A Portal 2 Fanfic by Digitaldreamer
Chapter One: You Must Be Somewhere In London
Digi here, and I've had this idea floating in my head for awhile now. Don't know how far I'll actually get, given work and everything else, but well... we'll see. It's kind of an AU, kind of not... basically, the idea is that post-game, Wheatley has made it out of Aperture and is stuck working at a crummy gas station. Meanwhile, Chell, now a community college is trying to make it out in the real world and just isn't quite fitting in. Meeting each other just may be what they both need to try to work out surviving in regular life... but of course, Wheatley isn't the only one who made it out of Aperture, and a certain CEO is taking an interest in Chell.
As I said, it's kind of a modern day AU of sorts but also not... please don't panic. There is a reason that that the world is so strangely normal in spite of the Combine invasion and three hundred years having passed, same for Wheatley being human and everything else. The answers are waiting, of course, and I hope you'll be willing to sit back and let me show you.
This fic will have the Chell/Wheatley pairing. However, I also really want to focus on the dynamic between Chell and GLaDOS and their relationship, as I feel fanfic writers tend to only focus on one or the other. Basically it's taking the relationship between Chell, Wheatley and GLaDOS, and seeing how it develops and changes out in "modern day". It was largely inspired by several things- my strange appreciation for cracky minimum wage jobs, the entirity of the album
High Violet by The National and the movie Stranger Than Fiction. If you know any of those things, you may have an idea of where I'm going with this.
Anyway, I've rambled long enough. We're here now, so we may as well dive in headfirst, right? If you care, my recommended listening music and the song that inspired this scene is England by The National, so feel free to look it up!
Please review and tell me what you think!
There had to be something wrong with that clock, because it still said it was eight o' one.
That was the one thought Wheatley could manage as his eyes flicked to the offending object on the wall, tucked into that tiny strip of wall between the cooler doors and the yellowing tiles of the ceiling. It was placed in such a way that he had to crane his long neck to get a proper view of it, something he swore his boss had done on purpose, and even then at the wrong time of day the reflection made it impossible to read. Add that to the fact that it always seemed to be three minutes off in either direction (and he was never sure which, as it seemed to switch), and really it made sense that the offending object could potentially be broken.
It was with this thought that his hand dropped into the back pocket of his khakis, long fingers thumbing through a sea of lint and adding another centimeter or two to that hole he needed to fix. Finally he tugged out a cell phone, brushing at a smudged screen before tapping at one of the stickier buttons to forcibly wake all nine ninety-nine, pay-as-you-go of the thing from nap time.
Wheatley let out a low groan as he flopped against the counter, face and long nose pressing against the cheap, scratched-up plastic coating on the top. His long arms and loose blue tie draped over the opposite edge of the countertop in a truly lovely impression of a giraffe collapsing from exhaustion. After a few moments of this he pulled himself back up, propping his chin in one large hand as he glared at the fossilizing packages of Combos and sunflower seeds on display in Aisle one.
To be fair, it wasn't like he could say his job at Walt's Gas Station and Convenience Store was the worst in the world. In a way, he'd been lucky- most people would have just driven right on by when he'd stood there on the side of that dirt road, lost and confused with no idea where to go. His savior had come in the form of a rusty old pick-up truck and a toothless grin, and before he'd known it he'd had himself a job and a life and no questions to answer, so really, that was good.
Of course, he was also pretty sure Walt- if that was even his real name -was completely senile, given that he still couldn't remember his employee's name and constantly seemed to forget things like the date, the time and when things like health inspections and pay days were supposed to happen. These details were nothing compared to the odd requests that Wheatley was fairly sure had not been in the job description, such as biking over to the old man's house to clean his basement, or that time he'd made Wheatley stand on top of the store with birdseed in an effort to catch a pigeon that he was fairly sure didn't actually exist. At any rate, Walt's pay may have been terrible but it didn't require things like a birth certificate- something Wheatley was grateful for. It made little sense to him, the whole concept of trading little bits of paper for things, but if he actually wanted to make this month's rent now was hardly a time to complain.
But that didn't mean he wasn't going to.
