Notes: i hope somebody else likes weird ideas taken to their logical conclusion as much as i do. credit to ethan/bellygunnr for being the one to inspire this in the first place
Fanart!! (contains spoilers)
Notes: i hope somebody else likes weird ideas taken to their logical conclusion as much as i do. credit to ethan/bellygunnr for being the one to inspire this in the first place
Fanart!! (contains spoilers)
Gordon didn't think much of the very long, very detailed non-disclosure agreement he signed upon being offered a position at Black Mesa. After all, research facilities like this were very protective of their methodologies and prospective scientific breakthroughs. Doubly so when their government funding was dependent upon a commitment to secrecy.
It's not like Gordon had anyone to talk to about it, anyway.
Still, his first day at the facility has him wondering if he shouldn't have looked a little harder into the establishment he was working for.
It starts when he walks onto the facility campus for the first time. He'd been given transportation in the form of a shuttle from a nearby town, and dropped off in front of a nondescript concrete building in the middle of fucking nowhere.
There to greet him is a security guard, dressed up in pale blue and a kevlar vest.
"Mornin," the guard greets as Gordon steps off the shuttle, squinting in the harsh desert light. Its engine stutters and chugs as it winds back up, the only way back out quickly disappearing into the wavering desert heat.
Gordon gives the guard a polite nod. Already, he's wracked with anxiety over the simplest of things. Should he just walk in? Or should he wait for this guard to prompt him? Gordon's internal monologue is interrupted as the guard addresses him.
"You the new guy? They've been talkin' about you," the guard smiles, peering out from under his helmet. Gordon wonders who 'they' are. Did this guard know Kleiner? "Name's Barney. I handle security around here."
Barney offers his hand, and Gordon meets it with a quick shake. The guard stares at him for a moment - waiting, Gordon is sure, for his own name. Instead, Gordon reaches into his pocket to produce his wallet and ID. After a beat, Barney takes the card gingerly, eyes flicking from Gordon's photo to his face. He hands it back.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Freeman."
When Gordon has nothing to offer him but a stare, Barney clears his throat.
"I'll, uh, show you inside, and you can get your ID and clearance set up, 'n all that."
With that, Barney turns on his heel and leads Gordon inside, boots kicking up dust on the packed dirt path.
The building, while intimidating from the outside, is actually very boring on the inside. Despite the cutting edge research no doubt being done in the labs below, Black Mesa’s offices seem determined to be as bland and featureless as possible.
The secretary at the desk doesn't have a chance to try and fumble through a conversation with Gordon. Barney introduces him, and the secretary points him toward the appropriate office to get his affairs in order. His stomach buzzes uneasily at the thought of living in an on-site dormitory. Sharing his space isn't something he's ever looked forward to.
The guard grins as he leaves Gordon to fend for himself, returning to his post.
"See you around, doc!"
Gordon had wondered, in the moment, if he'd ever actually end up seeing that specific guard again, given Black Mesa's size. He doesn't expect to see him again that day, halfway across the facility.
The metal tram is empty when Gordon boards it. In truth, Gordon hadn't seen many people topside in the walk from the office to the nearest railway station. Gordon tries to contain a shiver as the tram lowers itself into the earth and the temperature plummets. That this place was big enough to warrant its own transportation, transportation that takes its time meandering through massive, winding caverns, is something that Gordon decides falls under the terms of his NDA.
The tram comes to an easy stop at a suspended platform, which leads to a massive metal airlock. And next to it, an observation window, holding another security guard, in the same blue getup. Gordon adjusts his grip on his suitcase holding the only belongings he’s taken with him, and steps onto the walkway.
"Hello again, Dr. Freeman. Lemme get that door for you."
The guard's voice comes over the tinny intercom and Gordon does a double take. He'd put down the similar appearance to the outfit, but, no - it's the same man as before. There's no reason he couldn't have gotten here before Gordon. The guard had left the office before him, after all. But the fact that he seems to be personally shepherding Gordon through integrating at Black Mesa seems... odd.
Gordon pushes the thought away as he makes his way through the airlock to find his room and settle in for the night.
The next morning, Gordon's to be given an orientation into Sector C, where he'll be working for the foreseeable future. He leaves the dorms through the railway station at the back, rather than the one he'd arrived in. The airlock is, once again, manned by Barney.
Does the entire complex have only one security guard? Gordon passes off their repeated encounters as coincidence, and tries to keep his mind focused on the very important task of making a good impression on people who definitely do not want him here, rather than a security guard who seems to be around every corner.
That becomes impossible when Gordon arrives at Sector C and there to personally let him off the tram is none other than Barney. Again.
Gordon doesn't hear the guard's greeting. There is no way Barney could have gotten here before him, unless Black Mesa is letting their guards in on experimental teleportation technology (and Gordon knows for a fact the stuff is still only theoretical. He'd read Kleiner's book). He doesn't make a move to exit the tram.
"Uh. Dr. Freeman?" Barney questions, as if Gordon's the one with a problem. Gordon keeps his stare level and even. Then, he signs:
"Why are you here?"
Barney blinks, uncomprehending. Not a new or surprising reaction, but one that manages to frustrate Gordon for the first time in a while. This is beginning to turn into something he can’t just ignore. Chagrined, Gordon shakes his head and steps off the tram, brushing past the guard to head to the massive airlock doors behind them. Barney babbles something, and moves to catch up to Gordon's brisk step.
"Doc - uh, wait - " Barney tries, meeting Gordon at the door when it becomes clear that the doctor will need to wait for his assistance once again.
Gordon stares at the airlock doors for what seems like an eternity before he finally looks askance at the guard. Barney jumps, turning to punch numbers into the door's keypad.
"Lemme, uh, get this for you." The guard mumbles.
The massive door opens with the grinding sound of metal-on-metal and a hiss of cool compressed air. Gordon darts in, ducking under the door before it finishes fully opening. Inside, he can only direct his hard stare at the opposing door as he waits for it to open to see -
to see -
Standing inside, abashed.
Gordon can't help it. He whips his head around to look behind him, but the entrance door is, of course, already closed.
"I can show you to where Dr. Kleiner's lab is...?" Barney tries.
Gordon returns his stare to the man who can seemingly apparate out of nowhere. After a cold moment, Barney clears his throat.
"Uh, this way." Barney leads him past the front desk, Gordon quickly falling in step behind him
It's his first day at Black Mesa proper. He'd expected resentment from older employees, and stress from being thrown into a new environment, but being haunted of all things was not on his list of unpleasant experiences to expect.
Gordon is thrown out of his train of thought when they arrive at a glass door and - standing beside it is - Barney.
But Barney's right in front of Gordon.
Gordon's gaze rapidly flits between the familiar face beside the door and Barney's back in front of him. There's a heavy feeling curling in his chest. It's as if something terrible is about to happen. When Barney - the one in front of him - moves to step through the door, Gordon doesn't follow. The guard notices, and turns to face him. Gordon feels the urge to close his eyes.
But he doesn't. And as he looks between the two of them, Gordon can see they're identical. The same face, from their tired eyes and 5 o'clock shadow to the slope of their brow and the sharp bridge of their nose.
Barney says something to him, but once again Gordon doesn't hear it. He stands there with his jaw locked like a vice, unable to voice his confusion over what must be his own burgeoning insanity. He doesn't like how both of the guards have their eyes on him, sharing the same concerned expression, head gently tilted. The back of his neck prickles with unease.
"Dr. Freeman?" The Barney in front takes a step towards him, and Gordon takes a step back. Both guards frown.
"Uh - "
"Gordon! There you are!"
Gordon jolts from his trance to see his old mentor briskly stepping into the hall ahead of them. Seeing Kleiner in person after so long is an unexpected relief, minutely easing the tight coil in Gordon's chest.
"I had meant to meet you at the door, but I'm sure you know that our work often takes precedence!" Kleiner smiles. Gordon does not.
Gordon would like to greet his mentor warmly - he IS the reason Gordon's position was able to be secured here, as far as Gordon knows - but his focus is taken by the still-identical guards. Kleiner notices that in lieu of a greeting, all he's being offered is Gordon's frantic gaze, bouncing between the guards and back to him. Unfortunately, he completely misinterprets the reason for Gordon's anxiety.
"No need to worry, Gordon. The security team is only a precaution against any unwanted visitors. As long as you've got your ID, there's nothing to be nervous about!"
"I, uh, don't think that's the problem, doc." The Barney next to him mumbles, scratching at his stubble. He shifts his footing, tapping the toe of his boot against the tile.
"Oh?" Kleiner says helpfully, turning to Barney. Then, to the other Barney. He looks between them for a moment before the light seems to turn on in his head.
"Ah! Yes! No one's properly introduced you, have they? Gordon, this is Barney," he says, placing a hand on Barney's shoulder, "he's the hivemind that forms the bulk Black Mesa's security team!"
Gordon's mind goes blank. His hands twitch, and the first thing he does is spell out,
"Yes! Ingenious, isn't it? One mind, many bodies! His very nature allows him to coordinate the facility's security with unprecedented competence!"
"Shucks, doc, you don't have to flatter me." The Barney next to Kleiner smiles sheepishly, while the one by the door stands a little straighter, puffing out his chest.
Gordon is at a loss. His normally sharp mind is stumbling over this new information. So all of the Barneys he had seen up to this point were - different. Different bodies. But the same person. One consciousness, spread out across Black Mesa in the form of a painfully average-looking security guard.
Once again, Kleiner's voice brings him back to reality.
"Now then, I'm sure you're eager to see where you'll be working. If you'll come along, Gordon, I'll show you to the laboratory. We've got a great deal to catch up on, you and I!"
Gordon follows Kleiner further into the facility, leaving the Barneys - Barney - at the door.
He tries to focus on his initiation. Which isn't as hard as it should be, as Gordon easily becomes absorbed into the lab's workflow. It seems the presence of another doctor in the lab was sorely needed - no wonder he'd been rushed through settling into Black Mesa. He nearly lets himself forget about the encounter, until he passes through another guarded door, and Barney is there to remind him that yes, he is going to be a fixture of Gordon's employment.
As the day winds down, and Gordon's heading back to the tram, he is once again confronted with two Barneys. At the guarded door near the entrance of Sector C, it seems another Barney has arrived to replace the one currently at his post. Gordon's bewilderment at the guard's existence is turning into genuine curiosity. Do the bodies each have separate schedules? Do they individually need to rest?
As the wheels in his head turn, his gaze doesn't go unnoticed. The Barney taking up his post catches Gordon's eye, and the other immediately turns to face him. Two sets of identical eyes, in identical faces, pin Gordon down, and he is once again taken by unease. Barney, to his credit, seems to notice the effect his twin gaze has, and quickly turns his on-duty set of eyes away. The other, off-duty body approaches Gordon.
"Heya, doc. I wanted to... apologize for earlier," he says, brow furrowing a little. Gordon frowns.
"I've been around long enough to know that meeting me can be kinda... overwhelming, for people, the first time. Most new hires get briefed about it, but I guess they wanted you in here right quick, since you didn't get the chance."
Barney is again shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wavering in place. He rubs his hands together. Gordon isn't sure what he's done to warrant this much personal attention from the guard, and feels a little uncomfortable.
"I gotta change outta my uniform," Barney says, tugging at the strap of his vest, "But uh, catch me later, and I'll buy you a beer." He grins.
Gordon thins his lips in a not-quite-smile. Ending the one-sided conversation with a curt nod, he makes his way to the tram.
Gordon's usual way of dealing with conflict is to avoid the issue entirely. When it comes to awkward situations, and individuals he doesn't get along with, his instinct to avoid all contact has served him well in his 27 years.
The fact that this seems to be an untenable method of dealing with his new omnipresent acquaintance is not doing his anxiety any favors.
Barney treats every scientist with familiarity. Including Gordon. At first, Gordon pegs him as something of a social butterfly because of it. But with time, it becomes clear that this isn't exactly the case. Barney knows everybody because he's the only security guard to know. The Science Team may interact more with Barney on a day to day basis than their own lab mates.
The identical guards are, quite literally, around every corner. At every airlock, every secure door, every tram station. Outside of greetings Gordon receives in passing, Barney doesn't make another attempt at real conversation. But he still feels Barney's gaze on him every time he passes through a checkpoint, like the guard is waiting for something. It may just be that Gordon's anxiety is making him paranoid. If paranoia is even an unreasonable response to what amounts to a sentient surveillance system.
Still, Barney's haunting of Black Mesa means that Gordon ends up learning more about him without really trying. Knowledge about a strange, unique entity isn't necessarily something he's going to turn away.
First is the confirmation that Barney's disparate bodies indeed have different schedules. They have their own shifts, off hours, and breaks, as if they are different people. More than that, each body has an individual designation, which, in practice, seems to take the place of a surname. Gordon wonders if he has an actual last name. Where exactly Barney came from isn't something that is ever touched upon, but Gordon has a few undisclosed ideas relating to his employer.
Eventually, despite Gordon's best efforts at being standoffish, Barney does get to buy him that beer.
The shuttle that had brought Gordon into Black Mesa ran regularly from the facility to a small desert town some distance away. There's practically nothing there - the main draw for Black Mesa's employees being a dinky little bar and the allure of being outside the facility's careful gaze. Not that Black Mesa didn't most likely have their claws sunk deep into their little neighbor.
Gordon decides to take the shuttle that night. A few drinks by himself is a last resort measure to unwind from the stress that's been a constant since he got here. There are a couple other Black Mesa employees riding along, but the majority of the shuttle is empty.
It nearly escapes Gordon's notice that Barney is here. He's never seen the guard outside of his work clothes. Barney passes very easily for a regular guy - and there's no reason he wouldn't, for anyone who wasn't aware of his hundred-plus doppelgangers lurking beneath the New Mexico desert.
Gordon sits at the other end of the shuttle.
When they arrive, Gordon meanders alongside the group as they head towards the bar, not quite wanting to be part of it. If Barney is trying to catch his eye, Gordon pointedly ignores him.
Gordon takes up a seat at the far end of the bar, planning to get harmlessly buzzed so that he can think himself in circles.
Barney is leaning on the bar beside him, smiling easily. Gordon wants to feel frustrated, but the feeling doesn't quite come.
"Lemme get you that drink?"
Gordon says nothing, only tilting his head. He doesn't refuse; Barney seems to take that as an okay, and soon they're both holding a bottle.
"I didn't really expect you to be the 'drinking alone' type." A smirk slides onto Barney's face.
Gordon’s lips press into a hard line. The urge to speak and be understood rises in his chest, and he moves his hands despite his expectations.
"I like my space."
