Cave was on a euphoric high as he pulled into the driveway outside Caroline's duplex. He'd floored the gas the whole way, heart racing, mind running over and over how he would sweep his assistant off her feet. How long was it since he last made this drive? Only a week? It felt like forever. And it was strange not having her beside him as he strode up the front walk through the lightly sprinkling rain.
Well, it was time to fix that.
Knock knock knock.
He brushed the raindrops from his jacket and waited a moment after rapping his knuckles on the front door—straightened his tie, rolled his shoulders back, made himself presentable—but got no answer. He tried again.
Knock knock knock.
Still nothing. Her car was parked outside, so she had to be home. Maybe she was asleep or something. Yeah, asleep in bed—he pictured her curled up under the sheets, and imagined waking her with a kiss. Those soft brown eyes opening, full of surprise, and then that sweet smile… His heart skipped, and he couldn't hold back a smile of his own. I missed you, kiddo.
He didn't give it another thought as he fished out his keys and unlocked the door. He'd missed her cozy apartment, too—it was like a second home, he was here so often. Why wouldn't he let himself in? So he did just that, opening the door on the familiar sight of her living room—
And as she turned, her eyes met his.
Right there. She was right there. Her gaze stopped him dead, and his breath caught in his throat—it took him a moment to find his voice, and when he did it emerged as a choked whisper.
He had to hold her. The need pulled him forward, drawing him to her magnetically—but as he moved she took a step back. "Caroline, kid—" He pursued, and she retreated, keeping the furniture solidly between them. Her eyes held the wary expression of an animal.
He frowned. Why wasn't she throwing herself into his arms? According to every scene he'd played out in his head, she should definitely be kissing him by now. Instead she stood across the room, guarded and tense, poised on her feet as if to flee. As if she were scared of him. "What the hell's wrong with you? C'mere."
At last she found her words. "Get out of my house."
"Aw c'mon, kid—"
"What the hell do you think you're doing here?"
"Getting my secretary back, what else?" He held his arms out to her. "Now c'mon, I got the car outside, I'm taking you home."
As he stepped forward again, she bristled and backed into the wall. "You need to leave. Now."
"I don't work for you, and you need to get out of my house."
"Whaddaya mean you don't—"
"Please, just go." Her voice cracked on the last word, as if it pained her to say.
His frown deepened. "What the hell are you talking about?"
But his confusion only seemed to make things worse. Her reply was soft and disbelieving. "Did you forget?" Her expression hardened as he watched, and a stony defiance masked the hurt in her eyes. "I'm talking about when you threw me out of your office and said you never wanted to see me again. You told me not to come back, so I won't. Goodbye."
"Aw kid nothing! You called me a cocksucking tramp!"
"That's 'cause I thought you were!" The response shocked her speechless—and he used it to get a few words in. "Look. Kiddo. This is all some stupid misunderstanding. Let's just forget it and—"
"A misunderstanding? Did I misunderstand that my boss of twelve years thought I was a backstabbing slut? Because that's what I thought I understood." She cut him off before he could reply. "You thought I only wanted to sell your science to the highest bidder, is that right? That I used you and never cared about you?"
"That's what you said."
"I didn't—Caroline, I didn't know—"
"You should have! I told you I didn't do anything!" A note of pain stung her voice. "I told you he was lying, but you didn't believe me. You'd rather believe some Black Mesa operative you knew for five minutes."
"Twelve years I've worked for you, but all some stranger has to do is hint around and suddenly I'm a traitor." Tears welled in her eyes, but she blinked them back before they could fall. "I see how much you trust me."
"Caroline. Don't be stupid." She started to turn away, but he pinned her to the wall, cupping her cheek in his hand and turning her to face him. "You know I didn't mean any of that—"
"You sure fooled me. Get off."
"Caroline, listen—" He held her as she tried to shrug him off. "I know I said some bad stuff, but—I—"
"Wouldja listen to me when I'm talking to you?" Seeing this side of her shook him to the core. The assistant he knew would never shy from his touch. She could be stubborn, she could disagree, she could even get aggressive when someone pushed her too far—but he'd never seen her like this. This woman's unfamiliar expression twisted her face into something unrecognizable. Her dark eyes brimmed with hurt and hostility as she glared at him.
