metal heart: HIMYM: (Robin, Barney, ensemble)
Characters: Robin, Barney, ensemble
Fandom: HIMYM
Spoilers: through 4.14
Rating: There's sex, so let's say R
Notes: this was posted on LJ like a month ago, but I forgot to mirror-post it here. On LJ at .com.
summary: she's never heard a love story like this one.

Just keep holding my hand tonight
And that's gonna make everything all right
cause baby, it's the fall that kills me;
Forget the sudden stop.

-"The Fall's What Kills You"
Robin Sparkles
Make It Sparkle (1995)
Canadian Pop Records

Barney Stinson is lot of things. Once his therapist had him write them all down in a list, and it read a little something like: sex god, life coach, golf champion, wingman extraordinaire, sushi expert, expert witness, lazer-tag badass, best friend, Guitar Hero master, and well, the list goes on. On and on and on for at least eight pages, not that he's counted or anything. He thinks the list was probably supposed to teach him something about himself, but it turned out to be so full of awesome stuff that he framed it and hung it in his office instead. Oh, and then he fired his therapist.

Yes, Barney Stinson is a lot of things, but if there's one thing he most definitely isn't, it's a Ted.

Absolutely not a Ted, which is why he's here tonight savoring the view down the front of Erica's (or Megan's?) green dress as he leans in close to whisper in her ear.

He's here at the bar instead of moping in his apartment the way a Ted would in the case of a crippling feelings outbreak; moping in the apartment or hanging around under Robin's window with flowers and a boom box or growing a beard or writing poetry about it or whatever the hell Ted does locked up in his bedroom for hours at a time.

No, he's not a Ted. He's Barney Stinson so he's just gonna power through, just like when he gets a cold and goes to the gym twice as long as he usually does, runs until he sweats it all out and awesomeness is the only thing left in his body.

Erica's sensibly manicured fingernails trail up, catch and rub against the seam of his trousers, and oh yeah, he's definitely going to sweat out those feelings tonight.

at the edge

It's not that Robin has anything against monogamy; the few long-term relationships she's had were nice enough. When she was with Ted she liked not having to date around, and she absolutely liked the guaranteed sex on a regular basis. She liked having someone to go to brunch with; hell, brunch is fucking awesome. Her problem's never been sticking to one guy; she's more than happy limiting her sex life to one person. Less training required in the bedroom, which is always a good thing.

No, Robin's problem is expectations. Expectations stymie her relationships time and again, and they've just torpedoed the nice little thing she had going with Rafe.

"And that's it," Lily says, mouth slanting into a frown as Robin shifts guiltily on the couch. "'Thanks.' Just 'Thanks.' That's all you said."

"How is that a bad thing? I thanked him. I'm polite. I'm polite, and I was at work, Lily. In front of everyone I work with. What the hell else was I supposed to do?"

"Oh, Robin," Lily says, in exactly the way she does every time they have some variation of this conversation, like Robin's missing out on the most simple, obvious thing in the world. It's the same voice she uses whenever Marshall gets stumped on the $100 question during Millionaire reruns or whenever Barney shows up at MacLaren's dressed like Bill Clinton or Captain Morgan or the Devil a day before Halloween.

She's about to ask what Lily would've done in her situation, but then Marshall bangs into the apartment looking for Ted and they're grinning and kissing and telling each other exactly what they had for lunch. And Robin's left alone to watch them, to wonder what part of her got wired wrong or broken or maybe just left out all together that made her this person that doesn't understand and doesn't even want that kind of thing in her life at all.

She sits at their booth, swirling her scotch idly as the familiar conversation washes over her. Ted's in love again and planning like always; this time she's an emergency room nurse they met when Barney accidently set Marshall's hat on fire two weeks ago.

"So I was thinking: movie? Or drinks? We just did dinner two days ago and I don't want her to get bored. You know. Variety: the spice of lovvve."

"I'm falling asleep just listening to you," and she starts at the unexpected nearness of the voice, looks up to see Barney hovering above her as he brushes at the light dusting of snow on the shoulders of his wool coat. His hip bumps her shoulder. "How do you keep girls awake long enough to score? And scoot over, Scherbatsky, Jesus. I called sitting in the booth yesterday; I've been stuck in the bitch chair for four days straight."

"If you think I'm giving you my seat, you're crazy."

"You could sit on my lap." His eyebrow quirks suggestively. "Or I could sit on yours, give you a treat. I've been working on my glutes."

She sighs, and squeezes closer to Ted and his endless Ted-ly deliberating.

Barney plops down, unwinding his scarf. "All right! And I didn't even have to start with the blackmail!" He throws up a leather-gloved hand, barely avoids elbowing her in the head. "Submission five!"

Marshall doesn't return the high five, instead glares imperiously at Barney beneath a chunk of still-scorched hair. "I don't know why you humor him, Robin."

"She likes me better than you, that's why."

"Oh, like it's even possible for someone to like you that much."

"Everybody likes me that much."

"Uh, not when you set them on fire!"

"That was completely your fault. You stepped directly into the flames!"

"Hey!" Lily waves a hand between them. "Not tonight, boys. I spent all morning refereeing when Kevin decided to go eight rounds with a jar of paste; I can't do it for another three hours."

Abashed silence falls and Robin smirks to herself; thank god for Lily. The woman's got the maternal authority figure guilt-trip voice nailed. She uses the lull as an opportunity to grab a handful of pretzels, making sure to jab Barney in the ribs along the way. Hey, he's the one that wanted to make like sardines in the first place. Maybe if she keeps attempting to bruise him, he'll move.

Unsurprisingly Barney doesn't take the hint, just jostles her back as he throws a careless arm across the back of the bench. "So, what were we talking about?"

There's a pause, and then- "Frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity, maybe? Is that too romantic comedy? Or bowling! Hey, we could bowl! "

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Robin says, and her forehead hits tabletop with a satisfying thump.

**

"You're quiet tonight."

It's nearly three A.M. and she's at that warm, soft, buzzy night-time drunk place where everything's a little slower and a little bit shinier. Marshall and Lily left hours ago to 'finish up some things before they turn in', which Robin knows is code for 'doing it all over their new apartment', and Ted's emergency-room girl booty-called him around midnight ("I like this chick already," Barney smirked to her as Ted did his best not to run out the door).

She looks up from her sixth gin and tonic, eyes the blonde in the mini-dress he'd been schmoozing up until a moment ago. "Bored of Baby Spice so soon?" Lame, yes, but it's the best she's got. Tonight sucks.

Barney shrugs, that funny careless tip of his shoulders. "Hit the 'oh' moment.'"

"Another promise ring?"

"Boyfriend in prison," he says, swinging his scotch around a little too wildly to claim sobriety. "For attempted murder. With a pick-axe."

A chuckle bubbles up through her hazy exhaustion; Barney's always at his best around last call. "Smart move, then."

He raises his glass, winks. "I do love being alive," and he's smiling at her across the table and she feels a little lighter when their glasses clink. The last strains of some eighties power ballad fade out from across the bar; the jukebox rattles, goes silent. "Now, why the long face? Spill."

This isn't something she wants to talk about, at least not when he's making her laugh. So she feigns confusion, drags the rings of condensation along the varnished tabletop. "Spill what?"

