The apartment was quiet again in the morning, but Ben was on his guard this time. He wasn't too surprised to find Bridgette in the living room staring at a cooking show on the muted television. Sweet Pea was curled up in her lap. He saw no sign of Dave.
"Um," he said, wondering if she was going to bite his head off. "Hey."
She kept her eyes on the screen. "Hey." She didn't sound mad, anyway.
"You, uh, you okay?"
Bridgette leveled a flat stare at him before focusing back on the television. She didn't dignify the question with a verbal response.
"Yeah, right, not so much. So, uh, where's Dave?"
She shrugged. "Work."
His stomach sank. It wasn't fair to expect Dave to keep putting his job on hold, but after last night, Ben knew he wasn't ready to handle this on his own. "Just one early client again?" he asked hopefully.
He watched her watch the silent TV, wanting to pepper her with at least a dozen questions and knowing he couldn't. Instead, he cautiously perched next to her on the couch, leaving a good two feet of space between them. She didn't make any moves to close the distance, but she didn't object either. "I'm sorry, you know," he said.
It took a long time for her to respond. "I know. Me too." He waited, but she didn't say anything else. Thinking of work, he tried to surreptitiously check the time. "Better get going," Bridgette said in a monotone. "Don't wanna be late."
"Are you...sure that's a good idea?" She wasn't puking or crying, but this creepy flat affect was equally disturbing.
"There's gonna be bad days. Can't have a babysitter for all of them."
"Yeah, but I can call in sick or-"
"No, Ben," she interrupted, closing her eyes. "I'll be fine. Just...go."
He wished he'd talked to Dave more about the timeline on all of this. Was she likely to go out and find more pills if left alone? "You sure?"
The scowl she shot him had just enough of her usual heat to convince him that he could leave.
He still couldn't bring himself to go without making her a breakfast that she didn't eat, bringing her two different things to drink, and feeding the damned cat—even if it was supposed to be her job. The fussing made her increasingly irritated until finally she rolled her eyes and yelled, "Get the fuck out already, would you?" It actually made him feel better.
On his way to the door, he remembered Rule Number One. He hadn't seen Bridgette's phone in days, but he went ahead and dialed her number. It rang five times before going to voicemail without him hearing her ringtone or a hint of vibration. He tried it again from the back of the apartment with the same result. Satisfied that Dave must still be hanging onto the phone for her, he left for work.
He tried texting Dave on the way in to confirm that he did indeed have Bridgette's phone and to ask if he could check on her after his session. He tried again as soon as he got to his office. And again when he took a break to grab some coffee. Hope that Dave had popped in for a single early client morphed into irritation that Bridgette would be spending hours alone. By the time Ben headed out for lunch, nagging concern soured his appetite. He broke down and called the man, but there was no answer. No answer on Bridgette's number either.
Pissed over being ghosted and worried about the complete lack of response, he found himself entering a search for Cyndi's Fitness.
The phone rang once before a chirpy voice answered. "Cyndi's."
"Hey, is Dave-" he stopped, realizing he had no idea what the man's last name was "-uh, Dave there?" he finished lamely. "I think he's a trainer. Tall? Dark hair?" Great ass. Finds interpersonal conflict amusing.
"He's in a class right now. Want me to give him a message?"
"Um, no thanks. No message."
When it came to his burgeoning interest in Dave's dick, Ben was fine with a lack of communication. But now that it seemed like they were leaving Bridgette alone all day—by default—he saw the flaws in the whole not talking plan.
He pulled up the map application on his phone and hopped back on the Blue Line.
"Heya." The girl behind the counter eyed his slacks and blazer with skepticism. "Can I help you with something?"
Making the trip to the gym had seemed perfectly reasonable on the way there, but now that he was actually in the place, he was having second thoughts. "I was, um, hoping I could talk to Dave?"
The girl gave him a wicked grin. "You mean 'Dave, uh Dave'?"
"Heh, that's the one."
"I'm not sure he's taking on new clients at the moment."
"Oh, uh, no, that's not why-"
"And just between you and me," she interrupted, leaning forward, "if you're looking to, you know, get to know him better? The gym's probably not the way to go."
Ben felt his face go red. Jesus, did he look like a lovesick puppy or something? He stood up a little straighter, attempting to gather some dignity. "I just wanted to check in with him about a mutual friend."
"Uh huh," she said, dubious, but she tapped at the tablet in front of her. "Looks like he should be finishing up with an appointment in the next few minutes. You can go on back and have a look around if you promise to keep your hands to yourself."
