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seconds, breaths, and heartbeats

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1

There is a very specific wall-phone at Black Mesa.

Similar phones pepper most of the facility, but this one's his. This one’s got three scuffs down the handset’s plastic, leaving rough edges that Benrey’s thumb traces when he’s got it to his ear. The number 7 on the pad's busted and needs extra force to click. This one’s familiar.

This is one of Benrey’s first jobs.

That’s an understatement.

This phone is the reason Benrey speedran his way into being human-passing enough, all in under a week. Just making it, with his shoddy grasp on language and human convention to not be fired or discovered.

Whatever Benrey is, he is adaptive. Benrey learns numbers and counting from that dial pad, and then learns what “Hello” means, on the other side of the line.

His job is to pick it up if it rings and to deliver any messages it gives. Sometimes, that means redialing another department from the huge phonebook of desk numbers and names that’s been handed to Benrey day one. He’s learned to read from that book.

By the time that system gets automated and loses the need for a supervising employee, Benrey’s convincing enough in his ability to count, speak, read, and stand straight for hours on end, that he’s promoted to guard instead of getting fired (or killed, that is, maybe dissected). Benrey’s seen where other Xen creatures end up. The ones that are caught. He sometimes passes the monitor room where screens display pens full of things he recognizes but had no human word for. Xen’s language is color and this world’s language is sounds and metal plaques on doors, labels, that denote who is kept where and under what conditions.

Headcrab. Security level 7. #03471. Violent.

Benrey. Security. Badge #8675307. Blood type, height, weight, age. A guard.

Eventually, with the onset of better budgeting and technology, that wall-phone is removed completely for lack of use. Benrey passes its absence every morning, on his way to shift, and learns his first instance of oddly human nostalgia, and the concept of missing home.

 

2

Coomer is the only one keeping count. Benrey will hear him muttering under his mustache and a layer of blood, counting, counting. Minutes and hours and, finally, days. Coomer is the only one keeping track of how long they’ve been trapped underground.

It may wear on his psyche- with the dawning of how long it’s taking- too long, even, and with every number he mutters, their chances of survival similarly drain away like sand in an old clock. It may wear on his psyche, but Benrey knows there’s human comfort in knowing the passage of time still ticks on, even down here: there is still hours and there is still night and day, even if it does not matter. He’s learning to recognize it on the others, that routines mean something, and he supposes there’s a part of him that can adapt, relate, learn another little human oddity. In a way, he can understand missing the stability of familiar routes and the importance of time.  

And so, they know it is day seven - of what will eventually be thirteen - that they encounter the phone.

They hear its ringing from walls away, a kind of attention-seeking wail that starts off distant and slowly dawns on them with each step taken closer. It doesn’t take too long to pursue. They could move on, but Gordon and Tommy care too much and Bubby’s curious about everything no matter how much he hides it, and so they trail the sound, through corridors and collapsed ceilings, because what if it’s important.

Benrey follows in the back, unsure if he likes the proximity to such noise, and regrets his more fine-tuned hearing, which somehow fails to process half of what’s talked at him, but picks up on a thousand other things he no longer needs to hear.

There was a time when a miniscule, little sound, the shuffling of Xen’s 'leaves', could save his life from predators, but this isn’t the case anymore. All he’s picking up is the grinding of two metal edges at the HEV suit’s joint because of Gordon’s limp- they’ll need to rest soon because it can and will get worse. The rasp of Tommy’s fingers against the wall where he walks and feels its ridges. The inner works of Coomer’s prosthetics and the anxious fiddling of screws that Bubby carries in his lab coat’s pocket. His head buzzes with it and with the overwhelming repetitive drone of the telephone.

They find it by noise and Benrey hangs back, reluctant to be in the same room with the thing. He hears the click of someone picking it up- the HEV suit moving, so, Gordon- and the blissful silence as the line connects. In this moment before any words, Benrey can finally hear the rest of the building.

“Hello?”

It’s a rambling man on the other end, voice layered over by two others in the background. They’re trapped somewhere and this is the only remaining line that will connect. Benrey’s heard enough and drops through the floor.

He falls, letting textures and wires flash past him, zipping lower underground, concrete and metal and destruction, levels he’s been on and levels he hasn’t- and pauses within a wall. It’s bent all out of shape and the door to the room is busted, its mechanisms fried, and the other side pressured under rubble that three scientists could never lift on their own. He watches this side of the phone conversation happen, now hearing Gordon on the other end, consoling them and trying to ask where they are.

There’s actually four. Three on the phone, repeating their room number and floor and situation with the disjointed panic of people who know they’re dead, and the fourth is unconscious, propped against the wall at an awkward sit. The electricity is giving out and the vents are jammed. They’re too far under ground. Too far for Benrey's team to make a detour and come to the rescue. Benrey floats back up.

He masks himself, letting his perceivability fall away. Benrey reappears in the room with everyone else, unseen, and hovers his hand over the phone Gordon’s still talking into. He finds a wire deep within it and yanks, disconnecting the line.

He wants to go home.

He doesn’t want to wait for everyone to take their dumb trip lower underground, deeper into the mess, because they care too much. Because if they do, with the injury to Gordon’s leg and the limited battery-life of Coomer’s limbs and a million other things, Benrey doubts they’ll make it there at all. And even less that they’ll make it back.

He’s new to caring. Or maybe he doesn’t- after all, the line is dead. Is that caring? Is It apathy?

Benrey floats back into the wall as Gordon frantically yells Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Hello? into the phone. Benrey swears Tommy’s looking right at him, but says nothing. Not all phones are good. He’s happy to silence this one forever if it means everyone will get a fucking move on.

 

3

They do get a fucking move on. They get it all the way to Xen of all places. And then they get him.

Benrey’s never died like this before. Not after learning to tell time apart with numbers and with Coomer’s ticking and not after learning words for his thoughts. It’s weird to think in language, but it makes the void all that more silent.

Tearing at his bones and clawing to resurface, Benrey understands that, while he’s adaptive, it’s humans who are fucking driven by survival. And having absorbed too much humanity through the mitosis of names and work and numbers and letters and language, he’s ended up caring far too much about getting to walk free on his bipedal legs.

He hangs in the now painful void of a dying tether to the world, and understands how fucking empty it’s always been, understands it because now there’s language in his head that he talks to himself in, because now there is noise there and memories that are more or less chronological, much more fleshed out than the run run run eat hunt of his earliest days. And this is the great nothing. Like the silence after a phone's picked up. Or, better, the silence Gordon tried to get an answer from after the line cut. He is trapped in the static of a lost phone call, the kind he used to listen to, picking up the wall phone’s handset just to hear it fizz.

Bile. He wakes up and wretches, throwing up hells knows what because he doesn’t remember eating. Food- his mind darts to check if he’s hungry but the thought of eating just makes him gag again- he’s shaking, cold sweat, feeling his bones ache as if they’d been taken out and then put back in through the unnecessary, surgically complicated, freak show of resurrection.

Right. He’s alive.

Benrey is kneeling in the orange sands of Black Mesa’s landscape. It chafes his fingers and gets in his shoes and collar. He sheds the vest, the empty gun. He recognizes no mountains and sees no sign of where could have once been a research facility so great it had Bagel Wednesdays every other week in the cafeteria and sometimes let people bring portable radios to work. Benrey knows most of his words from radio. He walks for hours.

Tommy had a radio too, or maybe it was Darnold’s and he just had joint custody. It was a bit beat-up and singed by acid in one corner. Olive-green and with stickers. Tommy would let him fiddle with it and would explain words and recognize song names, and would help Benrey write down the songs he kind of liked. If Benrey learned counting from that telephone and reading for the complimentary book, he learned writing through the meticulous listing of songs. Those papers are all gone now. He doesn’t remember any names, or lists, or lyrics, because he relied so much on those papers. He really just wants some water. The sand’s in his shoes. Benrey knows Tommy because of that phone book. Because he saw the name on a slow day with nothing to do while learning to read- and decided to call his desk. Benrey had told him he was calling because the name looked cool- get it? Cool? Cool-latta? Like Cool-latte? Like the coffee?

Tommy had asked him if Benrey knew that Coolatta was already a word.

Benrey learned about Soda.

God, he really wants to drink.

There is a road.

Tarmac, hot, the air above it wavering- or is that just Benrey’s vision? He feels cold, like he’s been put in the freezer and no one told him, like he’s about to turn into cold gravy and drip off his own skeleton. So he lies on the tarmac to almost cook in its heat and thinks about the nights they spent sleeping in proximity because the tiles got cold, and about how the HEV suit would warm up on its own from all the complex machinery, and Benrey thinks about that as he finally starts feeling warmer, and doesn’t wake up until the squeal of wheels.

The trucker has water and a big beard and probably a name, but Benrey’s only hearing the slosh of that waterbottle and the hiss of the huge vehicle as it stands and waits. So he nods and agrees to whatever he didn’t catch and is put in the shotgun seat of a beat-up truck with some unmarked container carried on its back. The first words he manages to catch are:

One, where does he need to go.

