A/N-I said I'd get this published by the end of the year-note that it is five minutes to 11:00pm in my time zone.:-P
This story will be my first where I'll do chapters one at a time; here's the first one. Not beta-ed and probably not as proofread as I'll want it to be, but I'm rushing against this deadline I set for myself, so I might edit the ending of this chapter to transition more smoothly later. Special thanks go to the friends in the fandom I've made this past year, epsecially deyanire on DeviantArt! This one's got your name on it for having to listen to me whine about not writing, haha!;-D
Now, if you're reading this when it's published...it's New Year's Eve/Day, why are you reading fanfiction? Go have fun, I'm the sad person who publishes fanfic instead of celebrating, not you. If it's not New Year's Eve or Day...go read the fic. And then get on my case to publish the other chapters.
"I wish I had an angel for one moment of love
I wish I had your angel tonight."
—Wish I Had An Angel, Nightwish
"Dammit", Alyx hissed. The rain wasn't letting up. In fact, it was getting worse. The light but steady drops that had been falling consistently for the past ten minutes were starting to turn into heavy, wet drops, and now that they stopped for breath and to assess what to do, they could hear a low, rolling thunder. Gordon sighed too. Thunder was not good, in any respect. Thunder meant lightning, and that meant the storm could get dangerous to be out in. With all these tall trees around...
They had been trekking farther from the base than they usually did, on a trip to check out a possible abandoned CP outpost. It might yield supplies, it might yield information...it might be still occupied by a few stragglers holing up. The higher-ups at the base had decided that, with other scouting units either already occupied or decommissioned for the moment due to injuries, Gordon and Alyx could handle whatever might be there by themselves. Gordon personally thought the entire Resistance had too high an opinion of the realism of the reputation the famous Freeman-Vance duo were getting for being able to handle so much as a team, and would have liked having some more backup in case things did get messy...but he did have to admit, other Rebels tended to grind his nerves a little, with their fawning and chattering and...quite frankly, unfamiliarity. You had to make small talk with people who watched you as if expecting every other sentence to be some profound edict, or else have the whole vibe of things thrown off by the new people, the new opinions and styles of interacting, to deal with.
And he liked working with just Alyx. Their fighting chemistry was flawless and effective, and he enjoyed her company. She was fun and funny and knew how to handle him and when to do so, as opposed to telling him to snap out of himself. She had proven to be a very good friend to have, and he wished he'd met her sooner.
Although that word, "friend", always felt ill-fitting and hard to say out loud or even think. It was like when you went to a new acquaintance's house and tried a new dish, and it got stuck in your throat and you had to gulp it down and blink away the water rising in your eyes, then smile and say it was delicious, because that was what they were offering. Good enough, but not quite right. Not what you wanted.
He forced himself not to think the word too often, because it forced him to think about whether it was the right word. And he didn't want to think that. He had not to think about that, because there were no other options. It didn't matter if he thought of her as more than that, or even if they both thought it of each other, because they couldn't have it. Just some bland, unexciting dish that was okay until some hunk of unidentifiable vegetable you'd never heard of tried to choke you. That was all they got.
Alyx wiped some loose strands of hair that had escaped her headband from her eyes, where they were dripping rainwater, and let out a breath of frustration—"pfffff"—through her pursed lips. Gordon was not going to think about how attractive it made her look, the wet hair, the frown, the determined look on her face...
"Is there anywhere nearby we can hole up? A cave or something? How far are we from the outpost?"
"Well..." she said, pulling the GPS tracker out of a loop in her belt. She turned it on...gave it a few flicks with her finger to get the always-in-need-of-repair machinery working right... "Are you..? For the love of Godel, we've gotten off track! We're about five miles away from the path we're supposed to be taking, in the wrong direction!"
"What...?" She leaned in to show him the readout. "Dammit," he echoed, and then sighed, slumping. This kind of thing always happened to him. Gordon Luck, he was starting to call it. You found a locked door blocking your path, so you took a more circuitous route, only to end up right back on the other side of that same door...the door you needed to get through had an electric lock and the power was out, so Alyx sent you to turn it back on, and you met up with half a dozen headcrab zombies and two dozen headcrabs along the way...Gordon Luck.
"Well..." Alyx added, "there does seem to be something nearby, a little shed or supply shack we can hole up in. It's about half a mile..." she looked up and around "…that way. Wanna try for it?" Gordon was about to ask if there was anything else more sturdy than a shack nearby, but then a peal of thunder, real thunder, not just a steady rumble, crackled somewhere miles over their heads. They looked at each other, defeated.
