They reheated the last two dishes from Il Vicino. Ben glanced at his little kitchen table, but Dave was already carrying his plate out to the living room. Squashing thoughts about stains on his upholstery, he followed. What's a little tomato sauce after Sweet Pea's already been at all the furniture?
Dave shoved aside the remnants of the afternoon's board and card games, chuckling under his breath. "I can't believe you don't keep so much as a bottle of Nyquil in your place, but you practically have an arsenal of Milton Bradley and Hasbro."
"What?" Ben balanced his plate as he took a seat on the couch. He speared a piece of ravioli and blew on it to cool it down. "My parents moved to a condo in Miami and didn't want to store all my kid's stuff anymore. Seemed like a waste to throw it away."
The other man shook his head as he sank down on the cushion next to him. "Saving them for some rugrats of your own?"
He hadn't gotten around to giving it a lot of concrete thought, but he'd always vaguely assumed kids would be in the picture at some point. "Maybe, I guess."
"And your folks?" Dave said, cutting into his veal. "Bet you see them at least once a year, right?"
Ben shrugged. "Yeah." Didn't most people?
"A wholesome family boy who likes to fuck around with guys on the weekends. Bridgette's tried on a lot of different boyfriends, but you, sport, where on Earth did she find you?"
He was too tired to think his way around Dave's ability to make a comment sound insulting and admiring at the same time. "We met at work," he said. "And what do you mean, 'tried on'?"
"Hey man, don't take it like that," Dave said. "But you must've noticed it seems like Bridge is searching for something. Has been ever since I knew her. Her taste in men is all over the place, like she's hoping to hit on a lifestyle that'll fit just right." He paused to chew. "You're just…more different than usual."
Ben didn't know what to make of that. "Yeah, well, she hasn't exactly been eager to tell me about her past."
"Don't hold it against her. Kind of a parade of assholes." He sawed at his dinner. "Myself included."
Ben wasn't quite prepared to argue against him, but he couldn't reconcile the benevolent asshole who'd spent the last few days holding things together in his apartment with the sneering kid from Bridgette's photos who'd apparently gotten her started with pills in the first place. He ate in silence for a while, wondering why he didn't have dinner at the coffee table more often. Risk of spills aside, it was damned comfortable after a long, ugly day.
He pictured a line of Bridgette's boyfriends, starting with himself and stretching back through who knew how many anonymous faces, all the way to Dave. Searching for something. Something she hadn't found in Ben either, it would seem.
Eventually, he couldn't help but ask, "So…what's she looking for?"
"These days?" Dave shook his head. "I don't think she even knows anymore."
He wasn't sure if that should make him feel better, or worse. "And what about before? What was she searching for with you?"
Dave thought for a moment. "Honestly? Somebody to take care of."
That was hard to imagine. "You don't exactly strike me as a guy who needs much of that."
The other man smiled without humor. "I've worked to get where I am." He stabbed at what was left of his veal before pushing it away and turning to look at Ben. "These parents in Miami," he said, shifting the conversation back a gear. "They know you're into guys too?"
"Yeah." He blushed, still not really comfortable talking about his sexuality with this man.
"And when you came out, I bet they were all supportive and shit, right? Mom joined PFLAG, Dad took you out fishing?"
Ben thought back to his first real boyfriend, Shane. He'd made it through high school happy dating girls and exchanging furtive hand-jobs with a guy he'd been ostensibly tutoring in Algebra. When he'd been gathering up his clothes the morning after he fell into bed with a frat boy after an especially drunken Sig Ep party his freshman year in college, he hadn't known what to say when the guy asked if they could go out sometime. But then Shane had pulled him in for a kiss and twined their fingers together. It was, ridiculously, more of a turn-on than almost anything he'd half-remembered from the night before, and suddenly a whole new world had opened up to him.
He'd dated Shane for a few scary, exciting months before deciding it was something he should probably tell his parents about. It'd been pretty much a non-event, and they'd treated the few boyfriends he'd brought home just as warmly as any of his girlfriends.
Ben shrugged again. "It wasn't a big drama, if that's what you mean. My uncle Gene and his husband have been coming to family dinners since before I was born, so…."
"That's…great. Really great, chief." Dave took a long pull from his bottle of water before running his thumbnail over the damp label, splitting it down the middle. "Bridgette was managing evening shifts at the Hot Topic in the mall and taking classes at the junior college when I met her. Got me a job when I was doing everything I could to get the hell out of my parents' house."
