Part 4

Barney feels like stone in Robin's arms, like he's been petrified. He feels rigid, like classical sculpture of a poet or someone from ancient times. His skin feels cold, every muscle is locked solid. It's like trying to breathe life into rock.

But Robin holds him anyway and sometimes she takes his hand or his arm and she tries to rub some life into the flesh, tries to transfer some of her life into his statue of a body.

Slowly, far too slowly, there's a thaw. Something in him shifts and cracks, and he begins to melt. Robin feels the mattress move beneath her, feels him loosen. She desperately wants to talk to him, to reassure him, but instinctively she knows that he won't understand her words.

He's a caveman right now. He can only comprehend warmth and comfort and he wouldn't be able to process anything more. But he's evolving. Robin saves her words for when they'll be needed.

But she does consider what she'll say.

She's seen him now, at his very worst. She's stood against the tide and not faltered. She's seen his demons and she's still here, a little bruised, a little tired, a little frightened out of her mind - but still here, still by his side.

How can she possibly articulate how that feels? She understands now, why he never tried to explain his condition to her. Why he blocked her out, refused to let her see him fall. The words to express his torment have not been invented.

Maybe the cavemen had a word for it? That terrible, clawing darkness that sent them running in packs away from the ghosts and the spirits and the gods. Sent them huddling together around their fires, drawing their clan near?

Maybe the word has been forgotten.

Robin wants to reach out for him as his body moulds itself against her, as he leans instinctively into her embrace. She wants to, but she doesn't want to frighten him. Trouble is, she's never really helped Barney through an attack before, so she worries that she's done everything wrong. Should she have grabbed him like that? Held and restrained him? It had felt so right at the time because the look in his eyes... well, it had been like he was falling to pieces and she'd held him together… hadn't she?

Now she's terrified that she's somehow made it worse but she has no way of knowing for sure. She's never seen Barney like this, she has no frame of reference. So she curls like a question mark next to him in her room and silently begs him to come back to her.

Finally, he takes a gulp of air, like a newborn baby's first breath. Robin wonders how he survives these attacks. She actually wonders if he does survive them. She wonders if each one damages him in some way that is irreparable.

"Oh… oh, boy…" He mutters, a while later. He shifts out from under her loose embrace, her barely-there arms. "Robin?" He says, surprised. She feels him tense from confusion, disorientation. It must be like drowning, she thinks, and not knowing which direction is up. It must be awful

"Hi, there…" She says, fingers tracing his brow-line, wiping away the beads of cold sweat that still linger there.

"Am I dead?" He asks her. In that moment, he's young again. He's a six year old kid who's confused and lost and doesn't know where he is.

"No," Robin says, kissing him on the nose. "You're fine."

He gives her a half-smile and he evolves. She sees the weight of him settle back in, the wildly firing electrons gather back into a leisurely orbit. His eyes even seem to change colour, the darkness fading out slowly like a night sky before a sunrise. The blue creeps back in from the edges, where the pupils had dominated only moments before, huge and disc-like. His laughter lines reappear around his eyes, his brow furrows. He's not entirely pleased she's here. He's worked so hard to keep this side of himself from her, and here she is, right in the middle of his most private territory.

"Bad attack?" She says, keeping her voice as light as she can.

"You could say that…" He pulls back a little, as if realizing for the first time how close they are. He's lost his innocence. He's grown up. He's a twenty-first century fucked-up metro man again and he's retreating back into his shell and she doesn't want to lose him, lose whatever it is she's just barely touched.

Robin doesn't let him go, but she gives him a few inches of wriggle room, letting him know that he could get away if he wanted. There's a beat in which he seems to reconsider before wrapping his four fingers around the curve of her waist.

Contact. It's warm and comforting and it's barely-there, but it's still exactly what she needs, what she aches for inside.

"We need to talk…" He says, but he sounds like he's wrung dry.

"Yeah," she agrees, "But later. Get some sleep." She smiles at him as he turns on to his back without complaint, so thoroughly exhausted. His eyes drift close, and she misses their connection, their silent union. With his eyes still shut, he reaches out a hand. Needing her close.

"I'll be here when you wake up," she whispers, linking her slim fingers through his.

*--*--*

Ted drops heavily into the red sofa, one hand rubbing at the back of his neck.

"You OK?" Lily's concerned and semi-curious, knowing the answer before she asks.

"No- it can't go on like this. It's too hard."

There's a beat before she answers. "On Barney? Or on you?" She scrutinizes him for a long minute, and he feels like he's the kindergartner who's been caught lying about stealing some candy or something. Caught…

"On Barney! On everyone." He admits it after a moment. "Of course it's hard on me. He's one of my best friends."

