Cooperative Game Theory: Chapter 3

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“What the fuck?!”

“huh?” The face steps forward out of the wall as if it were nothing but air.

Gordon scrambles backward on instinct, forgetting that he’s sitting on a crate, and topples off, landing with a pained hiss. When he looks up again, a figure looms overhead; it’s the face from the wall, now thankfully connected to a body and staring down at him. Flat. Impassive. Eerily similar to Barney in almost every way, Combine uniform and all. But Gordon knows there’s no way it could be him - Barney’s back with Kleiner, for one thing, and his eyes weren’t quite so dead-looking, and, uh, the guy can’t phase through walls, he’s pretty fucking sure! Gordon’s heart thuds out of his chest as he grips his crowbar tight.

“Oh, fuck me, I better not be seeing shit again,” Gordon moans, voice hoarse with the desperation of a guy who hasn’t taken his risperidone in a week.

“what? uh, calm down please?” Not-Barney walks right through the crate and into Gordon’s personal space.

Gordon keeps shimmying back on the floor, crowbar raised, until his back hits a wall with a metallic thud. His feet continue to scrabble against the ground as his fight or flight response demands he find a way to tunnel through the barrier via sheer force of will. When the attempt fails, all of that anxious energy rushes from his legs to his mouth, and soon he’s spewing words faster than the speed of sound.

“Yeah, sure, the fucking Ghost of Barney Past is gonna pop outta the wall and tell me to calm down! I’ve seen how this story ends, man, and let me tell you, I’ve had enough of time travel horseshit for today! So back off, buddy! I don’t need a fuckin’ Mickey Mouse morality lesson!”

That stops the figure in his tracks. There’s a moment of quiet as he registers the words, brows furrowing as if in deep thought. Gordon can practically hear the “ding” in the doppelganger’s head as the information finally processes.

“what? ghosts aren’t real, idiot,” he spits out. “jeez. everybody’s all, ‘wah, wah, where’s gordon, his pizza’s gonna get all cold’, ‘a-bloo bloo, stealing company secrets is, uh, more important than tommy’s alive-a-versary.’ super sucks, bro, that you’d make good friend benrey come pick you up from… from crowbar practice.”

That jams a monkey wrench into Gordon’s mental gears, and he swears he can feel smoke hissing from his ears as all his anxiety-fueled thought processes screech to a halt.

He knows that voice, that cadence. It may not look like the same man anymore, but it's unmistakable. Even if he hadn’t just said his fucking name aloud.


He keeps going as if Gordon hadn’t said anything. “good form. looks like you’re gonna make it on the crowbar team this year. win the tournament. gonna get so many homerun touchdown birdie goals—”

“No, no, hold on,” Gordon interrupts, his free hand coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Bullshit. This doesn’t— doesn’t make any— Why do you look like Barney? Barney’s my friend!”

The look on Barney— Benrey’s— face immediately sours. “who’s barney?”

“Who’s Barney. Who's Barney? The guy who’s fucking face you’re wearing like a puppet?!” He gestures at that face so furiously that he can hear air whipping around his hand.

It’s— it’s uncanny, really. In the brief stretch of time he’d had to get a good look at Barney, Gordon had gotten accustomed to that easy smile, the humor in his eyes. They had that curious little glimmer to them. Like he’s always got a joke on the tip of his tongue. Here, though, Gordon can’t make out anything behind those eyes at all. In the dark of the corridor, there’s nothing but blackness there, lidded and dull and couched in a strange shadow. And he’d be hard-pressed to call that pinched expression a smile.

“doesn’t even remember his friend benny… makin’ me, uhhh, kinda sad, gordon.” Benrey shakes his head and clicks his tongue. Then he takes a step forward, stopping in between Gordon’s open legs. “too busy stealing? huh? gordon stealin’? that’s… government property. illegaaal.”

“Jesus Christ, what are you talking about?” he snaps.

Benrey gestures loosely at Gordon, and it takes Gordon a moment to realize that he’s actually gesturing at the HEV suit.

“Okay,” Gordon starts, “first of all, this isn’t government property, Benrey. Just because Black Mesa has, like, government contracts or whatever, doesn’t make it a government entity. It’s complicated!” His hands move of their own accord, gesturing and waving emphatically as he speaks. “It’s this whole legal thing, okay, because people get all freaked out at the idea of state-owned businesses, even though it’s worked out pretty well for the energy sector, and— Wait, God, you don’t even care, do you! Why am I explaining this shit to you?”


