Ben doesn't mean to end up on the outskirts of Walford.
But living in the same place you've lived your whole life, and with pretty much everyone you've ever come in contact with also still living there, the need to get away is not rare.
It’s nice to walk around somewhere with no one to throw you dirty looks because you sold them a dodgy car once, or someone who is related to you in more than one way who pulls you into a conversation you don’t want to be a part of. He doesn’t recognize any of the faces he sees, and it’s a relief.
Life has gotten… almost boring. As boring as the Square can get, but still. Ben doesn’t get into nearly as much trouble as he used to, and though it’s probably for the best - something about being a good example for his daughter - there’s an itch he can’t scratch now.
Is this what the rest of his life is going to be like? The rinse and repeat of going to work, taking care of his child and then having a drink with Lola and Jay is starting to weigh on his shoulders; there’s too much room for him to think about how empty it feels sometimes.
Multiple people had dropped the d-word, but the thought of going back to dating felt unfair to the poor muppet that would have to sit opposite Ben Mitchell. Sitting in a restaurant he probably deemed too fancy, really not trying hard enough to seem all that interested, and anyone who had lasted that long would probably leave after Ben suggested one night together with no contact afterwards whatsoever.
Ben decides to stop somewhere before heading back, and he passes by a small coffee place, in between a shop that looks like it sells expensive clothes and a florist. The lights inside are all on, the sky darkening as the evening begins to set, and Ben pushes open the door.
It’s not busy, but not empty either. There’s a few people working on laptops with earbuds in, as is probably mandatory for any coffee shop, and some couples, quietly chatting to each other.
His eyes glide over the brick walls, the steel pipes just under the ceiling, light bulbs on black cords hanging down from them, shelves with succulents attached to the walls. The warm scent of coffee and sweet baked goods hangs in the air. There’s a song playing that sounds like it’s straight out of a Spotify playlist for studying.
“It’s a bit much, huh?”
Ben startles, looking to his right where a smiling barista stands behind the counter. He’s wearing a light brown apron on top of a black t-shirt, dark brown hair styled slightly to the side and back. There’s a youthfulness to the way his eyes sparkle with excitement, offset by the stubble on his cheeks. He looks like he hasn’t been working here for very long, still caught up in the feeling of a paycheck every month. Or he’s just weirdly into his job. Either way, he wouldn’t have matched a clear and steady voice to that face.
Ben lightly smiles back. “Hipster fever dream isn’t the decorating scheme I would have gone with, but it’s not my shop.” The guy laughs. “Can I get you anything?”
Ben walks up to the counter and peers behind him, eyes scanning over the menu on the wall.
The longer he looks, the more confused he gets, a crease forming between his brows. He meets the gaze of the barista, expectantly looking at him with an amused smile playing around his lips. He goes back to the menu but the barista takes pity on him after a few seconds. “What sort of coffee do you usually drink?”
Ben blows out a long breath. “Uhm, the caffeinated kind?” The bloke blinks at him, and Ben curses himself internally. “Okay, that’s a start. Any more specific preferences?”
Ben shrugs. “Black. That’s it.” The barista’s smile grows, and he grabs a notepad from his jean pocket and starts to scribble something on it. Ben’s eye catches on the silver name tag pinned to his apron, reflecting the light as he looks down. Callum .
Callum looks up with a well-practised customer-friendly grin when he’s done. “Alright, I think I’ve got it. Why don’t you take a seat, I’ll bring it over.” Ben nods and walks over to an empty table. He’s already sat down when he realises he had planned to have it to-go and drink it on his way back.
He lets his eyes glide around the place, notices the bookshelf above one of the sofas, a few thick books about coffee stacked on top of each other. There’s a poster on one of the walls, with big arrows and text, about how the coffee they use gets to Walford and how they make sure the people who harvest the beans are compensated fairly.
“Here you are,” Callum says when he’s suddenly in front of Ben’s small table, putting a white mug down, the logo of a simply drawn coffee bean on it facing towards Ben.
Ben lifts his head slightly to peer over the edge of the mug. Dark enough.
Callum’s already disappeared behind the counter again, but when Ben takes a sip and his eyebrows immediately crease, Callum’s been watching for his reaction.
It's caramel maybe? Hazelnut? An undertone of something rich and flavourful, without being overly sweet. It also tastes like it’s in the coffee, instead of an added syrup of some kind. It takes Ben a few sips to get used to, but he kind of likes it.
It doesn’t taste like the coffee he usually drinks, that’s for sure.
Ben takes a moment to sit with his drink, letting the warmth fill his belly as he looks around, occasionally grabbing his phone to pointlessly scroll.
It’s kind of nice, the way the generic music combines with the quiet chatter of the other customers into a low hum, fading to the background, not abrasive but just enough to fill the silence.
A few customers come in, most of them getting their drink to go. One orders a drink from the menu hanging on the wall behind Callum, the other must be a regular customer, because Callum immediately starts preparing something while making small talk with said customer.
Ben glances sideways every now and then; he can’t help himself. He wonders how long Callum’s been doing this; judging by the way he pulls an espresso shot, how he can perfectly divide his attention between the drink and the customer. His first day must be far behind him.
Ben reaches the bottom of his cup a couple of minutes later. He puts his hands on his knees, looking around for a moment. He should probably go. There’s no reason to stay, it’s late and he doesn’t want to be the customer who keeps hanging around when Callum wants to lock up.
He looks at the mug in front of him, and then to Callum, who’s busy with something Ben can’t see from where he’s sitting. He hesitates for a moment, but then picks up the mug anyway, not wanting to leave it on the table. Normally he wouldn’t mind that much, but it being Callum, it would feel rude.
“Uh,” Ben says when he’s standing in front of the counter, mug in his hand, feeling like an idiot.
Callum’s head shoots up, and he smiles brightly when his eyes fall on the mug.
“Ah! Thanks! What’d’ya think then?” Callum reaches over to take the mug, eyes expectantly on Ben while he quickly puts it with the rest of the dirty dishes.
Ben blinks. “Hmm?”
Callum laughs, easy, nodding his head towards the box with cups. “The coffee.”
“Oh, right,” Ben smiles, scratching the back of his neck, “yeah, it was good. Different.”
Callum huffs a light laugh, something giggly in the pull of his mouth like knows something Ben doesn’t. “I bet.”
“Anyway, I should be off,” Ben says, awkwardly setting one foot toward the door.
Callum nods. “Sure, have a nice day.”
“You too,” Ben throws over his shoulder as he leaves.
Ben thinks about that coffee place more times than is necessary in the week that follows. It’s like he suddenly understands why people go on holidays; not just the combination of sunshine and booze, but the change of scenery. Being somewhere you’re usually not can be nice from time to time. And Ben sometimes feels like he’s suffocating.
His life is a potent mix of contradictions, and he struggles to keep up.
He wants to be a good friend to Jay, a good co-parent to Lola, a good dad to Lexi, a good son to his mum and dad. But what they want from him in return doesn’t always match up.
Especially his dad, who keeps coming up to him with deals, offering a good pay-out if he helps him with a job. It’s difficult to say no sometimes, partly because of the cash, but also because Phil finds it easiest to love Ben when Ben’s pointing a gun at someone without batting an eye, and Ben’s noticed.
But it’s important to be good, to take care of his kid and everyone he considers family.
And he does always say no nowadays, swallowing past the lump in his throat when he sees the disappointment in his dad’s face. The way his dad doesn’t see the son in him that he truly wants.
Ben goes for walks when he can feel that itch under his skin. It’s something he started doing a while ago, when everyone was pulling at him and Ben just had to get away. He calmed down somewhat, he’d put his earbuds in as a way of distracting himself with music.
It makes him feel a bit like an old man, but it’s better than lashing out at his loved ones or drinking himself numb.
He goes out after dinner, the air cool against his face, but not cold. Lexi’s in bed, and he left Lola and Jay on the sofa watching telly. Lola doesn’t look worried anymore when he says he’s going for a walk, knowing by now that that’s actually what he’s doing, and it’s not a euphemism for something shady.
Ben comes by Callum’s coffee place again. Not on purpose, but it’s a nice route to walk, not too long or too short.
The lights are on, and Ben stands still in front of the door for a moment, before slowly putting his hand on the door handle and pushing it open.
When he steps inside, it’s completely empty. For a few seconds, he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and he’s about to leave when Callum appears from the backroom.
“Oh hey!” Callum says, recognition clear in his voice and face.
“Hi,” Ben says, voice breathy, “sorry, I didn’t realise…” he trails off.