There were a number of issues. There was that blue apron that always seemed a bit too awkwardly short on him along with the tie that had taken ages for him to work out and that he still kept getting backwards somehow. There was the milk truck that showed up every morning without fail with far more cartons than would ever be necessary, and Wheatley really didn't see why as he swore he'd only seen old Sarah Jane pick up a carton around the crack of dawn. Then again, that would never be as bad as restocking the energy drink section, and compared to going through every possible kind of Monster deep in the Siberian wilderness of the cooler, he supposed he was getting off rather light with the milk. Then there was the simple fact that there never seemed to be anybody else working in the store. Oh, sure, the schedule said that Summer and Poz worked there, but Summer was on vacation and Poz always seemed to have a show with his band to play that night, and well, Wheatley was Wheatley so that was that.
No coworkers, no second register, just him with the wall of cigarettes and the constant squeak of the ancient ceiling fan for company.
He let out a sigh as he tugged at the collar of his button up shirt, trying desperately to loosen it from his sweat-soaked back. The air-conditioning had been broken for ages now, and even with the dwindling evening sun, the humidity was making the mere idea of the last two hours before close sound like an absolute nightmare. it was that thought that had him turning to the ancient radio hidden on one of the shelves, frowning as he prodded at one of the knobs. It forever seemed to be stuck on the exact same Country station no matter how he tried, but he was desperate enough right now to try to escape his personal, low-volumed constant of static and ramblings about farmer's tans.
"Oh, come on, you piece of ancient history," he muttered to it, gripping the radio for a moment and bringing one blue eye up to a speaker as if he were going eye to eye with some sort of animal. "Surely you're ready for some kind of change, Mate? Oldies, classical music- anything?" He was hopeful as he finally gave the radio a quick shake.
More static, then a clear burst of something about trailer parks, and the blond gave a scowl as he finally leaned back on his heels and gave a huff. "Oh fine, be that way, you old monstrosity," he grumbled as he folded his arms before him. "Stuck in your own bloody ways. Be that way."
"Stuck" was truly an apt word for the whole mess, and it was one he could associate with all too easily. Just a perfect summary of his little life- stuck in the lower levels of management, stuck in human resources, stuck in endless years of silence and dust, stuck in a void of stars and cold… and now stuck in minimum wage hell. It never made sense to him and he could never really grasp why. It was just an endless series of wanderings and hopes, endless grasps for things beyond before he was crushed by fingers and rails pointing him down the exact same circular path. Always the same.
Except for her, and of course that was where his mind wandered as he gazed up at the yellowed ceiling that he could almost call familiar. Now that lady, she would never have let herself get stuck in a dump like this. She was always moving forward, head held high, all strong arms and a brilliant, quick wit. No one to tell her where to go, few things to light her path and nothing but obstacles and problems before her- and of course that was nothing, because for her trail-blazing was the least of her worries. She would just keep going, strong and ready and willing. No way would she settle for a place like this.
He hoped she hadn't settled for a place like this.
Admittedly, he had no way of knowing. It had been ages since Wheatley had seen her, not since the end of it all- and for all he knew, she could be long gone. Knowing her, however, he honestly doubted it. She was probably off in some nice, faraway city, hopefully living in some lovely apartment with big windows, a cat- because of course she had a cat, it just seemed like the sort of thing she would have -and lots of space to cancel out the memories. He could never quite imagine what she did with her freedom- in his mind she was sometimes a doctor or lawyer but he could never be sure, he just knew whatever she did she was good at.
Or she was dead. That was still a possibility, considering those wide terrified eyes and-
"Come on you stupid thing," he muttered as he turned back to the radio, tongue poking out as he spun the little dial with far more force than necessary. The little tick-marks became a blur that only seemed to match the blur in his mind. Surely she was off somewhere, leading the life she deserved, and he was stuck here proving the only thing he was any good for was restocking shelves. Practically a shelf-stocking specialist, if you will, or maybe even a professional cash register associate.
"Not true," he grumbled, gnawing at his lip as he spun the dial again with a bit more force. He was great at loads of things besides this job- like talking to people and putting his foot in his mouth and falling asleep when he wasn't supposed to and taking forever to remember the names of all the cigarettes and-
And breaking knobs off of radios.
"…You must be somewhere in London, you must be loving your life in the rain…"
The tall man stood there before his victim, gaping down at what may as well have been bloodied remains with the way he was staring at the poor little knob. It sat there, as innocuous as a bottle cap in his over-sized palm, dented in just the right place and the physical representation of his heart leaping into his throat. "Oh no," he mumbled over the new song echoing through the gas station. "Oh nononono. Come on, come on, go back on, gogogogo!" His voice took on a sort of pleading croon as he began to desperately mash and roll the plastic disk against the little metal tab he'd tugged it from. This was bad, this was very bad! Sure, he had new music, but Walt loved his stupid songs about tractors and surely the man would eventually notice that it had been a week since he'd heard a low country twang about America and ohnonono he'd already broken the coffee machine last week!
