Note: I can't explain how sorry I am for this huge gap between updates, especially at a critical point where the story is nearly over. I had some medical problems along with moving and starting grad school, and those kept me from doing much in the way of writing. Fortunately I'm back now and can finish this story! Thanks for your continued support.

Chesterton's Bar was all wrong. The entrance was in the wrong place, the bartender was a chick, and there was no booth waiting for him. But it was close to Barney's apartment, convenient. It was no MacLaren's. Which was kind of the point. He needed a place to suck down some gin martinis in peace, but without feeling as much like an alcoholic as he would if he were drinking them at home. And Barney had discovered in his few days of coming here that he could drink here without being bothered. It was a sports bar, so there were very few women around to pester him. The fact that those words had just crossed his mind reminded him how much worse he was doing than he was letting on.

The crowds in the bar tonight had their eyes fixed on some game or match or whatever. Barney didn't really care. He was just glad it gave him a chance to stand off to the side and sip his drink quietly. The room was a little hazy in his mind, and he was actually feeling kind of tired. And okay, part of that was he wasn't sure if this was his third or fourth martini, which probably meant it was his fifth. But he'd had a long evening in the perfect hell - outside, picking up trash, in New Jersey. As he twirled the glass around on the bar, Barney noticed the dirt under his fingernails. He made a face of utter disgust and a half-gagging noise. God, what a nightmare. He sucked down the rest of his drink to try to erase the image.

Barney was in the midst of considering whether to turn in or continue enjoying himself. If that's what you could call it. He had a little island here to himself, anyway. That had to count for something positive. As long as he didn't spend the time thinking.

Barney realized someone was interrupting this little escape of his before his slightly addled mind could process the particulars. Someone said something to him about a hundred dollars and it took a while for him to fulfill the prediction by turning around to face Robin Scherbatsky. Barney's cheeks were a little flushed, his brain working kind of sluggishly. But it was suddenly as if someone had dunked his head in a bucket of ice. If he'd been holding his glass, it might have shattered on the floor about the time Robin sheepishly said, "Wow?"

All of his rambling thoughts came screeching to a halt, leaving Barney to simply stare in a mixture of shame and horror. He couldn't get out any variation of the words 'what are you doing here', but Robin got the picture anyway. She shifted, her normally confident expression melting. Barney wasn't sure what to make of that.

"Hey," Robin said sheepishly, seemingly unable to think of anything more.

"Really?" he asked, incredulous but not exactly angry. In fact, his tone came out almost amused. Because he had to laugh at the absurdity. Otherwise he might start breaking things instead. "That's all you've got? Because I hate to break it to you, but if you were counting on me for topics of conversation, I'm out. I've said everything." Barney drummed his fingers on the bar and looked around in a forced manner. "Not to mention, I'm here with this Asian chick who's out at the bathroom right now, so if you could refrain from cramping my style, that would be awesome."

Robin could clearly see right through the lie, judging by the twinge of sympathy that ran across her face. She at least had the decency not to call him on it. Instead, her expression turned inward, almost nervous. "Look, I know I don't deserve to be heard out, but I wouldn't be here if it weren't for your good. I don't want to keep saying and doing things that hurt you."

He eyed her warily. He'd begun to realize that he might not be able to read her all that well, but anyone spotting Robin Scherbatsky looking nervous would know something was amiss. After all, this was the ice queen, Barney thought a little bitterly. "Fine," he said in resignation. "Say what you need to, just... quick." Like pulling off a bandaid. She could at least grant him that mercy.

"I'll try, but," Robin said slowly, "there's kind of a lot to apologize for."

Barney's eyebrows flicked up almost imperceptibly at the word 'apologize'. "Well," he said, sounding as relieved as he felt, "it's good to know you're not here with salt."

She looked pained. Not insulted or indignant, but guilty. "Of course not. I never meant to hurt you with anything I said or did. And I guess it's important to me that you know that because I don't want you to think I'm a hateful person. Which is totally selfish." She rubbed a hand over one eye. Clearly, this wasn't going as smoothly for her as reading from a teleprompter. "My point is, it hurts. It hurts that I know I hurt you, because I care about you, Barney."

"Okay," Barney said slowly. As he did, he turned around and leaned on the bar, folding his arms in front of himself. It was meant to look impatient, which he was. But it also made him feel slightly less vulnerable. He was barely managing facing her as it was. "So why then?"

