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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.”

Chapter Text

“Where are you going again?” Phil’s mum asks him.

She’s just curious, he knows. She’s never made him feel like he had any obligation to stay at home all the time, even though he’s living in his childhood bedroom. His parents are both pretty good about that, with Phil and his brother both.

Right now, Phil wouldn’t really mind if she just up and forbade him from going. He wonders what kind of trouble he’d have to get into to earn that kind of punishment, the sort his parents haven’t even tried to inflict in years. The idea makes him laugh and she laughs with him, maybe at him, fondly.

“A music festival,” he answers her.

“Well, that’s not very like you,” she says.

She’s right. It isn’t. Phil’s never been into music like that, outside of a few bands he used to buy all the CDs for. “A friend invited me.”

“A friend?” His mum can’t mask the curiosity in her voice. “What sort of friend?”

“Her name is Cat,” Phil says, about two seconds before realizing what kind of assumption his mum will draw from that.

He could correct that assumption. He could say Cat has a boyfriend.

He doesn’t say that.

“The one you work with at the Starbucks?” She asks. “I didn’t know you were that close to her.”

“We’re not really,” Phil says. “But I went to a party she was at last week, and she said a friend of hers backed out of the festival trip and they needed one more to afford the house.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll have good fun there,” she says, smiling at him. “And you can always call me or your Dad if it’s not working out all right. We picked you up early from sleepovers when you were six and we’ll still do it now that you’re twenty-four.”

“Mum.” Phil laughs. “I appreciate it, but I think I can make it through the night now. Plus, it’s in Brighton - you’d drive four hours just to pick me up because I wasn’t having fun?”

She leans over and brushes his fringe back from his forehead. “We’d drive twenty if we needed to.”

*

“What? I thought we were taking the train?” Phil asks, voice steeped in confusion.

Cat just laughs, oblivious to the growing expression of dread on Phil’s face. “Antoine rented a van! It’ll fit all of us, it’s perfect. So much better than the train, right? I mean, that was gonna take like five hours, and we couldn’t blast our tunes or anything.”

She keeps talking. Phil does not keep listening. All he can think about is how that one time he sicked all over the back of his aunt’s passenger seat when he was too nervous to tell her that he needed her to stop the car.

Sure, maybe he was nine back then, but he’s still not entirely confident in his ability to endure the drive or to call attention to his particular sensitivity to motion when in a car full of people who aren’t immediate family.

She leans in close. “You can sit by Dan. I’ll even make sure you’re in the back.”

“I really don’t-” Phil starts to say, but she’s turning away in a whirlwind of brown hair and blunt American accent shouting across the bonnet of the van to where a man that Phil assumes is Antoine is talking on his phone.

He’s left to stand there with the bag containing his clothes for the next few days by his feet and his backpack hooked over his shoulder.

“Hey,” a familiar voice calls out.

Phil jumps, foot colliding with the bag of clothes he’s got resting by his foot. “Dan! Hi!”

“Hi. Hey.” Dan says again, completing the cycle. “Are we the first ones here?”

“Cat and Antoine are over there,” Phil says, gesturing loosely. “I’m not sure who else is coming.”

“Oh, you don’t know them either?” Dan asks. “I assumed you did.”

“Nope. I think you and I were both last minute invites,” Phil says. “She only asked me last weekend.”

“Yeah she texted me on Tuesday.” Dan sounds slightly bewildered and slightly curious. “Can’t quite figure out why. We’re friends, I guess, but we’ve only hung out a few times outside of our courses.”

“Yeah that was, um. Me.” Phil shrugs sheepishly. He could lie, he could try to play it cool - but he doesn’t trust Cat not to blow his cover anyway. “She was desperate for a sixth person to split the place with, and I remembered you saying you missed festivals…”

“Oh.” Dan’s voice and his smile both go slightly pleased in a way that makes Phil feel like there’s warm syrup pooling in his stomach. “Cool.”

*

Cat not so subtly directs Dan and Phil to the very back of the van. The two people in front of them seem nice enough, but Phil can’t be bothered with too much more than basic polite conversation. He’s never met them before and he’s not really familiar with all the bands they’re eager to get to see. Cat and her boyfriend are, and the four of them get swept up in their excitement enough that Phil doesn’t feel bad directing his attention back at Dan, who has stayed quiet through most of the introductions.

As soon as they’re on the road Cat turns around in her seat.

“So, we have snacks and drinks in the cooler and don’t worry, I have like the tiniest bladder in the world so I’m sure we’ll be making plenty of stops. I know you giraffes in the back will probably need to stretch your legs!”

Phil laughs weakly, but his relief is fierce. Maybe they’ll stop often enough that he won’t have any long stretches of queasiness.

*

It hits Phil about fifteen minutes in that Dan is a stranger.

He is sat with a stranger he somewhat stalkerishly arranged into spending time with him. What does he even know about Dan? That he’s a student at Manchester, that he doesn’t like sugared coffees, that he enjoys music.

