Barney Calhoun opened one eye, and then the other. He squinted as his surroundings slowly came into focus. From where he was lying on his side, he could see that he was in a sparsely decorated but cozy bedroom. A lone chair stood out against the bare white walls, just barely visible under a massive pile of laundry.
The slight chill in the air, the faint sound of bird songs, and the dust-filled sunbeams filtering through the blinds told him it was still early morning. He shifted as he belatedly registered that his right arm was prickling with pins and needles where it was trapped under his pillow.
Without taking his eyes off the long, striped shadows that were slowly creeping towards the bed, Barney fumbled for the edge of the green patterned bedspread. He let out a contented sigh as he pulled it over his bare shoulders and curled up into an even tighter ball, intent on squeezing in a few more minutes of rest before he had to get up and start his day.
Just as his eyes began to drift closed again, a sleepy voice pierced through his lingering early-morning brain fog.
“You awake?” The question was accompanied by a shuffle of movement, which ended when a pale, freckled arm snaked around Barney’s waist.
He smiled and let his body go limp so his companion could pull him closer. The reassuring weight of another body pressed against his seemed to ground him, as did the sensation of a heartbeat against his back, strong and slow and steady in rhythm with the warm, even breaths against the back of his neck.
He wasn’t alone, he realized. Gordon was there.
Gordon was always there.
Barney opened his mouth to respond, but to his surprise, no sound came out at first. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Mornin,’” he finally croaked.
The arm around his waist pulled him even closer, and a stubbly face nuzzled his shoulder. “Slept well?”
His answering hum was, perhaps, the understatement of the century. Barney couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so deeply, or awakened feeling so refreshed and content.
“Thought so,” Gordon breathed as he intertwined their bare legs.
With a deep yawn, Barney began to stretch each of his limbs in turn, basking in the added warmth from the sunbeams that had finally arrived to caress his face. He shivered as Gordon began to pepper soft kisses along his neck and shoulders.
“Hey,” he mumbled in protest, “c’mon, I’m ticklish.” It was only a halfhearted objection, and he assumed Gordon knew that, but he still chose to punctuate his request with a light slap to Gordon’s closest hand.
Gordon’s chest rumbled with low, gentle laughter as he moved his hand away from Barney’s chest to his hip. “Didn’t hear you complaining last night,” he teased, right before he pressed one last kiss to the crook of Barney’s neck.
Last night… last night…
Barney didn’t remember much from last night, but then again, that wasn’t entirely unusual. Perhaps they’d had a bit too much to drink before they’d gone to bed.
He could feel his face heating up as his imagination began to fill in the gaps in his memory. By this point, he was officially wide awake. Judging by the stirring he felt against his lower back, so was Gordon.
Every inch of Barney’s skin that wasn’t pressed against Gordon’s was suddenly burning, aching to be touched. He felt like he hadn’t been touched in years; he felt like he was running out of time.
Time for what?
With a soft groan, Barney dislodged Gordon’s arm, rolled over to face him, and wordlessly captured his lips in a passionate kiss. Gordon reciprocated eagerly, pulling Barney even closer as his free hand moved to caress every inch of bare skin it could reach, and it wasn’t long at all before instinct took over.
Just as he’d done a hundred times before, Barney waited for Gordon to roll onto his back before he straddled his partner’s lap. He kissed Gordon roughly as he ground against him, skimmed his hands down his sides, slipped one wandering hand under the waistband of his boxers…
Gordon made a sharp, strangled noise and abruptly broke their kiss. His green eyes darted wildly around the room, wide and expressive even without the added magnification from his glasses, until his gaze fixed on an object on the far side of the bed.
Barney sat up and frowned. This wasn’t part of their routine, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“You have to… oh, God, we’ve got to get moving,” Gordon gasped. He held out a trembling arm and pointed at the alarm clock on his nightstand.
When Barney turned to face the clock, he found that its red digital display read “00:00.” His brows knit with confusion as he glanced between the blinking, indifferent clock display and Gordon’s panicked expression, and then back to the clock.
