Disclaimer: I'm making nothing from this, and I don't own the characters at all.
Spoiler: General through Season 7 and the start of 8. AU
She's in MacLaren's when she realises it. (Of course she is, all the big realisations happen in MacLaren's.)
She knows she's leaning a little too much on Ted but she's on her third scotch tonight and they're just the chasers to the beers she slipped in before she left home. She feels every shrug and laugh and she's pretty sure she'll be going into work tomorrow with a hangover.
Quinn's across the table, twirling her ring like she's twisting the dial on a radio and Robin tunes in and out because she's talking about Barney and everything changing. She hears the word porn and the volume goes up because Barney's at his flat, packing up his dvds (again) and his bachelor toys (and she thinks of the Stormtrooper and their fights that were always about something else).
"-and the magic." Quinn twists her ring and Ted sort-of cheers but when he meets Robin's eyes he's not happy at all.
And then Robin realises.
Because she can understand the porn and maybe he shouldn't keep the swing and the handcuffs if Quinn isn't in to that, but the magic is a part of who he is. Even more than the womanizing and the there-for-a-laugh clowning around (because he's dropped both of those parts before, like shaking off water and still been the same man underneath). But countless interventions, hospital visits and broken watches later, Barney's still making announcements with sparks and pulling coins from behind his nephew's ears to make him laugh.
Ted smiles and shakes his head and for a moment their old telepathy is back in place and telling herself that it's Ted's voice in her head makes everything a little bit clearer. Because she's realising that this is the last chance she's got. Barney's shedding pieces of himself to be who Quinn wants him to be, he's doing everything he can to keep her in his life and he's going to marry her. He's going to marry her and Robin can see them now, ten years down the line, still holding on to each other. But the Barney she sees isn't her Barney who tells outrageous jokes at inappropriate times because he knows they'll make her laugh. Who made her love Halloween so much because he does. Her Barney who is the only person who has ever seen the whole of her and still fell in love with her anyway. Future-Barney is someone else, another mask to hide himself behind and the thought of him not being him hurts.
"I-I've got to go."
Ted smiles and squeezes her hand and says "There's a cab outside" and holds up his phone with a shrug. And if Ted 'I-must-find-the-one' Mosby is encouraging her, then maybe this time she's going to get it right.
She slips out of the pub and into the cab and gives his address and the whisky and beer are swirling around her stomach (and some time tonight she's going to throw up, but she really doesn't care so long as she does this right first). She watches New York pass the window and thinks about what's keeping her here, what's been keeping her here for two years when she couldn't stay a full year without her fingers itching before. How even though she thought she didn't want to take that chance, she's been hanging around anyway, just waiting to change her mind.
She takes the elevator up to his floor and she stares at her wide eyes in the mirrored walls and tries to find the doubt that's always been there before. The doors open and she still hasn't found it.
Her heart beats twice as hard as it should, her blood rushing in her veins and her hand shakes so hard she knocks more times than she means to.
He smiles when he sees her, his baby blues lighting up the way they always have for her and something settles deep inside her because this is it and she's finally ready for him.
"What's up, Scherbatsky?"
He still says her name like it means something and how did she ignore it for so long when he's been saying 'I love you' every time they speak? (They never agreed not to have nicknames for each other, they knew it just wasn't them. But when he tangled their fingers together under the table and said Scherbatsky she smiled Lily's 'Lilypad' smile and knew what he meant.)
"Barney." She sighs, her body relaxing with every moment she meets his eyes and she sees his widen because, yeah, she had practically breathed his name.
"You want in?" He's already moving away from the door, opening it wider so she can brush past him. The flat is full of boxes, cardboard boxes and not the trunks and suitcases he used to pack this stuff up in before. He's not hiding it away somewhere else, not gifting it to his friends; this time he's getting rid of it all for good and she spins around at the soft click of the door closing.
"I love you."
It isn't elegant or careful. The words tumble out like she's been holding them in too long (because she has and nothing between them has ever been careful).