Yeah, that was about the response he expected. It does unpleasant things to Gordon’s blood pressure nonetheless. He hauls himself up on his feet, wincing at the scrape of metal on brick, and says, “Uh, more importantly, I’m not stealing! They gave this to me!”

When Gordon draws himself up to his full height, squaring up to Benrey with his chest thrust out in defiance, the guy looks… a lot less intimidating. It’s the height difference, mostly. Barney’s only five-foot-something, and Benrey’s copied his appearance frighteningly well, this included. Not that Benrey was all that tall himself, the last time Gordon saw him. Well. Technically he was really, really tall the last time - a little frisson of nerves crawls up the back of Gordon’s neck at the memory - but before that, even. The point being, Benrey’s authoritative stance doesn’t have quite the effect he wants when he’s a whole head shorter.

“gonna take you to super jail. for… felony crimes. theftery. sneaking around,” Benrey insists.

“Sneaking around isn’t a crime!”


“If being suspicious were a crime, you’d be in, fucking, Guantanamo Bay, asshole!” Gordon attempts to shove him in the chest, but Benrey doesn’t so much as flinch. It’s like pushing a brick wall. Failing that, Gordon sidesteps around him, keeping Benrey in his sight. “This isn’t your jurisdiction, bro! Black Mesa doesn’t even exist anymore, probably! So, like, maybe you should go back home and play your PlayStation, okay? I have more important shit to do!”

Benrey’s eyebrows draw together. “huh?”

“I have places to go. People to see. And I can’t have you following me around and fucking shit up for me when I’m being shot at, man, do you know how bad that shit hurts?!”

“what? black mesa overtime dlc just released, though. new campaign. drywall skill unlocked. bad reviews but, uh, server is still up,” Benrey says, ignoring everything Gordon said that was actually important.

“Oh my God, I can’t do this right now,” groans Gordon.

How does this keep happening to him? He just wants one thing in his life to go right, please. One thing that’s simple and easy for a change. And each step backwards he takes away from Benrey feels like one step further away from the cheap pizza on a sticky table that he deserves. A small part of him hopes that Benrey will stay where he is, leaving him alone for good, but Benrey just jams his hands in his pockets and follows him step for step. He’s not sure what he was expecting.

Soon, Benrey’s taking two steps for every one of Gordon’s. Closing in, as if magnetically drawn. He feels the concrete beneath his feet give way to something that creaks under his weight - chain link, which is a very poor design decision, if he can be perfectly honest - and he marvels at the way that it doesn’t seem to respond to Benrey’s weight at all when he steps on it himself. Despite the fact he’s making solid contact with the ground, it’s as if he’s somehow floating.

Must be that no-clip shit again.

“This isn’t funny, dude. Back off,” Gordon stammers out, hoping that Benrey will spontaneously grow a sense of normalcy. He doesn’t.

Gordon’s pace quickens. Despite the fact he’s obviously alarmed (and Benrey should have noticed by now), he’s wearing the same blank, empty stare, and regarding Gordon as if any of this constitutes average, everyday conduct.

Which, for them, is perhaps accurate. This is all business as usual for Benrey. Showing up out of nowhere is old hat. Driving Gordon into a panic attack is the norm. To him, nothing is wrong. It’s as if he genuinely believes he should be here - which, you know, wouldn’t have made sense even if they were at Chuck E. Cheese right this moment. The last time he checked, Benrey blew up.

People don’t just explode and then get right back to the business of ‘being alive’.

Suddenly, Benrey stops following. His eyebrow quirks up, but the rest of his expression remains the same. A chance to escape, Gordon decides. He throws himself backwards to put as much distance as he can between the two of them, breath catching in his throat as…

… As he feels himself drop down, the world hurtling past in a blur of color and noises that he soon recognizes are his own screams of alarm. The force with which he hits the ground feels like it jams his entire pelvis up to his skull, and it takes him a full minute of sitting in shocked silence to think of looking up to see what he’d stumbled into. Aside from the outdoors, if the sudden glimpse of sunlight and the dirt under his ass isn’t enough of an indication.

And there, above him, is a hole in the path. A gap in that stupid chain link catwalk. And, hanging over it, framed like a perfectly cropped photo, is Benrey. Staring at him. He isn’t laughing, even though he very well should be.

“hole,” he says simply.

Gordon pinches the bridge of his nose so hard that his glasses nearly threaten to slide off his face.

