The midday lunch rush was just finishing up, and James had been keeping his eyes on the clock, waiting for his own break. Only twenty minutes left now, and then he would be free to take his bagel and tea and book to go and sit on his favourite bench overlooking the river. With the shop getting quieter and no queue, he took a second to actually breathe. It had been a rather busy morning. In fact the whole week had been particularly hectic. It was the start of September, and students had started going back to school, and while the local college provided him with plentiful business, he’d be lying if he said he’d enjoyed serving masses of dead-eyed youths, or even worse, the chipper ones who tried to make conversation with him. Plus there was some kind of modern art exhibition open in town that had been drawing crowds in from afar, leaving the local establishments buzzing with activity.
He poked his head into the small kitchen to find the chef whistling over a sizzling pan of scrambled eggs.
“Billy, I’m going to head out when Eleanor gets back, could you prep my lunch bagel now it’s gone quiet out here?” he shouted back.
Billy tossed the eggs in the pan, flipping some into the air and catching it again mid-fall. “Sure thing, boss. Glad it’s slowed down, anyway.”
James nodded at him and returned to the counter. He leaned against his work station, arms folded as he looked over the shop. Most of the tables had been occupied early in the day by students with laptops and notepads, and he had been steadily refilling drinks all morning. Just as he had tricked himself into a false sense of tranquillity, the arrival of his worst nightmare was signalled by the sound of the shop bell tinkling.
The man bounced straight up to James, grin spread wide across his face as he drummed the fingers of two heavily tattooed hands on the surface of his counter. The fucking hipster.
“For fucks sake, not you again.” James groaned, unconcerned about decorum and customer service. This guy didn’t deserve it, anyway.
“You’re gonna really hate me today.” the man said with a laugh, producing a crumpled list from the back pocket of a pair of incredibly tight, and incredibly paint-splattered, jeans.
“More than I already do, you mean?” James scowled, eyes darting over the man and finding all the more reasons to despise him. He had his hair in a bloody man-bun of all things today. The combination of the messy bun and the facial hair (with a little waxed moustache above the beard, no less) reminded him of every barista twat he’d encountered and interviewed when he had tried to open up a small shop in London. Most of them had been smug and overly-friendly, too. It was one of the reasons he liked having Eleanor as a barista so much. Sure, she took extra long smoke breaks and swore at most of the customers, but she was no-nonsense. Also, was it James’ imagination, or did the man even have more tattoos dotted over his forearms than when he had come in the day before? Impulsive little shit.
“Ohh no. Yesterday and Monday were just warm-ups. Today, we’ve got all of the artists in.” tattoo-twat said with a heavy sigh, squinting at his own handwriting. The last two days, he had come in just after the lunch rush with a long, complicated list of drinks to-go, including concoctions that James was sure he’d made up on the spot, before leaving with a wink and no tip. “You’re gonna want to write this down.”
James snorted, reaching into his own back pocket for his pen and notepad. He tapped the pen on the paper, raising an expectant eyebrow at the offending man. Tattoo-twat took a deep breath.
“Right, so. A mocha with whipped cream, three spoons of sugar and two shots of cherry syrup, a black coffee with two shots of hazelnut syrup, a matcha latte with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles- here, I’ve got the matcha powder for you, ‘cause I bet you don’t have any.” he said, stopping to pat his pockets down before yanking out a thin packet of green powder to hand to James, who merely glared at him. “An Earl Grey with just a smidge of soy milk and a slice of lemon, another black coffee but with an extra shot of coffee and also as hot as you can possibly get it, so maybe save that one until last?”
“Then why the fuck didn’t you save it for last on the list.” James growled, already growing impatient.
“Because they were all just sort of yelling at me and I kinda just went with it? I don’t know? Anyway, a caramel latte with two extra shots of coffee and almond milk, also the caramel has to be sugar free or else Idelle will crash halfway through our afternoon sketching, peppermint tea with one shot of coffee and one of vanilla-”
“That’s not a thing. I refuse to believe that’s a thing. You’re reading it wrong.” James said, leaning over to snatch the crumpled note from the man’s hand. Halfway through the list, black messy scrawl had switched to various colours of inks in all kinds of handwriting, all much clearer than the first few bullet points. Unfortunately, tattoo-twat had read it out right, and now James was condemned to make the monstrosity, along with a handful of other incredibly weird drink combinations.
“Creatives, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.” The man laughed awkwardly, leaning forward onto the counter. His shirt, dark and loose and embroidered with little stars, lay half open, giving James a perfect view of a tanned chest and dark nipples. He had been determined not to look down the man’s shirt, but a glint of shiny metal drew his eye downwards to where a piercing went through one hard bud. James coughed, turning around with the piece of paper to start making his order up.
“They decide halfway through that you probably weren’t listening then?” he asked casually, getting to work and ignoring the slight flush he could feel creeping up his neck. He decided he’d rather not look at the man if he could avoid it, lest he find that damned nipple winking back up at him again.
