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.
As soon as he was alone once again, Barney collapsed onto his bed and heaved a sigh of frustration.
He wanted nothing more than to convince himself that everything was fine, that Gordon was just really tired and maybe he’d be more communicative after his shower or after he got some sleep or after he ate something, but he couldn’t get past the fact that Gordon seemed to feel viscerally uncomfortable in his presence.
Sure, he looked different than Gordon remembered and maybe he acted a little different too, but surely Gordon could tell that he still… cared for him, right?
Unwittingly, he recalled how confused and utterly terrified Gordon had looked when he’d pulled him aside at the train station in City 17. Even after he’d revealed his identity, Gordon hadn’t stopped shaking like a leaf, and he hadn’t said or signed a single word.
Christ, how had he not pieced this together earlier?
Gordon certainly had an even better idea now of what Civil Protection service entailed than he had when they’d first crossed paths in the city. And he was a smart guy, so of course he’d connected the dots and deduced that Barney had done some unspeakably horrible things over the years to keep from blowing his cover.
And how could Barney really blame him for finding that repulsive, when he felt exactly the same way about himself most days? ‘Just following orders’ wasn’t really a solid defense when you’d voluntarily enlisted despite knowing full well what the orders would be.
Barney felt sick as the full weight of this realization—of what Gordon must think of him—suddenly threatened to crush him.
Of course Gordon had reacted to his advances like he was a monster; he was a monster. How had he ever fooled himself into thinking Gordon could still love him, after everything he’d done?
He knew better than anyone that Gordon deserved so much better.
For the moment, though, the fact remained that it was far too late to find somewhere else for Gordon to sleep. With a heavy heart, Barney settled on a new objective for the night: He was going to do everything in his power to make Gordon as comfortable as possible so he could get some well-deserved rest, and then tomorrow, he’d let him go.
He figured Gordon could return at any moment, so he didn’t have much time.
After wiping away a few tears with the back of his hand, Barney forced himself to get out of bed so he could remove the heavy wool blanket from atop his own covers and transfer it to the empty cot.
The night was chilly, sure, but Barney told himself that that blanket had always been a little overkill, anyway. He tended to run hot, even at night, whereas Gordon had always hogged the covers, seemingly unable to get comfortable without several pounds of blankets weighing him down.
Gordon needed the extra blanket more than he did. Gordon deserved it more than he did.
Once he'd finished re-making Gordon’s bed, Barney set out a second pair of warm socks for him and then sank back down onto the edge of his own cot. He’d done all he could with the resources available to him.
He just hoped it would be enough.
He didn’t have to wait long before Gordon appeared in the doorway, looking so effortlessly adorable despite his still-haggard appearance and his blank, unfocused stare that Barney almost couldn’t stand to look at him, even though that was also all he wanted to do.
Gordon’s glasses were slightly askew, his damp hair was sticking up in all directions, and his ill-fitting civilian clothes only seemed to draw attention to his lanky proportions. Barney had to fight to tear his gaze away from Gordon’s exposed arms, where untold horrors had etched proof of their abuses onto his skin.
He wondered if Gordon’s entire body looked like that. He wondered if the cuts and bruises were still hurting him. He wondered how long it would take for all the morphine in Gordon’s system to wear off, and how he would feel when that happened.
“Good shower?” Barney asked, more for his own benefit than Gordon’s. He needed to get out of his own head before he made himself sick with worry.
Gordon shrugged, prompting them both to cringe when the action resulted in a loud popping sound that Barney was pretty sure the human body wasn’t supposed to make.
Even after Gordon finished slowly lowering his shoulders back to their resting position, he made no move to step further into the room. Instead, he continued to hover awkwardly in the doorway, nervously wringing his towel in his hands. Barney idly wondered what he’d done with HEV suit.
“That one’s yours.” Barney jerked a thumb in the direction of the freshly made bed.
Both the comment and the gesture were wholly unnecessary, but Barney couldn’t help but feel compelled to emphasize that Gordon would have his own space in this room, and that he was welcome to claim it.
‘Thank you,’ Gordon signed in response before carefully making his way over to the bed and setting his glasses on the dresser. Just like before, he didn’t smile.