"Oh come on, you stupid thing!" Wheatley whined as he grabbed the radio from the shelf as if all the knob truly required was someone to wrestle it into submission, elbows very nearly ramming into the cigarettes behind him. "I'm already late on the rent, the last thing I want to deal with right now is you-"
The little rusted bell above the door went off, and that was when Wheatley froze.
She reached to adjust the plain black backpack on her shoulders as she entered, shrugging with the weight as if it were nothing to her. The aluminum, utilitarian waterbottle hanging from her belt-loop jiggled, catching the last golden rays of sunset. The light framed her toned arms and cast a golden glow across her white tank top and somewhat ragged jeans, illuminating her and the dustmotes in the air. She paused at the doorway beside the stacks of two liters and the ice machine, then took a glance around the convenience store. Her short, dark ponytail fluttered with the motion before she seemed to make her decision and strode purposefully on by the fossilizing Combos, pausing only to fix those steel-gray eyes on him and nod in greeting.
Wheatley stood there for a moment, elbows sticking this way and that like a spider caught masturbating. Then he dropped behind the counter, arms tucked around his knees and the radio, shoulders hunching to his ears as he desperately tried to stay out of sight. He sat there for a moment, breath caught in his throat, blue eyes wide as he stared at the scuffed up back of the counter.
She hadn't changed a bit.
He carefully set the radio aside- which was still blaring, but that was hardly the point -and ever so slowly grasped at the edge of the counter, then peeked over it. There she stood amongst rows of gum and the long-lined shadows of out-of-date window ads, the sunset not quite masking the grayish-yellow tint of the linoleum floor beneath her sneakers. It wasn't that she really seemed out of place- her clothes and the bag were just as worn out as the four absurdly tiny shelves that made up Walt's itself, but there was still something baffling about seeing her there, browsing the cooler.
Wheatley dropped back behind the counter again and leaned his back against it, trying to ignore the way his heart was pounding in his ears. What on Earth was she doing here? He'd imagined her in the places he'd seen in magazines and on his crappy little TV. He'd imagined her on the rainy, reflective streets of some great city of light and sound, on the sunny beaches of wherever. Walt's gas station, at the very edge of the middle of bloody nowhere, Michigan… well, that didn't seem quite right. Well, okay, it made sense, considering everything, but still…
This did not add up.
He fiddled absently with the cheap plastic name-tag clipped to his shirt, prodding at the peeling lamination, the little flecks and imperfections as he glanced up at the florescent lights. It wasn't like he hadn't imagined meeting her again- but again, it had always been in all those places he'd never been, on rainy streets with umbrellas. Not here with his smelly old workshirt and his tie barely done, not here with the bags under his eyes barely hidden by thick-rimmed glasses and his face pock-marked, freckled and ugly. Not here, not now. And what was he even supposed to say? Hi, I know it's been years and you don't recognize little old me, but I'm that funny little robot who nearly killed you way back in the day! Sorry about that, you're looking great by the way. Still very human. Do you come by shoddy gas stations often?
There was a barely audible groan as he slammed the back of his head against the counter. Oh, this was going to be fantastic.
Wheatley jumped at the sound, his hand jerking and sending his name-tag flying behind the counter- though not before the object got a passing nip at his index finger. The blond let out a yelp and promptly jammed the wounded digit into his mouth, spinning around to face the source of the noise as he did so. "Ow! Would you mind n-"
He froze as bright blue met steel gray, words dying on his tongue as he caught sight of her raised eyebrow. She stared at him, patient, two bottles of Faygo cola placed on the counter. His hand dropped, the offending appendage seeming huge and awkward, and suddenly he felt all too aware of the gap in his teeth as a nervous smile spread across his face on reflex. His tongue fought to spit something, anything out to ease the tension. He had so much to say, so much he wanted to tell her, so much he wanted to do, and all he had to do was isay something/I.
Another moment of silence. Yes Wheatley. Truly, an impressive ice breaker right there, one that will go down in the chapters of human history.
She quirked a brow at him, clearly waiting for something. After a moment, his eyes shifted to the sweating soda bottles. "O-oh, right, sorry! Sorry, my bad, yes! Two bottles of Faygo, right!" He exclaimed as he scooped them up, still beaming. "Ay yes, Faygo. Cheap, delicious, nutritious- well, all right, it's probably not nutritious since it's a fizzy drink and all, but well, can't complain, can you? I mean everybody else seems to go for the name brand stuff, but obviously you know a deal when you see one, right?"