00:00. 00:00. 00:00.
Another long, awkward moment passed before Gordon finally ran out of patience. He glared up at Barney like he was an idiot, let out an exasperated sigh, and spelled it out for him.
“You’re going to be late for work!” he insisted. “We don’t have time for… this.” Gordon’s entire body was practically vibrating with some sort of nervous energy as he spoke.
Barney, meanwhile, felt like he’d been punched in the gut.
And then Gordon was gone. One second, he’d been pinned to the bed by Barney’s weight in his lap; a split second later, Barney was alone on top of the sheets, watching helplessly as Gordon disappeared through the nearest open doorway.
A beat or two passed before Barney sighed and resigned himself to following his partner’s lead. He couldn’t help but feel a bit rejected, but he had to admit that Gordon had a point—he really couldn’t afford to be late for work. He’d already been late so many other times.
The hardwood floor was cold under his bare feet as he slid out of bed and slowly made his way to the bathroom. As soon as the door swung shut behind him, the left side of his face began to itch, just above his cheekbone.
When he leaned forward and inspected his face in the mirror above the sink, he found that the skin there was perfectly smooth. Not a single scratch or wrinkle or bug bite in sight.
His face looked exactly like it always had. And why wouldn’t it? He was only 25, after all.
A few minutes later, Barney emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed in a blue button-up shirt and black work pants. He’d expected that doorway to lead back to the bedroom, but instead, he found himself in the tiny kitchen he shared with Gordon.
Much like their bedroom, it was almost unsettlingly bare, but it was fully equipped with all the essentials—a coffee maker, a toaster, and a set of cast iron pans just like the ones his grandma used to have. The simple layout of the room, with its checkered black and white floor tiles, made him feel a pang of nostalgia for… something.
He wasn’t sure what.
Barney glanced inside the refrigerator—empty, save for a six-pack of beer and a slice of leftover pizza from Tony’s—before he decided he wasn’t all that hungry. Besides, if he was supposed to be in a hurry, he could justify skipping breakfast. He picked up a full mug of coffee and padded across the cool tile floor in search of Gordon, who was almost certainly waiting for the coffee in another room.
That was their routine, after all. That had always been their routine.
Sure enough, Barney found Gordon in their living room, curled up in one corner of their ugly black sofa clad only in his boxers and a bright purple University of Washington t-shirt. He was also wearing a ring on his left hand; Barney stared at it for a moment before he looked down and discovered that he was wearing a matching one on his own finger.
Much to Barney’s amusement and mild annoyance, Gordon appeared to be so engrossed in the pile of papers in his lap that he hadn’t even heard him enter the room.
“C’mon, Doc,” he teased as he approached, “what have I told you about grading exams on your day off, huh?”
Gordon had the decency to look chagrined when he finally glanced up from his work. He held out a hand to accept the cup of coffee and insisted, “I only have a few of these left to grade, and then I’m all yours until I have to go pick up the sample. I promise.” Gordon patted the empty space next to him. “Keep me company?”
Barney stepped over Gordon’s outstretched legs and sprawled out on the couch so that his head was resting against Gordon’s side. The living room was warmer than the bedroom had been, possibly due to the sunlight streaming in through the nearby sliding glass door. The blinds were open, and he could just barely make out the silhouette of the Space Needle in the distance.
“The sample?” Barney asked, once he’d finished settling in.
“Yes, the sample,” Gordon replied, his tone uncharacteristically flat. “I have to pick it up, remember?”
Barney nodded and snuggled into the couch cushions. In all honesty, he had no idea what Gordon was talking about, but this wouldn’t have been the first time he’d zoned out during one of Gordon’s work rants and missed something important.
He was trying to work on that. Really.
A moment later, Gordon began to idly card his fingers through Barney’s hair with his free hand while he worked.
Well, that was Gordon for you, Barney supposed. Always a workaholic, but at least he was an affectionate one.
He closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh, momentarily content to focus on little else besides the motion of Gordon’s even breathing, the scratching of his red pen against his students’ exam papers, and his occasional noises of approval or disapproval. Judging by his reactions, it seemed his introductory physics students had learned to apply themselves in the weeks since their last exam. Good for them.
Despite Gordon's tendency to get a little too absorbed in his pet projects, he was very much a man of his word. As soon as he’d finished marking the last paper—Barney noted with amusement that the student had scored a 69%—he set the pile of exams down on the coffee table and pulled Barney into his lap.
“I wish you didn’t have to go to work,” Gordon murmured. He pressed a kiss to Barney’s left cheek and smiled. “It’s been way too long since we had a day off together.”
“Mhmm,” Barney replied, before he reciprocated the gesture. He half-expected Gordon to push him away again, but this time, the mention of his work obligations didn’t seem to spark any particular sense of urgency.
In fact, Gordon seemed to forget about it almost immediately after the words left his lips. Instead, he simply sighed and rested his head against Barney’s, while his free hand rubbed his back so gently that Barney wondered if Gordon thought he was going to break.
“Morning news?” Gordon asked after a long silence, and Barney acquiesced with a nod. He didn’t particularly like to watch the news, especially lately, but that was what Gordon wanted to do… and as long as he was distracted, maybe they could both forget that he was supposed to be leaving for work.
Or maybe he was already supposed to be at work? He honestly wasn’t sure.
Their tiny living room TV crackled to life, and Gordon reached for the remote to switch to the news channel. When the static cleared, Barney found that their usual morning news anchor—a pretty red-haired woman who styled her hair with chopsticks and couldn’t have been any older than 25—had been replaced by an older man in a suit.
Something about the man’s appearance made all the hairs on the back of Barney’s neck stand at attention. The guy looked normal enough at first glance, aside from his ill-fitting blue suit, but the longer Barney watched him, the more apparent it became that his eyes were just a little too bright and his motions were oddly stilted.
After a few more minutes of staring at the TV screen in confusion, it finally occurred to Barney that he didn’t understand a single word the man was saying. It sounded as if he was speaking English, but none of his words seemed to register, no matter how hard Barney strained to make sense of them.
He glanced up at Gordon in preparation to crack a Twilight Zone joke and was surprised to discover that his partner was sitting stock-still as he watched the man with rapt attention, nodding along to his words with an eerily blank expression on his face.
“Hey, uh, Earth to Gordon?” Barney joked weakly.
That seemed to get his attention. They made eye contact for a fleeting, brief instant, and Barney’s stomach dropped as he realized that Gordon hardly looked any more human than the man on the TV. His already pale skin looked almost translucent, and his eyes were dark and empty.
“I have to go pick up the sample,” Gordon intoned, without blinking.
And with that, just like before, he somehow managed to slide out from underneath Barney in what felt like a fraction of a second… and disappeared again.
This time, Barney didn’t even see him retreat. From his perspective, Gordon had simply vanished into thin air.
Alone once again, Barney momentarily tuned out the television and turned to stare blankly through the sliding glass door. Through the gray and orange haze that had eclipsed the sun, Barney could just barely discern that the Space Needle had been replaced by a massive, ugly, jagged structure that he had never seen before in his life.
Even from a distance, its presence felt imposing, alien, wrong in a way that inexplicably made him want to crawl out of his own skin.
Meanwhile, the man in the suit was still talking, and his previously benign expression now seemed to stare straight through Barney, almost as if he knew something that Barney did not. He lurched for the remote and jammed the power button, but nothing happened.
He tried again. And again. And again.
The man kept talking.
“Barney!” called a voice in the distance. Barney was pretty sure he recognized the voice, but it wasn’t Gordon’s. It was… feminine? And it sounded so far away… unless it was coming from the man on the TV…?
It took a surprising amount of effort for Barney to tear his gaze away from the TV screen again. The second he did so, he was confronted by an even more disturbing sight. His previously cozy, comfortable living room was melting right before his eyes.