“So,” Phil says.

“So.” Dan looks at him, almost expectant.

“I don’t know,” Phil admits, laughing.

Dan laughs too, awkward but with crinkling at the corners of his eyes. “I’m so shit at conversation. I should have warned you first, and given you the option of sitting somewhere else.

“I don’t want to sit anywhere else,” Phil says. It comes out a little more intensely than he’d planned, but Dan smiles. “We’ll just have to get to know each other.”

“Well,” Dan says, dimple still showing ever so faintly. “If we have to.”

*

Dan has parents he doesn’t talk to much, a brother he doesn’t get along with much, and a grandmother he loves.

He has two friends on his floor (described as such with an expression that indicates less than actual friendship) who spend every night going out and getting pissed, while Dan has decided he’d rather stay in and play video games. (Though, he admits, he did his fair share of going out and getting pissed his first year.)

He thinks Phil’s degree in post-production is the coolest thing in the world. The envy practically radiates off of him as he asks Phil a million questions, and makes Phil promise to show him some of the projects he did in his final year.

(There is, admittedly, a moment where Phil almost rethinks the entire thing as Dan tells him that he’s never seen Buffy before. But Dan is very cute and Phil has committed to this, so he settles for telling Dan that he’s got to borrow Phil’s DVD set and educate himself.)

Dan doesn’t like law that much and he’s not the best student. He loves watching videos on the internet, between the two of them they can name almost every Pokemon, and music is almost a religious experience for him. Phil files away each new piece of information, letting it add texture to the scenes already set in his mind.

*

It’s two hours into the long stretch of road when things get narrow and curvy and Phil’s stomach begins to protest the journey.

He begins to talk less, opting for long breaths that he holds in and lets out carefully. Dan notices that the conversation lags. He begins to shift, uncomfortable. He hasn’t given any indication that he’s bored with the conversation, but Phil is sure his sudden reticence will be taken as Dan thinking Phil is losing interest. Phil desperately wants for Dan not to think that, but also desperately doesn’t want to vom all over Dan’s lap.

The third time Dan says something and Phil doesn’t respond, he laughs awkwardly. “Am I boring you?”

“No!” Phil says, a touch too loudly. The guy in front of them glances back, but loses interest immediately. “No. I’m just-”

“What?” Dan frowns slightly.

Phil hesitates, but decides honesty is the best policy. Or maybe it’s more like, forewarned is forearmed. Either way: “I get motion sick.”

For about ten seconds, Dan looks at Phil like he thinks Phil is about to hurl at any second. “So like, how bad-”

“It’s not usually that bad,” Phil says. (He’s lying.) “But this long in a car-”

Dan frowns sympathetically. “Do you have anything you can take?”

“Not really,” Phil says. “Sometimes just closing my eyes does. Or distracting myself.”

“Does music help?” Dan asks. He reaches out and picks up his headphones, smiling a little. “We can share? Just, you know, I take my music listening very seriously.”

*

Phil drifts in and out of a queasy daze of half-sleep with Lines of Symmetry soft in one ear and the feeling of Dan’s shoulder pressed to his so the split earbuds don’t pull.

He’s disappointed that he isn’t able to really make use of the time with Dan, but Dan doesn’t seem upset by it. Twice when Phil looks over Dan’s eyes are closed and he’s smiling peacefully.

When they make their final stop, Phil has never been happier to stumble out of a car - and stumble he does, literally. His legs feel like noodles and he sucks in crisp, clean air as his stomach gives a final lurch then starts the slow process of settling.

He jumps slightly at the hand on his back. “You made it,” Dan says, giving a little yaaaay under his breath. “Lunch intact.”

“Thank God,” Phil says. He leans back into Dan’s touch for just a moment, before reaching to grab his bag and follow everyone else inside.

*

The house is nice - tall and narrow, tucked into a row of them in view of a rocky beach and the water. The owner is there, but only long enough to pass off keys, which Cat disperses - one to each pair of people.

“They only gave us three,” she says, apologetically, to Phil and Dan. “You guys will just have to stick together, I guess!”

Cat is definitely not subtle.

Phil doesn’t realize the depths of how unsubtle she is until he realizes that there are only three bedrooms, and each of them only contains one bed.

“Are you serious?” Phil hisses at Cat, cornering her in the kitchen after dropping his bags into his and Dan’s room. “There’s only one bed!”

It’s probably the closest to actually angry that she’s ever heard him sound. All she does is laugh. “Oh my god, you look like you’re about to pee yourself. Calm down! It’s two days, it’ll be fine. And if you decide you’re not into it - or he’s not into it - there’s a blow up mattress in the storage closet. I just didn’t mention it because I figured you might want to like, work some magic there. Finesse the situation.”

Phil calms down almost immediately at the understanding that he hasn’t trapped Dan in a situation he might not want to be in, with no escape. “Okay. Good.”

