a   t r a g e d y   i n   t h r e e   p a r t s

It happens, as usual, when Ted isn’t looking. One day everything is normal, he’s moderately content and uncomplicated; the next, he realizes that he may be a little in love with Justin Taylor.

This is not one of those good surprises.

--

The first time he notices, Justin is sitting in Brian’s boss chair at Kinnetik, doodling cartoon insects in the margins of a text book. Ted watches the graceful movements of Justin’s hand; the way his fingers tremor occasionally as they curve the bend of a beetle’s body. He sees the fleshy white underside of Justin’s wrist, and it makes him hard.

He thinks this might be a problem.

--

Justin is beautiful, Ted thinks. He’s always liked blond guys. Really, he’s always liked most guys. Ted Schmidt has never really had a type, unless you count guys that are guaranteed to reject him.

In this respect, Justin is most certainly his type.

He thinks, that first night, that he probably could not have picked a more pathetic, hopeless, self-destroying crush. Justin Taylor. Justin Fucking Taylor, King of Babylon, the world. Worse, the much loved boyfriend of Brian A. Kinney. Ted thinks of Brian’s endless closet of Prada suits, Brian’s legendary cock, Brian’s perfect face, flawless body. He thinks of the numbers he’s seen skyrocketing in Brian’s accounts, and decides very early on not to even think about acting on this new desire.

He begins to dream of Justin every night.

--

Ted’s first crush was on a girl named Susie with – he vaguely remembers – curly blonde hair and the most perfect white china tea set. Ted isn’t one of those guys that has always known he was gay. He had a thousand crushes on pretty little girls before he ever figured it out. Ted hates telling people that. It makes him feel like a late bloomer, which is what his mother always said he was.

Justin knew he was gay before he ever even knew what homosexuality was.

“I was eight,” he tells Ted one night. They’re waiting late at the diner for the others to show up. “This girl in my class asked the teacher what gay meant, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s me. That’s what I am,’ when she explained. And since then I’ve always just known.”

“I was twenty one,” Ted says. He’s trying not to blush, because Justin is sprawled out on the other side of the booth like an offering to the gods. “It was one of those things where everybody knew but me. It’s really embarrassing to think back on the dates I went on with women. I think even they knew. It’s …” Justin’s lips wrap around the neck of his beer bottle, and Ted suppresses an audible gulp. “Pretty pathetic.”

Ted can remember the first conversation he’d ever had with Justin, just the two of them. He remembers it vividly, which is to be expected considering the event was fairly recent history. Some stupid idle chat about a book they’d both been reading, but it’s stuck in Ted’s memory on repeat.

He’s known Justin for four years, but they’d never really talked until Ted started working for Brian. In fact, he doesn’t think he was ever alone in a room with Justin until one evening, after hours at Kinnetik. He’s always been a little afraid of the kid. The idea of trying to actually talk to him usually triggered a vague sense of panic, as if Justin would be closely monitoring every word he said. Filing each dumb joke and faux pas away for future reference.

Ted imagines Justin and Brian collating their anti-Ted armory at the loft late at night, but then feels stupid. So presumptuous, to assume Justin thinks of him at all.

The first real conversation they ever had – the first conversation that ever meant something – was about Brian’s recovery, and Ted had been struck by the softness in Justin’s voice, like the timbre and treble of Justin’s voice was just melting through the phone line.

“I was just wondering how Brian seems,” Justin said. “He’s got the flu or something. Does he look terrible?”

“Why didn’t you just ask him?” Ted asked, not unkindly. It seemed very odd for Justin to call his cell to ask Ted of all people about Brian. Ted hadn’t even known Justin had the number.

Justin laughed. “As if he’d tell me.”

Ted hadn’t known then about the cancer. So much about that conversation wouldn’t make sense until a few days later, when it all came out. Still, Justin’s concern touched Ted. He wondered what it would be like, to have someone care that much about you. Justin’s heart was wide open during that phone call, and he suddenly seemed a lot less frightening.

“He seems…” Ted had seriously considered the possibility that Brian was battling a drug addiction. “Under the weather.”

Cynthia told Ted later that Brian had threatened Justin with a restraining order when he’d shown up at Kinnetik that morning. Ted had heard a dull thudding behind his ears then, and his body had ached for the crystal, to just get lost for a little while.

It hadn’t occurred to him until later that he might have been angry for Justin, protective of Justin. It had been that waiver, that softness in Justin’s voice that had done it. Something deep inside Ted recognized that softness, responded to it.

