Ben Kessler decided to ignore the apartment's buzzer. Surely, out of all the possible scenarios in his life, there existed an even less opportune time for the doorbell to ring. He was hard-pressed to come up with one right then, though.
Just don't answer and they'll assume nobody's home.
But when the buzzer gave way to insistent pounding—loud enough to be heard over the roar of the filling bathtub—he was forced to admit that whoever had come to the door wasn't going away.
"Just," he said, looking down at his girlfriend, dazed in a half-naked slump on the bathroom floor, "um, hang tight."
Bridgette didn't make any moves objecting to the idea. Whoever was at the door had knuckles of steel and wasn't letting up on the metronome knocking, so Ben hurried out of the bathroom, wiping his hands on the seat of his khakis as he went. He pulled back the chain and twisted the deadbolt, too flustered to bother with checking the peephole. Just as he was opening the door, he realized there was puke on the shoulder of his sweater. Before he could do more than grimace at the odor coming off the damp patch, his front door was shoved back at his face.
"She still here?" Mr. Steel Knuckles growled, taking advantage of Ben's distraction and pushing through the doorway.
Ben nodded reflexively and added, on a tired sigh, "Yeah." He felt a pang of guilt for regretting that Bridgette was still in his apartment. Then his brain caught up with his eyes and took a moment to process the man who'd busted into his living room.
The dark hair was short and curly instead of done up in stiff, angry spikes. The leather jacket was replaced with a chambray shirt. And the sneering mouth was now set in a tight line. But the man was unmistakably the same one Ben had been glimpsing for months now in the strip of photo booth prints Bridgette kept tucked away in her purse. Because I forgive, Ben, but I never want to forget, she'd told him, refusing to elaborate when he'd asked about the pictures.
"You're…" Ben said, blinking in stupid surprise at the man.
"Dave." He craned his neck to look past Ben's shoulder.
"Bridgette's ex," Ben finished. Why the hell is he here?
"That too." The man shifted, raising an arm like he meant to shove Ben out of the way. He must've noticed the stain on Ben's sweater and reconsidered, because he pulled back and ran his hand through his own hair instead. He gave Ben the once-over—eyes darting from the puke stain up to his disheveled hair and then down to his bare feet and spattered pant cuffs—before sidestepping him altogether and striding towards the hallway.
"How long's it been since her last fix?" he called back as he unerringly headed to the bathroom.
The statement stopped Ben mid-scurry in his attempt to catch up with the other man. "Fix?" He stood frozen in the living room. "No, you've-" got the wrong idea, he thought, but couldn't quite bring himself to say. "It's just…," he tried again. He didn't know how to finish the sentence.
It's just what? A mix-up with a prescription that's gotten way out of hand?
He thought about his discovery of a drawer filled with empty pill bottles in Bridgette's apartment earlier that afternoon. Ben checked his watch. God, had it really only been a handful of hours ago that brash, opinionated, effervescent Bridgette had explained to him in a brittle voice that she just needed a bit of help to get her little problem straightened out?
"I've got it under control," Ben said, trotting to catch up. Why was he bothering trying to explain this to a stranger who'd practically broken into his apartment, anyway? "And I don't remember saying you could-" he began, skidding to a halt before he ran into the guy's broad back. The other man hovered in the doorway, avoiding the growing puddle on the floor.
"Shit." Ben shouldered past him, cringing as his feet splashed in tepid water from the overflowing tub. "Dammit, Bridgette!"
The shout seemed to rouse his girlfriend from her newfound slouch in one of the bathroom's drier sections, but she only had eyes for the man still standing in the doorway. "Davey!" Her bright smile was somewhat dimmed by the fact that she was sitting on the toilet, hunched over a plastic wastebasket. Her jeans hung on for dear life around one ankle. "You're-" she swallowed in a way that made Ben feel sympathy queasiness. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
Ben twisted off the water tap and pulled the tub stopper. That was one problem down, at least. He looked up to where Bridgette's ex—Davey—still stood in the doorway, ready to tell him to get lost.
