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Alyx leaned back against the hood of the Combine vehicle, watching the stars above. Calhoun leaned forward on the surface, looking down at his own shaking hands. He balled them into fists for a moment, before letting the tension flow out of his hands and letting them fall into his lap. He leaned back on the hood, mirroring his conscious companion.

“How do you deal with it, Lyx?” He spoke without looking at her. His eyes widened with realization as he registered his mistake. “Fuck- sorry, Alyx.” He cut off his useless apologies. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

A soft chuckle came from the other side of the vehicle hood. 

“It’s fine, Calhoun. Everyone calls me Lyx.”

A self-deprecating laugh escaped from his throat. “Don’t lie to me, Alyx. I know better than that.”

When Alyx didn’t reply, he let out an audible sigh. “How can you deal with it Alyx?”

“ with what?” She sounded so small and Calhoun felt something in his chest seize.

A pause.

“Losing people. I- I can’t imagine it.”

Now it was Alyx’s turn to laugh at him. 

“Barney, I’ve mourned you every day since you joined the combine.” Her voice was choked, like she was trying not to cry. “We all have. You- you nearly broke the resistance. Dad and Uncle Kleiner wanted to send people to try and find you in the rubble and try to find you. Cubbage and Mossman convinced them not to because the place was already crawling with CPs.”

She took another shaky breath, and Calhoun knew that Alyx had failed in her attempts to stem her tears. “And we nearly fell apart 6 months later when you stormed Cubbage’s base in the canals. We’d had traitors before, but n- no one so high up in our ranks. We had to scramble for weeks to move everything to locations you didn’t know about.”

He was silent as she kept talking, tripping over her words, like they couldn’t wait to escape and worm their ways into his heart. 

“Dad and Kleiner thought that you’d double-triple-crossed the combine, so when they sent a resistance member to try and communicate with you in secret and you- you-”

“I killed them.”

“Yeah,” Alyx croaked.

Calhoun exhaled. “I identified them as a remember of the resistance and dispatched them efficiently.”

“You shot them point-blank with a pistol in the middle of the plaza.”

He nodded. “I did.” 

Alyx was silent. Then she asked, “Do you regret it?”

Barney blinked. “I don’t know. It’s. . . just something I had to do. They were a danger to the public and I was the only one who knew who they were.”

“Am I dangerous?” 

“Of course not, Lyxxer. You could never be a danger to the public. You’re too good for that.” 

“So, what would you do if you captured me? Brainwash me too? Turn me into a strider or a stalker-”

“No. I wouldn’t let them.” Barney insisted.

Alyx snorted. “Like you would have a say in anything. Dad and Kleiner would be useful enough to brainwash like you. They probably feed me to the headcrabs and call it a day.”

Barney didn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything. His throat was closing up and his vision was going red. The polluted sky above was suddenly too close and Alyx was way too far away. He couldn't protect her from here.

Barney ripped his mask off and gagged on the rough forest air. It hurt to breathe without the filter. His throat and lungs felt like sandpaper and there was drool on his lap. He couldn't protect her.

The combine soldier tumbled off the hood of the APC and threw up in the grass. His mask slipped out of his he felt something touch his back. Turning on the spot, Barney grabbed the person’s wrist, throwing them off balance. He reeled back his other fist to punch his attacker and-

Oh. He let go of Alyx’s wrist like it burned him through his glove. Scrambling backward, Calhoun’s feet flew out from under. He landed on his ass on the dew-covered lawn. 

He’d almost just attacked Alyx. He couldn’t protect her from the Combine. He couldn’t even protect her from himself. He couldn’t protect anyone. He couldn’t even protect Gord-

Alyx grabbed his wrists. The contact jolted Calhoun out of his downward spiral and back onto the damp ground and grass below. Alyx lowered herself to the ground and purposefully pressed her knees to Barney’s; the exact same way that he used to help her deal with panic attacks.

Shallow breaths wracked his body, but Alyx kept talking in an even tone, even if he wasn’t registering her words. Slowly, the ringing in Calhoun’s ears subsided and he was breathing in sync in Alyx the best his struggling respiratory system would let him.

Eventually, he could think about something other than the pain in his throat. Fuck.

Calhoun tore his wrists out of Alyx’s grip and scrabbled to grab his mask from the ground. He pressed the filter to his face and took a deep breath of the filtered air. It was stale, but he could breathe it with feeling like he was inhaling sandpaper.

With one hand pressing the mask to his face, the soldier asked, “How long did I have it off?”

“Barney, please-”

“Alyx, do you know why I have to wear this?” 

“Because they make you?” She had started crying again. Calhoun could hear it in her voice.

He shook his head. “You know how my lungs were fucked up from when I was in Xen?” 

Alyx drew in a shaky breath and nodded.

He laughed self-deprecatingly. “‘Turns out inhaling collapsed rubble for 3 days straight is bad for you. And when Our Bene-” Calhoun cut himself off. “When the Combine were messing with me, an infection got into my respiratory system. It’s on its last legs at this point.

The docs said that I’ve got about 10 minutes without it before I pass out because I can’t get enough oxygen. 15 minutes to permanent brain damage and 20 before dea-”

Alyx cut him off with a hug. Calhoun tense instinctively, but relaxed when he felt her sobbing into his shoulder. He wormed his arm free from where it was pinned between his chest and Alyx, letting his mask fall to the ground. 

She pulled away at the motion, trying to give him space. Calhoun wrapped his now free arm around her back, pulling her back into his embrace. At the confirmation that he did want this, Alyx buried her face into the collar of his uniform, the same way that she used to when she was little. 

Calhoun cupped the back of her head and held Alyx a little tighter. Tears were running down his cheeks. He was trembling slightly as he silently promised that he would protect Alyx until the day he died. It was the least he could do for all the strife he’d put her through.