Author's Note: So as it turns out, I have enough fodder to do a sequel to my other story Strange Bedfellows, and this is it. You may want to read that first, but as long as you understand the basic premise of Chell returning to Aperture after some time living on the outside and then being told to leave again, then this is a fairly stand-alone story.
How was it that the sun never seemed as bright was it once was when punctuated by the clang of the door slamming shut behind her?
Chell sighed, staring wistfully at the rusty exterior of the shed that she had once again been turfed out of. She could still hear the muffled hum of the descending elevator. Was it too late to beat down the door and beg to come back? Perhaps she could claim that she had a sexual attraction to metal. GLaDOS would HAVE to take her back for extensive testing and endless rounds of 'therapy' then. Still, it was nice to go outside for a little while. Even if it was particularly hot out there. It was almost shocking compared to the chill of Aperture, and most definitely hard to get used to the sudden switch.
Shuffling her feet, Chell eventually realized that standing around staring at a door and wishing for things was never going to happen. Turning, she began her journey toward civilization anew. At least this time she knew where she was going and wasn't just wandering blindly. The wheat was crushed from where the vans had driven through, providing an easy path for her to meander along as it crackled under her feet. She often found her mind wandering as her hand snaked out to skim the tops of the golden field. Her original trip to the small town had taken her several hours, and it would be no exception on this day either. At least on her return to Aperture it had been relatively cool. Now it wasn't even midday and already she could feel that dry sun heating her skin. Although it sucked the nutrients from her like a leech with its blinding rays, it still allowed her to keep her thoughts.
And those thoughts quickly turned to the object that she held. Where once a portal device used to rest, a precious artifact now took its place. A precious, pilfered artifact. Turning over her hand, Chell peered down at the lacy black loop of material that she had gone to great lengths to obtain. Whatever had possessed her to take an interest in it in the first place took a backseat to the fact that she actually had the object in her grasp. The material felt so foreign under her calloused fingertips, the lace seeming to lightly scratch an itch she didn't even know she had. It was a wonderful feeling, despite looking completely out of place. Her hands were the hands of a worker; a tradesperson; an athlete. They had dirt under the stubby, bitten nails and her knuckles were knobby from where more calluses had formed from the inside of the portal gun rubbing against them. They weren't supposed to hold the delicate material that seemed to speak of white-collar upper class society. It felt like it would break just by looking at it with her rough-and –tumble attitude.
Maybe that was why she loved it so much.
Or maybe it was just because it belonged to GLaDOS.
Stretching the garter out to full circle with both hands, a delicious little shiver ran down the test subject's spine despite the heat of the day before she crumpled the material back up and pressed it to her nose. She could feel the scratchy fabric tickling at her lips as she took in the scent of silicone and metal shavings that remained on it. It was the distinct scent of the android that she had just left. She didn't think she'd ever want to wash that away. It was oddly relaxing, and made the long walk that much easier to bear as she pressed it against her cheek and closed her eyes for a brief moment.
Before she knew it, she was tripping over the bitumen of the quiet road that weaved a path through the golden field towards the town in the distance. As she squinted, she could see how the heat rose from the slightly sticky tar and shimmered just above it, creating mini mirages. Looking up and down the winding black snake, Chell heaved a sigh and set off towards the right. It didn't take long for her to decide to start walking on the gravelly dirt next to the road, as the melting tar threatened to cling to the long fall boots and dirty them even more.
The town never seemed to get closer, no matter how fast she walked.
Chell's nose and shoulders were already beginning to pinken by the time she heard the rumble of a truck behind her. Her face was also a little sore from the horrid way she had to contort it into a constant squint against the harsh light. But still she persevered against the thick clag that stuck her tongue to the roof of her mouth and cracked her drying lips.
Looking behind her, she could see the rusty shell of an old 1950's style pickup truck barrelling toward her. Briefly she considered sticking out her thumb and asking for a ride, but found she didn't have to as the old greenish-brown truck started to slow down, grinding through the gears before it rolled to a shuddering halt beside her. Through the window, a familiar and smiling face appeared.
"Well, look who it is! Haven't seen you in a while, sweet cheeks! People have been wonderin' where you've gotten to. Hop on in!"
The sugary southern drawl that spilled from the lips of the little old lady sitting behind the wheel instantly made Chell feel at home, and she gratefully reached for the door handle. It crunched and squealed in protest as she opened it up and clambered up into the hot vinyl seat that had stuffing poking out of it everywhere. For the second time that day, Chell was confronted with the seeming finality of a metal clang that sealed her into a different life. The further she walked away, the more doors would close to shut her off from Aperture Science. Clicking the seatbelt around her waist, she eyed the kindly old woman as she talked.
"This here truck used to belong to my old Bill, God rest his soul. Had it for years before that nice boy across the road got it going for me again. Town's so small I don't use it too often, but it's good for visitin' and pickin' up supplies from other places. But aw shucks! Look at me babblin' away again! You probably got all sorts of interestin' stories, honey. Where've you been all these weeks? I thought you was only gonna be gone for a few days. I went all funny and kept settin' you a place at the table; I was so used to havin' you around." She chortled.
