December 10th

James and Tom are getting remarried today, and of all the Saturday mornings this was the one she got called in to work unexpectedly – so early, in fact, that Barney wasn't even out of bed.

And now it's clear she's not going to make it to the wedding on time either.

"I'm sorry," Robin tells him over the phone. "It's this Drumpf madness. Once-in-a-lifetime – and not in a good way. But what are you gonna do? I have to follow the story. I feel like I'm not truly doing my job until he calls WWN 'fake news'."

"Give him hell, baby."

"I'm going to try. But it means you'll have to go to the vow renewal without me. I'll try to make it there by the reception." When Barney doesn't respond right away, she adds, "I know how important this day is to the family, and I know this sucks, but I promise I'll make it up to you."

"Listening…I always love hearing the word 'suck' and promises of favors to me in the same sentence."

"Hm. I was thinking more along the lines of laser tag."

"As much as I love the game, it doesn't beat a blowie."

Robin grins. She knew he would say that, and likely he knew that she knew he would say it, but he doesn't know about her ace in the hole. "Not even the national laser tag championship in Spokane?"

Barney gasps. "You'll really do the NLTC with me next month?" The elation is clear in his voice even through the phone.

"It'll be tough getting the time off, but for you I'll make it happen…And if you play your cards right, maybe you'll get that other thing too once we get back to the hotel."

"Oooh," he hums with interest, "but why wait until the hotel? How about at the tournament?"

"Now you're pressing your luck." He gives a dirty chuckle and it makes Robin laugh. "What is it with you and laser tag?"

"Like it doesn't turn you on, too. Remember that time a few years ago, right before the hurricane, when we set that trap in the tunnel room?" Barney reminds her. "You were all over me. And we weren't even together."

"That is not how it happened….."

August 2011

It's late.

It's late all around. Late at night, late in the month of August, late in the entire summer, and late in the fierce battle of laser tag they're currently waging against a persistent gaggle of

twelve-year-olds who refuse to bow to their awesome and just admit defeat.

One such punk gets the foolish idea to try to ambush them, jumping out from the traffic cone he'd been hiding behind, and they make quick work of him. Barney shoots at him from the left; Robin comes at him from the right, diving over one of those dark rubber barriers they'd once hid behind on their very first game together and landing in a barrel roll to execute the perfect takedown shot. In the end, the kid gets it double, definitely out of the game.

Barney laughs tauntingly as the boy skulks away and then turns to Robin, grinning. "That was legendary!"

His eyes darken as they peruse her body, and she gets the feeling he's imagining something on her other than her peep toe sandals, dark wash denim capris, and grey sleeveless cowl neck top – very likely he's imagining her in nothing at all.

Her suspicions are confirmed when a second later, he adds, "Do you know how sexy you'd look dressed as Lara Croft? Hot, smart, total badass in dark tight clothes with long bare legs and guns strapped to each thigh…I could so put it into that."

"As charming as that come-on is, we're not dating anymore," Robin replies, "so I don't have to do your weird sexual fantasies."

He gives her the side-eye. "Like you didn't have plenty of weird sexual fantasies of your own."

"A Mountie is classic, not weird."

"And the whole Zamboni operator thing?" Barney asks, mischief dancing in his eyes.

She audibly scoffs. "We both know you wanted that as much as I did."

"Yeah, but just to help complete my list of vehicles you can have sex in/on."

"Either way," she points out, "a good time was had by all."

"Yeah it was."

He takes a step closer to her and that combined with the expression on his face makes Robin's heart flutter pleasantly – a reaction that leads her to remark, for her own benefit as much as his, "But that was two years ago."

A beat goes by without Barney putting any further space between them. Tellingly, while she doesn't close the sliver between them, she doesn't move back either.

"So, no Lara Croft then?" he finally asks.

Robin rolls her eyes, smirking. "Like I said, we're not sleeping together anymore, so…."

"And who's fault is that?" He gives her such an over the top leering look that it can't be anything other than intentional.

"Idiot," she retorts, laughing as she nudges him forward. "Now come on, let's take down these brats."

They agree to split up to hunt down the remaining kids. Within ten minutes, Robin winds up in the tunnel facing the arena's final room, a dead-end where the only way out is the same way you came in. Without even looking, she senses Barney's presence; the slight, almost imperceptible rustle of silk tie against laser tag vest also didn't hurt. "Come on down. It's only me," she says.

Barney swings down from the ceiling with the agility of a spider monkey, landing directly in front of her. Robin doesn't even flinch.

"A great ambush spot, right?" he brags proudly. "Picking kids off from above. I don't know why I didn't think of it before!"

