Chapter 1: Notes & Thank Yous
Author's note: While I was doing my v-day fic a day, I came up with the idea of using Rihanna’s We Found Love, but the idea was too big to be fit into what I could write in a day, or in a few days. I knew I was going to sign up for phandom big bang and I knew this fic was going to be the fic I worked on. I had no idea it was going to get this long, or mean this much to me. In my notes, I refer to this fic as “Dann’s love letter to grad school, except not really because they didn’t like grad school all that much”. And that’s accurate, but I could also call it Dann’s love letter to their partner and a thank you for rolling with the punches, 50k of Dann processing their worst break up, Dann trying desperately to remember what the fuck Dan and Phil sound like when they talk. Or even Dann’s love letter to all these damn side characters, haha.
But really, it's Dann’s love letter to their followers and friends. Thanks, for rocking with me, for answering my random questions, for enduring my complaining about (and celebrating) the word count, or what the characters are doing without my permission. Thanks for being excited with me. Thanks being patient with me. Thanks for reading.
Oh Leelabop, thank you. Thank you for answering all of my questions, for taking this silly fic as seriously as I did. Thank you for telling me when I was wrong about stuff, when something needed cutting (sorry for all the times I didn’t cut the thing anyway). Thank you for putting just as much time and attention in as I did. But more than anything, thank you for never ever letting me get too down on myself, for making me believe this thing was good, for co-parenting this story! <3!
Mandy, Rebecca - Y’aaaall, thank you for being the first and second people to have input on this fic, way earlier in the year when I didn’t even fully have a grasp on the story. I don’t even know how many times I’ve popped into one of your inboxes with a random ass question and you gave me real, thoughtful answers. This fic is what it is because of those conversations and it wouldn’t have been possible without either of you.
Shoe - I know we didn’t talk as much near the end of writing the fic as the beginning but those first calls and chats really shaped the bones this fic grew onto. Thank you for availing your time and knowledge to me, again and again.
Psychicmoth - I absolutely freaked out when I realized you’d picked my fic to do art for, and definitely teared up when I saw the first mock ups of my art. You’re so talented and I’m so thrilled that my work inspired some of yours. Thank you so much for your gorgeous art.
commonemergency - for all the commiseration <3
All my followers - for putting up with all my whining, my god.
The groupchat - this fic would be a good 30,000 words shorter if not for every single word war
G - Hey. You probably won’t read this but thanks for being patient with me and my fic angst. Also thanks for sticking by me when, really, it was probably way too soon for me to be dating again.
K - lol, thanks for breaking up with me and inspiring a wealth of stories.
I put together two mixes inspired by these fics.
Phil - https://open.spotify.com/user/queerofcups/playlist/0cSzGAVtC5eI514WN5WMDS
Dan - https://open.spotify.com/user/queerofcups/playlist/6TFNmu05XI0KDwoRlrArgQ
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Dan stands on the sidewalk, in front of the flat the address had lead him to. There are people filtering in and out of the complex, as young as him or younger. It's early enough in the night that they’re not drunk and leaning against each other. But these are flats only a few blocks from the greens of the university, and this is the last weekend before courses start. It’s only a matter of time before the quiet street is filled with students that have celebrated their last few days of freedom and are stumbling home. Dan should probably go inside and join them.
Except he’s been scrolling through his cohort’s group chat for the first time since the last term ended and it looks like most of them have also been invited to this party. So really, it’s more of a welcome back cocktail hour for every human that’s heard the humiliating crash and burn of Dan’s very public relationship.
Dan looks at his phone, plays with the idea of texting Chris and PJ, telling them he couldn’t make it.
PJ would probably pretend to buy it. He’s kind like that. Chris would definitely call him on his bullshit, and compare him to increasingly absurd and easily frightened animals. Chris is kind like that.
Dan bites his lip and looks from the flats to his phone, fully aware that the longer he stands out here glancing between the two, the creepier he looks.
“You alright, Dan?”
Dan looks over and his gut twitches. He definitely recognizes both of the people looking at him, the tall black girl with a shock of bleach blonde hair and the pale, red haired man standing next to her. He’d definitely slept with both of them over the summer, possibly in the same month. He definitely doesn’t remember either of their names.
“Haha, yeah! I’m just…waiting? For someone?” Dan tries to give them both a smile that is familiar, but not too familiar.
He’s been holding out hope that since he’d done most of his sleeping around over the break that people were too busy doing literally anything else to gossip about it.
But then, he’d also done most of the slagging about in hopes it would get people to stop talking about him and Mads, so he’s not positive if people not gossiping would be a success or not.
Staring at these two now, Dan’s beginning to think this whole plan was a bit flawed.
“Ok!” The guy says brightly, smiling a little. “Well, we’ll see you inside? Save me a dance?”
The girl’s smile falters a little and she turns to look at the guy, suspicion growing on her face. Dan’s beginning to feel a flicker of memory. Red Hair’s name definitely ended in an n. Owen? Evan? Iwan?
“Sure!” Dan says brightly. “Always fun to catch up with a friend!”
The girl— Jade, Dan’s brain finally offers— clearly wants to ask more questions but allows herself to be dragged away into the flat.
“Well,” he says to himself, aloud. “That’s probably the most awkward thing that can happen tonight?”
Shockingly, it is.
The flat is full of people and it's blessedly dark, lit mostly by lengths of string lights and pink salt lamps that Dan’s certain someone will lick before the night is over.
As he moves through the crowd to the corner where PJ said Dan could find them, he finds himself smiling and waving to familiar faces. He doesn’t look back, not interested in finding out whether they turn to their friends to start whispering.
He finds PJ and Chris easily enough. PJ is sat in a cushy, stuffed armchair that’s been pushed into the corner to make more room for mingling. Chris is splayed across him, which isn’t surprising.
If they were anyone else, Dan would probably be able to ascertain if they were in the on or off portion of their on again/off again relationship just from this, but Dan’s already accepted that Chris is all over everyone at all times and the only way to tell if he’s banging someone or not is to walk in on him literally banging someone.
“Danthaniel!” Chris cries, reaching his arms out for a hug. Dan comes closer and pats Chris on the head fondly, reaches past him to muss up PJ’s hair.
“Lads,” Dan says, smiling a little. He feels affection like a burst of sunlight in his chest and relaxes a little.
In the wake of Mads, before Dan had scraped himself off the floor and wasn’t attaching himself to the face of any attractive human he pleased quite yet, Chris and PJ had been there to shittalk Mads and bring Dan frankly copious amounts of pizza and shitty candy.
He’s better now. It’s not, objectively, difficult to be better than the blubbering, raging, mostly drunk mess he’d been in the first few days after the breakup. But Dan still feels a little less of the jagged agitation Mads left simmering in him when he sees Chris and PJ together.
“We weren’t sure you’d show up. You lady studies people do know how to show a shindig,” PJ says, glancing around.
Dan rolls his eyes. The longstanding argument of getting them to call his department its correct name is ancient, born back in undergrad when Dan realized that, actually, law was fucking boring and there were whole classes dedicated to chatting about pop music.
Chris and PJ took the piss out of him over his program regularly. But they were the people he’d talked to when he’d been on the verge of dropping out and they were the only people in his life that never asked him what, exactly, one could do with a degree in sociology.
“Yes, we do,” Dan says, scanning the room for where he could find something to drink. “And it looks like the entire fucking department is here, so maybe get our name right.”
“Ah,” Chris says waving a hand. “Surely, you’ll all get over it. How are you? Did you make it from the door okay? I saw you speak to several people, was it awful?”
Dan knows that Chris is making fun of him and his pre-party jitters, but he is also looking up at him with large, shining eyes and Dan chooses to believe that he cares at least a little.
“Ran into some people outside that I’d, ah, dated briefly,” Dan offers.
“Had loud, probably drunk sex with and then kicked out without so much as a boiled egg that morning, yes,” Chris translates. PJ laughs behind him, tilting his head against the chartreuse fabric of the chair.
Dan rolls his eyes. “I didn’t remember either of their names, which is probably a sign.”
He sits down in the other stuffed chair, looking out at the people milling about. He’d been intentional about not dipping into the department too often during his sexathon, but hadn’t extended such considerations to the rest of the humanities. There’s a very good chance he’ll run into another, or a few other, people he’d entertained this summer and he’d like to know if they’re here before he starts drinking.
“A sign that you’re a bit of an inconsiderate asshole?” PJ offers, turning his and Chris’s body to look at Dan.
They’re good friends, Dan appreciates that. He appreciates it less when it means they can be as blunt and truthful as they desire, because they’re such good friends.
“Who’s inconsiderate!” Dan squawks. “I’ve never had any complaints? Do either of you have complaints?”
They’re good friends who’ve let Dan make space inside their relationship over the summer, literally and metaphorically. Dan’s certain if he hadn’t picked up some of those ethically slutty processing cues from the new age-y enlightened set that haunted his department he would have been a major stress, and possibly the end of PJ and Chris’s whatever-they-are.
Instead, he watches them both roll their eyes at him in unison, unimpressed. It hurts a little. He remembers when he could do stuff in unison with someone.
“We don’t have complaints,” PJ finally answers, “Because we’re your best friends. You can’t kick us out without so much as a boiled egg for breakfast. We’d just go to our rooms.”
Dan grimaces and stands up. “I don’t need this type of harassment. I’m going to find alcohol.”
PJ rolls his eyes again and waves him off. They’ve had bits of this conversation before, usually in the wake of whoever Dan had fucked last night storming out. Dan’s second-hand ethics about being kind to the people he’s having a one-night stand with are harder to extend to people who aren’t his best friends slash flatmates. And in the most immediate wake of what Mads had done to him, he’d burned with the need to get back at Mads, who’d been long gone from campus by then. All that bottled up vengeance had to go somewhere, and it went into the casual sort of cruelty that had him turning people sweet and pliant under him for a night and dismissing them in the morning.
Dan slips away from Chris and PJ, and through the crowd of people to the little table that holds a record player that pumps music into the room (which is pretentious as fuck, but Dan can keep that opinion to himself) and several different bottles of wine, liquor, and mixers.
Dan grabs one of the tragically tiny cups and fills it with one of the mysterious red wines, hoping it's something decent.
He manages full three sips, sort of swaying in the come and go of the crowd, when someone taps him on the shoulder. He steels himself for a familiar face and turns.
“Burncroft!” He exclaims, then grimaces a little. Lindsey Burncroft is a philosophy and Africana studies PhD who had enthusiastically invited Dan whenever Mads went to her house for a dinner with all the other philosophy PhDs. Dan had gone a few times, and spent the night ignoring questions of humanity and existence to talk with Burncroft about the shifts in pop genre conventions and playing with her puppy, Borges.
She’s stern, posh, and gorgeous. Dan’s heard plenty of people whispering, breathless, about what they’d do for a few seconds of her attention.
He loves Burncroft, probably more than most people on campus, even if her double-concentration workload means he only sees her occasionally. He’s also fairly certain she primarily sees him as an extension of Mads. He’s not even sure she knows they’ve broken up.
Dan braces himself for the first question about Mads of the night.
“Daniel!” Burncroft says. Dan makes a surprised noise when she pulls him down for a hug. She’s not short per se, but Dan’s taller than most people, and her headwrap would just barely clear his shoulder if he were standing up right.
“I want you to know,” she says quietly, still holding him. She smells of the same smoky-sweet incense her house smelled of every time Dan had been there. “That I am absolutely furious with Madison. It’s one thing to separate, I definitely know a thing or two about choosing academia over love. But the way he was fucking around—“
“Burncroft,” Dan says pulling away a little. “Don’t. Please? I don’t want to talk about him.”
Burncroft gives him a firm look but nods, releasing him. “Of course you don’t. And we won’t. But don’t think I’m done with you, Daniel. I don’t care what department you’re in. You’ve earned Borges’ love, a rare feat. I’ve also heard through the grapevine you’re dedicating part of your thesis to Beyoncé and no white boy from this university will be writing about the real queen without consulting with me.”
Dan laughs and nods, filled with relief like a deep inhale. Mads took a lot from him, over the years and certainly over the last months of their relationship. He’s beyond relieved that Burncroft isn’t on that list.
They stand talking for another half-hour, which is a blink for them. Dan finishes off two more of the tiny cups of wine and ignores Burncroft’s concerned looks.
He’s about to ask her about her progress on her dissertation when a guy nearly as tall as Dan approaches them exclaiming, “Lindsey!”
Dan watches as Burncroft turns and makes a happy, wordless noise, pulling the man to her in a much more enthusiastic reenactment of the hug she’d given Dan.
“Daniel!” she says turning to Dan. Her face is golden with her smile and Dan wonders if anyone has ever been that delighted to see him. “This is Philip. Come, come, you two should talk. My favorite people on campus should know each other; there’s so few of you.”
This is how Dan finds himself a while later, a little too buzzed on the refills of red wine, talking to some guy Burncroft insists is “absolutely lovely, Daniel,” about Beyoncé. He’s not sure when Burncroft disappeared, but that part’s fine. She’s talked to Dan about Beyoncé and music in general so often she could probably quote most of his arguments word for word. And then deconstruct them and explain to him how he could make them better.
“It’s not, no look, listen,” Dan stumbles over his words a little. He should probably slow down on the refills of his tiny cups. He’s always been shit about getting wine drunk, he hadn’t really drank anything other than beer and sugary cocktails before Mads had come along. “Everyone’s all about Solange and she’s wonderful, she’s perfect and aesthetic and every moment is a look. But Beyoncé, she’s just…”
Dan trails off, clenching his fist. He’s sure Chris and PJ are off somewhere, watching him and snickering, like they always are when Dan’s having a Beyoncé moment. He honestly can’t help it.
The dude he’s talking to looks a little gobsmacked, like he wasn’t expecting Dan to go on at length because of his offhanded comment about how he doesn’t really get Beyoncé. Dan’s noticed, vaguely, that he’s cute, but frankly Dan’s seen a lot of cute dudes (and a variety of otherwise gendered people) the last few months, so it doesn’t really register. His eyes are really, very blue, though. And his neck is very long, and Dan sort of wants to trace the contours of his face, just to get a better idea of how it's put together. Dan turns his thoughts back to Beyoncé instead.
“She’s not really for us to get!” Dan says, gesturing with the hand not holding his sixth tiny plastic cup. “Not anymore. The first couple albums, where she was trying to build commercial success, sure. But now? Hers is a black woman’s world. We’re just lucky she’s letting us listen to the music.”
The dude nods slowly, “That makes sense.”
Which isn’t how this conversation usually goes. When Dan gets to this point in the conversation with dudes during his get-the-fuck-over-that-prick hookup marathon, they either want to talk about their inner Beyoncés (which, gross and misogynist and usually racist) or accuse Dan of taking things too seriously. But this dude, for all his confusion, seems content to let Dan talk, and doesn’t even seem to be looking for an exit.
At least Dan thinks that until someone calls “Phil!” from the other side of the room.
The dude looks over then back at Dan. “Sorry, I have to—“
“Ugh, just go,” Dan says, waving him away. He was wrong and this isn’t the first time he’s scared away some dude with his Beyoncé thing.
“I’m Phil, by the way,” the guy says, sticking his hand out. Dan shakes it, left without any other choice. “Only Burnsey calls me Philip. We’re in the same program.”
He says it and looks a little sheepish, letting Dan’s hand go to push back the dyed-black fringe that’s fallen into his face.
“How’s that going?” Dan doesn’t care, but he’s working to be polite.
As soon as he’d stopped talking about Queen Bey he’d remembered that he’s supposed to have his guard up, avoiding his cohort and former friends cooing over how bad they feel about his breakup. Talking to Phil is preferable to that, but as soon as he leaves Dan’s probably going to have to talk to people on his way back to Chris and PJ.
“It’s good! Research for my dissertation is intense,” Phil says. “But it's worth it. And I’m almost done.”
“Ah. You’re a PhD candidate.” Dan wants to take a step back from him. He’s never met Phil, but that doesn’t mean Phil didn’t know Mads. “This is my second year in the master’s program. I’m Dan, by the way. Sociology. I do pop culture studies, with a focus on women in American pop music.”
“So you study pop princesses?” Phil’s eyes are sparkling with laughter. “Like Britney and Christina?”
Dan tenses up and bites out, defensive, “That’s a bit of a dated reference.”
Phil shrugs. “I’m a bit dated, compared to you. But that’s really interesting. How’d you end up focusing on that?”
Dan shrugs, feeling a little hunted. Almost no one politely asks him about his studies, so he doesn’t really have a coherent version of “well, it’s a bit fucked the way we talk about women who do pop and I wanted to figure out why we still do it”.
So he goes with, “It’s just an interesting topic. What do you study?”
“Feminist application of philosophical theory to state and interpersonal violence against marginalized communities,” Phil rattles off in that way advanced degree people do.
“Specifically queers,” he adds cheerfully.
“Heavy,” Dan says. He’s not so buzzed that he can’t pick up that the guy is really smart and likely queer. Interesting. Well played, Burncroft.
“Phil,” person-across-the-room says again, exasperated. They’re a blonde woman who’s nursing a real glass of wine. Dan feels a little spike of jealousy. He wishes he had a real glass of wine.
“I have to go now,” Phil tells Dan, grinning a little and looking over at the woman. “Before Louise comes to carry me away. I’ll see you around?”
Dan nods and offers his own smile. “Yeah, sure. It was nice to meet you, Phil.”
“You too, Dan,” Phil says. “I’ll hassle Burnsey to get your information. I’d love to hear your thoughts on some of those dated pop princesses.”
He’s gone before Dan can compose a quippy response, moving through the room to the blonde woman, Louise. Dan totally watches him go, eyes tracking from his dark hair, across his ladybug patterned jumper and down the long length of his body.
“Cannibalism is totally legal in the UK, Danthaniel,” Chris tells him, sidling up behind him. “You could make good on that look.”
“What?” Dan asks, turning to face him and PJ.
“You do sort of look like you want to eat him alive,” PJ nods, looking past Dan to where Dan assumes Phil is standing. “Think you can keep it quiet tonight? I’ve got a seminar at 9am tomorrow.”
“Who’d you piss off?” Dan asks, sighing and rolling his shoulders. “Nothing to keep quiet. He’s getting my info from Burncroft. He’s a doctoral student, probably wants me to help him talk out something in his dissertation.”
Neither PJ or Chris say anything. PJ turns to look at him, obviously concerned. PJ has nice eyes, Dan muses. Nice eyes don’t have to be all that distracting.
“Didn’t we established a strict no doctoral students pact this summer?” PJ asks gently. “Because doctoral students graduate. And are, quote, ‘self-centered pricks who only care about finishing their work and getting you to do all the emotional work in a relationship’?”
Dan makes a face. He said a lot of things in the first few days of summer, after Mads had gotten the last of his things from Dan’s flat. They were mostly overwrought bullshit about how he’d never love again and how Mads hadn’t deserved a fraction of his time, but sometimes he promised himself (and apparently Chris and PJ) to never date PhDs again.
“Those things are all still true,” Dan assures them, leading them back to a wall to lean against. “No one’s dating anyone. Except you two, maybe. And I’m not doing anything with Phil. We were just talking.”
“Ok,” PJ says, nodding. “That’s fine. Just. Make good choices, Dan.”
Dan scoffs, looks PJ in the eyes and gestures at Chris, who nods and tells PJ, “He’s got a point there. It doesn’t get more questionable than me.”
Dan makes a few more circuits around the party. Every now and again he catches a glimpse of Phil, who always smiles and gives him a little wave. Dan’s taken aback the first time and awkwardly waves back, while PJ and Chris titter in the background.
Everything is fine for a good while. Dan maintains a good buzz, and starts to remember that he actually likes these people quite a bit, enjoys talking to them about the things they read over the summer and the work they’re thinking about starting this term.
It’s fine until Dan glances at the front door of the flat to see a halfway familiar guy walk through the door. It only takes Dan a second to realize it’s one of the boys he’d seen in the pictures he’d made Mads show him.
Whatever good time Dan was having is ruined immediately, all his awareness in the tightness in his chest and throat.
“You ok, mate?” PJ asks, also looking at the door. PJ and Chris never got a good look at any of the boys, so they don’t recognize the other guy.
Dan’s got all their faces, and the bodies, memorized. Knows how many of them look just like him. How many are thinner, or more muscular. He knows that this one has stars tattooed on his hips and a predilection for sending Mads pictures of his cock from a bathroom with red tile floors.
“I need to go,” Dan says abruptly, looking around for a trash can. “I’m going back to the apartment.”
“Dan?” PJ asks. Dan ignores him, throwing away his last tiny cup of wine and walking towards the door, eyes forward.
He’s almost out when he feels someone grab his arm. He turns to look, and of course it’s one of Mads’ boys.
“Hi,” the guy says hesitantly.
He’s shorter than Dan, but Dan can still see the similarities in the way they dress, the slightness of their bodies. Mads clearly had a type. Dan still has trouble wrapping his mind around the idea that he was just one of a crowd.
“No,” Dan says clearly, pulling his arm away and moving toward the door. “Whatever you have to say, I don’t care.”
“I just wanted to say sorry,” the guy calls after him.
Dan doesn’t care. He just needs to not be in this place right now, with these people, who all know too much about him. He doesn’t want to share space with this man like he’d apparently been sharing his boyfriend.
He pushes out the flat into the warm night air.
It doesn’t matter what they think. He just needs to keep his head down, make it through the rest of his program, and avoid all the fucking drama Mads brought into his life.
Dan stops walking down the sidewalk when he’s far enough away from the flat, leans against the storefront of some little pizzeria.
“Fuck me,” he says to himself, breathing deeply. The tightness in his chest is still there and his eyes are hot. This is what Mads does to him still, months after the last time Dan saw him.
“And you’re flirting with just like him,” Dan mutters to himself, laughing bitterly. “Fuck.”
He stays there, breathing for a little while longer, then starts walking toward home.
Dan doesn’t really think about that Phil guy again until he’s literally running into him the next week at his favorite coffee shop. He’s walking into the café, looking at a cat meme his mum just sent him on his phone, when he finds himself bumping into Phil.
Dan almost doesn’t recognize him at first, he’s wearing glasses now that he wasn’t wearing when they’d met and a slightly fluorescent yellow hoodie. Unfortunately, he’s still very cute.
“Dan!” Phil says, reaching out to steady him.
“Hi,” Dan says, taking a step back. “Sorry.” He glances around the café, checking for familiar faces.
“No problem, were you coming in? Let me buy you a coffee.”
Dan finally looks directly at Phil, frowning a little. He’s not looking for a hookup, as he’s told PJ and Chris multiple times since the party and he’s still shaken up from seeing a ghost from Mads’ past last week. But free coffee is free coffee and Dan’s already feeling the strain from the first week of class. Besides, Phil seems innocuous enough, even if Dan’s relatively sure he’s trying to get into Dan’s pants.
“Yeah, fine,” Dan says finally, pushing past him. “I’ll take free coffee.”
“Back again, Phil? Hey, Dan,” the barista says to them. She’s Jess, one of Dan’s favorite baristas. They’d shared a class Dan’s first term and were in a study group the next. She usually gives him a little discount and is always happy to chat thesis with him.
Dan looks at Phil curiously, who’s talking with Jess happily. Dan’s here a lot, a lot honestly, and he’s never seen Phil, but Jess seems to know him well enough to tease him a little. Interesting.
Dan makes his order and looks around for somewhere to sit while Phil pays.
“We don’t have to hang out, but I thought your studies sounded really interesting. And it might be easier to talk now.” Phil says.
Dan turns to look at him. He’s kind of a weird looking dude, pale and long necked, and he has some truly terrible posture. But he’s still cute. Dan looks away.
“I’ve got to study,” Dan says absently, grabbing a napkin to rip up. He catches sight of a table full of some of the philosophy PhDs sitting in one of the corner tables. Ah yes, that was the reason Dan started going here in the first place, because Mads refused to go elsewhere, always prattling on about the quality of their coffee and the café’s atmosphere.
“Ok!” Phil says, still friendly. “Sure, maybe some other time?”
“Yeah,” Dan says. “Some other time.”
“Phil!” A voice says behind them. Phil glances over Dan’s shoulder and Dan watches his expression turn to a hunted look Dan’s used to seeing on his own face. “And Dan!”
Dan turns and tries not to grimace. It’s one of Mads’ sycophants, because this is Dan’s life.
“You really have a type don’t you, Dan? Always jumping on the coattails of a more impressive scholar.”
Dan doesn’t remember the dude’s name, but he remembers the smug little smile. Specifically, Dan remembers him shooting it at Dan any time he’d managed to wrest Mads’ attention away from Dan and onto him.
“Heads up,” the guy says, “Our Phil decided he’s too good for actual scholarship. He’s wasting all his time whinging about being gay and oppressed, just like you.”
Dan raises an eyebrow. “Mate, literally no one cares. Spend some time outside of the stacks, yeah? No one actually talks like that. And I spend all my time whinging about being bi, thanks.”
Sycophant #1 glares at him and Dan rolls his eyes turning to Phil. “You wanna grab our coffee and go?”
Phil, who’s gone a little pale, nods and scurries over to the bar to pick up their drinks.
“No wonder Mads got bored of you,” Sycophant #1 tells him. “You’re nothing but a pretty face. Surprised you lasted long as you did.”
“Yeah,” Dan says easily. This is easy. He’s always had a sharp tongue and he’s got anger and resentment by the bucket. “He got bored of my face after the first year. It was the superb blow job skills that kept him the last two. Yours must not have been too great, though. Didn’t get to you when he was fucking half the campus, did he?”
Sycophant’s eyes widen. He’s clearly formulating a response but Phil’s approaching with their drinks, so Dan gives a sarcastic little wave and walks away.
They leave together, and walk down the sidewalk in the same direction, in silence.
“So, that was…” Phil trails off.
“I won’t ask if you don’t,” Dan says quickly.
“Fair,” Phil says, gamely. “You still need a place to study? My apartment’s nearby, and there’s the park.”
Dan looks at him. He’s looking better, less shell-shocked, but his voice still sounds off. Dan recognizes being shaken up when he sees it and Phil’s very obviously not okay.
“Sure,” Dan says, taking a sip of his coffee. It’s too sugary. Phil probably made it the way he likes his. “Yeah, okay. The park sounds good.”
That’s how Dan ends up spending his first day with Phil.
Phil, Dan finds, is nothing like Dan expects PhD candidates to be. When Mads was finishing up his writing he’d had basically no time for Dan, it was one of the things they’d fought about most.
Admittedly, Mads was finishing off seniors and first year masters students while he was finishing his thesis, so it makes sense that he didn’t have time to balance finishing a dissertation, fucking his frustrations out in random twinks and dating Dan.
Phil, though. Phil seems to have all the time in the world for Dan. He laughs easy and surprises Dan with a wicked sense of humour that belies the effortless way he lets Dan’s sharp moments roll off his back.
Phil is all questions. First about Dan and his study, then about Dan in general.
He wants to know where Dan’s from (Wokingham), where he did his first degree (the same university), what made him decided on this university (Mads was here, ugh). Dan’s not used to having someone so interested in him, isn’t sure he’s comfortable with Phil’s full on stare as he talks.
Mostly, he’s used to PJ and Chris’s supportive but uninterested listening noises or Mads encouraging him to “deepen his studies” or incorporating some philosophical text into his essay about, fucking, why Ariana Grande is the shit.
Phil doesn’t do any of that, just watches Dan talk and asks questions while absently picking at the tall grass growing near the bench they’re sitting on.
Before Dan realizes, his coffee’s gotten cold and he’s not sure how much time has passed.
“Shit,” Dan says, pulling out his phone to look at the time. “I’ve gotta go. I’m sorry, I’m such a dick, I’ve been talking about myself this whole time.”
Phil shrugs happily, “I’m not all that interesting.”
Dan snorts, “No way that’s true.”
He is aware, distantly, that he’s flirting a little.
Phil smiles at him. “It’s true. But if you wanted to chat later? I’m usually at that café anyway.”
“Ok,” Dan says, a little surprised at his own eagerness. “How have I never seen you before? I’m in there all the time.”
“Ah,” Phil says, and that nervous, hunted look is back. “It’s kind of a long story and you’ve got to go.”
Dan frowns but nods. “Ok. I’ll catch you later then?”
“Later!” Phil says brightly, waving Dan off.
Dan gets up, waves back, still a little awkward and walks off.
He glances back twice, just for the sight of Phil, in his fluorescent jumper, lap littered with little bits of grass.
This is fine. He can be friends with Phil. It’ll be good.
Dan slides into his seminar just before the instructor does. It’s a larger group, fifteen people, some with whom Dan is familiar and some new faces.
The instructor, who introduces herself by her first name just for Dan to promptly forget, jumps straight into discussion, asking them questions about pop culture and differences between British and American media.
This is Dan’s jam, so he throws himself into the discussion, challenging and being challenged by the other people in the class. It’s not til halfway through the class when they take a break, that he realizes that this is familiar to him.
The room they’re in is the room he was sitting in when he’d gotten the first text message from Mads’ phone.
The tightness in his chest comes back and he sits quietly and takes deep breaths, waiting for it to pass. It’s fine. This is where the class will meet, this is where he’ll sit for the next sixteen weeks, just like he sat last term.
He just won’t be grinning down at his phone on the rare occasion that Mads sends him a text. He just won’t be telling anyone who would listen about how cool his boyfriend, the philosophy PhD is. He just won’t. He just won’t .
“Dan?” the instructor says. Dan looks up at her. “Did you hear me?”
“No, sorry, what?” He pastes on a winning smile and forces himself to pay attention to the rest of class, speaking a little less and taking notes down.
Later, after class has ended but some of the older students are hanging around to chat with the instructor (her name is Lily, Dan finally figured it out), Dan’s still sitting, texting PJ about a video game night. He looks up when he realizes there are people standing in front of him. They’re three of the members of his cohort that he doesn’t know very well, has probably only had one conversation with each of them. They’re all the trendy sort, thin and artfully mussed, wearing the latest fashions from Topman. Dan’s not positive but he’s pretty sure one of them has white girl dreads.
“Dan,” one of the three girls says in a weird tone. “Hey, how are you holding up, love?”
“Uh,” Dan says. “Fine?”
Another one, a few inches shorter than the other two, makes some sort of sad, cooing noise. “So brave.”
Dan blinks. What the fuck are they on about? Would it be rude if he just asked what the fuck they were on about?
“We heard about what happened with Madison,” the third one offers. “We’re so sorry?”
When they’d met, in the last year of Dan’s undergrad program, he’d been infatuated. Not just with Mads, but with his mind, with his reputation , and everyone had known.
At 21, Dan wasn’t old enough to quite grasp that most people didn’t give a fuck about his philosopher boyfriend and how many conferences he’d submitted to, because there were people in Mads’ department, and later Dan’s, that did care.
And he’d preened under the attention, had gone with Mads to faculty talks, departmental dinners. He’d found reasons to say that yes , he was the boyfriend of Madison West , and yes , Madison was just so smart . And yeah, people had assumed things about Dan and his intelligence by proxy.
He’d built his whole world around Mads and Mads ate it up. And now here Dan was, a few months later, staring at three women he barely knew, wishing he could eat every word.
Irritation bubbles over and he rolls his eyes.
“Are you?” he asks, his mouth running away from him. “Sorry he didn’t go for birds? He was pretty open minded, you probably could have had a go. He wasn’t exactly choosy .”
He regrets it as soon as he says it, grimacing as their faces change from sympathetic to pissed off. He deserves that.
“Sorry, I’m sorry.” he tells them, running a hand through his hair and gives a joyless laugh. “Obviously I’m still pretty sensitive about it. I’d really rather not talk about him. With anyone.”
They still seem annoyed, but nod and wander off. Dan packs up his shit and heads out of the door.
“How was your day, dear?” PJ calls from the kitchen when Dan slams the door to their flat behind himself.
“Shit,” he calls back and walks past the kitchen to his room. If he slams another door either PJ or Chris will definitely come investigate. He debates with himself if he wants that particular brand of drama this evening, and decides against it, dropping his things on his bed and returning to the kitchen.
PJ is standing over a pot of something and Chris is sitting on one of their kitchen counters, scrolling on his phone.
“Get your arse off the counter,” Dan tells Chris even as he goes to stand between Chris’s legs, turning to watch PJ cook. Chris wraps his legs around Dan’s waist and leans his forehead against Dan’s back. Chris is shit at cuddling honestly, too twitchy and boney to do it properly. But this is what Dan wants right now: contact that isn’t smothering, grounding but loose.
“A girl in my workshop actually compared herself to Shakespeare today during her critique,” PJ says, stirring his pot of whatever. “So there’s no way your day was more shit than mine.”
Dan grunts and PJ comes over to drop a kiss on his temple before returning to the stove.
“We learned how to teach people to do theatre exercises,” Chris adds, his voice bouncing off Dan’s back. “It was pretty cool.”
Dan imagines Chris yelling at other longsuffering theatre MFAs to not just act like a tree but to be the tree and smiles despite himself.
“I saw Phil again. And some girls wanted to tell me how sorry they were about me and Mads.”
There’s a long pause, the kind of pause Dan recognizes as a bit of a telepathic relationship conversation happening. Chris raises his head to look over Dan’s shoulder at PJ, and PJ looks at him, past Dan.