"I guess we don't have too much of a choice," he said. "Should we try to run for it? It might be about to come down hard." He was carrying most of the heavy equipment on his back—the small army's worth of ammo he always travelled with, including an RPG launcher, shotgun and crossbow, plus several boxes of rounds for Alyx's Magnum—she travelled comparitively light—but she had the camping supplies on her back—the backpack stuffed full with a tent that would be useless in this weather, several cans of food and a heating implement to cook it with, and the portable communications system equipment they had with them.
Alyx looked skyward, wiping more wet hair out of her eyes. "Yeah, I guess we better try." As if to confirm they had made the right decision, the thunder crackled again, this time more sharply. They looked at each other—"yup"—and then took off at a steady pace in the direction Alyx had indicated.
The terrain they'd been travelling over and through was all hilly forests, leading up to the mountains surrounding them. It was beautiful when you stopped to look around at it—but right now, the rocky soil and the ground covered in pine needles were hard to navigate, made slippery and muddy by the rain. Gordon had never been in a deciduous forest in a storm like this—he now realized he'd never been in any forest in a storm, although for some reason rain in forests made him think of...well, rainforests—and hadn't realized that the water would start to stream down the small drops and crests in the land in rivulets, making paths in the dirt and blanket of pine needles and causing him to wonder if it could flood. The water all seemed to be running in a general downhill direction roughly perpendicular to the direction they were taking, so there had to be some kind of river or something it was all collecting in. He made a mental note of the direction in case they needed to find a source of water later.
The trees they were under now provided some cover, although little, and the sound of the water on the leaves and needles was novel to him, breathtaking in how loud it was—somehow you never thought of that, not being exposed to nature very much. They were running alongside each other now, keeping at perfect pace of each other, and Gordon could hear Alyx's steady breathing—"huff...huff...huff"—beside him. She was a far better runner than he was, having needed to rely on the skill to survive for so long. He was learning, though, his out-of-shape, soft and sheltered 20th-century body adapting to his new reality of this bizarre and unexpected 21st. Their running, the perfect evenness they were keeping with each other, the in-and-out of breathing, the synchronized swing of legs, made him think of wolves running in a pack—or in this case, perhaps, a duo. He almost couldn't help grinning, and fought it back, doubling his focus on navigating the uneven ground. Over their heads, a bird of some sort cawed noisily as it darted from one tree to another, taking shelter or else startled by them.
A small clearing was up ahead now—"That's it!" Alyx called between breaths—and they made a last effort to reach it. They broke into the clearing, made a last dash—and collapsed against the outer wall of the structure, part of the roof cropping out to give them cover from the rain. They leaned against it and gasped for breath, taking a few moments...and then both started, simultaneously, laughing a little, although for no apparent reason. Alyx met his eye and said, between breaths, "I have to admit...that was kind of fun..."
"The trees..." he started, about to agree, but he was more out of breath than her and coughed a little, resting his hands on his knees. He sufficed for smiling up at her, a few breaths of silent laughter escaping him, and she smiled broadly and leaned her head back, resting. She looked beautiful...but he wasn't going to think that. Instead he looked at what the structure they would be using for shelter was and...
Oh. It wasn't a shack or a shed. It was a cabin. A full-blown, fairly well-made, not-in-too-bad-shape-by-the-looks-of-the-outside-of-it-at-least, cabin. Small, nothing fancy, but not totally rustic, grey wood walls made darker by the rain, a sturdy-looking roof and what appeared to be a chimney and the remnants of a porch that was breaking up. Small, but bigger than a trailer, probably the kind of thing someone had lived in, a family perhaps, in the years immediately prior to the Combine.
"Hey...this isn't bad!" Alyx opined brightly, pleasantly surprised at their good fortune. She walked to the door and looked it up and down. "Looks safe enough...what do you think, wanna check it out inside?"
Gordon hesitated. No, he didn't, honestly. This cabin was making him nervous, somehow. A shed or a shack seemed safe, uncomfortable and unpleasant and just rudimentary, and...why was he thinking this? This made no sense.
"Sure," he said, although he said it slowly and unholstered his pistol and crowbar to have handy in case they weren't the only ones taking shelter in the cabin. The thing was surely bound to be infested with headcrabs, or the headcrab-zombified remnants of it's former occupants...right?
Alyx chuckled. "Good idea." She unholstered her gun and held it out in front of her. "Ready?" she asked. On his nod, she kicked the door open and entered the doorway gun-first in a practiced move. Nothing jumped out, nothing screeched or howled and came running at them...
"Gordon, can you shine your light in there for me?" Alyx asked, not taking her eyes off the dark inside of the cabin. He obliged, leaning in wordlessly and pressing the button on his suit to activate his flashlight. He scanned the floor first with the ray of light—headcrabs were his primary concern, followed by headcrab zombies—but nothing seemed to be stirring. Alyx put a foot forward carefully, cautiously testing the wooden boards of the floor for weakness before she continued into the building. She looked to the left of the space and he wordlessly knew to swing his light where she was looking. A fireplace of some sort, actually intact, was against the left wall, and there was a pile of wood—they'd have to see if it was any good—next to it. Well that was a stroke of luck.