"What are you trying to say, sir? You want me to forget about it? Is that what you want?"
He sighed in relief. "Yeah!"
"Well I'm sorry, sir, but I can't do that." She spat the honorific like a curse. "I'm not going to lie down and take it like I always do, because I am sick and tired of your bullshit—"
"You called me a whore!"
The accusation hit him like a punch in the gut. His grip on her went slack, and she tore free, brushing past without so much as a glance at him. He took a breath and opened his mouth to defend himself—but couldn't. It was true. He wasn't sure how to fix that.
She defiantly kept her back to him, tense shoulders blocking him off like a brick wall. "If that's what I mean to you after twelve years, then fine. But you do not get to patronize me anymore. I want you out of my house, and I never want to see you again." He reached out a hand and laid it tentatively on her shoulder, but she jerked away. "Don't touch me." The frigid refusal knocked him back a step. In the pause her shoulders hitched a little, as if holding back a sob—but when she continued her tone was firm and cold. "You don't want me. You made that very clear. Since the day you hired me I have been nothing but loyal to this company, but if you can just—throw me away—"
Her voice faltered as she choked on her words, and he moved in, sensing an opportunity—but something she said caught his attention. "Wait a minute."
"—Like I never meant anything to you—"
"I did not!"
She stopped cold. "—Excuse me?"
"You were the one who walked out on me, missy. If you didn't, none of this woulda happened!"
That did it. She whipped around to face him, flaring in indignation. "How can you say that?"
"'Cause it's true!"
"Yeah you did!" And realization smacked her in the face. He watched her eyes change—stunned, shaken, defensive, and back to defiant—as her mind went back to that first night. "Hate to remind you, kiddo, but you were the one who quit. You left me."
"You think this is my fault?"
"It kinda is, yeah!"
Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and for a second he expected her to belt him in the mouth. She didn't. She let out a deep breath, and something in her seemed to settle—when she looked up at him, her face was calm. "You're right. It is my fault. I'm sorry." But her eyes crackled with sparks. "I'm sorry that for once in my life I showed a modicum of self-respect by standing up to my arrogant blowhard of a boss. I'm sorry I wanted more from my life than cleaning up your messes and trotting at your heels and saying yes sir every other word. I let you take me for granted from the moment you hired me, and even though I'm the best employee you have, you act like I'm a child! I'm sorry I ever hoped that maybe, maybe you could show the slightest bit of respect for me instead of treating my like your goddamn dog!" Tears pricked her eyes again, but her voice stayed strong. "But you know what I'm most sorry for? I'm sorry I wasted twelve years of my life on a selfish prick like you!"
"Selfish prick, huh?" he growled.
"Well if you hate me so much, why don't you leave?"
She expected him to yell back. He didn't. Staring at her like she'd clubbed him with a baseball bat, he let out a shuddering breath, and his strong shoulders slumped. The best retort he could muster was a quivering insult. "You're a bitch."
"And you're a patronizing, self-absorbed ass, now get out."
And he did. His gaze dropped to the floor as he turned away from her. Heavy footsteps brought him to the door. His hand found the knob and he turned it slowly, letting in the grey afternoon drizzle—a chill draft blew in a handful of raindrops that sprinkled across his face. The silence stretched like a yawning rift between them, tempered only by the patter of the rain.
It was time for him to go.
She swallowed against the lump in her throat, but her stony expression held, and the eyes that watched him were unyielding and cold. Under her gaze he squared his shoulders, raised his head, and steeled himself to leave. His jaw clenched tight as he looked out at the rain.
But something held him back. His feet stayed frozen still, as if lead weights held them to the spot. He couldn't cross the doorstep. And for a split second, she saw his composure crumble—the stoic mask cracked, and beneath it the man in front of her was more broken and alone than she ever thought possible. In that moment the powerful CEO of Aperture Science looked like nothing more than a frightened child. He needed someone to hold him. He needed her.