"I'm just," Robin shrugged as she looked down at her hands as if they were suddenly very interesting. Which Barney agreed, they were. Dammit! How could he still be thinking sentimentally about this woman right now. He needed another drink. How dare she kill his buzz.

"You're...?" Barney asked, impatient with his treacherous mind as much as her faltering speech.

"Nervous. And worried, I guess." She finally looked back up at him. "I pretend to like adventure, new challenges, but honestly, I kind of hate change."

Barney would have smirked victoriously if he'd felt any sense of confidence at all. Because he knew that about her. "I remember the Argentina disaster."

"Right," she said, drawing a breath. "Exactly. It seems like a great idea to just forge out into new territory, but then maybe it's uncharted for a reason. Maybe you haven't gone there yet because it's not a good place to go." Robin bit her lip, then took the plunge from abstract to personal. "The thing is, this was safe." She pointed between herself and Barney. "Consistent. And I don't have a lot of that in my life. So suddenly having to think about it changing, it freaked me out. Because I thought I was getting what I wanted out of our relationship. It didn't seem like a good idea to risk changing that."

At first, it didn't sound like a very promising little speech to Barney. She was just pointing out a huge hurdle he was already aware of in her extreme fear of change. Personally, Barney really was one for risk and adventure. Although typically that involved endeavors like licking monuments, not courting some chick. "So wait," Barney said, realizing something as his slow-moving brain processed how she'd just spoken. "You're saying this past-tense. So either you've forgotten basic English grammar... or something's different."

Robin looked like a kid who'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Clearly she wasn't achieving the subtlety she'd hoped. She should have remembered that he was Barney Stinson, and he could read the crap out of women. Something was up with this whole thing. She wasn't dodging and defending the way she had in their last several conversations. "Fine," she said, sounding indignant, and he almost smiled in satisfaction. Almost. "Yes. It's just, I've been thinking some. You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking this over, this... the stuff that's happened between us."

If by 'thinking it over' you mean obsessing about every detail of all our time together, then yes, Barney thought. But all he said was a wry, "Well, really, I've always been the thinker here."

Robin looked surprised to hear him making a small joke. But pleasantly so. A smirk creased the edge of her mouth. "Trust me, I see the irony. Mr 'Act First, Think Later'. But you know, I just hadn't thought about it."

His face fell, and he glanced away. Of course he knew at this point that Robin hadn't been secretly pining for him at the same time in a neat little romantic comedy sort of way. It still stung to hear it brought up, even if she was just trying to be straight with him. "I know," he said, quietly.

"But Barney, look," she said, and she must have meant it, because she stared at him deliberately until he was forced to make eye contact again. "You don't get it. And I didn't, either. Because you know what I've realized? The only things I don't think about, I mean the things my mind makes a heroic effort to keep completely out of my thoughts, are things that really matter. And that could be, I don't know... threatening?" Robin was starting to revert to the uncertain tone from before. As she began rambling, Barney could only remain silent and listen. "So I didn't think about it. About us, or whatever. But the fact that I wasn't thinking about it is like, the same thing as a thinking about it for a normal person. It means that it means something to me. Because if it didn't, I would have just thought about it and dismissed it. Instead I just never thought about it. I tossed all possibility of thinking about it out with you... you know?"

His brow furrowed for a moment as he looked down at the expression of pained confusion on her face. This wasn't exactly the most straight-forward conversation, and he got the impression even she didn't quite know where it was going. Barney should have been more angry. Should have just shouted for her to get to the point, because just breathing the same air as her was suffocating. Because he was holding it together, but was starting to fidget in a need to bolt. But dammit if Robin wasn't adorable when she was flustered. It was enough to keep him from storming out angrily. How the hell did she do that? "Uh, sure," he replied slowly. "Okay, actually, despite the fact that what you just said makes no sense, I get it."

"Maybe you could explain it to me, then, because I'm not sure I do," Robin replied, sinking onto a bar stool.

"Robin," Barney cautioned. He might have more patience for her than others, but that still wasn't saying much. Not to mention, his current reservoir of will power was draining as quickly as his drinks had tonight. He didn't want to snap again.

