The Vortigaunts always talked about how everyone contained multitudes, how any one person served as a focal point for a number of unknown consciousnesses that existed beyond human understanding. Far distant eyes behind your own, many within one, a secret guiding force... something like that, anyway. They weren't always the easiest to understand and they tended to be cryptic, after all. Whatever understanding they had of the universe, it wasn't one that most of humanity seemed to share.
It wasn't until she met him that Alyx began to see.
She'd grown up knowing Gordon Freeman as both a man and a myth, the two sides coexisting in her mind but never fully overlapping. She'd heard the stories from her father and Dr. Kleiner and Barney about what it had been like at Black Mesa before the world had fallen apart; warm, familiar, fond stories of a friend and colleague and protégé, a young man who made mistakes, did foolish things, who overslept and goofed around and played tricks on his compatriots... who had a way of making you trust him, somehow, without saying a word.
And she heard the stories of what he accomplished after the Resonance Cascade - how he stayed alive in the face of overwhelming odds, mowed down all those who opposed him, rescued any he could who encountered him, pushed through all probability to finally go to the world of Xen himself... where he had summarily vanished, in true heroic fashion, after putting a stop to the Nihilanth's control.
In a way, even before she'd met him she'd already seen how difficult he was to kill; no matter what the Combine did, the legend of him lived on.
And then, somehow, he came back.
She knew more about him than others might have when they first met, having the privilege of being close to those who were close to him before he became a symbol instead of a person. She thought of all the stories Barney had told her as she crouched by the unconscious man in the hallway, his glasses askew, his forehead bleeding, waiting for him to come back to the living. A man, like any other, who'd been overwhelmed and needed some help.
A living legend, as he blinked at her several times, plainly confused, and she helped him to his feet.
At the time, it wasn't hard to see him as any other member of the resistance, another face in the crowd, another ordinary being who was tired of living under Combine rule. Even when he put on the HEV suit, there was still that sort of lost aimlessness about him that felt familiar to her, a lack of direction and focus she could see in the eyes of many wandering around City 17.
Then Alyx saw him when the enemy came near.
It happened so quickly that she barely had time to process it, and even now she was still at a loss to describe it. Danger approached them, the chatter of Combine soldiers that had her standing ready with her pistol in her hands, and something in the man beside her shifted. She could've sworn she felt the air around him change, some sort of lapse in reality caused by something like her father's teleportation work, a sudden awareness of an entirely new and foreign presence taking up his space.
It reminded her of running a program, but she wasn't sure if she could say it had turned off or on. Gordon's stance and posture changed, his eyes narrowed in focus, his expression now entirely neutral. She could briefly see his eyes flick from one oncoming Combine to another, guess at the calculations he was making in his head before he leapt into action. He aimed without faltering, he moved without hesitating, he rushed without fear, he ducked and weaved without sound. Bullets tore through him and he didn't even react. More of them came and he never slowed down. They were outnumbered, no chance of success and yet nothing could stop him, bodies kept falling before him.
Like a machine, he worked. There was nothing else that mattered now except the death of all who stood in his way. He glanced back at her sometimes, if only to see where she was, to incorporate her position into his next decision, move out of her way if he was blocking her shot, and then he was gone again.
She thought about what the Vortigaunts had said, about something secret inhabiting all beings, controlling them, something they refused to name and now she understood.
This was the Gordon of legend, the one who'd fought his way across Black Mesa, who'd torn through multiple armies single-handed, who'd survived things that'd kill a normal person several times over. They called him the One Free Man, and she could understand why when she saw him silhouetted in the bones of the attic, a rocket launcher balanced on his shoulder as a gunship fell from the sky in a wide spiral of flames and smoke.
This was a man who didn't seem bound by the rules of reality, who could do things that were impossible, plainly impossible and yet, still he stood there and did them. He was outside all laws, beyond all restrictions. Free. What better figure could there be to head an uprising against their Combine overlords? Who else could inspire hope in people who'd long since given up? Who else could make everything seem possible? He stood there, silent, unwavering, the perfect hero for their rebellion. The perfect symbol of resistance. A living vector for the hopes and dreams of what remained of humanity.
To look at him in such moments, it almost made you blind.
But then she would call to him, smile at him, make a joke while they made their way to their next destination in those rare, quiet moments they had together, and slowly the light of what he'd done would fade, revealing the shadow at its heart. His muscles would ease, his eyes warm and he'd smile back at her.
Free again, in a fashion.