Dan misses that. Mads was…weird. He ran hot and cold with Dan the whole three years they were together. When he ran hot, they fit together like puzzle pieces. He couldn’t get enough of Dan, in his space and fascinated with the things he had to say. They’d been able to have conversations with a head tilt and a raised eyebrow. It was intense, and too much sometimes, but right now, watching Chris and PJ do their thing, he misses having someone that he was connected to that way.
“Do you want to talk about the girls?” PJ finally asks. He turns off the stove, puts a top on the pot and steps back into Dan’s space. Chris drops his legs, but presses his thighs into Dan’s hips.
“No,” Dan says firmly. He doesn’t mind them bracketing him in like this, lets himself relax into the familiar feeling of being between them.
“Do you want to talk about the fact that you saw Phil and felt the need to report back?” PJ asks, matter-of-factly.
“No,” Dan says, a little petulant now. “I’m allowed to have friends.”
He tugs PJ closer by the hips and PJ goes, hooking his chin over Dan’s shoulder. Dan closes his eyes and listens to them kiss. The sound might be more comforting than it should be, for all that it's the sound of wet skin and spit. But it is and Dan sighs, content for the moment.
“So you’re friends now?” PJ asks when he’s pulled away from Chris.
“No,” Dan says. “Yes. Maybe. We had coffee and talked.”
“Isn’t that the equivalent of an engagement ring in the context of #DanHowellFuckTour2kForever?” Chris asks directly into Dan’s ear.
“You said you’d never repeat that!” Dan says, looking over his shoulder at Chris, giving PJ a faceful of hair.
“I say many things,” Chris agrees. “Were we not about to have sex? I’d like to have sex now. PJ can interrogate your motivations over post-coital stew.”
Dan makes a face at the image that produces, but doesn’t resist when PJ leans in to kiss him.
Dan spends the rest of the week running between the library and his faculty advisor’s office. She hasn’t said anything about his thesis yet, and when he’s tried to bring it up she’s dismissed him with a sigh and a reminder that they’re only a week into the first term. But Dan’s feeling the beginning of anxiety around falling behind and producing something that Mads— that he could be proud of.
So when he walks into the cafe Friday morning and sees Phil, wrapped up in another hoodie, wearing thick-framed glasses and leaned over a laptop, typing like his life depends on it, Dan’s a little surprised. Honestly, he’d forgotten that Phil existed a bit, and feels a little guilty. Not guilty enough to change his determined beeline to Jess the barista. But guilty enough that after he orders he glances over his shoulder at Phil and then asks Jess if he can pay for a refill of whatever Phil’s ordered.
Jess agrees, lets him pay for a caramel macchiato with two extra pumps of syrup and doesn’t even give him a very weird look when he tells her goodbye and makes a hasty retreat. Stepping outside into the rapidly cooling air of September, Dan makes a point to not think too hard about why he’d done that. It doesn’t matter. He knows that the glimpse of Phil reminded him of how hard he’s working at the beginning of his final project. And he knows it reminds him of how hard Mads had worked in his last year.
Dan had gotten excellent at cooking quick, easy meals that year, sometimes bringing weeks’ worth of prepared meals to Mads’ house. He remembers turning down invitations to go out with friends because there was a chance Mads might text him because he needed food, or time outside or another walk.
And he remembers his own work suffering because he was taking care of Mads while Mads finished up his degree. He remembers Mads sending him an email with the complete work, weeks after all his stuff had disappeared from Dan’s apartment.
Dan had deleted it the moment he saw the name, only fished it out of his trash files one night after the latest boy had left his apartment and he was still on the wrong side of tipsy. There was nothing in the body of the email, just an attachment.
Dan had opened it and felt a flurry of excitement before remembering hit him. He scrolled to the acknowledgements, halfway expecting his name to be absent. It was there though, followed by “for support, for all the coffee, for all the late night library runs.”
He’d imagined the moment a lot over the last year of his and Mads’ relationship. He’d imagined himself sitting next to Mads, reading his name and turning to Mads and kissing him in celebration. He’d never imagined himself here, drunk and sad, looking for something like an apology where there wouldn’t ever be one.
Seeing Phil in the café should have served as a reminder as to why he wasn’t doing this again. It should have been a reminder that he couldn’t do this with Phil or with anyone else. But Dan can’t find it in himself to feel bad for buying coffee for a dude that seemed nice, whose only fault so far was being too similar to Dan’s terrible ex.
That night, he says as much to PJ, who makes listening noises while staring at a draft of a script, making furious marks. He’s in boxers and socks and a hoodie whose original owner Dan honestly doesn’t remember. When Dan finishes talking, he looks at PJ expectantly, and rolls his eyes when he doesn’t get a response.
“Are you listening?” Dan asks, flopping down next to PJ, arranging himself so he can dig his toes under PJ’s thigh.
“Are you ?” PJ asks back.
“Am I what?” Dan asks, pretending not to understand. They’ve been friends too long, and PJ’s not one to prevaricate. Chris, who’s missing tonight, will at least pretend to follow along with Dan’s overthinking. PJ will listen to half of what he’s saying, identify the problem and make Dan feel silly for spending so much time turning things over and over in his head.
“You said yourself you can have friends,” PJ says, sighing and looking up from his work. “And if you’re going to make a bad decision twice, at least make it , rather than sitting here wringing your hands about it.”
Dan makes a face at him, and starts to argue that he’s not , there’s no decision being made here, he’s just trying to decide if Phil’s friendship is worth all the reminders of Mads.
Except he’s not positive his defense could stand up to PJ’s clear-eyed gaze and if Dan’s honest with himself, and with PJ, there’s something about Phil that Dan finds difficult to ignore. He’s just worried that that something is his similarity to Mads. So he doesn’t say anything, and PJ turns back to his script, and Dan tries to think about something else.
That night, Dan’s surprised out of a buzzfeed induced half-sleep when his phone buzzes twice. He grabs his phone, cursing at the too-high brightness searing his eyes. When he’s turned it down to a more visible dimness, he can see he’s got a text from an unknown number.
He opens a message that just says, have you been to the dam?
Dan pauses. He’s got a block list as long as his arm, but none of the people he’s actively avoiding talking to would be inviting him out for a random nighttime outing. Unless it's to murder him. Actually, the dam wouldn’t be the worst place to murder someone.
Frowning, he types back, who’s this.
The responding buzz is immediate. Phl. Thnks for the coffe this morning.
Ah. Dan’s still figuring out his response when he gets, *Phil. *coffee.
He can’t help but smile a little at that. What kind of ill-intent could someone who corrects his spelling at, Dan checks the time, 2am possibly have?
Everyone’s been to the dam , Dan says. It’s a dam, within walking distance of campus. Who hasn’t been to the dam?
Do you wanna go?
Yeah : )
The dam, and it's surrounding rocky beach, isn’t explicitly a hookup spot. Nearly every time Dan’s been there, it's been to chill with friends that needed somewhere quiet to decompress. But, he’d also hooked up there a few times, pre- and post-Mads. Enough times that he’s not sure what this invitation is.
Also, there’s still a possibility that Phil’s a murderer, preying on young-ish, nubile-ish, bookish nerds with broken hearts who buy him coffee for no reason.
The PJ that lives in his head reminds him: If you’re going to make the same bad decision twice, at least make it.
You could be a murderer. Or a canibal.
Doesn’t one sort of necessitate the other?
Dan grins down at his phone. It’s not a bad answer.
Give me twenty minutes .
Ok , Phil agrees , I’ll meet you at the green benches near the dock .
Chris has returned home from wherever he was, is sitting on the couch when Dan passes by on his way to the door. He doesn’t say anything, yawns and waves as Dan walks out the door.
But when Dan’s phone buzzes again as he’s locking the door, he’s not surprised to see a message from Chris: an eggplant, a few squirting symbols and a plastic bag. It’s Chris’s favorite way of reminding him to use protection. Dan rolls his eyes but sends back a circle of stars, the brown haired guy and a fishcake, just to fuck with him.
The dam is a fifteen minute walk from Dan’s flat. He only considers turning around once, which feels like growth.
He finds Phil where he’d said, on the green benches, near the dock. He’s sitting on the back rest, feet on the bottom half. He’s got his hands dug into the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie, the same Jake hoodie he was wearing this morning, and he’s got a spliff between his lips. The cherry of it glows orange-red, the only point of light other than the moonlight bouncing off the lake.
He visibly brightens when he sees Dan. And that’s just...really nice. It’s nice to see someone so clearly excited to see him.
“You came!” Phil says, as if Dan didn’t know. Smoke billows out from his lips, like he’s the world’s least intimidating dragon.
“I came,” Dan agrees, sitting on the bench next to him. “What’s a nice guy like you doing at the dam, smoking the devil’s lettuce?”
Phil laughs and holds the spliff out, offering. Dan takes it and inhales. It’s good, and strong. The smoke is pungent and smells mostly of cut grass, and burning. Dan holds it in his lungs until they burn a little, then opens his mouth, letting the cloud of white spill out lazily. He takes another hit, then passes it back to Phil.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Phil says, taking the spliff and smiling at him. “I know it's late, I didn’t really think you’d come. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Probably all the coffee,” Dan says.
“Thanks for that, by the way,” Phil says, finally taking his eyes off Dan to look at the lake. The dam isn’t properly visible from this side of the lake, but the moon is bright and the trees are thick enough to give the illusion of privacy.
“You’re welcome,” Dan says. He realizes, much more now than before, that he doesn’t really know Phil, and that it’d be polite to ask some of the questions Phil asked him when they’d hung out the other day and Dan had talked his ear off. Except that it feels strange. When Phil turns that familiar smile on him it feels like Dan ought to know all of it already, rather than just now learning him.
Whatever strain Phil’s gotten his hand on is just as strong as it smelled. Dan’s already feeling a bit cottony around the eyes, a little dreamy.
He still takes the shrinking spliff when Phil hands it back to him, then asks, “Where’d you even come from?”
Phil laughs and asks, “Why d’you say it like that?”
Dan shrugs, “You just— I’ve never seen you before this year, but you know Jess, and the cafe, and you know about the dam. The philosophy department isn’t that big. I should know you.”
Phil smiles a little enigmatic grin and shrugs. “I’ve been around. But I come from the north. Manchester.”
“I could have guessed that,” Dan tells him. “You’re very Northern. Say ace.”
“That’s racist!” Phil says, but he still says it. “Ace.”
His voice is low, and too intimate for two guys sitting in front of a lake at nearly three in the morning. He’s too good-looking, and probably too smart. What felt like basic attraction, the appreciation of pretty eyes and an interesting collection of hoodies, starts to feel like it might be a little bit more.
Dan shakes his head, and hits the spliff to hide his smile.
“Tell me about your thesis,” he exhales along with the smoke.
“Haven’t I already?” Phil asks. He’s pulled his jumper sleeves down over his hands, making little sweater paws, and he taps his feet against the wooden bench. Dan catches flashes of mismatched socks.
“You told me the boring shit,” Dan tells him. “Hegel, Cixous, which, nice . But why . You don’t write a dissertation on a whim, and you don’t just choose your topic out of a hat.”
Phil shrugs. “It was interesting, and felt right. I’ve always done stuff about surveillance and oppressed groups— Foucault and stuff like that.”
Dan blows a raspberry and Phil looks at him, surprised. Dan shrugs.
“Foucault’s great,” he says, placating. “If that’s your thing. I’ve just talked to a lot of white dude philosophy majors that read Foucault and think they don’t have to read anything else. Like he said great stuff, and was gay but he was still a white European cis dude.”
“Oh?” Phil asks, still looking a little thrown. “You think so?”
Irritation springs up through Dan’s high, and the calm of the lake.
“Yes,” he says flatly, handing the joint back to Phil and crossing his arms across his chest. “Shockingly, even us let’s-talk-about-our-feelings lady studies people manage to find the philosophy section in the library sometime.”
Phil’s eyes have gone round in the face of Dan’s acidity and he’s shaking his head.
“Dan, no, no.” He shakes his head and waves a hand in a jerky motion, like wants to reach out to touch Dan’s shoulder. “That’s not what I meant at all, of course you’re smart enough to read Foucault. We just don’t...react so strongly, in the department.”
Dan’s familiar with the ways the philosophy department acts, has been to enough parties where Mads smiled in the faces of people he hated, or worse, didn’t think should be in the department. But he’s not keen on explaining to Phil how he knows anything as intimate as how the philosophy department’s icy, overly polite demeanor drove him up a wall regularly. How much Phil does and doesn’t know about Dan and his history is a mystery right now, and Dan would like to keep it that way.
And anyway, Dan’s just about high enough to appreciate the way the sound of Phil’s voice mixes with the sound of lapping water, will hyperfocus on the way his ears feel hearing Phil. He’s not there quite yet, though.
“So Foucault,” he says, waving away Phil’s hand when he offers Dan the roach of the spliff.
Phil finishes it, and grinds the little burning end into the solid wood of the bench and exhales. He shifts a little and their arms brush and it feels like thrumming a guitar to Dan. He’s not sure when they’d moved closer together, but he’s not inclined to give Phil more space. Phil talks and Dan finds that the longer Phil talks, the more he relaxes. They sit there for another hour and the sound of Phil’s voice, and the lake and the trees, all add up to feeling like something that could be even better than good.
Someone is playing Dancing Queen. It's penetrating Dan’s dream. The shiny golden cup that’s just out of reach and it's playing Dancing Queen and just when Dan’s about to reach out and tip it over Dancing Queen stops and he’s awake, but doesn't open his eyes. He’s lying on the carpet of Phil’s bedroom floor, covered in a blue and green check duvet and two pillows that smell of what Dan assumes are Phil’s hair products. Last night, he’d noticed the dark stain on one of them, that he’d guessed, and Phil confirmed, to be hair dye.
“Hello?” Phil’s voice is impossibly deeper in the morning. It makes appreciative desire curl warm in Dan’s chest and stomach. He decides to feign sleep, just to keep hearing it. As soon as he decides he knows it’s the kind of thing he can’t tell PJ but can maybe tell Chris. It’s not often he finds himself on that side side of weirdness, but it's nice to know there’ll be someone to meet him.
“Hey,” Phil says, tenderly, and the sleepy warmth in Dan goes cold.
“You got in okay?” Phil asks. Dan strains to try and hear the person on the other line. Maybe it's Phil’s mum. Dan doesn’t, but he knows some people talk to their parents all the time.
“Last night?” Phil says. “I was out. I did some writing and then I went to the lake to smoke.”
He pauses, and Dan waits. If Phil mentions him...then it's not a boyfriend, or girlfriend. People don’t just go out to lakes to smoke with friends at 2am, do they? But he wants to be Phil’s friend. So there’s no reason to freak out.
“Auggie,” Phil says, laughing. Even in the wash of confusion and irritation Dan’s feeling, he knows that Phil’s sleepy laugh is dead sexy and something he wouldn’t be opposed to hearing again, in a different context. But also, “Auggie”. That’s not a mum-name, is it? Phil doesn’t seem like the type to call his mum by her first name.
“No. Auggie. Augustine,” Phil says firmly. “Your boobs always look good in the sparkly dress. Even if you do need another person to take it off.”
Dan squeezes his eyes shut and turns over, so Phil can’t see his face. Augustine, whoever they are, is definitely not Phil’s mum. He lies there for another five minutes, trying to figure out how he got himself in this mess. The first time he tries not immediately sleeping with a cute guy he feels chemistry with, and the guy turns out to be a cheating asshole. The universe has it out for Dan. He’d turned down Phil’s offer to share the bed, for godssake.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Phil says finally. “Okay. Love you, too. Goodbye.”
Dan counts to one-hundred, then two-hundred, so it's not incredibly obvious that he’s awake, then sits up.
“Dan!” Phil says, a little surprised. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you up?”
“No,” Dan says, voice clipped. “I have to go.”
“Oh! Uh, ok,” Phil’s soft, sleepy-eyed smile fades a little. “I was going to ask if you wanted to get breakfast.”
“No,” Dan says again, and any hope of getting out of here without Phil knowing he’s upset is dashed. He’s always been shit at hiding his feelings. The disappointment and hurt are probably written all over his face, and he needs to get out of here before he says something cutting.
“O...okay,” Phil says again, and Dan’s gathered his things and walked out of Phil’s room before Phil can do something like offer to walk him to the door. He’s done enough walks of shame in his life to know that the doorway in the morning after is the liminal space where you decide if you’re going to see someone again. He’s already made that decision about Phil. Men are fucking awful, he thinks, just trash .
His own apartment is quiet when he gets home. It's earlyish on a Saturday but Dan’s halfway certain he remembers PJ saying something about pulling an all night edit session at someone’s house.
He turns toward Chris’s bedroom and knocks on the door.
“There’s no one here,” Chris calls out.
“I’m angry,” Dan tells him. Chris doesn’t respond.
“And sad,” Dan adds, leaning his head against the door. If PJ were here, he probably wouldn’t have admitted that part. For all that he’s good for giving Dan direct advice and then space for Dan to take that advice or leave it, Dan knows PJ is also wildly protective of him and would probably have several mean things to say to and about Phil.
The angry part of Dan is ready to say mean things about Phil. The sad part of him is just…sad.
Dan hears Chris moving around and stands up straight so he doesn’t fall through the doorway when the door swings open.
Chris looks at him, assessing and a little wild eyed then laughs his breathy, almost-nervous laughter. “What happened?”
“Let me in,” Dan insists, pushing past Chris to walk into his room and flop onto his bed.
“You know PJ likes you better than I do,” Chris tells him, but crawls onto the other side of the bed.
“I know,” Dan tells him and pretends it doesn’t hurt a little. He’s been friends with PJ longer than he’s been friends with Chris and he’s not always been the most supportive of the openness of their relationship, even if he’s reaping the benefits of it now.
“What happened,” Chris asks again, throwing a leg and arm over Dan. Dan knows this is Chris’s thing and isn’t a statement of his affection for Dan, but he takes the weight of Chris’s body across his and exhales.
“Phil has a boyfriend. Or girlfriend? Their name is Augustine. I heard him talking on the phone with them this morning.”
“Ah,” Chris says, resting his chin on Dan’s shoulder, his face uncomfortably close. “That’s where you went last night. Well. Was it at least good?”
Dan shakes his head. “We didn’t even do anything. I just— I thought we could be friends, or something?”
Chris hums, “I know my boundaries and standards around relationships are a little...unconventional, but it's been my experience that, traditionally, friends are allowed to have partners and still be your friend?”
Dan huffs. “Shut up.”
Chris shuts up. They lay in silence, listening to their neighbors bump around for a minute.
“I liked him,” Dan says finally.
Chris continues to shut up.
Dan sighs loudly, then says, “You can talk.”
“Now, again, I’m not one to police the way other people do friendships, as I certainly hate it when people did that with me. Oh Chris, they said, you have to call him your boyfriend, they said, or else you’re using him.”
Dan makes a face. “I’ve apologized for that.”
“Oh, I’ve accepted your apology,” Chris says, digging his chin into Dan’s shoulder to nod. “Apology thoroughly accepted. I try not to suck the cock of anyone I’m actively miffed with. You should try that. But no, what I was about to say is, in my experience, if you want to be more than friends with someone you do have to tell them. Otherwise they’ll go on treating you as, well, a friend.”
Chris’s bed is lumpy, and Dan knows he sleeps in PJ’s room most nights. Most days, though, when he’s not in class, he spends in this room, running through lines, reading scripts, watching films to studying acting choices. This room is fully Chris’s space and Dan feels a little smothered by it. By Chris’s oddly expressed but sincere concern. He should have gone to his own bed, where he could come to these conclusions on his own.
“I didn't know I wanted him as more than a fuck,” Dan admits, shifting so that he’s more fully covered by Chris’s limbs, turning this into a proper cuddle.
“Feelings can be confusing,” Chris agrees. “Especially when yours have been dependent on someone else's for the last three years.”
“Eat me,” Dan says, automatically. Chris has a talent for saying the most cutting things as if they’re just observations on the color of the sky.
“I could,” Chris says, easy, “If you want to go shower. Or we could lay here and I’ll stop you from checking your text messages.”
“No,” Dan says, “This is fine. He probably thinks I’m mental anyway. I left in a hurry.”
“Probably,” Chris agrees. “It’s not the worst thing, having someone think you’re mental. Really cuts down on the small talk people expect from you.”
Dan huffs a laugh and lets himself relax further into the bed, and into Chris’s body.
When he wakes up somewhere other than his bed for the second time today, it's because someone keeps bumping into him. He opens his eyes to see PJ, not Chris, sitting next to him, leaning against the headboard. He’s typing something, and his hand keeps bumping into Dan.
“Y’re not Chris,” Dan slurs, pressing his hand into his face. His sleep schedule is going to be so fucked.
“Not the last time I checked,” PJ agrees. “He went out. Said to make sure you didn’t check your phone until you’ve had a glass of water and I told you something appropriately sage about not getting into a relationship just because you miss being in a relationship.”
Dan scoffs. “That’s not what’s happening. Chris doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
PJ makes that considering noise that means he disagrees.
“Chris has read possibly every relationship book that’s ever been published, so he probably has some clue of what he’s talking about,” PJ says, “Go get some water.”
Something trills in Dan’s stomach. “Do I have a message?”
“You have a message from Phil,” PJ confirms. “I haven’t read it, so I don’t know anything else. Go get a glass of water.”
Dan sighs at him very loudly, but rolls out of bed and heads to the kitchen to get a glass of water to drink. When he comes back, PJ tosses his phone at him, already unlocked.
“You said you hadn’t read it,” Dan says, accusatorially. He really needs to take their thumbprints off his passcode list.
“I suspect you wouldn’t have gone to get water if I knew what was in here,” PJ tells him solemnly, “He’s very good at apologizing for whatever he did.”
Dan opens the message while saying, “Chris didn’t tell you?”
PJ responds but Dan’s already reading the text: Hey Dan. I’m not sure what happened between last night and this morning, but you seemed upset, which wasn’t my intention at all so I’m sorry. Could we talk so I can figure out what exactly I’m sorry about?”
It’s one of the more competent apologies Dan’s gotten. Crap.
“Well,” PJ says when Dan looks up from the phone at him. “What’d he do?”
“Tried to hook up with me when he’s clearly in a relationship.” Dan sighs. “I think. Maybe I was trying to hook up with him?”
“Ah,” PJ says carefully. “Tell him to go choke.”
“PJ!” Dan says, sitting on the bed. “I’m not going to tell him that.”
“Dan,” PJ tells him. “People on Mars could tell you wanted to bang him. There’s no way he didn’t know. Tell him to go choke. Do it.”
“From Mars?” Dan asks, looking at his phone. Was he that obvious?
“Mars,” PJ says firmly. “Choking. Go on, then.”
Dan doesn’t tell him to go choke. What he does say is, Apology accepted. But I’m not trying to be anyone’s final year stress relief. Maybe tell your girlfriend, or whatever, if you need someone’s attention so badly.
In quick succession he hits send, then blocks Phil’s number. And, because he’s not interested in moping around the house while Chris and PJ coo at him to feel better, he texts one of his summer hookups that had ended on friendly terms.
“We can stop freaking out now,” he says, looking up at PJ. “It's done. I made a bad decision, twice. It sucks, but I’m done.”
PJ frowns and looks like he wants to say something else, but Dan walks out before he can. This is fine. Phil was just a minor snag in Dan’s plan to finish his last year drama free.
He walks over to drop a peck on PJ’s forehead and heads back to his room. His phone buzzes in his hand, a summer fling telling him when to head to their apartment. He sighs, and replies, telling them he’ll be there soon.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
One of the things that Dan knows about himself, one of the reason he’s in grad school, is that he’s never been satisfied with an unfinished argument.
It doesn’t matter so much if he wins or loses, he just wants it done . Otherwise it lingers in the back of his head, tugging at his attention, the unfinished end of things.
The argument with Phil isn’t done, and it's irritating. He spends an entire day turning his phone on and off, checking every message immediately. He lasts through a one-night stand, class the next day, and dinner with Chris and PJ before he finally breaks and finds himself looking at his blocked numbers.
There’s Phil, at the bottom of the list. Most of the others above him are numbers that Mads had used to try and contact him in the ensuing weeks after they’d broken up.
That image on its own is probably the sign he needs to leave Phil there. But he liked Phil, and the feeling of potential that he’d felt at the lake is still there. The thought of unblocking even one of the other numbers and letting Mads back in twists Dan’s stomach into knots, but the thought of letting Phil back in feels okay. It feels like there’s a chance for it to turn out right. He wants to give Phil a chance to at least explain himself. It’s not like there’s anything Phil could say that he hadn’t already heard from Mads anyway.
Dan unblocks Phil’s number and sends him a simple hey . He puts his phone down, and opens up his computer, finding his place in the PDF he was reading about pop stars in the Netherlands.
He’s barely a sentence back when his phone buzzes once, then twice, then one more time.
He’s gotten back:
I’m not sure what I did to give you the impression that I had a girlfriend but it's definitely not accurate. I guess you heard my phone call that day?
That was my best friend, Augustine. Or maybe you ran into Priya? She’s definitely my roommate. I really liked hanging out with you Dan and I’m getting the feeling you have some history with cheating but that’s not me at all.
Dan blinks at the flurry of messages. How fast could Phil type? Did he have those saved up somewhere?
And then the realization sets in. Phil doesn’t have a girlfriend. Phil was talking to his best friend.
Dan groans and flops back on his bed, covering his face with one of his pillows. He’d thrown a whole temper tantrum over a girlfriend Phil doesn’t even have.
“I’m a headcase,” Dan says to himself, his voice muffled by the pillow. “He thinks I’m absolutely mental , oh god.”
He knows he has to respond. Because that’s what a normal person would do. They would respond and apologize profusely and maybe promise to stay at least 50 feet away from Phil at any given time.
But Dan’s apparently given up on any pretense of being normal because he sends back, oh, haha. wow that’s so funny, my mistake .
And then he turns his phone on do not disturb and turns back to his PDF and reads with a passion and concentration he hasn’t had since undergrad, fueled by pure mortification.
He keeps reading for an hour, until he can’t ignore his growling stomach. He opens the group chat with Chris and PJ on his desktop, sends a few food emojis and a question mark.
PJ sends him back a coffee emoji and says we’re at the cafe. bring us pizza.
Dan can’t do that. For one thing, he’ll get kicked out if he brings food that obvious to the cafe, and for another, there’s every chance that Phil will be there. His stomach growls at him grumpily.
But also, if Phil’s there, maybe it’ll force Dan to talk to him rather than just curling up in his own embarrassment and making things weird between them.
He argues with himself about whether or not he should go even as he gets up to pull on real clothes and his shoes. He’s not positive he’s going to go until he’s locking the door to the flat behind him and leaving out of the complex, heading in the direction of the cafe.
It's still warmish outside, but the gusts of wind that slip under Dan’s jacket have the chill of the oncoming night. He passes a group of people from one of his seminars on his way down the street. He waves, but doesn’t slow down.
The cafe is relatively busy, but he finds PJ sitting on one of the stools at the raised bar, and to the right of his computer there’s a pile of torn up napkins, marking Chris’s absence.
“I thought both of you were here,” Dan says, sitting down in front of the ravaged napkins, presses his thigh against PJ’s.
“He had to leave for a date,” PJ says, while chewing on a pen.
Dan frowns and makes a mental note to pin down exactly where Chris and PJ are right now and if he needs to be making sad, comforting noises when PJ says things like that.
PJ glances up at him and rolls his eyes at Dan. “Still in a happily open relationship, Howell.”
“I know ,” Dan says, trying not to sound caught out. “I just don’t see how you’re so calm about it. If my boyfriend was going out with other people I’d—,”
“This is the moment where you’re glad you’re talking to me and not Chris,” PJ says, propping his head up on his hand. “Because he’d say something pretty cutting, but accurate, about what you did do when your boyfriend was going out with other people.”
And that...hurts. It hurts, and PJ knew it would hurt and he said it anyway.
“Mads cheated on me,” Dan starts.
“Yes,” PJ says, cutting him off. “He cheated on you, because he did something you didn’t agree upon. Chris and I agreed that he can go out on dates. I’ve explained this to you before Dan.”
Dan crosses his arms and looks away. The couple across from them look like they’re on a date. He stares at the girl half of the couple and tries to ignore how warm his eyes feel. But he refuses to cry right now. Not in public and definitely not in front of PJ.
PJ sighs and puts his pen down. “I’m sorry. Dan? Dan, come on.”
Dan looks away for a moment more, then sighs himself and looks at PJ.
“Hey,” PJ says, “I’m sorry. But you know how I get when you start in on me and Chris. I know you mean well, but can we just...talk about something else.”
Dan rubs a hand through his hair and nods. “I’m sorry, too. I don’t...I don’t get it, but it's not for me to get.”
PJ nods, and the awkwardness settles between them for a moment before Dan shakes his head and scoots his chair forward, sliding PJ his phone. “I talked to Phil. He doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
Dan’s expecting PJ to react with at least a fraction of his own surprise and at least some second-hand embarrassment.
Instead he goes, “Huh. You found out about that?”
To his credit, Dan isn’t shrieking when he asks, “You knew ?”
PJ nods and sips from the mug that was sitting beside his computer. “I talked to him this morning. He tried to ask me for advice. I told him to fuck off, and then he looked confused about why I was being so rude. He seems like a pretty cool bloke. Cooler than I expected a philosophy major to be.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Dan asks, gripping the edges of the table. He’d humiliated himself for nothing. PJ could have saved him from the surprise and his own painfully awkward response.
“Well,” PJ sighs, sitting back in his chair. “You were obviously looking for a way out, and Phil didn’t look very sure of himself, so I figured he wouldn’t contact you. I was trying to let you keep your out.”
Dan groans and leans over to let his head thump on the table. PJ reaches over to pat his head.
“Uh, Dan?” a familiar voice says just as he’s getting into his head being patted.
Dan shoots up and turns his body, just in time to catch Phil looking between him and PJ. PJ keeps his hand resting on Dan’s neck, looking back down at the script he was marking before Dan started talking to him. Phil looks between them one more time, then offers Dan an apologetic smile. Dan pushes PJ’s hand off him.
“Hey, Phil,” he says and slips off the stool. “Hi. Um. Do you wanna talk? Maybe outside?”
Phil nods, and smiles at him. It’s not the full on smiles Dan’s gotten used to. It's a little more hesitant. Dan feels bad about being a person that makes Phil smile less, and then feels surprised at the sharpness of that regret.
Phil turns toward the door and Dan follows him, trying to figure out what, exactly, he’s going to say once they’re outside.
“So I’m an idiot,” Dan says.
“I’m really sorry about Augustine,” Phil says at the same time, talking over him.
They try again, twice, speaking simultaneously, then snapping their mouths shut to hear each other. Finally Dan gestures that he’s going to talk first, and Phil nods, drawing a hand over his lips like a zipper. Dan rolls his eyes and smiles despite himself.
“I had a boyfriend,” he says slowly, digging his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “We dated for three years. He cheated on me. For a while. With a lot of people. So I’m a little sensitive, and that’s why I freaked out on you. I’m really sorry. For jumping to conclusions, and for being weird with you and not telling you what was going on.”
Phil nods. “That’s understandable. And you don’t owe me an explanation, even if I appreciate it. Start over?”
“Start over,” Dan says and sticks a hand out.
Phil looks at it strangely, then takes it, shaking.
“Are we making a business deal?” Phil asks as he shakes Dan’s hand. “This feels very patriarchal.”
“Sir,” Dan says in his deepest, most formal voice.
“SIr,” Phil echoes, squeezing Dan’s hand before letting it go.
“Do you want to hang out?” Dan asks, “Name the time and place. I promise not to accuse you of hiding any secret girlfriends.”
“No threat of any girlfriends,” Phil confirms, “Secret or otherwise. I’d love to hang out. Tomorrow?”
Dan grimaces, “I’ve got a check in with my thesis advisor next week and need to actually do some writing. Rain check?”
Phil shrugs. “We could raincheck. Or we could write together? Unless you need to be alone to write.”
“God, no,” Dan says, pursing his lips together. “I always have to come to the cafe just to have background noise. We can definitely write together.”
They finish making plans to hang tomorrow and Phil walks off while Dan goes back inside the cafe. When he gets back to the bar, he’s surprised to see Chris has taken back his seat. Dan and Phil had been standing near the cafe’s entrance, so Dan’s really not sure how he’d missed Chris’s return.
But he’s here, staring at his phone, a hand resting on PJ’s thigh. Dan’s chest feels warm with fondness and relief seeing the way Chris and PJ’s bodies lean together. He knows they’d probably tear him a new asshole if he ever fully expressed how much he worries about them, how nervous he gets when they step out with anyone else. But he can take a moment to be glad that these two have stuck around, with each other and with him.
He walks up to them and leans his torso against Chris.
“Our favorite serial monogamist returns,” Chris says, looking up and giving Dan a mouthful of hair.
“PJ told you?” Dan asks, taking a step back so he can actually see both of them.
“PJ tells me everything,” Chris says pointedly.
Dan waves a hand, ignoring Chris’s comment and tells them about the conversation he’d just had with Phil.
The next day Dan finds himself walking to a flat that’s not more than a ten minute walk from his own home. The last time he’d been here he’d been distracted by his fury at Phil’s attempts to make him the other woman. But this time he can appreciate the cute little set of flats, one of the trendy newer ones that weren’t here when Dan started uni.
He makes his way up to the front door and knocks. He’s excited to see Phil, but more than a little nervous that whatever magic they’d been making between them is gone now. Things are different: Phil sort of knows about Mads, Dan knows that Phil actually likes him as a person and isn’t just plotting to get in his pants. Those things shouldn’t change the dynamic between them, but if Dan knows anything, he knows how relationships are built on details.