"C'mon, Scherbatsky." He leans in, smiles, but it's his human-Barney smile, not the Barney-Barney one. Robin and Ted have this whole new 'Theory of Barney' thing, with this amazing Barney exponent graph they drew on a napkin a few weeks back when they were bored and waiting for everyone else to show up to dinner, with multipliers and predictors of Barneyness vs. Normal-Humanness. Ted's still convinced that if they hired a mathematician and got their hands on a supercomputer they could plot him all out, map the peaks and valleys of his Jackass-To-Awesome Ratio (patent pending). Tonight must be a valley kind of night. She frowns, blinks, and he's looking at her expectantly.

"Sorry?"

"Did Tim Horton's stop shipping bulk online orders of Maple Logs across the border or something?"

"Oh, haha, very—wait, how the hell do you know about that?"

Barney pulls an 'oops' face. "Uh, definitely not by going through your mail."

"Oh my god! You're the Maple Log Thief! We thought it was Mrs. Ritter from down the hall!"

His nose scrunches. "The old lady? There's no way she even could've lifted the boxes; those donuts weigh like fifty pounds."

Oops. She should probably try to get that nasty note back then. Or at least apologize. "Well. Mystery solved." She sighs, catches Carl's eye as he very deliberately wipes down the bar. "Closing time; we should head out."

She's halfway up the steps of the building when she realizes Barney's trailing behind her instead of hailing a cab. "Wait, are you coming up?"

The streetlights throw his eyes into shadow as he frowns. "Uh, yeah. We were in the middle of a conversation." There's an uncomfortable pause as his brain catches up and he shifts restlessly, stamps his feet against the cold. "Uh, unless, I mean, I can go home. Sure, if you want to turn in. That's cool. It's late."

If she were smart, she'd tell him to go back to his place. But now that she's thinking about it, hanging with Barney for a few more hours sounds a thousand times better than going to sit around alone in an empty apartment.

He's turning to go, but- "I need a smoke," she says to the back of his head, trying for casual. "Got any cigars stashed in that suit?"His forehead crinkles up with interest as he turns back. "And wow, I really did not mean it like that."

He grins; his fingers wrap around her elbow as he starts tugging her toward the door. "Awesome unintentional innuendo; ten points for Scherbatsky!"

Barney does not, as it turns out, have any cigars hidden in his suit. However, he does know the location of Ted's super secret cigar stash (rolled inside a pair of socks in the bottom drawer of his desk, tucked under a five-year old phone book). Robin breathes in deep as he leans down to light hers, sighs with contentment as the smoke curls its way warmly through her lungs and winds into her nervous system. "I can't believe he had real Cubans hidden in here the whole time we were dating and never offered to share."

"Hah!" Barney's knee digs into her back; there's not enough room on the fire escape for them to sit side by side. "Ted's not as dumb as he looks. Shocking, I know. You would've been into these faster than a Korean businessman at a cowgirl bar." His knee jiggles as he laughs to himself. "You know, because-"

"Oh god, please don't explain that to me. I don't want to know."

"Fine. I don't want to talk about work, anyway."

She scoots forward, leans back more comfortably against his legs. Takes another drag and watches the traffic on the streets below. God, she loves this city. Barney blows smoke rings over her shoulder, up towards the sky and Robin can't help but wish that everything in her life felt this easy. She sucks in a breath. "Rafe dumped me today."

His knee starts to jiggle again, and she twists around to glare. "Excuse me, are you laughing?"

"No," but she thinks he's chuckling under the hand he has clapped over his mouth; she can tell by the way his eyes are crinkling. "Okay, yes. It's just-" and he tries valiantly to straighten his lips into a flat line. "Rafe. Rayyyyyfe. Where do you find these guys?"

She sighs, gets up and ducks back into the apartment. She doesn't know why she even tries with him. "Goodnight, Barney."

"Hey Robin, c'mon." He follows her inside. "Really. I'm sorry, that was un-bro-like. Bro Code Article 35: never kick a bro when she's down."

She sneaks a look; he's not laughing at all. In fact Barney looks genuinely contrite, which is a rare and startling thing. "Sorry," he says again quietly, "and sorry about the guy."

She has to turn away again because she's been telling herself all night that she's not upset, that it wasn't a big deal at all and that she's absolutely and totally fine. But she's drunk and tired and it's late and Barney's the only one around and okay, maybe she tears up a little. Maybe she sniffles into her hand.

His leather shoes creak on the floor and then he's pressed up against her back, arms squeezing awkwardly around her torso. "I'm fine," she says quickly, but he hugs her tighter and she can feel the warmth of his skin bleeding through their clothing. It's just Barney, so she turns around and really hugs him, presses her face against his lapel and just breathes in and out, concentrates on reining herself in. Something in her unfolds, decompresses, and if her lips brush his neck a little it doesn't mean anything.

"How about another scotch," he says into her temple, and she huffs a laugh against his suit.

"You're the best."

"Oh, I know it."

So he pours them a drink and she tells him about today, about the stupid three-week anniversary and the awkward silence in the station cafeteria and all of it, about how she didn't even like Rafe that much and was totally going to break up with him anyway but it just feels like failure, like something else she sucks at.

"Wait." Barney blows another smoke ring; she should tell him to put the cigar out but what the hell, Lily doesn't live here anymore. From now on, she's lifting the ban on indoor smoking. Fuck, cigars are encouraged. "Wait. So this guy dumped you, hot awesome you, because you didn't cream yourself over a teddy bear, which is really only an appropriate gift for five year olds, that he gave to you on a retarded anniversary that doesn't even exist? Is a three-week anniversary even a legitimate thing?"

"Apparently so. Lily said it is."

"Please. Lily and Marshall celebrate if Marshall successfully takes a crap. They don't count."

"Uh, gross." Robin pauses, considers. "But sadly true."

"So you're the problem here how, exactly?"

"Oh, it's just- I suck at couple stuff." Her fingers bend, flex. She wants to break something, just a little bit. "I don't like the stuff that you're supposed to like when you're dating , which I don't get at all by the way. You're having sex with someone, you know? It's not like you're getting a personality transplant. I'm always like 'Dude, I'm not going to suddenly like calling you 'Sweetie Bear.'"

He settles in, shaking his head disapprovingly. "With the number of women you've dated I can't believe you still deny being a lesbian. And yes, before you ask, I'm counting Ted."

Robin sighs. "And that's the other thing. It sucks living with someone who's so into all this stuff. It was one thing when we were dating, but now Ted tries to give me advice. Yesterday he suggested making a scrapbook for Rafe's birthday. A scrapbook! I mean, come on man!"

"Don't knock scrapbooking," he mutters, just loud enough for her to hear. "Look Scherbatsky, you don't suck at couple stuff. Couple stuff is just lame. Antiquing? Lame. Apple-picking? Lame. Craft fairs? Disgusting. Your personal awesomeness doesn't compute with all the couple crap. It doesn't mix. Like oil and water."

He bounces down on the couch next to her. "Rafe was lame. You dodged a bullet there and since he broke up with you, you didn't even have to be the asshole." His arm winds around her back and he grins impishly, the weird earnesty of the moment before dissolving completely. "Hell, you got lucky. I love it when girls dump me: they never call again. It's awesome."