And that was when he would begin to stumble every now and then while they were walking, or he'd run into a wall when he wasn't paying attention, or he'd pick things up and then fumble and drop them. He'd adjust his glasses as he stared at some aspect of this whole new world around him with such a puzzled, confused look that it made her chest feel tight.
The resistance needed the legend to survive, their species needed him to win this war, to be that impossible person, it was clear, and yet, while she traveled with him, she found herself pining more for those small, brief moments when Gordon Freeman was painfully, vulnerably human like the rest of them. Like anyone else. Like her.
How many are there in you? Whose hopes and dreams do you encompass? the Vortigaunts had said.
He studied every area they came to with wide eyes, unspoken questions as he tilted his head at every odd bit of graffiti or propaganda on the walls, at every piece of technology that seemed so new to him. He was easily fascinated with seemingly pointless debris, with investigating every corner of every room like he was looking for something, with rearranging obstacles that blocked their way all too carefully, balancing things atop one another like he'd forgotten their original goal. He stared into the distance sometimes, his mouth moving slightly, a hand tracing loose patterns in the air as he thought to himself.
He hesitated, unsure, before making a particularly difficult jump across a gap. He hit his head on a low-hanging piece of ruined ceiling and hissed through his teeth. He slipped and fell back into a pool of brackish water they'd just gotten free of. They were such ordinary little things, moments normally not worth a second thought and yet they stuck out in her mind so clearly, highlighted against the astounding impossibility of the amazing things he'd done.
Alyx had become so attuned to these small glimpses, the aftershadow of such blinding flashes, that she noticed immediately when he began to look at her more often, sneaking glances when he thought she wasn't paying attention. He'd dart his eyes away when caught, adjusting his glasses as if it'd hide what he was doing or, on occasion, the faint red along his cheekbones, all of which only made it more obvious. The more she observed him, the greater the depths of that vulnerability became, the humanness of it such a shocking contrast to the things he had done that it made it seem all the more precious. Something to be encouraged, coaxed out of him whenever possible.
And in a way it was grounding, a reminder every now and then that the man she walked beside was still just a man, in spite of the strange otherworldly mien that came over him when duty called. Alyx saw those longing smiles, the awkward fidgeting, how flustered he got when she teased him or winked at him, and with each glimpse at that person she wanted to get closer and closer to him, pin him down and just know him completely.
And in a way, that was just how it happened. They were in the abandoned resort near White Forest and she could feel in the air that this wasn't as quiet and idyllic as it seemed, that something was going to happen and with their luck, it was probably going to be bad, but at the moment, things were blessedly calm. They wandered upstairs, looking for supplies and she made an offhand comment about how nice this place might have looked when it was still in business, and Gordon looked at her and smiled in a way that made up her mind before she knew it had happened.
He turned away as he usually did when he thought he'd been too obvious, too forward, too warm, and as such she took him completely by surprise when she came up behind him, resting her hands on his hips. Gordon jumped with an almost hiccup-like sound, turned around to face her, raised a hand to ask her what she was doing as she led him backwards until he bumped against the wall of the room. She pressed up against him, closed her eyes as she kissed him and she could feel his entire body tense, his chest rise with a cut-off gasp.
It was strange - Alyx had seen him riddled with bullets, thrown bodily into walls, torn apart by flying blades, scorched by explosions and in spite of it all, he'd been utterly, unnaturally silent. The most she'd ever seen was a faint hiss, rarely a brief rough inhale before he was quiet again, even with his face twisted in complete agony. Gordon did not make noise. She knew this about him like everyone knew it, as solid a fact as his existence at all, and still... somehow, when she pictured this, when she'd actually done this, this momentous, stupendous thing that at the moment felt just as impossible as any other thing she'd seen him do, she expected him to make some kind of sound. Some kind of verbal response, something, anything but he was resolute. Even his gasps were voiceless.
Currently though, it was impossible for her to feel disappointed about anything.
When she pulled away from him and opened her eyes, he was staring at her, his face red and now she could see that he was trembling, faintly. His eyes were wide, confused, surprised, that same out-of-place vulnerability that cast his shadow in such relief against the deeds that surrounded him. So emotionless in combat, now she wasn't sure if she could even identify everything she saw in his green eyes, his quick breathing and the shaking beneath her hands.
It was hard to move in that moment, to do something to break it instead of memorize every aspect of it. There was nothing left of the legend, the symbol, the myth that cloaked him, all of it torn away and all that was left was the heart of it all to begin with, what Breen had mocked him with and been so infuriated by. An ordinary man in over his head, with no idea now of what to do. She'd never seen him at such a loss, and all because she'd finally closed the distance between them. One kiss and he was completely undone. Could there be anything more human than that?