And two, is there anyone he can call.

He’s handed a phone, small, it says Nokia on it in blocky letters, and Benrey stares at the keypad, and fuck it, why does he remember number combinations of desks from that brick of a phone book, but he can’t remember his fucking songs? Huh? Because he remembers Tommy’s desk number, but knows calling it won’t fucking do shit, because there no longer is a desk. And there no longer is Black Mesa. And he can only be hopeful that there still is a Tommy.

In his ever-unending race to copy humanity, when did Benrey grow tear glands?

The trucker’s driving so he doesn’t see, but Benrey can no longer tell the number pad apart as it blends and swirls, and the only saving grace is muscle memory of where each digit is- and while he’s focused on blinking away unfamiliar stinging, he snaps and types in that Coolatta desk combination.

It rings.

It shouldn’t, but it rings.

The little Nokia saves Benrey’s life. As the painfully familiar “Hello? Benrey?” of Tommy Cool-latta, desk 045-C, floor G3, page 74 in the phone book, picks up.

 

4

Bubby, Tommy, and Darnold cannot thank the trucker enough. They offer him hugs and the promise of home-baked goods and money and a job promotion and he barely waves them off, saying it was no big deal at all, stopping for a seemingly dead body in the middle of the desert.

Benrey slept through most of the ride, and he’s barely awake now, and struggles to keep up with getting wrapped in a blanket and put in the back of a car- Darnold’s- and asked questions and then told that Coomer and Gordon couldn’t make it-

He suddenly wakes up, “What do you mean couldn’t make it-” shit, hadn’t he pulled his punches well enough-

“Couldn’t make it from lecture, idiot, don’t interrupt.” Bubby kicks him, also in the backseat, “But they’ll be coming over once class finishes.”

“Yeah! They are- they’re teachers now!”

Benrey’s falling back asleep and his mind jumps from an insult on ‘damn they’ll hire anyone now’ to, huh, they really will hire anyone now? are they even qualified for teaching? he vaguely knows something about licenses- and he says something that’s just words in a weird order, he knows this, about how they must’ve really cheated on their teacher courses because damn did they get the job fast-

Tommy turns around to look at him over the shotgun seat’s back.

“Benrey, we’ve… it- it’s been over a year.”

He doesn’t want to believe it. But there are deeper lines in Tommy’s face and Darnold’s temples are that much grayer- by a fucking lot- and Bubby doesn’t look older but certainly looks different. Softer, somehow. His glasses are new and the circles along his spine and joints are scarred over almost invisibly, the ghosts of his tube-born past slowly being washed off with exposure to the sun and time.

A phone rings. Video game music- Persona 5.

“Doctor Coomer!” Tommy picks up, his phone case sloshing glittery colors under its double glass as the car moves. “Yes, we- yes we’ve got him. He’s here.” And Tommy hands the phone to Benrey. Its screen momentarily lights up with a background of Sunkist before Benrey can put it to his ear, and there’s Coomer.

“Britain! The wonders of science have brought you back to life!”

“Hey, Coomer,” Benrey can’t fight the smile that melts onto his face, foreign in its natural draping. He hasn’t felt that year passing, but he missed that voice all the same.

“Apologies I couldn’t be there in body, but I’m there in spirit!” He chuckles under his breath and somehow it’s better than hearing numbers, “How has death treated you, little fool?”

“With more respect than you, old man.” Benrey can’t help, really can’t help but grin, and feels Bubby kick him again. Almost exactly as he’s done speaking though, another phone rings. This time with a violin cover of a song Benrey knows but can’t place.

Darnold hands his phone to Tommy as he’s driving and Tommy answers, “Freeman!”

Gordon’s so fucking loud on the other end, Benrey can hear him even off speaker, Tommy? Sorry, your phone was busy, I’m guessing that’s Coomer.

“Quite an- an ass-tute observation!”

You have him?

“Yes!” Tommy’s grinning, his hand making fast flicks off to the side, “He’s- Dr. Freeman, he’s alive.” Tommy says loud enough even Coomer hears, and whatever Gordon replies is too quiet to catch, and Benrey says something he forgets halfway through the sentence to Coomer, handing the phone off to Bubby without hanging up.

And when Darnold’s phone is passed to him, he accepts it with the shake of adrenaline that boots him back awake. Not coherent, but awake.

“Benrey?”

He can’t read the tone. Can’t find anger in it, or anything else. Just a question.

“Gordon.”

There’s a pause and then startled, wheezing laughter, “Shit, I’m- it’s weird hearing you say my name- you-” shuffling on the other end, “You’re really alive, aren’t you?”

Benrey sits there with a blanket that smells a bit like dog over him, holding the third phone that day, feeling deeply sick and depleted but feeling each breath raise his chest with a pained hell-bent resolve to keep fucking living.

“Yeah, guess so.”

“Good,” and Benrey didn’t know smiles could be so audible over phones only, “You good?”

What is he asking.

Is Benrey feeling okay? No.

Is Benrey… Good? He doesn’t know. Hopes he has time to find out.

Was he ever bad? Tommy passes him something- tissues. Benrey hasn’t noticed he’s been crying again, now without the stinging, just tears collecting dust off his face in neat little streaks.

“I’ll try to be.”

The car stops eventually and soon an Uber and another car roll up and Coomer’s hug is dizzying, and so is Gordon’s, but not for the reason of being bodily picked up and spun, but instead in the earnest softness of his embrace and in the ability to breach those few meters between the car door and a barely standing-up Benrey in the Coolatta driveway. He holds Benrey close and laughs and laughs and it shakes them both and Benrey barely finds the strength to overpower that bone-deep ache in his body, to raise his arms and cling on.

“You bastard.”

“Whai's that?”

“Made me miss you.”

 

5

Benrey falls asleep into a mesh of colors and concepts and no concrete dreams, mid-bite into the cold pizza that they found for him asap, sitting at a round table hastily cleaned of residual mugs and statistic-lathered papers. His last thought is something vague about Sunkist nosing his knee and then he’s gone.

Benrey wakes up with a startled, “This.”

He’s in a car. Shotgun now. Different. Music playing. Gordon.

“Sure, buddy. This what?”

They’re driving- or rather Gordon’s driving, eyes on the road, and Benrey’s strapped in with a seatbelt and now in a different blanket with a heating pad abandoned vaguely in his lap. He scoops it back up under the blanket and holds it close, soaking up warmth, warmth. He zones back in a bit better and- there it is.

“The song.”

“The song…” Gordon uselessly parrots as he focuses on a turn, before finally glancing over at Benrey, “Uhhhh… The song? Bon Jovi," and when he says that name there's a strange grimace, "We Weren’t Born To Follow, I think.”

Benrey stares at the radio and then back at Gordon. This is- this is one of the songs he’d had. One of the songs he’d written down. Not his genre, but the way Tommy and Darnold sang along to it made it good, and now it’s almost ending on whatever random station Gordon’s tuned in to. Gordon. Benrey’s barely awake and begins to spiral into the fact it was that easy, getting Gordon to tell him the title like Benrey’d used his fucking words correctly.

He looks at Gordon while the road holds most of his attention and- he sees that lost year.

He sees it in the different beard, the longer hair, sees it in the streaks of lighter, grayer curls and the stress lines and the different glasses and- the arm closest to Benrey, a much more complex prosthetic than the gun was- the gun- and with spray-painted swirls on its forearm.

“Stop the car.”

“What-” Gordon’s already pulling over, and Benrey launches himself out of the car door, wrangling the seatbelt- he throws up into the side of the road, having stumbled a few steps away, and tastes the pizza from earlier. It’s fucking disgusting and is honestly worse than growing up eating raw meat.

A water-bottle hovers in his periphery and Benrey grabs it, coughing.

“Sorry,” He croaks, looking out at the grass and trees of some random roadside.

“S’no big deal dude, you okay?”

“Nah I- the. Uh.” Benrey finally turns to Gordon and feels his fucking idiot two weeks in Black Mesa, full of bad decisions and endangering these people and- he feels it crash into him and break his ribs with the impact of regret- and wants to throw up again. “About everything. Sorry.”

Gordon stalls, straightening up a bit and now his eyes are wide and surprised and he’s fiddling with the edge of his shirt- an old worn Dole Apple Juice graphic. “Oh.”

Benrey drinks again and hands the bottle back. On the way to the car, he picks up the dropped heating pad and climbs into his seat, beginning to feel that same exhaustion set back over him, almost enough to leave the blanket abandoned. The radio’s still going and he’s picking up the err of distant cars and the flex of Gordon’s mechanical fingers as he still stands outside, looking lost. It’s rare to see him quiet. Benrey waits, buckling himself in. Listening. When Gordon finally joins him in the car, he looks a bit more deflated, but he’s still calm and his eyes are soft with something akin to appreciative melancholy. He closes his door so the car will stop making noise, but doesn’t start it.