Barney wracked his brain, trying to remember if there were any swear words that looked similar to ‘thanks’ in ASL. Maybe Gordon was actually trying to give him a piece of his mind and he was quite literally misreading the signs.
After a couple more minutes of awkward silence, Barney realized he was going to have to turn off the overhead light. Even though he himself could sleep damn near anywhere, through almost anything, under almost any conditions, he figured the flickering bulb was driving Gordon crazy. He’d always been sensitive to things like that.
Barney’s bed squeaked as he rose to his feet.
“Just gettin’ up to turn off the light,” Barney explained, holding up both hands in an instinctive display of innocence. He breathed a sigh of relief when Gordon visibly relaxed. “Figured I’d let you get settled first, though. ‘S okay. Take your time.”
Barney hovered next to the light switch and carefully averted his gaze so Gordon wouldn’t feel like he was being watched. He’d learned his lesson on that one.
When he no longer heard shuffling sounds from the other side of the room, Barney dared to steal a quick glance out of the corner of his eye. Sure enough, Gordon had tucked himself into bed so securely that only the top of his head stuck out from under the blankets. Barney was disappointed but not surprised to find that he was facing the opposite wall, even though that meant he was sleeping on his bad arm.
“Sleep well,” Barney said softly, just in case Gordon was still awake enough to hear him. “I’m right here if you need anything.”
With that, he turned off the overhead light and fumbled his way back to his own bed. He curled up into a ball and wrapped his remaining blanket around himself like a shield.
It offered little insulation from the cold and even less protection from the agonizing pain of rejection.
Although every cell in his body was begging for sleep, Barney forced himself to stay wide awake, even as the minutes dragged on and turned into hours.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that Gordon might need him, and he also knew that if he allowed himself to fall asleep, he wouldn’t stay asleep for long.
The last thing Gordon needed, after everything he’d been through, was to be jarred out of his slumber by one of Barney’s screaming nightmares.
The room was quiet, save for the occasional audible howl of the wind through the hallway and the soft sound of Gordon’s even breathing. He hadn’t moved much since he’d fallen asleep, which told Barney that he was either very comfortable, or way too goddamn exhausted to care that he wasn’t.
It hurt to think that this was probably the last time he’d ever be this close to Gordon while he slept.
Despite the deep ache in the pit of his stomach, Barney couldn’t help but smile as he recalled the countless times he’d had to persuade, beg, or bribe Gordon to put down a book or quit scribbling notes and come to bed. God, he had had always been such a workaholic, but he'd also been one hell of a cuddler.
It had become something of a running joke that Barney would promise to buy him a beer if he made it to bed at a reasonable hour. ‘Beer’ had also served as a euphemism for either sex or dark chocolate when actual beer was not available or preferred.
It had been a good system. It worked for them.
Barney technically still owed Gordon a beer, or perhaps several. When had they stopped keeping track? He wasn’t sure.
For such a smart guy, Gordon had always seemed to lack an instinct for self-preservation, and Barney was thankful and proud that he had finally managed to develop that instinct when he needed it most. He just wished that he hadn’t become yet another thing that Gordon needed to protect himself from.
Unable to stop himself from reminiscing about simpler times now that he had started down that path, Barney eventually found himself consumed by an idea.
A stupid idea, at that. One that he would almost definitely regret in the morning, because it had the potential to break what was left of his heart into a thousand pieces, but one that he would never forgive himself for not trying before his window of opportunity closed for good.
He managed to hold off until the floating clock display changed from 03:59 to 04:00, at which point Barney’s reserves of patience—along with his own instinct for self-preservation—finally ran out.
Very carefully, he slid out of bed, wincing as his still-bare feet met the ice-cold concrete floor once again.
His flimsy, ancient metal bed frame squealed in protest as he dragged it across the room, coming to a stop just inches from Gordon’s sleeping form. Gordon didn’t even flinch, heavy sleeper that he was.
Before he could second-guess the idiotic decision that he had just made, Barney crawled back under his warm covers and propped himself up with one arm. He extended his other arm until his hand was hovering just above Gordon’s shoulder, so close that he could feel the warmth from his body radiating through the heavy layer of blankets.
