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waiting outside the lines

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His mum is at the kitchen table when he gets in.

She makes him something to eat, because he’s starving and she’s his mum and that’s what she does, put food in front of him no less than five times a day.

“How was your festival, then?” She asks.

“It wasn’t really my kind of thing,” Phil says. “But I tried it, and now I know.”

“There’s a good attitude,” she says. “Did you enjoy seeing Catherine?”

The floating feeling that’s been lingering since he said goodbye to Dan dissipates instantly. “She’s got a boyfriend, mum. And I’m not interested in her, anyway.”

“Whatever you say, dear.” She cuts a slice of cake. “Martyn’s bringing his girlfriend home for the weekend, by the way. We’re all going out for a nice meal. If you’d like to bring along a friend so you don’t feel so alone. Charlie maybe?”

He deflates further. Suddenly the cake in front of him isn’t so appetizing. “Sure, mum.”

*

Back in his room, he picks up his phone and stares at it.

Dan probably knows that Phil’s made it home by now.

Phil said he’d text.

Dan asked him to text.

He opens the messaging screen and sends a cat emoji with HOME!! In all caps.

Dan responds almost instantly.

(Phil definitely doesn’t imagine that Dan was sitting in bed in his lonely little uni hall room staring at his phone, waiting.)

took you long enough xP
dying of boredom already

Yeah, Phil writes back. Mum fed me.

Phil stares at the blinking dots until Dan’s next message comes through.

Jealous, Dan says. Even when I lived at home my mum didn’t feed me often.

My mum would feed you, Phil types.

Then he deletes it and writes another.

My mum makes great cakes. Come by and see me tomorrow and I’ll give you one.

Ok :)

*

Dan does come by the next day, but he comes by in the middle of the busiest rush.

Phil waves helplessly at him, but he’s not even at the register. One of the newer employees writes down Dan’s order.

“Caramel macchiato. If the barista back there can manage,” Phil hears Dan say, and laughs loudly enough that the girl beside him gives him a strange look.

What Dan doesn’t know is that Phil’s spent almost a week practicing his caramel macchiatos. He turns and puts it on the counter, lingering longer than he really should just to say, “Sorry. I can’t really-”

“Phil, it’s fine,” Dan says, taking his drink. “Text me later?”

Dan starts to walk away and Phil suddenly remembers what’s in his jacket pocket. “Wait!” He says, then turns to the girl whose name he really needs to learn. “I’ll be right back.”

She calls him something quite rude, thinking he’s abandoning her to a row of a dozen drink cups waiting to be filled. Normally it would send him into a panic trying to make sure she doesn’t hate him but now he cares more about getting into the break room where he’s put his jacket and grabbing the plastic container he brought with him.

Dan is still waiting in the throng of people closest to where they put the finished drinks. Phil thrusts it toward him with a rushed smile. “I promised.”

Dan looks down at it, grinning. “Thanks.”

“Come on,” the girl says, stepping on his foot. He jumps and she says a sarcastic, “Sorry.”

He gives Dan one more smile then turns around and starts to work on the drinks again.

*

Phil doesn’t get a break for another two hours, but when he does he checks his phone and finds a selfie from Dan holding his drink cup and and awkwardly trying to make a thumbs up with the same hand.

He saves the picture to his camera roll.

*

Weekend comes quickly, a mix of catching up on editing projects, applying to jobs, texting with Dan, and shifts at the coffee shop.

He has dinner with Charlie, sat around his family table with his dad and Charlie talking about Formula 1 and his mum asking none too subtly what Phil’s getting up to with his days.

“Are you staying over, Charlie?” Phil’s mum asks.

“Not sure yet, Kath, but you’ll be the first to know.” He gives her a ridiculous wink. “Come on, Philly. I want to show you that video on youtube I was talking about earlier.”

They collapse together on Phil’s bed. Charlie’s only an inch shy of being as tall as Phil, but they’ve never had a problem fitting on it together.

It feels different now, though. Phil is distracted by the closeness in a way he never was before. He can’t stop comparing it in his mind, thinking back to Dan. Touching Dan, hugging Dan, holding hands with Dan.

He’s replaying their beach walk in his mind and inserting edits - a take where he kisses Dan while the water laps in close, a take where he feeds Dan a bit of scone, a take where they don’t even make it out of the bed. Where he wakes up hard and leans over and kisses-

“Where are you at?” Charlie asks. He reaches out and plays with Phil’s hair, mussing it. He always tells Phil he looks better with his hair pushed back. “You’ve gone weird places in your mind again.”

Phil shrugs. “Just distracted, sorry.”

Charlie studies him. “So Brighton. Did that work out for you?”

“I don’t know,” Phil says. “I’m still figuring it out.”

*

Dan calls him on Thursday.

It’s the first time Dan has actually called him. He fumbles with his phone to answer.

“You have to help me,” Dan says. “I got invited to this party and you have to come with me.”

“What?” Phil feels about a million meters behind wherever Dan is at, like the conversation is halfway over before Phil realized it’s started. “A party?”

“Yeah. Someone in my hall is having a party and keeps telling me about this guy they know that they want me to meet. Which is fucking offensive, you know, that just because I’m into guys I need to hook up with what is probably the only gay guy they even know. Like, why would I-”

“When is it?” Phil interrupts him to ask. “You want me to go?”

“Yeah. I mean.” Dan’s voice goes hesitant. “If you want to.”

Does Phil want to go to a party? Not really.

Has Phil been trying to think of a way to ask Dan to hang out with him again since they said goodbye on Monday? Yes.