The words dried up as he took in the sag of the man's shoulders. He looked less like the snarling wannabe punk from Bridgette's pictures now. He's older. And tired. Sad.
"Sure, Bridgette," Dave said. He sighed, pushing off from the doorframe. Ben noted with absent irritation that the guy hadn't bothered to take off his boots. They left streaks across the wet tile as he crossed over to crouch in front of Bridgette. He brushed the thick, sweaty bangs off her forehead. "You too, baby."
Ben felt his mouth hanging open. He understood that these two had history, but it was like he wasn't even in the room. "Hello? Boyfriend? Standing right here?"
Bridgette shot him an extra nasty glare before focusing back on her ex. "God, Davey, I wasn't sure you'd come when I called. You have got to get me outta here and away from this asshole."
"Hey!" Ben said, hurt. He told himself it was the sickness talking, trying not to think about the way her attention had been drifting from him lately. "Still standing right here." He looked between Bridgette's hopeful face and the other man's soft smile. "Also, when did you call this guy?"
The question didn't even warrant a glare. "Please, babe," she said to Dave as she wrapped an arm around her stomach. "Tell me you've got something for me."
"Wait, you called him for drugs? Now?" Ben couldn't believe it. Not after she'd begged him to bring her back to his place so she could work it out of her system away from temptations. "If you think I'm going to let this creep feed you pills-"
Dave ignored him as easily as Bridgette had. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he said, sighing as he lowered his head.
"You're shitting me, right? Come on, David, you can't-" She paused to spit—relatively daintily, to her credit—into the wastebasket. "You can't hold out on me now."
The other man shook his head.
"Dave…I'm fucking serious here," she said, letting go of her stomach to shove at him. "You need to give me something."
Dave raised his head, his smile returning with an edge that hinted at the skinny kid giving the finger to the camera in Bridgette's old photos. "How many times do I have to tell you I quit that shit for good? You know that. And that's exactly why you called me."
Bridgette's lips drew back from her teeth in a move frighteningly reminiscent of Mrs. Cho's Chihuahua from the apartment upstairs. Ben inched back even though he was all the way on the other side of the room, suddenly a little grateful to be ignored.
"You fucker," she whispered.
Dave answered her with an even sharper smile. Ben was vaguely glad the guy hadn't come over to give Bridgette drugs, but that smile made him wonder just why he had busted in. He took a reflexive step forward. But before he could say or do anything else, Bridgette kicked out at Dave's bent knees. Her trailing pant leg flailed as she tried to knock him on his ass. Dave hopped back and straightened, grinning like a maniac.
"Fucker! Fucking cocksucker!" she shouted before curling nearly in half and retching into the wastebasket.
Ben stared with wide eyes, shocked. Sure, Bridgette was no pushover when she got upset—it was one of the things he liked about her—but this was beyond the pale. She worked for a civil rights attorney, for Christ's sake! He cringed at the grinding sound of her getting sick, squishing his toes into the soaked bathmat.
"Atta way, Bridgette," Dave said dismissively. He turned to Ben, eyes glittering as he seemed to notice him for the first time since sizing him up at the front door. "Rule Number One: Never leave a junkie in withdrawal alone in a room with a phone." He gave Ben a condescending pat on the chest and splashed back to the medicine cabinet.
Bridgette coughed, her head still ducked into the wastebasket.
"Keep it comin', baby," Dave called over his shoulder. "Rule Number Two: Never leave a junkie in withdrawal alone in a room with a medicine cabinet." He pulled back the glass door and blinked at the neat rows of moisturizer, contact lens solution, hair gel, and toothpaste before cocking his head at Ben.
Bridgette gave a chocked cackle between retches. "I wish. Benny barely even keeps aspirin in the house."