The door swings open, and a pretty, heavy-set Indian girl smiles up at him. Dan’s stomach swoops in panic and he takes a step back.
“Shit, sorry! I must have gone to the wrong house,” he glances down the hall to the other door, trying to make out the number on it. “Crap, what number did Phil say?”
“You’re Dan, yeah?” she asks. She’s a Geordie, her accent so thick and round that Dan has to think a moment before he figures out what she’s saying. “I’m Phil’s flatmate, Priya.”
“Yeah…” Dan says, wondering how Phil managed to find someone that actually sounds more Northern than him.
“Come in!” she says, stepping aside, “It's nice to finally meet the infamous Dan.”
“Thank you, I think?” Dan says, wandering in and slipping off his shoes to put next to the pile.
“Of course!” Priya says, and gestures toward the hallway. “His room is the third one on the left.”
Dan thanks her and walks down the hallway, leaving her in the living area.
The hallway is vaguely familiar from Dan’s sleepy, angry stumbling, but now he gets to appreciate the bits of Phil he notices. There’s a PS4 hooked up to the TV in the living area and there are pictures and prints posted on the walls, a parade of unfamiliar faces posing with Phil, or Priya, or both.
He gets to the third door and, since it's cracked slightly, pushes it open. The first thing he notices is that Phil’s room is quintessentially Phil. Dan realizes he doesn’t know Phil very well, but when he walks into a room with white walls covered in prints from colorful anime, knickknacks covering nearly every surface and stacks of books that have migrated from bookshelves to the floor, there’s a precarious pile of cards on his desk—he finds himself wanting to know the story behind everything.
The second thing he notices is Phil, who’s lying on his bed upside down, talking to his computer, which is resting on the floor.
He looks up and yelps, “Dan!”
As Phil’s struggling to flip over, whoever he’s talking to is laughing and says, “Hi, Dan!”
Dan walks further into the room, curious about who Phil could be talking to that sounds so familiar.
“Hi?” he says, waiting for Phil to get himself upright.
When he does he turns the computer to Dan and says, “Hi. Sorry. This is Augustine?”
It’s a good fucking thing that Phil’s told Dan who Augustine is and also that Dan’s decided that all he wants from Phil is friendship. Because Augustine is one of the prettiest women he’s ever seen. She’s grinning at him, blue eyes sparkling. Her cheekbones are like something out of a dream.
“Be nice,” Phil says to the computer.
“I’m always nice. Hi, Dan,” she says again. “I’m Augustine. Phil’s best friend.”
“The one he’s not dating,” Dan says, coming closer and cringing immediately. In retrospect, that sort of clarification probably sounds like he’s got different plans for Phil than the ones he actually has.
Augustine laughs and shakes her head. “The one he’s not dating.”
“We tried!” Phil says, grinning at Dan. “A long, long time ago.”
“When we were kids,” Augustine says, nodding. “Except Phil was figuring out he was only into boys while I was figuring out that I definitely wasn’t one.”
Dan shrugs, “Not every relationship is compatible.”
Augustine looks at him, surprisingly shrewd for a questionable internet connection.
“And some are,” she says finally, then smiles again. “Anyway! I know you boys have got to study, and I’ve got a date. Dan, it's been lovely to meet you. Hope to do it in person soon. Flip, darling, I love you.”
“Love you,” Phil says back, turning the computer to smile at the screen. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. Don’t be mean to the other artists.”
“Ugh,” she says back. “What old, fun Phil wouldn’t do or new, mentally stable Phil?”
Phil glances quickly up at Dan then back to her.
“Old Phil,” he says quietly. Dan’s intrigued but also recognizes when he shouldn’t dig.
“Oh, that leaves me with plenty of options,” she practically purrs. “And it's a gallery opening . I’m never mean at gallery openings. Later, dearest.”
She hangs up and Dan looks at Phil, who’s got the remnants of his smile for Augustine on his face.
“So that was Augustine,” he says. “We grew up together.”
“And you’re definitely not dating,” Dan says, because he’s socially awkward and apparently he’s decided to make this some kind of inside joke.
But Phil laughs, amazingly. “No. She’d eat me alive. And we’re basically siblings. Except not because she keeps hitting on my actual brother.”
“You have a brother?” Dan asks, finally setting his bag down and sitting on the papasan chair that’s tucked up next to the bed.
“One. Martyn. He’s older. Sorry about my room, by the way. It’s a bit of a mess,” Phil says while not sounding very apologetic. “I cleaned up some, but I need all of those books so...”
Dan shrugs, a little thrown by the immediate change in subject.
“I’ve seen worse,” he tells Phil, grabbing his laptop out of his bag. “My friend Chris? I’m not positive but I think he’s hiding a live animal under his laundry.”
Phil laughs, “I won’t tell you about the family of hedgehogs in my closet, then.”
Dan snorts, “Don’t let your landlord find out, or they’ll have to go fast.”
Phil’s laugh is equal parts surprised and delighted. Dan can’t help but smile at him.
“You’re not the only nerd in this town, Phil...whatever your last name is.”
“Lester,” Phil tells Dan as he grabs his computer from his desk and settles on his bed, close enough to Dan to talk. “The name’s Phil Lester.”
“Thankfully not Mo,” Dan says and cringes at himself a little. “Sorry, that was terrible.”
But when he looks up, Phil’s still grinning at him and shaking his head.
“It was,” Phil says, opening his computer, “but I won’t tell anyone. What are you working on?”
“Essay for class,” Dan says, and then, because he can’t help himself, “I’ve got a brother, too. Younger.“
Normally, he’d pick up on the signs that Phil doesn’t want to talk about it but this is the first time Phil’s offered any information on himself beyond his studies and Dan’s intrigued.
“You seem like an older brother,” Phil tells him and then, because he’s apparently feeling generous, he says, “Martyn does video and music stuff for work. He taught me how to edit my first videos. Do you know youtube? I used to put videos up on there.”
Dan suddenly learns that apparently Phil’s family is the way to get him talking. He learns that Phil’s incredibly fond of his father but it's his mother that keeps showing up in his stories. He learns that Phil wanted to be a weatherman for the longest time, but ended up getting his undergrad degree in English Language & Linguistics. He learns that Phil was a fairly popular youtuber, but gave it up.
“I really liked it,” Phil says. “I was good at it, and more and more people were watching. I just liked school more, and there came a point where I had to choose one. I chose school.”
Dan nods and taps the sides of his laptop. “School’s the only thing I’ve ever been particularly good at. And even then it’s only weird shit like sociology. Took a year of law and nearly dropped out. Parents weren’t over the moon about that. They’re still asking what I’m going to do with the degree.”
Phil nods. “My parents were the same about me going back to school for this. Except they know I want to teach.”
Dan expects his stomach to turn a little at how similar Phil’s plan seems to be to Mads, but he doesn’t really feel anything, other than a drive to ask Phil more questions, and share more of his stories.
“Mine don’t really...get the whole academic thing,” Dan sighs, tipping back his chair a little. “Whenever I go home it's all oh Dan, have you gotten a job lined up yet , like they don’t know I’ve likely got a whole other degree to get.”
Phil nods. “My parents don’t either. I gave them a chapter of mine to read once. I’m pretty sure they still haven’t finished it.”
“I’d like to read your stuff,” Dan says, before he’s really thought it through. It’s the kind of thing he’d offer Mads, only to hear him laugh and assure Dan that it’s stuff he wouldn’t get.
But Phil is nodding and smiling and then tapping on his computer. Dan’s phone vibrates and dings with a new email.
“It’s pretty bad,” Phil tells him, shrugging a shoulder. “But that’s the last chapter I finished. I know it needs some major rewrites, if you want to make notes on it? No pressure.”
“No, totally,” Dan says, trying to talk through his surprise. Mads had been notoriously protective of his work. He’d been willing to talk about it endlessly to Dan, or anyone else who would listen, but he’d never share it so casually.
After that, they turn to their respective computers and fall into silence. Dan waits for it to get awkward, waits for the tug to fill the room with idle patter, but it never comes.
Dan’s playing video games that night— defending a 4-round lead on Mario Kart when PJ plops down on the couch next to him and tugs the controller out of his hand.
“Hey!” Dan says, reaching to grab it back and summarily blocked by PJ’s knobby elbows.
“Fuck off, stop destroying some 14 year old’s self confidence,” PJ says, as he releases bananas behind him. “How’d your study date go?”
“Ugh,” Dan says, pushing himself back into the couch cushion. “I met his best friend. We talked about his family, and mine. And we studied. It was nice.”
PJ nods and they sit in silence as PJ finishes the race in a tragic third place.
“Are you being careful?” he asks, handing the controller back to Dan. They both watch the short replay of the race and Dan lifts one shoulder in a shrug.
“Nothing to be careful about. We’re friends. I need all the friends I can get, don’t I?”
Dan can see PJ turning to look at him, and he holds out a whole ten seconds before looking back at him. He isn’t surprised to meet PJ’s concerned face.
“No one hates you, y’know?” PJ says. Dan lets his head fall back against the couch and groans.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he says to the ceiling, as if his wants have ever stopped PJ when PJ decides they need to have a conversation.
“No one hates you,” PJ repeats firmly. “If anything they feel bad for what Mads did to you.”
“That’s the problem,” Dan says, feeling a flash of irritation. He doesn’t want anyone feeling bad for him. He doesn’t want anyone feeling anything at all about him. “They think they know what Mads did to me. They coo and talk about how sad it is, how mean he was. It’s bullshit. He was perfect, PJ. He was perfect to me, and decided he wanted anyone but me.They don’t know the half of it.”
“Was he?” PJ asks. “Because you nearly bit someone’s head off because they reminded you of something Madison did.”
Dan shakes his head. “Mads...what Mads did was fucked up. It was the worst. But it would have been less fucking awful if he hadn’t been so good to me before.”
PJ lets out a frustrated huff and hands Dan the controller back. This is the same argument they’ve been having since this summer. PJ determined to get Dan to badmouth Mads before the cheating, as if Mads hadn’t been one of the best things to happen to Dan up until that point. As if he wasn’t the best thing Dan would never have again.
“But Phil was fine,” Dan tells him, and hopes PJ takes the out.
PJ shakes his head and leans over to press his lips to Dan’s cheek. “That’s good. I’m glad you’re making friends.”
“Thanks, Mum,” Dan says, grinning at PJ cheekily. PJ wordlessly leans over to grab the other controller from beneath their coffee table and Dan dutifully sets up the multiplayer.
Dan wakes up with wet eyes. He’s in his room, no one in his bed, and he’s kicked all the covers off. There’s yellowy-orange light coming in from the lamppost just outside his window. His nose feels warm and stuffed up, the way it always gets when he’s been crying and if he closes his eyes and concentrates, he can get a blur of coarse, curly hair and brown eyes.
It's been two weeks since he’s dreamt about Mads. It's the longest he’s gone all summer. He doesn’t know if he’s more grateful that it's been so long, or that he hasn’t forgotten what Mads looks like.
He wipes his face with his forearm and sits up, grabbing his phone from the bedside table.
It's been three weeks since he last looked at Mads’ instagram. It's public, and Dan doesn’t know what he’ll do if Mads closes it.
Sometimes, and only in his head, Dan thinks of Mads as a drug. Dan feels like he’s in withdrawal, even when he’s not really thinking about him. It used to be a constant refrain, an absence that ached. Now, a few months removed, it feels less pressing, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything at all. Except times like now, very late at night when all Dan can think is that he still has Mads’ phone number memorized, that he might still have the password to Mads’ email saved somewhere in his computer, that it wouldn’t be that hard to find out where he lives now. He thinks that maybe he can ask Mads what he did wrong, and then fix it, make himself better for Mads.
Dan opens his inbox and opens a new email draft. He writes it has been 0 days since our last incident and sends it to PJ. He’ll see it in the morning, probably wrap Dan up in a tight hug, maybe even apologize for making him talk about Mads the night before.
Dan plugs his charger back into the phone, rests it on the nightstand and lies back on his back. There are tears building, and he lets them come, slipping across his temples into his hair. He takes a shuddering breath or two, and lets himself feel this big, ugly thing within him.
It's been two weeks since the last time he dreamt about Mads, and this time, he cries twenty minutes fewer than the last time. It’s progress. He’ll take it.
He wakes up again at 9am, with eyes that are tacky and the remnants of a headache. He groans and rubs them and rolls out of bed, grabbing his phone and walking to the bathroom. Once he’s brushed his teeth and turned the shower on, he checks his phone while he waits for it to warm up.
He’s got two messages. One is from PJ, a series of sad face and heart emojis and and a suggestion for dinner tonight. The other is from Phil, an invitation to write together again today, at Phil’s apartment, or the cafe, or wherever. He says yes to both.
He goes to class. The first is just a thesis seminar and he listens and makes the appropriate noises about his yearmate’s thesis troubles, tries not to think about his own unformed thesis, a google doc with different singers’ names and things like “race??? exposure?? sex and fame? countdowns”. The second is about women and representations of motherhood. He watches images of childbirth—real and fictional—and writes something about Blue Ivy and Jamie Lynn Spears in his notes.
He doodles while the rest of the class is talking about the exposed viscera of a c-section. He looks down and realizes he’s drawn the slightly oblong profile of Phil’s head, and keeps doodling. He stops when he realizes he’s drawn a head full of thick, dark curls.
He looks up, staring at someone’s organs in bowls on a table, listens to the squalling of a newborn. He scratches out the doodle, and tries to pay attention.
After class, he walks from campus to Phil’s apartment and knocks on the door. Priya opens it again and steps aside to let him in.
“He went out to the shop,” she tells him, closing the door behind him. “He said something about needing study supplies? Which probably means haribo. Would you like some water or something while you wait? Tea?”
Dan’s not great at small talk, and he kind of wants to snoop around Phil’s room. But his mother did raise him well enough that he can’t just blow off Priya’s offer, so he nods and follows her to the kitchen.
“How’s thesis going?” she asks, handing him water in a glass that’s been painted with swirls of red and white. The paint is rough against his fingertips, and peels a little.
Dan groans and Priya laughs.
“I know, right?” she asks, leaning against the kitchen sink and running a hand through her close cropped hair. “Sometimes it feels like the only thing people ever ask me. Oh, Priya, are you working on your portfolio? Oh, Priya, have you got a job lined up?”
Dan takes a sip of his water, swallows then asks, “Portfolio?”
She nods. “MFA in poetry. Lots of drippy lesbian in love feelings. Bonus points for the sad long distance relationship sonnets.”
Dan nods. “MA in sociology. Lots of feelings about pop stars. Plenty of sadness, but not my own. Sorry. I’ve heard long distance sucks.”
Priya smiles. He doesn’t know her very well, but he recognizes the smile of someone who’s trying very hard not to let someone else know they’re upset.
“It fucking sucks,” she agrees and sighs, pulling her phone out of her pocket.
Dan makes an understanding noise. He’s never had that particular issue. The year he wasn’t in school, he still lived in town, to be closer to Mads. They’d talked about what would happen once Mads graduated and Dan still had a year left in the Master’s Program, but that day never came.
“My girlfriend,” Priya says, waving the phone a little. “She goes to uni in the States. She comes home regularly, so I guess it's not that bad. They’ve just got a really different schedule, so I might not get to see her at all over the winter.”
Dan’s about to say something when the sound of keys in the door interrupts them.
Phil’s coming in but Dan looks at Priya and says, “I’m sure it’ll work out. It’s been my experience that people make time for the things that are important to them.”
Priya nods and gives him a smile that looks slightly less sad. It's the best Dan’s got, so he’ll take the smile.
“Dan!” Phil says, sounding just as surprised and delighted as the first time. Honestly, Dan could get used to hearing his name said like that.
He ducks his head to hide his smile and says, “Phil.”
“Priya!” Priya says, and laughs to herself a little. Phil laughs along, and doesn’t seem bothered by the teasing.
“Thank you for the water,” Dan says to Priya. “I hope everything turns out okay.”
Priya nods and looks down at her phone, which has just lit up.
“It will,” she says and leaves the kitchen as she answers her phone.
Dan watches her go then turns to Phil.
“So,” he starts out slowly. “Not to be...regionalist.”
Phil raises an eyebrow. “Is this about to be an accent joke?”
Dan scoffs and crosses his arms. “Of course not. You would assume such a thing of me?”
Phil waits and Dan stares at him. Phil waits and looks at him expectantly.
Dan finally cracks, saying, “How the fuck do you two sound when I’m not here? Christ, a Geordie and a– a– whatever they call people from where you’re from.”
Phil’s laughing at him, and it feels really, really nice.
“Well, come on then,” Dan says affecting a poor Northern accent. “Let’s see what study supplies you’ve got.”
Dan ends up eating more than his fair share of Phil’s chewy haribo that night.
September slips into October and hanging out with Phil becomes a regular part of Dan’s week. Priya still answers the door more often than not, and Dan doesn’t mind getting to know her either. He finds out she has a passing knowledge of PJ, and he get to hear bits and piece of how her poetry is coming along.
The first time Phil comes to Dan’s flat is a little odd. PJ keeps a fairly wide berth while Chris comes closer, to Phil’s strange delight. He puts on the quirky asshole act, draping himself over Dan and calling him pet names. He asks Phil what his intentions are to Dan and makes loud, disbelieving noises when Phil answers. But something good must happen because Dan pulls PJ aside to tell him to take Chris literally anywhere else and when they come back, Phil is grinning and Chris is doing the Pokemon rap in his best American accent.
Phil’s more willing to go along with Chris’s flights of fancy than anyone Dan’s ever met.
After that, choosing between Phil’s flat, Dan’s flat, and the cafe is a topic of late night discussion. Studying together becomes a foregone conclusion.
Dan doesn’t have chairs in his room, so he and Phil sit on his bed, tapping away, piling books on every surface they’re not sitting on.
Phil’s muttering to himself, a habit Dan finds endearing and annoying by turn. Dan nudges him with a socked foot, and Phil looks up, blinking. He does that too, leaning into the computer and losing himself in whatever he’s reading or writing.
“Favorite Britney Spears song, go.”
Phil tilts his head. “...Baby, One More Time? Toxic. Is this a test?”
Dan shrugs a shoulder and asks, “Favorite Christina Aguilera song?”
Phil closes his computer and looks at Dan properly. “Beautiful? Is there a right answer here?”
Dan grins, “There’s always a right answer, Phil. Favorite Selena Gomez song?”
Phil pauses, “She’s the one with the tongue, right?”
“Phil!” Dan says, scandalized. “Selena Gomez looks nothing like Miley Cyrus.”
“Hannah Montana!” Phil says, looking accomplished. “You hate that one.”
“I hate that one,” Dan confirms and stretches his legs out to rest his crossed feet on Phil’s thigh. “I’m concerned that you can’t name a pop song from this decade.”
“Is this an intervention?” Phil asks, looking at the ceiling of Dan’s room. “I’ve seen those American TV shows. Did you get a banner?”
“I’m going to make you a playlist,” Dan says. “You can’t be my friend and not be able to name a single Selena Gomez song.”
“Then I guess I’ll need to educate myself,” Phil says, grabbing Dan’s ankle and pushing his feet off his leg.
“I’ll go easy on you,” Dan says, pulling up Spotify and scrolling through his playlists. “I’ll start in the 60’s. You were there, right?”
Phil laughs and thwacks Dan’s leg. Dan’s not sure when they’d started touching each other, but he’s a little afraid that if he points it out, Phil will stop.
“You’re the one that keeps hanging out with me,” Phil points out.
Dan shrugs, “I’m just trying to sap your intelligence. Wouldn’t be the first time someone called me an intellectual golddigger.”
Phil frowns at him, but Dan changes the subject. He fucks up like that sometime, still trying to figure out what level of self-deprecating humour Phil’s okay with.
“D’you want to stay for dinner?” he asks, sitting up and reaching his arms up, stretching. His spine pops in three discrete places. He groans and lets his arms fall. When he looks at Phil, Phil’s eyes are hovering around his belly. He pulls his shirt down where it's ridden up, a little self conscious, and knocks his feet into Phil’s leg.
“Is PJ cooking?” Phil asks, eyes snapping up to Dan’s face. “Because he hates me. I’m too young to die, Dan.”
Dan shakes his head. “PJ doesn’t hate you. He’s just reserved.”
Well. PJ’s reserved when he’s being protective, but Phil doesn’t need to know that.
Phil’s saying something, but Dan’s not listening, distracted by the buzz of his phone. He idly opens up the notification from Facebook, then flinches so hard he drops the phone. It's an “on this day in history” notification. Two years ago today, someone posted a picture of him, tucked up under Mads’s arm, grinning into the camera. Mads is turned away, one hand gesturing toward whoever he’s talking to. The other hand is gripping Dan’s shoulder, possessive.
Phil picks up the phone, glancing at the picture as he hands it back to Dan.
“Are you ok?” he asks.
“I thought I turned this fucking thing off,” Dan says, untagging himself. He looks up at the ceiling, feels his stomach tightening and churning in anxiously.
“Yeah,” Phil says softly, looking concerned. “I hate it when I get reminded of things like that. Unexpected. Like you don’t have time to prepare.”
“Yeah,” Dan says, inhaling deeply. Holding it. Exhaling. Phil sits quietly.
Finally, Dan looks at him and says, “PJ likes you. He was just here for my drama about Augustine and he’s a mother hen. He’ll come around.”
Phil nods and smiles at him. The smile doesn’t quite erase the concerned look.
Dan looks back at his computer, staring at the green and black of spotify. Eventually, Phil opens his computer back up too, and starts typing.
They’ve been sitting quietly for fifteen minutes when Dan blurts out, “His name was Madison West. Everyone called him Mads.”
Phil looks up, making a face, “I know. I knew him.”
Dan’s stomach drops. He should have been expecting this. The philosophy department is small, the number of doctoral students even smaller. Of course Phil knew Mads.
“He was part of my cohort,” Phil says. “He seemed like kind of a dick.”
Dan laughs a little, feeling hollowed out. “He’s the ex I told you about earlier. That cheated.”
“Oh,” Phil says. Like he didn’t know. Like maybe he doesn’t have to be another person to pity Dan. “So he was definitely a dick.”
“Definitely a dick,” Dan confirms. He’s not sure why, but he keeps going. “We met in undergrad. He’s the reason I’m here.”
He gestures at his book, then out the window toward campus. Phil’s eyes follow his hands.
“We were together for three years.” Dan says, and he’s suddenly desperate to get it all out. He’s spent weeks now worrying that Phil would find any part of this out. But now he’s desperate for Phil to know his side of the story, to show him the half-healed wounds Mads left in him. Phil seems to get this. He sits silently and watches Dan.
“I never got a straight answer out of him, but I’m pretty sure he cheated for the whole last year.” Dan sighs and runs a shaking hand through his hair. He’s jittery now, stomach gone tight and sour and breath catching funnily. “He called it blowing off steam.”
Phil watches him, watches the rise and fall of his chest and the way Dan can’t quite focus on him for too long. When Dan doesn’t say anything, finally able to bite back the words that threaten to keep coming, Phil reaches out to rest a hand on Dan’s shoulder.
“He was a dick,” Phil says firmly.
Dan looks at him and nods. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from.”
Phil draws his hand back and shrugs a shoulder. “It happens. You ok? Want to smoke?”
Dan huffs a laugh. Despite hanging out regularly for the last few weeks, he and Phil haven’t smoked together since the night out on the lake.
“Maybe. Have you been holding out on me?” Dan asks.
Phil’s face brightens into a smile. He hands Dan his computer and rolls off the bed. He leans over to dig through his bag. Dan’s still feeling a little shaken up, and he’s still firmly insistent that he and Phil aren’t meant to be anything other than friends, but he still looks. He takes stock of the length of Phil’s legs and the paleness of his arms. His eyes track over Phil’s hips and snap down to his computer when Phil stands up straight, a spliff between his lips.
“Not in here,” Dan sighs, placing both their laptops on the bed and climbing out of the bed. “Our neighbor always complains and swears she’s going to report us or something. C’mon, bathroom.”
To decide who got the bedroom with the en suite bathroom, he and PJ had played fifty consecutive rounds of Mario Kart over a weekend, with their friends taking turns keeping score. The final result was 27 to 23, winning Dan a thumb that ached for two weeks and a bathroom that was small, but blessedly private.
Usually, he bitches about the size of it and then PJ and Chris bitch back at him about the fact that he doesn’t have to share. Right now, though, he’s feeling less grumpy about it. Phil follows so closely behind him that Dan has to reach around him to turn the lights and bathroom fan on, brushing their chests together.
“Close the door?” Dan asks, pulling himself up to sit on the countertop next to the sink. The tile is cool and he swings his feet a little, letting them thud against the cabinet below.
“This feels very high school,” Phil says, but his smile hasn’t gone anywhere.
Dan rolls his eyes, “It's the fucking worst. The first year here we dropped so much money on incense. Then we figured out the smell doesn’t get to her if you smoke in here.”
Phil listens and nods while he produces a lighter from his pocket. Dan watches him light the spliff, his face gone orange in the light of the flame. Dan keeps watching Phil’s face as he inhales, then passes to Dan as he holds then exhales. Smoke plumes from his mouth, as pale as he is. For a moment, Dan can imagine Phil standing closer, maybe between Dan’s legs and exhaling, slow and hot, into Dan’s mouth. Maybe he’d put his hands on Dan’s thighs, or lean in to crowd Dan against the mirror.
Dan shakes his head and takes the spliff.
“Do you just have these on hand, then?” he asks Phil, who grins and ducks his head.
“For emergencies only,” Phil says, ridiculously sincerely. “Anxiety. Panic attacks. Extreme boredom.”
Dan laughs out his first exhale, the smoke thick and hot enough to turn the laugh into a cough. Phil plucks the spliff from his fingers while he coughs and Dan has to wave away his mildly concerned look.
“Good to know you’ve got a fix for when I’m blabbing about pop stars, then,” Dan says when he can finally talk again. His eyes have watered a little and his cheeks feel hot and red. He usually doesn’t give a shit, knows everyone coughs when they’re smoking up, but in front of Phil it feels embarrassing.
“You aren’t boring,” Phil tells him. “You couldn’t ever bore me.”
Dan snorts, “You haven’t heard me talk about pop star vocal techniques. Phil, I took a whole class about how to teach singing, for one final project. Adele? Totally unsustainable singing technique, even after the surgery.”
Phil laughs at him, and they pass the spliff back and forth in amiable silence until Dan can’t stand to hold the burning roach between his fingers. Phil looks around for somewhere to put it out before he shrugs and tosses the remnants of the spliff into the toilet.
Dan watches him, his head feeling hazy and soupy by turns. He rubs his fingers over the faucet, just to feel the sharp coolness of it.
“Feeling better?” Phil asks. He sounds far away, and Dan realizes he’s closed his eyes at some point.
He opens them and looks at Phil, mouth pulling up into a smile. It feels like it takes an hour for his mouth to stretch the way he wants it to. “Yeah. It hit me.”
Phil nods and smiles.
“Why are you so far away?” Dan asks, squinting. He’d rather have his eyes closed, but if he closes his eyes, he won’t be sure Phil’s still there. Unless.
“C’mere,” Dan sighs, holding an arm out. “You’re a hugger, right?”
“Yes,” Phil says, coming closer. “Are you? Are you when you’re not high?”
“Probably,” Dan says. He tangles his fingers in Phil’s t-shirt, and rubs his heels against the grain of his cabinets. “I’ve been having a hard time saying what I am and what I’m not lately. I like this, though.”
Phil comes easily, slotting himself between Dan’s knees like Dan had imagined earlier. He lets Dan press their chests together, and wraps his arms around Dan’s waist.
“...I’m a hugger,” Phil says again, begrudged, like he’s admitting something.
Dan makes an affirmative noise and scoots forward a little. Phil’s warm, and smells like some generic shower gel and weed. His arms are long and when he starts rubbing a hand up and down Dan’s back, Dan feels like purring, just to show his appreciation.
“You should have asked,” Dan tells him. He’s tilted his forehead down against Phil’s boney shoulder and he’s closed his eyes. He’s spinning a little in the darkness behind his eyelids and it takes a million years to say anything. The feeling of Phil’s hand spreads across his back, echoes over his skin. “I give hugs. More than that to some people.”
Dan’s stoned, but he’s not so gone that he can’t feel Phil tense up and try and pull away.
“Oh no,” Dan says, letting Phil go. “Come back.”
Phil doesn’t look upset, in fact, he looks a little endeared by Dan’s whininess. But he still takes a step back, and another until he’s leaning against the opposite wall.
“I think that’s enough,” Phil says.”I don’t want to do anything you wouldn’t—”
Dan flops a hand dismissively. “I wasn’t offering to fuck. And I can see if Chris and PJ are around if you don’t want to cuddle.”
Phil laughs, and it's not his usual breathy snicker. It's a little bitter, and in this state it makes Dan sad.
“Of course,” Phil says. “Chris and PJ.”
Phil crosses his arms and looks away, at the closed door of the bathroom. Dan shrugs and slips down off the countertop and into Phil’s space.
“Are you jealous? It could be you,” he says. Phil keeps looking away. “Have us a bit of a cuddle? All the respectable scholars are doing it.”
Whatever Phil’s thinking can’t be that strong, because his mouth twitches and cracks into a full smile when Dan sneaks his arms around Phil’s waist, cuddling him up against the wall.
“Do adults have platonic cuddles?” Phil asks, just being contrary now.
Dan shrugs and shimmies a little. “I’m just now 24. I’m a starter adult.”
And who says it has to be platonic , sits on the roof of his mouth. But he’s just managed to talk Phil down from worrying about his cuddle-virtue and he’d rather not let a case of weed-induced horn lose him a friend.
Phil groans and finally acquiesces, unfolding his arms and wrapping them around Dan’s shoulders.
“This feels even more high school,” Phil says, quiet again now that they’re tucked close together, Dan’s weight pressing him against the wall.
If he were PJ, or Chris, or any of the random people Dan’s brought back to his bedroom, Dan would be on his knees by now. He’d have let his hand creep from the small of Phil’s back to the button of his jeans, would have pressed his own hips forward to attend to the sensations that are slowly stealing his attention.
But this is Phil, who he’s decided is different, so instead he says, “I’m still not hitting on you. But the bed is right there. Horizontal hugs are all the rage amongst us mid-twenties people.”
He’s halfway expecting Phil to tense up, or push him off altogether. Instead, Phil laughs and asks, “Have you seen Cowboy Bebop?”
Dan doesn’t think of himself as particularly sentimental. But he finds himself here, lying in bed with Phil, watching Cowboy Bebop and not saying anything when Phil’s hand finds its way into Dan’s curls— he hopes that their friendship lasts and deepens. If only for someone to ask when Dan knew that he and Phil were more than just study buddies, so he can point back to this moment.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Dan’s sitting outside his first seminar of the day, texting Phil, when someone stops and stands in front of him. He looks up to see Burncroft, smiling down at him.
“Hi Burncroft,” Dan says, reaching up to meet her hug.
“Darling,” she says, still smiling. “Who are you texting, then?”
“Phil?” Dan says. Her smile widens.
“I’ve been hearing whispers,” she says and Dan grimaces. Burncroft, or anyone, hearing whispers about him on campus the last thing he wants.
“About you and Philip,” she continues. “I hear you’re joined at the hip now.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Dan says, glances at the clock above the door. The class currently in there should let out in five minutes and he’ll have an excuse to remove himself from this conversation.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Burncroft says, touching her headwrap, then her earrings. “It's hard to see things when you’re that close. But Phil! I wouldn’t expect you to go for someone so high-profile after Madison.”
Phil? High profile?
“What are you talking about?” Dan asks, just as the door opens, a few minutes early. Students flow past them and Burncroft looks past them, and Dan, and takes a step back.
“Excuse me, Dan, I need to catch up with this professor.”
She’s gone before Dan can ask his question again, and when he’s gotten his things together and walked into the room she’s deep in conversation with the instructor of the class before his.
Is Phil high profile? Had he been so distracted by his own affections for Phil that he hadn’t noticed people noticing them?
He asks Priya as much when he’s in Priya and Phil’s apartment later that day, having tea and waiting for Phil to make it home from wherever he’s gotten off to.
“I mean,” Priya says, sipping her own tea, “I suppose? I don’t notice, really. Different department, and Phil’s just Phil to me. But I suppose people know who he is? He’s one a few writing awards, that kind of thing. Why do you ask?”
Dan frowns into his own mug. He likes Priya a lot, but he’s not particularly in the mood to explain the whole Mads situation to her.
“Just wondering,” he tells her and is saved by the sound of Phil’s keys in the flat door.
He gets up to meet Phil, who wraps him up in a hug. Getting stoned and cuddling broke some boundary between them. It turns out that Phil’s really touchy, happy to tuck himself into Dan’s space at any opportunity. Dan probably wouldn’t admit it out loud on pain of death, but he finds himself touching back, grateful for the contact. He’s found himself petting Phil’s hair more than once, and every time Phil offers a hug, Dan takes it.
It’s not unfamiliar exactly. He adores PJ’s head scritches and even Chris has been known to knock Dan onto the sofa and smush him into the cushions. But Dan knows that if he wants, he can turn those touches into something heated.
He sometimes thinks he could do the same with Phil, but the inclination usually passes quickly. Usually.
