"Cores can run for quite a while after charging," Wheatley tells her in the fields. "About five years, if I'm not mistaken. The sixth year, they shut off, and it's all very sad, as you can imagine."
She points to him.
He blinks his optic once. The blue lens focuses and unfocuses on her. "When was I last charged? After being put in her body."
There is an awkward silence.
Chell holds up five fingers.
The first year is strange.
They explore together, find a town beyond the wheat fields and a house to settle in. There are very few people in the town; they look at the test subject and core strangely and keep their distance. Wheatley does all the talking, while Chell acts as hands and feet for both of them.
They are a hesitant team. He notices her fear and does everything to dispel it so that she'll listen to him. He keeps her company, chatters, rolls around on the floor and makes a fool of himself until she smiles and he lifts his lower shutter in response.
But the tension is there, and for that reason, Chell sleeps alone and makes sure he cannot do anything to her.
One day, she looks at him over breakfast and holds up four fingers.
They grow closer.
The second year is one of close calls. He dodges gets attacked by the neighbor's dog, getting left in the rain, getting confiscated in a shop when she leaves him alone for a minute. She saves him every time, and patiently listens to his nervous tittering until he calms himself down and falls silent.
He watches her.
She watches him.
One evening, he asks if he can sit closer to her on the couch. She brings him to her side and she finds her face growing hot at the touch of metal against her clothing. Wheatley avoids her gaze.
She leans forward to catch his attention.
She holds up three fingers.
During the third year, it is Chell who fears for her safety.
Someone comes banging on her door one night and she huddles close to him in the deepest part of the house. She sits in a corner with Wheatley in her lap, and he closes his optic and whimpers softly.
The Someone tells her that it's for science. The Someone asks her to come out and relinquish the robot and make something of herself.
She clutches Wheatley tighter and presses her face against him.
"It's alright, love," he whispers to her. "Maybe they'll go away."
It lasts for months. Every night, the Someone comes back, sometimes with multiple Someones, and for once, Wheatley does not leave her to fend for herself. Maybe it's because they want him, too, but he never speaks about how frightened he is, only trembles in her arms and comforts her while they wait it out together.
Then the Someones stop coming.
They are huddled together out of habit, and though they wait all night, there is no knock on the door. The sun comes up.
She holds up two fingers.
During the fourth year, they read together.
She holds the book for him and underlines the sentences with her finger while he sits beside her and reads aloud.
One day, he stops mid-sentence, closes his optic.
"Can we keep doing this?" he asks her. "This is perfect. I would like very much if we can continue doing the reading thing. Very good way to spend a day."
She strokes his hull gently, and he smiles up at her.
Four hundred books later:
She holds up one finger. He shudders and looks away.
She continues to read with him, but she never forgets during the fifth year that he's dying and there's nothing she can do.
Some nights, he stutters and his optic flashes on and off and Chell nervously checks the nearest calendar (she's hung one in every room so she never forgets). She breathes out when she realizes, no, it'll be months yet. But he is in pain and exhausted and she knows it.
One night he asks her to put the book away.
She lies on her side and he presses himself against her belly and closes his optic and sighs.
"Thank you," he says to her, and they spend the rest of the night next to each other.
The day comes.
He warns her beforehand, and haltingly tells her everything he has been too cowardly to say before:
She is beautiful and smart and has been so good to him, too good to him, she has forgiven him and he couldn't be happier.
She needs to continue being herself. He will miss her.
He tells her that he's sorry.
She begins to cry, the tears blurring her vision and her breath coming in short, shaking gasps.
"Oh, love," he sighs. "Don't be that way. Don't do the…the crying, is it? Don't do that."
He falls silent. His optic turns a duller shade of blue, flickers once, and sputters off. It never turns back on.
It takes forever, but eventually, she stops crying.
The house feels empty without him, but after a few years, she starts holding her head higher.
He took care of her, apologized, gave her something to live for.
She honors his last wishes with pride.