"Have you thought about what you're going to wear to this thing tonight?" Ben asked, stepping into the living room scrubbing a towel over his hair.
Dave, eyes glued to the television as he tapped at his gamepad, lifted a shoulder. "Dunno. Clothes?"
"Yes, David, clothes would be good," Ben said, rolling his eyes. "Which ones, though?"
"Umm…" He glanced over, did a gratifying double-take when he noticed Ben's state of undress, and then focused back on his game, where a lot of things were exploding. "Aww, c'mon!" Dave tossed the controller aside in disgust and squinted up at him. "It doesn't start for another couple hours, right?"
"Right, but I don't know how long it's going to take to get way up to the North side this time of day." And if they got there early enough Ben might get a chance to snoop around the new offices, but Dave wouldn't find that particularly motivating. "I thought I'd see if Marty needs some last-minute help getting things set up."
Dave's attention appeared torn between the paused screen and Ben's naked torso, which, granted, was in pretty decent shape these days. There were perks to having a live-in personal trainer. "I know you don't go for being fashionably late, sport, but there is such a thing as psychotically early."
"Yeah," Ben admitted, drooping a little, "you're probably right."
"I mean, why bother trying for brownie points? It's not like the woman's your boss anymore."
"Technically she never was…," he started, but Dave's eyes were drifting longingly back to the controller, so Ben waved a hand toward the TV and said, "Go ahead and keep playing for a little while. I'll figure out something for you to wear, okay?"
Dave turned back to his game. "As long as you don't have us looking like some sort of yuppie nightmare his-and-his spread for the Indochino catalog."
"Mmm…thanks for the reminder to re-up my subscription." He leaned down to kiss Dave's cheek, earning himself a quick grope under the towel for his troubles. Ben snatched up the invitation from the console table on his way back to their bedroom.
It'd arrived more than a month ago, embossed letters printed on card stock so luxe it felt almost soapy—Marty's personal touch through and through—cordially inviting them to a welcome reception for The Livingston Group's newest associate. Ben had let the thing sit on the table for a solid week waiting to see if Dave would say anything. When he'd finally broken down and asked about it, Dave's muttered response was, "Sounds more like a wake than a party." And even though Ben should've expected it, he'd flinched, because this was supposed to be…and Dave was making it…but then warm hands had cupped the back of Ben's neck as Dave pressed their foreheads together. "Shit, don't listen to me," he'd said. "I'm an asshole. We'll go. Of course we'll go."
So Ben had RSVP'd. And now here he was: out of the shower—psychotically early, apparently—and maybe feeling a bit anxious about the whole thing. It'd been a long time, after all, and a long time coming. Perhaps if he tried to pull off an Eldredge knot he'd keep himself occupied for a few extra minutes.
Nudging open the bedroom door, which he could've sworn he'd left shut, produced a much more effective distraction. "Baxter! No!" The little tabby kneading Ben's Burberry jacket where it was laid out on the bed arched his back and froze, tail fluffing out like a badger's.
Ben rushed forward to survey the damage and the gangly not-quite-a-kitten bounced away, crab walking to the end of the bed before taking a balletic leap and skidding out of the room. "Oh my god, you'd better run!" he yelled over his shoulder. Tossing aside the invitation still in his hand, he clucked down at his suit. A good dry cleaning might salvage it. Maybe. If he were very lucky. But it was definitely a loss for the night.
Damned evil cat.
As he was rifling through the closet for an acceptable substitute, an arm wrapped around his waist. "Want me to get the squirt bottle?" Dave's voice was low and amused in his ear.
Ben slumped back against him. "No. All the forums say he won't learn that way unless you catch him in the act. Punishment after the fact's just cruel and arbitrary."
"Maybe we oughta focus on training you to stop leaving your shit where he can get to it instead."
"Probably," he sighed. "Unless you want to douse everything in apple cider vinegar." He turned and draped his arms over Dave's shoulders, his fingers finding their way to the hairline at the back of the other man's neck. He could smell the ghost of green apple chewing gum on Dave's breath. "I thought you were into your game?"
"Eh. You know I like saving you from your cat."
"Your cat," Ben corrected. They'd been cycling through the same argument for most of a year, which was how long it'd been since they'd stumbled across a mewling cardboard box not far from the apartment.
"Keep telling yourself that when you spent half an hour this morning browsing for organic catnip," Dave said, settling his hands on Ben's towel-clad hips.
"Hey, I'm just trying to-" but the rest was smothered by Dave's mouth covering his own. He tried to harrumph at the rude interruption, but it came out as more of a pleased hum since the tongue stroking against his felt too nice for Ben to really take offense. Still, he didn't want to reward dirty tricks. He'd keep it short and step away in another second. Just another warm, wet second. Or two.
But when Dave pulled back teasingly before Ben had the chance, he found himself craning forward without thinking about it. Dave's smile was smug against his lips. "Sorry," he said, faux-innocent. "You were saying…?"
"That you've resorted to the blatantly cheap tactic of distraction to short-circuit debate because you know I'm right."
"Uh-huh. If that's what you need to tell yourself." He playfully bumped their hips together. "So are you? Distracted?"
