Ben knows the date is going to be a disaster even before he agrees to it, because Rey broaches the topic by saying, “So I have this friend who’s almost as terrible at dating as you are,” and he has enough experience with that kind of set-up to know it’s a waste of everybody’s time.
“Fine,” he agrees, because he doesn’t want Rey getting his mother involved.
“And I really think you two might hit it off,” she continues, though she doesn’t look like she believes that at all. “Wait, really? You’ll do it?”
“Do you want me to protest more first, and force you to talk me into it?” he asks.
“No,” Rey says uncertainly.
“Good,” Ben says, and turns back to his batik.
“Why are you agreeing to this?” she asks suspiciously.
“I’m great at dating, by the way,” Ben tells her. “It’s not my fault everyone else is so awful.”
“If you think everyone else is so terrible at dating, you might want to consider that it isn’t them, it’s you,” Rey suggests.
“Not awful at dating,” Ben clarifies, “Just awful in general. An utter waste of my time.”
Ben hates wasting time, particularly his own.
“God,” Rey says disdainfully.
“I know,” he agrees. “Theirs too, I suppose. Not that it really matters, since everyone I’ve ever dated has been a complete waste of both autonomy and the autonomic nervous system, and the odd beauty of human existence, on top of being a waste of my time.”
“That’s—“ Rey says. “Weirdly touching, for you.”
“And even spending time in my presence isn’t enough to raise them to the level of being worth the energy their parents and the universe expended in bringing them into being.”
“Yeah, there we go,” Rey says. “That’s more like it. My friend also has trouble with dating.”
Ben picks up his tjanting and turns his focus to his fabric, because he doesn’t care about Rey’s friend or his problems.
“Although I don’t know why, because he’s lovely,” Rey continues. Ben continues not to care. “A little much, maybe, and also a little bit difficult to please—“
She breaks off, and stares at Ben in dawning horror, apparently having just realised this is never going to work. Ben could have told her that the moment the words ‘blind’ and ‘date’ came out of her mouth.
“And really, you are my last resort, and he’s definitely your last chance, so please try to make this work. Wear something nice.”
“Your friend sounds terrible,” Ben tells her.
“Why are you doing this?” she asks again, clearly discouraged by Ben’s attitude, but not discouraged enough to spare them all the ordeal.
Ben considers telling her the truth: that avoiding such a minor family obligation would be more trouble than it’s worth, and the length of his current dry spell means she’s caught him willing to exert himself somewhat, and even her terrible friend might make a passable companion for the evening.
Probably only if Ben cracks open the wine before he gets there. Ben will get there early, and do just that.
He doesn’t tell her any of that, because she is his cousin, so that would be weird, and also she’d definitely pass all of that information directly to his mother.
“Your friend is paying,” he tells her instead.
“God, fine,” she agrees.
And I hope you know that I’m doing him a favour. You should tell him that so that I don’t have to.” People don’t like it when Ben has to tell them things like that.
Rey’s eyes glaze over and her mouth works soundlessly before she eventually gets out, “Wear something nice. A purple shirt. And your best jacket.”
Ben isn’t sure he owns a purple shirt. He opens his mouth to counter, but—
“No batik!” Rey insists.
“Fine,” Ben huffs, and refuses on principle to listen to anything else she has to say.
So Ben isn’t expecting anything but a frustrating, disheartening evening filled with gritted teeth, endurance, and maybe some sub-par orgasms, if he’s what he will begrudgingly term lucky, and when he gets to the restaurant Rey had booked for them, he’s already quite irritated, having spent the walk over imagining the horrible time he’s sure to have.
The place is packed to the rafters, filled with people chattering away happily in a manner Ben can never force himself to feign comfort with, even if his mother assures him it would make things easier on him if he did. Ben doesn’t know why he’s always so surprised by Rey’s terrible taste, but he eternally is, and he looks around despairingly at the cheerful cosiness of the place, and wonders if the date she’s picked out for him will prove as unappealing.
The server leads him to an empty table when he offers his name, but Ben hesitates before taking his seat.
“This is rather close to the other diners,” he tells her.
“Space is at a premium,” she agrees, but then she pulls out his chair, which was not what he’d intended at all. “It’s all part of the atmosphere.”
“I’d rather it wasn’t,” he says.
“Don’t you have anything more private?”
“No,” she says, still blinking. She really should have made use of lubricating eye drops before reporting for duty. “I’m afraid not.”
“This is quite unsatisfactory,” he says unhappily.