Lily folds into the couch, legs tucked up and arms crossed. She's done this so many times when fretting over credit card debt, coaching Marshall through another day at the nightmare he calls work. It's her safe haven, this room with its energy and its clutter and it's vibe. No matter what happens, things will be ok, because they have each other and they have this place.

It's a safe place—for her, for Barney, for everyone. It's a centre and they gather here. "Ted-"

He's anxious and exasperated and tired of putting up with it; not because he doesn't want to help, but because he wishes he didn't have to. He wishes his friend were whole, not broken. "I don't know what we can do. They can adjust his meds, give him stress-relieving techniques… I don't know. Whatever it is that they do for people like him. But it's treating a symptom. It doesn't fix the root of the problem—it's… it's not going to cure him."

"Give it time."

"How much time, Lily? He's what, thirty four? How long does he have to deal with this?"

"Ted, I don't know! I don't know—"

"Because this isn't new. You know that. It isn't even because of the bus, and Jesus, Lily, that was a year ago. This goes way back. There's stuff about Barney we don't know, I just know it. And whatever it is, it's fucked him up big time, and I don't think even time can-"

"Ted, he'll be OK." Lily's twisting the edge of the pillow in her hands and, if it were paper, it would have disintegrated eons ago. She's done this so many times.

"How can you possibly believe-" he starts to shout as the frustration gets the better of him. But then cuts off, quiets himself. The walls are thin, after all, and Barney's already on edge, hovering over something dark and deep.

"I don't know, Ted, but I have to believe!" She presses her hands to her face. She seems to use the silence to pull herself back together; to re-centre. "I have to believe that he'll be OK, or I'll go crazy. I'm not stupid. I'm not naïve. I know what we're up against - all of us. This is huge. This is bigger than - It's bigger than Barney, it's bigger than the group. It'll need more than just us to fix. But I have to believe it can be fixed or I'll just… lose hope. You can't lose hope, Ted, you can't let that happen, or what's left?"

"Lily, these attacks, they're getting worse. You can't just hope them away."

"Ted Mosby, don't you think I know that? Don't you think-" She pauses, takes in a shaky breath. "I know more than I think even you do. Did you know that he calls me?"

"He what?"

"At night. Late at night. He has nightmares and he'll call me and we'll just leave the phones on and running, for hours. You think I don't know what he's going through? You think I don't know that this can't just… be what, wished away? I know, Ted, because I was there when he exploded. And all I can do is try to piece him back together, and I know it might not work, but I have to hope that it will."

Ted flexes his hands. He aches to do something. There's so much he wishes he could be doing—fixing, patching, sewing, gluing, putting-back-together.

Because his best friend is broken, like a forgotten toy. And the fact that there's nothing he can do—it frightens him.

What if Barney goes too far? What if—what if—what if—

He's on the mend, yeah, and there's all those proverbs and crap. It's darkest before the dawn. It'll get worse before it gets better.

Ted knows there's a chance it won't get better. It could just get worse and worse. He can't bear the thought of that; he wants to fix this.

He just doesn't know how.

*--*--*

When Barney opens his eyes, Robin can't help but stare, searching his gaze for that elusive thread again. He blinks sleepily and it's with some relief that she sees him soften and she smiles

"Hey." She says, trying to draw him in. After all, she seen all he's got now - that attack, that explosion (she hates to admit how appropriate the word "nuclear" seems to her now) - the way it wrecked him, mentally and physically. So she doesn't move forward, doesn't move back. She's there for him and he has to set the pace.

Barney takes a deep breath, as if he's going to speak, but then he lapses into silence again. Finally, when he does speak, he sounds different. It reminds her of when they went to dinner one time, just the two of them. And for a moment there was a tone in his voice, so unlike him, so defeated, so different from his essential Barney-ness - carefree, spirited, passionate. He sounded beaten, like a fighter who'd been kicked in the ribs and is struggling to rise from the floor, weakened and bleeding and trying so hard to not give in. To recover- to win this, to beat the odds.

"So…" Barney closes his eyes briefly, as if he's steeling himself to let her down gently and it scares the crap out of her. Her stomach drops like she's on a fairground ride. "So… this thing… us...? Being with you…? It's too confusing. I can't- We can't…" He shakes his head and starts again but she's already got the message and it sends her into a tail spin, whirling, barely hearing him over her own panic: He doesn't want her. Oh god, he doesn't want her. He doesn't love her. Lily was wrong.

"This is me," Barney continues, although it's less about his actual words than his tone. "This is the real Barney Stinson: Fuck Up of the Century. It hurts too much, Robin. I'd end up hurting you. I couldn't bear-"

And the tears come from out of nowhere. One minute her insides are clenching and the next she's crying and all she can say is "But I love you!". She says the words she thought she would never, ever say to him, all in a rush and all at once. She stammers. "D-don't push me away, Barney. Please?"

