Actions

Work Header

I Need a Lover That Won't Drive Me Crazy

Work Text:

Emmett's new penthouse was bright, open, and, for the first time, ghetto-free. It came with high ceilings and a stunning view of downtown.

Of course, Em couldn't really see the view from where he was sitting on the floor, back against the kitchen cabinets.

"Gay Help Hotline, this is Tripp."

He curled the phone cord around his finger. "Finally! I've only been on hold for thirty years. I mean--" He laughed nervously. "--Twenty years. I'm not old enough to have been-- well, I am, but I don't look a day over--"

"Sir? Is there anything we can help you with?"

"I need some advice," he confessed. He bit his lip. "It's very personal."

"This is a confidential hotline."

He began, "I just almost died--"

"Do you need us to call 911 for you?"

Oh, lordy. It was a good thing he'd lived, or else that would have been the most embarassing death. "No. I'm okay now, I think. I'd better tell you the whole story..."

Troy was the fourth boyfriend he'd moved out on in just as many years, after he'd made the unfortunate discovery of Troy's affair with their upstairs neighbor. And Stephen's immaturity. And Matthew's weird goat fetish. And Ted's crystal problem. While bawling his eyes out in the bathroom of their shared downtown apartment, Em had realized he just might never find the person he was meant to be with. The only person who'd even came close to being the love of his life had been Ted -- which was pretty sad, considering how bad their relationship had been.

"I was busy unpacking a few of my things, and I thought I'd have a little snack."

His friends had helped him bring in most of his important things earlier that day. Well, most of his friends; Brian had stood back and made sarcastic comments as Michael and Ted had struggled to get the four-poster canopy bed through the door, while Justin and Emmett had set up the HD-TV by themselves.

He had been looking forward to a nice, quiet evening planning what colors to paint the walls, when--

"It's sort of embarassing."

"Sir, the call before you had been a guy who couldn't get a garage door opener out of his butt."

Ten minutes before this phone call, Emmett had choked on a pretzel.

He had started coughing up a storm, but the pretzel hadn't wanted to come loose. Panicking, blood rushing in his ears, he had looked around for something, anything, to lean over, but he hadn't had a chance to go furniture shopping yet.

"I know this sounds very melodramatic, but I am a queen, after all. My life flashed before my eyes--"

Being pushed around by bullies in school-- his first boyfriend-- his parents' disappointment in him-- the first time he tried meth-- the first time he met Michael-- Ted's brush with death-- the first time he and Ted made love-- Ted-- Ted--

He had thought he going to die alone in the kitchen of his new apartment. He was never going to get married, or have kids, or even own a dog. He had thought he was never going to see Ted again.

"That's when I threw myself against the counter, and the pretzel went flying across the room."

He paused, wondering if Tripp the Hotline Guy was still listening.

"Go on," Tripp said.

"It's just-- I was dying, and all I could think about was Teddy. Not my latest lover, not one of my lovers who had tragically died, not even one of the many men of Pittsburgh who I have crushes on. Just my best friend. What do you think that means?"

"Sir, please don't abuse the help hotline. This is for people with real problems."

"This is a real problem!" he exclaimed.

The phone was silent for a beat. "Okay. What do you think it means?"

Em closed his eyes and leaned his head back . "I think..." His heart pounded in his chest. He knew once he said the words he'd never be able to take them back. "I think it means I'm still in love with him."

Emmett had never been afraid of being in love. Being in love was the greatest feeling in the world. But he also knew what was the worst: destroying everything with the person with whom he already had the perfect -- platonic -- relationship.

"What do you think I should do?"

Tripp said, "Mister, I don't know you or your situation with your friend, but I think the best thing to do is tell him how you feel."

"I was afraid of that," he sighed. "So much for the Gay Help Hotline."

*

Emmett Honeycutt may have been a queen, but he wasn't a coward. Which is why he showed up at the usual time at the diner the next morning, preparing to face the world. And Ted. He made sure to dress fabulously; he didn't want anyone to be able to guess he'd stayed up all night biting his nails and wondering what to do.

Ben and Michael were at one table, with Brian and Justin at another. Ted sat across from the latter pair (probably because Ben was so huge, and sitting next to him was really uncomfortable). Steeling himself, Em slid into the booth next to his ex.

Michael leaned over the seats. "You look like shit," he told Em bluntly.

Emmett cringed. "I ran out of my super moisturizer," he replied, trying to sound chipper. He hoped he wasn't twitching.

"You should borrow Brian's," Justin said, pausing between bites, "he buys in bulk."

Brian looked alarmed. "Liar. I don't believe in bulk."

"How can you not believe in bulk?" Michael demanded. "Bulk's not a figment of our imagination."

Emmett stopped listening. Instead he stared down at Ted's hand, resting on the freckled tabletop. He'd always liked Ted's fingers; most people would call them stubby; others, hideous; but Em just thought they were strong.

He then realized everyone was quiet and looking at him. "Huh?"

Michael's brow knitted. "Are you okay? You seem out of it."