"Right, sorry," Robin said, holding up both hands in an 'I know' kind of gesture. "I promise there's a point to all of this. I wouldn't come here just to torture you. I hope you know that." He didn't really feel like he knew that, and his expression must have said so, because Robin blanched a little. "God, I'm sorry. I have caused you so much trouble this last year. And I could claim ignorance, but the truth is that even if I didn't know how you felt about me, I knew what I was doing hurt you anyway."

Barney looked at her, then down at his tumbler as he raised it to his lips. He made a face as he took a sip. Was it just him, or was this thing suddenly more tart? Weren't drinks supposed to taste better after you'd had a few? This conversation was sobering him up, and he wasn't sure he was okay with that. "Whatev, it's no big deal," he said with an unconvincing shrug. He just wanted her to cut to the chase and be done with it.

But Robin was apparently determined to draw this out as long as humanly possible. She wasn't normally one to talk at all, but sometimes personal things just came out of her like a flood. Barney had witnessed it before. He tried not to think about how that night had ended. It was too cruel to even imagine inviting the comparison. Still, Robin wasn't giving up. "But it is a big deal, Barney." He shifted, uncomfortable with the fact that hearing her say his name sparked something inside him. "I let you take the fall for things that were my fault, too. And even after everything, I was going to do it again..."

Now she had his full attention. He stared at her carefully, trying to determine what was behind all this. The last time they'd spoken, she'd been acting like none of this stuff between them was real. Now she was confessing to... what, exactly?

His answer came without his having to ask. Robin was actually biting her lip, an action well outside her normal calm demeanor. But even more seriously, she stared at him, in the way people do when they want you to meet their eyes. He'd rather not look back, but finally he gave in. When their eyes met, she worked up the courage to say, "I told Ted the truth."

"The truth," he echoed, a little lost in the fact that he was gazing into Robin's eyes from just a few feet away. An instinct in his mind told him he should totally be seducing this hot chick right now. All the gin coursing through his veins agreed. But the small remainder of his sanity kept him glued in place and his lips sewn shut.

"I told him about that night. The..." her voice lowered, "Sandcastles night."

Barney's eyes widened in surprise, and a little bit of panic. "You told him about the video?"

"No," Robin corrected quickly. Barney wasn't sure why that relieved him so much. Really, he should be dying to share such a great piece of blackmail with his friends. But somehow it felt too private. Like their little secret. "No, I didn't say anything about the video or the song. But I told him, you know. The truth." She clearly didn't want to explain herself, but Barney was still so surprised that she'd said anything about it at all that he needed this to be crystal clear. So he kept looking at her expectantly until she sighed and said quietly, "I told him that I was the one who invited you to my place." Robin began lacing her fingers together, fidgeting. "And that I... kissed you. That it wasn't you tricking me. That I kind of... took the lead."

Barney barely controlled the urge to grin wickedly. Because oh, he remembered. His natural urge to make a dirty joke quickly diminished, however, when what she was saying sunk in. There was that sobering again. Shit, he needed another drink. "Wow, so you..." he looked down, picking at nothing in particular on the bar surface. "You told Ted that?"

"Yeah. But I should have told him a long time ago." She met his eyes as he looked back up, and for the first time, Barney realized just how pained she looked. It startled him. Maybe it was just a 'admitting I was wrong is like pulling teeth' expression. But it didn't look like it. Maybe he was crazy, but Barney could have sworn Robin's expression was one of empathy. He became more sure as she continued. "The stuff that happened between you guys was my fault. I mean, I know it was both our faults, but I should have said something. And honestly I was kind of expecting you to stand up for yourself and say something. Then you didn't. And I didn't understand why. Although now I guess I do." She gave him an almost apologetic smile, as if she were sorry to be bringing up his recent loss of awesome and emotional outpourings. As if either of them had forgotten.

"Right, that..." he said, his fingers involuntarily tightening their grip on his now-empty glass. His whole body was seizing up. He had absolutely nothing left to say on the matter that he hadn't already. Barney had poured himself dry. And Robin still hadn't had the decency to close that wound up. "Just... don't. I can't... If I say anything, it'll just sound even lamer than before." He leaned against the bar for support as he turned himself around to face the bartender. "Can I get another gin martini here?" he asked, his nerves starting to kick into full gear. Barney leaned his elbows on the bar and closed his eyes for a moment.