Instead, he turns his head at Benrey, and Benrey looks away. Because he’s usually the one with the eyes, observing when not seen by anyone - but the strange, yellow gaze of Tommy - and he cannot stand this. He’d love to look at Gordon more, but he can’t fathom being scrutinized back.

Gordon finally sighs and says, “Okay. I appreciate it.” The car comes back to life and Gordon pulls back into the road. Ten minutes later at a red light, Gordon takes out his phone and passes Benrey a picture of a boy that’s definitely familiar, both in carrying a likeness to Gordon and having been shown to Benrey before, apparently over a year ago. Fuck.

The boy’s brandishing impressive skin paint that mimics the design of Gordon’s prosthetic, wearing a labcoat and fake glasses. Plastic pumpkin basket in his other hand.

“Besides,” Gordon says with a touch of humor covering the strange mourning they’ve found themselves in, “Joshie loves the arm. Thinks it makes me a cyborg.”

Benrey stares at the picture and dares not scroll to see others. Just holds Gordon’s phone and looks at this mystery kid he’s only ever seen twice, and a million other times in Gordon’s own smiles and Gordon’s eyes that are so often alive and burning with that childhood glee and drive that never got beaten out of him by life’s curveballs. Even now. And Benrey can’t know for sure where they’re driving, and won’t find out if this kid and he will ever cross paths, but finds himself sure of one thing: he already loves him with disgusting, human sentiment.

Unwaveringly and absolutely, he loves this kid, because how can he not love someone who Gordon would die for? And who loves Gordon in turn, enough to dress up as him for Halloween. He passes the phone back on the next red. It’s had time to turn off by then and Benrey doesn’t know the password, so that’s it, really.

“Looks a bit like you.”

And Gordon snorts, then laughs properly, trying to push the wheezes down and get his breathing under control, “You saying I look like shit? You? Really? Mister Got Mistaken For A Corpse?”

“Death-based discrimination,” Benrey grumbles, because his body put its all into fucking rebuilding him from scratch, and here Feetman’s complaining about if Benrey might look a little fucking unhealthy. Yeah. Sure. Let the person who’s never even died throw the first stone.

Somehow, Feetman’s laughing again and Benrey stares at him with disbelief, but it’s contagious, and when he speaks next, it’s through the beginnings of a grin, “Dude, what the fuck? You might uuuuuuh- did you catch something? Is this a uuuh coping mech-nanism? Hello? Thinking funny thoughts you didn’t share?” This only makes Gordon snort again even as he’s trying to keep his focus, and Benrey’s own sentence is caught off guard by some kind of laugh, a hitch of breath, “Wanna share with the class?”

Gordon wipes his eyes and manages to start breathing, “Sorry, sorry, I, uh, missed you I guess.”

Why’d he have to go and say that, huh? “Don’t know what you’re on about,” Benrey crosses his arms and turns around in his seat to look out the window instead, but the very center of his chest burns burns burns, and he lets the heating pad rest between his seat and the cupholders instead. He’s warm as it is.

They stop at a school.

“I left work early, cause of, well, you popping back up basically, but I gotta pick up Joshie, just stay in the car.” Gordon rattles off, parking, and hopping out in a mild rush. Benrey doesn’t even have time to nod, but Gordon turns around almost immediately and knocks on the glass, “You’ll be okay?”

Benrey flashes him an okay sign and then sits there alone for ten minutes straight, panicking about having to interact with Gordon’s fucking child.

He pretends to be asleep.

He pretends to be asleep as there’s the approaching voice of Gordon asking questions, and then car doors, and then Gordon’s pause as he accesses Benrey’s state. Then a quiet, “Sssh, Benny’s asleep, he’s coming with us and he’s a bit tired, so let’s not kick his seat from the back, yeah? Kay, think about what you want for dinner.”

They drive. Benrey listens, high strung, to the unmistakable sounds of someone else in the backseat, smaller somehow. The click of plastic and the huffy breaths of a child. He opens his eyes only briefly, to catch a glimpse when both leave the car, Gordon taking Joshua home before waking Benrey. The click of plastic must’ve been toys. There’s a plastic dinosaur from Toy Story: The Video Game (2010) in the backseat. Benrey snaps his eyes closed as he hears Gordon returning. Gotta be authentic.

“You want me to like wake you up and all, or are you dropping the bit, now that he’s gone? Didn’t know you were so against even looking at my shit son,” he chuckles and Benrey slants his eyes open to find Gordon standing on the shotgun side, having opened Benrey’s door.

“Nah, bro I was snoozing.”

“I have a kid, I know when someone’s faking sleep,” Gordon smiles and it’s disgustingly endearing, “C’mon, or were you pretending so I’d also carry you from the car?”

“Mm, no, that’d be gay.” Benrey unbuckles his seatbelt and promptly falls.

His legs refuse to have the right amount of energy and he’s this close to hitting the driveway, but Gordon’s right there and catches him, awkwardly, under the armpits like he’s trying to pick a particularly jelly-like cat out of a bathtub. They grapple onto each other for a bit before Benrey regains some semblance of vertical existence, still keeping both hands fisted into Gordon’s shirt at the shoulders.

There’s a sigh, and then he’s getting scooped up, frustratingly easily, with the practice of a parent who has to haul a wriggly kid everywhere. “Hope this goes in your top ten cringe gay moments diary, then.” Gordon kicks the car door closed and heads for the house, Benrey hanging on to the front of his shirt with equal surprise and a storm of other thoughts and issues and emotions. It’d been easier to flirt back in Black Mesa because, in some way, he’d known of his upcoming demise. Like making promises when you know you won’t be around to meet them.

Now things are real.

The world is somehow realer, bigger, past the walls and halls of scientific facilities, and Benrey’s realer too, and so is Gordon, in casual clothes and looking fucking normal, not some mech suit underground taking out aliens with a gun for a hand, surreal and breathtaking and so easy to target because none of it had felt permanent-

They enter the house and Gordon carries him right to the bathroom, calling out for Joshie to please go lock the front door, his dad’s busy. Depositing Benrey in the bathtub leaves a genuine cloud of orange residual dust.

“God, you’re like covered in doritos.”

“A true gamer doesn’t sweat liquid.”

Gordon starts up the shower even as Benrey’s fully dressed, sitting half-asleep in the porcelain white. Without the blanket, he’s almost cold again. Warm water begins to patter down onto him and his clothes.

“You sweat dorito dust?”

“Yeah, dandruff logic. Wanna lick? Tastes like dirt.”

“Mm, my favorite dorito flavor next to the radiation one,” Gordon answers noncommittally as he’s ruffling through the laundry, “How tall are you?”

Benrey kicks his shoes off with the last bits of energy he’s granted, feeling the sand begin to wash away, “Tall enough to slap a nosy Feetman. Feet-man because you want my height,” he snorts, fading back out, “Like, counting-feet you know? Maths?”

Gordon snorts and returns with a grin that looks involuntary and open. He sets folded clothes on the counter, “Is the joke about inches upcoming?”

“Up …..coming?”

“Shut up,” Gordon wheezes, which turns into a sigh, and begins showering dust off Benrey, right in his clothes, and soon flashes the showerhead into Benrey’s face and subsequently over his helmet, sending darkened water pouring off him. The pitter of droplets along the metal rings dully in Benrey’s ears. “I got you a change of clothes there. Don’t fall asleep on me yet, there’s a bed in this household for a reason.”

“Yeah, wish I could fall asleep on you,” Benrey mumbles, letting his eyes close, “Bet you make a better fucking pillow without the suit. One thing you aren’t fail at.”

He gets hit with water in the face again and wakes up momentarily. Gordon only smiles, “Careful, stay awake, you start talking nonsense once you begin drifting off.”

“The hell did I just say?”

“Nothing,” Gordon shrugs and looks away, still chasing dirt off Benrey. “I need to go check on Joshie. Rinse yourself off and change into the new clothes if you can. But that’s an if, if you can’t, just wait for me, okay? If you like start drowning or something, just call.”

He goes to leave and Benrey holds the showerhead, warm, to his chest, “How’m gonna call if I don’t have your number?” He smiles and winks – it comes out more like a really pointed blinking- and Gordon only startles another laugh and slips out of the bathroom, closing the door.

He can hear more talking somewhere else. The sink going off. Walking around then- fridge opening and closing- Benrey shakes himself awake from the treacherous pull of rest. He needs to change because whatever strange conditions he finds himself under to be allowed into this house with a fucking child in it, he can’t be too fucking bothersome- it’s been a year but a year’s subjective. Being trapped in underground halls would’ve felt like a year too if not for Coomer’s own brand of insanity.