"We're talking about whether or not bulk exists at seven 'o' clock in the morning, sweetie," Em pointed out.

Ted looked over at Emmett, a smile curling his lips. Em felt that familiar fluttering in his stomach. Quickly, he glanced across the table -- and met Brian's eyes.

Without turning his head, Brian's gaze traveled from Em to Ted. Then he devilishly arched an eyebrow. Emmett broke out into a cold sweat.

"Are you sure you're not sick?" Ted asked.

"I'm fantastic," Em said, feeling anything but.

Ben and Michael were the first to leave, followed by Ted, and then by Justin, who gave Brian a quick kiss. "I'd better hurry up," he said, shoveling the last of his pancakes into his mouth, "I have kids to fail." In a move that had suprised even Brian, Justin had ended up the art teacher at a private arts and music high school.

("I thought you hated high school," Michael had asked.

"I did," Justin had replied smugly, "but now I hold a position of authority over all the assholes who think they can pick on people like me."

"Sounds hot," Brian had said.)

As soon as they were alone, Brian stretched out over the whole seat, resting his back against the wall. Em scraped the eggs off his fork, watching the other patrons, and trying really, really hard to study anything but Brian's faux innocent expression.

"Don't you have some minions to order around?" he asked.

"I'm the boss," Brian said airily. "I can be as late as I want." He took a sip of coffee, as if making a point.

"Stop looking at me like that," Em said. "I'm not telling you anything."

"Good, because I don't want to hear it," Brian replied.

This was a burden he was just going to have to shoulder alone. He couldn't tell anyone. Besides, Brian always gave the worst advice.

"I had a near-death experience with a pretzel," he found himself saying. "It made me realize Teddy is my one true love."

"How long was your brain deprived of oxygen?" Brian asked.

Em glared at him. "I'm in real pain here."

"So am I."

Em groaned and buried his face in his hands. "Of all the people to fall in love with, I had to pick the one I can't have." He raised his head. "Again, I mean."

Brian gave him a quizzical look. "Why not?"

"We agreed we were better off as friends."

"I don't know why you'd think that," Brian said.

He goggled. "What? Why?"

Brian shrugged. "You'd probably still be together if Ted hadn't turned into a crystal queen."

"I don't know," Em said thoughtfully. "We started having problems when Jerk at Work was shut down."

Brian crumpled his napkin and stood up. Leaning over Em, he said, "You're right. It wouldn't've worked out. Ted's not the same guy he was when you two were together, anyway. He's still a pathetic loser, but he's not the same pathetic loser whose self-confidence depended on a porn site."

And Emmett wasn't the same silly queen who thought true love could solve everything.

Brian tossed a couple of bucks on the table. "Who knows what would happen now."

*

For a week, he held his breath every time he, Brian, and Ted were in the same room together. He bit his nails to the quick thinking about Brian and Ted working together every day. He nearly had a stroke when he found them eating breakfast at the diner alone one morning, talking quietly, but thankfully, they had just been talking about a new ad.

For some reason, aside from a few pointed looks and menacing grins, Brian didn't appear to be doing anything. Emmett went back to ignoring his feelings -- something he never liked to do -- and after a week, he was beginning to wonder if the whole thing had just been a silly mistake.

*

Ted came back from lunch to find Brian sitting at his desk, playing Minesweeper on his laptop. Even while relaxing in Ted's special orthopedic chair, Brian looked like he was lowering his standards.

"Theodore," he said brightly, "just the man I wanted to see."

"What is it and when do you need it done?" Ted asked, beginning to shrug off his coat.

"Dinner at eight, preferably Friday."

Ted's arm got stuck in the sleeve of his jacket. "What?"

"I have the perfect guy for you," Brian replied, closing the laptop.

Ted froze. Brian raised his eyebrows. Ted sat down. Brian leaned back in his chair.

"I-I must be hearing things," Ted said slowly. "I thought I heard you say you have a man for me."

Propping his feet on the desk, Brian leered, "He's six feet tall, dark hair, green eyes. Huge cock." When he smirked, Ted felt a sense of dread. "You'd be great together."

He didn't know what to say to that. "Is he--? How do you--? What possible reason could you have for fixing me up?"

"I'm feeling generous," Brian said smarmily.

And Ted was the pope. This guy was either a serial killer or... no, he had to be a serial killer.

"What's wrong with him?" Ted asked suspiciously.

"He's a doctor. His interests include reading, cooking, and the opera."

"What's wrong with him?" Ted repeated.

"Nothing's wrong with him," Brian sneered. "Do you want to see him or not?"

Something about this felt really wrong. Although it had been years since Brian had said anything about the stupidity of relationships, Ted couldn't recall Brian ever doing anything like this. He'd helped Lindsay and Melanie reconcile more than once, before they'd split for good and Lindsay had remarried, and he'd helped Michael a few times, but Ted? Giving him a job was one thing. Finding him a boyfriend was another.

"I don't know," he said hesistantly.

There were some times when Brian did nice things for people, and he usually disguised them as something insignificant. Maybe this was one of those times; maybe Brian was actually looking out for him.

