AN: Just in time for Valentine's Day (in my time zone, at least)!

Ben batted his scarf back over his shoulder as the wind yet again tried to steal it. Feeling turned around, he was tempted to check the map on his phone one more time; Bridgette had suggested meeting up at a new place and he didn't know the neighborhood. But then an orange awning up the block caught his eye, dazzlingly bright in the fall sunshine. The empty patio tables, umbrellas closed in deference to the blustery day, suggested he'd found the right shop.

When the scent of freshly roasted beans hit him still half a block away, Ben decided he wouldn't be cranky with Bridgette even though he was on the opposite end of town from where he planned to help his buddies from Torts Illustrated defend their pub trivia title in a couple of hours. He could sympathize with Bridgette's desire for a higher caliber of caffeine as she geared up for midterms. Not to mention her default setup of laptop, textbook, casebook, two moleskines, and rainbow spread of sticky notes had started earning them glares at the perpetually crowded Starbucks closer to Bridgette's apartment. This new shop's big front window showcased clusters of armchairs and couches, tables bathed in warm light—plenty of room to stretch out and settle in for one of their Saturday afternoon study sessions. Ben was looking forward to making progress on one of the case files he'd been wrestling with the day before.

He scanned the few customers he could see for Bridgette's chestnut bob, lingering appreciatively over the shoulders of a guy with his back to the window, tight blue t-shirt doing all sorts of nice things for his deltoids. There was no sign of Bridgette, which was weird since she normally beat him places even when he wasn't running late. Ben pushed inside, still not seeing her as a bell tinkled cheerfully over the door, announcing his arrival. Maybe this wasn't the right shop after all and—oh. Oh.

It had been more than half a year and the man had changed his hair, cropped off all of those soft curls, but that was unmistakably Dave craning around from his seat by the window, long-sleeved t-shirt pulling against his broad shoulders. Dave, whose eyes were even bluer than Ben remembered, blinking up at him mirroring his own numb shock. They stared at each other for a silent moment. Then Dave's expression darkened, a set of complicated emotions dancing across his features too quickly to interpret, although Ben caught something fierce and hungry that stirred an answering thrill inside of him even after so many months. Finally, Dave huffed, shaking his head ruefully. "That little bitch," he muttered.

Ben stood there like an idiot with his mouth hanging open as he sought out the "little bitch" in question. Unless she was hiding in the bathroom or had ducked behind the register, Bridgette wasn't in the shop. Dave, of course, was still right there. "Um…"

Dave's lips quirked. "Still eloquent as ever, huh sport?"

"I'm just going to-" do my best to murder Bridgette with my mind, he thought, gesturing to the counter where a single bored-looking barista was making latte art while a few customers waited. Dave snorted and inclined his head, which Ben took as permission to scurry to the back of the line. Safely facing away from the other man, he pulled out his phone, thumbs flying: WTF?!

It took maybe ten seconds for Bridgette to text back: Sorry, running crazy late today.

And he thought she'd reformed her manipulative streak. Groaning, he mashed the dial icon with unnecessary force. As soon as it connected, he hissed, "What is wrong with you?"

"And hello to you too," Bridgette said, dry. Ben heard the shuffle of a page flip in the background. "I know, I'm sorry, but I lost track of time reading this case and I haven't even left my apartment yet." She sounded like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. "If I go now I can be there in about half an hour, but I'm kind of in the zone here, so…"

He pulled the phone away from his ear, squeezing it so hard the case creaked. Ben made himself count to ten before bringing it back up. "Are you seriously going to pretend like you don't know who's sitting twenty feet away from me right now?"

There was silence on the other end of the line—Bridgette probably weighing how far she could push him. She sighed. "Can you just let me play it cool on this one?"

"Not a chance," he said, eyes darting over his shoulder to where Dave sat looking far less rattled than Ben felt, the bastard. "What. Is. This?"

"Let's call it making amends."