The word was involuntary. It came out on a whisper, almost inaudible, but it closed the distance between them as easily as breathing. In that moment the rift sealed up—and they found themselves sharing a much more intimate silence. His eyes flicked in her direction as he tried to meet her gaze, but they fell short, coming to rest shyly at her feet. Strange, to see the most confident man she knew looking shy. It made her feel bashful herself. She glanced away as a hint of blush rose to warm her cheeks.
The door's still open, registered some faraway part of her brain. So she moved around him to close it, hyperconscious of the space between his body and hers, keeping her eyes fixed on the floor. Her back was to him as she pulled it shut—she felt his gaze rest between her shoulderblades and shivered. If she turned to look at him, there was no going back. That much she knew.
Slowly, she turned to look at him.
"Would you like some coffee?"
And he kissed her.
It was messy and rough, his mouth mashed to hers in a fit of desperation, and it caught her by surprise—for about half a second. A heartbeat later she was kissing him back. Lips and bodies pressed together hungrily as he pulled her close, his rough hands at the base of her spine, hers running up his neck to the sides of his face, fingers twining in his hair—
"I'll be right back."
And she tore herself away, leaving him to stare dumbstruck after her as she escaped into the kitchen.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she whipped the door shut behind her. She felt lightheaded, dizzy—her hands flew to her face and she could smell Brylcreem on her fingers. Oh god oh god oh god… The smell of him was intoxicating as ever. She could still feel him on her lips as he tried to devour her, locked in the familiar strength of his embrace…
She hugged herself tight, curling around the fire in her belly as if smothering it could put it out. Suddenly she was twenty-something again, and the mere thought of him filled her with heat. Her light blush was now a burning redness that covered her neck and chest, and she could feel her heart pounding in her ribcage like a drum—her contact-starved body screamed at her to get the hell back in there and—
What? Throw herself on him like nothing happened? She had more pride than that.
No you don't, hissed her arousal, now go get him!
Deep breath, in and out. No. In and out. Get ahold of yourself. In and out. I can handle this.
She felt the tears finally spill from her eyes, and her next exhale shuddered with a sob—but for some reason she felt like laughing. The whole thing was ridiculous. First he wouldn't let her go, and then he wouldn't take her back, and now he wouldn't leave her alone—and then she went and kissed him—of all the stupid things to do—
A noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob bubbled from between her lips. I kissed him. God, I'm hopeless. But he kissed me first, she added defensively, as if her own feelings would betray her. I just… let him. I shouldn't have let him, but he kissed me. The thought made her tingle. He kissed me. She wiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks and realized she was smiling.
Pull yourself together. Her common sense asserted itself as a firm voice in her head, and it didn't sound happy. So what if you're still attracted to him? He's still horrible, and you need to get him out of here. We're not wasting all this effort now. It was right. This didn't change anything. She should march back in there and order him to go—but with her frigid control melted away, she couldn't find the will to do it. But this wasn't so bad. Maybe after a calm, reasonable discussion over coffee, they could part on good terms.
Coffee. Right. She shook herself and went to the coffeepot, rinsing out the last cold dregs of her earlier brew before readying the new one, hands moving in motions so practiced she didn't even have to think. It would be ready in a few minutes—that gave her a few minutes to collect herself. As the coffee brewed she leaned against the countertop and rehearsed what she would say.
Mr. Johnson, I'm sorry, but I can't come back to Aperture. I love—my job—very much, but it isn't the best thing for me anymore. I still love the company, and I will always act in its best interests, but for my own good I need to pursue other things. I'm sorry.
A lead weight settled in her stomach as she went over the words. I feel like I've tried this before. And she had—it was almost verbatim the same speech that got her thrown out in the first place. Mr. Johnson didn't always respond well to reasonable discussion.
But he'll have to this time. She wiped her eyes again and steeled her resolve. I won't yell, I won't cry, and I will not give in to him. I'm going to have a mature, adult conversation. Because they were both mature adults, no matter how childish he could be, and it was time they acted like it. I'm not a little girl anymore. I won't let him treat me like one.
I'll reason with the bastard if it kills me.