Brian rolled his eyes. "Fine. I'd just thought you'd like to stop feeling sorry for yourself and start dating again. I can find someone in the Art Department for him."

"I thought you said he was perfect for me!" he sputtered.

"He's perfect for a couple of people," Brian said flippantly.

This was probably the biggest mistake of his life, but... "Okay," Ted said, resigned. Brian looked smug. "I'll go out with him."

*

Every Wednesday, Emmett and Ted used Ted's lunch break to go walking and shopping. Emmett liked to call it improv shopping, since they just jumped into whatever shops caught their fancy. Although, after so many years, they had made multiple stops in every store within walking distance of Kinnetik.

Emmett had the feeling Ted's head wasn't quite with him this afternoon, but that might have been contributed to his newly-heightened sense of paranoia. He jumped every time they brushed hands or shoulders, and it was getting to be a real struggle to not stare at Ted's lips during conversation. Or during silence. Or anytime, really.

"Why is it that married people always have to fix up their single friends?" Ted mumbled. He flipped through the ties on the rack, frowning. "They never have anything I like in this place."

Emmett tried on a pair of lavender sunglasses. He could so pull off this look if he had a few well-placed honey-toned highlights. "Hmm?"

"I have a date tomorrow," Ted said.

Em's head snapped up. He forced the smile to stay on his face. "Oh," he said cheerfully, "lucky you. Who is it?"

"You won't believe this, but Brian actually arranged the whole thing."

"Brian?" Em nearly staggered from the pain of betrayal. "Brian set you up?" There must have been something in his voice, because Ted regarded him curiously, a line forming between his brows. "So what's wrong with the guy?" Emmett continued quickly.

Shaking his head, Ted replied, "Brian tried to convince me he was doing this out of the kindness of his heart. Somehow I don't believe him."

Emmett barked out a laugh. "Mr Fabulous probably has three balls and crossed eyes."

"Nah." Ted shoved his hands in the pocket of his coat. "He's a doctor."

Emmett was going to kill Brian.

*

That evening, he stormed over to Brian and Justin's place, intent on making a scene. A scene which no one would hear except, Brian, himself, and possibly Brian's neighbors, although God knew they were good at ignoring everything else that went on in there.

Without bothering to knock, he threw open the door and marched inside. (Thankfully, neither Brian nor Justin had ever learned to lock their door when they were home. It would have completely ruined his entrance.) Brian was sitting on the couch, studying a notebook of what Em guessed were slides; when Em barged in, he stood up with an expression of surprise.

"Brian Kinney, you are the most--" Justin was sitting at the computer desk. Em glanced at him, then back at Brian. He gritted his teeth. "I need to talk to you in private about our... private thing."

"Oh, you mean Ted?" Justin asked, without looking away from the screen.

Em glared at Brian, who at least had the decency to appear sheepish. "He guessed?"

"I can't believe you fixed Ted up after I told you how I felt!" Em seethed.

Brian rolled his eyes like Em was the biggest moron on earth. "I don't give a fuck about how you feel."

"I trusted you, and you betrayed me! You stabbed me in the back! You-- you-- Judas!"

"Are you done?" Brian asked.

Em clenched his fists. "Don't you feel the least bit bad?"

"No." Stepping around the couch, he got right in Em's face. He poked Em in the chest. "You're the one who said you and Theodore wouldn't work out. I'm just giving him a hand."

"We're no longer friends," Emmett declared.

"Try explaining that to Ted," Brian sneered. A perplexed expression fluttered across his face. "Wait, I'm not going to blackmail you into staying my friend."

"Good, because I don't need to be blackmailed!"

They glared at each other.

"What?" Brian asked after a moment.

Em frowned. "What?"

*

Doctor Robbie Long was strikingly handsome. He had a beautifully shaped jaw, and thick brown hair peppered with grey. His handshake was firm. One point for Brian, Ted decided. Better yet, Robbie didn't look disappointed to be meeting Ted. He'd been on enough blind dates to know when people were unpleasantly surprised. Those dates usually ended in handshakes.

The problem was, other than looks, there didn't seem to be a whole lot to the guy. After they exchanged nice-to-meet-you's, they sat in a silence that was so thick it was almost palpable. It was the kind of silence that made Ted's stomach turn over.

"So," Ted said, trying to jump start the conversation. He chuckled nervously. "I was an accountant for many, many years, but now I'm in advertising. Brian hired me when I was down on my luck, and things just sort of evolved."

Robbie didn't say anything.

"Um, you're a doctor?" Ted asked. "What sort of doctor?"

Robbie smiled. He had a very handsome smile. Two points for Brian. "I specialize in cardiac care."

Ted waited for more of an explanation, but none came. "I bet that's interesting," he said awkwardly.

"Not really," Robbie replied.

"I couldn't be a doctor," Ted babbled. "It's too much stress. Not that my job isn't stressful, but, um, I'm not dealing with someone's life. The only life I have to really worry about ruining is my own. Is your work anything like 'ER?'"

"No," Robbie said.