“Oh yeah, we’re technically closed, I’m just cleaning up here,” Callum says, glancing at his watch. “I forgot to put the sign up, sorry.”
Ben smiles. “That’s okay.”
Neither of them say anything then, and Ben startles himself when he realises he’s holding Callum up.
“I should go,” Ben says, giving Callum a sheepish smile.
He’s a few steps away from the door when Callum calls out.
“You should come next week.”
Ben slowly turns around, a questioning look on his face. “What’s next week?”
“We have a sample night here, every last Wednesday of the month. It’s a chance to show off new products, if we have any, and just promote our stuff in general.”
Callum presses his lips together for a moment, when Ben doesn’t react, just hovering hesitantly near the door.
“There’s alcohol and cake as well,” he raises his eyebrows at Ben, corners of his mouth turning up, “if that makes it more appealing.”
Ben snorts. “Yeah alright, you ain’t gotta beg.”
Callum rolls his eyes at him, his faux-annoyance slightly undercut by the flush in his cheeks. “Wasn’t planning to.”
“Shame.” Ben grins. His smile turns soft, then. “I’ll see if I can swing by.”
Callum nods at him. “Cool.”
“Cool.” Ben echoes.
“Oh, erm,” Callum says, when Ben has his hand on the doorknob, “what’s your name?”
Ben turns around.
“So I can put you on the list, get an estimate of how many people I should expect.” Callum explains, though it sounds like he’s making it up as he’s saying it.
“Callum.” Callum says.
Ben taps the spot on his own chest where Callum has a name tag on his.
It’s not often that Ben has actual plans.
But he’s on a list now, apparently, so he feels like not showing up would be rude.
Also, he supposes he’s not opposed to going to Callum’s coffee thing. He’s still not entirely sure what’s exactly going to happen, if Callum’s going to make him sniff coffee beans and explain the flavour notes like a proper coffee connoisseur.
What Ben does know, is that he can’t remember the last time he was invited to something that wasn’t with Lola or Jay, which he should probably take as a sign that it’ll be good to see some new faces.
Normally his schedule is empty enough that Ben can be sure he’s not got anything else on. But he’s in the car lot office when Jay comes in.
“Alright? You coming for a drink tonight at the Vic?”
Ben frowns. “Why, what’s the occasion?”
Jay snorts. “Since when have you ever needed an occasion to have a pint?”
Ben gives him a half-hearted eyeroll. “Charming. Can’t tonight, sorry.” He shuffles through his papers.
“You got plans?” Jay says, not being able to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Don’t sound so shocked,” Ben says, keeping his eyes on the papers as he scans through a document.
Jay walks closer and leans his hands on the back of the chair opposite the desk. “What are you up to then?”
Ben looks up. “Nothing.”
Jay raises his eyebrows at him and Ben hurries to talk again, wanting to cut this conversation off as soon as he can.
“It’s nothing special alright, someone asked me out to-”
“Someone asked you out, are you going on a date?” Jay says excitedly, eyes widened as a grin starts to grow.
Ben squeezes his eyes closed in regret. “No, I’m not, it’s not, it’s not a date, I just-. I got invited somewhere, that’s all.”
“Hmm.” Jay says secretively, pressing his lips together to smother a smirk that’s visible anyway.
“Wha-” Ben groans, “it’s not your business anyway. I can’t tonight. Now piss off.”
He gestures with his hands for Jay to leave, who does so while teasingly wishing him a good night, telling him not to do anything he wouldn’t do.
Ben lets his pen clatter onto the desk as soon as the door shuts behind Jay, rubbing his hands over his face.
Maybe this isn’t a good idea. He feels strangely nervous, maybe it’d be wise if he didn’t go.
It’s just that he never does this sort of stuff, Walford has a way of sucking you in, and making you think that nothing exists outside of it. There’s so much history there, in the people and the buildings. Everyone knows him, knows his family.
Then again, that’s not always an advantage.
Ben walks around the Square with a hardened jaw, something cocky about his strut, because he knows that world inside and out.
This makes him feel like his first day of primary school.
Ben sighs, rubbing his hands together for a moment, pulling himself together.
“Calm down, it’s just some fucking coffee,” Ben mutters to himself.
The door is actually propped open when Ben gets there, and he can hear chatter with some soft music in the background. The warm light from inside is a stark contrast to the dark night sky, and when Ben fully steps inside, he already feels a little calmer.
It’s quite lowkey, if he’s honest. The tables and chairs have mostly been cleared, and instead there’s a few tables at the back, with bags of coffee and bottles of what Ben assumes is liquor.
On the counter are fancy looking thermos flasks and four different types of cake, neatly presented on a cake stand.
Ben’s still taking it in when someone interrupts his thoughts.
“You came!” Callum says from beside him.
Ben turns to him and smiles. “I did.”
Callum returns his smile. “Can I take your coat?”
Ben does his best not to laugh. “You can. I can also just throw it over the back of one of these chairs.”
Callum gives him a pointed look. “Let me be a good host, come on.” He holds his hand out, and Ben shrugs off his coat and hands it to him.
He watches as Callum neatly folds it up and, after standing with it for a bit, looks around and ends up putting it on the same chair Ben was just talking about. He laughs when Callum walks back to him.
“So,” Callum says as he starts walking further into the shop, “we have drinks. Coffee, obviously. There’s a few beers, some wine, whiskey and I can make you a boozy coffee if you want. And there’s cake.”
He gestures towards the counter. Ben nods. “Feel free to help yourself.”
Ben gives him a polite smile. “I will.” Callum wanders off after that, chatting to customers who are holding bags of coffee, and presumably need questions answered.
It doesn’t take long for Ben to feel silly for having come here tonight.
He feels hopelessly out of place, and the fact that Callum is the only person present he knows - and ‘know’ is a strong term in this case - becomes painstakingly clear. Callum walks around, gracefully floating from one corner to the other like a socially-gifted butterfly, accepting compliments from strangers with a polite smile and helping anyone he can. Ben catches himself waiting for Callum to get to him again, but he doesn’t.
Because why would he? He invited Ben because he’s a customer, not a friend. Callum’s not obligated to hang out with him, he doesn’t owe Ben anything.
Ben suddenly doesn’t know how to stand right, leaning against the bar but feeling foolish when he does so, before quickly straightening up again. Every position or pose just seems to highlight how alone he is, and Ben wants to leave. Now.
So he does. There’s a millisecond where he considers telling Callum, just a quick, “something came up, I have to head out, sorry. Have a good night.” But Callum’s busy, not looking up, and Ben lets it be, grabbing his coat and heading out into the cool dark night before Callum can notice.
Except when he’s outside, he realises that going home isn’t exactly appealing either. Jay knows he had ‘plans’, which means Lola now knows as well, and Ben doesn’t want to return early to get barraged with teasing comments about how quickly his date must have lost interest for him to be home this early, which will then melt into genuine concern for Ben, and he’ll find the latter more difficult to bear than the former.
So Ben just kind of lingers. There’s a bench relatively close to the coffee shop where Ben takes a seat, listening to music with his earbuds in and eventually just staring off into the distance. There’s nothing, and that’s kind of nice.
It’s when a pretty steady stream of people exit the coffee place that Ben startles and checks his phone. He should have gone home already.
A few seconds later, Callum steps outside, standing by the door to look around.
Ben freezes in place, like an animal thinking that if it just stays still enough, the predator won’t spot him.
And he nearly doesn’t, but then on his way to turn back around and go inside again Callum clearly sees Ben sitting there, because he stops too.
“Ben?” Callum calls over, and he definitely can’t run now.
He stands up, walking toward Callum with slow steps. “Hey.” He quickly holds up his hand in greeting.
“You left, I, I couldn’t find you anymore.” Callum says, not accusatory but something concerned in his face and voice.
Ben scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah, I needed some fresh air. And you seemed pretty busy, so.” He smiles tightly, feeling like an asshole when he sees pink tinging Callum’s cheeks.
“I actually, uh,” Callum starts, pointing back at the shop, “I brought some dark roast coffee. One I thought you’d like.”
Now Ben definitely feels like an asshole, but what overpowers him is the idea that Callum may have thought about him in the same way Ben’s been thinking about Callum for the past few weeks.
Ben’s face softens, and he holds Callum’s gaze until it’s completely filled him up and he can feel the warmth of it in every limb.
“Well, suppose you’ll have to show me then,” Ben says, eyes on the ground before looking up again, and Callum smiles.
“Come on then.”
There’s one person left in the store, and they quickly pay for a bag of coffee before leaving.
Ben takes a deep breath, uselessly twisting the buttons of his coat in place.
