A loud knock woke Barney Calhoun from a dead sleep.
The glowing, blinking numbers suspended in darkness told him it was well past 2:00 in the morning. Whatever the person at the door wanted, it could wait. He’d only made it to White Forest a couple of days ago and dammit, he deserved a full night’s sleep after all that action.
A second knock, louder this time, was accompanied by a voice he had never expected to hear again. “Barney, I know it’s late, but just… please open the door.”
Rusty bedsprings croaked in protest as Barney rolled out of bed, suddenly fully conscious. For once, he barely felt the sting of the cold concrete floor on his bare feet as he stumbled to the door, his heart pounding with anticipation. If she was alive, then maybe…
Sure enough, when he unlatched the deadbolt and swung the door open, he found himself face-to-face with Alyx Vance. She was dressed in heavy winter outerwear, as if she’d returned from the Arctic only minutes before she’d arrived outside his bedroom door. In fact, perhaps she had.
Why hadn’t anyone woken him up earlier? He should’ve been there to greet them.
“You’ve alive,” Alyx whispered, as she looked him over with an unfocused gaze.
Barney couldn’t help but notice that she looked practically dead on her feet; exhaustion was evident on her face and her slumped shoulders seemed to have finally grown weary from carrying the weight of the world. Fear seized his chest as a quick glance down the dimly lit hallway confirmed that she was also alone.
“Was about to say the same thing,” he replied. His weak attempt at humor fell flat as they regarded each other nervously, equally hesitant to give voice to the questions they were both dying to ask.
“How did you—”
Barney decided to answer her first. “Train derailed. Took us a bit longer than planned to get here on foot.” He shrugged, and then his sleep-fogged brain belatedly recalled the horrible news he’d received upon his arrival at the base.
“I’m so sorry about your dad, Al,” he murmured. He opened his arms—an invitation—and she collapsed into them without a moment’s hesitation.
Time slowed to a crawl as Alyx shuddered with grief and silent tears. Barney held her close and tried to wait patiently for her to compose herself, despite the fact that his heart was in his throat. She still hadn’t answered his question, and it was starting to feel more and more like that could only mean…
“Gordon’s alive,” she said finally, sending a flood of relief through his veins. “He… he barely made off the ship before…”
Ah, so they had destroyed the Borealis, then. Kleiner hadn’t had much time to fill him in, but Barney had pieced together enough information to gather that this was a pretty big deal.
Barney held his breath through another agonizing silence until Alyx extricated herself from his embrace and spoke again.
“He’s pretty shaken up. That’s why I’m here, actually. He needs a favor.”
Whatever it was, yes. He would do anything Gordon wanted him to do, no questions asked, because that would mean that Gordon still needed him, and…
“Can he stay with you? They’re putting me up in… in dad’s old room, but there’s not really space for another person and… well, someone said you had an extra bed.”
Oh. Gordon hadn’t actually asked for him.
Barney tried not to let the disappointment show on his face as he responded, “Yeah, sure. Wouldn’t want him sleepin’ on the floor after savin’ the world and whatnot, right?”
Alyx nodded, without offering so much as a courtesy chuckle. “Thanks. As soon as they’re done with him in medical, he should be heading your way. I already gave him directions.”
With that, she pressed a kiss to Barney’s cheek and then abruptly retreated. Barney opened his mouth to stop her, to ask her more questions, but he found that he couldn’t bring himself to keep her any longer. She’d been through a lot. She deserved to get off her feet and mourn in relative privacy.
Alyx had already made it halfway down the hallway before Barney registered the unspoken implication behind her earlier words.
“Askin’ me for permission was just a formality, huh?”
With a ghost of a smile, Alyx turned around and replied, “I had a hunch that you two might want to catch up.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong.
At least, he hoped she wasn’t.
Wide awake now, Barney fumbled for the light switch just inside the door and flipped it, flooding his room with a dim, flickering glow. Faced with the imminent prospect of being truly alone with Gordon for the first time in… God, in twenty years… he felt completely unprepared.
He’d imagined some version of this scenario hundreds of times over the years, but those were merely fantasies. This was reality, and reality was considerably messier and a hell of a lot less romantic.
In an effort to vent some nervous energy, Barney began to pace around the room, straightening objects and picking up loose articles of clothing as he went. There really wasn’t much to clean, though; the room was pretty spartan, containing little furniture besides two twin beds and a small dresser.
As Barney made up the spare bed—left vacant by the recent untimely demise of another rebel, or so he had been told—he was careful to pull the top sheet tight before attempting to tuck it in with perfect hospital corners. It took him a few tries to get everything just right, but he reasoned that the effort would pay off later.
After all, Gordon appreciated those kinds of little details. He had always been such a neat freak.