“Walk?” Phil asks. His voice buzzes through Dan and Dan squeezes him a little before taking a step back.
“Didn’t you just get in?” Dan asks, already trying to remember if he’d brought his phone from where he’d dropped his shit in Phil’s room.
“Feeling a little…,” Phil makes a circle with his hands and squishes them together. “Small, or something.”
This is the other difference post-platonic cuddles. Before, Phil had been preternaturally fine at all times. He’d never complained to Dan about being thirsty, or nervous, or anything at all. Now, he tells Dan when he’s feeling claustrophobic, or annoyed with his thesis, or just grouchy.
Dan nods and turns to grab his phone from where he’s left it in Phil’s room.
He’s coming back when he hears the end of Priya’s sentence.
“...okay? You’ve seemed a little jittery lately. Are things okay with Dan?”
“Yeah,” Phil says, sounding distracted. Dan pauses, waiting for the rest of what Phil’s got to say. “Dan’s great. It's just coming up on...the anniversary of some not great things. I might go visit Augustine this weekend.”
Dan waits to see if he’s going to say more, and when Phil starts to ask Priya about picking up milk from the shop, Dan rounds the corner.
“Ready?” Dan asks. Phil nods and follows Dan to the door, grabbing both their jumpers.
Mid-October is chilly, and it's nearly dark outside. The wind slips past Dan’s jumper, not quite cold enough to make him shiver. There are people roaming around, wrapped up in jumpers and scarves. They walk, silently and aimless for a few minutes. Dan watches a couple across the street from them. His eyes trail after them, watching the way they sway into each other. The couple turns a corner and Dan glances at Phil, who doesn’t look back.
Dan keeps glancing at Phil. At first to check that he’s okay, that he’s not about to say something, and then just to look. In the setting sun, Phil is striking—his cheekbones sharp and his eyes bright. Dan knocks his shoulders into Phil’s just to remind himself that Phil is real, and there. Phil glances back at him and smiles. Dan just barely stops himself from reaching out to grab Phil’s hand.
“Feeling better?” he asks instead, cracking the silence between them.
Phil shrugs and shoves his hands into the kangaroo pouch of his jumper and tilting his head back to look at the graying sky.
“Feeling anxious,” Phil tells him. “Nervous for no reason.”
Dan makes an understanding noise.
“Walking helps,” Phil continues, looking back at Dan. “You help.”
Dan ducks his head to hide his smile.
When he’s gotten himself under control, he asks, “Is it your thesis? I read the last chapter you sent me. It's good. It feels like you’re really building some momentum.”
Phil hums, noncommittally. “It’s nothing, really. You don’t have to worry about me. Just keep taking me on walks.”
Dan laughs quietly to himself. “Care and keeping of Phils. Requires food, water and regular walks.”
Phil woofs, and Dan giggles. They keep walking and don’t turn back toward Phil’s flat until it's properly dark out.
Phil goes to visit Augustine for the weekend and Dan finds himself at a loss for what to do with himself for a whole seventy two hours.
When he tells PJ this, PJ scoffs and says, “Talk to someone other than Phil? The horror.”
Dan looks up from where he’s sending Phil a string of nonsense emojis and frowns. “Is that a hint of jealousy I sense, Peej?”
PJ sits next to Dan on the couch and throws his legs across Dan’s thighs. “What would you do if I said yes?”
“Tell you that you’re still the prettiest,” Dan says, his phone buzzes and he looks to see Phil sending him a picture. It's Augustine, holding a bottle of champagne as big as her head.
“Stop objectifying me,” PJ says and digs his heel into Dan’s thigh until Dan yelps and looks up at him. “And stop being rude.”
Dan puts the phone down and turns to look at PJ. “Are you actually jealous? Because I know I’ve been spending a lot of time with Phil.”
PJ makes a face and waggles his hand in the air. “Mixed bag. We miss you sometimes, but we’re also enjoying not having to pull you out of an emotional crises every other day. Also not having to share the bed. We really shouldn’t have tried to fit in the bed. That was a bit ridiculous.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Dan tosses back at him, then frowns. “I haven’t been having as many of those. Emotional crises. Is this getting better? Gross.”
PJ laughs and stretches out further. “Your amorous and adoring public weeps. How will they survive knowing they won’t have the chance to get the patented Dan Howell love them and leave them experience.”
Dan frowns. “I didn’t say that. Who said that? I can still pull.”
PJ levels him with an unimpressed look. “When was the last time you slept with someone, Dan?”
Dan tilts his head back, looking at the ceiling and thinking. “A few weeks. In September.”
PJ barks a laugh. “As I said.”
Dan shakes his head. “It’s only been a few weeks! I’m not allowed to take a break?”
His phone buzzes again. It's another picture message: this time Augustine and Phil, their faces close up and smushed together. Augustine is drinking from the bottle and Phil is grinning, his smile wide and white. They’re both glittering and shimmering, eyes and cheeks done up in different colors.
are you clubbing? Dan texts.
He gets a snap almost immediately after, Augustine slow dancing around an apartment in pajamas. Even from a distance Dan can see she’s wearing glittery lipstick.
“At least come to the pub with us,” PJ sighs. “Send Phil some snapchats more interesting than the couch.”
“Fine.” Dan takes a picture of PJ’s face, mid-sentence, then dumps PJ’s feet off his lap. Going to a pub requires better clothes than ratty pajama bottoms and a shirt he’d gotten from some random event on campus.
Dan forgets, sometimes, that MFAs, especially theatre MFAs, drink like fish. Loud, dramatic, vaguely pretentious fish. There’s wine and beer all around, and what started as a small group of him, PJ and Chris and one or two of their friends, has turned into what feels like half the pub hopping in and out of their conversations. None of them seem to watch Dan any more closely than anyone else, and not a single soul has asked him about Mads. They ask him about his paper, about his friendship with Chris and PJ, about his opinions on this book and that. They don’t seem to care too much about his answers, but they seem happy enough to have him here.
It’s sort of wonderful, but also sort of overwhelming, to be in the room with so many big personalities. So Dan extricates himself from the middle of an argument between Chris and a pretty brunette about method actors and steps outside.
His ears feel almost muffled when he steps outside, away from the din of music and conversation. Outside is cool and relatively quiet for a college town on a Friday night. There are people passing by, but no one stops and no one gives him a knowing look when he pulls out his phone. He’s got four snaps and a text message.
He opens snapchat first. There are three snaps of Augustine in three different lipsticks, looking progressively more flushed. The last one is of Phil, a big purple mouth-shaped mark on his cheek. He’s gone pink, and his eyes are a little unfocused, but he looks so happy Dan can’t help but screenshot the picture.
He opens the text next. It's from an unfamiliar number, and says phil sez srry. he thinks he’s texting you tooo much.
Dan saves the number under “Augustine” then calls Phil. He walks a little while the phone rings, finding a little bench to sit on, just away from the lights of the pub and surrounding buildings.
“Were your ears burning?” Phil asks, rather than saying hello.
“...Sorry?” Dan asks, touching his ear. “No? They’re cold, actually.”
“It's a saying,” Phil says, “My mum says people’s ears burn when they’re being talked about.”
“You’re talking about me?” Dan asks, unreasonably pleased. It doesn’t make sense. Of course Phil talks about him. He talks to Chris and PJ about Phil all the time. He’d just assumed that with Phil being with Augustine they’d talk about...whatever it is lifelong best friends talk about.
“Talking about what a cutie you are,” Augustine says from a distance. Phil shushes her and Dan can hear her cackle.
“Am I on speaker?” Dan says accusatory, “You know I hate that.”
“I didn’t know that,” Phil says, easy and amused. Dan hears a door close on Phil’s end. “We’ve never talked on the phone like this.”
Embarrassment spreads like pinpricks across Dan’s neck and jaw. The impulse to call Phil had just hit him and it hadn’t occurred to him that it might be weird.
“What were you saying about me,” Dan asks, pushing through.
They’re on the phone now. It’s too late to make things weird. They’re friends who talk on the phone now.
“That I miss you,” Phil tells him simply. “Auggie was making fun of me. She says I’m a maudlin drunk.”
Dan grins in the darkness. “PJ made me come out. Implied I was being boring. I’m hanging with the theatre MFAs. They’re a lot louder than you.”
Phil hums. “Priya hates them. She says they’re all pretentious and think too much of themselves.”
Dan thinks of PJ and Chris and nods even though Phil can’t see him. “Hard to disagree. I don’t mind.”
They talk for another ten minutes about nothing in particular. Phil mentions being drunk, and sleepy, another time or two, but he doesn’t seem it until he’s yawning more often than he’s talking. Both of their voices have gotten softer, and softer.
Dan realizes he’s tucked his head into his chest, and his voice can only be described as tender when he tells Phil, “Hey. Go to bed.”
Phil hums. “Come here. You made a great pillow.”
Dan laughs a breathy, soft thing. “I’ll remember that. We’ll nap together sometime soon.”
“Promise?” Phil asks, cutting himself off with a yawn.
“Promise,” Dan echoes. He wonders if Phil will remember this in the morning, if Dan can make good on this promise as soon as Phil gets back from Augustine’s place.
“I’ll call tomorrow,” Phil tells him. His voice sounds far-away, like he’s fallen asleep already.
“Okay,” Dan says. “I’ll answer.”
Phil doesn’t say goodbye. He’s just silent and if Dan listens hard, he can hear the faint whistle of Phil’s breathing, deep and long. He ends the call and looks up at the sky. The lights nearby are too bright for Dan to make out many stars, but the ones he can see twinkle at him.
He hasn’t pulled since his fight with Phil. He hasn’t done more than give PJ and Chris short, friendly kisses in weeks. He doesn’t remember the last time he talked to someone til they fell asleep.
Dan sighs and stands up, tucking his phone back in his pocket. He goes back into the pub, and when PJ returns from the bar and gives him a questioning look, he just smiles and shrugs.
PJ nods and says, “Phil alright, then?”
Dan nods and says, “Yeah. He’s good.”
The rest of the month passes shockingly fast. Dan turns in his first thesis proposal. Phil finishes another chapter to his own satisfaction. Dan runs into three different people he’s had sex with and manages to smile and wave at two of them. Dan and Phil go on walks. They read together. Whatever was bothering Phil passes, but they keep going on walks. Dan feels some of the jittery, nervy discomfort of being on campus fade.
Halloween comes more quietly for Dan than it has in years. He gets invited to a few different parties and begs off. He tells Phil, just chatting, and Phil shows up to his flat the evening of the 31st with a plastic bag in one hand and a bottle of something violently orange in the other.
“Priya made it?” Phil says, handing the bottle to Dan.
Dan opens it and sniffs, rearing back. It smells strongly of alcohol and sugar.
“It's candy corn vodka,” Phil tells him, closing the flat door behind himself. “She made batches and told me to give you guys one.”
“This is a hangover in a bottle,” Dan tells him.
“It’s really good!” Phil says, following him into the kitchen. “I had some last night. It's smooth.”
“You take your sugar with a side of coffee,” Dan tells him, sitting the bottle on the countertop. Chris will probably drink it. “Isn’t Burnsey having a party?”
Phil shrugs and starts unloading his plastic bag, pulling out packages of cocoa powder, eggs, sugar. “I had a craving for Halloween cupcakes. Where’s your flour?”
The thing is, Phil knows what he looks like. He’s got big blue eyes that make it nearly impossible to stay mad at him and when he opens them wide and bends his mouth into an ‘o’, Dan’s ready to give him anything.
Which is how they end up standing in Dan’s kitchen, covered in flour, arguing about whether their chocolate cupcakes are actually going to turn out green. They’ve stirred the mixture into a swampy brown batter and Phil’s pouring them into a cupcake pan Dan hadn’t even known existed.
“The heat isn’t going to ‘activate the green’, what are you even talking about?” Dan asks, his stomach aching from laughing.
“That’s how it works!” Phil tells him, filling the last cupcake wrapper. “Didn’t you learn about chlorophyll in school?”
Dan gasps, fighting for air through his laughter and slides down his cabinets, sitting on the floor and cackling. The majority of Phil’s lower half is dusted with flour and Dan reaches out to brush flour off Phil’s knee.
“You’re an idiot,” Dan tells him fondly and scoots over so Phil can put the cupcakes in the oven, then sit down next to him. They sit quietly, listening to the creaking of the flat. PJ and Chris are in PJ’s room, talking about something, their voices muffled. Outside, there are people on the streets, screaming to each other and laughing. Inside, the kitchen is warm and Dan stretches his legs out to press his thigh against Phil’s.
Phil pulls out his phone, opens up Crossy Road. Dan watches his goose avatar die again and again.
He jumps a little when the oven dings, and crawls over to the oven to look inside.
“They’re definitely brown,” Dan says, standing to grab and oven mitt. He pulls the swampy brown cupcakes out of the oven and sits them on the stove top to cool.
“You know we don’t all perceive color the same way,” Phil says, still staring at his phone. “What even is green really?”
“This house has a strict no-bullshitting policy,” PJ says from the doorway.
He and Chris stand in the doorway. Both their faces are painted pale white and decorated with black details. PJ’s wearing a white t-shirt with a messy calendar drawn on it, the Fridays circled several times in red. Chris is wearing a red shirt with a solid black heart in the center.
“Friday...mime...heart?” Phil asks, squinting at them.
“Friday, Mime in Love,” Chris tells him, tone implying that the joke is obvious.
Dan, who’d been there for the excited conversation the costume was born from a few nights ago, rolls his eyes and gestures at the cupcakes.
“Swamp cake for the road?” he offers.
“I’m watching my waist,” Chris says like Dan didn’t watch him inhale two cheeseburgers an hour ago. “But what is this delectable libation?”
Chris saunters over to the neon orange vodka, picking it up and stroking the glass a little.
“It’s all yours,” Dan tells him, “Gift from Phil’s roommate. Have fun!”
Chris gives him a suspicious look, then looks back and forth between Dan and the bottle, as if they’re plotting on him together. Whatever he’s looking for he must not find, because he gives the bottle one final glance before nodding and leaning down to kiss Dan on the neck, ignoring the way he squeals and jerks away.
“Your donation to tonight’s depravity is appreciated,” Chris tells Phil, then brushes past PJ, who salutes them, then follows Chris out the door.
“Well,” Dan says, still looking at the doorway, willing his blush away. “That happened.”
It's not the first time Chris or PJ’s kissed Dan in front of Phil, but they usually keep it to platonic areas like his cheek or forehead. He’s ninety percent sure Phil knows that he’s fucked around with Chris and PJ, but knowing and seeing are two different things.
“Chris is great,” Phil says, sounding distracted. When Dan looks at him, he’s focused on his phone, tapping periodically.
Dan shrugs and grabs one of the cupcakes, unwrapping it even though it's too hot and they need to cool and settle. He sits back on the floor next to Phil and offers him half the hot baked good.
Phil opens his mouth, eyes still trained on the phone. Dan flushes, but presses the cupcake into his mouth, careful not to touch Phil’s lips with his fingers.
“Hot!” Phil says, then curses, putting his phone down. “I died.”
“Good,” Dan says, “Stop ignoring me. Movie?”
“Movie,” Phil confirms. “Do we have to save cupcakes for PJ and Chris?”
Dan shrugs. “They’ll take the scraps we give them. C’mon, help me pick something.”
They eat 10 of the dozen cupcakes between the two of them. It's a terrible decision. Later, when it's barely Halloween anymore, they lay in Dan’s bed, sweets like lead in their stomach.
Phil finds Dan’s record player and a respectable stack of albums, and makes Dan play DJ. They lie there, listening to music and waiting for the buzzy high of their sugar rush work itself out.
Bon Iver warbles about something and Dan stares up at his ceiling, listening to the people on the street, having a more raucous Halloween than his. If he listens harder, he can hear Phil’s breathing.
“Truth,” Phil says, just loud enough to hear over the music, “Or truth?”
Dan snorts. “Are we fourteen? And no dare?”
“You’re a starter adult,” Phil tells him. “And if I have to get up I might puke. Because I’m nearly thirty and you let me eat five cupcakes. Truth or truth.”
Dan’s leg is thrown over Phil’s. He’s not positive where Phil’s hands are, but they have to be close enough to touch.
“Truth,” he says.
“How tall are you?” Phil asks.
“6”2’,” Dan says, and doesn’t bother with the trappings of the game, asking, “What’s your natural hair color?”
“There’s no way,” Phil says. “I’m 6’2. And you don’t think this is my natural hair color?”
A car passes, and Dan watches the headlights track across his ceiling.
“Your eyebrows are brown,” he tells Phil. “And you told me you dyed your hair months ago, remember?”
They toss soft ball questions back and forth, favorite books, annoying things their flatmates do.
Dan tenses up a little when Phil asks about Chris and PJ, but tells him, “They were there, and it felt like they were the only people that loved me. I’ve been...They would say I’ve always been an asshole about their arrangement. I have. But it helped to have them when I needed them.”
Phil hums. Dan yawns, then asks, “So...you’re a big deal in the philosophy department?”
Phil sighs. “I’m a medium-sized deal. With big deal potential. That’s what my advisor says.”
It's more than Phil’s said about his department since Dan’s met him. He wants to push, but that’s not the nature of this game.
But he’s braced when Phil asks, “You were 21 when you met him?”
“And he was 26?”
Phil’s silent for so long after that, Dan thinks he’s fallen asleep. He jumps a little when Phil turns to look at him, his eyes pale in the darkness of the room.
“How did you find out about the cheating?” Phil asks.
Dan looks him in the eye and asks, “What was going on last week? Before you visited Augustine?”
They stare at each other. Outside, a siren wails. The album stops with a click. The moment lasts longer than it ought to.
Dan breaks first. He sits up to drag his dark duvet up and over both of them. He lies back on his back and asks the ceiling with a sigh, “Britney or Christina?”
Phil doesn’t answer. But he does rest a hand on Dan’s arm, and Dan suspects he’d like to say something but doesn’t know what. It’s fine. Dan doesn’t know what he’d want to hear.
“Stay the night,” Dan says, “Too many assholes out there tonight.”
“Okay,” Phil says, finally. He sounds relieved.
Dan wakes up to thin early November light, overheated under a duvet, boxers and an oversized sweatshirt and Phil— so close but carefully not touching.
He looks past Phil, to the blurry outline of the bare trees that scrape against his window, and lets himself feel things. He’s worked so hard to keep his hands and his eyes and his mind off Phil in any way that’s more than friendly, and still failed spectacularly. He looks at Phil: his open mouth, the way his hair’s gone to chaos, the way his hands are splayed and reaching.
It was hard to put his finger on it, because Phil doesn’t make him feel the way Mads made him feel. WIth Mads, he felt like he needed to be constantly available, a constant reminder to Mads that he’d chosen Dan and he’d chosen well. Phil, though. Phil is present, steady and sure and seemingly impervious to the worst of Dan’s moods. Dan couldn’t convince Phil he was perfect if he tried. But the relief is in realizing that he doesn’t want to convince Phil of anything.
He scoots a little closer, just to feel the there-ness of Phil’s weight on his mattress, and closes his eyes. When he opens them again, Phil is still there.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
When he wakes up again, the sunlight is brighter and in Phil’s place is Dan’s cellphone and a sticky note stuck to it, explaining that Phil’s gone back home to do some work and that he’d call Dan later.
Dan rolls out of bed, goes to pee, and crawls back into his cocoon of warmth. It's colder than usual outside. When he’s warm again, a different kind of shiver runs through him and he grabs the pillow Phil had been using. He’d woken half-hard and hadn’t flagged much between waking and now. It takes shamefully little to get him the rest of the way there. He thinks of the length of Phil’s fingers, and the pink of his lips. He thinks of the soft, pale belly he’d caught a sliver of when Phil had changed into a borrowed sleeping shirt last night. He thought of the shiny pink inside of Phil’s mouth when he held it open for Dan to press part of a cupcake into.
Some other time, he’d treat himself to long, long sweeps of his hands across his own chest, thighs, and neck. He’d let himself linger in the pleasure of a warm bed on a cold morning and nowhere to be. Right now, though, he’s got frustration sparking like static electricity across his hips, and the thought of Phil in his bed, just a few hours ago makes him impatient.
He leans out of his cocoon long enough to open his bedside table, grabbing lube and squirting some into his hand. He wanks quickly, almost utilitarian, chasing away the soft muziness of waking up. It's not long before he’s coming. His hips jerk upward and his presses his face into Phil’s pillow, inhaling deeply and breathing out soft, punched out whines.
He pokes his hand out of his blankets to grab some tissue to clean up with, then settles back into bed and closes his eyes to fall asleep for the third time that morning.
He dreams of a cup, so round and squat it's nearly a bowl, bright blue and shining. Every time he tries to touch it, it's farther away. He nearly reaches it once, but it burns his fingers to hold on to. He keeps stretching his arms, out and out, trying to get a better grip.
He wakes to his phone buzzing on his bedside table, dream forgotten immediately. He leans over to grab it.
“H’lo?” he asks, yawning.
“Come open the door?” Phil says, sounding vaguely winded.
“Where are you?” Dan asks, sitting up and setting his boxers to right. The clock says it's half past 11am. People are probably another hour or two from waking up from their post-Halloween comas.
“Outside your door,” Phil says, as if Dan should have guessed that.
Dan grunts at him and hangs up the phone. He stands, pulling his blankets off the bed and shuffling to let Phil in.
Phil comes in, glancing over his shoulder. When he looks at Dan finally, there’s the slightest tension on his face, like he’s stopping himself from clenching his jaw.
“Are you alright?” Dan asks.
A loud group of lads pass by, talking over each other about a girl or beer or something and filling up way too much of the walkway. Dan rolls his eyes at them and closes his door, locking it behind him.
“I’m fine,” Phil says, and it's true that whatever tension Dan thought he saw has faded away. He’s looking Dan, and Dan’s cape of blankets, over and smiling a little.
“It’s cold,” Dan says, a little defensive.
“It is,” Phil says and steps forward to hug Dan. Rather than hug Dan’s shoulders, around his cotton exoskeleton, Phil slips his arms beneath the blanket, around Dan’s waist. Dan, a little shocked, automatically wraps his arms around Phil, shrouding them both in blanket. His shirt rides up a little and Phil presses cold hands to the small of his back. Dan shrieks a little, jerking forward, trying to get away from the chill of Phil’s hands. Phil laughs and follows Dan, pressing them together from shoulder to knee.
Dan pauses, taking stock of Phil’s warmth, the feeling of his chest, the boney, near delicacy of his hips. He inhales the scent of Phil’s body wash and just barely fights the urge to drag his fingers up Phil’s shoulder into his hair. And then, with a long exhale, he steps back.
Phil lets go easily, and smiles at him.
“You’re warm,” he tells Dan, inordinately pleased.
“And you’re freezing. I didn’t know you were coming back.”
Dan doesn’t mean for it to come out so snappy, but he’s never claimed to being a morning person. Phil just rolls his eyes and gently shoves Dan’s shoulder.
“Stop being grumpy, I brought you a gift. Whiny.”
Phil leans rifles through his bag and pulls out a plain brown bag.
Dan makes a face, baring his teeth at Phil, but still taking the bag. He opens it and can’t stop the “oooh” that escapes his mouth.
“Breakfast?” Dan asks, pulling a chunk of coffee cake from the larger piece in the bag. He pops it in his mouth and groans a few times. The cafe only makes their salted caramel pumpkin spice coffee cake during certain times of the year. Phil and Dan had discovered it was a favorite for both of them when they both got the text from Jess to tell them it was back.
Dan groans one more time, closing his eyes and licking his back molars. When he opens his eyes, Phil is staring at him, cheeks slightly flushed.
“Phil?” Dan asks. “Breakfast? I can make you some coffee? Or just water?”
He turns, heading toward the kitchen. Phil follows behind, stepping on Dan’s blanket twice in the short distance.
He puts the cake on an actual plate, like it deserves, pours two glasses of water and starts the coffee.
He yawns again and sits at their kitchen table. Most of the just awakened fog has lifted and he squints up at Phil, who’s leaning against a counter.
“What are you doing here?” Dan asks again. “You’re supposed to be working on chapter four right now. Not fattening me up with sweets. Are you planning to eat me?”
Phil shakes his head, smiling. “That’s gingerbread, not coffee cake. I wasn’t getting anything done, so I just...came back.”
There’s something there, the thought of Phil not being able to get work done because he’d left Dan in bed, warm and pliant in sleep. Like maybe he was hoping Dan was still there and he could just sneak back into the bed.
Dan watches Phil move around his kitchen, grabbing a mug, pouring and preparing coffee and finally sitting at the table. Dan thinks of this morning, and the tissue in his bedroom rubbish bin, and looks back at the coffee cake.
“When are you leaving for winter hols?” Dan asks, needing to change the subject immediately. He tries to remember what day he’s planned to take off, and if it’ll interfere with any of the projects he’s working on. He can work just as well at his parents’ house as he does his own home, but he wants to align his absence with Phil’s as much as possible.
“I’m not,” Phil says, taking the fork Dan’s been using to cut off a piece of coffee cake. Dan rolls his eyes and looks pointedly at the second fork.
Phil ignores him, so he asks, “What do you mean you’re not, of course you are. You love Christmas. And you’re obsessed with your family.”
Dan can’t pinpoint when he started knowing what holidays Phil loved, but he hasn’t got a shadow of a doubt that this is unusual.
“I do,” Phil says, looking shifty. “I’ve sent them gifts. I’m going to decorate here. Take a few days off. Augustine is coming to visit.”
“But this place is a fucking ghost town,” Dan argues.
He doesn’t know why he’s arguing. Town is fine, empty or not. But there’s something about Phil not getting to spend Christmas with his family that doesn’t sit right with him.
Phil shrugs and the tension from earlier is back. Something about him goes closed off. Dan’s never seen Phil properly angry, but he doesn’t want to ruin what’s been a pretty perfect morning so far, so he changes directions.
“Will I get to meet Augustine?”
They’ve talked a few more times since the first meeting. Once, she’d made Phil give Dan the phone and he’d answered curious questions about his birth— the date, location and time.
"That depends on when you leave,” Phil says, “She says she’ll get here in December and won’t specify more than that. She’ll be around for New Year’s.”
Dan’s calendar is marked with the details of the New Year’s Eve party Phil and Priya are throwing, and has been since Phil told him about it in late October.
He’s already explained to his mother that he wouldn’t be there long after Christmas because he’d gotten roped into helping prepare for someone else’s party.
“So I’ll definitely meet her,” Dan says.
“You will,” Phil confirms, voice warming up from that cold, closed off tone it had taken earlier. “For better or worse. She already loves you.”
Dan sits back in his chair, pleased.
Phil doesn’t stick around much longer after that. He’s there just long enough to help Dan finish the coffee cake and watch Chris and PJ stumble into the flat. All of their makeup is gone and they seem to have switched shirts at some point.
They both make a beeline to the kitchen. PJ sits in the third chair at the table, leaning over to let his forehead thunk onto the kitchen table. Chris just lies down on the kitchen floor, groaning softly and continuously.
“Well,” Phil says. Chris and PJ both groan at the sound.
PJ lifts his head up to look at both of them. His eyes are bloodshot and his hair is the most awry Dan’s ever seen it.
“Shh,” he whispers to Phil. “Please.”
Because Phil’s a far kinder person than Dan, he just silently smiles and gets his stuff together, standing. He turns to Dan, and pauses a moment before leaning over and dropping a kiss on Dan’s head, right at his hairline. It’s a little awkward, Phil’s moved too fast, and Dan wasn’t exactly expecting it. But it’s still nice.
Phil’s gone pink again, but he waves and leaves the kitchen quickly. Dan and PJ both stare after him. The door to the flat closes as quietly as it can close.
“That’s new,” PJ murmurs and lets his head fall back onto the table.
The day before Dan leaves campus for two weeks, he thinks he sees Mads. It doesn’t make sense really. The last time he’d stalked him on Instagram, careful not to double click anything, Mads had been on the conference circuit. His last post was him in an airplane, on the way to the United States for a presentation at UC Berkeley. Bitterness had curled up on Dan’s tongue, acrid and sharp and he’d closed out the app before he could consider the merits of leaving a comment or two.
Knowing that, Dan’s aware there was no way Mads was on campus. But it doesn’t stop his stomach from dropping at the sight of a stocky man with dark, shoulder length curls coming out of the building he was about to go into.
Dan stops in his tracks, and someone brushes roughly past him, just barely avoiding knocking him over. Dan barely notices and apologizes faintly, watching the man that isn’t Mads walk down the building’s steps and walk away.
The longer Dan looks, the more he notices inconsistencies, proof that this man is a stranger. The resemblance is still too close. It isn’t Mads, but he’d walked like him. It isn’t Mads, but the thump and stutter in Dan’s chest says it is. It’s not Mads, he realizes that now, but he’s already texting Phil, asking where he is and if Dan can be wherever that is.
Phil responds almost immediately, the name of one of the academic buildings.
Dan starts walking that way, blessedly in the opposite direction of the man who isn’t Mads but who still makes Dan’s heart ache.
Dan gets to the building Phil’s led him to in less than five minutes. It's where all the Philosophy classes and seminars for the undergrads and masters students are held. If he wasn’t so panicked, so borderline desperate to see Phil, he’d probably get swept up in the irony of him running to this building to get away from the ghost of Mads.
Phil’s there, sitting just inside the building entrance, staring down at his phone and frowning. When Dan’s close enough to get his attention, Phil takes one look at him, stands and pulls Dan into a hug.
Dan’s planned response to the change in their boundaries has been pretending carefully maintained ignorance. If he doesn’t think about the morning in November, he doesn’t have to notice the way he’s been chasing Phil’s warmth ever since and what it means. But he leans in now, inhales deeply, exhales long and slow.
“I thought I saw Mads,” he says into Phil’s shoulder. Phil rubs his back. “It wasn’t him. But I thought.”
They haven’t had a conversation about Mads since the first time they’d crawled in bed together. But Dan doesn’t work as hard to hide the way he gets worked up when he stumbles across a trace of Mads—an important date, a picture someone’s tagged him in, a note written in the margins of some book.
Some part of him is waiting for another chance, another tucked close moment to actually answer Phil’s question.
Now though, he steps back and clears his throat, running a hand through his hair.
“Sorry,” he says. Now that the panic has passed, he feels silly, like a kid crying about a monster under his bed. He hadn’t even seen Mads. And if he had, so what? Mads was just a guy. He was Dan’s whole world for a while, and now he isn’t.
“Dan,” Phil says, frowning. “You don’t have to apologize. You shouldn’t feel bad for having feelings.”
Dan laughs and shakes his head. “Ok, sesame street. I’m fine. It's fine. I’ll just skip class. Head to the train station early.”
“Dan…,” Phil trails off. His frown deepens and he reaches out to rest a hand on Dan’s shoulder, near his neck.
“I’m fine!” Dan says, waving a hand, but not stepping away from Phil’s touch. “I’m fine. Thank you for answering my text.”
“You can talk to me,” Phil says, squeezing Dan’s shoulder a little. “I know...I know some things are private. But you’re— you’re my best friend. I don’t like it when you’re upset.”
Dan has to duck his head at that, and hope he isn’t blushing too hard.
“Thank you,” he says, digging his hands in his pockets. “You’re...you’re mine, too. Or one of them. Don’t tell PJ. Or Chris, I guess.”
Phil doesn’t look put off at being one of Dan’s best friend harem when Dan looks up at him. He’s smiling at Dan, a full, big smile with his tongue caught between his teeth.
“I won’t tell,” he says eventually.
It feels like too much to tell Phil this. Dan shakes his head and steps in for another hug.
“Have a good holiday, yeah?” he says into Phil’s neck. “Don’t get too lonely.”
“I’ll text you,” Phil says. He squeezes Dan tightly and, after a moment, lets a hand fall to play with the hem of Dan’s shirt.
Dan suspects that Phil wants to slip his hand underneath, and just that knowledge makes him want to press closer, give Phil the time and space to do whatever he’d like.
Instead, he lets go and takes a few steps back, waving and then turning around to go out the door.
Dan stops by his flat to grab his bags and makes his way to the train station. By the time he’s sat and settled on the train, it's been an hour and a half since he left Phil, and the itch to text him feels a little ridiculous.
Clearly, Phil doesn’t mind a little ridiculousness, because they’re pulling out of the station when Dan’s phone buzzes. It's a snap with an attached picture, Phil and Priya in front of an undecorated tree, wrapped in tinsel. Dan smiles and downloads the picture, sends back a blurry picture of the scenery they’re passing through.
Dan spends the first week of his winter break with his family properly. He entertains their questions of what he plans to do with his degree. He makes them listen to pop covers of their favorite Christmas songs. He goes out to the shops and wraps presents and plays with their dog. He sends texts back and forth with Chris, and PJ, but mostly Phil.
It feels different, texting while he’s away on holiday, rather than texting Phil to meet him at the café in fifteen minutes. It feels more intentional, like he’s saying I still want you around, even when it’s not the most convenient option.
Most of the texts they send are nonsense strings of emojis. A champagne bottle, a turkey, a dog. Phil texts him back instantly. A few different types of book. A leaf. A pint glass.
The first time Dan catches his mother watching him laugh at his phone, he finds a reason to be in another room, just in case she wants to have a conversation about it.
Unsurprisingly, the second week of Dan’s winter holiday, he alternates between texting Phil and listening to his mother lecture about having his head stuck in his phone all day. She’s itching to ask who he’s talking to, he can tell, but she treated him with kid gloves after the Mads debacle, happy to have him back at home rather than following behind Mads.
