They accidently go on vacation together.

Well, not accidently because that would be absurd; it's not like they tripped and ended up on the same plane or something. It was originally a group thing, a trip for the five of them to this sweet all-inclusive in the Caribbean that Barney and Marshall's company acquired in a massive corporate merger. They got a sick fucking discount and they all managed to wrangle time off at the beginning of February and it was going to be the start of a brand new 'family' tradition. Marshall's already talking about his and Lily's hypothetical future kids building sandcastles with Ted Jr. on the beach while the adults get wasted at the pool bar and it all sounds amazingly awesome to Robin.

Two weeks before they're supposed to leave, they find out that Marshall's dad needs bypass surgery. He and Lily end up flying to Minnesota again to help out so it's down to her, Barney, and Ted, which is totally fine since that's been happening a lot lately as Marshall and Lily get more caught up in being old and married and lame.

But then Ted's firm gets approached to pitch designs for the new library at Cornell and it's a huge opportunity for him so Ted begs out, too. "But you guys should still go," he tells them over a beer after apologizing profusely. "There's still sand and sun, and I know how hard it was for Robin to schedule time off."

So that's how she and Barney end up together in the breezy open-air hotel lobby with all their luggage, squinting into the sunlight. "God, sometimes you forget how much sky the rest of the world has," she says. "I never feel like I'm outside in New York, you know?"

"Yeah," and he leafs through the stuff he got at reception, clearly not listening. "I switched us to a suite. Two bedrooms, but it'll be easier to hang out. Plus it's oceanfront and has a Jacuzzi, what up?"


And it really is; all tropical reds and greens and golds. She throws her stuff onto her bed, throws open the doors to the balcony and watches the ebb and flow of the blue, blue water.

"This place is awesome," he says from behind her.

"The beach looks incredible; I can't wait to get in the ocean."

"Yeah." He rubs at his neck; his hair's all rumpled from the plane, and she can't help but think he looks kind of delicious. Robin doesn't usually go for blonds but it works for him. It works for him a lot. They stand together awkwardly for a moment, and oh, what the hell.

"Wanna do it?"

His belt is off in record time. "God, yes.."

He's still panting; she can tell by the way his bicep brushes feather-light up and down against her shoulder. "Wow. You really outdid yourself there, Scherbatsky."

"Mmmhmm. That was… rejuvenating." When she gets back to New York, she's buying sheets just like these. "This bed is fucking incredible."

He struggles up onto his elbow to glare. "Um, I totally just blew your mind and the bed is what you're gonna talk about?"

She rolls her eyes. "Oh Barney, you're the best I've ever had."

"Damn right." His fingers tangle in her hair, tugging and smoothing gently. Robin tries to sync her breathing with the steady, hypnotic whir of the ceiling fan. When she glances up again he's staring transfixed at the rise and fall of her breasts.

It makes something hiccup a little in her chest.

She doesn't know what makes her do it; her leg slides up, tracing over the jut of his hip until she's mostly on top of him. Her lips touch his pulse-point, then his chin, then the corner of his mouth; she feels his breath stutter. It must be temporary insanity. "I mentioned the awesomeness of the bed," and she likes the way her words vibrate against his cheek, "because I think it would be a shame for us not to take full advantage of it while we're here."

His lips curl, and the soft brush of his palms up her back makes her shiver a little. "Hmm, an interesting proposition. It puts me in mind of Bro Code Article 186: 'monogamy is desirable in one situation and one situation only: on a vacation lasting ten days or less.'"

He's an insane person, so she just scrapes his neck gently with her teeth. "And why is that?"

"I'm glad you asked." His fingers curl up over her shoulders, tugging her down so her belly is flush with his. "A vacation fling is guaranteed commitment-free in the long run as long you pick someone who lives outside a 50 mile radius of your place of residence. And it's scientific fact that the number of times you have sex with a chick corresponds directly to the dirtiness of the stuff she'll let you do to her. So you get more bang for your buck if you stick it to one girl, pun fucking intended."

"Charming." But sort of genius, though she'll never admit it.

"Don't hate the bro, Scherbatsky. Hate the code." He grinning like an ass, so she leans down to nibble the smile away. His lips follow hers eagerly and sometimes it's really hard to forget how much she likes kissing him, how his fingers always lazily explore her neck and trace her ears. When she pulls away he looks a little dazed.

"So. I guess it's a good thing we're only here for six days."

He blinks up at her, pleasure fog clearing a little. "Wait, we're really doing this?"

"And then back to normal when we get home. Agreed?"

He's staring up at her and for once she can't read his expression. He ghosts a thumb across her cheek and the moment's teetering on the edge of intimacy when he pulls back and says "Oh, it is so on. Sexcation five!" He punctuates it with a dirty grin. "That's where we high-five, and then I bang you again in the hot tub."

She laughs, and tries to smother him with a pillow.

Robin is a big fan of this sexcation thing. She alternates her time between the beach, the water, and Barney's bed/her bed/any flat surface in the suite and once, memorably, in the towel hut. In the evening they drink on their balcony and throw the empties at the sea gulls; Barney devises a complicated points system that she only half-pays attention to, but she has a good time watching him scribble as he tries to keep score on a napkin. It's way more fun than she had in Argentina; let's face it, Vacation-Robin was kind of a tool.

One night they get wasted and walk along the beach, looking for couples to surprise mid-coitus.

"Oh my God! This is a family resort!" she shrieks on their third encounter.

"Put your pants on, man! Think of the children!" Barney bellows, and she makes a mental note to talk to him about his tendency toward the melodramatic.

The couple scrambles away, red-faced and stammering, and Robin collapses onto the sand and pulls out the bottle of tequila she stashed in her purse while the bartender wasn't looking.

Barney sways, falls down next to her with a soft thud. "That was a really good one." He takes the bottle. "I hope you've got a lime in there, too."

"Limes are for pussies. We've got salt; that's all you need." She rubs some sand on his neck, licks it off before she takes a swig. "See?"

"You're psychotic. I blame the Canadian upbringing."

"You love it." She takes another swig, passes the bottle back. "This is probably the best vacation ever."

"Yeah," he sighs, leaning heavily against her, and she can't remember the last time she saw him this drunk. "I really like hanging out with you. You're like, my best friend. But in a different way than Ted."

"Okay,"she chuckles.

"In a way that I want to sleep with you a lot."

"Got it," and that makes her giggle harder, until her eyelashes feel all tickly. She wraps her arms around his shoulders. "You're my best friend too, you know."

And as she says it, she realizes that it's true. Things are still weird with Ted, and she loves Lily, but Lily's got Marshall. Lily's got her own life, and there's not as much room for Robin in it as there used to be. Plus there's just something so easy about talking to Barney; she thinks he gets her in a way that no one else really does. She doesn't have to pretend to be something she's not with him.

He's staring at her, and there's no sound but the wash of the surf. "I'm your best friend?"

"What, are you deaf?"

The star-bright smile that breaks over his face makes her a little sad, because no one should be that deliriously, transparently happy that they mean something to someone. But then he starts pressing sloppy drunk kisses all over her face as he says over and over "you're awesome, you're sooooo awesome," and all she can do is hug him and laugh and try to surreptitiously wipe his spit off her cheeks before she gets all sticky and gross.

