“Not tonight, Barney.” Ted was hunched over his laptop. “I have work to finish.”
Barney stood, hand on one hip. “Laaaaame. Suit up.”
Ted looked up. “Take Robin to the cigar bar, dude. I have to get this done tonight.”
Barney sniffed, and looked into the middle-distance. “While Robin is undoubtedly the winner of the blue ribbon for Senior Elite Bro-ish Chick, sometimes a winglady just doesn’t hit the spot. ”
Ted rolled his eyes. “Tell me that you don’t want to discuss any problems relating to”, he lowered his voice, “Little Barney—“
“One time,” Barney interrupted. “And if you can’t discuss your not-so-little soldier with your best friend, then I don’t even want to be an American.”
Marshall looked up from his paper. “You do know that there isn’t a 28th Amendment conferring the right to discuss your pe—“
“La la la,” Barney sang. “And in other news: Ted, suit up.”
Ted sighed. “Seriously, I have to get this design finished tonight. It needs to be messengered to Omaha in the morning.”
“Well, as desperate as Nebraska probably is for the plans to another Osh Kosh B’Gosh factory, I need you. They’re shooting some of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition at the Soho House pool tonight. We need to get in there.”
Marshall’s eyebrows quirked. “Maybe if Ted hadn’t spent four hours today looking at FrakMyNeighbourhood.com, then you might have someone riding shotgun on your perves-pedition.”
Barney spun round. “FML goes neighbourhood? Lame.”
“Frak My Neighbourhood?” Lily stood in the doorway to the kitchen, with her nose wrinkled. “You’ve spent all day reading a Battlestar Galactica blog? You said the last season sucked ass.”
Marshall grinned. “It’s not about the show, Lilypad. I think they were trying to find a fuck-substitute with pop-culture relevance.”
“So overdone.” Lily shook her head. “So what has Ted been reading all day while certain other people have been baking him rainy-day cookies because he had to work?”
“It’s one of those blogs where not awesome people bitch and whine about how not awesome their lives are.” Barney looked bored. “Don’t these people know that science frowns on their pitiful attempt to be amusing?”
“Science?” Lily raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a little thing I like to call the Law of Overheard.com. “ Barney sketched a curve in the air with one finger. “The greater the number of contributors to a website, the funnier it gets, until it passes a point of inelasticity that I like to call the Point of Superficial.com, and then it starts to suck harder than a fat sorority pledge.“
He paused, dramatically. “Hence, Overheard in New York: funny. Overheard in Albuquerque: as funny as a sweaty, drunk, horny clown.”
Ted shrugged. “Is that a hint of jealousy that Dowisetrepla doesn’t have an FML blog?”
“Oh please.” Marshall screwed his face up. “What Whedon-esque witticisms are your neighbours coming up with?”
He angled the laptop towards him.
“I have a slippy sock. FML” He looked up. “What the frak is a ‘slippy sock’?”
Barney grimaced. “It happened to me one night in Pyongyang—“
“No,” said Ted. “It’s something that Victoria used to say. It meant that she had one sock that kept falling down inside her boot.”
“I hate it when that happens,” said Lily.
“There’s a couple of comments after the post,” Marshall said. “Apparently this girl is having the worst day. Not only is her sock falling down but she’s hating on the pain au chocolat she’s eating. Her favourite coffee shop seems to have started to suck while she was overseas.” He shook his head. “Of all the entitled crap. I’m just trying to imagine someone in Darfur coming across this blog.”
“What?” said Barney. “Using their Mac Air notebook in the refugee camp Starbucks?”
Lily stuck her tongue out at Barney, but Ted was still.
“That sounds exactly like Victoria.” His eyes were far away. “She must be back in town.”
“Ted.“ Lily’s voice held a warning. “Victoria’s not the only woman in New York whose socks slide inside her boots, likes pain au chocolat, and recently went to another country.”
He jumped up, and grabbed his coat. “I have to go.”
Barney sneered. “You’re telling me that the swimsuit issue ranks third on a list behind doing work and chasing after a girl who dumped you to go to the Volksgemeinschaft Academy of Cupcakes?”
“Wish me luck.” Ted grinned at Lily and Marshall, and banged the door behind him.
“He didn’t even do his hair.”
Ted’s sneakers slapped on the wet pavement as he thought about how there were some things that he hadn’t shared with anyone. Lily and Marshall’s meant-to-be-together story was polished to a shine, and it had felt too stupid to talk about how he’d always thought that the hand of destiny was hovering over him and Victoria. Especially after Stella. And yet.