Benrey takes off his helmet- his hair’s no longer long, instead in the same buzzed cut he’d spawned with the first time. Seems the reset button steals his fucking progress. He sighs and slithers out of his dress shirt and pants, taking advantage of his joints being rather agreeable to unconventional angles. Strips completely with lazy, slow movements that fail to carry the amount of strength he’d usually have, and reaches for the dry clothes. Turns off the shower where he can reach its tap without sitting up, and wiggles into the sweatpants and old dark-purple shirt still wet. He won’t attempt to climb out of the tub though, so he waits. Waiting is the hardest thing to do when you’re desperate for a nap.

He wakes to once more being lifted, this time quiet and without jokes, and carried to the softest fucking bed he’s ever touched. Black Mesa bunks and their bumpy mattresses with things hidden underneath couldn’t fucking compare. How’d he never consider that beds were supposed to be comfortable? Benrey barely has time to wake up before he’s being yanked back under by the ache of his joints on a soft surface and the unmoving, warm, indeed soft presence of Gordon, who remains sitting near him, the back of his fingers pressed to Benrey’s upper arm for no reason.

 

6

Benrey wakes to silence. But the different kind, the kind where it’s buzzing with noise, neighbors, a washing machine, birds outside, pipes working. The flutter of drapes and the AC and his own breathing, rising a blanket, heavy and thick like a fortress, up and down, up and down- Benrey doesn’t need to breathe- or maybe that was true at some point. Long ago. He didn’t need to breathe but the repetitive metronome of working lungs was alluring, like an ignorable reminder that he did it, crawled out of Xen through the rift without getting caught, and then crawled out of that fucking desert far enough to be discovered. But now, as Benrey tries to hold his breath, to listen better, he realizes it’s become mandatory.

What’s next? A heartbeat?

The room is quiet and so’s the rest of the house and as Benrey finally slants open his eyes, and rolls over with the utmost effort, he sees the bedside table’s note. But first, he sees the framed picture of Joshie and Gordon at a- yeah, a zoo. Benrey remembers learning about zoos. It took a lot of explaining from Darnold and a bunch of Wikipedia articles to get it in his head that they were different from the holding pens in Black Mesa.

He sees a crumpled receipt and the kind of bracelet that Tommy used to make, called ‘macaroni’ or something, and the bedside lamp with a little polaroid of the team clipped onto it, and finally sees the note. Benrey reads it without lifting his head and gets absolutely none of the words. Snags it off the table with heavy limbs and tries again, this time closer. He’s never seen Gordon’s handwriting before and it's oddly matching. Horrible doctor’s scroll that’s trying so hard to be legible, years as a college student taking hurried notes and then having to write with another hand taking their toll on readability, and Benrey smiles at it, remembers also learning to write, not that long ago, and having to figure out which hand he should do it with, ultimately settling on either. He looks at how Gordon writes his name and how he signs off the note and realizes he’s still not fucking read it.

Benrey!! Dropping Joff at school-

Who the fuck is Joff- oh there’s a space-

Benrey!! Dropping J  off at school, please don’t get lost or die, there’s food in the kitchen, careful with the stairs?? ?

Here there’s something illegible that could look like ten different words and still be something else, so Benrey leaves it be.

Call if anything.

This is followed by a number and Benrey fights his brain to commit it to memory. Makes it rhyme in his head and remembers the colors of each number to put them into a line of sweet voice- anything to make it stick. He can’t let this paper burn down in tragedy and leave him with nothing once again.

He takes his sorry ass downstairs, feeling like he’d been run over by the truck instead of getting picked up, head dizzy and knees shaky, and bare feet careful of twisted ankles as he traverses the carpet and then the hardwood floor. There’s soup, he doesn’t know which kind but knows there’s kinds out there, and it’s still warm. He hunches on the barstool and abandons the spoon to slowly sip it over the edge. He doesn’t want to throw up and that’s maybe a good sign. Or a goo sign. Soup’s goo. Just hopefully not radioactive, because, as Benrey drags his eyes, waking up more, along the kitchen, this place doesn’t look fitted out for experimentation.

The counter’s a pleasant marble, there’s a half-finished bag of bread, cereal, bananas on a rack, plates in the sink, the rim of which Benrey can see’s patterned with cartoon horses. He scoops up the last of the soup now with the spoon, eats quickly, notices it’s easier to move, and frowns at the realization he’s in general feeling better. Like he could stand up without holding onto a surface.

Mystical, the way things go, and Benrey pads around the house, just the first floor, just the living room, touching textures of the couch and the table and the chairs, of walls and the TV, scans over the shelf of games and then another shelf of board games, much fewer of which he recognizes. Another wall of pictures. Gordon with a little loaf-sized baby, both looking off their game, hospital setting, Gordon at graduation, gown a bit too short for him- no wonder, Benrey’s well aware Gordon’s tall – revealing bright red shoes with yellow lightning and the number 95. Benrey snorts. Of course.

Joshie in a weird puffy onesie standing in snow while holding onto his stroller, holding a stick, missing teeth. Then something which must’ve been a photoshoot, Joshie in a cowboy costume, posing in front of a flat 2D printout of desert landscape. A picture of a squirrel. Followed immediately by a child’s drawing of a squirrel.

Benrey carefully touches its surface and feels the oily marks of crayon. Next is Gordon again in a soccer uniform and Benrey can tell when the pictures start being new. Pre-Black Mesa Gordon looked familiar, but this one’s even more so. Now it’s Coomer holding Joshie up on outstretched arms, directly over a fountain. There's a crowded picture of everyone but Gordon on a boat that's definitely modified for ultimate speed and chaos, half of them not even looking at the camera. There's Bubby and Darnold on stage at karaoke.

Everyone at a boxing match holding flags and foam hands, Coomer's there looking a bit roughed up but grinning and pumping one gloved hand in the air, probably photographed by a stranger, boxing ring in the back, crowds behind them. Class picture in which Benrey spots Joshie front row. Sunkist and Joshie in a field.

There’s a little table with a landline phone. Beside it on the wall is attached a piece of paper with phone numbers, now in much clearer handwriting. Dad. Uncle Tommy. Uncle Darnold. Coomer, Bubby- Benrey wrinkles his face at ‘Great Uncle Coolatta (emergencies only!!)’.

A list of names for Joshie to call in case anything, and Benrey compares the note paper to the numbers on the wall, Gordon’s matches. He looks at Tommy’s and realizes it’s not the desk phone number he’d called from the truck. It’s not even the right amount of digits. Black Mesa desk phones had six, and this is eleven.

He hears the front door open.

Benrey rounds the corner back into the living room where Gordon’s taking his shoes off, carrying a bag of groceries he won’t set down for some reason. Benrey stands there, hands fisted into the borrowed shirt, contemplating how the hell to announce he’s awake. Three steps back into the hallway, breathe a little louder, sniffle, and walk with heavier footsteps. Ambient noise of approach he’d grown up masking for the purpose of a good hunt.

Gordon looks up when Benrey reenters the living room, and of all things, grins. It’s dismantling.

“Didn’t know when you’d wake up, had to be when schedules got in the way,” Gordon moves to the kitchen, “You were comatose for over a day now, dude, how’re you feeling?”

“Uh, better.” Benrey trots over to move his discarded soup bowl to the sink, feeling each step like it’s eggshells and not kitchen tile. “Good. Nice.” He worries his lip and resorts back to the familiar kissy noises that he’s aware manifest when he’s anxious. Gordon’s not even looking at him, putting milk away into the fridge, wearing a flannel that Benrey stares at. He realizes he’s never seen Gordon out of the suit and stares a bit harder, the slope of his shoulders and where his hair’s pulled up, at his arms. “Soup was uuuh good outside of the poison.”

Gordon snorts, turning around to grab more stuff from the bag, “What poison? Don’t tell me you’re allergic to salt.”

“Tsk, calling friend Benrey salty? Friend Benrey?”

“Yeah friend Benrey,” Gordon reaches to grab a pack of bell peppers from the bag, repeating the phrase without much mind, but Benrey’s staring. Staring at Gordon’s jaw and glasses and beard, anywhere but his eyes, kneading his shirt in his fists and feeling his chest hurt because he hates it when language starts stuttering up in his throat and he can’t make himself speak when it matters- it’s so fucking easy to ramble but when he needs to make sense it all falls away like he’d swallowed a wine cork.

Gordon finally closes the fridge and stops mid-step upon seeing Benrey, eyebrows shooting up into his hair, “Benrey? You uh- man, you good?”

“Are you like. Uh. M. Gonna have to uh. Check if you’re Feetman.” Benrey grits out, fighting to get his human language back and running.

“C’mon, don’t ask me for my passport again, god,” Gordon sighs, “It’s an old bit.”

It’s been a year for them and almost no time for Benrey and he scrunches his face up, “I- no. Just. Like, this still the same timeline and all, yeah?”

“Y- uh,” he can see Gordon momentarily doubt himself, “Um, okay, when we were outside first, what plant did we take a break by?”

Benrey wracks his brain, “A cactus?”