The white walls seemed to disappear in waves, almost as if the paint was being power washed away to reveal cold gray concrete underneath. The last vestiges of natural light gave way to a sickly, humming yellow glow.
Only the black and white checkered floor tiles remained unchanged, and oh God, he realized. He knew this place. He remembered this place.
He was back in Gordon’s dorm at Black Mesa.
… Or perhaps he had never left?
Barney squeezed his eyes shut and flung an arm across his face, unsure what else to expect but damn certain by this point that he didn’t want to see it. The man was still talking, and even though he still couldn’t make out a word, Barney could feel in his bones that the man was talking to him.
The first tremor was so gentle that he almost wondered if he’d imagined it, or if it was merely a byproduct of his anxiety as opposed to a prelude to some ominous, terrible fate that he now knew was inevitable. He took a deep breath, squeezed his eyes shut harder, and gripped the arm of the couch for dear life. It was still warm from where Gordon's body had rested against it only moments before.
The second shudder was harder to ignore, as was the third… and then everything was shaking, and Barney was consumed from the inside out by a horrible helplessness that he had felt only one before in his life as it sank in that it was happening again and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
He was alone and completely powerless. Just like last time.
The couch was shaking so roughly that his teeth were rattling in his skull. Even with his arm over his face, he could see a flash of green light… and another… and another…
Barney opened his mouth to scream. He screamed until his throat felt raw, but not a single sound came out.
No, no, not again. He had to find Gordon, had to warn him… had to stop him… had to get to work…
Barney startled awake with a gasp, otherworldly sounds and foreign tongues still echoing in his ears, and found himself face-to-face with a slightly perplexed Alyx Vance. Her features were scrunched with frustration and determination, and Barney might have found the expression amusing if his body hadn’t been so preoccupied trying to convince his brain that he wasn’t actually dying.
At least, not imminently.
“Come on, Barney,” Alyx demanded, still shaking his shoulder insistently. “Dad says you’ve gotta get up. You’re starting your new job today, remember?”
A quick glance at the clock mounted on the wall of Dr. Kleiner’s makeshift laboratory confirmed that Alyx was right. Today was the day, and he was going to have to hurry if he didn’t want to miss his appointment at the recruitment office.
In all honesty, he wanted more than anything to miss that appointment, but he was in far too deep for that to still be an option. He’d long since resigned himself to his fate.
He’d volunteered for this, after all.
“You’re right, kid,” Barney said, in the most positive tone he could muster. Even to his own ears, it sounded surprisingly convincing. “Thanks for wakin’ me up. Wouldn’t wanna be late.”
Alyx beamed and threw her arms around his waist. Barney chuckled quietly, despite the circumstances, and draped one arm around her back to return the hug. He tried not to think about the very real possibility that this would be the last hug they ever exchanged.
“Where’s your dad, Al?” he asked, after a long moment.
“Over there,” she answered. She jerked her thumb towards the false wall on the far side of the damp, filthy room.
Barney nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and quietly set about gathering his things. He wouldn’t need much—only the clothes on his back and a few basic toiletries, which he had a feeling might be confiscated upon his arrival. He patted the ever-present lump in the right front pocket of his denim coveralls and sighed.
No going back.
Alyx sat quietly on the corner of his dusty old mattress, fidgeting with the charm on her mother’s necklace as she watched him sort through his meager possessions. For the umpteenth time since their relocation to City 17, Barney couldn’t help but marvel at just how thoroughly Eli had managed to shield his daughter from the true horror of the situation in which they’d all found themselves.
When Barney was satisfied that everything was sufficiently organized for the next rebel who happened to pass through—or perhaps for his own eventual return, though he’d long since learned not to think that far ahead if he could help it—he rose to his feet and let Alyx lead him over to the secret door.
He leaned forward in preparation to enter the security code, but as usual, Alyx was several steps ahead of him. She typed in the code correctly on the first try and celebrated with a silent fist pump of victory. It was at that point that Barney had to look away.
The last thing any of them needed, least of all Alyx, was for him to start tearing up.