Alyx moved farther into the room, still testing the floorboards; they creaked every now and then, but held. Gordon realized maybe he should be a gentleman and offer to be the one that would fall through the floor if it wasn't stable.
"Want me to go first?"
Alyx tested another floorboard with her foot. "I got it."
"No offense, Gordon...but you tend to fall through rotting floors. I know how to test them. "She gave him her gentle, teasing smile. He had to admit, floors did occasionally provide unexpected challenges to him. Apparently Alyx had a skill he didn't in knowing how to test for rotting floorboards. He now carefully watched her to see her method so he could apply it himself.
"Gordon, swing your light into that corner?" He obeyed, angling his torso to survey the corner of the room. There was a wall there, dividing the cabin in half. It ran half the width of the cabin, so it was more of a room partition than a wall, but there was another half of the building back there that was unilluminated by his flashlight. Which was running low now, come to think of it...
"Oh, your light's dimming, isn't it?" she asked. She cast her eyes around the illuminated part of the room and they fell upon...an old-fashioned lantern sitting on a chest against the wall. She snatched it up, inspected it...pulled out her gun and pulled back the loading mechanism and, in a move he'd seen her use before, pulled the trigger on the gun, angling the weapon so the loading chamber was near the opening of the lantern. Apparently there was fuel of some sort in the lantern, because it caught and lit up the room with a soft, golden glow just as Gordon's flashlight clicked off.
"Nice!" he said softly in admiration, pushing up his glasses, which had fallen down his nose. She grinned and held the lantern high to see around the half of the cabin they were in.
A space about fifteen paces across by fifteen wide. A simple wooden table against the wall, big enough to seat maybe four, with two chairs, one pushed against it and the other knocked over a few feet away. The fireplace and the pile of wood. A sofa and an old television with an antenna—interesting to see those in a log cabin, although the TV looked like it no longer worked. In the far left corner sat a wood-burning stove, the makeshift kitchen of the previous inhabitants. A chest against the wall the door was in, from which Alyx had grabbed the lantern. A set of drawers against the wall partition. He couldn't see what was beyond the partition, though.
"This isn't bad!" Alyx enthused, setting about inspecting things closer. She started shifting through the set of drawers, coming up with cooking utensils and various hunting tools. She started chatting away about what they might find that could be of use, and Gordon started to feel like maybe his nervousness had been misplaced after all. Nothing was jumping out at them, nothing was breaking under their feet or around them...maybe they'd finally actually caught a break?
He wandered over to the other side of the partition. His light should be charged now, so he flicked it on.
There. Messy and unmade, as if the previous owners had leapt out of it to escape. A blue-and-white woven wool blanket on top, white linens underneath. Queen-size.
An actual roll of thunder sounded just then, as if to validate the pit forming in Gordon's stomach. He had grown up with television serials, cheesy movies and soap operas. He knew what cabins in the woods were for. You had a man and a woman who had been dancing around each other for too long, they somehow got caught in the rain and had to hole up in some conveniently-located cabin like this one, words were exchanged, maybe a verbal spat broke out that nevertheless led to...
His mouth felt dry. That was why, he realized, he had been nervous about this cabin. It was too cozy and dry, too conveniently sheltering from the storm, too just-the-two-of-them, too...
"What's back there, Gordon, everything okay?" Alyx came up behind him, gun at the ready. And there was no sound, nothing between the two of them but the shhhh of the rain falling around the cabin as they stared at the one bed in the building. The silence was prolonged. Gordon scrambled in his head for something to say, because the silence between them was too still, too uncomfortable, too loud, for two people who meant nothing but platonic friendship to each other.
Alyx was the first to break the silence, as she always was. "Is this a chest of clothes?" she wondered a little loudly, crossing to the wall where another set of drawers sat that Gordon hadn't noticed, he'd been panicking so hard at the sight of the bed. Alyx rifled through the drawers and came up with...
"Awesome!" she cried, pulling out an old T-shirt. "Listen...why don't you go and make a fire in the other room, and I'll change, okay? I don't know about you, but I'm getting cold."
"You're, you're going to...? Oh, um...yeah, sure..." Of course she'd want to change her clothes, she wasn't wearing an HEV suit and her clothing was dripping wet. The rain had given him a badly-needed drenching and washed most of the blood and guts off his suit, but she had to be uncomfortable. He darted into the next room to get the fire going.