This is the first time he’s ever been alone with Callum, and even though he shouldn’t, Ben feels something about that.
“Here,” Callum says, walking back over to him, handing Ben a bag of coffee.
“It’s dark roasted coffee,” Callum explains as Ben looks at the words on the packaging, “it’s more on the bitter side but it has a really nice rounded rich flavour. Good for espresso too, if you’re into that.”
Ben looks up. “I think I’ve been drinking whatever coffee’s in the cupboard at any given time.”
Callum huffs a light laugh and walks behind the bar. “Come on, that’s no way to live, is it. You don’t buy your own coffee?”
Ben traces the transparent foiled window on the bag with his thumb, feeling the coffee beans beneath. “Not really, Lola usually buys it.”
He hears Callum pour something. “Lola?”
Ben shakes his head lightly. “Yeah sorry, she’s a mate.”
Callum walks back over with two drinks in his hand, what looks like whiskey.
“So a housemate?”
Ben puts the bag down on the nearest table and takes the glass from Callum.
“Yeah, something like that.” When Callum quirks an eyebrow at him, Ben further explains. “She’s the mother of my child. We co-parent our daughter together.”
Something flickers across Callum’s face, and it’s gone too fast for Ben to fully decipher it.
Callum presses his lips together and softly clinks his glass to Ben’s. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” Ben echoes before taking a sip from his drink. Too big a sip, and it burns down his throat.
Callum’s looking at Ben over the rim of his glass, hovering by his face, and Ben feels the need to fill the silence.
“So, good night then?” He looks around for good measure, and both the tables of things to buy and the countertop by the bar look considerably emptier than when he arrived.
“Yeah, it went alright. These things are usually quite fun.” Callum takes another sip.
“Cleaning up is less fun though.”
Ben turns his head toward Callum. “You still have to wash up now?”
An amused smile forms on Callum’s face. “What, you think it’ll magically be gone by the time I get here tomorrow morning?”
“Do you not have staff to help you?” Ben asks. He remembers seeing someone else in an apron walking around the first time he was here.
“I do, but I’m not going to call them in this late just to clean up. Most of them have uni or school in the morning, so I’d rather do it myself.”
Ben takes a moment to look at Callum. He probably has to work again tomorrow morning, given that he’s the owner and all.
“Right,” Ben says, throwing back the last of his drink, setting the glass aside and unbuttoning his coat, “let’s do this then.”
Callum stills, a questioning look on his face.
Ben rolls his eyes half-heartedly, throwing his coat on the table and folding up the sleeves of his black button-up. “I’m not leaving you here ‘til three in the morning doing the dishes by yourself, come on.”
Callum smiles slowly and softly, finishing the remainder of his drink as well before leading Ben to the backroom and handing him a tea towel.
The backroom lacks the charm of the shop itself, but Ben supposes that makes sense. There’s boxes stacked on top of each other, a kitchen sink with a fridge and a shelving unit filled with takeaway cups, lids, stirrers and everything else you could need when consuming a coffee.
The light in the storage room isn’t as warm as the one in the shop itself, and it makes Callum’s eyes look even bluer in comparison.
Callum turns off the tap when the sink is fully filled up with warm soapy water. “It’s mostly just cups and glasses and small plates.”
“Oh, I’ll put some music on,” Callum wipes his hand on his jeans and leans back, turning on the small radio placed in the middle of the shelving unit. He turns the volume down a bit.
Ben takes the dishes from Callum and dries them, putting them in a neat stack to the side since he doesn’t know where anything goes.
“So are you from around here?” Callum asks when they’ve gotten into a nice rhythm.
Ben nods. “Yeah, Walford centre. I live on the Square.”
Callum makes a noise of recognition. “Ah, my brother lives there.”
Ben stills his movements and turns to him. “Who’s your brother?”
Callum smiles. “Highway.”
Ben’s eyes widen comically. “ Stuart Highway is your brother?”
Callum laughs at Ben’s face and indignated tone of voice. “Yes, and before you say anything, he means well most of the time. I think.”
Ben scoffs. “Fine chance of that.”
Callum grins at him.
“I’ve never seen you around the Square before,” Ben comments.
“Don’t visit that much, as you can imagine.” Callum says, smile a little tighter now, and Ben lets it go, but not before making a mental note.
They don’t say much for a few minutes, not much else to hear except the hum of the radio and the water splashing around Callum’s hands.
The warmth of the water has made them a bit more tan, and the veins are more prominent now. It’s been a while since Ben’s lusted over a limb that doesn’t require removing an article of clothing to look at. His mind offers him images of one of them holding the side of Ben’s neck. He wonders if Callum put that hand on Ben’s thigh, how much skin he would cover.
Ben tries not to stare.
“How’d you end up here if you live on the Square?” Callum asks then suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence, and it’s not something Ben has an uncomplicated answer to, which must show on his face because Callum immediately backtracks. “Not my business, sorry.”
Ben waves it off. “Nah, it’s fine. I mean, you may be able to imagine that the Square can get a bit much sometimes. I need to get away every now and then, clear my head. Went for a walk and ended up here.”
Callum keeps his eyes on the water, continuing to scrub. “D’you have a lot of family living there?”
Ben snorts. “Think it’s harder to find someone who ain’t family in one way or another.” Callum huffs a light laugh.
“It’s just,” Ben continues then, quieter, “sometimes it feels like life outside of the Square doesn’t exist, you know? And I have good mates there, but I’ve also got a dad who I can’t seem to please, so that’s hard sometimes.”
Before Ben can feel weird about sharing something so personal - even though Callum asked - Callum agrees with him.
“Yeah, I feel you.”
Ben hums. “Yeah?”
Callum nods beside him, holding up a plate sideways above the water so most of the excess moisture can drip off before handing it to Ben.
“Stuart sees him more than I do, but he doesn’t see him much either. He wasn’t a good dad, but after my mum passed he was the only parent I had. Until I reached an age where I didn’t have to settle for that, and I left.”
Ben’s quiet for a moment. There’s a natural instinct to say “I’m sorry,” but in truth, getting away from an awful parent and getting your life together doesn’t really warrant an apology.
Doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve better though. Just like Ben.
“Yeah, dads are shit most of the time.” Ben ends up saying, and it makes the sad mix of melancholy and nostalgia disappear from Callum’s eyes, instead they crinkle at the edges as he smiles, so Ben counts that as a win.
Callum pulls the plug from the sink to drain the water as Ben dries the last glass and puts it with the rest.
“Honestly, this would have taken me twice as long by myself.” Callum sighs, rolling his neck slowly, eyes closed and sometimes wincing as he feels a shot of pain or discomfort.
“I figured.” Ben says teasingly, putting the tea towel on the hanger.
They stand for a moment, and when their eyes meet Callum smiles at him, and it’s just so open and friendly and simple . The way a child in a supermarket trolley smiles at you when you happen to look at each other.
No reason behind it, just friendliness based on the both of you being humans and coming across one another.
The way Callum looks at him makes Ben feel like maybe he doesn’t have to be so scared and cautious and overzealous and angry all the time.
“I should let you go, get some sleep,” Ben says, into the tender quiet between them, taking a slow step toward the doorway, and when he hears a soft murmur of agreement from Callum he walks all the way into the shop, toward the table that has his coat on it.
“Thank you so much Ben, for helping out,” Callum says, walking up to him as Ben shrugs on his coat. “Really appreciated it. And it was nice of you to come.”
Ben smiles at him. “No problem.” His eye falls on the bag of coffee on the table. Callum notices.
“On the house. Take it, try it. Let me know what you think.”
Ben picks up the bag. “You sure?”
Callum nods. “Yeah, of course. I’d appreciate the feedback. Plus, you really helped me out with the clean-up.”
Ben nods and smiles. He’s already turned around, toward the door, when he slows and turns around again toward Callum.
“Did you, did you really get this one with me in mind?”
Callum’s face morphs into something shy and bashful, the tips of his ears turning red, but there’s a sincerity in his eyes and smile that draws Ben in.
“I did,” he waits a beat, hesitating, and then, “so you should come back and tell me your thoughts.” He grins at Ben, and Ben feels warmth flooding his stomach, rushing over him and settling in his chest.
He bites the inside of his lip to hide a smile. “Alright, maybe I will.” His aloof tone slightly undercut by the thumping of his heart.
Callum nods at him with a teasing smile. “Alright, then maybe I’ll see you around.”
Ben rolls his eyes at him but there’s no heat behind it, and Callum laughs at it, and then Ben steps close, a hand on Callum’s arm, and quickly leans up to peck Callum’s cheek. It doesn’t last long, but Ben’s lips are firm against Callum’s skin, and in those seconds he’s close enough to smell Callum’s cologne after a hard day’s work.