*

Dan is still sitting on the bed. He’s typing something on his phone, but looks up when Phil walks in. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I just - I went to ask Cat about. About the.” He gestures at the bed. “She said there’s a blow up airbed in the closet.”

Dan looks behind him, then back at Phil. “Do we need it? Are you uncomfortable sharing?”

Phil undergoes approximately fourteen reactions at once in response to that. At least three of them are physical, and he hopes at least the blush on his face isn’t too visible. “I just thought you might be.”

Dan flops back and then scoots back further, until his long legs kick out a little and his feet don’t touch the floor any more. “This thing is huge. We could fit five people in it if we want to.” He props himself up on his elbows. “Though maybe we’ll just stick to me and you, for now.”

“For now?”

“Sorry.” Dan sits up again. “Bad joke. I make those. A lot. Mostly when I’m nervous.”

“You’re nervous?” Phil can’t stop repeating Dan, apparently.

“Yeah, just.” He tilts his head and looks at Phil. “I get weird, like. Anxious and all. Around new people. In new places.”

“Oh.” Phil’s heart thrums a little. He crosses the room and sits by Dan on the bed. “Are you nervous around me?”

Dan smiles. “No. I mean, maybe. But not too much.”

“Good,” Phil says, surprisingly fiercely. “I don’t want you to be.”

“We’ll just have to get to know each other very well this weekend, then I won’t be at all.” Dan’s voice is playful.

“Okay, party boys!” Cat announces, popping her head in the door. “We’re heading to the store to grab some snacks and stuff to make dinner tonight. You want to come, or are you going to hang here?”

Phil glances at Dan.

Dan glances back at Phil.

Neither of them speak.

“... come on, haven’t got all day,” Cat says.

“I’ll go,” Phil says-

-at the same time Dan says, “I’ll stay.”

They laugh, slightly awkwardly.

Cat looks like she wants to laugh, too - but at them. At Phil, probably. Embarrassment burns.. “Come on, Lester. You can be my coffee consultant.”

Phil stands, but looks back at Dan. Dan smiles at him, and he doesn’t look at all like he’s teasing Phil. “I’ll be here,” he says softly.

*

Phil does consult on the coffee selection. He also consults on the cereal selection, the biscuit selection, the frozen pizza selection, and the general nibbles that Cat instructs him to buy.

“Wow,” she says, almost impressed with how many bags of crisps and popcorn he’s put in the trolley. “You realize we’re stocking for the weekend, not the apocalypse, right?”

He grabs a box of granola bars, and some bananas.

“So I’m thinking hamburgers tonight, since Antoine really wants to get his hands on that grill on our deck - did you even see the deck?” She asks, bouncing in her excitement. “So I got the burgers, buns, condiments, cheese- what, what is that face? Anyway. Pickles! And then, okay, what else? Antoine and Finn went to get the booze, so…”

“Cups?” Phil suggests.

“Yes! Good idea. I knew I brought you for a reason.” Cat says, punching him in the arm. “Hey, you should text Dan and ask him if there’s anything special he wants.”

It’s a normal enough request, but she’s definitely teasing him again.

“Stop that,” he says, frowning. “Can you just-”

He wants to be firm, to be clear, but the words just won’t come out.

“Stop what?” She just laughs. “Come on, I just think it’s cute. You guys are so into each other, you just talked for like five hours straight and as soon as we got to the house you disappeared together.”

“Because you put us in the same bedroom!” Phil says.

There’s an odd, warm feeling that comes with her words, though - at the implication that this is mutual, that Dan is into him.

*

When they get back with the shopping, Dan is in the large open space that serves as kitchen, dining room, and lounge. The other two people (Finn, Phil thinks, and the girl has a name that starts with an M but he can’t recall what) are laughing over something together but Dan’s staring down at his phone.

He looks up when Phil walks in, and puts the phone away. “Need help?

“Yeah, there are a few more bags in the car,” Cat says. “We got the Malibu you wanted.”

“Brilliant,” Dan says, brushing by Phil to get out the door.

*

Dan is drunk.

He’s drunk sat on the floor by the sofa that Phil’s on, his back against the arm of it.

(Phil is drunk too, but less drunk, because he keeps thinking that if he drinks too much he’ll be ill and he doesn’t want to accidentally sick all over Dan.)

Dan is louder when he’s drunk.

He’s friendlier, too.

He’s been making conversation with Meena for ten minutes now. They’re talking about a band that’s playing tomorrow. Phil’s never even heard of the band, but he’ll just assume they’re bad and he’d never want to listen to them anyway, because he’s mature like that.

He’s almost distressed with how much he wants Dan to be paying attention to him, mostly just because no one else is. Cat’s on Antoine’s lap across the room with her hand somewhere Phil doesn’t care to investigate and Finn is passed out snoring on the sofa.

Meena is giggling at something Dan is saying.

Phil thought that she and Finn had come together, but maybe-

Maybe he’s wrong.

He stands abruptly.

Dan and Meena both look at him.