Robin spends their last afternoon in the ocean; sun warm and prickling on the back of her neck. She can't believe that after this she's gotta go back to waking up at 2 a.m. to host a broadcast that no one watches besides Barney, Ted, and a couple of stoners at Columbia.

There's a sudden spray of saltwater and she turns; Barney's smirking from under his doubtlessly designer shades. "Heads up."

She splashes him back a little, and then dunks under the surface to get her hair wet. "Last day. I'm really going to miss sleeping though the night." There's salt in her eyes, and after she rubs at it and regains the ability to see he's a lot closer than he was a minute ago. Like, she can feel his breath on her eyelashes.

"It's not over yet," he says, and she almost can't hear him but he's doing that ridiculous porny eyebrow thing and oh, she definitely knows what that means. Robin leans up, presses their lips together so their tongues can tangle. He tastes like ocean and cigars.

"No," she agrees, and his fingers trace her hip, find the knotted string of her bikini. "No, it's not over."

Ocean sex is always a little weird; you can't ever quite get the right friction going. But she doesn't mind when he presses inside her, starts to move, tiny little thrusts as she watches the people walking along the white sand over his shoulder. They're pretty far out from the beach, but not far enough away to guarantee that no one will notice. He bites her earlobe and she wraps her arms tighter around his neck, shivers a little in the breeze; he's got her swimsuit bottoms wrapped around his wrist like a bracelet. A group of kids splash around at the edge of the surf and she wiggles her way farther down onto his cock, starts brushing her fingernails over his nipple.

God, she hopes someone notices.

He stills inside her, wraps an arm around her lower back to pull her back up to his lips. His fingers slide between their bodies, brushing and teasing down between her legs as his hips shift slowly back and forth.

She's almost there when he stops kissing her, pulls back a little. "Look behind you," he murmurs. His cheek grazes the shell of her ear.

She cranes her neck as he scrapes teeth along her shoulder; there's a middle-aged couple paddling a kayak about twenty feet away, staring right at them. The woman frowns, and every muscle in Robin's body strings up tight. Barney pinches her clit and then she's coming harder than she has in years, toes clenching against the sides of his calves.

When she can breathe again, she relaxes her fingers so her nails aren't digging so deeply into his back. He just laughs into her skin. "Such an exhibitionist."

"Shut up."

They have sex twice in the airport bathroom before their flight leaves, and when they deplane at LaGuardia she grabs his wrist and drags him into the ladies again, locking the door behind them. "Vacation's not over 'til we're actually home."


But his pants never actually come off; they end up making out in the handicapped stall like teenagers. His hand wraps warmly around the back of her neck with a sad kind of finality and suddenly it's a little hard to breathe. Finally, he pulls back, kisses her forehead a little as she hugs him tightly.

"I had a really good time," he says plainly.

"Yeah," she says, and it's hard to look him in the eyes. This feels like a conversation that's way too serious to have with a toilet paper dispenser digging into her back. "Me too. It was just what I needed. No stress, no complications."

"Right." He rubs at his neck, and she's starting to wonder what that little gesture means. "So, bags?"

She gets him their stewardess's phone number at the baggage claim. "You're welcome," she says when he gives her a funny look.

They share a cab into Manhattan; he leans out the window after they roll to a stop in front of MacLaren's. "See you later?"

"See you," she echoes, and he smiles. Robin watches the cab pull away before hefting her bag over her shoulder, tries to convince herself that the pricking behind her eyes is because it's three degrees below zero, and definitely not because she kind of wants to cry for absolutely no reason at all.

"Hey," Ted says happily from his drafting table when she pushes through the door. "You're so tan! How was it? Barney wasn't too Barneyish, I hope?"

"No, it was fine. It was great. Sand, sun, you know. How was your thing?"

"We made it to the second round! I'm working on the sketches right now; wanna see?"

So she sits down and lets Ted ramble about sustainable design and modern neoclassicism and whatever, and she forces the lump in her throat down as she starts coming up with vacation stories to tell tomorrow at the bar that don't involve naked Barney in any way, shape, or form.

And everything is totally fine.

Lily is squinting at her with her kindergarten teacher face, and Robin feels a stab of panic.


"What's different about you?"

"I got a tan?"

"Ahhh," she says, and looks like she's about to follow up, but then Marshall, Ted, and Barney come back with the next round and she closes her mouth.

"Tell us about the place so we can all live vicariously," Marshall says. "Minnesota was cold."

Lily nods sadly. "Cold and dark. No one tans in Minnesota."

There's a pause. "Robin won the shuffleboard tournament," Barney finally offers, staring disinterestedly into his scotch.

"That's it?" Ted leans in. "You were loose on a beach with unlimited liquor for six days and all we get is 'Robin's good at shuffleboard'? And isn't shuffleboard only for old people? Is it really fair for someone under sixty to participate in competition?"

She clears her throat. "Security caught Barney with a girl in the kitchen in the middle of the night and as he was trying to get away, he tripped over his pants and fell into someone's wedding cake."

"Robin!" Barney yelps, as Marshall booms "NOW THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT."

Lily's all interest. "Who was this girl?"

Barney makes a strangled sound, but Robin just swirls her martini smoothly. "Her name was Candie." She adds a thoughtful pause for effect. "I'm pretty sure she was a stripper."

"I need another drink." Barney mutters to the ceiling.

The thing about having near-constant sex for six days straight is: you get kind of used to it. It's Wednesday night, and she hasn't talked to Barney since Sunday and this totally sucks because Ted's already asleep and she can't go to bed because she has to be at work in three hours. She's found that it's easier to live nocturnally during the week than to try to go to bed early enough in the evening to wake up two hours before dawn. But right now she's got nothing to do and there aren't even any good infomercials on, and all she can think about is how much she wants to get laid.

You want Barney her brain says, but she shoves that thought away because she doesn't want to go down that very weird, confusing emotional road right now. She makes a decision, scrolls through the contact list on her phone.

"Hey," Barney says when he clicks onto the line. "What's up?"

"Oh, you know." She bites her lip, and there's an awkward silence.

She hears him suck in a breath. "Okay, look, I've got a girl on my couch. But say the word and she's gone before you get here."

She considers. "Are your pants still on?"

He laughs, and the sound makes her smile a little. "All parties are still fully clothed."

"Kick her to the curb; I'll be there in twenty."

In the cab, she takes a deep breath and tells herself that nothing's changing, that this is just a run of the mill booty-call between two friends. But she blows that weak-as-hell premise when she kisses him as soon as the door opens; he responds with equal fervor as he tugs her inside. "I have to be showered and at work by three," she says into his hair, a little breathlessly, "so we've got two hours."

He smirks, squeezes her ass. "We can do a lot with two hours."

"Thanks for doing this."

He shrugs. "The girl was a 5 who wanted to take it slow. Instead, I get a 20 who's, well, the way you are. Really, you're the one doing the favors here."

"Great." She eyes him. "Well, what are you waiting for? The starting pistol?"

His eyebrows quirk, and they're off.

It happens again on Friday morning after she gets off work except that this time he's the one that calls her, sounding tired and a little strained. "Hey, I've got a meeting with the North Koreans at three. But-"

"Meet me at the apartment."

"Okay," Robin wheezes. "Okay. It's come to my attention that we maybe need to revise our casual sex proviso."