The little grind he threw in on the last word almost certainly let Dave feel just how distracted Ben was becoming. He took half a step back and straightened with all the dignity he could muster while tenting his towel. "What do you think?"
"I think you're about thirty seconds away from begging me for it, champ," he said, eyes dark. "And…he's your cat."
Ben squawked and retaliated with a none-too-gentle nip, which Dave appreciated far too much, and somehow things went from lazy and flirtatious to fierce and desperate in a hurry. Ben found himself steered backwards out of the walk-in and across the bedroom until the backs of his legs thumped against their bed. He tore his mouth away to half-heartedly object, "The party…"
Dave let go of his hair to give him a look. "We got time," he said, and then peeled away Ben's towel, cupping a possessive hand under his balls. Groaning, Ben surrendered all ambitions of scoping out Marty's new firm before it got too crowded and allowed himself to be pushed back onto the mattress.
They did have time for a quickie.
And that was how he kept thinking of it—a quickie to take the edge off—right up until the moment a gloriously naked Dave turned in his arms, presented him with an acre of broad, muscled back, and drew up a knee in unsubtle invitation. When Ben failed to move, seized by a lust-filled panic, Dave twisted around, his expression wry. "So…?"
A dry little sound escaped him. Dave's ass was a work of art, but this wasn't something they did all that often. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn't something they did at all. Which had been fine with Ben. More than fine, when Dave was reliably fucking him into the next week and making him come so hard he almost forgot his own name.
But several months ago Dave had gone all quiet and tense at dinner, offering up a series of false starts where he'd puff up his chest like he was steeling himself to say something important, then deflate with a furious shake of his head. Trial and error had taught Ben that when something was bothering Dave, it was better to let him work through it in his own time rather than push. He'd been pretending not to notice the weirdness, nudging at the last bites of his own dinner when Dave had finally slammed his fork down and growled, "I think you should fuck me."
He'd swear it wasn't anything he'd been craving in particular, but Ben had nevertheless chipped the plates in his haste to dump them in the sink before dragging Dave off to the bedroom. But after a startlingly awkward bout of foreplay, he'd paused the action in favor of a much-needed conversation.
"Never?" Ben had been appalled.
Dave sat against the headboard, boxer briefs tugged back up, forearms resting against his knees. "No, alright?"
He'd barely been able to find the words. "But it's so-"
"Look, when I was younger I had a couple run-ins with guys who didn't exactly make it seem too appealing." Dave turned his face away. "And anyway, I just never really saw myself as the type who'd…"
He'd had enough tact not to finish the sentence, but Ben—who they both knew most definitely was the type—got the picture. There were aesthetics and personal preferences, and then there was a childhood and adolescence spent gulping down forced feedings of toxic masculinity. And while it was both irrationally hot and kind of touching that this was something Dave wanted to trust him with, the man's reactions were also sadly telling.
Which meant that now, on the rare occasions when he did fuck Dave, Ben liked to make a project out of it: open him up with fingers and tongue, slow and slick and excruciatingly thorough. Work him until the disapproving voices in Dave's head went quiet and he was gripping the sheets with white knuckles, rocking back, dick drooling a wet spot beneath him. Ben would wait until Dave was so ready he could just roll him over, lace their fingers together, and slide home in one smooth, easy stroke.
So yes, Ben was up for being taken hard and fast almost any time—sometimes that sweet burn was exactly what he needed—but giving it to Dave after only a quick swipe of lube was an entirely different matter. Ben laid a hand on the small of Dave's back, feeling the muscles twitch. "Are you sure you want…?
"You in me?" Dave shifted under his touch, spreading his legs a little. "Yeah, I'm sure."
Okay, that was hard to argue with, but he couldn't keep himself from glancing at the clock on the bedside table as he reached for the lube. "Because, you know, we're not really set up here for me to take my time with you," he said even as he began to trace careful circles over Dave's hole.
Dave made an agreeable noise and pushed against him. "S'okay."
He kept his touch light even as the blood rushed in his ears. "Yeah?"
"Jesus, yeah, c'mon," Dave said, shifting up onto all fours. "I want it." He illustrated the point by seizing Ben's wrist so he could impale himself on his fingers.
God. Ben used his other hand to pinch the head of his own dick. He wasn't sure where this was coming from, but he couldn't say it wasn't inspiring. "Yeah, yeah, okay," he breathed, trying to keep his movements steady and gentle, "just let me…"
"Tick, tick, tick, sport. Let's go already."
"Okay, but-" Inside, Dave was close and hot and perfect—and nowhere near ready by Ben's standards.
The grip on his wrist tightened. "Could you please get out of your own goddamned head for one second and fuck me?"
The tone was so commanding that Ben mindlessly dumped half the bottle of lube over himself in a near-Pavlovian rush to comply. Dave growled at the delay, but it turned into a low whine when Ben swiped up the excess mess, wrapped a slick hand around Dave's cock, and tremblingly began to push inside of him. And he was tight—too tight, dammit, Ben should've insisted on more time—but he was also incredibly hard, fucking up into Ben's fist in controlled little pulses while he spread his knees even further apart to ease the way.