Thus reunited, they collectively take stock, adding up the hits they made on their own to determine that just three kids are left: the ones they've dubbed Wendy, because of her flaming red hair and likewise to the burger chain mascot; Buzz Cut, for obvious reasons; and Ted Jr., because he looks just like him. Problem is, these particular three are smart enough to know when they're bested, yet too stubborn to give up. Worse still, going by Barney's last surveillance of them from his raised perspective, it seems they've teamed up against the adults. Smart move. Their only hope, really. But Team Scherbatsky-Stinson has years' worth of experience on their side.

"The SS is not about to be bested by a few prepubescents upstarts!"

"Barney, I told you, you've got to stop calling us that," Robin objects.

Ultimately, they conclude that waiting the kids out from the safety of a makeshift bunker is the best course of action, opting to use the entire last room as that bunker/lure. It's Barney's idea to devise a sort of bobby trap – he takes much delight in repeatedly calling it that – to alert them the second anyone comes into the room. Robin comes up with the mythology: using string from Barney's emergency sewing kit along with one of his keys to rig a trip line that when set off makes the key fall to the ground with a clatter, thus allowing them to get the jump on the stunned trio. All they have to do in the meantime is lie in wait to pick them off.

They pass the time discussing their friends, her work, nothing and everything that somehow morphs into a lively debate over the legitimacy of pineapple as a pizza topping.

"You can't just dismiss something without trying it, Robin. I've always said you have to give things a chance. How do you know you won't enjoy a threesome with a Japanese sex robot if you never give it a try?"

"That's what I said to you about my strap– "

"We did try that."

"And you loved it."

"Which is exactly my point!"

"Okay," Robin grants him with a smile, conceding he does have something there, "but how could I give it a chance under those circumstances? I was never going to find it enjoyable when you just laid it on top of me while I was sleeping."

Barney shrugs like he doesn't see the problem. "I wanted you to wake up to the sensation."

She chuckles at that and ponders, amused, "Of a Japanese sex robot?"

"Yeah, well, it worked for you plenty of times when I was the one laying on top of you," he counters, moving into her space with that look in his eyes. "You even asked me to – "

"Shh," she cuts him off suddenly, her eyes shooting to the doorway. In a split second, she reverses their positions, pushing him against the wall and behind her just as the key falls to the ground with a clatter. Then – phew! phew! phew! – she picks off the three kids in quick secession as they attempt to scatter into hiding.

Hanging their heads in defeat, Buzz Cut, Wendy, and Ted Jr. trickle, vanquished, out of the tunnel to Barney's shouts of, "Aw, that's right! You losers better head back to Mommy!"

Robin reaches her hand over her shoulder for him to high five, which he does, wrapping his other arm around her waist from behind, caught up in a wave of excitement. "As much as we all tease you for being a gun nut, that was super-hot."

Giggling delightedly, she turns around to face him.

"You just saved my life," he utters dramatically, an intentional callback to their very first game.

She smirks and rather than replying with 'Thank me later', as before, answers more boldly. "Now you owe me."

Barney's smile warms, going distinctly flirtatious, and his eyes slowly peruse her face, drifting down to her lips. "What did you have in mind?" he wonders suggestively.

That tone combined with that look makes her stomach go all wiggly, her body flushing, blood pulsing hot and low in response. Instinctively, her left hand moves to rest against his chest. After that, she can't help herself; it's like her body just takes over. In lieu of lapels, her fingers curl into the V of his laser tag vest. When her right hand steals up further, gliding over the softness of his shirt where the vest doesn't cover, Barney exhales a kind of low rasping sound in the back of his throat and his hands go to her hips, drawing her in against him. The contact causes Robin's heart to beat faster and as she moves her hand up to his open collar all she can think is, mercifully, there's no tie tonight, no barrier between them. Two fingers slip inside against bare skin and her breath catches a second before she takes hold of the fabric and tugs him towards her.

That barest of moments seems to play out forever. She's anticipating blissful contact any second – his soft, warm mouth against hers – but instead the overhead lights switch on bright and blinding. They both blink against the abrupt, harsh glare as their pupils acclimate.

When the dots in her vision clear, she looks over to see the arena's manager – the new one who'd taken command since 2009, after Barney eventually drove the Murtaugh guy out – walking over to them, his hands on his hips in a show of authority mixed with frustration. "Game's over. Everyone else already came out," he barks. "I told you guys before, if you want to do that in here you've got to rent out the entire arena."

