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Can't Hide Your Pain (Can't Hide My Love)

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Assane often comes to Ben's shop after his less legal exploits: the shop is fairly central to some of his operations, of course, but Ben thinks that he also comes to talk. They're friends and Ben is the only other person who knows the details of his work, a status that he's always enjoyed. (Secretly. He has no intention of ever admitting that to Assane.)

There's something off today, though. Something that's not quite right. He's already changed into fresh clothes, having borrowed the poxy bathroom at the back of the shop, and he's as animated as ever, describing his escapade on the roofs of Paris, but there are a few points where it feels forced — the smile is too bright, the laugh too loud. And there's a handful of moments where Ben thinks he sees Assane wince, for no apparent reason. So, either Ben's words are harsh in a way that he hasn't noticed, enough to provoke a reaction, or Assane is hiding something. Experience has taught him that Assane won't tolerate stupidity from a friend, which means, at that point, Ben's willing to bet that it's the second option.

Still, he can't figure out what.

In fact, Assane is wrapping up their conversation and making to leave, and he still has no idea what's going on. It's only as Assane begins to turn that Ben notices that he's holding his arm oddly.

"Hey." He jerks his chin in the vague direction of Assane's arm. "What's that?"

"Oh." He looks down at his own arm, as if he's only just noticed it, which is - going on his stiff posture - blatantly untrue. "It's nothing. I'll sort it out when I get home."

He crosses his arms. "When you say 'nothing'..."

"I got a little bit up close and personal with a wall, but it's just a scrape. Nothing worth worrying about."

"At least show me. Otherwise," he says, trusting in the strength of Assane's affection and unmitigated loyalty. "You know I'll only worry. I can't help it."

Rolling his eyes, Assane complies, in a way that suggests he's only doing it to humour him. "Really, it's only a graze."

He shrugs off his jacket and rolls up one sleeve, revealing his left forearm — and Ben's heart lurches.

It's a graze, sure, but it's certainly not nothing. A touch smaller than palm-sized, it's rough, uneven, oozing blood in several places. Even from a distance, he can see flecks of dirt amongst the redness.

"Looks like it hurts."

Ben takes a step forward, gently grasps his arm, peers at it closely. The blood is limited and sluggish, at least — that's the only real upside. It's not the kind of wound that will kill him, or even properly knock him off his feet, but it must hurt like hell and it'll get nasty if it gets infected.

"I've had worse," Assane replies quietly, almost, he thinks, regretfully.

"Doesn't mean it doesn't hurt," he murmurs, half to himself and still occupied with his visual examination. He glances up. "Let me clean it for you."

"Thanks, but… there's no need."

Ben can't say he's surprised at that response; Assane has never particularly liked being taken care of by anyone, unless that person was Claire. "I don't mind helping-"

"No, no-"

"Really, I-"

"It's not that bad-"

"Assane, there aren't many things that I can claim to be better at than you," Ben says, cutting through their overlapping voices. "But I'm a trained first aider and you'll struggle to do that yourself."

"I'll manage."

This is their problem — they could hardly be more different, in their general personalities and demeanor, but they're both stubborn as mules, when it suits them. It's probably one of the reasons they get on so well, but it's a damned inconvenience at times like this.

He tries to inject as much authority and insistence into his voice as possible. "You don't have to, it won't take a minute."

"Seriously, don't worry about it. It's not worth it."

"Assane…"

"You sound like a teacher, saying my name in that tone of voice," he comments and, yes, Ben can recall those days all too well. "Anyway, I won't impose on you any longer."

Ben pinches the bridge of his nose. "For fuck's sake. Just let me do it!"

Startled by the ferocity of his insistence, Assane raises his hands in mock surrender. "Okay, okay."

Ben turns, wanders over to one corner, where he thinks he last saw his first-aid kit; over his shoulder, he waves Assane towards his desk. He goes, perhaps resigned to his gate.

When Ben returns from the other side of the room, having unearthed the first-aid kit from under a mixed pile of old newspapers and utility bills, Assane is on the edge of the desk, half standing and half perched. Ben ends up pulling his desk chair around and sitting in front of him, first aid kit on the floor beside him; the mismatch in height isn't ideal, though it means, at least, that Assane can extend his arm at a helpful angle for Ben to work on. Overall, it's awkward, but they'll make it work.

It won't be the first time that Ben has ever tended to Assane's injuries — he'd gone through a period, when he was first starting out, of being a little too ambitious and leaving things a little too much to chance, and he'd gotten himself into some nasty scrapes. But it's the first time in a while, the first time since Ben had realised that his affection for Assane had - at some point, without him noticing — crossed the line that delineated uncomplicated friendship and something more. He's not quite sure what something more is: friendship and romance can get so tangled up, especially when it concerns someone that you've known for so long.