Getting fully seated still took some doing.
A little freaked out and a lot turned on, Ben fought the urge to just start rutting and lipped kisses on the sweaty-warm back of Dave's neck instead. He made himself wait a handful of shaky breaths, then gently rocked his hips. Dave hissed at the movement and Ben froze, stricken. "Shit, shit, am I hurting you?"
"Ahh- a little?" But when he immediately shifted to pull out, Dave grabbed at his thigh, bucking back onto him. "Jesus, don't stop." And his cock was still on board, hard and heavy in Ben's hand, so Ben gave him a careful, experimental thrust that yielded a bitten-off yelp followed by rumbled encouragement. He adjusted the angle and tried again, earning a heartfelt groan. "Fucking hell. Ben."
Incredulity was the only thing keeping him from coming straight away. "Really?"
Dave braced himself on his arms, head sagging down. "Yes, really."
"Yeah. Christ, yeah. Give it to me."
Ben wanted to, he really wanted to, but it was so unprecedented he couldn't quite wrap his head around it. "You seriously-" he flexed "-want it-" and flexed "-like this?" and snapped his hips. Dave moaned and nodded fervently. "Since when do you-" he went even harder, closing his eyes to better focus on the noises he was coaxing out of his lover "-top from the bottom?"
"Since I decided," and, dear god, he was slamming back, using his strength to meet Ben stroke for stroke, "I want. To feel. You. In me. For the rest of the fucking night."
And the idea of that—Dave all hot and tender and claimed, prowling through a roomful of attorneys, maybe moving a little gingerly as he clenched around the secret ache inside—was enough to ensure this was going to be over extremely quickly. Ben grabbed him by the hips, gritted his teeth, and fucked for all he was worth, desperately holding on until Dave gave a hoarse shout and clamped down tight around him, shuddering. His arms buckled right when Ben started to go off himself and he ended up starfished half on top of him, dick still jerking as he panted into the sweaty curls at the base of Dave's skull. Holy fuck.
Once the twitches of aftershocks passed, he managed to flop onto his back, one arm thrown over his head and the other slung across Dave's heaving shoulders. He blinked up at the ceiling. "Wow. Okay. So…that was different."
Dave nodded into his pillow. After a moment he said, thickly, "Knew you were holding out on me."
"Huh." Ben laughed unsteadily. "I didn't."
Dave hummed, noncommittal.
He knuckled away sweat at his temple. Something was tickling at the edges of his thoughts, but it wasn't until he'd had a few minutes to catch his breath that it broke through to full consciousness. He let it simmer for another minute: Did his reasoning check out? Was it worth bringing up? But yeah, the pieces fit and, given the circumstances, this wasn't one of those things better left unsaid. Turning onto his side, Ben propped himself up on an elbow and soberly looked down at the beautiful, prickly man who shared his bed. The man who still wasn't very good at asking for what he needed. "You could've told me, you know."
Dave lifted his head enough to give him a one-eyed glare. "What?"
"That you were feeling weird about going tonight."
Dave hesitated, and Ben could almost see him playing through the plausible denials in his head. But then he sighed. Busted. He rolled so they were facing each other. "Yeah," he said simply. "I know."
Ben looked him square in the eyes, ready to argue, but Dave's face was wide open, sincere. No need to force the issue. Instead, Ben nodded his understanding, curled a hand around the back of Dave's neck, and leaned in for a kiss that was full of warmth—but with the heat dialed down. Then he pulled back enough to give Dave a sincere look of his own. "We don't have to-"
"Yes," Dave interrupted, "we do." He found Ben's hand and squeezed. "She's earned it."
Much to his chagrin, the necessity of additional showers and too much time spent navigating early evening traffic on the North side meant that they ended up being a bit more than fashionably late. He consoled himself with the fact that these sorts of things always had plenty of schmoozers coming and going. Sure enough, they were able to slip in behind a group of well-scrubbed twentysomethings he vaguely recognized from one of Bridgette's first-year study groups. Inside, the standard cocktail party din greeted them—pockets of chatter and polite laughter; clink of glasses and cutlery; light, inoffensive jazz music piping in from unobtrusive speakers. Dave shot him his best are you fucking kidding me look, and, when Ben shrugged apologetically, rolled his eyes and stalked over to the buffet.
Ben hung back to visit the bar cart and found a quiet spot to get the full lay of the land. The crowd was respectable for an upstart firm, skewing maybe a little younger and more diverse than the typical Bristol, Murray, & Goldenblatt events he was used to. Between former colleagues Marty had poached away and a handful of others like him who were sticking it out at BMG, Ben recognized a fair number of people. There were even a few guys from his trivia league. But his eyes kept wanting to drift back to Dave in his too-casual sweater and twill slacks, looking handsome and unconcerned and definitely sporting a subtle limp as he poked at the food on offer. Ben watched his careful, overly precise steps with an embarrassed flush of self-satisfaction. I did that.
Honestly, it was hard to look anywhere else.