He blew on his hands and wished he’d thought to bring gloves.
He was moving so fast that his feet skidded on the tile inside the entrance of Bean Scene, and the warmth of the coffee shop hit him like a blow. Disappointment trickled into his stomach when he realized that none of the people tapping on their laptops was Victoria. She wasn’t there.
He walked a few paces forward, scanning anxiously for any empty tables whose occupants might have just gone to the bathroom. His gaze fell on an empty mug that looked caked with chocolate.
(“It isn’t still coffee if you put enough chocolate in it to choke a mule.”
“I make cupcakes for a living, Ted. I’ve got a higher tolerance for sugary crap than any two mules I’ve known.”)
God, he missed her.
“Was there a blonde woman at that table who ordered a mocha with an extra shot of chocolate syrup, and a pain au chocolat?”
The barista looked up, and over at the table.
“What’s it to you, dude?”
“I think my friend was here.”
“Your friend?” The guy looked skeptical.
The barista frowned as he tipped some beans into the grinder. “Are you some kind of stalker?”
“No,” Ted shouted, over the grinder. “We used to go out, and then she moved to Germany and then I had sex with this friend of ours, and –.” Stop fricking talking, Ted. Just shut the hell up.
“Help a bro out,” he said, and hated the pleading tone in his own voice.
The barista shot him an assessing look. Decided that Ted didn’t look like he had a bunch of women in a meat-locker in his apartment.
“Yeah, that’s what she had.”
Ted nodded, gratefully. “Do you know if she lives around here.”
The barista shook his head. “She left her umbrella, though. She might be back.”
“Can I leave a note?”
The barista shrugged. “Sure.”
“I think it’s romantic,” Lily said, firmly, elbows resting on the table at McLaren’s. “After Stella I was really scared that Ted wouldn’t get back in the game.”
“The chump game?” asked Barney.
Lily shook her head. “The risking his heart game.”
“He’s breaking the Cardinal rule. Never go back.”
Robin took a sip of her beer. “I have to agree, Lily. They broke up. And, if Ted is right about her being back in New York, she didn’t even get in touch to tell him that she wasn’t still in Germany. It doesn’t sound like she’s flagging pretty veils in Brides magazine.”
“She might have just wanted to get herself settled back in before getting in touch. I mean, it can be kind of overwhelming moving cities.”
Robin grimaced, sympathetically. “Yeah, sure. Alternatively, Victoria could have heard the horror story of me and Simon.”
Barney nodded. “Yeah, she could have heard aboot it.”
Robin rolled her eyes. “Barney, is there the slenderest chance that you could can that annoying aboot crap?”
Barney opened his eyes wide. “Well aren’t you showing the zeal of a plucky immigrant to put your native tongue behind you.” He smirked, and held his hand up for the high-five. “Which is where Maria Cardinal wanted me to put mine.”
“On the other hand,” Marshall cut in, looking at Lily. “We got back together. And that worked out pretty well.”
Lily smiled. “It sure did.”
“Sure.” The corner of Robin’s mouth quirked. “But can you imagine this working out for Ted? I mean, really? I don’t want to be mean but he’s screwed the pooch on every romantic interaction he’s ever had. He has this idea that he knows what love is, and that it’s filled with drama, and destiny. But that kind of makes him behave like a shitheel. Like when he decided that we were supposed to be together and he hadn’t even broken it off with Victoria. Who does that?”
She ignored Barney’s raised hand. “Isn’t it possible that Ted is more in love with the idea of having a true love than actually being real with some woman?
Lily bit her lip. “That’s a little unfair, isn’t it?”
“Well, he was right there with you, wasn’t he?”
Robin opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. “He has this idea that he wants a wife - not a partner - and two children. This is his vision, and anyone who doesn’t get in line is the wrong person. No matter how well they work together.”
Lily looked at Marshall. “But if people want children—. I mean, you know you don’t want children, don’t you?”
Robin looked hard at Lily. “You guys want children, right?”
Marshall and Lily both nodded.
“But if, for some reason, you changed your mind, or there was some problem, you wouldn’t get divorced, right?”
Marshall’s hand found Lily’s as he shook his head. “Of course not.”