An hour later, Ted had drunken nearly the entire bottle of wine by himself, and Dr Long had barely spoken a word. The uncomfortable silence from the beginning of their date carried over into dinner. Negative fifty points for Brian. The couple behind them were talking about the weather. Ted would have given his left arm to be sitting with them right now.

"Did you know a pea is a legume?" Robbie asked.

Ted finished his glass. "Brian said you liked opera," he said quickly. "What's your favorite work?"

"I like Banco de Gaia."

Banco de Gaia was, in Ted's opinion, the most boring opera in Western history. It was about a man who woke up, ate breakfast, went to work at a bank, did his job, and went home. Considering how their date was going, it was typical.

"Oh," Ted said, trying to sound surprised.

"What's yours?"

"I've always been partial to Wagner's Die Walküre," Ted replied.

He smiled at Robbie, but Robbie didn't look happy.

"I don't know quite how to say this," Robbie said. He faltered. "I'm sorry, but I just can't date someone who likes Wagner."

"Is this because he was an anti-Semite?" Ted asked, startled.

"No," Robbie replied.

Ted waited for the rest of the explanation, but Robbie just sat there.

"Okay then," he said. He held up a hand. "Check!"

*

Ted Schmidt was a man on a mission. The very next morning, he advanced on Brian at the diner.

"You're a fucking bastard," he said, coming to a stop at Brian's table.

Brian raised his head sleepily. "And good morning to you, Theodore. How did your date go?"

"How did it go?" Ted repeated angrily. He slipped into the booth; the others hadn't arrived yet. "How did it go? I would have had more fun on a date with a brick wall. Not only was it beyond terrible, but he also told me we can't see each other again because I prefer Wagner over Puccini!"

"I can't believe I found someone more boring than you," Brian said, sounding impressed.

"How could you think he was perfect for me?"

"I thought you two would have many similar interests," Brian replied.

"Like unnerving silence?" Ted nearly shouted. "He was the most boring person I've ever met. And I was an accountant. I know boring. I used to be on a first-name basis with boring. I--"

"Had a circle jerk with boring?" Brian suggested.

"Yes. No. No! You're such an asshole," Ted snapped.

Brian sighed deeply, as if he was simply indulging Ted. "You want to know the truth? In my limited interaction with the man, there wasn't a whole lot of talking."

"You? Fuck someone you don't even know? That's not the Brian I know."

"You're pretty cocky for a guy who just got dumped by 'the most boring person you've ever met.'"

Brian even did the air quotes. It was infuriating. Ted started to sputter a reply (he wasn't sure what he was going to say, but he hoped it was something that did his rage justice), but then the bell over the door chimed, and someone walked in whistling a jaunty tune. He recognized it immediately and slid over to make room for Emmett.

"How was your date, Teddy?" Em asked, joining them.

"I don't want to talk about it," Ted grumbled.

"Theodore here was just thanking me for being a good friend," Brian said.

"We all know what kind of friend you are," Em muttered bitterly.

Ted's eyebrows shot up at that. He was going to have to hear this story. "What's going on?"

Em looked away, face flushing. "Oh, nothing. I'm just joshing you."

He opened his mouth to ask what was really going on, but Brian interjected: "I have someone you'll like."

He groaned. "Oh no, not again."

"This one's nothing like you. He's not boring. You'll love him."

"Thanks," Ted said sarcastically, as Em loudly snapped, "Brian, he said he didn't want to. God, you're so insensitive!"

Some of the tables in their section went quiet. Brian and Emmett glowered at each other.

"Is there something going on I should know about?" Ted asked slowly.

Calm as always, Brian stirred more sugar into his coffee. Em hid behind his menu, although Ted knew he had it memorized. "I'm calling this guy when I get to the office," Brian warned, but Ted wasn't sure if the comment was directed towards him or Emmett.

"Okay," Ted said.

Em grunted, "Whatever," and stood.

Debbie finally wandered over to them, popping her gum. She shook her pen at Ted. "What'll it be, sweetie?"

"He'll have an omlette with a side of backbone," Em told her, eyes rolling behind his sunglasses. He slung his bag over his shoulder and gave them a little wave. "Bye-bye, boys."

Ted watched Em walk off, and when he turned around, Brian was studying him oddly. "What?"

Brian just shook his head.

*

When Emmett managed to not have a nervous breakdown over the next few days, he took it as a sign that he was a strong person who didn't need someone else, like Ted, to complete him. He was perfectly comfortable in the knowledge Ted would one day find the love of his life and settle down. Somewhat comfortable. Okay, he wasn't comfortable in the least, and he would die old and alone, but he wasn't going to let that get in the way of Ted's happiness.

On his way to see what Michael was up to, his cell rang. The caller ID said: <3 TEDDY <3

"What're you doing tomorrow night?"

"Oh, nothing much," Em replied, lingering in the shade outside the comic shop. Despite the warmth of the afternoon, there wasn't a great deal of pedestrians about. "I was thinking of having a spa night in. Why?"