His fingertips stroke up and down her thigh. "Listening." She can hear the smirk in his voice.

"I think that we're not gonna be able to go cold-turkey back to once or twice a month. So we should just step it down slowly. Move it to a few times a week and take it from there. We give ourselves time to calm down a little."

"Good plan," he says, and she can feel his lips moving on her spine, breath washing back and forth across her skin. It's really nice in a way she doesn't want to think about. "I support this plan. Are you coming to karaoke tonight? Ted's in, and so are Marshall and Lily."

"That depends. Are you gonna man up and sing 'Like A Prayer'?"

"Ah," and he rolls onto his back. "I was hoping you'd forget about that."

"I never forget winning a bet. Especially one this awesome."

Barney sniffs. "Whatever. I will manfully sing your Madonna song, and what's more, I will rock it harder than it's ever been rocked before. The place will explode with the rockitude of the Barnacle."

"You're resurrecting 'The Barnacle'? And just when I thought the world was safe again."

He winks, rolls to his feet. "Back to work."

She must've dozed off because when she blinks again drowsily Barney's standing over her bedside table, freshly showered and suited up. She watches him slide his watch on, then sits up to retrieve his tie from where it's hanging off her lampshade.

He takes it with a smile and sits down next to her to pull his shoes on; the bed dips with his weight and when he starts to stand she reaches over impulsively, pulls him into a kiss. She feels one of his hands slide along her back as he leans into her; it's comfortable and sleepy and warm.

"Get some rest," he says when he pulls back, and then leans in for one more before he goes.

They don't step it down.

She means to stop, she really, really does. This whole nocturnal lifestyle thing must be messing with her circadian rhythms and her hormones and her sanity, because not only does she not stop ending up in bed three-to-five times a week with Barney Stinson, her friend and cad-about-town, but she actually thinks it's kind of awesome.

It's all of the sex and none of the awkward, exhausting relationship stuff that she hates dealing with whenever she starts sleeping with someone more than a handful of times. None of the pet names, none of the obligatory public cuddling, none of the constant pressure to be the most considerate and understanding girlfriend ever. She and Barney go like this: Ted's asleep by twelve, Barney's hands are fisted in her hair by one, and she breezes into work, cheerful and relaxed, by three-thirty AM sharp for make-up and prep. She'll find herself sitting in the high-backed chair in the dressing room as Rachel flutters around her dabbing and brushing and blending, thinking it doesn't get any better than this.

Robin thinks there's probably something seriously wrong with that.

But really, she can't help herself. They get kicked out of the Lusty Leopard the day after Easter; he lured her there with the promise of two-for-one drink specials. Robin buys him three lap dances so she can flirt with the cute bartender but somehow the night still ends with her dress shoved up around her waist in a stall in the men's room, Barney's tongue hot in her mouth.

The bouncer pounds on the door. "Against club rules!"

Barney smothers laughter into her neck as she calls out "I swear I'm not an employee."

The bouncer keeps on banging and when they skulk out, straightening their clothes sheepishly, he glares them down. "You two." Barney looks so crestfallen that Robin gets the giggles and that gets them tossed out on the street even faster.

"Great." Barney kicks at a greasy hamburger wrapper on the corner. "Now I have to find another strip club. I really liked this place." He shudders. "Oh god, what if I get stuck going to Scores for the rest of my life?"

"I'm sure it'll blow over in a week or two. You're like, their best customer."

"True," he sighs, pulls out two cigars. "So, back to my place?"

Really. She never even means for it to happen; it just does.

She dials as she pushes through the rotating glass doors onto the avenue; the only nice thing she could say about her job right now is that she likes being out of there every day before noon.

"What up?"

"I'm having kind of a day."

He chuckles. "Yeah, you are."

"What are- oh my god, you're watching right now, aren't you?"

"My TiVo emails me the stuff I record; don't ask how, I know a guy. Did that chef just grab your ass?"

"Repeatedly. I'm pretty sure he was drunk." Robin tries not to grimace at the memory. "He certainly smelled drunk."

"Oh, this is so going on my blog. Cooking segments with horny wastoids; YouTube is going to love you."

She sighs. "I knew you were the one putting up all those clips. Are you busy right now?"

"You wanna grab lunch?"

She dodges a guy hawking DVDs, heads for the subway. "Uh, close."

Ahh, he says, and she can tell his interest level in the conversation just skyrocketed from about a 5 to a 75 by the way his voice drops down a register. "Well, luckily I can satisfy that kind of craving, too. I'm like the Snickers of men. Come to GNB."

"Be there in fifteen."

He starts laughing again. "Did your shirt just catch on fire?

Robin glances down regretfully at the scorch-mark on the burgundy silk, sighs again. She really liked this blouse. "Yes." The cackling kicks up a notch into 'shrill,' and she snaps the phone shut.

Marshall likes to tell them stories about Barney's office, but the real thing is infinitely more absurd than she ever could've imagined from his descriptions, all polished glass façade and intimidating lines. His ferocious-looking assistant waves her in, tells her he'll be back in five minutes, and Robin spends at least 45 seconds gaping at the wall of motivational posters. He's either the most cynical person she's ever met or the most insanely deluded, and she's never been able to quite make up her mind which it is.

When she finds the framed list entitled "Things I Am That Are Awesome" in what is very recognizably his own handwriting, she smiles to herself and mentally ticks down a point in the 'insanely deluded' column.

"Hey Barney, are you- Robin!"

She freezes. Oh, crap, this is like the motherload of bad. "Uh, hey Marshall."

He smiles questioningly at her from the doorway. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

"Barney and I were going to go grab some lunch," and his eyes crinkle a little and she knows Marshall so she knows the next question is since when do you and Barney grab lunch? Before he can get it out, she blurts "Wanna come?"

He perks up. "Sure!"

So when Barney strides in, she waves quickly at Marshall and says all in a rush "Marshall's coming to lunch, too!" way, way too loudly and way too brightly. "Awesome, right!?" Barney just gives her a look, and man, he's totally gonna give her crap later about not being able to keep her cool.

Barney makes them go to this ridiculous theme sushi place where all the waiters are dressed like ninjas and the hostess hits a gigantic gong with a mallet every time another customer walks in. Hello, migraine city. Their ninja/waiter keeps flirting with her, pulls a throwing star out from behind her ear when he brings her another glass of merlot.

"Ninjas and magic?" Marshall waves his chopsticks enthusiastically. "No wonder you like this place. It's fucking amazing. I mean, the food sucks, but it's awesome."

"You gonna give that ninja your phone number, Robin?" Barney smirks at her over his udon. "I bet if you asked nicely he'd take you home to show you his big wooden staff. What up?"

"That's the best you've got? A big staff?"

"Oh, like you've got a better one."

"Uh, how about 'bang your gong'? I've been waiting for an opening since we walked in."

Marshall fist-bumps Barney anyway because he has low standards; Robin rolls her eyes.

As they walk back towards GNB sipping their sake lattes-to-go Marshall says "We should do this more often," and they both nod their agreement because it really was fun, even if it wasn't exactly what Robin was hoping for this afternoon.

Marshall and Barney wave as they push through the doors back into their building and she pauses for a second to watch them go before she heads for the subway, feeling inexplicably let down. Getting some time alone with Barney shouldn't matter so much to her, but weirdly it kind of does.