Thus distracted, he nearly spilled his club soda all over himself when Marty materialized at his side and asked, "Trying to pretend like you didn't sneak in late, counselor?"
"Marty!" He shook away the stray droplets he'd managed to slosh onto his hand. "God, you should wear a bell or something," he said, then cringed at his own artlessness.
Her eyes crinkled. "Or maybe you should switch to decaf." She leaned in to exchange a quick air kiss, then added, "You're looking well, Ben."
"Er, thanks," he said. "You too." Marty was, in fact, resplendent in a white pantsuit and colorful slingbacks, her silver hair styled in a chic, asymmetrical cut. Though she was no longer a senior partner at his firm, Ben was still sort of afraid of her. He was trying not to show it, however, so he cleared his throat and gestured out at the room. "Seems like a good turnout."
She surveyed the crowd with an air of pride. "It is, isn't it?"
He nodded. "Congratulations on the new space. I take it things are going well? Plenty of clients coming in?" It was a safe bet based on the size of the lobby alone.
Marty smiled indulgently. "We're keeping ourselves busy."
"And, uh," he said, scanning the room again, "the new associates are working out?"
"Mmm," she agreed. "Some more than others."
She clearly wasn't going to let him get away with fishing, so he reminded himself there wasn't much point in dancing around the subject of the evening's celebration. Besides, he didn't for a second believe Marty'd invited them without Bridgette's explicit approval. "So how is the woman of the hour, anyway?" He stretched to peer over a cluster of men in dark suits several yards away. "For that matter, where is the woman of the hour?"
Her smile grew broader. "Would you believe me if I said she was upstairs doing an intake interview?" At Ben's look of confusion, she added, "Apparently one of our guests brought a date who might have a case against her former landlord. Bridgette was fired up enough she didn't want it to wait until Monday."
"That-" he considered for a moment "-sounds remarkably on-brand for her, actually." Of course Bridgette wouldn't mind missing her own party when there was a new cause worth ferreting out. "She's jumping in with both feet, huh?"
"Oh, Ben, dear, you have no idea." Marty leaned in conspiratorially. "She's already sniffing at the edges of a class-action suit against Cargill. The way she's getting the workers to talk to her—the settlements are going to be huge. Now that she's licensed, all I have to do is make the resources available and then stay out of her way." She shook her head. "If Bridgette doesn't have my job in ten years, it'll only be because she's too busy winning cases to bother with it."
The sheer confidence of the statement—powerhouse, shrewd-as-hell Marty believed in Bridgette—was enough to make Ben's chest swell up with an indefinable emotion. The intensity of it nearly choked him. He sipped his drink and nodded, trying not to give himself away. Marty's eyes on him were sharp, though, and he wondered just how much she knew about the way things had shaken out. Probably enough.
"I'm sure she'll be glad you were able to come," Marty said softly.
He nodded again, swallowing, and said, "It was an honor to be invited." When Marty's expression slipped into something a shade too understanding at that, he pulled it together and forced a crooked grin. "Although I don't suppose the invitation includes an opportunity to scope out the size of the offices you're putting your juniors in upstairs, does it?"
"Ben, dear," she said, eyes gleaming, "whenever you get tired of Lou barking at you all day, I will personally give you a guided tour at the end of your interview here."
He was readying a rueful shake of his head and a suitable quip about changing specialties on a dime, but then Dave sidled over carrying a plate, bumped a shoulder into his, and said, "Check it out: little shrimpy things." He popped one into his mouth and wiggled his eyebrows.
"Erm…" Ben noticed Marty had shifted into a more neutral mien. "I, uh, don't believe the two of you have been introduced. Marty, this is my partner, David McClaren. Dave," he said, placing a warning hand on Dave's back, "this is Marty Livingston. Of The Livingston Group." The last was said through his teeth.
Dave looked her up and down. "Hey," he greeted, still chewing. "Nice party." He swallowed and then twirled a finger next to his ear. "The music slaps."
Ben shot him a glare and turned to Marty with a pained smile, but before he could say anything, she cut in, "Yes, well." She regarded Dave with tolerant amusement. "I argued for the new Kendrick album, but Bridgette thought it might detract from conversation. Speaking of which," she said, pivoting back to Ben, "I'd better not neglect my other guests. But if the fit at BMG ever begins to chafe-"
"You'll be the first to know," he said even though he knew it'd never happen.
"Excellent." She focused back on Dave. "It was lovely meeting you, Mr. McClaren," she said, just archly enough for Ben to suspect she knew quite a bit indeed about how everything had shaken out with their little love triangle. "Enjoy the shrimpy things."
She clicked away on her dazzling heels, Dave staring after her. Ben spun on him once she was out of earshot. "Was that really necessary?"
Dave was unabashed. "You had that deer-in-the-headlights thing going. She was making you uncomfortable."
"That's just my body's innate response to upper management." When that didn't impress Dave, he softened a little. "Okay," he admitted, stealing a blini off Dave's plate, "the whole situation's awkward. Doesn't mean you need to go into full-on asshole mode."
"Need to? No. Want to?"
Ben heaved an aggrieved sigh, which just seemed to please him.
