Empty chair

1. Lily

The booth is big enough for four, Lily tells herself. It's always been big enough for four. The perfect number. When there were five of them, someone always had to sit on the end like a fifth wheel. And especially when Ted and Robin were a couple, it must have been awkward for him.

Marshall tries to enjoy his birthday. It's a low-key event - no wild party like Ted's 30th a few weeks ago. No drama - just a meal followed by drinks at their bar, MacLaren's, the place where friends hang out.

And yet, she can feel Marshall's pain, Robin's awkwardness. It's as though the fun's been turned down a little bit and all of their jokes fall flat, like warm beer. There's nothing there, but she keeps turning to her right side, and there's a cold draft across her shoulders like there's a ghost sitting next to her.

It's creepy.

Marshall asks her, telepathically, what's wrong. She says nothing and the conversation flows, stilted, like a brook running over large rocks. There are word whirlpools and white water sentences and Lily feels a little lost. She meets Robin's eye and she knows that her friend feels the same.

Ted's too bright and bubbly compared to the rest of them, pressing on as if nothing matters, as if Barney's absence doesn't affect him. Lily wonders if Ted misses his former-best-friend at all.

Thing is, she doesn't think that Barney did anything wrong. And she's kind of more angry at Ted. Because what Barney did was that thing that Barney always does.

Save people that need saving.

And after rescuing her from California, paying for her honeymoon and marrying her and Marshall, she knows that more than anyone else at this table.

Robin needed saving.

And so what if it was through sex? It's not like Ted hadn't hooked up since Robin. It's not like Ted doesn't have a girlfriend now, which Lily is pretty sure still gives Robin the occasional twinge of jealousy.

What right has Ted got to be sanctimonious about this? What right has Ted got to judge them? What right has Ted got to accuse Barney of deliberately hurting Robin?

Lily knows that Ted's in the wrong. And she knows that Robin's the only one that Barney would have ever broken the Bro Code for. That says something.

So here they are, celebrating her husband's 30th birthday. And all it feels like is a wake.

"Solemn low five," she mumbles, under her breath.

And she silently drinks a toast to absent friends.

2. Ted

The booth is big enough for four.

But Marshall has to go and Lily's tired from work and Robin's crazy busy. When they do get together they talk in hushed tones. All of them are still skittish after what happened.

When they get together they are all acutely aware of the missing person, even though his chair's been filled by Stella.

And it's not like Barney hasn't been missing for a couple of months now. It's not like he's been missed.

But he has.

Shortly after leaving the hospital, Lily rounded on Ted and shouted at him, randomly, ranting with tears streaming down her cheeks. He didn't think he'd ever seen Lil so angry. In the end, Marshall had to take her home.

"It's shock," Robin had commented.

She's right, of course. It's shock at nearly losing the both of them. But sometimes shock brings out feelings that have lain dormant for a long, long time.

Ted goes back to the hospital without the others. Barney's half-asleep, doped up on the painkillers that are all that stand between him and the agony of his broken body. Ted feels like he's going to cry all over again.

"I'm sorry," he whispers.

Barney's eyes flicker open. "Quwa?" His friend says, blinking.

"I'm sorry," Ted repeats. Sorry for not trusting him, sorry for getting so stupidly possessive over Robin when he had no right to be. Sorry for not seeing sooner how much Barney brought to his life.

Sorry for devaluing him.

Sorry for messing up.

Sorry for the pain.

"I'll make it up to you," Ted says, firmly.

"Did she say yes?" Barney croaks.

"What?" Ted asks.

"Did Stella… say yes…? Dude!"

Ted laughs. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm gonna marry that girl."

And Barney just smiles. "Awesome."

"You're my best friend." Ted says. But Barney's already asleep.