“Sure,” Phil says.

*

The original plan is for Dan to meet Phil after Phil’s afternoon shift. The plan is to get dinner together first and just hang out for a while before the party.

The plan is very nice, so naturally, it goes to hell. He’s set to get off work at six, but the girl whose name he still doesn’t know tenders her abrupt, foul-mouthed resignation that morning and Phil is asked - in a voice that’s more of a command than a request - if he can stay late.

“I’m sorry,” he says to Dan on his break, over the phone. “I can still come, but they couldn’t find anyone to cover the first two hours, so it’ll be eight.”

“That’s okay,” Dan says. He doesn’t sound too disappointed, at least. “I can still come meet you.”

“You don’t have to,” Phil says. The party is at a house not too far from campus, but in the opposite direction. He’d feel bad making Dan walk all the way from campus just to turn around and walk right back to the other side of it. “I’ll just meet you, okay?”

“Oh.” Dan sounds so disappointed that Phil almost takes it back. Before he can Dan says, “Okay, I’ll text you the address, then.”

*

Phil isn’t really sure what he was expecting. He remembers parties from his own uni days, and they were either silly affairs with his close friends or loud raucous things he barely stuck around long enough at to remember.

This is somehow both and neither. There are tables of booze and snacks, and groups of intense conversation, and beer pong in the corner with things written on each cup, and at least three people making out in various corners.

Phil is probably older than most of the people in this room but somehow feels younger than all of them. He is just picking up his phone to text Dan when he hears a loud, familiar laughter. He follows the sound down a hall and into a side room, a little lounge area with bean bag chairs and a television playing a show Phil has never seen before.

Dan has been at the party for a while already, apparently. He sways to his feet and smiles, making a beeline straight for Phil when Phil appears in the doorway. “Hey, there you are!”

He wraps his arms around Phil in a hug that Phil isn’t expecting. His lips brush Phil’s cheek in what Phil thinks is a kiss until he realizes Dan is whispering, “Save me.” Dan turns smoothly, taking Phil’s hand, and says, “Yeah, this is the guy I was telling you about.”

There is a guy with dark hair and dark skin giving him a less than impressed look. “Pete, right?”

“Phil,” Dan corrects for him.

Moving on impulse, Phil puts an arm around Dan. Dan tenses then relaxes, giving Phil a surprised but not unhappy smile. “Sorry I’m late,” Phil says. “Work. You know how it is.”

“Yeah.” Dan is still staring at Phil, still smiling at Phil, leaning into him.

*

Phil has spent a lot of the day wondering why Dan pointedly invited him to the party. Dan could have just not gone. He could have met the guy and explained he wasn’t interested. He could have handled himself, Phil is sure. Dan can take care of himself when he needs to.

But he didn’t. He invited Phil, instead. He chose to present himself with Phil by his side.

Is it a date? Is Phil his date?

He hadn’t really been able to figure it out, but now that he’s here he realizes that yes, he is definitely Dan’s date.

And he doesn’t mind it at all.

*

Phil’s had a few drinks.

So has Dan.

It’s not like before, not like the weekend. There’s something different. There’s something charged between them.

They end up on one of the bean bag chairs, drinks on the ground beside them. There’s a movie playing now but people are all talking over it. It would bother Phil if he really wanted to see the film, but with Dan’s fingers playing on the second button down of Phil’s shirt it could be a live action performance ten feet away and he still wouldn’t be paying it any attention.

Dan’s eyes are so pretty. His fingers are so long. His voice is so soft, trading whispers back and forth.

Phil wants to kiss him so, so badly. But there are people in the room, people watching them, and he can’t. So he settles for playing with Dan’s hair a little and keeping an arm around Dan and whispering things to make Dan laugh.

“Do you know what I miss?” Dan asks. Their heads are so close that their noses almost touch. “Sleeping beside you.”

“Yeah?” Phil is breathless.

“Yeah. I think you should come back to my dorm with me,” Dan says. His fingers curve against Phil’s throat, almost cupping his jaw. Dan has warm, large, gentle hands. “It’ll be late when we leave. I don’t want to make you get on a bus alone.”

Fear, cold and thick, sweeps over him. “Dan, I can’t-”

“Just.” Dan’s fingers flex. “Just to sleep, I promise. This isn’t a line. We don’t have to do anything. I just want to wake up by you, and maybe get breakfast again. I just. That was nice.”

“It was nice,” Phil agrees. He swallows hard. Dan’s eyes glance down to Phil’s adam’s apple, then to his lips, and up to his eyes again. “I’d like that.”

*

Phil doesn’t remember much about the walk from the house party to Dan’s dorm. What he does remember: sobering up slowly. The cat that slinks across their path. The way Dan’s hand stays in his, firm and warm, leading him.

*

It’s almost midnight by the time they’re standing in the small uni room.

“I didn’t realize we were there that long,” Phil admits. “I’m tired. I had to open at the coffee shop this morning.”

“And you worked until eight? Fuck, that’s a long time.” Dan stares at him. There’s something going on in that mind of his that Phil can’t begin to comprehend. He only catches the faint hint of something up when Dan says, “You probably wanted to go right home, didn’t you? And I make you go to a fucking university party instead.”

“I wanted to see you,” Phil says softly.

Whatever was building in Dan’s expression fades into softness almost immediately. “Fuck,” Dan says. “You’re too nice, you know that? You’re too perfect.”

“Dan.” Phil frowns. “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

Dan just shakes his head. “Come on, I’ll find you something to wear.”