"I thought Dr. Martinez didn't go in for the twelve-step stuff?" Bridgette's therapist loved giving homework, but something told Ben that she wouldn't have advocated for luring the ex-boyfriends into an ambush.

"She doesn't," Bridgette admitted, "but we've been…working through some things."

"O-kay," Ben said slowly. As far as he was concerned, their unspoken agreement had been serving just fine: Bridgette pretended she'd voluntarily told Ben about her past; Ben pretended he wasn't doing double-takes on every built guy with dark hair he came across; when they hung out together, they both pretended that Dave McLaren didn't exist. This was like third rail territory on their friendship. "And?"

"And it's time to get rid of the safety net. I need to be done with him. Really done."

"Not to be a dick or anything," Ben said, although actually he totally wanted to be a dick at that moment because she deserved it, "but how does tricking me into meeting him for coffee help accomplish that?"

Bridgette made a sound like she was sucking on her teeth. "I'm only going to say this once," she said just as the barista finished with the customer in front of him. Ben lifted his finger and braced his phone between his ear and shoulder so he could root around in his laptop bag for a credit card. The barista just snapped her gum at him, tapping a sign in front of the register that read: If you're talking on your phone I feel bad for you, son. I'm taking 99 orders but yours ain't one.

He mouthed a sheepish apology that earned him an eyeroll before stepping off to the side. "Alright, I'm listening…," he prompted when Bridgette didn't continue.

"Dave is…."

Something in the tenor of her voice, the hesitation, put him on alert, reminding him far too much of those bad, early days last spring. Concern warred with his annoyance as he realized Bridgette wasn't nearly as collected as she'd initially sounded. This was costing her. "You don't have to-"

"Yes, I do."

"Okay, but whatever you're trying to do, you can't just spring it on me and think a five-minute phone call's going to sort it out."

"Would you stop making this harder and just listen to me?" she snapped. Before he could remind Bridgette that it wasn't his job to take her crap, she let out a shaky breath, reining herself in. "Just…please. Will you please listen to what I have to say?"

Ben nodded grudgingly even though she couldn't see it. "Fine."

She blew out another long breath. "He's bad for me. Okay? Dave. Is bad. For me. We're bad for each other and I get that, I do, but I'm—there's always going to be…with him…," she trailed off, uncharacteristically inarticulate as she growled in frustration. "I can't—he's never…I mean, it doesn't just stop."

Bridgette wasn't expressing herself very well, but Ben thought he knew what she was getting at all the same. He looked again to where Dave was sitting, focused on the mug cradled in his big square hands. "Yeah," he said, gentling his tone a little. Given the imprint the man had made on him in just a week, Ben supposed it couldn't be easy to turn off a decade's worth of caring. "That still doesn't excuse whatever the hell this is, though."

There was a long pause before Bridgette said, meaningfully, "I can't want him anymore, but that doesn't mean I don't want good things for him."

It took a beat to sink in. When it did, Ben squawked, "And I'm supposed to be the good thing in this scenario?" drawing the attention of several customers, including Dave, who gave him a bemused look before turning back to his coffee. Ben held the phone against his chest, compassion for Bridgette subsumed under embarrassment. Face going hot, he edged along the wall to hide himself in a corner before raising the phone back up and whispering, "I can't believe you're making me have this conversation here."

"I didn't ask you to call," Bridgette said tartly. "I wanted to play it cool and let you work it out on your own, remember?"

Ben clenched his jaw and counted up by threes in his head until he was sure he wasn't going to raise his voice again. "Look," he said, "I appreciate that you're trying to move forward—even though you and Dr. Martinez obviously still have some major work to do on this thing with needing to control everybody in your life—and I wish Dave all the best, but…come on. I'm not doing this."

"You wish him the best?" she asked, seizing on the least relevant thing he'd said.

"Well, yeah." His eyes drifted back over to the man in question. Even right after that awful scene in Bridgette's apartment, he'd never really held anything against Dave.

"So you'd want to see him happy?"

