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waiting outside the lines

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There’s a boy at the coffee shop today that’s never been in before. He’s cute and he’s looking right at Phil.

That doesn’t happen all that often. Or maybe it does, and Phil just isn’t usually interested in looking back. Either way this boy has brown eyes and hair that curls at just the tips and his eyes track Phil’s movements across a tiled floor like he doesn’t even realize how intensely he’s watching.

Phil wants to go talk to him. He wants to ask for the boy’s name and his mobile number and his deepest darkest secrets and what he likes for breakfast. He wants with a bursting kind of greed as he builds up the potential in his head and wallows in it.

Then he turns around and the boy is gone.

*

“His name is Dan,” Cat says. She’s tying her apron on. Phil watches her.

She had a crush on Phil for going on a year, but she must have gotten over it. He’s not sure when. Perhaps he should pay more attention.

“What?” He asks.

“The guy from yesterday.” She puts her hair back with a hairband and then washes her hands. “The one you were eyefucking. Weird, by the way. I’ve never seen you do that. It was weird.”

“I wasn’t-” His cheeks heat up.

“You totally were. But it’s okay, he seemed into it.”

*

He and Cat get dinner after closing up the coffee shop.

It’s out of convenience as much as anything. She always asks and he’s usually hungry and there’s a chip shop two blocks over that stays open an hour later than the coffee shop does.

She’s not bad company, though. Not once she stopped looking at him like she wanted him to kiss her all the time. She talks a lot but he doesn’t mind listening. He thinks her stories about America are fun, even the wistful ones about how she misses her parents. She’s had a more interesting life than he has.

Tonight she doesn’t want to talk about her childhood in Georgia, though. Tonight she wants to talk about him.

“I didn’t even know you were into guys,” she says, shoving a chip into her mouth. “That makes so much sense. But you totally could have told me, you know?”

He stares down at the table. This conversation makes him feel a little queasy. “Cat,” he says. His voice is too quiet so he says it again. “Cat. I don’t-”

She starts to frown. That’s almost worse than the excitement before. “Oh shit, are you like - not out?”

“It’s not that,” he says. “I just don’t know.”

“Have you never like… been with-”

“Cat.” His voice is sharp now, probably sharper than she’s ever heard it.

“Okay, wow, subject dropped.” She goes back to slowly eating her chips, but doesn’t take her eyes off of him. “You should talk to him next time he comes in, though.”

“You don’t even know he’ll be back.” Phil, for once, isn’t very hungry. He pushes his food around on the plate, watching the greasy smears the chips leave in their wakes.

“Based on how he was looking at you? Pretty sure he will be,” she says.

He doesn’t believe her, but chooses to let the subject drop instead of arguing the point.

*

“How did you know his name?” Phil asks.

It’s a Tuesday. He hasn’t seen her in three days. She’s still a student, like most of the shop’s employees are.

Phil isn’t anymore. He graduated a year ago.

“This guy he hangs out with sometimes is in one of my classes,” she says. “I ran into them at a party a few weeks back.”

She bites her lip and just waits, waits him out. She knows he wants more information. Irritation flares up strong, but he’s weak.

“So what’s he like?” Phil asks.

“Quiet.” She shrugs, goes back to wiping a table down. “I mean, he was drinking, so maybe he’s just a depressing drunk. His friend was cute though so I might ask for his number. Is that weird, do you think? Originally I was like, well, if he’s into me he’ll ask for my number, but I’m also not some princess who doesn’t feel like she’s supposed to approach a guy. And I could like, hook you up! See what campus parties they’ll be at? You can come with me and it’ll be a whole thing. I mean, I am kind of seeing someone right now, but he’s really chill and we’re kind of in that open phase.”

“He probably doesn’t even like guys.” Phil shakes his head. His imagination is running away with him.

Cat just laughs. “You never know until you try!”

A group of five comes in, loud and unsure of what they want. Phil plasters his customer service smile onto his face and tries to put Cat’s words out of his mind.

*

It takes him an hour to get to and from work every day, fifty minutes on the Witch Way bus and a walk that’s ten minutes if he’s quickening his steps and twenty if he’s feeling lazy or uneager to get back to his parents’ house.

The bus is fine. It’s fifty minutes either way to sit with his headphones in and his eyes closed. He sleeps sometimes, if he’s had a troubled night, but most days it’s just him and music in his ears and movies splashed on the screen in his imagination.