Barney’s smile falters, his eyes narrowing just a bit. There's a full pause as he doesn't speak, doesn't move, then:
"Hah. Now that much, I was able to pick up on."
Gordon raises his eyebrows, just a bit. So he can understand sign, or he's learned some, since the last time he spoke to Gordon. But it'll take much more than that to impress him.
"You know sign?"
"I've been, uh, learning. Slowly. Since the last time we... talked." Barney takes a sip of his beer, mouth curling sardonically around the lip. "Figured I ought to know, right? 'f you're gonna be here for the long haul."
Gordon takes a moment to watch him. Barney’s eyes flit around the bar every now and then, like he’s looking for something. Or looking out for something.
"Who's teaching you?"
Again, it takes Barney a beat to catch up, even to a simple question.
"Oh, uh, nobody. Not like I can take a class." Barney laughs, but it's humorless. Gordon wonders if it's because Black Mesa is so out of the way, but has a feeling the real reason may be far more unpleasant. "Black Mesa's got books. And uh, I did... ask Dr. Kleiner about some things. Though, he's too busy to devote too much time to me. He just... pointed me in the right direction."
Barney takes another sip. Gordon has more than a few things to think about.
"Huh?" Barney catches the movement out of the corner of his eye, and Gordon repeats himself.
"Oh, uh... not long. Little more'n a week."
In only a few days, he's learned this much? Barney's face twists a bit, eyes shying away.
"Actually, I uh... I should be honest." Barney scratches at the back of his neck. "I may be, uh, lookin' at a dictionary right this second."
Barney grins a little sheepishly. Gordon looks him up and down. There's no book anywhere on Barney's person. Feeling Gordon's gaze, Barney speaks up.
"Oh, not here, doc. Back at home base."
Gordon blinks. In the short time they had been talking, Barney had started to turn from 'surveillance borg' to 'well-meaning coworker'. Now, he is thrust back into a very strange reality. As Barney speaks to him, he is also somewhere in Black Mesa, nose deep in whatever meager literature the facility has on ASL.
"Haven't really. NOT been studyin' since I started. Benefits of being... well." Barney's lips quirk, eyes shifting around the bar again. "You know."
Gordon follows Barney's suspicious gaze. Barney's nature can't be something Black Mesa would want public. His entire existence is likely confidential. Gordon wonders if his being out here is done in flagrant disrespect of that fact.
"You came by yourself?" Gordon asks, changing the subject.
They'd all come on the shuttle, of course, but it wasn't like Gordon was here to drink socially. Barney seemed the type, but he'd only been chatting up Gordon.
"Huh?" Barney’s smile fades a little.
"The bar. You came alone?"
Barney gets a faraway look in his eyes, back straightening a little.
"I'm never alone, doc."
His answer blindsides Gordon, and all at once, the man sitting in front of him isn't just a man. His gaze is dark, strange, and Gordon can see a hundred sets of eyes looking out from behind his own.
Gordon gets that cold, prickling feeling again. Meanwhile, Barney shakes off his little reverie, schooling his expression into something more... human.
"But uh, yeah. Just me. You'd think being everywhere at once, I'd have someone to go out on the town with, yeah?" Barney grins, but it doesn't reach his eyes.
"I'm glad I caught ya here. Hey, if you don't mind, there's something I wanna ask you..."
Gordon isn't sure what he expects, but it's definitely not for Barney to launch into half-baked conspiracy theories about how Black Mesa is hiding aliens and "Sector C's gotta be close to it, right?" And when Gordon brushes him off Barney insists he read this book - he's got a copy, he'll lend it.
Gordon wants to think he's humoring the man, but if he was, he wouldn't be wholeheartedly engaging with his conspiratory ramblings. It's slow going, because Barney needs him to finger-spell out some things and takes a minute to process what he's saying. But they spend the whole night like that, and when the late shuttle comes, Gordon rides sitting next to him.
In a very short time, Barney has somehow become the person Gordon talks to the most at Black Mesa.
Gordon did read Barney's book - and handed it back full of sticky notes on how half of it was absolute bullshit and how could you even believe some of this? And it isn't long before they spend another night talking about the parts Gordon didn't think were completely fabricated. This time, in Gordon's dorm, somehow.
Gordon hadn't really considered the possibility of inviting anyone over to his meager little dorm, when Barney offhandedly mentions inviting himself over and Gordon… doesn't refuse. His impulse to escape any social situation is drowned out by a strange, giddy nervousness he's unfamiliar with. Gordon hasn't had another man in his space for - god knows how long.
Prying into Barney's nature seems... too much of a breach of boundaries, no matter how much Gordon would like to understand. He settles for what Barney does tell him, and what he can surmise on his own.
Barney never brings more than one body when he spends time with Gordon and, should Gordon catch him "changing shifts", he's quick to shy them away from his double. Gordon wonders if it's done for his sake - or simply a habit he's picked up, trying to hide his nature for the comfort of others.
Gordon is no stranger to that.
Even with this habit, though, Barney still remarks on his nature often. And what he does say sometimes worries Gordon - implicit confirmations that Black Mesa has Barney on a very firm leash. That no, he isn't free to leave, he doesn't even exist on public record, and if he ever got tired of working for them - well. It's best not to think about it.
Gordon learns that Barney prioritizes certain bodies for certain tasks. The only body he'll send into town is the same one that makes time to seek out Gordon after-hours, designated Barney-Calhoun. Barney tries to liken it to favoring one hand over another, but Gordon doesn't quite get the comparison.
There's far too much, Gordon thinks, that he doesn't understand. Even with a doctorate in theoretical physics, working for a secretive experimental facility. Which, true, he may have been able to brush aside when he arrived here. But with Barney in the picture, Gordon finds himself wanting - something. A fuller picture.
He doesn't expect to get it.
It's just another after-shift walk to the tram. Barney is trotting alongside him. It isn't Calhoun (Calhoun has a little scar on his chin), but Gordon hasn't learned how to tell the others apart - or if there's even a point to doing so.
"We still on for tonight?"
Oh, right. Gordon had invited him back to his dorm. Which wasn't unusual, at this point, but still feels like a new and exciting concept. Wanting to share his space - Gordon isn't used to it.
A thought occurs to him.
Gordon nods, then says, "Why not yours?"
Barney frowns. "What? My-?"
"Your dorm." Gordon feels a nervous buzz that he attributes to the simple act of being social. "I've never seen it."
"Oh, um, that." Barney huffs out a laugh, fidgeting in place. "I just... It's... uh. It's a real mess. Yeah."
"I don't care." Gordon says, truthful.
Barney's frown deepens. "You... wouldn't like it. I don't... I mean, I have my own room, but it's not..."
Gordon tilts his head a little. Just as he's about to drop the subject, Barney seems to flip on it entirely.
"Y-y'know what, yeah. You can come over." Barney grins nervously.
Gordon’s brows knit, anxiety bubbling up. "If you don't want to -"
"No, no, I want to. I owe you some hospitality." Barney's smile becomes a bit more earnest, and Gordon finds it in himself to return it.
They do not head to the dorms. Or at least, not the ones Gordon is familiar with. Barney's lodging is in a separate area of the facility entirely, and although they talk the whole way there, there's a nervousness in the guard that doesn't go unnoticed by Gordon. Jigging his leg, grabbing at the loose fabric of his sleeves, looking out the window as if there's anything at all to see - Barney is usually relatively laid back. Gordon's never seen him this wound.
They disembark at a tram station Gordon's never been to. Beside the metal airlock is a glass window, and behind it, Barney. Or at least, another one of his bodies. He wordlessly lets himself and Gordon in. Inside the airlock, Barney's fidgeting reaches an apex, and all of a sudden his words leap out of him.
"If you - I mean, if - I, uh," Barney flounders, wringing his hands. "I've never brought anyone down here before," is what he settles on saying, turned away from Gordon but peering at him out of the corner of his eye.
Before Gordon can respond, the grinding of metal fills their ears and the interior door opens. Inside is a featureless concrete hallway, broken up by evenly spaced doors. A familiar feeling of trepidation rises and keeps Gordon from saying much of anything.
"My bunk's this way," Barney says hurriedly, stepping inside. He gets several feet ahead before Gordon remembers to follow him. At the door, Barney pauses with his hand on the knob. Takes a deep breath, and releases it. Opens the door.
What Gordon expected was... well, a dormitory. Something to mirror the quarters that houses the rest of the on-site staff. But this is more of a... barracks.
Metal bunk beds line the walls, each with a crate at the foot. And in and around them is Barney. A lot of him. Meandering around, lying in bed. One is donning his work clothes, while another slips out of them. A few flick their eyes up toward him as the door opens, and turn away just as quickly.
Gordon has a realization that sends a nauseous bout of anxiety through him. Everyone in this room is paying full attention to him right now, even if they seem to be looking away. Because there's only one other person in here, and it's Barney.
Gordon steels himself. This is what he wanted, after all.
One of the other Barneys heads towards the door, dressed for work, and Gordon steps inside to get out of his way. 'His' Barney walks down the aisle of metal beds to an empty bunk. It creaks noisily as he sits down.
"Well, uh... here we are."
Gordon is lagging behind. His eyes rest on every identical body, trying to separate them in his mind. Has he seen some of them before? Which ones? There's little differences he's learned to look for - defects, his mind supplies. When he reaches the bunk, Barney's expression is pinched with worry.
"Is it... too much? We can go, if it is - "
"Where's Calhoun?" Gordon asks. Barney blinks owlishly.
"Huh? It's - uh, he's here."
As if on queue, a Barney at the far end of the room, who had been laying in bed, staring at the bunk above him, sits up. He joins Gordon and his other body.
Sure enough, when he's close, Gordon can see the little mark on his chin. As the two (and far more) of them fidget, Gordon looks between them.
"You know, It's not... we aren't different people, really. It's all me." The Barney on the bunk says, fisting his hands into his slacks.
"I know." Gordon says simply. "Which one is this?" He gestures at the body that had brought him in.
"That's... Beier." Calhoun says, crossing his arms and leaning against the bedpost.
Gordon nods. He sits on the bed across from Beier, bed springs whingeing, and looks at him intently.
"Whatcha doin there, doc?" Beier questions, face fraught.
"They're all a little different. Calhoun has a scar," he gestures to the body in question, and both of them stiffen.
"You - "
"I want to know what's different about this one."
There's a long silence. Then, Calhoun laughs disbelievingly - and his chuckle spills over into Beier. The sound ripples gently around the room, subdued little breaths of laughter finding their way out of a dozen bodies.
Gordon feels a thrill climb his spine, and this time, it's not from dread. Despite the very, very strange set of circumstances, he feels a fluttering in his chest.
Barney seems embarrassed at the momentary synchronization, however. Beier ducks his head and scratches his neck, while Calhoun clears his throat.
"Sorry about that," Calhoun says. "You just surprised me. Nobody's ever..." He trails off.
"Nobody's ever noticed things like that." A voice from behind Gordon finishes. "You're awfully perceptive, doc."
Gordon turns. A third body has joined their little group, dressed in sweatpants and a loose t-shirt.
"O'Conner," Calhoun supplies, before Gordon can ask.
Gordon stares at the body - O'Conner - a moment - and receives a shy grin in return. O'Conner sits on the other side of the bed, drawing his legs up to face them.
"Do you choose the names?" Gordon asks.
A sneer forms on Calhoun's face, and O'Conner scoffs, eyes darting away.
"No. They - uh…" he pauses suddenly, nearly biting his tongue.
"I get them from… well." Beier tries, and trails off similarly.
"I don't pick them." O'Conner finishes, voice flat.
Gordon looks between them, frowning.
"You - only gotta look at one, doc." Calhoun almost laughs, his grimace fading.
"How am I supposed to know?" Gordon says, movements petulant. His eyes still flick between them despite his efforts otherwise. "I'm never around more than one of you."
"Well, there's a reason for that." O'Conner says, looking away. When Barney doesn't elaborate, Gordon asks:
"And that reason is?"
"Well, just look at me, doc - look at us." Calhoun says, voice a little strained. "People aren't meant to deal with… what I am.”
Once again, Barney’s face is marred by distress three times over. Gordon takes in the little differences in their tense expressions - Calhoun clenches his jaw, while Beier looks pointedly at the ground - and regrets asking.
“...Maybe.” Gordon says hesitantly. All three sets of eyes turn towards him as his hands move and he tries to ignore the way it makes his heart flip with anxiety. Being reassuring is not his strong suit, but Gordon feels the need to try. “You don’t have to hide from me.”
Barney’s glowering fades, mouths tilting up into three uncertain smiles. Calhoun straightens a bit where he stands.
“Doc…” He trails off, but none of Barney’s other bodies pick up the slack. Hesitantly, he steps forward and sits next to Gordon. The bed springs groan at the added weight. Gordon keeps his eyes on Calhoun, but he can feel Beier and O’Conner leaning in, waiting for… something.
“Thanks, Gordon.” Calhoun says. His eyes are light and clear, expression earnest. His hands fold over each other in his lap, like they’re looking for something to grab. “You’re a good friend.”
After that bit of vulnerability, it's too easy for Barney to fall back into his usual banter with Gordon. Besides for the fact that he relaxes enough to let the dialogue flow through three bodies instead of one, it's almost as if nothing has changed.
Barney feels… strangely at ease, with Gordon in his space. He's so used to being the only one here - the barracks had almost begun to feel like a part of him, too. And on the other side of it - he's so used to only having one body around Gordon. Gordon may only be engaging three of them, but there are twelve bodies in the room. Twelve sets of eyes to flicker towards Gordon whenever he's focused on a different face. To see his hands move and his expression change from every angle.
The image of Gordon, in the barracks with him, taking Barney for what he is - he can't help but let it spread through his gestalt mind like sweet molasses. The golden glow of Gordon's complexion flits through the thoughts of minds that should be focused on patrols and watching security cameras. He feels one sigh, then many more, move through him in a wave.
When Gordon begins to yawn, Barney offers to walk him back. Barney-Dunn has a patrol to get to on the other side of the campus, anyway. Reluctant agreement comes, and Gordon follows him dutifully back to the tram.
After Gordon leaves, Barney finds himself staring at the door after him from more than a few angles. Taken by something - a longing - Calhoun and Beier wordlessly tear themselves away, standing and walking together towards an empty bunk. It's been a long time since he's done this. He'd thought he'd grown past it, and yet…
Calhoun crawls in - and Beier after him, slipping under the covers that Calhoun pulls back. After a moment of hesitation, (this is so pathetic, Barney thinks), Beier nestles against Calhoun's chest. Calhoun wraps his arms around him, and they settle against one another.