"C'mon," Dave said, lifting his chin to indicate an empty table. "I got some sort of cold salmon crap you'll like." On the way over, he paused to cast a look back at where Marty was confidently holding court with a group of besuited men who all had at least half a foot on her. "You know," he said, thoughtful, "I think I might like that one."
Ben was catching up with his friend Meera when he glanced over and noticed Bridgette had rejoined the party. She was just a few yards away, talking animatedly in rapid-fire Spanish to one of her former classmates.
The last time he'd seen her in person had been more than a year ago—sheet cake in the break room on her final day at the firm. He'd been sorry to see her go, but also a little relieved; much as he'd wanted it not to be weird between them, he'd come up for air after those first few weeks with Dave only to discover that it unavoidably was. Bridgette had quickly settled into a policy of amicable evasion: she'd stopped dropping by his office to chat, turned down his coffee invitations, and—to Dave's obvious relief—said fuck no when Ben had suggested the three of them have lunch together. He hadn't pushed. They still exchanged greeting cards on birthdays and the occasional stilted text message, but Bridgette had rather determinedly sawed through the knot that tied them all together.
Ben fretted over the lack of contact, although he suspected it'd been the right call. For all of them.
Now, she was clearly in her element, radiating enthusiasm in her jewel-toned sheath dress as she nodded along with the conversation, little crinkle between her eyebrows betraying her deep interest. He recognized the acid smile—edges sharper than ever—that meant she was talking shit about someone, followed by the head waggle indicating that that someone was going to get a piece of her mind later. She looked beautiful and strong and whole. And when a dark-skinned, attractive man in conservative but immaculate tailoring stepped over and settled a hand on her waist, she leaned against his chest, beaming up at him. Happy, too, then.
Ben excused himself and found Dave engaged in a surprisingly involved discussion with a petite woman grazing the buffet. "What?" he asked, nudging a gentle elbow into Ben's ribs. "I'm being good."
"Yeah," the woman said, "if you consider shaking the very foundations of my faith in the trainer-client relationship 'good'."
Dave turned back to her. "For real though, if you're looking for more definition and not scared of the subscription, Gainful's the way to go. Just don't tell Shawna you heard it from me or she'll kick my ass."
Ben listened with half an ear as they wrapped up their conversation, casting intermittent looks over at Bridgette's group. The woman Dave had been talking to made a zipped lips gesture and waded back into the crowd with a wave.
"Friend from the gym?" he guessed.
"Friend of a friend, more like, but yeah. Small world, huh?" Dave grabbed a bit of prosciutto from the charcuterie board. "I can't believe Shawna's got her choking down nothing but plant-based supplements. That chick's not even a vegetarian." He must've picked up on something in Ben's face, because he paused with the food halfway to his mouth. "Alright, what? Is it a faux paus now to insinuate militant vegans are annoying? I got spinach in my teeth? What?"
Ben shook his head, then pointedly shifted his attention to where Bridgette appeared to be deep into a story that involved lots of talking with her hands. It seemed she hadn't yet spotted them.
Dave was quiet for a moment as he followed Ben's gaze. "Ah," he said. "Look who finally decided to show up."
It'd been an even longer time—years, plural—since Dave had last seen Bridgette. Ben let him take her in without comment. But after a very long pause, he prompted, "She looks good, right?"
He waited again, watching Dave watch Bridgette. "We should probably go over and say hello."
Dave stayed rooted to the spot.
"Hey," Ben said, leaning in and rubbing a thumb over Dave's wrist, "you want to just get out of here, we can, okay? Marty'll let her know we stopped by."
In a sign of how much the situation must've been getting to him, Dave seemed to consider it. But then he shook his head and straightened. "No, man. It's not like we came here for the free food." He squared his shoulders and tossed his uneaten prosciutto aside. "Let's go congratulate our girl."
So they went. Ben didn't even have a chance to overthink his own feelings on the matter.
Bridgette's grin faltered as she noticed their approach, making him question his surety that they'd been invited on her say-so, but she rallied, greeting them with a warm, if subdued, smile. "Hey. You guys made it."
Ben hesitated in uncertainty—hug? handshake? air kiss?—before awkwardly squeezing her shoulder and stepping back. "Yeah. I think we could say the same to you. Sounds like you're already Marty's big gun."
Bridgette ducked her head, coy, although Ben suspected that on the inside, she was basking in her boss' confidence like it was a sunbeam. "Did she try to feed you that bullshit about how I'm gonna be taking over for her in ten years? No pressure or anything."
"Doesn't every junior associate sign on with the expectation they're going to helm the place in a decade or less?" Ben joked.
Her expression turned dry. "Only the ones with a dick, in my experience."
"Right," he returned, the affable back-and-forth unwinding some of his nervousness. "Or was that only the ones who are dicks?"
Before she could lob anything back, Dave, who'd been a muted presence, quietly piped in, "You can handle it."
She gave him a sharp look, easy demeanor slipping.
"The pressure," he elaborated, still quiet. "You can handle it."
She just blinked at him, at an apparent loss for words, but in the uncomfortable silence that followed, the man at her side smoothly stepped forward with an extended hand. "Hi, I don't think we've met. Malik Williams."