The squeal of the percolator punctuated her thought, and automatically her hands went to the matching Aperture mugs side-by-side in the cabinet. A dollop of cream for each—the trick was getting that just right, not too strong or too sweet—but after twelve years she barely had to watch as she poured. The familiar smell was a balm on her frazzled, fraying nerves. She inhaled deeply, letting the scent flood her senses with warmth, and smiled. A cup of coffee never hurt anybody.
And on that note, she took both mugs and ventured out of the kitchen.
She half-expected to be pounced on as she peeped into the living room, but her former boss had taken a seat on the sofa with his back to her. His posture was odd—not sprawled out open-legged like normal, but hunched in on himself as if trying to shrink into the cushions. He looked almost nervous. She held onto her façade of calm as she approached, keeping her hands steady and ignoring the flutter of her heart.
He didn't react to her at all as she approached, whether deliberately or because her cautious footsteps made little sound—when the mug of coffee appeared over his shoulder, he took it without looking up. She didn't try to get his attention. Instead she hovered behind the sofa with her eyes fixed on her coffee, turning deliberately away from him, fighting the gravitational pull of his presence. The next few seconds passed in mutual silence as they sipped their drinks.
"Mmmmmm." The hot liquid lapped his lips like a kiss, warming him with the smell and taste of home. It was like finding something he thought he'd lost. "I missed real coffee."
Her reply was stiff, but not quite impassive. "The new girl doesn't make you coffee?"
"Doesn't count, tastes like shit." Caroline had to bite back a smile. "God, she's terrible," Cave continued, relaxing a little as he talked. "Couldn't take notes, couldn't take calls. Don't think she filed a thing since she started. And she called me Mr. J all the time."
"Yeah!" He chuckled and shook his head. "Finally had to let her go. I've had bad assistants before, but Gina took it to a whole new level."
Caroline found herself chuckling along with him. "I'm glad," she said without thinking.
She caught the slip too late. "Nothing."
But he wouldn't let her get away that easily. Turning over his shoulder to her, he said gently, "You should come back and show her how it's done."
She still refused to look at him, but he pursued anyway. "Now wait a minute." He fixed her with a straightforward gaze. "You started that fire. Right?"
It took her a long moment to reply. "Yes."
"Why in the hell would you do that if you weren't coming home?"
"Because those sons of bitches treated my company like dirt." The memories sparked a fire in her dark eyes, and a shadow passed over her face. "We were a joke to them. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to show them what happens when you make trouble for Aperture Science." She stared fixedly into her coffee, focused on something he couldn't see. "Everybody likes revenge."
At least she sounded madder at Black Mesa than at him. That was a good sign. Cave chanced a grin. "That was really something, kiddo. Real impressive."
"I wasn't trying to impress anyone," she snapped. "The bastards deserved it. They wouldn't know real science if it hit them in the nose."
"Or burned their facility down," he chuckled in return. The unexpected comment made her cheeks turn pink. Was that a compliment? She ducked her head to hide the blush—but he noticed anyway, and barely held back a bigger grin. Something was getting through to her. His tone was just shy of goading as he continued, "Lemme tell you, Aperture could use some real science right about now. We've been at a standstill ever since you left."
It took her a hesitant moment, but she rose to the bait. "Don't be ridiculous."
"I mean it! Been over a week now and we haven't done shit. It's like everybody forgot how to do their jobs. I've got research teams shirking work, I've got half the sales department hanging around the water cooler, I've got a whole warehouse that I can't use 'cause it's clogged with stupid goddamn—"
"Oh, not the trampolines."
"—How'd you know that?"
"Of course they'd pull that stunt again," she huffed, leaning against the back of the sofa beside him. "The physicists tried it a few months ago as a joke—they didn't expect anyone to notice. Luckily I caught them in time to cancel the order. Just tell the manufacturers it was a mistake, send them back, get a refund, and take the shipping costs out of the Physics budget."
"But they're over budget already—"
"A pay cut across the board for the next month or so should cover it. They won't be happy, but it won't have to be a big cut, and it's their own fault anyway. Teach them a lesson. In fact…" A thoughtful look crossed her face. "Does the Botany lab still want the greenhouse irrigation system redone?"