“Yeah. Uh. I think you’re our Benrey, even though you’ve been awake for like twenty minutes in total tops, it’s, uh, it’s you.” Gordon smiles again and Benrey can’t help but chew on his lip more, silent enough that Gordon continues, “Why’re you doubting it? Something wrong?”

Benrey stares somewhere past Gordon’s ear, at the spice shelf of pretty, colorful labels. “Can we talk?”

He kind of sees Gordon freeze up. “We’re talking now, but yeah, for sure, grab a seat. Tea?”

Benrey sighs, slinking into the chair, “No, not tea. I mean, kind of. I don’t think it’s news.”

“What- Benrey no, like, do you want me to make tea? Holy shit, I didn’t immediately assume your conversation topic was going to be tea as in gossip-” Gordon snorts a bit but it’s overlayed with the now much more serious mood. Benrey hates it but he can’t function under the constant fear of misunderstanding a situation.

“Tea please and thank you. Why am I here?”

Gordon’s face goes through a series of comical expressions as he’s setting the kettle, “You mean like, alive? Dude, I don’t know how that shit works-”

“No, the house, dumbass.”

“Oh, uh. You- well, you can’t really stay at the Coolatta’s, there’s already three people living there one of which is Gino, and a wholeass dog-”

“Who the fuck is Gino?”

Gordon pulls mugs out and looks over at Benrey with raised eyebrows, “Gman.”

Even with the reaction his brain is throwing him over having A Talk (almost like he’s allergic) this startles an incredulous laugh out of Benrey, which in turn gets Gordon snorting into a hand because, right, Benrey learned to laugh from a comic strip where the Ha’s were all written out and never really grew out of it.

“You know his company ID doesn’t actually just say ‘Gman’ on it, that’d be wild. Guy’s got a name and all, gets a weird look on his face when Joshie calls him ‘Uncle Gooey’. Shit, sorry, that’s uh, really off-topic,” Gordon pours them tea and comes over to the table, sobering up even as Benrey can breathe a little easier, smile a bit more as no matter how much either are trying, this isn’t shaping up serious at all. He refrains from joking about Gman’s passport back and swallows the throwback. Better that way.

Gordon slides him a mug and sits, “But yeah, their house is crowded as hell and Gino doesn’t like hate you, but he likes his peace. The Coomers we both know are too territorial either way so-” Gordon stares at his mug, cringing almost bodily, “That’s all excuses, I’d just been thinking of getting a roommate.”

“Wuh?”

“I mean, unless you don’t wanna, that’s like understandable, you can get a flat and all, but I thought since you looked on death’s doorstep all over again and probably don’t know how to use a stove, I’d let you recuperate or something- let you walk it off? But that’s up to you and I-” he laughs, “I don’t know how many times you want me to say this, but I did miss you. We all did.” Another chuckle. “Even Bubby. Especially Bubby.”

Benrey wants him to keep saying it forever. An infinite number of times. He swallows tea and waves off Gordon’s protests at the temperature.

“I know how to use a stove, Feetman.”

They’re quiet for a moment.

“You wanna stay?”

“S’that legal?”

“Y-yeah,” Gordon chuckles, beginning to look far too endeared, “If you want to, you can. This isn’t some pity-offer. If it was a pity offer, I think you’d just be sleeping on the couch or still in the tub or whatever. It’s not the most peaceful here cause half the time a kid’s running around with pool noodles trying to take your knees out, but that’s kind of part of the package.”

“Feetman two in one deal? Room with one get one free? Big sale?”

Gordon’s little giggles and unending laughter have always been addicting. From their first conversation where even through frustrated arguing he’d found every other word worth laughing about, and Benrey knows he wouldn’t have followed Gordon at all, into all that mess, if it wasn’t for the smile and the lively, crinkled eyes. Crow’s feet already forming and hands restless. Gordon says something Benrey can guess is a ‘yeah, sure’.

“Heh, nice.” Benrey drinks more of the warm tea, but his free hand is already fiddling, dragging his knuckles into the table because there’s so much energy in him, he needs to let it out somewhere, so he doesn’t combust or lose words all over again, “S’just felt like there’d be more fallout. Second shoe devs drop or something.”

Gordon’s quiet for a moment, busy making sense of the words before he shrugs.

“Yeah I… we all had our time to think. And go see a therapist,” he chuckles again, looking at the table, “And it’s not perfect or anything but being fucking out of there really cleared up everyone’s head, mine too, and I guess after I got over the worst of it, I realized everyone’d been fucked up back there and it was like locking some ants in a microwave and expecting them to be civil about it… Anyway, it all sucked but I realized I kind of really missed you like I’d missed everyone else from the team while in the hospital, and- cause you were part of it, and while you were a shitty part of it sometimes, dude, you make me laugh, yknow- Benrey, are you crying? Holy shit, yo, dude, hey-” Gordon moves back a bit on his chair, looking so worried it just makes Benrey rubs at his face more to get the tears off, “Benrey- no, hey, come over, c’mere, I owe you a hug, Benrey.”

Benrey scrambles, barely leaving the tea mug in check, rounding the table and barely faltering as Gordon stands up before knocking his face into Gordon’s chest and grabbing onto him. He tries to breathe and finally gets out a, “Calling me a clown? Like laughing at me, huh?”

Gordon just hugs him, soft and tall and warm and gentle, but so fucking real and solid, his heart resonating into Benrey’s head as it beats, and he memorizes the pattern, the speed, commits it to memory and tries to echo it in his mind.

When Gordon speaks, his voice reverberates and hums and Benrey only presses his ear closer, “More like a royal jester, trust me.”

“I trust ya with my life.” Benrey says it without much meaning but Gordon pauses before answering.

“I’ve killed you.”

He doesn’t apologize or elaborate and Benrey gets it, knows that he fucked up, knows that the fact he’s being given the biggest fucking second chance is better than any apology, and doesn’t expect forgiveness, only hopes for understanding and patience and time. Time to learn and do right and fix it. They’re the only people he has left, all of them. The only people he's ever had. And the best people he’s ever known.

“Yeah. You made me soup and now I’m alive.”

“That’s pretty sweet.” Gordon almost goes to pull away, not fully, maybe to look at him, but Benrey latches on and stays where he cannot be easily seen.

“Sucked at being in a microwave. Couldn’t turn off the microwave so just decided to bully you instead. Whole lot.” He doesn’t know if ambush can be considered ‘bullying’ but he’d been desperate to get out and limbs could regrow because it’s not like Gordon would’ve made it that far being human, right? No one else in the group was. Because he would've easily sent himself under that knife, to get the soldiers off their back and get to the top faster, but they’d known him, and he didn’t have anything to give them. Gordon had the HEV suit’s entire CPU and Black Mesan information on one arm. You couldn’t remove it on its own without removing the entire HEV suit, or so everyone would’ve thought. But there’s shortcuts for everything.

“Yeah, and then the entire team committed our worst bury-your-gays trope, so, glad you’re back lest I get canceled by my students.” Gordon laughs again, and it’s the only sound to ever exist ever, period.

Benrey feels his heart stop and focuses real hard on making it beat again, new and all, “M’not gay.”

Gordon finally pulls back, eyebrows raised, like this is the most surprising event of his week, Benrey’s reappearance not even second, “You’re not?”

“WH- Feetman why do you sound disappointed-” Benrey barks out another laugh, eyes wide, aware his face is wet and his hands are still shaky, “What the fuck.” He knows what adrenaline feels like and this is a whole new genre of that high.

"Okay you're not gay, sorry," Gordon’s just cringing again, squinting down at him, “Benrey are you. Are you cis? Does that even apply to you?”

“Wh- sister???”

There’s a moment of silence in the gap of understanding but Gordon snorts and then Benrey snorts too and they’re laughing again, and then Benrey has to take a breath and lean on the table because he’s still not at his best, but he wipes tears off his face again and feels that folded up note from the bedside table poke his thigh where he’s got it in the sweatpants pocket, “Nah, I uh, don’t know what I am”.

And it’s true. He doesn’t really get it, doesn’t really have a frame of reference aside from love songs and Wikipedia and Tommy’s gushing about Darnold on some lunch breaks, and then Darnold’s gushing about Tommy on other lunch breaks, and he can’t really relate, or definitely couldn’t back then, fresh into learning new words like love and crush and understanding the concept of holding hands from comics.

Gordon smiles and winks, “That’s cool too. Shouldn’t have made conclusions based on your fucking flirting alone.”

And with Coomer’s muttered ticking of the minutes out of their grasp, it’d felt right to walk head-first into his. Fine. Crush on Gordon- or something like that. Just. The intense need to be in his proximity and listened to and understood and- and it’d felt easy to indulge in that when he didn’t think there was a guaranteed future. Now he’s in a living room.

Benrey swallows back residual sweet-voice that he refuses to bring into the real, human world with him, “Yeah, makes an ass out of you and me.”