"My date with Brian's 'acquaintance' is tonight. Since the last one was so bad, would you keep your phone on just in case I need someone to bail me out?"

He forced himself to smile. He hoped his voice sounded cheery. "Of course, honey. We need a code phrase. Something you can say over the phone without sounding like you're trying to bail."

"I was just going to sneak off to the bathroom and call you from there."

"Or that," he replied.

"Em..." Ted hesitated. "Are you okay with me dating?"

Cold air hit him as he pushed open the door to Red Cape Comics. He waved at Michael, who was restocking Catman or Wondergirl or whatever. "Of course I'm okay," he lied. "Why wouldn't I be okay?"

"You seemed pretty angry the other day."

"I'm not," he explained, "I'm just... I'm weirded out, I guess. It's like when you were seeing Blake five seconds after we broke up. I hated it."

Ted was quiet for a moment. "It was weird for me when you started dating again, too."

That shouldn't have made him feel better, but it did. Em was a horrible person and an even terrible friend.

"It's okay to feel bad," Ted continued, completely evaporating that warm feeling in Em's chest. He wasn't sure when this new and improved Ted had been born, just that he had appeared after they'd broken up. Normally, he liked hearing Ted like this, but not under these circumstances.

"Is that Dr Phil speaking?" he laughed.

"No, it's my own experience."

Michael was really obviously listening to their conversation, but trying to look like he was engrossed in the copy of the Flash he was reading. Upside down.

Em cleared his throat. "Baby, I have to go. Just call me if you need me."

When he put away his cell, Michael lowered the comic with an exaggerated look of surprise. "Oh! I didn't see you come in!"

"Uh huh," Em said sarcastically. He sighed, feeling the energy whoosh out of him.

"Em," said Michael, voice full of concern. "You've been acting weird lately."

He might as well tell Michael. He'd just find out anyway, and it had been a while since they'd had a heart-to-heart talk about relationships. "I have to tell you something shocking. You might want to brace yourself."

"Is this about you being in love with Ted?" Michael asked. "'Cause I already knew."

"Brian," Em muttered.

The door opened, and in walked Justin, wearing his work clothes. The black leather laptop bag didn't do anything to make him look older -- it just made him look like a geeky high school kid, instead of a regular high school kid. How Justin was able to walk through the school without being asked for a hall pass was beyond him.

"Tell your husband he's a prick," Emmett called.

Justin snorted, setting his bag on the counter. "I tell him that every day. It's lost its effect." He studied Em very seriously. "Have you decided what you're going to do about Ted?"

"He's going to leave things alone," Michael said. He looked at Em with wide eyes. "Right?"

"If he loves him, he needs to go for it," Justin said.

"No, no." Michael shook his head. "He doesn't want to fuck up their friendship."

With them flanking Em on either side, he wondered if this is what it felt like to have an angel and a devil arguing on his shoulders. Although he wasn't really sure which one was which.

"He could be missing out on something amazing," Justin argued.

"He already has something amazing," Michael insisted.

"If you two are done projecting," Emmett said. Both Michael and Justin shut up. "I've already decided not to do anything, and nothing you say can convince me otherwise."

"But--" Justin began.

Em held up a hand. "No."

"I--" Michael.

Em held up his other hand. "No."

*

That Friday, Ted arrived at Monte Cristo, an upscale place downtown he'd only been to once or twice, back in his accounting days. He gave the hostess his name, and she led him towards the middle of the room, where an average-looking fellow sat at a table for two. He had on a nice designer suit Ted was sure Brian owned. Studying the man's back, he had the sudden urge to bail; after the horror of his last date, he worried Brian had found someone equally -- or even more! -- boring.

In the end, the fear of Brian finding out he stood the guy up was more powerful than the fear of being bored to tears.

"Bill Smith?" Ted asked, approaching the table.

The man stood. "Theodore Schmidt?" He shook Ted's hand enthusiastically. "It's great to meet you. Kinney said you were a helluva a guy."

Brian had said what? "Uh, thanks," Ted replied, stunned. He took the empty seat. "So do you, um, do this often? Blind dates, I mean."

"Sort of," Bill confessed. "I guess I just haven't met the person I want to spend my life with. What about you?"

Ted straightened his silverware. "I had someone, but it didn't work out. I--"

"Can I get you gentlemen any drinks?" the waiter interrupted.

"Hey, pal, didn't you see us talking?" Bill demanded angrily. The waiter started to sputter an apology, but Bill said, "I'll have the chicken parmesan. And bring a bottle of your house wine."

Ted hadn't even glanced at the menu yet. "Uh, I'll have the same thing."

When the waiter hurried away, Bill scoffed, "Well, he won't be getting a tip."

Ted was beginning to understand why Bill had been on so many blind dates.

But they actually had a nice dinner. Despite not being very attractive, Bill was witty and energetic, and when he was involved in a story his eyes sparkled, almost making up for his previous outburst. They had similar taste in music, art, and books, and they talked long after they finished their matching plates of chicken parmesan. It was turning out to be a rather pleasant evening.

