Reblogging properly, with the nine- NINE!!- lovely illustrations by disasterscenario, which I tried to add a while back but failed- note to self, links that have the word ‘expires’ in them don’t tend to last long. I love the way disaster used colour and simple shades to tell the story, cold blues until Chell turns up, that beautiful mixed-colour image with the two of them… *paws quietly at monitor* hnng.
It begins with a nightmare.
It’s not a nightmare while it’s happening. While it’s happening, it feels good.
He’s the most powerful thing in the entire facility- he is the facility, every digital synapse is alive and on fire with the drive to test and burning with hatred for her. He hates her even more now that she’s back in reach, that he can see her, running around down there solving all his brilliant tests. She’s doing what he wants- for now- but her lack of enthusiasm is clear as daylight on her scowly little human face, and the stupid potato battery stuck on the end of her portal gun like the world’s worst party favour just brings it home to him that she has absolutely no appreciation for what he’s trying to do here. She has so little faith in him that she’d rather team up with Her than admit that he can do this all by himself, better than Her, better than anybody.
That’s fine, fine, as far as Wheatley is concerned. He doesn’t need her to like him. He doesn’t want her precious approval. All he wants is the glorious blazing flood of euphoria that sweeps through him when she solves a test, that mind-blowing Itch-scratching sensation, everything else palls into utter insignificance beyond that. If she’d only solve faster, better- oh, he knows she’s doing it on purpose, trying to provoke him, driving him crazy with frustration as his facility closes in around him like a knotted, feverish net. It’s all her fault, she’s deliberately depriving him of the one thing he wants- needs-
He jerks awake, shuddering, crying out with guilt and horror and want. It’s a choked, needy, pathetic sound, and he just about manages to shut his mouth on it, strangle it into frightened silence. It’s not the biggest problem right now. His problem lurks down below his stomach, there, where something burns a slow, horribly urgent trail, a winding coiled knot of heat and terrible sensitivity, all tangled up in the dark needling rush of the fading dream.
The room is warm, dim-lit, a safe, blurry cave full of soft shadows. Under normal circumstances this is one of his favourite places in the world. It is a small, still idyll, a peaceful sanctuary- as long as she’s here, sleeping safely beside him, Wheatley has everything he could wish for.
She’s here beside him now, and he has never, ever wished so fervently that she wasn’t. Not since the last time this happened, anyway.
It’s not the first time. It’s not the second time, or the third, or the fourth. It isn’t regular, there’s no predicting it- he’ll be fine for ages and start to think, hope, believe, that it’s gone away for good- but no. Eventually, it’ll happen again. He’ll have a dream- a terrible, vivid, unforgivable, bloody amazing dream, sometimes no more than sensation in darkness, the feel of it, sometimes sharp and brightly-formed like the one he just had. He’ll wake up trapped in this enemy his human body has become, trembling, running with sweat, gulping for breath, as the white-hot craving of then crashes into the sadder-and-wiser shame of now. And his lower body- oh, god, he has no idea what’s happening there, the creeping buzzing threads in the pit of his stomach, slackening and tensing random muscles in his legs and his back and his groin, the tense blazing centre of him crackling with something that is either a nuclear reaction or trying really hard to be.
It terrifies him. The Itch was hard-wired into the system, a vicious, driving virus, spreading into him and throughout his own small bundle of code like a wildfire as soon as he was hooked up to it, and although he’d thought- he could have sworn- that being ripped out of the mainframe had freed him of it for good, he should have known better. He should have known that he could never be that lucky, that undeservedly blessed. A trace of it must have remained, lurking somewhere in his files, surviving the transfer not just into one new body but two, as hard to kill as Her.
It’s coming back and he can’t stop it. He’s human now, nobody can stick a wire in his head and fix him, nobody can search through him and delete this feeling; shivering-crawling-terrible-good-
He’s on his own.
Lying here in the dim amber light, his best friend sleeping heartbeat-close at his side, Wheatley feels more alone than he has for a long time. He can’t tell her. He can’t bear the thought of her face when she realises a part of Her mainframe still exists in him, that part of him is still in the grip of that blinding overriding Itch that turned him into her deadly enemy.
