Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 5

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“Oh, gross.”

Gordon watches a bird fly directly into the long, dripping tendril of a barnacle, his old friend, hanging on the underside of a walkway above them. It sticks like it’s hit flypaper. And then the tendril curls slowly, retracting itself back up to an uncomfortably fleshy (and toothy) mouth with dinner in tow. He winces as it crunches and gurgles and spits bones at his feet.

“I’m just gonna walk around that,” Gordon says slowly. He gives it a wide berth as he does. Or at least, as wide of one as he can manage, given that they’ve been squeezing their way through upturned trucks and piles of rubble for the last twenty minutes.

As it turns out, that boxcar served as a blockade, separating the train yard from what appears to be the city’s impromptu dumping grounds. Fires flicker in the hearts of rotting wooden skeletons, A-frames and shipping pallets and old tires alike tossed unceremoniously into great shambling heaps and set alight. Just for the hell of it, he supposes. They quiver and groan ominously as he bashes a path through them. And Christ, the smell - not just burning plastic, oh no, but something more fetid and metallic, growing stronger the further they worm their way in.

And now he’s got aliens to worry about, too. The bad kind. (Unless the barnacles have made a sudden heel-face turn of their own since last he saw them. He’s not putting money on that, though.)

“careful,” he hears behind him. “better watch out. don’t slip.”

His temple throbs. He takes another careful step. “I’m not gonna slip.”

“better watch your step. clumsy boy.” Benrey’s tone makes it sound like he should be grinning, like an asshole, but his face remains flat and cold. “careful. caaareful—”

“Stop that! I’m not going to!” Gordon whips around to glare at him. “Just— fucking— just stop! Stop talking to me. Stop following me. Stop saying fucking nonsense or jokes or whatever every time you— Shit!”

He’s so caught up in bitching Benrey out that he trips over a board, stumbling, swearing, and nearly skidding to the ground before he rights himself. That simmering anger cranks up to boiling, so vigorous that he can feel the lid violently bouncing on his metaphorical pot.

“I’m going to kill you. If you say anything else, I’m going to come flying at you like a fucking ape and beat you to death with brute fucking simian force.” Gordon’s voice shakes with anger.

Benrey stares back at him, silent. Gordon takes a deep breath through his nose, raising and tensing his shoulders with it. A knot in his chest loosens just the tiniest bit. Okay. He’s listening.

“You’re going to stay there. And I’m going to look for Eli’s lab. By myself. I’m not gonna have you bumblefuck around and drive me nuts the whole time,” he demands, voice occasionally pitching up with neurotic strain. He accompanies this with a lot of gesturing and pointed jabbing. “And I’m going to have a nice, normal day where I only get shot at a normal fucking amount, which is none, by the way—”

“yeah? how you gonna do that, no-gun nelson?”

Something breaks in him. Gordon screams, raising his crowbar and flying at Benrey like a literal goddamn ape.

“Fucking get back here, you— sick little—”

Benrey’s mouth turns up, and his brows and eyelids are drawn down in the smuggest expression Gordon’s ever seen on him. He backs up faster than an ordinary guy ought to be able to jog backwards, but Gordon doesn’t care - he’s swinging anyway, his blood’s throbbing nauseatingly in his head and heart, he’s so sick of this guy tailing along after him just to harass him about his fucking passport, and Benrey doesn’t even— doesn’t even belong here! He won’t even dress right for the setting!

Benrey just— followed him in here to fuck with him, again— Gordon clambers over piles of refuse and bounds after him—

-and he’s gonna kill him, he’s really gonna kill him this time, or at least he’s gonna try and it’s gonna feel really fucking good while he does—

Gordon snarls wordlessly, his sight narrows to a pinpoint - Benrey’s smug fucking face - but it’s not looking so smug when he’s gaining ground fast, he’s got a long stride and he’s so pissed he could chew concrete—

Benrey’s eyes go wide, and the way Gordon’s bones rattle when he lands a clean hit on Benrey’s stupid helmet is so solid and crisp that he goes right back for another. And another.

“ow! what the hell?”


He smacks Benrey again, with a two-handed swing like he’s wielding a baseball bat and not a meter-long bar of carbon steel. Benrey complains viciously.

“—jerking me around!”

He punctuates each word with a swing of his crowbar. Benrey throws his arms up over his face, but otherwise doesn’t move. Blood sprays out of him, just like before. He barely reacts, just like before. Gordon grits his teeth.

“what’s wrong with you?” Benrey bitches at him, nasal and whiny. “ow! bro!”

“I am not your bro!” Gordon gives him a good crack on the side of his helmet, and Benrey stumbles, air knocked out of him when he hits the ground. Good. The weight of it is satisfying. Gordon’s chest heaves, and he smiles. “I am just the poor— miserable— fucker who has to put up with you! Whatever you are, God, some kind of— fucked-up virus on my work computer, I’m gonna be in so much shit—”

“what? i’m your player 2, bro!”

He’s so unexpectedly earnest about it that Gordon stops short in the middle of his sentence. Then he comes back to himself. “Like hell!” he snaps. “You think I forgot? The last time I saw you, you tried to kill me!” He raises his crowbar high, a threat that he means good on.

Benrey shrugs. “yeah well i’m different now.”

“Oh, come on!” Gordon throws both his arms into the air and makes a loud, exasperated noise.

“and,” he continues as if he wasn’t interrupted, “i have a gun.”

Gordon stares at him as he pulls a handgun out of his holster, twirling it on a finger. And then proceeds to back away slowly. “Getting some mixed fucking messages from this one, bro!”

“calm down? you’re in crowbar-only mode,” he says, like Gordon should know what the fuck that has to do with anything.

As Gordon just continues to stare him down, mouth opening on a silent “what” and comprehension no closer to dawning, Benrey rolls his eyes and starts to talk to him real slow.

“i’m player 2. co-op. melee.” He gestures at Gordon. “ranged.” He points back at himself.

“What? No, that’s stupid. Gordon Freeman always gets guns. He has combat training. The whole fucking point is that I get the gun and shoot the guys,” Gordon says flatly. He puts his hands on his hips and looks at Benrey down his nose in disbelief.

Benrey stops fiddling with his gun, and jams it back in the holster before he hauls himself to his feet. Once he’s upright, he wipes his face with the back of his hand and looks Gordon over with a flat, critical eye. There’s a smear. An ugly bruise blossoming on his cheek. A grin, or something close enough to it that the translation suffices, baring his gums and unnervingly-straight teeth. The back of Gordon’s neck prickles all the way up to his ears. “okay. where’s your gun, big guy?”

How the fuck is he supposed to know? That’s just one of the dozen things Gordon’s had a problem with in the last eight hours. “I don’t know? Like, I just haven’t found one! I bet I will. Somewhere. This is just a, you know, tutorial section,” huffs Gordon. There’s a veneer of confidence to it as he gestures to their surroundings with a wide sweep of his arm. The sound of distant gunfire and bonfires smoldering in the refuse around them don’t help to sell his point.

“okay whatever. are you done with your baby tantrum?” Benrey sneers at him, jamming his hands in his pockets. “not my fault you suck at this game. let’s gooo. you’re keeping me waiting.”

He has the audacity to snap his fingers at Gordon and click his tongue as he steps past. Gordon makes an ugly noise of disgust. What the fuck is wrong with him? That intense swell of anger recedes back to a dull throb, an ugly kind of resentment that sticks in Gordon’s teeth. Did he do something to piss Benrey off in a past life? Is that why he’s stuck being harangued by the guy for all eternity?