*

Dan’s got a twin bed, much smaller than the one they shared at the beach house. He sits on the edge of the mattress while Dan tries to find a spare charging cable for Phil’s phone.

Phil is wearing a t-shirt of Dan’s and his own shorts. He’s self conscious about the bulge of his dick against the crotch, but they cover everything that needs to be covered.

“Hope you don’t mind getting cozy,” Dan says.

Phil looks at him.

The buzz of alcohol has faded now, but he still feels that strange mix of queasy adrenaline and happy anticipation through the exhaustion. “Isn’t that the point?” He says.

“I-” Dan stares at Phil, and licks his lips. “Yeah. I guess it is.”

Maybe, Phil thinks, more happy anticipation than anything else.

Dan grins and turns back to digging through the drawer. He finds the cord now, holding it up with a triumphant, “Ha.”

*

The duvet comes back. The light goes off. Their phones go onto the table beside the bed.

They’re so close.

“Is this okay?” Dan asks, resting his head on Phil’s shoulder.

Phil’s heart is in his throat. “Yeah,” he says. His hand comes up to rest on the back of Dan’s head. “It is.”

*

Phil lies in bed, listening to Dan.

He doesn’t think Dan is asleep yet, but neither of them are talking.

Phil is fine with that. He likes the quiet dark, and he likes feeling Dan next to him, and he likes not being expected to fill the silence.

He’s shared plenty of beds with plenty of people before. He’s even cuddled up to some of them, girls who were only ever going to be just friends, boys who laughed it off without feeling threatened or wary. Charlie - so many times Charlie, seeking affection in the ways that always came easy between them.

His mind won’t stop spinning, comparing and contrasting, trying to figure out what makes it different. In the end the only conclusion he can really come to is: it’s Dan, and maybe Phil, too. Dan makes it different. Dan makes Phil different.

Phil turns onto his side. He can hear Dan’s breath hitch. He reaches an arm out and rests his hand on Dan’s stomach. Dan says nothing, but he moves his own hand to rest on top of Phil’s. It’s thrilling in a way that makes Phil’s heart tap fast and his blood race.

Phil meant what he didn’t quite say about the things he can’t do yet. Dan, Phil is sure, meant what he said about just sleeping together. Everything feels like so much so fast, and Phil’s thoughts distract him well enough from what his body wants. But dancing inside the confines of these boundaries is a giddy kind of freedom, where Phil touches and that touch is welcome, where he realizes Dan is just as scared as he is and just as happy as he is, too.

It’s a while before either of them fall asleep.

*

Phil wakes up in Dan’s bed, with an aching bladder and an immediate sense of cold discomfort. This is uni living accommodations. If he goes to pee, he’s likely to bump into other students who live with Dan. What does he say if someone asks him why he’s there? Does he explain he’s a friend of Dan’s?

Some time in minute six of his escalating internal narration of awkwardness that has yet to happen, Dan wakes up. He stretches, and yawns, and then looks at Phil with sleepy blinking eyes. “Oh,” he says after a moment, and smiles slowly. “Yeah, that did happen.”

Phil doesn’t know what Dan means. When he opens his mouth, all he says is, “I really have to pee.”

And Dan definitely laughs at him, but that’s alright.

*

 

Dan insists he stay for breakfast, offering to buy.

“I’m never one to turn down a free breakfast,” Phil says, because it’s true.

Breakfast turns out to be McDonalds. “Student budget,” Dan says, apologetically.

“It’s fine,” Phil says. “They have pancakes. I really like pancakes.”

He also really likes that he’s sitting in a public food establishment wearing a shirt of Dan’s, and that their shoes are pressed together under the table.

“I’ll file that away,” Dan says. “In my mental Phil organizer.”

“What do you like?” Phil asks.

“Can’t go wrong with potatoes.” Dan bites into his hash browns.

“No, not breakfast. I mean.” Phil feels one of those strange spikes of anxiety, but his curiosity overrides it. “In life, you know. Tell me about yourself. What do you do, what do you like? I want to know all about you, Dan.”

“Oh.” Dan’s smile flickers, there but brief and then gone. “Not much to know, really. Shit at being a son. Shit at being a brother. Shit at being a student. Generally just, you know, kind of shit all around.”

“Dan!” Phil is slightly shocked to hear that. “That’s not true.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” Dan says. “But you wouldn’t really know if it’s true or not, would you?”

“I don’t know how you are with your parents or your brother, that’s true,” Phil says. “But you’re studying Law, aren’t you?”

“Doesn’t mean I’m good at it,” Dan points out. “I don’t do half my readings, I write every essay last minute and it shows. I always have really great ideas and I spent like, three fucking weeks researching stuff, and outlining in my head, and then suddenly the essay’s due in twelve hours and I go to sleep instead. And then I skip the next three lectures because I don’t want to be asked about the essay I didn’t do.”

Phil has no experience with this. He might have shown up to a few lectures hung over, might have stumbled half-asleep through some assignments, but he tried to at least land somewhere in the vicinity of good as a student. It wasn’t that hard when he found what he was doing interesting.

“And,” Dan says. He sits up a little straighter, giving Phil a smile that’s tight until suddenly it isn’t. “I’m skipping my lecture this afternoon, so that won’t help, either.”

Phil frowns. “Why?”

“Because we’re going to see a movie.” Dan grins at him.

*

The cinema is dark and the movie is loud. Dan jumps during moments that aren’t even that suspenseful, grabbing onto Phil’s arm and sliding his hand lower and lower until their fingers clasp together.