She can't help but chuckle at that as she leans against him. "You always say the right thing, you know?

"Yeah, well. That happens a lot when you're always right. What up?"

She high fives him, just because.

Robin's in their tiny bathroom swirling toothpaste around in her cheeks to get rid of her nasty hangover mouth when she hears the door to the apartment open. She grabs a washcloth, spits, and heads out into the living room.

"Huh," Ted says from the doorway, staring at the couch where Barney's currently passed out wearing nothing but his boxers. "This is new."

"Yeah, he struck out with that girl so we ended up hanging out until really late. I said he could crash here."

"Fine by me," and Ted strides off to his bedroom, whistling merrily. "Amber had an early shift at the ER."

He's always obnoxiously chipper after sex. She's heading for the Advil when he pops back out, speculatively eyeing Barney's suit where's it's lovingly draped over the back of the armchair. "How much do you think he'd yell if we cut a little hole in his jacket?"

Way more likely to cry really, she thinks, since he's such a girl about his clothes, but instead of voicing that disturbing insight she just grimaces. "More than my head can take this morning, honestly. And he was super-nice last night; I'd feel guilty."

"Ah," and Ted nods sagely. "A low 'Jackass-to-Awesome Ratio' evening. We should plot it on the curve." He casts a longing look at the suit. "But… we may never have this opportunity again."

"Well." She considers. "You make an excellent point, sir."

Post-sex Ted also eats like a horse, so he decides that this morning is a pancake morning, even though it's only Saturday. Robin approves, volunteers to make the coffee so she feels like a contributing member of the universe. "Ask Barney if he wants pancakes, too."

Ted wakes him up by slapping his forehead. Mature.

There's a yelp, and a thud. "I'm up, I'm up. Hi, Ted."

"Hey, dude.

"You get to play doctor last night?"

She snorts, and Barney manages to drag himself off the ground, throws her a little wave as he begins his methodical dressing process. "Scherbatsky."

"I'm making pancakes," Ted tells him archly, ignoring the question.

"Pancakes? On a Saturday? So that's a big affirmative. " Barney's hand hangs in the air for a second as Ted sneaks a look back at her. "Oh, like she'd be offended. Robin's more of a dude than you are. Slap it, bro!"

Ted smacks his hand. "Okay, it was awesome. You want any pancakes?"

He snorts, runs a hand over his admittedly cut abs. "Please. Do I look like I eat carbs in the morning?"

"Uh," Robin interjects, "weren't you just saying yesterday that diets were only for people with vaginas?"

"It's not a diet, it's just good nutritional sense," he sniffs. "And a man's gotta do whatever it takes to stay in peak physical condition."

"Whatever. You want coffee?"

"This apartment is like eight thousand times more awesome with the marrieds gone. It's like the ultimate bachelor pad. I mean, not as nice as mine, but it's on its way. You just need a bigger TV."

Ted looks up from shoveling pancakes into his face just long enough to roll his eyes. "I know it generally escapes your notice because you're not sleeping with her, but Robin actually is a woman."

Robin stirs milk into her coffee, enjoying the swirly cloudiness. "I'm not the one with seven issues of Modern Bride hidden under my bed."

Barney's face lights up.

"They're Lily's," Ted says, too quickly, but the damage is already done; Barney's filed the little tidbit
away for an opportune moment of humiliation.

She laughs, and it's kind of nice sitting here, just the three of them. Sometimes it gets awkward, just her and Ted, especially now that they've stopped hooking up, but she likes this, with Barney on his fourth cup of coffee as he tears through the business section and Ted demolishing his syrupy short stack as he sends what she guesses are disgustingly sappy texts. She liked living alone but this feels warmer than she expected. Neater. Maybe she could get used to having roommates.

"You know, Lazer Tag is unlimited games for five bucks until two on Saturdays," Barney says hopefully.

Hell, what else is she going to do today? "I'm in."

Ted shrugs. "Why not? Hey, does it smell like cigars in here?"

"I lifted the indoor smoking ban."

He shrugs again. "That's cool."

"YES. So much more awesome without the marrieds!" Barney rockets out of his seat, jittery with glee. "Lazer Tag, bitches! I call Scherbatsky on my team first." He blinks, looks around. "Have you seen my tie?"

It makes Ted snorts mid-sip; coffee dribbles all down the front of his shirt.

"The location of your tie will be disclosed," Robin intones with the straightest face she can manage, "if you can answer me these riddles three."

"Oh, fuck you guys."

"Riddle the first: what do you call a virgin on a waterbed?"

He starts tearing into the couch cushions, flinging one half-heartedly in Robin's direction. They laugh, and that's how their vaguely uncomfortable roommate duo unofficially becomes a way more awesome trio.

Later that night, Robin's sitting with Lily at the bar and knocking a few back when a familiar-looking girl slides up next to her. "Hey, you were here with that blond guy last night, right? Barney?"

Robin blinks, and it takes a minute to place her. Blonde that's dating the pick-axe-wielding felon. "Uh, yeah, that was me."

"Can you give this to him? He left before I got a chance." The girl passes her a card with her phone number scrawled on the bottom. "I'm Amy."

She turns the card over, frowns. "Don't you have a boyfriend?"

"No. Why?"

"Uh, nothing. I'll give this to him."

Amy thanks her and follows a group of girls out the door. Robin stares after them, puzzled, and then looks back down at the card, at Amy's spidery handwriting winding along the edge.

"What was that about?" Lily asks over the rim of her martini with extra olives.

"No idea," she says. Weird.

She means to ask him about it, but when Barney shows up he's got this whole new wingman scheme where she's going to pretend to be his younger sister ("Much younger, you can totally pass for twenty. Eighteen, even.") and is going to sell his target this convoluted sob story about how their parents died in a car crash when she was twelve and how Barney wouldn't let Social Services take her away so he worked night jobs while he was in college to support them, and raised her and put her through school all by himself.

"I'm pretty sure I saw that movie on Lifetime two weeks ago," Ted says.

Robin grins. "You watch Lifetime? Lifetime: Television for Women?"

His face contorts as he tries to walk it back. "No. I mean, what? Besides, no one is ever going to believe you two are related; you look nothing alike."

"I'll bet you a hundred dollars they will with Scherbatsky in on the play," Barney says confidently as he reappears to slide Robin her beer. "You could never pull it off, but she will."

"Make it twenty-five."

"Done."

And because Robin's got true dramatic chops, they do believe it. Barney goes home twenty-five dollars richer with a perky blonde on his arm, Robin forgets about the blonde and the phone number, Ted continues to deny that he watches Lifetime, and all is right with the world.

**

Two months later Robin's kicking Barney's ass at Wii Bowling when Ted drags himself into the apartment and collapses onto the couch.

"Uh oh," Barney says, and puts down his controller. "I think our good friend Ted needs some cheering up."

"Don't use Ted as an excuse; you just don't want to lose any harder than you already are."

"My life is over," Ted moans from under a beaded throw pillow left over from the Lily-era and Robin sighs and sits down next to him, because a friend in need trumps beating Marshall's high score. But she was so close this time. "Amber dumped me."

"Yes," Barney says triumphantly. "Finally!"