“Another drink,” he says, holding his glass up, even though his glass is still half full.

He doesn’t wait for them to call him on it. In the kitchen he stands and tries to gather his thoughts, hard against the rising tide of apprehension. What if he’s made a complete mistake of all of this? What if Dan is straight, or bisexual but more attracted to Meena? What if he has decided he doesn’t like Phil at all? What if he never did? What if Phil misread it all?

“Hey.” Dan’s voice interrupts Phil’s mental crisis.

His voice and then - his hands.

On Phil’s hips.

Followed by his chin, on Phil’s shoulder, and then his voice in Phil’s ear. “You left me all alone.”

Phil’s stomach is doing flips for a different reason now. “You had company. You and Meena are getting on well.”

“Oh, you-” Dan starts, then stops. When he speaks again all he says is, “She’s nice. I think she invited me to a threesome, but I’m not feeling it. I needed another drink too, want me to make yours?”

“Sure,” Phil says, and then stands there watching Dan’s back as he makes two more drinks.

*

There’s music, loud music.

Finn is awake again. Cat and Antoine have detached momentarily. Meena, for some reason, is only wearing her bikini top.

Phil really didn’t want to get this drunk, but Dan was liberal with his rum and Phil’s head is swimming now.

It’s okay, though, because Dan didn’t sit on the floor again. He sat right beside Phil, and he’s still there now. When he laughs he turns his head into Phil’s shoulder and when a song he likes starts to play he sings it right at Phil.

Phil can’t actually remember why he was even worried.

*

Dan’s head on Phil’s shoulder.

He’s half asleep, Phil can tell. Phil also desperately wants to go to sleep but can’t bring himself to move. Dan’s so close that Phil can smell his shampoo. It’s titillating.

“Hot tub?” Cat says, suddenly. “There’s totally a hot tub.”

“Fuck yeah!” Meena says.

Finn starts taking his shirt off.

“Ugh,” Dan groans. His voice is so low that Phil is probably the only person that can hear him, barely more than a mumble. “Nope. Nopety. Nope.”

“No hot tub for you?” Phil asks, teasing. Maybe teasing. He doesn’t want to take his shirt off in front of these people, but he wouldn’t mind seeing Dan with a shirt off.

“I want to go the fuck to sleep,” Dan announces, more loudly.

“Then go the fuck to sleep, man,” Cat says. She can barely stand up straight. “You do you!”

Dan gets to his feet and grabs Phil’s hand. “C’mon, we’re going the fuck to sleep.”

“We are?” Phil asks, eyes wide.

Dan nods and tugs until Phil stands up, then he turns to everyone else and gives an exaggerated wave goodnight.

Cat whistles after them.

*

Phil does not get to see Dan without a shirt on. He disappears into the bathroom and comes back wearing the same shirt but only underwear. “It’s hot,” he says. “Will it bother you if I only wear pants?”

“No,” Phil says. Dan’s legs are very long. Phil, already in bed, tries not to stare.

“I brushed my teeth,” Dan announces. He’s swaying on his feet, still very drunk.

“‘s good,” Phil tells him. “Hygiene is important.”

Dan laughs like that is very hilarious, and then he’s under the covers beside Phil. He reaches out and pats Phil, possibly aiming for his arm but landing in the middle of Phil’s chest instead. “G’night.”

His breathing turns into a rumbly half-snore almost immediately.

“Goodnight,” Phil says softly.

*

Phil wakes up in bed alone. The room is dark and the door is shut but he can hear voices distantly. He dresses completely before he joins them, finding solace from his hangover in the toast, eggs, and paracetamol offered to him.

Morning is just creeping into afternoon when they step foot onto the festival grounds.

It’s - fine, Phil supposes, to begin with.

It’s loud, and the scent of weed is thick in the air. He recognizes it well enough from uni, housemates who indulged regularly.

He doesn’t like the smell much himself. It’s cloying and it makes him feel strangely young, like he’s not quite adult enough to be put in a situation where it’s his sole responsibility to explain that he’d just rather not.

Dan sticks with him for the first half hour, but it’s so loud and hectic that they don’t talk much. Phil feels his skin starting to crawl and his headache is back, maybe the hangover or maybe something totally new.

He leans in close to Dan to shout, “I’m going to get some water!”

Dan squeezes his arm in acknowledgement and smiles.

*

The only place to get water is the stand for food, and the queue is fifty people deep with workers moving at snail’s pace. Phil waits it out half an hour, playing games on his phone and texting his brother pictures of the festival since he’d asked.

Martyn says it looks like fun. It would be fun, Phil thinks, for Martyn. This would be entirely the right scene for him.

But it isn’t for Phil. Phil loves music, but not like this. Not this music, not this many people, not such a hot sweaty mess of a day.

There are still ten people in front of him in line. He looks at the time display on his phone again and sighs. He could walk back to the house in less time than that.

So that’s exactly what he does.