"Seriously?" Dave asked, raising an arched brow. Before Ben could scrape together a response, the other man turned back to Bridgette. "Your tastes really have changed, huh princess?"
"Guh." She made a decidedly less delicate spitting sound. "Not so much as you'd think, asshole."
"Oh, really?" Dave gave him a speculative look, sizing him up in an altogether different way. Ben blushed and resisted the impulse to return the look. Even though Bridgette normally got a kick out of that sort of thing, now really wasn't the time.
Dave shrugged. "If you say so," he said, turning back to Bridgette. "You about done there, sweets? Wanna get cleaned up or just go straight to bed?"
Ben shook himself out of his daze. Who was this guy to barge in and start telling them what to do, anyway? "Look, uh…"
"Dave," Dave supplied, pulling a pack of gum out of his pocket and folding a stick into his mouth before offering the rest to Ben.
"No, thank you." He waved it away, flustered. "Anyway, Dave, I hate to be rude, but I think I've got it under control here. I'm…uh, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave." Ben pointed to the doorway with as much dignity as possible, considering the motion made his vomit-damp sweater slide unsettlingly across his skin.
Dave stared at him, chomping on his gum.
Bridgette retched again. Ben tried—and failed—not to wince as she missed the wastebasket.
Dave slipped his hands into his pockets. "You're really going to turn down help in this situation?"
He kept his wavering arm pointed at the door for another handful of seconds. This guy was a stranger, probably mentally unhinged, and obviously had a more complex relationship with Bridgette than Ben wanted to think about.
Dave looked almost bored as Bridgette groaned and rested her head against the edge of the wastebasket. The other man's steady gaze reflected none of the panic or helplessness that Ben felt.
He sighed and slumped in defeat. "No."
Dave grinned, neon green gum peeking out from between his teeth. "Got a mop?"
He gestured at the wet floor. "A mop. Do. You. Have. One?"
"I…." He shook his head. "Of course."
"You up for doing a little clean-up, princess?" he asked Bridgette.
She groaned again.
"Guess that means it's up to you, sport. Bring whatever other cleaning shit you have and I'll deal with the biohazard over here, okay?" Dave jerked his thumb in the direction of the mess Bridgette had made on the floor near the toilet.
He considered telling the guy off for ordering him around in his own home—not to mention calling him sport—but at this point he was too exhausted and overwhelmed to bother. Guiltily grateful that Dave had offered to deal with this round of puke, he hurried out of the bathroom.
When he returned toting a bucket of cleaning supplies and his microfiber mop, Dave was once again crouched in front of a lolling Bridgette, wiping her face with a washcloth. "I really didn't expect it this time," he told her, running a hand over the top of her chestnut bob. "Nice job, decent place, fancy boyfriend. Thought you were through with this shit, babe."
Ben cleared his throat.
"Hey, man. She's about ready to pass out for awhile, I think, so let's get her cleaned up and in bed."
Ben numbly handed over the paper towels and disinfectant and looked at his girlfriend. When had things started to fall apart with this smart, sexy, together woman who helped him throw dinner parties for the partners at the firm and stole his crossword puzzle to fill the empty spots with X-rated words? Had she started taking pills because of him?
"We've been together for six months, you know," he blurted.
Dave smirked at him from where he was brusquely swiping up the worst of Bridgette's mess. "Relax, champ. Me 'n Bridgette have been over for a long time." He sprayed down a layer of Lysol in a flourish. "Don't really swing that way anymore. Never did, actually," he added with a crooked grin, "but you probably know she can be pretty damned persuasive."
Ben couldn't quite bring himself to smile and nod in agreement, so he concentrated on his mop instead. No, Bridgette's tastes apparently hadn't changed much, at least in one respect.
They soon put the bathroom into a passable state. Ben started refilling the tub while Dave shook Bridgette's shoulder. She was dozing, face mashed against the side of the wastebasket. She muttered something unintelligible and swatted at Dave's hand.