Robin gathers all of her strength, punches Barney in the arm."Sorry to hear that, Ted." She pats his leg as reassuringly as she can manage. "And don't listen to Barney; he's a jackass who sucks at video games."

"Whatever," and Ted presses the pillow harder against his face. "I just want to get drunk."

"TO THE BAR!" Barney crows.

Robin calls Lily, who sounds suspiciously winded when she picks up the phone.

"Put some clothes on and get over here. Ted's gonna get drunk."

"Twenty minutes," Lily says into the phone. "Marshall, put your pants on."

"I can't believe I put clothes on for this," Marshall says with a frown. "Drunk Ted is fun, but Sad Ted is just… sad."

Ted's got his head buried in his hands. "My heart is broken, Marshall. It's shattered."

"You're gonna be okay, buddy, I promise. You just need time."

"Please," Barney scoffs as he slides up to the booth, balancing a tray. "You don't need time. You need to get laid." He slams three shots down, sploshing a little tequila onto Ted's elbow. "Drink up." He slides two more down the table. "You too, Robin. Tonight you and I are taking one for the team."

"What the hell are you talking about?" She dutifully knocks back the shot anyway, and it burns nicely on the way down.

"I'm talking about the trifecta. All three of us are single, and we're gonna go three for three. One night, simultaneous hook-ups. It's gonna happen."

"Hey, what about me and Lily?" Marshall says. "We can make it five for five."

"Oh, you don't count. There's no challenge in nailing your wife." An unholy gleam lights in his eyes. "Though if you guys were willing to relax the wedding vows for a night-"

"I'm gonna stop you right there, tiger." Lily's eyes fix on something over Robin's shoulder, widen. "And wow, I think Ted's on board already."

They all look to the empty spot on the bench, and then towards the bar, where Ted's got his tongue shoved halfway down some girl's throat. Barney throws his arms up victoriously, turns sharply back to her with a pleading expression. "It all hinges on you, Scherbatsky."

She looks at Ted, his hands clutching at the girl's hair. Something twists a little in her stomach. She tosses back the second shot, slides out of her seat to stand next to him. "Let's do it."

"THREE. FOR. THREE."

"Okay, we're going home," Lily says.

She and Barney run the 'local news celebrity and network executive' tag-team play. It works a lot better now that she works for a station people have actually heard of; within the hour Barney's reeling in a girl from the secretarial pool of a law firm and Robin's got a hot surgical intern on the line. Ted's doing just fine on his own, and amazingly enough they manage to move their six-person party upstairs without any mishaps.

"I call the bathroom," he hisses to her under his breath as they grab beers for everyone out of the refrigerator.

"Gross, it's all yours."

He nods seriously, points to his face. "Three for three, Scherbatsky. Do it for Ted."

A door slams, and when they look around Ted and the nameless make-out chick have already disappeared into his bedroom.

"Impressive," Surgical Intern Mike says as he pops the top of his beer, passes the opener to Jessica the Administrative Assistant.

"Very," Robin smiles smoothly as she sits down on the couch next to him. Crosses her legs, flips her hair, and leans in for the kill.

An hour and a half later, the trifecta's looking like a sure thing. Barney's disappeared with his girl into the bathroom, and Future-Surgeon Mike is totally, totally giving her the green light. Her body's rejoicing because she hasn't slept with anybody since Rafe and it's been too fucking long. Good hook-ups are hard to come by in this city and with the new job she hasn't had the energy for the all the small-talk and the bullshit that dating requires.

She's leaning in closer but then- "I know this is gonna sound like a line," Mike says, "but it's been bugging me all night. You looks so familiar to me, but I can't place you."

Her stomach starts knotting up. "Mike, where are you from?"

He frowns a little. "Toronto. Why?" She feels her face contort and he brightens up. "Oh, you're Canadian? Are you from-" and then she sees the light click on like she's seen it click on for hundreds of other people. Hell, that light clicking on is one of the major reasons she had to get the hell out of Canada in the first place. "You're the mall girl! Hey, did you know somebody put your video up on MySpace a little while back? Everyone's been playing it at parties like, constantly."

"Okay," Robin says. "I think we're done here."

She's sitting on the couch stewing when a screech followed by what sounds definitively like a slap echoes through the apartment. Administrative Assistant Jessica bangs out of the bathroom, hurriedly pulling her shirt back on. "Oh my God!"

The door slams behind her.

"Ouch," Robin says.

"A slight miscalculation." Barney's standing in the hall, shirt hanging open. She forces herself not to notice his abs. "Let's not talk about it. Where's Surgeon Brad?"

"Surgeon Mike. And… I sent him home."

"What? Why? The trifecta, Robin, come on!"

"Pretty sure you blew that one on your own, dude," and Robin looks meaningfully at the door. "And I couldn't. He recognized me and it was too weird. I panicked."

"What do you mean he- oh. Oh ho ho! No way!"

"Way."

"Okay, call me on my phone."

"What?"

"Don't ask questions Scherbatsky, call me right now!"

She dials, and a digitized version of Let's Go To The Mall chirps out of his shirt pocket. He grins at her, starts humming along. "I programmed the notes in myself."

"Oh, go to hell, Barney."

She rolls over, tugs her comforter farther up around her shoulders and prays for sleep. She's been staring at the ceiling for over an hour because she's so amped up; the Jagerbombs at the bar mixed with the anticipation of sex really didn't do her any favors.

Add that to the fact that the promise of a commitment-free hook-up is sleeping outside on the couch, and well, Robin's probably never going to get to sleep ever.

She's only made a few unfixable mistakes in her life, and that night with Barney was one of them. Not that she really regrets sleeping with him; the sex was fantastic. And even though everything with Ted imploded, stuff with Barney stayed perfectly fine because he understands how to separate the physical from the emotional, like rational people do. Barney was actually sort of sweet about the whole thing.

No, Robin's mistake was all in the timing. Specifically the 'kissing him with a Robin Sparkles song playing in the background' part. Because Robin is amazing at compartmentalizing, the best, but those songs are written in her bones and now every time she gets one stuck in her head (which, after singing them eight thousand times happens pretty fucking often) the sense memories of that night start seeping through her barriers. It gets a lot harder to look at Barney and just see her jackass friend without remembering the feel of her tongue running along his teeth, of his fingers digging into her hipbones.

It keeps replaying in her head, climbing onto his lap as his lips explored her neck and wow, her heart is going. What would it hurt, really? It's not like he's her ex. They've done it before, and she's a hundred percent sure he won't turn her down. And Ted's not gonna de-friend anyone over her again.

She throws off the covers, makes her decision. But just then the door creaks open and Barney pokes his head in. "Hey, can we share? The couch sucks."

She feels her face flush. "Uh. Sure."

The bed dips as he climbs in next to her with as respectable a distance as he can manage in a double bed and she pulls the comforter back up over the two of them, feeling a little stupid.

"Thanks."

"No problem," she says and she can hear him breathing in and out, can feel the warmth of his body under the sheets. This is silly; she's not a teenager anymore. She's a grown-up, a self-possessed woman who can want whatever she wants. There's no shame in it. "You still up for the trifecta?"

His face whips around. "What?"