Until the waiter messed up the bill. Then everything went to hell.

"Goddamn it," Bill shouted, getting to his feet. "You charged me for the wrong meal!"

"Sorry, sir," the poor waiter stammered.

"You'd better be sorry!" People at the other tables were turning to see what was going on. "What're you looking at?!"

"I'm sure it's easy to correct," Ted said quietly, horrified and embarrassed. Everyone was staring. The couple at the next table were shaking their heads at them in shame. Maybe, if he was lucky, the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

"He'd better hope it's easy!"

"Sir, just calm down," the waiter pleaded.

Ted laid a twenty on the table, then slowly backed towards the door. While Bill was busy screaming about the extra five bucks he'd been charged, Ted slipped out the restaurant, throwing the hostess an apologetic smile.

Outside, he pulled out his ticket for his car, but then he heard "Theodore, wait!" and felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Let's go back to my place and have some coffee," Bill offered.

Dear God. "Uh, no thanks. I have a, um, early day tomorrow." He tried to smile, not wanting to upset the psycho, but he felt it was more like a grimace.

"It's okay, I--" Bill stopped abruptly, glancing around. Then he burst into tears.

"What now?" Ted asked. That was the last straw.

Bawling, he wailed, "I can't remember where I parked!"

*

Bachelor number three was named Sullivan MacDonald. Brian had remembered him because he was funny.

"'Ha ha' funny or 'where are my pills' funny?" Ted had questioned.

Sullivan was a lean redhead, which struck Ted as strange, because Brian wasn't really interested in redheads. (Of course, at one point Brian hadn't been into blonds, and look how that had turned out.) He wondered if they'd met in a more usual way. If they had, there was a greater chance this man was crazy, because Brian didn't know nice, normal people. Except for himself, Michael and Emmett, of course.

When Brian had set the whole thing up, Ted had told him: "This is the last one, okay?" But when Brian had smirked, he'd had the feeling Brian hadn't believed him.

The first thing Ted noticed about Sullivan was that he was good-looking, but not in a typical way. He looked like he might be a little shy, a little self-conscious. Ted didn't drop his crazy theory, but maybe this was the kind of crazy he could relate to.

"Brian didn't tell me much about you," Sullivan said, after they'd ordered an excellent wine.

"Well, I was an accountant up until a few years ago. I left to start my own business." Which wasn't technically a lie. "Now I'm in advertising. I work at Kinnetik for Brian, actually."

"Really." Sullivan folded and refolded his hands on the table. He seemed nervous. "I'm in marketing. My firm works with Vanguard frequently. That's how Brian and I--"

"Oh, right, right," Ted said. Before he could stop himself, he started, "So you've never, um--"

Sullivan looked surprised. "With Brian? No. I don't really do one-night stands. I'm looking for someone I can talk to about things like books and travel."

He smiled at Ted, and Ted's heart beat a little faster.

*

"--And he's trying to start a firm in China. Apparently, in China they don't have any statistics on what people like to buy, so what his company would do is--"

"Teddy, I'll have to call you back," Em said, gritting his teeth. "You're breaking up."

"I don't hear--"

"Ta!" Em hung up.

Anger, jealousy, and sadness raged inside him. Without really paying attention to what he was doing, he pushed open the door to the diner, and shoved himself in the nearest empty booth. Just a few days ago, he told himself he'd deal when Ted found Mr Right, but he hated, hated this. That was the fifth time Ted had called him that day to talk about whoever that guy was-- Bitchface McBitchpants was the name Em had given him.

The seat cushion sank, and he opened his eyes to see Brian and Justin joining him.

"I don't want to talk about it," he said gruffly.

"Em," Justin started, completely ignoring what he'd said, "my students all agree you--"

"Your students?" Em demanded. "You talked about my--" He glanced around quickly and lowered his voice. "About my problem with Teddy?"

Justin shrugged. "Sure, I talk to them about everything. My best student is this guy all the jocks pick on, named Jason. He doesn't have many friends, but he's dating an older guy who's apparently a total man-whore."

They both glanced at Brian.

"And the circle of life continues," Brian said, raising his coffee cup.

Emmett sighed. "Let me guess, Justin, your students said I should go for it?"

"Yeah." Justin smiled apologetically, although Em doubted he was the least bit sorry.

He snorted. "Well, it's too late now, isn't it? Thanks to somebody who shall remain nameless, Brian, Teddy's fallen madly in love with some amazing guy."

"You don't have to worry," Brian drawled. "Ted's not going to find the man of his dreams."

Em frowned. "What?"

"Ted's not going to find in some stranger whatever it is he can't find in you."

It wasn't often Brian could knock him speechless, even when Brian was at his most horrible. And because the way Brian had said it was so casual, like it was something Em should have known, his eyes filled with tears. He choked back a sob.

"Oh, Em," Justin said, reaching across the table to grab his hand.

He sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "I'll be okay. I just need some time to get used to this. I'm glad Ted is happy. Really." Suddenly, the diner seemed too crowded and suffocating. He climbed out of the booth. "I need to be alone for a while. I'll see you guys later?"