He likes to tell stories to himself. He’s very bad at writing them down. Words don’t cobble together like poetry for him. He needs the visual, to picture it without having to explain it. He builds characters and breaks them down, makes zombie apocalypses, love affairs, survival stories and stories with no endings at all.

Maybe some day he’ll get to show other people the stories, too.

*

Charlie’s waiting at Phil’s house when Phil gets home.

“You again,” Phil says, sullen in a way that isn’t entirely put on.

Charlie has a sandwich and a plate of crisps in front of him. “Your mum just left for errands. She made me a snack first.”

“You’re awful,” Phil says, stealing a crisp.

He doesn’t mind, really. Charlie’s own mum drinks too much and barely remembers to do the shopping. Charlie’s been having a meal or two a week at Phil’s house since they met.

“Mario Kart?” Charlie asks, brushing crumbs from his mouth.

“Not today,” Phil says.

He wishes he could say he had homework. He wishes he had any excuse to tell Charlie he just wants to be alone for a while.

“You’re no fun,” Charlie says. His phone dings and he looks down at it, taking another bite of the sandwich while he taps out a response to whoever messaged him. “Just got a better offer, anyway.”

Despite having only just had the thought that he wishes he were alone, Phil suddenly feels like glaring at Charlie’s phone with it’s endless stream of better offers.

“Sure,” Phil says, pretending not to care.

Charlie finishes the sandwich and leaves the plate on the table, ruffling Phil’s hair as he walks out.

*

The first time he dyed his hair black, it was because Charlie told him to.

Charlie, whose mum moved to Manchester when his dad took off, who was small and noisy and cried a lot that first week they met. If this were a movie, Phil would write that they became best friends that very week and have been ever since, but it’s not really true. They barely spoke for years and when they did fall into friendship it was a strange circling of each other. They go weeks or months without speaking sometimes, but when Charlie showed up with a black eye and a packed bag Phil’s third semester of uni Phil opened the door for him and hasn’t closed it since.

Charlie really wanted to get tattoos together that day. Phil said a firm no on that, but he let Charlie buy the box of dye and they made a proper mess of Phil’s bathroom and they laughed so much and Charlie’s hands in his hair felt nice and when it was all over and done Charlie dried his hair and straightened it and showed Phil off to himself in the mirror, and Phil -

He liked who he saw. He liked who was looking back at him, the tall boy with the suddenly dark hair and the smiling face just over his shoulder.

He hasn’t gone back since.

*

Cat spends the next week trying with all the subtlety of a brick through the window to get Phil to open up.

It’s not hard to evade her. He wouldn’t really know what to say, anyway. Their shifts usually overlap when the shop is the busiest, so he makes like he’s got errands to take care of during his work breaks and after he’s done for the day, gets on the bus home with a stomach still growling.

His capacity for avoidance when he doesn’t want to talk about something is almost limitless. The only reason he doesn’t go so far as to ask to swap shifts around and not even see her is that lingering question in his head…

What if Dan comes back?

Because Phil’s done this thing he does, where in his mind he builds someone up until they seem almost unreal. He feels compelled to meet Dan properly so he can rid himself of this notion that Dan might be interested, might be half as wonderful as the boy in Phil’s imagination.

So he keeps working shifts with Cat, knowing that when Dan comes back, Cat will plunge both herself and him into an introduction.

*

He’s ten minutes late to work because his brother offered to give him a ride and then spent twenty minutes longer than he should have getting ready.

Martyn’s home for the weekend. He’s got a date next week he’s excited about, he says. He’s been seeing the same girl for a while now and he’s going to ask her to move in with him. He wanted their mum to do his laundry for him.

Twenty six and still can’t do his laundry; their mum complains but Phil knows she doesn’t mind deep down. She likes feeling useful, she likes when Martyn comes home. Phil likes it too, because Martyn has a car, except for when he does things like promise Phil a ride to work and then turn him up late. He’s already got the rant to Cat compiled in his mind when he walks in the door.

And then -

That carefully cultivated anger dissipates, gives way to something more tumultuous.

Dan is at the counter talking to Cat.

“Oh, there you are!” She calls out, waving at him with a too-wide smile on her face.

“Yeah-” Phil’s voice goes a little squeaky. He’s trying not to look at Dan. Is it weird that he’s not looking at Dan? He has no idea.