“You could’ve said that earlier!” Gordon yells up at him.

Benrey squats, elbows on knees, and peers down through it. “uhhh… careful, bro. lil’ clumsy boy? huh? gonna break all that sweet government property. idiot.”

To add insult to injury, one of those squat surveillance drones bobs into his view, snapping photos of him all the while. Gordon squints against the flashes. Then he drags himself upright again, muttering, “You know what? Fuck government property!”

And with that, he swings his crowbar in a wide, dramatic arc, smashing into the robot’s side and sending sparks and metal debris flying. It sputters in defiance. So he does it again, and again, until one last swing sends it arcing through the air and it smashes against the ground with a satisfying crunch. The white lights on its front face darken for the last time.

“touchdown,” Benrey calls out, fists raised in the air. Gordon sputters with laughter despite himself.

He wipes away the sweat that’s beaded on his forehead, and takes a moment to take stock of his surroundings. That drop seems to have landed him squarely in the middle of a trainyard, with a multitude of carriages - once brightly-painted with reds and yellows, now flaking and faded with age - laying dormant on their tracks. For a high-tech future society, they sure do love their trains, he thinks. It’s fair enough. Why fix what isn’t broken?

That said, most of these cars are broken, at least at first glance, their wheels rusted and moored to the tracks by browning overgrowth. Gordon glances at a small, pale flower anchored to the nearest car, where it struggles to catch a sliver of sunlight.

Then he accidentally trods on it in his attempt to hoist himself inside. “Oops. Sorry, little guy,” he says to no one.

“wow. gordon starting his, uh, killing spree already? going for the high score? looks like i’m gonna have to keep an eye on you,” he hears from behind him.

Christ. He’d already forgotten. And now that he remembers, he’s stuck wondering how Benrey closed the gap between them so quickly. He was on the opposite end of the pitfall, last he checked, and now he can practically feel the guy’s breath on the back of his neck.

“Quit following me, man! You’re not even a security guard anymore!”

Gordon doesn’t bother to look back at Benrey, instead taking out his frustrations by smashing up the wooden crates that block off his access to the other end of the car. God, that feels good. He really didn’t get enough crowbar action the last time he had one.

“huh? yeah i am. i got the official black mesa security guard outfit mark II. got an award. ‘kept gordon freeman from fucking up all the time’ award. they gave me… uh, buckles,” Benrey says.

Okay. Gordon can’t resist. He turns back to look at Benrey, incredulous, and sees him pointing to the buckles on the front of the Combine uniform.

“Buckles?! They didn’t give you— Benrey, that’s Barney’s uniform! His, like, fucked-up future-cop uniform! You gotta change your look, man, it’s freaking me the fuck out,” he calls back. He shoves the metal door open on the other side of the boxcar, wincing as the hinges groan in response. “At least pick somebody who isn’t, like, nice to me— Wait. You’re just… You just look like him, right? You aren’t trying to pull some bodysnatcher shit on me?”

“barney this, barney that. mleh mleh. if you like this barney guy so much why don’t you marry him,” Benrey sulks.

Gordon rolls his eyes and starts down the empty set of train tracks before him.

“Why did I expect a straight answer out of him,” he mutters to himself. He’s been around Benrey long enough to know better.

At the far end of the trainyard, the tracks lead to a high-roofed train station, slender poles and grates of wrought iron climbing to the skies and bearing massive, glassy skylights atop them. It sounds prettier than it is - it’s clearly seen better days, much like the rest of the yard. And the entrance is blocked off by a barrier of some kind, the same translucent, bluish lattice of energy and light that Gordon’s noticed dotting City 17. He’s not sure if he wants to get too close. Lately, Gordon hasn’t gotten along too well with all these mysterious energy fields.

But a rock, conveniently at his feet, bounces harmlessly off the barrier when kicked. So he risks a quick touch. Just a fingertip. The barrier buzzes in response, low and ominous, and a ripple of blue light spreads out from the point of contact, but Gordon’s otherwise unscathed. A palm pressed flat against the surface yields the same results. Strange. But not dangerous.

He’s not sure he can say the same about the jackass walking clean through it, though.

“hey, look, the final boss is over here,” Benrey says once he’s safely on the other side, out of Gordon’s reach. Out of throttling range.

“Yeah, tell me a new one. I can’t even get through this stupid barrier, man. Not everybody can just no-clip through shit when they don’t feel like taking the long way around.”

