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There's an elaborate set up. Robin laughs at him, and Lily sort of coos and also sort of laughs at him, and Marshall coos and, Ted will swear to it, flaps his hands a little at him more than once, and Ted almost misses the days when Marshall was kind of stiff and weirded out about the whole Barney thing.

"Well," Robin says, standing back up and stretching, "I kind of miss the days when you basically needed one hour and no preparations to declare your eternal love to people, so I guess that's only fair."

Ted gives her a wounded look. "I just --"

"Oh no," Robin says, pointing a threatening finger at him. "No, no, no. Ted, I've spent three hours here helping you make sure the future mother of your children is swept off his feet by the raging storm of your affection or whatever this speech included the first time I ignored it. I've ignored it something like thirty-seven times since then. Say it again and I'm out of here. I don't care if the goat breaks out."

"I can't believe you got a goat for this," Marshall says. "You're still sure there's no ritual sacrifice involved?"

Ted gives up once again on everyone he knows. "No, Marshall, there's no ritual sacrifice, the goat is symbolic. It represents everything we've been through to -"

"Ted!"

He turns to glare at Robin. "He asked! And you know, I appreciate your help and all, but calling Barney the future mother of my children wasn't that funny to begin with, and it's mostly just a little homophobic by now."

"Actually," Marshall says, "It's still pretty funny."

Robin is gaping at him. "'Homophobic'?" Oh, great. "No, Ted. 'Homophobic' would be if I was freaking out about my two exes hopping into bed together. 'Homophobic' would mean I could still feel my back today, which, by the way, is starting to look more and more inviting."

Ted sighs. This is -- seriously not what he was planning for today. "Look, I really appreciate all the help --"

"Oh, whatever," Robin says, rolling her eyes, and whatever she's seen on his face was apparently enough to turn all her irritation into mockery. "Just go hang the damned lanterns, okay?"

"A thousand paper cranes!" Lilly says, coming around the corner just as Ted is about to breathe out in relief and go hang up the damned lanterns. "And one more for good luck. You know, you were right, it's amazing what those little fingers can do once you get some work ethic into them."

"I can't believe we've stooped to child labor," Marshall says, accepting the box from her. "I can't believe we've stooped to child labor using kindergartners."

None of Ted's friends have any romance in their souls.

It's possible he's freaking out a little.

 

*

 

"Barney," Ted says, and Barney raises an eyebrow at him over his cotton candy and looks back down at the city lights far below, his face bathed by the light from the countless lanterns hanging in between all the paper cranes and his hair wind-swept and a little damp where the goat tried to nibble at him, "I love you."

Barney smiles.

 

*********

 

"You," Barney says, drunk on success with no need for alcohol, and clutches Ted's shoulders with a look of absolute earnestness on his face, "You, Ted Mosby, are a genius. I love you."

Ted laughs. "We still don't know if it'll work," he points out. "Besides, I've known you for about three days, man. Isn't it a bit early for declarations of love?"

 

**********

 

"Oh, come on!" Ted says, way down the line in the year 2030. The kids are on the couch, giving each other covertly eye-rolly looks and even more covertly looking a little fond. "That's not the same thing at all!"

Barney gives him a blank look, then turns back to rummaging through the clutter on the table for his keys. "Yes, of course it is."