Present Tense (freehoun)

a short half life fic for a friend, featuring gift-giving with a side of teaching your buddy to smoke

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He’s not consciously aware of when, exactly, he starts tucking away cigarettes for Barney. After all, it wasn’t as if Barney had asked him to. It was a habit that was born of a stray thought, or a handful of them, and once it had occurred to him, it stuck. And that was that.

One: Barney smokes. Obvious. Gordon’s only caught him in the act once or twice, and each time, it’s surprised him. He didn’t make a habit of that… before. Before everything. That’s what Gordon’s taken to calling it in his head, anyway. For one, “the Resonance Cascade” and “the Seven Hour War” and things of that nature were more of a pain to sign. For another, it feels more fitting. More encompassing than any of those things alone.

What stands out, more than the act itself, is how the lines on Barney’s forehead relax and smooth out when he takes a drag. Makes him look more like himself. Or, Gordon supposes, the ‘himself’ that he still knows. For him, that memory hasn't had the time to become old news.

Two: Barney doesn’t smoke very often. Not for lack of stress, of course. They’re waist-deep in the mire of guerilla warfare, and Barney’s often off in a war of his own. A more interior kind. Gordon occasionally watches his hands when he speaks, when they’re holding briefings or receiving video transmissions from Barney’s end of things. He’s fidgety. Even when he smiles, easy and confident. Always rubbing a thumb on the outside of his hand, or fiddling with the end of a pen. The compulsive habit of the anxious, or, more likely, the perpetually on-edge.

Three: There’s not much in the way of homegrown tobacco out in the Bulgar wastes. There’s not much in the way of homegrown anything. Something about the soil, they said. It’s all bone-dry now, tilled up and scavenged for moisture and minerals and dumped, greying and parched, on the shore. Gordon’s had the fortune of seeing it himself and feeling it between his fingers. It doesn’t smell like anything at all.

Four: He likes the way Barney’s eyes light up when he pulls out a single, partly-crushed cigarette from the crevices of his HEV suit. That’s the big one.

The point being, he’s taken to rifling through the detritus of abandoned homes and hastily-evacuated military depots for what might be immediately useful, like ammunition. Or food. Sometimes, he’d get lucky and find a few bullets rattling around the back of a splintering desk drawer, or a ration tucked behind a vent for safekeeping and never recovered, but Gordon wasn’t one to waste time looking for much else. Hard habit to break when you’ve been running on adrenaline for… well, over two decades, technically.

Now, though, he wastes that little bit of time. Lifting up couch cushions. Glancing at weathered photos. Wondering who must have lived there, before dust settled in the eaves and corners and kicked up with every step he took. He hopes to bring something back that isn't just bad news.

In one apartment, Gordon finds the walls lined with crooked frames, knocked out of alignment by any number of shells that have shaken this particular complex. Family pictures, mostly. Dour-looking men and women gathered with straight backs and severe lines in place of smiling mouths. In another, he finds nothing, the place long since stripped bare. Except for one memento: a small photo, age evident by the washed-out red and sepia tones, jammed under a bureau alongside a decade of dustbunnies. A girl and a woman smile together. Gordon looks at it for a long moment, then shoves the bureau back into place, and the photo with it.

A rusted lighter. An empty locket. A pink plastic toy, one of those finger traps like you’d see as a cheap arcade prize. And, of course, when he gets very, very lucky, the cigarettes. He nestles each of these precious things in the gaps in the carbon-fiber lining of his suit, where they rest against his skin.

When Barney sees him next - and sometimes, those gaps between them stretch out to days, weeks, cut off from contact from all of human civilization and hoping that there’ll be something left of it upon Gordon’s return - he beams with delight.

There’s two packs for him this time. And not the half-smoked, mass-produced, turn-of-the-century cheap shit, as Barney likes to put it. These are military-grade. Dug out from mouldering MREs, or whatever the Bulgarian equivalent is. They’d sat in the back of a boarded and decrepit corner store, a holdover from a military occupation of years past and clearly not intended for resale. (Although that doesn’t seem to have stopped whoever had managed the store last. What ultimately stopped them, from the looks of it, was the Combine.) A smell like mildewed hay lingers on them, but that doesn’t stop Barney from pressing the packs to his face and inhaling and crowing about how these are the real deal.