“what? c’mon, try harder maybe. it’s just particles. you went to school for particles.”

Gordon snorts. “Nobody goes to school for ‘particles’, Benrey,” he says. “And particle physics is, like, a whole other thing from what I do. Now if you wanna hear about manifolds, boy, I can tell you a lot about those—”


Benrey’s already lost interest. He turns his head back to the far end of the train station, a hand over his eyes like he’s shielding them from the sun. Never mind the fact that it’s nearly sunset, and he’s facing the wrong way, besides.

“whoa, check it out, he’s got… crunchwrap supreme,” Benrey gasps.

“He’s got what—”

“baja blaster,” he continues, undaunted. “special attack, limited edition… with the 2-for-1 promotion. c’mon, i want… nacho fries… limited edition!”

Gordon can’t help the laughter that bursts out of him, and he bends double, wheezing. What the fuck is he talking about? He’s so busy desperately trying to catch his breath that he doesn’t notice Benrey glancing back at him, gauging his reaction.

When Gordon finally gets his shit together and turns back to face the yard proper, he’s momentarily dizzied by the sheer number of train cars lined up before him, stretching back into the horizon as far as the eye can see. He’s boxed in. Like a rat in a maze, he thinks. It’s a little claustrophobic. Makes his hands shake, almost imperceptible, as he presses one of them against the side of an immobile orange carriage. At least he knows the trick for getting out of these things. Right-hand-rule, or something like that. Keep your right hand on the wall and eventually, you’ll make your way out. Guaranteed.

Or… wait, shit, that’s something else, he realizes. More useless shit he picked up in undergrad. Whatever. It’s close enough, right?

“why you touchin’ that? that’s, uhh, private property. five hundred dollar fine,” Benrey chides, his voice abruptly close.

“What are you, a cop?”

“maybe. wouldn’t you like to know.”

Gordon ignores him, or at least he tries to, as he steadily navigates his way through the carriages. His right-hand-rule leads him past door after door until he comes across one that hangs open, its hinges whining under its own weight. The car itself is littered with cardboard boxes, milk crates, and other industrial detritus, which Gordon kicks out of the way as if it has personally wronged him.

“Oh, hey, there’s a ladder on this side,” he calls out. Then he realizes that Benrey’s not even with him anymore.

Gordon could kick himself right now. He starts to scale the ladder and mutters angry nothings to himself the whole time. The one time he tries to be nice to Benrey, and the guy’s not even there to pay attention to it. That’ll teach him. At least he doesn’t have to worry about any insane comments being made about his ass this time around, he thinks viciously. Benrey thinks he’s so funny, huh? Cracking jokes about being hot for him like Gordon didn’t get inured to that kind of thing in middle school? And high school? And community college? Stupid, stupid Gordon—

He’s abruptly thrown off that train of thought by the ping of bullets off of metal, and he yelps, ducking his head back down into the train car. “Where did you fuckers come from?!” Gordon shouts, voice echoing all loud and tinny around him.

The only response he gets is another wave of fire.

Okay! Message received! Gordon steps back down the ladder, only to find that two of the Combine are rounding the opening into the car, hot on his heels. They mutter something low and garbled, almost incomprehensible, into the radios at their lapels, but Gordon’s pretty sure he can make out his name in the mess and he does not like that one fucking bit. So, upward it is.

He clambers out of the top of the car, and a bullet whizzes past his head. Then another clips him in the leg, denting the armor of the HEV suit and pinging off to God knows where.

“Ow! Hey! Stop that!” he yells down at his assailants.

He doesn’t get the response he wants, and they fire all the harder back at him, as if in retaliation. Christ! There’s not much time for him to figure out where to go - on instinct, Gordon bolts for the opposite end of the carriage. And it quickly becomes clear to him that this is going to be a whole platforming thing, isn’t it. It could only be worse if the fucking things were moving.

“Okay, c’mon, Gordon, you can do this,” he tells himself. These things didn’t look quite so tall when he was on the ground, you know, as God intended. Deep breath. Through the nose. Eyes squeezed shut. No time to think. “Gordon… jump!”

And with that… he jumps!

There’s only a foot or so between each individual car, but Gordon’s so terrified he won’t clear it that the loud thunk of heavy boots hitting metal almost doesn’t register. The impact of it gets him to blink, though. Well. He’s alive. All he has to do is nail that same jump again, and again, sprinting away from the Combine soldiers firing at him until there are no more cars before him. Just one last jump over a chain link fence. Onto the ground. Which looks worryingly solid underneath him.

