"You slept with Robin?" Ranjit's voice was full of incredulous disapproval, as he glared at Barney in the rearview mirror, apparently oblivious to his pain, at least for the moment. "You slept with Robin?"
"Yeah, you said that already," Barney groaned, pressing his hands down hard over his throbbing groin in an attempt to ease the pain. "A couple of times, actually. Believe me, I'm regretting it right about now."
"She is Ted's ex-girlfriend, Barney!" Ranjit persisted in his lecture, shaking a finger in Barney's direction. "That means she is off-limits to you."
"I know that!" Barney hissed, sucking in air past his teeth as a fresh wave of pain washed over him – and he tried to ignore the fact that it wasn't a solely physical pain. "I get that I made a mistake, okay? If I could go back… well… I'd probably still do it, but…"
"You are a bad friend, Barney!" Ranjit declared. "Ted has always been a good friend to you, and you go behind his back and sleep with his ex-girlfriend? You'll be lucky if he forgives you for this one."
"Could you just… could you just take me home?" Barney sighed, all of the will to argue drained from his voice. He was in too much pain, too sad and guilty, to even have the energy to defend his actions. "I don't want to talk about this."
"Don't talk then." Ranjit shrugged, directing his attention toward the windshield as he pulled the car back out onto the road. "But you ride in my limo… you will listen to what I have to say."
Defeated, Barney sat there in silence, pretending to listen as he was lectured for the duration of the drive back to his apartment. He paid Ranjit's fare – including a rather exorbitant tip that did nothing to assuage his guilt – and then limped slowly and painfully to the elevator and up to his front door. Although he tried not to think about it, his mind went unbidden to the party going on across town for Ted's birthday – the party to which he was now uninvited.
His apartment had never felt so empty.
He'll get over it… He's my best friend. He can't just toss me aside and forget about the last seven years of friendship…
Barney tried to reassure himself – but he kept remembering the look of such utter disgust and hurt on Ted's face when he'd gotten out of the cab.
He'll forgive me, eventually. He has to…
But as hard as he tried, Barney couldn't quite make himself believe it.
A month later, Ted still hadn't forgiven Barney – but he had asked Stella to marry him.
A month after that – Stella left him.
"I don't get it!" Ted objected, tears in his eyes as he tried to get between her and the suitcase she was packing, already half-filled with all the things she'd left at his place during the past few months. "I thought you loved me!"
"I thought you loved me, Ted!" Stella countered, her own tears streaking her face as she threw up her hands in frustration. "But how can you, when you're still so hung up on Robin?"
"How can you say that? You know me and Robin are just friends now…"
"Do you even know that, Ted?" There was bitter resentment in Stella's laughing words.
Ted shook his head in incredulous confusion. "What… what are you talking about?"
"If you and Robin are just friends now," Stella continued, eyes blazing as she stepped nearer to Ted, her tearful gaze suddenly too intense, so that he had to look away, "then why are you so worried about whatever she did with Barney? It's all you've talked about for the last two months, Ted! You're… you're obsessed, and… and the only reason I can think of for that is… is that you still love her, Ted." There was defeat in her voice as she shook her head, tears streaking her face. "You still love her. So… I can't let you marry me."
Ted tried to argue her point, though he had to admit that it sounded rather convincing. He tried to explain that it wasn't about Robin herself, but about the betrayal against their friendship that Barney had committed. He insisted that he had no romantic feelings left for Robin, and that there was nothing to stand in the way of their marriage.
Stella listened – but in the end, she still walked out.
"It's just one more way in which Barney's managed to royally screw up my life!"
Ted didn't see the worried looks his friends exchanged as he concluded his story. He was too wrapped up in his own misery and seething anger to notice the way Lily bit her lower lip as she met Robin's gaze, or the way Marshall blinked in surprise, visibly taken aback by Ted's assessment of the situation and its cause. Lily nudged Marshall in the ribs with her elbow; he glanced down to see her giving him a pointed look, nodding slightly toward Ted, and the unspoken message was clear.
He's your best friend. Talk some sense into him.
Marshall shook his head slightly in alarm, but Lily's next psychic message to him was even clearer, and frighteningly specific.
Talk to him, or we're not having sex for a week.
Pleading puppy-dog eyes were no match for Lily's resolve face.
