White

It's gotten bad in the last week, and it's even worse today. Everything fades out, goes blurred. Where there used to be bright colours and clarity there is now a kind of seeping numbness.

Yet at the same time, it feels like everything's speeding up. His crazy stunt at the Superbowl means that his cell phone rings all the time, even after Lily tries to drown it in beer. That night, he collapses in bed fully clothed, filled from head to toe with a kind of bursting dissatisfaction that's totally exhausting.

He feels everything and nothing. The cotton shirt he's wearing presses against his skin and he can sense every thread. He's a aware of the press of cold metal of his cufflinks brushing against each wrist. He's bloated, yet drained, and entirely disorientated.

Then suddenly, like a light switch being thrown, there's nothing.

*--*--*

When Barney tries to open his eyes, it's a herculean task. It's an effort to wrench one lid open and, when he manages it, there's nothing but darkness and it quickly shuts.

He tries again. There's a tiny sliver of white light that heralds the dawn and he manages to get both eyes open this time. It feels like there are folds of loose skin around his eyes, like his brows are too big, and the natural position of his eyes is to be shuttered tight, like windows against an oncoming storm. But his aching brain tells him that there must be something worth seeing so he struggles again, willpower overcoming inertia, and for a moment gets a glimpse of his surroundings.

He's in bed, he knows that, because the mattress is soft under his back and buttocks and the comforter is warm and snug. Plus, he's pretty sure he glimpses a hot chick in the few seconds that he managed to keep his damn eyes open.

It's so still and silent and comfortable that he doesn't want to get up. He's warm and sleepy and his limbs are loose. His mind is cast adrift and made of cotton candy and he doesn't see why anything has to change.

Except…

He battles against these sensations. He's not exactly panicking, not yet, but some perverse instinct tells him to just get his eyes open and keep them open, because he might see something interesting. He definitely gets better at this because when he sees hot chick again, he tries to speak.

But his lips seem to be glued together.

He tries to pry them open and the flesh pulls slowly apart, tortuously, until he manages to un-stick his lips with a soft pop. That's all the sound he makes however because (seemingly overnight) his tongue seems to have been surgically replaced by a dried up piece of old sponge.

His eyelids close again as he works his jaw. It's like his brain only has the power to control one body part at a time and the moment his lips close and press together they get stuck again.

He's so tired. Too tired in fact to wonder why the hot chick he keeps seeing is wearing a nurses uniform.

*--*--*

The weird thing is that the next time that Barney goes to the bar to meet his friends, something he's done thousands of times before, it feels like he's making a profound choice. His hand reaches for the door and he shivers, the biting wind whipping the ends of his scarf against his neck. He feels that numbness again, in the ends of his fingers and his toes, and he mentally flips through the terrible medical maladies he might have. SARS? Cancer? AIDS? Leprosy?

Lupus?

He makes a note to ask Marshall, because it's the kind of thing he would know, and then Barney pushes open the door expecting warmth and light and the background chatter of voices, rising and falling in inebriated conversation.

But there's nothing.

*--*--*

Okay, he's getting better at the opening-the-eyes trick. He's definitely mastered the technique of ratchet-ing his lids apart and blinking furiously for a few seconds. He even imagines that he sees Stella there, which is ridiculous because Stella's in Hollywood with Tony or something. Didn't Ted say that?

Did he?

It's kind of hard to think.

It's harder to remember.

There's more light now, which makes it easier to see and encourages his mind to wake up a little. He gives the whole speaking thing a try and manages a kind of "pah pah" sound, like a really lame steam engine. It's not so much a sound as a vibration from where he opens his mouth and air comes out.

He's still not panicking.

Barney's aware, somewhere in the happy malaise of his psyche, that he should be totally freaking out right now. But the part of his brain that usually handles the outward facing freaking has obviously been fired.

Barney blames the management control structure in his brain. He thinks that it's seriously time for a hostile takeover.

Then he sees Lily.

Now, it's not particularly strange for Lily to be in his apartment. He's called her up at odd hours in the past when he's been unable to sleep, or all wound up about Robin. But the whole Robin thing is firmly in the past and he thought he's started to get control over the whole insomnia thing lately.

Trouble is, when all you dream about is the smell of burning hair and rubber and engine oil and blood, clear as anything, it gets hard to relax enough to fall asleep again. After the waking up and the screaming that is. But those nightmares aren't as bad as they used to be.

He was getting so much better.

Lily leans over the bed. "Wow, he did," she says. "He just opened his eyes." Lily's smiling. Or crying. She's smiling and crying. Barney tries his best to keep his eyes open to please her.

"Oh Barney," someone says. "God, Barn, can you hear us?"