It's never as comforting as Barney hopes. He's only hugging himself, after all.
Regardless, he allows the warm soft held feeling to permeate the facets of his mind, until even Barney-Jones in the Lambda Lab can feel the ghost of lazy warmth buzzing against his skin.
He isn't sure where the impulse comes from (or more accurately, who), but he's so far gone already he doesn't think much of gently threading Calhoun's fingers through Beier's hair. He feels the thick locks slide against his fingers and the nails gently scratching his scalp. He feels a head tucked against his chest and the gentle pulse of breathing just beyond his cheek. And then, like a dam breaking, from Calhoun comes a very insistent thought - kiss his forehead - that spills out of him and pours into every body in the barracks. It becomes so strong in the echo chamber of his mind that Barney's shame and embarrassment don't stop Calhoun from leaning in to gently press his lips right above Beier's brow.
All at once, Barney's embarrassment over this sorry display catches up with him. But rather than pull away, he hides further inside himself, Calhoun and Beier nestling under the blankets together.
Just for tonight. He won't let it become a habit.
Barney is there when Gordon leaves the dorms in the morning. He’s there to let him into Sector C, and to open the door into the Level 3 labs. It’s all routine, it always is, but he can’t help feeling something - a warmth - every time Gordon crosses his vision. And he does so often, given that Barney sees a great deal of the facility at once.
With Gordon's newfound encouragement, Barney resolves to try hiding himself less.
Gordon encouraged him. The black sheep physicist whose relationship with the vast majority of his co-workers approaches "mutual disdain". Barney doesn't know when he became special, but he can't help but return the attention. He thinks he should be - embarrassed, somehow. But instead he only feels giddy.
Barney's sudden happiness rolls through his mind like a rising tide, leaving every guard in Black Mesa with a bounce in their step. If the Science Team notices, they don't comment on it, but Barney doesn't miss a few odd looks when he lets his here and there grins spill a little too wide.
He is trying not to let it distract him. Dr. Rosenburg needs him to look at the elevator again, and there’s always someone coming and going through some airlock door, and he’s got to keep his many eyes open on patrols even though there’s never really anything to see. He’s done this job all his life. He’ll be fine.
“Phillips? Mr. Phillips!”
Barney jumps - several times over. He ignores how his sudden movement startles scientists who are nowhere near the source of his surprise and re-compartmentalizes.
“Y-yeah? Doc?” Barney-Phillips says, trying to turn his attention back outward. Doctor Magnusson is in his face, as cantankerous as ever.
“My God! What do we even keep you around for if you’re not going to be present? There’s work to be done here!”
“My - my apologies, doc.” Phillips mumbles, straightening his posture.
Magnusson only shakes his head, and Phillips’ mind is forcibly pulled away from the engaging spectacle of Gordon passing by a security window. Distantly, another partition of Barney’s mind reminds Phillips what he’s meant to be doing.
Phillips turns to punch a security code into the door of a supply closet, and ‘helps’ Magnusson (or rather, is directed by Magnusson) to fill up a rickety cart with delicate equipment and push it down the hall.
Focus on your job, he reminds himself. It’s not like there’s anyone else to do it. The hive of Barney’s mind calms, for now. A thought comes to him, and he manages to keep it in the focus of a few minds that have the liberty of being on break. Bringing Gordon to the barracks had been a bit overwhelming for both of them, no matter how... illuminating it may have been. Maybe being around so much of him at once was too much. But if Gordon is really... okay, with who - what - Barney is... well.
Barney's going to trust him.
Calhoun is at Gordon's dorm again. He’s long since learned that Gordon is lucky enough to be staying in one of the odd dorms with only one bedroom, giving them far more privacy that they would have otherwise. They aren't really... doing much of anything. Barney sits on the couch and listens as Gordon animatedly vents over workplace drama. Just another accusation on a growing list of grievances: the senior members of the Science Team have taken a special interest in haranguing Kleiner's prodigy.
Barney doesn't necessarily understand the complex social politics taking place in the labs, but Gordon only wants to talk to someone, and making Kleiner feel guilty isn't an option. He sure can talk once he gets started.
His rant is interrupted, though, by a knock on the door. Gordon jumps, hands stilling. He looks quizzically at Barney.
"Oh, sorry doc. Forgot to mention I invited someone over." Barney grins, trying to be sly. "Hope that's alright."
The indignant look that colors Gordon's face is expected, but the severity of it still causes Barney's smile to falter. Better not drag this little joke out too long. Barney stands, and makes his way to the door as Gordon shoots up from his seat.
He turns the knob, and there's Barney-Beier.
From the door, Beier can see Gordon's fight-or-flight response dissipate as quickly as it came. Then, as Calhoun turns around, and Beier gives a little wave - "Hiya, doc!" - Gordon softens. There was never any 'visitor', only Barney himself.
"Idiot." Gordon signs simply, shaking his head and flopping back on the couch.
Barney laughs - the chuckle tittering between Calhoun and Beier.
Calhoun returns to his place on the couch, while Beier momentarily hovers. Then, he strides forward, taking on spot on the couch's arm, on the other side of Gordon.
Gordon continues his diatribe, and Barney savors the view of him from both sides.
The night creeps on, and Gordon's rage and Barney's attention (or rather, Calhoun and Beier's,) are eroded by a few drinks. Barney feels as though the bulk of his mind is viewing the little dorm through a hazy lens. They're sitting nearly slumped against each other, Gordon's back near Beier's leg, Calhoun resting easy at the doctor’s other side. By the time their conversation has turned to Gordon's casual conviction that he could kill a few of their nastier superiors and get away with it, it's time they really should turn in. But Barney doesn't want to walk Calhoun and Beier back to his own dorms. Doesn't want to... well. End up indulging any of his own embarrassing habits, when he ends up in his own company.
Barney's had a while to think about his sudden need for affection, and how giving it to himself doesn't quite cut it, even with separate bodies. Asking anybody else is out of the question. He'll just have to get over it.
Calhoun is brought out of his thoughts when Gordon gently waves a hand in front of him. Oops. Was Gordon saying something? Had both Calhoun and Beier's eyes missed it?
"I said, are you tired?"
"Oh, um," Calhoun rubs at his eyes. Beier is stiff, and stretches, yawning as he arches his back forward. "A bit. Guess I should've started headin' back by now, yeah?" Calhoun shrugs, moving to get off the couch.
He's stopped by Gordon's hand on his arm.
The touch lingers just a moment too long, as Barney's gaze latches onto the gentle touch and travels up to meet Gordon's eyes. They're such a nice shade of green.
"You can stay the night," Gordon says, after releasing him. "If you don't want to walk back."
"...Yeah?" Calhoun says, suddenly alert. He leans back into the couch. Beier watches the space between them like a perched hawk. Across the facility, Barney finds himself holding his breath. Calhoun turns and his knee knocks against Gordon's. He dares not to move away, and Gordon doesn’t either. Barney feels his throat clench up a few times over. Don't read into it, the thought rings out from some far part of himself.
"Where'd - where would I even sleep? You only got the one bed, and - " Calhoun says.
"- and there's two of me here." Beier finishes, overlapping.
Gordon looks over his shoulder at Beier, and turns a bit to try and keep them both in his vision. Gordon seems to think for a moment, then shrugs.
"I could sleep on the couch," he motions, though Calhoun is already shaking his head, "You don't need more than one bed, do you?"
"Wha - " Beier starts.
"You've seen my dorm, I've got more than one bunk!" Calhoun huffs.
Gordon just shrugs at him. Then, a little smirk creeps into his face.
"What? Do you two not like each other?"
Whatever Barney was going to say stops in Calhoun and Beier's throats. Then, after a beat:
"Oh, fuck off, Gord." Calhoun says, but his tone is light. Gordon laughs in his breathy way, and Barney can't help the smile that curls on Beier's lips.
"I like myself plenty." Beier says, hopping off the arm of the couch.
"Then it shouldn't be a problem." Gordon says, turning to him fully. "Right?"
Barney understands what Gordon is asking. He can't find it in himself to refuse.
"...You know, I'd really rather not walk all the way back. Alright." Calhoun says, and Barney tries to ignore the way Gordon's triumphant little smirk makes his hearts flutter. "But I'm not pushing you outta your bed."
Gordon stares at Calhoun for a moment, expression unreadable. Then, without a word, he stands, rolls his shoulders, and makes his way to his bathroom.
Calhoun and Beier are left with each other. Barney stares at himself through his own eyes.
He’s no stranger to this. He’s always “alone” with himself in his own barracks, anyway. But somehow, it feels different now, in Gordon’s space instead. Barney lets Beier’s gaze trace over the curve of Calhoun’s jaw. Calhoun takes in Beier’s blue eyes and the slope of his shoulders. Is this what Gordon sees when he looks at him? Without really thinking about it, Beier’s hand reaches up to gently cup Calhoun’s cheek, running his thumb over the rough stubble there. Maybe he should be better about shaving.
Barney does not hear the door to the bathroom open, and jumps when he hears Gordon rap his knuckles on the doorframe. Beier and Calhoun startle away from each other. Had Gordon seen him - no, he’s not going to say touching himself, that’s -
Gordon’s hands move, and Barney pushes through his jumbled thoughts to understand him.
“You need pajamas?”
“Uh - sure -“
“I - no, I -“
Barney answers from both Calhoun and Beier. As he contradicts himself, Barney turns sharply to stare at his own eyes, willing the buzzing hive of his mind (now swarming with spectators, as Barney’s attention becomes more and more focused on this little room) to figure itself out. Gordon watches them quietly from the door. Barney has never been at odds with himself in front of the doctor.
Calhoun takes a steadying breath, and Beier blinks a moment, letting the asynchronous moment fade.
Calhoun looks at Gordon, trying to smile. “...I’d appreciate that, doc.” He says, voice even.
Gordon only stares at him for a long moment, then gives him a little nod and leaves the door ajar as he brushes his teeth.
When Gordon retrieves a pair of pajama pants, and a pair of sweatpants, from his room, Barney quickly finds that they are a bit ill-fitting. He wonders if he’s using all the spare pajamas Gordon has at the moment, and feels a bit guilty. Still, it’s better than sleeping in slacks. He shrugs off his dress shirt twice over, and sits on the couch.
There really isn’t enough room for two of his bodies to sleep here comfortably. At least, not without cuddling himself (not that he wouldn’t, he just isn’t sure how Gordon would feel about seeing it). As he’s figuring out the logistics of this, Gordon returns in a loose t-shirt and pajamas of his own.
“Ready?” He motions.
Barney stares at him blankly.
Ready for what?
“Huh?” Calhoun manages.
Gordon has the audacity to look put out.
“Bed?” he says, looking at Barney expectantly.
Oh - did he -
When Barney said he didn’t want push Gordon out of bed, did Gordon think -
Calhoun leaps to his feet.
"Uh, yeah! 'course!" He says, his voice high.
Gordon just blinks at him, and turns around to disappear into his bedroom.
Barney looks at himself one last moment, and then trots after Gordon with Calhoun, as Beier lays back on the couch.
Inside, Gordon has already pulled the covers back and is crawling into bed, facing the wall. Barney follows him, and creeps in on the other side. Despite his mind racing at the feeling of Gordon inches away from Calhoun's back, Barney does his best to shut his eyes and will the bodies to rest.
The sound of Gordon's breathing is soothing enough to put Calhoun to sleep far more quickly than Barney expects.
Barney stares up at the ceiling through Beier, ignoring the strange urge to peek through the door. He's never had a body sleep away from the barracks like this. Never with… someone other than himself. With the feed of sensory activity cut off from Calhoun in lieu of his dreams, Barney can only wait for the other body to fall asleep as well.
By the time Beier loses consciousness, curled uncomfortably on the couch, the rest of Barney's mind is lit up like a christmas tree. He doesn't think he's ever been pulled in so many different directions by himself.
Don't read into this , a part of him reminds. But it's Gordon, and he invited me to stay, and that's not in his nature, right? It has to mean something. Barney nervously clicks pens and taps his feet and wrings his hands. Unable to do anything but go about his job and wait for morning to come.
Calhoun wakes up first.
Barney doesn't use alarm clocks, because waking up more than one body would put them off schedule (Black Mesa isn't going to supply him with that many clocks, anyway). All throughout the day, he gently shakes himself awake and pulls sleepy bodies from their bunks with ones that are ready to tuck in.
Calhoun glances at the digital clock on the nightstand - 5:30 AM, in bright red.
Gingerly, he rolls onto his back, and turns his head just enough to see Gordon.
The scientist has turned over to face him in the night, and is still sleeping peacefully. Barney can't stop himself from taking in the sight of his relaxed face, so different in sleep. Were his eyelashes always that long? He has so many freckles.
Barney catches himself, and quickly tears his gaze away, but not before the image has been memorized a hundred times over.
Carefully, so as not to jostle Gordon awake, Calhoun creeps out of bed to make a pot of coffee. He tries not to feel too guilty as he snoops through Gordon's cabinets for coffee grounds and a pair of mugs.
Half an hour later, Calhoun hears the blaring of Gordon's alarm, which is silenced almost as soon as it begins. He steals a glance over at Beier, but the body remains fast asleep on the couch.
It doesn't take long for the door to the bedroom to creak open. Gordon peeks through, shuffling out in a sleepy daze. Despite his drowsiness, his attention is immediately taken by the smell of coffee and Calhoun's presence in his little kitchenette. He adjusts his glasses and rubs at his arms as he sidles up next to Calhoun, resting his hip against the counter.
"Mornin', doc." Barney says quietly, already filling the extra mug he had pulled out. When he offers it, Gordon's gaze flicks between him and the mug before he gently takes it.
Gordon takes a sip, and Calhoun sees his eyes drift toward Beier's form. Barney's other body faces the back of the couch, still dead asleep. The doctor's hand twitches, and Barney knows a question has entered his mind.
"Mhmm." Calhoun hums, drinking from his own mug, which has begun to cool. Gordon's eyes dart from Calhoun to Beier to the mug in his hands, looking thoughtful even as his expression remains addled by sleep. It's so easy to tell when he's thinking, now that Barney has learned what to look for.
"Is he… dreaming?" Gordon's brow is a little furrowed.
Calhoun tilts his head. "Well, yeah. You dream when you sleep, dontcha, doc?" He grins a little as Gordon frowns at him.
"...how can you tell?"
That question stills Barney a bit. He puts his mug down, thinking for a moment as he takes in his own sleeping form.