"Of course," Ben said, and then, because he knew she'd keep browbeating him if he didn't nip this in the bud, "but I messed with his head and left him in the dark the whole time you were away. He probably hates-"

"Ben," she interrupted, "I've been watching him, way too fucking carefully, for ten years and I've never-" She paused and swallowed audibly. "I can't believe you're making me argue this. I saw it, okay?"

Ben's throat tightened. "I don't know what-"

"I saw how he looked at you. And I saw how you kissed him. Don't bullshit me."

He opened and closed his mouth a few times, missing their unspoken agreement not to talk about this now more than ever. "I…I'm pretty sure he blocked my number," he confessed in a rush. Along with Ben's failure to admit to the way he'd been checking out anyone who even vaguely resembled Dave, he'd also pretended that he hadn't sent the man a bevy of unacknowledged messages over the summer.

"You are the most neurotic…he saw you and didn't storm off, right?" Bridgette asked. "He's still there?"

Ben peeked over his shoulder again, uncomfortably aware of how crazy he must look lurking in the corner and mumbling into his phone. This time Dave was already watching. He arched a brow and tilted his head in a questioning way. "Yes," he squeaked.

"So he's clearly okay with talking to you now. And after everything I've put him through-" she gave a dramatic sigh "-the least I can do is throw some halfway decent ass his way."

"Bridgette!" He cringed as half the heads in the coffee shop turned his way again in response to the shriek. "Inappropriate!"

"Don't tell me you're not due for a good railing," she said haughtily, and good grief, did she actually have the balls to be teasing him right now? "How long has it been?"

Too long. God, Dave was still looking at him. "I've been focusing on my friendships."

"And see where that's gotten you."

"Well, not all my friends are manipulative jerks with boundary issues."

Bridgette snorted. "Yeah, only the ones who've seen you gagging for-"

"Boundary issues! Seriously! What happened to the whole asexual study buddy vibe we had going? I liked that just fine, you know."

"Whatever," she said, and he could almost hear her rolling her eyes. "Do you want him?"

Dave still hadn't looked away. "I barely even know him," Ben said.

"That's not what I asked, and it's a load of shit. Do you want him?"

"I…" Dave nodded toward the counter and then pointedly took a sip of his own coffee, the invitation subtle but clear. Ben turned away, nervous, and closed his eyes. "I can't talk about this now," he said, pulse pounding in his temples. "I have to go."

"I know," Bridgette said. "We've kept him waiting long enough."


She disconnected the call. Ben blinked down at her contact photo on his screen, the picture he'd snapped her first day back at the office—chin high, face brave, lips tilted up in a cautious little smile. A new text notification came in: Take care of him, okay?

Before he could even contemplate a response to that, his phone buzzed again: And don't hurt him.

Ben tugged at the hem of his sweater and slunk back to the counter for a pumpkin spice latte that the barista probably mangled just to spite him. He felt the other man's gaze like an itch between his shoulder blades. Hurting Dave was the last thing he'd ever wanted to do, which was why he hadn't gotten in touch during those first few soul-draining days when he hadn't had time to think properly about anything but helping Bridgette navigate bureaucracy to find an empty bed in a treatment center that accepted her insurance. When he'd recovered from that, Ben had agonized about how much time he'd already allowed to pass without letting Dave know what was going on with her. Then he'd waffled over whether he should be angry over the terrible things Dave had said and the way the man had put him on the spot, exposing his feelings like a raw nerve. When Ben had finally worked out what he really was, was scared, and dredged up the guts to send a milquetoast You ok? text more than a month later, he was almost glad Dave didn't reply.

Ben tried to avoid thinking about the texts he'd sent after that. He was mainly just grateful they'd been marked as undelivered.

It was a relief to be off the hook. And he'd only known the man for a week, after all. Ben had moved on. Mostly.