"Sure," Justin said, and Brian nodded.

As he walked off, he heard Justin say to Brian: "Well, I hope you're happy."

*

Not wanting to turn to alcohol, Emmett poured himself into his work. He made a new kind of dessert, called a Pathetic Pie, and a dinner dish, which he named the Bitter Breakup Burrito. He figured the Bitchface Burrito probably wouldn't be well-received.

At the party he hosted the next evening, his client told him the new additions were by far the best dishes he'd created yet.

*

Six days later, Sullivan still hadn't called. Nor was he responding to Ted's messages.

Ted stood outside Brian's office, waiting for Brian to show for work. Cynthia kept walking by, getting things together for Brian's first meeting, he supposed, and she kept squinting at him like she wanted him to leave. He knew why: he could see his reflection in the glass, jittery and desperate. This was why he hated dating. He would never be suave like Emmett, or aloof like Brian, or even cute like Michael. He would always be a nervous wreck.

After a good twenty minutes, he heard Brian's voice from the direction of the lobby, probably talking to Cynthia: "Have it on my desk and ready by noon." When Brian caught sight of Ted, he faltered slightly -- it was so slight Ted wouldn't have caught it had he not been paying close attention. "Well, aren't you an eager beaver," he drawled.

Ted followed him into the office. "Can you do something for me?" Instead of answering, Brian set his briefcase on his desk and began taking out files. "Can you find out if Sullivan, well, likes me?"

"Yeah, I'll pass him a note during Geometry," Brian scoffed, shooting him a scathing look.

But this was too important to let the almighty wrath of Brian get in his way. "I'm serious. I really want to see him again, but he isn't answering the phone. At least," he added, grimacing, "not when I call."

"I'm going to say something that might shock you," Brian said. He clasped Ted's shoulder. "You can do better."

"No, I can't," he insisted. "You don't understand. He's amazing. I think he might really be the one."

"Should I RVSP to the wedding now?" Brian asked sarcastically, turning back to his work.

"Can you you talk to him, or... whatever it is that you do?" Ted asked. He could hear a pleading tone creep into his voice, which was humiliating, but he couldn't help himself. "Please?"

Brian wavered. "Why don't I just find someone else for you?"

"Absolutely not. The gay dating scene is hell. Don't you remember being single?"

"No," Brian said.

"Please?" Ted begged.

Brian pinched the bridge of his nose. "Fine," he said tightly. "I'll call him. Now get back to work before you find yourself unemployed."

*

No matter what, Ted could rely on his best friend. As soon as he'd told Emmett about Sullivan's blatant rejection, Em had rushed over with a plate of brownies and the Pretty Woman DVD. He wasn't sure how Julia Roberts in short shorts was supposed to make him feel better, but Em had said it would make him "believe in love again, silly."

"We can be single together," Em said merrily, handing him an appletini. "Remember how much fun we used to have at Babylon?"

"You had fun, I went home alone," Ted said bitterly.

Sliding an arm around Ted's shoulders (which, frankly, made him feel weird, although it shouldn't have), Em sighed, "Whoever thought we'd be the last two of our friend to be single?"

"You're kidding, right?" he asked.

Julia Roberts was in the middle of being kicked out of a fancy store for looking like a whore. "Look at her, all smug, knowing Richard Gere's going to be hers in an hour," Ted grumbled. He drowned the rest of his drink. "I could really go for some crystal." He was kidding. Sort of.

"Negative thinking," Em practically squeaked. "Try to accentuate the positive. Look how fabulous her legs look in those boots!"

"I really hate this movie," Ted said.

The phone rang. Without even glancing away from the tv screen -- "God, those outfits were so 80's," Em groaned -- Ted picked it up. "Hello?"

"Ted? It's Sullivan. Sullivan MacDonald?"

His pulse quicked. Had hadn't expected this; he hadn't even prepared a speech. Mouth dry, he stammered, "H-hi. It's great to hear from you." He glanced at Em, who smiled crookedly. When he mouthed, "Sullivan," Em's face went blank.

"Yeah, um, Brian said you wanted to hear from me?" said Sullivan.

Ted couldn't believe Brian had actually done what he'd asked. "Er, yeah. How are you?"

"I'm good," Sullivan replied hesistantly.

Sullivan's discomfort was pretty obvious. Ted had a bad feeling about this. Maybe it hadn't been such a great idea to get Brian involved... Yet for some reason, his mouth kept going. "What are you doing this Friday?"

"I think I'm busy," came the reply.

"Oh, um, what about Saturday?" Somehow, Ted's mouth had completely disconnected from his brain.

Silence. "I'm going to be honest here, Ted. This isn't going to happen."

"Oh," Ted replied weakly.

"I mean, it's... What are you looking for? Really?"

"Really?" He breathed deeply. "A serious relationship," he confessed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Em's mouth twitch oddly.

"I don't think you're going to find it in me," Sullivan said quietly. "You're a nice guy, but I don't think we're right for each other."