Then again, he hefts his crowbar in his hand and considers it. There’s an unsettling possibility that Benrey’s being honest. Or at least that he believes the shit that comes out of his own mouth. Fool me once, shame on you, he quickly tells himself, and he shakes his head to rid himself of the thought. Fool him twice, well, he’s a little smarter than that, thanks. Gordon sets his jaw and walks back through the meandering concrete path after Benrey. They’re both heading that direction anyway. So whatever.

The ground slips underneath his boots, rain and sewage turning the earth into something more like a thick paste. It makes the grossest schlorping noises Gordon’s ever heard. He winces on each step. Benrey threads past upturned rubble, always seeming to keep just out of sight ahead of him, and Gordon kicks up his pace into a half-hearted jog. Over the sound of his footsteps, he can make out a distant siren, accompanied by a female voice. It’s hard to tell what’s being said, but he can’t imagine it’s good.

Eventually, the overpass crosses a small clearing, studded on all sides by grated entrances to pipelines, from the large to the small. So… a sewer. Or something like it, anyway. A massive culvert. With blood splattered on the far walls in great, broad streaks. From here, it still looks wet. Gordon blinks, unsettled.

Benrey hovers in front of one of the grates. Upon closer inspection, Gordon finds that he’s standing in front of a man on the other side, a man in unassuming civilian wear with his fingers wrapped tight around the bars. And Benrey’s got that gun in his hand again, staring down the barrel at him like he’s sticking him up.

“Hey! What are you doing?!” Gordon shouts at him.

Benrey’s eyes don’t move. “interrogation.”

“Hey, over here!” the man cries, catching sight of Gordon. The dark red light in the tunnel behind him casts hollows over his skull. He presses closer against the bars. “Help!”

“I’m trying! Benrey, put the gun down—”

He’s abruptly cut off by the sound of gunfire echoing down the length of the pipe. The man collapses without a struggle. Instantaneous. Gordon barely has time to process the bloodstains blooming on the front of his sweater before he hears another crack— another ping. Concrete flaking off of the rubble at his feet. With a yelp, he scrambles behind a chunk of freeway turned on its end.

“Why didn’t you shoot those guys first?” Gordon yells out, irritation creeping back into him. “Some fucking co-op this is!”

He can’t see Benrey, exactly, but he can chance a peek around the rebar, and out of the corner of his eye he spots Benrey just… standing there. Not doing anything a normal human ought to be doing when they’re being shot at. It’s a little hard to make out what he’s saying over the fucking fracas.

Duck back down. Another quick peek - and Benrey’s walking away, rounding the corner to the left.

Fuck! Gordon hisses epithets under his breath. Fresh divots dig themselves into the earth nearby. He’s just gonna have to fucking— follow him, Gordon guesses, he’s not the one with the gun, and he sucks in a long, shuddering breath through his nose before tearing across the dirt and grass.

A bullet clips the armor at his shins, and he stumbles—

But his hands scrape the earth, and he shoves himself bodily forward until he rounds the corner into the same open pipeline as Benrey. His boots scrape violently on the concrete interior. Gordon flattens himself against a curved wall, panting, lungs burning, and he listens to the distant sound of guns popping and sees only red light and he shivers like a foal. His leg feels like it’s been punched. Through cotton, he hears another couple of bangs in quick succession, echoing down the pipe. His head turns to look.

Benrey stands over a slumped form, black and white and red. He puts another bullet in its skull. It jerks. He turns his head and catches Gordon’s eye, and there’s nothing there, features smeared out to heavy black blobs under the low red light, and Gordon’s heart thuds suddenly, violently—

“It’s Gordon! Not a cop!” Gordon hollers down the pipe.

The walls shudder around him. Benrey looks at him for a long moment, then makes an obnoxious kiss noise and walks away from him down the pipe. An exasperated laugh punches out of him. If he keeps psyching himself out like this, he’s gonna give himself a heart attack. (Logically, he knows this. Physically, if he knew how to stop choking on his own heartbeat, he would have fucking done it already.)

The pipeline leads to a small concrete access room, lit only by a few sulfur-yellow maintenance bulbs mounted to the wall. One illuminates a pile of cardboard boxes in various states of assembly, their contents dumped on the floor and the whole lot looking… stomped upon. Judging by the bootprints on the cardboard, anyway. Another hangs next to a ladder on the far side of the room, leading upwards. Underneath, there’s a table, a wooden chair. A transistor radio with a low buzz and a glowing red light on the front panel. The last dangles over a couch.

“Wait— Is that a couch?” Gordon blurts out.

That it is. An entire fucking couch, threadbare and a dull, dirty red, having been hauled all the way into the sewers. All things considered, though, it looks a lot nicer than its surroundings - the walls drip with decades of damp and deposition, the concrete floor is mostly occluded at this point by dirt and garbage, and the thick iron grates separating them from the outside world afford the pleasant view of a enormous, bloodstained sewer-cum-dump. (Oh, that sounds disgusting. He can’t tell anybody he thought those words in that order.) Regardless, it’s the softest thing he’s seen to park his ass on all day, and he beelines to the couch before he’s even aware his legs are moving.

“Okay. Take five,” Gordon says, abruptly dropping onto a cushion. The frame groans under the combined weight of him and the HEV suit, and he groans with it, things popping in his musculature that he didn’t know could pop in the first place. “God, that feels nice. I haven’t had a chance to sit down in hours!”

He stretches his legs out in front of himself, then his arms. And then, finally, he collapses backwards, arms sprawled out over the back of the couch. Honestly, he didn’t realize how fucking sore he was until he got off his feet, but now that he’s aware of it, he finds it very hard not to pay attention to it. Like the polar bear thing. Try not to think of a polar bear, right? You can’t. His head lolls back to stare at the ceiling. And then, after waiting for a moment and hearing… nothing, he squints suspiciously in Benrey’s direction. Where he’s just kind of standing there.

“What are you looking at?”

Benrey stares back at him. He can barely make out anything under the shadow of Benrey’s helmet, except for a thin sliver of light where his eyes reflect the glow of the bulbs. An uncharacteristically long pause draws out between them before Benrey’s gears grind enough to move him forward in the conversation.


“You know what? Don’t worry about it. Gordon’s in a good mood right now,” Gordon says. The best part is, he might even believe it.

A thought occurs to him, and he straightens in his seat.

“Hey, Benrey.”

Benrey tucks his thumbs in his pockets. “what.”

“If I ask you a question right now, are you gonna be a dick about it?”

“maybe,” Benrey mumbles, squaring his shoulders defensively. “maybe not. what do you care.”

Gordon takes a deep breath through his nose, sits forward properly, then claps his hands together. Not gonna lose his cool. He’s cool. He’s in a good mood. “Fine! Fine. I’m just gonna ask anyway,” Gordon declares. If he doesn’t get a coherent answer, well, at least he tried. And he’s breaking even, in the grand scheme of things. He looks at Benrey, head-on, elbows on his knees. “So. I’ve noticed that you’re here.”


“And none of the others are here. No Coomer, no Bubby…”

“nope.” He pops the ‘p’, hard. Then tilts his head to the side. Just a little.

Okay. He’s led the proverbial horse to the watering hole. Gordon waits to see if he’ll follow up on his own, but nothing is forthcoming. Maybe he needs a firm shove.