“See you around Callum,” Ben throws over his shoulder as he walks out, the bag of coffee clutched tightly in his hand. Especially-selected-for-him-coffee.
Ben spends the next couple of weeks worrying.
The coffee Callum gave him - and chose for him - smells wonderful. Ben has picked it up and looked it over any time his thoughts drifted and it was nearby.
But the bag has whole coffee beans, and Ben’s crappy old machine only does filter coffee.
The obvious thing is to simply go back and ask Callum to grind them up for him; it would be an excellent excuse for Ben to see him again, as his brain keeps pointing out.
But there’s an itch under his skin, the kind that prickles and makes your stomach feel upset. It’s right on the edge of feeling soft and comfortable, butterflies swirling, slightly nauseous but the only thing that could burst past his lips are praises of Callum’s smile and eyes.
On the other side is the way it all gets a little too close, and Ben’s itching to get away.
Like he’s too warm, soft to the point where he feels pliable and vulnerable, like Callum could turn him into anything he wanted. Truth is, when it comes to love or anything that might become that, Ben usually doesn’t stop and think long enough for it to become overwhelming.
Ben spends so much time in his head, convincing himself that Lexi is all he needs, that he has his hands full, that he’s not suited for a relationship right now. Or ever.
And it’s not like Callum would go along with it, anyway. Ben’s just trying to save himself the embarrassment. It’s best he stays away and lets it go.
It’s a pretty quiet morning at the car lot, the skies grey and the occasional burst of rain, and Ben has been doing admin for a couple of hours when he decides to take a break. There’s nothing he has to get back to either, and he doubts Jay will make a fuss if he’s not back within fifteen minutes.
The café is decently filled up, the weather all the more reason to stick around for one more cup of tea.
“Tea please mum,” Ben smiles at his mother behind the counter.
“To go or?” Kathy asks when Ben has turned around, eyes gliding over the café, and it’s when his eyes fall on the table in the back corner that he answers.
“I’ll have it here.”
He approaches with caution.
“Fancy seeing you here,” Ben says softly, because he genuinely didn’t expect to see Callum here.
It’s actually quite odd; Callum was separate from everything here, that was part of the reason Ben met him in the first place. To see him sitting here, in the place where Ben grew up, in his mum’s café, clutching his hands around a cup of tea is something that should feel completely unfamiliar, and yet it doesn’t. Not really anyway. Maybe because he’s been living in Ben’s thoughts for a while now.
“Ben,” Callum breathes when he looks up, quickly shaking his head as he gestures to the chair opposite him, “hi, have a seat if you want.”
Ben sits down slowly, something in Callum’s face telling him that he shouldn’t overstep in any way.
“You alright?” Ben says eventually, when he can’t think of a way to start a conversation. Maybe he should have gotten his tea to go.
Callum huffs a little, the corners of his mouth turning up but it’s not happy. “That obvious?”
Ben smiles softly. “You don’t seem like yourself.”
Callum holds his gaze for a moment, something fond in the way he looks at Ben, before shaking his head and looking down at his tea.
“Went to see my brother, didn’t I,” Callum says lowly, “big mistake.”
Ben sips his tea, waits to see if Callum is going to continue.
“Not good?” Ben gently nudges after a moment.
Callum shrugs indifferently despite clearly being upset. “He mentioned that my dad’s been talking about moving to Walford, to,” Callum’s making air-quotes with his fingers, “‘keep an eye on us’.”
“It’s like he doesn’t know anything about me,” Callum says, thumb running over the rim of his mug, “or maybe he does but everything he knows he doesn’t like.”
Ben continues to drink his tea in silence.
Callum huffs again, angrily this time, and for the first time Ben sees what he assumes is a rare spike of animosity.
“What’s he thinking ey, ‘keeping an eye on us’. Like I don’t have a whole life now that doesn’t include him, like I don’t run my own business every day, like I haven’t been more successful and happy since the day I left.” As Callum talks he gets louder, the veins in his neck standing out, and when he meets Ben’s eyes again it falls away.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t your- I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t, please,” Ben says, reaching a hand out across the table, resting just shy of Callum’s hand holding the mug. “No need to apologize, I know what fathers can be like.”
Callum throws back the last of his tea.
“Thing is, he does know,” his voice softer again, the fervor from before now gone, “he just thinks it’s bullshit. The coffee place, selling cakes, it’s not legit according to him.”
He meets Ben’s eyes, and Ben can see the genuine hurt in them.
“It’s too soft for him, makes me weak and a sissy. Not a man’s job, apparently.”
Ben huffs a light laugh. “If any of the women in my life would hear him say that, they’d bash his head in.”
Callum grins, a ray of sunshine bursting through, and it feels like relief.
Ben takes a deep breath, looking out of the window for a moment, the people passing by.
“Were you on your way back or are you sticking around for a bit?” Ben asks.
Callum pulls out his phone to check the time and then pauses, eyes moving from left to right as they read the messages on the screen.
“Stuart’s been texting me, I kinda stormed off,” Callum sighs as he stuffs his phone back into his pocket, “I should probably get back to him, sort things out.”
Ben nods. “Alright. Well, I’ll get back to work, but eh, I’m around today, if you wanted to, I don’t know, do something.”
Callum looks at him funny, a slow smile forming. “Like what?”
Ben stands up. “I don’t know, I could show you around, tell you all the gossip, whatever you want.” He does his best to keep his tone casual.
Callum looks like he doesn’t quite know what to do with that information, and Ben’s already regretting having said anything in the first place.
“Listen, go talk to Stuart, see how things go. If you change your mind, I’m either at the car lot or at home, Victoria Road 55. Good luck.”
Ben gives him one last smile and then makes his way out of the café.
The afternoon drags on, and it’s so quiet at the car lot that Ben locks up a little early.
When Ben gets home he realises the house is empty. Lexi’s with Jay and Lola and Ben thinks he vaguely remembers his dad mentioning something about a short business trip.
He settles in front of the telly, having changed out of his clothes to a simple t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms.
It’s about when Ben feels his stomach rumble and he starts thinking about what’s left in the fridge that he could chuck in a pan together, that the doorbell rings.
The sky has darkened considerably, and the yellowish light from the hallway falls over Callum’s face.
He looks more distraught than how Ben left him; his gaze empty and a general nervosity about him that already makes Ben mentally curse Stuart Highway.
“Hey, come on in,” Ben says, voice soft, stepping aside to let Callum in.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything, I-” Callum says, stammering quietly as Ben flicks on a small lamp.
“No not at all, no one’s in. Have a seat. Cuppa?”
Callum nods, and Ben disappears into the kitchen for a few minutes.
When he gets back and puts the tea down on the table, Callum’s sitting on the sofa, chest moving up and down at such a speed that Ben notices.
He sits down on the big armchair, and thinks for a few seconds on what to say.
“How are you,” Ben settles on, trying not to add too much weight to his words.
Callum lifts his head and meets his gaze, and he looks just about ready to crack and fall apart.
Ben can see he’s not calming down, quite the opposite, so he picks up his own tea and walks over to Callum, sitting down next to him on the sofa.
“You should sit back a little bit,” Ben says gently, placing a careful hand on Callum’s chest and lightly pushing him back. “Sitting hunched over is only making it harder for your lungs to breathe.”
Callum’s back is now against the cushions of the sofa, and he’s moving his hands over his denim-covered thighs repeatedly. Up, down. Up, down. Up, down . Ben thinks he doesn’t realise he’s doing it.
“Callum, has this ever happened before?” Ben asks.
Callum turns his head, and Ben hates that he feels like he can’t make contact with him. He doesn’t seem present, like the light in his eyes has turned off.
“After my mum died,” Callum gets out, the breathiness in his voice giving away how much he’s struggling.
Ben takes Callum’s hands and places them on his belly.
“Right, breathe with me. In, towards your hands. Breathe out, let your hands go down. And again.”
He doesn’t know how often he goes through that cycle, but it does seem to help because after a while Callum’s chest has slowed its movements.
He stays quiet for a bit, lets Callum sit and breathe.
Then Callum turns his head toward him, eyes shimmering, a flush in his cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” he all but croaks, “I didn’t know where to go.”
Ben smiles gently. “That’s alright. I told you I was here, didn’t I?”
Every part of him wants to know what happened, wants to ask Callum why’s he so upset and Ben’s got half a mind to kick Stuart Highway’s door down and shake him until he rattles.
But it feels like that’s the last thing Callum needs right now.