As he sat in front of the fireplace, fumbling with the logs and digging through Alyx's pack for the firestarter kit she usually carried, he found it worryingly difficult to keep focused on what he was supposed to be doing. Stack a log, stack another, no don't lay it across the first one like that, it'll fall...stack another, careful, don't drop it, stack one more...here's some paper to use as kindling...oh right, the firestarter...no, strike it away from you, Gordon, don't set the cabin on fire...
He was hyper-aware, the whole time, of the noise of her bustling around in the next room. He would not turn around, but...was she planning to...
To do what, exactly? Anything? He kept waiting to suddenly feel her hands sliding down his shoulders from behind, her arms snaking around him seductively as she would pull him close and breathe into his ear some pick-up line...
"Ow, dammit!" she hissed in the other room.
"You okay?" he asked reflexively, snapping his head toward the partition in automatic concern.
"Yeah, stepped on a...what is this...it's like a wood chipping or something. Don't worry, it just surprised me."
"Yeah, I'm good, uh...don't come back here, I'm still...changing..."
He turned back to the fire, gulping, his face red and too warm for the tiny flame he had going. He focused on getting it to ignite the logs. He knew the routine he had set up with himself by now: when he started thinking about something happening between him and Alyx, he imagined himself as blank, unemotive, like a flat, shiny sheet of steel with no imperfections, or envisioned a wall coming down between them. It was always a big, concrete wall, made of blocks of mortar wider across than he was and stacked on top of each other about two or three across. But now he imagined it had electrified wire strung across it—that should kill the fluttering in his stomach.
"Okay," Alyx sighed, coming up behind him. Gordon snapped around reflexively before she could wrap her arms around his neck and...that was ridiculous and more hopeful than fearful, but she didn't have to know what he was thinking. Hopefully it didn't show on his face, though.
"You okay?" She cocked an eyebrow at his sudden movement. He was coming to love it when she did that. She was standing there in a loose graying white T-shirt and what looked like they had once been work pants of somebody's, some rough, basic brown fabric that hung on her loosely. She had put her headband back on after she'd dressed and still had the bandages and rappelling gloves on she always wore. Basically, it was a just-out-of-bed T-shirt and sweatpants look. Nothing at all glamorous or conventionally attractive about it. So why was he having to envision the wall and the plate of steel again? Maybe it was the intimacy suggested by her willingness to let him see her like that. Or something. Who the heck knew. He was just trying desperately not to show on his face any sign of...anything, never mind not letting her see him trying to take her in in all of her frumpy-pajama-ed glory.
"Fine," he said, in a way that sounded satisfactorily convincing to him. "So there were some clothes back there?"
"Yeah! There looks like there might be some stuff in the drawers for you too, but I don't know if they'll fit. You know, in case you feel like getting out of the suit."
She was crossing over to her pack as she said this and not looking at him, totally nonchalant, so he was unsure whether to read anything into that or if he was just being paranoid.
Cut it out, Gordon, stop thinking like this! The wall's electric wire took on a nice visual crackle in his mind's eye to get the point across to himself.
"I don't know, I uh...you know I tend to feel safer in the suit. In case we have to run or anything."
She smirked teasingly, "Yeah, I know. I gotta get the comm system set up, they'll want to hear back from us at the base."
"Oh, right...good thinking." Indeed, she had the equipment all taken out of her pack and was now hooking things together in preparation to fire the machinery up.
The portable transmitter was about the size of two thick reference books on top of each other-Gordon was thinking of the kind of textbooks and reference guides he'd used at MIT—and covered with knobs and switches with a retractable antenna sticking up. An actual antenna. It didn't look like something Gordon expected from The Future, it looked more like what he imagined a Ham radio to look like—maybe it was? Whatever it was, it was a smaller and quicker way to communicate than the videoscreens they had to hack into from Combine outposts. He'd once asked why something smaller, like some modification of cell phone technology, wasn't more practical, and Alyx had said that the way this device used the radio wave spectrum was harder for the Combine to detect—and besides, cell phone towers and sattellites had been one of the first things the Combine had fried from orbit when they'd arrived.
Alyx was hooking up a microphone with a push-to-talk button, the power sources, and a small speaker that clipped to the side of the transmitter. Her hands worked quickly and with practiced ease, the way he might throw on a coffee-maker when preparing himself for heading to a lecture with some friends after work. Alyx set this device up with the careless precision of someone who had used the technology for years. He loved watching her work with machines. Her hands were capable and she was sure of herself. He'd watched her take a look for just a few seconds at the engines of Combine troop transport vehicles, reach in and tweak a few wires, and get the thing running so they could steer it themselves instead of Overwatch.
It was sexy.
But he wasn't going to think that right now.