*

He’s not sure if Dan even notices that he doesn’t come back. If he does, he must not care, because he doesn’t text. (Even though Phil checks his phone every five minutes to see.)

He feels - something strange. Frustrated, and let down.

Emotions are exhausting. It’s a roller coaster he suddenly wants off of.

Unsure of what else to do, he picks up his phone and does what he always does when he feels out of his depth - calls his mum.

Unfortunately, his mum does not answer, so he settles for the next best thing and calls Charlie instead.

“I tried to call you twice this morning, arsewipe.” Charlie answers with a tirade. “You aren’t home, your dad said you went to some kind of music thing? Do you actually have other friends now? I’m wounded.”

“You’ll live,” Phil says. He’s back in the bedroom - in the bed he slept in with Dan - because the privacy feels nice. “Yeah, Cat - you remember her right, she invited us to that party - she had someone back out at the last minute and invited me.”

“Huh.” Charlie seems contemplative. “Are the rest of the people there from the coffee shop?”

“No,” Phil says. “They’re friends of Cat.”

“Friends you didn’t mind traveling five hours away with, for a music festival even though you hate being around really loud music and drunk people?”

Phil suddenly regrets calling Charlie. “I am trying new things.”

“Trying to bang her, you mean.”

“I do not want to - it’s not like that.” Phil says. “She’s here with her boyfriend, anyway.”

“Then you must really want to bang someone else there.”

“Not everything is about sex.”

“Five hour road trips to places you hate are usually about sex.”

Phil groans. “If this were about sex, would I be ringing you?”

“If you haven’t managed to get the sex yet, maybe. I mean, I don’t know how hard up you are. Come on, Lester, fess up and I can give you some tips on how to get it in.”

For just a moment, Phil actually considers it. He actually considers telling Charlie all about Dan, and letting Charlie guide him.

If there’s anyone that would accept him, it would be Charlie.

But the idea of Charlie accepting Phil liking another boy, the idea that Charlie would be happy about it, would want to give Phil advice… it would destroy something small and fragile Phil has kept so carefully protected for years.

Besides, he knows how Charlie is with boys and he’s not sure that the advice Charlie would give him is advice he really wants to take.

*

Dan comes back before everyone else, but still verging into late evening. Dan looks sweaty and tired, his hair curling at the tips. “You disappeared on me.”

He flops down beside where Phil is on the sofa watching television. He smells like grass and sweat and looks so good that Phil trains his eyes straight ahead. He’s never met someone he just wanted to stare at so much before.

“Yeah, it was-” Phil debates lying, and decides in this case it is the best option. “There weren’t any bands that I was really into today.”

Dan looks at him so long that it feels slightly uncomfortable, then turns away. “So what kind of stuff are you into?”

“What?”

“I mean, if not things like this… what do you do for fun?”

“Video games,” Phil says. “Making films.”

“You make films?” Dan sounds impressed. “You said you did like, fan videos and adverts for uni.”

“Yeah, the film stuff is just for fun. I guess I haven’t in awhile… but my friends and I used to, back in uni. I don’t know how good they were, but I loved making them. I do video editing for money, but I don’t make enough yet. The only people who want someone without much experience only want me for one time projects.”

“So you work at the coffee shop too,” Dan concludes.

“Yeah. I’m saving up enough money so I can move to London eventually,” Phil says. “I’m lucky my Mum and Dad are okay with me living at home, and they don’t make me pay anything. But London is expensive.”

“I’d love to live in London one day, but I don’t even know what I want to do with my life.”

“You’re studying law, right?” Phil says. “You don’t want to be a lawyer?”

“Fuck no. I’d be a shit one anyway.” Dan sighs and slumps toward Phil. There’s space to either side of them but they’re still sat close enough to touch. “I fucking hate it.”

“Law?”

“Life.” Dan laughs bitterly.

Phil doesn’t really know what to say.

*

The others come back, tired and covered in body paint and the scent of smoke Phil remembers well from his uni years.

The energy of the evening is less rambunctious than the night before but the drinks still flow. By half nine the lights are low and Cat has brought her guitar out, playing along for whoever wants to sing.

Dan sits close to Phil again, even closer than before. “Do you sing?” He asks Phil.

Phil laughs. “Not at all.”

Dan grins. “Me either. I guess we’ll just be the audience.”

*

Finn is crooning something by Imagine Dragons when Dan puts his head on Phil’s shoulder.

Phil has to fight the urge to hold his breath. Dan is not drunk, not like the night before.

Neither is Phil.

*

He loses track of how many songs pass.

There’s a ticklish feeling against Phil’s wrist and he glances down to see Dan’s fingertips brushing back and forth.

His heart is in his throat as he turns his palm over.

Dan’s fingers slide between his.

*

Phil would be fine if he never had to move away from this.

Everything feels warm and bright and good. Dan’s hand is in his, Dan’s fingers longer and palm wider.

Phil hasn’t held hands with anyone since secondary school. Not like this, not for no reason at all besides wanting to.