“Come on, I’ll show you a bit of Walford history.”
When they’re standing in front of McKlunky’s, Callum’s huffs a watery laugh.
“This your finest dining establishment is it?”
Ben lightly elbows him, huddled in his coat, still in tracksuit bottoms.
“Don’t take the mick, my child was born in here you know.”
Callum snorts, but when Ben doesn’t mirror his amusement, he raises his eyebrows.
“I’m starving,” Ben enters before he can say anything else.
They take their chips and walk down the road to the picnic benches in the park.
It’s quiet, no one else around. Only the occasional person passing through the square, the sound of footsteps faint from behind the bushes and trees.
“So you grew up here, huh,” Callum comments after a few minutes of them eating in silence. He looks around, a faint smile on his lips and Ben’s just happy to see some life back in his face, colour in his cheeks.
Ben huffs a laugh. “Yeah. You get used to the crazy after a while though.”
Callum hums, low and like he’s in thought. “It’s contagious to be fair.”
Ben quirks an eyebrow at him, and Callum holds a hand up. “Not you, my brother.”
Ben takes a deep breath, moving his chips around to get to a smaller one.
“Talking didn’t help?”
Callum makes a pained noise around a mouthful, chewing until his mouth is empty before speaking. “Not really.”
He makes a futile attempt of dusting off his hands to get rid of the salt and grease.
“I suppose I can’t really blame him. My dad wasn’t particularly kind to him either, but I got the brunt of the abuse. So he doesn’t really understand why I’m not keen to have him back in my life.”
Ben licks his fingertips and wipes his hands on his tracksuit bottoms.
“Stuart’s not really in charge of you though, right? And neither’s your dad. You don’t owe them anything, you’ve got your own life now.”
Callum sighs. “Yeah, I know. I just don’t want the hassle of dealing with them on a regular basis.”
He makes it sound nonchalant, but Ben can see in his face that Callum really struggles with the tension between him and his family. He strikes Ben as the type of person to want to keep the peace at all costs, even if it requires sacrificing himself and his own happiness.
“I don’t think Stuart’s aware that I have to make an effort to still be in contact with him.”
Callum gives Ben a smile, but it’s kind of sad and tired and it hits Ben how big the difference is between this Callum, and the Callum he saw when he first met him; confident, funny, clearly in his element.
“So how are things with you then,” Callum starts after neither of them know what to say.
Ben shrugs. “Fine, I s’pose.”
Callum laughs. “Sounds exciting.”
Ben makes an indignated sound. “What’d’you want me to say. I know it seems like there’s drama here all the time but I try to keep to myself for the most part you know.”
Callum gives him an unbelieving look and the corners of Ben’s mouth turn up.
“Honestly, the most interesting thing that’s happened to me lately is probably meeting you.”
Ben can just about stop himself from slamming a hand over his mouth in embarrassment, but he pushes his lips together as soon as he’s finished his sentence. He can feel warmth climbing up his cheeks.
“That right?” Callum says, with a look on his face like he’s got Ben dead to rights.
Ben scratches the back of his neck. “Well, I don’t know.”
Callum grins, and Ben’s belly does something funny. “Oh don’t take it back now, I was just getting used to the flattery.”
Ben rolls his eyes at him. “Forget I said anything.”
“Don’t think I could if I tried,” Callum replies, and his tone is light and joking, but when Ben looks at his face there’s a sincerity there that makes him nervous.
Ben takes the containers and throws them in the nearest bin.
“I should,” Callum says then, standing up and nodding his head to the side, “probably get going. It’s late.”
Ben nods. “Yeah, ‘course.”
It’s awkward then, just for a moment, until Ben thinks of something to say.
“Oh, do you mind if I pop ‘round to the shop somewhere in the next couple of days? That coffee you gave me needs to be ground up.”
Callum closes his eyes for a moment before opening them again. “Ah right, I meant to ask you about that when I gave you them but I forgot. Yeah ‘course, I’ll be there.”
“Right, cool,” Ben nods. “Well, I’ll see you. And good luck with everything.”
He’s taken a few slow steps away when he turns around again.
“And don’t let Stuart get in your head too much. That’s good life advice in general, I’ve found.”
Callum grins at him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ben goes to Callum’s shop a few days later.
There was a large part of him telling him that he shouldn’t. The little conversations about their families, Callum confiding in him, Ben helping Callum calm down from a panic attack.
It was all a bit much. The part of Ben that wants to get closer to Callum keeps growing, but he knows there’s a big risk attached, and he’s not sure he’s willing to take that risk.
He’s not the relationship type. Ben knows this, and his family and friends keep reminding him as well.
Also, it seems like Callum’s got enough on his plate as is. He’s got a life, a really good life, that he’s created for himself and Ben doesn’t want to take away from that.
Not when he finally has what he deserves.
Doesn’t mean he stops thinking about him though.
Jay catches him every now and then, in the car lot office or in the Vic, when his thoughts have drifted and he has to be brought back to the present.
“Ben? You’re miles away mate, what’s going on?” Jay says, taking a sip of his pint.
“Nothing, I’m fine,” Ben says, not wanting to get into it.
“You’ve been off for a while now. This have something to do with that date you went on a while back?”
“Not a date,” Ben grumbles. He knows Jay means well, but he doesn’t need relationship advice.
They sip their pints in silence, but Jay keeps throwing him these sincerely worried looks, and Ben cracks.
“I’ve been… hanging out with someone. And I think I like spending time with them but I’m not sure if I want it to become something more, so it’s probably best I stay away, alright?”
Jay gives him a pointed look. “You like spending time with him?”
Ben shrugs noncommittally.
“Are you guys hooking up?”
Ben shakes his head. “No, just talking.”
Jay smiles then, almost to himself, and continues to drink his pint.
“What?” Ben asks, slightly annoyed.
Jay shrugs then. “Nothin’. Just, I feel like it’s been a while since you’ve just been spending time with someone, no funny business.”
Ben sits with that for a bit.
When he’s finished his pint and said goodbye to Jay, he goes back home.
He sits on the edge of his bed, his conversation with Jay still echoing in his head.
Ben rubs his hands over his face, fingers scratching through his stubble.
To be honest, he hadn’t even realised that his contact with Callum has technically been platonic.
Maybe because Ben’s mind runs away with him every now and then.
But the truth is, he does genuinely like spending time with Callum. He likes talking to him, likes hearing him laugh. Likes the way he gets a little piece of who he is and what his life has been like every time they have a chat.
He’s pleasant to be around; Ben’s sure he’s not the only person who thinks so.
But, as far as potential suitors go, this is one of the rare occasions where Ben feels that way about someone else.
Ben feels like a teenager again somehow, sulking up in his bedroom over someone he wants but has convinced himself he can’t have for whatever reason.
He sighs, slapping his hands down on his knees. “Fuck it.”
Ben quickly changes into a different shirt, one that’s a little dressier than the one he has on now but nothing too flashy. Simple and clean, a black button up.
He does a quick spritz of cologne and grabs the bag of coffee on his way out.
Ben tries not to dawdle too much when he’s standing in front of the door. When he comes back out again, he will have asked Callum if he wants to go for a drink.
Even if the thought of him saying no is fucking terrifying.
Even if the thought of him saying
is fucking terrifying.
He has to try at some point, doesn’t he. No matter how hard he tries to convince himself, Ben doesn’t want to be like them, the people in their eighties living on the square.
Like his dad.
Having lived in the same place for years, never given anything or anyone new a chance. Set in your ways to a point where you start to harm others.
Callum catches his eye when the door creaks open, and Ben can feel the nerves swirling in his stomach. It’s too late now, but Ben wants nothing more than to turn around and never come back.
He gives Callum a sheepish wave and steps forward. It’s not too busy, luckily, and he’s the only person standing by the till, no other customers waiting.
“Hey,” Ben breathes when he’s close enough.
“You made it then,” Callum smiles, wiping his hands on his apron.
“Couldn’t make myself a good cup of coffee, could I,” Ben holds up the bag and shakes it a little.
Callum huffs a laugh. “Hand it over, I’ll grind them up for you.”
Ben waits as Callum opens the bag and empties the beans into a machine.
He doesn’t really know when to say something, or how to say it. Or even what to say.
The grinder makes quite the noise, it turns out, and Ben can’t think of anything more mortifying than having to shout at someone whilst trying to ask them out.
He’ll do it when Callum’s finished.
Callum turns the machine off and empties the now ground up coffee back into the bag.
“Cal, I’ve put them away, they’re in the fridge,” a voice sounds from the side as a woman walks out of the backroom.