“You’re late.” She steps back from the counter. “I’m about to take my fifteen, can you grab Dan’s order - oh, you’ve met, right? Dan, this is Phil. He’s totally our best barista, you’ll be glad you let him make your drink.”

That is a lie. Phil is not the best barista. Phil routinely burns himself and never manages to get the standard recipe measurements quite right, no matter how many times he’s done this.

“Sounds great,” Dan says, smiling at Phil. “Can you do a hazelnut macchiato?”

No, Phil really cannot.

He sends Cat a helpless look.

Cat just laughs. She is a brazen traitor to all that Phil stands for. But then she says to Dan, “Why don’t you let him make you one of his special creations instead?”

“Special creations?” Dan lifts an eyebrow curiously.

“Yeah, last week he made me a drink that tasted like smores.”

“That sounds sickeningly sweet,” Dan says, leaning against the counter. His arms are very long and folded in front of him. “I think I need to try one.”

“Definitely,” Cat tells him. She takes another step back. “I’ll leave you boys to your diabetic endeavours. I’ll be back in fifteen, Phil!”

She’s gone before Phil can even respond.

 

*

His hands, by some miracle, don’t shake as he works the espresso machine.

“If you want to sit, I can bring it to you,” Phil says. He glances over at Dan, then quickly back at his work. It’s the only way not to spill.

“I’m actually leaving after this, so I’ll wait around.” Dan’s voice is nice. His eyes are nice. Everything is nice. “I’ve got class. My obligatory one a week.”

“You’ve only got one class a week?” Phil asks, surprised.

“No, I’ve got more, I just usually only make it to one a week.” Dan sounds bitter.

“Well,” Phil says, a tremor of something brave shivering through him. “It’s probably because you haven’t had my special coffee drinks to motivate you.”

“That so?” Dan asks, seeming amused.

“Yep.” Phil finishes the drink and adds creamy, sugary foam to the top. He sprinkles on a dash of cocoa just for good measure then slides it across the counter at Dan. “On the house, by the way.”

And there - there. Phil has reached the limits of his bravery for the day.

“You’re giving me a free drink?” Dan has a little smile on his face now.

“Just this first one, in case you hate it.”

Dan takes a slow sip, then immediately smiles. “It’s disgusting, in the best way possible. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever had anything that tasted so sweet, but somehow the coffee still comes through nicely.”

Phil decides to be happy with that. “Good. That’s - good. I hope.”

“You sure you won’t let me pay for it?” Dan asks.

“No, definitely not.” Phil shakes his head.

“Well.” Dan takes a step back from the counter, then raises the cup. “Cheers, mate.”

*

Cat comes back five minutes later. “Aw, he’s gone?”

“He had class,” Phil say. He’s busy cleaning up the remnants of Dan’s drink still, putting things back in their places.

He hopes she won’t ask anything else about Dan.

He knows that it’s a futile hope.

“Soooooo,” she says, hopping onto the counter. “How’d it go?”

“Fine, I mean, I guess.” Phil wonders if she has enough self-awareness to pick up on how uncomfortable he is being asked about a boy he likes in a coffee shop where anyone could walk in. His mum could walk in! She won’t, of course, she never has before. But she could.

Cat just grins. She looks like she wants him to ask something, but when he doesn’t she forges ahead. “He asked about you. I mean, kind of. He wanted me to make him a drink and I told him that I was overdue for my break and he’d have to wait on the next guy to come in and then he asked if I meant the one with the black hair. So, he totally noticed you, that’s a good sign. So I figure the next step is, like-”

“Actually,” Phil says, wiping his hands on his apron. His voice is surprisingly firm, but still kind. “I appreciate you introducing me to him, but I think I can handle it from here.”

She looks surprised. “Oh. Oh? I mean, how-”

“I don’t know,” Phil admits. “But I’d like to try and talk to him myself if he comes back in.”

She doesn’t particularly look convinced but she shrugs. “Fine by me. I’ll leave it alone.”

*

Cat does not leave it alone.

She does invite him to a party on Friday night.

Phil has no intention of actually going. He’s had his share of university parties. They’re fine, he’s got nothing against them, but it always feels a little strange being at university parties for a university he didn’t attend and knowing he’s at least a couple of years older than most people there.