She allows him to sleep here, in her bed- and in his head it is hers, irrevocably, her property to do what she likes with, in the same way that he still thinks instinctively of this place as her home, or himself- just as instinctively- as her Wheatley. He doesn’t understand the half-serious playfulness humans attach to this latter statement. For him, it is all-serious, a simple fact, and a pleasant one, just as pleasant as the fact that she lets him be here with her, sleep with her, share her warmth, She seems to find it just as comforting as he does, if that’s possible; curled against his side, or wrapping his awkward spidery cold-footed limbs around hers, or just sleeping, calm and still, in the hollow of his body’s overlong, necessary curve. She’s never, ever made him feel as if he’s not welcome.
Oh, yes, but she would, wouldn’t she? If she knew. She would, nobody could blame her, and that’s another reason why she can’t know, why he can’t tell her.He certainly can’t tell her that the Itch seems to have corrupted an actual physical part of him, functional and unfairly sensitive anyway,that when he wakes up like this it’s more than an inner ache, it’s- well, it’s-
Well, it’s definitely a malfunction, anyway.
Wheatley’s body- or at least his deeper mind, that reticent, sometimes-vocal part of him- seems to understand more than he does on the subject. Teasing little shreds of memory still surface every now and then, giving him knowledge on a basic, practical level. He has this part of him to thank for many things that he wouldn’t have known by himself, that he has no reason to know- for example, the very human notion that being naked is in some way shameful, embarrassing. Other, vaguer memories are surfacing right now, as he tries to roll over without disturbing her and his hand, supporting his upper body, moves dangerously close to his erect cock, brushing his own hip and sending a shiver ghosting across his bare skin.
They don’t amount to much, these faint, grasping flickers of memory, just a frustrated sense that he should know more than he does, that somehow there’s a way he’s supposed to deal with this. It knows, this deeper part, how he did deal with it, more than a lifetime ago. How he might have coped with waking to this, somewhere cramped and dark and lonely but for a brief space of time, satisfying, good- but how is that possible, how on earth can he trust that?
No. There’s only two ways he knows to deal with the Itch- and one of them is closed to him forever, thank god. The other-
He inches painfully out of the entangling blankets, mouth shut tight and teeth gritted against the sudden impulse to speak, trying as hard as he can to leave her undisturbed.
It’s the middle of the night and the little corridor at the top of the house is a pitch-dark blur, the boards cold underfoot. Part of him- very sure it doesn’t want to be going anywhere right now, let alone away from the comforting warmth of her bed- is screaming quietly at him, but it’s not long before he’s in the tiny bathroom. He closes the door as carefully as he possibly can, with all his long knuckly fingers wrapped around the wood to absorb any jolts or creaks, shutting it all the way until the handle clicks home. He doesn’t like shutting doors, because he’s still not all that confident in his ability to re-open them, but there’s nothing else for it. He struggles out of his clothes, already shivering, but dutifully observing the protocol.
He’s wary of the shower, too. Not when it’s on, so much, any more, not when he’s sure it’s going to be predictable and the water is obviously, visibly hot. She has managed to teach him to bear that particular horror, but he still doesn’t like stepping inside when it’s off. He doesn’t like the cold little cubicle, the speckled rounded mouth of the showerhead. It’s the potential that chills him, the possibility that it might suddenly turn on of its own accord and start flooding the cubicle with cold water. He can’t stand cold water, recoils from the over-enthusiastic spraying cold tap of the big downstairs sink, has not yet been persuaded to leave the house when it rains. He hates the icy wet numbing feeling of it, the promise of damp and decay, rust, shorting wires, blown fuses, drowning sparks-
But this is good, this is what he needs, exactly what he needs, and he slides to the cold dry floor of the shower, curls around the hideously sensitive hardness at the pit of his stomach and wills it gone. If he could have somehow followed his own convoluted train of reasoning, he would have realised that he’s sitting here because this dark cold tiled space is the nearest he can get to the facility, the furthest away from the wonky complicated wonderful peace of being here with her, the brilliant force of nature on the other side of this wall. It’s no accident. While he’s like this, the livid hungry Itch splintering through him, jaw clenched and toes curling against it- he belongs here.