He nodded, trying not to choke on his own tongue at the last part since she was almost certainly referring to the exercise equipment. The girl waved him out of the lobby area with its couches, mini fridge, and wall of logo-emblazoned merch, around the corner and through a door to the cavernous gym.
A mixture of sweat, metal, leather, and disinfectant assaulted his nose while driving synth pop did the same to his ears. The place looked like a converted warehouse: high ceilings with tube lighting, cinder block walls lined with shelves of medicine balls, kettle bells, and barbell plates. There were rowing machines and pull up bars and a lot of open space where an interesting mix of midday clientele—different ages, shapes, and sizes—puffed and grunted away. He wasn't surprised to see a rainbow flag tacked to the wall.
Ben zeroed in on Dave's broad back and curly hair in the far corner. He was working with a young string bean of a guy with gangly elbows poking out of his Wash U t-shirt. Seeing him, Ben understood why the girl at the front desk might have jumped to some unflattering conclusions. Even at a distance, it was obvious the kid was as gay as the day is long and had imprinted on Dave, following his every move with rapt attention.
Ben edged along the wall unobtrusively, trying to get a better look. With the college kid emitting naked longing like stink lines, he expected Dave to reciprocate with his standard condescending flirtation. Maybe a smug smirk. Instead, the man was grinning like a goofball, bouncing on the balls of his feet in time with the music and clapping encouragement. It was...endearingly dorky.
As Ben watched, the kid flicked sweaty hair out of his eyes and managed to clean and jerk an impressive amount of weight. "Get it, Matty!" a woman over by a bench called out. The kid brought the bar back down with a clank and grinned shyly at the smattering of hoots he'd garnered. When Dave clapped him on the back, he beamed.
Dave talked the kid through a few cool down stretches, staying upbeat and encouraging. Ben kept waiting for him to tease the guy, leer or wink or dance into his personal space, but he saw not even a hint of Dave's inner asshole.
He didn't realize how transparently he was staring until the kid walked away and Dave caught sight of him, his eyes going wide for a second before rolling toward the ceiling in exasperation.
He tried for a casual wave. "Um, hi?"
"What are you doing here, sport?" Dave asked tiredly. He took a furtive look around before leading Ben to an empty break room. "Can't you see I'm working?" It was almost a whine.
Something in Ben's voice must've betrayed what he'd been thinking, because Dave tilted his head curiously. "What?"
"You're just...really good at it. That kid, you were so," he gestured vaguely, "not like you."
"It's called professionalism. You don't need to blow a hundred grand on school to be good at your job."
Ben had never said—or thought—anything of the sort, but he didn't want to derail the conversation trying to unpack the career-sized chip on Dave's shoulder. He reminded himself of the reason he'd made the trip. "I'm worried about Bridgette being alone all day. I, uh, didn't realize you'd be coming here. You didn't tell me."
Dave crossed his arms over his chest. "You weren't especially interested in talking last night."
He stifled an impulse to point out how unfair that was. They'd talked plenty, just not about...that. And he still wasn't interested in discussing it. He'd rather clean Sweet Pea's litter box with his toothbrush than openly acknowledge whatever was growing between them. But he also didn't want Bridgette's recovery to suffer because of his mistakes. Swallowing his pride with a side of embarrassment, he relented. "Okay."
Ben spread his hands. "Let's talk."
"Now?" Dave pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jesus, sport, your timing..."
"You have another client coming?" He was almost hoping that would be the case. He could spend the rest of his lunch hour checking in on Bridgette like he probably should've done in the first place. Even if she clearly preferred Dave.
"Not for another thirty minutes."
"Oh, well, then..."
"But look, as you noticed, I work here, okay? I don't like to bring my," he waved a hand between the two of them, "whatever, drama, around on the job."
Ben didn't know what to think about being referred to as Dave's whatever, but he considered what his own reaction would be if he'd found the other man wandering around the law firm. "Right, of course. I...shouldn't have. I'm...sorry."
Dave gave him a contemplative look. "You actually are, aren't you?" He sighed and shook his head. "Christ, this is—alright, there's a coffee shop across the street. I can meet you there in ten minutes."
When Dave slid into the booth across from him, Ben had a steaming mug waiting in apology. The muscle ticking in the other man's jaw suggested the peace offering was insufficient. "Okay, talk," Dave said.
"And then you tried to get on my dick."
Ben's shoulders wanted to creep up to his ears. He looked around to see if anyone was listening.