Robin's eyes go unconsciously to the tunnel, his rebuke calling to mind the time when Barney did just that back when they were dating but not calling it that yet. They played strip laser tag, an aggressive battle even though they both knew going in that, no matter the victor, it would inevitably end the same way. She had a slight lead, down to her bra and panties versus Barney in just his boxers, when he cornered her, kissing her senseless until she pulled him down onto the floor and they had sex right there in the tunnel. In the end, Robin was deemed the victor; Barney got her bra off, making them even, but Robin was the first to strip him of his underwear, without a single objection from him. As hot as that was, it was possibly even hotter when they watched it later that night after Barney bought the security camera footage.

She doesn't know if it's the manager's accusation now or the old memory, but Robin feels her face coloring and she quietly responds, "We weren't doing anything."

"Mm-hmm," he declares cynically, "and I don't spend half my life cleaning up spilled soda and nachos from the game room floor."

"You gotta get out more, McAdams," Barney shoots back.

"And you two need to go home and just do each other already. Cause this thing you've got going on in the meantime is making the tweens' hormones go crazy." He shakes his head in aggravation. "Hell, the last time you were here together I caught our security guy beating off just watching you two and listening to your sexy banter."

"That's why you fired Julio?" Barney replies, dismayed. He'd been truly sad to see the long-timer go.

Once they're kicked out of laser tag – "Big loss," Barney claims, "they were closing anyway" – they decide to head to the bar to see if Ted's had any success with his date.

There's a little bit of small talk, though mostly they walk in companionable silence through the city streets. But when they're almost there, Robin can't fight the impulse to know where Barney's head is at any longer. "What do you…" she begins tentatively, "what do you think about McAdams?"

"Great bro," Barney answers offhandedly, "but he hasn't gotten laid since his wife left him. Too desperate for it; ladies pick up on that."

Robin nods in agreement. "That explains what he said." She steals a glance at him under the streetlight. "Because, otherwise, that was just crazy talk." Barney looks over at her now and she darts her eyes away, fixing them straight ahead. "You and I are….friends," she settles on, but it immediately sounds wrong, a lie, not nearly enough. "Okay, exes," she allows. "But now…."

"Close friends," Barney finishes for her.

"Yeah." She stops moving on the sidewalk just before the shamrock green "MacLaren's Pub" sign and chances to turn to him. He's looking back at her steadily. Their gazes meet and cling, and something inside her pulls tight. "Just….very close friends."

This very close friend wants nothing more than to take her to bed right now, and Barney has a feeling she wants it too. "Unless – "


Somewhere in the exchange, a cab had pulled up unnoticed at the curb beside them. Now it just so happens to be Lily and Marshall getting out of it.

"Hey," Robin answers, stepping back from Barney. "I thought you guys were dedicating tonight to 'making a baby'."

"Turns out I got the dates wrong," Lily explains. "I'm not ovulating until next week."

"We did it anyway, real quick, just to be sure," Marshall quips.

"Is there any other way you do it but 'real quick'?" Barney ribs him, and the two fall into friendly male one-upmanship as they head down the steps into the bar.

Robin starts to follow them when Lily holds her back. "What was that about just now?" she asks suspiciously.

"Nothing," Robin denies, all innocence.

Lily's scrutinizing stare rakes over her face. "Where's the poop, Robin?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You're lying!" the redhead accuses.

"No, I'm not. It was nothing."

"Are you sure? Cause when we pulled up, before you knew we were there, it looked like things were getting kind of chummy…."

"Uh, we were walking to the bar having a conversation," Robin mocks.

"You were stopped out on the sidewalk, gazing into each other's eyes."

Robin laughs, scoffing. "I have never gazed into Barney's eyes," she claims, this time fully aware it's a lie.

"Oh, come on! You dated for months."

"It wasn't his eyes I was gazing at," Robin rejoins.

"Hey-oh!" Lily approves. "Although, you know, that answer really doesn't help your cause."

Changing the subject to distract her, because she learned misdirection from the best, Robin tells her, "So I heard at work there's this little place uptown selling Jimmy Choo's half off."

Lily's eyes light up and anything else is instantly forgotten….

December 2016

"See?" Barney gloats. "All over me."

"You were all over me, too."

"Yeah, I was," he owns it proudly. "Every chance I got." Barney chuckles softy to himself. "You know, a year later when I was doing "The Robin" and we were at Step 4?"

"'Robin goes nuts'," she recites helpfully. "Yes, I seem to recall."

"I knew I had you when you walked in dressed as Lara Croft."

"I was sure that outfit would get you into bed, and devastated when you turned me down again."

"Well, I remembered the night McAdams caught us and how you said you'd only do my 'weird' sex fantasies if we were dating. Then there you were, doing my sex fantasy." She can hear the smile in his voice. "It gave me a lot of hope….And something to picture that night when I was strummin' it."