But as fate would have it, Phil isn’t alone when Cat’s text comes through. Charlie’s sprawled out in his bed playing Phil’s XBOX as Phil works on editing a video advert for a local company. Phil doesn’t even realize it’s his phone that’s dinged with the message and not actually Charlie’s until Charlie whistles low and says, “Is my little Phil getting some pussy on the side?”

Phil’s face heats. He reaches out and snatches the phone from Charlie’s hand, seeing the name Cat on the screen. “No, we work together.”

“Meow meow.” Charlie grins. “She said something about a party tonight, asked if you’d changed your mind. Why are we not there already?”

Phil protests. Of course he protests. But Charlie’s persistent and somewhere in the back of Phil’s mind he thinks that it might be good for him to go out with Charlie and do the kinds of things that Charlie likes to do, now and then.

So he lets Charlie unlock his phone and text Cat asking for the address.

*

Charlie dresses him.

Phil sits on the edge of the bed and waits as Charlie goes through his wardrobe. He finds a pair of dark jeans and tosses them. Phil changes standing right there, hoping with half a curious thrill that Charlie might turn around and see but Charlie doesn’t.

“The maroon looks good on you,” Charlie says, turning with a shirt in his hands. “Looks good with your skin.”

“Does it?” Phil asks, pulling the shirt he’s wearing over his head and then slipping the maroon one on.

Charlie’s still staring, smiling a little. He reaches out and brushes Phil’s hair until it falls into place. The touch is sweet, but it doesn’t linger. “Yeah, it does.”

*

The party is loud and crowded, drunken students jammed into every crevice of the house. Charlie weaves through the people with ease and Phil follows behind, helpless to do anything else.

In his mind Phil sees this like a scene from a movie: he’ll run into Cat and she’ll be with Dan and he’ll introduce them both to Charlie and everyone else will be background characters setting the scene.

But this is real life and he doesn’t see Cat and he doesn’t see Dan and Charlie wants a drink so he slaps Phil on the ass and tells him to have some fun and then he’s gone and Phil is all alone and wishing he were anywhere but here.

*

Outside is better.

It’s still loud. There are still drunk people everywhere. But the air is less hazy with smoke and he can make for the gate that leads from the back garden to the road just as soon as those two people stop dry humping against it.

He picks up his phone, tempted to text Cat and ask where she is. He texts Charlie instead, a series of frantically upset emoticons with ‘WHERE R U’ in all caps, immediately following it up with ‘I hate you.’

Because Charlie knew exactly what he was doing, ditching Phil as soon as they arrived. Charlie’s done this plenty of times back at parties at York.

He gets back a blurry photo of Charlie and a guy Phil has never seen before. Something in Phil’s stomach still has the capacity to sour at the sight. He shoves his phone back into his pocket.

The couple at the gate have gone to find more private accommodations. The gate is clear and Phil isn’t sure when the next bus will run but he doesn’t much care right now.

Until-

“Smores!”

And suddenly it is a scene from a movie, because Phil turns around and Dan is standing right there.

*

Dan looks slightly drunk. His cheeks are pink and his steps are too wide in his hurry to close the distance between them.

“Hi,” Phil says, trying to ignore the squirm of nerves in his gut. “Dan, right?”

“Yeah. And you’re Phil.” Dan grins. “Who made me smores.”

“Smores coffee,” Phil corrects him, and then wonders why everything that comes out of his mouth makes him sound like an idiot. Of course Dan knew it was coffee.

“It was too sweet,” Dan says. “I threw it away before I got to campus.”

“Oh.” Phil’s smile falters.

Dan’s eyes go wide. “Shit. I shouldn’t have said that. I have like, no fucking filter when I’m drunk. Or sober, really. I didn’t mean - I just. You made me a special drink, and I liked that.”

“But you didn’t like the drink.”

Dan shrugs. “Just too sweet for me. But you can try to make me something else next time.”

“Next time?”

“Yeah, when I’m in the coffee shop again. I’ll come see you, right? And you can make me something else.” Dan asks with an expectant lilt to his voice.

Phil has no idea what to think.

“Sure, I’ll try. If you’re willing to give me a second chance and all.” Phil says, deciding to go for casual but vaguely flirtatious. He thinks. He’s not done that much flirting in his life. “So you’re not a sweet person then? I mean, sweets - not a sweets person?”

Dan just laughs. “I can be sweet. Sometimes. And I do like sweets, just not apparently sweets flavored coffee. Are smores even sweets, though? It’s more like a - snack. An American snacky thing.”