This cold white-tiled darkness is the antidote to the swelling heat under his skin, this clean textureless numbness is the cure for this raging painful sensitivity at the centre of him, the alien hardness pressing below his stomach that he doesn’t even dare touch because every brush of fingers or skin or surface ignites it to an unbearable degree, and nothing can possibly feel like this unless it’s about to either short-circuit or explode. For not being strong enough to drive it off by himself, despite his best efforts, for allowing it to come back again and again despite the risk, the danger it has to be to her- he deserves this.
He waits, eyes tight-shut, a jittery ball of nerves, goosebumps breaking out on his arms and back. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do if this keeps happening. The worst (best) part of it is this; the dreams aren’t always of the facility, of control or testing. Often they’re just of her, not even coherent collections of memory or sequence, just her, and him- the ones that are best when they’re happening. Her and him, and-
-his hands the angle of her chin the perfect shape of her shoulderblades at the back, delicate plates below the skin, her hands on his face her calm breath her hands on his sides, his back, her small strong fingers tracing down the contour of his spine, a trail of shivering connection right up into the nape of his neck and down, lower- her hand on his cock, oh god her hands and her strong sure movement, the arching balanced tip-toe feet and all of her, the curve of her throat-
He can’t help it, he can not help it- with herin his head like that it’s too much, and his hand moves as if someone else has the controls, creeping from the cold floor to the terrible sensitivity in his crotch. His skin feels fever-hot after the chilled tiles, as if this thing really is burning him from the inside out, and a single touch is enough to draw a low shuddering moan of a breath out of him. He works his fingers gingerly around his stiff cock, and ah come on it’s well-nigh bloody unbearable and so good but-
-but that’s how it starts that’s how it starts feels amazing but it doesn’t last, gets less and less and less and then you’re chasing it and you’ll do anything for it anything, and it’ll never be enough, you’ll ruin everything, you’ll hurt her, YOU’LL HURT HER-
Somehow- oh, god, he doesn’t even know how- he pulls his hand back, forces himself to his feet in a single clumsy lunge, fumbles blind for the copper valve that controls the shower and twists it all the way over to the left.
The old pipes rumble and hammer a warning, and not an empty one; the next moment a storm of water cascades out of the showerhead, drenching him, a savage, ice-cold flood.
Too loud, far too loud. He curls in on himself against the onslaught and stuffs his hand into his mouth knuckles-first, effectively gagging his clenching jaw with a wet handful of cartilaginous marbles, turning a howl of shock into a near-silent whimper. It hurts, a half-moon slice of pain grinding into his hand, but it’s good, too, it works. The blaze at the centre of him is no match for the freezing torrent hammering at his hunched back, driving icy needles into the top of his skull. He tucks his head in like a shrinking tortoise, jamming bony elbows into his own ribcage, shuddering, and lets the ghastly cold water do its job. The only consolation, when he’s driven to this, is that it doesn’t usually take long.
She’d found him in here, once, in the morning. Confused by his absence, she’d let herself sleepily into the bathroom and found him curled in the bottom of the shower cubicle, fast asleep and- thank god- asymptomatic. He wasn’t sure she’d bought his story- she was incredibly hard to lie to, and he was a terrible liar- but luckily, he’d managed to accidentally lock himself in the bathroom before then, so it wasn’t out of the bounds of possibility that he might have done it again. She’d looked distinctly suspicious, but she’d helped him get up anyway- after five hours in one position, he’d been too stiff to move, not to mention cold as a block of ice- and dealt with his subsequent pins-and-needles hysteria with her usual fond, wry patience.
He’d got away with it that time- just- but even he has to admit that it is an impossible situation. When the itch finally leaves him alone, whether it takes these extreme measures or not, it invariably leaves him feeling not relief but a kind of weary dissatisfied dullness, like he’s missed out on something, a vague dazed frustration which lasts well into the next day. Each time he’s been sure that she’ll notice, that everyone will, the guilt must surely be written on his face for everyone to read.