"Is that what they have their panties in a wad about? I never read those memos."
"I know you don't, but I do, and this could be the perfect opportunity to slip it into the budget at no extra cost. Just shave a little more off the physicists' paychecks. They won't even notice."
"You little devil!" Cave let out a guffaw and propped his feet up on her coffee table. This was why he wanted her back so bad—his girl had a head for business. Of course, he could've thought of it himself, he just… hadn't. The mindset was escaping him lately.
But Caroline was back in her element. "I see what you mean about that temp not being up to scratch," she sniffed, making the single syllable drip with contempt. "I could take care of all that in a second. I hope she at least got you ready for that follow-up with Harrison on Friday."
"He wanted to check back with you after the trial period, remember?"
"No!" he spluttered. "I never heard anything about it!"
She knew he had, because she'd been in the room when he agreed to it, but that didn't matter now. "Don't worry, I'll—I—" She fumbled to a halt.
"I'll help you find a replacement, but that's all I can do."
"Aw, c'mon!" She turned away, and he turned after her, propping his elbows on the back of the sofa. "You were on a roll there! We could have the place back to normal by the end of the day if you just—"
"I'm not coming back."
"Why the hell not?" But she had her back to him again, and he received no answer. "You can't just leave me hanging like that!"
"Yes I can. I'm not your secretary."
"I'm not going through this again." She flicked her hands out in dismissal and started to walk away.
He rose from the sofa to follow. "I dunno how you expect me to get by without—"
"That's not my problem."
"It's Aperture's problem," he growled, "but I guess you don't care about Aperture anymore, huh?"
The accusation froze her in her tracks. "Excuse me?"
"Sure you still hate Black Mesa, but all that stuff about doing it for Aperture was a load of horseshit."
"Don't you dare—"
"If you really cared about my company—"
"I care! I care!" Her eyes flashed with fury as she rounded on him. "Don't you ever say I don't love this company! Aperture is my whole life! Whether you realize it or not, I put my heart and soul into it just like you! And if you ever really thought I could betray it, you don't know me at all!" The clash of wills was almost audible. She saw his temper swell, building to a head behind his furious gaze, and thought for a heartbeat that he would actually hurt her—but she stood her ground and met him head on. "It's my company as much as yours, and you know it!"
She dared him to deny her. He couldn't. The tension between them cracked like splitting rock, and something in him seemed to give. His voice went suddenly soft. "Yeah, I know it. So how come you can just walk away?"
Of all the things he could have said, that was the most unexpected. It knocked the breath out of her in a whoosh. As she scrambled to regain her balance, he turned and sat heavily on the sofa, not caring that he had his back to her. Her mouth tried to form words, but she couldn't make a sound.
Her former boss sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "If you care about Aperture so much, why aren't you at the facility doing your damn job? I can't replace you, kiddo. I tried. I can keep trying all you want, but—you're one in a million. You know that."
She was completely speechless. Her mouth hung open as she tried to process the things he was saying—things she'd waited twelve years to hear. He needed her. He knew he needed her. All of a sudden her heartbeat sounded deafeningly loud.
He wasn't even looking at her now. He sat with hands clasped between his knees, hunched over, staring morosely at the floor. His tone was rough with emotion as he murmured, "I dunno what I'm gonna do without you."
She felt the lump rise to her throat again, and knew it wasn't going away this time.
Cave Johnson was the proudest man she'd ever met. He was arrogant, condescending, self-centered, and stubborn. He demanded instead of asking, he took everything for granted, he never apologized for any reason—and he didn't need anybody. Except her.
She tried to keep the quaver out of her voice as she spoke. "You've never said any of this before."
"Well, I—I mean, hell—I—figured you knew."
She swallowed hard. No, that lump wasn't going anywhere. Not with the slump of his shoulders breaking her heart.
It took a long, cautious moment, but slowly she moved around the sofa and settled beside him, sensing every inch of the space that separated him from her. He was close enough to kiss. She sat primly still, her perfect posture a contrast to his slouch, fixing her eyes on the coffee table in front of her so they wouldn't wander. She could feel his weight on the cushions beside her, and in the silence she could hear his breath.