"Oh, come on, nobody's paying attention," Dave snapped. "How can you be so fucking bashful just talking but then have no problem climbing me like a goddamned stripper pole?"
He bit back on the urge to argue that Dave hadn't seemed to mind being climbed. Instead, he reminded himself—again—that Bridgette could use all the help she could get. Okay, he could do this. "Obviously, you and I have some..." He hesitated, attention snared by Dave's pursed lips. Unbidden, a memory of the other man's tongue stroking into him sent a frisson of arousal curling through his belly. He crossed his legs and tried again. "Some...physical chemistry."
Dave snorted. "You always this thirsty when you have a little 'physical chemistry' with someone?"
He opened his mouth to answer, but the obvious, honest no wasn't something he could bring himself to voice. Ignoring the question, he said, "This thing with Bridgette is making me-" question my entire approach to personal relationships "-a bit of a mess. As you said, maybe I'm flailing a little here."
"Can I plead temporary insanity?" he asked, aiming for self-deprecating.
"I thought you weren't a trial attorney."
An inappropriate grin tried to surface. Ben schooled his expression into something more serious.
"Look," Dave said, unimpressed, "I don't know what sort of game you got going with Bridgette, but I don't do that stuff anymore. I'm not a side piece, I don't fuck around, I don't sneak around. Especially not with," he paused, clearly searching for an appropriate word, "shit, I dunno. Friends."
He didn't sound overly judgmental, considering the circumstances. Ben felt judged anyway. "Yeah, Bridgette and I, we, uh, don't play that way. It's always us together. And never, um," he looked down at his coffee as shame made the tips of his ears burn, "never with anybody we know."
"Right." Dave's voice was sour. "Didn't think so. So, you're like, what? Mad at your girlfriend—which, fair, I guess—and I'm convenient for settling the score, working out some frustration? Grind on the hot meathead?"
Ben jerked his head up, horrified. "God, no, it's not like that!" At least, he didn't think it was like that. Was it? "It's just..." he began, trying to work it out for himself. "Just..." Just that I like you and I think I'm starting to seriously respect you and also I really want to know what you look like when you come.
He closed his eyes. No. Bridgette. He was there for Bridgette.
He took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and forced as much sincerity into his voice as he could. "It was a mistake, okay? It won't happen again."
"Yeah, it won't," Dave said, sounding resigned. "Look, sport, you're cute as hell and Christ knows I'm always gonna owe Bridgette one, but I'm full up on my dose of drama for the month. Time for me to get off the crazy train."
Ben's eyes went wide. "Wait, so you're not planning on coming back at all? Ever?" He'd thought he and Dave would need to work something out to coordinate better, worried that maybe they should avoid being alone together, but he'd taken for granted that the other man would still be there for Bridgette.
"I've already hung around longer than I should've. Like I said, man, I usually just pat her back for a couple days while she sweats it out. She's over the worst of it."
"But what about last night? The crying? And this morning she was so low she could barely talk."
"Getting clean is tough. She could probably use some treatment. She doesn't want it. That's not on me."
"Aren't you worried about her, though?" The prospect of finishing out the week without Dave's assistance certainly had Ben worried.
"Sure, I guess. But there's the whole thing where she's a grownup."
"Yeah, but..." Ben latched on to an idea. "Her phone."
Dave frowned. "What about her phone?"
"Why'd you take her phone with you this morning if you weren't planning on coming back?"
He shook his head. "I don't have her phone. Gave it back to her yesterday so she could get in touch with her boss."
"What?" Oh, shit. "But what about-"
"Rule Number One?" Dave asked, sympathetic. "Damn, champ, I forget you really are new to this." He sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Okay, here's the deal—on Saturday, Bridgette's body was basically trying to convince her she was gonna die if she didn't get her fix. No matter how much willpower a person has, that shit's tough to work through without guardrails, some backup. Right?"
Ben nodded. Hence Bridgette's request to spend some time at his place, however inept his help had been.
"Right. So, she still feels like shit, she's got a hell of a monkey on her back, but she's not in that place anymore. Understand? She can't just have a babysitter twenty-four seven for the rest of her life, man. It's got to be her choice."
"Huh." Had that been why she'd urged him out of the apartment? "She said something similar to me this morning. About the babysitter part, anyway." It had sounded more empty and defeatist when she'd said it, though.
"Right. Grownup. She can manage her own phone. If she's feeling tempted and doesn't want to chuck all the progress she's made the last few days, she'll keep it turned off. She'll grit her teeth and do her best. And she'll make it or she won't. I hope she does this time. And if she doesn't," he shrugged, looking away, "she has my number."