"Mmm, that's my sweet husband," she teases, and he cackles shamelessly. "I wasn't sure you'd remember telling me – and at that point I was desperate enough not to care if you did. But a few weeks earlier, walking back from Splitsville when I stopped and put my hand on your chest, the way you looked down so deliberately, I was afraid you were on to me then."

"I was," Barney confirms. "You putting your hand on my chest was always sexual, I knew that. And just like that night at laser tag, and the night we danced at Punchy's wedding, it usually meant you were ready to escalate things."

"I'm feeling ready to escalate them right now," Robin tells him suggestively. "Too bad I'm stuck at work for at least another two hours." When she speaks again her voice is soft and naughty, and he can hear the sound of rustling through the phone. "Tell me….what are you wearing?"

"Your hand's inside your blouse right now, isn't it?"

She makes a throaty sound, half amusement, half pleasure. "It's a stress relief. Just tell me."

He's got twenty minutes before Ranjit arrives. Barney smirks lustfully. "Better yet, switch to Skype…."

Midway through the reception, James finds Barney at the bar about to order a drink and beats him to it. "He'll have a Glen McKenna 35-year, neat," he instructs the bartender.

"Actually, sir, we don't stock that brand."

"Well, please see if you can't scrounge some up." James leans in with a conspiratorial wink. "It's for the groom."

Looking significantly more impressed, the young man nods. "Of course, sir. Right away." The bartender scurries off to find his boss, and while they wait for Barney's drink, the two turn back to the reception hall.

Tom shoots James a smile from across the room. Watching him twirl Sadie to her favorite song from that Trolls movie leaves James all warm and content inside, filled with the unmistakable – grateful – feeling that his whole life has led up to this moment. "How did we both get so lucky?" he wonders aloud to his brother.

"Good looks and amazing sexual stamina," Barney replies without missing a beat.

"I'm serious. Here I am, two kids and back with my husband despite almost foolishly throwing it all away. And there you are, going on four years into marriage with the woman of your dreams."

"We are lucky," Barney admits with a satisfied smile. "So much for the Stinson curse. The Stinson men have got it made."

"I remember a time when that wasn't always the case."

"Yeah." Barney nods in agreement. "You really almost blew it, bro," he says, giving him a heartening pat on the shoulder.

James laughs, shaking his head at his incorrigible younger sibling. "I was talking about you. Do you know just a few weeks ago was five years to the day from that night you strolled into my place, drunk off your ass and pouring your heart out about how Robin would never choose you." James shudders at his own poor judgement for allowing this next part. "Then a day or so later you tried to pass my daughter off as yours. And, weirdly enough, Ted's."

"Hey, I didn't do a bad job. You got her back in one piece. And I still think you should have called her Hurricane."

"You bought her wee-wee pads instead of diapers," James reminds him. "It's a great thing you and Robin aren't having kids. Besides, it was never about kids. It was about how much you loooove her," he taunts his brother like they're kids again and he's accusing them of sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g.

"I should have kept my mouth shut," Barney grumbles, embarrassed. "But I think that was the birth of Truth Serum Drunk….."

November 2011

He had a post-Robin plan in place.

Sure, it was a spur of the moment, three scotches in plan, but it was a plan. The love of his life turned him down. Flat-out. Even after he made a move, made a plea, she still chose another man.

Okay then. It was a devastating blow, but he'd rally. What choice did he have? So if he couldn't have the wife part of the dream equation everyone tries to sell you on – husband and wife and baby makes three – he supposed he'd just have to take the kid part of it.

In this day and age, bros could raise a baby together. Him and Ted, the kid, his two hot nannies and the family pet cobra; he had it all worked out. But then: I can't adopt a baby with you, Barney. We don't even have one yet and you're already a terrible father. Dammit, Ted.

He can't do this alone. He can't be alone. That was the whole point.

Because when he's alone, it's bad. When he's alone, he relives it over and over again. He sees her there, shaking her head 'no'. He feels that devastating pain and rejection all over again. Only somehow even worse now that it's no longer such a shock, such an out-of-nowhere blow. Now he sees it from a few steps back, something you'd think would make it better but in reality is actually harsher still. Because along with that pain of rejection comes the clear sense of aching loss now that there's been hours, days, and weeks to vividly consider the alternative. Now that there's been time – too much tortured time – spent imagining all that might have been, could have easily been with her had Robin only come in alone, had she only shaken her had 'yes', had she only gone back upstairs with him to her candlelit, rose-covered bedroom.