Ted thinks maybe that was the beginning of the end.

--

The dreams that come nightly are full of pale skin and Justin’s low, sleepy murmur. They move slowly, tangled in Ted’s sheets, ensconced safely in Ted’s home. These aren’t just sex dreams; there’s so much warmth and domesticity there that it makes Ted ache for the reality.

In his dreams, Justin reads magazines on his couch and argues with him about being a “fucking Republican”. Justin spends hours sketching in Ted’s bed and drapes himself warm and pliant across Ted’s back as they sleep. Justin fucks him tenderly, hotly, madly, sweetly, and says his name as he comes.

Ted aches for the reality.

--

His first crucial mistake is telling Emmett about what’s going on in his head.

“Teddy, sweetheart, forgive me,” Emmett says, clutching his shoulders, “but are you out of your fucking mind?

Ted is. He really is. He’s been watching Justin for months, talking to him. Justin laughs at his jokes and says he looks nice in green. Sometimes, Justin touches his shoulder when he talks, and smiles brightly when Ted walks into the room. Sometimes Justin smirks at him behind Brian’s back, when Brian is queening or preening over a project. Everything Justin does makes it that little bit harder, that little bit stronger.

“I think I must be,” Ted tells Emmett, sinking deeper into Debbie’s couch. Debbie has gone to dinner with Carl; it’s just the two of them and this terrible secret, alone in the house.

“How did this happen?” Emmett’s mouth is opening and closing like a fish, his hand fluttering against his chest like Scarlett O’Hara.

“Who knows?” Ted replies. “It just happened, like it always does.”

“This is a disaster!” Emmett moans. Ted wishes he’d chosen to confide in someone more tactful and sympathetic, but in this instance Emmett’s reaction is probably the best case scenario. Ted can’t even imagine what Michael would say.

It occurs to Ted that he’s loved, in recent years, Michael and Emmett and now Justin. It’s like a sickness, he thinks, that he can’t differentiate friendship from love; he can’t separate the two. He wonders if Brian is next on his list, or maybe Ben.

“I know it’s a disaster,” he says. “Jesus, I know. You don’t have to tell me. It’s just that he’s so…”

“Unattainable?” Emmett offers. “Inaccessible. Wait, I know, I’ve got one. Unavailable.”

“I was going to say beautiful,” Ted says glumly. “What the hell do I do?”

“Well normally, sweetie, I’d say honesty is the best policy. However, in this case, honesty is only going to get you humiliated – or worse, unemployed – so I’m going to advise you to keep your fucking mouth shut, okay?” Emmett smoothes his hand down the back of Ted’s skull and kisses his forehead. “I love you Teddy, but this thing between you and Justin, it’s not happening. It can’t happen, and it won’t. I’m sorry.”

“It won’t?”

“Justin loves Brian,” Emmett says. “Hell, we all love Brian. I don’t think you would really want to make them miserable that way, even if you could. You don’t have that in you, Teddy.”

“No,” Ted says. “Of course not.”

However, he thinks of his dreams of Justin’s toothbrush next to his, Justin’s fingers laced through his own, and maybe that’s a lie.

--

Ted often sits with Justin and listens to his stories of Hollywood conquests, luxuriating in the glee with which Justin savors his recollections, the hand gestures and chuffs of laughter. During his seven month stay, Justin fucked no less than thirty-seven celebrities, ranging from small time cable actors to major stars like Connor James to “that guy in the toothpaste ad, the one where he talks to his cat.”

Ted is in awe of Justin, his confidence, his bravery. When Ted was Justin’s age he hadn’t really experienced anything. He’d been terrified of the world and his place in it, terrified of every little last thing. Justin was the opposite. It seemed like he devoured the world at breakneck speed, every experience within his grasp. In Justin Ted sees a recklessness he’s always felt he himself lacked. Even after everything with Chris Hobbs, everything with Brian, Justin refused to back down from anything.

Ted thinks that with Justin by his side, maybe he too could learn to be unafraid.

--

Brian begins to get suspicious.

“You sure are gracing us with your presence a lot lately, Theodore,” he drawls one day when Ted appears at the loft under the pretext of consulting with Brian about urgent Kinnetik business. Justin appears from the bedroom with mussed hair and swollen lips. Ted knows he has interrupted them fucking, and his eyes follow Justin as he moves to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle of water.

“Hey Ted,” Justin says casually. His sweatshirt is only zipped halfway, and Ted tries not to stare at his smooth, pale chest. There’s a deep red mark below Justin’s collarbone which screams at Ted all the things that Brian had probably been doing to him.