It’s not the first time he’s been back home since he and Mads started dating, but he’d opted to stay in town with Mads more often than not. She doesn’t say anything, she’s never said anything. But she asks him to help her wash dishes more often, and conscripts him into last minute christmas shopping with her, even though his brother is right there.
He thinks he’s going to get away with being home for the entire holiday without talking to her about Phil, until the night of Christmas Eve. He’s gotten press-ganged into watching some fluff Christmas film with them, and is preparing to comment on the rampant capitalism when his phone rings. He jumps a little, not many people call him, but answers it quickly enough when he sees who’s calling.
“Phil, hi,” he says, lugging himself up off the couch. He can nearly feel his family’s eyes on his back as he walks from the family room into the kitchen, letting the door swing behind him.
“Dan!” Phil says.
Dan grins. He’s spent enough time with Phil to recognize his tipsy voice.
“Dan indeed,” he agrees. “Did you and Priya get into the candy cane vodka?”
“It's a million times better than the Halloween one,” Phil confirms.
Dan’s stomach clenches a little at the mention of Halloween, wonders if Phil’s drunkenness is going to be the key to them talking about what’s going on between them.
Dan’s not certain if something’s going on between them, but it feels like it.
“I got your gifts!” Phil says, and Dan can hear the rustling of him moving around. “You got me mixtapes!”
Technically, Dan had gotten Phil mixed CDs, but the correction felt unnecessary.
Dan catches sight of himself in one of the kitchen’s windows. He’s grinning like a fool.
“Pop classics from every queen from 1990 to today,” Dan tells him. “Have you listened? Do you like them?”
“I love them,” Phil says. “I had to borrow Priya’s disc drive thingy to play them, which is totally fine, I can go out and get one. But I know so many Spice Girls lyrics!”
Dan grins at his shoes, shaking his head. “You’re adorable.”
“Thank you!” Phil says, just a touch too loud. “I know you’re probably with your family right now, so I’ll let you go. That’s what I’d be doing, if I could go home.”
Dan’s grin falls off his face. He’d assumed Phil’s decision not to go home was just that, a decision. It hadn’t occurred to him that Phil...couldn’t for some reason.
“Why can’t you?” he asks easily, trying not to sound too concerned.
“Oh, it's private,” Phil says. “Private, and boring, and sad. Don’t worry about it. Go have fun!”
Dan wants to press, but he also doesn’t want to break up this moment. Phil’s happy with him and he’s warm and at home and returning to Phil next week.
“Okay,” he says, and it comes out more softly than he intends. “You have fun, too. But not too much. Don’t let Priya convince you you don’t get hangovers again.”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t though,” Phil says. Dan accepts that he’ll spend part of Christmas morning listening to Phil bitch about his head.
“Goodnight, Phil,” Day says. “Happy Christmas.”
“Happy Christmas, Dan!” Phil says and hangs up.
Dan stands in the kitchen, looking down at his phone.
Then he has a minor heart attack, because his mother asks from behind him, “Phil, huh?”
He whips around, clutching his chest. “Mum! Jesus!”
She waves a hand and then crosses her arms. “Phil? Who’s Phil?”
“A friend,” Dan says. “I’m 24, surely that’s old enough to have those?”
She watches him with narrowed eyes. “You were blushing. Are you making good choices, Dan?”
Dan rolls his eyes and heads out of the kitchen, sliding past her. “I always make the best choices.”
It’s patently untrue, but his mother doesn’t call him on it. He’s unreasonably grateful.
Dan leaves his parent’s home at the asscrack of dawn, makes it back to his flat a little before eleven. He has the whole of the flat until tomorrow, PJ and Chris having decided to stay at their respective parents’ homes til New Year’s Eve.
He entertains the idea of messaging Phil to come over, but finds that his nerves are feeling a little jagged and the thought of talking to anyone is unappealing.
Instead, he runs a bath, grabs a lighter and a short hand-rolled spliff Phil’s left at his house and settles in. The water’s too hot, the way he prefers, and he’s immediately sweaty. He lights the spliff and tilts his head back against the tiled bathroom wall, exhaling smoke and watching it float away.
There’s no real denying that he has a crush on Phil.
He takes another hit, leans over to ash in the toilet.
He’s tried ignoring it, and before Halloween, he hadn’t been doing a bad job of it. Except now, post-Halloween, he just wants to curl up somewhere warm and let Phil touch him, and touch Phil back.
Dan watches the water slosh back and forth over his pink knees. Three weeks ago, Phil had traced the small, shiny scar that peeked out of one of the rips of Dan’s jeans. He’d made Dan tell him about being 12 and on a footie team for exactly three days, until the day he’d fallen and got the scar.
Two weeks and some change ago, Dan saw a man he’d thought was Mads and had a bit of a panic attack. He actively flinches when he sees one of the boys Mads cheated with on campus. His stomach drops whenever he gets texts from unknown numbers.
He’s not ready to date. He likes Phil a lot. But he’s an adult and it’s not like people don’t acknowledge that they have feelings for people and then go on about their lives just because it’s not the right set of circumstances.
Dan’s takes another hit, notes the creeping effects of the weed. He feels like he’s sinking into the warmth of the water, like it's molasses-thick and sucking him in. It's a little horrifying, but mostly comforting.
Maybe, in a few years, he can say something. If they’re still friends and he’s feeling more ready.
Dan takes a last hit, puts it out on the wet rim of the bathtub, and sits back, letting himself sink further into the water.
He stays for the better part of an hour, then spends the rest of the day puttering around the silent house, feeling better for having sorted his feelings.
He jerks off that night, and doesn’t try to keep his thoughts away from the size of Phil’s hands, the length of his fingers. He’s never going to do anything about those thoughts, so there’s no reason he should avoid them. He’s wanked thinking of Phil a dozen times now, it's not as if one more time will hurt.
He turns up at Phil and Priya’s flat bright and early on the 31st, two coffees in hand— one sugary, creamy mess and one with a normal, reasonable amount of sugar and cream. He juggles them to knock on the door and waits for someone to come retrieve him.
The person who opens the door is neither Priya or Phil. She’s taller than he expected, and paler and has a cane that sparkles in the sunlight because it's entirely covered in silver glitter. She’s also got way more tattoos than Dan expected, but he recognizes those cheekbones, her dark red hair and bright eyes.
“Augustine?” he asks, even though he knows. He’s talked to her several times since the first time. She calls when he and Phil are together often and he’d gotten over the anxiety of being in the room when they talked a while ago.
“Dan!” she says warmly and reaches for a coffee. She’s got tattoos on her hand, a delicate spray of dark lines and dashes. She grabs Phil’s, takes a sip and makes a face. “That’s disgusting. You got it just right.”
She turns, leaving the door open for him. Dan comes in, closing the door behind him and follows her into the kitchen. Phil is sitting at the kitchen table, talking with a black girl Dan doesn’t recognize. Phil looks up at him and smiles, getting up to give him a hug.
“Dan!” he says, excited as always. The curl of pleasure in Dan’s stomach at the way Phil says his name still hasn’t faded.
He hugs back with his free arm, burying his face in Phil’s shoulder. Someone grabs the coffee holder from him and he wraps his other arm around Phil.
“It's been like two weeks,” Augustine says.
Phil pulls away long enough to flip Augustine the bird, then pulls Dan back in for a second hug.
Dan laughs, delighted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you be so rude!”
Phil huffs and says quietly, in his ear, “Thank you for my gifts.
Dan squeezes him a little and says, “You’re welcome. I brought you coffee, but Augustine stole it.”
Phil finally lets him go and reaches over to grab his coffee from Augustine. The yet-to-be-identified black girl watches all of this with a quirked mouth. Dan waves at her awkwardly.
“I’m Dan,” he explains. “Phil’s friend. Did you and Augustine...?”
She shakes her head, “I’m Esther. Priya’s girlfriend. I’ve heard about you! Do you hug?”
As a rule, Dan doesn’t really hug strangers, but he’s in a warm kitchen, surrounded by people he likes, and he can imagine how thrilled Priya is for Esther to be here so he opens his arms and lets Esther wrap him up in a short, but warm hug.
“I’m glad you made it!” Dan tells her, surprised by his own enthusiasm. He wouldn’t call him and Priya friends exactly, but they’ve had some good chats and he’s gotten the idea that she’s absolutely mad about Esther.
“Ok,” Phil says, looking at all of them. “Priya’s gone down to the shops for the last of the stuff we need for the party. Party starts at 9, so we’ve got t-minus...several hours to make this place a winter wonderland.”
“Remind me again why you didn’t do anything to prepare for the party, despite being here doing nothing for two weeks?” Augustine drawls. She’s leaning against the kitchen counter, tapping her cane against the floor gently.
Phil flips her two birds this time, and Dan laughs in delight. He’d been worried about Augustine visiting and turning him into a third wheel. But if she brings out this version of Phil, who's a little immature, and more than a little irreverent, Dan’s happy to be the third wheel.
Before Augustine can respond, Priya’s coming in the door, bags hanging from her arm. They all break up to help her carry things to the table, while she starts chattering about what all they have to do today.
She stops to pull Esther into her arms, press a hand to her cheek, and kiss her, sweetly and slowly. They lean their foreheads together, smiling and Dan tries to ignore the spikes of jealousy that courses through him.
“Right!” Priya says, tearing herself away from Esther with clear effort. “Est and I are on decorating, because Phil has knocked over everything I’ve ever loved.”
“Sorry,” Phil tells Esther, who breaks into a grin.
Dan would like to know that story immediately. Usually, when Phil’s past comes up, it feels inaccessible to Dan, hidden behind an iced over door marked PRIVATE. But this feels immediate, and comfortable. He wants to know how Phil managed to knock Esther over, he wants to know every embarrassing story Augustine has on him.
He knocks his shoulder into Phil’s, just because he can. Phil looks over at him, and smiles.
“The rest of you are in charge of food and drinks,” Priya says.
“I don’t cook,” Augustine tells Dan and Phil. “But I take excellent kitchen selfies.”
Phil nods, like this isn’t the first, or even the hundredth, time he’s heard something like that from Augustine.
“We’ll bake!” he says, grinning at them all.
“Yeah we will,” Augustine agrees, winking at Dan. “And Priya, we’ll make some non-weed brownies for your boring straight edge friends.”
“No one says straight edge anymore,” Priya tells Augustine, “But thank you. Could we maybe make the majority of the food the non-weed version?”
“Boring,” Phil and Augustine says in unison.
Priya gives them both a look until Phil relents and agrees. Dan watches this all go on and wonder if this is what it feels like for Phil to be with him and Chris. Not out of the loop exactly, but missing the fundamental comfort of having known someone for a while. It’s not bad, exactly. Just disorienting.
Augustine catches his eye and smiles at him. He smiles back at her.
The disoriented feeling has mostly faded by the time they’ve put the first batch of weed-free brownies in the oven. Augustine is, true to her claims, sitting on a counter, cackling and making Phil do a turn, showing her Instagram live audience the hand shaped flour marks that are on his ankles.
“AmazingPhil, everyone!” she says and pans over to Dan, who’s sucking on his still tender index finger. “And our friend Dan, who, despite his best efforts is somehow not on fire! Best New Year’s Eve Day ever.”
She ends the video and grins at them. She’s split half the chocolate chips they’d gotten for one of the batches of brownies with Phil and they’re both clearly on a sugar rush, vibrating in the skin a little.
“Amazing Phil?” Dan asks, grabbing one of the mixing bowls and spooning some raw brownie dough in his mouth.
“It was his youtube name…” Augustine trails off, staring at him. Dan stops groaning, pulling the spoon out of his mouth.
“It’s good,” he says with slightly sticky lips.
“You can keep going,” Phil tells him. Dan looks over at him, catches the tail end of a look. He’s not sure what it means exactly, but Phil had been looking at the lower part of his face.
He wipes his mouth self consciously and puts the bowl down. He can take care of that later when they’re distracted.
“Phil hasn’t made you watch any of his videos?” Augustine asks, slipping off the counter. She grabs her cane and leaves the kitchen.
Phil shrugs a shoulder and scoops flour into one of the clean mixing bowls. Dan watches him work, grabbing another fingerful of batter.
Augustine comes back with her laptop and gestures at Dan to sit with her.
“Oh my god,” Dan says as soon as he catches sight of a child with the beginnings of Phil’s face. He’s gesturing and talking about something that’s got him really, really excited. “Your hair was so long.”
“Is that the baking video?” Phil asks, coming over to look at the screen. “It is! I’d just turned 19.”
Teenage Phil is all over the place. Dan’s never thought of Phil as subdued, preferring to think of him as mature, focused and maybe a little uptight. But this kid is a complete 180 from his Phil.
“I would have loved you, if I’d known you back then,” Dan says, staring at baby Phil buzz around the kitchen talking a hundred miles a minute. “We would have been best friends and annoyed the shit out of literally everyone.”
Augustine cackles and clicks another one, with two people this time. “Here’s the one we did together. The comments are fucking awful now that people know I’m a lady, but you can see how completely in love with me Phil was.”
Dan watches Phil and Augustine sit in front of a camera and answer questions. They’ve got cat whiskers drawn on their faces for some inexplicable reason and yep, Phil’s looking at Augustine more often than the camera. Dan watches all three and a half minutes and slaps his hand over his mouth when Phil in the video tackles Augustine to the ground while she makes a soft, surprised noise.
“You had the horn so bad!” Dan cries, while Augustine giggles beside him.
“Shut up!” Phil says, covering his face with a floury hand. “I didn’t know what to say!”
“In his defense, I was very pretty. Not as pretty as I am now, with all the reconstruction but—,”
“Augustine,” Phil says sharply. “That’s private, Gus.”
Augustine snaps her mouth shut and looks at Phil. Dan looks between the two of them.
“...huh.” Augustine says, closing her computer. “Alright.”
Dan’s not sure what’s happening, but Phil drops the spoon he’d been holding and leaves the kitchen, walking in the direction of the bathroom.
“Reconstruction?” Dan asks, looking at Augustine. She doesn’t look very different than the person in the video with Phil. Her nose isn’t any thinner, her jaw no rounder.
“When are you going to make a move?” she asks, like Dan hasn’t just asked her a question.
“Move?” Dan parrots.
“Yes,” she says, “Move. You saw the video. Phil doesn’t really do words, but he’s giving you all sorts of take-me-now hugs.”
“Uhm,” Dan says. He’d been working under the assumption that that was just Phil’s way, and all the feelings were his own to deal with. “I’m. I just had a bad break up? So I’m not really dating anyone. And Phil’s my best friend. So I always want to be...cognizant of his feelings?”
Christ. He sounds like one of those terrible self-help books Chris is always quoting.
“Hm,” Augustine says, not sounding very impressed, or convinced. “That’s good, I guess.”
She doesn’t look like she buys his story at all, but Phil’s come back in the kitchen, all smiles, and Dan’s ready to let the issue drop.
All in all, they make four pans of brownies, only one of them made special, then clear out of the kitchen so Priya and Esther can make a house punch that Esther learned the recipe for in America.
Judging by the different bottles of alcohol that line the countertop, Dan’s not positive he’s going to live to see the new year. He’s not even sure what Everclear is or where Esther had gotten it.
A bit before the party’s started, Dan’s in Phil’s room. Everyone else has piled into a bathroom, getting ready. Or in Phil’s case, helping Augustine get ready. Dan’s not clear on what Augustine needs help with, but Phil followed along easily, like he’d been expecting the request.
Dan’s standing in front of the small display of pictures Phil’s put up on his wall. There’s the new addition of him and Phil from a few weeks ago, bundled up in coats, waving. Augustine shows up multiple times, Priya makes an appearance or two. There are some of Phil with people Dan’s never seen before, and a few of Phil by himself.
Dan gets the overwhelming sense that there’s a whole Phil that he doesn’t know, one with a past and friendships he doesn’t know anything about. It reminds him of the unsettled feeling from the first time they had coffee— the realization that he’s spent the whole time talking about himself and hasn’t asked Phil a thing.
He jumps a little when an arm wraps around his waist. Phil tilts his head onto Dan’s shoulder and leans against him a little.
“Augustine took that one,” he says, pressing a finger to one of rail thin Phil standing in a river, his arms full of smooth stones. He’s looking directly at the camera, his expressions indecipherable.
Dan looks at the picture. He recognizes Phil, but there are differences. He’s smaller, and unsmiling, staring intently back at the camera. Dan can’t tell if his expression is defiant, or wary.
“How did you and Augustine meet?” Dan asks, turning toward Phil. Phil doesn’t move his arm, and Dan doesn’t react when his shirt rides up, and there’s suddenly skin to skin contact.
Phil watches his face as he presses his palm to the small of Dan’s bare back.
“We grew up together,” Phil tells him. “Went to primary together. She decided I was going to be her best friend, and I haven’t been able to tell her no to anything since.”
“But she told you no,” Dan says, a little teasing. “You had it bad.”
Phil grimaces. “More than once. Once when I was 16, 20 and then 23. She likes to joke that I’m due for another go soon.”
Dan tries to hide the look on his face, but Phil must catch it because he shakes his head, and strokes his thumb across Dan’s skin.
“It's just a joke. By 23, I figured out that I love her, but not like that. I’d just never felt the kind of love I feel for her for any of the people I’d dated at that point, so I figured it must mean that she was the one for me. But that was a long time ago.”
“Of course, sure,” Dan says laughing nervously. “That makes sense. I was definitely not freaking out about you being secretly in love with Augustine.”
“Oh he is,” Augustine says from the doorway. She’s leaning against the door, wearing a skin-tight dress that shimmers the same silver as her cane. Dan’s fairly sure he can see her heartbeat. He’s positive he catches her eye trailing down to Phil’s arm around Dan’s waist. He can’t guess if she can tell that Phil’s hand is under his clothing.
“It's not a secret that I love you, Gus.” Phil says, extracting himself from Dan.
If Augustine hadn’t noticed his hand before, she definitely noticed the way Dan’s clothes shifted back into place when Phil moved away. Her eyebrow raises for a moment before she shakes her head.
“Bathroom’s free. Phil, can I talk to you?”
Dan recognizes when he’s being dismissed. He kind of wants to say something snappy back at Augustine, but he knows it's just nerves from feeling caught out. Which is ridiculous, Phil and Augustine hug all the time. Phil happily rubs Priya’s head every time she buzzes her hair short. He’s even been known to throw a friendly arm around PJ’s shoulder. There’s no reason Dan should feel like he’s been discovered just because he’s hugging Phil.
But he grabs his clothes for the party and leaves them to talk about whatever it is they need to talk about.
The party technically starts at 9, but people don’t start properly showing up til half past 10. Phil and Priya’s flat is a respectable size, but once the party gets going, it feels packed with people.
Dan recognizes more than a few of them, from standing to the side while Phil talks to people at the cafe, or stopping to say hi to Priya on campus. There are even a few theatre MAs, who all tumble through the door in a pile that includes Chris and PJ.
“Hey!” PJ cries, finding Dan alone in the kitchen where he’s about to take a cautious sip of the punch. PJ hugs Dan, and Chris comes to his other side, sandwiching Dan between them.
“We haven’t had anyone cast loving aspersions on our relationship in a whole two weeks,” Chris says, wiggling his hips a little.
Dan pops his head up to look over his shoulder at Chris. “Your parents didn’t say anything about PJ this year?”
“Oh, aspersions were cast,” Chris says, with that glint in his eye that says he might be upset but damn if he’ll admit it. “But they weren’t nearly as loving as yours are.”
“Ah,” Dan says, not sure how to react. He’s been spending less and less time with Chris and PJ as he spends more time with Phil, and he’s surprised to find he feels guilty. If he thinks about it too hard, it feels like he might have used them just like he’d used all his summer flings. He squeezes PJ tighter, then reaches back to pull Chris closer.
“You guys are great,” he says, a little loud so they can both hear him over the music filtering through the air. “Your relationship is great. I’m grateful for it.”
“...huh,” PJ says. “Maybe living in Phil’s pocket’s been good for you.”
Dan tries to protest, but PJ’s pressing a friendly kiss to his mouth. Dan responds in kind, on instinct, nipping at PJ’s bottom lip.
“Oi!” Chris says. “Out of order! We kiss at midnight.”
His hands still track down to Dan’s hips, a suggestion in itself. Dan grabs Chris’s hand and breaks the kiss with PJ.
“I can’t,” Dan says, surprising himself. He hadn’t planned to stop fucking around with Chris and PJ, but now that it's been months since he has, it feels like he shouldn’t. Or at least, it feels like he should make sure it wouldn’t hurt Phil.
Which makes no sense.
Because he and Phil aren’t like that.
“Ah,” Chris says, tsking. “The cruel, and frankly boring, grips of monogamy steal another one.”
“Boring,” PJ agrees, but he looks like he wants to laugh.
They both let go of Dan and wander off to rejoin the party.
Dan follows behind shortly, a cup in hand, looking for Phil. He ends up greeting people and getting pulled into conversations before he can find him.
Priya and Esther regale them with a raucous, and clearly practiced, lip sync of Bitch Better Have My Money. Burncroft swans in long enough to give them all kisses on the cheek, and giving Dan significant looks while tilting her head toward Phil. He blinks at her and she rolls her eyes, wishing them all at Happy New Year and disappearing in a wave of beauty and the smell of safe and patchouli.
Augustine grabs him and they slow dance to Lucky, which Dan insisted on putting on the party playlist. She insists on leading, which if fine for Dan, who’s awkward on the dance floor at best. She knows every lyric.
“It's my favorite Britney song,” she tells him when the songs over and switched to some weird experimental track Priya swore people would love. It’s not Dan’s thing, the loops and samples leaving him disoriented, but all the poetry MAs let up a cry at the first line.
“Yeah?” Dan says, letting Augustine intertwine their fingers. She’s got the same touchy quality as Phil, finding a way to slot herself into the little gaps of Dan’s body in a way that should feel too familiar too soon but doesn’t.
“Yeah,” she says. “Overidentification and all that.”
She lets go of his hand and wanders off in the direction of drinks and Dan thinks about the lyrics to the song, wondering how often Augustine has cried along with Lucky.
It's an hour before he finally finds Phil unoccupied.
“Hey,” Dan says, slipping an arm around Phil’s waist.
Phil turns toward him like it's instinct, a smile on his lips. “Hi. I missed you.”
Dan smiles. “Did you? It's been an hour.”
Phil shrugs. “Long enough. I saw you dancing with Auggie. Did you see PJ and Chris? They’re here.”
Dan laughs and reaches to grab Phil’s cup. It's filled with Esther’s American house punch. He drinks some.
“I think I’m jealous,” Phil tells him. He leans heavily against Dan’s side, and it occurs to Dan that this might not be Phil’s first cup of punch.
“You think?” Dan asks, looking at him.
“Yep,” Phil says, popping the p at the end of the word. “Augustine says I’m bad at identifying my feelings. And my therapist.”
“I didn’t know you had a therapist,” Dans says, taking another sip of Phil’s drink.
“You never asked,” Phil says. He says it like it's a joke, but it strikes the same chord in Dan as earlier, when he was looking at Phil’s pictures. Like Phil’s got this whole other life that he doesn’t know about, that Phil would let him into if he just asked.
“I’ll be better about that,” Dan tells him. “I haven’t been good at asking anyone about themselves this year. I’ll be better next year.”
Phil makes a pleased noise that Dan just barely catches.
“What are you jealous about?” Dan asks.
Phil says, “Well. You—”
“Phil!” Augustine calls from across the room. She’s like a disco ball, her dress catching and reflecting every bit of light, her hair a wild halo around her shoulder. Dan’s swiftly coming to love Augustine, but he’s getting tired of her interrupting these moments.
“Gotta go,” Phil says, taking his cup back and weaving around the crowd to see what Augustine needs.
Dan sighs and leans against the wall behind him.
Whatever Augustine needs requires her and Phil to disappear and before Dan knows it, it's 5 til midnight and he’s sandwiched between Priya and Esther and Chris and PJ.
He looks around, trying not to look desperate to get away from the two couples. He hadn’t expected to have anyone to kiss at midnight, but he’d rather not have his singleness highlighted quite so obviously.
He tries to escape from between them, to go look for Phil, but Chris and PJ reel him back in.
“We’re claiming your New Year’s kiss,” PJ tells him. “Since we won’t get any more next year.”
Dan rolls his eyes. He wants to protest, tell them that there’d be plenty of kisses for them later, but he’s starting to put the pieces of the puzzle of his and Phil’s relationship together and now he’s not so sure.
At a minute til, the music stops. Augustine and Phil still haven’t reappeared, so Dan shrugs and turns his attention to PJ and Chris, who have already started kissing.
“Out of order!” he tells them, and then people start counting, so he joins them. Three, two, he yells his head off with everyone else, ringing in the new year.
It's the first new year he’s welcomed single, but he’s not alone. Instead, he has PJ kissing him, sweet and short, a thumb pressed to Dan’s cheek, where he dimple is. Chris does the same, calmer than Dan expected of him, but still managing to slip in a little tongue. Dan opens his mouth and rests his hands on Chris’s hips. All things aside, Chris and PJ’s kisses feel familiar, and comforting, and he’s happy to get them one more time. He pulls away and smiles and Chris, shaking his head.
He’s not sure where Phil’s gotten off to, but Dan knows he’s there in the flat somewhere. He’s got Priya, and he supposes Esther, now. He’s got Augustine. And he’s got himself. He’s got himself in a way that hasn’t always been true, and things are good.
He overhears Augustine and Phil, drunk and happy, coming down the hallway from Phil’s room. Augustine is yelling something about tradition, and Dan turns to see Phil grabs her and press a kiss to her mouth. They’re both laughing too much for it to be a proper kiss, mouths mashing together messily.
There’s glitter from somewhere in both their hair, and even cackling and wasted they hold each other like the most precious things in the world. Dan waits to feel something like jealousy but he mostly feels a bone deep affection for both of them.
He feels overwhelmed with it actually, how deep his affection is for Phil.
With Augustine, Phil seems to laugh easier, the tension in his shoulders seems to ease a little. Dan knows that something big happened to Phil, and maybe to Augustine too, and it's made them two pieces of a puzzle. Today is starting to feel like the first time he’s seen Phil as a whole person and he likes that person.
And still, even with only the bits and pieces of himself Phil gives him, even now Dan can still feel how deeply his feelings for Phil run and how easy it’d be to let them tip over, spill out of him, grow into something he’s not allowing himself. Not yet.
Dan’s phone buzzes and he lets go of PJ and Chris to check it, expecting a text from his mother or a classmate wishing him a happy new year.
It’s a simple message from an unfamiliar number: “Happy New Year. Hope it's a good one for you. Sincerely, Madison West.”
Dan excuses himself from PJ and Chris, lets himself out onto the dark balcony they hardly every use, finding himself in need of the cold air and a few moments away from people.
The cold outside grips him, seeping through his jumper, and he can see his breath when he sighs and looks at his phone.
Mads’ message shines back at him. It’s simple, likely a mass text. He puts his thumbs on the phone, hoping something to say will come to him.
Instead, the door to the balcony slides open again.
He’s not that surprised to see Augustine. He’s a little more surprised to see Phil being towed behind her. She’s limping a little and Phil’s holding her cane, clearly trying to give it to her. But she’s got Phil’s hand in one hand and a drink in the other.
She’s sparkling just as much as the cane is. Dan realizes she reminds him of any of the pop stars he studies, but more real. She’s perfect, she’s pretty, she’s kind, but she’s real.
“Darling,” she says, leaning against the railing of the balcony, like she’s not wearing the shortest, tightest scrap of fabric in all of Britain. “Daniel, you left before you could be indoctrinated.”
She’s grinning at him, eyes bright and if he hadn’t had a personal interaction with the punch for the party he’d think she was sober.
“Excuse me?” he asks, turning to face both of them. Phil’s wrapped an arm around her waist and they lean against each other heavily. It’s impressive actually. Augustine’s taller than Dan expected, but she’s still nowhere near the height of either of them. But she takes Phil’s weight like a champ, like she’s been doing it all her life.
“Auggie,” Phil sighs. “You can’t just say things and expect people to know. It’s our tradition. Gotta kiss each other at midnight.”
“Isn’t that everyone’s tradition?” Dan asks.
They both go silent and look at each other, having some sort of conversation without words, then turn back to Dan.
“No,” Augustine says firmly, “Because it has to be one of us. You can’t kiss just anyone and have it count.
Dan recognizes a set up when he sees it. And this is a set up.
But it’s a set up looking at him with bleary eyes and wide grins, leaning against each other like they can’t find upright without each other, sparkling and shining and looking like a soft place to put down his defenses for a second.
It’s a set up, and a whole he wants to be part of for just a moment.
So he opens his arms and Augustine squeals a little and more or less throws herself into his arms. She grins up at him, tips up on her toes and brushes her mouth against his, soft, sweet and dry. Dan wonder show many new years she and Phil rang in this way. He wonders, absently, watching their mouths part, if Augustine was Phil’s first kiss.
“Happy New Year’s, Daniel.” She says and settles back down, holding a hand out to Phil. Phil steps forward and she grabs her cane from him, slipping from between the two of them.
“I’ll catch you boys inside, yeah?” she calls over her shoulder, drinking from her drink and going back inside.
Dan stares after her. This is an entirely different set up. Phil cleares his throat and Dan turns back to him.
“We don’t have to kiss,” Phil says. “I know that’s. Awkward. She gets to flit in and be all…herself and then flit out. We’re friends, and hang out all the time. So. Start over?”
Phil shoves out a wobbly hand and Dan laughs a little. It hasn’t been so long that Dan’s forgotten the moment that their friendship really, truly started. He takes Phil’s hand, shaking it firmly.
“Sir,” Dan says, making his voice as deep and firm as possible.
“Sir,” Phil says back, mimicking his tone.
They shake hands, grinning at each other, for too long. Dan realizes that he’s staring, trying to take in every detail of Phil’s face in this moment. He drops Phil’s hand, tries not to shiver too obviously.
“I’m going to go inside,” Dan says, still looking at Phil.
Phil nods. Dan doesn’t move.
“I was jealous of PJ and Chris,” Phil tells him. “When they went into the kitchen, I figured they were saying hi to you.”
Phil’s eyes drop, just slightly, to Dan’s mouth and it's enough. It’s all the permission Dan needs.
He’s been taking little touches of Phil’s warmth since that morning in November, allowing himself bits and pieces but never too much.
He tucks himself in close to it, now. He pulls Phil in, tilts his head down just a little, presses their mouths together.
Phil tucks his fingers into Dan’s shirt, gripping, and kisses him back. He tastes of sugar, like Dan just knew he would, and the sharpness of alcohol. He tastes like a long time coming, like ready or not.
Dan pulls away, just to open his eyes to look at Phil, who comes closer, sealing the kiss again. Phil kisses like he’s playing for keeps, sucking Dan’s bottom lip between his. Dan raises his hands to cup the back of Phil’s head and tilts his own to fit their mouths together better.
It’s like learning at lightspeed, figuring out what Phil responds to, guessing at whether he wants teeth, or a hand on his face. Phil lets him learn, clutching at his back and returning every kiss.
Dan realizes that he’s gotten turned on very, very fast. It’s been months since he’s hooked up with anyone, not since his fight with Phil. The most he’s done is flop down on top of Chris or PJ and demand intentless kisses.
He wants to press Phil against a solid surface and make good on some of the thoughts he’s had when he’s supposed to be studying but found himself staring at Phil’s mouth, or his hands.
Phil’s stopped kissing him and has started pressing small, biting kisses to his neck.
“Phil,” he breathes, closing his eyes and just letting Phil do what he wants for a moment. “Phil. Bedroom.”
“No,” Phil says, resting his head against Dan’s collar. Dan dips his head down to talk quietly into Phil’s ear.
“Do you not want to?” He asks, carefully avoiding pressuring Phil.
“I really, really want to,” Phil half-mumbles into his chest. “But I wanna date you too. And you don’t date the boys you have one night stands with.”
Dan huffs a laugh. “Who told you that?”
If he were sober, if Phil hadn’t just told Dan he wants to date him, he’d probably be horrified that Phil knows that. They’ve never really talked about his response to Mads cheating, because they’ve never really talked about Mads, but part of him is relieved that he doesn’t have to tell Phil that tidbit.
“PJ,” Phil tells him. “It wasn’t like. A shaming thing. I think he was trying to tell me to be careful? With you. Not of you. You’re great. You wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Ok,” Dan says, wrapping his arms more fully around Phil. He’s waited months to have this much. He can wait until they figure out what to do from here. “Then we won’t. Let’s just enjoy the rest of the party, yeah?
“As long as we can keep kissing,” Phil agrees.
“We can keep kissing,” Dan confirms, moving to open the balcony door and get them back into the flat.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Dan wakes up with his face pressed against the wall and his bladder full.
It takes a few blinks and stretching to realize that he’s been pressed against the wall by at least two other bodies. He recognizes the weight of Phil’s head pressed against his stomach, too close to his bladder to be comfortable or cute. At some point in the night he’d plastered himself to Dan’s lower half, and now both his arms are wrapped around Dan’s thigh. He’s also definitely drooling.
Augustine, who managed to get all her makeup off and is wearing one of Phil’s sweatshirts, is curled up behind him, her head resting on Dan’s shoulder. She’s still got glitter in her hair, which means that Dan’s probably going to find some in his own if he ever manages to extract himself from this pile of humanity.