“Oh sorry,” she smiles easily. She’s got red hair, big hoop earrings and her lips are tinted pink and glossy.
“Cheers Whit,” Callum smiles at her, and she comes to stand next to him.
“This is Whitney, she’s my secret cake supplier,” Callum says to Ben, voice joking and light, an inside joke, just for Callum and Whitney. Ben smiles politely.
“Took a minute to get to that position, mind,” Whitney says, corners of her mouth turned up teasingly as she looks up at Callum, “‘cause you needed to do everything by yourself, didn’t ya?”
Callum rolls his eyes affectionately, mirroring her grin.
“Yeah well,” he throws an arm around her shoulders with ease and comfort, pulling her into his side, “we worked it out together in the end, didn’t we.”
Ben feels like an intruder to a personal, intimate moment.
There’s something more to the way Callum looks at her. Ben doesn’t think he’s ever seen Callum’s face like it is now; sparkly eyes, a wide grin and a rosy flush high on his cheeks.
He looks, well, in love.
No wonder Ben’s never seen it before.
The bucket of cold water dumped on his head makes him shiver, something uneasy twisting his insides, and Ben can feel his stomach turn.
Hot shame and disappointment in himself fills his chest.
“Oh! This is Ben,” Callum says then, like he has to make an effort to rip himself away from the gorgeous woman currently attached to him to remind himself that there’s someone else in the room.
“Hi,” Ben says, giving her a little wave like an idiot, and Whitney looks from Callum to Ben and back again.
“He’s uh,” Callum starts, and Ben can feel his skin itch with how much he wants to get out of here.
“Just a customer,” Ben smiles tight-lipped, “forgot to get my coffee ground up.”
Callum blinks. “Right, yeah, I’ll just-”
He grabs the bag from behind him and hands it over to Ben.
“Cheers,” Ben says, “nice to meet you Whitney.”
He doesn’t wait for their replies.
When Ben gets home he tucks the bag of coffee away in the back of his closet, and it takes him a full week to dig it back out.
He’d had a busy week, because Ben had made sure it would be. He’d reconnected with Lexi, more than before, guilt seeping into his bones about letting himself get distracted like this.
They’d had a decent week at the car lot, which Ben was thankful for. Long stretches of time with nothing to do only leads him down the wrong path.
He’d only gotten drunk once, which Ben considers a victory. Five days after he went and saw Callum and realised what an absolute moron he’d been. He’d already had a few too many beers at home and had then stumbled into the Prince Albert and enjoyed a couple of cocktails strangers bought him, plus the attention those strangers gave him.
One of them had offered to take him home, and something in the back of his head was shouting about how he probably shouldn’t go home with someone who’s making offers like that to people that are clearly inebriated beyond belief.
He didn’t, in the end. He’d kissed him for a while, but his lips had felt cold and a bit forceful, and Ben couldn’t get his eyes to focus long enough to get a proper look at the bloke, so he’d gone home in the end.
He’d wanted to quietly sneak off to bed, sleep it off as much as he could and not talk about it. But Lola was still up when he entered the living room, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, looking up from her phone when Ben walked in.
“Hey,” she says lowly, keeping her voice down so as not to wake a sleeping Lexi upstairs.
Ben sighs. “You didn’t have to wait up for me, you know.” He feels slow and sluggish, and hopes that Lola can’t tell in the relative darkness.
“Listen, I know talkin’ ain’t your strong suit, but you do know I’m here, right? And so is Jay.”
Ben slowly sinks down on the chair opposite Lola.
“I’ve just not been feeling well. It’ll pass.”
It’s tough, because he really isn’t that great at talking. He does feel things, it’s just not easy to verbalize them. When you don’t get taught how during your childhood, how are you supposed to know? And then you enter this world of adulthood where people your age are somehow equipped with the skills necessary to be emotionally mature and communicate properly, and you’re terribly behind.
It’s probably one of the things that has killed every relationship Ben has, in the end. Maybe it wasn’t the final straw, but it won’t have helped.
When the ‘learning to talk about your feelings’ bit of your upbringing was left to Phil Mitchell, what exactly did you expect?
Ben sometimes finds himself looking at Lexi, and seeing himself in her. She’s about the age Ben was when the adults he had in his life weren’t to be trusted, when his dad almost married a woman who was cruel and abusive to his son.
He thinks back to that time sometimes, being who he is now, and feels the need to blame himself. A stupid little kid. He should have stood up for himself more, the way he learned to later on when a meaningful look to a bloke was enough to get battered.
He can feel almost proud, of being able to be the hard man his dad wants him to be.
And then he sees Lexi. How small she is, how trusting and naive because that’s how you see the world at that age. And you’re supposed to. Because you’re a child. And you deserve to grow up unrestrained, unburdened by how unfair the world can really be.
She’ll have the rest of her life to worry about everything that goes wrong.
Lexi can get angry sometimes, when she feels something unjust is happening, but she’s incredibly kind to everyone who doesn’t give her a reason not to be. And that’s something Ben would never want to take from her.
In fact, he admires it. It’s a quality that he lost pretty early on.
He clears his throat, Lola still sitting with him, in silence. Patiently.
“There was…” Ben trails off, coughing again. “I thought I was getting somewhere with someone, but it turned out I… misunderstood, or something. I don’t know.”
Lola runs her thumb over the side of her mug.
“Are you sure you misunderstood?”
Ben scoffs, bitterly, because he can’t help it.
“Yeah, pretty sure. Don’t think he’d be like that with a girl if he was into me, or into blokes for that matter.”
Lola hums, lowly, and takes a sip from her mug.
“Did you see them kiss?”
Ben frowns, anger starting to bubble under the surface.
“No, but that-”
“I’m only asking,” Lola says, reaching a hand out across the table to try and calm Ben down, “because things aren’t always what they seem, you know. If people saw you and me together in the street with Lexi, what’d’ya think they’d assume?”
Ben’s quiet then. He swallows thickly.
“Yeah, I get what you mean,” he says, deflated and suddenly very tired, “doesn’t matter now though. I’ve moved on.”
He stands up, pats Lola’s shoulder as he passes her by and then disappears upstairs.
The bag of coffee is still in Ben’s room, in his closet, just not as far away. A little less like he’s obviously trying to make it go away but not having the heart to actually just throw it out.
It’s made his clothes smell faintly of coffee. Ben doesn’t like it. His heart aches a little whenever he catches a whiff.
The world keeps spinning though, and Ben’s thankful for it.
He can still feel the way Jay and Lola make a little more effort around him, like they’re keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn’t spiral out of control. It gets on his nerves every now and then, but he knows it’s just because they care.
And Lexi, Lexi’s good, like she always is. A constant reminder of all that is good in the world, even if she isn’t perfect.
After a while, one day, Ben brings the bag of coffee to the car lot office. That way, it doesn’t go to waste, but it’ll also run out at some point. It’ll be gone, they’ll throw away the packaging without a second look and Ben can shut down whatever space Callum previously occupied in his brain.
Jay quirks an eyebrow when he spots it next to the coffee pot on the table but wisely decides not to comment on it.
They finish the bag in two weeks. The bag ends up in the bin and maybe Ben decides to be unusually proactive for once and empties the bin earlier than necessary.
The coffee’s fucking fantastic.
See, Ben thought that would’ve been the end of it.
And why wouldn’t it be? The only reason Ben and Callum saw each other was because Ben made sure they would. But he’s not, now. He hasn’t taken that route in weeks.
The only option Ben hadn’t considered, was Callum coming to see him . On the square.
Because that would make no sense, and yet he’s there , when Ben’s having a drink in the Vic one night with Jay and Lola.
He looks flushed as he walks through the door, eyes scanning the crowd and for a moment Ben’s so shocked that he doesn’t feel the panic rising in his chest.
Callum’s eyes widen slightly when they find him.
He looks nice, in a white dress shirt, and his voice falls so familiarly on Ben’s ears that he feels it grab him by the throat, knocking the air out of him in one fell swoop.
“Ben,” Callum says, voice soft and quiet, when he comes to stand by his table.
Ben can feel Jay and Lola share a knowing look and he can feel his own cheeks burning but he tries to ignore it.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Ben asks, trying not to sound hostile.
“Looking for you,” Callum says unabashedly, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
Ben doesn’t know how to respond to that, and in the quiet that he leaves, Callum speaks again.
“Look, can I have a word, outside?”
Ben takes a breath that softly shudders on its way in.
It’s chilly outside, and Ben didn’t bring a coat but he doesn’t mind it.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Callum says after a while, like it’s a casual observation and not a very deliberate choice on Ben’s part.