“I’m sorry,” she tells him, “But this is the last table. I have other customers—“
Ben follows her glance to the attractive man who had entered behind him, looking kind of twitchy and nervous, but unfairly comfortable as he scrutinises the room. Ben doesn’t know what there is in here that could possibly be worthy of such attention.
“I’m a customer too,” he says, feeling himself get sharply defensive in a way he doesn’t like.
“Yes,” she agrees. “But there’s nothing I can do about how busy we are.” Ben can’t argue with that, so he doesn’t reply. “Unless you’d like to reschedule for another time?”
“No,” he decides reluctantly. They stare at each other, and he breaks her gaze to look warily at the chair. She moves it suggestively, so he places his hand on its back and orders the restaurant’s most expensive Beaujolais.
He’d checked out the list in advance as an inducement to attend. He’d found he’d needed the lure.
The server looks from him to the chair and back again.
“The wine,” he instructs crisply, and she hurries off, so that he can finally sink uneasily into his seat without anyone watching him.
The arrival of the wine precedes the arrival of his date, but only by seconds, as he discovers when he looks up from his first sip to find a pale redheaded man glancing from his face to his shirt and back again, before cutting a swift path to the table, forcing their neighbours to shift position so he can squeeze past and into his seat, disturbing the table as he settles in.
Ben steadies his glass before meeting the man’s gaze.
“Are you—“ the man starts, but Ben jerks his chin towards the hovering server and says, “God, would you watch yourself? You nearly elbowed over my bottle heaving yourself into that chair. Some of us like to maintain a respectable amount of personal space, you know, not just let anybody barge right—“
The man’s knee brushes Ben’s, and Ben’s leg jerks quite unintentionally, making the table screech across the floor. “God, watch it!” he says, and, when the man doesn’t respond, “Your leg is touching mine.”
“Yes,” the man says calmly. “It is.”
Their kneecaps press together more firmly, a point of warmth growing where they touch. Ben doesn’t know why he finds that distracting.
“So,” the server says brightly. “Your date is here!” She sounds pleased, as if she’d doubted the eventuality, and Ben glares at her. “I’ll leave you with the menus.”
“Do that,” he instructs, annoyed, and she does, although she’s back to drop off a basket of bread before he can even turn to greet his date.
When he does, the man is still staring at him, face stern and uncompromising and quite unlike anybody Ben would have expected Rey to claim as friend.
“I’m Ben,” he says, “your date.”
“Hux,” the man replies, studying Ben unabashedly.
“You’re very close,” Ben tells him suddenly, because he is, still, hasn’t moved out of Ben’s space since he pushed his way in.
“Too close?” Hux asks, tilting his head as he considers Ben, and Ben looks away at their neighbours because he doesn’t yet know how he wants to answer.
The man who had followed him in is incandescent as he tells his companion all about his degree or something else Ben doesn’t care about. Ben looks back at Hux.
“You know,” he says, “you’re not at all what I’d have expected of a friend of Rey’s.”
Hux blinks, goes entirely motionless for a moment so brief it’s barely noticeable. “Oh no?” he asks. “And what would you have expected of a friend of Rey’s?”
Ben shrugs, and jerks his head at the man at the neighbouring table. “Someone who smiles too much,” he says.
Hux’s lips begin to curve into the first smile Ben has seen him give, but they flatten back out before it forms. “Disappointed?”
“Not yet,” Ben says, with a curl of pleasure, though that is sure to be coming soon.
Ben spends some time detailing his grievances with his cousin, his mother, and his uncle’s pet parakeet in thrilling, indulgent detail, and Hux very agreeably agrees with all of Ben’s many, varied, and well-founded complaints. He even agrees with Ben’s resentment of Rey’s futile attempts at achieving a superior level of maturity and togetherness, although he doesn’t share any of his own.
“I just like to get on with things,” he tells Ben, which is fair enough.
They turn to their menus in perfect amity, and that’s when the trouble starts.
“Obviously this place is awful,” Ben agrees. “Rey picked it. I was only surprised you weren’t just as bad. But that doesn’t mean that gazpacho is better than zuppa toscana.”
“The one isn’t contingent upon the other, no,” Hux says, which sounds so much like agreement that realising it isn’t sends Ben into a cacophony of rage.
“It would have the advantage of not scalding you when I threw it in your face, I suppose,” Ben informs him in a remarkably even and restrained tone, given his current passions.
Hux smiles, finally and fully, and it’s an odd thing on a face that seems set in a perpetual sneer. Ben ignores the responsive pleasure it awakens in him, and insists, “We’re getting the zuppa toscana.”
“We won’t be getting anything if you don’t cease shrieking,” Hux says, and Ben’s about to take violent offense to the suggestion that Hux doesn’t want to eat with him when Hux finishes, “because we won’t be getting served.”