He focused instead on digging around for some cans of food in Alyx's bag. He came up with a can of beans and another of green beans and corn. He pulled the little heating element out of it's safety case—just a glorified car ciggarette lighter, basically—and put the can of beans on first, then went rooting around in the bag for a can opener.
"Do you want...green beans and corn, or the…regular beans, I guess?"
"Umm...kidney, by the looks of it?"
"Gimme the corn." He switched the cans.
Then realized the unconscious instinct he'd just followed...and decided he could dismiss it to himself as just basic consideration, nothing more. He carefully ignored the little voice in his head that was scoffing at him, "You rotten liar!"
Well, that was it...he was "making dinner". He turned to Alyx, plugging in a last cable that connected the microphone to the transceiver.
"Ready to go?" she checked with him.
He nodded one of his wordless replies, and she turned back to the machine and dialed in the coordinates or the access code or the not-phone-number or whatever it was that made the thing connect to who they wanted it to go to. He should probably learn how all this technology worked—besides really needing to know, he also felt like one of those uncool old people who watched "the young kids with their techno-whatsits" without understanding what was going on. It was a smudge on his normally faultless geek cred and it hurt his pride. And, you know, he needed to know it too, in case he ever got separated from...in case he had to make these comm calls himself.
He heard the fizzling, crackling feedback-y noises that always reminded him of a dial-up Internet connection—probably was—and then some static-y dead air that was soon replaced by the sound tone that could be taken by eavesdroppers or unwanted listeners-in to be random noise, but the people who knew how to connect to the Resistance's wireless communicaes knew to be an invitation to input the correct password for access. Alyx dialed it in, her fingers moving with the unconscious, automatic speed of a girl dialing her best friend down the street's phone number or someone entering their own online password...and they were in. They got the smooth, clean dead air that let them know they had connected, but were waiting for the other end to pick up. A few seconds more, and:
"White Forest Comm Station 2, identify."
It was Schlomi—they could tell by the terseness of the greeting and the seriousness in the voice.
"Hi Schlomi, it's Alyx and Gordon."
"...Evening, Alyx. Hello, Dr. Freeman. You've found a safe location from the storm?"
"Yeah, we found a little abandoned building to hole up in."
"Is it on high ground?"
"...Yeah, why? Is the storm gonna be that bad?"
"The weather forecast is saying it's going to dump about 30 to 60 centimeters, with winds about 30 knots."
Gordon's eyes widened. He might not be any good with post-Combine technology, but he was very good with metric, and he knew that was almost two feet of water that would be pouring down on them, and gale-force winds.
Alyx paused. "Are you serious?!"
"It was supposed to be just a thunderstorm, but the guys who work on the satellites say it hit some kind of cold air front coming off the Caucasus they weren't expecting, and it's going to be worse. They are recommending to everyone who can to return to the base for safety or else take shelter. There might be danger of flash floods."
Alyx was looking wide-eyed at Gordon. "When's it going to pass?" he whispered, forgetting that if she wasn't pushing the TRANSMIT button on the microphone that Schlomi couldn't hear him.
"When is this thing gonna pass, Schlomi?"Alyx asked into the microphone.
"It will be all night into part of tomorrow. We suggest you stay where you are. You have food and ammunition?"
"Yeah, Schlomi, we're set, just...we were supposed to be checking out that CP outpost."
"If anyone is there, they will not be leaving tonight. No one is going out of doors at all tonight, Alyx."
"Wow...okay, I guess we'll be alright. Tell everyone we're safe and have a place to take cover for the night. I guess we'll try to pick up where we left off tomorrow as early as it's safe."
"That is advisable, Alyx. Check back in tomorrow before you head out, yes?"
"Sure thing, Schlomi, we'll call you."
The line returned to the softer dead air, and Alyx turned to Gordon, her eyes wide.
"I guess…I guess we're stuck here for the night!"
For the night...for the night...the words rang in Gordon's head, ominous...this would be...awkward. More than awkward, difficult. His heart was thudding a little too much for someone who had merely been told that the weather was inclement, and his mouth was getting dry again. Although a little ball of nervous, excited energy was starting to spark in his stomach...and it wasn't unpleasant. Gordon stamped down on that as quickly as he could; that wasn't allowed, and he let the sick-nervous feeling take it's place again, preferring it to where the excited-nervous feeling might lead.
"Maybe we should dig in...I think your corn and green beans are ready."
Alyx blinked, as if she'd forgotten about the food. "Oh!"
He rummaged around in the backpack for a fork for her and then took the can opener and cracked the can open. He handed it to her...and she smiled at him, that teasing look in her eyes. Then she ducked her face away, pushing some hair out of it, and said, taking the can, "Thanks".
"What?" he asked, his stomach sinking as the sour feeling worsened.