He shifts a little, leg knocking against Dan’s. He leaves his leg there, another point of contact that sparks something in him. Dan nuzzles a cheek into his shoulder in response, an unspoken affirmation.

*

He sees Cat glance their way once.

She just smiles and starts another song.

*

Dan falls asleep, eventually. His fingers go lax against Phil’s and his body slumps a little.

Everyone else is tired, too. Yawns come more fast and frequent. Meena is asleep with her head in Finn’s lap.

“Bed,” Cat announces. “Before we all end up crashing.”

 

Phil shakes Dan slightly awake, and squeezes his hand. He’s had to pee for half an hour now anyway, but it wasn’t worth moving.

Dan groans in protest, clinging slightly to Phil.

“We need to go to bed,” Phil whispers, breath right against Dan’s temple. It feels so intimate that something clenches in his chest. Dan’s eyes blink open and he nods.

*

The same as the night before:

 

Dan with his shirt and his shorts still on, climbing in bed first. He’s watching the doorway with sleepy eyes when Phil walks in from a visit to the toilet.

Phil turns the light off as he walks in, making his way to the bed on moonlight alone.

“Goodnight, Dan,” he says, softly, resting his head on the pillow.

Dan is smiling, he thinks. “Goodnight, Phil.”

*

They wake at the same time, to a loud crack of thunder.

It’s rained during the night, and the clouds haven’t entirely gone away.

“That looks ominous.” Dan yawns. He’s kicked the blankets half off of him at some point during the night and pushes them the rest of the way off to stretch.

Phil tries very hard not to look anywhere near the middle of Dan’s body. He’s wearing boxer briefs, more modest than most swim shorts, but he’s still a boy in his underwear in the same bed as Phil and that’s doing things to Phil that he’d rather not need to worry about at the moment.

Dan looks over at him. His hair is a tousled, thick mess. His mouth looks very soft. He smiles, just a little. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Phil says back, smiling in return.

*

“Are you coming today?” Dan asks over breakfast. There’s only toast left, since the eggs went quickly and no one wants to make a second trip to the store when they’re leaving in a day.

He sounds casual, but in that way that makes it feel like he’s trying to be.

Phil hides his happiness behind a sip of coffee. “I guess so.”

“You should,” Dan says. “I’ll keep you company this time, I promise. There’s no one I really want to see so we can just wander around.”

“All right,” Phil says. “You talked me into it.”

*

It starts to rain halfway through their second hour there.

It’s obvious that the festival itself will continue on. The bands playing are under covered stages, and the people mostly just take it as an excuse to remove half their clothes.

“We should head back,” Dan says, grabbing Phil. His hand slides down Phil’s arm until their fingers lock, just like the night before, but this time Dan is using it to lead Phil away. “I’m not drunk enough for this to seem fun.”

Phil isn’t about to argue that.

*

It turns into a downpour halfway back to their rental house.

They run, laughing, the last couple of minutes. By the time they make it there Phil is out of breath and relieved to be out from under it, shivering in the entryway as Dan goes to find them towels from the airing cupboard.

“Here you go,” Dan says, wrapping the bigger towel around Phil’s shoulders. He keeps his fingers fisted in the material and tugs Phil in close.

For a dizzying moment, Phil thinks he might be about to get kissed. But when he reaches up to take the towel from Dan, Dan lets go and steps back. “I think we should put our pajamas on and find a movie to watch, what do you say? There’s a whole drawer of them under the tv.”

“I say yes,” Phil says, still breathless.

*

Outside the house, the storm gets worse.

Inside the house, they are under a blanket Dan fetched from the closet, cozy in their comfy sleep clothes, shoulder to shoulder.

It couldn’t be more perfect.

*

They’re halfway into the first Kill Bill when Phil works up the nerve to put his arm around Dan.

Dan stiffens momentarily, then relaxes against Phil. A shift happens in bits and pieces over the next ten minutes, Dan making one small move at a time: he turns his body and curls himself into Phil, tucks his long legs up beside him, moves his arm across Phil’s middle. He is a warm weight against Phil’s side.

It’s a good thing Phil’s already seen the film, because he’s not sure he manages to take in a single thing besides how it feels to hold Dan.

*

Movie over, they eat at the bar in the kitchen, barefoot and trading more smiles than words between them. The rain is nothing more than a soft patter now but Dan doesn’t mention wanting to go back to the festival at all.

*

Cat texts just after nightfall to say that there’s a rave happening they’ve all been invited to.

Dan just laughs when Phil shows him the text. “Not my scene,” he says. “Besides, this is nice.”

“Not mine either,” Phil says.

“Yeah, I gathered.” Dan laughs. He’s not being mean, but Phil feels embarrassed anyway.

“I do like parties,” he says. “I went to a lot in uni. I just like house parties more, you know? Where it’s not all drunken strangers and loud music.”