At least, he thought he'd moved on. But as he slipped into the armchair across from Dave, Ben found himself greedily cataloging all the little ways the other man had changed: intentional-looking scruff of dark stubble coloring his jaw, sleeker definition on his arms and shoulders highlighted by the tight t-shirt, the severe haircut that brought out the angles of his face. The overall effect would've been intimidating if not for the mild amusement in Dave's expression. Ben's throat went dry anyway, so he took a sip of his drink.

"It's been a minute, sport."

"Yeah," Ben croaked, eyes involuntarily tracing a path all the way down Dave's torso to his long legs before coming back up again. "You, um…look good." Really good. Even better than in the photo Ben had seen back in July while snooping on the gym's Instagram page.

"Still thirsty, I see." Dave chuckled and shook his head. "Christ, I forgot how cute you are when you're flustered. The woman is a goddamned mastermind."

Of course Dave would put it together faster than he had. Ridiculously, Ben found himself blushing, which he knew wasn't going to help matters. He tried to hide his face behind his latte. "Sorry about that."

"For being cute?"

Ben shrugged. "For still being…the other thing." He couldn't bring himself to say "thirsty" even if that's what he was. "I doubt that's what you were expecting today."

Dave side-eyed him. "You're not trying to tell me you had anything to do with this little set-up?"


"Then I think we can put the blame for this one where it belongs," Dave said, a sour undertone belying the flash of his wry smile. As he gave Ben's stuffed laptop bag a long look, the smile dimmed considerably. "You…were planning on making an afternoon of it with her."

It wasn't a question, but Ben nodded; better to address the underlying implication even if it was something Dave didn't like. "I've been clocking in extra work on the weekends while she studies." The other man's smile fell off entirely at that, which inspired Ben to panic-babble, "Gotta keep those billable hours up if I'm going to stay on track for making partner." Dave, unsurprisingly, appeared unimpressed. Ben shut himself up with a scalding mouthful of coffee, winced, and then asked, "How about you? What've you been up to?"

Besides working out like a fiend and blocking Ben's number.

Dave lifted a shoulder. "Same old, same old. A little rec league softball. Clients at the gym. Living my sad little life."

Ben wondered if he was ever going to live down the low blow that had landed far too well. Of course, at the rate their conversation seemed to be going downhill, it was questionable whether his acquaintance with Dave would extend beyond the life of his latte, so perhaps it didn't matter. "You know I didn't mean-"

"I'm just winding you up, champ," he said, but there was something a little hard in his eyes.


Dave filled the awkward pause that ensued by clearing his throat and paying inordinate attention to his own drink. He stared down into the dark liquid for some time, chewing his lip, before finally darting a glance back up at Ben. "So she's doing alright?"

The reluctant concern—confirmation that Bridgette had left the other man in the dark just as much as he himself had—made Ben's irritation at her flare anew on Dave's behalf. It also made his belly twinge with guilt. "She's…good," he said, and despite the hesitation he really meant it. "You know, give or take the whole duplicitous scheming thing."

Dave didn't seem to appreciate the attempt at levity.

"She, uh…she didn't tell you herself?"

Dave gave him a measured look. "I haven't heard a word from her apart from the text she sent asking if I could meet her here. Not since…" He made a face, mouth twisting unhappily as, circumspect for once, he gestured in a way Ben could only assume was meant to encompass the threesome-that-wasn't in Bridgette's apartment. "I thought—hoped—she was maybe working the steps." He snorted. "Stupid, huh?"

Ben was almost as frustrated with himself as he was with Bridgette, although it was one thing for her to lure him there on the pretense of one of their regular study dates, and quite another to con Dave into showing up with expectations that she wanted to repair something broken between them.

Making amends indeed.

"You're not stupid," Ben said. Dave snorted again, which prompted him to add, "Really. She's not doing NA, but she's back to being indispensable at the office. Taking classes in the evenings—just inhaling the first semester of law school. And, um…seeing a therapist who seems to really get her."

Dave's eyebrows shot up at that.