"I can open a can of vegetables myself, Gordon," she smirked.
What? What did...?
"I know...you were just being a gentleman", she teased, digging her fork in to stir the contents of the can. A gentleman...the instinct he always had to fight so hard to hide, that instinct to show her non-platonic affection, was trying to sneak out. He had to make it look like something else—had to, or that bed in the other room was looming.
"Sorry, didn't mean to be…like..."
She laughed. "I'm teasing you, Gordon! I know you know I'm a big girl."
He let his breath out; it looked like he was glad she wasn't offended, but really he was glad she was convinced he had thought she was. Yes, it's a gender politics thing. Not a thing where I want to do things for you because...no, it's a gender politics thing. I'm white-knighting you...not trying to dote on you out of adoration.
She smirked at him again, that indulgent, teasing smile she used for him so often, and then dug into her food. Her face flickered for just a second—with what, Gordon didn't know—but she blinked and looked up at him again, and it was gone, her face in a composed smile.
"You gonna eat?" she said cheerfully, nodding her head toward the can of beans he hadn't put on the heating element yet. Oh. He reached over, used the can opener to crack a vent in the can lid as he had done for the other can, and set it on the burner. There.
Well...now he was "cooking" for himself, which took just as little effort as preparing the green beans and corn had, and he had nothing else to do but sit there. With Alyx. Who could eat, it was true, but otherwise had very little to do herself.
"Schlomi sounded concerned on the comm," he said. "I think he was worried about the storm."
Alyx chortled. Schlomi had intoned everything in an extremely matter-of-fact way, with less emotion than a BBC news anchor reporting on the stock exchange. It was a tendency of the comm operator's: everyone knew Schlomi to be very unemotive and almost grave, always seeming like he was about to tell you your grandmother had died, but with no feeling about the news or your reaction at all. His almost military-like stiffness and formality was known around the base; people joked that Schlomi could hear the news about the war finally ending and the Combine being gone for good, and would just nod and say, "Thank you, that is very good to know," in his thick Israeli accent, then go about his business as he had been.
"You know Schlomi,"Alyx replied, "I'm sure he's locked up in his room somewhere, hugging a teddy bear, the big crybaby."
There was that sparkle in her eye that she had inherited from her father. It always meant she was being mischievous. Barney had told Gordon that Alyx had learned what Barney called Vance Humor from her father, and to look out for it, because between the two of them, they could come up with one-liners delivered so drily but so out-there that you'd double over laughing and they'd just grin slyly.
The little eye-sparkle was very attractive to Gordon; he couldn't help thinking it seductive, and wondered if she did that on purpose. Because it definitely worked. Far from thinking about her father, the look made him think of feminine wiles and himself being swept away by the kind of charm you only ever heard about in legends about queens and aristocratic paramours anymore. He didn't think, he just wanted to extend that look, please it, do whatever it wanted of him.
"Serious Schlomi, crying into a pillow."
The moniker made Alyx bark out a laugh that caused her to almost spit out her food; she slapped her hand to her mouth, giggling with half-sound into her hand, her sides shaking.
He'd done that. He'd made her laugh.
He liked that. He tried some more.
"Is something funny, Alyx? Maybe we should dial Schlomi and ask him what he thinks."
Alyx had gulped down the food in her mouth and was now giggling close-mouthed into her arm.
"I don't know what you find so funny, Alyx. Schlomi was almost in tears."
Alyx had been reduced to laughing so hard she was still silent, but only because she was struggling for air.
"I don't know why we don't just put Schlomi in charge of morale; he's such a shining example to us all."
Finally, sound came out as Alyx hysterically laughed and gasped for breath.
"Serious Schlomi: he's…seriously empathetic."
The joke had ceased to be about Schlomi, never really was about him; the goal was to see how absurdly far he could take the joke. And it had worked. Alyx was howling, leaning against the battered couch for support, gasping, "Oh my God!"
He watched her close to tears with laughter at the corny joke he'd been making, and felt a little glow. Pride? Connection with another human being? Didn't matter. It made him feel good. He had made Alyx laugh. He allowed himself one of the rare, real smiles he knew had always been rare in him, but were now as scarce as ghosts, and added an indulgence of one of his soft laughs. This was one of the things he liked about Alyx: the joke wasn't really that funny, but they both had such a...well, dorky sense of humor, they appreciated it in each other, half for face value and half for the very corniness of it. They could just be two dorks together, easy, comfortable—
Gordon stopped that train of thought short. He realized she was looking at him from laughing eyes and he loved it. Loved it too much. He brought the wall crashing down in his mind, forcing his facial features into a composed, blank look, the one he usually wore when out fighting or on some errand that would require him to risk life and limb. It was a poker face to make statues envious, with maybe a touch of dulled trauma that made people fantasize romantic notions about how bad a case of PTSD he surely had.