When he's alone, that's when the stark realization slaps him in the face over and again that, despite the passing weeks, the pain, the longing, and the loss, none of it's getting any better. When he's alone, he has to face the certain knowledge that it never will. It will never stop hurting because he will never stop being in love with her. Lord knows he's tried. He's tried a million times in a million different ways to make it stop – and all he has to show for it is knowing now more than ever that loving Robin is as much an ingrained part of him as the need to breathe.

The only strategy for existence, the only coping mechanism he has is to simply never be alone, never be left by himself with all those thoughts, images, and feelings. It's about self-preservation at this point. Alone is out of the question; that's all there is to it.

So after Ted shot down his baby plan, somehow of its own volition, Barney's body took him to his brother's place. Because James may be annoyed, but he'll let him in. Ending up on his brother's doorstep in the middle of the night, utterly without a thought of what to do or say, isn't exactly a solid plan but knowing James will open the door and welcome him inside means that at least for one more night, if only for a few more hours, Barney has a distraction to chase the ghost of her away.

James opens the door to find his brother, obviously drunk, and he heaves a weary sigh he doesn't bother to hide. The only reason he was even up at this hour is because Sadie is teething. A grumpy baby won't go to sleep so he can't either, the way his husband and son already are. It's just his luck that their daughter seems to have a keen sense of when it's his turn on overnight duty and always chooses that time to act up the most.

Stepping aside, James gestures him inside, closing the door behind them but not without asking, "What's going on, Barney? What are you doing here at this hour?"

"Ted is a jerk. Life is a jerk." Barney slumps down onto his brother's couch and reveals quietly but with a shocking level of candor, "And I'm not sure I can take it anymore."

That response startles James enough to view the situation more seriously. Over the next ten minutes, he wheedles out of Barney the gist of this evening's events leading up to his late-night trip here. Though it's far from adding up, one thing is clear: Barney is extremely, completely, almost impossibly drunk – drunker than James has ever seen him, and that's saying alot. Past Richard Dawson Drunk, past Big Plans with Strangers Drunk, past Marcel Marceau Drunk. This is even beyond Jabba Drunk. And throughout his tale of the evening, Barney's mood vacillates between sulking, angry, and miserably depressed, near despairing.

It leaves James concerned enough to hand over the baby, hoping her cubby little cheeks and currently – since he applied the baby Orajel – contented demeanor will cheer Barney up too.

But it's been another five minutes and it isn't working, so he sits down beside his brother, taking Sadie back onto his own lap so there won't be any convenient distractions. "Barney, no more runaround; what is this really about?"

"Told you. Ted's being a jerk."

"I know that's what you told me, but it's not the truth."

"It is."

"Okay, maybe Ted is being a jerk, but that's not what's got you so upset. This," James waves a hand over him, so morose and out of character there's even a winkle in his suit coat. "This isn't about Ted." He studies his brother closely with the keen, perceptive eyes of someone who's known him – the real him – since Barney took his first breath, and James reaches the incontrovertible conclusion, "This is girl problem."

Barney looks away with cagy reluctance.

"Ah-ha! I'm right. Of course, I'm right," James congratulates his own shrewd acuity. "This kind of bitter anger mixed with despondency has to be about a girl."

"Doesn't exactly take a genius to figure that out," Barney tries, dismission and misdirection always a go-to. "I did just go through a breakup."

That reminder gives James pause, but only half a second's worth – because he'd already forgotten Barney had a breakup, forgotten he'd even had a girlfriend. "Yeah, but this isn't about Nora." James shakes her head with certainty. No way is this about a woman who altered Barney so little that her existence in his life, only a few weeks past, was able to entirely slip James' mind. "You didn't even care about Nora this much when she was around. No. This is something else…." He looks his agitated brother up and down consideringly. "And it's serious. I haven't seen you this upset since – "

"I know," Barney stops him, feeling like he's taking back the power if he says it first, "since Shannon." He's already thought about it, already seen the harshly ironic similarities of how he keeps ending up in the same position: playing the fool for a woman he dares to care about, yet who never loves him in that same way. "But if you're going to tell me to go find a girl and have sex with her ASAP – "

"Actually, I was going to say I haven't seen you this upset since you and Robin broke up."


That 'oh' said more than his younger brother realizes. This isn't just Barney upset like he was with Robin; this is still about Robin, James is sure of it. "And I wasn't going to tell you to run out and have sex with some girl ASAP. I never should have said that. That was terrible advice."

"I already tried it, anyway," Barney shrugs. "It doesn't work."

James snorts. "You can't exactly count Rhonda 'Man Maker' French."