Slowly he sits up and slips Augustine’s head off his shoulder and onto the pillow. When he turns, he’s only a little surprised to see PJ on the edge of the bed, somehow managing to stay a respectful distance away from touching Augustine, despite the vanishing amount of free space on the mattress.
Dan’s certain when he fell asleep last night it was just him and Phil on the bed, and they were barely touching. So this is interesting, and more than a little confusing. It’s not terrible though, to have so many of his favorite people so close by.
He wiggles his leg away from Phil and manages to crawl out of the bed with only a little groaning from everyone else. He nearly trips over Chris on his way out of the dark bedroom, who’s made himself a pallet out of a duvet and pillows.
The rest of the house is dim, empty and freezing. Most of the party-goers have gone home, a blessed different from the parties of his first years at uni where everyone just danced and drank until they dropped and shuffled out in the morning. This way he can pad to the bathroom and not have to worry about anyone other than Priya and maybe Esther seeing him in boxers and one of Phil’s t-shirts.
He makes his way to the bathroom and shivers through peeing and washing his hands. Grumbling to himself, he leaves the bathroom and turns toward the hallway where the thermostat lives. Someone must have forgotten to turn the heat back up after the party had ended last night.
He’s making his way back from turning the heat up when he realizes Priya is sitting in the kitchen. On a whim, he goes in.
She’s wearing basically the same thing as him, down to the jumper likely stolen from Phil and plus a baggy grey beanie that looks handmade. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, sipping something warm and staring out the tiny window above the kitchen sink. It’s started snowing, and for a moment they’re both looking out and the falling flakes, listening to the soft susurrus of snow against the window.
“You and Phil finally got your shit together, then?” she finally asks, looking at him. “You looked comfy last night.”
Dan ducks his head to hide his blush. From what he can recall, no one saw anything that happened out on the balcony but when they’d come in holding hands more than a few of their friends had yelled at them happily.
“We’re figuring it out, I think,” Dan says, looking up at Priya. She smiles at him, and it's a soft, sleepy thing.
“It’s good,” she says, yawning. “I haven’t seen him really date since the leave of absence. Est says he was practically glowing when you all finally went to bed.”
Dan pauses, “Leave of absence?”
“Mhm? Oh, I’m sure you know about that. Last year. We kept in contact, a little. Before uni? We weren’t very close. We had drinks a few times in our first year of our programs but one day he just stopped showing up.” Priya shrugs. “And then one day he did again, messaged me to see if he knew anyone looking for a flatmate, right when I found this place and I liked him and here we are!”
Dan’s never really interacted with Priya quite this early in the morning, and he’s a little surprised by how chipper she is. She’s offering up information like it's just a funny little story, and not more about Phil that Dan didn’t even realize he didn’t know.
“Right,” Dan says, forcing himself to nod and keep his voice normal. “The leave of absence. Well I’m glad he contacted you. Is Esther still asleep?”
“She is,” Priya says and lets a little bit of a wickedness sneak into her sunny smile. “We woke up earlier and I tuckered her out.”
Dan laughs and says, “I’m glad you got some privacy. I think the rest of the party is piled onto Phil’s bed.”
“I kicked them out,” Priya tells him. “You’ve got ages to get up to things with Phil. Esther’s flying back to the States next week. I told them to go to the library though, I’m not sure how they ended up in your room.”
The library is Priya and Phil’s third room, a mostly empty bedroom that hosts their intimidating collection of books and a notoriously leaky air mattress. Dan can understand not wanting to sleep three to a bed in there.
Dan finally sits down and talks to Priya for a few more minutes. Priya’s right in the middle of explaining how Esther had knitted the beanie she’s wearing during the flight to the UK when Priya’s phone lights up and buzzes. She glances at it then stands up.
“Esther says good morning,” she tells Dan.
He laughs and stands up too, following her out the door then splitting off, walking in the direction of Phil’s room.
Dan’s turning the leave of absence over in his head as he pads back down the hallway. He’s put together that something happened to Phil and that Phil wasn’t around when he and Mads were happening.
But the way Priya says leave of absence, like it was an official thing, not Phil just being absent in the way PhD students go sometimes sits heavy in Dan’s stomach.
It's not quite enough to shake off the rising feeling of giddiness that wells up in him every time he things of what they did last night, what they’ll probably do today once everyone else has left the bed. But it's enough to steady him, to remind him that a kiss doesn’t fix everything and that they need to talk about what this is between them.
He’s surprised to see the bed empty of everyone but Phil when he comes back into the room. He hadn’t heard anyone pass by the kitchen when he was talking to Priya. But there’s only Phil, starfished in the middle of the bed, dark hair spread across the pillowcase.
Dan crawls over him, tucks himself back against the wall and lies there, not quite touching Phil.
When they’d fallen into bed last night they’d been loose with alcohol and the breathless disbelief that they could just touch each other, kissing and laughing by turn. They’d fallen asleep, or passed out, looking across pillows at each other through bleary, exhausted eyes.
Now, with a hangover swiftly developing and questions about what Phil might be keeping from him, Dan doesn’t know. he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to touch, if he’s allowed to have this. He doesn’t know if he should take it at all.
Just the other day he’d decided to keep his feelings for Phil secret and safe, and now it's looking like maybe it wasn’t the worst choice for him to make.
Phil makes small, stirring noises, smacking his lips together and blinking his eyes open. Dan watches him.
Phil doesn’t say anything. He just tugs Dan closer so he can rest his head on Dan’s shoulder with the same casual affection that he’s been showing Dan for weeks now. He touches Dan like there’s nothing strange about them being in bed together again, like there’s nothing they need to discuss.
And Dan, because he’s easy, because he’s tired, because Phil is warm and this feels like the first time he’s been able to let his guard down since the term started, shifts, so he can throw an arm across Phil’s stomach and closes his eyes. With the house quiet around them, Dan can hear Phil’s breathing, and the snow falling. He breathes in and our, matching his breath with Phil’s, in and out and in until he’s fallen asleep.
The second time Dan wakes up, Phil’s gone. He stretches, arching his back until it burns and then shrieks a little when his foot makes contact with someone’s leg.
“Shush,” Augustine says, She’s sitting cross-legged at the foot of Phil’s bed, leaned up against the wall. She’s doing something on her phone and there’s a spliff between her lips. The cards from Phil’s desk are resting against her foot. Dan vaguely recognizes them as tarot cards. She’s got one of them in the hand that’s not tapping her phone.
She’s still got on Phil’s jumper but is wearing vaguely sparkly shorts and Dan had not gathered from their chats over skype just how much of a glitter person she is. She’s got another tattoo on her leg, something black and angular crawling from below the curve of her calf that Dan can’t fully see.
“How long have you been there?” Dan asks, pushing himself up. The hangover is blessedly calm, more of a sense of dizziness and a tightness at his temples than anything worse. The sun’s high in the sky out of Phil’s window though, meaning Dan probably slept through the worst of it.
“About an hour,” she says, offering him the spliff.
He takes it and plays with the idea of asking if she’s the one who taught Phil how to roll, or vice versa. But she’s not looking at him, hasn’t even smiled at him, and it makes him nervous. He hasn’t been nervous to be around Augustine in a long time, and it's unsettling. All the feelings he’d had last night about her being half of Phil’s heart come back, less lovely and more nerve wracking.
“Is this the part where you threaten to hurt me if I hurt him?” Dan asks, taking a hit off the joint then handing it back. She takes it without looking up, still tapping away on her phone with her other hand.
Dan waits for an answer and finally her fingers pause and she looks up at him, brow furrowed.
“Why would I do that?” she asks, “Have you seen yourself? You’re twitterpatted.”
Dan’s not certain that’s a word.
“Also,” she says, ashing the spliff onto an ashtray that’s sitting on her knee. “From what Phil tells me, you’ve got as much a chance of getting hurt as he does.”
It isn’t really what Dan’s expecting. It hadn’t occurred to him that Phil would ever talk to Augustine about him and his issues. Dan feels oddly exposed.
Augustine turns an eagle eye on him. “He tells me everything, Dan. What he doesn’t want to tell me, I make him.”
Dan nods. “That’s good. He doesn’t tell me. Everything, I mean.”
Augustine makes a noise, like she’s disappointed, but not surprised. “He’s an idiot.”
“He’s not,” Dan says, immediately protective of Phil.
Augustine laughs and shakes her head. “I’m allowed to say he’s an idiot when he’s being an idiot, Dan, I’m his best friend. He should tell you everything. You’ve earned that much.”
Dan sighs and rubs a hand across his eyes. “Priya told me about the leave of absence.”
“Mhm,” Augustine says, looking back at her phone.
“Augustine...what happened to him?”
It’s a strike in the dark, and he’s not really expecting her to tell him anything. He’s not expecting her fingers to freeze. Panicked regret shoots through him and he wants to grab the words back from the air.
Augustine takes a hit off the spliff, holds and exhales, long and silent.
“Nothing,” she says after a pause so long Dan starts to think she won’t answer at all. “Nothing happened to Phil. Something happened to me and Phil didn’t cope well.”
Dan wants to ask more, wants to push. But Augustine is holding herself, light and careful, like she’d shatter and spill if Dan pushed too hard. It's not so different from the way Phil looks sometimes, when Dan makes an errant comment and he goes stiff and silent and says that some things are private.
“Ok,” Dan says. He’s groggy, and it's the first day of the year and he’s got a heart and a house full of people he adores and he just doesn’t want to be sad today.
“Ok,” he says again, twisting in the bed until lying next to Augustine, flat on his back, butt and legs resting on the wall. “We’re done with that. Tell me embarrassing Phil stories.”
Augustine shoots him a look and he makes grabby hands until she hands him the spliff. He takes it, careful not to knock ash onto his face, and gives her an expectant look.
“Okay…,” she says slowly, then smiles. “So we went to uni together for our first year. I swear Phil like, decided that if he couldn’t have me, he was going to have every vaguely tall dishwater blonde twink he could find.”
“Dishwater?” Dan asks, already laughing.
Augustine rolled her eyes, “You think Phil learned how to dye his hair on his own? Please. Ok, so I didn’t notice anything at first, and then it was like...what is this parade of Augustine doppelgangers coming out of your room?”
Dan loses track of time talking to Augustine. He’s not sure how many stories about Phil’s nascent flirting he’s heard before present day Phil comes wandering into the room, clearly investigating the source of the laughter.
Dan’s certain he’s flushed bright red. He’s been partly inverted for a while now and Augustine has flopped over onto his stomach, constricting his breathing a little.
“I don’t trust this one bit,” Phil says, narrowing his eyes at them, a smile playing at the corner of this mouth.
“You shouldn’t,” Augustine says, dragging herself up and gathering the mess of tarot cards. Her eyes are a little bloodshot and her messy buns only gotten messier, but she’s still camera ready. Dan would hate her if he wasn’t swiftly coming to love her.
“Are you telling my secrets?” Phil asks, coming over to crawl onto the bed on Dan’s other side.
“Only the fun ones,” Augustine tells him. “Do you remember The Blondes?”
Phil groans and says something back and Dan lets the sound of them bickering wash over him. Phil’s sat far enough away that they’re not touching, and the distance is burning hot to Dan. If he shifted his leg just a little, his thigh would catch on the shiny-slick material of Phil’s basketball shorts. If he moved his hand, he could touch Phil’s hip.
Whatever strain Augustine had rolled has his mind racing, thinking about all the little ways he could touch Phil and how good all of them would feel. Dan can feel himself focusing in on the sight of Phil’s pale calf— the blue-green shadow of his veins, the smattering of soft-looking brown hair.
“Wow, you’re not paying attention at all, are you?” Augustine asks, nudging Dan.
“The Blondes,” Dan says absently.
“We’d moved on,” Augustine says dryly. “But I’m pretty sure the time for listening to Augustine is over for a while.”
“It’s a good change of pace,” Phil says, grinning down at Dan.
They must spend too long smiling at each other because Augustine scoffs and rolls off the bed.
“You’ve got twenty minutes,” she tells them, stretching. “I’m hungry and I need to get back to that cafe.”
Dan’s pretty certain the cafe isn’t going to be open on New Year’s Day, but he’s not going to say anything that keeps Augustine from giving them some privacy.
“Twenty minutes!” she says again and leaves the room, closing the door behind her.
“Twenty minutes,” Phil tells Dan, smiling at him. “We could work with twenty minutes.”
“Eighteen,” Dan says apologetically, rolling away from Phil, off the bed. “I’m not kissing you with morning breath. We haven’t been kissing long enough for that.”
Phil sighs but waves him away.
Dan goes to brush his teeth faster than he’s ever brushed them before and returns to find Phil tucked under the duvet, eyes closed. Before common sense can stop him, Dan pounces on the Phil shaped lump. Phil squawks in surprise and Dan grins down at him.
“Hi,” Dan says.
Instead of responding, Phil sits up and catches his mouth. Dan makes a surprised noise but kisses back. It’s different than last night. They’re both more careful and probably a little more timid. But it's also better. Dan isn’t distracted by the biting cold, or dedicating half his brainpower just to staying upright.
Instead, he can think about how soft Phil’s mouth is, how Phil’s wiggled his arms from under the duvet and has slipped his hands under Dan’s stolen jumper and onto warm skin.
They finally break apart to breathe and Phil finally says, “Hi.”
“We could have been doing this for ages,” Dan tells him. He shivers when Phil’s hands drift from his back to rest on his hips, thumbs pressing into the softness covering the ball-socket of his hips.
“I wasn’t sure,” Phil tells him, shrugging. “You were happy to cuddle, and nap together, and spend all this time together, but you never pushed.”
“Not really my thing,” Dan says, leaning down to press close-mouthed kisses to the side of Phil’s neck. “Pushing. I don’t really—”
Dan hisses when Phil pushes his thumbs in the same place. The feeling runs hot-cold through him, orienting him to this bed, sitting on top of this man with nothing between them but space, limited time and too many clothes. Dan just barely keeps his hips still.
“Was that a good noise?” Phil asks, letting up on the pressure. “Is hissing a good noise? It seems like it might not be a good noise.”
“Shut up,” Dan mutters, eyes closed and searching for Phil’s mouth by touch. “Shut up, shut up, everything is a good noise right now.”
They kiss like that, running up to the line, the place where things turn from aimless exploration to kisses that are leading somewhere. When they find that place, the place where Dan has to hold very still and Phil has to let his hands slip away or else they’ll start grabbing, they separate for breath.
They’re finding that place again, for the third time, when Dan pulls back with a hitched breath. He holds himself carefully above Phil’s hips, tries to pretend he hasn’t been hard since the second kiss. He looks down and Phil catches his gaze and holds it.
They’re staring at each other as Phil slowly, so slowly, moves a hand to press firmly against Dan’s cock through his boxers. Dan inhales loudly through his nose and he pushes his hips up, against Phil’s hand.
Augustine knocks on the door and yells, “I gave you two more minutes, assholes. I’m hungry.”
Dan whines, “No.”
Phil sighs and drops his hand away. “She won’t leave if we ignore her.”
Good sense would be Dan rolling off of Phil, grabbing his jeans and willing his erection away. It’d be the polite thing to do, to let Phil up, so they can entertain their friends in the light of the first afternoon of the year.
Dan almost goes.
Except he waits a moment longer, looks at the flush that’s spread across Phil’s cheek and down his neck, the way his bottom lip has gone bright pink from their kissing. They’re separated by a couple layers, the duvet, their underwear, but can still feel warmth emanating from Phil and he itches to get closer to it.
Phil looks back at him, and then Dan watches Phil’s gaze track across his face and downward to where Dan is still hard. Dan makes a decision.
“We’ll catch up later,” Dan calls in the direction of the door.
Augustine laughs and says, “Yeah, I figured.”
Phil’s flush turns into a full blown blush, but he still smiles and shakes his head.
“Have fun,” Augustine sing-songs at the door and they listen to the sound of her footsteps and cane fall against the floor, walking away. There’s the bumping, shuffling sound of multiple people leaving the flat and the familiar sound of Priya locking the door.
Suddenly the apartment is quiet and they’re alone together for the first time in weeks.
Dan keeps looking down at Phil, taking him in, feeling time and possibility spin in the distance between them.
He locks eyes with Phil and pulls at his jumper, up and then off. Phil’s look flickers downward, and Dan’s pretty sure he can count where Phil catches the protrusion of his collarbone, the softness of his stomach.
His breath still catches a little when Phil lifts his hand to rest on Dan’s chest, brushing a nipple as he slides his hand from Dan’s chest to his hip.
“Let me up,” Phil says, his voice quiet and deep.
Dan scrambles off Phil, nearly falling off the bed in his hurry to give Phil space. Phil fights with duvet a little to get out of it, and then he’s reeling Dan back in.
They’re a mess for a moment, figuring out where to put all their too long limbs. They settle back into a similar position, Phil settled between Dan’s spread thighs, pulling Dan down to rest on him properly.
“This is going to be fast,” Dan warns him, already moving his hips to find some friction anywhere. “We should probably like, be figuring out what each other likes?”
“Probably,” Phil says, agreeable even as he’s slipping his hands around Dan’s hips and under the waistband of his briefs to grab at his ass. “I like you. I like hands. Blowjobs, maybe.”
Dan hums and pushes back against Phil’s hands. There’s a jitteriness lying beneath the arousal, the hunger to do more and more and everything while they have the time.
But he’s human and the last twelve hours have felt like foreplay now. Weirdly emotional foreplay that involved more people than expected, but still foreplay.
Everywhere Phil touches his skin rises into goosebumps and all Dan wants right now is to see, and touch, as much of Phil as he can.
Dan reaches down to pull off Phil’s shirt, and then, grumbling to himself, crawls off again to pull off his underwear, unceremoniously.
“Hey,” Phil says, reaching out, “Slow down, come here.”
Dan huffs, but listens, crawling into Phil’s lap.
“I’ve been thinking about this since we met,” Dan complains, still shivering when Phil spreads a broad hand across his back. “I literally couldn’t slow down more.”
“Since we met?” Phil asks, ignoring the rest of what Dan’s said to sit up, redistributing their weight and pressing Dan fully onto his still covered cock. Phil exhales a short, surprised sounding grunt.
“Off and on,” Dan says haughtily. “Mostly off. Don’t get too full of yourself.”
Phil laughs at him, and then holds a hand up to Dan’s mouth. “Lick?”
Dan doesn’t say anything, just licks broad stripes against Phil’s hand. Dan doesn’t know what he’s expecting, but tasting and feeling the breadth of Phil’s palm under his tongue has his body flushing, hot and eager.
Phil finally gets a hand on him, slick and large and so solid and Dan whispers to himself, “Fuck.”
Phil’s hand doesn’t feel much different than any number of people Dan’s been with, maybe his palm is a little bigger, his fingers a little longer. But knowing that it's Phil, knowing that this is the hand that’s been slipping under his shirts and over his shoulders for weeks now, has Dan’s breath quickening and his hips squirming up to meet Phil.
He tries to hold still, tries to tamp down some of the broken off noises that are crawling up the back of his throat. Phil looks up from watching the deep pink head of Dan’s cock slip in and out of the ring of his hand to narrow his eyes at Dan.
“Stop that,” he murmurs, leaning forward latch his mouth onto Dan’s neck, just below the juncture of his jaw. “No one’s here. Let me hear you?”
Dan huffs out a laugh, his breath catching on the exhales. He tilts his head up and closes his eyes. He listens to the silence of the house, the too loud sounds of his own breathing, the slick squelch of Phil’s hand on his cock. It's only been a few minutes, but he still feel the beginnings of an orgasm, the first tightenings and tensings.
He lets his head fall forward, bends his body toward Phil and shakes, letting Phil take him apart with his hands and muttered responses to Dan’s groaning and gasping.
“Fuck,” Dan says decisively, snapping his head up, hips jerking forward. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He comes with a surprised laugh, keeps laughing and moaning while Phil keeps wanking him through the orgasm.
“Enough,” Dan breathes, resting a hand on Phil’s to stop him. “Give me...just a minute and I’ll—”
Phil ignores him. He wipes his hand on the duvet then shifts back to pull his own cock out, tipping Dan out of his lap in the process.
“Rude!” Dan says, pushing up on his forearms.
Phil’s eyes are half closed by heavy lids, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. He’s jerking himself off with the same hand that had just been on Dan.
Dan knows that most of his come is probably drying on Phil’s sheets right now, but the visual is enough to send a bolt of want through him, oversensitive as he is now.
Dan sits up, thighs bracketing Phil’s hips. He leans forward to catch Phil’s mouth. They kiss and Phil’s arm bumps against Dan’s knee when he tugs on his own cock. Dan licks his own palm and pushes Phil’s hand out of the way. Phil feels blood hot and solid in his hand.
Dan watches his face as he moves his hand, listening when Phil gasps, “Tighter. ‘m close.”
Phil grabs onto Dan’s thigh and comes quietly with a shocked-sounding gasp into Dan’s mouth, and a punched out moans.
“Christ,” Dan says, flopping back onto the bed. Phil groans and flops in the opposite direction.
“Fucking hell,” Dan says, staring at the ceiling. “Where the fuck do you come from?”
Dan can feel Phil’s weight on his legs shaking with Phil’s laughter. So he’s halfway expecting it when Phil says, “Well. The north.”
They rearrange so that they can see, and kiss, each other and lie there for a few more minutes.
“What changed your mind?” Dan asks, poking a finger into the fleshy bit above Phil’s hip bone just to watch him squirm away.
“Ah!” Phil says, jumping away. “About what?”
“Last night you said no,” Dan points out. “You wanted to date me first. Didn’t want to be a one night stand.”
“I did,” Phil agrees. “I do want to date you. Are you planning to disappear on me after we sleep together?”
Dan shakes his head.
“Are you doing this to get over your ex?” Phil asks.
Dan shakes his head, surprised to find that it's true. Before the message last night, he hadn’t thought about Mads in weeks. But he’s thought about this moment with Phil a lot.
“Do you want to date me?” Phil asks, his confident tone faltering into nervousness.
Dan shrugs a shoulder and smiles helplessly, “I’ve been trying since November to just be your friend. Turns out I’m shit at it.”
“Good,” Phil says, nodding and leaning closer to kiss Dan.
Despite all odds, the cafe is still open and their friends are still there when they finally make it. It’s mostly empty, but they still insist on squeezing into the somewhat insufficient circle of couches and chairs that their friends are camped out on. Dan ends up mashed into the corner of a squishy couch, Phil’s leg pressed against his from knee to thigh. Phil orders for both of them.
It’s not very different from times when they’ve sat on the couch in Dan’s apartment, playing video games or watching a movie. Except it feels different now. Phil keeps looking over at him and full on beaming. Dan keeps glancing at Phil’s hand and feeling his cheeks and neck warm up.
“D’you think they can tell?” Dan leans over to ask Phil in a whisper, resting his chin on Phil’s shoulder. He’s just gotten his tea, and he’d caught Phil before he can get up to go ruin his cup of coffee.
Phil turns to look at him and Dan doesn’t back away, leaving their faces close together. Dan glances down at Phil’s mouth and plays with the idea of kissing him right now, in the middle of whatever conversation his friends are having. Phil’s clearly feeling the same way because he closes the distance between them, pressing a warm firm kiss to Dan’s mouth.
“I think they knew as soon as they left the house,” Phil tells him. He slips a hand down to grab Dan’s free hand and squeezes for just a second before letting go.
Dan grins down into his tea, hoping people assume the pinkness of his cheeks is from the fruity-smelling steam. He catches Priya looking at him and when he returns her gaze, she’s grinning at him, the same wicked, sly smile from this morning.
Leaving the cafe, they peel off from one another. Esther and Priya walk in one direction, Esther muttering about visiting the dam. Chris and PJ walk a little further with them before turning in the direction of Dan’s flat.
They pause and Chris glances at Dan, “Are you coming then?”
“Ah,” Dan says looking between Chris and PJ and Phil and Augustine. Under normal circumstances there’d be no question that he was going back to Phil’s flat to make good on some of the daydreams he’s been getting lost in while the others talked around him. Except.
“Can you believe this?” Augustine asks, showing Phil something on her phone. “Some prick wants to know if I’ll do photography for his wedding. His wedding.”
Phil’s turned toward her, probably halfway listening, but he’s watching Dan, the beginnings of his smile turning the corner of his mouth upward.
“I’ll leave you two to it…?” Dan says, failing to keep the question out of his voice.
Phil shrugs and his smile turns apologetic. “You could come with us. We don’t have many plans today. Gus is just going to take some photos.”
“Oh, actually,” Augustine says, glancing at Dan then back at Phil. “Closed shoot.”
“It’s Dan,” Phil argues, looking at Augustine fully. “Dan could come.”
“It’s for the series for your thesis,” Augustine says, like that makes any sense. Dan hasn’t heard anything from Phil about his thesis having a photographic element.
But Phil says, “Oh. Well.”
“Sorry darling,” Augustine says, reaching out to pull Dan to her and kiss him on each cheek. “Artists’ privilege. I get to be particular and eccentric.”
Dan sighs and waves them off. He’d prefer to be going back with Phil, but Augustine is back to giving him that disoriented feeling of being so class to Phil’s past but not allowed access.
“Call me later?” he asks Phil, who nods and scoots closer to kiss Dan.
It's still thrilling.
“I’ll call you later,” Phil agrees once he’s pulled away and, with a last kiss to Dan’s cheek, walks off with Augustine.
And that’s fine. It’s fine. Dan understands that Augustine and Phil are best friends, and they only see each other occasionally. If he didn’t live with PJ and Chris he’d probably wants to spend all his time with them when they were visiting. He can suck it up and wait a few days to have some alone time with Phil.
So he’s definitely got no reason to be upset.
“Augustine is trying to kill me,” Dan says, flopping onto his couch, laying his head in PJ’s lap. It's snowing again outside and Phil is with Augustine doing something that definitely doesn’t involve touching Dan’s dick. Just like he’s been doing for the last three days.
“She seems like the type,” PJ murmurs, tugging his script from under Dan’s head. “Very femme fatale. D’you think she’d be interested? Chris and I were debating which of us she’d go for.”
“Whichever one of you can distract her long enough for Phil to wank me off,” Dan says petulantly. “Shouldn’t take more than five minutes.”
PJ chuckles, low in his throat and Dan can feel the telltale beginnings of arousal.
“Stop it,” Dan groans, pressing his hand to his eyes. “Stop being all artsy and attractive. I might actually come in my pants. It's like I’m fifteen.”
“You could masturbate,” PJ says, like Dan’s not thought of that.
“It’s not the same,” Dan says, aware he’s verging on whining. “I want Phil. And she knows it. I thought we were friends! Friends don’t let friends die of sexual frustration.”
“Chris said the same thing to me the first time we hooked up,” PJ says, fondly. “Does she realize what she’s doing?”
“She must,” Dan says darkly, thinking of all the times Augustine’s tugged Phil away from him, eyes sparkling with laughter. “She does.”
“Well,” PJ says, yawning. “Either she hates you, or she’s trying to spend time with her best friend. Ooh, or she doesn’t trust you, there’s an interesting theory.”
“I’m entirely trustworthy!” Dan says, waving an arm around. “I’ve been a perfect gentleman to Phil!”
“Or you’ve been leading him along while you lick your wounds,” PJ suggests. “It’s all sort of relative, isn’t it?”
Dan gapes up at him. “I would never.”
PJ shrugs. “I know you wouldn’t. But I’ve also known you for years. Augustine met you for the first time when you were accusing Phil of cheating on her.”
Dan grumbles but otherwise doesn’t respond.
“Or,” he says brightly, reaching down to pat Dan’s cheek. “She thinks it's funny. You’re surprisingly funny when you’re sexually frustrated.”
“I hate you,” Dan tells him.
He pulls out his phone and texts Augustine, you don’t think i’im leading phil on, right?
Augustine responds immediately, I’d have murdered you in your sleep by now if I did.
“She’s trying to kill me,” he tells PJ, who he’s already lost to editing his script again.
“She’s trying to kill me,” Dan tells the tiny Phil face staring out from his phone. Phil looks sleepy, glasses on and hair pushed back. He’s wrapped up in his duvet, but Dan can just see his collar bones and the fading shadow of a hickey Dan left half a week ago. On the pillow above Phil’s head, threatening to fall onto his head, is a thick paperback marked NO FUTURE. Dan wants to be curled up next to him but Augustine’s made her home in Phil’s bed, citing the evils of the blow up mattress.
“She’s not,” Phil says, laughing. “She just gets in the zone and wants me to be part of a couple different projects.”
Dan had known, vaguely, that Augustine was a photographer. It hadn’t been til now that he’d found out that she was a fairly famous one, one with deadlines and commissions.
“I thought she liked me!” Dan says, gesturing. He knocks his arm into the small pile of books that has taken up the side of his bed where Phil usually sits. He’s frustrated, but maybe he should thank Augustine for the headstart he’s getting on his own writing for the new years.
“She loves you, Dan,” Phil says. “We don’t...we’re insular. We always have been. We just have to learn how to...be better. And she’s leaving tomorrow anyway.”
Dan sighs. “I don’t want to be happy about that. I like her. I’d just like her more if...”
“You’re just used to not having to share me,” Phil offers.
“Is this what it felt like for you?” Dan asks, staring at his phone. “Before New Years? With Chris and PJ.”
Dan feels like his relationship with Phil is split into Before and After New Years. Before was tentative, unsure and scared to ask for things. He’s not sure what after is yet. It feels like he’s gotten the first tastes of it and now all he wants is more.
“Sometimes,” Phil tells him, rubbing his face. “Later. I’d want to wrap you up in a blanket and watch you read, or cook, or something and you couldn’t because you and PJ had to, I don’t know, smile at each other. Or argue or something.”
Dan starts to ask how long Phil had felt that way, but Phil’s looking up and Dan can hear Augustine in the background. When Phil looks back at him, it's the face of “I need to go” that Dan’s become intimately familiar with over the last few days.
“We’ll see her off together,” Phil says instead of goodnight. “She can get a car from your flat. Tomorrow?”
Dan sighs and rolls his eyes but he nods and can’t help but smile back when Phil beams at him.
“Hi there,” Augustine says when Dan opens the door the next morning. “I’ve got a present for you.”
Dan looks at her expectantly and laughs when Phil comes around the corner, dragging a suitcase behind him, a gift bow pinned to his head at a jaunty angle. Augustine grins at him and walks into the flat.
“I’m sorry I’ve not been great at sharing,” Augustine says, dropping her duffle bag. “Phil says you think I don’t like you.”
Dan grimaces and shoots a look at Phil, who shrugs.
“Dan,” Augustine says, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I told you. He tells me everything.”
He should tell you everything, Augustine had said just last week. Dan shakes off the memory and the creeping worry that comes with it. Augustine’s brought him Phil and the promise of being alone again with Phil is distraction enough.
“I wanted to give you these,” Augustine says, reaching into her bag and pulling out a folder. “They’re terrible quality, but…”
She trails off with a shrug. “Happy Christmas.”
Dan opens the folder. They’re photos. He hadn’t seen Augustine with a camera, but there are pictures from New Year’s Eve, him and Phil covered in flour, him and Phil huddled around the laptop.
There’s one of him alone, obviously having a private moment with a some brownie batter. There are pictures of him throughout the night, talking in groups, standing aside. There’s one of the door to Phil’s patio, where the outline of him and Phil is just barely visible. They’re all beautiful, taken with a careful eye.
Dan’s eyes trace the frozen image of Phil, the way he’s always looking at Dan.
“I have more,” Augustine says, “From New Year’s Day. Some other stuff you might like.”
“Thank you,” Dan says, surprised by the feeling in his voice,
It's a gift that feels too intimate for their new, growing relationship. But Augustine just lifts and drops a shoulder, shrugging, and holds her arms out for a hug.
“Thank you for bringing the fun Phil back,” she says, not bothering to lower her voice.
She pulls back and looks between him and Phil. “I missed him.”
“Augustine,” Phil says, sounding both annoyed and fond.
“I’m going, I’m going,” she says, resettling her bag and grabbing the handle of her suitcase from Phil.
“Oh,” Dan says, “Are you leaving now?”
She grins at him. “I am. I figured I’d kept Phil from you long enough.”
Dan starts to say something to assure her that no he hadn’t been waiting for her to leave so he can bang her best friend. But she laughs and gives him a knowing look.
And then she’s gone, in a laugh and a last flash of a silvery suitcase.
Tension settles between them like a brick wall as Dan locks the door behind Augustine. He leans back against the door, looking at Phil and trying to remember where exactly PJ and Chris are. He’s never asked them about voyeurism directly but he’s fairly certain they wouldn’t love walking in on whatever he and Phil might get up to tonight.
Dan opens his mouth to ask Phil if he wants to go back to Dan’s room when Phil is suddenly in his face, crowding him against the door.
Dan’s senses are flooded with Phil, the scent of his body wash, the feeling of his body pressed close, and nothing but Phil’s face in Dan’s sights— his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, his mouth.
“...hi,” Dan says, at a loss for words.
Phil presses impossibly closer, slipping a hand under Dan’s shirt to rest on his bare hip. Dan throws his arms over Phil’s shoulders and closes the distances between them.
This time, Phil’s mouth doesn’t taste like anything in particular, but he’s warm and sighs through his nose and kisses Dan back like there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
They stand there, making out, until Phil presses a thumb into the familiar juncture of Dan’s hip and he groans into the kiss.
He pulls away and asks, “Is this— do you want to—?”