"Beans are ready", he said, taking them abruptly off the stove whether they were or not. He felt around for the can opener, cracked the can open, sniffed...it probably actually was okay, but Gordon was going to eat it now whether it was warm or not. He stirred the beans with a fork, sneaking a covert glance at Alyx.
A sidelong glance, examining, and then she turned back to her food, as if she found something funny.
They both dug into their food, and then Alyx asked, through a mouthful of vegetables, "So how are we sleeping tonight?"
Gordon stopped mid-chew. She had said it casually, and was wiping her hands together to clean them off...and then looking at him. He felt this was going to be one of the most important conversations of his life so far...and the woman he wanted more than any other was asking him a question that might determine the future of their relationship...he just hadn't expected, somehow, for conversations like this to happen through mouthfuls of food.
He used that to his advantage and worked on pulverizing the already-swallowable beans in his mouth some more, as if considering before he answered. He finally gulped them down and said, "Weren't we going to do shifts again, like we usually do?"
"Well, I figured," Alyx replied," there's nothing—nothing—going out in that storm tonight. The Combine are going to be pinned down wherever they are, and the wildlife"—she meant zombies, antlions and the kind, he knew—"is liable to be holing up as well."
"Even zombies? I mean…I didn't take them for the kind to know well enough to get out of the rain. Or that it was raining."
"Yeah, they tend to get swept away by even big puddles with a slight current; they're not too steady on their legs. And we're on high ground, anyway; climbing it will be hard for them, unless they take the route we did."
Edward…Bryan…Jennings, he cursed mentally; her superior mind for tactics and survival logistics meant that while he'd been fretting about how to keep them both in their clothes, she'd already had a solid reason they didn't need to sleep in shifts. She was looking at him, waiting.
"What's this couch like?" he tried, motioning to the couch they'd been afraid to touch for fear of fleas or mold...or worse. Maybe it didn't have anything living in it, microbial or extraterrestrial, and he could play the gentleman card again: "Alyx, I insist, you take the bed. I'll be fine out here!"
Alyx blinked—maybe she had forgotten about that option...or couldn't believe how hard he was trying to avoid getting into a bed with her. Either way, she promptly stood up, unholstering her gun, and gave the thing a careful once-over, leaning in and examining stuffing that was coming out and rips and patches in the fabric. He got up and unholstered his crowbar, anticipating that this was the perfect kind of place for a headcrab to build a nest and he'd had quite enough of the babies, thank you very much, on Xen.
"Seems not to be too dusty...doesn't smell mildewed...no signs of fleas or rats…I'm gonna give it a kick." He raised his crowbar into a ready position in response. He had excellent reflexes with the thing, and it was his preferred weapon for headcrabs; he found a baseball-bat-like motion to be very effective.
Alyx, her gun in front of her, leaned away from the couch as far as she could while still being able to kick it...and gave the thing a solid, but not damaging, kick. Dust poofed up...but nothing else. She gave it another kick to be sure...and they heard scrabbling. Like little claws.
She grimaced at him, and he returned the look; "Just what we suspected."
He edged forward, the flat, straight end of the crowbar out first, and Alyx backed up to cover him. He slowly edged the flat end of the crowbar under the seat cushion...looked to Alyx...she nodded to say she was ready...he turned back...and flipped the couch cushion up.
They heard a high-pitched squeal and something launched itself at Gordon's face; he swung...and missed...Alyx pulled him back instead of shooting, he tripped backwards over the little table, and she came down on top of and across him; he raised his crowbar in preparation for it to leap again...
And saw that the wildlife in this case was actually terrestrial, as a small, wide-eyed squirrel—a harmless tree-dwelling squirrel, although right now it's fur was puffed up in rage and it was chattering a high-pitched, angry noise in one long note at them—was taking a defensive stance, teeth-bared, a few feet away.
"Oh for the love of..."
"Is it rabid?"
"No, just mad."
"Are you hurt?"
"No biggie...you okay?"
"Actually...I might have landed funny on the table..."
They struggled to their feet, checking themselves and each other for bruises, getting back their composure, while the stupid rodent kept up it's high-pitched raaaaaaaaaa at them. Alyx, a few strands of her hair falling out of her hairband, reached for her gun, which she'd dropped by learned habit to avoiding firing it amiss, checked the weapon, and then, glaring at the little animal still making the ungodly noise, asked Gordon, "Do we want squirrel with our beans and corn?"
"Well, don't waste a bullet," he replied, "and let's see if it has friends first. If it does, I'll get them with my crowbar and we can make a spit over the fire. I could use the protein, myself."