“They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” Barney tells him, and Gordon doesn’t have the heart to counter that they don’t make any of them anymore. “Smell that?”

He wrinkles his nose and waves dismissively at Barney.

“Alright, suit yourself. That’s history you’re smelling, alright?”

Barney rubs a thumb over the plain cardboard packaging, and the block Cyrillic lettering covering it. Neither of them can read it, but Gordon can take an educated guess. Then, after a moment, Barney starts to peel one open with a strange hesitance. Reverence, almost.

“Cigarettes are like fine wine,” he says, with a confident tone that speaks of personal experience. Despite the fact that Gordon's never known him to be a fan of either.

“Habit-forming?” signs Gordon.

“Ha, ha, very funny. I was gonna say… they only get better with age.”

Like yourself, Gordon thinks, surprising even himself. His hands twitch upwards briefly as if to say so, before he consciously stops them.

Barney taps a cigarette out from the package at last, where it’s remained mostly straight and intact even after the journey back. He gives it another sniff, sighs, then tucks it between his lips and starts to dig around in his pockets. “Shit. Where in the world did I put my—”

Gordon interrupts him by fishing out that rusted lighter for him. It’s warm where it’s been tucked against his breast, but he doesn’t know that. The gloves are too thick for him to tell. But warm it is.

Across from him, Barney’s eyebrows fly up. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he breathes, impressed. “Where’d you find that?”

“You sure you want to know that?” Signing’s more awkward with the lighter in his fingers, but he manages.

“You know what, maybe you’re right. I don’t like the thought of what you’ve been diggin’ around in,” Barney says.

Thankfully for Gordon, the lighter still sparks, and after a couple of tries he gets the thing to hold a light successfully. Which is good, because it would have been mortifying to go to the trouble of trying to impress Barney and then fall flat on his face. Metaphorically speaking. He steps closer, just inches away - close enough to feel his warm breath - and raises the flame to Barney’s hands, where they’ve preemptively cupped around the end of the cigarette.

He takes a long, slow drag, and the end flares to life, the ember glowing a bright, vivid orange against the dark backdrop of the shelled-out city behind them. Then he holds it in his lungs, eyes closed. Gordon can’t help but watch those lines melt away one more time before Barney lets out a cloud of smoke.

“Goddamn,” he mutters, eyes fluttering back open. “I needed this. Thanks, Gordon.” Barney shoots him a quick smile, disarming and genuine, before taking another drag.

“Don’t mention it.”

Neither of them makes an attempt to move. Barney holds his gaze for an uncomfortably long beat, and Gordon feels a chill that compels him to blink and look away. Back at the moonlit rubble.

“…Hey, Gordon,” he hears. He glances back, and sees Barney gesturing toward him, cigarette in hand. “You much of a smoker?”

No, he isn’t. But he doesn’t tell Barney that. Instead, he shrugs.

Barney’s mouth turns up again. “No time like the present.”

His hand remains outstretched, as if waiting for Gordon to take it. The obvious subtext remains unspoken: It’s not like we’ve got much of a future to worry about, anyway. And so, despite all those childhood lectures about drugs and burnouts and eggs in frying pans, Gordon does as Barney wordlessly suggests and plucks it from his fingers.

Then he finds out the hard way that it’s not as easy as Barney makes it look. Gordon coughs and splutters on acrid, burning smoke not two seconds after inhaling for the first time.

Barney cackles, slapping him on the back. “Oh, buddy,” he crows, “you really were some kinda herb way back when, huh? You good?”

Gordon nods, convincing nobody, his eyes watering as he staves off another cough.

He hands the stupid thing back to Barney, who continues to clap him on the back until he insists that he’s really, actually good this time, for real. And, to his credit, Barney doesn’t laugh too hard. Instead, he shows Gordon how to do it right. "Pull with your mouth, not your lungs. Let it cool… Feel that?"

He does. It’s hot and tingly, vaguely like pins and needles inside of his mouth. Alertness prickles afresh from his tongue up to his brain, down to his fingers. They steady on the cigarette where before they’d trembled with nerves. And he tilts his head back and blows out a thin plume of smoke, blocking out the moon for a moment where it hangs, an ominous orange-red, in the sky.

“Attaboy,” Barney beams at him, pride lining the wrinkles of his eyes. And for the first time in a long time, Gordon feels himself smiling back.

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