He couldn't help but grin. "I know, right? Her doctor told her she wanted them to approach recovery like an organizational overhaul on her brain and Bridgette was like, 'Shut up and take my money.' I think they might be soulmates." Ben felt his smile turn fond as he lost himself in a memory of Bridgette attacking one of Dr. Martinez's neverending worksheets with the zeal of a true believer.

Then he noticed Dave was grinding his teeth.

"It, uh, looks like it's working for her, anyway." Ben rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm…pretty proud of her, actually."

Dave waited a beat. "Awesome," he drawled.

Ben had almost forgotten the man's ability to greet good news with a stunning lack of enthusiasm. "What?"

"Nothing," he said, but he was making a grab for the battered coat draped over his chair. "Glad to hear she's not dead in a ditch somewhere. Tell her I said thanks for the update."

They hadn't even made it to the end of Ben's latte. He tried to track down where he'd gone wrong, but all he could come up with was the part where he hadn't immediately turned tail and run. And though he was no longer the man who'd been desperate not to deal with the emotional fallout of Bridgette's addiction all by himself, a flutter of panic seized him nonetheless as he watched Dave stand. Why'd the guy bother waiting if he was just going to leave before Ben could get two words out?

The anger he hadn't felt toward Dave before decided to make a belated appearance. With it came an unflattering interpretation of the man's behavior, sprouting from Ben's subconscious so fully formed it felt like a certainty instead of the speculation it was. "Are you really going to begrudge her her sobriety just because you weren't a part of it?"

Dave froze. Then he took a deep breath, straightened to his full height, and scowled down at Ben. "You know, for a smart guy, champ, you really are an idiot."

"Yeah?" he said, rising from his chair as well. "You're telling me I'm wrong?"

Dave shook his head in disgust, tugging his coat on with short, sharp movements. He apparently wasn't going to dignify that with a verbal response.

The lack of argument just made Ben even more confident he had the man's number. "That's it, isn't it? You resent she's doing it without your help this time. That she can do it on her own—might actually make it—without you there to rescue her. You're jealous."

A rational corner of Ben's mind—separate from the part seething at the notion of Dave walking away, again, one last time just to maximize the damage—remembered how this particular strain of argumentation had nearly gotten him throttled on a city sidewalk. Yet somehow it was still a surprise when Dave whirled on him, exploding.

"And you're the most clueless piece of shit I've ever met!"

Conversations stalled and laptop keys quieted as other customers looked their way with a wary silence. Ben glimpsed a guy catty-corner to them already groping for his phone to aim its camera in their direction.

A hint of color rose in Dave's cheeks even as he attempted to glare down the coffee shop at large. "What?" he growled, jutting his chin toward Ben. "He is."

Ben was mortified, but something about Dave McLaren looking almost bashful, sharing the embarrassment for a change, cooled his temper a little. He took the opportunity to remind himself there were good reasons why he hadn't turned tail and run.

With a diffident wave, Ben announced, "He, uh, might be right." Moving with the care of a man attempting not to spook a large, angry animal, he sat back down. He nodded intently at Dave's empty chair until, glowering, the other man crossed his arms over his chest and folded into it.

Noise levels grew again as the other patrons resumed their activities with a collective shrug.

"Okay," Ben said once catty-corner guy had put his phone away. "I'm clueless. So enlighten me." He did his best to project penitent calm. "Please?"

The plea seemed to thaw the other man just enough for him to sigh in a tired, all-too-familiar way. "You call me an asshole but you-" He shook his head again, blinking up at the ceiling. "I was sitting here stewing for twenty minutes wondering which version of her was gonna show up today and then you walked in instead looking all petrified and I…" He thinned his lips.


With another expansive sigh, Dave ran a hand over what remained of his hair. "Look, if the two of you are making it work, fine. Fan-fucking-tastic. I'm happy for the both of you. I don't need her pulling a power play rubbing it in my face like this." He clenched his fists on top of his thighs, mouth set in a hard line. "But if you think she's turned over a new leaf on her own, you're being willfully stupid, sport. 'Cause much as I appreciate her trying to serve you up to me on a silver platter this time around, I still can't stomach it, alright? She's not dragging me back in that way. I don't want to be a part of it."