“Tuck and roll, buddy, tuck and roll!” It’s not altogether convincing, but it gets Gordon pumped up enough to make the attempt.

This time, though, his landing isn’t so clean. Turns out all that tucking and rolling stuff is better suited for an “escaping a moving car” kind of thing - instead of pulling off a slick stuntman’s move, Gordon just hits the ground on his side, hard. He groans. It’s kind of pathetic to watch.

He’d really like to lay there for a moment and let the stars clear out of his vision, but those guys are still fucking shooting at him! Concrete flakes off the pillars around him, blasted off the sides by impact after nine-millimeter impact. Ping, ping, ping - most of them bounce harmlessly off his suit, but one grazes his hip, tearing a thin gash in the undersuit. And himself.

“God, fucking— Shit!” Gordon hisses through his teeth. He claps a hand against his side as he hauls himself upright.

This isn’t fair! He doesn’t even have a shitty little pistol to defend himself! What the fuck is he expected to do, deflect this shit with his crowbar like he’s some kind of bootleg samurai? Yeah, right. He darts into the shadowed recesses of a brick-and-concrete building that Gordon cannot fucking fathom the purpose of right now. All he knows is that behind him is a bunch of guys who want to kill him, and in front of him is a boarded-up stairwell, its doorway lit by a single yellow bulb that stands out in the darkness. He can take a hint.

Maybe he doesn’t have a gun yet, but the crowbar makes short work of the boards, so he can’t complain. (This is a lie. Gordon Freeman can always find something to complain about.) Gordon stumbles forward, nearly tripping over his own feet, and then he does trip over his own feet when he rounds the corner into a downward flight of stairs and finds them pitch black. He swears up a storm as he lands on his knees and skids down, a cacophonous thunk-thunk-thunk bouncing around him.

“This is definitely an OSHA violation!” he snarls, clutching at the side of the wall to get his balance. It doesn’t even have a railing, for God’s sake.

At the bottom, the stairs open into a long, perpendicular hallway, poorly lit and intermittently awash in cold blue light. One of the bulbs flickers. Something about it starts to give Gordon a headache. And halfway down, there stands— Barney? No, for fuck’s sake, of course it’s Benrey. Next to an inconspicuous metal box mounted on the wall. Fiddling with it, clearly at a loss as to what it does. And surrounded by what look to be empty milk jugs. Gordon blinks, processing this, and then his stomach sinks.

“Benrey? Is that you? I thought you fucked off!” Gordon calls out, almost hoping he’ll say ‘No, who’s Benrey?’ or ‘What are you doing here, citizen?’ The prospect of another Combine soldier trying to kill him sounds downright pleasant in comparison.

There’s a worryingly-mechanical clunk from Benrey’s position, and he jerks back from the box, hands raised. “whuh? no, i’m just chillin’. tryin’ to get this… baja blast.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s no fucking Baja Blast in Soviet Fuckistan!”

“whoa. uhh, kinda racist, gordon,” Benrey says, eyebrows raised. “that’s sad. we all thought you were better than that, man.” He clicks his tongue in disapproval.

Gordon comes to a full stop. “What? That’s not— I’m not fucking racist!” he blurts out. “It’s a— it’s a joke, okay, people make jokes like that all the time! Who died and made you the Racism Cop, anyway?”

“wasn’t funny. didn’t laugh.” Benrey’s face is as flat and unamused as usual, but for some reason, Gordon can feel judgment emanating from it. And it stings.

“No, we’re not doing this,” Gordon decides. He pushes Benrey out of the way of the box - which is clearly a healing device of some kind, judging by the red cross emblazoned on its front, and not a goddamn soda dispenser - and fiddles with it himself. “You are as white as the goddamn—”

He grunts, wrenching a lever at the bottom upward—

“—driven snow, okay, like, I don’t know how you managed to make Barney look whiter than he already is, dude looks like you could find him for a dime a dozen at a Cabela’s superstore—”

A ribbed hose drops out from the bottom of the box, looking for all the world like the nozzle at a gasoline pump. Not the kind of health pick-up he’s used to, but he can improvise. Gordon jams the end of it into his mouth and clamps down the trigger.

Benrey laughs, sudden and grating. “what are you doing?”

“Mmph mff hmm,” Gordon mumbles around the nozzle.