“Dude, I didn’t even say ‘assume’ you can’t just use that line on synonyms,” Gordon shoves his shoulder a bit, “So you stayin or want me to find you a flat or something?”

It still doesn’t feel okay to say it, but Benrey scratches at the flat bone of his ribcage, “Stay option for Friend Benrey please.”

Gordon dissolves into a huge smile and Benrey swears it raises his fucking health bar. More hitpoints now. He hopes he won’t need them ever again though.

“What you feeling up to, Roommate Benrey?”

Benrey’s still leaning on the table and honestly feeling the standing begin to wear on his skeleton and energy, and looks around bleary, “Napping again…” He yawns, almost performative, but it’s contagious enough that Gordon yawns too, afterwards turning away to drink from his mug and then carry it back to the sink, “Honestly? That sounds like the best plan ever. You mind if I encroach on your sleepytimes server?”

“Multiplayer nap…” Benrey stretches, hissing when Gordon walks by him and pokes his stomach, “Fuck you.”

“Please don’t ban me I promise that was a one-off thing,” Gordon snorts in return as he heads upstairs and Benrey somehow knows it’s not. He follows.

After everything, there’s no preamble about crawling under the same covers. They’d slept similarly their first night in the halls, all in proximity with one on watch, but back then it was tile and unrelenting, jutting edges, but also Benrey wasn't what he’s growing into now. Back then he somehow saw a form of comfort, somewhere, on the hard cold floor and with the HEV suit warm but poking him along the side.

Now he knows better.

Knows there’s better things out there. Knows you can be soft and warm and held, and he holds Gordon back.

He’d been the one to usually drag Gordon along, when his leg’d been cut, looking for a medstation. He was the only one of a correct height, enough for Gordon to drape an arm around his shoulders and not have to reach too far up or down. He was also the only one besides maybe Coomer to comfortably shoulder some of the HEV suit’s weight for those hours of walking. He thinks about that for some reason, drifting off again even as Gordon sets his Pick Up Joshie alarm. His phone case is transparent with a kid’s drawing of a UFO shoved under it. Benrey swats at it because it’s taking too long and hurting his eyes and he just wants to sleep again.

“Cut it out, I can’t be late,” Gordon huffs but he’s smiling, already curling into Benrey even as he’s looking at the screen. “Benrey.”

“You’re late for the sleep is what,” Benrey yawns again, “I’ll wake you up I promise.”

“You’re gonna sleep for fifteen hours again, no way.” Gordon finally puts his phone down, glasses away, and immediately falls onto the pillow, eyes closed, “Don’t kick me in your sleep, okay bye.”

“Sleep speedrun? Damn,” Benrey finally feels the warmth get down to his bones, finally enough that maybe he’ll keep it. He lies there for a moment, listening to Gordon breathing, his heart, before reaching out for Gordon’s hand, sleepy, “Yo, check this out.”

There’s a hum as if Gordon’s brain’s booting back up, but he allows it, blinking his eyes open, “What?”

Benrey presses his hand to his chest where there’s a methodic knock, another metronome of survival.

He’s half-expecting Gordon to ask what’s wrong, since humans work off the assumption that everyone just has a heartbeat, but instead he’s greeted with a lazy smile, “Damn, software upgrade? Feels weird but that’s fucking cool. Please go to sleep.”

“Cool,” Benrey mutters, a bit lost as to how Gordon knows and what that means and why it feels off, not yet perfected to fully pass for natural. He’s drifting so the heartbeat’s bound to mess up without regulation, but that’s okay.

He has time to fix it.

 

+ 1

“Okay, that’s seven clock-oh. Yes?”

Joshie signs yes with the most concentrated look Benrey’s ever seen on a kid (he has not seen many kids).

“Yeah. So when this fool gets here,” Benrey manually moves the clock handle all the way around the dial, back to seven, “This is nine-teen now.”

They’re sitting at the counter, fully dressed, waiting, and Joshie’s looking at the clock with distrust, like that seven really shouldn’t be a nine-teen now, which Benrey agrees with wholeheartedly. But rules are rules. He slides the clock to Joshie, “That’s cause, uh, it goes around, like a uh, carousel. Circus time. So there’s an extra twelve when it’s after lunch.”

Joshie signs that he doesn’t like that at all, and Benrey sighs, “I know,” half-mindedly accompanying the words with unpolished signing of the same.

“Why’s the clock off the wall?” Gordon finally appears downstairs, buttoning his shirt, “What are we, snacking on batteries again?” he directs a very pointed glare at Benrey and approaches the table, looking over at Joshie who relays that Benrey’s teaching him about c-i-r-k-u-s hours.

Gordon picks Joshie up and casually carries him to the shoe rack, even if Joshie’s getting big for that sort of handling, “Really? What’d you learn?” And Joshie tells him all about carnivals and the number twelve and how all the numbers change after lunch-time as they pack and head out and Benrey’s tasked with both the bags, because if your friend is capable of applying their alien powers to lugging around food and drinks without issue, you can’t let it go to waste.

The park’s emptier now as it’s dipping into colder weather, more up north after a great big team-wide move away from bad memories. They see Sunkist first, galloping upfront, and then there’s the Coolattas and the Coomers and everyone’s carrying their designated contribution to the picnic, even ‘Gino’ – which still sounds weird - with a box of grape juice under his arm.

Blankets are set out as Joshie disappears to chase around with Sunkist and there’s already an argument about how the food should be set, either all in the middle or by ‘genre’ and when Bubby chips in ‘alphabetically’ that only spurs more smile-shaped shouting.

It’s good to be back in the flock of equally loud people, and Benrey says: actually the food should all be set by his mat and everyone else can just eat grass, to which Gordon immediately points out that out of them all, Benrey’s the only one who’s ever willingly eaten grass.

Bubby’s counter to this, is how about all the food be set away from Benrey’s blanket, which gets Gordon to switch sides immediately, because that means it’d be away from his blanket too. This all takes far too long but there’s exhilaration in pointless debate and in the end, it’s Joshie coming over to complain about wanting his dino-shaped sandwiches that settles the arguing.

It’s not the normal weather for a picnic, but maybe this is better. There’s thermoses of tea and coffee and Benrey patiently waits to warm his hands on a cup handed to him, the same tea Gordon makes at home, and everyone’s dressed warm except for Coomer’s cargo shorts, since the power legs keep themselves warm with the whirr of mechanics Benrey’s learned to recognize.

Darnold unpacks his new modified portable stove and they make toast, grilled cheese, and everyone’s other sandwich combinations, and Tommy passes out familiar soda, and Gordon says he’ll pass on this round because it’s the only condition Joshie accepts when told he shouldn’t have any.

They sit in a tight circle, Benrey lying while propped up on an elbow, periodically falling back to lie in Gordon’s lap while resting the shoulder joint. Joshie will occasionally come sit almost directly on Benrey before running off again, bringing back leaves and sticks that Benrey promises to keep safe and not eat.

Someone brings up the Chuck e Cheese restaurant debate again, and Gino decides to walk out on it, instead joining Joshie by the lake to look at ducks. The food’s done anyway and Coomer coerces Tommy and Darnold into playing frisbee with him (and Sunkist). Gordon turns it down when asked, or rather threatened, and Benrey’s not even inquired about it after Gordon’s denial to participate. They stay on the blankets with Bubby for a while, the two scientists lost in some discussion of a new star as Benrey zones out braiding the tassels on someone else’s duvet, occasionally tossing the frisbee back when it lands near him.

Bubby’s eventually asked to bring over the volleyball after Tommy accidentally gets the frisbee into the lake (Benrey’ll get it later), and he shoots Gordon a peace sign, saying, “Later, fuckers,” and departs to the other three. It’s overcast in a pleasant way and so maybe this time no one will blame the sun getting in their eyes for missed shots.

With the lack of conversation, Benrey tunes back in, looking up from the trail of ants he’d discovered to Gordon. He’s sitting facing slightly away, surveying everyone with not a rare but still a rather comforting look of peace. He’s in flannel again with a brown jacket over it that Benrey steals for grocery runs because it hides his hands in the sleeves and a million other reasons. Jeans with stars drawn into the thigh with ballpoint pen because they were waiting for Joshie after their new school’s movie night, because the kids were all taking their merry time to pack up, and Benrey’d started doodling them onto Gordon’s leg, and apparently they didn’t wash out. That was months ago.

Benrey reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, so caught in wanting to preserve this moment of Gordon watching over their group without the need to be on guard, simply enjoying the sight of his closest people having fun- that Benrey forgets to check if his phone’s on mute. The sound of a picture snapping is almost deafening and Gordon’s already turning around to look at him with the most shit-eating smug grin he’s never seen.

“Benrey?”

“Nothing. Nuh uh.”

And Gordon laughs and descends on him with tickles, making evil giggles as Benrey squeaks and starts struggling, “What was that huh? Taking pictures?”