"It's… hm." Beier isn't the only body of his sleeping right now. There are plenty. And he could tell Gordon the exact number, if he stopped to think about it, but as for how he knows that they're sleeping, that they're dreaming, it's… a bit more complicated.
It requires thinking about just how he functions, and Barney understands himself just about as well as anyone does. Which is to say, not very much at all.
"I just can," he says, knowing for Gordon that answer is completely unsatisfactory. "I can tell that one's sleeping, without havin' to look. I can tell that he's dreaming, but I can't really… see it. You know?"
As if on queue, Gordon shakes his head and sips his coffee. Calhoun gives him an indignant little huff.
"Well, I don't know how the hell else to explain it." He says. “Do you have dreams when you’re awake, huh?”
“I’ve only got one brain.” Gordon motions, tapping his forehead.
Barney only sighs. He shouldn’t be so quick to be frustrated - Gordon avoids asking Barney questions about himself, for the most part, even though he’s acutely aware of how laser-focused the scientist’s curiosity can be.
While Barney is lost in thought, Gordon sets aside his coffee, and walks over to kneel next to the couch.
“...Uh, Gord?” Calhoun asks, just as Gordon reaches over and gently takes Beier’s shoulder, shaking it.
All at once, Barney can feel the ripple of sudden wakefulness, confusion and then - it’s gone, Beier’s mind returns to the fold, completely aware of who’s behind him.
Beier rolls over, and Barney’s met with Gordon’s face right next to his.
“...Hiya, doc,” Barney greets through Beier, not missing a beat, though Barney can still feel the clutches of sleep pulling on the body’s awareness.
Barney isn’t sure why, but Gordon grins, wide and bright, all of a sudden. He can’t stop the sight of that smile from rocketing through his consciousness like a firecracker.
And even as the feeling lingers, like pop rocks in his head, Barney finds it all too easy to turn Calhoun around and dig through Gordon's fridge for something to eat. He could make them both breakfast, at least.
Barney's job performance continues to slip.
He's distracted, often, when that's the last thing he should be. He was… made... for the express purpose of being able to divert his attention in a hundred directions at once. He is a tool, meant to function well and assure the safety of Black Mesa's property and staff.
Except now, new thoughts are clouding his mind. Feelings that flit back and forth from body to body, muddling his focus and mixing his senses.
Someone - a scientist - speaks to him, and his answer tumbles out of the wrong body, earning him strange glances in a completely different sector. A body stumbles, and the wrong one catches itself. Heads turn to see him nearly crack his helmet on the floor.
It takes... more time than it should, for him to realize the cause. But a few days after their little sleepover, Barney finds an answer to his problem.
His focus finally clears as Gordon stops to chat with him while he's changing shifts - two of them, at the same locked door. Four identical bodies cluster around the scientist who, despite his wallflower nature, seems quite at ease being surrounded. They get strange glances. Gordon's the only member of the Science Team who… engages with Barney, in this way. And for the first time in days, the hivemind can hear the rest of himself think clearly.
One mind, one body, isn't enough to contain everything Barney feels for Gordon. How could it be? The individual bodies are so small in comparison to - all of himself. Even with one or two bodies with their attention on his friend, he still finds pangs of affection and bashfulness shooting through the network of his mind. Like fireworks that can be heard for miles, every disparate part of him turns his ear to listen.
It's alright. He can fix this. He's no scientist, but he's got an idea or two about how science works. You've got to do it more than once to get it right.
"Well, you two certainly seem to be getting along."
Kleiner's comment has Gordon's attention the moment he walks into the lab.
Gordon's eyes widen a little behind his glasses. Kleiner is looking past him, to the retreating figure of a security guard in the hall.
Barney had walked with him all the way to the lab, past the post he was meant to be stationed at.
Gordon quickly decides not to comment, and makes his way to his desk. He hadn't finished going over his data from yesterday, and it had taken Barney's every effort to keep him from working on it in his off hours.
Kleiner, who is used to Gordon's colorful varieties of silence, continues.
"It's a relief to know that you've made some friends among your associates here, Gordon."
Kleiner smiles, but his comment is cheeky enough to earn Gordon's ire. Gordon raises a hand as he writes with the other.
"Not friends. One friend."
"So you are friends, then! Wonderful to hear!"
Gordon walked into that one. He tries to tune out the sound of his mentor's elation in favor of the idle grinding and chugging of the server towers nearby.
Gordon works through lunch. Kleiner's absent, though knowing him, he's probably gotten caught up with another scientist on the way to his office and forgotten to eat entirely.
The quiet churning of nearby machinery is a welcome companion, until the lab door opens with a metallic whine. Gordon doesn't pick up his head until he hears Barney's voice.
Sure enough, Barney is in the door, holding one of those wrapped, pre-made sandwiches from the cafeteria.
Gordon tilts his head, and Barney recognizes it as an invitation.
"I didn't see you take your break yet," he says, walking in. "Figured I'd bring you something before you starved."
Barney places the sandwich on the corner of Gordon's desk, and the doctor only stares at it. When he finally lifts his gaze to Barney's face, the guard looks a little sheepish.
"You don't have to eat it, 'f you're not hungry, I just - "
"Thank you." Barney tapers off as Gordon's hand moves. Truth be told, Gordon doesn't feel hungry, but that may change the moment he actually has a bite to eat.
Gordon means to say more, before a strange, faraway look crosses Barney's face.
Gordon looks at him quizzically.
"Dr. Kleiner locked himself out of his office again." Barney says, his focus returning. "I'd stay but - I gotta go let him in, I'm the closest one with a key."
"Oh, you - you don't gotta come with, doc," Barney says, but Gordon shrugs. He's dealt with this before. And even though he'd usually love to be left to his own devices, the fact that Barney showed up here, just because he didn't eat, that he noticed -
Well. Gordon doesn't want him to leave just yet.
They walk together to Kleiner's office.
Outside the door stands Kleiner, looking sheepish, with another of Barney's bodies next to him.
Kleiner looks a little confused at Gordon's presence, though.
"Gordon? Aren't you supposed to be in the lab?"
"Wanted to come with," Gordon says simply, as the Barney that came with Gordon pulls a ring of keys from his belt and begins thumbing through them.
Gordon silently takes note of the name tags each body is wearing. Barney-Phillips stands next to Kleiner, while Barney-O'Conner isolates Kleiner's office key.
"There we go," he says, putting the key in the lock with a grin. It falters, however, when the key refuses to turn. "Oh, uh… maybe this one…?"
The key ring jangles, and Gordon's eyes wander, landing on a vent flush to the ceiling.
Gordon disappears to swipe a chair from down the hall, returning to plop it under the vent. As he stands on it and jostles the grate off its rusted fittings, Phillips and Kleiner both look towards him.
"Doc, what the hell are you doing?"
Gordon raises a single finger to his lips - letting himself smirk, just a bit - before pulling himself up into the dusty vent like a rat into a hole.
His elbows and knees thump noisily against galvanized steel, the sound echoing and drowning out the concerns of those below.
Two tight turns, and Gordon is able to wrest off the vent cover into the office. It lands with a clang, and he braces himself as he jumps down after it.
Barney's face when he opens the door is worth the dust on his lab coat.
Even more so, when O'Conner opens his mouth to say, "Well, shoot, doc. If that's how you want it opened, I coulda done it faster."
Gordon feels himself grin.
"It's like… seeing through a lens?" Gordon motions.
"Something like that. When part of me gets drunk, it's… hard to think with it? So it can't listen to the rest of my brain, like."
On the way back to the lab, Barney had invited Gordon to his barracks again. Barney doesn't have couches, or chairs, or anything besides the absolute barest necessities. When they spend time here, it's always done lounging on bunk beds. Calhoun sits against a pillow, back to the wall. Gordon's right in front of him, close enough that he can feel the barest hint of warmth radiating from Calhoun's leg. The topic of conversation has turned to Barney's nature, again, which somehow has become less intrusive and more… intimate.
Gordon knows no one else gets to talk to him like this.
"It's…" Calhoun sighs, brow furrowing. He bites at his cheek. "I don't know. I can't put it into words all that well. Never had to, y'know?"
Gordon nods. "I understand," he says, although both of them know Gordon doesn't actually understand. As a scientist, it should bother him. Slowly, though, he's become more welcoming of the fact that whatever Barney really is, part of it may always be just outside his scope.
Not that he's going to stop trying. Gordon had accepted Barney's invitation to his barracks for just that reason. Even if being around so much of him could be overwhelming, something about it feels… right. Gordon feels that here, he's right in the middle of him.
Here, more than anywhere else, is where he gets to see the real Barney.
"What if a body gets far away?" He asks.
Calhoun shifts, thinking. Gordon notices the way his eyes dart away, and tries to imagine the web of Barney's mind lighting up like a neural network.
"It… hm. I don't think that's ever been an issue, really." He draws one of his legs up towards himself. "That said, I…" he trails off.
When Calhoun doesn't continue, Gordon inclines his head. "You…?"
"...I've never been farther than town." A strained voice says to Gordon's right. Gordon had almost forgotten that Beier was sitting on the bed next to theirs, attentive. The body rocks a bit on his seat, bed springs creaking, and stands. He crosses the small distance to sit next to Gordon.
Gordon is boxed in. Rather than panicked or trapped, he feels… warm. The doctor takes a moment to observe his surroundings.
Calhoun in front of him, Beier to the side and a bit behind. Both close enough that he can feel the air between them. On his other side, O'Conner lounges in another bed, head tilted just enough to keep Gordon in his peripheral. Barney has bodies coming and going all the time, and whenever they pass by, their eyes scan the little gathering.
Gordon pointedly does not think about looking when those bodies are slipping into, or out of their uniforms.
It didn't mean much to him before, but now… well.
Gordon turns his attention forward.
"...Do you want to?" he asks.
"Huh?" Calhoun says, as Barney's jolted out of a thought.
"Do you want to leave?" Gordon's movements are deliberate. He wants to ask it gently, but he can't help the gravity of the question.
Calhoun peers at him with dark eyes. In his lap, his hands turn over each other. To his side, Gordon hears Beier swallow thickly.
Around the room, the sounds of Barney idling milling about become terribly still.
"I can't…" Calhoun shakes his head, and scratches at his stubble, the rasping sound loud in the silence. "I can't think about stuff like that, doc."
Gordon can't help the way his face pinches with worry. Can't help - moving closer.
Calhoun's hands return to worrying each other, rubbing at skin and gripping tightly on knuckles.
Gordon doesn't realize he's reached out before his own hand gently settles on Calhoun's, pressing down to still his movement. Barney's eyes widen, just a bit.
They're - dangerously close. Enough that he can see the band of teal across brown in Calhoun's left eye. Even in the cool air of the barracks, Gordon feels heat creep up his collar.
"Gordon," Calhoun says, and it's more of a statement than a question. Gordon can't keep his gaze steady, trailing over Calhoun's face. The tone of his skin and the grey of his 5'o'clock shadow and the pink of his lips have become so familiar, repeated in so many bodies and yet somehow it's all - him. All Barney. Calhoun frees a hand to hesitantly touch Gordon's shoulder and linger there, and it feels like a brand through his shirt.
When Gordon meets his eyes again, Calhoun closes the distance to kiss him.
It's soft. And warm. And it's over before Gordon can even process it, their lips separating gently. When Gordon opens his eyes (when had they closed?) he sees a faraway look on Barney's face, one that he's come to recognize.
He can't help but wonder how much of Barney felt that. If the bodies patrolling Black Mesa's basements and the frigid desert surface felt, just for a moment, a touch of warmth against their lips.
All at once, Barney's sense seems to return to him, and Calhoun lets out a nervous, tittering laugh. Gordon hears Beier murmur a soft, "wow..." and he can't help but tilt his head down to bury it in Calhoun's shoulder as his nerves catch up with him. Calhoun's hand slides off Gordon's shoulder to his arm.
"Doc?" He hears from behind him, and Beier sidles closer. Calhoun rubs his thumb into Gordon's bicep, his shirt wrinkling a little under the motion.
Gordon untucks his face from Calhoun's shirt. He can't suppress a little shiver as his back brushes up against Beier, and tries to meet Calhoun's eyes, though the best he can do is linger at his jawline. He can feel the flush in his face.
"Again?" The movement is subdued, tucked against his chest, but Barney doesn't miss it.
"Yeah," Beier breathes behind him. Gordon knocks his and Calhoun's noses together with how quickly he closes the distance.
Distantly, Gordon hears a yelp across the room, then a dreamy sigh from the other direction, just as he feels the curve of Calhoun's smile against his lips.
"Oh, Gordon," he hears, while Calhoun's mouth is occupied, though he's not sure where from.
There's a weight against his back, then, and Gordon pulls away from Calhoun to look as best he can over his shoulder.
Beier had laid his head between Gordon's shoulder blades, but he shys away as Gordon twists to see him.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to... uh." Calhoun trails off.
Gordon turns back, and simply shakes his head, but then thinks better of it. "It's okay," he motions simply, "It's you."
Calhoun and Beier breath deeply, then, and if Gordon listens he can hear it cascade around the room as Barney swells with some feeling. Tentatively, Beier presses against Gordon's back again, arms snaking around his waist. Gordon sinks into the embrace.
"Gordon," Calhoun says again, the sound of his name communicating, somehow, a feeling that's been building in his chest for weeks now.
Gordon works his jaw, swallows, but like always, his voice doesn't come. So instead, he fists his hands into Calhoun's shirt, pulling on it to drag him close again. Calhoun follows the movement easily, and sandwiches Gordon between himself and Beier.
Gordon feels his breath leave him. He's so warm, with Beier covering his back and Calhoun in his lap, and it's Barney that's holding him. Barney's arms around his waist and his shoulders, Barney's breath against his cheek and his back, Barney's legs knocking against his own and boxing in his hips.
The bed creaks, and Gordon sees O'Conner sit on its edge.
"Been waiting to do this a long time, doc," he says, voice subdued, though there's a smile on his face.
Gordon manages to get a hand free enough of his entanglement that he can say, "Me too."
Warmth blooms in him as O'Conner flushes, unable to contain his disbelieving smile, and Beier and Calhoun squeeze him just a bit. Gordon lets the feeling overwhelm him, seep into him, fill him up.
Then, Calhoun gives Gordon some space, leaning back against his pillow, though his Barney-shaped backpack stays put. Hesitantly, Barney leans against himself, bracing O'Conner's shoulder against Calhoun's side. Gordon must be looking at him in a way he can't handle, because both bodies shy their eyes away from his gaze.
"How long?" Barney's voice murmurs from a new direction. Gordon turns to see Phillips sitting on the floor next to the bed, arms around his legs, leaning his head against the bedframe as he looks up. Gordon thinks for a moment.