Ben felt his eyes going wide. "Wait, you think she and I are still together?" There was a note of genuine horror in his voice that he was sure Bridgette would've found insulting, but since she was the architect of this whole fiasco, Ben gave himself a pass.

"What am I supposed to think when you sit down and start carrying on about how you're Mr.-and-Mrs.-hit-the-books? You can barely talk about her without a stupid smile plastered all over your face."

"We're not together," Ben said, vehement. Somewhere along the way, a romantic relationship with Bridgette had become so unfathomable that it hadn't occurred to him what it could look like to someone on the outside. To Dave, who'd put the pieces together quickly, maybe, but in the wrong damned places. "I'm not with her like that anymore."

Dave didn't seem convinced. "So you're still all up in each other's business because…?"

"We're friends," he said honestly.

"Yeah, I remember how you are with your friends."

And he sounded so disgruntled, so pissed off and sullen, Ben couldn't help the inappropriate titter that escaped him. Shit, the man really was jealous. Just not in the way he'd originally assumed.

"Something funny?"

"No," Ben said, which was true, but that didn't make it any easier to bully down the grin that wanted to materialize. Dave was jealous. "It's just, you're absolutely right. I'm not sure I understood it at the time, but I don't think I was ever interested in being your friend, Dave."

"Great," he spat. "Thanks for that, sport."

Ben wasn't doing a good job of getting his point across. "No, crap, not like that," he tried to explain. "I meant—okay, so I've been working on the whole making friends thing. Friends-without-benefits, I mean. With Bridgette. Other people too. Expanding my social circle, I guess. It, uh-" he fidgeted self-consciously "-it turns out it's not so hard to keep things strictly platonic when the person I'm with isn't pushing every single button I have."

"Am I supposed to be flattered?" The other man crossed his arms back over his chest. "You only throw yourself at the guys who really annoy you?"

"You do a lot more than annoy me," Ben muttered. Before Dave could take that the wrong way too, he said, "Look, Bridgette is my friend. I—I like her, okay? She's smart and funny and incredibly passionate about our work-" and he really needed to get to the point because he could feel the thaw in Dave freezing over again "-but I don't want her. At all. I haven't wanted her like that since-" he swallowed, forcing himself to meet the man's glare head-on "-not for a really long time."

Dave's eyes darted back and forth between Ben's like he was reading a book that was just a little too hard to follow. After several repetitions, he leaned back in his chair, brows knitted. "...Huh."

Huh?! Ben refrained from shaking a better response out of him through a herculean act of self-control, reassuring himself that even if they read at different paces, they'd find their way to the same page. Eventually. Right? He sipped his cooling latte and gave Dave a chance to process.

The other man rubbed at his temples. "When you got her on the phone you looked so—but then you sat down and it was like-" Dave raised his face to scrutinize him with narrowed eyes. "So you really aren't…?"

Ben shook his head.

"And she wasn't…?"

He shook his head again.

"Then this is…?"

He'd never seen Dave so adrift. It held a surprising appeal. "Her way of trying to let you go, I think."

Dave huffed out a sound of disbelief. "So she sent us here to…what?"

This time Ben gave him plenty of time to finish the thought on his own. When he didn't, Ben bit his lip and said, "She, uh, might've mentioned something about throwing a little halfway decent ass your way?"

Dave scrubbed his hands over his face. "God, that woman." He looked up at Ben, expression somewhere between appalled and incredulous. "And you're…?"

On second thought, maybe he was ready for Dave to buy a clue. Ben shrugged uncomfortably, not wanting to come right out with it since he felt they'd already more than established his—and his halfway decent ass'—interests.