She's a block from the station when she hears someone shout her name over the noise of the traffic. She turns, spots Barney jogging toward her though the crowd. He skids to a halt, panting. "Hey, so. There's a men's room that locks on the first floor of my building. Or we could go back to my apartment if you want."

She stares at him. "Don't you have to go back to work?"

"Eh. I pushed my meeting back to four." He winks. "A friend in need, right?"

Robin has to bite back a smile. "Right. Of course," and something tightens warmly in her chest when he grins. "Honestly, the men's room sounds great."

The Marshall incident rattles around in the back of her mind because this whole thing is starting to feel a little like they're lying to their friends. It was one thing when they were just sort of falling into bed together by accident, but now… well, Robin's not dumb enough to think whatever they're doing is anything close to serious because this is Barney, but it's starting to feel kind of important. Like it's something that matters in their friendship, and it's getting harder and harder to ignore.

It bothers her the whole time they're at the Super Soaker battle in Central Park on Sunday, and nags all through the post-victory naked festivities. She finally pulls back from his lips and Jesus, when did they start this making-out after sex business? She honestly can't remember.

He doesn't seem to notice her halted participation, just moves his attention down to her neck. One of his hands twists in her hair; the cold metal band of his watch presses behind her ear as he shifts to brush lips over her collarbone.

"Barney," she says, but it comes out a lot breathier than she meant it to. She blinks, pushes against the couch to leverage herself farther back toward his knees and away from his lips. "Barney."

He frowns up at her. "What?"

"Is it weird that no one else knows about this?"

Something that looks like panic flashes across his face but he shoves it away almost instantly, fixes his attention back on her breasts. "A little. Why, do you want to tell them?"

She sighs, because she's been going over and over this in her head for like two weeks now and she still doesn't have a solid answer either way. "Not really, no. Maybe. I mean, I don't think it would be like last time. I don't think they'd be mad. I think it would just be… complicated."

Complicated is really the only word for it; she knows if Lily found out she'd start analyzing, start trying to get to the root of why she and Barney can't seem to stop screwing around, which means that Robin would actually have to start thinking about it, too. Then every time the two of them went anywhere together Marshall would assume they were doing it, and the knowing looks would make her super uncomfortable. Add all of that to the whole awkward Ted situation, and well, it just seems like a giant ball of suckitude.

And she's pretty sure that all the suckitude would mean they'd stop doing this on such a regular basis.

He leans into her, forehead pressing warm and dry against her cheek. "We can tell them if you want. We probably should."

She runs her palms over the smooth, tight muscle of his shoulders, and the thought of them ending like that makes her stomach roil a little. "Let's not." He looks up, startled, so she shrugs by way of explanation. "I don't want this to change, you know?"

His half-smile is devoid of its usual challenging cockiness; if she didn't know better, she'd say he looked a little sad. "Yeah," and his arms wind tighter around her again, tug her back; she can feel the soft tickle of his chest hair against her sternum. "Yeah, me neither."


"Fifty bucks says you can't hit the roof of the ball return hut."

Barney snorts. "Please, my dead grandmother could make that shot. Done."

Robin smirks, and Ted blows a stream of smoke up at her from where he's sprawled in a plastic lawn chair. "You know, it's not very nice to take advantage of a person with a gambling addiction."

Barney chips the shot, curses.

She shrugs as she swings her club idly, sets another ball onto the tee. "Hey, I'm just trying to win back all the money I lost when he dragged me to the dog races. Thanks for ditching us last weekend, by the way."

"For the hundredth time, I had to work." Ted sighs heavily. "I feel like I haven't seen you guys at all lately with this new project."

Barney chuckles to himself as she winds back to drive. "I still can't believe Robin thought dogs with shorter legs would be faster. Easiest three hundred dollars I've ever made."

Robin's ball arcs neatly through the air, hits the catch-net near the top. Ted lets out a low whistle around his cigar. Perfection. She turns to Barney, smiles challengingly as she leans onto her club. "Fifty bucks says you can't beat that shot."

"Oh, you're so on," Barney says, over Ted's exasperated groan.

June comes, and then July. Robin keeps waiting to get bored, keeps waiting for Barney to get bored, but it never happens. They bro- out like always, serve wingman duty for Ted and sometimes even for each other when they're in the mood. They totally murder the opposition in the all-Manhattan Lazer Tag tournament (organized, of course, by Barney himself). But sometimes when her guard's down, she looks at him and feels… , well.

It happens again on a Tuesday evening; Barney shows up at the apartment after work to play video games, which somehow segues into fucking on the couch. Her breath catches a little when she notices the digital display on the clock-radio, arches as he tugs her hips into his faster and harder. "Ted's gonna be home any minute."

"So? Come faster, then." His fingers slide down to help her along as he hums thoughtfully to himself. "What would you do if he caught us? Just walked in and found us like this." She can't help it, she moans a little at the thought and it makes Barney grin predatorily. "I wouldn't stop. Can you imagine the look on his face?"

And god, she is, she's totally imagining it and she's so close and then he leans in, kisses just underneath her ear and murmurs "He'll walk in any second now…" and then her stomach muscles spasm and she's gone, rocking reflexively against him until she can breathe again.

Barney huffs out a gleeful chuckle into her hair. "Psych, he texted me an hour ago; he's stuck at work until eight. That was classic. You've got such a fetish."

She wishes she were motivated enough to hit him, but she feels way too boneless and wonderful right now to follow through. "You're a jerk." He shifts, still hard against her thigh, and Robin presses up on her knees to kiss him, to inch back down onto his cock. He sighs contentedly into her mouth, hands wander up her back again to pull her closer as she starts moving slowly on top of him.

She pulls back to drop kisses down his neck, frowns. "Did you get a spray tan?"

"Yeah," he sighs into her shoulder dreamily. "It makes my pecs look awesome."

She laughs. "I swear, you're like thirty percent girl."

"Well," and he leans in to kiss her chin; her insides go all warm and funny at the brief pressure of his lips. "You're like fifty percent lesbian, so it all works out in the end."

It's stupid, but she kisses him then and just for a second she can't help thinking we work together, we fit so well. It's a jagged, perfect feeling, but she's never had that thought about anyone, not even about Ted, so she certainly can't go around having it about Barney Stinson, the one person who's even more allergic to commitment than she is.

Robin squeezes her eyes shut and pushes the moment away because that road leads only to heartbreak, shuts it down and concentrates instead on making him come even harder than she just did a minute ago.

She totally succeeds.

"Is everything okay with you?" Lily asks over their shopping excursion coffee-break latte.

Robin frowns a little. "Sure, why?"

Lily's nose screws up. "I'm not trying to pry, but you seem like you're kinda having a dry spell. You haven't been dating much."

Robin feels her shoulders tense up, ligaments winding tight into bone. "I'm busy with this job, you know? And I've gone out with some guys. I went out with that rock-climbing guy last week. Mike."

"No, I know. It's just, and I mean this in a totally positive non-judgmental way, it seems like a lower volume of guys than normal and you really haven't talked much about any of them." Lily's face drops. "Oh god, you're not hung up on Ted again, are you? I was worried about the whole 'roommates' thing."