The wall slid open on squeaky tracks, and Eli and Dr. Kleiner were waiting for him on the other side. Alyx moved to stand beside her father while the three men exchanged heavy glances.
Eli was the first to speak. “Well, son, I suppose this is it,” he said, as he stepped forward to clap Barney on the shoulder. The gesture would have seemed empty coming from anyone else, but the look on Eli’s face told him exactly how to interpret the sentiment.
It wasn’t exactly a goodbye, but it wasn’t exactly a “see you later” either. It was a “best of luck, kid,” or maybe a “thanks for taking one for the team.” It said, “I’ll pray for you, but not too hard, because we all know what happens when we allow ourselves to hope.”
“Barney,” Dr. Kleiner began timidly, “are you sure you still want to do this?”
A bark of laughter escaped Barney’s lips before he could think to stop it. He could feel the corner of his mouth turning up into a sort of twisted smirk as he asked, “Do I really have a choice? Thought y’all needed a man on the inside.”
Good, his dark sense of humor was taking over. He was going to need that.
Dr. Kleiner attempted to stammer his way through a correction, until Eli interjected with a soft, “Izzy, it’s okay. He knows what you meant.” He turned to look directly at Barney and continued, “And I hope he knows how grateful we are for his… service.”
He’d been about to say ‘sacrifice.’ Barney knew it, Kleiner knew it, Eli knew it, and judging by the look on her face, even Alyx was starting to pick up on the fact that this was no ordinary goodbye. She was sheltered, but she was also brilliant. Very few details escaped her attention once she was forced to confront a harsh reality head-on.
“Barney?” she asked.
For that second time that morning, Barney plastered on a smile and willed it to reach his eyes. The motion threatened to rip the still-healing gash across his left cheek wide open; at this rate, he doubted it would ever heal. “Yeah, kiddo?”
“I wish you didn’t have to go to work,” she said softly, and Barney could almost hear another voice echoing those exact same sentiments in the back of his mind. He swallowed the lump in his throat, leaned down, and opened his arms.
He was somewhat surprised to realize that he hardly had to bend down at all—somehow, while he’d had his back turned, Alyx had grown several inches and was suddenly almost as tall as he was. As it turned out, kids really did grow up fast, even after the end of the world.
Huh, who would’ve thought?
Barney closed his eyes for a moment to savor the feeling of being loved unconditionally, but that was all he could spare. Fortunately, Alyx seemed to sense this and stepped back before he had to pry her off, much to his silent relief.
“Eli, can I have a minute alone with Dr. Kleiner?” he asked. Eli acquiesced with a terse nod and placed a hand on Alyx’s shoulder to shepherd her out of the room.
As soon as the sliding wall clicked shut again, Barney reached into his pocket and emptied its contents into Kleiner’s outstretched hand. A heavy silence descended upon the room as Barney took one last long look at his most prized possessions: His faded Black Mesa Security ID, a red keychain that had once been emblazoned with MIT’s distinctive logo, and a simple gold band that was still waiting for its intended recipient.
Neither Barney nor Kleiner said a word during the handoff. It was obvious what these objects were, and it was obvious what Barney intended for Kleiner to do with them. They wouldn’t be safe, where Barney was going, but if what the vortigaunts said was true…
Barney choked back a sob and just barely managed to croak out a “thank you” before he turned on his heel and headed for the nearest exit. He’d never been very good at goodbyes, and it was far too late to try to change that now.
He slipped out of the secret room as soon as the opening in the wall was large enough to allow him to pass and strode across the lab with a sense of purpose that just barely masked his apprehension. He graced Eli with one last nod and Alyx with one last wave, and then paused in the doorway and took one last look around before he let the door of the fake soda machine slam shut behind him.
Part of him wanted to take a moment to breathe, to think, to see if he could still feel the ghost of Gordon’s lips against his cheek if he focused hard enough…
But Gordon had been right. There simply wasn’t time for this.
He had a job to do, and he couldn’t afford to be late for work.