As the silence lengthened, insecurity crept in. Perhaps they weren't on the same page after all. "Why'd you block my number?" he blurted, unable to keep the plaintive note out of his voice.

Dave's shoulders hunched defensively, speaking volumes. He turned his face away. "You'd made your choice. I wanted to respect it."

Shit. "She needed my help."

"Yeah. I got that."

Ben couldn't apologize for staying behind with Bridgette that day, but he could set aside the sting of having his number blocked. He'd probably earned it.


"What?" he asked, voice gruff.

He waited until the other man met his eyes again. "She doesn't anymore."

Ben let him chew that over while he finished off his latte—a tiny, private victory in itself. When he made a questioning gesture toward the counter, Dave nodded absently, which Ben took as permission to pick up a second round of drinks.

To his considerable relief, by the time he made it back to their spot by the window, Dave was ready to accept the fresh mug with a smirk.

He wrinkled his nose over the rising steam. "You trying to tell me something with this stuff, sport?"

Ben shrugged. "I didn't think either of us needed more caffeine." He tried a cautious sip of his own herbal tea.

It was, as advertised, uncaffeinated.

Dave set his mug aside.

A new silence settled between them, no less awkward even though the tension had eased. But Ben felt ready now to bridge the gap between mutual interest and their gulf of hurt and misunderstanding. He gathered up his courage, took a deep breath, and dove in. "So…are you seeing anyone?"

He suspected the only reason Dave didn't do a spit-take was because he wasn't actually drinking his tea. "Jesus. You're just gonna go for it, huh?"

Ben tilted his head magnanimously—why not? "So are you?"

"We're really doing this?"

He responded with his best expectant, encouraging look. The other man stared at him, mulish. Unwavering, Ben kept his own expression open. They were doing this.

Dave nudged moodily at his mug. "I'm…not so good at dating."

"Seriously?" This time he let his eyes wander without shame. "I can't imagine many guys not swiping right for you."

"I didn't say I can't get laid, champ, I said I'm not so good at dating. Surely someone with your history can see the distinction?"

Since it wasn't a real question, Ben didn't bother with a response.

"Believe it or not, a fuckton of baggage isn't a turn-on for most people," Dave grumbled.

He weighed his options for a comeback—attack and retreat—before settling on, "So you don't have a boyfriend, then?"

It had the desired effect, the other man barking out a laugh. "No. Jesus. No boyfriend, alright?"

"Alright," Ben agreed. He considered for a moment. "So do you want to get dinner with me sometime?"

Another laugh, but there was less humor in it this time. "Just that easy, huh?"

"...Yes?" At least, he hoped it could be.

"Christ, you-" Dave dragged a hand down his face and then rubbed at a spot over his eyebrow. "Why are you doing this?"

"I would've thought that was obvious."

He rolled his eyes. "I'm serious, man. I know we had a couple decently good grinds, but that's hardly the basis for a lasting love affair. Put us together for real and-" he paused, gaze stroking up and down over Ben appraisingly "-alright, it'd probably be pretty spectacular. For about a week. But then we'd drive each other nuts. We're not exactly running in the same circles, sport. You don't even like me."

"That's not-"

"Look, I get that Bridgette put you on a mission here, but give her a month or two. Maybe she'll find a nice Jewish girl with a master's degree to point you at instead. Someone to pop out a couple of cute grandkids for those parents of yours in Miami."

Caught somewhere between affronted and aroused—which, come to think of it, might've been his default state where Dave was concerned—Ben tried not to stammer. "Okay, first? The bi erasure tactic? Not cool." He took a furtive glance around to see if anyone else was paying attention, then leaned forward, lowering his voice. "I like dick. Yours especially, if I recall."

The other man puffed out a vaguely impressed breath at that.

"And second," Ben continued at a more normal volume, "who said I was looking for a lasting love affair? All I'm asking for is dinner. Maybe a movie."

Dave shook his head, the amusement in his eyes bleeding into something sadder. "I just don't think it's-"

"I texted you," Ben interrupted, no longer trying to be playful.