“Bed,” Phil says, and makes no move to the bedroom. Instead he ducks his head to start worrying at Dan’s neck with his teeth.
Dan presses his eyes closed. Phil’s teeth on his skin feels like fireworks, little electric jolts of pleasure shooting across his brain. He grips his fingers in Phil shirt and tilts his head back against the door.
They stay there, Phil’s mouth working, Dan’s fingers tangled in his clothes, until Phil steps back, gives Dan a satisfied smile and turns, walking them to Dan’s bedroom, hand in hand.
Dan closes the bedroom door behind them and Phil stands in the middle of the room, tugging his jumper and shirt over his head. Dan watches him, eyes catching on his chest hair and his pale stomach. Phil’s always pale, but this deep into winter he’s nearly luminous. Dan wants to see how red he flushes, and how far down the blush will go.
Phil starts unbuckling his belt, eyes still on Dan.
“Oi,” Dan says, stepping forward with his hands out. “Leave some for the rest of the class.”
Phil laughs and ignores Dan, shucking off his jeans. “There’s a class? I didn’t know this was a group effort.”
Dan rolls his eyes. Phil’s boxers are honestly hideous, bright plaid of pink, orange and blue.
“I can’t believe I’m dating you,” Dan says.
I can’t believe I finally get you, Dan means.
“Yeah,” Phil says, smile lighting up his face. “You are.”
And Dan can’t help but kiss him.
Dan’s having the cup dream again. This time the cup is silvery, and he’s close enough to see that it’s holding some kind of cool holographic liquid.
It’s also making soft, whimpering noises, the liquid rippling. When Dan reaches out, to grab it or tip it over or something, something knocks into his arm. Not quite hard enough to move his arm, but enough that he flinches away.
He can feel himself frowning, or maybe just a general sense of irritation, in that the way dreams work. He reaches out again. His fingertips brush the edge of the cup. It spills over, and something hits his arm again. Before the liquid can hit the ground, or whatever is beneath it, the thing hits Dan a third time, and he wakes up.
He blinks a few times, and turns to look out his window. Instead of dark, bare trees and maybe some snow, he gets the dark outline of Phil, sitting up and staring at his hands, backlit by the slate gray beginnings of morning.
“Hi?” Dan says, rubbing his face and sniffling a little. It's chilly in the room outside of the warmth of the blankets. His nose is cold.
“Sorry,” Phil says, turning to look at him. “I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
Dan makes a noncommittal noise and shifts to rest his head on Phil’s thigh.
“What’re you doing up,” he asks through a yawn. On a whim he throws an arm across Phil’s knees, and runs a hand the long distance from Phil’s thigh up to his hip and back down. Phil’s still sleep warm, his skin a little clammy.
“Nightmare,” Phil says simply and sighs. “I am sorry. Not the best impression for the first time sharing a bed.”
“We slept together on New Year’s Eve,” Dan says. “You, me and all of our friends. And after Halloween.”
Phil makes noises like he wants to disagree but he keeps quiet, tipping his head back against Dan’s wall.
They sit, listening to the silence of the early morning until Dan asks, “Wanna talk about it?”
“It’s private,” Phil says, like he doesn’t even have to think about it.
“Mm,” Dan hums.
It's too early and he’s too comfortable to get upset. And he knows enough for right now. There’s something. It happened. It fucked Phil up and this new thing between them doesn’t feel strong enough to handle Dan pushing.
He knows he’s going to have to parse out what it means to be a good boyfriend, separating goodness from the type of blind devotion he’d given Mads. This feels like a good step in that direction.
Phil rests a hand in his hair and he sighs.
“D’you go back to sleep after nightmares?” Dan asks.
“Sometimes,” Phil tells him, running his hands through Dan’s hair, petting him. “Not sure yet.”
“I’m gonna fall asleep,” Dan warns him. “So if you want to rearrange.”
“Go to sleep, Dan,” Phil says. His voice is low and he sounds tired but Dan can still hear Phil’s smile.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Dan says. He closes his eyes and listens to Phil laugh.
Finally, Phil sighs and shifts around. Dan lifts his head and gently shoves at Phil until he lays down with his back to Dan.
“Demanding,” Phil says, scooting back to tuck his hips into the spoon of Dan’s, pressing them together from knee to shoulders.
“Just now figuring that out?” Dan asks, pressing his face into Phil’s back. He resumes his stroking, hand ambling across the warm, boney topography of Phil’s side. He counts Phil’s ribs, hums a little as his touch rides over the rise and fall of the ball and socket of Phil’s hip. On a whim, he changes trajectory, tracing inward from Phil’s hip, across his stomach.
Dan feels honey-slow and dreamy, lets his hand smooth across Phil’s skin, back and forth. When Phil squirms a little, Dan presses his hand down firmly, and Phil sighs.
“Are you getting fresh with me, Dan Howell?” Phil asks.
He still sounds tired, words stressed into long, slow vowels.
“If I can stay awake,” Dan says, and then, “Shhhh.”
Phil quiets, doesn’t say a word when Dan’s hand makes a lazy whorl on his skin that leads him lower and lower and below the waistband of Phil’s underwear.
Dan’s awake now, but keeps his eyes closed, listening to the slight catch in Phil’s breath when Dan finally wraps a hand around his still soft cock.
“Need a bit more than that,” Phil says, sounding half apologetic.
Dan laughs low in the back of his throat, as if Phil has to apologize for not being immediately hard at the thought of Dan touching him. He finally opens his eyes and sits up with a yawn and a stretch.
When he looks, Phil’s watching him. His eyes are still striking, even in the half-dark of dawn.
“You’re gonna get cold,” Dan tells him, not particularly sorry, as he shimmies down Phil’s body, taking the duvet and blanket with him.
“Dan,” Phil whines.
Dan ignores him in favor of pulling Phil’s boxers down his hips.
“Shush,” Dan says, dropping kisses across Phil’s hips. “PJ and Chris are asleep.”
He dips his head to press kisses to Phil’s soft cock, traces the edge of his foreskin with his tongue. Phil’s quiet while Dan presses kisses and long strokes of his tongue to him until he’s hard.
By the time Dan gets his mouth on Phil properly, the fleshy head of Phil’s cock pressing skating across his soft palate, Phil’s breath is the loudest thing in the otherwise silent room. He follows instructions well.
Dan takes it as a personal challenge. He dips his head to get as much of Phil in his mouth as he can, and sucks. Above him, Phil groans and reaches down to rest a hand on Dan’s neck. Dan bobs his head, sealing the vacuum of his mouth into mean little pulls.
“Ah,” Phil says, his hand slipping into Dan’s hair and gripping “Ah, too much.”
Dan pulls off, not bothering to fight off the grin on his face.
“Sorry,” he says, giving the slick, reddened shaft conciliatory little licks.
“I’m sensitive,” Phil says. Dan looks up to catch him pouting, which just makes Dan grin more.
“I’m sorry,” Dan says again and takes Phil back in his mouth, careful to be gentler.
They’re both quiet, listening to the soft wet sounds of Dan’s mouth and Phil’s high hitched breathing.
“Dan,” Phil finally says in warning and Dan hums acknowledgement, backing off to let Phil pop out of his mouth and get a hand around him.
A moment later, Phil grunts, just a touch too loud, and his hips jerk. Dan jerks him through the rest of his orgasm, watching Phil’s come spill over his knuckles.
When Phil’s hips finally still, his head drops back against the pillow and Dan wipes his hand on Phil’s underwear, ignoring the complaining noises
He crawls up the bed and sets Phil’s clothes to right, then cuddles close.
“Do you want me to—,” Phil starts to ask.
“Later,” Dan says. “Go to sleep.”
Dan doesn’t know if Phil listens. He drops off immediately, grogginess dragging him back down into sleep.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
Dating Phil is so eerily similar to just being friends with Phil that Dan almost wants to apologize to Chris and PJ for making them watch him wander around with his head up his ass for months.
They still trade off on whose house they’ll study at, they still find themselves at the cafe half the time. The only difference is that Dan doesn’t feel like he has to have an excuse to touch Phil now, and he doesn’t have to keep a firm hand on the way his thoughts drift across the bow of Phil’s mouth and the breadth of his palm. And the sex. They have somewhat shocking amounts of sex. Chris, PJ and Priya are probably going to trick them into attending an intervention soon.
He says as much to Phil one night, when they’re lying beside each other, catching their breath. Phil laughs and Dan winces at the memory of how loudly he’d moaned just a few minutes earlier.
“It’s fine,” Phili says, reaching out to pat Dan’s stomach. “Esther came to visit before the term started. Priya knows she has no room to complain.”
Dan hums in agreement. He’d only been here one night while Esther was still in town, but he’d definitely been audience to some noises. He sighs and rolls out of the bed, stretching his arms as far as they’ll go and then shaking them. This happens after sex sometimes, he gets a burst of energy and finds himself wandering around, picking at the things in Phil’s room.
“Augustine is the worst about it,” Phil says.
Dan glances over his shoulder at Phil, who’s sat up and wrapped himself into a duvet burrito. Dan’s own skin goosebumps in the chilly air, but he’ll survive.
“Yeah?” Dan asks, wandering over to Phil’s photowall. He idly touches the edge of one of Phil’s pictures with Augustine. It's one of the series from the river. They’re smiling at the camera, arms wrapped around each other, starkly different from the artfully taken photo of Phil with the stones.
“Yeah,” Phil says, something hesitant in his voice. “When we lived together. She’d pick up. It was always the loudest damn thing, listening to her have sex. I don’t know how she hasn’t gotten evicted.”
Dan stares at the picture, his back to Phil, so Phil can’t see the way his eyes widen a little. This is the first time he’s heard anything about Phil living with Augustine.
“You two lived together?” he asks, choosing his words carefully. He wants to know everything, he wants to know when, and where, and for how long. But this is the first time Phil’s offered this and he doesn’t want Phil to change his mind.
“We did,” Phil says.
He doesn’t say anything else for so long that Dan thinks he’s done talking until he offers, still halting. “We lived together last year.”
Dan’s stomach clenches and he works to keep his voice light when he says, “Oh, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Phil says.
Dan turns to look at him, and he’s looking just past Dan, at the pictures, expressionless.
Neither of them say anything else and eventually Dan comes back to bed. Phil opens up his blanket cave to let Dan into the warmth and what feels like miles and miles of skin. They rearrange themselves to lay down, and fall asleep, pressed close and quiet together.
If Phil has a nightmare, he doesn’t wake Dan.
Dan’s phone rings from an unfamiliar number just as he’s leaving campus to meet Phil at the cafe for lunch.
“Hello?” Dan answers, settling his back over a shoulder.
“Daniel!” Burncroft says on the other side of the line, sounding fond as ever. “How are you?”
“Fine?” Dan says, hoping his confusion doesn’t translate well over the phone. He’s never spoken to Burncroft over the phone and he’s not sure how rude it’d be to ask how she got his number.
“Excellent,” she says, seemingly oblivious to his tone. “I’m having one of my dinner parties this week, on Friday, and I’m inviting you.”
“Oh,” Dan stops walking, ignoring the people filtering around him. “Uhm. I thought those were just for…”
Lindsey’s parties are legendary on campus, for the short time she’s been doing them. She’s never said so explicitly, but it's understood that she only invites people she finds interesting, people the university finds the most interesting and the most likely to be catapulted into academic superstardom.
Dan had been to a couple as Mads’ plus one and found himself playing with her dog, Borges, while Mads schmoozed with the rest of the up and coming gliteratti.
“They’re for people I enjoy,” Burncroft says firmly, then, more softly. “And I don’t think I’ve found anyone else as enjoyable at a dinner party as you, Daniel. I’m not interested in hearing no from you.”
Dan ducks his head and smiles at his shoes, then continues walking. “Sure, Burncroft. Thank you. Ah, could I bring someone?”
“You can,” she says, and Dan’s pretty sure he can hear a smile in her tone. “I’d love to see any guests you deign to bring, I’m sure.”
Dan’s smile grows impossibly wider. He’s pretty sure he looks a bit mental, walking down the street grinning at nothing in particular.
“Thanks. I guess I’ll see you on Friday?”
“You will,” Lindsey says briskly, “Until then, Daniel.”
Dan’s smile lasts all the way to the cafe, where he grabs one of the loveseats and waits for Phil. He’s imagining how he’ll bring it up to Phil when the door swings open and a gust of cold wind brings in three of the philosophy PhDs that Dan sees regularly at the cafe.
They’re fine, they’ve never been anything other than cooly cordial to Dan, but they do remind him of who is likely to be at the party. Burncroft may enjoy Dan, and she was serious when she said that she had no time for his no, but there were plenty of other people likely to be in attendance that had never been fond of him. And with no Mads in attendance, perhaps they didn’t see a reason to keep that dislike implicit.
“Whose gotten you upset?” Phil asks, coming around the couch. “You’re frowning.”
Dan looks at him and grimaces. “Do you want to come to Lindsey Burncroft’s dinner party with me on Friday?”
“Oh!” Phil says, looking pleasantly surprised then frowning. “I was going to ask you the same thing, actually. But you don’t look so thrilled?”
Dan debates with himself how much he wants to talk about Mads with Phil before he shrugs and says, “It’s just been weird in the past, being the only one there not getting a PhD. But if you’re there, it’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” Phil’s brows are furrowed and he’s leaning forward a little, pressing his boney knee into Dan’s, comforting. “Because I could beg off, tell her I’ve got other plans that night and you’re part of them.”
“It’s fine,” Dan says firmly. “You’ll be there and I’m sure there’ll be plenty of good networking for you.”
“If you’re sure,” Phil says, still frowning.
“I’m sure,” Dan says. “Come on, that’s enough. Let’s get something to eat.”
Friday comes faster than Dan expects and he finds himself standing outside of Burncroft’s house, marvelling, as he always does, at the fact that she lives in an actual proper house, even if it is rented.
“Ready?” Phil asks, slipping his fingers in between Dan’s.
“Yep,” Dan says, popping the p. “Sure am. Not nervous at all. No reason to be nervous. Burncroft loves me. You like me. Only things that matter.”
Phil’s watching him ramble, eyebrow raised.
“I’m ready,” Dan says one more time, because he can’t help it.
Phil squeezes his hand and rings the doorbell.
“Philip!” Burncroft says, eyes immediately lighting on their intertwined hands. Her headwrap is somehow higher and more colorful than usual and she’s even more regal looking than usual. “And Daniel. So those rumours I’ve been hearing are true!”
Dan’s certain he’s blushing but he ignores it as he drops Phil’s hand to wrap Burncroft up in a hug, then stepping aside for Phil to do the same.
“You know not to pay attention to conjecture, Lindsey,” Phil says, grinning as he lets go of Burncroft.
Burncroft scoffs, “It’s not like either of you will come tell me yourselves. Come in!”
The last time Dan had been to her house, he’d been with Mads, trailing dutifully behind him as he floated from one group of people to the next, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. They’d worked out a system— Dan would be present for the first round where he’d play a bit of trophy boyfriend for Mads, showing off how clever and pretty he was, and he was free for Mads’ second rotation around the room, when he got to have serious conversations. Honestly, it was comfortable after a while. He only had to pretend to give a shit about whatever boring projects Mads’ contemporaries were working on for twenty minutes at most and then he got to hang out with Burncroft and Borges.
Dan hadn’t realized how second nature it had become until he realizes that he’s looped his arm through Phil’s and vaguely smiled his way through two introductions to people he already knows. The first one had asked Dan about Taylor Swift’s new album and he’d spent too much time rambling about turning victim complexes into musical careers, so he’s determined to remember to give Phil the spotlight for the rest of the night.
He doesn’t say anything when Phil turns to a woman that looks vaguely familiar and introduces her to Dan.
“Oh, we all know Daniel,” one woman says, a funny little smile on her face. “Just surprised to see him.”
“Well,” Phil trails off, looking at Dan expectantly. When the silence borders on awkward, he continues, falsely bright, “Lindsey invited us both. She’s a good friend of both of ours. How do you know her?”
“Oh,” the woman says, “Lindsey and I have known each other for years, we met at a conference where she just insisted that I do some research on this program.”
Phil keeps making encouraging noises and asking interested questions, so Dan lets a vague smile settle on his face and zones out.
When she finally walks away, Phil turns to look at Dan, concern clear on his face.
“Are you feeling ok?” he asks, tugging his arm out of Dan’s grasp.
“Sure?” Dan asks, “Is everything ok? You looked like you were having a good time. Sorry, I should have warned you that I’ve been to a few of these before.”
Phil shakes his head, “I’d assumed you had. I meant the whole…”
He gestures at his arm and Dan’s everything. “You’re not being yourself right now.”
“Well,” Dan says slowly. “No. But we’re not here for me. You’re networking.”
Phil looks at him for a long moment before shaking his head. “Dan. I’m not at a dinner party on my birthday to network.”
Dan can feel his eyes go wide. “It’s your birthday?”
Phil’s definitely laughing at him, even if his mouth isn’t. His eyes are sparkling.
“It is. I thought I’d mentioned that?”
“No,” Dan says, looking around, horrified. “It’s your birthday. Phil, why’d you let me drag you here?”
Phil shrugs. “I thought it’d be fun. I’ve never been to one of Lindsey’s parties before, and I like her and I like you. It's really...really boring though.”
Dan huffs a laugh and grabs Phil’s hand, tugging him away from the crowd and through a set of doors to a small kitchen.
Phil watches him curiously as he drops Phil’s hand and crouches to look under Burncroft’s table, where Borges, a dark chocolate Staffordshire Bull Terrier is lying in a dog bed. She yawns and licks her chops and regards Dan with sleepy eyes.
“Hey girl,” Dan says, reaching out a hand for her to sniff.
It’s been months since he’s seen her last so he’s not expecting much, but her ears perk up when she sniffs his fingers and she comes out of the dog bed to knock her body against Dan’s shins.
“This is Borges,” Dan says, sitting down on the kitchen floor, careless of his nice pants. “She’s the best part of Burncroft’s parties. Aren’t you, girl? Aren’t you?”
He directs the last part to Borges, whose happily plopped down in the circle of Dan’s crossed legs.
“Oh my god,” Phil says, collapsing into a pile of long limbs to lean in close to the dog. “I can’t believe no one told me. Does she like strangers?”
“She should be fine,” Dan says, holding her gently so Phil can reach a hand out for her to sniff. “She’s a sweetie.”
“Best birthday ever,” Phil says and Dan thinks he’s going to actually squeal when she snuffles and then licks his hand.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was your birthday?” Dan asks, hoping any potential awkwardness will be dissolved by the wiggling dog between them.
Phil shrugs, “It isn’t a big deal, and this is a new thing, so I didn’t want to make it weird.”
Dan scoffs, “We’ve been friends for months, Phil. That doesn’t stop just because we’re dating now.”
Phil nods, scratching behind Borges’ ear. Dan watches him with the dog, his long fingers digging into her sleek fur.
“Tonight’s a bust. We can drink some of Burncroft’s wine and head back to one of our flats. But tomorrow? We could get people together, maybe go out? To a pub, or get a car to one of the clubs.”
Dan watches Phil make increasingly displeased faces at his suggestions.
“Right,” Dan says, “Not really a club person, are you?”
“They’re loud,” Phil complains and Dan wants to kiss his cheeks and jaw until that terrible, adorable frown goes away. “And overpriced and there’s always some guy that wants to know if you’re making eyes at his girlfriend, while Augustine is actually making eyes at his girlfriend.”
Dan laughs, “Ok, ok. No clubs. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, Dan” Phil says, shrugging. “Just have a relaxing day. Maybe spend the day in bed.
“Relaxing,” Dan says, thinking of the emergency and non-emergency spliffs he sees between Phil’s fingers on a regular occasion, spinning a plan in his head.
“Yes,” Phil says frowning. “Just...a day without worrying about courses or Augustine or anything really.
Dan hums and nods. There’s a small tin of weed butter and leftover ingredients for brownies left in Phil’s fridge from New Year’s Eve. They’ve been working on a list of films to watch when they have time. He could work with that.
“Anything else?” Dan asks.
“I figured I’d find you here,” Lindsey says over their heads, cutting off whatever Phil was about to say. “And I see you’ve introduced Phil to Borges.”
“Hi Lindsey,” Phil says, turning to look at her. “Thanks for inviting us...uh...sorry we abandoned your party for your dog.”
Burncroft waves a hand, crouching to pet her dog. “It’s fine. Daniel hates these things. He pretends he doesn’t, to avoid hurting my feelings, I’m sure, and then I find him in here talking shop with Borges.”
Dan watches her, mentally willing her not to talk about how she knows that, about how many of these parties Dan’s been to. Phil’s not stupid, he’s probably assumed Dan had been at these dinners with Dan. But if he puts together Dan’s trophy boyfriend behavior with his presence here with Mads, it turns into a conversation Dan doesn’t really want to have.
“We’re serving dinner in twenty minutes,” Lindsey tells them. “After that you’re welcome to find a corner to play with Borges in, or you can just leave. Just be sure to tell me goodbye.”
They nod and she nods back, standing and making her way out of the room.
“Do you want to stay?” Dan asks and then, because he can’t help himself, “It really is a good networking opportunity. If you’re looking to do work with people outside of your department.”
Phil rolls his eyes, “Tomorrow. I want to spend all day in bed with you. Do you think Lindsey would notice if we stole her dog? You could get me a dog for my birthday. This dog, specifically.”
Borges sneezes and Phil coos at her.
“Got it,” Dan says. “No talking about networking, relaxing and all day in bed. Potential grand theft canine.”
“Exactly,” Phil says, grinning at him. “This grand canine.”
Borges barks a little and Dan and Phil grin at her.
Dan shows up to Phil’s flat bright and early and makes Phil sit down in the kitchen and watch him make waffles.
“Birthday waffles?” Phil asks, watching Dan stir the batter.
“Special birthday waffles,” Dan says, putting the bowl down to dig around Phil and Priya’s fridge. It's slightly less sparse than usual, there’s still leftovers from the party that need to be thrown away, some of Priya’s more successful infused alcohol is in there and near the back the small container of yellow-y green butter Dan’s looking for.
“ Special birthday waffles,” Dan says, wagging the container at Phil.
“Oh!” Phil says, lifting a hand to cover his yawn. “Why haven’t I ever thought of that?”
Dan walks over to drop a kiss on Phil’s forehead, “‘s what you keep me around for, my ingenuity. And good looks.”
They talk about nothing in particular while Dan makes the waffles. Dan doesn’t even duck his head to hide his smile when Phil tucks in, stopping to make appreciative noises.
“You’re my favorite,” he tells Dan and then Dan does study his own plate a little harder, cutting his waffles into small triangles. Things are still new enough that Phil’s naked affection is still thrilling and a little surprising in how easily he shares it.
“Well, it's your birthday,” Dan says and looks up, ignoring the warmth of his blush, “And you’re great. You deserve birthday waffles. And anime. That’s part two. We spend the rest of the day in bed watching stuff. Unless you want to do something else.”
Phil shakes his head, still smiling at Dan. “I might want to take a walk later. But this is good for now.”
They clean things up together and wash their slightly sticky hands, Phil gently bumping Dan’s hips.
They bicker a little over what to start with while they’re waiting for the high to kick in, mostly because Dan can’t resist arguing. After he’s riled Phil up into a list of why they should end the day with Spirited Away and not start with it he gives up and lets Phil queue up Revolutionary Girl Utena .
“I still can’t believe you haven’t seen this,” Phil says, watching Dan watch the colorful, soft-focus opening.
“It’s so 90s ,” Dan breathes, just short of cooing.
“You’re so 90s,” Phil mumbles, pulling the blankets up to his mouth. Dan nudges him with a socked foot just to see Phil’s eyes squint as he smiles.
They get through an episode before Dan realizes that he’s feeling decidedly floaty, like he’s hovering a little above the bed, tethered down by the duvet and Phil.
He sighs and reaches out to touch Phil’s arm, make a sleepy, pleased noise at the echoing feeling of skin under his fingertips.
“Hi,” Phil says, sounding like he’s shouting down into a whole.
“Hey,” Dan says back, turning his body inward to press again Phil’s searching for more of that ringing bell sensation.
Phil laughs and squirms a little as Dan’s fingers sneak under his shirt, brushing against the soft, sparse hair on his chest. He tucks an arm under Dan’s neck, resting long fingers against Dan’s collarbone.
“Feels nice,” Dan tells him, sighing. “Another episode?”
Under the hazy, slow motion bounce of the edible, Utena’s already trippy plot is to keep track of, but Dan doesn’t mine. Phil’s chest is rising and falling steadily under his hand, the colors and art of the show are beautiful and he finds himself focusing more on the sharp, high angles of Phil’s cheeks than the show.
“Is that the gay ear?” Phil asks.
Dan pauses and dissolves into giggles, his body curling into a c-shape, pressing his knees into Phil’s thigh.
“Shut up!” Phil says, “It was the 90s! And he’s lavender. I think they’re trying to tell us the monkey’s gay!”
Dan’s cheeks and eyes are wet when he finally stops laughing.
“Gay monkey,” he repeats, his breath hitching, threatening to turn back into laughter.
“You spoon,” Phil says fondly, pulling Dan up to rest their foreheads together.
He’s too close to be more than a pale blur to Dan, so Dan closes the distance between them, pressing their mouths together.
They kiss for a while, mouths soft and wet against each other. The kisses are aimless at first, a happy little hello in the middle of so much lightness. Then, Dan’s hand brushes across Phil’s chest, catching on his nipple and Phil’s breath hitches.
Dan pulls back to look Phil in the eye. Phil looks back as Dan moves his hand again, intentionally, over his chest.
Dan’s mind is going a mile a minute, thinking of the time in the bathroom, the way he’d wanted to get on his knees for Phil then, the way his skin feels too tight and too warm, the way he just wants to touch as much of Phil as possible in the moment, the arousal burning deep in the cradle of his hips.
But when he opens his mouth all he can say is, “This ok?”
Phil huffs a laugh and nods, reaching out to pull Dan over on top of him, reaching up to kiss him.
Phil’s mouth is slick and warm and when he licks across Dan’s bottom lip, Dan opens his mouth readily. He opens his legs, letting Dan lay between them and they make out for a while, pressing against each other in unhurried, rolling hips.
“Fuck,” Dan says, pulling away then tucking his head between Phil’s head and shoulder, slipping his arms under Phil’s to grab the top of the mattress, his knees tractionless against the bedsheets. They stay like that for a while, silent except for hitching breath. Dan holds on to the bed, driving his hips down, covered cock pressing against Phil’s. Phil holds on to him, pressing kisses to whatever bits of Dan’s skin he can reach, hands trailing across his back, leaving trails of shivery sensation in their wake.
Phil’s gone from comfortably warm to overheated, his skin damp with the beginnings of sweat and Dan’s breath. Dan feels everything slow and molasses sweet, too good to be true.
“s nice,” Phil says, “You feel so nice.”
He reaches down to push Dan’s joggers off his hip then lifting up to pull his own hideous boxers off.
Under normal circumstances, Dan would probably curse under his breath, or take a deep at the first feelings of skin on skin, something quiet as possible. But he’s stoned and relaxed and warm, the low, long groan in his throat comes out unhindered and unashamed. He knows Phil must be feeling just as good as he is, he’s wetter than Dan’s used to—he’s slippery and hot when he reaches down to press their cocks together in the circle of his hand.
“Go on,” he says, urging Dan on, sighing when they find a rhythm.
They both last longer than Dan’s expecting, trading sighs and murmured encouragement, moving from one rhythm to another.
Dan’s orgasm, when it finally comes, is a slow, burning thing that starts with his toes curling and Phil’s short, blunt nails digging into his shoulder. He doesn’t even realize he’s making quiet, whining noises until he hears himself, hips jerking and eyes rolling back in his head. Distantly, he can hear Phil suck a deep breath in. Dan feels Phil’s body judder beneath him, feels him finally exhale when Dan flops down onto him, pushing the air off.
After a few minutes of laying in shocked silence together Dan says “...fuck yeah,” weakly, holding his hand up for Phil to high five.
He can feel Phil’s laugh better than he can hear it and he smiles into Phil’s skin when he feels Phil’s hand hit his open palm.
“Did we just…?” Phil trails off.
“Simultaneous orgasms,” Dan crows. “Like in romance novels. Happy fucking birthday to you .”
“You read romance novels?” Phil asks, trying to crane his neck so he can look at Dan.
“I read lots of things,” Dan says, rolling off him. They bellies are both a mess of slick white, neither of their shirts have managed to avoid getting into the come. Dan supposes he ought to think it's gross, but he’s mostly annoyed that he’s going to have to go all the way to Phil’s bathroom to clean up.
“Is Priya home?” he asks. When he looks over, Phil’s looking between his stomach and his duvet like he’s trying to decide if he wants to use it to clean himself off.
“Phil, no ,” Dan says, not bothering to hide his horror. “What are you, seventeen? There’s a shower.”
Phil sighs and flops his head back onto the bed, “I was hoping you wouldn’t see me.”
“C’mon,” Dan says, climbing out of the bed and tugging his pants back up. “We can cuddle in the shower and come back and finish Utena.”
Phil grumbles but follows Dan happily enough.
The rest of January seems to go in a blink and Dan finds himself staring at February on his phone’s calendar instead of paying attention to the conversation people are having around him.
It’s one of the rare days that he’s in the professor’s lounge with the other master’s and PHD students (the lounge being a glorified walk-in closet gifted to them from the actual professors years ago when they’d gotten a proper lounge) and he’d actually been scheduling a meeting with someone when the date had caught his eye.
“Dan?” They asked when he hadn’t responded for too long.
“Valentine’s Day is soon,” he responds, mostly talking to himself.
Valentine’s Day is soon and he has a boyfriend now.
He shakes his head, clearing his thoughts and turns back to the person, finishing putting the meeting on his calendar.
He actually has to plan something for Valentine’s Day.
“How do you feel about marriage?” Dan asks hours later, sitting down next to Phil in the cafe.
“Bit early for that, we’ve been dating a month.” Phil says, not looking up from his laptop. He’s more than used to Dan’s random questions at this point. “Also, useless social contract.”
Dan frowns. Mads had thought roughly the same thing about both marriage and Valentine’s Day. Dan had been privy to multiple rants about both. He’d gotten over the little bit of hurt that he wouldn’t get a proper gift or special date or whatever by their third February 14th together.
“How do you feel about...chocolate?” Dan asks, grabbing a napkin and folding it over and over itself.
Phil looks up at Dan, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “I...enjoy it?”
Dan nods. “Right. Brownies. Should have known that.”
Phil sits back in his chair, “What’s this about?”
“Nothing!” Dan says, attempting airy and landing on slightly shrill.
Phil watches him.
“PJ says that Valentine’s Day is a useless capitalist commercialization of heteronormative romantic relationships,” Dan says.
PJ has said no such thing. PJ sighs and accepts Chris’s offering of an absurdly large box of chocolates and absurdly tiny stuffed bears holding hearts every year. PJ once drunkenly mulled over proposing to Chris on Valentine’s Day. PJ is a fucking sap.
Dan watches Phil, who’s raised an eyebrow.
“Ok,” Dan relents, “He doesn’t. But some people feel that way.”
Phil puts a hand on top of Dan’s hands and the napkin that’s gone stiff and unfoldable.
“Do you want to do something for Valentine’s Day, Dan?” he asks, catching Dan’s eyes.
Dan’s a little surprised by the feeling that wells up in him. There’s no expectation on Phil’s face. Dan doesn’t doubt that he could answer one way or the other and Phil would accept it. It's shocking how freeing it feels.
“Yes,” he says, and honestly, he wasn’t sure what the answer would be until it fell out of his mouth. He hasn’t had the option of choosing in years. “Thanks for asking.”
Phil grins at him. “Was it supposed to be hard?”
Dan rolls his eyes. “Yes, yes, you’re great, you’re amazing, best boyfriend ever, etc.”
“Could I get you to say that on record?” Phil asks, clicking a few things.
He turns his computer so Dan can see the webcam recording him.
He laughs and rolls his eyes, saying to the camera, “Phil Lester is an amazing boyfriend. Fucking awful to sleep next to though, you haven’t known elbows til you’ve got one fucking excavating your liver at 2am—”
“Hey,” Phil says taking the computer back, “None of that! Slander and libel!”
Dan keeps laughing at him.
“You do know,” PJ drawls at him two weeks later, “That Phil’s seen you naked. Quite a few times from what I’ve heard while trying to sleep.”
Dan’s standing in front of his closet trying to choose between this black shirt or that black shirt. It’s too cold for the slightly mesh one. He frowns when his hand grazes over the leather shirt he’d bought for a laugh years ago.
“Yes?” Dan says, still rifling through his shirts. He’s got Phil’s favorite pair of his jeans on and he’d be otherwise ready except he can’t find the right fucking shirt.
“So this isn’t really necessary?” PJ sips his tea.
Dan glares at him. PJ’s already dressed for whatever he and Chris are doing tonight, hair tamed and jeans tight. Lucky bastard.
“I need to look good,” Dan tells him, stepping back to glare at his mostly monochromatic closet. “We’re going somewhere nice.”
They’re going to one of the three nice restaurants in town, and Dan’s got a half-plan brewing about swinging by the dam. What’s appropriate for a nice-ish restaurant and then a romp in the woods?
“Dan,” PJ says and Dan winces because that’s PJ’s concerned voice.