“I don’t even really like those,” Dan admits. “That time we ran into each other, I was only there because this girl I know invited me. It’s kind of, um, it’s a funny story. Or maybe a sad story. But I wasn’t listening when she asked and you know how sometimes when you aren’t paying attention to someone you say yeah now and then just so they think you’re listening? Right, that was me, except she wasn’t just talking, she’d actually invited me somewhere.”

“So you accidentally went on a date?” Phil laughs.

“Yeah, but.” Dan pauses slightly, a warm look in his eyes. “I ran into you there, so it wasn’t all bad. Also then I told her I was into guys, and she seemed okay with it. Wasn’t a lie, right? I just didn’t mention that I’m also into girls, only not her.”

“So you’re-”

“Bi,” Dan says. He’s looking quite intently at Phil now.

This, Phil suddenly realizes, is a moment.

“I’m-” He starts to say.

Then stops.

“Yeah?” Dan is waiting.

“I don’t know,” Phil says. “I.”

He swallows hard.

Dan looks… confused.

“I don’t know,” Phil says again.

“It’s… okay to not know?” It almost comes out a question. “If you’re still like, figuring it out.”

“It’s just hard. I know I’m…” Why won’t his mouth work? Why is this so difficult? “Something. And I just. I don’t…”

“Don’t know,” Dan finishes for him. It feels suddenly like he’s being very gentle on purpose. “That’s okay, though. You’ll get there.”

“It just makes my head hurt to think about,” Phil says.

“Well.” Dan sits up suddenly, then lays down out on the sofa, the opposite end from Phil. He reaches out with both hands and says, “C’mere. We’ll put on another movie and you can not think about it.”

Phil is sure the relief shows on his face.

*

There is a Harry Potter movie on, one of the later ones where the kids are mostly grown.

Dan is playing with Phil’s hair and Phil feels drowsy with it. This is the longest he’s ever lain with another person, and even though they’re not really doing anything at all it’s the best night he’s had in a long time.

He doesn’t even realize he’s falling asleep, just drifts off between one moment and the next. Dan wakes him up when the movie is over with a soft shaking. “Come on,” Dan says, a reverse of the night before. “Let’s go to bed.”

*

They stand in the bedroom, the door half-open and the moonlight filtering in through the window.

They’re hugging. Phil isn’t sure why, or when it happened, but Dan’s arms are around him and his arms are around Dan and they’re standing together, close enough to the same height to make this feel just perfect.

“I’m going to fall asleep standing up,” Phil warns him, voice pitched low with the roughness of the late hour.

Dan laughs. His mouth is somewhere near Phil’s neck, not close enough to be a kiss but close enough to put the idea in Phil’s head. “Okay.”

But they do get in bed and this time, unlike the two nights before, neither of them goes right to sleep. Instead there’s a ridiculous time where they whisper nonsense and smile at each other and everything is warm and lovely and now Phil doesn’t want the roller coaster to ever end.

*

Phil dreams about Dan and Uma Thurman and kissing and sex in that amorphous way that he can’t remember when he wakes up but still feels the faint sensation of all the same, or at least what his mind thinks sex should feel like.

He wakes up with his heart pounding and his mind racing. His dick is half-hard and he’s pretty sure that’s because his leg is touching Dan’s, but Dan is still fast asleep beside him so Phil forces that out of his mind and wills it down.

Except that it doesn’t work, because Phil is staring at the slope of Dan’s nose and the softness of his jaw and the dream is like a low buzz still there, making him want and imagine-

He has to stay very still and think very hard about something else before he feels comfortable moving.

Dan doesn’t wake when Phil gets out of bed, or as Phil pulls on jeans and slips his feet into his shoes. He isn’t sure where he’s going when he starts to walk through the house.

He just knows that he feels restless over the dream and what he wants and the conversations the night before.

Outside, the rain is gone but the air is crisp and fresh to breathe. It’s early enough that the sounds in the air are mostly bird calls and the sky still looks misty. He crosses the street in a few quick movements, not a hint of a car coming in either way, and then he’s standing on the beach with rocks under his feet and the waves lapping closer.

He thinks of standing and hugging Dan for what felt like minutes and minutes.

He slides his shoes off and tugs his jeans up as far as they’ll go, until the material is clinging to his calves. When he steps forward the water is cold, not like ice but enough to make him gasp. He used to do this in the early mornings when his family would take trips to Florida, but the water there was usually warm.

“That looks fun,” a voice calls from behind him.

He turns around and almost falls. “Oh my god, you terrified me!” Phil puts a hand over his heart.

Dan is laughing at him. He looks sleepy and sweet, arms crossed around his chest. “Sorry, didn’t mean to. I woke up when you left, and then I saw the door open… or maybe you came out here because you wanted to be alone and I’m just being a clingy twat who invades people’s pleasant morning beach walks…”

“Shut up,” Phil says, suddenly and impossibly fond. Maybe he did want out to get away from thoughts of Dan, but his only reaction to seeing Dan there and now is just - to smile. “It is nice. You should try it.”

Dan kicks off his shoes.