Marshall couldn't help the knowing smirk that rose to his lips as he rolled his eyes, letting out a little huff of amused contempt.
Please. You can't go that long…
Lily's shoulders fell and she let out a defeated sigh.
Come on, baby. He's making himself crazy – and all of us with him. You have to do something…
Marshall cast a worried glance in the direction of his best friend, who was still venting his frustrations toward a visibly uneasy Robin. She kept nodding and making sympathetic faces in Ted's direction, but the way she fidgeted nervously in her chair and kept looking at Lily and Marshall with desperate, "help-me!" eyes made it perfectly clear that she was just as worried as they were.
Okay. Marshall gave Lily a reassuring but almost imperceptible nod. Here goes nothing…
"What she doesn't get is that it's not really about you, Robin," Ted explained with a heavy, defeated sigh. "None of this would have happened if Barney hadn't broken my trust. He's the one I'm pissed off at, because I thought he was my friend, and he stabbed me in the back…"
Robin was clearly uncomfortable with the entire conversation, but she persisted hesitantly, trying to get Ted to see reason. "But… I'm your friend, and…"
"You're my friend, but you're also my ex-girlfriend," Ted pointed out. "I have the right to ask my friends not to sleep with my exes. I don't have the right to ask my exes not to sleep with… well, anyone they want."
Ted blinked, looking up at Marshall in surprise at the interruption. The blank expression on his face made it obvious that he had no clue how inappropriate the conversation – and his behavior in general at the moment – had become. Marshall cast a pointed look toward Robin before meeting Ted's eyes again and raising a single, questioning brow.
"Don't you think there's a better person to have this conversation with about the rules on exes, friends and sex, than your ex who's also your friend and had sex with your friend?"
Ted blinked again, shaking his head slightly. "Was there any part of that sentence that remotely makes sense? In English?"
Marshall glared at him for a moment before rising to his feet and nodding toward the door. "Come on, Ted. Let's take a walk."
Ted frowned, puzzled, but rose from his seat and followed Marshall out into the cool evening air.
"What were you talking about in there?" he asked, shrugging. "Robin's my friend. I was just talking to her…"
"About something she'd probably rather not talk about," Marshall pointed out. "I'm sure it's pretty awkward for her knowing that you and Barney aren't friends anymore because of something that she was… well… a pretty big part of."
Ted considered that for a moment before letting out a heavy sigh and raising one hand to momentarily cover his face. After a moment he lowered his hand, giving Marshall a grimace of embarrassment.
"I was making a total ass of myself in there, wasn't I?"
"Total," Marshall agreed. "Complete. Utter, even."
Ted sighed – then, almost against his will, began to smile, his mouth twitching with repressed laughter.
"Udder," he muttered with a juvenile snicker.
Marshall tried to hold it back, but then he found himself laughing, too. "Udder," he repeated with a smirk – before suddenly remembering himself and forcing his expression back into something severe and stern. "Ted, this is serious!"
Ted's smile faded, and he hung his head, dejected and slightly sullen. "I know," he sighed. His jaw set in stubborn anger, eyes glittering with dark resentment, he muttered under his breath, "It's not enough for him to just sleep with her; now he's gonna cost me my friendship with Robin, too!"
Gritting his teeth in frustration, Marshall shook his head. "Ted – you can't just blame everything on Barney for the rest of his life! It's not Barney's fault that you couldn't talk to Stella about anything but your ex-girlfriend's sexual escapades for the past couple months, or that…" He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the inevitable explosion even as he ploughed forward with the painful truth. "… that Stella broke up with you, or that you lost your head in there because of it and were… grossly inappropriate. You're my best friend, man, and you know if anybody's on your side it's me, but… that's stuff you did."
Even before Ted opened his mouth, the look of stubborn defiance in his eyes made what he was going to say obvious – except that he never got the chance to say it. His phone rang, and Ted took it out of his pocket, glaring down at the screen and the familiar name that scrolled across it.
By the expression on Ted's face, Marshall knew who it was that was calling.
"Answer it," Marshall instructed quietly. "Ted… just answer it. What's it gonna hurt to talk to him?"
Ted punched the reject button with enough force to cause the phone's plastic frame to creak alarmingly before putting it back into his pocket.