“…Why is that? Where are they?” Gordon prompts Benrey at last.

Benrey makes a dismissive sound and steps closer. Close enough to the radius of yellow light that Gordon can make out his face. “i dunno. they threw tommy a pizza party,” he says. He glances to the side, rubbing the back of his helmet. There’s a weird sulk to his voice as he continues, “wasn’t invited. didn’t see you there, either… sucked. i went home to play street fighter cross tekken,” looking more at the wall next to Gordon than Gordon himself.

Gordon’s eyebrows draw together as he processes this. His mouth runs before his brain finishes the job, though, and he blurts out, “‘Cross’ Tekken? What the fuck is ‘cross’ Tekken? I’ve played Street Fighter ecks Tekken, not—”

“’ecks’ tekken?” Benrey mimics him, equally incredulous and spitting with laughter. “what the fuck? did— did you not… ever… did the cashier at gamestop not fuckin’ tell you—”

“I don’t talk to cashiers at GameStop, Benrey! I just get my games and leave!”

“you don’t even— like, try to make conversation? i met my best friend… gunsler. at gamestop.”

Gordon sputters. “G-Gun— Ahaha, you— God, this is,” he gasps, unable to keep laughter out of his voice due to sheer disbelief, “the most insane conversation I have had today, why would I— I don’t make conversation because I just wanna get my shit and go, man! I don’t want fucking Gunsler from GameStop to hang out with me after work!”

“cashiers are people too, bro,” Benrey says, chiding him. “and i just wanna play games with people, man. gunsler’s… uncle… works at capcom, he taught me all the secret moves.”

“Oh, yeah, and my dad works at Nintendo.” Gordon snorts and rolls his eyes.

“maybe you should have asked him how to do the secret moves. like… electric wind… god fist. or the super that gets you invited to birthday parties.”

“Hey! I bet you didn’t even go in! You wouldn’t know… I bet they were gonna look for me,” insists Gordon, more for his own comfort than Benrey’s. He sits back in the cushions. “At least they’re okay. And you didn’t fucking… blow them up, or whatever.”

Benrey’s eyebrows raise so high that they disappear under the shadow of his helmet. “why would i do that? you want me to blow them up?” he counters. He sounds almost… incredulous, like he can’t believe Gordon would suggest such a thing.

“What? No!”

“gordon freeman’s got a sick and twisted mind,” he goes on, sauntering around the couch. His lip curls. Under the pallid glow of the bulb above, Benrey looks for all the world like a detective circling around an interrogation table. “maybe that’s why you got brought here. gordon meanman. bein’ so mean to your friends?”

Gordon rears back his head in offense. “How am I being mean?! I’m, like, worried about them! In case you haven’t noticed!” The slow, deliberate clomp of boots on concrete sets him on edge, tension lacing through his shoulders and yanking itself tight. He turns his head to follow Benrey, keeping him in his line of sight at all times, then says, “And that doesn’t explain why you’re here! Did you— You said you didn’t—”

He didn’t see Gordon there. He left. And now he’s here, wherever “here” is.

“Did you come here to look for me?” Gordon finally asks. His voice cracks a little, and he wants to die. A little.

That gets Benrey to stop fucking circling around him. And to give him a laborious eye roll. Why is he the one playing cop when Gordon’s the one asking the questions? “uh, duh. i said that like two chapters ago,” says Benrey.

“What the fuck are you talking about— No, never mind, don’t answer that,” he says. He doesn’t know what to say to this information, so he defaults to ‘general irritation’ while he processes it.

“you’re welcome. by the way.”

And now, despite himself, he feels kind of bad about it. Embarrassment prickles at the back of Gordon’s neck. “Yeah, well,” he starts, drawing it out to work his way up to saying something nice, “thanks. I guess. At least somebody gives a shit about me being, like… I don’t know. Kidnapped? Did G-Man kidnap me?”

Benrey looks at him blankly and shrugs. It’s a look that Gordon’s already grown intimately familiar with - the look of his mental track about to skip, boredom or distraction or whatever the fuck it is in his head that makes him tune out. But he’s finally getting some answers! Benrey can’t just drop conversations whenever he fucking feels like it, okay, not when new questions are sprouting in his mind faster than he can keep up with them!

Gordon attempts to jam his crowbar into the closing door that is their conversation before he loses Benrey’s attention entirely, but he doesn’t get to say much before he’s drowned out by… a droning. Stomping. Mechanical speech. He jerks up from his seat, one hand clenched tight around his crowbar.

Two slick black eyepieces peer down the exit of the ladder, and a voice buzzes threateningly at him.

“Up top!” he calls to Benrey.

“aw, look at him tryin’ to climb down… so fuckin’ goofy,” Benrey says distantly, as he lines up his sights and pulls back his trigger finger—


The bang roars through the enclosed space. Gordon’s hands clap over his ears again, his eyes winched shut. The Combine grunt flatlines and drops to the ground, its white helmet thunking against the rungs of the ladder he was just hanging on. Dumbfounded, Gordon cracks an eye open to peer at Benrey, who blows smoke off the tip of his handgun like he’s some kind of fucking desperado.

“Why is that so fucking loud?” Gordon raises his voice so he can hear himself over the buzzing in his ears. And his hands covering them.

Benrey gives him a flat look before fitting his gun back in its holster. “guns loud?”

“Yeah, but the audio balancing sucks!” He shakes his head furiously like a dog shedding water, trying to shake the tinnitus out of himself. For some reason, it helps.

Benrey doesn’t say anything. He just raises his eyebrows, making him look confused and irritated and a little fucking judgmental all at the same time. Gordon doesn’t know what that’s about. He’s too busy jamming his fingers in his ears. There’s a faint, whining hiss at the edge of his hearing…

“Station Twelve, come in. Station Twelve, do you read?”

Oh. It resolves itself into the radio, now broadcasting a tinny voice. The radio itself is old and dusty, a relic from a time that predated even Gordon. Unsurprisingly, Benrey doesn’t seem to immediately know what to make of it, and the voice warbles as he places a hand on either side and gives it a soft jostle. Something metallic clinks inside. He leans down to listen closer, as if that will somehow help.

“This is Station 8! We heard 12 go down and out. Surgical strike units are targeting railway stations. Repeat, Civil Protection is coming down on underground stations. We're already getting refugees from 9 and outlying! Looks like we're—”

Gordon lifts an eyebrow as he watches Benrey dust his hands off on his vest, then reach for one of the knobs. The woman pleading through the speakers grows louder, then fainter, then loud again. Benrey’s tongue pokes out between his teeth and his head tilts like a bewildered dog.

“Station 8, do you copy? Station 8, are you there? We have confirmed reports of manhacks. Repeat: they're filling the underground wi—”

The radio falls silent as the volume is cranked down to almost nothing. With a firm nod, Benrey reaches for his gun again, and Gordon doesn’t even realize what it is he’s doing - or thinking - before he’s pointing it at the radio and firing and shattering the fucking thing to pieces. Every muscle in Gordon’s body tenses as he leaps from the couch, knees bent and ready to sprint.

“What the fuck?!”

When he looks up at Benrey, he sees the guard’s mouth is pursed to the side. He shakes his head forlornly in an uncanny way that reads as bad acting.

“oh,” he says plainly. “that didn’t work. very sucks.”

“What made you think it would work?” Gordon snaps after the last echo dies in the pipe behind them.