One of them would have to make a move.
She swallowed again and opened her mouth, but it took another moment before her words caught up with her. "I would never… be unfaithful to you. In any way." Keeping her tone steady took enormous effort, but she managed it.
"How could you think that of me?"
"What was I s'posed to think? You were gone, Caroline. You left me." His voice sounded rough and husky, as if he were choked up too. "I never in a million years thought you'd leave me."
He couldn't meet her eyes, but she felt his gaze fall on her left knee. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She had no answer for him—until it happened, she never thought she'd leave him either. Somewhere in her head a part of her still insisted that she'd done the right thing, but it was hard to hear that part when the rest of her was yelling, He's hurt! Make it better!
Her overwhelming instinct was to fix this, to hold him close until the sadness went away and then get rid of whatever was doing this to him. Being the culprit herself made that difficult. She half-felt deserving of the pain when his next gruff words hit her. "What did you go and leave me for?"
"I…" The accusation buried itself like a bullet in her chest. She could only look at him for a second before glancing away. "I already told you. Don't make me say it again."
He chuckled grimly. "Arrogant, selfish prick, was that it? Yeah, I remember." The words left an acrid taste in his mouth. His eyes flicked to her for half a second—but she was still staring straight ahead, unmoving, as if she hadn't heard him at all. He risked one last attempt. "You couldn't really leave ol' Cave, could you?"
It wasn't a boast. It was a question. More than that—it was a plea.
He couldn't voice the thought that followed, but in her silence it ripped his heart open. I guess you could.
Any words she could have said were stuck tight in her throat. I thought you didn't respect me. But the way he acted now said otherwise. He wasn't going to strong-arm her into submission the way he would with anyone else. The bullying was over, the shouting gone. He wasn't defending his pride anymore. She almost got the feeling that if she asked him to leave one more time, he'd go.
Would she do it?
She shifted again, settling awkwardly in her seat—and brushed against him with her knee.
The response was tiny but electric. They both stiffened, bodies tense and motionless, each waiting for the other to react. The pause stretched for ages. They couldn't look at one another, couldn't show any sign of the frisson that made their skin tingle with sparks—both were far too stubborn for that. They could only sit frozen in place and hope the other would move first.
At last, just as he was giving up, she relaxed the tiniest bit and let her leg rest against his.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her leg like it was about to bite him. Her dress rode up over her knees, just slightly, exposing a few inches of nylon-covered skin. For a moment his mind was overwhelmed with the image of her stripped to her lingerie, and the delicious memory of peeling off her stockings. It was a tantalizing distraction, but what struck his heart was the intimacy that came with it—the warm, soft sense that she trusted him with all of her. He'd never felt like that about anyone, ever, before or since—and if he didn't fix this, he was going to lose her for good.
Cave Johnson was not a cautious man, but he moved more cautiously than he ever thought possible as he reached out to her.
His touch shuddered through her like lightning. She shivered as the rough warmth of his hand grazed her, hesitated, and came to rest shyly on her knee. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she felt a hot flush spread from head to toe. It was an effort not to squirm, make a sound, lean in closer—but she managed it, remaining silent and immovable. Until her hand lifted gingerly, in a barely noticeably motion, and edged towards his.
He didn't notice it, and just as she was about to return the touch, his hand withdrew. He curled it into a loose fist in his lap and looked away. No use invading her space. She was a stubborn woman, and if she wanted him gone, he didn't stand a chance.
He froze as he felt her body rest against his.
Slowly and cautiously, she nestled into his side, letting the stress and tension of the past days ebb away as best she could. The warm, comforting strength of him helped with that. Her body had missed his body. She edged in close, and her head pillowed itself on his shoulder. It felt right.
The hell is she doing? he thought frantically, barely daring to breathe. She's not… Not after all that… Is she? But her hand slid deliberately down his thigh, coming to rest with fingers curled around his knee, and he thought his heart would explode. Maybe he got through to her after all.