Ben decides to take violent offense anyway; he feels like it’s that kind of wild, joyful night.
“You realise I’m doing you a favour, right?” he asks. “Did Rey tell you that?”
“No,” Hux says, raising his chin. “Rey didn’t tell me that. Just as nobody warned me you would hold such foolish opinions on soup.”
It’s a relief, in a way, being weighed so openly; Ben feels that silent, resented judgement all the time, and to be able to acknowledge and return it is refreshing.
“She should have,” Ben tells him, though he isn’t as sure about that as he had been. “Because no peon my cousin has befriended is in a position to pass judgement on anything about me, not even my soup choices. You should be grateful I’m giving you the benefit of my good taste, something Rey is sorely lacking.”
“She did pick this restaurant,” Hux says again, and Ben wants to encourage that kind of thinking, so he adds, “The menu is lacking, the staff is rude, the company is intolerable, and the lighting is atrocious.”
“It does make you appear quite disagreeably sallow,” Hux tells him with a facsimile of kindness. “And lilac washes you out.”
It would have been a relief, being weighed so openly, if it hadn’t hurt so suddenly, if Hux’s judgement hadn’t meant rejection, hadn’t been turned against him and hurt so much.
If Hux’s judgement hadn’t been so flawed, Ben decides, pain blessedly turning to blind fury. His throat works as he tries to come up with a response, a counter to Hux’s cool, distant regard, and then he lifts a breadstick out of the basket and throws it at Hux’s face.
It’s no gazpacho, but it makes for a satisfying impact.
Hux catches the bread as it bounces off his face, and Ben feels a dangerous frisson as Hux snaps his gaze back up to Ben’s.
“Thank you,” Hux says, and bares his even, white teeth in something that could be either smile or snarl—Ben thinks it’s both, and feels that everywhere—and bites viciously into the bread. “For providing me with sustenance, finally, since you’ve driven the waitstaff away entirely, though for whatever godforsaken reason you haven’t yet driven me off with them.”
The rest of the bread flies off the table as Ben scrambles to his feet, knee leaving the heat of Hux’s body for the first time since he sat down beside Ben.
“I can’t believe my cousin thought I’d fallen so low!” Ben cries, heart pounding, mind whirling. “It would not be possible either actually or existentially for me to be reduced to such dire straits that the likes of you would be an acceptable—“
Hux scrambles to his feet too, and Ben goes effectively and unintentionally mute, arms reaching out for Hux even as he tries to figure out what’s going to—
Hux keeps coming at Ben, responds to his judgement with an attack much more effective than Ben’s had been, presses further past Ben’s boundaries than Ben has allowed him yet, doesn’t stop until his tongue is pressing into Ben’s mouth and his body is pressing Ben’s into the table, glass and silver skidding to the ground, providing them with the clang of musical accompaniment.
“So I’m not intolerable now?” Hux asks when they part.
“What?” Ben asks blankly, and then he punches Hux hard in the shoulder. “Everybody else is intolerable, you absolute idiot.”
And then Hux doesn’t stop at all, pressing as close to Ben as he can, mouth working to draw an answer, an acceptance, moving insistently against Ben’s even as the server pries them physically apart.
“Yes,” he murmurs into Ben’s mouth as Ben kisses him back, “just like that, exactly that, that’s—“
It’s all that Ben had wanted from him, desire and acceptance and—
“That’s perfect,” Hux bites out, as he bites hard into Ben’s lip.
—and all the things that Ben can’t admit he needs, even to himself.
Ben can’t remember the last thing he’d enjoyed this much.
“Okay,” he says breathlessly, once they get themselves together enough to remember that they both do actually have some kind of dignity, and they would like to hold on to whatever shreds remain. “All right, we’re going.”
“You’re paying for that wine,” their server says staunchly. “And you’re giving me a forty percent tip.”
“Hux is,” Ben says easily, and Hux glowers a little, but he does it without complaint, so Ben can’t really be blamed for being the one to press all the way back into Hux as soon as they make it outside, for being the one to press Hux’s teeth deeper into him.
Ben takes Hux round to his mother’s for the big family Sunday lunch he usually avoids, and that’s how he discovers that Rey doesn’t actually know Hux at all, which is a relief, because while obviously Ben has developed an abiding faith in Hux’s good taste and judgement, a friendship with his cousin would have been a blight on what is otherwise a bright and unblemished character.
Though Rey still totally takes all the credit for setting them up, the—
Well. Ben supposes he can give her a break for one afternoon.
He isn’t really in the mood for complaining.