Actions

Work Header

like marbles on glass

Work Text:

Eaden is a place of comfortable routines, and force of habit is so strong that not even the abduction of the entire population by an insane, murderous AI is enough to create much more than a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. Wheatley’s presence is a disruption, but one that is calmly welcomed, for the most part, and Chell helps him carve out his own new routine as she settles gratefully back into her own.

For Wheatley, it takes a little while. He has to relearn nearly all his basic bodily functions, like how much sleep he needs, how often he has to eat so he doesn’t get shaky and even more manic than usual, the importance of showering regularly now that he can’t run incalcination cycles, and why he has to wear some kind of skin protection whenever he’s going to spend more than about a minute outside in the sun. But he manages, with a lot of help and patience from Chell, although there’s more than an outside chance that they’ll both go a little crazy if he just hangs around at loose ends much longer.

The radio station is Garret’s idea originally, and Wheatley latches onto it with his usual enthusiasm, even trying—mostly, it must be said, without success—to help build the makeshift sound booth Garret puts together in a corner of the Eaden General stockroom. (As soon as it’s finished, Wheatley immediately sets to work personalizing it with the few resources at his disposal, which mostly means putting Ellie’s frog clip—retrieved after nearly an hour’s painstaking search beneath Foxglove with help from Chell, Garret, and Ellie—in a place of honor on the mic stand.) After that, things get a little easier; having a reason to get up and leave the house every morning is good for Wheatley, the structure giving him some badly needed focus, and he throws himself into the task with his trademark gusto. Chell finds herself shifting her own routine a little in response without noticing at first, often walking her products over to the store rather than waiting for Aaron to pick them up. She is emphatically not a housewife, so she doesn’t do this for the express purpose of bringing lunch and making sure Wheatley eats it, but she nearly always brings him something (often a bagel or two). And every time she approaches the sound booth and catches his eye through the window, he beams like she’s the best thing he’s ever seen. Chell always finds herself smiling back.

She finds herself doing that a lot, actually, whether it’s Wheatley awkwardly invading her space or his voice floating out of the radio in her front room while she mixes and kneads and bakes. It’s funny, how quickly she gets used to it, and how quickly everyone else in town accepts Radio Free Eaden as an unquestioned part of their lives, as much as Romy’s diner or Aaron’s store or Chell’s baked goods. Wheatley can air whatever the hell he wants from Aaron’s fairly impressive collection of albums and from all across the internet, which generally means he runs the most random station in at least the tri-state area. Sometimes he’ll discover a new artist or genre and play nothing else for days; several times he gets a request (he always takes requests from anyone in town), dives into research, and queues up enough marginally related music (similar topic, location recorded, artist’s hometown, obscure pop-culture reference, or an even more tenuous connection) to last weeks. He plays a little of everything, jazz and rock and folk and country and whatever else he stumbles across, and it’s weird and unpredictable and he always lights up with the same astonished grin when people say they like it.

That’s not to say there aren’t any hiccups with the little radio station, of course. Nobody in town (except Garret, and then not even all the time) likes thrash metal, for instance, when Wheatley ventures into that genre. A couple months in, he discovers standup comedy, which isn’t so bad for the first few days, although it’s nearly all old stuff and half the cultural references don’t make much sense anymore. At some point, though, that leads him to a trove of old, nearly forgotten Let’s Play videos, which make very little sense to begin with to people who have never played a video game and no sense at all to anyone who can’t see the actual video—which nobody can except Wheatley, because he’s running a radio station, not a TV channel. Somehow this crucial point doesn’t occur to him—he can see the videos, after all, and he finds them particularly hilarious for computer-related reasons that he can’t get even Garret to understand, let alone anyone else—so for a couple days Radio Free Eaden mostly broadcasts pre-war recordings of long-dead gamers yelling incomprehensibly about monsters nobody else can see. It’s the sort of eccentricity people will put up with for at least a little while, but then Ellie Otten asks her parents the meaning of a few very specific words she heard on the radio when apparently no one else was paying attention, and Wheatley gets a fairly stern lecture on making sure he screens everything for inappropriate content. (And also, Chell suggests, don’t play videos nobody else can see.)

It’s a minor bump in the road, like most accidental scandals end up being (and honestly Chell finds the whole thing kind of funny, even if she sympathizes a bit with the Ottens), not enough to really disturb the easy rhythm Chell’s regained and Wheatley’s gradually established with her. The real disruptions are mostly private, because they happen at night, when the peaceful town around them can’t keep all the nightmares away.