"I meant I've tried it again. More recently."

"As in tonight?" James asks, his features contorted in disgust. "I hope you washed your hands; you touched my baby."

"No, not tonight," Barney replies, slightly insulted. "Not since – " He stops himself just before saying 'not since the night with Robin'. James doesn't need to know he hasn't had sex since the night – correction, one time; she didn't even stay the night – with Robin made him foolish enough to think they'd have a future beyond that.

"You tried it back when Robin broke up with you?" James guesses.

Barney scoffs bitterly. "Robin didn't break up with me. It was mutual." But for all that sudden bluster, the wind goes out of his sails just as swiftly. Because it's hard to remember; it was hard to even know at the time. "I think….It all happened so fast."

James approaches the subject carefully. It's one he's learned over the years is not a topic generally open to discussion. "But that was three years ago. Come on, mon petit frère blanc," he gently coaxes. "Tell me what's going on now."

At first it seems like he's not going to answer at all, but then Barney takes a deep, heavy breath. "It's just…" He sighs, and there's such pure pain in it that James feels it too. "I used to think maybe the problem was that I hadn't tried hard enough. That if I had just been willing to put myself out there more, things would have turned out differently – could still turn out differently."

James watches as he shakes his head resentfully, raging against 'the problem', or his luck, most likely just himself, maybe love in general.

"But now, I did put myself out there. And – " Barney looks away, but it's too late; James already saw the tears – honest to God tears – in his brother's eyes. "It didn't matter. I didn't matter."

The room is quiet, even Sadie seems to feel the solemnity. The only sound that breaks the silence is that of one lone sniff as Barney struggles to hold it together. "I'm damned if I don't, and damned if I do. I go around saying 'Barney Stinson always wins', but I only say that because he doesn't," Barney discloses. "I don't. I can't. I can't ever win. Not with the stuff that really matters. So now, along with the punch to the gut of rejection, I get to look like a total fool to her."

"You put yourself out there with Robin?" James asks cautiously.

Barney ignores the question, off on his own train of thought. "Except that I'm not a fool," he says indignantly, with a resurgence of bitter anger. "Because what else was I supposed to think?" At one point in the heart of it, he was thrusting into her, kissing the junction where her neck meets her shoulder, and Robin had suddenly lifted his head, cupped his face with both hands and stopped for a moment just to look into his eyes, as if she was savoring the fact that it really was him. He'd savored it too, until he could take no more of stopping. Until he'd leaned in to the point where their lips where almost touching, a hairbreadth apart. Until she could take no more herself and desperately pulled him in the rest of the way. "When a woman kisses you like her very life depends on it, when she clings to you while you're making love and whispers your name over and over again like it's the only thing that matters, you can't blame a guy for thinking she might feel the same way."

James eyebrows go up at that. "You slept with Robin? Recently?" And then it hits him. "Ohh." He should have seen it sooner; it makes so much sense now. "That's why you and Nora – " But then James looks over at Barney, a sad broken man, and reminds himself this isn't about what does or doesn't make sense to him; it's about his brother hurting. "Sorry. Continue."

Barney shrugs again, shaking his head wearily. "It doesn't matter. None of it mattered. It didn't matter that I was ready to go for it – with candles and rose petals and….everything…. proposals even. But it didn't matter. It didn't matter if I've been thinking about marriage and kids and the whole white picket fence thing. Because she doesn't want that." He lets out a lone, embittered huff of laughter. "Or she wants it with him. That's how it seemed anyway, with the way they showed up together, quite the happy couple. It didn't matter how good it was with us in bed the night before. But that's the thing she never gets wrong: screwing me," he says, a double entendre laced with cynical, black humor – because screwing him in bed or screwing him over, they both seem to be something she specializes in.

"I'm sorry, Barney," James says. He doesn't know what else he can say.

"But it's okay," Barney sloughs it off. "Who needs women, right? Not me."

"Oh, so you're switching teams?" James retorts with a trace of amusement at what has to be the drunkenness talking, since Barney Stinson is all about the lady bits. "Take it from me, that won't work."

"No." Barney shakes his head. "We already decided we can't be gay."

"What?" his brother laughs.

"And all the scotch in Scotland can't fix this. Scotch, tequila, rum….Hennessy, Jack, Jim, Johnny – tried 'em all. No luck."

James smirks. "I thought you said you weren't going to be gay." Barney doesn't laugh or smile or react in any way. Maybe humor isn't always the best medicine, James concludes. "Sorry," he apologizes, "I know you were talking about alcohol. It's just been awhile since I had the chance to hang out with Drunk Barney. You started doing a string of consciousness of names, and for a second there I thought I'd lost you to Jabba Drunk. Okay. Go on. So you have a solution figured out?"