His chest tightened. "But--"

He didn't know what he was going to say. But they'd had such a great time? But they both loved music and classical literature and fine dining? But Ted had really, really liked him? Stupid.

Later, he wouldn't remember how the rest of the phone call went, just that it didn't last long.

"It was nice meeting you," was the last thing Sullivan said to him. "I hope you meet someone special."

"What a stupid fuck," Em exclaimed, before the phone was even back on the hook. He clamped a hand over his mouth, as if he'd spoken on accident. "Sorry. I shouldn't have listened."

Ted felt like such an idiot. "No, it's okay. I don't know why I'm even bothering," he whispered.

"What?" Em asked, eyes widening. He cried, "Teddy, there's someone out there for everyone!"

Emmett just didn't understand. He was hot and sweet and fun. It was impossible not to fall for him. But Ted wasn't like that; he was plain-looking and self-conscious and said stupid things. His only outstanding qualities were his intelligence and culture, but, well, a lot of people were smart. He wasn't anything special.

"It's obvious by now I'm never going to find anyone. I might as well give up."

"Ted--" Em started to say.

"I guess there's just something wrong with me. I should just buy five more cats and get it over with."

Emmett grabbed him by the shoulders. "Ted! You're smart and funny and sensitive and... you're amazing, Teddy, and anyone who can't see that isn't worth it."

Somehow, when Emmett said it, Ted believed it. He felt something both familiar and extraordinary bubbling up inside of him.

"Em, do you ever think about us?" he blurted.

Em recoiled. "I..."

He closed his eyes. "No, don't say anything. I shouldn't have brought it up."

"Ted-- Teddy, look at me." Ted did. Em sucked in a deep breath through his nose. "I think about us every day. I know we agreed we're only going to be friends, but I can't help it. Last time we fucked things up--"

"I fucked things up," he interrupted.

Em smiled crookedly. "You hurt me more than anyone had ever hurt me before. Hell," he scoffed, "more than anyone else has since."

Ted had already known that, but that didn't stop him from feeing like shit.

Em looked away sadly. "Maybe we just weren't meant to be."

Suddenly, Ted knew just what he wanted. Just who he wanted. He hadn't found what he needed in Blake, with their overly complicated relationship, or... well, he hadn't really had a relationship with anyone since then, but maybe that was God's way of telling him the person he was meant to be with was right in front of him. Again. For the second time.

"Maybe we were," he said desperately. "Maybe we just needed time. Em, I'm not the person I was when I did that to you. And you're not the person who would just take it."

Em huffed. "I 'took it' because I wanted--"

"What I meant," he cut in, "was that if we're still in love after all these years, that means we've grown together, right?"

"If we were meant for each other, wouldn't this be easier?"

"No," Ted said with sudden clarity. He knew the answer to this; he was a recovering drug addict who had completely started his life over, and he was more stressed, more worn out, more happy than he had ever been in his entire life. "Nothing worthwhile is ever easy."

Em's eyes shone. "You think we're worth it?"

"Yes," he said hoarsely. "Absolutely."

Em took his face in his hands and kissed him.

*

They walked to breakfast the next morning holding hands. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Emmett was glowing. Ted was pretty sure he was too. Last night, right before falling asleep, Ted had been stricken with fear that the morning would bring nothing but panic and regret, but when he woke up he felt nothing but happiness. Even the whole humiliating Sullivan episode wasn't important anymore.

Em had been sweetly shy all morning -- just like he'd been the first time they'd been involved. Ted had never been more happy he and Em had once been together.

He couldn't explain why, but somehow he knew this time it was going to work with them.

When they made it to their usual table, their friends made cat-calls. All except Ben, who just gave them a small grin.

Debbie beamed. "Well! Who would have guessed!"

Ted bit his lip, trying to stop smiling like a doofus.

"I guess we're friends again," Em told Brian, blushing.

"Yippie," Brian said dryly.

"Yeah, what was that about?" Ted asked.

For some reason, both Justin and Michael looked embarrassed. Em ducked his head, grabbing Ted's hand and lacing their fingers together once more. "Well, I guess I can tell you now," he said. "I was mad at Brian for setting you up after I told him I was in love with you."

The implicated dawned on Ted. His mind reeled. "Wait... Brian. Did you-- did you set me up on those dates knowing they'd end terribly?"

Brian brush off his hands, looking very smug. "Now why would I do something like that?"

"What the fuck does that mean, smart ass?" Debbie cracked, smacking him on the back of the head.

"That's hot," Justin sighed, making eyes at Brian. "Caring about your friends is so hot."

"It doesn't take a whole lot with you, does it," Michael said to him.

With their mouths still open in shock, Ted and Em exchanged glances. Ted couldn't believe the whole thing was Brian's plan. No, that was a lie; Brian was an evil control freak who occasionally did something good. It was just his luck he'd happened to be in Brian's path.

He said seriously, "I find it really disturbing Brian was the only one who believed in our love."

"You know what I find disturbing?" Em asked. "How unnecessarily complicated that whole plan was."

Brian scowled. "I don't do things half-assed, Honeycutt."