Ben nods awkwardly. “Yeah, life’s been busy.” The lie makes him feel a bit dirty. Callum seems like the type of bloke who could not only handle the truth, but would prefer it over something sugar-coated that goes down a little easier but upsets your stomach in the end.
He can see a bit of frustration in Callum’s face as well, which only makes Ben feel worse.
“Listen, I don’t know what I did wrong but clearly there was something,” Callum says, running a hand over his face as he pauses, “but I wanted to ask you out last time, and you were gone before I could.”
“I’m sorry, I-” Ben cuts himself off, “you what?”
Callum sighs. “You booked it before I could say anything. I’m sorry, I get the message, you don’t want anything from me, it’s fine.”
Ben frowns. “You were gonna ask me out?”
Callum blinks. “Yes. But you’re not interested.”
Ben scoffs, somehow irritated at this whole situation. “ I’m not interested? I’m not the one who had a woman draped all over me. Otherwise, maybe I would have asked you out last time.”
“Wait, you wanted to…” Callum trails off, confusion in the lines of his face.
“Yes, obviously,” Ben says exasperated, “I’ve been flirting with you since we first met! You really think I happen to randomly drop into your coffee place every time I want caffeine?”
Callum tilts his head, eyes still narrowed in confusion and he’s never looked more like a puppy.
“So you don’t even really like my coffee?”
Ben purses his lips, eyes falling shut in pure frustration, but when he opens them again, Callum’s grinning at him.
Callum starts to laugh, quietly into the cool night air, and Ben finds himself smiling.
“So you don’t have a girlfriend?”
Callum shakes his head. “No. You?”
Ben rolls his eyes. “No.”
Callum nods slowly, processing. “Right, okay.”
Ben clears his throat. Something’s still niggling at him, and he kind of wants, needs Callum to make a move here.
“So where’s that leave us then?”
Callum looks up at him, a soft smile around his lips.
“Do you wanna go out sometime?”
Ben grins like he can’t help it.
“Sure, I know a great coffee place.”
Ben steps closer, an empty contact screen pulled up on his phone as he wordlessly hands it over to Callum.
It hangs in the air as Callum’s fingers tap on the screen, the giddy feeling of something’s finally happening .
Ben takes his phone back from Callum and shoves it in the back pocket of his jeans.
Callum’s eyes twinkle as they look back at his, the dark night sky above them like a blanket.
Neither of them say anything for a bit, the two of them standing in the middle of the street, too close together to be having a casual conversation.
If the moment stretches out for long enough, it’ll become awkward and Callum will give him a little wave and walk off. Ben realises he doesn’t want to let him leave that way.
And so he tentatively lifts a hand, placing it on Callum’s chest, covered by a thick coat. Callum’s wiser than he is.
His thumb catches the zip, and Ben swallows as he flicks it, trying to find the courage to actually do something.
When he dares to look up, Callum looks fascinated, holding his breath as his eyes follow Ben’s every move.
“Can I,” Ben mumbles, and he’s barely said it when Callum sounds a rushed, “ yes .”
Ben’s eyes shoot up to Callum’s at that, and Ben laughs softly.
Callum’s rosy cheeks become round as he smiles sheepishly, and Ben strokes a thumb over one of them before pulling Callum’s face close and covering his mouth with his own.
Ben had every intention of going slow, letting Callum set the pace - he’s only barely just gotten his head around Callum being into men after all. And he does, at first.
But Callum’s warm, and right under his fingertips, and most importantly, Callum’s hands find their way to Ben’s waist and pull him in close. He sways a little on his legs and throws an arm around Callum’s shoulders, bringing their faces closer together.
Ben can feel the blood in his veins singing, warming to Callum’s touch and his mind suggests offering Callum to stay over, but that’s not what he wants from their first kiss. They have the time, they should take it.
Callum’s fingers gently tug on the short hairs at the back of Ben’s head and a pleasant tingle runs down his spine. He makes a noise because of it and that only encourages Callum, who curls his tongue into Ben’s mouth, and Ben’s quick to pull back after that.
“Okay so,” Ben breathes as Callum stays close, lips gently brushing over his cheek, “not that I’m not enjoying this but my family all live here and I don’t want to give them any more material for jokes.”
Callum pulls back then, a soft fond smile around his lips, hands still on Ben’s waist.
“In my defense, you started it.”
“I did, and someday we’ll finish it but not now and not here.”
Callum quirks an eyebrow. “Cocky?”
Ben grins, amused. “You’re the one who’s getting handsy in the streets.”
The flush on the tops of Callum’s cheeks deepens but the fondness in his eyes and soft smile say he’s not really sorry. “Guilty.”
Ben lets his arm drop, flat palm gliding over Callum’s chest, stopping over his heart.
“Call and or text me sometime.” It’s oddly casual, but it feels right. Like Ben can stop pretending he doesn’t want to be around him.
“Same goes for you.”
Callum smiles at him, sweetly and relaxed, like a weight’s been lifted and he can be happy , and Ben leans up one last time to peck him on the lips.
Callum watches him disappear into the Queen Vic again, one last look back before he’s gone.
Before Ben has the time to stress out about what’s going to happen next, potential dates, making impressions and oh fuck this isn’t going to work out is it- Callum calls him. Randomly, not yet a week after their first kiss. Ben’s just had his dinner.
“Hey, I’m still at the shop, you wanna come over?”
Simple as that.
The excitement of seeing Callum again has him leaving through the front door without even contemplating a change of outfit. It’s kind of nice, to not give his brain the opportunity to ruin things before they’ve even started.
Callum’s wiping down the counter when Ben enters.
He gives a soft knock to the wall. “Hey.”
Callum looks up, a smile appearing on his face when he sees Ben.
“Hey,” he echoes, undeniably soft, and he lets the cloth drop on the counter.
Callum hesitates, seemingly wanting to step closer but not sure if that’s okay.
“It’s good to see you again,” Ben says, feeling like maybe Callum needs the confirmation, and the nervosity in Callum’s face breaks.
“Come ‘ere,” Ben mumbles, already walking closer before leaning up and kissing him.
Callum smiles against his mouth and Ben can’t help but return it, and it’s been a while since he’s felt so genuinely giddy with happiness.
“Mm, you actually taste like coffee,” Ben whispers in between kisses and Callum chuckles.
“That can’t be a compliment.”
Ben nods. “It is.” He lets a hand rest on the side of Callum’s neck, feeling his pulse jump under his thumb.
It’s incredible to be this close to Callum after only being to imagine it for so long. To feel his body under his hands, to have permission to touch him, to watch his face as he does.
Ben likes it, likes him. He feels firm, sturdy. And there’s soft bits too, if you look for them.
He can feel it as he trades slow kisses with Callum, eyes closed and simply enjoying the affection. Perfect, perfect, perfect.
There’s plenty of time to run into each other’s faults and flaws, to get annoyed and upset and hurt. But right now, the smell of Callum’s cologne fills Ben’s nose and he can’t find a single thing he doesn’t adore.
Callum gives as much as he gets; hands big enough to almost fit entirely around Ben’s neck, soft barely there kisses against his cheek. Ben wonders if he asked Callum to spend a week in bed with him, just to soak up each other’s presence and touch, if he’d say yes.
“Were you closing up?” Ben says, voice muffled as his face presses into Callum’s chest.
“Yeah, I just wanted some company,” Callum says from above him, his hand petting over Ben’s head.
Ben lifts his head to look up. “You mean, you wanted me to help you clean?”
Callum gives him an indignated look. “Oh, ye of little faith.” He presses a kiss to Ben’s forehead and releases him from his arms to walk back behind the counter.
“I actually thought you could just hang out for a bit while I sort this place,” Callum ducks down to grab something and comes back up, “and I could make you a drink. I was hoping you hadn’t had your after dinner coffee yet.” He holds up a bottle, filled with amber liquid, and Ben grins.
“I’d love that.”
Ben sits back on one of the benches, sipping at the decidedly boozy coffee Callum made him. It’s really good though, he can’t deny that. Even though his opinion is probably the furthest from unbiased, Callum has a good feeling for flavours, and Ben feels his heart swell with pride as he watches Callum move from one place to the other, picking up stuff to put it somewhere or throwing things away entirely.
Ben lets his eyes glide around the coffee shop.
“Holy shit, you really own this place.”
Callum looks up from where he was bent over, picking up a stray coffee stirrer. He snorts.
“Thought that was clear by now.”
“No but I mean, you actually own your own business , you know?” Ben says, and Callum’s eyebrows crease.
“Yeah, but I mean, most people drink coffee, you know. It’s somewhat of a safe bet.”