"...I'm not sure," Gordon admits, then says, "...Since that night you slept over, maybe."
Barney laughs, then - Gordon feels Beier chuckle against his back and sees O'Conner hide his face in Calhoun's sleeve. Gordon tilts his head.
"...Since I brought you here the first time." Calhoun says, the body's first words in a while. A feeling courses through Gordon, like a latent exhilaration. That Barney had been thinking of him like that for so long - that he'd been wanted like this - wrapped up in the center of a hivemind, a supercomputer brain focused solely on him.
Calhoun frowns a little, despite himself. "Is this… okay?" He gestures around to all of himself. Gordon is already nodding before he finishes.
"It is. I told you, it's you." Gordon says, and he watches as Calhoun breathes deeply, and feels Beier echo that sigh against his back. Gordon reaches to take Calhoun's hand in his own again, and rubs his thumb against the body's knuckles. Then, surprising Gordon despite everything, O'Conner reaches over to cover their hands with his own. Gordon finds himself grinning at how strangely sweet this all is.
"You're an amazing guy, doc." Calhoun mumbles, meeting Gordon's eyes just as he looks up from their tangled hands. "I've never… met anybody like you. Truly."
"That makes two of us," Gordon signs one handedly, earning an easy laugh from Barney. Calhoun shakes his head, and Beier squeezes Gordon from behind.
They're both silent for a moment, before O'Conner speaks, now resting his full weight on Calhoun.
"I don't know if we can, um…" he trails off, not quite able to look at Gordon.
"If we can tell anyone." Calhoun finishes, frowning guiltily. "I don't know… what that would mean, for me." He worries his lip, looking past Gordon, no doubt at the rest of the bodies in the room. "You understand? I… Black Mesa - "
Gordon cuts him off with a wave of his hand. "It's okay," he says, for the third time. "I wouldn't be here with you, if I couldn't accept that."
The grateful smile on Calhoun and O'Conner's - Barney's face, is infectious, and Gordon finds himself returning its warmth. He leans forward to kiss him, though Barney doesn't expect it, and Beier's arms catch around his middle. It ends up crooked, half on his cheek, and Calhoun laughs against his face, which makes Gordon laugh, wheezy and faint.
For a moment, the world is only the two and hundred fold more of them, centered in these little barracks, wrapped up in warmth and an answered longing.
Gordon wakes up, and he's warmer than he's ever been, in all his time in Black Mesa's dorms.
He's pressed between two of Barney's bodies, spooned from the back and embraced from the front. He's almost too warm, but he's become so sick of the threadbare sheets and blistering AC in his own dorms that he decides to simply soak up the extra heat while he can.
He can feel Barney's bodies breathing against him. The pace of their breath is staggered, just slightly off sync. Beyond them, though, Gordon thinks he can hear more. He risks waking the two around him as he, very carefully, attempts to brace himself on his shoulder and poke his head out of his little cocoon.
Memories from last night swim to the surface of his mind as he surveys the room as best he can. He had slept over, of course - how could he not? But Barney wasn't going to hold him with just one body, and the bunks here weren't built to hold more than one person, really. Gordon had worried about there not being enough room for it to be comfortable. He had then watched several of Barney's bodies, with wordless coordination, push the adjacent beds as close together as they could manage.
Seeing Barney move several bodies in tandem like that had been captivating. Gordon knows very well that Barney is one person, but knowing it and seeing it laid out before him are different. In that moment, he could see just what Black Mesa must have seen in their pet project - a dark and unpleasant thought that he did his best to push away. Now, seeing that same coordination in the morning, such thoughts barely come to mind.
It seems Barney hadn't been satisfied holding Gordon with two sets of arms. In the night, without waking them, more beds had been pushed together - and more bodies that were meant to be sleeping, or at least off-duty, had cuddled up around him. Gordon's at the center of a veritable nest . The soft breathing of the bodies is a pulsing wave, and little movements and adjustments in sleep ripple through them like the murmurations of a flock of starlings.
Gordon's attention is taken by the creaking of a door. An on-duty body creeps in, very aware of the sleeping pile. Gordon watches him tiptoe over to a specific body, gently wake it and tug it from its spot. The now-wakened body stands and stretches, wordlessly making his way to a chest from which he pulls a uniform. The intruder catches sight of Gordon watching him, and jumps a little.
A body next to Gordon - Calhoun - stirs then, nearly startling Gordon out of his skin. Calhoun tugs on Gordon's shoulder, trying to pull him back down.
"'s still early, doc. Go back to sleep," he mumbles.
Gordon allows himself to settle back down. He pulls his hands towards himself (earning a disappointed whine as he removes one that was draped over Calhoun's waist) so that he can sign. It's a bit difficult, with no real room between them.
"How much of you is… here?"
"Huh? Um…" Calhoun blinks sleepily, taking a moment to parse his movement. As Barney's mind comes to him, though, his eyes widen, face creasing with worry. "Oh - I - is this too much? I didn't mean to - "
Gordon takes the easiest route to quiet him, when they're this close, and simply presses his fingers against the body's lips.
Calhoun stares at him with wide eyes, not making a move. Gordon removes his hand, and brings it to the side of his own face.
"Kiss?" he signs.
The smile that fills Barney's face is warm and full, and Calhoun leans forward to give Gordon just what he's asked for. Gordon savors the puff of his breath against his face.
The body behind Gordon - Beier, who had proved impossible to remove, now that Barney had permission to hold Gordon, and a spare body to do it at all times with - stirs as well. He tightens his grip around Gordon's waist and nuzzles at the back of his neck.
"Sorry about… well, this." Barney's voice says from the foot of the bed. The body that had just entered the room had carefully picked his way over and was now leaning against the bed frame. Slowly, so as not to wake any bodies that are sleeping, he lowers himself to sit at the end of the bed. Beier draws his legs up a bit to make room, tangling them in Gordon and Calhoun's.
"Didn't really mean to end up, uh... surrounding you." Calhoun finishes, sheepish.
Gordon only shakes his head. "It's okay. It's cute." he motions. Then, he adds, smiling a little, "I like it."
"Oh - " Calhoun flushes, and the body at the end of the bed blusters, almost laughing. Beier squeezes him again, breathing deeply. Gordon sighs with him, trailing a hand along his arm where it's wrapped around his waist.
"That's good, then," Barney mumbles from behind him, against his neck. Calhoun secures his arm across Gordon and his double. The body at the foot of the bed turns his attention away from them, idly beginning to undo the buttons of his shirt.
"Sleep, doc." Calhoun says, now recovered. "We got time."
Gordon's not quite sure what time it is, but Barney's always on schedule. He needs to be.
Gordon can afford to close his eyes for a while longer.
When Gordon heads to work a few hours later, paranoia blooms in his mind despite himself. Could anyone tell? He thinks, as his eyes dart around at his co-workers. That Gordon was wearing the same thing as yesterday, since he hadn't brought a change of clothes? That the smile on Barney's face was just a bit more smug? That their strange, black sheep friendship had become - something else?
The advantage of Barney acting as this place's security and surveillance system is not lost on Gordon. Gordon and Barney have certainly been seen making their way to each other's dorms all this time - but mostly by security cameras, which Barney manages in the first place.
As eager as Barney is for Gordon's affection, he's very wary of Black Mesa catching wind of it. Gordon's already made himself an oddball for a variety of reasons, but among them is how he treats Barney as a friend, instead of a fixture. It isn't so much that they'd have to talk to HR - sourness curls in Gordon at the thought that Human Resources would have nothing to do with Barney.
That's not how Black Mesa sees him.
Gordon tries to keep his darker thoughts at bay and focus on work. He's been recently assigned to begin training with the HEV suit. It seems that Dr. Cross and Dr. Green have deemed him a good candidate for its operation. And once he's able, he'll have more than proved his worth here. Not that he'd admit to trying to prove himself to older scientists with no interest in seeing him as anything more than a glorified college student.
He makes his way along the tramline and down an industrial elevator to the Hazard Course. The air is stale here. His eyes glide over rusted railings and old steel, to where the suit rests in a sealed case. As a few attending scientists help him into its confines for the first time (Dr. Cross and Dr. Green have more important things to do) his mind wanders from the unwanted physical contact and back to his own anger. And as his anger festers, he can't help but circle back to Barney.
The thought of how Barney - strange, wonderful, unique Barney - is nothing but a pet project for this place drives Gordon to heave the suffocating weight of the HEV suit forward. It keeps him steady even as the watchful eyes on him from the observation deck make his neck prickle.
His first run goes well, all things considered. Just a cursory examination, to test how well he carries the suit. He'll need to work his strength up a bit to handle it with more grace - that's to be expected. Maybe Barney can help him find where the gym is supposed to be in this place.
Barney is glowing.
That's how it feels, at least.
There's a spring in his step and a smug little smile in every single body on Black Mesa's campus and he can't help it. Gordon. Gordon! Somehow, impossibly, Gordon.
He'd already considered it so fortunate - so unlikely - that he'd ended up meeting someone he could call a real friend. It sounds unbearably pathetic to put it like that, but it's his reality. Barney had grown to accept the professional familiarity he had with the scientists around Black Mesa. He never dreamed of having anything more. It's not as if he could go out and meet anyone new.
And when Gordon arrived - he isn't sure where it came from. Something built into his brain, maybe, to spot the odd one out - he knew Gordon was a little different. He was curious. And his curiosity had led him all the way into Gordon's arms.
In the barracks, O'Conner flops backwards onto his bunk, grinning stupidly. Nervous energy finds its outlet here and there, as Barney does his best to stay on task. His good mood has been noticed - he sees the little sidelong glances he gets as he smiles to himself - but he's used to strange looks these days. Let them think he's on the fritz. He's happy.
"Ah, good morning, Barney!"
Dr. Kleiner greets Barney-Pobst at Sector C's front desk.
The doctor always acts like it's such a pleasant surprise to see him - their own little joke, that neither of them have ever really remarked on, but Barney treasures all the same.
Kleiner may have been the closest thing Barney had to a friend, actually, before Gordon came here. The doctor is eccentric, just like the rest of them. The aloof nature and strange priorities of the Science Team are what Barney considers "normal" - as is their general dismissal of him. But Kleiner has a... compassionate streak. Barney's noticed it. Maybe at first, it was simply the scientist's curiosity that led him to pay Barney special attention - that's usually all it is, before they realize there's not much to him after all - but Kleiner never seemed to tire of him. Never started thinking of him as a utility, rather than a co-worker.
Kleiner greets him every morning. He's happy to see him.
Barney smiles deeply through Pobst as he gives a little wave.
"Good morning, Doctor Kleiner."
The doctor pauses at the front desk. Odd, since he's usually focused on getting to the lab.
"Have you seen Gordon yet today?"
Immediately, Barney feels a flush of panic through his mind. Did Kleiner know something? Did Gordon say something?
"N-no, I uh, haven't seen him - " Of course you've seen him, you idiot. You see everybody.
"I mean, uh - I haven't seen him here." Barney amends. "He's - down by the Hazard Course. Doing his training with the HEV suit, I think." He knows. Gordon told him. And he's got to keep the Hazard Course schedules memorized, anyway.
"Ah!" Kleiner says, ignoring Barney's babbling, or too caught up in his own thoughts to notice it. "I'd completely forgotten! I suppose I'll have to get someone else to look at that data for me. Hmm..."
The doctor becomes lost in his own musing, as he is wont to, and continues on his way. Barney breathes a collective sigh of relief.
He'd like to look at Gordon right now, to settle his nerves. But the Hazard Course doesn't need much in the way of surveillance, at least in its interior, so Barney's focus is left pacing through the minds of bodies stationed around the training area.
When Gordon finally leaves, after a long day of reviewing the suit's functions and physical limitations, Barney is waiting, as always, to smile cheekily in his direction.
In truth, not much changes. They already spent so much of their free time together - what little of it they had, at least - the only difference now being the kisses and gentle touches they share in the privacy of the barracks.
Barney convinces Gordon to take a walk with him on the surface. Late in the day, the desert heat begins to wane, though it's still a fair bit warmer than Black Mesa's halls. It's easy to forget how good fresh air feels after days stuck in a controlled environment.
It's quiet up here. There aren't many animals, and no trees. Black Mesa is filled with the white noise of chugging machinery and computers, but up here, there isn't even any wind. Their steps against the featureless concrete are hardly able to fill the great stillness.
Gordon stretches his arms behind himself, trying to work out a tightness in his shoulders. The warmth of the air has seeped into his lab coat and now clings against him.
"Gordon?" Barney gets his attention as the doctor lags behind him.
Gordon rolls his neck a little, and falls back in step. But Barney's still looking expectantly at him, so Gordon asks, "What?"
"I found something you might like. Wanted to show you."
Gordon tilts his head a little. As he and Barney round a corner, they're met with two more of his bodies leaning against a railing, examining something. As they get closer, Gordon can see it's a camera - one of those old fashioned polaroids, chunky and square.
"I found it in an old supply closet." Barney - Calhoun - says at his side.
"You wouldn't believe the kind of stuff that gets left around here." One of the other bodies says. Gordon doesn't need to look at their name tags to recognize the bodies: Barney-Jones is holding the camera, while Barney-Beier looks at it over his shoulder.
"Does it have film?" Gordon asks, as he reaches for it. Jones obliges him, and Gordon turns it around in his hands.
"I, uh, think so?" Jones says.
"I'm not much of a photo guy." Beier continues, "Thought you might know better how to work it. Given your fancy degree and all." He smirks, and his smarmy expression bleeds over into Jones and Calhoun.
Gordon simply gives him a nonplussed look, before looking more closely at the camera. These things were made so anyone could operate them, really. It is a strange thing to find at a research facility that's very strict about the sort of records that are kept - and who's allowed to see them. Maybe that's why it was shoved into the back of a closet. Gordon says as much to Barney.
"Yeah…" Jones tilts his head a little. "Cameras are uh. Restricted paraphernalia. I would know. I looked around for photos, or anythin', but," he clicks his tongue. "Nothin'."
Gordon shrugs, handing the camera back.
"But, hey," Calhoun says, a giddy nervousness in his voice that Gordon's come to recognize, "I figured, maybe we could take some pictures with the film that's left?"
Gordon raises his eyebrows a little. If there was anything Black Mesa didn't want evidence of, he's sure Barney's existence is on that list. He's also sure that Barney already knows this. Instead of remarking on it, Gordon says,
"I'm not good in photos." The last time he had his photo taken wasn't that long ago - a group picture of the Science Team at Sector C. One he felt a bit out of place in, given he hasn't even been here for half a year.