He stands miserably under the freezing downpour, palms braced in front of him, fingers splayed, the tangle of tendons standing out on the backs of his hands like taut wires. Tomorrow, he knows, he will feel like anyone who so much as glances at him will see, that they will be able to tell clear as daylight that he’s still feeling a poisonous remnant of the itch that had nearly driven him to kill her, and not only that but that some sick, still-corrupted part of him-
He drags the valve back to the right with a slippery, shaking hand and stands there in the sudden dripping silence, frozen in both senses of the word. Horror-struck, he blinks at the blur of ghost-white tiles in front of his nose. It’s true. He has never thought it this far through, he has been protecting himself but- no. It’s true. A senseless, shameless, selfish part of him, the part that had driven that questing hand, actually wants it, would do anything to preserve the feeling. Gets off on it. Hopes- even when everything’s fine,even when he’s safely curled against her in the amber-lit nest of blankets, even though he knows all too well the pain and guilt and knotting helpless lonely frustration it invariably brings- hopes it happens again-
No wonder it keeps sodding coming back- why wouldn’t it, when he wants it to? His human brain might not be so easily rewritten as his digitally encoded little mainframe had been but it’s just as open to suggestion, just as shaky and easily fooled by itself.
He stumbles to the mirror, teeth chattering like small bones tossed in a bag, spreading a wet, clumsy palm on the skim-lamp perched on the windowsill. Light floods the glass, and he stares at his reflection, fearfully, at point-blank range, fighting his poor focus. He looks for any sign that the feeling- dwindled now but still, despite everything, pulsing weakly down there below his stomach and sending shivers right through the rest of him- is linked to a deeper corruption. He doesn’t know what he expects to see- for a dark moment he imagines yellow, that bleak harsh sunless yellow filling the circles of his eyes, flooding masklike from his face-
Nothing. Nothing there, nothing more than the usual. A worried-looking human, stooping a little to fit his reflection in the small glass, his comically wide, heavy-lidded eyes blinking wet and upset back at him. There’s certainly no yellow there, just pink-rimmed blue beneath the creased brow, the thinnish wet-dark spikes of hair plastered against his generous forehead, a twitchy grimace pulling at his long downturned mouth.
There’s nothing that shows the terrible problem, not in the face, there’s no damning mark of guilt anywhere on the long neck or the water-beaded, gooseflesh-ridden sloping shoulders. There’s nothing, not even on the chest, over the baffling mess of organs which are all to some extent complicit in this betrayal, the ill-defined muscles and over-defined bones, the confusingly-placed dust of dark-blond hair. The mirror doesn’t show him anything useful at all, just himself. Himself, and the blurry, thoughtful expression of the young woman standing just behind him, her serious, slightly quizzical face just level with the high point of his sternum-
It happens fast. It’s pure accident, but his outstretched hand is still splayed on the lamp and she’s barely a pace behind him, and when he twists round in panic his arm swings blindly out with all the care and coordination it usually possesses- that is, absolutely none. She ducks back, blink-quick, and instead of catching her full across the face his hand smacks her, loose and unformed but still fairly hard, in the ear.
“-sorry, sorry, didn’t, didn’t mean to do that, didn’t even know you were there, being all, all silent like that, like- like a ninja, didn’t make a sound, for all I knew you were still in there fast asleep, you’re- you’re sure you’re alright? Positive? Ear still- still working all right? Fragile things, ears, all those tiny little bones and everything, if you want to run a quick check on all yours that’s- that’s fine, probably a-a good idea. Because as I said I-I didn’t mean to catch you like that, total accident, co-complete accident, that was, sorry-”
He hasn’t stopped apologising yet; she’s starting to wonder if he can. He’s said the words so many times they’re starting to lose all meaning, becoming nothing but sounds he’s making to placate her- maybe even distract her. Chell’s not sure what first forms this suspicion. She’s already told him she knows it was an accident, that she’s fine, that beyond a slight eye-watering sting in the ear she’s currently holding a cold washcloth against, she’s not hurt in the slightest, but he’s not hearing her. Something has him so keyed-up that he’s stuck in a loop, as if by continuing to castigate himself for his harmless mistake, he might somehow ward off something far more major.
She’s leaning against the basin, the cold rounded surface pressing into her back. Wheatley is practically flattened against the wall in the small space by the shower, as far from her as the tiny room will allow, watching her with worried, fast-blinking eyes. This is weird in itself- normally, when he’s more-than-usually concerned about her, he has so little regard for the concept of personal space that it’s like being hovered over by her very own clumsy, self-ambulatory umbrella, but this time, he’s staying well away.