Hot Topic? Well, that did sort of explain the clothes in the pictures Bridgette still carried with her. For half a second, Ben thought about teasing, but the slump of Dave's shoulders told him now wasn't the time.
"So…uh, your parents?"
"Caught me making out with the shortstop after baseball practice one day."
Ben swallowed. "No PFLAG meetings for your family, I take it?"
Dave shifted to face him, meeting his eyes. "Nope."
Amazing what a single syllable could convey sometimes. He resisted the impulse to break away from Dave's gaze, inexplicable shame burning through him. "I'm…" What? Sorry?
"Yeah," Dave said quietly, sparing Ben from having to finish the thought. "I'm over it." He took another long drink before setting the bottle down with a hollow thunk. "Anyway, by the time I was close to finishing high school, I was hanging around the mall until closing most nights just for an excuse not to have to go home. Bridgette didn't give me any shit about loitering." The side of his mouth twitched in a smile. "So long as I let her dress me."
Ben could almost picture her foisting a pair of leather pants on a younger, skinnier Dave. "And she offered you a job?"
"Said I spent so much time there, I might as well be getting paid for it. She figured out why I was avoiding home right away, too. Told me she'd been dying to hag with somebody cute and hooked me up with a fake ID so we could hit the gay clubs together. God, I loved her right away."
He could imagine. Few forces in the world were as fierce or beautiful as Bridgette with a cause. "She can have that effect on people."
Dave nodded. "Anyway, by the time I had a diploma and enough cash for a deposit on a shitty little studio apartment, Bridge had basically decided she was my new family. She came with me to pack up my shit and told my parents off and I-" He smiled to himself. "I thought she'd be all the family I'd need."
When Ben had first started dating Bridgette, she'd thrown herself into the relationship so completely, it was like she'd pulled him into her orbit. What would it have been like if he'd been ten years younger, alone, and faced with an even more determined and idealistic version of her? "That must've been…"
"Fucking intense, yeah." His eyes lost focus as his smile faded, fond memories curdling into something darker. He shook out of it and settled against the back of the couch, looking Ben up and down. "How'd the two of you get started on the whole picking-up guys thing? Did you sort it out ahead of time? Ground rules and all that?"
"I don't know what you're-" he started automatically, but the flash of hurt on Dave's face cut off his words, making him feel like a shit as the denial hung in the air.
He took a deep breath and tried again. He already knows, it's not a big deal to talk about. "It's not something I've done much in the past, and I don't go around advertising my preferences at work, but I'm always straight with my partners."
Dave snorted. "So to speak."
Ben ignored the barb—he'd probably earned it, anyway—and continued. "Bridgette suggested it after our relationship became…" His face heated as he searched for the right way to put it. "After we'd been…seeing each other for a while. So yes, we did discuss the situation ahead of time."
"Her directness on top of your shy virgin vibe?" Dave shook his head. "They must be lining up for the two of you."
Ben lifted a brow. "'Virgin'?"
"It's a vibe, chief, not an accusation of fact."
He decided to let it go. When Bridgette had brought up the idea of their arrangement, she'd even made setting the ground rules seem sexy, but talking about it with Dave was never going to be anything but weird. He thought again about that long line of assholes stretching all the way back to the man beside him. What had her playbook been with an eighteen-year-old Dave? Did she even have a playbook then?
Ben let his head fall back against the couch, mirroring the other man's posture. Even though he suspected the answer would make him more uncomfortable than he already was, he couldn't help but ask, "What about the two of you?"
"We did alright," Dave said, shrugging and looking away.
He sighed, exasperated. "No, I mean-"
"I know what you meant." His voice was surprisingly sharp.
After a long enough pause that Ben wondered if the conversation was over—which, really, should have made him happy—Dave began speaking.
"At first, it was just her looking out for me at the clubs. She had my back, made sure I didn't go off alone with the wrong people, that sort of thing. But Bridge never lied about liking what she saw, and she was so fucking cool with the whole thing, it was such a relief, it didn't seem like a big deal if she ended up watching some shit that maybe should've been private."
An echo from the day before occurred to Ben. Don't really swing that way…
His dinner sat heavily in his stomach as the picture shifted for him. He'd seen—and, too often—ignored the problems in his relationship, but he'd always wanted Bridgette. Her skin, her hair, her body. Even strung out and sick, like she'd been the past few days, he still knew she was sexy.