Chell’s are better, usually, with Wheatley there. At first he takes the couch again, but after the second time he successfully talks her through one of her night terrors, she suggests at least sharing the bedroom, which almost immediately turns into sharing the bed. Her sleeping mind is quieter, somehow, with Wheatley’s warm presence nearby, although more than once she wakes to find she’s shoved him clean off the mattress. More often, a nudge and a few sleepy words from him are enough to put her mind on a much calmer track, and it’s still with a sort of quiet astonishment that she reflects on how much trust her unconscious mind has placed in this gawky scarecrow of a man, with his rambling tangents and his enormous grin.

Wheatley, too, has his own nightmares, ones that leave him hollow-eyed in the morning and some that he refuses to tell her about, with his typical transparent attempts at caginess. They get a few personality-core-to-human translation issues straightened out, especially ones involving the Itch, and that helps some, but she knows he still dreams about the facility. For both of them, the nightmares usually follow no recognizable trend, sometimes leaving them in relative peace for weeks and sometimes trading off with Wheatley flailing awake one night, Chell jerking alert in a cold sweat the next.

So they go on like that, with comfortable days and sometimes-restless nights, and time passes mostly unremarked, until Chell wakes one morning to find Wheatley’s side of the bed cold and empty. He’s downstairs, pacing in the little front room, somehow even more agitated than usual. Half his hair is drooping flat against his head, the other half sticking up in sweaty spikes. Chell quietly observes him for a moment from the stairs before asking, “Bad one?”

Wheatley whirls with a startled yelp and nearly loses his balance. “Oh, it’s just you, it’s—don’t do that, creeping up on me like a flippin’ ninja, I actually do have a very physical heart now, you know, and one of these days you are going to give me a literal heart attack!”

“How long have you been up?” Chell asks.

He shrugs, still twitchy. “A while? I don’t know. Probably a while. The shrieky things in the fields were going on—you know, the ones that go skreep-SKREEP all sodding night long, which has got to be against some kind of rule—and they’re not now, so. A while.”

Chell leans against the wall. “You didn’t come back to bed.”

“Oh, huh, was it that long?” Wheatley says with a very unconvincing look of surprise. “Just thought, you know, I’d come down and—and really appreciate all the shrieking. And...I figured...I didn’t really want—I mean. No point staying in there if I’m not sleeping, right? Sort of defeats the purpose of a room for sleeping.”

“You didn’t want to stay with me,” Chell clarifies.

“No! Well—sort of no. But also...sort of yes? Just—just a smidge. Just a smidgeon.”

He’s never done that before—if anything, he tends to get clingier after a nightmare, either one of his or one of hers. Alone time, generally, isn’t something Wheately seeks out; in fact he tends to actively avoid it, not even closing the door to his little sound booth except when he absolutely has to. She frowns. “Why?”

“You’ll laugh,” he says. “You’ll, you’ll think I’m bonkers, round the twist, off my management rail. And you’d be right! You’d be right, probably, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear it!”

Chell raises one eyebrow and waits. Predictably, Wheatley caves within a few seconds.

“All right! All right, fine, if you’re going to be so bloody insistent about it, it’s just—” He rakes one hand back through his hair, which only makes him look like a hedgehog is perched on his head. “I’m scared of things humans aren’t scared of, okay? I’m—it’s silly, honestly, I’m sure it’s all silly, and it’s not so bad when I’ve got stuff to do but at night I just—it won’t stop.”

“Like what?” she asks.

“Like—like bloody everything, honestly, there’s always something. Like, okay, I know ‘virus’ sounds a little different to you lot than it does to me, right, I know I’m not supposed to worry about it when Eyebrows is all ‘oh it’s just a little cold virus, it’s nothing serious, you’re not actually dying,’ but I’m—” He makes a helpless gesture. “I get it, but I hear virus and I get the cold sweats, which by the way is still a little alarming by itself, I know you people are always leaking a little but it’s, it’s just weird, is what it is. And—viruses—well, you remember the first time I got sick.”

Chell nods. It would be pretty hard to forget; he was convinced he was dying, that something was wrong with his body after so long in suspension, and Chell was concerned enough about the same thing that she hauled him over to see Dr. Dillon even though it was nearly midnight. The doctor checked him over, only yawning a couple times, and assured Wheatley that he had all the signs of a perfectly normal cold and would be fine with the usual human remedies of rest and plenty of fluids. Wheatley, far from reassured, peppered her with more anxious questions. At some point the word “virus” came up,” and once Wheatley understood it was a virus currently making him feel like absolute hell, he got so worked up that Doc finally had to give him a sedative.