More awkward silence. He was holding both bottles in one hand like King Kong preparing to awkwardly pick at his teeth with skyscrapers, and she was staring at him with about as much confusion as he imagined such a thing would merit. "Er… you come by here often?" He asked as he moved to finally scan the items in question. "We get a lot of students from the community college coming through here since it's just a bit up the hill, don't suppose you go there?"
At her nod, he had to resist punching a fist in the air, Got one right! "Ah, so you're a student. I kind of figured, you look pretty smart lady. What are you going for? Probably science or doctorin' or something fancy like that, right?" He asked with a grin.
His words got a blink from her, and then after a moment she shook her head and gave a shrug. "Ah, the good old fashioned 'no major'. Got nothin' to focus on and no plan ahead, winging it into the great beyond," Wheatley drawled as he leaned one pointy elbow against the counter, propping his head up in his hand. At her slight glare, he recoiled as if burned, waving his great hands before him quickly. "I-I mean, not that that's a bad thing! Everybody needs some time to figure out what they want in life, right, and well, at least you're going! I mean, we can't all be like good ol' me and be positively bred for minimum wage success."
This got a furrowed brow from her, which only prompted him to continue. "Oh yes, good ol' School of Hard Knocks. Got a regular degree in Gas Station Sciences- rigorous classes, let me tell you. Gas pumping one o' one, milk restocking… and for the most daring, of course, there's advanced change counting. Intensity, let me tell you!" At these words, she actually quirked a small, familiar little smile, which very nearly had him shouting in elation there. Instead, the story continued as he set the bottles down. "Yep, little old me, class of good ol' two thousand nine. Valedictorian, winner of all the… gas station-y medals…" His rambling was trailing off now, losing steam, and her expression had gone from amused to mildly irritated as it shifted to her purchase. Whoops.
Wheatley gave a nervous laugh as he reached up to scratch at his head, his scruffy blond hair tangling in his fingers. "Er, right… t-that'll be a dollar fifty, counting tax…" He watched as she reached for her wallet, then suddenly thrust out a palm. Somehow, after everything that had happened, charging her for something so small didn't seem fair. "E-er, wait! You know what, never mind, it's such a small amount and I've kept you here for far too long. Tell you what, it's on me, all right?"
Steel gray blinked in confusion and she gave a frown, clearly confused. "N-no, relax, relax, there's no strings attached, I won't make you get a giftcard or anything!" He insisted, pushing the two bottles back across the counter and ignoring the trail of glittering sweat they left behind in the sunset. "Just…" He let out a sigh, reaching up to scratch at his stubble. How did he put this without sounding ridiculous.
"You look like you've been hurt before- oh, sorry, sorry, I shouldn't be assuming, but if you were- not that I'm necessarily saying you have been, obviously I don't know you or anything like that, but even if I did- a-anyway, I'm sure whoever did it is very sorry and just wants you to have a good life and…" He trailed off, swallowing. His tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth, weighed down by all the wrong words, and she was still looking at him with blatant confusion and suspicion. After another moment, he gave a sigh. "You look like you've had a rough time of things… but you're still goin', somehow. Can't blame a bloke for admiring that, can you? So let the world do somethin' nice for you this once, all right?"
She watched him for another moment, her expression hard as he stood there feeling like he could barely breath. Then, finally, she nodded and took the two soda bottles. He let out a sigh of relief, essentially collapsing against the counter even as his face split into a tired smile. Wheatley felt as if he'd run a marathon, and the wave he gave as she turned to leave felt like he was dragging up a hundred pounds from the deep. "Right, well, have a good one. Hope to see you again," he called after her.
At these words she paused at the doorway, glancing back at him. Then she cracked that same small, almost wry smile.
Then she was gone with the billow of dark ponytail and the ring of that tiny rusted bell, leaving him to let out another heavy breath and stand up to clutch at his chest. "Blimey," he gasped out as he watched her make her way across the ancient, cracked parking lot, backpack bouncing behind her. "Haven't changed a bit, have you?" No, and that was really the thing that made it all okay. He felt exhausted, completely drained, but his shoulders felt a bit lighter, and that was something.
She was alive and well. She was alive and he'd apologized, in a way, and that was always a start.
Now he just had to hope the change in his pocket did in fact come out to a dollar fifty..