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. Perhaps if he didn't answer, they'd assume no one was 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, shivering 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. A flannel shirt had replaced the leather jacket. 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 was he here?
"That too." The man shifted, raising an arm like he meant to shove Ben out of the way. He must've reconsidered after noticing the stain on Ben's sweater, 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 toward 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 was just what? A mix-up with a prescription that'd gotten way out of hand?
He thought about his discovery earlier that afternoon of a drawer filled with empty pill bottles in Bridgette's apartment. Ben checked his phone. 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 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 somehow bypassed the lobby door and 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, his feet splashing in tepid water from the overflowing tub. "Dammit, Bridgette!"
The shout roused 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 stopper on the clawfoot tub, finding the bathroom's original fixtures less charming than he had when he'd chosen the place. 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 was older. And tired. Sad.
"Sure, Bridgette," Dave sighed, pushing off from the doorframe. Ben noted with 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 and cupped her cheek. "You too, princess."
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, Dave, I wasn't sure you'd come when I called. Can you please get me the fuck outta here? I'm tired of looking at this pinche fresa."
"Hey!" Ben said, hurt. He told himself it was the sickness talking. "Still standing right here." He looked between Bridgette's hopeful face and the other man's enigmatic 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. "You got anything for me? Little something to take the edge off?"
"Wait, you called him for drugs? Now?" 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 murmured, lowering 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, 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 we gotta do this? You know I never have anything. 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 Pomeranian from the apartment upstairs. Ben inched back even though he was already on the other side of the room, suddenly 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 protective step forward. But before he could say or do anything else, Bridgette kicked out at Dave's bent knees. Her trailing pant leg flailed. Dave hopped back and straightened, grinning like a maniac.
"Puto! Fucking cocksucker!" she shouted before curling nearly in half and retching into the wastebasket.
Ben stared with wide eyes, discomfited. Bridgette was no pushover when she got upset—it was one of the things he liked about her—but that wasn't an epithet he'd ever expected to hear from her. She worked for a civil rights attorney, for god's sake! He cringed at the grinding sound of her getting sick, squishing his toes into the soaked bath mat.
"'Atta way, Bridgette." Dave turned to Ben, eyes glittering as he seemed to notice him for the first time since sizing him up at the front door. "Tip 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. "Tip Number Two: Never leave a junkie in withdrawal alone in a room with a medicine cabinet." He pulled back the glass door and squinted at the neat rows of moisturizer, contact lens solution, hair gel, and toothpaste before cocking his head at Ben.
Bridgette gave a choked cackle between retches. "I wish. He barely even keeps aspirin in the house."
"For real?" 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 his interest. 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, sweetheart? Wanna get cleaned up or just go straight to bed?"
Ben shook himself. 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 winced as she missed the wastebasket.
Dave slipped his hands into his pockets. "You really gonna 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, seemed potentially 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. Ben had been quietly freaking out from the moment she'd opened her door to him that afternoon. The other man's steady gaze reflected none of the panic or helplessness that he 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 game for a little clean-up, princess?" he asked Bridgette.
She groaned again.
"Guess that means it's up to you, sport. Bring whatever other cleaning stuff you have and I'll deal with the biohazard over here, alright?" 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 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, a decent place of your own, fancy boyfriend. Thought you were through with this shit, sweetheart."
Ben cleared his throat, stubbornly refusing to think about the many upsetting implications in those words.
"Hey, man. I think she's about ready to pass out for a while, 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 organize the firm's annual gala and stole his crossword puzzles to fill the empty spots with X-rated words? How had he missed this? "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. "I don't really swing that way anymore. Never did, actually," he added with a sly grin, "but you probably know she can be pretty damned persuasive."
Despite intimate familiarity with Bridgette's powers of persuasion, Ben couldn't quite bring himself to smile and nod in agreement. He concentrated on his mop instead. They soon put the bathroom into a passable state. Ben started refilling the tub while Dave shook Bridgette's shoulder. She was zoning, face mashed against the side of the wastebasket. She muttered something unintelligible and swatted at Dave's hand.
"Should we be, uh…more worried? Doing something else for her?" 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 that involved serious heavy lifting. "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. He self-consciously dealt with her underwear, but neither she nor Dave appeared to care about her nakedness as the other man helped her stagger into the bath. "S'cold," she said, splashing petulantly at Dave crouched at one end of the tub before snuggling up to Ben kneeling at the other.
Apparently she was no longer tired of looking at him. He awkwardly patted the top of her head.
She wrinkled her nose where it rested inches from the stain on his 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 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 god'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. Not that Ben's torso, end-of-winter pale and owing more to his demanding desk job than his sporadic gym visits, should've held undue interest.
Bridgette sent a splash Dave's way. "Could you please contemplate bagging my boyfriend after you've washed the puke out of my hair?"
He gave Ben a toothy smile, chomping his gum as he reached for the shampoo. "Of course, princess."
Ben's face heated and he grabbed a washcloth just to have something to do with his hands. The banter was better than shouting and kicking, but it felt wrong under the circumstances.
"Thought you'd decided to check out for a few," Dave said, turning back to Bridgette.
"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. "Complete prostate slut."
Ben made a strangled sound 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 grin. He made his escape, shutting the bathroom door on the splashing sounds inside.