“Nah, I just sort of threw the list to the new collaborators while I sorted out my shit. Too much to do, not enough time or caffeine.” he said chirpily. He hadn’t divulged any details to Flint over the last two trips, seeming content enough to watch Flint work while he glared at the man.
“Oh, so you’re not just the tea boy then?” James asked, unable to resist getting the jibe in. He heard the man scoff behind him, and gave in to the urge to turn back around to see his reaction. His still had that stupid lopsided grin on his face, although now it seemed all edges and teeth.
“No, I’m not just the fucking tea boy. I’m the project manager, actually. I’m more than a pretty face and a great ass, you know.” he drawled, shifting to lean sideways onto an elbow. James frowned, turning back towards the drinks. He swore he could feel his gaze running along his back as he had turned away.
“Project manager, hm? Some hipster start-up, no doubt. Funded by daddy’s bank account.” he said conversationally. Not that he gave a fuck about what the man did, of course. But he was admittedly a little curious.
“Well, ‘daddy’ had nothing to do with this, trust me. And no, it’s a modern art exhibition, actually. Some of the best talent in the country, mixed mediums, all that jazz. I’ve got to keep my team happy, hence…all this.” tattoo-twat said, gesturing to the list that sat limply on James’ counter. Ah, yes. That modern art exhibition. “Don’t worry, though. You’ve only got two more days of me, then we’re gone, and my pretty face and great ass both disappear into the sunset.” he said, the smirk apparent even in his voice as James looked away.
“Why here?” James asked brusquely, changing the topic sharply. “There’s at least three coffee chains within spitting distance of this shop, why the fuck did you decide to come here?”
“One of our guys stopped off last week when he was scouting out our location, took a shine to your blonde barista. He was told in no uncertain terms into which orifice he could shove his offer of a phone number, so naturally he swears that she and him are meant to be. Made me come here on Monday to see if I could swing her opinion, and quite honestly? She is terrifying.” the man laughed, still propping himself up on the bar and clearly quite content in his role as storyteller, a natural. Flint chuckled to himself, shoulders shaking.
“He wasn’t the dickhead with the long hair, was he? Tall, tight clothes, abs you could probably grate cheese on, attitude problem?” James said, biting down another laugh. Eleanor had spent an entire afternoon shift last week moaning to James about the man, calling him every name under the sun, before telling Flint exactly how, in her words, “unbearably fuckable” she had also found him. Flint’s war against Eleanor’s shit taste in men was one he had long known could never be won.
“The very same. Charles is an arse, but he has his uses.” the man said with a shrug. James snorted.
“Charles. Jesus, doesn’t sound much like a Charles. Thought all you artsy types would be called like…” James bit his lip, thinking as he measured out syrup shots. “I dunno. Rainbow. Magenta. Bear. Pineapple. Chrysanthemum. Salome.”
“Salome is biblical, that doesn’t count as an artsy hipster name.” he interrupted, expression turned almost serious. He looked more earnest than James had seen him look all week. “If he didn’t look like a Charles because you think he’s artsy or whatever, I’m curious. What do I look like?” tattoo-twat asked, frowning up at James from his slumped position on the counter. His hips were pushed out behind him, and James was irked to see a table of young girls sat nearby paying more attention to his tight jeans than their textbooks. He raised an eyebrow at the man.
“Do you really want me to answer that question?” Flint said, the corners of his mouth tugging up a little as he fought against appearing too smug.
“Oh, come on. You’ve got to have thought of me as something in that pretty little head of yours. Asshole-coffee-man, That Guy With All The Hair, Pineapple…” he chuckled, imitating Flint’s raised brow.
James ignored the ‘pretty’ comment, and decided against telling tattoo-twat exactly what terms he’d been thinking of him as all this time.
“Which one is yours?” he asked the man while juggling two jars of frothed milk.
“The cherry mocha. I’ve got a sweet tooth.” the younger man said, giving him a wide, toothy grin as if to drive the point home. Was this guy fucking serious?
“Sweet tooth? You’ve got roughly the sugar consumption of a seven year old for a week in this.” James sighed, shaking his head in disappointment at himself, the tattoo-twat, the entire coffee industry, and the universe as he pumped two shots of cherry syrup into the mocha. It already smelled sickeningly sweet to him, but whatever kept this man-child happy. “Anyway, now I can think of you as cherry-mocha-man. Happy now?”
“Actually, it’s Silver. Oh, and can you pass me the really hot black coffee and the hazelnut one separately when you’re done? I need to finish them off.” tattoo-twat-cherry-mocha-man-Silver, who was now reaching into his waistband, said. He lifted up the hem of his shirt, exposing a toned waist and a hipflask tucked against his side.
“That cannot be comfortable.” James stated shortly. He watched as the tattoo-tw- Silver. He watched as Silverput the metallic flask on the counter, its contents sloshing around inside, and shrugged back at James.
“It was the least conspicuous place for it. You joke, but these aren’t even the tightest pair I own. Anyway, you still haven’t told me your name yet.” Silver said, that cocky grin fixed back on his face.