Chell just gave a bare bones smile. It was nice to be missed. After all, she didn't have any other family.
"Just...visiting." she softly replied, her voice a little hoarse.
"You don't like to talk much, huh? Here, have a little drink. I got some water here." Mrs Keegan leant down and rummaged around in a plastic bag on the floor before producing a bottle of fresh water.
Chell gratefully accepted it and cracked it open. The water was a little warm, but it wet her parched throat and helped her to wipe away some of the crud that was gathering at the corners of her lips.
"There now, sweet cheeks. I bet that feels better, don't it? I'll make us some nice cool lemonade for us when we get back home." She reached out and patted the former test subject's leg, who jumpily flinched at the unexpected contact.
Mrs Keegan did give her a curious little look out the corner of her eye, but chose not to comment. Instead, she turned the radio back up to listen to the mellow country tunes that crackled out of the speakers to drown out the silence.
Chell, on the other hand, sat quietly as the sun beamed across her legs through the bug-spattered windscreen, the dust smeared across her jumpsuit making it look even more faded. Peering out the open window, she let the hot breeze whip her hair about and dry her sweaty skin. When she poked out her tongue to run across her lips, she could clearly taste their salty, dirty flavour. It would be good to take a cool shower once they got back to the cottage.
In all her musings, the weary test subject hadn't noticed the way she was being studied by the old farm widow while her head remained restfully pressed against the edge of the window.
Mrs Keegan's soft eyes gave Chell a once-over, trying to figure her out. The girl had shown up out of nowhere, rarely left the house unless pressured to, and then mysteriously vanished again. At least she'd left a note. And now here she was again, wandering down the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot summer's day looking like she'd just done hard labour at a prison camp. Or like she'd been working down a mine shaft, from the way her skin had paled. Not to mention she was wearing those funny old boots again. They weren't like the old leather boots that were falling apart that some of the men around town liked to wear because they belonged to their daddies; but real odd ones. All sciencey and stuff. She was certainly a mystery. It didn't take long for the old southern belle to notice the very faint discoloration from the fading bruises and scrapes upon her skin and the scrap of material clutched in Chell's fist that was resting upon her thigh.
Was that a pair of panties?
Mrs Keegan gnawed at her lower lip, her eyebrows rising in worry. Should she say something? What if-...Maybe that was why she was so silent and jumpy. Had she been raped? The poor girl. She looked like she'd been through a great deal from the way her eyes kept closing as she drifted off into short little micro sleeps as the gentle rocking of the pickup truck lulled her into relaxation. What exactly did one say to a person that they thought had been violated like that? It wasn't like she could just ask her over breakfast one morning.
"Don't you worry your pretty little head there, sweetheart. You just get some rest and I'll wake you up when we get home." She reassured her.
And Chell ended up doing just that, finally drifting off despite the hot glass that often touched her face.
The test subject awoke with a start as the door slammed, and she looked around frantically. Mrs Keegan was no longer in the truck, but was grabbing a couple of plastic bags out of the back.
"Oh, you're awake! Sorry about the rude wake up call, hun. Can't shut these old doors with anythin' less than a slam or they just pop right open again. Say, can you grab those last two bags in the back there and bring them inside? My old back just won't have any of it."
Practically falling out of the truck as the heels of her long fall boots got caught on the tattered mat and rusted door frame, Chell grabbed the goodies and brought them inside the quaint little cottage while the old lady nattered away. She didn't say anything much, but just put the groceries away where she remembered them to be.
"Now you just go on up and take a nice shower while I make us some afternoon tea, sweet cheeks. Take your time. No rush. And remember, I'm here if you want to talk about anythin'." She reached out and patted Chell lightly on the hand, making sure not to startle the girl this time.
Giving a slightly confused nod in response, the exhausted test subject headed upstairs to collect some spare clothes from her little room in the attic before stepping into the Vertical Hydration Uni-...no...It was called a shower. Scrubbing furiously at her sunburned face, she had to admit that she did feel a little better now that she was free of all the grime. Not to mention the smell of afternoon tea was wafting about, the citrus scent of the lemonade nicely complimenting the various fillings of the sandwiches and quick little pastries that had been heated up.
Upon returning to the kitchen, Chell took a seat at the table and quickly gulped at the glass of lemonade that was placed in front of her. There was something strangely summery and delicate about the way the ice clinked in the glass. It was so different from anything she'd ever been fed at Aperture. Everything there was thick and pasty, or dry and heavy. The food there was designed to last a long time under all sorts of conditions. Apparently nutrition and taste were two entirely different concepts that shouldn't be mixed, according to whoever created the products there. Chell remained silent as the plate of food was placed in front of her, and she hungrily stuffed one of the little triangle sandwiches in her mouth. She'd forgotten how long it had been since she last ate.
Mrs Keegan just watched her with a sympathetic eye, right up until the test subject finally left the table to quietly retreat to her little room in the attic.
She didn't appear again for days.