Phil has to think the thought to himself every few minutes: he’s holding hands with a boy in a cinema. It makes eating the popcorn a little more difficult, but Phil decides that Dan might actually be worth sacrificing maximum popcorn intake for.

He took a girl to the cinema once, when he was thirteen. He held her hand but she told him that his fingers were sticky and she didn’t want to kiss him. He hadn’t really been planning on kissing her anyway, but hearing that she didn’t want to kiss him hurt him all the same. His mum had dropped her back off at school and the next day her friend dutifully reported to Phil that if he asked her out again she might say yes. Phil did not want to kiss her and he did not want to take her to the cinema again, so he did not ask.

When Phil looks over at Dan in the dark of the theater, Dan looks back at him. Dan smiles and tilts his head a little, his fingers squeezing Phil’s.

The invitation is there.

They don’t kiss, but the look Dan gives him makes Phil realize that it feels more like a ‘when’ than an ‘if’ now. And that, perhaps as much as anything else, is why Phil pushes everything else out of his mind and lets himself be talked into staying around as long as he can.

*

“I have to go,” Phil says, as they finish a coffee. “My brother’s coming into town today. He’s probably already here.”

It’s not at Phil’s coffee shop. Dan had suggested it, laughing, but the idea of running into Cat while out with Dan was nothing short of mortifying.

“Older or younger?” Dan asks.

“Older. I’m the baby,” Phil says, smiling.

“I’ve got a brother, too,” Dan says. “Younger, though.”

“I remember you telling me that. You’re not close in age, are you?” Phil asks. “Martyn’s a few years older than me, but we get on well.”

“I haven’t talked to my brother since Christmas when I went home to visit,” Dan says. “I guess we don’t get along, but he’s thirteen. I don’t think he gets along with anyone.”

“Is that what you were like at thirteen?” Phil asks, teasing slightly. His coffee mug is empty now, but he keeps one finger hooked in the ceramic loop of the handle.

Dan looks carefully at him, then shakes his head. “Sorry, you haven’t earned enough XP to unlock that level yet.”

“Do I have a lot of-” Phil pauses, just slightly. “Grinding to do, then?”

Dan’s mouth actually drops open. “Oh my god, did you just.”

“Did I just what?” Phil bites his bottom lip.

“Wow.” Dan’s smiling and it’s a different smile, a secret kind. “I mean, yeah, though. That’d be one way to get there.”

Phil looks down at his cup. It’s definitely still empty, and now his face is warm, and those butterflies in his stomach are making dizzy circles.

*

They leave a few minutes later. Phil reaches out with curled in fingers and pretends he’s clawing Dan’s shoulder.

Dan laughs and calls him, “Weirdo,” and then snags Phil’s fingers to pull him into a hug. “Can we hang out again tomorrow?”

Phil rests his chin on Dan’s shoulder. “I have a double shift on Sunday, and my brother’s leaving Sunday night. So I have to spend the day with my family, but I can probably get away tomorrow night.”

“Good.” Dan lets go slowly, hands on Phil’s waist until he takes a full step back and then dropping them by his side. “I’ll see you then.”

*

Phil makes it back in time for the family dinner, but only just so.

Martyn stares at him when he walks in. “Mum says you didn’t come back last night?”

It is, Phil must admit, a bit out of character for him.

“I missed the last bus,” he says. It’s true. The lie by omission is that he missed it on purpose, that he had no intention of trying to make it by the time the hour grew that late. “A friend let me stay in his dorm.”

“A friend,” Martyn says.

Phil grips his fork more tightly. He doesn’t know what the repetition is meant to insinuate.

“I miss uni parties,” Cornelia says. “Have I told you about the time I accidentally ended up doing karaoke in front of a recording producer’s son?”

Martyn’s girlfriend, Phil decides, is his favorite person.

(Second favorite, maybe.

Behind Dan.)

*

Phil’s parents are in bed and Martyn is in the shower, abandoning Phil and Cornelia to watch television together.

“So who is she?” Cornelia asks.

She is no longer Phil’s favorite person.

“It’s not-” Phil stops. “There’s no girl.”

“Boy?”

Denial is on the tip of Phil’s tongue, but perhaps he hesitates too long.

Or maybe Cornelia is just very perceptive.

Her eyes widen slightly. “Oh, Phil, I didn’t know-”

“No one does.” He sounds desperately alarmed. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t.” Her voice takes on a soothing cadence. “It’s all right, though. You’ve got a boyfriend?”

“Not really,” he says. “I think, just. A boy I like. Who likes me. I stayed with him last night, but nothing happened. I haven’t, like - I’ve never- I just like boys. I just like Dan, right now, but I’ve always - I think I’ve always liked boys. And I don’t know what to do.”

The rational part of his mind wonders why on earth he’s volunteering all of this information. It’s not as though Cornelia has asked.

“Oh, Phil.” She reaches out and hugs him hard, squeezing tight until he relaxes. “Are you afraid of what people will say? If Martyn’s rude about it, I’ll punch him in the penis.”

Phil laughs. He feels so relieved, but still so empty at the same time. He wants to say he thinks that Martyn will be just fine, but he doesn’t know. That’s the problem, really. He doesn’t know and he’s always been bad at taking risks when he can’t guarantee the outcome.

She laughs with him, her eyes crinkle in the corners. She has a lovely smile, a lovely face. A lovely everything. Why, Phil thinks, he couldn’t he have met someone like her? It would make his life so much easier.