"What? No! Absolutely not." She waves a hand, but Lily raises a skeptical eyebrow. "I swear. Not hung up on Ted. I'm just busy."

"Do you want me to ask around at school? I could probably find teachers with hot single friends."

Something twinges in her chest. Robin almost tells her then, almost blurts it out right there in The Coffee Pot's squishy red armchairs because it's Lily and because this whole thing is starting to get too big and confusing to keep all in her own head. Her lips part and her brain starts the sentence: 'I'm sleeping with Barney and I can't seem to stop,' but the thought of the look on Lily's face stops her.

If she tells Lily, it's all going to be real.

Very uncomfortably real, and she's going to have to deal with it.

"I'm fine," she says instead. Lily lets it go because she's a good friend, just shrugs and gathers up her coat and starts telling her about her newest cold war with Marshall's mother, and Robin thinks she probably shouldn't feel this intensely relieved to drop the subject.

It starts to get weird.

Her phone rings as she finishes up at work; she's exhausted and mostly just wants to go home and curl up in bed, but Barney sounds so tense and un-Barneyish that she meets him at his apartment anyway. Afterwards they lie in bed; his fingers stroke her hair and she's trying to force her eyes to stay open when he blurts "I'm getting cross-examined this afternoon." His teeth click audibly as his mouth snaps shut.

She blinks. "Like, in a trial? For what?"

Robin feels his Adam's apple bob against her shoulder as he swallows. "Grand jury proceedings are confidential."

She tries to process that, decides she really doesn't want to know anyway. His leg is jiggling restlessly; one hand clenches and unclenches in the sheets. "Are you nervous?"

He snorts unconvincingly, doesn't meet her eyes. "No. I kick ass at testifying."

She frowns a little because Barney and feelings is alien, uncharted territory for them. "I'm sure you'll be great." From her vantage point she can see the top of his lip twitch a little; so she runs what she hopes is a reassuring hand along his back. "You're like the best liar I know."

That makes him laugh a little, and he presses up on his elbow to kiss her. His finger curl along her ear and god, there's something here, like he's pouring everything into her. This is a serious kiss. When he pulls back, she has to suck in a breath because that felt a little like drowning. He rolls away, pushes off the bed.

"Okay," he says, like he's steeling himself. "Okay."

She starts to get up too; she really hopes she doesn't pass out in the cab on the way home because that's always pretty mortifying. But Barney puts a hand on her shoulder, stops her.

"Hey, you can stay and sleep if you want. It's my fault you're on this side of town in the first place."

"Okay," she says because that's all she's got, and he smiles at her and heads into the bathroom. She closes her eyes, tries to make it look like she's asleep as he finishes getting dressed and bangs out of the apartment.

Her eyes snap open as the door slams shut because what. the. hell. Robin is 99% sure that she and Barney just had comfort sex, and now he's inviting her to stay in the Fortress of Barnitude while he's not even home? She's positive that the only other girl who's ever been allowed in this apartment unsupervised is Lily.

Robin stares at the scalloped ceiling, wills her heart to stop hammering in her chest. This is crazy. He's just being considerate, that's all. He's being a good friend. There's nothing weird about that, and she should chill out and take advantage of his hospitality and go to sleep like her body's dying to do. She definitely shouldn't be feeling like she's about to hurl.

She takes a breath, closes her eyes.

Ten minutes later she's hailing a cab.

She goes on a date with Rock-Climber Mike on Friday instead of going to hang at the bar, and she spends all of dinner trying to convince herself that she called him because she enjoys his company and because he has a nice ass, not because Barney royally freaked her out the other day.

And it's definitely not because a part of her really likes the idea of getting issued a permanent pass to Barney's apartment. No, she'll stick with the sex visa; safer for everyone that way.

Besides, Barney would never go for it. At least, that's what she thought; now, well, she's not so sure.

After dessert and drinks she decides to bring Mike to MacLaren's, just to prove she can, and the first thing she sees when she walks in the door is Barney sucking face with a blonde chick by the jukebox.

"Ah," she stutters awkwardly, and Mike frowns. She should feel relieved; after all, she's spent most of the week silently freaking out over Barney getting too attached to her. But instead of dissolving, the anxiety floods into nerves, pools sick and heavy in the pit of her stomach, and she has no fucking idea why.

Lily waves them over to the booth; she tries to shake it off. It's fine, it's totally, totally fine. Totally fine, until she goes up to the bar to grab everyone another round and a familiar Armani-clad elbow slides into her line of vision.

"Come home with me tonight," he says, leaning into her space.

Robin quirks an eyebrow, taps her fingernails against the polished wood as Carl makes Lily's gin and tonic. "I'm on a date."


"So, what's wrong with that girl? You looked like you were about to close the deal. It's like a bimbo buffet in here."

He rubs his neck, shrugs. "There's nothing wrong with her. But shouldn't you trade up if you have the option?" He shoots a glance at Mike. "And for you it would definitely be trading up; that dude is like, barely a seven." Barney hops onto the stool next to her, steals the beer meant for Marshall. "Simple economics, my friend. Wait, no, sexonomics." He squints. "Get-your-Freak-onomics, hey-o!"

"I'm not even going to pretend to understand what you're talking about."

"Oh, come on. Look at that girl; it's going to take me at least two more hours of effort to get her into bed. And even if I do get her clothes off, what do you think the probability is of her letting me do that thing that we did last Saturday?"

Robin glances over, carefully considers the flat gold sandals and the barrette. "Twenty percent."

Barney grins at her, and her traitorous stomach flips a little. "Exactly. Two hours and twenty percent. But with you it's like… fifteen minutes and seventy percent. Plus you're five times hotter than her."

Her cheeks flush a little just thinking about it. "Yeah, more like eighty-five percent."

"Yes." Barney claps a little, almost knocks over the stolen beer. "Now we're talking!"

And because she's clearly mentally ill, at the end of the night she kisses Mike goodbye and sends him on his way. She should probably be disgusted with herself, but then Barney kisses her as soon as she slides into the cab, fingers warm on her cheek, and she totally, totally isn't.

Things are easier after that, mostly because she stops trying to figure out why they're doing what they're doing. 'Simple economics,' she tells herself; sleeping with Barney is eminently practical. Whatever, it's as good a reason as any.

And if she catches herself drifting, daydreaming about his lips and his smell and his stupid laugh, well, it's not a big deal. It's only natural that all the sex stuff eventually starts seeping into the rest of her life.

"Mmm, wanna go down to the bar later?" She winds arms tighter around his neck, smiles as his tongue traces an electric, sparking trail along her collarbone.

"Eh, I'm right where I want to be." He snorts into her shoulder, cracks himself up a little. "In your vagina, what up?"

She smacks the back of his head, but that doesn't stop the smile curling at her lip. "You know what I really want to do tonight?"

"Besides me?"

She ignores him. "I think we should put baking powder in Ted's hair gel. So it looks like he has dandruff."

Barney stills against her. "Yes," he blurts fervently. "God, I-" but then his voice dries up and he looks away. Digs his fingers into her hips and urges her up again.


"Nothing," he mutters. "It's nothing."

Just before Halloween, Barney gets sent to North Korea on business for a month.

"I didn't even know U.S. citizens were allowed to go to North Korea."

"Ted, please," Barney says. "And Pyongyang is beautiful this time of year."