Somehow, by some unfortunately-timed miracle, whatever juice or fluid or goop is flowing out of the health dispenser tastes like fucking Baja Blast. Just more viscous. And, well, not fizzy. It’s sort of like the syrup they put in actual soda machines. Which this isn’t, Gordon furiously reminds himself. The point is, it’s weirdly sweet and tangy, and it makes the headache at his temples start to melt away. He hadn’t even realized just how much tension he was carrying around his skull until it wasn’t there anymore.

“addicted to slurpin’, huh,” says Benrey, leaning against the wall. Gordon doesn’t even have to look to know that there’s a shitty little grin on his face. “you, uh, showing off? tryin’ to impress me? s’okay, bro, i know you’re, uh… champion. suck champ. know how, do it well, et cetera.”

Gordon coughs and chokes suddenly, spitting up— Jesus Christ, is that blood?! He thinks this for all of three seconds before he yanks the nozzle out of his mouth, notices a thick red liquid still gushing from the end, and desperately tries to wrangle the trigger into some kind of ‘off’ position, spilling it all over himself in the process. He makes a sad, useless attempt to scrub it from his face with his free hand. “Are you - augh, God - are you trying to kill me?!” he snaps.


And he’s gone again, turning around and walking away. Gordon swears, sometimes the guy’s like a cat. Flighty and indifferent and hard to keep track of. It’s irritating, is what it is. He kicks one of the milk jugs in frustration, and it bounces down to the end of the hall with empty-sounding clunks. At least the physics in this game are still satisfying.

He’s got no choice but to follow Benrey’s lead, seeing as there aren’t any other doors in this hallway. You’d think there would be a niche or two for him to explore somewhere. So far, though, it’s ended up being a straight shot from point A to point B, with barely any time for him to get a breather. (Maybe there were a few kinks in the path, and more than one instance of him getting lost and walking in circles, but the point stands.) So what else is he gonna do? Maybe Benrey will get bored of watching him hold forward and occasionally hitting the action button, and he’ll fuck off for real this time. One can hope.

His hopes don’t amount to much when he steps through the open doorway at the end and directly into two more Combine assholes, though. They’re in the middle of some kind of shakedown, standing over a couple of kneeling civilians with stun batons extended. And— and one of them’s holding a gun, actually, and jamming it into the poor fucker’s skull underneath him like he owes them money.

“Stop! We didn’t do anything!” one of the citizens - a small woman - begs.

There’s something desperate and earnest in the woman’s voice that makes Gordon’s stomach twist. Game or not, the voice acting was downright Oscar-worthy.

“whoa. fucked up,” Benrey comments blithely, suddenly behind him again. Gordon jumps.

“Can you please stop talking and let me, like, negotiate—”

Gordon’s interrupted by a bang. The man at the Combine soldier’s feet slumps over, dead.

The surviving citizen lets out an anguished wail and throws herself on top of her fallen friend, then falls so silent Gordon begins to believe something in the scripting must have broken.

“Aw, come on!” He turns back to face Benrey, a hand pushing back his hair in frustration. “Maybe if you hadn’t distracted me, I could’ve talked our way out of this!”

“what? i didn’t do nothin’—”

Garbled, mechanical speech drowns him out. Then something hurts— a blunt impact, near the shoulder blade, electricity rattling down his spine— Gordon staggers forward, cursing. Another bang. He turns around again, and both the soldiers are upon him, with a baton raised and poised to strike him right in the fucking head—

“uh, stop please? desist?” Benrey orders them, in that whiny, bizarrely polite way he’s got, before pulling his own handgun out of fucking nowhere. “calm down please?”

Gordon can’t say that it works. What does work, however, is Benrey pulling the trigger until the soldiers hit the floor. His hands fly up to cover his ears on instinct.

“Are you crazy?! There’s a civilian right fucking there, you could have killed her!”

“calm down please?” Benrey says again. It’s more annoying when it’s directed at him instead of the guys shooting him.

“Fucking— Quit swinging that thing around, okay? Put it away! Unequip! Whatever! You’re gonna give me a heart attack, man!” Gordon bites back.

To his credit, he does, in fact, put the gun away. The damage appears to be done already, though - the woman stares at them, wide-eyed, from where she’s crouched next to the dead NPC and trying to make herself as small as possible. More specifically, she’s staring past Gordon like he’s not even there. At Benrey.