James wasn’t used to this amount of attention from customers at all. His regulars knew him well enough by now to understand that he wasn’t one for small talk, he knew for a fact that he intimidated his younger customers for whatever reason (Good, he thought.), and even when he did get chatty ones, they usually read him pretty quickly and gathered that they’d have as much joy and ease trying to get a conversation out of one of the leather sofas he’d placed by the windows. But then clearly, this man Silver seemed to think that because he was artsy and charming and attractive, he could spend however long he liked chatting up his barista.
“It’s James. Which is an actual name, oddly.” he replied. If he was going to participate in an actual conversation with this guy, he might as well try and get the upper hand if possible. It would certainly make the next two lunch shifts interesting, although James was already considering swapping his lunch break with Eleanor’s so that she would have to deal with his orders instead next time, God help him.
“So is mine.” Silver said. “First name is John, which I’m not actually sure anybody could argue isn’t a real name to be fair. Biblical, too.”
James checked over the drinks, making sure he hadn’t missed anything out. He was fairly certain he had met every single one of the group’s ridiculous demands, all he needed to do now was top the ones that needed cream, and do the stupidly hot coffee that Silver needed to spike with booze. “You don’t look much like a John either, if I’m honest.” he said while grabbing a can of whipped cream from the fridge.
“Hmm. I get that a lot.” Silver sighed, watching James as he finished the drinks. “So, the angry blonde. Is she your girlfriend, or…?”
James snorted suddenly, a high-pitched almost-giggle that seemed to alarm Silver slightly, his eyebrows shooting up towards his hairline.
“Eleanor? God, no. You were right, she is fucking terrifying, that one. She can be a laugh, though. Fun to drink with, too. But neither of us would ever.” he said, putting the cups into two cardboard carriers. He paused, trying to decide whether or not he should add the extra comment, before his tongue got the better of him. “It helps that I’m gay, anyway.” he said, slightly quieter as he ducked his head down to check the lids.
John Silver straightened where he stood, expression unreadable as he blinked back at James.
Silver hummed, breaking the moment of silence. “Well, that does make things easier, at least.”
James looked at the man, frowning in confusion. He felt the skin on the back of his neck begin to prickle, and he shifted on one foot under Silver’s gaze.
“Really? What’s that?” he asked gruffly. Silver’s mouth hung slightly open, his eyes wide and unfathomable as they stared at each other.
“Makes it easier knowing that when I ask you out for dinner at the end of the week, you might say yes.” Silver said, voice soft.
The continued prickling along his neck confirmed his suspicion that, at least subconsciously, part of James had been expecting that this was where the conversation would arrive at. He also knew that he could have been much more blunt to the tattooed man, ignored him completely while he made his order to go, told him in no uncertain terms to fuck off. Yet he hadn’t, for whatever reason. He had entertained Silver, kept the conversation flowing, uninterrupted.
He realised that he had been motionless, staring at Silver who was now biting his lower lip between his teeth, something akin to nerves playing around his features. James hummed.
“That’s what you think, is it?” James teased, quite enjoying drawing this out. He tried to resist smiling, but felt his mouth tug up against his will. Ducking his head, he made his way over to his till to ring up the dozen drinks.
“Ah well, you see, I’m an optimist at heart. That’s a whole two coffee orders away from now, so who knows? I could grow on you by then.” Silver said, fishing some notes out from the obscenely tight jeans to hand to James. He chuckled as he accepted the skin-warmed cash.
“How far away is your studio exactly?” he asked, his mind ticking over a plan, and he couldn’t quite yet decide if this plan was going to be the best idea he’d thought of all week, or his complete ruination.
“Fifteen minutes perhaps, if I pace. Overlooks the bay.” Silver said, checking the lids on the cups before lifting the two carriers. “I’ll manage with this, if that’s what you’re worried about.” he said, curling his arms up in turn and pretending to struggle with the load.
James hummed, trying his best to appear nonchalant as his eyes drifted to the clock on the wall of the shop. Less than five minutes to go.
“If you drop those off in time, get down to those benches over there, the ones overlooking the river, in the next half hour or so…” he said with a shrug, watching John’s brow crease as he calculated. “You might just catch me in a good mood.”
He watched the face of John Silver, the tattoo-twat who had forced him to make twelve increasingly fucked-up coffees, split into its biggest grin yet. Seeing James’ unchanged expression, he fought to get the smile under control, ducking his head.
“Right then. I should probably jog off then, shouldn’t I?” Silver said, spinning around to face the exit. The shop bell rang as the door opened, Silver not having quite reached it yet.
“Fucking hell, not you again.” Eleanor growled, barging past him with her handbag swinging. James snorted under his breath, hearing John bark a laugh as he left them.
She threw her handbag on the counter, pushing her hair back into place. “God, what a twat.” she sighed. “Anyway, you can go now.”
James clapped her on the shoulder, fighting back a smile.
“You’ve dated worse.” he said, handing her his apron and abandoning her to go and grab his bagel from Billy. If he walked quick enough, he thought he might even be able to get a chapter or two of his book read before Silver turned up.