It had been a very real fear that had lingered in the back of her mind for as long as she could remember, a dark and forbidden knowledge she’d had to confront when she was just barely old enough to accept the concept of death. Her father had sat her down repeatedly, calmly and gently explaining that the world under Combine rule was dangerous and unforgiving, that the people she knew were not going to be around forever, and he wanted her to stay strong in the supposedly unlikely event that something happened to him, or Dr. Kleiner, or Barney, or anyone . And she’d thought, in her naivete, that just being told these words again and again until she’d become numb to the repetition was the same as acceptance, ignoring the vicious, gut-wrenching horror she’d feel whenever things went awry.
Then, her father was gone. His last words had been with her in mind. Don’t look, don’t look, and then silence. It wasn’t supposed to happen, and she could barely wrap her mind around the fact that it had.
Alyx stared vacantly across the room, the subtle sting of tears tingling behind her eyes as she sat motionless on the sinking sofa and gawked at a wall. There wasn’t enough energy left in her to cry, her brain too busy thinking about small details and regrets. She thought of the way Dr. Kleiner had said he’d give them all a proper farewell after Arne let him go, and she hated Magnusson for robbing her father’s closest friend of the chance to say goodbye. She thought of the fact that, not even moments before his death, she’d been serving him tea on the very couch she was sitting on. Her mind reeled at the remembrance of every last thing she’d promised to do for him, to show him, every argument she’d had with him when she was young and angry.
A tear rolled down her cheek. It was passive. She didn’t make a sound. Again, she was too tired to cry.
The only thing that jarred her out of her trance was the sound of footsteps, the scuffing sounds of worn dress shoes making their way across the concrete floor. She’d half expected Magnusson--he’d been toddling around saying tone deaf garbage that she knew came from a place of denial--but when she could focus her eyes and her thoughts, what she found instead was Dr. Kleiner. He stood in front of her, slumped and small, having seemingly withered away into his lab coat in the days following the dreadful news. His glasses were askew, what was left of his hair was a mess, and Alyx couldn’t help but focus on how old and frail he suddenly looked.
“I can’t find Lamarr, either,” he said after a long pause. “She’s gone.”
His voice was tiny, almost child-like. A part of Alyx wanted to be mad, hearing him whine about his pet when she’d just lost the only family she’d had, but she bit her tongue before anything could slip out. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the loss of his best friend. It was that the one other thing he had to cling to had vanished as well.
“Is that seat taken?”
Alyx’s head moved robotically to where he was pointing beside her on the couch. In all honesty, she wanted to be alone. She’d shooed off Gordon and Arne’s well-meaning assistant countless times, claiming the room as her own. She kept a silent vigil, watching the doors as if any moment her father would pop in, alive and well, laughing about how clever he’d been in deceiving the Advisor.
Oh, Alyx, you know I’m good at playing dead. Haven’t I already told you that’s how I kept the HECU from shooting me in Black Mesa?
A trembling breath barely squeaked out of her. She said nothing, watching as Dr. Kleiner--no, Isaac --awkwardly shuffled next to her and settled down. Again, he seemed so tiny and brittle and her mind immediately went to darker, more anxious places as she began to take a stab at figuring out how much time the old man had left. He was considerably older than her father, already balding and snow capped when she’d met him as a child, so it would be nothing for something smaller, simpler, and far weaker to sweep in and take him out as well.
And what of Barney, off on his own with the refugees, on a train that could crash or be easily intercepted? Did the Combine have trackers in his stupid disguise? Could they find him?
And what of Gordon? Sure, he was basically a one-man army, but his HEV suit was cracked open, holes revealing haphazardly bandaged wounds that proved he was just as mortal as everyone else. It was pure dumb luck he’d made it as far as he had, and he was one miscalculation away from being buried in a freshly dug hole in the middle of the White Forest.
God, even Dog could leave her.
The tears intensified. She sniffed back snot that threatened to pour down her face. There was no sound, though, no whimpering or whining. Just an unblinking stare at a blank wall as Isaac cleared his throat and gently placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You know,” he began, his voice belying a dry throat, “it’s okay to cry, Alyx. I know that’s not in your nature, but sometimes it’s the only thing you can do to help yourself move on.”
Alyx sniffed again, but said nothing.
“Not saying you have to move on right now. The wound is fresh. It… it still hurts.”
Her eyes shifted to Isaac as he pulled his hand away, sinking into his corner of the couch as if it would eat him. Behind his glasses, she could see his eyes welling up with tears as his stare seemed to focus on something a thousand yards away. Lips held in a tight, thin line, he appeared to lose contact with reality completely. It was painful to watch.
“Losing loved ones is difficult, I know. You were so young when Azian passed that I doubt it stung half as much as losing your father. It hit Eli like a freight train, though. But, you know, it was through that loss that he was able to give me some remarkable advice that I feel like I’m going to be making use of for the foreseeable future.”
Suddenly, Alyx’s gaze was fixed on him. He was basically her uncle, a person she’d looked up to as far back as she could remember, and here he was, teary-eyed and twiddling his thumbs and desperately trying to offer her paternal support while her real dad was rotting under a tarp and awaiting burial. There was an admirable strength to that, though it made the faintest hint of rage erupt in the back of her mind. Nobody could replace Eli Vance, nobody could make it better, and she was almost offended that Isaac would even try.
“He said Azian would never forgive him if he stopped living in her absence. That, if she were around to watch him throw up his hands in surrender, that it would have broken her heart. So, he did everything he could that would make her proud. To keep a piece of her alive, I suppose, by living in accordance to how she’d want him to in a time after her.”
It was Isaac’s turn to sniff now, his lips now parted so he could breathe out of his mouth. There was a tremble in his voice, desperately trying to cover up the fact that the dam was breaking, and when his eyes lifted to meet Alyx’s, she felt as if she’d been shot through the heart. The selfishly angry part of her was killed by the blow, and she felt the stinging behind her eyes intensify.
“I’ve lost a lot, Alyx. I’ve spent a lot of time blaming myself for a lot of those losses. And I can’t lie and say I don’t feel a little culpable for what happened to Eli, even if there’s no good reason for it. I just keep thinking, ‘What if I had kept him from walking out that door? What if I’d paid more attention? Would I have known the Advisors were coming?’”
He choked, but he stayed composed. Alyx swallowed hard as she watched him, chewing her lip as he struggled to sit up straighter, to look a bit more reassuring and strong. It wasn’t anything that came naturally to him, that was for sure, but he was nothing if not determined.
“He wouldn’t want me thinking like that. He wouldn’t want you thinking like that. He’d want you to be strong, to move ahead, to make this world better so that you could live in the type of society he’d always dreamed for you. But, he also wouldn’t want you to bottle this up, Alyx. This is a lot. God, this is a lot . It’s almost too much to bear.”
Still, ever-stubborn, he tried to look strong even as streams of tears ran down his cheeks and his voice warbled and wavered. His fists were clenched, nails digging into his palms as he struggled to keep himself grounded enough to speak. Inhaling shakily, the corner of Alyx’s mouth twitched up in a smile.
“You know, it’s okay to cry, Dr. Kleiner.”
After a moment of hesitation, he removed his glasses. He began to bawl, palms digging into his eyes as Alyx swept him up in the same kind of hug that was usually reserved for her father. A father who wasn’t there to accept them anymore, a father who she’d never hear laugh or joke again. A father who, in his absence, would want her to do well and remember all of the people he’d left in his wake who would be there for her, an odd and extended family pieced together from necessity and sentiment.
People who loved him. Loved her. A family who’d take up in his stead.
Despite it not being in her nature to do so, Alyx Vance began to cry.