Barney nods. "We can't be gay, but we can be dads. Look at you." He gestures to the way James is bouncing his daughter in his lap, carefully holding the gummy teether in place near her mouth while simultaneously fully focusing on his conversation with his brother. "You've got Eli and Sadie. Kids mean you'll never be alone. Someone will always be there to love you. Cuz that's what kids do," he says, watching the way his niece snuggles into her papa. "They just love you. Unconditionally. And they never hurt you. There are no surprises with kids. They don't wake up the next morning and decide they want another dad instead of you. They're not fickle. They can't break your heart the way a woman can."

"Actually, kids are very fickle. Just take Eli; one day it's SpongeBob, the next he's all about Phineas and Ferb. The day after that, everything is the Avengers and Captain America. It just shows that – I love you, Barney, but you don't know the first thing about being a dad. A fun uncle? Yes? But a dad is there in the trenches, and it's far from love and support and happy times 24/7. Just wait until they get in the double digits. A kid will say 'I hate you' more times than they'll say 'I love you'. Being a dad can be a thankless task. It requires a lot of you and takes a lot out of you."

Caring for a baby is hard work, Barney gets that, but it doesn't dissuade him. Working his way up the ladder at AltruCell was hard work too, but that didn't stop him. "So let me try then. Let me babysit Sadie for a while on my own, learn what it's like to be a dad."

"Barney, you're wasted. There's no way I'm handing over an infant into your care."

"Not now, when I've sobered up."

James shakes his head 'no'. "And I'm sorry if this comes off sounding harsh, but you can't just adopt a kid because you're lonely and sad and heartbroken. That's not going to fix anything. A kid can't replace the woman that you're longing for."

Not even deep down but right there at the surface, Barney knows James is right. Because even after everything, how much she's hurt him – broken him – if he had the ability to blink his eyes and make Robin appear in this room with him right now, he would want that. Even at the same time that it hurts him to see her, he would want to see her, feel better seeing her, feel love seeing her. Even still, even now.

That's the thing; he will always want her. Always be ready, willing, waiting to jump at the smallest sign of an opening from her, the smallest chance for them to be together again, a chance that she'll choose him this time – even though he knows she is never going to choose him.

"Parent-child love is completely different from romantic love. One won't stop the pining for the other," James goes on, as if reading his mind. "I'm sorry, Barney, but all the babies in the world aren't going to stop you from loving her."

Barney tries not to hear his lecture, definitely refuses to listen to his advice, though he knows the truth of what his brother is saying. Being with Robin, dating her at all, changed him. He can't forget what that was like, being that much in love and having that other person love you back. He'll carry that with him forever. That feeling, that contentment, that bliss is something he will always long for. And no pet, no bro, no bimbo, no baby can erase that longing. James is absolutely right.

But that's a bleak future. Too bleak to accept, so he won't. Can't. He's got to try them all, try every last way to escape his fate. So he focuses on making faces at Sadie, because babies are cute in a way that can make you feel better for a least a little while.

"Why am I even bothering?" James sighs, shaking his head regretfully at the way Barney is ignoring him. "You're not going to remember any of this in the morning, anyway."

But he does. And he insists that James go along with the babysitting trial. Two days later, Barney picks up Sadie early Thanksgiving morning and arranges for James and Tom to take her back that night after dinner at Lily and Marshall's new house out on Long Island.

December 2016

"It doesn't really matter how much you blabbed that night," James shrugs off his brother's discomfort. "The secret was out long before then that you're crazy about Robin."

"Not to her, it wasn't. She once thought she was just another number to me."

"Women." James shakes his head. "That's why I swing the other way."

"As I recall, you advised me against trying that."

"Your penis advised you against it."

"True that," Barney smirks.

"But it all worked out," James muses. "Suffering through and fighting that hard to be with Robin payed off in the end. Now look how deliriously happy you are."

"Me and my penis."

"It's the only way," James grins, slapping his brother on the back before going off to rejoin Tom.

Barney barely registers his departure because in that same second Robin walks through the door looking fifty shades of lovely.

She has her hair pinned up loosely but attractively. It was probably a hurried attempt in the cab on the way over from the studio. Still, it shows off her neck and makes her look like a million bucks. She's changed out of her WWN clothes into a sapphire blue, cap-sleeve sheath dress that hugs her figure in all the right places, and with the added heels her legs look like they go on for miles, making him want them wrapped around his hips. "Definitely worth waiting for," he murmurs to himself.