After a long moment of stillness, he finally dared to move—and a tentative hand crept around her waist. Another shiver ran through her as it found the curve of her hip. He eased her closer, savoring the way her shape fit with his, and she snuggled up willingly under his arm. He still couldn't look at her, but gradually his posture relaxed, and in a few minutes his cheek was resting against her hair.
He couldn't resist nuzzling closer. The undiluted smell of her flooded his nose. Her perfume had faded and her shampoo's smell was barely detectable, replaced by the sweat of a tiring day, but the metallic tang of the Enrichment Center clung to her still, blended with the animal smell of her body as if they were one scent. And an edge of something else too, something new, like burning campfire, burning…
He breathed in deep, burying his face in her hair, and took a gamble in breaking the silence. "You smell like smoke."
"I haven't had time to shower yet—"
"It is sexy as hell." He cuddled her tighter and pressed a kiss to her head, prompting a small smile. "Did you really do that? Light those bastards up like a firecracker?"
Her smile widened. "I sure did." It felt safer to talk about now, nestled up to his chest, with his protective arm around her. Los Alamos felt a million miles away. "I thought it was a nice parting gift. I had to thank them for ruining my life."
"Remind me not to get on your bad side," he chuckled.
"Oh, I will." She snuck a glance at him and added carefully, "I showed them what they get when they mess with Cave Johnson's girl."
His heart skipped. She couldn't have meant anything by that. Could she? His breath caught in his throat as his gaze ventured down—and was met by a well-loved pair of warm brown eyes.
That's my girl, alright.
"C'mere, you," he growled, and scooped her into a big bear hug. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her face in his shoulder as he held her tight, relishing every second. The past few days couldn't touch her now, not with his embrace protecting her like a warm circle of firelight against the cold and the dark. He was the only safety she'd ever known. Her boss, her mentor, her lover… She could lose herself in this man.
Maybe she already had.
But the pang of guilt that should have come with the thought was muted to the barest whisper. She firmly ignored it. He's awful for me, I know that—but I love him. And he loves me too.
They stayed there for what felt like hours, wrapped around one another like their lives depended on it. It took ages for them to so much as relax their grip. But gradually they did, and two heartbeats slowed to a tranquil pace as their owners found solace in each other. After some time she wasn't hugging him so much as lying on him, snuggled in his lap with his arms around her, letting the rise and fall of his breathing lull her into a peaceful calm. They could've fallen asleep then and there.
But, with some effort, she raised her head to meet his gaze, resting her forehead against his so that they were nose-to-nose. The look in his eyes melted her completely. No bravado there, not now—he was just happy to have her in his arms again.
"Caroline, I'm s—"
"Shh." She pressed her fingers over his mouth. "I am too."
It was the closest to an apology he'd ever given—and the closest she wanted. He wouldn't be Cave Johnson without a little bravado. And she loved Cave Johnson.
He pressed a kiss to her fingertips, and she found herself grinning with relief. She stroked his cheek, feeling the light stubble along his jaw, and let her hand tangle in his hair. It was all behind them now. Her words were only half-playful as she tested gently, "Are you sure you don't hate me?"
He let out a bark of laughter. "Couldn't hate you if I tried! And I did try. Just couldn't keep you out of my head." She giggled and arched her back as his fingers ran down her spine. "Lemme tell you, kiddo, you are something else."
"I'm just a secretary." The words slipped out of their own accord. She wasn't sure if the modesty was false or not.
He reacted like a shot. "Caroline!" Catching her face in his hands, he held her nose-to-nose again and fixed her with a stern gaze. "Y'know what you are? You are the backbone of Aperture Science, and the best damn secretary in the goddamn world. And if I ever forget that again, I want you to hit me as hard as you can. Right in the mouth. 'Cause I sure as hell deserve it."
She smiled. "Yes sir."
"And you're my girl."
"And you always will be."
"Good." He bumped his nose to hers. "Don't you forget it."
But it occurred to her that one question was still unanswered. Wrapping her arms around him again, she asked softly, "Does this mean I have my job back?"
The kiss that followed was answer enough.