He pulls out a set of tweezers, first. "If I hurt you, I'm sorry."

Assane doesn't respond. He does shift into a slightly more comfortable position, though, which Ben takes as permission to get started.

Bit by bit, he picks out the flecks of dirt and dust and brick; luckily, there's not as many as he thought. His non-dominant hand is supporting the underside of Assane's arm, reminding him to keep still - a tentative, almost ginger grip that entirely results from his feelings for Assane. He knows that he probably doesn't return those feelings, but the closeness and the intimacy makes it hard to ignore them. Nonetheless, he continues: removes the dirt, cleans away the blood, dabs the skin with disinfectant. It's simple and methodical and familiar; all in all, he feels like he's making comparatively quick work of the whole thing.

He's trying hard to hold on to the mild annoyance that their conversation had provoked. It's the easiest way to keep his mind away from the distracting thoughts that proximity to Assane seems to provoke. Despite himself, he finds himself painfully aware of Assane's eyes, his quiet observation.

"You're good at this," he comments, as Ben starts to wind a length of gauze around his arm.

"All that time volunteering with the FNPC," he says with faux nonchalance, trying not to preen.

Assane snorts. "Yes, you're quite the model citizen."

"You're one to talk, Mister Gentleman Thief," he counters.

With the limited range of movement he has, given that Ben has possession of his arm, he shrugs. "Ah, well. I can't help where my talents lie."

"Your talents routinely get you injured." Ben temporarily elects to ignore the fact that he regularly facilitates, encourages, and partakes in the exercising of such talents; it is true, at least, that Assane’s fearlessness sometimes alarms him.

"Well, I have you to patch me up, no?"

"Only when you let me," he grumbles. "Most of the time you skulk off and half-arse it yourself."

Assane rolls his eyes, but it's more fond than anything. "There's no point in worrying you over bumps and grazes."

Giving up on the matter — it's not like they haven't had this conversation before, after all — Ben just makes a disapproving noise. He won't win this; Assane's far too stubborn for that and, to be frank, Ben loves him for it. With a flourish, he secures the bandage clip. "There."

Inspecting his handiwork, Assane nods. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

"It's nothing. I'd rather you didn't end up with an infection, you know?"

"I wouldn't have-" Assane stops himself, shaking his head. He seeks Ben's gaze, holds it firmly, in the way that he always does when he truly means something. "I mean it. Thank you."

Ben ducks his head, suddenly very absorbed in re-assembling his first aid kit. He mumbles a you're welcome, but doesn't get much further than that; Assane has always been the more eloquent, the bolder, of the two of them, but this is a poor showing, even for Ben.

"Maybe I can buy you dinner as a thank-you?" Assane offers with a grin, apparently endeared by his clumsiness.

"Um," Ben says, intelligently.

His smile actually gets wider, which seems like it should be impossible. "I'll make sure there's candles," he adds with a grin. "Make it romantic."

It's phrased teasingly, but Ben is fairly sure that it's genuine, given the way that the minimal space between them suddenly seems electrically live. In truth, he can hardly believe it. He had long since given up on his feelings for Assane ever going anywhere, given that he's never seen the man so much as look in his direction, when it comes to romance; now, though, he can't tamp down the spark. And Assane has given him the space to ignore or engage the flirtation — it's his choice, but it's a choice he has to make.

There's a split-second of hesitation, but it's Ben's mouth, not his head, that makes the decision for him.

"I'll want flowers, too," he manages. "Roses."

Assane winks and somehow, damn him, he actually pulls it off and looks suave. "Don't worry, I promise that I'll sweep you off your feet."

"I'll hold you to that."

"I'll look forward to it." He smiles, effectively breaks the tension. "Tomorrow night, then? I'll text you a time and place."

Frankly, Ben's not sure if his heart will have recovered from the shock by tomorrow, but he nods anyway.

He figures that it's also a cue that Assane is about to leave, so he pushes his chair backwards, scooting further away than he initially intended. Assane gets to his feet, retrieves his bag from where he left it on the desk, and makes for the door.

He pauses at the door, though, and turns to look at him again. "See you tomorrow."

Ben echoes him. "See you tomorrow."

The bell above the door jingles, announcing his departure, and he flops back in his chair almost immediately, the tension draining out of his body. Fuck, he remarks to himself. Of all the ways that this afternoon could have gone… that wasn't one I expected.