But then he thinks of Dan and remembers waking up beside him and feels that wonderful feeling in the pit of his stomach that he’s never felt with anyone before, and he can’t bring himself to feel bad in that way he always has.

*

Cornelia takes him out for breakfast the next morning.

 

Martyn is sullen but she kisses him on the cheek and threatens him bodily harm if he doesn’t shut it and spend some time with his mum like they came home for him to do.

“You’re not allowed to steal my girlfriend,” Martyn says, pointing at Phil.

“No promises,” Phil says, grinning.

He’s in a good mood after a half hour phone call with Dan and plans made.

He tells Cornelia as soon as they’re alone together. “It’s a date, isn’t it? I think yesterday was too, but since neither of us actually said it, I don’t think it counts.”

“But you want it to count tonight?” She asks.

“I do,” Phil says, surprising himself by how much he means it.

*

It is a date.

A nervous, sweet date with a nervous, sweet Dan who talks a little too loudly across the table from him at a restaurant that sells breakfast all day long and after they eat holds Phil’s hand like it’s an act of defiance as they walk into an ice cream shop for dessert, but still looks over at Phil to make sure that it’s okay first.

They arrive just as the shop is about to close. Dan asks Phil’s order and repeats it back with a confident, “I’m paying.”

Phil wonders if the girl behind the counter knows they’re on a date. If she does, she doesn’t seem to care, but Phil still wonders anyway. The idea that she is reading the situation correctly is somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying for Phil.

It’s a date with a boy. It’s a date with a boy that Phil likes maybe more than he’s ever liked anyone.

And he has liked people before. He’s liked girls, back in his school days - the girl who gave him his first kiss, then his first taste of what being forgotten felt like. And he’s liked boys, he’s had crushes - and he’s had Charlie.

It’s not that those weren’t real. It’s just that - they felt like muted version of a color he’s suddenly seeing vibrantly now.

It’s Dan, but maybe it’s also him. Maybe it’s that for the first time he sees something he wants and it’s worth trying to get.

“You’re so cute,” Phil says, almost helpless to it. He’s walking Dan back to his room, across a campus that’s mostly empty.

Dan ducks his head. He’s got a dimple just on the left side. “You should do something about that, then.”

Phil steps forward. He looks first; there’s no one around. But there could be. Anyone could see him doing this.

He drops Dan’s hand only to move in front of Dan and take them both. Dan’s eyes are wide. He looks excited, eager. Nervous, still.

They meet halfway in the middle, mouth to mouth in an unmoving press that holds for seconds before Dan moves away, kisses Phil’s bottom lip, then softer at an angle.

Phil doesn’t have too much experience with this. Just enough to say he’s got some, not enough to make him feel like he knows what he’s doing.

Dan doesn’t seem to have any complaints, though.

*

Dan invites him up. The student they pass in the hallway doesn’t give them a second glance, but Phil’s heart still feels like it’s going to pound out of his chest.

His mouth feels weird and tingly. His palms are sweating. He feel exhilarated again, his stomach flipping around choppily.

“So.” Dan turns and smiles at him sheepishly.

Phil smiles back, and then laughs nervously as he sits on Dan’s bed. “I don’t do this a lot,” he says. “You know. End up in boy’s rooms. Or. Any rooms. Besides my own. I’m there a lot.”

He needs to stop talking.

“I, um.” Dan looks up. “I did last year, some. I was just kind of - it was confusing, I was figuring stuff out. I hooked up with a few people, but this isn’t like. That. I hope not, at least. Because I really fucking like you.”

“I like you, too, Dan,” Phil says. His hands are shaking but he holds one out anyway, and then doesn’t breathe until Dan takes it and sits down beside him.

 

*

Making out is not what Phil thought it would be.

It’s not better or worse than he expected, it’s just different. He feels like he’s losing time to this, to the constant press and slide of Dan’s lips, to the way their mouths open and close together.

He hopes he’s not horrible at it, but Dan is making sounds that don’t give Phil any reason to think that he’s desperate for the kisses to end.

In fact, he seems desperate for them not to when Phil finally does pull away. He stops because he needs to, because he’s starting to feel like this isn’t real and he needs to look at Dan’s face and remind himself that it is.

*

“You’re amazing,” Dan whispers, mouth so close and breath warm against Phil’s damp lips.

They’re standing in the doorway. They’ve been kissing for so long - only kissing, but so much of it. “I have to go,” Phil says, for the third time. He’ll already be doing a double shift on what will amount to five hours of sleep by the time he’s gotten the late bus and walked the rest of the way home.

“You could stay here again?” Dan frames it more like a question than a statement.

“I can’t,” Phil says, apologetic but firm in a way that leads something worrisome to creep into Dan’s expression. “I’m working tomorrow and I don’t have my stuff with me.”

It’s not untrue.

But he also realizes that his brain only has room for so much new, and that he’s at his limit for new right now. Staying the night with Dan right now, sleeping in the same bed beside Dan, might lead to things that Phil isn’t sure he’s ready for.

He just wants some time to think.

“Fine,” Dan says, sulking a little. “Kiss me again before you leave?”

*

Charlie shows up on Sunday night. He sprawls across Phil’s bed, like he’s always done.

Phil’s only just in from his full day of work, one that he spent mostly lost in his own mind. He’s replayed kissing Dan about a hundred times, but the more the day went on the more he kept checking his phone.

Not a single text from Dan. Now he feels slightly queasy about it, but he’s still not sure that Charlie is a welcome distraction. If anything, Charlie just adds layers of confusion and conflict to what’s happening in his own brain.

