"Anyway, Mrs. Barnett is waiting and waiting and waiting," Jay is saying, clutching a half-empty beer bottle like it's a life preserver. They're in his and Billy's flat, and Ben is struggling to stay focused on what his brother is saying. "So finally, I go looking for him, and there's Halfway in the basement, covered in Mr. Barnett's ashes."
Ben can't stop himself from burping when he laughs, hand pressed to his stomach. "Jesus," he says. The room is swimming, but he's very carefully left his half-empty beer on the table, along with all the many, many empties. "How did Mrs. Barnett take it?"
"You are very lucky that I am such a charming sweet-talker, Ben Mitchell, otherwise your beloved Halfway would be No-way."
Ben lets out a shaky laugh. In his pocket, his phone chimes. "That'll be him now." Ben straightens himself up, blinking slowly while he digs it out. "Fucking hell, Jay, I haven't been this drunk in—in—"
"At least a month," Jay says. "I've noticed."
"You really are a boy detective, ain't cha?"
"Oh, don't get yourself into such a lather." Jay tilts his head back, drinking the rest of his beer. "It's good to see you all loved up."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ben says. Callum's text is short, says he's finished covering the bar at the Queen Vic and wondering where Ben and Jay are. Another text pops up, asking if Ben wants him to join them or if it's brother time. Callum is always so tentative—half the time it drives him spare. Tonight it just makes him wants to give in to his soppiest impulses. "I'm telling him to come here," he says.
"Oh good." Jay starts giggling, or hiccuping, or both. "After a night of kicking punters out of the Vic, he can drag your ass home."
"I can walk just fine."
"Like to see you try."
Ben contemplates standing up but decides against it because he's drunk and tired and what's the point of having a giant of a boyfriend if he doesn't carry you around once in a while? "He figures you worked out we were a thing before our little coming out tour."
"You ain't exactly subtle, bruv."
Ben will give Jay that. He ain't subtle. He knows he ain't subtle. Everybody knows that Ben Mitchell ain't subtle. "It's doing his head in, Jay."
"Your boyfriend is a real suck—don't, I already know the awful joke you're going to come out with—no, no, no." Jay burps, and flings the empty bottle onto the floor, listening to it thump and roll over the carpet. "Only thing that gave your boy away was your impeccable gaydar, bruv. I've never seen you go after a straight guy like that."
"I wasn't going after him! He had a girlfriend."
"Didn't you literally hook up with him in the park before he proposed to her?"
"Okay, fine, fair point." Ben lets his head roll back. "Anyway, I'm not getting on your case about Lola, am I?"
"That's different and you know it. Anyway, you've been getting on my case about her since the two of you showed up in town again with Lexi. Don't think I ain't noticed. Ain't the same thing."
"Are you saying you were on Team Whitney and not Team Ben?"
"I am very firmly on Team Callum Getting His Head Screwed On Right, Finally."
Ben snorts. He checks his phone again; two more texts from Callum, saying he's on his way and that he misses Ben.
"He's actually been kind of unbearable lately," Jay says. "Always walking around humming. I'm thinking about getting earplugs. And he was enough of a daydreamer before he hooked up with you. I keep expecting him to fall down the stairs at some point."
"Please do not let my boyfriend die at the funeral home."
"And he keeps asking me questions," Jay says, giving no indication that he's even listening to Ben anymore. His hands are up, in the middle of a rant. "Because I was around when you came out. At first it was all feelings stuff, and endless hand-wringing about Whitney like she doesn't have a whole queue of terrible romantic decisions behind her, but sometimes he brings up sex."
Ben squints. "Do what?"
"Apparently, outside of his boyfriend, I am Callum Highway's go-to for sex advice. I can only imagine what would have happened if he asked Mick about it. Or, jesus, can you imagine him trying to talk to Stuart about S-E-X?"
Ben twists around on the couch to stare at Jay. The redhead is sprawling with a leg up on the armrest, his eyes closed. "You are like the last person I would think to ask for sex advice—"
"Hey, I'm quite the lover."
"He could also actually talk to me ."
Jay opens his eyes. "Honestly, I think he's just too embarrassed to ask you."
"No, no, no," Jay says. "I can see the little wheels turning in there. When he gets here you are going to resist your natural impulse to wind him up, ok? He isn't as experienced as you are and you know that and he ain't got no gay friends to help him through this except you."
Ben covers his face with his hands. "Fuck," he says. The sex has been good—great, even—because it's with Callum and he is starting to become more comfortable making the first move. Even when he has a clumsy spell in the middle of it, it's still Callum and he's fit and they can laugh about it and—"Please tell me I haven't given him a complex."
"We cannot all be as sure of ourselves as the mighty Ben Mitchell."
Before Ben can say anything, there is a knock at the front door. "I'll get it."
"Do you need help up?"
"Oh shut up," Ben says, hoisting himself up onto his feet. "I'm starting to sober up."
But then his trip to the door—winding around the narrow space between the coffee table and the couch, threading his way between discarded empties—turns out to be more treacherous than expected. "Jesus, this place is a sty. You and Billy need to clean up!"
"You are not my mother," calls Jay, "An' half of these are yours!"
"Yeah, yeah," Ben says. He yanks the door open and finds Callum stooping on the other side. Callum looks around—Callum always looks around when he wants to kiss Ben outside, like his absolute shit of a father is going to emerge from the shadows—but Ben holds a hand and turns his head before releasing a thunderous burp.
"Charming," Callum says.
"Well excuse me for not wanting to burp in your mouth."
From the other room, Jay calls out: "Do not have a go at him, Ben Mitchell."
Callum snorts and says, "Hello, Jay!"
"Oh my god, the pair of you," Ben groans. "And I am not having a go at him! This is harassment, Jay." He turns back to Callum, "Unless you want me to have a go at you?"
Callum rolls his eyes, "Maybe I should make you two a brew." He shuffles past Ben, running a hand through the shorter man's hair before reaching down to grasp his hand and pull him along after. Ben kicks the door shut before trailing after his boyfriend, who looks exhausted, probably from being on his feet for the last few hours. Callum looks back and smiles, sleepily.
"Okay," Ben says. "But you're making out with me while the water boils."
"I'm still awake," Jay says. "I can still hear you!"
"I'm not listening to you defile my employee in my kitchen."
"I'm not going to defile him!" Ben leans against the kitchen counter while Callum fills the kettle with water and hunts down chamomile tea bags in Jay's cupboards, depositing them in a pair of mugs. Ben closes his eyes and listens to Callum putter, moving cautiously around the kitchen. When he opens his eyes again, Callum is right in front of him, smirking. Callum is not, as a rule, the one who smirks in the relationship. "I feel like I'm a bad influence on you."
"You said you wanted to make out."
"I am overwhelmed, Callum," Ben says, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead. "I am overcome!"
"Okay, we are getting a brew into you and then getting you home." Callum ghosts his hand over Ben's side but turns slightly, toward the door. "Jay? You've been quiet—you alive in there?"
"Oh sure, worry about him."
"You know—you know you can talk to me, right? About—about stuff. If you're worried about—"
"Stuff?" Callum raises an eyebrow. "I think I'm good for the moment." He gingerly pulls until Ben slumps forward, Callum's chin pressed to the crown of Ben's head. They stand like that for a minute, Callum reaching up to play with the hair on the back of Ben's neck. Ben smiles; tonight, Ben is allowed to be soft. "I'm really looking forward to crawling into bed with you, okay? But right now I'm mostly worried about Jay."
There is a voice from the other room: "Well, Jay's mostly worried that you're defiling his kitchen!"
"Okay, you two are going to need a drinking chaperone from now on."