Sometimes you realise the journey you've been taking has reached its final stop. So, the question becomes: Where do you go next?
She has nowhere to go. No idea what to do. She feels lost in the world.
Because where are you supposed to go next when you reach your final stop on your 21st birthday?
She doesn't know what to do without Max. Hell, she can't remember a life without him, best friends since the first day of school, going out since they were 14, ("Does that actually happen in real life?" had been Kelly's reaction when she'd found that out). They had their life planned out, they were going to get married straight after college, he was going to get a job as an engineer, she was going to start working for a charity. They were going to move to the suburbs, have two children (a boy and a girl). They were going to raise their children together, she was going to paint pictures of robots playing tennis on the wall of their nursery. She was going to protest when he taught them the drums and she was going to get revenge by making them Star Wars nerds (god knows why he didn't like that film). They would cry pathetically (especially Max) when she sent the kids off to college and lecture them sternly about safe sex. They would retire and grow old together, have the perfect life...
It kills her to know that none of this can ever happen now.
She's always believed in 'the one', that the universe has set her path and hers, hers has already ended. Without Max it's dark, there's no direction, no happiness, no hope.
She blames herself. Day after day she revisits her actions in her head. What if she'd chosen a closer bar? What if she hadn't rushed him? Maybe then he would have looked both ways, seen the speeding cab, stepped out of the way, given her the ukulele in person rather than the police giving it to her like some morbid relic.
She sits in her apartment, paints, sings and practices calligraphy, because it's the only way she finds she can distract herself from thoughts of Max. Her friends, initially sympathetic become more and more distant until only Kelly remains. She's not sure she even cares, what does one more loss matter when the biggest will always be there?
Kelly helps. Makes her smile and laugh again, pushes her to get out. She meets Mitch again, gets creeped out but inspired, goes back to college, befriends Cindy, starts an economics band (trying hard not to think that Max would have made the best drummer for it). Heals, just a little, but not enough, not enough for love. She'll never love anyone as much as she loved Max so why bother?
She doesn't want to go out with Louis at first but Kelly pushes her into it. She's glad, Louis is a great guy, he's gentle, kind and understanding, has a good sense of humour. He helps her forget, helps her feel something, even if it is only friendship and affection.
But everything she does feels like a betrayal, not just to Max but to Louis as well, because whatever he does, it'll just never feel like he does for her.
She thinks about Max, how they knew each other so well that they could pretty much read each other's mind, when you've known someone since you were five they're not so much like you but a part of you. Nothing with Louis can ever compare to that.
Many nights she still dreams of Max, thinking how she could have done it differently. She wakes up trembling. Louis is always there to kiss the tears away, to hold her tight and tell her he loves her.
She never says "I love you," in return, because her heart died with Max and the speeding cab.
She's already having a hell of a stressful weekend when she returns to Louis' Farhampton house and finds him down on one knee.
She goes into shock, just stares for a second, before leaving as fast as she can.
Louis was there, promising to be there for her forever and all she can think of is Max, of playing weddings in the playground together, of the way they joked around in college, planned their future, were so certain it was going to turn out perfectly.
She calls to him, talks to the sky, asking him, the only man she's ever loved, what to do. All she gets in reply is the wind. She pretends it's him anyway.
But when she goes back in, Louis looks at her, such love in his features and she just, she just can't. Louis is a good guy, he deserves better than a girl who will always think he's second best.
The rest of the wedding goes by in a blur. She watches the bride and groom dancing, in a world of their own, so happy, so in love. Tries not to think about a universe where that could be her and Max.
For a second her eyes shift over to the (vaguely familiar) best man who's looking at them in exactly the same way.
Before long she's waiting at the train station on her way back to the city. It's pouring with rain so she gets out her umbrella, stands, waits and thinks.
A few seconds later she's distracted by a tap on the shoulder.
She turns round and sees the best man, "Hey, this sounds like a really lame pick up line, but I assure you it isn't, but I used to have an umbrella just like yours."