"Well, we'll miss you, I guess," Lily offers. Marshall raises a glass to that, and Barney seems genuinely touched.

Robin's the only one of them with a car, so she volunteers to drop him off at the airport. When they roll to a stop in front of the terminal she hesitates, fingers digging into the vinyl steering wheel cover. She feels like she should say something to him, but she doesn't have any idea what it should be.

"Have a good flight," she finally says lamely.

"Yeah." He fidgets with his passport, blows out a breath. "Okay Scherbatsky, catch you on the flipside," and then he's out the door, circling the car to grab his bag. She watches him go, jams down on the power window button just as the automatic glass doors swish open.

"Barney!" When he turns back, she grins. "Distance high five!" She slaps the air, and he smiles. Then winks, waves cheerily, and disappears into the departure lobby.

Robin bites her lip, smiles to herself as she eases the car away from the curb.

Three days later Robin's at her desk pulling stories for tomorrow from the wire reports when she reads something that makes her spit nonfat hazelnut latte all over her keyboard. Before she even registers what she's doing, her phone's out of her pocket and her finger's jammed on the speed dial.

The line rings, rings, and then "Hold the dirty stuff, Scherbatsky. Dear Leader is monitoring my phone calls."

"There wasn't going to be any dirty stuff."

Barney hums sadly. "Too bad. So then why are you calling me in the middle of the night?"

Time difference, whoops. "I just think it's awfully suspicious that you jet off to Pyongyang, and three days later North Korea is testing its shiny new long-range ballistic missiles."

"Uh, when is North Korea not doing a missile test?"

"Admit it."

"Is this what passes for investigative journalism these days?"

"I'm just saying: if you're involved in the arms trade, why the hell am I still buying guns at retail price? A good friend would at least get me the wholesale discount."

His laughter sends a little frisson of something down her back. "Goodnight, Robin," he says, voice warm, and she can still hear him chuckling when the line clicks off.

"I'm ninety percent sure Barney's helping sell missiles to North Korea right now," Robin tells them casually over her scotch that night.

"Oh god," and Marshall claps his hands over his ears. "Please don't say things like that in front of me. I don't want to know anything."

"Denial is the only way he's dealing with it," Lily explains, lays a comforting hand on Marshall's shoulder. "He overheard something about voter fraud in Colombia when he went to 'conference call' Barney out of a meeting last week. This job is freaking him out."

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised." Ted stretches yawns a little. "I try not to think too much about things Barney doesn't tell us because every time I start to, I get terrifi-" but his voice cuts out with another gigantic yawn. "Time for me to turn in; I've got a meeting at seven tomorrow."

Lily grabs her purse. "Yeah, us too."

Robin blinks. "You guys are going already?"

She gets an apologetic look from Lily, but she keeps on bundling Marshall out. "Have a good night; hope the show goes well."

And Robin finds herself at the bar at ten p.m. with no one to keep her company but her scotch, and with five hours to kill before work. "Well, crap."

Honestly, Robin hadn't realized how much she's started to rely on Barney for entertainment. She keeps finding herself alone in the apartment after Marshall and Lily leave the bar, watching infomercials until she has to go to work. Hell, even the gym closes by eleven.

She tries hanging out at the cigar bar alone, but she's bored of it after an hour. The pick-up lines aren't even funny; most of the guys there tend to open with an off-hand comment about their Porsche. She goes on a few dates, has some passable, if boring, sex with a guy her friend from work sets her up with. On the weekend, Ted refuses to go with her to the shooting range; she finds out that getting five consecutive bulls-eyes is way less awesome when you don't have someone to gloat to about it. It' gets so bad that she starts thinking about calling the Woo girls again.

Sometimes her fingers will start inching towards her phone while the ShamWow dude drones on in the background but… something always freezes them before she dials. It's not like she and Barney routinely talk on the phone; why on earth would they start now?

On a rainy Friday in mid-November, Robin turns thirty. Lily bakes her this amazing tiramisu cake that mostly tastes like brandy (A+ for that) and she, Marshall and Ted take her out to this great Indian place where they all proceed to get hammered on mid-dollar champagne.

"Thirty is great," Ted tells her seriously after his fourth glass. "Thirty treated me with the love and respect I deserve."

"Presents!" Lily squeals. "Marshall and I got you an espresso maker."

Marshall pats her arm. "Way to ruin the surprise, baby."

She does indeed receive an espresso maker, and a monogrammed set of bath towels from Ted.

"To replace the ones the goat ate. And so you stop stealing mine," he explains. "Plus, I know how much you love shit with your name on it."

"Thanks, guys. This is too much, seriously."Another box materializes in front of her, and she frowns at Ted. "What's this?"

He shrugs. "Barney. And I'm under strict instructions to make you call him as soon as you open it."

She slides fingers under the expensive-looking wrapping paper, lifts the top off the box and- oh holy shit. Holy fucking mother of god.

"What is it?" Lily rises up out of her chair a little to peer over the rim, and goes deathly pale. "Oh my god, there's a gun in this restaurant."

Marshall and Ted both recoil a little, but Robin's still staring down because this isn't just a gun, this is a special edition Colt M1911. She's pretty sure they only manufacture fifty of these a year.

"Is that gold plating?" Marshall squints down closer into the box, but Lily draws him back again. "Seriously, they put gold plating on guns?"

She can't answer because there's nothing but static happening in her brain right now, just white noise and whatthehellwhatthehellwhatthehell. She whips out her phone.

"What the hell, Barney?" she says when he picks up, and it comes out angrier than she meant it to.

"Why, good morning to you too. You got your present, I assume," and she can hear his shit-eating grin over an ocean and two continents.

"You know I can't keep this. It must've cost you a fortune, Barney, what the hell were you thinking?"

"Well that's too bad, since I went to the trouble of getting you licensed to carry it concealed, too." When she doesn't answer, his voice softens. "Robin, don't freak out. I got it wholesale, get it? I know a guy."

"You're crazy," she finally manages, because her throat's closing up because she's starting to grasp it and wow, that's even scarier than the idea that he would've dropped a cool ten thousand for a birthday present.

"Crazy awesome, maybe. Happy 29th," he grins warmly, and that makes her laugh through the lump.

"I'm thirty."

"If that's the way you wanna play it," and he sounds so tinny and thin and far away and god, all in a rush she just wishes he were here. "Look, I've gotta go to a meeting. I'll see you guys in a week or two when I get finished, okay?"

"Bye," she says before the connection terminates, and she's left staring at the phone like an idiot. She looks into the box again and the tide rises up, pulls her in because this isn't a present, it's a secret. It's a piece of Barney that he's never shared before, and it's for her.

This shouldn't feel so important.

Before she can stop she's pressing her hand over her mouth, trying desperately to hold it back, but the tears start anyway. God, crying in a restaurant. This is probably the most mortifying moment of her life.

Ted leans over quickly, wraps arms around her and pulls her into his shoulder. "Hey," he murmurs into her hair, rubs her back. "I know. It's okay," but that just makes her hiccup a sob into his ugly striped sweater.

"I just," and thankfully the wool muffles her voice so the whole restaurant isn't privy to her meltdown. "I miss him."