"Three for three." She reaches out, runs her hand lightly over his stomach and okay, maybe this is cheating a little bit. Her nerves are jumping; she decides to blame it all on the Red Bull.

Barney's breath whistles through his teeth. "This wasn't a move, I swear. The couch really does suck."

She lets her fingers wander into the waistband of his boxers. "Just a physical thing. One time only, and it actually stays between us this–" and her words get lost when his lips mash into hers.

"I'm very discreet," he grins, and she laughs, rolls on top of him and grinds down. His hips buck up into her as a low moan echoes in his throat; he's already hard. "Oh Jesus. Okay, the couch thing was totally a move."

"I know," and she wraps fingers in the hem of her tank top, pulls it over her head. "Congratulations, it worked."

He's got that look that she recognizes from all the times he's dragged her and Ted to the Lusty Leopard, that 'hooray breasts' face that means his brain's gonna need about 5-7 seconds to reboot. "Awesome," he breathes, and Robin chuckles because he's totally reading her mind.

Something clicks into place like clockwork, like the fine metal teeth of a gear, and starts slowly winding away.

check your balance

She was right; everything is fine the next day. She wakes up eminently satisfied; he kisses her shoulder once, twice, before he rolls out of bed and then he's out the door before Ted even stirs. And then it's like nothing happened at all when they see each other at MacLaren's that night; Barney is amazing that way when he wants to be.

Ted gets incrementally less and less sad and after a few weeks he's nearly back to his normal, hopeful self. Robin dates three different guys named Ron, and Barney keeps on being Barney. He still hasn't managed to pick up a lesbian; Marshall suggests trying a wig. Robin loans him her mascara.

"I'm back in the saddle," Ted declares one afternoon, and they both look up from their game of Dueling Solitaire (Barney's winning but only because he's cheating slightly more than she is.)

"Yes, you shaved!" Barney throws down the cards. "Suit up, Ted!"

"Nope."

"Well, fine, you don't need a suit where we're going anyway. You too, Robin. This one is gonna be legendary!"

They stare at Barney as he settles back into the seat of the cab. "Ellis Island," Ted says. "Your legendary destination is Ellis Island."

Robin smirks. "Are we going to pick up twelve year-olds on field trips? Because I'm pretty sure that'll get us arrested. And while it would make a great story, I didn't dress for prison this morning."

"Have you two learned nothing from me?" Barney huffs a little. "Come on, Ted! What kind of people are into genealogy?"

"Uh, little old grandmothers and cat ladies?"

"Beep, WRONG." He turns. "Scherbatsky, make me proud."

She sighs heavily. "Girls with daddy issues?"

Barney claps, delighted. "Girls with daddy issues! Picture it, friends. Hundreds of lonely young women, searching out their family histories to fill the gaping emotional voids left over from their unsatisfying childhoods. It's almost too easy."

Robin pulls out a cigarette, lights up and ignores Ted's frown. "That's all great for you two but I'm coming along why, exactly?"

He grins smarmily at her. "Uh, two words: Security guards. Strapping young men festering with anger and disappointment because they failed their police exam for the third time in a row, all of them with a license to carry."

Something in her tightens up; he really knows her way too well. "Yeah, okay."

Ellis Island does indeed turn out to be legendary, but not because they get any action. She's leaning on the turnstile as she gets to know Phil the Security Guard a little better when Barney appears out of nowhere and grabs her arm, tugging her behind him as he starts to jog.

"Time to motor, Scherbatsky." Ted's pounding along the pavement behind them. "Go, go, go!"

"What the hell, guys?" She starts running though; she knows from experience that if Barney's running from something it's really not a good idea to stick around to find out what.

"Barney accidently groped the Mayor's wife during a memorial dedication ceremony. There were camera crews."

"I tripped," he grits out as they sprint into the exhibition hall, hang a left. Her lungs are screaming already. Barney leaps the ropes, dives through the door labeled 'Employees Only' and they skid after him. But it's a dead end and she can hear the footfalls of their pursuers echoing in the corridors.

"Shit," she mutters. Barney looks like he might cry.

"Robin," a voice hisses and they all jump, clutch at each others' arms. A flashlight beam swings across the tiled floor and oh thank god, it's just Phil. He tucks the flashlight back into his belt, straightens his badge. "There's an exit back here."

Phil lets them out the padlocked service door. "Bless you, Security Guard Phil," Barney says, voice suspiciously high. "You're a good man."

Barney and Ted speed off towards the ferry; she presses a hot, impulsive kiss to Phil's lips. "Call me sometime."

They all slide into a cab and Ted lets out a shaky sigh. "Oh my God."

Her heart is pounding in her ears. "I know. That was so badass."

Barney nods; he's practically vibrating with adrenaline. "Yeah, it was. We just outran the cops, and Robin is finally over her 'Ron' phase. Let's go do something awesome!" He bounces a little in his seat. "Lazer tag, what up?"

"Lazer tag, hell yes! And it wasn't a 'Ron phase.' It was just coincidence."

"It was a phase. Man up and admit it."

"Guys!" Ted's staring at them incredulously. "We almost got arrested. Can I please just go home?"

"Lame," Robin says, but they drop Ted off anyway. They're halfway to the place and Barney can't shut up about how awesome today was and she's so pumped but then somehow her hand gets wrapped in his tie and she's kissing him for all that she's worth.

He blinks at her for a confused moment, then tangles fingers in her hair as he presses his lips to hers again eagerly, starts trying to tug her into his lap.

"81st and 1st ," she manages to grind out over his shoulder, and the cabbie rolls his eyes.

It's fast and fun and rough, and he keeps cracking her up with increasingly lewd suggestions about what she should do on her date with Phil the Security Guard. Or at least she'll start to crack up, but then his fingers pinch her nipple or stroke along the crack of her ass and everything will suddenly seem a lot less funny.

She bites his fingers when he comes, runs her tongue over the red indentations. "That was a lot better than Lazer Tag."

"Mmmmmph," he agrees from where he collapsed into the pillow.

"We should do this more often. Occasionally."

He rolls over, opens an eye. "But what will Phil think?"

She smacks him a little, and he lunges up to wrestle her back down into the sheets and then it's much, much later when she finally strokes the nape of his neck and says "But really. I haven't had a serious boyfriend since Ted; there's no reason for us not to have fun every once in a while. It's clearly not going to damage our friendship."

His forehead crinkles seriously, lips twitch like he's about to say something, but then he shakes his head. Smiles at her. "You know I'm always game for the horizontal mambo, Scherbatsky."

"I prefer the vertical, myself," and that one earns her a high five, just before he hauls her off to the shower to make good on his promise.

Barney's refrigerator is empty except for three six-packs of Red Bull. Robin isn't picky in the mornings; she just needs some caffeine to get her back across town. Barney's still shirtless, tapping away on his laptop. "What're you doing today?"

She shrugs. "Gym, maybe. I want a nap at some point."

He nods. "Yeah, I'm pretty much-" he trails off, staring at the screen. "Uh, whoops."

"What?" but he doesn't answer, just keeps staring wide-eyed at the computer. She circles around to lean over his shoulder.

"I forgot to turn off the cameras yesterday," he finally mutters hoarsely, and Robin's stomach heaves a little when she sees the video feed, sees what is very recognizably Barney's bed. Sees what is very recognizably her own naked ass.