A split second before his hand made contact, he yanked it away.
“Aw, what the hell am I doin’?” Barney muttered to himself.
This was ridiculous. More than that, it was horribly, undeniably selfish. What if Gordon woke up? What then?
How could he possibly explain this?
The rational part of Barney’s brain continued to scream at him to stop, to quit while he was ahead, go back to his side of the room, and just accept that it was over. At the same time, the overly emotional, sleep-deprived part of his brain wanted—no, needed—some kind of closure, and knew this was the last chance he’d have to find it without causing Gordon even more pain.
No amount of rational thought could override that kind of sheer desperation.
Once again, Barney reached for Gordon. This time, he hesitated only briefly before letting his hand gently come to rest on Gordon’s motionless shoulder.
“Hey, Doc,” Barney whispered, “Don’t worry, I promise I’m gonna let you sleep, but I’ve just got a couple’a things I’d like to say. You know this touchy-feely stuff isn’t really my strong suit, so honestly, I think you’re gonna be happy you slept through this. All you’re missin’ is a bunch of rambling.”
As Barney slowly moved his hand from Gordon’s shoulder to rest on top of his head, everything about this felt wrong again, but for a different reason this time.
In the reunion he’d always imagined, Gordon still smelled like Irish Spring and coffee, not long-expired bar soap and that weird sulfur smell from White Forest’s spring-fed taps. Imaginary Gordon always wrapped him up in a hug and didn’t let go, pulled him into bed, showed him exactly how much he had missed him…
Imaginary Gordon had never stopped loving him.
It was then that a new unnerving thought occurred to Barney: Maybe this wasn’t even Gordon. Maybe it was a convincing fake; some kind of newly engineered Combine weapon?
That was probably just his sleep-deprived brain making up nonsense, but just in case, he had to check. He gently brushed his fingers through Gordon’s hair, until he found what he was searching for: The long, thin, raised scar near the natural part in his hair, a hidden souvenir from some childhood science experiment gone horribly wrong. Barney was one of only a few people outside of Gordon’s immediate family who knew it was there.
“Guess it really is you, huh?” he said softly as he continued to stroke Gordon’s hair, this time with affection instead of suspicion.
“Hope you don’t blame me for doubtin’ you for a second there. You can never be too careful these days, y’know? Especially seein’ as you don’t look a day older than you did at Black Mesa, while I’m…” Barney hesitated. “Well, you could do the math if you wanted to, but let’s just say I’ve been badly pretendin’ every birthday is my thirtieth birthday for an awful lotta years now.”
Barney’s heart nearly stopped when Gordon breathed a soft sigh and pressed his head against the fingers that were tangled in his hair, until he registered that Gordon was still breathing like he was in a deep sleep.
He wasn’t waking up. Apparently, he didn’t mind the feeling of someone touching his hair, either.
Still, Barney knew better than to press his luck. If he was being honest with himself, he was also a little afraid to touch Gordon anywhere below the neck.
What if he hurt him? He was pretty sure there was something wrong with Gordon’s other shoulder that should be looked at by a doctor—preferably a different one than whoever had missed it the first time—and who knew what else was broken?
Yeah, he’d stick to the safer option. It was too risky to try to rub Gordon’s back or spoon him, especially considering that Gordon didn’t even seem to want any of this, now or ever again.
Instead, Barney just kept talking.
“I’d pretty much given up hope of ever seein’ you again, you know that? Once I heard about Eli and then someone told me where you’d gone, I kinda figured… well, that’s it, then. He’s not comin’ back from that. Wouldn’t’ve expected anyone to come back from that, but somehow you did. And… God, I’m just so glad you’re safe.”
Without warning, a sob caught in Barney’s throat. Gordon was alive, he was safe, and that was all that mattered, but goddammit, knowing that Gordon didn’t want to be alive and safe with him still felt like a punch to the gut.
He drew in a shaky breath before continuing, “Look, I guess what I wanna say is… I missed ya, Doc. A lot. Thought about you damn near every day for over twenty years, and I don’t think I’m ever gonna stop lovin’ you.”