Ted keeps rocking her, and finally Robin manages to get herself under control enough to glance up. Lily and Marshall are staring at her, confusion all over their faces.

"Okay, did I miss something?"

"Oh, Jesus Christ," Ted says, exasperated. "They've been sleeping together for months."

"You and Barney," Lily says over coffee once they make it back to the apartment. "Wow. This is huge."

"We're not- it's not serious."

She frowns over her mug, and Marshall raises an eyebrow. "You're crying in public and it's not serious?"

"You guys cried when I left for Japan. Friends miss each other; that's totally normal." They share a look, and that prickles. She's not stupid; she knows her feelings for Barney at this point aren't exactly platonic, but she also knows that they're pretty hopeless so she's trying not to think about it. "It's really nothing. It's sex."

They let it go, and the tide of conversation turns back to Lily's class. Lily and Marshall head home after cake, and Robin's left sitting quietly with Ted as he sips his coffee. This isn't how she wanted this to go.

"I'm sorry we didn't tell you," she says once she gathers enough nerve. "We should have. It just- it felt too private, you know? And I think Barney was scared you'd be mad."

Ted shrugs, takes another sip. "It was a little weird, I'll admit. And about what happened the first time: I wasn't mad that you guys slept together. I was mad because I thought it was about me."


"I mean, I thought it was about Barney sleeping with my ex-girlfriend. You know how competitive he is." He looks down into his coffee contemplatively. "But now I get that it wasn't about me at all. It was about you."

She sighs a little, because she could've told him that in the first place if he'd just thought to ask. "Yeah. How'd you figure out we were sleeping together again?"

"Oh come on, you guys aren't stealthy. You disappear for entire weekends, yet never produce a boyfriend? And let's not talk about all the times that I passed Barney on his way out of the building and got up here to find you in the shower."

"Right." She presses the heels of her hands into her eyes as hard as she can. "I really am sorry. I should've talked to you about it."

"Robin," he says gently, "really, I'm not upset. If anything, it's been good. Seeing how happy you guys are like this, separate apartments, separate lives, well. There was a part of me that was still holding on to you, that kept saying she's young, maybe someday she'll change her mind. Part of me thought we still had a chance, and I get now that I was holding back because of it. But you've been happier lately than you ever were when we were together, and I could never be happy living like this. And you're never going to change your mind."

She's tearing up again. "There was a part of me that thought that too, you know. It was nice to think you'd be there."

Ted smiles unsteadily at her; his eyes are wet. "Past tense."

"Past tense," she affirms and something in her chest clenches up and oh god, she's really in love with Barney Stinson. "So what do I do?"

"No idea." He takes her hand. "Just don't chicken out, okay? Barney whines like a little bitch whenever you're not around to go bro-ing with him. When you went to visit your mom over the summer, he was such a nightmare that Lily had to ban him from the booth."

The holidays creep up the way they always do; twinkly lights that appear out of nowhere, surly-looking elves invading department stores. The food is delicious as always, but their Barney-less Thanksgiving just feels sort of wrong. They all crowd around the phone to call him as they eat their pie, but it rings once and goes straight through to voicemail.

She almost calls him the next day, and then the next, and then the day after that, but she just doesn't have the words.

Robin's mid-sip when Marshall lets out a girly squeal from across the booth. She looks up from her wine glass and Barney's standing casually over the table, immaculate as always. "Sup, guys?"

She doesn't quite know how it happens but suddenly they're all caught in a five-way hug, and she and Ted are most definitely not jumping up and down like five-year olds.

"You're back," Lily enthuses to him, pulls back a little to stare at Robin expectantly. "We missed you."

Barney snorts. "Well, who wouldn't? That's a given, Lily."

Robin opens her mouth, snaps it shut. "Who wants drinks?"

He follows her to the bar, slides in to lean next to her. "Hey," and when she looks up he's smiling.

"They know," she blurts guiltily. "About us."

"Oh, thank god," and then his hands are on her shoulders as he steers her toward the door.

She trips a little when they hit the pavement outside. "Barney, the hell?

He cocks his head, takes a step back. "Wait, you don't want to go upstairs for a quickie?"

Ah. "Actually, that sounds great."

He nods into the leer. "Yes! Daddy's home!"

Oh, gross. "Nope, I changed my mind." He probably doesn't believe her though, considering that right after she says it she fists her hands in his lapels and kisses him so hard they both almost fall down the stairs.

Robin really hopes they make it back to the apartment.

She means to say something the next morning, but they slide so seamlessly back to where they were before he left that she doesn't even know how to start. Plus, it's a thousand times more fun to spend the morning cracking communism jokes instead.

"Stop, hammer time!" she sings cheerfully when she steps into the shower. Barney laughs, then slides soapy hands down her ass and obliges.

It almost comes out at the cigar bar; she can't stop noticing how good he looks in this suit and he's standing so close to her at the bar she can feel his breath on her cheek, but then he waves his cigar at a beefy guy across the room.

"How about him? Totally your type."

"Right," she says, and oh, who is she kidding? Barney doesn't do love stuff. If she says anything it's just going to freak him out and she'd rather have him in her life like this than not have him in her life at all.

Whatever, she hates relationships anyway.

"Bawk," Ted clucks under his breath as he pours her more eggnog in the kitchen after Christmas dinner.

"Shut up."

"You're a chicken," he calls after her.

Two days before New Year's, Robin does an interview with Steve "the Slammer" Michealson, star forward for the Vancouver Canucks. She barely gets through the segment without giggling because wow, he's really tall. She doesn't usually get starstruck, but oh man, she's already spotted two scars and she's pretty sure he's missing a tooth.

"Thanks," he says as the sound techs fuss around with their microphones. "That was a really great interview."

"Because you were great," and she's blushing, and wow, when did it get so hot in here?

He leans in. "Hey, I'm here for a few more days and I don't know a lot of people in New York. How would you like to have dinner on Friday?"

"I'd love to," she blurts.

"On New Year's," Barney says flatly. "You're ditching us for a hockey player on New Year's."

"I'm not ditching you; I said we'll come back to the bar after."

"Yeah, okay."

Robin squints at him, tries not to notice how Lily and Ted and Marshall are all shrinking down in their seats, trying to look inconspicuous. "What's your problem?"

Barney laughs, but there's none of his usual mirth in it. "Nothing. I am totally awesome. Have a legendary time." He picks up his scotch and slides out of the booth. "Excuse me."

The awkward silence at the table is stifling.

It bursts out. "We're not together!" Marshall frowns; she waves a hand to emphasize. "I mean, he banged that Asian chick in the bathroom three nights ago!"

"Robin," Lily starts, very carefully. "He's scared, too."

sudden stop

She spends Friday feeling alternately pissed and nauseous. Steve picks her up at the apartment and they go to this fantastic steakhouse and he looks really, really hot, but all she can think about is how much Barney would love this place. It's totally his style, lots of black leather sofas and polished mahogany trim. Plus all the waitresses are showing significant amounts of boob, and oh, what the hell is wrong with her?

After a jacketed busboy whisks away the remains of her steak, Steve raises his glass. "To new beginnings."

She smiles half-heartedly, clinks his glass, and then excuses herself to the restroom before her mascara starts to run. She twists the tap, splashes some water on her face. Checks her watch; it's just after eleven.