"Now, I know that can't be true. You've got a photogenic face, doc." Calhoun says, as Jones smirks at him.
Gordon waves his hand flippantly, rolling his eyes. He isn't quite sure if Barney is trying to flatter him or make fun of him - but given that it's Barney, it's most likely the latter.
"Come on, now. Give us a smile!" Calhoun says, Jones fiddling with the camera's settings.
Gordon only narrows his eyes, pulling his mouth to the side. He's gone most of his life being “stoic”, and he's content with it. A smile is something he usually has to force. Despite that, Barney seems to bring it out of him without trying - even now, he can feel it tugging at his lips. He shakes his head.
"You're just gonna have me take a picture of you pouting, huh? That's alright," Beier says, Jones holding the camera up, and blinding Gordon - and Calhoun - with a flash.
"Whoops - gotta turn that off - woah!" Gordon lunges forward to grab the camera out of Jones' hands. It's quickly handed off to Beier, and then to Calhoun, in a childish game of keep-away. The botched photo flutters to the ground.
As Calhoun tries to keep the camera out of Gordon's hands - which is difficult, given the doctor is taller, and has a longer reach - Beier and Jones catch the sight of two scientists rounding the corner nearby. Calhoun stills, and Gordon is able to swipe the camera from his hands.
He tucks the camera against his chest, standing a little straighter as he notices where Barney's looking. Panic briefly overtakes him - along with embarrassment. As they come closer, though, he realizes these figures are familiar. It's Kleiner and Eli Vance - a senior member of Sector C's team. Gordon barely sees him, but that knows he and his mentor are close.
As soon as Gordon and Barney have taken notice of them, they are noticed in return.
"Ah, Gordon! Barney!" Kleiner greets, promptly crossing the distance to meet them. Dr. Vance follows, his gait easy and relaxed.
"Evenin', doctors." Calhoun manages, as Jones averts his eyes and Beier wrings his hands. Gordon only gives a little nod.
"What a pleasant surprise to see the two of you topside! Eli and I were just getting some fresh air."
"Hard to come by in Black Mesa." Eli adds, smiling. He turns his gaze to Gordon. "How are you, Gordon? They've finally got you running around the Hazard Course. Not what you signed up for, is it?"
Gordon shrugs, and then, realizing his hands are occupied, hands the camera back to Calhoun. "Easier than writing reports," he motions, earning a chuckle from the doctor.
"Now, what's that you've got there?" Kleiner adjusts his glasses, stepping forward.
"Oh, I - I found this old camera. Thought it might be nice to… take a picture or two." Calhoun babbles.
Gordon does not miss how Eli's eyes narrow a bit, peering between Barney's bodies.
"Nothing confidential, of course." Jones quickly amends.
Kleiner, oblivious to this, continues on. "My, what a wonderful opportunity! The desert landscape is incredibly scenic."
"Barney," Eli says abruptly, in a conversational tone that belies the likelihood he already knows the answer to his question, "Were you able to get your picture taken last month?"
Gordon knows Eli is referring to the team photos they'd both been a part of, but as he thinks, he realizes Barney had never mentioned anything about it himself.
"Uh - " Beier starts.
"I don't - I don't really need my picture taken." Jones says.
"Only got the one face." Calhoun chuckles uneasily.
Eli regards Barney, but before he can speak, Gordon's hands move.
"That isn't true." Gordon says, catching Barney's attention. "I can tell the difference."
Gordon isn't expecting Barney to flush at this. Calhoun looks away, while Beier and Jones lean back against the railing, glancing at each other.
"That's - uh - "
"You boys must spend an awful lot of time together," Eli remarks, causing Gordon to jolt. Maybe he's said too much. As he faces Eli, he can see the sly grin crossing the older doctor's face.
"Well, if Barney hasn't had his picture taken, then this is the perfect opportunity!" Kleiner chimes. "I know a thing or two about photography myself."
"Is that right?" Eli reigns in the look that's pinning Gordon down to glance sidelong at Kleiner. "Maybe you'd like to take it for them?"
"I'd be delighted! Barney, the camera!" Kleiner's already walking forward to claim it, and Calhoun is still too lost in his own thoughts to stop the doctor from scooping it out of his hands.
"Whu - wait, doc - "
"Yes, Barney? Oh!" Kleiner perks up. "Perhaps we should try to get a bit more of you in the shot? There's certainly enough room!"
Gordon is about to ask what Kleiner means, when Barney seems to concede to the whole situation.
"Alright, alright. Yeah. Hold on, I got some more a' me nearby." He grins, scratching at his cheek.
As if on queue, two more bodies trot out from a nearby security station. They're definitely on the clock, but neither Eli or Kleiner see fit to reprimand Barney for shirking his duties. As they reach the little group, Gordon recognizes them as Barney-Phillips, and Barney-O'Conner.
"You wanna be in the middle, doc?" Calhoun asks, as the bodies cluster around him. He isn't perturbed by it in the least, but he catches Eli and Kleiner stepping back a bit. Kleiner is hidden behind the lense of the camera - fiddling with its aperture - but Gordon can clearly see the strange, perceptive look on Eli's face. He decides, resolutely, to stop considering it.
Gordon is resigned to his fate. He stands a little straighter, brushing at his lab coat, as he faces Kleiner. Barney gathers neatly around him; Gordon doesn't shrug him off when a hand claps on his shoulder, and definitely doesn't jump the slightest bit when another rests against the small of his back.
Eli crosses his arms, leaning back on his heel as he watches the two - six of them. Kleiner hunkers behind the camera, pulling up his shoulders.
"Alright! On the count of three! One, two - "
And as Kleiner says "three", Gordon finds the smile that was tugging on the corner of his lips surfacing. He leans back into the warmth behind him, posture softening.
The camera clacks in a loud and satisfying way. Kleiner straightens out, turning the camera to watch the photo print. Eli plucks it out as it finishes, watching the image slowly take form.
Gordon can't help but creep closer to see it - Calhoun does the same.
"Whaddya know, Izzy. Photography might just be your calling." Eli says, turning it towards the older doctor, just before Calhoun reaches over to snatch it. Gordon peeks over his arm at the little polaroid, nearly fully developed.
...despite Gordon's reservations, and Barney holding up bunny ears behind his head like a kid, it is a nice picture.
A week after the photograph debacle, Barney looks up to see Eli approaching the security desk in the office complex lobby. It's quiet, late at night. At this hour, the majority of the science team are in their dorms, and those that remain tend to fall asleep at their desks.
With nobody around, half of the overhead fluorescent lamps are off to conserve power. Eli checks his hip against the desk and studies Barney through the dim light.
"Evening, Dr. Vance," Barney says. "You turning in for the night?"
"If I had my way, I would have been in bed hours ago." Eli smiles good-naturedly.
Barney nods, expecting an end to the pleasantries.
"How's Gordon doing?"
Barney sputters. He tries very hard to contain his surprise and not let it spill over into the dorms where he is, at this very moment, lounging on Gordon's couch like he lives there.
"He's - uh - he's fine?" Barney says, swallowing and feeling his throat tight against his collar. "Aren't you two - part of the same team?"
"I spend less and less time in the labs these days." Eli complains. "It's a shame. Kleiner has an awful lot to say about him. I worry he's gonna burn out before we see what he's really made of."
Barney speaks without really thinking.
"Oh, yeah, he’s a workaholic if I ever seen one. You'd think that would make him fit in with the rest of these eggheads - oh, uh, no offense, doctor - "
Eli only laughs, warm and easy.
"No, no. You're right. Trouble is, they're too focused on getting their next grant to make room for new blood." Eli smiles, peering at Barney. "It's a good thing he's got you."
"Oh, uh - yeah, I guess so..." Barney grips the edge of the desk, feeling the cold linoleum under his fingers. Eli continues, not noticing or ignoring Barney’s nerves.
"I swear, I don't know what I'd do without Azian and Alyx around. This damn place would drive me nuts." The doctor shakes his head. "Sometimes I think it already has."
"...Around here, I think it'd be hard to tell the difference." Even when nervous, Barney can't resist the urge to be catty.
Eli laughs, though, and Barney feels a knot begin to loosen in his chest.
"Say, you haven't met Azian and Alyx, have you?"
Barney restrains himself from saying 'of course I have'.
"I uh, have, sir." he shrugs a little. More than a few scientists have families on base. He meets everyone. He sees everyone, at every checkpoint.
...At least, the ones he’s stationed at. There are places where even his eyes don't reach.
"Aah. Right." Eli nods, as if he'd forgotten, which Barney thinks must be impossible. "I suppose you get sick of people showing you pictures of their families, huh? When you've seen 'em all already."
Barney only blinks at him. There's a silence, long enough for Eli's smile to fade.
"I don't… uh. People don't show me pictures." Barney states, staring very intently below Eli’s face, where the lapel of his lab coat has suddenly become very interesting..
Barney hears, more than sees, the deep breath that Eli takes. Doesn't want to meet his eyes. Doesn't want to see how he's being looked at.
"...Well, no better time to start than now," Eli says, the warm tone returning to his voice. "Here. Have a look."
The doctor digs his wallet out of his pocket to flip it open. It's hard to see, in the near-dark, but as Eli holds it out for him Barney can make out a small photo of Azian holding a baby - Alyx.
"That's from about… 3 years ago. Not long after Alyx was born," Eli says.
Before he can stop himself, Barney reaches out to grab the wallet and bring it closer. Eli's now empty hand hangs in the air before he rests it on the desk.
If Eli says something more, Barney doesn't really hear it. He traces his gaze along the grainy picture, taking in Azian's face - which is familiar - but somehow so different, like this. Her tired smile is so much more real than he's ever seen it. And Alyx - Barney can't help but stare every time she's brought across a checkpoint, and this photo is having a similar effect. Her round little face and the way her small hands cling to Azian's shirt are captivating, somehow.
The thought comes to him that she's the only child he's ever seen in person.
When he realizes his own silence, Barney struggles to come up with something to say.
"They're - uh - beautiful?" Is that how you're meant to respond in this situation?
"They're my pride and joy," Eli says, taking his wallet back. "I hate to think of the kind of… soulless lab stooge I'd be without them."
Barney knows what Eli is referring to. The members of the Science Team with no family to speak of - whose life revolves around their place at Black Mesa, now, and trying to edge themselves ahead of their peers in this dark little corner of the world.
Barney isn't much different from them, he realizes. Maybe he's got more personality, but he's bound to this place all the same. He doesn't have anyone to go home to.
At least, he didn't, before he met Gordon.
"Well. I should be getting back, now." Eli says, tucking his wallet away. "But you know, if you ever want to… drop by to see Alyx, or either of us, I know I wouldn't mind. Azian, either." Eli smiles, eyes crinkling.
"Uh - okay." Barney says dumbly, at a complete loss for anything else to say. He sees them all the time. He sees them all the time, and yet this is so different. "I… I will. Good - goodnight, Dr. Vance."
Barney's stilted response doesn't cause Eli's smile to fade in the least. The doctor nods at him, telling him goodnight in turn, before walking out of the lobby.
It's still for a long while after that. When Barney finally leans back in his chair, his back creaks in protest. His hands worry at the edge of the desk again.
He watches through many eyes as Eli makes his way back to the dorms.
His focus flits from mind to mind. He watches Gordon step out of the bathroom and run his hand through still-wet hair. Barney does not look at the way his thin t-shirt clings against his body, outlining the gentle curve of his hip. He does glance over security cameras, patrol down hallways, spin in chairs behind checkpoint desks, as Gordon pads over to sit between the bodies draped over his couch. At the tram station, Dr. Vance nods at Barney as he passes through the security gate, though the guard barely returns the gesture.
It's taken so long for him to realize that being so - objectively aware of the people around him was strange. Barney's eyes are on the Science Team all day long. And he knows, in the back of his mind, that there is a great deal of this facility he hasn't seen - he knows this because he seesBlack Mesa employees disappear where his eyes can't follow.
Eli Vance is one of these people. Kleiner, too, at times.
Despite this, though, both of these men had begun to - what - warm up to him? Even though they both have the opportunity to escape his watch?
Eli would invite Barney into his home. To see his kid.
Something strange and warm is bubbling inside of him. A strange thought comes - and he wants to laugh at the absurdity of it. He shakes his head, earning a strange glance from Gordon. The body in the office lobby stares resolutely at the popcorn ceiling.
Is this what it feels like? To be a real person?
Gordon trails his hand along Barney's cheek, turning Calhoun's face to look at him. The stubble is pleasantly rough against his palm. Barney isn't very good about shaving. Not that Gordon minds - he likes it.
"Uh - doc?" Oh. Barney's looking at him like a deer caught in headlights. Two deer, actually, as Calhoun blinks at him from across the couch and O'Conner does the same from the floor. Gordon retracts his hand.
"Sorry," he says. "You just seemed distracted."
Calhoun shakes his head again. "No, no. I'm fine, sorry. It's just… well, you know." Calhoun taps his finger against his temple.
"The usual," Jones says from behind Gordon.
Gordon responds by leaning back into Jones' lap, enjoying that though he can't see Jones' face from this angle, he can still watch Barney's expression spark with pleasant surprise in Calhoun.
Barney's smile twitches back down, though, when Gordon moves his hands.
"What is 'the usual', exactly?"
"Well - " Calhoun stumbles, rubbing his arm. Jones hums from behind Gordon as Barney thinks. "'s just… a lot more to focus on, lately."
"More than a hundred security guards can handle?"
Calhoun smiles lopsidedly, looking away and sighing as O'Conner pipes up. "Doc, you… already gotta know the effect you have on me."
Gordon has a rough idea, but it still makes his stomach flutter to hear Barney say it.
"Did you want to go to your dorm?" He doesn't mind accommodating Barney's unique... sensory issues. It's the closest analogue he can come up with to call it, if only for his own experiences with such things.
"Oh - no, no," Calhoun says quickly, waving his hands.
"I'm fine here. Things have just been…" O'Conner trails off.
"...different, lately." Jones finishes. "Good different," he amends, as Gordon frowns.
Gordon tilts his head. He can see Calhoun glancing furtively at him, and decides to be patient. He'll wait as long as he needs for the hivemind to gather his thoughts.
"I'm not used to - keepin' up with people, I guess. In a… friendly kinda way."
Before Gordon can respond, Barney babbles on.
"I mean, I - talk to everybody, sure, but - " Calhoun breaks off, Barney's voice suddenly much closer to Gordon's ear as Jones continues "it's different when it's - when they're talking to me. Instead of just… asking me to do something. You know?" As he speaks, O'Conner shifts to lean against Calhoun's legs.