"Is that, uh, bad? That she's so out of it?" Earlier in the day, she'd promised Ben she wouldn't need to go to the hospital, but his knowledge and experience with drug withdrawal was limited to what he'd seen on TV.
"Nah," Dave said, turning and peeling off his shirt, exposing a chest that wasn't nearly as skinny as it had looked in those old pictures. The man either worked out religiously or had a job in construction. "She's been taking pills, right?"
Ben blinked a few times. "What?" He turned away, blushing again. "What are you doing?"
"She might look sleepy now, but I know from experience the woman can be a splasher when she gets angry." He draped the shirt on the towel rack. "Pills, right?"
"Oh, uh, yeah. I think so. Something for pain. She threw her back out a couple of months ago playing racquetball."
Dave's eyes bugged. "Racquetball? Jesus, Bridgette." He shook his head, looking amused. "Guess I'll take your word for it. Anyway, I figured she wouldn't venture out of her comfort zone. She's gonna be miserable for a while yet, and we're gonna need to make sure she gets some fluids before too long, but we oughta be alright here." He hooked his elbows under Bridgette's armpits and hauled her up with a grunt.
Ben nodded, bending down to strip Bridgette's jeans from her leg before he and Dave helped her stagger into the tub. "S'cold," she said, splashing petulantly at Dave crouched on one side of the tub before snuggling up to Ben crouched on the other.
Apparently Ben was no longer an asshole. He awkwardly patted the top of her head, glad that she at least didn't seem so angry with him anymore.
She wrinkled her nose where it rested inches from the stain on Ben's shoulder. "You're stinky."
"Oh yeah, and you just smell fresh as a daisy right now, Bridgette," Ben muttered.
That made Dave bark out a laugh. Bridgette lifted her head a little at the noise and shot Dave a weak glare, her eyes slipping closed again almost immediately as she slumped against the back of the tub. She sank until the water was up to her chin, tendrils of her hair fanning out like seaweed around her face.
Dave gave Ben's sweater a pointed look. "The woman has a point, sport," he said, pulling Bridgette up by the back of her head without missing a beat as her nose dipped under the water.
"How do you…what do…oh, for fuck's sake!" Ben struggled out of his sweater and tossed it toward the hamper. "Better now?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest. "And my name is Ben. Not champ. Not sport. Ben."
"Mmm," Dave agreed mildly. He didn't bother to avert his eyes the way Ben had when he'd taken off his shirt.
Bridgette sent a splash Dave's way. "Could you please contemplate bagging my boyfriend after you've washed the puke out of my hair?"
"Of course, princess." He gave Ben a toothy smile, chomping his gum as he reached for the shampoo.
Ben's face heated and he grabbed a washcloth just to have something to do with his hands. He supposed he should've been grateful that the shouting, kicking, and throwing up had given way to banter, but it felt wrong under the circumstances.
"Thought you'd decided to check out for a few," Dave said, turning back to Bridgette.
Bridgette snorted. "You wish." She allowed him to tip her head back into the water. "He is a totally insatiable bottom, though," she stage-whispered conspiratorially, scrunching up her face as Dave began to work lather into her hair.
Ben gave a strangled cough and felt his blush go atomic. He fought the urge to hide his face in the washcloth and dipped it into the water instead, wringing it out with unnecessary force.
"Really?" Dave—totally inappropriately—winked at Ben before saying, "I'm not so sure your boyfriend likes us discussing this, sweetheart."
Bridgette simply hummed as he continued to rub her scalp.
Ben, torn somewhere between embarrassment, shellshock, and—even though it made him feel like a first-class asshole—vague interest, decided it was time to get out of the pool. "It, uh, looks like you've got things under control in here, so I'm just going to…." He cocked his head toward the door. It felt like the blush spread all the way down to his chest as Dave gave him a wolfish smile. He made his escape, shutting the bathroom door on the splashing sounds inside.