Ben thought it through. He'd gotten used to deferring to Dave's experience, trusting his judgment, but he found himself shaking his head. "No. That's bullshit."
Dave blinked at him. "Excuse me?"
"I get that she needs to do a lot of it for herself, but what you're saying—what the two of you've been doing—it's like putting out an apartment fire and then sending everyone back inside without checking to make sure the building's still sound."
"I'm not responsible for her recovery," Dave said, his voice tight.
"No, I know. But you talk about being there for her every time, and I'm saying maybe you should think about the fact that it keeps happening because she needs more than somebody scraping her off the bathroom floor."
"She. Doesn't. Want. Treatment. There's only so much I can do."
"So do it."
"I don't know. Stick around this time? Be an actual friend?"
Dave looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Did she send you?"
"What? No." As touchy as she was about Dave, Ben couldn't imagine such a conversation going well. "But she needs you."
"She's not interested in my friendship," Dave said darkly.
Something in that ominous tone rang alarm bells, but Ben ignored them. "How can you say that? It's obvious she wants you around."
"Look," he gritted out. "She's not my girlfriend. She's not my lover. She's somebody who helped me out a long time ago and I fucked her over. I know that's on me and I make the time to atone when I can, how I can, but I do not have the bandwidth to be dealing with a junkie in my life." He took a breath, reining himself in, and eyed Ben clinically. "You might want to start thinking about setting some limits on just what you're willing to deal with too."
Ben wanted to say he was prepared to deal with whatever it took, but after the past seventy-two hours, he knew better than to be that naïve. Still... "I think I'm good for more than a few days, anyway."
"Says the guy who's been pawing her ex while she detoxes."
It hit him like a sucker punch to hear it stated so plainly, no room for denial or mental gymnastics to soften the blow. He looked down at the table, guilt churning his stomach, and tried to collect himself. As reticent as he could be talking about sex, it rarely made him feel this dirty. "Yes," he said quietly. Was he supposed to run away and hurt her more because he'd made a mistake? "She probably deserves better, but I'm what she's got to work with." Inadequate though he was. He looked back up at Dave, determined. "And it's clear she just doesn't trust me with this stuff they way she trusts you. I wish she did." It would've made things a lot simpler.
Dave sighed. "Sport..."
"I'm not saying you should ditch your job and spend every minute at my place or anything. Just...don't leave altogether, okay?"
Dave clenched his jaw, shaking his head and blinking up at the ceiling. "I don't think-"
"I can make myself scarce if you don't want to deal with me," Ben said, steamrolling over him, "but I really think she needs you to be her friend right now. Please?"
Dave buried his face in his hands. "Stop looking at me like that, dammit," he growled, thunking his forehead against the table.
Sensing an opening, Ben went on. "Seriously, we can work something out. Just don't-" Don't leave me alone in this. "Don't punish her."
Dave sat up and scrubbed his hands through his hair. He opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to reconsider, snapping it shut again. He dug a couple of bills out of his wallet and dropped them on the table before sliding out of the booth. "For the coffee. I gotta get back to work."
"Yeah, okay," Ben said, crestfallen. A cynical, pessimistic part of him wondered if he'd screwed things up badly enough to jeopardize Dave being there for Bridgette on her next relapse. "Thanks."
Dave nodded tightly and turned to go. He took a step, then wavered. "Fuck," he said feelingly. He turned back around and blew out a breath through his teeth. "I, uh, might be able to stop by for a little while tonight after my last session. See how you guys are doing."
"That," Ben said, relief washing over him as he tried not to beam like the damned college kid at the gym, "that would be really nice. If you can, um, let me know when you're on your way, I can make sure to be out of the apartment on an errand."
"You don't have to do that," Dave grumbled. "Just...try to be a little," he said, lips quirking, "less like you, alright?"
Ben nodded solemnly.
Dave turned to leave again. Watching him go, something else occurred to Ben and he blurted, "Hey, Dave, wait a sec."
The other man spun on his heels. "Yeah?"
Feeling silly, he considered telling Dave to forget about it. But he didn't want to try the man's patience any more than he already had, so he went ahead and asked, "What's your last name?"
The question seemed to take him by surprise. "McLaren."
"Okay," Ben said. He didn't think he was very successful in keeping the smile off of his face. Might as well make the most of the second chance. "Nice to meet you, Dave McLaren."
Dave looked at him like he was crazy. "Yeah, okay, whatever. You too. Weirdo." He lifted his hand in a wave. "Later."