"Barney! You have cameras in your bedroom? That's disgust-" but then she trails off as video-Robin flips her hair back as she grinds enthusiastically on top of video-Barney. "Wow. I am really,really hot."

Barney's throaty chuckle borders on obscene. "Yeah you are."

She's fascinated, she's can't help herself, and she sucks in a breath as video-Barney rolls her over. His back muscles clench appealing and Robin lets out a low whistle. "Forget porn stars. Man, you've got the ass of a twenty year-old."

"Oh, I know it."

"You've got to delete this."

"Yeah."

She watches her own face, tight with pleasure as Barney's head dips toward her breasts, and feels the flush edging up her chest. "But maybe we should watch it a few times first." An idea strikes. "Hey, can you hook this up to your giant bedroom TV?"

He doesn't answer, and she finally stops watching to look at him. Barney's staring at her with the awed expression he usually reserves for the Prada Fall Men's Collection.

"What?"

"How do you even exist?" he breathes out. She rolls her eyes, pulls her shirt off again.

And that's how Robin ends up coming so hard her legs shake as she watches Barney get her video-self off with his fingers on the big screen. Her right knee almost gives; she presses her palms harder against the dresser to support her own weight. Actual-Barney pulls his own hand back from between her legs and he's still hard inside her, stroking in and out as he savors the end of her orgasm. She admires his stamina, but she's really gonna need to sit down in a minute.

Robin shifts, presses back against him and squeezes. He jerks, thrusts start to stutter. She grins. "You know, maybe we shouldn't delete all of this. Maybe you should save a few clips." His fingers convulse on her hips, stomach flutters against her lower back. "Just bits where you can't see my face."

A tiny moan escapes; his movements speed up and she reaches behind herself to stroke his balls. Too easy. "You could save them on your phone. Watch them every now and then at work."

"Oh, fuck" he chokes out and then he's gone, muscles clenching until she hears him exhale long and hard. She can feel the stubble on his cheek between her shoulder blades.

"I was kidding about the video," she says finally, as his breathing starts to even. "You have to delete all of it."

"I know," he sighs happily, and his lips slide over her sweat-slicked spine. "So worth it."

**

It keeps happening, once or twice a month when they end up bored and alone, or when they both strike out at MacLaren's, or when Barney gets really ramped up at Lazer Tag.

But nothing really changes. They all hang out at their normal bar; Robin goes on dates but never seems to make it past the three-week mark, Barney scams girls, Ted tries to fall in love, and Marshall and Lily watch it all with a relieved and distant kind of amusement.

Sometimes she thinks that maybe she should tell Ted or Lily or Marshall about her and Barney, but if it doesn't mean anything then there's no real reason to talk to them about it. It's not like she tells them every time she and Barney hang out at the cigar bar or grab dinner or play video games, and when you cut emotions out of the equation there's really no difference between any of those things and handcuffing him to his headboard for an afternoon and seeing where it takes them. She knows they wouldn't understand; Marshall would probably slut-cough.

Summer passes; the days get longer and then they get shorter again. Wake Up New York stays absurd, but at least it's a job with potential. Maria Mendez hosts the 7 a.m. talk show but rumor has it that she's gonna get the spot as the 5 p.m. anchor this year. Maria Mendez used to have Robin's job, so at least Robin's got a shot at a career in actual news someday, even if it's just a local station affiliate. She keeps an ear out for jobs on the national networks, but it's not like Anderson Cooper's gonna up and quit anytime soon.

"Forget the news," Barney says, closing his eyes blissfully as he takes a drag off his cigar, passes it to her. "You know you're not ethnic enough for the networks."

"Wow," and she slides down farther into the sheets. His head tips a little to rest against hers. "Thanks for the pep talk, Debbie Downer. What happened to 'anything and everything is possimpible?"

"I'm serious. You want to do national broadcast, you should think about sports. I'm talking ESPN. Hot girl with a nice rack who can wax poetic about the Knicks defense? They'd eat it up." He smirks into her hair. "Think of all the hockey players you'd get to interview while they're half-naked in the locker room. " His hand lifts to an imaginary earpiece."'Back to you, Phil. This is Robin Scherbatsky, getting off.' What. Up."

She passes the cigar back to him. "No one takes sports reporting seriously."

He blows a smoke ring down her body, then another, wispy clouds of gray skimming against her skin. "You know who used to be a sports reporter? Keith Olbermann." His forehead presses against her neck a little, and she frowns.

"Barney Stinson, did you just cuddle me?"

He snorts. "Uh, no. Cuddling implies a lack of sexual intent."

"Oh?"

"And there is plenty of sexual intent." He stretches. "I'm just too exhausted to act on it right now. Therefore: not cuddling."

Ted starts dating a grad student named Monisha that he met on the R train; she's nice enough. The first time he brings her to MacLaren's she tips Lily and Robin off to a great shoe sale in Brooklyn, which is big points in her favor.

But then Ted starts falling into his obnoxious Ted-in-a-couple phase again, and every morning over breakfast Robin has to listen to all the funny things Monisha told him last night when all she really wants to do is read the Times in peace. By Sunday she's had enough, and when Ted asks her to help dissect a comment Monisha made after the movie on Friday, she calls Lily. But Lily and Marshall aren't answering their phone and she knows what that means, so she calls Barney.

What up Scherbatsky? She hears a girl in the background ask where the extra towels are, and feels a tiny moment of sympathy.

"Rescue me, please."

Ah. Couple fatigue. I hear ya.

So he meets her at the cigar bar and they buy a bottle of Johnny Walker to share, even though it's just barely afternoon.

"How did you survive it the last time?" she mutters. Barney laughs.

"I found better friends."

She blinks, wondering for a split second if Barney actually might have another gang stashed somewhere else in the city; she could almost believe it. But then she remembers how devastated he'd been when Ted defriended him, and pushes the thought away.

"It's just hard to watch when you're single, you know?"

Barney stares at her over the edge of the cut-glass tumbler.

"What?"

"You're still a little bit in love with him, aren't you?" He sounds deflated, not like the Barney she knows and loves, and she realizes that he must be worried she and Ted are going to relapse and leave him out in the cold again.

"What? No," and it's mostly true. Well, not entirely true. "Okay, maybe I still have some tiny lingering feelings but that's normal. We dated for a year and we're friends. It's not like I ever want to get back together." Barney doesn't say anything so she just keeps rattling on. "I mean, it's natural for platonic friend-love to bleed into sexual stuff now and then. Like I've never noticed Lily's body. Please. And then there's this thing with you and me- - clearly friends can be attracted to each other without it becoming a big deal."

"Got it," he says a little tightly.

She eyes him challengingly. "Besides, I'm not the only one here with a little bit of a thing for Ted."

He just raises an eyebrow at her, swivels on his chair to survey the bar. "Whatever you say. Now. Pick a dude, any dude you want. We're going to play a little game I like to call 'Havve you met Robin's breasts?' You're gonna want to undo a couple of buttons for this one."

**

She lets the Ted thing slide because she's a good friend but the next time they end up naked together, offering up a tribute to Barney's very favorite number, she decides to push it a little. She stops sucking and squeezes the base of his cock tightly, lets her breath play over his skin. "Have you ever thought about kissing Ted?"