He blinks furiously, gives up, and tries to talk.

"Pah," he comments, uselessly.

Lily sniffs, somewhere far above him. "I can't believe it." Wait, that's not Lily! That's Marshall's voice. "After all this time, I can't believe it. It's a miracle."

"Marshall there's no such thing." That's Robin.

He's not panicking, but somewhere in his chest, he feels a tightening, a pressure, and his heartbeat. He can feel his own heart beating, fast.

"Nurse!" Someone screams. It sounds like Stella.

"Is he okay? Is this normal? Oh god, is he okay?"

"It's fine. We'll just give him a sedative and let him come out of this naturally."

"Can he even hear us? He doesn't look like… it looks like there's no one there? Nothing inside. After so long after the accident, do you think he's still-"

There's a tiny pinprick of pain in the crook of his elbow, then blessed silence.

*--*--*

Barney stands outside MacLaren's and leans back against Ranjit's towncar, trying desperately to light a cigarette with shaking hands.

Okay, now he's sure something is wrong with him. Marshall told him that he needs to go see a doctor, that it could be one of the many after effects of the bus accident a couple of years ago. Which is stupid, because there's nothing wrong with him that a roll in the hay with a D-cup won't cure.

Both his hands feel numb now.

Barney guesses that this is what it feels like on the edge of a panic attack. Maybe this is what it feels like when you have a nervous breakdown.

It could be a combination of everything - ridiculous stress at work, almost getting fired, the whole flying down to the superbowl and back in twenty-four hours then working the next day. But somehow he can't stop, can't slow down, although he's now developed a permanent twitch in his cheek and he gets the shakes two or three times a day. Even though he's mainlining red bull 24/7. Even though, deep down, he knows that something is really, seriously wrong.

He feels a hand grip his shoulder and he turns around to find Ted smiling at him, so he adjusts his tie and grins.

"He's not slipped into a coma again, has he?" Ted asks, staring right past Barney into thin air.

"No, this is just regular sleep," a disembodied voice responds.

"Hello?" Barney says, waving a hand in front of Ted's face to get his attention. "Ted?"

"Only," his friend says "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present."

*--*--*

Soft warm sheets and feather down; Barney's inclined to agree with Robin that you wouldn't want a pillow stuffed with rabbit hair.

"Only," a voice is saying in the distance; Ted's voice. "Only, how do you know that? I mean, what if he slips away again?"

There's something different this time. There's something in the way that he can feel the cotton on his skin, sensing every thread. There's something familiar about the heavy metallic sensation in the crook of his arm.

Barney opens his eyes.

Everything is white.

He blinks away the fairy dust and tries to focus. His bed has grey sheets, not white sheets. His bedroom isn't a featureless box. When he's in his bed, he's usually post-coital. Or pre-coital. Or, you know, coital.

There are no hot chicks in slutty nurse's uniforms in this bedroom.

Ted and Stella look down at him, smiling. Stella's gotten fat! Real fat. Like, pregnancy-fat.

Stella's pregnant? What happened to Tony?

Pregnant or Fat? Rabbit or Duck?

This is the point when Barney begins to panic. This is the point where pieces of his brain, which haven't been required to work at all in a long, long time, begin to sit up and take notice. Where neurons that haven't fired for so long begin to flicker and burst into life.

"Pah!" He says, registering surprise.

There's a whir of machinery and suddenly he's moving, his body bending at the waist, and it's like his head is floating, not connected to his neck.

Except, right, the bed's on some kind of electric tilt.

Shit, it's a hospital bed.

Crap, he's in hospital.

He swivels his eyes, trying to tilt his head, and he manages to get a look out across the shapeless lump of his chest to see one terrifyingly thin, pale arm which he cannot move. The fingers twitch just enough to reassure him he's not paralysed.

But he cannot move.

"Pah!" He says in alarm.

"It's okay buddy," Ted pats his shoulder and even the lightest touch hurts him.

"Pah!" He protests. Now is not the time for shoulder patting, Mosby! He thinks. Now is the time for explanations! Like what happened to his awesome muscle tone? He's been working out with weights lately, and he had that spray-on tan in Queens two weeks ago. Why is he all white and skinny?

This is so NOT raven!

He tries to struggle, but he can't even do that effectively.

"Do you want some water, Barney?" Fat/pregnant Stella asks him.

Yes he freakin' wants some water! What does she think? Why is she even asking him stupid questions. Just give me some water, woman! He thinks.

Stella fills a plastic cup and tilts it to his lips. "Don't drink to much," she says. "Slow and steady sips."

He takes a mouthful because he can do little else. He's helpless.