“I dunno,” Phil says. “I just know they’re tasty.”

“We used to make them at festivals, when they’d let us make campfires near our tents.” Dan sighs and looks up at the sky. “I miss having the freedom to just fuck off to festivals for a whole weekend.”

“You don’t have that freedom anymore?” Phil asks. Dan is talking so much. Phil sort of never wants him to stop, even if he knows it’s probably just because Dan is drunk.

“Uni is draining my fucking soul,” Dan says. He reaches up and pushes his fingers through his hair, then immediately tries to adjust it back to how it had been before he touched it. “Life is draining my soul. I’m sorry, you don’t want to hear some idiot complain-”

“You’re not an idiot,” Phil says immediately, frowning. “You’re not.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“I know you’re not an idiot,” Phil stubbornly repeats.

Dan’s face goes kind of soft. “You’re sweet.”

“But.” Phil smiles a little. “You don’t like sweet, right?”

“I dunno.” Dan steps in a little closer. “Maybe I like some sweet.”

Oh, this.

This is flirting.

It’s terrifying, and intoxicating, and definitely flirting.

*

 

If it were a film, the night might have ended in some fantastic kind of first for Phil.

Instead it ends five minutes later when Dan’s phone goes off. He checks it and sighs. “I gotta go, I’m - I kind of came here with someone and she wants to know where I am.”

Dan came here with someone.

A friend? A girlfriend? Phil has a million questions. He asks none of them, just says, “Yeah, of course. I was about to leave anyway.”

Is that disappointment on Dan’s face? Maybe. Phil suddenly trusts nothing. “Oh. I guess I’ll catch you later, then? For that coffee redo.”

“Yeah,” Phil says. He smiles at the ground so maybe Dan won’t see how much he likes the idea of that.

Dan doesn’t immediately walk away. He puts his phone back in his pocket and steps forward slightly, and then back again. “All right. Later then, Phil.”

“Goodbye, Dan.” Phil says, just because he can.

*

He finds Charlie around the front of the house, leaning against someone’s car. Phil does not need to ask what Charlie got up to. Charlie looks mussed and happy and drunk.

Phil is not drunk and he imagines is only the normal level of mussed that comes from being Phil Lester and never quite looking entirely put together but, apparently, he looks even happier than Charlie feels because instead of divulging all the sordid details Charlie asks, “Did you get laid?”

“No!” Phil’s face goes hot. “I did not.”

“Are you sure?” Charlie insists. “You’re kind of… glow-y.”

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” Phil says. “I’m pregnant.”

“Aww!” Charlie coos. “I’m so happy for you. How far along? An hour? Two hours? Half an hour? Am I in the right range?”

“Shut up!” Phil laughs, shoving Charlie.

“If you did, though,” Charlie says. “You could like, talk about it.”

“You just want to hear about my sex life.” Phil starts to walk. He’s still buzzing on the encounter with Dan, but it doesn’t mean he’s relaxed enough to really want to have this conversation. “I didn’t, though. I didn’t have sex.”

Charlie hangs back, not saying anything. Phil stops and looks over his shoulder.

He can’t quite read the expression on Charlie’s face, but then Charlie shrugs and laughs and doesn’t explain why. “Come on. Let's get you home, old man.”

*

Four days.

It takes four days for Dan to show up at the coffee shop again.

Phil shows more restraint than he ever has in his life. He doesn’t ask Cat, even though he picks up his phone half a dozen times and thinks about texting her. He doesn’t look at the door every single time he hears it open. He doesn’t take any extra shifts out of fear of missing Dan.

But maybe he shows up a few minutes early for each shift, and lingers a few minutes after… and maybe that’s a good choice. Fifteen minutes until he starts to work and he walks in to see Dan sat on one of the stools at the far end of the coffee bar, staring absently past the girl on duty and shredding a napkin with his fingers. Phil stands and just watches for a moment, watches a couple of the little white shreds drift to the floor where he’ll probably be the one to sweep them up later.

Dan looks up when the girl places a drink in front of him, giving her an absent smile. That’s when he notices Phil, and the smile grows bigger.

“Thought you were going to let me try to make you something else,” Phil says, sliding onto the stool beside Dan’s.

“I got impatient,” Dan says. He glances at Phil then smiles back down at the bar, sweeping his napkin bits into a little pile. “Sorry. I made a mess.”

“It’s fine,” Phil says. “Have you been here long?”

