s one thing Tommy is proud of, it’s his optimism. While others may misinterpret his jovial spirit as naivety or childishness, Tommy knows what he’s about. He likes that about himself. Likes a lot of things about himself. 

Dislikes… some things, though, like-

 


 

“Since when do you smoke?”

“I don’t?” Tommy replies innocently. 

Darnold wants to call bull, because he just saw smoke leaving Tommy’s parted lips and a cigarette between his fingers and- oh, Tommy’s hands are empty, and the vapor leaving his lips is just a result of the cold air. 

Either Darnold’s mind deteriorated and he’s hallucinating or Tommy is actually lying to him. Straight to his face. 

Well. All men had their secrets. Darnold definitely had plenty of his own. If Tommy would go through such lengths to hide a harmless guilty pleasure like smoking then the shame must run deep. Deep enough for Darnold not to pry. 

Tommy is a grown man. If he wants to smoke in private, it’s fine. Tobacco might not even affect his lungs the same way. If he wants to lie, it’s also- well, it’s not fine, but it’s nothing major. Everyone lies, even miracles to mankind itself. 

“Sorry about earlier,” Darnold says. He wraps the blanket around the both of them, resting his chin on Tommy’s shoulder. His sweater is cotton and soft, appealing to Darnold’s sense of touch. He nuzzles into the fabric. 

“You don’t need…” Tommy stops. It’s less of a pause than it is him simply letting his thoughts settle before he continues, like he started speaking before he even knew what he wanted to say. “To apologize for that.”

“Okay, then. Thank you.”

“You-y-you-“ Tommy grinds his teeth together. He groans, signing ‘You’re welcome’ with his hands. Seems neither of them are having a good night tonight. He hooks their pinkies together once Tommy has settled. 

“Let’s go inside?”

A low, gentle sound fills the air, as do soft glowing orbs of light.

Orange and yellow.