Gordon let out another soft, contented hum, indicating that he was still thankfully—and, at the same time, infuriatingly—oblivious to Barney’s emotional turmoil.
His tears were flowing freely now. “‘S okay if you don’t feel the way you used to, though. People change.” He swallowed hard. “I’ve changed. A lot. If I’m bein’ honest… I’ve done some pretty fucked up shit, Gordon.”
Even now, he couldn’t resist the urge to crack a joke. “Remember how you used to think I was a monster for killin’ bugs instead of pickin’ ‘em up in jars like some kinda hippie?”
That was only the setup, not the punchline, but actually, the punchline wasn’t funny. Not even a little bit.
Barney sighed and carefully moved his hand back to Gordon’s shoulder. Touching his hair suddenly felt too intimate, probably because, well… it was.
“Nevermind, forget I brought that up. Not that you’ll remember any of this, anyway. I guess I just… I wanted this one last time, before…” He trailed off, unable to find the words to describe what after would entail.
“I’m gettin’ sentimental in my old age, huh?” He sighed again. “Whatever’s next for you… I hope it’s a hell of a lot better than this. I hope you find someone who makes you happy.”
An image of Alyx briefly flashed through his mind. He’d seen the way she looked at Gordon, and if he reciprocated her feelings… well, it’d be hard to watch, but at least he could find comfort in knowing that those two would take good care of each other.
Barney paused for one last long moment before he pulled his hand away and rolled over onto his back, overcome by grief for a relationship that had, by almost any definition, already ended a long, long time ago.
He’d already gone through this once. Why did he have to go through it again, dammit?
He ran a hand down his face and decided it was probably about time to move his bed back to its original position. It would be morning soon, and Gordon was bound to wake up sooner or later. If he moved now, Gordon would never be any the wiser.
Before Barney could finish persuading his exhausted body to get out of bed again, he heard movement from the other mattress. He froze and stared at the ceiling with panicked eyes as wide as saucers, praying to every deity he could think of that Gordon was still soundly asleep.
It was a futile effort, considering that it had been well-established by this point in his life that the gods—every single one of them, as far as he could tell—had it in for him.
Nothing ever went his way.
The creaking of the ancient bedsprings suggested that Gordon was rolling over onto his other side, which meant Barney’s stealth mission was going to be more difficult than he’d anticipated.
There was some more shuffling, and then Barney heard a low groan of pain.
Oh, God. Gordon's shoulder. He’d probably tried to put too much weight on it, and maybe the morphine had already worn off… or maybe it just hurt that much. No wonder he wanted to roll over and take some pressure off of it.
Just as Barney’s concern for Gordon’s well-being began to outweigh his fear of being exposed as a creepy, overly sentimental old man, he felt something brush against his arm. Once again, he fell completely still, save for his heart, which was threatening to pound its way out of his chest.
It soon became apparent that Gordon wasn’t just aimlessly fumbling around in the dark. He was on a mission, and that mission ended when his cold, shaking hand closed around Barney’s.
The slight rattling of the other bed frame suggested that Gordon’s entire body was shaking. When the sound of his own panicked heartbeat faded from his ears, Barney realized that Gordon was also crying—quiet, gasping sobs that suggested he was either very afraid or in a lot of pain. Possibly both.
“Gordon?” Barney croaked. He coughed in an attempt to clear his congestion; that really was the worst part about crying, wasn’t it? “Hey, it’s okay… it’s just me, and I’m not gonna hurt you.”
With his thumb, Gordon weakly tapped Barney’s hand three times. His heart leapt into his throat. That was almost certainly an accident, but still…
“I’m not gonna hurt ya,” Barney repeated, in what he hoped was a soothing tone. He found himself at a loss for what to say next. It was too dark to sign, and he doubted Gordon would be able to speak while he was clearly so distressed, but they needed to communicate somehow, because something was clearly very wrong.
Three taps again, stronger and more insistent this time, so there was no mistaking their meaning. I love you. An affirmation that Barney had never expected to receive again.