“Hey, look,” he says to her, hands raised in a peace gesture, “he’s probably not gonna hurt you, okay? Like, there’s definitely something wrong with him, but he’s not—”

Gordon stops himself when he glances back at Benrey. It clicks at last. She’s stuck because he’s still wearing that fucking uniform. It’s probably doing something weird to the faction dynamic, he reasons.

“We’re just gonna go,” he finishes after an awkward pause.

Her mouth moves silently, stuck on the words, before she gets out, “You’d better run. There’s nothing else you can do here.” Her voice comes out quiet and shaken, almost as if she herself is unsure of what she’s saying. Something about it unsettles him.

“Yeah, okay. Come on, man, we’re gonna have a little talk,” he tells Benrey, terse and unwilling to brook an argument about it.

Benrey mumbles something stupid under his breath. Gordon can’t actually make out most of it, but he’s definitely sure it was stupid. He leads them past the two citizens, taking refuge in a stairwell just out of sight. And earshot, he hopes.

“You,” Gordon starts, rounding on him and jabbing a finger into his chest, “need to wear something else. This is getting really fucking weird, okay? I can’t be having you fucking up the scripts and stuff any worse than you already are just by, like, existing!”

“what?” Benrey’s face is blank. Clueless.

“You’re— You look like one of the bad guys, you know? The guys who were just trying to kill us?” He gestures pointedly at the uniform.

Benrey shrugs. His face twists into a dismissive sneer. “i don’t know what your problem is, man. what am i supposed to look like,” he sniffs.

Gordon throws his hands into the air, bursting out with, “I don’t know! Just pick something! Why don’t you just look like— like you did before? Huh?”

“fuckin’… turn around, then.”

He blinks. He wasn’t expecting Benrey to agree. “What?”

Benrey makes a motion with his hands that Gordon interprets as ‘turn around’, with a side of ‘duh, dipshit'. He could be a little nicer about it, Gordon huffs internally, but he does as Benrey asks, anyway. Even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense to him. It’s not like Benrey’s changing his clothes, so why’s he acting all embarrassed?

As soon as he’s facing away from Benrey, though, he hears, “you can turn around now, please,” and rolls his eyes. Dude was probably just powertripping. And Gordon fell for it, like an idiot.

“Very funny, dude— oh my God, what is that?!”

Gordon’s hand flies up to his eyes to shield them, as if it’ll help with whatever in the fuck lies before him. Through the tiny gaps in his fingers, he sees bits and pieces of something that shouldn’t be fucking with him as bad as it is - sharp edges, blurry textures, the familiar gray-and-black outline of a form that Gordon did, in fact, just tell him to take. From the brief, full-body glance he got, this should just be Benrey as he’s always known him, the not-quite-human security guard, but even these mostly-obscured glimpses of him are giving Gordon a throbbing headache. It’s like he doesn’t belong here, too low-poly to fit in, and Gordon’s brain is twisting itself into knots trying to reconcile the old model with the new, high-definition surroundings.

“it’s just me,” Benrey says. “what’s wrong with you?”

If Gordon had the spare brain cycles to devote to him, he’d say that Benrey almost sounds hurt. But he doesn’t. So instead, he wrenches his eyes shut, grits his teeth, and says, “Whatever you’re doing, fucking, knock it off! No more eldritch horror shit!”

“you’re the one who asked. idiot.”

Despite the obvious pout in his voice, some strange pressure in the air vanishes, and Gordon feels, more than sees, that Benrey’s done as he requested. Tentatively, he peeks through his fingers again, and spies that Benrey’s gone back to the Barney model. Good enough for him to drop his hands. Hopefully.

“So that was a bad idea, clearly,” Gordon sighs. He places his hands on his hips and taps his foot, a subconscious act. Thinking. Thinking. After a moment, he says, “Do you think we could— I don’t know, compromise? Like, at least pick an outfit that doesn’t make people look at me like we’re going to kill them. I’m trying really hard not to kill anybody this time!”

“ugh, fiiine,” Benrey huffs. “gordon freeman, so demanding… can i get you anything else, sir? fluff your nutsack, mayhaps?”

The pissy tone Benrey’s putting on should get on his nerves, but Gordon finds himself snorting with shocked laughter instead. “Fluff my— Jesus, Benrey, you can’t just say shit like that! Just, like… Maybe you could go with a legit security guard uniform? Or something? Just so I can tell that it’s you.”

“okay whatever. stop looking at me, god.” He gestures at Gordon again, more insistent this time.

“Okay, okay!”