“I feel abandoned,” Charlie says. “Come cuddle me.”

“I’ve just been busy.” Phil feels strange about Charlie being there. He’s never felt that way before. Charlie is his friend, his best friend.

He stays standing.

“Busy with work?” Charlie asks.

“Work…” Phil isn’t agreeing so much as just repeating what Charlie’s said.

Charlie looks at Phil like he knows Phil is lying, or about to lie. He doesn’t look sad, just - accepting.

Why does it make Phil feel so bad?

“Did you miss me?” Phil asks, in a small voice.

Charlie tilts his head, studying Phil. “Yeah, I did. Why?”

Phil sits on the edge of the bed.

He thinks of Cornelia, and how nice that went.

He thinks of Dan, and kissing him.

He thinks: small steps. One at a time.

“I’m not straight,” Phil says.

Charlie’s expression doesn’t change. “I know.”

“I like boys,” Phil says.

Charlie does smile now, just a little. “Yeah. I know, Phil.”

Kissing Dan was so nice.

Being with Dan is so nice.

“I liked you,” Phil says.

Charlie runs his fingers through his own hair. Is he nervous? Charlie’s never nervous. Loud, demanding, abrasive. Not nervous. “Liked? Past tense?”

“I don’t know,” Phil says.

It’s the truth.

The way he feels about Charlie is not the way he feels about Dan. They are separate and he can’t figure out if they’re supposed to be or not. He can’t slot them into neat little boxes like he thinks emotions are probably supposed to be easy to do.

Charlie sits up abruptly. He leans forward and puts his hands on Phil’s face, pausing only long enough to give Phil time to pull away, and then they’re kissing.

It’s - hurts. Not the kiss itself. The kiss itself is warm and soft and suction. It’s easy, and Phil doesn’t pull away. But he doesn’t pull away because he realizes as soon as Charlie kisses him that this will not happen again.

And that hurts.

Maybe it hurts Charlie, too. But Charlie doesn’t volunteer that. He pulls back and just waits for Phil to talk.

“We can have sex, if you want,” Charlie says.

He does believe Charlie. Charlie would have sex with him, because sex is not something that holds the same kind of value to Charlie as it does for Phil. There’s a lot about Charlie that Phil doesn’t understand, but Phil does understand that he’s been there for years and Charlie hasn’t wanted him yet.

“Would you be my boyfriend?” Phil says. He’s not asking. He just feels like he can’t be done with this until he knows.

Charlie does look sad now. “I’d try,” Charlie says. “And I’d be shit at it, and then you’d end up hating me. So… no. I wouldn’t.”

Phil nods. He feels very tired now. Letting go is an exhausting process, apparently. “That’s okay.”

“I’m proud of you,” Charlie says.

And that does mean something. It means a lot, more than Phil knows how to say, so he doesn’t try.

Instead he lets Charlie walk out, and picks up his phone to ring Dan.

*

“Hey,” Dan says. He sounds sleepy, but not at all upset to hear from Phil. “I want you to know this is probably the first time I’ve answered the phone in about a week. I think my grandma rang me last Sunday. If I could get away with not answering her I would, but she totally has that guilt tripping grandmother superpower.”

In the space of thirty seconds of Dan talking, Phil remembers how to breathe again.

He doesn’t, apparently, remember how to talk again.

“Phil?”

“Sorry,” he says. “It was just a long day, and I’m… I like hearing your voice.”

“Oh.” Dan sounds quietly pleased. “Well, that’s good, because for my entire life everyone’s told me I talk too much.”

“You talk just the right amount,” Phil says.

Dan just laughs.

*

He works with Cat on Tuesday night. It’s the first shift they’ve shared in almost a week.

“Food after work?” She asks during a quiet moment between customers.

“Can’t,” Phil says.

She gives him a surprised look. He’s always hungry and rarely unavailable after a shift.

“Um.” He’s known this moment would come. He’s been dreading it. “I’m meeting Dan.”

Her eyes go wide. Her mouth drops open for a brief moment before she gives him a huge smile. “I knew it! You guys are totally dating!”

Phil half-shrugs. “We haven’t labeled it yet.”

“Please,” Cat says. “You guys were practically picking out silverware by the time we left Brighton.”

Phil can feel how red his face is. His palms are sweating and it’s the sickening kind of nerves. He turns to the sink and starts to wash the used mugs from that morning, just to have something to do with himself. “It’s new,” is all he says.

He’s surprised to feel two arms go around his waist, a hug from behind that he doesn’t expect. He jumps and a mug clatters into the sink, thankfully not breaking. “I know I’m totally not the person you want to talk about this with, but I’m proud of you,” she says, then slips away as the ding of the door signals more customers.

*

Days are spent texting Dan, nights are spent staying with Dan until the last moment or skyping Dan if they’re away.

He does a lot of listening. Dan was right, he does talk a lot - but he talks like he hasn’t had anyone properly listen to him in ages. He talks like talking to Phil makes something better, and Phil is addicted to that.

He doesn’t feel one step below Dan on some imaginary ladder. He feels exactly even with him. He can be there when Dan is upset about a course he’s sure he’ll fail or to give him playful incentives to revise or when Dan’s just had a bad call with his parents.

And Dan listens to Phil; he listens to Phil talk about how he’s frustrated he’s still living at home. He looks at flats in Manchester with Phil, tries to help him figure out what costs are feasible. He makes Phil laugh when the frustration mounts.