Robin stares at herself in the mirror. She can go out there and smile and have what will probably be really great sex with a guy that she's never going to have to see again, or she can man up and spend New Year's with the people who really matter to her.

She grabs her purse, winds her way out to the table.

"Steve, I have to go."

Fifty bucks gets Robin to MacLaren's in ten minutes. She bursts in, scans the crowd, and her heart sinks. They're not here. "Carl," she says, a little desperately. "Carl, have you seen Barney?"

He looks up, frowns. "Sure, he left with a couple of girls about an hour ago. Are you okay? You need something?"

All of her nervous, giddy energy fizzes out, and she sinks down onto a bar stool. "No. It's fine." She dials Lily, then Ted, but the network is busy and none of the calls go through. Great, alone on New Year's, and the person she wants to see more than anything in the world is probably fucking some other woman because he thinks she doesn't care about him.

Carl slides her a scotch. "On the house, okay?"

Her answering smile is a little watery, and she sighs, loses herself in the warm buzz when she takes a sip.

Worst night ever, she thinks as Ryan Seacrest shouts into his microphone and the bachelorette party in the corner decides that the bar really needs to hear their drunken cover of Whitesnake. She swirls her scotch. New Year's Eve can die in a fucking fire.

Carl clears his throat and when she glances up he's smiling at her. Then someone's breath brushes her neck; there's a familiar voice in her ear.

"A hundred dollars says when you turn around-"

The rest of it gets lost in her lips; she clutches at the back of his neck and he leans into her, arms wrapping around her waist as he presses her into the edge of the bar. Her heart's hammering in her chest and his hands are everywhere: in her hair, brushing her cheek, sliding along her ass. He's here, he's really here. He came back. She feels a little lightheaded; it must be the scotch.

The bar counts down around them, explodes into sound and cheers and hugging. Barney finally pulls back enough to look at her. "Happy New Year," he says, and his smile is so bright her eyes hurt.

She smoothes a hand down his tie, straightens the knot. "You didn't say wow. Pretty sure you owe me a hundred bucks."

He winks, leans in again. "I'm more than willing to work off the debt."

Unsurprisingly, they end up in the alley with his belt undone.

"Wait," Barney wheezes a little. "I have to say something to give this the emotional weight it deserves." She raises an eyebrow, and he grins. "There are two chicks making out on my couch right now."

"So? I could've nailed a professional hockey player."

"Robin," and he gives her a suffering look. "Chicks making out."

"Okay, fine. You win."

He grins, goes back to slicking kisses along her neck. "We're gonna be so awesome. Like, the idea alone is blowing my mind. I knew you'd be here; how crazy is that? I just knew it. Crazy awesome, that's how crazy it is."

She bites her lip. "Barney-"

"That was like, the best New Year's kiss ever, right?"

"Oh, it definitely was."

"Hah!" and when he pulls back to shoot a victorious grin at her, she feels her heart skip a terrifying, dizzy beat. "Marshall and Lily can totally suck it!"

The look in his eyes is making her chest hurt; she looks away because this is all moving too fast, and god she has to say it so everything's on the table. She doesn't think she could take it if she lets herself fall and then they crash and burn because she can't give him what he wants. She couldn't take losing him that way. She needs to say it.

"I don't want to get married," she blurts into the crisp fold of his lapel. "I don't ever want that kind of commitment, and I don't ever want kids."

His hand smoothes along her back. "And you seriously think that would be a deal breaker? Wow, it's like you don't know me at all."

She breathes him in, cigars and expensive cologne. "And I don't want to be stuck in New York. I want to travel. I want to live in Greece. And Thailand. I want to be able to go where my life takes me."

Robin can feel the rise and fall his shoulders as he shrugs. "My company owns two airlines. I fly for free."

A lump tickles in her throat and she tries to laugh it out, but it bubbles up more like a sob. "Barney, I can't-"

"Robin," he interrupts shakily, and the un-Barneyish rawness of it twists in her chest, snags and grinds everything to a halt. "Robin, I'm not trying to tie you down. Neither of us wants that. But I'm tired of pretending that you're not the most important person in my life."

"Wow," and she leans into him, letting the words linger a moment. Sniffles a little, dammit. "That was like, your best line ever."

His inarticulate sound of frustration tickles against her scalp. "I'm trying to bare my soul here."

"Yeah." She breathes in deep, tips her head up to look him in the eyes. Counts to three, exhales it all. "I adore you, you know. Totally gone."

A familiar smile twitches at the corner of his mouth. "Really?" and when she nods his face splits into a grin. She can feel her expression mirroring his own and wow, she doesn't think she's ever felt so stupid and giddy before. "Well then," and he steps back, dusts his hands off triumphantly, "feelings talk accomplished. Let us never speak of it again."

"You know, I hear 'I love you' sex is pretty mind-blowing."

He grabs her hand, starts pulling her out of the alley towards the front stairs as the sounds of New York celebrating rise up all around them. "All right, Scherbatsky, now you're speaking my language! This year is gonna be legen -wait for it-"

She laughs.

If Robin learned anything from Ted, it's that loving someone is never a guarantee. Loving someone doesn't mean everything's gonna work out. But when she thinks about them, about cigar smoke and skin and never having to pretend to want something that you don't, well, she feels pretty optimistic.

Then one night at dinner she tries to steal some of the hot fudge off the top of his sundae but Barney blocks her spoon with his own, a fencer's parry, and stares her down. "Excuse you. Do I look like the ice cream fairy or something?"

Lily's gaping at him, horror written all over her face because Barney's just violated one of the most sacred laws of coupledom, but he doesn't even notice because he's too busy killing her with his eyes.

"Order your own, geeze," he says peevishly.

And right then, Robin just knows.

Once upon a time, Robin Scherbatsky met a guy. She didn't fall in love with him, but then later she did, and he ended up being the best friend she's ever had. And somewhere in between all that she met his best friend, and his best friend's wife, and his other really good friend who became her best friend who she had lots and lots of sex with until she realized that the thought of life without him kind of made her want to vomit.

And that's when things really started getting interesting.

It's another Friday night at MacLaren's, comfortably familiar. Familiar booth, same old scotch and soda, same welcome weight of Barney's arm slung carelessly over the back of the bench.

Ted's introducing them all to his date, a sunshiny girl named Erin. Robin likes her immediately, likes how genuinely she smiles as Marshall and Lily tell the story of how they met. The 'awww' comes from the heart. And she liked the way Ted grinned as he told them how he and Erin met, something about a shouting match in the rain over his umbrella. Barney rolled his eyes but Ted's got that look, that 'let's fall in love and get married and have babies' look that terrified her so deeply, but Erin doesn't seem to mind. In fact, Erin's got a little of that look herself.

Robin can see their love story blooming already, can see Ted and Erin holding hands and smiling at each other as they tell the umbrella story to a thousand different people over the next forty years, choreographing and tweaking it to perfection just the way Marshall and Lily have.

And then she realizes that the thought doesn't bother her at all.

"So," Erin turns to her and smiles her sweet, infectious smile. "How did you and Barney meet?"

She smirks at him. Because really, how the hell do you even begin to answer that? Barney just laughs, his knee bumping hers under the table.

"Please," he says.

and then they awesomed and lazer-tagged forever and Barney always had the skin and libido of a much younger man, THE END