“Oh come on, don’t do that,” Ben pushes back, “this is incredible man! You really just made this place successful, and you did it pretty much by yourself.”
Callum pauses for a moment, just looking at Ben as he talks.
“I just think it’s incredibly impressive,” Ben swallows, feeling the weight of Callum’s gaze, “and I’m really proud of you.”
Callum can’t hold his gaze for much longer, looking away as he bashfully smiles.
“I should feed you drinks more often,” he quips a few seconds later, and Ben grins from over the rim of his mug.
They chat for the rest of the evening, and it’s one of the nicest nights Ben’s ever had.
Callum asks him about his childhood, growing up on the square. Ben wants to be honest, and so he does tell him about the good and the bad, but the bad still makes Ben’s stomach turn sometimes and Callum senses that, so he tells Ben that Stuart’s mentioned someone called Rainie a few times now, and asks Ben what he knows about her.
“D’you think they’d be a good match?”
Ben snorts. “I mean, they’re both a trainwreck so I think it’ll work itself out.”
When Ben’s finished his drink he gets up and offers his help. Callum hands him a few boxes of coffee cups, lids and stirrers and asks him to refill them at the counter.
“So you have a child, right?” Callum asks then, when they’re both busy doing their own thing, comfortably quiet.
Ben stills. “Yeah, I do,” he says softly. “Is that problem?”
Callum shakes his head immediately. “No, ‘course not. I was just wondering if you could tell me something about her. Is she like you?”
Ben smiles then, almost a little ashamed for thinking Callum would judge him for being a father.
“I mean, yes and no, thankfully. She’s called Lexi, and I think she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Callum smiles at him. “That’s great. I bet she’s a real firecracker.”
Ben laughs, and points at himself. “Well, I mean…”
It’s quiet again then for a bit.
“I didn’t think so at the time though, that it’d be the greatest thing to ever happen to me,” Ben admits. “I was terrified, was not ready to be a dad in any way, and also still in the middle of a full-fledged identity crisis. But you find a way, I guess.”
Callum hums. “Yeah, I’d be scared too I think.”
Ben makes a thoughtful noise. “I know it’s super cliché and that, but it really does put things in perspective, you know? I want her to have the best life, so she comes first. Always.”
He glances at Callum, careful to gauge his reaction.
Callum simply nods conclusively. “As it should be.”
“Oh, could you grab the menus of the tables?” Callum asks a little while later.
“‘Course.” Ben walks past all of the tables and picks up the menus. When he has them all neatly in a stack, he notices the laminated paper is raised in some areas.
He carefully runs his finger over the top one, feeling the texture under his fingers.
He looks up to see Callum already looking at him.
“It’s braille. I had a blind customer once, and I had to read out the menu to her before she just picked something random to get me to shut up. I realised how stupid it was that she didn’t have the option to choose like everyone else does, so I had new menus specially made.”
“That’s great,” Ben says, a little insecure about this but he wants to say it, “I, I actually have a hearing aid, I had meningitis as a kid. I’m alright normally, but my bad ear gets really bad sometimes, and I rely on lip reading and a bit of signing. I can imagine how nice it is to get to do things the way you’re used to, just because someone took the time to make some small adjustments, you know?”
Callum nods. “Yeah, I also looked up the signs for everything that’s on the menu.”
He turns around to the giant menu board behind the counter and points. At the very top, under the word ‘menu’, it reads: ‘ You can also order using sign language .”
Ben’s quiet for a bit, just in awe of how kind Callum is, and Callum fills the silence, a little uncomfortable under such praise.
“It’s really not anything special, at least it shouldn’t be. Should be standard to try and make your shop accessible to everyone, I think.”
Ben nods. “Yeah, but not everyone does it.”
Callum smiles sheepishly, and Ben walks over and folds his arms around him, hugging him.
It takes a few seconds but then Callum’s arm comes around Ben’s torso, holding him close, and Ben closes his eyes.
There’s no music playing; it’s quiet save for a few people walking past the shop every now and then, the sound of footsteps and snippets of a conversation.
Ben lets the weight of his body fall against Callum, the warmth making him sluggish and tired, but the kind that makes you feel sated and content. Like you can finally rest.
“Don’t fall asleep on me,” Callum says quietly, and Ben makes a noncommittal noise.
Callum starts to sway them a little bit, and that makes Ben lift his head.
“We dancin’ are we?”
“Oh you’d know if we were dancing,” Callum smiles, kissing the top of his head as soon as Ben puts it down again.
After about a minute, Callum slowly starts taking steps, waltzing around in a small circle, and Ben laughs quietly.
He brings his arms up, hangs them over Callum’s shoulders and lets his hands rest at the back of his neck. They turn in circles, slow enough that Ben can see Callum’s facial expression perfectly, but fast enough that the warm golden lights around them blur into a crescendo of falling stars.
Ben giggles at the silliness of the situation, and Callum grins at him, eyes twinkling and a soft flush in his cheeks.
“You’re gorgeous,” Ben says, because it’s true and Callum deserves to hear it.
Callum laughs lightly. “My dancing skills are that impressive are they?”
Ben teasingly squeezes his side. “They’re really not, but your face makes up for it so it’s all good.” He leans up and kisses Callum, long and slow like honey, Callum’s warmth seeping into his skin until he can’t distinguish between his own breath or Callum’s.
When they eventually part that night, it’s oddly painful.
He might have been scared before, but now that Ben’s committed, he kind of wants Callum near him all the time.
“I thought we were saying goodbye,” Callum laughs when they’re standing in front of the closed shop door, Ben’s lips kissing at the corner of Callum’s mouth.
“We are,” Ben sighs, pulling back. “I just don’t really wanna let you go.”
Callum presses his lips together in an unsuccessful attempt to smother a smile.
“We’ll see each other again soon enough.”
The smile fades a little as his face gets more serious.
“I think we’ll do both ourselves a favour if we take things a bit slow.”
Ben nods in agreement, albeit begrudgingly. “Yeah, you’re right. Just hold me back when you need to.”
Callum laughs, shaking his head. “I will. Now go.” He kisses Ben one last time before walking off in the other direction.
Callum becomes a more solid part of his life everyday.
It’s like when you buy something that’s so good, that even though you didn’t think you needed before, now that you have it, you can’t imagine life without it.
Callum makes Ben’s life so much better.
Lexi loves him, because of course she does.
The first time she meets him, she’s holding Ben’s hand as they both enter the coffee shop together. It’s not too busy, Ben checked with Callum beforehand.
Callum lets Lexi sit up on the counter, where she has the best view of all the different types of cake. He shows her around, helps her make a drink for Ben and lets her put a big dollop of whipped cream on top of the drink.
Callum makes a couple of throwaway comments to Ben, about how it’s no wonder Lexi likes him given the baked goods he feeds her any time they see each other. He laughs, but Ben feels like there’s an underlying insecurity there.
The next time they’re in the coffee shop together, Ben turns to Lexi.
“Come on little lady, we better get going. Dinner ain’t gonna cook itself.”
Lexi looks from Ben to Callum and back to Ben again.
“Dad, can Callum come for dinner?”
Slow ends up working well. It gives them time to properly work through things when they need to. Ben knew there were going to be things about him that Callum wouldn’t like, and probably vice versa.
In a few instances, Ben has a bit of a wobble. His ‘ he’d be better off without me ’ instinct kicks in and the urge to push Callum away gets overwhelming.
But Callum pulls him back in every time.
“As long as we’re able to talk about things, I’m not walking away and neither are you.”
Ben learns that if he talks about things with Callum, they usually end up resolving their issues instead of making them worse. And Callum knows Ben’s not used to talking, so he gives him time when needed.
The realisation that they have the time, brings a kind of peace Ben hasn’t had in a long time.
It’s at the stupidest moment, when Ben and Callum are playing a board game with Jay and Lola and Lexi, that Ben looks around and thinks, if this is what my future looks like, I’m excited.
I’m looking forward to it. And he hasn’t always dared to look to the future.
“Ah, you win again! Are you sure you’re not cheating?” Jay says to Lexi as she wins for the fourth time in a row, grinning at him from the head of the table.
“I’m not, I’m just better at this game than all of you,” she says proudly, and Lola affectionately smiles and pushes a few stray hairs away from her face.
“Well, I’m not losing a fifth time Lex, I can’t handle it,” Jay comments as he packs up the game and puts it back in the box.
“Yeah, me neither, you’re too strong,” Callum says, poking Lexi’s stomach, making her giggle.
Ben smiles at them both. He could get used to this.
Ben puts his palms flat on the table, taking a breath in and out, and turns to Callum.