Alyx wasn't sure how long she'd been staring at him until she noticed he'd lifted one of his hands, no doubt to say something, although instead it wavered back and forth, fingers curling for a second and uncurling, as though there were several things he wanted to say but he couldn't decide on which one. Stammering in his own way, perhaps.
She kissed him again, since there was nothing else she wanted to do more at that moment, and she could feel it ripple through him when they touched, his breathing faltering and desperate. She would've given anything to touch him, touch his skin, tear him right out of that suit and touch him, but instead she ran her hands along his sides, imagined what was beneath the hard surface and faint electric hum of the HEV suit's charge. How much could he feel through the suit's protection? She stroked a hand back upwards and his body followed her movement, rose to follow the path of her fingers, and she wasn't sure if that answered her question or if he just wanted to be closer to her. How much space between them was even left?
His suit may not have given off heat on its own, just a slight hum and a light tingling feeling when charged as it was now, but his face was doing a good enough job of that... although, it wasn't like she had much room to talk. His goatee scratched against her skin and that she had expected. He was so open to her right now, she wasn't sure if she could take it.
This close to him, she could just barely hear a calm female voice nearby, dictating his heart rate. There was no way it couldn't be beating at least as hard as her own.
Something brushed her back once, twice before finally settling, and it looked like Gordon had finally decided what to do with his hands. Apparently he couldn't think of much else to do but put them there, but that was more than enough. He was touching her, holding her, they were so close to each other now, so vulnerable and so wonderful and it was happening and she wondered if even a fraction of how she felt would come across to him now, it all felt almost too big for her to hold inside. For a moment their breathing synchronized, like they were sharing the same air, breathing through each other and she felt suddenly lightheaded.
They broke apart again, and this time Alyx couldn't help but laugh a little to try and ease the tension in the air and bring herself back to the ground because all of a sudden this just seemed ridiculous somehow. Gordon blinked, his glasses askew, and he tilted his head at her, such a normal quizzical response from him that it only highlighted the strangeness of the situation. Had she really just done that? Had they really done that?
"Guess that was building for a while, huh...?" She laughed and smiled at him, aiming for cool and collected though she wasn't sure who she was fooling. When she pulled away a little to let him breathe, Gordon seemed to suddenly remember where his hands were and pulled them back to his chest with a start. Her grin widened and he searched the opposite wall for answers or words or just an excuse not to look her in the face, as embarrassed as she'd ever seen him. A sudden swell of deep affection for him almost left her dizzy.
He raised his hands like he was going to say something, then eventually nodded instead. He still couldn't look her in the eye, and she took another step back, feeling just a little bit sorry for him somehow.
"This probably isn't the place though," Alyx said and found she couldn't stop smiling, and she let her hand linger on the raised orange strip of his suit marking his hip before turning back to the room. Everything just as calm as before she'd made her move, but she knew it couldn't last. "I get the feeling it's not as quiet as it seems."
She looked back at him, and he was adjusting his glasses, looking out the window, trying his best at nonchalance and utterly failing, just as she was herself no doubt. He caught her eye for a brief second before nodding and looking away again, still blushing.
All too soon, some new catastrophe would arise, some new threat, a new trap, a new enemy, and that veil would slip over him again, give him into unfamiliar hands that would lead him through the hail of bullets to somehow snatch victory when it should have already been out of their grasp, hands that would pick him up and keep him moving when any other person would have long since given up and died, hands that fed the legend around him that fueled all those it touched, expanding outwards in waves of influence that couldn't be stopped. Another amazing story to tell, another astounding thing achieved by the one man unbound by limitations, who seemed to exist on some other plane. And it was a spectacle to behold, to see someone doing the impossible, to see someone stand against great odds and still come out of it alive, to see hope stand against despair and be victorious each time. It raised the heart, bolstered the spirits, made it possible to believe not only in him, in the rebellion, in the future of the species, but in yourself, that it could be possible for anyone. There was nothing like seeing him at work as he tore through the enemy like an unstoppable machine, proving all doubts baseless. She overheard someone say once that he was hope come to life, and she couldn't really argue with that.
Still, when she thought of him, when she thought of the legend of the One Free Man, the symbol of everything humans could be, could accomplish, she found her thoughts instead going to the filament of that great light, that person so easily lost in the glare of his accomplishments.
By all accounts, an ordinary man, with such a sweet, shy smile.