“uh… settings. knobs. tried to make it balanced but, uhh… it’s kinda fucked, yeah.”

“You don’t always have to shoot your problems, man!” Gordon says hoarsely, pushing his hair back with a hand.

He doesn’t get much of a chance to worry about it, though, before the now-familiar sound of radio chatter approaches from up top. Boots. And, after a quiet moment, robotic whirring and clicking. Guns in the distance are locked and loaded, and every hair on the back of Gordon’s neck stands on end.

He should have known there would be more of them. They can’t stop shooting at things or blowing shit up long enough to shake their attention!

Benrey seems unfazed, however, scratching the side of his nose. Anxiety seizes him as he paces quickly back and forth - almost hopping between points - because he just wants a break, man, the sun’s fading outside and he hasn’t slept in days and everything keeps being too fucking loud and too fucking close but he doesn’t know where to stop, so he’s just gonna climb up the ladder and get it over with so he can pause and take a nap.

But being outside, everything is louder, and brighter, too, when one of those goddamn flying camera drones swoops down like a hawk and flashes right in his eyes. He stumbles forward with a curse and swings his crowbar in a wide arc, cracking against its chassis but also knocking himself off balance. He staggers into something large and solid and grumbly, and then nearly falls forward against something harder and smoother.
There’s a gong-like sound as Gordon knocks a half-full gas drum over, and it snaps him back to where he is. What he’s doing. The sky is black, the earth is ruined, and he is standing on top of a concrete platform like a sitting duck.

Well, a small barricade notwithstanding. Those Combine must have been stationed up here, keeping watch from behind a barrier of thick not-glass - something cold and slick and vaguely ice-like that projectiles bounce off of with a strange, metallic sound. It doesn’t sound right for the substance. Benrey stands behind him, scowling at little flying robots that click and dart around his head, shielding his face behind his arm and flashing what appears to be his passport at the lenses.

“i have my identification? please stand down.”

Meanwhile, beneath him, hiding behind whatever scant cover the environment provides, are Combine. They look like ants, being so far down. They’re on their knees, kneeling in the mud, once-pristine black uniforms smeared with gunk. There’s a pause as they steady their aim, a calm before the storm. It lasts approximately three seconds before another wave of fire rips past him.

Bullets plink off of Gordon’s suit as he dives behind the barricade, nearly hitting his head on some weird metal thing that’s mounted on its rim. A weapon of some kind. It’s more angular and featureless than he’s used to. His breath comes out in ragged gasps as he watches the blurred, distorted figures through his cover.

The figures he saw earlier seem to multiply as he watches silhouettes spring out from around corners and distant darkness and feels something whiz by the top of his head. He shrinks down further into the ground and curses, looking back to Benrey for any hint of aid, and—

—Nope. No, he’s still trying to make the flying cameras read his passport. Goddammit.

Gordon looks up at the vaguely weapon-ish item beside him and bites his lip, swiping a sweaty strand of hair from his face. Most guns have triggers of some kind, and this one’s no different. And amidst indecipherable vocoder threats, he decides to give it a tug. Just to see. Just to check.

There’s a loud whirring sound, a flash of blue and yellow light, and he squawks in alarm as the gun kicks back like a spooked horse. But he hears something flatline and, looking through the not-glass, he sees that one of the soldiers has fallen face-first into the mud. For the first time, he hears something he can understand being uttered through the Combine radios.

“Officer down!”

Then some numbers. Then a plea for help.

Time seems to slow. A smile tugs at Gordon’s lips. Across the way, he sees Benrey standing in a flock of drones, squinting at him while being peppered with flashes by the fascist paparazzi. There is a silent understanding between them, he thinks, or maybe he just wants to think there’s an understanding. An understanding that Gordon is in control and about to save the day.

Either way, Gordon finds himself filled with red-hot adrenaline and a switch in his head flips as he rises from the ground and grips the mounted gun with both hands. It swivels easily as he slings it from side to side, and a quick press of the trigger sees the space between him and his enemies fill with lead. Or plasma. Or whatever alien ammunition was loaded into this fucking space gun. It’s impossible to tell from sound or sight alone, technicolor flashes and a not-quite-mechanical whirring mowing down white helmets as soon as they pop up.

“Oh, this is awesome!” he laughs, high with surprise.

He glances over his shoulder to make sure Benrey is watching, and grins when he sees his unwanted companion looking back. Combine chatter and robotic screeching rings between the canal walls. Gordon laughs raucously as he figures out the pattern of their approach, dark forms subsumed by skyscraper shadows and exposed only by the glint of fire on their helmets.

“C’mon, bootboys! Come out here! I’m waiting!”

He watches with sadistic glee as cops run out into the open and are cut down like saplings, stumbling and crunching and sagging. He cheers as stray shots cut down wooden platforms and set off exploding barrels, and he cackles as one of the camera bots bumbling toward his head bursts into flames and plummets out of the air.

There’s other sounds, too, sounds he can’t place. Something like tumbling metal and liquid sloshing, something like the crunch of electronics and Benrey’s voice yelling about points. Shrieking tires on slick asphalt. There’s a lot of flashing and exploding going on in his vicinity, you know, it’s hard to keep track. A helmet pokes out of an access tunnel, and Gordon makes a buzzing sound with his teeth as he pulls the trigger. It’s a little like whack-a-mole.

Benrey whoops, but it’s almost lost amidst an explosion beneath him. He watches one of the Combine ragdoll and twist in the air, and barks insults and threats down at the remaining Combine like he’s channeling his inner eleven-year-old on Xbox Live. He’s somewhere between bragging about how far he can piss and inventing new fuck-inclusive compound words when Benrey yells louder, cutting through the noise.

“hey, john rambo, your fuckin’ uhh… port. starboard.”

Gordon tightens his grip on the gun, his knuckles turning white.

“bro. your directions. five o’clock!”

His eyebrows furrow. He tears his eyes away from the field to yell something back. A white light spirals dizzily toward him, its haggard loops almost in slow motion, and he drops to the ground on instinct.

Something explodes and a wave of heat rushes up his face. His gaze is drawn back to what once was an alien turret. It’s all smoldering now, bent metal surrounded in shards of shattered not-glass, and a trail of smoke leads his gaze up and out to an overpass where he spots the strangest armored vehicle he’s ever seen in his life. Sleek and gunmetal black and positively featureless, its form only identifiable by slick blue moonlight playing off its edges; he can’t tell how anyone can get in it, let alone drive it. The frame reminds him of old-timey automobiles in black-and-white films, though, and the combination of “future” and “past” make it an unsettling and awkward sight.

More unsettling is the loud “thwoomp” sound it emits as another rocket fires from some unseen launcher hidden on its exterior. It loops heavily in the air, and, by some miracle, hits the ground yards from where they stand. The earth quakes from the impact all the way up to their little concrete platform. Mud and debris splatter across the concrete walls. It provides all the incentive Gordon needs to shakily climb to his feet and stop playing the fucking hero.

“ow,” Benrey says matter-of-factly.

He about-faces like a soldier and he jogs away, too fast, feet kicking up like a fucking cartoon, hopping up onto a ledge and following it to the other side of the culvert. In seconds, he’s gone, vanished into the dark. And Gordon - not wanting to be ditched - scrambles after him.