Even just the fact of Dan in his life gives Phil a new motivation to look forward. He applies for more positions, works twice as fast and hard at the jobs he does get. His goal now is the same as it’s always been, he’s not rearranging any of his plans because of this new development… but now when he looks at flat listings he finds himself imagining forward, crafting the narrative in the space of his own mind: a place for him, with Dan.

*

“You’ve been spending a lot of time out,” Phil’s mum says. “Someone new your poor uninformed little mum should know about? Even when you’re here, you’re locked away in your room.”

Phil freezes.

He has spent a lot of time out, and all the time he spends in is put toward his editing working, applying for jobs, or Skyping with Dan.

“I’ve just been busy,” Phil says. “Working a lot.”

She doesn’t appear to believe him. He’s always been a bad liar, at least to her. “And is all this… work… making you happy, then?”

That at least he can answer truthfully. “Yeah, it really is.”

*

“Do your parents know you’re-” Phil stumbles over the right words, then realizes there might not be one. “Not straight?”

“Bisexual. You can say it.” Dan laughs and stares up at the sky, expression slowly fading into something less amused. “I guess so. Maybe.”

The impromptu picnic on the uni grounds was Phil’s idea. Dan wanted to see a movie instead, but Phil’s too restless in his own head for that today.

“Maybe?”

“I told them once. Kind of. We were fighting. I screamed it at them. We never talked about it again.”

“Oh.”

“And then I had a girlfriend, so it didn’t matter, you know?” Dan says. “I always figured I’d just tell them again when I had a reason to. So… maybe soon.”

“Yeah,” Phil agrees. “Maybe soon.”

“For, um. Me or you?” Dan asks, turning to look at Phil.

Phil hesitates, but being honest with Dan has never hurt him yet. “Me.”

“Some people don’t, you know.” Dan is careful and quiet with his words. “It’s not like it’s wrong if you need to take your time.”

“Okay.” Phil doesn’t know how to say that he’s afraid of taking too much time. That it’s not how his family works. They don’t keep secrets, and this feels like a secret now in a way it didn’t before - when it was just this thing he knew, this thing he felt like he had a handle on.

He doesn’t have a handle on this, whatever it is, with Dan. It’s an unpredictable adrenaline rush of kissing and talking about everything that ever has or could or might matter to them. He doesn’t know what being in love really feels like, but he thinks that if he keeps holding tight to Dan he might soon enough.

The thought isn’t scary when he’s with Dan, but it’s terrifying every time he’s not. He has to wonder if every hectic thought happening inside his head is written over his face every time his dad stops him to ask how his day has been or his mum wonders why Charlie hasn’t come around lately or someone at work asks him who he’s texting on his break.

*

Two days later, sat in the coffee shop an hour after closing time, because it’s raining and they’re not not ready to say goodbye.

“I don’t understand how people even know,” Phil says. “How people figure this sort of thing out.”

“Are you saying you didn’t know you were attracted to guys?” Dan asks.

“What does being attracted to someone even mean? I liked - I had feelings for someone before, but it wasn’t ever like… this.” Phil waves his hand between them.

“Or maybe it could have been, and you just weren’t ready?” Dan asks gently.

“Maybe,” Phil says. The conversation feels uncomfortable to him. It’s easier right now to act on what he’s feeling, it’s harder to stop and think about why.

“So what about me do you like?” Dan asks. “What do you find attractive?”

“Dan.” Phil looks sheepishly down. “I don’t know. Everything.”

Dan is smiling a little half smile. “Yeah?”

“Your eyes. Your hands. Your mouth.” Phil swallows, thinking of all of those things in succession, then deciding that he really doesn’t need to be thinking about any of them too hard at the moment. There’s no one around and the lights are dimmed so no could see them if they looked in the window, but the coffee shop still feels public. “Most of all, how I feel when I’m around you.”

“But you are attracted to me?” Dan asks.

“I’m-” Phil struggles again, always, for the right words. In the end all he can say is: “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Dan kisses him, one hand cupping Phil’s cheek. It’s slow but short, Dan keeping his face close by afterward but dipping his head down so his forehead is pressed against Phil’s neck, cuddled in. “I know this isn’t about me, but I think I needed to hear that. I don’t know what we are, and it’s fucking with my head.”

“What?” Phil asks.

“I can wait,” Dan says. “As long as we’re on the same page-”

“You don’t have to wait.” Phil frowns hard. “Why do you have to wait?”

“Because you’re-” Dan hesitates. “Not ready? You’re not even out to anyone, are you?”

“Some people know,” Phil says.

Cat, who he didn’t really tell. Cornelia, who guessed.

“Okay.” Dan doesn’t sound convinced, but he also doesn’t sound like he’s going to push Phil for anything more.

Which is the problem, isn’t it?

“Right.” Phil makes a decision, quick but not lacking in confidence. He’s hurting Dan, and somehow knowing that makes all the difference. It was only ever going to end this way, anyway. “I’m ready. We don’t need to wait. You don’t.”

“I’m stupid,” Dan says, kissing the corner of Phl’s mouth again. “But what do you mean?”

“I want to be your boyfriend, Dan.” Phil reaches up and pushes Dan’s fringe from where it’s fallen in front of his eyes. “If you want to be mine.”

Dan doesn’t answer out loud, but Phil figures the kiss he gets is enough of an answer anyway.

*

Dan.

Boyfriend.

The words rattle in Phil’s head over and over, alternately elevating him and crashing him down to earth again with the weird pressure of it.

He remembers Ian back in sixth form, dopey-eyed over his first proper girlfriend.