“Hey Justin,” Ted says with a thick voice. When he tears his eyes away from Justin’s blotchy skin, Brian is staring at him with hard eyes, and Ted knows he’s blown it.

“Why don’t you give me those papers to look over,” Brian says, feigning casual. “I’ll look over them and get back to you.”

“Actually –“ Ted begins.

“We were busy,” Brian interrupts. “Fucking. Go home. I’ll get back to you.”

Ted leaves. He goes home and listens to La Bohème alone in near darkness, and feels an anxious ulcer growing and pulsing in his gut.

--

He stops going to the loft, stops dropping by the diner when he thinks Justin will be alone. He’d been informally teaching Justin about the visual conventions of opera for a project Justin was working on at the IFA; he emails Justin a list of links and resources in place of any further discussion. He attempts to remove himself almost completely from Justin’s life.

Justin does not comment. Ted isn’t even sure he notices.

--

A month after Ted fades out of Justin’s day to day existence, Brian is still watching him like a hawk. Ted isn’t sure what Brian is waiting for, but he knows his boss is constantly poised and ready for attack.

Ted thinks that Brian can’t possibly imagine he’d one day act on his desire for Justin. The idea is preposterous. Ted can’t even imagine where he’d get the confidence.

Finally one day at Woody’s, Ted snaps. Justin hasn’t even arrived yet and Brian is watching him, waiting. The surveillance makes Ted nervous.

“Jesus Brian, stop it!” he says finally. “I’m not going to do anything about it. I just keep feeling this way by accident.”

Brian blinks slowly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Brian,” Ted says impatiently.

Brian’s lips press into a thin line. “Just don’t make him hurt you. You already know what he’ll say.”

Ted does know what he’ll say. That’s why he’ll never give Justin reason to say it.

--

The problem is that Ted isn’t really supposed to drink under the rules of his rehabilitation, but he’s lenient with himself on special occasions. On Michael’s birthday Ted has five glasses of wine that go straight to his head, and somehow Justin ends up driving him home.

The moment when his lips touch Justin’s is the most terrifying of his entire life, or it seems it.

Justin tastes faintly of beer and cigarettes, though Ted hadn’t seen him smoke all night. Dimly, Ted remembers that Brian had been chain-smoking all evening, that Brian had at one point been making out with Justin in a corner for hours. He wonders what else it is that he tastes between Justin’s lips, but then Justin’s pushing him away with both hands and saying, “Ted, what the fuck?”

“Justin,” Ted hears himself saying. His heart beats terrified within the cage of his chest. “I think I’m in love with you.”

Justin stares at him with his arms outstretched between them, hands still planted on Ted’s shoulders and pushing him gently away.

“Ted,” Justin says. “I promise you you don’t love me half as much as you think you do right now. Or you wouldn’t if you knew what a pain in the ass I am.”

“I’ve felt this way for months,” Ted says desperately.

“I – I think I just thought you wanted to fuck me,” Justin says. He takes another step back. “You know what I’m going to say, right?”

Ted doesn’t think his heart is beating in his chest anymore. “I think I need to hear it. I think it might help.”

“I don’t feel the same way. I never will.” Justin’s words are harsh but his eyes are gentle, and he reaches one hand up and touches Ted’s cheek. “It’ll be okay.”

“You couldn’t ever love me?” Ted asks.

“Jesus,” Justin says and drops his hand. “Ted, I’m not going to do this dramatic bullshit, okay? I’m just – not. Goodnight.”

And then he’s gone, and Ted is left alone in his apartment, stinking like red wine and cheese crackers. He can’t believe he just did that.

This might be a very big problem.

--

At first, Ted isn’t sure if Justin has told Brian about it, but Brian seems to alternate between almost frightening compassion and thinly veiled fury all day, so it seems that he has. Ted isn’t sure what that means. He isn’t sure if Justin will ever speak to him again, and he’s too afraid to ask Brian.

A few days later he runs into Justin at a pharmacy on Willis and Burke. He apologises awkwardly for his behaviour the other night, and Justin shifts from foot to foot but does not avert his gaze.

“We can be friends,” Justin says. “That’s all.”

“That’s all,” Ted echoes.

“It wouldn’t ever be right between you and me, Ted,” he says. “I think you know that.”

“I do,” Ted says. “I do know that. I promise.”

Then he thinks of his dreams of Justin, Justin in his bed and his kitchen, his shower, a beach forty years from now in Florida. He thinks of all that, and his promise feels like a lie.

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