"Been a while since I had any meat other than headcrab," Alyx was muttering, as he edged toward the couch again, crowbar raised. The chattering took on a higher note and Alyx raised her gun at the little ball of fur and rage on the wooden floor. It seemed to know what having a gun pointed at it meant—even the wildlife seemed to be more jaded and savvy in the 21st century—and sufficed for glaring right back, it's tiny chest heaving in quick rodent breaths with adrenaline-fueled panting.
He edged his face over the inside of the couch, peering in with the crowbar held aloft...pushed his glasses back to keep them from falling off...squinted...
"Alyx...I think it's just babies."
"Babies?" Alyx cocked an eyebrow quizzically.
"I don't see any bigger ones...these look like baby squirrels, not mice, right?"
She edged her own face over the opening where the cushion had been, and observed the tiny, peach-fuzzed baby mammals of some sort clustering together for warmth, their eyes still closed.
"Yeah, those are squirrels. See the ears, and the long tails?"
The tails were hairless, not bushy at all, but they didn't look like a mouse's. Alyx sighed. Turning to the mother of the brood, who was beside herself with chattering and squealing, hissing and spitting, growled, "Fine, you get a reprieve! Stupid little..."
"Are we sure...?"
"It's a mother with babies. Are you gonna smash those little things with the crowbar? Besides, there's not enough meat on all of them together to justify the work."
He lowered his crowbar."...And I guess they were here first.." she was grumbling, rubbing her hip-bone where she'd fallen. "Does this look bruised to you?"
He let his eyes fall...to her hip, her shirt lifted up a little to expose the skin. Which was red, yes, and might bruise...but otherwise her skin was perfect, an even-all-over-tone, taking on a lighter shade in the glow of the fire where the flesh curved outwards more. And her jeans, practical but still flattering, somehow, he'd always wondered where she found clothes in this post-apocalyptic wasteland it wasn't like she could go to the mall anymore and yet she looked so good and what did the skin underneath the fabric look like and did it curve more and—
"It's fine," he said, his voice constricted, gulping and looking away. He could feel her looking at him, and he turned back to her.
She was watching him with pupils made wide by the firelight, her face flushed with exertion, her hair attractively fighting against the hairband for freedom and framing her face. She was breathing a little heavily, probably from adrenaline, as he was too...but as he looked at her, her breath got slower but not more shallow. And he noted his own lungs doing the same, and that his heart was still pounding and there was a stirring in his stomach...and elsewhere...
He kept returning her gaze, although for some reason the word wall was floating in and out of his mind like something nagging at him unconsciously without him knowing why or what it meant. He couldn't, didn't want to look away from her, considered offering to rub the bruise so the pain would go away...saw, in his mind's eye, how that would progress...
He was aware of the rain on the roof, it's smell, and of Alyx, and of his own body, and not of very much else. He hadn't realized, before she turned around, how very close in proximity they were to each other...and now he thought about how they had moved seamlessly, their teamwork flawless and wordless, as if they had practiced it beforehand, so naturally they worked together to deal with the
wall-squirrel. The...the squirrel-wall...the squirrel? The wall? What wall? The actual squirrel chose that moment to scrabble across the floor, it's claws noisy on the wood, up the pile of firewood and onto the wall, digging it's hold onto the logs that comprised it and changing the pitch of it's chattering...which somehow, had never stopped and they'd been oblivious to. The squirrel was on the wall...wall?...wall! WALL.
He envisioned, from memory, how a light zapping of electricity felt, and the warmth seeping across his body scattered. WALL.
"Are you alright?" he asked Alyx, composing himself, and she saw it too…snapped her head around to look at the little beast…
"Get off the wall! You get back into the couch, take your little babies, and..."
At this point, she seemed to realize she was yelling at an animal, and petered off. He chuckled, she turned back to him...looked embarrassed, pushed some hair out of her face...they leaned out of each other's space, both without prompting, and Gordon took a step back. He ran a hand through his hair, remembering to breathe properly again...
Some thunder chose to make an appearance then, reminding them of themselves and of their surroundings. Alyx sighed, "So what are we gonna do about the squirrel?"
"Well...I guess she wants us to back away from her babies..."
"Backing off!" Alyx directed at the squirrel, her hands up defensively. She was so adorable. Wall!
"Now we don't have the couch to use..." she mumbled absent-mindedly.
That brought his focus back.
"Let's check out the bed and see if there's anything living in that." And she hustled over to the little half-partition and disappeared around it.
He had no choice but to follow her.
A/N-Yeah, I just opened my story with an epigraph that was a quote from a Scandinavian symphonic fantasy metal band. Whatcha gonna do about it?;-p
Look for an epigraph for each chapter in this story, by the way. I'm trying that out with this story and I'm excited about it, lol.