It's such a random conversation starter it makes her smile, "It's got a funny story this umbrella, I could have sworn I left it at a St Patrick's day party once and then later it just re-appeared in my apartment."
His eyes widen, "I found it at a St Patrick's day party! But then I lost it again, when I went to see this girl Cindy..."
"She was my roommate," she pauses, "wait you're that architecture professor she dated, the one who tried to teach our economics class!"
"That was four years ago!" he groans, "I'm never going to live it down." But he's smiling.
"Well I guess that solves the umbrella mystery, I've been thinking my apartment's haunted for years."
The train arrives and they both get on it. He sits next to her.
"So why are you leaving so early? I would have thought the best man stays longer at a wedding?" she asks.
He sighs, "I'm going to Chicago, tomorrow, long story, rather depressing."
She smiles gently, "I've got time."
So he tells her, about Robin – when he met her, when they dated, why they broke up, about Stella and being left at the altar, Zoey and Victoria and Jeanette. He tells her about how he's been searching his whole life for love and now he feels like he's lost his last chance. After about 40 minutes he finishes, realises how long he's been talking and apologises for probably boring her.
But she shakes her head and tells him her own story, not everything – she skims over most of Max – but she tell him of her attempts to cope, about Cindy and Darrin and Louis.
At the end of is all he puts his hand on hers, "It'll be ok," he says, "I'm sure it will," and she almost believes him.
"You too," she says.
They're just getting onto topics that are not quite so sad and emotional when the train stops. He helps her with her bag and they wait for a taxi together.
As she leaves she gives him her number, "Call me when you get to Chicago, I know the best place to get pizza."
"Gonzola's?" he asks.
"Yes!" she says, excitedly, "have you been there?"
"All the time, my friend Marshall and I used to go on road trips there!"
She's beaming by the time she gets into the cab.
He calls the next day, she smiles when she sees his name come up on the phone for reasons she can't quite explain.
They keep in touch while he's in Chicago. At first he calls her every two or three days and they'll talk for maybe half an hour, just as friends. Then the calls become more frequent, longer. She starts clearing her schedule around when he'll call her, or just calling him herself when he's taking too long.
Ted's never had the love of his life die. Didn't have the world fall beneath his feet on his 21st birthday. But he understands. He understands feeling alone. That idea of having no idea where to go where you haven't already gone before and failed. He too believes that any chance of true love in the future is gone.
She's not sure about Ted's experience of love. She's met the Robin at her wedding, seen Ted interact with her. And yes, there's longing, an air of nostalgia about it. But she's also seen her husband, met him at his darkest, thinking he had lost her. She went up to him, talked to him, hugged him and gave him advice because he was looking wild, lonely and depressed, like the maniac she was when Max had just died. The way Barney talked about her, the way he looked at her. She was sure that's the way she used to look at Max. She's pretty sure Ted didn't look at her like that. She thinks that perhaps Ted hasn't found his 'the one' at all. She wonders if perhaps that's worse.
But they don't just talk about that. Even she's not that depressing (and she still is not ready to tell him much about Max). They talk about everything, Star wars, coin collecting, calligraphy, architecture and world peace. Sometimes she's not even sure what they talk about for hours just that, whatever it is, she's always sad when he finally has to hang up.
She finds herself thinking about him during the day. When her mind drifts to happy things it's no longer a memory of Max but a conversation she's had with Ted. She dreams less and less of Max, and more of Ted, their first meeting on the train, his little quirks, his weird love for the Empire State Building.
Six months in Ted tells her he needs to decide on whether to renew his contract in Chicago.
"Come back," she says on a whim.
She's there to meet him at the airport, she stands a little aside from his friends, though they are perfectly welcoming. When he sees her his face lights up, which she'd almost laugh at if her mouth wasn't contorted into the largest of smiles. He hugs her for a moment longer than he would a friend, she doesn't want him to let go.
"Do you want to have dinner with me?" he asks her when he calls the next day.
This time she has no problem saying yes.