"Come on, Ted." Marshall didn't try to keep the disappointment from his voice. "How long is this gonna go on?"
"How long is what gonna go on? Ted demanded, an incredulous tremor of bitter laughter in his voice. "He blew it, Marshall. He broke his own freakin' Bro Code and stabbed me in the back by sleeping with my ex-girlfriend. I thought our friendship meant more to him that that, but no…"
"He'd do anything to make it up to you, man," Marshall insisted, a pleading note in his voice. "Can't you see that?" Ted opened his mouth to argue, but before he could, Marshall spoke again, his voice rising slightly with anger. "No, you can't, because you're not giving him a chance! How is he supposed to prove that he can change – that he really won't do anything like that again – if you won't so much as take his calls?"
Ted was quiet for a few long, tense moments – his lips parted as if to speak, though he couldn't seem to find the words – and for a moment, Marshall thought he might have gotten through to him. Then, Ted broke the silence, stony resentment in his quiet, trembling voice.
"He's not supposed to prove anything," he replied softly. "He's just supposed to leave me alone and let me get on with my life."
Marshall considered Ted's response for a moment before answering, his own voice quiet and sad.
"He's not the one that's keeping you from doing that, Ted."
There was nothing more to say, no words he could find to convince his friend of the truth, so Marshall just turned and walked back into the bar, leaving Ted alone with his own thoughts – and the cell phone in his pocket that was ringing once again.
Ted started up the stairs toward his empty apartment.
He couldn't bring himself to go back into the bar and face his friends, and there was no one else who cared what he did at the moment – except for the persistent, buzzing presence in his pocket. Ted took his phone out again, glaring at the screen where a new text message had just appeared.
*Please. Just talk to me for one minute.*
Ted deleted the message and continued up the stairs.
They just don't get it – none of them. They don't know what it's like to trust someone so much, just to have them turn on you like that! It's not even about Robin. It's about the fact that… that I thought our friendship meant something to him – something more than one night of sex that ended up ending it.
Ted's phone buzzed again, and he took it out, barely registering the words there, in all caps, followed by multiple exclamation points.
*PLEASE, TED! JUST LET ME APOLOGIZE!*
Ted rolled his eyes and put his phone away again, his thoughts turning back to the argument he'd had with Marshall.
He just wants things to go back to the way they were – but they can't. I can't trust Barney after what he did. If I forgive him, he's just going to take that to mean that it's okay – and he'll just end up stabbing me in the back again. Marshall wants me to give him a chance to prove himself – to prove what, though? To prove that I'm a big enough sucker to fall for the same act twice? I don't think so. I'm through falling for…
When his phone began to vibrate again, Ted gritted his teeth, resisting the temptation to take it out and simply slam it down on the stone steps. Instead, he read the screen, though he wasn't really sure why at this point.
*DUDE. I'm LITERALLY on my knees, here. In a $5,000 suit. I will do ANYTHING, Ted, just PLEASE TALK TO ME.*
Ted stopped just outside his door, pausing to read the message a bit more closely, as the beginnings of a plan began to formulate in his mind.
I have to do something. Can't go on like this, or I'll lose all the friends I still do have. Can't just take him back, or it'll just happen again. Marshall wants me to give him a chance… and he's literally begging for one…
… when what he really needs is to be taught a lesson. To know that… when you hurt people, there are consequences…
Ted took a deep breath and dialed the fourth number on his speed dial.
He wasn't really sure why he hadn't changed it yet.
Halfway into the first ring, Barney answered the phone, breathless and disbelieving.
"Ted? Ted, you're really… I mean… Thank you! Thank you so much for finally…"
Barney's voice broke off immediately, and Ted could clearly visualize the startled expression his face must have borne.
"You violated the Bro Code, and you violated my trust. You completely and utterly failed me as a friend. You wanna make it up to me?" Ted didn't wait for an answer, though he could hear Barney taking a breath on the other end of the line, as if preparing to respond. "Meet me on the roof in twenty minutes. This is the only shot I'm giving you, so don't blow it."
Without waiting for confirmation that Barney was on his way, Ted disconnected the call and turned his phone off, putting it away.
He had no doubt that Barney would be there – and probably in less than twenty minutes.
He unlocked his front door and walked into his apartment, his mind racing as the pieces of his half-formed plan began to slowly come together.