Gordon doesn’t bother doing the whole turning around thing. He just covers his eyes with his hands again, which makes it easier to get away with rolling them. And he waits. And waits some more. And chances a peek through his fingers when Benrey doesn’t say anything after a minute or two.

“hey! no peeking! i’m shy,” he says immediately.

Gordon slams his fingers shut. “No peeking! I’m not peeking.”

It’s impossible to guess what Benrey’s up to by sound alone, and Gordon suspects that he’s not even getting up to anything. He’s just wasting his time. Jerking him around. Irritation mounts in him, and his foot starts to tap again, this time from impatience. It’s not like it was an unreasonable request! But Benrey’s being an obstinate dick about it, as per usual, and Gordon doesn’t know why he’s even entertaining this stupid shit for a guy he doesn’t want hanging around him in the first place. Dealing with Benrey is like getting mired in quicksand, Gordon thinks, growing more bitter by the second.

He’s jerked out of all those unkind thoughts by Benrey telling him he can look now. If he wants. Benrey doesn’t give a shit. Gordon’s hands fall once more.

The first thing he notices is that Benrey… still very much looks like Barney. But instead of a Combine jacket and jackboots, he is now, in fact, wearing a security guard uniform. It’s curiously similar to his Black Mesa get-up. As a matter of fact, when Gordon inspects it more closely, it is the Black Mesa guard uniform, down to the I.D. card pinned on his left breast. (Or is it his right? Gordon’s never been good at this shit.) The whole deal’s been upscaled into high definition, and that I.D. card now bears an actual picture of Benrey’s face on it. And his name: benrybenrybenrybenry, trailing off the edge. He’s still not adjusting his mental spelling of Benrey’s name, though. ‘Benry’ just sounds worse, somehow.

Finally, he drags his eyes back up to Benrey’s newly-helmeted face. And it’s only then that it hits Gordon - he’s not exactly a carbon copy of Barney, is he? His face is a little softer around the edges, a little younger-looking, but still marred by dark bags under his eyes and wrinkles around his mouth. Gordon would call them smile lines if Benrey ever fucking smiled. And he’s not quite as skinny as Barney, either. Barney’s got the look of a guy who’s been living off of rations for the past twenty years, and Benrey looks more like a guy who’s been living off of frozen pizzas. Not that Gordon’s judging. It’s just… unexpected. Curious.

“earth to gordon,” Gordon hears distantly, and he blinks. Oh. Benrey’s been talking at him, huh. Probably wasn’t important.

“Yeah. Uh. That works,” he blurts out. “We should go. Now. Burning daylight, you know?”

His mouth runs faster than he can keep up, but God if he doesn’t make the effort, taking the stairs two at a time to get his head back in the game. He doesn’t know why Benrey’s presence as a dude who looks like a physical dude, a real Guy, is getting to him like this. It’d probably be just as weird as seeing any other video game guy in sudden photorealism, he decides, as he suddenly bumps chest-first into another Combine soldier near the top of the stairs.

Ryu from Street Fighter doesn’t need to be in glorious high definition, and neither does Benrey. That’s as far as Gordon gets with that train of thought before he focuses on clubbing the fucker with his crowbar. The thunk of metal on the white plastic of that Combine helmet is very, very satisfying, and he goes down faster than Gordon expects.

“nice,” Benrey comments, low and almost inaudible. It’s hard to tell what level of irony he’s operating on, so Gordon assumes the worst.

The stairs open up to the outside, the warm evening light illuminating the top of the stairwell. Despite the garbage at their feet, the graffiti peppering the walls, and the looming blue spire of the Citadel that rises in the distance, Gordon can’t help but feel relieved. It’s progress. Outdoors is progress. Really, anything’s an improvement over the dank, musty rat tunnels he’s been running through all day. Even if the rooftop is blocked off by yet another chain link gate, held fast by a padlock that’s a little too shiny and new for his crowbar to pry off.

Gordon doesn’t have a lot of time to bang his head against the wall in frustration before Benrey’s shooting the fucking thing clean off the gate. “Some fucking warning, man!” he yelps, flinching.

“didn’t they ever teach you about the, uhh, magic words? at particle school? please and thank yous?” Benrey pushes the door open and walks out in front of him, disturbing a flock of birds that’s roosting near the stairwell. They fly off in a wave of offended chirps.

Maybe he’s got a point. But Gordon’s not about to concede it just yet.

[table of contents]


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