They take things slowly. For the first few dates it's nothing more than talking, really just an extension of their phone friendship. At the end of their fourth date he kisses her, really it's just a peck but dear god it's good. She feels so much more than she did with Louis or Cindy, almost like what it felt with...
She runs away back into her apartment and sobs. Later she feels like an idiot, running away from the first guy she's felt like this for since she's been able to legally drink. Wonders if he even wants to see her again.
He does of course. He apologises and she tells them there's no need, she just freaked out because she felt something. There's this shy hopeful smile that appears on his face that she finds so beautiful that she just has to move in and kiss it off herself.
They see each other almost daily after that. She finds she misses him when he's not around. They go to restaurants, museums, films together and other times just hang out with his friends at the bar. They kiss, cuddle, make love and somehow it just feels right. With Louis it always felt like an attempt to push herself back into feeling normal, with Ted she doesn't even have to try.
One day he invites her to see 'The Wedding Bride 3' (she knows all about the Jed Mosely stuff but Ted assures her he's wikied the film and it's much more sympathetic towards him), but by the time they get there it's sold out.
"Oh no, I was really looking forward to seeing those hideous red cowboy boots again!" she says.
Ted glares playfully at her, then the expression slides of his face and he stares at her for a long moment, "I love you," he says, and kisses her.
She doesn't say anything in return and he doesn't makes her feel like she needs to. She's not quite ready, but there's something there, something that she hasn't felt in a long time – almost there, almost ready to get out.
They eat at hers one night. After dinner she gets out her ukulele, plays him all her favourite tunes.
After she finishes playing 'La Vie En Rose', he's silent for a while.
"Ted?" she says, "are you ok?"
"It was never about Robin. She was just my last hope of not being alone," she's not sure if it's a confession or a realisation but he says it with a sort of finality, as if he should have known a long time ago.
"What about me?" she asks quietly.
He smiles at her softly, "I've never felt the way I do with you," he pauses, "what about you?"
"I've felt it before," she says, "just once."
And somehow, because he's Ted, he knows what she means. Knows she's letting him in further than she's let anyone in a long time.
"Tell me about him," he says.
So she does. She tells him everything, lets the tears flow freely from her eyes as she tells him about Max, every little moment, everything she loved, everything she hated, all the dreams that she never got to fulfil. As the words flow from her mouth and she sees the tears forming in Ted's eyes too, she feels the weight lift off her shoulders, feels the gaping wounds start to heal as she lets him see what no one else has. Afterwards he just hugs her, lets her sob into his shoulder, and something clicks into place – the world feels more right than it has for the past nine years.
They take it a day at a time. Build a new life for themselves amongst foundations of their old ones. She makes her way into his little group. She introduces Kelly too (she and Barney spend the first two weeks attempting to avoid each other after they realise they've slept together while Robin looks on with a mixture of amusement and annoyance).
She apologises to Kelly afterwards who just shakes her head and smiles, "I haven't seen you this happy in a long time. Whatever this Ted's doing he's doing it right."
Ted's different now. Not in an obvious way, but she notices. No longer does he look at Robin longingly, not even occasionally. He doesn't avert his eyes when Robin and Barney kiss. Instead he smiles, with no hint of sadness, genuinely happy that they've found love in this crazy world. Just like he has.
Just like, once again, she has.
Then one day at the bar the topic turns to childhood friends and, without thinking, she brings up Max. She's halfway through the conversation before she realises it's not awkward, there's no twinge of sadness and emptiness that she normally feels when she thinks about him. It happens again a few weeks later when the conversation turns to bands and drummers and again when they mention engineers. It feels freeing, just so freeing and wonderful.
She's not forgotten about Max. He's still a fond memory and some part of her will always love him. But he is her past. Ted is her present, her future.
She'd always believed in "the one" but now she's not so sure. She thinks maybe, just maybe, life isn't about the universe and destiny, maybe they can make their own path in the world. Find happiness even when it seems too late for all hope.
Because everyone who has been lost can be found. She's been found. Ted found her. She found Ted.
And when he proposes she knows, without a doubt that her answer is, "Yes."