To add to the confusing spectacle, he seems to be drenched. He’s holding a towel in place around his waist as if it’s a lifebelt, but he’s shaking, his bare chest and bony arms quivering like wires in a storm. The room is fairly drenched, too, water pooled everywhere, but no steam fogging the mirror, and the air is cold-
The train of events unravels itself neatly in her mind. She’s a puzzle-solver, after all, and this one’s easy- what’s peculiar is motive. Why on earth, even allowing for Wheatley-logic, where two plus two can equal anything from seventy-eight and a half to a small budgerigar, would he wake up in the middle of the night, come straight in here and have a cold-
She hides a smile, biting the inside of her cheek. She’s amused, but not particularly surprised. They’ve spent enough time together, by now, for a few facts to be fairly transparent. She’s sharp enough to see that his fascination with her, while fervent and uncomplicated and- yes- touching, isn’t exactly what she would have called purely spiritual.
The longer she looks at him, however, huddled against the wall, the less she feels like smiling. Something isn’t quite right here. This isn’t just him- perhaps unsure of how she’d react, or shy, which, amazingly enough, he can be, upon occasion- sneaking in here every so often to take care of business. He looks nothing short of anguished, scared half out of his wits. His twitch is back, which is always a bad sign, and he’s watching her as if every small movement she makes is the potential end of the world.
She frowns, puzzled.
Puzzled is good, thinks Wheatley, puzzled he can handle, although the look itself is still hard for him to bear. She’s waiting for him to explain, to lead her through his often less-than-linear train of reasoning- just like he had the other day, when she’d walked into the kitchen and found him staring intently at a multimeter, an assortment of stones, an apple, and a small irritated-looking lizard. There had been a perfectly logical explanation for the lizard incident, although he still isn’t sure she’d grasped the intricacies of it, but there’s no way he can explain this away, no way, and he knows it.
“Why?” she says, and for a terrifying moment, he thinks she’s read his mind.
“Why? Wh- oh, why, uh, why am I in here, you mean? Fair enough, fair enough, can see why you’d be wondering that, middle of the night, but it’s fine, simple explanation, I’m- I was just- you know, having a think in here, in the bathroom, nothing to see- obviously, it being dark, middle of the night. You, you might as well go back to sleep, now, honestly, honestly, I-I-I’m absolutely fine.”
Now, however, she’s spotted something else. She reaches out for his hand, the one gripping the towel as if it was as precious as the Shroud of Turin. He flinches away, but she takes hold of it with a no-nonsense grip and turns it over. His knuckles are marred by a livid crescent-shape of red marks, angry, unmistakable.
She looks at him.
“Uh… that, was an accident,” He starts to hide the offending hand behind his back, but the towel starts to slip, and he grabs it again, hurriedly. “Just an accident, it’s fine, just a bit of bruising that- coincidentally, completely freakish occurrence- makes it look like I-I, don’t know, ha, bit my own hand or something. Pff, as if! I mean, how bonkers would you have to be to- um, um, wh-what are you-”
Her hand, having paused gently over the bite mark, starts to move up his wrist, her small fingertips just ghosting his skin. He gasps and recoils, scrabbling away from her.
“-doing, what are you do- agh no don’t touch me!”
The words- loud, panicked, ugly- fall like blocks of lead. She lets go and stares up at him, shocked.
“Don’t you get it?” His voice is high, even faster than usual, a nerve-thin, dismayed wail. Having started, he can’t stop. “Don’t you get it, don’t you see? It’s just like before! It’s not a game, I’m not doing this on purpose for your entertainment, it’s serious! I-I-I tried, honestly, I did try, but it keeps coming back, I can’t stop it! It’s not funny-” he finds an extra half-octave somewhere, as he realises that she’s fighting a smile- “it’s not funny, I don’t know why you’re laughing, I have no idea how to fix it! Or, or even-”
He stutters to a standstill, goes still, and just looks at her. Chell stops smiling again- he’s right, this isn’t funny. His face scares her. They think he’s probably somewhere around his mid-thirties, but right now, in the tired amber light from the lamp, he looks more like an exhausted, careworn fifty.
“It’s- it’s that- that thing,” he says, helplessly. “That- Itch.”
He can hardly shape the word. “There, I said it, now you know, mystery over- I’ve been trying to ignore it but- but being near you makes it worse and I can’t- I can’t make it stop, I-I keep thinking it’s finally gone and left me in peace and then next thing I know I’ll wake up and-”
His voice cracks, and he stops again.