Gordon relates to the sentiment more than he expects to, though he knows it's not quite in the same way that Barney means it. Calhoun shrugs, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. He worries at his lip before casting his eyes towards Gordon again.
Gordon should say - something. His hands raise, but hover in the air. Somehow, words leave him most often when it's comfort he needs to give.
"Doc?" Jones asks from behind him.
"I'm not… used to people, either," Gordon says, frowning, "Never really… knew what to do. Stopped trying." Where exactly does he intend to go with this? He thinks of himself, and Barney. How Barney, despite his... social inexperience, sought him out so quickly after their first meeting.
Had he been the first person Barney had tried to talk to - really talk to? Or was it simply the first time it worked?
"...I'm glad you tried with me," Gordon says.
It takes Barney a moment to process what Gordon means, but the realization shows on his face when he reddens and looks away, rubbing at his neck.
"Shoot…" Calhoun mumbles, and Gordon can feel Jones shift behind him. O'Conner's forehead knocks against Calhoun's knee as he hides his face.
"Didn't really… know what I was doing," Jones says. "Still don't."
"I didn't, uh, plan this far ahead," Calhoun says.
Gordon just shakes his head. He leans further into Jones, turning around in his seat to look at the face he's neglected.
"You think I did?" he says, earning an echoing chuckle.
Gordon trails his hand up to gently press it against the side of Jones' neck. Barney goes still, Jones wide eyed and the other bodies quiet. Gordon leans forward to give him a quick kiss, and can hear Barney's pleased little gasp behind him.
"Gordon," Calhoun mumbles, and Gordon can feel him shuffle closer.
"You, uh, handle it pretty well, for being unprepared," Jones says. Gordon lets himself grin, and kisses him again (just to make a point of it.)
Calhoun sidles up close, and Gordon can feel his warm breath as it falls over the back of his neck. Tucking his head against Jones' collar, Gordon sighs. He's never thought of himself as that touchy-feely, but Barney's opened up some lonely part of himself, and now he can't get enough. He needed to be held so badly - and he hadn't realized it until Barney gave it to him. The hivemind is very touchy. Gordon wonders if a lifetime spent in the company of himself and his own bodies is what makes him so bold - so clingy . Or is it only his overabundance of bodies, of arms to hold with and lips to kiss, that make it seem that way? Barney barely touches him, if he thinks about it proportionally. He reaches out with a fraction of himself, and Gordon is nearly smothered.
As Gordon's brain rattles around thoughts about Barney's nature, the hivemind presses into him at both sides, seeping warmth that reaches down to Gordon's bones. Jones gently threads fingers through Gordon's hair, and Calhoun nestles into his shoulder. O'Conner tangles himself between their legs.
There's mumbling against his back. Gordon tilts his head up to fix Jones with a quizzical stare, silently asking Barney to repeat himself.
Jones's eyes dart away, lips twisting a little. The body is silent, nearly pensive, as Calhoun presses his words between Gordon's shoulder blades.
"Do you think this can last?"
Gordon can't help but frown. He'd worry that Barney's begun to doubt whatever this relationship is, but he already knows this isn't that. He understands what Barney really means to ask.
How long until this becomes dangerous for one or both of them?
Gordon just shakes his head as he sits up, trying to ignore Jones' disappointed stare. He isn't going to lie.
"...I don't know," He feels Barney tense against him. "I want it to last."
"That makes two of us," Jones says hurriedly.
"Or - well - you know," O'Conner says, and Gordon smirks despite himself.
It isn't long before Barney ends up nudging them both to bed, though the sleeping arrangements in the dorms are never quite as nice as in the barracks. Which is almost funny, given that the dorms actually look like a place where a person should live, unlike the sardine tin Barney calls home.
Gordon's little bed will not hold four bodies. Two is already pushing it. So, as per what has become 'normal' for them, Calhoun will get to crawl into Gordon's bed, while the other two will make do cuddling on the couch (an arrangement that had only been reached after spending an embarrassing amount of time playing tetris with themselves on Gordon's Black Mesa issued twin bed.)
Gordon watches Barney move in and out of his vision in four bodies. The guard never really leaves his sight, as he changes into night clothes and sloppily brushes his teeth. He knows he seldom leaves Barney's vision, either - though he tries not to let it consume his thoughts.
In all honesty, Gordon's a man who likes his privacy. At least, he's gotten so used to spending great deals of time alone that he's not sure how to act when he isn't . Dwelling on Barney's omnipresence isn't… good for his brain.
He doesn't want to invite that cold, prickling feeling back. Nor the suffocating feeling of surveillance , of all things. Not when he knows very well it's Barney , who always looks at him with warmth, no matter what dingy Black Mesa hallway they're in, no matter how many times Gordon has passed in front of his eyes that day.
It isn't Barney's fault, either - it's just his nature, and he would never use that against Gordon anyway, because - he - they -
Gordon catches Calhoun's eye in the mirror as the body stands behind him, waiting for the sink. Barney smiles, and the tight, anxious thread of Gordon's thoughts falls lax within him.
Barney cares about him.
Gordon is caught in a web, yes. But somehow, it's a web that adores him. Barney’s taken him for what he is, and hasn’t asked anything of Gordon but his company. It doesn't seem like much, but it's far more than Gordon has been afforded at the best of times. It's only fair that he offers the hivemind the same.
Gordon walks out of the bathroom to see Jones helping O'Conner shrug off his shirt.
He watches for a long minute before Barney catches him staring, and jumps, hands darting away from himself.
"Uh - hey, Gordon?" Jones says, uncertainly.
"Is it easier like that?" Gordon motions.
"Uh - huh?" Barney glances at himself, hands hovering. "Oh. Um. I guess?"
Gordon gives him a little nod. It's not as if he's surprised by Barney's bodies helping each other undress, not with all the times he's been in the barracks. But now that Gordon is really thinking about it, it isn't something Barney has ever done openly when Gordon is around - he's always caught it across the room, or tucked out of view. Hm.
"Don't let me stop you," Gordon says.
"Oh, um - right," Jones says, holding O'Conner's shirt as the body gently slips his arms out. It's discarded, and Barney pauses again before continuing.
"You, uh… you good there, doc?" O'Conner asks. Gordon hasn't moved.
Gordon leans against the frame of the bathroom door.
"I'm fine. You can keep going."
One face blooms with eagerness, eyes wide and giddy, while the other bites his cheek, tensing with nerves. Barney's surprise lasts only a moment, before he does just as he's asked.
From behind, Gordon feels fingertips trail against his waist, and warm lips where his shoulder meets his neck, followed by the gentle scrape of teeth. Gordon shudders a little, and relaxes into Barney's hold. He catches eyes watching his face from across the room, as Calhoun moves behind him.
He wants it to last.
Gordon's HEV suit training is quickly reaching its conclusion.
He's had to put on some weight, and get back into some semblance of good shape to wear it properly. The suit's own servos help, but the thing is still goddamn heavy. And besides the suit itself, there's the issue of its first aid capabilities. While Gordon (thankfully) has not needed any intravenous injections of morphine throughout his training, making sure that the pump itself was working meant he needed to have a needle plugged into his skin anyway. He isn't squeamish about such things - he's a scientist, after all - but the feeling of it anchored into his sinew doesn't leave him even after he's long gone from the hazard course.
The hazard course is very near Black Mesa's gun range, which is itself a part of the facility's armory and main security center. The guards at Black Mesa - that is to say, Barney - use the course with some regularity for drills of emergency scenarios, in addition to the range. Barney's admitted to Gordon he isn't quite sure still what it is he's practicing for. The base is so remote, it's difficult for anyone who's not meant to be there to even get close, and so far low level employees haven't really had the gall to try and force their way past Barney into high security areas - though he's not sure whether he would actually be able to follow them if they did.
In any case, Barney knows how to handle a gun, and as Gordon leaves his final run through the hazard course, resisting the urge to scratch at the phantom needle, he can't help but let his path stray in the direction of the armory.
Black Mesa is a rat's maze, with corridors that wind around and through each other in a dingy lattice. Gordon often finds himself blindly wandering forward, treading where the halls will take him. It's sheer coincidence, many times, that he ends up where he needs to be. The hazard course is deeper underground than the security center, and it takes a rackety elevator ride up and a few flights of neglected stairs before he's welcomed by the sight of an airlock door and, more importantly, Barney's shining face.
Barney lets him through the airlock without any questions. Gordon doesn't pause to try and talk through the plexiglass - Barney will have another body in front of him soon enough. Sure enough, in the lobby, Barney's standing behind a large desk - and at another window where a scientist complains at him, and in the entrance to the locker rooms, and down one of the hallways, where he disappears around the corner.
"Hey, Gordon - ?" The body at the desk tries to greet him, but Gordon walks past to catch up with the piece of Barney that's left his view. Sure enough, as soon as he rounds the corner -
"What, I don't even get a hello?" The body is waiting to chastise Gordon, picking up where the other left off.
Gordon thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. He can't help the way his lip curls up when Barney's face twists in displeasure. But, before he's got a chance to starting bitching at Gordon for being rude, the scientist signs:
"I want to shoot."
Barney blinks, taken off guard. "What - you - wanna use the range?" He turns to look at the locked door to the range as Gordon nods. When there's no elaboration, Barney quirks his brow.
"No offense, doc, but I didn't take you for the type…"
Gordon resists the urge to say, 'and you are?' - instead, he signs, "Do you think I can't aim?"
Barney rubs at his cheek. "...I think I'd be afraid of what you'd do if you could." He says, huffing a laugh.
Gordon remains carefully neutral.
"...well, I guess it couldn't hurt." Barney turns to punch a code into the door. "You want me to give you a few pointers?"
Barney misses Gordon roll his eyes as they step into the range.
Barney's got another body behind a desk here, which has already set out a pistol and ammo. And over in the range itself - Gordon sees two bodies practicing. The loud crack of gunfire, even from behind glass, makes his ears ring.
"Here," Barney holds out a pair of battered noise cancelling headphones to Gordon, but forgoes them himself. "Do you know how to do this, doc?" he says, hesitating to hand over the pistol.
Gordon ignores the question, and motions to the parts of Barney working on their marksmanship.
"Practicing?" he motions.
Barney shifts his feet. Gordon can see the corner of his mouth quirk as he bites the inside of his cheek. "Sort of… It passes the time." He smirks a little. "Figure I'm here for the same reason you are, right?"
Gordon only shrugs, ignoring the knowing look Barney is giving him, and heads into the range.
Barney follows behind. When Gordon at last is able to get into position, squaring his shoulders and uncertainly spreading his feet, the kick of the gun as he fires it is more than he's prepared for, knocking his wrist back towards his face and ruining his shot. Even with the headphones on, the force of the sound sends a jolt through his body. It feels -
Gordon doesn't know how it feels. There's a catharsis to it - the anger he's been keeping close to his heart rises until it's simmering just under his skin, rippling with the vibration and the way the gun jerks in his hand. He wants to pull the trigger again. He doesn't expect Barney putting his warm hands around Gordon's arm and shoulder, under the pretense of adjusting his posture, but he's not going to complain.
He spends longer in the range than he intends to. Barney standing near him, and all around him, doesn't make it any easier to leave. But he has to, eventually. The HEV suit training has already disrupted the meager time he's got to look over data and write reports. Black Mesa expects just as much menial work out of him, even as they strap him into a clunky metal suit and tell him to run.
Gordon hopes that his resentment (that lingers even after filling a paper target with holes) will keep his mind clear. His first real trial with the HEV suit is right around the corner. Despite Kleiner's absolute confidence in him, Gordon knows he has lingering doubts of his worth as a scientist to stave off.
The morning of the test, Gordon wakes up late, because Barney isn't in his bed to act as his alarm clock. He rushes through his morning routine, only to be confined to the glacial pace of the tram as it lumbers, suspended, through Black Mesa's innards.
When he arrives at Sector C, Barney seems unusually frazzled - mentioning something about how systems have been acting up all over the facility - but it's alright. Not having to check in at the desk means he can get into the suit, and the test chamber, that much faster.
He ignores the side glances he receives from his peers as he noisily makes his way down the halls, and welcomes Kleiner and Eli's reassurances when he finds them waiting for him just before the test chamber. If they seem nervous, well - it's not like he can turn around. The unease around him is palpable, but he doesn't know if his own nerves are clouding his perception.
Wearing the suit in the hard part. He's a trained professional. All he's got to do is stick to procedure, and it'll be over with.
It all goes terribly wrong.
The first thing he sees as he steps out of the ruined chamber - ears ringing, head throbbing - is Barney.
On the ground, with a scientist above him, doing their best to rouse him.
His first thought - oh, god, Barney - is overshadowed by his second - a rush of surprise at a Black Mesa scientist trying to save what’s meant to be an expendable resource. Maybe the human urge to care doesn't entirely leave, even when the rational part of the brain knows that the hivemind isn’t human.
When the body groans, the doctor carefully helping him lean up, Gordon rushes forward.
"You need to get out of here - get help." The scientist says, but Gordon's only focus is trying to get Barney to look him in the eyes.
The body blinks, shaking his head. "Gordon...?" He sits straighter.
"I'm here," Gordon says, kneeling in front of him.
"Gordon, you - you need to go." Barney says, echoing the scientist. "Everything is - it's all falling apart. Everywhere."
His voice is hollow. Haunted. He still isn't quite focused - staring past Gordon, far beyond. Gordon wants to ask. Wants to know more, but can't bear to interrogate Barney. And he's got a sinking feeling about the extent of the destruction that this disaster has caused - is going to cause.
Gordon stands. He'll see Barney again. He knows this.
Barney learns what dying feels like.
Over and over, in case he was to forget.
There's a familiarity to it. Some part of him wonders if, as a fledgling hivemind deep in Black Mesa's recesses, he remembers their failed attempts to string him together.
Over and over, he tries to process what's happened.
It all became very quiet, and then - all of a sudden - everywhere - everything -
Terrifying apparitions. Surges of energy, destruction. The facility falling apart at its seams, a whirlwind of chaos radiating out from Sector C.
The moment that it happens is when the first pieces of him die. Caught in darkness - a falling elevator, collapsing catwalks. Dangerous creatures pulled from nothing.
He feels lights in his mind suddenly vanish, like great swathes of a city going dark. He is left only with the memory of what they looked like, lit up by consciousness.
He is frantic. Not only for himself, but for everyone around him. His job - his purpose - is protection. And the more of him that dies, the more dangerous it gets for everyone else.
When Gordon crosses his path again, he wants it to be a reverie.