This cuts him dead and for a moment, while he opens and closes his mouth like a fish flapping about on dry land and then there's something like hope in his eyes, something happy, and Robin wonders how long it will be till he kills that feeling under the weight of his own pain.

But he doesn't. He doesn't withdraw. He says, in a little-boy voice "You love me?" as if that makes it all better. He says it with wonder in his eyes. He says it as though it's all that matters to him, as if it's the only thing that matters to him in the world.

Robin wants to grab that moment and hold it close because she knows that if she wants Barney, if she's really serious about this, then that look is going to have to keep her going her through some pretty tough times.

"But there's just so much wrong with me." He says, frowning, straining to find the words. "What if I hurt you, Robin?"

The way he says her name grabs her right in the gut. There's longing there - an almost overwhelming need. Jesus… how long has he kept that inside? Robin knows how hard it is for him to get close to people, really close. How hard it is for him to trust. And now she knows some of the reasons for that. Can she really do this? Whatever happens, now is the time to be honest.

"Yeah, Barney…" She says, "Yeah, you might. And I'm just as likely to screw up. Because I don't know how this works! And maybe we'll both go out in a blaze of glory. But… oh god!" It frustrates her how angry she feels suddenly - at herself, at the world. Barney's fingers tighten on her hip and he nods, as if willing her to go on. "But maybe… just maybe, we can find a way to make this work, you know?" She wipes her eyes, feeling a little foolish for blubbering like a girl. "Because in the cold light of day, the alternative is that we stop being friends, we let each other go, and we get hurt anyway. What's the worst that can happen, eh?" Her accent bleeds through a little as she rambles and she reaches out to poke him in the chest.

Barney laughs, bats her hand away, then kisses her fingers gently. "Canadian Harpy," he says. But he still looks sad, still looks worn out.

"You really need someone to look after you, don't you?" She blurts, not really knowing why. She expects him to snark back at her with an acid comment, to announce he's awesome and that he doesn't need anyone.

But he doesn't.

"I need… you…" He says, simply.

And, by god, she loves him.

*--*--*

A few days later, Robin wakes with a start, her fingers groping blindly across the cold, empty mattress beside her before her brain is awake enough to remember why Barney's not there.

It's weird how quickly she's gotten used to him being there. It feels strange to her to sleep with a person and not feel stifled.

But after a few nights they both agree that he needs to get home - sort out his meds, spend at least one night away from her. She doesn't want to be too… Clingy? That's a word she still finds difficult to ever consider being used to describe herself.

Still, it's dark and he's not there and she's cold and her phone is ringing. Robin answers it with a groan, still not quite awake. When she hears his voice her tired brain equates this to him being back in bed beside her (where he belongs because she wants a cuddle, damn it!) and not on the other end of the line, back at his place.

"Robin?" He says. He sounds weird.

"Barney?" She mumbles, not quite sure what's going on. Why's he calling her? She tries not to jump to the conclusion that something's wrong. She's not Ted. She's not Lily. She has to let him be himself. So, when he doesn't say anything, she keeps her voice light. "Is this a booty call?" She says with a chuckle.

"Maybe…" He answers. He definitely sounds wrong - kind-of hollow. She's not imagining it. But she presses on because she's sleepy and she likes the sound of his voice.

"Maybe? You got other options right now, hot stuff?" She's not jealous because she absolutely knows he's not out chasing tail right now. He's just… what? Wired? He's occasionally complained of insomnia but he's slept like a baby these past few days.

"Yeah," Barney laughs. "And I'm looking for a third. Interested?"

Robin laughs. "Is she hot, this imaginary date of yours?"

"Hah!"

"Barney, if you had a woman there you wouldn't be calling me…"

He goes silent for a bit.

"Look, okay…" She says, nervously. Maybe she's doing the wrong thing, here, but the fact is that he wouldn't have called her, not this quickly, not unless he needed her. "I'll give you the choice - you want to come over here or can I just talk dirty to you and then get some sleep?"

He laughs, a little more naturally. "I'll take the dirty talk. What are you wearing right now?"

"I'm not promising anything too steamy. I'm wearing flannel jammies.

"Killing the mood here, Scherbatsky."

"Barney…" She doesn't ask him if he's alright. She already knows that he's not alright. But he can be a hell of a lot better and they've got to get through this. It's only the first step, after all.

"Yeah?"

She sighs. "I'll take off the jammies if you promise me you'll get into bed?"

He laughs. "Deal."

She wishes he was there, but instead, she helps him from afar, carefully easing him down from whatever dark place he'd landed himself in. She takes a deep breath and begins to speak.

It's going to be a long night.