Up and across, ignoring the sound of crumbling cement and a loud “boom” that thunders from where he just stood. Past splatters of blood and suspiciously human-like shapes on the ground below, still and dark, and a towering wall of junked cars. Gordon slides down their hoods, metal grinding and skidding. On the other side, he zigzags through a maze of concrete pipes and hungry barnacles, splintered wood and ankle-deep mud.

“Benrey!” he hisses, a loud whisper that echoes around him. “Benrey, where are you?”

He squints against the glare of a distant searchlight, but it glances over him, bouncing off the pale, chalky brick of the canals. The blurry silhouettes of tenements tower over the scene like twisted gods, hulking and crumbling against a blue-studded backdrop. He sucks in air between his teeth and cranes his neck to get a better look around, before promptly tripping over another fucking pile of boards.

“Benrey! Benrey— Fuck! Ow! This isn’t funny!”

A voice answers him, and he feels a jolt in his chest that subsides the moment he realizes that it’s not the voice he expected. It’s livelier, and definitely female.

“Hey, over here!”

Gordon’s brows furrow as he follows the sound, and he stops when he sees a hand sticking out of a massive, dislodged concrete pipe. It’s dainty and, again, definitely female. The nails are cut short and polished to a fine sheen. Weird.

He turns to follow the arm into the shade of the pipe and blinks at the sight of a woman, kneeling in the dark. She’s pretty but dirty, her hair tied back and greasy, her disheveled button-up shirt coated in grime and blood. A sheen of sweat covers her face and her eyes are intense to a degree that makes a shiver run up Gordon’s spine.

He opens his mouth to speak, but she cuts him off. Her voice is shaking but determined. Pointed, like a dagger.

“Keep going, friend! That station was raided but there’s others up ahead.”

“Hey, yeah, have you seen my— uh, this security guard guy, he was in front of—”

She cuts him off again, with a furious hand gesture. He can’t help but flinch. “Go! You can’t be seen out here!”

“Yeah, but—”

“I’m serious! Go! I have to stay here, and you’re— you’re threatening the whole railway!” she spits out. With that, she shrinks back into the recesses of the pipe, out of sight. Gordon tries to peer inside, but to no avail.

Okay. Weird. He rubs the back of his neck, where it’s hot with self-consciousness even though he doesn’t think he’s done anything. And it kind of pisses him off. But whatever. Gordon follows the woman’s lead, slipping into the sewer main across the way. It’s not long before the faint city light outside dies away, leaving him in total darkness. He shivers. This suit has to have some kind of flashlight, right? He fiddles with buttons in the dark, hunting down a switch among the many dozens embedded in the armor. Most do nothing, at least, nothing that he can see. One sets a panel on his arm aglow. There’s a blue bar, a hair past empty. That seems good. Another kickstarts a motor, then a curious vibrating around his middle, and—

Oh, fuck no, he thinks desperately as he smashes that button in a bid to turn it off. Why did they keep that function?!

Eventually, he finds the right switch on his chest panel, and he can see that… he’s still in a pipe. And he can’t see the end, neither before nor behind. How long is this thing? Step after careful step echoes wetly in the cavernous space. He’d be a little less unnerved if he wasn’t expecting Benrey to pop in through the wall at any moment, he tells himself furiously. If he watches his feet, it’s easier not to see the walls, shrinking and tensing in the harsh light.

An unknowable amount of time passes before the mouth opens up into another cistern, this one filled to the brim with water and lit only by slivers of light through the massive grate above. Boots stomp and mechanical vocoders buzz just out of earshot. Gordon stares up at them. Then, in the darkness, one stares back. His heart leaps into his throat, and he fumbles— where’s the switch, where’s the fucking switch—

It looks down the grate for a long moment, then mutters something into its lapel and walks away. A long, shuddering breath forces itself out of him.

Gordon can’t see very well, but he makes an attempt to feel around the wall of the cistern for a ledge. A ladder. Something. He comes away fruitless and frustrated. They’re really gonna make him go through the water, huh? Christ. And he can’t even tell how deep it is down there, not like this. Cold adrenaline surges through his chest and fingertips. Well, he’ll just, uh, scoot right up to the edge, and dip his toes in, see how far it goes…


He slips, not used to balancing the weight of the suit, and his legs give way and he plunges into the water. His head bursts out not a moment later, gasping, choking—

Oh, and a flashlight stops at the edge of the grate, doubles back to point right at Gordon’s blurry, wet glasses as he haphazardly treads water toward the other side of the basin. He wants to yell so badly he feels his temples throb.

Gordon’s so keenly aware of the heavy, sucking noise the water makes around him as he sloughs himself out of it, hauling himself into the mouth of yet another pipe, and judging by the angry droning above him, his friends have become aware of it, too. He barely has a moment to wipe his face off before they’re rolling barrels across the metal bars, their walls spouting with fire. And dropping them into the basin with him. Gordon watches them bob in the water, mesmerized and dizzy, before reason catches up with him and gives him a firm slap in the face. They’re gonna blow!

Gordon bolts— “Shit, shit, shit!” he stammers—

And he puts as much space between himself and the barrels as he can manage before they go off, which isn’t actually that much, since heat still roars across the back of his neck and he stumbles and swears, but—

But he can pick himself up and keep running, the one saving grace of the bunny rabbit, even with his legs aching and his heart thundering. And he runs until he hits another cistern, drier and filthier than the last, and he leaps onto a discarded industrial spool that floats in it before the idea gets all the way up to his brain. It bobs and sinks, but not before he scrambles to a wooden pallet, half its boards long busted. Stagnant water crawls up his legs, and he shudders. At least from there, he can springboard himself the couple of feet to the other edge without getting it in his hair.


Grunts above him fire their pistols directly into the grate, and he fumbles the execution. Jesus! He got some of it on his fucking face, but at least they missed, he thinks bitterly. They’re firing wide, not able to actually see him but aware that there’s some poor bastard down there. And they're feeling lucky.

An iron grate on the wall before him looks like it’s been busted open from the inside. “What the fuck is going on down here?” he mouths, incredulous.

He drops down from the open sewer into a long, narrow alley, drier than the last. And filled with more junk than sewage. He doesn’t understand the layout of this place, like, mentally, he’s been going in circles for so long and he doesn’t know what the purpose of any of this shit is. Tunnels and basins and culverts and— and who fucking cares?! It’s just scenery, the backdrop! Actors don’t treat the set like it has to make sense, you know, that the stores don’t have real cashiers and the streets just open up into Paramount Pictures.

All the rationalizing in the world doesn’t stop his heart from racing. It’d be easier to figure out where to go if it did.

And, on the ground near him, there’s Benrey. Sitting on a chunk of concrete and making clucking noises at a pigeon. Gordon can’t decide whether to be relieved or frustrated. “Whatcha, whatcha got there, bud?”

“makin’ friends.” He reaches out to try to touch it, but it flutters backwards before he can reach it.

“Yeah, well, look alive, man. There’s a whole bunch of guys up ahead, and they seem like they’re gonna be real fuckin’ pissed when they catch up to us,” he tells Benrey. He can see them moving on the overpass, hopping down ledges and closing in on them. They can’t catch a break.


Gordon shakes his head. “Don’t even sweat it,” he says, rolling his shoulders. “I’m just gonna… uh, I’m just gonna book it, I think? I’m getting real tired of these guys.”