"Yeah. I remember." His voice was bitter. "'You ok?' Your concern was noted."

"No, after that. I sent more," he said, face heating. "Um…a lot more. After you blocked me."

Dave eyed him with suspicion. "What did they say?"

He licked his lips, hesitating, but with the other man burrowing into a defensive crouch, Ben had to close this distance himself. "That I, uh, wanted you to tell me where in the hell you got those egg sandwiches."

Nonplussed, Dave blinked at him.

"I didn't know you'd blocked me when I sent that one." He smiled thinly. "Seemed like a reasonable excuse at the time."

A disdainful sniff told him how that would've gone over.

"Yeah, I know. But once I figured out they weren't going through I, um…got a little more…demanding, I guess. I said that I wanted you to come over and kick my ass at Xbox. And eat all my cereal. I told you," he said, the corner of his mouth twitching, "I was going to teach you how to work my coffee machine. I asked if I could watch you whip more skinny college boys into shape at your gym. I said I wanted you to show me where you live. And, I, uh-" he blushed to the tips of his ears. "I said I wanted you to fuck me blind."

Dave shook his head at that, looking tense, so Ben plowed ahead before he could argue. "I know we're only here because this is Bridgette's lunatic way of giving us her blessing, but she's not just leading me around, okay? When you blocked me, I was ready to respect what you wanted, but not if you're going to feed me a line of crap because you've talked yourself into some idea of what you think I want that's more about your own hang-ups than anything I ever said. And for the record?" He allowed his frustration to color his tone. "I do like you. I would've thought that was obvious, too."

Dave's jaw tightened, but he was radiating the aura of a cornered animal. "You don't even know anything about me."

Having his earlier words to Bridgette echoed back at him should've been irritating, but Ben was a good enough lawyer to recognize a losing argument when he heard it. He contemplated stealing her pithy response because that was a load of shit. Given the situation, however, he decided he could dredge up something more specific.

"I know you're quick on your feet and calm in a crisis. That you're hardworking and uncomplaining and sarcastic and freakishly loyal-" and, oh, right, this was easy because Dave was still incredible "-not to mention thoughtful and kind when you think nobody's going to notice." The other man frowned like he wanted to object, so Ben changed tack. "I also know you're a complete pain in the ass and kind of a dick and the sort of guy who likes to watch other people—or me, at least—squirm. I know you're annoyingly closed off and destructively secretive with your feelings. We're going to talk more about that later, by the way, because Bridgette's apartment—I mean, can you blame me for not handling that well?"

He ignored the face Dave made at that.

"I also know you're insecure about your intelligence—which is totally unwarranted, I have to say—nobody dumb uses the word 'metaphorical' in a text message. And…I know some of the people in your life who were supposed to love you no matter what really let you down." Dave's expression darkened further, but Ben was in it now. He was going to see this through. "I know you've made some truly awful mistakes, but I also know you were strong enough to clean up your own messes and then some. I know you're probably the hottest man I've ever had my hands on. I know…god," he said, throwing his hands up in exasperation, "I damn well know enough to know that I'd really like the chance to get to know you better, you asshole!"

Somehow, he found himself glowering at the man he was trying to draw in, which, yeah, was probably about right.

Dave just stared at him, pale and blank.


And like an infuriating, beautiful, impossible whatever, a slow, wolfish smile lit up Dave's face. He settled more comfortably into his chair, kicking one long leg over the other. " got plans for dinner?"

AN 2: A looong time coming, I know, but hopefully at least somewhat worth the wait. This could probably serve as the end of the story, but I do have a little epilog in mind, so I'm not going to tick the "complete" box quite yet. Now that we're coming to the end, though, I'd also like to ask you lovely readers if there's anything you'd like to see more of here. Anything you're left confused about or think absolutely must be resolved? If you have requests for snippets/extra scenes/whathaveyou, I'll take them under consideration and see what I can do. Let me know what you think!