"Barney..." her voice was so full of pity it made him snap. Because he didn't want her pity. He wanted something very different.

"Look, just stop," he said quietly, taking a sip of his fresh drink. It emboldened him a little, and he looked over at her with tired eyes. "I know you came here because you felt sorry that you hurt my feelings. And really, I appreciate that you told Ted the truth. That means a lot. You're a," Barney drew a breath and was still barely able to get out the words, "good friend. And that's awesome. And I'm okay with that." Barney forced a weak smile, his lips clamped together tightly to keep the bile that was rising in his throat from coming out.

He couldn't quite see Robin's expression, but her sharp tone surprised him. "What, that's it? After the whole ultimatum about me answering you or else?"

Barney didn't have the energy to sigh. He remained leaning on his elbows, only his eyes moving to look up at her. "I already got my answer. It should have been clear by now. It is. I won't make you say it. I mean, a guy should probably be able to take a hint. I got an answer a long time ago, I was just too stupid to pay attention. Probably should have known somewhere around 'I'm gonna take a shower until June'." Catching the mortified look on Robin's face, he quickly added, "Don't worry about it. That's how any smart, sane woman would feel. Which is why I don't generally make a habit of going home with people like that. Stupid chicks are way less complicated." He mustered what remained of his energy to stand up and face her. Gesturing with his glass casually, he added, "You've had a shitty year. You deserve a stable, absurdly tanned foreigner like Alistair. Even if he is a mind-reading douchebag." Barney couldn't keep the grumbling edge out of his tone. "So now maybe we can just never talk about this again and save us both a lot of embarrassment."

"Stop it," Robin replied quietly.

"Stop what?" he asked quizzically.

"Feeling like I'm ashamed of you," Robin pleaded, and one look at her let him know she was oddly disturbed by the way he'd been talking.

He wasn't sure why. He was just doing his best to say what neither of them had had the courage to yet. Barney just stared at Robin, confused by her request. "You lost me."

"Dammit, Barney," Robin said, almost literally tearing some hair out as she raked her fingers back over her head. "I can't keep letting you feel like shit just to make things easier on me." When he continued staring back blankly, she started to droop. This talking thing was much harder for her than he'd thought. Frankly, she sucked at it. Finally, she closed her eyes, which must have helped her courage, because then she said, "I was never ashamed of sleeping with you."

"That's not how you acted."

"I know," Robin admitted. "But the things I was embarrassed about were more about me than you." Now it was her turn to look down as though the bar were extremely interesting all of a sudden. "I don't usually make a habit of crying in public. And then to have my most unemotional friend see that." She looked up with a slight smile. "Honestly, it kind of made it worse. Except that you understood. Which felt like it came out of nowhere. I mean, you gotta admit, Barney, you don't exactly advertise yourself as a shoulder to cry on."

"Hey, getting salt water on my suits is a serious issue," Barney replied.

To his delight, that made Robin smile. It seemed to break through some haze around her for a moment. And that, he realized, was exactly what he'd done on That Night, too. Maybe Robin had the same realization, because she quietly studied him for a moment before shaking her head and saying, "See, I don't get you. You confused the hell out of me." She took a breath, looking like she was about to cross some bridge she'd have to burn behind her. Finally, she eyed him seriously and said, "Honestly, I've realized that if some random guy had been there for me like that, had cheered me up and gone home with me like you did... I probably would have wanted to see him again."

Barney wasn't quite sure what to say to that. It sounded like a backhanded compliment. He turned his shoulders to look at Robin directly as he twirled his glass around on the bar. Chewing the inside of his cheek for a moment, Barney tried to temper his response. "So it doesn't matter what I do, how I act. It's just me that's the problem." His tone bordered on angry, but his eyes probably betrayed how much that hurt.

"God, that's not what I meant!" Robin corrected, starting to sound exasperated with herself, or him, or maybe both of them. "There's nothing wrong with you. All the weird stuff about you, even the slightly gross stuff... it doesn't bother me. Not like it does the others. Maybe it should, but it just doesn't." Barney eyed her carefully, and could tell she was telling the truth. Which didn't really surprise him, but still made him feel better. "It's just that you're my friend, and then there's Ted, and the fact that you never previously showed any signs of wanting to be in a relationship."