Barney jerks; his tongue stops moving. "What?"

She slides over him, turns around so she can trail kisses up his neck as she slides her palm up and down along his skin, varying the pressure. "Ever thought about what he tastes like?" she purrs into his ear and Barney shivers against her as she speeds up her motions. His hips rock along with her hand. "Ever been alone with him, late at night, and wondered just for a second what would happen if you reached down and undid his belt?"

"Oh god," he grits out and then he's coming into her hand. She smirks, wipes off on his sheets.

"I rest my case," she says as he sucks in air. "My thing for Ted is totally normal."

"Whatever," Barney says, runs a hand over his face. But he's grinning evilly when he looks up again and before she even realizes what's happening he's got her flat on her back as he slides down the bed, pulling her legs up over his shoulders. "What I'd really like to explore is this whole Lily fantasy you've got going on. Now that is hot."

stumble

The guy Barney introduced her to at the cigar bar actually turns out to be kind of great; his name is Aaron and he's a lawyer that works for the Mets. He gets Marshall and Lily free box tickets to a couple games when she tells him that Marshall's a fan.

"Hot and thoughtful," Lily grins.

"You have to marry this guy," Marshall tells her while Aaron's in the bathroom. "He's amazing. Best guy you've ever dated." Ted coughs. "Sorry, buddy. But seriously, best guy ever."

"Please," Barney says. "You want box tickets? I could've gotten you box tickets."

"Yeah," and Marshall raises an eyebrow at him. "But you didn't, did you?"

And then Aaron comes back and tells them a great story about his younger sister and the crocodiles at the Bronx Zoo and they all laugh, and this is the dream, the great guy that all your friends love. Robin thinks she should probably be a little more excited than about him than she is.

An hour later she excuses herself and goes outside because she needs a smoke; Barney's standing on the curb with a cigar.

"Hey," she says, and he turns. It's windy tonight; her hair whips around her face and tickles her eyes. "I thought you left with that girl. Got another one of those?"

He wordlessly produces one from the depths of his jacket, lights it when she gets it unwrapped. "So. Are you and this Aaron guy serious? He's kind of a tool."

Robin shrugs. "Could be. We're not quite at that point yet, you know?"

They stand under the streetlamp in companionable silence. "It occurs to me," Barney starts after a long moment, "that you and I have had sex twenty-three times. You're tied with the previous record holder."

She raises an amused eyebrow. "You're thirty-four, and you've only ever managed to have sex with the same woman twenty-three times?"

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

"What's your point?"

"My point," and she watches his shadow as he sways back and forth, "is that this might be our last chance to break the record. If you guys are getting serious, that is."

His face is smooth, blank, and the shadows do strange things to his cheekbones. This is one of those moments where it's infinitely clear to Robin that there are a lot of things about Barney she doesn't understand. "You're so competitive," she says finally, raises the cigar to her lips again.

He just smirks and for a second there's something under the expression, some quick flash of human-Barney before it gets pushed away again.

Lily is right: she needs therapy. Her drive to win must be out of control, because she totally, totally wants to be the woman who's fucked Barney Stinson the most. "How about the alley?'

**

There's a weird moment at the end of it; she's pulling her dress back down and his hands come up to her cheeks, framing her face.

She blinks. "Are you okay?"

He kisses her, really kisses her with his eyes closed, like he's never kissed her before except for that one night on the couch and her heart does a weird kind of ker-thump with the surprise. She kisses him back a little but mostly she's just confused because usually he saves this kind of stuff for that special breed of commitment-hungry girl, usually follows it up with an "I love you… oops, is it too soon to say it?" (The two of them secretly refer to that move as 'the Ted').

He jerks backwards a little, straightens his tie. Looks at her face and grimaces. "Uh, sorry. Got a little carried away."

She shrugs. "No big."

"Hey!" he grins, and it doesn't quite reach his eyes. Something sways inside her, tipping uncomfortably off-balance. "Twenty-four! Sex-record five!"

She slaps his hand, and the sound echoes hollowly against the concrete.

"I should go back inside," she says, and starts walking; her heels click on the pavement. He doesn't follow her.

Lily frowns when Robin sits back down. "What happened to you?"

"It's really windy out there."

Lily nods understandingly and jumps back into her conversation with Marshall and Aaron, but Ted keeps looking at her, eyes crinkling at the corners. It's his deducting look, and she knows that isn't a good thing.

She and Aaron do get serious; in fact, they make it all the way to Thanksgiving. At first it's great; he's charming and polite and he always has something funny to say. He's great in bed. But after a month he starts getting a little more intense; wants to call her every night, starts making plans with her for Friday and Saturday and Sunday and even during the week and it's starting to chafe.

After two months she's running out of things to say to him, and he never laughs at the right time when she makes a joke. At three months he starts asking what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Where does she see herself in five years? The expression on his face when she shrugs and says "Cairo?" makes her pretty sure it was the wrong answer.

"Oh, I know that look," Barney says cheerfully over her shoulder as she pours herself another glass of wine. "You're just trying to think up an excuse to get yourself out."

They've just finished putting away the turkey; Lily's hostessing around in the living room, trying to find chairs for everyone, and it's just her and Barney in the kitchen. She sighs, because he's not wrong. "You have any suggestions?"

"How about 'it's not you, it's me.'" She rolls her eyes. "I'm serious. It's time to face it: you're single at heart. It doesn't have anything to do with Bill."

"Aaron," she corrects half-heartedly, but the comment stings because maybe it's a little bit true. She tries to cover, sips her wine and shakes her head. "You guys all talk like I'm some kind of ice queen. Aaron's just not the guy." Her teeth scrape her bottom lip a little; it really does hurt whenever Marshall or Ted makes some offhand comment about 'Robin the Robot' or 'Robin, the girl who couldn't cry'. "I'm not incapable of love, you know."

"I would never think that," he says, so seriously that it makes her look up from the depths of her glass, but before she can say anything Lily whirls back into the kitchen and loads them down with mugs and pots of coffee and pumpkin pie, and ushers them back out to the living room.

**

On December 1st she covers Aaron's hand with her own and tells him "It's not you, it's me," and the next night Barney makes them all go out to celebrate Robin's "newfound freedom." Well, he tries; Marshall and Lily are on their way home by eight and somehow she, Ted and Barney end up at the Lusty Leopard for after-dinner drinks.

"I'm going to buy you a lap dance," Barney tells her gleefully. "And I'm going to tape it."

"God, please don't."

"You can't come to a strip club and spend all night hitting on the bouncer. It's just not done. Lap dance!"

"Could you not say 'lap dance' so loudly while I'm on the phone with my girlfriend?" Ted shoots him a pleading look, which is a bad idea because Barney just snatches the phone away and shouts "Monisha, I'm buying Ted a lap dance!" into the receiver. Ted tries to wrestle the phone back, but not before Barney manages to tell Monisha that if she comes out to meet them, he'll buy her one, too.

"You're such a jerk," Ted mumbles. "if she dumps me, I'm blaming you."

Robin laughs because really, she missed this so much. "It's good to be back, boys." Barney beams at her when they clink glasses; Ted just rolls his eyes.