Dave's focus was still on Bridgette, so Ben took the offered hand. "Ben Kessler," he said. "And, um, this is David McClaren, my-"
"Personal trainer," Dave cut in, finally shifting his attention to Bridgette's date. He shook the man's hand as well. Firmly, Ben noted.
"Oh, uh-" Williams cast a quick, puzzled glance back at Bridgette "-okay. Nice to meet you guys."
"Likewise," Dave said, scrutinizing the man with an intensity that bordered on hostile.
Bridgette's smile was a touch frosty as she directed it back to Dave. "It was good of you to come."
"Wouldn't have missed it," he drawled, and then, perhaps noticing he'd slipped back into asshole mode, added more sincerely, "You done good, Bridge."
She narrowed her eyes before nodding. "Thanks."
Another strained silence ensued. Williams stepped in yet again to fill it. "So, Ben, you're over at Bristol, Murray, and Goldenblatt, right? I hear Lou Murray's kind of a trip to work with."
"Uh, yeah," Ben said. It took him a moment to parse the question, too busy looking back and forth between Bridgette and Dave like he was watching a particularly tense tennis match. "Lou's not so bad." And then, because he appreciated that this Williams guy was trying, he asked, "Um, how about you?"
Bridgette stopped giving Dave the stink eye long enough to put in, with a trace of pride, "Malik's clerking for Kelly out of the Eighth."
Wait, as in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals? Ben couldn't help the low, impressed whistle that slipped out. "Kelly, huh? Nice! Did you work on her dissent in the religious exemption ruling on that anti-discrimination suit last summer?"
"Yeah, in fact, I did," Williams said, somewhat surprised. "You follow decisions out of the Eighth?"
And even though he probably should've stayed at the ready to interpose between Bridgette and Dave, right then it felt a whole lot easier to talk shop with Malik Williams. He kept Dave in his peripheral vision just in case, but in short order Ben had drifted off to the side with Bridgette's date, peppering the guy with questions about what it was like to work for a judge who'd been on the short-list for the Supreme freaking Court. Williams had pragmatic but nuanced takes on rulings that'd made Ben fume. The guy was even-tempered, insightful, and clearly ambitious without being a jerk about it. He was also obviously all-in on supporting Bridgette's success—the power couple energy was palpable; he plainly liked talking about her. Ben learned the two had met while Bridgette was on an internship, had been dating for close to a year, and that Williams, despite his prestigious position, earnestly believed she'd end up having more of a positive impact on the world than he himself would.
Ben knew it wasn't really any of his business, but he thought that if this was the guy who made Bridgette happy, he was pretty okay with it.
Williams was in the middle of a self-deprecating story about helping to author another dissent when Ben realized that Bridgette and Dave had also quietly fallen into what appeared to be a civilized conversation. The body language was uneasy—Dave cupped his elbows in his hands, Bridgette was chewing the inside of her cheek—but not belligerent. It looked promising until Dave said something that made Bridgette stiffen. She blinked rapidly, chin trembling. Uh-oh. But then she looked back up at Dave, nodded, and, to Ben's utter surprise, pulled the man in for a tight hug.
He'd dropped the thread with Williams. "Sorry," Ben said, shaking his head, "could you repeat that last part?"
Williams' keen eyes tracked over to the other pair. He didn't speak again until they'd ended the embrace. "The way I hear it," he said, voice less genial than before, "I might never have met Bridgette if not for you and your…personal trainer over there." Dave said something else that startled a watery laugh out of Bridgette. She hid it behind the back of her hand, nodding again. Williams' expression softened, but when his attention returned to Ben, it was hard-nosed. "I'm not sure thanks are appropriate, but—I'll say I'm glad things worked out the way they did."
Ben struggled to formulate a response. Fortunately, he was spared by Bridgette and Dave's approach. Both of them were doing a passable imitation of blitheness.
"Having fun sharing all your best stories about the futility of trying to get a reasonable decision out of the Eighth now that it's loaded up with Trump appointees?" Bridgette asked Williams, taking his hand.
"Mmm hmm." He gave her an affectionate smile before lifting his eyebrows, a silent but clear check-in to see if she was okay. "Ben here feels my pain."
"Sure he does," she said with the barest hint of a nod back—I'm fine. "I heard the caterers haven't put the petit fours out yet. Want to come with me to find out why? It could be a major scandal."
"I do live for drama," Williams deadpanned, slinging an arm around her shoulders. "It was nice talking to you, Ben. And nice meeting you, Dave," he said as she started to tug him away.
"Yeah, uh, good luck in the next session," Ben said, finding his voice. Belatedly, he called after Bridgette, "And congratulations, Counselor Ramos!"
She flicked a rude gesture over her shoulder in acknowledgement. Williams gave her a little nudge and, with a sigh, she twirled back around to face them. Her gaze swept over both of them, Ben and Dave, standing there—together. After a long, evaluating moment, her lips curved in a small, satisfied twist. She gave Ben a knowing look. "To you too, fresa."