“Shut up,” he says back. He listens to the sound of PJ coming closer and doesn’t flinch when an arm winds around his waist.
“He likes you already,” PJ says.
Dan doesn’t respond.
“You don’t have to prove anything to him, Dan. He likes you already.” PJ knocks his hip into Dan’s.
“He’s…” Dan tries, but what even is Phil. He’s not perfect, but he’s managed to roll with Dan’s changeable moods, the lingering shadow of Mads’ hands on him, his nosiness, his noisiness, the way he still gets jealous.
“He’s Phil,” Dan says helplessly and hopes that covers everything.
“He is,” PJ agrees. “And you’re Dan. The bloke he’s been dating for a whole month now. The bloke he made doe eyes at for nearly an entire term. So choose a shirt and get on with it before you’re late. And don’t mind your curfew, Chris and I are doing Valentine’s Day here tonight.”
Dan laughs and shakes his head. “Pick for me?”
PJ grumbles something about having to do everything and pulls out a red and black checked shirt, handing it to Dan.
“Now get out,” PJ tells him, letting go of Dan and exiting the room.
“Hi,” Phil says, leaning against the threshold of his front door.
His eyes trail over Dan’s shoulders and down, then back up. Dan preens a little under the attention, his chest puffing up a little bit. He fights the urge to run a hand through his hair, mindful of the product he’d stolen from PJ to tame the fluffiness.
“You look good,” Dan tells Phil, whose eyes snap up from where he’s been looking at the rips of Dan’s jeans. He’d argued with himself about the propriety of wearing ripped jeans to a fairly nice restaurant, but watching Phil get caught up at the peek of his skin makes Dan think he made the right choice.
“You could just come in,” Phil suggests, a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. “We could just…”
“We could just,” Dan repeats, mocking him. “I’m not that easy, Phil Lester.”
“You could be,” Phil says and lets Dan tug him out of the flat. He pulls Dan closer to kiss him, brushing a thumb across the apple of his cheek.
Dan relaxes into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Phil’s waist. They could just go inside for a few minutes. The restaurant is within walking distance. Of course it's also Valentine’s Day and none of the three nice restaurants in town take reservations.
“Evil,” Dan says, pushing Phil away. “You’re evil, stop tempting me.”
Phil grins at him and doesn’t have a word of denial as he turns to lock the door.
Dan, on a whim, pulls out his phone and pulls Phil close again to take a selfie. They look good together, him in red plaid, Phil in a red as well, a jumper that reminds Dan of ladybirds. Emboldened, Dan takes another of him kissing Phil’s cheek and posts them both to instagram, captioned v-day adventurers .
“Ready?” he asks Phil, who smiles at him.
“Ready,” Phil says.
And the date is just...really, really nice. They’ve gone on dates over the last month, taking care to demarcate between regular hanging out and proper dates. But this is the most proper date they’ve been on yet. It's crowded, but not packed, and Dan waves at more than a few people from his cohort.
They eat good food and finish a bottle of wine and talk . They talk about Phil’s dissertation, the way he’s making real headway but is also worried his thoughts are still too scattered. They talk about Dan’s final project, the line he’s trying to draw between the countdown to Britney’s 18th birthday and Ariana Grande’s general success. They talk about PJ and Chris, Priya and Esther. Dan makes an offhand comment about something Mads’ said and doesn’t even flinch. It’s one of, if not the best date Dan’s ever been on and it happens effortlessly.
At one point, he finds himself listening to Phil and having to duck his head to hide how big his smile is. Phil asks what he’s grinning about and he can’t even put into words the fizzy ebullience building in his chest, threatening to overtake his entire face. He’s just shockingly happy and it's entirely unexpected.
He tells Phil as much as they walk home, fingers loosely intertwined. They don’t hold hands often, but tonight, Dan needs to be touching Phil and the wine loosens whatever grip on modesty he has. He needs confirmation that this dream of a man is really here, is really choosing him over and over again.
“Unexpected?” Phil asks.
“Yeah,” Dan says, glancing over at him. “I didn’t think— I didn’t think I was going to have this again. I don’t know if I’ve ever had this ,” he lifts up their linked hands, “Before with...with Mads, I was happy, but he was so serious, y’know? You make me feel…”
“Giddy?” Phil suggests.
Dan snorts, “ Phil , I’m not a child . Excited, I guess. Like this is just the beginning.”
“Oh well that’s good,” Phil says, teasing. “I’d be a bit worried if you felt like we were at the end of things.”
Dan grins at him and pulls Phil’s hand to his mouth to kiss his knuckles, another thing he wouldn’t have done if he were a little more sober or a little less in love.
“Get a room. Fuckin’ poofs,” someone in a passing group says, just loud enough for them to here.
It's a group of boys, and they’re boys , there’s no way they’re more than first years. If they weren’t just passing by and if they weren’t right next to Phil’s flat, Dan might have felt afraid. But they’re kids, clearly and Dan’s been in this town long enough to know that laddy first years are all bark and no bite. So he just rolls his eyes and mutters something about assholes under his breath.
“Anyway,” he says, turning to Phil, “Get your keys. Is Priya around? Is she skyping with Esther tonight? We should put on some music or something, because amazing boyfriends deserve amazing—”
“Dan,” Phil hisses and Dan notices that he’s dropped Dan’s hand and crossed his arms.
“What?” Dan asks. “What, those wankers? It's fine, Phil.”
Except Phil’s face is drawn, all teasing gone from his face. His breathing has gone shallow and he looks small in a way that shouldn’t be possible.
“Phil, it’s fine ,” Dan repeats.
“Let’s just get inside,” Phil says, glancing over his shoulder.
“Phil,” Dan says, trying to grab his elbow.
Phil flinches away, says, “Don’t.”
Dan lets his hand drop to his side.
They don’t say anything as they walk up the stairs and Phil lets them into the quiet flat.
Dan follows Phil to his room and sits on the bed. Phil makes a beeline for the photos.
Dan watches his shoulders rise and fall as he takes deep, careful breaths.
“You should go,” Phil says, reaching out to touch one of the pictures.
Dread and surprise turn Dan’s stomach. He sits in silence for a moment, shellshocked at the turn the night has taken.
“Phil,” he breathes, “What? No.”
“I’m tired, Dan.” He doesn’t turn to look at Dan, just presses his fingers to the edges of the photo of himself in the lake, the line of his back straight and tense.
Dan wants to reach out to touch him, wants to press kisses to the back of his neck and hold him until they can grasp at the tender remnants of a few minutes before.
But he can’t. He recognizes this fragile, breakability from his conversation with Augustine and he can’t put the conversation off anymore.
“Is this about what happened to you?” Dan asks, because he can’t not ask. “What happened to you and Augustine?”
Phil doesn’t say anything.
“Phil,” Dan says, rubbing a hand across his face. “Phil, talk to me. Did you...did Augustine get hurt? Did someone hurt her?”
“It’s private,” Phil snaps.
It's the harshest tone he’s ever taken with Dan. They’ve annoyed each before, Phil’s definitely told him to shut up when Dan’s on a tear and won’t let him get a word in. But Dan’s never heard this voice— and he’s not sure he knows this person.
“It’s always private,” Dan says. It’s the wrong thing to say, it's the dam breaking. “It’s always fucking private. There’s always this part you won’t let me in on. How am I supposed to believe you, to trust you if you won’t tell me what the hell is going on?”
Phil turns to him, finally, and says, “I’m not like you, Dan.”
Dan scoffs. “What? Open? Willing to communicate?”
“Willing to tell anyone about my private life!” Phil says. “Willing to tell everyone everything. Look where that got you .”
Phil’s barely raised his voice but his hands are shaking. His breath has gone shallow again.
There’s a sensible part of Dan that knows this isn’t helping, that knows that Phil is feeling trapped and panicked and saying things he doesn’t mean. The good thing to do would be to ask how he can help Phil.
Instead he asks, “Where did it get me, Phil?”
Phil opens his mouth but Dan stands up before he can say anything. Phil doesn’t flinch but it's a near thing. Dan feels a little hysterical. A few minutes ago he’d been thinking that he’s running up to the edge of something that might grow into love. Now he’s waiting to see if Phil will flinch away from him.
“What did it get me?” he asks again, because if he’s going to make a bad decision, he wants to make it.
“It got you hurt,” Phil says, tiredly, like the adrenaline is leaving him. “It made you angry and suspicious and mean. You let one man turn you into this.”
He gestures at Dan.
Dan had almost forgotten what it felt like to be an extension of Mads’ and nothing else. It had been thrilling to feel like a person and not just a result of someone else’s choices. It had felt like being full after years of hollowing himself out to make rooms for someone else.
Dan nods and says, “I’m going to go.”
Phil watches him impassively and doesn’t say anything.
So Dan leaves.
He leaves Phil’s room and feels a wisp of relief when he walks down the empty hallway and out of the flat without seeing Priya.
He steps out onto the street and walks in the direction of his home. It’s emptier than before, most people have turned in for the night, or they haven’t finished their dates yet. It’s still chilly, the smell of cold in the air, but nothing like the sharp windy January they’d had.
It’s a nice night.
It had been such a nice night.
Phil doesn’t call the next day.
Dan watches the phone, trying to decide if he’s going to pick up or not, but it doesn’t matter, because it never rings.
Chris and PJ are blessedly absent, so he doesn’t have to talk about what happened yesterday. Honestly, he doesn’t even know what happened yesterday.
Dan gets flashes of it as he goes about the day. He remembers the paleness of Phil’s face, the way his hands shook. He remembers the feelings of frustration and hopelessness that seemed to shove words out of his mouth. He remembers wanting to help Phil, just wanting to know so he could tell Phil that things would be ok.
And now he’s here, sitting in a bath that’s too hot, watching a phone that won’t ring, that hasn’t rang all day long.
Dan stares at his toes, distorted and wavering below the water, and thinks that perhaps Mads was right.
He’d never explicitly said that no one else would love Dan. That’s abuser rhetoric and Dan knows he would have noticed and he would have gotten about.
But sometimes he’d pull Dan into a hug and tell him how glad he was that he’d found Dan and molded him into something good. He’d joke with other PhDs at dinners and outings that their years together had made Mads a little softer and Dan more refined. He’d called Dan a firecracker, had called him difficult. He swelled with pride when he talked to people about Dan at twenty-one, sharp tongued, awkward, and headstrong.
Mads had brought out a careful attentiveness that Dan wishes he’d been able to tap into yesterday. He’d have never pushed Mads to talk to him that way. He would have sat and waited until Mads was ready .
Dan tilts his head back and looks over at the countertop where he’d cajoled Phil into giving him a hug months ago.
If he’d kept being the person Mads had made him into, he wouldn’t have pushed Phil at all. He’d have given Phil the space he needed, kept his mouth shut and waited .
So Dan waits.
Both PJ and Chris make comments about Phil not being around. Dan gives non-committal answers and pretends he doesn’t see the concerned looks they shoot him.
He reads and writes alone, in his room or in the library. He doesn’t bother pretending he’s not avoiding the cafe.
He watches his phone and doesn’t pretend his heart is in his throat every time he gets a notification.
He sees Priya, once, and ducks into a classroom so he doesn’t have to talk to her.
He bumps into one of his summer flings, one that smiles at him a second too long, and very carefully doesn’t think anything at all.
He waits and waits and wonders how long it will take before the way he’s waiting just becomes the way he is.
Augustine calls once, late one night. He watches the phone ring and ring until the call ends. She doesn’t leave a message.
The next day Augustine sends an email. There’s no text other than a link to a flickr gallery.
The first photo is a high resolution version of the picture Phil has on his wall, the one of him gaunt and deep-eyed, holding an arm full of smooth river stones.
It's Augustine’s account, and she’s written a brief artist’s statement, that this collection is called ramus || agoraphobia and that it's a documentation of what violence does to queer bodies.
Dan opens a new tab and searches “ramus”, is met with photos of jawbones with a small section of the hinge highlighted.
He returns to the photos and clicks through the first few.
There are several of Phil in the water with and without the stones, looking at the camera or away. Dan’s stomach drops at the first photo that features Augustine and Phil. It’s closer, only catching them from the shoulders up. Phil stares directly into camera, eyes challenging. Augustine is turned in the opposite direction, but she’s looking at Phil, hair pulled back to highlight a line of dark stitches trailing from below her ear and along her jawline. It matches the rough location of the ramus.
Dan clicks through the rest of the gallery, sees images of a copse of trees intimidatingly close, a hospital documentation listing injuries, Phil kneeling before a door, holding a familiar deck of tarot card—the queen of cups is face up. There’s a phone calling 999, Augustine in the distance of an alleyway, cane in hand, not looking back.
Dan closes the link and goes to bed.
He doesn’t sleep. He stares at the ceiling and wonders how hard it was for Phil to come to the cafe, or to Dan’s house. He tries to remember if they spent more time at Phil’s house than anywhere else. He tries to remember if he’d ever noticed anything unusual about the way Augustine spoke, or chewed. He lays in bed and tries to remember how much he’s missed, and tries to breathe.
“I’m a very busy woman, darling,” Burncroft says to him as she settles on the couch beside him. He’d had to give her directions to the lounge and she’d complained the whole way about the humanities being spread across campus in completely illogical ways.
“I know,” Dan says. “I’ll be fast. I just. Don’t know who else to talk to.”
“About?” she asks
“Phil,” Dan says.
Burncroft doesn’t react. She watches him, eagle-eyed and stone still.
“You’re the only other person that knows him. I don’t know if you knew him before…,” Dan trails off.
“Are you going to ask me a question?” she asks.
Dan doesn’t flinch but it's a near thing. He’s forgotten that as congenial and effervescent as Lindsey is in passing, she’s never had time for hesitation in proper conversations.
“We had a fight. I pushed him to tell me something he wasn’t ready to tell me. And now we aren’t talking.” Dan sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “I don’t know if I should even try talking to him now.”
“Do you think you’re worth it?” Burncroft asks.
“Lindsey!” Dan says. He should probably invest in more friends and acquaintances that will be soft with him. Phil was always soft with him.
“Daniel,” Burncroft says back. “Do you want the truth or do you want to hear what will make you feel better? I don’t have the time to give you both.”
Dan crosses his arms and internally cringes at how petulant he sounds when he says, “The truth.”
Lindsey rolls her eyes and relaxes a little. “Mads did a number on you.”
“We’re not talking about him,” Dan says and snaps his mouth shut at the unimpressed look Lindsey gives him.
“Mads did a number on you,” she repeats. “He suppressed all the interesting parts of you, attempted to make you into another of his sycophants and when you couldn’t do that he went out and fucked every willing body that would tell him how smart he was.”
It still hurts to hear the ruination of his last relationship put so plainly, when it’s taken Dan months to even consider that Mads choices weren’t a result of Dan not being good enough. But Lindsey reels it off like a grocery list, as if Mads actions don’t even deserve her judgement.
“He also took up with you during an important, formative part of your life, which makes it really impressive that you didn’t become another yes man of his.”
Dan snorts. “I don’t know if that’s entirely true.”
Lindsey waves a hand. “You continued your academic career rather than dedicate your life to his academic success and it infuriated him.”
Dan stares at her. Mads had never been anything but supportive of his decision to continue going to school, had challenged him to read more widely, to write and think more complexly.
“We’re not talking about him right now,” Lindsey says, mimicking his tone from earlier. “But the number of times I was forced to listen to him bitch about how ‘ungrateful’ and ‘fundamentally ill-suited’ for academia you were? The whole business was dreadful.”
Dan opens and closes his mouth, trying to form a word or thought to express his shock.
“But Philip ,” Lindsey trucks on, ignoring his reaction. “The few times I was able to talk to him away from you, went absolutely luminous when he talked about you, Daniel. He glowed. He raved about how intelligent you were, how interesting your work is, how your mind works. So, I’m asking you, Daniel, as someone who knows what Mads said about you, who can imagine what Mads said to you— do you think you deserve Philip? Because there are plenty of answers, go talk to him, go to counseling together, work out a plan about how to deal with your desire to know and his desire to keep things to himself. But those things require work and certainty in yourself and each other. Do you think you’re worth that sort of love?”
Dan starts to answer but Lindsey waves her hand again, dismissive. “I’m not asking to be answered, Daniel. You’re a dear friend, but I’m not your therapist and I’ve expended all of my empathy for the day on you.”
She stands and adjusts her clothing before resting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it firmly. She disappears in a cloud of patchouli and lavender. Dan sits in the lounge in silence, her question echoing in his thoughts. Did he think he was worth that sort of love?
Dan doesn’t remember the first argument he and Mads got into. What he remembers is at the end, after the make up sex, in the afterglow, Mads had taken Dan’s chin in his hand, looked him in the eye and said that Dan should learn how to let arguments go sometime. He’d told Dan that his bloodymindedness was his least attractive quality and that it’d do him well to learn to pick his battles.
One of the things Dan loves about himself, one of the reasons he’s still in school, one of the things Mads liked the least is that he’s never satisfied with an unfinished argument. He and Phil aren’t finished arguing.
Priya answers the door when Dan knocks. It’s been a week and a half since he’s seen her (baring the time he hid from her), and the sight of her makes him want to wrap her up in a hug. Instead he gives her a guilty smile and a little wave.
“ Dan ,” she says and steps forward to pull him into a hug.
“Uhm. Hi, Priya,” he says, squeezing her back. He feels like he might be walking into battle, and it's a relief to know that she won’t be the first person he has to fight.
“I don’t know what you two idiots are doing,” Priya says, her voice muffled, “but you need to fix it immediately.”
Dan nods and finally lets her go. “I’m hoping to do that. That’s why I’m here. To talk to Phil.”
Priya sighs and shakes her head. “He’s not here, love. It’s amazing, he’s been moping around here the last two weeks, but he left today. Didn’t even say where he was going.”
Dan sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Perfect. Amazing. He’s probably on a date with the love of his life. They’re probably already engaged. He’s going to come back and tell you he’s leaving the apartment to go get married.”
Priya gives him a look that’s equally worried and amused. “I think it's a little more likely that he went down to the shops to get some haribo. Or ice cream. Phil’s a sad ice cream eater.”
“He loves ice cream,” Dan confirms sadly. “I’m going to go. Will you text me when he gets home?”
Priya nods and gives Dan another hug before sending him off.
Dan spends the walk home running through scenarios. What would he even say to Phil when he sees him? He’d been hopped up on Burncroft’s advice and the adrenaline of being certain . But that’s fading fast and how do you even apologize for demanding someone explain their trauma to you? Why did he do that?
Dan’s so focused on muttering a treatise on how much of an asshole he is to his feet that he doesn’t even notice the person sitting on the steps of his flat building until he’s nearly tripped over their feet.
“Fuck, sorry,” Dan says, trying to keep himself upright.
“It’s ok,” Phil says.
Dan’s head snaps up to look at him.
He looks tired . He’s got the beginning of dark circles under his eyes, proper stubble and he’s holding a sad bouquet that’s drooping nearly as much as he is.
He’s the best thing Dan’s seen all week.
Dan starts to say so, but Phil takes a breath and squares his shoulders. Dan leans against the stair’s railing and waits.
“Augustine and I went out that night to celebrate some patron buying a bunch of her photos, and me being home from uni,” Phil says, looking him in the eye. “She’d just ordered the cane she has now. She was talking about how fabulous she was going to look. And she was right. She does.”
“Phil,” Dan says. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to tell me, I don’t want to make you tell me.”
Phil shakes his head. “I want to tell you. I’m tired of keeping things from you, Dan.”
“Okay,” Dan says. His fingers itch to touch Phil, but Phil still looks so breakable, like too heavy a breath will shatter him into a million pieces. “Can we at least go inside?”
Phil shakes his head. “After. I need to…”
Dan nods and Phil takes another deep breath. “These guys came up behind us. Lads. They said some things, slurs and things. Called me a poof. Called her worse. And that was it. They kept walking. Augustine said something to me, quiet, about them not having something better to do, like spend their parents money or have boring sex or continuing the most uninteresting people in the universe.”
Dan’s stomach is in knots. He clenches his hands by his sides.
Phil keeps looking at him, dry eyed. “I laughed. I laugh when I’m nervous. Gus says it's cute. They heard and turned around.”
“Phil,” Dan breathes. “Please let me take you inside. Let me...let me hug you?”
Phil ignores him. “I don’t think they really meant to hurt us all that bad, it was the weekend, we’d been drinking, too. They called the A&E afterward, when Augustine’s jaw popped. They ran, but they called the A&E.”
“ Fuck them,” Dan says savagely. The thought of these men calling A&E and then running. The thought of them putting their hands on Phil and Augustine, the thought of them only stopping when they’ve broken Augustine. Dan feels sick.
“I was fine, mostly,” Phil says, sounding far away now. “Bruises, some cuts, a black eye. Except her jaw. Augustine couldn’t eat solids for months, and she lives in the city, and her parents wanted to come take care of her, but they don’t understand. They would have asked why we were out, why we said anything, what was she wearing.”
“So you moved in,” Dan offers, piecing the story together.
“I wasn’t going to class,” Phil said. “I was smoking too much. I wasn’t eating anything but food I could afford to have delivered. The only time I left the house was to go visit and take care of her. So when it came time for her surgery, I took off from school and moved in.”
Three guys come out of the doors of the complex. They’re laughing about something, loud and boisterous. Dan looks at Phil, who seems unmoved. Dan looks at Phil’s hands, watches them tremor.
“We can go inside now,” Phil says, once the guys have passed. “There’s more, if you want to know. But that’s most of it.”
Dan gets them both inside. PJ and Chris are sitting on the couch, playing Smash Bros.
“Oh thank god,” PJ says when he glances over and sees both of them. “Chris, scrap the plans.”
Chris yells as Kirby spits Link over the edge of the board, then glances over at Dan and Phil.
“We were going to lock you in the flat until you got over it,” he tells them. “I suggested a closet, that’s a classic, but Peej made all this noise about food and bathrooms. Closet’s still an option, though.”
Dan wants to keep pushing Phil toward his room, wants to tell Chris and PJ that they’re having a serious conversation and this isn’t a time for jokes, but Phil laughs brightly.
“Would you have filled the fridge first?” he asks, mindlessly leaning against Dan a little. “Or was that incentive for us to talk faster?”
“We were,” Chris says, “But that’s not a bad tactic. You’ve got some good ideas, Lester.”
“C’mon,” Dan says, gently pushing Phil toward the hallway, “Stop flirting with Chris.”
“We could try,” Chris calls after them. “You look a bit like PJ and I’ve got some fantasies.”
Dan closes the door on the sound of Chris and PJ laughing, rolling his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he tells Phil, “That probably wasn’t what you needed.”
Phil sits on Dan’s bed and shrugs a shoulder. “You’re not the first person I’ve told, Dan and you won’t be the last. It happened. It’s still happening, in some ways. But it’s not my whole life and it's not Augustine’s.”
Dan sits beside him. “She sent me the photoseries.”
“Which one?” Phil asks. He reaches down to take Dan’s hand. His hand is clammy, but still. “She did a lot of work afterward. Documenting the surgery and recovery. She’s sold some of it. Got some stuff in galleries.”
“Ramus, agoraphobia?” Dan tries.
Phil snorts. “That shoot. You’re two weeks out of surgery, your friend nearly pukes every time he has to go to the door to get the takeaway and what do you do? Take pictures in a river?”
Dan can’t help the grin that pops up. “You weren’t a fan?”
“I’ve never hated her more,” Phil says, “She couldn’t talk. Her fucking jaw was wired shut to keep her from hurting herself. She could have gotten an infection . This is classic Augustine, telling my affairs and annoying me at the same time.”
Dan picks Phil’s hand up, brushes kisses across his knuckles.
“She told me she was sending you photos,” Phil tells him. “She asked first. She’s been taking the first step for me for so long. Or shoving me out the door. It was either this or pay for a ticket for her to come here.”
Dan turns and cups Phil’s face in his hand, pressing his thumb gently just above the hinge of his jaw, the rasmus.
“I’m—,” Dan starts.
Phil kisses him hungrily.
Dan kisses back, opening his mouth to let Phil in, whatever he was preparing to say lost in the wet heat of their mouths.
They separate long enough for Dan to pull Phil’s shirt off, so he can press kisses against Phil’s skin, from his neck to his collarbone, unencumbered.
“I’m sorry I ruined Valentine’s Day,” Phil says, breathless.
“Shut up,” Dan says, running his hands down Phil’s arm. “We both did. Shut up. We’ll have a do-over.”
Phil pulls him up to kiss him again. They undress each other hurriedly, only slow down when they’re pressed together, skin to skin, wrapped in Dan’s duvet.
“D’you know when I knew I wanted you?” Dan asks, wrapping a hand around Phil’s hip. “After Halloween. I just wanted to...touch you and keep touching you. You’re always so warm.”
Phil laughs. “It was...the time in the bathroom for me.”
Dan hums and shivers when Phil shoves his shoulder a little, rolls them so he’s lying on top of Dan.
“You didn’t want to hug me!” Dan complains, as if he’s not getting everything he wanted then, now.
“I wanted to hug you,” Phil says darkly. “You were so gone, so stoned and handsy. I wanted to take your clothes off and eat you up.”
“...I wanted to blow you,” Dan admits. “I thought about it, but you were so skittish.”
“I wanted you to,” Phil says, moving against Dan, rubbing his cock against Dan’s hip. “I wanted you to get on your knees for me, I wanted to feel your mouth. But I didn’t know if you did.”
“We’re gonna have to recreate this,” Dan says, lifting his knees and letting Phil settle in the cradle of his hips. “Not now, but let me…”
Phil, goes easy, letting Dan tip him over onto his back and move down his body.
Phil jerks exhales a breathy noise when Dan presses a kiss to the flushed head of his cock.
Dan looks up at him as he lets Phil’s cock slip past his lips, into his mouth. He watches Phil as best he can as he bobs his head, the neutral, slightly salty taste of skin and precum blooming across his tongue. Phil sighs and reaches to dig his fingers into Dan’s hair, holding on.
The silent moment holds between them for a while, Dan sucking Phil’s cock, Phil watching him, hips becoming more and more restless.
Phil comes without much fanfare. His breath picks up and Dan pulls off adds a to take a breath and jerk him through it, watching him with wide eyes, trying to take in the the whole sight of Phil’s tightly closed eyes, his open mouth, the way he tilts his head back just so. He spills warm across Dan’s hand and pushes Dan’s hand away when he’s done, curling in on himself a little.
“Gimme a sec,” he mutters into a pillow, eyes closed. Dan does, sitting and watching Phil recover.
When it's been more than a few secs Dan nudges Phil with his knee.
“My hand is covered in your jizz,” Dan tells him, waving said hand.
When Phil doesn’t respond Dan shrugs and wipes his hand on Phil’s side.
“I deserve that,” Phil says, opening one eye to look at Dan.
“You were falling asleep,” Dan says accusatorily
“I was recovering ,” Phil says, sighing and sitting up. “I’m old and there’s been a lot of excitement the last few days.”
“You’re just now thirty,” Dan says and gestures to his hard on.
“D’you wanna try something new?” Phil asks, then yawns.
“Is it you falling asleep on me?” Dan asks. “I’ve never had sex with someone that’s fallen asleep on me. And I’ve had a lot of sex.”
Phil laughs. “I was going to suggest fingers, but I wouldn’t mind a nap.”
Dan grins at him, “Grab the lube. D’you want me to go wash up?”
Phil waves a hand, then leans over to grab the lube that lives under Dan’s bed, “I’ll live. C’mere.”
They arrange themselves, Phil cross legged between Dan’s legs, Dan’s thighs thrown over his.
“Have you done this before?” Phil asks, running a thumb along the the frenulum of Dan’s cock.
“We’re going to have to talk about how much sex I had over the summer,” Dan says, nudging his heel against the small of Phil’s back. “ Yes , Phil.”
Phil just rolls his eyes, still smiling fondly, and squeezes lube onto the fingertips of his left hand.
Dan still tenses up a little at the first touch of Phil’s cold, slippery fingers to his skin, but gamely relaxes and spreads his legs a little wider, making room for Phil. Phil starts easy, rubbing a slick thumb against Dan’s hole, until he’s sinking in, past the first tight ring of muscles.
Dan sighs, pressing his hips down against Phil’s hand, waiting for the initial feeling of intrusion to pass. He sighs again when Phil wraps his hand around Dan’s half-wilted erection, massaging it back to fullness.
“Okay?” Phil asks after a moment, when Dan’s started sighing and his pushing back has taken a luxurious turn, like Dan’s searching for something with every roll of his hips.
“‘s been a while,” Dan says, a smile playing on his lips. “Give me two?”
Phil dutifully switches fingers around, pausing to add more lube and watching Dan’s face as he presses back in with his index, then middle finger.
Dan adjust quicker this time, the short, sweet burn of the first press flaring out into maddening goodness.
“Move,” Dan tells Phil and then pushes Phil’s hand away to wrap his own hand around his cock. “And focus.”
It’s possible Dan’s forgotten how nice it is to be a little pushy in bed and to get a loving laugh and fondness in response.
It’s so good it's almost overwhelming when they find the rhythm, Phil’s fingers sliding thick, in and out of him, his own hand just tight enough on his cock.
Getting fucked like this always feels a little strange, the feeling of intrusion never fully goes away, just gets sublimated in the wash of yes, yes, good & more that comes with it.
Dan cant his hips up a little more.
“You’re lovely,” Phil says, watching him with lowered eyes. “Completely lovely, look at you.”
The feeling of being watched leaves Dan’s chest flushed and makes him feel more exposed than being naked ever did. It pushes him along, closer to his orgasm.
Phil leans up to kiss his stomach and Dan gasps at the change in angle, presses his hips down to get Phil to move his arm faster.
“Gonna come,” Dan says, squeezing his cock a little tighter.
“Well come on then,” Phil says and Dan comes watching the smile spread across Phil’s face. He jerks forward and Phil leans up to kiss him, both of them riding the jerks and shakes of Dan’s orgasm, mouths pressed close together.
They keep kissing even as Dan’s body calms down. They keep kissing until they’re both short of breath and Dan has to flop back onto the bed, his abdomen trembling. Phil pulls his fingers out of Dan gently, ignoring the face Dan makes at the feeling, and rearranges himself to lay between Dan’s thighs, his head resting on Dan’s stomach.
“Shower,” Dan says when both their breathing has gone back to normal and he’s very aware of all the places come is cooling and going tacky on his skin.
Phil grumbles but rolls off him, letting Dan get up. Dan stumbles into the bathroom, his legs still a little shaky, and turns the shower on, not bothering with lights.
“Is this advanced level showering?” Phil asks, coming into the dark room.
“It’s nice,” Dan says, sighing as he steps beneath the water. “Come in.”
Phil acquiesces, following Dan into the shower. They press close to fit beneath the shower at the same time, slick skin on skin, water sluicing in the spaces between them.
“Hey,” Phil says quietly, drawing a hand across Dan’s back. “Thank you. For letting me...be normal. Sometimes when I tell people. It defines me, in their minds. That’s not what I want.”
Dan tilts his head back against the tile, eyes open and unseeing in the dark, humid shower. Like this, in the warmth, with Phil, he feels covered and safe.
“Ask me what happened with Mads,” he says, sweeping his hands from Phil’s hips.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Phil says. “You already told me once and we don’t have to trade traumas.”
“Ask me,” Dan insists, letting his eyes close. He grins when Phil sighs.
“What happened with Mads, Dan?” Phil asks like he’d rather not know.
“Mads cheated on me, Phil,” Dan says conversationally. “He cheated on me the entire last year of our relationship and got caught because one of the guys sent me pictures of them fucking.”
Phil gasps and Dan shakes his head.
“It’s fine,” he reassures Phil. “There were others that weren’t that vindictive. Some of them tried to apologize to me. But that’s not really…”
Dan trails off, looking for the words he wants to say.
“Mads tried to make me into what he wanted me to be. Every part of me he didn’t like, he told me was wrong, or needed fixing, and I believed him. Because I wanted to be what he wanted.”
Phil pulls Dan into a hug, tucking his chin over Dan’s shoulder. Dan drags a deep breath in and ignores the way his burn and threaten to spill over.
“He told me that everyone knew about us, everyone cared about us, and I believed him,” Dan says. “When we met, you and me, I was just trying to keep my head down, and avoid all the people that I thought cared. I was just going to talk to Chris and PJ and get my degree and leave. I wasn’t expecting you at all.”
“I wasn’t expecting you either,” Phil tells him, quietly and close. “I didn’t think I could like someone as much as I like you.”
“I could love you,” Dan says, nearly whispering. “I’m not there yet, but I can feel it.”
Phil pulls back and Dan bites his bottom lip. He thinks that maybe this is too much, too fast. But a few hours ago he was looking at a world that didn’t have Phil in it anymore and he doesn’t want that.
Phil reaches up clumsily to cup Dan’s face and says, apologetic, “I’m guessing where your mouth is right now.”
Dan laughs as he misses the first time, catching Dan on the nostril, and kisses back when Phil adjusts accordingly.
They kiss and kiss in the dark, warm shower, cocooned away from the world for a few minutes, wrapped up in each other. Outside, there are plenty of things to worry about, degrees to finish, conversations to be had, boundaries to be erected. But for the next few minutes, they get to hold each other, solid, present and real.
Dan sighs and says, mouth brushing Phil’s, “I wasn’t expecting you at all.”
“I’m glad you found me,” Phil says back.
Thanks for reading! Be on the look out for some timestamps and codas. I love any and all kudos, comments and concrit.