His stomach is full of that buzzy fluttery sensation, but he’s been wanting this for so long that he almost embraces it.

“Yeah, I got out of a lecture and felt the desperate need for caffeine.”

“I remember that feeling well,” Phil says.

“Yeah, you are an old man, aren’t you? Cat told me - I mean. She mentioned you graduated last year. Living the good life, right?”

Phil laughs. “Working in a coffee shop and still living at home with my mum and dad while I try to find a job? Sure, that’s the good life.”

“On the other hand, maybe uni isn’t so bad.” Dan pretends to shudder. “I almost took a gap year but I’d have spent it miserable and yelled at for loads of shit that didn’t make any sense. Decided it wasn’t worth it with how my parents were hounding me all the time even.. Go get a job, go get a better job, why aren’t your marks better, why were you out all weekend - like I wasn’t fucking almost ready for uni and to be out on my own.”

“Mine aren’t so bad,” Phil says. He does not add that he doesn’t have much of a social life and doesn’t do much that would raise their eyebrows anyway.

“So did you go to Manchester?” Dan asks.

Phil shakes his head. “York. I just live not far out from Manchester. I like the city, but I’ve lived here for all of my life so I wanted to try out uni somewhere different. It was great, though. I loved housesharing, I had so many housemates and it was weird at first but I got to know them. Or maybe they just got used to me. I was - I can be strange, I guess, to new people. But I was never lonely, and I liked that.”

Phil feels like he’s rambling but Dan is listening, actually listening and looking at Phil with soft eyes and rapt attention. Phil can’t remember the last time he felt so listened to.

Still, in the pause he takes for breath he says, “What about you? Why Manchester?”

Dan shrugs. “They let me in.”

“Oh.” Phil frowns slightly. “Well, that’s a reason.”

“I wanted somewhere away from home, and somewhere my ex-girlfriend wasn't. I like the city too, though. I did uni accommodations still for my second year because I never worked up the nerve to talk to anyone about housesharing, but I want off campus next year. I guess that’s a problem for future Dan, though.”

Phil laughs. “Yeah, I left a lot of problem for future Phil, who is currently me Phil, who resents myself for it.”

“I’m sorry, was that actually advice? You’re cute, but I have an irresponsible teenager standard to live up to - or fail to live up to.”

All Phil hears is you’re cute.

“So you think I’m cute?” He says.

Dan’s face goes pink, except for a spot on his cheek that is a ruddier reddish. “Shut up.”

Phil reaches out and pokes the napkin pile. “Okay, I will.”

“Hey, I didn’t-” Dan starts to say, frowning as Phil stands.

“I have to start my shift now,” Phil says, apologetically. The girl before him is standing with a toe tapping, ready to be able to leave.

“Oh. I guess I should go, too. I have some revising to go back to my dorm and not do.” Dan swings his long legs around and gets up, too.

There’s a moment where they just stand there, looking at each other. Then Dan laughs and turns to sweep his napkin massacre into a pile in his palm.

“I can just-” Phil holds his hand out, palm up. “We’ve got a bin behind the counter, I can take that.”

“Sorry,” Dan says, though Phil isn’t sure why. Their fingers touch as Dan deposits the mess into Phil’s waiting hands. “I’ll just. Yeah. See you later?”

“I hope,” Phil says softly enough to earn him one of those shy little smiles.

It’s enough to carry him through the rest of the day feeling like he’s slightly floating, until Cat walks in and takes one look at him and smirks. “First of all, I want to hear all the gossip. Second of all, I have a proposition for you. So we are doing dinner later, okay?”

*

The restaurant smells faintly of wet feet but the chips are nice and hot.

Cat shoves a couple into her mouth and chews halfway before she says, “So I’m going to this festival next week. It’s in Brighton, you like Brighton, right?”

“Brighton’s fine,” Phil says, absently. That’s really all he needs to offer to the conversation, usually. She’ll just keep telling him all the details of her life and he’ll keep letting his mind wander and they’ll finish their food and that will be that.

“Well, it’s awesome. It’s in Brighton, like I said, this guy I’m seeing rented a house on the beach so we can crash there and it’s fucking awesome, there’s even a hot tub. He got a super good deal on it but it’s a bunch of bedrooms and we still need to split it with at least like, six other people or we have to cancel it. We had four other people lined up but suddenly Jana decides she has too many exams and she’s not about to let her boyfriend go without her, of course, because he already cheated on her twice and- anyway, are you interested?”