“I’m not sure that ‘of course not’ is there for Ted. ” Robin picked at the edge of one nail. “I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, because he’s not. He’s a great guy. But he wants what he wants, and I’m not sure how much what the other person wants is that important to him.”
“I have to go, because I’ve just remembered that I have an attractive young woman tied to my bedstead and I just stepped out for condoms.” Barney scooped the last of his drink, and stood up, looking at Robin. “You should know, though, that you’re completely nuts. Ted is way too involved with what other people want.”
Robin opened her mouth, but Lily spoke into the silence. “We really need to get going if we’re going to make that movie, Robin.”
“What are you going to see?” Marshall asked.
Lily’s eyebrow twitched, and she avoided looking at Robin. “This Czech movie that’s playing at the little theatre down the street.”
Marshall looked up from his laptop as Ted came in the front door. “Was she there?”
Ted shook his head. “She left her umbrella behind, so the counter guy let me leave a note. A dumb note, asking her to call me. I’ve just been walking around, trying to clear my head.”
He moved towards the kitchen. “Beer?”
Marshall nodded. “Sure.”
“How do you know, man?”
“That someone is going to work out? Become your special sweetie?”
“Yeah.” Ted handed Marshall a Sam Adams and sat down on the sofa, knee bouncing.
“You don’t.” Marshall flipped the cap off the bottle.
“Well, that’s helpful.”
Marshall leaned back on the sofa. “Lily said that people ask her all the time. How she found true love so young. As if there’s a secret recipe that people can follow. “
“And what you’re saying is that there is no secret recipe?”
“Fuck no. Lily fell into my lap.” Marshall took a swig of his beer. “And fell off again just as fast.”
The bleakness in Marshall’s tone made Ted look across at him.
“You saw what it was like when she left, dude.” Marshall wiped the condensation from the bottle on his pants. “I never thought I would feel happy again. And that’s what they don’t tell you in all of those movies about true love. That the sting in the tail is that the more you love, the more scared you are that someone or something will take it away from you.”
Ted patted Marshall’s shoulder, awkwardly. “You got through it, Marshall. She came back. You got the girl.”
Marshall closed his eyes. “I will kill you if you tell anyone this, but when Lily was in San Francisco I kept thinking of that scene from Steel Magnolias where Julia Roberts’ character says that it’s better to have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.”
Marshall snorted. “My mother is a huge Sally Field fan.”
“Doesn’t Julia Roberts die at the end of that movie? After having a baby - even though it will probably kill her - to try and stop her husband cheating on her?”
Marshall looked at Ted, eyebrows raised.
“I will kill you if you tell anyone this, but Robin has a huge girlcrush on Julia Roberts. Although she cried so hard at the end of that movie I thought she was going to sprain something.”
Marshall’s mouth was open. “Yeah, well, it’s not a perfect analogy.”
Ted leaned back against the sofa. “I get it. You’re saying I have no way of knowing if Victoria is The One, or just a pipe dream.”
Marshall shook his head, his hair scratching against the fabric of the sofa. “No, I’m saying there’s probably no such thing as The One.”
Ted took a sip of his beer. “You’re full of good cheer, my man.”
“It is good cheer. Can you imagine trying to find your one true love in a world with nearly seven billion people in it?”
Ted’s lips twitched. “You make a reasonable point.”
“Victoria is pretty awesome, and you guys seemed good together. If you see her again, then go for it. But if you don’t, I totally believe that you can be happy with someone else.”
Ted looked at Marshall. “You don’t believe that Lily is The One.”
Marshall looked at Ted. “I would have gone stone fucking mad if I thought Lily was The One. I love Lily with everything I have, but that San Francisco thing would have killed me if I truly thought that there was some grand plan in which we were supposed to be together and our lives would suck if we weren’t.”
Ted looked away first. “Yeah.”
“It’s like us.”
“You and me. We’re friends because of some computer program that assigns roommates. If we’d applied to different schools, or written different things on our applications for housing, then we might never have met.”
Ted tried to imagine life without Marshall. Couldn’t. “You make another good point.”
“You’re my best friend, but if you hadn’t gone to that school, I’d have another best friend.”
Ted frowned. “Are you saying that people are totally fungible? That you could just be friends with, or the husband of, whomever?”
Marshall shook his head. “I’m saying that our capacity to love is bigger than the little stories that we tell to describe how it happens.”
Ted smiled. “That’s really kind of nice.”