He handled subsequent illnesses with slightly more composure, once he recovered from the first one without any lingering ill effects, but for a while his hopelessly outdated immune system made his life miserable. More than once, Chell nearly asked him to sleep on the couch so his sniffling wouldn’t keep her awake, but he was so pitiful—and, clearly, still scared—that she couldn’t quite bring herself to say it. (She did, however, get used to sleeping with heavy-duty earplugs.) He was also strictly barred from the kitchen and all surfaces used for food preparation, which in practice meant he just stayed upstairs trying to sleep whenever she was working and he was at home.

“Right, so,” Wheatley says, “every time it’s like, well, what if this is the one? What if Eyebrows is wrong, and it’s something major, or this body really is glitched, and pretty soon oops, no more Wheatley, couldn’t hack it, his dumb squishy human body just sort of—pfft.” He makes a gesture that seems to indicate deflation, or possibly explosion.

“Lots of people are afraid of illness,” she tries.

Wheatley sputters out a laugh. “Ha, well, not like I am, I’m pretty sure. I keep thinking about, about bad firmware and system crashes and oh this should be patched but nope, engineer’s lying down on the job, just made all these little humans and decided to knock off for a nice long nap, and it’s like, hello! Got some feedback here, if anyone running the beta program is still paying attention! But no, nope, nobody awake up there, let’s just deploy buggy software and never update it! And I know that’s not really how it works with humans, I do, but I keep thinking—and, you know, this whole healing thing bodies can do, honestly amazing, Aperture took a stab at self-healing tech once and long story slightly shorter there’s a whole wing down there somewhere all sealed up full of acid because they couldn’t get it to stop. So there’s that, like what if the thingy, the—well, for lack of a better word, the program that tells my body how to heal itself goes offline, just ‘cheers, mate, on your own now,’ or it goes into overdrive like at Aperture and maybe I start growing ears all over my arse or something, or! Or maybe I’ll get hurt and it won’t be fixable, ‘sorry Wheatley, humans don’t have spare parts just lying around, no handy-dandy reassembly chamber here, enjoy life with only one arm or no gallbladder or something!’ So I get to worry about that, right, and then I realize, oh look, Wheatley’s bad at humaning again.”

Chell bites down on the sore spot on her tongue, considering. These are all pretty human fears, actually, but elaborating on cancer, autoimmune disorders, and the realities of life in an aging organic body won’t do anything to calm him down. “Why now?”

He sighs, expelling a great deal more air than he should be able to hold in that gangly frame. “Well, it’s not like I wasn’t thinking about it before. It’s sort of, you know. Background radiation.”

“But it’s been worse lately,” Chell says.

“It…yeah. I dunno. Maybe. Actually, yeah,” he says, frowning. “More nightmares, like earlier, that’s—that’s not a sign, is it? Of, I don’t know, this weird human brain overheating or something?”

Chell mentally rolls out her timeline and realizes: of course. She should have thought of it earlier, but she and Wheatley have different anniversaries. They share some of them, certainly, but getting out of Aperture the first time is her biggest, when her nightmares tend to come back the most persistently—and his, apparently, is walking out of Aperture too, focused on waking up in a new-old flesh-and-blood body. His relationship to time is still more than a little skewed compared to the way humans think, after God-knows-how-many years in the facility and then four more in the uninterrupted vastness of space, so she’s not too surprised he hasn’t made the connection yet. As gently as she can, Chell says, “It’s been a year.”

Wheatley blinks at her like a perpetually worried owl. “It’s been—um yes, been a year, a year since anything in particular, or just…oh. Oh. A year since…right. Is that—I mean, you don’t just say things, probably significant then, but is—is that significant? A year since we got out?”

“Can be,” Chell says. “Humans keep a lot of anniversaries—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.”

“So…so that’s good then?” Wheatley says anxiously. “Because—I mean if it is, then great, I’m over the moon about that, so to speak—ha, not literally, had enough of that already, but anyway it doesn’t exactly…well, ‘parade of nightmares’ isn’t how I’d want to advertise a new holiday or something, I mean it’s not really fun…”

Chell shakes her head before he can go on in that vein much longer. “It’s not good or bad, necessarily. It’s just…human.”

“…oh,” Wheatley says, and for once he seems to have nothing else to say.

Chell steps closer, making him tip his head down to look at her, and intertwines her fingers with his. “I dream about testing. I’m still afraid of that place. And you know I’m human.”

Wheatley swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny throat. “Well, yeah, of course, you’re like—the human, that’s what we used to call you, didn’t know you even had a name, you were the human, the one who killed Her. But you’re—I mean, you’re good at things, at—all kinds of things. Being human.”

Chell squeezes his hand. “There’s no one right way to be human, just a lot of different ones. And you do fine.”

“You think so?” he says, hopeful and still so willing to trust anything she says, looking at her like she’s the first glimmer of sunlight after a seemingly endless night.

She smiles. “Yeah. I do.”