That phrasing still freaked Barney out a little, and he stuttered, "Whoa, I'm not sure I'd exactly... in so many words..."

"See?" Robin said, raising an eyebrow triumphantly and waving at him emphatically. "This is just part of why I immediately ruled out the possibility. It just wasn't ever going to go anywhere, for so many reasons. So there was no reason to drive myself crazy thinking about it." She shrugged. "So I didn't. And who in their right mind would have guessed you'd wind up being the sensitive thinker here."

Barney had to smile through gritted teeth at that. "Yeah, well, I wasn't too happy about that, either. I swear my brain got knocked around my head too much when that bus hit me. It's like it's been shorting out all year." He leaned forward and banged his head on the bar, surprisingly hard. Okay, that didn't help his growing headache. But the alcohol and destruction of his nerves was destroying his muscle control, apparently.

When Robin spoke, her voice was tentative, like she was speculating on something possible instead of confessing to something. "It happens. To me, I mean." Barney glanced up at her with one eye. "Not in the way it does to you, I guess. But I don't know, Barney. When you've been that... intimate with someone, it's hard not to let it change how you see them. I mean, I've always thought, 'Barney is fun'. But now sometimes also 'Barney is sweet'." He could have sworn she almost smiled at that, but it might have been his imagination. He lifted his head off the wooden surface, craning his neck up. "And, on occasion," Robin waved a hand as if it were nothing, "I'll think 'Barney is sexy.'" Now he was sitting straight up again, and he couldn't help the slightly smug smile that crept onto his face. But it was tentative. Because just as quickly as she could build him up, he knew she could smash him to pieces again once she got to her point. So he waited. "And a lot of times when I've been thinking about the kind of guy I wanted to start dating, I think 'I want a fun, sweet, sexy guy.' But I've never made the connection. It's like I've felt it but never thought it because it wasn't a safe thought. You know?"

The crazy thing was, he did. As little sense as Robin was making, as much rambling as she was doing, he knew exactly the feelings she was describing. Even though she herself probably hadn't had time to process them yet. But he knew. Deep in his gut, he felt a sense of recognition churning. Because the way she was talking, the thought process she was spilling out... that was exactly how he'd argued with himself a year ago. And beyond, if he was being honest. It made Barney's eyes widen in the tiniest bit of hope. But what the hell was Robin going to do with this tangled knot of feelings? Dive in and try to sort it out, or just cut her losses and run? "So," Barney started slowly, guardedly. "What exactly are you saying. I'm sorry if I seem slow, but my alcohol to sleep ratio is kind of high." A good enough excuse, he thought, for being paralyzed and shaken to his core in Robin Scherbatsky's presence.

Robin shifted on her bar stool, opening and closing her mouth several times. She looked suddenly overwhelmed, as though she hadn't expected to have to confront anything head-on. Though if she didn't, what the hell had she come here for? For a moment, Barney was terrified she was going to pull out more vague denials and cryptic comments, and leave him without an answer once again. If she did, he was pretty sure that was it. The end of his tenuous sanity.

Barney was a mess of nerves by the time Robin finally worked up the courage to give her equivalent of a direct response. Throwing her hands up, she practically exclaimed, "I'm saying the answer's yes."

"Yes," Barney repeated, as if it were the strangest sounding word in the English language.

"Yes," Robin replied, clearing her throat. "To... you know. Your question. About the..." she pointed between herself and Barney, then forced herself to look at him, with his dumbfounded expression and all. "You're right that you deserved an answer and I did know what you were getting at. And mostly I hadn't thought about it, but part of me apparently had because it keeps shouting at me that it makes perfect sense, this thing. That I should try. That I do..." she couldn't manage to say anything, and instead just raised her eyebrows at him meaningfully. "So yeah. Yes."

Technically, the room wasn't spinning. Technically it was just a trick of his brain, of shock mixed with drinks and sleep deprivation. But Barney had never felt so damned sure that things actually were moving. He didn't just feel the shift, he saw it. And for a moment, he felt dizzy and lost. His jaw was loose, his lips dry. Everything he'd been so sure of, the answer he'd been waiting to put him out of his misery, none of it had happened. In fact, here was Robin presenting him with the exact opposite option. Barney's heart slowly climbed up hand over hand into his throat, making it hard to talk. Finally, his eyes refocused on Robin and he croaked out, "Are you serious?"

