A/N: For 9x24, Last Forever (Pt. 2).
I'm sorry this took so long. I wrote out most of my emotional upset-ness in the other fic I posted roughly around the finale premiere date, so this is a little gentler on Ted. Thank you for sticking around this long. It's been a heck of a ride.
When she opened the door to let him in, there were several things he was expecting. A kiss, maybe. A declaration of all of the feelings they'd been denying over the years, maybe that too.
What he was not expecting was Barney in a bathrobe, snickering.
"What are you doing here?" he said.
"Shut the door, Ted. The dogs'll get out," Robin said.
He set the French horn down on the sofa and looked from one of his friends to the other. "Are you...?" he said, waving his hand at the space between them.
"Oh, Teddy," Robin said, patting him lightly on the shoulder. "Theodore."
He narrowed his eyes. "What's going on?"
"They got you," she said. "They got you good."
"Who did? What are you talking about?"
Robin tossed him her cell phone, and he lifted it to his ear. "Hello?" he said. And all he heard were his kids laughing. "You set me up?"
Penny snorted. "Oh, come on, dad. 'Mom would want you to be happy'?"
There was muffled noise over the line, and then, Luke's voice echoed in over the speakerphone. "We thought you were over Aunt Robin, Dad. We didn't think you'd actually go and do the... whole thing."
"You two are in so much trouble when I get home."
Penny's answering laugh was soft. "Dad, you knew we were joking. ...didn't you? I mean, mom's only - "
"Yeah, kiddo, yeah, of course I knew. I just don't know what I was thinking coming out here in the middle of the night. Thought maybe your Aunt Robin could stand to see me since she hasn't... seen me in a while. But I'll deal with you guys at home, okay? I'm going to hang around with your Aunt Robin a little while."
"Okay, dad," Penny said. "You're not mad, are you?"
"We'll talk about it later."
After he hung up the phone, he tossed it back to her and caught the edge of the coffee table instead.
Barney fished out his wallet and slipped a few bills into her hand.
"Wait, you guys had a bet on this?"
"Oh, come on, Ted," Barney said. "You're the most reliable guy I know. Marshall and Lily got in on it, too, but Lily thought you'd been changed by love. I just didn't think you'd run back to the place and get the horn. That's legit, Ted."
"And you're not mad?"
Robin came to sit beside him on the sofa. "It hasn't been that long since Tracy's been gone, and you've been so good with the kids and everything. It was only a matter of time before you freaked out."
"Freaked out? Wait a second, wait a second, I did not freak out. I was just following my kids' advice and came to your apartment in the middle of the night after shoplifting wall decorations from an Italian restaurant down the block. I don't think you can call that a freak out."
"No, you're right," Barney said. "it's probably more like a breakdown."
Robin gave him a hard shove.
"Listen, we all know that you're not the kind of guy that does things like this casually. You always wanted to settle down, and now that you want to start looking again, I think it's obvious why you showed up here tonight. But it isn't serious, Ted. You know that."
He hummed. Around the apartment, everything looked familiar, but showed so much of who Robin was now that he suddenly remembered how little they'd seen each other over the years. Awards hung from the walls, and photos of her and Barney still stood in frames on end tables. It was clean; it was neat; it was a whole other life.
"Yeah," he said. "The kids had a laugh about it, at least."
Robin came and wrapped him in a tight hug. "I think they're ready to see you start dating again. But not me. And not... French horns and marriage and five thousand miles an hour. I think you have to remember what it's like to be single Ted again. It's not going to be easy."
He laughed, a soft, wry noise. "When did you get to be in this position to give out advice?"
"I figured out a lot of stuff along the way. Made a lot of mistakes."
Ted clapped his hands together, and reached for the horn on the sofa. Everything felt so foolish now, so young - what was he thinking, trying to pick up threads from another life, another person, and believing he could just begin again?
"I should probably return this before they call the cops on me." He shrugged his shoulders and moved towards the front door. "I'm sorry about the late night visit."
She smiled. "Don't worry about it."
As he stepped out into the hallway, he could hear Barney's hastily added, "And you should come over more often! Board games, Ted, c'mon!"
He looked back once from the hallway by the elevator, and saw them leaning against each other, waving at him. Barney kissed the corner of her mouth and she laughed, giving him one last wave before she shut the door.
The bell dinged, and he stepped into the elevator, the French horn weighty against the crook of his arm.
He'd never noticed that before - how heavy it seemed - but he'd finally be able to set it down.