Benrey can dick around if he wants. Like he seems to care much about sticking around Gordon, anyway. Some Player 2 that makes him. It’s a little uncharitable, but he watches Benrey flick pebbles at a pigeon while the sound of garbled, mechanical speech grows ever louder and he doesn’t feel so bad. There’s only two ways forward that he can see from here, one directly ahead and one branching to the right. Something feels good about the right-most one. He bounces on the heels of his feet, peeking out from behind the rubble, and decides that that’s where he’s looking whether Benrey likes it or not.

And so Gordon bursts out of hiding, skidding on his heels as he peels abruptly to the right. The Combine peppering the alley break out in surprised chatter. There’s a disappointed “oh, what?” from behind him, but at this point, he just wants to get through all this shit and call it done. Take a breather.

Easier said than done - the right only takes him to a dead end! Gordon skids face-first into a Combine soldier who seems just as surprised to see him as Gordon is. He’s got the benefit of half a second more reaction time, though, and he swings his crowbar up in its general jaw direction.

The solid “thunk” of metal on plastic rushes through his veins. The guy goes down with a wet gurgle. His heart’s pounding, yeah, but for once it feels exciting. (He’s always had a hard time distinguishing between fear and thrill, courtesy of a weapons-grade anxiety disorder.) Across the way, the others start to fire, but he’s got a crowbar and only one way forward and he careens toward the next fucker dumb enough to stand in his way. Thunk— something flatlines, piercing and loud, as he whales on it. Makes a nice bodyshield for a bullet that would otherwise have found a home in his sternum. Instead, the dying Combine jerks, slumping over onto him, and the heart pounding takes a nosedive back into “fear” territory. Gordon shoves it away with a loud, distressed sound.

More soldiers file onto the walkways above the ditch, taking shots like they’re shooting fish in a barrel. And he’s the fish. He doesn’t see any way up - the walls are smooth concrete, easily twice his height, and an abandoned dumpster or an upturned semi provides only brief cover, not a feasible escape plan. And they’ve boarded up the end of the alley, a makeshift barricade of wooden planks and tires and barrels and God knows what else with Combine beginning to swarm atop it, so many ants firing on his position that he doesn’t know how he’s gonna get himself out of this fucking dead end without turning into Swiss cheese.

Oh, this was stupid, he moans in his own head. And he’s about to make an even stupider decision on impulse.

“Hey, Benrey! Over here!” he hollers over the hail of bullets.

Gordon can’t hear anything in response, so he presses himself against the side of a dumpster and waits, heart pounding in his throat. But the longer he waits, the more irritation bubbles up in him. Stupid. Usually, whenever Benrey runs out and does something stupid before Gordon catches up with him, it works out, right? And now he’s gonna die out here, alone, because the rules are just different for Gordon Freeman—

He hears, suddenly, another flatlining sound. And then another. The wave of fire on Gordon’s position falters. Oh, thank God, he’s actually paying attention!

In the distance, Benrey’s voice rings out, “yo, i’m gonna… kill you,” voice low and harsh in an attempt at malevolence.

Gordon snorts with laughter. He’s trying way too hard, and he sounds like a kid pretending to be the bad guy. Gordon can’t help peeking around, and he spies Benrey tucked into an alcove across from him, leaning out to take potshots at the Combine. He’s remarkably accurate, considering how lazily he fires.

Benrey catches his eye, and he perks up. “watch this,” he calls out to Gordon, before shooting somewhere at the base of the barricade.

It’s impossible to tell from here what the fuck he’s doing, since it’s too dark to see what, exactly, he’s shooting at, but before he knows it, a light flickers at the bottom. Then more of them. Flames, tiny and orange, licking at the bottom of what Gordon is slowly realizing is a cluster of flammable orange barrels, all haphazardly jammed into holes where the planks don’t reach. Oh. That seems… bad. For them.

He only has time enough to mouth the words “oh, shit” before the first barrel goes off with a bang. And then the second, and the third, and Gordon claps his hands over his ears again as the whole structure ruptures from the bottom out in a violent explosion!

Combine soldiers ragdoll outwards, spinning in the air with their arms and legs akimbo. And Gordon howls with laughter, doubled over onto his knees.

After the barricade collapses, planks tumbling to the ground, the alley goes strangely quiet. No more vocoder buzzing. No more heart rate monitors flatlining in the dead of night. Just the distant sound of fires smoldering and the kind of thick silence you only get in wet, humid air like this. Gordon chances a step out from behind the dumpster. As far as he can see, that took care of the last of them. He sucks in a deep breath through his nose, regrets it immediately upon registering the smell, and lets it out again.

Just past the barricade, the alley ends in concrete. Again. And another dank little pipeline, this one nearly blocked in by a mound of dirt and leaving behind only a thin sliver of room. For them to crawl through, presumably. Gordon groans.

“Dude, I am so sick of the fucking sewers,” he bitches, looking back at Benrey as if he’ll have any insight.

He doesn’t. He just glances back, bored, and examines his fingernails. They’re… painted, Gordon notices. Black. Since when? “thought you’d like it,” he says after a moment. “since you were born here. sewer boy.”

Gordon doesn’t know what to make of that, but his first reaction is incredulous, vaguely-offended laughter. “Ha, ha, very funny. I was born in Ohio, actually, so you’re not that far off.”

He steels himself to crawling up that mound and shimmying through that sliver of open pipeline on his belly, knocking over barrels jammed in the entry. They tumble and roll down a gentle, slick slope, wet with refuse, until one hits a tendril up ahead that dangles from the ceiling. It twitches and curls. Then it slowly tugs the barrel up. Gordon’s struck by the sudden, unpleasant mental imagery of the same being done to him.

The pathway opens up a little once he’s gotten himself through, the ceiling not quite high enough to stand, but enough that he can at least get up off his belly and fruitlessly wipe slime from his front. The ground slips under his feet. Gordon skids forward against his will, and he shoves his arms out in an attempt to balance himself and hoots in surprise. He doesn’t hit the wall opposite, just barely. But it’s like trying to fight against a slip and slide to stay upright, and Gordon swears upon everything he holds dear, if he falls over and eats shit again he’s going to blow a gasket.

Fortunately, he doesn’t. He instead staggers upright, using a nearby orange barrel to steady himself, and he has an idea.

“Hey, I bet I could, like, feed these barrels to the barnacles! And then you could shoot ‘em, and they’d all fuckin’,” Gordon trails off, making an exploding sound with his mouth.

“wha? oh, yeah. cool.” Benrey blinks, registering only part of this, and shoots the barrel Gordon’s leaning on.

“Fucking— Hot!” Gordon kicks the barrel away, and it rolls further down the tunnel into a roiling mass of tentacles. They flinch away from the heat, but can’t stop themselves from wrapping around it, hungry and oblivious. “Stop doing that!”

A few taut seconds pass, the barrel tugged higher and higher, before the burning barrel explodes in their grip. A dozen barnacles spew their insides in unison.

“but you told me to shoot it.”

“Yeah, after I kicked it!”

Benrey huffs and jams his hands in his pockets, but doesn’t say anything else.

Underneath the wealth of dead barnacles, they find a body, or most of one, anyway. It’s still clothed in a blue jumpsuit, but the extremities have been chewed into nothing. Their interiors are such a wet, blackened red that it stops Gordon short. He peers closer, squatting. A shudder runs all the way down his spine. Some horrible thing in his head whispers for him to touch it, see if it feels as real as it looks. But he’d like to emphasize that he doesn’t listen to most of the shit that comes down from up top, because, uh, he’s not in the habit of touching dead bodies! He’s not gonna be that guy!