He watched her go as the indefinable emotion did its best to choke him again. As stamps of approval went, it was pretty subtle. But from Bridgette? He'd take it.
A bump to his shoulder drew his attention back to Dave. "Doing alright there, sport?"
Ben pulled in a deep breath and nodded, then tried to take stock of his partner. He seemed composed on the surface—no sign of distress from the emotionally fraught reunion—although with Dave, that didn't always mean much. "You?"
"Never better," he said, reassuringly sardonic. "Except I'm wondering if I need to start worrying. Looked like you were gonna fanboy on that slice of beefcake and his legal briefs all night."
"Mmm. I don't think my personal trainer has any cause for concern."
Dave didn't even pretend to be embarrassed about that bit of assholery. "Old habits. Messing with her boyfriends is second nature."
"I remember," Ben said feelingly, hip-checking him. "Although, for what it's worth, the guy was putting out like zero vibe. Maybe her tastes have finally changed." That got a doubtful look. "Seriously. I think she even told him about the three of us. This one—he seems like a substantial upgrade."
"He'd have to be, right?"
"You do realize that's not exactly flattering for you either, don't you?"
"Yeah," Dave said, face serious. Suddenly, he wasn't joking anymore. "I do."
Shit. Ben's first impulse was to wrap a comforting hand around the back of Dave's neck and pull him in for a kiss. Given the venue, he settled for brushing their fingers together, hoping Dave would understand that he got it. Because he did. "Want to talk about it?"
Dave shrugged. "Nothing you haven't heard before. No need to rehash it here."
"Okay," he said slowly. "But do you want to tell me what all of that-" he cocked his head in the direction Bridgette had gone "-was about?"
"Just trying to make my peace." Dave contemplated the door she'd disappeared through for a long moment. "She didn't throw anything this time, at least."
"She didn't," Ben agreed. "In fact," he said, failing to keep the curiosity out of his voice, "that, uh, seemed like a pretty nice hug at the end."
Dave gave him a sidelong look. "I still don't really swing that way, champ."
Ben rolled his eyes—no way was he taking that bait—then gave Dave's sweater a tug. "You even got her to laugh."
A pause, more thoughtful than evasive. "Guess I took advantage of an easy target," Dave admitted. Ben suspected he knew just which easy target that was. Not that he minded being the butt of a joke, especially if it was one that eased the tension between Dave and Bridgette. But Dave surprised him when he continued, "Christ knows I'm not one to gauge parental approval—and Bridge's mom was out of the picture before I was ever in it—but her Abuela? Man, Rosario worked so much she was barely ever around, but that old broad still knew enough to bring out her rosary any time I came over. And I know she would've been proud. So. Goddamned. Proud. S'what I told Bridgette." The corner of his mouth twitched. "Rosario would've had commencement photos plastered up all over her locker at work like they were fucking Tiger Beat pin-ups of Justin Bieber."
Bridgette had always been close-lipped about her grandmother with Ben, but he chuckled at the image nonetheless. Hard to imagine anyone who'd been in Bridgette's life not being proud of her right now. He rubbed his knuckles over Dave's. "I'm sure it was good for Bridgette to hear that from somebody who knew her."
"You think?" Dave asked.
"Yeah." And even though they were in a roomful of lawyers and it wasn't very professional, Ben just had to lean over and kiss him. Nothing too lascivious, but a long, slow, deliberate press of lips to get the point across. He held it until heat pooled in his belly. Yeah, definitely.
Dave pulled back unhurriedly, licking his lips, and grinned. A flutter of activity over at the buffett caught his attention. "Hey," he said, "looks like they got the caterers to cough up the little cakes. Want one?"
Ben was glad they'd come, really, but now, he was ready to go home. Or, at the very least, he was ready for the current conversation to end.
The party was winding down, yet he'd managed to get himself cornered by one of the well-scrubbed twentysomethings. And this one had obviously been reading too many self-help books about the powers of networking. She was nice, and it was somewhat flattering, professionally-speaking, that she thought he was worth the effort to put herself on his radar. Under different circumstances, he wouldn't have minded chatting with her at all. But coming on the tail end of a long evening, the work of returning her overeager rictus of a smile was beginning to give him a toothache. The poor woman was probably getting ready to take the bar exam for the fourth time or something equally depressing.
He was inclined to bust out the semaphore in an attempt to trigger Dave's special asshole spidey-sense and earn himself an extraction, no matter how rudely executed. Dave, however, had just found his way over to a quiet table where Bridgette sat alone, taking a break from her high heels. She paused in rubbing the ball of her foot to look up at him warily. He said something that led to an encouraging exchange of ironic smirks.
Ben decided it'd take a lot more than Becky "tell-me-about-your-personal-passion-projects" Sterling for him to interrupt them.
So he smiled and nodded and asked questions in the appropriate places as she carried on about the elective she'd taken in entertainment law. Over at the table, Bridgette nudged out the chair next to her own. Ben didn't want to stare too openly, but it was hard not to zero in on Dave's grimace as he sat down too hard in the offered seat. Bridgette looked suspicious, then concerned, and then, as she made the connection, her eyes went wide. She covered her mouth and giggled, slyly delighted, before easily meeting Ben's eyes from halfway across the room. God, that was going to give the two of them something to talk about, wasn't it?