“Huh?” Phil asks, raising his head when he realizes that she’s actually asked him something. He has to replay the last few seconds of conversation in his mind. “Oh, I don’t know. Music festivals aren’t really that fun to me.”

He’s actually never been to one. Even back in uni, his type of socializing usually involved more movies and drinking games in someone’s living room than stages and bands and body paint and drugs or whatever it is people get up to at those things.

“Well, do you think Charlie would want to go?” Cat asks, as though her friendship with Charlie extends beyond the occasional text as Charlie’s stolen Phil’s phone. “It’s next weekend so we need to find a couple of people fast.”

“I don’t know if…” Phil trails off, a spark of an idea forming in his brain that finds its way out of his mouth before he has a chance to second guess the wisdom of it. “Have you asked Dan? He likes festivals.”

Cat stares at him.

“What?” Phil asks, defensive.

“Nothing, I just - hadn’t. But I can, totally.” Cat says. She’s speaking carefully, like she’s afraid she’ll spook him. “And you’ll come? If I invite Dan? Because that’s a thing you’re doing now?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing.” Phil admits. “But yeah. I’ll come if you invite Dan.”

*

Phil regrets agreeing to go to the festival immediately.

He tries to tell himself that it’s just an outing with friends, but it’s a cold comfort. These aren’t his friends. Cat is barely his friend. Phil just agreed to spend two days with a group of people he mostly doesn’t know just because he finds a boy cute.

He’ll just back out, he decides.

But when he picks his phone up she’s already texted him. “Dan’s in!” it reads.

He puts his phone back down.

*

He almost cancels twice. He even gets as far as saying to Cat that he’s not sure he’ll be able to make it during one of their mutual shifts, but she smirks at him and tells him Dan would be all lonely and Phil blushes and another customer comes in and the conversation is swept away in the bustle of the afternoon crowd.

Charlie calls him on his way home one day. He’s just off the bus, walking through the remnants of a light drizzle.

“Come over,” Charlie whines. “I’m bored and I want a cuddle.”

“Your mum wants a cuddle,” Phil says. “I can’t. I’m almost home, and I’ve got some more work to do tonight, and mum’s expecting me for dinner.”

The idea of turning and walking back to the bus stop is unappealing.

“You’re always too busy for me,” Charlie says. “Being a responsible adult and all. You should live a little, Phil. It’s okay if you’re not home for dinner with your mum every night. I know you know how to have a good time. I’ve been there for a few of them. I’ve got pictures. Come on.”

Charlie doesn’t know about the music festival, but Phil can’t help but apply the words anyway. He thinks so long and quietly that Charlie says his name again to get his attention.

“You really think I should?” Phil asks. “Live a little?”

“Does live a little mean stop and pick us up a bottle of whiskey when you come to see me? Because if so, absolutely,” Charlie says.

“No, but really- am I that boring?” Phil sounds slightly distressed, because he is slightly distressed. This whole situation is just… slightly distressing.

“You’re not boring, you’re just-” Charlie pauses to think. He seems to understand the change in Phil’s tone. “You’re safe, you know? You’re Phil.”

“Safe,” Phil repeats.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Charlie says, voice careful. “You’re safe because you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing, and you don’t like it when things change too much too fast. You remember that time we got drunk and you said your worst fear was your parents getting old? That’s like, quintessential Phil. You’re comfortable with something the way it is and you don’t want it to change.”

“I’m safe, and boring.” Phil sighs. “Thanks.”

“Hey, stop that. No one’s allowed to give you shit but me. Because you know what else you are? You’re also a fucking brilliant best friend, and you put up with more shit from me than anyone else in the world ever has and you still don’t make me feel bad for it. You’ve got a totally fucked up sense of humor that I love and you’re going to be good at whatever you do because no one else can replicate the way your brain works. But if you think you need to take some more risks in life, you should. Sometimes it’s okay to do something that makes you feel like you’re not being very safe. No one should hold you back, not even yourself.”

Phil is standing outside of his house now. He feels overwhelmed to the point of no words coming to his mouth at all. It’s a long time before he says, “Thanks.”

Charlie doesn’t press for more. “So if we’ve got therapy out of the way, are you coming over or not?”

“No,” Phil says, hand on the doorknob. “I’ve got to pack.”