Instead, Gordon very firmly smashes open the crates it’s slumped over next to, making sure to carefully nudge the body away with his crowbar first. One of them holds a couple of glowing blue canisters, sleek metal threaded with teal lights. Gordon’s not entirely sure what they are, but they’re heavy, and a moment’s fiddling reveals a screw-top lid. They hiss upon opening.

“Okay, well, this hasn’t killed me yet, so,” Gordon starts, talking as if Benrey is paying him any attention. The guy turns around just in time to see him taking a drink out of the canister, but too late to stop him. If Benrey was so inclined. Which, judging by the way he laughs, he isn’t, and he’s content to watch Gordon make really stupid decisions.

“are you drinking a battery?”

Gordon swallows, hard. “What? It’s a fucking soda, man. It tastes like… blue raspberry something.” He thrusts the can out toward Benrey, who wrinkles his nose. “Taste it!”


He presses the can against Benrey’s face. And he doesn’t expect Benrey to mutter “ow” with his face all smushed under Gordon’s hand. It’s… very… realistic. It’s got. Verisimilitude. And when Benrey tilts his jaw to grab an obnoxiously-loud sip anyway, it takes him a second to drop his hand after and go back to nursing an awkward, embarrassed drink himself.

“whoa… nice. gimme one,” Benrey says. He grabs the other before Gordon can stop him.

Whatever the deal is, it tastes pretty good. And that little faltering blue meter on his suit ticks up.

The path ahead narrows again, half the tunnel having caved in before they got there. Gordon squeezes through a tight opening in the wall, crawling and grunting and shaking with the effort of making himself as small as possible. And he’s rewarded for the effort by an immediate drop into a body of water.

He gasps, spluttering. And he realizes he’s outside. The water stretches from this inlet to a point in the distance that Gordon can’t make out. A figure on a walkway above mutters something low and garbled, and Gordon cranes his head and tentatively treads his way to the other end of the channel, tension tight in his chest as he hopes that, maybe, they’re not muttering something about him. Those hopes are dashed when flaming barrels roll from the walkway into the water. Where they bob on the surface just a stone’s throw away. They’re on all sides, and the water does nothing to slow the persistent hiss of combusting gasoline.

Ice pounds in his veins. There’s only one way to go - down!

Gordon sucks in a desperate breath and dives under the surface. The coldness of it shocks him, where it crawls into the neck of his suit - he can’t feel it through the rest of the HEV suit. It’s dark, so dark, he can’t see the bottom where all the muck’s been kicked up, but he’s gotta get away from these fucking barrels so he keeps count until he touches the bottom - four, five, six - and then kicks off in the opposite direction. Seven, eight - he wrenches his eyes shut, and then he feels it, a boom and a rumble in the water that’s way too close for his liking.

And he pulls one arm through the water, and then the other, as natural as instinct. The water drags at the edges of his suit, but it’s not as bad as the last model, all those clunky, rigid pieces sanded down closer to his body. Gordon pushes himself until he burns, his lungs screaming, but he’s stayed down for longer, and he has no idea how close behind they are but as long as he’s down here, they can’t find him!

Just a little longer—

His chest heaves, and he kicks off to the surface, gasping for air too quickly. Gordon coughs and splutters. The walls around him are empty, leaving him alone in a vast tract of water that tastes cleaner than it looks. Just ahead, he spots a hulking platform of plywood, circling around the end of the basin and upward to another grated pipe, tall enough and more for a man to stand in. He shakes himself like a wet dog once he’s crawled on top of it. Well, it could be worse, he supposes. At least it’s not raw fucking sewage.

Gordon scrambles over elevated platforms, a board here and there giving way under his feet, and his heart skips a beat as he comes to the iron bars. They’ve been blasted outwards, too, a force greater than most civilians are capable of, and he’s got the arduous task of avoiding catching their jagged ends somewhere soft and fleshy. (He might have this nice new suit, but he doesn’t entirely trust the plated fabric that wraps around his middle. At least the fucking metal diaper he could rely on.)

In the distance, somewhere at the end of the tunnel, the overwhelming dark of the night gives way to a single yellow bulb. The sounds of the city behind him suck away into nothing, like a vacuum, the further he jogs toward it, until he stands at the foot of a sunken equalization basin - more pipelines terminate here, high on the walls, and in better, wetter days, they would have been carrying storm water to the canals. But now, the basin runs dry. All that remains of its prior use are the piles of wet debris clustered in the corners, broken sections of pipe and warped boards of plywood buried in dried mud. There’s a good drop between him and the floor, roughly a Gordon-length, and he grits his teeth as he shimmies off the edge. Taking heights in this armor rattles him like nothing else.

The problem he finds, once he’s firmly on the ground, is that once he’s in… he doesn’t have much of a way out. There are no doors, no ladders, just flat brick walls and high ledges. Gordon circles the length of the room, messing with suspicious-looking bricks just to make sure they’re not some kind of hidden switch, and comes up short.

“don’t touch that,” he hears abruptly from behind him, and he flinches, hard.

Then he whips around to look for the source. “Yeah, thanks, really helpful,” Gordon snaps. He hadn’t heard Benrey crawl in after him, and he sure hadn’t heard Benrey climb up to the ledge he’s seated on now, legs kicking delicately in the air like he’s a fucking child. Gordon frowns. “I think I’m supposed to get up there, where you are. But there’s no ladder or anything, so I thought…”

“don’t be touchin’ things,'' continues Benrey, the corner of his mouth turning up. “you break it, you bought it.”

“It’s bricks, Benrey. I’m not gonna break anything.” He goes back to running his fingers along the mortar.

There’s a pause. And then Benrey whispers, all conspiratorial, like he’s letting Gordon in on something big, “there’s a secret switch.”

“Uh-huh. That’s what I’m looking for, buddy,” Gordon says, unphased.

Benrey’s eyes follow him around the room. “if you touch it, it… kills you.”

“Awesome! Maybe you should help me look for it. Get some, uh, hands-on experience, huh?” He grins up at Benrey from where he’s crouching.

Benrey clicks his tongue. “you’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he mutters.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m just saying, if you wanna come look for this big, comical fucking—” he grunts, “—electric buzzer you’re telling me about, be my guest.”

Okay, he’s felt up every fucking brick in this thing and he’s got nothing. Gordon puts his hands on his hips and leans backward, cracking his back with a wince. “Well, I’m not seeing it. How’d you get up there?”

“that’s my business.” Benrey hops down, landing cleanly on his feet.

“Fine, keep your secrets. Now you’re the one who’s stuck down here with me,” Gordon tells him, haughty.

He scans their surroundings again. He’s gonna feel real stupid when he finally figures it out, he just knows it. All that’s really around him is dirt. Cinderblocks. A broad section of pipe, half-buried in the dried muck. Gordon steps on top of it, judging his distance. Well, he’s not totally sure he can make the jump from here to the ledge - he’s smack dab in the middle of the room, and he didn’t get the fucking rocket legs upgrade yet. But he might as well try.

Five minutes later, he stops trying to jump off of the fucking thing, and wipes sweat from his forehead. Of course it wouldn’t be that easy. Gordon glances at Benrey, wondering if he’s got something on the tip of his tongue, but the guy’s more occupied stacking cinderblocks into columns. So he blinks and looks away.