When Gordon’s knock finally came, Barney realized with a start that he hadn’t given any thought to his own appearance. He hastily ran a hand through his graying hair in a hopeless effort to smooth down the strands that were mussed from his earlier sleep. Unfortunately, it was far too late to think about shaving or changing out of his worn t-shirt and sweatpants.
Then again, Gordon had probably seen him in worse, and he’d definitely seen him in less.
Barney took a deep breath and opened the door.
Still inexplicably clad in his grimy HEV suit, Gordon looked even more dog-tired than Alyx had; in fact, it was quite possible that the suit was the only thing keeping him upright. He acknowledged Barney’s presence with a stoic nod, his eyes only briefly flickering with recognition before his expression reverted back to a thousand-yard stare.
He looked so lost and exhausted and perfect and alive that Barney couldn’t resist the urge to throw his arms around him in a long-overdue embrace. The second he raised his arms and took a step forward in preparation to do just that, Gordon flinched and withdrew, stopping him dead in his tracks.
Barney let his arms fall back to his sides as his face burned with shame and rejection. He desperately wanted to say something witty or charming to break the tension, but instead, he found himself at a complete loss for words. He’d expected things to be a bit awkward, of course, but everything about Gordon’s body language told him that this wasn’t his characteristic shyness.
This was something else. Something colder.
Barney struggled to maintain his composure as he tried rationalize Gordon’s distant demeanor. To be fair, he’d had a long day. Alyx had just said that Gordon had narrowly escaped death by the skin of his teeth, and it stood to reason that they’d both seen some serious shit, so it made sense that the guy would be a bit out of it.
Yeah, that had to be it. Gordon was just tired.
“Hey, Doc,” he said, after an uncomfortably long silence, “long time no see.” Even to his own ears, his overly casual friendliness didn't quite mask his apprehension.
Really, it had only been a few days since they’d parted ways at the train station, but in Barney’s mind, those few brief spells of combat in City 17 hadn’t constituted a proper reunion after two decades spent apart.
When it became painfully clear that Gordon wasn’t going to respond to his second attempt at a greeting, Barney stepped backwards to get out of the doorway and gestured with an outstretched arm, inviting him to step into the small room. After a moment’s hesitation, Gordon obliged, although he made no move to close the door behind him.
Barney wasn’t sure what to make of that, until it hit him that, duh, Gordon probably wasn’t ready to go to sleep just yet.
“Oh, right… you’re gonna want to get outta that suit first, huh?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.
God, he was already blowing this.
Gordon nodded, his expression still unreadable.
“Yeah, okay, that can be arranged. Guessin’ you might like a shower, too,” Barney mumbled, his gaze trained on the floor as he squeezed past Gordon and ventured back into the hallway.
Barney found it odd that the medical staff hadn’t already helped Gordon remove his HEV suit, but he figured someone would’ve told him if it wasn’t safe to take it off of him now. Besides, how could anyone seriously expect Gordon to sleep in that thing?
Embarrassed as he was about his earlier oversight, Barney was also secretly thankful for this new mission. It would buy him some time to mentally prepare for whatever came next.
Wordlessly, he made his way to the nearest communal bathroom. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed that Gordon was following right behind him. Much to Barney’s relief, the bathroom was unoccupied when they arrived.
The sound of Gordon’s heavy footfalls echoed off the tiled walls as Barney led him to an empty bench in the middle of the room. There was enough moonlight streaming in through the small windows near the ceiling that Barney elected not to turn on the lights. Being in the dark felt safer, somehow; whether for him or for Gordon, he wasn’t sure.
“You want some help with that?”
Barney knew that removing the suit was a two-person job, but he didn’t want to venture too close without asking permission first. Gordon had made it abundantly clear that loving embraces were off the table, which meant he had to consider the possibility that Gordon didn’t want to be touched at all.
Gordon surprised him, however, by accepting his offer of help with a nod. ‘Thank you,’ he signed.
Barney did his best to hide his relief as he leaned over Gordon’s shoulder and carefully ran his hand along the back of the suit, in search of the first in a long sequence of buttons and fasteners that would need to be manipulated in order to remove the shell-like armor.
It had been quite a while since Barney had last worked with the HEV suit, so his memory of that very specific sequence was a little fuzzy. So, apparently, was Gordon’s. Together, they fumbled with the complicated mechanisms and hidden compartments of the suit in complete silence.
It took every ounce of discipline that Barney possessed for him to keep his breathing steady each time his bare hands brushed against Gordon’s gloved ones. No, no, he couldn’t afford to let himself think about all the other times he and Gordon had caressed each other in the dark with so much less between them, undoing buttons and belts and ridiculous ties…
Goddammit, his hands were shaking.
Finally, finally, they managed to remove the chest plate, the anchor that held all of the other pieces together. Even in the dim light, Barney could see that the t-shirt Gordon wore underneath was completely soaked with blood—His own? Someone else’s? Something else’s?—and that Gordon was visibly relieved to finally be free of the restrictive outer layer.