“Of the sky!” Benrey tries to roll out of range but Gordon’s practically lying on him, still poking his sides, and so Benrey tries to pull him along, hopefully threatening Gordon’s clothes with rolling off the blanket and onto grass.

“Really?” Of course Gordon knows that’s a lie, Benrey’s first mistake was getting defensive, “Really? Show me, I wanna see, I just wanna see.”

“The sky is right there-” Benrey’s words come out at different pitches, interchanged with high, light sweetvoice, “Just look up, I hate you, I hate you.”

“Aw, c’mon, just show me your phone gallery dude,” Gordon’s not serious but it’s still torture because Gordon fucking knows Benrey has neat little albums on there, like for video game screenshots, and for pictures of rocks, and for pictures of Joshie, and of course, labeled Grocery Lists Do Not Look Very Boring is an album of Gordon. Some intentional pictures and some not. Pictures of Gordon where he’d asked Benrey to snap it, somewhere with Joshie, while others are taken from the side, of Gordon and Joshie cooking, covered in flour, or from the aquarium they’d gone to, bathed in blue. He prints some of them out onto polaroids and puts them into his picture books and keeps them stuffed into the back of his gaming desk.

And Gordon knows that’s there, and hasn’t said anything about it seriously ever, deciding to bully Benrey instead in bouts like these, grappling with him with no purpose in mind but to make Benrey’s life a bit more miserable even as he laughs and kicks his legs far away from Gordon to make sure he doesn’t actually hit him.

The volleyball rolls into Benrey’s line of sight and he goes to grab it, hit Gordon with it maybe, it’s the rubber inflatable kind so it’s soft, but Bubby steps on it immediately, having caught up, before pointedly kicking it in their direction.

It hits them both somehow and Gordon finally relents, still laughing, rolling off to lie on his back and catch his breath as if he was the one getting tickled.

“Fuck you,” Benrey rubs his sides as Bubby approaches to get the ball.

“Yeah, get a room you two,” Bubby snickers and kicks Benrey lightly for good measure.

Gordon and Benrey answer at the same time,

“Bubby, you know we share a room.”

and

“What are you, a real estate agent?”

respectively.

Benrey’s already planning to go for Bubby’s ankles, but before another brawl can break out, Tommy’s calling him back in for the game. So they get a fond middlefinger and flip one back in unison, safely able to be lovingly rude as Joshie’s way down the hill with Gino, both facing their backs and poking at the frog-rich lake banks.

“You guys wanna- want to join?” Tommy shouts at them and Gordon glances at Benrey, who shrugs and looks away, aware he’d rather stay here but equally aware that he’d follow Gordon if he chose to go.

But Gordon just holds up a hand to wave without sitting up from lying next to Benrey, shoulder to shoulder almost, and shouts back, “Nah, we’re good here! Thanks!”

The game resumes and Benrey hears the methodic bonk of the match, the ball being passed back and forth even though he can’t see it, instead looking up at the sky now that he’s free of persecution via tickling. He feels Gordon’s hand bump his on the blanket and reflexively slots his fingers between Gordon’s, whose hands are always somehow warm and dry and open to being held in supermarkets and on rollercoasters and lying in bed when neither are exhausted enough to sleep without nightmares.

He squeezes the hand, lolling his head over to look at Gordon, who’s already turned to Benrey, “You sure you don’t wanna go play? I can be the skimpy cheerleader to your sports-guy plot arc.”

Gordon snorts, like he hasn’t heard all of Benrey’s jokes over the years. “I like it here. How about you just be Benrey to my cool DILF plot arc, huh?”

“Gordon you can’t just say that!” Benrey sputters, severely caught off guard without fail every time any of his own vocabulary is turned against him, but Gordon’s just staring at him again, not necessarily smiling, just alert and peaceful. Benrey frowns, noticing he’s been running his thumb over the back of Gordon’s hand, “What?”

He gets an awkward half-shrug in return and then a little smile, “Don’t know, still feels weird hearing you say ‘Gordon’.”

“I don’t call you Feetman that much, it’s lost the point now that you don’t get riled up by it, tsk, lost opportunities.”

“Nah, you still do,” Gordon now smiles wider, “Among other things.”

Benrey bristles, then feels his face burn in another human mechanism he managed to pick up without consent and is now stuck with, especially around Gordon, “I called you babe once and on accident. And as a bit.”

“More like over twenty times, and somehow you still get upset over Bubby teasing you about being gay.”

“Well maybe I am and so what, huh? Calling Bubby homophobic does nothing, he’s only mean to me specifically.” Benrey whines, because it’s true and he can’t catch a break.

“He just bullied both of us- hey did you just come out?” but before Gordon can get the second part out, Benrey’s already answering the first-

“Yeah but you’re straight- what- no I didn’t- don’t look into it- who said I was gay?”

Gordon snorts, “Benrey, I’m bi- you literally just said you were gay. That and Bubby says it all the time-”

You’re what?”

And now they’re both quiet.

Benrey can hear the bonk bonk bonk of the volleyball game and the illegible shouting of its participants and the distant ducks somewhere and Sunkist panting as she runs off to their left, and the gentle sloshing of tree leaves in the autumn breeze and his own heart and Gordon’s- or not really, more like both at the same time because he never shook off the habit of using Gordon’s own for heartbeat speed references.

And then Gordon snorts and it’s like a dam breaks loose and they’re both overtaken with startled, confused laughter, and Benrey doesn’t let go of their hands, and through gasps between his silent giggles, tries to throw accusations, “Fuck you! You also just came out!” And there’s tears in his eyes cause he can’t get an inhale in, and Gordon’s shaking his hand, also laughing, and it’s a sound Benrey hears daily and would move mountains to keep it that way.

Gordon jabs a finger at a circle on his shoulder, “What do you think this is?”

Still battling cackles, Benrey shrugs, “A logo?”

“I’ve been wearing a bi flag around you for how long now huh? This is the same as having it spelled out on the jacket.”

“I can’t read colors!!” Benrey shouts back, sitting up, volume control out the window as he finally gets air, “What if I can see shrimp colors and that just looks like everything nothing to me huh?”

“Oh that’s unfair.” Gordon whines and loops his arm around Benrey’s chest to pull him back down onto the blanket, “Fuck you and your shrimp colors, I’m gonna tell National Geographic about you and they're going to confiscate you for documentary making.”

“You wouldn’t,” Benrey gasps in mock despair and god they’re both still laughing, half-fueled by adrenaline, “Who else would be your good Roommate Benrey huh? Guard your dreams at night huh? Buy you pancake mix on bad days huh? Teach Joshie how to make soap because Gordon’s ‘too busy with classes’ huh?”

This of all things seems to finally sober Gordon up, not fully, just enough to stop snorting, and he wipes his eyes under the glasses that’ve almost fogged up, grin melting into something soft, “Yeah you’re right, don’t know who else would,” and it’s like Gordon’s mastered some form of sweetvoice with that intonation and the smile and its effect on the words, because it hits Benrey with such a direct arrow of feelings he almost drowns.

“I’m here,” he says instead, and their legs have ended up intertwined, and they’re still holding hands, and they’ve had so many mornings like these, evenings too, or simply just midday sessions of lying on the couch with a movie on low volume or a laptop perched somewhere playing flashgames with w-a-s-d and arrow keys. Going from shouting at each other over water boy and fire girl coordination to dozing off, or just lying there, Gordon humming songs, Benrey listening to them distort with an ear to Gordon’s chest, next to his heartbeat, the tune of Solsbury Hill or ABBA’s Waterloo, two of which so far have ended up as songs Benrey recognized from his lists. He’s writing new ones now. And both his and Gordon’s phones have Benrey Playlists TM. And now they’re just outside in warm clothes, and Gordon’s holding him again and Benrey wants to kiss him so bad it’s illegal to get that same feeling at the crest of a rollercoaster as it begins to dip, only while looking at a person. Nah, that doesn’t cut it: while looking at Gordon. He can’t muster the courage to let go of the rollercoaster’s railing though and simply says again, “I’m here.”

“Wanna go feed the ducks?”

By the time they walk down to the lake with residual bread, Joshie and Gino are gone, back on the hill tossing sticks to Sunkist, and Gordon leads him down to the water, which Benrey almost steps in, distracted by the nearby willow. It’s old and looks somehow heavy. Gordon notices and starts dragging them there instead without question.

“Feels like we should find a secret quest here,” Benrey mumbles, separating the hanging leaves as they walk under it, “Or like a hidden cutscene.”

“Maybe the hidden cutscene was the conversation we had along the way,” Gordon chimes after him. They’re still holding hands.

“Oh huh,” Benrey stops, feeling Gordon barely dodge running into him, “Shit, you’re right.” He looks up at Gordon, “Don’t look so smug or I’ll hit skip.”

“Pff, unskippable actually.” Gordon shrugs and looks out at the water, “Wanna eat the bread instead? I won’t tell anyone.”