“You mean it?” he whispered, his heart pounding even harder as he dared to allow himself to hope. Was it possible that he’d misunderstood?
Gordon tapped again and then squeezed his hand.
Barney let out a shuddering breath as he answered with three taps of his own. I love you, too.
So, Gordon hadn't been rejecting him. He'd just been numb. Dissociating, maybe.
But he hadn't meant to push him away.
An uncomfortable wave of relief almost immediately gave way to a renewed sense of alarm and uncertainty. Barney had always known Gordon to be prone to anxiety, but panic attack symptoms were distinctive and tended to come on quickly. He'd had plenty of practice helping Gordon cope with those.
This, however… this was new. It scared him, but at least now he felt like he understood, and maybe he could help.
“You can come closer,” he offered, hesitantly. “If you want, I mean.”
He rolled over to face Gordon again and reached out with his free hand to make sure the gap between their beds wasn’t wide enough for either of them to fall through. Fortunately, it wasn’t.
A moment later, Barney let out a soft “oof” as Gordon’s entire body abruptly came to rest in his arms. His movements were so clumsy that Barney suspected he hadn’t intended to crash land, but perhaps that was all his body was able to manage at the moment.
Slowly but surely, Barney wrapped both arms around Gordon’s shaking form, careful to avoid putting pressure on his sore shoulder. He held him close and whispered gentle reassurances while Gordon cried himself out against his chest.
The icy, trembling hand that rested on Barney’s shoulder tapped the same mantra over and over and over.
I love you. I love you. I love you.
God, Barney hadn’t seen a trauma response like this in years. Not since the Seven Hour War, almost. People who broke down like this—who let themselves feel—didn’t last long under the Combine. It wasn’t possible.
Shutting down meant letting your guard down. Letting your guard down meant death.
Barney still didn’t know where Gordon had gone for twenty years, but he found it both impressive and profoundly, deeply unsettling that he’d survived that long without losing touch with that vulnerable, sensitive part of his humanity that was overwhelming him now.
Nobody else who had made it this far had been so lucky… or so damned.
Barney had one last coherent thought before sleep finally took him: Who had kept Gordon safe for all those years?...
Barney woke up slowly and groaned involuntarily as he opened his eyes. Almost immediately, he registered that he was freezing. That was no wonder, considering that a thin t-shirt was the only thing standing between his chest and shoulders and the chilly morning air.
As he continued to wake, Barney took inventory of the rest of his body. His eyes were puffy, his throat was still congested, and he had a terrible crick in his neck. A heavy weight pressing down on his chest made it hard to breathe. One arm felt like pins and needles from the elbow down.
And yet, none of that bothered him, because Gordon was there.
He was alive, he was safe, and by some miracle, he was still in love with him.
Gordon had also managed to steal all of the blankets from both beds, but Barney found that it was impossible to be mad at him for being a blanket hog when his sleepy green eyes were staring up at him with so much affection and wonder, as if he couldn’t quite believe that this was all real.
Barney couldn’t believe it, either.
“Mornin,’” he murmured, carefully bringing his free hand to rest on top of Gordon’s where it was splayed across his chest. Yes, he was real. He was real and he was smiling back at him and oh thank God he was real.
The artificial light streaming in under the doorway and the nearby sounds of footsteps and chatter told Barney that it was morning already, or perhaps early afternoon. They’d need to get out of bed, eventually.
He was supposed to be on watch. Gordon needed to see a doctor. Alyx was probably wondering where they were.
Barney glanced down and found that Gordon’s eyes were closed again, and his shoulders were rising and falling with slow, deep breaths. Three gentle taps against his chest—I love you—told him that Gordon was still awake, at least for the moment.
I love you, too, Barney tapped back. For once, he didn't feel the need to fill the silence. Their silly little tradition from half a lifetime ago felt even more intimate, somehow, than anything he could possibly think to say.
The corners of Gordon’s lips turned up to form a small smile. He curled his fingers around Barney’s and let out a contented sigh.
Five more minutes wouldn’t hurt, Barney thought, as his heavy eyelids fell closed once again.
If anyone needed them, they should know where to find them.
They could rest for five more minutes.