He stepped aside and watched as Gordon freed first his left arm, then his right, before he leaned back and stretched. The soft moan that escaped his lips as every joint in his arms and back seemed to crack was the first sound Barney had heard him make since he’d first appeared outside his door.
His own exhaustion was rapidly catching up with him, but he still had enough self-awareness to feel ashamed of the effect the sound had on his body.
Gordon reached for the next section of the suit—the softer Kevlar-padded armor that covered his midsection—and paused. He looked Barney directly in the eye and slowly moved his hand away from his body, discomfort apparent on his face.
Barney’s stomach dropped. Gordon’s unspoken request for him to leave felt like a slap to the face, though perhaps it was one that he deserved. After all, he had been guilty of letting his thoughts wander, and it wasn’t like he had any kind of right to stand there and watch Gordon strip down.
Mostly, he’d just wanted to hang around in case he needed help. They both knew that the suit’s lower leg joints, in particular, tended to be tricky.
Didn’t Gordon know he could trust him?
With a sigh, Barney reluctantly accepted that now was not the time to analyze the situation. If Gordon wanted him to leave, he would leave. He could ponder the implications of that request later.
It was then that it occurred to him that Gordon didn’t have anything to change into.
Well, at least that gave him an excuse to bow out gracefully.
“I’ll be right back. Gonna go get you some clothes… and a towel, I guess a towel would be helpful too. Uh, holler if you need anything.” As soon as the words left his lips, Barney realized what a stupid thing that was to say to Gordon, of all people. “Or just… or just stay here, and I’ll help when I get back.”
He quickly ducked out of the bathroom before he could put his foot in his mouth again. God, he was a mess. Maybe he just needed to get more sleep?
No, that definitely wasn’t his problem. He knew that for a fact, and he suspected Gordon knew, too.
After returning to his room, Barney rummaged through the dresser in search of suitable clothes for Gordon. He ripped the sewn-in tag out of his softest, least holey t-shirt; Gordon hated the feeling of tags against his skin, especially on sleeping clothes.
He grabbed a random pair of boxers and his best pair of wool socks, since Gordon’s feet always felt like icicles, especially when he slept. After some deliberation, he also selected a pair of drawstring pants. They’d look a bit silly, but at least they’d probably stay up.
That was the best he could do, seeing as he and Gordon were nowhere near the same size, especially now that he’d put on so much weight from whatever the hell was in those CP rations and his goddamn unfortunate genetics…
Barney froze. Oh, God. He was old.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t already acutely aware that he was aging rather ungracefully. In fact, he thought about it quite often; every time he found another gray hair in front of the bathroom mirror, every time he felt a strange tightness in his chest and chalked it up to the hereditary heart disease that would probably kill him before he made it out of middle age, every time he felt a new pain in his back, his joints, his soul…
But somehow, it hadn’t yet occurred to him that that was how Gordon saw him, too, especially since Gordon didn’t seem to have changed at all. Barney had seen enough family pictures to know that Freeman men aged remarkably well, but even then, he figured Gordon shouldn’t look exactly the same after two decades. How did he do it?
Was it possible that he just… hadn’t aged?
That theory didn’t make any sense, but then again, Barney had been a witness to plenty of far stranger things in the years since the resonance cascade. So, that meant it was possible that Gordon was still physically 27 years old, even though Barney himself was technically old enough to be Gordon’s father.
That painful realization hit him like a ton of bricks, and suddenly everything made sense.
Was that why Gordon didn’t want him?
Stiffly, Barney gathered up the bundle of clothing and a spare towel and made his way back to the bathroom, mulling over this new development in his head as he walked. Age difference or not, he supposed twenty years was more than enough time to just naturally lose interest in somebody. Even somebody you had loved, once.
However, even if he was so old and fat and gray and unlovable and damaged that Gordon was no longer attracted to him, that didn’t mean he needed to be afraid of him. He could have just told him the truth. He would have understood.
Tried to understand, anyway. Just as he was trying now.
Barney nearly tripped over a stray piece of the HEV suit—a boot, upon closer inspection—as his eyes re-adjusted to the dim light in the bathroom. He followed a trail of Kevlar armor plates and blood-soaked underclothes to a shower stall in the back corner of the room, where Gordon was silently enjoying a much-needed rinse.
“Hey, I’m back,” Barney announced, raising his voice so that Gordon could hear him over the roar of the water and the groans of White Forest’s ancient plumbing. “Don’t worry, I’m not stickin’ around”—he paused to swallow the bitterness that had crept into his voice—“but I’m leavin’ your clothes and towel on this bench here, okay? Take your time and… uh, I guess you can find your own way back.”
He didn’t wait around for a response that he knew wasn’t coming.