Of fucking course Benrey wants to eat the bread, and it’s not like he cares being seen eating the duck bread, but there’s something secret here, because that bread was specifically left for the ducks and Benrey specifically didn’t ask for it or make attempts to grab it before because he knew that it was For The Ducks, no matter how tragic- but of all people who usually enforce the rules of reason, Gordon’s winking at him and passing him the bread because he- and- it’s just-

Benrey takes it and through the first bite, almost unthinking, almost but not quite, says, “I love you.”

And Gordon snorts because it’s funny to respond to little gestures with that phrase, it’s a bit, it’s always a bit, a joke, but Benrey freezes up because he’d meant it. And Gordon’s not even aware. He’s just looking out at the obscured water and up into the willow. And all Benrey can do is stand there and chew silently, mulling it over in his head, until he’s done eating and reaches back down to take Gordon’s hand.

“No, like. Really.”

Gordon looks at him, blank and not connecting the two phrases almost three minutes apart. And Benrey dodges his eyes from the willow’s leaves to Gordon and back.

“I think I love you.”

There’s a little panic in Gordon’s face, and he blurts, “You think?” like it’s a challenge. But loving Gordon isn’t difficult.

Benrey sighs, “Dude, I used to be like a fucking glorified headcrab before I learned how to read and do math and like, hold a controller, fuck off, you think I know what love feels like, huh? Huh? Little human with a cul-tural upbringing out here bashing me for like- what? What? Stop looking at me like that, stop grinning, I love you a bit weird, I’ve got no fucking reference, okay?”

Gordon just holds his hand a bit tighter and it looks like that smile’d hurt his face with how wide it is, “I love you a bit weird too.”

“Making fun of me, what is this?” Benrey complains even as he’s pulled into a hug.

“Nah dude,” Gordon presses his nose into Benrey’s temple and it makes him feel like his knees are gooey, “I’ve got a frame of reference, and I can tell I love you a bit weird too, kinda can’t any other way what with how we met and then you deciding to be Joshie’s permanent coparent without taking me on a single date first.”

“Fuckers took my chronology, can’t have shit in Detroit,” Benrey rattles off into Gordon’s shoulder and feels it begin to shake with quiet laughter again.

Gordon pulls back and his eyes are a bit wet and he’s definitely flustered and his hands are all flitty and he definitely has things he wants to say and wow Benrey can tell all this.

So he just smiles and decides to weaponize the tactic that has so often left him absolutely gone and dead and finished. He smiles and simply says with as much genuine adoration as he can muster, which eats away at him with the instinctual habit of cringing at sincerity- he bundles all that up and just says, “Gordon.”

Gordon sputters, “What? What. What. Why’d you- What?”

“Gordon,” Benrey’s learned from Tommy how to vocally imply a neat little smiley face, he’s just loath to ever use it because it’s not his bit and bit stealing is uncool. But Gordon just gets more flustered and frowns, but he’s jittery and it’s fucking cute.

“What? Stop doing that. Don’t do that, I know what you’re doing and I hate it, stop making me burn up like that, it’s rude. Stop it.”

But Gordon can’t know what Benrey’s doing because Benrey doesn’t know what Benrey’s doing, until he’s very certain of where this is going, and he’s had months to work through this in his head a thousand times. So when he leans up on his tiptoes and kisses Gordon on the cheek, balancing himself against Gordon’s shoulders, it’s easy.

Gordon makes a string of noises and waves his hand and has to turn around for a moment because Benrey can hear he’s stopped breathing, and it’s one of the best sights in the world. And when he turns back around he gets Benrey’s face in both palms and peppers his face with kisses, starting at the forehead and getting his temples, cheeks, nose, eyelids and Benrey cackles and slaps at his arms, feeling each kiss burn into his skin with tingles. Making up for lost time. Gordon finally pecks him on the lips and then straightens back up, yet not letting go of Benrey’s face, holding his breath again with the shakiest smile.

Of all things, he just says, “You smell like bread.”

Benrey’s melting where he stands, “And you smell like my hand moisturizer, stop stealing it.”

“Baseless allegations.”

Benrey pointedly turns his face into Gordon’s left hand and makes a show of smelling the palm, “Yeah no this is definitely pear and daisies.” He punctuates the evidence by kissing the palm where his face already rests.

Gordon yanks his hand away as if seared, grinning though and instantly rambling, “Sorry, god, it’s like getting electrocuted, I promise I’ll probably get used to it and uh, yeah, you didn’t do anything wrong, just uh, surprised me, didn’t expect that.”

He’ll probably get used to it. An open invitation to do this more and later and all the time and to never stop- Benrey takes his hand again and then they’re just standing there in the willow, staring at each other like idiots, grinning, not cold at all even in this weather, even by the water.

Eventually he brings both of Gordon’s hands up and kisses the back of each, the cold of the metal pleasant against his lips as he feels his face burning, “Glad I didn’t skip this cutscene.”

And Gordon’s eyes are definitely wet, and instead of answering that, he just pulls Benrey into another hug, this one desperately strong.

“What’s up?” Benrey mumbles into the jacket, returning the intensity and listening to Gordon breathe.

“I’m glad we got you back.” He pauses, breath stuttery and Benrey knows when he’s almost crying, “Glad you came back and found us and stayed and everything. Glad we have you. Here.”

“About that,” Benrey watches the gentle lull of water, “That phone number. I told you I called Tommy’s desk.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“How the fuck did that connect?”

Gordon lessens the hold a bit but doesn’t pull away, simply draping more of his weight on Benrey, who gladly shoulders it without issue, “Tommy used to keep a burner phone on him at all times that he got to match with that number. He said it was around the only thing you had memorized.”

Benrey breathes, tries to keep it constant so Gordon can copy it and even his own back out, “Heh, m’that predictable?” He doesn’t have anything better to say. He’s been haunted by this for so long now, and he’s always forgotten to ask. Or didn’t know how to breach it. An extra phone just for his SOS signal.

“We all knew he had it on him all the time. Knew what that ringtone sounded like after the monthly tests we’d do just to make sure it was still working. Can’t listen to that song anymore cause all I think about is that year of waiting. Can’t hear that song without hearing hope or mourning, I guess.”

Benrey pushes his hands up into Gordon’s hair instead and keeps them there, “Which?”

“Bon Jovi’s Rollercoaster. Tommy said you never got to hear it on the radio but he thought you might like it. Haven’t really listened to it since.”

“Huh. Where’s that phone now?”

Gordon chuckles, “After they were sure you’d memorized Tommy’s actual phone number, he and Darnold put that thing through acid and then pressurized the remains into a mini vinyl disk. They have a whole collection of those.”

Benrey lets go as Gordon finally pulls away from the hold, “Wasn’t the issue that they don’t have a fucking record player?”

Gordon just smiles, “Yeah, I don’t even think those little discs play music.”

“Make good table coasters though,” Benrey snorts and bumps their shoulders, “Probably makes your dad-senses jealous because your coffee table’s susceptible to cup stains without those.”

“That’s all on you, Benrey.”

“Gordon.”

He feels Gordon grumble something illegible, and then turn to him, "You can't just do that, what the hell."

"What? You spent so long complaining that I call you Feetman, and now this is a problem too? Boo, everything I call my uh. Roommate? he hates it." Is there a better word? None seem right right.- but they are roommates, and good ones at that. And have been forever.

Gordon doesn't even challenge it, just swaying their hands a bit, "Yeah, well, uh, I mean I'm fine with you calling me Gordon just stop doing it like that, makes me wanna act up."

"Yeah? And do what huh? Fight me? You wanna kiss me so bad it makes you look stupid."

"I mean, kinda."

Benrey snorts quickly and resorts to his most base accusations, "That's so gay."

"Shut up."

"Wanna go kiss in front of Bubby and then pretend we're just bros hanging out no homo?"

"Oh you fucking know I do," Gordon blurts out through a grin and begins dragging them out of the willow, leaves moving along their shoulders and heads, before doing a U-turn and stopping right before they'll be visible again, "Actually, wait, one more please."

Benrey grins, "Yessir," and leans up to let Gordon steal another kiss, let him steal as many as he wants to before they have to go back- but it's not over, maybe this cutscene is, but there's so much more, and they can go home later, and everything will be the same, he'll just get to do this all the time and tell Gordon he loves him over the smallest things and call his name just to watch him get flustered, and eventually face the fact Joshie’s called him 'dad' by accident to other people, wake up in the mornings and be at home every time, and just fucking live. And for now, they can go get back at Bubby and play tag and wrap Joshie in a blanket like a burrito and ride around on Sunkist and rescue the frisbee and spend time in their huge, improvised family and just exist.

Benrey's hands are always cold.

He warms them now in Gordon's and feels the pulse's rhythm sing that they made it. Feels his face burn with the memory of newfound wonder. He's alive and real, and every single second, every single breath and laugh and kiss only hammers that point home.