*

They sit on the beach in silence for twenty minutes.

Phil isn’t sure he’s ever been so quiet with someone for so long without it feeling wrong, or bad, or uncomfortable in any way. His normal drive to fill the silences, to plug the gaps, creeps around the fringes of his mind for the first few minutes then just - fades.

He spends almost the entire time studying the details of Dan out of the corner of his eye.

Dan seems lost in his own world, staring at the waves gently breaking on the shore. His breathing is slow and steady. His eyes are clear. His toes wiggle now and then, smears of sandy grit from their wading earlier dried on his skin.

Phil’s stomach growling breaks the silence. Someone is baking fresh bread nearby.

Dan looks at him and just laughs. “Hungry, then?” His voice is soft and fond and something inside Phil’s heart just grips and squeezes right.

“Starving,” Phil admits. “I’m always hungry, but especially when I smell food. It’s like my stomach just instantly goes, rwar, need!

Dan laughs gets to his feet, unfolding his limbs and rising high. He reaches a hand down to Phil. “Well, shall we go find breakfast, then? Before your stomach goes rwar and scares all the other people out for their morning walks?”

Dan’s hand is warm and large and Phil doesn’t decide to keep holding it so much as fail to notice the point when letting go would have been natural.

It’s different, Phil realizes, holding hands with a boy in the light of day. He sees people glance their way and his fingers twitch. He doesn’t know anyone in Brighton. No one in Brighton knows him. But people still look, and he still - he cares. He cares that they look.

But he also cares that Dan looks at him, that Dan seems to be anticipating something. Phil is caught between tendrils of panic at being so open and tendrils of panic at not being enough and Dan thinking he’s stupid.

In the end Dan spares him the choice, dropping his hand as he says in an excited voice, “Phil, it’s a dog!” and bends to pet the lazy dog sleeping in front of a small bakery.

*

They eat at the bakery, fresh scones and a coffee for Phil. It’s nice and strong, clearing the last of the cobwebs of dream from the corners of his mind.

“How wrecked do you think everyone else is?” Dan asks, snickering into his own drink, a mint hot chocolate.

“Cat’s supposed to work tomorrow night,” Phil says. “I’d be surprised if she makes it.”

“Ah, the wild life of youth.” Dan shakes his head. “To live that freely and fully.”

A thought occurs to Phil. “Did you- I mean. Did you want to go out with them last night?”

“No,” Dan says, looking down at the table. “I guess I kind of lied about liking festivals. I thought I did, you know, because I’m really into the music. I like watching bands live, but the whole drinking, smoking weed, staying out all night - it’s just fucking exhausting, you know?”

“Sure,” Phil says. He doesn’t know, because his university experience was mostly getting drunk at house parties. He was far from a saint, but lurking in the back of his mind was always the fear or what would happen if he let himself be too uninhibited, if he responded to the wrong signal, if he left some signals of his own. He realizes Dan is looking at him curiously and clears his throat. “Is your scone good? What did you get, cinnamon? We should get some to take back, don’t you think?”

“You are a nicer person than I am,” Dan says, but he helps Phil pick out an array of goodies to take back with them.

*

The walk back is ten minutes.

Phil holds the bag of scones and croissants to one side. The hand closest to Dan remains free. He glances at Dan a few times, but Dan’s hands are in his own pockets the whole walk.

He slows as they near the house. The front door is open, though they can’t hear anyone talking yet.

“Hey,” Dan says, just before they’re within talking distance. “This was nice, you know? Last night. That was really nice.”

Phil’s face warms. “Yeah,” he says, risking a look over at Dan. “It was nice.”

*

It’s not quite into evening when they pull into the car park they all met back in originally.

“It’s been real,” Cat says. She’s still wearing her sunglasses and looks only vaguely less wretched than she had five hours before. “Now I’m gonna go sleep for a week.”

(She’s already called in. Dan and Phil had been forced to muffle quiet laughter listening to her fake illness over the phone to their manager.)

Phil grabs his bag and stands awkwardly, not willing to leave without a proper goodbye with Dan but unsure of exactly how to orchestrate it.

In the end, he doesn’t have to. Dan says, “You’re getting a bus, right?” And follows Phil to the stop across the street.

They sit in silence, just as they had that morning, until the bus approaches. “You should stop by for coffee soon,” Phil blurts out.

It’s not the most smooth opening, but it gets the job done.

“I will,” Dan says, then holds his arms out.

Phil hugs him one handedly, wishing he’d stopped and put his bag down first. He lets his hand linger down Dan’s arm, just because he doesn’t want to stop touching him this quickly.

The door of the bus is opening. Phil hasn’t moved yet. Dan looks like he’s going to say something else. It might be worth waiting for the next bus just to get to hear it.

But Dan glances over at the impatient driver and seems to come to some sort of conclusion. He says, “You should text me, too. When you get in.”

“Okay.” Phil’s heart is in his throat. “Yeah, I will.”

Chapter Text

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.”