Physics objects, huh. He’s got some of those. That plywood board comes loose from the dirt with some coaxing, and he lays it flat on the pipe. It’s not quite long enough to form a ramp, he finds, but it see-saws satisfyingly with the pipe as a fulcrum, and some of those cinderblocks suffice to hold down the end of the board. Benrey makes an offended noise when Gordon snatches one from the top of his tower. He could get a running start… and…

And the other side sinks down as Gordon tries to walk across.

Benrey snorts at him, and Gordon does his best to ignore it. This is just… the scientific method. Trial and error. He informs Benrey as much as he gathers up all the cinderblocks he can find. And anything else that seems moderately heavy. To Benrey’s credit, he chucks the rest of his blocks on the back, too. There have to be at least a dozen of them, Gordon thinks, and he’s not that big.

But the other side still drops down under Gordon’s feet.

“What?! But that’s everything,” Gordon whines, slowly sinking to the ground.

Is he just too big to do this puzzle? What kind of fucking game would do that? Something hot and mortifying flashes behind his eyes for a split second, and where the fuck is that coming from? Gordon’s head whips around to Benrey, pre-empting him saying anything with, “And don’t you fucking laugh, okay, like, Gordon’s doing something wrong again, ha ha— It’s been a long day, and I’m stressed! You— You don’t do good with puzzles being dropped into your fucking enclosure when you’re stressed!”

There’s a silence that draws out in the air. Heat fizzles up Gordon’s face, blistering and ugly. Then Benrey slowly says, “whoa.” His eyebrows shoot up, and he continues, bizarrely polite, “uhh… relax, please? relax?”

“Don’t tell me what to—”

Benrey cuts him off by letting off a sudden stream of— of Sweet Voice, a vivid blue, right into his fucking mouth. He didn’t even know Benrey could still do that, he fumes, gurgling—

Oh. Huh.

“calm down?”

All of the tension drains from Gordon’s shoulders in one fell swoop, and he sags. All that blistering embarrassment, too, leaving Gordon muted and meek. “Calm down,” he repeats, a little hoarse. “Gordon’s calm.”

“thank you?”

“Is… is that a question?”

Benrey repeats it, and Gordon’s no more the wiser, but he doesn’t nurse that little irritation. He’s chill. Like, for real this time, not like when he tells himself that he’s chill in the hopes that saying it will make it true. That Sweet Voice worked as intended, sweeping all that tension and frustration out of him and leaving him weirdly drained. “Thank you,” Gordon mumbles again, bordering on delirious. “I think I really needed that.”

Benrey claps him on the shoulder, mouth bent in a little smile, and Gordon sways with it. How does he do that, he wonders, not for the first time.

“Hey,” he starts, after a moment to get his bearings, “you wanna do me a favor? Stand over there.” He gestures to the other end of the board. “There’s no way I weigh more than you and these blocks. And if I do, then, like…” Gordon sighs, running a hand back through his hair. “Christ. I don’t know. Maybe I oughta start working out some more.”

“what?” Benrey’s voice comes out slow, like the conversation has just made a sudden jerk to the left and inertia is still catching up to him.

“I got kinda comfy at my desk job, I guess? Plus there’s like, you know, side effects, since I just got back on insurance and… uhh, I-I don’t wanna talk about it anymore, man. Just,” Gordon trails off as he gestures more firmly.

Benrey’s eyes look him up and down, a slow once-over, and the hairs on Gordon’s arms stand up on end. There’s no comprehension dawning upon him. His face is just as blank and confused as ever.

“what are you talking about?”

“Not talking about it, okay? Jesus Christ,” he insists. Fucking embarrassing. Even the Sweet Voice has a hard time tamping that one down.

Across from him, Benrey cocks his head, but he does as Gordon says anyway and crawls onto the rear side to sit, cross-legged. By the miracle of Newtonian physics, Gordon’s side of the board rises back up again, with him atop it. And Gordon can’t help the little whoop of excitement he lets out. Say what you will, but part of him was worried that he was genuinely gonna get stuck here. Then he’d have to spend a bunch of time looking for missing .DLL files or reinstalling shit or what have you. He’s already having a bad enough day.

“Alright, I think we got this… Don’t move. Seriously. If I eat shit, I’m blaming you,” Gordon says firmly.

“what? i’m jus’ chillin’,” Benrey sniffs.

“Okay.” Gordon cranes his head back one last time, and, yep, Benrey is just chillin’ down there. He waves his fingers lazily at Gordon. Gordon’s mouth flattens, and he quickly turns his head forward again. “Okay. Gordon… jump!”

It’s hardly the most impressive of the jumps he’s had to make, but his heart still thuds in his chest anyway, as he clears the gap and lands with a solid, metallic clunk.

“Hey! Look at that!” Gordon’s hands spread out in the air excitedly. “We figured it out, and it only took, like, fifteen minutes!”

“speedrun strats,” says Benrey, and Gordon snorts.

“Yeah, okay. What are we gonna get, 500th place?”

Benrey stands up, following him onto the ledge. The board holds steady under him. An ugly feeling sticks in the back of Gordon’s teeth again. But, for once in Benrey’s life, that’s not his fucking problem. So he just digs his tongue into his molar and keeps his mouth shut.

The ledge leads out of the basin, a broad tunnel to an empty, man-made canal. Only its vague edges are visible, weak moonlight catching on the walls. Gordon resists the urge to turn on his flashlight. An overpass stretches high above, blocking out the moon, and he feels very small in here, suddenly.

“co-op mode’s brand new,” Benrey informs him, low and close. He looks up at Gordon. "gotta beat it first. perfect your run. you, uh… play kinda sh— uh, play kinda, sucks. so, friend benrey's here to carry you."

Gordon blinks up at the sky. He can't see the stars from here, he realizes. There's a faint blue glow from the horizon, and it's drowning them out. "Carry me?" he says distantly. Then he turns back to frown at Benrey. "Look, this isn't supposed to be a co-op thing. I was kind of just playing along, or whatever, but if you came here to take me back, then like… When are you?" He can't even work up the good, furious lather about it that he's been meaning to. Calmness sits over his bones like lead. "I'm so tired, dude. I've been doing this simulation for… days, okay, and I know it was all in the waiver, but, Jesus, man, when am I gonna get to stop doing this shit and eat some pizza and go home?" His voice cracks, honest desperation leaching into it.

And Benrey does the most disappointing thing in the world: He shrugs. "didn't get that far in the, uhh, gameplan."

"You didn't— No, yeah. Of course you didn't. You're just gonna take me back once you get bored with whatever weird little game you're playing." There's no heat in it, just resignation.

"what? no," sulks Benrey. He crosses his arms. "i don't— like, it's not that easy, bro. if i knew how to get back i woulda just left you. dumped you on the corner. wet cat. you're a… you're kind of a little bitch, man."

He lets that one slide. "I know, man," he says hoarsely. "I'm having a really hard time. Can you cut me some slack?" And Gordon takes that opportunity to sit at the mouth of the pipe, just for a moment. Get some of the feeling back in his legs. Look at the blue spire in the distance, a far-off parapet lit from underneath and visible from most parts of the city. Always watching him. Benrey sits next to him and levels him with a curious look from under his helmet.

"wow," he breathes. There's half a grin on his face as he peers closely at Gordon, but it's not a very nice one. "you are sooo fucked, huh. lookatchu. you look like you're gonna cry."

Gordon just nods. At least they're on the same page about something.

[table of contents]


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