Phil hadn’t understood.

Now back in his bedroom surrounded by familiarity and distracted by something totally new, he does.

Dan’s facebook profile - the three pictures of himself and Dan already on there. He’s tagged in all of them, an innocuous but undeniable slice of Dan’s life there in full color behind the glossy screen of the phone.

He touches the picture just to see both of their names pop up.

 

*

His mum is in the kitchen.

He’ll probably regret it later, but he’s high on the adrenaline of Dan and what they are now. He takes a breath and says, “Can we talk?”

She looks up from the text message she was typing on her phone. “Of course, sweetheart. Do you want your father, as well? He’ll be home in an hour or so.”

The idea is tempting. Get it over with at once, rip the band-aid off.

But he thinks of his father’s joking time to be a man and the tool kits and the saws and the way his father’s face looked guarded when Martyn used to come around with his secondary school best friend, the one who liked boys and wasn’t the sort to try and hide it.

He remembers hearing his father asking Martyn in a kind but teasing voice if he wasn’t queer like Tony, and Martyn laughing at the idea, them both laughing over it.

“I’m dating a boy,” Phil says, because he suddenly realizes if he doesn’t now he might not ever. “His name is Dan, and he’s great.”

His mum doesn’t say anything.

His stomach drops.

“Mum?”

“Oh, it’s-” She starts, as if just realizing she’d fallen silent. “Just give me a moment.”

Her reading glasses are slipping down her nose. She’s looking at him, and he looks back. This is probably the most scared he’s ever been in his life. He wants to cry, or take it back.

She stands and hugs him. “Oh, sweet boy, it’s all right.”

She smells warm and comfortable, like home. He hugs her back tight.

“It’s just a lot, you know,” she says. “Just give me a bit of time.”

“Should I tell Dad?” He asks.

She pulls back. Her smile is there, but forced. “Let’s not just yet, all right?”

He feels hollow, not sure if it’s a good or bad thing.

But it’s done.

“Why?” He asks.

“I’ll make a nice dinner next week,” she says, which isn’t really an answer at all. She smooths hair back from his forehead and her hands are shaking just like his do sometimes. “We’ll sit down and all talk it out, you me and your dad. Maybe on Sunday, we haven’t had a proper roast in a while.”

“Mum,” Phil says quietly.

“Yes?” She stops touching his hand, her hand dropping to her side.

“Is it okay?” He feels almost like crying, no real tears but that thick burning feeling in his throat. “That I like- that I have a-”

She hugs him again. It’s normal for their family. They’re huggers. It just usually feels a little more comforting than this. “You are my baby boy.”

It’s not the answer he wanted. It’s not even really an answer at all, but he doesn’t have it in him to ask again. Instead he stands there while she bustles around the kitchen, taking a piece of cake when she offers it, listening to her monologue about her church group, and trying not to think of how bad this feels.

*

“Wow,” Dan says, when Phil tells him.

They’re side by side on Dan’s bed. The plan was to watch a movie, but they haven’t gotten there yet. Dan could tell that Phil wasn’t really okay the minute Phil showed up.

“She seemed alright,” Phil says. “She said she just needed some time to think, and that we can sit down and have a family dinner next week if I still want to.”

“If you still want to?” Dan asks. “Does she think you’ll change your mind?”

Phil shrugs. “Maybe. I won’t, though.”

“I know you won’t,” Dan says, reaching between them to take Phil’s hand. “Hey, come here.”

Phil turns to Dan and lets Dan pull him in. Their bodies are long, Dan easily as tall as Phil, but they fit well together. He rests his head on Dan’s shoulder and breathes in the smell of a well-worn hoodie and the clean boy underneath.

Dan smells so good. Phil nuzzles into it softly, and then lifts his head. He doesn’t have to say anything; his eyes meet Dan’s and that’s enough. Phil holds his weight up over Dan and Dan’s mouth is willing and ready when Phil meets with his own.

*

He texts Charlie that night.

Came out to my mum tonight.

They haven’t spoken in two weeks, but he gets back a text within two minutes. It’s just a string of exclamation points. A second one follows that reads, Proud of u! Lose ur cherry?

He thinks of the night before with Dan, the heated kisses and wandering hands. Not yet, he says, because it’s Charlie and Charlie’s always been the one he could tell things (some things, most things) to. Something inside him feels loosened and relieved by being able to tell Charlie this thing now, too.

If your bf is hot I’m gonna steal him, Charlie texts back. Lucky for u i’m in London now.

Charlie’s disappeared a few times before. In the past it always sent Phil into a sulk, a spiral of wondering why Charlie didn’t tell him, how long Charlie was going to be gone for.

Now he’s just curious. London?

Gonna try to get a JOB, Charlie says. Maybe my own flat. U can come visit me and I can steal the boytoy then.

Good luck, Phil says. On the job. Not stealing my boyfriend. Besides, I don’t think you could. He likes me.

There’s a long pause before the reply pops up. Guess he’s alright then.

*

The coffee shop is emptying out for the day, tired students packing up their revising and trotting back to their homes or halls for the night.

Phil is busy doing some of the clearing up. He’s not paying much mind to the opening and shutting of the door, assuming no one new would come in this close to closing. He doesn’t look up at all until Cat leans in and whispers to him, “Hey, there’s a guy checking you out over there. He’s pretty cute, you should go for it.”

He glances over his shoulder and sees Dan leaning against the counter.

Smiling, Phil leans back in to Cat and whispers, “You’re right, he is cute. I think I will.”