When she spots him across the room, her eyes light up, and even years in it triggers a funny little skip in the beat of his heart. "Baby!" he calls to her.

"Hey, you," she smiles. "I made it."

They hurry to each other and he pulls her right into a deep kiss. Several moments later, when they finally come up for air, Robin sighs contentedly. "Mmm, what was that for?"

"You look incredible in that dress. So hot."

"You're not so bad yourself." She glides her hand down to his chest, leaning in and letting her breath blow warm against his ear as she whispers, "But then you've already had ample proof of how good I think you look in this suit."

Barney shivers and his hands grip her hips tighter, but just then Marshall arrives at their side, out of breath and clearly freaking out.

"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!" he exclaims.

"Marshall," Lily says, catching up to him, "what is it?"

"Dude! Dude!" Marshall says to Barney. "It's your premonition."

Barney looks at him oddly. "What are you talking about?"

"Like, way back, when Ted made that failed architecture firm – "

"Mosbius Designs," Barney fills in with a laugh, remembering the old viral video, wondering how he could have ever forgotten to make fun of Ted for that daily.

"Yeah," Marshall continues, "and Robin was sleeping with Ted's assistant, and it made you crazy enough with jealousy to talk to me about it."

"What's your point?" Barney wonders, still hating PJ's guts. What kind of a name is PJ anyway?

"Don't you remember what you said to me at the bar? I said 'I already knew that you're in love with Robin' because Lily told me – plus, you know, it was super obvious," Marshall adds, the second one to tell him so in the past ten minutes. "Then you tried to claim that you didn't actually love her, you just missed her when she's not around, thought about her all the time – and here's the big part!" he says with barely contained excitement. "You said, 'I imagine us one day running to each other in slow motion while I'm wearing a brown suede vest.' This," Marshall sputters, so thrilled he can hardly get it out, "this is that 'one day'!" He turns to Lily. "They just ran to each other. And look!" Marshall squeals, wide-eyed and bouncing with enthusiasm. "Babe. He's even wearing a brown vest!"

Barney disentangles himself from Robin to look down at his outfit. He'd ditched his sport coat early on at the reception, so his vest is fully on display, but – "Uh, this is not suede." It may be brown – more of a dark shade of tan, really – but with a deep taupe, fitted shirt beneath and a matching patterned tie, he looks damn good and he knows it. "And it's bespoke Dolce & Gabbana. So…."

"Still," Marshall says, undeterred. "Close enough. This is what you dreamed of, buddy!"

Barney opens his mouth to further deflect, but then he glances over at Robin. When their eyes meet all the fight goes out of him and he just smiles. "You know what? It really is."

At some point in the commotion, Ted and Tracy had followed after Marshall too, apparently there long enough to have heard his explanation, because Tracy asks with amusement, "How about you, Robin? Was this your dream too?"

"Does that sound like me? The running in slow motion part?" Robin smiles slyly at her husband. "Please. That's all him."

"I don't know, I seem to recall you once starry-eyed describing your ideal guy to me," Ted puts in, "and it was pretty much Barney to a tee."

"Really?" Barney grins. "When was this?"

"Oh, it had to be a good…" Ted does a quick calculation. "….seven or eight years ago. Not too long before you guys started sleeping together secretly. Probably around the same time as Marshall's thing, actually."

"Aww," Barney coos in delight to Robin's embarrassment, "way back in 2009 you said I was your ideal guy?"

All eyes turn to Robin, making her feel even more on the spot. "I didn't say you specifically….just smart, funny – "

"Challenging," Ted reminds her.

Marshall gasps. "He says 'Challenge accepted' all the time!"

"Yes, and passionate too," Robin concedes. "I'm aware of how very Barney that one is."

"And you love it," Barney contends. "Now just throw in rapier wit and raffish charm – "

"I wouldn't exactly put it that way."

He raises his eyebrow knowingly, and she hears his telepathic communication loud and clear: You found my charm plenty appealing last night when you jumped me on the couch – and then enjoyed a prime example of just how passionate I can be.

"Okay," Robin admits, "even if it wasn't intentional, I was totally describing Barney."

"She was totally talking about Barney!" Marshall repeats with glee.

"Subconsciously," Robin reiterates.

"I'll still take it," Barney says smugly, wrapping his arm around her waist and drawing her in against his side.

"See," Marshall champions, "it's stuff like this that makes me believe in Nessie! The Universe has a plan, miracles are real, and anything is possible!"

Tracy laughs at his childlike wonder, turning to Barney and Robin. "So it looks like you guys both got your dreams."

Lily, watching James and Tom dancing with their two kids across the room, laces her fingers through her husband's. "I think we all did."