He freezes, fingers stilling on his cuff and she watches his every thought pass over his too expressive face. Surprise, disbelief, confusion and pain that makes her think of big silver busses and eighty-three percent of his bones ground to dust. His eyes flash with anger and his hands cross over his chest and she isn't surprised that's where he settles, but she doesn't mind because she can work with anger, when she can still see that spark of hope that no matter what she does to him she can't seem to smother completely.
"I'm marrying Quinn." He doesn't say 'I don't love you', he doesn't say 'get out'.
"I know." Her coat slides off her shoulders and she drops it over the couch. "I love you."
His right eye twitches and he crosses his arms tighter, like he's holding himself back. She steps around the boxes, dragging her fingers over the glass case he once filled with water and amazed them all by escaping from. Barney watches her, eyes following her every move and Robin can't remember a time when he didn't.
"I know it's bad timing. I know I should have meant it and said it a long time ago." He scoffs and even though it shouldn't, it makes her smile. "I know." She says, stopping close enough to him that she can smell him beneath the cotton shirt and aftershave. "But I'm saying it now."
"Robin." He doesn't follow-up, and she smiles again, reaching out and laying a hand over his heart. He shivers underneath her; she's known for a long time that she is his biggest weakness. She hasn't always taken care to remember that.
"I love you Barney Stinson. I love that you're the grossest guy I've ever met. I love that in thirty years time you'll still be hitting on co-eds at a college bar and telling yourself that the waitress totally pushed her chest into your face. I love that you keep a scrap book of every person you've slept with so you won't forget them."
"Shh." She presses a finger against his lips. "I love that sometimes when you think we're not looking you order just coke and take painkillers because you don't want us to know you didn't walk away from the accident without lasting effects." He jumps beneath her and she leans closer. "I love that even now there's a trick up your sleeve, that you can't go a day without making some kind of bet but you never collect more than you know we can afford, that you make big, grand gestures and then pretend they never happened."
"Robin-" He speaks around her finger, his breath hot against her skin.
"I love that-" She trails off, her eyes pulling away from his to trace over his face. Her finger leaves his mouth and she brushes her knuckles down his cheek, her smile softening. "I love that you've made saying 'I love' this easy."
There's a beat of silence where they look at each other and time ticks past them, and then his arms unwind, rubbing across her chest and he rests his hands on her waist. "Your timing is atrocious Scherbatsky." He smiles and tilts his head, and she has her hands in his hair and on his neck and he tugs her forward until her chest is pressed up tight against him.
His lips are warm and dry and he groans as she runs her tongue along them. It's a good kiss, a great kiss (they're Barney and Robin and they wouldn't settle for anything less). Their bodies curl around each other, his mouth opens and his tongue slides along hers and he tastes of scotch and smoke and she inhales it all.
She thinks clichés that she'll never say like 'this is coming home' and 'he's the one' and when they break apart she says "marry me" against his lips.
They're pressed so close together she can feel his heart pounding and his fingers splay out across her back.
"Not now." She says, turning her head so the words sigh across his jaw. "Not today. But someday." And she doesn't have to tell him what it means that she's asking. She doesn't have to point out that she's never even wanted to say the words before, not to anyone else. And one day she'll tell him that she imagined a whole family with him, while she was breaking his heart.
"I don't want children." He says and she presses her face into the space between his neck and shoulder and breathes out a sob.
"I can't have children." She whispers and his arms wrap her up until she can feel him everywhere.
"This is the last time we do this." There's a shake in his voice, the sound of both their hearts rattling together. "If you change your mind again-Robin this has to be the last time." She nods once, twice and twists the back of his shirt in her fingers.
"I choose you." It's 'I'm sorry' and 'I love you' and not taking the easy way out, but he knows her like no one else ever has and when he pushes her back and pulls out his phone, she reaches out and tangles their fingers together.
He smiles, bright blue eyes and white teeth and squeezes back. "Quinn, we-uh, we need to talk."
She looks down at their hands and the fall of the light looks like a gold band around her finger. He hangs up and she kisses his cheek, and there isn't a part of her that feels like running.