The holidays creep up on her; it's like one day she looks up and suddenly New York is covered in tiny, twinkly lights. One Saturday afternoon Ted and Marshall each get stuck at work, effectively removing their little group's collective sense of shame, and Barney convinces her and Lily to get smashed in the middle of the day. The three of them end up at the Macy's in midtown, get their picture taken sitting on Santa's lap. Robin can't stop giggling, and when Barney dares her to kiss Santa on the lips she totally goes for it.

One of the nicer elves hands them their photos as they're waiting and whispers "You guys probably want to get out of here; I'm pretty sure my boss just called Security."

They take his advice.

"You can totally see up Robin's skirt in this one," Barney says once they coax him onto the subway. Lily grabs for the photo but he quickly tucks it back into his jacket. "Oh, I don't think so. It's going on my wall. I think I'll have it framed."

Robin snorts. "Like you've never seen my underwear before."

Lily stares at her. "What?"

"I mean, what? Gross!" and wow, her voice just went really high. She grasps for a topic. "So, Christmas plans. What's the what?"

Lily claps hands over her mouth, shakes her head vehemently. "You can't ask me that yet," and the sound is muffled through her fingers. "I promised Marshall I'd wait until tonight."

They just look at her expectantly because there's no chance she won't break, and true to form Lily slumps within thirty seconds. "We have to go to Minnesota. Oh, Marshall's gonna kill me. He wanted to tell you guys himself."

Barney's frowning, and Robin reaches out for Lily's hand. "Is it because his sister-in-law had the baby?"

She nods. "His mom pitched a fit when we said we were going to stay. A polite fit, but still. We'll be back for New Year's, though. Thank God, I don't think I could handle a full week of St. Cloud."

Christmas totally sucks without Marshall and Lily. Ted spends Christmas Eve with Monisha, Barney goes to visit his mom, and Robin winds up at an office party where she spends the entire night fending off the losers from PR while drinking weak-ass eggnog and eating stale Chex Mix. Usually she's perfectly happy to be on her own, but it's freaking Christmas and she hasn't felt this lonely since she first moved to New York.

Ted doesn't show up at the apartment the next morning and he isn't answering his phone, so she finally goes out walking and somehow ends up across town. In Barney's hallway, in front of his apartment.

She knocks, hears a flurry of movement. He opens the door, and she's never been so relieved to see someone in her entire life.

"Hey!" His face lights up. "Merry Christmas! I was just about to call you." He holds up his phone and sure enough, the scroll bar is hovering over 'Robin.' "So, what are you doing today? I heard there's a fake snow machine in Bryant Park; want to go kick some pre-teen ass at Snowball Wars?"

She hugs him really, really tightly.

It shouldn't surprise her when they end up in her bed together at the end of the day, but it's been so long she's actually a little shocked that Barney's still up for it.

"I thought you always wanted the strange," she says as he works on unbuttoning her jeans. "I'm amazed you aren't bored of this yet."

"True," he sighs theatrically, "I'm an explorer at heart. But I make an exception for you." He ducks so she can pull his shirt up over his head. "And you're anything but boring."

"I am pretty awesome."

"Fact," he agrees. "Even though you're Canadian, you are almost as awesome as I-" but the rest of the sentence gets lost when she tackles him onto the mattress.

Lily and Marshall come back in time to throw an awesome New Year's bash, with mini-quiches and crab-and-artichoke dip and these fucking delicious cupcakes from a bakery uptown, plus tons and tons of champagne. Robin's date is kind of a bust, but she really doesn't care so she foists him off on some girl that Barney's trying to avoid because they slept together once last month and she won't stop calling him. Robin's with the people she loves and that's all that matters.

Until Ted and Monisha break up, that is. There's a big shouting match in the kitchen in front of seventy people (Barney passes Robin the bowl of popcorn as it goes down which is totally callous but also totally hilarious) and then Monisha storms out. The party is way less comfortable after that, which means that Lily is kind of mad at Ted for ruining the party while Ted is just plain miserable.

She can only take about half an hour of the stifling awkwardness before she needs to escape. "Want to go shoot bottles on the roof?" she mutters to Barney, who's sitting with a very sullen Ted and eyeing a trio of blondes in the corner.

He makes a face. "You brought your gun to New Year's?"

"Are you coming or not?"

He slides off the couch, gives Ted a reassuring thump on the shoulder and follows her. "Ted really killed the party," he complains as they climb the fire escape. "No girl wants to hook up after witnessing a break-up. Now every chick in there is remembering all the times she got dumped."

"Yup. Tonight, all men are pigs."

He sighs, collapses onto the folding lounge chair Marshall keeps on the roof for when he and Lily decide they want to do it under the stars. Robin carefully lines up the empties along the edge of the wall overlooking the river and takes aim, fires. There's nothing she finds more satisfying than the kickback of a pistol, than destroying some shit with hot lead.

"Should you really be handling firearms while drunk?" Barney calls from a safe distance.

"Don't be such a Ted," she yells back, "and I'm not drunk."

"You really are."

"Come learn how to shoot a gun, Barney. It's time to become a man."

"No thanks, Canada," he chuckles, but he comes over anyway and lets her fit his fingers around the grip. The force of the kickback almost knocks him over the first time but then he gets the hang of it and when he finally manages to hit a can of Budweiser, they both whoop with delight.

"What are you guys doing?" Ted asks from the fire escape.

"Guns are awesome," Barney gushes, and she laughs.

Ted frowns. "It's almost midnight; come back in for the toast." He sighs. "And now I have no one to kiss. Story of my life."

"I'll kiss you." Robin shrugs. "I'm certainly not planning on kissing my ex-date Chuck."

"Hey!"

"What?"

"In case you guys haven't noticed, Ted pretty much assured that I'm not gonna have anyone to kiss either."

"Whatever," she says. "I'll kiss you, too."

"Excellent." Barney grins, and after a moment's pause adds "I'm going second. Ted can have the warm-up kiss."

"Fine." Ted twists around to eye them as they follow his lead back down the fire escape. "Enjoy my sloppy seconds," and Robin cracks up as Barney gapes at his back.

They all refill their glasses; Ted apologizes to Lily for making the party weird and she hugs him and apologizes back for being upset in the first place and then everyone's counting down and all of a sudden it's 2010. They clink glasses after Lily and Marshall make a sappy toast, their first big New Year's bash in their new home blah blah blah, and she kisses Ted chastely, smiles at him. "Happy New Year." He grins sweetly back, and then Marshall sweeps them all up in a five-person hug and she can't imagine anything more perfect than this.

And then Barney's in front of her, fingertips resting on her arm. "Where's my kiss, Scherbatsky?"

She can't help smiling, leans in to press her lips against his. His hand slides lightly around her neck and she likes the way he smells tonight so she pushes it a little farther than she probably should, opens her mouth a tiny bit into his own.

When they break apart she sees Ted staring at them, and later as they're helping Lily and Marshall clean up a little before they leave he sidles up to her. "That was a pretty serious kiss."

"Well, I'm pretty seriously drunk," she says, and escapes into the kitchen before he can dig any more. The three of them catch a taxi back uptown; the warmth of Barney's knee pressing against hers makes her think fleetingly about going home with him, but it would be too weird with Ted in the cab.

**