"Of course I'm serious. I wouldn't joke about that," Robin replied, this time able to stare him down evenly. At least one of them had found a footing finally. "I think we should," she waved as if the gesture could complete her words. But Barney's brain was moving through molasses, and she must have seen he needed something more direct to cut through the sludge. "We should go out sometime. Soon."

Barney blinked a few time to process what she'd said. Once it dawned on him, he couldn't help the sloppy grin that crept onto his face. He would normally have preferred a wry smirk, but the boyish joy was irrepressible. "Scherbatsky, are you asking me on a date?"

Robin blushed a little, which she clearly resented because she quickly covered it with a cough and eye roll. "Uh yeah, obviously," she tried to sound confident, nonchalant. It was about as fake as his own efforts. "Thought that was clear after everything I just said."

He almost laughed. "Robin, I don't think 'clear' would describe anything in this conversation except my gin." Barney held up his half-empty sixth tumbler, then frowned. "And even then, it's got like these whispy oily things in it. Hmm..."

"Dude!" Robin exclaimed, loud enough to surprise both of them and make them jump. "Focus."

"Right," Barney said, blinking some more. "I just, uh... I kind of can't believe this."

"Oh please," Robin replied. "Robin Scherbatsky decided she wanted something, and she gets it. End of story."

He grinned. "That I can believe." His expression grew a little more serious, or awed one might say. As he studied Robin's beautiful visage, he could have sworn that all the tightness and edginess in her expression had melted away. Or maybe it was just a projection of his own feelings. Because something inside was uncoiling, loosening its grip on his chest. It was only then that it really hit him. Robin was asking him on a date. After everything he'd done, what he'd said, how she'd reacted, here she was. Saying there was something there. Barney nodded slowly. "So, a date."

"Yep," she replied. "But I get to choose what we do."

He quirked an eyebrow. "Do you get to decide how many times we do it?"

"Barney," she warned, but it didn't sound offended. Not really. And it suddenly dawned on him that what she'd said was true; she really didn't care as much as the others about his tasteless jokes. She never had. Because she was Robin Scherbatsky, and she was awesome.

But there was also something else. A distinct redness creeping up her cheeks towards her ears. Barney couldn't help but smirk. "Why Robin Scherbatsky, I believe you are blushing." Her cheeks got redder; his grin got wider. "You totally are. It's okay. I have this power over a lot of women." He took a satisfied sip of his gin, suddenly filled with giddiness he hadn't felt in a decade.

But Robin's coyness turned on a dime. Her expression went from school girl to seductress in a split second. She slid off her bar stool and stepped closer to him, positioning one leg on either side of his, allowing them to stand with their chests touching. Barney's stomach dropped like a rock, but in the good way for once. A really good way. Robin leaned her face up to within inches of his and said, lowly, "And how many women exactly have this power over you?"

His body's reaction to her proximity was one thing. Everything suddenly turned from hazy to sharp. Whatever rushed through his veins was clearly stronger than alcohol, because he was suddenly stone cold sober. He couldn't breathe, which made the whole thinking thing tough.

But the feeling thing - that underdeveloped part of him, the part only recently woken from hibernation - was going crazy. Sure, he'd felt his pulse rush at a beautiful woman's proximity more times than he could remember. But he could count on two fingers the number of women who had ever made his world come to a halt. As fast as his hormones were racing, everything seemed to be moving very slowly. His life - or at least the last year of it - flashed before his eyes. All the things he loved. The things he loved about her. She was just as bad as a bus, shattering him to his core. Forcing him to heal into something new.

Robin's proximity, her seductive expression, the low growl in her voice... none of it made his pulse race nearly as much as that one word slowed his heart to a stop- yes.

Barney swallowed, his whole body relaxing in a way that seemed completely contrary to everything he thought he knew about hot chicks rubbing against him. His hands reached out gently, almost against his will, and cupped Robin's face. They were steady as a rock. She blinked in surprise, the playfulness giving way to something indescribable passing between them. How many women had this power over him, indeed. "Only you, Robin," Barney said quietly.

It was only a split second. Only a moment of them looking at each other with complete honesty, and of him seeing that she meant it. By God, she actually meant it. That second was enough to last Barney a lifetime.

The second after that, their lips crashed together in a flurry and the world sped up again.