“Yeah?” Marshall coloured slightly. “And now I think we have to play some X-box game that involves us beating the shit out of each other, so that there’s balance in the force and we haven’t spent all day talking about our feelings.”
A key scraped in the lock of the front door and Lily came through it, dripping all over the floor. Her hair was plastered to her head. She dropped her bag and started to unbutton her coat.
“Ted, I swear that I just saw Victoria walking down our street in the direction of the subway. Go!”
Marshall sat up. “Definitely go!”
Ted looked out of the window. “It’s pouring.”
Lily shook her head, spraying water droplets like a dog that had just climbed out of a lake. “Duh.”
Ted grabbed his jacket from the back of one of the dining chairs and shrugged it on.
“Wish me luck.”
“Ted, “ Lily said, as he skidded out of the door. “She’s under a yellow umbrella.”
(For a long time afterwards, when he told the story of that meeting, Ted left out the moment of hesitation that he’d had when he realized that it was her under that umbrella and that this was really happening to him.
Then he’d turned it into something charmingly self-deprecating: a final moment of dumbassery before he met his destiny. )
“Victoria?” he said, and she turned around.
“Ted? Ted Mosby?”
“Yeah.” He was dimly aware that he was grinning like an idiot, but decided that he didn’t care. “How was Germany?”
She smiled, then. “It was fabulous. I learned so much, and met some amazing people.”
Amazing people. He flicked his gaze to her left hand, but she was wearing gloves.
She laughed, and it was the nicest thing he’d heard in months. “I’m not back here to plan my wedding to Fritz the pastry chef. It’s a total stereotype, but there aren’t that many straight men working in cake design.”
“So you’re not with anyone?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m not sure that you get to ask about that.”
“Victoria, I’m sorry.” He scuffed his shoe on the ground. “I’m sorry that the long distance thing didn’t work out. I was hoping that now you’re back—“
“Wow.” Her face was unreadable.
“Wow, yay? Or wow, what an incredibly boorish and presumptuous thing that was you just said?”
She tilted her head to one side. “You know, I really don’t know.”
“Could we maybe go and get a cup of coffee?”
She didn’t move. “I’m not sure that there’s any point in going anywhere if you’re going to pretend that it was the long distance that did for us, and not the fact that you were pissed that I put my career before you.”
Ted’s mouth fell open. “Victoria, I never felt like that.”
She looked unconvinced.
“In an ideal world, it would have gone differently. The school would have been here, or I could easily have picked up and gone and been an architect in Germany.”
“You thought about moving to Germany?” Her face was blank, as if someone had wiped the skepticism away with a sponge.
“Of course I did. I didn’t seem fair to mention it, because the way my profession works, that just wasn’t possible then. “ Rain was running down his face. “But I was never that 1950s guy you seem to think I was. I wanted you – want you – to be as happy with what you do as I am. As you can be.”
“So you cheated on me?”
Ted huffed a sigh. “I slept with Robin after your Let’s Talk phone call was four hours late.”
“I was in the ER with one of my roommates. She sliced her hand open with a knife when she was chopping vegetables for dinner.”
“You couldn’t have sent a text?”
“If I’d known our relationship was on a knife edge then I would have. I didn’t think that you were inches away from diving inside another woman’s panties.”
His face froze. “You weren’t calling to break up with me?”
She shook her head. “I was call to make holiday plans with you, but you’d seemed so distant when I spoke to you that I wanted to hear your voice to make sure I wasn’t freaking you out.”
An icy rivulet of rain trickled down Ted’s back, under his shirt.
“If it’s any consolation, I feel like the biggest asshole in the world.”
Victoria raised an eyebrow.
“Why didn’t you tell me how you felt? What you were thinking? We could have had this conversation when it mattered.”
Ted bit his lip. “I didn’t realize that I hadn’t. I guess I thought you knew that I loved you, and that saying it over and over would just seem like I was trying to say that you should stay. Or come home.”
“I see.” Victoria hesitated. “You know I loved you too, right?”
Ted shook his head, and wondered for a brief, maudlin second if it was raining hard enough for Victoria not to notice if he cried.
“I’m sorry that I couldn’t make the long distance thing work. I’m really sorry, Victoria. For everything.”
She stood still for a moment, and then tilted her yellow umbrella so that it was over Ted’s head, too.
“Well,” she said, as the raindrops thrummed against the nylon. “We’re both here now. At least let’s get that coffee. Somewhere with good chocolate syrup.”