It makes sense, more sense than she’d like it to. She knows his memories of his human past are sketchy at best, and it was extremely unlikely, given his reaction to it at the time, that he’d ever experienced anything like the Itch as a sphere, so it’s hardly any wonder that he has no frame of reference. He needs reassurance- which is a shame, because words aren’t really her forte.
Then again- and her brow smooths as the thought strikes her, her mouth lifting into a new kind of smile all on its own- since when did reassurance have to be verbal?
As always, once she’s made up her mind, Chell acts quickly. She tosses the cold washcloth back into the sink and steps past him, turning the valve of the shower neatly to the right. The water runs cold, then lukewarm, while the pipes do their usual impression of a full orchestral percussion section running downhill in tap shoes. She holds out a hand to him, but he shrinks back against the wall.
“Yeah- I- I already tried that, actually, earlier, good call, it- it works, it does work, but- but, cards on the table it’s bloody awful and I’m- I’m not sure it’s necessary, honestly, twice in one night-”
She stays put, waiting, hand out. When he doesn’t respond, she raises her eyebrows slightly and tilts her head- you asked for it- and reaches out, grabbing a handful of his towel and pulling it towards her. He just about has the good sense to realise that he doesn’t have a chance of fighting his corner in this vulnerable position, and comes edging anxiously forwards, hanging onto the towel with both hands.
By now the water’s hot, the cranky plumbing warming up to the perfect temperature. He senses the heat, looks at her in surprise.
“That’s not go-”
She takes his good hand, lacing her fingers through his, looking up into his face. He blinks down at her, just inside the range of his focus. The shower hisses at his back, and it’s child’s play for her to extend her arm and push him back towards it, keeping her grip in the towel. He’s clearly upset and frustrated nearly to breaking point and and freezing cold, and she’ll see what she can do about those first two things in a minute, but first she means to sort out the latter.
Wheatley makes a last, desperate lunge for the slipping towel, but she gives him a last little push and the next moment he’s under the shower. Everything else seems immediately secondary to the blissful, scathing rush of hot water, setting his freezing hands and feet tingling as they warm up.
It’s forever a novelty to him how much range this body has. His old body had more or less the same synthetic degree of sensitivity all over, from handles to optic. With this model, however, whoah, everything has its own settings, not just different levels of sensitivity but different kinds. There’s the tight skin of his forehead and the looser, relatively dulled skin at the point of his elbows, the unpleasant brain-scrambling things that happen whenever anyone pokes him in the ribs, and- his favorite, usually- the endlessly useful, brilliantly tactile nature of his hands and his feet. There’s-
-a hand, not his own, pressing into the small of his back, and he looks over his shoulder to see her blurry form pulling off her shirt and dropping it on top of his towel, kicking off the comfy cotton shorts she sleeps in so that they crumple neatly on top of them. One-handed, because she’s still pushing him gently back with the other hand-
He has never seen her completely naked before. The sight of her, stepping under the shower with him, her dark hair starting to fall and follow the line of her chin in the cascading water, simplifies things, massively, wiping a lot of questions and concerns clean out of his mind with one clean stroke. Other questions and concerns are definitely starting to appear on the horizon, but for now, they seem very, very unimportant.
“The itch,” she says, and he starts, suddenly conscious of the fact that his mouth has slipped half-open. Water is running inside. He swallows, throat bobbing, struggles for coherence.
“They wrote it. Hardwired it into the system.” She puts her hand on his chest, follows the streaming water. Down.
“What do you think they based it on?”
Wheatley only shivers, barely half-grasping her meaning, those chilling lines of tension already starting to wind through him, fast, hungry- oh, but she’s in control, now, she knows, and if there’s one person he has faith in, always, it’s her. He doesn’t exactly know what she’s driving at, yet, but all of a sudden it hardly seems to matter. And she’s beautiful, oh god, yes, he’s not quite bewildered enough to forget that. It’s a crying shame that with the water and his eyes he can’t see her better; the quirked, pleased line of her mouth, her collarbones tracing across like fragile wings, the scarred graceful hard-muscled lines of her limbs and her warm, serious steel-grey eyes. Everything about her fuses his brain into a wonderful fizzing useless mess, like a pinball machine jammed on the highest possible score.
Somehow, this is one thing he knows for absolute certain. Whatever she has in mind, whatever happens now- he’s in good hands.