Had a young, lonely Dave known the same thing, or only tried to convince himself he did?
"You…you don't have to…," he said, not at all sure he wanted his suspicions confirmed. Dave the teenage junkie creep screwing over Bridgette was one thing. This...was more complicated.
Dave narrowed shrewd eyes on him. "Assumptions are a bitch, aren't they, chief?"
Ben nodded slowly. It was already too easy to piece a new history together. Brash, fearless Bridgette swooping in to the rescue, too headstrong to realize she was pushing at something far too brittle to take the pressure. Angry, vulnerable Dave, estranged from his family, too raw and needy to think about what he really wanted.
Ben didn't want to be thinking about this. "I'll just…" He moved to scoop up the dinner plates, ready to escape.
"Don't." Dave caught his wrist, looking up at him. "Please."
It was, as far as Ben could tell, the first time the other man had asked him for anything. "Yeah, okay." He settled back into the couch.
Dave looked down at where he still held his wrist before letting go. He ran his hand through his hair. "Might as well hear the rest of it now, is all."
Ben nodded again, giving him time.
"I could tell she wanted me, and, Christ, I wanted to do something for her, you know?"
So you tried to be interested. Even knowing what a bad idea it was, how obviously wrong it had turned out for both of them, he could understand how easy it would have been to give in to her.
Dave took a breath and let it out slowly. "I started fucking my best friend, and when I realized it wasn't right, I started popping oxys and kept right on fucking her instead of talking about it. And when I knew that wasn't right, I went ahead and let her start taking the shit too."
What could Ben say to that? It wasn't your fault? He couldn't feel anything but sorry for both of them in that moment, but he wasn't sure that absolved Dave from blame. You were young and confused and fucked up? Undoubtedly true, but that didn't quite take the responsibility away either. It doesn't change who you are now? Also true—and if Ben were being honest with himself, he'd have to say that the person Dave was now was someone he very much wanted to know—but that didn't erase what had come before.
He realized the other man was watching him closely, waiting for him to say something. Finally, he came up with it.
"No wonder Bridgette doesn't want to talk about her past. I mean," he shuddered, aiming for as over-the-top as possible. "Hot Topic?"
Something like gratitude registered in Dave's eyes. "Fuck off," he said, throwing an elbow in Ben's ribs.
"Really, who wants to admit to fashion victimhood on that scale?"
Dave gave him a sideways look, tension visibly easing from his shoulders as he grinned. "Like you didn't have a closet full of hipster trucker hats and western shirts."
And after the long, shitty day, it felt so good—to see him smile, to have Dave being Dave—that without thinking about it, Ben leaned forward and brushed his lips across the other man's mouth.
That wiped the grin from Dave's face. He raised a hand to his parted lips, blinking in surprise.
But before Ben could recoil from his own stupidity, Dave was pulling him closer, fingers curling around his arms as he swallowed his half-formed apologies. And then it was all shared breath and heat, the burn of stubble against his lips and the tug of hands in his hair.
Dave moaned, greedy, and the sound went straight to Ben's dick. It was like the other man was trying to drink him in, all hungry and toppy and—oh fuck, when did I manage to straddle him like this?—pushing every button Ben had. He went with it, finding a rhythm so damned sweet and easy it was just shy of painful, and let his fingers sink into dark curls that were exactly as soft as they'd looked.
Over the rush of blood in his ears, Ben could hear that he was making some embarrassing sounds of his own. On the tail of that realization came the thought of a sleeping Bridgette down the hall, and then, as quickly as it had started, they'd pushed each other to arm's length. Dave held him by the shoulders. His eyes were too white around the edges.
Ben panted, blinking at the other man.
Dave let go of him, running shaking hands through his hair. "Jesus."
He could only nod at that. Dave's mouth and chin were red and Ben remembered with a guilty spark that he hadn't shaved that morning. Because he'd needed to check on Bridgette. Who was still—God, please—sleeping down the hall.
The thought was enough to kick him into action. He sprang up off of the couch like it was on fire and ran a hand through his own extremely disheveled hair. Shitshitshitshit. "I, uh," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Really need some sleep."
"Right." Dave's expression was unreadable.
"Right." What a clusterfuck, oh God, make it go away. "You, uh, you know where stuff is if you need anything," Ben said, turning away before he had to see any more. He was down the hall with the closed guest bedroom door safely at his back when he realized he'd essentially invited Dave to spend the night.