Okay, he wasn't doing a very good job of not watching them.
"So is that guy, like, your boyfriend or something?"
Ben tuned back into Becky whatshername, who was now blushing slightly. "Something like that," he said, channeling Dave without conscious thought. Apparently their earlier kiss hadn't gone unnoticed. Or he was just that easy to read. Either way it was fine—Ben was out and proud at work and everywhere else—but he hoped this wasn't going to give her an excuse to wax philosophical at him on Obergefell v. Hodges.
"Thought so." The blush spread as the woman tucked down her chin. "You two, uh, look really sweet together."
"Really?" He and Dave were a lot of things together, but sweet wasn't one Ben would have put near the top of the list. He couldn't help but glance back to the table again. Its occupants regarded him with near-identical smug expressions, so that conversation was clearly going well.
Becky whatshername gave him an energetic nod. "You guys keep looking at each other when the other one isn't paying attention. It's cute."
"Yeah?" Maybe she was sharper than he'd given her credit for. "I hadn't noticed."
"Are you both at the same firm together?"
"What?" Ben laughed. Dave would just love hearing that someone had assumed he was one of the suits. "God, no. He works at a gym."
"Oh." Over at the table, Bridgette gave Dave's shoulder a light slap with the back of her hand. Evidently pleased with himself, Dave kicked his legs out and linked his fingers behind his head, sweater pulling tight over his chest. Becky whatshername took a good long look. "Yeah," she said, blushing even more, "I, um, guess I could see that.
"It's awesome," Ben said, a little entertained despite himself, "until he insists on dragging me to Body Pump with him at five in the morning."
"I read somewhere that early morning exercise gives you a brain boost."
"I'm usually too busy sleeping at my desk to notice."
Now her smile was more genuine. "So you met at the gym?"
Bridgette snagged Ben's attention stuffing her feet back into her shoes. Distracted, he shook his head and then watched as she stood, smoothed down her dress, and bent to peck a chaste kiss on Dave's cheek. Dave pulled a face like she'd just given him cooties—Ben smiled helplessly—but when Bridgette tried to smack his arm again, he caught her hand and gave it a little squeeze.
Yeah, Ben was definitely glad they'd come.
"Okay," Becky whatshername said, "so how did you two first get together then? Did you meet online like every other boring couple, or is there some kind of story there?"
He blinked at the question, thinking. How did they first get together? The ready and socially-acceptable excuse of online dating was right there for the taking, but the night invited reminiscences. And there were years of firsts between them now to look back on. Their first date—terrible pho because they'd hastily settled on the closest restaurant they could find in a neighborhood neither of them knew well. Or had the first date been over even worse herbal tea the hour before that? Or maybe it had been months earlier, sharing very good reheated Italian food on the living room sofa.
There was the first time they really had sex—in the blissful privacy of Dave's apartment, which had been a shorter journey from the pho place than Ben's—sweaty and frantic and incredible, panting into each other's mouths as they'd finally come together. They'd made an entire weekend of it, going fast and then slow, again and again, barely getting out of bed except to stumble on shaky legs to Dave's tiny kitchen for more food that kept them going.
But there were so many other firsts too, big and little moments piling up into years of being together: The first time he heard Dave sing, crooning along in a shockingly good falsetto to something playing on the kitchen speaker while he waited for the coffee to brew. Seeing Dave play baseball that first summer, wide grin bright from under his cap as he threw strikeout after strikeout with laser focus. Their first epic, knock-down, drag-out fight as a couple, arguing for hours when Dave had turned down the offer to take on a manager position at the new satellite Cyndi's location in Kirkwood. Visiting Ben's parents together for the first time and enjoying Dave's baffled, transparently pleased reaction after Ben's mom had pinched Dave's cheeks and then wrapped him up in a giant bear hug.
And, of course, there was the very first time they met, Dave barreling through his door uninvited like a grim, avenging angel: teasing and patronizing and goddamned rude, snapping his gum in Ben's face and rummaging around like he owned the place; but also unflappable and indispensable and wholly dependable, offering up help and humor like it wasn't costing him a thing.
Almost unutterably alluring from the very beginning.
Now, Dave's eye sought him out as Bridgette went to rejoin her date. And even though Ben wasn't trying to wave any flags in his direction, Dave's spidey-sense seemed to be tingling anyway, because he raised a brow in a question Ben could almost hear. Ben gave a subtle head shake—no rescue needed, thanks. Dave's lips curved enigmatically in reply.
Ben turned back to Ms. Becky Sterling, and, with a secret smile of his own, he said, "It's kind of complicated, but I guess...you can say we first got together through a friend."
AN: And that's it, folks, barring the odd snippet should I start pining for these characters again. Not gonna lie, it feels good to tick that "complete" box after (checks watch) almost 12 (!) years. Thanks for reading, a special thanks to those of you who've been following for more than a decade, and a double-super-extra-special thanks if you've ever reached out with feedback. It has always been, and continues to be, so very much appreciated!