Then there's pain, spiking from his eyeballs through his nostrils and into his throat. It's a pain so intense and searing that he chokes, struggling weakly, his legs kicking feebly against the bed sheets.

He's helpless, hopeless and in hospital.

Was it cancer after all? The tingling in his fingers?

Is he dying?

Then there's a slow, steady pulse of warm relaxation, trickling through him, chasing away the pain, and he goes limp.

*--*--*

Ted throws an arm around his shoulder and Barney almost jumps out of his skin.

He remembers stuff. Not linearly, but in bursts of colour and sweeps of emotion. He remembers so many things.

"So, what's on tap for this weekend?" he asks his Bro, who's pretty drunk.

His hands are cold.

"Hey, you know its happy hour at Giddy-ups right now?" Ted giggles, like it's the end of a joke. He's got that ridiculously happy face that would normally herald a pretty legendary night.

"Dude, seriously? I'm queasy just thinking about that bar. Al-though, okay, it's a breeding ground for woo girls-"

"So?" Ted grins.

"Grab your cowboy hat, partner!" Barney laughs, as Robin emerges from her bedroom.

"What's happening?" She asks, fixing an earring.

It's all so normal. All systems awesome.

Then his knees buckle from under him.

*--*--*

Okay, taking stock.

He's mastered the waking up, and the swallowing and the sleeping. He's definitely good with the sleeping.

When he tries to speak, his voice is scratchy and nobody seems to understand him. He manages to croak in the right places and hum under his breath but sometimes he thinks that maybe his vocal chords have just seized up. So he takes a long, long drink of water and almost drops the cup on his lap.

"Ted," he says an actual, recognisable word, much to Ted's and his mutual surprise.

Ted turns around. "Wow," he says, his eyes widening.

The worst thing is that Barney's pretty sure everyone thinks he can't understand them, that he's a big ol' potato brain. They talk more freely when they think he's not really listening.

"Get me a pen," he tries to say, but it comes out as "Gemmeapen." Not helpful. He tries again. "Pen." He says. Shorter, more pithy.

"Pen?" Ted repeats dumbly.

Barney curls his fingers, with some difficulty, and mimes writing on his other hand. "Pen? P'per?"

Thank God P-words are such easy words.

Hehe, pee words! Nice.

He gives himself a mental fist-bump. It's about the only kind he gets any more.

*--*--*

Robin's the one who eventually gets him the damn pen and paper. She's also the one who brings him a mirror.

He's not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that she's the only one who doesn't treat him like he's Johnny no-brain. Even the doctors seem to have written him off. Just because he can't speak properly or remember who's President.

Or remember what year it is.

Or remember what-

-he was just thinking about?

He slowly draws a smiley face on the paper, then a sad face, then a cartoon dick-and-balls. Scherbatsky laughs and he just sighs. "Robin," he croaks. It sounds like "rubbing" which is actually kind of funny. He stops himself asking her questions. He thinks that maybe people have been telling him all kinds of stuff lately that he just can't remember.

He closes his eyes and his hands fall into his lap.

There's a scraping noise as Robin pulls back the chair and prepares to leave him alone.

"How long?" He says, carefully enunciating each word.

"How long were you in a coma?" She asks.

He already knows the answer. The bus hit him and he never woke up. Stella got pregnant and Robin cut her hair (which looks amazing B-the-W) and Marshall and Lily stayed exactly the same.

"Two years," Robin says, smiling in an indulgent "I've told you thirty times before" way.

There was no Naked Man, no Robin-in-Japan, no Ted Mosby, College Professor. There was no Giddy-ups, no Superbowl, no Slap Bet board game, no Stinson family dinner.

And anyway, his Mom died five years ago. What the f-, brain?

Robin's the one who brings him a mirror.

This isn't Barney Stinson. This guy isn't awesome. The guy in the mirror inspires not even the slightest piece of awe. This skeletal thing is a shadow of the vibrant, active, not to mention virile man in the prime of his life.

The sad thing is that Coma-Dream-Barney beats Actual-Barney. And not even on points. Coma-Dream-Barney kicks Actual-Barney's ass six ways to Sunday.

When he's alone, he reaches over to the IV in his arm and considers the ways he can overdose because even his dreams don't give him access to his old life now.

He hasn't dreamed in days. This life is just this endless crippling purgatory. All he's got to look forward to is a pale, bed-ridden remnant of a totally awesome existence.

Or has he?

The revelation, when it comes, is that he wasted his dream existence. He threw away his relationship with Robin, he clung too tightly to Ted, he stopped encouraging Marshall and Lily to move on with their lame-married lives.

Staring into the tiny, hand-held mirror, Barney makes an agreement with his reflection.

Today is the first day of the rest of his life.