Instead, he watches himself get gouged in the chest by a monster in a science team uniform. Gordon's face, struck with horror, is the last thing that body sees as its vision flickers out and his focus is forced elsewhere.
He hopes Gordon will be resourceful enough to make use of the pistol he dropped, at least.
The military comes to clean up Black Mesa's mess. More of him sputters out and dies, as Barney quickly learns that he, by his very nature, is part of the mess. Sometimes it's quick, but many times, it's slow. The pain radiating through him is a constant. The bodies don't exactly share pain, but just like sleep, he can tell that it's there. It swallows the focus of injured bodies, bending their perception away from the network of his mind and towards their own suffering.
He tries to help Gordon. He does. He follows when Gordon asks, though he knows he can't follow forever. He has to help the rest of the science team too, has to keep himself spread wide, like a great net. When he manages to find Kleiner, Barney remains glued to his side. The doctor has some notion that they can't simply escape - Black Mesa caused this, and they're the only ones with the means to fix it.
Barney watches the good doctor blast a 6 inch hole through the chest of a monster. It shudders, sinking down to its knees far too slowly, long arms and claws curling against the floor.
As the ringing in his ears fades, the silence is filled only with his and Kleiner's ragged breathing. Barney turns to see the nose of Kleiner's shotgun high in the air, before his arms tremble and he lowers its weight, keeping it carefully pointed away.
"Nice shooting, doc," Barney says, not as peppy as he'd like it to be. Kleiner only mumbles, enduring a small shudder.
The doctor is surprisingly competent with that 12-gauge, and has held onto it despite Barney's offer to swap his pistol with him.
The Lambda Lab is so close, now. Kleiner's already made it clear that they're going to need to seal the path behind them. The survivors there only have a chance to succeed if all access to that place is cut off. Barney's thoughts turn to Gordon, to the other members of the Science Team.
"Come along, Barney." Kleiner says uneasily, continuing forward with small steps. Barney jumps to attention twice over, and takes his place in front of and behind him.
Calhoun doesn’t have time to enjoy fresh air and sunlight when he steps out beneath the open sky. He’s too busy keeping himself from being shot. Pulling a pin out of a grenade, he tosses it behind a cargo car - the unintelligible radio chatter picks up before he’s deafened by the explosion. Gore splatters past him as he turns away, and he feels exhilarated and sick to his stomach all at once.
He finds Dr. Harold hiding in a train car not long after. The doctor’s too injured, falling slack against the wall with a rattling breath, but not before he instructs Calhoun to find Dr. Rosenberg.
Barney decides to follow the thread that Calhoun has found. There may be a way out of here for him, too, before he loses the rest of himself.
He feels - fragmented. The vortex of his mind is so bright, so warped with adrenaline that he can't think with all of it at once. Seeing himself becomes disorienting. Like seeing a stranger.
Rosenberg is trapped in a trainyard, and it isn't until the packed gravel is soaked with blood that he's able to move on. Barney sees one of his own bodies at Calhoun's feet. He strips its armor and ammo, as he's already become accustomed to doing, and does not think about the fact that he doesn't remember dying here.
Dr. Rosenberg leads Calhoun to the prototype teleportation labs, where his associates, Bennet and Simmons, are waiting.
They ask Calhoun to cross through the portal into an alien world. The "borderworld". Xen.
The thought flits, from somewhere else inside him, that he should be elated at the chance. Instead, he only feels sick. Staring at the warping yellow-green air in front of him, a great sense of foreboding fills up his chest.
Calhoun steps through the portal and - oh -
For a moment, he's alone - alone -
And just as his mind finds him again, something pulls at its edges. Something familiar, but different. Him, but not. A strange language that he doesn't understand, but that enters his thoughts in a way he's so used to feeling from himself. Like a radio, catching the staticky edge of a signal.
The world beyond is cold and vacant, and the metallic taste of the portal lingers in his mouth and nose. He can’t tell the difference between the strange noises echoing through the caverns and the ones that come unbidden to his mind. He can barely tell if he’s going the right way. There’s a chance Calhoun will get lost here and that will be the anticlimactic end - for this body, at least. Another faceless corpse to rest in some dark corner, for nobody to ever find. It feels like a horrible nightmare - a dreamlike labyrinth that only waking will pull him from.
But Xen is very real. He can feel it in the way the lower gravity makes the contents of his stomach lurch. He can feel it in the pain that shoots up through his calves and knees when he leaps from one ledge to another, and the sick fear that grabs him when grotesque creatures cross his path. He can feel it in the way the radio buzz in his mind ebbs and flows, moving from his eardrums to gather in his sinuses and throb behind his eyes.
The whole time he sprints, leaps, crawls through Xen, he's waiting for the signal to fade and leave him. It never does. At its gentlest, it is a buzz, so faint but unmistakably there, like a cloud of gnats just beyond his ear.
The thread of Calhoun’s mind becomes a terrible dream woven into the rest of him, as the bulk of Barney, still on Earth, continues to survive against odds.
The hivemind finds himself traipsing through high security areas for the first time. The whole of him had always had Level 3 clearance. More secure areas relied on automated defenses - the closest he got was Barney-Jones' post at the Lambda Lab, which was only ever operating an airlock door.
For someone whose eyes are everywhere, there's a great deal of this place he realizes he hasn't seen. He learns things that don't surprise him - that vindicate him. He knows what Black Mesa is capable of. He's a product of it, after all.
The scientists in these places welcome his protection. He’s bitter in knowing they’d hardly pay him any mind before this - but he does his job regardless. It’s almost pathetic how helpless they all are. It is pathetic. But Barney’s pathetic himself.
Gordon finds him again in the halls of Black Mesa’s dilapidating offices. His greeting receives a long stare, a deep, shuddering breath - and the barest hint of a nod, urging him to follow along.
Gordon’s seen him die enough already. Barney knows it will happen again.
The creatures creeping through the hallways are bigger, now. Smarter. They shoot blinding green lights from their hands like they’re in some sort of sci-fi flick. Barney provides what cover he can with his pistol, while Gordon does far more work with a stolen assault rifle and a heavy trigger finger. He rushes past Barney to get close - too close - and it’s only after the fact that Barney realizes the doctor was trying to make himself a target. Standing between Barney and the lightshow in front of them.
His demeanor has shifted entirely. Like he’s invincible in that suit. Doesn’t he understand that Barney’s the expendable one?
When they find a group of scientists huddled in a barricaded room, Barney stays. He doesn’t need to vocalize it - Gordon’s already begun advancing, too aware that they won’t follow him to - wherever it is he’s going. Forward. Barney can only be a spectator to his relentless pace.
When he and Kleiner finally arrive to relative safety, the desperate plans of the survivors in the Lambda Lab are laid out before them. Barney becomes a messenger. An improvised telecomm. The nature of needing to survive means he isn't very effective - but he's all they've got.
They have some - misguided notion that Gordon can save them. Barney doesn't know where it comes from, even as he watches Gordon survive, inexplicably, things that easily snuff out city blocks in Barney's own mind.
He does his best to lead Gordon to them, anyway. They don't have many other options.
Deep beneath the surface, Barney watches Gordon step off a rattling metal elevator. He begins to relay his message - "Make sure you don't - " and just like that, it's gone. Barney barely registers that the body has been killed, when he realizes he's failed to give Gordon his warning. He doesn't even remember what he was meant to say.
Calhoun manages to find and activate the array Rosenberg had told him about. And just like that, he's able to return, the portal back tearing him apart from himself and back again. The buzzing is gone, but Barney can feel the ghost of its presence. It's all he can do to keep Calhoun from vomiting on Rosenberg's shoes as the man tells him there's more to be done.
He descends lower into the facility. The portal must have fucked something up with him, because he sees another of his bodies, he knows that it's him, and yet - when he watches it get killed - even as he's able to see it from that body's own eyes - it doesn't feel like him. Barney's become a spectator to himself. Even Calhoun feels like a puppet that he's piloting.
When he returns with a battery to power Rosenberg's portal, Calhoun is the last to leave. First Bennet, then Simmons, then Rosenberg. Calhoun leaps through the shimmering air just as the door gives way and the room is filled with military grunts.
For the third time, Calhoun is ripped away from himself.
Again, he feels it. Something calling to him, something strange but familiar -
This time, it reaches him. Warps him. For a moment, he sees Rosenberg, through a crackling, yellow-green haze, hears him shout - and then he's gone. He sees Xen. Panic sets in, ice cold and suffocating, but as soon as it grips him he's gone again, somewhere in between - there's nothing -
And then he's in a quiet, dark room. Black Mesa? He turns to the sound of footsteps - and sees - Gordon. Dragged by his neck. When had Barney seen him last? It's hard to remember.
As soon as he means to act - shout, do anything - he's ripped away, relentlessly.
When he finds himself in front of Rosenberg again, the doctor's relief is palpable, at least until Calhoun stumbles to the side to hurl.
Rosenberg grabs him under his arms, drags him back up. Their need for haste is not lost, even as they're just about to cross the threshold. Calhoun steadies himself on the hood of the SUV as Bennet pulls the chain link gate open. With the state he's in, Calhoun manages to avoid being asked to drive. He slips into the back as Simmons hot wires the engine, and try as he might to stay awake - to listen to the rest of himself within Black Mesa, to remain connected, to find Gordon - the body passes out to the sound of tires over gravel and his own fluttering heartbeat.
Barney paces uneasily inside the Lambda Lab's confines.
He'd lost the second body he had with the doctor on the way to the Lab. It was probably the only reason they were able to make it this far at all.
Kleiner's taken up a spot by the front entrance, shotgun balanced on boxes and pointed at the wide glass doors. The military bombing and the invasion of deadlier alien threats meant a great deal of work to close off the pathways to the Lab had been done for them. Now all they had to do was wait for Gordon.
Barney had seen him through Calhoun, limp and vulnerable. He wanted to search for him, but keeping himself alive was such a great struggle that he could hardly begin. Hours later, a body in residue processing heard metal against metal and the thump of boots - and turned to the familiar sight of Gordon jumping down from a vent. The body there had been finishing off a few of those crab things, and just as it went to check the path ahead for the both of them -
it's caught, breath ripped from lungs as it's tugged up, up, up by its neck, until -
Dead. Just gore and viscera now, Barney is certain, though that isn't really his concern. Gordon was alive, and he was able to tell the science team as much.
No matter what happens, Gordon continues to cut through Black Mesa like a hot knife, and the Science Team looks to this and expects him to save them. Barney doesn't really believe it - can hardly process it - but none of them are really thinking rationally right now. If Gordon's untapped bloodlust is the answer to their stranding in this hellhole, he'll hang onto it.
Not that he doesn't feel guilty. That Gordon's survived so much already, while Barney can't even keep himself alive. The best he can do is serve his purpose here, even as he feels great chunks of himself torn away.
"Barney, stop pacing. I need to listen for footsteps." Kleiner mutters from his place near the door.
Barney stops. He wants to bite out some remark back, but he's too exhausted. He shifts uneasily, rubbing his hands, before he turns to the doctor.
"This doesn't feel right," he begins.
When Kleiner only glances at him, he continues.
"Just sitting here. Waiting for him like this."
"It's all we can do right now." Kleiner says. "Safeguarding the lab is our top priority if there's going to be any hope of an end to this."
Barney looks out the glass door into the featureless concrete hallway.
"And you, Barney, are doing far more than sitting and waiting, even now. I imagine we'd have nary a hope left, if not for you."
Barney scuffs his boot against the ground. Rather than answer, he goes to sit near Kleiner.
Hundreds of meters away, Barney trudges with Eli Vance towards the ruins of Black Mesa's dormitories.
They'd left Eli's companions in Sector C behind in favor of trying to find Azian and Alyx.
"...how is Eli faring?" Kleiner asks, back in the Lambda Lab.
"Kleiner's worried about you," Barney says, keeping his voice quiet in the still hallways.
Eli peers around a corner cautiously. The doctor had foregone violence as a means of escape, and favored sneaking around the dangerous trespassers and hazards in Black Mesa's depths. It seemed to be working for them both so far.
"Tell him I'm fine," Eli mutters, picking his way over rubble. Barney wishes he'd at least carry a pistol.
"He says he's fine," Barney tells Kleiner, who only scoffs.
"I mean, have you two made it to the dormitories?"
"We're there already."
"It looks rough." Barney says, peering through distant eyes. "Seems like everyone swept through here before we did."
Kleiner hums uneasily, narrowing his gaze at the Lab's entrance.
"...Tell him to be careful." Kleiner says quietly. "Please."
"Tell Izzy not to worry about me," Eli says, though Barney can hear the doctor's own worry straining his voice. Both of them stop walking for a moment as there's a rumble from some far distant part of the facility.
Just as Barney's body in the lab opens his mouth, there's movement at the door.
Kleiner jumps, grabbing his shotgun to cock and aim it - Barney does the same, whipping out his pistol with practiced ease.
It nearly feels like a dream - then again, all of this has - as they holster their weapons and open the door for him.
"Gordon! You've finally found us!" Kleiner says as he walks in. The steps of the HEV suit are heavy against the floor. Gordon's gaze is distant and strange, and Barney can't seem to get him to meet his eyes. Kleiner begins to ramble on about their plan, either ignorant of Gordon's state of inattention, or ignoring it.
Barney can smell as much as see the blood and sewage covering him. The suit is scratched and battered, the dull orange metal caked with filth. Gordon's hand flexes rhythmically against the crowbar in his hand. Barney watches the fabric of his glove crease against the metal.
Barney wants to say something. Anything. Reassure him. But even as he tries to make eye contact, Gordon's gaze remains far away, looking far past the both of them. He does not make any attempt to sign. He's silent, which should be normal, but the silence hanging over him isn't his usual silence at all. It's oppressive, thick, choking Barney's own words out of him.
He doesn't try to get closer to Gordon. Some part of him is afraid of what the doctor will do.
Even Kleiner makes no move to touch him.
It's all Barney can do to assure Gordon he'll have his back as the portal opens. Gordon gives him the barest of glances before he clomps past, and Barney knows it's the best he'll get.
When the great machine whirs to life, it takes far too long to rip open the gateway that will take Gordon away. Barney tries to focus on shooting down the monsters that appear, but the longer it goes on, the more he thinks that this is a terrible idea. They can't expect Gordon to save all of them.
Barney doesn't register Eli shaking his shoulders. Begging him to move - is Gordon there? Why has he stopped moving - we need to go, now -
The last thing Barney sees is Gordon's back as he leaps toward the portal. Then, nothing.
When Calhoun finally wakes, he is alone.